The Christian Compassion Revolution (Part 1)

The Christian Compassion Revolution (Part 1)

In May, 2022, the US Senate rejected an abortion rights bill. As a response to the leak about the Supreme Court possibly overturning Roe v. Wade, the proposed bill would have guaranteed the legal right to abortion up until birth. This flies in the face of any arguments about the “viability” of an unborn child, and exposes our culture’s true view about infanticide.

In 1 BC, a Roman soldier named Hilarion wrote a tender and domestic note to his wife:

Know that I am still in Alexandria; and do not worry if they [the army] wholly set out, I am staying in Alexandria. I ask you and entreat you, take care of the child, and if I receive my pay soon, I will send it up to you. Above all, if you bear a child and it is a male, let it be; if it is female, cast it out. You have told Aphrodisias, “Do not forget me.” But how can I forget you? Thus I’m asking you not to worry.[1]

This shocks modern readers now. Save the boy, but leave the baby girl to die? In the first century, this was accepted practice.

“If unwanted infants in the Greco-Roman world were not directly killed, they were frequently abandoned–tossed away, so to speak. In the city of Rome, for instance, undesirable infants were abandoned at the base of the Columna Lactaria, so named because this was the place the state provided for wet nurses to feed some of the abandoned children.”[2]

“In Sparta when a child was born, it was taken before the elders of the tribe, and they decided whether the child would be kept or abandoned.”[3]

Both infanticide and child abandonement were defended by philosophers and intellectuals that are otherwise revered as foundational for the Western tradition. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle: “As to exposing or rearing the children born, let there be a law that no deformed child shall be reared.”[4] Other luminaries of the classical world who approved of disposing of deformed or sickly infants include Cicero and Seneca.[5] 

Early Christians were unanimous in their condemnation of infanticide and child abandonment.[6] In this, they were radically counter-cultural. According to historian Larry Hurtado: “So far as we know, the only wide-scale criticism of the practice, and the only collective refusal to engage in infant exposure in the first three centuries AD, was among Jews and then also early Christians.”[7] 

Christian authors like Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Lactantius denounced child abandonment. Lactantius wrote: “It is as wicked to expose as it is to kill” (Divine Institutes 1.6). In addition, a “sixth-century canon of the church called parents who abandoned children ‘murderers’ (Patri Graeco-Latina 88:1933).”[8] Later, in 374, Bishop Basil of Caesarea influenced the Roman emperor Valentian to outlaw infanticide.[9]

But the early church was not content to sit on the sidelines and condemn the brutality of the pagans. They didn’t simply focus on gaining influence in the halls of power and passing laws. They got their hands dirty and they got busy saving, rescuing, and loving unwanted children:

Callistus of Rome gave refuge to abandoned children by placing them in Christian homes. Benignus of Dijon (late second century), who like his spiritual mentor Polycarp was martyred, provided protection and nourishment for abandoned children, some of whom were deformed as a result of failed abortions. Afra of Augsburg (late third century) was a prostitute in her pagan life, but after her conversion to Christianity she “developed a ministry to abandoned children of prisoners, thieves, smugglers, pirates, runaway slaves, and brigands.” Christian writings are replete with examples of Christians adopting throw-away children.[10]

Schmidt here is drawing on the work of George Grant’s Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present. Grant’s book is essential reading as we face the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade.

As the Christian church prepares for the seismic shifts that will no doubt occur if the Supreme Court does overturn Roe v. Wade, we must recommit ourselves to the urgency and radically pro-life position and practice of the early church. We need a legion of leaders and faithful front-line workers to care for mothers in crisis, mentor young fathers, and adopt babies if necessary.

Living 2,000 years after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are sometimes tempted to forget how radically the rag tag band of followers of this crucified Messiah have changed and impacted culture. Forgetfulness of history is perhaps a defining trait of our times, but Christians, of all people, cannot forget. Though the historical record of the church is not perfect, in their efforts to follow the Lord of Love, Christians have shown love and compassion to those typically rejected by the surrounding culture. That is our Christian heritage, and it should inspire us to courageous action in our current cultural crisis.

[1] Letter of HilarionOxyrhynchus Papyri (ed. B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt), 4:744. Quoted in John Dickson, Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021), 34.

[2] Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 52.

[3] Schmidt, 52.

[4] Poetics 7.4.10 (Rackham, Loeb Classical Library 264), 623. Quoted in John Dickson, Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, 34.

[5] Schmidt, 49.

[6] Schmidt, 51, citing the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas.

[7] Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctives in the Roman World (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016), 148. See also George Grant, Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, Inc.: 1991), 17-32.

[8] Schmidt, 53.

[9] Schmidt, 51, citing Codex Theodosius 9.41.1.

[10] Schmidt, 53.

Church History in Liberia

This summer, I’ll be traveling to Monrovia, Liberia, to teach an intensive class in Church History at Grace Life Seminary, with TLI (Training Leaders International. I (finally) finished my PhD in Historical Theology last Fall, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to use what I’ve learned to bless and encourage pastors in Africa. I know I’ll also learn much from them as well.

TLI trains pastors in developing world countries. The church has grown rapidly in these countries, but many pastors do not have access to solid Biblical and theological training. The default theology in these countries is the prosperity gospel. 

Leadership development in Liberia is a strategic place to invest time and resources because pastors from neighboring countries (like Guinea and Sierra Leone) also come there for training. The church there can play a vital role in healing a country torn by civil war and Ebola.

The training site in Liberia is also a great place to plug into because our local partners there also have a network of K-12 schools. Classical Christian schools here in the US have been building relationships with them, and there are opportunities for us to support and encourage the work of Christian education in Africa.

The total cost for this trip is $3,800. I’ve already raised 65% of the cost through the generosity of many supporters. The cost of the trip covers roundtrip airfare, ground transportation, housing, meals, travel insurance, class materials, as well as covering the costs for the students to get to the training site, and purchase the textbook at a reduced price. So, the money isn’t just for me–it also goes to help the African pastors and leaders.

What can you do? (1) Pray! This is spiritual warfare. The seminary is built on the site of a sacred grove that was used in traditional African worship. No one else wanted to build on the site, because they believed they would be killed. So, they came to the seminary leaders and asked if they wanted it, because, as they said, “You’re God seems to be able to handle this sort of thing.” Liberia has suffered from centuries of spiritual darkness, political oppression, and plague. The church is ground zero for renewing this culture. God has given us the opportunity to bless our brothers and sisters there in an amazing way.

(2) Give. I’d like to ask for your support. All the money goes straight to the trip–I don’t touch a cent. Thanks for prayerfully considering this! Here is a link where you can donate.

I hope to post more about my preparation, as I try to figure out how to teach church history in an African context, as well as share what I’ve learned after the trip.

Education on the Front Lines

Now in my 21th year of teaching, I sometimes wonder if it has been worth it. These moments are fleeting, but the fact is that hardly anyone gets rich through teaching. Thankfully, I’m not in this for the money. There are more important things, as all the sages have told us. As a Christian educator, I believe education is similar to “boot camp,” especially in this time of cultural upheaval. I see my mission as equipping students of all ages to engage in the spiritual battle that rages all around us (Ephesians 6:10-18). God has given everyone unique gifts and abilities that he expects us to use for His glory, and for the good of others. For me, teaching is not just a job, or an occupation–it is a calling. I can’t desert my post.

While going through J. Gresham Machen’s classic Christianity & Liberalism with my students at Logos Online School, I was encouraged by Machen’s words. Not only was Machen profoundly prophetic in discerning the fundamental differences between Biblical Christianity and theological liberalism, but he also is surprisingly practical in his treatment of cultural and political matters. In his final chapter, Machen presents an agenda for countering the aims of liberalism. He writes:

“In the fourth place–the most important thing of all–there must be a renewal of Christian education. The rejection of Christianity is due to various causes. But a very potent cause is simple ignorance. In countless cases, Christianity is rejected simply because men have not the slightest notion of what Christianity is. An outstanding fact of recent Church history is the appalling growth of ignorance in the Church” (176).

This intellectual and theological atrophy is due to one of the main tenets of theological liberalism:

“The growth of ignorance in the Church is the logical and inevitable result of the false notion that Christianity is a life and not also a doctrine; if Christianity is not a doctrine then of course teaching is not necessary to Christianity” (177).

What should we then do?

“It must be remedied primarily by the renewal of Christian education in the family, but also by the use of whatever other educational agencies the Church can find. Christian education is the chief business of the hour for every earnest Christian man. Christianity cannot subsist unless men know what Christianity is; and the fair and logical thing is to learn what Christianity is, not from its opponents, but from
those who themselves are Christians” (177).

It is this sense of urgency that keeps me going through the long hours and all the grading. At both Logos Online School and at the BibleMesh Institute, I have the immense joy and privilege to help students learn, grow, and develop their unique talents, interests, and abilities.

The work of Christian education is immensely important. Writing this on an Easter weekend, I am reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15. The Biblical Gospel is founded on a historical fact. If Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead, our faith is vain. So, teaching my students about history, and about how to read texts, is essential. We are engaged in a spiritual battle, where ideas have consequences and worldviews bring either life or death (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). So, my students read the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Martin Luther and John Calvin, as well as the Qur’an, the Communist Manifesto, and Brave New World. My students at the BibleMesh Institute learn to deal with challenges to their faith, and how to present the Gospel in various cultural contexts.

In all of this, we seek to pursue wisdom, truth, goodness, and beauty. God is Himself the source of all of these qualities. As we pursue them, we reflect his image more and more (Colossians 3:10). And we don’t do this simply as cranky conservatives. We try, through the Holy Spirit sanctifying us, to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Belief in absolute truth should not make us jerks. As Machen wrote: “If the Word of God is heeded, the Christian battle will be fought both with love and with faithfulness” (178).

Every society and culture has transmitted its values through education. The Church needs to reclaim this task and takes this job seriously. Teachers are on the front lines, and we look forward to a bountiful harvest that we can’t even begin to imagine. We plant seeds now, and we trust God for the results (1 Corinthians 3:6-11).

This Thanksgiving, Be Thankful the Pilgrims Tried Communism–And It Didn’t Work

The “first Thanksgiving” is one of the treasured legends of our American beginnings. You can Google the real story later. Less well-known is the Pilgrim’s failed experiment with communism. In these historically-ignorant times, when socialism and communism are sexy again, we can be thankful that the Pilgrims tried a type of communal labor and community ownership–and realized it didn’t work. William Bradford, the governor and chronicler of the Plymouth Plantation, details what happened.

Early in the history of the Plymouth colony, they had planted corn in a communal plot and everyone was expected to take turns working in the fields. But, people quickly offered excuses. The young men didn’t want to work for other men’s wives and families. Those who worked more received the same amount as those who worked less, and resented that. The older men thought it beneath their dignity to work alongside the younger and socially inferior and receive the same rations of food and clothes as everyone else. Wives complained that they were basically slaves who had to work for other men … [read the rest at Cross Politic]

Gospel Economics

Christians must engage the world, engage business, and engage economics. But we must do it according to the logic of the Gospel.

William Cavanaugh observes: “Christians who are called to witness to a different kind of economics have no choice but simply to enact this economics now, in history, beginning in the concrete, local experience of the church. There can be no resignation to the way things are. The church is called to be a different kind of economic space and to foster such spaces in the world. This does not mean a ‘sectarian’ withdrawal from the world; Christians are in constant collaboration with non-Christians in making such spaces possible. But there is simply no alternative to the actual creation of cooperatives, businesses, and other organisms that behave according to the logic of the gospel. The only alternative to blessing or damning the ‘free market’ as such is to create really free markets, economic spaces in which truly and fully free transactions—as judged by the true telos of human life—can take place. The goal is indeed revolution, to transform the entirety of economic life into something worthy of God’s children. But it is a revolution that cannot be imposed from above by force. It will only take place in the concrete transformation of transactions that enslave into transactions that are free.”[1]

[1] William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), x.

Letter to Parents

I’m excited to be teaching several Integrated Humanities courses, as well as Apologetics, at Logos Online School this year! I sent out this letter to the parents of my students, and thought it might be helpful for others who want know more about our approach to education.

Thank you for honoring us with the opportunity to partner with you in the education, training, and discipleship of your children. The Bible clearly commands parents to take the primary responsibility for the education of their children (Deuteronomy 6:1-4; Ephesians 6:1-4), and we always want to remind ourselves that we are here to serve you, with your delegated authority. As a father myself, I take this role and responsibility very seriously.

The curriculum used at Logos Online School is unique, although a similar curriculum is being used by hundreds of other schools across the world. It’s actually a time-tested way of educating our children, but one that has been forgotten in the modern world. We call it “classical Christian education.” There are different varieties and emphases in this movement, but something we all agree on is the importance of reading good books–and reading a lot of good books! Reading is somewhat counter-cultural in our world. Many people don’t read very much these days. Sadly, many Christians don’t even read their Bibles. I want to offer you some resources on the value of reading, and on our approach to education. I hope they are helpful for you. 

The ultimate proof of our educational approach is in our graduates. I’ve taught in classical Christian schools for 20 years now, and I could go on and on about the amazing things our graduates go on to do. I could tell you how much more prepared they are for college. I could brag about the companies they work for, and the companies they’ve started. But, most importantly, they are equipped to defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ in an increasingly hostile world. They are motivated to serve the lost and the lonely, and to extend hope to the hopeless. That is the ultimate aim of our entire curriculum. We are “Christian” before we are “classical.”

We will read a variety of books, some of which have worldviews that are opposed to Christianity. Think of this as boot camp. We want our students to practice wrestling and sparring with the “Bad Guys” (and bad ideas) before they head out into the world, to pursue whatever God calls them to. We want to help them learn how to respond to some very powerful and seductive lies–lies that still entrance and delude millions of people all around us. 

When we read the classics, the Great Books, we realize that there really is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). If you don’t embrace the truth of the Gospel, then you will believe the lies of Satan. And since Satan can’t really create anything original, he just keeps counterfeiting God’s truth in various different currencies. We want to train our students how to spot these counterfeit lies, guided by a deep grounding in the Truth.

In all of this, we want to approach all things in a Biblical way. The Bible shows us how depraved man can be without God. There are shocking and disturbing stories in the Bible. But, we do not dwell on them. They are there to show us humanity’s inability to save themselves. They are there to show us our deep need for God’s grace, love, and forgiveness. So as we read some of the classics of Western civilization, this will be our approach as well. We will not dwell on the ugliness, and we will be discreet and mature in our discussions. We will see that people always mess up, left to themselves. We will discover that humanity’s greatest achievements are always accompanied by massive failures.

We are here to serve you. Many other students have been through this curriculum, and are now contributing in all sorts of ways to the Kingdom, and to their communities. I hope the following resources are helpful as we begin this school year:

Looking forward to a great year!

Gregory Soderberg

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

A Great Treasury of Praise & Prayer – J.W. Alexander on the Psalms

In “The Hymn of the Eucharist,” a sermon delivered before the observance of the Lord’s Supper, the renowned pastor and theologian J.W. Alexander (1804-1859) expounded on the significance of Jesus singing a hymn with his disciples after their celebration of the Passover, and before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion (Matt. 26:30). Alexander extols the powerful spirituality of the Psalms, and exhorts his hearers to follow the example of Jesus whole-heartedly, who sang in a moment of deep, personal pain and suffering:

“To this day the Psalter stands as the great treasury of praise and prayer, the authentic liturgy of the Church, which can never grow obsolete; which presents every varying mood of holy experience; and by its divine flexibility and expansion is equally suited to every revolving period of the body of Christ” (93).

“But the psalms are not all rapturous. The chords are sometimes touched to the softest notes of penitence and sorrow. And hence in their wonderful modulations from confession to praise, they suit themselves to all conditions of believers and the church” (94).

“There can be conceived no mode of singing God’s praise, more simple, grave, impressive and truly Protestant, than the chanting of the very words of Scripture by all the voices of a congregation” (94).

“There is a principle involved in psalmody which extends widely in religion; it is that our emotions are increased by due utterance” (103).

“Let it be placed high among maxims for the improvement of piety, that our religious affections must have utterance” (104).

“It is only when the death of Christ becomes a secondary matter, and his divinity is denied, that Socinian criticism begins to amend the hymn-book, (as in some European churches) and weaken or remove all expressions of love to a Divine and dying Saviour” (106).

“What a rebuke to those, who look on this part of worship as secondary, as a mere appendage, which they may observe or omit at pleasure, or as something which they are only to witness, without any attempt at participation! For a service which is named the Communion, nothing can be more appropriate than fellowship praise” (107-108).

“[W]e never shall know the joys of the sanctuary, until there be poured out upon us a new baptism in regard to fellowship of adoration, love and praise. We talk of our need of revival in many things–and justly–but what we greatly need is a revival of the spirit of worship” (110).

“Then shall the world without see and know that God is with us of a truth, and recognize that there is happiness in glorifying the name of God” (111).

“Amidst much that is obscure in the Apocalypse, one thing is as clear as day, that in the heavenly state there shall be lofty, joyous, and perpetual praise of Christ” (112).

– “The Hymn of the Eucharist” in J.W. Alexander, Sacramental Discourses (1860).

For more on J.W. Alexander, see the helpful biography at Banner of Truth.

Want to learn more about Psalms and Psalm-singing? Pastor Uri Brito has a bunch of great resources at Resurrectio et Vita!

[This post appeared originally at the Reformed Liturgical Institute.]

Teaching History with “Affectionate Realism”

As I finish up my PhD through the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam on communion frequency in Reformed churches, I’m starting to take notes on another research project. It’s focused on how Christianity has impacted society, and how the Gospel has transformed cultures. I’m not leaving behind my decades of research into worship and the Lord’s Supper, but I’m excited about continuing to explore the relationships between Christian worship and Christian activity within culture.

This has got me thinking about how I want to teach history, and how I want my students to think about history. I came across this quote:

“The purpose of historical study is to explore fully and summarize accurately what really happened in the past. Scholars do not pretend to have achieved absolute objectivity … Accuracy and impartiality are, however, the historian’s cherished goals. It happens that I hold deep affection for the faith of the revivalists whose labors this book recounts … But my intent has been to get the facts straight. Unless Christianity is dependent upon propaganda, its case is better served when historians hew to this line as best they can, letting the chips fall where they may.” – Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform In Mid-Nineteenth-Century America (1957), 10.

This captures what I’m calling “affectionate realism.” This attitude helps us navigate between two extremes in historical teaching and thinking. I want to approach history with “affection.” Of course, I love history! I love learning the stories about people, places, and cultures. I love learning where things come from, and finding out why things are the way they are. I know my students will not all share my enthusiasm, but I want to cultivate a level of affection in my classes.

At the most basic level, we can relate to the people we study because we are all made in the imago dei. There is a fundamental unity throughout the entire human race. So we can appreciate and value all of the achievements of people throughout history.

When we’re studying someone, we should try to see the world from their perspective, instead of rushing to judgment and condemning them because they aren’t as “enlightened” as us. But this is where the “realism” comes in. “Realism” helps us not to idolize, lionize, or white-wash the past.

Christians believe that all people are sinners. No one is perfect. So we’re not surprised when people don’t live up to their own ideals. We don’t need to tear out pages of our history books, or knock down every statue. If we only built statues to perfect people, we’d only be left with statues of Jesus–which might not be a bad thing.

“Affectionate realism” helps us avoid the error of idolizing the past, or the present. It helps us to be humble, and to be honest, as we both appreciate–and critique–the past. With this attitude we can study the past, in order to help us live wisely in the present.

Image by Prateek Katyal via Unsplash.”

Pigs, Gardens, & Church Announcements

At the church we attend the announcements at the end of the service are a continual source of amusement. Our pastor soldiers through as best he can, but there are regularly quite a few (since there are so many wonderful things going on), and the kids, and grown ups, are eager to get to the coffee and doughnuts waiting in the foyer. It was a historic occasion recently, when there were no announcements! There was great rejoicing throughout the land.

This is not a new problem. Churches in the Reformation also struggled with how to incorporate the mundane with the spiritual. Bruce Gordon, writing in Brill’s Companion to the Swiss Reformation, describes the merging of the secular and the mundane in the city of Bern:

“Ministers were required to make a series of announcements from the pulpit addressing the daily life of the community, such as a form of lost and found. Goods and belongings that had been lost were listed in case anyone should know where they were. Further, parishioners were told to control their dogs and pigs and not to bowl or ride horses in the graveyards. Apparently, these interventions became so lengthy that in 1548 the Bernese ministers were only required to announce that items over a certain value had been lost” (Gordon, “Polity and Worship,” 507).

It’s been a while since we last had anyone riding their horse through the church graveyard, so I guess we’re doing well!

[This post originally appeared at the Reformed Liturgical Institute.]