Friday, May 01, 2015

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Evangelicalism

For all you post-Evangelicals out there, Matthew Milliner writes an engaging piece on First Things entitled "All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Evangelicalism." Milliner makes the case that the roots of "shallow" Evangelicalism run deep. Check it out.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Feed My Sheep

There is really some excuse for the man who said, "I wish they'd remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks."
--CS Lewis, Letters to Malcolm

Jesus' charge to Peter, recalling him to ministry when Peter seems to have been bent on returning to his life of fishing, was to feed his sheep. It was a crucial moment - Peter seems to have been on the verge of throwing in the towel on the idea of ministry, having failed so badly in denying Jesus. Jesus repeatedly asks Peter if he loves him; Peter keeps insisting that he does. And Jesus' response to him is "Feed my lambs," "Tend my sheep," "Feed my sheep."

It's not enough to say that you love me, Peter. I'm not finished with you. I have a job for you to do. I need you to take care of my sheep.

Jesus' words hearken back to John 10, where he proclaims that he is the good shepherd. He talks about his sheep knowing his voice, and about laying down his life for his sheep. What he doesn't talk about in either John 10 or John 21 is breeding sheep. He doesn't talk about using sheep to get more sheep. He doesn't talk about expanding the flock. He does talk about bringing in the "other sheep that are not of this fold" - presumably, in historical context, those Gentiles who would trust in him. But his focus, especially when talking to Peter, is on care for the sheep.

There was nothing romantic, in Jesus' day, about caring for sheep. Nothing glamorous. It was a dirty, unskilled job that left one ceremonially unclean all the time. It was a humble occupation.

Caring for God's people - which is what Jesus was charging Peter with doing - is still a humble occupation. It's messy and difficult and frustrating, and it's unsurprising that so many pastors strain against it. We're told that the most effective form of church leadership is not to be a shepherd, but rather a rancher. This accords well with the American idea that bigger is always better, that the only alternative to growth is stagnation, and with the romantic idea of the cowboy on the lone prairie. It just doesn't accord all that well with Scripture, especially with Jesus' charge to Peter.

What I most object to about the rancher model is not that things like hospital ministry and counseling can be done by people other than the pastor, or that people's gifts should be encouraged so that the body ministers to the body. These things I strongly agree with. What I object to is the focus of ministry leadership being continually outward. One pastor I know, dealing with Luke 15:4, emphasized the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine in order to go after the one that was lost. In his view, the "one that was lost" was anyone who hadn't come to Jesus yet, the implication being that leaving the flock to fend for itself was a permanent condition given sanction by Jesus himself. Another pastor, engaged in a long-term sermon series focused on motivating people into outreach, told me privately that practically everyone in the church was in crisis of one kind or another. Those people desperately needed some edification and comfort to go along with the exhortation that was being served up Sunday after Sunday. He couldn't see the disconnect between what the people needed and what he was serving up to them.

If you want to get needs met by the church world today, the best place you can possibly be is outside it. Be a prospect, not one of the faithful. The faithful are there to bring more people in, not to have their own needs met. That's the way it is, out on the ranch.

Somehow, that doesn't match what Jesus said about the world recognizing us as being his disciples because we love one another. Or what Acts says about the early believers providing for one another's needs, not as an outreach effort to those on the outside, but out of mutual love. And it doesn't match Jesus' simple command to Peter:

Feed my sheep.

If you like this post, you may be interested in my book, What's Wrong with Outreach?

What's Wrong with Outreach?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Everyone's Reacting to Something

A little while back, I gave my "Top Ten Reasons Why Theological Debate Doesn't Work (Especially on the Internet)." A couple of my reasons related to the effects of presuppositions on how we view the Bible and various theological topics. Our backgrounds make us view different things as threats to truth, and thus shape the ways in which we view and defend what we consider to be truth.

Imagine a couple different people:

One guy--let's call him "Fred"--grows up in the home of a former mainline denominational minister. That minister had learned in seminary that the Pentateuch had been compiled over a few hundred years from differing and somewhat contradictory acounts, that even its earliest sources were written hundreds of years after the supposed Exodus, that Moses and Abraham were probably mythological figures, and that very little of it was historically reliable. He had learned to look at the Gospels as compiled records of oral traditions surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, of whom very little could be known for sure because the Gospels as we have them contain many legends and ideas that were either imported from earlier Judaism or read back into Jesus' life from the later church. Fred's father had abandoned faith in the virgin birth or the Resurrection. Fred grew up hearing a vapid morality preached, one that encouraged people to do good things but offered no supernatural power to enable people to do them. As a teenager, however, Fred had a transformative conversion experience in an evangelical church. He fell passionately in love with the Bible as the Word of God. It seemed to have all the power that had been lacking in the church and the teachings he had grown up with. Fred was energized by his newfound faith and stridently defended the Bible's literal truth in all it affirmed.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

New distribution for Marriage, Family, and the Image of God

I'm happy to report that my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God, is now available for the Apple universe on iTunes, as well as in ePub format at Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and other online retailers.

It's also still available for Kindle on Amazon, and as a paperback at CreateSpace, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other retailers.

If you're interested in the big picture of what marriage and family are all about, and if you're interested in seeing how that connects with us being created in God's image, please check it out! And if you like it, please post an honest review on the site where you purchased it. That would really do a lot to help me spread the word. Thanks!

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Fivefold ministry paper on the Studies page

I've collected a series of four posts on the so-called "fivefold" ministries of Ephesians 4:11 into one paper on the Studies page. The original posts are still some of the most frequently accessed on this blog. I hope they're a blessing to people collected together. Check it out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why I Married a Divorced Woman

Shiela over on To Love, Honor, and Vacuum has a very thoughtful, carefully-considered post entitled, "Why I'm Anti-Divorce and Pro Remarriage." I wouldn't necessarily dot every i or cross every t precisely as she has, but she has the main idea dead-on right: that even though God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), he doesn't hate divorce in isolation, as though he just thought up something arbitrary to hate. He hates it for a reason, and that reason--stated in the verse--is because divorce is a form of violence against the person one has married. If he hates it for a reason, then there might be reasons why it would be allowed, if the marriage itself has become a form of violence, if one person has made it clear that he or she is refusing to honor the vows taken when they married. This is precisely what Jesus said: "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (Matthew 19:8). God never intended marriage to be temporary, at least within this lifetime, but because people's hearts are hard, it had to be allowed to prevent the worse evil of someone being trapped by a marriage covenant that the other person has no intent to honor.

All of this became very real to me when I began getting to know my wife, Cecile, who had been divorced several months before I met her. The full story is told in my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God, but I want to share here, briefly, why a young man who had grown up in the church, was waiting for sex until marriage, and had dedicated his life to pursuing God's purposes, chose to marry a divorced woman.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The Not-So-Romantic Tale of Jacob, Rachel and Leah

Those of us who grew up in the church are familiar with the story of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. After fleeing for his life from his brother Esau, Jacob comes to his relative Laban in Haran to find a wife, and meets Rachel, Laban's daughter. He falls in love with her at once and makes an arrangement to work for seven years to earn her hand in marriage. At the end of the seven years, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Rachel's older sister Leah instead, and Jacob works another seven years for Rachel. The story is almost always presented as a beautiful love story with a touch of intrigue thrown in. Laban is considered a rotten trickster, Leah his accomplice, Jacob is viewed as receiving a bit of poetic justice after having tricked his brother and his father out of the oldest child's traditional birthright, and Rachel has the role of the hapless heroine, caught in the middle of this mess through no fault of her own. It is often pointed out that "Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her" (Gen. 29:20).

We are told that "Leah's eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. Jacob loved Rachel" (Gen 29:17-18). Commentators are not agreed on what the "weakness" of Leah's eyes means. Most seem not to believe that it reflects poor eyesight or blindness; the majority seem to believe that her eyes were simply unattractive--possibly blue, which may have been considered a defect in the ancient Middle East. Adam Clarke has an intriguing suggestion: that the "weakness" of Leah's eyes reflects not a negative quality but a positive one--that she did have pretty eyes, but by contrast, Rachel's entire "form and appearance" were attractive, and therefore Jacob gave his love to Rachel. One way or another, it was Rachel's beauty that swayed Jacob. There's nothing wrong with this, in and of itself: many significant women in the Bible are described as being beautiful. But if we look at the respective characters of Leah and Rachel, and the results that came from the two marriages, a picture emerges that is very different from the romantic one usually taught.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Stuff I Wish People Would Stop Writing about Christmas

Every year people trot out the same observations about Christmas. It's not so much the observations themselves I object to, but the air of smug intellectual superiority, the "I know something you don't know" attitude. Because we all know all this stuff already. And some of it isn't even true. Here's my list:
  1. Jesus wasn't really born on Christmas Day.
  2. That's right, kids. Jesus wasn't really born on December the 25th. Well, duh. Strictly speaking, there is just about a 1/365th chance that Jesus was born on December 25th. I'm not going to go into details, but arguments both for and against a December birth aren't conclusive. Nonetheless, the date wasn't included in the gospels, and there's no reason to suppose that Jesus' birthday would have been remembered and celebrated outside the gospel records. Look, we all understand that December 25 is the day we traditionally celebrate the incarnation. It doesn't have to be accurate. That's not the point.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Marriage, Family, and the Image of God:
If It's Permanent, Make It Good

This post is adapted from a chapter of my upcoming book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God.

Cecile and I decided, even before we got married, that if marriage was permanent, we needed to make a commitment to make it good. That, I believe, is one of the primary reasons that God created marriage to be permanent. Of course he wants to spare us the pain of broken marriages and families. But he also wants us to take the permanence seriously, so that we will decide to make it the best we can, and so that in doing so, we will suppress the individual selfishness that has plagued human beings since the Fall.

The best thing you can do, once you’ve decided to make marriage permanent, is to make it good. And the only way to make it good is to resolve that you are no longer two people but one, that all decisions need to be made with “us” and “we” as the focus, not “you” and “me.” And that takes a willingness for self-sacrifice that, humanly, we don’t have, which is why so many marriages end up miserable and broken. But by seeking God’s help to overcome our innate selfishness, God can use our marriages to mold us into his own self-sacrificial nature; in other words, to conform us into the image of his Son. Other life paths, of course, can accomplish the same thing—those who are married don’t have an exclusive avenue into the image of God. But marriage does have unique challenges. No other relationship is as capable of fostering so much intimacy and creating so much pain.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Marriage, Family, and the Image of God - In the Beginning

This is a first draft of the first chapter of my upcoming book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God. Enjoy!

Cecile and I first met during the summer after I had finished my first year in seminary. I was back home for the summer, and the job I thought I’d had lined up had fallen through. I got a temporary job doing data entry for a travel agency that was converting its files from one format into another. The job was from five at night to one in the morning, for about two and a half weeks.

I was one of three men among about a hundred women working on this project. Since I was shy, this was pretty intimidating, so when an attractive tall blonde in a red dress smiled at me, I stuck with her. Not for the reasons you might think. I went for short brunettes at the time, and I’d just had my heart broken, so I wasn’t looking for anything beyond a summer job. She smiled at me, so I thought she was safe.

She wasn’t safe.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

New Book Coming Soon!

I just finished the first draft of a new book, tentatively entitled Marriage, Family, and the Image of God. Stay tuned for details!

Monday, July 14, 2014

What's Wrong with Visionary Dreaming

I just got blown away by this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it has sprung from a wish dream…He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the later, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dreams bind men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.” (Life Together, 27-28.) 

Monday, July 07, 2014

What Does It Mean to Follow Jesus

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
--Matthew 4:18-20 NIV

The phrase Jesus uses most often to call people to become his disciples is the familiar phrase, "Follow me." Most people are reasonably clear on what that meant in Jesus' day, at least for Peter, Andrew, and the rest of the twelve. They left their occupations and traveled with Jesus, being taught by him and being commissioned to do the things he was doing: preach the good news of the kingdom, drive out demons, and heal sicknesses (Matt. 10). Their "following" was quite literal: Jesus was an itinerant preacher and they went with him wherever he went. Following Jesus involved sacrifice: Peter once said to Jesus that his disciples had "left everything" to follow him, and Jesus didn't contradict Peter, but rather held out to him promises of reward (Mark 10:28-31).

It's difficult to say in what sense other people also followed Jesus. Crowds followed Jesus from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other, and Jesus rebuked them for having wrong motives (John 6:24-26). However, it's clear that at least some people outside the circle of the Twelve were also disciples, or at least true believers who followed Jesus' teachings: Mary and Martha, along with their brother Lazarus, Mary Magdalene and the other women who went to anoint Jesus' body and found the tomb empty. Joseph of Arimathea is also identified as a disciple of Jesus, albeit secretly, along with Nicodemus (John 19:38-39). So to be a disciple or follower of Jesus did not necessarily mean to be one of those who actually went around with him physically.

These questions become relevant for us in the present day because there are some current teachings relating to discipleship that make assumptions regarding what following Jesus is all about, largely based on the biblical example of Jesus and the Twelve. These teachings also relate to how we understand the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), because Jesus' command was to "make disciples," not merely to make converts. What it means to be a disciple, what it means to follow Jesus, is thus very important.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Top Ten Reasons Why Theological Debate Doesn't Work

... especially on the internet.

#10 - Everyone compares what they actually believe to the "logical implications" of what the other guy believes.

This is why you get Calvinists arguing that Arminianism logically implies that we want to take credit for our own salvation, and Arminians arguing that Calvinism logically implies that God is the author of evil. Complementarians think egalitarianism implies erasing of all gender differences and egalitarians think complementarians simply want to keep women down. None of these groups actually believes what the other side says they should, and we all cry foul when someone else does it to us, but we all have the tendency to do a reductio ad absurdum on someone else's argument, no matter how much they protest that that's not what they believe.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rediscovering Grace

My parents were both brought up in an extremely legalistic "Holiness" branch of the church. I have always been grateful that they broke away from most of that when I was very young. Since my family already understood that true holiness wasn't a matter of adhering to a bunch of mostly non-biblical rules and regulations, the question of what holiness or righteousness actually was was a live question to me growing up.

Somehow--I can only attribute it to the action of the Holy Spirit--I gained the insight that righteousness came through faith. I don't recall hearing it from anywhere, although I'm sure that it was present in sermons that I've heard and forgotten. I know that when I was young the Epistles were mostly opaque to me. ("Why should I care about some old letters that people wrote to other people a long time ago?") I was mostly into reading narrative at that time--Bible stories. So I didn't directly get the message from Paul. But somehow the story of Abraham in Genesis caught my imagination, and the line, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" stood out to me. I'm sure I got it from Genesis, and not Romans or Galatians.