The Freedom to be Wrong

12 November 2019

If you’re sleeping with someone else’s spouse, I do not need to inquire into the motives of your heart to know that you are in sin. God has specifically said this is a no-no. He has already told me that the motives of your heart are going to be a mess, and as a minister of the gospel it is my solemn duty to name your adultery for the sin it is and encourage you to go and sin no more. But when it comes to what you eat or abstain from, which holidays you celebrate, and so on, I may not tell you what to do (Romans 14:4-10), and you are not allowed to permit me (or anyone else) to pass judgment on you about that, or enforce regulations over you (Colossians 2:16-23).

These latter areas are what we call “areas of liberty.” Christian liberty does not mean that there are no wrong choices to make. It means that the nature of the issue is such that God does not allow us to pontificate on someone else’s correctness. Let’s illustrate with, say, hair color.

Now, whether we’re talking about a lady of a certain age unnaturally prolonging her days as a brunette, or the same lady going electric blue, hair dye has been a hot topic in certain times and places. Accusations of ‘worldliness’ abound (and are particularly funny when leveled by an unnatural brunette against someone else’s unnaturally electric blue hair, but never mind.)

When it comes to hair, Scripture says some things about ostentatious displays of wealth and leisure, but dye is so cheap anymore that’s not really a problem. Taking one thing with another, hair dye is among those things which perish with the using, and other believers do not have the right to tell you whether you may use it, or what colors you may or may not use. This is a matter that is within your liberty, and that means that you are to be permitted to do as you like, even though you may be dead wrong.

This wrongness can happen in two ways, and it’s important to grasp both.

In his discussion of ‘doubtful things’ in Romans 14, Paul takes sides on the issue of eating meat. Here we have one brother chowing down on a steak, and a vegetarian who thinks his carnivorous brother is flirting with deadly compromise. Paul does not say they’re both equally valid dietary choices; he pointedly describes the carnivore as the stronger Christian. The vegetarian, he says, has a weak conscience–and he is allowed to be wrong about this. The vegetarian may not pass judgment on the carnivore, nor the carnivore hold the vegetarian in contempt. So if you feel that pink hair is an abomination, you are allowed to avoid it. On these sorts of matters, you have the freedom to be wrong; let each one be fully convinced in his own mind, as Paul says.

There is also another way in which you can be wrong. The motives of your heart may, in fact, be drenched in worldliness. Your boyfriend’s ex dyed her hair pink last week, and he’s been looking longingly at her ever since, and there’s no way you’re going to let that skank show you up — who does she think she is, anyway? — and so you’re gonna get a dye job that can be seen from low earth orbit. Now as your pastoral counselor, or just your friend, I see a whole stack of issues worth addressing here, but the point for our conversation today is that I’m not allowed to tell you the dye job is sin. This is the kind of circumstance where God might call you to forget the pink hair, but that’s not because pink hair is sin, it’s because it would be a hindrance for you.

God may ultimately call you to forsake Crossfit, or rolex watches, or Starbucks coffee, or snazzy ties. God might call you to let your grey hair grow in, to mortify your vanity. He might call you to polish your shoes every Saturday night and wear a suit and tie to church, to mortify your sloth. Liberty does not mean that God can’t or won’t call you in a particular direction; the point is that nobody else can demand it. It’s between you and God.

So listen well.

Joel Is Not A Cessationist

5 November 2019

In Acts 2, Peter applies Joel 2 in an interesting way. Some people believe Peter is stating the direct fulfillment of Joel 2: Joel predicted this day, and here it is.

Most commentators, however, notice some end-of-the-world markers in Joel 2, and therefore feel that Joel’s prophecy has not yet been fulfilled. That being the case, they then say either that Peter was saying Joel 2 was partly fulfilled at Pentecost, or that Peter was just making an analogy.

What I’m about to say here would apply to partial fulfillment positions, but just for the moment let’s accept, for the sake of discussion, that Peter is making an analogical argument (This is like what Joel prophesied…”).

That means Peter is claiming that Pentecost has various points of contact with the Joel prophecy, but the events of Pentecost do not exhaust Joel 2; the actual fulfillment is yet future from Peter’s point of view (and from ours as well, yes?).

In turn, that means—follow me closely here—that all the favored cessation proof texts that are supposed to be telling us that revelation is over, finito, done with, the canon is closed, no fresh revelation, no more—every single one of those passages is in conflict with Joel 2, which pointedly tells us that in the future, our young men will see visions, our old men will dream dreams, our sons and daughters will prophesy—in short, that there will be fresh revelation in the future.

If the fulfillment of Joel 2 is future, then prophecy has not yet ceased.

Hallucinating Your Ideology

29 October 2019

“A theory is a very dangerous thing to have.”
-Nassim Nicholas Taleb

One of the core ideas of Nassim Taleb’s work is that many small errors in a system are much safer than one big one. If you let individual grocery store managers handle their own ordering, sometimes they’re gonna screw it up, and a particular store will run out of potatoes. You can solve that problem by taking away local control, and hiring a handful of specialists at headquarters. But if you centrally control all ordering from corporate headquarters, when you make a mistake, all the stores west of the Mississippi run out of potatoes at the same time.

So yes, the store manager in Paducah is bad at ordering produce, but his errors don’t propagate to other stores, and someone from the produce department can always pop over to the next town and grab a few crates of potatoes to hold them over until the next shipment. Can’t do that when corporate makes a similar mistake, because the consequences are so much bigger. Centralized control prevents many small errors, then in a single blunder costs more than all the small errors put together.

And this why giving primacy to exegesis works better than giving primacy to an organizing theological concept.

Examples of that centralized, top-down approach abound–it’s far more common than not. Gordon Clark is a particularly good example, because he was very clear-eyed about what he was doing. Clark talked up the importance of starting points, and pointedly said that his starting point was the sovereignty of God, and he never wavered from it–and to my eye, he didn’t, even when that meant doing violence to a particular text of Scripture in service to his big idea. The truth is that everybody does this sometimes, and most theologians do it habitually; they just pretend they don’t.  Very few are as clear and honest about it as Clark was. God bless him for his clarity.

I’m not against Big Idea thinking; it’s a good lens to look through at times. You see some things you’d have missed otherwise. The danger is that if you look through the same lens all the time–if you allow the Big Idea to become your master rather than your tool–you can no longer see clearly. You see your Big Idea in everything, whether it’s there or not. And the corollary danger is that you miss things that are right in front of you, because you’re too busy hallucinating your ideology to notice what’s actually there.

Once you do that, you’re not doing exegesis anymore.

What It Can Mean

22 October 2019

One of the most frustrating, and most important, lessons I ever learned about interpreting Scripture happened when I was in Bible college. I’d had some Greek, and in an inter-session course I had the opportunity to take an elective from a wise old scholar whose name (I am ashamed to say) now escapes me. He was retired, but came in to spend mornings for a week lecturing us on Ephesians. Every morning, he would arrive at the classroom with only his English Bible and his Greek text. No lecture notes, no notepad, nothing but his two Bibles.

He would set his English Bible on the corner of the desk, where it would sit untouched for the next several hours. Then he would open up his Greek text to Ephesians and begin to lecture. The lecture consisted of reading a phrase or so at a time in Greek, translating it on the fly into King James-style English, making comments at length on the meaning of the Greek words and the overall passage, and entertaining questions along the way. I think we spent 4 hours a day for 5 days making a single pass through Ephesians, which will give you some idea of the length of the comments and the overall pace.

In that class there were several of us who had taken varying amounts of Greek, and a couple of dynamics quickly developed that were repeated many times over the course of our 5 days together.

The first one was when we thought we had caught him propounding an interpretation of Ephesians which contradicted some other passage of Scripture.

“But wouldn’t what you’re saying contradict [other passage], which says ______________?”

“Well, that would be a contradiction, young man, but [other passage] doesn’t say that. It says — ” and here he would quote the other passage, in Greek, from memory, translate it, and explain what it actually said and why it didn’t contradict his understanding of the Ephesians passage under discussion. He would then return to the lecture. As far as we could tell, this man knew the entire Greek New Testament by heart.

The second dynamic that happened repeatedly was when we thought he’d mistranslated one of the Greek words in the text.

“Sir, couldn’t that Greek word also mean ______?”

“Yes, young man, it certainly could. But in this passage, it doesn’t.” He would then explain why, in the passage at hand, the word meant what he was saying it did. I remember these explanations as well-reasoned, succinct, and effectively impossible to rebut.

Frustrating as it was, these were really important lessons in interpretation. Contradicting what I think a passage says is not the same thing as contradicting the passage. Choosing an interpretation of a word is harder than it seems. Words have different meanings: trunk can be the front of an elephant, the back of a car, the middle of a tree, the torso of a person, or an item of luggage. The fact that “trunk” could mean any of those things in some context does not mean that it does mean a particular one in this context. You don’t get to treat the list of possible meanings as a menu and just pick the one you like. The meaning has to cohere with the particular context, and demonstrating that you’ve made the right interpretive choice is not always a trivial undertaking. Sometimes it’s obvious, like using the word “trunk” when we’re talking about an elephant, and not talking about cars, trees, people, or luggage. Other times, it is less obvious: in the middle of a move, when the family car and Grandpa’s old steamer trunk are right next to each other in the driveway, “Put this in the trunk” could mean more than one thing. But if the back of the car’s already loaded with Dad’s greasy tools, the steamer trunk is open and half-full of linens, and Mom just handed you a lily-white tablecloth and said “Put this in the trunk,” there’s an excellent case to be made that she means one and not the other.

“But can’t trunk mean the back of the car?”

“Of course it can, young man. But in this case it doesn’t, and if you don’t want a spanking, you’d better get your exegesis right.”

No Trap to See

15 October 2019

I spent my first years in ministry helping a small group of people get out of a cult, and then several more years on the much trickier task of getting the cult out of the people. That work, and the subsequent times I’ve been called on to help people recover from cults, has given me an interesting look at how cults operate on their followers.

One of the central dynamics by which such cults flourish is the leader’s secret knowledge, his discernment of things too lofty for the hoi polloi, and especially of dire, dangerous threats too subtle for the hoi polloi to discern.

The dynamic proceeds thus: the congregant thinks Practice (or belief) X is innocuous, perhaps even helpful. The Dear Leader comes along and denounces Practice X, connecting it (by whatever dubious means) to Heresy Y. The People dutifully praise Dear Leader for his wisdom and are confirmed in their conviction that without Dear Leader and his subtle discernment, they would not be able to navigate their spiritual lives.

In the nature of the case, Practice X cannot be something obviously wrong. The people are already avoiding the things that are obviously wrong anyway. It brings no credit to Dear Leader’s discernment to denounce, say, devil worship. But suppose, in a rhetorically dazzling series of sermons titled “What Can Brown Do For Your Soul?”, Dear Leader connects UPS to a worldwide secret cabal of devil worshippers? Well, now you’ve got something. The poor congregants would never have known–why, they’ve been supporting devil worshippers with every Christmas package they send, without knowing it!

The whole point of the exercise is for Dear Leader to highlight a spiritual trap that the congregant would never have been able to discern, the better to demonstrate how much they all need Dear Leader and his spiritual insights. The intended effect of the exercise does not occur unless the People didn’t see the trap. And it works best of all when they couldn’t have seen the trap, because there is no trap to see.

As long as he can convince them after the fact that there is in fact a connection between Practice X and vilest heresy — using whatever rhetorical trickery is at his disposal — the trick works, and his authority is confirmed. The fewer other leaders agree with him, the more he is elevated above the common rabble of pastors — they are confused, clueless, or complicit in the sin themselves. And so betraying his close allies, whom he paints as compromised with various sins and false teachings he alone is able to discern, becomes one of the key ways in which a cult leader can consolidate control of his people.

It’s an ugly business, one that Christians should steer well clear of.

But the ugliest part is the way in which the same dynamic infiltrates groups (both conservative and progressive) that most of us wouldn’t consider cults, although we might allow as how they’re a bit sectarian. In this way, many churches groom their people, especially their young people, in habits of mind that make them easy pickings for cults later in life.

Letter to a Successful Minister

8 October 2019

This post is a composite of letters and conversations over the years. I’m posting it now because I haven’t had one of these interactions in a while, so nobody will think I’m taking aim at them in particular. I am targeting a general tendency in our culture, not a particular person.

Dear Luke,

It was good to hear from you. I’m glad Janice and the kids are doing so well, and the house is beautiful. Janice has really worked hard on the remodel, and it shows. On the ministry front—wow! It usually takes several years for a pastor to really settle into a new church, but it seems like God is already doing amazing things. I’m happy to see it all coming together for you.

I couldn’t help but notice the rebuke implicit in the way you dismissed my bivocational situation with “we all have to grow up sometime.” I suppose I could just let it pass as one of those things that love covers a multitude of, but since we’re corresponding, and since it stung, I’d like to speak to it.

I hope you will bear with me in a little Pauline foolishness. I will shortly recover my wits and have more sensible things to say, but I need to get this bit off my chest first: You look at the trajectory of my life and see a disaster, a failure to grow up. I say that we have both pursued God—not by any means perfectly, but nonetheless with reckless abandon. What do we have to show for it?

In God’s providence, you have a ministerial career. Now, I want to give you credit where it is due. You have been sensible and disciplined in your finances, and you’ve foregone luxuries and saved aggressively to get where you are. You are now reaping the rewards of your labor, as well you should. But you have also been called to labor in a particular situation: God called you to the suburbs, and you are reaping the material rewards of ministering in an upper-middle class suburban church. I don’t begrudge you that, but I certainly do resent that you think your generous full-time salary is the simple result of growing up.

You grew up in an upper-middle class church, you attended such churches through college and seminary, and you are now ministering in one. In God’s providence, those churches have been your whole world. There’s nothing wrong with that, but lift up your eyes, buddy: that’s a fraction of the worldwide church. Tomorrow, God could call you to a church in a tiny farming community that simply can’t support a full-time pastor, especially one with a wife and kids. You would then find yourself just as grown up, but nowhere near as wealthy–and definitely in need of another job to make ends meet. But right now, in God’s providence, you are where you are.

By that same providence, I am where I am. “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” I’m not quite that much like Jesus, but I’m not living the American Dream, either. I have followed where God led, to the best of my ability. I’ve certainly made some mistakes along the way, some of them errors in judgment and others due to the ways in which I’m damaged goods and I haven’t healed yet. But God makes all things new in time, and I trust His hand in the process.

Although I’ve served in a number of pastoral roles—and still do, in fact—I never achieved the dream that I had in mind when I was first called into ministry: senior pastor of a mid-sized church, with a paycheck to match, which would enable me to buy a house and raise (which in our case also means adopt) children. I wanted to serve God in the role He called me to, and I wanted a family and a house. (Which is to say, I envisioned the same thing you have.) In terms of how we were both raised, that’s not a lot to ask for—and yet I don’t have it. Nor is there any real reason to believe that the dream is lurking just over the horizon, if only I push a little harder, persist a little further. So measured by the bright vision of my expectations as a 16-year-old, I have failed.

But as you said, we all have to grow up sometime. The world is a much bigger place than I pictured it at 16, and God has a lot more variety up His sleeve than we were led to believe. And let’s be honest, what we were led to expect doesn’t match up particularly well with what Jesus and the apostles had, does it? They made a lot less money. I have come to see that there was nothing actually biblical about my dream. 

Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the pastor of a strong and wealthy church pulling in a 6-figure salary has anything to feel guilty about. But God called me to pastor a church of homeless folks; I’ve no reason to expect the same salary as that guy. God calls one man to be Solomon and another to be John the Baptist, and if they fulfill their respective callings, neither has anything to be ashamed of. Nor does someone like Paul, sometimes abased and sometimes abounding. There is nothing inevitable or especially holy about one of these as over against the others. They are each just one way that a life of service can look—one among many.

And so as I sling no recriminations your way, I ask you to return the favor. If you see character flaws in me, by all means speak up. I’m open to correction. But if your criticism is based entirely on my failure to attain the American dream, then I invite you to use some of your paid study time to re-read the Gospels and Acts–not to mention the Old Testament–with an eye to identifying the patterns of ministry that God finds acceptable. I think you’ll find a wider variety than you presently allow for.



Not Perfect, Just Living

5 October 2019

“People don’t need a perfect example. They need a living example.”

They must have said that a dozen times in the first 3DM learning community intensive 6 months ago, and I meant to write about it, but didn’t get around to it. They emphasized it again in this one, and it reminded me.


Ridiculous as it is, this is actually God’s plan. To use fallible human beings, to use me, to show people how to become more like Jesus. Not just to speak directly to people through Word and Spirit, but to actually use me to guide his Church. Not just what I say; my example. Flawed as it is.

It’s ridiculous. It’s particularly ridiculous right now; my life is a hot mess. Constant financial strain, constant switching from one gig to another to make ends meet, with all the stress that goes with that. I don’t think it’s much of an example.

But then, Jesus was homeless, and Paul was constantly in threat of being murdered by enemies who followed him from city to city…and yet, people did want to imitate them. Jesus said, “Follow Me,” and they did. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ,” and again, they did. Is it possible they will see something they want to imitate in me, ridiculous as that seems on paper?

It seems that’s exactly what Jesus wants to do. And faced with that, there’s only one thing to say.

Here am I; send me.