Atheism Failed Me – Part 2

Think deeply – and honestly – with me for a moment.

(In 2015, I posted a blog titled, Atheism Failed Me.  I further that conviction here.)

I just finished reading Bertrand Russell’s speech given after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Of course, Russell was a brilliant philosopher and avowed atheist, known for his book (which i have in my library), Why I Am Not a Christian.

As I read philosophers who possess an atheistic worldview I never cease to be surprised at reading nothing the Bible hasn’t already addressed. It was philosophy professor, Paul Copan, who, when asked who is favorite philosopher was, replied, “Jesus.”

Copan cites another brilliant philosopher, Douglas Groothuis,

who presents Jesus of Nazareth as a rigorous philosopher. Groothuis defines a philosopher as “one having a strong inclination to pursue truth about philosophical matters.” These philosophical matters include “life’s meaning, purpose, and value as they relate to all the major divisions of philosophy”—especially the areas of knowledge (epistemology), ultimate reality (metaphysics), and ethics. A philosopher’s task is accomplished “through the rigorous use of human reasoning and . . . with some intellectual facility.”

In addition to Russell, I own books by the great philosophers Nietzsche, Hume, Descartes as well as contemporary philosophers like NYU’s Nagel.   Further, I enjoy listening to the brilliant, contemporary physicist, Sean Carroll, of Cal Tech.  All of these men hold to an atheistic worldview.

After my son, Jordan, took his life in 2013, I was through with God and experienced what I describe as “situational atheism.”

I went back and re-studied the writings of the atheistic philosophers mentioned above.

But, atheism failed me.

The more I read, the clearer it became: these men don’t have life any more figured out than anyone else.

Then, what began leading me back to my faith in God took place as I was standing in my driveway one hot summer afternoon. I remember the moment distinctly. I glanced up at the hot son and thought, “Why is the sun 93 millions miles away and not closer, or farther? How did the sun land where it did?” My rational argument for the existence of a creator quickly gave way to a philosophical question: Why did the sun land where it did?”

In regard to Jordan, atheism failed me because (1) it gave me nowhere to place my rage, anger, confusion, depression, hopelessness, etc. And, (2) it offered me no hope of seeing my son again. In short, it made life meaningless.

Contrarily, the Cross offered all of this, and more. It offered me, both, a place to put my pain, and then it offered me hope for meaning in life – and the afterlife. In a sense, I could hear Christ whisper to me, “I’ve got this, Nick. Trust me. Life on earth is painful. But, because I suffered for you, it will not always be this way. I love you, my child.”

Never forget: atheism, like Christianity, is a faith worldview. Further, in my opinion, atheism requires far more faith than the Christian faith.

It was former ardent atheist and Yale Law School grad, Lee Strobel, who said,

“To continue in atheism, I’d need to believe nothing produces everything, non-life produces life, randomness produces fine-tuning, chaos produces information, unconsciousness produces consciousness, and non-reason produces reason. I just didn’t have that much faith.”

It’s a brilliant plan God has set in place, really. By faith, we choose our worldview and hold fast to hope that it’s true. But, it’s not until the nanosecond after we die that we discover who’s right. It’s known as Pascal’s Wager, set forth by the 17th century physicist and mathematician, Blaise Pascal. Personally, based on the mountain of evidence for the existence of God, I’m not willing to wager that the Bible’s a lie.

Contrary to what “internet atheists” spout, the Christian faith is an intelligent, rational faith. Which is why, numerous times, God tells us in the Bible, “Test me. Examine me. And make your decision.”

Even the renowned British, atheist philosopher, Antony Flew, as he put it, chose to “abide by Plato’s Socrates and follow the argument where it leads.” It led him to a decision that rocked the atheistic world: given the overwhelming evidence, he decided God existed.

Lastly, I have always believed that it’s not Christ that affects one’s choice to deny God’s existence, but rather, Christians. We can be horribly pathetic advertisements for the love and goodness of God.

When confronted with the evidence for a Creator, even the most intelligent skeptics are commonly left wondering, “I’ve never thought about that” (see video clip below).

Please consider taking 9 1/2  minutes and watch this video clip. Both the Christian giving the interviews and the atheists with whom he’s visiting are very kind. To me, it’s always refreshing listening to civil discourse related to typically controversial topics.

For Narnia, Nick

Maranatha

“Maranatha”

This Aramaic word, used once in the New Testament of the Bible, meaning “Lord, come,” is used in Paul’s closing words in his first letter to the Corinthians.

In another letter written by Paul, after addressing the return of Christ, Paul wrote, “Encourage one another with these words.”

Allow me to briefly do that for you now.

The second coming of Christ is threaded throughout Scripture, prophesied repeatedly by the Old Testament prophets and given, both, in way of promise and warning in Matthew through Revelation.

Significantly, the longest answer (by a mile) Jesus ever gave to a single question was in regard to his second coming (cf. Matthew, chapters 24-25).

This return of Christ is veiled in mystery (“no one knows the day or hour”, Jesus, himself, said.) When teaching on this topic, I tell people, “If anyone ever tells you they have Christ’s return figured out just smile and walk the other way. On second thought, don’t smile – just walk away.”

That said, while responding to his disciples’ question about his return, Jesus did tell them we can, as his prophecy continues to be fulfilled, we can know his return is drawing near.  As in “when a tree begins to bloom you know Spring is near.”

You will never see me standing on a busy corner in Lubbock with a sign saying, “The end is near.” But I do pay careful attention to world events in light of biblical prophecy.

The most significant fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy, in my opinion, was when, on May 14, 1948, Israel was recognized as a state for the first time in 2500 years.

Further, what are the odds that a country so tiny it’s difficult to spot it on a map appears to control the entire global climate? (Based on God’s plans for Israel during the end times, the odds are 100%.)

Former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, once said, “The Temple Mount is the most volatile square kilometer on earth.” And he’s right.

Lastly, both the prophet, Daniel, and Paul in his 2nd letter to the Thessalonians, prophecy the Jewish Temple will be rebuilt during what Jesus called a period of “great tribulation,” comprising the final years immediately before his return to earth. When you have time, google anything related to “building of the third temple.” (The first Jewish temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and the second by the Romans in 70 AD).

The Bible records Christ’s return will be a glorious time for Christians, but a time of terrifying judgment for the rest of humanity.

The Bible tells us there is a reality beyond what we can physically see. It’s a good – and healthy – idea to, on occasion, focus on that. It’s what Paul meant when he wrote, “Set your mind on things above.”

Just wanting to help remind all believers of a marvelous thing: three times in the last chapter of our Bible, Jesus says, “I’m on my way.”

Life is hard. But it will not always be this way.

NOTE: I’m attaching one of my favorite songs by Waylon Jennings. Fittingly, it’s titled “Revelation.”

Maranatha, Nick

When God Says, “Have it your way.”

It’s something we don’t often carefully consider.

God’s love for us in inexhaustible. But – there comes a time when, due to one’s perpetual rebellion and telling God to ,in essence, “shove off,” that God says, “Ok.  Have it your way.” 

And it’s never pretty.

We don’t appreciate the protection God brings us until he removes it.

God is a gentleman.  He offers to us the gospel.  But he will not impose it on us.

What that means, per simple logic, is that, although he longs to save us, he will allow us to learn the hard way should we insist on doing so.  (Think: Samson)

The book of Proverbs is packed full of wisdom and warnings related to this topic, as seen in chapter one below.  The problem, according to God, begins with us:

“…fools despise wisdom and instruction.

God longs to save, not judge.  Hence, he calls us and warns us over and over again.  Like a parent who is fiercely protective of his precious children, he says,

Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square;… “How long,…will you insist on being simpleminded? How long will you mockers relish your mocking? How long will you fools hate knowledge? Come and listen to my counsel. I’ll share my heart with you and make you wise.”

But when we ignore his pleas – the hammer falls. Hard.

“I called you so often, but you wouldn’t come. I reached out to you, but you paid no attention. You ignored my advice and rejected the correction I offered. So I will laugh when you are in trouble! I will mock you when disaster overtakes you— when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster engulfs you like a cyclone, and anguish and distress overwhelm you.

And it just keeps getting worse.

“When they cry for help, I will not answer. Though they anxiously search for me, they will not find me. For they hated knowledge and chose not to fear the Lord. They rejected my advice and paid no attention when I corrected them. Therefore, they must eat the bitter fruit of living their own way, choking on their own schemes.

Before jumping to conclusions and accusing God of being a hateful parent, keep in mind a couple of biblical truths:

  1. God says through Jeremiah, the prophet: The heart (of mankind) is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”  There are times when, refusing to heed God’s calls and warnings, he looks at us and says, “You want to be in charge of your life?  Have at it.”  But, what ensues is a return – sometimes quick and other times methodical, on par with a slow decaying – to the wickedness of our own heart.  This is what Paul means when, describing the same circumstances in Romans, he says, For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became foolsso God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.  They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.”  Translation:  You insist on living your life with out me?  Have it your way.
  2. Also, never forget that scripture must always be interpreted in light of scripture.  In other words, we must never build a doctrine based on a single, cherry-picked passage from the Bible.  This is why we have 66 books comprising two testaments.  Sure, if this passage from Proverbs was all we had it would strongly suggest there is no second chance with God – regardless of how sorry we are.  But, when the Proverbs passage is read in light of Luke 15:11-24, where the lost son is not only welcomed home, but embraced by the lovesick father (who represents our heavenly Father), we see there must be something more to the Proverbs passage which requires more careful study.  The subjects of the Proverbs passage are not sorry for what they’ve done.  They’re merely sorry they got caught.  They have no interest in repenting and trusting God for their good.  They simply want the consequences of their selfish behavior to cease – so they can continue in their arrogant lifestyle and thumb their nose at God. Those who are truly broken and repentant encounter a much different response from the Lord, as clearly seen in Jesus’ story in Luke 15, and culminated in the Cross.

And this is why God concludes the Proverbs passage with this:

“Fools are destroyed by their own complacency. But all who listen to me will live in peace, untroubled by fear of harm.”

The lesson here is just as the title makes crystal clear:  continue to tell God to shove off and he, in essence, will do just that, leaving you to yourself and Satan.

Consider yourself warned.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

Helping Hurry God Along (Hint: That’s a Horrible Idea)

Ever felt like God wasn’t working as fast as you think he should?

I think that would describe, at one time or another, every Christian who’s ever lived.

Enter the story of Moses.

But first, a little context.

After the death of Joseph (the “coat of many colors” Joseph), things went downhill in Egypt.

The Bible puts it this way:

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.”

Due to paranoia that developed at the increasing number of Hebrew people living in Egypt, Pharaoh had a plan: enslave the Hebrew people. Beat them. Terrify them. Show them who’s boss.

Sadly, slavery is nothing new, having been in play for millennia.  What ensued in this particular story was oppressive and cruel slave-bondage of the Hebrew people.  400 years of it.

Again, the Bible describes it this way:

So [the Egyptians] put slave masters over [the Hebrews] to oppress them with forced labor,…and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.”

Worse – far worse – Pharaoh ordered genocide of all male Hebrew children.   Eradicate all the males and soon the Hebrew race no longer exists.  Pretty simple.

But there was one problem: the Hebrew midwives feared God and disobeyed the king’s orders to murder babies.

The Hebrew women wouldn’t obey?  Pharaoh had a simple solution.

Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his (Egyptian) people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”

Most, even non-Christians, are familiar with the story of Moses’ birth and miraculous survival – how he was placed in a basket as a newborn baby, and sent down the Nile River only to be found by, of all people, Pharaoh’s daughter.

While Moses was being cared for and raised in Egyptian luxury, in chapter 2, we read:

“The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.”

Simple logic dictates they’d, no doubt, been crying out to God for help for centuries.

And Moses, living in the midst of his daily tasks, would have heard those prayers and cries every single day of his life.

I can imagine Moses thinking to himself, “Is God deaf?  Why isn’t he doing anything to help my people??  Come on, God!  Hurry up!!”

God was not deaf.  And he wasn’t sitting idly by either. Jesus would later say,

“My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.”

Further, God never sleeps nor slumbers, the psalmist wrote.  Contrary to what Moses was thinking – and, most likely, most of the Hebrews as well – God was simultaneously protecting his people while preparing Moses for something far greater than he could’ve ever imagined as a cocky young man of 40 years.

But Moses has no interest in waiting on God to implement his plan.

So, Moses decided to take things into his own hands.

This was a horrible idea.

The scriptures tell us:

“One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid (buried) him in the sand.”

Translation:  Hey God, I’m sick and tired of waiting on you so I’ll rescue these people myself – starting with murdering this Egyptian taskmaster.  (I wonder if the memory of this incident stung Moses’s heart when, while receiving the Ten Commandments from God, God said, “You shall not murder.”)

God doesn’t need our help.  What he wants is our faith and trust and courage, made available to us in Christ Jesus.

What happened after Moses’ rash decision to “hurry God along” was just the opposite of everything Moses had thought would happen.

Not only did his murderous act disgust the Hebrew people (the very people who wanted to be rescued), God sentenced Moses to forty years in the desert.

Forty. Years.

Moses would be 80 before God would call him from the burning bush.

***You can read the rest of the story in the biblical book of Exodus.***

Moses is a case study in the sin of trying to “hurry God along because I know better than he does.”

There are numerous examples of this painful mistake in scripture.  Here’s one other passage to which I’d like to draw your attention.

Centuries later, the prophet, Isaiah, was warning the Israelites (yes, these same Israelites) not to get cocky and try to “hurry God along.”

“Who among you fears the Lord and obeys his servant?  If you are walking in darkness, without a ray of light, trust in the Lord and rely on your God. But watch out, you who live in your own light and warm yourselves by your own fires. This is the reward you will receive from me: You will soon fall down in great torment.” (50:10-11)

Rather than “trust in the Lord and rely on God,” arrogance blinded Moses and led him to make a horrible decision.  He trusted “his own light” and relied on “his own fire.”  Rather than wait on God to “bring light”, Moses manufactured his own light rather than allow God to be “a lamp unto his feet and a light unto his path.”  This grave mistake led Moses down a path that seemed like the right path at the time.  But pride distorts truth.

As Solomon wisely wrote,

“There is a way that appears to be right; but in the end it leads to death.”

This meme offers great biblical truth:

In those times of seeming heavenly silence, Christ is actually working mightily, strengthening your faith and preparing you for an adventure you cannot possibly imagine.

The discomfort and trials you now experience are God’s “training ground” for what he’s planned for you.  As I heard one preacher once say, “God is preparing you for what he’s prepared you for.”

Jesus was never in a hurry.  But he was never late.  His timing was always impeccable.

Trust.  Wait.  And resist the temptation to help God out by hurrying him along.

It is a wise decision to let God lead.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

The Problem with “Church, Submit to Your Pastor”

I’ll never forget it.

A pastor I was served with (more like “worked for”) was in a meeting with about two dozen very upset church members.  They weren’t just upset, they were angry.  And for good reason.  He had made, in just a couple of months, more foolish decisions than most of us make in years.

He told me to be at the meeting.  So I had no choice but to attend. (I would have rather been having a root canal.)

As he was rightly being confronted for how he had handled a particular situation, he, feeling cornered, leaned over and whispered to me, “I’m about to remind these people of Hebrews 13:17 which says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them,…”

I thought to myself, “If he does that – people will be able to see the mushroom cloud for miles because this crowd will explode.”

While conveniently quoting the first phrase in the Hebrews passage, this immature pastor failed to quote the rest of it:

“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”

First, he cherry-picked the passage out of the greater context of the New Testament.  The Bible gives instructions, both specifically and in principle, as to how a pastor (the biblical word for “pastor” literally means “shepherd”) is to lead, as well as not to lead. Second, he conveniently left out the second half of the statement (which should send chills up the spine of every church leader.)

There is a gross ignorance among “the average person in the pew” regarding church leadership.  Is it ok to question or confront a pastor?

Not only is it ok, it’s biblical.

Paul had no problem publicly confronting Peter:

“When [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” (Galatians 2:11)

There are numerous examples in scripture where spiritual leadership were questioned and confronted. Probably the most familiar is Nathan’s scathing confronting of King David in 2 Samuel 12. And Jesus was almost always confronting and exposing the Pharisees (the religious leadership of the day.)

We’re all – including church leadership – hopelessly flawed and in desperate need of healthy accountability.   Jeremiah, the prophet, said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” (apart from Christ) 

Left to ourselves, disaster is inevitable.  Satan will make sure of it since he knows that, in order to take out the sheep, you first take out the shepherd.

Once, as I worked for yet another foolish pastor, even though his actions were deplorable and abusive to people, one particular man refused to confront him.  Why?  Because he kept citing, “We shall not touch the Lord’s anointed!”, a passage based on 1 Samuel 26:7-11, where David had a chance (a second chance, mind you) to kill the wicked King Saul.

The man who quoted the 1 Samuel passage cherry-picked it out of the greater context of scripture (this seems to be a pattern among the biblically myopic), molding it into something the passage in no way means. 

Merely holding a church leadership position in no way suggests we pastors are incapable of the most depraved behavior. The Bible is replete with stories of church leadership who were wicked and abusive. Further,  in the case of David and Saul, killing someone is quite different from confronting a leader’s abuse and/or foolishness.

Before I conclude my introductory comments, please allow me to offer this:

Sadly, it is not uncommon for church leadership to be resistant to – or outright refusing – to receive admonishment.  So, if a situation calls for confrontation, don’t shrink from it.  However, (1) pray it through at lenght, and (2) evaluate your own heart first to see if the Holy Spirit would call to mind anything that might skew your judgment. Jesus instructs us to remove the speck from our own eye before calling attention to the plank in the eye of another.  Self-righteousness and anger don’t serve the one doing the confronting any more than it does the one being confronted i.e. you’ll get nowhere fast.  Speak the truth boldly and forthrightly, but do this in love (even if it’s tough love.)

All that being said, after reading this article from Christianity Today written to church leaders, I thought it worth sharing.  I wouldn’t categorize it as a lengthy read, but, clearly, it would behoove you to set aside a little time to be able to consider what the author offers.

Enjoy, nw

 

The Problem with ‘Church, Submit to Your Pastor’

When pushing our agenda keeps us from empowering others, we miss the point of leadership.  Mark L. Strauss and Justin A. Irving

Tony called me (Mark) and asked if we could get together for breakfast. The tone of fatigue and resignation in his voice spoke volumes. I knew what was up. This was Tony’s third pastoral role, and this one, like the first two, was failing.

His first was a youth pastor position. Tony was articulate, bright, gregarious, and creative—a perfect combination for student ministry. Yet the position ended badly after 10 months when the church board asked him to leave. In our conversation afterward, I became convinced the church leadership was primarily to blame. Tony had a great vision for evangelism and reaching down-and-out street kids. The church wanted someone to babysit their own. Their attitude was more like What if one of those punks starts dating my daughter! than a passion to seek and save the lost. At the time I thought, Another middle-class church with no vision for God’s priorities. Sad, but better for Tony to move on.

I knew much less about the second ministry position, a senior pastor role in a small church. After it ended, Tony described the church as visionless and unwilling to step out of their comfort zone.

Now here we were again. For the third time, he and the church board were at loggerheads. He was considering another resignation—if he wasn’t fired first.

Tony looked tired when I met him at the restaurant. He sat sipping black coffee but left his omelet almost untouched. We sat in silence for a time. Finally, I asked him, “If someone asked your opponents, ‘What’s Tony’s problem?’ what would they say?” He barely paused before responding, “They’d say he needs to have things his way.” I was surprised how candid and self-aware he was. Evidently he had been confronted about this before.

He went on to say that he knew what was best for this church and that the Lord had given him a vision. After probing some more, I offered this counsel: “Tony, it sounds like you’re pushing your agenda too hard. Remember, you have to love them before you can lead them. You need to be their shepherd first and their motivator second. Your personal agenda needs to take a back seat to the nurturing of their spiritual gifts.” We had an honest, heartfelt, and at times tearful discussion. We prayed together. He seemed encouraged when he left.

A week later he called me, thanked me for my time and counsel, and told me what he had decided. “I’m going to start a new sermon series next week,” he said, “about respect for and submission to your leaders.” As I hung up the phone, I was reminded how deeply entrenched our leadership patterns can be.

A Self-Appraisal

Most of us go into pastoral ministry because we love the Lord and desire to make him known. Yet we also aspire to Christian leadership because we are gifted, passionate, committed, hard-working, and full of good ideas. We are ready to lead. Yet ministry often looks less like leading and more like waiting, listening, nurturing, and waiting some more.

We readily embrace phrases like “servant leadership” and “empowering others,” but when our own gifts and ideas take a back seat to others’, it can feel like one sacrifice too many. How do we feel when colleagues are more successful or more gifted than we are or when someone takes credit for our good idea or fails to respect our position or authority? It is easy to be humble when others praise us. Not so much when we face criticism or critique.

How can we start to weed out the pride choking our noble desire to serve others? It starts with self-evaluation and self-disclosure. Consider Paul’s encouragement to sober self-appraisal in Romans 12:3: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” Note also his words of encouragement to Timothy: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). This call for Timothy to watch both his doctrine and his very life is also a call for us to look beyond the positive image we project to others.

Perhaps we can further separate our genuine desire to empower others from our subtle hopes for self-promotion by returning to a story so familiar that many have forgotten its critical redefinition of Christian leadership.

Power or Empowerment?

One of the key New Testament passages on leadership is Mark 10:32–45. Jesus was on his final journey to Jerusalem. A few chapters earlier, Peter had affirmed his belief that Jesus was the Messiah (8:27–30). When Jesus made his intention to go to Jerusalem clear, James and John anticipated coming events: In Jerusalem, Jesus would announce his messiahship, there would be a popular uprising against the Romans, and Jesus would be crowned and proclaimed king. But who would be his top advisers? After all, Jesus had 12 disciples. Mustering their courage, James and John approached Jesus and asked, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (10:37).

Jesus considered their request and responded, “You don’t know what you are asking. … Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” The “cup” and “baptism” both symbolize the great test of suffering Jesus would endure in Jerusalem. Jesus was asking, “Are you willing to go through what I’m about to go through?” James and John believed they were up to the task. Assuming Jesus was speaking of the messianic war ahead, they answered affirmatively: “We can!” Jesus responded that they would indeed suffer, but he could not grant such positions of authority: “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared” (10:39–40).

To be sure, James and John were showing a bit of ego (moxie really). They were a little presumptuous and a bit overconfident. But what great leader is not? They were demonstrating vision and initiative. They saw the future and were ready to seize it. Against overwhelming odds, they were willing to lead Jesus’ followers into battle, even to the point of death. Aren’t these the marks of great leadership? This is “grab the bull by the horns” leadership. This is carpe diem leadership. This is Gladiator-style leadership. (It’s hard to say how many Christian leaders have told us this is their favorite movie.)

But, of course, Jesus actually responded in a very different way, rejecting the self-promotional leadership of James and John. Gathering the disciples together, he radically redefined what it means to lead: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” The world’s model of leadership is about power, control, and influence. It’s about motivating others to accomplish the leader’s goals, agenda, and aspirations. “Not so with you,” Jesus said. “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45).

We have read these lines so often through our filter of Christian leadership that it is hard to catch their countercultural nature. Jesus turns the “power and persuasion” model of leadership upside down by calling for “servant”—or better, “slave”—leadership, an oxymoron in the eyes of his contemporaries. Servants don’t seek power and influence; they seek to please their master. They don’t accumulate followers; they empower others through service. They don’t exploit people as resources; they enable others to be the best they can be.

The apostle Paul speaks of leadership in the same way. In Ephesians 4 he points to the senior leaders in the church: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the pastors and teachers.” And what is their purpose? “To equip God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:11–12). The Christian leader’s goal should be to empower and equip others to fulfill their calling and use their spiritual gifts to the glory of God, even when it means setting aside their own vision and plans.

Sacrificial or Servant Leadership?

The subtle allure of power and self-aggrandizement is not just for megachurch pastors and New York Times best-selling authors. It creeps into our hearts and actions through everyday events and activities—in our late nights in the church office, our long hours in sermon prep, and even in our faithful time at hospital bedsides. Each of these things can convince us we’ve earned the right to be listened to and admired.

James and John surely had in mind the livelihoods they had left behind and the years they had spent at Jesus’ feet when they made their request for status in his kingdom. They had the right goal in mind: doing the will of God. Yet they could not envision this apart from the prospect of personal power and glory. They were willing to accept sacrificial leadership, but they weren’t quite ready to step into full-fledged servant leadership.

When Jesus redefined the role of the Messiah, he redefined the nature of all Christian leadership. Jesus did not come to be served but to serve, and that is the orientation Christians are called to as leaders.

Mark L. Strauss is University Professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary San Diego.

Justin A. Irving is professor of ministry leadership and director of the DMin Program at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

They are the co-authors of Leadership in Christian Perspective: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Practices for Servant Leaders (Baker, 2019).

I Befriended Bart Ehrman by Debating Him

I’ve been blessed by my friendships with debate opponents, despite strong disagreements.

 

I Befriended Bart Ehrman by Debating Him

It was February 2008. I had committed to a public debate with the prominent agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. He was an established scholar, an award-winning professor at a prominent university, and a New York Times best-selling author. Additionally, he already had several public debates under his belt.

In contrast, I was still a year away from completing my PhD and knew far less about the New Testament and early Christianity. And yet, there I was, committed to debating Bart Ehrman.

A few months earlier, I had been talking to Phil Roberts, then the president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Roberts knew about my apologetics work and had asked me if I might be interested in doing a public debate. I told him I’d want to debate Ehrman, and Roberts set it up.

Why did I choose to face this giant? His scholarship was leading people away from the Christian faith and sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of many others; he needed to be answered.

Preparing with ‘Pseudo-Bart’

The topic for our debate was “Can historians prove Jesus rose from the dead?” My nearly completed doctoral research focused on this very topic, so I was confident I knew more about it than Ehrman. Over the next five months, I dedicated no less than 50 hours a week to preparing.

I read everything Ehrman had written on the topic and formulated answers to his various assertions. I dissected his previous debate with the prominent Christian philosopher William Lane Craig and thought through how to respond if Ehrman were to make the same points and rebuttals. I wanted every answer to be sound, succinct, and accessible to our audience. I practiced managing the time for giving each answer so I wouldn’t have to rush.

My friend Amy Ponce became a debate “sparring partner.” In 2004, I debated the atheist historian Richard Carrier. Amy had read a lot of Carrier’s work and acted as a stand-in for practice debates, so I asked her to do the same with Ehrman.

She studied Ehrman’s work and was able to impersonate his views and delivery. By the time the debate drew near, I was convinced she knew Ehrman’s views as well as he did—maybe even better. She had him down, his attitude, the phrases he liked to use. I even called her “Bart.”

I told Amy she could call me anytime, even in the middle of the night to wake me up and try to catch me off guard with one of Ehrman’s arguments. We staged a mock debate with Amy acting as “Pseudo-Bart,” complete with the official time constraints. Craig, the philosopher who had debated Ehrman before, listened in and felt Amy’s prep was so good that she was a harder debate opponent than Ehrman would be. After months of preparation, I felt ready.

Facing the giant

The day finally arrived. I flew to Kansas City, where the debate would be held on Midwestern Baptist Seminary’s campus. I woke the morning of the debate to find, to my horror, that I’d nearly lost my voice. Fortunately, the sound engineers at the venue were very helpful and the debate went ahead.

Standing offstage waiting for the event to start, I had jitters. Ehrman was waiting next to me in the wings and I was sizing him up. I knew he was a seasoned debater and never pulled his punches, even when debating his friends, which I certainly was not. I knew he would use clever rhetoric, a charming demeanor, careful logic, and thorough research—everything—to score points. He was out to win this debate.

Finally, the moment came and we stepped on stage. Once we were seated and the debate began, my jitters disappeared. I’d been preparing for months. I knew this stuff cold. I was a bit frustrated that my voice was weakened because it prevented me from being as passionate and engaging as I wanted. Even so, I felt good during the debate. I knew Ehrman was wrong. I knew I could answer him. This was my area of expertise. He couldn’t say anything I didn’t have an answer for.

When the debate finally drew to a close, I had mixed feelings. I had just taken on one of the world’s leading skeptics and thought I had at least held my own. But I wasn’t sure what the audience felt. For me, there’s tremendous pressure in public debates because if I perform poorly, I might inadvertently contribute to a believer’s doubts. I take Matthew 18:6 very seriously; I don’t want to cause anyone to stumble.

Immediately after the debate, two students came up to me and told me the event had instilled such a new confidence in their faith that they were prepared to devote themselves to full-time Christian ministry. A few months later, I met a college freshman whose professor was using one of Ehrman’s books as required reading and it was rocking her faith. I gave her a DVD copy of my debate with Ehrman and her face lit up. I later learned that the recording of the debate with Ehrman had encouraged her tremendously. In fact, she was now flourishing as a faith-filled student leader in her campus ministry!

You’d certainly expect that after five months of preparation designed to publicly denounce his ideas and testimonies from Christians encouraged by my ability to stand up to his doubt-inducing arguments, Ehrman and I would not be on speaking terms.

It’s true, I felt a little anger toward him before the debate began because I knew the effect his scholarship was having on people, leading some of them away from Christian faith. But that anger was tempered by knowing that Jesus loves Ehrman. There is no room for hatred. By the time the debate actually started, I did not feel any animosity toward him. In fact, since then, Ehrman and I have become friends.

A table in the presence of my enemies

In the 11 years since that debate in Kansas City, Ehrman and I have engaged in two more public debates, a written debate, and two dialogues on the popular podcast Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley. We have strong disagreements on a number of matters pertaining to Jesus and the Gospels, and our debates have always been spirited.

Despite the societal norm to demonize those with whom we disagree, Ehrman and I get along really well. I have grown to like him as a person and consider him a friend. We always greet one another with a smile and a hug at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.

How is it that Ehrman and I can battle each other vigorously on matters held dearly to each of us, then part with a handshake and a hug, which emerge from a genuine warmth toward the other?

Years ago, a mentor of mine, Gary Habermas, told me that he likes to have dinner with his debate opponent before the event in order to break the ice. So before that first debate with Ehrman in 2008, I asked Midwestern to set up a dinner with him ahead of the event.

As we ate, Ehrman and I asked one another surface questions, such as what our present research concerned, what would be the topic of the next book we planned to write, and about our families. We didn’t have much time to get to know each other, but it helped to relate in a more social context, away from the debate stage. As we have come to feel more comfortable with each other over the years, our conversations have become more relaxed and personal.

At our second debate, held at Southern Evangelical Seminary a year later, we again had dinner beforehand with the president and a few faculty members. Knowing that he does a lot of public debates, one of the seminary professors at our table asked Ehrman who his favorite debate opponents were. I was a little nervous about what he would say. But while Ehrman admitted that some of his opponents could be mean, he said, “I really like Mike because he’s a nice guy.”

Getting to know each other off the debate stage was instrumental in correcting any stereotype we may have had of the other. I could see that the person with whom I was sharing a meal did not have the glowing red eyes of a demon! And Ehrman could see that his opponent was not an angry Bible thumper who was going to scold him publicly during the debate. Instead, we both met a friendly guy with whom we could have a collegial dialogue.

Whenever we debate one another, we have fun with it. We’re still serious about our topics and we still don’t agree.The debate is always lively. Ehrman doesn’t pull any punches and neither do I. But we relate in a very relaxed way; we banter back and forth and occasionally goof off. I feel there’s trust there. He knows I’m not going to talk bad about him behind his back and vice versa. I don’t agree with him, and I’m deeply concerned about the effect his work has on people. But I respect him and I like him.

Blessed are the peacemakers

There are people on both sides of any issue who are divisive and rancorous, and we cannot change that. What we can control is how we interact with others when we disagree with them. As followers of Jesus, it is our responsibility to love our neighbor, to be salt and light to our culture, and to return good for evil (Matt. 5:13–14, Rom. 12:14–21).

This is difficult when a person is screaming at us in disagreement, and it can even be a challenge in a good-natured public debate. But Jesus did not say that following him would be easy. In fact, he told us specifically that it will not be (Matt. 10:22–25, John 15:18–20).

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be his representatives in our society (John 20:21). So, we must engage in dialogues with those with whom we disgaree. We must not compromise Bible-based morals, despite the increasing hostility toward us for embracing those morals. We should not be surprised that much of our society hates us and desires to silence us. On the contrary, Jesus told us we should expect this sort of treatment.

That does not mean that everyone is out to get us or that disagreement precludes friendships. I’ve been blessed by my friendships with several of my debate opponents, despite strong disagreements on core issues. Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:43–47). Should we do any less to those with whom we have disagreements but are not our enemies?

Since Jesus’ message is offensive to many in our culture, let’s not compound that by being unnecessarily offensive in our behavior. We just may find that we can participate in brokering peace in our society (Matt. 5:9) and that more people become open to hearing Jesus’ message as a result.

After our debate at Kennesaw State University last year, Ehrman and I both stood up and hugged. I told him, “Hey Bart, I’m really glad to call you a friend. I’d really like to call you a brother. You know the story of the prodigal son. C’mon, man! God wants you back!”

He smiled at me and, with a twinkle in his eye, asked me to come over to his side. I grinned back at him and said, “I don’t think so.”

Michael R. Licona is associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University and founder of Risen Jesus ministries. His most recent book is Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press, 2017).

From Christianity Today Magazine; July 2019

The Alarming Level of Biblical Illiteracy: Who Jesus Was, and Was Not

I teach and speak on this topic often. Sure, non-believers don’t know a lot about the Bible.

But, truth be told, neither do the majority of believers. It’s heart-breaking.

While the cursory reader of scripture envisions Jesus merely as a meek guy with great hair tenderly holding a lamb and visiting with children, the gospels tell a story of someone quite different.

In addition to the gospels, themselves, I would urge all to read Philip Yancey’s award-winning book, The Jesus I Never Knew (published 1995). Yancey writes,

“The Jesus I got to know in writing this book is very different from the Jesus I learned about in Sunday School. In some ways he is more comforting; in some ways more terrifying.”

And one more solid quote on this topic I thought you might enjoy:

“In an age in which biblical literacy continues to be on the wane, and there is an almost complete ignorance of Jesus’ words and deeds amongst unbelievers (as well as believers), my experience is that many are often surprised and amazed that Jesus actually said or did the things recorded of him. Now—as then—these stories bring us face-to-face with Jesus,…”

Quote by Paul Weston, “Preaching the Gospel from the Gospels” in Preaching the New Testament (IVP Academic, 2013), eds. Ian Paul and David Wenham, pg. 245