Joann Pittman, over at the ChinaSource blog, has posted a bit on how tattoos go over in China where hordes of young evangelicals turn up sporting ink in a culture where only “gangsters and prostitutes” do this. Though the tattoo trend is spreading to other parts of the world, including China—another export from the post-Christian West unaccounted for on trade balance sheets—it still scandalizes local Christians (and non-Christians) in many parts of the world, often contradicts the modesty that actually adorns the gospel, and causes unnecessary offense.

I have sometimes touched on tattoos in my ethics course, suggesting that when a believer brands his or her body with ink it’s usually, at best, an “immature act” (in the words of one tattooed student). I cannot help but think it displays a profound misunderstanding of the biblical teaching about how to present our bodies to God. I stop short of judging it morally impermissible but certainly think it’s imprudent for a variety of reasons. Pittman’s piece adds another reason to the stack. I hasten to add, because so often misunderstood, that I am all for having congregations full of tattooed people. I just prefer tattoos that are relics of what the converted are now mortifying rather than fresh attempts to celebrate what we think is our freedom in Christ.

Moore on Religious Liberty

In a recent Acton Institute publication, Religion & Liberty, Russell D. Moore, president the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (“the moral and public policy agency” of the Southern Baptist Convention), was interviewed about “Freedom in an Age of Secularism.” One of the questions he received was this:

People read in the news about Christians refusing to bake cakes or offer other work services for homosexual weddings. Many people see this as discrimination. Why is that a religious liberty issue?

Moore’s answer deserves some thought:

The issue at hand is whether or not the state has the power to coerce someone to participate using his or her creative gifts to celebrate something that that person believes to be deeply sinful. That is a government powerful enough to coerce and to force; this is a government that is too powerful and has set itself up as a god of the conscience. And I think there are tremendous implications from that not only for Christians, but for everyone.

Although it’s obvious that providing a good or service for a customer is not the same as participating in the celebration for which the good or service has been procured, it does rise to that in some cases. But even in cases where it doesn’t, Moore’s point is still helpful.

If a gun seller had a well-founded reason to believe that a customer was trying to buy a gun to use for some misconduct then the state ought not to coerce the seller to sell in that case. So also, if a baker has a well-founded reason to believe that the customer is going to use a cake in some sort of misconduct then the baker should not be coerced to provide a cake in such a case.

Is the gun seller or baker discriminating? Yes, but not improperly. Now, if either refused a customer for no good reason, say due to the customer’s race or gender, then that would be another matter. But that’s precisely the point at issue, isn’t it? Many in our culture see homosexuality as just like race or gender and thus not moral misconduct.

Apparently viewing the “homosexual wedding” he was asked about as a legally permitted form of misconduct, Moore draws this analogy:

What about a Christian web-designer? Should he or she be forced to design a website for a pornographic company? It’s legal. So should that person’s conscience simply be run over in the process? I think that if the answer to that is yes, we have a society that is less free, and we have lost.

Moore is essentially correct if homosexual weddings are morally impermissible–and they are. As Moore also points out, this does not settle the question of whether a Christian baker should provide a cake for the ceremony. It does, however, speak to the liberty issue involved: the baker ought to be free to bake the same-sex couple a cake or not. For the state to coerce a baker to do so is for the state to not only take the stand that the baker’s  view (and corresponding action) is wrong but that this error is so grave that it cannot be tolerated. In other words, that state’s position is that it would be better to have no bakers at all than to have just bakers like this. Once that position is established, then the ground has been laid to drive Christians and other people who hold traditional moral beliefs out of the marketplace.

It is important to note, however, that many people around us would reject the analogy between baking a cake for a “homosexual wedding” and designing a website for a pornography company. Those who see homosexuality as just like race or gender likely maintain that there is a fundamental difference between legally permitted immoral behavior (pornography) and discriminating against people who happen to be homosexual. That, however, is little comfort or hope for the future of religious liberty in America.

“Let me have a faith!” The Despairing Prayer of a Young Mother

Forever ago, like maybe a whole year, a friend passed along Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s The Unknown Story of Mao (Knopf, 2005). It was next up in its vague category on my unwritten reading list and so has become my summer special.

I did not think it was possible to portray Mao in an uncharitable light—how could you say anything fit to print that would be unworthy of the man?—but as Nicholas Kristof wrote in his NYTimes review, this wife and husband team has,

now written a biography of Mao that will help destroy his reputation forever. Based on a decade of meticulous interviews and archival research, this magnificent biography methodically demolishes every pillar of Mao’s claim to sympathy or legitimacy.

And so it does, almost to excess if that is possible. Kristof again: “at times the authors seem so eager to destroy him that I wonder if they exclude exculpatory evidence.” I do too.

“Please return! Return!”

Be that as it may, their ground-breaking reporting on Yang Kaihui, Mao’s second wife, is arresting. Kaihui was raised by a philosophically-minded father who saw great potential in his student, Mao, and talked him up to others, apparently including his daughter. Mao, seven years older than Kaihui, was strongly attracted to the smart, independent, and liberal-minded young lady. Knowing her worth, she was at first determined to hold out for something better, but when her father died she fell passionately in love with Mao and they soon, scandalously, moved in together.

Kaihui with her and Mao's two oldest sons.

Kaihui with her and Mao’s two oldest sons.

Unfaithful from the beginning, she somehow overlooked Mao’s infidelities, married him, and had his first three children over the next few years. But then, the authors report, he abandoned her to pursue his political ambitions. He remarried, for pleasure, just four months later while hiding out in nearby mountains with a ragtag communist fighting unit.

He was gone, but not far, for three years; he only wrote once and never sent for her. Meanwhile, she knew little to nothing of his whereabouts or conditions, worried constantly for him, wrote frequently, and tried to send him care packages, all the time holding out hope he would return.

He eventually did, but only to lay siege to the city with his growing army. That siege cost Kaihui her life—executed for being Mao’s wife. He could have easily saved her and the children, but didn’t. Worse yet, according to Chang and Halliday, the siege of Changsha was just a ruse Mao staged to increase the size of his army and served no strategic end in the communist cause.

“Ah! Kill, kill, kill!”

Although she only heard from Mao once, she did hear a good bit about Mao and his violent ways. To be fair, murder and brutality were everywhere. But she had been a true believer and thought communism was going to be better than this. She also believed in Mao and was dismayed that he was no better.

As she wrestled with the weight of care for Mao while living as an abandoned wife and mother of three in a war-torn region, she began writing letters she never sent. Seven, carefully wrapped in wax paper and hidden in the cracks of her home, were discovered in 1982, another in 1990. Together they chronicle the anguish of her soul and her growing disillusionment with communism.

Her love for Mao is striking:

He is very lucky to have my love. I truly love him so very much! He can’t have abandoned me. He must have his reasons not to write . . . Father love [as in the love of a father] is really a riddle. Does he not miss his children? I can’t understand him. Heaven, I can’t help worrying about him. As long as he is well, whether or not he belongs to me is secondary. May heaven protect him.

Her situation was desperate:

I cower in a corner of the world. I am frightened and lonely. In this situation, I search every minute for something to lean on. . . . I seem to have seen the God of Death—ah, its cruel and severe face! Talking of death, I do not really fear it, and I can say I welcome it. But my mother, and my children! I feel pity for them! This feeling haunts me so badly—the night before last it kept me half awake all night long.

Her confidence rocked when a comrade’s wife is beheaded, she turned theological:

And yet her killing was not due to her own crime. Those who enjoyed her head and thought it was a pleasurable sight also did so not because of her own crime. So I remember the stories of killing relatives to the ninth clan for one man’s crime in the early Manchu period. My idea that killers are forces into killing turns out not to make sense here. There are so many people so exultantly enjoying it that we can see glad articles representing them in newspapers and journals. So my idea that only a small number of cruel people kills turns out not to be true here. So I have found the spirit of our times . . . and the human head is becoming a work of art needed by many!

Ah! Kill, kill, kill! All I hear is this sound in my ears! Why are human beings so evil? Why so cruel? Why?! I cannot think on! I must have a faith! I must have a faith! Let me have a faith!

Her executioners stripped her outer garments for spoils, took her out to a field, and shot her. They then threw her shoes far away so her ghost would not follow them home, and went and had lunch. Turned out they botched the job. Seven of them returned “and finished her off.” Chang and Halliday note that “in her agony her fingers had dug deep into the earth,” just as her tormented mind, we might add, had already done.

China’s Reforming Churches

China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom is now available in paper from Amazon (click here for kindle format) or RHB and for many other places.


Paperback, 352 pages 
Page Size: 6 x 9 inches
Retail Price: $20.00
ISBN 978-1-60178-317-2
E-book 978-1-60178-318-9
Publisher’s Description:
China is now home to more evangelical believers than any other nation, and the church continues to grow and make inroads in every level of Chinese society. Such dramatic growth, against the backdrop of modern China, has produced profound and urgent church development needs. As faithful Chinese ministers strive to meet these needs, an increasing number are discovering the rich biblical and theological resources of the Reformed tradition and presbyterian polity.
This is a critical moment in the life of China’s reforming churches and the Presbyterian and Reformed mission to China. This book provides both a historical look at presbyterianism in China and an assessment of the current state of affairs, orienting readers to church development needs and the basic outlines of Reformed Christianity in China today. While laying out the challenges and opportunities facing the church, the authors argue that assisting this reformation in China should be a central objective of the presbyterian and Reformed mission to China in this generation.
“Rarely do you encounter a book on China’s Christians by scholars who are so distinguished and expert on the topic. Brimming with profound and carefully researched insight into the subject, China’s Reforming Churches is the finest work on Christianity in China that I have seen in years. It is also elegantly written and edited. It deserves the widest readership.”
—David Aikman, author of Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power
“I found this book of essays to be both interesting and informative. If you take seriously your Reformed theology and church polity and care about the church in China, you should read this book.”
—Daniel H. Bays, professor emeritus, Calvin College, and author of A New History of Christianity in China
“It is meaningful to remember that the Reformed and Presbyterian mission to China was initiated by American and British missionaries, but it was a Korean missionary who carried the baton as the final runner in that chapter of the China mission. As that last Korean missionary to China, I am gratified that in this book the Korean mission is given a place in the history of the Presbyterian mission in China.”
—Pang Chi-Yil, missionary to China from 1937 to 1957 and pastor emeritus, Yongdeungpo Presbyterian Church, Seoul, Korea
“What is the actual state of the church in China? Only the Lord of the church knows for sure. But one thing is certain. We are in the midst of a time when God is at work in an unprecedented way throughout China, gathering His elect to Himself, building and reforming the church there. The editor is to be commended for his vision and efforts in providing us with this book. Its various contributors together offer informative perspectives on current conditions in the Chinese church, both great encouragements and undeniable challenges. This book is an invaluable aid to anyone interested in being better informed about the church in China, not least in being better able to pray more intelligently for the great work God is doing there.”
—Richard B. Gaffin Jr., professor of biblical and systematic theology emeritus, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia

Introduction: China, Church Development, and Presbyterianism
Bruce P. Baugus
Part I—The History of Presbyterianism in China
1.      A Brief History of the Western Presbyterian and Reformed Mission to China
Michael M.
2.      Watson Hayes and the North China Theological Seminary
A. Donald MacLeod
3.      A Brief History of the Korean Presbyterian Mission to China
Bruce P. Baugus & Sung-Il Steve Park
Part II—Presbyterianism in China Today
4.      In Their Own Words: Perceived Challenges of Christians in China
Brent Fulton
5.      Why Chinese Churches Need Biblical Presbyterianism
Luke P. Y. Lu
6.      “A Few Significant Ones:” A Conversation with Two of China’s Leading Reformers
Bruce P. Baugus
Part III—Challenges & Opportunities for Presbyterianism in China
7.      The Social Conditions of Ministry in China Today
G. Wright Doyle
8.      China: a Tale of Two Churches?
Brent Fulton
9.      Two Kingdoms in China: Reformed Ecclesiology and Social Ethics
David VanDrunen
10.  From Dissension to Joy: Resources from Acts 15:1–35 for Global Presbyterianism
Guy Waters
Part IV—Appropriating a Tradition
11.  The Emergence of Legal Christian Publishing in China: An Opportunity for Reformed Christians
Phil Remmers
12.  A Report on the State of Reformed Theological Education in China
Bruce P. Baugus
13.  The Indigenization & Contextualization of the Reformed Faith in China
Paul Wang
Conclusion: The Future of Presbyterianism in China
Bruce P. Baugus
A.    Robert Morrison’s Catechism
Introduced and Translated by Michael M.
B.     Shandong Student Protest and Appeal
Introduced by Bruce P. Baugus and Translated by Born
About the Editor:
Bruce P. Baugus is associate professor of philosophy and theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi. He was the co-organizer, with Dave Holmlund, of the China’s Reforming Churches conference. Bruce is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and chairs the Credentials Committee of the Presbytery of Mississippi Valley.

Deborah the Judge? Yes and No

The student government at RTS Jackson hosts a faculty panel on some topic of interest each year. This year’s topic was “gender” and as usual in Christian circles Deborah was an important reference point. Conventional wisdom and the majority scholarly opinion maintains that Deborah was a judge more or less like the other major judges, only more noble than most of the rest.

But there is a minority reading advanced by Daniel Block (see “Why Deborah’s Different,” Bible Review 17/3 [June, 2002]: 34–40, 49–52; and “Deborah Among the Judges: The Perspective of the Hebrew Historian,” in Faith, Tradition, and History: Old Testament Historiography in Near Eastern Context, ed. A. R. Millard, James K. Hoffmeier, and David W. Baker [Winona Lake: Eisenbraums, 1994], 229–53). Block’s position is picked up in a piece by Barbara K. Mouser (I think) that runs on The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood website here. I think both Block and Mouser overreach at points and do not want to sign on to all their claims. I am convinced, however, that their discussions take into account important, obvious, and yet often overlooked (or dismissed) details of Judges 4–5 that ought to shape our interpretation of this narrative cycle and use of Deborah’s example.

Palm in Israel by Kobi Zilberstein

Lone palm tree in Tel Shimron, Israel, by Kobi Zilberstein

As noble and lofty as Deborah’s public position and role in Israel was, it was not just what people casually assume it to have been—and even more praiseworthy in several respects. To understand this cycle well we should distinguish between the de jure office of judge and the de facto responsibilities of judging, which were several (see 2:16–19). Though this language or its equivalent is not used in this text, the concept of office and distinction between holding office and fulfilling its responsibilities is clearly evident in Scripture by the time we arrive at Judges and this appears to be the pattern of thought that is informing the very careful way this cycle is constructed. With this distinction in mind, the details of the narrative fall into place in a way that fits the larger context remarkably well.

In a generation of faltering male leadership, some of the responsibilities of judging have devolved to Deborah as a “prophetess” (4:4). She was not sent by Yahweh to save, Barak was (4:6–7, cf. 6:14) and we note that, in her words, she did not arise as a judge but “as a mother of Israel” (5:7, cf. 2:16, 3:9, 3:15, 10:1, 3). Like so many other mothers dealing with failing men, Deborah finds herself having to do what Barak and perhaps other men called to be fathers in Israel are failing to do. And, like many other godly women who find themselves in this situation, she longs for, calls for, and works toward seeing these failing men arise and fulfill their duties (a longing for Christ-likeness in men and ultimately for Christ himself, it would seem). For this reason, she does not usurp Barak’s role but goes with him and is quick to praise him and his men’s stumbling efforts when they finally act even if the glory rightly falls to the women in this situation: Jael for killing Sisera and Deborah for being the de facto judge of Israel.

As we read on, we find that when failing men do step up they tend to treat women terribly—as so many anti-Christs who view women as objects of self-gratification or trophies to their vanity, depriving them of the kind of honor and dignity we see displayed in Deborah and resenting their competency and godliness. My point is this: although I’ll take Barak’s relative weakness over cowardly Gideon’s drunken ambition, Jephthah’s perverted piety, Samson’s spoiled temper-tantrums, and the terrors of the concluding stories of moral chaos, the imbalance between the complementary roles of men and women introduced by deadbeat men, wherever we find them, tends to cause societies small and large to spin out of control into the terrible abuses that follow in Judges. Deborah is not called a savior (or deliverer or judge) of Israel in Scripture but she is willing and able to do much of the work her people need while she longs for one to arise among her people as she waits for the coming of the true and ultimate Savior who alone does not disappoint.

Surrogacy in America, Chinese-style

Today in Ethics at Reformed Theological Seminary I discussed the morality of surrogacy, along with other fertility related matters, as one of several contemporary issues that fall under the seventh (and sixth) commandments. On the way home, NPR’s flagship news program, All Things Considered (ATC), ran this story about how wealthy Chinese are increasingly turning to California clinics like this one and this one to find American women willing to serve as surrogate mothers (and sometimes egg donors). Reasons they are doing so include trying to circumvent one-child-policy restrictions in China and to secure that coveted American citizenship and passport. In other words, they mostly seem to be trying to exploit what appear to be two coinciding loopholes.

Image shamelessly copied from

For those who are wondering, I argued in class that surrogacy ought to be generally discouraged even though it may be permissible in some circumstances, such as when one is adopting unwanted and abandoned embryos in order to try and bring the baby to term instead of flushing it away.

Christianity in China and a Watching World

The second most read story on The Telegraph’s website tonight—trending just behind a sighting of Nessie on Apple’s Map app—is on the growth of Christianity in China and likelihood that China will be the world’s most Christian nation within 15 years. (That’s about the same time frame some predict China will overtake the United States economically too.) By “most Christian” they mean, roughly, home to more professing Christians than any other nation. Though the article is up to date on current events and a solid little introduction to Christianity in China, there’s little news in this story; observers have been forecasting this for years.

Among the tidbits worth noting: that the rate of growth in China apparently continues to be very high, that China has become a missionary-sending nation, and that the scene in China stands in sharp contrast to the West, where churches are generally in decline and not even Jesus’ ethics is respected any longer.

Human Cloning in America

In 2013 a team at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon, announced they had successfully cloned a human embryo by swapping the DNA of an unfertilized egg with the DNA out of a cell taken from an infant. Today, Maundy Thursday 2014, Advanced Cell Technology, a publicly traded Massachusetts based company working in a California lab with funding from the Korean government, announced it has done the same using DNA from cells taken from two mature adults—a 35 year old and 75 year old, respectively. The purpose of this experiment is to pioneer a method of producing embryonic clones of older humans that will allow scientists to extract stem cells in order to grow spare parts (tissue and organs) for diseased adults.


Dolly the sheep and her mother.

Extracting those embryonic stem cells still involves the destruction of the embryo—human life manufactured via cloning for the purpose of destroying it in order to harvest its stem cells. As Gautum Naik notes in the WSJ, “Despite this advance, experts say it wouldn’t be easy to create a full-fledged human clone. Scientists have been trying for years to clone monkeys and have yet to succeed. Even the cloning of less-complicated creatures—from sheep to rabbits and dogs—required years of tweaking, and lots of wasted eggs and deformed fetuses, before it worked.” Note that “full-fledged human clone” here means a viable, healthy human being; human embryos don’t count in a culture that long ago embraced the dehumanizing logic that justifies elective abortions and the flushing away of unused IVF embryos. But just a surely as companies are now cloning human embryos they will continue “advancing,” despite the human carnage, till they get it “right.”


Passover Pieces online

Two editorials playing on Passover are running online and worth a thoughtful read—one in the Wall Street Journal and the other in New York Times.


The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria—built on top of an ancient Christian basilica.

First, the WSJ is running an editorial by Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, entitled “The Middle East War on Christians: Muslim-majority nations are doing to followers of Jesus what they did to the Jews.” In it, Prosor highlights that the systemic persecution of Christians over the past century has greatly intensified since the wave of revolt that has recently swept the region. No doubt a piece of popular diplomacy aimed at stirring up moral outrage against Israel’s enemies and sympathy for Israel, it’s an interesting piece highlighting what I think is an underreported story in the West.

Second, NYTimes editorialist David Brooks offers this reflection on Moses, liberty, and law, pointed out to me by Dave Holmlund. Moses, Brooks argues, is not just a deliverer from tyranny but a re-binder of those delivered from tyranny to the rule of law that governs deliverer and delivered alike. “Exodus is a reminder,” he writes, “that statecraft is soulcraft, that good laws can nurture better people.” It’s definitely worth a thoughtful read, especially by my more libertarian-minded friends.