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What Is Jackass Theology?

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What is jackass theology? The concept may sound funny or edgy or irreverent or descriptive, depending on where you’re coming from. But we assure you, jackass theology is exceedingly common. We’ve all participated, though most of us are unaware of it. Simply put, jackass theology is what happens when we hold our theological convictions in such a way that we act like, well, jackasses. And that’s shockingly easy to do. Jackass theology happens when ideas, rules, and “being right” supplant love, joy, peace, and basic human dignity.

Theology itself is not the problem. Theology means “the study of God,” and God doesn’t make people into jackasses. The problem is the way we hold our theology. It’s the way we explain it, the way we use it to divide from others, the way we use it to beat other people up. For those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, this is inexcusable. Jesus, if you recall, said that the two greatest commandments—the two statements that summarized all of the Old Testament—were love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.

How do we go from Jesus insisting that loving other people is the most important thing to using Jesus’ teaching to ostracize and exclude?

Not many of us are doing this on purpose, but we’re all doing it. Making jerk moves in the name of Jesus. Saying hurtful things on God’s behalf. We don’t get a pass just because this is the church culture we’ve been raised in. Flannery O’Connor said, “Ignorance is excusable when it is borne like a cross, but when it is wielded like an ax, and with moral indignation, then it becomes something else indeed.” She was talking about people who have never put any energy into understanding how art works, and yet do not hesitate to criticize artists. The point works equally well when we co-opt the words of God to fight against other people without taking the time to understand the heart of God.

Let’s be clear: if your theology is making you less like Jesus, then something has gone catastrophically wrong.

“How do we go from Jesus insisting that loving other people is the most important thing to using Jesus’ teaching to ostracize and exclude? When our theology makes us less like Jesus, that’s a problem.”

So what are we doing calling this site Jackass Theology? We’re just a couple of pastors trying to help people get closer to the heart of Jesus. We’re using the concept of jackass theology in three ways: as a lament, as a confession, and as a way forward.

LAMENT

As we look at evangelical Christianity today, we see a ton of jackassery. It’s seriously everywhere. Stick with us and you’ll recognize it too. But don’t get too excited, once you start to notice jackass theology, you’ll see it mainly in your own past and present. We just want to help you weed it out of your future. We also want to note that it’s not just in evangelicalism. As I said, it’s seriously everywhere. Republicans, democrats, liberals, conservatives, upper class people, lower class people, etc. etc. etc. Jackassery is part of the human condition, but Jesus shows us what it means to be more.

CONFESSION

This part is key. We talk about jackass theology as a means of confession. Ryan and I are bigger jackasses than most, and we will often share our own jackassery. It’s important that we do this. The moment you point a finger as someone else’s jackassery, you’re guilty of it yourself. The theme passage for all jackass theology is Luke 18:9–14:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Fill in the blank however you want, as soon as you find yourself saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like _________,” you’re being a jackass. We confess our jackassery so we can turn from there and pursue the ways, works, and words of Jesus.

A WAY FORWARD

Ultimately, we’re trying to find and show a way forward. We all start as jackasses, but it doesn’t need to be like this. Jesus is the anti-jackass. Really, all we want to say is that we want to be more like Jesus. The problem is, we all assume that Jesus would do the things we tend to do, even when we’re actually being jackasses. The way forward is the way of Jesus. He invites us to join him, and that’s our heart with Jackass Theology. We want to be more like Jesus. And we’re hoping you’re interested in joining us as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you see the territorialism? The watch dogging?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.  

The Conservative Jackass

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Our basic premise is that we are all jackasses. Myself especially. One specific type of jackass that I have given much of my life to embodying is the Conservative Jackass.

Ryan and I are blog buddies and we pastor together now, but we actually met in college. Ryan was my mentor for a couple of years and had a major impact on the depth and direction of my life. During this time, I was introduced to Conservative Neo-Reformed TheologyTM. As I began learning theology with a depth and intensity that’s difficult to imagine now (I’m still thankful for this season for this reason), I began to notice that Ryan resisted the militarism with which I began holding specific doctrines.

This was difficult for me to process. I really looked up to Ryan, but he couldn’t see The TruthTM! What was I supposed to do? It seems crazy for me to write it now, but I was honestly concerned for Ryan’s salvation.

How could he resist what was so clearly written in Scripture?

This is the heart of the Conservative Jackass. No, I’m not talking about a high view of Scripture. Ryan had that then and still does now. Same here. I’m talking about the inability to respect someone who disagrees.

This is as good an example as any, from the teaching of one of my theological heroes from this period:

“Either you believe the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 or you don’t.  And if you don’t believe the Genesis account, then I just, I have to tell you, you have no hope of coming to the truth.”

-John MacArthur

He said this in the context of explaining why it’s essential for a person to believe that God created the world in six literal 24-hour days rather than believing in any form of theistic evolution. The problem is not being a creationist. That’s a fine position to hold. The problem is insisting that anyone who has less than 100% certainty about your specific reading of a passage couldn’t possibly be a Christian.

My question is: what the hell?

I’m serious in asking that. There was a time when I held this very position. But man—I was being such a jackass. How could I have assumed that total conformity to the way I saw things was necessary for salvation?

“The Conservative Jackass is an excluder. A person who knows the Truth and is unwilling to acknowledge the validity of any person or position that differs. His argument of choice is the slippery slope.”

I think the answer to that question is that I was my own God. And this is an important point. Anytime God agrees with 100% of our conclusions, then without a doubt we are our own Gods. When this is the case, either we have perfectly understood the mind of God—which, without question, is impossible—or our conception of God is simply: “He’s a deity who agrees with me on everything.” (Incidentally, there’s a great Bob Dylan song about this.)

The Conservative Jackass is an excluder. A person who knows the Truth and is unwilling to acknowledge the validity of any person or position that differs.

The Conservative Jackass’ argument of choice is the slippery slope. Leave room for disagreement on one tenet of your fundamentalist beliefs and pretty soon you’ll have slid all the way to liberalism (the dirtiest word imaginable: worse even than “unloving”). Allow for the possibility of some non-scientific terminology in Genesis 1–2, and pretty soon you’ll be asking Richard Dawkins into your heart. Question the traditional assumption of what “male headship” entails and before you know it, all of our superheroes will be replaced with women. Acknowledge that Paul warns against getting drunk but that the Bible nowhere prohibits drinking and—POOF!—the pulpit in your church will be replaced with a beer pong table.

I’m being super snarky (another form of jackassery, without doubt), but I’m just trying to illustrate how illogical and dangerous the slippery slope argument is. And yet the Conservative Jackass lives in constant fear of “if we allow ________, then _________.”

Just as with every type of jackass, this is so unlike Jesus. He said the greatest commands were to love God and love people. The Conservative Jackass minimizes this passage (a command which Jesus said was the most important) and acts as thought the greatest command is to develop and then insist upon perfect doctrine (a command which literally does not exist).

I realize I’m coming down pretty hard here; it’s because I am the Conservative Jackass. The problem isn’t being conservative, it’s being a jackass about it. But good news: the solution isn’t a big mystery. Simply spend time focusing on Jesus. Take a year to read the Gospels more than you read Paul’s letters, for example. Pray that God will allow you to see other people as he sees them. Try prioritizing love over doctrine. The best news of all is that ultimately, the solution is Jesus. He’s the cure for every type of jackass.

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.

Our Wicked Tendency to Use the Bible to Oppress

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Tim Keller says that religious people often use their convictions about truth and morality “as bludgeons to intimidate and control those who share them and to condemn and punish those who do not. To think, ‘We are on the side of truth,’ can give people internal warrant to be abusive to those they believe have heretical opinions.”*

Can you imagine anything worse than abusing other humans in the name of God? Can you think of anything God desires less than people using his words to demean and attack others? And yet it’s a real problem. That’s why Keller wrote those words. And it’s the reason we started this blog in the first place. God gets a bad rap because we are constantly claiming to be speaking for him, and we are constantly jackasses in the process.

Religious people often use their convictions about truth and morality “as bludgeons to intimidate and control those who share them and to condemn and punish those who do not.” – Tim Keller

Before I say what needs to be said here, I want to offer a confession. Many, many, many people throughout history have used religion—including (especially?) Christianity—to demean and oppress. So many have used religion to gain, expand, and preserve power. This is disgusting. I offer that confession on behalf of the religious tradition I stand in. But I also confess personally that I have considered myself to be orthodox, correct, and “on the side of God,” and have thereby hurt other people. I have used the truth to ostracize people. I have used my view of orthodoxy to exclude. When this has happened, it has been ugly. We can’t keep doing this. I’m actively fighting against this tendency in myself.

But we need to be careful to say that this type of abuse-in-the-name-of-God does not mean that God himself or truth itself is abusive. Keller explains that while the Bible and Christianity has often been used a tool of oppression, when we do this we’re fighting against the very nature of God and of Scripture. God has always stood with and fought for the oppressed. Though his people have often tried to lift themselves up by pushing others down, they can only do this by directly violating what God is working to do in this world. The fact that we often quote Scripture in doing this only highlights the monstrosity of it.

Throughout the Bible, God constantly uses second sons, the weaker and less attractive, people from smaller tribes, the smallest and youngest members of a family (e.g., David). We see Jesus lifting up women and tax collectors and sinners. Keller: “It is always the moral, racial, sexual outsider and socially marginalized person who connects to Jesus most readily…God repeatedly refuses to allow his gracious activity to run along the expected lines of worldly influence and privilege. He puts in the center the person whom the world would put on the periphery.”

This is because this is who God is. It’s significant that this is the lot Jesus chose when he became human. It’s not an accident that Jesus was born poor rather than rich, that he fled his home country as a refugee rather than being raised in privilege, that he was crucified as a criminal rather than crowned as a king. Jesus identifies with the oppressed. He was the oppressed.

For all these reasons, Keller points out how absurd and incongruous it is when we use Jesus and the Bible to oppress others: “Of course believing in universal moral truths can be used to oppress others. But what if that absolute truth is a man who died for his enemies, who did not respond in violence to violence but forgave them? How could that story, if it is the center of your life, lead you to take up power and dominate others?”

“We need to loosen our grip on our right to be right about Scripture and instead cling more closely to the stated mission of Scripture and the actual heart of God.”

You have to betray the story itself in order to do this. Richard Bauckham insists that the biblical story is “uniquely unsuited to being an instrument of oppression.” And yet we use it as an instrument of insult, oppression, and exclusion all the time. I frequently see Christians taking the Bible and use it to dunk on other Christians. I see Christians doing this to non-Christians. I see liberals doing this to conservatives and fundamentalists doing it to liberals.

I don’t have all the answers here, but honestly, it sounds pretty simple to me: We need to re-engage with the story that we claim shapes our lives. Because if this story is about a God who loves the outsider and who enters into their pain to elevate them, then we need to repent of our self-exaltation. We need to renounce the use of Scripture as a means of proving how bad and wrong people are. Perhaps we need to loosen our grip on our right to be right about Scripture and instead cling more closely to the stated mission of Scripture and the actual heart of God. Anything less is a betrayal of the God and the story we’re claiming to follow.

*The quotes from Tim Keller in this post are from his excellent book Making Sense of God, particularly Chapter 10: “A Justice that Does Not Create New Oppressors.”

Watching Hamilton Like a Jackass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Keep Christianity Weird

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Søren Kierkegaard argued that no one can be raised a Christian.* Does that sound odd? At the very least it runs counter to what virtually every Christian parent is trying to do with their kids. Our impulse is to make sure our kids understand the faith, to do everything in our power to make sure they love Jesus. It’s a noble goal, yet Kierkegaard says it’s impossible.

I don’t think he’s wrong on this, and the implications go way beyond parenting. Here’s why. Our efforts to teach Christianity to someone else are important, but insufficient. Because until you have a moment in which you see Christianity as fundamentally weird, you’re missing the whole thing.

But it’s not just weirdness. Kierkegaard used the word “offense” and said that offense functions like a gate to Christianity. This is the only entry point. If you waltz right in and everything aligns with everything you’ve ever thought and dreamed, then you missed the gate. You have to come face to face with Jesus as he truly is, and Jesus as he truly is will always offend us in some way. Think about this. Consider Jesus’ demands that we lower ourselves, that we put others first, that we forgive our enemies (something a good American would never do), that we turn the other cheek (something a good American would never do), that we stop judging others, that we repent and die to ourselves (something a human being would never do). Give it ten seconds of thought and you’ll realize how insane it is that we don’t primarily think of Jesus as offensive.

So until you come to this jarring place of realizing that following Jesus means getting over your desires and inclinations in a number of areas, you’re not dealing with the real thing.

Kierkegaard uses the example of gunpowder. Someone went to a lot of trouble to find gunpowder, refine it, and figure out how to best use it. That was an important discovery. But from that point on, that guy was able to hand it on to other people: here’s how it works, here’s how you use it, etc. But Christianity is not like gunpowder. Once discovered, it is not simply handed down. It must be discovered. Again and again. Every generation. Every individual. It’s either discovered or it’s not. If your faith has been handed down but not discovered, then you’re holding a counterfeit.

I actually think this insight is at the heart of a lot of the jackassery that masquerades as Christianity.

“Does your Jesus coincidentally do and believe everything you happen to do and believe? Are all of your enemies his? If so, do you see why this should scare you?”

When was the last time you were surprised by Christianity? The last time anything you read in the Bible struck you as odd or crazy or unreasonable? When was the last time you found yourself doing something where you thought, “Man, I’d never be doing this [serving the homeless, giving away my money, praying for someone I consider a piece of crap, forgiving someone for the 449th time] if Jesus hadn’t commanded and modeled it“? Seriously, have you ever found yourself in that spot?

Or does your view of Jesus coincidentally mean that he would always do exactly what you would naturally do in a given situation?

Does your Jesus agree with every theological, political, and moral opinion you hold? Does your Jesus look at your enemies and consider all of them his enemies as well? Probably right? But do you see why that’s problematic? You can tell yourself this is the case because you have a perfect understanding of the Bible and have thereby brought your inclinations into submission to God’s truth. But you’re lying to yourself.

A Jesus that we perfectly understand and perfectly agree with is not Jesus. A Jesus who never surprises us or challenges what we think and do is not Jesus.

“A Jesus that we perfectly understand and perfectly agree with is not Jesus. A Jesus who never surprises us or challenges what we think and do is not Jesus.”

I’m writing this like a total hypocrite. Like a complete jackass. Because I’m rarely surprised by Jesus. Because I don’t spend enough time with him. Because I find it easier to identify the people who see Jesus the way I want to and then listen to what they tell me about what Jesus would and wouldn’t do.

I’m writing this like I know what I’m talking about, but really, I’m just a pastor that read something incredibly convicting and I know I have to do something with it. And while I try to figure that out, I’m realizing I need to stop seeing specific Twitter feeds or pulpits or associations as the go-to location for finding “what Jesus thinks about ______.” I’m feeling this pull to sit down with all of my conclusions and practices and ask Jesus what he thinks about them. I’m confident that will mean hearing his voice speaking through people I wouldn’t expect him to speak through. That means I’ll have to step out of my echo chamber. And that’s okay. I guess I never really believed Jesus could be confined to such a place anyway.

*[Everything I say about Kierkegaard in this post comes from some pretty common Kierkegaardian themes. I’m pulling these thoughts specifically from Repetition, Sickness Unto Death, and Practice in Christianity.]

The End of Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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