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Sectual Sin

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“The sect system” is a “grand disease which has fastened itself upon the heart of Protestantism, and which must be considered…more dangerous, because it appears ordinarily in the imposing garb of piety.”

This is a sentence we could easily have written last week. It aligns with so much of what we’re trying to address at Jackass Theology. Our propensity to divide and attack—to form sects—is eating us alive. As Paul warns, “if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15).

But we didn’t write those words. They weren’t even written in our current cultural climate. Those words were written 174 years ago by the prominent Protestant church historian Phillip Schaff. While Schaff was not describing what we’re experiencing now, his cultural moment was much closer to the root of the tree whose fruit we’re tasting now. So I’m going to quote several statements from Schaff’s 1845 book The Principle of Protestantism (from pgs. 107-121) to explore the implications of his uncannily prophetic take on where things were going. (To be clear, I’m not anti-Protestant whatsoever, nor was Schaff, but we can’t pretend we have no weak or destructive tendencies.)

While I think we have a modern tendency to divide over increasingly minor doctrinal disagreements, Schaff says this wasn’t the case in 1845. He saw groups in very close alignment theologically, but opposing each other based on structure and methodology. The controversies he saw “turn not so much on doctrine, as on the constitution and forms of the Church. In place of schools and systems we have parties and sects, which in many cases appear in full inexorable opposition, even while occupying the platform of the very same confession. “

I think we’re seeing a lot of this now as well. Churches and groups with nearly identical statements of faith find it impossible to validate what God is doing amongst a neighboring church or group. Schaff exposes the laziness of our excuse that we’re “just being bilblical” or that we’re “just standing on our convictions.” The problem is, there is no robust structure for church presented in Scripture. We’re left with a lot of freedom. Anyone who says there is a clear blueprint in Scripture that we can follow in crafting a modern church is not challenging his own assumptions. You’re filling in a lot of blanks with your cultural assumptions. And that’s ok. Necessary even. Just as you can’t have a soul without a body, so you can’t have a church without structural forms. Schaff: “The Scriptures are the only source and norm of saving truth; but tradition is the channel by which it is carried forward in history.” We’re all trying to honor Scripture in what we do, but we all make decisions in the stream of a given tradition.

We’re tempted to say “just follow the Bible and we’ll sort out every disagreement, but Schaff says it doesn’t work like that. This may sound off, but I’m convinced he’s right. “The Bible principle, in its abstract separation from principle, or Church development, furnishes no security against sects.”

Martin Luther: “After our death, there will rise many harsh and terrible sects. God help us!”

From his vantage point in 1845, he foresaw this trajectory would lead us into dangerous places: “Where the process of separation is destined to end, no human calculation can foretell. Any one who has…some inward experience and a ready tongue may persuade himself that he is called to be a reformer…in his spiritual vanity and pride [he causes] a revolutionary rupture with the historical life of the Church, to which he holds himself immeasurably superior. He builds himself of a night accordingly a new chapel, in which now for the first time since the age of the apostles a pure congregation is to be formed; baptizes his followers with his own name…”

Dang! Those are strong words. But was he wrong? Have we not seen this happen time and again on large and small scales?

“Thus the deceived multitude…is converted not to Christ and his truth, but to the arbitrary fancies and baseless opinions of an individual…Such conversion is of a truth only perversion; such theology, neology; such exposition of the Bible, wretched imposition. What is built is no Church, but a chapel, to whose erection Satan himself has made the most liberal contribution.”

Leaving room for a genuine work of the Spirit from time to time, I think we need to hear Schaff’s strong language. Do we think God is pleased with our constant excommunications and “farewells“?

Schaff says we should be seeing a Church that is characterized by the attributes of love that Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 13. But instead:

“…the evidences of a wrong spirit are sufficiently clear. Jealousy and contention, and malicious disposition in various foams, are painfully common.” Instead, each sect is “bent on securing absolute dominion, take satisfaction in each other’s damage, undervalue and disparage each other’s merits, regard more their separate private interest than the general interests of the kingdom of God, and show themselves stiff willed and obstinately selfish wherever it comes to the relinquishment, or postponement even, of subordinate differences for the sake of a great common object.”

That is absolute fire! Is it untrue?

To those who foster a “hermeneutic of suspicion” and are quick to divide, Schaff says: “Not a solitary passage of the Bible is on their side. Its whole spirit is against them.” He then quotes passage after passage on unity.

“The sect-system is a prostitution and caricature of true Protestantism…The most dangerous foe with which we are called to contend is the sect-plague in our own midst.” – Phillip Schaff, 1845

We may think we’re being biblical and standing up for truth, but Schaff warns that the opposite is true: “The sect-system is a prostitution and caricature of true Protestantism, and nothing else.” He says, “The most dangerous foe with which we are called to contend is the sect-plague in our own midst.”

I don’t have a lot to add to this. I just want us to hear Schaff’s 19th century warnings and ask ourselves if we’ve been working to make his fears reality. If we’re not concerned about the fractured, embattled state of the Church, we should be. After his work in trying to reform the Catholic Church and (accidentally) starting the Protestant Church in the 16th century, Martin Luther warned his fellow reformer Melanchthon: “After our death, there will rise many harsh and terrible sects. God help us!”

God help us, indeed.

Beth Moore vs The SBC

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Or more accurately, the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) versus Beth Moore. I want to be nuanced and careful here in terms of what specifically is being said and who specifically is saying it. But I also think it’s important to say that this whole thing feels gross and has a major jackass theology vibe. I can tell you that if you try to defend Beth by writing (or poeticizing) about how Moore is being mistreated, you’ll find people choosing their perception over her clear statements and talking like she’s the enemy of Christianity.

This episode, in which the conservative church weirdly and suddenly turned on Beth Moore, continues, and I believe it offers us a helpful lesson in jackass theology.

Here’s what’s happened recently. Moore tweeted that contrary to the arguments of some, the SBC has not been consistently opposed to women preaching. In doing so, she cited a couple of examples. Josh Buice, an SBC pastor who has called for the SBC to “say ‘no more’ to Beth Moore,” complained that he is being “hammered by all sorts of slander” and then accused Moore of being a full-blown egalitarian, despite her actual claims.

One thing that is strange in all of this is that from where I’m sitting, it looks like Moore is being attacked more than the male pastors who are inviting her to preach. I’m thankful for people like Wade Burleson (an SBC leader) for calling out this inconsistency and the attending intimidation and degradation. Burleson recently warned his friends in the SBC:

“If you continue to go after people like Beth Moore and others, you will destroy the Southern Baptist Convention that you say you love. I for one will never again allow our SBC leaders to betray our trust by convincing us that our friends are our enemies.”

Beth Moore had this gracious response to this round of controversy:

“In a Twitter dialogue earlier today, I reiterated the point that Southern Baptists have historically held varying views regarding the specifics on the role of women in the church. In doing so, I inadvertently caused confusion, for which I apologize. I linked to an example of these varying views, not intending to align myself with them, as I knew little about the author or his views. When this was brought to my attention, I deleted the tweet so as not to cause further confusion.

“Similarly, when I referred to generous orthodoxy, my point was that we should be generous in our interactions because there are different applications of complementarianism within our shared beliefs. There is plenty of room in my church’s and my denomination’s doctrinal statement for where I (and countless others) stand. I know there are many who hold to different views on the application of Scripture and still deeply love the gospel as I do. I’m a soft complementation, and that view fits under the Baptist Faith and Message (which speaks specifically to ‘the office of pastor,’ and with which I concur).

“For more than 40 years, I have ministered alongside those who differ from me on these issues, because I want to make the most of every available opportunity to proclaim Jesus and to encourage people to come to know Him through the study of God’s Word. That’s my heart and my passion. That’s what I live for.”

As I said before, the problem is not that these pastors want to be complementarian. The problem is that I’m not seeing many treat Beth Moore with the kind of grace she is exemplifying here. She’s being humble, she’s carefully clarifying, and she’s calling for an end of the poor behavior that is being allowed in the interest of dogmatic theological precision.

I want to be careful with this part. Right now the SBC is buckling under the revelation that many of its pastors and missionaries have been sexually abusing minors, and that many of these instances were covered up by leaders in power. That’s awful, and all good SBC leaders are acknowledging the evil of this and working to bring repentance, healing, and safeguards against future wickedness. The SBC is allowed to continue debating female preachers even in the midst of such a scandal. But it felt jarring for me to read a recent tweet by Al Mohler in which he states his shock that many are calling for a renewed discussion on female preachers, which he considers a settled issue. He calls this a “critical moment.” Mohler has strongly denounced the pedophilia and scandalous behavior in the SBC. I’m not saying he has to choose which to care about. But honestly, how can women sharing God’s word be a “critical moment” with everything else that is going on?

People aren’t okay with this.

We’re getting caught up in these intense debates, where good servants of the Lord are the casualties, while serious evil is being perpetrated. Let’s get some perspective. I’m much happier with a statement Tom Schreiner (an SBC theologian) made in response to the “re-opening” of the discussion. He re-affirms his strict complementation view, but states:

“Of course good people who are evangelicals disagree! I am not saying that anyone who disagrees with me isn’t a complementarian, even if I am worried about their view and its consequences for the future. I worked in schools for 17 years where I was a minority as a complementarian. I thank God for evangelical egalitarians! And I thank God for complementarians who I think are slipping a bit. Still, what we do in churches in important, and I don’t want to say it doesn’t matter. It does matter, and I am concerned about the next generation. But we can love those who disagree and rejoice that we believe in the same gospel.”

Amen! We need more of this approach.

“Beth Moore sees her speaking out about the misogyny she has experienced from conservative church leaders as an actual service to the SBC. And she’s right.”

I don’t think we help anything by pretending theology is unimportant. Schreiner is right that these issues matter. He’s also right in his tone. We’re not helping anything when we act as though everyone who disagrees is villainously trying—always with the worst intentions—to make everyone else miserable and usher in the kingdom of Satan. That’s just not how it works. In this case, I think we need to call out the voices who are actually misogynistic and focus on the real issues. One of those issues is whether or not women should preach. But the one I’m more concerned about is whether or not the conservative church will continue to demonize people like Beth Moore. As I cited before, she sees her speaking out about the misogyny she has experienced as an actual service to the SBC.

She’s right.

You don’t have to care about my opinion, but I think it’s time for the SBC and every conservative, myself included, to change our tone and rethink our priorities.

“I have loved the SBC and served it with everything I have had since I was 12 years old helping with vacation Bible school. Alongside ANY other denomination, I will serve it to my death if it will have me. And this is how I am serving it right now.”

– BETH MOORE

Beth Moore (A Limerick)

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This is “Beth Moore Week” at Jackass Theology. Mark posted earlier this week. Now it’s my turn. So here’s an uber-cheesy totally-genuine tribute, to a woman making waves in Evangelicalism:

Please forgive me Lord,
A leader in the church, 
who has leaned on 1 Timothy, 
but missed what LOVE asserts.

Please forgive me Lord,
I shamefully confide, 
when women spoke I often joked, 
and rolled my foolish eyes

So here’s to you Beth Moore,
Our bad ass Mockingjay, 
the curtain’s being lifted. 
Misogyny can’t stay.

Here’s to you Beth Moore,
Our tribute volunteer, 
you’ve entered the arena 
to fight for future years.

Here’s to you Beth Moore,
Our Katniss Everdeen, 
your tweets are sharp slung arrows, 
calling out hypocrisy.

Here’s to you Beth Moore,
Our blazing Girl on Fire,  
you’re turning heads, demanding mends, 
inspiring something higher

Please forgive me Lord,
For stones I’ve thrown along the way, 
I thought it best to get it “right,” 
but “right” seems wrong today.

If it wasn’t clear in our little limerick, Jackass Theology has a donkey sized crush on Beth Moore, in a completely platonic, non-objectifying, side-hug sort of way.

Tweet On, Mrs. Moore. Tweet on!

Stop Treating Beth Moore Like Garbage

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I’m disgusted by how grossly mistreated Beth Moore has been on social media lately. If I feel that way from my distant and privileged position, I can’t imagine how she feels. Here is a woman who has had a greater impact on conservative churches than almost any Bible teacher, and she’s being treated like garbage.

Here’s what happened most recently. Owen Strachan wrote a blog post to promote his new book, and in that post he authoritatively presents one view on what the Scriptures say about women teaching in the church. He presents a narrow subset of the Complementarian view and then accuses anyone who differs even slightly (e.g., most Complementarians) of being unbiblical and choosing the “word of men” over the “word of God.” I’m not exaggerating. He is, of course, entitled to his view (and entitled to get attention for his forthcoming book). Many share his view. But he uses phrases like, “it cannot be otherwise” in reference to passages that have historically been hotly debated. And in the process, he calls out Beth Moore for accepting an invitation from a Complementarian church to preach a Mother’s Day sermon. In so doing, started a firestorm in which his followers began attacking, condescending to, belittling, and slandering Beth Moore. It’s so fre*king ugly. (And it’s far from the worst stuff you’ll see people writing about Moore online.)

Beth responded pretty forcefully to Strachan’s “polite” article and terse Twitter post. She said:

“Owen, I am going to say this with as much respect and as much self restraint as I can possibly muster. I would be terrified to be a woman you’d approve of. And I would have wasted 40 years of my life encouraging women to come to know and love Jesus through the study of Scripture.”

That’s fire!!!!!!!!

In response, biblical language was used to attack and demean. Bible verses were quoted as weapons. Few seemed to care who Beth really is or about her track record of faithfully teaching the Bible and doing her best to play by the conservative rules. She eventually went further in a Twitter thread:

“I want to stoke the fire I’m in the middle of right now about as much as I want to amputate my toes without anesthesia. I’d much prefer to change the subject and move on and ignore the fury. I also want my family to have relief. But after intense prayer, I need to say a few things.

“The first one is that I have a very active daily practice of repentance. I never have nothing to repent of. You need not worry if I am aware of my own sin, flaws and weaknesses. I am. You can know I am hashing out things on my face on the floor before God every day.

“That said, I am compelled to my bones by the Holy Spirit—I don’t want to be but I am—to draw attention to the sexism and misogyny that is rampant in segments of the SBC, cloaked by piety and bearing the stench of hypocrisy. There are countless godly conservative Complementarians. So many. There are countless conservative Complementarians I very much respect and deeply love, even though I may not fully understand their interpretations of certain Scriptures as the end of the matter. I love the Scriptures. I love Jesus. I do not ignore 1 Timothy or 1 Corinthians.

“What I plead for is to grapple with the entire text from Matthew 1 through Revelation 22 on every matter concerning women. To grapple with Paul’s words in 1 Timothy / 1 Corinthians 14 as being authoritative, God-breathed!, alongside other words Paul wrote, equally inspired, and make sense of the many women he served alongside.

“Above all else, we must search the attitudes and practices of Christ Jesus himself toward women. HE is our Lord. He had women followers! Evangelists! The point of all sanctification and obedience is toward being comformed to HIS image. I do not see one glimpse of Christ in this sexism.

“I had the eye opening experience of my life in 2016. A fog cleared for me that was the most disturbing, terrifying thing I’d ever seen. All these years I’d given the benefit of the doubt that these men were the way they were because they were trying to be obedient to Scripture. Then I realized it was not over Scripture at all. It was over sin. It was over power. It was over misogyny. Sexism. It was about arrogance. About protecting systems. It involved covering abuses and misuses of power. Shepherds guarding other shepherds instead of guarding the sheep. Here is what you don’t understand. I have loved the SBC and served it with everything I have had since I was 12 years old helping with vacation Bible school. Alongside ANY other denomination, I will serve it to my death if it will have me. And this is how I am serving it right now.”

“It’s not wrong to be a Complementarian. But it’s wrong to treat human beings like garbage. Your theological certainty does not give you a pass on the command to love.”

Amen, Beth! Look, it’s not wrong to be a Complementarian. But it’s wrong to treat human beings like garbage. It’s wrong to think that your theological certainty gives you a pass on the command to love (which, by the way, Jesus said was the greatest!). You can work your hardest to tell everyone that Paul wants every church to function exactly like yours, but you don’t get to go around attacking everyone who disagrees as though they don’t love the Lord, as though they don’t have a brain, as though anyone who is not you is an idiot. (To be clear, I think there are overtones of this in Strachan’s initial statements, and I think his Twitter followers made these overtones explicit.)

Exactly a year ago, Beth Moore reluctantly wrote a blog post about things she had previous said she’d share only on her deathbed for fear of the backlash. But she wanted us to see “what it’s been like to be a female leader in the conservative Evangelical world.” You should honestly read the whole blog post yourself, then follow Beth on Twitter (her feed is fire). But here are a few excerpts that stood out to me:

“As a woman leader in the conservative Evangelical world, I learned early to show constant pronounced deference—not just proper respect which I was glad to show—to male leaders and, when placed in situations to serve alongside them, to do so apologetically. I issued disclaimers ad nauseam…”

“Several years ago when I got publicly maligned for being a false teacher by a segment of hyper-fundamentalists based on snippets taken out of context and tied together, I inquired whether or not they’d researched any of my Bible studies to reach those conclusions over my doctrine, especially the studies in recent years. The answer was no. Why? They refused to study what a woman had taught.”

“About a year ago I had an opportunity to meet a theologian I’d long respected. I’d read virtually every book he’d written. I’d looked so forward to getting to share a meal with him and talk theology. The instant I met him, he looked me up and down, smiled approvingly and said, ‘You are better looking than _.’ He didn’t leave it blank. He filled it in with the name of another woman Bible teacher.”

“I’m sorry for the times when I’ve been mean and exclusionary in the name of being biblical. Jesus isn’t like that, so I know I’m not biblical when I do this.”

None of this is okay. We can’t let our faithful sister be treated like this. Complementarians like Strachan and his followers should be fighting to uproot this misogyny, not acting all grieved because a mother’s voice would be heard on Mother’s Day. It’s not “conservative theology.” It’s not “being biblical.” It’s sin and it’s hate and it’s disgusting.

To Beth Moore and everyone, I’m sorry for the times when I’ve been mean and exclusionary in the name of being biblical. Jesus isn’t like that, so I know I’m not biblical when I do this. I’m sorry for the times I’ve enjoyed my privilege rather than fighting for unity and love. May God forgive us for our misogyny. May we stop turning God’s life-giving words into weapons and start treating people with the love and dignity of Jesus. Keep up the good work, Beth. I am praying for you.

Jackass by Association

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Being a pastor in a denominational church has great benefits. It also offers unique opportunities for jackassery. My favorite thing about our denomination right now is pastoral cohorts that Ryan and I are a part of. A few times each year we’ve been flying across the country to join other pastors in our denomination for training, encouragement, and support. These times have been rich and ministry-shaping.

But it struck me on one of our trips that in order to meet with these pastors, we were driving past hundreds of churches in our immediate area, then flying over thousands upon thousands more. We have a connection with a handful of pastors across the country through our denomination. And that’s great.

But I wonder: Does it make sense that we partner with churches who share a doctrinal statement rather than churches that share a mission field?

“Does it make sense that we partner with churches who share a doctrinal statement rather than churches that share a mission field?”

I’m not talking about smoothing over real differences or pretending like theology doesn’t matter. The mission of the church I’m part of will be very different than the mission of a church that worships Zeus, for example. Differences make partnership difficult. And partnership can only happen if each party avoids selling out what they’re passionately committed to.

But associating only with churches in my denomination, I’m skipping over several churches whose doctrinal statements are virtually identical to mine. To the unchurched, our churches would be indistinguishable except perhaps for the size of the congregation.

I don’t have a great answer for this, but I’d love to see churches join together around a common mission and “mission field” to AT LEAST the same degree we partner with denominations, associations, and coalitions.

I actually feel blessed in this area right now. I meet monthly with a few of my counterparts in nearby churches. Ryan does the same. We share ideas, problems, and resources. We pray for each other. Our churches aren’t doing a ton of events together, but it’s clear we’re on the same team, clear that we’re rooting for each other.

To be clear, I’m NOT saying that denominations or associations are bad. I find real benefit in ours. I’m NOT saying that individual churches shouldn’t be distinct. Each church must pursue its unique calling. I’m also NOT arguing against valuing doctrinal agreement. I wish we had more. And here’s the big one: I’m NOT saying I have any of this figured out.

What I AM saying is that prioritizing an association over a mission is dangerous. At best, it misses the point. At worst, it compromises the purpose of the Church’s existence. Choosing to work with people who formulate their theology exactly as we do rather than with people who are actively loving the same people we are seems wrong. It seems like a jackass move.

“Prioritizing an association over a mission is dangerous. At best, it misses the point. At worst, it compromises the purpose of the Church’s existence.”

It’s easy to get along with people who think like you do. It’s easy to be “unified” when your only contact is gathering to talk about the things you already agree on. It’s not bad, but it’s not full-fledged unity. It’s not an all-out pursuit of the mission. At least, not if that’s all it is.

It’s often harder to love someone living in your town than someone across the country. But which matters more? Should I feel accomplished because I’m able to love the pastor in Texas who believes what I believe, teaches the way I teach, and reads all the same books I read? That’s easy. How much better to love the pastor down the street who has different emphases, different style, but is trying to bless the same neighborhood I’m trying to bless? (When I type it out, it all seems so obvious. Should I be embarrassed to be writing this like it’s some kind of realization? Has it been obvious to everyone but me this entire time?)

It’s not the associations that makes us jackasses. It’s the tendency to hide in echo chambers rather than partnering with the people who are around us. I’m not going to stop learning from and encouraging people from around the world. But I want to keep doing the same with people around the block.

How Nestorius Got Jackassed Out of the Early Church

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In 431 AD, the leaders of the Western Church gathered to discuss the validity of a single Greek word: theotikos, “mother of God.” The phrase was in use by many church leaders to refer to Mary. It was meant as an affirmation of Jesus’ deity. A bishop named Nestorius, however, resisted the phrase. Nestorius’ concern was that calling Mary the “mother of God” was categorically confusing (how can a human give birth to deity?) and underplayed the humanity of Jesus. He was more comfortable calling Mary the “mother of Jesus,” which he felt upheld the dual natures of Christ as both human and divine. 

Before you click away—and trust me, I get it if you want to—give me a couple more paragraphs. The boredom of this debate is where the jackassery sneaks in. 

Enter Cyril and a whole lot of drama. He and other bishops were furious over Nestorius’ dissent on this issue, so they convened the Council of Ephesus to give an official Church ruling. 

Let’s put this in perspective. Here are our spiritual ancestors meeting to discuss something important: Jesus. But they’re not trying to worship Jesus, nor are they working to draw closer to him, imitate him, or introduce others to him. No, they are gathering the heavy hitters so they can decide whether or not Nestorius should be allowed to call Mary “the mother of Jesus” instead of “the mother of God.” 

It’s the perfect recipe for jackassery.

Before Nestorius’ supporters could arrive at the Council of Ephesus, his opponent Cyril rushed a vote on the theotikos question and had Nestorius excommunicated from the Church and exiled from the empire. 

You know, because he wanted to make sure we saw Jesus as both human and divine

Never mind that a statement uncannily similar to Nestorius’ view was agreed upon at the next Church Council (Chalcedon). There were Church politics to attend to and “truth” to be upheld.

“The Church once split over the Greek word theotikos and later over the Latin filioque. What are our modern debates where we’re splitting hairs and also splitting the Church?”

(Don’t worry too much about old Nestorius. In his exile, he left the Western Empire and started churches and mission training centers in India and China. The movement Nestorius founded bore incredible fruit, and Nestorianism continues to have an impact in Asia.) 

If this chapter of Church history sounds petty, consider that it’s not all that unique. The Western Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church split from each other (via mutual excommunication) in 1054 AD when they could not agree on whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only (the Eastern Church’s view) or from the Father and the Son (the Western Church’s addition to the established creed). Once again the debate was over a single Latin word: filioque (“and from the Son”).

To be clear, the Church has had many faithful reformers who have stood up for key doctrinal matters (one thinks of Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. as examples). We in no way want to imply that doctrine is trivial or that there is never a time to stand firm on the plain teaching of Scripture. But we are saying that when it comes to extra-biblical terms like theotikos and filioque, there may be room for gracious disagreement. 

And to take it one step further: even when we disagree over what the Bible actually says, we have to always choose to posture ourselves like Jesus. If our theological disagreements make us less like Jesus, then we’re flat out wrong, regardless of how “right” our doctrinal assertions may be.

“If our theological disagreements make us less like Jesus, then we’re flat out wrong, regardless of how right our doctrinal assertions may be.”

What are our modern theotikos and filioque debates? The ones that basically come down to hair splitting but that we’re still willing to divide over? I’ve seen the Bible Project condemned (“I can no longer recommend these videos”) by a credible source because these short animated videos didn’t feature the right atonement model. I’ve seen Francis Chan farewelled (the Protestant version of excommunication) because he wasn’t willing to condemn specific people (“I now feel an obligation to warn people about Francis’ teaching”). 

What else? Do you believe in miraculous healing or not? Do you preach out of one passage per week or jump around? Do you baptize babies or only adults (and do you put those adults through a ten-week class/exam or dunk them on the spot)? Is the book of Revelation history written in advance or is it using symbolic language? How normative is the book of Acts? 

We could continue on. I don’t want to devalue truth, nor am I saying we shouldn’t have convictions. But I’m suggesting some of the things we spend our time fighting for might seem trivial when we look back years from now. 

Watchdog Theology

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Be careful who you associate with. Stay away from those people—and teachers in particular—who are spreading dangerous doctrine. It would be great if everyone stuck to biblical truth, but that’s not the case, so we have to be ready to break company with those who are outside the bounds of orthodoxy.

It’s clearly good advice—it’s biblical after all—and we all believe it.

But Jesus didn’t. 

In his day, Jesus was accused of being morally loose. Why? Because he hung out with people who were morally loose (Matt. 11:19). He “associated with” them. Jesus was pretty strong against the Pharisees for being false teachers, but he didn’t shun them. We see Jesus eating in their homes (Luke 14) and meeting with them for theological discussion (John 3).

“Jesus didn’t divide the way we do. He wasn’t afraid of who he was seen with or who others would assume he was partnering with. Yet this drives much of Evangelicalism.”

Bottom line: Jesus didn’t do the kind of dividing we tend to feel is our biblical obligation. He said strong things to people, but he wasn’t afraid of who he was seen with or who other people would assume he was forging partnerships and sharing a lifestyle with. Yet this drives much of Evangelicalism.

I’ve seen Romans 16:17 flying around recently as a warning against associating with people who teach false doctrine:

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.

Pretty straightforward, right? But read it again. It doesn’t at all say what I’ve always assumed it says. Paul isn’t telling us to divide from people who disagree with us theologically. What does he say? He tells us to avoid people who cause divisions and create obstacles! I don’t see how to take this other than as a warning against the very people who are constantly warning usabout people who teach different doctrine. Am I missing something? Or is that just what it says?

Some of the watchdog theologians I have read seem to be experts in identifying dangerous doctrine or doctrine that may not seem terrible in itself but that leads down a dangerous path. I wonder what this means in connection to Paul’s statement to “be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.” Is this just Paul’s way of saying focus on the positive?

The truth is, I have been this watchdog theologian. If you had mentioned Rick Warren in my presence several years ago, I would have given you several reasons why his ministry was deficient. Dangerous even. Guess how many of Rick Warren’s sermons I had heard or how many of his books I had read? Zero. I literally knew nothing about him firsthand, but I was in this watchdog culture that taught me that he was dangerous. 

So I barked along. 

I’ve been devastated when friends turned charismatic. I no longer considered them ministry partners. I’ve prayed for friends who identified themselves as—dare I say it?—Arminian. 

I followed many in my watchdog crowd in taking shots at the “Emerging Church”—even years after it stopped existing in recognizable form. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read just because I knew I would disagree with themand wanted to be able to warn people about the dangers therein. 

I am the watchdog theologian. I still have this knee-jerk impulse to bark at certain groups.

“In my former life, warnings against false teaching were infinitely more important than calls to unity. But I completely missed how much the New Testament emphasizes unity.”

But I’m beginning to see that some of the passages I’ve used to justify this approach don’t say what I thought they said. I’m beginning to see that unity is a FAR bigger deal in the New Testament than I ever would have imagined. In my former life, the warnings against false teaching were infinitely more important than admonitions to be unified. I’d make statements like, “There can’t be any unity without the truth.” I was being a jackass. 

I don’t know how it all works. I’m still learning, processing, and discussing. But I know unity is worth working toward. And for the first time in my life I’m trying to take seriously Paul’s warning to avoid those who cause divisions.  

The Political Jackass

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Here’s a perfect way to get everyone hot and bothered: talk about politics on a religion website. But we’re talking about the things that make us act like jackasses, so we can’t skip politics.

The Political Jackass is not the person who votes for a specific candidate. Nor is it the person who cares deeply about politics. It’s the person who is rigid in their adherence to some political view, party, or official. Is this you? I’ll confess that it’s been me.

The problem with the Political Jackass is rigidity. When something is overly rigid, it will not bend. When pressure is applied, it can’t bend, so instead it cracks. This is exactly what has happened in our political landscape, and that includes within the Church.

“Many people in our churches are discipled more by Fox News or CNN than by Jesus. And that’s a major problem.”

Right now, we are politically polarized. Mention Donald Trump at a dinner party and the only guarantee is that you won’t hear an apathetic response. Identify yourself as a Republican or a Democrat and the people around you won’t be indifferent. Ryan and I have become convinced that many people in our churches are discipled more by Fox News or CNN than by Jesus. And that’s a major problem.

You might think that rigidity lies at the heart of Christianity. But you’d be wrong. Sure, there are concrete truths and unchanging realities. But over the last 2,000 years, Christianity has thrived in a shocking variety of settings, cultures, continents, political regimes, and time periods. Christianity thrived while ancient Rome tried to stamp it out. It adapted when it was legalized under Constantine (and later became the official religion). When the “barbarians” destroyed Rome, Christianity was flexible enough to transform the new rulers. Christianity was at home in Charlemagne’s empire even while it flourished in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It has found a way to make people feel at home in fundamentalist churches, modern megachurches, pentecostal churches, and tiny house church gatherings.

As much as we think of Christianity as unyielding and rigid, the gospel has always found a way to grow in many different types of soils.

“As much as we think of Christianity as unyielding and rigid, the gospel has always found a way to grow in many different types of soils.”

Over the millennia, Christianity has shown remarkable flexibility. The current trend of divisive rigidity on the part of conservatives, progressives, and liberals in the Church is causing us to crack. And it’s making us less like Jesus.

Since the drama of the 2016 campaign and election, we have all been especially tuned in to the increasing polarization in America and the negative effects of our extremely partisan news outlets. The whole thing feels like a reality TV show, which shouldn’t be surprising since we have a reality TV star for a president and receive much of our news from TV shows.

While Jesus walked the earth, there was political polarization as well. There were Pharisees who believed that salvation would come in response to their radical obedience to the Law. There were Sadducees who found their salvation in a political alliance with their Roman overlords. They were given status and control over the temple in exchange for complying with Roman politics. There were even Zealots who believed that salvation would come through a revolutionary Messiah who would violently defeat the pagans who held them in exile.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus didn’t align with any of these camps. In other words, every political affiliation was wrong. Jesus wasn’t at home in any of them. Not one had it right. Should it surprise us that the same is true now? Could we possibly imagine that Jesus would register to vote as a member of any political party?

Jesus was then and is now offering us a more beautiful path forward. It’s not the way of polarization. It’s the way of love. Central to it all is not a news show or a political party. Central to it all is a table. He’s more likely to invite us to join an actual party than to register for one. He’s more likely to invite us to join our supposed enemies for a meal than to feed into the polarization.

Affiliate with any party you want. Vote for whomever you want. But don’t assume that Jesus is on your side and against anyone else’s. He’s for us—all of us. He wants our hearts, not our sound bites or talking points. The path forward is not found on a news show, let’s stop acting like it is.

Don Freaking Quixote

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In Miguel De Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote, the eponymous hero is a knight on a quest. He is brave, chivalrous, and relentless. You won’t find a more committed knight in any of the classical literature. But there’s one problem: the entirety of his knightly career is misguided.

Whenever he engages in brave combat, he is always confused and always mistaken. In one famous episode he charges ahead to attack a windmill with his lance, believing the windmill to be a giant terrorizing the countryside. It doesn’t end well, but Don Quixote doesn’t learn anything from the encounter. He manages to miss the fact that they were never giants; he was fighting against windmills the entire time.

Throughout the classic novel, he attacks the innocent and wins meaningless prizes. He is sincere in his passion and utterly fearless. But it all means nothing, because he is misguided from the moment he steps out the door. Don Quixote’s life is tragic—not because he was a hero who fell tragically in the end, but because his every brave endeavor was tragically foolish from beginning to end. The story is humorous, but if Don Quixote were a real person, we wouldn’t be laughing.

Hard as it is to say, I believe Don Quixote is a good parable for much of the modern Church. It’s a caution for all believers throughout history (from Israel to the Modern Church). God’s people have a propensity to drift from the main thing (relationship with God and others) to empty things. This is why the prophets spoke tirelessly against Israel’s wanderings and Paul wrote letters to correct drifting churches.

One of the effects of the Fall is that our human hearts have to fight hard for the things that matter. It doesn’t come naturally. But another effect of the Fall is that we end up fighting for the wrong things. And fighting in the wrong ways. Brokenness prevails, even in hearts that have been redeemed.

I’d love to leave it at that, but I have to go a step further. I am Don Quixote. I pursue so many things with a righteous zeal, but many of those things turn out to be weird, insignificant, or harmful. I can never tell in the moment. (Honestly, I can’t say for sure if jackasstheology.com is just a place for me to be a jackass. I’m not even confident that’s not true for this post I’m writing right now.)

I wish I weren’t Don Quixote, but I know I am. And I’m positive I’m not alone. How many of the areas in which we Christians have scolded, reprimanded, and diminished people could be considered “close to the heart of Jesus”? Be careful how quickly you answer.

“Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Nothing had mattered more in his life than defeating those giants. But the giants were just windmills. Is it possible some of the battles we are fighting are just as misguided?”

As Ryan and I have started Jackass Theology, it’s honestly been difficult for us to look at our own tendencies and the emphases of the American Church and not see much of it as misguided. Maybe we haven’t gone full Don Quixote, but it seems clear that we’ve been charging more than a few windmills.

What’s actually being propagated and protected is not Jesus himself, but a subculture produced by followers of Jesus. Not Jesus, but a derivative of Jesus, with all of its own battles and preoccupations. This is nothing new, but the Pharisees are a reminder that derivatives can be dangerous!

The problem, of course, is that Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Those windmills were real giants to him. Nothing had ever mattered more in Don Quixote’s life to that point than courageously battling that particular giant. The error lies not in his sincerity or passion, but in the misguided nature of his pursuits.

Where do you draw the line? What battles do you consider worth fighting? And who do you see yourself fighting against? (Are you always the hero of your own story?)

Might future generations of Jesus followers look back at our preoccupations and wonder how we could have gotten so concerned over these things?

More importantly, might Jesus disagree with the things we spend our passions on? Having encountered Jesus in the four Gospels, does it seem like he’d be uptight and restrictive about the same things we are, fighting all of the same battles we devote ourselves to?

And really, should we be devoting ourselves to any battles? Or should we just be pursuing Jesus and the people he has placed in our lives to love?

Heroes & Villains

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Stories can be compelling. You listen to people long enough and you realize that nearly every conversation is a form of storytelling. Some are like, “Dude, the other day I was moving my grandmother into her house and we dropped the dresser down the stairs! That sucked!” Protagonist, antagonist, conflict, and resolution.

Others are more subtle in their plot line. “Did you hear what so-and-so said about such-and-such? Can you believe that?” It isn’t some super long narrative, but it is a narrative, told by a narrator.

Narrators get to decide who the heroes and villains of each story are. When your friend tells you “so-and-so said such-and-such,” the intonation of their voice, the purse of the lips, and the roll of their eye tells you what you should think about the story. They are immediately, even if unintentionally, offering you a hero or a villain.

Marital counseling brings out the 9-year-old in everyone. This is why marriage counselors like to meet with both partners. When it comes to conflict in a relationship, each person truly believes the other is to blame. If you only get one side of the story, you will often be wooed into perceiving the other spouse to be the villain. Even the worst and most obvious of offenses (e.g., marital infidelity) can be understandable depending on who controls the narrative.

You know who else does this? 9-year-old boys. I know because I have two. They tattle and twist, shift blame, and point fingers until they are blue in the face. Every time they are offended or hurt or frustrated it is at the hand of the other. They are constantly jockeying to get my wife and I to demonstrate that we do in fact love one of them more than the other.

In the Church, we have our heroes and we have our villains too. I read a critical article from the Gospel Coalition Australia on “the dangers of the Bethel Church,” which outlined the pitfalls of their global healing movement. The author says “Jesus Culture, Bethel Music, and Awakening Australia” are “gateway drugs” to Bethel’s weak theology and cultish revivalism. As much as I love the Gospel Coalition (and I really do), the voice in this particular article sounds awfully similar to my pre-pubescent twins. There’s so much finger pointing and so little charity.

This whole “unreliable narrator” phenomenon is actually happening right now as you read this article. In this story, I am the hero, sent to fight all the jackassery that turns us against our fellow believers and makes us feel justified in magnifying other people’s shortcomings like bad caricature artists. Meanie heads like the Gospel Coalition are the villains in this chapter because they oppose the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17. Of course, there’s always another way to tell the story.

If narrators are unreliable, who can we trust? What is true? Who are the real HEROES and VILLAINS?

Actually, this is the wrong question, derived from the wrong job description. Our primary mandate is LOVE: love of God, love among believers, even love of one’s enemy.

Jesus spent a long time going over this.

If narrators are unreliable, who will help us discern these things? Who CAN we trust? Fortunately, loving human beings doesn’t depend on accurate story telling. Justice does, but love does not. Justice must get to the bottom of who did what to whom. Insurance companies need to calculate percentage of culpability, but love doesn’t need that. In fact, love can be given, and is best received, when it isn’t deserved in the slightest (insert the often told but never old story of “The Prodigal Son” in Luke 15).

If the Bible tells any story, humans have a single job: Love. Love God. Love others. God has a more complicated role. He must love. He must judge. But he is far more qualified, and is way better at seeing through our BS.

In the biblical story, human beings often play the role of the villain (with some help from the adversary). God is the hero.

“We are all unreliable narrators. So how will we determine who is the hero and who is the villain? Fortunately, loving human beings doesn’t depend on accurate story telling. Justice does, but love does not.”

Sure, we have our moments when we get to play like heroes. People at Bethel worship Jesus with passion. It’s contagious. GLOBALLY CONTAGIOUS! In that way, and many more, they are my heroes. Leaders and pastors at the Gospel Coalition fight for the clarity of the gospel, and much more. Their passion for Jesus has carried me through very low seasons in life and ministry. But if I need to choose which child of God is the favorite, I can’t. I love them both. They are for now Spirit and Flesh. Which means for now, they are hero and villain. As am I.