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. 


Living at God Speed

16 September 2017

Once upon a time, a fast-paced American moved to a little village to learn what it meant to really know people, and be known by them. He had no idea of the journey he was beginning. As one of the villagers put it…


The film is 40 minutes long, and you should watch it.

Can You Be A Christian And…?

3 August 2017

When you’ve been in the ministry as long as I have, you find that there are certain questions that come up over and over. This post is about one of them. I’ve heard it in all kinds of different forms.

  • Can you be a Christian and commit suicide?
  • Can you be a Christian and homosexual?
  • Can you be a Christian and an alcoholic?
  • Can you be a Christian and commit murder?
  • Can you be a Christian and a witch?
  • Can you be a Christian and believe ____[fill in the blank]___?
  • Can you be a Christian and not believe __[some basic Christian truth]__?

Of course with any of these issues there’s a lot to talk about, and the pastoral situation in which the question comes up is often very delicate, and calls for a nuanced approach that has little to do with answering the question as asked. Very often the stupidest thing I could possibly do is just answer the question, and the best possible answer is to drop whatever I’m doing, focus my whole attention on the person who asked, and say, “What makes you ask?”

All that to say that there’s a whole pastoral angle to addressing such questions that is an entirely different discussion from where I’m going today. Today, I want to talk about what all these kinds of questions have in common.

One of the things such questions have in common is a presumption that there’s a line you can cross somewhere that makes you not-a-Christian. Let’s talk about what that might look like.

Based on the evidence in the New Testament, it’s possible to be a Christian and deny Jesus (cf. Peter). It’s possible to be a Christian and commit murder (as some of the addressees of the epistle of James had done). It’s possible to be a Christian and an adulterer (as had some of the Corinthians). It’s possible to be a Christian and so abuse the poor at the Lord’s Table that God actually kills you over it (the Corinthians). It’s possible to be a Christian and a deny the resurrection (Corinthians again — they were a mess!) And so on. In none of these cases does the writer say that they have somehow crossed over and are no longer Christians. In fact, in each of these cases, the writer rebukes them as Christians and calls them to repent and return to faithful practice.

Is it possible to be a Christian and _______?  Yes. Whatever you’re filling the blank with is either sin or it’s not. If not, what’s the problem? If it’s sin, then Jesus died for it, precisely so that such things cannot define you out of the family. God is a better Father than that, and He has already prepared for every sin and mistake you could ever make.

Is it possible to be a faithful Christian and ________? That’s a different question, and a lot of the time, when we’re asking the question, we already know the answer is no.

Dust and Breath Podcast Episode

25 July 2017

I had an opportunity recently to be the guest on Eden to the City of God for a discussion of the creation of man. We could have talked for hours, but had to cut it off after one. Check it out!


20 July 2017

I have recently run back across an older post by Doug Wilson that is simultaneously one of the more sensible things I’ve seen on the cessationism issue, and in another way, pretty silly.

“I don’t want a deep chasm between natural and supernatural. They are both part of the universe that God made, and they are woven together. So the fact that something is “spiritual” doesn’t make it inspired. Inspiration, of the kind described above, has ceased. But we still have spirits and souls and bodies, and the way they all are connected (within each man and between all men) is not something that we should allow materialistic atheists to define for us. The revelatory gifts have ceased. That does not mean that it is impossible for a man to be fey.”

Let’s grant all that for a second. If a man is fey, he ought to be fey subject to the Scriptures, in the service of Jesus Christ, for the glory of God’s kingdom and the benefit of the Body. He ought — not to put too fine a point on it — to behave generally in the way described in 1 Corinthians 12-14, the same way anyone should use any ability. That is, he should use his gifts lovingly for the edification and growth of the Body.

And what might such fey-ness look like? Well, it might look like…

  • knowing things about people or situations that the person “shouldn’t” know
  • preternaturally deep understanding, knowing what to do when the person shouldn’t have that kind of insight
  • an unusual degree of trust in God for improbable things to come to pass…but they usually seem to
  • an ability to make people feel better by touching or spending time with them, a pattern of people getting well with unusual speed around him/her
  • an accrual of other inexplicable happenings around him/her
  • a spooky ability to call out the secret desires and longings of a person’s heart

In other words, it might look like something you could describe as a word of knowledge, word of wisdom, gift of faith, healing, or prophecy…hmmm.

So when Grandma always seems to know when one of the grandkids gets hurt, even though she lives 900 miles away, what are we to call that? When a lady in the church is able to deliver on-target encouragement consistently to people whose life circumstances she could not possibly know, what are we to call that? When a man is able to identify the internal makeup calling of people he’s just met, turn them to living in the kingdom of God, and leaves in his wake a trail of transformed lives, what are we to do?

I submit we should kick the failed cessationist theological project to the curb and admit that the Spirit is doing, right in front of us, things which correspond to the words the Spirit used to describe such doings in the first-century church. Which is to say, we can either use the vocabulary God gave us, or we’ll have to make something up. Like “fey.”

Strong Magic Takes Blood

14 July 2017

My essay, “Strong Magic Takes Blood” was published at Theopolis Institute.  Take a look. 

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.