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(c) DN He has filled the hungry with
good things but has sent the
rich away empty.
(Luke 1:53)

 

(c) DN

Christianity makes some very strong claims, so it's only natural that you'd have some questions. If you'd like us to answer those questions, use our contact form. We'll put your questions, along with our answers, below to create a FAQ about Christianity.

Here are a few of the questions asked by skeptics (reproduced with permission and listed in order of submission) with answers written by GCF people.

   

  • Why is there a need for a "chosen people", the Jews?
  • Quite simply I don't believe that societies of the time would have been able to accept a religion that wasn't ethnocentric. People's belief systems at the time associated Gods heavily with race (or even cities). Probably not until Buddhism or Zorastrianism (hopefully someone more studied in religion on this list will know for sure) do religions actively extend to other races. These come about much later than Judaism (by 1000? years at least depending on when you believe Judaism started).
    Essentially my answer comes down to my belief that God generally lets the world work according to it's own rules (that He set up in the beginning) a large percentage of the time. I don't know why He chose to set the world up as He did, but given that, He would need to change the way everyone thought in a tumultuous way, or wait for several thousand years.
    His choice of a small, centrally located, nomadic people seems logical' if a choice needs to be made.
    this seems to be the way God likes to do things: start small and work outward. This is consistent in the Old Testament, from Adam and Eve to start a whole species, to Abraham to start a nation, to Moses and the prophets to spread his Word, all the way through the New Testament, from John the Baptist, to Jesus and a handful of disciples, to a few Jewish Christians scattered by persecution beginning to reach the ends of the earth. I can't necessarily say why God likes to do things that way, just that he does.
  • Is it true that ancient Egyptian religions had a virgin birth for their god, and if yes, who borrowed from whom?
  • The Egyptian story you're referring to is probably the virgin birth of Horus. "Who borrowed from whom" is a trickier question; the first thing to realize is that stories of virgin births are quite common in world religions and mythologies, and many of these stories pre-date the birth of Jesus by many centuries. The same thing can be said of most other miracle stories in the Bible. There are many books about this stuff, especially by skeptics; one relatively unbiased source of information is _The_Book_of_Miracles_ by Kenneth L. Woodward.
    Of course, none of this proves that there was "borrowing." To "borrow," the writer has to be aware of the earlier story, and it is generally a very difficult task to establish that a writer in one religious tradition was explicitly aware of the traditions of other religions. Furthermore, the word "borrow" seems to imply that the "borrower" is adding fabricated elements to his story, and I'm guessing that most people on this list would reject a priori the notion that the virgin birth of Christ was a parable and not a historical event.
    One approach to this question, which I think C.S. Lewis has proposed, is to say that the Christian account is the ultimately true one, and the accounts found elsewhere are echos or shadows of this truth that reside deep inside the minds and souls of even unregenerate people. This view has the advantage that miracle stories in other religions don't have to be seen as satanic or as threats to the validity of the Bible.
    As for miracles, well, the virgin birth has always been a major stumbling block for people, and I've never seen why. What all these miracle stories, such as the Egyptian one, and the several Greco-Roman ones I know (the conception of Romulus and Remus, or the birth of Athena), really point to is that this concept really isn't difficult to accept if you believe in gods. It should be a piece of cake for any deity even half-worthy of the title to create life without the need for sexual intercourse. Hey, with modern technology, even we can do it. This is what I consider an "obvious" miracle, something that you'd just assume a god could and would do when there was a need for it.
    "Obvious" miracles in other religions don't bother me. What I find interesting are fanciful miracles, and the relative lack of them in the Judeo-Christian faith. Very few miracles in the Old or New Testament are showy, and generally only occur when God is making a point (the parting of the Red Sea, the column of fire and smoke, fire from heaven, the Transfiguration and Pentecost). Most miracles we wouldn't even recognize as miracles except that we are told--the flood, most of the plagues, the three-year drought, most healings, the calming of the storm, etc. Rationalists today spend a lot of time trying to explain these things mainly because God didn't make them look like miracles. They were very utilitarian in nature. Transformations, so important in Greco-Roman mythology, are almost totally lacking in the Bible. (The examples I can think of: formation of Adam and Eve, the curse of the snake, Lot's wife, and Moses' rod-snake (which, interestingly, seemed to have been selected because it could be imitated by Pharoah's magicians). None of these remotely resembles Greco-Roman transformation stories.) Fanciful creatures are only found in visions and poetry, and then in a sense which doesn't sound too literal. There are only two instances of talking animals: the snake and Balaam's donkey. In short, I see the distinction from other religions' miracle stories more in what the Bible doesn't contain than what it does.
    I suppose most of these are impressions rather than hard figures and numbers, but I would challenge anyone to read a selection of Greco-Roman miracle stories and claim they had the same _character_ as Biblical miracle stories.
    One theme that is common is that the miracles of the Bible are not terribly repugnant to neither the ancient nor modern mind. In his book "Miracles", C.S. Lewis asserts that what we observe small and tiny everyday is what God performs in broad, sweeping strokes which we call miracles. For example, water (in the form of rain) is taken up by a vine, delivered to a grape, pressed from it in the form of juice, and by the vehicle of a series of chemical reactions is transformed into wine. There is no mystery in this. In Canaan, Jesus performed in one step what we usually observe over the course of many months or even years. The fact that the usual "laws" of nature were temporarily suspended undoubtedly signaled to witnesses that nothing extraordinary occurred not merely because water turned to wine, but because Someone wielded the power to effect that temporary suspension.
    Would it not be such a stretch to suggest that the miracles embraced by some other religions and those of the Bible are similar to each other not because of any copying or borrowing, but because the "small and tiny" common to everyone's lives are in each case manifested in fantastic proportions (i.e., miracles)? Stated somewhat differently, perhaps the common man's experiences with his physical world are the means through which a miracle is most effectively manifested. Joseph was surprised that something (great) was amiss at the news of Mary's pregnancy, but at least the mere principle of a woman being pregnant was not foreign to him. But what are we to make of talking trees, gargoyles, and centaurs we read about in various mythologies? Perhaps, as Lewis has stated in another work, other religions look at the facts of the universe through "dusty goggles". They get some, but not all, of the facts in, but Christianity gets them all.
  • Why was Mary not stoned according to the Mosaic law (the Torah) when she was found to be pregnant?
  • Mosaic law did call for the death by stoning of an engaged woman who had sexual relations with another man. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) More specifically, it called for the stoning of both willing parties. Pregnancy is not mentioned. The only crime for which Mary could be held accountable would be sexual relations with a man other than her betrothed. By whatever means God formed Jesus in Mary's womb, it is clear that this did not happen through sexual intercourse. The terms used by the physician Luke to refer to the work of God in the impregnation of Mary do not have a sexual meaning in the Greek. (Luke 1:26-38) And the repeated emphasis on Mary's virgin motherhood belies the notion that she became pregnant through any kind of sexual intercourse.
    This resolves the legal issue, but who would have believed Mary's claim, rather than concluding she had lain with another man? Fortunately, the only one who had to believe her was Joseph. While society would have frowned on it, the Law provided no punishment should a man lay with his betrothed before marriage. So if Joseph claimed the child to be his, nobody would be executed. Joseph did not believe Mary at first, and wanted to put her aside quietly. Since only the betrothed knew for certain that the child was not his, no one else could have brought charges against Mary. Possibly the onus would have fallen on Joseph for getting Mary pregnant and then abandoning her. God convinced Joseph in a dream that Mary was telling the truth, and Joseph married her but did not consummate the union until Jesus was born. Since Jesus was born to a married couple, most people would not have noticed anything unusual, and if anyone did think he was born too early, they would have concluded that Joseph jumped the gun a little, then did the right thing and married the girl. (Matthew 1:18-25)
  • Isn't the doctrine of the trinity just the worship of three gods, rather than one God?
  • In a word, no. Christians believe that the three persons of the Trinity are all one God. Deuteronomy 6:4 states, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!" He is a super-person, so to speak, His nature being so much more complex than our own that we cannot describe Him as a single "person." The doctrine of the trinity is perhaps the most difficult and perplexing to explain, since we are trying to describe the nature of the infinite God, which finite human beings are incapable of comprehending.
    What is the trinity?
    Definition: "Within the one Being that is God, the exists eternally three co-equal and co-eternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."
    The term trinity describes a relationship not of three gods, but of one God who is three persons. Trinity does not mean tritheism, that is, that there are three beings who together are God, but the word trinity is used in an effort to define the fullness of the Godhead both in terms of His unity and diversity. The term trinity is never used explicitly in Scripture, but the concept is there from the beginning and specific passages such as Matthew 28:19, "baptizing them in the name [singular] of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit", refer explicitly to there being three "persons". All three persons of the trinity make an appearance at Jesus's baptism, as recorded in Mark 1:10-11, "As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'" The "he" who saw this may be either Jesus or John the Baptist, who later testified about this event (John 1:32-34).
    The church has rejected from the beginning heresies of modalism and tritheism. Modalism is the denial of the distinction of persons within the Godhead, claiming that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are simply three "modes" of God expressing Himself. Tritheism reaches to the other extreme, that of falsely declaring that there are three beings who together make up God. The term "person" does not mean a distinction in essence, but a difference in subsistence. Jesus is different in subsistence from the Father or the Holy Spirit, but he is the same essence in terms of being. The Christian definition of God asserts that the three persons of the Godhead share the same essence, the same co-eternal existence, and the same will, but not the same mind, the same position, the same role, or the same relationship. All the persons in the Godhead have all the attributes of deity.
    For example, in the Torah, Moses asks God who is sending him and God replies: "I am that I am" (Exodus 3:14). Jesus lays claim to this same statement throughout the New Testament, most noticeably in John 8:58 "Jesus said to them, 'Truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am'" This is the same "I am" as stated in the Exodus passage. In John 10:30 Jesus explicitly states, "I and the Father are one." In Mark 12:35-37, Jesus lays claim to His deity, tying together both the Hebrew Scriptures (Psalm 110:1) and the New Testament. Lastly, there is the simple fact that Jesus was executed for claiming equality with God and he did not once deny the claim before his accusers (Mark 14:62 "Jesus said, 'I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.'") The Holy Spirit's role, while active throughout creation (Gen. 1:2) and in the Hebrew Scriptures (Judges 3:10, 13:25, 1 Samuel 16:13), has the specific role to live in the hearts of Christians after Jesus departed the Earth (Mark 13:11 "for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit", Acts 2). Throughout, there is an emphasis on the pre-existence of both Son and Holy Spirit. God did not at some point become three persons: the Son existed before he came to earth as Jesus, the Spirit existed before the Pentecost. God has always been the trinity: He is three persons and one God.
    The trinity does not refer to "parts" of God and unfortunately human analogies fall short. True, you can point to one man who is a father, son and husband, or water in its three phases (ice, liquid and vapor). These are both modalist explanations which fail to capture the mystery of the Godhead. A more accurate but still faulty analogy may be found in ourselves, however. Human beings are composite creatures. Physically, we are trillions of cells working together to form the body, millions of neurons firing simultaneously to produce thought, two distinct hemispheres of the brain which "think" in different ways. Psychologically, we are a mess of conflicting emotions and ideas, each vying for primacy in our psyche. Spiritually, we are creatures of both soul and body, an uncomfortable mix filled with the strife between the physical and spiritual parts of our nature. Ultimately, one human person has less internal unity than the three persons of the trinity. And yet we never think of ourselves as more than one being.
    The following is a traditional explanation for the roles of the three persons of God, taken from C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity:
    God is a Being which contains three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube contains six squares while remaining one body. But as soon as I begin trying to explain how these Persons are connected, I have to use words which make it sound as if one of them was there before the others. The First Person is called the Father and the Second the Son. We say that the First begets or produces the Second; we call it begetting, not making, because what he produces is of the same kind as Himself. In that way the word Father is the only one to use. But unfortunately it suggests that He is there first--just as a human father exists before his son. But that is not so. There is no before and after about it... The Son exists because the Father exists: but there never was a time before the Father produced the Son.
    We must think of the Son always, so to speak, streaming forth from the Father, like light from a lamp, or heat from a fire, or thoughts from a mind. He is the self-expression of the Father--what the Father has to say. And there never was a time when He was not saying it... All these pictures of light or heat are making it sound as if the Father and the Son are two things instead of two Persons. So that, after all, the New Testament picture of a Father and a Son turns out to be much more accurate than anything we try to substitute for it... Naturally God knows how to describe Himself much better than we know how to describe Him. He knows that Father and Son is more like the relation between the First and Second Persons than anything else we can think of. Much the most important thing to know is that it is a relation of love. The Father delights in His Son; the Son looks up to His Father...
    The union between the Father and Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is a Person. I know this is almost inconceivable but look at it thus. You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the "spirit" of that family, or club, or trade union. They talk about its "spirit" because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving, which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course, it is not a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that is just one of the difference between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.
    This third Person is called, in technical language, the Holy Ghost or the "spirit" of God. Do not be worried or surprised if you find it (or Him) rather vaguer or more shadowy in your mind than the other two... Perhaps some people might find it easier to begin with the third Person and work backward. God is love, and that love works through men--especially through the whole community of Christians. But this spirit of love is, from all eternity, a love going on between the Father and the Son.
    This explanation helps to illustrate a number of things. For one, the term "Word" applied to the Son in John 1 begins to make sense when we consider the Son as the "self-expression of the Father." Perhaps more importantly, it illustrates what is meant by 1 John 4:8, which declares that "God is love." We tend to minimize this, saying it means that God is loving. But throughout the Bible, the refrain is that God loves us because His very nature is love, and it would be unlike Him not to love us. But before humans and angels, what was there to love? What besides God is eternal? Love requires an object; the word is meaningless otherwise. Love could not be part of His eternal nature if He has not had some eternal object for His love. Instead, it would be something God learned to do once He had created someone to love. Only the trinity offers an explanation of how love can be a facet of the eternal nature of God, since contained in the three persons of the trinity are the subject, object, and expression of love. The three persons of the trinity are defined primarily by the relationship shared among them.
    While I hope this helps shed some light on what the Trinity is, don't worry if you don't feel you fully understand it. Count it as amazing that, finite as we are, we mortals have been given the revelation and the insight to grasp even this much.
    In short, the trinity is described by the following:
    1. It affirms the triunity of God.
    2. It is not a contradiction: God is one in essence and three in person.
    3. The Bible affirms both the oneness of God and the deity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
    4. The trinity is distinguished by the work assumed by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
    5. The doctrine of the trinity sets limits of human speculation about the nature of God.
  • What does the Bible say about marriage in the eyes of God versus marriage in the eyes of the state?
  • What constitutes a marriage in the eyes of God and the eyes of the state are two very different things. The Bible goes into no detail about what a wedding ceremony should look like or what forms should be filed. Most of its laws seem to indicate that the marriage begins with the consummation and concern themselves with faithfulness to it afterwards. I do not believe that God considers the arrangement you describe as anything less than a marriage. I also fully believe that he would take great offense at any disruption to that marriage on the grounds that it was not official.
    That said, the state most likely does not view such a marriage as legitimate. This is one of those things that vary from state to state in the US, and certainly from country to country. If it is not recognized by any government, however, that will likely be a problem. It may not be a concern early on, but it is sure to become an issue at some point. I'm not sure what, if any, provisions governments make for legitimizing a marriage after the fact, although it is usually fairly easy to get an official marriage done by a justice of the peace. I do know one couple who married twice, the first time by a justice of the peace because they wanted a legally recognized marriage right away, the second time in a more traditional wedding ceremony which their friends and family could attend. I would not think going the other way would be difficult.
  • Will God let us face difficulties which we cannot deal with?
    There are certain things we are promised, and certain things we aren't. God promises that we will face no temptation except what is common to man, and that we will be able to overcome the temptation to sin. In other words, any sin we commit is our choice, and we will never be completely unable to choose the right path, although it will rarely be the easy one.
    I tend to think that the whole point in life is to face trials which we cannot overcome, to realize that we need God and that in our own strength we are helpless. That is when we learn that God's plan is often not deliverance, but redemption--to take the bad and bring good out of it. The present situation is not proof of God's abandonment, but an opening for His grace to work.
    There is at least one other reason why we have to face difficulties. We live in a fallen world, and to pretend anything else is to deceive ourselves and to trade in God's redemption for an illusion. Living in comfort causes people to lose sight of Heaven. Coming face-to-face with this world's faults helps us to set our sights, and our hopes, higher.
    To someone facing real-life problems, these may just sound like pretty words and nice ideas. They may be true words and true ideas, but they aren't enough. What can you actually do? First and foremost, anyone in trouble needs to pray, to cry out to God. God can handle our complaints, and He prefers it to our silence. Second, that person should seek the comfort of friends and family, especially his Christian family. Part of what it means to be a Christian is to love one another and to carry one another's burdens. We aren't perfect at it, but through God's grace, we can do it.
  • Why doesn't Christianity promote vegetarianism? The Bible contains numerous accounts of animals being killed for sacrifices and eaten. Even though God has declared all animals clean and thus fit for human consumption, shouldn't Christians be concerned about the pain animals feel when killed?
  • First we need to understand where the questioner is coming from. If he/she (from now on abbreviated as "he") is an atheist, then most likely he adheres to some form of Darwinism in order to explain his existence. In this case, humans are no different from animals, save our vastly superior cognitive abilities that have allowed us to manipulate our environment. Thus, carnivorous animals are also immoral for doing what comes naturally to them. It would be hard to argue that eating meat doesn't come naturally to us, given our digestive system and large canine teeth. Furthermore, most of the major world religions (except for some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism) have no prohibitions against eating meat, so this argument would not be limited to Christianity.
    However, if the questioner belongs to a religion that does advocate vegetarianism, then the best answer we can give is that there is no logical connection that Christians must eat meat. In fact, there are many Christians who are vegetarians (see http://www.jesusveg.com and http://www.christianveg.com for examples; hote that these websites are not endorsed by the MIT Graduate Christian Fellowship). Even Christians who are not vegetarian do support the prevention of unnecessary cruelty to animals, and if animals can be killed painlessly then the ethical and emotional argument about causing pain to animals is nullified.
    If the claim is that the intentional killing of animals for food is unethical even if done painlessly, or that one must not eat meat until slaughterhouses and such have been sufficiently reformed, then we have crossed into more controversial and political territory. In this case, we cannot support the validity of this claim, and thus we humbly refrain from offering our opinions on this matter.
    It is important to realize that Christians aren't perfect, and we too often are hypocritical and turn a blind eye to evil. We are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God, and we must depend on Him for our salvation.
  • Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the only way for eternal salvation and for being in a personal relationship with the loving God. What about those who have never heard about Christ the Savior, for example, Native Americans who did not even know about Christ until Western Christian missionaries came? Therefore, they would not have believed in Christ, were not saved, and would have ended up in Hell. What is the reasoning for this inconsistency of God not wishing any to perish, and Jesus being the only way to salvation, when clearly many didn't even get a chance to choose?
  • This is a tough question, for which there has been no clear consensus among Christians, even since the early days of the church. In general, there are three schools of thought regarding the issue of salvation: 1. "exclusivism", which says that those who have never heard will indeed go to Hell, but this is not unjust since everyone deserves to go to Hell anyway, 2. "inclusivism", which says that Christ is the only way, but that God may provide some way for those who have never heard to nevertheless come to faith in Christ somehow. Exactly how such a mechanism would work is not known, but it is not important as long as the possibility is consistent with Scripture, and 3. "post-mortem evangelism", which says that those who have never heard will get a chance to hear the gospel after they die. This is possibly consistent with Scripture and that there are hints of post-mortem evangelism in passages such as 1 Peter 3:19-20.
    Supporters of exclusivism are generally Reformed (as defined by the Westminster Confession) in their beliefs. They refute the notion that God is unfair for condemning those who did not have a chance to hear about Christ. It is important to remember that "the wages of sin is death", "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God", and even "surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me". In other words, "fairness" dictates that all humans should be condemned, and if God had decided to condemn every human in history, His decision would still be absolutely fair and good. In fact, salvation by grace is really "unfair" in the sense that we do not in any way deserve it. Even our faith through which we believe is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8), which makes His grace so amazing. A pertinent article is http://www.trinityfoundation.org/reviews/last.asp
    Those Christians who believe in "inclusivism" believe that the prooftexts for exclusivism seem to presuppose in one way or another that a person has the ability to either believe in Christ or not believe in Christ. So the prooftexts don't seem to directly apply to those who (probably) lack this ability -- infants, mental incompetents, those who have never heard, pets, etc. Southern Baptists in particular believe that infants are not condemned to Hell, in a concept called the "Age of Accountability," the age where a person is capable of making a decision for or against Christ. Although there is no official consensus, this age is probably not the same for each person, and it is not a large leap to suppose that some people may never reach it because they never hear the gospel. However, although a person may not be able to accept or reject the gospel while on Earth, it does not mean that Heaven is compulsory for them. Those who could not be accountable on earth are not that way in Heaven -- I don't know anyone who believes that infants remain infants in heaven, the mentally incompetent remain mentally incompetent, the ignorant remain ignorant. In conclusion, entrance into Heaven depends on whether you accept or reject Christ to the extent you understand Him. Even those who have never heard the gospel still have the general (though incorrect) revelation found in other religions so that they can, in some way, seek God. The promise of "Seek and ye shall find" does extend to them as well, and God does reach out to those seeking without understanding to tell them the gospel message through some means.
    Post-mortem evangelism is another possibility, in line with the Jewish concept of death (Sheol), and the ultimate fate of Old Testament fathers such as David, Abraham, and Moses.
    Ultimately, we know that those who understand the gospel and accept Jesus go to Heaven. Those who understand and reject Jesus are condemned to Hell. We're just not sure about the rest, and only God knows. If you want to delve further into this topic, you can check out: "What About Those Who Have Never Heard? Three Views on the Destiny of the Unevangelized" by Ronald H. Nash, John Sanders (Editor), and Gabriel J. Fackre.
  • Are miracles real? Do they truly come from God? Or are they just coincidences or good luck?
  • The first question that needs to be addressed is "What is a miracle?" For example, there are several events in the Bible that we characterize as miraculous, rather than merely coincidences: fire from heaven, walking on water, parting the Red Sea, and raising the dead. In particular, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most important miracle of the Christian faith. A skeptic might doubt whether the Resurrection happened, but if it did happen, this act of God could not plausibly be described as a "coincidence" or "good luck." The question then becomes, "Did the Resurrection really happen?", which we can address if you submit a question to Skeptics Anonymous.
    On the other hand, there are a number of Biblical miracles that people do say are just coincidences: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah could have been due to a volcanic eruption, the drought prayed for by Elijah could have just been a drought. What made them miraculous was not the physical event, but that God clearly used them for his purpose and made that abundantly clear before they happened. (This is why modern skeptics are willing to admit to the actual events, but insist that the stories surrounding them were made up afterwards, specifically to explain the event itself.) This hones in on the definition of miracles. If they were miracles because God caused them, and God causes everything, isn't everything miraculous? What makes them special, or more specifically "miraculous", rather than simply "providential" (in the old sense of the word, caused, or at least used, by God for his purposes)?
    Now back to our modern-day world. Missionaries to developing nations often report miracles of the same kind that are reported in the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church, in its investigations surrounding the beatification and canonization process, maintains a rather stringent criterion of a modern-day "miracle." However, there are many things Christians call miracles today that may be more accurately labeled providential: getting into a certain school, getting offered a job, somehow finding enough money to run a ministry, or getting well after a long illness. Certainly God is at work in all these things, so we do believe that all "coicidences", whether miraculous, providential, or simply ordinary, do come from God.

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