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How We Disguise Self-Love as Love for Others

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

Here’s Kierkegaard’s summary:

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

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

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

Kierkegaard calls this type of loving small-mindedness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorial Day’s Lesson for Our Polarized World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clanging Cymbal Theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 11:11–13)

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

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

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.

Kierkegaard’s Unforgivable Sin

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In one of Søren Kierkegaard’s later works, For Self-Examination, in which he took more direct aim at what he saw as the deficient Christianity of his day, he asks us to consider the following parable.

There was a king who issued a command to all of his subjects. This was a big deal and everyone knew it. They all responded to this serious situation like this:

“A remarkable change comes over them all: they all become interpreters, the officers become authors, every blessed day there comes out an interpretation more learned than the last, more acute, more elegant, more profound, more ingenious, more wonderful, More Charming, and more wonderfully charming.”

If you want a sense of how seriously everyone took the command, just look at the mounting piles of literature exploring the command from all angles. People even began writing reviews and critical pieces on this initial body of literature. Everyone was busy with the king’s command.

And yet.

“Everything became interpretation—but no one read the royal command with a view to acting in accordance with it.”

Does that sound familiar? They took the command seriously. How so? Not by obeying it, but by writing about it and discussing it.

Keep in mind that Kierkegaard was writing to Danish Christians in the early 1800s. This is a recurring problem for Christians. We take God and his direction for human beings and for his church so seriously that we write books, commentaries, and blogs. Then we start writing books, commentaries, and blogs on those works. Ironically, there are (really helpful!) commentaries on Kierkegaard’s works as well. No one can accuse of us ignoring God’s commands because there’s a huge body of literature in which we work to get. it. right.

And yet.

Do we imagine that when Jesus told us to love our neighbors he wanted us to write a bunch of books or blog posts about that statement rather than—hear me out—actually loving our actual neighbors? There are many commands in the Bible. But we have a tendency to write, preach, and group-study about them rather than simply obeying them. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t write, preach, or do group studies. It’s simply to ask a more fundamental question: why did God tell us any of this in the first place?

“We take God and commands so seriously that we write books, commentaries, and blogs. But is this what it means to take his commands seriously? Do we find ourselves putting his commands into action?”

Kierkegaard finishes the parable by speaking about what the king can and can’t forgive. The king actually turns out to be very gracious. He can probably forgive the fact that people weren’t obeying the command. Even if the people all got together and signed a petition asking the king to be patient with them as they failed to obey the command or even asking him to abolish the command because it was too hard to obey—even then the king could probably forgive them.

But for Kierkegaard, there is an unforgivable sin here: The people decided on their own what it meant to take the command seriously. In other words, when they chose to act as though taking the command seriously meant producing literature and discussion rather than obedience, this was when they went too far.

I’m convicted and challenged by this parable. I need to hear it. Pick any command in Scripture: love your neighbor, weep with those who weep, pray for those who persecute you, preach the gospel, outdo one another in showing love, etc. Maybe we’ll decide to take it seriously. But we also have to allow the king to determine what it means to take it seriously. In Kierkegaard’s parable, you could devote your whole life to the command (by becoming an interpreter or author) and yet never have engaged the command itself. May this not be true of us.

Let’s step outside of the loop of endless commentary and discussion, step away from our apparent need to police each other’s literature on any one of these commands, and take any of these commands that God gives us seriously in the way he desires. By obeying.

Faith for the Deconstructing

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The elephant in most evangelical churches across the country is that many Christians are “deconstructing.” This development is being talked about in some spaces, but many Christians are still unaware (a reality that has sad implications) or dismissive about the trend. Deconstructing means something a little different for everyone experiencing it (either first or second hand), but in general, it refers to growing disenchanted with at least some of the beliefs you grew up with. And, this trend seems to be most prominent among Millennials and Gen-Z.

I want to start with a strong word of affirmation: if you’re deconstructing, I don’t doubt that that’s a good thing. That may be a surprising thing to hear a pastor say, but as John Mark Comer points out, many elements of our faith NEED to be deconstructed, and Jesus himself led people in a version of deconstruction (“You have heard that it was said, but I say to you…”). Did you grow up believing that anyone who questions a hyper-literal six-day creationist reading of Genesis 1 and 2 is caught in a satanic agenda? That should be deconstructed. Were you taught to hold your nose at anyone who sins in ways that differ from the ways you regularly sin? Deconstruct that.

I’ll go a bit further. Have you found yourself questioning God’s existence or goodness? Have you been doubting how the Bible can be considered God’s word and fully accurate? Do you wonder on occasion or regularly if Jesus actually cares about what you’re going through? If you answered yes to any of those questions, chances are you’ve been pressured by the culture of shame and fear we cultivate in many churches to simply keep silent and pretend to yourself and to everyone else that you don’t have those questions. But I’m here to tell you that if these questions are forming in your mind, you should find healthy and safe ways to ask these questions legitimately. To wrestle with them in earnest. Don’t let anyone make you feel unspiritual or immature for asking questions like this.

If you’re feeling like you’re not allowed to be disappointed when your prayers go unanswered and apparently unheard, or to question what you’ve always been taught, I encourage you to read Psalm 44 slowly and carefully. Pay attention to what’s being expressed and consider the fact that these questions, complaints, and accusations are recorded IN Scripture AS Scripture. That’s a big deal. Don’t try to be more biblical than the Bible. If the sons of Korah are allowed to wrestle with God like this in the actual Bible, then so are you.

“The elephant in most evangelical churches across the country is that many Christians are deconstructing. If you find yourself deconstructing, I doubt that’s a bad thing.”

I also encourage you to think carefully about WHAT SPECIFICALLY you’re questioning and WHAT SPECIFICALLY you find yourself rejecting. If you’re turned off to the concept of church because you see tons of churches covering up child abuse, sexual abuse, and institutional bullying in order to protect their reputations or their leaders—well, so am I. But I’m here to tell you that the Church will be better off if you’re able to work with us to weed these things out of the Church rather than walking away. (But also: if you need to walk way, walk away. You don’t need to stay in a place where you’ve experienced abuse just out of some vague sense of obligation.) If you’re skeptical of Christian teachers ignoring the genres of the Bible and using selectively literal interpretations of certain passages (say, for instance, the book of Revelation) as a test of who is in and who is out—I’m with you there, too. (Here’s a guide I put together years ago for reading the Bible in light of its literary genres—a practice that could sort out a lot of what is dividing us these days.)

You might be afraid of being too honest with yourself, afraid of where you’ll end up if you let go of too many of the things you’ve held onto. I empathize on that front. I find some comfort in this regard in the fiction writing of Flannery O’Connor. She was a Catholic who wrote in the mid 20th century. Her stories are jarring, sad, and often violent. Yet she insisted that her faith was running throughout all of her stories. Often her characters would speak against Jesus (like Hazel Motes, who passionately preached “the Church of God Without Christ.”) But Flannery insisted that these characters were not godless. She said that their virtue lay not so much in their firm faith, but in the fact that they were never able to fully leave Jesus behind. She described Jesus moving between the trees in the backs of their minds. Or to borrow a phrase from the poet Christian Wiman, Jesus was like a thorn in their brains that they could never fully ignore.

Perhaps that’s all you’ve got left. You know your beliefs are not what they used to be, but you also can’t bring yourself to leave everything behind. Maybe you’ve given up on the Church but you’re still drawn to Jesus. I can say with confidence that that’s not nothing. And actually, it’s a lot. A faith that has been dismantled, stripped of distraction, and honed down to its essence has got to be better than an intact system that is problematic and easy to discard. That kernel of faith may be just the building block to begin from.

I’d encourage you to build in honesty with people who are willing to engage you in honest conversation. However, don’t just hash it out completely on your own, or only with a bunch of disillusioned people. See if you can find some people whose faith you respect, even if you don’t intend for your faith to look exactly like theirs. Don’t stop asking questions. If you deconstructed by allowing yourself to ask questions, don’t pretend you’re not still drawn to Jesus, Scripture, or some idealistic version of Church that you have yet to see in real life (if that is indeed the case). Let that same impulse to question and dream draw you back to some version of reconstruction. You don’t have to rush, and you should be honest, but it’s too easy to pull things apart without ever doing the hard work of putting something back together. I don’t want to be dismissive of what you’re experiencing, but I know we will all be better off if this deconstructing generation finds a way to put in the hard work of helping us swing the pendulum of what Christianity is meant to be.

For more on that, and on what the existing Church can do to help a deconstructing generation, I’ll write again next Monday.

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.

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.

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.

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.