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Becket Cook: WWJD LGBT?

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The following is a guest post from Becket Cook, a friend of ours, a Hollywood set designer, and the author of A Change of Affection: A Gay Man’s Incredible Story of Redemption.


On Sunday, September 20, 2009, I walked into an evangelical church in Hollywood called Reality LA as a self-proclaimed atheist and a gay man; two hours later I walked out a born-again Christian who no longer identified as gay. The power of the gospel utterly transformed me during that service. I now live as a single, celibate man.

It wasn’t condemning guilt heaped on me by Christians that spurred the transformation. It was the power of God. I am happy to deny myself and take up my cross and follow Jesus, because He’s infinitely worth it!

Let’s start by asking the obvious question: What would Jesus do with regards to those in the LGBT community? Would He distance himself from them? Would He refuse to interact with them? Would He look at them as a lost cause and move on? Would He protest gay pride parades? Would He hold up signs with condemning slogans scrawled across them? Would He reject them?

Quite the opposite.

In the Synoptic Gospels, we see Jesus dining with “sinners and tax collectors.” This was incredibly counter-cultural. Instead of acting like the religious folks of His day, He deigned to dine with “those people.” This unexpected action mortified and mystified the religious class. They were downright indignant. In His typical fashion, Jesus schools them:

I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. — Mark 2:17
Jesus focused on individuals, not groups (the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, for example). He was after people’s hearts, hence His deeply personal approach to those whom He encountered.

Of course, Jesus never compromised the truth: Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. — Luke 13:3

But Jesus was the master of balancing grace with truth. He does this perfectly throughout the Gospels.

My sister-in-law, Kim, was a natural at this. For me, she was a great example of how a Christian should respond to this issue. She has been a strong believer since early in her childhood. I met her when I was in high school, and she started dating my older brother, Greg. She and I always had a special bond; we enjoyed chatting and hanging out with each other. Years later, after I came out as gay to my whole family, my relationship with Kim remained the same, even though she was what I would have called a Bible-thumping, evangelical Christian. I knew that she knew that I knew that she believed homosexuality was a sin, but I never felt an ounce of condemnation from her. She never sat me down to explain to me that I was sinning. She never quoted Bible verses to me. She never judged me for my lifestyle. Instead, she did something far more dangerous: she prayed…for twenty years!

Over the years, while living in Los Angeles, I would go back to Dallas (my hometown) for Christmas. One of the highlights of my visits was getting together with Kim at the nearest coffee shop. We would chat for hours. I would talk about guys; she would talk about God. She was genuinely interested in my life, and never once said to me, “You know, you’re still sinning.” She was very open about her faith and would talk about what God was doing in her life. But this didn’t bother me, because I sensed an unconditional love from her. Her love for me didn’t increase or decrease based on whether or not I was in a relationship with a guy at that particular moment. In other words, she didn’t withhold love from me because of the way I lived my life.

She did two key things throughout the years: she loved me unconditionally and prayed for me without ceasing. That’s it. And it worked!

I was recently invited to a small dinner party at an incredibly beautiful home in Malibu. A friend from church was a work colleague with the owner, who was a gay man. Much to my friend’s and my surprise, the owner wanted to hear more about Christianity. He was curious as to why two gay guys would give up that life to follow Christ. Of course, we were more than happy to have this opportunity to share the Gospel with this group of relatively hardened skeptics, both gay and straight. The only problem was that our gracious host had failed to mention to his friends that two evangelical Christians, who had both been saved out of the homosexual life, were the guests of honor!

When, immediately after the first course was served, our host turned to me and asked if I would share my story with everyone at the table, I almost choked on my fennel salad. But as I was detailing the story of my conversion, I saw a look of genuine interest on the faces of the listeners; that is, until one of them asked the $64,000 question: “What about your sexuality?” As I addressed that issue, there was a sudden shift in the room. The mood quickly changed from polite interest to semi-hostile disgust. I tried my best to explain why homosexual behavior was incompatible with Christianity, when suddenly the discussion at the table became very animated. Various guests were chiming in with their own views, not only on this incendiary subject but on “spirituality” in general.

After our second course, the conversation started to become heated. So much so that at one point, when I felt like it was getting out of hand, I stopped everyone and said: “Guys, guys. I just want you all to know that the only reason I drove an hour out to Malibu on a school night during midterms (I was in seminary at the time) is because I love you! That’s it. I’m not here to win an argument. I’m here because I love you. Period.” Everyone was taken aback by this unexpected expression of my motives. A few of them seemed dumbstruck. The temperature in the room instantly dropped, bonhomie was quickly restored, and the evening ended on a good note. We didn’t experience a mass conversion that evening, but I was thankful for the opportunity to share what God has done in my life. Seeds were planted.

According to Jesus, the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves.

“Love people without condemning. Billy Graham famously said, ‘It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.’ This could make all the difference in the world.”

We know what happened when the lawyer was foolish enough to put Jesus to the test by asking who his neighbor was. After telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks the lawyer which man in the parable proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers. The lawyer responds,

The one who showed him mercy.

Jesus told him to go and do likewise (Luke 10:25-37).

Let us also do likewise. Get a coffee or share a meal with a gay family member or friend. Love him or her without condemning. This could make all the difference in the world. I think Billy Graham put it best when he famously said, “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.”


A Word from Jackass Theology
We, Ryan and Mark, appreciate Becket and his story so much. God has carried him through a lot, and when the time was perfect, God got Becket’s attention and grabbed his heart. While we know there are severe disagreements regarding issues related to the LGBT community, Becket’s story is a great example of God’s love traveling through loving relationships.

We highly recommend Becket’s new memoir. It’s an incredible story, and he challenges all of us—gay or straight–to give ourselves fully to Jesus.

In an effort to stand firm on God’s truth, we have joined many other Christians in treating beautiful people made in God’s image like jackasses. This is yet another area where we have had to confess our jackassery and ask, as Becket does, What Would Jesus Do? On the other hand, Becket has also taken a lot heat regarding his book because he now holds a non-affirming stance. All of this is Becket’s story, he’s sharing what happened to him and the convictions he developed. Jackassery can flow in both directions; we all need to relate to one another in love. Becket’s story is a reminder that we don’t have to drop our convictions to love and value another person. Remember that Jesus said the world would know that we are his disciples by our love (John 13:35), not by our impeccable moral standards or firmly articulated convictions.

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

Joshua Harris: An Opportunity for Empathy

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Author Joshua Harris influenced a whole generation of evangelical Christians with his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Now he has a new documentary, called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, about his new ideas on dating.

This last weekend, Joshua Harris posted this on Instagram:

“My heart is full of gratitude. I wish you could see all the messages people sent me after the announcement of my divorce. They are expressions of love though they are saddened or even strongly disapprove of the decision.

“I am learning that no group has the market cornered on grace. This week I’ve received grace from Christians, atheists, evangelicals, exvangelicals, straight people, LGBTQ people, and everyone in between. Of course there have also been strong words of rebuke from religious people. While not always pleasant, I know they are seeking to love me. (There have been spiteful, hateful comments that angered and hurt me.)

“The information that was left out of our announcement is that I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction,’ the biblical phrase is ‘falling away.’ By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now…

“To my Christian friends, I am grateful for your prayers. Don’t take it personally if I don’t immediately return calls. I can’t join in your mourning. I don’t view this moment negatively. I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful. I believe with my sister Julian that, ‘All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’”

Joshua isn’t the first or last person whose soul-searching journey led them out of the faith. Sometimes when someone leaves it is obvious that they are doing it in a willful desire to justify sin (think Prodigal Son). Other times it is about the wearisome nature of the church and its subculture, the dissonant value systems between Christians and their Christ, or the deafening silence of God. In these moments I empathize with Josh’s struggle.

Empathy is an important word. In Romans 12, Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” That means empathetic living. Opening yourself up to feel what others feel is a tremendous way to love people.

Sympathy can have a tinge of superiority. I feel sorry for you because you are experiencing pain. Sympathy is not the same as empathy. Empathy says, I feel pain as you feel pain.

The important thing about feeling what others feel is recognizing that you CAN ACTUALLY feel what others feel, and you CAN feel it without condoning ALL of their behaviors or beliefs.

My kids constantly celebrate things and cry about things that are objectively stupid. But I love my kids so I celebrate their stick figure drawings with them and I show empathy for their imaginary bruises (sometimes). The truth is that loving my kids doesn’t mean that I need to think that all the things they celebrate and cry about are wonderful and accurate. It’s enough to see someone I love sad, or someone I love happy. The question is: Can I join them in their pain and joy?

I want to be clear. I do not know Joshua Harris personally, but I am sure that the last several years of his personal life and faith life have been filled with both tears and joy. Tears over the emotional and spiritual turmoil of coming to grips with what you truly believe. His divorce may be amicable, but that doesn’t mean there were not hours upon hours of hurt and pain involved in coming to this decision. Have you ever felt these type of emotions? Have you ever struggled in your relationships? Have you ever changed your mind on something you believed? Have you ever been scrutinized and/or attacked by strangers who don’t know you?

Objectively, these things suck. You don’t have to assume a person is sinless to acknowledge that these things suck and to weep with the one who weeps.

Can you weep with Josh? I’m not asking if you can weep about the fact that he is stepping away from his beliefs. Nor am I asking how his situation makes you feel about Christian leaders. I’m asking if you can weep over his pain. Don’t make this about you. This is about him and his wife and his kids. Can you be sad for him about the things that are painful for him?

And now I’m going to ask for more than most of my readers would probably consider: Josh said he feels awake, alive, and hopeful. Given everything he’s been experiencing, this may be the first time in a while he’s felt these things. Can you rejoice with him?

“Joshua Harris made a heavy announcement. Will we weep with him as he weeps AND rejoice with him as he rejoices? Or will we make this about our opinions and expectations and lose sight of the person in process?”

This one is probably much more difficult to wrap you head around. You may feel that celebrating with Josh is celebrating sin or celebrating walking away from Jesus. (Many readers are doing exactly that, this one is easy for many of you.) I want to be clear, I do not believe the Bible calls us to celebrate sin. So without celebrating sin, is it possible to rejoice in the journey that Joshua is on? Is it okay to be hopeful for him? Is it okay to celebrate some of the freedom he now feels from the religious expectation that has likely oppressed him his entire life? The freedom of finally being honest about what he believes and the state of his marriage? It is truly a soul-crushing endeavor to be living a lie. He must feel free in this moment. He seems excited. I am happy for him. Not happy that he “fell away;” happy that the burdens and expectations saddled upon him have been lifted and that possibilities for the future are wide open. I pray blessings upon Joshua Harris. I want good things for him.

To be clear, in my paradigm, that means I also pray that he comes to see that Jesus was not the source of his frustration: religion was. I pray he comes to know the easy and light burden of Christ in new ways. I pray God works all these things for his good. But that’s what I want for him. Empathy doesn’t start there. Empathy begins by listening and understanding him.

Pastor Kanye & the Problem with Celebrity Conversions

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Kanye West has been on a wild ride the last couple years. Most recently, he has been leading Sunday Services, where they basically sing songs to worship God interspersed with Kanye talking a lot about Jesus. He has even said that he will never again make “secular music.” Crazy, right?

But as you probably know (or can at least imagine), no one in the world knows what to make of this. For the gossip media outlets, Kanye’s just wild and unpredictable and therefore good for business. I sense the average Kanye fan standing back a bit to see what will come of it all. I see some in the Christian community excited about Kanye’s conversion and the new direction of his music. In my circles at least, I see more Christians skeptical or even derisive about “Pastor Kanye.” I personally see things that are really cool about what Kanye’s up to right now. I have mixed feelings overall: I actually wrote a book about the mistaken view of “secular vs. Christian music” that Kanye seemed to invoke, but I also love his enthusiasm to use his music for God’s glory.

Overall, I think this is yet another example of how tricky it is when celebrities convert. Bob Dylan famously became a Christian, and then eventually he leveled out. I have no idea what the implications of any of that are. But I do think we as Christians make this weird for celebrities. On the one hand, we talk as though having a celebrity become a Christian will lead to instant worldwide conversion. On the other hand, everyone policies their every statement and action, looking for reasons why they’re not a true Christian.

I first thought about this years ago. As I was stepping out of the back room onto the stage to lead the congregation in worship, my buddy said to me, “Don’t freak out, but Pamela Anderson is sitting in the front row.” I said what any worship leader would have said: “Yeah, right.”

I grabbed my guitar and stepped up to the microphone, and there she was, sitting directly in front of me. She seemed fully engaged in the music and the preaching, and as soon as the service ended she slipped out the side door.

This event didn’t have a huge impact on my life, but it made me wonder what church must be like for celebrities. Pamela made it through the service without being hassled, but I did notice that as she rushed out the door one of our pastors went sprinting after her. I’m sure he was just trying to give her a personal connection at the church, but I wonder if that seemed any different to her than the people who swarm her on her way out of other public places. I doubt it.

On another Sunday, I was running the soundboard when Leann Rimes walked in. She arrived early, found a seat in the middle of the Sanctuary, and graciously small-talked with the churchgoers who recognized her. Meanwhile in the sound booth, we whispered like Junior High girls about having a celebrity in front of us. We watched her reactions to the music and the sermon and speculated about the nature of her faith.

We likely agree that joining a community of faith is vital for anyone wanting to follow Jesus. But what would that look like for a major celebrity? Could they really just be part of the church family? We would all agree that celebrities are no better than the rest of us. Most celebrities would affirm this as well. But we don’t really believe it’s true. We get weird.

I once made awkward eye contact with Quentin Tarantino in a Starbucks. As we locked eyes, I saw the soul of a man who was trying hard to blend in, scanning the room to see which one of us would recognize him and call him out for attempting to buy coffee in public like a normal human being. I don’t know what he read in my eyes, but I didn’t out him. Instead, I pretended not to be watching him and walked across the room to discreetly tell a friend, “Don’t look now, but Quentin Tarantino is standing right behind you…”

I can’t imagine how a celebrity maintains normal relationships. Do people actually like me, or are they just trying to get something or look a certain way by hanging out with me? I would think you’d have a ton of acquaintances and very few actual friends. This would be tough in terms of church life.

“Kanye asked people to give him a little grace if he’s mispronouncing certain phrases: ‘I’m a new convert. I recently got saved.’ Maybe we could do that: give him a little grace. Be happy for him.”

I don’t have a solution for this, but this should give us more compassion for celebrities who are trying to follow Jesus. We get so disgusted when we hear that “so and so claims to be a Christian but isn’t part of a church.” We are bewildered when a celebrity who seems to love Jesus makes a statement that is theologically off base. You’d be pretty weird too if every person in every church made it difficult for you to connect with the body of Christ.

I don’t know what any of this means for Kanye West. My opinion doesn’t matter at all. But this poor guy seems to be trying to take his first steps at following Jesus and using his enormous platform to draw attention to Jesus. There’s a pastor who actually attended the same seminary I did that has been pastoring Kanye pretty directly, and he vouches for Kanye’s faith. I think that’s pretty cool. At a recent event, Kanye asked people to give him a little grace if he’s mispronouncing certain phrases: “I’m a new convert. I recently got saved.” Maybe we could do that: give him a little grace.

Seems like we should be happy for him. I know I don’t know better than the pastor who’s vouching for him. Seems like I can be excited about a lot of what I’m hearing about the Sunday Services. Also, my trust in Jesus doesn’t hinge on what Kanye says or does. I’m confident he doesn’t need to be policed by the council of evangelical public opinion. I also think it’s cool he seems to be finding life in Jesus, just as I do.

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.

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.  

Inglorious Pastors

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The Hebrew word for GLORY (kabod) means HEAVINESS, WEIGHT, IMPORTANCE.

This week I got another glimpse into why our current culture increasingly feels as though pastors and Christian leaders are UNIMPORTANT and culturally IRRELEVANT.

Hang with me for a second while I explain:

I am a pastor in a denomination called the EFCA (Evangelical Free Church of America). I am proud to be a part of this particular denomination for a number of reasons, but one key theological reason can be summed up by this simple phrase:

“In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, charity. In all things, Jesus Christ.”

I love that phrase. I deeply desire to live and lead by it. It really is what Jackass theology is all about!

This week I am in Chicago for EFCA ONE, our national conference/business meeting. This year’s conference has the highest attendance in years. Can you guess why? It’s not because there is explosive numerical growth in our denomination. It’s because there is a controversial matter being voted on. Controversy always brings people out of the woodwork.

Do you know what the controversial matter is? No, it doesn’t have to do with racial tensions, roles of women, sexual identity, or any of the other relevant or controversial topics flooding social media today. The vote is over ONE SINGLE WORD in the doctrinal statement regarding ESCHATOLOGY (end times theology).

The proposed change reads:

“We believe in the personal, bodily and premillennial glorious return of our Lord Jesus.”

The denominational leadership is proposing this change for the purpose of charity in non-essentials. They want to be more inclusive of differing views. I am 100% supportive of this change. There are things in the Bible that are clear and straight forward. End times theology is not one of them. Remember, in non-essentials…CHARITY.

The disheartening part of this whole experience was all the passion and debate that led to this point. I will spare you the details, but this has been a 10 year journey. For the last 3-4 years the leaders of the EFCA have been flying around the country, asking regional denominational leaders if they support the change. In 2017, it officially became a motion, to be voted on in June of 2019. Countless hours have gone into this discussion.

Just before the vote, I sat in a 3 hour session where people passionately debated against this matter. There were threats of churches and entire districts leaving the denomination if this change was accepted. The opposition spoke about leftist thinking, the abandonment of biblical authority, and the deep fear of the dreaded amillennialism destroying the EFCA ethos.

It was sad to watch. Sad because all this energy and effort, all this time and conversation, has been spent on something so radically unimportant.

Look, I’m not saying understanding the Bible is unimportant, I’m saying this kind of debate has zero importance to the lives of everyday human beings. Feel free to develop a stance on eschatology, but when you see your opinion as an ESSENTIAL, as a hill to die on, you’ve got some re-prioritizing to do.

Remember, glory means WEIGHT. IMPORTANCE.

God is GLORIOUS. He matters. He is important. One day he will be seen and worshipped as the one who spoke creation into existence.

Jesus was GLORIOUS in the real world lives that he touched. He mattered to the prostitutes, the poor, the widows, the outcasts. He gave new purpose to everyday fisherman. He lived a life-alteringly relevant life.

As pastors, unfortunately, we can settle for an INGLORIOUS ministry of GLORIOUS God. We argue over the parsing of Greek words, theological nuance, eschatology, ecclesiology. We expend enormous amounts of energy on things that only matter to other highly schooled church people.

Meanwhile, there is real pain in the real everyday lives of humans we are called to love.

Aside from our love for God himself, PEOPLE MATTER MOST. Not ideas, not theoretical interpretations. People and their pain, and their struggle to know God in hostile world.

During an open mic session, a military chaplain said it best (my paraphrase):

“While ministering to young men and women in the military, I am constantly counseling them through matters of sexual identity, depression, addiction, and finding meaning in a hostile violent world. Never once in all my years, have I ever had someone ask me about eschatology.”

“The inglorious pastor (or layperson) snubs the woman at the well, rushes past the beaten man on the side of the road, because he’s rushing to tend to religious matters.”

This is it. Nobody in the real world cares a rip about the details of eschatology. Our hope is set on the promised return of Jesus. The only people who care about this level of granularity are pastors like me locked in ivory towers living in a bizarro subculture.

You see, it’s the inglorious pastor who snubs the woman at the well, who rushes past the man beaten up on the side of the road, because he’s rushing to tend to religious matters. It’s the inglorious pastor who writes off the 1 and tends only to the theology of the 99.

I applaud the EFCA for broadening their doctrinal statement. I do believe it was worth the effort. I’m grateful that after years of work and hours upon hours of debate, we took a vote, and it passed. 79% in favor. 21% opposed.

But the whole exercise was a warning to me. A shot across the bow. There is a tendency for me as a pastor to lose touch with real pain, real need, and settle for theory and theological debate. While all of this has its place, if it isn’t producing real love for real people, then I’m just another inglorious pastor!

Don’t Exaggerate for Your Good Cause

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After picking up my daughters from school a few weeks ago, my wife, Laura, found a flyer on her windshield criticizing public schools. In California, a newly approved social studies curriculum has been a huge source of outrage. I almost wrote “debate,” but I haven’t seen that. All I have seen is people yelling at or about each other. The flyer warned about what our kids were going to be exposed to in public school.

Our kids found the flyer first. They’re in first grade and third grade. So ironically, the flyer that was trying to warn us about what our kids were going to be exposed to is the thing that exposed our kids to something they hadn’t seen before.

We decided that this would be a good time to have a deeper discussion on sex and gender than we had previously done. Honestly, it was a wonderful discussion, focused on love and grace and how to dignify and care for people with whom we disagree. I’m sincerely glad we got to talk about it, and we realized this was the perfect age to begin this discussion. We have lots more discussing to do.

“Whether I’m taking my kids to public school or to my own church, I know they’ll be exposed to ideas and people with whom they will disagree.”

We have never imagined that in sending our kids to public school we would agree with everything our kids were being taught. Actually, I don’t bring my kids to our church assuming I’ll agree with everything they’re being taught. This world is not homogenous, and if I know anything about the Christian landscape, it’s that we’re not all the same. So whether I’m taking my kids to a government institution or to my own church, I know they’ll be exposed to ideas and people with whom they will disagree. I actually think that’s a valuable part of education and continued personal growth.

Grace is the key. We have to learn to dignify and love the people with whom we disagree. When we decide we can’t learn from or with people who differ from us, we’re adopting a cocoon mentality. I’m not taking some moral high ground here. I still want my kids to choose good friends and I have no intention of enrolling them in a satanist school. We all have to make the best decisions we can for our kids. I do my best to care for my kids and follow my convictions. I also think it’s important to make that assumption about the people who wrote that flyer and about the people who passed the new social studies curriculum.

If being part of your camp requires you to assume the worst of everyone who is on the other side, then your camp is inherently problematic and dehumanizing. If you’re unable to state the opposing view in a way that its adherents would agree to, then you’re not engaging in dialogue. You’re attacking a fake opponent and you’re harming everyone, including yourself.

(To be clear, I’m not saying that everyone who is concerned about California’s curriculum is fighting against a straw man, but I have seen some blatantly false information flying around. As an example, I’ve seen people attacking components of sex ed curriculum—”can you believe they’re going to teach this to kindergartners?!”—but the components they’re addressing are designed to be taught to older kids, and the California curriculum in question is not sex ed, it’s social studies. I’ve also seen our specific school district send out communications dispelling some of the myths directly, but it seems those communications are being ignored in favor of more fearful assumptions. I’m not saying everyone has perfect intentions or a wise approach, but I am saying we shouldn’t assume the worst of everyone.)

“If being part of your camp requires you to assume the worst of everyone who is on the other side, then your camp is inherently problematic and dehumanizing.”

Truly, I’m not trying to defend anything in particular, I’m just asking all of us to engage in sound logical discussion and to spend some time listening and researching before we settle our opinions. And most of all, I’m asking that we frame everything in love. I understand that many parents don’t want their kids exposed to concepts they disagree with. Do what you need to do to educate your kids—I’m not here to judge. But we need to reach a point where we love the people behind what we perceive as an “agenda.” I’ve heard a lot of fearful statements saying that California is trying to make all of our kids gay. I’ve also talked to a lot of teachers who say they’re just trying to make sure no LGTBQ kids—or any kids—are bullied or made to feel like freaks. Tragically, we don’t have a good track record in this regard. Compassion is a noble goal. Acknowledging someone else’s humanity is vital. Not every idea is equally valid, but we’re not helping our cause—regardless of how good it is—if we have to distort the facts in order to more fully demonize our opponents.

“Not every idea is equally valid, but we’re not helping our cause—regardless of how good it is—if we have to distort the facts in order to more fully demonize our opponents.”

This is just my personal opinion, but I don’t have a ton of faith in lobbyists and politicians and school board execs who don’t have actual education experience (I know some do). But I do have a lot of faith in every teacher my girls have ever had. These have all been wonderful people who love my girls and genuinely invest in their education and growth. They’re not twisting villainous mustaches trying to make my daughters into Hitler, they’re just trying to help them on their journey. I’m so thankful for these wonderful human beings who refuse to let crap salaries deter them from pouring themselves fully into our children and therefore our future.

Don’t agree with me. Debate, discuss, but don’t demonize. As some of us choose to engage in public education and as some of us choose to opt out, my prayer is that all of our interactions will be characterized by dignity and love, and that every human being will be treated as what they are: beautiful people carefully crafted by God in his own image. That’s no small thing. And it matters more than any of our ideas.

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. 

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.