Our Canvas Christendom

In some ways, Matthew Schmitz’s cavalier dismissal of objections to the Marriage Pledge seems to invite an old-fashioned fisking. But I resist the invitation. The confusions about marriage in our time are deep and profound, and many of them are present in the underlying assumptions of this Pledge, a Pledge seeking to preserve Christian marriage by detaching it from public and legally enforceable commitments. But what if legally enforceable commitments are an essential part of what marriage is?

I continue to insist that this well-intentioned maneuver is a blunder, of a high order. When Lord Cardigan oversaw the charge of the light brigade, we need not question his motives to question the wisdom of the move. And the fact that he gave his name to a very nice sweater does not help us out much.

So let us walk through Schmitz’s post, pointing out objects of interest as we go.

“A number of people charge the Marriage Pledge authored by Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz with ‘clericalism,’ claiming that it seeks to keep the hands of pastors clean from signing dirty marriage docs while urging laymen to make their perilous way to City Hall. This is probably the silliest of many silly charges that have been made.”

Although I didn’t use the word clericalism, I was one of those who advanced this argument, an argument that was, in Schmitz’s eyes, probably the silliest of many silly charges that were leveled. And so it is only fitting that I now rise in an attempt to defend my silliness. Being as silly as I am, this is going to be difficult, so please look on my poor efforts with the judgment of charity.

Let us first see if Schmitz gives an accurate statement of the argument that he is calling silly.

“The pledge finds no problem in Christians — be they clergy or laity — entering into civil marriages . . . It has been particularly amusing to see him accused of having a problem with clergy getting near civil marriage.”

But alas! This is not an accurate statement. Oh, that we had an accurate statement so that we could engage over our actual differences. Our argument was not that the advocates of the pledge had a problem with Christians contracting civil marriages. The argument was, given what they had said about clergymen needing to stay away from participating in the process, and given the reasons they advanced for this position, reasons involving conscience, “why didn’t they have a problem with Christians contracting civil marriages?” We know that they didn’t. The pledge explicitly asked the bride and groom to hie themselves down to the courthouse and do the deed.

The signers of the pledge had forsworn participation in x. They did not forswear participation in y. But why, why, oh, why y?

Surveying the Text: Judges


The book of Joshua is linear. God supplied a faithful leader to Israel, and he took them into the land, conquering it, and they all moved from left to right. The book of Judges is quite different—it is a book of cycles, a book of ups and downs. It is a book that contains astonishing heroism and appalling grotesqueries both.

The Text:

“And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions . . .” (Heb. 11:32–33).

Summary of the Text:

The verses following our text go on to itemize some of the great works of faith that the great heroes of the faith performed. We all know that the Bible describes the flaws of most of these heroes—but the Bible describes them in heroic terms nonetheless. Some of these exploits were acts of triumph and conquest, and others were acts of sacrifice and martyrdom, but all of them were empowered by faith. The point of selecting this text is that it tells us that Gideon, and Barak, and Samson, and Jephthah, were all men of faith. Because the book of Judges is so grim, and because there is so much unfaithfulness in it, we sometimes fail to recognize how much actual success was achieved in the book. Ehud gave the people peace for eighty years (Judg. 3:30). Gideon gave them peace for forty years (Judg. 8:28).

The book of Judges spans approximately three centuries (from roughly 1382 BC to 1065 BC). Although it is unattributed, the most likely author for the book is Samuel.

Six Oppressions:

The history of Judges gives us an account of six periods of oppression. The first was from the Hittite portion of Mesopotamia (Judg. 3:7-11). The second was the oppression of Moab, under their king Eglon (Judg. 3:12-31). The third was the oppression of some local Canaanites, from which Deborah and Barak delivered them (Judg. 4:1-5:31). The fourth was from the Midianites, and Gideon was their deliverer (Judg. 6:1-8:32). The fifth was the only home-grown oppression, that of Abimelech (Judg. 8:33-10:5). The sixth round came from the Ammonites to the east and the Philistines to the west, and the people were delivered by Jephthah (Judg. 10:6-16:31). Samson was also used to deliver Israel from the Philistines.

To this outline of this period of Israel’s history, we see the author added an appendix outlining two stories in greater detail. One of them concerns a Levite named Jonathan, who was hired by a man named Micah as a priestly hireling. This Jonathan was, according to some manuscripts, a direct descendant of Moses (Judg. 18:30). The next story concerns the Benjamite outrage, and we have to say the behavior of an unnamed Levite with his concubine was scarcely any better.

Despite the name judges, the only one of them we see actually discharging that particular function of the office was Deborah (Judg. 4:5). Overwhelmingly, we see these judges functioning as Spirit-anointed deliverers or saviors (Judg. 2:16). We would be better off to render this office as that of warrior-ruler. These were charismatically appointed saviors (Judg. 3:9).

The Deuteronomic Pattern:

The predominant motif in this book is that of the cycle. There is a consistent pattern to it, and it is as follows: First, the Israelites do evil in the eyes of the Lord (e.g. Judg. 2:11). Second, God disciplines Israel by bringing in (usually) foreign oppressors (e.g. Judg. 2:14). Third, the Israelites cry out to God in their repentance (e.g. Judg. 3:9). Fourth, God shows mercy and raises up a deliverer (e.g. Judg. 2:16). Fifth, a period of peace follows until the death of the deliverer, after which the people fall again (e.g. Judg. 3:10-11).

Right In Their Own Eyes:

A tagline for the book of Judges could be “when every man did what was right in his own eyes.” “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6). The fact that there was no king introduces the two appalling stories in the appendix (Judg. 18:1; 19:1). And then the same line is used to conclude the book. “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). Right after everyone says yikes, the observation is made that everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

So this is not an idyllic utopia; this was no libertarian paradise. The political chaos meant that heroism was possible (and frequently necessary). The political chaos also meant that atrocities were just around the corner.

The Libertarian Temptation:

When you are ruled by Eglons, as we are, it is very easy to see where the problem is. That being the case, it is too easy to yearn for an ideological “solution,” that of no government at all. Given what the Bible says about it, why would anyone want to live under such conditions? When you live in a time of chaos and anarchy, it is almost impossible to assign responsibility—and this is one of the great attractions of pure libertarianism, which is profoundly anti-Christian. Beware of systems that have universal explanatory power, like hyper-preterism and libertarianism.

Inexorable Mercy:

When we read the book of Judges, we should be mindful of three fundamental realities. The first is that God judges sin (Judg. 2:11,14). The second is that God is extraordinarily merciful to people who manifestly do not deserve it (Judg. 2:16). And the last is the sinfulness and ingratitude of the heart of man. After each deliverance, once the judge in question was dead, they veered back and behaved more corruptly than their fathers had done (Judg. 2:19).

But God is full of tender mercy, and Christ has died and risen in such a way as to deal with the treacherous hearts of men forever. We can therefore concentrate on His mercy. “Nevertheless the Lord raised up judges, which delivered them out of the hand of those that spoiled them” (Judg. 2:16).

Even the trials that God sent them were motivated by His grace:

“Now these are the nations which the Lord left, to prove Israel by them, even as many of Israel as had not known all the wars of Canaan; Only that the generations of the children of Israel might know, to teach them war, at the least such as before knew nothing thereof; Namely, five lords of the Philistines, and all the Canaanites, and the Sidonians, and the Hivites that dwelt in mount Lebanon, from mount Baal-hermon unto the entering in of Hamath. And they were to prove Israel by them, to know whether they would hearken unto the commandments of the Lord, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses” (Judg. 3:1–4).

The Lord Jesus fights for us, and He is our ultimate Judge. And this is what it means for God to judge—He delivers us. When God intervenes to judge, this is good news. “Let the floods clap their hands: Let the hills be joyful together Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: With righteousness shall he judge the world, And the people with equity” (Ps. 98:8–9).

The outline to the message for the first service can be found here.

Present As Presented

The Lord is present through the Supper because the Lord is presented in the Supper. The Lord ascended into Heaven two thousand years ago, and His body is at the right hand of the Father. Since His body is there, it follows — since He has a true human body — that it is not here.

The Lord is not physically present in the elements of bread and wine; rather, the Lord is physically presented by means of the bread and wine. God has created the world with a host of covenantal interconnections, and this is one of the central ones. The Lord is physically present in Heaven, and we are physically present here. How can this distance be bridged?

The answer given in Scripture is the answer provided by the Holy Spirit of God. When these words are spoken, when bread and wine are received in obedient faith, the Holy Spirit knits us together with Christ, drawing the bonds of love ever tighter. Our unity with Christ is a unity of love. Because it is love between persons, it can obviously grower deeper and richer. But the fact that it is growing does not mean that we were not united before.

The union we have with Christ through the Supper is a union that is true, from the start, and yet is a union that can grow truly richer as time passes. We are being transformed from one degree of glory to another, and it is the gracious work of the Spirit.

So come, and welcome, to Jesus Christ.

Keep On Keeping On

When God established His church in the first century, there were a number of unique things about it. The surrounding world was overwhelmingly pagan, and so the burgeoning Christian movement had to make certain decisions about priorities. The first thing that happened after Pentecost was not a building campaign. Neither was it a political movement. The initial explosion of conversions was followed by a century more of evangelism. The Christians met in all kinds of ad hoc circumstances. The catacombs are justly famous, but the New Testament also records multiple times how believers would met for worship in homes (e.g. Col. 4:15).

By the second century, the number of Christians was much greater, and almost from the beginning they challenged the pagan establishment on a number of issues. The Christians were adamantly pro-life, and rebuked the pagan tolerance of abortion and infanticide. If you want paganism without an attendant contempt for life at the margins, you want something that has never existed. The Christians modeled a different approach to compassion during plagues and epidemics, shaming the pagans by their compassion for others. The Christians also opposed the gladiatorial games. Killjoys from the beginning.

The same kind of thing happened with church buildings. We did not build the living stones structure because we had all these attractive brick and mortar buildings. It was the other way around. Life, community, fellowship, love, discipline, care for one another, are all the ways you build the actual church. When you have done that, it is time to move on and make an institutional declaration, one that challenges the principalities and powers. But if we are not doing it from homes, and gyms, and open air meetings, we are not going to do it when we have a nice, respectable place. When we get a nice sanctuary, we must always remember what got us to that place—and keep on doing it.

So let the stones cry out.

The Problem of Theological Cone Bras

My part in this is simply to introduce a guest post by my daughter, Bekah Merkle. The subject is the doctrine of Rachel Held Evans, so you could consider that a trigger warning, I suppose.

By way of preface, I should simply say that if you have never heard of Rachel Held Evans then there is no real reason to read any further. If that name means nothing in your life, this post could seem exceptionally random and possibly uncalled for. But if, on the other hand, you have encountered the impact of her teaching in some way, if you have been outraged, or shocked, or if you’ve felt the force of some of her arguments, if you’ve had your faith rocked a little or if you know someone who has, then hopefully you’ll understand why I’ve decided that this is worth saying. And I may perchance, in the spirit of cracking myself up extensively, have put one or two extra eggs in this pudding – so if you’re not in the mood for that, tread not forward.

A Hailstorm of Cotton Balls

I would start by encouraging you to take a look at this video Q&A with Russell Moore. If time’s winged chariot is at your back, you can jump to the fifteen minute mark, which is what I will be writing about.

I do think that Moore does a good job in his qualifications. He says, as he should, that he doesn’t want to urge anyone to go against their conscience. He says also that he is “it seems to me” mode, and not in “thus saith the Lord” mode, and that is all to the good.

On top of that, the questions he fields are admittedly thorny. But I would want to say the difficulty involved with the questions is an emotional difficulty, not an intellectual one. Unfortunately, we live in a time when any emotional difficulty translates automatically into an intellectual difficulty. That’s just how we evangelicals roll.

Moore says rightly that Christians ought not to attend same sex ceremonies, and he says this for the right reasons. Everybody would understand our attendance as approval, and since we don’t approve, we cannot attend. But he then says that we could attend the reception, or the shower, and so on. I honestly cannot make any sense of this. The reception is the celebration of what just transpired. If what just transpired was an abomination, how can we celebrate it?

A related question had to do with how to handle it when a lesbian aunt wants to visit for the holidays, and you have a spare room. She wants to bring her girlfriend. Now what? It is quite true that refusal will be characterized as “mean,” but what matters is whether our behavior is actually loving. We should care less about whether it is represented as loving.

The entire sexuality battle is about approval, not participation. We are being maneuvered into the place where we start using ethical air quotes. “Well, I do ‘disapprove’ of this behavior, and yet, will do absolutely nothing to express that disapproval in a way that might be taken as disapproving.” I do not agree with your sin, but I am willing to raise a toast to it.

Evangelicals are nice, there is no getting around it. It is our besetting sin. That means about the worst thing you can tell us is that we are being mean to somebody. Maybe that meanness is turning someone away from Jesus. Our niceness is the steering wheel that we always want to put our critics behind. Not surprisingly, they always steer us straight into compromise.

But actually one of the biggest stumbling blocks that we really do manufacture is this great idol of Nice. When someone is turned away from Christ because some Christian was mean, everybody notices it. But when we have turned the whole world off because we are nicer than a hailstorm of cotton balls, nobody notices that problem at all.