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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.

Becket Cook: WWJD LGBT?

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


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

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

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

Quite the opposite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one who showed him mercy.

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

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


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

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

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

Beth Moore vs The SBC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People aren’t okay with this.

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

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

Amen! We need more of this approach.

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

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

She’s right.

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

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

– BETH MOORE

Mystery & Humility

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The great French philosopher of the early 20th century, Étienne Gilson, wrote these words about the world’s greatest minds trying to make sense of God:

“The divine Being eludes the grasp of our concepts. There is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to Him. Every denomination is a limitation, but God is above all limitation, and therefore above all denomination no matter how exalted it may be” (Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, 1936, 56.).

His statement is not at all controversial. God “eludes the grasp of our concepts.” Do any of us really believe we know everything about God? Do we believe any of our categories or concepts are sufficient? There is so much mystery in play anytime human beings speak or even think about God.

We’ll all acknowledge this. But in my experience, our acknowledgement of the mystery of God does not usually come with the humility that ought to accompany such an acknowledgement.

If God is indeed mysterious, then why are we not more humble about our limited perspectives?

Gilson says that every denomination is a limitation. Isn’t that so? Denominations are not inherently bad. But they are inherently limited. At the heart of every denomination is the insistence that God is like this, not like that. Differentiation is good, categorization is helpful, and absolute truth exists. To be human is to be limited. To form a denomination is to embrace specific limitations. This is not the problem. The problem is our tendency to take the box we draw around our denomination or camp or position and then insist that the box accurately represents God is his fullness.

There is mystery when we talk about God! Does this not require us to be humble in our statements about God? Should we not acknowledge the limitations of our perspectives? Should we not be open to hearing others speak about God in ways that sound foreign to us?

Many of our denominations are good. None of them is sufficient.

Think of the people who are part of your church. You worship and serve regularly with people who hold a variety of views about who God is and what he does. God is bigger than what any one of you thinks about him.

But what about the person in your church with whom you have firm theological disagreements? Or the person in the other church or denomination whose theology you can’t accept? Is it true that “there is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to God?” I’m not suggesting we treat wrong as right. I don’t endorse going against God’s revelation of himself in Scripture. I’m suggesting that our understanding of God is limited, and that perhaps we should view each other in this light.

“There is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to God.” – Étienne Gilson

Gilson goes on to say that “the only adequate expression of God would be God.” I love that. Anytime we break down some part of God and try to explain him, we’re inherently mistaken—not necessarily through inaccuracy, but through incompletion.

Flannery O’Connor said this about writing fiction: “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction” (Mystery & Manners, 73). She quotes John Peale Bishop: “You can’t say Cezanne painted apples and a tablecloth and have said what Cezanne painted.”

In other words, we have a tendency to want to summarize art, but it doesn’t work like that. She says: “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making a statement about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully” (96).

When speaking about God “our poor human words express only a part of that which has no parts.” – Étienne Gilson

What Flannery O’Connor says about art also (mysteriously) applies to God. As Gilson says, when speaking about God “our poor human words express only a part of that which has no parts.” This is okay, because this is the way God has designed it. What’s not okay, however, is when we discard the humility that necessarily accompanies mystery. When we do this, we’re not being theological, or helpful, or godly, or biblical, or faithful. We’re being jackasses.

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.”

What Piper, Bell, MacArthur, & Hatmaker Have in Common

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Saying that we’re all jackasses and we need to love more is different than saying that everyone is always right. We’re not arguing for some vague, anemic ecumenism or for universalism. We are not all right. In fact, we would go so far as to say we are all incredibly wrong in very different and important ways. There are things each of us lacks, things each of us overemphasizes. The thing that binds us together is our deep lack, our deep need, our deep inability to see clearly, understand fully, or live with integrity.

Have we forgotten Paul’s words?

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

John Piper is not exempt from this. NT Wright is not exempt. Martin Luther King Jr., John Calvin, Rob Bell, Jen Hatmaker, Science Mike, John MacArthur, and Tim Keller are not exempt. Your pastor is not exempt. We are not exempt. You are not exempt. We all see poorly. But the gift is that we all see different things poorly. We are not all blind to the same things. That is the beauty of the body. Collectively we see far more clearly. Collectively we help to eliminate blind spots instead of increasing, perpetuating, or even parading them.

I love to do puzzles with my kids. But what the kids love most about doing puzzles is putting in the final piece. In fact, one of my kids loves to bypass all the work of putting together the puzzle by sneakily snagging a few pieces. He disappears for a few hours while the family labors over the puzzle, then returns at the end to victoriously put in the final missing pieces. This treasonous crime is easy to pull off because of the nature of a puzzle. A puzzle equally depends on every piece. It doesn’t matter which puzzle piece he takes. In the end, it will be the most important piece because in a puzzle the most important piece is the one that is missing.

“We all see poorly. But the gift is that we all see different things poorly. We are not all blind to the same things. That is the beauty of the body. Collectively we see far more clearly.”

We don’t look at the body of Christ this way. We haven’t learned much since the Corinthian church. Or since Jesus’ call for unity. We don’t care about the pieces that are missing. In fact, we tend to think that the only pieces to the puzzle that are of any value are the ones shaped like us. Or perhaps the ones connected to us. But the most important pieces are the ones that are missing: the ones that have been cast aside, forgotten, or undiscovered.

Jesus warned us to enter his kingdom through the “narrow gate.”

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13–14)

We have tended to equate the narrow gate with right doctrine. Entering through the narrow gate has meant associating with the right camp. But this wasn’t Jesus’ point.

“We have tended to equate the narrow gate with right doctrine. But Jesus is the narrow gate. His narrow gate was absolute surrender that produces deep love of God and others.”

Based on our patterns of association and disassociation, it seems we believe the narrow gate is about expository preaching, or only singing hymns, or emphasizing social justice, or being Republican or standing against abortion or promoting tolerance. None of these things has anything to do with Jesus’ concept of the narrow gate. He is the narrow gate. His narrow gate was absolute surrender that produces deep love of God and others. Jesus said nothing of worship style, he laid out no complicated doctrine. He commissioned the disciples in Matthew 28 to teach all that he had commanded, but when you look at the sum of Jesus’ commands, this is the picture we get: eat with sinners, serve the poor, and if anything hinders you from keeping in step with him, leave it behind. Never ever ever ever confuse religion for love, or self-righteousness for surrender. Ask, seek, knock, find. Don’t assume you know more than anyone else.

In other words, Jesus’ teaching (and therefore the narrow gate of surrendering to him) comes down to this: Love the Lord your God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself.

Why Jesus Is the Cure for Jackass

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Here’s our problem: we’re entrenched in our own opinions and we often fail to treat other people with dignity. It’s not because we’re cantankerous or hateful (at least, not in most cases), it’s because we are fully convinced of the correctness of our own views. If my view is right—and I know it is, because I’ve put in the time to think these things through—then why would I allow you to continue in the delusion that your incorrect view is perfectly fine? It’s not. And when I take the time to correct your misunderstandings and you persist in your ignorance, then what am I to conclude but that you’re a dummy and incapable of rational dialogue?

That’s putting it all pretty crassly. But I’m not convinced it’s overly dramatic. In the nicest possible scenario, we are so convicted of the truth that we believe it would be unfaithful to let an untruth go unchallenged. Truth is truth, and therefore it must be fought for.

I don’t disagree with that nicer scenario. But as we’ve been insisting, the final assessment is not simply “are all of our views correct?” There’s a higher standard. Truth is nonnegotiable, but Jesus is the ultimate standard. So it’s not just a question of “am I right?” It’s also a question of “Do I hold that truth in such a way that I look like Jesus?” Because if my theology (or politics, or whatever) makes me less like Jesus, then it’s wrong. Regardless of how many verses I can cite. Regardless of how boldly I believe I can “own” my opponent. Jesus is the way, THE TRUTH, and the life. So if my truth doesn’t look like THE TRUTH, then it’s not true.

“If my theology (or politics) makes me less like Jesus, it’s wrong. Regardless of the verses I cite. Jesus is the way, THE TRUTH, and the life. So if my truth doesn’t look like THE TRUTH, it’s not true.”

And here is where the powerful reminder of Christmas is helpful. It’s not difficult to imagine that God has some strong disagreements with human beings. And when this happens, we can safely assume that God is right and we are wrong. Read the Old Testament prophets and you’ll find God calling out all sorts of untruths and horrible behaviors. God is not exactly an agree-to-disagree kind of guy. He’s right and he knows it. And his plan is ultimately to lead us into actual Truth.

And yet, how did God choose to lead humanity into that Truth? He didn’t send us a perfect argument from on high. He didn’t send a meme to own the libs or dunk on conservatives.

He joined us.

It’s as simple and earth-shattering as that.

God led us to truth and life by becoming human and living amongst us. Think about what Christmas actually means. There was a time when God himself actually became human. And not just a well-admired adult. He first became a baby. There was a time when Jesus, who was also named Immanuel (God with us), couldn’t control his arms or legs. He drooled and pooped his pants. If his feeble human parents (who held plenty of wrong views and lived sinful lives, by the way) hadn’t fed him and cared for him, he would have died an infant. And yet Jesus was willing to live with them. Not because he didn’t care about truth. But because he did.

“Christmas reminds us that THE TRUTH came as a baby. Jesus made himself dependent on his flawed and theologically imperfect parents. Not because he didn’t care about truth. But because he did.”

He lived a solid thirty years as a Jew in Roman-dominated first century Palestine. That culture was marred by sin and untruth and blasphemous dictators and self-righteous religious leaders. And yet Jesus lived amongst all of that for thirty years. He participated even as he graciously pursued his divine purposes.

And when he launched his three year ministry that would culminate in his death, he said some hard words to people who considered themselves religiously superior to everyone else, and he fearlessly spoke truth and life to everyone he could, but he was also gentle and gracious and patient and loving. Ultimately, he wasn’t concerned with condemning everyone around him for being wrong, his whole life was a statement of love that culminated in the greatest act of love the world has ever seen: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

We have a tendency to be jackasses. But the little baby Jesus lying in a manger is a perfect picture of the alternative. It’s not about caring about truth less. It’s about caring for people more. It’s not about compromising on your convictions, it’s about allowing your life to overlap with people you believe are in error. It’s not about being a theological pansy, it’s about holding your convictions so deeply that you’re willing to lay yourself down for the betterment of someone else. The goal is not to win an argument, it’s to love God, and that requires loving flawed human beings with all of your flawed heart and flawed life. Let Jesus’ embodiment of God-with-us set the course away from jackassery. He came to be with us so we could be with him and be like him.

Merry Christmas.

Kierkegaard: Love Believes All Things

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In his brilliant book Works of Love, Søren Kierkegaard lays out a concept that would absolutely revolutionize our lives, our churches, and our society. It’s simple, but the impact would be profound. And it’s simply this:

LOVE BELIEVES ALL THINGS

That’s it, just a phrase from 1 Corinthians 13:7. But if we actually took it seriously, life would never be the same.

It’s common for us to be afraid of getting someone wrong. We hesitate with our love. It takes us a while to warm up to someone, we try not to really invest in a person until we know they’re not going to let us down. I know this reality very well. I’m pretty gregarious in general, but I’m suspicious of a lot of people. I’m afraid to think too highly of a person until I have a reason to raise my view of him or her.

Kierkegaard affirms that we’re right to be afraid of getting someone wrong, but he says we’re fearful in the wrong direction. We shouldn’t be afraid of thinking too highly of a person. We should be terrified of thinking too little of them. If you think too highly of a person and treat them well, then you find out they’re actually a jerk, then you’re likely to get hurt. But if you think too little of someone, then find out they’re an amazing, loving person—what then? You’ve sidelined someone unnecessarily. You’ve limited their potential. You’ve robbed yourself of an opportunity and you’ve diminished that person.

Maybe you’re not convinced yet. If this doesn’t sound right to you, it’s probably because you, like me, have a jacked up view of love.

“We should be more afraid of thinking too little than of thinking too highly of a person. If I think too highly of them I might get hurt. If I think too little of them, I demean their humanity and am not loving.”

Kierkegaard urges us to see it like this: It’s impossible for someone to steal something you’re trying to gift to them. If you’re trying to put money in someone’s pocket, and that person grabs the money and walks away with it, have you been robbed? They may feel like they’re making off with your money, but you’ve accomplished your purpose. You wanted to give them something, and they took it.

This is not how we tend to think about love.

We often love because we want to be loved in return. When we love someone and that love is not reciprocated, we feel like it was a waste, or that we’ve been taken advantage of, or that we made a mistake. But for Kierkegaard, love is something we owe to the people around us (Rom. 13:8). It’s something we are called to give at every opportunity, and the goal of love is blessing the neighbor standing before us, not receiving back what is being given away.

So if you love someone, and they take your love and only hurt you in return, has your love not done what it set out to do? You can’t be robbed if you’re trying to give it away. You can only be duped in loving someone if you were expecting something in return.

This is easy enough to do with the people we are naturally inclined to love. Kierkegaard calls this preferential love, and at its worst, it’s just a form of self-love (meaning that we’re doing it for the benefit we receive). It’s much more difficult to love a stranger or enemy without expecting anything in return. But is this not Jesus’ message in the parable of the Good Samaritan? Don’t forget that Jesus told this parable in response to the question: “And who is my neighbor?” And don’t forget that would-be Jesus-followers asked him THAT question in response to his command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

If your goal is to love the person who stands before you, then you won’t stop loving them because they mistreat you in return.

“Love does not assume the worst. It simply believes that each person is worthy of love. It believes that each person is capable of love. It’s not afraid of being duped, because its only goal is to give itself away.”

That’s powerful. And it would change everything. Think of that in terms of the people living in your own house. But don’t stop there. Think of in terms of the people living on your street.

Now think of it in terms of the people you meet in the midst of theology debates, Facebook quarrels, and Twitter threads. Think of it with regard to the people you consider theological off base. (Do you love someone because you think you can convince them to change their view, or do you love them regardless of their theological views?) Think of it with regard to people living in the U.S. illegally. Think of it in terms of people you dislike. Do you love liberals AND conservatives? Calvinists AND Arminians? Baptists AND Methodists? Evangelicals AND Atheists? Donald Trump AND Barak Obama? The conservative community AND the LGBT community?

Love believes all things. It’s not suspicious of everyone. It’s not assuming the worst of everyone. It’s not looking for ways that everyone else can serve its interests. It simply believes that each person is worthy of love. And it believes that each person is capable of love. It’s not afraid of being duped, because its only goal is to give itself away.

Imagine how this one simple concept could transform all of our interactions.

Sectual Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is absolute fire! Is it untrue?

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

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

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

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

God help us, indeed.

Watchdog Theology

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

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

But Jesus didn’t. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I barked along. 

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

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

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

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

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

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