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Read the Gospels ≥ Paul

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Here’s a challenge that would probably do us all some good: Read the Gospels more than, or the same amount as, you read Paul.

That might be a big yawn for some. For others it’s a weird statement to make, because it already fits your tendencies. But for many Christians, this is a big ask. It may even raise some red flags: Is he trying to lead me away from sound doctrine and toward some vague notion of loving everyone?

If this suggestion raises some red flags (it would have for me in the past), then that should raise red flags.

Could we honestly be worried about reading the four books that give detailed attention to the words, works, and ways of Jesus more than or the same amount as we read other books in the Bible? If that sounds suspect, something is wrong.

Think about this: the Gospels comprise just about half of the New Testament. If you leave Acts to the side, the Gospels contain 10,000 words more than all of the New Testament letters combined (including Revelation). The Gospels are more than twice as much material as all of Paul’s letters combined. These are all ways of saying that the material in the Gospels is an emphasis for the New Testament.

“If the suggestion to read the Gospels at least as much as you read Paul raises some red flags (it would have for me in the past), then that should raise red flags.”

And yet, Paul has been a major focus in most Protestant Evangelical churches. Without hard data here, I don’t hesitate to say that Paul gets preached more often, written about more often, and is given priority in the formulation of our doctrines and emphases. That’s not bad, but it skews our thinking and approach. Read Paul. Without a doubt. But I want to issue a challenge for us:

What if we read the Gospels at least as much as we read Paul? I’ve done that over the last couple of years, and it’s been formative. I don’t think it’s changed any of my core beliefs, but it has shaped my emphases and made me more patient, gracious, and tuned in to people. More concerned about love than doctrine. Maybe it’s just me. But Jesus is the cure for jackass. So it could only help.

Set yourself a goal to read through one Gospel per month for the next few months. Or alternate between a Gospel and an epistle for a while. Try reading nothing but the Gospels for a whole year (I’m a pastor, I promise it’s allowed). This isn’t some command or trick. It’s just a means of recalibrating. This should lead us all to be more in tune with Jesus, which should lead us back into Paul’s writing with fresh insights. This is how it’s worked for me, and I pray it does for you as well.

All In

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

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

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

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

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

Do you see the problem here? What arrogance!

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

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

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

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

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

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

If We Cared More, We’d Fight Less

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You might think we fight so much because we all care too much. But I’m convinced it’s the opposite. And it’s a Kierkegaard quote that makes me think this. In one of his journals, he wrote:

“What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not about what I must know… It is a question of understanding my destiny, of seeing what God really wants me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. And what use here would it be if I were to discover a so-called objective truth, or if I worked my way through the philosophers’ systems and were able to call them all to account on request, point out inconsistencies in every single circle? …What use would it be if truth were to stand there before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I acknowledged it or not, and inducing an anxious shudder rather than trusting devotion? Certainly I won’t deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that one can also be influenced by it, but then it must be taken up alive in me, and this is what I now see as the main point. It is this my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water.”

Kierkegaard: “What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not about what I must know…to find a truth which is for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”

Kierkegaard makes me wonder if a major problem in our discourteous theological debates is that we don’t care enough. Maybe that sounds crazy. Our debates seem passionate. The level of disagreement and our unwillingness to budge or consider where someone else is coming from seem to be symptoms of caring too much. But I wonder…

Maybe our problem is that we treat the truth as a thing that “stands there before us, cold and naked.” In this paradigm, the truth is something purely external, something set off to the side. It can be seen, acknowledged, assented to, but it’s not within us, doing the difficult work of transforming us. If the truth is like a list of rules printed out and displayed on a wall, then it can be applied and wielded legalistically. Weaponistically. In this model, we look at the truth externally as we sit around referencing “common sense” and criticizing everyone because “only an idiot could see things differently.”

Here is precisely where Kierkegaard’s pursuit could help us so much. Because truth is not meant merely to produce an “anxious shudder” within us. It’s meant to produce “trusting devotion.” It’s not about finding the cold, dead list of words that we will judge everyone by. It’s about finding a truth that so shapes our internal lives that it is true objectively, and also subjectively. It is true in reality, but—significantly—it is also true FOR ME. That’s not relativism, that’s heart-appropriated, deep-seated ownership of the truth. It’s the refusal to be a “hearer of the Word” only, but rather a “doer of the Word” (see James 1:22).

What if we stopped policing comments and diving into debates over matters where the truth has not so purchased our souls that we are being shaped by it at the deepest level? What if we disciplined ourselves to have fewer opinions and instead threw ourselves into growing more passionate for the realities of Jesus and his gospel?

“I suspect that much of the vitriol we spew and encounter over theological debates comes from a deep-seated insecurity.”

I honestly think this would change the Church. I suspect that much of the vitriol we spew and encounter over theological debates comes from a deep-seated insecurity. We’re not confident in our view of the truth, we’re worried that someone else is going to see things differently or devalue our perspective, so we lash out because we’re afraid a simple explanation of our beliefs won’t be enough. But so what if it’s not enough? Why do we need everyone to agree with us? The answer is that we don’t. If the truth matters so much to us in a certain area that it has changed and is changing us, we can share that truth winsomely without the desperation and aggression that characterizes the fearful.

I have always loved a certain line in Francis Schaeffer’s book Art and the Bible. After detailing the biblical case for making art that doesn’t need to be overtly religious, he says “When you begin to understand this sort of thing, suddenly you can begin to breathe, and all the terrible pressure that has been put on us by making art something less than spiritual suddenly begins to disappear. And with this truth comes beauty and with this beauty a freedom before God.” He’s talking to artists, but I think it fits here as well. When we begin to see the ways a certain truth is true not just in general, but specifically in me, then there comes the freedom of confidence and security.

We need to start caring more so we can start fighting less.

Kierkegaard: Love Believes All Things

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In his brilliant book Works of Love, Søren Kierkegaard lays out a concept that would absolutely revolutionize our lives, our churches, and our society. It’s simple, but the impact would be profound. And it’s simply this:

LOVE BELIEVES ALL THINGS

That’s it, just a phrase from 1 Corinthians 13:7. But if we actually took it seriously, life would never be the same.

It’s common for us to be afraid of getting someone wrong. We hesitate with our love. It takes us a while to warm up to someone, we try not to really invest in a person until we know they’re not going to let us down. I know this reality very well. I’m pretty gregarious in general, but I’m suspicious of a lot of people. I’m afraid to think too highly of a person until I have a reason to raise my view of him or her.

Kierkegaard affirms that we’re right to be afraid of getting someone wrong, but he says we’re fearful in the wrong direction. We shouldn’t be afraid of thinking too highly of a person. We should be terrified of thinking too little of them. If you think too highly of a person and treat them well, then you find out they’re actually a jerk, then you’re likely to get hurt. But if you think too little of someone, then find out they’re an amazing, loving person—what then? You’ve sidelined someone unnecessarily. You’ve limited their potential. You’ve robbed yourself of an opportunity and you’ve diminished that person.

Maybe you’re not convinced yet. If this doesn’t sound right to you, it’s probably because you, like me, have a jacked up view of love.

“We should be more afraid of thinking too little than of thinking too highly of a person. If I think too highly of them I might get hurt. If I think too little of them, I demean their humanity and am not loving.”

Kierkegaard urges us to see it like this: It’s impossible for someone to steal something you’re trying to gift to them. If you’re trying to put money in someone’s pocket, and that person grabs the money and walks away with it, have you been robbed? They may feel like they’re making off with your money, but you’ve accomplished your purpose. You wanted to give them something, and they took it.

This is not how we tend to think about love.

We often love because we want to be loved in return. When we love someone and that love is not reciprocated, we feel like it was a waste, or that we’ve been taken advantage of, or that we made a mistake. But for Kierkegaard, love is something we owe to the people around us (Rom. 13:8). It’s something we are called to give at every opportunity, and the goal of love is blessing the neighbor standing before us, not receiving back what is being given away.

So if you love someone, and they take your love and only hurt you in return, has your love not done what it set out to do? You can’t be robbed if you’re trying to give it away. You can only be duped in loving someone if you were expecting something in return.

This is easy enough to do with the people we are naturally inclined to love. Kierkegaard calls this preferential love, and at its worst, it’s just a form of self-love (meaning that we’re doing it for the benefit we receive). It’s much more difficult to love a stranger or enemy without expecting anything in return. But is this not Jesus’ message in the parable of the Good Samaritan? Don’t forget that Jesus told this parable in response to the question: “And who is my neighbor?” And don’t forget that would-be Jesus-followers asked him THAT question in response to his command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

If your goal is to love the person who stands before you, then you won’t stop loving them because they mistreat you in return.

“Love does not assume the worst. It simply believes that each person is worthy of love. It believes that each person is capable of love. It’s not afraid of being duped, because its only goal is to give itself away.”

That’s powerful. And it would change everything. Think of that in terms of the people living in your own house. But don’t stop there. Think of in terms of the people living on your street.

Now think of it in terms of the people you meet in the midst of theology debates, Facebook quarrels, and Twitter threads. Think of it with regard to the people you consider theological off base. (Do you love someone because you think you can convince them to change their view, or do you love them regardless of their theological views?) Think of it with regard to people living in the U.S. illegally. Think of it in terms of people you dislike. Do you love liberals AND conservatives? Calvinists AND Arminians? Baptists AND Methodists? Evangelicals AND Atheists? Donald Trump AND Barak Obama? The conservative community AND the LGBT community?

Love believes all things. It’s not suspicious of everyone. It’s not assuming the worst of everyone. It’s not looking for ways that everyone else can serve its interests. It simply believes that each person is worthy of love. And it believes that each person is capable of love. It’s not afraid of being duped, because its only goal is to give itself away.

Imagine how this one simple concept could transform all of our interactions.

Francis Chan’s New Book on Unity Is His Most Important Yet

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Francis Chan is releasing a new book on April 1: Until Unity. I’m saying it’s his most important book yet, and I know how big of a statement that is. Crazy Love has been hugely influential in helping so many recover from Lukewarm Christianity. Forgotten God has helped many conservative Christians—including myself—rediscover the person and the power of the Holy Spirit. But Until Unity is hugely important in a way that I think will have an even greater impact. Here’s why.

This book starts with Francis doing what many of us have done recently: He lifts his head, looks around, and observes the staunch and growing divisions in so many areas of our society. While it’s pretty gross out here in a lot of spaces, Francis is most grieved with the division within the church.

Of all people, Christians should know the importance of unity. As we’ve been saying for a while now, if you start talking about unity these days, you’re immediately dismissed as liberal, or as fluffy, or as someone who doesn’t take the Bible seriously. But Francis overturns all of those lazy and inaccurate accusations. How? By simply listing some of the many Scriptures that directly call for unity. How, he wonders, can someone who insists on taking a literal interpretation of Bible passages about avoiding division and preserving unity be condemned as unbiblical? There is a sense in many branches of the church right now that anyone who disagrees with you about something you consider “biblical” can and should be dismissed and warned against. But Francis in effect argues that because there are many biblical commands to be united, to avoid slander, to not be quarrelsome, etc., the case could be made that the person who is insisting on pursuing unity is the biblical conservative.

Until Unity is certainly not a plea to ignore doctrine. Francis is as strong on biblical truth as he’s ever been (which is very strong). Honestly, I’ve never met anyone as prone to take Scripture at face value and to respond in obedience to a literal interpretation of the Bible as Francis is. This includes passages like “sell your possessions and give to the poor,” which is a passage that his critics tend to dismiss as figurative or situational. Rather than dismissing doctrine in order to find a light weight version of unity in the church, Francis calls us to a deeper theological unity.

We all have things we are passionate about. That’s as it should be. A lot of disunity comes because we’re passionate about these different areas. What if we could acknowledge each other’s passions and stay united around the gospel itself, around the mission that Jesus gave us to make disciples, around the strongest emphases of Scripture? Why should we expect to agree with every member of our churches on every matter of doctrine? Unity amidst diversity is actually something we should strive for, and Francis paints a compelling picture of how this should look.

In one of the strongest sections of the book, Francis unpacks Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that his followers would all be one—in the same way that Jesus and the Father are one!—and that this unity amongst Christians would serve as evidence to the world that Jesus really was sent from God. Francis notes all the strategies and efforts we make to help people see Jesus for who he really is, meanwhile we all ignore the one strategy that Jesus actually gave us: be united and people will believe that Jesus was sent from the Father!

While we may be prone to see the divided nature of the church as a point of sadness, an inconvenience, or a source of frustration and pain, Francis calls division what it is: sin. He calls us throughout to repent of the pride, selfishness, and lack of love that leads us into increasing disunity.

If Jackass Theology makes you nervous, I understand. We really are trying to call everyone to take Jesus and Scripture more seriously by loving as Jesus loved, but to many this has sounded like a call to disregard Scripture. If that’s you, I highly recommend you read Until Unity. Francis makes a compelling case for a literal reading of the biblical commands to be united. And he goes to great lengths to help us understand how this works out in practice. He even talks about the friendly fire he’s received when the Christian community has attacked him over the years.

I’m certain this is his most important book yet. It will draw you deeper into Scripture and help you live more fully in the love of God that comes to us through Jesus.

How the Church Can Help a Deconstructing Generation

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Last week I wrote about the elephant in the room of most evangelical churches: Gen-Z and Millennials are persistent in deconstructing. If you haven’t read that yet, it may be helpful to start there.

In this post I want to offer some thoughts on what we as the Church can do to help those who are deconstructing. Rather than demonizing them and kicking them in the butt on their way out the door, I suggest we care for them, listen to them, and learn from them. I’m convinced that the way we respond to this deconstruction movement will be vitally important for what comes next.

I can see in myself and in the generations just above me (I’m part of a group that has recently been given the unfortunate title “Geriatric Millennials”) a desire to fine tune the faith, get all of our doctrine and practice just right, and then hand that complete setup to the next generations with the warning: “Don’t touch anything or you’ll mess it up.” But as Søren Kierkegaard warned his generation, every generation must begin again for themselves. A generation can’t ever fully “inherit” what their ancestors figured out. Because faith must be wrestled with. It must be owned. If Gen-Z and Millennials were to simply take the churches, doctrines, and practices from their ancestors without making any adjustments, taking great care that they must do everything just as instructed by their predecessors, that would be living in a dead, lifeless faith.

Throughout history we can see generation after generation swinging the theological and ecclesiological pendulum back and forth. One generation overemphasizes doctrinal certainty, so the next pushes the pendulum back toward experiential encounters with God. Inevitably they push the pendulum too far, so the next generation must push it back again. We’re tempted to see the goal as getting the pendulum in the precise center so that all future generations can stay balanced without redoing the hard work of centering the pendulum. But it’s not about answering all of the questions and establishing all of the doctrines with precision. It’s about each generation taking ownership and exerting all of the effort required to swing the pendulum. That’s the work of faith, and each generation will have to do what it must to pursue a meaningful encounter with Jesus.

This means that the churches, structures, practices, and emphases that Gen-Z and Millennials create will likely look different than the ones we’ve grown used to. Is that okay? If it’s not okay, we’re likely to end up with churches that resemble religious museums in which every important thing is behind glass—to be admired and viewed but never touched and certainly never used for any new purposes.

To my fellow Geriatric Millennials and to the generations who have come before me, I urge us all to pray for those coming after us. Let’s not let them simply come after us. Let’s learn from them now. Let’s hear their concerns and have honest conversations. Let’s do what Francis Schaeffer modeled so well and offer “honest answers for honest questions.” I’m certain those younger than us can help us deconstruct some things that REALLY need to be deconstructed. I’m also certain that those younger than us can use our humble and reciprocal mentorship. We can help them see why the Bible means so much to us and help them avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In return, they’ll likely help us see that some of the things we’ve considered to be “baby” are actually “bathwater.” And vice versa.

“The churches, structures, and emphases that Gen-Z and Millennials create will look different than the ones we’re used to. If not, we’re likely to end up with churches that resemble religious museums.”

I encourage all of us to be praying for the future of Christianity. There are some ugly things in our churches, and some beautiful things as well. The current season is ripe for building something new and exciting. The current political landscape doesn’t give me much hope for seeing something new and life-giving emerge. But the Church ought to be different. I believe God will break through some of the negative trends and do something powerful. I trust the Spirit of God to move and lead people who believe differently than I do. And I trust him to move and lead me. He has something exciting ahead, I’m certain of it. Let’s go there together, with tons of humility and a passionate pursuit of Jesus and everything he’s calling us into.

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.  

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.

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.

Tozer’s Brass Knuckles

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A.W. Tozer, who lived between 1897 and 1963, wrote a revealing description of the theological climate at the time and gave an inspiring alternative. I’ll include his words below and then briefly explain why I think we desperately need Tozer’s words today.

“We who are the fundamentalists and the ‘orthodox’ Christians have gained the reputation of being ‘tigers’—great fighters for the truth. Our hands are heavy with callouses from the brass knuckles we have worn as we beat on the liberals. Because of the meaning of our Christian faith for a lost world, we are obligated to stand up for the truth and to contend for the faith when necessary.

“But there is a better way, even in our dealing with those who are liberals in faith and theology. We can do a whole lot more for them by being Christlike than we can by figuratively beating them over the head with our knuckles.

“The liberals tell us they cannot believe the Bible. They tell us they cannot believe that Jesus Christ was the unique Son of God. At least most of them are honest about it. Moreover, I am certain we are not going to make them bow the knee by cursing them. If we are led by the Spirit of God and if we show forth the love of God this world needs, we become the ‘winsome saints.’” (A.W. Tozer, Whatever Happened to Worship?, Camp Hill: Christian Publications, 1985, 10-11).

I find Tozer’s metaphor of “beating on the liberals” with brass knuckles descriptive and helpful. Please notice that Tozer is not calling for an embrace of liberalism. He clearly disagrees with the theological liberalism he encountered. What he’s doing is lamenting the conservative, or as he self-described, the fundamentalist response to that. Had he and his fellow conservatives been standing up for truth or calling for a return to the Bible? Not so much. They had grabbed their brass knuckles and had been attacking those they saw as only enemies.

Here’s something I found fascinating in this description. Look at the way Tozer described the “liberalism” of his day: “The liberals tell us they cannot believe the Bible. They tell us they cannot believe that Jesus Christ was the unique Son of God.” This is what liberal meant then (pick up a book on twentieth century philosophy—this type of theology was and is a whole thing). But note carefully that this liberalism is very different than what I see most conservative evangelicals spitting on as “liberal” today. At this cultural moment, I most often see the term “liberal” disdainfully applied to: churches that “overemphasize” grace or unity, churches that allow women to preach, Christians that take a stand against racism or who try to care for refugees and immigrants, Christians who consider themselves democrats, etc.

My point is that when you look at Tozer’s definition of liberal, the issues we’re seeing as indicative of liberalism are pretty minor. I guess I’m basically calling us wimps. If this is all it takes for us to dismiss someone as liberal, we’re not very thick skinned. But notice this: Tozer is calling us to be “winsome saints” with his more intense, more historically heterodox version of liberal. How much easier should it be to treat those currently deemed “liberal” with grace and love? On a similar note, by our current definition of “liberal,” Tozer’s argument here for being “winsome saints” who emphasize the love of God would be dismissed as “liberal,” despite his self-description in this quotation at a fundamentalist!

I also love that Tozer says our hands are calloused from the brass knuckles. In other words, we’ve handed out a ton of wounds, but we ourselves have been altered in the process. Our “opponents” bear the wounds, but we bear the callouses. Here’s his explanation of what it would look like for us to begin living as “winsome saints”:

“The strange and wonderful thing about it is that truly winsome and loving saints do not even know about their attractiveness. The great saints of past eras did not know they were great saints. If someone had told them, they would not have believed it, but those around them knew that Jesus was living His life in them.

“I think we join the winsome saints when God’s purposes in Christ become clear to us. We join them when we begin to worship God because He was who He is.”

His answer is Christlikeness. His call is for us to worship. When we do, we find it easier to lay down our brass knuckles and to begin treating the people around us in ways that make us look more like Jesus rather than less.