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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.

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.

You Can’t Write about Jackassery without Being a Jackass

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I’d like to bring you into my struggle with this blog a bit. A few weeks ago, I wrote about some very demeaning statements John MacArthur and Phil Johnson made about Beth Moore. I said their comments were cruel and seemed designed to wound. I still stand by those statements. But here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure I myself was a jackass in my response.

When a person decides to start a blog about being a jackass, one quickly discovers that it’s impossible to point out jackassery without frequently dipping into the very evil one is trying to eradicate. Turns out, that’s Jackass Theology Blogging 101.

If you’ve been around for a minute, you know that Ryan and I have tried to be very confessional throughout. We can clearly see the jackass tendencies in ourselves and in each other, so we try to write about that rather than always pointing out the jackassery we see in the world around us.

But I know we don’t always get it right.

I have re-read my post about John MacArthur many times, and I keep praying through whether or not the things I said were appropriate. Am I calling attention to an example of the ways our pursuit of orthodoxy can become a manifestation of the “works of the flesh” rather than the “fruit of the Spirit”? I think so. Most of you thought so as well. But then some of you saw my post playing into “outrage culture” or “cancel culture.” Were my words any better than the demeaning words I was hoping to call us away from? I honestly don’t know for sure (again, I keep re-reading and am not myself convinced), but I am confident that I didn’t get it all right. I tried to affirm my appreciation for MacArthur’s ministry and tried to use it as a means of calling us on to something better than what he did that one day. I’m sure I botched it. He loves Jesus, and I don’t want to have torn him down. I’m sincerely sorry for the ways my post tore down anything that’s good and belongs to the kingdom of God.

Here’s something I know for sure: I am not God. Jesus would get this blog exactly right at every turn. I know I’m not going to be able to do that. However, I don’t believe that making mistakes is reason enough for burning the whole thing to the ground. Instead, I think it’s a great reminder that I am not God, and that I need to continue to confess and seek him. I absolutely believe that examples of our own jackassery are more powerful than examples of the jackassery in Christian celebrities. My own examples get far fewer clicks, but they’re more meaningful. And prevalent.

I still think it’s worth fighting jackassery. But I know we’ll constantly need to acknowledge the ways it creeps out of our own mouths and actions. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn helpfully said, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.” If that’s not true, I don’t know what is. And truly, the line separating jackasses from Spirit-filled people does not pass through theological camps or denominations, but right through every human heart. Including my own. Especially my own.

“The line separating jackasses from Spirit-filled people does not pass through theological camps or denominations, but right through every human heart. Including my own. Especially my own.”

We’re still trying to learn how to expose jackassery and say “that’s not okay” and “that’s not from God” while keeping ourselves unstained from jackassery. I’d love to say that we’ll find the balance at some point, but I know that’s not true. We’re not Jesus, and he’s the only one who completely avoids jackassery. But he’s also the one who heals jackassery, so there’s a lot of hope there.

The reason we’re fighting this battle is because we believe we all need to let go of our petty doctrinal certitude and our need to be right and instead cling to Jesus. And that’s a battle worth fighting. We should expect that along the way we ourselves will need to acknowledge times we’ve co-opted the moral high ground and begun to speak with the voice of the jackass. After all, we need Jesus as much as anyone. He’s the point of it all anyway, and I’m glad for a chance to acknowledge my dependence on him.