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.

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.

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….

No Coffee in Israel

14 March 2023

My latest article is up at Theopolis. Have a look!

All They Got Was Lunch

21 February 2023

When I talk about community pastoral work with other believers, there’s one question I get more than any other. It’s not how to prepare, what books to read, or how to evaluate seminary choices. It’s not what to say to a new widow, or how to be at the bedside when someone is in their last hours. As they hear the stories of what God is doing — the alcoholic that got sober and is working toward a senior shotput championship, the single mom that needed new tires, the felon that designed my first business card, the young lady punishing her own sins by serving as as the sexual plaything of a malevolent man, the gay man who’s frustrated by his progressive friends’ unwillingness to actually do anything to improve the city, while the Christians are working their fingers to the bone — almost every single person has the same question: where do you find these people?

I never know what to say.

I know the literal answers: the severe weather shelter, a failing coffee shop, the cafe on the corner, a local massage therapy school, a church that’s focused on meeting the needs of the homeless population. But that’s not what they’re asking, is it?

They’re asking where I find this special class of people that are ready and waiting to be ministered to, as if there were some secret place to find them. And that’s absolutely the wrong question. It’s not where I’m looking; it’s how I’m looking. Lost people are everywhere; the harvest is heartbreakingly plentiful.

Jesus once taught this exact lesson. He was taking the Twelve through Samaritan country, and they had to stop to buy food. Jews have no dealings with Samaritans if they can help it; I’m sure it made a bit of a splash when an obviously diverse group of twelve Jewish men walked through town. How many people did they walk past to get to the market? Five? A dozen? Two dozen? How many merchants did they interact with to buy what they needed? How many people did they pass on their way back out to the well?

Of course, you know the story: while they’d been in town, Jesus accosted a lone woman who came out to the well to draw water in the heat of the day. She believed in Him, and when the disciples came out, she went back into the village to tell everyone about the Man she’d met by the well. As the inhabitants of the town began to come out toward the well, Jesus tells His disciples — with, it seems, some irony — that they should pray for God to sent laborers into the harvest, because the harvest is so plentiful.

Don’t miss this point: the harvest Jesus is talking about is the population of the town He’d just sent the disciples into.

Jesus had one shot at interacting with one person, and He got the whole town out to the well. The disciples walked past who knows how many people passing through town to market, interacted with the merchants, and walked back through town on their way out, and all they got was lunch. They were there, but not as harvesters. They weren’t on task.

Where did Jesus find all these people? They were there the whole time.

Better question: what did Jesus do differently? A little further into the story, He tells us: “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am, and that I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things.” (John 8:28)

The harvest is right in front of you. Listen. Listen to them. Listen to God. Say and do what He tells you. I promise you, the Lord of the Harvest knows how to send you as a harvester.

Not Against It

14 February 2023

Last night, a client asked me why I’m drawn to pastoral work with homeless folks. I’ve been asked this many times, and there’s usually a genre expectation: people expect me to tell a story where I was once homeless myself, or a homeless guy’s generosity changed my life, or where I failed to help someone who later died, or a “lightning rod moment” when God gave me a special burden for the homeless population, or some such thing. (None of that is even close to true, by the way.)

The assumption behind the question is that ministry to homeless folks is uniquely hard, and unless you have some kind of special calling to that population, you couldn’t or wouldn’t do it.

The truth is rather more mundane: I’m not against it.

I know that sounds odd, but think about it this way: there’s a seminary just down the road full of students aspiring to “the professional ministry.” Guarantee you, very few of them are looking forward to a ministry that involves hugging someone whose last bath was 2 weeks ago at the sink in a Burger King bathroom. They’re looking for church jobs in the well-heeled suburbs. Most of them are realistic enough to know they aren’t going to waltz into a senior pastor gig first thing; they expect to pay their dues. They’ll start out as youth pastors, or associate pastors at a small church, before moving up to the mid-size churches. Some of them will be happy to stay there; others aspire to the megachurch, where there’s an on-site nursery and day care for the employees’ kids. Others are angling more toward a Ph.D. and a career in academia; still others for positions in publishing.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that, of course. We need books and professors and churches in the ‘burbs; there’s good work to be done there. But the point is, serving the homeless population is simply not on their maps as something one might do. Of course they know, at an intellectual level, that some people do that kind of work, but it’s never seriously occurred to them that they might do it.

And so, mostly, they won’t. They’ll continue to think of the default “ministry position” as a full-time staff position at a mid-sized suburban church, and caring for the homeless as an exotic burden specially gifted to other people. Some of them will think that we are losers — the ones who failed to make the cut for the cushier jobs. Others will think we’re especially dedicated. But neither is true. Me, I’ve no special calling or exotic gift for homeless ministry. But neither am I possessed of the delusion that such a thing is necessary. It’s just feeding Christ’s sheep and loving the lost.

Which ones? The ones He put in front of me. Who’d He put in front of you?

Drane, Rao, and Mabry

13 December 2022

My latest piece, “The End of Premium Mediocre Church,” is up over at Theopolis. Enjoy!

Mediocre Coffee and Cheap Donuts

22 November 2022

In Acts 2, Peter preaches that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ. When they ask “What do we do?” it’s because they believe what Peter said. If they didn’t believe him that Jesus is Messiah, then there’s no need to ask for instructions. Then Peter gives the instructions: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

Does this mean everybody needs to get dunked to go to heaven? Some people have thought so. Others have tried to engineer some kind of special circumstance for this audience that would no longer apply today: they were under the unique curse of blaspheming the Holy Spirit; the baptism is required because they crucified the Messiah; they were in a transitional dispensational period; baptism was for Jews, not Gentiles, etc.

But no; no special pleading is required. But you do need a robust biblical theology of baptism. If baptism is the New Covenant analog of the Flood (as Peter will later write in 1 Peter 3:21), then baptism delivers you from the judgment that is coming upon the wicked world, and delivers you into a new one, just like the Flood did with Noah. That’s not some transitional/dispensationally unique item for this moment in Acts; that’s just what baptism does.

For these specific people in Acts 2 (who were lately shouting “Give us Barabbas!”), the judgment they have coming is about crucifying the Messiah, sure. But it’s not as if (say) the Ephesian Gentiles Paul preached to didn’t have their own judgment to deal with: they “were by nature children of wrath” until God saved them. There’s always plenty judgment to go around, and the consequences of sin are always deadly (cf. James 1).

For the Acts 2 Jerusalemites, the water baptism was the Christian community in Jerusalem receiving them into itself. If they heeded the warnings of Hebrews, baptism saved their lives, because when the Jewish revolt began, the Christian community fled the city, correctly believing Jesus’ promise that it would be destroyed. If they did not heed the warnings of Hebrews and returned to Judaism, then they were swept up in the revolt and–as promised in Hebrews–suffered a fate far worse than stoning.

For the Ephesians, and for us, baptism joins us to the Christian community. For most evangelicals, that really means nothing, because most evangelicals have no community to speak of, and therefore nothing to join. It would be a mistake to read that defect in our praxis into our theology. Our sin in this matter is entirely foreign to the New Testament. The life of the Body in the NT is a thick, substantial, literally life-saving community, and that’s the backdrop for this text.

Live like the heathens outside the community, and all the judgments that fall on the heathens outside the community will fall on you: “because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience; therefore do not be partakers with them.” Join the community and come under its discipline and rule of life, and you get to skip all that. Baptism admits you to the community (just as excommunication excludes you from it.)

Take Carlos for example: when I met him, Carlos was living on the street, addicted to anything that would numb him out. He’d been badly hurt, and he’d done a lot of damage to other people too, and he was running from all of it. I led him to Christ, and then found out he was suicidal, and I’d just helped him be sure he’d go to heaven. (That’ll do something for your prayer life!) A local fellowship he was already somewhat hanging out with baptized him, and when he really joined in Christian fellowship, God’s people supported him in kicking his addictions, finding a job, finding housing, getting a vehicle. Last time he came by, I hardly recognized him, he looked so good.

Meanwhile, Jimmy OD’ed on heroin in a Burger King bathroom, another guy froze to death, another guy was murdered for a sleeping bag or something similarly stupid…you get the idea. Christian fellowship saved Carlos’ life. Real sharing of life, not standing around after church and lying to other middle-class suburbanites about your week over mediocre coffee and cheap donuts.

I know that sounds harsh. The reality is harsh. Because we refuse to share life with one another, we deprive each other of the life-giving support the Body is supposed to provide. We can’t obey the “one anothers” if we don’t really spend time together, and obeying the “one anothers” is an essential part of the Christian life. Without it, we live subchristian lives. When our fake fellowship fails to yield benefits–as of course it will–we end up with an anemic view of the community, and therefore an equally anemic view of what baptism accomplishes by bringing someone into it.

Without the Glue

8 November 2022

Back in college, I was part of a “cell church.” The idea was that the actual church meeting was the small-group meeting that happened during the week, where we shared a meal and spent time discussing how to apply the Bible to our lives. The Sunday morning gathering, where all the cells came together (in our case, in a rented synagogue), was not the church meeting proper, but a time of celebration and teaching. The goal was to get a little closer to the kind of church life we see in Acts 2, and it worked…we got a little closer.

Over the next couple decades, I had a variety of formative influences, and I grew as a Christian, but I never really learned how to disciple effectively. I learned how to teach effectively. Every attempt to make disciples devolved into teaching, and while teaching is part of the task — a necessary part — it’s not the whole job. I knew I was missing something, and didn’t know what, or how to get it.

Moving to Englewood, Colorado, changed that. Here, the local pastors gather monthly and pray for one another and the One Church in Englewood (which happens to meet in separate buildings). One of the older men in the group, a Dutch Reformed pastor named Dave, took several of us under his wing. Over the next couple years, Dave taught us to disciple effectively, and also pitched the concept of missional community: a spiritual extended family on mission together, as it were.

Now, most of the writing around missional communities at that time wanted to market it as some exciting new move of God, which didn’t make any sense. To the extent that there was a solid New Testament case for something like it–and there clearly was, in the first-century oikos–the missional community obviously couldn’t be new. Certainly there was a New Testament case for making disciples; that was hardly some exotic new move of God; it was Christianity 101.

And yet, the North American church, desperate for effective interventions in the culture, was doing everything but that. If we total up all the time, talent, energy, money, etc. that the churches were expending — a sort of ecclesiastical equivalent to the GNP — we’ll find that the vast majority of the Gross Church Product goes into things that really have nothing to do with making disciples. That being the case, the great need was and is simple repentance: We have occupied ourselves with secondary things at the expense of our primary mission. Time to get back to it.

No shortage of ink has been spilled on that particular subject, so I won’t belabor it here, except to say this: in the intervening decade or so, nearly every “missional community” I’ve seen, heard about, or been part of, has fizzled out, stagnated, or fallen back into being a standard-issue church small group (not necessarily a bad thing to be, but hardly the heady vision were were sold, is it?). Not coincidentally, there’s a significant difference between the first-century Christian oikos and the twenty-first century missional community that is supposedly emulating it. Joining a twenty-first century missional community was a boutique lifestyle choice. The members’ survival needs were attended to elsewhere; missional community was a leisure-time activity.

The preindustrial oikos was not a choice; it was a survival strategy. In the preindustrial oikos, members spent their days working shoulder to shoulder to care for one another and serve their larger community in ways that generated income for the oikos — whether they were making purple dye like Lydia’s household in Philippi or bringing fish to market like Simon Peter’s in Capernaum. An oikos like Lydia’s and Peter’s got transformed into an engine for mission when its members came to Jesus, of course, but that was never its only purpose. The preindustrial oikos was how people survived. Your oikos was not just a social club; it was your job, your living arrangements, your educational system, your medical care, and your retirement plan, all rolled into one. You couldn’t opt out of your oikos without cutting your own lifeline.

When we tried to replace the preindustrial oikos with a social club devoted to serving a particular group of people–however noble the cause–it overwhelmingly failed. Of course it did! We were trying to have an oikos without the glue that holds an oikos together.