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What We Talk About When We Talk About 'Birth Control'

Meaningful debate requires us to define the terms of discussion.

Widespread acceptance in our culture of all forms of birth control, including abortion, makes it harder for the Christian to discern if, when, and how to incorporate such practices into one's own life, as well as what place personal convictions have in community and in public policy.

I suspect one of the greatest obstacles to constructive dialogue on the questions about birth control raised by the Hobby Lobby case is the imprecision of the terms being discussed. Perhaps, then, the first step toward finding agreement—or at least correctly identifying at the points on which we can agree to disagree—is to employ common definitions.

The debate around the Hobby Lobby case, birth control methods, and insurance coverage illuminates not only how deeply divided Christians are on these matters but also how ill-defined the central questions are. Questions of conscience are matters for all believers to respect in each other even amidst disagreement. If Christians cannot engage with each other with clarity, respect, and good faith on difficult questions, how will we do so with those outside the church?

In an effort to bring clarity to an otherwise muddled war of words, here are some of the questions central to this conversation. They're not as simple as we might assume.

How does the medical community define pregnancy?

At the heart of the debate is the question about whether or not certain birth control methods prevent pregnancy or terminate pregnancy. Part of the problem in answering even this basic question is that even the term pregnancy is not agreed upon universally and has undergone numerous changes, due less to scientific debates than semantic ones. While the American College of Obstetricians and ...

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Stories of Transformation: Making Disciples

Churches must assess themselves in an effort to be more effective at making disciples.

Most churches do a good job of measuring what Micah Fries calls the "three B's"— budgets, buildings, and baptisms.

Those are helpful, he said. But they don't always show whether a church is fulfilling its mission to make disciples.

"Every church should ask two questions," said Fries, director of ministry development for LifeWay Christian Resources. "'Are we healthy?' and 'Are we making disciples?'''

To help answer those questions, LifeWay developed the Transformational Church Assessment Tool (TCAT)—an 80-question, online survey that looks at a church's spiritual health.

The TCAT is based on a long-term, research study of effective discipleship that included surveys of 7,000 pastors and 20,000 churches members from 123 denominations, along with in-depth interviews with hundreds of pastors.

"Its biblical, reliable, and data-driven," said Fries.

That kind of research-driven approach appealed to Steve Ballew, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Farmington, New Mexico. The church, which has aSunday attendance about 300, used the TCAT, two years ago.

Ballew said that there's difference between success and transformation. A church can grow its membership and still not affect its community.

"You have to decide - are we here to grow a church, or are we here to make a difference?" Ballew said.

An assessment tool like TCAT can help a church focus on making a difference.

"It's not simply saying, 'here are some successful models,'" he said. "It is saying, 'here are some principles that we've discovered in research that are relevant to all churches.'"

Fries compared using ...

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The Sympathetic Doomsday Cult Leader

"Afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted," says indie director Joshua Overbay.

A week ago, I saw As It Is In Heaven, a low-budget, Kickstarter-funded, gracefully-shot independent feature film about a doomsday cult somewhere in the American South.

I was pleased with what I saw. Others were, too: the film earned positive reviews at RogerEbert.com, The Hollywood Reporter, and The New York Times, where it was named a Critics' Pick.

Most of us have never been the leader of a doomsday cult, I presume (I haven't), and we generally don't hear their stories, instead believing that such a person is a megalomaniac, mentally unstable, or just plain evil. David, the leader at the center of this film, is certainly some—if not all—of those things. But there's something more to him: a deep desire to live the right life, to find meaning in the world and even, after a fashion, to serve God as best he can. David is not a good leader, but he is a true believer.

Not only is the story suspenseful and engaging, but it acts like a mirror: these characters have characteristics and wants and motivations that find their reflection in us. And so while you may never have thought about joining a doomsday cult, you might discover that you see yourself up there on the screen.

After all, who among us—even the most faithful believers—hasn't wondered, while praying, if anyone was listening?

As It Is In Heaven was directed by Joshua Overbay, who co-wrote the script with his wife Ginny Lee Overbay and shot the film near where he was living in Kentucky, where he was teaching at Asbury College (he's since relocated to Baton Rouge). He was kind enough to answer some questions about low-budget filmmaking, tackling his own ego and doubts, complex characters, the problem with "Christian" ...

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What We Talk About When We Talk About 'Birth Control'

Meaningful debate requires us to define the terms of discussion.

Widespread acceptance in our culture of all forms of birth control, including abortion, makes it harder for the Christian to discern if, when, and how to incorporate such practices into one's own life, as well as what place personal convictions have in community and in public policy.

I suspect one of the greatest obstacles to constructive dialogue on the questions about birth control raised by the Hobby Lobby case is the imprecision of the terms being discussed. Perhaps, then, the first step toward finding agreement—or at least correctly identifying at the points on which we can agree to disagree—is to employ common definitions.

The debate around the Hobby Lobby case, birth control methods, and insurance coverage illuminates not only how deeply divided Christians are on these matters but also how ill-defined the central questions are. Questions of conscience are matters for all believers to respect in each other even amidst disagreement. If Christians cannot engage with each other with clarity, respect, and good faith on difficult questions, how will we do so with those outside the church?

In an effort to bring clarity to an otherwise muddled war of words, here are some of the questions central to this conversation. They're not as simple as we might assume.

How does the medical community define pregnancy?

At the heart of the debate is the question about whether or not certain birth control methods prevent pregnancy or terminate pregnancy. Part of the problem in answering even this basic question is that even the term pregnancy is not agreed upon universally and has undergone numerous changes, due less to scientific debates than semantic ones. While the American College of Obstetricians and ...

Continue reading...

Morning Roundup 7/22/14

America's First Churches; Church, Youth, and Sex; "Evangelicals"

These Are America's First Churches — and They're Still WorshippingCorrie Mitchell

Ok, some historic nerd stuff… and I want to preach at one of these churches… so help me out!

The Church, Youth, and Sex – Did I Report It Wrong?Mike Bell

Mike Bell, over at Internet Monk, spreads the clarification around… I'm still waiting for all the major publications to do so.

The "Evangelicals" Who Are Not EvangelicalsThomas Kidd

I will be writing more on this later, but this is a good article to read on definitions.

Pastor and author Kyle Idleman joined Ed for a special edition of The Exchange from the floor of the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Nashville, Tenn. In this clip, Kyle talks about helping people not waste their pain. Don't forget to join me every Tuesday at 3:00 PM Eastern for The Exchange.

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Mosul's Last Christians Flee Iraq's Hoped-For Christian Stronghold

(UPDATED) Historic community comes to 'a real end' after ISIS ultimatum tells Christians to convert, pay tax, or die.

[Added biblical archaeology finds in Nineveh]

There are no Christians left in Iraq's second-largest city after a weekend ultimatum left Mosul residents with three choices: convert to Islam, pay jizya (a poll tax levied on non-Muslims), or die at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

Mosul, home to the Old Testament prophet Jonah's tomb and the ruins of Nineveh, was intended by Iraq's government to anchor a future province where Christians could govern themselves. This past weekend, ISIS gave Christians until noon Saturday to choose between the three options. "After this date," read the ISIS declaration, "the only thing between us and them is the sword." The New York Times reports that, while a few Christians may remain in hiding after this weekend, Mosul's once diverse Christian community has likely come to a "real end."

The $250 poll tax ISIS imposed, prohibitively expensive for many Christians, sent more than 200 families fleeing Mosul even as ISIS militants confiscated their belongings, including cars, money, medicine, and food. Some journeyed 42 miles to Kurdish Tel Afar on foot, reports the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), while some of the families went to Kurdish-held Irbil, or Dohuk, which is 87 north of Mosul, reports CNN.

After Mosul's Christian leaders did not attend a Thursday meeting ISIS called to notify them of Islamic rules to follow, ISIS leaders used vehicle loudspeakers to announce their ultimatum throughout the town, according to World Watch Monitor. Middle East Concern reports that ISIS earlier last week marked Christian houses in Mosul with the letter the phrase "property of the Islamic State" and ...

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The Rorschach Antichrist

Mapleton: putting the "false Christ" into Christmas.

Note: As with all TV recaps, there may be some mild spoilers below for those who did not watch the episode. If you're only looking for a content advisory, I'll tell you: this HBO show, were it a movie, would be rated R for language, violence, sexual content, and thematic material, but it changes from week to week. The first commentary carried a Caveat Spectator, so you can check that out.

This week it's worth noting that there are two things that some viewers may find particularly disturbing: one is a mentally disturbed man who is naked from the waist down (yes, we see it), and the other is a scene in which teenagers do things that are either blasphemous or seriously irreverent, though it's not portrayed in a positive light.

In some branches of Christianity—some of the same ones that believe in a coming literal Rapture—a figure called the Antichrist will appear halfway through the Tribulation (the seven-year period between the Rapture and Christ's final judgement of the earth) and unite the earth under his charismatic leadership before enacting his plan of evil on humanity, persecuting those who have come to faith and forcing the "mark of the Beast," some variation of 666, on everyone. He's not the devil, but he's something like his son: an inversion of Jesus.

Certain people and institutions have been fingered throughout the centuries as the Antichrist—notably, the Pope, or sometimes just the Roman Catholic church in general—but most agree that he hasn't appeared yet. (Islam has a similar figure, a "false messiah," in its theology.)

Various Christian sects differ on when the Antichrist will appear, but if you go by the same timeline as the ...

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News: New Executive Orders on LGBT Discrimination Don't Exempt Religious Orgs

(UPDATED) But Obama won't withdraw memo on religious discrimination.

An executive order President Obama signed Monday prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in federal hiring may not immediately affect many religious organizations, but leaders are still raising their eyebrows.

The executive order amends a 1965 order prohibiting some forms of discrimination by federal contractors. The old text forbade contractors from discriminating "against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Obama's revision adds "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" between "sex" and "national origin."

Many religious organizations, such as World Vision, World Relief, and Catholic Charities partner with the federal government, but often receive grants, not contracts, so are not affected by the order, said Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.

Religious organizations with federal grants are currently protected: A 2007 religious exemption memo from the federal attorney general's office says the Religious Freedom Restoration Act "is reasonably construed" to exempt World Vision (and other religious organizations that administer federal funds through social services programs) from religious nondiscrimination requirements on other federal grantees.

The executive order also lets stand a George W. Bush-era provision allowing religious contractors to hire employees "of a particular religion," said Thomas Berg, a professor of law and public policy at the University of St. Thomas (Minn.).

"Several federal courts have held that this language, incorporated from elsewhere in antidiscrimination law, allows religious organizations ...

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Beyond the Echo Chamber on Gender Roles

Our notion of male and female begins with a robust understanding of creation.

Despite the title of Hannah Anderson's Made for More, the book is actually less about more and more about less. Anderson writes about stripping away the trappings of stereotypes and unbiblical constructs, tearing down the self-made idols of motherhood and husbandry. Her book is an invitation to live in God's image, setting a fairer table and finer feast than almost any book on gender I have read.

The first-time author begins by walking readers through creation—not the creation of man and woman, the imago dei, but the creation of a new believer, that tender sprout of life bursting within. She wrestles with issues of faith in tears and pain, only to find the birth of realization, the a ha! of salvation, continues as we wrest within our souls to discover who we are at our core. Anderson pushes beyond what physical attributes we bear or circumstantial constructs the world has given us to the actual core, to that deep and profound moment when we, like Adam, say, "At last!"

Sadly the "At last!" happens for fewer of us, and so Anderson makes it her aim throughout all of Made for More to draw readers' eyes back to the beauty of the image of God. It is not a book about biblical womanhood, nor a book about how to be a better wife, a more desirable woman, a more chaste single, or more of anything but an image bearer of the Most High. It is a book about humans flourishing under the great weight and light burden of God's design.

It doesn't take more than a cursory glance around the Internet—or in the church pews—to find the discussion on gender raising heated opinions everywhere. The problem though, it seems, is that no one is starting from a common place. Each person's ...

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Interview: How to Avoid the Church's 'Hero Culture'

Chuck DeGroat reveals his strategy for spiritual health while ministering to difficult people.

Shepherding a church or ministry inevitably means dealing with difficult personalities. How can leaders handle hard relationships without buckling under the pressure? Chuck DeGroat, professor of pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary, as well as a pastor and therapist, tackles the question in his latest book, Toughest People to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life—Including Yourself (Eerdmans). Daniel Darling, a pastor and author, spoke with DeGroat about embracing vulnerability and avoiding the pitfalls of the church-based "hero culture."

You write candidly about having nurtured suicidal thoughts, even while serving in ministry. Should church leaders publicly share their struggles this way?

I've done research on seminary graduates who had been in ministry five or more years. They were excited to study the Bible, read deep books, and preach. But they weren't prepared for the barrage of criticism, gossip, triangulation, stress, exhaustion, and more.

Throughout my own time in ministry, there have been dark times. I've felt worthless, like it just wasn't worth it, like my wife and I were a thousand miles apart. I've had times when I felt like everyone was against me, when my inner critic was so loud I couldn't think. As leaders, we need greater permission to tell stories that include the darker edges. Every good story involves suffering, death, and resurrection—that's the pattern Jesus set! Why pretend we're superhuman when Christ was fully human?

I distinguish between openness and vulnerability. Vulnerability is saved for a few close friends and one's spouse. Openness is for larger audiences. Good leadership ...

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Religious Freedom vs. LGBT Rights? It's More Complicated

The legal context for what's happening at Gordon College, and how Christians can respond despite intense cultural backlash.

A private Christian school holds what it considers a biblical view of marriage. It welcomes all students, but insists that they adhere to certain beliefs and abstain from conduct that violates those beliefs. Few doubt the sincerity of those beliefs. The school's leaders are seen as strange and offensive to the world, but then again, they know that they will find themselves as aliens and strangers in the world. This description fits a number of Christian schools confronted today with rapidly changing sexual norms. But the description also would have fit Bob Jones University, a school that barred interracial dating until 2000. And in 1983, that ban cost Bob Jones its tax exemption, in a decision upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even for a relatively small school of a few thousand students, that meant losing millions of dollars. And the government's removal of tax-exempt status had a purpose: one Supreme Court justice described it as "elementary economics: when something becomes more expensive, less of it will be purchased." The comparison between Bob Jones in 1983 and Christian schools today will strike some as unwarranted. Indeed, there are historical reasons to reject it. The discriminatory practices in Bob Jones were linked to the slavery of African Americans and the Jim Crow South. The 1983 Court decision came within a generation of Brown v. Board of Education, and its legal principles extended to private secondary schools (including "segregationist academies") that resisted racial integration. There are also significant theological differences between Bob Jones's race-based arguments and arguments that underlie today's sexual conduct restrictions. Those differences are rooted ...

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News: What Makes a Company Division 'Christian'?

Secular companies have owned Christian subsidiaries for years. Now those family ties are being tested.

As Hobby Lobby made its case to the Supreme Court, arguing that its business is sufficiently Christian to be exempt from Obamacare's contraceptive mandate, another business was arguing its evangelical bona fides, too.

WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, the evangelical division of Penguin Random House (PRH), is one of the world's leading Christian publishers. Its backlist includes David Platt's Radical, John Piper's Desiring God, and Stephen Arterburn's Every Man's Battle. But it has resigned its membership in the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) rather than submit to an ethics review over God and the Gay Christian—a book it didn't actually publish.

The book, in which Matthew Vines argues that same-gender sex is not sinful, was published by Convergent Books. A 16-month-old PRH line, Convergent describes itself as "for progressive and mainline Christians who demand an open, inclusive, and culturally engaged exploration of faith."

In a letter to board members, NRB president Jerry Johnson said WaterBrook Multnomah employees worked on the Convergent book, noting that Stephen Cobb is chief publishing executive for both groups. Cobb also oversees Image, PRH's Catholic imprint. All three divisions share offices in Colorado Springs, away from PRH's Manhattan headquarters.

"This issue comes down to NRB members producing unbiblical material, regardless of the label under which they do it," Johnson said. "I asked them to reconsider and end the practice of having Christian workers from their publishing house work on Convergent projects. They declined."

In a statement published before the NRB letter, Cobb said no employees were forced to work ...

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Interview: Andy Stanley: Assume People Are Biblically Illiterate (But Not Dumb)

The North Point pastor says the way we teach Scripture can undermine evangelism.

Andy Stanley's many books and preaching style demonstrate his passion for reaching unchurched people. The founder and senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, aims not only to effectively and engagingly communicate the gospel to an audience with wide-ranging beliefs and backgrounds (31,000 people attend North Point's five campuses any given Sunday) but also to help other preachers do the same. Stanley talked with CT assistant online editor Kevin P. Emmert about the best ways preachers can communicate the gospel to unchurched and biblically-illiterate people in their congregations.

Is it fair to assume unchurched people are biblically illiterate?

Obviously, there is a continuum, but I think it is safe to assume biblical illiteracy. At the same time, however, preachers need to be careful not to talk down to people. And there's a way to do that. Most pastors I listen to start halfway up the ladder and then go up from there. But there's a happy medium where we assume a certain social and cultural sophistication, but not a biblical sophistication.

Whenever pastors assume people in their congregation know certain things, they miss opportunities to teach. If a pastor makes assumptions year after year, then a whole generation has never heard [that truth] for the first time. If we assume too much, we communicate too little. Starting from the bottom rungs of the ladder every time we open the Scripture is really important. We often need to reinforce basic things we assume people may know. In my experience, just because people have heard something once or twice doesn't mean they understand it.

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