Preaching to an effeminate age (III)...

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They went into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and began to teach. They were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. -Mark 1:21, 22

(Tim: this is third in an ongoing series, with the first here and the second here) Whether in classroom discussions, the dorm late at night, our accountant’s office, or coffee with a neighbor, the believer is hard pressed on all sides to give up truth. The radical relativism that permeates our world is absolutely antithetical to Scripture. Those seeking to preach Scripture faithfully will immediately face the world's dogmatic declaration that there is no truth--only stories, perspectives, and narratives; only my truth and your truth.

The intensity of the opposition we face is directly related to our faithfulness in preaching God’s Word with a form of delivery and content that is contextualized to the end that it appears radically authoritative to those acclimated to an effeminate relativism. Or, to put it another way, in our world one way to judge whether of not a preacher is a faithful servant of God is whether he is accused of arrogance. A faithful man will employ a method and content that bears witness to his faith that he is not communicating the words of men, but of God. With Calvin, he will declare that preaching is the Word of God. And the world has no way of understanding such declarations as anything but an arrogance that's sick and pathetic.

My wife and I were out for dinner one night. As we prepared to leave, we struck up a conversation with another couple at an adjoining table. In their mid-seventies, both were strikingly tall and dignified. During the preliminary small talk, we learned they had been married fifteen years, were from the Pacific Northwest, had several children from previous marriages, and he'd spent fifty years working as a computer programmer.

Our deeper conversation started with the woman exclaiming over the beauty of the ocean. She had learned I was a pastor and, trying to relate to us on a spiritual level, she told us how the sea gave her permission to commune with God as “she” rather than “he...”

When I asked why the sea struck her as feminine, her husband suggested it might be due to the sea’s gentleness and peace—the softness of the waves lapping the sand.

“But what about The Perfect Storm?” I asked, referring to the movie about the death of Gloucester fishermen whose boat sank after being swamped by waves the size of tall office buildings.

The woman tried again: “Maybe it’s because the sea is so nurturing and generous--like a mother.”

If Athens had her idols on every street corner, she had nothing on us. And surely sex is the Zeus in our pantheon of Gods. Today, conversations about sex are always Gospel conversations.

By this time, we had been invited to join them at their table, so we'd slid on over. The man asked us, “What do you think about homosexual marriage?”

“God made man and woman for each other,” I responded, “not man for man or woman for woman. Cut off male sexuality from the discipline of woman and you have a terrible thing. Health care professionals know this. Men engaging in sex with other men are unbelievably promiscuous, and so their sex is deadly. Even science is forced to admit it.”

“There’s no truth in science,” the man said. “In fact, there’s no truth at all—anywhere.”

It wasn’t the statement itself that amazed me, but that it came out of the mouth of a seventy-some-year-old man who had grown up in the United States and received his college degree about the time I was born.

“You spent fifty years writing code. If you made a mistake in your programming, you had to go back and correct it because computers don’t lie. How can you possibly say there’s no such thing as truth?” I replied.

“It’s true: there’s no truth in computer programming, no truth at all,” he said.

“What about when you drive your car. When you put your foot on the brakes, do you trust them to stop you?” I asked.

“It’s just a question of what works and what doesn’t,” he replied. “But it has nothing to do with truth. Long ago, I learned that science has nothing to do with truth. There’s no truth anywhere.”

Earlier, the man had told us his wife had grown up in a Catholic home and attended twelve years of Catholic school. She added, “All my life I’ve wanted to talk to God as a woman, not as a man. This is something very precious to me—something I’ve never told another soul in my life, even my husband—and I wanted to share it with you.”

This is our world. We have been inoculated against the very idea of truth and we believe that our individual stories, feelings, and intuitions are sacred; that they're the only truth we’ll ever know. For the man, life is simply a matter of what works and what doesn’t. Not what’s true and what’s false. For the woman, spiritual truth—even down to how she speaks to God—is simply a matter of giving free rein to her intuitions and desires.

Until recently, science was religion’s main competitor for man’s faith. But now, we’re far beyond that. Truth no longer exists: only what works and what a woman feels in her heart. Those are the only authorities of our wicked world.

A number of times during the evening, the man asked us, “Why does truth have to be exclusive? Can’t people live together without saying those who disagree with them are wrong?”

So this is our world, But it was the Apostle Paul’s world, too.


Later that night, my wife, Mary Lee, pointed out to me that we’re now back wtih the Apostle Paul in Athens. Surveying the idols everywhere he looked, Paul told those most sophisticated men in the most cultured city the world has ever known:

Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, “To an Unknown God.” Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, “For we also are His children.”

Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.

Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. (Acts 17:22-31)

Reading the Apostle Paul’s words, it’s hard to imagine how exclusive, how intolerant, dogmatic, and unbelievably arrogant his words sounded to the Athenians.

“Yeah, right. Your own god is the only true god. He’s the one who made the world and everything in it. He’s determined the borders of the Roman Empire. We gave you Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato, but we’re groping at truth? We’re ignorant? You conceited fool.

“Then you tell us unless we repent your own national god is the one who will judge us, and that the proof is some guy you claim was raised from the dead? Bodily raised from the dead? Spirit reunited with body?

"You can’t be serious!”

You may say the Apostle Paul’s preaching to the Athenians is exactly what every evangelical preacher in the United States preaches today, but the sad truth is that such preaching is rare—not just outside, but also inside the church. Look at it honestly and it’s clear this sermon is filled to the brim with radical truth statements that allow no wiggle room. He doesn’t preface each sentence with weasel or hedging expressions like “I believe” or “I think.” Rather, he makes declarative statements of universal truth: “The God who made the world and all things in it… is Lord of heaven and earth.”

And what of his condemnation of the idols of ancient Athens? The British Museum is filled with them and we call them “art” today. Yet standing in the power of the Holy Spirit, He didn’t flinch. All these things and the thought that gave rise to them were simply the products of “times of ignorance” for which those listening must repent.

Only a complete fool would say the things Paul was saying. Finally, to top it all off, he began to speak of the resurrection of the dead! Put yourself in the minds of the Athenians there that day and it’s little wonder Scripture tells us “some began to sneer.” [1]

The Early Church

Moving into the first few centuries following the Apostolic Age, we find radical relativism at the heart of the persecution of the early church.

The Roman Empire encompassed the Ancient World. Many countries, races, and ethnic groups were under Rome’s rule and keeping the peace was no easy task. One of the most challenging tasks the emperors faced was avoiding offending the various gods worshiped by each people group.

Rome solved this problem by being inclusive of religious diversity. Instead of forcing her subjects to worship her own gods, Rome endorsed every nation’s gods. The pantheon of gods was the law of the Empire and everyone got along with one another as long as no one attacked their neighbor’s god. Moral and religious relativism was the law of the land.

So if everything was about pluralism and tolerance, why weren't believers in Jesus Christ tolerated? Why were Christians persecuted and martyred?

Confessing the truth about the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Christians were radically opposed to the tolerance that kept the peace in the Roman Empire. They were opposed to all idolatry. As we just saw with the Apostle Paul in Athens, Christians bore witness that all the gods of the nations were idols; that the Lord made the heavens and the earth. [2] That their God alone was the One in Whom every man lived and moved and had his being; and that, one day, all men would be judged by Him alone.

Can you feel the tension? You bet you can—it’s all around you today. Like the Christians of the Roman Empire, we too live in a radically relativistic world that hates our witness to Jesus Christ Who alone is Lord of all the earth and Judge of all men.

As the months and years passed after Christ’s Ascension, the Gospel message grew in the reach of its divisiveness. First, believers were persecuted in Jerusalem; then in Judea and Samaria; then to the uttermost parts of the earth. Rome’s tolerance could not include the rock-hard exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no man can come to the Father except through Him.

Thus Christians were imprisoned and condemned to death.

But in a diverse and tolerant age, what were the charges brought against our brothers and sisters in Christ?

There were two: atheism and anarchy. [3]

Atheism and anarchy; how could that be? The New Testament epistles are filled with commands to respect and submit to authority.

But Rome saw it differently. By her logic, Christians upset the delicate balance she had enforced across the Empire in her endorsement of the pantheon of gods. If believers called all men to faith in Jesus Christ, they were opposed to her gods, and thus to her rule of law.

So Rome persecuted, arrested, and martyred our brothers and sisters in Christ because of their radically authoritative witness to the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

This might help us understand the Roman ruler, Pilate's, response to our Lord’s statement that He had come into the world “to testify to the truth.” One more cynical ruler in a cosmopolitan, diverse, and inclusive world, he exclaimed, “What is truth!” [4]

[1] Acts 17:32

[2] Psalm 96:5

[4] John 18:37,38

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!