The main threat to religious liberty today is not the government.  Rather, it is the culture.  In the United States, the law is not likely to restrict your religious beliefs or practices.  Rather, the restrictions will come from the cultural pressure to conform.

So says David French in his essay This Is How Religious Liberty Really Dies.  He cites the recent news story about a teacher in a Catholic school in Miami who got married to her same-sex partner.  Whereupon she lost her job.  This put many of the school’s parents in an uproar, that the school would fire such a good teacher whom their children really liked.  Never mind that this is a Catholic school and that the Catholic church does not believe in gay marriage and considers homosexual behavior to be immoral.  Now the media is whipping up sympathy for the fired teacher and the school is enduring a public relations nightmare, as if the school is at fault for following its well-known beliefs.

If the parents are so outraged at the church’s teachings about sex, why did they send their kids to a church school?  Here French makes some observations that apply far beyond this particular case:

American churches and religious institutions are often laden with members who don’t truly share doctrinal beliefs. This is a particular problem in religious schools. They appreciate the good SAT scores, the safe environment, and the kind teachers. They love the service opportunities, the sense of community, and the small class sizes. They’re willing to tolerate chapel and Bible classes if it means a better childhood for their kids.

Until, that is, the going gets the least bit tough. Then, in spite of the fact that the school’s religious identity has been open and obvious from day one, they’ll claim to be shocked at the alleged intolerance.

French goes on:

There is a persistent belief among church-goers that a person should be able to get all the benefits of Christian community without any of the doctrines that make religion unpalatable to modern moral fashion. That’s in essence the mission statement of Mainline Protestantism.

And it simply doesn’t work. The Christian community and Christian service that people love are ultimately inseparable from the entirety of the Christian faith that spawned them. Carve out the doctrines that conflict with modern morals and you gut the faith. When you gut the faith, you ultimately gut the church.

French says that this phenomenon is occurring even within conservative churches.  Some liberal Christians flee the dying mainline churches for more satisfying orthodox congregations, but they still keep their liberal beliefs!  They then try to bring those beliefs–the very ones that killed their original church homes–into their new conservative congregations!

I don’t know that I’ve experienced that particular problem.  Have you?

At any rate, it is clear that culture, not government, as such, is the real threat to religious freedom (that is, the ability of religious people to follow the tenets of their religion freely, without being punished for it).  Similarly, in countries where Christians are being persecuted, the persecution is mostly coming from mobs and individual haters.  Persecution is not the official policy or law of India, Egypt, or Indonesia, despite the number of Christians who are being martyred in those countries.  (The exception is Communist countries–China, North Korea, Cuba–which do persecute religious people as a matter of law and policy.)

Not that American Christians are suffering on that scale, but we may have mobs of a different kind, trying to suppress what we believe and practice, and trying to punish us for our convictions.

The real danger for us is not that Christians will be harmed, but that Christians will give in.

Christians are part of the culture and feel the same cultural undertows.  The cultural threats to religious liberty comes not just from the outside, but from the inside, as church members–who are also card-carrying members of their culture–come to agree with the spirit of the age, as opposed to the Holy Spirit.


Illustration:  UK World War I poster (1915)  by Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. Lithograph by David Allen & Sons Ld., Harrow, Middlesex [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

J. R. Arner, back in 1994, put together a daily devotional series for Lent that is now online called LenTree for George Herbert. It consists of a poem from George Herbert, arguably our greatest Christian lyric poet, for each day of Lent.

It starts here with the introductory poem “The Altar, ” followed by Herbert’s great poem of rebellion countered by God’s grace, “The Collar,” for Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins.  Then comes Herbert’s poem Lent for Ash Wednesday.  After that, just keep hitting “next” for the next day’s devotional poem.

Here is a calendar for the whole series.  And if by chance you have already followed this LenTree in a previous year, there is also  a second series, using some of Herbert’s lesser known poems, entitled Church Ways:  The Face of Fire.

This is a project of a wonderful site devoted to Herbert, which also includes a Tenebrae service based on his long poem about Christ on the Cross, “The Sacrifice” (which, with other Herbert poems, is alluded to in the popular Lenten hymn “My Song Is Love Unknown“).

If you’d like some in depth commentary for each poem, may I modestly suggest one of my first books, recently back in print, Reformation Spirituality:  The Religion of George Herbert.

From George Herbert’s Lent:

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast

By starving sin and taking such repast

As may our faults control:

That ev’ry man may revel at his door,

Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,

And among those his soul.

Herbert, as he does so often, shows the internal meaning of external observances.  The point of Lenten fasts is not just to stop eating, but to “starve sin.”  And in Herbert’s characteristic paradoxes, he says that the best kind of fasting is eating!  We should take “repast” (that is, meals) that help control our faults; e.g., feeding on God’s Word; feeding on Christ’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion.  In fact, he says, Lent should be a time of revelling–we would say, partying!–but of a special kind.

Everyone should “revel at his door.”  I’m pretty sure Herbert is alluding to Christ’s statement that “I am the door” (John 10:9).  But the picture Herbert gives, in one of his spatial metaphors, is revelling at the door (where the inside meets the outside) instead revelling in the parlor (inside the house).  He is saying here that our spiritual focus at Lent should not just be inside ourselves, but that we also should attend to those outside ourselves, that is, to our neighbors.

Thus, in Lent, we should be “banqueting the poor.”  But then, in one of Herbert’s typical surprising twists at the very last word of the poem, he internalizes, while affirming, even those external good works:  When you banquet the poor, remember that “among” the poor whom you do need to take care of, is your own soul.  

A Lenten exercise that consists in reading one Herbert poem a day will take hardly any time–the poems are very brief and simple, but they are rich with levels upon levels of meaning.  Poetry has been defined as “a trap for meditation.”  That is certainly true of Herbert, as each poem can become an occasion of meditating deeply on the conflict between your sin and God’s grace, the revelation of God’s Word, and the Gospel of Christ’s redeeming death and resurrection.

Join me in taking on the Herbert LenTree!

Photo:  The Imposition of Ashes at Bethany Lutheran Church by Melissa Pittenger – was sent to me personally, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Some of you may remember that in our predictions for 2018, I said that the “sexual counter-revolution”–that is, the reaction against the sexual mistreatment of women ignited by the #MeToo movement–would continue and that it would manifest itself in an “anti-pornography backlash.”  This is starting to happen.

I blogged about Great Britain forcing free porn sites to require users to register and give their contact information so that their age could be checked and how this loss of anonymity would likely have an inhibiting effect.

Now columnist Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times, no less, has written a column entitled Let’s Ban Porn.

He says that women who are rebelling against sexual predators are realizing that many of them are acting out the fantasies that they learned from pornography.  In fact, pornography has become the major source of sex education, so that young men are using pornography as the model for their own sexuality, to the repulsion of their partners.  This is having serious repercussions on the family, on dating, on the treatment of women, and our moral climate as a whole, even considered in its most secular forms.

Douthat says that, contrary to the common assumptions, it is certainly possible to ban pornography.  There is plenty of legal precedent for that, even considering free speech issues.  And it is certainly possible to restrict it.

He doesn’t mention the British experiment, which doesn’t actually ban anything, just sets up a process to keep children away from it, and, in so doing, brings to bear the salutary feeling of shame–as in, “I would be ashamed to admit that I use this site by giving my name.”  It isn’t clear to me whether the British regulation, to which the multi-national pornographers have agreed to follow, will affect just Great Britain or other parts of the world too, such as the United States.  (If anyone knows, please say so in the comments.)  But there is no reason that the United States and other countries couldn’t impose a similar requirement.

Here is a sample from Douthat’s column:

You see a kind of female revulsion, not against Harvey Weinstein-style apex predators, but against the very different sort of male personality that a pornographic education seems to produce: a breed at once entitled and resentful, angry and undermotivated, “woke” and caddish, shaped by unprecedented possibilities for sexual gratification and frustrated that real women are less available and more complicated than the version on their screen.

Such men would exist without industrial-scale porn, but porn selects for them, as it selects for a romantic landscape like our own: ever-more-liberated and ever-less-erotic, trending Japan-ward in its gulf between the sexes, with marriage and children and sex itself in shared decline.

So if you want better men by any standard, there is every reason to regard ubiquitous pornography as an obstacle — and to suspect that between virtual reality and creepy forms of customization, its influence is only likely to get worse.

But unlike many structural forces with which moralists of the left and right contend, porn is also just a product — something made and distributed and sold, and therefore subject to regulation and restriction if we so desire.

The belief that it should not be restricted is a mistake; the belief that it cannot be censored is a superstition. Law and jurisprudence changed once and can change again, and while you can find anything somewhere on the internet, making hard-core porn something to be quested after in dark corners would dramatically reduce its pedagogical role, its cultural normalcy, its power over libidos everywhere.

[Keep reading. . .]

 Photo by Jeramey Jannene from Milwaukee, WI, United States of America (Laptop Time) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

My granddaughter invited a friend to church yesterday.  She was nine years old and she had never gone to a church before!

I give her a lot of credit.  She worked hard to follow along with the service, she read out loud the creed and the Lord’s Prayer, she tried to find the pages in the hymn book.  My granddaughter helped her find her place, and I tried to explain what was going on.  She seemed somewhat in awe.  I hope she’ll come back.

But she reminded me of what I have blogged about before:  The biggest demographic of the “unchurched” is not Millennials, college educated urbanites, or affluent suburban families–the usual targets of church growth programs.  Most of the unchurched belong to the white working class.

The Millennials are young adults.  Most of them have been churched.  Many of them are in that stage of life when they stop going to church, but a good number of them will, once they get married and have children.

Most college educated folks do go to church.  Cities are full of church-goers.  African Americans are among the most active church members of any demographic.  Immigrants, whether first or second generation, tend to be church goers.

Affluent suburbanites, like most middle class families, tend to go to church.

But, as Robert Putnam has shown, it’s the blue collar class that has stopped going to church.  Not all, but this is the demographic in which the bottom has fallen out in church attendance, in marriage rates, in children raised with both parents, and other social markers.  This is the group that is now the most plagued by opioid abuse and heroin addiction.  These are the Americans hardest hit by closing factories, automation, and poor job prospects.  They never went to college, the social elite looks down on them, and the middle class often finds them embarrassing.  (Read Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Culture and a Family in Crisis by J. D. Vance.)

But these are the “unchurched.” This is where you can find most of the “nones.”  What is the church doing to reach them?

The typical church growth programs and strategies are not directed at these folks at all.  It doesn’t work to try to make church “cool.”  These folks are not cool.  Pop music doesn’t attract them.  These folks listen to country music.  Making the church more like Starbucks or brewpubs or upscale shopping centers doesn’t speak to the working class, which can’t afford to frequent these places.  Churches that reinvent themselves along these lines will just make most of the unchurched even more uncomfortable and make them feel even more out of place.

Ironically, blue collar workers used to be the backbone of American Christianity.  Whether Catholics in the big cities or fundamentalists in the countryside, the white working class tended to be devout, culturally conservative, and solid church members.  No more.  What happened?  I’m not sure.  We need much more research into what happened with the American working class.  And churches need to stop ignoring them in favor of the more upwardly mobile demographics.

The problem is not that these “nones” have big intellectual objections to Christianity.  They didn’t go to college, so they didn’t get exposed to postmodernist professors or an anti-religious social climate.  Their lack of education often means that they often don’t know what Christianity teaches, though they often claim to be Christians anyway, and despite never going to church.  But you can often get them to go, if you ask them.  They don’t object to it.  They tend to be cynical.  They often feel unworthy of going to church because of their sexual immorality, drug and alcohol use, and other fault.  (Again, they often don’t realize what Christianity teaches about the forgiveness of sins, and that the church is for sinners.)

The white working class is a field ripe for harvest.  What is the church doing to harvest them?


Photo by Jo Guldi from chicago, usa (Rust Belt Tour: Flint, Michigan: Decay) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

discount-2789863_1280We are studying Deuteronomy in our Bible class at church, and, somewhat to my surprise, I am finding it fascinating and edifying.  We looked at the laws for tithing, contains aspects I’ve never heard in a stewardship presentation!

The question of whether we should tithe today is usually framed in terms of the extent to which we should follow the Mosaic law on the subject.  Some churches teach that the command to give a tenth of your income to the Lord is still binding; others, that the percentage requirement is superseded by the New Testament principle of not giving under compulsion (2 Corinthians 9); others, that giving is a matter of Christian freedom, but 10% is a good target.  But let’s see what the Mosaic law about tithing actually is (my bolds):

22 “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year.23 And before the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always.24 And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, 25 then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses 26 and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. 27 And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.

28 “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. 29 And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.  (Deuteronomy 14:22-29)

The tithe is for you?  To eat?  And to spend on wine and strong drink?  To buy whatever your appetite craves?  Not to give to the Temple?  You have to go to the Temple or its environs, but once there you spend 10% of your income on a massive party for you and your household.  At this celebration, you perhaps invite some Levites, who, along with the poor, receive the whole tithe every three years.  But you basically have to tithe 10% of your income, but then God requires you to spend it all on yourself.

Is that right?  Well, there is more to it than that.  Elsewhere, Scripture says that all of the tithe belongs to the Levites to support them and their service in the Tabernacle or Temple.

21 “To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting. . . . 24 For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the Lord, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel.” (Numbers 18: 21, 24)

Apparently, the tithe belonged to the Levites, but that those who brought their offerings first held a big feast with their families.  It would be difficult to spend a tenth of a year’s income on one dinner!  The remainder would be given to the Levites.  Every third year there would be no feast.  All of the tithe would be given to the Levites and also to immigrants, orphans, and widows.

More fundamentally, the tithe belonged to the Lord.  “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord‘s; it is holy to the Lord” (Leviticus 27:30).  The use of the tithe for feasting was a sacred act.  It had to be done at the Temple:

17 You may not eat within your towns the tithe of your grain or of your wine or of your oil, or the firstborn of your herd or of your flock, or any of your vow offerings that you vow, or your freewill offerings or the contribution that you present, 18 but you shall eat them before the Lord your God in the place that the Lord your God will choose, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, and the Levite who is within your towns. And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God in all that you undertake (Deuteronomy 12:17-18).

Thus, the tithe was like the other celebratory meals connected with certain of the animal sacrifices.  The meat from the animals slaughtered for peace offerings and thanksgiving offerings was shared with the priests, but then it provided a celebratory feast for the family that made the offering.  The animals slaughtered for guilt and sin offerings went entirely to the priests (Leviticus 7).

I’m not sure what the implications are for stewardship programs–what applications do you see?–but something else about these feasts interest me.  While the Israelites devoted 10% of their income to God, He, in turn, gives at least part of it back.  The purpose is for the Israelite household to “rejoice” in His presence.  Paradoxically, this rejoicing before God teaches the Israelites to “fear” Him.

So celebration, feasting, eating, drinking can be ways of honoring and learning about God.  This is good to hear in this season, right after the revelry of Christmas, including that of New Year’s, is finally over.  The Puritans outlawed Christmas celebrations, having problems both with the liturgical calendar and the carousing that accompanied the holiday.  To be sure, too much self-indulgence can be inappropriate.  But, in principle, it’s certainly fitting to “rejoice before the Lord your God in all that you undertake.”

Our pastor and my son-in-law, who led the Bible study, showed how this law of tithing is fulfilled in the church.  We give our tithes and offerings to our local congregation, whereupon we do feast in a celebration with all of the household of faith and in the presence of God.  This is called the Lord’s Supper.

When we support the church with our money, we pay a pastor’s salary, provide for a building to meet in, underwrite teaching and catechesis–all of which makes it possible for us to have Holy Communion!  And all that it means and gives:  Christ’s Body broken for us; Christ’s blood poured out for the remission of all of our sins.

Thus, in church as in the Temple, “you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.”

Illustration by MarcoRoesler via Pixabay, CC0, Creative Commons



There are people who profess to be Christians who nevertheless don’t believe that Jesus was conceived “by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary” without a human father.  But the notion that this teaching is a mythological accretion or a misunderstanding of the language is being shot down.  The virgin birth of Jesus is best explained as a historical fact.

My fellow Patheos blogger Tom Hobson (Ph.D., Concordia Seminary), a Presbyterian pastor and former professor, makes this point in his blog Biblical Words and World.  (I commend to you that blog, which explores the historical contexts of Scripture.  His New Year’s day post on the Roman calendar fixation, alluded to in Galatians 4:10, tosses off the observation that this year, in 2018, Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day and Easter coincides with April Fool’s Day!)

Since this is still Christmas and will be until Saturday, which is Epiphany, it’s good to consider Dr. Hobson’s post Logical Grounds for the Virgin Birth.

Drawing on various scholarly sources, he points out that there is really no precedent in the Jewish, Greco-Roman, or Middle Eastern traditions for a virgin birth.  It would be off for anyone in those cultures to make up such a thing.  Some have claimed that the teaching is “mythological,” pointing to myths of deities impregnating mortal women. But those are stories of human-like beings having sexual relations with humans, so they are far from being depictions of virgin births.

Dr. Hobson also points out that very, very early opponents of Christianity were saying that Jesus had been an illegitimate child, which is evidence that accounts of the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ birth were circulating at a quite early date and that the virgin birth is not the product of a long forming “tradition” as some have said.

There are more reasons to believe in the virgin birth as well, including, of course, the theological reasons.  Read Dr. Hobson’s post.

I remember the controversies around the Revised Standard Version of the Bible came out, a modernization of the King James Bible that availed itself of the results of the latest higher critical Biblical scholarship. That version translated Isaiah 7:14 (“a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son”) as “a young woman shall conceive and bear a son.”  The reasoning is that the Hebrew word “alma” is just the word for “young woman.”

Now there is certainly other Biblical reasons for confessing the virgin birth than the words of that prophecy, particularly the detailed narrative in the Gospel of Luke.  And Matthew 1:23 says that the birth of Jesus fulfills the words of Isaiah 7:14, whereupon he quotes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew, which renders “alma” with “parthenos,” which definitely means “virgin.”

But in a separate post, Dr. Hobson shows that “alma” can indeed mean “virgin.”

This is taken up in depth by Daniel Hoffman in Is “Virgin” the Correct Translation of Isaiah 7:14? — Knowing Scripture.  He does a thorough job of dealing with the linguistic evidence that “alma” had the connotations of virginity.  (It would seem that the Jewish scholars who translated the Septuagint knew their language better than some modern higher critics do.)

He then takes up an issue that had always puzzled me.  The context of Isaiah 7:14 has to do with King Ahaz, who is faced with a military threat from both Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel, both of whom have allied with Assyria and are putting the southern kingdom of Judah in jeopardy.  In a show of false piety, King Ahaz declines to ask God for a sign, but Isaiah says that God will give him a sign anyway:  “A virgin shall conceive a child. . . .”  And before that child can tell right from wrong, these threatening kings will be no more.  So the passage sounds like it refers to a child being born contemporary to Ahaz.

Daniel Hoffman points out that “a young woman” bearing a child happens all the time and would not be much of a sign, certainly not one “deep as Sheol” as the Lord offered.  Also, the “you” in the prophecy is plural, so it applies not just to Ahaz but to others as well, he says to the entire royal house.  Also, the kingdoms of Syria, Israel, and Assyria ended long after Ahaz’s lifetime.

Furthermore, just two chapters later, we see the prophecy about the child who will be called, “Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:7).

The prophecy does apply to King Ahaz, whose unrighteousness helps bring on the fall of the House of David as Judah’s royal rulers, even though the Messiah will be born from “the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1).  Concludes Hoffman,

Ahaz and his house would have no royal power when this sign came to fulfillment. Because of Ahaz’s capitulation to Assyria, Judah would become a puppet-state and hardly ever again be a fully independent power, but would be subject to foreign empires in one way or another even until the time of Christ. As Motyer puts it, “Because of [Ahaz’s] unbelief the promised Messiah would be born into poverty, heir to a meaningless throne in a conquered land.” In this regard, the sign of the virgin birth functions partly as a word of judgment: Immanuel would have no human father, and thus Ahaz and his successors would not father the royal Savior in a physical sense. The virgin birth implies a broader judgment than this though: It is a judgment on human nature. Not human nature as such or as created, but simply on human nature as corrupt in Adam. The rebuke on Ahaz is thus ultimately turned into a blessing, as the child born of the virgin would mean the birth of a new Adam, ultimately saving not only Israel but offering a fresh start to the whole of humanity.

 Painting by Gerard van Honthorst (1622) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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