Thursday, September 18, 2014

Romancing the Anabaptists

I love me some Anabaptists. I first got turned on to them thanks to Dave Black, and it is quite an accomplishment and a testament to Dr. Black's infectious enthusiasm that I gave them serious consideration after years of listening to the White Horse Inn where every ill in the church could be traced back to the Anabaptists (and every ill could be solved by applying more "word and sacrament"). So I am of course as pleased as anyone that these Reformation era brethren are experiencing a major revitalization of interest in the church.

Having said that....

I am concerned that many Christians are romanticizing the Anabaptists and turning them into something they were not. In doing so they risk completely missing the very important lessons that Anabaptists can teach the church today by trying to make the Anabaptists fit into a contemporary model that really has nothing to do with what they believed. Yes they believed in and practiced non-resistance but there is a lot more to them than that. As a result of their persecution the Anabaptists rarely had time to sit down and pen lengthy theological treatises and I am afraid that has given license to many contemporary thinkers to "fill in the blanks". This pop culture "Anabaptism" where Anabaptist becomes a word that means whatever I want it to does a disservice to the Anabaptists and the contemporary church alike.

The Anabaptists were a people under constant persecution, not for being too lax with the Scriptures but being too literal. Far from being unorthodox or disinterested in orthodoxy they were a people deeply concerned with right belief and right practice. They weren't especially ecumenical (read Menno Simons speaking about the pope and Roman Catholicism). They held to some pretty traditional ideas on doctrines like hell. They certainly were not loosey goosey about doctrine, in fact they were just the opposite. They suffered persecution because of their refusal to compromise.

Fast forward four hundred years or so and you get a pretty divided manifestation of "Anabaptism". On the one hand you have the traditional Anabaptist groups like the Amish, the Mennonites, the Hutterites and other groups that are visibly recognizable by their dress and manner (usually plain, coverings for women, often technologically averse). I believe that these historically Anabaptist groups would be more recognizable to the original Anabaptists than the second group although I think they (the original Anabaptists) would be troubled by the insularity and general disinterest (or outright aversion) to evangelism their progeny exhibit.

The second group, what I and many others call "neo-anabaptism", includes a smorgasbord of beliefs that are all over the place but (and this is a pretty broad generalization) tend to fall way to the left on the theological scale. Most prominent voices promote "egalitarianism", reject substitutionary ideas of the atonement, advance ideas that border on (or leap right over the border) of universalism or at least a rejection of a literal hell. In spite of my general dislike of these sorts of fanciful notions and the time-space continuum paradox they would cause I would hazard to guess that Menno Simons and company would be bewildered by the positions held by many of those who claim a contemporary affinity with them. When many contemporary Christians talk about Anabaptism what they are really talking about is a romanticized, and perhaps hijacked, version of an important movement in the church that bears little practical resemblance to what their forefathers believed and practiced. It seems like neo-Anabaptists define Anabaptism by definitions that have nothing to do with the Anabaptists other than Anabaptist non-resistance, which looks very different from militant political pacifism (pun intended). I am sure that characterization will rub many in the neo-Anabaptist camp the wrong way but I call 'em like I see 'em.

Some of this is the fault of evangelicalism. There is not really a home for peacemaking in what passes for the church loosely defined under the umbrella of evangelicalism, whether you are talking Reformed denominations or charismatic groups or run of the mill Baptists to non-denominational churches. The idea of practical peacemaking simply doesn't get any sort of consideration, leaving only the fringe left of the theological spectrum as a home for those who eschew redemptive violence. Ideas like redemptive violence, "just war" and the myriad hypothetical situations and geo-political rationales we invoke to excuse or even celebrate our rejection of peacemaking are so deeply entrenched in mainstream evangelicalism that peacemaking rarely gets even a cursory examination. This leaves a lot of Christians without many options. Peacemaking is not a new concept and it certainly is not a "progressive" or liberal idea. It is deeply embedded in the foundations of the Gospel.

Anyway, back to my point. We stand on the cusp of a seismic change for the church in America. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that it will have a similar impact, although a very different one, that the Reformation had on the church. As we look to the past to help us face the future there are few historical manifestations of the church that are as potentially valuable as the Anabaptists. We risk missing the timely and critical lessons they have to teach us if we remove the real people who suffered for standing firm for the truth in a hostile culture and replace them with neutered, politically correct shills for a cornucopia of "progressive" ideology. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of great people who fall into the category of "neo-Anabaptist", many of them Christians doing great things for God. They have some worthwhile things to say and I am not saying they can't call themselves Anabaptists. I just wish they would study more of the actual Anabaptists to understand what made them uniquely valuable to the contemporary church rather than the romanticized version we so often see today.

Funding Syrian rebels summed up

This was something I penned this morning and I think it is a decent summary of the push to fund "moderate" Syrian rebels...

The U.S. House has already voted in favor of, and the Senate is preparing to do the same, a proposal to spend more money we don't have to help people we can't trust in a conflict we don't understand and have no business getting involved in.

If I didn't know better I might think that we are arming these rebels to create a new threat to fight a few years down the road, the better to perpetuate this endless cycle of warfare that accomplishes nothing but killing American young men and women along with countless civilians, spending the U.S. further into debt and enriches people in America that profit from war in corporate board rooms and government offices alike.

Meanwhile NPR reports that ISIS militants have U.S. weapons. Any takers on how long before the latest round of armaments being sent to this region are being used to kill American soldiers?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Here Come The Scavengers

When an animal is wounded, the scavengers start to circle hoping for an easy meal that they didn't earn. You can see this in nature films and you can see it right where you live if you are sort of in the country. A sure sign that a deer is wounded are the circling vultures. Maybe it is just me but I think I am seeing some circling in our popular culture and the wounded beast is the NFL and the well-publicized mishandling of the Ray Rice situation and the subsequent witchhunt.

First on Ray Rice.

It doesn't matter if "she started it" or "she hit me first". Men don't hit women because it is cowardly and unmanly. There is nothing less genuinely masculine than hitting someone weaker than you and that is doubly true when it involves a woman. PC or not it is still true than generally speaking men are bigger and stronger than women. Just a fact. Yet we find ourselves in an era that tries to pretend that men and women are essentially the same at the same time it decries domestic violence and the "rape culture". This muddled confusion is no surprise. For a generation or more men have been inundated with the message that women are nothing special outside of their ability to provide men sexual gratification and perhaps pay the rent when the man is too lazy to get a job. Little wonder that a guy who is 220 lbs thinks nothing of beating a woman unconscious. When my X-box is frustrating me I turn it off, when a woman back-talks me I shut her up. This is the culture we live in and no one says anything unless someone famous is involved. It is the sign of a complete societal failure that men like Ray Rice think that beating up a woman is ever an option.

Is the NFL player base more prone to domestic violence based on a couple of incidents, ugly as they are, than the general population? I don't know if the statistics bear that out but certainly there are plenty of examples of domestic violence by employees of other industries. So why is this conversation dominating the news? Two words for you: Mad. Stacks. (Yo.) (OK that was three....)

The NFL is one of the biggest cash cows around and is paranoid to a pathological level about its public image lest the gravy train derail.

Lots of cash flow plus a huge public profile = easy target for extortion

Groups are coming out of the woodwork to get in on this windfall, offering consulting services and re-education camps informational seminars to tell a bunch of guys, the vast majority of whom are never going to raise their hand to a woman, that hitting women is wrong. That is something they should have, and most of them have, learned when they were toddlers. Never fear, there is no common sense idea that a high priced consultant can't cash in on!

Raise your hand if you think that the oodles of cash being extorted from the NFL will do a thing to end domestic violence. If you have your hand raised you are a sucker. Just a little honesty for ya.

The very real issue of men hitting women (and that is different from a parent spanking a child for obvious reasons) is one that should be handled by teaching our young boys to be men when they are little. We shouldn't have to pull adult men aside and lecture them with psychobabble mumbo-jumbo about an issue that shouldn't even be an issue. Men hitting women is a failure of the understanding of men and woman as co-equal image bearers of God and the divine design of God in creating two complementary genders. It isn't hard to figure out but watch and see as the NFL pays millions in hush money to make this issue go away. Lawyers and consultants will cash in. Players will be inundated with common sense. The NFL will have protected its mad stacks. Women will still be treated like sex toys and punching bags by men who were never taught the most basic of gender rules: boys and girls are different and boys don't hit girls.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Here are a couple some links I have liked (or didn't like but read anyway)

First, one from today by Eric Carpenter Is This A Joke? What has Eric asking that question is the constant advertisements from Ligonier Ministries for a "theology cruise". The "cheap" cabin is "only" $800 (based on double occupancy so figure $1600 minimum). Eric writes:

The add basically invites you to spend hundreds, possibly thousands, of dollars on a comfortable cruise around the Caribbean while listening to theological lectures. Could Christianity be made to seem any cushier? 

 The scriptures tell us that life with Christ will often be difficult. We may have to suffer due to our affiliation with Jesus. Many Christians around the world today have great struggle in their lives on a regular basis. Meanwhile, those of us with money are expected to share it with those who have little. 

In light of these things, how can a comfy theology cruise be justified? While the truths taught during the theology lectures will probably be solid, the very existence of this cruise conveys something else. It says that living for Jesus is easy and fun. Frankly, this cruise appears dangerously similar to what the prosperity gospel teaches.

Yes, yes. I am a free market guy. I believe that citizens in an allegedly free society can do whatever they want with the money they earn. I also had a conversation with an Amish friend last week about the way we use wealth and the idea of being a stumbling block to the brethren. These sorts of cruises smack of the sort of elitist influence buying we see among politicians. Spend enough money and you get to hobnob with the cool theologians. The rest of you less fortunate types will have to be content with podcasts. When you consider the innumerable solicitations via mail and email I get from Ligonier warning of dire consequences if they fail to raise some insane amount of money this month, it makes you wonder if they have their financial (and Kingdom) priorities straight.

NPR reports on the way that the Islamic State (that isn't Muslim according to the Prez) uses the regions it has conquered to fund their activities, How The Islamic State Smuggles Oil To Fund Its Campaign. Well done America. We keep destabilizing this region leading to conditions where radical groups rise up and we end up going back over and over again, wasting billions of dollars we don't have and losing countless lives we can't replace or justify.

Two articles from the Washington Post on the way police use forfeiture seizure and fines to fund themselves, often at the expense of the poor, Stop and seize and How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty. I have remarked before that many (most) institutions become primarily concerned with self-preservation and perpetuation over time and it seems that law enforcement is no different. In a related story we read how a Family Could Lose Home Over Son’s Drug Possession, even though it was a minor amount.

This one really rubbed me the wrong way, Hacking Traditional College Debate's White-Privilege Problem. From the intro...

It used to be that if you went to a college-level debate tournament, the students you’d see would be bookish future lawyers from elite universities, most of them white. In matching navy blazers, they’d recite academic arguments for and against various government policies. It was tame, predictable, and, frankly, boring. 

No more. 

These days, an increasingly diverse group of participants has transformed debate competitions, mounting challenges to traditional form and content by incorporating personal experience, performance, and radical politics. These “alternative-style” debaters have achieved success, too, taking top honors at national collegiate tournaments over the past few years.

I get that college debate can be kind of boring and staid but in the real world there is a place for reasoned dialogue within a framework. Being able to argue your point in a calm and rational way is a critical skill in the workplace. When a meeting is winding up you can't just get up and shout "F the time!". That gets you fired and rightly so. This is just another way that the "academic" world is so removed from the real world that it is actually hurting people preparing for life outside of the campus.

Russ Moore speaks to the issue of domestic violence in light of the Ray Rice video and suspension, The Church and Violence Against Women. He says:

An abusive man is not an over-enthusiastic complementarian. He is not a complementarian at all. He is rejecting male headship because he rejecting his role as provider and protector. As the culture grows more violent, more consumerist, more sexualized and more misogynistic, the answer is not a church more attenuated to the ambient culture, whether through a hyper-masculine paganism or through a gender-neutral feminism.

Complementarianism rightly understood is the very antithesis of violence against women because it understands that men should treat their wives as Christ treated the church.

That is some of what I have been reading for the last week or so, enjoy!

Friday, September 12, 2014

That is what they were laughing about

I saw the picture of former Presidents Clinton and Bush laughing together the other day and wondered what was so funny. I think I figured it out so I created a meme to capture their moment of jocularity.....

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Foolishness of Fear

Of all people those who believe, truly believe, in Christ ought to be the least fearful around.We should have absolute confidence in the eternal perspective and promise of God.

Why then, at least based on social media, are Christians so terrified of anything and everything. I mean like trembling in fear exhibited in impotent and empty bravado and rhetoric. Two recent events have highlighted this disturbing trend for me.

The first was the widely publicized return of two American missionaries who had contracted Ebola while serving in the mission field. I emphasized the words above because it was staggering to see that a number of Christians were dead-set against having these American missionaries come back to....America. One of the people I noticed just frothing at the mouth about this was a prominent blogger who talks a lot about the sovereignty of God. I guess that sovereignty only extends within the four walls of church buildings. What was really troubling about the reaction to the returning of these missionaries was the implied accusation that they kinda had it coming for going somewhere with sick people. It seemed that some people who claimed to be Christians were of the opinion that if you want to leave the comfortable confines of your pew and be somewhere more than 15 minutes from an American medical facility you just gotta take your chances and you certainly shouldn't come back here where you might infect some other Americans. In spite of crazy precautions being taken, which to someone who is not a medical professional or "scientist" made me quite confident that no contamination would happen, there still were many of us who thought that the risks outweighed the benefit to these American missionaries coming home for world-class medical care, care which worked and saved their lives enabling them to continue to serve Christ in a more meaningful way than posting on a blog.

The other event is ongoing and has to do with the persecution of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere that has escalated in recent months.We have been inundated with horrific reports and photos, many accurate and others not, leading to calls from many Christians to turn once again to Caesar to rescue our brothers and sisters from the sword by using the sword. I understand the impulse. We have family members being tortured and put to death by people who are one step above animals. Our immediate response is to use the unquestioned might of the American military to put a stop to it. What we forget, mired as we are in immediacy bias, is that every single time we have sent American troops into that region it has turned out badly. Western interventionism is one of the root causes that has destabilized this region and allowed an already demonic religion to be turned into a semi-organized force that now threatens our siblings. These atrocities against Christians and the public beheading of the two journalists are callously designed to draw America into more direct conflict with ISIS/ISIL. They don't fear American intervention. They want it. Anyway, geopolitical issues aside the greater concern is how Christians in the West respond to persecution when it happens overseas. The answer is usually a combination of empty social media gestures and calls for airstrikes even if we know deep down that those airstrikes invariably kill innocents while trying to defend innocents. I am concerned that as Christendom crumbles and the cozy Kingdom-hiding cocoon of American religious tradition evaporates that many of people will respond in the same way here at home. Bigger picture, every time we are faced with a new threat, real or perceived, we respond in fear.

Brothers it shouldn't be this way. We are motivated by fear far more than love in the church in America, at least in the largely white and middle- to -upper-class church I am familiar with. Fear of terrorists. Fear of illegal immigrants. Fear of criminals breaking into their houses. Fear of sickness. Fear of poverty. Fear of someone taking away "our way of life". Fear of everything and anything except what we ought to fear.

Our Lord had a lot to say about this issue. Jesus told us that fear of man is fear misplaced.

"I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:4-5)

What have we to fear from man? What can ISIS to do us? Behead me? Go ahead, may my last moments be spent praising God as my Anabaptists forerunners often did before being martyred by the religious authorities. Perhaps in my death, as I pass from this world to eternal life, the manner of my death might be a witness to my killer that he in turn might repent and be saved. The historical Anabaptists understood what Paul wrote in Philippians...

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Php 1:27-30)

Suffering as He suffered is just part of our lives. We are a people set apart from the world and our changed lives are a direct challenge to the world, a challenge that is usually met with revulsion, mockery and persecution. When we let fear of man dominate us, our impulse is to turn back to the world for security. This fear dominates us and emasculates our witness. I am not seeking out suffering but I am not surprised if it comes. We live in a culture of fear but we are fearing all of the wrong things.

"Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:32-34)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Institutional Mindset and Gender Roles

There are some conversations that keep coming around and around so I blog about them again and again. Reformed theology used to be one of those but I haven't bothered in a while because it has been hashed over so many times that it just wore me out and the Arminian answers are just so awful. So now I write about things like non-violence which also gets a visceral reaction and of course gender. Today was one of those gender days and as usual the discussion has gone around in circles, circles based on whether we should examine what Scripture says to inform our decisions on application or whether we should look to see what Scripture doesn't say to override what it does. I know that is a loaded and smarmy statement. 

One of the common arguments against the historical and I would say glaringly clear teaching on gender in the Bible is the notion that Paul is addressing an issue in the culture of the day, making concessions or teaching for pragmatic reasons or dealing with some specific problem. The accuracy of this is pretty easy to ascertain by simply reading what Paul wrote. What is Paul's reasoning for his teaching on gender (emphasis mine)?

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (1 Tim 2:12-14)

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
(Eph 5:22-24)

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Cor 11:3)

For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (1 Cor 11:7-9)

So we have the creation order. We have the relationship between Christ and the church. We have man as the glory of God but women as the glory of man. An image of male headship that is not incidental or cultural but intentional. God could have created Adam and Eve simultaneously but He did not. He made Adam, declared him incomplete and in need of a helper and created Eve out of Adam. There is a very explicit pattern here that is repeated in 1 Corinthians 11:7-9 and it deals with the order and method of creation.

So what we have to work with is sufficient to inform our interpretation and application but what we don't have is almost as important. No hint of the culture of that day. No suggestion of pragmatic reasoning. Nothing that implies that this is something only for this time and place, having no universal application. I have said this all before but many who find the Biblical teaching on gender odious and embarrassing in our enlightened era simply refuse to accept it.

Here is what is so troubling about this to me. Because we can't get past our institutional religious setting we think that "If you ain't a pastor, you ain't nothing". The only service and leadership in the church that matters is "preaching". Ironically "preaching" as we understand it doesn't even appear in Scripture so we have elevated an extra-biblical practice to a position of overwhelming prominence and in doing so have diminished every other calling in the church and especially diminished the calling of wives and mothers. This is true even among those who, on the surface, reject institutional religion but still can't let go of that need for ecclesiastical recognition.

Being a mother and raising children. Caring for the home. Submitting to a husband who is often an idiot but needs your support anyway. Those are infinitely more important and difficult than preparing and delivering a 45 minute sermon once a week that no one will remember next month anyway. The church should be doing everything in our power to support and encourage our sisters in this noble endeavor. Instead we subtly look down on them and say they are not good enough. You need a career! You must be allowed to "preach"! You must be granted a religious title! Being a mother and wife is hard enough without piling on extra expectations. The simple fact of human beings is that we cannot do it all. We are not made to do it all. There are 24 hours in a day and about a third of them we need to sleep. There are only a limited number of years to bear children. We exist in time and space so if you are in location A doing activity Y you cannot also be in location B doing activity Z. We should encourage wives in what they already have on their plates instead of piling on more. 

Being a mom and wife is stressful enough without making our sisters feel like they are not doing enough. If you care about women, care enough to affirm and support their calling as women and quit trying to make them into something that God never intended regardless of what the culture around us might say.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Just Joe being Joe

I saw this tweet from the Vice-President of the United States yesterday and am reminded yet again why politicians should not be allowed to have Twitter accounts (see: Weiner, Anthony)

Um Mr. Vice-President that sounds lovely and all but what rights do your granddaughters not have that your sons and grandsons have? Voting? Nope got that. Free expression? Got that too. Keeping and bearing arms? Just kidding I know you don't believe in that but they have that right too. Owning property, driving, going to school? Check, check and checkity-check-check. Turns out that women have every actual right in this country that men do so Mr. Vice-President, your noble quest is complete and you can rest easy. Sleep well sir.

Joe Biden. Dick Cheney. Al Gore. Dan Quayle. We have had quite a string of...interesting....Vice-Presidents, all one heartbeat away from the Oval Office. If you think about it for very long you might break out in a cold sweat. I have said it before and I am sayin' it again, I am eternally grateful for a God who is sovereign because humanity is just a mess.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

You don't need a psychological profile to call an elder but you do need to know them

I read this article by Joel Hathaway at the Gospel Coalition this morning and my jaw just dropped: How Pastors Get Hired Today. If I didn't know better I would think it was a joke but it is deadly serious. Just read this paragraph:

Large Churches Tend to Know Better

Large churches are increasingly hiring staff with consideration not merely to a resume or theological statement, but also various technological and human-metric resources. These churches hire consulting firms and make use of the MBTIRightPath, or the DiSC. They check social media, including LinkedIn. They use Behavioral Interviewing questions in both the written and verbal interview steps. They search for candidates via networks, depending largely on recommendations by people they trust.
I have found that these searches produce better results. They largely focus on candidates serving faithfully elsewhere. And their jobs almost never get posted where you can say, “I applied.”
Wow. How did those poor saps in the first century manage to find elders without LinkedIn and psychological profiling? Not to mention the enormous investment of time and money required to find a stranger to hire, knowing that you are likely to lose them in a few years when they move to a bigger church and better compensation package. Well it turns out that if you know the men you are calling and observe their lives, rather than basing your decision on "metrics" and a resume, you tend to actually....well know them. Of course for the early church the calling of elders was not framed in terms of an employer-employee relationship. They were volunteers and self-supporting. That makes an enormous difference because there is an inherent conflict in any relationship when it becomes an employment relationship. There is a reason many companies have pretty strict rules about co-workers dating or the employment of family members. It goes both ways and if the church is anything it is supposed to be a family. When family members start employing other family members they understandably and inevitably start seeing them more as employees and less as brothers.

This essay by Joel makes a common human error. When something is not going right (and judging by the reports of pastoral burnout, turnover and unemployment among clergy, it is going horribly wrong) we tend to try to make what we are doing better rather than asking if we are going about it in the wrong way entirely. The problems with clerical burnout and turnover are not going to be solved by the latest, greatest personnel screening fads from the business world. It might be solved by trying to get away from the professional ministry model and back to a relational peer model we see in Scripture. No matter how sophisticated your methodology or how fancy your technology or how expensive your consultants, you just cannot replace simply knowing one another and calling men based on the character qualities we see in Scripture, qualities you cannot ascertain by looking at a LinkedIn profile.

Check out my post Home Grown Elders for more on why the church should raise up men from within the Body to serve rather than going after hired guns to come in a minister to people they don't know.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Inside or Outside? It makes a difference.

Jesus is love and He loved the unlovable. That is abundantly clear from Scripture, especially the Gospels. The examples of Jesus getting the stink eye because of the company He kept from the defenders of the religious status quo in His day are many. It is hard to imagine the famous celebrity "pastors" of our contemporary religious world hanging out with the equivalent sort of people today.

On the other hand we have a New Testament full of admonitions against sin and error in the church. Some of the language is quite harsh, even jarring to our modern, "enlightened" sensibilities.

So which is it? Is it radical forgiveness and acceptance or careful and unyielding defense against sin and error?


That seems contradictory. How do we reconcile Christ's message of radical forgiveness for even the most heinous sinner with a need to maintain lives of personal holiness inside of the church?

The answer in part depends of where the sin occurs. Rather than just sweeping blanket statements ("Jesus hung out with sinners"), we need to look at the text to see what it actually says and what it doesn't say. In an era when it seems cool and hip to downplay the importance of the Bible in favor of personal experience or the "prompting of the Holy Spirit" which often looks suspiciously like capitulation to the winds of the culture, it is even more critical to turn to the preserved revelation of God because a little Bible knowledge is a dangerous thing. 

First let's look at a well-known example of the radical inclusiveness of Christ.

And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard it, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mat 9:10-13)

Notice the distinction in the first verse. There are two distinct groups here, "his disciples" and "tax collectors and sinners". Are the sinners who are eating with Him Christians? Are they born-again and part of the infant church? There is nothing to indicate that they are. Many people followed Jesus when it was convenient and left later. Regardless Jesus was welcoming and loving to the unlovely and the sinner.

Now let's look at Paul speaking in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you." (1 Cor 5:9-13)

You see the immediate and obvious difference in tone and emphasis based on the identification of those in sin as part of the church. The expectations are polar opposites. There is very little wiggle room. We don't expect unregenerate sinners to act like regenerate believers but we also shouldn't expect or "tolerate" people who claim the name of Christ that engage in wanton and unrepentant sin, or those who encourage others to do so, nor those who teach error in the church.

A lot of contemporary Christians recoil at the notion that certain behaviors are out of bounds. It is so contrary to our cultural attitude that the only thing that cannot be tolerated is intolerance. Amid this contemporary attitude there are many Christians who are legitimately wrestling with issues like homosexuality and how affirming or not the church should be about it. Others are gleefully using this issue to knock the foundations out of any sort of behavioral expectations that might put the brakes on acting on any human impulse, no matter how base. Into the fray we have the question of how we should deal with the sin all around us, a question that is doomed to fail unless we rightly recognize the difference between sin in the world and sin in the church.

We can overreach in two directions on this question. One is to be so concerned with holiness and separation from the world that we withdraw from the world like the Amish (which brings its own set of sin and problems, an issue for a different day). We end up standing on the outskirts, wagging our fingers at the unregenerate people acting like unregenerate people that we are supposed to be reaching. This has been the error of many "fundamentalist" groups through the ages. The opposite error is to apply the radical teachings of Jesus and His loving attitude toward unregenerate sinners within the church, excusing and even celebrating sinful behavior out of a misplaced application of "love". While 20 years ago I would have said the greater danger was being exclusionary, today the opposite is true.

To those outside of the church we should be models of loving, preaching the good news, the best news, of Jesus Christ who can redeem us from our sins. We should be the most loving people around to those who are as we once were. Inside of the church that same love demands that we have no tolerance for wanton sin and that we refuse to turn a blind eye to it, both for the sake of our brothers and sisters involved as well as for those who watch the church and wonder why we seem so confused about sin. This really is not a difficult concept when we learn to read the Bible rather than reading a collection of verses in a vacuum but it is a critically important one.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson

Things are way out of hand in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting death by police of an unarmed young black man, Michael Brown. Last night the governor called out the National Guard because thus far escalating the presence of armed troops has done wonders for keeping the peace. Everyone else is posting
Scenes from a militarized America
their thoughts about it so why not me? Warning, this is not going to be a politically correct post which I am sure will be shocking.    

Trying to unravel this situation and look beyond the limited facts we have about this case is difficult because this is a scenario that has more than a century of history impacting it. I am going to be wandering far and wide but I hope the whole thing makes sense.

What is muddling the issue is the usual political posturing by the polar twins of politics in America. A lot of "conservatives" are pointing to the apparent robbery of a convenience store by Michael Brown and the reported presence of marijuana in his system as if that justifies the police allegedly shooting an unarmed man. It does not. Petty theft is not a crime that is punishable by summary execution as far as I know. The protests and rioting that follow are not about one young man getting shot by the police. They are, in part, speaking to a larger set of issues. More on that later. Of course there are many who are simply opportunistic thugs, just like people who used the Rodney King verdict to steal or hurt others for their own amusement. That is not the point. The point is much larger than some bad apples who are taking advantage of the situation. It is disturbing that many "conservatives" are grasping at any straw to excuse the shooting of an admittedly unarmed young man.

Many on the left are using this to complain about income inequality as if taking even more money away from some people and giving it to other people will somehow magically start to heal racial division and distrust even though a half century of trying that has just made things worse. Newsflash, the "war on poverty" is much like the "war on terror" in that it has made the problem it purported to be fixing in reality immeasurably worse. Decades of mismanaging our largest cities and wrecking them in the process has disqualified the American Left from having a legitimate seat at the table of governance, relegating them to the political version of the kiddie table.

Some thoughts on poverty

There is no question that there is a close relationship between poverty and crime in our country. If one were to map out where the highest crime rates exist and then overlay a map of where the deepest poverty resides it is certain that they two would be nearly identical. Given the rate of poverty and unemployment among blacks, and especially young black men, crime is an ever-present reality in their communities which corresponds to unbelievable rates of incarceration and an often antagonistic relationship between blacks and the police, an antagonism that goes both ways. Some see this relationship and see causation, posing the naive "solution" that says get rid of poverty and you get rid of crime. To channel Lee Corso, not so fast my friend.

Poverty is not a driver of crime in isolation. Lots of people grew up poor. My dad grew up in a tiny house with a bunch of brothers and sisters and they were poor. He became a doctor, another uncle an engineer, another a very successful welder. They were not given government college grants or Federally subsidized student loans. They worked, they served in the military, they made their own way in a world that was far less of a hand-holding society than the one we live in, a society where opportunity is irrelevant, effort is downgraded and outcome is all that matters.  So what has changed in the intervening decades that poverty is seemingly inextricably linked to crime? Simply put the entitlement mentality.

Poverty + entitlement = crime

Lest anyone accuse me of racism here let me put this in bold and all caps:


I am sure that will not placate some people. Turns out that I don't care. Far too many people firmly believe that they are entitled to a lot of stuff that they really aren't. Recall the reaction last November when the food stamp cards had a major glitch that allowed people to spend unlimited amounts and people knowing full well that they were spending more than they were allotted decided to clean out stores including one recipient that had already spent her monthly allotment, leaving her with a balance of $.59 who tried to buy $700 worth of groceries. Riots like the ones we are seeing are crimes, no matter the motivation or "justification". They are crimes driven by entitlement, driven by covetousness, driven by a popular culture that glorifies crime. I see something someone else has, I want it and I am entitled to take it. When I am told I deserve anything and everything and that anyone who has more than me is somehow fair game for my greed, it is little wonder criminal acts follow. One political party in America has been cultivating this attitude by engaging in legalized theft from some Americans used to bribe other Americans for their votes for decades. It is the only way they win elections other than pandering to those who cherish the murder of the unborn. It should come as no surprise to see this spill over into everyday life even when engaging in criminal acts like rioting and the senseless slaughter of young black men by other young black men does nothing but deepen the poverty they are already in.

Some thoughts on race

I am not black. I have no idea what it is like to be black. That is self-evident to anyone who has met me but it bears repeating because of the raw wound of racial division in America and make no mistake that the issue of racial division impacts people of all races. It is not, as it is often portrayed, a one way street. Regardless I never think about a cop shooting my adult or teen sons or arresting them. It isn't even a thought. Cops just don't harass and certainly don't shoot middle-class white kids. However that is a very real concern, and a legitimate one, for the parents of black children, especially teen and young adult men.

I grew up in a overwhelmingly white environment. Black people lived somewhere else. It was a terribly, tragically, racially insensitive environment. The word "nigger" was used freely (and I refuse to use the ludicrous "n-word" to replace the word "nigger", we all know what we are talking about and pretending we don't is ridiculous.) and unapologetically. Most of the kids I grew up with didn't know anyone that was black other than a handful of kids in our school. I still struggle to this day with the pervasive racism of my childhood peers, a racism that I was a party to and a participant in. That admission might cost me a nationally televised cooking show later in life but there it is.

There is a subtle inculcation of fear among the races. A lifetime of news reports where it seems like every violent crime story includes a picture of young black men takes its toll. A pop culture that glorified but also warned against the culture of gang violence also contributed to this. I grew up when movies like Colors and Boyz in the Hood were hugely popular among white youth, as was popularized rap music from NWA and others. The cultural message: young black men, especially in groups, are dangerous. I admit freely that in public a group of 4-5 young white men is nothing I take note of unless they are wearing something stupid, which they inevitably are. A group of 4-5 young black men? Something to avoid. I would imagine that is true for an awful lot of people who look like me whether they would admit it or not. It is not healthy and it certainly is not a Kingdom focused outlook but a lifetime of having a particular message pounded into your head is hard to shake.

Race is a real, visceral issue for America, one compounded by the division between races in terms of income and crime. Most white Americans that I know think of crime as something that happens in the city. Most white Americans I know are firmly in the middle-class. At least when I was growing up America was still the land of opportunity. For black Americans I think that the experience is radically different. It is not an exaggeration to say that the two races in question live in essentially different countries. The Trayvon Martin verdict was a prime example. Most white Americans I know, myself included, saw the shooting as a tragic and unfortunate example of self-defense by George Zimmerman. I am not at all optimistic that we are anywhere closer to racial healing and reconciliation today than we have ever been and that presents enormous challenges for our society and especially for the church. Just going to our own church with "our people" on Sunday is not getting it done.

Some thoughts on militarization and fear

"Police Militarization" is a hot-button term. Thanks to the tireless work of mostly libertarian writers like Radley Balko and more left-wing groups like the ACLU, coupled with a growing unease about the level of government intrusion into our private affairs, an increasing percentage of the population is rightly concerned with the discovery that our local cops, including police departments in relatively small municipalities have come into possession of military grade gear like mine resistant armored vehicles (to protect against roadside bombs in rural Michigan apparently) and grenade launchers.

This fear is not irrational. Quite the opposite to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of the founding of America, a familiarity that you won't get in our public school system. Functionally and practically we are creating a standing army in our midst. With Federal spending to buy military gear then being transferred free of charge to local civilian police departments we are seeing a clever end around to avoid the Posse Comitatus act. Some $4 billion worth of military gear intended for use by the U.S. military to combat enemies of the United States is now in the hands of local police departments. Makes one wonder if the citizenry of America is now considered to be an enemy of the United States?

Even still many Americans, especially those who perceive that they have a lot to lose to faceless thugs (i.e. mostly white suburban middle-class Americans) in contrast to those who generally see the police as oppressors, are completely willing to let the police be armed like a military occupying force and to have the NSA spying on us because they believe that will keep us "safe". Safe from Muslim terrorists, from illegal immigrant, from violent minorities, from pot smoking hippies, from commies, from whoever is the threat du jour. As long as their is an "other" that is seen as a threat, many of us are willing to trade liberty (because we don't think it is threatened or particularly valuable) for security. That tide is turning, although all too slowly, but it is quite possible that it is too late. As long as we let the authoritarian forces use fear of others to control us, we will turn a blind eye to the real threat that is right in our home town.

Having an "other" is critical

Without an other to fear, people ask questions. Questions are inconvenient. Questions impede the march of progress. Stop asking questions because that terrorist/communist/black kid/dope smoking hippie over there is trying to take away what you've got. When you have the "other" for people to fear you can paint any who asks questions as being allied with the "other". Question the militarization of the police? You are pro-criminal. Question the "war on terror"? You are aiding the enemy. As President Bush helpfully painted it in stark either-or terms, you are either with us (and support our policies without question) or you are against us (and therefore an enemy). The "other", perhaps shadowy, perhaps real, perhaps a useful pawn, is how the state keeps people in line and in subjection. If anyone really thinks that armed personnel carriers and grenade launchers are necessary to community policing, I have a news flash for you. They aren't. No, I am not a cop but I know a little bit about the world we live in. Cops are not engaged in regular gun battles with thugs wielding military weapons. The one example from L.A. was a) in one of the very largest cities in the world and b) many, many years ago. In other words, stockpiling military weapons by a civilian law enforcement agency "just in case" is a potential threat far beyond the possibility of a pitched gun battle that requires gear more suited to the battlefields of Iraq (where we shouldn't be anyway) than they are to the streets of Fort Wayne. That is not being "anti-cop", one of my good friends is a cop and we talk about this all the time. I just think that having a pervasive armed force beholden to the government in our midst is a dangerous precedent.

So why isn't anyone trying to solve this?

Who benefits from this state of fear and conflict? It is not the average white person that lives in fear of the growing minority population in America. It certainly is not the minority community that has suffered under crippling policies designed to keep them essentially enslaved. The powers that be in our country benefit from a state of fear that drives spending which grants power. Keeping America in fear while encroaching on American liberty helps those who are already powerful stay powerful. That is not a conspiracy theory, it is just common sense and simple observation. There are those who intentionally keep Americans at odds, who pander to the fear of average citizens, who design systems that keep people as chattel by incentivizing poverty and dependency and in turn bribe those chattel, not with economic freedom or opportunity but with the wages earned by others.

So back to Ferguson, Missouri and Michael Brown. What is on display is portrayed by much of the media as an isolated incident but there simply is too much unofficial and frankly subversive reporting going on to make that notion stick. We are seeing the boiling over of decades of anger compounded by an increasing sense of distrust and aggression by the state toward the citizenry. I think this is just the beginning. I also would be very surprised if some new "crisis" wasn't suddenly ginned up by the state to distract people from what is going on. Pay attention people. Things are only going to get worse.

Monday, August 11, 2014

One sentence says it all

Tim Challies weighed in, as I knew he had to as one of the most widely read bloggers around, especially in the "Young, Restless, Reformed" or "New Calvinist" circles, on the firestorm around Mark Driscoll. At the outset let me say that I have never been a big fan of Driscoll. Even though he has largely been on the money on issues of theology his manner always struck me as a school kid trying too hard to get the cool kids to like him. I know a lot of others really admire him and I think secretly like his pseudo-tough guy machismo talk about cage fighting and stuff but not me. Anyway Tim put up a post (and probably wisely made a bogus excuse as to why comments were closed) titled Character Is King. His point is that in the New Testament what we see emphasized in calling elders is character rather than education or success. What grabbed my attention though, and why I think this public disaster was inevitable, is captured in one sentence (emphasis mine):

both he and his church have been removed from Acts 29, the church-planting network he helped establish.

That is the problem right there. Mars Hill, The Resurgence, etc. were all about Mark Driscoll. It is a common problem in the church and it is a cancer. Many pastors refer to the church they serve as "my church". Local churches pastored by well known pastors are known as "so and so's church". Most churches put the name of the pastor on the church sign. It is especially pronounced in "reformed" churches and ministries. Grace to You is all about John MacArthur, Desiring God is all about John Piper, 9 Marks is all about Mark Dever and Lignoier is all about R.C. Sproul.

Of course not every one of these ministries ends up like Mars Hill seems to be going. Combining the man exalting nature of our religious culture with a personality that craves it was a combustible mix. However the culture itself that makes ministries an extension of the personality of one man is a dangerous one, dangerous for the men involved and their families and dangerous for the church when the inevitable fall comes.

If your church or ministry is about a man, it cannot be about Jesus no matter how much you say it is or how proper your theology. We need a lot more people who make much of Jesus and lot fewer man-centered "ministries" that collect money from the church to provide a platform for one man and his personality.