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Our Wicked Tendency to Use the Bible to Oppress

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Tim Keller says that religious people often use their convictions about truth and morality “as bludgeons to intimidate and control those who share them and to condemn and punish those who do not. To think, ‘We are on the side of truth,’ can give people internal warrant to be abusive to those they believe have heretical opinions.”*

Can you imagine anything worse than abusing other humans in the name of God? Can you think of anything God desires less than people using his words to demean and attack others? And yet it’s a real problem. That’s why Keller wrote those words. And it’s the reason we started this blog in the first place. God gets a bad rap because we are constantly claiming to be speaking for him, and we are constantly jackasses in the process.

Religious people often use their convictions about truth and morality “as bludgeons to intimidate and control those who share them and to condemn and punish those who do not.” – Tim Keller

Before I say what needs to be said here, I want to offer a confession. Many, many, many people throughout history have used religion—including (especially?) Christianity—to demean and oppress. So many have used religion to gain, expand, and preserve power. This is disgusting. I offer that confession on behalf of the religious tradition I stand in. But I also confess personally that I have considered myself to be orthodox, correct, and “on the side of God,” and have thereby hurt other people. I have used the truth to ostracize people. I have used my view of orthodoxy to exclude. When this has happened, it has been ugly. We can’t keep doing this. I’m actively fighting against this tendency in myself.

But we need to be careful to say that this type of abuse-in-the-name-of-God does not mean that God himself or truth itself is abusive. Keller explains that while the Bible and Christianity has often been used a tool of oppression, when we do this we’re fighting against the very nature of God and of Scripture. God has always stood with and fought for the oppressed. Though his people have often tried to lift themselves up by pushing others down, they can only do this by directly violating what God is working to do in this world. The fact that we often quote Scripture in doing this only highlights the monstrosity of it.

Throughout the Bible, God constantly uses second sons, the weaker and less attractive, people from smaller tribes, the smallest and youngest members of a family (e.g., David). We see Jesus lifting up women and tax collectors and sinners. Keller: “It is always the moral, racial, sexual outsider and socially marginalized person who connects to Jesus most readily…God repeatedly refuses to allow his gracious activity to run along the expected lines of worldly influence and privilege. He puts in the center the person whom the world would put on the periphery.”

This is because this is who God is. It’s significant that this is the lot Jesus chose when he became human. It’s not an accident that Jesus was born poor rather than rich, that he fled his home country as a refugee rather than being raised in privilege, that he was crucified as a criminal rather than crowned as a king. Jesus identifies with the oppressed. He was the oppressed.

For all these reasons, Keller points out how absurd and incongruous it is when we use Jesus and the Bible to oppress others: “Of course believing in universal moral truths can be used to oppress others. But what if that absolute truth is a man who died for his enemies, who did not respond in violence to violence but forgave them? How could that story, if it is the center of your life, lead you to take up power and dominate others?”

“We need to loosen our grip on our right to be right about Scripture and instead cling more closely to the stated mission of Scripture and the actual heart of God.”

You have to betray the story itself in order to do this. Richard Bauckham insists that the biblical story is “uniquely unsuited to being an instrument of oppression.” And yet we use it as an instrument of insult, oppression, and exclusion all the time. I frequently see Christians taking the Bible and use it to dunk on other Christians. I see Christians doing this to non-Christians. I see liberals doing this to conservatives and fundamentalists doing it to liberals.

I don’t have all the answers here, but honestly, it sounds pretty simple to me: We need to re-engage with the story that we claim shapes our lives. Because if this story is about a God who loves the outsider and who enters into their pain to elevate them, then we need to repent of our self-exaltation. We need to renounce the use of Scripture as a means of proving how bad and wrong people are. Perhaps we need to loosen our grip on our right to be right about Scripture and instead cling more closely to the stated mission of Scripture and the actual heart of God. Anything less is a betrayal of the God and the story we’re claiming to follow.

*The quotes from Tim Keller in this post are from his excellent book Making Sense of God, particularly Chapter 10: “A Justice that Does Not Create New Oppressors.”

Keep Christianity Weird

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Søren Kierkegaard argued that no one can be raised a Christian.* Does that sound odd? At the very least it runs counter to what virtually every Christian parent is trying to do with their kids. Our impulse is to make sure our kids understand the faith, to do everything in our power to make sure they love Jesus. It’s a noble goal, yet Kierkegaard says it’s impossible.

I don’t think he’s wrong on this, and the implications go way beyond parenting. Here’s why. Our efforts to teach Christianity to someone else are important, but insufficient. Because until you have a moment in which you see Christianity as fundamentally weird, you’re missing the whole thing.

But it’s not just weirdness. Kierkegaard used the word “offense” and said that offense functions like a gate to Christianity. This is the only entry point. If you waltz right in and everything aligns with everything you’ve ever thought and dreamed, then you missed the gate. You have to come face to face with Jesus as he truly is, and Jesus as he truly is will always offend us in some way. Think about this. Consider Jesus’ demands that we lower ourselves, that we put others first, that we forgive our enemies (something a good American would never do), that we turn the other cheek (something a good American would never do), that we stop judging others, that we repent and die to ourselves (something a human being would never do). Give it ten seconds of thought and you’ll realize how insane it is that we don’t primarily think of Jesus as offensive.

So until you come to this jarring place of realizing that following Jesus means getting over your desires and inclinations in a number of areas, you’re not dealing with the real thing.

Kierkegaard uses the example of gunpowder. Someone went to a lot of trouble to find gunpowder, refine it, and figure out how to best use it. That was an important discovery. But from that point on, that guy was able to hand it on to other people: here’s how it works, here’s how you use it, etc. But Christianity is not like gunpowder. Once discovered, it is not simply handed down. It must be discovered. Again and again. Every generation. Every individual. It’s either discovered or it’s not. If your faith has been handed down but not discovered, then you’re holding a counterfeit.

I actually think this insight is at the heart of a lot of the jackassery that masquerades as Christianity.

“Does your Jesus coincidentally do and believe everything you happen to do and believe? Are all of your enemies his? If so, do you see why this should scare you?”

When was the last time you were surprised by Christianity? The last time anything you read in the Bible struck you as odd or crazy or unreasonable? When was the last time you found yourself doing something where you thought, “Man, I’d never be doing this [serving the homeless, giving away my money, praying for someone I consider a piece of crap, forgiving someone for the 449th time] if Jesus hadn’t commanded and modeled it“? Seriously, have you ever found yourself in that spot?

Or does your view of Jesus coincidentally mean that he would always do exactly what you would naturally do in a given situation?

Does your Jesus agree with every theological, political, and moral opinion you hold? Does your Jesus look at your enemies and consider all of them his enemies as well? Probably right? But do you see why that’s problematic? You can tell yourself this is the case because you have a perfect understanding of the Bible and have thereby brought your inclinations into submission to God’s truth. But you’re lying to yourself.

A Jesus that we perfectly understand and perfectly agree with is not Jesus. A Jesus who never surprises us or challenges what we think and do is not Jesus.

“A Jesus that we perfectly understand and perfectly agree with is not Jesus. A Jesus who never surprises us or challenges what we think and do is not Jesus.”

I’m writing this like a total hypocrite. Like a complete jackass. Because I’m rarely surprised by Jesus. Because I don’t spend enough time with him. Because I find it easier to identify the people who see Jesus the way I want to and then listen to what they tell me about what Jesus would and wouldn’t do.

I’m writing this like I know what I’m talking about, but really, I’m just a pastor that read something incredibly convicting and I know I have to do something with it. And while I try to figure that out, I’m realizing I need to stop seeing specific Twitter feeds or pulpits or associations as the go-to location for finding “what Jesus thinks about ______.” I’m feeling this pull to sit down with all of my conclusions and practices and ask Jesus what he thinks about them. I’m confident that will mean hearing his voice speaking through people I wouldn’t expect him to speak through. That means I’ll have to step out of my echo chamber. And that’s okay. I guess I never really believed Jesus could be confined to such a place anyway.

*[Everything I say about Kierkegaard in this post comes from some pretty common Kierkegaardian themes. I’m pulling these thoughts specifically from Repetition, Sickness Unto Death, and Practice in Christianity.]

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!

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

Narrowly Human

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The New Testament scholar Douglas Moo talks about how notoriously difficult it is to define the Greek word sarx. (Stay with me! This post is going to be way cooler than that first sentence indicates…) The problem is that its most literal translation, flesh, is either too physical in connotation (like the literal flesh on a body) or too negative in connotation (like sensuality, fornication, etc.).

Here’s the cool thing about the Bible’s perspective on flesh: Flesh isn’t the bad part of us, it is simply the physical part of us.

When God created the flesh of Adam and Eve, he said it was good. Jesus himself was the Word made flesh. So flesh clearly isn’t always negative. Someday, we will live in a new heavens and earth, with new bodies—new flesh. All will be as it should. Flesh isn’t inherently bad, but the flesh alone is never sufficient. Flesh alone is always lacking Spirit, like the desert lacks water. Flesh and Spirit were intended to live in harmony, not opposition. As it is now, they are—like most things in this life—at war.

Back to Moo. He likes to define living in the flesh as living “narrowly human.” I dig that. That makes so much sense to me.

To live in the flesh is to live your life consumed by worries, concerns, and longing for the more physical and base things of life. Don’t worry, fellow heresy nerds, I’m miles away from Gnosticism here. Gnosticism says the flesh is evil and the Spirit is good. I’m saying the flesh is good AND the Spirit is good, but to live by the flesh primarily is to fixate, idolize, and disproportionately desire something harmful.

We have a desire and need for sex. The narrowly human life (in the “flesh”) over-fixates on our need for sex to the extent that it becomes harmful and consuming and inappropriate.

We have a natural desire for justice, but the narrowly human approach (living in the flesh) is an over-fixation on the behavior of others, so much so that we become contentious and divisive and unduly opinionated and critical.

We have a desire for physical blessings like money, shelter, and life-giving relationship, but to live in the narrowly human sense (in the flesh) is to be unsatisfied with God’s blessing for us, and to become jealous of someone else’s physical life, popularity, holdings, or appearance.

To live in the flesh, whatever way it makes itself evident in our lives, is to live narrowly human. It’s not inherently evil, but it is inherently dying.

It’s amazing to me how much of my time and energy is spent worrying about, thinking about, and concerned with matters of my narrow humanity.

I see it constantly in my children too. They fight over their favorite snacks. They spend so much time concerned with how much of their favorite foods their siblings get. They fixate on their taste buds, then they get angry because those taste buds aren’t getting satisfied. Anger will turn to violence, secret stashes, and manipulation because they are so focused on this one commodity. This one physical sensation of eating their favorite snack.

This is no way to live. As a parent, it is miserable. They are, as C.S. Lewis put it, “far too easily pleased.” They are settling for a war over mud pies (their favorite treat), and missing the holiday being offered at sea (enjoyable peaceful relationships with each other and their Creator). Their bodies are important and their appetites are legitimate, but living amidst food wars is living a life that is narrowly human.

“We have Spirit-filled dreams, but many of us have settled for a ‘narrowly human’ reality.”

The Spirit wails for something greater. Humans dream of love, of marrying Mr. or Mrs. Right. We long to raise kids, and not just because we want to be saddled with the exorbitant costs incurred in modern child rearing (estimated at upwards of $250,000 per child over 18 years). We raise kids because we want the investment of love, we imagine peaceful family gatherings, we dream of years of laughter. We have Spirit-filled imaginations. But many of us have settled for the narrowly human reality. Sometimes it’s not even narrowly human. Sometimes it’s barely human. Living according to flesh, without the Spirit, promises a life of death. As the great Marcus Mumford said, “in these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die. Where you invest your love. You invest your life“ That is one thing that fleshly bodies share: they all die. As do the pursuits of the flesh.

So what, now?

Can we live in the Spirit? Can we fix our imaginations back on LOVE, PEACE, JOY, KINDNESS, etc.

Or are we destined to live narrowly human lives?

One more thing. The power that raised Christ from the dead is the same power that lives in all who believe. So let’s do this. Let’s do it together. Let’s drop the insults. Let’s abandon the dissatisfaction. Let’s take the holiday at sea! Why not? Let’s be thankful right….NOW!

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.

If You’re Not For Me, You’re Against Me (or is it the opposite?)

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The Gospel is exclusive. Jesus once said, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matt. 12:30). You’re in or you’re out. If you’re not fully on board with the Truth, then take a hike. Everyone who teaches something different must be boldly and publicly opposed, and everyone needs to be warned against their venom.

I’ve nodded along as these things were being taught. I’ve even taught this myself because I saw it in Scripture. But the problem is, Jesus didn’t mean what we think he did.

Jesus said “whoever is not with me is against me.” But did you know he also said, “the one who is not against us is for us”? Which of these two statements we emphasize says a lot about us. Choose the right phrase and you easily fit Jesus into your theological system. So which is right? The thing is, Jesus wasn’t contradicting himself. He said both for a purpose. Take a look below. But I promise you, Jesus didn’t say these things to give us a free pass on denouncing everyone who disagrees with us.

If You’re Not Against Me You’re For Me

“John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.'” – Mark 9:38–41

This first statement is huge. Notice the context. The disciples had found someone—not one of their small group—who was casting out demons. He was doing the same work Jesus and the disciples were doing. And they didn’t like it. It probably made it worse for them that this guy was doing it in Jesus’ name. What the heck? We’re the one’s who are with Jesus! What does this joker think he’s doing by going around liberating people from oppression without our involvement?

Can you see the territorialism? The watch dogging?

“When Jesus said, ‘whoever is not against me is for me,’ he actually meant it. Whatever it is that makes us so eager to oppose and exclude is not from Jesus.”

I’ve honestly been surprised by Jesus’ response. I would have expected him to say: “Thanks guys. You’re absolutely right. If these guys were of God, they’d be running in our circles. Let’s let everyone know that there’s an imposter out there.” But that’s exactly what Jesus didn’t say. “Do not stop him…For the one who is not against us is for us.” The guy was doing the work of the Lord; what the hell did the disciples think they were accomplishing by shutting that down?

When Jesus said, “whoever is not against me is for me,” he actually meant it. Whatever it is that makes us so eager to oppose and exclude is not from Jesus.

Jesus was way more embracing than we think. What’s fascinating is that this interaction is bookended by some of Jesus’ teaching on childlike faith. Just prior to these statements, the disciples had been arguing about who was the greatest. Jesus responded by picking up a child and saying, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me…” Just after the interaction, Jesus warns against causing a child to sin. I’m prone to think of the ideal Christian as an educated, discerning, truth-speaker. But Jesus says it’s better to be like a child.

If You’re Not With Me You’re Against Me

When Jesus says “whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matt. 12:30), he’s speaking in a much different context. He’s not policing people’s doctrine or ministries. He’s actually defending himself.

The Pharisees were accusing Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. So Jesus points out how absurd this accusation is. Here’s my paraphrase of his argument here: Are you insane? Why would Satan be doing the work of God? My work is all about plundering the kingdom of Satan. If anyone is building Satan’s kingdom, he’s clearly against me and with Satan. If anyone is attacking Satan’s kingdom, he’s not working for Satan, he’s doing my work!

“Citing ‘whoever is not with me is against me’ while denouncing a Jesus-loving servant of God is absurd because it proves YOU are the one working against Jesus.”

It’s telling that Jesus’ next words are about a tree and its fruit. He’s not telling us to analyze each person’s doctrine and see how closely it aligns with Tim Keller or Jen Hatmaker or John MacArhur or Judah Smith. He’s telling us to look at the outcome of their life and ministry—that will tell us which team they’re working on.

I’ve seen so many people “farewelled” from the Evangelical community because of some teaching that’s considered suspect or even heretical. But if you look at the ministries of some of these people, they are producing healing and love for Jesus and transformed lives. Meanwhile, you look at the ministries of some of the watchdogs and they’re producing discord and slander and pride and exclusivity. Citing “whoever is not with me is against me” while denouncing a Jesus-loving servant of God is absurd because it proves YOU are the one working against Jesus.

You’ll know the tree by its fruits. If you’re producing the opposite of the fruit of Jesus and his kingdom, then you’re playing on the wrong team. If you’re not with him you’re against him. But if you’re working to promote the fruit of Jesus and his kingdom, then you shouldn’t be opposed by the people of Jesus. If you’re not against him you’re for him.

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.

Watching Hamilton Like a Jackass

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Two people can watch the same event unfold and share significantly different stories about what happened. This is a commonly understood phenomena regarding eyewitness accounts, investigators have to deal with it all the time. It makes finding out who is right infuriating.

Does it seem strange that two people (or millions of people) can read the same Bible and come away with different conclusions and emphases? It shouldn’t. To be human is to be situated, and to be situated is to see from a very specific perspective.

“It shouldn’t surprise us that we read the same Bible but come to different conclusions. To be human is to be situated, and to be situated is to see from a specific perspective.”

The missionary/missiologist Andrew Walls wrote a lot about these dynamics, because missionaries have to learn to avoid jackassery. Think about it for a minute. You leave your church and culture where your beliefs are clearly formulated and everything is done exactly as you prefer. Then you fly over an ocean and start talking theology and pastoring in a totally different cultural setting. These people love God every bit as much as you do, but they emphasize different facets of God and the way he relates to people. They might not even think to affirm some of the things you consider most important. They’ve never heard of John Piper, Rachel Held Evans, or Francis Chan, so they’re not purposely trying to contradict their teaching, but they definitely do from time to time.

How are you going to respond to this? With grace and understanding? Or like a jackass? In this setting, a jackass insists that the way he understands Scripture is the way Scripture is to be understood. A jackass equates her specific perspective with capital T Truth. A jackass insists that disagreeing on these things means false teaching, possibly damnation.

But Walls says this misses it entirely. He offers a helpful illustration.

Let’s say a thousand people go to the theatre to watch Hamilton. Everyone is sitting in a different seat. Some are seated low, barely able to see over the lip of the stage. Others are seated high with a better view of the stage but without being able to see the actors’ facial expressions. Some are seated on the left and can see a bit more behind the right curtain. When an actor emerges from that curtain, the left-sitters can see what’s happening before anyone else. When something happens on the far left of the stage, however, the low-left-sitters hear the audience’s laughter before they identify the action.

The point is, there’s no such thing as “watching Hamilton.” There’s no view from nowhere. If you’re going to watch the play, you have to choose a seat. And the seat we choose shapes the way we see, experience, and interpret the play to a significant extent. This is important: it’s the same play, but we are connecting to different aspects of it. If someone’s favorite part of Hamilton is the moment when Darth Vader walks onstage, of course, you know they weren’t watching the same play. But if her favorite part of the play is different than yours, then you’re a jackass for calling her out on it.

I’m sure you’ve been able to see where this is heading. I think a lot of our theological battles come down to viewing the Bible from our own specific seats. My theological training happened in a place where John Piper was condemned for sitting where miraculous gifts looked prominent in the Jesus story. Our own seats were so low we couldn’t even see those miracles taking place, apparently. We also denounced R.C. Sproul for seeing a thread in how the story ends (eschatology) that we hadn’t noticed. I brayed along with my camp as we called out these “false teachings,” but man, we were being a bunch of jackasses.

“If we fixate on our specific interpretation of the Bible yet somehow miss the reality that THE BIBLE IS ABOUT LOVE, then we may as well have skipped it. We’re worse off for having read it.”

In this illustration, we don’t need to all agree on every detail or emphasis in the play. But we’re all watching the same play. Some interpretations are wrong, to be sure, but if there’s no room for a different emphasis, a different approach, and a different interpretation here and there, then we are perpetuating jackass theology. And if we fixate on nailing down the authoritative interpretation but neglect the reality that THE PLAY IS ABOUT LOVING PEOPLE, then we may as well have skipped the play. Actually, we’re worse off for having watched the play.

Missionaries have to consider these realities. They have no choice. In the U.S. we seem to have come to a place where we feel free to disregard or attack anyone who sees something different than us. We have to cut this out. The body is meant to be diverse. The whole thing is supposed to be held together by love. We appreciate the play all the more when we discuss it with other people who were sitting on the other side of the theatre.