Voices from the Margins

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“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
Dinos Christianopoulos

We are living in a time of breathtaking reversals. When it comes to power and privilege and voice, the laws of social and cultural gravity are being defied.

We’ve watched a line-up of over 150 former USA gymnasts face the man who got away with sexually abusing them for years. They didn’t simply whisper their stories behind closed doors. They spoke them into a microphone before a battery of media cameras and a watching world. After years of being silenced by adults more concerned about avoiding scandal and protecting a colleague and an organization, these young women emerged to voice their stories and claim the justice that for years they were denied.

What kind of internal fortitude did that take?

Their actions not only resulted in a conviction, they’ve raised significant awareness of sexual abuse, of the terrible cost of refusing to take young complainants seriously, and of the tendency of adults in responsible positions to protect the abuser and bury the matter.

After yet another mass school shooting, the politicians, government officials, and religious leaders weren’t the ones who grabbed the bullhorn and roared “Enough is enough!” to demand action. No, it was Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students on the receiving end of those bullets who lost best friends and a beloved teacher and coaches.

How many cycles of this have we been through where “thoughts and prayers” start sounding like excuses instead of the prelude to meaningful action. So now a band of determined, articulate teenagers are on the warpath for change and they are getting results. Already major corporations, like Dick’s Sporting Goods, Wal-Mart, Delta, Hertz, Enterprise, and Avis, are voluntarily tightening their gun policies and dropping their affiliation with the NRA.

Author Jim Wallis captured this momentous reversal when he wrote, “Social change always comes when the next generation decides to no longer accept what the last generation accepted.”

Then, of course, a stunning litany of women, once bullied, threatened, and intimidated into silence, rose up to voice sexual allegations against men of enormous power and prestige. The credibility and cumulative testimonies of these women proved more effective than anyone imagined. They brought to a crashing end the ability of some of the biggest names in Hollywood, media, politics, and technology to avoid any consequences for their misbehavior.

Their stories unleashed a flood of #MeToo tweets bringing to light a disturbing epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse held underground for decades. This isn’t confined to Hollywood. A flood of #ChurchToo tweets revealed that sexual abuse happens inside the church, which ought to be a sanctuary. By going public with their stories, these women have triggered a sea change in how seriously organizations take allegations and address incidents of sexual misconduct.

Disrupting the Status Quo

Cultural dynamics we’re witnessing today—as women, the young, the weak, vulnerable, oppressed, and powerless break their silence and overthrow the diminishing cultural expectations imposed on them—is a pattern that shows up in the ancient book of Ruth.

Contrary to romantic interpretations, the story of Ruth was a #MeToo story waiting to happen. Only things turn out differently for Ruth because Boaz, a man of considerable power, doesn’t use his power and privilege for himself. Instead, he employs them sacrificially to empower Ruth and ensure her initiatives on Naomi’s behalf succeed.

The book of Ruth records a moment in time when, against insurmountable cultural odds, a young undocumented female immigrant whose cultural status is firmly cemented in the margins, overthrows the silence, vulnerability, and powerlessness that systemic patriarchy imposes on her and finds her voice. She refuses to allow the risk of shame and failure, or her utter powerlessness to stand in her way. Too much is at stake. Patriarchy may deprive women of voice, agency, and legal rights, but she will claim all three anyway. Her bold initiatives with Boaz bring explosive insight into what it means to live as God’s child in this world and completely disrupt the status quo.

What continues to amaze me is just how often God reaches into the margins and chooses someone whose voice has been silenced, someone no one believes, a person everyone counts out—to blindside everyone with the force of their influence and effectiveness in putting things right in his world.

Within this brief story, God is making some of the boldest counter-cultural value statements about women that we have on record. The fact that the story takes place within a full-fledged patriarchal culture makes those statements all the more astonishing. Furthermore this brief Old Testament narrative also contains some of the most radical value statements that we have regarding men.[1] God is no protector of the status quo and he is not limited to the powerful and privileged to move his purposes forward. All of us stand to benefit by absorbing this message. It’s what we’re witnessing today.

The book of Ruth is a breathtaking reversal where the laws of social and cultural gravity are being defied. It is a hope-filled image bearer phenomenon that is happening today too. And we should not be surprised to see more of it.


To read the full story, see Finding God in the Margins (Released Feb 24)

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This post was also published by Evangelicals for Social Action.


[1] See “Better than Seven Sons” and “The Manly Side of the Story” in Finding God in the Margins.

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Why you should read Finding God in the Margins

UnknownThose with keen eyes to see into the Bible’s many richnesses are able to discover the depths of our humanity surrounded by the deep wells of God’s grace. One such Bible reader is Carolyn Custis James, and she has turned that marvelous Book of Ruth over again to discover our broken humanity repaired by God’s amazing love. Finding God in the Margins, however, is not for the faint of heart: this book will sideswipe you with admonishment when you least expect it and then turn a word of grace into redemption.

—Scot McKnight, Julius R. Mantey Professor of New Testament, Northern Seminary


lynne-hybelsjpg-c9a2b59acc5df3ccIn Finding God in the Margins, James offers both women and men timely guidance for understanding and then living out the world-changing love of God. I call this guidance timely because rarely—in my lifetime, at least—has our human inability to love been so evident. And timely, too, because now as then, both the church and secular culture are desperate for hard-earned, practical, transformative wisdom from the margins—from those who have suffered the catastrophes of racism, sexism, displacement, poverty and injustice of any kind. I’m grateful for the scholarship and the passion woven together in this book—and for the woman who has dedicated her life and work to speaking the truths that God-loving women and men need to hear.

—Lynne Hybels, Advocate for Global Engagement, Willow Creek Community Church


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This engaging, insightful book gives the beloved book of Ruth a fresh voice, a voice about three people inhabiting the margins in the past who experienced God’s wonderful, decisive work there. This is just the book to get people talking about Naomi (“the female Job”), Ruth, and Boaz as pointers toward God’s gracious, hope-inspiring, kingdom-advancing work in our conflicted context.

—Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago; General Editor of the New International Commentary on the Old Testament series


51uCv+IGjdL._UY200_In this text, Carolyn Custis James demonstrates why she has emerged as one of the most important voices for American Christianity in the twenty-first century. Theologically sound and sociologically sensitive, Carolyn offers a commentary on the book of Ruth that any pastor could use with integrity in their preaching and teaching. At the same time, James does not shy away from tackling difficult topics and issues. She engages these issues not through rabid rhetoric but through intellectually thoughtful and Biblically–rooted reasoning. James’ thorough study of Ruth from a fresh perspective offers an important resource and contribution to the the church.

—Soong-Chan Rah, Milton B. Engebretson Professor, North Park Theological Seminary, Author of The Next Evangelicalism and Prophetic Lament


imagesThere are moments I grow weary with the life of faith. I’m a career Christian. I’m a pastors daughter married to a pastor. I spent 31 years working for a well known Christian ministry. I’ve done a lot, heard a lot, and read a lot. Frankly, there are moments when I don’t want to hear another sermon or read another thing that has to do with faith. I’m not interested in a rehash of ideas that I can already recite in my sleep. But every once in awhile I open a book that surprises me with its freshness. I know the story of Ruth but not the way Carolyn knows it. As a result there is an ‘aliveness’ in the way she frames this story that forces me to be thoughtful and prayerful as I reconsider its rich and deep meaning for my life. This is a story of way back when, but also a story ripe with meaning for today.

—Anita Lustrea, Faith Conversations
Podcaster, Speaker, Author, Spiritual Director


Unknown-3Finding God in the Margins captivated me from beginning as Carolyn Custis James reveals a new understanding of the amazing book of Ruth.  Carolyn makes the utterly amazing relationship of Naomi and Ruth, to the unheard of focus on women in a normally patriarchal society, but, not to the detriment of the power of a Godly man and his ability to be used to turn around the course of history, come to life. Finding God in the Margins proved to be an edge-of-your seat gem that will keep you turning pages from start to finish uncovering God’s amazing love throughout.

—Diane Paddison, Founder of 4wordwomen.org
author, Work, Love, Pray and Be Refreshed


Unknown-1Carolyn Custis James is a masterful storyteller. Her examination of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz offers encouragement and comfort to those who are grieving, marginalized, and oppressed, within the dynamics of power and privilege. Finding God in the Margins: The Book of Ruth will serve well as a thought-provoking Bible-study or devotional companion reading.

—Ingrid Faro, Director of Masters Programs; Affiliate Professor of Old Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School


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Finding God in the Margins challenges our presuppositions and broadens our horizons. We meet Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz as if for the first time and, more importantly, we discover profound theological truths about a God who meets both them and us in times of crisis.

—Jared E. Alcántara, Associate Professor of Homiletics, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; Author, Crossover Preaching

 


1469828621995Finding God In The Margins expresses God’s radical mercy, compassion, and courage through the lives of women and men who accomplish great things together in the Lord. Carolyn Custis James prophetically challenges the patriarchy that devastates and oppresses women, girls, men, and boys throughout the ages and calls us to give ourselves to those on the margins, where we will find God.

—Dr. Paul Louis Metzger, Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement, Multnomah University and Biblical Seminary; Author, Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church


faculty-cynthia-parkerIn Finding God in the Margins, Carolyn Custis James delves into the hard reality of the ancient Israelite world to highlight themes in the book of Ruth that are often ignored—namely the gritty, Job-like character of Naomi. The sacrificial love from people around Naomi indirectly answer her pleading questions about God’s concern for the marginalized. Carolyn Custis James does not permit Naomi’s struggle and lament to be forgotten.

—Cyndi Parker, Clarke Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies, Biblical Theological Seminary


21751429_10210578126952646_8829570286881216095_nI first really got to know Ruth in Carolyn Custis James’ The Gospel of Ruth, and I loved her courage. But in Finding God in the Margins Carolyn has taken me deeper with Ruth, into the world of refugees, the destitute, total loss, the hopeless. I feel like Ruth has become a model, a mentor, a friend, a hero as she lived out her faith and courage against staggering obstacles. Thank you, God, for creating this woman, and thank you, Carolyn, for helping us to know her. May I live out such faith and courage.

—Judy Douglass, Writer; Speaker; Spiritual Arsonist; Director, Women’s Resources, Cru


matt-vosThroughout Finding God in the Margins, James champions the theme for which she is well-known, showing again and again how the biblical text subverts rather than promotes patriarchy, and calling men and women to a Blessed Alliance that pushes against the curse. In reading, I came away with new hope for our embattled world, greater courage in the face of uncertainty, and stronger resolve to remember the lessons of Ruth as I work out my own calling before the God who delivers.

—Matthew Vos, Professor of Sociology, Covenant College


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Finding God in the Margins is part of Lexham’s Transformative Word Series, Craig G. Bartholomew, editor.

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Finding God in the Margins

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“One of the biggest fears in today’s world is that something as harmless looking as a backpack will slip undetected through security checks, past bomb-sniffing dogs, and into a crowded area, where it will explode.

That fear became reality—twice—on April 15, 2013, in Boston. On that fateful day during the Boston Marathon, two brothers deposited backpacks 210 feet apart near the finish line in the midst of a preoccupied, cheering crowd. The backpacks contained pressure cookers packed with deadly explosive material that, as planned, exploded sequentially in two devastating blasts.

For Boston, nothing will ever be the same.

It may seem odd to compare the Old Testament book of Ruth to a backpack containing powerful explosives, but for far too long the Christian church has underestimated the potency of this harmless-looking ancient narrative.”


So begins Finding God in the Marginsmy second book on the Old Testament book of Ruth.

Having written what I believed was everything I could say about the book of Ruth in The Gospel of Ruth—Loving God Enough to Break the Rules, no one has been more surprised than I at the fact that there is so much more to unearth in this powerful narrative.

What I wrote in The Gospel of Ruth rocked my world and continues to challenge me in my calling as a follower of Jesus. Anyone who has read that book or heard me speak on Ruth knows I consider the Old Testament book of Ruth to be one of the most explosively relevant books in the Bible. The gutsy risk-taking leadership of Ruth the Moabitess that drives the action of the story becomes the catalyst God uses to awaken and transform Naomi and Boaz. Ruth’s example completely demolished any hesitation I had regarding God’s calling on his daughters to be leaders.

I’m still sorting through the implications.

That said, Ruth is proving to be the book that keeps on giving, and I’m finding has plenty more to say. As I continue digging and pondering, and as contemporary events shed new light on the text, this familiar story continues to explode with fresh force and relevance on my thinking and outlook. Instead of the innocuous little love story (what Mark Driscoll recently dubbed a “Cinderella story”) this ancient narrative weighs in with profound relevance on issues such as refugees, immigrants, and male power and privilege. It contains culturally subversive messages that raise the bar for both men and women and that shove us out of our comfort zones with gospel force.

For the record, this new book contains no retractions. It only reinforces and builds on what I wrote earlier and moves forward into new territory. I chronicle Ruth’s radical migration from a marginalized undocumented female immigrant field worker to the full embrace of the Bethlehem community at the rank of Israel’s beloved leading matriarchs. All this takes place before her marriage to Boaz or she delivers a son. Recognition of her true value begins with Boaz but spreads rapidly through the entire community. Her story makes a revealing contribution to current DACA and immigration debates.

Also, a chapter titled,  “The Manly Side of the Story,” traces an overlooked but powerful masculine thread that winds through the entire narrative and impacts current discussions of masculinity. Traditional interpretations tend to limit the discussion of men to accolades for Boaz as the Kinsman-Redeemer hero, who from that perspective doesn’t get a fraction of the credit he truly deserves.

Those who cling to the Cinderella version will continue to regard the book of Ruth as a harmless backpack. But those who are willing to take a closer look will (I feel sure) be blown away with me by the gospel potency and relevance of this explosive book. We will, like Naomi and Boaz, end up rethinking our whole lives and longing with heart and soul to live more fully and fearlessly like Ruth for the God we love.

Finding God in the Margins releases February 24 and can be preordered online.


Read endorsements here.

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Why John Piper Needs Help from Female Seminary Professors

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It can hardly have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the pronouncements of John Piper that when he was asked recently, “Is there a place for female professors at seminary?” his unequivocal answer was “No.”

According to Piper,

If it is unbiblical to have women as pastors, how can it be biblical to have women who function in formal teaching and mentoring capacities to train and fit pastors for the very calling from which the mentors themselves are excluded? I don’t think that works.

We have all seen Piper stir things up by making outrageous, even unbiblical statements before, like soft-peddling on domestic abuse. Similarly, this latest ruling has sparked an uproar in the blogosphere.

Clearly Piper is swimming against the current. Today, most evangelical seminaries (conservative and progressive) have female faculty (resident and adjunct) teaching male students. I suppose Piper sees himself as the last of the faithful prophets crying out against the rolling tide of culturally shaped political conformity. But we are risking too much to let his opposition to female seminary professors go unchallenged.

The Deeper Issue

Piper might like to hear the sound of seminary doors slamming shut in the faces of prospective female professors in response to his judgment. But Piper’s timing is very bad indeed. Women in general, including evangelical women, are in no mood to be marginalized in society, church, or seminary. The issue is far more serious than women simply wanting a place at the table. The current cost of marginalizing women is proving to be calamitous.

Given the current #MeToo crisis and the damning flood of #ChurchToo stories that followed, the church—and seminaries too—have some serious self-examination to do. These stories expose far too many church leaders as inept and even complicit in this crisis. Not only have ministry leaders abused and oppressed their own, they’ve often circled the wagons to protect the men and ministries involved in the abuses. More than one situation has been disastrously mishandled, including among some of Piper’s closest theological allies.

Piper’s controversial admonition actually provides Christian seminaries a crucial opportunity to ask what is lacking in the preparation they’re offering future church and ministry leaders. Could at least part of the problem be the fact that it’s possible for men to complete their seminary education without significant input and influence from a female point of view?

Perhaps the question we should be asking isn’t “should” women be seminary professors, but whether we have enough of them.

Women as Models of Pastoral Ministry

Ironically (at least compared to Piper’s perspective), some of the most profound pastoral moments in the Gospels center on the pastoral ministries women offer men.

Mary of Bethany got her seminary training directly from Rabbi Jesus. She sat at his feet as a rabbinical student. Her theology—her understanding and trust in Jesus—took quantum leaps forward in the crisis with Jesus over the death of her brother Lazarus. Jesus wasn’t simply giving her “the best biblical grounding possible,” which Piper thinks is permissible for women. Jesus was equipping Mary for ministry which, as it turned out, directly benefitted him.

So when Jesus’ own crisis was looming, and his male disciples were in denial, arguing over who of them would be greatest in his kingdom, Mary broke Jesus’ isolation by publically affirming his mission. She anointed him with nard—a perfume the ancients used to pour on a corpse. Against a barrage of criticism from his male disciples who were present, Jesus defended Mary’s actions and linked them to the gospel. “When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial…wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Lest anyone miss the significance of her actions to him, Jesus added, “She has done a beautiful thing to me.”

Mary’s actions demonstrated a more profound theological grasp of Jesus’ teaching and mission than any of his male disciples and a deeper sensitivity to the pastoral needs of the moment.  She offered pastoral ministry to Jesus in a roomful of male leaders, and Jesus openly embraced her ministry to him. (To read more, see When Life and Beliefs Collide: How Knowing God Makes a Difference.)

Another powerful pastoral moment occurred when the resurrected Jesus sent his female disciples to tell his male disciples the glorious good news. Those women weren’t merely depositing information, which Piper says “machines can do.” They were on a pastoral mission to a shattered group of male disciples whose world had collapsed and who were fearing for their lives. Just imagine the comfort, reassurance, and rebirth of hope they forfeited by refusing to listen and learn from the women. Furthermore, recall whose rebuke they drew by their refusal.

Then ask again if women should be teaching men in theological seminaries.

Instead of discouraging seminaries from hiring female professors, John Piper should be urging seminaries to hire more women. Jesus’ parable of the talents casts a sobering light on this discussion. Who of us wants to stand before Jesus trying to explain why we held back? “Well, John Piper said my gifts and competencies weren’t needed,” sounds a little feeble.

Wouldn’t we all be much better off if we resolved instead that when we see Jesus, we’d rather be explaining why we did too much than why we did too little?


This article was original published at MissioAlliance.org

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Something to ponder . . .

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“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
    ensure justice for those being crushed.
Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
    and see that they get justice.”      –Proverbs 31:8-9, NLT

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Pushing for Lasting Change!

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The #MeToo movement that began when a few brave Silence Breakers went public with allegations of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace has, at the moment, captured a lot of public attention. Just last week, Oprah sounded an optimistic note as she envisioned a new day “when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”

Power over women is deeply entrenched in every culture and is as old as human history. Yet, as we have seen with other crises, the fervor of the moment can quickly evaporate as the media cycle moves on. We turn to other problems, other priorities, other crises. #MeToo stories continue, but go underground again. And perpetrators are protected and all too often repeat their crimes.

During the current public outcry over sexual violence against women, more #MeToo stories keep coming. These stories are accompanied by cover-ups, private high-cost settlements, and outright discrediting and vilifying of female accusers even within Christian churches and organizations.

If, as Christians, we hope to have any moral credibility in the battle against violence of any kind against women and girls, we need to look closely at #ChurchToo stories—and why they are happening unchecked or handled in ways that only re-abuse the victims. This of course requires concrete action to insure victims can count on the church offering safe haven for help and healing and that church leaders will hear and take their allegations seriously. It also involves insisting on the professional help of counselors and law enforcement to investigate what actually happened and to help leaders avoid mishandling and making matters worse.

Furthermore, it means being willing to look honestly at ways the church unwittingly sends subliminal messages that a woman’s testimony doesn’t rise to the same level as a man’s. We need to ask ourselves, why when sexual immorality occurs in a biblical narrative, the default reaction is to blame the woman and forgive or excuse the man?

That practice started early on when Church Fathers pointed the finger of blame at Eve and all her daughters as “the devil’s gateway.” Already, the scales of justice were tilting in favor of men.

Rethinking the Bible’s #MeToo Stories

Remarkably, the church has a unique opportunity, indeed a calling, to engage this battle. The Bible contains its own #MeToo stories. Yet all too often pastors tend to skip over, censor, or emphasize something else in stories involving sex that they deem inappropriate for a G-rated congregation. But these passages are powerful opportunities for bold preaching on the evils of violence and the abuse of male power against women.

Consider some examples.

Does Lot pay any price in the court of public opinion for his readiness to turn his daughters over to a mob of sexual predators? What about the fact that the patriarchs we venerate were human traffickers—two (Abraham and Jacob) who used slave girls, Hagar, Bilhah, and Zilhah for sex? Would anyone call that consensual? Have you ever heard a sermon that described what happened to these girls in candid terms? Who takes up their cause and gives them voice today? Who uses these #MeToo stories to condemn sexual violence against women?

The story of King David and Bathsheba is most often portrayed as “adultery” implying mutual consent. The weight of blame usually falls on Bathsheba who is accused of seducing David. Significantly, the Prophet Nathan rejects that theory when he calls Bathsheba a lamb and accuses the king of abusing male power and of rape.

What message do we send to #MeToo women in the pews when we silence #MeToo voices in the Bible and reinforce the reputations of the perpetrators? What message does it send to leaders, the inevitable first responders to #MeToo stories that surface? How does the tendency to denigrate biblical females contribute to leaders disbelieving, silencing, even blaming a Silence Breaker and circling the wagons to protect the reputation of the man accused?

I’d like to think Oprah was right to say “A new day is on the horizon.” Even more, I’d like to believe the church will lead the way—by taking a stand and speaking truth to power. May we openly decry the evils of violence, give voice to the voiceless, and put on display a gospel brand of male power that engages the battle against this evil, first in the church and then in the wider world.


This article was originally published at ElisaMorgan.com 


For further reading:

Join the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual Campaign–a call to action for the Church to stop standing by and start standing up for women and girls who experience violence.

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“All of God’s children!”

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For all of his great rhetorical flourishes, the phrase that comes to mind as we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. this next week, is his oft repeated refrain about “all God’s children.” He famously declared:

“I have a dream … when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

Dr. King reminds us that we are God’s children, echoing St. John: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (I John 3:1) As children of God, we bear a resemblance to our Father. That is just another way of declaring the age-old doctrine that all of us, Christian and non-Christian, are created in God’s image. At the very least the imago Dei means that each and every one of us is endowed with dignity, equality and significance. Being an image-bearer is what ultimately defines our essence as human beings, and especially for followers of Christ, bearing His image identifies our mission in this world.

The Gospel of Jesus calls us to live on a different plane of existence: “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly before God.”(Micah 6:8) Martin Luther King’s words are more relevant than ever in a nation increasingly divided by scatology, vitriol, misogyny and racism.

And all God’s children say AMEN!

Frank A. James III, DPhil, PhD
President and Professor of Historical Theology


Originally published at Biblical Theological Seminary

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