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Narrowly Human

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what, now?

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

Or are we destined to live narrowly human lives?

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

Stop Treating Beth Moore Like Garbage

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

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

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

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

That’s fire!!!!!!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you see the territorialism? The watch dogging?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jackass by Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching Hamilton Like a Jackass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Nestorius Got Jackassed Out of the Early Church

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

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

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

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

It’s the perfect recipe for jackassery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End of Religion

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I read a lot of books for a lot of reasons. Every now and then, I have a conscious sense as I read that this particular book is changing me. Bruxy Cavey’s book The End of Religion did that for me. I’m convinced that it’s an important book. I’ve read it twice, and I’m confident I’ll read it again. Here’s why I’m so into these concepts.

Bruxy takes a cue from Jesus’ first public miracle: turning water to wine (John 2:1–11). This in itself should be enough to squash any picture of Jesus as a buzzkill: the dude made six 20–30 gallon jars of wine. I don’t know how many people were at the wedding, but after they ran out of booze, Jesus made sure they had an extra 1,135 bottles of wine to keep the party going!

But this isn’t the most significant part of that story. Bruxy points to a highly significant detail: These six jars of water were “there for the Jewish rites of purification.” So what? Jesus took a vital piece of religious tradition and transformed it into alcohol for a party. And John calls this “the first of his signs.” Immediately we are clued into the reality that Jesus is not interested in religion: he’s more interested in bringing people together to celebrate.

Some of you are already getting nervous, so let me say that it’s possible to use the word “religion” in a positive sense (James does this), but that’s not what Bruxy is arguing against. He’s arguing against religion as a system that tends to replace our relationship with God. (If his use of the word “religion” bugs you, you really need to read the book—it’s written for you. But you’re in good company, because I needed to read it.)

Think of religion as a cup that holds the true water of a relationship with God. The attractive thing with a cup of water is the water inside. But religious people have a tendency to focus on the cup rather than the water. So Bruxy says that when you find yourself licking the outside of the cup for refreshment rather than drinking the actual water, you’ve got a major (religious) problem.

There is so much in this incredible little book, so you really have to just read it. But two more quick thoughts. Jesus replaced religion with—drumroll please—himself. He is the actual replacement for religion. Bruxy pulls this out by discussing the first Lord’s Supper, where Jesus took one of the most significant religious rites of Judaism and reframed it to be about himself: eat my flesh, drink my blood, take me into yourself, I’m the one this whole thing is about. Bruxy goes through five key external characteristics of religion and shows how Jesus re-centers each around himself: Torah, tradition, tribalism, territory, and temple. (Bonus pastoral points for alliteration.)

“Religion tends to codify the teachings of Jesus and then mandates that its adherents place their faith in a resulting ‘orthodox doctrine.’ But Jesus calls us to place our faith IN HIM.” – Bruxy Cavey

Perhaps the most significant concept for me is Bruxy’s discussion of the rules of religion. He gives the example of buying his daughter a new dress and telling her that she must keep it clean. But if his daughter encounters a little girl who fell off her bike into the mud, should his daughter follow the rule and keep her dress clean, or violate the rule in order to help someone who’s hurting? Your answer to that question reveals whether you’re about the cup or the water, religion or relationship with God.

Related to this, Bruxy addresses a tendency toward Bible idolatry in what is likely the most controversial argument in the book. I find it very helpful. Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40). Bruxy affirms the value of Scripture and acknowledges its divine source. I don’t doubt at all Bruxy’s high view of Scripture. But he’s trying to help us see that the Bible is not the point of the Bible: Jesus is. So he calls us away from building religious systems on the Bible to instead focus on the point:

“The Christian religion tends to codify the teachings of Jesus and then mandates that its adherents place their faith in a resulting ‘orthodox doctrine.’ To question any doctrine is to question Christ. But Jesus calls us to place our faith IN HIM.”

Faith is primarily a who word, not a what word. God’s desire for us is relationship, not rules. The End of Religion beautifully states so many things I needed to hear, and that I know I’ll need to come back to. I’m not sure where you’re at or what you enjoy reading, but I think you should read this.

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.

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.  

Martin Luther’s Potty Mouth

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“You are a crude ass, and an ass you will remain!”


-Martin Luther (Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, pg. 281 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41)

You seriously need to check out the Luther Insulter. I find it hilarious. If you are having a bad day, feeling masochistic, or looking for creative ways to insult friends, check out this site. (Please use it responsibly.) 

This isn’t the Luther you read about in text books, or the celebrated snippets Christian children parrot on Reformation Day (aka, Halloween). It’s the part of the Reformation that is a little too messy for our modern-day church. The part most of us never even knew about.

So what are we to make of Martin Luther? What are we to think of his potty mouth and his insults? Was he a jackass too?

Creating change is messy.

Could Luther have created change without the insults? Maybe, but he didn’t. God used a jackass like Luther to accomplish his work, and it wasn’t pretty or neat.

Luther certainly wasn’t Jesus. But while we are on the topic, Jesus hurled a few insults too, and so did John the Baptist (insert brood of viper motif) as they brought about the biggest change of all time—THE GOSPEL. It got messy, like, crucifixion messy. So change isn’t always pretty, but when change is needed it’s worth fighting for, maybe sometimes it requires some frank speech and a little name calling. Maybe other times change happens despite the frank speech and name calling. 

“Could Martin Luther have created change without such shocking insults? Maybe, but he didn’t. God used a jackass like Luther to accomplish his work, and it wasn’t pretty or neat.”

To the extent that Luther attacked other human beings in vitriol, I don’t condone him. But those of us in the Protestant tradition all acknowledge that God used a flawed yet passionate person at that moment in history.

Jen Hatmaker recently posted an excerpt on Instagram from the book she is writing:

“My beliefs were challenged because they were the byproduct of an obviously corrupt system, historically dead last to the table of confession and repentance. My beliefs were challenged because the same people were always in charge and they hung pictures of White Jesus in my Sunday School rooms. My beliefs were challenged because while promising life abundant, they broke hearts and trust and bodies and families with a clear conscience. My beliefs were challenged because, had I held to them as dictated, I would have no ministry, no authority, no agency over my own God-given gifts. My beliefs were challenged because the missionary culture I grew up in turned out to be colonization. My beliefs were challenged because they shamed girls and victims but protected men and abusers. My beliefs were challenged because they sentenced LGBTQ people to traumatic conversion therapy, forced celibacy, public humiliation, and ultimately suicide at seven times the normal rate. My beliefs were challenged because they weren’t producing many disciples, mostly just gatekeepers and defectors.”

That’s pretty messy. You may hate it or love it, but we can all agree it’s not neutral. Neutral doesn’t change much.

There are things in the current Christian culture that I believe are compromising the spread of the Gospel and the joy of the gospel. I’m not talking about megachurch culture, loose doctrine, or politicians. It comes from our infighting, which directs our energies at one another, and shifts our eyes away from our Heavenly Father, who desperately wants all of his kids to come home to a family meal.

What the Insults of Jesus, Luther, and Hatmaker Have in Common

They are directing their negative energy and insults at hypocrisy in the church, as a means to bring everything back to THE MAIN POINT. I truly believe this is the heart of Jesus, Luther, Hatmaker, and so many other leaders who are trying to bring about change. Of course, Jesus’ harsh words were also on point; Luther and Hatmaker are human and thus guaranteed to veer into jackassery at some point. 

I’m not comparing Jen Hatmaker to the Son of God or even the father of the Reformation. She is simply an example that change—no matter the decade, gender, or context—can be messy. I’m not sure that is a bad thing. Nor do I need to agree with everything a human does and says to derive value from their faithful battle against the status quo. I don’t even always agree with everything I say.

I’ll leave you with one more insult courtesy of Martin Luther. 

If you don’t agree with everything I say in this post…

“You are like the ostrich, the foolish bird which thinks it is wholly concealed when it gets its neck under a branch. Or like small children, who hold their hands in front of their eyes and seeing nobody imagine that no one sees them either. In general, you are so stupid that it makes one feel like vomiting.”


-Martin Luther (Against the Heavenly Prophets, pg. 186 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 40.)

LOVE YA!

-Ryan