Why I Almost Left Evangelicalism (article in Christianity Today online)

In the U.S., the label “evangelical” has been taking a beating, and some Christians who are theologically evangelical don’t feel comfortable identifying with it anymore. But it’s a good label historically–it just means “gospel” follower–and it’s still used by tens of millions of Christians around the world who have nothing to do with the ways the term has been used in the U.S.

Yet I sympathize with those who are uncomfortable with the label and once almost left evangelicalism myself, many years ago. This article talk about my experience:


The Bible Exposes Sexual Harassment

The media is currently awash with public exposures of sexual harassment, harassment that had been going on behind closed doors for a long time. Its victims knew it all along, but “polite” society tended to avoid the topic publicly.

The Bible reflects a culture very different from our own. Genesis recounts stories from an ancient Middle Eastern culture in which women lacked many of the rights that we take for granted today. Nevertheless, Genesis reveals quite openly the dangers that some women faced. Granted, Genesis recounts these stories to show God’s protection of Israel’s ancestors, and thus to affirm how the Israelites owed even their very existence to God. In their world, attacks on women’s sexuality also entailed attacks on the men to whom the women were attached.

Yet no one could hear these accounts and not recognize that harassment was an ever-present danger. When Abraham goes to Egypt, Sarah faces severe threats to her sexual security there (Gen 12:14-15). In Egypt, Joseph faces threats to his sexual security (Potiphar’s wife held less direct physical power to enforce her harassment, but because Joseph was a slave she exercised plenty of coercive power in other respects). When Isaac stays in Canaan, Rebekah also faces potential threats to her sexual security (26:7, 10). The Bible also reports terrible incidents of sexual violence (Gen 34; 2 Sam 13) and God’s punishment on David for his affair with, and abuse of power regarding, Bathsheba. Such actions always appear negatively in Scripture.

Cultures have changed, but human nature has not. Biological impulses designed for procreation are not bad; we owe our existence to them. But they need to be controlled and channeled appropriately (biblically, within marriage in which one who wants access to another’s person also commits one’s life to them). Scripture opposes people overstepping their bounds and demanding from others something not their due, action that effectively reduces another human being to merely an object of gratification for one’s biological urges. God summons us, and welcomes us, to something better than that.

God has not forgotten them—Exodus 2:23-25

When our lives become more comfortable, it’s easy to forget the hardship faced by others, whether through persecution, hunger, injustice or other needs. But God does not forget.

Moses’s life became peaceful in Midian (2:16-22), despite the scars his heart undoubtedly carried from the past. His people, however, continued to suffer in Egypt, a matter that the author’s inspired perspective directs us to in Exod 2:23-25. Just as Joseph’s exaltation in Genesis 41 did not relieve him of God’s plan to protect Joseph’s entire family (Gen 42—50), Moses’s new life has not caused God to forget God’s plan for Moses’s people.

Moses adopted his new way of life, but back in Egypt, even Pharaoh’s death did not relieve the Israelites. Pharaoh’s policy of repression remained in place for his successor. After all, oppressors who profit economically from oppression do not like to give it up. Probably the policy of directly killing male infants did not endure for many years, but if it did it may have raised a generation with less strength than ever to seek freedom by means of revolt. (Still, Israel has many men in Num 11:21. Because Israelite men could marry multiple wives and could continue to procreate into old age, children would continue being born. Since Pharaoh found the free work force profitable, and such a force required continuing free labor, Pharaoh presumably would have lifted the ban on male babies once the fear of Israel’s strength subsided.)

In any case, the Israelites’ suffering was deep. We are not told how much they had been crying to God before; it seems unlikely that their worship of other deities or deity images started only after they left Egypt (cf. Exod 32:4). The narrator does not even specify here that it was to God that their cry arose (cf. similar language of the Philistines in 1 Sam 5:10, 12; cf. Israelites in 1 Sam 4:13), although presumably many of them did (cf. Judg 3:9, 15; 6:6-7; 10:10). Samuel, however, later explains that the Lord heard when Israel cried out to him (1 Sam 12:8), just as they did in the time of Deborah (12:10).

God did not ignore his people’s suffering. He “heard” their groaning (2:24; 6:5) and “saw” them (2:25), and “remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (2:24). Here we are invited back to the narratives of God’s dealings with the patriarchs in Gen 12—35; God had not forgotten his people, and the promised time to liberate them from bondage, with many possessions (Gen 15:13-14), had come. May we have the wisdom to cry out to the Lord in times of hardship—and even in times when we are not suffering. We need the Lord, and the sooner that we recognize that, the sooner our cries will reach his ears.

Like Moses, our lives go on. After enduring hardship, we may need a time of recovery before having to face it again. But God does not forget the sufferings of others, and in the end, neither dare we. Remember Proverbs 24:11-12: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done?” (NIV).

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

Settling in a new land—Exodus 2:16-22

When I travel to speak in various parts of the world, my hosts show me great hospitality. I miss my wife and kids, but otherwise life is pretty comfortable, apart from long flights. But that’s not always the case with people who relocate to new lands to live. My wife and children came to the United States from Africa so we could be together as a family, but when my wife was first an international student in France, she was sometimes destitute. At times when her scholarship was delayed, she subsisted on bread and water. (Part of her experience as an international student appears in a chapter of our book, Impossible Love.) Shared faith gave her a church family away from home, but life can be hard for immigrants, temporary or long-term, having to find homes in new cultures.

When Moses came to Midian, he rescued some young women from shepherds who were asserting their superior strength over them (Exod 2:16-17). But that left Moses without friends among the shepherds—and apparently without any other local friends either. Moses had nowhere to go and needed to be attached to some household, so he may have been disappointed when the young women he had helped left without inviting him home for a meal. Their failure was a breach of Middle Eastern hospitality, as their father quickly pointed out (2:20). A meal together established a covenant relationship, and Moses remained with Jethro, who gave him his daughter in marriage (2:21) perhaps something like how Jacob received not only a place to stay but eventually also a wife (or two) in Haran. Abram also broke bread with a priest of God Most High (Gen 14:18-20), and Joseph also married a priest’s daughter (her father’s office appears every time that Asenath is mentioned; Gen 41:45, 50; 46:20).

Also like Joseph (Gen 41:52), Moses gives one of his sons (Gershom) a name that signifies being a stranger in a foreign land (Exod 2:22). (One might also suggest that “Gershom” could play on how the shepherds “drove away” the daughters; cf. ygarshum in 2:17 with gershom in 2:22. But there seems no possible connection there except the sound.) Moses had grown up as a third-culture child, fully welcome in neither Hebrew nor Egyptian culture. Now he was again an outsider in Midianite culture. His previous background, however, helped prepare him for this status; those not fully attached to any culture are sometimes those best able to adapt to other cultures. His disadvantage in one setting has become his advantage in adjusting to another setting.

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

Ethnic reconciliation in Ephesians 2:11-22

This is a message I preached at an evangelical Presbyterian church in Indiana. This link worked when I tried it and hopefully still works when you try it!


P.S., where I tried to access it from just now, the video would not load. The audio, however, DOES load.

Standing for Justice—Exodus 2:11-14

Nobody’s perfect, but sometimes one side really is right and another is wrong. The civil rights reformers were not perfect (see the marvelous movie Selma: https://www.amazon.com/Selma-David-Oyelowo/dp/B00NMF8SEK), but they were right that racial oppression was wrong. In that setting, whites who wanted to stand for justice needed to join the “black side.” The British, French and Americans were far from perfect, but Hitler’s genocidal activity was pure evil (see https://www.visionvideo.com/dvd/21624D/hitler-the-rise-of-evil). Fighting for justice in such circumstances could be standing for the “Jewish side.” When North Korea tortures and imprisons detractors, or ISIS or other religious vigilantes in Central or South Asia kill Christians or other religious minorities, these acts are evil. In our narrative, God was clearly on the side of the slaves. They were far from perfect, but they were unjustly oppressed—and they were God’s people.

Probably no one would have taken note when Moses went to visit his fellow Israelites; probably no one would by spying on this person of status despite his ethnic affiliation. Moses witnesses his people’s difficult “burdens” (Exod 2:11), a term describing their work as an enslaved people (in the OT found only in Exodus; see also 1:11; 5:4-5), burdens from which the Lord their God would ultimately deliver them (6:6-7).

But seeing an Egyptian “striking” a Hebrew, he “struck” the Egyptian (the same Hebrew term, often applied to killing). Moses intended the lethal outcome of his blow; he first made sure that no one was looking before he killed the Egyptian (Exod 2:12). The law of Moses later required the penalty of death for deliberately striking someone lethally (21:12), but Moses may have been saving the life of the Israelite being beaten. Certainly later Jewish interpreters and biblical voices understood Moses as acting for justice (cf. Acts 7:24-25). Moses identified with his enslaved people more than with his own privilege (cf. Heb 11:24-26).

Moses hid the corpse in the sand (Exod 2:12). (A contrast with Moses’s mother positively hiding him is possible but unlikely, since the narrator employs a different Hebrew term.) Moses did not expect to get caught, and trusted that his fellow Israelites would appreciate his action and not circulate it. But even if the Hebrew he rescued appreciated the action and was the only witness, questions about his own escape from beating might well lead to him recounting the story, and word about the action of this privileged Hebrew would quickly spread (see 2:14).

Although Moses’s action may prefigure his future role as deliverer, the difference between his failure as a small-scale deliverer here and his future success as an agent of God’s deliverance is clear. It’s not enough even to be right about our calling or destiny: we need to depend on the Lord to get us there. It’s important to stand for justice, but it’s ultimately the Lord who grants success. It is difficult to even quantify the vast chasm between Moses’s act of avenging and hopefully rescuing one Hebrew and the plagues that would later force Pharaoh to release Israel. It is the difference between the arm of flesh and the arm of the Lord.

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

Where was God when tragedy happened?—Exodus 1:22

Sometimes in the midst of history, injustice seems to prevail. In light of a longer view, and especially an eternal view, however, justice will win out. This becomes evident over the span of a generation in the ensuing context of our present passage.

Before Pharaoh decided to oppress Israelites, they multiplied and became very strong (Exod 1:7). This was why the king decided to enslave them to begin with (1:8-11). But as he afflicted them, they multiplied still more (1:12)! So the king’s next strategy was to kill newborn Israelite males secretly, leaving any possible blame in the event of discovery on the Hebrew midwives (1:15-16). Yet this strategem, too, failed (1:17-19), and the refrain continues: the people multiplied and became very strong (1:20).

Finally Pharaoh now decides to take action more directly. The Hebrew midwives had not killed Israelite babies at birth, so Pharaoh ordered his own people to kill newborn Israelite males (1:22). (Aaron was three years older than Moses, and would not be among the children affected by the king’s decree; see 7:7.)

Ironically and unknown to Pharaoh, however, his own daughter would undermine his decree out of compassion for a Hebrew baby (2:6-10)—Israel’s future deliverer. God does not always prevent tragedy—but he does ensure his plan for the future of his people and for ultimate justice.

Indeed, Exodus resounds with the recognition that God, while not always stopping human wickedness, does not look the other way: Consider how God would return against the next generation of Egyptians what Pharaoh had done. Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); the first plague would turn the Nile to blood (7:20). Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); the last plague would strike Egypt’s firstborn children (12:29). Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); God would drown Egypt’s army in a sea of reeds (14:28). Though long delayed, justice would come. As we often say in the African-American church, “God doesn’t always come when you want Him to, but He’s always right on time.”

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

Is lying ever right?—Exodus 1:19-21

In the 2013 film, Return to the Hiding Place (https://www.christianbook.com/return-to-the-hiding-place/pd/241338?event=ESRCG), Eusi, a Jewish cantor staying with the Ten Booms, argues that saving a life is far more important than telling the truth. An ethical debate ensues; one of Corrie’s sisters insists that lying is always wrong. The issue is, of course, a very live one for Eusi: he is a secret refugee in the Ten Booms’ home, and telling truth to the Nazis would mean his death and that of other Jewish fugitives.

Is lying ever right? Very rarely, but in the present passage the Hebrew midwives lied to protect their lives, and God blessed their ruse designed to protect the Hebrew babies (as discussed in the previous lesson). As the previous study noted, God blessed the midwives for protecting the Hebrew babies, defying Pharaoh’s order. That God blesses midwives despite their lie might seem strange to some modern readers, but that may say more about how we have read some biblical principles too narrowly and ignored examples of extreme situations in some biblical narratives.

That people of truth should not lie is an important biblical principle (Prov 6:17, 19; 8:7; 10:18; 12:17, 19, 22; 14:5, 25; 17:7; 19:5, 9; 21:28; 24:28; 25:18; 26:19, 28; 30:8). Lies for personal gain (19:22; 20:17; 21:6) or what we would wrongly think is for God’s glory are always wrong (cf. Rom 3:7-8).

But lying to protect spies during some war circumstances was right. God had commanded warfare against Canaan (on which see http://www.craigkeener.com/slaughtering-the-canaanites-part-i-limiting-factors/; http://www.craigkeener.com/slaughtering-the-canaanites-part-ii-switching-sides/; http://www.craigkeener.com/slaughtering-the-canaanites-part-iii-gods-ideal/), and Rahab was right to side with God’s people against her own and to give refuge to Israelite spies (Josh 2:4-5). After Absalom’s treacherous and deceptive revolt against King David, David’s allies were right to lie as spies or to hide and protect spies (2 Sam 16:16-19; 17:7-13, 20)

One also cannot blame Michal for lying even to her own father to save David’s life (1 Sam 19:14; 20:28-29) or her own (19:17). Saul was perpetrating great evil, and giving David more time to make good his escape was the right thing to do. That Michal showed loyalty to her husband over her own father could make some sense (cf. Gen 2:24), but what makes it definitively right here, whether Michal already understood this or not, is that David rather than Saul was God’s current chosen instrument. In his plan to take life unjustly, Saul forfeited his right to the truth. In a similar way, Bonhoeffer was right to insist that lying to the Nazi regime was acting truthfully before God, because the Nazis forfeited their right to the truth.

God sometimes handed people over to deadly deception because they did not merit truth (1 Kgs 22:22-23; 2 Thess 2:10-12). But did God himself ever endorse human deception? He barely ever does so, but there are exceptions. In some cases God allowed partial truth that could be construed as deceptive regarding real intentions. God gives Samuel a cover for his actions (1 Sam 16:2-3) that do not reflect his real mission; if Saul knew that Samuel were really going to Bethlehem to anoint a new king, Saul would try to kill Samuel (for meddling in politics!) Although Jesus does not lie in John 7:6-10, his carefully chosen words may mislead his brothers: he goes to a festival secretly after telling his brothers that he could not go with them.

But a more explicit case is 2 Kings 8:10: Elisha instructs Hazael to inform Ben-Hadad, king of Aram, that he would recover—when in fact Elisha knew that he would surely die, and tells Hazael as much. Prophets usually had to tell the truth even at the risk of their own lives, but sometimes wicked tyrants so forfeit their right to truth that subverting them is an act of truth and justice. In the biblical world, it could seen as playing the game of cunning and winning. I could not play that game even in dangerous circumstances, lacking the requisite skills. But where it is a matter of life and death, God can sometimes grant people cleverness and the upper hand.

That observation brings us back to Exodus, which took place in a culture that valued such cunning. Pharaoh thought he was dealing cleverly with the Hebrews to keep them from multiplying (Exod 1:10). Instead, he is outwitted by the Hebrew midwives, at least in the first round (1:19). They could not prevent Pharaoh’s subsequent actions against other newborns, but they could protect at least the infants they were responsible for.

By the end of the chapter, Pharaoh seems to have the upper hand. But later in the narrative, when (a different) Pharaoh is willing to let the Israelites go worship in the wilderness, he wants to hold their animals hostage to guarantee their return. He is being clever. Moses, who knows that they will not return, insists that they must take their animals for sacrifice, and they won’t know until they reach their destination which animals they will need. Pharaoh knows that Moses is playing with him, and Moses knows that Pharaoh knows this; but it is a game of wit and power, and it becomes increasingly clear, as God continues to act, that Moses has the upper hand, and Pharaoh’s pretense of power is collapsing before YHWH.

Is lying ever right? Almost all the positive biblical examples reflect cases of protecting life, the deceiver’s or someone else’s. Most are also lies to those who have acted against the truth in such a way as to forfeit their right to truth. Scripture seems clear that if lying protects innocent fugitives from aggressors, it is the far more ethical course to lie than to betray those fugitives merely to recount the full truth to their enemies.

The Hebrew term for truth, emeth, involves especially integrity, genuineness, and faithfulness; faithfulness protects lives, not betrays them. These examples do not justify falsehood and dishonesty in our basic, everyday dealings with others; the normal biblical principle, reiterated in Proverbs, is valuing truth. But in some circumstances, truth and integrity require subverting a regime of falsehood. In Return to the Hiding Place, Eusi, joined by Corrie Ten Boom, was right.

Joseph secures the people’s land—Genesis 47:18-26

This passage tells us a lot about Joseph. Joseph worked on behalf of both Pharaoh, his boss, and the people, selling them grain when they needed it and faithfully delivering all the profits to Pharaoh. He also exempted the Egyptian priests, following Pharaoh’s expectations. Joseph offers a positive model here. First, he is a worker with integrity, on whom his boss could depend. Second and third, he also is able to help the people in the time of need—and able to do so because he walked with God and understood what God was communicating in Pharaoh’s dreams. Fourth, God cares about feeding hungry people, and Joseph’s role as a public manager was no less important or God-led than more direct preaching ministries would be. And fifth, we see that Joseph also could work respectfully with those who held views different from himself.

Some of these points have come up before, so I will look at just a couple points here. First, what should we make of Joseph allowing the people and their land to belong to Pharaoh? Second, in multicultural and multifaith societies, we can learn from the honorable way that Joseph treats Egypt’s priests.

When Joseph bought the people’s land for Pharaoh (at their desperate request, 47:19), in practice he allowed the people to keep four-fifths of the produce, taking only one fifth for Pharaoh (47:24). Although a tenth was probably more common in that milieu (cf. 14:20; 28:22; 1 Sam 8:15, 17), Joseph had already been exacting a fifth in the time of prosperity, when it was little compared to the abundance (41:34); much of this grain might likewise be invested in their future. (Even today, most Western nations do not consider excessive a 20 percent taxation rate.)

In their own words, Joseph was to buy them and their land so that they and their land would not die (Gen 47:19); they are grateful for their lives being rescued (47:25). The taxation on their yield would not yet take effect anyway, however, since there would be no yield in the short run; Joseph instead gathered the people to the centers where food could be distributed efficiently during the remainder of the famine (47:21).

Today we might view Joseph’s accumulation of wealth for and loyalty to Pharaoh as harmful for later generations of Egyptians, but Joseph had access only to his own generation. He would not have known the long-range behavior of later Pharaohs, and we cannot control what subsequent generations do to our legacy. (Our forebears in many denominations and many nations would be horrified to see what has become of their legacy!) In fact, scholars often argue that Joseph entered Egypt during the Hyksos dynasty; a change in peoples ruling Egypt would obliterate the memory of how Joseph saved the people. Whether Joseph arrived in the Hyksos era or not, Scripture is clear that a ruler arose who did not know Joseph (Exod 1:8). Of course, in light of Christ we would hope for better things than subjecting a nation to Pharaoh; but overall, Joseph’s contribution was probably the most positive one possible in his situation. Had he not preserved the people, there would not have been descendants to oppress.

Joseph’s respectful relationship with the priests (47:22), the daughter of one of whom he had married (41:45; 46:20), offers a noteworthy model for God’s people working in a pluralistic society that welcomes us but includes a range of religious views. Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest (Exod 2:16, 21; 3:1), in that case with perhaps even more concrete religious results! What God did for Israel ultimately convinced Moses’s already-wise father-in-law that YHWH was the greatest of gods (Exod 18:8-11). (Melchizedek, too, honored the highest God; Gen 14:18.)

Such examples are not limited to the Pentateuch. Daniel, trained in all the learning of the Chaldeans (Dan 1:4) served in a pagan court alongside pagan diviners (2:27-28; 4:7-8). Paul had friends (possibly sponsors) who were Asiarchs (Acts 19:31), members of the same class that produced priests of the imperial cult in Asia Minor. Scripture is clear that believers must not compromise with idolatry (1 Cor 10:7, 14-21; Rev 2:14, 20), even under duress (Dan 3:18; cf. 1:8; 6:10). But this does not mean that we should not associate with nonbelievers who practice it (1 Cor 5:9-10). As he illustrated perhaps most eloquently in the story of the Good Samaritan, our Lord Jesus calls us to love all our neighbors, not just those who agree with us.

Part of our witness as Christians is not just what we say (important as that is), but how we perform our work and serve the people around us.

My Friend the Refugee

Others are better qualified than I to comment on security matters, and this is an older post, but now seems a valuable time to recount the story of two refugees’ experiences. Neither of these two constituted a security threat: they are the stories of my wife and my son.