Mark Beuving

Mark has been serving in pastoral roles for nearly 20 years. After a decade in various teaching and administrative roles at Eternity Bible College, Mark is a pastor at Creekside Church in Rocklin, California. His books include Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music and the New York Times bestseller Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples, which he co-authored with Francis Chan.

Jesus Won’t Let Us Be Partisan


As we march ever closer to the 2020 election, I want to continue exploring a Christian approach to politics. I see a tendency to equate “Christianity” with a political party, and/or specific candidates and/or specific issues. It just doesn’t work like that. And while a counter-tendency is to retreat and keep our religion and politics separate, it doesn’t work like that either.

Here’s the simple but difficult reality: following Jesus has huge implications for our engagement with politics, but following Jesus never allows us to be partisan.

In this post I want to interact with Tim Keller, whose writing has helped me process some issues of allegiance and social responsibility. In a New York Times article, Keller cites James Mumford in describing the concept of “package-deal ethics,” wherein “political parties insist that you cannot work on one issue with them if you don’t embrace all of their approved positions.” This is the pressure we all feel. We feel it from our political parties, from our families, from our churches, from our social media echo chambers, from our news sources. But partisanship is the not the way of Jesus.

“Here’s the simple but difficult reality: following Jesus has huge implications for our engagement with politics, but following Jesus never allows us to be partisan.”

In a recent thread on Twitter, Keller unpacked some of the complexity of following Jesus without pledging our allegiance to a political party:

“The Bible binds my conscience to care for the poor, but it does not tell me the best practical way to do it. Any particular strategy (high taxes and government services vs low taxes and private charity) may be good and wise and may even be somewhat inferred from other things the Bible teaches, but they are not directly commanded and therefore we cannot insist that all Christians, as a matter of conscience, follow one or the other. The Bible binds my conscience to love the immigrant—but it doesn’t tell me how many legal immigrants to admit to the U.S. every year. It does not exactly prescribe immigration policy. The current political parties offer a potpourri of different positions on these and many other topics, most of which, as just noted—the bible does not speak to directly. This means when it comes to taking political positions, voting, determining alliances and political involvement, the Christian has liberty of conscience. Christians cannot say to other Christians ‘no Christian can vote for…’ or ‘every Christian must vote for…’ unless you can find a biblical command to that effect.”

This means that we can work together with certain people sometimes on some issues but not on other issues. It means we can disagree about even important policy choices while still being deeply committed to biblically vital pursuits like justice and compassion. It means that a follower of Jesus needn’t (and shouldn’t) subscribe to a party or platform, but should seek to follow Jesus in every situation. And it means that we shouldn’t be surprised to find other followers of Jesus taking different approaches than we do.

Notice that this is different than saying we should be centrists. The middle of the road is an arbitrary place that is still defined by the relative positions of “either side.” Again, we are not to take our cues from what one person or group believes. The call is to follow Jesus wherever he leads. In some areas, we may pursue practices and positions that align with the Republican Platform. In other areas, we might align with the Democratic Platform. We could find ourselves exactly in the center of some issues. But the point is NOT that we’re to be Republican, Democratic, or Centrist. The point is that we are to allow ourselves to be shaped by the priorities and pursuits of Jesus. We should never been concerned about which political entity this approach does or does not lead us to be aligned with at any given point.

I’m always on firm ground when I’m standing close to Jesus. It’s okay if I don’t know exactly what to do. If I’m reading, rereading, and meditating on the words, works, and ways of Jesus, then I’ll be more sensitive to recognizing his voice and following his leading when I engage in politics. And this will be even easier to discern when I’ve moved past allegiance to a specific party.

In his NYT article, Tim Keller hits on a crucial point that takes me back to something I wrote in an earlier post: in our political engagement, how we do it is at least as important as what we are seeking to accomplish. I’ll let Keller’s thoughts close this:

“The Gospel gives us the resources to love people who reject both our beliefs and us personally. Christians should think of how God rescued them. He did it not by taking power but by coming to earth, losing glory and power, serving and dying on a cross. How did Jesus save? Not with a sword but with nails in his hands.”

How Worship Reshapes Our Political Engagement


Is there wisdom in the call to keep our religion and politics separate? Or not? There are some voices saying very loudly that if you’re a true Christian, you will always vote Republican. Others get more specific and say that those who don’t vote for Donald Trump in this election are not true Christians. Both of these statements are wrong at best and idolatrous at worst. Does that then mean that we must keep these two spheres separate? That our religious beliefs have no bearing on our political involvement? I don’t think that’s the right approach either.

In truth, our politics and our religion shape each other. But not in the way the Christian voter guides seem to believe. It’s not about telling you which measures and candidates fit a Christian worldview. It’s more a matter of being formed by Christian worship and letting our constantly formed selves engage in the political process. I’ll follow some of James K.A. Smith’s thoughts on how this plays out.

As the Church, we gather regularly to be reminded of the deepest realities: that we have been created in the image of God, that though we are broken and unable to heal ourselves, Jesus has sacrificed himself on our behalf and offers us healing and forgiveness through his death and resurrection, that he is the ultimate King and Judge who will someday right every wrong and establish a perfect society. So when we engage in these deep realities as the Church, we are renewing our minds (as Paul says in Rom. 12:2) and reshaping the core of our being, so that when we step into political engagement of various types, we step in as people shaped by the Gospel and the community of Christ. Again, this is so much deeper than being told which candidate is supposedly the “Christian choice.”

“We’re told that true Christians vote Republican. Can this really be a Christian approach to politics? Politics and religion shape each other, but not like that. We are shaped by worship, which then forms our engagement.”

Picture yourself in a Church gathering. When we read, preach, and meditate on Scripture, we are reminding ourselves that there is a true King infinitely higher than any public official, that there is a higher allegiance that trumps all others, that the Good News is a proclamation of a specific King and Kingdom that we can never equate with any person or proposition on a ballot. We remind each other that “pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). We once again fill our imaginations with narratives of God leading the weak to victory and of Jesus forgiving those who attacked him. We are reminded of vital truths like sin and forgiveness, holiness and justice, humility and love, peace and patience, and so many others.

This continual reading and rereading of Scriptures refines and shapes us on an ongoing basis, and this process fits us for political involvement in a way that reading the denominational voting guides never could.

When we take the Lord’s Supper together, we are invited to a meal (of sorts) to which everyone is invited. We are formed by the sacrificial act that this meal commemorates. Jesus’ self-emptying sacrifice plots a path forward for the manner of our own political engagement (along with every other aspect of our lives). As those who regularly take Communion, we don’t battle for dominance, we find ways to serve, to consider other people more important than ourselves. We are reminded that though we must roll up our sleeves and get to work in every area of society, what ails us most deeply is ultimately healed by the blood of one who died and rose again.

When we gather for worship, we form an assembly that gives a picture to our own selves and the world around us that we are citizens of a different kingdom. In that kingdom, the weak are the strong, the greatest treasures are hidden in frail earthen vessels, and the last are first. In this kingdom, we are taught to wait on the Lord, not to accomplish our own ends in our own timeframe at any cost. Christian theology has always carried the tension between the already and the not yet. Already we have been united to and transformed by Christ. But we are not yet experiencing that reality as we one day will. Christ’s kingdom is already here, but its fullness has not yet arrived.

Worship keeps us from following the tactics of others around us, who work themselves to the bone in desperation, who labor in fear, who have no outside help to lean on in seeing their ends made real, who make use of negativity and fear and manipulation to accomplish their goals.

And when we leave our gatherings, we are sending one another back into the world with a reminder of the mission that has always been ours.

Above all, Christian worship reminds us that our allegiance lies in only one place. We place of faith in Jesus. Ultimately, faith is not a what word; it’s a who word. It’s about pledging our allegiance to Jesus. That does not preclude political involvement in the kingdoms of this world, but it should make us think twice about what it means to pledge our allegiance elsewhere.

Notice that in this post, I’m not calling us to do something extra. I’m calling all of us to lean further into the things that are already there. If we let these things shape us more deeply, if we allow the impact of our Christian worship to extend to every aspect of our lives, not just our Sunday morning selves, then every element of our political engagement will be deeply formed by Jesus—whether others consider it “Christian” or not.

Your Politics Are Destroying Your Soul


Your politics are destroying you, but that doesn’t make politics bad. In the last post, I argued that politics are about working towards the best for our common life together. So arguing against polarized or venomous politics is different than saying we shouldn’t care about politics. Following James K.A. Smith, I want to continue arguing that politics matter way more than we imagine, but in a completely different way than we imagine.

So much of our political engagement seems to be focused on gaining power and then using that power to accomplish our goals. I think we take it for granted that this is simply the way things work. I also think we need to pay attention to the ways our political processes shape us. We imagine that politics, religion, family life, etc. all occupy separate spaces, separate regions. So I can be a Christian or Buddhist in one space, a Republican or Democrat in another, and single or married in another. But Smith alerts us to the dangers of trying to spatialize our view of politics (amongst other things). He says simply: “Theological wisdom about the political begins when we stop asking where and start asking how” (Awaiting the King, 19).

“Politics matter way more than we imagine, but in a completely different way than we imagine. Beyond asking who we’re trying to get into power, we need to ask how our political approach itself shapes us.”

Obviously the Republican and Democratic platforms are different and members of those groups are reaching for different goals. But take a break from that type of thinking for a moment. Think less about what you’d like to see happen in terms of platform goals in some separate political sphere. Think instead about the current political process, and ask how that is shaping you.

When you take a group of people who want to see different political goals accomplished and set them apart as “the other political party” or “those crazy Conservatives/Liberals” or some worse label, what is that doing to the way you engage with the people around you? If you’re a Republican, do you have many Democrat friends with whom you can gracious talk politics? If you’re a Democrat, do you have many Republican friends like this? If not, shouldn’t that concern us? If so, you’re already subverting the hyper-partisanship that we’ve come to equate with “politics.”

We need gracious and nuanced conversations about specific, important issues. I have these kinds of conversations with my family, neighbors, and my church family fairly often. They can be awkward, and they’re not passionless conversations, but I feel genuinely uplifted during and after. Contrast that with our dug in polarization where we lump half of our neighbors into a camp that we simply dismiss or attack as though they’re idiots? Every time we allow ourselves to speak or post in these ways, we’re forfeiting a part of our souls.

“Our political engagement seems to be focused on gaining power and then using that power to accomplish our goals. But take a minute to ask how that type of political process is shaping you. It has a bigger impact than you think.”

The how of our political engagement matters. The problem is not that we’re polarized. That’s more a symptom. The problem is that we’re so willing to lump people together and discard all of their views. We’re committed to a small “us,” which makes it helpful to rally against a “them.” From my vantage point in California, it’s hard to imagine anything Governor Newsom could do that my Republican friends would applaud. It’s hard to imagine anything President Trump could do that my Democratic friends would applaud. I’m not saying there aren’t principled reasons why we oppose certain actions, I’m just saying we’ve created a system in which half of our country doesn’t seem willing or even able to root for and work alongside the other half of the country.

It’s hard to build something with people you’ve spent months or years demonizing.

“You can have right theology but be a jackass about it. And that makes you wrong. In the same way, you can have great political goals and beliefs and be a jackass about it. And that makes you wrong.”

To be clear, here are some things I haven’t said. I haven’t said you shouldn’t hold firm opinions or convictions. I haven’t said you shouldn’t align with a political party. I haven’t denied the possibility that a person could look at a single political party and believe deeply that it aligns more with biblical truth than another party.

What I am saying is this: the way we engage in politics matters. If you are pro-vitriol, then by all means spread vitriol in the way you post and talk about politics. But if you’re anti-vitriol, rethink the way you’re promoting your good cause or the candidate you admire. If you believe nuance and decency are genuine goods for society, then don’t ignore them when you talk about politics and hope that these traits will magically characterize the rest of society.

From the beginning, we’ve argued that you can have right theology but be a jackass about it. And that makes you wrong. In the same way, you can have great political goals and beliefs and be a jackass about it. And that makes you wrong.

I’m tempted to say that all of our politics right now are wrong in this way. But I know that isn’t true. The loudest, least sensitive, least nuanced, most jackassy voices get the most press. Don’t let that draw you in as though that’s just what we’ve got to do in 2020. Let’s subvert that. Let’s bring back human dignity. Let’s bring the fruit of the Spirit back to our politics, and every other part of life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23).

Political Healing Before the Votes Are Cast or Counted


I don’t care who you vote for. I have no intention of trying to persuade you regarding party affiliation, ideal candidates, or which issues are worth a single-issue approach to voting. But I’m going to begin posting about politics for a bit here because I think we need it desperately. I need it. We are prone to be political jackasses. This coming election has already been ugly, and it’s going to get worse. If we’re going to survive this election and its aftermath with our souls intact, we’re going to have to start NOW to work toward political healing. We’re going to have to de-escalate the partisanship and the spiritual-political bullying. We’ll need to set our hearts on something other than party politics. Because politics matters way less and way more than we currently think.

“If we’re going to survive this election and its aftermath with our souls intact, we’re going to have to start NOW to work toward political healing.”

We’ve got to go deeper than misguided questions like “How would Jesus vote?” That’s too myopic, it carries too many previous assumptions. I think a better question would be “How would Jesus have us engage with the project of our common life together?”

In this and the following posts, I want to interact with James K. A. Smith’s book Awaiting the King. Here’s how he frames the importance of a nuanced Christian engagement in politics:

“The church is not a soul-rescue depot that leaves us to muddle through the regrettable earthly burden of ‘politics’ in the meantime; the church is a body politic that invites us to imagine how politics could be otherwise. And we are sent from worship to be Christ’s image-bearers to and for our neighbors, which includes the ongoing creaturely stewardship and responsibility to order the social world in ways that are conducive to flourishing but particularly attentive to the vulnerable—the widows, orphans, and strangers in our midst” (16).

Our Christian engagement in politics is not about aligning with a party we consider to be more Christian, or a candidate that we consider to be more Christian, or a policy or platform that we consider most important. It’s bigger and more important than any of that.

We have a Christian responsibility to engage politics because it’s a facet of our common life together. Politics is one aspect of our needed realization that we do not live isolated lives. It’s easy for us to acknowledge that the concept of Church is important because it binds us to other people, it keeps us from unhealthy individualism. The same is true of society as a whole. We share a common life. It’s not just about an “I” and the preferences that accompany that “I.” It’s a “we,” so we must work toward the flourishing of that “we.”

This makes politics difficult in precisely the same way that public schooling is difficult. Public schools are often criticized for having lower test scores compared to private schools. But what we often miss in this assessment is that private schools choose which students they’ll accept; public schools take every student. So their test scores reflect honor students and English language learners who are taking standardized tests presented in a language they don’t yet know well. Public school, by definition, must work for the good of everyone. Which is a blessing and a curse. In many ways it’s better to make education individualized in the way a homeschool parent is able to do. In other ways, there’s an inherent good in making sure that every student has access to education.

This is how politics works also. Which is why our partisanship becomes so ugly. We want our interests represented and we want that to be good enough for everyone. But thinking of our common life together must push us to acknowledge that I’m not the only stake holder here. My opinions and needs matter, but so do those of the people around me. This is also why government can’t be run just like a business, or simply like a business. It has to care for all citizens, not just the ones that can be profitably catered to.

Our country is worse off if we all demand our special interests. We need to recover a sense of the common good. Of rooting for each other to flourish. Of being able to acknowledge the good that’s worth fighting for in the other person’s camp. Is it hard to imagine that our camp, that the people who think exactly like we do, might be overlooking some things that another camp sees more clearly and fights for more aggressively?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t vote with passion. I’m not saying you shouldn’t back a candidate. But I am calling all of us to zoom out a bit. How can we, as followers of the true King, work toward human flourishing in our common life together? Perhaps you’ve asked and answered that question already, and that’s why you’re set on voting as you intend to, why you post the things you post on social media, why you engage in the battles you engage in. But I ask you not to assume that your politics are in order, or that any political party is worthy of your allegiance. Let’s take a cue from Jamie Smith and see ourselves as “sent from worship to be Christ’s image-bearers to and for our neighbors.” If that sounds worthwhile, join me in the weeks ahead while I muse on some of the ways politics shape us, and the ways we can express our allegiance to Jesus by engaging in the political side of our common life together. I promise not to tell you how to vote, I just want us all to fight the inner political jackass.

Do We Still Know How to Apologize & Repent?


It would seem not. I’m struck by this thought because I find myself frequently asking for forgiveness from my daughters. It’s weird to do. They’re 8 and 10 right now, and we have a great relationship overall. I grow impatient, raise my voice, or overreact. When I do this, it’s because they’re being unreasonable, stubborn, or refusing to listen and obey directions. The thing is, my wife and I teach our daughters that it doesn’t matter what their sister did, their job is to respond in love and grace even when they don’t like what someone else is doing to them.

“My theology tells me that humans are imperfect, so why should it be a rare occurrence that we turn to each other and ask for forgiveness?”

So I find myself apologizing to my daughters often. I’m not perfect about it, but it strikes me as important for my own soul and for their developing understanding of what it means to be a human being. My theology tells me that humans are imperfect, so why should it be a rare occurrence that we turn to each other and ask for forgiveness?

I have a concern about Christian celebrity culture, where big names make big statements and often go too far in speaking against someone or something. Often this involves outright sin and slander. But how often do these key figures backtrack or repent of what they’ve said? From where I’m standing it seems rare. More often they double down. And what I see with the Christian celebrities, I see in all of us (myself included, of course). Especially the online versions of ourselves.

“When a celebrity pastor makes a harmful statement, why is it so rare for them to issue an apology? Why do they more often double down on it? Doesn’t our theology teach us that we’ll need to repent—often?”

I want to share an older story in order to bring some hope to our current situation. Back in 2012, Ann Voskamp’s book Ten Thousand Gifts was very popular. It’s a wonderful book. But when Tim Challies reviewed her book, he was not gracious. It’s not a hateful review, but it’s marked by the sort of watchdog theology and uncharitable interpretations of her work that characterize a certain Christian subculture. As an example, Ann Voskamp describes having a spiritual encounter with God in the Notre Dame cathedral. Challies’ response was to question her understanding of the gospel because she felt the need to travel to a specific location (a location in which poor theology has been preached, nonetheless) in order to encounter God. There are several things like this. It’s sad for me to read now, as it was then.

But then something unusual happened. One day after Challies’ review was posted, Ann Voskamp and her family invited Tim Challies and his family over for dinner. I don’t know if that dinner ever took place, but the mere invitation caused Challies to issue a public apology to Voskamp for his uncharitable review. It really is remarkable. He doubles down on some of his critiques of the book (which is his prerogative as a subjective reviewer), but he reflects on all the things he might have done differently if he had thought of Voskamp as a real human being:

“Something happened inside me when I saw Ann’s name in my inbox… this strange feeling that comes when I suddenly realize that the name on the front of the book—’Ann Voskamp’ in this case—is not some cleverly programmed, unfeeling robot that spits out blog posts and magazine articles and books, but a person. A real person…

“In my review I had treated her as if her words mean less than mine, as if I was free to criticize her in a way I would not want to be criticized…

“I would have said certain things differently had I known that she and I might soon be sharing a meal together… I might have said certain things differently had I considered her an ‘insider,’ a fellow member of whatever little circle of the Christian world I inhabit… I can’t deny that somewhere in my mind lurks this insider and outsider kind of thinking which somehow encourages me to extend greater courtesy to one group than another. I did poorly here and I can see that I need to grow in my ability to critique the ideas in a book even while being kind and loving to its author.”

Challies ended that article by explicitly asking Voskamp’s forgiveness. It’s so refreshing. It’s beautiful, and all the more so because it’s rare.

In this fallen world, we’re all going to be jackasses from time to time. This shouldn’t surprise us. But let’s take a note from Challies and learn to own up to jackassery and repent when we find it.

More than that, let’s take a note from Ann Voskamp and begin inviting people to dinner. Notice that what prompted Challies’ response was Voskamp inviting him to a meal. It was the simple relational gesture that acknowledged him as a human and initiated a relational path forward that helped him see the jackassery. That’s powerful stuff. We all have so much room to grow in this. We need more of these stories.

Culture Is a Garden, Not a Battlefield


In his excellent book Culture Care, artist Makoto Fujimura says that culture is a garden to be tended, not a battlefield to be won or lost. This thought has been like a thorn in my brain—it constantly nags at me, it won’t let me pass on by.

“Culture is a garden to be tended, not a battlefield to be won or lost.” – Makoto Fujimura

I’m part of a generation that was taught to fight and win the culture wars. I see that mentality continuing on, steering the artistic endeavors of many Christians, setting the agendas for churches and organizations, fueling much of Christian Twitter and Facebook. There’s something good here: it’s right to desire that God’s character be reflected in the world around us.

But the battlefield approach is wrongheaded from the start. It implies enemies: there’s a world full of people that Jesus died to heal and reconcile to himself, and instead of offering those people the grace and love of Jesus, we’re attacking. It implies victory and defeat: rather than reconciliation, this approach has us either gaining or losing territory. It implies weapons and strategies: people and groups and cultural landscapes become projects and pawns and leverage. I’m not saying you can’t find any biblical statements that lean in any of these directions, but I do think that Fujimura’s garden metaphor is more in line with our overall calling.

When we view culture as a garden, we’re not saying that we don’t care if there are harmful elements in culture. Every garden in this fallen world must be tended. Weeds must be rooted out. Vines must be trained. Harmful insects and vermin must be managed. But the goal is not to defeat the enemy and claim the realm. The goal is flourishing. Growth. We enter the cultural space not as generals or soldiers, but as gardeners. We are there to tend and bind up and train.

I see a strong echo of this concept in Philippians 4:8, where Paul says, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things” (CSB). Sometimes we (rightly) put the emphasis on the adjectives true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, etc. That approach yields a lot of insight. But we can also read it with the emphasis on the “whatever is.” The Greek term (hosa) means “as many things as are…” So don’t just focus on the true things that come from your own small subgroup. Whatever is true, focus on those things. As many things as are lovely, dwell on these things. It has often been said that truth is truth wherever it is found. The same is true of beauty. Sure, we’ll find truth and beauty and morality distorted in every place we find them (including in the church)—I think this is the clear implication of Romans 1:18–25. But that does not cancel out the truth and beauty and goodness around us.

Here’s the reality: this world is brimming with truth and beauty and goodness. We can walk through life as pessimists, blinkered to every bit of God’s goodness and light and beauty that does not flow from those who think exactly as we do. But let’s not pretend that this pessimism is virtuous or that this approach is something God calls us to. God made human beings to be gardeners. This world is a great garden that needs constant tending. So when God made the first human being, “The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and watch over it” (Gen. 2:15). That’s literally our job as human beings. Culture, the physical world, society, is a garden to be tended, not a battlefield to be won or lost.

Notice that this change of metaphor does not call for inaction or resignation. There is still much work to be done. But it changes the goal of our work and the nature of our interactions. Other people cease to be my enemies and instead become part of the garden that I am called to tend. They are even fellow gardeners with whom we can and must collaborate. I’ll find many fellow gardeners with whom I will strongly disagree and who will be trying to build something that I find harmful. But the answer is not to attack and reclaim the garden for my tribe. The answer is to affirm all that is good and beautiful, to work to amplify those positive elements, and to continue working to remove the weeds and cultivate a healthy garden. The call here is simple, yet profound: stop fighting to dominate culture, start tending and nurturing so that we can all live in a culture in which health, growth, and reconciliation thrive, as God intended.

Christians Doing Satan’s Work


I don’t want to read anything more about Covid, and I’m sure you don’t either. I don’t have any insight on the best way to handle the virus or the timeframe for when we’ll regain some normalcy. There’s only one thing I know: It’s really hard to be a pastor during Covid. That’s not surprising because it’s hard to be a church member during Covid. And that’s not surprising because it’s hard to be a human during Covid.

As I look at the other churches around me, we’re all doing things differently. My church family is meeting in backyards around our area to talk through Scripture, encourage each other, and pray together. Other churches are meeting in their parking lots or under tents on their church property. Some churches are fully online right now. Some churches have chosen to continue meeting indoors. I don’t know of any churches that haven’t changed course a few times.

The bottom line is this: we’re all just doing our best. Believe it or not, the Bible doesn’t tell us specifically how to do a church service. (I know, right?!) We get some descriptions of what the first Christians did when they gathered, and some corrections of specific churches when they veered off course, but you simply cannot read through the New Testament and walk away saying, “Yes, the way my church gathers is the one and only biblical way to do it.” You seriously can’t. And yet, miraculously, so many seem to be doing that right now. To be honest, I have to fight that impulse in myself.

A famous pastor and his megachurch recently chose to defy California Governor Newsom’s ban on holding indoor church services, saying very clearly, “We cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedient to our Lord’s clear commands.” I personally find this so frustrating. The “moratorium” in California right now is on indoor gatherings. So which “clear command” of the Lord tells us that we must worship indoors?

But this is exactly the moment I need to stop myself. I don’t need to agree with this pastor. I think he and his team are doing the best they can to be faithful in their context. It’s so hard to be a pastor right now, they don’t need me telling them they’re doing it wrong. I’ve seen several videos make the rounds online with pastors literally yelling at other pastors for not opening their churches back up. That is so out of line! I could yell back that our church is still open, we just aren’t meeting indoors. I don’t need these guys yelling at me for not doing exactly what they’re doing. They don’t need me yelling back at them that they’re doing it wrong. Honestly, we need to stop telling each other what we’re doing wrong and instead focus on following Jesus in our unique cultural moment.

Early in the pandemic, I had to delete Twitter from my phone. I had anxiety as I read opinion after opinion (which is all social media gives us, by the way) about what the virus meant and how it should be responded to: If you keep meeting in person, you’re murdering people. If you stop meeting in person, you’re caving to government and disobeying Jesus. If you meet only online you’re impoverishing people’s spiritual lives because we’re made for human interaction. If you meet in person you’re compromising your church’s witness to the community and no one will ever love Jesus again. If you stop meeting in person your church has abandoned its mission to share the love of Jesus with the community.

“In the Bible, Satan is called ‘the accuser of the brothers and sisters.’ So when we accuse each other regarding how we’re doing church right now, it’s not the Lord’s work we’re doing.”

It’s stupid, it’s wrong, and perhaps most significantly, when we make these kinds of accusations at each other, it’s not the Lord’s work we’re doing. In Scripture, Satan is called “the accuser of the brothers and sisters” (Rev. 12:10). That’s literally Satan’s job. He accuses us of wrongdoing, of not being enough, of being unforgivable, of being unredeemable. And here we are, claiming the name of Jesus even as we step out in a complete lack of grace and accuse one another. As Paul warned us, “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15).

When I look around, I see a creativity in churches that I’ve never seen before. Losing this one approach to doing church that we all held to be sacred has led so many churches to innovate and try to find life amid new constraints. That’s a good thing! It’s not a virtue to step up and accuse other churches or other Christians. (I am, of course, talking here about preference issues like whether to meet indoors, outdoors, or online. When it comes to sin issues, abuse, etc., darkness must be named and brought to light and justice.)

The kingdom of God doesn’t look like hatred and strife and division and self-exaltation and political jockeying. This current cultural moment has given us yet another opportunity to be jackasses in the name of Jesus. But it’s also an opportunity for love, grace, and encouragement. So I want to fight the impulse to accuse and tear down and instead look at so many of my brothers and sisters who are simply doing their best and say, “Great job! Hang in there! You’re doing well, and I know God will continue to guide you.” May God use this time to shape his church into what he wants it to be for this time and for the times ahead.

How We Disguise Self-Love as Love for Others


I can’t stop myself from returning to Kierkegaard’s brilliant Works of Love. His take on Paul’s words that “love does not seek its own” is helping me to process how much of what I call “love” is actually just love for myself disguised as love for others.

Here’s Kierkegaard’s summary:

“Love seeks not its own. For the true lover does not love his own individuality. He rather loves each human being according to the other’s individuality. But for the other person ‘his own individuality’ is precisely ‘his own,’ and consequently the lover does not seek his own; quite the opposite, in others he loves ‘their own.'”

The picture here is of a person who truly sees every person around her and is fascinated by them. She sees what makes them distinct and is willing to put her effort into helping each person become more fully who they actually are, to dive deeper into the God-given distinctiveness they already possess. Kierkegaard sees that each person’s individuality is a beautiful gift from the Creator. In that sense, by helping someone lean into who God made them to be, we’re not even the true gift givers. The gift we give is a gift God has already given.

I love this way of considering self-sacrificial love. What are the actions I’d point to in order to prove that I’m a loving person? I’d probably talk about things I do for my wife and daughters or my friends. I’d think of the time I dedicate to those people or the ways I try to make them happy. But are these the best examples of true love? Kierkegaard would say no. When our acts of love are spent on people we are naturally attracted to, people for whom our acts of love also involve some benefit to ourselves, then these could be portrayed as acts of self-love.

Kierkegaard calls this type of loving small-mindedness.

The small-minded person finds others who are like him, or whose company he enjoys, and that’s where he’s willing to invest his time. But this is not love. Because the small-minded person is not giving himself to the one he loves. Instead, he loves that person because they already conform to him in some important way. True love, by contrast, seeks to pour itself out for the other. It seeks to make that person better. But making someone better is not the same thing as making someone more like what I want him or her to be. It actually means pouring out my own desires and interests in order to help the other be more fully who God has made them to be.

“One of the key factors that turns otherwise delightful people into jackasses is the insistence that everyone look, think, and behave just as I do. But true love invests in what makes each person unique.”

What do I see when I look at my neighbor? Do I see traits that I enjoy and so choose to invest my time there? Do I see traits that turn me off and so choose to make myself scarce? Or do I see what makes that person unique and value those traits for what they are rather than for the way they could benefit me? And do I see those traits as an opportunity to invest in that person, helping him or her to flourish more fully according to God’s design for him or her, rather than according to my preferences?

Imagine what our world would look like if we all looked at people in this way! Or forget about the world: what would our churches be look if we could adopt this mindset? What if we were a group of people who were serious about “stirring up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24)? Kierkegaard calls this approach to life “squandering our lives”:

“In a certain sense his life is completely squandered on existence, on the existence of others; without wishing to waste any time or any power on elevating himself, on being somebody, in self-sacrifice he is willing to perish, that is, he is completely and wholly transformed into being simply an active power in the hands of God… His labor consists simply in this: to aid one or another human being to become his own, which in a certain sense they were on the way to becoming.”

One of the key factors that turns otherwise delightful people into jackasses is the insistence that everyone look, think, behave, and believe just as I do. But if we were all “squandering” our lives by investing in the things that make each person distinct, we would stop needing other people to match our preferences because we’d be so intrigued by their individuality and all of the potential that is simply waiting to be unlocked. Potential not to be more like what we imagine they could become, but potential to be more fully what God has created them to be.

Memorial Day’s Lesson for Our Polarized World


I’m not the best one to write about Memorial Day. But as I grow increasingly disappointed with the polarization of seemingly every aspect of our world right now, Memorial Day seems almost shocking by comparison.

I’m not pro-war by any stretch. I have major questions and concerns regarding my country’s spending on and general approach to war. Honestly, I don’t know anything about this, so I’ll refrain from saying anything ignorant. But with Memorial Day, we remember military personnel who died while serving in our Armed Forces. In other words, we’re celebrating people who laid aside their own self-interests. I don’t believe I need full confidence in the righteousness of every military campaign to recognize the goodness of a person sacrificing themselves. (Isn’t this how a whole generation felt about the Vietnam wars?)

By contrast, it seems to me that our division stems from each individual’s unwillingness to concede a point. It seems that each person is demanding that everyone else agree with their perspective. Anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot. Anyone who doesn’t belong to the party is an idiot or a nazi or an enemy of humanity. Everyone is demanding their own rights. No one acquiesces. No one is willing to live with tension or conflicting beliefs. When a person’s actions don’t fit our approach to life or politics, we mock them.

“When each demands his or her own way, everyone thinks they’re getting what they deserve, but what we’re actually doing is building our own hell.”

It should be shocking to us. In the early days of the pandemic, it seemed all humanity was united in a common experience. Now people are being mocked for wearing masks in public, even as people are being mocked for refusing to wear masks in public. We have lost the ability to see things from another’s perspective. To concede that they might have a legitimate concern or—even if we can’t understand where they’re coming from—to grant that it’s okay for them to do things differently. You’re a fool and an agent of evil if you believe and follow what the government says. Or you’re a fool and an agent of evil if you don’t believe and follow what the government says. And when the government changes policies, the shoe is suddenly on the other foot, and we make the same accusations that were just hurled against us.

When each demands his or her own way, everyone thinks they’re getting what they deserve, but what we’re actually doing is building our own hell.

Meanwhile, walk through a military cemetery. The gravestones are uniform, and unless you take the time to look at individual names, it’s a nearly-endless repetition of the same theme. And that theme is startling in contrast to our current political-social-theological moment. The theme is willingness to sacrifice oneself. Again, I’m not trying to make every fallen vet into a saint. I’m not trying to paint war as noble. There are plenty of others who will do all of those things for you. What I’m saying is that giving your life for something that does not serve your best interests feels like something from a distant past or another planet. It seems to me that most of those soldiers probably retained their will to live. But they weren’t demanding their right to live on their terms or at all cost.

“A military cemetery carries a theme: giving your life for something that does not serve your best interests. In this climate, that feels like a lesson from the distant past or another planet.”

There’s a lesson in that for all of us. We pour contempt on congress every time they vote entirely along partisan lines, refusing to work together for the greater good. But what indication is there that American society is any better in any way? Are we not repeating the party lines as delivered by the news outlets to which we pledge our allegiance?

I’m not saying I’m above any of this, by the way. Only that I’m convicted. And that I’d like to improve. I’d like to see an America where people can yield their rights for the sake of others. Where people are willing to serve rather than insist. Where we listen more than we protest. Where relationships matter more than party platforms (or at least are not chosen solely on the basis of party affiliation).

And as I’m typing this, I’m realizing that I’m also describing the many people who have been going to work in hospitals and first responder jobs every day and setting aside their best interests for the many people who desperately need their care. And the law enforcement officers in my own church who lay aside their political beliefs to provide crowd control for protestors demanding their political beliefs win the day.

I’m honestly not trying to paint anyone as evil here. We have a political process that allows us all to hold firm beliefs and express them. You have the right to do that, you don’t have to listen to me. But let’s also consider our opportunities to honor and serve someone else by giving up our rights here and there. We have cemeteries full of people who have shown that this is possible. Perhaps Memorial Day this year could be a reminder of a nobler element of society than we typically see in an election year.

Clanging Cymbal Theology


“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:1–3

I have only one question in this post: Was Paul serious when he said this? Because these are strong words. In fact, I think these are the kinds of words you or I would take heat for saying were they not recorded in the Bible.

Think about it. What if we didn’t have these verses in the Bible, and I told you that you could have perfect theology, knowing everything about the mysteries of God, but it would be absolutely meaningless without love for the people around you? Or imagine that I told you that you could have perfect faith, or put that faith into practice by giving away all of your possessions, but that without love for people this wouldn’t matter whatsoever. What if I told you that you could be a fearless martyr for the faith, but that if your life wasn’t marked by love, you’d gain nothing and be nothing?

I honestly think that if Paul hadn’t written these words, and if I came making statements like these, that I’d be shut down by people quoting chapter and verse on why doctrinal accuracy is most important, why God wants us to rebuke heretics rather than love them, and why we should be careful not to “love people into hell.”

But Paul’s words here are stunning. Get every theological nuance exactly right, he says, and without love, it doesn’t do anyone any good. Say anything you want, no matter how right or beautiful or biblical it is, and if it’s not saturated in and motivated by love, then your words sound like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.

We don’t take Paul’s words seriously. How much of the Christian internet could be classified as clanging cymbal theology? Every sarcastic correction of someone’s theology, every “farewell” to a Christian leader who puts a doctrinal toe out of line (or is assumed to have done so). Honestly, I wonder if less than 99% of the theologically-related tweets launched into the twittersphere would pass Paul’s test.

How different would our culture be if we took Paul’s words seriously? Would the words “Christian” and “church” be synonymous with “hypocrite” and “judgmental” if we had been heeding Paul’s warning?

If we did pay attention to what Paul said here, what would it look like?

“Theology is not the main concern. People are. Actually, people are the main concern because God is always the highest concern. And God is love. So Theology without love is not theology: it’s heresy.”

I’ll make an important admission here: If my daughter says something theologically inaccurate, my initial response to her is very different than my initial response to someone on Facebook who challenges something I post. Why? Because I love my daughter deeply, and I’m so concerned for her personal growth and human flourishing that I try to avoid tearing her down. I want her to know and love God deeply, which is exactly why I don’t tear her apart for theological thoughts. Instead, I want to push her to wrestle, to think, to consider all of the information, to come to know the biblical texts, and to encounter Jesus for herself. In these moments, the last thing I want to be is a clanging cymbal. I want her to actually hear what I’m saying.

But when I respond quickly on social media, I’m often just trying to defend my point. The theology is my main concern, not the person. And this is exactly Paul’s point. The theology is not the main concern, the person is. And the person is the main concern in any given situation because God is the ultimate concern in every situation. And God is love. It’s NOT that theology doesn’t matter. But it IS that theology without love doesn’t matter.

Consider this last thought. Since I first started getting serious about theology, I’ve made it my goal to collect and develop answers to doctrinal questions. Love is one of those doctrines I believed in, but Paul’s strongly stated point here was lost on me. That’s not because I was a great theologian who was lacking one peripheral quality (love(. It’s because I was immature. Look at how Paul ends this passage:

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 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. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 11:11–13)

It’s eluded me for ages but it now seems so obvious. Paul’s “childishness” was not his inability to lay out theological arguments. It was his lovelessness. A child can speak confidently but lack love. But once Paul grew up, he realized that love was the greatest of all.

How childish I have been. How childish so much of the church insists on being (myself still included). If only we actually believed that the greatest of these is love.