November 18, 2011
It's not just about having right doctrine, but also about our lives.
August 1, 2011
Scot McKnight's new book will comfort some and confound others.
Prepare yourselves for the onslaught. Scot McKnight is venturing into the "What Is the Gospel?" war that's been waging between the Neo-Calvinists and...well, everyone else. McKnight's new book, due out later this month, is The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited. We will have a full review of the book in due course, but a preview is worth our time.
McKnight is concerned that we have confused "Gospel" with "Plan of Salvation," and rather than being true evangelicals (a word rooted in the Greek euangelion meaning "good news" or "gospel"), contemporary Western Christians might be better identified as soterians because we have built our whole church culture around one thing- salvation, who is saved and who is damned.
While not disagreeing with the theology espoused by those on the Neo-Reformed side, and affirming the "Romans Road" presentation of salvation, McKnight says their error is calling this "the Gospel." Equating the plan of salvation with gospel means Jesus could not have preached the Good News. Only the Apostles, like Paul, who preached after Jesus' death and resurrection could possibly present this message. McKnight believes this is an error rooted in a false understanding of what the Gospel is.
For a preview of McKnight's perspective in The King Jesus Gospel, I highly recommend watching his 18min presentation from the Q Gathering in 2010. In this video he outlines the way we have confused various terms, and why Jesus did in fact preach the Gospel.
May 11, 2011
It's about getting into heaven before you die, not after.
John Ortberg interviews Dallas Willard at Catalyst West about what the church is getting wrong today. In a nutshell, Willard says we're getting the gospel wrong. We'd love to hear your responses to this video.
August 4, 2010
What did Jesus mean in Matthew 25 about judgment and compassion toward the poor?
In part two of the conversation between Mark Dever, Jim Wallis, and Skye Jethani, they talk about the judgment passage in Matthew 25. Was Jesus saying that our just and compassionate actions toward "the least of these" is central to our faith, or are they evidence of our faith? Is justice a gospel imperative or a gospel implication?
Pick up the Summer issue of Leadership Journal to read more from Dever, Wallis, and others on the intersection of justice and evangelism.
March 29, 2010
Walter Wangerin on the art of storytelling and why doctrine still matters.
Last weekend I attended Spark, a children's ministry conference near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The theme of the conference was "The Art of Storytelling." I think you'd be hard pressed to find a keynote speaker better suited to speak on that topic than Walter Wangerin. Pastor for 16 years in inner-city Chicago, father of four, grandfather of eight or so, and author of more than 40 books, Wangerin has lots of experience telling stories. And he's good at it—really good. In his two plenary sessions, he touched on a good many things that concern me—the role of the teacher, the power of stories, and the nature of the relationship between art and truth. What I appreciated most was his sense of balance.
You might expect (as I did) that when speaking to a room full of ministers, a person who makes his living telling stories would emphasize how story telling is superior to other forms of teaching, such as catechism or object lessons or memorizing facts. In fact, I've come to expect that perspective at ministry conferences in general. It's become very popular to claim that narrative is more important that systematic theology; after all (the argument goes) Jesus spoke in parables not doctrines, and the Gospels are narratives not bullet points. Fair enough. But Wangerin wanted to emphasize the relationship between story and doctrine, between the imagination and the intellect.
The value of story, for Wangerin, is that it allows people to experience the truth. You can tell someone, "Jesus loves you." That's a doctrine. But if you can tell a story that shows that Jesus loves me—maybe a parable like the Good Shepherd—in which I am invited to associate with a character that is receiving the love of Jesus, then I will experience the love of Jesus.
Wangerin used the example of Zaccheus in Luke's Gospel. Wangerin was a bit of an outcast as a child, he said, and so he associated with Zaccheus. When his Sunday school teacher told him the story, he got swept up in it; he felt like Jesus was looking at him, talking to him. But when it was over, his teacher asked him, "What does this story mean?" Then, he said, the story was no longer my story. It was just a moral lesson someone wanted him to learn.
As soon as she objectified it, the teacher took the story away from young Walt and put it back in the Bible where it became "just an illustration" from which we are supposed to learn something intellectual. This was a big point for Walter—we should avoid turning stories into illustrations. You can't dwell in an illustration. But you can dwell in a story. And the real power of a story is that it orders the universe for you. It shapes the imagination regarding what the world is really like.
What is unique about Wangerin, I think, is that he balances this emphasis on stories right away. In his 16 years as a pastor, Wangerin says he probably only told stories 20 percent of the time. The rest of the time he taught facts and doctrine and theology. But the stories were foundational; they were the context in which the facts became alive and significant. For example, the catechism class he led was two years long. For the first year, all he did every week was tell the great story—the metanarrative of the Scriptures. Beginning with creation and the fall, he told the story of Israel through the Old Testament, about God's covenants and his faithfulness. Then into the New Testament, he told the story of Jesus, of the New Covenant, of the work of the Apostles, and about the promise of reconciliation at the end of all things.
Then, in year two, he taught about the Trinity, about Incarnation and Resurrection, about eschatology and other essential doctrines. "Because we spent the whole first year in story," he said, "we could speak about doctrines as memories based on the stories." The stories provided context. Rather than simply memorizing the words, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth" (which they did) as a cold fact, they could say those words as they imagine God forming the earth out of nothing, the man out of dust, and then breathing life into Adam's nostrils. Wangerin was very clear on this point: stories don't give the intellect what it needs. But the intellect can't make sense of the facts without story.
The application of this balanced emphasis on story and doctrine as it relates to children is obvious. But I think it has broader application. The battle between the folks that just want to tell the stories of God and those that want to preach the doctrines of the faith will rage interminably, I imagine, unless we all recognize what Wangerin sees. And that is this: in Christ, God is calling us to participate in Christ's story of life, death, and resurrection. Paul makes this clear again and again (see Galatians 2:20, for example). Our imaginations must be transformed so that this narrative of death and resurrection becomes the story that makes sense of the universe for us. But embracing this narrative is not the end. Getting to know our God and Father also requires understanding (as much as we can) that he exists as unity in Trinity, that he became flesh and walked among us, and those sorts of things. These truths are derived from the story, but they go beyond it.
In the end, then, making disciples of children and adults alike is a matter of transforming both the imagination and the intellect. And that means starting with story.
March 18, 2010
Has McLaren answered his critics or simply given them more ammunition?
Scot McKnight, a regular contributor to Ur, has written a review of Brian McLaren's latest book for Christianity Today. McLaren and his ideas have been the subject of much debate in recent years. Does A New Kind of Christianity pacify his critics or add more fuel to their fire? McKnight has a breakdown of the book's strengths and weaknesses, but in the end finds McLaren's perspective a rehash of established liberal theology.
A New Kind of Christianity shows us that Brian, though he is now thinking more systemically, has fallen for an old school of thought. I read this book carefully, and I found nothing new. It may be new for Brian, but it's a rehash of ideas that grew into fruition with Adolf von Harnack and now find iterations in folks like Harvey Cox and Marcus Borg. For me, Brian's new kind of Christianity is quite old. And the problem is that it's not old enough.
Read the full review at ChristianityToday.com.
You can also read Brian McLaren's response to Scot McKnight's review on his blog.
October 5, 2009
A posthumous Out of Ur interview.
If he hadn’t died from a tainted smallpox vaccination in 1758, Jonathan Edwards would be celebrating his 306th birthday today--Monday, October 5. When Edwards died, at the relatively young age of 55, he was one of the best known pastor-theologians in the English speaking world. Interestingly enough, the Calvinist pastor is making quite a comeback. There’s been lots of talk on Out of Ur recently about the so-called New Reformed movement—folks that are proud to call Edwards “homeboy.”
But would Edwards be proud to claim the New Reformed movement? Well, I just couldn’t pass up the chance to ask him. Using skills learned on my many travels and my finely tuned interviewing skills, I sat down with Brother Edwards to ask him how well he thinks the new Calvinists are representing the old time religion.
Url: So, I’ve read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” You’re pretty intense.
Let me guess: high school English class.
Yep. Some of the New Reformed folks seem to like that hellfire and brimstone stuff. Did they learn that from you?
They might have. I preached my fair share of those sermons. But back then, you had to. Everybody was religious—it was against the law to skip church. So my greatest challenge as a pastor was combating spiritual apathy. I did everything I could to make sure people took their spiritual lives seriously, because it was really easy for them to take God for granted.
Do you think that sort of preaching is still effective today?
I suppose it can be, though I wouldn’t say it’s the only way to preach. Really, it depends on the audience. If you’re preaching to religious people, you have to rattle their cages. But near the end of my career, I ministered to Native Americans. I took a different approach when I preached to them, because they weren’t spiritually apathetic religious types.
The New Reformed folks talk an awful lot about doctrine. Do you think every church member ought to be a theologian?
Sure. Theology is fun. And the deeper you journey into the mysteries of God, the more rewarding the work becomes.
Plus, I think the more you reflect on God and Scripture, the more you understand your faith, the more likely you are to be transformed into the image of Christ. Dwelling on the things of God makes us aware of how beautiful and lovely and glorious God is. The more we recognize the beauty and glory of God, the more we can reflect that beauty and glory. Does that make sense?
Sure. You’re saying that preaching doctrine leads to spiritual growth.
Actually, I would say that preaching doctrine can lead to spiritual growth. But I think it’s a big mistake to assume that people will necessarily love and follow Jesus just because we preach sound doctrine. People’s hearts have to be touched. As I like to say, there’s a big difference between knowing that honey is sweet because you’ve read about honey in a book and experiencing the sweetness of honey by tasting it for yourself. The Devil has sound doctrine, and it hasn’t done him any good. We should help our congregations taste the sweetness of God. That’s when transformation happens.
The New Reformed folks seem awfully confident that they have their doctrine right. How do you feel about that sort of certainty?
Well I’m unapologetically a Calvinist. I spent my career defending the Calvinist understanding of Christian orthodoxy against the new challenges of Enlightenment rationalism, natural theology, and deism.
That being said, I was always quick to acknowledge that there is much about God, the Bible, and the Christian life that is mysterious. I affirm with the Westminster Confession that the Bible is clear about matters of salvation. The Scriptures tell us everything we need to know about being reconciled with God. But there are a lot of things that Scripture isn’t a hundred percent clear about.
One of those things, ironically, is Christ himself. I once wrote a sermon called “The Excellency of Christ," in which I looked at all the paradoxical ways the Bible talks about Jesus. He’s called the Lion of Judah, but also the Lamb of God. He was most exalted when he died in humiliation on the cross. Jesus holds together dozens of apparent contradictions—and that what makes him excellent.
So I think we can be confident in our theology and doctrine without minimizing the mysteries of God or minimizing the paradox of Jesus.
Any final thoughts?
One thing the New Reformed folks have right—well, some of them, at least—is that God created us to give him glory. He is never so pleased as when we glorify and enjoy him. It seems like some folks focus so much on glorifying God that they don’t enjoy him; other folks enjoy him so much that they don’t appropriately give him glory. I’d say that growing in faith means finding balance in those things.
September 29, 2009
While on his "Drops Like Stars" tour, Rob Bell spoke with Michael Paulson from the Boston Globe. (Read the full interview.) The conversation turned to the meaning of the word evangelical. Bell provides an interesting, and likely contestable, definition. The excerpt is below.
But the interview raises an important question--has the word evangelical been corrupted? Is it still useful? And do you still embrace the category or have you abandoned it for another label?
From The Boston Globe:
Q. What does it mean to you to be an evangelical?
A. I take issue with the word to a certain degree, so I make a distinction between a capital E and a small e. I was in the Caribbean in 2004, watching the election returns with a group of friends, and when Fox News, in a state of delirious joy, announced that evangelicals had helped sway the election, I realized this word has really been hijacked. I find the word troubling, because it has come in America to mean politically to the right, almost, at times, anti-intellectual. For many, the word has nothing to do with a spiritual context.
Q. OK, how would you describe what it is that you believe?
A. I embrace the term evangelical, if by that we mean a belief that we together can actually work for change in the world, caring for the environment, extending to the poor generosity and kindness, a hopeful outlook. That’s a beautiful sort of thing.
Read the full interview here.
**UPDATE** Rob Bell has responded to the Globe interview on his Twitter account. He says that most of what he said was left out of the interview, and calls it "maddening." He also goes on to clarify the historical roots of the word "evangelical." Read more on Bell's Twitter page.
August 3, 2009
Is "where two or more are gathered" a church?
There is a growing phenomenon in the body of Christ today. Alongside of the missional church movement, the emerging church movement, and the house church movement, there is a mode of thinking that I call "postchurch Christianity."
The postchurch brand of Christianity is built on the premise that institutional forms of church are ineffective, unbiblical, unworkable, and in some cases, dangerous. Institutionalization is not compatible with ekklesia. So say postchurch advocates.
But the postchurch view goes further saying, "any semblance of organization whatsoever . . . any semblance of leadership...is wrong and oppressive. Church is simply when two or three believers gather together in any format. Whenever this happens, church occurs."
Here are some examples of what you might hear a postchurch advocate say:
"Sally and I had coffee at Starbucks last week. That was church."
"I get together with two other men once a month at Sonny's BBQ. That's church for us."
"I travel a great deal and whenever I visit Christians in other cities, we're having church together."
"I live in Dallas, TX. Last week, I talked to my friend on the phone for an hour. He lives in Miami, FL. The week before I talked with a friend who lives in Portland, OR. We were having church on the phone. I belong to the same church that they do."
"I don't attend any Christian meetings. I have church on the Internet. I belong to several Christian discussion groups and social networks, and that's church for me."
"I don't understand how people can talk about church planting? How can a church be planted when we are already the church? I'm the church. You're the church. So just be the church."
To my mind, all of the above reflects a redefinition of ekklesia as it is found, used, and understood in the New Testament. No first-century Christian would have used "church" in this way. While there's certainly nothing wrong with fellowshipping with Christians at Starbucks, on the phone, or through the Internet, the biblical meaning of ekklesia is something quite different.
The biblical text that postchurch advocates hang a great deal of their doctrine on is Matthew 18: 20:"For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."
But it's important to read this verse in context:
"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. "I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." (Matthew 18:15-20)
Here, Jesus is speaking of a local ekklesia, a community of Christ-followers who live in the same locale. The people in this ekklesia know one another. And what this passage has in view is an excommunication meeting. Therefore, it's a horrifying text--a text that no Christian should ever want to use. It has to do with a person who is acting in a wayward manner and refuses to stop.
When this happens, the injured person must go to the offending person in private. If the offending person refuses to reconcile, two or three others from the local ekklesia must talk to him. If the offending person still refuses to stop his wayward conduct, he must be dis-fellowshipped from the ekklesia.
Note that Jesus says that the two or three should "tell it to the church" if the offending person doesn't repent. Now think: If the two or three people are the church, then this text becomes incoherent. Consequently, the two or three cannot be the church. They are simply a part of it. The implication is that the two or three who went to the unrepentant person should be praying for him. And the Lord will be with them in a special way as they do. He will stand with them.
This context indicates that the ekklesia is an organic entity where a group of committed believers in a locality "bind and loose," using the keys of the kingdom that Jesus has given to them. Consequently, Matthew 18 is not a text in which Jesus is trying to define the church for us. Rather it's a text describing the awful process of excommunication.
Because this is the primary passage the postchurch viewpoint is founded on, I'm of the opinion that the position cannot stand up against the light of the New Testament. I'll say more on that in my second post.
May 28, 2009
This video was produced by Thomas Nelson, publisher of The American Patriot's Bible. Be sure to read Greg Boyd's scathing review of the Patriot's Bible, and stay tuned for a response from the editor.
A few excerpts from the video:
"For the first time ever, the history of Americaâ€™s Christian heritage and the Holy Bible are woven together in a single volume."
"Its pages contain an accurate archive of Americaâ€™s strong ties to the Holy Bible and the God of the Bible. It highlights people and events which demonstrate the godly qualities that make America what it is today.... It is the one Bible that shows how a light from above shaped our nation."
"If you love America and the Scriptures, you will treasure The American Patriotâ€™s Bible."
May 26, 2009
Does the Patriot's Bible glorify nationalistic violence?
Read part 1 of Greg Boyd's review of The Patriot's Bible.
It's perhaps not coincidental that the Patriot's Bible offers no commentary on any passages related to our instruction to love and do good to our enemies.
But the Revolutionary War is not by any means the only nationalistic violence celebrated in the Patriot's Bible. To the contrary, the glory of nationalistic violence permeates this Bible. For example, every book of the Bible opens with a montage of national monuments, symbols, stars and stripes, etcâ€¦ which include, with few exceptions, images of armed soldiers, bombers and battleships. Most stunningly, each Gospel opens with a scene that includes soldiers struggling to raise a flag under the words "In God We Trust." All the subsequent books of the New Testament open with a montage that includes a flag waving behind the Statue of Liberty on one side and armed marching troops on the other. It's quite breathtaking - and I don't mean this in a good way.
Similarly, a very high percentage of the commentaries sprinkled throughout this Bible exalt American wars and their heroes. To give but one example, a comment in 2 Samuel about how "the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle" (2 Sam. 1:25) elicits a half page commentary entitled "Duty-Honor-Country." In it the commentators review a famous speech given by General Douglas MacArthur in which he claims that "[t]he solider, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training â€“ sacrifice." In facing danger, MacArthur adds, the soldier "discloses those divine attributes which his Maker gave when He created man in His own image."
The soldier on the field, prepared to die and kill for his country, apparently exemplifies the greatest act of religion and the best expression of what it is to be made in the image of God!
(I have to assume MacArthur and the commentators of the Patriot's Bible only intend to refer to American soldiers, though it remains unclear how they could justify such a selective application of the imago dei). The commentary becomes even more amazing as it recounts MacArthur's statement that "â€¦the solider who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind." The contributors clearly agree with this theology, for they comment that, "as long as other Americans serve their country courageously and honorably, [MacAthur's] words will live on" (p.341).
Without in any way detracting from the courage of soldiers who lay down their lives for their country, I find myself utterly confounded as to how Christian commentators can agree that a military combatant is "the noblest development of mankind." Since Christ is the perfect illustration of what it means to be "in the image of God," and since he is our Lord and the one we are called to imitate, shouldn't he be the criteria for what constitutes "the noblest development of mankind?" Yet, he refused to buy into the Jewish nationalism of his day (despite the fact that Israel, unlike America, actually had been sanctioned by God in the Old Testament). And he laid down his life for his enemies rather than engage in violence against them (Mt 26:53) or allow his disciples to do so. (Jn 18:10-11, 36).
People who obey the New Testament and follow this example, I submit, should be viewed by Christians as most clearly reflecting the image of God and as constituting "the noblest development of mankind."
Sadly, this intense glorification of national violence constitutes a central theme of this ill-conceived Bible. And, in my opinion, this simply reveals how thoroughly the Gospel of Jesus has been co-opted and redefined by the Gospel of American Patriotism in this Bible.
I have no doubt that those who contributed to the Patriot's Bible are sincere, godly people who genuinely believe they're doing America and the Kingdom a service by publishing this work. And had they published their particular interpretation of American history in a separate volume, I would have had much less trouble with it. What grieves me deeply is that the Patriot's Bible fuses this interpretation with the biblical narrative in an attempt to give it divine authority. As such, this version of the Bible virtually incarnates the nationalistic idolatry that has afflicted the Church for centuries and so thoroughly compromised the beauty of the trans-national, self-sacrificial Kingdom Jesus came to bring.
In the Introduction Dr. Richard Lee promises that, "If you love America and the Scriptures, you will treasure this Bible." I truly love America and deeply love the Scriptures, but for just this reason, I was thoroughly appalled by this Bible.
Dr. Richard Lee's response to Greg Boyd's review of the Patriot's Bible will be posted soon.
May 22, 2009
Greg Boyd says the American Patriot's Bible is nothing less than "idolatrous."
Published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, The American Patriot's Bible (henceforth Patriot's Bible) consists of hundreds of commentaries on various patriotic themes, ranging in length from one sentence to four pages, inserted at various points throughout the New King James Version of the Bible. Every special interest Bible imposes a certain agenda that to some degree colors the Word, but the Patriot's Bible takes this "coloring" to a whole new level. There's not a single commentary in this Bible that even attempts to shed light on what the biblical text actually means. To the contrary, the text of the Bible is used merely as an excuse to further the patriotic agenda of the commentators.
There are a multitude of problematic aspects to the Patriot's Bible, including the remarkable way it excludes from consideration almost every aspect of American history that could blemish the image of America or its heroes. For example, on the basis of Zechariah's prophecy that the Messiah would "speak peace to the nations" (Zech. 9:10) we are given a full page eulogy of Christopher Columbus that celebrates how God had destined this "devout Catholic" to bring the good news of salvation to an unreached people group. Absent from the commentary is any discussion of how he and his fellow pioneers deceived, maimed, raped and murdered a large number of these unreached people.
Yet, the selective retelling of American history found in the Patriot's Bible is not what concerns me the most. What disturbs me more is the way the commentators attempt to give their idealized version of American history divine authority by weaving it into the biblical narrative.
The central assumption that undergirds the Patriot's Bible is that America is, in a unique sense, a nation established, governed, blessed and protected by God. Throughout the Patriot's Bible, but especially in the Old Testament, an explicit parallel is drawn between Israel and America.
For example, George Washington is exalted as the "American Moses," about whom the commentators wonder "[h]owâ€¦is it possible for so much greatness to be embodied in one man?" Similarly, as God brought the Israelites out of oppression and led them into the promised land, so God led the brave pioneers of America out of their oppression and brought them to their promised land. As God fought on the side of the Israelites to ensure victory over their foes, so God's providential hand was at work in all of America's military victories. And just as God used the children of Abraham to bless the whole world, so God has used, and wants to continue to use, America to bless the entire world by bringing it freedom.
A question never addressed in the Patriot's Bible is why anyone, American or otherwise, should agree with any of this. The Patriot's Bible never tires of offering the reader quotes from various famous people in American history who believed all of this, but this simply begs the question. Why should we today regard the claims to divine favor found throughout our history as any different than similar claims made by political leaders of countries and tribes throughout history? After all, with very few exceptions, all countries and tribes throughout history have believed they were established, governed, blessed and protected by some god or another. When we read about early American pioneers who claimed it was "manifest destiny" that white Europeans would conquer and rule this continent, we have to ask ourselves why we shouldn't regard such proclamations as simply a new version of a very old pagan mantra. (We're also justified â€“ indeed, required â€“ to wonder what impact the contemporary Christian endorsement of this white European interpretation of providence might have on American Indians, African Americans and others who continue to suffer as a result of the violent European conquest of this land).
The assumption that God is uniquely invested and involved in America should especially concern Christians, since Jesus explicitly taught that the Kingdom he brought had nothing to do with nationalism or violence. His Kingdom was "not of this world," and the proof he offered Pilate in support of this claim is that his followers would not engage in violence, as defenders of worldly kingdoms invariably do (Jn. 18:36).
The Kingdom that Jesus' followers are to be committed to is one that expresses the "one new humanity" Jesus died to create, a humanity for which all dividing walls of nation and race have been abolished (Eph. 2:14). In Christ, we are no longer to relate to each other in terms of nationality, social class or gender (Gal. 3:28-29). The vision of the Kingdom we're to be working toward is one in which people from every nation and tribe come together to worship around the throne (Rev. 7:9-10). And the Kingdom we're to "seek first" is one that is centered on imitating Jesus' loving sacrifice for his enemies (Eph. 5:1-2; cf. Jn 13:5; 1 Pet 2:20-21; Jn 2:6). In this light, it's nothing short of tragic that we now find ourselves with a version of the Bible whose sole purpose is to reinforce the nationalism and celebrate the military victories of a particular country.
The point becomes even more important when we consider the long and sad history of "Christian" nationalism. Whenever the church failed to preserve the unique beauty of God's trans-national Kingdom and allowed itself to be co-opted by the spirit of nationalism, bloodshed "in Jesus' name" soon followed. Beginning in the late Middle Ages, this Christianized nationalism inspired Christians to wage war on other Christians in service to their respective countries. The numerous barbaric intra-Christian wars from the 14th to the 17th centuries significantly undermined the credibility of the Church and were the single greatest influence in the secularization of western culture.
Sadly, the Patriot's Bible is saturated with this nationalistic, "fight-for-God-and -country," mindset. For example, this Bible repeatedly celebrates God's supposed providential hand in the American Revolution, which is simply one of the more recent examples of Christians slaughtering other Christians for nationalistic purposes.
To give but one illustration, on the basis of Paul's encouragement for Christians to be "rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith" (Col. 2:7), the contributors to the Patriot's Bible offer a review of John Quincy Adam's claim that the Fourth of July is "the most joyous and most venerated" holiday after Christmas, claiming that the two are "indissolubly linked." The Declaration of Independence, we are told, "first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer's mission upon earth" and thereby "gave to the world the first irrevocable pledge of the fulfillment of the prophecies announced â€¦at the birth of the Saviorâ€¦" (p. 1352).
Now, one might legitimately wonder what possible connection exists between Paul's admonition to be "rooted and built up in [Christ]," on the one hand, and this patriotic quote from John Quincy Adam, on the other. There is none, and this is sadly typical of the commentaries in the Patriot's Bible. The biblical text has been reduced to nothing more than an artificial pretext to further a particular nationalistic and political agenda. One might also legitimately wonder how the Fourth of July beat out Easter for the second most joyous and venerated holiday. But the more important point concerns what this passage reveals about the vision of America advocated in the Patriot's Bible. The Declaration of Independence, we are told, is nothing less than the pledge that Christ's mission is being fulfilled, which is why American Christians should celebrate our victorious violence over our British brothers and sisters in Christ as the providential working out of Jesus' mission!
This Jesus, remember, is the same one who commanded us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, pray for those who mistreat us and turn the other cheek so that we might become "children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked" (Lk 6:35, cf. 27-34; cf, Mt. 5:38-48). How the birth of this Jesus could be viewed as "indissolubly linked" to Christian-on-Christian violence is a wonder. But how this idolatrous connection could get inserted into a published Christian Bible leaves me speechless.
Part 2 of Greg Boyd's review of the Patriot's Bible will be posted soon. A response by the Patriot's Bible's editor, Dr. Richard G. Lee, will also be featured on Out of Ur in the coming days.
February 18, 2009
Theologian J. I. Packer on restricting the Lord's Supper
Late in 2008, theologian J. I. Packer sat down with a few CTI editors to talk theology. Here's what Dr. Packer had to say when the conversation ranged to Communion.
Do you believe that access to the Lord's Table should be restricted, and if so, how does the church do that in a way that's inoffensive?
Yes, I believe access should be restricted at two points. First, the folk who come to share the Lord's Supper with the congregation should be people who have shown that they can discern the Lord's body. In other words, they understand what the Communion service is all about: Christ crucified for us.
The second point of restriction is when individuals in the congregation are known to be living in sin. If the attempt has been made to wean them away from sin according to the rules of Matthew 18, and it's failed, then the text says, "Let him be to you as a heathen and a publican," a tax collector, someone beyond the pale. The pastor, with the backing of those who were trying to wean the person away, should say, "Don't come to the Lord's Table. If you come, the bread and wine will not be served to you. I shall see to that."
Churches that don't have a stated pastor - old-fashioned brethren assemblies and gatherings of that kind - must make their own rules as to how that warning gets communicated. If it's a church where the elements are passed down the rows, the elders must be alerted to the fact that this chap is sitting in church, brazen, expecting to receive the Lord's Supper. It's their business to escort him out.
Now, there's got to be agreement amongst the congregational leaders as to what constitutes a serious offense. You wouldn't exert this kind of discipline for people who, shall I say, play Bingo when the congregation can't regard the playing of Bingo as a particularly godly activity. But again, amongst evangelicals I would expect that in most churches, but perhaps not all, it would be recognized that a gay partnership is contrary to the authority of Scripture.
Why do we do this at all? Well, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 that when you come together to eat the Lord's Supper, you must come as those who discern the body, and while this has been disputed, I think that discerning the body means what the church has always thought it meant; that is, it's not discerning the responsibilities of fellowship within the congregation, the spiritual body of Christ. It's discerning that the sacramental action of giving and receiving the bread and the wine points to the physical body of Christ, crucified for us.
But whichever interpretation you think is right, Paul does call for discipline of those not discerning the body. If the person won't accept the rebuke of the church, and you think that the body is the congregation, then they're still not discerning the body, and the authority of Christ through his body.
You can't avoid offending the offender. But I think the procedure I've described keeps the offense to the congregation down to the minimum.
What about when you have a non-Christian visiting the church, just investigating the claims? How would you handle that case?
A common practice is to make an announcement before Communion that we welcome at the Lord's Table any visitors who are in good standing as members of their own congregation. That means they have been baptized, are making a credible profession of faith now, and have no major offense in their life. They're currently under discipline from their own congregation.
This interview originally appeared on Off the Agenda.
January 8, 2009
The Bible has multiple books with multiple authors for a reason.
The great Reformer Martin Luther famously found the letter of James to be a strawy epistle because, in his judgment, it did not teach enough Christ or faith or grace. It had too much law for him. Most of us have forgiven Luther for overcooking his confidence, but he illustrates how many of us often read the Bible. We fasten upon a "maestro" ? and Luther's maestro was clearly the Apostle Paul ? and make the rest of the Bible fall in line with our maestro's lens of interpretation. Let me trade a moment in a few stereotypes.
Protestant liberals, Anabaptists, and Red Letter Christians have all made Jesus the maestro of their Bible reading. Everything is seen through the angle of the words "kingdom" and social justice as "discipleship." We are tempted, of course, to forgive anyone who makes Jesus their maestro, but the wisdom of God in giving us a canon - a list of 27 books that included Paul and Peter and John and Hebrews and Jude - which renders making even Jesus the maestro suspect.
Conservative evangelicals and the (strongly) Reformed have made Paul their maestro, at times a bit like Luther. In their view the rest of the Bible either anticipates or clarifies "justification by faith" and "soteriology" and "grace." Paul's theology, it must be admitted, is gloriously rich and his categories breathtakingly clear and the implications profound. But the wisdom of God was to give us a bundle of books and a bundle of authors. A fully biblical approach to reading the Bible reads and accepts each author and each book.
Maestro Bible reading is an alluring temptation for a number of reasons:
-It is simpler to master one author and let the others chime in where they fit;
-It is safer to have it all figured out;
-It is more challenging to work out our faith when we invite multiple voices to the table;
-It is easier to fit into our church tradition if we just let the tradition shape what we believe, and many traditions are shaped by maestro Bible readings.
But we must guard ourselves against the temptation to make one biblical author our maestro.
In college my favorite Bible teacher was a man named Joe Crawford. He once told me that though Calvin was a Calvinist, when it came to his commentaries he let the text say what it said. Apart from a few lapses from this principle (and apart from the timeliness of his concerns), I have found my teacher's observation about Calvin to be true. And I would hope the same is true about us today.
Recently my friend Lincoln Hurst, a New Testament scholar, passed away too soon. His greatest contribution to biblical studies was an act of love for his teacher. Lincoln completed, when his teacher also died too soon, G.B. Caird's marvelous New Testament Theology. The genius of that volume was the imaginary invitation of each of the authors of the New Testament to the table to give an account of their understanding of the gospel and theology. (Except that the voice of James, under the influence of the Reformers, was rarely heard.) The genius of Caird's approach is to emphasize and relish the admirable diversity of New Testament theology. For Caird there was to be no maestro.
Two observations flow from avoiding the maestro approach and inviting to the table all the "theologies" of the Bible. First, language can only do so much and the one thing that it can't do is capture the fullness of God's truth in one set of images. As you can't describe a mountain from one angle, so you can't describe the gospel with one term ? Jesus' "kingdom" or Paul's "justification" or John's "eternal life" or Hebrews' "priesthood." It is an act of violence upon John to force him into the mold of Paul. The more voices the merrier, God must be saying.
Second, the diversity of the New Testament provides a model for us today: we need to invite more voices to the table than we have in the past. A colleague of mine who teaches across the street at North Park Theological Seminary, Soong-Chan Rah, has a book about to come out from IVP called The Next Evangelicalism. His contention is that there is a white, Western captivity of the evangelical church in America. If he's right, and I have no solid reasons to think he's wrong, we are in need of a G.B. Caird model for doing evangelical theology. If we can put away our maestro approaches long enough to invite others to the table ? African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, and both genders ?we might hear the gospel better and offer to our world a more complete depiction of what God is doing in this world. Call it kingdom or church or justification or eternal life. I suspect we might need each of these terms and more if we are to speak the gospel well to that next evangelicalism.
December 5, 2008
God works despite our weak human frailty.
by Scot McKnight
Whether we heard it first in Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, in a Church history class, or in a book, most of us were probably surprised by the political machinations behind The Nicene Creed. I first heard about it from theologian Harold O.J. ("Joe") Brown. More than once I've told my audiences that Constantine should have kept his nose out of the Church's business, that there was too much political unity in mind, and that some of those theologians were anything but noble. It seems most everyone agrees with me. But there it is - the faith we all confess - debated and drafted up in extraordinary lines by ordinary human beings who were embroiled in more than exegesis and theology.
Most explanations I've heard try to hide the obvious: "Constantine's impact was actually minimal," or "that's the way they did things back then." Perhaps we need to ask what folks would like to have happened. If we had our wishes, The Nicene Creed would have been drafted by theologians without spot or wrinkle, men (and women) in whom their was no guile, church leaders who resisted every attempt to grasp power, and political leaders who know the difference between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of the world to come. In other words, we'd prefer The Nicene Creed to have been drafted by God Incarnate.
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November 26, 2008
The former Emergent coordinator blogs about his views on faith and sexuality.
Tony Jones, the former national coordinator of Emergent Village and the author of The New Christians, has articulated his beliefs about homosexuality on his blog. Jones, along with other Emergent leaders, has been questioned for years about his views on the debated cultural and doctrinal issue. Until now, Jones had always responded by saying he hadn't made up his mind on the question. "Homosexuality," he would say, "is one issue that I don't want to get wrong."
Well, it seems Jones has now made up his mind. The blog post, which can be read here, explains his journey with the issue from childhood. But Jones discloses that:
...all the time I could feel myself drifting toward acceptance that gay persons are fully human persons and should be afforded all of the cultural and ecclesial benefits that I am.
I now believe that GLBTQ can live lives in accord with biblical Christianity (at least as much as any of us can!) and that their monogamy can and should be sanctioned and blessed by church and state.
(BTW, for those unfamiliar with the acronym GLBTQ it stands for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer or Questioning...depends on who you ask according to Wikipedia. And for those who are unfamiliar with the acronym BTW...are you kidding me?)
Clearly, Jones' statement is very carefully worded to convey his intent and nothing more. But for his critics and those suspicious of Emergent Village, this discloser will only add fuel to their fire. It should be noted that Jones no longer speaks on behalf of EV, and his remarks shouldn't be projected upon others within the Emergent conversation.
October 9, 2008
The Shack and Its Aftershocks
Skye is offering a terrific play by play. Let me offer a word of commentary on one entry he mentioned.
One of the people I was most interested to meet at Catalyst was William Paul Young, the author of "The Shack," the self-published novel that was given a spectacular endorsement by Eugene Peterson, got amazing word-of-mouth distribution and rocked the publishing world, selling millions and sparking a heated blogosphere debate among Christians over whether the book is heretical in its depiction of God or whether it's a helpful and clarifying portrayal of God's three-in-one character.
Today Paul (he goes by his middle name) was interviewed on the main stage. At yesterday's Catalyst lab, Paul explained to a mostly supportive audience the origin of the novel. He said it was NOT written to make a statement about the Trinity. Instead, he said, it was written to be given to family members to help them better grasp issues of God and gender! To work through the pain of earthly fathers who are distant or absent during times of Great Sadness.
Oh, my, I thought. If anything is more volatile than the Trinity, issues of gender would be on a fairly short list of things guaranteed to be impossible to address without offending a whole lot of people. The intricacies of describing the Trinity will offend the theologically trained, but the suggesting God has gender issues will disturb just about everyone.
"God is spirit," Paul reminded us, "not male or female." But to describe God's relationship to people, the Bible describes God with both male and female terms. Paul pointed for example to "El Shaddai," a Hebrew term he explained as "from the same word as ?breast,' referring to God as nurturer and provider and one who would give her life for her child." Instead of "the Lord of Breasts," the King James Bible translates the term "Lord of Hosts," which Paul said he considered a bit ironic.
And I thought the Bible's calling God a "living stone" and "mother hen" were problematic. Silly me. So Paul Young portrays two persons of the Godhead as female and one as male in perfect unity.
Paul explained his primary purpose in "The Shack" was to show that God is not an absent Father, but is in "The Shack" with us, in our Great Sadness, usually showing up in a way we do not expect.
His explanation certainly won't pacify his critics, but it's still helpful to see a novel in its larger context.
October 8, 2008
Five common, but flawed, approaches to reading the Bible.
by Skye Jethani
Day 1 at Catalyst in Atlanta is dominated by the Labs. These smaller breakout sessions give conference attendees a more intimate setting to hear from authors, thinkers, and leaders in a more interactive environment. My first stop was Scot McKnight's lab "The Blue Parakeet" based on his new book by the same title. The book advocates a "third way" of reading the Bible. (Scot is a friend and a regular contributor to Out of Ur.)
Next week, Brandon O'Brien will be posting his review of The Blue Parakeet so you should stay tuned for a more in depth discussion of McKnight's ideas. For now, I'll just mention a snippet from his lab I found helpful.
McKnight outlined five flawed ways many people read the Bible:
1. The Morsels of Law Approach
These people search the Bible and extract ever commandment. They see Scripture as fundamentally a book of rules to be obeyed. The problem, says McKnight, is that no one really obeys - or even tries to obey - every commandment. And we're not just talking about some obscure stuff in Leviticus. Scot mentioned a number of New Testament commands that many Christians dismiss as well. We are all selective.
2. The Morsels of Blessing Approach
McKnight says publishers are always sending him daily calendars that have a different promise or blessing from the Bible printed on each day. It's a nice way to start the morning, he notes, but it gives people a skewed view of Scripture. The Bible is a lot more than warm thoughts from our Creator to carry us through our day. Finally fed up with these calendars, McKnight wrote to one of the publishers offering to write a daily calendar with nothing but passage about God's wrath.
3. The Rorschach Approach
Most people are familiar with the Rorschach Ink Blot test often used by psychologists. Patients are asked what they "see" when looking at symmetrical ink patterns. Because the blots don't really resemble anything, the patient's answer tells the therapist more about the patient than the image. Similarly, McKnight notes that many people see in Scripture what they want to see, not what's really there. For example, political conservatives see justification for capitalism. Liberals see justification for a welfare state.
4. The Systematic Theology Approach
Some folks, the particularly left-brained and anal retentive (my perception, not McKnight's), believe that God has scattered facts throughout the Bible. These snippets of truth need to be located, rather like an Easter egg hunt, and categorized into buckets. Finally, the pieces are assembled into a systematic theology without ambiguity or mystery to explain God, humanity, creation, and history. The fatal error in this approach, says McKnight, is that large portions of Scripture are never included because they refuse to fit into our neat systems.
5. The Maestro Approach
McKnight shared about his love of Italian food - particularly risotto. The best risotto he ever had was prepared by a chef in Italy while on vacation. Since then he's compared every other risotto dish with that one. We all have favorites; someone we consider the maestro, the master, we compare all others with. So it is with the Bible. Some people have a master book of the Bible - Exodus for Liberation Theologians, or Romans for Reformed pastors - and then they force every other part of the Bible to fit that book's framework. Some favor the Gospels and Jesus' focus on the Kingdom, but they don't read about the Kingdom in Paul's writing. So they force the Epistles to submit to the Gospels. The opposite also happens when Jesus is only read through Paul.
These five approaches, says McKnight, are all very common, and all very flawed. His solution? We must read the Bible as a story. But it's not just a story that we read, it is a story that we live. "We must let the Bible's story become our story," he said, "so that it becomes us, and we become it."
Intrigued? Me too.
More from Catalyst tomorrow.
October 3, 2008
One reader’s suggestion for a happy and safe future.
by Url Scaramanga
I would like to thank Mr. Victor T. Cheney for recently sending me a copy of the second edition of his self-published pamphlet titled "Celibacy Guaranteed: For a Safe and Happy Future." Mr. Cheney has asked us to share parts of his pamphlet with you.
From page 3:
There is only one way to be sure of permanently eliminating the sex drive and guaranteeing the purity of our priesthood, and that is to remove the source of the hormone which causes it and the aggressive instinct which is its cohort?. Removal of the testes for the purification of the priesthood is not some new idea or experimental notion; it has been used for millennia. The history of this means of assuring purity is still traceable in spite of the suppression of information on the practice since the First Nicaean Council in 325 A.D.
A cornerstone of Mr. Cheney's argument is Mark 9:42-46:
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.
The pamphlet goes on to trace the history of castration both in Scripture and church history, as well as medical advances ensuring the safe and risk-free removal of the offending organs.
Part II, "The Benefits of Castration," outlines how the prescribed solution would alleviate sexual temptation, crime, disease, pain, anguish, psychoses, degradation, suffering, premature mortality, acne, and baldness. "Castration offers a blessed relief from all of these problems that bedevil us." Full of statistics and citations, "Celibacy Guaranteed" is an insightful, detailed, and frighteningly logical read.
Apart from wrestling with the best way to handle the growing epidemic of sexual immorality within the church, Mr. Cheney's pamphlet should make us stop and think once again about the ramifications of our hermeneutical approach to Scripture. I recommend taking Scot McKnight's very popular Hermeneutics Quiz to determine your own views and possible inconsistencies.
[For the record, Url does not advocate castration as a legitimate method of sin management.]
September 26, 2008
What Election Day might reveal about the hopes of evangelicals.
by Scot McKnight
Somewhere between 6pm and 8pm, Central Time, on November 4th, 2008, the eschatology of American evangelicals will become clear. If John McCain wins and the evangelical becomes delirious or confident that the Golden Days are about to arrive, that evangelical has an eschatology of politics. Or, alternatively, if Barack Obama wins and the evangelical becomes delirious or confident that the Golden Days are about to arrive, that evangelical too has an eschatology of politics. Or, we could turn each around, if a more Democrat oriented evangelical becomes depressed and hopeless because McCain wins, or if a Republican oriented evangelical becomes depressed or hopeless because Obama wins, those evangelicals are caught in an empire-shaped eschatology of politics.
Where is our hope? To be sure, I hope our country solves its international conflicts and I hope we resolve poverty and dissolve our educational problems and racism. But where does my hope turn when I think of war or poverty or education or racism? Does it focus on November 4? Does it gain its energy from thinking that if we get the right candidate elected our problems will be dissolved? If so, I submit that our eschatology has become empire-shaped, Constantinian, and political. And it doesn't matter to me if it is a right-wing evangelical wringing her fingers in hope that a Republican wins, or a left-wing evangelical wringing her fingers in hope that a Democrat wins. Each has a misguided eschatology.
Now before I take another step, it must be emphasized that I participate in the election; and I think it makes a difference which candidate wins; and I think from my own limited perspective one candidate is better than the other.
But, participation in the federal election dare not be seen as the lever that turns the eschatological designs God has for this world. Where is our hope? November 4 may tell us. What I hope it reveals is that:
Our hope is in God. The great South African missiologist, David Bosch, in his book Transforming Mission impressed upon many of us that the church's mission is not in fact the "church's" mission but God's mission. Our calling is to participate in the missio Dei, the mission of God in this world. So, at election time we can use the season to re-align our mission with the mission of God. Therein lies our hope.
Our hope is in the gospel of God. God's mission is gospel-shaped. Some today want to reduce gospel to what we find in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, while others want to expand it to bigger proportions (and I'm one of the latter), we would do well at election time to re-align ourselves once again with the gospel as God's good news for our world. Therein lies our hope.
Our hope is in the gospel of God that creates God's people. God's gospel-shaped mission creates a new people of God. In fact, the temptation of good Protestants to skip from Genesis 3 (the Fall) to Romans 3 (salvation) must be resisted consciously. We need to soak up how God's gospel-shaped work always and forever creates a gospel people. The first thing God does with Abraham is to form a covenant people, Israel, and Jesus' favorite word was "kingdom," and Paul was a church-obsessed theologian-missionary. Herein lies the challenge at election time. We are tempted to divide the USA into the good and the bad and to forget that the gospel has folks on both sides of political lines. Even more: we are tempted to think that the winners of the election are those who are blessed by God when the blessing of God is on God's people. God's gospel-powered mission creates a new people, the church, where we are to see God's mission at work. Therein lies our hope.
Our hope is in the gospel of God that creates a kind of people that extends God's gospel to the world. Chris Wright's big book, The Mission of God, reminds us that election is missional: God creates the people of God not so the people of God can compare themselves to those who are not God's people, but so that God's people will become a priesthood in this world to mediate the mission of God, so that all hear the good news that God's grace is the way forward.
Our hope is in God's mission in this world, and that mission transcends what happens November 4th.
August 29, 2008
What the new Batman movie says, and doesn’t say, about the origins of evil.
by Skye Jethani
Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, Batman!
I've been meaning to write a post about The Dark Knight for weeks, but between family vacations and working on the fall issue of Leadership, I've been swamped. I'm a big fan of superhero movies, and this summer I've seen a bunch - Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and the latest installment of Christopher Nolan's fantastic Batman series, The Dark Knight. My companion to most of these comic book movies is a psychiatrist from my church who has a penchant for professional wrestling and shares my follicle failings. (I highly recommend watching fantasy movies with a psychiatrist - it's more fun than applying Freudian dream analysis to nursery rhymes.)
I feel no need to add my accolades for The Dark Knight to those already swirling around the web. (Check out Todd Hertz's review at CTMovies.com.) Instead, I want to discuss an interesting storytelling element of the film that may help explain one of the more mysterious elements of the Bible - emphasis on the word may. (Let's not take a movie too seriously or read overly spiritual themes into it. That only spoils an otherwise good the film and risks diminishing our faith.)
Batman's nemesis in The Dark Knight is the Joker, played by the late great Heath Ledger. Unlike earlier film depictions of the Clown Prince of Crime, Ledger's Joker has no back-story, no origin, no narrative arc. In The Dark Knight, we never discover what would drive a man to dye his hair green, paint his face white, smear a ghastly smile across his cheeks and murder people for the sheer fun of it.
In Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, the Joker, played by Jack Nicholson, is a mob boss who falls into a vat of chemicals that bleaches his skin, gives him a permanent grin, and loosens a few screws in his head. Nicholson's Joker is the product of an accident. This knowledge humanizes the character, and despite his evil behavior the audience retains some degree of pity for the villain.
Not so in The Dark Knight. Director Christopher Nolan says he intentionally avoided giving the Joker any back-story in his movie. "He's got no story arc," says Nolan, "he's just a force of nature tearing through [the film]." Co-writer David Goyer says there is no need for an origin for the Joker because, "He just is. He's more interesting without it."
Nolan says a back-story for the Joker "would reduce the character. It's more frightening because, in a sense, there is no mystery there.... He is exactly what he presents himself to be; which is an anarchist." Nolan describes the Joker as a "mad dog" - a description carried into the film when the Joker describes himself as a dog chasing cars - he wouldn't know what to do if he caught one.
How does this relate to the Bible? Well, Scripture is largely silent regarding the origins of the enemy and evil - the blight of sin that marks our world. We know how humanity rebelled against God and fell into sin through the deception of the serpent in the garden - but where did the serpent come from? If God created a perfect creation and declared all things "good," how and when did evil appear on the scene?
Yes, I know Jesus says he saw Satan fall from heaven (Luke 10:18), but even he offers no real back-story, no explanation. I am also aware of the apocryphal writings that try to explain the evil one's narrative arc and the popularity of such ideas with pop-evangelical fiction. But none of that changes the fact that scripture largely ignores the question - where did evil come from? Instead, the thrust of the Bible is focused on what God has done about it.
I wonder if the lack of a back-story for evil in the Bible is related to Nolan and Goyer's rationale for ignoring the Joker's back-story? Without an explanation or origin, God is emphasizing the utter meaninglessness and anarchy of evil. It cannot be understood; it cannot be rationalized. To do otherwise would be to legitimize its place in his creation or to create sympathy for an enemy that deserves none.
I recall sitting in a theology class in seminary where we debated the origins of evil. How could Adam and Eve even be tempted? After all, they were created in the image of God and completely pure. How did the serpent come to be in the garden? Why would God allow that?
After spending too much time debating these fruitless thoughts (which is the seminarian's specialty), my professor finally interrupted with his wisdom. "Never ask a question the text doesn't want to answer," he said. He was correct, of course. They are brilliant words I try to remember with each sermon I write.
Before The Dark Knight's premiere, comic book movie fanboys were all over the internet criticizing Nolan's decision to not include a back-story for the Joker. They wanted the film to be faithful to the comics. They wanted their questions about Batman's antagonist answered and expounded. Nolan refused because he had a higher goal than answering fanboys' questions - he wanted to tell a great story.
Answers to all of our questions about the origin of evil are not found in the Scriptures, which means that God, the Writer and Director of this cosmic drama, did not deem them necessary for the story he wanted to tell. Are we satisfied with that, or must we continue to contrive answers for ourselves? My guess is that Christians would find themselves in less trouble theologically, culturally, and politically if we stuck with the questions God has chosen to answer, and immersed ourselves in the story he has chosen to tell.
August 15, 2008
Scot McKnight says N.T. Wright and Christopher Wright show the future of theology.
Recently I was asked where theology was headed. I assured my reader that I wasn't "in the know" but that I would hazard a guess or two. First I thought we were likely to see a more robust Trinitarian theology, one deeply anchored in the great Cappadocian theologians like Gregory of Nyssa. But in some ways all the main lines of Trinitarian thought have already been sketched by great theologians like Karl Barth, James B. Torrance and others. With this first idea now set aside, I had a second idea of where theology is going: "The Wright Brothers."
No, not those Wright Brothers, but another set of Wrights (who aren't even brothers, except in Christ): Tom and Chris. Even if they don't map where all of theology is headed, these two scholars and devoted churchmen, both Anglican, do set before us two words that have become increasingly fruitful and I think will be the subject of serious theological reflection in the future. The two words are "earth" and "mission." Each scholar discusses both, but I will focus in this post on Tom Wright's focus on "earth" and Chris Wright's focus on "mission."
Increasingly we are seeing more and more Christians own up to the earthly focus of biblical revelation - the claim God makes upon this earth through his Eikons (humans made in his image). We are seeing a deeper reflection on what it means to participate in the historical flow, in government and politics and society and culture, and we are seeing a renewed interest in vocation and work. One of the more striking elements of this new surge is that theologians who are deeply anchored in the Bible also see our eternal destiny having an earthly shape.
And not only are we seeing the increasing presence of "earthly," but we are seeing a reshaping of theology itself so that God's mission in this world becomes central. Everyone knows that the latest buzz word is missional but not enough are thinking carefully about what mission means in the Bible and what it means to speak about "God's mission" (missio Dei). But there is a surge of thinking now about this topic and it will continue to spark interest both for pastors and professional theologians.
Now to the Wright brothers.
Tom Wright, in his book Surprised by Hope, relentlessly critiques the gnostic-like preoccupation so many have with heaven as a place for our spirits and souls - the place where we really belong, and the sooner we get there the better. It is not that Tom Wright denies heaven; no, he affirms it robustly but he argues that the eternal home for the Christian is not that old-fashioned view of heaven but the new heavens and the new earth. And he argues the new heavens and new earth are something brought down from heaven to earth. (Read Revelation 20 - 22.)
I think some have made far too much of this, as if it is a revolutionary insight. What it is, in my judgment, is a strong critique of how dualistic we've become. And it is a welcome call for us to see that what we do now prepares us for what we will do in the new heavens and the new earth. I think Tom Wright's emphasis here is spot-on: we need to grapple more directly with the connection of what God calls us to do now as continuous with what we shall be called to do for eternity. I hope many will see their way to read Tolkien's Leaf by Niggle, for it addresses similar themes.
This emphasis of Tom Wright's actually forms a foundation for Chris Wright's exceptional study The Mission of God. Here we find yet another theme that is reshaping so much of where theology is going: mission. I wish people asked this one simple question: What is the mission of God in this world? Chris Wright, taking his cues from the Old Testament - he's an Old Testament scholar - says the mission of God is to make his glorious Name known throughout the whole world. This mission, found so often in the prophets, shapes how we not only read the Bible but how we live out the Bible in our world.
God makes his Name known through God's people, first Israel and then the Church. Most centrally, God's mission with a Name becomes fully visible in Jesus Christ - in his life, death, resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit. This Story, this grand narrative of God's mission, is reshaping how theology is being done.
There is a converging hook here: Chris Wright ends his book on the theme of God's mission involving the earth - the whole earth. Tom Wright ends his book about earth on mission - the mission of God in this world. I think they are both right.
I can't see into the future, but I can see down the road a bit, and what I see is an increasing emphasis on earth and mission. Those two themes are likely to take us into the next two decades.
July 18, 2008
Mark Driscoll responds.
I want to thank Chad Hall for taking the time to read the book and giving me some helpful feedback in his review. I also appreciate the opportunity to respond and will seek to do so graciously.
(Read Chad Hall's review here.)
First, the accusation that I am humble is scandalous. I have said some things over the years that I regret. Meditating on the fact that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble, God shook me deeply. Today I am, as a friend says, a proud man pursuing humility by the grace of God. I appreciate Chad's insight that humility is knowing one's place in God's plan because I find it helpful and truthful.
Second, as a loving push back, I would say that my goal in the book was not to say anything new, but rather to say things that are timeless in timely ways. Admittedly, the person who graduated from seminary ten years ago and is now in ministry like Chad, might not resonate as deeply with Vintage Jesus as the twenty-something who is as lost as Dick Cheney in the woods - which was the primary audience I had in mind when I wrote. The feedback I am getting from younger, less theologically trained people is very encouraging and the sales of the book to young folks have remained strong by God's grace.
Third, the book is the first in an ongoing series and establishes the big anchor concepts of our faith that will be explored in greater detail in forthcoming books. All of them can be found at www.relit.org and yes, that is a shameless advertising plug. The next in the series is Death By Love, which is a series of pastoral letters to people I know and love explaining how twelve aspects of the atonement apply to them. So, for example, the expiation chapter is a letter to a dear female friend who was raped. The propitiation chapter is written to a suicidal non-Christian who molested a child and was convicted in court. My guess is that the style and stories will provide a glimpse into the pain of pastoral ministry and may be more what Chad was hoping for. I will make sure to send him a copy.
Fourth, I am always looking to be a better servant of Jesus. So, without being trite, the review is helpful. I'm publishing six books this year alone along with a lot of articles in addition to pastoral ministry, church planting, raising five kids, and more, and Chad has helped me remember to do my best with every project and for that I am grateful. In going back over Vintage Jesus, I still believe it is a great book that packs a ton into a fun and readable format. But I also see how I could have served people even better, and I aspire to so in future books. In the meantime, I'll be drinking flat Coke for Jesus and rejoicing in the fact that at least the truth was present in Vintage Jesus as it gives the Holy Spirit something to work with.
July 17, 2008
Tony Jones responds.
As writer, I am always thankful for reviewers who are thoughtful and evenhanded. I'm afraid that Chad Hall is neither.
(Read Chad Hall's review here.)
Firstly, I clearly do not write that the emergent movement is the exclusive purveyor of the reformation that is currently underway in Christianity. I make it clear in the pages that Mr. Hall cites that it is the gospel that is red-hot lava, bursting through the centuries of accoutrements that have been collected by the church. It would, indeed, be the height of arrogance to suggest that the emergent movement and the gospel are one-and-the-same, but I do no such thing. Instead, I write (and believe) that there are major, tectonic shifts taking place in the church, and the emergent movement is part of that landscape.
Next, to caricature my treatment of convention and traditional Christian worshippers as "crusty old Christians" is, of course, Mr. Hall's right, but it does not accurately reflect my feelings or my writing on the subject. I am frustrated by the reified theologies of the Protestant right and the reified bureaucracies of the Protestant left - and I make no bones about that - but I refer throughout the book to my own journey through those systems and with those people. Indeed, my parents are among those people.
Speaking of that journey, I don't know that it's "condescending" and "supremely arrogant" to write negatively about a theological system of which I was a part and which I now reject, that of Campus Crusade for Christ (at least as it was practiced and taught at Dartmouth College in the 1980s). Is it similarly arrogant for a convert to evangelicalism to write about the failings of the Catholicism he left? How about for the Catholic to write about how Catholicism is superior to Protestantism? Is that supremely arrogant? (Indeed, isn't it supremely arrogant to write a review accusing an author of being "supremely arrogant"?)
And now to defend my friends in Seattle. Mr. Hall refers to them as "intellectually superior egoists." Honestly, I find this label shocking and demeaning. In that chapter, I write that the people at Church of the Apostles are working hard to find common ground on the sexuality issues that are tearing at their denominations (Lutheran and Episcopal), that they feel caught in the shadow of Mark Driscoll's imposing mega-church, and that, above all else, they have an unremitting fear: "is this possible to sustain? How long until politics or gender issues or something else tears COTA apart?" (209) And I wrote about their East Coast benefactors to show just how tenuous their little cohort really is. Seriously, how many "intellectually superior egoists" do you know who are on the dole?
This goes to the very heart of my concern with Mr. Hall's review. The people of Church of the Apostles are the very "crusty old Christians" I'm accused of constantly disparaging: They abide by the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, they are faithful members of two mainline denominations, and they are reliant upon the subsidy of a wealthy, old endowment. And yet I portray them so glowingly that they come off as arrogant as I supposedly do.
So, I wonder, which is it, Mr. Hall? Do I admire them, or am I surreptitiously undermining them by writing honestly of their struggles.
And to Mr. Hall's final warning, let me say this: Truly, the deconstructive tendencies in the emergent tribe may be our undoing. Or they may be the very characteristics that infuse some Christlike humility in us. In either case, I'm counting my blessings that God, and not Mr. Hall, will be the final arbiter of that decision.
July 15, 2008
Chad Hall reviews the latest books by Tony Jones and Mark Driscoll.
If you'd asked me two years ago if I was part of the emerging church movement, I would have thought for a second and said, "Yes." When asked today, I pause for half a second before saying, "No." The New Christians and Vintage Jesus helped me clarify my journey from Yes to No.
I found one book insignificant and the other inflated.
Let's start with the insignificant. I admire Mark Driscoll for doing significant stuff. He's planted a thriving church in a place where it's tough to do ministry and helps lead one of the more successful church planting networks around (Acts 29). I cracked open Vintage Jesus anticipating something important. Based on the title, I expected Driscoll to pop the cork on an enduring theology that over time increases in flavor and potency. But the book was more flat Coke than fine wine.
I did not find Driscoll's book very interesting. About a third of the way through the book, my mind traveled back a decade to my first week of seminary. As a preaching newbie in need of guidance, I checked out an old, small book on preaching that started by saying something like, "If your sermons are not interesting, you're missing something because God is infinitely interesting." The notion that conversations about God should be interesting resurfaced as I read Vintage Jesus and caught myself muttering, "Yeah, yeah, yeah? so what?"
I did not expect some new theology from Driscoll, since that is certainly the opposite of his well known position. But I did expect him to show that God was interesting and revolutionary. I think guys like Erwin McManus and John Burke tend to deliver better on what I expected from Vintage Jesus: how ageless truth is renewed within each generation.
Driscoll wrote boldly when it came to things that don't really matter, such as his choice of over-the-top colorful language in retelling some biblical narratives. But he held back on the truly important matters, such as how radically life-altering is our faith. Except for a few confessional moments that really stood out, he played it safe in Vintage Jesus. Maybe he didn't want to be mistaken for one of those emergent kooks who deny the basics of faith he finds important: beliefs such as hell and substitutionary atonement. Whatever the reason Driscoll chose to play small in this book, I was disappointed. I think he could have done better.
Enough of that. Let's turn now to the inflated book.
The New Christians gave a true and honest depiction of the emergent church movement. That's not to say it was an attractive picture. I felt Jones presented himself and the movement as condescending, contradictory, and closed.
Jones's lava metaphor scored especially high on the pomposity meter. Evidently the emergent movement is red-hot gospel lava bursting forth from the confines of crusty old ?isms: individualism, consumerism, institutionalism, Presbyterianism, Catholicism, and Methodism.(37) I read the pages surrounding the metaphor four times looking for something that would rescue it from being a condescending thumb in the eye of anyone who is not emergent. I'm still looking.
In similar condescending fashion, Jones detailed his realization that the Campus Crusade for Christ folks he knew in college "were beholden to underlying theologies that are even more in need of overhaul than the methods themselves."(102) These Crusade schleps exemplify what Jones admitted sounds like a supremely arrogant equation: good theology begets beautiful Christianity while bad theology begets ugly Christianity. Even after his explanation, it still sounded supremely arrogant to me.
I also thought The New Christians revealed some deep contradictions in the movement. Jones emphasized that emergents are open and humble and driven to explore because they know they really don't know and they might be wrong. That's a nice epistemology, but it didn't play out in Jones's interaction with non-emergent thinkers. He never seriously considered that maybe non-emergents are legit in any significant way. What if Jones misunderstands or is misinterpreting the critics, the ?isms, the bureaucrats, the left, the right, or the foundationalists?
Jones was gracious, generous, and inclusive to emergents and practically anyone beyond the pale of crusty old Christians (saints, theologians who can be hijacked, Derrida, yoga, etc.), but was dismissive toward the crusty old Christians. He failed to explore the nuance and texture of these groups while simultaneously criticizing opponents of emergent for not recognizing the nuance and sophistication of his movement. Jones described emergent as a beautiful and messy movement, but gave evidence that non-emergent Christians are just ugly.
My jaw really dropped when Jones described an emergent church in Seattle. The congregation came off as a band of intellectually superior egoists. Bureaucratic institutionalism has suffocated the traditional church because it cares only about itself; meanwhile this rag-tag emergent congregation worries how long they can survive in face of the big, bad, co-opted, unthinking brutes who rule the spiritual landscape. They constantly look over their collective shoulder at mean old Mars Hill Church (Driscoll's congregation). Without even a nod to the irony and contradiction, Jones noted that the Seattle congregation exists because they are funded by a big, traditional, mainline church in Manhattan. I got the impression from the emergent pastor/priestess/abbess that the East Coast sugar daddy church really doesn't know what those crazy kids in Seattle are doing. That's okay; just send money so we can keep on emerging.
More than the condescension and contradiction, what I found most disturbing was that emergents' thinking process seems self-sealing. Early in the book, Jones recounts a critic who opined that criticizing emergents is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. Jones responded that emergents don't blindly accept the assumptions of the stories they've been handed, which could make them appear slippery. He went on to recall a time when Walter Brueggemann urged emergents to live by no other script than the biblical script, which emergents try to do.(39) This is a perfectly self-sealing process: anyone who criticizes emergents simply reveals how faulty the critic's assumptions are; anyone who doubts emergents' assumptions reinforces how faulty (non-biblical) the doubter's assumptions are; all criticism validates that emergents are on the right path and reinforces emergents' core assumptions that they are not beholden to any assumptions. Nothing self-critical here.
This self-sealing process showed up throughout the book, notably in Dispatch 10: "Emergents believe that theology is local, conversational, and temporary. To be faithful to the theological giants of the past, emergents endeavor to continue their theological dialogue."(111) I was impressed by what an elegant and efficient shelter this provided for emergents: by disagreeing with theologians of the past, they are actually agreeing with those same theologians. If you disagree with this dispatch, then you reinforce their theory in use. There is no way to for emergents to be wrong. In fact, my act of thinking in terms of right and wrong just shows how trapped I am by my own faulty assumptions. There's no way through this kind of thinking, and, I fear, no way out.
Driscoll's depiction of emergents as a bunch of liberal, sissy losers who finger paint is funny (in an off-color way), but I don't think it's very helpful for getting emergents out of their doom loop. He seems concerned with being right and being funny but not with influencing a group who really needs some of what he has.
And what does Driscoll have that emergents could use? As crazy as this might sound, I think he is humble. Not in the politically correct sense of humility where nobody is ever wrong or bad or judged, but in the City of God sense that you know your place in the order of things. In my opinion, Driscoll seems to get that Christianity is the rock against which humans are broken, the fire that purifies us, the sieve through which our lives are sifted and sorted and made good. By taking a deconstructing stance toward Christianity, theology, and life, emergents seem to be getting this backward: they can't help but to break, burn, and sift the faith.
Drunk on an overindulgence of their own intelligence and high on the hoopla of being on the exploratory edge, emergents seem headed off the road of what passes as sensible and sound Christianity. Can the Christian faith withstand the deconstructive doubts and curiosities of emergents? Of course it can. That's not the point. The point is that emergents may not be able to survive their chosen path.
In Vintage Jesus, I caught brief reminders of why and how our faith remakes us into God's likeness. In The New Christians, I learned just how much the emergent movement needs to take this reminder to heart.
**Stay tuned to Out of Ur in the next few days when we'll post responses by Tony Jones and Mark Driscoll to this review.**
May 28, 2008
Is there only one gospel? And what is the difference between the gospel message and the implications of that message? Can we preach one without the other?
To download this episode of Audio Ur, click here.
May 23, 2008
Has the American church gone soft on sin?
A century and a half ago, Herman Melville (he wrote Moby Dick, but don't hold that against him) observed, "In certain moods, no man can weigh this world without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance." It's remarkable to me that even today artists often come to the same conclusion: human experience doesn't quite make sense without some provision for inborn and radical evil. Even Hollywood has explored this theme in recent years. There Will Be Blood is a chilling story of humanity's incorrigible greed. Cormac McCarthy's novel (and the Cohen brothers' movie) No Country for Old Men deals directly with the concept of incarnate evil through Anton Chigurh, a villain who toys with human life mostly out of boredom. Apparently screenwriters are beginning to ask questions novelists have been asking for years.
G. K. Chesterton called sin "a fact as practical as potatoes" and original sin "the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved." Of course, not everyone takes it so seriously. Comedian Eddie Izzard calls it a "hellish idea. People have to go, ?Father, bless me for I?did an original sin. I poked a badger with a spoon.'" And there are those, too, like Oprah and Eckhart Tolle, who think too highly of human potential to entertain the idea of depravity.
But it's not only non-believers who lampoon the doctrine. Many Christians consider it an Augustinian idiosyncrasy that unfortunately made its way into Christian dogma - the invention of a guilt-ridden philanderer. An appeal to Martin Luther is little help; he'd no doubt be on antidepressants were he alive today.
However you feel about it, though, either embracing or rejecting the doctrine has its consequences. In his new book, Original Sin: A Cultural History (HarperOne, 2008), Alan Jacobs shows how a society's position on the doctrine affects everything from child rearing and education to law making and the formation of government.
Surely there are religious consequences as well. It seems to me that how we think about ourselves will have direct implications for how we understand discipleship. If we think we're basically all right at the core, then Jesus will be for us a sort of life coach to smooth off our rough edges and help us make good choices. But if we suspect that we humans are deeply and ontologically flawed, then we can understand what Paul means when he says that those who are in Christ are new creations.
Should we strive to become the best possible versions of ourselves, or altogether new persons? When you put it that way, most of us will say, "New persons, clearly." After all, evangelicals have a reputation for taking sin seriously. On paper, most of us affirm some version of original sin.
But what we prescribe says an awful lot about how we actually understand our illness. Take Joyce Meyer, for example (her new book showed up on my desk recently). According to Joyce, The Secret to True Happiness (Faith Words, 2008) is to "Laugh a Lot," "Get Some Rest," and "Keep It Simple," among other things. If that's all the medicine broken humans need, then we must not be so bad off after all.
It's easy to pick on someone like Joyce or the inimitable Joel Osteen. And it's become fairly popular - wrongly, I'd say - to criticize emerging Christians for being soft on sin. But what do our ministry paradigms and church programs and sermon series suggest about our understanding of human sinfulness? Do we merely treat symptoms with five steps to financial freedom or six ways to divorce-proof your marriage? If we think all we need are tips and strategies, and not radical transformation, are we really taking sinfulness seriously? If not, then can we really take Jesus seriously? We - myself included - excuse all sorts of behavior by saying, "That's just how God made me." We think we can do anything if we just believe in ourselves. Certainly we're made in the image of God. But do we take seriously enough that the image has been distorted?
It takes a bit of imagination to envision ministry built with a robust sense of fallenness as a starting point. Especially if you hope to avoid browbeating. I'm not advocating for "all your good deeds are filthy rags" and "dangling over a yawning hell by a shoe string" Christianity. I got my fill of that growing up. And I'm not promoting a Calvinist view of total depravity. You don't need one to recognize that we humans are not what we were made to be (see the Eastern Orthodox Church, for example). But what would the American church look like if we began to acknowledge that it will take more than programs and education, more than community and fellowship, more than doctrinal precision and striving to restore shalom in Creation to make us disciples?
April 16, 2008
Mark Dever asks, is our gospel too big?
I'm sitting at the airport in Louisville, Kentucky, heading back home after spending two days with 5,000 theology freaks, and I mean that in mostly a good way. Together for the Gospel ("T4G" to the initiated) is the second gathering of the friends and fans of Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, C.J. Mahaney, and their very systematic theology (there are XVIII Articles in their doctrinal statement).
The first T4G event in 2006 drew over 3,000 of the "young, restless, and reformed" (Collin Hansen's nicely turned phrase and title of his new book). The event this year was so large it had to be held in Louisville's International Convention Center.
This year's feeding of the 5,000 was a series of addresses on theology, specifically Calvinist theology--yes, total depravity was the topic of an entire session, as was "The Curse Motif in the Atonement"--but, interestingly, traditional Reformed emphases of infant baptism, the covenant, and presbyterian polity were missing.
Each presentation was followed by an informal conversation between Al and Mark and Ligon and C.J., and all 5,000 of us got to listen in to their insights and inside jokes, their questions and affirmations. It's an engaging mixture, at least for the left-brained, and if the couple dozen people I talked to are representative of the whole, these 5,000 aren't just casual about their theology. They love exploring, dissecting, and applying this stuff!
The conference bookstore takes up almost as many square feet as the meeting space, and it's all books! If you've been to other conferences recently, you'll recognize how bizarre this is - no videos, no music CDs, no resources (unless the ESV Study Bible counts). And many of the books are written by authors who aren't available for autographs - mainly because they've been dead for awhile (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Carl Henry) or quite a while (John Calvin).
The most intriguing session for me was Mark Dever's session on "Improving the Gospel: Exercises in Unbiblical Theology." Since Leadership and Christianity Today are in the midst of a year-long Christian Vision Project focus on "Is Our Gospel Too Small?" I figured Dever would find some points to differ with (which is a spiritual gift that did NOT cease with the apostles among this crowd). He didn't disappoint.
Mark identified five "cries" of our day that he considers unbiblical efforts to "add to the gospel" and thereby confuse people and diffuse the gospel's power. Let me summarize them.
1. "Make the gospel public." Dever cited N.T. Wright's emphasis on how the gospel is not just a private matter and should affect the laws of the land, and observed "there's none of that in Scripture." While conceding that there may be implications of the gospel that should affect legislation, Dever insisted, "We must distinguish the gospel itself from the implications of that gospel. Otherwise the message of God's fully sufficient work in Christ will be mixed and confused with human works?. Never substitute good works for the good news of the gospel."
2. "Make the gospel larger." Dever pointed to Charles Colson as showing signs of an overly enlarged gospel by suggesting that "Christianity is a way of seeing all of life and all of reality. It's a worldview." Mark's warning: There are lots of good things that Christians should do (working for justice, for instance, or practicing hospitality), but they're not the gospel. By bundling such good works with the gospel, we risk confusing the actual gospel with the way people choose to live it. Dever, who has a degree from Duke, observed of southern Christians before the Civil War: "Those who believed the gospel and supported slavery still shared the gospel with us, even if they were wrong about its implications."
3. "Make the gospel relevant." When the gospel is linked to efforts to make evangelism more effective, it leads to pragmatism, which leads to liberalism, said Dever. "Of course we should contextualize the gospel - not to make the gospel more palatable or acceptable to the sinner," he said, "but to make the offense of the gospel clearer." He insisted: "Don't try to improve the gospel by making it more relevant - you'll lose the gospel."
4. "Make the gospel personal." Dever pointed out the dangers of a strictly "me and Jesus" relationship, which leads people to view the church as an optional spiritual accessory. "The idea of being fundamentally identified and submitted to the authority of one particular church is as alien as eating locusts and wild honey. Too many see church as just a plural word for Christian." I couldn't quite tell if Mark intended to bundle the gospel with formal membership in a local congregation, but it sounded that way.
5. "Make the gospel kinder." God's purpose involves both the salvation of sinners and the damnation of sinners for his own glory, said Mark, and it's a mistake to assume that God's purpose is to do the greatest good for the greatest number, and therefore we should reach as many as we can. That leads to pragmatism, and "pragmatism is a greater danger than open theism ever will be."
Dever wrapped up by saying, "Keep the gospel clear - free from distortions. Don't try to improve it."
I'd never considered the question, "Is Our Gospel Too Large?" But in light of Dever's session, I might have to. I sure don't agree with everything I heard at T4G (the spirit of finding points of disagreement is contagious), but the energy of the theological interchange was even more contagious. Consider me Theology Freak 5,001.
March 20, 2008
Easter is more than one Sunday celebration a year.
At the National Pastors Conference in San Diego, our friend at PreachingToday.com, Brian Lowery, got to interview N. T. Wright about his latest book - Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church - and how it relates to preaching. Since we are all in the midst of the Easter journey, his words are timely, challenging, and above all else, hopeful. Here are a few excerpts. Read the full interview here.
Bishop N. T. Wright: [Studying] the Resurrection for an earlier book, Resurrection of the Son of God ? ended up rubbing my nose in the New Testament theology of new creation, and the fact that the new creation has begun with Easter. I discovered that when we do new creation - when we encourage one another in the church to be active in projects of new creation, of healing, of hope for communities - we are standing on the ground that Jesus has won in his resurrection.
For me there's no disjunction between preaching about the salvation which is ours in God's new age - the new heavens and new earth - and preaching about what that means for the present. The two go very closely together. If you have an eschatology that is nonmaterial, why bother with this present world? But if God intends to renew the world, then what we do in the present matters. That's 1 Corinthians 15:58!
The line I often use - which makes people laugh - is: "Heaven is important, but it's not the end of the world." In other words, resurrection means the new earth continues after people have gone to heaven. I put it this way for my audiences: "there is life after life after death." People are very puzzled by that.
So many people think preaching the Resurrection means doing a little bit of apologetics in the pulpit to prove it really is true. Others simply say, "Jesus is raised, therefore there is a life after death." This isn't the point! Those types of sermons may be necessary, but there's more to it than that. To preach the Resurrection is to announce the fact that the world is a different place, and that we have to live in that "different-ness." The Resurrection is not just God doing a wacky miracle at one time. We have to preach it in a way that says this was the turning point in world history.
Read the full interview with N. T. Wright at our sister site, PreachingToday.com.
February 25, 2008
It's your turn to take the hermeneutics quiz.
If you've already taken the quiz and gotten your score, post your comments below. How well did the quiz describe you?
If you haven't already taken the quiz, now it's your turn. You can find "The Hermeneutics Quiz" here.
Then come back to this page and comment. Let us know what you learned.
February 14, 2008
George Barna thinks so. And that's not the worst of it.
I appreciate it when a writer shows all his cards at the beginning of a book so I don't have to guess at his presuppositions. Frank Viola does just that in the opening line of his newly re-released Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (Barna, 2008). He starts like this: "Not long after I left the institutional church to begin gathering with Christians in New Testament fashion?" You can imagine the tone of the pages that follow.
Viola argues in his preface that the "practices of the first-century church were the natural and spontaneous expression" of believers indwelt by the Holy Spirit that were "solidly grounded in timeless principles and teachings of the New Testament." Regrettably, he maintains, most practices of contemporary churches - including everything from having a professional pastor to meeting in a church building - are at odds with New Testament teachings. Worse yet, those extra-biblical practices were adopted from pagan culture. This is unsettling, Viola sympathizes; but it is also "unmovable, historical fact." The remainder of the volume is an argument from Scripture and church history to support this thesis: "the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does."
In the interest of full disclosure, I should confess that I'm a member of a historic denomination that worships with the liturgy. Not only that, it was only after dutifully searching the Scriptures and Church history that I moved toward - not away from - a more hierarchical tradition. So, I'm incurably biased. You judge the following for yourselves:
One of the contemporary church practices Viola denounces is "The Pastor" (chapter five). Although "by and large, those who serve in the office of pastor are wonderful people," Viola argues, nevertheless, "it is the role they fill that both Scripture and church history are opposed to." He makes the following argument from Scripture: 1) The word "pastor" appears only once in the New Testament, in Ephesians 4:11. 2) The word for pastor in Ephesians 4 is plural, which suggests there were more than one pastor at each church. 3) The word means "shepherd," and does not, therefore, refer to a formal office, but simply a function of the church. 4) Finally, the passage "offers absolutely no definition or description of who pastors are."
Wait; it gets better.
After a dubious journey through church history documenting the development from New Testament shepherds to contemporary pastor, Viola concludes that the "unscriptural clergy/laity distinction has done untold harm to the body of Christ" (136). Allow me to list his grievances. The contemporary pastor-role has:
? "divided the believing community into first and second-class citizens"
? "stolen your right to function as a full member of Christ's body"
? "overthrown the main thrust of the letter to the Hebrews - the ending of the old priesthood"
? "rivals the functional headship of Christ in His church"
In short, "nothing so hinders the fulfillment of God's eternal purpose as does the present-day pastoral role."
Originally released in 2002, Pagan Christianity has been revised and updated with the help of George Barna. In my opinion, it's Barna's endorsement alone that makes the volume worth talking about. As angry and disillusioned as I was about institutional church six years ago, I would have enthusiastically digested Pagan Christianity in 2002 had it made waves big enough to reach me in Arkansas. With Barna's help, the splash it makes in 2008 may be considerably larger. Add to the new endorsement the growing unease with institutions in general, and Pagan Christianity, with its angst and pseudo-academic format, may just find a market this time around. I'm no longer sure that's a good thing.
Brandon O'Brien, Leadership assistant editor
February 1, 2008
One pastor believes franchising congregations is the model of the future.
Eddie Johnson, the lead pastor of Cumberland Church, espouses the franchising concept when it comes to the relationship between his church in Nashville, Tennessee, and North Point Community Church in metro Atlanta. On his blog, he states, "Just like a Chick-fil-A, my church is a 'franchise,' and I proudly serve as the local owner/operator."
According to Johnson, his job is to "establish a local, autonomous church that has the same beliefs, values, mission, and strategy as North Point." He completed a three-month internship at North Point and continues to receive training and support. He claims to rarely deviate from the "training manual."
"Just like that Chick-fil-A owner/operator," he says, "I'm here in Nashville to open up our franchise and run it right. I believe in my company and what they are trying to 'sell.'"
The pastor says people who are already familiar with the North Point "brand" will find a local congregation with the same fit. For those who have relocated from Atlanta, they'll get a taste of home and know what to expect in their new church.
According to Johnson's website, the "Strategic Partnership Churches" exist in such diverse locations as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. And by 2010, North Point plans to plant 60 new churches.
Is this the future of the Western church- franchised congregations of megabrands in every city with pastors serving as the local owner/operator? Many of us have seen this coming, but it's rather shocking to see the model and language of the franchised church so enthusiastically embraced as it is by Eddie Johnson.
What do you think? Are Cumberland Church and other franchised congregations the wave of the future? Are Chick-fil-A and McDonalds the right model for the church to be emulating? Are franchised mega-churches going to be the denominations of the 21st century? Or, is this consumer Christianity taken to its logical and disturbing extreme?
January 24, 2008
Can the hermeneutics quiz really determine your view of the Bible?
As expected, the blog has been abuzz with people's opinions about Scot McKnight's hermeneutical quiz in the new issue of Leadership. Some of the heat is coming from the assumption - primarily by those who have not seen the quiz - that it is a scientific instrument of high precision and accuracy. That was not McKnight's intention when he created the tool. He writes in the introduction:
This quiz is designed to surface the decisions we make, perhaps without thinking about them, and about how we both read our Bible and don't read our Bible. Some will want to quibble with distinctions or agree with more than one answer. No test like this can reveal all the nuances needed, but broad answers are enough to raise the key issues.
Earlier we posted the scores and responses from three Leadership contributors. Today we have another. John Ortberg has taken the Hermeneutics Quiz and scored 68 - on the borderline between Moderate and Progressive. His comments about the quiz are below.
I was struck by how often the statements that were placed on different places on the continuum actually seemed compatible or even mutually dependent to me. For instance, "The Bible is God's message for all time" and "The Bible is God's words and message for that time but need interpretation and contextualization to be lived today." These are BOTH statements that I would fully endorse; and its precisely the truth that the Bible is God's message for all time that makes it cry out for careful interpretation.
Also it occurred to me going through the statements that there is a difference between 'conservatism' and 'orthodoxy,' although in evangelical circles we often equate the two. For instance, since classical liberalism is associated with a denial of the divinity of Jesus, 'conservatism' tends to be associated with an emphasis on his divinity, even at the expense of his humanity. So docetic teachings about Jesus may be 'conservative' in that sense, but are clearly not 'orthodox.'
All of which is to say that the 'conservative-moderate-progressive' continuum is an interesting one. We tend to want to put people into a box and label them with these words, but I wonder what other kinds of frameworks might be developed to help us examine our approach and faithfulness to the text.
It also struck me how difficult it is to measure the kind of belief that really matters. Take Jesus' teaching, "It is better to give than to receive..." The hard question is - am I actually the living what I 'really' believe?
If you haven't already taken "The Hermeneutics Quiz," you can find it here.
January 21, 2008
Scot McKnight creates a tool to uncover our biblical blind spots.
As you read this, the winter issue of Leadership is hitting mailboxes. One of the more provocative features of the issue will no doubt be a hermeneutics quiz created by Scot McKnight. The issue's theme is, "Is Our Gospel Too Small?" To help answer that question, we invited McKnight to develop a simple tool to assist church leaders in diagnosing their own biases and blind spots with Scripture. In the introduction to the quiz, McKnight says:
I'm curious why one of my friends dismisses the Friday-evening-to-Saturday-evening Sabbath observance as "not for us today" but insists that capital punishment can't be dismissed because it's in the Old Testament.
The quiz is comprised of twenty multiple-choice questions designed to surface the decisions we make, perhaps without thinking about them, and how we both read our Bible and don't read our Bible. Here are a few sample questions:
The Bible's words are:
A. Inerrant on everything.
B. Inerrant on matters of faith and practice.
C. Not defined by inerrancy or errancy, which are modernistic categories.
The commands in the Old Testament to destroy a village, including women and children, are:
A. Justifiable judgment against sinful, pagan, immoral peoples.
B. God's ways in the days of the Judges (etc.): they are primitive words but people's understanding as divine words for that day.
C. A barbaric form of war in a primitive society, and I wish they weren't in the Bible.
The command of Jesus to wash feet is:
A. To be taken literally, despite near universal neglect in the church.
B. A first century form of serving others, to be practiced today in other ways.
C. An ancient custom with no real implication for our world.
After answering all 20 questions, your score is plotted on a hermeneutic scale ranging from Conservative (20-52), Moderate (53-65), and Progressive (66 or higher). McKnight offers helpful analysis concerning the strengths and weaknesses of each of these ways of interpreting Scripture, and he reveals how his own use of the quiz produced some surprising results. He writes:
I was surprised by the low score of an emergent friend and the high score of a professor at a very conservative Christian college. Some answer progressively on one controversial issue (say, women in ministry), while answering conservatively on others (homosexuality, for example).
We invited a few regular Leadership/Out of Ur contributors to take the quiz and report their scores. Here's what they had to say.
Dan Kimball is pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, a columnist for Leadership, and the author of a number of popular books including The Emerging Church. QUIZ SCORE: 62
I wasn't too surprised that I came out in the moderate category. I think the score represents me well. This was a great little survey as Scot causes us to stop and actually ponder the way we view Scripture. Too often we simply make assumptions and draw conclusions without really thinking about why. I am giving this quiz to our staff and elders. I think it will be a great discussion.David Fitch is a pastor at Life on the Vine Christian Community in Long Grove, Illinois, a professor at Northern Seminary, and the author of The Great Giveaway. QUIZ SCORE: 67
I find myself unhappy with my score on the quiz because it labels me a "progressive" (but just barely). I am unhappy because a progressive is described as a person who doesn't believe in the plain and literal meaning of the text. Yet I certainly do. I just don't believe the plain meaning is always immediately evident to each individual reading the text all by him/herself (and this includes even the most brilliant historical critical exegetes among us). Indeed that plain meaning is best preserved through the ongoing community of the church carrying out its apostolic task to faithfully transmit the gospel both in the community's preaching and its living. If that makes me a progressive, so be it.
I also must protest that seeing the Bible as "historically shaped and culturally conditioned" somehow makes me a progressive. For there is no more conservative view than believing in the incarnational nature of the gospel that has come in the particular person of Jesus Christ. This means that Truth necessarily comes via history and culture. The fact that I believe this should make me a raving lunatic conservative in these times where everyone wants to find God in the universal. All in all, I enjoyed taking this quiz and I say thanks to Scot. But I still wonder, how can this quiz help evangelicals escape the hermeneutical categories (of modernity) that individualize and dehistoricize the ways we seek to interpret Scripture?
Bryan Wilkerson is the senior pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, and a regular contributor to Leadership. QUIZ SCORE: 59
The quiz put me squarely in the Moderate category, which feels accurate and comfortable for me. While I would agree with McKnight's description of the Moderate as "flexible," I see flexibility in terms of applying scripture to a wide range of issues, rather than allowing freedom to pick and choose which commands to obey and which to dismiss. Similairly, what McKnight describes as the moderates' "struggles...to render judgments," don't feel like struggles to me, but rather like reasonable and defensible principles for interpreting difficult issues.
Recognizing these distinct approaches to the Bible (conservative, moderate, and progressive) helps to explain the difficulties we often have resolving controversial issues in the congregational. When wrestling with issues like women elders or modes of baptism, healthy debate and biblical discussion doesn't always lead to resolution because sincere believers are operating from different hermeutical perspectives. Awareness of these categories can defuse some of the tension, and reminds church leaders of the importance of teaching and modeling sound biblical interpretation.
If you haven't already taken "The Hermeneutics Quiz," you can find it here.
November 26, 2007
Popular pastor/author Rob Bell’s controversial message: God loves you.
When the babysitter arrived the night before Thanksgiving, she asked of our plans for the evening. Last week it was a concert, and three weeks before that we were headed to dinner and a movie. Tonight, my wife and I were going to?. I stumbled for words to describe Rob Bell's latest tour. I could tell by her eyes that she stopped caring about thirty seconds before I stopped trying to describe the event.
Bell's "the gods aren't angry" tour packed about two thousand souls into Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium for what wound up being a 90 minute sermon.
Bell is a popular writer, speaker and pastor, and I found it easy to see why he's so popular. As a friend commented after the event, "The dude has some mad communication skills." Wearing an all black outfit (save a bright white belt) that could have placed him as a member of Green Day, Bell presented an insane amount of information in a style that held my attention and quickened my spirit.
In a nutshell, Bell talked about how humans ? since the earliest cavewoman and caveman ? try to appease the forces that bring or withhold life. These human attempts led to formation of god concepts and religious practices, which grew ever more sacrificial and eventually led people to harm self and sacrifice children in bold attempts to assuage anxiety about the gods' opinions of us. Like some sort of Ken Burns without a camera, Bell incorporated tons of tidbits and insights from history, cultural anthropology, theology, sociology and literature to weave a compelling story of religiosity that's led to the anxiety-riddled human condition wherein we wonder, "Have I done enough?"
Into this system where humans guessed at what the gods want and then trying to give it, God spoke to Abram. Now the deity did the initiating. And the word from God was for Abram to forsake his father's household: which Bell equated with forsaking the old system of trying to appease the gods. Rather than trying to bless the gods, Abram's role was to be blessed by God. This was big revelation number one.
According to Bell, big revelation number two came in Leviticus. He said that this strange and seemingly backward third book of the Bible is best understood as a gift from God to help alleviate people's anxieties. Rather than leave us guessing and grasping for some elusive set of conditions by which God would be pleased, God presented Abram's lineage with an exact recipe for living and sacrificing, thus removing all doubt that God was not angry with them.
Bell said that big revelation number three came in Jesus. The sacrificial system outlined in Leviticus became corrupt and only led to more anxiety than it relieved. So at just the right time, God revealed that he never really needed our sacrifices anyway. Using quite a bit of humor, irony and pure wit, Bell painted a caricature god who is not complete without what people can provide or perform. Using various sayings from Psalms, Micah, Jesus, Paul's letters and Hebrews, he drew an alternate picture of the divine: a God who is not dependent on what we do, but who freely loves and pours blessing on us.
The problem, according to Bell, is not that God is angry with us, but that we think God is angry with us. Thus, Jesus' purpose wasn't to change God's mind about us, but to change our mind about God: to notify us of God's lack of anger and to free us from the prison of our misconceptions so that we can truly live well. The place of church and religious ritual is to remind us of our standing with God and freedom to live lives of sacrifice and service.
This tour stop still has me thinking. The sense I got from Bell is that the whole problem to be solved is a mental one: people are not aware of the already-true fact that God is not angry with them. I'm wrangling with the notion that what Jesus changed is not God's opinion of me, but my opinion of God. For some reason, this makes me think of Jesus as a Post-It note from God telling us what has been true rather than making it true. I'm ready to dismiss this as too insignificant, except that Bell convinced me that the alternatives leave us with a small god who needs sacrifice to be appeased.
I'm not ready to canonize Rob Bell, nor am I ready to fire up the Driscollian flame thrower and burn him a heretic. I chalk up my questions and concerns to the fact that no sermon ? even a 90-minute one delivered with incredible veracity ? can cover everything.
August 23, 2007
Does Christian radio have more influence over your flock than you do?
Sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura,?sola radio? The following conversation is based on true events.
Church member: "Pastor, I'm very disturbed by something you said in your sermon yesterday."
Pastor: "I'm glad you came to talk with me about it. What's bothering you?"
Church member: "In the sermon you mentioned Erwin McManus."
Pastor: "That's right. I quoted something he said about church membership."
Church member: "Well, I'm very disturbed that you would reference someone like him in a sermon! McManus is part of the emerging church, and I have serious problems with their theology based on what I've heard on the radio."
Pastor: "You do know Erwin McManus is a Southern Baptist, and I'm pretty sure his theology is quite orthodox. In fact, our denomination invited him to speak at our convention two years ago."
Church member: "Yes, I know they did, and I'm very bothered by that as well. McManus is part of the emerging church, and the emerging church is involved in all kinds of heresy."
Pastor: "The label ?emerging church' is used to describe a lot of different things, and I know some emerging church leaders are pushing the envelope with their theology, but I don't think Erwin McManus is one of them. To tell you the truth, I've never really considered McManus part of that movement. I think his books are just packaged and marketed to that crowd. I don't think you have to worry about his theology. Have you ever read one of his books?"
Church member: "No, but I don't have to. I listen to Chuck Colson on the radio and he says the emerging church is dangerous. It's not something we should be messing around with, and the fact that you'd quote an emerging church pastor in your sermon is very alarming."
Pastor: Well, I'd encourage you to read up on what McManus teaches and believes, and if you find something problematic, let me know. I'd be happy to talk with you about it.
Church member: "I don't think you heard me. Colson said on the radio that the emerging church is full of heresy. It's dangerous. Why would I read one of those books?"
Pastor: "I haven't listened to Chuck Colson's program, but I can assure you in my study I've found nothing wrong with Erwin McManus, and neither have the leaders of our denomination."
Church member: "Yes, but Chuck Colson is on the radio. I'm just letting you know it really bothered me yesterday. I hope this isn't the start of a trend. I don't know what I would do if this church started becoming emerging."
I've recapped this conversation for you because it jives with something Brian McLaren wrote a few years ago. He said:
Sometimes I think that the most powerful and popular denomination in America is a stealth one. It's not the Baptists or the Catholics or the Methodists or the Assemblies of God. It's "radio-orthodoxy" - the set of beliefs promoted by religious broadcasting. Do you doubt the power of radio-orthodoxy? Just try contradicting it.
I've had my share of confrontations with Christians that adhere to radio-orthodoxy. I recognize they measure every sermon I preach against what is beamed through the airwaves. But I have yet to discover a pastoral way of handling their unquestioning faith in the disembodied voices they hear on the commute to work everyday.
I'm not calling for a revolt against Christian radio stations (although I don't listen to them personally). I recognize that many people are blessed and encouraged by the programming offered through the radio. However, the voices coming through the speakers seem to be monotone. Without multiple perspectives and thoughtful dialogue around important issues facing the church (social, political, missional, or familial) listeners are left to believe the Christian position is cut and dry, black and white. And those who dare to question this perspective, as I did with my disturbed church member, are given a verbal lashing that ends with "thus saith the radio!"
What is a radio-heretic to do?
June 29, 2007
Before trying to engage globally start practicing justice locally.
Nike has gotten a lot of marketing mileage from its straightforward motto, "Just Do It." In part two of David Fitch's post on social justice his message for church leaders is equally simple - just do it. Fitch argues that instead of focusing on national or global justice causes we must begin by acting locally. To accomplish this requires pastors to teach justice as a practice, something we actively do, rather than simply a concept we agree with.
If we are to avoid making justice into another program in the church we must resist the urge to make justice primarily about national politics, and only secondarily about local politics. For inevitably we get caught up in national politics believing that finally we are doing something. This then becomes an easy program to establish in our churches, and the work of local justice becomes an after-thought because political activism is always easier than living as a presence with the poor. It may be admirable and glamorous to help Jars of Clay fight Aids in Africa or Bono fight for Third World Debt Relief, but in the end I would ask us how much is accomplished if we cannot witness to a way of life that compels justice in our own back yard.
The main culprit here is that we pastors teach justice as a concept instead of a practice. For instance, we often make justice about the concept of individual rights or equal opportunity. It's an easy default move when we don't have visible justice going on in the local body itself. Yet defining justice in this way, as a concept born out of democracy and capitalism, individual rights or equal opportunity, too easily enables us to forget about doing justice in our local church by deflecting attention to national arguments. If we wish to see justice take shape in our midst we must go beyond rights to seek the simple righteousness of God fulfilled in our immediate locale.
I remember becoming an advocate (along with others in our church) for someone who was poor and an ex-convict who was unable to pay the rent. He and his wife were being evicted out of their apartment. We could have advocated renter's rights. We could have brought the person to a point of contention between himself, the owner of the apartment and the church. Or we could bring everyone around a table to discuss the situation (even though the building owner had never been to our church gathering). We could pray, confess sin, seek reconciliation, offer to step in and make things right. We did the latter, with coffee and pastries. The building owner was amazed. He forgave two months rent. I saw a miracle happen there that changed the ethos of our entire church. Perhaps now we were ready to make a statement about renter's rights on a larger scale.
Now before every body gangs up on me, I still believe we must pursue justice outside the church. I am all for the efforts to make our social system and national politics more just. But what we must see from scripture is that justice in God's eyes is about a horizontal transformative reconciliation that brings people into restored relationship with one another as a result of the concurrent healed relationship we share with God. If we read the accounts of justice in Ezekiel 18:5-9, Isa 58:3-7, Amos 5:21-24, Micah 3, this kind of righteousness, both vertical and horizontal, is at the core of what justice means for the Hebrew mind of the OT. We therefore should engage in practices of horizontal reconciliation for one another and those outside in our neighborhoods before we go trailblazing on the national political scene.
I contend therefore that we should reverse the normal order of priority we often find in Christian politics: we should put our local politic first and national politics second. Others will surely argue that they can do both at the same time. However, I believe that without a Bodily presense in the world, there is little true engagement with the world except via individualist arguments. In other words, until we have communities of Christ's justice living His justice, it's just Jim Wallis arguing against Jerry Falwell.
To this end let us institute practices of Christ's justice in our communities. These practices might include a.) the sharing of excess wealth around the Table, b.) the practice of engagement with matters of injustice in our neighborhoods with the processes of reconciliation, and c.) the feeding of the poor and then inviting them over to our houses for a meal and fellowship. Let us be "justice-ified," not merely justified. Let us pursue righteousness as a way of life, not just a nation's individual rights. And let us cultivate a politic of justice at home in our communities before we advocate a politics nationwide.
Read part one of Fitch's post on social justice here.
June 26, 2007
Preventing social justice from becoming just another program in the church.
Recently we discussed Scot McKnight's belief that the gospel typically preached by evangelicals is too individualistic, and how it actually makes the church an unnecessary part of following Christ. David Fitch, pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community in Long Grove, Illinois and a professor at Northern Seminary, shares McKnight's perspective, and in this post he reflects on how an individualistic gospel makes our attempts at social justice a peripheral program of the church rather than an integrated part of our faith.
When we pastors think about leading God's justice in the church, our first inclination is to organize a ministry. It could be a soup kitchen or an outreach event to the poor "down in the city". Sometimes we will find ways to become active in policy making on the local or national governmental level. We are tempted to make justice into another program of the church.
If we are to avoid turning justice into merely a church program we must first resist the urge to make salvation "about me." Evangelicals (of which I am one) often describe salvation as a personal relationship with God. It is intensely individual. In Christ I am justified before God as an individual. And then, after being justified through faith in Christ, I pursue a personal daily relationship with God as well as personal holiness and then of course (if we get to it) social justice. It is an add-on. In this way we split personal salvation and social justice.
It is this split which allows us to essentially turn social justice into a program. Yet imagine what it would be like in our churches if there were no such division. If we were not invited to go forward as individuals to receive a packaged salvation from God that gets us out of hell, but instead came forward to become part of what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ - the reconciliation of all men and women with Himself, each other and all of creation (2 Cor 5:19), which BTW inextricably must still include my own personal reconciliation/relationship with God.
There are two theological culprits that make possible this separation of personal from social salvation. The first is a narrow "penal" view of the atonement. The forensic penal view of the atonement defines the work of the cross in terms of Christ paying a penalty for my sin whereby I no longer am held liable for the just penalty of death for my sin. I have no desire to get rid of the substitutionary view of the atonement but there are many rich understandings of how Christ's sacrifice satisfied God's wrath within the ancient history of the church that avoid the potential to commodify (make available as a transaction) what Christ did on the cross. I think we should mine these resources.
I also think we should adhere more closely to the Christus Victor (Gustaf Aulen) and Classical Views of the atonement where Jesus is seen as the Victor, the King, the one who has defeated sin, death, and evil and now reigns in anticipation of the Final Kingdom of God. For here we cannot possibly receive salvation and enter into a relationship with Jesus as victorious Lord without participating in the victory of God and the Reign of Christ over sin, death, and evil. Here personal and social are so entwined we cannot distinguish them.
The second theological culprit is the Pauline doctrine of "justification by faith." Because here justification is often presented in terms of the individual standing alone before God receiving pardon by faith. I think we should pay heed to some broader understandings of what the apostle Paul means when he describes "justification by faith." In this regard, I believe the "new perspective on Paul" can help us. I am not in total agreement with all this literature, but I believe that Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, James Dunn and NT Wright have all helped us see that Paul's doctrine of justification by faith was not about the individual's battle to be good through self-effort through the law. Rather Paul's' doctrine was an argument against the exclusion of the Gentiles from salvation apart from becoming a Jew.
For the Jews of Paul's day, the law was the covenantal badge for being a member of the people of God. Paul claims that marker is now changed in Christ. The badge is now justification by faith as entrance into a new righteousness won by God thru the person and work of Jesus Christ. And so for Paul justification is not about relieving the individual Jew's guilty conscience (ala Martin Luther) who is always striving to maintain the standard of God's law. It is about the establishment of a new righteousness of God among a new people through Christ. This righteousness (justice) is both a vertical reconciliation with God as well as a horizontal reconciliation of all humanity and creation.
Once we see justification in this light it cannot be separated from being part of the new justice/righteousness God is working in the world. As a non-individualist (American) reading of 2 Cor 5: 17ff proclaims, "For anyone united in Christ, there is a new creation: the old order has gone, a new order has already begun. (REV). We have entered into the marvelous world of God reconciling all things to himself (vs.18) that we might become the righteousness (justice) of God (vs. 21).
If we are to resist the urge to make justice into another church program, then we must overturn this split between the personal and the social. We must go from preaching "accept Christ as your personal savior" to "you are invited to enter a relationship with God through Christ that changes everything". We must go from being justified, to being justice-ified. Justice should no longer be something we do, but who we are.
June 12, 2007
A few weeks ago Scot McKnight shared how the gospel we preach is having an adverse impact on the church. Last week at the Spiritual Formation Forum he spoke in greater detail about this problem. He called the standard evangelical gospel, outlined below, "right, but not right enough." Essentially, we've watered down the good news in a way that has marginalized the church in God's plan of redemption.
This fact was driven home recently by a friend of mine who teaches at a Christian college. He said a hand in the class went up in the middle of his lecture about the church and culture. The student, in all sincerity, asked, "Do we really need the church?" My friend was struck by the question, and by the fact that the classroom was filled with future church leaders. Something is amiss when even Christian leaders are questioning the necessity of the church. That something, according to McKnight, is the gospel we've been preaching.
Scot McKnight summarized the "Standard Gospel Presentation" this way:
God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
Your problem is that you are sinful; God can't admit sinners into his presence.
Jesus died for you to deal with your "sin-problem."
If you trust in Christ, you can be admitted into God's presence.
He went on to say that the problems with this popular evangelical gospel include:
1. No one in the New Testament really preaches this gospel.
2. This gospel is about one thing: humans gaining access to God's presence.
3. This gospel creates an individualist Christian life.
4. This gospel sets the tone for the entire evangelical movement.
5. This gospel leads to spiritual formation being entirely about "me and God."
6. The evangelical gospel has created a need for evangelical monasteries.
7. The evangelical gospels turns the local church into a volunteer society that is unnecessary.
8. The evangelical gospel is rooted in Theism or Deism, but not the Trinity.
In contrast to this anemic gospel, McKnight believes a more accurate and "robust" gospel presentation would include the following features:
1. A robust gospel cannot be "tractified" (meaning, reduced to a formula).
2. God made you as an eikon (Greek for "image") to relate in love to God, to self, to others, and to the world.
3. The "fall" cracked the eikon in all directions.
4. Bible readers cannot skip from Genesis 3 to Romans 3.
5. Genesis 4-11 reveals the "problem" of sin: the climax is a society of eikons trying to build their way to God.
6. Genesis 12 begins to restore the eikon by a covenantal commitment and forming the family of faith. The rest of the Bible is about this elected family of faith.
7. The "problem" is finally resolved in "four atoning moments": the life of Jesus, the death of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
8. The "locus" of resolution is the family of faith: three big words in the Bible that describe this family of faith are Israel, the Kingdom, and the Church.
This understanding of the gospel does not marginalize the church, but instead makes the community the heart of God's work in the world. Is McKnight's more robust gospel better than the pervasive "4 spiritual laws" version? Is the tract gospel the source of our diminished ecclesiology and individualism? Are we even open to a wider discussion about the nature of the gospel, or is such a thing taboo - to only be permitted in "emerging" circles?
May 9, 2007
Scot McKnight says the church�s problem is rooted in what we preach.��
A few weeks ago Dave Johnson questioned our adherence to a gospel that does not call forth or expect transformation in our lives. In this post professor and blogger extraordinaire Scot McKnight continues the discussion. He contends that many of the problems facing the contemporary church can be traced to the individualistic gospel we preach. Both Johnson and McKnight will be featured presenters at the upcoming Spiritual Formation Forum in June.
When I was in high school, my youth pastor ? may his soul rest in peace ? opened his home to me and my girlfriend, Kris (now my wife). David King became our personal theologian and one thing that impressed me deeply at the time was this contention of his: he often contended in a rather robust manner that every problem that he encountered as a pastoral counselor could be traced to a "spiritual" problem.
Most of us would not agree with this conclusion, but many of us would contend that we do need to do more "systemic" analysis to find the underlying issues that give rise to many of the problems we now face in the Church. I'd like to suggest a significant underlying issue that gives rise to more than one problem today.
Because of some research I did on the "gospel" in the Bible, leading to a book called Embracing Grace, I have come to a conclusion not unlike that of David King: namely, when I see "problems" or "issues" in the Church, I often say to myself, "What kind of gospel would have been preached and responded to that would give rise to this kind of practice, problem, or theology?" At the bottom of lots of our problems is a "gospel" problem. Students of mine that grow up in Christians homes often admit to me that the gospel they grew up was this: Jesus came to die for my sins so I could go to heaven. This parody of the biblical gospel, I contend, is at the heart of many of our problems.
Example #1: We often hear pastors today wondering why Christians are not more committed to the local church and seem to have so little time for anything extra?
Example #2: We routinely are reminded that 11am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of America's week.
Example #3: We often observe that there are far too many Christians who "have it together" with God but are "relationally a mess."
Example #4: Many evangelical Christians feel "most spiritual" when they are praying or reading the Bible and do not see their marriage relationship, their parent-child relationships, their sibling relationships, or their relationships with others ? in the Church and outside the Church ? as part of their "spirituality". Instead, those elements are at best "implications" of their relationship to God (which is the focus of spirituality) rather than central to that spirituality.
But, we must be more willing to ask this question: Why all the emphasis on love and peace and reconciliation and community in the Bible if these elements are not central to the spiritual life? Is not the Bible's emphasis less on the individual being transformed than the community being created in which that individual finds transformation? Do our spiritual formation courses adequately address community formation?
My conclusion after studying the Bible on the meaning of "gospel" is that one of the major reasons for each of the above examples is a gospel that gives rise to (1) a radically individualistic understanding of the meaning of life, (2) a non-communal perception of what the gospel is intended to accomplish, or (3) a God-only understanding of the gospel.
Let us not suppose that any of these examples has simplistic explanations, but let us think a little more systemically: if we preach a gospel that is entirely focused on "getting right with God" but which does not include in that presentation that God's intent is to form a community (the Church) in which restored persons live out this Christ-shaped and Spirit-directed spirituality, then we can expect to hear lots of pulpit rhetoric exhorting us that the Church matters. And, if we discover on Sunday morning that everyone in our church is the same ethnically and economically, we can be sure that we are preaching something that is attracting only those kinds of people. And if we are hesitant to admit the implication of this ethnic, economic reality, then we need to be more honest with ourselves. We get what we preach. And we perform what we preach. How we live reveals the gospel we responded to and the gospel we believe.
Let me suggest, then, a more complete view of the gospel ? one that focuses much more on the community of faith ? that, if we give the permission to seep into every inch of our ministries, will perhaps lead to the day in our lifetime when these four examples will not be our present problem but our history's memory. Now a definition: The gospel is the work of the Trinitarian God (a community of persons) to create the community of faith in order to restore humans (made in God's image) through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as well as through the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit to union with God and communion with others for the good of the self and the world. And all of this to the glory of God.
What then is Christian spirituality? It is the person who is restored to God, to self, to others and the world ? all four directions for all time ? by a gospel that emerges from a "communal God" (the Trinity) to create a community that reflects who God is. Do we preach a gospel that gives rise to holistic restoration and that can create a fully biblical spirituality?
Scot McKnight is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago. He will also be a presenter at the Spiritual Formation Forum in Milwaukee June 6-8. You can learn more and register at the Spiritual Formation Forum website.
January 18, 2007
Shane Claiborne wants to tear down the walls that separate us.
In part one of his post, Shane Claiborne challenged our assumptions about hell. Is it merely something people experience after death, or is hell a living reality for many on earth? Claiborne continues by proposing an offensive rather than defensive posture for the church toward hell.
C.S. Lewis understood hell, not as a place where God locks people out of heaven, but as a dungeon that we lock ourselves into and that we as a Church hold the keys. I think that gives us new insight when we look at the parable of Lazarus or hear the brilliant words with which Jesus reassures Peter: "The gates of Hell will not prevail against you." As an adolescent, I understood that to mean that the demons and fiery darts of the devil will not hit us. But lately I've done a little more thinking and praying, and I have a bit more insight on the idea of "gates." Gates are not offensive weapons. Gates are defensive - walls and fences we build to keep people out. God is not saying the gates of hell will not prevail as they come at us. God is saying that we are in the business of storming the gates of hell, and the gates will not prevail as we crash through them with grace.
People sometimes ask if we are scared of the inner city. I say that I am more scared of the suburbs. Our Jesus warns that we can fear those things which can hurt our bodies or we can fear those things which can destroy our souls, and we should be far more fearful of the latter. Those are the subtle demons of suburbia.
As my mother once told me, "Perhaps there is no more dangerous place for a Christian to be than in safety and comfort, detached from the suffering of others." I'm scared of apathy and complacency, of detaching myself from the suffering. It's hard to see until our 20/20 hindsight hits us - but every time we lock someone out, we lock ourselves further in.
Just as we are building walls to keep people out of our comfortable, insulated existence, we are trapping ourselves in a hell of isolation, loneliness and fear. We have "gated communities" where rich folks live. We put up picket fences around our suburban homes. We place barbed wire and razer-wire around our buildings and churches. We put bars on our windows in the ghettos of fear. We build up walls to keep immigrants from entering our country. We guard our borders with those walls - Berlin, Jerusalem, Jericho. And the more walls and gates and fences we have, the closer we are to hell. We, like the rich man, find ourselves locked into our gated homes and far from the tears of Lazarus outside, far from the tears of God.
Let us pray that God would give us the strength to storm the gates of hell, and tear down the walls we have created between those whose suffering would disrupt our comfort. May we become familiar with the suffering of the poor outside our gates, know their names, and taste the salt in their tears? then when "the ones God has rescued," the Lazaruses of our world - the baby refugees, the mentally-ill wanderers, and the homeless outcasts - are seated next to God, we can say, "We're with them." Jesus has given them the keys to enter the Kingdom. Maybe they will give us a little boost over the gate.
And in the New Jerusalem, the great City of God, "on no day will its gates ever be shut." The gates of the Kingdom will forever be open. (Revelation 21:25)
This article was reposted with the permission of PRISM - America's Alternative Evangelical Voice. Visit their website to learn more.
January 16, 2007
Shane Claiborne on ministering to those trapped in hell on earth.
Last year Brian McLaren shared his views about hell in a series of three posts on Out or Ur. This year we welcome a new voice on the subject. Shane Claiborne is a founding member of The Simple Way, a new monastic community in Philadelphia, and the author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. In part one of his post, Shane discusses his childhood memories of preachers "scaring the hell out of him," and reflects on a more Christlike alternative.
I figure anytime you are about to talk about hell it's good to start with a joke, so here we go?.It was a busy day in heaven as folks waited in line at the pearly gates. Peter stood as gatekeeper checking each newcomer's name in the Lamb's Book of Life. But there was some confusion, as the numbers were not adding up. Heaven was a little overcrowded, and a bunch of folks were unaccounted for. So some of the angels were sent on a mission to investigate things. And it was not long before two of them returned, "We found the problem," they said. "Jesus is out back, lifting people up over the gate."
I remember as a child hearing all the hellfire and damnation sermons. We had a theater group perform a play called, "Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames" where actors presented scenes of folks being ripped away from loved ones only to be sent to the fiery pits of hell where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, and we all went forward to repent of all the evil things we had done over our first decade of life, in paralyzing fear of being "left behind"? the preacher literally scared the "hell" out of us.
But have you ever noticed that Jesus didn't spend much time on hell.
In fact there are really only a couple of times he speaks of weeping and gnashing of teeth, of hell and God's judgment. And both of them have to do with the walls we create between ourselves and our suffering neighbors. One is Matthew 25 where the sheep and the goats are separated, and the goats who did not care for the poor, hungry, homeless, and imprisoned are sent off to endure an agony akin to that experienced by the ones that they neglected on this earth. And then there is the story of the rich man and Lazarus, a parable Jesus tells about a rich man who neglected the poor beggar outside his gate.
In the parable we hear of a wealthy man who builds a gate between himself and the poor man, and that chasm becomes an unbridgeable gap not only with Lazarus but with God. He is no doubt a religious man (he calls out "Father" Abraham and knows the prophets), and undoubtedly he had made a name for himself on earth, but is now a nameless rich man begging the beggar for a drop of water. And Lazarus who lived a nameless life in the shadows of misery is seated next to God, and given a name. Lazarus is the only person named in Jesus' parables, and his name means "the one God rescues." God is in the business of rescuing people from the hells they experience on earth. And God is asking us to love people out of those hells.
Nowadays many of us spend a lot of time pondering and theologizing about heaven on earth and God's Kingdom coming here (and rightly so!), but it seems we would also do well to do a little work with the reality of hell. Hell is not just something that comes after death, but something many are living in this very moment? 1.2 billion people that are groaning for a drop of water each day, over 30,000 kids starving to death each day, 38 million folks dying of AIDS. It seems ludicrous to think of preaching to them about hell. I see Jesus spending far more energy loving the "hell" out of people, and lifting people out of the hells in which they are trapped, than trying to scare them into heaven. And one of the most beautiful things we get to see in community here in Kensington, is people who have been loved out of the hells that they find themselves in - domestic violence, addiction, sex trafficking, loneliness.
This article was reposted with the permission of PRISM - America's Alternative Evangelical Voice. Visit their website to learn more.
September 29, 2006
Last month we shared the disturbing late night experience of Pastor Nick Overduin. While sleeping in his study Overduin had a frightening encounter with "The Voice." His experience started a conversation about our openness and skepticism toward the supernatural. Nick Overduin is back to respond to many of your comments and concerns, and to keep the conversation going.
I appreciate the comments that were made in response to my Aug. 18, 2006 article "Old Men Will Dream Dreams." I have searched the links regarding "sleep paralysis," and definitely resonated with those descriptions. I think, physiologically, this was my experience. However, according to my understanding of God as the Creator, such a scientific diagnosis does not eliminate the possibility that God was saying something to me precisely at such a time.
I believe God reveals himself through the normal processes of the world he made. If God would speak to us at all, it would usually be through phenomena that already exist, and that could include psychiatrically-tinged events such as "sleep paralysis."
People mentioned numerous reservations and red flags. I too have many. If everyone would start reporting events like this, I would likely become very skeptical of the whole business. One writer said, "What if it was the devil, trying to keep people from praying?" Good question. But as another writer said, the issue is "How did the experience stack up against the word of God?" The verse about God being irritated by long hypocritical prayers was, for me, a confirmation of the Voice's authenticity. But I concede, of course, that I will never know.
One writer asked, "What did you DO about it?" I emphatically refrained from using the experience as a piece of ammunition. At the time it happened, I was in the middle of an intense denominational controversy that lasted about four years. I did not feel it would be fair to bully anybody with what I thought I heard. I kept totally quiet about this experience. Now that the battles have subsided, I feel more comfortable with sharing.
Did I have a vested interest in my experience, e.g. was it my own subconscious speaking to me? Was I elevating my internal conviction to the heights of Sinai? I do not think so. I had not had this thought on my own (namely, that the official "Prayer of Repentance" was too long). Also, please note that God does not actually commit himself to any viewpoints or particular sides in our church conflict during the experience that I had. He simply demonstrates (if this was God) a loathing of hypocrisy, which is consistent with the character of Himself that he reveals in Holy Scripture.
What did I do with this experience? Personally, I have allowed myself to be deeply affected by a God who can love us so very much that we are not consumed by his anger. Also, I felt more brave in the midst of the conflicts. My conviction was confirmed that God cared deeply about authenticity and compassion regardless of people's opinions on the issues at stake.
In conclusion, I like the line one writer gave, "We need a consummate, complete, grounded theology on the supernatural." That would be wonderful. It is absolutely amazing how many people, of many faiths, have bizarre experiences. I'd welcome a more systematic study of this. Every pastor knows parishioners who have gone through strange things. And Christians should be more encouraged to share how they've encountered God, and in such honest comments, we will find wisdom.
September 20, 2006
Last week a study was released by economists called "No Booze? You May Lose." Researches found that people who drink alcohol make more money and may have an advantage in social settings. But does the same hold true for pastors? Author, professor, pastor, and regular contribut-Ur, David Fitch is back to discuss the popular restriction on clergy to abstain from alcohol and tobacco. Are such rules helpful, and could they possibly be making us fat?
On August 25th, Chicago Sun Times religion columnist Cathleen Falsani wrote a piece entitled "Weighty Matter: Is religion making us fat?" In the piece, she recited Adam Ant's lyrics in the 80's "Don't drink, don't smoke, what do ya do?" She raised the question whether those Christian denominations that prohibit drinking and smoking are abusing food as a substitute for these other prohibited pleasures. For support, Falsani quotes a Purdue University study that concluded (after accounting for several other factors) that some kinds of churches seem to encourage the problem of obesity. In fact, the study states that churches where drinking alcohol, smoking, and even dancing are prohibited, "overeating has become the accepted vice."
My denomination, along with others rooted in the old holiness movements, still hangs on to the holiness codes that prohibit alcohol and tobacco for its clergy. I consider this to be "an adventure in missing the point," to quote Brian McLaren, and I believe Falsani helps us see why. Let me explain.
If we prohibit certain behaviors for pastoral ministry, are we not really revealing the fear that we lack the mature character for ministry in the first place? If drunkenness and chemical addiction is what we fear, why not name drunkenness and addiction as the symptoms that require discernment? By totally prohibiting alcohol and tobacco we are not really dealing with the issue of whether our clergy has mature character. We are just providing conditions to displace the lack of character (if it exists) to some other object that is safer, i.e. from tobacco or alcohol to food.
I want to be careful here about painting a broad-brush stroke across all of us who have struggled with weight. That's not my point. I am someone who's had food and weight problems. And I've had my own recent crisis with diabetes as a result. Rather, what I am trying to show here is how the holiness codes of my denomination and others do not address the issue, they merely reveal the symptom of the "Real" underlying problem.
Slavoj Zizek, post postmodernist (if there is such a thing) cultural critic, is famous for helping us see the ways cultures can manifest symptoms of the "Real" in ways that surprise us. I might just suggest a Zizekian view of our denominational holiness codes - over eating is the symptom of the Real. The zeal of evangelicals to be different than culture by forbidding alcohol and tobacco, has in essence revealed that nothing is really different. Instead the "hard kernel of the Real" has erupted in the obesity epidemic in our holiness coded churches. As a result, the holiness codes reveal the Truth. In Zizek's words, "we overlook the way our act is already part of the state of things we are looking at, the way our error is part of the Truth itself.
In the end, character is about the ordering of one's appetites towards God's purposes in creation through a purified vision of Christ and His glory. If such desires are not ordered, if such desires are not integrated, holiness codes can only cover up the existing problem. The holiness codes then become a case of misrecognition. And as Zizek states, "the Truth arises from misrecognition." Thus we have obesity as an epidemic in our churches.
More and more, the new generations cannot stomach these holiness codes. I have regularly met with outstanding candidates for ministry who raise their eyebrow at my denomination's persistence on its holiness codes for clergy. This is because these codes are not holy. Instead, they trivialize holiness. The real question for us holiness denominations, if we are ever to be taken seriously by the postmodern generations (and our credibility slips everyday we hold onto to these "legalistic and unbiblical" codes of behavior - e.g. there is no Bible verse prohibiting drinking alcohol, quite the contrary), is whether we have the wherewithal to be sanctified in such a way as to be trusted with a drink or a stogie.
The real issue that our denominational leaders should focus on concerning the fitness of clergy is the commitment to a holy life and what that looks like in community. Obviously this refers to issues like drunkenness, addictions that reveal our lack of dependence upon God including tobacco, pornography, gambling, and yes, food! But this should also include how we handle money, how we engage the poor, how we speak to our neighbors, whether we engage in conflict in holy and Christ like ways. We should not resort to legalism! To the postmodern generations, "no alcohol, no tobacco" speaks only of rules, not holiness.
August 18, 2006
All pastors are crazy; I've known that since seminary. Some pastors, however, have fewer cards in their decks than others. Nick Overduin, pastor of Toronto First Christian Reformed Church, began to question his own sanity after an experience that was beyond explanation.
Overduin now believes God was in this encounter. You may believe otherwise. In either case, reading Nick's account has made me wonder - as more church leaders are rethinking the nature of ministry in a post-Christian culture, is it also time to rethink our assumptions about the supernatural, and its place in our communities?
Who wants to be known as a crazy nut-case preacher that hears voices? I don't advocate hearing voices; I just happen to have heard one.
I did not hear any strange "voices" in my first church. Nor did I feel distracted by the supernatural during my second charge, a University Chaplaincy. In my third posting I was perhaps too busy to hear any divine whisperings. My congregation had 800 members. My fourth church is conceivably the most implausible setting for a semi-mystical deviation. Many of its 120 members are certified experts, executives, or independent entrepreneurs. My wife Nandy and I have been married 25 years, and at first I didn't tell even her. I am writing the episode now partly because I believe it could be sinful to keep it to myself.
About three years ago I woke up one night very suddenly. It was as if I had been jerked from deep sleep into alert wakefulness in less than a second.
I was surrounded by a darkness that seemed thicker than usual. It felt like something or someone ominous was in the room with me.
The blackness around the bookshelves in my office where I had fallen asleep was so substantial that I could see nothing. The space was filled with a conspicuous and crushing sense of dread. My fear increased when I realized that I had been rendered immobile, as if a great weight had been placed over my entire body. I was pinned down.
I began to pray with every fiber of my being. Wouldn't almost anybody have done the same, whether they believed in God or not? Physically, the prayer required fierce resolve just to bring my hands together. I knew it was permissible to pray without folding hands, but for some reason I wanted desperately to fold my hands. I felt I would be completely destroyed if I demonstrated the nerve to pray without first taking up this humble posture.
"What's wrong, God?" I asked when my hands were finally clenched. "Are you angry about something?"
That is when I heard the voice. It was calm but deliberate and focused. It was not loud but clearly audible. I do not know if it was outside the room, inside the room, or just inside my heart. In any case, there was no mistaking what it said. It said, "THE PRAYER OF REPENTANCE."
I was frozen by apprehension, riveted to the bed. Was God angry about the Prayer of Repentance?
I am very proud of the fact that my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church of North America, in 1999 had mandated all congregations use an official Prayer of Repentance for our failure to show sufficient love to homosexual people. As a denomination, we had committed ourselves in 1973 to an official policy of "love the sinner, hate the sin," but we had not demonstrated enough resolve in showing the genuine compassion we had promised. So, in 1999 we urged all the churches to use this well-known Prayer of Repentance. The Synod did not wish to change our biblically-based denominational approach, only encourage greater focus on pastoral love. Many of our congregations in North America, alas, defiantly refused to use the resource liturgically. Now, to my surprise, it seemed that maybe God (if this was God) was not pleased with the official Prayer of Repentance either.
The prayer reads as follows:
Lord, our gracious God,
We have sinned against you.
We have not done the things we ought to have done.
We have not kept the promises we made.
Instead of trying to become a place where persons who love you
and are homosexual could find a gracious dwelling,
We confess that we have continued to build walls.
We have avoided them.
We have been cruel.
We have called names and used insulting language.
We have wished that they would just go away.
Truly, Lord, there is little health in us.
We have wronged these children of yours,
these brothers and sisters of ours,
And we repent of our sins.
We are sorry for what we have done
and for what we have left undone.
Lord, forgive us our sins through the blood of Jesus.
Dear heavenly Father, we love you.
We love you for keeping your promises,
And we want to be like you.
We want to keep our promises.
Help us, Father, to do so.
Help us to love our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers.
Help us love with words and deeds.
Strengthen our resolve to listen to their stories,
to share their pain,
to learn from others,
to walk together on life's journey.
Lord, we have questions.
We do not know everything.
Give us the grace not to act otherwise.
Give us the humility to attend to what we do know.
We do know that life is more complicated than we wish.
We do know that we need your forgiveness for the past
And your grace for the future
As we continually struggle to be the church,
Faithful to your Word,
Faithful to each other.
In Christ. Amen.
"What is wrong, God?" I prayed again. "Why are you angry about the Prayer of Repentance?"
Then the Voice came again. Not loud, but terse and deliberate: IT'S?TOO?LONG.
It is only now, three years later, that I can see some humor in this encounter. But when it happened, I truly felt I was going to die. I did not dare to relate this event to my council or church. I also did not have the courage to tell my wife or best friends.
I truly felt I was going to die. One thing I vividly recall, with genuine gratitude, is that after the voice spoke, the overwhelming terror in the room slowly dissipated. The level of darkness returned to the range that is normal for 4:00 a.m. And the heavy weight on my body receded. I was able to stop folding my hands.
I lay there wondering if this could have possibly been God. I felt that I had been spared from some kind of obliteration, but I did not have a joyful sense of contentment or relief. I had always imagined that having an actual encounter with God would be more beautiful, not something so frightening.
As a pastor in the Christian in the Reformed tradition I have always believed we should be distrustful of anything that allegedly comes from the Spirit of God if it is not based on the Bible. So I was intrigued by the verse that popped into my head while recuperating from the encounter: "When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words." (Matthew 6:7, NIV)
Three years later I can begin to appreciate the humor in this story. The Prayer of Repentance is indeed tediously verbose. It has become quite obvious to me that the prayer is frankly pompous, arrogant, paternalistic, and long-winded. I say this without intending in any way to be mean-spirited towards my denomination, which I deeply love and cherish.
I believe, despite all my scholarly, emotional, and religious reservations, that I may have been given a message by God for the sake of others. But who wants to be known as a crazy nut-case preacher that hears voices? I don't advocate hearing voices; I just happen to have heard one.
June 6, 2006
Recent posts on Ur have focused on the nature of Emergent - is it liberal Christianity recast for a new generation, or simply a forum of conversation for those looking for a better understanding of their faith? Critics have accused Emergent's better known participants, Tony Jones and Brian McLaren, of being evasive with answers to pointed doctrinal questions. In response, Jones and McLaren have pointed to the importance of dialogue and thoughtful questions over definitive answers.
Ed Gungor's new book, Religiously Transmitted Diseases (Nelson Ignite, 2006), equates definitive answers with "dead religion." In this excerpt from the book, Gungor affirms the life-giving role of mystery within our faith.
I think Christianity is supposed to be the unreligion. That's because the strictness and predictability of religion causes simple, pure faith to become diseased. If not stopped, religion can even kill living faith. And dead things just aren't very interesting. Case in point?
I was eleven years old the first time I dissected anything. I was on a scouting trip. Armed with flashlights, a few of us wandered into the woods after dark to explore. Joe was the first to spot him. He was a pretty good-sized frog. And he was quick. Flashlights and size 8 feet darted every which way as we scrambled to grab him. Something in us boys wanted to know what was inside that frog, what made that living thing alive.
"Don't kill it!" Joe cried. "Take him alive."
I'm sure that frog had no idea he was going to stumble into the midst of a gaggle of earth giants that night, and he did his best to flee, but to no avail. I got my hand around him as he tried to hop between my feet. Then we each whipped out our scout-issue jack-knives and begged to be the surgeon.
In a few moments the frog lay dead, his inner secrets uncovered. But to my surprise we didn't gain any greater understanding of Froggie when we opened him up. We had lost something. The interest that had charged the air during the hunt completely disappeared when he lay open and lifeless before us. Dead things aren't nearly as attention-grabbing as things that are alive. Only in the presence of life does mystery exist.
My quest to dissect continues to this day. It is as though I am uncomfortable with wonder. I find something full of life and, instead of enjoying the mystery of it, I want to dissect it, to figure out the how and why. But dissecting life results in death. And once death comes, the mystery disappears.
Religion, too, is all about dissecting. It is the nemesis of mystery.
But religion does have its attraction. It is so neat, so organized, so repetitive, so habitual, and oh-so-predictable. It makes God look more like a clock than a person ? ticking and tocking in a perfectly ordered way. Life isn't nearly so conventional. It is messy and full of surprises. Repetitious? Yes, but certainly not predictable.
I have conducted more funerals this year than in recent memory. We often say that dead people "rest in peace." I think we are fooled by the way they just lie there. No complaining. No whining. Just nice and stiff and orderly ? religious, really. That's because religion is antilife in some ways. It demands order and fixation, just as rigor mortis demands of the dead.
Religion may be attractive on one level, but it always strives to remove all the mystery that congests life. It has answers for everything, because questions are way too untidy. "Jesus is the answer." Right? But what if Jesus isn't the answer? What if He is the question?
May 11, 2006
In this final installment of his interview on hell, Brian McLaren provides more insight into how he understands the teachings of Jesus, and offers five suggestions for rethinking our traditional understanding of hell.
Let me offer five suggestions on how we could re-approach this subject by looking at the Scriptures in a fresh light. After all, my opinions aren't worth two cents compared to what the Scriptures actually say. First, I'd suspend the common assumption that every time the word judgment occurs in the Bible, it means "going to hell after you die," or every time the word save occurs, it means "going to heaven after you die."
Second, I'd encourage people who say, "Well, what about Matthew 25:41?" or some other specific passage to also pay attention to the reasons those passages give for people experiencing those negative consequences. Jesus never says, "If you don't believe in a particular theory of atonement . . ." or "If you don't accept me as your personal Savior by saying the sinner's prayer . . ." then you'll experience the lake of fire. That's not what he says. I put a table in the book that tries to help people attend to what the texts actually say, and in case after case, they simply don't say what many Christians commonly say they do.
Third, we need to re-sensitize ourselves to Jesus' use of figurative language. We act as if "metaphorical" were a small thing, and concrete/literal were a big thing, but that's the reverse of what I see in Jesus' teaching. I think about John 6, for example, where Jesus talks about people eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and then says his flesh and blood are real food and drink. They take his statements non-metaphorically and concretely, and they miss the point.
Or there's Nicodemus not getting Jesus' language about being born again. Or when he's talking about the leaven of the Pharisees and the disciples assume he's talking about physical bread. There's so much going on metaphorically in Jesus' teaching about hell and judgment, and I think we often misinterpret it by reducing it to the concrete just as the disciples did.
I'm an old English major, so I'm sensitive to genre, and the highly metaphorical genre of Jewish apocalyptic literature was pervasive in Jesus' day. We need to let him use language in the richly metaphorical way his contemporaries did. N. T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, and many others are writing very helpfully on this subject.
Fourth, we should consider the possibility that many, and perhaps even all of Jesus' hell-fire or end-of-the-universe statements refer not to postmortem judgment but to the very historic consequences of rejecting his kingdom message of reconciliation and peacemaking. The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 67-70 seems to many people to fulfill much of what we have traditionally understood as hell.
Jesus, along with the other apostles too, seems to be much less focused on the post-mortem destiny of individual souls and more focused on the end and rebirth of the Jerusalem/Temple/sacrifice-centered world as they knew it, and on the constitution of a new people of God that includes Gentiles with Jews. People should re-read the texts with this possibility in mind. After all, when the Old Testament prophets used apocalyptic language, we know they were referring to historic events - like the attack by Assyria, or the exile in Babylon for example.
Finally, I think we can leave some theoretical questions unanswered because what we need to know is very clear: God is love. God is gracious. God is just. God is holy. And these things are never in tension, but are always perfectly integrated. God's love and mercy are always just and holy. God's justice and holiness are always loving and merciful. God shows his perfect integration of love and justice through sending his Son to live and die as one of us. We see God's love and justice perfectly expressed as the Word-made-flesh spreads out his arms on the cross to offer himself as the perfect sacrifice for all sin, once and for all, saying, not "Father, repay them for their evil deed," but "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Our proper response to that view of God is not to speculate on who will, or will not, be forgiven. Instead, Jesus makes our proper response very clear: if God treats those who hate him with such love, then we should love our enemies, not repay evil for evil, turn the left cheek after being struck on the right, walk the second mile, stand naked by giving away our undergarment if someone takes our outer garment, and so on. I trust God's goodness and wisdom in judging others, just as I trust myself into God's care; I don't feel he needs my help.
This is where my reflections on this have been taking me in recent years. Some people thinking I'm going astray, but I know that I'm seeking the truth. And I know I still have a long, long way to go in my search. I hope people can understand that some of us show our love for God by seeking better answers when our current answers seem unworthy of God. Maybe we'll be proven wrong in the end, but I can't see what faithful alternative we have other than to ask, seek, and knock ... trusting God will respond and doors will be opened.
May 8, 2006
In part one of this post, Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo tried to deconstruct the traditional evangelical view of hell. Here, McLaren continues to outline his view as neither universalism nor an exclusivist understanding of hell. And he pushes us to reconsider the questions we pose versus what Jesus really says.
McLaren: Tony [Campolo] and I might disagree on the details, but I think we are both trying to find an alternative to both traditional Universalism and the narrow, exclusivist understanding of hell [that unless you explicitly accept and follow Jesus, you are excluded from eternal life with God and destined for hell].
Tony is presenting the inclusivist alternative. The fact is, many people who claim to be exclusivists are actually inclusivists and they don't know it. For example, if you ask them if they believe all babies who die before or shortly after birth go to hell, they'll say no, that children who die before the age of accountability are included in Christ's saving work. They'll say the same for people who are mentally incompetent, and so on. So really, strict exclusivists are rather rare.
My approach is a little different. Although in many ways I find myself closer to the view of God held by some universalists than I do the view held by some exclusivists, in the end I'd rather turn our attention from the questions WE think are important to the question JESUS thinks is most important.
We obsess on "who's in" and "who's out." Jesus, however, seems to be asking the question, "How can
the kingdom of God more fully come on earth as it is in heaven, and how should disciples of the kingdom live to enter and welcome the kingdom?"
Universalism can unintentionally dis-empower the church, because it says everything's going to be okay in the end, regardless of our responses. That can be a very pacifying answer, and lead to attitudes that are not faithful to Scripture and to Jesus. As I see it, all of Scripture affirms that yes, you can really waste your life . . . you can play on the wrong side and live very destructively.
On the other side, exclusivism can spin off all kinds of terrible problems, too. It can create a view of God as vengeful torturer, and that has played a role, I believe, in horrible behavior on the part of Western Christians - from anti-Semitism to slavery and racism and holy-war mentality. In other words, if we can identify some people as God's enemies, hated by God for all eternity, we can find ourselves directly disobeying Jesus' clear teachings about loving our neighbors and our enemies.
Most people aren't willing to reopen these issues with an open mind, and those who do find the process painful and socially dangerous in many of our churches. In the end, I suppose I am truly an evangelical Protestant in the sense that I believe we must go back and search the Scriptures and look at them afresh and see if there isn't something better than what we have been taught. Ironically, we could stand before God and have to answer for our judgmentalism and heartless attitudes that were, to a significant degree, consequences of a popular and longstanding misreading of the Scriptures on this subject of hell.
For example, I think God will be far more displeased by our carelessness toward the poor, or by our lack of peacemaking, or by our unrecognized racism and nationalism than he will be about whether you're an exclusivist or not. I think many of us should tremble in light of what God says about caring for the poor, the fatherless, the vulnerable.
So you are saying that we've spent too much energy analyzing the aesthetics and environment of hell, and we've lost the clear scriptural call to proclaim and teach about Judgment?
McLaren: Absolutely. But even there, we don't preach judgment to create fear, so that people see God as enemy. Actually, in the Bible, especially in the Psalms, people are often praying eagerly that judgment will come. That's because they weren't thinking in the binary terms of heaven and hell after this life. Instead, they were looking for God to intervene in history so that the oppressors, the warmongers, the greedy, the abusers, the violent, the careless toward the widow and orphan and poor would be stopped, exposed, and frustrated, so that justice and peace and joy could flourish.
I don't think it's insignificant that Revelation ends, not with us going up to heaven (or down to hell) with the earth being "left behind." Instead, John has a vision of the New Jerusalem coming down to earth. The new heavens and new earth mean, I believe, not the replacement of this world, but its redemption and liberation from injustice and sin.
Some people think you're simply being evasive and not answering plain questions clearly. But you would say that you're not satisfied with the questions we're asking because you don't think we're asking the questions the Bible is trying to answer. It also sounds like you feel we need to pay more attention to the ethical dimensions of Jesus' teaching, and that some of our theological discussions distract us from what Jesus focused on.
McLaren: Yes, that's it exactly! I keep coming back to Jesus and his teaching. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says that God is good to the righteous and the unrighteous, and for that reason, we should love everyone, including our enemies. He says we shouldn't judge or we'll be judged. That's a very different attitude than I see so often in our Christian circles, where there's always this in-group/out-group mentality. And those in the out-group we treat with distance, disdain, or disrespect. How would we like it if God decided to treat us as we've treated others?
May 5, 2006
No contributor to Out of Ur has elicited more responses than Brian McLaren. Part of McLaren's appeal is his courage to rethink long-held evangelical assumptions and call the church to shed the baggage of modernity. Brian's critics, however, accuse him of throwing the orthodox baby out with the modernist bath water. In this interview McLaren discusses his view of hell and judgment, and explains why some have mislabeled him a universalist. Part one of this post also features fellow prophet Tony Compolo.
Brian, in your book, The Last Word and the Word After That, you focus heavily on "deconstructing" the evangelical view of hell. Some critics think your deconstruction has moved to the point of your embracing a "universalist" position. Are you a Universalist?
McLaren: No, I am not embracing a traditional universalist position, but I am trying to raise the question, When God created the universe, did he have two purposes in mind - one being to create some people who would forever enjoy blessing and mercy, and another to create a group who would forever suffer torment, torture, and punishment? What is our view of God? A God who plans torture? A God who has an essential, eternal quality of hatred? Is God love, or is God love and hate?
It might sound surprising to state it that way, but you'd be surprised at some of the emails I've received. For example, someone quoted Scriptures like Psalm 5:5 or Psalm 11:5 and said, "If you don't believe in a God of hate, you don't believe in the God of the Bible." Here's my concern: if you believe in a god of hate, violence, revenge, and torture, it makes you very susceptible to becoming a person made in that god's image.
Even though this subject is so controversial and I don't like controversy, we have to address it because we're dealing with our view of God, and the consequences of our essential view of God are staggering. The only thing that's more important, I guess, is God's view of us!
Anyway, Western Christianity has been overly preoccupied with the question of who's going to heaven or hell after death, and not focused enough on the question of what kind of life is truly pleasing to God here in the land of the living. We've got to look at that. In The Last Word and the Word After That, I wanted to raise the issue of "Judgment," that all will be judged rightly and fairly by God alone, who weighs the scales rightly, and does this for everyone. Again, when we put ourselves in the position of judge ? making pronouncements on the eternal destiny of others ? I think it's pretty dangerous, especially in light of Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount.
Campolo: I come out of a tradition that pays attention to George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis, and I'm contending that we need to deal with this question: Is God less just than I am, or is his sense of justice different than mine? It's very simple, MacDonald and Lewis would say, "There is a hell, there has to be, because if there is no hell, there is no freedom." In Lewis's book, The Great Divorce, he says, "The bus leaves heaven every half hour, and anybody who doesn't want to stay in heaven goes to hell . . . by his own choice!"
What I think we can say is, and this is where I get into trouble, I'm not so sure that when this life is over that all possibilities for salvation are over. I read in Ephesians 4:9-10 a passage that can be interpreted to describe a Jesus who descends into "the depths below the earth" to bring captives up to God. I read in 1 Peter 3:19 about a Jesus who goes to preach to those in the prison house of death, and I believe these Scriptures show Jesus doing something for people after they are dead, as we understand death. This reveals Jesus to be the "hound of heaven."
Yes, I believe there will be people in hell eternally, but somehow, I believe from Scripture - note I said from Scripture - that in the end everybody gets a chance to choose.
As Paul says, "We prophesy in part and we know in part, and we wait for that which is perfect which is to come." I'm willing to be corrected. I'm willing to be shown I'm wrong, but as I read Scripture, this is how I see things: You will never be condemned to hell because you didn't have a chance, you will condemn yourself to hell because you reject Jesus.
There's no sense of justice found in universalism. If everybody ends up in the same place no matter what they choose, there is no justice. On the other hand, grace says we don't get justice in the end. So we've got both of those truths in tension.
March 24, 2006
The song "Personal Jesus" by Depeche Mode describes the faith of many: "Your own personal Jesus. Someone to hear your prayers. Someone who cares." In this post, John Suk, a professor of homiletics at Asian Theological Seminary in Manila, The Philippines, challenges popular evangelical jargon by questioning whether having a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" is poor theology or, worse, a capitulation to theraputic secular values? Below is an excerpt. You may read Suk's full article at Perspectives Journal's website.
Evangelicals generally insist that "the meaning and purpose of life is to have a personal relationship with Jesus." That's how a Methodist pastor I was listening to a few months ago put it. Philip Yancey says it another way in his Reaching for the Invisible God (Zondervan, 2000): "getting to know God is a lot like getting to know a person. You spend time together, whether happy or sad. You laugh together. You weep together. You fight and argue, then reconcile."
But we also confess that Jesus is not physically present on earth. So how does one have a personal relationship with someone you can't talk to, share a glass of wine with, or even email? We need to do some fundamental reflection on the whole notion of having a "personal relationship" with Jesus Christ. While, on the one hand, I respect the longing for intimacy with God that these words reflect, they also concern me because they betray a creeping sort of secularization of our language about God.
The phrase "a personal relationship with Jesus," is not found in the Bible. Thus, there is no sustained systematic theological reflection on what the phrase means. In fact, people experience the personal presence of God ? in a wide variety of idiosyncratic and highly personal ways. Publicly, however, when people say they have "a personal relationship" with Jesus, it sounds like they are saying they have a relationship characterized by face-time, by talk-time, by touching, by all the things ? and especially the intimacy ? we usually associate with having a personal relationship with another human being.
As a result, using the language of personal relationship is bound to lead to all sorts of confusion. As a pastor I met more than a few people who experienced doubt, or perhaps anger, because they didn't experience Jesus the way their Christian friends claimed to.
The language of personal relationship with God has become popular due to the pervasive influence of the language of secularity. So Marsha Witten cogently argues in her book, All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton, 1993), a close textual analysis of fifty-eight sermons on the parable of the prodigal son as found in Luke 15:11-32. Twenty-seven of the sermons were preached in mainline Presbyterian churches, and the rest to conservative Southern Baptists. In both traditions, Witten discovers, preachers respond to secularity by accommodating their language to it. Biblical language that emphasizes God's transcendence is replaced by language that emphasizes God's immanence. Jesus is not in heaven, at the right hand of God; he lives in our hearts. God is primarily seen as a "daddy," as sufferer on our behalf, and as extravagant lover. In these sermons the traditional language for God is accommodated to the human desire for connection and intimacy.
Furthermore, these sermons lack much sense that Christianity has anything to say beyond one's personal relationship to God. In both conservative and liberal denominations, the language of conversion has been replaced by the language of personal relationship. The language of personal relationship fits with secularity; the traditional language of conversion, of trading faiths through a dying to self, does not.
One cannot fail by recall David Wells' warning:
They labor under the illusion that the God they make in the image of the self becomes more real as he more nearly comes to resemble the self, to accommodate its needs and desires. The truth is quite the opposite. It is ridiculous to assert that God could become more real by abandoning his own character in an effort to identify more completely with ours. And yet the illusion has proved compelling to a whole generation. (God in the Wasteland, Eerdmans, 1994, 100-101.)
Is this possible? Do many Christians have a personal relationship not so much with Jesus, but with something in their heads, with something that they're comfortable with, a social construction driven by their need to go easy on themselves?
I've tried to pastor parents who just gave birth to a child with Down's syndrome. After a car accident, once, I buried a man's wife and only child. I've seen hundred of rotting bodies in a little church in Nterama, in Rwanda ? victims of genocide. I have a foster daughter who gets calls from her real parents in Zimbabwe saying that their whole neighborhood has just been bulldozed by Mugabe's henchmen. Everyday I go to work, here in Manila, I see malnourished street children begging for coins.
In such a world I think that rather than focusing on "personal relationship," we need to recover the Psalmist's language of lament because it fairly represents how we ought to feel about Jesus' absence until he comes again to make all things new.
Second, we need to revisit Scripture's assertion that we are "in Christ." Being in Christ ? even if it isn't a personal relationship ? is a wonderful and cosmic reality, the new history begun in Christ. A further consequence of being in Christ, Lewis Smedes argues, is that it makes us "part of a program as broad as the universe," as opposed to a narrow, pragmatic, and personal program of that type described by Witten.
Rather than saying, "I have a personal relationship with Jesus," why don't we say instead, "I have faith in Jesus," or "I believe in Jesus." Where the language of personal relationship has a very questionable pedigree, amidst a therapeutic culture, to cut God down to a manageable size, the language of faith is deeply rooted in Scripture. The apostle John put it this way: "This is [God's] command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us" (1 John 3:23).
January 30, 2006
I read with interest - and some pain - the first few days' worth of responses to my article. I thought that some readers would be interested in a few of my responses to their responses.
Before beginning though, I should say that I just learned today that Leadership Journal/CTI has an informal editorial policy on homosexuality. I was unaware of this policy when I wrote the article. If I had known, I wouldn't have submitted the article because it assumes a variety of opinion on the issue that is beyond the journal's policy. If I were a guest in your home, I wouldn't knowingly bring up subjects that are against family policy, out of common courtesy as guest to host ? and I feel that I have been rude, albeit unintentionally, in causing discomfort to the hosts and readers of this column. Please do not hold the hosts responsible for your disapproval of my guest column. In my defense, I was told that the subject of this issue was sexuality, and I was simply trying to offer something of value to pastoral leaders on this subject. But I should have inquired as to a policy on this subject before writing my column. Speaking of rudeness, I would also like to express my dismay that the editors allowed my friend Doug Pagitt to be treated despicably in one response. I'm glad they removed the most offensive sentence, but I find it stunning that people would applaud that kind of thing. I would much rather stand with Doug as ones being insulted than stand with those casting or celebrating the insults.
Now, on to some responses.
First, readers should know that titles are often created by editors, not the writers themselves. In this case, I wouldn't choose the title "More Important Than Being Right" that was used in the Journal. I said that being right wasn't enough, and that we also must also be wise, loving, patient, and pastoral. None of these things are necessarily more important than being right, but they are all important along with being right in "finding a pastoral response" (which was a more helpful title, included in the blog). Similarly, in the text, I never said that being right was unimportant ? only that we must also be pastoral.
Second, a number of responders suggested I lack concern for being Biblical or caring about truth. These readers must have missed this sentence, "To put it biblically, we want to be sure our answers are ?seasoned with salt' and appropriate ?to the need of the moment' (Col. 4, Eph. 4)," where I refer to Scripture to support the main point of the article (which was not the legitimacy of homosexual behavior, but rather the need for pastoral sensitivity). Many readers seem to assume that by quoting verses from Leviticus, Romans, and 1 Corinthians, they have solved the problem. It looks like an open-and-shut case to them, and the only reason they can surmise for the fact that some of us find the issue more complex is that we must be ignorant, lazy, rebellious, incompetent, cowardly, compromised, or postmodern.
Please be assured that as a pastor and as someone who loves and seeks to follow the Bible, I am aware of Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and related texts. Believe me, I have read them and prayerfully pondered them, and have read extensively on all the many sides of the issue. I understand that for many people, these verses end all dialogue and people like me must seem horribly stupid not to see what's there so clearly to them. I wish they could understand that some of us encounter additional levels of complexity when we try honestly and faithfully to face these texts. We have become aware of as-yet unanswered scholarly questions, such as questions about the precise meaning of malakoi and arsenokoitai in Paul's writings, and we wonder why these words were used in place of paiderasste, the meaning of which would be much clearer if Paul's intent were to address behavior more like what we would call homosexuality. (If responses are posted to this submission, please ? there is no need to reply that you know the actual meaning of these disputed Greek words. There are dozens of websites that already address these important issues in great detail, but they are peripheral matters to what I was trying to say in the original article and here as well.)
On a deeper level, some of us feel we are being dishonest and unfaithful to Scripture unless we face questions about how we should interpret and apply these texts today, and what hermeneutical methods and assumptions underlie our interpretations and applications. These questions are all the more challenging for some of us when we realize that the Leviticus texts themselves, if taken literally, call for the death penalty. Nobody (I don't think?) takes that literally, nor do we take many of the other 611 Mosaic proscriptions literally. Why take these selected verses literally, and only partially so? And it gets even more complex for some of us when we realize that people in later Biblical times didn't enforce some of these proscriptions literally either. For example, David committed adultery but wasn't killed as Leviticus 20:10 would require; why didn't Nathan require the death penalty for David and Bathsheba when he brought the word of the Lord? Add to that the Book of Job, where Job's "comforters" who quote to him the simple black-and-white assessments consistent with Leviticus or Deuteronomy are reprimanded by God; what is generally true (that good people reap good consequences and bad people, bad) is not true in Job's case, and they are in error not to acknowledge that possibility. We also find that the wisdom literature of the Bible again and again tells us that wisdom is not always simple and obvious, but often requires a search beneath the surface, as if we were excavating for gold and silver.
I say all this not expecting to change anybody's mind, but simply hoping that a few readers will know that there are people who take Scripture seriously, who love Jesus and want to be faithful pastors, who are not "relativistic postmodernists" at all, and yet who don't find the issue as simple as some people do. We acknowledge the sincerity and good faith of our brothers and sisters who find that this all resolves very simply in black and white and without any shadow of doubt; we only wish they could extend the same grace and not assume or assert things about us that aren't true.
Third, I would wish that people would take more care in reading what I actually said. I did not argue or call for a moratorium on discussion or making decisions (as some responders asserted). I simply suggested that a moratorium on making pronouncements might be a good idea. What I meant by pronouncements I did not make clear in the article, but many of the responses provide examples of exactly the kind of thing I was thinking about. Of course, I did not and do not seriously expect such a moratorium to happen. Who would have the authority to call for it, and what could anyone do to enforce it? The purpose of the hypothetical proposal was to point up the desirability of not engaging in hurtful and divisive rhetoric, but rather of providing space where we could practice "prayerful Christian dialogue, listening respectfully, disagreeing agreeably." Some may agree, in light of the tone of some of the responses, that we Christians need some work in this area.
That brings me to a fourth response. Mockery, scorn, insult, invective, name-calling and the like do appear in the Bible. It is hard to try to square them with other Scriptures like Ephesians 4:29-32 or 2 Timothy 2:23-26 ? that is another one of the kinds of complexities we face when we try to take the whole of Scripture seriously without just quoting one verse to the exclusion of others. I suppose some who accuse me of a failure to apply Leviticus 18:22 literally may be able to justify not taking Galatians 6:1 literally themselves. Still, I would hope that we could seek for a greater degree of civility, one might even hope for charity and humility and gentleness (in light of Galatians 5:15), in our future conversations about these or any other matters.
Fifth, I am sorry that I singled out "conservative Christians" and "religious broadcasters" early in the piece. That no doubt reflected my personal response to people of that persuasion (frankly, like one or two responders in this exchange) who have been rather bombastic and unkind. While I have seldom experienced the same kind of vitriol from the religious left (or even the secular left), I know some people have, which may explain some of their reactions too. However we've been wounded by others, we (I include myself here) need to be aware that we may respond unfairly and almost unconsciously to others because of our past woundedness. Here we need to return again and again to our Lord's teachings on forgiveness and reconciliation so that we don't act out old well-worn scripts of vengeance and bitterness. (Each of us, no doubt, sees the splinter in the other's eye better than the plank in our own.)
Fortunately, I was more even-handed politically later in the piece when I spoke of "political parties seeking to shave percentage points off their opponent's constituency" and winds "blowing furiously from the left and right." My point was that we need to be aware that our pastoral conversations aren't taking place in a vacuum, and that there are political parties seeking to profit from these issues ? on both sides. (Pardon my cynicism, but I've lived around the Beltway for a long time.)
Finally, I think many responders missed one of the main things I was trying to do in the piece. This failure owes more to a lack of skill on my part as a writer; I should have made this more obvious. For anyone who wants to re-read the piece, I would point out that near its midpoint I said, "Most of the emerging leaders I know share my agony over this question. We fear ? We see ? We're trying to care?." The first-person plural was significant and intentional.
I was trying to describe a "we" that comprises most (not all) of the "emerging leaders" ? not all who exist, but simply those few whom "I know." I was trying to make clear that this "we" includes people who have a variety of views on the issue of homosexuality. I said that "many of us" ? note, this is not "all of us" ? "don't know what we should think?." Then I specified two groups, both of whom I called "we." "Even if we are convinced that homosexual behavior is always sinful?" and "If we think that there may actually be a legitimate context for some homosexual relationships?" Few readers seemed to notice that my "we" included both groups.
My goal (if you give me a fair reading, I think you'll agree) was not to create a "we" who think one thing and a "they" who think another. My "we" included people who have a variety of opinions, but who share "agony" because even if we have a firm position, there are still (as at least one responder perceptively noted) many other unanswered questions that we face as pastors, such as how to treat people whom we think are wrong with "dignity, gentleness, and respect," and "how to enforce with fairness whatever lines are drawn."
For example, if you are certain without a shadow of doubt that homosexual behavior is always wrong, where do you draw the line: Do you let a homosexual person be a member of your church, or an attender? Does your exclusion apply only to "practicing" gays, or to celibate people of gay orientation? How many weeks can they attend without being given an ultimatum? How do you find out if a supposedly nonpracticing person is hiding their secret behaviors? How many failures do you allow before excommunication? And do you allow heterosexual people who attend your services to have gay friends? Must they confront those friends in order to be faithful Christians? What if they don't? What if your leading elder comes to you to say his daughter has come out as a lesbian? What if your daughter comes out? Or conversely, if you are an "open and affirming" congregation, do you require fidelity or do you allow promiscuity? How do you enforce that? Do you accept people who think homosexuality is wrong? What if they repeatedly share their opinions publicly and in so doing scare away gay people whom you seek to receive? Are you then open and affirming of homosexuals, but not of people who consider homosexuality a sin? If you don't find at least some of these questions agonizing, I'm not sure what to say.
My "we" includes people who answer these questions in a variety of ways, but who at least share some degree of "agony" about the complexities of responding to people faithfully and pastorally. Sadly, though, some of the responses were very quick to turn my "we" into an adversarial us/them. To those of you who were adversarial, may I say that it is not a pleasant thing to be in your "them"? It helps me understand how gay people feel in your presence, and intensifies my sense of agony that I spoke of in the article.
I am no doubt wrong on many things. I am very likely wrong in my personal opinions on homosexuality (which, by the way, were never expressed in the piece, contrary to the assumptions of many responders). But I don't think I'm wrong when I say that "we" need to be more careful to preserve "we" and not let it deteriorate into us/them. I have seen what Paul said in Galatians 5:15 come true many times: people begin a feeding frenzy, biting and devouring "them," and eventually, after "they" have been dispensed with, the remaining "we" turns on itself. People learn the practice of attack, mockery, judgment, and exclusion on "them," but then their practice becomes a habit, perhaps an addiction. No matter how wrong you think I am, that is a danger you might want to keep in mind.
I hope readers, having now read my response - which is three times as long as the original piece - will not simply be content to pass judgment on me. Further, I hope this response will be disseminated as broadly as some of the original comments on it have been. I hope that we all will be able to engage in some prayerful self-examination (note the prefix self-) not only about our rightness, but also about our ability to be "wise. And loving. And patient." However flawed my original article was, and however flawed some responses may be, might we agree on the value of that?
January 27, 2006
Hundreds of readers have posted comments about Brian McLaren's article on forming a pastoral response to the "homosexual question." One such reader was Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. As "one of the 50 most influential pastors in America" and an outspoken critic of the emergent movement, we thought others would like to read Driscoll's comments.
Well, it seems that Brian McLaren and the Emergent crowd are emerging into homo-evangelicals.
Before I begin my rant, let me first defend myself. First, the guy who was among the first to share the gospel with me was a gay guy who was a friend. Second, I planted a church in my 20s in one of America's least churched cities where the gay pride parade is much bigger than the march for Jesus. Third, my church is filled with people struggling with same sex attraction and gay couples do attend and we tell them about the transforming power of Jesus. Fourth, I am not a religious right wingnut. In fact, when James Dobson came to town to hold the anti-gay rally, we took a lot of heat for being among the biggest churches in the state, the largest evangelical church in our city, and not promoting the event in our church because we felt it would come off as unloving to the gay community. The men who hosted the event are all godly men and good friends and I've taken a few blows for not standing with them on this issue. Fifth, I am myself a devoted heterosexual male lesbian who has been in a monogamous marriage with my high school sweetheart since I was 21 and personally know the pain of being a marginalized sexual minority as a male lesbian.
And now the rant.
For me, the concern started when McLaren in the February 7, 2005 issue of Time Magazine said, "Asked at a conference last spring what he thought about gay marriage, Brian McLaren replied, ?You know what, the thing that breaks my heart is that there's no way I can answer it without hurting someone on either side.'" Sadly, by failing to answer, McLaren was unwilling to say what the Bible says and in so doing really hurt God's feelings and broke his heart.
Then, Brian's Tonto Doug Pagitt, an old acquaintance of mine, wrote the following in a book he and I both contributed to called Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches edited by Robert Webber and due out this spring:
"The question of humanity is inexorably link to sexuality and gender. Issues of sexuality can be among the most complex and convoluted we need to deal with. It seems to me that the theology of our history does not deal sufficiently with these issues for our day. I do not mean this a critique, but as an acknowledgement that our times are different. I do not mean that we are a more or less sexual culture, but one that knows more about the genetic, social and cultural issues surrounding sexuality and gender than any previous culture. Christianity will be impotent to lead a conversation on sexuality and gender if we do not boldly integrate our current understandings of humanity with our theology. This will require us to not only draw new conclusions about sexuality but will force to consider new ways of being sexual."
And on January 23rd McLaren wrote an article for Leadership that is posted on this blog. In it he argues that because the religious right is mean to gays we should not make any decision on the gay issue for 5-10 years.
As the pastor of a church of nearly 5000 in one of America's least churched cities filled with young horny people this really bummed me out. Just this week a young man who claims to be a Christian and knows his Bible pretty well asked if he could have anal sex with lots of young men because he liked the orgasms. Had I known McLaren was issuing a Brokeback injunction I would have scheduled an appointment with him somewhere between 2011-2016.
Lastly, for the next 5-10 years you are hereby required to white out 1 Peter 3:15 which says "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" from your Bible until further notice from McLaren because the religious right forget the gentleness and respect part and the religious left forgot the answer the question part. Subsequently, a task force will be commissioned to have a conversation about all of this at a labyrinth to be named later. Once consensus is reached a finger painting will be commissioned on the Emergent web site as the official doctrinal position.
In conclusion, this is all just gay.
-Pastor Mark Driscoll
[AN EDITORIAL NOTE FROM UrL: As some have noted, one sentence has been edited from Mark Driscoll's post above. As the moderator of the discussions on this blog, I will, from time to time, edit comments and posts to keep the conversation focused and on topic. It was clear from comments rolling in that the sentence in question was causing the conversation to veer away from Brian McLaren and the "homosexuality question." This is why it was removed.]
On March 27, Mark Driscoll posted an apology on his blog, Resurgence, for his comments above. An excerpt is below. To read his full remarks please visit his blog.
And after listening to the concerns of the board members of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network that I lead, and of some of the elders and deacons at Mars Hill Church that I pastor, I have come to see that my comments were sinful and in poor taste. Therefore, I am publicly asking for forgiveness from both Brian and Doug because I was wrong for attacking them personally and I was wrong for the way in which I confronted positions with which I still disagree. I also ask forgiveness from those who were justifiably offended at the way I chose to address the disagreement. I pray that you will accept this posting as a genuine act of repentance for my sin.
January 26, 2006
Since posting Brian McLaren's commentary about homosexuality we've had difficulty keeping pace with the responses being written. Reading through the comments reveals why homosexuality is known as a "wedge issue" in our culture. Our readers appear divided between heralding McLaren as a prophet, and condemning him as a heretic. Below is one response we received by a blogger named Jeff who disagrees with McLaren's suggested five year moratorium on making pronouncements about homosexuality. But unlike many other critics, Jeff also writes about his very personal engagement with this issue.
1. To make the accusation that "we" (evangelicals or the church or the "religious right" whoever "we" are) consider homosexuality to be somehow "more sinful" than any other transgression based on the fact that we seem to be giving so much time, energy and attention to it at present is somewhat unfair. The church didn't have a secret meeting somewhere and decide that now is the time to take action against "those homosexuals." Our reaction has been totally defensive, forced upon us by court-mandated acceptance of homosexual marriage, the consecration of homosexuals to leadership positions in the church, the media's glorification of the homosexual lifestyle and the continuing actions of the militant portion of the homosexual community.
Just as abortion became a dominant issue for the church only after Roe v. Wade, so homosexuality has attained prominence in the aftermath of these significant events. Those "pronouncements" that Brian bewails are the equivalent of "raising up a standard against the enemy" who is truly "coming in like a flood."
2. I fear that Brian's desired "moratorium" is more likely to turn into a "surrender" than anything else. It will certainly be a unilateral one, for the voices crying for more and more acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle will certainly NOT be silent while we take our little siesta. We followed a similar path before in the areas of science, politics and education, somehow believing that if we ignored the problem it would surely go away, and those institutions are now almost exclusively controlled by the secular world view. Silence now in the area of morality, even in the name of reason and "seeking the will of God," would accomplish no more. Of course, if we're really not sure what to think about homosexuality, then this will help solve that problem without any undue exertion on our part ?
3. Many have suggested that the church does not speak out nearly so forcefully against such sins as gossip, gluttony and greed as we do against homosexuality, apparently suggesting that we take the same line with sexual sin as we have with these more common indiscretions. Is it not more correct to call us to speak with clarity and force against these sins as well? It is certainly not to our credit that we have allowed them to go unchallenged, and the condition of many of our churches today shows the results. The solution is MORE consistent preaching of the truth, not less.
4. We have already lost - or are badly losing - in the war against other sexual sins. When all statistics and surveys show that divorce, adultery and fornication are present among church members in the same proportions as in the world at large, that is the only conclusion that we can draw. Having begun by softening the edges of the Biblical position on divorce, the rest seems to be swirling down the drain along with it. Perhaps we have drawn this line to avoid giving the enemy a complete victory in the area of sexuality. For now, incest and pedophilia are still taboo; but once we redefine marriage and relationships to include homosexuals, can the others be far behind? That slope, indeed, is slippery .
5. Is the stand we are taking against homosexuality really so radical? In virtually all the states where defense of marriage propositions or amendments have appeared on the ballot, they have been overwhelmingly approved. Call it homophobia if you will; I dare to believe that there is still a spark of the divine image left in people that cringes at the thought of the word "family" being so radically redefined.
6. Could we finally put to rest that old saw about "hating the sin but loving the sinner?" Only God is capable of such a dichotomy; the rest of us all fail to some degree - some of us miserably! - on one end or the other. Words to the contrary notwithstanding, many of the responses I have read have either shied far from a truly divine hatred of the sin of homosexuality, or a truly divine love for the homosexual. In any case, we are not required to hate sin in order to speak out against it; all we must do is recognize it for what it is and what it does to the people who practice it. Leave the hating and vengeance and judgment and punishment to God, Who has done, does and will do them all well and properly. Let's concentrate on the love to which we are frequently and forcefully called in the Word - a love which both speaks out and is silent as led by the Spirit.
7. I wonder if the God Who said that the watcher on the wall is held responsible for those who die because of his failure to warn of the enemy's approach will accept a "moratorium" as our excuse for the thousands who will enter eternity in their sin while we consider our course?
8. One comment suggested that trying to help a homosexual find his or her way out of that lifestyle is equivalent to an "abortion of the identity." But our identity is not defined by our sexuality - no matter how much the homosexual activists would like us to think that it is - any more than our identity is truly defined by our jobs or our families or our past or our political affiliation. Our "sense" of identity may be bound to these things, but that is another thing altogether. Our true identity is exclusively defined by our relationship to Christ. Anything else that claims to be is a pretender.
9. Finally, as a person who struggled as a pastor for 17 years (though not currently) and as a homosexual for more than 40, I can only testify from my own experience that it is not more understanding from Christians that I need; it is more of Christ, and He comes with both truth and grace. But to receive that grace, I must first become aware of the truth of my situation. So is one more important than the other? In terms of preeminence, no; in terms of sequence, at least perhaps. Grace has no appeal, no meaning, to the person who feels or sees no need for it. Until I am confronted with the truth of who and what I am - not from a theological perspective, but from a Divine one - I cannot truly receive forgiveness for what makes me what I am. And ultimately, it is not homosexuality that makes me a sinner; it is sin which makes me a homosexual. It makes you something different, but it's still sin.
Personally, yes there are times that I wish I had a greater circle of initiated friends in the church to whom I could speak candidly about my daily struggles with my besetting sin. Not nearly enough Christians have come to grips with their personal loathing for this particular problem to the extent that they can be effective as friends, confidants or evangelists to most homosexuals. But as others here have put it, it is both grace AND truth that I and my fellow-travelers need. Either without the other is insufficient. I need the accountability of those who will hold my behavior up to the plumb line of truth and show me my erring; I need the support of those who bring God's grace to life by binding my wounds and caring for me when the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy.
Perhaps someday, Brian, it will be your personal "favorite" sin that will be part of the newspaper headlines. It will be interesting to see if a moratorium is appropriate then.
January 23, 2006
In his prominent role as author, theologian, speaker, and leader of the emergent conversation some forget that Brian McLaren is also a pastor. In the latest issue of Leadership Journal, which focuses on ministry in a sexually charged culture, Brian shares a story that reveals the complexity of the homosexual question - a question where theology, truth, sin, grace, culture, politics, and pastoral wisdom collide.
The couple approached me immediately after the service. This was their first time visiting, and they really enjoyed the service, they said, but they had one question. You can guess what the question was about: not transubstantiation, not speaking in tongues, not inerrancy or eschatology, but where our church stood on homosexuality.
That "still, small voice" told me not to answer. Instead I asked, "Can you tell me why that question is important to you?" "It's a long story," he said with a laugh.
Usually when I'm asked about this subject, it's by conservative Christians wanting to be sure that we conform to what I call "radio-orthodoxy," i.e. the religio-political priorities mandated by many big-name religious broadcasters. Sometimes it's asked by ex-gays who want to be sure they'll be supported in their ongoing re-orientation process, or parents whose children have recently "come out."
But the young woman explained, "This is the first time my fianc?e and I have ever actually attended a Christian service, since we were both raised agnostic." So I supposed they were like most unchurched young adults I meet, who wouldn't want to be part of an anti-homosexual organization any more than they'd want to be part of a racist or terrorist organization.
I hesitate in answering "the homosexual question" not because I'm a cowardly flip-flopper who wants to tickle ears, but because I am a pastor, and pastors have learned from Jesus that there is more to answering a question than being right or even honest: we must also be . . . pastoral. That means understanding the question beneath the question, the need or fear or hope or assumption that motivates the question.
We pastors want to frame our answer around that need; we want to fit in with the Holy Spirit's work in that person's life at that particular moment. To put it biblically, we want to be sure our answers are "seasoned with salt" and appropriate to "the need of the moment" (Col. 4; Eph. 4).
Most of the emerging leaders I know share my agony over this question. We fear that the whole issue has been manipulated far more than we realize by political parties seeking to shave percentage points off their opponent's constituency. We see whatever we say get sucked into a vortex of politicized culture-wars rhetoric--and we're pastors, evangelists, church-planters, and disciple-makers, not political culture warriors. Those who bring us honest questions are people we are trying to care for in Christ's name, not cultural enemies we're trying to vanquish.
Frankly, many of us don't know what we should think about homosexuality. We've heard all sides but no position has yet won our confidence so that we can say "it seems good to the Holy Spirit and us." That alienates us from both the liberals and conservatives who seem to know exactly what we should think. Even if we are convinced that all homosexual behavior is always sinful, we still want to treat gay and lesbian people with more dignity, gentleness, and respect than our colleagues do. If we think that there may actually be a legitimate context for some homosexual relationships, we know that the biblical arguments are nuanced and multilayered, and the pastoral ramifications are staggeringly complex. We aren't sure if or where lines are to be drawn, nor do we know how to enforce with fairness whatever lines are drawn.
Perhaps we need a five-year moratorium on making pronouncements. In the meantime, we'll practice prayerful Christian dialogue, listening respectfully, disagreeing agreeably. When decisions need to be made, they'll be admittedly provisional. We'll keep our ears attuned to scholars in biblical studies, theology, ethics, psychology, genetics, sociology, and related fields. Then in five years, if we have clarity, we'll speak; if not, we'll set another five years for ongoing reflection. After all, many important issues in church history took centuries to figure out. Maybe this moratorium would help us resist the "winds of doctrine" blowing furiously from the left and right, so we can patiently wait for the wind of the Spirit to set our course.
Later that week I got together with the new couple to hear their story. "It's kind of weird how we met," they explained. "You see, we met last year through our fathers who became . . . partners. When we get married, we want to be sure they will be welcome at our wedding. That's why we asked you that question on Sunday."
Welcome to our world. Being "right" isn't enough. We also need to be wise. And loving. And patient. Perhaps nothing short of that should "seem good to the Holy Spirit and us."
December 1, 2005
Brian McLaren has been proclaiming the need for a different, more generous approach to orthodoxy. His critics say "generous orthodoxy" is an oxymoron that exemplifies the problem with the postmodern church. In part three of our interview, McLaren explains what this new approach means for the local church pastor. While Tony Campolo discusses the societal definitions of "orthodoxy," and defends McLaren's call to overcome restrictive categories developed five centuries ago.
Brian, you are pressing for a "generous approach to orthodoxy." What does this mean for the local church pastor?
McLaren: I think it's quite problematic, partly for reasons of sociology. I think a lot of conservative, evangelical churches where formed through a sense of competition with other churches, so everyone formed detailed doctrinal statements in order to defend how right their beliefs were, compared to the other churches. What I'm trying to say is that creating a 72 item doctrinal statement about your beliefs may not be the best why to "make disciples." We need to really assess what the essentials are and allow some latitude for people to think and process their faith.
In A Generous Orthodoxy, I'm trying to help us create a deeper focus on "orthopraxy" and not just "orthodoxy." Our deep challenge then is to invite people to dialogue with us not just about doctrine, but about what a life of discipleship looks like.
This is a delicate and precarious discussion. So, where does "generosity" override or even negate "orthodoxy?"
Campolo: When you use the word "orthodoxy" you have a very complex term. When I hear the word, I immediately think of belief in the Apostles Creed, holding a high view of scripture, and having a personal relationship with Jesus. Now, what has happened is that certain 15th and 16th century theologians tried to interpret their faith to the people of their day, and they did a brilliant job of it, but they did it for people who lived 500 years ago, and it made sense 500 years ago. But, what people like Brian are trying to do is say, we still believe the Apostles Creed, and have a high view of scripture and Jesus, but we don't want to say it the same way Calvin and Luther and Zwingli said it. And furthermore, there may be things that we see today that need to be said that they didn't talk about, or they didn't grasp.
Now, we evangelicals often criticize the Catholic's for their belief in the popes' words as "ex cathedra." But we too have often committed similar offenses when we deviate from the doctrines of Calvin and Luther and call people heretics for that. I'm not differing from the Apostle's Creed, or differing from scripture, or from a personal relationship with Jesus. Yet, some of my ideas and Brian's do differ from Calvin and Luther. Now is that heretical? Well, to many of our brothers and sisters it is!
There are some who would say that if you're not a T.U.L.I.P. Calvinist you're not orthodox, and Brian and I simply aren't there. We believe there are questions in our culture today that must be addressed by Christians, and not just by 500 year old answers. I mean, who really cares about the doctrine of predestination or eternal security today outside of theologians? Most people are like the single mom trying to raise her daughter, or kid's facing the peer pressure of drugs and sex, or the aimlessness of so many people. These are the issues Christians must address.
We are not new gurus, but we do advocate looking at the new questions that our world is seeking answers to. We are not "unorthodox" in doctrine but "unorthodox" in the questions we are wrestling with.
McLaren: Tony, I really like what you just said and I agree! The only thing I'd like to add is that there is a group today bringing together Evangelicals, Mainlines Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox for what they call "cross confession conversation." And they have a term they use which I really like, seeking "the highest common denominator." I think the old ecumenical movement was about finding the "lowest common denominator" which was not helpful. I'm thrilled that we are moving in some good directions. Also, there seems to be an embrace of the idea that "to have orthodoxy without orthopraxy isn't truly orthodox." It's saying, we actually have to love our neighbors, care for the poor, and be increasingly transformed into Christlikeness in our actions. Now that's orthodoxy.
October 11, 2005
Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren are influential among church leaders, although their influence is often from a negative position. Some would say their value is in how many people they make mad. Both men have taken contrarian stances on many topics, from homosexuality to hell. In the second of our four-part interview, Campolo and McLaren discuss the feedback they're getting.
What are you hearing from pastors and leaders who are in the trenches who are reading the kind of things you are writing about?
Campolo: One thing I hear, and I'm sure you do too Brian is, ?I'm so glad you're saying what your saying - I wish I could say it, but I'm afraid to.'
I think we have a huge number of pastors who are scared to speak their convictions because the religious media has created a mindset that if you step out of line you could be out of a church in no time flat. This is what I'm hearing. And I'm hoping we will have more pastors stand up and pay the price of speaking out of their convictions.
McLaren: I often use the term "radio orthodoxy" for this mass consensus that is imposed on most evangelical churches. It doesn't matter what the pastor says on Sunday, if the radio preacher on Monday through Friday says something else. I felt this way for many years as a pastor, and was so thankful for the words of Tony to say things I felt challenged in saying to my own congregation. You see if a pastor speaks up and no one else is saying what he is saying then the pastor looks out to lunch because what the Christian media ultimately says is what's really right. I think this is why Tony and I probably receive such favorable support, because we are creating more than just a monologue within churches and opening up a healthy dialog or conversation for Christians to engage in.
Campolo: Another reason we receive support is, I think we both break the stereotype the "religious right" would like us to have, namely that we aren't interested in leading people to Jesus. You see, most nights I'm out there on the road preaching evangelistic messages, inviting people to come to know Jesus, and give their lives to him. And I know this is important to Brian as well, but this doesn't fit the image of what a social activist is into, but both Brian and I are into a holistic gospel, we are not into neglecting the salvation of the individual even as we talk about the transformation of society.
McLaren: And what you have just said Tony I hope will stir evangelicals up with a little more courage when they realize that there are certain people who want the word "evangelical" to become narrower than it has ever been before.
October 7, 2005
Leadership editor Marshall Shelley offers this report on his conversations with young leaders at Catalyst.
"It's funny. It's like theology is back," said Rusty, who is planting a Methodist church near Auburn University in Alabama. The church is meeting in a skate park, mirror ball on the ceiling and all.
Rusty put his finger on a reality that many at the 2005 Catalyst Conference identified with. Theology and a skate park don't seem like a matched set, but theology is increasingly a subject of great interest to younger leaders, in fact, it's of great interest to younger people in general.
My colleagues Eric and Carol and I were talking with several young leaders about the place of theology in their ministries. Surprisingly, theology isn't something they have to apologize for - it's of great interest to their youthful congregations.
"We're dealing with a new breed of college students coming in with a lot of questions. And they're theological questions," said Rusty. "They're looking not so much for answers, but for discussion, for acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the questions." Questions such as: Where is God? Is a tsunami an act of God? Was Katrina a random consequence of weather patterns or an intentional judgment by God - and if so, what exactly was he judging? Why is my sister dying and I'm not?
These questions are unlike the theological questions of a generation ago (Is the Bible best described as ?human' or ?divine', or by the term ?authoritative,' ?infallible,' or ?inerrant'?) Many of the theological questions a generation ago proved divisive, separating Christians into competing camps.
Today's questions are about understanding the nature and character of God, and how we as human beings stand in relation to this world and where God is in relation to the world.
"Theology is back," agreed Jason, who's planting a church in Florida, "but the theology is on a missional level. Our people want to know God, but they aren't interested in systematizing things. It's more relational. My generation and younger is sick of systematizing. How can you love or relate to a God that you only know in a systematized way?"
Much of God is a mystery - and today's young lay theologians are okay with that. They want to search that and ask the questions, and get to know God along the way.