Practical Unity

9 March 2018

I want to speak a little on practical unity.

You reap what you sow. If you sow constant conflict about ever-finer distinctions, you reap that. If you sow into the little common ground you have, you reap more common ground — some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred-fold.

I haven’t given up on doctrinal precision. I still talk theology with people, and I still seek to come to one mind with my brothers and sisters as we can — which is our Christian duty (Phil. 2:1-4). But I find that tangibly loving each other while we work together is the context within which those conversations happen productively.

“I’ll work with you if we can come to agreement on doctrine” is an approach that has not profited those who have been occupied with it. Scripture teaches us to notice that. (Hebrews 13:9)

I find it fascinating how often theological conservatives respond to my pro-untiy sentiment by tossing out a scenario like “What if a liberal lesbian Methodist minister who thinks Jesus is just a good moral teacher wants to work with you?”

It’s a good question, and it’s come up every now and again. The answer is that it depends on what we’re doing. Volunteering for the Chamber of Commerce golf tournament? No problem. Lobbying the city to get off our backs and let us feed homeless folks at the park? Sure. Introduce people to Jesus together? Of course not — we’re not talking about the same person. She’s talking about a Ghandi-type figure, and I’m talking about the Lord of the Universe in flesh.

But this isn’t an issue that crops up often, and I find it fascinating how often conservatives will use this supposed “nightmare scenario” (which isn’t that hard to deal with, actually—it’s just an awkward conversation) to avoid driving 4 blocks to establish a relationship with the historically orthodox church right down the street. They won’t take the low-hanging fruit, for fear that if we start picking, there might be a rotten apple in the upper branches. So there might, and we’ll handle that when we get to it.

But in day to day reality, there’s plenty of people who know and love the same Jesus we do — they baptize babies (or not), believe in real presence at the Lord’s Table (or not), expect a pretrib rapture (or not), celebrate Lent (or don’t celebrate Christmas, as the case may be), think too highly of Calvin, whatever. But they are our brothers and sisters, and we know it. We refuse to meet them, learn their names, start tangibly loving them…why?


Covering Grace

17 November 2017

It’s not possible to learn a craft—-any craft—without messing up. Whether it’s shoe-shining or surgery, you’re going to make mistakes. And how! So what do you do when you’re in ministry? You’re elbow-deep in people’s lives, at the moments when they’re in deepest pain. You represent God. When you make a mistake, people get hurt — badly. They get a false view of God and other people that can impact them for years to come. You can’t afford to make those kinds of mistakes. Right?

Wrong. That is a lie from the enemy, designed to paralyze you into inaction.

God knows better than anyone that you can’t learn anything without making some mistakes. And He has planned, from eternity past, for your mistakes. He loves the people you work with and minister to, just as much as He loves you. He’s got them, just like He’s got you. This isn’t an excuse to be lazy or a reason to shortcut your preparation. Your diligence is definitely required, or you won’t get better at your craft.

But God has not given us a spirit of fear. Don’t refuse to practice your craft because you’re afraid. Get out there. Do your work. Rest on the grace of God that covers you. Trust Him. He’s got you, and everyone around you. Trust and obey.

Not That Simple

10 November 2017

I was talking recently with a friend about the differences between the way I used to prepare people for ministry (back when I was working in a seminary) versus the way I do it now. The biggest difference by far is the degree of experiential learning I insist on. We aren’t just going to learn about the Lordship of Christ; we’re going to put it to work by seeking to hear what He has to say to us and obeying, by praying for the world to come into submission to His will, by sending demons packing.

That focus on experiential learning does many things. It weeds out the people who want to be hearers, but not doers. It inculcates a great reverence for the truth, because we see it set us and others free in practice. But it also forces us to come to grips with the messy business of real application, which is frequently a lot harder than discussions in seminary classrooms make it sound.


In the seminary classroom, the prevailing questions would be “What is right?” or “What is true?” — both outstanding questions for a Christian to ask. But for many students, there was also a prevailing assumption that once those questions were properly answered, the proper course of action would be obvious. Well…not so much. Other students had a persistent case of the what-ifs: they could spin out endless scenarios that impossibly complicated any discussion of application. For both these problems, the solution is actual application to a particular situation.

For example, several years ago I was involved in an online forum for survivors of a particularly abusive group of churches. Many of these survivors posted anonymously because they were terrified of reprisals against themselves and their families. Meanwhile, active members of the churches in question would periodically come on the forum to defend their pastors, and would routinely challenge the anonymous posters to approach the pastors directly in line with the guidelines of Mt. 18, to identify themselves, and so on.

How are we to think about this?

In a way, the church members were obviously right. The Matthew 18 guidelines for conflict resolution must be adhered to; they are not merely a suggestion. And how about the golden rule? Would the anonymous posters want someone to post anonymous accusations about them on a public forum for the whole internet-connected world to read?

Moreover, there is no biblical precedent at all for anonymous accusations, and why would there be? The whole point is to bring about resolution of the conflict, and that can’t happen as long as the accuser remains anonymous, can it?

So that settles it, yes?

Not so fast…

First of all, for a number of these anonymous folks, the Matthew 18 standards had been tried. When they approached the pastor about his transgressions alone, he abused them and then lied to others about the conversation. He had his congregation so fooled, or so cowed, that for the most part nobody was willing to accompany the offended party to confront him a second time. As for telling it to the church…forget it.

Secondly, let’s look at the Golden Rule again. Suppose you had been brutalized by such a pastor, and suppose, broken and battered, you spoke up about it, only to incur further abuse and reprisals. Suppose you discover an internet forum where you can talk with fellow victims, receive some help and validation, and begin to heal, a place where you can speak freely without reprisal, because nobody would know who you were. Would you want that chance? Thought so. So why would you deny it to someone else?

Let us not forget, too, that there is a biblical example of speaking publicly to this sort of failure and abuse in a pastor’s ministry — III John. John the Apostle is more than willing to speak frankly in his letter about Diotrephes’ character, and also promises to address the problem more directly when he comes in person.

So the whole picture is a bit more complicated. Of course it is true that reconciliation can only happen if both parties are at the table, and neither one is hiding behind a cloak of online anonymity. And of course it is true that reconciliation is desirable. But reconciliation is not the only thing at stake here. Battered sheep need wound care. They need time in the spiritual hospital. That healing cannot happen in silence. The wounds need to be addressed in community with fellow believers.

What this means in practice is that the anonymous party will probably end up telling his story more than once. As a battered sheep who is simply trying to heal, he can share it anonymously and get some help. As he recovers and becomes, not just a battered sheep, but a Christian soldier prepared to do battle with wolves, he will tell the story again — but this time he will identify himself, give specific names and dates, and handle the reprisals as the cost of doing business. The goal with a battered sheep is to grow him into a Christian warrior. But growth takes time, and we have to start him from where he is — which is what God does with us.

Children of Hagar and the Reformation Settlement

31 October 2017

On this day 500 years ago, the sound of a hammer rang through the streets of Wittenburg. An Augustinian friar, a nobody named Brother Martin, was posting a set of statements on the church door for debate. Although written in Latin, intended for scholarly debate, they were a raw challenge to some of the Church’s worst excesses. Brother Martin was calling the (then desperately corrupt) Church to repent, and he was doing it with style.

Someone translated Brother Martin’s work into German, and—as we would now say—it went viral. Suddenly everybody wanted to know (for example): if the Pope could pardon your sins for an exorbitant fee, why wouldn’t he just pardon everybody’s sins for free, out of simple Christian charity? (Answer: basilicas don’t build themselves, you know.

Brother Martin never intended to start some sort of alt-Christianity in Europe. He just wanted his beloved Church to reform. But there were really only two options with reformers, back in the day. Either the Pope would bless the reformer to start a new monastic order (thereby getting him out of everyone’s hair), or they’d burn him at the stake. With Brother Martin, they tried pretty hard to exercise option B, but a powerful prince objected, and one thing kind of led to another. 

A bunch of churches wanted to be part of the reformation that Brother Martin was hoping for, but the organizational headquarters in Rome wasn’t having any of it. The result was a church split, and next thing you know, a bunch of churches were having to figure out what it meant to be the Church and follow Jesus Christ without fitting into the organizational structure that everybody had been accustomed to for the last 500 years. The Reformation settlement was that Word and sacrament were the marks of a true church, with discipline following closely behind to maintain the first two.

That settlement has persisted for 500 years, and on paper, it still stands. In reality, though, there’s been quite a bit of drift, not because of theological discussion, but due to financial convenience and cultural expectation. Today in America, the marks of a church are corporate papers, a 501(c)(3) exemption, and a charismatic talking haircut with preternaturally straight teeth down front, in the spotlight. 

It’s time to revisit the Reformation settlement. First, we need to allow it to critique where we have come. Are corporate papers essential? Do we really need a charismatic talking haircut with a blinding smile to lead us? Does the 501(c)(3) exemption compromise the independence of the pulpit? How would our reformational fathers see where we have come? What would they say? Would they be right?

Second, we need to take a critical look at the Reformation settlement. We are not looking for perfection, but is it true, is it adequate, to conclude that Word, sacrament, and discipline alone distinguish a church from other types of organizations? Have not these very things been used and abused to quench the Spirit in our midst? Is it possible to have Word, sacrament, and discipline, and nonetheless be a sort of religious country club rather than a church? 

I know spiritually aware, awake, lively followers of Jesus whose leaders have clubbed them with the Word, denied them the sacraments, and driven them out through the discipline of the church. The Pharisees did this very thing with the man born blind, for the twin crimes of being healed and telling the truth about how it happened; do we think we are immune?

I know many more children of the Church who—never formally driven out—nonetheless found no place for themselves in the churches. Their gifts were not acknowledged, their discernment was ignored, their calling was trivialized (or, as in my case, cursed outright). God handcrafted them for a destiny that the church deemed unwelcome or unimportant. Denied their rightful place in the churches, they have gone out into the world, bearing the church’s reproach, taking shelter where best they can. They have been called by God. Drawn by Him, they are seeking His embrace, and they are seeking it outside the church because they did not find it there. 

The guardians of the institutional church call them rebellious; they are the furthest thing from it. Like Hagar, they did what they were told, and they were blessed with fruit that the lady of the house was unwilling to accept. But God-Who-Sees loves them, seeks them in the wilderness, and will yet make of them a great nation. Despite the separation, through Christ He offers them entry into the family of promise. He has raised up David’s fallen tabernacle, and through the Spirit we are all welcome to come and worship together. But what will it look like for us to honor this spiritual reality that God has already accomplished?

It is my belief that in addition to Word, sacrament, and discipline, we need two further things. We need liveliness — the living presence of the Spirit working supernaturally among us — and we need real, functioning discernment. Not doctrinal screening —nothing wrong with that, but that’s just table stakes here — but discernment, the actual ability to tell one spirit from another, to recognize good and evil even when (as God often does) it defies our expectations.

It is my hope that we can recognize each other for what we are and be united in our common ancestry. This is our eventual destiny, and God will accomplish it. When the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness, we will all be united. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so today. 

Nobody Will Notice: A Love Letter

29 June 2017

“Pastor” means “shepherd,” but most of the people who have the word “pastor” on their business cards are not, in fact, shepherds. (This is okay; you can be a legit church leader without a shepherding gift. The Bible has other words for that — but that’s another post.)

Churches mostly don’t seek, interview for, or pay for shepherding. When it comes to the position we call “pastor,” churches mostly pay for the same things that any other corporation might pay for in a leader: visionaries, fundraisers, orators, administrators, technocrats — things that are visible or sexy (or preferably both), and relatively easy to track and measure.

Shepherds are hard to track.

The nature of effective shepherding is that if you don’t do it, nobody will notice. Injured sheep tend to hobble along with the rest of the flock as best they can, trying to look normal. They don’t want anyone to see. The whole group will join them in the pretense and be willfully blind to their wounds, because wounds make everyone uncomfortable. Lost sheep do not report themselves missing, and they don’t send up signal flares so you can find them. Nobody — not the missing or injured sheep, not the church leadership, and certainly not the rest of the flock — nobody actually wants a shepherd to do his or her job. Nobody wants the wound treated like it’s really there. Nobody wants to know why the lost sheep left.

You will be rewarded for following the crowd in their pretense that everything is fine. No one will complain. For the most part, even the lost and the wounded don’t expect you to help them. (In fact, “Why are you doing this?” is one of the most frequent questions I encounter. The answer is always the same: “Because you’re worth it. Because Jesus would.” They don’t believe me at first, but that’s okay.)

If you resist the temptation to ignore the lost and wounded, if you roll up your sleeves and do the hard work of fostering real healing, for the most part, no one will know except the people you help. You won’t announce to the world that you’re going to call Jack, who seems to be isolating himself, or that you think Madeline is not dealing with her mother’s death as well as she’s pretending. You will just call Jack and Madeline.

In most organizations, even those ostensibly devoted to healing, no one will assign you this job. If you resist the temptation to ignore the lost and wounded, about the best you can hope for is that nobody will notice. But honestly that’s not likely.

More likely, people will resent your shepherding without ever knowing what you are doing. Shepherding takes time, and you will always have other responsibilities. You will be encouraged to spend your time on visible, trackable things — managing programs, initiating a new social media marketing campaign, updating the website, promoting the building program, speaking, whatever. If you actually go and spend significant time with Jack and Madeline, your superiors are going to wonder why you’re not at your desk where you belong. What could you be doing, anyway, and why aren’t the TPS reports done?

(This is like wondering why a shepherd is out looking for a lost sheep instead of hanging around the sheepfold all day — but  good luck getting the board of your 501(c)(3) corporation to understand that.)

So you will initiate this work on your own, and in the teeth of your other responsibilities. You will just call a wounded sheep and say, “Hey, let’s get a cup of coffee.” Or you will swing by their house with a six-pack after work, sit on the patio, and drink and talk. You won’t just keep their secrets; you’ll keep it confidential that you even met, unless you want it blabbed all over church, or showing up as a sermon illustration. (Yeah, sorry, but that actually happens. Regularly.) It’s no one else’s business but theirs.

Maybe it’s one meeting. Maybe it’s two hours a week for a year. It doesn’t matter, because when you made that first phone call, you were signing up — to the best of your capacity — for whatever it takes. If you can’t help, you connect them with someone who can, but you usually don’t just get to drop it at that point. You check back in. You walk with them through it. Whatever it is — and it might be minor, or it might be literally the worst thing you’ve ever encountered in your life.

That’s the discipline.

That’s what good shepherds do.

If there’s a way of making a decent living at this, I certainly haven’t figured it out. But if Jesus called you to it…do it.

Reflections on Catalyst One-Day Conference

10 May 2015

I had the opportunity a few months ago to attend the Catalyst one-day conference here in Denver with Andy Stanley and Craig Groeschel. A lot of good things were said, especially Andy Stanley’s ruminations on autonomy and why it’s a bad idea. I can think of a couple  whole movements of pastors and activists who need to hear that talk, and will refuse to listen to it. There were also some deeply stupid things said — CEO-think getting the better of following Jesus. I don’t intend to write a review of the whole thing, but here are some thoughts I wrote down just after the event.

By any biblically recognizable definition, these guys are not pastors. The organizations they lead are not churches — again, by any biblically recognizable standard. In some circles, that would be the whole critique. There was a time when that would have been my whole critique.

But these guys and their organizations are doing significant work for the Kingdom of God. They’re not pastors and not churches, but they’re not nothing either–so what are they? They are parachurch organizations that provide a variety of religious goods and services. For the purposes of the Internal Revenue Code, they happen to be organized as an entity called “church,” but let’s face it, the IRS doesn’t have the best possible grasp on spiritual reality.

Church happens within these organizations — in small groups, student ministries, other smaller cadres where there is real accountability, shared mission, and life together. And it doesn’t just happen by accident — quite often, those things are what they’re aiming for.

The organization itself, however, is not a church. It is a monastic order. Craig Groeschel is not a pastor, he’s the next Ignatius of Loyola, leading a militant, dedicated cadre of broadly Protestant monks and nuns in a rigorous program of spiritual discipline and leadership development to serve the Church and the world. It is impressive, admirable work.

There is an argument to be made, perhaps, that doing the work of a monastic order under the guise of being a local church muddies the water and causes trouble. I’ll let someone else make that argument if they can. For me, the issue is simpler than that: this is good work that ought to be done, and someone is doing it. The Lord of the Harvest has heard our prayer and sent laborers into His harvest, and we should thank Him and ask for more.

Swimming in Cap and Gown

13 January 2014

There’s a lot of talk lately about pastoral plagiarism. It even got a mention in the NAE’s code of ethics a year and a half ago. Doug Wilson has weighed in, in his own inimitable way, and Christianity Today’s Andy Crouch has a different, and extremely helpful, perspective on the real problems involved. I won’t try to repeat what they have said so well. But as a working pastor (albeit in a nonstandard venue), I have my $0.02 to add to the conversation, for whatever it’s worth, and here it is.

In a nutshell, we’ve lost all sense of proportion, in two ways. We’re acting as though the citation standards for a college research paper apply to everything, which is nuts.  Even more importantly, we’re getting distracted from what pastoral work is supposed to be, about which more in a moment.  But let’s talk about citation standards first.

It doesn’t help that the citation “requirements” being advanced come from the academic world and have little relevance to other venues. (We’re now hearing about Twitter plagiarism, for heaven’s sake.) I’ve encountered the problem of academic customs being misapplied in pastoral settings in a number of places, but D. A. Carson’s article on the subject is a representative example.

Carson’s very restrictive stance is not surprising; he is an academic. In the academy, plagiarism is a major issue, because academics are being paid to come up with ideas and propagate them. An academic who is merely curating the ideas of others is not doing the job for which he is being paid, and he ought to be fired — especially if he’s trying to pass those ideas off as his own. A student in that arena is in the process of paying his dues to the academic guild, and has to learn to stick to the guild standards. This is not just a matter of “do it ’cause we said so” either. When I assign an essay in the classroom, I am finding out what (and how) my students think. I can’t learn what I need to know if the student appropriates someone else’s words or thoughts and doesn’t tell me that he’s done it.  Academic citation standards are right and good, and glory to God for them; Carson’s article is wise counsel for the academic workplace. Unfortunately, Carson for some reason thinks that the standards of his workplace also apply to the pastoral workplace. They don’t.

A pastor is a shepherd and a physician of the soul. He is responsible for feeding the sheep, for facilitating their healing and growth, for delivering food and medicine. He is not responsible for documenting the provenance of every last bit of food and medicine any more than your waitress is responsible for documenting what farm the lettuce in your salad was grown on, or your surgeon is responsible for documenting which Chinese factory worker sharpened his scalpel.  Now, should the lettuce or the scalpel blade turn out to have been contaminated with E. coli, we shall want to know exactly where they came from. Under the pressure of that sort of necessity, we will undoubtedly be able to find out. But under normal circumstances, no one cares, and no one should.

Now, a pastor may also be an author, an academic, a conference speaker, etc., and the overlapping roles can make things complicated. A popular book, a sermon, a master’s thesis, and a session at a marriage seminar all have their own standards and expectations. My Master’s thesis was expected to be my original work, and it was. Anything that wasn’t mine was supposed to be footnoted, and again, it was. If I one day publish a book, a similar set of expectations will apply, although exactly how it works will depend on the sort of book. An academic treatise will of course have many footnotes. In a different kind of work, credit may be given via a bibliography, a line in the acknowledgements, or a comment in the text itself. The genre sets the expectations.

When I preach a sermon on Romans 8, nobody expects the sermon to be made up entirely out of my own head. After all, I am preaching a passage that thousands have taught before me, and a truly original take on it is likely to be neither true nor helpful to the flock. Originality in this context is hardly a virtue, and adorning the simple truth of the passage by name-dropping famous commentators is just a waste of breath. My goal is to tell the truth about the passage, and to tell it in such a way that my people will live the truths of the passage, and be fed and healed as a result. If they are fed and healed, I have done my work well. End of story.

Moreover, when I construct a sermon, it is a collage of my own exegesis and experience, the insights of friends and mentors, things I’ve read and heard over the years, and more. Some of the influences I’m aware of, such as the commentaries sitting on my desk as I work. Others are half-remembered — analogies, exegetical insights or turns of phrase that I know I heard somewhere, but I can’t remember where. There are also influences that I’m wholly unaware of, things I ran across years ago that I have long since forgotten about, but that pop out in response to the need of the moment. I might very well believe that some of these are original with me — and I might very well be wrong. I am blessed to be well-read, well-traveled, and widely experienced, and there’s a lot of other people’s wonderful stuff lying about in “the leaf-mould of my mind,” as C. S. Lewis once put it. Any researcher with Google and a grudge might very well catch me out at any time, proving that someone else said thus-and-such long before I came along. In the event that happens, I’ll be happy to acknowledge that whether I came up with it independently or just read it and forgot about it, somebody else clearly said it first, and deserves credit for same. But the real problem there will be with the guy who spent 16 hours in front of a computer in a vengeful effort to convict me of “plagiarism,” not with me.

I have never tried to conceal my sources, and I have always been open with anyone who asked where I learned something. I appreciate it when people give me credit for stuff they learned from me, and I try to do the same for others as best I can. But I don’t pretend that academic practices of citation are appropriate for every venue for the same reason that I don’t wear my graduation regalia everywhere I go — because academic trappings are fine for the hothouse environment of academia, but woefully out of place elsewhere. Apparently some academics would have me wear my cap, gown and hood when I go swimming, but I ain’t gonna do it, and I don’t see any reason to pretend like I’m the crazy one here.

Of course, taking a whole sermon script from somewhere else — whether it’s a history book or one of those download services you can subscribe to — is another matter. I haven’t ever done that, and I don’t imagine I ever will, unless it’s a historical re-enactment of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” or some such thing, and presented that way. A pastor who thinks he can download a sermon once a week and in that way effectively feed the people God has given him doesn’t know his people very well, or doesn’t understand his task very well. But the problem here is much more serious than plagiarism or the ethics of ghostwriting; it’s poor shepherding. He isn’t tailoring the food and medicine to the needs of the unique sheep God has committed to his care — and that is his task.

That is a serious problem, and it is by no means limited to people who are willing to crib whole sermons from somewhere else.  We are up to our necks in pastors who don’t know how to make disciples, which is the thing Jesus gave us to do.  The people are wounded and starving, and all too often their pastors don’t know how to help them.  It’s not entirely the pastors’ fault; little in their training prepared them to minister nourishment and healing in a timely fashion to actual people, so that they really heal and grow.  And we’re worried about pastors that don’t footnote properly? Jeepers.

There is such a thing as a real case of appropriating someone else’s work and pretending it’s your own, and that’s a violation of the eighth and ninth commandments. There is such a thing as inadvertently failing to give credit for something that’s clearly someone else’s work — which seems to be what happened in the recent Driscoll situation — and that’s an honest mistake, to be confessed and rectified when it’s discovered. But this obsession with the bugbear of pastoral plagiarism is a waste of time, and distracts attention from a much more serious problem. “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.”

Perhaps we’ll be better off if we worry less about how pastors footnote, and more about how seminarians don’t learn to make disciples.