Unpopular Repentance

21 March 2023

We have a pretty good idea of what a Sunday gathering of the early church looked like (hint: a lot like 1 Cor. 14:26). This fact is near-universally acknowledged among New Testament scholars, and totally ignored by church professionals. What we do is widely different from what they did, everybody who’s ever looked into it knows it, and nobody cares even slightly. My friend Shawn noticed this a few years back, but just wrote up a lovely little article illustrating the point using commentary on 1 Cor. 14 from a wide variety of denominations. It’s worth your time to read it.

The ensuing discussion has been interesting.

  • Someone chimed in with an extended argument about how her very standard American church service really is very participatory — singing songs and listening to teaching is not passive at all, according to her — and so she doesn’t see the need for all this fuss about making things more participatory.*
  • Someone else warned that in his experience, studying early church practice invariably leads to a kind of legalism, where the student of the early church is now filled with demands that we must do things in the same way.**
  • Another observer wondered if any of this really mattered: perhaps the American church is simply attaining the same goals the early church did, but by different methods.***

I could go on, but what’s the point?

What’s so striking about this conversation was the sheer scale and variety of excuses for refusing to engage the discussion. The bottom line, to my eye, is simple: we’re comfortable with what we’re doing, and we’re simply not interested in a conversation that might result in changing something. The tribe that raised and trained me talks a good game about following Scripture rather than tradition, but the truth is that we have our own tradition that we protect as ferociously — and dishonestly — as the most ardent Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox partisan.

We need to be comfortable with repentance. We tell ourselves that we are, and it’s true, for the obvious sins — adultery, fornication, theft, hatred, envy, gossip, like that. But we need to get comfortable with repenting of the more respectable failures like complacency, valuing “the way we do it” above Scripture, the arrogance of thinking we have nothing to learn about church praxis from the New Testament. Nothing could be further from the truth.


*Answer to #1: As a sometime preacher, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate her zeal for active listening when the preacher is talking! But this is nothing to the purpose. If we acknowledge that what Paul told the Corinthians to do is widely different from what we do of a Sunday morning, then it’s that gap we’re talking about.

**Answer to #2: While that’s certainly a danger, it occurs to me that there’s another possible interpretation besides “legalism.” Imagine a southern plantation owner in 1830 warning a Bible scholar that studying the slavery issue closely invariably leads to a very legalistic strain of abolitionism! Maybe there’s a reason, ya know?

***Answer to #3: If the American church were actually attaining the sorts of results the early church did, that would perhaps be a valid question. But they were a martyr church, and we’re…well, most of our church people are stagnant babies, most of our pastors don’t know how to disciple someone, and most of our young people ditch the Christian faith before the end of their first semester at Leviathan State University. With results like that, perhaps the methods of that early church bear looking into….


No Coffee in Israel

14 March 2023

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

He Planned to Succeed

7 March 2023

John tells us his purpose in recording the signs Jesus did: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (Jn. 20:30-31)

John is unique among the books of the New Testament in that it contemplates an unbelieving audience. Does that mean that once we believe, we have nothing further to learn from the book? Not at all!

In a modern evangelical setting, we tend to think that John’s evangelistic purpose means it’s a gospel tract – when they believe, John has accomplished what he set out to do. Not quite. John is not a modern evangelical, and this is not some 100-word “Ticket to Heaven” pamphlet.

John intended to succeed, and he had no intention of leaving his new, baby believer readers to their own devices. His gospel is meant to be read, believed, and then re-read as a believer. What happens when they believe? John tells us: “…and that believing, you may have life in His name.”

This “having life” thing — how does it work? Well, John’s already told us that too: this is not something that happens when you die; the life Jesus gives begins now, when you believe (3:36) and continues forever (5:24). If John convinced you before you got to 20:30-31 — which he’s certainly trying to do — then your life has already begun!

Moreover, Jesus has already told us that simply possessing life is not His goal for you: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” And earlier: “He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures have said, out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.”

How does one live abundantly, you ask? Especially now that Jesus is gone?

The Last Discourse to the rescue! In 13:1, John frames the discourse in such a way that it also advances his evangelistic purpose, but let’s not miss what this whole teaching is. Starting in 13:31, Judas has left the room. Jesus is speaking only to believers — the 11 faithful disciples — and He’s teaching them how they will live when He has returned to heaven. As we listen with their ears, we learn how to conduct abundant lives today.

So listen! I just sat down and re-read John 13-17. I’d encourage you to do the same today.

Taking Another Swing

28 February 2023

I’ve taken up the matter of pleading “descriptive, not prescriptive” to avoid actual narrative hermeneutics before…but apparently I didn’t hit it hard enough, so we’ll be taking another swing here. So let’s talk about this.

“Descriptive, not prescriptive” is such an oversimplification, even in narrative, that it’s practically lying by omission. Applied consistently, it would undermine Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in Matthew 19, Paul’s case for justification by faith in Romans 4, the case for the priesthood of Christ in Hebrews 7, and many other crucial passages.

Let me explain: If we consistently apply the “descriptive, not prescriptive” rubric to biblical narrative passages, then…

  • We respond to Paul’s argument from Genesis 12-17 in Romans 4: “What Rabbi Paul fails to understand, you see, is that the events of the Abram narrative – promise before circumcision – are descriptive, not prescriptive. You can’t just run away with a thing like that and decide it applies to you.”
  • We respond to Jesus’ application of Genesis 1-2 in Matthew 19: “Rabbi Jesus, of course, makes the same mistake in applying Genesis 1-2 to complex contemporary problems of marriage and divorce.”
  • We respond to Hebrews’ application of Genesis 14 in Hebrews 7: “The anonymous author of Hebrews attempts to draw from the simple facts of the Melchizedek account a prescription for bypassing the divinely inspired Levitical priesthood, but what he fails to grasp, of course, is that the Genesis account is descriptive, not prescriptive.”

Now of course, we actually don’t do any of that,* although here’s a little challenge for you: go ahead and take your “descriptive, not prescriptive” reading of Acts and show how it differs in any significant respect from the three above dismissals of the plain teaching of the New Testament. I’ll wait….

As I say, we don’t apply the principle consistently at all, because this is not really a matter of principle. We’re happy enough to ignore our blanket proscription on applying narrative when we like the application. We just trot it out when something makes us uncomfortable – some idiot wants multiple wives because David had them, or someone wants to actually emulate the church order Paul describes, or sing what the early church sang. “Descriptive, not prescriptive” is a handy–if lazy–substitute for having an actual hermeneutics of narrative and having to discern what faithful application looks like.

I don’t mean that everyone who invokes “descriptive, not prescriptive” is lazy. Some of them are (otherwise) hardworking exegetes whose training failed them by not teaching them how to exegete narrative (I understand — my training didn’t cover it either!) They’re following their teachers, who bilked them out of a chance to productively read the 2/3 of the Bible that is narrative. There’s a kind of tragic sincerity to some of these folks, in the same way there would be to a devout village synagogue member who really did believe the gold sanctified the altar, because his rabbi told him so. But devout as the person might be, the position deserves scathing mockery.

All this gets particularly rich when we turn to the book of Acts. Here, we’re not talking about some other period of history where things were genuinely different – before the Fall, say, or Israel under the Law. We’re talking about the founding of the Church. Pleading “descriptive, not prescriptive” about Acts would be like pleading “descriptive, not prescriptive” about the War for Independence, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. It’s our founding! We need not all go about in tricorn hats to believe that our founding history and documents have important prescriptions for us.

It’s amazing how theological conservatives understand the prescriptive nature of America’s Christian founding, but can’t grasp the book of Acts in the same way. Unfortunately — as is generally the case with a hermeneutical cancer like this one — the slimy little thing won’t stay where they want to keep it (in the narrative passages alone). I saw a guy just this week opining that he didn’t see how it made sense to “model yourself off an obscure passage in a letter to a categorically messed up church.” He was talking about the prescriptions for church order in 1 Corinthians 14.

I can’t wait to see him apply the same rubric to 5:1-3!

*We know that we’re justified by faith because Abraham received the promise before he was circumcised. We know that severe sin after justification doesn’t cause us to lose it, because God didn’t impute sin to David after he committed adultery and murder (Romans 4). We know that we shouldn’t divorce for “incompatibility” because from the beginning it was not so (Matthew 19). We know that we should follow Jesus rather than going over to Judaism because Jesus has a superior priesthood – and we know that because Levi paid a tithe to Melchizedek (Hebrews 7).
While we’re at it, we know that we should not continue in sin that grace may abound because Jesus died and rose, and we died and rose with Him.

All They Got Was Lunch

21 February 2023

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

I never know what to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Against It

14 February 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overemphasizing God?

7 February 2023

In the run-up to the panel discussion on the Holy Spirit that my friend Chris hosted for Gulfside Ministries, I was mulling over a series of questions that he was planning to toss to the panel. I had a strong opinion about one particular question, but just for fun, I decided to toss the questions to my apprentice and see what she thought. I didn’t tell her any of what I was thinking; I just said “I have the list of talking points for that panel tomorrow — want to see it?” Like me, she’s a theology nerd, so of course she did.

She looked them over, and pinged on the same question I had. “There seems to be on one hand an over-intellectualizing of the faith that minimizes the HS as well as an overly-mystical approach to the faith that overemphasizes the HS. Perhaps not minimizing or overemphasizing but something else. In terms of major errors, is this a proper framing?” She read the question, pondered for a moment, and then asked, “How does one overemphasize a person of the Godhead?”

How, indeed. I made my case for reframing the question in that discussion, which you’re welcome to watch, but there’s a piece of it I want to develop here.

What is it that we think the Holy Spirit does? Do we think that He tries to get us to do irresponsible, disorderly things? Is it the case that we need to hem the Spirit in with Scriptures to get him to behave?

No. Holy Spirit is not some slightly better behaved Bacchus who’s going to drive us mad for His own personal amusement. He is the God of the universe. It is He who inspired the Scriptures to start with. When an assembly (like Corinth) goes completely bananas to the point that those who are outside the church come in and it seems that everyone’s lost their minds (you can read about this in 1 Cor. 12-15), it is not because they “overemphasize the Holy Spirit.”

It is because they are far from Him. In their theologizing, they may talk about the Holy Spirit all the time, but they’re liars, aren’t they? The Spirit does not lead you to commit sin. The Spirit is a God of order, not confusion. What they are doing, these people who “overemphasize the Spirit,” is blaming their own stupid and irresponsible excesses on the Spirit. It is precisely because they are failing to follow the Spirit’s leading that their excesses have a chance to creep in: “I say then, walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh, for the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh….”

The Spirit lusts against the flesh. The Spirit is at war; He wants all the territory for Himself. And He’ll take it, if we let Him. When we insist on going our own way, all manner of disobedience creeps in as a knock-on consequence. We cannot avoid being the puppets of our lusts apart from the Spirit.

So walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.

Holy and Just and Good

31 January 2023

An acquaintance in one of the theology groups I hang out in asked what a Christian’s view of the Law should be. I put a little time into a response, and it seems worth sharing here:

The Law is holy and just and good, just like the man said. Sometimes we have a hard time seeing that, and that’s a good occasion to pray for God to open my eyes, that I might see wondrous things in His Law.

The Law was the rule of communal life for Israel, and as a Gentile it compels me to come and marvel: Who has such wise laws as these? It’s an inspiration. As a voter with a voice in public policy in my Gentile nation, I can’t simply seek to bring Israel’s law over wholesale, but if I’m at the city council meeting or the voting booth asking WWJD?, how dumb would it be to ignore the one time God explicitly set up a civil law code?

The Law is principally for the sinner, not the righteous, but it’s also Scripture, and all Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. The Law can sanctify in the sense that it set Israel as a nation apart from her neighbors (and that’s not nothing), but it can never sanctify in the sense of making me more like Christ. However, to the extent that I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, I will fulfill the Law truly, because Jesus leads me to love God and my neighbor, and in so doing, I cannot help but fulfill the Law.

Trying to use the Law in check-box fashion to gain God’s favor — either for admission to heaven or to gain his approval in this life — sets the Law against faith and against the Spirit, but faith is not against the Law. It’s faith that moves Paul to call the Law holy and just and good, faith that moves the Psalmist to meditate profitably on the Law, faith that allows me to participate in Christ, who fulfilled the Law for me and — through love of God and neighbor — fulfills the righteous requirement of the Law in me.

Guilt Without Accusations

17 January 2023

How do you talk with contemporary people about guilt? If you grew up with a fairly traditional Christian set of categories, it can be tricky. In a self-consciously post-Christian world, people tend to blow off the things you would normally say. There’s a place and time to preach a barn-burner, but in general, my goal is to speak about guilt without taking the role of the Accuser. The devil’s got that one covered. It’s not like he needs my help.

The fact that guilt and brokenness don’t fit into the contemporary sense-making scheme doesn’t mean that contemporary people have somehow eliminated them. One of the dangers of thinking everything is a “language game” or everything is socially constructed is that you think you can change reality just by changing language. Guilt and shame are enduring realities; people today are as guilty and broken as a preconversion Luther — but unlike Luther, they’ve been deprived of the language to make sense of it all. Because that language has lost currency, there is no generally accepted way of talking about those realities, but people try to put them into words anyway. I spend a lot of time listening for what language this person is going to use. Some common options include absorbing the sin into their identity (“I guess I’m just a cheater”), attempting to positive self-talk it away (“I just gotta stop focusing on the negative”), or aspirational sociopathy (“Eh, shit happens; gotta move on”).

If I can help someone put their guilt into words, then I’m not the one who’s accusing them of something. They introduced the problem; I’m just helping them sort it out. At that point, I can introduce sin by way of contrast:

“We used to talk about this kind of thing as sin. We’ve kind of ruined the word; anymore the only time we talk about sin is when we’re selling desserts or lingerie. But it used to mean something. In the classical sense, sin doesn’t mean you had 5% too much fun or some crap like that. It means missing the mark. It means that you were built for a purpose, and you stepped outside the design parameters in a way that’s gonna hurt you and others around you. See, God is not a tight-shoed, overly regimented Father who says ‘Don’t play!’ He’s a caring Father who says ‘Don’t play in traffic.’

“What I’m hearing you say is that you did play in traffic, and you got hurt, and some other people got hurt because of you. You can’t make it all better, and you don’t know what to do about it, because the culture you live in has deprived you of any way to make sense of that and deal with it.

“The good news is that what’s happening in you is actually totally normal. You’re not crazy or negative or neurotic; you’re actually built to notice when you’re outside the parameters in damaging ways. Just like physical pain is designed to tell you when something is wrong, guilt is moral pain designed to tell you something is wrong. Just like with physical pain, the purpose is not to punish you for doing a bad thing; it’s to motivate you to correct the problem. Even though the culture is a little brain-dead on this, God hasn’t forgotten how to deal with it.”

From there, I can go straight to what the cross and the resurrection really mean, or I can take a more priestly role and lead them into a direct confession of their sin in the situation we’ve been discussing, in order to then talk about the cross and God’s promise of forgiveness and life.

Lots of people have heard of Jesus dying on the cross; many of them don’t know what it means. When Jesus was crucified, every sin, every weakness, every sickness, every character flaw, every dark thing that separates us from God, all of it was nailed to the cross with Jesus. Died on the cross with Jesus. Was buried in the heart of the earth with Jesus. And when God raised Him from the dead three days later, Jesus did not come out of the grave dragging along a Hefty bag of your crap. It’s gone. It’s done.

Anything that you think is separating you from God — He’s already tended to it. You could let it go today, right now, and be free for the rest of your life.

Epiphany: Just Jesus

6 January 2023

Epiphany is the day we celebrate Jesus revealed to the Gentile world. Nothing Mary and Joseph could have said or done would have convinced the Magi – wealthy, powerful astrologers, philosophers, and rulers – to pay attention to a toddler. But God pulled it off. Through a combination of Balaam’s fourth prophecy (1400 years before Jesus was born), Daniel’s rise to chief of the Magi in the Babylonian captivity (900 years after that), and signs in the heavens, God led them from their home in the empire next door to a construction worker’s house in Bethlehem. What did they find there? A treasure hoard, a magical amulet, scrolls brimming with ancient secrets? No. Just a person, Jesus Himself. And they worshiped.

Mary and Joseph, for their part – what did they get? Did they get a vindication that salvaged their reputations with their families? No. They got gold, frankincense, and myrrh – symbolic gifts to be sure, but more importantly in the moment, unexpected wealth with which to fund their flight to Egypt to save their child’s life. 

God gives us enough. He doesn’t often give us what we expected, but He gives us what we need. When God reveals Jesus to you, it will be the same way: not necessarily what you like or how you expected, but what you need, when you need it. Say yes – Jesus is enough.