Dad’s $0.02 on the Armenian Genocide (Guest Post)

armenian_genocide_intent_to_destroyA couple of years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the Serbian massacre in Srebrenica, Bosnia, I wrote about the Bosnian Genocide of 1992 – 1995 when a quarter of a million Bosniaks were wiped out, tortured and imprisoned in concentration camps. (Another 200,000 fled or were unaccounted for). In the middle of Europe. At the end of the 20th century.

What astonished me then, as well as now, was how few people in general (and Americans in particular) seemed to remember the horrible tragedy, a mere 20 years after it happened. Equally few remembered Kosovo. The same year the world commemorated the 70th year liberation of Auschwitz with the famous cry “Never Again”, we were already forgetting much more recent history.

It DID happen again. And again.

Before the Jewish Holocaust, there was the Armenian Genocide. Hitler famously used people’s collective short attention spans when he scoffed “Who today remembers the Armenians?” in preparation for his “Final Solution”.

Yesterday, my father (who is a World War II expert historian and has once before achieved near rock-star status among the readers of this blog) wrote me a letter about the Armenian Genocide, which was recently portrayed in a movie starring Christian Bale, “The Promise”. (Since we couldn’t see it in the theatre, we saw “The Zookeeper’s Wife” instead – an excellent family film that follows the Nazi invasion of Poland and a family that rescued over 300 Jews.) I would have like to be able to review “The Promise”, but as it highlighted a tragic part of history (still denied by the Turkish government), I decided to share his letter instead.

At one Armenian center after another, throughout the Ottoman Empire, on a certain daye (and the dates show  sequence), the public crier went through the streets announcing that every male Armenian must present himself forewith at the government Government building….The men presented themselves in their working clothes, leaving their shops and work-roos open, their plows on the fields, their cattle on the mountainside. When they arrived, they were thrown without explanation into prison, kept in batches, roped man to man along some southerly or southeasterly road. They had not long to ponder over their plight for they were halted and massacred at the first lonely place off the road.

– Viscount Bryce, “The Treatment of Armenians”, 1916

“Marie –

Even though we’re not seeing “The Promise” today, I’ve written down a few observations about the Armenian Genocide 1915 – 1921, which cost 1 ¾ million Armenians, of both sexes and all ages, their lives.

Although Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were under the rule of the Ottoman (Turkish) Sultanate, from the time of the fall of Constantinople in mid-15th century they and the Jewish population had been not only tolerated by the Muslim government but often their administrative talents had been recognized and appreciated. A number held posts of importance in the Ottoman Empire’s governmental bureaucracy, without their Christian religion being an impediment in any way.

So too it was in Moorish Spain – El Andulus; today’s Andalusia, where the Muslim government scrupulously respected the freedom of religion of the Christian and Jewish communities (“millets”) recognized, along with Muslims, as “Peoples of the Book”.

I don’t fully understand, in light of the above, just why the Armenian Genocide took place when and where it did. Perhaps the fact that the Ottoman Turks allied with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in WWI, AND the part of historic Armenia, north of Ararat, was coming under Russian-Leninist influence in 1917-1919 had something to do with it. [Even in 1946-47, Stalin made threats against Turkey hinting at a possible invasion. The Turkish reply? In effect: “Come if you dare, but be prepared to pay a terribly high price.”  “Uncle Joe” Stalin backed down.]

Turk_official_teasing_Armenian_starved_children_by_showing_bread,_1915_(Collection_of_St._Lazar_Mkhitarian_Congregation).jpg
Turkish official tormenting starving Armenian children with bread

A book on the Armenian Genocide: The Slaughterhouse Province (“Vilayets” in Turkish) came out, I think about 25 years ago. Available from Worcester Public Library – the main one downtown. Its impact in part, and its credibility derive from the fact that the U.S. Consul to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morganthau, Sr. and his Armenian “manservant” left the country with a number of photos of murdered Armenians – men, women and children – by the hundreds, especially in northeastern Turkey, around Lake Van. Morganthau, of course, had diplomatic immunity, which enabled him to avoid any kind of luggage search when the two men exited Turkey.

Dr. Deranian, a friend of mine, now deceased, gave me the enclosed photocopy – sorry about the rather poor reproductive quality! He urged me, years ago, to become better informed about the Armenian tragedy. I regretfully assured him that my hands were completely full with my years of “total immersion” in the Holocaust. I think he understood.

Final note: Abe S., (“Uncle Abe” to you three kids) was one of the lucky ones – his parents escaped to Smyrna (now Izmir) on the Ionian Coast where he was born in 1923, then coming to NYC as a small child.

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!!

~ Dad”

The Cost of Being a Brother: A Review of “The Voices of Redlands”

redland_cover

 

By Marie Notcheva

Reading The Voices of Redlands, an account of spiritual abuse at a California house church, was an emotional experience.  It affected me on a deep level, and even kicked my maternal instinct into high gear. Primarily narrated through the testimony of former church member, John Baldwin, the story follows the systematic intimidation and subsequent excommunication of several people, most notably John’s friend, Ryan Ashton.

The fellowship in question is known as “Monday Nights,” which meets in the Southern California town of Redlands. Comprised by mainly young adults and led by two brothers, Jared and Seth Gustafson, when the group’s teaching became influenced by “Hyper-Grace” theology, Ryan expressed concern. Hyper Grace, as Ryan found out, is a modern incarnation of the ancient heresy antinomianism and soon led his church family into multiple instances of drunkenness, sexual immorality, naked exhibitionism, and other behaviors as explained in multiple testimonies. Ryan’s voice was dismissed and he was accused of “slander” by the Gustafson brothers, as a transcript of one of the secret meetings shows. (Slander, by definition, must be both untrue and malicious in intent. Ryan’s statements were neither.)

The close-knit community was practically a family to Ryan – the individuals he most loved and trusted. Rather than engaging his concern or encouraging him to continue being a Berean, the group’s leadership convened secret meetings and unilaterally decided there would be no discussion of theology; Ryan was to be ‘disciplined’ for his insubordination; and he was even pressured to receive psychiatric counseling—presuming mental illness where none existed was one way the Gustafsons tried to discredit Ryan.

“Matthew 18” being referenced to excommunicate him, Ryan was told “Don’t quote us unless it is uplifting or encouraging” and was censored from publicly sharing anything the group taught.  Given  a contract to sign outlining his three options: 1) obey (apologize for questioning the leadership and keep silent); 2) be excommunicated; or 3) obey and subsequently leave the community. What followed were months of emails and social media messages between the membership; culminating in a ‘trial’ and  Ryan’s subsequent excommunication.  Monday Night’s members were ordered by the Gustafson brothers to “shun” Ryan or face the same consequences if they had any fellowship or communication with him.

All this because Ryan dared to question Jared’s aberrant doctrine.

Turning on a Brother

It is difficult to convey to outsiders the psychological impact a high-control religious group has on its members, and the tremendous emotional harm that can be done when the group turns on another member. Without support from anyone but the few who gave their testimonies in The Voices of Redlands, Ryan naturally spiraled into depression. The cruelty of this ‘shunning’, coupled with defamation of his character and false accusations took a toll on Ryan’s health in other ways—his weight dropped, clumps of his hair fell out, and he suffered tremendous anguish at losing the only family he had known. As a reader I wanted to intervene and protect this young brother somehow; and call off those who would destroy another’s life in the Name of Christ. Watching God work as John Baldwin’s testimony unfolded was instructive and insightful.

Perhaps because Monday Nights was a house-church and not a mega-church under the leadership of a well-known celebrity, this story and the alarm bells rung by Ryan and John Baldwin have been largely unheeded by Southern Californians. Jared Gustafson is fairly well known among many churches there, but what Ryan discovered and how he was treated has been kept a secret. Until now.  What John’s testimony exposes, far more than the teaching of Hyper Grace, is a form of spiritual abuse that is all-too common to authoritarian churches in this country.

When “Discipline” Becomes Abuse

“Church discipline” are biblical buzzwords that become   weapons in the hands of  some religious groups. Many people might be aware of church discipline cases going awry—as was the case in The Village Church case (a Calvinistic/Reformed congregation), which resulted in its pastor, Matt Chandler, apologizing for their misguided attempt to ‘discipline’ Karen Hinckley for divorcing her pedophile husband.  The Voices of Redlands demonstrates that coercive group-think is not limited to conservative churches. Monday Nights is at the other end of the spectrum, influenced by Bethel Church’s charismatic leanings and two brothers at its center. The Gustafsons have such a magnetic hold over their friends that no one in Monday Nights has an issue with their Instagram posts of nude pool party photos. How the brothers manipulated their friends and other local churches to treat Ryan is only the tip of the iceberg.

In the middle of John’s testimony, Ryan himself provides commentary on “the bystander effect” which is common in abusive situations. The bystander effect is a diffusion of responsibility which leads to collective apathy when an individual is being harmed. Most of the people in this fellowship and their families were swayed not only by Jared’s erroneous teaching, but also forced to disassociate themselves from Ryan. All dissent was censored, and threats of being disfellowshipped were imposed from the Gustafsons. This, perhaps, is the part that bothered me the most: even those who knew him turned the other way when Ryan was thrown under the bus by Jared and Seth.  Their charges against Ryan were not true, as John’s testimony makes clear.

In his interlude “The Anatomy of Spiritual Abuse” on page 66, Ryan writes:

“One of the hallmarks of abusive situations is the many layers of protection and enablement that exist for the abuser…..Circling the wagons in self-protection and stifling dissent are what toxic communities do, not the Body of Christ. Underscoring its insidious nature, whereas physical and emotional abuse is intentional because it is only manipulative, spiritual abuse can be unintentional through distorted biblical beliefs.”

It was these beliefs, and not the individuals, that Ryan confronted. He stood his ground personally, and then publicly, firmly rejecting the antinomian teaching the Gustafsons embraced, expressed concern for young believers being led astray – but was never truly heard by anyone. Instead, Ryan’s character was attacked and all of his relationships were terminated by the Gustafsons. The emotional effect of this was extremely traumatic, as John saw his friend deteriorate. Ryan wrote how even those parents and adults he reached out to marginalized him – “deeming emotions to be unChristian, anger at injustice to be sinful, and even the act of speaking out as gossip” (p. 68). Having been on the receiving end of such treatment in a high-control authoritarian church, I can understand in a small part his sense of betrayal and frustration. I was relentlessly pressured, and threatened with excommunication, for leaving an abusive marriage, thus this observation really resonated with me:

“Victims are often demonized and labeled the aggressor when resisting abuse, while cavalier justifications for inaction allow many Christians to walk past the wounded guilt-free and without offering help, besides maybe flinging a Scripture verse from afar with an air of sanctified indifference…. Jesus bore the Roman whip, yet today the Body of Christ bears lacerations from abusers who revel in the impunity from passive bystanders (p. 68-69).”

One couple involved in Ryan’s life even encouraged him to listen to Bill Gothard’s “Basic Life Principles” to address his “bitterness”. Another couple pressured him to go through The Landmark Forum, a cultic victim-shaming conference that brainwashes people into believing they are responsible for their own relationships falling apart. In these and many ways, the adult Christians in Redlands have dropped the ball in protecting their own children and tried to silence Ryan and John multiple times when all they wanted to do was warn people about what the Gustafsons are influencing Monday Nights to become.

The Healing Power of Forgiveness

Rather than give up, Ryan has relentlessly sought to reconcile with Monday Nights. For three years, he has tried to explain why he was so concerned, and also why Monday Nights’ reactionary defense of the heresy (and shunning of Jared’s detractors) was wrong. Ryan’s was naturally angry and upset with the injustice, but standing his ground, what is astonishing (and speaks well of Ryan’s character) is that his genuine love for these people remains and is the catalyst for this book. He truly does want reconciliation, and has not “written off” Monday Nights at all, despite the unimaginable pain the ‘shunning’ and slander caused him. John Baldwin’s love seeps through the pages, as he and the others testifying through  “The Voices of Redlands” demonstrate in page after page of how many times they tried to get through to their friends, but were disbelieved, dismissed, lied about, and ultimately shunned also. John and Ryan even delayed the book launch for several months when it appeared the leaders of Monday Nights would engage them in conversation. After months of stonewalling, and prayer on the part of the editorial team, the book and website was finally released to warn Redlands and the Church world about how Hyper Grace and spiritual abuse can change even the most sincere and loving of groups into what Monday Nights has become today.

Still, Ryan burns with a love and desire to forgive and reconcile with his abusers. There is not even a hint of bitterness, as many would label those who expose abuse and falsehood. As Ryan himself states:

“My hands are open to whatever is ahead. I have nothing to protect since it was already taken from me. I have no aim in this endeavor besides seeing this situation resolved and healed. I have been at the brink of despair and much worse, yet the fact I remain alive and writing to you all means Jesus already won that battle. All other trials are nothing in comparison. We love Monday Nights and pray for them. I am sincerely grateful to be a brother to them, and to all of you. I am still learning how to be a better brother; how to be tender, speak graciously, and respond with hope. I am here—hands open, heart open, ears open—not to be abused again but to demonstrate my love and the true grace of God.”

The Voices of Redlands  by the end is less an expose of a particular church or errant doctrine than it is a call to action for us all. When standing up for truth is seen as unloving; when victims are coerced into apologizing to their abusers; when sincere believers blindly follow their leaders spinning their version of a story at the expense of an individual, there is a serious problem in the Body. It is to our collective detriment the Christians in Redlands haven’t done more to intervene in Monday Nights, since injustice there is an injustice everywhere. As John, Ryan, and the others make clear, we are all connected, and our indifference to spiritual abuse as a church culture needs to be confronted.

Spiritual abuse takes many forms and is hard to define. John and Ryan take pains to describe it, so even those not directly involved in similar situations can discern it. “The bystander effect” has unknowingly lulled too many Christians into paralysis. It is never the wrong time to stand up and defend one of our own. Telling this painful story took enormous courage for these Voices of Redlands.  I am grateful to John Baldwin and the eight other witnesses for telling the truth about what is happening in Redlands. Ryan Ashton is just one of the many Christians who has been blacklisted and blackmailed into silence, yet he chose to not only speak up, but pursue reconciliation with his abusers. His quest deserves to be read, and this wake-up call needs to be heeded.

“The Voices of Redlands” is available as a free download here.

God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce (Review)

protection

by Marie Notcheva

For several months now, I have wanted to review Pastor Herb Vander Lugt’s booklet, “God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce”. As the senior research editor for RBC (now Our Daily Bread Ministries), Lugt’s 1982 book is a concise, yet exegetically-rich resource biblically challenging the view that divorce is never justified by abuse. Far from being a plea to reason based on emotionalism (or even pastoral experience), Lugt effectively shows how a faulty hermeneutic has led many conservative pastors and churches to teach that Matthew 5:32 is the final and definitive word on divorce.

As a former pastor of mine used to say, “Be careful about basing a doctrine on one verse.” Nowhere is this more obvious than in the thorny endeavor to unpack all of what Scripture has to say about divorce (as well as abuse of different kinds; abandonment; and re-marriage). Wisely, Lugt begins with the assertion that “Moses, Jesus and Paul all recognized a range of marital conditions that are worse than divorce”. (P. 3). He then re-caps historical anthropology of women being treated as property, pausing on the Puritans who were a notable exception:

“In the spirit of the Reformation, Puritans didn’t see marriage as an indissoluble sacrament but as a civil contract that could be terminated if either party did not fulfill fundamental duties of marriage. Although cruelty was not a recognized ground for divorce in the Puritan era, there are those who thought cruelty to a wife was a type of desertion.” (p. 4).

Lugt then proceeds to demonstrate how, even in modern times, women have been overly-subjugated by a misunderstanding of the word “helper” in Genesis 2:18.

“There is no sense in which this word connotes a position of inferiority or subordinate status. The word “suitable for” literally means “in front of”, signifying one who stands face to face with another, qualitatively the same, his essential equal, and therefore his “correspondent” (“Hard Sayings of the Bible, pp. 666-7, IVP, Downers Grove, 1996).”

Before delving into the second section of the booklet, “Protection of Women under the Law of Moses,” Lugt then highlights the fallacy that male domination is a “right” inherited from the Fall — consistent with the rest of Genesis 3, it was a “curse” that, like sickness, thorns and discord, should be resisted and fought.

Mosaic Law

Even the most weak and vulnerable women in Hebraic society — daughters sold as slaves, wives or concubines were protected under the Law of Moses. Quite progressive for its time, Exodus 21:7-11 lists the “three foundations of marital duty” — namely, the provision of food, clothing, and ‘marriage rights’ – often interpreted as affection and marital love. (In fact, the Jewish Ketubah lays these out as a contract, not very much unlike Ephesians 4.)

Breaking these conditions is, in fact, a violation of the marriage covenant. But more significantly, it shows the principle of protection that is seen throughout Scripture, from the lesser to the greater: if God would provide protection and care even for a slave, how much more is owed to a free wife? Verse 11 makes it clear that if the husband fails to fulfill this contractual obligation, he is to “let her go free”. This has been proven conclusively by theologians to mean a formal divorce, the get. Of course, neither rabbis nor Lugt in this apologetic argues that this is the ideal; rather, the Mosaic divorce allowance was given by God for humanitarian means – to protect women from cruelty. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 similarly makes provision for the divorce, protection and remarriage of non-Israelite prisoners of war.

A slightly more obscure passage Lugt addresses in the Mosaic code is Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which he points out would cause a man to think twice before deciding to divorce his wife at will (he was now prohibited from re-marrying her). Worthy of note is that the vague term “uncleanness” in verse 1 does not refer to adultery, which would have carried the death penalty. He was, however, precluded from re-marrying her, which underlines the permanence of the divorce and foreshadows Jesus’ warning in Matthew 19:8 against divorcing one’s wife “for any and every reason”. Divorce was a concession; a last-resort, and not something to be carried out lightly.

“The same law that offers penalties for murder, theft, perjury, and adultery also provides consequences when the purpose and covenant of marriage are broken by contempt and abuse.”(p. 12).

Unraveling Malachi 2:16

After demonstrating the similar intent of protection of both Jesus and Moses, (whose Law Jesus upheld completely during His ministry), Lugt turns toward the most oft-misquoted verse in the Bible regarding divorce: Malachi 2:16 (which he quotes from the New King James Version:

“For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce,
For it covers one’s garment with violence,”Says the Lord of hosts.” 

Compare this rendering with the more accurate, word-for-word translation of the English Standard Version:

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (ESV).

While Lugt correctly noted that the prophet was dealing with “treacherous” divorces — men who didn’t care about their wives, and abused their power to abandon them to a live of poverty and disgrace — what he failed to do was address the etymology of that verse. As Barbara Roberts (author ofNot Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion”) has pointed out, the verse is often incorrectly and incompletely translated as “I hate divorce” and used as a catch-all conversation stopper to assert that divorce is never permitted biblically. However, this is neither the correct interpretation nor intention of the passage (written during a time period when male casual divorce was rampant). She writes:

“The incorrect translation came about as follows. The word “hates” in Malachi 2:16 is he hates. The Hebrew denotes third person masculine singular = he. The King James version had For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away. Many subsequent translations switched the third person “he” to a first person “I” without any grammatical warrant. For example, the 1984 NIV was “ ‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel.” Possibly translators thought the switch was okay because it retained the sense of the KJV — that God feels the hatred [for divorce]. They did not seem to worry that “I hate divorce” was grammatically inaccurate to the original Hebrew.

But modern translations are starting to correct this mistake. The construction in Hebrew (“he hates… he covers”) shows that the one who feels the hatred is not God, but the divorcing husband. To be faithful to the Hebrew, the verse could be rendered, “If he hates and divorces,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with violence.” It is talking about a husband who hates his wife and divorces her because of his aversion for her. Therefore, Malachi 2:16 is only referring to a specific type of divorce: divorce for aversion, which could be dubbed “hatred divorce”. Divorce for hatred is treacherous divorce: if a man hates his wife and dismisses, he “covers his garment with violence” — his conduct is reprehensible, he has blood on his hands.[1]

Apart from this omission, Lugt’s treatment of Old Testament divorce laws’ protection and provision for women was solid. He correctly points out (quoting biblical scholar Joe Sprinkle) that the context of Malachi 2:16 is a limited one: taken in accordance with the allowances for divorce made elsewhere in Scripture, it is clearly only certain divorces in certain circumstances to which God is opposed. While upholding the sanctity of marriage, Lugt next turns to the New Testament teaching on divorce to demonstrate how Christ, Moses and Paul’s teachings complement one another.

New Testament Application

The reader doesn’t need to be convinced that Jesus demonstrated a concern and caring for women that went beyond the social mores of the First Century. Nor is it hard to see that the God of Scripture is a Protector and Defender of the weak and downtrodden.  Lugt asks then the rhetorical questions, “Does Matthew 5:31-32 over-ride the provision offered divorced women in Deuteronomy? Was Jesus, by this one statement, disagreeing with Moses?

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32, ESV)

Of course not. Just as with all of Scripture, a correct hermeneutic demands we examine context (Literal-Historical and Synthetic Principle of Scriptural interpretation.) Jesus was, in the Sermon on the Mount, addressing the Pharisees’ specific excesses and “stretches” in interpreting and teaching the Law of Moses. They had added hundreds of laws onto the original Levitical code, and the abuse of the divorce clause in Deuteronomy 24 was no exception. In reality, divorced women of the First Century were disgraced and had few career prospects outside of prostitution. It is not biblically consistent to say that He was contradicting the conditions Moses had set, but is more consistent with the passage that He was forcing the Pharisees to focus on the condition of their own hearts. Relational sin was the point; the one statement was clearly not intended to be the single and final word on divorce (as Paul later demonstrates).

Later in Matthew 19:3-9, Lugt notes, we in fact see the Pharisees trying to entrap Jesus by confronting Him with the Law of Moses on the same subject. While upholding the sacred ideal of the permanence of marriage, Jesus did not disagree with Moses in allowing divorce.

“Commenting on the allowance made for hardness of heart, Dr. Willard notes: ‘No doubt what was foremost in His [Jesus’] mind was the fact that the woman could quite well wind up dead, or brutally abused, if the man could not “dump” her. It is still so today, of course. Such is our “hardness of heart”. Better, then, that a divorce occur than a life be made unbearable. Jesus does nothing to retract this principle….no one regards a divorce as something to be chosen for its own sake…but of course a brutal marriage is not a good thing either, and we must resist any attempt to classify divorce as a special, irredeemable form of wickedness. It is not. It is sometimes the right thing to do, everything considered.” Professor Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, HarperCollins, 1997. pp. 169-70.

Lugt begins his conclusion by demonstrating again how the Mosaic Code and the teachings of Christ on divorce complemented each other. He argues that Jesus was forcing the hypocritical religious leaders of the time to examine their own hard hearts in putting women in danger           (both by abuse and neglect, and unrighteous divorce), as they were actually ignoring Moses’ rabbinical provision for women. Moses had given the Elders of Israel “a legal basis to free a woman from the neglect, contempt, and abuse of a cruel husband” (p. 21). There was no need for Jesus to cite all of these scripturally-valid grounds for divorce, any more than He explained the full Gospel of salvation by faith alone when speaking to the Rich Young Ruler. As Lugt points out, context is crucial. He was not addressing women in distress; He was addressing the self-righteous men who did as they pleased in “putting away” their wives.

Of course, Jesus also didn’t mention the additional circumstances meriting divorce later cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11:

“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”

 

Giving these instructions on the basis of Christ’s authority, why is there no mention of the fornication clause? It is evident here that the woman can obtain a divorce (under civil law; for unspecified reasons). And why the no-remarriage clause, Lugt asks, when Paul would have been well-acquainted with Mosaic teaching on remarriage? Lugt argues that the context of chapter 7 suggests Paul was answering specific questions raised by the Corinthian believers about celibacy (advocated by some even within marriage), and about marriage itself. He urges wives not to leave, but as a concession states that they are then to remain unmarried (which brings up another set of questions about divorced Christians re-marrying within the Church, which Lugt doesn’t address). Nor does Lugt address the fact that the New Testament uses the same word for “divorce” as for “separation” – the distinction made by the modern-day church is absent in the pages of Scripture. Nowhere do we see the Early Church pressuring divorced women to “reconcile” with their husbands, under any circumstances.

Conclusion

Lugt’s short book is a helpful resource for pastors, counselors and Christians in abusive or contentious marriages in order to understand God’s original design for marriage; as well as His protection in certain circumstances where divorce is allowed as a concession. Abuse is unequivocally one of these conditions. Actually examining the context and hermeneutic in which certain passages were written is illuminating in dispelling the “abuse is not biblical grounds for divorce” fallacy that exists in some churches, and serves to keep women in bondage. Lugt writes:

“Many…in trying to return to the ideal of marital love and permanence have not seen the wisdom God Himself showed in circumstances of marital abuse….divorce reflects a serious and costly departure from God’s original design. But the solution to the problem is not found in misrepresenting the heart of the law or in ignoring the plight of abused or unloved wives. Neither can we rightly maintain that sexual unfaithfulness or the desertion of an unbelieving mate are the only grounds for a divorce.”  (p. 26).

The brevity of Lugt’s book did not address every possible question that arises from the question of Christian divorce (such as remarriage), and while his exposition of Malachi 2:16 was somewhat lacking, overall “God’s Protection of Women” is an excellently-written and much-needed treatment of an issue that has caused much confusion and additional pain to abused women. It deserves a place in every biblical counselor’s library.

[1] https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2013/10/24/god-hates-divorce-not-always/ Barbara’s book can be purchased at notunderbondage.com or from any book retailer.

Trichotomous or Dichotomous Man?

by Marie Notcheva
d11a7-mercury_diagramNow here’s a subject of interest for all you theo-geeks: are we a three-part being (body, soul, spirit); or a two-part (soul and spirit used interchangeably to describe the eternal, intangible part of man)?

I was only vaguely aware that there are conflicting views on this philosophical puzzle until a few years ago, when studying for biblical counseling certification. Last week, an acquaintance who is studying for the ACBC exam wrote me, asking about this question.

While I had been taught that the soul is made up of the mind, will and emotions (while the spirit is the core of one’s being, which is enlivened upon regeneration), I confess that I have never given it much thought – until I began studying the theology of biblical counseling.  In preparation for the coursework, I read John Macarthur and Wayne Mack’s “Counseling” and Jay Adams'”The Christian Counselor’s Handbook” back in 2010-11. Neither one was light reading. As it happens, both address the two-part (dichotomous) vs. three-part (trichotomous) understanding of man in early chapters.

Funky chart – but is it biblical??

In my own book, I had taken the trichotomous position; even maintaining that because one’s spirit is regenerated at conversion, if the soul and the spirit were one and the same, the Christian would never again show a proclivity to sin after the new birth. Going back and re-examining that stance in light of Scripture (especially Paul’s discussion of the ongoing conflict between the “old man” and the “new man” in Romans,) it doesn’t hold up.

Jay Adams traces the trichotomous view of man to Greek philosophy and maintains that it is not biblical . Furthermore, its reemergence in contemporary thought is partly due to Freud’s theory of the ego, the super-ego and the id. Uh-oh. He writes:

“Trichotomy is not supported by a superficial appeal to 1 Thessalonians 5:23, where Paul is not distinguishing the parts of man, but simply heaping word upon word to emphasize entirety. Jesus Christ did the same thing when He spoke of loving God with all of one’s “heart, soul, mind and strength” (Mark 12:30). The Scriptures use the term soul (pseuche) and spirit (pneuma) interchangeably. Cf. Luke 1:46, 47, where the two are used in parallelism.”

John Street goes into an even more detailed explanation:

” The typical bifurcation between the soul and the spirit made by some Christian psychologists cannot be biblically sustained. One Christian psychiatrist offered this explanation: “The soul is the psychological aspect of man, whereas the spirit is spiritual…The mind alone lies in the psychological aspect of man and not the spiritual.” Such an artificial distinctions grows from reading psychological meaning into biblical terms. Both “soul” and “spirit” speak of the same intangible aspect of the inner man, the part of man that only God sees. A concordance study of psyche shows that when Scripture uses the term “soul” in relation to man, it refers to that aspect of the innner man in connection with his body. When it uses the term “spirit”, it is that aspect of the inner man out of connection with his body. No distinction exists in Scripture between the psychologically oriented and the spiritually oriented man.”

Not to be outdone, Ken L. Sarles offers a comprehensive look at the usage of spirit/soul both in Hebrew and Greek (whenever a theologian starts a sentence with “If we go back to the original Greek…”, I’m inclined to say, “You win! I’ll take your word for it!”) From “How to Counsel Biblically”:

“The body represents everything material, while the soul represents everything immaterial. In this case, the terms soul and spirit are understood as viewing the immaterial aspect of human nature from different vantage points. That is, the numerical essence of soul and spirit is one. Evidence for dichotomy can be found in Scripture’s interchangeable usage of the terms soul (nephesh in the Old Testament and psyche in the New Testament) and spirit (ruah in the Old Testament and pneuma in the New Testament)….In evaluating dichotomy, the strongest defense is the argument from creation. Genesis 2:7 records that man became a livingsoul. The term is inclusive of everything that has a living, breathing being. It would be more accurate then, to say that man has a spirit, but is a soul. Furthermore, the interchangibility of the terms argues for dichotomy.”

There are very well-thought-out defenses of the trichotomous position, too, which seem to make a strong case from Scripture. However, as interesting as examining the question may be, I personally do not think that it matters too much whether our soul is distinct from our spirit or they are “two sides of the same coin”. In fact, I was rather surprised to realize that this is a point of heated dissension among theologians – somewhat on par with the pre-millenial/post-millenial debate! I want to have this spiritual reality straight in my mind for the sake of doctrinal accuracy, but if it were such a crucial matter I’m sure Paul or the Lord Jesus Himself would have spelled it out a bit more precisely.

Taking the Bible alone, the main point is this: if you have been re-born, you are a new creation in Christ. The old has gone; the new has come. You are no longer a slave to sin. Your inner man has changed – no matter how you wish to call it. Your spirit thirsts for God and He Who began a good work in you will carry it on to the day of completion. I don’t see any indication of a trichotomous man, but nor do I think it’s any big woop – certainly not one worth debating much.

If you go back and read the words in red, (not to mention the Epistles), you don’t see much hair-splitting philosophical debate – even with the Greek dudes in John 12:19-21 who were eager to talk to Jesus. What we DO see is a lot of common-sense, get-out-there-and-do-it commands, coupled with a call to constant devotion and commitment to inner holiness. This should always be our main concern, first and foremost.

But you’ve got to admit, the nit-picking theological questions can be great fun to study out.

God Has No ‘Foster Children’

SevFoster Childreneral years ago, I read a book called “Three Little Words,” a memoir of a girl’s horrific childhood in the foster care system. Eventually she was adopted, as a teen, by a loving family. (This wasn’t something I read for pleasure – it was on my daughter’s public school summer reading list, and I was screening it.) While the material was inappropriate for 13-year-olds, it was a painfully raw and all-too-accurate glimpse of what some foster children experience.

Being shuffled through countless homes of indifferent or abusive foster parents obviously scars children. They come to see themselves as unloved, and presumably unlovable. Even the fortunate ones who are adopted face problems – they cannot trust adults, believe that they are loved, or understand what a permanent place in a family means. Many adoptions are actually disrupted when youngsters lash out and display belligerent behavior. Growing up in foster care means existing in constant limbo. Natural parents who don’t come through and foster parents who aren’t “for keeps” breed a deep-seated insecurity. Foster children often expect to be rejected – even after adoption.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter, the author of this particular memoir, describes an incident of teenage rebellion some time after her adoption had been finalized. When confronted by her parents, her first thought was that the adoption was over. She had long since steeled her heart against loving or being loved by anyone, and spent the first several years of her family life waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. She anticipated another rejection and ultimate return to the group home. Against her expectations and previous life experience, her parents assured her that she was irrevocably their daughter, and that it was high time to drop the “poor orphan” act. (They then punished her for her infraction).

That was the turning point for Ashley. Finally, she was able to begin building trust in her mother and father, knowing that no matter how “bad” she was, there was nothing she could do to make them reject her.

An awful lot of Christians are walking around with a “foster child” mentality, it seems to me. This is a mindset I’ve encountered in counseling, and it’s something I have fallen prey to myself at times. What we need to internalize is this: we are adopted sons and daughters of God, co-heirs with Christ, and have a permanent place in the family (Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5; and John 8:35, respectively). Why is this so hard to believe? My answer, and it’s a fairly simplistic one, is because it takes humility to see this.

We did nothing to earn our status as His children; it was all of His grace…completely, freely, and lavishly bestowed on the unlovely delinquents we were when He found us. Pride wants us to earn our keep; to do something that will merit God’s approval. This is the carnal nature that prompted the Prodigal Son’s request to be made a hired servant. Humility, on the other hand, rejoices in the fact that we are fully known, completely loved, and sealed with the spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15). We can cry “Abba, Father” no matter how distant we may feel from God, because He has set His love on us for Christ’s sake (Romans 1:5) and called us His own (Isaiah 43:1; 1 John 3:2). In fact, He loves us even as He loves His only begotten Son, Jesus (John 16:27).

By human standards, this is a difficult concept to grasp. Repeated rejection by human authority figures (and especially by parents) can pervert one’s view of a benevolent God. Nevertheless, the One Who has redeemed our unworthy selves loves us unconditionally, and has made our identity secure. Legal adoption is a binding covenant. John 1:12-13 illustrates this clearly:

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

We have assurance that God really is as good as He says He is. He will never reject any who come to Him (John 6:37).

For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ” Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15).

Foster children are literally slaves to fear. They live in constant anticipation of the next infraction – or whim of the legal system – to be the end of whatever tenuous family situation they are in. How does this sad mindset play itself out in a child of God?

Shame.

Guilt over failure and indwelling sin drives the insecure Christian away from the Cross, rather than towards it. He or she cannot face a God who is still perceived as a righteous Judge rather than a loving Father. God is both, of course; but what the fearful believer fails to grasp practically is that His righteous judgment has already been poured out on Christ, and there is no longer condemnation (Romans 8:1). She fails to realize that her sin was already foreseen by God, has been forgiven, and is no longer held against her. As Jerry Bridges writes,

…He is, as it were, coming alongside me saying, “We are going to work on that sin, but meanwhile I want you to know that I no longer count it against you.” God is no longer my Judge; He is now my Heavenly Father, who loves me with a self-generated, infinite love, even in the face of my sin.

Pride.

While on the surface shame and pride may seem at odds with each other, actually they work in tandem. When a Christian sees herself as a foster child of God, she will seek to avoid Him when plagued with guilt – at least until she can “get her act together” enough to approach Him. However, it is actually the height of arrogance to believe that there is ever a time when we are more acceptable to God than another. Putting merit in our own works-righteousness or penance actually demeans the centrality of the Cross. C. J. Mahaney writes,

Paul called himself “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:16). He wasn’t paralyzed by condemnation. He was exalting God’s grace by recognizing his own unworthiness and sin as he marveled at the mercy of God.

Fear of Man and People-Pleasing.

A child of God who does not realize her true identity is constantly anxious about where she stands with God. Desperately trying to earn the favor of her Father, which she doesn’t recognize she already has, she tries to impress others or appear more spiritual. For example, I had one bulimic counselee tell me she wanted to “redeem [herself] in God’s eyes by becoming a nutritionist, and hopefully help others.”

I confess that I have fallen prey to this mindset myself, when I make idols out of goals or “splendid vices” (George Whitefield’s term for spiritual activity done with wrong motives). Getting my book, “Redeemed from the Pit” published is very important to me, and now that it is becoming a reality I have been preoccupied with obtaining endorsements from well-known authors in the biblical counseling field. When they like my work, I somehow feel God approves of my endeavor. When they decline or suggest revisions, I despair – their opinion of my writing overshadows pleasing God. It becomes too easy to forget that my work is ultimately all for His glory, anyway. Although I would never say so out loud, being thought well of by “celebrity Christians” can eclipse the truth – that God neither thinks more nor less of me based on man’s opinions; and I have nothing whatsoever to commend myself to Him in the first place. He loves me with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3) simply because I am His daughter.

This tendency to think God sees us as others do takes many different forms, but the root is the same – doubting the reality and immutability of God’s personal and tender love.

The Solution

Let’s think about this logically: An omniscient God knew from eternity past exactly what you would be like, He saw every sin and dark thought that would enter your mind, yet He set His love on you anyway by electing you as His child. He called you out of darkness, then transferred you to the Kingdom of His beloved Son (Colossians 1:13). Jesus Himself is not ashamed to call you His brother or sister (Hebrews 2:11), so on what grounds would He decide to kick you out of His family? What, exactly, would you have to do to “disrupt” your heavenly adoption, and get sent back from whence you came?

It’s time, as the Courter parents so bluntly put it, to “drop the poor orphan act” and realize we’re God’s for good. And that’s Good News. Intimacy cannot grow apart from relationship, and the entire New Covenant proclaims that our relationship as children is irrevocable. We didn’t do anything to earn it in the first place – we were all broken and flawed when God called us – so what makes us think we can lose His parental bond? Fellowship may be broken, just as in human families – but God promises to forgive and restore each and every time we humble ourselves to seek Him (1 John 1:9). Craven fear and cringing supplication have no place in the life of a child of God. Repentance is a gift freely offered to all who will accept it and return to God on His terms…no running, hiding, and fear of the boom lowering anymore. The writer of Hebrews poetically banished any possibility of seeing ourselves as foster children when he wrote:

“Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

“Plugged In” Makes Top 15 Biblical Counseling Books of 2015 List

I was extremely happy and honored this week to make the list of “Top 15 Biblical Counseling Books of 2015”, published by Rpm Ministries. With other authors including Tim Keller, Kevin DeYoung and Paul Tripp, my little book was in very exalted company! See the full list and reviews here.

Plugged In: Proclaiming Christ in the Internet Age, by Marie Notcheva, Pure Water Press

Plugged In

The Internet, like anything and everything that is of human origin, can be a blessing or a curse. In Plugged In, Marie Notcheva outlines how we can use the Internet as a blessing in evangelism and in biblical counseling. She addresses practical and profound issues like, “Is virtual counseling a good idea?” “Can we effectively disciple someone through the Internet?” “How do we share the gospel and encourage believers in cyber-space?” In answering these questions and many more, Notcheva demonstrates how to use technology wisely to God’s glory.

In other news this week, my article “A Grief Like No Other: When a Friend Loses a Child” was published in the Bulgarian Christian women’s magazine, “Списание Лия”. It makes me feel great knowing that my words are being read around the world, in multiple languages, and hopefully blessing someone!

IMG_2118

Review of “Redeemed from the Pit” by Julie Ganschow

This review of my book, “Redeemed from the Pit: Biblical Repentance and Restoration from the Bondage of Eating Disorders” was written by author and biblical counselor Julie Ganschow. It originally appeared on The Biblical Counseling Coalition website on January 29, 2014. 

Redeemed_Hi-Res_CoverSample-02a
Redeemed from the Pit is a solid read for the biblical counselor who is looking to expand their understanding on this important topic and for anyone seeking to overcome an eating disorder or is ministering to someone who is enslaved to the lifestyle. The personal story victory and practical application of Gospel truth makes this a great resource.

In the Pit of Despair

As a biblical counselor and as a person who was once diagnosed with bulimorexia, I took on the challenge of reading Marie Notcheva’s book, Redeemed from the Pit: Biblical Repentance and Restoration from the Bondage of Eating Disorders book for both personal and professional reasons. I have had a love/hate relationship with food all my life. Like Marie, I once struggled with binging and purging and I alternated those behaviors with starvation.

From the introduction to the end of the book, Marie makes it clear to the reader that eating disorders are not a physical disease from which a person recovers but a spiritual disease from which a person must repent.

Marie’s personal story is weaved throughout this great book. She gives vivid details of how her early years provided the perfect mental and emotional set up for the development of her eating disorder. The culture of the late 1960’s and early 70’s that subjected women to consistent expectations of thinness and beauty fueled the fires of shame ignited by her family’s careless words about her weight and appearance. Her mother in particular (who appeared to struggle with her own food issues) was exceedingly fearful Marie would be overweight and suffer consequences to her health. She enrolled Marie in a toddler dance class to slim her down and restricted her access to sugar and starches.

At age 11, Marie began taking gymnastics. By 14, with gymnast Nadia Comaneci as her idol, she began a lifestyle of severe calorie restriction and over exercise. The highly competitive worlds of gymnastics and dance fueled her desire to become sylphlike. While she got the desired results through constant exercise and living on Slim-Fast and vegetables, the following year she determined to eat as much as she wanted, eliminating the food binge through vomiting.

In a very short amount of time, Marie’s binge/purge lifestyle was out of control. It was clear to everyone around her she needed help. Her health was in serious jeopardy. While referred to psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists, they were unable to breach the concrete protecting her heart.

A Way Out

In her sophomore year at college, she joined Campus Crusade and put her faith in Christ. She continued her secret lifestyle while active in Cru, Bible study, and discipleship. A job abroad followed college and her slavery to bulimia remained an active part of everyday life. She also began to drink heavily as a way to medicate the constant guilt and shame she lived with.

Marriage and children did not expose or alter her bulimia, although her husband did express concern about her drinking.

Marie writes at length about the self-disgust she experienced. It caused her to question her salvation and consider herself a hypocrite. She felt hopeless and at times she feared God had rejected her. However, she had such a desire to return to Him that she continuously tried to turn away from her sin. In desperation, she met with a small group of Christian women who prayed over her. It was then that she began to find freedom from alcohol and bulimia.

From this point forward in the book, Marie develops the inward battle of change at the heart level. She describes her battle with overcoming her eating disorder both on the physical and spiritual level and does not shrink away from describing the difficulties she faced or her failures in overcoming the desire to binge and purge. She notes, “Overcoming an eating disorder requires our constant, active commitment to inward change” (7).

Living Free

She urges the reader to “be one who believes” in the power of the Gospel as the means to transform life from victimhood to victorious in Christ, rightly emphasizing the critical need for repentance in overcoming an eating disorder.

“Forgiven, cleansed, and given a new start, He expects you to get up off your knees and get started—walking in repentance” (6).

Marie carefully breaks down the numerous issues of the heart that a person with eating disorder behaviors must repent of to overcome this sin and live victoriously. There is an entire chapter devoted to the believers position in Christ, which is very important for a woman with an eating disorder to understand since so much of her thinking is performance oriented. Marie brings forth the truth about the role emotions play in how a person thinks about food. This is vital since those with unhealthy eating habits believe many lies about food.
Throughout the book, there are application steps that make use of charts and Scripture memorization. There is also an entire chapter on practical issues that a person with disordered eating faces. Marie highlights the refining benefits of a biblical counseling relationship and involvement in a local church.
This book is a solid read for the biblical counselor who is looking to expand their understanding on this important topic and for anyone seeking to overcome an eating disorder or is ministering to someone who is enslaved to the lifestyle. The personal story victory and practical application of Gospel truth makes this a great resource.
julie

Olympic Champion Scott Hamilton is Not First (and why we love him for it)

by Marie Notcheva

Scott-Hamilton-Gold-Medal-Win
Sarajevo Olympics, 1984. With Canada’s Brian Orser (left) and Czechoslovakia’s Jozef Sabovcik 

Two-time Olympian and 1984 gold medalist Scott Hamilton is happy being in second place, and he delights in sharing the secret of his contentment. The semi-retired figure skater has a vibrant faith in Christ, Whom he credits for sustaining him not only on the heights of the medal podium, but in the depths of cancer treatments; failed relationships; and self-doubt.

As hard as it is for me to believe, it was 31 years ago that I watched Scott take the gold medal in Sarajevo. As a wide-eyed middle school kid, I was fascinated by the Cold War drama of East German Katerina Witt vs. American Rosalynn Sumners; the impossible heights of Scott’s and Canadian Brian Orser’s triple jumps and Russian splits; and the incredible beauty and pageantry of the sport of figure skating. I was hooked.

We all were rooting for Scott to win – not because his long program was the best (by his own admission, it wasn’t a clean skate); but partly because he was just so darn likeable. That shouldn’t be a factor in determining athletic championships, but in figure skating – the most subjective sport there is – we fans cheer hardest for the most authentic-seeming competitors.

scott-hamilton-08
Scott in the 1980’s

As an aside, one podium moment that made a great impression on my 12-year-old self was Rosalynn’s graceful demeanor taking the silver medal next to Katerina Witt. It is hard for today’s generation to understand the pressure and tension of certain sports during the Cold War, and how much was at stake. As disappointed as she had to be, Ros smiled sweetly and was very gracious during the post-medal ceremony press conference towards her arch rival – no hint of the diva-like behavior that often characterizes high-level skating.

But I digress. The fact of the matter is, Scott Hamilton was, and is, a Really Cool Guy© – before, during and after his National, Olympic and World Championship wins. However, that fact completely misses the point and he would probably find it patronizing – because Scott wants the world to know that he is Second – second to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Recently, friends of mine in Albania translated and subtitled Scott’s “I Am Second” video for use in a Christian students’ meeting….a fact Scott himself found so cool he sent a personal video message. He seemed as tickled to know he has friends in Albania as a student was to know they have “a brother who is an Olympic champion”. It was an extremely thoughtful and much-appreciated gesture.

The Backstory – and New Life

One lesson I learned as a student was never to “idolize” sports stars or other celebrities, even “Christian celebrities”. More than elsewhere, we Americans do tend to put our “sports darlings” on pedestals; granting them near saint-like status. This is particularly true of female figure skaters and gymnasts. Then, when the tabloids report unflattering news about them, we have the nerve to be collectively surprised. Our idols have “fallen”, because we forget that sports stars, (while exceptionally talented), are still flawed human beings with clay feet like the rest of us. Many athletes are, indeed, truly good role models and have given back; helped others; and deserve personal respect and accolades – including Scott Hamilton. But they all have had personal journeys and setbacks. Scott is transparent enough to share these with his fans, and point them to the lessons he’s learned along the way.

In 1999, Scott published his autobiography, “Landing It: My Life On and Off the Ice” (Kensington; 340 pgs.) I read this at the time, and it was a wonderful, in-depth and personal look at his rise as a figure skater; the details of touring and competitive skating, and his relationships with other champion skaters. The reader really got to know Scott personally, as he transparently shared about even highly personal details of his life. Diagnosed with cancer the previous year (while on tour with Stars on Ice), he included details about his treatment, and the support of other skaters. One line in particular stands out from “Landing It” – Scott mentioned fellow champion skater, Paul Wylie, “who is very religious, asking how he could pray for [him]”. Scott described himself as not being particularly religious, but was touched by Paul’s concern.  “Landing It” was a very enjoyable memoir which any skating fan would enjoy.

And then……Scott became a believer; met and married the love of his life Tracie; and a benign brain tumor was discovered. With his trademark self-deprecating humor, he added this to what he calls his “personal collection of life-threatening illnesses”. And then, he wrote another book: “The Great Eight: How to Be Happy (When You Have Every Reason to be Miserable)”. In this second book, targeted to a more mainstream-audience, Scott illustrates through anecdotal experiences and biblical principles, what helps to keep his mind and emotions on an even keel – and live a satisfying, successful life of joy, no matter the circumstances.

book2.jpg

Biblical yet Relatable

What makes “The Great Eight” so good is that Scott’s writing is personable, down-to-earth and relatable, but not too heavily “doctrinal” which might put off some readers. Released by Christian publisher Tommy Nelson, Scott’s message remains faithful to Scripture; yet the reader never feels “preached to”. As a biblical counselor, I am used to reading tomes that connect “orthodoxy” with “orthopraxy” (doctrine with practice), and subconsciously screen all books for how true they are to Scripture. While the title has a “positive thinking” connotation, Scott demonstrates throughout his “eight principles” how correct and positive thinking is, indeed, the fruit of a renewed mind.

Scott does not write like John Macarthur, or Charles Spurgeon. He writes like a friendly figure skater who really loves his family, God, and fans – and we appreciate him for it. And he is thoroughly biblical, without being overtly theological. In Chapter Two, “Trust Your Almighty Coach”, he makes a strong case for the sovereignty of God – although he never uses the term. He shows, through his own difficult life experiences (including childhood illness, failed relationships, and even a growth-inhibiting brain tumor he was born with) how nothing is coincidence in God’s grand plan.

“The divinely-scripted pattern goes back to the very beginning of my life when I was an unwanted pregnancy and was adopted by my parents. I went from being somebody’s unwanted orphan to being a prized child who couldn’t have had more love showered upon him……Trust your Almighty Coach, and beautiful things can happen.”

In subsequent chapters, he exhorts the reader to embraces losses and failure as opportunities for growth.

late90s
Touring in the late ’90’s, before his cancer diagnosis

I especially enjoyed Chapter Four, “Keep the Ice Clear”. In it, Scott warns the reader against his lifelong Achilles heel – people pleasing (what the Bible calls “fear of man”). “Pleasing others may seem like a noble, selfless pursuit, but when taken to an extreme, it is a recipe for unhappiness,” he writes. As transparent as he is a polished performer, Scott tells us about the strain his unwillingness to confront others in love has put on some of his most treasured relationships. He then goes on to demonstrate the connection between positivity, happiness and smiling throughout trials – and being happy. James 4:7-8 reminds us to “resist the devil”, he writes; and reminds us that God gave us the gift of humor to ward off avoid negativity. A healthy dose of humor, and being able to laugh at yourself is also key:

“In 1978, I put together a routine to the tune “Short People,” by Randy Newman. There I was, nineteen years old and all of five-foot-nothing, skating around the rink to this song that proclaimed “short people got no reason to live.” The crowd just ate it up. …..If you are the kind of person who takes yourself too seriously, then pray that you are never the subject of a parody sketch on Saturday Night Live.” P. 113

Nature abhors a vacuum, and happiness doesn’t germinate simply by refusing to give in to negativity. Scott rightly points out that practicing one’s true passion – regardless of setbacks – increases day-to-day satisfaction. Of course, for him this meant ice skating – including in middle age, following his cancer treatment. As much as I love skating, his advice resonated with me as a writer. Whether a book contract or a blog post well-written and published, I enjoy the same deep satisfaction from writing as he does from landing triple axels. It was sage advice to anyone – don’t just sit there; do something to hone your craft. The satisfaction of a job well done after investing hard work is part of cultivating positivity.

scott-hamilton-435.jpg
Scott and son Maxx at 2015 show

Putting Yourself Last

Fatherhood was one way Scott learned the value of putting others and their needs above his own, and the example of his mother Dorothy’s selflessness was a model he learned early on. Again, while Scott doesn’t quote Scripture to illustrate this beautiful principle, he gets the message across by sharing self-deprecating anecdotes from his youth. After “The Great Eight” was published, Scott and his wife Tracie adopted two Haitian children. Tormented by the plight of children orphaned by the earthquake in 2010, they became parents of four (the Hamiltons already had two biological sons, Aidan and Maxx).

familyscott
The Hamilton family in 2014. L to R: Aidan, Jean-Paul, Tracie, Scott, Evelyne and Maxx

Scott has also given back by establishing his own foundation, the Scott Hamilton C.A.R.E.S. Initiative (Cancer Alliance for Research, Education and Survivorship). Scott has spoken at and done a tremendous amount of charity work to help cancer sufferers, and radiates caring – even for people he’s never met. An empathetic friend to family, fans and strangers alike, he himself recognizes the importance of compassion and empathy:

“I firmly believe that God made us in His image, and that is a perfect one….One of the biggest barriers to people feeling happy about themselves is that they feel inferior, or shameful and bad about their looks or something in their past. But once you see yourself as a truly perfect creature created in God’s image who only needs to get in touch with that, the pressure of all those negative feelings lifts and you can move on. It is life changing.” (p. 176)

This is not some vapid “self-affirmation” nor a denial of our sinful condition – Scott deals with how he handled guilt over past sins earlier in the book. It is an embrace of grace, and a realization of our identity in Christ – the One to Whom Scott joyfully points. Scott Hamilton was the most enjoyable male figure skater ever to grace the ice, and he is a truly inspiring brother in Christ. His book, as well as his personal gesture to my friends and me, is a true encouragement.

Scott’s website is here: http://www.scotthamilton1984.com/

 

Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ (Review)

Gospelconv

Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ
By Bob Kellemen
Zondervan, 2015
400 Pages
ISBN-10: 0310516153
ISBN-13: 978-0310516156
Publisher’s Price: $18.99

Review by Marie Notcheva

“Gospel Conversations” is the second in Zondervan’s Equipping Biblical Counselors Series, following “Gospel-Centered Counseling” (which I reviewed here). This project came out of a seminar author Bob Kellemen gave for decades in local churches, “What to Do After the Hug”. Kellemen noted that attendees certainly didn’t lack a heart to care for the hurting, but that “they often feel ill equipped to know how to care in a Christ-like way”.

Kellemen caught my attention in the Introduction: “Through [Gospel Conversations] you will develop twenty-one biblical counseling relational skills so you can care like Christ.” Terrific! I like to give hugs. I often feel inept to help my friends in their struggles; let alone formulate an agenda for a formal counseling session. So reading not only about our end goal (helping counselees apply the whole Gospel narrative to their whole lives) but also organized, nuts-and-bolts advice on relational skills promised to make me a better counselor.

In all of his writing, Kellemen’s emphasis on personal involvement and caring for the counselee comes through, and “Gospel Conversations” is no exception. We are not, as he says, like the “UPS deliveryman”, simply delivering the hope of the Gospel and leaving fellow believers there. Detachment is not a biblical principle – like the author of Hebrews, we exhort, encourage and point one another back to Christ with our whole lives. Each chapter is concluded with probing questions for counselors in training, designed for use in a small-group setting. Kellemen also includes his trademark “Tweet-sized summaries” of each chapter’s main theme.

To Give Biblical Answers, We Must Ask Biblical Questions

In the earlier book, “Gospel-Centered Counseling”, Kellemen outlines eight questions to answer the biblical counselor’s foundational question: “What would a model of biblical counseling and discipleship look like that was built solely upon Christ’s gospel of grace?” The starting point is, of course, the Word of God – the end goal, progressive sanctification. Sandwiched between these “bookends”, we need to examine our view of the Triune God; who we are in the grand narrative of Scripture; the root source of our sin problem; how redemption changes us; the role of the Church community; and how our future hope of glory changes how we struggle with suffering and sin.

Once we have the foundational questions in mind and understand that our role is to be “dispensers of Christ’s grace”, we can turn our attention to developing “Biblical Counseling Relational Competencies”.

“Relational competence is our ability – given by grace and cultivated by our dependence on the Spirit – to express the character of Christ in our relationships with people so they experience our love as a small taste of Christ’s grace and are changed by His grace.”(p. 129).

Kellemen then devotes a full section to each of the following: sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding.

“Competent to begin counseling, we now have someone sitting in front of us whose world has caved in on them. In their suffering, how do we help? What do we do after the hug? How do we care like Christ?” (p. 120).

Sustaining – Meeting Counselees on Their Road to Retreat

Counsel that is biblical sustains people by encouraging them to face suffering face to face with Christ and His Body. It doesn’t deny doubts (about God’s personal interest; His goodness) but rather “climbs into the casket” with the counselee and confronts their doubts. It embraces the sufferer and reminds them of God’s ever-present care, even in the midst of their fears. To help counselors sustain their fellow believers, Kellemen uses the acronym “GRACE”. Over the course of two chapters, he lays out the importance of Grace Connecting; Rich Soul Empathizing; Attuned Gospel Listening; Comforting Spiritual Conversations, and Empathetic Scriptural Explorations. Listening well to both Scripture and our counselee’s story enables the heart attitude that sustaining another’s face demands. As Kellemen explains, connecting with our counselees graciously is not a counseling intervention; it is a mind-set of personal involvement with deep commitment to their maturity.

Healing – Where is Jesus in Our Faith Story?

In several of his books, Kellemen discusses the need to “crop Christ back into the picture” of a counselee’s devastated life. In “Gospel Conversations”, he explores ways to help believers find Christ’s healing hope: Redemptive, Relational Mind and Soul Renewal; Encouraging Communication; Scriptural Treatment Planning; Theo-Dramatic Spiritual Conversations (how we interact in the “drama of redemption”); and Stretching Scriptural Explorations (RESTS). Spiritual healing “involves journeying with people back to the heart of God”, and enabling them to understand anew, through the Gospel narrative, that His heart is good.

“Rather than going astray, and thus moving far from God and becoming less like Christ, Christ’s prayer for us in our suffering is that we would conform to His image. As His suffering in the garden led Him to cling to His Father, so our suffering can lead us to abide in Christ. Our suffering can bring us to the humble realization that without Christ we can do nothing (15:5). As we abide in Christ, we become like Christ, and we produce much fruit through Christ for the glory of the Father.

Jesus models in His life and ministry that suffering well involves honestly facing, and deeply feeling the pain of life in a fallen world, which drives us to cling desperately to the Father of all compassion and the God of all comfort…” (pp. 186-7).

In this section, Kellemen effectively paints a portrait of the God Who truly understands, is ever-present, and fully empathizes with us in our sufferings. As in his previous books, we come to see the God of All Comfort so intimately that we want to make others know His healing love as well. (True story: while reading this chapter, I typed several pages-worth of his discussion of John 10, and sent it to a struggling friend through Facebook Messenger.) His reflections are just that moving.

Reconciling: Facing Sin Head-on; Being Changed by Grace

As we move forward through the counseling process, sin is exposed. Repentance and the familiar “put off/put on” practical exhortation of Ephesians 4 becomes part of the counselees’ homework. The need for grace becomes apparent, and we counselors, as Kellemen writes, have the privilege of being “dispensers of grace”. True to form, he gives us a helpful acronym to outline the relational competencies needed for reconciling: Probing Theologically; Exposing Heart Sins; Applying Truth Relationally; Calming the Conscience with Grace; Enlightening Spiritual Conversations; Empowering Scriptural Explorations (PEACEE).

Correct theology is crucial to understanding the heart-motives behind our behavior, and every social or relational problem ultimately points back to our relationship with God (p. 247). Before we diagnose or correct issues that arise, we need to probe the root cause of “spiritual adultery”. There are a number of reasons one may be “drinking from broken cisterns” to replace fellowship with God, and these are the points Kellemen explores – with the end goal of reconciliation between Christ and counselee.

A very important point is that repentance is between the counselee and God – “our job is to care-front” (p. 261). This is a crucial distinction in understanding biblical confrontation correctly, and Kellemen spends several pages on the goal and spirit in addressing sin in another. Our role is to assist the counselee to put on the armor of God and attack Satan him or herself; not to attack the counselee. We are not able or called to “play Holy Spirit” to another; but rather, as Kellemen points out, to “leave the conviction to God”. In this way, our counselees can ultimately receive the message that they are forgiven, welcomed home, renewed and empowered to live holy lives.

Guidance that Fans Struggling Faith into Flame

In the final section, Kellemen cautions counselors against seeing reconciliation (dispensing grace; seeing change) as the end of counseling, or viewing counseling itself as a “problem-centered reactive response to trouble”. He characterizes biblical counseling as a form of discipleship, which I thoroughly agree with. Therefore, ongoing discipleship which focuses on progressive sanctification (guidance) is the ideal model for the local church. His acronym for guidance entails: Fanning into Flame the Gift of God; Authoring Empowering Narratives; Insight-Based Action Plans; Target-Focused Spiritual Conversations; and Heroic Scriptural Explorations (FAITH). This is not “Take-Two-Scriptures-and-Call-Me-In-the-Morning” biblical counseling; it is shepherding a fellow sojourner on to vibrant, life-long, Christ-following.

“To grow in Christ, we must understand and apply who we are in Christ,” Kellemen states at the outset. Underlying any real soul-transformation is a deep recognition of our identity and position in Christ, whether the struggle is adultery, social anxiety, or addiction. Remembering who we are (and Whose we are) is the cornerstone of ongoing guidance. Kellemen also cites the distinction between Christians’ “universal” identity in Christ, and their “unique identity in Christ. A large part of offering guidance – the “one-anothering” work of discipleship – is affirming both types of biblical identity.

Throughout Gospel Conversations, Kellemen focuses on maturing as counselors before and while providing Christlike soul-care to fellow believers. Far from listing a litany of “principles and practices”, he skillfully demonstrates, through historical anecdotes and case studies, how to expose the heart issues present in different scenarios, and how to empathize fully and presently. Knowing how to listen well; see how the whole Gospel narrative relates to the counselee’s whole life, and ‘crop Christ back into the picture’ lays the groundwork for ongoing discipleship that is truly biblical.

By working the “relational competencies” Kellemen discusses into all encounters, biblical counselors will be more effective ministers of the Gospel in all of their relationships – both inside the counseling office and out. Gospel Conversations is a comprehensive and much-needed book that addresses the whole person – empathetically; compassionately; and perceptively – just as Christ would.

The reviewer hard at work.
The reviewer hard at work.