Precisely Personal

21 September 2021

It’s been a good while since I wrote anything about the Free Grace Food Fight — for a long while, there didn’t seem to be much to say. Of late, I had occasion to interact with a GES ally, and found that the discourse has (and in some ways, hasn’t) shifted. The current presentation, according to him, looks something like this:


If these 3 things are true of a person then that person is saved no matter what misconception he may have or hold…

  1. The right vehicle for reception of the gift of God: faith
  2. In the right Person: Jesus of Nazareth
  3. For the purpose of receiving the benefit of His offer: eternal life.

If it’s the correct condition – faith – in the right Person – Jesus of Nazareth – for the benefit He offers – eternal life – then this man is saved no matter what misconceptions about reality he may have. Period.

This person has, with the divine needed precision, fulfilled the condition to receive everlasting life.


Compared to that simple and precise formulation, I’m told, my own position is imprecise and will lead people to doubt. I see two problems here.

First, the precision they think they have is largely an illusion. It looks pretty clean: three well-formed, carefully worded statements, and that’s that. All neoclassically bright and shiny; what could be the problem? The problem is that in order for those statements to convey the precise meaning they have in mind, the terms have to be defined. Chiefly: Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? Without a definition there, the statements don’t mean much, and once we start defining who exactly we mean by “Jesus of Nazareth,” we’ll find that the position is a bit more complicated than they’re letting on.

Second, my position only looks imprecise from that vantage point because they’ve committed a serious category error. I actually agree that the Bible has specified precisely what is required to receive eternal life. It’s right there in John 3:16: believe in Him.

The difference between us is that they think “believe in Him” is imprecise shorthand, and their three propositions define it more precisely. I do not agree. That position requires an unstated (and insupportable) premise: that faith is always and only assent to certain specific propositions. If that is the case, then we can quibble over the exact content of the propositions (and boy, have we!), but something like their position absolutely must be true.

However, the unstated premise is flawed. Faith is a fundamentally personal interaction that can be truly described in propositions but is not reducible to them. You trust in Jesus to save you; that’s all. What if you stole a candy bar or committed a murder? Trust in Jesus; He’s got it. What if you flunked a soteriology exam? Trust in Jesus; He’s got it. Even if it was that really short exam from Evangelism Explosion? Yes, even then. Trust in Jesus; He’s got you. What if I somehow trust Him wrong? He’s already planned for that. Trust in Jesus; He’s got you.

There is no precise mechanism. There is no mechanism at all. There is a Person, arms outstretched, ready to rescue anyone who calls to Him for help. “Believe in Him” means precisely what it says: trust in this Person, and He will save you. It is as simple as that.

In nearly 20 years of pastoral practice and nearly 40 years of evangelism, I do not find this message to be grounds for a lack of assurance.


Sinning in All Directions

14 September 2021

In conversations about the church’s characteristic sins, I’ve noticed something really interesting. When I talk about the church’s characteristic sins against men, I inevitably get an earful of “Are you kidding? Have you seen what the church does to women?” — the vibe being that the sins against men aren’t really even worth talking about compared to what the church routinely does to women. I’ve also noticed that when I talk about the church’s characteristic sins against women, a smaller but very vocal number of people — mostly single or divorced men — respond in the same fashion: “Are you kidding? Have you seen what the church does to men?”

For some reason we seem to have bought into the idea that the church has to be sinning against men OR women; it couldn’t possibly be doing both. What are we thinking?

What drives this dynamic is the neomarxist class warfare paradigm, which is so deeply entrenched in our culture that even Christians have trouble shaking it — even though, on paper at least, we definitely know better. The neomarxist paradigm provides a handy template for any situation where there’s oppression. If there is oppression against one class (in this case, one sex), then the other class is the “oppressor” class. One has to be on the bottom, and the other on the top; one good guy, one bad guy. It’s a very simplistic way to view the world, a template suited to old Lone Ranger serials for kids. Even in our fiction (say, Avengers: Civil War) we know better than that — to say nothing of the complexities of real life.

In the real world, any single human being is more than capable of sinning in all directions at once. The Church is made up of many, many such humans, and say what you will about her, she’s an able multitasker. She is certainly capable of sinning in all directions at once, and of sinning against multiple different classes in different ways that are specifically injurious to that group.

That has certainly happened, has it not? The Church has treated women, as women, infamously in certain readily identifiable ways. The Church has also treated men, as men, infamously in other readily identifiable ways. We need to repent for ALL of it, and we won’t grow, any of us, by trying to out-victim each other, by minimizing the sins against another group in order to get some attention for our own group.

And lest we forget…WE ARE THE CHURCH. There’s nowhere else to point the finger — it’s us, it’s our people. We are the household of God, and we need to get things in order. So let’s own our failures, repent, and find a better way together.


But Is It Mine To Take?

7 September 2021

“In Christ,” Paul writes to the church at Colosse, “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  Let’s scrape off the Sunday School language for a minute and ask what that means in the real world.  A “treasure” is something well worth having.  Biblically speaking, “wisdom” is skill — it can be skill at a trade, skill at interpersonal relationships, skill at anything.  “Knowledge” is understanding of facts, but biblically it also includes understanding and intimacy with the facts — grasping how they relate to one another.  So “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” means all the skills worth having and all the things worth knowing — and all of them are hidden in Christ.  Every last one.

So what are we to do when we find a pagan claiming that these particular treasures of wisdom and knowledge right here belong to his idols?

Refuse to believe him, of course.  But does that mean that the pagan really doesn’t have treasures of wisdom and knowledge, even though he thinks he does?  That will be the case sometimes,  but often enough he’s got the real thing, courtesy of common grace, and the devil is lying to him about where it came from.  After all, the Canaanites were not living in make-believe houses and harvesting pretend grapes to make imagined wine.  They had the real thing — all gifts from the loving hand of a gracious God, which the devil was only too happy to claim for his own, with the Canaanites’ complicity.

Faced with that situation, the task of God’s people is obvious enough — take those good things back, and return them to their lawful role in service to the Creator.  The devil is not Abraham, and he may not claim territory everywhere he leaves his cloven hoofprints.  It all belongs to Yahweh, every last bit, and we will be taking it back in Yahweh’s name.  This is as true in the New Covenant as it was under the Old: “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ….”  

The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, and we look forward to a day when everybody knows it, and the knowledge of the glory of God covers the earth like water covers the sea.  This is God’s will, and while we wait to see it come to full fruition, we pray for little pieces of it to invade here and now — “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  

That’s the long view, the answer in principle.  However, just because the whole thing belongs to God does not mean we are fit to take it all back right this minute.  Abraham’s family wasn’t ready to inhabit the land during Abraham’s lifetime — hence the centuries-long delay.  Even at Kadesh Barnea, Israel wasn’t ready.  Still filled with fear, they believed the ten spies instead of Joshua and Caleb.  God told them that He would respect their wishes and give the land to their children instead, and then, predictably, they decided they would try to take it after all.  God warned them that He would not go with them, not now, but they tried anyway, and a bunch of them died in the attempt. 

When they finally went in with Joshua, even then God told them that He would drive out the peoples of the land gradually before them, lest the land be overgrown and overrun with wild beasts.  The conquest has its cataclysmic moments like the destruction of Jericho, but it is a process, and the process was always meant to be directed by divine guidance.  It’s God’s territory, and we have to retake it on His timetable, in His way.  

The question is not simply, “Is this God’s?”  The question is, “Is God giving this to me?”  “Is it mine to take?”

***

Prayer Exercise

  1. We all encounter enemy strongholds — in our own lives, in our communities, in the world we live in.  Where are some of the enemy strongholds that you encounter?
  2. God gives us His armor because He means for us to be active in warfare.  Is there a stronghold that God wants you to assault?  
  3. If God gives you a target, don’t assume He wants you to go charging up that hill immediately.  Ask how God wants you to go about it.

Everywhere He Left His Cloven Hoofprints

31 August 2021

When Israel came up from Egypt and went into the Promised Land, they took up residence in a land formerly owned by thoroughgoing pagans.  God’s people lived in houses built by pagans, cultivated fields cleared by pagans, and harvested orchards and vineyards planted by pagans.  Moreover, all these things were dedicated to pagan gods by the previous inhabitants, a fact which seems to have caused Israel no concern at all.

Israel was able to take all these ‘pagan’ things from their previous pagan owners with a clear conscience for the best of all possible reasons:  God told them to go and take the Land.  For some people, it seems odd that God didn’t have them raze everything and start over from scratch, so that they would owe absolutely nothing to the pagans who had held the territory before them.  God had other ideas.

That’s the way it works in the Kingdom of God.  As Solomon put it several centuries later, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous” (Prov. 13:22).  That transfer of inheritance from the wicked Canaanites to righteous Israel came with strict instructions not to get caught up in the various abominations of the peoples of the land, especially their many idolatries.  In fact, although they were allowed to take over the fields, houses, cities and so on, there was one thing Israel was required to destroy absolutely: “You shall burn the carved images of their gods with fire; you shall not covet the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it for yourselves, lest you be snared by it, for it is an abomination to Yahweh your God, nor shall you bring an abomination into your house, lest you be doomed to destruction like it.  You shall utterly detest it and utterly abhor it, for it is an accursed thing” (Deut. 7:25-26).

Burn the idols; don’t even go through the ashes looking for the gold that melted off.  Don’t bring that junk into your house if you don’t want to be destroyed along with it.  It isn’t worth it — set it on fire and walk away.

In order to grasp the lesson here, we have to understand the nature of Canaanite religion.  In the ancient world, there was no separation between religion and the rest of life.  The hearths would be dedicated to the appropriate goddess; the potter’s shop would have been blessed in the name of the patron god of the trade; fertility rites were performed in the farmers’ fields every spring to guarantee a good harvest; every house, in fact, would have its household gods.  Yahweh did not tell Israel to destroy everything that had been consecrated in the name of some pagan deity — they would have had to destroy the very dirt under their feet!  Rather, He told them to destroy the idols themselves, and take everything else as a gift from Him.

What gave Yahweh the right to offer an Israelite family a house devoted to a pagan deity, as if it were His to give?  It really was His to give.  The very heavens and earth are His; there is nothing that He cannot give as a gift.  

In fact, the land was already theirs, because He had already given it to them in principle, centuries earlier.  More than four hundred years before, their father Abraham had walked through Canaan, and God told Him, “Everywhere the sole of your foot touches, I will give you and your descendants.”  The land belonged to Israel for the service of Yahweh, but in the intervening centuries pagans had taken up residence.  With the pagans came idols, and as Paul later told the Corinthians, “An idol is a demon.”  After Abraham, the devil walked the land, claiming it for his own everywhere he left his cloven hoofprints.

But he is the father of lies, and his claims of ownership were lies, too.

***

Discussion

  1. During their centuries-long task of retaking pagan territory, Israel failed often.  What were the temptations that troubled them?  How might those same temptations trouble us today?
  2. Do you think it’s really possible to take back “enemy territory” and remain faithful to God?
  3. If so, what areas do you see that are “enemy territory” and need to be taken back?  Is there a particular area that you feel called to retake?

Is Secular Safe?

24 August 2021

We have largely succeeded at sanitizing the public square of overt religious references, such that an American Christian can go about his daily life and not be assailed by assertions of Islamic faith, or reminders of religious Daoism, or Hindu deities. In this largely sanitized space lies a subtle temptation.

The temptation is to think that there is a “plain vanilla” way to engage life where one’s religion really doesn’t matter.  You can get the basics of life down, no matter what your religious thoughts might happen to be, and then add in your religion like a condiment on a hamburger.  Some people like ketchup; some people like cheese; in Australia they serve it with a slice of beet (for real!)  Takes all kinds….

This secular approach has a certain amount of street-level credibility.  You change the oil on a Camry the same way whether you’re an atheist, a Christian, or a Zoroastrian.  It’s not as if you turn the nut to the right if you’re Jewish and to the left if you’re Muslim, right?

That’s true as far as it goes, but we need to ask why Muslims and Jews both have to turn the nut the same way.  Why is it that everybody has to change the oil the same way no matter what religion they are?  Why is the world the same for everybody?

Because there is some way of understanding the world that really does go all the way down, and everybody has to bend to it.  The question is, what is it?

When we secularize the public spaces in the name of “neutrality,” we are not in fact being neutral.  We are behaving as if physical reality is all there is, and religion is a fun idea you can layer on top of “real” reality if it helps you somehow.  We are acting as if that is the understanding of the world that goes all the way down.

But it isn’t.

Faced with a secular environment, whether it is in in a gym, a karate dojo, or as mundane a setting as a grocery store, American Christians feel as if there is nothing wrong.  We have forgotten the exhortation that Paul gave us: “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”

We are Christians; we seek to live in such a way that every part of our lives is in submission to the Lordship of Christ.  We acknowledge no secular practice of anything at all.

***

Prayer Exercises

  1. It is easy for us to fall prey to a secular world-and-life view because expressions of it are all around us, and after a while we begin to believe it.  Ask God to reveal any areas of your life where you have begun to believe this lie.  Wait in silence to see what He will reveal to you.
  2. In any area that comes to your attention, confess the lie you have begun to believe, and ask God to show you the truth in that area of your life.  Wait to see what He will say to you, but also remain attentive over the coming weeks.  The answer may come in the form of a thought, an interaction with another person, an event, or something else.  Be willing to listen and see what God will do.
  3. Ask God to show you any strongholds in your own life, or in your community’s life, that need to be pulled down, any thoughts that need to be brought into subjection to Christ.

Cops AND Robbers

17 August 2021

When I was a kid back in the day, we used to play “cops and robbers.” One group would be the cops, and the other group would be the robbers. In the grown-up world, there’s — how to put this delicately? — a certain amount of overlap.

I’m not particularly interested here in the single officer that goes bad and pockets a bunch of cash from a drug bust, or some such. That needs to be dealt with, of course, but that’s just ordinary human sinfulness. The temptations come with the job; screen how you will, every now and again someone yeilds to the temptations. It’s the same in any profession.

It’s different when there’s a major incentive to sin built into the system. That’s not just ordinary temptation; that’s an extraordinary problem that calls for decisive action. Civil forfeiture is just such a problem, and it has got to go.

It’s important to grasp the difference between civil and criminal forfeiture. In criminal forfeiture, the accused — innocent until proven guilty — must first be convicted of a crime by a jury of his peers. After conviction, the prosecution can seek to confiscate the proceeds of the crime. That is holy and just and good; the criminal must not be allowed to profit from his crime.

Civil forfeiture is another matter altogether. In civil forfeiture, no conviction is necessary. The person isn’t accused of anything directly; the property itself is accused of being proceeds of a crime. Why accuse the property instead of the person, you ask? Because property is not innocent until proven guilty.

So the officer can make up a story in his head about where this particular car, wad of cash, etc. came from, and then confiscate it on the basis of the story in his head. He will write up an affidavit to justify his actions, and if the rightful owner wants his property back, he will have to prove that the officer’s story is wrong. Backwards, you say? Even illegal? Sure, it would be — if the officer were accusing the person of anything. People are innocent until proven guilty. People have to stand trial and be convicted. But in a legal maneuver worthy of the Pharisees, the accusation is technically against the property, not the person. Property is not innocent until proven guilty. The gold sanctifies the altar, as it were.

Civil forfeiture is a direct (and frankly, transparent) violation of the Fourth Amendment. It is illegal, which is an important observation for Christian resistance. That’s a discussion for another day, because there’s a prior concern: civil forfeiture is sin. Even if it were entirely legal under the laws of the land, it is a violation of the laws of God, specifically the Eighth Commandment. It is stealing, plain and simple.

The officer who initiates the forfeiture is a thief, taking that which does not belong to him, justifying his theft with a story he made up in his head. The property clerk who receives the stolen goods into his custody is committing the same crime that any fence commits. The chain of command that condones the officer’s actions and any judge who approves of it — thieves, the lot of them. The fact that their jurisdictions have conspired to pretend the theft is legal doesn’t make it right; it just implicates the voters in the theft as well.

This is one of the things we have church discipline for, and in jurisdictions where civil forfeiture is going on, churches should be exercising it.

For further information, read Policing for Profit.


We’re the Weird Ones (Part 2)

10 August 2021

In the first “We’re the Weird Ones” post, we looked at the way we tend to assume something is normal because our culture does it, and how we often think that what is “normal” is right.  As we broaden our view beyond the provincial culture of our historical moment and begin to look at other places and other times, there are some temptations waiting for us.

When we realize that our culture is out of step with pretty much everybody, everywhere on an issue, most of us are easy prey for one of two temptations.  Either we assume that we must be wrong, or we assume that everybody who came before us is an idiot, we got it right, and the people who are still doing it the old way are backward and behind the times.  To put labels on these, the first one is simple peer pressure applied on a grand scale, and the second one is modernism.

The peer pressure temptation is familiar to all of us.  We want to fit in, to do what everybody else is doing.  To apply it on a grand scale, all we need is a stack of anthropological studies telling us what most of the human race does, and then follow the crowd.

On the surface, the modernist temptation resembles a proper Christian response to peer pressure.  Rather than caving in, the modernist seeks not to conform, but to transform himself.  We are not made to undertake transformation without divine help, and without that help the modernist finds himself unable to simply grow from the past into the future in a natural way.  Instead, the modernist must resort to a paroxysm, a violent break with the past.  He wants to make all things new, in his own image — and quickly.  The modernist says that there’s a better way, that those who have come before are benighted and backward.  He throws out the past without a second glance.

The modernist seeks a new world, but not the same new world as the Christian.  The Christian seeks a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.  The modernist seeks a city of his own making, where he can make a name for himself — which is to say he is building Babel, not the New Jerusalem.  Although we associate the modernist impulse with with relatively recent times — hence the name — there is nothing new under the sun.  Modernists are in fact succumbing to a very old temptation: the ancient sin of father-hatred.  

As a society, we have lived with modernism for enough generations to see a third temptation arise.  Some people would call it a feature of postmodernism; others would call it an “ancient future” approach.  By either name, what we are seeing is a recognition that our modernist fathers destroyed and abandoned many good things in their war on the past.  Sadly, when we attempt to address this issue without divine help, we revisit the habits of our pre-modern grandfathers as a way of rebelling against our modernist fathers.  We end up exactly like our fathers: they rejected their fathers, and we in turn commit the same sin.  The problem with rebellion is that you can’t compartmentalize it; once you let it in, it leaks all over everything.  Consequently, we don’t really submit to the ways of our earlier forebears any more than we submit to our fathers.  Rather, we walk down the anthropological and archaeological smorgasbord and take a little of this, a little of that, and bit more of a third thing — whatever happens to suit us at the time.  The modernist tries to build the world in his own image by rejecting the past, and the postmodernist tries to custom-build his own life as a collage of bits and pieces of the past, but both of them place themselves in rebellious judgment over their fathers.

But we are Christians; we are citizens of a kingdom whose capital city is in heaven.  In that future city, the New Jerusalem, Jesus will perfectly honor His Father, and so we too are called to honor the fathers that God has providentially given to us.  At our moment in history, we are inheriting several generations of father-hatred, so there is no way out of this without repentance.  We must repent of our culture’s endemic father-hatred, and we must return to proper honor of our fathers — all our fathers.  They are imperfect to be sure, but in God’s providence they are a repository of wisdom that we are called to heed.  We may not simply cut ourselves free, modernist-fashion, and reject everything that came before us.  Nor may we treat the wisdom of the ages as if we are above it all, and it is just a smorgasbord from which we may pick and choose, as the postmodern or ancient-future folks would do.  We must submit to the wisdom of our fathers, at the same time testing what they tell us against the counsel of God, because “There is no wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel, against Yahweh.” 

So we require a discerning vision of the past and a sanctified imagination of the future.  “What is everybody else doing?” is the wrong question; the question is “What is God doing, and how can I be part of it?”  The answer to that question starts with the story of a coming new world whose capital is the New Jerusalem, a city that is literally heaven on earth. God is bringing heaven to earth, and He calls us to pray for it (“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”) and to be the present reflection of it, the sign that it is coming — and to reflect both the newness of the New Jerusalem and its culture of father-honor.  Frankly, this is an impossible task; the flesh simply cannot do it. But in living relationship with God, all things are possible for those who believe.

***

Prayer Exercises

  1. It’s easy to talk about trends of whole societies without bringing it down to personal practice.  We cannot repent of societal father-hatred if we do not first repent of personal father-hatred; this is a case where the personal really is political.  Ask God if there are personal sins for you to repent of before you try to go any further.  If He brings something to mind, deal with it.
  2. Having addressed personal sins, you’re ready to ask God about the sins of the society you live in.  Don’t ask about “the sins of our culture” in the abstract.  Ask God to show you places in your own life where you have assimilated the sins of the culture.  As God reveals these areas to you, accept your cultural identity, confess the sins of your culture, renounce the sin, and ask God to heal the damage that you have done to yourself through the sin.  Ask Him to guide and guard you as you learn to live differently.

We’re the Weird Ones

3 August 2021

In Kissimmee, Florida, in 1993, I took my first college counseling class.  On the very first day, the instructor stood up and said, “We are going to talk about how families work in this class, and at some point we will be talking about some dysfunction, and you will want to say, ‘That’s totally normal.  My family did it.’  You have to understand, that is not an argument.  It seems normal to you because that’s how you grew up, but that doesn’t make it right, or healthy, or even normal.”

Considered in the abstract, I thought that was an insightful point.  About three weeks later when I caught myself in the middle of an argument with those very words on the tip of my tongue, it seemed like some kind of a trick.  Of course what I grew up with was normal!

But no.  It is possible that other people are normal and I am the weird one.

As with individuals and families, so with cultures.  A culture can be weird in some respects, and we should expect that in some respects, we are the weird ones.

For example, through the history of the world, standards of physical attractiveness trend toward wide hips in women and a certain amount of fat in both genders.  Why?  Because the wide hips indicate a good capacity for bearing children, and the extra fat indicates prosperity.  In the West today, our standards of feminine attractiveness run to rib-counting skinny, and even our standard of masculine beauty involves almost no body fat.  Let’s not get into arguing about who is right; the point is just that virtually no culture in the history of humanity agrees with us about this — we are the weird ones.

Similarly, how we find a mate is plainly out of step with the mainstream of human society.  In the West, we see our way of finding and choosing a mate as better, because it gives people the freedom to choose their own mate.  In most cultures through most of history, it was understood that kids of marriageable age were morons who knew nothing about picking a mate, and matches were made by the parents and extended family.  Viewed from that perspective, the Western way amounts to familial neglect at a critical moment when the child needs the family’s support.  They would no more let an 18-year-old pick his own wife than they would set a 2-year-old loose in the jungle to find his own food — they would say neither one is equipped to make an intelligent choice.  Again, the point is not to argue who is right or wrong, but just to notice that what we find ‘normal’ is in fact highly unusual — we are the weird ones.

In an earlier post, we talked about the isolation that is so common in our society now.  Just a few decades ago most people knew their neighbors, and could rely on them for small things like a cup of sugar or help raking the leaves.  Today, it’s often considered normal not to know the names of the people who live across the street or two houses down.  This isolation is new even for us, and is practically unheard of in the history of humanity.  Showing up at your neighbor’s door unannounced, asking for a half-cup of flour, is socially awkward today — but that kind of community support is the norm in human history.  Again, we’re the weird ones.

In fact, we are the weird ones in a whole series of instances.  We are the only slaveholding culture in the world ever to willingly give up slavery on the grounds of the golden rule.  (“As I would not want to be a slave, so I would not be a master,” as Lincoln put it.)  We are nearly the only culture in the world to punish wife-beating or spousal rape as crimes in themselves.  We have criminalized polygamy, which again puts us in the minority.  (For a book-length description of our weirdness, see Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday.)

In any given case, the fact that our culture is weird does not mean that we are wrong.  Arguably, the New Jerusalem will be the ultimate outlier culture, at many points radically different from anything that has preceded it in the history of humanity — but of course, the New Jerusalem’s culture will be designed and implemented by God Himself and His perfected saints.  No Christian would argue that because the New Jerusalem is weird, it is therefore wrong.

All this to say that what our culture does, is simply what our culture does.  It is not necessarily right or wrong, normal or abnormal — it just happens to be the way we do it.  This is important because like neophyte counseling students that assume their family of origin was right and normal, we tend to assume that our culture is right and normal, and then use our culture’s way of doing things as the measure of what is reasonable and attainable.  That will not do.  God often calls us to be countercultural.  “That’s weird” does not mean “We can’t do it.”  Maybe we can.  Maybe we should.  And maybe it’s not even really that weird — maybe it’s normal and we’re the weird ones.

***

Discussion Questions

  1. This post discussed several ways in which our culture is weird.  Can you think of three more ways we are weird?  Are those things right or wrong?
  2. Have you ever traveled outside your own culture or country?  What were some things that seemed normal to them but very strange to you?
  3. Is God calling you to do something that would seem weird in our culture?  What could you do this week to begin obeying God’s call?

Of Pink Hair and Yoga

27 July 2021

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to observe a kerfluffle caused by a seminary professor issuing blanket condemnations of yoga practice from the pulpit. A few years later, I had the opportunity to observe another kerfluffle in another group caused by a pastor issuing a blanket condemnation of pink hair based on 1 Timothy. (For your amusement and edification, links to the latter are below. We’ve had the discussion of yoga elsewhere.)

I teach my students to pay careful attention to such controversies, including some that are well outside your own community and in which you have no particular stake. There’s a lot to learn from observing the conversations, both in terms of thinking through the positions and from noticing how people interact with one another. These situations give rise to a near-universal set of temptations, and it’s easier to notice how the temptations work when you are not particularly tempted. If you pay careful attention, you greatly improve your chances of correctly diagnosing your own temptations later on, when it’s your controversy.

There is always someone who wants to claim that Scripture simply doesn’t apply to these situations. That’s silly — Scripture applies to everything. Arguing that someone has misapplied a Bible passage is one thing; arguing that the passage ought never be applied is something else entirely. There’s a wide difference between the two.

That said, establishing that this verse makes that particular point is hard work, and we should come having done that work, and prepared to demonstrate it to everyone’s satisfaction. On the negative of the debate, it’s entirely permissible to argue “This text doesn’t say that!” but it is not permissible to stop there. We should want to know what it does say, and how to apply it properly. The goal is always a faithful, obedient response.

Making a claim like “1 Timothy forbids pink hair” or “1 Corinthians 8 forbids practicing yoga” is not just a matter of exegeting the text of Scripture. It’s also a matter of correctly exegeting the culture. Cultural exegesis is tricky business. It can be hard for us to see our own culture clearly; doubly so when the speaker may be immersed in a subcultural bubble that his hearers are not part of. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle the job — exegeting the culture is absolutely necessary. It just meant that cultural exegesis calls for the same kind of careful validation that biblical exegesis does — and that is not something they teach well in seminary.

The whole conversation goes better if you can correctly identify where you actually agree, and exactly where the disagreement lies. It’s entirely possible to agree on the biblical exegesis, and still have well-founded differences in the way you read the culture.

Some of those differences may be highly context-dependent. A particular act or way of speaking may send a very different message on the Jersey Shore than it would send in Charleston or Birmingham, and different again in Denver or Los Angeles…to say nothing of Dubai, Jakarta, or Shanghai. There’s a temptation to provincialism wherein we think that what an action means is what it would mean to me, right here, in my setting. This is particularly an issue when you’re having an online discussion.

Because we are seeking to stir one another up to love and good works, there is a certain kind of ad hominem that is not a fallacy. Someone really can object to a valid biblical application because of their own sin and/or spiritual cluelessness, and it is not out of order to say so. Jesus did, regularly.

At the same time, as a working pastor, I have learned to be extraordinarily suspicious of myself when I begin to feel that anyone who disagrees with me on a particular issue is simply revealing their own cluelessness or sin. There are many cases where that approach is a demonstration of pastoral autonomy and pride, and as the old sage said, that goeth before something unpleasant.

These are high-stakes conversations. On the one hand, a certain amount of suspicion of established authorities is required: “let no one subject you to regulations.” On the other hand, there really are cases where — however hubristic it might appear to say so — it is actually the case that anyone who disagrees is demonstrating their own sin or cluelessness. For example, I think it is vile to dismember a baby in utero for the convenience of the mother. It is viler yet to hawk the murdered child’s organs and exploit them; that’s effectively necromancy. I you disagree, I am prepared to insist that you are demonstrating your own sin and/or cluelessness. Accuse me of hubris all you like; I’m not backing off this one.

In the discussion below, Sumpter and Wilson are concerned to resist the human drive toward total autonomy, and one of the central places that drive expresses itself in our age is in gender confusions of various kinds. God made His image male and female, but we have sought out many schemes. Sumpter and Wilson are — as good pastors — interested not just in opposing sin in principle, but opposing it in practice where it matters. That means that they are not just going to fight the sin when it has become so obvious that anyone (you know, outside a major Christian publishing house) can see it. They are correctly concerned to fight the sin at the edges, in the little compromises that lull the faithful into bigger compromises down the road. Littlejohn is concerned that Sumpter and Wilson have over-exegeted innocuous actions as implying some larger sin, and are unlawfully binding the consciences of their congregants.

All these folks are concerned to obey God and love their fellow believers. All of this is holy and just and good…but who is right?

That, dear reader, I leave for you to mull over on your own. Here are the posts (all from 2017):

Pink Hair and Boys Wearing Girls’ Underwear – Toby Sumpter – April 18

Pink Hair and the Love of Christ – Toby Sumpter – April 21

The Coronation of the Infantile – Doug Wilson – April 21

When You Paint the Barn – Doug Wilson – April 22

On Binding Consciences – Brad Littlejohn – April 24

How Liberty of Conscience Looks in Yoga Pants – Doug Wilson – April 25

The Perilous Business of Pastoring – Brad Littlejohn – April 25

Poodle Skirts as Ruination – Doug Wilson – April 26


Music Under the Sun

24 July 2021

Listen.

When your friends talk, listen.

It’s amazing what you can hear.

We sometimes labor under the “you gotta get ’em lost before you can get ’em saved” mentality. We think of “getting ’em lost” as this enormously tricky task.

Listen.

You know what the real problem is, far more often than not? We listen a little, hear things we don’t want to hear, and stop listening. And yeah, if you’re unwilling to keep listening, caring for your friends is gonna be tricky.

Diamante just came out with a new album called American Dream not too long ago. I’m going to stop short of recommending it, but I will say this: if you listen, and listen well, you’re not just going to hear a bunch of things you don’t want to (although there is that).

You’ll also hear the cheap thrills of American Dream, the title cut, crash and burn into Obvious. If that doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what would.

And from that place, when you can hear that and not move away, you’re ready to care for your friends.