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The End of Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even Trump Has the Spirit

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According to John Calvin, even Donald Trump has the Spirit. And that goes for Mussolini, Mueller, and Ronald McDonald.

If you’re thinking, “I thought only Christians have the Spirit,” keep reading. Calvin doesn’t completely disagree with that sentence, but he has an important clarification.

The problem we’re trying to address here is that we can all be jackasses. This leads us to dismiss and demean other human beings. We have this hard-wired tendency to equate the Spirit with ourselves and the people who are very similar to us. It’s easy to see the Spirit of God working in someone who is all about the things you’re all about. But what happens when the Spirit is working outside of the boundaries you carefully maintain?

John Calvin insisted that we ought to learn from and appreciate the insights and skills of everyone around us. This goes for those you admire and those you don’t. It goes for Christians and non-Christians. This is a bit surprising, perhaps, given Calvin’s emphasis on human depravity. But he insists that the knowledge and abilities of human beings—including unbelievers—are gifts they received from the Spirit:

“Whenever we come upon these matters [skill and understanding] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn [deride, demean, blaspheme] and reproach the Spirit himself.”

– John Calvin
“If the Spirit is the sole fountain of truth, we shall not despise the truth wherever it appears, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit. For by holding his gifts in slight esteem, we blaspheme the Spirit.” – John Calvin

Did you catch that? Not only do we need to acknowledge that everyone—including non-Christians—have “that admirable light of truth shining in them,” but we had better be careful to heed and appreciate their insights lest we blaspheme the Spirit. Jesus told us that anyone who speaks against him will be forgiven, but the unforgivable sin is “blaspheming against the Holy Spirit” (Luke 12:10). There’s debate about what that means, but let’s agree it’s a strong warning. John Calvin isn’t Jesus, but in this passage, he’s connecting the demeaning of another person’s gifts with the unforgivable sin.

“We cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects [law, philosophy, medicine, and math] without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts.”

– John Calvin
“Shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude.” – John Calvin

The word “ingratitude” is important. Calvin is saying that the Spirit of God has placed many gifts all around you. He is trying to show something to you, to give something to you. So when you look at what another person has to offer and refuse it (often in the name of being “spiritual” or “biblical”), you are being a g*sh d@rn ingrate.

If the Spirit is the source of the engineer’s knowledge and skill, the artist’s aesthetic sensibilities and prophetic voice, and the philosopher’s quest for the truth, then we had better admire what we see, receive, and learn. Regardless of whether or not you agree with that person theologically. Regardless of the degree of heresy or paganism you associate with them.

We’ll all have to apply this to whatever people we have a hard time with. As an example and a confession, I have a hard time with Donald Trump (hence the title). It’s okay for me to disagree with many of his policies and be grieved by many of his tweets. But if I treat him as less than human and dismiss everything about him, I’m the one resisting the Spirit. And I don’t want to be that kind of jackass. Who do you need to apply Calvin’s quote to?

If we fail to rejoice in the beauty and truth created and taught by the people around us, then Calvin tells us to be ashamed of our ungrateful selves. The “pagans” don’t even demean the Spirit in this way because they see a divine source behind these good things.

When you talk to a person who is very different than you—even someone you might be tempted to view as an enemy on some front—can you still hear the voice of the Spirit? If not, you demean the Spirit of God, from whom all of God’s good and perfect gifts flow. Don’t be an ingrate. Glorify God for all of the truth and beauty that his Spirit has brought into this world from all sides.

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.  

Martin Luther’s Potty Mouth

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“You are a crude ass, and an ass you will remain!”


-Martin Luther (Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, pg. 281 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41)

You seriously need to check out the Luther Insulter. I find it hilarious. If you are having a bad day, feeling masochistic, or looking for creative ways to insult friends, check out this site. (Please use it responsibly.) 

This isn’t the Luther you read about in text books, or the celebrated snippets Christian children parrot on Reformation Day (aka, Halloween). It’s the part of the Reformation that is a little too messy for our modern-day church. The part most of us never even knew about.

So what are we to make of Martin Luther? What are we to think of his potty mouth and his insults? Was he a jackass too?

Creating change is messy.

Could Luther have created change without the insults? Maybe, but he didn’t. God used a jackass like Luther to accomplish his work, and it wasn’t pretty or neat.

Luther certainly wasn’t Jesus. But while we are on the topic, Jesus hurled a few insults too, and so did John the Baptist (insert brood of viper motif) as they brought about the biggest change of all time—THE GOSPEL. It got messy, like, crucifixion messy. So change isn’t always pretty, but when change is needed it’s worth fighting for, maybe sometimes it requires some frank speech and a little name calling. Maybe other times change happens despite the frank speech and name calling. 

“Could Martin Luther have created change without such shocking insults? Maybe, but he didn’t. God used a jackass like Luther to accomplish his work, and it wasn’t pretty or neat.”

To the extent that Luther attacked other human beings in vitriol, I don’t condone him. But those of us in the Protestant tradition all acknowledge that God used a flawed yet passionate person at that moment in history.

Jen Hatmaker recently posted an excerpt on Instagram from the book she is writing:

“My beliefs were challenged because they were the byproduct of an obviously corrupt system, historically dead last to the table of confession and repentance. My beliefs were challenged because the same people were always in charge and they hung pictures of White Jesus in my Sunday School rooms. My beliefs were challenged because while promising life abundant, they broke hearts and trust and bodies and families with a clear conscience. My beliefs were challenged because, had I held to them as dictated, I would have no ministry, no authority, no agency over my own God-given gifts. My beliefs were challenged because the missionary culture I grew up in turned out to be colonization. My beliefs were challenged because they shamed girls and victims but protected men and abusers. My beliefs were challenged because they sentenced LGBTQ people to traumatic conversion therapy, forced celibacy, public humiliation, and ultimately suicide at seven times the normal rate. My beliefs were challenged because they weren’t producing many disciples, mostly just gatekeepers and defectors.”

That’s pretty messy. You may hate it or love it, but we can all agree it’s not neutral. Neutral doesn’t change much.

There are things in the current Christian culture that I believe are compromising the spread of the Gospel and the joy of the gospel. I’m not talking about megachurch culture, loose doctrine, or politicians. It comes from our infighting, which directs our energies at one another, and shifts our eyes away from our Heavenly Father, who desperately wants all of his kids to come home to a family meal.

What the Insults of Jesus, Luther, and Hatmaker Have in Common

They are directing their negative energy and insults at hypocrisy in the church, as a means to bring everything back to THE MAIN POINT. I truly believe this is the heart of Jesus, Luther, Hatmaker, and so many other leaders who are trying to bring about change. Of course, Jesus’ harsh words were also on point; Luther and Hatmaker are human and thus guaranteed to veer into jackassery at some point. 

I’m not comparing Jen Hatmaker to the Son of God or even the father of the Reformation. She is simply an example that change—no matter the decade, gender, or context—can be messy. I’m not sure that is a bad thing. Nor do I need to agree with everything a human does and says to derive value from their faithful battle against the status quo. I don’t even always agree with everything I say.

I’ll leave you with one more insult courtesy of Martin Luther. 

If you don’t agree with everything I say in this post…

“You are like the ostrich, the foolish bird which thinks it is wholly concealed when it gets its neck under a branch. Or like small children, who hold their hands in front of their eyes and seeing nobody imagine that no one sees them either. In general, you are so stupid that it makes one feel like vomiting.”


-Martin Luther (Against the Heavenly Prophets, pg. 186 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 40.)

LOVE YA!

-Ryan

Swing the Pendulum!

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If the pendulum on a clock doesn’t swing, then the time on the clock doesn’t move forward. Pendulums are all about motion.

In the Church, in theology, and in society as a whole we tend to be pendulum swingers. We get upset when we see an overemphasis or an overreaction. So we begin tugging back against the pendulum to solve the issue. Before long, we’ve overcorrected and someone else has to swing the pendulum back again. This ticking and tocking marks the movement of history.

Think of Martin Luther and Reformation. The Reformers were worried the Catholic church was worshipping statues and paintings. So when the Protestants gained control of a church, they would often pull the statues, paintings, and other priceless artifacts out of the church and literally burn or smash them. In this way, they earned the title of “iconoclasts.” 

Looking back, Francis Schaeffer explains, “To some of us the statues and paintings…may be art objects, and perhaps we wish that the people of the Reformation had taken these works and put them in a warehouse for a hundred years or so. Then they could have been brought out and put in a museum. But at that moment of history this would have been too much to ask! To the men and women of that time, these were images to worship…Thus, in the pressure of that historic moment, they sometimes destroyed the images.”

Swinging the pendulum was their real-time response to something they saw as a huge problem within the Church. We could come up with thousands of examples without breaking a sweat: One group forbids drinking, so another swings the pendulum back towards boozy culture. One group begins to equate lack of swearing with loving Jesus, so another starts “swearing for Jesus.” Some get too emotional in worship so others swing things towards the cerebral. We’re constantly swinging the pendulum back and forth. Correcting and overcorrecting.

But Pendulum swinging gets a bad rap.

Our goal seems to be arriving at some perfectly balanced equilibrium where everyone knows precisely how much to emphasize each thing. No one needs to be challenged. Everything just hums along, moving forward without any problems. It sounds nice, right?

Or does it?

Think of the scene in A Wrinkle in Time when the kids find themselves in a world of precise uniformity. Suburban kids all stand around their suburban cul-de-sac bouncing their balls precisely in time until their mothers come out in unison and call their kids in for lunch. It’s super creepy! Why? Because they value conformity above all else, which makes everyone mindless. Every person in this town is essentially a zombie—they look alive, but they’re really not.

A Wrinkle In Time GIF by Walt Disney Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

Motion is a defining characteristic of living things. No motion, no life. So if we get to a place where we’re no longer moving or growing or changing, we’re living in a dead zone. Think of what makes a dead church dead: Everything is always done the same way by the same people over and over again. 

A pendulum gets swung because a generation looks at what their parents did and decides course correction is necessary. So they gather their creative energies and work towards change. This movement ensures that the next generation will have to step in and correct some things as well. But this is healthy. 

Because what we really want is for each generation to encounter Jesus anew. We want them to stand face to face with him. To experience him. To ask what he wants with them. And as they do this, we want them to strike out with purpose and vision.

“A real encounter with Jesus will lead each generation to interact with him in ways the previous generations never thought necessary. And that’s how we maintain life.”

It’s easy to think that the version of Christianity we’ve arrived at is the final word. We’ve finally debugged the whole thing. This is the final draft. But just like a designer’s saved finals (Project_final_final_final_final_v5.pdf), there is always more work to be done. That’s because Jesus is living. And a real encounter with Jesus will lead each generation to interact with him in ways the previous generations never thought necessary. And that’s how we maintain life within the Church and within our own hearts.

So when I see a movement within the Church and think it’s swinging the pendulum too far, I need to remember to get excited. Work is happening! Jesus is on the move! And this swing means there will be fresh work ahead. 

What Piper, Bell, MacArthur, & Hatmaker Have in Common

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Saying that we’re all jackasses and we need to love more is different than saying that everyone is always right. We’re not arguing for some vague, anemic ecumenism or for universalism. We are not all right. In fact, we would go so far as to say we are all incredibly wrong in very different and important ways. There are things each of us lacks, things each of us overemphasizes. The thing that binds us together is our deep lack, our deep need, our deep inability to see clearly, understand fully, or live with integrity.

Have we forgotten Paul’s words?

“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.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

John Piper is not exempt from this. NT Wright is not exempt. Martin Luther King Jr., John Calvin, Rob Bell, Jen Hatmaker, Science Mike, John MacArthur, and Tim Keller are not exempt. Your pastor is not exempt. We are not exempt. You are not exempt. We all see poorly. But the gift is that we all see different things poorly. We are not all blind to the same things. That is the beauty of the body. Collectively we see far more clearly. Collectively we help to eliminate blind spots instead of increasing, perpetuating, or even parading them.

I love to do puzzles with my kids. But what the kids love most about doing puzzles is putting in the final piece. In fact, one of my kids loves to bypass all the work of putting together the puzzle by sneakily snagging a few pieces. He disappears for a few hours while the family labors over the puzzle, then returns at the end to victoriously put in the final missing pieces. This treasonous crime is easy to pull off because of the nature of a puzzle. A puzzle equally depends on every piece. It doesn’t matter which puzzle piece he takes. In the end, it will be the most important piece because in a puzzle the most important piece is the one that is missing.

“We all see poorly. But the gift is that we all see different things poorly. We are not all blind to the same things. That is the beauty of the body. Collectively we see far more clearly.”

We don’t look at the body of Christ this way. We haven’t learned much since the Corinthian church. Or since Jesus’ call for unity. We don’t care about the pieces that are missing. In fact, we tend to think that the only pieces to the puzzle that are of any value are the ones shaped like us. Or perhaps the ones connected to us. But the most important pieces are the ones that are missing: the ones that have been cast aside, forgotten, or undiscovered.

Jesus warned us to enter his kingdom through the “narrow gate.”

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13–14)

We have tended to equate the narrow gate with right doctrine. Entering through the narrow gate has meant associating with the right camp. But this wasn’t Jesus’ point.

“We have tended to equate the narrow gate with right doctrine. But Jesus is the narrow gate. His narrow gate was absolute surrender that produces deep love of God and others.”

Based on our patterns of association and disassociation, it seems we believe the narrow gate is about expository preaching, or only singing hymns, or emphasizing social justice, or being Republican or standing against abortion or promoting tolerance. None of these things has anything to do with Jesus’ concept of the narrow gate. He is the narrow gate. His narrow gate was absolute surrender that produces deep love of God and others. Jesus said nothing of worship style, he laid out no complicated doctrine. He commissioned the disciples in Matthew 28 to teach all that he had commanded, but when you look at the sum of Jesus’ commands, this is the picture we get: eat with sinners, serve the poor, and if anything hinders you from keeping in step with him, leave it behind. Never ever ever ever confuse religion for love, or self-righteousness for surrender. Ask, seek, knock, find. Don’t assume you know more than anyone else.

In other words, Jesus’ teaching (and therefore the narrow gate of surrendering to him) comes down to this: Love the Lord your God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself.

Farewell Francis Chan

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Some friends recently showed me the most recent Francis Chan “controversy.” Here it is: Francis has preached at the same event as some prosperity teachers. He said something nice about Todd White. You can even find him in a photograph with Benny Hinn.

Can you imagine?

This has led some to dismiss Francis using the phrase, “Farewell, Francis Chan” (with a hat tip to John Piper excommunicating Rob Bell). Why? Because a person can’t share a stage without selling his soul. Because a lifetime of selfless ministry can be invalidated by one selfie. Because if you say something nice about someone you disagree with, then your heart has belonged to Satan the entire time.

The Farewell Francis Chan thing embodies the heart of jackass theology as well as anything I’ve seen. If you’re new to our blog, I should clarify that I’m a major jackass. We all are. But we’re here to confess our jackassery and hopefully bring our Christian communities to their senses.

Because, man, if Francis Chan is a heretic because he said something nice about someone he disagrees with, that’s the kind of heretic I want to be.[1] Seriously, if your theology leads you to warn people against Francis Chan because he chose human dignity over theological condemnation, then your theology is making you less like Jesus. And that’s a major problem.

Honestly, I don’t know anything about Todd White. Apparently somehow connected to the prosperity gospel? I know more about Benny Hinn. It’s all stuff I’ve learned second, third, or fourth hand, but I’m confident we’ve got some real differences. I’d probably sign on for very little of his theology. Would I be caught dead in a photo with him? Sure. Would I ever say something nice about his love for Jesus or his ministry? Honestly, if I knew anything about either I might.

“If your theology leads you to warn people against Francis Chan because he chose human dignity over theological condemnation, then your theology is making you less like Jesus. And that’s a major problem.”

Because a person’s value isn’t determined by the accuracy of their theology. Because it was “while we were still sinners” that “Christ died for us.” If you’re saying farewell to Francis because he’s loving someone that’s broken and sinful, then you’re the one walking away from Jesus.

I don’t know if the Farewell Francisers know this, but Francis Chan went on TBN one time to preach. (If you don’t know about TBN, don’t worry about it.) He gave a typical Francis message. It didn’t undermine his ministry or make God love him less. Actually, John MacArthur went on TBN at least once to preach. If you can believe it, he didn’t do it because he’s secretly trying to win people over to TBN’s theology. He said that he would take any opportunity to preach the gospel.

You’re allowed to disagree with the choices other people make. But if the choices you think you would make are the definitive standard for you, you’ve got self-idolization issues.

One of the articles I read criticized Francis for leaving the church he planted (after a measly 15 years pastoring it, if you can imagine). They said he blamed all the problems on the people in the church, etc. This is perhaps even lazier than the selfie accusations. Francis has spoken and written quite a bit about leaving Cornerstone, and he takes the blame for the things that displeased him about pastoring in a traditional church model even as he goes to great lengths to talk about how amazing Cornerstone was/is. It’s a refusal to believe his sincerity when he says things like this—an insistence that there must be some villainy beneath the surface—that keeps a narrative like this going. And again, it’s a jackass move.

Years ago, I watched as the community surrounding Francis’ seminary tore him apart for not emphasizing the resurrection in a gospel presentation. We seem hard wired to want to find a reason to oppose certain people.

“We could all stand to stop pointing out the heresy in our neighbor’s eye and instead focus on the lack of love in our own.”

It’s incredible how much pastors get criticized. Don’t get me wrong, we deserve it. We are jackasses, after all. But saying farewell to Francis or me or anyone else will not bring you closer to Jesus. Only love can do that. It’s okay to dislike Francis, it’s okay if he “just doesn’t do it for you anymore.” I don’t know what your job is, but it’s not deciding who’s in and who’s out. Jesus’ final prayer was for increased unity and love (John 17). Too often we go about the business of creating increased division and separation. I know Francis Chan is not perfect. He knows it too. How about we do our best to love him well as he tries to serve the Lord rather than accusing and excommunicating? We could all use more encouragement, prayer, and love. We could all stand to stop pointing out the heresy in our neighbor’s eye and instead focus on the lack of love in our own.

Update: The day after I wrote this, Francis’ released his own response to the accusations. If you’re still suspicious of him, at least do him the courtesy of hearing his motivation for doing the kinds of love-fueled things that people are spewing venom over.


[1] I borrowed this logic from my friend Chris Kottre.

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.

Don Freaking Quixote

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In Miguel De Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote, the eponymous hero is a knight on a quest. He is brave, chivalrous, and relentless. You won’t find a more committed knight in any of the classical literature. But there’s one problem: the entirety of his knightly career is misguided.

Whenever he engages in brave combat, he is always confused and always mistaken. In one famous episode he charges ahead to attack a windmill with his lance, believing the windmill to be a giant terrorizing the countryside. It doesn’t end well, but Don Quixote doesn’t learn anything from the encounter. He manages to miss the fact that they were never giants; he was fighting against windmills the entire time.

Throughout the classic novel, he attacks the innocent and wins meaningless prizes. He is sincere in his passion and utterly fearless. But it all means nothing, because he is misguided from the moment he steps out the door. Don Quixote’s life is tragic—not because he was a hero who fell tragically in the end, but because his every brave endeavor was tragically foolish from beginning to end. The story is humorous, but if Don Quixote were a real person, we wouldn’t be laughing.

Hard as it is to say, I believe Don Quixote is a good parable for much of the modern Church. It’s a caution for all believers throughout history (from Israel to the Modern Church). God’s people have a propensity to drift from the main thing (relationship with God and others) to empty things. This is why the prophets spoke tirelessly against Israel’s wanderings and Paul wrote letters to correct drifting churches.

One of the effects of the Fall is that our human hearts have to fight hard for the things that matter. It doesn’t come naturally. But another effect of the Fall is that we end up fighting for the wrong things. And fighting in the wrong ways. Brokenness prevails, even in hearts that have been redeemed.

I’d love to leave it at that, but I have to go a step further. I am Don Quixote. I pursue so many things with a righteous zeal, but many of those things turn out to be weird, insignificant, or harmful. I can never tell in the moment. (Honestly, I can’t say for sure if jackasstheology.com is just a place for me to be a jackass. I’m not even confident that’s not true for this post I’m writing right now.)

I wish I weren’t Don Quixote, but I know I am. And I’m positive I’m not alone. How many of the areas in which we Christians have scolded, reprimanded, and diminished people could be considered “close to the heart of Jesus”? Be careful how quickly you answer.

“Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Nothing had mattered more in his life than defeating those giants. But the giants were just windmills. Is it possible some of the battles we are fighting are just as misguided?”

As Ryan and I have started Jackass Theology, it’s honestly been difficult for us to look at our own tendencies and the emphases of the American Church and not see much of it as misguided. Maybe we haven’t gone full Don Quixote, but it seems clear that we’ve been charging more than a few windmills.

What’s actually being propagated and protected is not Jesus himself, but a subculture produced by followers of Jesus. Not Jesus, but a derivative of Jesus, with all of its own battles and preoccupations. This is nothing new, but the Pharisees are a reminder that derivatives can be dangerous!

The problem, of course, is that Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Those windmills were real giants to him. Nothing had ever mattered more in Don Quixote’s life to that point than courageously battling that particular giant. The error lies not in his sincerity or passion, but in the misguided nature of his pursuits.

Where do you draw the line? What battles do you consider worth fighting? And who do you see yourself fighting against? (Are you always the hero of your own story?)

Might future generations of Jesus followers look back at our preoccupations and wonder how we could have gotten so concerned over these things?

More importantly, might Jesus disagree with the things we spend our passions on? Having encountered Jesus in the four Gospels, does it seem like he’d be uptight and restrictive about the same things we are, fighting all of the same battles we devote ourselves to?

And really, should we be devoting ourselves to any battles? Or should we just be pursuing Jesus and the people he has placed in our lives to love?

The Sin of Certainty

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What a great title, right? I didn’t come up with it. It’s the title of a great book by Peter Enns, and it fits so well with the concept of Jackass Theology.

Enns argues that the Christian community has come to equate Christianity with correct thinking. It’s about signing a doctrinal statement. It’s about knowing what you believe and never doubting. It’s about doing more Bible studies and listening to more sermons and reading more theology books. And each of these things has their place.

But Enns argues that it’s less about correct thinking and more about trust in a person. Faith, he says, is not primarily a WHAT word. It’s a WHO word. It’s not so much about WHAT we believe, it’s more about WHO we believe.

It’s true that Christians have talked for a long time about “asking Jesus into your heart” and “the difference between a head knowledge and a heart knowledge of God.” But think about how nervous we get when we hear of a friend who is “questioning their faith” (cue horror movie music). Honestly, we’re more likely to talk about the sin of doubt than the sin of certainty.

We’re worried lest someone fail to recount the gospel according to our party’s nuanced understanding. We flip out when someone appears to be associated with a person we consider theologically suspect. When our pastor says something we’re not sure about, we rush to consult with John Piper’s blog or John MacArthur’s commentaries to determine whether or not we need to find a new church.

Okay, you may be saying, I can agree that certainty is not everything, but where does the sin come in?

Enns insists that trust means letting go of the need to be certain. If you need proof, you’re not trusting. If you wait till you’re certain, there’s no room for faith. That doesn’t mean we need to be illogical or intellectually lazy. But it does mean that God values trust over scholarship. Enns says:

“Letting go of the need for certainty is more than just a decision about how we think; it’s a decision about how we want to live. When the quest for finding and holding on to certainty is central to our faith, our lives are marked by traits we wouldn’t necessarily value in others: unflappable dogmatic certainty, vigilant monitoring of who’s in and who’s out, preoccupation with winning debates and defending the faith, privileging the finality of logical arguments, conforming unquestionably to intellectual authorities and celebrities. A faith like that is in constant battle mode…and soon, you forget what faith looks like when you’re not fighting about it.”

A healthy faith actually has room for doubt. Often, doubt is a symptom of life because it shows there is a wrestle, a tension, a process. If your intellectual belief is the kind of thing where you decide it once and then live your life without ever consider this in any greater depth, that’s not healthy.

“Kierkegaard wrote that just as a kid who’s about to receive a spanking pads his butt with a newspaper, so Christians insulate themselves from the force of Christ’s call through scholarship.”

And back to the sin. Our quest for certainty often makes us less dependent on Jesus. Often, we want certainty because we lack trust. When we’re certain, we’re unpersuadable. Any married person can immediately see the dangers here. Trust is relational; certainty is cerebral. God wants our brains, to be sure. But he wants more than that.

Kierkegaard wrote that just as a kid who’s about to receive a spanking pads his butt with a newspaper, so Christians insulate themselves through scholarship—building up layers of intellectual nuance so that we’re not hit as hard by the force of what Jesus is calling us to.

Sometimes I get frustrated at the way certain things in Scripture are worded. Honestly, if God wanted to, he could have said things clearly enough that we wouldn’t disagree over things like predestination and women in ministry and the best form of gathering as a church. That urge you are feeling right now to comment, “He has made it clear! Let me explain!” stems from the sin of certainty. Honestly, some things are less than clear, which is why Jesus-loving scholars and lay people have been arguing about these things for centuries.

I read a tweet from someone (I honestly have no idea who and have no idea how to track it back down) that said something like, “I sometimes think God left certain things in Scripture less than clear so that we would have to learn to love people we disagree with.” Amen.

Here’s to letting go of certainty and embracing trust. Let’s learn everything we can about God and his world, but let’s prioritize faith. Let’s give Jesus our heads, but primarily, let’s give him our hearts.