20 Centuries in 20 Minutes

20 Centuries in 20 Minutes:

Catholics, Protestants, and why it all matters

Jim Denison

A Baptist pastor was inviting people in his neighborhood to visit his church. An elderly lady said, “No thank you, young man, I’m a Methodist.” “If you don’t mind telling me,” he asked, “why are you a Methodist?” “Well,” she replied, “you see, my parents were Methodist, my grandparents were Methodist, and my great-grandparents were Methodist.” The frustrated young pastor responded, “That’s no reason, just because all your relatives are Methodists. What would you do if all your relatives were idiots?” “In that case,” she smiled, “I’d probably be a member of your church.”

If you are a member of a particular church, do you know why? Perhaps you joined your church because your family attended its services, or due to the influence of friends, or because the church met your needs. Or perhaps you are a member because of theological conviction–the belief that your church comes closest to the biblical pattern of God for his people. I hope the latter is more true for you when this short essay is done.

Church history used to be the subject seminary students dreaded most, because it seemed the least relevant to practical ministry. That was before the denominational era ended and people began visiting and joining churches from completely different faith traditions. Now more than ever, understanding where we come from is crucial to knowing where we’re going together. Here’s the shortest way I know to tell the story.

Catholic history in four paragraphs

During the “apostolic” era (AD 30-100), the Christian movement was confronted by three significant religious powers. Roman religion insisted on the worship of the emperor, embraced an eclectic, polytheistic theology, and emphasized form and ceremony over moral standards. Greek religion separated the spiritual from the material, with a strong rationalism and an impoverished morality. Judaism had been scattered out of Palestine for generations and especially after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, establishing synagogues as it spread. The expanding Church took advantage of these settlements and the universal peace, roads, language, and hunger for truth and morality which pervaded the Empire.

The “patristic” era (AD 100-451) witnessed severe persecution of the Church, as some three million believers lost their lives by AD 300. However, the faith grew rapidly despite these challenges, especially in urban centers; some seven million professed faith in Christ by AD 325. The “clergy” (meaning “called ones”) grew to dominate Christian leadership by the mid-third century, as the Church worked to protect and preserve biblical doctrine in the midst of its expansion into the Gentile world.

Constantine’s conversion in AD 312 led eventually to imperial protection for the Church. The emperor merged the Roman Empire with his new faith, believing that this action would unify and revive the state. His leadership at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) settled the theological language which would describe the divinity of Christ but also made him the de facto head of the church.

Over the first four centuries of Christian history, the Bishop of Rome rose to preeminence in the larger faith. Innocent I (AD 402-17) was the first to claim that he stood in succession from Peter (cf. Matthew 16:18-19); Leo I (AD 440-61) asserted scriptural authority for Innocent’s claim, and is often considered the first “pope” (meaning “father”) of the Church. At the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), the Roman bishop was recognized as the leader of the Roman Catholic (meaning “universal”) Church. Innocent III (1215) affirmed the universal domination of the pope over the spiritual and secular worlds, and declared the pope to be the representative of Christ on earth.

The Reformation

Financial abuses arose within the papacy in the years following Innocent III. In the early 15th century, three popes claimed authority over the church. The Renaissance led to renewed interest in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, and awakened intellectual independence. Wycliffe and his followers began the work of translating the Bible into the common language of the people (ca. 1382). Secular leaders grew increasingly frustrated with papal authority.

And so the stage was set for Martin Luther, a young Catholic monk and biblical instructor, to question various abuses he documented within the Church. His “95 Theses,” nailed to the door of the town church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, were not initially intended to spark a withdrawal from the Catholic Church. But when his writings were circulated by printing presses across Germany, and the pope excommunicated Luther in 1521, his personal “protest” (cf. “Protestant”) became an organized and unstoppable movement. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) legalized the Lutheran religion within the German world, and made Protestants an enduring dimension of the Christian faith.

Theological comparison

To greatly oversimplify, theological differences between Catholics and Protestants can be summarized by two comparisons:

Authority. Luther argued for “sola scriptura,” claiming that the Bible is our only infallible authority, not subject to church tradition, pope, councils, or clergy. The Catholic tradition maintains that as God gave the Scriptures through the Church, so he uses the Church to interpret his word. Papal teachings, councils, and creeds are the means by which he means us to understand his revelation. And so Church and Scripture are the twin authorities of the Catholic Church.

Salvation. Luther argued for “sola fidei,” that salvation comes only through faith. The Catholic tradition maintains that God mediates salvation through the “sacraments”: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist (the “Lord’s Supper” to Baptists), repentance, ordination, marriage, and healing of the sick. Some Protestants recognize some of these acts as “sacraments,” while others (such as Baptists) do not; but Protestants do not typically believe that these actions help convey salvation.

While obvious differences exist, great commonalities between Catholics and Protestants can be celebrated as well. Both believe that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world, and that his atoning sacrifice makes possible our eternal salvation. While Christian denominations disagree regarding some of the practical implications of our faith, we share a common commitment to the most historic of all Christian confessions: Jesus is Lord.

Why are there Protestant denominations today? What do they believe?

Luther argued that we are saved by faith alone, without the mediation of the Church; and our authority is scripture alone, without the interpretation of the Church. John Calvin (1509-64), a former lawyer and Catholic, helped fashion these Protestant convictions in a more logical way. The “Reform” church (“Presbyterian” in America) follows his influence today.

Luther and Calvin agreed to reject anything they found within Catholic tradition which they did not consider to be biblical. They denied the authority of the pope and councils for this reason. But they kept whatever they found within Catholic teaching which was not expressly unbiblical, and chose to reinterpret it biblically. For instance, the Bible nowhere forbids the baptism of infants, but it does not teach that such baptism washes away inherited original sin. So Luther and Calvin kept the practice of infant baptism, but changed its meaning. For Luther, baptism is a means by which Christ confers his saving grace, but it stands on the faith commitment of the parents who are bringing their child to be dedicated to God.

By this approach, the Lord’s Supper retains spiritual meaning but not Catholic significance. The elements are not changed into the body and blood of Christ (“transubstantiation, the Catholic position). Rather, Christ’s presence is conveyed with or through the elements. Luther and (especially) Calvin emphasized the sovereignty of God as well.

The Anglican tradition likewise kept whatever Catholic teaching it could reinterpret biblically. Henry VIII broke with Pope Julius II in 1529 when Julius refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine. Henry then made himself the head of the newly constituted Church of England and confiscated monastic property.

During his reign the Six Articles were published, declaring the Church of England to be Catholic in doctrine but led by the sovereign of England. Under Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603), the church’s theology was made more clearly Protestant in nature. As with Luther and Calvin’s movements, the Anglican Church has continued those practices which it inherited from the Catholic tradition but interpreted them according to its Protestant convictions.

Keeping only what is biblical

The reform movements we’ve discussed so far are usually called “magisterial,” in that they were supported and defended by the magistrates or government leaders of the day. The other branch of Protestant tradition is called the “Radical” Reformation. Whereas magisterial Protestants kept whatever they found in Catholic tradition which was not unbiblical, radical reformers kept only that which is expressly taught in Scripture.

The Puritan movement sought to remove all Catholic elements from Anglican worship. The Separatists left the Church of England to institute similar reforms in their faith and practice. John Smyth, Thomas Helwys and John Murton led a significant part of this early Separatist movement; their followers were called “Baptist” after 1644.

Baptism is an example of the radical reform approach. Infant baptism, while not prohibited by the Bible, is not prescribed by God’s word. So the radical reformers returned to the New Testament practice of baptizing by immersion those who made a personal commitment to Christ as Lord. Local church autonomy is another example. The radical reformers did not find denominational hierarchy in the New Testament. And so they typically insisted on local church autonomy, without bishops or outside governing authority. As they stood outside magisterial government support, these reformers usually argued for the separation of church and state as well.

Today the radical reform movement is continued by Baptists, Bible churches, Churches of Christ, and most nondenominational movements, as they seek to practice only that which they find expressly taught in the word of God.


The Protestant movement continues to adapt to changing cultural challenges and opportunities. Nondenominational churches, hardly noticed a generation ago, are among the largest congregations in America today. As our culture becomes increasingly post-Christian and postdenominational, the differences between the various Protestant traditions are becoming less divisive. People today often view denominational affiliation as an outdated requirement, something like “joining” a mall to shop there.

As important as our theological convictions may be, the unity of Christ’s body is equally crucial to our effectiveness. Jesus prayed that his followers “may be one” so the world would believe the Father sent the Son (John 17:21). In his “last words” to the church, he promised us that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

So long as God’s people fulfill God’s purpose by God’s power in God’s place, the Kingdom will grow. And all the various parts of the body of Christ will function together to his glory and our good.

Richard Baxter’s motto is therefore an appropriate way to relate to other members of the family of faith: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Are There Rewards In Heaven?

Are there rewards in heaven?

Dr. Jim Denison

The Academy Awards are presented each February. The winners each receive something called an “Oscar,” though no one knows why. One possible answer is that early on, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences librarian said the statuette represented her Uncle Oscar.

An Oscar weighs 8.5 pounds and stands 13.5 inches tall. It depicts a knight holding a crusader’s sword, standing on a reel of film. It takes twelve people twenty hours to make one of the 50 statuettes produced each year. The Oscars are then shipped in unmarked cardboard boxes for security reasons. Security isn’t always effective, however—a few years ago they were stolen and found nine days later next to a dumpster.

Who won last year? Which movie? Which stars? The year before? How long will you remember this year’s winners and losers? Millennia after our culture has disappeared, eternity will only have begun. Jesus promised the thief on the cross, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). What was “paradise” like for that convicted felon? What will it be like for you and me? Why does it all matter today?

What is heaven like?

When Ronald Reagan was running for Governor of California, a woman confronted him by his car one day and berated him severely. Finally she said, “I wouldn’t vote for you if you were St. Peter.” He smiled and replied, “No problem. If I were St. Peter, you wouldn’t be living in my district.”

What do we know about “St. Peter’s district”? We’re all fascinated with the subject of heaven. Every one of us has loved ones there; I assume we all would like to spend eternity there ourselves. So let’s learn from God’s word about his home.

What is heaven?

What does our Father tell us about our eternal destiny? First, he tells us that heaven is real. It is certain—no figment of religious imagination, no superstition, no “opiate of the people” (Karl Marx). He revealed it to John: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). According to God himself, heaven is real.

Second, heaven is a place (Revelation 21:1-2). John “saw” it. He didn’t feel it, or dream of it, or hear about it. He saw it, and we only see things which are. Heaven is a place. Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2; emphasis mine).

Third, heaven is where God is (Revelation 21:3). John reveals, “Now the dwelling of God is with men.” When we get to heaven, we get to God. Psalm 11:4 is clear: “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne.” Jesus taught us to pray to “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). Heaven is a real place, where God is. It’s being with God.

Fourth, heaven is a blessed place (Revelation 21:4). Because God is there, all that is perfect is there as well. There will be no death in heaven, thus no mourning or crying or pain. Our greatest enemy will trouble us no more. It’s a place of incredible joy: “You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11). It’s a place of reward: “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). And this reward is eternal: “An inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).

Such a glorious place is celebration, a party: “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke 14:15). We reign in heaven: “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21). In heaven, we’re royalty. We’ll have perfect understanding there: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

To sum up, in heaven God makes all things new (Revelation 21:5). No more Fall, or sin, or death, or disease, or disaster; no more earthquakes or fears or tests or grades. Everything is new. No wonder Jesus called heaven “paradise” (Luke 23:43). It is a place of blessing beyond all description: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what the Lord has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9; cf. Isaiah 64.4).

What will we be like?

First, let’s set aside a popular misconception: in heaven, people are not angels. God created angels before he created us, and we are completely different. When Jesus said that people in heaven are “like the angels” (Luke 20:36), he meant that we never die, as they do not. Not that we have “wings and a halo” (they don’t either, by the way). We are not angels. But we do receive heavenly bodies: “The perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53).

Will we recognize each other? I think so, for these reasons. Jesus said that in heaven we will take our places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Matthew 8:11), so apparently we will recognize them. On the Mount of Transfiguration the disciples easily recognized Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17:3-4). Paul promised that in heaven we will “know as we are known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). I like what one preacher said: “We won’t really know each other until we get to heaven!”

Why does heaven matter?

I would imagine that the biblical truths we’ve rehearsed so far are good news. But let me ask: how often did you think about heaven this week? Did its existence change anything you did? Why should it? For this simple reason: when we lose heaven we lose the transcendent. We lose our sense that there is something more than this world, and we who live in it. And that is always a bad decision.

If we don’t live for heaven we will live for this world, for it is all there is. And that the Bible says we must not do: “Do not love the world or anything in the world” (1 John 2:15; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17; Colossians 3:1-3; Philippians 3:20). Why are we not to love this world? Because it is not enough. The more we have, the more we want. It is not our home.

We live for heaven when we care more for people’s eternal souls than for their temporal approval; when we use our money to build God’s kingdom more than our own; when we ask God to use our suffering more than to solve it; when we remember that this life is the car and not the house, the road and not the destination; when we make sure every day that we’re ready to die.

How will we be rewarded in heaven?

A dear elderly saint was near death, and gave her pastor a strange request: “When my casket is opened at the funeral, and all my friends come by for a last look, I want them to see me ready to be buried with a table fork in my right hand.”

She explained to her puzzled pastor, “I want you to tell the congregation, you know what it means when they clear the dishes from a big meal and someone says, ‘keep your fork.’ You know that something good is coming—maybe a piece of apple pie or chocolate cake. ‘Keep your fork’ means something good is coming. Pastor, I want to be buried with a dessert fork in my hand. It will be my way of saying, ‘the best is yet to come.'”

And so it was. Everyone who saw her body in the casket saw her final witness. For her, death and judgment were not a disaster, but dessert. How can that be true for you and me, when we stand before God in judgment one day?

Living for heaven is in your best interest on earth and in glory, in time and in eternity. The Bible has much to say about our judgment and rewards in heaven. We’ll look briefly at the subject, and relate it to our lives today.

Will your building last?

In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul paints the picture of life as a house we build. His discussion makes four facts clear.

First, your “house” is the gift of God (v. 10). Paul’s abilities and opportunities to be an “expert builder” were given to him by God. His relationship with Jesus Christ is God’s grace gift to him. All we have and are comes by his grace.

The doctrine of judgment does not teach a works righteousness. We cannot earn God’s love or favor. Judgment means that we are to be faithful stewards of the grace gifts and opportunities of God, and are accountable for them. But no one deserves the rewards given at the judgment—they come by his grace.

Second, your house must be founded on Jesus (v. 11). He is the unchanging, stable rock upon which to build your life. Not just your religion, or your Sunday mornings, but every priority, commitment, and ambition. Your life must be bolted to him.

Third, you are responsible for what you build (v. 12). The foundation is determined. What we build on it is not. Some of us use “gold, silver, costly stones” such as marble and granite. We give God our best. We invest in that which is permanent and eternal. We put souls before success, family before finances, God before gold. When the “fire” of judgment comes, gold, silver, and marble stand the test. You’ve seen ancient marble ruins, standing for thousands of years, ready to stand for thousands more. So with some of us.

On the other hand, some of us build our lives out of “wood, hay, or straw.” We give God what is cheap, convenient, easy. He gets the leftovers. And when we are judged, our disobedience will be obvious to all.

Fourth, God will judge our lives (vs. 13-15). One day the judgment will come—the “Day” (v. 13). Those who lived for God will be rewarded, as we’ll see in a moment (v. 14). Those of us who lived for ourselves, for this fallen world, for that which is temporary and inferior, will “suffer loss” (v. 15a). God cannot reward disobedience.

If we have made Jesus our Savior, we will be saved. Our eternal salvation is not in question. But our eternal rewards are, and if our house has been built out of wood, hay, or straw, we will “be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (v. 15b). How do people run out of a burning house? With nothing.

You’ve perhaps heard about the crooked building contractor who built a house for a wealthy friend, cutting corners wherever he could. Inferior products and workmanship throughout. When the house was finished, the wealthy friend gave the man the keys and said, “It’s yours.”

There’s a story about a business tycoon who made a fortune in money and fame, but gave little of himself or his wealth to God. When he died, Peter showed him to his home in heaven—a small shack. He protested loudly, and Peter shrugged his shoulders and explained, “I did the best I could with what you sent me.”

You and I are responsible for what we do with the lives God has given us by his grace. They are to be founded on Jesus as Lord, built of our best commitment to him. One day the Building Inspector will visit our house. And his judgment will be eternal. These are the facts of God’s word. Now let’s ask some questions.

Will you be judged?

First, will you be judged? Would a loving Father of grace and mercy judge his children? Hebrews 9:27 is clear: “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” All of us—no exceptions. Paul said, “Each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12).

A man in the congregation laughed when the pastor said, “Members of this church, you will all die one day and face the judgment of God.” The pastor asked him why he laughed, and he said, “I’m not a member of this church.” But he is. So are we all.

By whom will we be judged? By Jesus: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

The “judgment seat” was a raised platform where the ruler sat and judged those brought before him. At this “bema seat” Pilate once judged Jesus; now Jesus judges Pilate. Jesus was very clear on this: “the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). Peter said, “[Jesus] is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). Paul agreed: “God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ” (Romans 2:16).

When? At his return: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him,” and he will judge them (Matthew 25:31-32).

Jesus will judge us all, at his return. We cannot escape. But if we’re prepared, this will not be terror but triumph; not a curse but a crown. Let’s see how to be ready today.

How will we be judged?”

How will this judgment happen? God’s word describes two books of judgment: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done…If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:11-13, 15).

First, there is the book of works. Here God has recorded your deeds and mine. Now he will judge them. What will he find? “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. . . The wages [judgment] for sin is death” (Romans 3:23, 6:23). No one can get to heaven on the basis of the book of works. None of us is good enough.

And so there is a second book, the book of life, and it’s the key. What is it? I believe that when your life began, you were recorded in this “book of life.” Moses said to God: “Please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” The Lord replied, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book” (Exodus 32:32-33).

God has your name in his book, and must “blot it out” if you choose to reject his free salvation in Christ. When you die without Christ, God is forced to remove your name from his book of life, and you’ll be “thrown into the lake of fire.” Scripture is very clear: “Nothing impure will ever enter [heaven], nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27).

But if you have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord, your name will be there forever. Jesus said to his disciples, “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke10:20). Paul addressed the Philippian Christians as “my fellow laborers, whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:3).

However, heaven is not the only question at the judgment. Heavenly rewards or loss of rewards is at issue as well: “If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss” (1 Corinthians 3:14-15). Why will we suffer “loss” of reward?

• Secret, unconfessed sins will be judged: “God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14).

• “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12:2-3).

• Our words will be judged: “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken” (Matthew 12:36-37).

• After listing all sorts of sin, Peter declared that those who do such things “will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5).

Ungodly, unconfessed sins, thoughts, or words will be revealed at the judgment and burned away. Because heaven is perfect, these things cannot enter in; they must be burned off, destroyed. Sin is forgiven, but reward is lost.

On the other hand, “gold, silver, costly stones” are rewarded. What kind of rewards?

• There is the “crown of life”: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). Jesus said, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).

• There is the “soul-winner’s crown:” “What is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).

• There is the “crown of righteousness:” “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

• For Christian leaders there is the “crown of glory:” “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:2-4).

Gold, silver, costly stones will be rewarded with everlasting crowns. For what? Enduring temptation; winning souls; staying faithful to God’s purpose; serving God’s people in love. This is the building which lasts forever.


Let’s summarize. You and I will stand one day before Jesus Christ in judgment. If you have rejected him as Savior and Lord, your name will not be in his book of life, and you’ve chosen hell over heaven forever. If you’ve accepted him, heaven is already yours. Your name is in his book, forever.

But the book of works will determine your rewards or loss of rewards. Ungodly words, secret sins, immorality will be burned away and suffer loss; holiness, soul-winning, faithfulness, and loving service will be rewarded with eternal crowns. We need to be ready, today.

C. S. Lewis once said that there are two kinds of people. Some say to God, “Your will be done.” For them the judgment will be reward and victory. To the others God must finally say, “Your will be done.” They have rejected heaven, or rewards in heaven. Is it his will or yours? You have only today to decide.

The largest statue ever carved from a single piece of stone weighed more than two million pounds. It was a figure of Ramses I, the Egyptian Pharaoh who died in 1317 B.C. When the children of Israel left Egypt, they passed his enormous statue.

Who would have dreamed that these ragged former slaves, trudging out into the hardships of the unknown desert, would amount to anything? But today Ramses’ statue lies broken in the sands of Egypt. Meanwhile, the movement God began with those children of Israel, men and women willing to live in God’s will and for his glory, have been used by his hand to change our world forever. To touch your soul and mind. To glorify our Maker and King. Such people of faith win the only Oscar that matters. Will you?

Church and State

Church and State:

Religion and Politics

By Dr. Jim Denison

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “Pulpit Initiative.” A group of ministers came together in Fall 2009 to challenge the IRS regulation prohibiting pastors from making political endorsements from the pulpit. More than 30 ministers took partisan messages to their congregations in flagrant violation of the IRS ruling, hoping to generate a legal battle.

What should be the relationship of church to state, religion to politics? Should I use a website essay to critique the candidates and even endorse one? Should my church? Should yours? How should faith and politics intersect?

On Thursday, April 30, 1789, General George Washington was presented to the United States as our first president. As the General walked to the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, thousands of people jammed into the street below gave him a thunderous ovation.

Suddenly the crowd became quiet as General Washington turned toward Judge Robert R. Livingston and placed his left hand on an opened Bible sitting upon a table beside him. He raised his right hand, and swore to “faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States.”

There was a pause. Then the nation’s first president added his own words, unscripted and unexpected: “I swear, so help me God.” The president bent over and kissed the Bible. Then Justice Livingston turned to the crowd below and cried out, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States!” People cheered. Church bells pealed. Cannons at the nearby fort fired a salute.

From that day to this, every President of the United States has followed George Washington’s precedent, concluding the oath of office with the words, “So help me God.” But what do they mean by their confession of faith? How should Americans understand the relation of church and state, faith and politics?

This essay is only an introduction to an extremely involved and somewhat controversial subject. We’ll survey briefly the history of the debate, examine the question biblically, and seek relevant applications for our country and our lives today.

President Washington and the church/state relationship

George Washington became president of a nation still bitterly divided by its War for Independence. When the Revolutionary War started on April 19, 1775 with “the shot heard round the world,” at least a fourth of the colonists supported England. Patriots and Loyalists maintained tensions and bitterness for years after the conflict was ended.

One nation?

It is a surprise to many to learn that Washington became president of a nation which was still not sure it was a nation. In April, 1507, Martin Waldseemuller, professor of cosmography at the University of Saint-Die, produced the first map showing the Western Hemisphere. He called it “America,” after Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine merchant. But from the very beginning, it was a question much argued whether the country which emerged on these shores would be one nation or many.

The Declaration of Independence dropped the word “nation” from its text, with all references made to the separate states instead. Its final heading reads: “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” The resolution which adopted the declaration states, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” Many felt that independence did not create one nation, but thirteen.

Interestingly, the word “nation” or “national” appears nowhere in the Constitution. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson warned soberly that “a single consolidated government would become the most corrupt government on earth.” New England threatened secession at the end of Jefferson’s first term over his economic and political stances. His response: “Whether we remain in our confederacy, or break into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I do not believe very important to the happiness of either part.” And he added, “separate them if it be better.”

Under God?

Washington also became president during a time of enormous conflict regarding the role of the church in the state. Protestant ministers cried out against “foreign Catholics” and warned of the dangers of electing “papal loyalists” to public office. “No Popery” banners flew in parts of New England. Following the constitutional decision to avoid any state-supported church, many were concerned that the nation’s new leadership not endorse a particular denomination or faith tradition.

Despite such concerns, our first president made his personal faith commitment clear. He was a lifelong Episcopalian, worshipping regularly at Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia. He rode ten miles to church (two to three hours on horseback) whenever weather permitted, an example which both shames and encourages us today.

John Marshall (Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and Washington’s biographer) described him as “a sincere believer in the Christian faith and a truly devout man.” He believed in God the creator, arguing that “it is impossible to account for the creation of the universe, without the agency of a Supreme Being. It is impossible to govern the universe, without the aid of a Supreme Being. It is impossible to reason without arriving at a Supreme Being. If there had been no God, mankind would have been obliged to imagine one.”

He trusted God as his helper. Washington encouraged his troops during the Revolutionary War: “The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own…The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army…Let us therefore rely on the goodness of the cause and aid of the Supreme Being, in whose hands victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble actions.”

Immediately following his first inauguration, President Washington and other officials rode to St. Paul’s Chapel on Fulton Street and Broadway for a religious service. However, since most of the crowd could not fit into the sanctuary, the president suggested that they walk seven blocks to hear prayers offered by Episcopal Bishop Samuel Provoost, just named Chaplain of the Senate. This was the only time a religious service has been an official part of a presidential inauguration.

On October 3, 1789, General Washington issued the first thanksgiving proclamation in national history:

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor…Now, therefore, I do recommend…that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are now blessed…And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions…to promote the knowledge and practice of one true religion and virtue.

On March 11, 1792, he wrote: “I am sure there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a Divine interposition in their affairs than those of the United States; and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten that Agency which was so often manifested during our revolution, or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God who is alone able to protect them.”

In his farewell address (September 19, 1796), President Washington made clear his belief that religion is indispensable for the morality essential to America:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and cherish them…And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. ‘Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.

And yet our first president was a firm supporter of religious freedom. Writing to a general convention of the Episcopal Church in 1789, he stated, “The liberty enjoyed by the people of these States, of worshiping Almighty God agreeably to their consciences, is not only among the choicest of their blessings, but also of their rights.”

Thomas Jefferson and the “wall of separation”

During his years as President, Thomas Jefferson frequently worshiped with the congregation of Christ Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. He once explained: “No nation has yet existed or been governed without religion. I, as the Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example.” He also sent a note with $50 (a large sum for the day) to the rector, Rev. Andrew J. McCormick, every New Year’s Day while he was President.

Jefferson authorized federal support for military chaplains and Christian missions to the Indians. He attended Sunday services of Christian worship in the Capitol building, and designated space in the Rotunda of the University of Virginia for chapel services. He refused to issue Presidential proclamations for national days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving, but only because he considered this to be the responsibility of state governments rather than the federal authorities; as Governor of Virginia, he did issue such calls.

What was Thomas Jefferson’s personal faith? What was his view of public faith?

Jefferson and Jesus

When President John Kennedy entertained a group of Nobel Prize winners in the White House in December 1962, he welcomed them as the most distinguished gathering of talents ever assembled in the Executive Mansion except for when Jefferson dined there alone. Our third president was indeed brilliant, a fact which affected his faith in significant ways.

His parents, Peter and Jane Randolph Jefferson, were devout Anglicans. When he was nine years old, Jefferson went to live with Rev. Douglas A. Scott, a committed Calvinist; Rev. Scott taught him Latin, Greek, and French. As a college student at William and Mary, he later confessed, “I got my first views of the expansion of science and of the system of things in which we are placed.”

He wrote his friend Benjamin Rush that his religious beliefs were “the result of a life in inquiry and reflection and…very different from the anti-Christian system attributed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to genuine precepts of Jesus himself.”

Then he added, “I am a Christian, but I am a Christian in the only sense in which I believe Jesus wished anyone to be, sincerely attached to his doctrine in preference to all others, ascribing to him all human excellence, and believing that he never claimed any other.”

Jefferson never joined a Christian congregation. This statement helps to explain why: “the Christian religion when divested of the rags in which they [the domineering clergy] have inveloped [sic] it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of its benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expression of the human mind.”

He was, however, a great admirer of Jesus’ ethical teachings. Their “system of morality was the most benevolent and sublime… ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of any of the ancient philosophers.” He mourned that Jesus’ “character and doctrines have received still greater injury from those who pretend to be his special disciples, and who have disfigured and sophisticated his actions and precepts, from views of personal interest, so as to induce the unthinking part of mankind to throw off the whole system in disgust, and to pass sentence as an imposter on the most innocent, the most benevolent, and the most eloquent and sublime character that ever has been exhibited to man.”

Jefferson and public faith

Thomas Jefferson was among our country’s most staunch advocates for freedom of and from religion. In June of 1779 he sponsored a Bill for Religious Freedom in his home state of Virginia. He was more proud of that bill than of all the offices he held, including the Presidency.

As further proof of the importance of this bill for Jefferson, note the epitaph he wrote for his grave at Monticello, a statement which shows what he deemed most important: “Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” In a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush he asserted, “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Jefferson was author of the most widely quoted single phrase and metaphor on the subject of church-state relations. Upon his election as President, the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut sent him a letter of congratulations (October 7, 1801). They saw his anti-Federalist platform as assuring their (minority) rights of religious freedom, and they were right. In his response of January 1, 1802 he stated, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

Jesus and Caesar

The most famous document in American history begins thus: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. . . .

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

When the Continental Congress adopted this statement on July 4, 1776, they laid the foundations for freedoms we celebrate 229 years later. But what did Mr. Jefferson and his fellow patriots mean when they wrote, “all men are…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”? According to their document, we are creatures of a Creator. How are we to relate both to Creator and country? Let’s ask Jesus.

Understand the question

It is Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus is teaching the crowds gathered in the Temple corridors. Now the unlikeliest of political coalitions comes against him. The Pharisees hated the Roman occupation. But they also hated Jesus. They considered his grace-centered message in violation of the Law and its demands. He was a heretic whose influence must be stopped. On the other hand, the Herodians supported the Roman occupation in every way. They and the Pharisees were in constant political conflict. But they also saw Jesus as a threat to the Empire’s power. Like the Pharisees, they wanted him arrested or even killed.

So these two groups “went out and laid plans to trap him in his words” (Matthew 22:15). Luke gives us their underlying motive: “They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor” (Luke 20:20). The Pharisees sent some of their “disciples” to him (Matthew 22:16), students at one of the two Pharisaic theological seminaries in Jerusalem. Their youth might endear them to Jesus; at any event, they would be less recognizable to him than their leaders.

After patronizing him with compliments, they spring their trap: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (v. 17). Their grammar requires a “yes” or “no” answer. And either will serve their purpose. They have pushed a very hot button. The “taxes” to which they refer were the poll-tax or “census” taxes paid by all males over the age of 14 and all females over the age of 12. They were paid directly to the Emperor himself.

And they required the use of a coin which was despised by the Jewish populace. This was the “denarius,” a silver coin minted by the Emperor himself. It was the only Roman coin which claimed divine status for the Caesar. On one side it pictured the head of Emperor Tiberius with the Latin inscription, “Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus.” On the other side it pictured Pax, the Roman goddess of peace, with the Latin inscription, “high priest.” It was idolatrous in the extreme.

The tax it paid led to a Jewish revolt in A.D. 6 which established the Zealot movement. That movement eventually resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation in A.D. 70. At this time that movement was growing in power and influence. Jesus’ opponents were asking him to take a position on the most inflammatory issue of the day.

If he says that it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, the public will turn from him in revolt and his influence will be at an end. If he says that it is not, he will be a traitor to Rome and the authorities will arrest and execute him. Either way, the hands of these schemers will be clean, and they will be rid of their enemy.

We ask the same question today: are we to support our country or our Creator? To whom do we owe allegiance? Jesus’ answer is yes.

Obey the answer

Our Lord asks for a denarius, and then asks them, “Whose portrait is this?” (v. 20). They tell him that it bears the image and inscription of Caesar. And he replies, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s” (v. 21). If taxes belong to the nation, pay them. If worship belongs to God, give it. Give to each what is due. Live in two countries, a citizen of both.

Paul clarifies this image of citizenship when he calls us “Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20). American ambassadors live in foreign countries, under appointment by their president at home. They are to obey the laws of the country where they are stationed, and support their leaders. But always they will have a second, even higher allegiance to their home country and her leader. And if they must choose between the two, their loyalties are clear.

Like them, we are each to obey and support our governing authorities:

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1).

“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Romans 13:6-7).

“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1-2; cf. Titus 3:1-2).

But we are also to obey and serve our Lord:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline” (Proverbs 1:7).

“You kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:10-12).

Why? “By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth” (Proverbs 8:15-16).

Peter explains well the relationship between Christ and Caesar: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right . . . Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:13-14, 17).

So we are to love people, fear God, and honor the state. Do not fear people or state, but God alone. In other words, serve your highest authority. When you can serve Christ and state, serve both. If you must choose, choose Christ. The same apostles who taught us to serve the Empire were martyred by its emperors because they would not stop preaching the gospel. Because they chose to serve Caesar unless they could not also serve Christ. Serve your highest authority, always.

A free church in a free state

When each of our presidents ends his oath of office with the words, “so help me God,” he will speak for Christians everywhere. We are to serve Caesar and Christ, but our highest authority first. We are to be loyal citizens of our country, but even more, loyal citizens of heaven.

This position is best for both. The Southern Baptist Convention met in Washington, D.C. in 1920. Standing on the east steps of the national capitol on Sunday, May 16, Dr. George W. Truett delivered the most significant address on religious liberty in American Baptist history. Among his remarks were these paragraphs, commenting on the biblical text we have just reviewed:

That utterance of Jesus, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,’ is one of the most revolutionary and history-making utterances that ever fell from those lips divine. That utterance, once for all, marked the divorcement of church and state. It marked a new era for the creeds and deeds of men. It was the sunrise gun of a new day, the echoes of which are to go on and on and on until in every land, whether great or small, the doctrine shall have absolute supremacy everywhere of a free church in a free state.

In behalf of our Baptist people I am compelled to say that forgetfulness of the principles that I have just enumerated, in our judgment, explains many of the religious ills that now afflict the world. All went well with the early churches in their earlier days. They were incomparably triumphant days for the Christian faith. Those early disciples of Jesus, without prestige and worldly power, yet aflame with the love of God and the passion of Christ, went out and shook the pagan Roman empire from center to circumference, even in one brief generation. Christ’s religion needs no prop of any kind from any worldly source, and to the degree that it is thus supported is a millstone hanged about its neck.

Dr. Truett echoed the remarks of John Leland, one of the most important Baptists in colonial history, when he said in 1791: “Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men, than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing.”

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would have agreed. Mr. Washington was public about his faith, clear about his commitment to the authority of Scripture and the miraculous powers of his God. Mr. Jefferson was private about his faith, doubtful of biblical authority and unsure that the Maker of the universe ever intervenes in his creation. But both believed in religious liberty–freedom from, of, and for faith.

Neither wanted the state to control the church, or the church to control the state. Both wanted us to be free to choose which God, if any, we serve. Both would have us render to Caesar what is his, and to Christ what is his. Both are right.


In practical terms, then, how do we serve both? We give our taxes, as Jesus taught us. We give our obedience to the government whenever we can also obey our Lord. Luther said, “It is necessary to have governments because we are sinners.” We need them, and must obey them so long as we can also obey Christ.

We give our service to our country as God directs. Churches are not to be political organizations, endorsing or supporting political candidates. But Christians are to be fully engaged in political and public leadership. Plato said, “The punishment of wise men who refuse to take part in the affairs of government is to be live under the government of unwise men.”

And so we give our witness. We are salt and light to this decaying, dark planet. We preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, we use words. We serve both Caesar and Christ, but always our highest authority.

So, during an election, which candidate do I endorse? Neither. I should not and will not use my position as a minister to support a political candidate or party. I will resist vehemently any effort to polarize our church around a political agenda. Our job as believers is to be salt and light in a nation desperate for both, to pray for our leaders and our nation during these crucial days and to witness to our faith with our words and works.

During an election, which candidate should you choose? Pray hard; search your heart as the Spirit leads you; make the decision you believe most honors God and fulfills his will for you; then support whomever is elected with your prayers and encouragement. And never forget that your highest allegiance is not to a man but to your Master.

The Declaration of Independence ends thus: “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States . . . And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Let’s join them.

Euthanasia and the Word of God

Euthanasia and the Word of God

Dr. Jim Denison

It was the phone call from hell. I was on the back porch of our house, resting after a morning walk, when the father called. The doctors had just left his little girl’s hospital room. They told him it was time to turn off the machines, that there was nothing more they could do. But he and his wife didn’t have to do what they said. They could leave their baby on life support indefinitely while praying for a miracle.

If they removed the machines, were they playing God? Were they taking their girl’s life in their own hands? But short of divine intervention, why prolong the inevitable? Through his tears he asked me, What does God want us to do?

This wasn’t the first time a phone call stopped my world. Several years ago I was teeing off on the 10th hole of the local golf course when an assistant from the clubhouse drove a cart out to tell me I had an urgent message. He took me back to take the call. A college freshman in our church had put his father’s shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

It was the first time I preached the funeral message for a person who committed suicide. People kept asking me and I kept asking God why he didn’t stop the young man from destroying his life and his family with him. And we wanted to know what happened to him when he did.

Is the Bible still relevant in a world where our medical knowledge has outstripped our ethics? Does faith help when we deal with the most horrific decisions of our day–euthanasia, suicide, and abortion? If you haven’t needed to wrestle with these issues, be grateful. And keep reading, to prepare for the day you will.

Euthanasia and the will of God

You may remember Terri Schiavo and the national debate which surrounded her death. She had been living in a “persistent vegetative state” (PVS) since suffering a stroke in 1995. Now her husband wanted to turn off the machines, while her parents fought to keep her alive. The courts finally decided in the husband’s favor, and she died on March 31, 2005.

Most of us who watched the tragedy unfold wondered what to think. The legal issues involved in her medical care and death were enormous. When should society guarantee a person’s right to refuse life support? What kinds of statements and/or documents are necessary? Absent these, is the decision best left to the spouse or other immediate family? What role should health care providers play?

Nearly every person I spoke with on this subject said that he or she would not wish to be kept alive under such circumstances. Nearly every parent would want a role in making such a tragic decision. The legal and political issues raised by this tragedy are still being debated.

My interest in this issue is not legal but biblical. I’m writing to try to clarify my own mind on this difficult subject, and perhaps help others as they wrestle with this tragedy. Unfortunately, any of us could find ourselves where Mrs. Schiavo’s family was for 15 years.

Types of euthanasia

In trying to understand this issue, first I had to learn the language and history of the debate. Here’s a brief description of terms used by the media when they report on the subject.

“Euthanasia” is derived from the Greek word “eu” (well) and “thanatos” (death). It usually means a “good death” or “mercy killing,” and is understood to be the provision of an easy, painless death to one who suffers from an incurable or extremely painful affliction. Such an action is considered proper only when the suffering person wishes to die, or is no longer able to make such a decision.

A distinction is usually made between “active” and “passive” euthanasia. Active euthanasia occurs when someone acts to produce death. This is often called “assisted suicide,” as in the actions of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and others who have provided medical intervention leading directly to death. “Passive” euthanasia occurs when the patient is treated (or not treated) in a way which leads to death, but actions are not taken to cause death directly.

A third category has become common in recent years. “Letting die” refers to medical actions taken to enhance the patient’s well-being during the dying process. Unlike passive euthanasia, the doctor does not intend the patient to die as a result of this decision. Rather, the doctor withholds medical treatments which intensify suffering or merely postpone the moment of death for a short time.

For instance, it is not considered passive euthanasia to discontinue chemotherapy in cases of advanced cancer, especially if the drugs increase the suffering of the patient. The doctor does not intend this decision to cause death, even though death may result from his or her action.

In these terms, Terri Schiavo’s death resulted from passive euthanasia, since physical sustenance was withdrawn for the purpose of ending her life. Unlike most chemotherapy, food and water did not heighten her suffering. They were removed for the purpose of causing her death.

Ways to choose euthanasia

The decision to enact passive euthanasia is termed “nonvoluntary” since patients like Mrs. Schiavo cannot express their wishes. However, her parents could call the decision “involuntary,” believing that it went against her wishes as she would have expressed them. Her death would have been “voluntary” if she had given “informed consent” while motivated by her own best interests (unlike a person suffering from mental or emotional illness who wishes to die).

If Mrs. Schiavo had executed a “durable power of attorney,” she would have signed over all responsibility for her medical decisions to another person, usually her spouse. Because she did not take this action, the court gave her husband responsibility to make medical decisions for her, a decision known as “substituted judgment.”

Medical issues

Maintaining Terri Schiavo’s life would have required “heroic” or “extraordinary measures.” Some patients wish only “ordinary means” which offer reasonable hope of benefit and are not excessively burdensome. A third means of support could be called “basic,” providing only nutrition and water.

The doctors treating Mrs. Schiavo were required to help their patient (“beneficence”) and to refrain from harming her (“nonmaleficence”). They could ethically provide medical assistance to alleviate any suffering, even if such help shortened her life. This “double effect principle” assures that doctors do not act immorally if they intend only the good effect, do not use bad as a means to good, and create good at least equal to the bad. For example, doctors can prescribe morphine to alleviate the suffering of a terminally ill patient, even if a side effect of morphine in that patient will shorten the person’s life, unless they intend the drug to shorten or end that life.

Definitions of “death”

These definitions are obviously very complicated. I thought that at least the definition of “death” would be easy to state, but I was wrong. Doctors usually consider “death” to occur when circulation or respiration ceases irreversibly, or when the whole brain does the same.

But what is “brain death”? The “upper brain” supports consciousness, while the brain stem controls body functions such as breathing and heart rate. If the upper brain has died, the patient is considered to be in a “persistent vegetative state” (PVS). There are estimated to be 10,000 PVS patients in the United States. This was reported to be Mrs. Schiavo’s condition.

If the brain stem has also died, the patient is considered to have suffered “brain death.” Because nerve cells do not regenerate, both upper-brain and total brain death are completely irreversible.

What are our biblical options?

In cases of PVS (“persistent vegetative state” caused by upper-brain death), what medical options could be considered scriptural? What does the Bible teach regarding the larger subject of euthanasia?

First, let’s make it clear that active euthanasia or “assisted suicide” is unbiblical. This practice is the overt, intentional taking of life, and is prohibited by the Sixth Commandment. For the remainder of this essay, we will consider euthanasia only as the subject relates to passive or “letting die” options.

Defining the alternatives

Ethicists seem to agree that in cases of total brain death or upper-brain death, “heroic” measures are unnecessary. Many believe that ordinary treatment is not obligatory, and “letting die” is moral. Some, however, believe that it is wrong to withdraw food and hydration, allowing the body to starve. This approach views the life as “holistic,” meaning that a functioning body is still united to the “soul,” the “image of God.” Such a person is still a member of the human race, and deserves at least basic care (food and water), if not ordinary care (routine medical support).

Other Christians believe that brain-dead or PVS patients are simply bodies, that their souls or spiritual selves have gone on to eternity. Withdrawing food and water from such patients is then considered to be morally right. In this view, without a functioning brain, the body no longer sustains a soul or retains the image of God. Medical personnel should always care for those who possess potential for conscious life. But when a PVS exists, there is no possibility of brain regeneration and the “soul” has left the body.

Still others support “vitalism,” the belief that physical function by itself is sacred. In this view, even if the “soul” has departed a body which is brain-dead or in a PVS, the body deserves medical treatment to the very end of physical life. Some “vitalists” support ordinary care or basic care for such a body, while others argue for heroic means to preserve physical function as long as possible.

In these terms, Mr. Schiavo’s decision to withdraw food and water would reflect the belief that his wife’s soul had departed her body, and that ending basic care was morally right. Given his insistence that this decision reflected her wishes, his directive was followed by her physicians.

Which view is the most biblical?

Created in the image of God

One way to answer our question involves the scriptural description of humanity as created “in God’s image.” Genesis says that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). What does it mean to be in God’s “image”?

Most theologians would focus on humanity’s uniqueness. What is it which separates us from other life? Such characteristics make us uniquely “the image of God.” Four biblical statements answer the question:

We are created in God’s image to “rule over” his creation (Genesis 1:28).

The Lord warns us, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6).

Paul instructs a man not to “cover his head” in worship, “since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man” (1 Corinthians 11:7).

James criticizes the fact that “with the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9).

From these specific biblical references to the “image” or “likeness” of God, we can suggest that a person retains this “image” when he or she is able to relate to the rest of God’s creation as his representative on earth. We are to “rule” or govern creation, represent God to others, and value each other. In this sense we may be created not so much “in” the image of God but “as” his image on earth.

By this reasoning, we lose the “image of God,” that which makes us uniquely human and valuable, when we lose the ability or potential to relate to ourselves, our environment, other humans, and God. A baby in the womb and a comatose patient are each a person, in that they retain the potential for such interaction. But a PVS individual is not.

Dualistic and holistic views

How does this distinction relate to the body? Some believe that the “soul” can depart the body before its physical death. This is typically considered the “dualistic” view, separating the physical and the spiritual.

Jesus cried from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Stephen prayed before his physical death, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Some interpreters use these statements to separate the soul or “image of God” from the body. In the belief that a PVS patient does not and cannot exhibit the image of God, it is then concluded that the person’s “soul” has left the body. Any physical support for the body, even food and water, is thus unnecessary.

Others adopt a holistic understanding of the biblical view of humans. While Greek thought separated body, soul, and spirit, Hebrew theology did not. It is not so much that we “have” a body, soul, and spirit which can be identified as separate entities. Rather, we “are” body, soul, and spirit. These words are different dimensions of the one person (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:23).

In the holistic view, we retain the “image of God” so long as our bodies retain some dimension of physical life. Mrs. Schiavo’s parents spoke passionately of the joy she continued to bring them, the love they felt for her despite her condition. They would argue, I’m sure, that she was still a “person” to them. In the holistic approach, so long as a person is alive physically, that person is the “image of God.”

This view would see Mrs. Schiavo, as long as she lived, as a person deserving of basic physical support. Food and water would be essential, appropriate provision for any person. And so the decision to withdraw them would be wrong.

Permission to die?

What if she had previously directed that such withdrawal occur? Then the law would require that her wishes be honored. But should it? Should we be permitted to mandate that heroic or even ordinary measures not be taken to maintain our lives?

The dualistic view believes that a patient loses the “image of God” in certain medical conditions, and would support that person’s previously stated right to refuse medical life support. The holistic view, taken to its logical conclusion, would seem to require at least food and water to be provided, in the desire to preserve and honor the “image of God.” Some would argue that even heroic measures are required, and that a person should not be allowed to refuse them. Just as we require passengers in cars and airplanes to wear seat belts, so we should require patients to receive all medical support for as long as their bodies survive.

My position

I believe that the holistic view reflects God’s understanding of humanity. But I also believe a distinction between heroic, ordinary, and basic life support is warranted. In my view, it is permissible to cease heroic or even ordinary life support for a person who possesses no actual or potential capacity for relational life on any level, as that person cannot demonstrate the “image of God.”

But I also believe that so long as the body is alive, the “person” is alive. And persons deserve at least basic (food and water) support, for as long as they live. Although the state allows us to choose passive euthanasia, medical actions which are intended to bring about our death, I do not believe such a decision is warranted biblically.

Let’s assume that Terri Schiavo did in fact express her desire to refuse medical life support and even to experience passive euthanasia. Her husband and doctors then acted within the law in withdrawing food and water for the purpose of ending her life. But I do not believe she or they acted within biblical guidelines. In my view, we should not be permitted to request medical steps which are intended to cause our death. Absent our clearly expressed intention, our caregivers should not be permitted to choose such actions.

However, we and/or our doctors can choose to “let die,” to take medical steps which do not prolong our lives. When these medical actions enhance the present quality of life, even if they shorten the life span of terminally ill patients, they are especially warranted.

Medical care and the power of God

I wish I had written this essay before my conversation with that father about ending his daughter’s life support. The next time I get such a heartbreaking phone call, I’ll ask the family about their intentions. Do they intend to hasten or even cause death? I do not believe such a decision is defensible. On the other hand, do they wish simply to allow nature to take over, “letting die” if this is the natural result of the patient’s condition? In this situation, medical support is not prolonging life—it is prolonging death.

I will remind such a family that maintaining or ending medical care does not necessarily affect the intervention of God. The Lord Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave after he had been dead four days (John 11:38-44). He does not require medical life support to heal. And if it is his will that the patient not survive physically, no medical means can defeat his purpose.

If all medical options have been exhausted, and there is no plausible reason to believe the patient will ever improve, a family who ends heroic or ordinary life support is not removing the possibility of divine intervention. Rather, they are placing their loved one in God’s hands, allowing him to heal physically or eternally.

Then the Lord will heal as he wills. He sometimes heals us physically, continuing our lives in our fallen bodies on this fallen planet. But he eventually heals us eternally, taking believers from earth to heaven, from disease and death to paradise. Either way, we are well.


Homosexuality: A biblical overview

Dr. Jim Denison

Homosexuality is one of the most divisive issues in American culture. Should same-sex marriages be legalized? Should practicing homosexuals be ordained into Christian ministry? What does the Bible say on this controversial and emotional issue?

On such a controversial and emotional issue, we need to know whose word we are going to trust. We can find scholars who support any of the variety of positions which are advocated on the subject. It is not my intention to treat fully the multitude of interpretive comments which deal with the biblical texts on the subject. My goal is simply to review what the Bible says about homosexuality, as clearly, succinctly, and practically as possible.

Interpreting the Bible

And so I must begin with an interpretive word. When I taught principles of biblical interpretation at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I often told my students, “The Bible can never mean what it never meant.” We must seek the intended meaning of the text as understood in its original context. I also said often, “The only word God is obligated to bless is his word.” What matters to us today is not my opinions or yours, but God’s.

Such a position is not held universally on this subject. For instance, Dr. Walter Wink states in his thoughtful booklet, Homosexuality and the Bible, “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct” (p. 12).

Dr. Wink then compares homosexuality to the issue of slavery: he argues that the Bible condones slavery, states that the Bible was wrong on that subject, and concludes that it is equally wrong on the issue before us (pp. 12-13).

I respect greatly Dr. Wink’s enormous contributions to New Testament studies, especially on the subjects of spiritual warfare and nonviolence. But I could not disagree more strongly with his assertion, “The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct.”

Without digressing into an extended defense of biblical authority, I wish to state clearly that I believe every word of the Bible to be the word of God. I believe the Scriptures to possess the same authority for our lives today as they possessed for their first hearers and readers. For my purposes, the only question we’ll seek to answer is, What does the Bible intend to teach on this subject?

The sin of Sodom

The Supreme Court made history on June 27, 2003 when it struck down the “sodomy laws” of the state of Texas. In a 6-3 decision, the justices reversed course from a ruling 17 years ago that states could punish homosexuals for private consensual sex. Such activity is typically called “sodomy” because of the text we’ll study today.

In a survey of passages typically cited on the divisive issue of homosexuality, Genesis 19 and the sin of Sodom is usually listed first. Lot entertained two angels who came to the city to investigate its sins. These angels appeared as men; before they went to bed “all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them'” (vs. 4-5, NIV). For such sin, “the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah” (v. 24), destroying them.

Is this text a condemnation of homosexuality? Dr. Walter Wink believes not: “That was a case of ostensibly heterosexual males intent on humiliating strangers by treating them ‘like women,’ thus demasculinizing them” (p. 1). However, Dr. Wink offers no textual evidence that the men were “ostensibly heterosexual”; his view is only conjectural, and stands against the vast majority of interpretation across the centuries.

Dr. Peter Gomes, the minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in Harvard College, offers a different approach. He has written an extremely erudite introduction to the Bible and its message, The Good Book. Dr. Gomes, himself a homosexual (p. 164), treats this passage as an attempted homosexual rape, and argues that it does not condemn homosexuality per se (pp. 150-52).

A third approach is suggested by D. Sherwin Bailey, in his influential Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. Dr. Bailey argues that the Hebrew word for “know,” translated “have sex” by the New International Version, relates not to sexual activity but hospitality. The word appears more than 943 times in the Old Testament, only 12 times in the context of sexual activity.

However, 10 of these 12 times are in the book of Genesis, the context for our text. Lot’s response to the crowd, offering his daughters so they can “do what you like with them,” makes clear that he interpreted their desires as sexual (v. 8). Everett Fox’s excellent translation of Genesis includes the note, “the meaning is unmistakably sexual” (p. 80). And Jude 7 settles the question as to whether sexual activity is meant by our text: “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion.”

It is also the case that Jewish and later Christian interpretation of the passage has historically and commonly seen the sin in Sodom as homosexuality itself, not just attempted rape. While this fact does not settle the interpretative question, it is worth noting as we proceed.

The Leviticus prohibition

The next text typically cited on our subject is Leviticus 18:22, and it is far less ambiguous: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” The Hebrew is as clear as the English translation

The obvious sense of the command seems to be: homosexual sexual relations are forbidden by Scripture. This is the way the text has typically been understood by Jewish and Christian interpreters across the centuries. It is the way most read the text still today.

But those who advocate homosexuality as an acceptable biblical lifestyle have found ways to dissent. Dr. Walter Wink admits that this text “unequivocally condemn[s] same-sex sexual behavior.” But he theorizes that the ancient Hebrews saw any sexual activity which could not lead to the creation of life as a form of abortion or murder. He adds that the Jews would have seen homosexuality as “alien behavior, representing yet one more incursion of pagan civilization into Jewish life.”

He then cites the penalty for homosexual behavior: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads” (Lev 20:13). In his reasoning, if we see this punishment for homosexuality as obsolete today, we should see its prohibition of this behavior as equally outdated. He concludes his argument against making Lev 18:22 normative for sexual ethics today by citing a list of other biblical ethics he considers to be obsolete, or in need of reinterpretation: intercourse during menstruation, polygamy, concubinage, and slavery among them.

And that’s not all. Other critics see the Levitical laws as expressive of worship codes, not universal moral standards. And they argue that all such laws were intended only for their day and time, such as kosher dietary laws and harvest regulations.

Is there an objective way to respond to these assertions?

First, let’s consider the claim that this Old Testament law has no relevance for New Testament believers, but should be classified with kosher laws and such. A basic rule of biblical interpretation is that any Old Testament teaching which is repeated in the New Testament carries the weight of command to the Christian church and faith. And the prohibition against homosexual activity is most certainly present there (see Romans 1:26-27, a passage we will consider in due time).

Even those Old Testament statements which are not repeated in the New Testament carry the force of principle; for instance, kosher laws tell us at the least that God cares about our bodies and health.

Second, it is claimed that the Leviticus passage expresses worship code, not moral standard. The logic is that Leviticus is written with regard to the levitical priests and their duties of worship preparation and leadership, and does not apply as such to the larger family of faith. However, the chapter in question begins, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them . . .'” (18:1). Nothing in the chapter limits its application or significance to the Levites. Rather, the chapter exhorts all Israel to “Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them” (v. 4). It proceeds to forbid incestuous relationships, child sacrifice, and bestiality—standards I presume critics of Lev. 18:22 would consider universal.

Third, it has been argued that the Leviticus prohibition of homosexuality is to be classed with other biblical statements which can be considered obsolete, such as the apparent biblical endorsement of slavery. This claim is cited frequently, so much so that we need to consider it next.

Slavery and the Scriptures

My move to Atlanta in 1994 gave me my first exposure to the remarkable colonial history of the East Coast. We Texans think something is historical if it happened while Tom Landry was coach of the Cowboys. When people living in South Carolina speak of “the War,” they could mean the Civil War (though they’ll say “there was nothing civil about it”) or the Revolutionary War. It is a fascinating region.

With one exception. While traveling in Charleston one day, Janet and I came upon the “slave trading warehouse.” This was the place where slaves were brought to America on ships and sold at market. I can still remember the building, and my revulsion upon seeing it. I believe that racism is the greatest sin in America, the failure which keeps us from addressing our other failures. Racism makes crime in south Dallas a “black” problem and drug abuse in north Dallas a “white” problem, when they’re all our problems.

Given our tragic history with racism, treating the subject of slavery in the Bible is a bit repugnant for us. However, a very common assertion regarding the topic of homosexuality and the word of God is that the biblical injunctions against this lifestyle are outdated, as is its acceptance of slavery. If we can prove that the Bible was wrong on the latter, we can believe that it is wrong on the former. The issue of slavery in the Bible is a large and comprehensive subject, far more wide-ranging than we will consider in these brief essays. I’ll try to limit our study to the barest of essentials, so we can relate it to the larger question which brings it to our attention.

Slavery was an accepted part of life in Old Testament times. We know of no culture or ancient literature which questioned its existence or necessity. Persons became slaves in a variety of ways: they were born to enslaved parents (Genesis 17:23), purchased (Gen 37:28), or sold themselves to pay a debt (Leviticus 25:39-55). Breaking into a home was punished by enslavement (Exodus 22:3); prisoners of war were commonly enslaved (Joel 3:6). The children of Israel enslaved the Canaanites they conquered in the Promised Land (Judges 1:28).

Slaves in Israel were considered to be property, and could be bought and sold (Ex 21:32). They were granted protection against murder, permanent injury, or undue physical labor (cf. Ex 21:20, 26; 23:12). Hebrew household slaves were circumcised (Gen 17:12), and included at religious meals (Ex 12:44). But why did the Old Testament not decry this practice in general, and move to free all those enslaved?

In many ways, it did. There were several ways a Hebrew slave could be freed (a process called “manumission”). An individual could be purchased and set free (Exodus 21:8). A slave permanently injured by his master was to be set free (Exodus 21:26). Hebrews were to be held as slaves for no longer than six years (Deuteronomy 15:12). And the Jubilee Year, which occurred every 49 years, was to free all Israelite slaves (Leviticus 25:50).

But still we ask, why did the Old Testament sanction this practice at all? In fact, it simply recognized a fact of all ancient civilization. And its rules minimized this evil, protected its victims more fully than did any other society, and provided means for their eventual freedom. But the New Testament would bring God’s word on the subject to much fuller expression.

In the Old Testament era, the primary way persons were enslaved was through capture in war. But in the first century AD, the breeding of slaves swelled their numbers enormously. And large numbers of people sold themselves into slavery as a means of improving their quality of life. Owning and using people as slaves was so commonplace in the Roman Empire that not a single ancient writer is known to have condemned the practice. But all that would begin to change with the advent of the Christian movement.

What was the New Testament attitude toward this institution? And how does this stance affect our study of the issue of homosexuality?

Slavery in the Roman era was dramatically different from the despicable practice as we know it in American history. If you had been walking through any first-century Roman city, you would not have been able to distinguish between slaves and free. Patterns of work, relationships, or faith were no different between the two. Slaves served not only to do manual labor, but also as doctors, nurses, household managers, and intellectuals. They administered funds and cities. They were typically given an excellent education at the expense of their owners, so that philosophers and tutors were typically slaves.

Even more amazing to us, it was common for people to sell themselves into slavery to secure such privileges. A person who desired citizenship in the Empire could achieve it by enslaving himself to a citizen, then purchasing his freedom. Slavery was more a process than a condition.

While there is no doubt that many slaves were abused physically, sexually, and socially, it is also true that at least as many were part of the more privileged strata of society. And the total dependence of the Roman economy upon the labor of slaves made it impossible for the Empire to conceive of abolishing this institution. If an economist were to propose that we refuse all goods and services imported from outside America, we’d be equally surprised.

Does the New Testament then argue for slavery? Absolutely not.

In summary, what is the New Testament’s view of slavery? No writer attempted to lead his readers to end the institution per se, as this was not possible in the Roman Empire. Those initiating such an uprising would have been quickly annihilated as rebels and threats to Caesar. But several other facts should be noted as well.

First, Paul abolished even the possibility of racial or social discrimination for followers of Jesus: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). Every believer is our sister or brother. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.

Second, wherever the apostolic church spoke to this issue, it did so with a view to freedom and equality. Paul appealed to Philemon to see his slave, Onesimus, “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (v. 16). Clement, a friend of Paul, wrote in his letter to the Corinthians (ca. AD 90), “We know many among ourselves who have given themselves up to bonds, in order that they might ransom others. Many, too, have surrendered themselves to slavery, that with the price which they received for themselves, they might provide food for others” (ch. 55). And Ignatius (died AD 107) wrote to Polycarp: “Do not despise either male or female slaves, yet neither let them be puffed up with conceit, but rather let them submit themselves the more, for the glory of God, that they may obtain from God a better liberty.”

Third, the New Testament church gave those who were enslaved a family and a home. This was one reason why so many of the earliest believers were slaves. Pastors and congregational leaders were drawn from the ranks both of slaves and free. Christians made no distinction between the two, for their Father welcomed all as his children.

Last, not a single New Testament leader owned slaves or condoned such, even though many had the means to purchase them (cf. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, Barnabas). Their example inspired William Wilberforce and countless other Christians to do all they could to abolish slavery, and we thank God that they were successful.

It is therefore an extremely unfair accusation to claim that the Bible was “wrong” or “outdated” on the issue of slavery, and thus on the subject of homosexuality.

The Bible and the punishment of homosexuals

One objection to the Leviticus statement remains. Dr. Walter Wink and others point out its punishment for homosexuality: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads” (20.13). If we no longer execute those who practice homosexuality, are we justified in ignoring the prohibition against such activity entirely?

Those who argue that homosexuality is a biblical lifestyle point to this “outdated” penalty as reason to consider the prohibition to be equally irrelevant to society today.

No one I know would argue that homosexual practice should result in the death penalty today. But let’s consider two facts. First, the levitical code was given to Israel at a crucial time in her early formation. The nation had no functional law process or court system. Her moral character was not yet formed. And so the Lord gave the nation clear and enforceable standards which would help solidify and preserve her spiritual future. The spirit of the levitical prohibition is clear: homosexuality is not to be practiced or accepted by the nation.

Second, a reinterpretation of the penalty prescribed by a law does not justify the decision to ignore the law itself. Leviticus also prescribes the death penalty for child sacrifice (20.2), adultery (v. 10), and bestiality (vs. 15-16). I presume we would not accept these practices as moral and lawful today on the basis that their prescribed punishments are not prosecuted by our society.

And so we have surveyed arguments for ignoring the levitical prohibitions against homosexual practice, and concluded that these laws are indeed timeless in import, expressive of moral standard, relevant to our culture, and a valid basis for moral standards today. An objective reading of the levitical prohibitions leads to the clear conclusion that this part of God’s word considers homosexual practice to be wrong.

A survey of the biblical materials relating to this issue would also include Deuteronomy 23:17-18, which outlaws prostitution, whether male or female. But interpreters are divided as to whether the passage relates to homosexuality in general.

New Testament teachings

Turning to the New Testament, three passages are typically cited. The first is Romans 1:26-27: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

At first reading, Paul seems clearly to consider homosexual activity to be unbiblical. But there is another way to interpret the passage, suggested by those who support homosexuality as a biblical lifestyle. In their reading, Paul is addressing the issue of heterosexual men and women who choose homosexual activity which is “unnatural” for them. If this is true, Paul’s statement bears no relevance to those who consider themselves homosexual by innate or “natural” orientation.

Is such an interpretation the most objective way to read the text? No, for two reasons. First, Paul describes homosexual acts themselves as “shameful lusts” (v. 26), “indecent acts” and “perversion” (v. 27). To suggest that his descriptions relate only to the (supposed) decision to engage in such activity by heterosexuals is to strain the Greek syntax beyond its meaning.

Second, Paul states that men who engage in homosexual activity “abandoned natural relations with women,” making clear the fact that he considers heterosexuality to be “natural.” Likewise, he describes lesbian activity as “unnatural.”

One can conclude that Paul was wrong, that homosexual orientation can be “natural” and its sexual expression therefore “natural relations.” But one cannot argue on the basis of this text that homosexuality is biblical, for Paul’s Scriptural words clearly state the opposite.

The next New Testament text typically included in our topic is 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

“Male prostitutes” could refer to men who sold themselves sexually, either in heterosexual or homosexual activity. As translated by the New International Version, the word would not necessarily speak to our subject, as prostitution of any kind is almost universally understood to be immoral.

But the Greek word so translated is more likely a technical term for the passive partner in homosexual activity (Fritz Rienecker, A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, 2:56). And so it may well refer to one who engages in homosexuality, without a necessary connection to prostitution. The activity it describes makes it harder to assert that Paul had no concept of homosexual orientation, but meant his words only for heterosexuals who practice (for unexplained reasons) homosexual behavior.

The other term germane to our discussion is translated by the NIV as “homosexual offenders.” The Greek word is defined by Fritz Rienecker as “a male who has sexual relations with a male, homosexual.” Here the word has no connection with prostitution. Again, one can claim that Paul was wrong in his understanding of human sexuality. But it seems to me that we cannot read his words in their intended meaning as accepting of homosexual activity.

The last passage for our study is part of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Here is the paragraph in which our verse is found: “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me” (1 Timothy 1:8-11).

The phrase in question is found in verse 10, translated by the NIV as “adulterers and perverts.” “Adulterers” renders the root Greek word pornos, from which we get “pornography,” and means one who practices sexual immorality. When accented on the second syllable, it frequently refers to one who operates a brothel. When accented on the first syllable, as in our text, it can refer to homosexual activity.

“Perverts” renders the Greek word arsenokoites, typically translated as “homosexual.” We see it in 1 Corinthians 6:9, where it is translated by the NIV as “homosexual offenders.” The word means literally “one who has sexual relations with men.” While some attempt to interpret the word as it is found in 1 Cor. 6 with reference to prostitution, such a connection is even more difficult to maintain in the present text.

And so once more we find Paul addressing the subject at hand, with what appears to be the clear position that homosexuality is an unbiblical practice or lifestyle. Such is the consistent teaching of the New Testament on the subject.

Summarizing the data

I am not gay, have no family members who are, and have no experience with this lifestyle. So who am I to judge? Why don’t we just let consenting adults do what they wish, so long as no one else is hurt? Many in our society take this approach to the subject, whatever their own sexual preferences might be. To do otherwise seems to be intolerant and judgmental, two words our postmodern, relativistic society condemns.

On the other hand, believers and those interested in the Christian faith do well to ask what God’s word says to every subject present in our culture. An objective reading of history and Scripture will inform our faith and make it more relevant to our problems and issues. For several pages we’ve considered such a survey. Now let’s summarize what we’ve found, and ask how it all applies to our lives and relationships.

We have surveyed the seven passages typically cited with regard to this issue. In Genesis 19 we find the attempt by men in Sodom to “have sex” with Lot’s angelic visitors (v. 5), and God’s consequent punishment against the city. While homosexual practice is clearly part of the text, the passage is less clear as to whether God’s judgment is against homosexuality itself, or the crowd’s abusive attempt to commit homosexual rape.

Next we found Leviticus 18:22, with its clear prohibition against homosexual activity, and Leviticus 20:13, with its prescription of the death penalty for such activity. Since some consider these passages as “outdated” as the Bible’s (supposed) endorsement of slavery, we next took a brief side journey through the latter issue. After noting the biblical abolition of social and racial discrimination (Galatians 3:26-28), and the fact that followers of Jesus were the leaders in abolishing the institution of slavery, we concluded that the Bible is being unfairly interpreted by its critics on this issue.

We considered briefly Deuteronomy 23:17-18, which outlaws all prostitution, whether male or female. And we focused at some length on Romans 1:26-27, with its description of homosexual acts as “unnatural” and “indecent.” We closed our survey with brief studies of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11, passages which are considered by some to refer to homosexual prostitution but which seem more objectively to forbid homosexual practice in any context.

As we have seen, proponents of homosexuality as a biblical lifestyle have arguments by which they attempt to reinterpret these passages. It may be of interest, however, to note that no biblical passage can be cited with confidence as an endorsement of this activity. No biblical leader or ethical model taught by the Scriptures can be construed effectively as practicing this lifestyle.

And the Old Testament prohibitions we have discussed in our survey are too unambiguous to ignore, and are renewed in the New Testament. A basic principle of biblical interpretation is that an Old Testament teaching which is renewed or endorsed in the New Testament retains the force of precept and principle for Christians today (see Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth, 2d ed. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993] 153). So, in completing our brief biblical survey of this issue, it seems clear to me that Scripture intends us to see homosexual practice as unbiblical.

Practical questions

Several questions come immediately to mind. First, what about the argument that homosexuality is inherited? If this is true, at least for some, how can such activity be wrong?

“God made me this way” is a typical testimony. A very brief response would be that the connection between genetics and homosexuality is tenuous at best. Where research has seemed to indicate some physical propensity toward homosexual orientation, others in the field have refuted such a conclusion. It is widely believed that alcoholism can be an inherited genetic propensity, but no one would therefore endorse its practice. While this is a very unfortunate analogy regarding homosexuals, it perhaps illustrates the fact that not every genetic tendency should be endorsed (if homosexuality is in fact such).

Second, what about environmental conditions? Studies have been conducted of identical twins who were separated at birth, where one developed a homosexual lifestyle but the other did not. Particular family or circumstantial patterns are sometimes seen in these cases to contribute to sexual orientation. But again, other interpreters disagree with such conclusions.

So, what does all this mean for those who deal with homosexuality on a personal basis?

Those who practice homosexuality seem to fall into two categories. Some can remember decisions, choices, and circumstances by which they moved into this lifestyle. Others believe this lifestyle to be a sexual orientation which, for them, existed from birth or prior to conscious choice and intention. It is obviously both impossible and wrong for me (or any other person) to say which category is appropriate to a specific individual.

At the same time, it seems clear to me that homosexuality is an unbiblical lifestyle. So, what practical conclusions can guide those who interpret Scripture as I do, as we seek to relate biblically and positively to those who are homosexual?

First, I need to state clearly that homosexuality is not the “unpardonable sin” (cf. Mark 3.29). The only sin God cannot forgive is that sin which rejects his forgiveness. To be more specific, the Holy Spirit works to convict us of our need for salvation through Christ. If we refuse this offer of saving grace, God cannot forgive us, as we have rejected the only means by which his forgiveness can be given.

As a result, whether homosexuality is a person’s choice or orientation, he or she does not stand outside of the grace and love of God. Such sexual activity is no more unbiblical than many other sins listed in Scripture, including hatred, slander, gossip, and gluttony. We are wrong to reject the person because he or she is practicing a lifestyle which we consider unbiblical. In other ways, so are we.

Second, and in contrast to my first statement, we do others no good if we endorse that which is unbiblical or hurtful to them. There are twin temptations here. One is to refuse any statement which might appear judgmental with regard to homosexuality, lest we appear to be rejecting the individual. The other is to condemn the person rather than the behavior. Our Father never falls into either mistake. He always exposes that which hurts his children, all the while loving them as his children.

And so we are to maintain that difficult balance which loves the person while opposing that which is unbiblical in his or her life. We want others to do the same for us, don’t we?

Final conclusions

I’m writing today with several personal friends especially in mind: a mother of a gay son, a brother of a gay sister, a son whose father is divorcing his wife and announcing his homosexuality, and a close college friend who several years ago declared his homosexuality and is no longer in vocational Christian ministry. What would I say to these four people, if they were reading this essay? Two comments are easy to make, the other two not as much so.

First, God loves each of us. He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance and faith in his Son (2 Peter 3.9). He so loved the world that he gave his Son for us all (John 3.16). Nothing we do, no matter how unbiblical, can separate us from his love for us. Your son, sister, father, or friend is loved by our Father in heaven.

Second, a homosexual person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. He or she is acting out a lifestyle which many of us understand to be unbiblical; but so are any of us who practice slander, gossip, heterosexual lust, or egotistical pride. So-called “gay bashing” is always wrong. Any action or attitude which demeans a person or makes them less valuable is the opposite of the grace and unconditional love of Christ.

Third, while we wish to offer the dignity and respect of Christian grace to all persons, we cannot truly love them while endorsing that which is unbiblical in their lives. As intolerant as the next sentence may seem, it is honestly motivated by a sincere desire to speak the truth in love: we can and should pray for those in the homosexual lifestyle to come to repentance and transformation.

After including homosexuality in his list of sins (1 Corinthians 6.9), Paul next told the Corinthians: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11). I recognize that some will read this paragraph as bigoted prejudice. However, any of us would want to help those we care about to practice a biblical lifestyle which leads to the fullest abundance of Christ’s joy (John 10.10). This is the honest motivation behind my suggestion that such intercession is appropriate for the gay people we know and love.

I must offer one last suggestion, a statement which will engender further resistance from many in the gay community: those who consider themselves to be homosexual by sexual orientation should practice sexual celibacy. Many will counter that I have no idea how difficult such a lifestyle decision would be. They’re right. But given that I understand the Bible clearly to teach that homosexuality is an unbiblical lifestyle, the only conclusion I can draw is that the practice of this lifestyle will lead the person out of the will of God and into harmful behavior. Abstinence is, by this logic, the option which is in that person’s best personal interest. I can only hope that my heart is clear in offering this suggestion. My desire is not to condemn, but to offer biblical truth as I understand it.

This survey is offered with the prayer that the Lord of Scripture will use his word to bring healing, hope, and help to hearts and homes troubled by the issue of homosexuality. To the degree that these thoughts have shed more light than heat, my prayer will be answered.

How Do We Explain The Trinity?

How do we explain the Trinity?

Dr. Jim Denison

Every parent dreads the question: “What is the Trinity?” How do we explain the fact that our God is three and yet one? The concept violates logic. This issue is especially relevant in these days of interaction with the Muslim world. Islamic faith is insistent on the unity and singularity of God. The central affirmation of Islam is this statement: there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. To this way of thinking, Christians are tri-theists and thus idolaters.

How can we explain our trinitarian theology to Muslims, or even to ourselves? And why does it all matter to our lives today?

What is the “Trinity”?

It has been said that if the mind were simple enough for us to understand it, we would be too simple to understand it. Likewise, if God were simple enough for my finite, fallen mind to understand him, he would not be God. How does a mother explain marriage to her five year old daughter? How does a mathematician explain calculus to his third grade son?

Yet we try. We sing as though we understood the words, “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty…God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.” I speak the same words over new believers which were recited over me in the baptismal waters, and over other Christians for twenty centuries: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Why? What is the Trinity? And why is understanding it so essential?

A brief history of God

The first biblical reference to God starts the mystery: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The Hebrew term here translated “God” is Elohim. The “im” is how the Hebrew language makes a word plural, like putting “s” on the end of a word in English. Thus one could translate the word “Gods” (though some Hebrew scholars believe that the plurality points more to God’s majesty than his number).

However, the following Hebrew verb “created” requires a singular noun, indicating that its subject is one rather than many. In English we would say “they create” but “he creates”; the latter is the idea of Genesis 1:1. So, in “God created” we have our start into the mystery that is the nature of God.

From earliest times, the Jewish tradition has affirmed that “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4, the “Shema” which is recited in daily Jewish spirituality). Such monotheism was a radical departure from the polytheism of ancient cultures. But the experience of the first Christians made simple monotheism problematic, for they knew Jesus Christ to be Lord and God (cf. John 1:1; 20:28; Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13). They also experienced the Holy Spirit as divine (Gen. 1:2; cf. Acts 5:2-4; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18). But these three were independent (at Jesus’ baptism the Father spoke and the Spirit descended; Matthew 3:16-17).

There is no indication that apostolic Christians struggled with the logic of their experience of God. Paul could pray for the Corinthians, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14). They knew God to be one, but they experienced him as three persons. This logical contradiction did not trouble them, for they were more pragmatic than speculative. They needed no words such as “Trinity” or theological formulations to explain their faith. But matters would quickly change.

The problem of God

As Christianity spread beyond its Jewish roots, it encountered a world view steeped in logic and rationalism. Aristotle had taught the Western world that non-contradiction is the test for all truth. Something cannot be one and three at the same time. So how can the Christian doctrine of God be reasonable?

The earliest answers to the question resolved the logical tension, but created problems greater than the one they “solved.” Some made the Son and the Spirit less divine than the Father, an approach known as subordinationism.” By this formulation, Jesus is not Lord and the Holy Spirit who makes us Christians (cf. Romans 8:9) is not fully God. Others taught that God shifts from being Father (Old Testament) to Son (Gospels) to Spirit (Acts to Revelation), an approach known as “modalism.” This strategy cannot explain the baptism of Jesus, the work of the Son (John 1:3-4) and the Spirit (Genesis 1:2) in creation, or the presence of the Spirit throughout the Old Testament (cf. Psalm 51:11). “Dynamic monarchians” taught that divine power descended upon Jesus, so that he was not himself divine.

At the Councils of Nicaea (AD 325) and Constantinople (AD 381), the orthodox Church declared all such formulations to be heretical, and affirmed that the Son and Spirit are of the same “essence” as the Father. “God in three Persons” catches the sense of their approach.

From then to now, believers have sought to understand better this paradox. Some suggest that God is like water, capable of being solid ice, liquid, or steam (but not at the same time). Perhaps he is like a three-sided pyramid seen from above (but the three sides do not work independently as did the Trinity at Jesus’ baptism). Maybe he is like an egg: yoke, sac, shell (but the three do not retain the same essence). Perhaps he is like a woman who is mother to her children, wife to her husband, and daughter to her parents (but she cannot act in three independent ways at the same time). All analogies eventually break down, as they should. As we noted earlier, if we can understand fully the essence of God, he would not be God.

Commitment to a God whose essence transcends our logical comprehension is a problem for some in our rationalistic culture. We like our faith to make sense. We may not understand why a ship floats or an airplane stays in the air, but we know that someone does. We’d have a hard time taking medicine no one understands, expecting effects no one can explain.

But we’d best get used to it. The more we learn about the universe, the more incomprehensible it becomes. Physicians do not understand how the mind works, or even if there is such a thing as the “mind.” We assume the category of time, but none of us can define it without contradiction.

So it is with the major doctrines of Christian faith. Is God three or one? Is Jesus fully God or fully human? Does God know the future or do we have freedom? Is the Bible divinely inspired or humanly written? The answer to each question is the same: yes.

The divinity of Jesus

Muslims, Jews, and Christians hold in common our belief that there is a God of the universe. When we speak of the “Father,” we are on familiar footing with other monotheistic faiths. But when we elevate the Son and the Spirit to divine status, we create the kind of tension which leads to confusion and rejection. So let’s take a moment to examine the divinity of the Second and Third members of the Godhead.

“Jesus is Lord” is the central affirmation of the Christian faith. Its Greek original is found scrawled on walls in the Roman catacombs and at the heart of the most ancient formulations of faith. When the Empire forced Christians to say “Caesar is Lord” or die, believers by the multiplied thousands chose to die. If presented the same option, we should make the same choice. Why?

Did Jesus claim to be God?

In recent years it has become popular to claim that Jesus of Nazareth saw himself only as a religious teacher, and that the Church deified him over the centuries. Not according to the eyewitnesses. When Jesus stood on trial for his life, the high priest challenged him: “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63). His answer sealed his fate: “Yes, it is as you say” (v. 64). Earlier he told his opponents, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). He clearly claimed to be God.

And his first followers accepted his claim to be true. Peter and the other apostles refused to stop preaching that Jesus is Lord, even when threatened with their lives (cf. Acts 5:29-32). Each but John was martyred for his faith in Christ, and John was exiled to the prison island of Patmos for preaching the Lordship of Jesus. Billions of people across twenty centuries have accepted their truth claims and followed their Lord as God.

How do we know he was right?

Here is the rope from which Christianity swings: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:13-15). Before Easter, the disciples assumed their leader was dead and gone. After that day, they were transfused with divine courage and set about winning the world to Jesus. The resurrection was the basis for their commitment to Christ as Lord. It is ours as well.

We know Jesus existed, and was crucified at the hands of Pontius Pilate. We know that the first Christians believed him to be raised from the dead (cf. the letter of Pliny the Younger, the descriptions of Josephus). But believing doesn’t make it so. Is there objective evidence for their faith in a risen Savior?

David Hume was an 18th-century Scottish philosopher, known today as the “Father of Skepticism.” He made it his life’s work to debunk assumptions which he considered to be unprovable, among them the veracity of miracles. He argued for six criteria by which we should judge those who claim to have witnessed a miracle: they should be numerous, intelligent, educated, of unquestioned integrity, willing to undergo severe loss if proven wrong, and their claims should be capable of easy validation (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 2d ed. [LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1966] 128-9). Each is appropriate for determining the truthfulness of a witness. How do the eyewitnesses of the risen Christ fare by such standards?

They were numerous: over 500 saw the resurrected Lord (1 Cor. 15:6). They were intelligent and well-educated, as the literature they produced makes clear (the Acts 4:13 claim that they were “unschooled, ordinary men” meant only that they had not attended rabbinic schools). Paul was in fact trained by Gamaliel, the finest scholar in Judaism (Acts 22:3). They were men and women of unquestioned integrity, clearly willing to undergo severe loss, as proven by their martyrdoms. And their claims were easily validated, as witnessed by the empty tomb (cf. Acts 26:26, “this thing was not done in a corner”).

So the witnesses were credible. What of the objective evidence for their claims? It is a fact of history that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and buried, and that on the third day his tomb was found empty. Skeptics have struggled to explain the empty tomb ever since.

Three strategies center on theft. The first was to claim that while the guards slept, the disciples stole the body (Matthew 28:11-15). How would sleeping guards know the identity of such thieves? How could the disciples convince 500 people that the corpse was alive? And why would these disciples then die for what they knew to be a lie?

A second approach claims that the women stole the body. How would they overpower the guards? How would they make a corpse look alive? Why would they suffer and die for such fabrication? A third explanation is that the authorities stole the body. When the misguided disciples found an empty tomb, they announced a risen Lord. But why would the authorities steal the body they had positioned guards to watch? And when the Christians began preaching the resurrection, wouldn’t they quickly produce the corpse?

A fourth approach is the wrong tomb theory—the grief-stricken women and apostles went to the wrong tomb, found it empty, and began announcing Easter. But the women saw where he was buried (Mt. 27:61); Joseph of Arimathea would have corrected the error (Mt. 27:57-61); and the authorities would have gone to the correct tomb and produced the corpse.

A fifth strategy is the “swoon theory”—Jesus did not actually die on the cross. He or his followers bribed the medical examiner to pronounce him dead, then he revived in the tomb and appeared to be resurrected. But how could he survive burial clothes which cut off all air? How could he shove aside the stone and overpower the guards? How could he appear through walls (John 20:19, 26) and ascend to heaven (Acts 1:9)?

There is only one reasonable explanation for the empty tomb, the changed lives of the disciples, and the overnight explosion of the Christian movement upon the world stage: Jesus Christ rose from the dead. He is therefore the person he claimed to be: our Lord and God. Trusting him is not a leap into the dark, but into the light. When you jump, crucified hands will catch you and never let you go (Jn. 10:28).

The divinity of the Holy Spirit

One of my pet peeves in Dallas is the fact that turn signals are apparently signs of weakness. I sometimes think I’m the only person in Dallas County who signals when shifting lanes; people stare at me as though I’m from another planet, while wondering what that blinking light at the back of my car is about.

One of my theological pet peeves is the fact that so many Christians refer to the Holy Spirit as “it.” He is the third member of the Trinity, as fully divine as the Father and the Son. He is a person, deserving of our respect and gratitude. He is no more an “it” than you are.

The Holy Spirit has all the distinctive characteristics of personality: knowledge (1 Corinthians 2:10-11), will (1 Cor. 12:11), and feeling or emotion (Romans 15:30). He performs acts which only a person can perform: he searches (1 Cor. 2:10), speaks (Revelation 2:7), cries (Galatians 4:6), prays (Ro. 8:26), testifies (John 15:26), teaches (John 14:26), leads (Ro. 8:14), and commands (Acts 16:6, 7). He is treated as only a person can be treated: he is grieved and rebelled against (Isaiah 63:10; Ephesians 4:30), insulted (Hebrews 10:29), and blasphemed (Matthew 12:31, 32).

The Holy Spirit is given each of the four distinctly divine attributes: eternity (Heb. 9:14), omnipresence (Psalm 139:7-10), omniscience (1 Cor. 2:10, 11), and omnipotence (Luke1:35). He performs each of the three distinctly divine works: creation (Job 33:4; Ps. 104:30; Genesis 1:1-3), impartation of life (John 6:63; Gen. 2:7), and authorship of prophecy (2 Peter 1:21).

Exodus 16:7 says that the people “grumbled” against God; Hebrews 3:7-11 quotes the Holy Spirit’s statement that such complains were made against him. The name of the Holy Spirit is coupled with that of God (1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Matthew 28:19-20; 2 Cor. 13:14). The Holy Spirit is called God (Acts 5:3, 4).

And yet the Holy Spirit is distinct from the Father and the Son (Luke 3:21-22; Mt. 28:19; John 16:7). He is sent by the Father in the name of the Son (Jn 14:26; 15:26), speaks only what he hears from the Father (Jn 16:13), and seeks only to glorify God (Jn 16:14).

In every sense, the Holy Spirit is God. We can “solve” the problem of the Trinity by devaluing the Son and the Spirit, but we lose far more than we gain. We forfeit the divine Savior whose death paid for our sins, and the divine Person who brings salvation to our souls. I would rather live with the mystery of God’s nature than give up the relationship with him which that nature makes possible.

The ministry of the Holy Spirit

Now let’s move more specifically to the question of sanctification, the work of spiritual growth which the Holy Spirit authors in our lives. The Spirit shows us our guilt as sinners, convicting us of righteousness and judgment (John 16:10). He imparts spiritual life to those who are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1-2; Titus 3:5; John 3:3-5). Now he indwells the believer (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20) and sets us free for God (Romans 8:2). He forms Christ within us (Eph. 3:14-19), bringing forth the Christ-like graces of character (Galatians 5:22-23). He guides us into the life of God’s children (Ro. 8:14) and bears witness to our status with our Father (Ro. 8:15, 16).

The Spirit teaches us (Jn. 14:26), reveals the deep things of God to us (1 Cor. 2:9-13), interprets his own revelation (1 Cor. 2:14), and enables us to communicate truth to others (1 Cor. 2:1-5).

The Spirit guides us in prayer (Jude 20; Ephesians 6:18), inspires and guides our thanksgiving (Eph. 5:18-20), and inspires our worship (Philippians 3:3). He infills the believer (Eph. 5:18), sends us into definite vocations (Acts 13:2-4), and guides us in daily life (Acts 8:27-29; 16:6, 7).

From this brief survey, is it clear that we cannot progress in the spiritual life without the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the member of the Trinity who dwells in all believers, and empowers our growth and maturity in the faith. We must be yielded to his leading and empowering every day, or we cannot grow closer to our Lord. Time spent each morning in prayer and Bible study is crucial; time through the day to connect with God in prayer is vital.

We each need a spiritual inventory every week, whereby we ask the Spirit to show us anything wrong between us and our Father—we write down what comes to mind, confess it, and throw the paper away. In the words of evangelist Gypsy Smith, we draw a circle around ourselves and pray until everything inside that circle is right with God.

We need periodic times of solitude, where we listen to the Spirit’s voice. Find a place where you can be alone and undistracted. Meditate on a single verse or passage of Scripture, placing yourself in the text. Feel, smell. hear and taste the story. Ask the Spirit to show you the truth from that passage which you most need to hear, and he will.

Meditate on God’s creation. The hour I spent with a leaf was memorable to my soul. I had just begun my ministry in Midland, and had no idea how to move forward in God’s plan. Examining a leaf in my hand, I became impressed with its intricate design. The more I studied, the more amazed I became. Then the Spirit spoke to my spirit: “If I can design a leaf, I can design your life and work.” And he did.

Meditate on a current or global event. Pray about it, asking God to reveal his truth through this matter to you. Trust him to use his world and his word in your life. Listen until you have heard him speak. And you will.

Doc Severinson was the trumpet player and band leader for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. As a trumpet player myself, I followed Severinson’s career with interest. Once I was privileged to attend a workshop and concert he staged. During the conversation following the performance, someone asked him about his practice habits. Severinson replied, “If I don’t practice one day, I know it. Two days, my band knows it. Three days, the world knows it.” The same is true of my soul, and perhaps yours as well.


We’ve discussed briefly the trinitarian nature of God, the divinity of the Son and the Spirit, and the work of the Spirit in our lives. The practical outcome of such a hurried survey is simply this: we are each to give ourselves every day to the Spirit. We are to yield the morning as it begins and the day before it starts. We are to seek his wisdom and direction for every step and every decision. We are to be led by his grace in every moment. And as we practice his presence in our lives, we experience the abundant life which Jesus came to give us all (John 10:10).

One of my favorite stories concerns a father who arrived home after work and was greeted by his two small daughters. The older girl got to him just as he stepped onto the sidewalk leading from the driveway, with a hedge on either side. She threw her arms around her father’s legs. The younger sister then arrived. Her older sister was in front of her, hedges on both sides, and she couldn’t get to her father. Her big sister taunted her, “Ha, ha, ha, I’ve got all of Daddy there is.”

The wise father then reached over his older daughter, picked up the younger sister, and held her in his arms. The younger girl then said to the older, “Ha, ha, ha, Daddy’s got all of me there is.”

You have all of the Father there is. Does he have all of you today?

Radical Islam

Radical Islam:

The Greatest Threat to the Western World

Dr. Jim Denison

In November 2008, an Arab newspaper in London reported that Osama bin Laden is planning an attack against the United States that will “outdo by far” September 11. The warning was printed on the front page of Al-Quds Al-Arabi and was widely reported in major Italian papers. The paper is edited by Abdel al-Bari Atwan, said to be the last journalist to interview bin Laden in 1996. According to the report, bin Laden is personally following preparations for an attack against the U.S. which will “change the face of world politics and economics.”

Why? Why did bin Laden’s organization attack America on 9-11? Why do they continue their war against the U.S. and the West?

Islam is now front-page news every day. 1.2 billion people, 19% of the world’s population, are followers of the Muslim faith. There are more Muslims in America than Episcopalians or Presbyterians. In a few years, Muslims will outnumber Jews to become the second-largest religion in our country. There are more than 1,100 mosques around the country.

What do Muslims believe? What differentiates “radical Islam” from the rest of the Muslim world? What does it all mean for us?

A brief history

Let’s begin at the beginning. Islam was founded by Muhammad (A.D. 570-632), in the midst of religious pluralism, idolatry, and division among his Arab people in Mecca and the Arabian peninsula.

Muhammad’s father died before he was born; his mother died when he was six years of age. He was born in the city of Mecca and raised by his grandfather and then his uncle, Abu Bekr. At the age of 40, he had become a successful businessman when he began receiving a series of visions or “revelations” which became the Qur’an.

At the time, his people worshiped the seven planets, the moon, and the stars. Many venerated family household gods and various angels. Others were involved in fire worship contributed by the Magians from Persia. There was also a corrupt form of Judaism and heretical Christianity present.

Gabriel and Muhammad

According to Islam, Muhammad was visited by the angel Gabriel in the year 610 and told that God’s previous revelations to the Jews and the Christians had been corrupted. As a result, God was revealing his word and will a third time through Muhammad.

Of the pantheon of gods worshiped in the day, Muhammad was “led” to choose the one known as “Allah” (Arabic for “the god”) as the only true God. He began preaching in Mecca, inviting the people to join him in his new faith, but most rejected his message.

In the year 622, Muhammad and his small band of followers migrated to a city called Yathrib, now renamed “Medina” (“city of the prophet”). There they established the first Islamic state. The Muslim calendar begins from the day of this migration (the hijira or “flight”).

Muhammad’s hatred of idols led him to place an immense emphasis on the unity and transcendence of God. At first he believed that Jews and Christians would accept his message, and had his followers kneel toward Jerusalem to pray. When they did not, he taught them to turn their backs on Jerusalem by bowing toward Mecca; this is their practice today.

Muhammad’s culture was characterized by tribal warfare, brutality, and promiscuity. He emphasized divine control, and opposed religious liberty and separation of church and state. Since Allah is Lord, he must be Lord of all. Thus Muhammad created a civilization, not merely a religion—a way of life for all people, governing personal autonomy and all morality. Islam attempts to provide the answers to every conceivable detail of belief and daily life.

Muhammad left no designated heirs. The “caliphs” (Arabic for “successors”) continued his movement, led first by Abu Bekr. Soon, however, divisions began to emerge. Most Muslims followed the caliphs and their successors; these are known as Sunnis today. But some believed that only the fourth caliph (Muhammad’s son-in-law) was the true successor Muhammad, and have supported his successors; they are the Shiites (“party of Ali”). 90% of Muslims are Sunnis; 10% are Shiites, living primarily in Iran.

The spread of Islam

Islam’s growth worldwide has been the fastest of any religion in history. Within a single decade, A.D. 622-632, Muhammad united the nomadic tribes of the Arabian peninsula into a single cohesive nation, gave them a monotheistic religion in place of their polytheistic, tribal faiths, organized a powerful society and state, and launched his world-wide movement.

Muhammad died in 632 and was succeeded by Abu Bekr. Under his reign and afterward Islam continued to spread, promoted by extensive military campaigns. Within a century after the death of Muhammad, the Islamic empire stretched from Arabia west through North Africa, to Southern France and Spain; also north of Arabia through the Middle East and east throughout Central Asia, to the borders of China. In the process, Islamic expansion took in much of the oldest and strongest Christian territory.

The spread of Islam in western Europe was finally checked by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours (in France) in A.D. 732, exactly a century after the death of Muhammad. Spain was later reclaimed for Christianity, but a wide belt of territory from Morocco to Pakistan and Indonesia remained Muslim, and has so to this day.

In the meantime a series of Crusades were conducted from A.D. 1095 to 1291, making the Christian mission to Muslims immeasurably more difficult. Islam has dominated the Middle East for the last 12 centuries, threatening Europe during much of that time. Today it extends from the Atlantic to the Philippines. In Africa it is currently making tremendous advances.

Islam in America

There are between 1.8 million (David Barrett’s estimate) and 4.6 million (Islamic Society of North America’s estimate) Muslims in this country. Most put the figure at between 3 and 4 million. This is a “denomination” larger than either the Assemblies of God or the Episcopal Church in the United States. In the next thirty years Muslims will outnumber Jews to become the second-largest religion in our country.

While there is no unified Islamic movement in America, there is an increasing effort to evangelize to the Muslim faith in our country. Saudi Arabia is leading the way in funding projects to promote Islam around the world.

Note also the growth of Black Muslims in the U.S., a movement which rejects Christianity as racist. This crusade began in 1931 among the Blacks in Harlem. One of the early leaders, Elijah Muhammad, preached a gospel of black superiority; his heir, Malcolm X, attempted to move the Black Muslims toward orthodox Islam. This movement is known today as The Nation of Islam, and comprises one-quarter to one-half of the total Muslim population in America.

A brief theology

What beliefs do Muslims hold in common? A good way to understand any world religion is to ask these five questions of it:

What is its view of ultimate authority, God or the gods?

How does it view humanity?

What is its central focus?

How does it understand salvation?

How does it view eternity?

View of God

Unlike many world religions, Islam’s view of God can be stated very succinctly: “Your God is One God: there is no God but He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful” (2:163). The Qur’an makes clear its rejection of the Trinity: “Say not ‘Trinity’: desist: it will be better for you: for God is one God: glory be to Him” (4:171).

The Qur’an also explicitly rejects the divinity of Jesus: “They do blaspheme who say: ‘God is Christ the son of Mary'” (5:72); “They do blaspheme who say: God is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One God” (5:73); “Christ the son of Mary, was no more than an apostle” (5:75).

Muslims believe that God has sent 313 prophets to humanity, and are required to memorize the 25 most important. Of these, the most significant were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Muslims believe that Jesus was born of a virgin (3:47; 19:20), and that he lived a sinless life and ascended to heaven without passing through death. They reject the atonement and the doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ.

View of humanity

Human beings live completely under the sovereignty of God: “Those whom God willeth to guide, He openeth their breast to Islam; those whom He willeth to leave straying, He maketh their breast close and constricted” (6:125). “God wills it” is a common expression in Islam. In fact, “Islam” means “submission” or “surrender.”

Central focus

The Qur’an is the final revelation of God for Muslims and the central focus of their faith and lives. All of life must be submitted to its revelation and laws. According to Muslim teaching, the Qur’an was given by divine miracle through Muhammad when the prophet was illiterate: “It is He who sent down to thee (step by step) in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it” (3:3).

In addition to the Qur’an, the Hadith (a collection of the “sayings” of Muhammad) and the Sunna (the record of the personal customs of Muhammad and his community) give guidance for Muslim life. But the Qur’an is the only divine revelation.

Concept of salvation

Salvation is achieved by submission to Allah: “So believe in God and His Apostle; and if ye believe and do right, ye have a reward without measure” (3:179). The “five pillars” express the essentials of Muslim life and practice:

The “witness” (“shahadah”): “La ilaha illal lah Muhammadur rasulul lah”—”There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is Allah’s messenger.” Every Muslim must declare this aloud at least once in his life very slowly, with deep meaning and full commitment; most Muslims repeat it many times each day.

Prayer (“salah”) with directed motions, five times a day, facing toward Mecca, the holy city.

Almsgiving (“zakah”), approximately 2 1/2% of all one’s income and permanent annual worth, to the poor. This is an act of worship.

Fasting (“sawm”), especially during the month of Ramadan, which commemorates the giving of the Qur’an. From dawn to sunset every day of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, a Muslim refrains from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual relations.

Pilgrimage (“hajj”) to Mecca at least once from every believer who is physically and financially able to make the journey.

In addition, jihad (“holy war”) can be declared the unequivocal religious duty of the Muslim man, as the will of God.

Note that strict morality is a hallmark of Muslims. They obey strong prohibitions against drinking wine, eating pork, gambling, and practicing usury. They invoke the name of Allah at the slaughter of all animals. They also require a specific dress code: men must be covered from navel to knees; women must cover their entire bodies except face and hands, with women above the age of puberty required to cover their face while going out and meeting strangers. Pure silk and gold not allowed for men; men cannot wear women’s clothes, and women cannot wear men’s garments; the symbolic dress of other religions is not allowed.

View of heaven

Muslims believe that there will be a final day of judgment, the consummation of history, and the assigning of heaven and hell to all persons on the basis of their acceptance or rejection of the message of God and their accompanying good works. Allah is depicted as weighing good and bad works on a delicate scale of balance which is accurate even to the weight of a grain of mustard seed (7:5-8; 21:47; 23:103-5).

Islam and Christianity

How do Muslims relate to the Christian faith? Because Islam began in the Middle East subsequent to Christianity, it has always had some reference to Christianity. Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an, maintains this reference to Christianity, speaking specifically of Jesus and the Christian religion.

Relating the faiths

Islam is completely independent of Christianity in faith and philosophy. There is almost no direct quotation in the Qur’an from either Testament. All we know for certain is that Muhammad was aware of Jews and Christians and knew something of their history. Tragically, the “Christianity” Muhammad encountered was heretical, and gave him an erroneous picture of Christ and his followers.

Muhammad claimed to be a biological heir of Abraham through Ishmael. Through this tie Muhammad saw himself as the establisher of the true religion of the one God in Arabia. He claimed that the religion Abraham bequeathed to the Arabs became corrupt. He claimed to receive direct revelation from God identical in content with the original revelations to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and thus claimed to be in direct succession with the Old and New Testament prophets.

Muslims have historically tolerated Christians and Jews as “people of the Book” in that they have a revelation related, though inferior, to that of Muslims. Nevertheless, various regulations are imposed on Christians in Muslim lands. One of the most difficult is the law against a Christian’s converting a Muslim, accompanied by an absolute prohibition against the Muslim’s accepting Christianity.

In addition, recent persecution of Christians has made tensions much greater between the two faiths. For instance, Saudi Arabia threatens to punish any Muslim who converts to Christianity with beheading.

Sharing the gospel with Muslims

How can Christians best share their faith with Muslims? First, seek common ground. Both faiths believe in one God, and see Jesus as holy. Muslims believe that they worship the God of Abraham and Jesus. They deny the divinity of Christ and thus do not worship our Lord. But we share belief that there is one God of the universe.

We both emphasize personal morality. The difference is that Christians have a relationship with God based on his grace, while Muslims believe they must earn Allah’s acceptance. No Muslim can be sure that he or she will go to heaven. In Christ we have the forgiveness of our sins and the promise of eternal life with God.

Second, understand Islam’s view of Jesus. As we have seen, Islam denies the divinity of Christ. Muhammad proclaimed that there is no God but God; thus Jesus cannot be divine. He was God’s messenger, not his Son.

Islam denies the crucifixion. According to Muslim theology, when Jewish leaders approached Jesus with the intent of crucifying him, God took him up to heaven to deliver him out of their hands; then he cast the likeness of Jesus on someone else, who was crucified by mistake in his place. Islam ignores the sin nature which requires atonement, and therefore the need for Jesus’ death for us.

Third, understand Islam’s view of the Qur’an. The Muslim believes that the Qur’an has existed from all eternity with God in the Arabic language. In every particular it is the utterance of God himself, with no human element at all. The Qur’an is seen in purely verbal, propositional terms. Additionally, the Qur’an does not reveal Allah to us, but only his will. He remains hidden from all men.

By contrast, Christianity has always seen the Bible as God’s self-revelation of himself to us, mediated through the instrumentality of human personality. Christ is the central focus of our faith (cf. John 20:30-31).

Fourth, emphasize the difference between grace and. works. While the Muslim believes that Allah can be merciful, he also accepts that he is responsible for his own salvation by faith and works. He does not believe that he can know his final destiny before his judgment before Allah. Christianity offers grace, full pardon for sin, and salvation today.

Finally, demonstrate God’s love in yours. Pray for Muslims, by name if possible. Build relationships based on unconditional friendship. Look for ways to affirm and include them. Seek opportunities to share what the living Lord Jesus has done in your life. Then invite the person to have the assurance of heaven through Christ.

Radical Islam

“Radical Islam,” that movement which has led to the global war on terror, can be differentiated from the rest of the Muslim world in two respects. First, Osama bin Laden and his associates argue that America and the West are the aggressors in this conflict, and that 9-11 and other attacks are merely their response in defense of Islam. Second, radical Muslims believe that there are no innocents in this conflict, that all American citizens are perpetrators and participants in this supposed attack on Islam.

These assertions are critical in that they explain how radical Muslims can defend their actions. The Qur’an explicitly states that violence is permitted only in self-defense: “Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God loveth not transgressors” (2:190); “if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith” (2:191); “fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and Faith in God; but if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression” (2:193).

The Qur’an also defends innocent people from aggression: “Nor take life—which God has made sacred—except for just cause” (17:33). But for reasons we will explore in this section, bin Laden and his associates believe that this assertion does not apply to Americans and citizens of the West.

A brief history

Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab was an 18th century reformer (born 1703 in what is today Saudi Arabia); he formed the creed upon which Saudi Arabia was founded. Wahhabism is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia today. It is an extremely fundamentalistic version of Islam, demanding absolute allegiance to Sharia (holy law) in every dimension of life and resisting all Western and foreign influence. Wahhabism has been instrumental in supporting the radical Islamic movement of this generation. The Saudi royal family has spent as much as $100 billion dollars exporting this form of Islam to the world.

Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian who championed fundamentalist Islam to his country. Outraged by the sinful aspects of Western culture he observed in his travels and opposed to such influence in Egypt, he fought vehemently against Western forces in his country. He was executed by the Egyptian government in 1966. His writings were very influential in the evolution of Osama bin Laden and his beliefs.

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, has been crucial to the movements which contribute to radical Islam. Their credo: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”

These movements have for generations been concerned with the growing Western (infidel) influence they see in the Arab world. But the creation of Israel in 1948, and America’s continued support for that nation, have been especially significant in the rise of radical Islam vs. the West.

Muslims believe that Islam is the true religion of Abraham and Moses, and that the Jewish people follow a corrupted religion. They are convinced that the Palestinians are the rightful owners of the Holy Land. As a result, radical Muslims dream of the day when they can “push Israel into the sea.”

America’s involvement in Arab politics over the generations has been problematic. For instance, we helped to depose the Iranian leader Mossadeq in 1953 when it served our purposes, then supported the Shah until public opinion turned against him and allowed his fall in 1979. They see our first Gulf War as protecting our oil interests, and resist our continued engagement with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and other moderate governments.

Al Qaeda (Arabic for “the camp”) is one response to the West. This is a loosely configured band of radical fighters, birthed in the battle against the Soviet Union for Afghanistan (1978-88). Osama bin Laden, the son of a very wealthy Saudi family, sought to mobilize assistance for the mujahedeen (“those engaged in the struggle”) fighting the Soviets. He raised financial resources and encouraged Muslims around the world to join the battle. When the Soviets were expelled, the victorious “freedom fighters” became the Taliban (roughly translated “students”), the governing authority in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden then offered his assistance to the Saudis when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. They rejected his offer and eventually exiled him to Sudan; from there he emigrated to Pakistan, where he apparently lives today.

His movement is seeking the removal of America and Western influence from the Arab world. They believe that their armed resistance expelled the Soviet Union from Afghanistan and led to the demise of the U.S.S.R.

Now they believe they are doing the same to us. Bin Laden and his associates want to lead Arabs to unite against America and the West, force us out of the region, “push Israel into the sea,” and then create a unified base for global Islamic expansion. They continue to interpret our response to 9/11 as a war on Islam. We attacked Iraq (though no Iraqis were part of 9/11), and occupy Baghdad, at one time the headquarters of the Muslim world. While military response to 9-11 was obviously justified and essential, bin Laden continues to use our presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia to claim that we are at war with the entire Muslim world.

This is the war of our generation. Finding and killing bin Laden will not end this war. He is not the singular leader of this movement. Radical Muslims want all Western influence out of the Arab world, and then want the entire world to convert to Islam. And so it is absolutely essential that Christians in the West determine to pray every day for Muslims to be reached with the love of Christ, that we give sacrificially for missions to the Muslim world, and that we participate personally as God leads us.

The Lord is doing marvelous things to win Muslims to himself; for instance, thousands of Muslims are reporting visions and dreams of Jesus (do an Internet search on “Muslim visions of Jesus” to find numerous examples). The Gospel is on the march, and the Kingdom of God is coming on earth. When we pray, give, and go, we join the Holy Spirit as he works to win Muslims to the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).

Appendix: letter from Osama bin Laden to America

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Link: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/worldview/story/0,,845725,00.html

In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,

“Permission to fight (against disbelievers) is given to those (believers) who are fought against, because they have been wronged and surely, Allah is Able to give them (believers) victory” [Quran 22:39]

“Those who believe, fight in the Cause of Allah, and those who disbelieve, fight in the cause of Taghut (anything worshipped other than Allah e.g. Satan). So fight you against the friends of Satan; ever feeble is indeed the plot of Satan.”[Quran 4:76]

Some American writers have published articles under the title ‘On what basis are we fighting?’ These articles have generated a number of responses, some of which adhered to the truth and were based on Islamic Law, and others which have not. Here we wanted to outline the truth – as an explanation and warning – hoping for Allah’s reward, seeking success and support from Him.

While seeking Allah’s help, we form our reply based on two questions directed at the Americans:

(Q1) Why are we fighting and opposing you? Q2) What are we calling you to, and what do we want from you?

As for the first question: Why are we fighting and opposing you? The answer is very simple:

(1) Because you attacked us and continue to attack us.

a) You attacked us in Palestine:

(i) Palestine, which has sunk under military occupation for more than 80 years. The British handed over Palestine, with your help and your support, to the Jews, who have occupied it for more than 50 years; years overflowing with oppression, tyranny, crimes, killing, expulsion, destruction and devastation. The creation and continuation of Israel is one of the greatest crimes, and you are the leaders of its criminals. And of course there is no need to explain and prove the degree of American support for Israel. The creation of Israel is a crime which must be erased. Each and every person whose hands have become polluted in the contribution towards this crime must pay its*price, and pay for it heavily.

(ii) It brings us both laughter and tears to see that you have not yet tired of repeating your fabricated lies that the Jews have a historical right to Palestine, as it was promised to them in the Torah. Anyone who disputes with them on this alleged fact is accused of anti-Semitism. This is one of the most fallacious, widely-circulated fabrications in history. The people of Palestine are pure Arabs and original Semites. It is the Muslims who are the inheritors of Moses (peace be upon him) and the inheritors of the real Torah that has not been changed. Muslims believe in all of the Prophets, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon them all. If the followers of Moses have been promised a right to Palestine in the Torah, then the Muslims are the most worthy nation of this.

When the Muslims conquered Palestine and drove out the Romans, Palestine and Jerusalem returned to Islam, the religion of all the Prophets peace be upon them. Therefore, the call to a historical right to Palestine cannot be raised against the Islamic Ummah that believes in all the Prophets of Allah (peace and blessings be upon them) – and we make no distinction between them.

(iii) The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged. You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.

(b) You attacked us in Somalia; you supported the Russian atrocities against us in Chechnya, the Indian oppression against us in Kashmir, and the Jewish aggression against us in Lebanon.

(c) Under your supervision, consent and orders, the governments of our countries which act as your agents, attack us on a daily basis;

(i) These governments prevent our people from establishing the Islamic Shariah, using violence and lies to do so.

(ii) These governments give us a taste of humiliation, and places us in a large prison of fear and subdual.

(iii) These governments steal our Ummah’s wealth and sell them to you at a paltry price.

(iv) These governments have surrendered to the Jews, and handed them most of Palestine, acknowledging the existence of their state over the dismembered limbs of their own people.

(v) The removal of these governments is an obligation upon us, and a necessary step to free the Ummah, to make the Shariah the supreme law and to regain Palestine. And our fight against these governments is not separate from out fight against you.

(d) You steal our wealth and oil at paltry prices because of you international influence and military threats. This theft is indeed the biggest theft ever witnessed by mankind in the history of the world.

(e) Your forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them; you corrupt our lands, and you besiege our sanctities, to protect the security of the Jews and to ensure the continuity of your pillage of our treasures.

(f) You have starved the Muslims of Iraq, where children die every day. It is a wonder that more than 1.5 million Iraqi children have died as a result of your sanctions, and you did not show concern. Yet when 3000 of your people died, the entire world rises and has not yet sat down.

(g) You have supported the Jews in their idea that Jerusalem is their eternal capital, and agreed to move your embassy there. With your help and under your protection, the Israelis are planning to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque. Under the protection of your weapons, Sharon entered the Al-Aqsa mosque, to pollute it as a preparation to capture and destroy it.

(2) These tragedies and calamities are only a few examples of your oppression and aggression against us. It is commanded by our religion and intellect that the oppressed have a right to return the aggression. Do not await anything from us but Jihad, resistance and revenge. Is it in any way rational to expect that after America has attacked us for more than half a century, that we will then leave her to live in security and peace?!!

(3) You may then dispute that all the above does not justify aggression against civilians, for crimes they did not commit and offenses in which they did not partake:

(a) This argument contradicts your continuous repetition that America is the land of freedom, and its leaders in this world. Therefore, the American people are the ones who choose their government by way of their own free will; a choice which stems from their agreement to its policies. Thus the American people have chosen, consented to, and affirmed their support for the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, the occupation and usurpation of their land, and its continuous killing, torture, punishment and expulsion of the Palestinians. The American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their Government and even to change it if they want.

(b) The American people are the ones who pay the taxes which fund the planes that bomb us in Afghanistan, the tanks that strike and destroy our homes in Palestine, the armies which occupy our lands in the Arabian Gulf, and the fleets which ensure the blockade of Iraq. These tax dollars are given to Israel for it to continue to attack us and penetrate our lands. So the American people are the ones who fund the attacks against us, and they are the ones who oversee the expenditure of these monies in the way they wish, through their elected candidates.

(c) Also the American army is part of the American people. It is this very same people who are shamelessly helping the Jews fight against us.

(d) The American people are the ones who employ both their men and their women in the American Forces which attack us.

(e) This is why the American people cannot be not innocent of all the crimes committed by the Americans and Jews against us.

(f) Allah, the Almighty, legislated the permission and the option to take revenge. Thus, if we are attacked, then we have the right to attack back. Whoever has destroyed our villages and towns, then we have the right to destroy their villages and towns. Whoever has stolen our wealth, then we have the right to destroy their economy. And whoever has killed our civilians, then we have the right to kill theirs.

The American Government and press still refuses to answer the question:

Why did they attack us in New York and Washington?

If Sharon is a man of peace in the eyes of Bush, then we are also men of peace!!! America does not understand the language of manners and principles, so we are addressing it using the language it understands.

(Q2) As for the second question that we want to answer: What are we calling you to, and what do we want from you?

(1) The first thing that we are calling you to is Islam.

(a) The religion of the Unification of God; of freedom from associating partners with Him, and rejection of this; of complete love of Him, the Exalted; of complete submission to His Laws; and of the discarding of all the opinions, orders, theories and religions which contradict with the religion He sent down to His Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Islam is the religion of all the prophets, and makes no distinction between them – peace be upon them all.

It is to this religion that we call you; the seal of all the previous religions. It is the religion of Unification of God, sincerity, the best of manners, righteousness, mercy, honour, purity, and piety. It is the religion of showing kindness to others, establishing justice between them, granting them their rights, and defending the oppressed and the persecuted. It is the religion of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil with the hand, tongue and heart. It is the religion of Jihad in the way of Allah so that Allah’s Word and religion reign Supreme. And it is the religion of unity and agreement on the obedience to Allah, and total equality between all people, without regarding their colour, sex, or language.

(b) It is the religion whose book – the Quran – will remain preserved and unchanged, after the other Divine books and messages have been changed. The Quran is the miracle until the Day of Judgment. Allah has challenged anyone to bring a book like the Quran or even ten verses like it.

(2) The second thing we call you to, is to stop your oppression, lies, immorality and debauchery that has spread among you.

(a) We call you to be a people of manners, principles, honour, and purity; to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling’s, and trading with interest.

We call you to all of this that you may be freed from that which you have become caught up in; that you may be freed from the deceptive lies that you are a great nation, that your leaders spread amongst you to conceal from you the despicable state to which you have reached.

(b) It is saddening to tell you that you are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind:

(i) You are the nation who, rather than ruling by the Shariah of Allah in its Constitution and Laws, choose to invent your own laws as you will and desire. You separate religion from your policies, contradicting the pure nature which affirms Absolute Authority to the Lord and your Creator. You flee from the embarrassing question posed to you: How is it possible for Allah the Almighty to create His creation, grant them power over all the creatures and land, grant them all the amenities of life, and then deny them that which they are most in need of: knowledge of the laws which govern their lives?

(ii) You are the nation that permits Usury, which has been forbidden by all the religions. Yet you build your economy and investments on Usury. As a result of this, in all its different forms and guises, the Jews have taken control of your economy, through which they have then taken control of your media, and now control all aspects of your life making you their servants and achieving their aims at your expense; precisely what Benjamin Franklin warned you against.

(iii) You are a nation that permits the production, trading and usage of intoxicants. You also permit drugs, and only forbid the trade of them, even though your nation is the largest consumer of them.

(iv) You are a nation that permits acts of immorality, and you consider them to be pillars of personal freedom. You have continued to sink down this abyss from level to level until incest has spread amongst you, in the face of which neither your sense of honour nor your laws object.

Who can forget your President Clinton’s immoral acts committed in the official Oval office? After that you did not even bring him to account, other than that he ‘made a mistake’, after which everything passed with no punishment. Is there a worse kind of event for which your name will go down in history and remembered by nations?

(v) You are a nation that permits gambling in its all forms. The companies practice this as well, resulting in the investments becoming active and the criminals becoming rich.

(vi) You are a nation that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools calling upon customers to purchase them. You use women to serve passengers, visitors, and strangers to increase your profit margins. You then rant that you support the liberation of women.

(vii) You are a nation that practices the trade of sex in all its forms, directly and indirectly. Giant corporations and establishments are established on this, under the name of art, entertainment, tourism and freedom, and other deceptive names you attribute to it.

(viii) And because of all this, you have been described in history as a nation that spreads diseases that were unknown to man in the past. Go ahead and boast to the nations of man, that you brought them AIDS as a Satanic American Invention.

(xi) You have destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases more than any other nation in history. Despite this, you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and*industries.

(x) Your law is the law of the rich and wealthy people, who hold sway in their political parties, and fund their election campaigns with their gifts. Behind them stand the Jews, who control your policies, media and economy.

(xi) That which you are singled out for in the history of mankind, is that you have used your force to destroy mankind more than any other nation in history; not to defend principles and values, but to hasten to secure your interests and profits. You who dropped a nuclear bomb on Japan, even though Japan was ready to negotiate an end to the war. How many acts of oppression, tyranny and injustice have you carried out, O callers to freedom?

(xii) Let us not forget one of your major characteristics: your duality in both manners and values; your hypocrisy in manners and principles. All*manners, principles and values have two scales: one for you and one for the others.

(a)The freedom and democracy that you call to is for yourselves and for white race only; as for the rest of the world, you impose upon them your monstrous, destructive policies and Governments, which you call the ‘American friends’. Yet you prevent them from establishing democracies. When the Islamic party in Algeria wanted to practice democracy and they won the election, you unleashed your agents in the Algerian army onto them, and to attack them with tanks and guns, to imprison them and torture them – a new lesson from the ‘American book of democracy’!!!

(b)Your policy on prohibiting and forcibly removing weapons of mass destruction to ensure world peace: it only applies to those countries which you do not permit to possess such weapons. As for the countries you consent to, such as Israel, then they are allowed to keep and use such weapons to defend their security. Anyone else who you suspect might be manufacturing or keeping these kinds of weapons, you call them criminals and you take military action against them.

(c)You are the last ones to respect the resolutions and policies of International Law, yet you claim to want to selectively punish anyone else who does the same. Israel has for more than 50 years been pushing UN resolutions and rules against the wall with the full support of America.

(d)As for the war criminals which you censure and form criminal courts for – you shamelessly ask that your own are granted immunity!! However, history will not forget the war crimes that you committed against the Muslims and the rest of the world; those you have killed in Japan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon and Iraq will remain a shame that you will never be able to escape. It will suffice to remind you of your latest war crimes in Afghanistan, in which densely populated innocent civilian villages were destroyed, bombs were dropped on mosques causing the roof of the mosque to come crashing down on the heads of the Muslims praying inside. You are the ones who broke the agreement with the Mujahideen when they left Qunduz, bombing them in Jangi fort, and killing more than 1,000 of your prisoners through suffocation and thirst. Allah alone knows how many people have died by torture at the hands of you and your agents. Your planes remain in the Afghan skies, looking for anyone remotely suspicious.

(e)You have claimed to be the vanguards of Human Rights, and your Ministry of Foreign affairs issues annual reports containing statistics of those countries that violate any Human Rights. However, all these things vanished when the Mujahideen hit you, and you then implemented the methods of the same documented governments that you used to curse. In America, you captured thousands the Muslims and Arabs, took them into custody with neither reason, court trial, nor even disclosing their names. You issued newer, harsher laws.

What happens in Guatanamo is a historical embarrassment to America and its values, and it screams into your faces – you hypocrites, “What is the value of your signature on any agreement or treaty?”

(3) What we call you to thirdly is to take an honest stance with yourselves – and I doubt you will do so – to discover that you are a nation without principles or manners, and that the values and principles to you are something which you merely demand from others, not that which you yourself must adhere to.

(4) We also advise you to stop supporting Israel, and to end your support of the Indians in Kashmir, the Russians against the Chechens and to also cease supporting the Manila Government against the Muslims in Southern Philippines.

(5) We also advise you to pack your luggage and get out of our lands. We desire for your goodness, guidance, and righteousness, so do not force us to send you back as cargo in coffins.

(6) Sixthly, we call upon you to end your support of the corrupt leaders in our countries. Do not interfere in our politics and method of education. Leave us alone, or else expect us in New York and Washington.

(7) We also call you to deal with us and interact with us on the basis of mutual interests and benefits, rather than the policies of sub dual, theft and occupation, and not to continue your policy of supporting the Jews because this will result in more disasters for you.

If you fail to respond to all these conditions, then prepare for fight with the Islamic Nation. The Nation of Monotheism, that puts complete trust on Allah and fears none other than Him. The Nation which is addressed by its Quran with the words: “Do you fear them? Allah has more right that you should fear Him if you are believers. Fight against them so that Allah will punish them by your hands and disgrace them and give you victory over them and heal the breasts of believing people. And remove the anger of their (believers’) hearts. Allah accepts the repentance of whom He wills. Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise.” [Quran9:13-1]

The Nation of honour and respect:

“But honour, power and glory belong to Allah, and to His Messenger (Muhammad- peace be upon him) and to the believers.” [Quran 63:8]

“So do not become weak (against your enemy), nor be sad, and you will be*superior ( in victory) if you are indeed (true) believers” [Quran 3:139]

The Nation of Martyrdom; the Nation that desires death more than you desire life:

“Think not of those who are killed in the way of Allah as dead. Nay, they are alive with their Lord, and they are being provided for. They rejoice in what Allah has bestowed upon them from His bounty and rejoice for the sake of those who have not yet joined them, but are left behind (not yet martyred) that on them no fear shall come, nor shall they grieve. They rejoice in a grace and a bounty from Allah, and that Allah will not waste the reward of the believers.” [Quran 3:169-171]

The Nation of victory and success that Allah has promised:

“It is He Who has sent His Messenger (Muhammad peace be upon him) with guidance and the religion of truth (Islam), to make it victorious over all other religions even though the Polytheists hate it.” [Quran 61:9]

“Allah has decreed that ‘Verily it is I and My Messengers who shall be victorious.’ Verily Allah is All-Powerful, All-Mighty.” [Quran 58:21]

The Islamic Nation that was able to dismiss and destroy the previous evil Empires like yourself; the Nation that rejects your attacks, wishes to remove your evils, and is prepared to fight you. You are well aware that the Islamic Nation, from the very core of its soul, despises your haughtiness and arrogance.

If the Americans refuse to listen to our advice and the goodness, guidance and righteousness that we call them to, then be aware that you will lose this Crusade Bush began, just like the other previous Crusades in which you were humiliated by the hands of the Mujahideen, fleeing to your home in great silence and disgrace. If the Americans do not respond, then their fate will be that of the Soviets who fled from Afghanistan to deal with their military defeat, political breakup, ideological downfall, and economic bankruptcy.

This is our message to the Americans, as an answer to theirs. Do they now know why we fight them and over which form of ignorance, by the permission of Allah, we shall be victorious?

Should Women Serve As Deacons? Seeking the Word and Will of God

Should Women Serve As Deacons?

Seeking the Word and Will of God

Dr. Jim Denison

The issue of women serving as deacons is either a very easy or a very difficult question. Some think that the Bible categorically forbids this recognition, while others argue for equal leadership rights for both genders regardless of what the Bible might teach on the subject. But many of us struggle with this issue and want to know what the Bible says. This essay is intended to provide an overview of this complex subject, including succinct statements of my interpretive positions on these passages.

Note that we are seeking not our will but God’s. Our opinions are not at the heart of the discussion, but God’s revealed word on the subject. So, what do the Scriptures teach on this issue? How should we apply their teaching to our churches and our lives?

Six biblical passages are considered by interpreters to relate directly to our discussion. The last five have been the subjects of very extensive scholarly interest, doctoral dissertations, and intense academic debate. It is not our purpose to discuss such scholarship in detail. Rather, we will study each passage briefly, consider the larger question of women in biblical leadership, review a very succinct history of this issue from the biblical era to the present, then draw conclusions for our churches and ministries.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”

Our first text speaks to the general question of God’s view of the genders. In Paul’s letter to the Galatian church, addressing Gentiles who came to Christ through his first missionary journey, the apostle includes the following good news:

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29).

Paul’s statement abolishes the inequality of women common to the first century. In a day when women were the property of their fathers or husbands, with no civil or personal rights or identity, the apostle makes clear that we are “all” the children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. Every barrier—Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female—must fall before the universal love of God.

As a result, our present discussion regarding women as deacons in no way calls into question the value of women to our faith or our churches. Whatever a person believes about the question before us, we must all agree that women are as loved by God as men, and equally important to our churches and our faith.

In addition, this passage is considered by some to relate directly to the question of women in leadership. It can be interpreted to mean that all Christians are equally free and called to ministry leadership, whatever their racial, ethnic, or gender distinctions. Or it can be read to support the equal standing of all people in God’s love but not God’s call to ministry. In other words, in this view women are as loved by God as men, but they are not given the same responsibilities in ministry leadership.

My position: I certainly recognize the fact that our text does not specifically assign leadership function to men or women, Jew or Greek, slave or free. At the same time, I would suggest that the “promise” (v. 29) to which men and women are heirs includes both salvation and service. Abraham’s covenant with God related not only to his eternal life but also to his work in sharing that grace with others. He was a conduit through whom God’s saving purpose would be extended to the world (Romans 4:18). In the same way, both men and women, Jews and Greeks, slave and free are called to share and lead in Kingdom ministry.

“Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea”

Now we come to one of two key passages related specifically to the question of women as deacons. Paul closes Romans 16 with a list of people worthy of commendation, and begins with a woman named Phoebe:

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me” (Romans 16:1-2).

Most interpreters believe that Paul was living in Corinth or Cenchrea (a coastal town just to the east) when he wrote the letter to the Romans, and that Phoebe helped carry Paul’s letter to its destination. And so the apostle recommends Phoebe to his letter’s recipients with wonderful praise: “she has been a great help to many people, including me” (v. 2).

Germaine to our discussion is his first description of Phoebe: “a servant of the church in Cenchrea.” “Servant” translates the Greek word diakonon, the same word translated in 1 Timothy 3:8, 10, 12, 13 and Philippians 1:1 as “deacon.” So, was Phoebe a “deacon” of the church at Cenchrea? If she was, does her position there bear relevance to our discussion now?

Arguments for Phoebe as a “deacon”

Many interpreters are convinced that diakonon in Romans 16:1 should indeed be translated and understood as “deacon,” not “servant.” James Dunn calls Phoebe “the first recorded ‘deacon’ in the history of Christianity.” He maintains that if Paul meant to identify her only as a “servant” he would have used diakoneo (cf. Ro. 15:25) or diakonia (cf. 1 Cor. 16:15). He believes that the phrase “of the church” points to a “more recognized ministry” or “position of responsibility within the congregation.”

A. T. Robertson, one of Baptists’ greatest Greek scholars, agrees: “In favor of the technical sense of ‘deacon’ or ‘deaconess’ is the addition of ‘of the church.’ In some sense Phoebe was a servant or minister of the church in Cenchreae.”

Greek scholar R. C. H. Lenski concludes: “Both the participle and the genitive [“being a servant of the church”] indicate that Phoebe occupied an official position by appointment of the church which was similar to that of the seven deacons who were appointed in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-6). She belongs to the class indicated by diakonia in 12:7. Her work of ministering was not mere private effort but was carried on by authorization of the congregation. It is only fair to assume that she was not the only one so appointed in Cenchreae; such an appointment was in all likelihood held by several women.”

Lenski adds, “This is the first mention of women deacons in the church. The way in which Paul introduces this deaconess to the Romans indicates that the fact that women serving in this office was not a novelty but something that was already known. While we lack information we must, nevertheless, say that, since the arrangement of having male deacons in Jerusalem had proven highly beneficial at the very start, the appointment of women was the next logical step.

The ministration of the first deacons consisted in the distribution of food to widows. But, surely, it must soon have become apparent that, for instance, in cases of sickness and of poverty and of loneliness, especially of poor widows and orphans, a need had arisen for the alleviation of which men could not be used; only competent women could serve in this capacity. Voluntary efforts would accomplish much, and in many churches they, no doubt, sufficed as they still do; but at least here in Cenchreae we see the forward step, the addition of duly appointed deaconesses.”

He concludes, “How the duties of the office were arranged and how it functioned we do not know beyond the one statement that it rendered ministering help for the sake of help. That is the heart of deaconess work today, its present form being a recent arrangement. From 1 Timothy 3:11, which was written a few years later, we see that there were many deaconesses in the Ephesian church; they are simply called ‘women,’ but the qualifications laid down match those required for male deacons.”

F. F. Bruce, the noted evangelical theologian, adds: “In a church context the word should be rendered ‘deacon,’ whether masculine or feminine. That the duties of a deacon could be performed by either men or women is suggested by 1 Timothy 3:11, where ‘the women’ are to be understood as ‘deacons’ (like the men of verses 3-10).” Presbyterian expositor Donald Grey Barnhouse agrees: “The Greek word which tells us that Phoebe was a ‘servant’ of the church is the word for ‘deaconness.'”

Thomas Schreiner, in an essay which takes a decidedly negative view regarding women in church leadership, nonetheless concludes, “In the New Testament, women functioned as prophets and probably deacons but not as elders.”

If Phoebe was a “deacon,” why did Paul use the masculine Greek word for her designation? For the simple reason that “woman deacon” (diakonissa) was not invented until the fourth century. He used the masculine form with the feminine name because it was the only designation for “deacon” available to him.

In conclusion, those who believe that Phoebe was a “deacon” suggest that there is no exegetical reason to exclude her from this ministry office. To the contrary, the Greek syntax seems to indicate that “being a servant of the church” referred to a formal, church-related position rather than a general role of “servant.”

Arguments for Phoebe as a “servant”

Those who believe that Phoebe should not be seen as a “deacon” in the sense we mean the office today can base their interpretation on two different assertions. First, since diakonon or diakonia can mean either “servant” or “deacon,” we must allow the context to determine which definition we will follow. Despite the argument from Greek syntax cited above, some argue that nothing in the context of Romans 16:1-2 requires that diakonon refer to a specific office rather than a servant function.

John Murray asserts: “Though the word for ‘servant’ is the same as is used for deacon . . ., yet the word is also used to denote the person performing any type of ministry. If Phoebe ministered to the saints, as is evident from verse 2, then she would be a servant of the church and there is neither need nor warrant to suppose that she occupied or exercised what amounted to an ecclesiastical office comparable to that of the diaconate. The services performed were similar to those devolving upon deacons. Their ministry is one of mercy to the poor, the sick, and the desolate. This is an area in which women likewise exercise their functions and graces. But there is no more warrant to posit an office than in the case of the widows who, prior to their becoming in charge of the church, must have borne the features mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:9, 10.”

William Barclay agrees: “Sometimes she is called a deaconess, but it is not likely that she held what might be called an official position in the Church.”

A second argument against Phoebe as a “deacon” asserts that the “office” of deacon or deaconess was less developed in the first century than it evolved to become in succeeding generations. James Dunn, while arguing that Phoebe was indeed a “deacon” of the church, adds that “it would be premature to speak of an established office of diaconate, as though a role of responsibility and authority, with properly appointed succession, had already been agreed upon in the Pauline churches. We are still at the stage of ministry beginning to take regular and formal shape . . . and the form in each case would depend very much on the context and needs of particular congregations.”

For these reasons, some interpreters are not certain if we should consider Phoebe to be a deacon or not. Robert Mounce concludes, “it is not certain whether this is an official title or a description of what she did.”

James Denney agrees: “It is not easy to translate diakonos, for ‘servant’ is too vague, and ‘deaconess’ is more technical than the original. Diakonia was really a function of membership in the Church, and Phoebe might naturally be described as she is here if like the house of Stephanas at Corinth (1 Cor. 16:15) she had given herself ‘unto the service of the saints.’ That is, a life of habitual charity and hospitality, quite apart from any official position, would justify the name diakonos. On the other hand it must be remembered that the growth of the Church, under the conditions of ancient society, soon produced ‘deaconesses’ in the official sense, and Phoebe may have had some recognized function of diakonia assigned to her.”

Everett Harrison is similarly ambivalent: “Phoebe is called a ‘servant’ of this church. The same word can be rendered ‘deaconess’ (RSV, JB). Men were serving as deacons about this time (Phil 1:1), and before long women were being referred to in a way that suggests they held such an office in the church (1 Tim 3:11), though the word ‘deaconess’ is not used in that passage. In any event, Paul is not stressing office but service, as we gather from v. 2.”

My position: Phoebe was in fact a female “deacon,” not simply a “servant” of the church in Cenchrea. I agree with Dunn that Paul’s vocabulary points to an office more than a function, and that the syntax of his phrase indicates that she served in an official capacity within the church at Cenchrea.

“A deacon must be the husband of but one wife”

The second New Testament passage which appears to relate directly to the question of women deacons is found within Paul’s instructions to Timothy:

“Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3:8-13).

Two questions within this text pertain specifically to our discussion. First, if “deacons” were to be “the husband of but one wife,” how can women be “deacons”? Does this injunction not limit the office of deacon to men?

How can a woman be the “husband of one wife”?

At the heart of the issue is the phrase, “the husband of but one wife.” The Greek is best translated literally, “a one-wife-at-a-time man,” speaking to the issue of polygamy rather than divorce.

Paul was concerned here about the public witness of deacons. In his day, divorce was tragically common and not typically seen as damaging to one’s witness. But polygamy, while also common, was very destructive to Christian witness and example. And so Paul condemned polygamy for deacons, not divorce.

Given that this phrase refers to polygamy, it is clear that Paul would need to apply it only to male deacons. Women were not permitted to marry more than one husband. Thus, there would be no reason for the apostle to forbid women deacons from polygamy. And so he addressed only male deacons in this regard.

Were these “wives” or women deacons?

A second question within this passage concerns the “wives” of deacons (v. 11). The Greek word is gunaikas, translated “women” or “wives.” Some believe that the women in question were in fact “deaconesses” (the NIV provides this alternate translation in its footnote on the verse).

Several assertions support this interpretation:

• “In the same way” may link “women” to “deacons” (v. 10), so that Paul is referencing women deacons or deaconesses. A large percentage of scholars would seem to favor this interpretative conclusion.

• “Their” is missing in the Greek, lessening the possibility that the women in question are “their wives” or even “wives.” Likewise, Paul could have added diakonon to specify that they were “deacon wives,” but did not.

• No special qualifications are listed for the wives of overseers (vs. 1-7), making it unlikely that Paul provided a special list of attributes for the wives of deacons but not overseers/elders/pastors.

• No special list of qualifications is provided for these women. If they were deaconesses, we might assume that the previous characteristics (vs. 8-10) apply to them also. If they were not, it is hard to know why their character requirements are not described in more detail.

• Paul did not use “female deacons” (diakonissa) because the word had not yet been invented, and was thus forced to use gunaikas to designate women.

On the other hand, some interpreters believe that the women in question are in fact the “wives” of the deacons. They point out that deacons are described in vs. 8-10 and 12-13, making this insertion regarding their wives appropriate to the discussion.

Still others suggest that these women constitute a third class of leaders—neither deacons nor their wives. But it is hard to understand why Paul would insert this one verse introducing a new category of service in the midst of a discussion of deacons.

My position: Paul’s instructions in this text prohibit men or women from serving as deacons if their marital lives are damaging to their witness. In the immediate context his injunction relates specifically to polygamy. By application, his principle relates to any lifestyle patterns which damage ministry leadership. Even if verse 11 is understood to relate to “wives” rather than female deacons, nothing in this passage prohibits women from serving in this office. And the text seems in fact to refer to (and implicitly endorse) this practice.

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent”

As we have seen, some who consider Phoebe to be a deaconess do not believe that this office constituted a position of leadership in the apostolic church. They affirm the formal role of deaconesses as servants, but not as leaders. Three passages relate to this larger question of women in church leadership. We will consider each briefly.

“I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (1 Tim. 2:9-15).

Here Paul clearly forbids “a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (v. 12). If this injunction is to be interpreted without qualifications, it certainly prohibits a woman from assuming a leadership role such as deacon in our church. But it also forbids women to serve as a trustee, lead a committee, teach a class where men are present, or perhaps lead musically in worship where men participate. Some churches do in fact enforce such prohibitions.

Before we assume that we are wrong to engage women in such leadership positions, or that this text prohibits women from serving as deacon leaders, let’s examine the historical context of this passage. The Bible can never mean what it never meant.

Paul is writing Timothy as he pastors the Christian community of Ephesus, on the western coast of Asia Minor. Five questions make clear the context and intended meaning of this passage.

What is the situation behind our text?

The apostle is concerned about issues related to public worship in Ephesus. He speaks to the dress and appearance of women (v. 9), and encourages “good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (v. 10). What circumstances in Ephesus could give rise to these concerns?

Remember that the Temple of Diana, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was the most prominent institution in Ephesus. Diana was the pagan goddess of fertility. Thousands of prostitutes were employed by the Temple for men to use in their “worship” of this goddess.

Paul’s concern for appearance with “decency and propriety” contrasts with the shameful, immodest dress of these prostitutes. The apostle’s reference to women’s dress is not repeated in his letters to other churches, signifying that he considered the situation in Ephesus to be distinct and worthy of special attention. This fact further illustrates the uniqueness of Paul’s instructions in this text.

What activity does Paul address?

Women must have been speaking in the Ephesian worship services, or Paul would not have addressed this situation (v. 12). In Ephesus Paul wants women to “learn” (v. 11a, a present tense verb translated “continue to learn”) biblical truth, a significant departure from the Jewish norm. But he also wants them to learn “in quietness and full submission” (v. 11b), for they are to “be silent” (v. 12).

Note that the Greek word for “silent” does not require a total ban on speech. For instance, “Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:12, where “settle down” is the same word as “silent” in our text).

We are all commanded to live “quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:2). Paul’s word (hesuchia) does not only mean “do not speak,” but also “be still” or “be receptive.” If the apostle wanted to silence women completely, he would have used sigao. And note that “be submissive” can relate to the message which is being taught, not necessarily the person who is teaching.

It seems clear that Paul wanted the Ephesian women not to disrupt the worship services in which they participated, but to listen receptively to what was being taught. Given the role of temple prostitutes in leading “worship” in that city, it is no surprise that the apostle would do all he could to help Ephesian Christians avoid any public identification of their worship with such immorality.

Who are the “man” and “woman” in our text?

These Greek words can easily be rendered “husband” and “wife” throughout these verses. Aner (“man” or “husband”) and gyne (“woman” or “wife”) are found in close proximity 54 times in 11 different contexts; each time the terms bear the meanings “husband” and “wife” rather than “man” and “woman.” Paul would likely have used anthropos rather than aner if he meant to speak about man in relation to woman; he could have used arsen (“man”) and thelys (“woman”), as he did in Romans 1:26f.

Thus it seems that Paul here refers to husbands and wives in the context of public worship. And so a wife is not to “have authority over a husband” when they are in public worship together, but must be submissive spiritually (v. 12).

What does it mean for women not to “have authority over a man”?

It may be that Paul warns against women leading in public worship in Ephesus. But an alternative explanation has received attention in recent years. “To have authority over a man” (v. 12) can also be rendered, “to lead into sexual immorality.”

In this reading, Paul does not prohibit women from leading men, but from leading them into sin. Given the temple prostitution rampant in Ephesus, it is understandable that the apostle would be concerned especially with such behavior in that city.

What does it mean that “women will be saved through childbirth”?

Paul closes our text with the assurance that “women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (v. 15). This is one of the most problematic phrases in Scripture, as the following possible interpretations make clear:

• “Saved through childbearing” can refer to physical safety rather than spiritual salvation.

• The phrase can refer to bearing “the” child, i.e., the Messiah (though most scholars dismiss this approach).

• The phrase could mean that mothers are saved socially from engagement in many of the ills of their day by becoming mothers and investing in their families.

• It could be that Paul here refutes the ascetic, antisexual beliefs of some of his opponents who have rejected marriage (cf. 1 Tim. 4:3).

• If “have authority over a man” refers to sexual immorality, “women will be saved through childbearing” can be interpreted, “even if she bears a child in prostitution, she can still be saved through faith, love, and holiness with propriety.”

• And the phrase can be translated, “she will be saved even though she must bear children.”

Whatever the meaning behind this difficult phrase, it is clear that Paul does not here demean women or subordinate them to men. Bearing children is both a physical and a spiritual responsibility.

My position: in the public worship of the Ephesian church, wives were to learn biblical truth from their husbands in quietness and full submission. For them to take a leadership role would have been damaging to their witness in a city filled with temple prostitutes. Thus Paul’s teaching here does not contradict his endorsement of women who “prophesy” in 1 Corinthians 11:5 (to be discussed below). Nor does it prohibit women from serving in leadership in other churches and contexts, including the ministry of deacons.

“Women should remain silent in the churches”

A second text related especially to the question of women in ministry leadership:

“As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (1 Cor. 14:33-36).

As with the passage previously studied, if this text is to be applied without qualifications, it must forbid all speech by women in church. They are not to teach anyone, even children or members of their own gender. They are not to sing in the choir, serve on a committee, or engage in any ministry which requires speech. But again, consideration of the context makes this text clear and relevant to our discussion.

Here’s the setting: “women” and “husbands” are present in public worship. The “women” (v. 34) are clearly married to the “husbands” of verse 35. These wives, who typically had received less biblical instruction, were apparently disrupting the public worship services by “inquiring” (v. 35a) or asking questions about what was being said. They are not to voice these questions during worship, but “ask their own husbands at home” (v. 35b).

Earle Ellis, one of Baptists’ foremost biblical interpreters, believes that Paul here refers to the wives of husbands who are speaking in public. Asking questions of her husband’s message in public would shame him and disrupt the entire worship service. D. A. Carson adds that Paul may be referring to the need for the church to “weigh carefully” what prophets say (1 Cor. 14:29). Perhaps wives are participating in this function in disruptive ways, or are even questioning the prophetic messages their own husbands are delivering.

My position: wives are not to disrupt the worship service they attend. They are to be “in submission” to the message being preached, whether by their husbands or by other church leaders. Given the inequality of education in Paul’s day, he directed his instruction to women. His principle would apply equally to wives and husbands today—neither should disrupt worship with their questions about the message. This text does not subjugate women to men, or forbid them from serving as deacons or in other leadership roles.

“Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head”

A third text relates to the question of women in ministry leadership:

“Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of god; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head” (1 Cor. 11:4-10).

“Prophecy” here refers to public proclamation, “preaching” in our vernacular. The biblical “prophets” were more often forthtellers than foretellers, though they were sometimes given a message from God regarding the future. And “prays” in this text refers to public worship, as Paul is concerned with the public appearance of those who lead in this activity.

At issue: women who “pray or prophecy” with their heads uncovered. In Jewish society, women were to cover their heads as a sign that they were under authority; their yashmak demonstrated their moral purity and protected them from slander and gossip. And so a woman who prays or preaches in public must cover her head lest she distract others and invite accusations of impropriety.

Alternately, many interpreters now believe that the issue lay not with head coverings but with hair styles. Propriety demanded that women bind their hair in public, as pagan women often wore their hair unbound and tossed their heads wildly in the worship of Isis, Cybele, and Dionysius. Akatakaluptos (“uncovered”) then refers to unbound hair, not uncovered heads. Wearing their hair with propriety gave women freedom and authority to pray and preach in public without being accused of pagan practices.

This passage is relevant for our discussion, since Paul clearly addresses the Corinthian practice of utilizing women in public worship leadership to pray and/or preach. He has every opportunity to criticize this practice, but chooses instead to speak only to public propriety in fulfilling this function. His principle applied today would be that women (and men) in worship leadership ought to dress and act in ways which do not distract from worship or dishonor the Lord.

My position: Paul addressed and implicitly endorsed the role of women in preaching and praying in public worship.

Biblical examples of women in authority

The passages studied thus far seem to indicate:

• Women and men are equally loved by God, and may be equally called to ministry leadership (Gal. 3:26-29)

• Phoebe was a deacon of the church in Cenchrea (Ro. 16:1-2)

• Women deacons were required to fulfill the same character requirements as male deacons (1 Tim. 3:3-13)

• Women in Ephesus were not to lead in public worship, lest their activity be confused with that of pagan temple prostitutes (1 Tim. 2:9-15); this passage does not relate directly to the question of women serving in leadership elsewhere

• Wives in Corinth were forbidden to disrupt the message (perhaps delivered by their husbands) during public worship (1 Cor. 14:33-36); this passage neither prescribes nor prohibits women in leadership in other places and/or contexts

• Women who prayed or preached in public were to wear their hair modestly; alternatively; they were to wear proper head coverings (1 Cor. 11:4-10)

Now, how did the apostolic church practice these principles? Do we have evidence for or against women serving in ministry leadership in the New Testament era?

Ephesians 4:11 lists the primary leadership offices in the apostolic church:

• Apostles

• Prophets

• Evangelists

• Pastor/teachers (some interpreters separate these functions, though the Greek syntax seems to indicate that both descriptions relate to the same office and/or ministry)

Philippians 1:2 adds the office of “deacons”: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.” Interpreters are nearly universal in their belief that the function of deacons initiated in Acts 6 had become a formal office by this time in Philippi (though Paul does not address “deacons” in any other church, speaking to this office/ministry only in his instructions in 1 Timothy 3).

We have already noted the likelihood that Phoebe served the church at Cenchrea as a deacon. Did women serve also as apostles, prophets, evangelists, and/or pastor/teachers?

Women as apostles

Included in Paul’s list of greetings and commendations in Romans 16 is this statement:

“Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was” (Ro. 16:7). “Junias” is Jounian in the Greek, the accusative form; in the nominative it may be either male (Junias) or female (Junia). However, the masculine form has been found nowhere in literature, while over 250 examples of “Junia” have been discovered.

The female form was assumed by commentators from the patristic era to the Middle Ages. James Dunn argues that rendering this name by the masculine “is a striking indictment of male presumption regarding the character and structure of earliest Christianity.” It seems clear that Paul referenced Junia, as “outstanding among the apostles.”

It is possible to interpret this latter phrase as “prominent in the eyes of the apostles.” However, the Greek syntax and phrases “strongly suggest that Adronicus and Junia belonged to the large group (larger than the twelve) of those appointed apostles by the risen Christ in 1 Cor. 15:7.”

Of course, Paul’s inclusion of Junia among the “apostles” does not mean that she was part of the original Twelve. Rather, it signifies the fact that she became one of the significant leaders of the Christian church in the years following Jesus’ ascension, so that she and Andronicus were “apostles” of the Christian church.

Women as prophets

Paul instructed women to wear their hair appropriately (or, alternatively, to cover their heads) when they prophesied or preached in public worship (1 Cor. 11:4-10), clear indication that women served in this role in Corinth. Old Testament precedent for women as prophet/preachers includes Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14). Anna (Luke 2:36) and Philip’s four daughters (Acts 21:9) are New Testament examples of women who prophesied or preached.

Women as evangelists

Philip was an evangelist (Acts 21:8); his daughters’ preaching ministries may have been evangelistic in nature as well. Priscilla and her husband Aquila “explained to [Apollos] the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). And Mary Magdalene was the first person entrusted with the task of telling others the good news of Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:17-18). It seems clear that women served in the vital role of sharing God’s good news with the lost world.

Women as pastor/teachers

Here the biblical evidence is less clear. We know that Priscilla and her husband Aquila hosted a church in their home (Romans 16:3-5); this function may have indicated that they served as the congregation’s pastor(s). Note that Priscilla is typically listed before her husband in the New Testament record, perhaps indicating that she was the more prominent ministry leader. And Lydia sponsored a church in her home (Acts 16:40), perhaps indicating that she served as the congregation’s pastoral leader.

Beyond these instances, we have no clear biblical evidence for or against women serving as pastor/teachers. Paul’s instruction that “overseers” must be “the husband of but one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2) prohibited polygamy for those in this role (as did the same phrase with regard to deacons in v. 12). As we noted when discussing this passage, women were unable to marry more than one husband in Paul’s day. As a result, this instruction would have been unnecessary with regard to woman pastors; it assuredly does not prohibit their service in this role.

One reason this question is ambiguous in the biblical record is that the function of “pastor” itself is open to interpretation. The only time the Greek word translated “pastor” is so rendered is in Ephesians 4:11, where no gender identification is made. Every other use of this word is rendered “shepherd” in the New Testament.

Evidence against women serving as pastor may be asserted by studying other words associated by most Baptists with the office of pastor. “Overseers” (episkopos) and “elders” (presbuteros) were responsible for general leadership of the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:5-7; 1 Peter 2:25).

Those who follow the “episcopal” church governance model elevate “bishops” as leaders responsible for churches and pastors. Those in the “presbyterian” model assign a group of “elders” the responsibility for church leadership, the “preaching pastor” among them. (Note that many churches and denominations which recognize “elders” include women among them today.)

Baptists, however, consider these titles to be synonyms for the “pastor” of the church. We note Acts 20:17, where Paul called the “elders” of the Ephesian church together. He then addressed them as “overseers” and “shepherds” of the church (v. 28). Titus 1 speaks of “elders” (vs. 5-6) and “overseers” (v. 7) in apparently synonymous ways.

Here’s the point regarding women and church leadership: in his letter to Titus, Paul refers to the “overseer” or “elder” in the masculine throughout his discussion of this role (vs. 5-9), not only with regard to the issue of polygamy (v. 6). If the overseers/elders in Crete were also the “pastors” there, Paul apparently recognized only males in this office.

Those who advocate women as pastors are quick to remind us that these titles may or may not relate to the office of “pastor” as we know it today. And they note that Paul’s description to Titus is by no means a prescription against females in this role. Nowhere does the Bible prohibit the ministry of women as pastors, on Crete or elsewhere. It may be that women served in this role in other places in the Kingdom, and even that they eventually came to such leadership on Crete as well.

Paul is quick to commend women who serve in significant ways within local churches, functions which may or may not have been pastoral in nature. For instance, the apostle refers to Euodia and Syntyche as women who “contended at my side in the cause of the gospel” (Philippians 4:3). He reminds the Romans that Mary “worked very hard for you” (Romans 16:6). And he commends Tryphena and Tryphosa as “women who work hard in the Lord” (Ro 16:12a), as did Persis (v. 12b).

My position: no biblical text clearly describes women serving as pastors in the New Testament era, but no text prohibits such ministry, either. This decision must be left to each church as it seeks the will of God for its pastoral leadership.

Historical considerations

Before we come to personal and practical conclusions, we should note the way Christians across our faith history have addressed the subject of women as deacons.

Women deacons in early Christianity

Deaconesses were common in early Christianity: “Certainly in the early Church there were deaconesses. They had the duty of instructing female converts and in particular of presiding and attending at their baptism, which was by total immersion.” They “performed for the women of the early Church the same sort of ministrations that the deacons did for the men,” since “the strict separation of the sexes made something like deaconesses necessary for baptism, visiting the women, etc.”

This office was “opened to pious women and virgins, and chiefly to widows, a most suitable field for the regular official exercise of their peculiar gifts of self-denying charity and devotion to the welfare of the church.” Schaff maintains that Phoebe was a deacon, and considers it “more than probable” that Priscilla, Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Romans 16) were deacons as well.

Several early documents attest to the fact that women served commonly as deacons:

• Pliny the Younger, in correspondence with the emperor Trajan (A.D. 112) describes one means by which he sought to extract information about Christianity: “I thought it therefore the more necessary to try and find the truth of the matter by torture as well, (and that) from two female slaves who were called Deaconesses. I discovered nothing more than a perverse and contumacious superstition.”

• Origen (died A.D. 254) describes deaconesses as those who have given “assistance to many, and, by their good works, have deserved the praise of the apostles.”

• Clement of Alexandria (died A.D. 215) likewise speaks of women who accompanied the apostles and shared their ministry “so that the Lord’s teaching could penetrate women’s quarters without giving scandal.”

• The third-century Didascalia Apostolorum describes the office of deaconess as fully intact, and gives the impression that deaconesses have been recognized for many years. It restricts their duties, however, to serving the needs of the women in the church, including baptism and anointing, teaching new converts, and visiting sick women.

• The fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions adds that deaconesses are to be “a pure virgin; or, at the least, a widow who has been but once married, faithful, and well esteemed.”

Robinson’s study of the subject concludes, “The office of Deaconess . . . is legislated for in two of the general Councils, and is mentioned by all the leading Greek Fathers and historians of the fourth and fifth centuries. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Epiphanius, Chrysostom, Theodoret and Sozomen all bear testimony to the flourishing condition of the Order. They have preserved to us the personal history of several of its members, and have shown how important was the position they occupied and the service they rendered to the Church.”

However, as this role evolved (primarily in the Eastern or Byzantine Church), a strong separation emerged between deacons and deaconesses. The liturgical tasks of the latter were much more restricted than the former: they could only baptize under the supervision of the priest; and they were never allowed to teach or preach in public.

Roman Catholic theologian Aime Georges Martimort concludes, “the ancient institution of deaconesses, even in its own time, was encumbered with not a few ambiguities, as we have seen. In my opinion, if the restoration of the institution of deaconesses were indeed to be sought after so many centuries, such a restoration itself could only be fraught with ambiguity. The real importance and efficaciousness of the role of women in the Church has always been vividly perceived in the consciousness of the hierarchy and of the faithful as much more broad than the historical role that deaconesses in fact played. And perhaps a proposal based on an ‘archaeological’ institution might even obscure the fact that the call to serve the Church is urgently addressed today to all women, especially in the area of the transmission of Faith and works of charity.” Thus Martimort argues that women should be given important places of ministry in the Church today, regardless of their limited role as “deaconesses” in history.

Women deacons in Baptist history

“Separate Baptists” (Baptists which supported the revivalistic efforts of the First Great Awakening) regularly ordained women deacons as well as female preachers. Women served as deacons and deaconesses, and sometimes preached, among seventeenth century English Baptists and in the American South. Baptists apparently ordained women as elders and deaconesses in the eighteenth century, as Morgan Edwards’ 1774 work, Customs of Primitive Churches, indicates. But the overall role of women in Baptist leadership diminished in this century.

In the nineteenth century, R. B. C. Howell believed that both Scripture and ministry practice warranted the inclusion of deaconesses in Baptist churches. Dr. Howell was an architect of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a writer of vast influence. His book, The Deaconship, Its Nature, Qualifications, Relations, and Duties was most significant on this subject. He studied Romans 16:1, 1 Tim. 5:9-10, 1 Tim. 3:11 and concluded, “Take all these passages together, and I think it will be difficult for us to resist the conclusion that the word of God authorizes, and in some sense, certainly by implication, enjoins the appointment of deaconesses in the churches of Christ…Deaconesses, therefore, are everywhere, as necessary as they were in the days of the apostles.”

J. R. Graves, an extremely conservative and influential Southern Baptist leader, agreed that “there is no doubt in the minds of Biblical and ecclesiastical scholars, that in the apostolic churches women occupied the office of the deaconship…Phoebe was a deaconess of the church in Cenchrea.” He added, “There is no good reason why saintly women should not fill the office of deaconess to-day in most churches. In fact, they often perform the duties of the office without the name.”

While acceptance of female deacons was fairly common in the nineteenth century, some opposed the practice, and it was often debated at state and local conventions. For instance, B. H. Carroll recognized women deacons in First Baptist Church of Waco, Texas. He thought that 1 Tim. 3:11 should be translated “women deacons” and not “wives.”

However, Carroll believed that women deacons in the Bible were not ordained to this role but appointed. And he insisted that they were not to preach. His belief that women should be appointed to deacon service but not ordained to this position has provoked some debate on the subject. Frank Stagg and other historians have argued that the formal “ordination” of deacons is difficult to demonstrate biblically, whether with men or women. Leon McBeth notes that Charles Spurgeon refused any kind of ordination, claiming that “a commission from God outranked any from men.”

On the other hand, Henry Wheeler argues that women deacons were ordained by the early church in the same manner as were men. And the “Apostolic Constitutions,” a document dating from the second to the fourth century, describes in detail such an ordination service for women deacons.

English Baptists have evolved the role of deaconesses into pastoral functions with full ministerial status. And since 1956, Baptists in New Zealand have included theological instruction for women deacons in their theological colleges.

Leon McBeth, one of Baptists’ most noted historians, concludes, “The evidence suggests that in the nineteenth century many Southern Baptists approved deaconesses and regarded the offices as biblical. Moreover, at least some churches acted upon these views and regularly set aside deaconesses as well as deacons. Probably Southern Baptist churches have never been without deaconesses. Though somewhat in decline, the acceptance of deaconesses persisted into the present century. One finds numbers of Southern Baptist churches with deaconesses in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and of course recently the practice is being revived.” He later refers to a “spectacular upsurge in the number of women deacons among Southern Baptists.”

“Deaconess” and “women deacons”

The preceding discussion could lead us to believe that Baptists have historically affirmed women as deacons in the same way we understand men to fulfill this role. However, such has not always been the case. “Deaconesses” have sometimes served in a subordinate role to “deacons.” Some appointed rather than ordained them (cf. Carroll’s model), and used them primarily to minister to women and children. McBeth finds that “the deaconess, for most of Baptist history, has had different duties and a status distinctly inferior to men deacons.” He cites Howell’s opinion that the office of deaconess is biblical, but “they are optional and are merely appointed rather than ordained.”

But McBeth adds, “Recent developments . . . mark a significant shift in the status of women set apart for the diaconate. For the most part, Baptist churches today are not appointing deaconesses in the subordinate sense of that word, but women deacons who are elected, ordained, and assigned the same duties as men. Women deacons today do whatever deacons do, whether administration, policy recommendations, or serving the Lord’s Supper. They meet with deacons, rather than in separate groups as deaconesses usually do. In short, today’s Southern Baptist woman deacon is a deacon in the fullest sense.”

Baptists today

If women served commonly as deacons in earlier generations of Baptist life, why are they less common today? As Southern Baptists evolved the function of deacons from ministry to management, women were less frequently asked into this role. Other facts include adverse reaction to the suffragette movement; the formation of the WMU, which gave women alternate avenues of service; and the rise of the modern church committee structure, which allowed women to perform the same work they had done as deaconesses. While recent years have seen an upswing in the popularity of ordaining women as deacons, Baptist opinion on the subject is far from uniform.

Leon McBeth described in 1979 a “mushrooming new role for Baptist women, that of church deacon. While exact numbers are not to be had, apparently some hundreds of Southern Baptist churches now ordain women deacons, and the number is growing rapidly. Perhaps the total number of Southern Baptist women deacons runs into the thousands.”

He offered this explanation for the growth of this trend: “Almost without exception, Southern Baptist churches that have ordained women as deacons report that the experience has been beneficial beyond all expectations. One church in North Carolina was reported to have rescinded an earlier vote to ordain women: most churches that ordain women regard the change as an unqualified success. Reports that women make effective deacons and that churches that have them are benefited, not destroyed, may have more to do with growth of the practice than theology.”

He added, “This [movement] probably means some changes in the historic role of Baptist deacons. For most of the twentieth century the deacons have been regarded, and regarded themselves, more or less as the board of managers of a Baptist church. Visitation, enlistment, and ministry to those in need have at times almost been lost from sight. However, there seems to be a move today to recover the ministry of the diaconate. Perhaps the ordination of women as deacons will help recover the caring aspect of their work.”

W. A. Criswell, in The Doctrine of the Church, also believed that “there is clear evidence that the early church recognized an office of deaconess as early as the third century.” Dr. Criswell stated that diakonos is “rarely used as an official title”; the women of 1 Tim. 3:11 may be deaconesses or the wives of deacons, but “certainty about either interpretation is not possible”; and that “the New Testament does not otherwise mention an office of deaconess.”

But he added, “On the positive side, however, there appears to have existed a quasi-official position of service for women in the first-century church. Such a position is suggested openly with regard to widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-6. Because the ministry of the deacons to unmarried women could give rise to difficult situations, it is possible that some godly women were set apart to help in that area. The Scriptures do not reveal how their ministry might have been handled. The records of the early post-apostolic church make plain, however, that the early church recognized such an office. Whether or not a church interprets the Scriptures to allow for deaconesses, the ministry of godly women is essential if the needs of all believers are to be met.”

Personal conclusions

We have surveyed briefly those Scriptural passages which relate most directly to the question of women as deacons and church leaders. I believe the biblical evidence indicates that Phoebe was a deacon of the church at Cenchrea, and that this office was part of Paul’s description of deacons in 1 Timothy 3.

Nothing in 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Corinthians 14 prohibits women serving in ministry leadership in the larger Church today; indeed, 1 Corinthians 11:4-10 seems clearly to endorse their role in preaching and praying in public worship. We find evidence in the New Testament era of women serving as apostles, prophets, evangelists, and possibly as pastor/teachers. Deaconesses or women deacons were recognized as a ministry office by the post-apostolic church, and have been affirmed by generations of Baptists as well.

These conclusions certainly provide support for the decision to ordain women as deacons in our churches. However, they do not mandate such a decision. While no biblical text prohibits women from serving as deacons, note that no biblical text requires a church to ordain women to this role. Even Romans 16:1-2, the clearest evidence in Scripture of women as deacons, does not prescribe this practice for other churches. And Paul’s instructions to Timothy do not prescribe that deacons (male or female) be ordained in other churches. We simply find little discussion of “deacons” in the Bible, and no command or prescription that men or women be ordained to this role in any church.

One of the cherished principles of Baptist heritage is that each church is independent. No church’s practice or prescription carries authority with any other congregation. Since the Bible neither requires nor prohibits women serving as deacons in the Church, we are left to make our own decision as a local congregation.

I believe that women should be ordained as deacons for the following strategic and practical reasons. First, ordination to the diaconate is the most significant way most churches recognize congregational leaders. While we know that other roles are vitally important (i.e, Sunday school teachers and officers, worship leaders, trustees, committee chairs and members), no other roles carry congregational endorsement and recognition equal to that of deacon.

To deny godly women such affirmation seems wrong to me, especially given the strong evidence for this affirmation in the Bible, and in Christian and Baptist history. The signal we send is that our churches do not value the servant leadership of women as fully as it affirms men.

Second, when deacons serve in public roles (as in helping administer the Lord’s Supper and leading in congregational business), many see the absence of women as indication that the church devalues their place in ministry. Since there is no biblical or historical reason to deny women this ministry function, we convey the clear impression to others that women are less valuable to the church and her public ministries.

And as Baptist churches grow increasingly diverse, welcoming membership from a variety of denominations which recognize women as deacons, it becomes more and more difficult to explain to these members why we do not affirm women in this role in our churches.

Third, I believe women serving as deacons will help churches fulfill our Great Commission purpose more obediently. Their insights and experiences will help them formulate the most effective strategies for congregational and community ministry. They will help their church relate more effectively to women, mothers, and families. In these crucial days, churches need the spiritual engagement of the entire congregation as they assault the gates of hell together (Matthew 16:18). Ordaining women as deacons will help deacons serve their church and their Commission more effectively.

May the Spirit guide you to know and to obey your Father’s will in this matter, as you seek to glorify his Son and to extend his Kingdom around the world.

Suicide, Scripture, and the Grace of God

Suicide, Scripture,

and the Grace of God

Dr. Jim Denison

More people die from suicide than from homicide in America. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for those aged 15-24, and is most common among those aged 65 years and older. Suicide rates among the elderly are highest for those who are divorced or widowed. In the last half-century, the suicide rate among adolescents and young adults has nearly tripled.

These are some of the facts regarding the tragedy of suicide. However, you are likely reading this essay because this subject is more personal than objective for you. I hope the following conversation can help.

I am writing as a pastor and theologian, not a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. I will offer a brief overview of our subject from a biblical and theological perspective, with some practical suggestions at the conclusion of our conversation. But if suicide is a very real issue for you, I urge you to seek professional help immediately. Our pastoral care staff can support you in finding the assistance you need, today.

Much confusion abounds in our society regarding the theological and spiritual dimensions of suicide. Is this the “unpardonable sin”? Can those who take their lives still be in heaven? Why does God permit such a tragedy? How can faith sustain us in this hardest of all times?

The history of suicide

The term “suicide” is traced in the Oxford English Dictionary to 1651; its first occurrence is apparently in Sir Thomas Browne’s Religion Medici, written in 1635 and published in 1642. Before it became a common term, expressions such as “self-murder” and “self-killing” were used to describe the act of taking one’s own life.

In Greek and Roman antiquity, suicide was accepted and even seen by some as an honorable means of death and the attainment of immediate salvation. Stoics and others influenced by them saw suicide as the triumph of an individual over fate. Socrates’ decision to take his own life rather than violate the state’s sentence of execution influenced many to see the act as noble. However, he also made clear that we belong to the gods and cannot end our lives unless they wish it so (Plato, Phaedo 62bc).

Many of the early Christians knew they would likely die for their faith, but chose to follow Christ at any cost. These deaths are not usually considered “suicide,” since they were not initiated by the person but accepted as a consequence of his or her commitment to Jesus.

Augustine (A.D. 354-430) was the strongest opponent of any form of self-murder (cf. City of God 1:4-26). He appealed to the Sixth Commandment and its prohibition against murder. And he agreed with Socrates that our lives belong to God, so that we have no right to end them ourselves. Over time, many in the Church would see self-murder as an unpardonable sin (see the discussion of the Catholic Church’s position below).

In the nineteenth century, social scientists began to view suicide as a social issue, and as a symptom of larger dysfunction in the community and/or home. Medical doctors began to identify depression and other disorders behind the act. Suicide became decriminalized, so that the individual could be buried, his family not disinherited, and a survivor not prosecuted.

Many are confused about this difficult subject, as our society and its churches have adopted such a wide variety of positions on it. So let’s discuss biblical teachings on the issue, the Catholic position, a Baptist response, and practical help for those dealing with this tragic issue.

The Bible and suicide

God’s word does not use the word “suicide,” but it has much to say on our subject.

Biblical occurrences

The Old Testament records five clear suicides:

When Abimelech was mortally wounded by a woman who dropped a millstone on his head, he cried to his armor-bearer to kill him so his death would not be credited to the woman (Judges 9:54).

The mortally wounded King Saul fell upon his own sword lest the Philistines abuse him further (1 Samuel 31:4).

Saul’s armor-bearer then took his own life as well (1 Samuel 31:5).

Ahithophel hanged himself after his advice was no longer followed by King David’s son Absalom (2 Samuel 17:23).

Zimri set himself afire after his rebellion failed (1 Kings 16:18).

Additionally, some consider Jonah to have attempted suicide (Jonah 1:11-15). And Samson destroyed the Philistine temple, killing himself and all those with him (Judges 16:29-30). But many do not see this as a suicide as much an act of military bravery.

The death of Judas is the only clear example of suicide in the New Testament (Matthew 27:3-10). Paul later prevented the suicide of the Philippian jailer and won him to Christ (Acts 16:27-28).

Some consider Jesus’ death to have been a kind of suicide, since he made clear: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18; all references are from the New International Version). However, as the divine Son of God, he could only have been killed, by any means, with his permission.

Biblical principles

God’s word makes clear the sanctity of life:

“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

“This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

“The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

“No one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:29).

There are times when believers may have to give their lives in the service of Christ and his Kingdom (cf. Mark 8:34-36; John 13:37; Philippians 1:21-22). But voluntary martyrdom is not usually considered “suicide.”

Our postmodern culture believes that absolute truth does not exist (itself an absolute truth claim). In a nontheistic or relativistic society, it is difficult to argue for life and against suicide. If we are our own “higher power,” we can do with our lives what we want.

But if God is the Lord of all that is, he retains ownership over our lives and their days. He is the only one who can determine when our service is done, our intended purpose fulfilled. It is the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture that our lives belong to their Maker, and that we are not to end them for our own purposes.

Suicide and the Catholic Church

Does this fact mean that suicide costs Christians their salvation? Most of the theological questions I have been asked in this regard relate in some way to the Catholic Church’s teachings on the subject. The Catholic Catechism contains several statements regarding suicide and mortal sin (all italics are in the original).


On suicide, the Church does not maintain that taking one’s own life always leads to eternity in hell, as these statements make clear:

#2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

#2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

#2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

#2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

Mortal sin

The Church maintains a distinction between “mortal” and “venial” sins. The former separate us from God’s grace; the latter, while serious, do not. The Catechism states:

#1037 God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

#1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

#1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.

#1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.

#2268 The fifth commandment forbids direct and intentional killing as gravely sinful. The murderer and those who cooperate voluntarily in murder commit a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance.

#1470 …it is only by the road of conversion that we can enter the Kingdom, from which one is excluded by grave sin. In converting to Christ through penance and faith, the sinner passes from death to life and “does not come into judgment.”

Theological results

From the above statements the following principles of Catholic theology seem clear:

We cannot be sure of the spiritual state of the person who commits suicide. This person may be suffering from “grave psychological disturbances” which “can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (#2282). Mortal sin requires “full knowledge and complete consent” (#1859), and can be diminished by unintentional ignorance (#1860).

Thus the Church “should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives” (#2283).

However, if the person was fully aware of his or her actions, without suffering “grave psychological disturbances,” this person committed murder, an act which is “gravely sinful” (#2268).

A person who commits a mortal sin and demonstrates “persistence in it until the end” goes to hell (#1037).

Since a person who commits self-murder (suicide) cannot then repent of this sin, it is logical to conclude that this person cannot be saved from hell. However, the Catechism nowhere makes this conclusion explicit.

Suicide and the security of our salvation

Most Baptists (and most Protestants) do not believe that it is possible for a Christian to lose his or her salvation, even if that person commits suicide. Here is a summary of the typical Baptist position on the subject of “eternal security.”

Know what you can know

The Bible assures us, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). A literal translation would be, “We can actually and with full assurance know intellectually and personally that we have eternal life.” This phrase does not mean that we gradually grow into assurance, but that we can possess here and now a present certainty of the life we have already received in Jesus.

But first we must “believe in the name of the Son of God.” “Believe” means more than intellectual assent–it is the biblical word for personal trust and commitment. I can assent to the fact that an airplane will fly me from Dallas to Atlanta, but I must get on board before it can. No surgeon can operate on the basis of intellectual assent–we must submit to the procedure.

If you have, you can claim the biblical fact that you “have eternal life,” present tense, right now. You are already immortal. Jesus promised, “whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26). We simply step from time into eternity, from this life to the next.

Nowhere does the Bible say how it feels to become the child of God, because our feelings can depend on the pizza we had for supper or the weather outside the window. No circumstances or events can guarantee our salvation. It takes as much faith to believe I am a Christian today as it did to become one more than thirty years ago. I still haven’t seen God, or proven my salvation in a test tube. If I had, I could question the reality and veracity of what I saw or thought. So could you.

Either the Bible is true or it is false. Either God keeps his word or he does not. He promises that if you “believe in the name of the Son of God,” you “have eternal life” This moment. You cannot lose your salvation, for you are already the immortal child of God. This is the fact of God’s word.

What about “falling from grace”?

Those who believe that it is possible to trust in Christ and then lose our salvation are quick to quote Hebrews 6:4-6. These interpreters assume that the text speaks of people who have experienced a genuine conversion, then “fall away” (v. 6). They typically believe that such a person needs another salvation experience. But others disagree.

Some believe that the writer is stating a hypothetical case: if genuine Christians “fall away,” then “it is impossible” for them “to be brought back to repentance” (vs. 4, 6). Not that they can in fact fall from salvation, but if they could, they could not be saved again. Note that if the text deals with a Christian who actually falls from faith, it teaches that the person has no chance to be saved again.

Others (myself among them) believe that the writer is speaking not of a Christian but of someone who considers the faith, perhaps even joining a church, but then rejects Christ. If such a person persists in unbelief, he cannot then be saved. If a person claims that he once trusted Christ but does so no more, I would believe that he was never a genuine Christian.

The Bible seems clearly to teach that a Christian is forever the child of God:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).

“Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26).

What about the “unpardonable sin”?

Jesus has just healed a demon-possessed man. The crowds think he might be the Messiah, but the Pharisees say that he drives out demons by the devil himself. So Jesus responds, “the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matthew 12:31). He repeats his warning: “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (v. 32).

Peter could deny Jesus, Thomas could doubt him, and Paul could persecute his followers, yet they could be forgiven. But “blasphemy against the Spirit” cannot be forgiven, now or at any point in the future. This is the “unpardonable sin.”

So, what is this sin? Let’s set out what we know. We know that Christians cannot commit this sin. 1 John 1:9 is clear: “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” “All” means all. No sin is unpardonable for a Christian.

We know that this sin relates to the work of the Holy Spirit in regard to unbelievers. Jesus is warning the Pharisees, those who rejected him, that they are in danger of this sin. So what does the Spirit do with non-Christians?

He convicts them of their sin and need for salvation: “When [the Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin, and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me” (John 16:8-9).

He tells them about Christ their Savior: “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 15:26).

He explains salvation: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

When they confess their sins and turn to Christ, the Spirit makes them God’s children: “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. . . . And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Romans 8:9, 11).

In short, the Holy Spirit leads lost people to salvation.

So we know that it is the “unpardonable sin” to refuse the Spirit’s work in leading you to salvation. To be convicted of your sin and need for a savior, but refuse to admit it. To be presented the gospel but reject it.

Why is this sin unpardonable? Because accepting salvation through Christ is the only means by which our sins can be pardoned. It is “unpardonable” to reject the only surgery which can save your life, or the only chemotherapy which can cure your cancer. Not because the doctor doesn’t want to heal you, but because he cannot. You won’t let him. You have rejected the only means of health and salvation.

The unpardonable sin is rejecting the Holy Spirit’s offer of salvation, and dying in such a state of rejection. Then you have refused the only pardon God is able to give you. Don’t do that. Be sure you have made Christ your Lord, today.

Suicide and salvation

To conclude this part of our conversation: no verse of Scripture connects suicide with our eternal destiny. If this act could cause us to lose our salvation, I believe the Bible would make that fact clear. To the contrary, we can neither earn nor lose our salvation by human actions: “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Suicide is a tragedy for all involved, including our Father in heaven. But the Bible nowhere teaches that it costs Christians their salvation.

Suicide and the grace of God

Those who consider suicide, and those who lose someone to it, often struggle with the presence of God in the midst of such pain. Why does he allow such suffering?

“How can a good God allow bad things to happen” is a problem as old as the Garden of Eden and the flood of Noah, Christian theologians have wrestled with it all through the history of our faith. Five basic approaches have been proposed most often.

The free-will theodicy

Augustine (AD 354-430) is usually considered the greatest Christian theologian after Paul. His approach to the problem of evil and suffering can be summarized as follows:

God created all that is.

All that he created is good.

Before the fall, evil was therefore “non-being,” potential to be chosen but not yet reality.

God created humanity with freedom of will.

We used this freedom to choose evil.

Our choice brought evil into existence, absolving God of blame.

There is much in Scripture to commend Augustine’s approach. God gave us freedom of will (Genesis 3:15-17; Exodus 32:26; Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua 24:15; 1 Kings 18:21). We were given this freedom so we could choose God and good (Matthew 4:10; Proverbs 1:10; 4:14; Romans 6:13; Ephesians 6:13; 2 Peter 3:17). Our free choice for wrong led to evil (James 1:13-15; 4:1). All people are now sinners (Romans 3:23). Our sin has resulted in a fallen world (Genesis 3:17; Romans 8:22).

Whenever evil is the product of our sinful choices, Augustine’s approach explains its existence without blaming God. Applied to the question of suicide, this position would remind us that the Sovereign of the universe has chosen to limit himself to our God-given freedom. If we misuse our freedom, the fault is not with God but ourselves.

However, this approach does not account adequately for innocent suffering. Augustine would argue (correctly) that a tsunami is the product of a world which “fell” because of sin. But he could not explain why it would devastate Southeast Asia rather than some other part of the planet, or why so many innocent children would be affected. A philosopher will also ask, if man was created good by nature, why did he choose to sin? If God gave us freedom of will and knew how we would choose to use it, is he not responsible for its use (at least to some degree)?

Related to suicide caused by clinical depression, this approach cannot explain why such a disease has to exist, or why it had to affect the person in question. The free-will approach helps us understand why a person who chooses to abuse alcohol might die in a drunk driving accident. But it doesn’t explain why the innocent driver of the other car had to die as well.

The spiritual warfare model

Satan is very real. He murders and lies (John 8:44). He accuses the people of God (Job 1:9-11), resists the godly (Zechariah 3:1; Matthew 13:38-39), and tempts us to sin (1 Chronicles 21:1; Matthew 4:1). He has power over unbelievers (Acts 26:18; 2 Corinthians 4:3-4). He is a “roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

As a result, much of the evil and suffering in the world is attributable to his malignant work. Paul was clear: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

However, not all suffering is the direct result of Satan’s work. We live in a fallen world, in which natural disasters and disease are inevitable. People misuse their free will, as we have seen. God permits some suffering for our greater good (see the third approach). Satan would like us to attribute all evil to him, giving him too much power; or blame nothing on him, pretending he doesn’t exist. The right approach is to ask the Lord if there is a Satanic component to our suffering, and trust that he will guide us to the truth. If we are under attack, we can claim the power of God over our enemy and find victory in his Spirit and strength.

In relating this approach to the question of suicide, we can know that Satan is a “murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). He wants to destroy us. He will use our freedom to tempt us, but he cannot make us commit suicide. The choice is still ours

The soul-building model

Irenaeus (ca. AD 120-ca. 200) proposed an alternative approach to our problem:

God created us to develop into perfect relationship with himself.

He created the world as a place for that development.

Evil is thus necessary as a means of our spiritual development (“soul-building”).

The Bible does teach that some suffering comes from God (Deuteronomy 8:5; Job 16:12; Psalm 66:11; 90:7). We know that suffering can lead to good (Job 23:10; Psalm 119:67; 2 Corinthians 4:17; Hebrews 12:11; Revelation 7:14). Suffering can lead us to repentance (Jeremiah 7:3, 5, 7), and can refine us (Psalm 66:10; Isaiah 48:10; Malachi 3:3; 1 Peter 1:7; 4:17). Pain enables us to witness to our faith in God despite the hurt (2 Peter 2:12, 15; 3:15-16). And so God promises to use even difficult experiences for our good, to make us more like Jesus (Romans 8:28-29).

Irenaeus explains how evil could exist before Adam and Eve chose it. His approach also affirms the hope that God can redeem any suffering for his glory and our good. Problems with this approach include the fact that the “fall” it pictures is not as catastrophic as the event described in Genesis 3.

The amount of evil in the world seems disproportionate to the present good; for instance, it is hard to argue that the lessening of anti-Semitism which resulted from the Holocaust justifies the horrors of that tragedy. This approach also struggles with the existence of Hell, since it is not a soul-building or redemptive reality.

As related to suicide, this approach may help us understand that God can redeem depression for his glory and our good. He can even use the horrific tragedy of a suicide to help people follow him in faith. He did not cause this pain, but he can redeem it.

The eschatological model

“Eschatology” deals with the future. Applied to theodicy, this approach asserts that evil will be resolved in the future, making present suffering endurable and worthwhile. Jesus promised that life leads to life eternal in glory (John 14:1-6), a paradise beyond our imagination (Revelation 21:1-5). We need not consider the present sufferings worth comparing with the glory to be revealed (Romans 8:18).

As a philosophical model, this approach offers the guarantee of absolute rational understanding. We do not comprehend the purpose of suffering now, but we will one day (1 Corinthians 13:12). All our questions will be answered. All the reasons why God has permitted suffering in our lives will be clarified. Our present faithfulness will be redeemed with future reward in glory (Revelation 2:10).

This approach does not offer explanation in the present. And some might wonder how this promise of future hope makes present courage possible. But it does promise that the questions we cannot answer today will have their answers one day.

The existential model

The last model is more practical than theoretical: God suffers as we suffer, and gives us strength to withstand and even redeem our pain. The Bible affirms this assertion (2 Corinthians 4:1, 16; Ephesians 3:13; Hebrews 12:5; Revelation 2:3). God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4). He weeps as we weep (John 11:35). Jesus experienced every temptation and pain we feel (Hebrews 4:15). He is present with us now in the sufferings of life (Deuteronomy 20:1; Psalm 34:18; Isaiah 43:2; Daniel 3:24-25; 12:6-7; Acts 16:25-26).

Philosophically, this approach is not a true theodicy. It offers no real explanation for the origin or existence of suffering. But it does provide the practical assurance that our Father walks with his children through the hardest places of life, and will never allow us to face more than he will give us the strength to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Your Father suffers as you suffer. If you feel pain, so does he. He knows what it is to lose a child, for he lost his Son on the cross. He will walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) until he leads us all the way home.

Practical principles

When the tragedy of suicide strikes, how can this theological discussion help us in practical ways? Here are steps to take in the worst storms of life.

First, utilize the free-will approach to examine the origin of this suffering. Is there sin to admit? Is this pain in some way the result of misused freedom? If you are not sure, you may ask the Father. Where sin is part of the problem, we can claim God’s forgiving grace (1 John 1:9) and make restitution to others when doing so is to their good (Luke 19:8). But do not assume that suffering is always the fault of sin. Joseph, Job, and Jesus are clear evidence to the contrary.

Second, use the soul-building model to ask: what can you learn from this situation? How can you grow closer to God through this pain? Strive to be open to every source from which this spiritual growth can come–ask friends for counsel, seek the Spirit in prayer and Scripture, worship God even (especially) when it’s hard. Stay close enough to Jesus to hear his voice and feel his transforming touch.

Third, use the future hope approach to ask: how can God redeem this present suffering for future good? How can he use your witness to touch the lives of people you may not even know? How will he reward your present faithfulness in the future and in glory? You may not be able to see the future, but you can believe that it is real.

Last, utilize the existential model to trust God’s help in the midst of your pain. Know that he loves you, no matter how the world assesses or treats you. He will always be your Father, if you have asked Jesus Christ to be your Lord. Nothing can take you from his hand (John 10:28). He will enable you to get through this dark night, until the dawn finally comes.

Above all, make certain that you have entered a personal relationship with your Creator and Father. Be sure that you have asked him to forgive your sins and failures, and to become your Lord and Savior.

This simple prayer captures the essence of a salvation commitment: “Dear Lord, thank you for loving me. Thank you for sending your Son to die on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins. I turn from them now, and ask you to forgive me for them. I invite Jesus Christ into my life as my Savior and Lord. I turn my life over to him. I will live for him as long as I live. Thank you for making me your child forever. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

If you prayed this prayer for the first time just now, please tell a Christian you can trust. As God’s child, you need to be part of his family. His church can help you grow in your faith and stand with you in the hard times of life. Whomever you trust with your decision to follow Jesus, know that you are now the child of God for all eternity.

For those considering suicide

People consider suicide when the pain they feel exceeds their ability to cope with it. They want to end their suffering, and think that ending their lives will bring relief.

A trained professional is the very best person to speak with someone who is considering suicide. If you know someone who is feeling that they cannot go on, or if you’re feeling that way yourself, the best thing you can do is speak with a counselor. That person can help find ways to decrease the pain or discover ways of coping with it. Our church staff can make recommendations, as can the various help lines which are available by telephone or Internet today.

In the meanwhile, it is important to know that it is possible to get through this. Feeling suicidal does not require that we act on our feeling. The best thing to do immediately is to create some space. If we decide not to act on our feelings for even a few minutes or a day, we can find the strength to seek help. By seeking help we can deal with the pain and find the hope we need.

Warning signs

More than 90% of those who commit suicide suffered from a significant psychiatric illness at the time of their death. Chronic major depression is by far the leading cause of suicide. This brain illness causes the person not to think as healthy people think, and often leads him or her to believe that suicide is the only way to stop the pain. Alcohol or drug use compound this problem and increase the risk of suicide greatly.

Common indicators that a person needs immediate help:

Those who threaten to hurt or kill themselves, or talk of wanting to hurt or kill themselves.

Those looking for ways to kill themselves by seeking access to firearms, available pills, or other means.

Those talking or writing about death, dying or suicide, when these actions are out of the ordinary for them.

Research has identified these specific risk factors for suicide:

Previous suicide attempt(s)

History of mental disorders, particularly depression

History of alcohol and substance abuse

Family history of suicide (depression is often genetic)

Family history of child maltreatment

Feelings of hopelessness

Impulsive or aggressive tendencies

Barriers to accessing mental health treatment

Loss (relational, social, work, financial, etc.)

Physical illness

Easy access to lethal methods

Unwillingness to seek help due to stigma attached to mental health, substance abuse disorders, or suicidal thoughts

Cultural and religious beliefs, such as the belief that suicide is a noble way to die

Local epidemics of suicide

Isolation, a sense of being cut off from others.

If you or someone you know matches these characteristics, it is vital to seek qualified help today.

Protective factors

The following indicators help buffer people from the risks associated with suicide:

Effective clinical care for mental, physical, and substance abuse disorders

Easy access to clinical interventions and support for those seeking help

Family and community support

Support from ongoing medical and mental health care relationships

Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, and nonviolent ways of handling disputes

Cultural and religious beliefs which discourage suicide and encourage self-preservation instincts.

Help those you care about to experience these positive influences, and you’ll do much to prevent the tragedy of suicide.


This essay has discussed some of the most difficult subjects in all of faith and life. We have considered the tragedy of suicide in historical, biblical, theological, and practical perspective. Let’s conclude with a promise which applies to you and every person you know, and most especially to those affected by this tragic issue:

Fear not, for I have redeemed you;

I have summoned you by name; you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.

When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;

the flames will not set you ablaze.

For I am the Lord, your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your Savior (Isaiah 43:1-3).

No matter how deep the water or hot the fire, he is still our Father. This is the promise of God.

Sources consulted

Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition English translation.

www.cdc.gov/ncipc (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control).

J. T. Clemons, “Suicide,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) 4:652-3.

A. J. Droge, “Suicide,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 6:225-31.

Milton A. Gonsalves, Fagothey’s Right and Reason: Ethics in Theory and Practice, 9th ed. (Columbus: Merrill Publishing Company, 1989) 246-8.

www.save.org (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education).

www.suicidology.org (American Association of Suicidology).

Tsunamis, Tragedy, and God

Tsunamis, tragedy, and God:

Where is our Father when his children hurt?

Dr. Jim Denison

Why does a good God allow bad things to happen to good people? The tragedy of tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, and hurricanes are only the most recent events to call into question God’s love, his power, or both. September 11, 2001, and the Holocaust of the previous generation, are equally problematic for those who believe God is all-powerful and all-loving. And each of us bears our own burdens, faces our own suffering and pain. A college professor said to me, “Son, be kind to everyone, because everyone’s having a hard time.”

What is the question?

In theological language, we are dealing with the issue of “theodicy” (from Greek words for God–theos, and justice–duke). “Theodicy” was coined by the philosopher Wilhelm Leibniz in 1710. He defined his term, “The question of the compatibility of metaphysical, physical, and moral evil in the present world order with the justice and absolute power of God” (Leibniz, Theodicee, my translation).

The Bible is willing to ask Leibniz’s question of its Author. Habakkuk complained to the God who allowed the devastation of his people at the hands of the Babylonians: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habakkuk 1:3). Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

The medieval theologian Boethius provided the classic expression of our problem: “If God exists, from whence comes evil?” The pessimistic philosopher Schopenhauer spoke for many: “The shortness of life, so often lamented, may perhaps be the very best thing about it.”

Christians are especially susceptible to this issue, because we believe three apparently contradictory facts to be equally true:

God is all-loving.

God is all-powerful.

Evil exists.

As the Stoic philosopher Epicurus observed, the “solutions” to this dilemma are four:

God wants to remove evil but is unable.

God is able but unwilling.

God is both able and willing; why doesn’t he?

God is neither able nor willing.

Can we defend the third approach with intellectual honesty? If so, how?

Popular but wrong approaches

The easiest way to “solve” the problem of evil and suffering is to deny or minimize one of its three conditions. Regarding the love of God, we can agree with the ancient Stoics that everything is fated by God. They claimed that we are all dogs tied to carts. We can trot alongside the cart, or be dragged by it, but we’re going with the cart.

The ancient Greeks saw their gods as capricious and immoral, Zeus throwing lightning bolts at those who displeased him. A common secular viewpoint today is that life is random coincidence, that if there is a “God” he has little interest in us. He is a clockmaker, watching his creation wind down.

We can also deny or minimize the power of God. Dualism argues that evil is coequal with good. From ancient Zoroastrianism to today, it has been popular to see God and Satan, good and evil locked in a battle for supremacy. J. S. Mill asserted that God is limited in his power; he loves us, but cannot do everything he would wish to help us. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his kind and sympathetic bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, agrees that even God is not able to do everything he wants to do.

A third wrong approach is to minimize the nature or existence of evil. The Hindu tradition views evil as maya, illusion. The ancient Greeks saw evil as the product of the material world, to be escaped through ascetic discipline and philosophical reflection. The Buddhist worldview treats evil as the product of wrong desires. Hinduism likewise believes that suffering results from wrong choices, as the karma we deserve.

One other wrong “solution” is to deny the existence of God altogether. David Hume, the 18th century “father of skepticism,” proposed this syllogism:

If God exists, he must be loving and powerful and thus eradicate evil.

Evil exists.

Therefore God does not exist.

While atheism says there is no God, “agnosticism” (from the Greek gnosis, knowledge, and a, no) asserts that we cannot know if he exists or not. Alternately, the “soft” agnostic admits that he or she does not (or cannot) know, without claiming that such knowledge is impossible for us all.

The existence of evil and suffering has perhaps motivated more people to question or reject the existence of God than any other factor.

Historical approaches

Since theodicy is a problem as old as the Garden of Eden and the flood of Noah, Christian theologians have wrestled with it all through the history of our faith. Five basic approaches have been proposed most often.

The spiritual warfare model

Satan is very real. He murders and lies (John 8:44). He accuses the people of God (Job 1:9-11), resists the godly (Zechariah 3:1; Matthew 13:38-39), and tempts us to sin (1 Chronicles 21:1; Matthew 4:1). He has power over unbelievers (Acts 26:18; 2 Corinthians 4:3-4). He is a “roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

As a result, much of the evil and suffering in the world is attributable to his malignant work. Paul was clear: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

However, not all suffering is the direct result of Satan’s work. We live in a fallen world, in which natural disasters and disease are inevitable. People misuse their free will (see the second approach below). God permits some suffering for our greater good (see the third approach). Satan would like us to attribute all evil to him, giving him too much power; or blame nothing on him, pretending he doesn’t exist. The right approach is to ask the Lord if there is a Satanic component to our suffering, and trust that he will guide us to the truth. If we are under attack, we can claim the power of God over our enemy and find victory in his Spirit and strength.

The free-will theodicy

Augustine (AD 354-430) is usually considered the greatest Christian theologian after Paul. His approach to the problem of evil and suffering can be summarized as follows:

God created all that is.

All that he created is good.

Before the fall, evil was therefore “non-being,” potential to be chosen but not yet reality.

God created humanity with freedom of will.

We used this freedom to choose evil.

Our choice brought evil into existence, absolving God of blame.

There is much in Scripture to commend Augustine’s approach. God gave us freedom of will (Genesis 3:15-17; Exodus 32:26; Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua24:15; 1 Kings 18:21). We were given this freedom so we could choose God and good (Matthew 4:10; Proverbs 1:10; 4:14; Romans 6:13; Ephesians 6:13; 2 Peter 3:17). Our free choice for wrong led to evil (James 1:13-15; 4:1). All people are now sinners (Romans 3:23). Our sin has resulted in a fallen world (Genesis 3:17; Romans 8:22).

Whenever evil is the product of our sinful choices, Augustine’s approach explains its existence without blaming God. However, it does not account adequately for innocent suffering. Augustine would argue (correctly) that the tsunami is the product of a world which “fell” because of sin. But he could not explain why it would devastate Southeast Asia rather than some other part of the planet, or why so many innocent children would be affected. A philosopher will also ask, if man was created good by nature, why did he choose to sin? If God gave us freedom of will and knew how we would choose to use it, is he not responsible for its use (at least to some degree)?

The free-will approach helps us understand why a person who chooses to abuse alcohol might die in a drunk driving accident. But it doesn’t explain why the innocent driver of the other car had to die as well.

The soul-building model

Irenaeus (ca. AD 120-ca. 200) proposed an alternative approach to our problem:

God created us to develop into perfect relationship with himself.

He created the world as a place for that development.

Evil is thus necessary as a means of our spiritual development (“soul-building”).

The Bible does teach that some suffering comes from God (Deuteronomy 8:5; Job 16:12; Psalm 66:11; 90:7). We know that suffering can lead to good (Job 23:10; Psalm 119:67; 2 Corinthians 4:17; Hebrews 12:11; Revelation 7:14). Suffering can lead us to repentance (Jeremiah 7:3, 5, 7), and can refine us (Psalm 66:10; Issiah 48:10; Malachi 3:3; 1 Peter 1:7; 4:17). Pain enables us to witness to our faith in God despite the hurt (2 Peter 2:12, 15; 3:15-16). And so God promises to use even difficult experiences for our good, to make us more like Jesus (Romans 8:28-29).

Irenaeus explains how evil could exist before Adam and Eve chose it. His approach also affirms the hope that God can redeem any suffering for his glory and our good. Problems with this approach include the fact that the “fall” it pictures is not as catastrophic as the event described in Genesis 3. The amount of evil in the world seems disproportionate to the present good; it is hard to argue that the lessening of anti-Semitism which resulted from the Holocaust justifies the horrors of that tragedy. This approach also struggles with the existence of Hell, since it is not a soul-building or redemptive reality.

The eschatological model

“Eschatology” deals with the future. Applied to theodicy, this approach asserts that evil will be resolved in the future, making present suffering endurable and worthwhile. Jesus promised that life leads to life eternal in glory (Jn 14:1-6), a paradise beyond our imagination (Revelation 21:1-5). We need not consider the present sufferings worth comparing with the glory to be revealed (Romans 8:18).

As a philosophical model, this approach offers the guarantee of absolute rational understanding. We do not comprehend the purpose of suffering now, but we will one day (1 Corinthians 13:12). All our questions will be answered. All the reasons why God has permitted suffering in our lives will be clarified. Our present faithfulness will be redeemed with future reward in glory (Revelation 2:10).

This approach does not offer explanation in the present, however. And some might wonder how this promise of future hope makes present courage possible.

The existential model

The last model is more practical than theoretical: God suffers as we suffer, and gives us strength to withstand and even redeem our pain. The Bible affirms this assertion (2 Corinthians 4:1, 16; Ephesians 3:13; Hebrews 12:5; Revelation 2:3). God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4). He weeps as we weep (John 11:35). Jesus experienced every temptation and pain we feel (Hebrews 4:15). He is present with us now in the sufferings of life (Deuteronomy 20:1; Psalm 34:18; Isaiah 43:2; Daniel 3:24-25; 12:6-7; Acts 16:25-26).

Philosophically, this approach is not a true theodicy. It offers no real explanation for the origin or existence of suffering. But it does provide the practical assurance that our Father walks with his children through the hardest places of life, and will never allow us to face more than he will give us the strength to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Practical principles

When the tsunami strikes, how can this theological discussion help us in practical ways? Here are steps to take in the storms of life.

First, utilize the free-will approach to examine the origin of suffering. Is there sin to admit? Is this pain in some way the result of your own misused freedom? If you are not sure, you may ask the Father. Take some time, a pen and paper, and invite the Spirit to show you anything wrong between you and God. Write down whatever comes to mind. This “spiritual inventory” is a useful regular practice. Confess specifically and genuinely whatever the Spirit reveals to you. Claim his forgiving grace (1 John 1:9). Make restitution to others when doing so is to their good (Luke 19:8). But do not assume that suffering is always your fault. Joseph, Job, and Jesus are clear evidence to the contrary.

Second, use the soul-building model to ask: what can you learn from this situation? How can you grow closer to God through this pain? Strive to be open to every source from which this spiritual growth can come–ask friends for counsel, seek the Spirit in prayer and Scripture, worship God even (especially) when it’s hard. Stay close enough to Jesus to hear his voice and feel his transforming touch.

Third, use the future hope approach to ask: how can God redeem this present suffering for future good? How can he use your witness to touch the lives of people you may not even know? How will he reward your present faithfulness in the future and in glory? You may not be able to see the future, but you can believe that it is real.

One of my seminary professor explained the value of future hope this way: imagine that you are struggling financially (an easy thing for most seminary students to do). You’re sitting down to a dinner of beans and hot dogs, when a knock comes at the door. A messenger is there with a letter notifying you that your very wealthy uncle will die in the next few days, and you will inherit a million dollars. You return to your beans and hot dogs, but don’t they taste better?

Last, utilize the existential model to trust God’s help in the midst of your pain. Know that he loves you, no matter how the world assesses or treats you. He will always be your Father, if you have asked Jesus Christ to be your Lord. Nothing can take you from his hand (John 10:28). He will enable you to withstand this trial, until the day he takes you home to glory.


I will never respond to an issue of more practical or perennial relevance than this one. Even when the tsunami in Southeast Asia is a distant tragic memory, there will be another disaster in the news, and in our lives. The biblical and theological principles we have discussed are approaches to the various kinds of suffering we experience. But the enduring hope and strength to face our trials with courage comes from the God we trust and serve.

He promises that nothing can separate us from his love–not death or life, angels or demons, the present or the future, height or depth or anything else in all creation (Romans 8:38-39). We are never beyond the reach of his grace.

Now, where do you need his help and hope today? What hurting friend or family member is in need of God’s love expressed through yours? God is all-loving and all-powerful, even though (and especially when) evil exists. This is the reasoned conclusion of our theological discussion. And far more important, it is the promise of God.

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