Mere Christianity for Today

Or Reflections on the Realities of Big Tent Christianity

“As Christians, we are seekers after truth, not merely its custodians.” Michael Bauman1

The Situation

“Christianity is in trouble,” everyone seems to be saying, for a variety of reasons. The rise of the “nones.”2 Increased dissatisfaction with institutional religion.3 The forthcoming disintegration of American evangelicalism over politics.4 The growth of the “spiritual but not religious” worldview.5 The general failure of the American Church’s members to reach millions of their friends, neighbors, and coworkers.6 The COVID shutdown that threatens some churches with the prospect of never reopening.7

Of course, from one point of view Christianity is not truly in trouble;8 these are largely problems with the American Church, and some may even be viewed as corrections of centuries-old corruptions within the Church. Yet on the other hand, these troubling trends may be fairly interpreted as indicators of the Church’s decline. More and more people see Christianity as boring, antiquated, and even harmful to personal happiness and ongoing social progress. Year by year, the Church becomes more irrelevant for individuals and its cultural influence deteriorates.

Now, I am hardly the first to point out the increasing darkness that surrounds the future of the Western Church. Potential solutions are as common as explanations of what is wrong. Some say we need to double down on our evangelism efforts; others call for a more culturally engaged church and a return to the politically fraught culture wars of years gone by; and still others call the Church to return to the monastery and weather the coming storm.9

Whatever the proposed solution, more and more leaders in the Church see the gathering storm and recognize that something has to change.10 It is no longer enough to thoughtlessly embrace existing patterns of Christian life, worship, and service; it is no longer enough for the Church to proceed as normal. Denominational politics, inward-looking country clubs, ineffective institutions, and church bodies more concerned with money or power than reaching future generations—none of this is enough.11

Fortunately, some Christians have long recognized these realities. The non-denominational reformation12 is a trend that speaks to this awareness, as are the growing number of new, smaller, more historically centered denominations such as the Anglican Church in North America.13 Pushback against “Church Inc.” has grown in recent years with the preaching and teaching of people like Francis Chan, David Platt, Skye Jethani, and others.14 Similarly, the megachurch movement, growth of multisite churches, many church planting movements, and a variety of parachurch organizations exist in large part due to the conviction and awareness that the Church must proclaim the gospel in fresh and engaging ways to a changing and tumultuous culture.

In addition to these existing something-needs-to-change movements, I wish to submit another approach: the establishment of mere Christian churches. Let me explain.

What is Mere Christianity?

The term “mere Christianity” has enjoyed popularity since C.S. Lewis titled one of his most famous works by the same name. In Mere Christianity, Lewis describes the kind of plain Christian faith he believed this way:

The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter…. We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself. All the same, some of these theories are worth looking at.15

Lewis himself did not coin the term, but instead built upon Puritan Richard Baxter’s use of the term and concept. In “On the Reading of Old Books,” Lewis provides his most succinct summary of mere Christianity, saying that it is “a standard of plain, central Christianity which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.”16

Baxter and Lewis, of course, were far from the first Christians to call for a focused and unified faith. Even within the New Testament, we see calls for the unity of the Church (John 17.20-26; Ephesians 4.1-6) as well as the necessary precondition for such unity: a discerning and nuanced articulation of faith (1 Corinthians 10.5; 2 Timothy 3.1-5; 1 Peter 5.7-9). Fifth-century theologian Vincent of Lerins advocated for the standard that, “in the universal Church… we should hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”17 In historical usage, then, mere Christianity is not a desire to return to a golden age of Christian faith and practice (as if there were such a thing); rather, it is a call to major on the majors and minor on the minors when it comes to belief and praxis.

Perhaps the best articulation of the mere Christian approach comes from the statement, “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.”18 That is, in necessary things unity, in doubtful things freedom, in all things love. In other words, mere Christianity focuses on the core, central facets of the Christian faith while allowing for differences of faith or practice on non-central things, all surrounded by charitable understanding where disagreements occur.

Such an approach to faith obviously pushes back against the situation that the Church finds itself in, by positing that a focus on the central necessities of the faith can help limit the infighting, divisions, and distraction of non-essential issues that far too often prevent people from hearing the Good News of Jesus and following Him. Mere Christians contend that Christianity’s image problem—the all-too-common perception that the Church is composed of divisive, sheltered, sexually-repressed, judgmental, political, hypocrites19—is in large part self-inflicted, and can be mediated by the mere Christian approach that emphasizes what Scripture (and Tradition) contend are important, while refusing to divide overe other issues.

Remaining Christian While Being Mere

Of course, it’s one thing to talk about mere Christianity, but another to actually put it into practice. One question that mere Christianity immediately raises is that of boundaries: how are we to distinguish between “plain, central Christianity” or “necessary things” and non-central doctrinal points or non-essential issues? In many instances, this is where mere Christianity runs into trouble.

The mere Christian perspective inherently pushes back against the rampant problem of divisive and sectarian Christianity that has dominated the global Church, and especially the Western Church, since the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.20 Yet adopting a mere Christian approach can easily become fodder for a number of other problematic approaches to faith. In his excellent book Finding the Right Hills to Die On, Gavin Ortlund classifies such viewpoints under the banner of “doctrinal minimalism,” where any doctrine or practice should be treated with skepticism and avoided altogether.21 Using this as a cautionary standard for what to avoid, this means the mere Christian approach should not devolve into theological liberalism, where the theology, history, and morality of Scripture are viewed as negotiable rather than norming.22 Likewise, mere Christianity should not stand in for ecumenical approaches, which are often high on intellectual camaraderie but low on practical unity. The mere Christian approach is also not the same thing as postmodern Christianity, where faith is exclusively personal, service to the world need not be done in the name of King Jesus, and the institutions of the past are viewed as something to be torn down rather than learned from.

As I am describing it, mere Christianity should not take any of these forms, because the mere Christian approach can also affirm that “many doctrines are significant even if we don’t divide over them.”23 Mere Christianity continues to recognize the norming status of Scripture and the Great Tradition of the Church. The central core of the faith and its attendant authorities—Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason—are still recognized as valid by the mere Christian approach (though not all such structures are necessarily of equal validity or value). In short, those adopting mere Christianity must be able to equally label themselves as “mere” and as “Christian,” a test that many doctrinally minimalist viewpoints struggle to pass.

Characteristics of Mere Christianity

How else may we describe and explain the mere Christian approach? I propose the following seven characteristics:

Gospel-Centered. The Good News of the Kingdom of God—that King Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, has come to earth, died on a cross, rose from the dead to defeat death and inaugurate the reign of God, and will soon come again—stands at the heart of mere Christianity. Without the proclamation of this news as the guiding principle and central focus of this approach, mere Christianity would be worse than useless (1 Corinthians 15.1-19). Mere Christianity starts with and focuses on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who God is, what God has done, and what God is continuing to do in creation. Bringing the good news to a dark and distorted world is the whole point. The gospel must always stand at the center of the mere Christianity.24

Creedal. As we express, proclaim, and seek to live out the gospel, mere Christianity takes its definitional leads from the great creeds of the Christian tradition, namely, the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds. The particulars of what we confess and believe are important—so important, in fact, that the creeds formulated by the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us in faith serve as better guides for the boundaries of our understanding of what is central to faith than any novel statement of faith or clever articulation we devise.25 On the question of what counts as necessary or unnecessary, the creeds instruct us: who God is, what He has done, and life in Him are the essentials. Beyond those issues—and even, quite frankly, in the minutia of those issues—we may (and at times, must) find nuance and theological dialogue. But creedal Christianity forms the core of mere Christianity.

Balanced. Mere Christianity is neither lax nor dogmatic; it finds its place between the polarities of dividing over everything and dividing over nothing. In the spirit of Romans 14, both conviction and charity must bear out. To restate what was said above, mere Christianity recognizes that all theology is important, but not all theology is essential, urgent, or worth breaking community or communion over. Accordingly, when disagreements do occur, they are confronted in a spirit of dialogue and mutual submission, not division or condemnation.26

Embraces Particulars. Mere Christianity is not afraid to get into the nitty-gritty of theology and life. This is not the approach of “avoid disagreement at all costs” or even “let’s just talk about where we agree.” Mere Christianity embraces, converses about, and even celebrates theological and practical distinctives. Differences on non-necessary or tertiary issues are not not important; to the contrary, they are worth talking about and learning from.27 The distinction, however, is that the mere Christian approach engages those divergences and does not divide over them. Perhaps the best example of this aspect of the mere Christian approach today comes in “views on” books like the Zondervan Counterpoints Series. In these volumes, Christians of different convictions and viewpoints come together to discuss issues while continuing to affirm each other’s status as a follower of Jesus.28 This is the kind of embrace of particulars that the mere Christian approach celebrates.

Intellectually Humble. Mere Christianity emphasizes rejects legalistic approaches to faith while encouraging Christian freedom and recalling our own human fallibility.29 This approach highlights the fact that we—the saints of God and members of the bride of Christ—cannot determine with full certainty the precise articulations of every theological issue or question. We all have our biases; we all have our soapboxes; we all have our experiences; we all have our sin and tendencies toward distortion to overcome. Accordingly, the mere Christian approach champions holding much of what we believe with open hands and takes a spirit of humble submission and speaking the truth in love.30 Truth is contextual, contested, and often difficult to find; thus, while we seek after the Truth, we do so with the knowledge that we might be wrong. Mere Christianity embraces teachability; in the words of Michael Bauman, “The Church rarely prospers more than when its teachers are teachable.”31

Drawn from the Great Tradition. Rather than rejecting wholesale the particulars, lessons, or emphases of denominational Christianity, mere Christianity seeks to learn from the best parts of the Great Tradition of the Church. While mere Christianity does not necessarily embrace (for example) a Baptist view of baptism, a Catholic view of communion, or a Methodist’s view of church governance, mere Christians learn from these particulars. Functionally, this means that many mere Christians find themselves connecting, gathering, growing, and serving alongside Christians from other backgrounds and denominations.32

Faithful and Practical. The mere Christian approach is never just about faith, belief, doctrine, or what’s in your head; neither it is only about practice, praxis, or what you’re doing with your hands. In the words of James 2:16, As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead. Mere Christianity seeks to balance faithfulness and practicality with a living faith that rejects cheap grace and embraces sacrifice and the servant-hearted life. Mere Christians live out their faith and show it by what they do.

Mere Christianity in Practice

At this point, it is natural to ask what the kind of mere Christianity described here looks like in practice. There are a number of churches that can easily be described as having adopted this approach, even some which have self-consciously used this language.33 Below, I provide only the briefest examples of what the mere Christian approach may look like in practice.

Rooftop Church is a nearly twenty-year-old mere Christian church located in St. Louis, Missouri. Rooftop’s take on mere Christian characteristics manifests in its simple doctrinal statement, baptismal practices, emphasis on service to its community, commitment to working with other area churches, interdenominational make up, embrace of skeptics, apolitical posture, and ability to address “disputable matters.” More often than not, Rooftop calls this approach “big tent Christianity,” which is a fitting image of everyone involved gathering under a big tent. This is a useful image to draw on, as it conveys the approachability of such a church, as well the reality that boundaries do exist and the fact that there is a core—the ring where everyone should be focused.

It is this core that Rooftop constantly points people toward: “We take Jesus seriously, but not ourselves” is a constant refrain at Rooftop, particularly when disputes occur. A couple of years ago, the oft-contentious issue of creation and evolution came up. As people joined this side or that, leadership at Rooftop stayed a course of framing the issue as that of a disputable matter: an important theological conversation that Christians should engage, understand, and come to conclusions on, but one that should not divide the church or cause people to break fellowship with one another. Rather than taking one position or another, and rather than saying that this issue didn’t matter, Rooftop took the mere Christian route: they focused on the core of faith, embraced the messiness of the moment, and continued to pursue unity while not denigrating the importance of the non-central doctrine.

Another example of a mere Christian church is Arise Church, a church plant coming to the St. Louis metro area later this year. Obviously, as a plant, Arise hasn’t had the practical experiences that Rooftop has. From a planning and articulation standpoint, however, Arise positions itself as a mere Christian church. Its statement of faith, for example, is very mere, simply saying, “We believe in biblical and historical mere Christianity as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed…” followed by the Apostles’ Creed. When further clarification on a doctrinal or practical question is required, for instance on the question of who may lead in the church or how baptism should be undertaken, Arise begins its explanations with the following statement:

Scripture was written in and for diverse contexts and situations. Accordingly, within the New Testament there exist affirmations of “mere Christianity”— a focus on the core proclamation of the Risen Jesus while simultaneously allowing for freedom when it comes to non-essential beliefs and practices.34 We see this applied to various issues, including baptism, communion, eschatology, leadership structures, how to interpret the Old Testament, and the like. In each of these areas, there is a core idea that allows for a relatively diverse expression of practice. Following the New Testament model for the Church today, then, is not so much about discerning the single way to understand what Scripture says, so much as discerning what is core to faith in the Lord Jesus. Put another way, gospel freedom, when properly focused on the Good News of Jesus Christ as the redeemer of creation, allows for a certain amount of diversity on non-essential issues. Thus, an appropriate guiding principle for Christians is, “In necessary things, unity; in unnecessary things, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Although this brief overview of some key aspects of two mere Christian churches by no means exhausts the characteristics of this approach, Rooftop and Arise do stand as helpful examples of this perspective and its workability in our current context.

Summary

Mere Christianity commits itself to focusing on the core, central aspects of the Christian faith while allowing for differences of faith and practice on non-central things. It’s gospel-centered, creedal, balanced, embraces particulars, intellectually humble, drawn from the Great Tradition, and both faithful and practical. Is this approach perfect? Will it solve all of the problems that contemporary Christianity faces? Probably not. But it does represent a path forward, one that I believe can provide a sound, helpful way forward for a Church that is focused on bringing the good news of Jesus to our world.


Notes

1 Michael Bauman, Pilgrim Theology: Taking the Path of Theological Discovery (Manitou Springs, CO: Summit Ministries, 2007), 11.

2 Nathaniel Peters, “The Rise of the Nones,Public Discourse, 18 August 2019.

3 Peter Beinart, “Breaking Faith,” The Atlantic, April 2017.

4 The best example of this is probably the Donald Trump-Christianity Today-Mark Galli kerfuffle from December 2019 and its ensuing fallout.

5 Barna Group, “Meet the ‘Spiritual but Not Religious,’” Barna Group, 6 April 2017.

6 Derek Thompson, “How America Lost Its Religion,” The Atlantic, 26 September 2019. See also Noah Meyer, “The Failed Influence of the American Church,” The Meyer Standard, 10 June 2018.

7 Charles F. McElwee, “Easter’s Empty Basket,City Journal, 10 April 2020.

8 Nor will it ever be—at least, insofar as something labeled Christianity follows the Christ who promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church (Matthew 16.17-19).

9 For Exhibit 1A, see Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian World (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017).

10 This is literally the title of a David Platt book sitting on my desk right now: Something Needs to Change: A Call to Make Your Life Count in a World of Urgent Need (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2019).

11 Please note that this is not a condemnation of all forms of Christianity in America, simply a statement of the general malaise and ineffectiveness of a Church that’s supposed to be advancing the kingdom.

12 Jacob J. Prahlow, “The Non-Denominational Reformation,” Conciliar Post, 11 April 2018.

13 See the ACNA website.

14 See Francis Chan, Letters to the Church (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2018); David Platt, Radical (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2010); and Skye Jethani, Immeasurable (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2017) for three prominent examples.

15 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 54, 55-56.

16 C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books.”

17 Vincent of Lerins, “Commonitory,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 11, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1894), rev. Kevin Knight, II.6

18 Often attributed to Augustine, this quote likely originated with Marco Antonio de Dominis (d.1624) and was popularized by Lutheran theologian Peter Mederlin in his 1626 work, Paraenesis votiva pro pace ecclesiae ad theologos Augustanae.

19 For a helpful overview of this perspective, see David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).

20 For a brief history of denominationalism, see Roger Olson, et al, Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 14th Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018). Also helpful is Michael Patton’s article, “Why are there so many divisions in the Church?” Finally, for a helpful review of the problems of the sectarian approach, see Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 27-43.

21 Ortlund, 45-59.

22 Kevin DeYoung, “Seven Characteristics of Liberal Theology,The Gospel Coalition, 26 September 2017.

23 Ortlund, 47.

24 On the hermeneutic appropriateness of gospel centered approaches to scripture (a key interpretive underpinning of this approach), see Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012), 93-126.

25 Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 45-62. See also McKnight’s ongoing conversations about what is central to the gospel on The Jesus Creed.

26 For more on what this approach to balance requires in terms of scriptural interpretation, see Christian Smith, 127-148.

27 In the words of D.A. Carson, “Every generation of Christians faces the need to decide just what beliefs and behavior are morally mandated of all believers, and what beliefs and behavior may be left to the individual believer’s conscience.” D.A. Carson, “On Disputable Matters,” Themelios 40.3 (2015): 383.

28 In theory, I’d be willing to suggest this as a useful test for determining what a necessary issue is or is not. The actual core of Christianity would be things that never get a “views on” book. I’m reticent to make this any sort of test, however, not because I don’t think it’s useful, but because I’m reasonably certain that Zondervan (and other publishers) will eventually extend into the territory of “necessary things” to make some necessary money.

29 Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016). See Gilbert Meileander, The Freedom of a Christian: Grace, Vocation, and the Meaning of Our Humanity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 57-88. See also, Bauman, 35-48.

30 See Ruth Koch and Kenneth Haugk, Speaking the Truth in Love (St. Louis: Stephen Ministries, 1992).

31 Bauman, 15.

32 Mere Christianity thus has strong parallels to interdenominational or trans-denominational churches, though the approach is not strictly limited to those particular manifestations.

33 N.T. Wright immediately springs to mind as someone who, especially in recent years, has intentionally adopted this posture. In Simply Christian, for instance, he writes that “the book isn’t ‘Anglican,’ ‘Catholic,’ ‘Protestant,’ or ‘Orthodox,’ but simply Christian. I have also attempted to keep what must be said as straightforward and clear as I can, so that those coming to the subject for the first time won’t get stuck in a jungle of technical terms.” See N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), xii.

34 1 Corinthians 15.1-34; Romans 14.1-23. See also C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.

Work and Rest

As Americans, we’re obsessed with being busy. Even during a pandemic, we’re preoccupied with how much we’re getting done. Our culture fixates on and rewards efficiency and productivity, even at the expense of our own health and relationships. It’s even how we talk to one another. People always ask, “What are you doing this week?” or “What have you been busy with?” I’ve never once been asked, “Did you get nine hours of sleep last night?” … or “Did you get enough vacation time this year?” The reality of life is that we’re busy—we’re tired—and we simply don’t get enough rest.

But we know rest is important. Countless studies show that there are all sorts of mental, physical, emotional, and relational benefits to rest. Whether it’s getting the right amount of sleep, standing up from your computer every hour, using your vacation days, taking a recovery day from your workout routine, or simply breaking up the monotony of your work, rest is good for us. Forbes recently wrote, “You can only work so hard and do so much in a day. Everybody needs to rest and recharge.” Whether you work 9 to 5, work from home, stay at home, or are retired—we all need to rest!

Before we dive into this article, I want to encourage you to stop for a moment and just breath…. Enjoy a moment of rest…. Alright, that’s enough. Back to reading and thinking about rest.  Why? Because Scripture reveals that everyone was made for purposeful rest!

Purposeful Rest

How do I know? Well, in addition to the significant number of scientific reasons for rest, I know that we were made for purposeful rest because Jesus said so. As it turns out, Jesus was pretty good at purposefully resting. In the language of his day, he was a master “Sabbath-keeper.” The word “Sabbath” comes from the Hebrew Shabbat, which marked the designated day of rest for God’s people. In Jesus’ time, the day of rest had become pretty ritualized. There were whole libraries of literature devoted to discussing how to rest on the Sabbath. In fact, the religious leaders of the day had determined there were thirty-nine kinds of work that were prohibited on the Sabbath.

It’s in that context that we hear from Jesus about rest—and that all of us were made for purposeful rest. In the words of Mark 2, One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath? He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions. Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2.23-27, NIV)

So Jesus and his disciples work on the Sabbath, the religious leaders aren’t pleased with it, and what does Jesus do? He quotes the Bible to show that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. That is, human beings were not created for the explicit purpose of observing the holiness of the Sabbath day; rather, the Sabbath was created for our benefit. The day of rest is important—Jesus agrees—but the Pharisees forgot why it was important. They thought the Sabbath was a sacred day, something that was special because of itself. But Jesus says that the Sabbath is special because of what it provides for us: a time to stop and rest.

When God created humanity, He made rest part of the order of things. Indeed, the seven-day week is the only non-physical unit of time that we regularly use? Years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds—they’re all based on the sun, moon, earth’s rotation, or (in modern calculations) the rate of decay for two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom…. But not the week. The week doesn’t have a physical origin—it has its origins in scripture, which in the words of Eugene Peterson, says that every seven days we should take some “uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing.”

We Were Made for Purposeful Rest

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. We were made for purposeful rest. And both parts of that statement are important—that we were made for rest and that rest is meant to be purposeful.

In the desire to rid ourselves of the strict Jewish legalism about Sabbath-keeping, many followers of Jesus have actually gone too far: we don’t rest at all. Lauren Winner, who is a convert to Christianity from Judaism, writes that, “There is something in Jewish Sabbath that is absent from most Christian Sundays: a true cessation from the rhythms of work and world, a time wholly set apart….” Many of us simply don’t rest.

To be honest, that’s the way I am. Several weeks ago, I got toward the end of my work week and realized that I was only going to work 50 hours that week—and a wave of guilt washed over me for not working more. There was so much more to be done that I thought to myself, “Oh, I’ll just work a little on my normal day off to get more done….” If that resonates with you—if you’re thinking similar things—you need to repent, you need to stop living and thinking that way. Because we weren’t made to work all of the time; we were made for purposeful rest.

Some of you are workaholics like me; and others of you are unequivocally not workaholics…. Rest is something that comes naturally to you; no one needs to remind you to clock out after your forty hours. No one needs to make sure that you’re getting enough sleep. The lesson here for those folks is that they need to be more purposeful with their rest. Rest does not mean doing nothing—it doesn’t mean binging Netflix for 15 hours on your day off or watching whole seasons of Game of Thrones every weekend. No, the kind of rest that the Bible describes is more intentional than that.

Purposeful rest is rest that is God-focused and refreshing. It’s rest with intentionality, rest that’s restorative. It’s rest from work, but it’s also rest for work. Some of us have physically demanding jobs—maybe you’re a mechanic, plumber, or nurse. If so, at the end of your week, you need to refresh yourself by resting physically. When I was working as a handyman over the summers while I was in grad school, at the end of the week I needed a nap—I was physically exhausted. If that’s you, rest! Other work isn’t necessarily physically demanding, but is draining mentally, emotionally, or relationally. Perhaps you’re a teacher, counselor, or work in an office. Rest in those vocations may involve taking a nap too… but it may actually involve some physical exertion, like going to the gym or working on a project around your home. We are all made for purposeful rest—rest that is truly restorative for who we are and what we do.

Several Scriptural Suggestions for Successful Sabbathing

For the rest of this article, I want to share three ways to purposefully rest. Or, as the lead pastor at church might label them: “Several Scriptural Suggestions for Successful Sabbathing.” As we think about these practical ways to purposefully rest, I want to make clear that doing these things isn’t going to make Jesus love us any more—He already loves us! These are simply ways to live in love and obedience as a response to what Jesus has already done for us.

The first way to purposefully rest is to Plan to Rest. Whether you have trouble with resting or with being purposeful in your rest, it’s not going to happen without intentionally making the choice to purposefully rest. Every one of us has to decide when and how to Sabbath.

When God told Israel to Sabbath, he didn’t just leave it up to their whims, wants, and busy schedules. He actually gave pretty clear guidelines. Exodus 20 says, Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. (Exodus 20.8-10, NIV)

Those are some pretty clear directions on when and how to rest. Notice how Israel was expected to set aside the time for Sabbath. Their rest was clearly planned.

My mom has always been a good example of planning her Sabbath rests. Even as a homeschooling mother of five kids who ran a farm, she would plan her life around rest and spending time with God. Mom would routinely get up at some ungodly hour of the morning to call and pray with her friends, to spend time searching the scriptures. She took intentional, restful time for herself and God amidst the busyness of her life. When my parents built their house, she actually had her closet specifically designed to be large enough to store her Sabbath-keeping books and journals. Mom didn’t just expect her resting to happen—she planned her Sabbaths and made sure they happened.

That’s what each of us needs to do as well: intentionally plan our rest. Years ago, I heard Pastor Eugene Peterson say that in order to make sure that he rested, he had to put it on his calendar. So that’s what I do. Months out, I schedule “rest” on my calendar. And then when something “important” comes up, I treat that scheduled rest like any other appointment or meeting—“Sorry, I’m not available then.”.

The second thing to do is Protect Your Rest. This goes hand in hand with planning our rest, because once we plan it, we have to protect it—that is, prevent it from being overrun by other seemingly important things.

In the Old Testament, there are some pretty serious protections placed around the Sabbath. Exodus 31.15 (NIV), for example, says For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death. Sounds like the Sabbath is pretty important, huh? Similarly, Leviticus 23.3 (NIV) says There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the Lord.

The Old Testament makes the significance of Sabbath rest quite clear—it’s something serious and needs to be treated as such. Likewise in the New Testament, the author of the letter to the Hebrews entreats followers of Jesus to continue observing the Sabbath: There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. (In other words, the Sabbath is still important, because God set the example of rest for us in his work of creation.) Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience. (Hebrews 4.9-11, NIV) Let us make every effort to rest, the author of Hebrews writes. Let’s do whatever it takes to protect our rest.

The Practicalities of Rest

The world’s greatest fast food restaurant (don’t @ me) is a testament to this fact. Chick-fil-a is famously closed on Sundays. But few people know the explicit reason why Chick-fil-a is closed on Sundays. According to founder Truett Cathy, it’s so that “employees [can] set aside one day to rest and worship if they choose.” In other words, Chick-fil-a recognizes the importance of rest—so they protect that rest for their employees by simply not opening on Sundays.

We can all learn from Chick-fil-a on how to protect our rest. I have three really practical suggestions for how to do this.

  • First, protect your rest by making it so you cannot work. Some of us need to turn our phones off, mute our text conversations, and make it so we cannot check email on the weekend. Leave your computer at the office; use the mute function on your phone. Give it a try sometime—make it so you can’t work. You’ll find that the world can go on without your constant work.
  • Second, protect your rest with accountability. Tell others when you’ve planned your rest so that they can help keep you accountable to that. One of the former elders at my church does a good job of this. He knows that my Sabbath typically takes place on Mondays, so he checks in with me from time to time about how I’m resting—and he very intentionally does not call, text, or email me on Mondays. Find a few people who can help you remain accountable to your plans for purposeful rest.
  • Third, protect your rest by encouraging rest in others. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—especially when it comes to rest. Don’t always expect other people to always be working. Give people grace when they don’t immediately respond to your messages. Be understanding when people take time for themselves and don’t attend your social event. Encourage the people in your life—your boss, coworkers, spouse, friends, anyone—to be purposeful with their rest.

In her book, Breathe: Making Room for Sabbath, Priscilla Shirer writes that, “God always and eternally intended the Sabbath to be a lifestyle—an attitude, a perspective, an orientation that enables us to govern our lives and steer clear of bondage.” Protecting our planned times of purposeful rest is a crucial part of making God-honoring rest part of the fabric of our lives.

The final way for us to purposefully rest is to Rest in Jesus.  One of my favorite things Jesus says comes in Matthew 11, where He says, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11.28-30, NIV)

Jesus knows that life is hard. He knows that we’re weary and burdened by our work. He knows that we need rest. So he invites us to follow him, to take up his yoke. In the ancient world, a yoke was a symbol of servitude—something that represented the hardships and oppressions of life. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that following Him will make all of our work or troubles disappear. Rather, when we follow Him we have our heavy burdens replaced: first with rest and then with the yoke of Christ—the expectations of following Jesus.

Amidst all our busyness and work, don’t forget to stop and rest. Because we were made for purposeful rest.

What about you: What are your patterns of rest and Sabbath? How do you make sure you’re getting enough regular rest?

A Proposal: When the Rubber Meets the Road

This post is part of a proposal for approaching theology from the perspective of history.

When the Rubber Meets the Road

The final step of this process brings the historical insights of what the Shepherd of Hermas indicates about the teaching authority of woman into conversation with contemporary conversations about women in the church. Here, several factors play out. First, we must recognize that the Shepherd is not canonical, but it was extremely popular for large swaths of early Christians. That is, this was not some one-off work of a heretic that stands merely as something for Christians to reject; many Christians have found this work insightful and (in some sense) useful for their own lives. Second, the Shepherd comes from Rome, where we know Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were well known, indicating that Hermas’s community (at least) held the call for Grapte to teach and Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in conjunction. Continue reading

A Proposal: Application

This post is part of a proposal for approaching theology from the perspective of history.

Women in the Apostolic Fathers

As an application of this approach, I want to quickly examine conceptions of women which appear in the early Christian writings known as the Apostolic Fathers. To keep this example as brief as possible, consider one instance where a female character appears in the apocalyptic account known as the Shepherd of Hermas (c. 100-150 CE).4 In Vision 2.4.3, Hermas records being told by an angel the following: “And so, you will write two little books, sending one to Clement and the other to Grapte. Clement will send his to the foreign cities, for that is his commission. But Grapte will admonish the widows and orphans. And you will read yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the church.” Continue reading

A Proposal: History then Theology

This post is part of a proposal for approaching theology from the perspective of history.

History then Theology

Once our historiographical assumptions are clarified, we may then turn to the task of integrating historical insight and context into theology. I suggest three steps for this process. First, discern what Christian X says about topic Y, on their own terms and considering their own context. This is the chief purpose of history: to discover what a person (or movement) in the past did and thought, why they did or thought those things, and (in the history of the Church) how they interpreted and lived out the Scriptures and Great Tradition of the faith. Continue reading

A Proposal: Historiographical Models

This post is part of a proposal for approaching theology from the perspective of history.

Four Historiographic Models

When approaching theological concepts from a historical angle, the issue of historiography must be addressed as a matter of primary important.2 That is, before we make appeals to, for example, what Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistles say about bishops or Thomas Aquinas’s articulation of the beatific vision, we must first answer the question of how to best examine and understand the history of Christianity. Particularly helpful on this topic are the four historiographical models outlined by Kenneth Parker: successionism, supercessionism, developmentalism, and appercessionism.3 Continue reading

A Proposal for Approaching Theology Historically

Several months ago, I was privileged to present a paper at a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. There is nothing quite like the amassed scholarship of these conferences, the gathering of minds eager to pursue knowledge and discuss the finer points of theology, biblical interpretation, and Christian praxis. Of course, it would not truly be a meeting of evangelicals (evangelicals gathered at a Southern Baptist seminary, to wit) without some disagreement over the role that history plays in the tasks of theology. Continue reading

An Argument for Prima Scriptura

This post originally appeared as a contribution at Conciliar Post.

One of the great privileges of being a part of the Conciliar Post community is the opportunity to have meaningful conversations about substantive theological issues while remaining charitable toward our interlocutors. Not that we are the only website that promotes this type of dialogue. But in an era of increased incivility and rhetorical debauchery, it is a welcome relief to have a conversation rather than a shouting match. Continue reading

A Brief History of Communion: Contemporary Christianity

This post is the final in our series on the history of communion.

The Contemporary Church

In general, the five major Reformation views on Communion persist today, although with literally tens of thousands of denominations worldwide, explanations of Communion can vary greatly among contemporary churches. Adding further complexity is the “rediscovery” of worldwide Christianity in the 20th century, which has led to an influx of interest in and co-option of Eastern articulations of Communion. Particularly influential has been the Orthodox expression of Communion, where the Eucharist is confessed to mysteriously be the body and blood of Christ without reliance on philosophical categories. Similarly important has been the Catholic Church’s post-Vatican II shift to celebrating Mass in the vernacular, which has enlivened Catholic understanding of Communion and spurred on ecumenical dialogue on the sacraments. Continue reading

A Brief History of Communion: Five Reformation Views

This post is part of an ongoing series on the history of communion.

The Reformation Church

Martin Luther

With the outbreak of theological reforms in the 16th century came considerable revisions and specifications of the theologies and practices of Communion. Essentially, five major views solidified: Tridentine, Consubstantial, Reformed, Via Media, and Memorialist. Continue reading