Monday, March 22, 2021
It's Monday, March 22, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Heartbreak and Huge Questions Hang Over Atlanta in Wake of Murderous Attack
Heartbreak and huge questions continue to hang over the city of Atlanta, the entire United States of America and Christians all over the world, seeking to grapple with the huge questions that are looming over the death by murder of eight people in the Atlanta area, in a murderous rampage that included the death of six Asian women. And as we come to know more about the crime and we come to know more about the young man who's been arrested for the crimes, and has at least admitted to much of what's described here in this criminal behavior, this murderous attack, the reality is that we're looking at the confluence of two different issues.
Number one, what actually happened? Horrifyingly enough, we have to face the truth. And secondly, how is the world around us trying to process this? What are the patterns of thinking that are becoming very much apparent and in particular, what's going on in the media coverage and in the public conversation? The answer is, a lot's going on. And at least some of what's going on is a sense of distance and amazement, where many people, particularly in the secular media and beyond are looking at evangelical culture.
They're looking at evangelical Christianity and evangelical churches and the intersection of issues of sex and power and women and yes, sexual morality. And all that comes together, tragically enough, in the person of Robert Aaron Long, the young man, 21 years old, who has been arrested for these crimes. And as I said, has at least confessed to carrying out the shootings themselves. And even as there is the inevitable pressure on everyone, on the society, on the media, on law enforcement and otherwise, to try to explain who this is and why this happened.
Even as human beings, I would argue, made in God's image, are questioning creatures who simply have to ask questions about the most pressing moral issues around us, we're asking questions and the world is asking its own questions about how this young man's religious identity fits into the picture. And let's not be evasive. He was a member of a Southern Baptist congregation, the First Baptist Church of Crabapple, there in Milton, Georgia. Similar kinds of questions came in recent years with, just to give one example, the son of a prominent lay leader in an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation in California, who had turned to a murderous rampage against the Jewish people in a Jewish synagogue. Last week, we talked about how Christians should at least begin thinking through these issues. And today we're going to continue considering how Christians should think.
We need to observe how the media are reporting on this. And it really is a very interesting pattern. Many of those in the media, and that would include some who definitely have some background in understanding evangelical Christianity and many others who clearly do not have that background, they're looking to the Christian identity of this suspect and thus to this church and to the denomination, the Southern Baptist convention, and to Evangelical Christianity writ large to try to figure out what this means. Now, here's one of the interesting developments. In the first round of response, there was the immediate suggestion that there must be something in the teaching of this church that would help to explain why this young man turned so murderously upon eight people, including at least six Asian women. All of them identified to one degree or another as employees of, and thus linked to, the business known as the massage parlor or the massage spa.
And even as that story continues to unfold before our eyes, the reality is that the young man himself had admitted to the crimes to the shootings and he had given a reason that was linked to his sexual struggles and his sexual temptation. He spoke in some very twisted way of trying to remove a source of sexual temptation. Now, last week we looked at the immediate news coverage, including an article that appeared in the Washington Post, with the headline, "Christian leaders wrestle with Atlanta shooting suspect's Southern Baptist ties." Subsequent rounds of reporting include articles such as what appeared in Saturday's edition to The New York Times, "Church says it plans to expel suspect over wicked act." You also had further coverage in the Washington Post and you had a front page article in yesterday's print edition of The New York Times with the headline, "Shame of Lust is Cross Known to Evangelicals." That article by Ruth Graham.
Well, this really turns out to be very, very interesting. For one thing, as you look at this coverage, it becomes increasingly clear that many in the mainstream media think it is, well, just odd that you would have Christians who have such a concern for anything that might be described as lust. And of course the entire category of sin makes no sense in a secular worldview. And the more secular the society becomes, the more bizarre the concept of sin thus appears as well. But I'll give many in the media at least credit for trying, from their own perspective, to understand what's going on here. But it's also very interesting that when you see the most elite media covering this story, what you see is not only their own worldview made evident, but what's implicit here is the worldview of those to whom they are writing, to whom they have to explain such things. As a team of reporters said in Saturday's edition to The New York Times, "Crabapple," meaning the First Baptist Church, Crabapple, there in Georgia, "strictly prohibits sex outside of marriage."
Now, if you need that to be explained to you as just Southern Baptist conviction rooted in historic biblical Christian conviction, a conviction that's basically common to all Biblical Christianity everywhere, well, it means you have to explain basic Christianity to many people and The New York Times at least gets that right. That church does indeed strictly prohibit sex outside of marriage. But in doing so, that church is actually just living in faithfulness to the biblical command. That's just biblical Christianity. And it would have been nearly universally understood, but not only that, universally affirmed by the larger culture, even the elite culture, including newspapers like The New York Times, until the vast revolution in both sexuality and morality that has taken place in recent decades. Jonathan Krohn and Sarah Pulliam Bailey at the Washington Post, reported the issue this way, "Most evangelical churches, including Southern Baptist churches, teach that sex is permitted only within heterosexual marriages, similar teaching to the Catholic church and other Christian traditions."
Again, absolutely right. Very helpful context. It's not just this church in Georgia. It's not just the Southern Baptist convention. For that matter, when it comes to defining sexual behavior as legitimate, only in the context of marriage defined as the union of a man and a woman, is not just this church and it's not just Southern Baptist as the Washington post gets right, it is the same teaching that is held by the Catholic church and other Christian traditions.
In other words, this is just basic Christianity. It's also very important for Christians to understand that the Christian reputation for holding to a unique sexual ethic isn't new to the 21st century. It was actually present in the first century. And in the first centuries of the Christian faith, in the context of the Roman empire, that had a very different understanding of sexual morality, it was the commitment of Christians to a sexual ethic grounded in marriage and exclusive to marriage, that became one of the major issues of the attention of the Roman empire. One of the oddities of Christianity that caught the attention even of the ruling authorities in Rome.
How Does the Secular World Understand the Church’s Teaching on Sin, Lust, and Sexual Immorality?
The most interesting of all of these articles is the massive report that was in the print edition of Sunday's edition to The New York Times. That's the article by Ruth Graham with the headline, "Shame of Lust is Cross Known to Evangelicals." Let me come back and say that, again, is just biblical Christianity, the struggle against lust. But there is something important for us to recognize here. As you look at the evangelical Protestant tradition in the United States, you will see that going back very clearly to the last decades of the 19th century, there has been a particularly explicit attention given to the struggle against the sin of lust, sexual temptation and sexual immorality, and that concern has been particularly addressed, not just to all Christians, but particularly to the young and even more specifically, to young men.
Now, one of the issues to which I will return is that this is not something new in the Christian life. All you have to do is go back for example, to the powerful writings of the Puritans, to understand a very similar concern, although not always couched in such explicit terms. The fact is, that by the time evangelicals came to the culture in the United States of the late 19th century, there were explicit temptations that had to be named. There were explicit opportunities for sin that had not existed before. By the time you get to the end of the 20th century and the development, not only of an expanding international sex trade, but of social media, the internet and making pornography nearly ubiquitous, this has been a major concern of evangelical Christianity, of churches, of youth pastors, of those who are the pastors of churches, of parents and of young people themselves.
The article in The New York Times begins this way, "When Brad Onishi heard that the man accused of a rampage at three Atlanta area spas told detectives that he had carried out the attacks as a way to eliminate his own temptations, the claim sounded painfully familiar." The article goes on. "Dr. Onishi, who grew up in a strict evangelical community in Southern California that emphasized sexual purity, has spent his teenage years tearing out any advertisements in surfing magazines that featured women in bikinis. He had traded his online passwords with friends to hold himself accountable. 'We had a militant vigilance: Don't let anything in the house that will tempt you sexually.'" Now that was said by Dr. Onishi, identified as now an associate professor of Religious Studies at Skidmore College. The report then tells us, "The evangelical culture he was raised in," he said, "teaches women to hate their bodies as the source of temptation. And it teaches men to hate their minds, which lead them to lust and sexual immorality."
Well, just observing this interesting way for the article to begin, but even as we're introduced to Dr. Brad Onishi, he is very clearly someone who has left that evangelical heritage and is now turning back to critique it. Fair enough, but let's understand what's going on here. Rather than just summarizing the biblical teaching on sexuality that is held by evangelicals or even summarizing the most prevalent devotional literature that is common to evangelicals, he goes on and describes it in very negative terms as teaching women to hate their bodies as a source of temptation and teaching men to hate their minds, which lead them into lust and morality. Well, here's the problem. If you're going to look at that, you can recognize that number one, evangelicals can state these matters wrongly.
We can communicate messages that do not communicate what we intend or what the Bible teaches. But when it comes to lust and the reality of sexual immorality and the struggles that are experienced by Christians, young and old, male and female, the Bible is itself just very explicit. It is very clear. Flee immorality. And it's not just passages that are as brief as the exhortation or command to flee immorality, it is also comprehensive biblical teaching that includes Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount about the fact that one does not have to commit adultery with the body to be guilty of the sin, even by objectifying a woman and imagining sex with her, a form of porneia. In the new Testament, the word porneia in the Greek, which is as you can recognize, the root of the word pornography used in culture today, means anything that elicits a wrongful sexual desire or interest. Christians are to flee anything that is to incite a wrongful sexual desire or interest.
Now, in all this, we have to admit it is difficult for parents, it's difficult for pastors, is difficult for elders in churches, for youth pastors, it's difficult for student workers, it's difficult for anyone talking about these issues to discuss a healthy sexuality and God's gift in sexuality and sex as God's gift within the context of marriage, with all the goods that God gives us in marriage and in sexuality in marriage, it's hard sometimes to make clear, certainly in every conversation and every sermon and every article or book that the Bible is really clear by beginning with the fundamental goodness of the fact that we are embodied creatures and that sex and identities, male and female is a part of God's perfect plan for humanity. And that sexual attraction brings together a man and a woman. But it's not just sexual attraction. It is only authentic if it arises to the level of the covenant commitment that the man and the woman make to each other in the covenant of marriage.
The fact is that without sexual interest and sexual attraction, men and women would not come together in such a way that what is promised in our embodiment is fulfilled in marriage. And we're living in a time when the society has so warped the sexual impulse, that it's presented as a commodified liberation in the name of human autonomy to forbid all boundaries to limit us, and instead to give ourselves to what, even in the apex of postmodernism was described as transgressive behavior, as those who transgress the boundaries, who are celebrated in our society, not those who maintain them.
Ruth Graham writes in her report at The New York Times, "Combating pornography and improper sexual desire is an enduring theme within contemporary conservative evangelicalism. In churches, men partner in accountability groups to hold each other responsible for avoiding sexual temptation and other moral dangers. Others use accountability software, countless books promise spiritual and practical strategies for breaking free of the habit."
Graham's report then goes on to say that evangelical churches have begun to speak more specifically, or indeed even more frankly, and explicitly about sex. And that's because given the context of what the world now throws at us, the reality is that evangelical parents, pastors, evangelical Christians writ large, have to speak frankly about these issues, or we're never going to be understood. We're never actually going to help the Christians in our care and of our concern. But then Graham writes this, "But if conversations around sexual issues have become more Frank, the message that sex is reserved for straight married couples has remained unchanged." Again, very similar language in the Washington Post. Very similar language in The Los Angeles Times. Very similar language in the international press. But now it is presented as if evangelical Christians holding to this biblical standard of marriage and sexual morality are oddities that have to be explained as if some exotic tribe has now been discovered.
It's interesting that in this article, the issue of pornography arose so quickly. It's interesting that as Ruth Graham writes, "White evangelicals do not use pornography more than other demographics, said Samuel Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma, who has researched the role of pornography in the lives of conservative Protestants. In fact," says The New York Times, "white evangelicals who regularly attend church, look at pornography less than the general population."
Little footnote here, the phrase, white evangelicals, here, has to do with evangelical subculture as studied by sociologists. This is not important as a racially defined issue. The same professor discussed to the fact that evangelicals, in his words, sometimes promote what he calls sexual exceptionalism, defined by the paper as meaning that "sexual sins are implied to be more serious than other categories." Well, here's the biblical truth. Let's just remind ourselves, sin kills. All sin kills.
And even as the scripture does speak of that, however, the scripture speaks of the particular snare of certain sins. The particular besetting nature of certain sins and sexual sins are explicitly listed among them. This article also includes explicit criticism of evangelical Christianity. Joshua Grubbs is identified as an assistant professor of Psychology at Bowling Green State University. Also a clinical psychologist. The article says, "Evangelical sex addiction treatment tends to emphasize total abstinence from any sexual behavior outside heterosexual marriage. They don't take into account that Christians are creatures with a drive for sex." Well, we do. And the Bible does. But the Bible actually sets out that standard of sexual behavior being demonstrated and fulfilled only within the context of marriage between a man and a woman. There's more here, specifically related to Crabapple First Baptist Church, the church where this young man had been a member. Attention in the article's directed towards a sermon preached by an associate pastor at the church.
The sermon was about the battle against sin. And as the reporter tells us, the associate pastor called out the use of pornography directly, saying, for example, "Cut it out by getting rid of your smartphone, getting rid of internet connection, anything and everything that would allow you to do it. Your soul is at stake." The pastor also said that lust is "a heart problem, not just an eye problem." Well, all that is actually true. It's not just true that this pastor said it, it's true that the Bible reveals the very same. I took the opportunity to read through the entire message. And it's important to recognize that this was an expository message on the text 1 Timothy 6:11–21. It's a considerable message. It's not just a short devotional. It's a full expository sermon. And it is about the warfare to which Christians are called, a warfare against the world, the flesh and the devil, as has often been summarized. And it was deeply rooted in this exposition of 1 Timothy 6:11–21.
I mentioned the Puritans earlier. This is the kind of message that the Puritans would well have understood. It's deeply biblical. It's going text by text looking not only in 1 Timothy, but respective other texts in the new Testament, especially as well. And the message is directed right to the believers' heart, just as the Puritans directed their message as well.
Again, anyone familiar with Christian devotional literature going all the way back to the early church in scripture and then continuing, let's just fast forward, through the Puritans and into evangelical Christianity, would see this as just a faithful Biblical message grounded in a clear Biblical text and using the Bible's own words and indeed its metaphors of spiritual warfare for understanding what Christians face. Again, in a message about the local church and the congregation understanding its need for God's grace in the midst of a spiritual warfare, well within the message, the pastor went to 1 Corinthians 6:18: "Flee from sexual immorality." He also went to 1 Corinthians 10. Similar text. And then for some time he dealt with the reality, the Bible's honesty, about the sin of lust and sexual temptation, but it's entirely within the proportion of the passage. It is entirely in keeping with the faithful Christian tradition. It's entirely faithful to the scriptures and it does not include any kind of teaching or any kind of application that in any way could be understood as justifying anything ungodly, not to say violent.
The congregation of Crabapple First Baptist Church in Georgia met yesterday for worship and they did worship and glorify God. The word was preached. The word was read. The names of all of the victims of this horrific crime were read aloud and much prayer was extended to their families and to the entire community. And there was a sense of brokenness and lament. After the service, visitors, including the press, were asked to leave. And then it was reported that the congregation had exercise church discipline against the young man, Robert Aaron Long, removing him from the membership of the church, declaring that he is no longer considered a "regenerate believer in Jesus Christ."
Press reports have also made very clear there's ample documentation of the fact that this was a particularly troubled young man. And as we know now that particularly troubled young man turned murderous and this church by the way, was not acting hastily to remove this man from its membership. He had demonstrated himself to be an unregenerate man by his behavior. And it's not just what may one day be attested in court, but what he has already confessed to to authorities.
As I said last week on the briefing, there is no way to get into the darkness of a human heart adequately in order to understand the horrifying, tragic mixture of sexuality, of struggle, of what may well have been racism and sexual stereotyping of what was, as it turned out, a racially or ethnically patterned crime, even if that was not consciously at the heart of the crime. In any event, Christians do not deny the manifold sinfulness of sin. We understand that sin is so deceitful and so powerful that it does come in manifold ways. And thus, there is nothing that Biblical Christianity would actually exclude in terms of sinful temptation from the pattern and profile of this deeply troubled, deeply sinful, eventually murderous young man.
Jesus Saves: Biblical Principles for Christians to Consider about the Struggle with Sin
There's so many issues here to be considered and we'll need to take further time in days ahead and in the weeks and months ahead to try to think these things through. But even as we do, I want to end The Briefing today differently than most days. And I want to speak given the gravity of these situations, very, very clearly to Christians, even as I must speak succinctly. I hope that even speaking concisely here will be helpful. Several points.
Number one, be honest, Christian, about the struggle with sin. Do not declare premature victory over the struggle with sin nor despair. The struggle with sin is to drive us into a deeper understanding of the grace of God, demonstrated to us in Jesus Christ. And if you are a believer in the Lord, Jesus Christ, then you are united to Christ who is not united to sin. You have the Holy Spirit living within you. And you can find help. You can find help in Christ. You can find help in Christ people.
Number two, do not hide behind therapeutic or euphemistic labels. One of the things that comes up in this article is the fact that this young man and others referred to his pattern of sin as an addiction. That is not a biblical word. It may apply in some situations, but when it is applied too, readily, by Christians, it's just an embrace of a therapeutic modality that suggests that somehow we are merely the victims of some kind of pattern that may be forced upon us. The reality is that even though something like what might be described as addiction as the experience of many, if not all Christians struggling with sin of some form, the reality is that simply describing it as an addiction can suggest that some kind of therapy can be the rescue. Therapy is not the rescue when it comes to sin. Only Christ is.
Number three, recognize the enemy. This is really, really important. Your enemy is not another human being. As Paul makes clear in Ephesians chapter six, we struggle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. Yes, you have an enemy. Satan is your enemy and he is the accuser. But human beings are not your enemy in your own struggle for sin. If you're hanging around with people who cause you to sin, don't hang around with them anymore. But in fact, our struggle with sin is not, as God tells us in his word, a struggle against other human beings. We cannot reduce other human beings to being the agents of our sin. It's our responsibility.
Four, trust Christ. And if you genuinely trust Christ, that means that you can never despair because if you genuinely despair, you are not trusting Christ to be true to his promises, which Christ always will be. And Christ never promises to release us in this life from a pattern of temptation. Christ does not promise to release us from the struggle with sin. In fact, we are told that, that will follow us all the way to the grave, but there it will end if we are in Christ.
But fifth, even as I said, we have to recognize the enemy earlier. I want to make extremely clear, we do not blame others for our sin. Regardless of who those others might be, regardless of their own pattern of sin, regardless if they are in a sinful trade, regardless of whether or not they're involved in the production or the dissemination of pornography or making any other sin more possible.
We oppose by legislation. We make very clear how Christians should protect themselves. We are to do that. But we are not to blame others. And one of the things we see in this young man's twisted mind is, when he said he was removing temptation, he was indeed turning murderously upon human beings in a way we all recognize to be wrong, but we need to articulate why it's wrong.
Next, go to the church for help. Your church. You must be involved in a Bible, preaching, faithful local congregation. And go to the church when you have trouble. Yes, if you're a young person, go to your parents. But go to the church. The church as the body of Christ is to love you unto faithfulness, to preach the word to you, to apply discipline where necessary, to encourage, to exhort, yes, even to correct as acts of Christian love within the fellowship of the church.
And we have to recognize that it's in the church, given what Christians rightly call, the ordinary means of grace, the preaching of the word of God, obedience, to the ordinances of Christ, participation in the worshiping congregation of a fellowship that is committed to Christ. All of these, the ordinary means of grace, are the means whereby we are conformed to Christ likeness. We should not expect to have any victory against sin if we do not avail ourselves of the means of grace that God has given us whereby to fight that very fight.
Next, recognize the complexities of sin. And what I mean by that is that, yes, sin works its way throughout the entire culture. Think of what is involved just in this story, without going into detail, complexities of sin, structures of sin, businesses of sin. You have all kinds of issues that are involved here, and sin just works that way. But this means that we must do everything possible to extricate ourselves from every aspect of it. Don't suffer under the illusion that you can go into business with sin and somehow avoid being drawn ever deeper into sin yourself.
But very quickly, because time is running out, I just want you to hear me to say that it's very, very important from a Christian biblical worldview, that you'd never hurt anyone, yourself or anyone else. You do not hurt anyone in your struggle for sin. And you also do not give in to any form of self-harm. If you experienced that kind of temptation, then get help. Even if that helped means that you need to call a suicide helpline, that you need to call 911 and just cry out for help. Call the church, call a pastor, call a Christian, call someone and get help. But never, ever hurt anyone and that means not only anyone else, never hurt yourself, never bring harm to a human being, including harm to yourself.
The final word, never abandon hope. To understand Christianity is to understand that we never abandon hope. A denial of hope is actually a slander against God's own goodness and his good purpose for us and the atonement perfectly accomplished for us by the Lord, Jesus Christ.
I'll simply end this addition of The Briefing with the two most powerful words I know in the English language: Jesus saves.