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“Return of the Prodigal Son,” Rembrandt (1620–69), Metropolitan Museum.

About twenty years ago, after witnessing some of the results of Reformed theology on church life, I did a close study of 2 Corinthians. I had seen churches split into ever-smaller factions over fine points of doctrine. The tone of conferences got darker each year. I kept running into leaders whose idea of discipleship was brow-beating people into abstract doctrinal “unity.”

Whatever this was, I felt, it was off track.

The Reformed awakening in the 1990s attracted people who wanted a radical change. People saw that churches were compromising with the immorality and soft-headed spirituality of American culture. They demanded a reassertion of biblical authority. …

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Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

Among conservative evangelicals, authority is usually a matter of command and obedience. It is hierarchical. God is on top. He has authority to command everyone. Underneath God, other authorities can also give commands: office holders, law enforcement, parents, pastors, elders, teachers, etc.

The most direct way you obey God, then, is to obey the authorities he set over you. Various factions of evangelicals express this hierarchy differently.

Some factions express it as a literal flow chart from God to the state all the way down to you. Other factions are uncomfortable with this model. They treat God’s authority as a way to understand why we need salvation: we disobeyed God’s commands and need his forgiveness — as if God’s law and grace are in opposition. Still other factions say that God grants his authority to those who have faith. …

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Photo by Antonio Alcántara on Unsplash

In writing about Jerry Falwell, Jr., I said that evangelicals are in an institutional crisis, a declining confidence in the integrity of our churches, schools, and mission organizations. The scandals that afflict ministries, like Falwell’s, are only part of this story. In some ways, the scandals skew the issues we need to face. We can understand failures over money or sex more easily than the insidious abuses that rob people of sleep, make them question their standing before God, or drive them out of the faith entirely.

Consider one recent story about the internal struggles of Acts 29, the church planting organization that has continued to struggle with allegations of misused authority. In the linked article about a former Acts 29 CEO, Christianity Today uncovered “a pattern of spiritual abuse through bullying and intimidation, overbearing demands in the name of mission and discipline, rejection of critical feedback, and an expectation of unconditional loyalty.” This list doesn’t make good click-bait, but the behaviors are driving many people out of churches. …

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Photo by Andrew Bowyer on Unsplash

Late last week, Jerry Falwell, Jr. was finally dealt with — sort of. The executive committee of Liberty University’s board of trustees placed him on an “indefinite” leave of absence for posting a scandalous photo on Instagram. The photo showed him on a yacht with his pants open, a suspicious drink in his hand, and his arm around a woman who was not his wife. This came on top of other scandals involving his making loans to a pool boy to start a club in Florida and wearing a face mask with a racist reference on it.

They lost me at “yacht.” The president of a Christian university was vacationing on a yacht. He was posting about the yacht on Instagram. Apparently, no one has sat Junior down and said, “The operative word here, son, is not university president but Christian university. Yes, corporate presidents act this way. But, kiddo, an officer of your rank in a Christian ministry does not hire a yacht — or if he does, he does not flaunt it.” …

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Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

The phone camera feeds people’s passion for justice. We capture all sorts of crimes with our phones. A few minutes of wobbly video footage can make you feel like a first-hand witness to a traffic accident, an assault, or a murder. But the footage raises questions. Does a video really make you a witness? Should witnesses decide who is guilty? Is justice a demand for truth or satisfaction?

These problems are not new. In the past, you could always get information about an event that you didn’t see and feel like you were there. Gossip, for instance, has always felt like “inside information,” as if you were a step ahead of everybody else. …

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Dear Public Health Leaders:

One of the first churches I served was in a small mountain community in Oregon. When I shook hands with people, many of them were missing fingers. There were lots of other injuries too: spines, knees, eyes, and ears. The highways were marked with crosses where loved ones died in accidents. We were in timber country.

Their perspective was: Life is hard. Bad news will come. The sheriff may knock on your door tomorrow. Find something to smile about today. No use worrying.

I notice some of you in the public health community admitting mistakes in response to Covid-19. Charlie Warzel reports warnings from insiders that public health communication has been disrespectful. You are recognizing, for instance, that shaming people for not wearing masks is counterproductive. But the problems with your approaches are deep. Warzel compares today’s resistance in America with the resistance doctors received in West Africa during the 2014 Ebola crisis. …

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Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

With institutions across the nation failing in their core missions, the local leader has daily frustrations. She is the business owner, school principal, or corporate executive who has built a team, a service, and a way of life for herself and others. She wakes up each morning with responsibilities. Meeting those responsibilities takes all her smarts and competence. But her success gives satisfaction to herself and security to those around her. Her success also nourishes the community: she provides a setting where diverse people meet, talk, and work together.

Local leaders in businesses, non-profits, service organizations, and churches make our nation run smoothly every day. …

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“Chernobyl” by Ilja Nedilko on Unsplash

The Covid-19 pandemic has turned up the heat on institutions that were already weak. We are now experiencing the meltdown of nearly every major institution in American life — including churches. Personal and political agendas have cancelled stewardship.

Consider the network of institutions that make up our public health system: medical schools and journals, hospitals, international agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO), and Federal agencies like the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Debates among these institutions over how Covid-19 is transmitted have thrown the public into confusion and suspicion. …

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Photo by Jan Huber on Unsplash

America has plenty of things that I oppose: racism, street violence, police brutality, lies and insults on social media, ideological propaganda. I am against it all. But what am I for?

I am for the Union.

The Union is the bond that holds fifty states and hundreds of millions of souls together as America. It is the land’s root system, joining the people west of the Missouri River with those east of it. The Union fuels the nation’s spirit on the coasts, the Rockies and the plains, the Great Lakes and the Gulf alike.

It was never a practical idea. The Union has nearly splintered many times. In fact, it almost never sprouted. The original colonies were too different — divided by size, population, climate, class, economy, and religion — to make a coherent nation. The states could barely write their Constitution, even for a modestly more perfect Union, much less ratify it. …

Americans responded to the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT in 2012 with immense generosity toward the victims’ families. But, as the New York Times surveyed in an article three weeks ago, there were unintended consequences from the large scale donations. Families saw their loved ones’ names and pictures used in ad campaigns to raise money, implying that donations would go to victims. But the national organizations often used the money for their own projects in Newtown.

Many people are now cautious about where they give during a tragedy.

Here in Chico, CA, we experienced incredible generosity to help survivors of the Camp Fire, which destroyed nearby Paradise last November. Local corporate giving was awe-inspiring. Sierra Nevada Brewery, along with many restaurants and stores, fed survivors free meals for weeks. National groups have also done amazing things. Samaritan’s Purse and other relief organizations have helped people sift the ashes to find belongings. Retailers like J. C. …


Matthew Raley

Pastor. Author. Violinist.

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