Category Archives: Legalsim

When Heroes Disappear

I was a fervent lover of baseball as a kid. Growing up in Colorado meant we had no access to Major League Baseball games, so I never attended a game until many years later. The nearest team was in St. Louis, and I can remember listening to games at night on a transistor radio. It wasn’t always a clear signal, but through the static, I could usually pick up KMOX, and they broadcast the Cardinals’ games. Normally, I hid under a blanket because it was past bedtime and if my mother heard the radio, she would make me turn it off.

You might think I cheered for the Red Birds, and I did like Stan Musial, but for some reason, I was a die-hard Yankee fan. Like half the boys in my generation, my hero was Mickey Mantle. In 1962, when my brother was born, I lobbied hard for my parents to name him Mickey Roger Austin because of the epic home run duel Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were involved with the previous summer. My efforts were in vain, and my brother carries the name Steve Austin (not the famous one).

I loved everything about Mickey Mantle. One of the first things I did every morning was tear through the sports page and find the box scores just to see how he did the day before. I never saw him play except for the occasional Saturday Game of the Week when the Yankees happened to play. I knew everything a 12-year-old boy could know about someone back in those pre-Internet times.heroes

Many years later, I learned the Mickey had an alcohol problem and that he liked to party, getting by on the verge of constantly being disciplined by the team. I didn’t know that, and I might not have believed it at the time. He was my hero. By the way, heroes will always disappoint us.

I have had other heroes over the years.

When I was a pastor far away from colleagues and libraries, I stumbled across a radio program called “Grace to You.” I loved the music at the beginning and end of the program— “Oh How He Loves You and Me.” I still catch myself singing it at times. The heart of the program was the preaching of John MacArthur, and for a young preacher thirsting for good Bible study, he was a life saver. I bought his books, followed his notes, used his material for my own sermon research. If I’m going to be totally honest, I’m sure I even preached a few of his sermons. He wasn’t a great preacher, but I thought he was an amazing teacher. He was a hero for me. Continue reading

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The Unfairness of God

During our Sunday morning gathering today, the discussion wandered into the subject of the unfairness of life. I don’t know about you, but even though life has been good to me, it has not been fair.

Many years ago, when my mind was quicker and my decision-making ability keener, I was hired to work in communications at the police department in the northern suburbs of Denver. It was the place where they answer the 911 calls and talk on the radio to police and other emergency responders. They were desperately seeking someone with my skill set and experience, so to entice me to leave the job I already had, they offered me more money than normal. That kind of opportunity does not come around very often, so I took the position.

However, it created a rather awkward situation where I was making more money than my supervisor. I was sworn to secrecy, and I did my part to keep my salary to myself. After several months, somehow, she discovered how much I was being paid and, needless to say, she did not take the news well. For some reason, she chose to take out her frustration on me.Unfairness of God

Her salary had nothing to do with me. Before I arrived, she was content with her wages. When she discovered that I was making more money, all of sudden she felt that she was being treated unfairly. Although she and I never discussed the situation, it was not a good environment. She blamed me for the fact that she was treated unfairly.

I have thought about this experience many times over the years as I have seen how people like to compare their income with the incomes of those around them. Many of us like to determine our value by the wages we earn, so when someone makes more money, they must be a better person in some way. Jesus told us that money is a powerful force.

However, the real issue for my supervisor was fairness. It was not fair that she was paid less even though she was in charge and had seniority. We like to speak of being treated fairly. That is all that we really want – just give us our fair share. The word “fair” means to be just, reasonable, or impartial.

Jesus spoke a parable about this kind of fairness (see Matthew 20). A landowner hired a group of laborers to work his field all day for an agreed upon price. The task was larger than first thought, so he returned every few hours to secure more laborers. This process continued all day, until the eleventh hour, just sixty minutes before the end of the day. The early morning crew must have been curious all day long, wondering how much the late arrivers were going to be paid.

They did not wait long to find out since the ones who arrived late were the first to be paid. The early risers must have been very excited to note that the late arrivers received a full day’s pay. That must mean they would be paid extra, the only fair thing to do. However, their excitement turned quickly into despair and then anger when they realized they would only receive the agreed upon price they had negotiated at the beginning of the day. Those who worked one hour were paid the identical amount as those who labored all day. That does not seem fair!

However, what the laborers defined as “unfairness,” the landowner called it “generosity.” He was completely fair since he had kept his word and paid them as promised. Their problem was his generosity toward others.

If you have lived more than a few years with your eyes open, you have discovered that we do not live in a fair world. We are all distinguished by a unique set of physical characteristics, mental capabilities, and life experiences. I have been blessed with abundance in many ways, but it is not fair that I have never been able to simply stand up and walk across the room. As long as we reside in this world, unfairness will be a part of our experience.

An equally important truth is that we really do not want fairness from God. I don’t want God to give me what I deserve; what I earn. I hope and pray that He is generous. That is why we should never begrudge His generosity toward others.

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Don’t Label Me a Heretic Until You Give This Some Thought

I wrote the following words in September of 2010, nearly nine years ago. Since that time, my path has led me away from what you might call the traditional church and to involvement with a home church. When I discovered this article, I thought it was interesting because it provides the seed that germinated into what I do today with church.

I have been in church all my life. My father was a pastor, and back in the early days, the church nursery was in the sanctuary, on my mother’s lap. The first church building, very early in my memory, was in a Quonset hut that doubled as a mechanic’s garage during the week. In case you don’t know, a Quonset hut was developed by the Navy during World War II as a prefabricated structure that could be erected by unskilled labor. After the war, the surplus buildings were sold for $1,000 each, and many are still standing to this day. If you remember the barracks buildings on the old Gomer Pyle television show, you have seen a Quonset hut.

I was taught from the beginning that church was a special thing, a very good thing, regardless of the meeting place. Church has always been where I found my friends. It has always been church folks who have most cared for me, prayed for me, provided for my needs, and helped me to grow up, and continue to help me grow in my faith. I met my wife at church and together we have spent countless hours serving Jesus by serving the church.wyliffe

For many years I was the pastor of a church, and for many years I have worked as a church consultant. I have been in numerous churches of all types and sizes. Just a couple of weeks ago I met a young seminary student named Jeremiah from Colorado. When I asked about his home church, he spoke of one that my parents had helped to start several years before he was even born. I have preached in his home church and told him that I knew their building originally was constructed as a duplex and later transformed into a church meeting place. It is a small world sometimes.

I have worshipped with churches that met in storefronts, former restaurants, school auditoriums, a daycare center, homes, tents, a former shopping mall (I’m not kidding), a high rise office building, the back of a print shop, and just about any type of structure imaginable. Christians have been very creative, and that is a good thing. I have also worshipped in beautiful, elaborate structures, filled with Christian symbols and stained glass windows. I have preached in large auditoriums where most folks watched me on a screen, and just recently I preached in a church that had no need for a sound system of any kind. Once I even preached to more than 7,000 people in a convention center.

I have worked with churches that were pastor-led, deacon-led, family-led, and poorly led. I have been immediately challenged about a point I made in a sermon, thrown out of a funeral, had a chicken slammed on my desk in the pastor’s office, listened to name calling and accusations during committee meetings, lied to, threatened, asked to referee a business meeting and a bunch of other stuff I can’t even remember. I have even left a church service early because I was afraid they were going to drag me up front and try to heal me. Just about the time I think I have seen everything at church, something else happens.

Through it all and in spite of it all – I love the church. I have given my life to the church, and it saddens me to ever see a church struggle. I cannot comprehend how disgruntled pastors or angry church members can viciously destroy a church.

I say all of the aforementioned things because I have a lingering question in my mind about the church that I think is important. First, I will state the question and then I will explain why I am asking. The question – should we invite lost people to church?

Your first reaction will be the same as mine, “Of course we should, that is what it is about.” That is what we have always been taught. The church has been given the Great Commission, to go into the entire world and preach the Gospel. Since I can first remember, I have understood the importance of inviting my lost friends to attend church with me. If they come, they will hear about Jesus and get saved. Even if I can’t muster the courage to bear a personal witness, at least I can invite them to church with me on Sunday. Church is where people go in order to be saved.

But, is that the way it should be? When the church gathers on Sunday morning, is the purpose to provide an evangelistic event?

That seems to be the way it is in most evangelical churches. I know some preachers who refuse to close a service without offering an invitation for salvation, even if nothing in the entire gathering led up to such an invitation. The reason this has become an issue for me is I have been doing considerable thinking about the way we do church nowadays. There are some trends in the church that disturb me, and probably you. Especially disconcerting is the move toward making church entertaining. Simultaneously, we have emphasized the importance of making church a comfortable place that meets everyone’s needs. For example, the idea of having church without state-of-the-art childcare is considered heresy.

Don’t bail out on me yet because I want to offer a thought. We all would agree theologically that the church consists of believers, followers of Christ. We have been told from childhood days that the church is not a building, it is people. When believers get together, it is essentially a gathering of the church, or in modern terminology – a church service. As believers, we desire to gather with other believers for the purpose of encouragement, prayer, strengthening, admonition, and just because we like to be with people we love.

I frequently wish the New Testament recorded more of the history of the early church, so I wonder what the gatherings of those first believers were like. They were a persecuted lot, so they often met in secret. To attend one of these meetings meant that you were serious about your commitment to Christ. They probably did not bring non-believers. First, why would they want to come and risk potential persecution? Second, it was probably not possible to trust unbelievers. Evangelism most likely took place in their homes, markets, street corners, and other gathering places.

Consequently, when the church (believers) gathered, it was for the purpose of worship, sharing the Lord’s Supper, instruction, fellowship, giving an offering (I had to get that one in there based on 1 Corinthians 16:2), and encouragement. If it was a gathering of believers, there was no need for evangelism. If I am correct that it would have been rare for non-believers to attend a church gathering, there was no need for evangelism. If that is the purpose for the gathering of the church, why do we structure our current church gatherings around the purpose of evangelism?

Before you go off screaming and accusing me of being some type of liberal heretic, let me hasten to add that I believe evangelism is an extremely important, even crucial task of the church. My question concerns the evangelism that occurs when the church gathers for what we normally call “worship,” the term we generally use to describe our Sunday morning gatherings. Is that the place for evangelism? If it is, when do believers get to experience the things that are only for believers – worship, Lord’s Supper, instruction, fellowship, giving an offering, and encouragement (see previous paragraph).

Perhaps this is why we have “worship wars” and worry about being offensive by passing the offering plate. I am not suggesting that we do not have evangelistic gatherings. However, they will probably look much different than gathering as the church. At such a rally it would be appropriate to be entertaining, relevant, non-offensive, motivating, exciting, and appealing. We could blanket zip codes with postcards, advertise with slick campaigns, preach sexy sermons, and all those things that are not necessary for the existing church family.

The church gathers because we are the church. Sometimes we will want to conduct special evangelistic events. However, we will probably discover that evangelism is more effective in our homes, markets, street corners, and other gathering places (again, see previous paragraph).

The concern I have for the church is that we are building these huge churches (I don’t know, but there are probably 25 mega-churches within Sunday morning driving distance of my house), but the number of people actually attending church each week is decreasing. Go figure! If it is true that true believers will gather with other believers and the number of folks gathering together is decreasing, our evangelism is not working. We are probably just reshuffling the deck and losing cards in the process.

It is hard, probably impossible, to plan a worship experience that is meaningful for believers and also appealing to non-believers. It is stressful as a pastor to create a sermon that speaks to the saved and lost at the same time. It is unlikely that we need to communicate the same things to folks who have different priorities, different destinies, and different lords. It may be time to rethink how we are doing this whole thing; at least I am going to continue thinking about it myself.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: Is It Fact or Fiction?

I confess. I got hooked on watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” the past two seasons. I’m not sure of the original attraction, especially since it’s a hard show to watch. I don’t mean the acting or production is terrible; what I mean is that the story is painful to accept. For some, it seems like the setting is too far-fetched to suggest the possibility, but it is possible to see strands of realism flowing throughout the setting and plot.

Margaret Atwood who wrote the story that inspired the TV show said that she had a rule in place as she wrote. She did not “include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time.” In other words, she wasn’t making this stuff up. She merely rearranged attitudes and events that already exist and bundled them together in a new story.

Perhaps that explains my fascination with the show. To be honest, as I watched, I kept seeing the fringes of fundamentalist Christianity. Listen to how Atwood described the Nation of Gilead which is the setting for the story:

The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights—all had precedents, and many of these were to be found, not in other cultures and religions, but within Western society, and within the “Christian” tradition itself. (I enclose “Christian” in quotation marks, since I believe that much of the Church’s behavior and doctrine during its two-millennia-long existence as a social and political organization would have been abhorrent to the person after whom it is named.)Handmaid

            It’s almost as if the story is ripped from the headlines as they say. The underlying premise is that men seize control over women. Look at the current issues as they are dealt with in Gilead.

  • Abortion – In Gilead, men determine how and when a woman becomes pregnant. A woman does not even have access to birth control without a man’s approval.
  • Children – In Gilead, children are separated from their parents and given to those who are more deserving. After watching what our government did recently with immigrant children is it far-fetched to see something like this happening. The Attorney General even defended the practice by quoting Scripture.
  • Rape and Sexual Assault – The lot of a Handmaid is to be raped by the man of the house where she has been assigned. If she is fortunate to become pregnant, she is removed from the child once the baby is weaned. There was no “metoo” movement in Gilead.
  • Subjugation of Women – The nation of Gilead is divided into various castes, and in each class, the women are subservient to the men in that level. This is not unlike many fundamentalist Christian churches today. They allow the Pastor’s wife to be considered an “equal” with her husband, but she is not equal in the sense of function or authority. A favorite Scripture is that there is “neither male nor female” in Christ except when it comes to function within the church.
  • Streets are patrolled by heavily armed guards. Several times they shoot and kill those who step out of line. How often do we hear similar stories today – a man killed by police for being in the wrong place, being somewhere he should not have been.

All this is happening under the guise of God’s Word. When the commander was raping his handmaid (with his wife’s assistance I might add), he quoted Genesis 30, “When Rachel saw that she could not give Jacob children, she became jealous of her sister. She said to Jacob, Give me children or I’ll die!”

When one of the handmaids is being disciplined by holding her hand over a hot stove, an allusion is made to I Peter 5:10, “…but only in suffering will you find grace…”

At a marriage ceremony the words recorded in Genesis, “be fruitful and multiply” are cited as the primary focus of marriage.

As I watch the show, I can’t help but see a possible future for our “Christian” world. I also choose to use the word in quotes like Atwood because I see much of what is happening today under the banner of Christ as being abhorrent to Jesus.

The TV show has already gone past Atwood’s novel, which I’m also reading. For the sake of my own sanity, I hope the current writers choose to bring in a happy ending. However, I’m not sure how that can happen without a complete revolution taking place in Gilead. Perhaps there’s also a lesson for our nation about what has to happen before we can expect everything to be fine in the end.

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Remembering Christ’s Death with Chicken Soup and Gold Fish

One of my earliest memories is sitting around a tiny wooden table, actually, a table my sister used in playing with dolls. On the Sunday evenings after our little Baptist church served the Lord’s Supper, my father, who was the pastor, brought home the leftover wafers and grape juice (we were Baptists, so we didn’t use wine). The wafers were those tasteless tiny white squares of water and paste that came in a box from the Baptist Bookstore. My sister and I didn’t pretend to mimic a religious ritual, we simply enjoyed what we considered a treat.

I’ve had a lot of experiences with the Lord’s Supper since then. My father, who was a highly influential man among Baptists in Colorado refused to recommend me to pastor a church upon graduation from seminary. One of the factors was my belief about the Lord’s Supper (the other was baptism). Consequently, I never served a church in that state.

As a pastor in the Texas panhandle, we had a young mother named Rosalinda discover Jesus and begin attending our church faithfully, sitting on the front pew every Sunday morning. In today’s climate, we would be expected to report Rosalinda to the immigration authorities, but we chose to enjoy her presence instead. Several weeks after she began attending, we celebrated the Lord’s Supper. As the platter filled with the tiny wafers was passed around the room, Rosalinda assumed we were collecting an offering. She placed her gift of a dollar bill on top of the wafers. We heard snickers as the tray containing cash and stale crackers circulated around the room.

Lord's Supper

On another occasion, one of our resident legalists came to my office in the days preceding a scheduled Lord’s Supper the next Sunday and offered to sit in the back and point out who should not be allowed to participate. I’m not sure how he would do this, but I refused his offer as graciously as I could.

One of the more memorable experiences was watching my son who was sitting beside Omer Ritchie. Omer was a well-known fundamentalist pastor in his heyday, long before this event. My son Matthew was wearing a ball cap, and his arms are covered with tattoos, an unlikely duo for most churches. Omer and Matthew loved each other, and it was a touching moment to see Matthew’s large inked hand stretch out and place the loaf of bread in Omer’s frail shaking hand and say, “This is Christ’s body broken for you.”

A few minutes later, with the cup of juice moving the other way around the room, Omer said to Matthew, “This is Christ’s body shed for your sins.”

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Conundrum

I posted this article five years ago. Unfortunately, it’s still relevant. 

It has been nearly a month since the terrible tragedy of the school shooting in Connecticut and the debate over gun control is still raging. That is a good thing because it is a discussion this country needs to have. However, like with many other issues in this country (abortion, gay marriage, federal deficit, taxes, et. al.), we have a difficult time with discussion. Most of us simply fortify our current beliefs and try to shout louder than those who believe differently.

One of the culprits in this inability to discuss issues is that we have lost the art of compromise. When two sides are unwilling to make any compromise then we are wasting our time trying to negotiate anything. When everything is either right or wrong, black or white, then we have no room to give, even an inch. Often, Christians are the worst. Since we believe that we hold the corner on all truth then anyone who disagrees with us must be wrong. If you have the “right” position on an issue, compromise would be foolish.

Now, before we dive into the issue of gun control, I need to state my own bias. I am not a gun fan. I do not own any guns. There is a handgun out there somewhere registered in my name but it was stolen years ago (a long story). I wouldn’t be surprised if someday the police knock on my door and say a gun registered to me was used in a crime (although I hope not). I witnessed a man accidentally shot by policeman’s handgun many years ago but it was only a minor injury. I have never fired a gun other than a BB gun. For several years I worked at a police department but I never got comfortable even though I was surrounded by guns.conundrum

Our family did not have any hunters. My father was not an outdoorsman. We never talked about guns and I have always suspected it was because of his war experiences. He saw enough killing to last a lifetime. But I have never been an advocate of banning guns completely. I understand the sporting use of guns for hunting and recreation. That is the sum total of my experience with guns.

When it comes to the debate about gun control, the most basic starting point of agreement is that all of us, unless you are an extreme radical, believe in gun control up to a certain point. In other words, if there was absolutely no gun control, we would have inner city gangs and redneck militias walking around with rocket launchers and other methods of mass killing. The question is not do we want to control guns but where do we draw the line.

Before choosing up sides on the issue, let me advance the notion that there are really two foundations that determine our decision making. It is a problem because United States Christians find themselves with a foot on both foundations. Let me try to explain.

As a citizen of this nation, it is important to protect our rights and fulfill our obligations. It is frequently and perpetually pointed out that the Second Amendment gives us the right to own guns. If the criterion for decision making is the necessity to protect constitutional rights, it is hard to argue for gun control. All the arguments citing self-defense, hunting, maintaining order, protection against tyranny, and others make a good point if you are a citizen of this country.

On the other hand, as a Christian, our source of authority for making decisions is not what is good for this country. We live as residents of another kingdom and we arrange our lives according to a different standard. Consequently, if we make a decision based solely on God’s Word, it is possible (and quite likely) we will come to a different conclusion than if our sole criterion is our United States citizenship.

I am somewhat disturbed that so many Christians are passionate in their stand against any type of gun control. My concern is that they make the same arguments made by non-believers – self-defense, citizen rights, constitutional provisions, etc. I have been a student of the Bible for many years and I have a difficult time finding much justification for being so adamant about owning a gun.

Jesus spoke of loving our enemies, forgiving those who wrong us, turning the other cheek, laying down our lives. Historically, His followers have been persecuted, even to the point of torture and death, without fighting back. I don’t like it and I will be honest, my human inclination is to fight back when confronted. Turning the other cheek and giving up my “rights” is not easy. I can understand the urge to fight to protect those we love. I get that!

But I can’t envision Jesus “packing heat.” I understand some will point to Jesus’ words in Luke 22:36 where He instructed His disciples to sell their coat and go purchase a sword if they did not have one. That would make a pretty strong statement if that is all He said. However, I don’t know of any reputable biblical scholar who would use this verse to advocate having an armed citizenry. (For a thorough discussion on this verse read here.) When one of His disciples actually used a sword in self-defense, Jesus told him to put it away with the warning that those who use a sword will die by a sword.

Without going into a protracted theological discussion and biblical exposition, I will simply say that I can’t find any justification for followers of Jesus having weapons with the purpose of harming others. I am not talking about guns that are used for hunting or even for sport, but to carry weapons around in our vehicles or strapped to our belts just in case we need to shoot someone (or even scare them off), does not seem like a justifiable position for a servant of Jesus. (For a good discussion about Christians and self-defense read here.) Personally, I have no problem with military or police who are armed, even if they are Christians. They are acting as agents of the state, which has been given permission by God to avenge evil (see Romans 13).

So, here is the conundrum faced by believers who are also citizens of the United States. Is our source of authority going to be the U.S. Constitution or the Word of God? In most instances, they are not at odds with one another, and we should rejoice when we can live consistently with both. However, when they are, we must make our decision carefully. When we chose to follow Christ, it was a choice that superseded any other authority in our lives. It was a choice to give up our rights and claims and to follow Him only.

My non-Christian neighbor may have the right to arm himself in self-defense. However, do I have that same right to keep a weapon around the house for the sole purpose of killing another person if necessary to protect my family and my stuff? Does my choice to follow Jesus override my freedom to be armed?

I don’t know how to guarantee that another school shooting will never occur again and I am pretty confident no one else does either. I hope the discussion of the issue continues and I pray our politicians will find the wisdom to make good choices along with the courage to make difficult decisions. I also hope that as followers of Jesus we can make a clear statement that His way is often much different from the ways of the world.

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American Christianity and Dementia

During the past couple of years, my family has walked the difficult journey of Dementia with my mother. She has moved rapidly from a healthy alert woman living by herself, to a senior living environment, to assisted living, to memory care, and now to nursing care. Perhaps the thing that is most difficult about the process is knowing that improvement is not going to happen.

I have often wondered what it must be like not knowing who you are or where you are. Forgetting your past and even your identity makes you do things that are totally out of character. A couple of times Mama has slapped one of her caregivers and even used inappropriate language. These are things that are completely unlike who she is and has been her entire life. Most of the time her caregivers speak about her kindness and sweet personality, but those ugly responses have appeared a few times.Dementia

I bring this up because Dementia seems to be an accurate metaphor for the American church. It seems as if the church is experiencing a similar debilitating disease, forgetting who it is and what it’s supposed to be. Let me clarify by stating I’m not referring to the church identified in the Bible as the body of Christ. I’m speaking of the American church—the church that embraced the notion that being a follower of Christ is equivalent to being an American.

It came on almost imperceptibly. For several years, Daddy talked about Mama losing her memory, but since none of us were with her every day we thought he was exaggerating. After he died, and we were more involved with her life, it was obvious she was struggling.

In like fashion, almost imperceptibility, the American church began to lose its identity and history. I’m certainly not qualified to write a history of the American church, but I can offer one example that suggests this might be the case—the issue of abortion.

It wasn’t that long ago, at least in my lifetime, evangelical Christians were not as singularly focused on the issue of abortion. The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Decision allowing abortions was issued in 1973. Speaking about that decision, W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, spoke out in support of the ruling with these words: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,” he said, “and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” Continue reading

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