Devotion for Tuesday, April 2, 2024

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27).

When the Psalmist says, “Create in me a clean heart and a right spirit within me,” he was not talking about looking good.  He was talking about what goes on in the heart.  We all have things going on within us that are more wicked than another whom we might accuse, who did some outward act.  A murderer murders once.  One who murders in their heart, is a serial murderer.  Sin inside is just as bad as sin acted out.

Lord, I do have many things that have gone on in my heart which only You and I know about.  You are telling me that my inward life is every bit as important as my outward life.  Lead me  away from pretending to be good in order that I might practice that which is right and true.  Guide me in Your goodness and mercy to be honest with myself so that the Holy Spirit can make my heart clean.

Lord Jesus, I often say clean me up, but inwardly I am really saying, “but not yet.”  I have a spirit in me that is unchaste and sees things selfishly, looking upon my neighbor as a thing.  Guide me, dear Savior, in Your goodness to live into my life for which You gave Your life in order that I would be able to obtain true life.  Guide me by grace in the upward path of becoming more like You each day.  Thank You, Lord, for confronting me honestly so that I may truly be saved.  Amen.

CRLC and Critical Theory

In the September and November editions of CORE Voice, Dennis Nelson analyzed the activist constituency of the members of the Commission for a Renewed Lutheran Church (CRLC). The fact that there are a number of activists on the Commission is not surprising, since the Churchwide Assembly’s directive to the ELCA Church Council was to create a commission to recommend restructuring the church being particularly attentive to the church’s commitment to “dismantling racism.” In other words, whatever recommendations the CRLC makes must take steps to dismantle racism within the denomination.

For many members of the ELCA, the question of racism in the church is confusing. In this instance, why is there a move to restructure the whole denomination around dismantling one particular sin?

To answer this question, it is important to understand the chief philosophical assumption of ELCA policymakers, namely, Critical Theory. In critical theory, the world is viewed chiefly through the lens of power and how some groups use their power to oppress other groups. There are oppressors and victims, especially in the sense that some groups are kept from having full access to the power that opposite groups enjoy. This oppression is racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc. This means that oppression like racism is much more than personal prejudice (which is how most of us would understand the term); rather, racism is systemic and institutionalized.

The assumptions at work in the ELCA’s effort to “dismantle racism” rely on a subset of Critical Theory usually called Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory has been popularized recently by books like How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility by Robin Diangelo. In Mainline Christianity, Critical Race Theory has long been defended by ELCA Pastor, anti-racism advocate, and author Joseph Barndt. Barndt offers the distinction in his work that power can be used by Christians for good when it is shared without exclusivity.

The modern anti-racist movement based on Critical Race Theory makes a fundamental claim: You are either a racist or an antiracist. Within this framework, you are either supporting racism or you are working to dismantle racism. Because, in this view, racism is so enmeshed in American culture, one cannot simply be “not-racist.” There is no neutrality. If you are a White person, racism is your original sin. Furthermore, because racism is institutionally enmeshed, to be anti-racist is about supporting particular political policy changes that deconstruct supposed hierarchies of power within society.

Connected to this understanding of Critical Theory is the understanding of Intersectionality, which asserts that there are interlocking systems of oppression that affect more than one individual trait. Thus, oppression based on race is intricately tied together with oppression based on sexuality, gender, ability, etc. Under this framework, for example, opposing the full inclusion of practicing homosexuals on the roster of Word and Sacrament is descriptive of institutional racism. To be anti-racist is to support the full inclusion of any group that claims oppression.

Understanding this will help one understand many of the ELCA’s policy commitments. Working to end so-called Global Climate Change is an anti-racist policy, because it is argued that Global Climate Change disproportionately affects minorities. Likewise, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s statements such as those regarding Israel and Palestine or the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, which drew the ire of many moderate and conservative ELCA members, can be understood through the oppressor/oppressed framework of Critical Theory.

The question is, what will it mean to restructure a church around the tenet of dismantling racism? Barndt answers this question in his book Becoming an Anti-Racist Church: Journeying toward Wholeness, providing six steps: Commitment to Institutionalizing, Full Power Sharing, Assured Cultural Inclusion, Mutual Accountability, Multiplying Inclusion, and Restored Community.[1] The purpose of these steps, according to Barndt is, “The ultimate vision that drives the process of institutional change is a future in which both the church and the wider community overcome systemic racism.”[2] Consequently, this means that the fundamental goal of a church restructured to be anti-racist is to be an institution that can partner with the world to overcome systemic racism. In other words, the anti-racist church will be on the leading front of the anti-racist policies that shape the world.

Understandably, when one hears the phrase “dismantle racism,” it is easy to hear it through what we all know: Racism is a sin. There is no question, and the church must always call racism what it is; however, when you hear ELCA policy makers using phrases like “anti-racism” and “dismantling racism,” please understand the goal is to structure a church around political activism. This ought to concern those in the ELCA who understand that Christ has given his church a different commission, a commission found in Matthew 28:16-20 and John 20:21-23.

[1] Barndt, Joseph. Becoming an Anti-Racist Church: Journeying toward Wholeness. 1517 Media, 2011, p. 188-189.

[2] p.194

You Can’t Have God’s Kin-dom Without God’s Kingdom

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? –Mark 4:30

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness* with our spirit that we are children of God. –Romans 8:15-16

The first time I read the phrase “kin-dom of God,” I rolled my eyes. It looked to be another attempt to make Christian terminology politically correct—something I have a personal aversion to. So, when I was asked to write a piece on this particular phrase and its usage, particularly amongst progressive Christian circles, I thought I now had an opportunity to academically hammer the phrase.

However, after research, I have become a little more sympathetic to the term. Although, as the title indicates, there is no “kin-dom” of God without the Kingdom of God. Explanation is in order.

The Origins of Kin-dom

Multiple sources trace the origin of “kin-dom” to Georgene Wilson, a Franciscan nun, who spoke it to her friend, mujerista theologian, Ada María Isasi-Díaz.1 Isasi-Díaz then incorporated it into her theological framework and wrote about it in her work “Kin-dom of God: A Mujerista Proposal.”2 Unfortunately, I was unable to find this primary work online, so I am dependent upon a lengthy article by Bridgett Green, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Austin Presbyterian Seminary for insight into Isasi-Díaz’s thoughts.3

For Isasi-Diaz, “kindom” better reflects Jesus’s familial understandings of the community of disciples. Jesus envisioned an extended family with God as father. He announces that all who hear the word of God and do it are his family (Luke 8:21; cf. Mark 3:31-35 and Matthew 12:46-50). Further, Jesus links discipleship to membership in the family of God, saying that any who have left their blood relatives for the sake of the good news will receive back hundredfold in relationships and resources now and in the coming age (Mark 10:29-30, Luke 18:29-30, and Matthew 19:29). Jesus creates and grounds his community of disciples in the principles of kinship—and kinship with God comes not through blood relations but through participation in the duties and responsibilities proclaimed in the Torah and by the Prophets. “Kindom” evokes these values in horizontal relationships among all God’s beloved children, calling disciple communities to live into familial ideals of inclusion, mutual support, and sharing of resources.4

Professor Bridgett Green

I am quite sympathetic to this understanding of how disciples of Jesus interact with each other. St. Paul is emphatic that when we trust in Christ, we are adopted sons and daughters of God. Paul incorporates familial language throughout his letters, in the same vein Isasi-Díaz highlights. If highlighting this aspect of Christian thought was all that was going on, I don’t think there would be much of an issue with using the terminology of “kin-dom” as it would simply be an emphasis of the language of family used throughout the New Testament. However, there are proponents of this terminology who want to get rid of kingdom language totally and replace it with kin-dom. I find this problematic.

Why Erase Kingdom?

According to proponents of “kin-dom,” the language of kingdom presents multiple problems. It has been used by the church to make itself an earthly kingdom with earthly power and might.5 It tends towards exclusivity and can foster competition between kingdoms sometimes leading to violence.6 It is patriarchal in nature.7 And it “includes the specter of humiliation, subordination, punishment, exile, colonialization, sickness, poverty, as well as social, political, economic, and spiritual death.”8

In their view, “kin-dom” represents a much better understanding of what Jesus taught about God’s overall rule and what Jesus’ parables lead us toward.

Let’s work through a few of these things and offer some critique. First, I think we must separate the intent of Jesus’ teachings on God’s Kingdom (and the vision of how it works when God rules) from how sinful human beings have appropriated it. Many of the critiques of kingdom language resonate with the experience of human history, and one needs only pick up a history book to see the truth of what is being said. However, does human failing nullify biblical intent and understanding? Hardly.

Several years ago, I attended a mandatory boundary training in my synod. We were cautioned and steered away from using familial language to describe the church. The reason? Because families are places where abuse takes place; where neglect happens; where harm and pain are caused. It was not until a day or two afterwards that it hit me: not a single good thing was shared about what happens in families. No one spoke about parents who lovingly raise and sacrifice for their kids. No one said a word about how spouses care for each other and build one another up. No one spoke about the emotional support and foundations that are laid to help us cope with things that happen in life. No one said a thing about how the vast majority of parents feed, clothe, shelter, and spend hours upon hours of time with their children raising them to be productive citizens of society. All of the focus was on the bad, and not a single thing was said about the good. Do we abandon the metaphor because there are times of failure? Absolutely not!! Especially when the biblical witness emphasizes the metaphor so much.

I believe the same application is warranted here. Yes, there are, but the vision set forth in the Gospels, epistles, the book of Revelation, and even in the Old Testament lead us to use kingdom language. Why? To emphasize the goodness of God’s rule, and to show that there is a future hope which is a corrective to the failings of humankind.

Second, the kingdom of God is indeed exclusive, and I do not think this is something we as Christians should feel shame about. Paul is explicit in his writings that a person is either “in Christ” or “in Adam.” There is a strong line of demarcation, and the only way to go from one side to the other is through the cross. Essentially, a person either trusts in Christ’s work for salvation (in Christ), or they trust in themselves (in Adam). Either one trusts in grace for one’s righteousness, or one trusts in one’s works. There is no middle ground.

When you trust in Christ and His works, you shift your allegiance. No longer do you live for self: for self-indulgence; for self-affirmation; for self-preservation. Instead, you live for Christ. You live for God. No longer do you lay claim to the throne, but the rightful, righteous ruler is now seated upon the throne of your heart. You now serve a new master. (Romans 6) This is at the heart of the Christian creed, “Jesus is Lord.” You are announcing that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. You no longer rule over your life. Jesus does. And when He is king of your life, you enter into the Kingdom of God.

If you do not trust in Christ’s work, then you are not in the Kingdom of God. You are consumed by other hungers. You are on the outside looking in. In this fashion, the Kingdom of God is indeed exclusive, but, this does not lead to violence and conflict. It is self-righteousness which leads to such things, and a person who knows God’s grace is not self-righteous. They know they have no righteousness of their own. They know their sin. They know their dependence upon God and Christ’s grace. They also know they are commissioned to make disciples of all nations. They know the great command to love their neighbors as themselves. They do not seek to impose the faith or the Kingdom by imposition, but rather by invitation. The doorway to the Kingdom of God is always open, and the desire is to welcome all. Even though it is exclusive, it seeks the inclusion of all. This is not something to be ashamed of in the least.

A final word about patriarchy. Please know that I am using the following definition of patriarchy: a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is traced through the male line. The Kingdom of God is a patriarchy since God is our Father. As such, this is a rather neutral understanding.

However, there is another definition of patriarchy which oftentimes gets applied. “A system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” The Kingdom of God was never meant to be such a thing. One would garner that self-evidently from Jesus’ own teachings on the Kingdom as well as St. Paul’s baptismal theology. However, living this ideal out on earth has proven to be quite difficult, and the Church has fallen very short of the ideal.

But again, the question must be asked: do we abandon the language because the ideal has not been met? No. There is no justification for that. You cannot change reality just by changing language.

Embracing Kingdom

And the reality of the Christian faith is this: you cannot have the “kin-dom” of God without the Kingdom of God.

As I hinted at previously, our Christian faith begins with God’s great grace poured out through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This grace captures and changes our hearts so that our allegiance shifts from ourselves and the desires of the flesh to allegiance to God and the desires of the Spirit. This is a vertical relationship, and it is primary. It must take place first. For through it, we actually fulfill the first and greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Everything starts with this vertical relationship.

Then, it moves to the horizontal. Then, it moves into our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Then, it moves to the second great command to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is where “kin-dom” language can come into play, but again, we must be careful.

Our neighbors may not share the same allegiance that we do. Our neighbors may not have Jesus as their King. They may still be “in Adam.” They still may belong to the kingdom of the world.

I was struck by a paragraph in Professor Green’s article:

This is the expansive sense of family to which Bishop Oscar Romero appealed when he exhorted the soldiers in El Salvador in 1980 before his assassination. He reminded them of Jesus’s vision of kinship, reminded them that we are all children of God, that we are connected through an honor code that values all, that provides security and a foundation for each person to be able to extend themselves into the community without losing their identity and sense of self.9

Bishop Romero appealed to the idea of “kin-dom” with the soldiers of El Salvador, but they still assassinated him. Why? Because they were serving a different master. They were serving a different king. They were not serving the King of kings and Lord of lords. Their hearts had not experienced the grace of God which would lead them away from committing such a heinous crime. The vertical relationship must always come first, and the Church’s primary job in the world is the proclamation of the Gospel which makes disciples of all nations–which calls our neighbors to have the same allegiance as we do.

To erase kingdom and replace with “kin-dom” means to place the second commandment above the first. It seeks to establish the kingdom without the King. That is not an option within the Christian faith, and it ultimately leads to failure. You simply cannot have the “kin-dom” without the Kingdom.

1. Florer-Bixler, Melissa. “The Kin-dom of Christ.” Sojourners. Nov. 20, 2018.,

Green, Bridget. “On Kingdom and Kindom: The Promise and the Peril.” Issuu. Fall 2021.

Butler Bass, Diana. “The Kin-dom of God.” Red Letter Christians. Dec.15, 2021




5.Butler Bass.

6.PCUSA. “Bible study at GA223 will Explore ‘kin-dom’ versus ‘kingdom.’” Feb.12, 2018

7.Montgomery, Herb. “A Kingless Kingdom.” Renewed Heart Ministries: eSights and Articles. May 31, 2019.



May 2022 Newsletter

Acedia and Appetite

As we entered 2022, and I faced the deadline for this article, I found myself struggling with what to write; what topic did I find compelling enough to spend time seriously reflecting upon?  What in the Church’s life was I passionate enough about at the moment that I thought I could add something substantive to Her discussion and deliberation?

Surprisingly for me, I had trouble identifying that thing.  Oh, sure, there was plenty that concerned me, problems around which my thoughts tend to eddy and swirl as I seek some pastoral, theological, philosophical, or practical understanding, strategy, or stance, but what was lacking was the passion that typically makes me put pen to paper — or hands to keyboard.

Passion… it is a word with a storied history in the Church.  In my first ecclesial job as a youth minister, our church’s youth ministry decorated the youth room wall with the words “Faith, Passion, Service.”  Upon visiting, a colleague commented, “Passion is something I think my youth already have plenty of… I’d think more about discouraging that.”

But the Church Fathers — the pastors during the Church’s greatest period of missionary expansion did not feel that way.  C. S. Lewis has introduced many modern Christians to the distinctions between the four Greek words for love through his book The Four Loves, and as a result, many Christians think of storge (affection), philos (friendship), and eros (infatuation with the beloved, not necessarily sexual) as immature or degenerate in comparison to the New Testament standard of agape, Christ’s own self-sacrificial love.

But this is not the way the Church Fathers spoke.  They spoke of God’s divine eros that burned for lost humanity so completely it agape’d the world enough to give His only Son… to give Himself.  Far from fearing passion, a Church whose largely convert members had drunk deeply of the wine of Roman success, who had tasted fruits imported from every corner of the conquered empire (now redubbed “the civilized world”), who had participated fully in the “good life,” the Pax Romana for which so many had given their lives in labor or battle, had come to realize that far from their passion being too great, it was too small.  This was a Church quite literally world-weary, who would have agreed whole-heartedly with Lewis when he preached in war time,

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”[1]

They would have agreed with this because they made a distinction that we post-enlightenment, postmodern, post-truth people, whatever our religious convictions, fail to make.  It has been noted by some that we represent “psychological man,” products of what Charles Taylor terms in his eponymous book A Secular Age.  We are people who, however we think of ourselves — straight or gay, cis-gendered or trans, conservative or progressive, believing or unbelieving, a sack of meat directed by selfish genes or made in the image of God — we are a people who almost ineluctably conceive of our identities as emerging from a murky subconscious that is fundamentally comprised of appetites. 

For us, love is almost always conceived of as downstream from appetites in which we are not fundamentally different from animals.  I have 1600 hours of C.P.E. to my credit, and I can tell you that while theological conversation is by no means absent from my cohort groups, it must always be respectfully conditional (to make room for disparate, even conflicting convictions), but the psychological theories that form the substance of our didactics are not so much deferred to as referenced in ways that establish their authority.  These theories, whether Freudian, Behavioral, Object-Relations, or of some other school, all stipulate appetite (conceived of as need) as fundamental and love as an experience later articulated on the basis of such.  Appetite is the water within which we swim, the air we breathe to nourish our sense of self.

This was forcibly brought home to me by my daughter when at age nine she ebulliently showed me one of her bug-eyed Beanie Baby stuffed animals.  After waxing eloquent about how much she loved it, she paused then thoughtfully added, “but you know, I’m pretty much programmed to feel this way about it because it has big eyes.  All mammals are programmed to respond to their babies that way.”  As she skipped back merrily to her play, I not only celebrated inwardly that somehow the brute biological “fact” had not diminished her childish joy, but marveled that this Christian homeschooled, thoroughly-churched girl without social media or unsupervised internet access had somehow been catechized so thoroughly by our culture’s tacit view of humanity… I hoped she would not later be seduced by its reductionism, the storge of a mother for her child diminished to mere genetic necessity.

The Great Tradition of the Church views humanity very differently, in a way that should not sit as peacefully alongside our modern biological and psychological conceptions, as it too often does. If we are truly made in the image of God, the template of our souls is not the paltry desire that modernity stipulates and Kierkegaard lamented.  Rather, what is fundamental to our identities is love — a divine eros that burns hotter than we can imagine, for “our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29)

The ascetic tradition of the Church cautions us about passion, but in this, it does not mean the passion of love — any of the four loves about which Greek is so articulate in comparison to English.  Our elder brothers and sisters in the faith knew well from personal experience that appetite could easily obscure love as the prime mover of the soul, for it offered easier and immediate (albeit temporary and incomplete) satiation of the desire that is one of the many aspects of love.  Love desires the beloved, not as a possession but as simply its object, the sun around which it orbits.  A robustly Christian anthropology would see appetite as parasitically imitating love, seeking to consume or possess the thing or person desired, not as the foundation upon which rarified “conceptions” of love would later be built.

The seeds of ascetic Christian spirituality are already evident in 1 Corinthians. There the Apostle Paul states:

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.[2]

We must not let the force of the Apostle’s words here be softened as I have heard too many well-meaning preachers do into weak-kneed warnings, back-handed reassurances that we might not “finish well.”  The salvation that is by grace through faith may be lost — we may be disqualified — if our appetites convince us that their satiation is the face God’s love takes for us, if our trust in them slowly but decisively supplants our faith in Christ.

The sexuality debates that have riven the Church of late should put a recognizable face on the process, at least for readers of this periodical, but I do not wish to direct this warning toward those who have appetites with which I do not struggle; I need this strong medicine myself, as the consumerism of our unbelieving culture’s annual Christmas bacchanal has brought into sharp focus for me.  I say, “brought into sharp focus,” because what I am seeing as I write this reflection is true of me all year around; though I call myself a Christian, though I believe I have faith, the shape of my life (which reflects the shape of my soul) is still largely formed by the unsanctified narratives of our cultural moment.  My life is far more driven by appetite than I would care to admit on most days.  I too often shop for new theological books rather than re-read those in my library whose arguments I have digested but whose wisdom eludes me in the daily practice of Christian discipleship.  I too often tune-in to pedagogic YouTube videos rather than practice my guitar.  I too often numb the pain of a day in which I have dealt with the tragic consequences of life in a world ruled by the power of death and the devil or the sinful choices of people who know better with a scotch or a mindless movie than with prayer and time with the Great Physician who alone can heal my infirmities.  Too often, my appetites direct my activity rather than my faith.

In that last sentence, I nearly wrote, “my appetites dictate my activity.”  The great hope we have — the promise of discipleship and evangelical freedom — is that I used the proper verb, and that with the help of the Holy Spirit, our history need not be our destiny.  To be sure, “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves,” but while we are bound, Christ is not and He may direct us differently.

I am coming to believe we focus so much on what we are saved from that we too often neglect what we are saved for.  The 2007 film Amazing Grace about the life of William Wilberforce begins with his motion to abolish slavery being defeated on the floor of the British Parliament because some of those who had promised to vote for it were given tickets to the Comic Opera by his opposition.  The modern equivalent would be binge-watching a Netflix series when, led by the Spirit through our faith, we should be praying, consoling someone, enjoying time with a friend, reading Scripture or similarly engaged.  How many key moments have each of us missed when, through Jesus Christ, God had a Spirit-led motion upon the floor of our lives?  Appetites distract, dim, and partially satisfy, making us forget — and so fail to enjoy — the promise of the freedom for which we were saved.

The acedia, the sloth, the deadly sin of passionless-ness with which I began this little reflection is a sign to me that I have been too much with my appetites, that they have been directing me in spiritually unhealthy ways, leading me to seek satisfaction too often on the penultimate rather than the ultimate.  I generally love the Christmas season, but this year for the first time I found myself discontent and eager for Twelfth Night to arrive so we could begin the process of undecorating.  This year, for the first time I understood in my bones the words of the twentieth century theologian who said, “the only time I don’t feel like a hypocrite is when I am in liturgy.”

The feast of Christmas is over, and I am ready for the fasting of Lent to begin, not because I cannot bear to feast, but so that the joy of feasting — dining with Our Lord — may return.


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses

[2] 1 Corinthians 9:24–27 (ESV)

Spring Devotional

Editor’s Note: This piece was written by a Luther Seminary student earlier this spring.

I can’t tell you what spring is like in places beyond the Midwest — I’m sure they have it but it certainly pales in comparison to the spring that we enjoy in Minnesota. Saint Anthony Park and the ever-creaky Bockman Hall were covered in snow one day this week and basked in warm sun the next. Through open windows a new breeze blows in and with it the promise of a new age. A new age not held by the chains of ice and cold but one dominated by the warmth of the sun.

It is on to this odd state of transition that I cannot help but project my own faith. We as believers live in a time of transition. We have felt the warmth of the Son but are all too familiar with the cold and death of sin. Yet just like those experiencing spring in Minnesota, we know that the days of sin are numbered. We may not know for certain what that number is but that God has assigned it.

There is a moment in early March (and yes, I am a hardy one) when we first feel the warmth that God has given us. It is a feeling unlike anything else as it brings us to the end of our reality and then on to the next. That first warm day in March announces that winter is ending and summer is soon to follow. It is a sweet promise but one that loses its meaning if we spend the rest of the season behind closed windows and in a dorm. There, away from the sun, the promise becomes stale.

I remember the moment when I first felt the warmth of Christ. It brought me to the end of my reality and onto the next. Yet it is a warmth unappreciated when it is followed by distance and silence; by greeting the new breeze with closed windows and walls. Like students in spring, we as believers must live into the warmth and not merely observe its effect through a double-paned window. We will never replace the experience of when the Son first broke the cold but we can continue to live into the promise of that which the Son brings.

How do we live in the sun in a time when winter looms so close? I really couldn’t say but certainly we must first step from our dorms and houses and into where that light shines. We know darkness because we have seen light; cold because we have felt warmth. There is wisdom in that simple pairing — now that we have known, we should know.

The snow on my window’s ledge is gone but, without any regard of my own attitudes, it may return tomorrow. Spring is a time of transition, one that aims to break us of winter and usher in a period where we need not worry about snow. Until that time, I will have to wait and celebrate the warmth as it is given — that is the reassurance that allows us to hope for summer even when winter surprises us again.

A. Nestenprest

Christ-Less Christianity

Sin, Justification, and Salvation: Critical Theory as Christ-less Christianity

Secular Christian Heresy

One of the more perplexing questions I received after writing my last article was, “Why do you call critical theory a secular Christian heresy?”  It was perplexing to me because I thought that was the burden of my whole article; I could see someone disagreeing with me and objecting, but not simply misunderstanding. 

To be clear in this article, let me say what I mean by secularized Christian heresy.  A heresy is simply unbalanced or incorrect teaching.  The word heresy means to pick and choose, so rather than accepting the full, robust teaching of the Holy Scriptures regarding this or that topic, they embrace some aspects of it and neglect others. 

So, to claim that Jesus was an inspired but perfectly human moral teacher is a heresy, not because Jesus is not an inspired, perfectly human moral teacher, but because teaching that alone neglects the other Biblical teaching that He is also the Word of God that “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (John 1:14) the eternal only-begotten Son of the Father, “the only God, who is at the Father’s side, [who] has made [God] known” because “No one has ever seen God.” (John 1:18) Both Jesus’ full humanity and absolute divinity must be proclaimed together for the Church to correctly articulate the Biblical teaching about who Jesus is.  Anything other, less, or partial is heresy.

Christian theology has many subcategories.  In addition to Christology (who Jesus is) just a few are soteriology (how we are saved), pneumatology (who the Holy Spirit is and how He functions), and the most difficult of all, Trinitarian theology (how we articulate who God is in Himself).  In each of these areas it is possible to fall into error by getting the doctrine wrong through omission, addition, or innovation; though some people would reserve the term heresy to errors in Christology and Trinitarian theology alone, the principle of heresy remains the same across all the theological categories, and I will use the term in that sense throughout this article.

Such theological categories are the common inheritance of everyone in the West, even those who forthrightly reject orthodox (correct) Christian teaching — though they may lament it being so, it is the inescapable cultural air a Westerner breathes.  A category of meaning like the fall from primordial human perfection was a controlling idea for philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas are experiencing a resurgence of influence today.  Though he explicitly rejected Christianity — especially its sexual ethics — Rousseau’s thought world was a distorted reflection of the Judeo-Christian story he was rejecting.  First, he gets the story wrong by claiming we can return to primordial perfection (Eden) without the ministrations of a divine Savior, as though an impassible flaming sword does not bar our way.  That makes his story heresy.  Then, he goes on to posit that there is no God at the root of our existence … at least not one of the personal, tendentious, interfering, judgmental sort depicted in the Bible.  That makes his story secular.  Rousseau’s view of the human predicament is a secular Christian heresy.

Critical theory too adopts categories of meaning from the Christian thought world that it sees as its opponent, makes key errors in the doctrines and then secularizes them in the same way Rousseau did, failing to recognize its debt to Christianity.


In classical Christianity, sin is not a problem for humanity, it is the problem.  “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12)  Sin separates eternally from God and as Genesis 3:7 makes plain, even before humanity becomes aware of the wedge sin drives between us and the divine, we are excruciatingly aware of the wedge it drives between us and the ones we love — Adam and Eve are no longer comfortable naked and vulnerable before one another and so begin to hide aspects of themselves from one another, the deeper and more ominous meaning of their crafting of makeshift loincloths.  Sin thus becomes the common inheritance of all humanity, for as psychologist Eric Berne noted, all people “play games” with one another, seeking to manipulate others for their own benefit; “all sin and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23)

In critical theory, sin is not the common inheritance of all humanity, but the special purview of the oppressors.  Indeed, the oppressed is proclaimed to have a moral superiority over the oppressor, especially if the oppressor is unaware of their oppressive status.  Oppression in this case is not simply defined as an immoral, illegitimate exercise of power by one party over another, but rather any exercise of power by such a party, for all structures of authority (what sociologists refer to as dominance hierarchies) are defined as immoral because the goal is absolute equity.  Indeed, preferential attention is paid to language structures that make some people feel oppressed, even if legally and/or culturally they are not.  Thus, the married homosexual continues to be oppressed if people are permitted to express disagreement with their life choices because this may trigger doubt of some sort in them even though legally their marriage enjoys the same protections as a heterosexual one and the majority of people in the United States support gay marriage (at least civilly) and the great majority of all entertainment media lionizes their position. 

Support for and understanding of the political importance of the First Amendment is falling precipitously among Millennials precisely because they see free speech as a tool of oppression, for nobody should have to defend their choices and/or identity.  The political good of liberty, which presupposes that all people will have to live by the consequences of and when necessary defend their choices and sense of identity to people who disagree with them, has been demoted to a good of the second or third order if indeed it is a good; after all, why should anyone have to bear consequences — even natural ones — for their choices?  Aren’t consequences merely another form of limitation and potential chastisement and hence, oppression?

And so, for the critical theorist, just as sin is the problem for a Christian, so oppression is not a problem … it is the problem.  The division between oppressor and oppressed defines the sinner from the saint; in every interaction, it is the purview of the saint to speak, and the privilege of the sinner to listen.  Justice means the oppressed are properly the tutors, and the oppressors only rightly their students — willingly or unwillingly.


Having just passed Reformation Sunday, it must be acknowledged that from a generically Protestant perspective, the key doctrine of Christianity apart from the Hypostatic Union (Christology) and the Holy Trinity is the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith.  Martin Luther famously referred to it as the teaching whereby “the Church stands or falls.”

In its most simple terms, this doctrine might be summarized as follows; because human beings afford the infinitely high cost of sinning against the infinitely holy God  — “the wages of sin are death” (Rom 6:23) — Jesus picked up humanity’s paycheck when as a true human being He died without sin on the cross.  Because He was also true God, death could not hold Him, so He rose up alive again beyond the reach of death ever again — that is why the Church’s proclamation on Easter is not “Jesus has risen,” but rather “Jesus is risen;” he remains to this day beyond the reach of death.

Because of His unique status as the God-Man, Jesus alone could have accomplished this mission.  Since we cannot pick up the wages of our sin without perishing eternally, God offers us Jesus’ work to take care of our predicament as a gift; we call that grace.  Because we are not yet at the final judgment when God will proclaim us justified (upright in His presence or righteous) on account of Jesus’ saving work for us, we must accept Jesus’ work at this point in time as a pledge or promise in which we trust … a promise in which we have faith.  We are saved by grace through faith.

Thus, our uprightness in God’s presence is something of a legal fiction; we are not actually without sin and so deserving of eternal life, God just counts us as sinless because of Jesus, who is truly sinless.  Protestant theologians have classically referred to this as forensic (legal) justification.

Justification — being just — works similarly for the critical theorist.  While the oppressor-sinner can never be truly just (non-oppressive), she, he or zhe (gender neutral) can be declared just by renouncing their identity as oppressor and proclaiming themselves an ally.  If you have heard of undergraduates renouncing a seemingly immutable characteristic (their ethnicity, sex, family of origin, etc.) in order to claim the status of “ally” or their wholesale adoption of a new identity in a group who has garnered the social capital of “oppressed,” you have seen people proclaiming their religious conversion.  They have been “justified” as a gift from the group designated as oppressed, and although they can never be truly other than oppressor, they can accept the gift (grace) of their new “woke” or “ally” status by trusting — having faith in — the social contract that conferred it upon them.  Their persistent pleas for mercy as they seek further wokeness are direct parallels to the Christian life of continual repentance and pursuit of holiness, but they prostrate themselves not before God, but before the capricious, constantly-shifting social categories that new discoveries and definitions of “oppression” dictate.


For the Christian, the fullness of salvation is a matter for an undetermined future date and can only be sketched in the loosest outlines, but what they know of it seems promising; Jesus spoke of it as being “like a wedding banquet” and apocalyptic and prophetic texts, beginning with the oldest book of the Bible, Job, refer to it as a time when “after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God,” (Job 19:26) and “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:3–4)  When this shall happen is totally in God’s hands — “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matt 24:36) — but that it shall happen is the fundamental hope of Christianity.

Equally so, for the adherent of critical theory, precisely when the hoped-for day of perfect inclusivity, equity, and diversity will arrive is unclear, for since oppression is defined by subjective experience rather than objectively-verifiable metrics, new “inequities” are always being “discovered.”  However, that it shall indeed come and that its coming will be glorious is a truth not to be questioned, for it is the prime motivator for all the efforts Herculean and pedestrian that give their day-to-day life shape and meaning.  Indeed, their participation in the process of ushering in this new age is reflective of not only the classical Christian struggle for sanctification, it is reflective of a peculiarly modern form of Evangelical Christianity which believes that God will not or cannot act until we “do our part” to usher in the longed-for future, such as learning how to harness our spiritual power in the Word of Faith movement or the building of a third temple in Jerusalem for many dispensationalists.

As Patrick Deneen has noted, progress toward a brighter, more glorious future is the great myth — the grand metanarrative — of Western secular Liberalism, a 300+ year project of which both modern conservatism and liberalism are a part.  When President Obama quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, saying, “the arc of history bends toward justice,” he was not expressing Dr. King’s Christ-based hope in the eschaton, but rather the conviction of secular Progressivism, which is the intellectual superstructure of Christianity wrenched from its historic and metaphysical foundations; it is Christ-less Christianity, and heretical Christ-less Christianity at that.

The Heretical Moves

How is it heretical?  First of all, it is so in its understanding of sin.  Just as some misguided forms of Evangelical Protestantism confuse sanctification with the claim that a relatively or completely sin-free life is possible following one’s conversion to Christ, so critical theory believes that through strenuous efforts at “wokeness” and externally-measurable equity that people can become relatively free of the sins of exclusivity and inequity as denominated in the more familiar constellation of sins like sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, white supremacy, etc.

Or perhaps such sinfulness may be conquered completely in a world where the education of the masses from womb to tomb is rigorously controlled by politicians, teachers, and CEO’s of multi-national communication and commerce companies who effectively operate beyond the regulatory bounds of sovereign nation states … if such leaders are catechized properly — and exclusively — by critical theorists, who have in true Enlightenment fashion, defined an intellectual space wherein they can operate free of the “sin” that haunts the great wash of humanity.

Orthodox Christian doctrine allows no such bifurcation of humanity into the (perhaps relatively) sin-free and the sinful.  There is a bifurcation inherent in Christianity, but it is between the redeemed and the unredeemed — those who trust in Christ’s work of salvation and those who do not.  Such trust includes both salvation and whatever holiness of life proceeds from faith, which are ultimately the work of the Triune God who creates, redeems, and makes us holy. 

People, believer and unbeliever alike, not only fail to, but are incapable of becoming sin-free by their own efforts.  “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves,” go the familiar words of the Lutheran Book of Worship’s Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness.  All human beings are both oppressed because they live under the yoke of sin and oppressor because they regularly and willingly collaborate with sin in the oppression of others around them for personal gain. 

The Orthodox Christian Alternative

There is literally no option for human beings to be radically free in Christian theology, something that the atheist existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre understood far better than many self-identified Christian theologies, which are heretical on this point.  Redemption through faith in the gracious gift of God in Christ Jesus means moving from unwilling servility to sin (oppression) to willing servanthood to the Lord.  The self-aware and active disciple of Jesus is to be a “slave to righteousness:”

15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves,[a] you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 6:15-23)

Because this is reality, the actors who seek for themselves radical libertarian freedom will find themselves in the end to be merely a slave to sin, receiving as the reward for their quixotic quest unbeneficial fruits whose culmination (end) is death. 

Conversely, the Christian who willingly lays down his erstwhile “freedom,” which is really bondage to sin, chiefly taking the form of futilely trying to fulfill his disordered desires, finds in the end that every desire is in fact fulfilled as he learns to love the things that God loves, pursues the things God would have him pursue, and in the end receive for it “the unfading crown of glory.”(1 Peter 5:4) 

All this proceeds from the justification we have in Christ Jesus; it is “not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For [Christians] are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:9–10)  Christians continue to be servants, but no longer of a cruel taskmaster who will in the end take everything from them, but rather for a gracious Lord who will in the end bestow everything upon them.

You see, sin is not just a problem — the problem — for human beings in the Christian telling of history, it is also a problem for God, for God’s great desire is for restored communion with His fallen creatures. (cf. John 3:16, Ezekiel 18:23, Mark 5:15, etc.)  In Jesus of Nazareth, “Christ crucified,” we are not to see a God so demanding and bloodthirsty that He required the death of His Son before He would allow errant sinners into the kingdom of heaven.  Rather, with a full and robust Christology, in the cross of Jesus Christ, we are to know God as the One who is so loving that He was willing to sacrifice Himself — experience the annihilation of death, which is utterly foreign to Him as the One whose deep and first revealed name is “I AM” — that we might have eternal life and restored communion with Him.

Evangelical Hope

In every critical respect — its understandings of sin, justification, and salvation — critical theory is a secularized form of Christian heresy.  While this means we must be on our guard not to drift into false teaching when dialoguing with its proponents as the Church of Jesus Christ, it is also a cause for hope.  Since our thought worlds are not so far apart, we may be able to give a winsome and persuasive witness to the gospel by doing what orthodox Christians do; we can confess the sins of which we are guilty, including our own slides into heresy.  We can help them understand the fatuousness of their account of sin and justification and point out that the categories of meaning they employ are quickly resulting in the opposite of paradise wherever they are or have been employed, that “the end of those things is death.”  Most importantly, we can tell them a far better story of sin, justification in Christ, and redemption, a story whose end is eternal life for those who will, in the immortal words of the Lutheran Reformers, through faith “grasp on to it.”

How the Revisionists Re-Framed the Sexuality Debates

Back in my college days, I was on the debate team. We would be assigned a general topic for the year, and a two-member team from one college would offer a proposal within the topic, while a team from a different college would oppose it. We didn’t know until a few minutes before the debate started whether we would be advocating the affirmative or negative side, nor did the negative team know how the affirmative would frame its proposal.

One of the tricks was to frame the proposal in terms that made it difficult to oppose. Probably we spent more planning time on that than the merits of the ideas at stake.

I have watched how those holding the revisionist position on sexual ethics have brilliantly re-framed the debate in ways that put those of us holding to traditional biblical ethics at a disadvantage in convincing others. They managed to frame the debate in such a way that any opposition to their positions seemed unjust or even sick.

This has been done in two ways. First, sexual orientations and behaviors were turned into issues of civil rights. Think how you see the = sign on bumper stickers; “All we want is the same right you have to be married to the person we love.” And since, as the argument goes, sexual orientations are not a matter of choice but perhaps even good things which God has created, gender identity and sexual orientation should be a protected civil right. So, it is stated as proven and obvious fact that sexual orientation is like race or ethnicity — a matter about which we have no choice. Even though science has failed to find a so-called “gay gene,” the statement that “we are born gay [or whatever]” has been repeated so often that it is generally accepted as true [see Orwell, the “big lie”].

I first heard this contention back in 1983 (yes I am that old) at a Conference on the New Lutheran Church at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Karen Bloomquist, who at the time served in the social affairs office of the LCA (and would later be the primary writer of the first ELCA sexuality statement, the one that went down in flames) was giving a presentation with a list of groups of people who should be protected, and included along with race, gender, and ethnic origin the matter of sexual orientation. I challenged her, and I still remember Prof. Robert Jenson sitting in the back of the room, grinning I suspect at my naïve surprise at her linking of these topics, for it had been done in the wider society long before I first heard it.

We all have sinful orientations. The Church calls it “original sin.” St. Paul speaks of it as “the flesh,” to which “the Spirit” is opposed. Not all of us are tempted in the same ways, but on other matters nobody will say, “God made me this way, so you have to celebrate it and be proud of me.” For instance, there is a proven genetic connection to addictions including alcoholism, but we would not celebrate drunkenness in an alcoholic. The ethical choice for an alcoholic is not to drink; it isn’t to go around proudly claiming, “God made me this way.”

Once we turn sexual orientations into civil rights instead of behavioral issues, we have been placed at a significant disadvantage in defending the biblical view of sexuality. And that is exactly what has happened.

A danger of seeing sexual orientations as civil rights issues is that this paves the way for the power of government, especially its power to tax, to be used against groups including churches which do not accept this new definition of justice. Already the Supreme Court has declared (I believe disastrously) that tax exemption is not a right but a privilege bestowed by the government to organizations that share its values (the case involved Bob Jones University, and a similar one involved Rev. Moon). Several prominent politicians have publicly proposed that churches which refuse to conduct same-sex marriages should be denied tax exemptions.

A second brilliant move by the sexual revisionists is even more frightening: They have basically declared that anybody who opposes their viewpoints on sexuality is mentally ill.

Think of what that term “homophobia” means: “homo” means “same” and “phobia” is fear. It is a pseudo-scientific term coined to cut off any debate about the rightness or wrongness of same-sex sexual activities. If you disapprove of same-sex sexual relationships, you are obviously homophobic, and shame on you! End of discussion.

In my state, our Secretary of Health started life as Richard but is now Rachel. And the media is trumpeting how those who make unkind statements about her are “transphobic.”

I’m not sure about you, but I don’t lie awake nights in fear that a group of transgender people are going to attack me. Nor do I wake up screaming because of a nightmare that some crazy doctor is attacking me with a knife. I guess there might be such a thing as homophobia, in the sense that a person may be insecure in their masculinity or femininity. But most of us do not go through life obsessed with fear of gay or lesbian people or inclinations. I have friends and family members who are gay or lesbian, and they are generally nice people. I just don’t agree with this aspect of their lifestyle. But then there are reasons to disapprove of a lot of things I do too (file that under the topic of original sin, even though most of my sinning isn’t all that original).

Not only does turning traditional sexual ethics into mental illness cut off any constructive conversation, but it puts us in a very vulnerable position, which is exactly the intention. Call me paranoid, but I can see that in a certain cultural climate, folks like me might be compassionately “treated” in a kind and gracious attempt to release us from our bondage to our phobias.

Let’s be clear: All gay and lesbian people, all transgender people, are precious children of God for whom Jesus died, as he died for all us sinners. They are our neighbors whom we are commanded to love as we love ourselves. All of us (including me) need to avoid unkind comments or actions toward these people.

And it is true that there is such a thing as gender dysphoria, where the brain and body fail to communicate accurately in fetal development, so that the brain thinks it is one gender while the body develops as the other. This is tragic, and Christians can and will disagree on how a person deals with this aspect of the brokenness of our fallen world. Similarly, there seem to be very complex factors in a person being attracted to a member of the same sex. I accept that persons normally don’t choose to be gay or lesbian (although today there seem to be some exceptions like Katy Perry “I kissed a girl,” who try it for kicks and to prove their open-mindedness).

What does this mean for us? For starters, I believe we need to repent of any nastiness or unkindness we practice or feel toward what are called “sexual minorities” (I won’t try to name them all). We are not called to hate anybody, and when we come across that way, we simply confirm the opinion of those who believe we have a serious prejudice or mental illness.

And on a societal basis, we need to treat all people with justice and fairness. The time is probably long past when pastors should be agents of the state in officiating at marriages. We should let the government do its thing, and if people want God’s blessing pronounced on their relationship, that would be our role where we believe we can do it with integrity.

But we need to keep reminding ourselves and others that our concern is not with orientations or inclinations but with actions. We can’t always change what we feel, but we can have some control over what we do. I am not saying that this is easy: I think of Mark Twain who said that it was easy to quit smoking; he must have done it a thousand times. And most of us can relate regarding our struggles with our particular temptations.

I am not optimistic that we can change the framework in which sexual ethics is being argued today, but we need to be aware of it and be prepared to challenge it. Once behaviors outside the boundaries of heterosexual marriage are turned into civil rights, and especially when opposition to them is defined as mental illness, we have our work cut out for us. It will require a lot of wisdom and patience to counter those assumptions (for they are assumptions, not proven facts).

And if we fail to love other sinners, we don’t deserve to win an argument either. So let us keep our focus directed toward love for all our neighbors, even as we look for opportunities to account for the hope that is in us, but always with gentleness and reverence (see 1 Peter 3:15-16).

Devotion for Tuesday, September 18, 2018

“They crush Your people, O Lord, and afflict Your heritage.  They slay the widow and the stranger and murder the orphans.”  (Psalm 94:5-6)


The world has always been hostile to the ways of the Lord.  There are those who prey on whomever they can to get for themselves what they will.  Can not the Lord stop them?  Of course, but He has a plan that is far superior to our ability to even begin to comprehend.  Rather than trusting in your understanding, trust in the One through whom all things have their being.

Lord, this world is often difficult and I do not understand.  Why are the wicked able to prey upon the weak?  Why do things happen as they do?  Help me stop seeking answers that I may learn to trust You above my own reasoning.  Guide me to see that everything is in Your hands and that You will work all things together for good as You teach us to love as You love.

Love Incarnate,You have come that we may not be trapped in this body of sin, but freed to live into the life to which we have been called.  Guide me, my Savior, to walk humbly in Your sight.  Lead me according to Your purposes to be the child of the Heavenly Father that You died to enable me to become.  May I spend this and every day in praise of You who alone is able to save me from this wicked world.  Amen.

Devotion for Sunday, September 2, 2018

“A thousand may fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand, but it shall not approach you. You will only look on with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.” (Psalm 91:7-8)


We all will pass through the gate of death; so this is not speaking of death. What it does speak of is the truth of those who come into the salvation of the Lord. All around are those who fall prey to the wickedness of this age and do not come into the Lord’s presence and walk in His ways. You only have to look to see what that brings. Come into the Lord’s presence and live in Him.

Lord, You created us and the world has rejected You. Help me, O Lord, in this world of wickedness to see through the temptations that lure and pull me away from You. I can see what sin brings. I know no good comes of the wickedness of this age. Help me, Savior, to look to You and see the goodness and mercy You give to those who love You. Lift me up to be with You.

Savior, You have come to do what we cannot that all who believe might be united with You now and forever. Guide my heart, Lord Jesus, to walk in Your grace and live to the glory of the Father. May I stand amidst the crumbling ways of this world and learn from You to be faithful through all that comes. Open my eyes, Lord, to see clearly the recompense of wickedness. Amen.