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The Armor of God (II): The Belt of Truth

This is the second part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.

Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth . . . (Eph. 6:14)

“Girding your waist,” or putting on “the belt of truth” in most translations, does not refer to cinching up your pants, but a loose full-body garment we would know as a robe or a long tunic. They are usually of one piece, with openings only for the head and arms. It is misleading, in looking at Paul’s meaning, to think of a toga; a “tunic” that is longer than your waist and requires a belt is the best way to think of the intended figure. This was the basic everyday wear of men and women in the Roman Empire two millennia ago, and is still widespread in the Middle East today. English-speakers in the Middle East call them by their local Arabic names (thawb, dishdasha, or jellabiya), because they are difficult to describe in English.

In the Persian Gulf where I live, people walk notoriously slow, partially because of the limitations of the outfit; belts are also never worn with them, and sandals are also the norm for men; many Arab women wear ankle-length cloaks with high heels. Needless to say, running in most contexts is considered very improper. The point of Paul’s metaphor, “the belt of truth,” is that it allows us to run.

Elijah and John’s Claim to Fame

In both the Old and New Testaments, we have reason to believe that a belt is a distinctive piece of clothing. In 2 Kings 1, King Ahaziah could identify Elijah by description with only two items: hairy plus belt.

And he said unto them, “What manner of man was he which came up to meet you, and told you these words?”
And they answered him, “He was an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins.”
And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”

Given that this belt was the single conclusive item in Elijah’s wardrobe, it’s notable that his New Testament antitype, John the Baptist, wore one as well (Matt. 3:4). The belt was evidently not in vogue or everyday use in Elijah’s day, or John the Baptist’s day, or today in most of the Middle East.

The Belt Means Eternity-Consciousness

When I see someone late for an appointment here, they may run if they are dressed in Western clothes; but you cannot really run in a long tunic and sandals! The garment restricts your knees, like a dress. The best you can do is a shuffle, if you hold on to the lower part of your tunic. For this reason, both Paul and Peter talk about being “girded”:

Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 1:13)

Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, . . . (Eph. 6:14)

The key practical element of the belt is that it allows you to run. Strictly speaking, it’s not a piece of “armor.” It doesn’t directly involve defense or attack. It does allow you to be more agile. Paul describes this characteristics as derived from “truth.” In many places, it can mean “reality.”

Understanding reality keeps us from wasting our time. The “truth” prepares us by making us see that we all have an appointment with eternity and with a judgement day. This consciousness was the most notable thing about Elijah and John the Baptist and the belt that they wore symbolized this vigor and diligence.

Lord, make us eternity-conscious so that we can run with vigor the race set before us.

The Armor of God (I): Introduction

Today we are starting an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. After the introduction (v. 10-13), we will be looking at the seven metaphors used by Paul: the belt of truth (v. 14), the breastplate of righteousness (v. 14), feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace (v. 15), the shield of faith (v. 16), the enemy’s fiery darts (v. 16), the helmet of salvation (v. 17), and the sword of the Spirit (v. 17).

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. (v. 10-13)

Cosmic Battle

The letter to the Ephesians is written in the frame of a cosmic battle. In the context of this epic battle, God knew that he was going to make a people for his name “before the foundation of the world” (1:4); God’s power towards us is the same power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him “far above principality and power and might and dominion” (1:21); through our testimony, God is revealing his “manifold wisdom” to the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (3:10); and Paul concludes the letter with a sweeping reminder of how to prepare for this battle.

Spiritual warfare is a Christian distinctive. Muslims believe in a personal devil, but their only recourse in trouble is to amulets, charms, folk remedies, and Quranic chanting. The spiritualists and polytheists of the world live in constant fear of demons, and the modern era has seen whole nations of Africa, South America and Asia choose the gospel over a life of fear. Other religions have no concept of invoking help from a personal God who is daily empowering us to win.

God’s Suit of Armor

The phrase “whole armor,” used twice in this passage, is a single word in the original, which we have in English as panoply, which means a splendid display, since we think of suits of armor as historical artifacts used for decoration. For Paul’s readers, they probably would have thought of a suit of armor stored in readiness, waiting to be “taken up” (v. 13).

Of the six pieces of armor he describes, two are for preparation (the belt and shoes), one is for attack (the sword of the Spirit), and three are for defense (breastplate, shield and helmet). So he’s mainly talking here not from a position of expanding or winning new territory; he’s talking about how we defend what’s already won.

This defensive stance is also expressed in his use of the verb “stand” (v. 11, 13). In his book, Sit, Walk, Stand, Watchman Nee sees the Christian life expressed in three verbs used in Ephesians: 1. We sit with Christ in the heavenly places (2:6); 2. We walk with Christ on earth (4:1); and 3. We stand against the devil’s tricks (6:11).

Principalities and Powers

In several places, Paul lists types of cosmic powers, which are somewhat prone to over-interpretation. In Middle Eastern cultures, one of the ways of emphasizing a point is to list synonyms or near synonyms: principalities, powers, rulers, and hosts. In 1:21 and 6:12, as well as Colossians 1:16, these lists are not meant to be a guide to the academic study of angels; rather, they should be taken in concord.

Be Empowered in the Lord

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.[1] Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.

The first three verbs that he uses sound very similar in Greek: “Be strong” (ἐνδυναμοῦσθε) . . . “Put on” (ἐνδύσασθε) [the armor] . . . [that you may] “be able” (δύνασθαι). Paul uses complex structures and careful word choice in his Greek epistles, and it’s possible that this alliteration was meant to add beauty to his letter or make the words more memorable, in the same way we would use alliteration in a sermon.

The opening verb “be strong” (ἐνδυναμόω) is also used by Paul in a number of other letters. It is the same verb for “strengthens” in the verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Acts 9:22 says the Paul “increased in strength.”

Paul also uses this verb to describe the Lord’s faithfulness at the end of his life:

Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me. (2 Tim. 4:17)

It is clear from Hebrews that this word has a supernatural sense, because of the way it is listed with other miracles:

Time would fail me to tell of [the faithful who . . .]  quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. (Heb. 11:32-34)

Being “strong in the Lord,” then, as Paul commands, is a supernatural receiving of power through God’s grace, which is why all of the elements of God’s armor described here are paired with spiritual characteristics: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God.

[1] “Power of his might” sounds awkward in English, but the figure probably means “his mighty power.” This is a pretty common construction in the epistles, whereby a noun is used like an adjective. It’s especially common with the word “glory”; Colossians 1:11 says, literally, “the power of his glory,” but the traditional rendering is “his glorious power.”


Imitation Is Not Discipleship

The Master Plan of Evangelism

[This introductory section is for those not familiar with the book, and may not be a necessary refresher for some of my readers.]

Robert E. Coleman’s book, The Master Plan of Evangelism, was first released more than 50 years ago, in 1964. This book has caused a revolution of sorts, not so much in Western local churches, but more so in parachurch ministries like campus ministries and missions organizations. Coleman boldly sets forth that Jesus’ plan was never that a select few Christians—those gifted in evangelism or missions work—would preach the gospel to all nations; rather, Jesus’ master plan has always been a church that multiplies through personal discipleship.

The key text where we see this most clearly is 2 Timothy 2:2:

And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

As Coleman unpacks in his book, in the context of a single verse, Paul is referring to four different layers or “generations” of disciples:

  1. Paul (“me”)
  2. Timothy (“you” and the “many witnesses”)
  3. Timothy’s disciples (“faithful men”)
  4. Timothy’s disciples’ disciples (“others”)

Coleman also examines Jesus’ choice of the twelve apostles (à la A. B. Bruce). These twelve were not chosen at random. In fact, Jesus prayed all night before choosing them (Luke 6:11-12). Coleman contends that Jesus’ plan all along was that through daily, continued contact and teaching of these twelve disciples, they would incarnate and proliferate his gospel message through those that they would come in contact with. This is a needed corrective to impersonal mass evangelism efforts, and Billy Graham even agreed that this was a needed corrective to his own ministry.

A number of terms have been used both inside and outside Coleman’s book to describe this sort of chain reaction, such as multiplication, faithful (i.e. steadfast) discipleship and multi-generational discipleship. Francis Chan, an able teacher, adopted Multiply as the title of his book on discipleship. And while I understand that the overall teaching is powerful and effective, there are some destructive and confusing mistakes that I see creeping into the body of Christ through hierarchical organizations of discipleship.

The main danger I see here is that multi-generational discipleship can so easily mix spiritual and non-spiritual motives in an intensely communal context. (I’ve dealt with some of these problems in my review of Gene Edwards’ book Letters to a Devastated Christian, but in this article I am looking closely at specific biblical language.) Jewish rabbis and Sunni imams make detailed decisions about the lifestyles of those under their authority, often down to how to trim their beards and wear their clothes. But Christian discipleship has always been a distinctly spiritual activity.

With this in mind, I wanted to delve into some of the biblical terms related to this multi-generational discipleship model, with the hope that they help us to better orient our spiritual discipleship:

  1. “Multiplication”
  2. “Imitation”
  3. “Regeneration”

Conversion Is Not Multiplication

There is a major problem with the term “multiplication” as applied to discipleship: believers are never multiplied in the New Testament. Here are some of the things that are multiplied (πληθύνω) in the New Testament:

  • The Israelites (Acts 7:17, Heb. 6:14)
  • Grace and peace (1 Peter 1:2, 2 Peter 1:2, Jude 1:2)
  • Churches (Acts 9:31)
  • The word of God (Acts 12:24)

In Acts 6, Luke tells us twice that the number of the disciples was multiplied (v. 1 and 7), but he never says that “believers” or “disciples” multiplied. It is a contradiction in terms.

Multiplication implies that what is produced is a copy of what came before. But in the gospel, every new believer is an addition. Every time Christ is born in a human soul, we behold an act utterly unique to human history; the stamp of Christ on that soul has never happened before and will never be repeated in this cosmos. Conversion is an epitome of the creative miracle of God; and evangelical biography is always the exposition of a miracle. Chesterton expresses this unforgettably in Orthodoxy:

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun. It may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

The word multiplication is used to describe the growth of the Israelites because they grew through natural reproduction (i.e. the copying of DNA). This kind of parental/ancestral language is never used for Christian discipleship. In two passages, Paul uses parenthood as a metaphor for his fatherly and affectionate relationship to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:15) and the Galatians (4:19-20), but he does not adopt it as a primary term for his relationship to whole groups of people. (More on this below.) There may be spiritual children, in a sense; spiritual grandchildren, never. This is the meaning of John’s explanation of regeneration at the outset of his gospel (1:12-13):

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood [i.e. not through a human mother], nor of the will of the flesh [i.e. not through sexual intercourse], nor of the will of man [i.e. not through a husband (Gk. ἀνδρὸς)], but of God.

Attempts to trace a “spiritual lineage” in hierarchical discipleship-based ministries bolster the egos of those involved, but they don’t honor the miracle of Christ in the soul. Discipleship is neither multiplication nor replication; it is two spiritual siblings working out the miracle of Christ in the soul together. They may be unequal in knowledge or experience but the clearest way to express their spiritual relationship is still that of “brother” or “sister,” not “father” or “mother.”

Imitation Is Not Discipleship

Among ministries that take Coleman’s model, it can also be common to quote scriptures on imitation. There are many New Testament scriptures where Paul enjoins his readers either to imitate their teachers, or their teachers’ faith, or something they have seen or heard from Paul himself. Here are the key examples:

Remember your leaders . . . Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Heb. 13:7, ESV)

The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do . . . (Phil. 4:9, cf. 3:17)

Therefore I urge you, imitate me. (1 Cor. 4:16)

Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. (1 Cor. 11:1)

Does Paul Call Churches to Imitate Him?

It sounds like Paul is asking for a blank check here. I would contend, though, that Paul never teaches unqualified imitation. The kind of imitation that some leaders expect of their disciples is carnal, not spiritual. In the epistles in which Paul calls for imitation, he is not talking about his diet, his music, his car, his hair, or even his talk style. He is talking about teaching, doctrine, and spiritual life. In what follows, I show why I believe that “follow” is probably the better translation for the group of New Testament Greek words that have been translated “imitate.”

This is one point where the King James Version is more careful in rendering the Greek than the modern versions.  Here are some scriptures for comparison:

1 Corinthians 4:17
New King James Version
Therefore I urge you, imitate me.

King James Bible
Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me.

1 Corinthians 11:1
New King James Version
Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.

King James Bible
Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.

When translating Greek into English, it is difficult to resist the pull of related words or cognates; the phrase for “be ye followers of me” uses the word μιμηταί, “followers,” which is etymologically related to “mimic” and “mime”. The idea that this word must mean “imitators” because it is etymologically related is bad exegesis and is known as “the etymological fallacy.” In a nutshell, it is not true for the same reason that butterflies aren’t flies made of butter—word origin does not equal word meaning. In this case, it seems that the modern versions are translating over-literally. This is fascinating because the usual complaint is that the King James Version is too literal! Using “imitate” to translate this verb is puzzling in 1 Peter 3:13, for example, because the verb is used with a non-human object—how does one “imitate good”?

Another verse uses this verb in a way that does not work with English “imitate”:

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word . . . (1 Th. 1:6, ESV)

How could they imitate the Lord by receiving his Word, when the Lord cannot receive his own Word? It seems like overall, the King James Version’s choice of “followers” may cover the word’s usage better. In fact, the KJV translators translated the verb as “follow” and the noun as “follower” every time they showed up.

Another interesting point on the second verse involves the conjunction “just as” (καθὼς). It may not mean that the Corinthians were to imitate Paul in the same way that Paul imitated Christ; it may also mean that they were to imitate Paul inasmuch as Paul imitated Christ. It is the same conjunction used here:

He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. (Mark 4:33)

With this in mind, a possible translation of 1 Corinthians 11:1 would be “follow me inasmuch as I also follow Christ.” I cannot say certainly that this is the correct translation, but I know that taking these verses in a very literal way has led to many abuses of discipleship. I remember seeing a famous worship leader post a picture of a student who had copied her exotic hair style. It should be emphatically stated: copycatting your pastor in every area of life has nothing to do with spiritual growth. Your pastor’s job is to help you succeed spiritually, not to be your all-around life coach.

Imitation of a teacher in every area of life is something you see only in cults. In his book on unhealthy movements, Letters to a Devastated Christian, Gene Edwards writes that alarm bells should be ringing when we see pastors and leaders trying to make personal decisions for their disciples, like who to date or not to date. This is tricky, though—clearly, every believer should submit to sound wisdom and advice from their believing elders; but believing elders can never force sound wisdom and advice on those they work with. That is not discipleship.

In a nutshell, here is my informed opinion on spiritual authority and on men and women in leadership summed up in two sentences: everyone submits. No one lords it over others. (See Eph. 5:21, Matt. 20:25, 1 Peter 5:3, and cross-references.)

Regeneration Is Not Reproduction

Another common term used for growing movements is multi-generational discipleship. This is used to refer to one leader that disciples another group, some of whom will become leaders and disciple new groups. But, like “multiplication”, this term also desperately needs some qualification. It must be stated that “generation” is being used in a secondary sense, “a group of individuals contemporaneously sharing a status”, and not its first sense, “a body of living beings constituting a single step in the line of descent from an ancestor.” We are not regenerated through any human relationship, and being a part of a hierarchical structure doesn’t legitimize our conversion.

In many Asian societies (at least, in the Middle East and South Asia), you can speak with accuracy of someone being “born Muslim” or “born Christian.” Social norms more or less preclude the possibility of choosing a different religion from that of your parents and ancestors. Any choice to the contrary (in whatever direction) is a confrontational statement that has the power to change the whole of that person’s life and relation to their community.

It can get even more confusing: I have met Filipinos who told me they were “born again” because, literally, that is the brand of Christianity they were born into. What an ironic misuse of biblical terms!

When Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again, Nicodemus took it so literally, that he thought he needed to return to his mother’s womb and come out again! It is amazing that the term has become for many a term frozen in meaning, descriptive only of a certain set of beliefs or dogmas. When Jesus first said it, it was meant to describe a radical spiritual re-ordering such that you become a new person.

Being “born again” should be something that does not depend on any human relationship, whether you’re thinking of your parents, pastor, or discipler. I have seen believers lose their faith because the person who led them to Christ lost their faith. I have also seen believers divorce their wives because the person who led them to Christ divorced his wife. Referring to “children in the faith” is something that should never be done flippantly.

Does Paul Refer to His Disciples as “His Children”?

Paul did refer to a few people as his children, but it was unusual. His usual way of addressing the churches was “brothers.” He uses this word in its vocative form (i.e. as a personal address) 68 times in his epistles; it is used in other epistles 20 other times.[2] In contrast, the word “children” is used as a personal address 11 times in all the New Testament epistles, all of them in the diminutive form (τεκνίον) as a mark of affection.[3] Ten of these are in 1 John—and John calls himself “the elder.” In these cases, it was probably a culturally appropriate way of addressing those younger than you, not necessarily carrying at-issue meaning.

This should interest us because the relation between Father and son (or parent and child) is the single most common metaphor in the New Testament for the way we relate to God. Childhood, or sonship, is Grand Central Station for New Testament concepts.[4] George MacDonald—who probably has the best preaching on this topic—justly said in one of his sermons:

The relation of the Father and the Son contains the idea of the universe.

But the relationship of discipleship is only compared to this central metaphor in very limited ways. As I mentioned earlier, Paul refers to himself as “fathering”  the Corinthian believers in 1 Corinthians 4:14-17; but in Galatians 4:19, he “labors in birth” for the Galatians! Overall, Paul describes himself in relation to his churches as father, mother, servant, sower, steward, apostle, but, most often, brother.

Does Paul Call Certain People “Son”?

Paul does call Timothy his son to the churches, but, as far as I can tell, only when he’s sending him to them and needs to commend him in the highest way possible. He does this only twice, in 1 Corinthians 4:17, and by simile in Philippians 2:22. When he calls Timothy his son, he is not referring flippantly to the fact that he led him to Christ or discipled him.[5] Clearly, Paul had a intimate mentoring relationship with Timothy that did not extend to everyone that he taught (see Acts 16:3!).

In personal letters to Timothy, Paul calls him his son more often, but mainly in salutations (1 Tim. 1:2, 1:18, 2 Tim. 1:2), and he does the same with Titus (1:4). Interestingly, in all three of these salutations, Paul uses terms of affection. This hints to the idea that “son” here has expressive meaning but not denotative meaning.

In summary, calling someone your “spiritual son” or “spiritual daughter” is a biblical and powerful way of commending a believer whom you have personally mentored. It is not a natural, normal or normative way of referring to your disciples or group members as a whole.

Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. (Matt. 23:9)

Conclusion: Discipleship is Spiritual Work

There is a certain stage in life when young believers are more prone to imitation. We are  prone to confound the spiritual and the earthly. But Christ never calls us to imitate other believers. All of life is spiritual; but you have to admit that certain decisions have no bearing on your sanctification. No one has a right to a “blank check” in terms of your schedule or personal decisions. If you have been taught that it’s part of your job as a Christian to copy your pastor’s behavior, join their workout plan, follow their diet, imitate their beard, copy their shoes, listen to their music, or gesture like them when you teach—you need to realize, none of these make you closer to Christ.

[1] In verses where Paul uses the related verb μιμέομαι, he is usually talking about imitating specific attitudes and behaviors:

  • The Thessalonian church imitated Paul and the Lord by receiving the Word (1 Th. 1:6)
  • The Thessalonians imitated the Judeans in persecution (1 Th. 2:14)
  • The Hebrews should imitate those who through endurance inherit promises, that is, by doing the smae (Heb. 6:12)
  • The Ephesians should imitate God in forgiving (Eph. 4:32-5:1)

[2] Rom. 1:13, 7:1, 7:4, 8:12, 10:1, 11:25, 15:14, 15:15, 15:30, 16:17; 1 Cor. 1:11, 1:26, 2:1, 3:1, 4:6, 7:24, 7:29, 10:1, 11:2, 11:33, 12:1, 14:6, 14:20, 14:26, 14:39, 15:1, 15:50, 15:58, 16:15; 2 Cor. 1:8, 8:1, 13:11; Gal. 1:11, 3:15, 4:12, 4:31, 5:11, 5:13, 6:1, 6:18; Eph. 6:10; Phil. 3:1, 3:13, 3:17, 4:1, 4:8; 1 Th. 1:4, 2:1, 2:9, 2:14, 2:17, 3:7, 4:1, 4:10, 4:13, 5:1, 5:4, 5:12, 5:14, 5:25; 2 Th. 1:3, 2:1, 2:13, 2:15, 3:1, 3:6, 3:13; Heb. 3:1, 3:12, 10:19, 13:22; James 1:2, 1:16, 1:19, 2:1, 2:5, 2:14, 3:1, 3:10, 4:11, 5:7, 5:9, 5:10, 5:12, 5:19; 2 Peter 1:10; 1 John 2:7, 3:13.

[3] Gal. 4:19, 1 John 2:1, 2:12, 2:13, 2:18, 2:28, 3:7, 3:18, 4:4, 5:21. Cf. also the figures of speech in 1 Cor. 4:14, 2 Cor. 6:13, 12:14, 3 John 1:4.

[4] Wycliffe translated the Greek word υἱοθεσία as “adoption” (Rom. 8:15, 23, Eph. 1:5) and virtually all English translations have followed suit. Luther, however, translated the same word as “Kindschaft” (“childship”) and I have not found any German translation that did not use some variation of this. Tyndale hit somewhat close to the mark when he translated Ephesians 1:5 as “heirs,” but for some reason he did not translate the word this way in the other two verses, where he used “adoption.”

[5] Here are the ways that Paul refers to Timothy in the third person in his epistles:

  • Our brother (2 Cor. 1:1, Col. 1:1, 1 Th. 3:2, Heb. 13:23, Phm. 1:1)
  • A servant of Jesus (Phil. 1:1, 1 Th. 3:2)
  • My son (1 Cor. 4:17, 1 Tim. 1:18, cf. Phil. 2:22; also as an address in 1 Tim. 1:2, 2 Tim. 1:2)
  • My workfellow (Rom. 16:21, 1 Th. 3:2)

The Danger of an Exalted Mission

An exalted mission is an ever-present tonic to the Christian. The mission will brook no lazy or chicken-hearted missionary. He stands up straight and checks his pulse at the tug of the apostolic chain. She who once neglected her body will now bring it under submission, for she is not shadow-boxing.

The mission demands much; it demands God. It puts us in immediate need of the Holy Spirit. The seven sons of Sceva find themselves out of their depth; hearsay has no power over the usurping devils in the human heart. We must have personal knowledge of him we preach.

The mission demands much—sometimes too much. It must not demand all. Then it becomes like a proud mustard tree, inviting foul birds to infest its branches. Mission may outstrip calling. Mission may outfly faith. Then we find ourselves, like Sceva’s sons, unable to provide the very power that our mission demands.

The apostolic missionary must take care that mission always submits to calling. Calling encompasses all of Christian life; mission, only a part. Calling is an expression of our relation to our Creator; mission is how we join him in rectifying a broken Creation. Mission is work; calling is not primarily work. We are called to:

  • The fellowship of his Son (1 Cor. 1:9)
  • Peace (1 Cor. 7:15)
  • The grace of Christ (Gal. 1:6)
  • Freedom (Gal. 5:13)
  • His kingdom and glory (1 Th. 2:12)
  • Holiness (1 Th. 4:7)
  • Marvellous light (1 Pet. 2:9)
  • Suffering (1 Pet. 2:21)
  • Blessing (1 Pet. 3:9)
  • Glory and virtue (2 Pet. 1:3)

Never let the mission become more important than your calling. Don’t let being a hero become more important than being a Christian. Answer your Creator’s call with your waking breath, and let the mission be your response to that infant helplessness of prayer.

Why Do Missionaries Get Depressed?

It comes as a surprise to many to find out that some of their heroes of the faith, overseas missionaries, go through difficulties in their emotional and mental health. But when you think about the added stress of raising your family in a new country, along with the challenge of sharing the gospel among the unreached, should we really be surprised?

Below are just a few reasons that missionaries are especially prone to depression, and, in the conclusion, I’ll share some of the ways that you can help missionaries that you know.

1. Missionaries want to change the world.

One of the ironies of depression is that high expectations can only make depression worse, and missionaries often have sky-high expectations. As a teenager, I remember reading the stories of Bruce Olson, Adoniram Judson, and Don Richardson, and thinking, “What greater privilege could there be, than to take the gospel and the Bible to a people who never in human history have heard it before?”

Wanting to change the world is only half of the equation. Missionaries have to put the rubber to the road by putting practical steps into place that start with bridging culture, learning language, and sharing life relentlessly. This is no small task for a set of visionaries, idealists and discoverers that often arrive to the mission field bright-eyed and bushy-tailed—not to mention twenty-something. Often a missionary’s first term overseas is simply a time of adjusting expectations, of reining in what they can’t do and learning what they can.

2. Missionaries have unique health challenges.

Anyone that emigrates will have health and diet challenges that come from the new environment. And missionaries are often sent to the places of greatest need, which can mean health care is scarce or poor in quality. Even if there is good health care, they have to learn a new medical system. For some missionaries I know, they are the health care—there is no hospital for miles around, and the only medicine is what they bring in.

What we gain in the excitement of travel we lose in health and hygiene obstacles. I have eaten from a roasted goat along with half-a-dozen Arab men, none of whom used utensils. I have been quarantined on Air France because they thought I was at risk for MERS. I have been to a gym that had a “communal water cup” that everyone used. Since becoming missionaries, my wife and I have had diarrhea on five different continents. I have been to the ER with a poison ivy rash that was not only unknown to the pharmacist, it was impossible to even get in that country because that plant doesn’t grow there.

Depression tends to correlate with a host of other health problems; diabetes and depression, for example, can cause each other. That means that if you have diabetes, you are more likely to fall into depression, and if you are depressed, you are more likely to get diabetes. So it’s no wonder that, along with all the other health challenges of living overseas, come challenges to a believer’s mental, social, and emotional health.

3. Missionaries share a prophetic calling.

Have you ever noticed that the prophets of the Bible were not a particularly cheery lot? The Bible is realistic in its portraits of human character. Moses interceded intensely for the entire nation, placing his own life on the line (Ex. 32:1-14). Jeremiah was nicknamed the weeping prophet. Joel commanded the priests to “weep between the porch and the altar” (Joel 2:17).

In biblical narratives, prophetic success is almost as bad as failure. After the great victory at Mount Carmel, Elijah prayed that he might die because of the threats and isolation that success had brought on him (1 Kings 19:4). Jonah was dragged by God to Nineveh, and when his message had succeeded, he became suicidal (Jonah 4:3).

Other examples of emotional hardship in the Bible are directly connected to calling. As part of his missionary consecration, Ezekiel was commanded not to grieve the loss of his wife (Ezek. 24:16). Hosea was commanded to marry an unfaithful woman as a demonstration of God’s overwhelming faithfulness. Abraham left behind his pagan family in Ur, and his family was nearly torn apart when God came down to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

All of the above are examples of the cost of the prophetic calling. Jesus himself was called “a man of sorrows,” and this emotional cost was not limited to his atoning work on the cross. His life of holiness led him to grief at his hearers’ hardness of heart (Mark 3:5), anger at religious hypocrisy (Matt. 23:33), and to weep and feel troubled at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:33, 35, 38). Jesus’ emotional suffering culminates, of course, in Gethsemane, where his “soul is overwhelmed to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38, Mark 14:34).

Success, failure, family pressure, and spiritual pressure—all of these are scriptural situations that can lead a missionary to feel depressed.

4. Missionaries are isolated.

Missionaries are called to build communities of faith where there are none, so it goes without saying that they are often isolated from their peer groups. Historically, some missions agencies wanted their missionaries as dispersed as possible. You can read memoirs, for example, of Sarah Stallybrass in eastern Siberia, or James Gilmour in Mongolia; although their ministries were impactful, isolation took its toll on their overall health, and they were frequently depressed. More agencies are turning towards a team mentality, and away from the mentality that one family—or one man—can do all the work.

Isolation can be especially rough today for women in cultures where women are expected to remain at home or curfews are in effect. Isolation, culture shock, and rejection by your host culture can become a potent cocktail for negative thoughts, and security can be another roadblock to communication.

5. Missionaries are humans.

Depression and anxiety are staggeringly common today. Current estimates are that around 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression. It’s also estimated that 15 percent of American adults will experience depression at some time in their life. It should be no surprise that pastors and missionaries suffer from it too.

But ministerial life, with its spiritual and social pressures, has strangely high rates of depression according to some surveys:

The September/October 2000 edition of Physician magazine reported that 80 percent of pastors and 84 percent of their spouses are discouraged or dealing with depression. [source]

If depressed Christians ask for prayer and aid from their pastor and their church in times of trouble, who does the pastor ask for help? Do pastors and missionaries have anyone they can go to for advice and counsel, other than fellow pastors and missionaries, who often suffer from the same issues?

How can we help?

Unless we break the silence and create new strategies for our changing world, mental health issues will likely to continue to abound both inside and outside the church. But hopefully we as believers can take time to identify the causes, and show that we care for our missionaries and pastors by taking some steps in the right direction.

1. Share failures and successes.

Missionaries that are on a fundraising model can be pressured to put on a brave face and regale their listeners with tales of changing the world. We are either on the way to the field, sharing pictures of potbellied pagan orphans, or we are on the way back, sharing videos of new converts singing joyous hymns. Needless to say, neither is a complete picture of missionary life. In fact, it’s the in-between that is so hard to write and speak about—the humdrum of having only one or two inquirers here and there, of feeling that your role in God’s kingdom has gotten smaller since becoming a missionary. Whether missionaries, pastors, or laymen, we all need to re-imagine a missionary life that is less about us and our successes and more about Jesus, his Church, and his glory.

2. Share the load in times of stress.

Missionaries have tremendous psychological pressure, and often they just need someone to sympathize. When one of their converts is murdered by a family member, or their church has decided to split, what a missionary needs more than anything is a listening ear. One of the predictors of healthy adjustment after trauma is simply how much a person was able to get support (i.e. communication) from their family and friends—so if you know a missionary who’s in a rough time, don’t be hands-off; let them know you are there for them.

3. Share the mundane in times of monotony.

Isolation is one of the biggest contributors to missionary depression, and it is ironic in a time when most missionaries have access to Facetime, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Zoom. If security is an issue and you don’t feel you can discuss their work, you can always just talk about everyday life. And most missionaries would love to hear news from their home country, too. More so than newsletters can ever do, this kind of contact can help us to share together the highs, lows, and even the monotonous “middles” of missionary life.

4. Ask a missionary how they are doing—not how their work is doing.

One of the greatest problems with pastors and missionaries is that they can become so closely identified with their work, to the point that when someone asks “how are you?”, the response always involves how your Bible study group is doing, the recent opportunity you had at the market, or who is becoming curious about the gospel. Just like anyone, often missionaries and pastors need to be asked a second time, “how are you doing?”

5. Pray for a missionary.

It goes without saying that prayer is the best thing you can do for a missionary; but it is not the only thing you can do. Take a moment now and think about the missionaries you know—is there someone that is in need of extra prayer? Is there someone you should reach out to or renew contact with, even now?

Cover image: Rembrandt van Rijn, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, c. 1630.

Passion and Purgatory

Joshua Harris, Elisabeth Elliot & the ongoing search for balanced teaching on Christian romance

Recently, I have been revisiting the love story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot while reading The Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testimony of Jim Elliot. As a missionary who has spent many weeks exploring Ecuador, I was well aware of the “Palm Beach” canon, which includes a shelf-full of books and two documentaries—most notably the works of Elisabeth Elliot and Steve Saint—related to the martyrdom of five men seeking to reach the then-untouchable Huaorani of the Ecuadorean jungle.

A notable element in Elliot’s repertoire is her advice on Christian dating and relationships, which are boiled down into a palatable form in two books, Passion and Purity and Quest for Love. Simply stated, Elliot is quite disdainful of what she calls “the dating mess.”

Although some know her for books on missions, Elisabeth Elliot’s impact on the Christian dating scene is by no means trivial. Her 1984 book Passion and Purity is more or less the root of the entire “purity movement,” and was ample inspiration for Josh Harris’ 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Her endorsement helped launch that book, in fact. Elliot’s and Harris’ books advocate “courtship” over “dating,” believing that, as Don Raunikar put it, “Christian dating is an oxymoron.” [1] Over against “dating,” these authors seek to define “courtship” as a patient, prayerful process in which a couple more or less never escapes the supervision of a Christian chaperone.

While revisiting the story of Elisabeth Elliot’s “courtship” and eventual marriage with Jim Elliot in The Shadow of the Almighty, the whole tale of their romance strikes me as incredibly overspiritual. I can only write this in disappointment as a missionary who was impacted by Elliot’s books as a young believer. I believe that her writings on romance and those that follow in her train are symptomatic of a breakdown not so much in Christian romance as in Christian decision-making. Let’s look at their decision-making process:

Elisabeth Elliot’s Slow Courtship: Purity or Purgatory?

Jim and Elisabeth believed that God had led them to a life of singleness. They cite passages like Isaiah 54, Matthew 19:10-12, and 1 Corinthians 7 in support of this specific guidance. But this doesn’t come from the whole counsel of God: it comes from a few cherry-picked verses which they believed at the time to be the Spirit speaking in the Word. I cannot say that God had not given them “special guidance”—but I only state the obvious: these Scriptures are not sufficient guidance to keep someone from marrying.

They believed that remaining single greatly enhanced their effectiveness on the mission field. Edith Schaeffer gives this as a helpful rationale for Christian marriage: our ministry and outreach should become more, not less, through marriage. [2] Jim Elliot reasons in his journal, for example, that language school would be impossible while married. I have spent much of my married life in language school, and I can’t say that I found this argument convincing; to Jim Elliot, though, it was such a conviction, that he required his fiancée to learn Quichua for the mission field before he would marry her.

Jim also mentions the extreme difficulty of starting married life as a new missionary. This is one piece of counsel with which I can agree: major life shifts should, whenever possible, be tackled one at a time! Moving to a new country and joining a new spouse are two of life’s greatest psychological stressors, and combining them could increase the stress exponentially.

But again, I would not prescribe this as being from the Spirit of God. God may guide some to make that double leap, and they may make it gracefully. I speak especially for myself when I say that I would expect to flounder under the stress.

Just a few days ago, I read of James Calvert, famous missionary to Fiji:

Early in 1838, it was resolved to send men to reinforce the mission to the Fiji Islands, and the missionary committee, unexpectedly finding themselves able to send three [missionaries] instead of two, called upon Mr. Calvert to go. Forthwith he consented, and went down to Buckinghamshire and asked Miss Fowler to share his lot. The proposal was sudden, but probably not altogether unexpected. There was little time for delay . . .

Mr. and Mrs. Calvert were married in March, and in about a month afterwards . . . set sail on a four months’ voyage to New South Wales [en route to Polynesia]. [3]

The Calverts were exemplary missionaries for 17 years in Fiji—more than thrice as long as Elisabeth Elliot was with the Huaorani. They were fluent in Fijian, well regarded by the people, and ministered widely across dozens of sparsely-laid islands.

Like singleness on the mission field, marriage has its advantages and its dangers. But neither the Calverts in rushing nor the Elliots in dragging their feet are finally normative. The Bible warns against both hastiness and delay in the specific context of marriage (Song of Songs, 1 Corinthians 7).

Jim Elliot was disdainful of marriage ceremonies in general. Based on her writing, Elisabeth Elliot tacitly shared this opinion, or she would not have published her late husband’s opinions at length. But this, along with most other negative statements in Jim’s journal, seems to stem from his Brethren upbringing more than from Scripture. Scripture neither bashes ceremonies nor dictates how they should be done.

All of these rationales to delay and avoid marriage run directly athwart of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:

But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. . . .  Now to the unmarried [marg., widowers] and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Contrary to his own counsel, it is obvious from his journals that singleness was a distraction for Jim Elliot on the mission field, however it may have freed up his schedule. Given that Paul clearly wrote a whole chapter addressing these issues, it seems like a huge blind spot for someone so consecrated to Scripture. Jim writes more than once that he could not stop thinking about Elisabeth, but continues to rationalize why they must keep waiting, even though they are mature believers, living on nearby mission fields.

I say this with greatest respect for all that was accomplished by Jim, Elisabeth, and their associates: This doesn’t sound like purity—it sounds like purgatory. Purgatory, in Catholic teaching, is where believers go to finish atoning for their guilt. We have a hard time accepting the grace that God has for us; we would rather gain a sense of moral achievement by making things more difficult than his Word. (See 1 Tim. 4:1-4, quoted below.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose very life reminds us of “the cost of discipleship,” wrote that we sometimes try to be “more spiritual than God” in making our decisions.

From a glance at the cross of Christ there comes to many the unhealthy thought that life and the visible, earthly blessings of God are in themselves at least a questionable good, and in any case a good not to be desired. They take, then, the corresponding prayers of the Psalter to be an incomplete first stage of Old Testament piety, which is overcome in the New Testament. But in doing so they want to be more spiritual than God himself. [4]

Joshua Harris’ Slow Backpedal

When we were getting acquainted, my wife and I both read Passion and Purity. We both found the book challenging at the time. Last year, after many years of marriage, going back through Shadow of the Almighty, I felt that I had been sold a bill of goods. Elisabeth’s book came off as prescriptive, touting imbalanced ideas about church life and relationships, lacking a Scriptural rationale for avoiding marriage as long as they did.

When I shared with my wife my strong misgivings about the Elliots’ “courtship” advice, she reminded me that Joshua Harris had issued a retraction of sorts regarding his own book in 2016. Although it took many years, the dialogue on Christian purity is making a much-needed course correction. (In some camps, this is an 180-degree course correction, but that’s a topic for another article.) In fact, Harris has made an agreement with the publisher that they will have no more print runs of his first book:

I no longer agree with its central idea that dating should be avoided. I now think dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally and learning the qualities that matter most in a partner. I recommend books like Boundaries in Dating by Dr. Henry Cloud and True Love Dates by Debra Fileta, which encourage healthy dating. [5]

In addition to his partial retraction, Harris just released a documentary to better understand the negative impact that his book had. The documentary premiered just a few weeks ago.

Harris can be excused for lacking balance back in 1997—he was only 20 when he wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye, while the executives at Multnomah, who made him their poster child, might have known better. Although Paul tells Timothy to let no one despise him for his youth (1 Tim. 4:12), in the same letter he warns against giving too much leadership to new believers (1 Tim. 3:6).

Harris’ writings are, for the most part, biblically grounded, but lack the kind of balance and finesse that leaders gain with age. Martin Luther is credited with saying that we are like a drunk peasant riding home in the dark—to avoid falling off the horse on the left, we fall off on the right. [6] Rejecting modern dating norms, Harris swings the reins hard, and—with a hand from Elisabeth Elliot—tries to transplant “courtship” in place of “dating.”

Does Courtship Cast Out Fear?

What Harris regrets most, though, is that he was motivated by fear, not by a heart of grace.

Fear is never a good motive. Fear of messing up, fear of getting your heart broken, fear of hurting somebody else, fear of sex. [6]

Part One of I Kissed Dating Goodbye is titled “Isn’t There a Better a Way?” and the first sentence of Don Raunikar’s similar book is, “If dating is so wonderful, why does it hurt so much?” This points to the overall negativity of the purity movement—it’s not “look how great courtship is,” but “look how bad dating is.” Ian Maclaren warned us against this in an 1897 article:

The Gospel is never negative—an embodied threat—”refuse if you dare”; the Gospel is ever positive—a living promise, “Come and be blessed.” [7]

F. W. Boreham echoes Maclaren numerous times in his preaching:

No man ever yet helped the world by publishing a negation. Iconoclasm is the policy of despair. The hunger of the human heart can never be satisfied with denials. [8]

The solution to Christian relationship problems will come, not as an iconoclasm, but as an affirmation of life, steadfastly focused on the Redeemer whose grace teaches us how to live (Titus 2:11-13).

An Eschatology of Dating

In his advice on Christian marriage, Paul reminds us that the true motivation for balance in our romance is eschatological:

The appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none . . . and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:29, 31, ESV).

His words echo those of the Savior, who said that the end would be like “the days of Noah,” with men eating, drinking, and getting married (Matt. 24:37, Luke 17:27).

In his great little book, Love Not the World, Watchman Nee points out that we should not think that we can live without “secular” things like careers, cars, or candlelit dinners; but our attitude toward these things should be directed by the reminder that they are not eternal. In his words, they are “under a death sentence.”

Conclusion: Prescriptions or Principles?

We’re right about what’s wrong but wrong about what’s right. The problem has been incorrectly stated. We don’t just need more boundaries and rules; we need God himself.

A. J. Gossip, a Scottish preacher, said the following in a sermon on “What Christ Means by a Good Man”:

Our dull and prosy minds ask for little invariable rules and a full code of minute by-laws, and are given instead, much to their discomfiture, mighty principles which we are left to apply for ourselves. Newman went over to the Church of Rome largely because it told him definitely what to believe and what to do, took the ordering of things away from him, and so saved him from the turmoil of uncertainty in his own mind, and the bother and the danger of decision. [10]

Let’s make a few positive statements that can help young believers:

1. Marriage is a good thing. Let them marry!

When someone wants to marry, they should not undertake it lightly. But if someone decides to marry, our Scriptural default reaction should be positive.

Some ministry internships for young people have strict no-dating policies that are meant to maintain the consecration of that time period. I have friends in their thirties who have been forbidden from pursuing marriage by such policies. “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom … but lack any value in restraining indulgence.” (Col. 2:23, NIV)

“He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Prov. 18:22). Jim Elliot was horrified when a ministry colleague decided to get married ahead of joining the mission field. Paul tells Timothy, though, that avoiding marriage because of asceticism is not a Christian behavior:

Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith . . . forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving. (1 Tim. 4:1, 3-4)

2. Singleness is a great thing.

As great as marriage is, Jesus says that there is for some a lifelong gift of singleness, and that those who are able to receive it should. If you believe that you have this gift from God, then nothing should make you feel forced to marry; but if you haven’t received this gift, and you are a mature believer following godly counsel, there is no reason to feel forced not to marry.

3. Children are a gift.

If Scripture defines marriage as integrally good, then that includes children. One of the causes of abortion is the belief that children are a burden. One of the ways that we can reverse this trend is by relentlessly affirming that children are a gift.

4. Flee from sexual immorality.

This is the theme of Henry Cloud’s books: “boundaries” are a way of staying as far from sexual immorality as you can. Sexual immorality, contrary to what our culture might say, is clearly defined in Scripture over and over, and part of that definition is that sexual intimacy belongs inside marriage.

5. Our hope isn’t in the past—it’s in the future.

On a theological level, the biggest problem of the anti-dating movement is the “Golden Age” fallacy. The Golden Age fallacy is the idea that the past—-whether Victorian-era England or 1950s America or even 1st-century Palestine—was more moral, more spiritual, or had a holier generation of believers. But a candid look at Victorian-era England shows that teenage pregnancy was not especially rare; nor was homosexuality, though it was less accepted. America in the 1950s was undergoing its own sort of middle-class revolution; and Scripture never tells us that everything recorded about the 1st-century church is perfect or even normative.

All of the “Christian purity” books I have read are filled with appeals not to Scripture, but to an age when English-speaking Christians had stronger mores about marriage. And we need stronger norms as a culture. But the way to come about them will be an affirmation of life, singleness, sex, marriage, pregnancy and children—not just a rejection of their abuses.

The Church’s brightest heroes act as lighthouses, not iconoclasts. Dashing idols in the dark like Gideon only leaves God’s people wondering on waking, “how then shall we live?” It is the positive exposition of Scripture that provides the answer, not criticism of our culture, however flawed.

1 Raunikar, Don. Choosing God’s Best.

2 I believe she says this in the book The Tapestry.

3 Rowe, George Stringer. Memoir of Mary Calvert. London: T. Woolmer, 1882.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Psalms: The Prayer Book Of The Bible. Fortress Press. Kindle Edition, p. 43.

5 Harris, Josh. “A Statement on I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”

The earliest available source for this saying is Richard B. Wilke’s 1973 book, Tell Me Again—I’m Listening.

Klett, Leah Marieann. “Joshua Harris Apologizes for Mistakes in ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’ in Powerful TEDx Talk.” The Gospel Herald Ministries, 8 December 2017.

8 Maclaren, Ian. “The Positive Note in Preaching.” Christian Literature, 1897.

9 Boreham, F. W. The Crystal Pointers, p. 142. London: Epworth, 1925.

10 Raunikar, Don. Choosing God’s Best.

11 Gossip, Arthur John. “What Christ Means by a Good Man.” In The Hero in Thy Soul: Being an Attempt to Face Life Gallantly. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928.

The Call of God

God’s call is not just about missions. Os Guinness explains that “calling” in Scripture begins with and includes salvation; it is as much a calling to a person as it is a calling to a work or a place. We are called first into a relationship and a new identity in Christ, and any discussion of a “missionary calling” is incomplete without mentioning this first. (1)

God’s call is both repeated and prolonged. Paul and his group experience a variety of “callings” in the book of Acts. The call of God is not a one- time event. It is a complex, life-long driving force leading us to and through salvation and service. It is the “due north” by which we set our compass and take our bearings every day. The call of God is the general direction for all our specific obedience to God.

God’s call is multifaceted. Paul had a long road between the vision on the Damascus road, and the prophetic call in Antioch. He is called first to salvation (Acts 9), then to a work (Acts 13:1-3), followed by a variety of locations and ministries. Sills writes:

God seems to call some to a particular kind of missions service, others to a people group, others to a region, others to a country, others to a city, and others to a life purpose (such as rescuing young girls from prostitution) or some combination of these. (2)

God’s call is not about location. We tend to focus on all of the visible aspects of calling: where we will go, what we will do, who we will marry, and who we will work with. God focuses on the invisible aspects: spiritual preparation, the burden of prayer, the willingness to proclaim, and the stubborn ability to plod on without stopping.

(1) See Os Guinness’ book The Call. Chapters 4 and 5.

(2) M. David Sills. The Missionary Call. Kindle edition. Location 364.