A Pauline Thicket of Prepositions

15 June 2021

A few years ago, I was talking with a good friend who has been deeply involved in church ministries for years.  She’s a psychotherapist, and part of her professional responsibility is to manage a crisis response team at work (24-hour hotline, that sort of thing.)  Her church recently set out to start a Christian crisis response team, and naturally they asked her to serve on the team that was setting it up.

So they get the team together — a rep from the pastoral staff, people from the congregation with expertise, and a consultant who helps churches do this kind of thing.  One of the first orders of business (after sorting out the snack schedule, of course) was a mission statement.  

The conversation was productive.  The team didn’t just want to pass out band-aids to people with problems.  Any crisis hotline does that — what difference would it make that this was a Christian hotline?  They concluded that in addition to connecting people to the resources they need, they wanted to help people meet God in the midst of the crisis.  Not hand out holy-sounding platitudes, not “evangelize” them, just introduce them to God, for real. So far so good, right?

So someone came out with a mission statement that started off “To redemptively shepherd people in crisis…” and then continued into a string of prepositional phrases and gerunds worthy of the book of Romans.

“Hang on,” my friend said.  “If what we want to do is connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis, then why don’t we just say that? ‘Our mission is to connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis.’”

Well, if you’ve been around churches much, you already know what happened after the hemming and hawing died down. Further chattering ensued, and in the end they adopted a mission statement: “To redemptively shepherd people in crisis…” plus a Pauline thicket of prepositions.

As my friend was telling me the story, somewhat baffled by it all, it suddenly hit me: I know why we do this!

It’s about accountability.  Say the ministry adopted my friend’s suggested mission statement: “Our mission is to connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis.”  Say I take the Tuesday night shift. How would they check to see if I was fulfilling the mission? 

My friend: Jack, I understand you recently called our crisis line and talked to Tim.
Jack: Yeah.
My friend: So, did Tim connect you to the resources you needed?
Jack: Uh, I dunno.  I guess not.
My friend: Tim didn’t connect you to any resources?
Jack: No.
My friend: Did Tim help you to hear from God?
Jack: No.
My friend (turning to me): Tim, what did you do for an hour?

But if I’m working under that “redemptively shepherding” monstrosity of a mission statement, I can let Jack cry into the phone for an hour, do nothing that actually helps him, and still make it sound awesome.  “Mindful of the biblical command to ‘weep with those who weep,’ I provided Jack with a sympathetic ear and built rapport that would allow me to speak into Jack’s life.  I feel Jack is very close to recognizing his true need for a savior.”  Notice I didn’t say that I did speak into Jack’s life, just that I might be able to.

(Now, I recognize that from time to time a particular person in a particular moment needs something that’s off-mission for the ministry, and God will use that ministry to meet the need anyway.  Wise leaders recognize that when it happens and don’t choose that moment to get cranky about the mission statement.  But we’re talking about the overall mission of the ministry here.)

Moral of the story?  Not only do we have a culture of ineffectiveness, at some level, we know it.  So we avoid spelling out what we’re going to do in ways that would expose how little fruit we really see.

Why is that?


Prayer Exercise

Ask God to show you if there are areas of your life where you are afraid to ask Him to do specific things — things where it would be obvious if He showed up or not.  Wait in silence and see what He will show you.  

Don’t be concerned if nothing comes to mind; just remain attentive over the next few days and see what comes up.

If God does bring an area to your attention, pray, “God I confess that I am afraid to ask You to show up and act in definite ways in this area of my life.  Please give me the wisdom to know what to ask for, and the courage to keep asking.”  

Then keep praying for wisdom in that area until God shows you what to ask for.  When that happens, keep praying for it.

A Prescription for Free Grace Theology

8 June 2021

Any theology can become a dead ideology instead of a living knowledge of God. For some people, Free Grace theology has become that, and you can see it in their lack of love. But the problem is not universal, and I see that as a promising sign; therein lies my basic prescription. The Free Grace movement must internalize the truth of 1 Corinthians 13: without love, it is nothing. When it begins to genuinely love God and its brothers first, with everything else a distant second priority, then we’ll see real growth.

Where love revives the movement, we’ll see a shift toward service and mission. Many Free Grace people are admirably engaged in evangelism, missions, and discipleship already. What is lacking is for the Free Grace movement as a movement to become outward-facing. As the movement is able to receive and embody life from God, it will serve the broader Church beyond its borders, and in the process, it will recover a robust practice and doctrine of Church unity.

I have written much about unity elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it all here. I will just say that we should love one another and get along together for the sake of our mutual friend Jesus. In my experience, that leads to doing as much as we can in partnership with as many of Christ’s people as we can, across all the denominational boundaries. When God’s people obey in this way, we find that all the scattered branches of the Church have something to offer us, and we to them…and we’ll get a chance to both give and receive. (And you don’t need to be in a Free Grace church to do this, either.)

I expect this proposal to be met with skepticism, if not scorn. I am sure a multitude of theologians can advance armies of reasons why it can’t work. I am willing to hear the counter-arguments, but at the end of the day, I will answer them all with a Chinese proverb: “The man who says it can’t be done should not interrupt the man doing it.” I am already living the proposal I am making here. It can be done, and productively, too: I am far more productive for the cause of Christ now than I ever was in my sectarian days.

Not Literal Enough

2 June 2021

I looked into Progressive Dispensationalism briefly 20+ years ago, didn’t find it remotely compelling, and haven’t felt a need to revisit it. I might be missing something, but life is short, and I kinda don’t think so. It seemed to me at the time that PD was something of a mediating position between Covenant Theology and classic dispensationalism, and I don’t think the weaknesses of dispensationalism lie in that direction. The problem is that dispensationalists don’t read literally enough.

That sounds weird, but it’s true. A dispensationalist sounds like a wooden literalist when he’s standing next to, say, Ken Gentry talking about Matthew 24, or Richard Gaffin talking up the Church as the new Israel. But stand that same dispensationalist next to Jim Reitman talking about Abraham’s children in Galatians, and see what happens. The problem with dispensationalists isn’t so much hermeneutics as a failure of nerve: they won’t apply their own hermeneutic consistently in places where the Scriptures don’t perfectly match the system.

At the end of the day, dispensationalism is a bit like Calvinism — a clever system that takes in some genuinely biblical insights and was God’s gift for a particular historical moment, but can’t be organically generated from the text, and has to flatly contradict Scripture occasionally in order to keep the system going. The biblical insights are well worth keeping, but why try to digest the whole carcass when we can loot the corpse and move on?

One of the major sticky points is the Kingdom of God. Classic dispensationalists tend to hold that there is no present reality to the Kingdom of God because the lion is not presently lying down with the lamb and Jesus is not sitting on David’s literal throne. Against that, I note that Jesus Himself said “if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you.” Has come. The lion wasn’t lying down with the lamb then either, but Jesus still said what He said.

The lion really will lay down with the lamb, and Jesus really will sit on David’s literal throne when the Kingdom has come in its fullness. By speaking of the Kingdom as a present reality in His own time, Jesus forces us to acknowledge that it’s possible for the Kingdom to be truly present without being fully present in its final consummation — and what good news that is! Jesus is King now. If He is ruling within the reach of my arm, then His Kingdom is here now.

So with (say) a guy like Grant Hawley (whose book I recommend reading, even though I heartily disagree in spots), I find I agree with him far more than not when it comes to particulars like our present relationship to the covenant with Noah, our relationship to the Law, the future of Israel, and so on. However, the bubbles-on-a-string dispensational charts don’t represent those truths well; they tend to emphasize the discontinuity at the expense of things that really do continue. Our discontinuous relationship with the Law is based on our continuous relationship with Abraham and the (Noahide) priesthood of Melchizedek expressed in our older Brother Jesus (as the book of Hebrews elegantly explains). It’s all One Story, and a lot of the power to read our present circumstances in biblical categories comes from being able to see it as all a single story with motifs and themes that repeat, but like themes in music or dance — never exactly the same. In biblical studies, typology is not first and foremost a feature of literary texts; it is a philosophy of history. Typology in the real world is a mark of authorship, and the world is being authored by the same God who wrote the biblical texts.

In the nature of the case, you can always claim that this instance of the motif is different from the others, because something about it always will be different. The head-crushing women of Judges, David taking on Goliath, and Jesus crushing the serpent’s head are all quite different in certain respects, but the differences are not the most important thing about them.

Is Anyone Sick?

18 May 2021

I had the opportunity to preach on James 5:13-18 at Faith Community in Littleton this past Sunday. You can find the service video here.

Handle with Care

6 May 2021

We live in a touch-starved culture. The church is often no exception, and because touch is such a minefield, we often don’t know what to do about it.

Read this book. It will help you get started in a healthier direction.

Stones into Bread

27 April 2021

What do you do when you have a genuine need going unmet? It’s one of the great tests, and of course Jesus showed us how to handle it. After His baptism, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that He fasted for 40 days while the devil tempted Him. At the end of that time, He was literally starving. He needed food, and there was none.

At that moment, the devil attacked. “If you’re the son of God, then turn these stones to bread.”

First the devil attacked his identity: are you really the son of God? Are you sure? If you won’t even use the power to feed yourself when you’re starving, then what’s the point anyway? God’s supposed to be taking care of you here, and all I see is rocks.

Jesus responds with a line from Deuteronomy, when Moses is teaching a new generation to trust God by reminding them of their history. He says “God humbled you, allowed you to suffer hunger, and then fed you with manna that you did not know, nor did your father know, in order to teach you” — and this is the part Jesus quotes — “that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God’s mouth.”

You see what Jesus is saying? He’s applying Israel’s experience as the template. First we have a need, and it hurts. The need is real. Then the devil shows up and tempts us not to trust God, to try to do it our own way. And if we fall for it, then we end up trying to eat rocks.

Jesus resisted, and when the temptations were over, angels came and fed Him.

Give in, and you eat rocks; resist, and God gives you manna.

But it’s hard. You know what? Jesus knows firsthand how hard it is; He’s been there. Right this minute He is sitting at the Father’s right hand as your High Priest. He has all the resources of heaven at His disposal, and He is ready to give you the help you need to get through it. He is sympathetic, not condemning. He wants you to ask for help. So ask for help, and He will help you.

Dust and Breath: A Sermon

20 April 2021

Being who and what we are, how do we live together? I had a chance to preach on that subject this week.

Research Pastor?

13 April 2021

I had two conversations yesterday about the ways in which the American church has grown like other organizations, and how that has caused severe problems.

In one conversation, we were discussing this article, which compares the traits we generally hire for in a megachurch pastor with the traits comparably-sized businesses hire for in a CEO. Big surprise: same basic profile, and it comes with the same basic set of temptations and problems. Shocking, right?

I’ve written elsewhere about the problems of trying to map business culture onto the church, so I won’t belabor it here. Best case scenario? Your church gets run like a business instead of the house of God. Worst case? Your church leaders misbehave like businessmen do…which happens constantly.

The other conversation was with a church member (different church, far away) who was observing a disparity between pay and productivity. In his church, part-time (i.e., bivocational) staff members do most of the work, but the senior pastor is negotiating for a raise. In my friend’s view, the senior pastor contributes less (doesn’t counsel or disciple parishioners, preaches three times a month), and flatly refuses to be bivocational for various reasons. Offhand, I observed that this sounded a bit like the academic world. As I spun the analogy out, it worked even more closely than I’d thought, and it made me a little sick.

A lot of the necessary grunt work is getting handled by the adjunct grades. In many churches, the youth pastor position is the career equivalent of the guy who teaches the night section of freshman comp at your local community college: entry level, bad hours, but if you put a couple years in you can move up. The logistical heavy lifting (committee chairing, managerial continuity) gets handled by the mid-grades (assistant/associate professors, assistant/associate pastors). At the top of both ladders is a research professorship where you get paid to study the stuff you like and give maybe 2-3 lectures a month.

There is a big difference, though. When the research professor in the academic world comes out to give a lecture, it’s cutting-edge research. When the senior pastor comes out of the study to give a sermon, it’s first-year Bible school stuff: basic Bible exposition, basic doctrine, basic application. Why does it take 20-30 hours in the study to produce that?

The seminary I attended (and for a while, taught for) lives on the fringes of a tribe that calls itself “the doctrinal movement.” Their pastors spend 30+ hours a week in the study (actually, most doctrinal pastors would consider it slacking off to only put in 30 hours of prep!), and deliver long, detailed lectures multiple times a week. I have my differences with their approach to church, but at least they’re delivering a proportional return on the study time they’re putting in.

Other pastors? Not so much.

I do want to carve out some exceptions here. There can be myriad nigh-invisible demands on a pastor’s time, from preparation for a budget meeting with the church trustees to a steady stream of people calling, emailing, or dropping by the church to talk with him about some personal crisis. When everybody wants 20 minutes of your time, that adds up! If the pastor is actually spending time tending the flock that Christ entrusted to him, then all is well. If the pastor is wearing through the knees of his pants praying for his people, then all is well. If a pastor is a newbie, and it genuinely takes him 30 hours to get his sermon prepped — again, all is well, at least for his first year.

There’s another population of pastors, though, that’s spending days in the study preparing sermons that show no sign of needing that much attention. Those guys need to get to work.

Nee vs. Kuyper

6 April 2021

Once upon a time, Watchman Nee wrote a little book called The Latent Power of the Soul in which he allowed that various paranormal things are possible for the human soul, but all of them are off limits for a Christian. The argument goes that these ‘soulish’ powers are verboten to Christians because we are intended to draw our power from the Spirit.

This has curb appeal for a lot of people, but on closer examination, it’s pious-sounding nonsense. The nonsense is easy enough to see if we apply the same argument consistently to all such ‘soulish’ powers. You are not allowed to go to the gym and lift weights, or practice doing complex math problems in your head, or learn to tell when someone is lying to you, because you are supposed to derive your power from the Holy Spirit. 

The nonsense is easy enough to see there. Of course it’s okay to do all these things. Your job is to take all the abilities you develop and bring them into subjection to Christ.

And that’s the underlying problem with Nee’s view: he brackets out certain admittedly natural human abilities, and then says we are not allowed to bring those abilities into subjection to Christ. Abraham Kuyper articulated a better approach: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'”

So when we’re talking about intuition, specialized powers of minute observation, subtle palpation, manual manipulation, or whatever else, why approach the matter any differently?

“How do we know that these things are even real?” someone will want to know. That is a great question. We should be interested to sift the true from the false.

We may not approach that examination with the bias of, say, a James Randi or a Richard Dawkins. We know something they do not: the materialists are wrong, from top to bottom. The world is not what they say it is. Angels are real. Demons are real. Humans are both body and spirit. God reigns over it all. It is silly for a Christian to approach reality as if all spiritual claims are automatically bunk.

We know better. And whatever human abilities are real, are designed by God to serve Christ’s glory under the direction of the Spirit. Just like physical strength. 

Getting the Questions Wrong

30 March 2021

Once upon a time, many moons ago, someone asked, “What’s the bare minimum that a person would need to believe in order to be saved?”

Some of us, myself among them, were silly enough to venture an answer to that question. I have since repented.

There are two problems with this question, one exegetical and one practical. The exegetical problem is that the Scriptures never answer the question directly, which makes it very difficult to substantiate a “Thus saith the Lord” answer — which, in this case, would be the only answer worth fighting over. An answer based on theological reasoning isn’t out of the question — logical consequence is fair game in theology — but difficult, in that it’s easy enough to put forth an answer, but very hard to rule out competing answers. Thus far, nobody’s in any danger of decisively winning that argument.

But the practical problem with the question is the real clincher: why would you want to give anybody the bare minimum? Where does the Bible suggest giving no extra? No matter what you think the bare minimum is, you will find very few, if any, biblical passages that present only your bare minimum content. Meanwhile, there will be many, many passages that present additional (from your perspective, “extra”) content, and even more damaging, a number of passages that leave out something you regard as essential.

But over here in the real world, we don’t aim to convert anybody to a minimum understanding. We want them to get all of Jesus that they possibly can. We want them to know Jesus, and the more of His word we can give them, the better.