In the Lion’s Den: Tough Topics with Everett Berry

lions den

After our latest Lions Den Q&A with professors, we asked our resident theologian, Dr. Everett Berry, to discuss the theological implications of the questions raised by our students.

When I come to school I always see homeless men and women asking for handouts at street corners. Sometimes I see the same people week after week at the same place. What can I do to help them? How should I respond to them?

Such a question requires a careful (and sensitive) response because there isnt really an all-purpose exhaustive answer that can be applied every time someone encounters a person who is homeless. Different situations require wisdom and on-your-feet instincts to meet various people where they are. Likewise, people here in the states, at least, are homeless or on the streets for a host of reasons; mental illness, trouble at home, drug/alcohol abuse, bad decisions, unexpected economic hard times, severe unemployment, etc. That being said, a few things should be kept in mind when wrestling with how to help people in need.

The first thing is that as believers, we must always have Christ-felt compassion toward those with no resources because this attitude is central to the gospel itself. In our sinful rebellion, God sent his Son to meet us in our dire need and on top of that, he met it when we had no desire for it to be met. So that same kind of relentless mercy and kindness which God extended to us should now motivate us to help others. This is why as Christians we feel the impulse to help meet the immediate physical needs of people because we hear the echo of James in our souls who said true religion is defined partly by caring for widows and orphans (Jms 1:27) and that to only say one wants to help a brother in need and not do it is really no help at all (Jms 1:14-15).

At the same time, though, this students question highlights the fact that many people who are homeless are chronically as such. So how do we help people who are stuck in an ongoing cycle of need? I would just recommend a few things. One is that any time we do talk with someone who is homeless, we should listen to their story so we can understand who they are and also share the story of the gospel in return. If you come into contact with someone who is homeless on a regular basis, they should eventually be able to identify you because youre the one who always talks about Jesus. Also if you are going to do something for them, whether it be buying them a meal or giving them some spare cash, be honest with them about your spiritual motivation for doing so.

Likewise, if you choose not to give them anything, be open about why you will not. The balance with which we struggle is that we want to help people come to know Christ as well as escape their plight of homelessness. But the challenge is that apart from the Holy Spirit, no one wants to repent of their sins and some (but by no means all or even the majority) simply want to continue in their homelessness as opposed to taking up the burden of responsibility. Thus while we want to help people, we want to avoid equipping anyone to remain in the ruts of their habitual conditions. The trick is learning through trial and error and a daily walk with Christ how to discern the difference.

A prominent pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention has recently called for the U.S. to engage in military action against ISIS. Is it appropriate for Christian pastors to use the pulpit as a platform to call for war? Why or why not?

This is a big question that really cannot be answered unless one first deals with the larger concern of whether Christians should be involved in war at all. The obvious reason for this is that if one thinks there are justifiable reasons for doing so, then whether or not pastors should speak in defense of war is an open question. However, if one thinks that Christians should not be involved in war or any expression of physical violence, then clearly this would lead to the conclusion that pastors should never support such conduct in the pulpit or any other context.

The dilemma here is that historically believers have disagreed on what a Christian view of war should actually look like. The two most prominent perspectives that represent polar opposite opinions on this matter are known as Just War Theory (JWT) and Pacifism. Both of these viewpoints have a strong presence in assorted strains of the Christian tradition. And there is no way that I can navigate these deep waters in a quick response. What should be said, however, is that while these approaches are unquestionably mutually exclusive, they are advocated by various thinkers because of certain biblical convictions and theological strong points.

For instance, JWT is actually based on a concern to curtail war by creating a set of sound parameters to hold nations in check and restrict acts of war to a possible, but last resort. In contrast, Christian Pacifists are quick to recognize a typical pattern of human behavior wherein violent responses to violent acts usually perpetuate more violence. Thus Pacifists advocate non-violent responses because they believe this approach can hopefully turn away wrath as opposed to exacerbate it.

At the same time, both of these approaches have difficulties to address as well. JWT faces the reality that countries, nations, and armies hardly ever (if ever arguably) follow the strict guidelines that the view mandates. So there is always the concern that justifiable reasons for war may be secretly, or even openly, wed with dubious, self-serving nationalistic motives. Likewise, one of the major concerns that a Pacifist position has is that a willingness to die or be abused rather than exhibit violence as a means of self-defense also has to be applied in situations where others are in harms way as well. In other words, if one is not willing to use force to protect themselves, to be consistent they cannot use it to protect others either. In the end then, either view can inadvertently put people in harms way.

All that being said, what about pastors using the pulpit to implore a nation to go to war. The first thing I would say is that if a church is going to speak about war, the pulpit is an inevitable place to do it. Why? Because our society is full of pulpits where people use various platforms to promote ideas and use sources of authority to support their claims. Academicians use a classroom, authors use books, directors use cinema, artists use a canvas, speakers use podiums, and preachers often use pulpits. I would say then that if a pastor believes that war can be biblically substantiated, then undoubtedly the pulpit is a proper place to speak about war.

Now as to the question whether a pastor should use the pulpit to plea for a nation to go to war, I would definitely want to say that it should never be done hastily. If a pastor is going to speak about this, he should only do so as a last resort and only after he has exhausted other options. For instance, it may be more appropriate for other nations to engage in certain conflicts as opposed to the one in which certain pastors serve. Furthermore, even when a pastor possibly speaks about war, the response from the people should be humble contrition, not rousing applause. And finally, if pastors are going to speak about war from the pulpit, they had better have a set of theological convictions based on Scripture that they can clearly articulate to their congregations. In other words, Christian flocks need to know how their pastors convictions about the gospel as well as the churchs relationship to the state form his understanding about war and a Christians involvement in such an event.

I share the Gospel when the opportunity presents itself, but I do not stand on a street corner and street preach. Should I feel disobedient because I am not continuously evangelizing?

At first glance, my initial response to this question is no, believers should not feel they are in sin because they are not talking to unbelievers about Christ every waking moment. Nor should someone feel guilty because they are not using one particular method of communicating the gospel as opposed to another. But at the same time that I say this, the concern underlying this question is important and even healthy to a degree. This student is perplexed about the frequency and/or method of sharing his/her faith because of a genuine dedication to evangelism. And to the students credit, if we take what Scripture says about hell seriously as well as the weight of the Great Commission, then there is no doubt that one of the major objectives of our lives as Christians should be to make disciples of the nations.

So every moment that we spend doing others things (which may be important) is a moment wherein we are not talking with someone about Christ. And in a sense, that should be a weight upon us indeed. We should be sensitive to opportunities that come our way to speak of Christ with others, knowing that those chances can come in a variety of ways. However, we should also be sensitive to approaches that are more effective than others. For example then, when it comes to street preaching, this method is very helpful in certain countries where people groups are very open to public contexts where individuals can randomly speak. In other venues, though, there can actually be legal ordinances against such practices and therefore we have to find other ways to talk with people about the Lord. The key is that evangelism be a central part of who we are rather than something on the periphery of our lives.

Is a free-market society such as America conducive for a Christians call to care for the poor?

In responding to this question, I do not intend to form a condensed defense of the free market (or even capitalism). As one of my colleagues has pointed out, in many ways a free-market is an inevitable dynamic that naturally works its way into society unless prohibited by other radical ideologies. The question is whether it can be conducive to a Christians devotion to taking care of the poor. And my answer is yes. But this is not to say that a free-market is intrinsically immune to critique or that it cannot be abused. Indeed it can be used for good or bad purposes. Yet this does not make a free-market venue undesirable. It just means that people can exploit it to achieve less than noble ends. In short, I think the primary strength to a free-market, as it is structured in this country, is that people can create wealth so as to use it for the potential betterment of others.

Does this mean that if all Christians accumulate resources that they will always use them to take care of others and not become consumed with materialism? Of course not. The freedom to gather stuff can lead to the slavery of loving stuff instead of others. Nevertheless, restrictions on ones ability to work freely for personal gain (aside from fraud, robbery, or other immoral activities) often hamstrings ones capacity to help others. So there is a catch-22 here. On the one hand, having the ability to acquire much can (negatively) enslave some to consumerism or (positively) enable them to help others with the blessings of their labor. Yet on the other hand, while having less can sometimes (positively) inoculate some from the dangers of materialism, (negatively) putting a strict ceiling on what people can do fiscally normally breeds apathy and deeper grinding poverty for a greater number of people. Thus if the number of poor increase, helping others can become more difficult.

What should the relationship between institutions (e.g. Criswell) and churches look like? Are ministries/parachurch organizations/seminaries infringing upon responsibilities that the church should be meeting? Is this a false dichotomy?

I have to admit, this is a question that has perplexed me for many years. The reason being that Christ only instituted one entity to fulfill the Great Commission and that was the church. The task of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples was given to his followers who were to form local churches, or covenant communities, until Christs return. At the same time, nothing in the New Testament mitigates against believers engaging in kingdom work outside of specific local church activity.

I think the real struggle here is two-fold. One major concern about Christian parachurch institutions is accountability. The fact is that historically speaking, a common trend can be observed among many Christian parachurch institutions no matter their reason for existence, whether it be benevolence, academics, or some specific area of discipleship. That is if they begin to distance themselves from strong connections to a church or group of churches, their general trend is to drift theologically. Usually this cycle rears its ugly head through the decaying process of liberalism or an overt emphasis on extreme ecumenism which leads to doctrinal capitulation. The other concern ironically arises when parachurch ministries become successful in their purpose. The problem is that many who are involved in parachurch activities can become so consumed by them that they become ambivalent to involvement in a local church body. Sometimes a believers solidarity with other believers in a specific area of parachurch ministry essentially becomes their church. And this is just as problematic because whether a parachurch entity intentionally separates from ecclesiastical accountability or unintentionally creates social substitutes for congregations, the same result occurs; the local church is neglected.

In the end then, I believe that the best safeguard against these extremes, which can allow parachurch ministries to help the church. is an aggressive interconnectedness with one church or a network of churches. Now this may get complicated depending on how broad a parachurch group wants to be. But I think it is a necessary headache that needs to exist because if a parachurch entity is not inspiring people to be more involved in their churches, then its not helping the church. Its an anti- rather than para-church ministry.

At what point do aesthetic values become objective or subjective? If I look at a range of mountains, obviously that sparks satisfaction in regard to beauty, but at what point can someone honestly say that something isnt beautiful? And if I object their statement, what grounds do I have to do so?

The philosophy of beauty or aesthetics is a subject that intersects with several domains of discourse which can make discussions about the topic somewhat complex and seemingly cumbersome at times. As it pertains to the ontology of beauty, many thinkers discuss the subject in terms of how it transcends the subjective opinions of observers. The main reason for this is that the intrinsic order of creation is inseparably linked to our proclivity to observe it and even emulate it as creatures. Thus for Christians, just as morality, logic, and other areas of knowledge contain objective content, so likewise the topic of beauty must retain some element of objectivity as well.

At the same time, what often tangles the subject in perplexing knots is that value, preference, and taste are normally what we think about when we discuss the subject to of beauty. We impulsively think about what flavors of food we find enjoyable, what art forms we find especially appealing, or what combination of colors we think create the most flare in a building or a room. So in this sense, I do not think there is anything wrong with speaking about beauty as subjective because we are talking more about what our preferences are as opposed to what beauty is as an ontological category. Beyond this, I defer to my colleagues in philosophy who examine thefield of aesthetics more in depth than I.

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