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What Is Jackass Theology?

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What is jackass theology? The concept may sound funny or edgy or irreverent or descriptive, depending on where you’re coming from. But we assure you, jackass theology is exceedingly common. We’ve all participated, though most of us are unaware of it. Simply put, jackass theology is what happens when we hold our theological convictions in such a way that we act like, well, jackasses. And that’s shockingly easy to do. Jackass theology happens when ideas, rules, and “being right” supplant love, joy, peace, and basic human dignity.

Theology itself is not the problem. Theology means “the study of God,” and God doesn’t make people into jackasses. The problem is the way we hold our theology. It’s the way we explain it, the way we use it to divide from others, the way we use it to beat other people up. For those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, this is inexcusable. Jesus, if you recall, said that the two greatest commandments—the two statements that summarized all of the Old Testament—were love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.

How do we go from Jesus insisting that loving other people is the most important thing to using Jesus’ teaching to ostracize and exclude?

Not many of us are doing this on purpose, but we’re all doing it. Making jerk moves in the name of Jesus. Saying hurtful things on God’s behalf. We don’t get a pass just because this is the church culture we’ve been raised in. Flannery O’Connor said, “Ignorance is excusable when it is borne like a cross, but when it is wielded like an ax, and with moral indignation, then it becomes something else indeed.” She was talking about people who have never put any energy into understanding how art works, and yet do not hesitate to criticize artists. The point works equally well when we co-opt the words of God to fight against other people without taking the time to understand the heart of God.

Let’s be clear: if your theology is making you less like Jesus, then something has gone catastrophically wrong.

“How do we go from Jesus insisting that loving other people is the most important thing to using Jesus’ teaching to ostracize and exclude? When our theology makes us less like Jesus, that’s a problem.”

So what are we doing calling this site Jackass Theology? We’re just a couple of pastors trying to help people get closer to the heart of Jesus. We’re using the concept of jackass theology in three ways: as a lament, as a confession, and as a way forward.

LAMENT

As we look at evangelical Christianity today, we see a ton of jackassery. It’s seriously everywhere. Stick with us and you’ll recognize it too. But don’t get too excited, once you start to notice jackass theology, you’ll see it mainly in your own past and present. We just want to help you weed it out of your future. We also want to note that it’s not just in evangelicalism. As I said, it’s seriously everywhere. Republicans, democrats, liberals, conservatives, upper class people, lower class people, etc. etc. etc. Jackassery is part of the human condition, but Jesus shows us what it means to be more.

CONFESSION

This part is key. We talk about jackass theology as a means of confession. Ryan and I are bigger jackasses than most, and we will often share our own jackassery. It’s important that we do this. The moment you point a finger as someone else’s jackassery, you’re guilty of it yourself. The theme passage for all jackass theology is Luke 18:9–14:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Fill in the blank however you want, as soon as you find yourself saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like _________,” you’re being a jackass. We confess our jackassery so we can turn from there and pursue the ways, works, and words of Jesus.

A WAY FORWARD

Ultimately, we’re trying to find and show a way forward. We all start as jackasses, but it doesn’t need to be like this. Jesus is the anti-jackass. Really, all we want to say is that we want to be more like Jesus. The problem is, we all assume that Jesus would do the things we tend to do, even when we’re actually being jackasses. The way forward is the way of Jesus. He invites us to join him, and that’s our heart with Jackass Theology. We want to be more like Jesus. And we’re hoping you’re interested in joining us as well.

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.

Watchdog Theology

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

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

But Jesus didn’t. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I barked along. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conservative Jackass

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Our basic premise is that we are all jackasses. Myself especially. One specific type of jackass that I have given much of my life to embodying is the Conservative Jackass.

Ryan and I are blog buddies and we pastor together now, but we actually met in college. Ryan was my mentor for a couple of years and had a major impact on the depth and direction of my life. During this time, I was introduced to Conservative Neo-Reformed TheologyTM. As I began learning theology with a depth and intensity that’s difficult to imagine now (I’m still thankful for this season for this reason), I began to notice that Ryan resisted the militarism with which I began holding specific doctrines.

This was difficult for me to process. I really looked up to Ryan, but he couldn’t see The TruthTM! What was I supposed to do? It seems crazy for me to write it now, but I was honestly concerned for Ryan’s salvation.

How could he resist what was so clearly written in Scripture?

This is the heart of the Conservative Jackass. No, I’m not talking about a high view of Scripture. Ryan had that then and still does now. Same here. I’m talking about the inability to respect someone who disagrees.

This is as good an example as any, from the teaching of one of my theological heroes from this period:

“Either you believe the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 or you don’t.  And if you don’t believe the Genesis account, then I just, I have to tell you, you have no hope of coming to the truth.”

-John MacArthur

He said this in the context of explaining why it’s essential for a person to believe that God created the world in six literal 24-hour days rather than believing in any form of theistic evolution. The problem is not being a creationist. That’s a fine position to hold. The problem is insisting that anyone who has less than 100% certainty about your specific reading of a passage couldn’t possibly be a Christian.

My question is: what the hell?

I’m serious in asking that. There was a time when I held this very position. But man—I was being such a jackass. How could I have assumed that total conformity to the way I saw things was necessary for salvation?

“The Conservative Jackass is an excluder. A person who knows the Truth and is unwilling to acknowledge the validity of any person or position that differs. His argument of choice is the slippery slope.”

I think the answer to that question is that I was my own God. And this is an important point. Anytime God agrees with 100% of our conclusions, then without a doubt we are our own Gods. When this is the case, either we have perfectly understood the mind of God—which, without question, is impossible—or our conception of God is simply: “He’s a deity who agrees with me on everything.” (Incidentally, there’s a great Bob Dylan song about this.)

The Conservative Jackass is an excluder. A person who knows the Truth and is unwilling to acknowledge the validity of any person or position that differs.

The Conservative Jackass’ argument of choice is the slippery slope. Leave room for disagreement on one tenet of your fundamentalist beliefs and pretty soon you’ll have slid all the way to liberalism (the dirtiest word imaginable: worse even than “unloving”). Allow for the possibility of some non-scientific terminology in Genesis 1–2, and pretty soon you’ll be asking Richard Dawkins into your heart. Question the traditional assumption of what “male headship” entails and before you know it, all of our superheroes will be replaced with women. Acknowledge that Paul warns against getting drunk but that the Bible nowhere prohibits drinking and—POOF!—the pulpit in your church will be replaced with a beer pong table.

I’m being super snarky (another form of jackassery, without doubt), but I’m just trying to illustrate how illogical and dangerous the slippery slope argument is. And yet the Conservative Jackass lives in constant fear of “if we allow ________, then _________.”

Just as with every type of jackass, this is so unlike Jesus. He said the greatest commands were to love God and love people. The Conservative Jackass minimizes this passage (a command which Jesus said was the most important) and acts as thought the greatest command is to develop and then insist upon perfect doctrine (a command which literally does not exist).

I realize I’m coming down pretty hard here; it’s because I am the Conservative Jackass. The problem isn’t being conservative, it’s being a jackass about it. But good news: the solution isn’t a big mystery. Simply spend time focusing on Jesus. Take a year to read the Gospels more than you read Paul’s letters, for example. Pray that God will allow you to see other people as he sees them. Try prioritizing love over doctrine. The best news of all is that ultimately, the solution is Jesus. He’s the cure for every type of jackass.

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.”

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.

The Heresy of Unity

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There’s a danger in the Church today where people claim to be speaking for God, but they are either embarrassed or afraid of speaking God’s truth clearly, so they water it down. Changing God’s Word to fit our own agendas and desires is called heresy. We have no right to come before God, decide that we don’t like some of the things he says, and then water things down so we and the people we’re speaking to can feel better about themselves. If God says something, we have to believe that he’s right. It shouldn’t be difficult to accept that he knows more than we do. When I disagree with something God says, I have to assume he’s right and that life will be better for me if I embrace his truth rather than trying to create my own.

In case it isn’t clear at this point, I’m speaking about those people who lift their pet doctrines and self-made theological boundary lines higher than the commands Jesus clearly identified as the most important: to love God and to love our neighbors.

Here’s the irony that Ryan and I have found as we’ve tried to expose Jackass Theology. The more we try to speak clearly and boldly in the ways Jesus spoke clearly and boldly, the more we’ve been criticized for watering down Scripture. We’ve been dismissed as “liberal” and “compromisers” when we have said that the command to love and not slander someone like Beth Moore is more clearly emphasized in Scripture than statements about how women are to serve in ministry. We’ve been portrayed as spineless because we’ve said that God values love, joy, and peace.

Here’s the thing. I believe in being biblical. I went to an extremely conservative seminary where we learned to take Scripture at face value. I learned to interpret Scripture literally at almost every turn. That’s still my default: if the literal sense makes sense, seek no other sense.

But here’s what I’m finding: conservatives will call you “biblical” if you follow a literal view of hell or the millennium or homosexuality. But so many conservatives get upset if you take a literal interpretation of:

“Live in harmony with one another” – Rom. 12:16

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” – Rom. 12:18

“Charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.” – 2 Tim. 2:14

“Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” – 2 Tim. 2:23–25

“The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” – Gal. 5:19–21

“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” – Rom. 1:28–32

“If I take a statement about sexual behavior literally, I’m called conservative and biblical. If I take a biblical statement about avoiding disunity literally, I’m called a liberal, soft, cowardly, and compromising.”

These passages are the very tiny tip of the very large iceberg of the consistent New Testament teaching against disunity, slander, division, and quarreling. There are certainly commands to avoid false doctrine and instructions to correct those who teach something other than God’s truth. We need to take those seriously. But here’s what I’m having a hard time getting across: There are many commands to love others, to be united with others, to avoid quarreling and division, and to promote peace. These commands are also in the Bible, and they need to be taken seriously. Literally, even.

And here’s the problem I’m encountering: If I take a biblical statement about sexual behavior literally, I’m called a conservative and my stance is considered “biblical.” If I take a biblical statement about avoiding disunity literally, I’m called a liberal and my stance is considered soft and cowardly and compromising.

That’s wrong. We all have to make choices about which parts of the Bible are meant to be taken literally. All of us. I can’t tell you every passage that is meant to be taken purely literally (Selling all of your possessions? Plucking out your eye? Wearing head coverings?). But I can tell you that I’m extremely confident that Jesus’ commands to love and be unified and to avoid controversy are meant to be taken literally. You’re free to interpret those passages figuratively or to decide that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said in those places. But if you make that choice, please acknowledge that I’m the one who is interpreting the Bible literally when I fight for unity in the church rather than dividing over every man-made boundary.

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. 

Even Trump Has the Spirit

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According to John Calvin, even Donald Trump has the Spirit. And that goes for Mussolini, Mueller, and Ronald McDonald.

If you’re thinking, “I thought only Christians have the Spirit,” keep reading. Calvin doesn’t completely disagree with that sentence, but he has an important clarification.

The problem we’re trying to address here is that we can all be jackasses. This leads us to dismiss and demean other human beings. We have this hard-wired tendency to equate the Spirit with ourselves and the people who are very similar to us. It’s easy to see the Spirit of God working in someone who is all about the things you’re all about. But what happens when the Spirit is working outside of the boundaries you carefully maintain?

John Calvin insisted that we ought to learn from and appreciate the insights and skills of everyone around us. This goes for those you admire and those you don’t. It goes for Christians and non-Christians. This is a bit surprising, perhaps, given Calvin’s emphasis on human depravity. But he insists that the knowledge and abilities of human beings—including unbelievers—are gifts they received from the Spirit:

“Whenever we come upon these matters [skill and understanding] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn [deride, demean, blaspheme] and reproach the Spirit himself.”

– John Calvin
“If the Spirit is the sole fountain of truth, we shall not despise the truth wherever it appears, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit. For by holding his gifts in slight esteem, we blaspheme the Spirit.” – John Calvin

Did you catch that? Not only do we need to acknowledge that everyone—including non-Christians—have “that admirable light of truth shining in them,” but we had better be careful to heed and appreciate their insights lest we blaspheme the Spirit. Jesus told us that anyone who speaks against him will be forgiven, but the unforgivable sin is “blaspheming against the Holy Spirit” (Luke 12:10). There’s debate about what that means, but let’s agree it’s a strong warning. John Calvin isn’t Jesus, but in this passage, he’s connecting the demeaning of another person’s gifts with the unforgivable sin.

“We cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects [law, philosophy, medicine, and math] without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts.”

– John Calvin
“Shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude.” – John Calvin

The word “ingratitude” is important. Calvin is saying that the Spirit of God has placed many gifts all around you. He is trying to show something to you, to give something to you. So when you look at what another person has to offer and refuse it (often in the name of being “spiritual” or “biblical”), you are being a g*sh d@rn ingrate.

If the Spirit is the source of the engineer’s knowledge and skill, the artist’s aesthetic sensibilities and prophetic voice, and the philosopher’s quest for the truth, then we had better admire what we see, receive, and learn. Regardless of whether or not you agree with that person theologically. Regardless of the degree of heresy or paganism you associate with them.

We’ll all have to apply this to whatever people we have a hard time with. As an example and a confession, I have a hard time with Donald Trump (hence the title). It’s okay for me to disagree with many of his policies and be grieved by many of his tweets. But if I treat him as less than human and dismiss everything about him, I’m the one resisting the Spirit. And I don’t want to be that kind of jackass. Who do you need to apply Calvin’s quote to?

If we fail to rejoice in the beauty and truth created and taught by the people around us, then Calvin tells us to be ashamed of our ungrateful selves. The “pagans” don’t even demean the Spirit in this way because they see a divine source behind these good things.

When you talk to a person who is very different than you—even someone you might be tempted to view as an enemy on some front—can you still hear the voice of the Spirit? If not, you demean the Spirit of God, from whom all of God’s good and perfect gifts flow. Don’t be an ingrate. Glorify God for all of the truth and beauty that his Spirit has brought into this world from all sides.

Benny Hinn Changed: Do We Celebrate or Scoff?

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What was your first reaction to the news that Benny Hinn changed his theology regarding the prosperity gospel? If you need a little context, there is a video in which Hinn denounces the teaching that made him famous: that if we have enough faith (and give enough money), we can gain health, wealth, and prosperity.

In the video, Hinn acknowledged that in many circles all you hear is a “feel good message” about “how to build the flesh.” He said, “I’m sorry to say that prosperity has gone a little crazy, and I’m correcting my own theology. And you need to all know it. Because when I read the Bible now, I don’t see it in the same eyes I saw the Bible 20 years ago.”

Anyone familiar with Benny Hinn and his reputation will be shocked by that news. It’s something we never thought we’d hear. But you can watch the video. He says it.

A friend asked him if he was ready to make this shift public, and Hinn said, “Well, not totally. Because I don’t want to hurt my friends, whom I love, who believe things I don’t believe anymore.”

To me, that’s understandable. Many of us are under enormous pressure to stay in line with our theological camps. This is true in my experience as a pastor, and I can imagine it must be 1,000 times more true for pastors who are well known. As a matter of fact, Francis Chan recently got raked over the coals by some in his own camp because they were SUSPICIOUS that he might be inwardly endorsing the theology of Benny Hinn, despite his explicit and repeated words to the contrary. I actually want to say more about that episode in a minute because of its obvious relevance here, but let that stand for a moment. There is tremendous pressure to never betray your camp or never even to be perceived as doing so. Take a picture in the wrong place or preach to the wrong audience and receive your “Farewell!” So Hinn’s words here resonate with me. I can see why he didn’t want to say anything.

AND YET, HE DID! He knew it would be hard, but he felt compelled by the force of the truth and decided he had to speak against a theological system he had previously endorsed. A system that had made him famous and successful. I respect that.

Here’s the substance of it: “I will tell you something now that’s going to shock you. I think it’s an offense to the Lord, it’s an offense to say ‘Give $1,000.’ I think it’s an offense to the Holy Spirit to place a price on the gospel. I’m done with it…I think that hurts the gospel…If I hear one more time ‘Break the back of poverty with $1,000,’ I’m going to rebuke them. I think that’s buying the gospel, that’s buying the blessing, that’s grieving the Holy Spirit…If you’re not giving because you love Jesus, don’t bother giving. I think giving has become such a gimmick it’s making me sick to my stomach. And I’ve been sick for a while, too; I just couldn’t say it. And now the lid is off. I’ve had it. Do you know why? I don’t want to get to heaven and be rebuked. I think it’s time we say it like it is: the gospel is not for sale. And the blessings of God are not for sale. And miracles are not for sale. And prosperity is not for sale.”

It’s a surreal experience for me to hear Benny Hinn utter these words. And I’ll be honest, my first reaction was not joy. I was skeptical. I sat there thinking, “Okay, sure. We’ll see how this goes.”

Why?

Here’s what my response should have been. I should have spent the last few decades praying for Benny Hinn. Asking God to give him a clear understanding of Scripture and a heart that burns with love for Jesus. I don’t think I was wrong to disagree with his theology. I think it’s likely the indignation I felt was righteous when I saw him doing what I took to be selling the gospel for personal gain. I still feel that way about the prosperity gospel. Actually, I now agree with Benny Hinn: I think it’s an offense to the Lord to place a price on the gospel. But I should have been praying for his wellbeing and the wellbeing of his followers, which would undoubtedly include a correction in his theology. I don’t recall doing this once.

“Benny Hinn has renounced the prosperity gospel. I’d be a jackass to refuse to celebrate with him. I want to celebrate that God seems to have done something I didn’t think he would.”

But now that I was watching the miracle I should have been praying for, with Benny Hinn publicly correctly his theology and denouncing the prosperity gospel, I wasn’t celebrating. I wasn’t thanking the Lord. My initial reaction was skepticism, mocking, and criticism. I’ve seen a couple responses like this online: He can say whatever he wants, that’s not true repentance. We’ll see what happens from here. Etc.

Here’s the thing: I doubt Benny Hinn now has perfect theology. I know I don’t. He won’t do everything perfect from here. I definitely won’t. And maybe it’s all a sham and he’s just trying to get attention or something. It’s possible, but I’d be a jackass to refuse to celebrate with and for him at this point. My initial response was full of jackassery. I’m sorry for that. I want to celebrate that God seems to have done something I didn’t think he would. Praise God for Benny Hinn!

And back to Francis Chan for a quick minute. He was “farewelled” for taking a selfie with Benny Hinn. Apparently he was supposed to stay the hell away and only say mean things to Hinn. I don’t know that Francis Chan had any role in Benny Hinn’s realization. But I know that Francis decided not to treat him as a complete enemy and curse him. Francis apparently treated him with love. Now that Benny Hinn is on a new path, Francis’ decision seems like a good one. Are we willing to acknowledge this? Or do the farewell Francisers simply move on as if they did everything perfect? I know what my assumptions are on that one, but I also know that these assumptions come from my inner jackass. I’m trying to let go of those impulses and simply celebrate what I see God doing.