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Faith for the Deconstructing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Stop Treating Beth Moore Like Garbage

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I’m disgusted by how grossly mistreated Beth Moore has been on social media lately. If I feel that way from my distant and privileged position, I can’t imagine how she feels. Here is a woman who has had a greater impact on conservative churches than almost any Bible teacher, and she’s being treated like garbage.

Here’s what happened most recently. Owen Strachan wrote a blog post to promote his new book, and in that post he authoritatively presents one view on what the Scriptures say about women teaching in the church. He presents a narrow subset of the Complementarian view and then accuses anyone who differs even slightly (e.g., most Complementarians) of being unbiblical and choosing the “word of men” over the “word of God.” I’m not exaggerating. He is, of course, entitled to his view (and entitled to get attention for his forthcoming book). Many share his view. But he uses phrases like, “it cannot be otherwise” in reference to passages that have historically been hotly debated. And in the process, he calls out Beth Moore for accepting an invitation from a Complementarian church to preach a Mother’s Day sermon. In so doing, started a firestorm in which his followers began attacking, condescending to, belittling, and slandering Beth Moore. It’s so fre*king ugly. (And it’s far from the worst stuff you’ll see people writing about Moore online.)

Beth responded pretty forcefully to Strachan’s “polite” article and terse Twitter post. She said:

“Owen, I am going to say this with as much respect and as much self restraint as I can possibly muster. I would be terrified to be a woman you’d approve of. And I would have wasted 40 years of my life encouraging women to come to know and love Jesus through the study of Scripture.”

That’s fire!!!!!!!!

In response, biblical language was used to attack and demean. Bible verses were quoted as weapons. Few seemed to care who Beth really is or about her track record of faithfully teaching the Bible and doing her best to play by the conservative rules. She eventually went further in a Twitter thread:

“I want to stoke the fire I’m in the middle of right now about as much as I want to amputate my toes without anesthesia. I’d much prefer to change the subject and move on and ignore the fury. I also want my family to have relief. But after intense prayer, I need to say a few things.

“The first one is that I have a very active daily practice of repentance. I never have nothing to repent of. You need not worry if I am aware of my own sin, flaws and weaknesses. I am. You can know I am hashing out things on my face on the floor before God every day.

“That said, I am compelled to my bones by the Holy Spirit—I don’t want to be but I am—to draw attention to the sexism and misogyny that is rampant in segments of the SBC, cloaked by piety and bearing the stench of hypocrisy. There are countless godly conservative Complementarians. So many. There are countless conservative Complementarians I very much respect and deeply love, even though I may not fully understand their interpretations of certain Scriptures as the end of the matter. I love the Scriptures. I love Jesus. I do not ignore 1 Timothy or 1 Corinthians.

“What I plead for is to grapple with the entire text from Matthew 1 through Revelation 22 on every matter concerning women. To grapple with Paul’s words in 1 Timothy / 1 Corinthians 14 as being authoritative, God-breathed!, alongside other words Paul wrote, equally inspired, and make sense of the many women he served alongside.

“Above all else, we must search the attitudes and practices of Christ Jesus himself toward women. HE is our Lord. He had women followers! Evangelists! The point of all sanctification and obedience is toward being comformed to HIS image. I do not see one glimpse of Christ in this sexism.

“I had the eye opening experience of my life in 2016. A fog cleared for me that was the most disturbing, terrifying thing I’d ever seen. All these years I’d given the benefit of the doubt that these men were the way they were because they were trying to be obedient to Scripture. Then I realized it was not over Scripture at all. It was over sin. It was over power. It was over misogyny. Sexism. It was about arrogance. About protecting systems. It involved covering abuses and misuses of power. Shepherds guarding other shepherds instead of guarding the sheep. Here is what you don’t understand. I have loved the SBC and served it with everything I have had since I was 12 years old helping with vacation Bible school. Alongside ANY other denomination, I will serve it to my death if it will have me. And this is how I am serving it right now.”

“It’s not wrong to be a Complementarian. But it’s wrong to treat human beings like garbage. Your theological certainty does not give you a pass on the command to love.”

Amen, Beth! Look, it’s not wrong to be a Complementarian. But it’s wrong to treat human beings like garbage. It’s wrong to think that your theological certainty gives you a pass on the command to love (which, by the way, Jesus said was the greatest!). You can work your hardest to tell everyone that Paul wants every church to function exactly like yours, but you don’t get to go around attacking everyone who disagrees as though they don’t love the Lord, as though they don’t have a brain, as though anyone who is not you is an idiot. (To be clear, I think there are overtones of this in Strachan’s initial statements, and I think his Twitter followers made these overtones explicit.)

Exactly a year ago, Beth Moore reluctantly wrote a blog post about things she had previous said she’d share only on her deathbed for fear of the backlash. But she wanted us to see “what it’s been like to be a female leader in the conservative Evangelical world.” You should honestly read the whole blog post yourself, then follow Beth on Twitter (her feed is fire). But here are a few excerpts that stood out to me:

“As a woman leader in the conservative Evangelical world, I learned early to show constant pronounced deference—not just proper respect which I was glad to show—to male leaders and, when placed in situations to serve alongside them, to do so apologetically. I issued disclaimers ad nauseam…”

“Several years ago when I got publicly maligned for being a false teacher by a segment of hyper-fundamentalists based on snippets taken out of context and tied together, I inquired whether or not they’d researched any of my Bible studies to reach those conclusions over my doctrine, especially the studies in recent years. The answer was no. Why? They refused to study what a woman had taught.”

“About a year ago I had an opportunity to meet a theologian I’d long respected. I’d read virtually every book he’d written. I’d looked so forward to getting to share a meal with him and talk theology. The instant I met him, he looked me up and down, smiled approvingly and said, ‘You are better looking than _.’ He didn’t leave it blank. He filled it in with the name of another woman Bible teacher.”

“I’m sorry for the times when I’ve been mean and exclusionary in the name of being biblical. Jesus isn’t like that, so I know I’m not biblical when I do this.”

None of this is okay. We can’t let our faithful sister be treated like this. Complementarians like Strachan and his followers should be fighting to uproot this misogyny, not acting all grieved because a mother’s voice would be heard on Mother’s Day. It’s not “conservative theology.” It’s not “being biblical.” It’s sin and it’s hate and it’s disgusting.

To Beth Moore and everyone, I’m sorry for the times when I’ve been mean and exclusionary in the name of being biblical. Jesus isn’t like that, so I know I’m not biblical when I do this. I’m sorry for the times I’ve enjoyed my privilege rather than fighting for unity and love. May God forgive us for our misogyny. May we stop turning God’s life-giving words into weapons and start treating people with the love and dignity of Jesus. Keep up the good work, Beth. I am praying for you.

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.

Our Wicked Tendency to Use the Bible to Oppress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

John MacArthur’s Disgusting Comment: Go Home, Beth Moore

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This is a weird post for me to write. Maybe I should first tell you that I graduated from John MacArthur’s seminary. You should probably know that I chose that seminary above all others because I was drawn to John MacArthur’s fearless preaching of the truth as God revealed it in Scripture. I value the education I received at the Master’s Seminary.

But—oh my gosh—I just heard an audio recording in which John MacArthur demeans and dismisses Beth Moore. I’m shaking. If I conjure up every ounce of optimism and benefit-of-the-doubt-ness I possess, I still can’t find a way to describe it as anything other than disdainful and mean-spirited. If I try to give an honest assessment of how it sounds to me, I think I have to say his words sound hateful and anti-Christ.

Here’s the scenario. John MacArthur is part of a panel discussion, and the moderator asks this: “I will say a word, and then you need to give a pithy response to that one word.” The word that MacArthur is asked to comment on?

Beth Moore.

MacArthur’s response is swift: “Go home.”

This was met by cheers and applause the audience. A roomful of people (attending the Truth Matters Conference which is celebrating 50 years of MacArthur’s ministry) cheered when a PASTOR dismissed a woman made in God’s image with a demeaning phrase. That word “pastor” means “shepherd.” This crowd joined a shepherd in collectively dunking on a woman who loves Jesus and loves Scripture and carefully does her best to promote Jesus wherever she goes.

This is absolutely disgusting. I’m seriously doing the theological equivalent of dry heaving right now. Once more I find myself pleading: Stop treating Beth Moore like garbage!

MacArthur chose to elaborate a bit: “There is no case that can be made for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion.”

Huge applause.

Except that there is a case that can be made for it, and this case is made by a huge number of scholars and followers of Jesus. MacArthur is allowed to disagree with Beth Moore. Holy smokes. Of course we can disagree about something like this! But he states with absolute confidence and condescension that no one can argue otherwise. And yet I’ll stand here as a graduate of his seminary, as someone who still employs the hermeneutical tools and methods I learned at his seminary, and make a strong argument to the contrary. So many do. It’s misleading, harmful, and disgusting to claim that one’s view on this—regarding which there are between one and a handful passages (depending on which passages one considers relevant) that say anything about this issue.

Phil Johnson, one of MacArthur’s right hand men, also on the panel, chose to answer the same prompt with the word, “Narcissistic.” He said, “When I first saw her I thought, ‘This is what it looks like to preach yourself rather than Christ.'”

I cannot tell you how disgusting it is to hear someone say this. It’s so unfair and cruel. It’s wild to publicly demean a preacher of the gospel who’s not even in the room. Again, this kind of dismissive attitude and contemptuous statement is anti-Christ. All of the many many many calls for love, grace, unity, patience, gracious speech, humility, etc. are thrown out the window. All of the biblical warnings against causing division and controversy are ignored.

MacArthur went on, “Just because you have the skill to sell jewelry on the TV sales channel doesn’t mean you should be preaching. There are people who have certain hocking skills. Natural abilities to sell. They have energy and personality and all that. That doesn’t qualify you to preach.”

You can tell the audience doesn’t know how to respond to that.

And that’s where I died. Those words are so condescending. They seem calculated to wound. To dishonor. To destroy. When I close my eyes and try to picture Jesus saying words like these, I gag. But these words would be right at home in the mouths of Pharisees. I feel qualified to make that last statement because I personally have Pharisaical tendencies. I’m constantly tempted to make myself the measure of orthodoxy and to define my preferred crowd as the “true people of God.” But I know I’m wrong in this. That’s why we started this blog. Jesus is too beautiful and his mission is too important for us to be jackasses in the name of Jesus.

“I believe John MacArthur and Phil Johnson need to repent for saying to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ and to Beth Moore, ‘You’re narcissistic and should either stay at home or sell jewelry on TV.'”

I can’t tell you for sure that my motives are entirely pure in writing this. I’d like to believe so, and I’m honestly praying and checking my heart here. If there’s something I’m missing about this discussion, I’d love to hear it. But I believe John MacArthur and Phil Johnson need to repent for saying to the hand, “I have no need of you,” and to the foot “You’re narcissistic and should either stay at home or sell jewelry on TV.” I doubt they’ll read this, and I don’t expect to be heard favorably if they do, but this breaks my heart, and I’m confident it breaks the heart of Jesus, who gave his very life to serve and unify his church.

Superhuman Jackass Guy

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I have a lot of people come up to me and say, “I love what you said, but I’m not like that.”

My friend West told me about a sermon he preached where he said something along these lines: “We all think we do our own thing, but look how many of us are wearing black North Face jackets. We didn’t all independently decide this would be a great jacket, we wear it because we saw other people wearing it.” He said that after the sermon, people came up to him wearing black North Face jackets, explaining, “This was a gift, I didn’t pick it out myself!” I call this person super human guy.

I understand super human guy because I am super human guy. This is how I have lived most of my Christian life. I used to even think to myself, “How can I figure out the exact right rhythm so that I read my Bible, share Jesus with my neighbor, love everyone with perfection, be the perfect father, be extraordinarily patient and extraordinarily kind, be extraordinarily bold, extraordinarily brave? I will never be a hypocrite. I will never be a Pharisee. I will never be part of the problem. No lust. No greed. No flaw guy.” In other words, I wanted to be super human guy, making it clear to everyone why I’m not the problem.

I really have a problem admitting my limitations. And I’m not the only one. Yeah, we know all have sinned and fall short. All Christians acknowledge that. I’m talking about something different though: learning to be comfortable with our limitations. Not just our physical limitations in time and space, but our limitations in understanding, comprehending, and emoting. Our inability to actually discern and know and handle truth in objective ways, without going on the defensive. Can I live in such a way that it’s not offensive to know I am severely limited, flawed, and often wrong? 

Adam and Eve thought they could be limitless even before Bradley Cooper’s magic little pill. They thought that if they had the knowledge of Good and Evil they could use it, control it, harness it; they thought they could discern and not be deceived, because after all, doesn’t knowledge help us avoid deception?

Bradley Cooper in Limitless

Super human guy is the biggest of all jackasses, because super human guy hasn’t ignored part of the Bible, he has ignored ALL of it. Humans are limited, unable to be God. Absolutely reliant. Remember the analogy that Paul used in 1 Corinthians 12? That we are all pieces of a Body? Which may in fact mean that no matter what you say, no matter how solid the New Year’s Resolution strategy, you are limited guy (or gal). There is no superman here.

“If you claim you’re not a jackass, you’re claiming to be God: unlimited in your ability to love, to discern accurately. No manipulation, tantrums, prejudice, greed. But that person is God. And you’re not him.”

We like to think, “Sure, I’m less than perfect. But I’m not the problem.” But “less than perfect” is just a euphemism. Our world isn’t messed up because we’re “less than perfect.” It’s the REALLY bad stuff that has ruined our world. Like wanting sex with someone else’s spouse, refusing to forgive even when someone is begging for it. Hording things while other humans starve. Bullying the weak. That’s what ruins the world. The pain in this world exists because of big time jackasses. So it isn’t just that I “missed the mark” (a euphemism for sin), as though I’m not really bad and couldn’t be the real problem. It’s more like Vice President Cheney’s hunting accident, where he missed the target (a duck) and instead hit his hunting buddy in the face. His aim may not have been that far off, but it not a small problem, it’s a big problem.

And here’s the thing: I’m the big problem. So are you!

If you claim that you are not a jackass, you are claiming to be God: Unlimited in your ability to love. Unlimited in your ability to discern accurately at all times. Unlimited in your emotional response to horrible situations. No emotional manipulation, no childish fits, no temper tantrums, no prejudice, no faulty assumptions. No lust. No greed. No mistake guy. Superman guy. But that guy is God. And you’re not him.

Limitation is human. Embrace it. It’s even a huge part of the solution. What if limitation wasn’t a problem to be overcome, but actually part of the solution? Without limitation we are all our own gods and an absolute bloody mess. What if we are limited ON PURPOSE? What if our limitations aren’t supposed to all be overcome, but stand as reminders of our NEED? Constantly pointing us to our need for God, and our need for OTHERS.

The comments are open, so feel free to tell me why you didn’t pick your black North Face jacket because everyone else likes them. Tell me why you’re not the super human jackass guy…

Mystery & Humility

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The great French philosopher of the early 20th century, Étienne Gilson, wrote these words about the world’s greatest minds trying to make sense of God:

“The divine Being eludes the grasp of our concepts. There is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to Him. Every denomination is a limitation, but God is above all limitation, and therefore above all denomination no matter how exalted it may be” (Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, 1936, 56.).

His statement is not at all controversial. God “eludes the grasp of our concepts.” Do any of us really believe we know everything about God? Do we believe any of our categories or concepts are sufficient? There is so much mystery in play anytime human beings speak or even think about God.

We’ll all acknowledge this. But in my experience, our acknowledgement of the mystery of God does not usually come with the humility that ought to accompany such an acknowledgement.

If God is indeed mysterious, then why are we not more humble about our limited perspectives?

Gilson says that every denomination is a limitation. Isn’t that so? Denominations are not inherently bad. But they are inherently limited. At the heart of every denomination is the insistence that God is like this, not like that. Differentiation is good, categorization is helpful, and absolute truth exists. To be human is to be limited. To form a denomination is to embrace specific limitations. This is not the problem. The problem is our tendency to take the box we draw around our denomination or camp or position and then insist that the box accurately represents God is his fullness.

There is mystery when we talk about God! Does this not require us to be humble in our statements about God? Should we not acknowledge the limitations of our perspectives? Should we not be open to hearing others speak about God in ways that sound foreign to us?

Many of our denominations are good. None of them is sufficient.

Think of the people who are part of your church. You worship and serve regularly with people who hold a variety of views about who God is and what he does. God is bigger than what any one of you thinks about him.

But what about the person in your church with whom you have firm theological disagreements? Or the person in the other church or denomination whose theology you can’t accept? Is it true that “there is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to God?” I’m not suggesting we treat wrong as right. I don’t endorse going against God’s revelation of himself in Scripture. I’m suggesting that our understanding of God is limited, and that perhaps we should view each other in this light.

“There is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to God.” – Étienne Gilson

Gilson goes on to say that “the only adequate expression of God would be God.” I love that. Anytime we break down some part of God and try to explain him, we’re inherently mistaken—not necessarily through inaccuracy, but through incompletion.

Flannery O’Connor said this about writing fiction: “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction” (Mystery & Manners, 73). She quotes John Peale Bishop: “You can’t say Cezanne painted apples and a tablecloth and have said what Cezanne painted.”

In other words, we have a tendency to want to summarize art, but it doesn’t work like that. She says: “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making a statement about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully” (96).

When speaking about God “our poor human words express only a part of that which has no parts.” – Étienne Gilson

What Flannery O’Connor says about art also (mysteriously) applies to God. As Gilson says, when speaking about God “our poor human words express only a part of that which has no parts.” This is okay, because this is the way God has designed it. What’s not okay, however, is when we discard the humility that necessarily accompanies mystery. When we do this, we’re not being theological, or helpful, or godly, or biblical, or faithful. We’re being jackasses.