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How Worship Reshapes Our Political Engagement

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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.

Christians Doing Satan’s Work

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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.

The Evicted Church

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As I and every pastor I know follow the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, we have essentially been evicted from our church buildings. Our largest units of “gatherings” right now are single families. Every church I know of has done a great job of adapting and doing the best they can in the face of a crisis. I think people are having vibrant experiences of Jesus in this season.

Still, I cannot stop myself from thinking about what “church” should look like once we are allowed to gather in any unit larger than single families. I see an opportunity here. To my mind, it seems likely that we’ll be able to gather in small groups (size TBD) before too long. It also seems likely that it will be quite some time before we can meet in groups of hundreds.

Because of this, I think it is vital that we all think beyond what we did when we met in large gatherings in our church buildings. If all we do during this season is continue to export church services recorded in empty church buildings (I’m not knocking this, just saying it can’t be ALL we do), then our experience of church during this season of eviction will be unnecessarily anemic.

Now, that doesn’t mean modern church services are bad or unbiblical or ungodly. It just means that I’m convinced there’s more to the concept of church than what we have customarily squeezed onto a single stage and into a single hour on a Sunday morning. I’m also not saying that we should do away with our typical Sunday services when we eventually get the opportunity to resume. But I am saying that we should not equate those modern church services with church itself.

“We have all been essentially evicted from our church buildings. If ALL we do during this season is continue to export church services recorded in empty church buildings, the church will be unnecessarily anemic.”

I am convinced that when we cancelled the large church gatherings starting on March 15, we weren’t cancelling church. Because the church has never been about a service, a building, or a nonprofit organization.

Here’s the biblical reality: we are the church. You won’t find a New Testament reference to the church as a building or a service. What you’ll find instead is that the church is a collection of people.

So, yes, we’ve been evicted from our buildings for a time. But that doesn’t stop us from being the church. It’s only a hindrance if we allow it to be. And we’ll only allow it to be a hindrance if we are unable to imagine church beyond what happens during services in a specific location. Given the fact that God launched his church 2,000 years ago in a setting that looks almost nothing like 21st century America, we should feel free to use our Bibles and our imaginations to pursue healthy and vibrant approaches to being the church in our cultural moment.

So what does it mean for us to live as the church when we’re essentially evicted from our buildings? One thing we can say for sure is that church has never actually fit onto a single stage or into a single hour. The temptation is huge to think that it does. The challenge for us, now that we’re evicted from our buildings, is to avoid taking our cues from the worship services we’ve always known. Try this as a thought experiment:

Person A has never read the Bible, but has a lifetime of experience in attending a typical American worship service. Person B has never attended a typical American worship service, but reads the New Testament incessantly. Person A and Person B each set out to create a meaningful gathering with a handful of other people in their backyards. What do you think is the likelihood that the gatherings crafted by A and B will look anything alike?

“How do we live as the church when we’re essentially evicted from our buildings? Church has never fit onto a single stage or into a single hour. It’s going to be all about small gatherings in homes for a while.”

Or think of it this way. If I’m reading an English translation of a book that was originally written in Danish, I should expect that I’ll get the idea clearly enough but will probably be missing some nuances in the original text. Now, what if I’m reading an English translation of a Cantonese translation of that Danish book? I’ll probably get the idea, but there will be some quirks that come through this telephone-game approach to reading the text.

So as we think about what it will look like to meet together in homes or backyards in small groups, I strongly encourage each of us to think through what it will look like for us to gather and scatter as the church based on the picture of the church we get in the New Testament. For this unique season, I think it would be enormously beneficial for each of us to forget that we’ve ever seen a typical American worship service and to instead custom create home church gatherings that are specifically designed for meeting in homes or backyards.

This is the moment for all of us to use our best creative energy to imagine what the church could look like during this season of eviction. What will vibrant gatherings entail? How will we empower mission and keep it at the forefront? What about engagement with Scripture, worship, prayer, and communion? If we stumble into this season without critical thought and careful training, I think the church will be impoverished for a time.

To that end, I put together a short mini-book (32 pages) to help pastors, small group leaders, and church members imagine what church could look like in their small, unique settings. It’s called The Evicted Church. I’m not laying out a model, just pushing us all to engage in critical thought so we can be prepared. The reality is that the early church looked more like the season we’re heading into (small gatherings in homes) than what we’ve been doing (large gatherings in specific buildings). Let’s enter this season with enthusiasm and purpose.

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All In

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When Rachel Held Evans passed, I watched her memorial service online. I’m sure that tons of her fans watched with me, and I’m equally sure that none of her critics did. Because isn’t that the way things go? We like to critique and pick apart and argue against people like they are the sum of their beliefs; just don’t ask us to actually remember that they are humans, with people who dearly love them and compelling stories of how they came to see what they see. One of the mottos that RHE used to guide her writing was incredibly simple: “Tell the truth.” I have been trying for some time now to figure out how to do that anymore.

Because the truth is the last few years have left me exhausted and disillusioned by the amount of noise and fist raising, fear-based panic I see in the Church that raised me. I feel a little orphaned at the moment, not sure where I belong in all of it anymore. TRUTH doesn’t seem as simple and one dimensional as I was once told it was, and I’m tired of needing to hold the corner market on every angle, nuance and extrapolation of it. Honestly, I’m wondering if there’s room in the church for someone who believes in Jesus, but just really isn’t sure which way they lean on a whole lot else anymore. Is that even allowed?

I read an article a week or so ago that really bothered me and have been trying to figure out why. This article didn’t pull any of your obvious jackass moves. It wasn’t blatantly disrespectful or insulting of other people, but in a very subtle and disheartening way, it basically told me: “No. No there really isn’t a place in the church for your questions. There is no place for not knowing where you stand on secondary issues. There is only certainty and deep conviction about all the little things. Certainty is where you will find belonging in the church; pick a camp and you can have a family.”

“We seem to be saying: ‘There is no place for someone who doesn’t have a firm stance on secondary issues; certainty is where you will find belonging in the church: pick a camp and you can have a family.'”

The premise and title of the article was “If the Bible is wrong, I’m so so wrong.” In it, the author sets up a scenario in which people either believe the Bible in its entirety, or they are the “pick and choose type” who aren’t really “all in.” (Five bucks if you can guess which type the author decided to pat himself on the back for being). The problem is, the author then goes on, paragraph after paragraph, stating not simply WHAT the Bible says, but an extrapolated version of his interpretation of what the Bible says. He then says, if you don’t believe his interpretation, then you don’t just think he’s wrong, you’re saying the Bible is wrong! He equates his hermeneutics (fancy word for the lens through which we read Scripture in order to determine its meaning and therefore our theology) with the very Word of God itself so that the only option presented to the reader is “You believe MY understanding of what God means by these stories in the Bible, or you, poor reader, don’t believe the Bible!” Tsk tsk.

Do you see the problem here? What arrogance!

As a recovering people pleaser, reading this article triggered parts of my younger, ‘rule following’ self. I was not a boat rocker growing up. To question authority felt rebellious and if there was a worse title you could label me with than rebel, I didn’t know it. But these last few years have awakened a protective rage in me for those who ‘toed the line’ in their youth and never asked questions. I think a lot of us are deconstructing right now because we took so much of what we were taught at face value. Believing of course that the big “C” Church and all its mainstream leaders were being careful and fair; seeking Jesus’ face and character and heart with every nuance and interpretation they championed. Submission to their “wisdom” was never hard for me because I never dreamed they’d have an agenda other than loving God and His Word. Unfortunately that trusting side of me broke somewhere around the 2016 election and I just don’t buy it anymore. I have seen one too many authorities use the Bible and tradition as excuses to promote and protect their own privilege. I have seen Scripture twisted and slung at human beings to preserve hierarchy. I have seen NFL jerseys burned and hateful signs constructed and despicable behavior defended in the name of Jesus. So when this article makes the reader out to be “wishy washy in their faith” or someone who “calls GOD a liar” if they challenge the human author’s personal perspective, I get a little ticked.

It’s a jackass move to question someone’s commitment to their faith because they aren’t sure where they land on WIDELY disputed interpretations of certain parts of Scripture. It’s a jackass move to write and teach as though there aren’t intelligent, Jesus loving, BIBLE loving people who disagree with you. It’s a jackass move to declare that THEOLOGY is the line in the sand between the people who are “all in” and those who aren’t. Theology is NOT the “narrow gate.” If it was, Paul might have been a little screwed: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1-2).

I’m sorry. Why is Paul the only one allowed to say this? I guarantee you if someone used this tactic today (without actually reminding everyone they were quoting Paul’s own words) he, and definitely SHE, she would be met with arrogant eye rolls and assumptions that they clearly do not have a deep love of Scripture or theology. I’m not exaggerating or being uncharitable, I assure you I have heard these comments with my own ears.

As Mark and Ryan like to say, we have yet again, become more biblical than Bible.

Paul goes on to challenge the Corinthian church to cease their pettiness over whose leadership they follow because there is ONE church and one foundation and that is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:4-11). I take this to mean that if I believe in Jesus Christ and him crucified then I am “all in.” That there IS a place in the body of Christ and in the Church for me. And I don’t need to agree with every or even ANY of your extrapolated interpretations of other portions of scripture in order to belong or give my whole heart to Jesus.

The truth is, I am holding on by a thread these days. I am clinging with the stubborn, toddler type hope that there is still room for me in the church. It feels more like defiance that starry-eyed hope at this point, but whatever works. I’m not leaving yet. I’m with Paul in believing the church is bigger than the wise think it is and messier than the clean want it to be (1 Cor. 1:22). And I think he’d be heartbroken over the ways his words keep getting twisted around in order to justify exclusion when his entire ministry was to bring simple invitation to those others assumed weren’t worthy or welcome.

4 Lies about Living During Covid-19

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A couple of weeks ago, as I prepared to preach on 1 Peter 5:8 (“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”), I began to think about the ways our “adversary” would use this global pandemic to bring us down. And that made me think of what C.S. Lewis’ demon Screwtape would have written to his nephew and apprentice Wormword had he been writing in 2020. Out of respect for Lewis’ unique genius, I won’t attempt to imitate his style, but here are 4 lies I believe the adversary would like us to believe during this time.

Lie #1: You Know What’s Going On and How to Best Handle this Crisis

It seems that judgmentalism and the arrogant sharing of our opinions are always in season, but a time like this seems to bring out dogmatic statements stemming from our unwarranted yet absolute self-confidence. Let’s be honest, none of us knows what’s going on here, what’s best for our world, etc. So before you criticize how everyone else is handling this, let’s all resolve to exercise humility in the face of something the world has never quite seen before. Opinions are important, but preaching those opinions as though all the experts and officials and families are ignoramuses is not a good look.

“Before we criticize how everyone is handling COVID-19, let’s resolve to be humble in the face of something the world has never seen. Opinions are good, speaking as though everyone else is an ignoramus is awful.”

Lie #2 Quarantine Means Isolation

You can’t have physical contact with people outside your household. But the lie you’ll be tempted to believe is that you’re isolated. That you can’t talk to people.

It’s not true.

We live at a time where you can be as connected to people as you’d like to be, with the one exception of making physical contact. Fighting this lie is important in two directions. You need the wisdom, love, and encouragement of other people if you’ll continue to thrive as a human. You also have an obligation to love other people (Rom. 13:8), which means reaching out. Pick up your phone, hop on a Zoom call. Many are finding so much life through digital interconnections right now. You’ll only let yourself miss out on this if you believe you’re isolated.

“Don’t believe the lie that quarantine means you can’t be connected to people. Many are finding life through digital interconnections right now. You’ll only be isolated if you choose to believe you are.”

Lie #3 You Have Nothing to Offer Anyone Right Now

Satan would try to convince us that our lives are on hold until the quarantine is lifted and everything can go back to the way it was, that there’s nothing meaningful to engage in during this time. But life only stops if we choose to sink into a morass of Netflix, Cheeto dust, and self-pity. The fact is that the Spirit of God has empowered you with unique abilities so that you can make the people around you better. Is it too much to ask that we exercise the slightest amount of God-given creativity to find ways to continue using those abilities for their God-given purposes? You have something to offer. Don’t squander that something.

“God has empowered you with unique abilities so that you can make the people around you better. Is it too much to ask that we use a little creativity to find ways of continuing to use those abilities for the sake of others?”

Lie #4 No Church Service Means No Church

Back in early March when we were wrestling with canceling our church services, we had to be very clear that we weren’t “canceling church.” Because the church has never been a building or a service. It’s always been people. People forgiven and redeemed and supernaturally empowered by Jesus.

Church only stops if we stop viewing ourselves as the church.

God still has a mission for his church, and now we’ve lost the illusion that a few church staff members will be the ones to carry that mission forward. You are the church. What does God want his church to be and do in this hellish season? We each have to discern and decide with regard to that question right now, and then act accordingly.

“God still has a mission for his church, and now we’ve lost the illusion that a few church staff members will be the ones to carry that mission forward. You are the church. What is the church going to do now?”

I’ll leave you with the verses surround 1 Peter 5:8 because of how much encouragement they brought to me.

Just prior, Peter says: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (vv. 6–7).

And after warning about the devil’s prowling, Peter says this: “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (vv. 9–10).

Cast your anxieties on the Lord. He cares, and his hand is mighty. And lean into that promise that after we have suffered “a little while” (a frustrating phrase that we can be sure won’t align with our timelines), we will see God restoring, conforming, strengthening, and establishing.

John MacArthur’s Disgusting Comment: Go Home, Beth Moore

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This is a weird post for me to write. Maybe I should first tell you that I graduated from John MacArthur’s seminary. You should probably know that I chose that seminary above all others because I was drawn to John MacArthur’s fearless preaching of the truth as God revealed it in Scripture. I value the education I received at the Master’s Seminary.

But—oh my gosh—I just heard an audio recording in which John MacArthur demeans and dismisses Beth Moore. I’m shaking. If I conjure up every ounce of optimism and benefit-of-the-doubt-ness I possess, I still can’t find a way to describe it as anything other than disdainful and mean-spirited. If I try to give an honest assessment of how it sounds to me, I think I have to say his words sound hateful and anti-Christ.

Here’s the scenario. John MacArthur is part of a panel discussion, and the moderator asks this: “I will say a word, and then you need to give a pithy response to that one word.” The word that MacArthur is asked to comment on?

Beth Moore.

MacArthur’s response is swift: “Go home.”

This was met by cheers and applause the audience. A roomful of people (attending the Truth Matters Conference which is celebrating 50 years of MacArthur’s ministry) cheered when a PASTOR dismissed a woman made in God’s image with a demeaning phrase. That word “pastor” means “shepherd.” This crowd joined a shepherd in collectively dunking on a woman who loves Jesus and loves Scripture and carefully does her best to promote Jesus wherever she goes.

This is absolutely disgusting. I’m seriously doing the theological equivalent of dry heaving right now. Once more I find myself pleading: Stop treating Beth Moore like garbage!

MacArthur chose to elaborate a bit: “There is no case that can be made for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion.”

Huge applause.

Except that there is a case that can be made for it, and this case is made by a huge number of scholars and followers of Jesus. MacArthur is allowed to disagree with Beth Moore. Holy smokes. Of course we can disagree about something like this! But he states with absolute confidence and condescension that no one can argue otherwise. And yet I’ll stand here as a graduate of his seminary, as someone who still employs the hermeneutical tools and methods I learned at his seminary, and make a strong argument to the contrary. So many do. It’s misleading, harmful, and disgusting to claim that one’s view on this—regarding which there are between one and a handful passages (depending on which passages one considers relevant) that say anything about this issue.

Phil Johnson, one of MacArthur’s right hand men, also on the panel, chose to answer the same prompt with the word, “Narcissistic.” He said, “When I first saw her I thought, ‘This is what it looks like to preach yourself rather than Christ.'”

I cannot tell you how disgusting it is to hear someone say this. It’s so unfair and cruel. It’s wild to publicly demean a preacher of the gospel who’s not even in the room. Again, this kind of dismissive attitude and contemptuous statement is anti-Christ. All of the many many many calls for love, grace, unity, patience, gracious speech, humility, etc. are thrown out the window. All of the biblical warnings against causing division and controversy are ignored.

MacArthur went on, “Just because you have the skill to sell jewelry on the TV sales channel doesn’t mean you should be preaching. There are people who have certain hocking skills. Natural abilities to sell. They have energy and personality and all that. That doesn’t qualify you to preach.”

You can tell the audience doesn’t know how to respond to that.

And that’s where I died. Those words are so condescending. They seem calculated to wound. To dishonor. To destroy. When I close my eyes and try to picture Jesus saying words like these, I gag. But these words would be right at home in the mouths of Pharisees. I feel qualified to make that last statement because I personally have Pharisaical tendencies. I’m constantly tempted to make myself the measure of orthodoxy and to define my preferred crowd as the “true people of God.” But I know I’m wrong in this. That’s why we started this blog. Jesus is too beautiful and his mission is too important for us to be jackasses in the name of Jesus.

“I believe John MacArthur and Phil Johnson need to repent for saying to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ and to Beth Moore, ‘You’re narcissistic and should either stay at home or sell jewelry on TV.'”

I can’t tell you for sure that my motives are entirely pure in writing this. I’d like to believe so, and I’m honestly praying and checking my heart here. If there’s something I’m missing about this discussion, I’d love to hear it. But I believe John MacArthur and Phil Johnson need to repent for saying to the hand, “I have no need of you,” and to the foot “You’re narcissistic and should either stay at home or sell jewelry on TV.” I doubt they’ll read this, and I don’t expect to be heard favorably if they do, but this breaks my heart, and I’m confident it breaks the heart of Jesus, who gave his very life to serve and unify his church.

Pastor Kanye & the Problem with Celebrity Conversions

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Kanye West has been on a wild ride the last couple years. Most recently, he has been leading Sunday Services, where they basically sing songs to worship God interspersed with Kanye talking a lot about Jesus. He has even said that he will never again make “secular music.” Crazy, right?

But as you probably know (or can at least imagine), no one in the world knows what to make of this. For the gossip media outlets, Kanye’s just wild and unpredictable and therefore good for business. I sense the average Kanye fan standing back a bit to see what will come of it all. I see some in the Christian community excited about Kanye’s conversion and the new direction of his music. In my circles at least, I see more Christians skeptical or even derisive about “Pastor Kanye.” I personally see things that are really cool about what Kanye’s up to right now. I have mixed feelings overall: I actually wrote a book about the mistaken view of “secular vs. Christian music” that Kanye seemed to invoke, but I also love his enthusiasm to use his music for God’s glory.

Overall, I think this is yet another example of how tricky it is when celebrities convert. Bob Dylan famously became a Christian, and then eventually he leveled out. I have no idea what the implications of any of that are. But I do think we as Christians make this weird for celebrities. On the one hand, we talk as though having a celebrity become a Christian will lead to instant worldwide conversion. On the other hand, everyone policies their every statement and action, looking for reasons why they’re not a true Christian.

I first thought about this years ago. As I was stepping out of the back room onto the stage to lead the congregation in worship, my buddy said to me, “Don’t freak out, but Pamela Anderson is sitting in the front row.” I said what any worship leader would have said: “Yeah, right.”

I grabbed my guitar and stepped up to the microphone, and there she was, sitting directly in front of me. She seemed fully engaged in the music and the preaching, and as soon as the service ended she slipped out the side door.

This event didn’t have a huge impact on my life, but it made me wonder what church must be like for celebrities. Pamela made it through the service without being hassled, but I did notice that as she rushed out the door one of our pastors went sprinting after her. I’m sure he was just trying to give her a personal connection at the church, but I wonder if that seemed any different to her than the people who swarm her on her way out of other public places. I doubt it.

On another Sunday, I was running the soundboard when Leann Rimes walked in. She arrived early, found a seat in the middle of the Sanctuary, and graciously small-talked with the churchgoers who recognized her. Meanwhile in the sound booth, we whispered like Junior High girls about having a celebrity in front of us. We watched her reactions to the music and the sermon and speculated about the nature of her faith.

We likely agree that joining a community of faith is vital for anyone wanting to follow Jesus. But what would that look like for a major celebrity? Could they really just be part of the church family? We would all agree that celebrities are no better than the rest of us. Most celebrities would affirm this as well. But we don’t really believe it’s true. We get weird.

I once made awkward eye contact with Quentin Tarantino in a Starbucks. As we locked eyes, I saw the soul of a man who was trying hard to blend in, scanning the room to see which one of us would recognize him and call him out for attempting to buy coffee in public like a normal human being. I don’t know what he read in my eyes, but I didn’t out him. Instead, I pretended not to be watching him and walked across the room to discreetly tell a friend, “Don’t look now, but Quentin Tarantino is standing right behind you…”

I can’t imagine how a celebrity maintains normal relationships. Do people actually like me, or are they just trying to get something or look a certain way by hanging out with me? I would think you’d have a ton of acquaintances and very few actual friends. This would be tough in terms of church life.

“Kanye asked people to give him a little grace if he’s mispronouncing certain phrases: ‘I’m a new convert. I recently got saved.’ Maybe we could do that: give him a little grace. Be happy for him.”

I don’t have a solution for this, but this should give us more compassion for celebrities who are trying to follow Jesus. We get so disgusted when we hear that “so and so claims to be a Christian but isn’t part of a church.” We are bewildered when a celebrity who seems to love Jesus makes a statement that is theologically off base. You’d be pretty weird too if every person in every church made it difficult for you to connect with the body of Christ.

I don’t know what any of this means for Kanye West. My opinion doesn’t matter at all. But this poor guy seems to be trying to take his first steps at following Jesus and using his enormous platform to draw attention to Jesus. There’s a pastor who actually attended the same seminary I did that has been pastoring Kanye pretty directly, and he vouches for Kanye’s faith. I think that’s pretty cool. At a recent event, Kanye asked people to give him a little grace if he’s mispronouncing certain phrases: “I’m a new convert. I recently got saved.” Maybe we could do that: give him a little grace.

Seems like we should be happy for him. I know I don’t know better than the pastor who’s vouching for him. Seems like I can be excited about a lot of what I’m hearing about the Sunday Services. Also, my trust in Jesus doesn’t hinge on what Kanye says or does. I’m confident he doesn’t need to be policed by the council of evangelical public opinion. I also think it’s cool he seems to be finding life in Jesus, just as I do.

Benny Hinn Changed: Do We Celebrate or Scoff?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

The Heresy of Unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becket Cook: WWJD LGBT?

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


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

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

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

Quite the opposite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one who showed him mercy.

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

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


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

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

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