American Missions and Cuba

From June 1 through June 8, 2015 I traveled to Cuba along with four other friends, two of which are mission agency executives. While this was their first trip to the island nation, it was my seventh. My wife was born in Cuba and that has allowed me access over the years in spite of the U.S. economic embargo against Havana. This was my first trip, however, in over a decade, and I was surprised to see the effect of the moderate economic openness which has recently been afforded to the citizenry. Whereas before everything was scarce and distributed by the government, there is now a burgeoning open market which has brought about eateries and small stores selling the necessities of life.

The goal of this trip, however, was not to evaluate the national economy or the freedoms of the populace. It was to ascertain the situation of Christianity in the country at this point in history, and more specifically to assess the future role that North American missionaries might play in a more open Cuba. We took advantage of the recently relaxed regulation of the U.S. embargo to travel under the invitation of a local church in the eastern part of the country. While no one knows what the final disposition of Congress will be toward the decades old division between the United States and Cuba, there seems to be growing willingness to restore relations and seek a new approach to fostering change in Havana. Assuming that change does come, we can anticipate a rush among American missionary organizations to establish a presence in Cuba.

skyline of havana

Skyline of Havana

The assumption of the average believer in the U.S. is that because American missionaries are not present in Cuba there is likely little Gospel activity there. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Our visit revealed that the church of Jesus Christ in Cuba is very strong, very zealous, very obedient and growing very quickly. Again and again, as we traveled the length of the island, we came into contact with pastors whose churches were full of young, enthusiastic believers. In almost every case the existing churches had also started numerous daughter churches. Because the Castro regime prohibits the formal establishment of any new churches, these daughter churches are labeled house churches, or mission outreaches, of the recognized churches, but most have their own pastors and are functioning as subsidiaries of their parent congregations in name only. We interviewed many pastors who were leading their growing congregations while receiving no income except a few pesos a month from church offerings. Most of these men are bi-vocational and in the rural areas the majority are farmers. Their meeting places range from rooms in houses to make shift shelters to gatherings under a tree, but all of these congregations are growing through conversions and baptisms.

The Cuban church is characterized by joy, an appetite for doctrinal purity and a genuine hunger for sound, biblical teaching. Cuba’s current spectrum of evangelical churches reflects its missionary history, which dates back to the late 19th century. Many of the denominational groupings found in America are also found in Cuba, including Presbyterians, Lutherans and Methodists. The largest evangelical groups by far, however, are the Baptists, the Bible churches and the Pentecostals. In recent history, the Pentecostal churches seem to have been largely influenced by believers visiting from other Latin American countries and they reflect the typical patterns of excess (such as the health and wealth focus) found elsewhere. In the early years of missionary endeavor the Southern Baptist Convention made headway in the Western end of the island while the American (Northern) Baptist Convention gained ground in the East. From the time of the Revolution in 1959, the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba (American Baptist influence), headquartered in Santiago de Cuba, has had little to no connection with American church life. The Western Baptist Convention of Cuba (Southern Baptist influence), headquartered in Havana has continued to have filial connections with the SBC. Both conventions function similarly to the SBC in the U.S., with autonomous local churches associating themselves and cooperating with the programs of the convention. The concept of “independent,” or non-affiliated churches is foreign to Cuba (and most of the world) since it has not shared the same ecclesiastic/political history as have churches in America. As has been mentioned, there is also a strong Bible Church denomination called Los Pinos Nuevos (The New Pines) located primarily in the central region of the country (Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Camagüey Provinces). Picture1Each of these denominations has its own educational institution or “seminary” (in Latin America what we would might a Bible College is often referred to as a seminary). Our group visited the seminary of the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba in Santiago and met with its director as well as with the president of the convention. This school has a spacious, well maintained campus with residence facilities, a functional library and adequate classrooms to serve nearly 200 students. The economic situation in Cuba, however, currently promotes an enrollment of around 40. The Eastern Baptist Convention claims around 630 churches, with another 4000+ mission outreaches or house churches. The situation for the Western Baptist Convention in Havana is quite similar with some 500 churches (100 in Havana alone) and 5000+ mission outreaches or house churches. Though the New Pines Bible Church denomination is not as large, it is also thriving and growing.

The predominant competing religion in Cuba is not Roman Catholicism. Catholic churches are largely empty, being frequented mostly by the elderly. Most converts to Christ come from a background steeped in Santería, the Afro-Cuban religion of spirit worship. Santería is essentially animism with a veneer of Catholicism, and involves animal sacrifices and spirit possession. Nearly every Cuban is affected in some way by Santería and in practical terms it is the largest religion in the country. Yet the power of Christ is breaking the hold of Satan over multitudes of Cubans who are finding their freedom in the Gospel.

Christianity in the island today reveals a stark growth pattern since my previous visits to Cuba. Over and over we were told that when the country passed through its “special economic period” or economic collapse following the withdrawal of Soviet funds in the early 1990s, God began to revive the hearts of believers and they began to boldly proclaim the gospel. The past ten years in particular have represented a phenomenal growth pattern with countless thousands of people who have come to Christ. This is taking place in a nation with a resident population of around nine million people. Since Fidel Castro stepped aside and conceded authority to his brother Raúl in 2008, the country has enjoyed a relaxing of some of the harshest restrictions against Christianity and the believers have taken advantage of this opportunity to share Christ and see His church grow.

Everywhere our group went, we asked the question, “What can the church in America do for the church in Cuba?” The most consistent answer was simply this – “Be our friend.” The leaders of the church in Cuba are humble, sacrificial, dedicated men who frankly do not need us to come and tell them how to serve Christ in their own land. Picture2They do need money, given the fact that most of the churches are in a desperate state of disrepair and most of their pastors are unpaid or underpaid, but economic needs will largely be met by the Cubans themselves if the economic embargo is lifted and the country experiences a return to a true free market system. There is also need for training, although the church leaders we met do not want us to come and do their training for them. Their system of providing Bible school training for their primary leaders and local church, or church based Bible institute level training for their outreach pastors is functioning well overall. Still, they recognize that there is opportunity for higher level academic training on one end and effective theological education by extension on the other. Future American missionaries to the island should carefully consider how they can assist existing educational endeavors for ministry training before thinking of starting competing programs. The Cuban church also needs help with discipleship. The church is growing so fast that discipleship is not always occurring well. That said, however, we were impressed with the level of commitment to making disciples on all levels that was evident in every ministry we encountered. What is probably least needed in Cuba right now is foreigners planting churches. The pattern of growth is so strong right now in Cuba that the best thing we could do from the outside is fan the flames by helping them do what they are already doing.

The bottom line in Cuba is that there is a very strong church movement which is functioning well with very little help from America. Could it function better with more help? Yes, but only if our help comes in the form of humble service to our brothers and sisters who have bravely paid the price to serve Jesus in the midst of hardship and persecution. One of the biggest problems we encountered in Cuba was the exodus to America for an easier life of men trained for the ministry. Those heroic servants of Jesus Christ who have remained behind to make disciples in in extremely difficult conditions deserve our admiration and our willingness to submit to them as they pursue their vision of making disciples for Jesus in their homeland.

After our group spent several days with one pastor named Daniél who has zeal, vision and determination in biblical proportions, he asked us to evaluate his work. I told him, “Daniél, all true ministry consists of loving Jesus with all your heart and seeking to serve Him with all your strength, and you are doing that. Jesus told us to make disciples and He promised that He would build His church. You are making disciples and He is building His church. My evaluation is that you should keep doing what you are doing.” I added, “I wish more churches in America were like yours. We should come here to learn from you.” May the Lord give us opportunities in the future to stand shoulder to shoulder with men like Daniél in Cuba for the sake of the Gospel and the glory of Christ.

Looking toward the possibility of more openness for American missionaries serving in Cuba, some of the questions that need to be asked are:

  • Is the concept of a fully independent church (not aligned with any convention) something which we are compelled to import into a thriving church culture? If so, is this because of biblical reasons, or (more likely) because we feel the need to franchise our own culturally influenced experience of Christianity in other places?
  • Can we allow the church in Cuba to be Cuban and not feel compelled to impose our American worship styles (either traditional or contemporary) on it?
  • Can we use money to assist without creating dependencies which will stifle the willingness of the Cuban people to serve Christ freely as they do now?
  • What avenues for providing ministerial preparation are most advantageous? How do we join in what God is doing there without simply bringing in our pre-packaged programs which may or may not be helpful?
  • How can U.S. churches use mission teams to genuinely assist the churches in Cuba by enabling them through partnerships rather than simply providing feel good trips for ourselves?

In part the answer to all of these questions is that we need to develop relationships before effective ministry can be accomplished. My advice would be to go to Cuba, spend time enjoying what God is already doing there, then begin to ask how and where we can help. This process is often rushed and results in a lot of money and effort being misdirected. The watchword of missions for Cuba (and for all of the world in the 21st century) is partnership. I pray that we will do that well.

Send Me: A Vision for Ministry

This week in chapel at Bob Jones University we had an exciting opportunity to consider together God’s redemptive mission and how He is raising up workers for the harvest. Many faithful workers for the harvest have been trained at Bob Jones University Seminary, and as part of the week’s emphasis we were excited to hear from several current Seminary students as well as a Seminary graduate via video testimony.

Sam Horn

VP for Ministerial Advancement

Bob Jones University

 

Michael Conn

 

Melissa Vandermey

 

Ben Gordon

Keith Lewis

A Missionary’s Lesson of God’s Sovereignty and Compassion

Jonah, a book that foreshadows New Testament centrifugal evangelism, is a favorite among God’s people. Perhaps one reason for this is that the book demonstrates not only God’s sovereignty, but also His great mercy. In fact, these are two major themes throughout the book. A brief survey of the book makes it clear enough that every chapter displays divine sovereignty. God appointed Jonah (1:1, 3:1), sent a wind (1:4), rescued (2:6, 9), commanded a fish (2:10), appointed a plant (4:6), appointed a worm (4:7) and sent a scorching east wind (4:8). Jonah tried to flee from the presence of the Lord but was unable to escape God (1:3, 1:10). In fact, there was nowhere, not even Sheol, that God did not hear Jonah’s voice (2:2).

The second major theme is God’s compassion. Jonah knew “that [God is] a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindess, and one who relents concerning calamity” (4:2, NASB). If Jonah knew this about God, why was this missionary so resistant? After all, God not only spared the mariners (1:14) and the city of Nineveh (3:10), but Jonah himself (1:17). But the climax for Jonah personally was not simply when God spared his life, but when God mercifully revealed to Jonah his own depraved way (4:10-11). In his very act of bitterness, Jonah demonstrated his own need for judgment. After all, rebellion is not less culpable when exercised by a chosen people. Jonah did not deserve mercy, but to Jonah, mercy was good when it involved his own lot, and not “Nineveh, the great city in which there [were] more than 120,000 persons who [did] not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals” (4:11).

This lesson is for you and me too—for all of God’s people. One can easily take for granted the tender mercies of a sovereign God by claiming exclusive rights to what God Himself initiated. Jonah must have eventually learned the lesson, for he told on himself for Israel’s (and our) benefit. How is God teaching you of His sovereignty and compassion for all? It is so easy for any believer to take for granted God’s sovereign mercies. Will you claim exclusive rights or learn the missionary lesson from Jonah?

Are We Ready to Send Missionaries to Cuba?

(A younger) Mark Vowels behind the wheel of a vintage car in Cuba

(A younger) Mark Vowels behind the wheel of a vintage car in Cuba

President Obama recently announced that the United States will once again establish diplomatic ties with Cuba. Official relations with the island nation were suspended in 1961 when Fidel Castro declared the country to be a communist state in cooperation with the, now defunct, Soviet Union. Although the U.S. change in diplomacy towards Havana does not automatically include the end of the decades long economic embargo imposed against it by the Treasury Department, it opens the door for dramatic change overall in the relationship between our two countries.

My interest in Cuba is profound. My wife, Caridad, was born in Cuba. Her family immigrated in 1968 near the end of the period of open departure permitted by the Castro regime. Although she has since become an American citizen, because my wife was born there I am granted a license by the U.S. government to visit Cuba freely and have traveled to the island six times. My first ministry following university was to found and shepherd a Spanish language church in Tampa, Florida which was comprised primarily of Cuban exiles. In 1994, when the Soviet bloc had crumbled and it seemed that Castro’s downfall was inevitable, we raised funds to become resident missionaries in Havana. Following a series of interactions with both Cuban and American officials in Washington, D.C., we were promised permission to reside in Havana. Eight days before our family was scheduled to travel there for the final authorization of our resident visas, our aspirations to become the first American missionaries in Cuba since the revolution were demolished. The Cubans shot down two civilian aircraft which they accused of having violated their airspace. The diplomatic fallout left us in limbo for nearly a year while we tried, without success, to move forward with our goals. Eventually, I acquiesced to reality and accepted a position working with our mission agency and later became the director of missions at Bob Jones University.

Mark & Cary Vowels with some faithful believers in Cuba

Mark & Cary Vowels with some faithful believers in Cuba

When I was a young, aspiring missionary to Cuba, I presumed that I would go to the island and start a church and do Christianity “right.” By right, of course, I meant importing American church life and theological perspective into the religious environment of Havana. While I was aware at that time that there were fully functioning churches in Cuba, I simply assumed with typical youthful arrogance that I would “do church” better. Under communism in Cuba the church was never eliminated or forced “underground.” Rather, it was subverted and, like everything else in Cuba, dominated by “Fidelismo.” Churches had many regulations and parameters which they were forced to accept, but by and large the church was functioning well. My various visits to the island had brought me into contact with numbers of pastors and believers who were fervent in their devotion to Christ and who, in many cases, had paid dearly for that devotion. Though I visited few actual church services due to the repercussions that such visits brought to church leaders, the times I did visit featured packed congregations with people even listening through the windows. To be sure, the church has waxed and waned in Cuba through cycles of relative openness and persecution, but it never went away and continues to boldly proclaim the Gospel.

Over the years since my hopes of living and ministering in Cuba were disappointed, I have often wondered what would take place when the inevitable time of openness between our two countries would be restored. As I gradually relinquished the angst regarding God’s sovereign redirection of my life plans I began to embrace His wisdom in keeping me out of Cuba. If I had gone as a missionary when I planned, I fear that I would not have been very effective in ministry. I would have brought a colonialist, ethnocentric attitude and methodology. I would have attempted to shape converts to Christ to follow Him in ways that matched my American Christian experience. To be sure, my experience in working with Cuban exiles in Florida for nearly a decade would have helped prevent the worst of anti-contextual missionary behavior, but I am sure that I would have viewed myself as some sort of American hero, newly arrived to set things right. That kind of thing happened a lot in the former Soviet countries when missionaries flooded into the newly opened territory. Many entered without any regard for the faithful Christ followers there who had borne their crosses into prison, exile or death. They brought a better way to follow Jesus, one filled with American methodology and triumphalist philosophy. Will that happen in Cuba? I pray not. In some ways, I believe that Christianity in Cuba may be stronger under oppression than it might be in freedom. And I believe that not having American missionaries there for more than fifty years may have been a blessing. The situation has forced Cuban believers to rely on the Bible and the Holy Spirit alone for direction and help, and that has made them strong.

So what should be our response if the day arrives that we can freely send missionaries to Cuba? First, we should remember that Cuba is not a pioneer mission field with only a few believers. New to America does not equate new to the Gospel. Much of the current evangelical ministry in Cuba has missionary roots dating back to the early 20th century or earlier and much of what continues there has become more truly indigenous during the years of Cuba’s cultural isolation. Additionally, while Americans have been restricted from ministering in Cuba, many Latin Americans from various countries have continued to faithfully enter the country and encourage the believers there. Second, the best thing we can do for the church of Cuba is come alongside of it and strengthen what God is already doing through it. Rather than assume that American missionaries should go in to do the evangelism, discipleship and church planting that can be accomplished, we must seek to understand the priorities and Gospel oriented ambitions of our Brothers and Sisters already in the country and find ways to serve them. This may take the form of educational assistance, leadership training, organizational support or financial aid. That doesn’t mean that American missionaries should not be engaged, it simply means that we should be sure that whatever we do does not disregard the Cuban church by ignoring it or competing with it. We must take the time to build relationships rather than promote an agenda that presumes that we have all of the answers before we take the time to ask any questions.

After all these years, my heart still yearns for Cubans to know Christ. So I pray that we will learn from our missiological mistakes of the past and cooperate with those courageous men and women who have shouldered the responsibility to make Him known through troubled times and enter with humble hearts, ready to learn from them and serve their aspirations to make Him known to their compañeros.

How to Use Structural Analysis in Sermon Preparation

It often happens that a language once studied becomes nothing more than a fond or not so fond memory. In order to prevent this, Bob Jones University offers a Greek Forum every semester to offer practical help for those who have studied Greek. This semester we invited Dr. Sidney Dyer, who received a Ph.D. in NT Interpretation from BJU in 1984, to speak on how to use structural analysis in sermon preparation for the purpose of accurately proclaiming God’s Word.

Dyer was concerned that people who have studied Greek often neglect this valuable tool. People are either too busy or too timid to use Greek. But if we have spent years in college or seminary to learn Greek, why ignore it? I agree with Dyer that studying a passage in Greek is invaluable to fully understand it. Reading a passage in Greek forces the interpreter to explore the details of the text. The interpreter has to slow down, helping him to figure out how the parts relate to the whole: how subordinate parts of a clause relate to the main clause and how individual parts of a paragraph relate to the main thesis of that paragraph. To understand how the parts relate to the whole is the key to correct interpretation.

When we come to a passage, it is easy to pick out words, phrases, or even entire verses that seem particularly interesting or that support a position we have taken. However, such an approach does injustice to the larger context of the passage. Words, phrases, and clauses are always interrelated. They never exist in a vacuum. In order to understand the relationship between all the elements in the passage, Dyer pointed out that we have to understand how they relate to one another. First, we have to recognize what clause is subordinate to what clause. Second, we have to understand how a clause is subordinate to another, i.e., how does a subordinate clause modify the main clause: does the subordinate clause present the reason for the main clause or the means by which the main clause is accomplished? By figuring out how parts are related to the whole, the main theme of the passage will emerge from the text. Around this main theme everything else in the passage revolves.

If we ignore how the parts of a passage relate to the whole, we cannot accurately interpret the passage. If we devote our time to figure out how every part relates to each other and how they contribute to the whole, the central point of the passage will naturally emerge before our eyes.

Why You Should Buy Logos Bible Software

Among the many desktop applications available for studying the Bible, Logos is one of the three that dominate the market for professional-level study. I have two of the three, and I use them both pretty much every day. I find BibleWorks useful for most teaching, because it’s fast and because it contains a wealth of Bible translations. (Mac users will prefer Accordance for similar reasons.) For personal study, I find Logos all but indispensable, because it brings together a large theological library with powerful tools for using it efficiently.

At its heart, Logos is not so much Bible software as a library management system. The software engine is available very inexpensively—you can get the starter package, which includes the engine and just under 200 books, for about $50—and then you can buy the other books you want in your electronic library and add them to the software. There are several advantages to this approach. First, you’re getting real books, the standard recent scholarship, not the old ones that are available online for free only because they’re out of copyright. Second, they’re cheaper than the hard copies, since the publisher doesn’t have to pay for manufacturing and shipping. I have students who have sold their hard copies as used items for more than enough money to buy the electronic version. Third, they have all the advantages of electronic books: they’re searchable, they take up no shelf space, and they weigh nothing. (You understand the importance of that about the third time you move.) I take my 3,000-volume library to Africa with me most summers, and I’m able to fit it under the seat in front of me.

For personal and professional study—preparation of Sunday school lessons, for example, or of classroom lectures—Logos allows me to focus on the content rather than the process of getting it. I fire up the Passage Guide, type in the passage I want to study (“Jeremiah 41,” for example; or if I can’t remember it, just “Johanan” will get me there), and my resources appear in a neatly organized list: commentaries, cross references, parallel passages, outlines, media resources, related music (nope, nothing for Jeremiah 41), a word cloud, online sermons on the passage, and lots of other stuff. I click on what I want to see, and it’s right there for me. For a deeper study, I open the Exegetical Guide to the same passage, and it takes me through the passage word by Hebrew word, with information on textual variants, lexicons, and grammars at the ready, already opened to the places where they reference the verses I’m studying.

I can’t believe I get paid to do this.

I use Logos for my devotions as well. I’ve used it to create a custom Bible reading schedule (this year I’m reading through the NET Bible, OT and NT every day), and every morning I click on the links for that day and check them off when I’m done. In the next window are the books I’m reading this year (as it happens, right now I’m using Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest as a daily devotional and reading through James Hastings’s The Christian Doctrine of Prayer and Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, one section a day.) I simply work my way across the screen, and the next day it’s ready for me again.

There are lots of powerful features available, which I use as occasion warrants. There are word study and topic study features, a sermon starter (though I prefer to do my own), and some really useful graphical interfaces to help you see patterns in the text that might not be obvious—such as a “Morph River” feature that shows you a color-coded graphical representation of whatever morphological spec you ask for. If you ask for a depiction of verb mood in Ephesians, for example, the dominance of the imperatives in chapters 4 through 6 is hard to miss.

A particular strength of Logos’s data set is the work they’ve done in tagging and in visual representation. The Morph River feature just mentioned is but one example of that; there are all kinds of ways you can see visual layouts based on morphological and syntactical specifics. Want to see what sections of the Bible most often use a name for deity as the subject of a verb for communication? It’s in there.

Of course, this is not the Millennium, and Logos is not perfect. The biggest drawback, in my book, is its speed. Early on the company decided to write for the fastest machines available; as a result, it’s probably going to crawl on your machine unless you have a brand new one. (Did I mention that BibleWorks is fast?) Yes, Logos is doing a lot of stuff in that time, and it’s doing it faster than I could with Strong’s Concordance, but I really wish they’d show a little more stewardship of my clock cycles.

That said, I consider Logos an indispensable tool for my own Bible study. Since you can get in for a very small price, and since adding electronic books is cheaper than buying hard copies, I’d recommend that any serious Bible student, and certainly any professional one, buy it.

Some additional information:

Logos website

Training videos

Sermon preparation with Logos (YouTube, with an older version of Logos)

Why We Have Missions Emphasis Week at BJU

Each Fall Bob Jones University has a week of missions emphasis on our campus. While missions is emphasized in many ways and on many occasions throughout the school year, we set aside one week to specially focus student attention on the opportunities for missionary service around the world. We do this because we understand that making disciples globally is our primary response as obedient, worshiping followers of Jesus.

In Matthew 28:16, Jesus meets with His followers at an appointed location in Galilee following His resurrection. According to the text, those present were those men whom He had appointed to be His disciples. Verse 17 indicates that within that group of eleven men, some responded to Jesus with worship and some responded with doubt.

The fact that Jesus had already more than proven the reality of His physical resurrection from the dead by His earlier deeds performed in the presence of these same men while they were still at Jerusalem signifies that their doubt was not likely regarding the veracity of His return from the grave. It is helpful to note that the word translated doubt in this passage carries the idea of wavering or being unstable.

The only other use of this term in the New Testament is in Matthew 14:31 where Jesus says to Peter, who was no longer walking on water but sinking down, “wherefore didst thou doubt?” Given the fact that Jewish worship often involved some physical representation of inner response (such as lying prostrate, kneeling, or raising hands), I surmise that some of the disciples responded to Jesus on the mountainside in Galilee with visible signs of adoration. Others, however, were doubtful. That is, they were uncertain about the propriety of worshiping Jesus with the same zeal with which they were accustomed to worshiping Yahweh.

It is precisely in answer to that dilemma that Jesus responds in verse 18 by declaring His absolute sovereign rule over the entire universe. In essence Jesus is not only permitting outright worship, He is demanding it!

Based on that foundation, He commissions these men to make disciples of all people. That task would involve going (not a command, but an obvious corollary to global outreach), baptizing and teaching. The essence of Jesus’ mandate on the mountain is that all of His followers from that time forward now have one principle occupation – make disciples everywhere.

That is why we have a Missions Emphasis Week. It is not an attempt to guilt students into becoming missionaries. It is not an emotional appeal for the needs, both temporal and eternal, of the billions of lost people in the world. It is a reminder that those who worship Jesus should be eager to bring other worshipers as well.

Real disciples make disciples.

Every student at BJU has a commission to make disciples everywhere. For some, that will involve going far from home. For most, that will involve using their career as an avenue for Gospel outreach and influence for Christ. For all, that will involve looking for ways new and old to passionately proclaim to this entire generation of people on planet earth that Jesus is worthy of our worship.

For these reasons, we invite around sixty different missionary organizations to campus during Missions Emphasis Week to interact with students and share their stories of how God is opening doors for the Gospel around the world. We hear from missionary speakers in chapel and personnel from the various visiting agencies teach in dozens of classes.

We have Missions Emphasis Week because we want our students to think big, trust God and make disciples everywhere.

 

A Wake-Up Call

It was a bright summer day in the early 1990’s. I was a young teenager learning the ropes of working outside the home. A gentleman in our church had hired me to help him build a fence and do some yard work. I liked the idea of earning some income ($3/hr., I think), but I wasn’t as keen on getting up somewhat early on a Saturday morning to accomplish my tasks. So, instead of respectfully answering my father’s directive to get up and get ready for work, I turned like a door on its hinges and complained aloud that I didn’t want to work for Mr. B that day.

What happened next exemplified my father’s God-enabled wisdom. He calmly responded that he would call Mr. B and let him know that I didn’t want to work that day and wouldn’t be coming. I froze on my bed. Disbelief and shame and regret blanketed me. I recognized the folly of my sluggardly choice, though I briefly protested and didn’t appreciate or even understand all that God was teaching me through my father in that moment. The most glaring lesson I needed to learn was the virtue of hard work. What seem like insignificant, harmless times of relaxation, if a pattern of life, will become self-destructive (Prov. 6:6-11). In retrospect, several other important lessons have emerged, ones that I am endeavoring to teach my own children.

  1. Trustworthiness is developed not granted.

My father taught me to fulfill my obligations faithfully and honestly, as much by his deeds as by his words. He could have assumed or allowed me to assume that his trustworthiness would automatically transfer to me. His genes and his instruction would position me to follow his steps. Yet, I needed to develop trustworthiness myself. I needed to be confronted with my sinful tendency to shirk responsibilities I didn’t enjoy. Studying to earn good grades or practicing jump shots were activities at which I was fairly faithful because I enjoyed them and could see how I reaped the benefits. Driving nails into fence boards wasn’t so obviously advantageous and appealing. But following through on our commitments is critical. I didn’t realize the joy of denying my fleshly inclinations and using this opportunity to subdue the earth. Instead, I looked for a way out. No one, not even my godly father, could hand me faithfulness. If I was to reflect this characteristic of God, I needed to be tested, humbled, and pointed to Christ.

  1. Words are meaningful not empty.

We have all heard of, and perhaps assumed we had verbalized, empty words–patterns of sounds that carry no meaning, like a tractor trailer carrying no cargo. Perhaps your son or daughter has explained that the clear connotation of a statement is not what he or she meant, as I suggested to my father that Saturday morning. In actuality, what we say is meaningful, whether or not we realize it. Sure, there are times when we don’t clearly communicate what we mean or when our audience has difficulty on its end in understanding us. But as we seek to we seek to raise our children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4), we must emphasize the importance of words.

First, our words are windows into our souls, for “the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Mat. 12:34). I wanted to believe and lead my father to believe that in a moment of sleepy weakness I had uttered a verbal accident. The truth, which had become apparent to him in part because he observed my life’s patterns, was that what I said that morning was exposing the needs of my sinful heart.

Second, our words are an extension of us and our trustworthiness. God speaks only the truth and demonstrates His faithfulness by invariably performing what He promises. I had agreed to help Mr. B at his home. We had verbally agreed that I would work for him on Saturdays. When I complained about getting out of bed that morning, I was prioritizing expedience over integrity. My father knew that neither rang true in this particular instance nor bode well for my path ahead. Our eternity hinges on God’s dependability. Therefore, imitating our Father requires fastening around us “the belt of truth” (Eph. 6:14).

  1. Consequences are beneficial not obstructive.

It is a natural tendency (at least of mine) to view consequences as barriers rather than potential blessings. Failure and its fallout seem to stand in the way of growth rather than being part of it. However, as Proverbs 6:23 says, “Reproofs for discipline are the way of life.” One of the worst things we could teach our children is that the spiritual laws by which God personally orders His world can be ignored and avoided. My father could have pled with me to get out of bed. He could have bribed me. He could have threatened to take action but not followed through. Instead, he chose to let me have my way and have the opportunity to acknowledge my sinfulness and repent.

I don’t know for sure, but recognizing that my father is human, I’m sure there was at least a passing temptation for him to be embarrassed. It would have seemed quite natural to persuade me to fulfill my duty and save face with his friend. But he loved me more than he loved his image, and part of that love was following our heavenly Father’s pattern of chastening. Discipline is characteristically not joyous in the moment, but “to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:11).

God has been very gracious to me. Mr. B kindly forgave me when I spoke with him the next morning after our church’s service. Even more profound is the reality that God my Father gave me an earthly father courageous and compassionate enough to teach me important lessons like the ones above. Oh that you and I and the coming generations may know the blessing of listening to and imparting (F)atherly instruction!

Pope Benedict XVI

No Popes for You

[This is a guest post by Mark Ward, who received his Ph.D. in New Testament from Bob Jones University Seminary in 2012 and serves as part of the Bible Integration Team at BJU Press. Mark also has a ministry providing churches with beautiful and affordable websites.]

Protestants don’t get to have a pope.

Of course, that sounds backwards; the pope doesn’t get to have us. We don’t want him.

But if you’re honest, there have probably been times in your life when a pope would have come in handy—like when your church split over a particular doctrine, or when your best friend was totally wrong about the identity of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2. It’s tempting sometimes to want another word from God telling us what He really meant with the first Word. And, of course, He’d be on your side—right?

But no popes for you. In good blog form, here’s five reasons why.

  1. As many Protestants have pointed out, having a pope just means you have more authoritative declarations to interpret. Now in addition to 1,189 chapters of divine revelation written in three languages over the course of 1,500 years, you have papal encyclicals and homilies and true ex cathedra pronouncements.* And you have to learn Latin if you really want to get it right.
  2. The existence of a supreme pontiff doesn’t actually create the unity it advertises. Having a holy see certainly hasn’t kept Romanists from disagreeing, even splitting. There are over 200 Roman Catholic denominations, and among those still in the fold there are deep divisions between liberals and conservatives. The Reformers were right to argue that, when it comes to ultimate authority for the local church and the believer, it’s sola scriptura.
  3. Most importantly, of course, the sola scriptura standard won’t allow us to have a pope. We are given men with teaching and ruling authority (Eph 4:11–14; 1 Pet 5:1–5), but their authority is subordinated to the Word, not equal to it and certainly not above it. No one is allowed to add dogma (doctrine you must believe) beyond what the Bible teaches, let alone to pronounce anathemas on the biblical gospel (Gal. 1:8).
  4. Empirically speaking, what has the existence of a mitered man in St. Peter’s done for biblical literacy among his 1.2 billion followers? The 1960s council we call Vatican II has been widely credited with promoting the study of Scripture among Catholic laity, and of course Protestants ought to welcome this reform. The more Bible people get, the better. But—speaking mostly from (multi-national) personal experience but also from some statistical studies I’ve read—it seems clear to me that conservative Protestant groups have done a much better job teaching the actual content of the Bible to their people. We have a long way to go in our work of discipling the nations, but Bible study is one of the most healthy things in Protestant DNA.
  5. Lastly, T.D. Bernard once made a point that I have come back to again and again. It’s dense but excessively rich. Please read the whole thing!

    The writer [of NT epistles] does not announce a succession of revelations, or arrest the inquiries which he encounters in men’s hearts by the unanswerable formula, “Thus saith the Lord.” He arouses, he animates, he goes along with the working of men’s minds, by showing them the working of his own. He utters his own convictions, he pours forth his own experience, he appeals to others to “judge what he says,” and commends his words “to their conscience in the sight of God.” He confutes by argument rather than by authority, deduces his conclusions by processes of reasoning and establishes his points by interpretations and applications of the former Scriptures…. Why all this labor in proving what might have been decided by a simple announcement from one entrusted with the Word of God? Would not this apostolic declaration that such a statement was error, and that another was truth, have sufficed for the settlement of that particular question? Doubtless! But it would not have sufficed to train men’s minds to that thoughtfulness whereby truth becomes their own, or to educate them to the living use of the Scriptures as the constituted guide of inquiry. (The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament, pp. 157-158)

    Protestants don’t get to have a pope because God inspired epistles. And He did it on purpose. The sometimes painful and difficult work of personal biblical and theological study is meant to form us into the kind of people who think like God wants us to—not just who think what God wants us to. A pope can be an unhealthy shortcut. Bible study is a privilege, but it’s also a responsibility. Your God-given pastors and teachers should play an important role in your spiritual life, and they do bear genuine authority (1 Pet. 5:1–5; Heb. 13:7–17), but they won’t stand next to you on judgment day (2 Cor 5:10).

No popes for you.

*Not all statements from a pope are technically considered to be equally authoritative, but adopting the title of “Christ’s vicar,” the Son of God’s representative on earth, is itself a claim to teaching authority.

Love Multiplied

Cindy Garland and Grandaughter

A year ago, I found myself holding my newborn granddaughter—only she was not really my granddaughter. I had become a part of this family only seventeen months earlier, and that as a result of another’s death—and I now held that woman’s granddaughter, a little girl that will one day call me “Grandma.”

Though far more common in earlier centuries, remarriage after the death of a spouse is an uncomfortable topic for the church today. It seems—well, awkward. On the minds of many is a question they are afraid to ask: How do you love someone else again? Let me share my story, and in so doing, I hope, glorify the God who multiplies love.

I met my first husband, Steve, here at Bob Jones University. Both of us were pursuing graduate degrees, and our assistantships at the university brought us into close contact with each other. Steve impressed me as no other man had up to that point—godly, intent on serving others. However, there was one potential obstacle. Steve had been diagnosed with Hodgkins disease during his sophomore year in college, and he suffered his first recurrence of the disease during our first year of grad school. Treatments followed, and when he returned to school, we began dating. Despite the cancer, I had no doubt that God had given me a love for Steve, and in time, he had the same conviction. After a second recurrence and subsequent treatments, we were engaged. In 1989 we married, and we enjoyed six months of marriage busily serving the Lord and preparing for future ministry. Those blissful months were interrupted by the news that the cancer had returned, and for the rest of our married life, we dealt with his disease in one form or another. I suppose it was not a “normal” marriage, but I have no doubt it was the path God had for me, and I would not trade the years God gave us for anything. For nearly five years I saw a young man pursue the knowledge of God and ministry to other people despite obstacles that would have stopped many others. God even gave Steve the desire of his heart—a church to

pastor—a task he performed with all of his heart for the final ten months of his life. At the age of thirty-one, God called Steve Home, and at the age of thirty-two, I became a widow.

I will not minimize the heartbreak of losing my husband, but neither will I minimize the grace God poured out on me. Within weeks of Steve’s homegoing, God provided a ministry for me that would bring fulfillment, refining, and maturing, supervising a girls’ residence hall here at the university. Did I think about remarriage? Yes. However, in all honesty, the ministry God gave me provided so much joy and challenge that I did not have time to think much about it.

I walked the path of widowhood for seventeen years before God chose to bring someone else into my life. Doug’s path had been very different from mine. He and his first wife, Joyce, married before they finished college. God blessed them with four wonderful children. They were married for thirty-one years, all spent in Christian ministry. I was a widow for nearly twenty years; by the time we married, Doug had been a widower less than two. The main thing we shared in common was losing both of our spouses after long battles with cancer.

Doug and I were acquainted with each other since we both worked here at the university. After Joyce’s homegoing, Doug sought wisdom via email from other widowers and widows he knew, and I was one of them. Over time, our correspondence grew, as did our relationship. Mutual respect became mutual love, along with a desire to bring together two different personalities, backgrounds, and families into a new union for the glory of God. The result so far has been challenging but oh, so happy.

Shortly before we were married, a dear friend voiced the question others were (understandably) hesitant to ask: “How do you love another spouse?” Before I had a chance to answer, she said, “It must be like having more children. When you find out you’re expecting a second child, you wonder, ‘How can I ever love this child like I do the first?’ But you do. It must be like that.” I have pondered her words many times, and even though I have never had my own children, I think she was right. God’s love is like that—it is never static but is constantly expanding. When believing widows and widowers remarry, they have an opportunity to reflect this aspect of God’s love. And the precious granddaughter that I held in my arms a year ago, though not related to me by blood, has become related to me by love—God’s multiplying love.