Grinding Down Mountains

16 July 2019

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were very focused on moral and ritual purity.  If only Israel would be pure enough, they believed, God would return to Jerusalem, and bless her as He had in the days of David and Solomon. They were so focused on purity that when God actually did return to Jerusalem, they missed it. Jesus wept over the city:

“For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
(Lk. 19:43-44)

Where we focus is very important. It’s possible to make a serious mistake by focusing on the wrong true thing. The Law is holy and just and good, Paul says. But if you focus on the Law, you run headlong into the rocks of Romans 7. You can’t keep it, and the Law does not confer the power to keep it. Nothing does.

In my corner of the Evangelical world, we have mostly learned this lesson when it comes to moral purity. If we focus on moral and ritual purity, we will become Pharisees, and we know it. So we avoid that mistake…and focus on doctrinal purity instead.

Purity is a good thing. Doctrinal purity is a good thing. But if we focus on any form of purity as the bullseye, we will develop the same trouble the Pharisees always had. It’s just a different version of the same basic mistake. Like the Pharisees, we will make ever-finer divisions in a pursuit of ever-greater purity, and the price of our impatience will be disunity.

If we focus on love and unity–which is what Jesus told us to focus on, in the upper-room discourse–it’s been my experience that we will grow toward greater purity together. Slowly. The speeds can be glacial at times. But glacial speed has its advantages: even mountains cannot stand in our way.

 

 

Advertisements

Jesus Broke the Billy Graham Rule

18 June 2019

A lot of folks in ministry espouse the Billy Graham Rule: never meet with a woman alone. I was taught the rule as a teenager, along with various permutations and corollaries (leave the door open if you must have a conversation with a woman in your office, or have the secretary sit in, that sort of thing).

I went through Bible college and seminary thinking these were wise guidelines and expecting to live by them. I started my ministerial career living by them. I vividly remember the day I departed from them.

It’s a long story and the details aren’t important. Suffice it to say, I was faced with a simple choice: give my female counselee the dignity I’d expect in the same situation, or go through a bunch of gyrations to make sure I followed the Billy Graham Rule. I decided a choice between the man-made rule and the Golden Rule was no choice at all, and I followed Jesus.

That prompted me to re-examine things. Like Mark Twain liked to say, it’s not what you don’t know that gets you—it’s what you know that ain’t so. I “knew” that the Billy Graham Rule was the way you keep away from adultery. But upon consideration, it’s just not so.

I’ve known pastors who didn’t keep the Billy Graham rule, and ended up in adultery. It’s easy to say, “Well, if he’d just kept the Billy Graham Rule, it never woulda happened.” That’s a stupid thing to say. Why are we focusing on the man-made rule like that? Why don’t we say, “If he’d kept the 10 commandments, it never woulda happened”? That’s a lot more to the point.

But even God’s law doesn’t give us the power to resist sin. Why do we think that a man-made law will keep us from sin, when even God’s law cannot? Why do we trust schemes of our own devising more than we trust God? To ask the question is to answer it. We still pretend to godhood.

Stupid people let themselves think they can’t get entangled in adultery—because they’re strong, because they’re impotent anyhow, because they live by man-made rules that are supposed to guarantee it. All those reasons are idols, and all idols must fall.

Man-made guidelines, however wise they might be in a particular case, are not a substitute for the Spirit.

Nothing makes you impervious to sin except walking in the Spirit. Nothing.

I’ve known pastors who made it their lifestyle to live by the Billy Graham Rule, and ended up in adultery anyhow. Having your secretary sit in your counseling sessions doesn’t stop you from meeting the church pianist at a cheap motel on Highway 19, as it turns out. The external, man-made standard is not the difference that makes a difference, and no one but a Pharisee thinks it is. (And what sort of Jesus-follower thinks man-made rules are a means of holy living, anyhow?)

All those external regulations are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. Righteousness doesn’t come by the law, because there is no law that gives life; you gotta get that from the Spirit—as a smart guy once told us. That smart guy was much maligned by the religious establishment for his teaching and display of liberty, if you can imagine!

When a pastor ends up in adultery, it is not because he met with a woman alone. James tells us how this happens; it’s not some big mystery. He had a desire—for sex, for emotional intimacy, to feel like a man again, whatever. What he should have done is bring that desire home to his wife; instead, he allowed it to focus on his counselee. Then, instead of responding to that warning sign by asking the Body for help, he hid it, kept it to himself, nurtured it. Desire conceived and gave birth to sin; sin, when it matured, brought forth death. Do not be deceived, like the man said.

Anybody who has thought through what his or her particular marriage needs, and can articulate a strategy for protecting the marriage, deserves our support. Whether it’s the Billy Graham Rule or a different strategy, as long as it’s not forbidden by Scripture, we should applaud and support one another’s efforts to protect our marriages. And we have the right to decide for ourselves what that requires—for freedom Christ has set us free. And for exactly that reason, if that same guy ascends a soapbox and begins telling everyone else that his answer is best for their marriage, the very mildest response we should have is to point and laugh. No one gets to make such pronouncements—for freedom Christ has set us free.

The guy on the soapbox will always say that he’s just explaining what’s “appropriate” and “wise.” Me, I think Jesus was wise, and that it’s wise to imitate Him. (So did Paul: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”) Once upon a time, Jesus and his twelve accountability partners were walking up on a Samaritan village. He sent all twelve of His accountability partners into the town to buy food, while He sat by the well and started a conversation with a woman alone. A woman who turned out to be exactly the kind of girl no Christian man “should” meet alone.

When our rules contradict what Jesus actually did, that should give us pause. I’m not saying that you can’t have the Billy Graham rule. If you think that’s wisest for you, who am I to argue? Go for it. I am saying that someday, the Spirit might put you in a situation where you need to leave that rule behind. If He does, do what Jesus did.

Don’t worry; nobody ever followed the Spirit into adultery. That’s not where He leads.


Devouring the Grandchildren

21 May 2019

A doctrine is like a painting. It’s possible for it to be inaccurate—a landscape painter putting a lighthouse on the edge of the Grand Canyon, for example. On the other hand, even an accurate painting is not a perfect representation. You have to know what to pay attention to. You don’t criticize a painting of the Grand Canyon because the real Grand Canyon doesn’t have brush strokes on the rocks. You don’t look at a Monet and think, “Gee, that feller needed glasses.”

Likewise doctrine. An accurate doctrinal formulation will give you a correct impression of the acts of God that it is describing, but there will always be picky little details that aren’t exact representations. You gotta know how to look at the painting without picking at the brush strokes. The best way to do that is to incarnate the doctrine in practice. Once you have firsthand knowledge of the ways of God that the doctrine describes, the whole thing makes a lot more sense. And as it happens, that was the point anyway. Doctrine is not there just to think about; it’s an aid to loving God and your neighbor. It’s meant to be lived.

When a doctrine is proclaimed by a person who has himself experienced it, and seen it at work in the world, God’s people are greatly edified. This is often true even if the doctrinal formulation is…shall we say, a bit impressionistic. People usually still get the  point, and are blessed.

By contrast, when a doctrine is proclaimed by a person who has not experienced it for himself at any depth, it is worse than useless: it is dead. Even if the propositional content  is mostly correct, nonetheless, it is dead, and as all dead things do, it begins to rot, and provide a breeding ground for maggots.

The doctrine of divine election, for example, is indeed “an unspeakable comfort to godly persons,” as the Westminster divines put it—if it is expounded as Luther or Calvin expounded it. In them, as C. S. Lewis explains, the feeling is unspeakable, scarcely believable joy. It is the joy of the lover who has been chosen by his beloved, regardless of merit, despite all flaws, to have been loved and chosen! And to be assured that the choosing is irrevocable, irreversible! What joy!

Now, I believe that the doctrine of election as taught by Luther and Calvin is a bit impressionistic. Their formulation suffers from serious exegetical and theological flaws. But the experience of relationship with God that they were pointing to is real enough. Expounded with the joy and trust in God that Luther or Calvin had, even their flawed formulations can do quite a bit of good, and little enough harm.

On the other hand, when those same formulations are proclaimed in doubt, with some question as to whether one is chosen, the doctrine does incalculable harm. The result is a paranoid, frantic search for many tests or proofs that might allow someone to attain (at least theoretical) certainty—as required by the late New England Puritans, or in modern times by, say, a John MacArthur or a John Piper. The speaker is often himself somewhat unsure of his election, and the fear is contagious. The hearers understand, at least unconsciously, that this is a terrifying doctrine, because they are hearing it from a terrified man. Soon enough, the terror comes to the surface, and the resulting (slanderous) view of God—petty, autocratic, using eternal human destinies as His personal plaything—becomes, in Lewis’ words, “something not unlike devil worship.”

Now, Luther and Calvin could expound divine election with joy because they were chosen, and they knew it. Despite their propositional errors, their basic understanding of their relationship with God was correct. He did, in fact, love them and conspire to save them before the foundation of the world. When they believed, He did bring them into His family irrevocably, and give them life that would last forever. In all this they were entirely correct. Crucially, they did not just know these things by syllogism. They knew them by experience, by knowing God for themselves and hearing Him in their own souls. Thus fortified, they taught God’s love with joy, as similarly joyful children of the Reformation do to this day.

But their formulations were somewhat in error, and as the generations ran on, the errors became apparent. The doctrine of election was not, in fact, an unspeakable comfort; it was a terror to many tortured souls who did not know if they were chosen. Indeed, because of the errors baked into the early formulations, many poor souls were taught that in this life, they could never know if they had been chosen. This doctrine, despite the joy of Luther and Calvin, devoured its great-grandchildren. This was a sign that something was wrong, and needed to be fixed.

Instead of revisiting their formulations to see what might have gone awry, too many Reformed folks have doubled down, willingly sacrificing their terrified children on the altar of conformity to doctrinal tradition. All the non-Calvinists reading this are no doubt nodding their heads and thinking, “Well, such are the dangers of erroneous doctrine.” Not so fast! Do you imagine yourself to be perfect? Do you think you got it all right, that there are no fuzzy little corners in your doctrine? Don’t be ridiculous. Of course there are—and so you have an opportunity to make the same mistake.

None of our doctrinal formulations—however correct—are immune to this danger.  Peter tells us that ignorant and unstable people can twist even the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). How much more might they exaggerate the flaws of our all too fallible doctrinal formulations?

The cure—the only possible safeguard against dead, rotting doctrine—is to know God for ourselves, and not just from books. This is also the very definition of life: “to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.”


Jesus Is Not A Multilevel Marketing Scheme

30 April 2019

Some people think of disciple-making as the ultimate MLM scheme. You find a good mentor, build a downline…but no. That’s not how it works. Jesus is not running a multi-level marketing company.

Among the followers of Jesus, disciple-making influence is more of a “one another” kind of thing. We love one another. Bear one another’s burdens. Encourage one another. Consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds. When God gives me a newbie to disciple, part of my job is to grow him from dependent to peer, and quick. The harvest is plentiful, and I need help!

Through Paul, God gave us a genius mechanism for doing that job: “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” You can’t just teach people. You have to invite them into your life.

See, just teaching allows you to hold people at a comfortable distance. You can be the leader, the professional, the guru, and they are the follower, the client, the acolyte. But we’re Christians. That’s not what we do.

Paul’s example shows us another way. I call it the “open a vein” school of discipleship. We invite them into our lives, not just as learners but as coworkers, as friends, as family. Make no mistake, this calls for deep integrity. If I don’t practice what I preach, the closer they get to me, the more repelled they’ll be. Being a person who can imitate Paul’s example by calling someone to imitate me is a very high calling.

And you know what? No matter how deep my integrity goes, I guarantee you that when I invite someone into my life like this, he’s going to see my sin, my weaknesses, my failures. I’m not perfect, and my disciples aren’t stupid. The sin is there, and they’re gonna catch me out. Of course they will.

Here’s the thing: that is not a bug; it’s a design feature. The instruction and accountability do not just flow one way; we do these things for one another. God speaks to and through my disciples, and they’re worth hearing. I grow in response to their correction the same way they grow in response to mine–and *that* is a critical part of the example they’re following.

Many years ago and far from here, I once asked a roomful of older pastors, “Haven’t you had the experience of a baby Christian asking why you did something or calling you out–and them being totally right, and you being totally wrong?” They all looked at me blankly…and I permanently crossed every last one of those men off my list of advisors.

I had occasion to work closely with a few of those folks over the years, and they proved to be everything I suspected on the basis of that single interaction: professionalized, dictatorial, unhearing, unteachable. And man, were they hypocritical! The more so because no one could tell them. They wouldn’t hear anything you said if they “outranked” you.

There was no “one another” with those guys, and they were the poorer for it. Go thou, and do un-likewise.


Ditching the Whitelist

19 April 2019

Modernism fancied all spiritual powers a delusion. Nothing was real but matter in motion. The vast majority of contemporary Christians have adopted that worldview, with the exception of a whitelist of powers and miracles in which they feel obliged to believe in order to be Christian.

(As I’ve explored elsewhere, how many of those powers and miracles we feel obliged to believe depends to a large degree on how much academic credibility we aspire to.)

But this is not the teaching of Christianity. Christianity has always believed that the old gods are absolutely real—and that we are at war with them. Their heads are to be crushed; their images burned; their sacred groves cut down: Boniface had the right idea. Their followers are to be called to repentance, delivered from their willing slavery to the darkness into the freedom of the light.

On too many occasions over the past 2000 years, impatient Christians have tried to deliver the slaves by force, whether they wanted to be delivered or not. By now we have—let us hope—learned our lesson. The weapons of our warfare are most assuredly weapons, but they are not the carnal weapons of coercion. Our weapons are truth and righteousness, faith and salvation, readiness with the gospel of peace and the word of the Creator Himself, spoken afresh by us.

We live as invaders among the gods and their people. With word and water, bread, wine, and oil, we retake the territory unlawfully stolen from the Creator and prostituted to demons. Our ally is the whole creation that groans with birth pangs, waiting for the revelation of the sons of God.

Christianity is both relationship and religion. Without the relationship, the religion is empty. Without the religion, the relationship is confined to occasional experiences that, while beautiful in themselves, find no tangible expression in everyday life.

The relationship must be real. This is neither a thought experiment (“What if…?”), an arrangement of mental furniture (“I like to think of it like this”), nor a matter of observing principles (which would collapse relationship into religion). It is a real dealing with a particular Person (three, actually) outside ourselves. That means that we carry out our lives in the living presence of Almighty God. That Person births us into His new family, and thereafter grows us up as His children, with the goal of making us partakers of His divine nature. We engage in dialog; we ask for and receive help; we receive comfort and offer up praise. If we are not mystics in this sense, then we are not Christians; we are merely ideologues whose preferred genre is religion.

Now, with that said, what must the religion look like that gives tangible expression to such a relationship?

In order to function in this environment, we need a religious expression that…

  • embraces the magical nature of the created, spoken world in which we live,
  • addresses the spiritual realities of both human and angelic/demonic realms,
  • integrates empirical knowledge of the fertile fields of natural revelation, and
  • is concrete, livable, and permeates our daily lives.

So what does that look like? Well, that’s the project. I’m workin’ on it. Wanna join in?


What Fellowship Really Is

16 April 2019

“Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but encouraging one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching.”
-Hebrews 10:26-27

Consider one another. Think about what we’re being called to do here: look at the other believers you’re close to, and ask yourself the question, “How do I help move this person to be more loving, to do more good things?” And you let those people ask the same question about you, and act on their answers.

In 3DM, a “Huddle” is a small group of 5-8 people that meets for teaching, mutual encouragement, and support. One of the criticisms I see of huddles is that participants are vulnerable to inappropriate influence by the group leader, and that “groupthink” is a real danger. Uh, yeah. Any close relationship is vulnerable to inappropriate influence, and any group is in danger of groupthink. If you think that’s dangerous, try not having close relationships, small groups, or leadership. See how that works out.

Warning people away from a huddle because of the dangers of groupthink is like like warning people away from math class because they will encounter math problems. The danger is real, but quitting school is not the answer. The answer is to solve the problems, learn from the experience, and over time grow into the sort of person who can solve those problems easily. You take the math class because you want to get better at solving math problems. You join a huddle to get better at fellowship.

You will never listen to a sermon or Bible study lesson without the danger of false teaching. You will never be part of a meaningful group without the danger of groupthink. You will never have a close relationship without the danger of undue influence. You will never drive your car to church without the danger of a traffic accident. You will never eat the Lord’s Table (or anything else) without the danger of food poisoning–but consider the dangers of not eating.

You can no more avoid teaching or close relationships than you can avoid eating. You may not simply show up at church, swap small talk over coffee for a couple minutes before the service, and check off the “fellowship” box on your to-do list. You must study your fellow believers in order to stir up love and good works. The risks associated with obedience are risks we are required to run.

Do you gotta do it in a 3DM huddle? Of course not. Do it your way.

So here’s my question: who are you studying, and who is studying you?

Your answer should be a list of names. If your answer to either question is “nobody,” then something is wrong, and for you, joining a huddle would be a step in the right direction. A huddle is one way to obey the command. It’s not the only way. It might not even be the best way. But it beats the pants off disobedience, ya know?

I like the way a huddle fellowships better than the way most churches just don’t. So should you. It’s a handy means of obedience, and helps you form the habit of meaningful fellowship. (Same goes for LTGs, well-run small groups, etc.–we should cherish every form obedience takes.)

Let’s go back to those two questions: who are you studying, to stir up love and good works? Who is studying you? The names on my list are mostly not people I’m in huddle with. I make close fellowship a priority in my lifestyle. There are three families where if I don’t show up at their home unannounced a couple times a week, I get phone calls. If I don’t talk about anything consequential when I do show up, I get a raft of pointed questions. What about you? If you isolate yourself, who will call you? If you quit sharing your heart, who will ask pointed questions? If the answer is ‘nobody,’ you’re already isolated. Please, in the name of Christ, fix that.

Having made the case for close fellowship, I also want to acknowledge that human beings can screw anything up, so of course there are real dangers and temptations that come with it. Any cohesive group has the danger of groupthink. The answer to that is more fellowship, not less. Whatever you’re talking about in group, have significant conversations on those topics with people outside the group. In a multitude of counselors, there is safety.

As the group coheres, there’s a danger of the leader exercising undue influence. Same answer: get fellowship elsewhere too, so that you’ll notice if something weird is going on. For leaders, the answer here is humility. The purpose of the group is not to develop your followers as followers of you. The purpose is to develop your followers as followers of Jesus. Some of them might start very dependent on you–as Jesus’ followers started very dependent on Him–but your job is to grow them into co-laborers, as He did, as Paul grew Timothy and Titus, as Barnabas grew John Mark, and so on.

Which brings me back to an important feature of the huddles I’ve been part of: they stop. You graduate. The relationships you formed in huddle continue, but they come out of the greenhouse that is the huddle and into the wild and woolly garden that is the life of the church, which is the way it should be.

Maybe you end up leading your own huddle; I’ve done it a few times. Maybe you use other relational vehicles; I’ve done that too. But if the huddle has done its job, you have formed the habit of close fellowship with your fellow believers, and you’ll never go back to thinking that two minutes of small talk at the coffee pot is what “fellowship” really is.

And that’s a wonderful thing.


On Disrespecting the Manure

12 April 2019

One of the most basic promises of Christianity is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and His continuing ministry to the believer. Every church and ministry I’ve ever worked with has affirmed this…in theory. In practice, there was a bit more variation. The idea that you could have a meaningful and vital relationship with a spiritual being–not just a doctrinal system or an arrangement of mental furniture, but actual person that is not you, communicating to you–well, that was challenging for a lot of folks. In many churches and ministries, they tended to cover their asses with an orthodox doctrinal statement on the point, while denying any instance of it in practice. They all believe the Holy Spirit speaks through Scripture, but tell them that He showed you something in Hebrews 2 an hour ago and they don’t believe it.

When interacting with such communities, believers with a more robust relationship with the Spirit often point to John 16:13:

However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.

The objection we often face in response is, “That was referring to the apostles, the people Jesus was talking to at the time.” On the face of it, the claim has some curb appeal. It draws directly from the context–who could argue with that? 

Well…me. I have questions:

  1. Sez who? On what basis? Can I use that same approach to dismiss anything Jesus ever said that I don’t want to apply now? (“I mean, sure, He said lust is as bad as adultery, but that was only for the people He was talking to at the time….”) No? Okay, distinguish that case from this one.
  2. We’re ready enough to apply 14:2, 14:27, or 15:13-14 to any believer, anytime, with no discussion whatsoever. We do this because Jesus is speaking to these men as “His own;” we are also His own, and in fact inviting us to become His own is kinda what the book is about. So on what principle are we so ready to read 16:13 differently from other things Jesus said to the same people in the same immediate context?
  3. These folks usually want to apply 16:13 to the men in the room…and Paul. The interpretation proposed flatly excludes him, and he’s a clear counterexample. How is this not blatant special pleading?
  4. 1 John 2:27. From where I’m standing, John directly applies the doctrine Jesus gave in John 16:13 to his readers, extending it well beyond the apostolic circle. If we needed some extraordinary justification for reading 16:13 the way we already read, say, 15:13-14, isn’t John providing it?

I want to set forth a positive case for reading this passage as speaking about something that happens for us, today, if we are listening. Most of my case is implicit in the questions above.

Jesus is speaking to His own, talking about what it will be like when the Spirit has come. He told His disciples, one of whom–John–preserved those words and wrote them down in a book that invites its readers to join in that group and become “His own” too. John’s Gospel invites believers into a lively relationship with the Spirit.

John reiterates that stance toward relationship with the Spirit–and this particular aspect of the Spirit’s guidance in our search for truth–in 1 John 2:27, for yet another group of addressees; so why shouldn’t we expect Him to do the same for all those who belong to Jesus, right down to today?

I have no doubt that a suitably educated theologian could apply his theological system or his scholarly skepticism in such a way as to bury the above two paragraphs under a mountain of doubt. It is also possible to bury a diamond under a wheelbarrow-load of manure. This does not call into question the nature of the diamond; it just reveals the guy with the wheelbarrow for a churl and a lackwit.

As the diamond does not cease being a diamond, a true reading of Jesus’ words does not cease being true, no matter what is being heaped upon it. We are not obliged to treat the manure with respect.