Drane, Rao, and Mabry

13 December 2022

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


Functional Mysticism

19 November 2022

Here’s a Merriam Webster definition of mystical: “involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality.” Let’s start with that.

Does the Bible describe direct subjective communion with God? Yes, and this is not remotely controversial. Abraham met God and talked with Him. Moses conversed with God as a man speaks to his friend. Gideon argued with God; Jacob physically fought Him. Isaiah saw a vision that nobody else saw; God told John to look for the Spirit descending like a dove; Saul of Tarsus heard a voice where everyone else heard thunder.

What about today? Today, the Christian faith teaches that you can be a partaker in the divine nature. The Christian faith teaches that if you belong to Jesus, you have been born again spiritually, and are presently indwelt by God Himself in the Person of the Holy Spirit. The Christian faith teaches that the indwelling Spirit comforts and teaches you (among other things). If these subjective experiences are actually happening in your life, then you have a direct, relational experience of God Himself. 

You might not like the word mystical to describe it, but…re-read that definition. If you have a real relationship with God, there it is. 

If those things are not happening in your life…well, then you’re not a practicing Christian. I’m not saying you’re not going to heaven; how would I know? You and Jesus can work that one out. But if you do not have an actual, real-life experience of the realities the New Testament promises to God’s people, if those things aren’t actually happening in your life, then you do not have a Christian spirituality.

At best, you’re an ideologue whose drug of choice happens to be theology. Maybe your doctrinal paperwork is all in order, and that’s great as far as it goes. As far as doctrinal paperwork goes, Jesus was a Pharisee (and so was Paul) so you see how far that gets you. 

Gentle Reader, I am confident of better things where you’re concerned — there’s lots of folks whose doctrinal paperwork ain’t caught up to what they actually do in real life. But that’s a problem, because that gap between your actual walk with God and the things you’re willing to affirm causes you to criticize people who are willing, not just to live, but to tell the truth. You need to update what you’re willing to say, so that it matches what you know in practice.

If you don’t, then you will push people into the arms of the enemy. When kids that grew up in the church go looking for a functioning spirituality at the coven down the street because all they ever saw at church was talk and moralizing, that’s on us. And it’s high time we quit talking like we don’t have the real thing, because we actually do.

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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.


Apostles: Just the Twelve?

1 November 2022

Some folks have an idea that apostleship died out in the first century; that it was just the Twelve, and no more. This is a theologically convenient (for some) stance that has no basis in exegetical reality. The attempt to limit apostleship to the Twelve by appealing to Acts 1:21-22 fails because of Acts 14:4,14, Gal. 1:19, 2 Cor 8:23, and (arguably) Rom. 16:17. The mere existence of Barnabas, James the brother of Jesus, and especially Titus as apostles is enough to blow the whole thing wide open: it’s plainly more than just the Twelve. Once we know that, we don’t have to resort to tortured explanations of passages like 1 Cor. 9:2 and Rev. 2:2, and those passages begin to make a whole lot more sense.

The broader usage gives us a hint at what apostleship looks like beyond the Twelve, and Paul gives us another one in Rom. 15:23. Paul says there’s no longer room for him to minister where he is. What is it that there is no longer room for? Certainly there are plenty of unbelievers to evangelize and plenty of believers to disciple. He’s an apostle, which is to say a spiritual arsonist. He gets the fire started; once it grows to a certain point, he hands it off to others to feed, and he moves on to start another one.

We still need those people today; they’re the ones that start new works of all kinds. Might as well give them the right name, and acknowledge their spiritual gift for what it is.


A Minimum Standard

27 September 2022

The purpose of this post is to recommend that you go read three other posts, with this one as a kind of introduction, so I’ll keep this brief. I’d like to commend the three posts below as examples of a kind of minimum acceptable standard for a Christian understanding of the nature of God’s creation. We are Christians; we have been taught by Scripture that the world is not at all what the materialists think it is. They are not right as far as it goes; they are wrong all the way down, and certain (to a modern mind) startling conclusions follow from that fact — conclusions which most faithful evangelicals have not really thought through. So I want to commend the discussion below, in which someone (and a committed cessationist, at that!) thinks it through:

Regarding the first installment, I should tell you that grasping the point he’s making does not require clicking through to the other articles he references, although if you’re curious, knock yourself out (the link to Toby Sumpter’s post is broken, but you can find it here). There’s a second and third follow-up post to that one. All of them are pretty brief.

I should add, as a kind of postscript to that third post, that Wilson does not grasp the important distinction between prophecy and inscripturation — the two certainly are not the same thing — but that’s a conversation for another day.


A Stupid Question

6 September 2022

Can a woman be a pastor? Back in the day when we were formulating a response to second-wave (and early third-wave) feminism, that question was the practical dividing line within the evangelical world.

It was a heady time: suburban megachurches were growing, and even though the far majority of churches were not remotely that big, most churches and pastors looked to the megachurches for leadership. We were paying a lot of attention to leadership, org charts, and such things in those days, so it was only natural to formulate the questions around the church org chart. Which genders can hold which positions? You define the duties for a particular box on the chart, define the skills and attributes that go with those duties, and then put out a call for resumes.  

So in that setting, the question everyone wanted an answer to was, “Can a woman serve as a pastor?” One group said no: men and women have complementary responsibilities in the church, and serving as the pastor is a man’s job. Another group said yes: men and women have equal responsibilities in the church. This is where our two terms (complementarianism and egalitarianism) came from – two different answers to a question about a church org chart. 

But it’s a stupid question. The office of pastor as generally practiced in the American church has no New Testament precedent whatsoever. It doesn’t exist. The right question is not “Can a woman have that job?” The right question is “Should anyone should have that job?


The Longest Sentence

30 August 2022

Ephesians 1:3-14 is one long sentence in Greek — the longest sentence in the Greek New Testament. In it, Paul uses the pronouns “we” and “you” in a surprising way — to refer to Jewish believers and Gentile believers, respectively. That fact comes as a bit of a surprise to a modern reader, and you’re not alone — it was a surprise to the original readers too! But if you accept that “we” and “you” are exclusive of one another in vv. 12-13 – which you have to – then you’re stuck with it throughout. There’s no natural breaking point within the sentence. But the original readers aren’t going to know that ‘we’ just refers to Jewish believers until they hear vv. 12-13, so there’s a penny-drop moment there where they have to re-evaluate what they’ve heard, thus:

Paul blesses God for blessing Jewish believers with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, even as He chose them in Christ to be holy and blameless before Him by predestining them to sonship adoption through Christ, in keeping with God’s purposes, so that His glorious grace might be praised. In keeping with His grace, He fully accepted the Jewish believers by accepting Christ, in whom the Jewish believers have redemption (forgiveness of sins), in keeping with God’s abundant grace which He wisely abounded toward them by revealing the mystery (His household-management plan to bring all things together in Christ).

In Christ the Jewish believers have obtained the inheritance to which God predestined them (in keeping with the public presentation [Gk. prothesis] of His plans [throughout the OT]) in order that they – the first to hope in Christ – would bring praise to His glory. The Gentiles also believed, once they heard the gospel, and were sealed by the same Holy Spirit who guarantees the Jewish believers’ inheritance.

It’s not a surprise that Jewish believers would end up as Paul describes — God publicly announced His plan to do exactly that in the new covenant prophecies centuries before Christ. But Gentiles?

As Paul develops his argument in Ephesians, it turns out that the mystery to which he alludes in v. 9 is that the Gentile believers would be made one body with the Jewish believers – all who are united to Christ are united to each other in one new man, the Church. There are no longer two groups, but one, and the blessings apply equally to the whole group. That unity of the Body — with one another and pre-eminently with Christ — is the main point of the book, and it’s powerful. Paul spends the latter three chapters unpacking the practical implications.

Why does Paul begin this way? Because he is making his case to a mixed Jew-Gentile church that they need to become one in practice to reflect the oneness God has already given them in spiritual reality. He wants his Gentile readers to be grateful for the Jews who faithfully spread the message of Christ to the Gentiles. And likewise, he wants his Jewish readers to see that although the Gentiles came later, they have been fully integrated into all the blessings of Christ — nothing has been held back.

Here’s a challenge for you: knowing this is how Paul is using “we” and “you” early in Ephesians, read 2:1-10, and see what he’s doing there. Have fun!


Crypto-Buddhist Christians

23 August 2022

I think of myself as having grown up on the slightly fundamentalist side of normie Evangelicalism, which is true as far as it goes, but I also grew up in a strongly renunciate household. My parents regularly told stories of praying fervently for some particular result, and continuing in prayer for weeks until they reached a point of surrender at which they said “Fine, Lord, I leave it in Your hands entirely. Whatever You choose to do is fine with me” — at which point, the prayers would finally be answered.

Now, those stories were true. This is a thing that God actually did. It was a running theme in both my parents’ lives, and there’s a good lesson to be had here. But the lesson I learned from those stories was seriously unbalanced.

The point — so I thought — was to extinguish my own desires as fast as possible, so that God could work in whatever way He chose. And you know what? Sometimes, that’s exactly what needs to happen. It is entirely possible for me to want my own way so hard that I can’t (or won’t) see what God is really doing. But there’s more to it than that.

I was raised to see God as the boss, and His will as more important than my own — and that’s true, as far as it goes. I was missing the goodness of God, and the goodness of His creation. When I ask God to heal someone, I am asking for a good thing. I’m supposed to want that. When I ask God for the funds to pay a bill, or the wisdom to navigate a sticky relationship, or to save someone’s marriage, these are all good things. There may be a mismatch between God’s timing and mine, or what God wants to do may look different from the picture in my head, but that doesn’t change the goodness of the thing I’m asking for.

There’s a kind of crypto-Buddhist strain of thought that a really good Christian eradicates all desire. We’re typically very selective about where we apply this line of thinking, but in recent years it often rears its ugly head in the guise of accusations about “idolatry of marriage” and “idolatry of family.” These accusations generally come from barren couples, or single folk who object to the way the church centers and normalizes fruitful marriage and family as over against their (sometimes involuntary, but all too often chosen) lifestyle.

We wanted children and weren’t able, so I’m going to speak concretely in those terms. Anybody can turn anything into an idol, and that can be a real concern, but I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here. What we’re seeing here is a revolt against the way God made the world. Children are a good gift from a good God, and barrenness is an affliction. That is objectively true. “Be fruitful and multiply” is not a suggestion; it is a command, and even a cursory grasp of biology demonstrates that producing children is a major purpose — if not the purpose — of sex.

“But what if we don’t want children?” Doesn’t matter. If you cut off your own foot (rather than, say, losing your foot in an accident), you are just as lame, and lameness is still an affliction. Likewise, if the barrenness is self-inflicted, it is still an affliction. Legs are meant to have feet on them, and a penis and a vagina are meant to meet up and make babies, and designed to do so in a way that’s a lot of fun. These are objective realities that God made; they can’t be wished away by reframing them in the context of our own fallible desires.

So barrenness is like vertigo — if you have it, you ought to seek to rid yourself of it as quickly as possible, and by all lawful means. If it turns out that you can’t, you will have to find a way to live fruitfully despite the debility, but nobody needs to pretend that it’s somehow a good thing. You must submit yourself to God’s Providence, but eradicating your desires is a poor substitute for submission to your Father.

It is not only lawful, it is normal and healthy, to want the good things that God made. We aren’t supposed to be in the business of extinguishing our desires for good things. Buddhism is just wrong about this; desire is not the root of all suffering. Sin is the root of all suffering. The world is broken, and we sometimes have to make our peace with the way, in God’s Providence, that brokenness hurts us.

And so we trust God. We ask Him to end the affliction, and we keep asking, unless, as with Paul, God tells us to stop. And we don’t criticize the people who have — and love — the things that we lack. It is not idolatry to love God’s good gifts. It is idolatry to elevate our own perspective above the objective realities God made.


Not Automatic

2 August 2022

In conversation with a young female friend about how the church handles conversations on modesty, we stumbled on something interesting.

Men need female attention; women need male attention. “Need” is actually the right word here — God made us for relationship, and we actually do need each other. When a young woman’s father has not been doing his job well, and she then she hits puberty, that’s a recipe for disaster. Suddenly, she’s getting male attention she never got before. It feels like water in the desert, and it doesn’t take her long to figure out how to dress to get more of that sort of attention.

Now, normally in the church, we want to say something to her like “You don’t need to do that.” Here’s the thing: for a lot of these girls, that’s just not true.

If she’s been neglected by her father and the other men in her life, if no one has taken the time to nurture her talents and abilities, then her legitimate needs have gone unmet. She’s spent her whole life hungry for male attention. The only reason she’s getting it now is her body, and she knows it. Of course, in the abstract it’s certainly true that a young woman could get a better class of attention through musical talent, intellectual prowess, writing well, athletic achievement, and countless other ways. But the thing is, none of those things come automatically, and if no one has taken the time to nurture her talents, then not only does she lack those skills, she doesn’t know how to develop them. Meanwhile — pardon me putting it crudely — she got her hips and her boobs for free, and that’s getting her the attention she never got before.

In her experience, she does need to flaunt her body. As far as she knows, that’s all she’s got.

If we know better — and we do! — then the path forward is not to shame her for using what she’s got. Scolding that girl about her necklines is not going to get her where she needs to go. We know that she’s handcrafted in the image of God, shaped with God’s purposes in mind. Even if nobody knows what her talents are, we know they’re in there. What if we just decline to notice her neckline, look her in the eye, and focus our attention on her talents, her achievements, her growth as a human being? Maybe, if we can give her a better class of attention focused in the right direction, she’ll find she likes that attention better. We aren’t likely to succeed at getting her to give up the wrong kind of attention if we offer nothing in return.


Who’s in the Tent?

26 July 2022

In the story of Deborah, the job to be done is to defeat the Syrians. There’s a point in the story where we consider the question of who would be the best person for the job. Deborah (speaking for God) wants Barak to go out and do it; he’s the one. Barak says he’ll only go if she comes with him; she replies that she’ll do that if he wants, but the glory of the victory will not be his if he doesn’t rise to the challenge on his own. 

So Deborah goes, Israel wins the battle, and Sisera, the Syrian commander, flees the field looking for a place to hide. He comes upon the encampment of Heber the Kenite. At this point in the story, it no longer matters who the ideal person for the job would be. The only question that matters now is, “Who’s in the tent?”

There are church situations where you have the luxury of defining the attributes for the ideal candidate for whatever the job is, and then sifting through applications looking for the right mix of talents and experience for that particular slot on your org chart. That’s a thing that can happen. But far more often, we find ourselves at a decision point, and the only question that really matters is, “Who’s in the tent?”