Category Archives: Thinking Theology Aloud [Random]

This category includes all post of a theological nature that are not included in the Bible Bites or Church Chat categories.

Should the Church Bear Witness to the State?

There is a certain strand of Anabaptist two-kingdom theology that says church and state should be so entirely separate that the church has nothing to say to the state. The church, according to this view, has no call to “bear witness” to the state. While I don’t think a church that nags the state is helpful, neither do I think Christ’s call is for his followers to have nothing at all to say to those in government.

One confusing factor, it seems to me, is that when we hear “the government,” we tend to forget that this mysterious “other” is made up of persons. And the gospel of Christ has something to say to every person under heaven, if they will only listen–and if we will only speak.

This way of seeing “the government” as a faceless institution is oddly akin, it seems to me, to Luther’s version of two-kingdom theology, whereby a Christian who serves in government suddenly is no longer subject to Christ’s commands to his individual followers, but may do things that Christian “persons” must never do. Neither Luther nor “the quiet in the land” have quite the right version of two-kingdom theology, I suggest.

At any rate, New Testament believers have clear precedent for speaking truth to power, even if we may rightly be uncomfortable with some connotations of that phrase. When Jesus called Paul as his messenger, he said, “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings…” (Acts 9:15). How did Paul respond? “I was not disobedient… I stand here testifying both to small and great…” (Acts 27:22). There may be only a few who are “great” in the world’s eyes, and perhaps only a few Christians are called as Paul was to speak to them.  But speak the church must, for the gospel speaks to all.

So, the church must speak to the state–or, to say the same thing another way, to state officials. But what must we say? Our witness must be, as Paul’s was, a declaration of the gospel of Christ. And make no mistake: the gospel is a message which affects all of life. It calls state officials to personal faith, and it also calls them to account for the public policies they have promoted.

Again, we have Paul for an example. Perhaps his witness before the Roman governor Felix is most revealing. We read that Felix “sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus” (Acts 24:24). More specifically, we are told that what convicted Felix was when Paul “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (v. 25).

How might these topics have impacted governor Felix’s life, both public and private? In reverse order: “The coming judgment” would have been a reminder to a governor that he, one used to dishing out judgment, would someday face his own judgment–an after-death judgment that “was probably not a significant part of his belief system,”1. “Self-control” may have reminded Felix of the immorality of his personal life, including how “he had lusted after [his wife Drusilla] while she was still the teenage bride of Azizus the king of Emesa.”2 Talk of “righteousness,” which could equally rightly be translated “justice,” would have stung Felix, who was seeking a bribe from Paul (Acts 24:26) and about to unjustly leave him in prison as a favor to the Jews (v. 27).

Notice how Paul’s witness did not shy away from how the gospel impacted Felix’s public life as a state official. Indeed, “‘justice’ and ‘self-control’ may be mentioned to indicate qualities particularly required of Felix and other rulers when they are measured in judgment.”3

More from commentator David G. Peterson:

Genuine faith in Christ involves a change of allegiance and therefore a change in behavior and priorities. Paul presented this challenge in terms that were particularly applicable to Felix and Drusilla… The gospel presentation to Felix and Drusilla involved… a rather vigorous appeal to their consciences to recognize their guilt before God, and their consequent need to respond with faith in Christ Jesus. With a few brief phrases, Luke has illustrated how the gospel was presented and applied to the specific situation of a Gentile ruler…4

Do I hear echoes of a pastor today in, say, the Oval Office? Reminding a president that he, too, will face judgment, that his adultery is a stain before God, and that he will be held accountable for the injustices he has promoted through his public office?

No, let us not nag the government officials whom God has “placed in order” (Rom. 13) over us. (That sentence deserves its own blog post, I am sure.) But neither let us imagine that the church has nothing to say to the state. For the church has the gospel and–if we will only live the gospel first to make it credible–it must witness of this gospel to every person under heaven.

So if God gives you the ear of some state official, high or low, pluck up your courage like Paul, and speak!

This post is only a glance at a big topic. Other biblical examples besides Paul before Felix deserve consideration, and many practical questions face us from our own experience. Do you have thoughts that can help the church bear a more gospel-shaped witness to those in power? Share them below.

  1. Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 715
  2. Ibid.
  3. David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar Commentary), 641.
  4. Ibid.

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Sonship and Suffering–Slides from My Sermon

Yesterday I preached a sermon called “Sonship and Suffering” at Followers of Jesus Church of Thomaston, Georgia, as part of our pulpit exchange. The sermon texts came from Hebrews 2 and 12.

My sermon notes this time were in the form of slides, so I will share them here. Most of the key sermon points will be self-evident from the slides. (The sermon was not recorded.)

I began the Scripture exposition by reviewing the importance of the title “Son” for the author of Hebrews. It is this title that he uses to emphasize that Jesus is greater than both the angels and Moses.

Yet this exalted Son—“the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3)—“had to” suffer (Heb. 2:17, 10). He had to suffer in order to become like us and complete his mission of “bringing many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10).

Did you catch that? “Sons!” Yes, the very word used to exalt the exalted Jesus is also used by God of all who belong to Jesus.

Later the preacher of Hebrews asks us this: “Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?” (Heb. 12:5). Yes, as sons. When you suffer, “God is treating you as sons” (Heb. 12:7). Now that gives us a life-changing new lens through which to view all our suffering!

If you want to ponder sonship and suffering more, check out the slides in the link below. Bonus: You will also find a very simple outline of Hebrews that shows its remarkable mirrored structure—which explains why yesterday’s sermon had two texts.

Hebrews – Sonship and Suffering

Download Slides/View Large

What do you know about sonship and suffering? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Postscript: We decided to name our house church here in Atlanta “Followers of Jesus Atlanta Church.” In doing so, we were influenced by our former church, “Followers of Jesus Mennonite Church” in Brooklyn, NY. We actually cleared our name with the lead pastor there, my good friend and former co-pastor Richard Schwartz. Then we learned that the little church in Thomaston, Georgia—whose pastor Gary Kauffman has agreed to be a counselor for us and Smuckers here in Atlanta—has also chosen the name “Followers of Jesus.” No, none of us are formally affiliated with each other (besides our relationship with Gary and our agreement to share pulpits every few months). But I think I sense a common theme, and I like it! Now may we live up to our names.


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Why Do I Believe the Bible? A Short Answer

Today a friend sent me this message:

Hi Dwight, got a random question… What would you say are your top 3 reasons for why you believe the Bible?

Since I had little time, and since I am not an expert on philosophical apologetics or epistemology, I gave the following response (edited slightly here for clarity):

Well… I’ll answer quickly, so this might be 3 random answers to your question rather than my top 3! 🙂

1) Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples proved by martyrdom that they believed Jesus rose from the dead, and they were in a position to know whether he had in fact done so. And if he indeed did rise, then we’d better listen to what was…

2) Jesus’ belief about the Bible. As I read Jesus’ words as recorded by his apostles and their close associates, it is clear to me that Jesus believed the OT scriptures were the words of God, the voice of the Holy Spirit. Then he also promised that his apostles—who later wrote the bulk of the NT—would be led into all truth by the same Holy Spirit, and appointed them to be his witnesses.

3) The witness of the Bible itself as I read it—literary grandeur, diverse breadth of themes that matches the diversity of human experience, and–getting to more important factors–its unique explanatory power for why the world and ourselves are as we find them to be, its unified coherent story line from beginning to end of the text and the universe, and its compelling vision of a God that is both more holy and more loving than any other image of divinity ever dreamed up by humanity.

Thanks for making me think about this! I could add other sociologically important factors, like the fact that I was taught to believe it from little on up. But when I have moments of doubt, while I do return to the fact that the best people I’ve ever known believe the Bible (this is an important fact!), I ultimately am only settled when I ponder objective facts like the above.

Finally, I must also say that I believe the Bible because God has granted me faith to believe, and because his Holy Spirit continues to open my heart to its words and its message about Christ.

There are many good answers to my friend’s question. No one answer may feel sufficient on its own (just as it is equally possible for you to dispute whether I actually exist). But the many answers, taken together, add up to a compelling case for the Bible’s trustworthiness.

What about you? What 1-minute answer would you give if someone sprang the same question on you? Share, if you wish, in the comments below.


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