How to Think: A Book Review

Why We Can’t Think

Spend five minutes on social media and you’ll understand why we need the book How to Think by Alan Jacobs. Not only do people treat others differently online than they do in person, but carefulness in online speech is rare. So much of the fruit we see online is ungodly–often creating fear and stirring up anger towards our neighbor. But the symptoms of outrage and division on spaces like Twitter only reveal a deeper problem. As Jacobs says, “we suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking” (17). Before we learn how to think from Jacobs, he tells us why we can’t. 

We are complex creatures, but one common problem we face when it comes to thinking is speed. Jacobs divides thinking into two categories. There is “intuitive thinking” and “conscious decision-making” (16). We tend to spend the majority of our time doing intuitive thinking. These involve snap judgments and predispositions. Many of us have already decided if we agree with an article before we even finish it! Most of us don’t see this as a problem. Yet, the danger of only doing intuitive thinking is that we become like the fool who “takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov. 18:2).

Conscious decision-making is taking time for the pleasure of understanding. But it often only flips on in our brains when we sense a problem that needs to be addressed. Jacobs’ book is about conscious decision-making, or slow thinking. It’s the type of thinking that waits five minutes before responding (18), the type of thinking, Jacobs argues, that troubles us and tires us (17). Perhaps that’s why we don’t do it. Thinking takes too long. It requires patience. It requires listening and most of us don’t have time for that.

Why We Must Think 

While we don’t make time for thinking, there are thousands of voices claiming to think critically. How do we evaluate what we’re taking in? Jacobs reminds us, “all of us at various times in our lives believe true things for poor reasons, and false things for good reasons…” (39). We’ve been wrong before, and we are currently wrong about different ideas. Can we learn and grow? Not if we don’t think.

Christians of all people are to be people of charitable understanding. So when we disagree with someone we need to understand the best, most-fair-minded representation of their position. There’s a lot of heat being thrown around on social media, and not a lot of light. Christians give the benefit-of-the-doubt and seek to understand those that disagree with them, not destroy them. Christians seek to clarify, not to confuse–which means one way we help one another learn is by strengthening arguments we disagree with. Sadly, this type of charitable disagreement is hard to find.

Pastors of all people are charged to be gentle and must not be quarrelsome (1 Tim. 3:3). But again, we tend to play by different rules on social media. Pastors must not participate in “in-other-wordsing,” (106) where we critique what someone “meant” but not what they “said.” Shouldn’t pastors of all people be those who give the benefit of the doubt? Thinking, listening, and empathizing are all required to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger…” (James 1:19).

How We Can Think 

While all of How to Think is illuminating, Jacobs ends his book with a “Thinking Person’s Checklist” (155). The list alone is worth the price of the book, and I’ll highlight just a few points.

Jacobs encourages a posture of learning over debating. If we treat people like enemies to be conquered rather than humans to be understood, we hurt our own ability to think as well as the other person.

He also guides us away from people who “fuel the flames.” This advice is helpful both on social media and face to face. Some people just want to see the world burn.

Lastly, listen. Find someone you disagree with. If you’re Presbyterian, find a Baptist. If you’re charismatic, find a cessationist. If you’re complementarian, find an egalitarian, then listen. You may still disagree with them, but you will also learn a new perspective and learn to understand. You’ll also be less prone to caricature them.

Thinking is Hard 

Thinking is hard work, and Jacobs is a proven guide to help us learn. So give your time, energy, and vulnerability to becoming a better thinker. It will take conscious effort and a settled conviction, but it’s worth it. If you choose to think, it means not doing everything spur of the moment and practicing patience. But you will know more, understand others better, and grow more as a result (151).



When Home Hurts: A Book Review

It is very likely that When Home Hurts: A Guide for Responding Wisely to Domestic Abuse in Your Church (Christian Focus, 2021) by Jeremy Pierre and Greg Wilson will prove to be the most important book I’ve read all year. At the time of my writing this, it is the beginning of November, which means there are still two months of reading ahead of me, and this prediction could prove untrue, but I find it unlikely. As a pastor, I have a deep heartache for the sinful circumstances that have transpired in our body in the past couple of years, which have eventuated in this work’s place on my bookshelf. But I am nevertheless profoundly grateful for God’s grace in giving me and my fellow pastors the opportunity to grow in wisdom and care for Christ’s precious flock.

Brother pastor, even if your church is not currently experiencing the same kind of circumstances that contributed to my reading this book, may I gently and firmly urge you to prioritize reading it as soon as possible? Rather than offering you a generically styled book review, let me offer four reasons why every pastor should read When Home Hurts.

1.) Pastors Must Show the Heart of Christ

The wise care of abused church members is an indispensable aspect of pastoral care. It is a nonnegotiable application of the heart of Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, invites the weary, exhausted, broken, and sinful into his compassionate heart when he says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30). Those thusly invited includes those who labor under the cruel yoke of oppressors in their home, who are heavy laden with the suffocating reality of constant fear and anxiety, most often imposed on them by the very people who bear the responsibility of embodying to them the heart of Christ (i.e., husbands and fathers).[1] It will not do to hide behind lack of knowledge or expertise as a justification for staying in the dark regarding this area of ministry. It will not do to blame the dearth of (actually) helpful pastoral care classes you received in seminary. Frankly, pastor, those excuses amount to just about nothing. We have been charged to shepherd the flock of God, which he purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28). We have been charged to shepherd the flock of God that is among us (1 Pet 5:2), which often includes abusers and abuse victims. Surely, we are fooling ourselves if we think that these half-baked excuses are acceptable to him.

Let’s determine right now to kill that self-protecting impulse to plead blissful ignorance. The painful fact, brothers, is that we often hide behind a lack of knowledge simply because it is more convenient to us. We say, “we can’t be everything, we aren’t professional counselors or police officers.” No, but we are under-shepherds charged to reflect the heart of our Good Shepherd who wields a staff to guide and protect the flock (and fend off wolves), and we must do the same. We say, “but there are professionals out there who are far more knowledgeable than me.” Yes, but God has not providentially arranged for them to pastor our members. He had us in mind for such a time as this. Caring for the abusive and abused members of our church is not optional. When Home Hurts is the third book I’ve read from cover to cover on domestic abuse, and it is far and away the best one specifically for pastors in search of wisdom for this crucial component of their vocation.

2.) The Dynamics of Abuse are Unique

In one sense, abuse is a sin just like any other sin: it is an offense to God and it rightly elicits his wrath; its solution is the shed blood of Jesus Christ; it ought to be confronted by members and pastors, confessed and repented of by the perpetrators, and forgiven by others, etc. In another sense, however, the sin of abuse (or “oppression,” to use Scriptural terminology) is uniquely insidious. Notice this definition of abuse they offer on page 39-34:

Abuse occurs as a person in a position of greater influence uses his personal capacities to diminish the personal capacities of those under his influence in order to control them. Because God made people as embodied souls, these personal capacities are both physical and spiritual. Abuse is identified from two directions: (1) the manipulative intent and behavioral forcefulness of the one in a position of influence, and (2) the diminishing effect on those under his influence.

Thus, Pierre and Wilson distinguish between relational sin in general, and the sin of abuse or oppression in particular. Every believer, though definitively justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, nevertheless must mortify the sinful flesh perpetually in this life. Sin exists in every Christian household, and since the Christian life is one of repentance, it should not be uncommon for confession, repentance, and forgiveness to be liberally extended in every direction in the home. Most often, sin rears its ugly head when members of a household sinfully put their desires or preferences before those of others. This is relationally damaging if left unrepented of, and should be addressed squarely and soberly for the good of all those involved. This kind of sin Pierre and Wilson describe as “me before you.”

Abuse, however, is uniquely insidious in that it desecrates the personhood of the abused and dehumanizes both abused and abuser. This kind of sin shows up when one person uses his God-given strength/authority/influence not only to please himself, but to diminish the strength/authority/influence of the victim in the process. In contrast to normal relational sin that might be described as “me before you,” Pierre and Wilson refer to the sin of abuse as “me over you.” It involves a kind of manipulation that diminishes the capacities of the victim (and therefore minimizes their agency and dignity). This can happen in a number of ways: be it physical attacks, physical intimidation, emotional manipulation, financial manipulation, relational control, verbal assaults, and more (most often, domestic abuse is manifested in some combination of these things). The unique characteristics of this kind of sin means that we shouldn’t be naïve in our approach: a great deal of care is needed, and Pierre and Wilson are incredibly helpful at laying out a practical path for recognizing and confronting this sin.

3.) The Church is Full of Sinners and Suffers (including Abusers and Abuse Victims)

Domestic abuse is far more common than you think, and your church probably isn’t an anomaly. The statistics are pretty breathtaking. Even the most conservative estimates make it incredibly unlikely that your church has no abusive homes represented in the membership. Yes, this is true even if your church is gospel-centered. Yes, this is true even if your church is confessional, or richly biblical, or even (believe it or not) reformed.

At the time of my writing this, our current elder team consists of six godly men—three of which hold theological Masters degrees, and the other three of which hold PhDs in theology. We are located near a seminary, which means we have many theology students and professors in our membership. We are a bookish people. We care about doctrine. We care about biblical literacy. We are about practicing all of the biblical “one anothers.” Confession of sin is routine in our church. We love one another with theologically informed love. And those of our members who aren’t swimming in immediately in this “seminary pool” quickly develop a taste for theology as a means for worship. And we aren’t embarrassed one bit about any of that.

But you’re reading these words because none of these wonderful aspects of our church demographic have kept sin—and specifically, the sin of domestic abuse—at bay. And why should it? This is a fallen world, and even with practices like biblical church membership and discipline, sin—including the sin of abuse—persistently shows up. And the important thing to note is this: some sins aren’t obvious to pastors who don’t know how to look for them, but that does not mean they should not learn how to.

And yes, pastor, reading this book when you “don’t have to” may burst your bubble. You may find yourself in a situation where your happy ignorance is ruined, and families you thought were healthy are actually in deep trouble. Which means, reading this book when you “don’t have to” may create a lot more work and a lot more stress in your life. Please, brother pastor, don’t let that be a reason for not reading it. Be inconvenienced. Imagine the answer to prayer your reading this book might be for the sisters and children in your congregation who are suffering in isolation! If that is not motivation for us to delve deep, we may need to find ourselves a new vocation.

4.) Pastoral Care Isn’t One-Dimensional

When Home Hurts is deeply pastoral and instructive in its application of distinct biblical impulses. Often, pastors feel conflicted in these kinds of situations because they can bring healthy, biblical values into tension with one another. On the one hand, it is virtuous to be charitable and transparent; love “believes all things,” after all, and so when men in the congregation respond to allegations of abuse with apparent contrition and seemingly humble “clarification” regarding how difficult their wives are to deal with, we feel the impulse to believe the best about them and minimize the severity of their wives’ allegations. False allegations are possible, after all, and we should have an allegiance to the truth over and above everything else. On the other hand, it is clear in Scripture that God has a deep hatred not only for unequal weights and measures, but also the oppression of the weak. Pierre and Wilson understand all of these dynamics, and they are not at all prepared to sacrifice any portion of Scripture for another. They are rather clear in laying out a prudent path forward, with all the uncertainty in mind, in light of the fact that false accusations of domestic abuse are incredibly rare, and safety of potential victims should come first. The truth of the situation will come to the surface in the process of securing safety for the potential victims and expressed concern for the potential abusers.

The common factor that distinguishes domestic abuse as abuse is the pattern of controlling and manipulative behaviors that reinforce the self-entitlement of the abuser and diminishes the capacities and dignity of the abused. Domestic abuse is a direct assault on God in the sense that it is a desecration of the imago Dei, and it is doubly egregious in marriage since it is an assault on the one-flesh union that God intends to be a living parable of the gospel. Though abuse is always intentional, it is very often perpetrated by individuals who have been so self-deceived that they are unaware of the sinful intentions of their own hearts. Which means sometimes, simply taking people at their word is actually profoundly unloving. You don’t have to pretend like abusive husbands are self-consciously lying when they insist that their wives are insane or mentally unhealthy or the problem to their marriage. Most of the time, they sincerely believe this, and they are sincerely wrong; sin has radically warped their perception of themselves and those around them. Which is to say, this kind of sin brings about a lot of confusion, and Pierre and Wilson are a great help at showing how to bring light to murky situations. For all these reasons and more, I heartily commend this book to you.

[1] Since, statistically, the overwhelming scenario for domestic abuse is husbands/fathers abusing their wives/children, I’m simply reflecting that scenario with my language here. However, I recognize and grant that abuse can exist with different relational arrangements, though this is circumstantially rare.



Theology is for Preaching: A Book Review

Is theology important for preaching? If you read many preaching books, you may be tempted to answer “no,” since most focus on methodology. They tend to provide clear instructions for studying a text and preparing a sermon, but few address the theology of preaching. Those that do address theological issues related to preaching only do so incidentally. Given these facts, one might reasonably conclude theology is not important for preaching. Yet this would be a mistake. As Chase Kuhn and Paul Grimmond argue in their new book, Theology Is for Preaching, “preaching and theology are mutually informed” (xx). Theology undergirds the task of preaching, and preaching communicates sound doctrine (theology). Preaching is unavoidably theological!

Kuhn and Grimmond have assembled a team of respected scholars to address various theological issues and their relationship to preaching. Preachers who desire to gain a better appreciation for the theological nature of preaching will benefit from reading their work for three reasons: (1) the book covers a broad range of theological issues as they relate to preaching, (2) the authors demonstrate the connection between the theology of preaching and the practice of preaching, and (3) the book provides models of theological preaching for those who aspire to deliver theologically sound sermons.

Deep and Wide

Theology Is for Preaching is an edited volume, which means various scholars contributed to the work. As you would suspect, some chapters are better written than others, and some chapters are more relevant than others. I will leave it to you to decide which is which! Nevertheless, most chapters are solid and well-written, and most of them address theology and preaching in some shape, form, or fashion. The use of a wide range of scholars allows the book to cover a wide range of topics, which is one of the primary strengths of the book.

Theology Is for Preaching includes chapters on the theological nature of preaching (see Mark Thompson’s chapter “The Declarative God: A Theological Description of Preaching”), a biblical-theological description of preaching (see Claire Smith’s “‘Preaching’: Toward Lexical Clarity for Better Practice”), the Christological nature of preaching (see Daniel Wu’s “Old Testament Challenges: Christocentric or Christotelic Sermons?”), and the theological content of preaching (see Simon Gillham’s “Theological Formation through the Preached Word: a Biblical-Theological Account”). The broad focus allows the reader to familiarize himself with various theological aspects of preaching by reading a single volume, which is helpful for beginning preachers or those who have not devoted time to reflecting on the theological nature of preaching. The downside, however, is that contributors are not always able to go as deep as they might have gone if they were writing a complete volume on the subject. This does not take away from the usefulness of the book, but it is a reminder of the limits of edited works and the introductory nature of the present volume.

Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

From the outset, Kuhn and Grimmond emphasized the “practical” nature of theology. Theology is practical because it shapes the method of preaching. Our theological convictions about God, revelation, and Scripture (among other things) should lead us to preach expositionally. Our theological convictions about Christ and salvation should lead us to preach Christocentrically. Our theological convictions about the power of the Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit should lead us to preach confidently. The bottom line: our approach to preaching should be shaped by our theology.

Theology is also practical because it shapes the content of preaching. Our sermons should contain sound doctrine that lead to godly living. In their preface, Kuhn and Grimmond argued, “The intention of preaching is a clearer and more faithful theology” (xx). This theology “is not merely cerebral or esoteric, but also ethical” (xx). In short, “faithful living requires sound doctrine” (xx). Preachers should strive to deliver sermons containing sound doctrine and practical instruction based on that doctrine, sermons aimed at producing orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Watch and Learn

Theology Is for Preaching does not contain instruction alone. The book also includes two sermons meant to model theological preaching. The first sermon, entitled “Listening Before Speaking” and delivered by Simon Manchester, expounds Jeremiah 23:16-32. The main point of the exposition was preachers should “hear” God’s Word clearly and personally before attempting to communicate it, or speak it, to others. The second sermon, entitled “Meeting Jesus” and delivered by Phillip Jensen, expounds Luke 5:1-11. The message was evangelistic, as the main point of the exposition was the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation. These “model” sermons are helpful for readers. They provide tangible examples of what the various contributors have been saying about theological preaching. Plus, each preacher included an “evaluation” of the sermon and how it contributes to a study of the theological foundations of preaching. Preachers should be inspired to preach theological sermons by the content of the book and the examples of the expositors included in the book.

Conclusion

Kuhn and Grimmond have done preachers a great service by producing a book exclusively devoted to the theology of preaching. Those who read their work will walk away from it with a greater appreciation for the theological foundations of preaching, the biblical-theological framework of preaching, and the theological content of preaching. They will also be encouraged and equipped to preach theologically sound messages. Preachers, take up and read!



The Plurality Principle: A Book Review

Over the past several years, numerous works have been released calling churches back to a polity that is built on a plurality of elders. Much of the effort has been directed toward demonstrating the biblical argument for an eldership and some resources offer counsel on how churches can transition to an elder governance structure. Other resources define and describe the role of elders in the church. How should one understand the qualification passages in 1 Timothy and Titus? What must elders do? How should churches develop elders? These questions and more have been addressed. In The Plurality Principle, Dave Harvey offers something new and something desperately needed in the church. Harvey shares how elder pluralities can function in a healthy manner that serves the church well. While many of the books written on eldership deal with the elders as individuals, The Plurality Principle focuses on the team dynamic amongst the elders.

In The Plurality Principle, Harvey has one nail to hammer: “The quality of your elder plurality determines the health of your church.” His goal is to share with ministry leaders what he has learned about how to define, experience, and assess a healthy plurality of elders. To accomplish this task, Harvey breaks his work into two section: building a plurality and thriving as a plurality.

The first chapter offers a succinct summary of what many other resources have previously contributed to the argument for elder pluralities. He does well to include the biblical foundation at the start of his work. He quickly acknowledges that being a part of a healthy plurality requires each pastor to know his role, be willing to come under authority, learn humility, traffic in nuances, and be willing to think about his gifts and position through the lens of what serves the church rather than his personal agenda.

Chapter 2 is the most important contribution to the current conversation on healthy elderships. Here, Harvey develops his thoughts on the idea of “First Among Equals.” He quickly demonstrates the Scriptural support for leadership that spans both the Old and New Testaments. His theological observations are concise and precise. He is careful to demonstrate the submission of the Son to the Father in the incarnation, thus separating himself from charges of holding to eternal functional subordination. He also recognizes that having leadership on an elder team is not synonymous with headship. Headship, Harvey rightly argues, is confined in Scripture to covenant roles.

After laying the theological groundwork, Harvey then shows his readers how churches can err by placing undue emphasis on the first or the equals part of first among equals. Emphasizing first can lead to domineering leadership. Emphasizing equals can lead to indecision, confusion, and lack of care. The point is, both realities can lead to a significant health crisis in the life of a plurality and the consequences can be devastating.

In the latter portion of his book, Harvey helps leaders develop healthy pluralities. He outlines four essentials for a healthy team culture: a context for care, defined accountability, regular time spent together, and humility. His case is strengthened by the many examples he brings to the discussion of healthy senior leaders caring well for their people and exercising a great deal of humility.

Harvey concludes by saying, “And so we take the risk and live devoted to this biblical vision of plurality, not because we have perfect communion—we’re still flawed and fallen—but because we know deep in the recesses of our souls that the only leadership story worth living is a life where we lead together.” If you want to be a healthy church, if you want to experience deep joy in ministry, then you must tend to the health of your plurality. As the elders go, so goes the church.

Overall, Harvey accomplishes his goal of sharing with church leaders how to build and operate a healthy plurality. His consistent call to humility and care is pastoral. His experience is evident and his willingness to communicate his own shortcomings in many of his exhortations is instructive. As I read The Plurality Principle, I experienced numerous “aha” moments as Harvey was putting to words some of my own experiences. I also had many moments of conviction as I saw my own pride and failings where I have sought to engage in an elder plurality.

If this book is going to serve church leaders well, then the whole elder team must work through it together. It is not enough for the senior leader to read it alone and try to convey the message to their team. While you could spend your time as an elder team focusing on all kinds of good work, I am confident that taking the time to invest in the health of your plurality will be the greatest gift you can offer one another and your church.

 



Corporate Worship: A Book Review

Matt Merker wrote Corporate Worship because he knows that there is a connection between who the congregation sees themself to be and how they worship as a church. In order to do understand corporate worship, “we must understand the local church. When we approach the Sunday service with a biblical view of the church body, it transforms how we engage in gathered worship.” (p.26).

So, who is the church? Merker states that it is, “an assembly of blood-bought, Spirit-filled worshipers who build one another up by God’s Word and affirm one another as citizens of Christ’s kingdom through the ordinances” (p.35). He then takes the reader through several implications this has on worship. After understanding of who the church is, he addresses a vital question: must we gather together? While we do have commands from the Scriptures to consider, Merker namely focuses on the beauty of a gathered assembly of believers. “Just as the sight of his bride makes a groom’s heart swell with love, church members should overflow with affection for one another when they behold the assembly” (p.51). Moreover, we can fully behold the beauty of the church when we dwell on God’s miraculous work of bringing us together: “to put it as strongly as possible, worship is God’s work first before it is ours. God the Father grants us to honor him in and through our mediator, God the Son, by the power of God the Spirit. Our worship originates in the triune God and resounds to the eternal glory of the triune God” (p.55).

Therefore, knowing that we are God’s people called to assemble together, what must we do? There are three key purposes for our church gatherings: first, to his glory (vertical); second, for our mutual good (horizontal); finally, to be put before the world’s gaze (evangelism). The church primarily gathers to glorify God, and there are particular ways we can do this when we meet as a church (more to come on that later). A close second place to this is the opportunity to gather so that we take the Bible’s commands seriously by singing to one another and encouraging one another to give thanks to God (Ephesians 2:18-21). Lastly, our gatherings should have a sense of evangelism to them. We can anticipate that unbelievers will come marvel at this diverse group of people, and this book provides many ways for the church and its leaders to make the unbeliever welcome in our midst.

With the nature of the church and its purposes understood, the focus of the book turns towards corporate worship. Merker begins by laying out arguments for the regulative principle, and he gives a concise case for why churches ought to abide by it. Additionally, he uses some case studies to see how following the regulative principle can safe guard the church. This comes in full view with an example of a Sunday gathering where he breaks down the elements of worship and their respective order. Even more importantly, the book finishes by showing the necessary elements of a worship gathering. The foundations of this book are solid, and for this reason Merker can then display the implications of having a God-centered, corporate, worship gathering with the saints of your local body.

For me, these chapters were glorious reminders of why I need to hear the Scriptures read and preached, why I need to pray and sing with the church, and why we observe Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He writes in a manner that is understandable to introduce all of these elements, but even for one who thinks about these things often, these chapters enriched my love for God’s people. Additionally, I felt cared for and loved by our Chief Shepherd because he has revealed himself to us so that we might gather together in an orderly manner to worship Him and edify the saints.

The final chapter on congregational singing caused me to wonder why I so often listen to the ‘Together for the Gospel’ albums from past conferences. I have often thought to myself, “why do I like this music? What draws me to it time and again?” For an untalented vocalists as myself, I realized, thanks to this book, that it is because they are songs that I can sing! As Christians, we are called to sing to God and to one another, and songs such as these allowed me to do so by means of their basic melody and profound lyrics. I stopped thinking about myself and focused on the gorgeous harmony of the voices around the room that I hear on Sunday. “As new converts and mature saints harmonize together, the church becomes a seminary in which all of us are simultaneously professors and students” (p.137).

On a brief note for any who might seek Merker’s help in considering what type of songs we should sing on Sunday, I applaud Merker for allotting only one paragraph to this section. He has made this a more timeless piece by not getting too detailed on this argument; rather, he urges elders to use wisdom to care for the flock by ensuring that the songs they are choosing are teaching the body appropriately.

Matt Merker has made a wonderful contribution to the church by making one dwell on the glory of God before emphasizing how we are called to worship Him. He certainly has a specific aim of upholding the need for the whole congregation to participate in the gathering, and this is a book that the saints need to read so that they are spurred on to gather as a local church. God has called you as an individual to commit yourself to a body of believers, and he has required certain elements in this worship. I hope this book encourages you to go be the church this Sunday as you “read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, sing the Bible, and see the Bible (visibly depicted in the ordinance of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper)” (p.14).



Finding the Right Hills to Die On: A Book Review

Gavin Ortlund wants to make you a better boxer—or at least help you pick better fights.

He opens his book with an observation about fighting: “It is easy to lose your balance when you’re standing on one foot. The strongest posture is one of balance between both feet: one of poise. That’s why boxers put so much care into their footwork.”[1]

Perhaps no other phrase embodies the task of Ortlund’s Finding the Right Hills to Die On than that of “theological poise,” and because of this, I think this little book needs to be bumped up to the top of your reading list. If it hasn’t come for your church yet, it’s likely on the way: doctrinal division lurks around the corner, and you’d be well-served to equip yourself with theological poise. Ortlund helps us do so.

A Tale of Two Impulses: Sectarianism and Minimalism

Finding the Right Hills to Die On begins with a section discussing the dangers of what Ortlund calls “sectarianism” and “minimalism.” Don’t get caught up in the vocabulary. What is suggested here is simple: doctrine is something we should divide over when appropriate; however, the church’s foundational call is to unity and peace with one another, secured by the blood of Christ. We should avoid both unnecessary division and unnecessary indifference.

Though a wide survey of healthy churches may find strong disagreements, “our love of theology should never exceed our love of real people, and therefore we must learn to love people amid our theological disagreements.”[2] Even in instances where healthy disagreement occurs, we must remember that our primary interlocutors are not flesh and blood but the cosmic powers over this present darkness, as Paul writes in Ephesians 6.

Again, it’s about poise. Avoiding sectarianism and minimalism is not about avoiding disagreements altogether—it’s about understanding when and how we ought to disagree.

But if only some hills are worth dying on, how can we know we’ve chosen the right ones?

Theological Triage: How to Know When to Pick Fights

To help you train, Ortlund uses the increasingly common framework of “theological triage” to prioritize doctrinal concerns. (In the same way a field doctor must use triage to determine the urgency of injuries sustained in war, Ortlund says we can use theological triage to determine the urgency and importance of a given doctrinal issue.)

His version of this framework includes three tiers of doctrinal concerns, appropriately titled primary, secondary, and tertiary. Concisely, he defines them like so:

  • Primary doctrines: those doctrines that, when knowingly and persistently denied, raise considerable concerns about one’s salvation
  • Secondary doctrines: those doctrines that “make a noticeable difference in how we understand and articulate the gospel, though their denial does not generally constitute a denial of the gospel”[3]
  • Tertiary doctrines: those doctrines over which we should not divide at any level

This tiered system aids us in navigating how and when we ought to divide, and it does so with relative neatness: primary doctrines are always worth dividing over, secondary doctrines are typically worth dividing over on a local church level, and tertiary doctrines are never worth dividing over.

While I admit a newcomer to this kind of theological framework might struggle to understand where they ought to place a particular doctrinal topic, I think the helpfulness of these categories mitigates any confusion that may happen within each rank. In fact, considerable wiggle room can be given within each level of this taxonomy (especially the secondary and tertiary levels).

For example, Ortlund helpfully points out that some second-tier doctrines are more urgent or consequential than others; not all secondary issues are “equally secondary.” Likewise, second-tier doctrines are often marked by a gospel-vitality that can be undermined if we seek to treat them with indifference: the sovereignty of God in salvation, how sacraments are administered, and other theological topics tend can richly inform our worldviews and communicate much about our conception of the gospel.

A bulk of the book is dedicated to “performing” theological triage—particularly in the chapters dedicated to second-and-third-rank issues. Drawing on his journey through various theological positions, Ortlund models what it means to define the faith from a posture of humility.

Who should read this?

One of the most impressive traits of the book is its accessibility. There are a host of other great books on doctrinal division that have come out lately—Putman’s When Doctrine Divides the People of God comes to mind. Still, Finding the Right Hills to Die On is practical in a way some of those other works have not demonstrated themselves to be.

This is a book that I want to get in the hands of every church member because it is the backbone of what we need in 2021: church unity. In an era marked by division, derision, political strife, and theological uppercuts, Finding the Right Hills to Die On reminds us that it’s okay to step out of the boxing ring sometimes.

And, I think Ortlund would agree: oftentimes, it’s best if we do so.

[1] Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: A Case for Theological Triage (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 27.

[2] Ibid., 36.

[3] Ibid., 95.



Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures — A Book Review

Do you need to love literature in order to understand the Bible?

In this volume, Matthew Mullins raises this question and makes the case that understanding and enjoying literature can equip you to love the Bible. Mullins teaches English at the College at Southeastern and aims in this project to examine the “pleasure of understanding.” His twofold contention is that “understanding what we read can be pleasurable,” and that sometimes “you must take pleasure in something in order to understand it” (ix). As he explores this topic, Mullins discusses both a framework for reading in general and also specific strategies for engaging literary texts like poems.

What’s Part of the Problem?

Recognizing that many readers simply do not enjoy poetry or struggle to understand literary texts, Mullins examines some of the reasons why this might be the case. Why do we hate poetry? Why is it difficult to understand texts that are literary, indirect, and not explicitly didactic?

One of the primary culprits here is not only the way that we read but how we characterize the texts we are reading. It’s possible to think of the Bible exclusively as an “instruction manual” that contains a series of distinct messages or even principles that you then need to apply to your life. This approach works fine for some parts of the Bible, but strains when reading texts that communicate in different modes. Throughout his study, Mullins discusses poetry as a prime example of a literary text that requires a different set of tools to understand and experience.

Drawing on the work of Jamie K. Smith (You are What you Love), Mullins characterizes this “Bible as instruction manual” viewpoint as a “hermeneutic of information” that regards humans as primarily “thinking beings.” This interpretive framework is ill-equipped to deal with literary texts (and life situations) that are designed explicitly to evoke emotions as part of their intended meaning. By this, Mullins does not deny that the Bible provides instruction. His suggestion is rather that “we expand our understanding of what these things are and how they are communicated so that we might better love the Scriptures and allow them to shape our whole selves, heads and hearts” (30). He also clarifies that his goal is not to “exchange head for heart, intellect for emotion,” but rather “to develop a theory and practice of reading that account for both” (9).

The first series of chapters in the book are focused on what literature is and also on the way that it works. Mullins first tells the story of “how reading literature became a quest for meaning” (chapter one). If poetry is understood as “imitation,” you might be looking behind the poetic form to “what it really means.” If poetry is understood as “expression,” you might be looking for the feeling that the poet is trying to convey in the poem. If poetry is understood as “tradition,” you might be looking for how the poem itself is drawing on universal concepts from the history of ideas. In each of these cases, there is a separation of form and content that encourages readers to ask what a literary text “really means.”

What’s Part of the Solution?

In order for readers to appreciate the way literature works, they have to have a framework for meaning that is wider than “finding a message” (chapter three). Here Mullins discusses the role of emotion, “defamiliarization,” and association in the meaning of literary texts. The meaning of a poetic text is wrapped up with the emotions it evokes, the way it helps us see everyday things in fresh ways, and how it captures rather than resolves interpretive tension. As Mullins summarizes, “We have to learn to feel, resee, and come to terms with the process of making peace as a form of understanding” (58).

One might view this approach to reading poetry as hopelessly subjective. However, Mullins also takes time to address the way that literary texts constrain meaning as well as generate it (chapter four). Mullins insists that literary texts cannot be “reduced to a singular main idea,” but that “this irreducibility” does not mean that they could mean “anything” (61). Rather, literary texts generate “a limited range of meanings, not an infinite range of meanings” (61). In this way, Mullins argues both that “the language of the literary text itself is the best guide to its meaning,” and that “emotion doesn’t make meaning simplistically subjective” (64). In his discussion of “Reading with your gut,” Mullins also presents several distinct ways to conceive of the reading process other than extracting a message from the text (chapter five). Delighting in something can also be instructive (chapter six), and this is part of what fuels the worship of the churches who not only read but respond to biblical texts through song and liturgy (chapter seven).

How Do You Enjoy (Biblical) Literature?

The last series of chapters in the book shift to some of the practices and implications of reading the Bible as literature. After unfolding this theoretical model for meaning, reading, and responding, Mullins seeks to show what this approach might look like. Mullins suggests that “poems are more like paintings than like prose” (126). When encountering a poem like Psalm 23, you can stand in front of it, notice interesting elements, and then ask questions informed by your reflective observation (127–134). Mullins then discusses how to read for the general sense of a poem, how to identify and feel the central emotion of the poem, and how to notice the formal features that enable the poem to work in the way that it does (chapters nine through twelve).

In his conclusion, Mullins returns to the broad themes of reading and the effects of our reading practices. Good literature, Mullins insists, “leaves room for us to grapple with uncertainty, and good readers are capable of living in that uncertainty without always needing to resolve it into a clear and final message” (178). Theologically, “where we encounter and experience uncertainty, or multiplicity, in God’s Word, we are being invited to speculate, question, and wonder” (178). In other words, this capacity enables us “to pursue God without a definite end in sight” and “pursue God in the Scriptures for God’s own sake” (178). Mullins’s final point relates to “habituation.” If we can develop habits and reading practices that encounter the Scriptures in this way, it will not only inform us but form us into readers with a Scripture-shaped set of affections. Reading the Bible can be a spiritual and liturgical act that can transform us “into the kind of person who loves his Word” (184).

Appreciation and Engagement

Hating Poetry: Who Me? 

In this work, Mullins has a very specific interlocutor in mind, namely, someone that reads poetry in search of propositions and principles (2–16, 82, etc). He is speaking to those who may misunderstand the meaning and function of poetry because they “expect poetry to function like explanatory prose” (x). While many readers might initially locate themselves outside of this target audience, as Mullins unfolds his study, I think most readers of the Bible will recognize themselves at various points. Finding the “big idea” or “timeless truth” of a psalm, a proverb, or a biblical story is a well-worn practice for most believers.

In some ways, Mullins also tackles this topic in such a way that two distinct scholarly groups might be unhappy with his work. From the literary side, Mullins might concede too much to notions of normative authority, interpretive controls, and the sociological function of the Scriptures within the churches. From the biblical studies side, Mullins might concede too much to the notion that emotions and feeling are integral elements of meaning. However, at strategic places throughout the volume, Mullins connects these two fields of inquiry. He speaks of instruction and delight. He affirms the message and effect of literary texts. He aims at formal features and emotional entailments.

One of the great strengths of this book is that Mullins opens up a way for non-specialists to reckon with not only what the Scriptures say but how they communicate this meaning. At the end of the book (and at the close of each chapter), Mullins provides an exercise designed to implement some of the principles discussed in the book. These helpful tools will allow casual Bible readers and church members to appreciate the insights Mullins articulates throughout his wide-ranging discussions.

2. Enjoying an Authoritative Text

Sometimes a literary approach to the Scriptures entails a rejection or a neglect of the theological confessions about its authoritative or inspired status. Mullins demonstrates, though, that reading “the Bible as literature” does not necessarily entail an a-theological approach. Rather, a commitment to the divine inspiration of biblical writings actually requires readers to take seriously its formal qualities and literary types. Believing readers also affirm the theological function of biblical texts. As Mullins insists, “The Bible is our most direct access to God’s words—it was written not only to convey information about him but also to provide a way for us to commune with him, to meet him in his Word” (xi). This confessional approach to literary studies will serve students of the Scriptures well.

3. Enjoying a Canonical Text

One limitation of Mullins’s work is that it does not engage biblical scholarship. Mullins focuses on general hermeneutical elements and uses English translations for his exposition. This is a limitation because of the unique formal and functional elements of the Bible’s original languages. On this issue, Mullins acknowledges the “mediated nature of our reading” when encountering translations (xii). Much of Mullins’s discussion about the nature of reading literature, though, applies equally well to someone reading the Bible in any language. Further, the vast majority of Bible readers in the churches will read in their own language. Learning to read an English translation well, too, is an important accomplishment that will enhance one’s understanding and enjoyment of the Scriptures.

In this regard, two areas for further reflection involve the notions of a canonical collection and the reality of intertextuality. Biblical poetry is embedded by design within carefully crafted collections. Individual psalms are found by biblical readers within an ordered book of Psalms. What’s more, these poetic texts are profoundly intertextual. Thus, grappling with literary language in one text that is simultaneously an allusion to a theologically significant intertext would not be a shift into didactic study but a meaningful extension of a literary mode of analysis.

Reckoning with the unique literary qualities of all of the biblical genres would also be a fruitful further endeavor. Even including just the sophisticated nature of narrative and the rhetorical moves of NT epistles would help explain how to read most of the Bible. Developing a “poetics” of each biblical genre alongside an appreciation of poetic texts would unlock an entryway into the ranging literary landscapes of the biblical canon.

This is not really a critique but a possible avenue to explore for someone who is convinced of the explanatory power of Mullins’s work and wants to bring that into dialogue with features of biblical studies that resonate with the overall thesis. These canonical and intertextual features also resonate with Mullins’s point that “the Bible requires more than one kind of reading” (ix).

Conclusion

Learning to understand and enjoy literary texts requires a certain disposition and a certain set of skills. Enjoying the Bible is a readable and reliable guide for this pursuit. Let the reader understand (and enjoy!).



Deacons: A Book Review

Deacons are the guys who fire the pastor when he does something stupid, right?

 Are deacons just glorified janitors?

Does our church even have deacons? Who cares?

Depending on what church you are a part of you might have very different perspectives on what a “deacon” is. Whatever your view is, if you are tempted to think that the role of deacons is something relatively yawn-worthy, something on par with organizing church yard sales or pointless committee meetings, Matt Smethurst would like to change your mind.

In his new book, Deacons: How They Serve and Strengthen the Church, Smethurst wants to open your eyes to this sobering and encouraging reality: “Deacons wrongly deployed can halve your ministry, but deacons rightly deployed can double it…For better or for worse, deacons are difference makers,” (p. 20).

Smethurst, who is now an elder at his church, first served for years as a deacon himself. Serving in both roles provides him a unique perspective on what a deacon is and isn’t, and how faithful deacons can enhance and focus the work of the elders. Central to Smethurst’s argument in the book is what deacons must be and what deacons must do: deacons must be Christ-like servants, and deacons must do Christ-like service.

What a Deacon Must Be

Our English word “deacon” is simply a transliterated form of the Greek word diakonos, “servant.” A deacon, quite literally, is a servant. Smethurst demonstrates that this means that a deacon is to be what all Christians are to be: servants. A quick search of the use of diakonos in the gospels shows us that the call to be a “servant” is not limited to an elite few, but universal for all Christ-followers (cf. Matt 23:11; Mark 9:35).

“If you’ve put your trust in Christ,” Smethurst writes, “you are already a deacon in a broad sense,” (p. 16). Of course, the Bible does begin to use the noun “deacon” in a more technical sense as one of the two ordained offices in the church, as the epistles of Paul show us (cf. Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-12). But even as we examine the qualifications of a deacon in 1 Timothy, we should be struck with just how ordinary these requirements are. Deacons are not called to leap over tall buildings in a single bound or stop proverbial trains with their bare hands. The requirements for the diaconate are none other than the same requirements all Christians are called to submit to: speak the truth, abstain from drunkenness, do not be greedy for dishonest gain, be faithful in marriage, etc.

Smethurst explains: “Deacons must embody the kind of character expected of all Christians. But they should be exemplary in the ordinary. Deacons are the people in your church of whom you should be able to say, ‘Brother, do you desire to foster unity? Sister, do you wish to grow as a servant? Watch them,” (p. 71).

This is why character always matters more than competency when it comes to selecting a deacon. Deacons, like elders, are to be living-breathing examples of godliness for the church to model themselves after.

The temptation for many churches is to view the diaconate as the junior varsity team to the elders when it comes to spiritual maturity. Sure, he doesn’t really know his Bible and has a bad temper, but he is really handy and is willing to mow the church lawn, so we should make Ted a deacon. Finding competent deacons who can organize ministries is crucial—but competency never outweighs character (see pgs. 32-36). And when we rightly understand what deacons are called to do, the importance of what they must be becomes even clearer.

What a Deacon Must Do

Acts 6:1-7 is an important starting place for understanding what deacons must do. The early church is threatened with serious divisions that are occurring across ethnic lines: Hellenistic Jews are ignored in the daily distribution of bread. Jesus taught that the church would be formed from peoples from every nation (Matt 28:18-20) and the Jerusalem church is the first petri-dish in which this multi-cultural community is growing. These divisions contradict Jesus’ vision of what the church is to be. So, what do the apostles do?

Although Acts 6:1-7 never uses the noun diakonos the way Paul uses it in Timothy, we do get the verbal form of it (diakoneō) when the apostles explain, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve (diakoneō) tables,” (Acts 6:2). So the apostles call on the entire congregation to select seven men, “of good repute, full of Spirit and wisdom,” (Acts 6:3, note the importance of character!) who can serve the church. The apostles conclude, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” (Acts 6:4). So the church chooses seven men to serve the church (Acts 6:5-6).

And what happens? We are told, “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith,” (Acts 6:7). These seven men didn’t just slow down the infestation of division in the church—their service led the church to explode in health and evangelism!

From this story we glean many insights into what a deacon’s ministry should do:

Prioritize the ministry of Word and Prayer

The apostles are reluctant to forego their ministry of the Word and prayer to wait on tables, but not because they find the service below them or the problem to be unimportant. There’s actually a play on words with diakonos in Acts 6:2, 4, which becomes apparent if we just use our English word “deacon”:

“It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to deacon tables… But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the deacon-ing of the word.”

The word used in verse 4 for “ministry” comes from the same word group as diakonos: diakonia. The apostles are not unwilling to be servants—they just know that the unique service they have been called to cannot be neglected.

This distinction in service correlates to the distinction between elders and deacons in 1 Timothy, where the only substantive difference between the two is the requirement for elders to be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2). Pastors must devote themselves to the ministry of the Word. It can be tempting for pastors to get entangled in many problems in the life of the church either from a lack of help or a lack of trust in others and begin to neglect the prayer and ministry of the word—but this comes with a cost. Smethurst notes:

“By prioritizing Scripture and prayer, the apostles are choosing to stay focused on the whole church’s spiritual welfare, even as they affirm the Hellenists’ physical needs…a church whose ministers are chained to the tyranny of the urgent—which so often shows up in “tangible problems”—is a church removing its heart to strengthen its arm. It’s a kind of slow-motion suicide,” (p. 47).

Deacons thus are to work and care for the needs within the church so that the elders may be free to prioritize prayer and the ministry of the Word.

Promote and Prioritize Unity in the Church

Unity was threatened in Acts 6 and the seven stepped up to protect the unity. “Deacons should be those who muffle shockwaves,” writes Smethurst, “not make them reverberate further,” (p. 54). Deacons are those who labor to prioritize and implement the priorities of the elders and to free the elders to devote themselves to what will bring the most unity: prayer and Word. Deacons are not those who use their position of authority to battle others or cudgel the elders. In fact, Smethurst points out that while there are several passages where elders are called to exercise oversight and members are called to submit to them (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 3:1-2; 5:17; 1 Pet 5:2; Heb 13:17), there is no such parallel with deacons. “Members…are called to emulate deacons; they are never told to obey them,” (p. 84).

Smethurst cites Mark Dever’s helpful analogy,

“If the elders say, ‘Let’s drive to Pittsburgh,’ it’s not up to the deacons to come back and say, ‘No, let’s drive to Philadelphia instead.’ They can legitimately come back and say, ‘Our engine won’t get us to Pittsburgh. Perhaps we should reconsider.’ That’s very helpful. But in general their job is to support the destination set by the elders,” (p. 83).

Smethurst concludes, “A contentious Christian…will make a poor deacon. So what should mark a deacon? Palpable humility. A spirit of gentleness. A willingness to be flexible. The ability to stand on conviction without being combative,” (pgs. 76-77). This is so critical when many churches (particularly in the Baptist tradition) view the deacon board as a kind of adversary to the pastor, there to check him if he moves the church in a direction they don’t like. It is the role of the elders to lead the ministry; it is the responsibility of the deacons to help facilitate the ministry, not provide an alternative direction.

Deacons can promote and protect the unity of the church by responding to opportunities for division in the church, supporting the ministry of the elders, and exhibiting humility in their own character.

Care for the Physical Needs of the Church

Since deacons are to work on “anything in a church’s life that threatens to distract and derail elders from their primary responsibilities,” (p. 75), this often means that deacons should be working to identify and meet tangible needs within the church. In Acts 6, that was an equitable distribution of bread. In churches today that may look like caring for the physical needs of widows, care for the church facilities, oversight of the church’s technology, budgets, hospitality, outreach opportunities, benevolence ministries, and so on and so forth.

It is interesting to note that we are never told exactly how the seven in Acts fixed the dilemma. Nor are we told that the apostles dictated what needed to be done. After the congregation had agreed that they were qualified and competent (why they must be “full of wisdom”), the apostles simply trusted them to figure out how to solve the problem. When addressing physical needs within the church, deacons are to be creative problem solvers. Their desire to guard the unity of the church compels them to this, “An ideal deacon candidate should have a track record of: sees a problem → wants to safeguard unity → thinks creatively → solves the problem,” (pgs. 55-56).

Conclusion

At one point, the church I now pastor had a board of deacons who oversaw the pastor and had authority over him. Later on, the church changed its model of governance and, while not eliminating the office entirely, had all deacons vacate the office and simply left it empty. Apparently, no one thought the job was important enough to be filled. Smethurst’s book shines like a lighthouse blazing through the fog of that kind of indifference. The work of deacons is not an optional quirk; it is a difference-maker in the life of a church.

There is so much more in this book that should be commended. The appendix on the issue of whether or not women can serve as deacons is worth the price of the book alone! Smethurst has packed the book with good exegesis, enlightening history, careful theology, and oodles and oodles of practical wisdom and refreshing encouragement.

He closes his book with these words of encouragement to all laboring in the diaconal ministry: “I want to reiterate that diaconal work is not glorious because it is always seen (it often isn’t). Nor is it glorious because it always gratifies (it often doesn’t). Ultimately, the work is glorious because of what it mirrors,” (p. 118). That mirrored reality is none other than the Deacon of all Deacons, the Servant of the Lord: Jesus Christ.

Editor’s Note: You can purchase Deacons: How They Serve And Strengthen The Church here or wherever books are sold. 



More Than a Battle: A Book Review

Joe Rigney’s recent book, More Than a Battle: How to Experience Victory, Freedom, and Healing from Lust, is (tragically) necessary.

Some might find such an assertion odd, given the plethora of similar books already in print. “Do we really need another book on overcoming lust and pornography?” The answer is simply that until we, as Christians in the twenty-first century, can start showing progress in this area, books like More Than a Battle will be unfortunately relevant. As it stands, it still seems to me that every pastor will answer the question, “What is the most perennial and wide-spread sin-struggle plaguing the men in your church?” the same way: pornography/lust.[1]

Still, is there anything about More Than a Battle that sets it apart from the rest of similar books? The answer is yes, and its unique contribution is hinted at in the title and subtitle. More Than a Battle is holistic in its approach to dealing with this issue. Rigney approaches sexual sin through three distinct lenses: sexual sin as immorality, sexual sin as addiction, and sexual sin as brokenness. Most books on the subject tend to lean heavily into one or another of these lenses, with a suspicious eye towards the others.

For example, those who make a big deal of sexual sin as immorality tend to take a war-like approach to name, attack, and kill the sin with extreme prejudice. This approach naturally has my sympathies, which means I tend to raise an eyebrow whenever sexual sin is described as “addiction” or emotional “brokenness”—I am sensitive to the danger of blame-shifting, a temptation ready to pounce when sexual sin is approached through these lenses. The danger is not abstract for me: on more than one occasion, I have had to bring Christians I’ve counseled back from trying (in vain) to identify some past injury to explain their present disobedience. These are not cases in which a glaring past hurt has been ignored and have subsequently festered (scenarios which, admittedly, would benefit a lot from the insights of sexual sin as “addiction” or as emotional “brokenness”), but rather cases in which no clear damage has been done, and an excavation has nevertheless begun so as to dig up a scapegoat. Rigney recognizes this threat and warns about as much when he says, “as you consider the various layers of your own struggle, beware of the temptation to absolve yourself of responsibility” (pg. 73).

But my default lens has its own dangers as well, such as giving the struggling sinner the cathartic outlet of self-loathing on the one hand, or placing him on the treadmill of working hard (on the surface of the issue), but not smart (at its root) on the other. Both of these pitfalls give the illusion of accomplishing something, and neither of them do a thing. Rigney, not content with leaving any lawful and biblical resource untapped, brings all three lenses to bare. And he does this by bringing them all under the umbrella of “Walking by the Spirit.” In a real way, More Than a Battle could have just as easily been titled, Walking by the Spirit (with Respect to Lust). In this way, the book is robustly biblical, immanently practical, and strikingly enlightening. He pulls from the pastoral wisdom and David Powlison, the theological-psychological insight of Matthew LaPine, and the clinical research of Jay Stringer to leave no stone unturned.

Particularly strong are chapters three and four, which give a biblical and theological accounting for the body and the mind. They offer compelling explanatory power for how pornography becomes such a formidable foe in the Christian life that draws on the common grace insights of psychology and places them squarely within a theological framework. “The body, with its intuitions and appetites,” writes Rigney, “is both malleable and stubborn; it can both be shaped and afterward hold its shape. That is, we can develop habits, whether for good or ill. While our mind and body were both created good, since the fall, our corruption extends to the whole person, both mind and body” (pg. 56). This means that the body has the potential to be an ally in pursuit of righteousness, but also to become weaponized by sin—an assertion that jives well with Paul’s instructions in Romans 6:12-14. “Central to renewing our minds,” says Rigney, “is reminding ourselves again and again that men are not beasts and women are not objects” (pg. 78).

Another strength that makes More Than a Battle altogether different is the pastoral mood in which it was written, which manifests itself in a wonderful feature: “A Word to Mentors.” At the conclusion of every chapter, Rigney has a section aimed directly at mentors, equipping them to help navigate the chapter’s information for maximal fruitfulness. This is consistent with Rigney’s own expressed intention for the book: “This book is designed for two different groups: men who are presently struggling with lust and pornography and men who want to help them” (pg. 10).

In these sections, Rigney not only instructs mentors on how to help make the concepts click into place in practical ways for the men they are serving, but also on how to shape an optimal atmosphere or culture for growing in this area. Central to this culture-making is what Rigney calls “Gospel Presence.” Mentors who bring gospel presence to those they are helping are men who have so marinated and soaked in the goodness of God in Christ that they cannot help but drip with it. These kinds of men are unshockable—men who have gospel-truth and assurance pent up behind their lips, ready to pour out at the first opportunity. But this does not mean that mentors who exhibit gospel presence make sin out to be light. The opposite is in fact the case. At my own church, I’m in the habit of saying that we want the kind of environment that is hospitable to the confession of sin, and hostile to the practice of it. Or, as Rigney puts it, “Embracing broken sinners always entails a violent hostility toward their sin” (pg. 99).

More Than a Battle is the best book of its kind that I have read to date, and it has instantly become my default go-to resource for discipling men in my Church who struggle with lust and pornography. It is biblical, practical, and hopeful. Too many today have concluded that there is no hope for experiencing victory in this area, and More Than a Battle is the exact kind of sobering medicine such people need. I cannot commend it highly enough.

[1] I am aware, of course, that pornography is a growing issue for women as well, and that is no small thing. But I’m talking generalities here, and generally speaking, this is the issue for men in the church today.



Labor With Hope: A Book Review

“‘I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.’
To the woman he said,
‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.’” Genesis 3:15-16a

The Scriptures are full of commands, illustrations, and metaphors pertaining to childbirth. From the creation mandate to new birth in Christ to the coming recreation, the concept of laboring for life is essential to the metanarrative of God and his people. This passage in Genesis is a prime example of this, showing that “the hope of human history hangs on the promise that a Deliverer would come through the woman’s womb” (32). In Labor with Hope, Gloria Furman translates the academic work of a Ph.D. student, Jesse Scheumann, into a devotional, biblical-theological book on child-bearing.

The subtitle of this book explains that it is a compilation of “Gospel Meditations,” which is a fitting descriptor for each chapter. Furman focuses each chapter around a passage or two of Scripture, using the text as a starting point to discuss heavy, beautiful realities related to child-bearing. Here are some key strengths of the book:

1. Scripture doesn’t pull any punches, and neither does Furman.

Furman deals with massive topics including but not limited to the image of God, the reasons for pain in every aspect of motherhood, abortion, and even the “saved through childbearing” passage in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. There are ways to write a book like this that circumvent the hard and complicated truths of Scripture, but Furman will have none of that. She celebrates the full gospel (suffering included!) at every turn:

“Day and night, why do we give ourselves away? Because of the gospel. This stunning portrait of the Suffering Servant shapes a Christ-centered perspective for our motherhood. Every theme of pain and suffering in this world gives way to a vision of our glorious Christ,” (66).

2. Furman’s writing is gracious – inclusive in all the right ways, while avoiding unnecessary controversies.

Throughout the book, Furman gives appropriate acknowledgment to the controversies and hurts that come with a topic like motherhood. She recognizes that she will have readers will all sorts of opinions about how to properly deliver a baby, but makes clear that she does not intend to speak to questions surrounding modern medicine (15). Many women reading a book like this will have struggled with infertility or maybe grieved over the spiritual states of grown children, and Furman speaks a soothing gospel word to both (42-43). Adoptive mothers are included often in her applications, and stress is placed on the role of all believers in the spiritual procreation we are called to in Christ (78-79).

3. The gospel is the unifying theme just as much as motherhood is.

If you have concern that a book like this would be repetitive- perhaps it feels like just another book on motherhood- fear not. Furman is repetitive in all the right ways. Every chapter brings you back to her central point, that “the metaphor of childbirth points us to God- birth is not about us,” (53). She refers to maternal pain as a megaphone calling us to repentance and faith (40). The gospel is proclaimed as the only power for true, sacrificial love (61). Birth pain, along with all forms of suffering, is explained as leading the Christian to future glory (92-93). If Furman is guilty of repetition in the slightest, it is of the best kind of gospel-repetition a devotional reader could ask for.

Those praises noted, here are some limitations and weaknesses of Labor With Hope:

1. Tell us where we’re going.

This is the truest weakness of Furman’s work. While a devotional compilation of “meditations” may not be intended to follow a clear progression from beginning to end, there could have been a bit more overarching structure to hold the book together. Since the book has a biblical-theological framework, a progression through the canon would have felt natural. It began this way with the first chapters focusing on texts from the Pentateuch, but the rest of the book did not continue in sequence. Even if that was intentional, the reader could benefit from a clearer roadmap to know where the book was going as a whole.

2. The audience is narrow and specific.

I would not call this a weakness per se, but it is a limitation. While any Christian can appreciate a biblical theology of child-bearing, this book is very much geared toward Christian mothers. As the title suggests, it is best suited for expecting or new moms. Personally, I read it while pregnant with my first child, and it blessed me in that unique season. It would serve as a Christ-exalting baby shower or Mother’s day gift for the women in your life.

3. It may leave you wanting.

This too is perhaps a necessary limitation given the depth of Furman’s topic. Perhaps this would not be the case for some, but I walked away wanting a fuller biblical theology of child-bearing. It is clear after reading Labor with Hope that there is so much more that could be said and meditated on! Furman would probably be the first to acknowledge that she only scratched the surface of all the riches within the Scriptures pertaining to labor and childbearing. Yet maybe this is part of her goal- to drive readers to the Word of God for more gospel meditations. While this limitation is worth acknowledging, the book serves its purpose as an accessible, gospel-rich devotional, not a dissertation.

Furman has succeeded in serving her audience through Labor with Hope. It was a source of gospel refreshment for a new mom like me, weary with the labor of pregnancy, and is sure to drive many more to marvel at the love of Christ.

Editor’s Note: You can purchase Labor With Hope here.