Archives for September 2015

A Christianity Today Interview with the Authors of Free to Serve

Cover ArtStephen Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies, authors of the forthcoming Free to Serve, were interviewed by Matt Reynolds for the October issue of Christianity Today.

An excerpt is below, and you can read the full interview here.

In 2014, Hobby Lobby won a landmark Supreme Court decision that exempted the home-goods chain from providing certain forms of contraception to employees. The Court ruled that closely held for-profit companies whose owners have religious objections are protected under the First Amendment. But the 5–4 ruling left many in confused outrage: How can a for-profit company invoke a Christian identity? Shouldn’t a business operating in the secular sphere have to play by secular rules?

For Stephen Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies—two scholars with long experience tracking tensions around institutional religious freedom—such protests rely on cramped notions of what counts as “religious.” Their new book, Free to Serve: Protecting the Religious Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations (Brazos), assesses the dangers an uncomprehending secularism poses to religious businesses, colleges, social service agencies, and student groups. CT associate editor Matt Reynolds spoke with Monsma and Carlson-Thies (fellows with the Center for Public Justice) about the religious-liberty challenges facing faith-based organizations.

What is the basic problem your book addresses?

Monsma: The book grew out of our deep concern over challenges to faith-based organizations seeking to follow the religious commitments at the heart of who they are and what they do. You see this on many fronts. These challenges aren’t random; they reflect prevalent assumptions in our society. Until these assumptions are shown to be false, we’re afraid the religious freedom of faith-based organizations will remain under threat.

Carlson-Thies: We looked at a number of areas. Some issues are matters of internal operations: Can a faith-based organization hold employees to religious standards? Do their health plans have to include coverage for contraception or abortifacients?

Other questions concern how they serve the public, and whether they have to abide by secular protocols: Can religious adoption agencies receiving public money refuse to place children with same-sex couples? Can Catholic agencies serving refugees under a government grant refuse to refer clients to abortion providers? These are just some of the controversies we consider.


The Weekly Hit List: September 25, 2015

Cover ArtRoger Olson started a series interacting with Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy.

Having read the first several chapters, I can say now that I am intensely intrigued by Scot’s thesis. I share his concern, but right now I’m not settled about whether or not I agree fully with his idea of the Kingdom….I do not have a preconceived opinion by which I will judge Scot’s arguments or conclusions. At this moment I am not entirely satisfied with either the non-church meaning of “Kingdom of God” or identification of the Kingdom with church. So, we’ll see if Scot changes my mind (and yours).


You can read his introduction, part 1, and part 2.




Jesus and His Church – an excerpt from Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel

The following is an excerpt from Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel by Matthew Skinner.


Cover ArtThe close associations Acts makes between Jesus’s influence and the activities of his followers should make us less inclined to embrace a religious view in which God exists somewhere “out there” while we human beings hope to make an occasional connection.

The Gospel of Luke characterizes Jesus’s life as a prolonged “visitation” (see Luke 19:44). Acts implies the visitation continues; Jesus has settled in among humanity—still working, still saving. We can find him manifest in Christian communities. Or at least we are supposed to.

If Jesus’s connection to his followers exists today in ways similar to what Acts suggests, then Acts encourages me to see churches (the people, not the buildings) as vital communities, crucial for the gospel of God’s salvation to remain known and attractive for generations to come.

This connection also raises cautionary red flags, given that many people have long catalogs of instances in which churches (the institutions and their members) have been abusive, selfish, or apathetic. Or simply boring.

When Acts ties Jesus and his people together in such tight knots, its theological vision can spawn idealism or cynicism, depending on my perspective and how motivated I am to get out of bed on a given Sunday morning.

The communities of believers that spring into being in Acts exist as the products of some major disruptions: Jesus visited, he was resurrected, and the Holy Spirit came. The Christian communities that exist now have organic connections to those disruptive experiences from long ago. But smaller, less perceptible disruptions also hold these communities together. To see them, we need to peer deeply into these groups and consider the individuals who compose them.

What troubles, determinations, or longings make a person participate in a community of faith? What kind of salvation draws her in? How does she hope her involvement might affect the wider world? Ask these questions of enough Christians enough times, and we may begin to see signs of Jesus in the experiences of his followers even now.

Finally, God is not limited to the communities we encounter in Acts. Later in the story, further disruptions will come. Many of these shocks to the status quo will convince members of those communities that God is also busy elsewhere, accomplishing salvation and occasionally directing Jesus’s followers to catch up and recognize other ways of doing things and other places to do them.

These parts of Acts remind readers that the communities of Jesus’s followers, although they are crucial means for people to experience salvation, are not exclusive or required means. God works in other settings too. The plan of God remains much grander, and more spread out. It remains so today.

©2015 by Matthew L. Skinner. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Cover ArtThis excerpt comes from Esther & Daniel (BTCB) by Samuel Wells and George Sumner, with Samuel Wells commenting on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10

Now comes Esther’s next brilliant status move. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace. She elevates Ahasuerus to astronomically high status, as one who, despite his deep affection for his queen, is not to be troubled by the trifling information that she is to become a slave. She has maneuvered the dialogue into a place of two contrasting status realities, and the contradiction between them is unbearable. On the one hand she is about to be liquidated, as a member of a people surplus to imperial requirements; on the other hand the king adores her and has said he will do anything for her. The problem was hers: it now becomes his.

But she gives him a get-out: No enemy can compensate for this damage to the king. In other words, she plays on one consistent feature of the king’s personality throughout the book: his inability to see his own agency in the turn of events. It was not the king, she suggests, that brought about this state of affairs—she has no interest in humiliating him. The only sense in which she wants him to be low status is his devotion to her. In all other respects it is about time he really did assume the high-status expectations of his role.

It was an enemy who brought this about. The king gobbles down Esther’s version of the story, which enables him to be her protector and gives him a chance to assert his high status in a moment of crisis: Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this? The word presumed is crucial, since it elevates Esther’s status and in the process elevates Ahasuerus’s own status even further.

Now for the coup de grâce. Esther, while remaining vulnerable and thus low status, makes the most of Ahasuerus’s gesture to elevate her status and identifies the source of the threat, which is now not just to her and her people but to the king as well. A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman! She and the king are now one like never before, and as a result Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

There is no sign that Ahasuerus yet appreciates Esther’s true identity—it was only after Haman’s death that Esther told the king what Mordecai was to her—but there can be little doubt that Haman now realizes it all.

….Haman panics and makes a drastic low-status attempt to plead to the queen for his life. By the time the king returns, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining. Haman has done nothing illegal, and by retaining his status he could have talked his way out of it. But by losing status from his own volition at the key moment he makes himself look guilty, leaving aside the misinterpretation of his advance on the queen.

The king, of course, imagines things only in sexual terms. Haman’s status plunges further into the abyss, as he is impaled not only in front of his own house but, on account of the height of the gallows, in front of the whole city.



©2013 by Samuel Wells and George Sumner. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

This Just In: Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel, by Matthew Skinner

Cover ArtThis engaging book guides readers through one of the most colorful books of the Bible, illuminating passages from Acts that show the Christian gospel expressing itself through the lives, speech, struggles, and adventures of Jesus’s followers. The book emphasizes the disruptive character of the Christian gospel and shows how Acts repeatedly describes God as upsetting the status quo by changing people’s lives, society’s conventions, and our basic expectations of what’s possible.

Suited for individual and group study, this book by a New Testament scholar with a gift for popular communication asks serious questions and eschews pat answers, bringing Acts alive for contemporary reflection on the character of God, the challenges of faith, and the church.



Matthew L. Skinner Matthew L. Skinner (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He frequently contributes to popular Christian magazines and blogs and is a featured writer for ON Scripture (a weekly column carried by Odyssey Networks), the Huffington Post, and other online outlets. He has written for, where he can be heard on weekly Sermon Brainwave podcasts, and for


Praise for Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel:

“Matthew Skinner probes the book of Acts in an impressively effective way. He successfully negotiates the vexed issue of history and theology and offers a concise, accessible theological twist to every text he considers. His study shows the way in which the narrative text of Acts continues to be compelling for the church’s self-understanding and mission.” – Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

“The book of Acts tells an exciting story that warrants the sort of engagement it is afforded here. Skinner takes us beyond the pedantic concerns of academia to experience the power of the story itself, to participate in its transformations and discoveries. Anyone who is spiritual and/or religious will benefit from this disruptive encounter with ‘absurdly good news.'” – Mark Allan Powell, Trinity Lutheran Seminary

“There is no doubt that Acts is an entertaining read, full of the stuff of legend and tall tales. But what is a twenty-first-century Christian to do with such an unusual collection of stories about the early years of our faith? Enter Matthew Skinner, an internationally renowned scholar of Acts who has, for decades now, immersed himself in Acts–studying, writing, teaching, and preaching it. In this book, Skinner grips our attention, all of it, as he honestly, artfully, judiciously, concisely, and consistently connects our experience with the book of Acts. Chapter by chapter, Skinner teaches us, raises crucial questions–the raw, complex questions that we real readers have–and then offers bold conclusions born from his observations as both a scholar and a Christian.” – Jaime Clark-Soles, Southern Methodist University

The Weekly Hit List: September 18, 2015

Christians at the BorderCover Art, by M. Daniel Carroll R., was recommended at Prayerful Philosopher.

In the midst of unprecedented waves of migrants pouring into Europe from war-torn Syria and increasingly hostile political tirades about Hispanic immigration to the United States, there is no better time for Christians to pause and ponder the biblical perspective on the matter of immigration.

“Look at Jesus”: Ron Sider on the Biblically Balanced Life – An Interview with Evangelicals for Social Action.

I continue with a lot of writing. In addition to some shorter pieces, I published Nonviolent Action this year. Ben Lowe and I will release an intergenerational dialogue book called The Future of Our Faith early next year.




The Weekly Hit List: September 11, 2015

Cover ArtJ. Todd Billings, author of Rejoicing in Lament, wrote A Luminous Mystery for The Banner.

When disaster hits, the sovereign God is present and active, even when things seem out of control. Yet this is a truth that we cannot embody in abstractions or easy clichés: we embody it by joining with the suffering in praying with the psalmists—joining the Spirit and Jesus Christ in hopeful lament. This is God’s world, but it’s also not the way things are supposed to be.

Quick Hits:

Rejoicing in Lament was reviewed by Harry Monroe at The Monroe Doctrine.

Kingdom Conspiracy, by Scot McKnight, was reviewed at Think Apologetics.




Upcoming Events for Rejoicing in Lament

Cover ArtJ. Todd Billings, author of Rejoicing in Lament, will be speaking at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on October 21. His message is titled Hope for Mortals: The Church’s Witness in the Midst of Dying and Death.

Often Christians inhabit a theological vision guided by instrumental outcomes – a growth in the evangelistic and social outreach of the church, a revitalization of community and discipleship. But what happens to the church’s witness when all of our grand plans and visions for change stop short against the brick wall of death? In this lecture, J. Todd Billings reflects upon the way in which death, although the last enemy to be destroyed through Christ, also has the possibility of exposing the nature of a Christian hope which goes beyond trusting in our own efforts and plans.

Also, Reformed Theological Seminary is featuring Rejoicing in Lament in their Current Read program, and Billings will be speaking at the RTS President’s Forum on November 4.