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Stop Treating Beth Moore Like Garbage

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

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

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

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

That’s fire!!!!!!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

DOWNLOAD THE EVICTED CHURCH FREE

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Beth Moore (A Limerick)

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This is “Beth Moore Week” at Jackass Theology. Mark posted earlier this week. Now it’s my turn. So here’s an uber-cheesy totally-genuine tribute, to a woman making waves in Evangelicalism:

Please forgive me Lord,
A leader in the church, 
who has leaned on 1 Timothy, 
but missed what LOVE asserts.

Please forgive me Lord,
I shamefully confide, 
when women spoke I often joked, 
and rolled my foolish eyes

So here’s to you Beth Moore,
Our bad ass Mockingjay, 
the curtain’s being lifted. 
Misogyny can’t stay.

Here’s to you Beth Moore,
Our tribute volunteer, 
you’ve entered the arena 
to fight for future years.

Here’s to you Beth Moore,
Our Katniss Everdeen, 
your tweets are sharp slung arrows, 
calling out hypocrisy.

Here’s to you Beth Moore,
Our blazing Girl on Fire,  
you’re turning heads, demanding mends, 
inspiring something higher

Please forgive me Lord,
For stones I’ve thrown along the way, 
I thought it best to get it “right,” 
but “right” seems wrong today.

If it wasn’t clear in our little limerick, Jackass Theology has a donkey sized crush on Beth Moore, in a completely platonic, non-objectifying, side-hug sort of way.

Tweet On, Mrs. Moore. Tweet on!

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.

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.

Sectual Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is absolute fire! Is it untrue?

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

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

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

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

God help us, indeed.

Jackass by Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re All a Little Amish

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Judah Smith recently announced “church in the palm of your hand” in the form of his new Churchome app. We have the technology to easily connect everyone, so why not do it?

I thought of a few reasons. When I first saw Smith’s announcement post, I laughed. Honestly, I thought for it might be satire. How could this be serious? Smith’s video claimed:

“We’re passionate about connecting people with God and each other and this is maybe the most effective platform we’ve ever used in doing so… People can actually build real, tactile relationships all over the world.”

I wondered, “Does he even know what the word ‘tacticle’ means? Or ‘real’?” Right away I saw so many tweets and comments and articles confirming my instincts to shoot this thing down. It was a misguided attempt to be relevant and it’s dangerous.

But then I thought about it a little bit. I talked to some of my friends. I talked to Ryan. And with a little reflection I came to a more profound realization: I’m a huge jackass.

The thing is, churches have historically been slow to adopt new technology. We’re embarrassingly late adopters. But why?

Where would you draw the line with churches utilizing technology? Is it bad for a church to utilize a website? A podcast? An Instagram account? Most of us would say no. But each of these things were slowly and reluctantly picked up by churches.

The same thing happened in the world of education (Christian and otherwise). A few early adopters starting offering classes online, and everyone else mocked them: “They don’t care about students or education, they’re just trying to make a buck.” But then a few more colleges started offering online classes. And then a few more. Now, almost every college offers online classes. But they have found a way to offer real value through a non-traditional platform. Is this the best possible way to do it? Maybe not (though you could make a legitimate argument for it). Is it valuable? Basically every college and tons of students think so.

When radio first became popular, a group of pastors were actually fairly cutting edge in utlizing radio ministries. They saw the potential to reach millions and had a lasting impact because they decided to use that technology to carry the gospel.

When Mr. Rogers first saw television, he was appalled at the way people were using it to degrade other human beings. But he saw its potential, so he dedicated his career to investing in human dignity through this new technology. Here’s the remarkable thing: Mr. Rogers went to seminary because he was going to be a Presbyterian minister. But while all of his classmates graduated and went on to preach thousands of sermons, Fred Rogers started a kids television show. There’s absolutely no way that all of his classmates’ sermons combined had anywhere near the impact of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He didn’t talk about Jesus on the show, but he utilized technology in a way that embodied Jesus’ mission and message, and he impacted millions of lives. (I can’t watch “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” without balling all the way through—something I have done several times already).

All that to say, I was a jackass for mocking Judah Smith. For one thing, I made huge assumptions. I mocked his use of “real” and “tactile” for app-based interactions, but later I learned that his app can connect you with in-person gatherings. He knew what the words meant; I just made uncharitable assumptions. I think Judah Smith knows what church was designed to be, and I think he sees a way that technology can help to facilitate that.

“If we don’t think Judah Smith can use an app to facilitate interactions, then we’re being Amish. And we’re allowed to do that. But we’re not allowed to be jackasses about it.”

Here’s the thing. We’re all using technology in all of our churches, whether it’s instruments, sound systems, projectors, websites, or whatever. We have just drawn a line regarding how much is too much. That’s a total jackass move.

Think of the Amish: they’re known for totally rejecting technology. But it’s not true. Once upon a time, things like wagons and pulleys and even shovels were new technology. The Amish use all of those things; they just got to a point where they decided to avoid all technology developed after 1800 (or whenever, I have no idea). And good for them. As long as they’re not being jackasses about it.

So the thing is, if we don’t think Judah Smith can use an app to facilitate interactions, then we’re being Amish. We’re choosing an arbitrary cutoff for which technologies are compatible with the gospel. And we’re allowed to do that. But we’re not allowed to be jackasses about it. I was. And I’m sorry.

The Political Jackass

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Here’s a perfect way to get everyone hot and bothered: talk about politics on a religion website. But we’re talking about the things that make us act like jackasses, so we can’t skip politics.

The Political Jackass is not the person who votes for a specific candidate. Nor is it the person who cares deeply about politics. It’s the person who is rigid in their adherence to some political view, party, or official. Is this you? I’ll confess that it’s been me.

The problem with the Political Jackass is rigidity. When something is overly rigid, it will not bend. When pressure is applied, it can’t bend, so instead it cracks. This is exactly what has happened in our political landscape, and that includes within the Church.

“Many people in our churches are discipled more by Fox News or CNN than by Jesus. And that’s a major problem.”

Right now, we are politically polarized. Mention Donald Trump at a dinner party and the only guarantee is that you won’t hear an apathetic response. Identify yourself as a Republican or a Democrat and the people around you won’t be indifferent. Ryan and I have become convinced that many people in our churches are discipled more by Fox News or CNN than by Jesus. And that’s a major problem.

You might think that rigidity lies at the heart of Christianity. But you’d be wrong. Sure, there are concrete truths and unchanging realities. But over the last 2,000 years, Christianity has thrived in a shocking variety of settings, cultures, continents, political regimes, and time periods. Christianity thrived while ancient Rome tried to stamp it out. It adapted when it was legalized under Constantine (and later became the official religion). When the “barbarians” destroyed Rome, Christianity was flexible enough to transform the new rulers. Christianity was at home in Charlemagne’s empire even while it flourished in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It has found a way to make people feel at home in fundamentalist churches, modern megachurches, pentecostal churches, and tiny house church gatherings.

As much as we think of Christianity as unyielding and rigid, the gospel has always found a way to grow in many different types of soils.

“As much as we think of Christianity as unyielding and rigid, the gospel has always found a way to grow in many different types of soils.”

Over the millennia, Christianity has shown remarkable flexibility. The current trend of divisive rigidity on the part of conservatives, progressives, and liberals in the Church is causing us to crack. And it’s making us less like Jesus.

Since the drama of the 2016 campaign and election, we have all been especially tuned in to the increasing polarization in America and the negative effects of our extremely partisan news outlets. The whole thing feels like a reality TV show, which shouldn’t be surprising since we have a reality TV star for a president and receive much of our news from TV shows.

While Jesus walked the earth, there was political polarization as well. There were Pharisees who believed that salvation would come in response to their radical obedience to the Law. There were Sadducees who found their salvation in a political alliance with their Roman overlords. They were given status and control over the temple in exchange for complying with Roman politics. There were even Zealots who believed that salvation would come through a revolutionary Messiah who would violently defeat the pagans who held them in exile.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus didn’t align with any of these camps. In other words, every political affiliation was wrong. Jesus wasn’t at home in any of them. Not one had it right. Should it surprise us that the same is true now? Could we possibly imagine that Jesus would register to vote as a member of any political party?

Jesus was then and is now offering us a more beautiful path forward. It’s not the way of polarization. It’s the way of love. Central to it all is not a news show or a political party. Central to it all is a table. He’s more likely to invite us to join an actual party than to register for one. He’s more likely to invite us to join our supposed enemies for a meal than to feed into the polarization.

Affiliate with any party you want. Vote for whomever you want. But don’t assume that Jesus is on your side and against anyone else’s. He’s for us—all of us. He wants our hearts, not our sound bites or talking points. The path forward is not found on a news show, let’s stop acting like it is.

Watchdog Theology

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

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

But Jesus didn’t. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I barked along. 

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

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

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

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

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

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