Many Tribes, One Lord

30 May 2023

A friend sent me a link to this article by Professor Jay Green at Covenant College. I commend it to your attention; he offers some helpful commentary, and I’ll be using his terminology throughout this post.

Prof. Green’s taxonomy certainly improves on the right-left continuum he’s proposing to replace, but it leaves out an important element: liberal order absolutely depends on Christian values enacted in the public square. This is not a political hypothesis; it is a simple historical fact. The liberal order Green so values as an Emancipatory Minimalist did not spring whole from the head of Zeus, nor was it among the gifts of the Romans. It is the result of a very long, very Christian obedience in the same direction, and it would be instructive to see him classify some historical figures according to his taxonomy. To my eye, Green the Emancipatory Minimalist stands on the shoulders of Boniface, Ambrose, Luther, and Kuyper the Civilizational Maximalists. More, he relies on the thought of folks like William Penn and Roger Williams who defended religious liberty on Christian principles: historical figures who could afford to be Emancipatory Minimalists precisely because they were Civilizational Maximalists, as it were (which I think exposes the key weakness in his taxonomy.)

When he speaks of Emancipatory Minimalists believing “the liberal order is what gives space for the exercise of religious freedom,” he gets it exactly backwards. It was the exercise of Christian freedom and the Christian defense of freedom—over Caesar’s frequent and strenuous objections—that gave us the liberal order. In this article, Prof. Green treats the liberal order as something that’s just there, feet firmly planted in midair, rather than a structure that rests on a particular foundation. When he speaks of Emancipatory Minimalists accepting pluralism as a permanent fixture in the culture, he misses two important facts. 

First, the pluralism he so values is not sustainable, as present events demonstrate. The younger generation of practitioners in fields as diverse as medicine, law, psychotherapy, education, and news media (and all the way down to high school debate) are not simply failing to uphold liberal ideals; they actively reject them as inimical to their own subchristian concepts of class identity, equity, and justice. Some god will be the god of the system, and if we will not have Yahweh, we will have some pretender. We’ve been living off the accrued capital of Christendom for some time, but in the end, pluralism is polytheism. Those other gods are demons, and inviting the demons into a coalition government with Yahweh was exactly what Israel stumbled into time and again. Didn’t work then; can’t work now.

Second, he forgets that he knows the end of the Story. Pluralism is not a permanent fixture; when the assembled throng gathers before the throne on the last day, we will have a magnificent diversity of tribe, tongue, and nation, but not of religion. Pluralism will be a thing of the past, and good riddance. Heaven is not a pluralistic place. “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven” is not a prayer for enduring pluralism.


Known for Good Things

16 May 2023

Paul required that elders be of good reputation among those outside the faith (1 Tim. 3:7)–and this in a culture that sometimes accused Christians of atheism and cannibalism, that crucified us, threw us to the lions, burned us alive. Paul himself had quite the criminal history as a Christian. So did that escaped jailbird Peter, and many others. They were all following the condemned and executed Jesus, after all. Plainly Paul did not mean that you can’t serve in church leadership if anybody has bad things to say about you. He cannot mean that your godly conduct hasn’t ever been misunderstood by the world. 

Yet we are surrounded by Christians who think that’s exactly what having a good Christian testimony means. These credulous folks have been lulled by a few centuries where being a Christian was generally considered a good, healthy thing, if a bit like kale — a little too wholesome and not a lot of fun. But it has not always been that way. Actually, have a look around. It is not really that way now. 

We are increasingly viewed as enemies of society. We are going to be misunderstood. Sometimes it will be an honest misunderstanding brought about by simple confusion. The devil excels at manufacturing that sort of thing. Sometimes it will be a tactical misunderstanding, and the wounded party will be flopping about like an Algerian soccer player, even though nobody was within 3 yards of him. There’s a great deal of the latter, actually, and our National Evangelical Leadership (all rise!) has been steered by the flopping soccer players of the secular world for some time now. Steered straight into severe compromise, and all in the name of empathy for guy with the pretend-injured leg.

Forget that. In Paul’s mouth, “having a good reputation” means being known for good things. It does not mean that the unbelievers always recognize the good things as good. Suppose a man in your church takes a strong biblical stance on sexuality. Someone objects, and the man doubles down on the truth. Miffed, the objector takes the conflict to Twitter, where your potential elder is accused of “literally killing LGBTQ+ people” by holding the “deeply problematic” views that the Christian church has maintained for two millennia. Suppose the people in your town all agree with the objector and his Twitter post. For the purposes of eldership, does your potential elder have a good reputation, or a bad one?

If you’re at all struggling with that question, you’re already deeply compromised. The man is known for saying true things, good things. He is known for refusing to knuckle under when the truth is unpopular. He is eminently qualified. If you can’t see that — if you take the existence of a coalition against him as disqualifying in itself — then you are giving the pagans veto power over your elder selection process. If you do that — and Big Eva certainly has done that to a large extent — then the leaders that rise in your ranks will always be the ones that soft-pedal, weasel-word, or flat-out deny unpopular truths in order to mollify pagans.

Don’t be that church.

A Different Sort of Grace

9 May 2023

“Of His fulness we have all received, and grace in place of grace. For Law came through Moses; grace and truth through Jesus Christ.”

In the closing sentences of his introduction, John lays out a contrast between Moses and Jesus. Moses gave us one thing, and Jesus is now giving us something in its place. What we got through Moses was the Law. What we get through Jesus is grace and truth.

If that’s all he said, then we could walk away with a simple contrast: law on one hand, grace and truth on the other. But it’s not that simple, because John tells us the substitution is “grace in place of grace.” It’s not law vs. grace. It’s the Law-that-was-grace-already vs. grace-and-truth-through-Christ.

We had one sort of grace; we are now being given a different, a higher, sort of grace. There’s a real contrast here, and John wants us to feel the difference. He also wants us to know that contrast takes place within a continuity of divine grace toward us. Jesus changes everything, and yet Jesus is in keeping with everything that has come before.

When you read what comes before, read it with this in mind.

Taking it Literally…Literally?

2 May 2023

In the tribe I come from, we regularly talk about Literal-Grammatical-Historical hermeneutics. We’ll call it LGH for short, or (many of us) “literal hermeneutics.”

We all know what we mean, but the terminology is a bit strange for newcomers, because — how to put it delicately? — we don’t mean the word “literal” literally.

That’s not as crazy as it sounds. Within the history of biblical interpretation, there have been eras when the text was subjected to the most ridiculous flights of fancy. Things like the four rivers flowing out of Eden being a reference to the four cardinal virtues, or the Levitical dietary laws actually prohibiting, not the eating of certain animals, but the vices figuratively associated with those animals. There’s nary a hint in the actual text itself (nor in the later inspired references to it) of such interpretations. Against that backdrop, “literal” interpretation meant that the four rivers flowing out of Eden were actual rivers, and the prohibition against shellfish meant — follow me closely here — that Israelites weren’t allowed to eat shellfish.

Pretty straightforward, right?

So then what do we do with “He shall cover you with his pinions”? If we’re interpreting it literally, then don’t we take that to mean that God has feathers?

“Of course not,” we say. “Don’t be silly.”

But the thing is, a newcomer who asks such a question is not being silly. He’s taking the word “literal” in its ordinary sense: literal as opposed to metaphorical. Take a look at some basic dictionary definitions:

in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical:the literal meaning of a word.

following the words of the original very closely and exactly:a literal translation of Goethe.

true to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual:a literal description of conditions.

being actually such, without exaggeration or inaccuracy:the literal extermination of a city.

(of persons) tending to construe words in the strict sense or in an unimaginative way; matter-of-fact; prosaic.

To a normal person’s ears, when we talk about “interpreting the Bible literally” we are the ones that sound crazy. Many passages are obviously metaphorical, and even we admit that. So if you read a metaphor literally, wouldn’t that be a very basic hermeneutical mistake?

“Well, yes, it would,” we say. “But that’s not what we mean by it.”

And it’s not. We mean that we interpret the utterance according to the original author’s intent, not according to some exercise of allegorical ingenuity imposed on the text after the fact. But again, this is not a particularly obvious way to take the word “literal.”

New Zealand pastor Bnonn Tennant had an interesting take on this recently. I quote:

I think the term literal is functionally meaningless; it is just a pious way of begging the question in favor of whatever interpretation “seems” obvious to the person reading it. In other words, “literal” is a shorthand way of saying that scripture should be read according to the normal rules of communication….

The problem with this, he goes on to point out, is that what we think of today as the normal rules of communication are not the standard everywhere and for all time:

As a simple example, consider how scripture speaks of the moon being turned to blood. A “literal” hermeneutic will say this means the physical moon becomes perceptibly red. This is the most “natural” way to read it—for a 21st century Western Christian. If a newspaper said such a thing, we would assume that the physical moon is in view; but also that physically being transformed into blood is not. That’s the “literal” sense to 21st century English readers inculcated in an Enlightenment worldview.

But what makes us think that worldview is the natural way to read the text of Scripture? It’s certainly not the worldview of the people who wrote it. To the extent that we intend to be guided by authorial intent, we obviously have no business substituting our worldview for theirs.

Tennant suggests dropping “literal” from our description of the hermeneutic and substituting “theological.” His argument is that “literal” doesn’t really mean what we’re trying to say (as above) and that “theological” better captures our desire to read the text as a theologically coherent whole. I would be concerned that “grammatical-historical-theological” hermeneutic signals a tendency to use our theology as a background assumption of our interpretation, rather than allowing our theology to be chastened by the text as we should. That’s not, of course, what Tennant means — but I’m concerned he’s just trading one set of “that’s not what I mean by it” conversations for another.

What do you think?

Walking through Hebrews

25 April 2023

I’m walking through Hebrews with Chris Morrison of Gulfside Ministries. You can find chapter one here, and the links will be listed under the Media tab as they become available. Interaction in the comments on Youtube is welcome.

What if it’s more literal than we think?

18 April 2023

Read Hebrews 3.

Go on, I’ll wait.

What is this rest into which the addressees of the book are in danger of not entering?

In American churches, we live downstream from the Great Awakenings, and so we tend to read in terms of individual salvation from hell to heaven when we die. If you read Dillow–and you should–you’ll be introduced to a good case that it’s speaking of entering into heavenly reward when we die.

But what is it about this chapter that suggests we should read it eschatologically at all? The example that the author uses is the Exodus generation. They weren’t headed to heaven; they were headed to Canaan. They didn’t fail to attain heaven and go to hell; they failed to attain Canaan and literally died in the desert. Living in the shadow of 19th-century hymnody, we effortlessly read “Canaan” as heaven, but what is the biblical case that we should read it that way? Is there one?

I’d like to suggest that we–at least experimentally–try reading this passage, with its example of earthly judgment and earthly rest in this life, as if it’s talking about earthly judgment and earthly rest in this life. Go back and read it again with that in mind — see what you think.

Nothing But Game Days

11 April 2023

I was talking with a friend recently about the relationship between the weekly worship service and daily practice, and she expressed surprise at me saying “Sunday’s game day.” From her perspective, Sunday is practice, and when we go out into the world Monday morning, that’s game day.

I was speaking from the perspective of worship. From that angle, your personal, private devotions are important in the same way that running your sprints and hitting the weight room regularly and doing your own skill drills are important if you’re going to be on a basketball team. You can’t improve if you don’t practice, but the goal is to show up prepared, with the rest of the team also prepared, so you can do your best work together. Corporate worship is when we do our best work together.

She was speaking from the perspective of mission. From that angle, the weekly service is a bit more like reviewing the game film the day after the game. It’s taking a break from the work to come back into the courts of heaven, lay it all before God, make necessary course corrections, be assured of His love and power, and then be sent out to do it all again this week.

Which perspective is correct? Well, that’s a bit like asking whether worship or mission is more important. Both, obviously. God has us oscillating back and forth between them for a reason — we need both to keep us healthy and whole.

Natural Motivation

4 April 2023

I was part of a discussion of heavenly reward recently. The Bible speaks quite a bit about heavenly rewards for faithfulness here on earth, but most Christians don’t teach on the subject. Some skip it because they foolishly think only the faithful will be in heaven to start with, so they conflate conditional rewards with the gift of eternal life. Others skip it because it seems to debase obedience: “We ought to serve out of love,” they will say, “not to fill up some celestial piggy bank for ourselves.”

Jesus does not agree: He directly taught people to lay up treasure in heaven.

Paul does not agree: He encourages us to compete for “an imperishable crown.”

The author of Hebrews does not agree: he holds up Moses as an example to follow, “for he looked to the reward.”

Why, though? God could simply command our obedience: certainly we owe it to Him. Why does He bother to offer reward?

First of all, because rewards move us. This is basic to human nature; from the very beginning God built us to tend and keep the Garden; we’re supposed to notice what generates a return and what does not, and do more of the former. God wants us to know the good results that come from our labor, so the better we understand the rewards God has in store for us, the more we are moved to do what He has for us.

There’s more to it, though:

  • People climb Everest every year; at this point enough people have done it that there’s little prospect of meaningful reward, but people keep doing it. It’s a magnificent achievement, and that’s enough.
  • Soldiers run into enemy fire to drag a wounded buddy to safety; it’s not like they’re gonna get a Nike sponsorship out of that. Everybody I know who’s done that gives the same reason: “He’d do it for me.”
  • Farmers work like nobody in the world at harvest time, to get the crop in ahead of the storms. Random people at the beach will dive into dangerous surf just to pull a total stranger out of the water. Why? In both cases, they say the same thing: “It had to be done.”

Rewards are not arbitrary; they’re coupled to God’s mission in the world. It’s a bit like a car salesman getting the “Salesman of the Year’ trophy for selling more cars than anybody else. There’s no point in false ‘humility’ about it (“I don’t want the trophy; I just want to sell cars.”) The trophy is happening because he just wants to sell cars; the bonus is happening because he made a ton of money for the boss; it’s a share in the spoils of victory.

God crafted our psyches; all our basic motivations come from His hands. We labor for a return. We attempt crazy, ridiculous, enormous tasks because He does, and we’re like Him that way. He likes it, and so do we. We risk ourselves for each other because He loves, and we love after Him; we risk ourselves for outsiders because Jesus did the same for us. We do difficult and necessary work because God does; when we fell; He set about the mending of the world because it needed to be done, and only He could do it. At our best, we’re like Him that way; we do it because someone has to, and we’re there. God loves all of that, and rewards are designed to ‘cut with the grain’ of the motivations He implanted in our natures to start with.

Empire and Patriarchy

28 March 2023

Empire and patriarchy are very nearly swear words in contemporary culture, and a great many Christians are being blown sideways by that particular wind of doctrine. If we are going to follow Jesus, then we must make our peace with both.

We are citizens of the New Jerusalem, a city that is not yet on Earth, but it will be. When it comes, it will be the capital city of the whole planet, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory and honor into it. On that day, it will be the Bride, the Church, and a political entity. We are not called to make it all happen tomorrow, but we are called to live into what we know to be true. So to the extent that we are able to now, we  mirror the culture and customs of the coming City, which is to say that we are envoys of the coming Empire to end all empires, governed by Jesus, the King of kings. You can go to heaven without grasping this truth, but you can’t be a faithful, discerning follower of the King of kings without grasping what a king of kings actually is: an emperor. 

Does that mean we’re fans of every empire going? Of course not. Jesus is the standard by which all empires are measured; the civil authorities are His agents for good, responsible to live up to the calling He’s given them. Our resistance to evil imperial power and our submission to good imperial power are both grounded in our prior submission to Jesus as agents of His empire. 

Likewise, you can’t be meaningfully Christian without being a heartily willing participant in patriarchy. We are children of God the Father, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth derives its name. Our leader is the ascended man Jesus, our Lord and Brother and High Priest and King. This patriarchy–rule by our Father and the Man He has ordained–is absolutely necessary to a faithful Christian walk. 

As with empire, so with patriarchy: resistance to evil patriarchal power is grounded precisely in our prior submission to the rule of our Father in heaven. And submission to good, God-ordained patriarchal power is grounded in that same submission. 

In either case, trying to avoid empire or patriarchy because some exercises of power are evil is like trying to avoid food because you’ve had bad tacos. No matter how prevalent bad tacos might be, the solution to bad food is good food, and the solution to bad patriarchy is good patriarchy. In the world our Father made, patriarchy is inevitable, and a good patriarchy is one where the men ruling are themselves ruled by God their Father and Jesus their King. Reject rule by good, godly men, and you will get rebel men instead. Good luck with that.

Unpopular Repentance

21 March 2023

We have a pretty good idea of what a Sunday gathering of the early church looked like (hint: a lot like 1 Cor. 14:26). This fact is near-universally acknowledged among New Testament scholars, and totally ignored by church professionals. What we do is widely different from what they did, everybody who’s ever looked into it knows it, and nobody cares even slightly. My friend Shawn noticed this a few years back, but just wrote up a lovely little article illustrating the point using commentary on 1 Cor. 14 from a wide variety of denominations. It’s worth your time to read it.

The ensuing discussion has been interesting.

  • Someone chimed in with an extended argument about how her very standard American church service really is very participatory — singing songs and listening to teaching is not passive at all, according to her — and so she doesn’t see the need for all this fuss about making things more participatory.*
  • Someone else warned that in his experience, studying early church practice invariably leads to a kind of legalism, where the student of the early church is now filled with demands that we must do things in the same way.**
  • Another observer wondered if any of this really mattered: perhaps the American church is simply attaining the same goals the early church did, but by different methods.***

I could go on, but what’s the point?

What’s so striking about this conversation was the sheer scale and variety of excuses for refusing to engage the discussion. The bottom line, to my eye, is simple: we’re comfortable with what we’re doing, and we’re simply not interested in a conversation that might result in changing something. The tribe that raised and trained me talks a good game about following Scripture rather than tradition, but the truth is that we have our own tradition that we protect as ferociously — and dishonestly — as the most ardent Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox partisan.

We need to be comfortable with repentance. We tell ourselves that we are, and it’s true, for the obvious sins — adultery, fornication, theft, hatred, envy, gossip, like that. But we need to get comfortable with repenting of the more respectable failures like complacency, valuing “the way we do it” above Scripture, the arrogance of thinking we have nothing to learn about church praxis from the New Testament. Nothing could be further from the truth.


*Answer to #1: As a sometime preacher, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate her zeal for active listening when the preacher is talking! But this is nothing to the purpose. If we acknowledge that what Paul told the Corinthians to do is widely different from what we do of a Sunday morning, then it’s that gap we’re talking about.

**Answer to #2: While that’s certainly a danger, it occurs to me that there’s another possible interpretation besides “legalism.” Imagine a southern plantation owner in 1830 warning a Bible scholar that studying the slavery issue closely invariably leads to a very legalistic strain of abolitionism! Maybe there’s a reason, ya know?

***Answer to #3: If the American church were actually attaining the sorts of results the early church did, that would perhaps be a valid question. But they were a martyr church, and we’re…well, most of our church people are stagnant babies, most of our pastors don’t know how to disciple someone, and most of our young people ditch the Christian faith before the end of their first semester at Leviathan State University. With results like that, perhaps the methods of that early church bear looking into….