When the Church tries to save God: Good intentions born from bad theology have failed abuse victims

When the disjointed surges of awakening to the realities of sexual abuse and assault began to gather into a more identifiable #metoo movement, I knew it was only a matter of time before that momentum carried us to something like #churchtoo. The Catholic Church absorbed the lion’s share of the attention for years, but there has never been any doubt that the same nauseating secrets lurked in the shadows of many other Christian spaces. Now the headlines are catching up, extinguishing any lingering hope that we can stand at a distance and shake our heads at the sins of other institutions and groups, religious or otherwise. This week it’s the Southern Baptists, but they won’t be the last.

The reckoning is coming. I propose we say this together: May it come quickly.

That invitation will not land softly for many of us because we are keenly aware of the cost that accompanies exposure of abuse in the Church. Every new revelation cuts into the reputation of Christianity and into the capacity of many to believe. These stories will kick the one remaining leg out from under the fragile faith of some. They will strengthen the resolve of others to never set foot in church again. They will confirm the suspicion of many that Christians—even Christian leaders—are no better than anyone else [spoiler alert, they’re right] leading to the common but rarely properly-labeled theo-philosophical practice of What’sthepoint?ism.

Most Christians who care that the power and significance of our faith is commended well to the world want to avoid and resist these realities. This is not something we feel instead of wanting to protect and care for victims; it is something we feel in addition to wanting to protect and care for victims.

For people who believe Jesus offers real hope to the world, an altruistic desire to keep the news about His Church good is understandable. But I’m also convinced it’s one of the strongest forces at work when Christians make poor choices about how to respond to cases of suspected or confirmed abuse, a dynamic that is fueled by an unarticulated but spectacular error in our understanding of the Gospel we’re trying to protect.

Before I climb behind that particular pulpit I need to make a confession: I understand why this happens. No, I don’t just mean I understand it intellectually. I feel it. It makes sense to me. I’ve thought this way and sometimes still do.

I need to put that confession in writing so that I acknowledge the struggle and temptation. There are real complexities involved in these stories, and our social media diatribes about all the “awful people who let this happen” have to be followed by a more nuanced understanding of the ways good intentions rooted in a subtle but persistent lie are just as culpable as bad ones in this epidemic.

Here’s the lie: Christians—and particularly Christian leaders—are tasked with protecting the work of God, the ministry of the Church, and the reputation of the Gospel from the errors of people inside the Church and the attacks of the world outside the Church.

That’s a lie.

Read it again if you need to. It’s still a lie.

It’s just not true, but if you’ve spent any amount of time in the Church, you’ve almost certainly encountered or absorbed some amount of some version of that lie. I know I have.

Let me be clear that my particular temptation is not to justify the cover up of abuse. Thank God I’ve never been in a position of responsibility for dealing with an adult who was abusing or assaulting someone. So I’m not confessing that I’ve been a part of what you’re reading about in the news.

I am confessing that I’ve worried that people knowing about some sin, some mess in the church will negatively impact what others think about our church or the Church or even Jesus himself. I’m confessing that my worry has made me more likely to hope that certain people just won’t talk about certain things in certain circles. Sometimes those things have been my own mistakes. Sometimes they’ve been the missteps of others.

Too often we crave secrecy as a kind of anesthesia against the pain that accompanies the horrifying revelation that I’m a mess (and so are you). In the in-house vernacular, I’m a dirty sinner. Sure, I acknowledge this theologically, but I don’t want people to actually know it’s true in my day-to-day life. I don’t want you to look at me and suspect that I’m thinking the things about people I don’t like that I’m, you know, thinking about people I don’t like. [Not that there are people I don’t like.]

The worst (and very real) version of that is about self protection and pride. But there’s also voice-of-good-intentions in my head that sounds less like self-interest when it says, “You know Jesus is real. You know he’s changed you, just incompletely. You know there’s power here. But if people see this dark part of you, they’re going to be a lot less sure about those things being true than you are.”

I not only think those things sometimes, I’ve thought them today.

And I don’t just think them about myself. I think them about the whole Church. I hear about a rotten Catholic priest, and I don’t think less of Catholics. I just wish people didn’t have to wonder what it means about God.

I see some famous bro-dude claim to be a Christian, and I cringe knowing sooner or later he’s going to say or do something foolish and the word “Christian” will appear in the first line of the TMZ story.

Someone leaves our church over some disagreement in belief or personal offense, and I don’t worry that them telling their story will make our church unpopular. I grieve that we couldn’t see the reconciling power of the Gospel realized, and I hate that it might cause others to wonder if that power is real.

The voice-of-good-intentions says, “If people see these ongoing imperfections in professing Christians, they’ll become What’sthepoint?ists. How can we keep these things quieter so that people don’t get the wrong idea?”

What the voice doesn’t say is that every single one of our attempts to maintain perceptions that don’t reflect reality eventually prove malignant. They may produce a semblance of external peace for a while, but the roots of a false reality will always grow something false. And then what do we have to offer the world but a silly false god of our own making?

It’s a toxic and self-defeating cycle. Our efforts to protect God and his Church from the truth, when exposed, are the best evangelists available for What’sthepoint?ism. If the Church is a place where terrible things can still happen and the Church’s answer is to pretend they didn’t happen so everyone will think the Church is a place where terrible things can’t happen…I mean really, what is the point?

If the Church is a place where terrible things can still happen and the Church’s answer is to pretend they didn’t happen so everyone will think the Church is a place where terrible things can’t happen…I mean really, what is the point?

Our belief that we should work to protect or salvage God’s image or His Church’s reputation from human sin needs to find Jesus.

I mean this in two ways. First, the Gospel upends the lie that the mission of the Church is to establish and protect the credibility of the Church. The Gospel insists that the mission of the Church is to point to the cross, which is a nagging reminder that the Church has no credibility except the credibility of Jesus.

The exposure of my sin, no matter how heinous, doesn’t erode the integrity of Jesus or his cross; the exposure of my sin is an ongoing case for humanity’s inability to remedy what ails us without Jesus and his work on our behalf. The Church is the colony of people gathered around Jesus, and our power and uniqueness is God’s presence, not the presence of moral perfection. When the Church acknowledges that there is still darkness within us, we insist, “This is the point! We need a rescue and a redemption that can’t be sourced from our own spirit.”

Then there’s this: When abuse happens and we decide that we shouldn’t risk public exposure of sin in order to “protect the ministry” or “not damage God’s work,” we sacrifice the vulnerable on the altar of reputation. Abuse in the Church is ferocious wound upon wound, and when we silence victims or minimize the evil at work in and through perpetrators, we misrepresent God and his response to those who do harm to his kids (more on that momentarily).

How much have we bastardized our concept of “God’s work” when we find ourselves more concerned with how things will look than with protecting and honoring children and women who have suffered the kinds of evils we struggle to even make ourselves read about? What do we think God’s work is again?

What version of Jesus do we imagine would work to avoid bad press for the Church even if it meant the possibility of other women and children having their bodies and souls violated?

Why do we believe that the priority of Jesus is protecting the reputation of particular leaders or ministries when he demonstrated time and again his indifference to our frantic need to defend our institutions and reputations and his particular interest in seeing and lifting up the broken and bleeding?

“Don’t get in the way of children; let them come to me. The kingdom of heaven belongs to them,” Jesus says.

“You have great faith,” Jesus publicly tells the woman whose presence is an embarrassment. “Your daughter is healed.”

“Whoever does harm to one of my little ones is better off getting the Tony Soprano treatment in the river,” Jesus says. [loose translation]

True religion, James says, is caring for vulnerable women and children.

Why do we believe that the priority of Jesus is protecting the reputation of particular leaders or ministries when he demonstrated time and again his indifference to our frantic need to defend our institutions and reputations and his particular interest in seeing and lifting up the broken and bleeding?

Are we getting it yet? There is no ministry—there is no “God’s work”—that doesn’t join Jesus in the protection and healing of the broken and vulnerable.

In a time that demands we be specific, let me be clear: There is no ministry—there is no “God’s work”—that lets grown-ups who we know or suspect will do harm to other vulnerable people become someone else’s problem in order to spare ourselves or our church or the Church trouble or embarrassment.

Our temptation to believe otherwise is just bad theology. I’m not talking about theology I don’t agree with; I’m talking about bad theology. About forgetting that the Gospel frees us from needing to hide sin and compels us to readily confess our individual and collective sin and need for divine intervention.

The problem is not simply bad people. The problem is any people who have fallen prey to the slow creeping lie that we are expected or able to save God or his reputation.

If we’re going to turn from the sins that got us here, our sins have to come into the light and encounter Jesus, who always saves and redeems us and who never needs us to save or redeem Him.

Blessed are the peacemakers (or how to spot God’s kids)

In the fall I began leading our church community through the Sermon on the Mount, the longest recorded teaching of Jesus. We have been moving deliberately through the introduction to the sermon, a collection of blessings known as the beatitudes. What follows is an adapted transcript of my sermon on Jesus’s words about peacemakers. Since it originated as a sermon, I’ve retained some repetition and methods of emphasis that are more natural to speaking than writing. Imagine you’re hearing me preach it…or be thankful that you’re not.


Jesus begins the most famous sermon of his life by declaring that an assorted band of misfits and weaklings are the ones who are truly blessed: the poor and empty, the sad and broken, the quiet and unimpressive, the desperate for God’s help, the merciful, the ones who are unattached to power or money. It’s a strong start for a new preacher soon to claim to be King of the world, don’t you think?

Next he adds this:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Before exploring what he means by peacemakers, I want to give some attention to the substance of this particular blessing – being known as God’s children – because I think its attachment here is crucial.

Being a child of God is the very core of our identity, which John addresses clearly in a couple of places:

But to all who received him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.   -John 1:12-13

John says that the primary transformation in the identity of those who believe in Jesus is they become children of God.

Later he writes:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.   -1 John 3:1

Here he highlights that God’s love results in us being called children of God, using the same language Jesus uses in Matthew 5.

So both being a child of God and being called a child of God are of primary importance to people who believe we are God’s and that Jesus reveals to us both how to live and why we are living.

When we believe in Jesus, he gives us the power to become children of God, which is about both a change in our identity and a capacity for living into that identity. That gift is God’s great show of love for us.

This blessing from Jesus for peacemakers (they will be called children of God) is tied to our core identity as people of faith.

We’ve been through a similar discussion a lot over the years, so I’m not going to belabor this point, but let’s again be clear that Jesus is not saying “you earn becoming a child of God by being a peacemaker.”

The Gospel is about God’s extravagant love for us such that Jesus died for us while we were still sinning. We are made in God’s image, that image in us is cracked and broken, and God repairs the brokenness through Jesus. That and that alone makes us God’s children. As John says, it’s a gift he gives us because he loves us.

However, Jesus clearly makes a statement here that the peacemakers will be called children of God. So what does he mean?

As we discussed in the previous beatitudes, we don’t receive God’s mercy because we’ve been merciful; we embrace a life of mercy because we understand that we were given mercy when we most needed it. We don’t see God because we make our hearts pure enough; the gift of faith enables us to take our eyes off of everything else we tend to look to for security and peace and life and fix them on Jesus, and in him we see God.

Jesus is making a similar kind of statement here. You don’t become God’s child because you make enough peace to earn your way into the family. This isn’t a mantra for some sort of bizarro mafia. In the mob, you have to make enough of the right kind of havoc to become part of the family. This isn’t the peaceful version of that.

No, because God has loved us so much – because he has given us the power to become children of God – we receive that gift. And as always with Jesus, the gift of being God’s child isn’t meant for selfish gain, but for becoming part of God’s family and participating in the work of the family.

And the work of God’s family is – not as an afterthought or secondary goal, but as a primary purpose – the work of God’s family is peacemaking.

Colossians 1:15-20:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Take note that this is primary doctrine about Jesus, not secondary teaching.

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

And now we, the Church, are brought into it. We are caught up in what’s true about Jesus here.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

“In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” – pay attention, Paul says, because here is what happens when ALL the fullness of God comes into humanity:

God reconciles all things to himself.

How? By making peace.

And how does he make peace? Through the laying down of his own life.

So let’s take note of three truths:

  • This is God’s nature and his work among us – the making of peace by way of self-sacrifice.
  • Jesus is the head of the Church, the Church exists to follow and be like him in the world, so we are all bound to his way of self-denying peacemaking.
  • Not only is this our model – we’re going to follow this way which will turn us into peacemakers – but this is the fuel for all peace we will make. In other words, our efforts toward peacemaking won’t merely be mimicry; they will be supernaturally empowered by the work of Jesus on the cross.

Paul again, this time in Philippians 2:1-11:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

If you have any contact with or benefit from Jesus at all, embrace and perpetuate the way of peace. Moreover:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

If you follow Jesus, peace and power come not through conquering or winning – not through any of the means the world and its systems tell you are necessary for peace and power – but through service and sacrifice.

Listen, for us to believe that Jesus overcame and is overcoming all the darkness and disorder in the world by way of the cross … to know that “He completely humbled himself, therefore God exalted him and gave him the name above every name” [exaltation and empowerment were born out of humility and sacrifice] … to hear Jesus and the Scriptures call us into that way as the purpose of our lives, the road to true peace, and only means by which God’s goodness and order will enter the world…

For us to hear and believe all of that and still accept and even cling to the ways of the world in which power, money, and violence are assumed to be necessary for creating order and establishing peace is an absurdity of the highest order.

For us to hear and believe all of that and to then reject or resist making peace in the world and in our own immediate spaces, relationships, and community by laying down our lives – believing we have the weight and supernatural peace-making power of the cross behind us – is to miss the point of being a child of God.

You are not God’s child, John says, because you’re his biological descendant or through your will – not because you decided you really wanted to be a child of God. You’re a child of God because God loved you enough that he gave himself away for you, and instead of waiting for you to be behave or be peaceful, he became the way of peace for you.

And no one and no structure in this world will be reconciled any differently.

You cannot acquire enough power for yourself and we cannot acquire enough power for – and I think this message is crucial –

We cannot acquire enough power for the Church or Christianity to impose peace – real peace, God’s peace – on the world.

We cannot accumulate enough of the world’s goods or ascend high enough in the world’s power systems to bring people into proper order or make them good.

That will only happen through the peacemaking of the cross, and now that you’ve become part of the family, you are alive to participate in the family business – making peace by giving your life away where and when peace is needed.

John again:

Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.   -1 John 2:4-6

We don’t get to opt out. We’re his kids. We’re alive because he made us alive, and we exist to embrace him and his way.

So what does that look like in action?

I think when we bump up against these reminders, we tend to shift into peace-keeping mode. We assume this means we’re supposed to avoid disagreement or arguments, bottle up our questions and frustrations, resist change, talk people down, and generally try maintain a status quo that is, if we’re honest, most peaceful to me or to us.

But there’s both a human problem and a Jesus problem with that notion. The human problem is that we can’t maintain a kept peace. As I try to keep the peace, eventually my frustrations or someone else’s will boil over, the illusion of peace will disappear, weariness will set in, and we’ll give up on the idea that peace is even possible.

The Jesus problem is that he didn’t come to keep the peace. He made peace, and His peacemaking was disruptive – both to the religious system that tried to keep peace by way of power for their own good and to the hearts of men and women who insisted real human peace was their freedom to do whatever made them happy, whether or not their lives were reconciled with God’s purposes for human flourishing.

Peacemaking is not peace-keeping. In fact, peacemaking is often disruptive, especially as we enter into the way of Jesus, which is to make peace by giving ourselves away. That sometimes will lead us into a moment or movement whose purpose is to create peace for a person or a people who are being deprived of peace, not by God’s ways, but by the world’s ways.

Case in point: Last Monday was Martin Luther King day. Dr. King and his movement were disruptive, but he was a peacemaker. The argument that his kind of disruption wasn’t creating peace was made by people who already had the peace they wanted in way the world was ordered that time.

But me having the peace I want does not mean that the need for peacemaking has come to an end.

See, as those comfortable with their own peace accused Dr. King and the movement of being unreasonable and impatient and disruptive, black men, women, and children were being treated like animals. And there was nothing peaceful about that.

Jesus didn’t die on the cross to keep the peace of those conditions. He didn’t shed his blood to create a peaceable society where humans made in his image are treated as subhuman.

Jesus’s peace is a reconciling peace, and the work of the civil rights movement was bringing that reconciliation to earth as it is in Heaven.

And Dr. King and so many women and men around him aimed to make peace the way Jesus made it – by prophetically speaking into this world God’s ways and God’s truth while being willing to suffer alongside those who were suffering, believing that the power in that suffering was the very power of the cross, which is always at work to fuel God’s peace through sacrifice.

That is one of the enduring gifts of the civil rights movement to the Church and the world, I believe: it showed us that laying down our lives does not mean losing God’s truth or Way and taking on the way of the world.

I could go on for weeks about what this peacemaking looks like in the day-to-day, but for time and simplicity’s sake, I want to offer a couple of overarching biblical guides with a question or two (or three) for you to consider for each.

My request is that you hear these scriptures and questions as for you and not as challenges for the people you disagree with or about whom you think “I’ll be at peace with them when they…” This is for you.

James 1:19-20, 22:

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

Questions: What is my guiding instinct with people I don’t understand: critical words? Anger? Or listening?

How and with whom can I actively become a disciple in the way of Jesus to be slow to speak (including my inner monologue) and quick to listen?

Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Questions: If it’s true that I don’t have to respond to people and powers I disagree with or fear with with self-protection or by overpowering them, who do I need to learn to see differently and what will it look like for me to be Christ’s ambassador of reconciliation to or for them?

Please don’t duck the difficult answers.

For some of you answering these questions will turn your attention toward people who are very conservative and voted for Donald Trump.

For some of you answering these questions will turn your attention toward people who are really liberal who insist Trump is #notmypresident.

And without getting into a whole ‘nother sermon about what the Bible says about race and refugees and poverty, for most if not all of us, some part of answering these questions ought to turn our attention toward people who have different color skin than us or who have a lot less money than us or who came to our country fleeing oppression or poverty in some other part of the world.

Perhaps we can simplify the questions a bit and ask:

Who is not at peace in my community and my world?

What do I believe heaven looks like for those people?

How can I spend my life joining God in bringing that reality of His kingdom in heaven to earth for them?

I think understanding these two things – in Christ everything old has become new and now God is making his cross-shaped appeal through us – is the crux of living the Christian life, probably always, but certainly in our moment.

Paul says “he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”

You aren’t alive – not at any moment – for yourself or for any cause other than the cause of Christ.

And the cause of Christ is the reconciling of the world to God, which is now happening through his children, the peacemakers.

You can choose to have it said about you at the end of your life that you were a good Democrat or a good Republican – a good liberal or good conservative or libertarian – and you can offer all kinds of legal and economic and social reasons why you stood on that side with integrity.

But Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians aren’t the ones who are called the children of God; peacemakers are. And woe to us if we are known as the best, most consistent and well-intentioned [insert cause label here] and not as peacemaking children of God.

The point isn’t that being any of those things is wrong.

The point is this: no cause but the cause of Christ – anchored in the work of Jesus on the cross and the Kingdom that cross creates – is worth your identity.

When Jesus said the peacemakers “will be called” the children of God, none of us know for sure how much he meant “called by God” and how much he meant “called by the onlooking world God intends to reconcile.”

But I am certain that in our day and age, the world is not going to look at a group of policy-makers or power-acquirers or wealth-protectors and say, “Oh look, God’s children! Yeah, I see it. I see Jesus in their way.”

The world is going to see the nature of God in the peacemakers. Not the peace-keepers who just try to get everyone to get along without bugging each other. But the peacemakers – the ones who shrug off all our other labels and concerns that aren’t deeply rooted in enabling God to make his appeal of “Look at Jesus!” through us.

If that group of people can rise up and be known for speaking into this world God’s ways and God’s truth…

If that group of people can be known for suffering alongside those who are suffering and demonstrating that the power in that suffering is the reconciling, redeeming, life- and identity-changing power of the cross, which is always at work to fuel and empower the creating of God’s peace…

Then I think they – we, with God’s help – will be known as God’s children, both by the onlooking world and by God himself.

Isaiah said it this way:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
-Isaiah 58:6-8

…to dust you shall return: an Ash Wednesday confession

I’m a 38-year old pastor, and I attended my first Ash Wednesday service a few hours ago.

I did not become a Christian (or a pastor) within the last 364 days. I’ve simply spent my entire lifetime of Christianing in tribes whose liturgy has not made space for this ritual. I was well into adulthood before I realized it wasn’t an exclusively Catholic practice, and while I crosswas not raised to be particularly suspicious of Catholicism (I recall my dad taking grief from a few deacons and other grumblers in our small town West Texas baptist church when he and a few other pastors included the local Catholic priest in the community-wide Easter sunrise service), I admit that I made no real connections between my own faith and the sight of ashes on the foreheads of my Catholic friends. I suppose I just thought it was something weird they did at their church; God knows (and so did I, even as a kid) we did lots of weird things at our church.

[Topic-relevant case-in-point: One year my brother, Will, and I split the role of Jesus in the church Easter cantata — me the mostly-naked (in front of all of my classmates), dying and then dead Jesus with a bad wig and fake beard on the cross, and Will the resurrected, glittered (yes!) Jesus with a bad wig and fake beard. See, weird. And let’s be honest: I could have stopped at the word cantata and we would’ve had all the weird we need.]

In more recent years, I’ve lived among and helped lead a community of Jesus-types that resides somewhere in the sparsely populated terrain between the evangelical mainstream, the institution-defecting home churchers, and various spiritual traditions steeped in more ancient Church liturgy (and between lots of other things, too). Though we continue to recover some of the beautiful rhythms of communal worship and formation that we lost along the way (most of them well preserved by that latter group), including the observance of Advent and Lent, we are still finding our way through our inexperience and ignorance and simple discomfort, discerning what is and what is not meant for us, for now. And, at least for now, we haven’t started burning palm branches and rubbing the ashes on one another’s heads.

So I don’t know which you’ll find stranger – that I have spent nearly forty years in the Church and never have experienced this sacred start to the forty days of immersion in the suffering and death of Jesus or that as the pastor of a 15-year old church that doesn’t really observe Ash Wednesday, I wandered into a 100-year old building housing a 150-year old Episcopal congregation and had a priest I’ve never met cross my forehead with ashes.

I find both a little strange, so take your pick.

But today I needed to hear someone say to me: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

It occurs to me that perhaps you’ll find that the strangest confession of all.

I needed that for a thousand jumbled reasons, but mostly I needed it because it is true.

I have spent days—no, weeks…months immersed in the truth that I have very little to do with my existing; my being what I am, being anything at all, is completely beyond my control. Sure, I can poke and prod at the life I’ve been given and change its shape and its trajectory a bit. But my simply being is not up to me. I didn’t bring me about, and I cannot fend off my ceasing to be as I am. I am living, yes, and in some sense living as I choose to live, but just as surely I am dying.

Today I needed my body and soul to enter the ritual of that truth: the words, the smear of ashes, the cross, the bread, the wine. I needed the sound of death. I needed its feel, its shape, and its taste. I needed it not because I want it, but because it is true, and a life detached from the truth is over long before any physical death.

I am dying — and I am dying a thousand little deaths on my way to the one that ultimately will return me to dust.

“This,” you say, “is why we don’t do Ash Wednesday. We’ve been saved from all this darkness and death.”

Except we haven’t just been saved from it. We’ve been saved by it. We’ve been saved through it. Our hope is not that God will keep us from death, but that Jesus, acquainted with the way, will walk with us in our dying. That he will not just show up at the end and declare us exempt, but that he will carry us through death. That he will not simply give us a fantasy of never dying, but that he will give us the imagination to see the life we gain in our death — and in our many deaths along the way. That he will remind us that we are alive because he raised us from dust, and that we can only be fully alive if we trust him to raise us from dust again.

So I died a little more today, starting with my illusion, long fed by busyness and distraction and fear and denial, that I am more than dust – that I am not dying. What remains in the ashes of that death is the truth spoken by the God who crafts life from dust by way of death, the God who invites us to find life by losing it:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Why don’t we want to be called God’s children? // Part 1: What I don’t know about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman

Blessed are the peacemakers—they will be called children of God.

That’s what Jesus said. I’ve lived among Christians for 38 years and a month or so, and I’ve picked up on a couple of things that seem to be sort of a big deal. Believing what Jesus said is one of them. So I’m wondering: why don’t we want to be called God’s children?

I’ll come back to that.

I don’t know what happened the night George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. I’m not sure anyone does. I’ve read, “Only Zimmerman and Martin know what happened that night,” but I’m not sure even that is true. I’ve waded through the aftermath of many situations far less traumatic than this one and often found that the participants and witnesses tell strikingly different stories. Without exception, we are subjective creatures, and all of our experiences inform and shape how we interpret every moment of our lives. That does not mean, of course, that we should not pursue truth and justice; it simply highlights the need for a system designed to sort out the complicated convergence of subjective humans when laws are broken and people are hurt. And if we are honest, it reminds us that even our best ideas and efforts for justice are limited by our humanness. We are not robots programmed to spit out emotionless narrations of fact. We are complex beings bursting with feelings and opinions, some that we choose and some that choose us. That’s just the way it is, and it is wonderful and awful.

My sense of the nuance and complexity of these moments — including both the events of Trayvon’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal 504 days later — makes it extremely difficult for me to comprehend the certainty of so many of the words I’ve read and heard since Saturday night. I’ve watched people with no connection to either person celebrate the verdict as absolutely right or decry it as a mockery of justice, and either reaction seems fundamentally illogical unless those folks watched the entire trial. Please do not react to something I did not write. I did not write that deep emotion about this situation is illogical. I’m talking about that emotion being directed at a verdict rather than at the deeper, longer struggles we are tying to a jury’s legal conclusion.

A trial verdict is a very specific response to very specific questions asked of jurors about not what transpired between Zimmerman and Martin, but what transpired in the trial. I wonder how many people understand that it is not an opportunity for jurors to express their opinions about what Zimmerman or Martin did on February 26, 2012. The jury was bound by excruciatingly detailed instructions and by the laws of the state of Florida to ultimately discern whether or not the state proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Ask anyone who has served on a criminal jury whether or not their verdict was perfectly in line with their opinion of what really happened, and most will answer negatively.

The system is designed, however imperfectly, to protect against the whims of our emotions and opinions and set a high standard for convictions. That system does fail, and it is not free of the prejudices and inequities that still permeate our society. But in the trial of George Zimmerman, the jurors were not asked and should not have been expected to remedy systemic injustice over and above the facts they were presented with respect to Florida law which, for better or worse, makes it legal to shoot and kill someone for various reasons, even away from your home. They were asked and should have been expected only to determine whether or not the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin according to laws the jury did not write. This is not me criticizing those who didn’t like the verdict. I think this truth is just as relevant to those who were celebrating the acquittal. If you did not watch the trial (and I didn’t), you simply don’t know (and I don’t) whether or not the jury’s verdict was reasonable or whether it represented justice in this case based on what transpired in the trial. (If you did watch every minute, certainly your opinions of the verdict have deeper roots.)

Again, none of that is intended to suggest that people should not have reactions to the death of Trayvon Martin or to the man who killed him. I would be troubled if we did not have strong feelings about this dreadful situation. I just think we’d be wise to understand that most of those reactions have less to do with the legal nuances of a trial and more to do with the crippling fractures in the way we relate to one another as humans.

Even at our best, we are reacting to the frustration of being black and having to wearily explain again and again that Dr. King’s dream hasn’t been fulfilled just because the laws have changed. We are reacting to the confusion of being white and feeling like we are expected to apologize for our skin color, even if we don’t believe we are racist. We are reacting to the insanity of laws that encourage gun ownership in an effort to curb violence. We are reacting to the reductionist politics of gun control that blame an object for human behavior. We are reacting to our inability to shake the feeling that Trayvon’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal reinforce what most black men intuitively know: that forty-nine years and two weeks after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time still makes you a suspect, not just for the cops, but for any self-appointed neighborhood protector carrying a gun, so you better watch your back. We are reacting to our exhaustion from trying hard to learn how to speak and act appropriately with folks of other heritages and races, only to discover that we’re still offending people.

And at our worst, we’re just belligerent and unwilling to consider any viewpoint but our own, secretly rejoicing in these opportunities to crank out bombastic rants on the internet or at parties. We simultaneously feed and consume the verbal and visual anger-porn that is the lifeblood of a media whose primary bias is neither liberal nor conservative, but greed. And pissed off people sell.

This dysfunction is not limited to issues of race, violence, and justice, but that is a cocktail that offers our collective compulsion to tear one another apart a direct route the surface. The result is what we’ve all experienced over the last few days — people talking over and at one another in ways that deepen divides and move us further away from anything resembling peace and human decency.

You don’t have to believe what Jesus said or even believe Jesus is real to look at all of that and wish for something better. That instinct transcends race, creed, and all of our other differences. Unless your soul has been completely seared by so much heat and so little light, some elemental pulse of humanity in you has to know we weren’t made for this.

(Tomorrow — Why don’t we want to be called God’s children? Part 2: Making peace in a culture of verbal violence)

Gay Marriage and the Posture of the Gospel

Perhaps because of what I do for a living, I have been asked about gay marriage many times over the last couple of years. With very few exceptions, each of the questions I’ve been asked is some variation of the same question: What is your position on gay marriage? Some ask to make sure I’m on the right side of the issue; some ask because they are conflicted about which side is right, but they feel pressure to choose a side (and to choose the right side, obviously).

I understand the desire to be right. I understand the pressure to choose. I understand that right and wrong still matter. The question that all of the questions seem to be asking still makes sense to me.

And yet the more I am asked the question, the more I am convinced that we are so collectively obsessed with position we have forgotten that Jesus has at least as much to say about posture. My observation of the Church is that we usually give our first and best energies to formulating, asserting, and defending our positions, and on our most charitable days we footnote those positions with a small-print reminder to “speak the truth in love” or some such. And conveniently, we have so convinced ourselves that our positions are right that we believe the very act of articulating them is love. Posture is mostly an afterthought.

This is a problem, and it’s not a small one.

Orthodox Christian belief insists the Gospel is necessary because of God’s position on our broken ways of living (sin). But the heart of the good news is God’s posture toward us as we continue to break things, including ourselves.

My position on gay marriage is that we ought to respond to the world around us the way God responded to us when we didn’t do what He thought we should do. Even if we believe gay marriage is at odds with the way God intends us to live, and even when we feel compelled to say so, we ought to assume the same posture toward the world that God assumed toward us (and that He assumes toward the world). That posture looks something like this:


If Christians have been convinced of anything, it is that…

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

But here’s the sucker-punch of a next sentence that we tend to ignore in our myopic rush to leverage our salvation to assume and assert correct positions in the world:

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Paul describes God’s posture toward us this way:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

And boy do we love that verse when it’s talking about Jesus dying for me.

But if it’s true that “whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did,” and “in this world we are like Jesus,” then the punch-line is unavoidable.

No matter how correct your position, if your posture toward a world you believe to be “still sinners” is anything other than a love that stubbornly refuses to condemn, but instead gives itself away to point to Jesus giving himself away, you are on your own. You are not standing on the truth of the scriptures or the shoulders of Jesus. Right position without the posture of God revealed in Jesus is not the Gospel.

Carry on with the discussions of gay marriage, morality, and culture. We need those conversations. Just remember that if we claim the name of Jesus, we are not ambassadors of moral positions or good behavior; we are ambassadors of a transcendent reconciliation possible only in Jesus, who made God’s love for sinners known not by a posture of condemnation, but of cross-shaped love.

A post-script word to those outside of the Church looking in: If you have been on the blunt end of a professing Christian’s position on this or another issue and were not shown the sacrificial posture of Jesus demonstrating God’s love for you, that person was not representing Jesus. They probably thought they were doing the right thing, but just as I have done dozens of times, they were confusing position, posture, and probably a few other things. They need Jesus as much as you do, and so do I. Forgive them and forgive me, please.

Depreciating humility: The importance of being the best at being right

The words below, originally published on GRACE’s blog, contain my thoughts about an issue I consider critical to the life of the Church. They were prompted by a specific situation that continues to develop, both within a particular stream of the American Church and in broader venues, including the national media. While I believe this post will make sense even if you aren’t aware of the very public issues surrounding Sovereign Grace Ministries and C.J. Mahaney, I have posted some context and the story of how I came to write this piece down below. Feel free to read it before or after continuing with this post.

I empathize with those inclined to steer clear of these kinds of dramas; I usually am one of you. I am unable to turn away this time for two reasons: the details of this story are too grievous, and I believe they expose a deeper, growing epidemic within the Church that is in utter opposition to our identity as the people who exist to say to both one another and the world: “This is who Jesus is, this is what He is like, and this is how He loves you.”

I haven’t slept well in a week. I just cannot shake some of the recent developments in the unfolding saga of apparent abuse and, by many accounts, systematic breach of pastoral trust within Sovereign Grace Ministries. So in my bleary-eyed, restless state, I have two confessions:

I am a bit annoyed that this story is keeping me up at night.

I am just as annoyed that this story isn’t keeping more of us up at night.

See I have no real affiliation with anyone involved — not the victims, not SGM, not C.J. Mahaney, and not Together for the Gospel or most of what is commonly referred to as the neo-reformed movement. While I have many friends who travel in those circles and we share some common roots, I’m far enough removed that I should be able to grieve over the harm done and move on. To be frank about it, I honestly don’t have time to be preoccupied with the drama of other churches. I am a pastor among a beautiful, healthy, but predictably flawed community of believers in Texas, and we have plenty of drama all our own, thank you very much.

Still, I can’t move past this one, and not only because of the horrendous nature of the sexual abuse allegations. I’m stuck because this is not just a story about one church or one pastor or one ministry. This is a story about what could become of any church and any pastor and any ministry. More to my point (and insomnia), it is a story about what is becoming of many churches and many pastors and many ministries.

Let me be clear, the allegations of sexual abuse in this story are horrifying, and stories like these are more personal to me because my wife was abused as both a child and a teenager. By God’s mercy she lives in remarkable freedom from the weight of those experiences, and she graciously and gracefully tends to others who are hurting and broken in those (and many other) ways. But for her and any survivor of abuse, the journey toward freedom is long and indescribably grueling. For those of us who know that road, whether from our own pain or from sharing in the suffering of those we love, stories like these still cause us to ache in a different way. There is little that simultaneously grieves and angers me more than abuse, oppression, and the perpetuation of shame by those claiming to be the Body of Christ.

But that’s not what’s keeping me up at night — at least it’s not the whole of it.

As soul-churning as the stories of abuse are, and though I have every reason to be consumed by them, there is another scratch on the record of my heart and mind that won’t let me move on, and the line that keeps playing over and over is this:

It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor [oppressed]
    than to divide the spoil with the proud.

This is the killing-me-softly, lesser known sentence following one of those verses from Proverbs we’ve paraphrased and misused for so long it no longer has much bite for us (“pride cometh before a fall”). It is a sentence that haunts me.

That began the night that Al Mohler, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan released their statement regarding C.J. Mahaney and the partial dismissal of the civil suit against him and SGM (of which he is a named defendant). Just before I went to bed, I read their words on the Together for the Gospel facebook page, along with dozens of comments that were removed from public view a few hours later (a bizarre, suspicion-arousing move given that almost all of them were simply civil expressions of disappointment from folks within the camp). [Edit: I have since discovered that they also edited the statement before they reposted it on the T4G website. I detail a bit of that in the post below this one.]

I read. I reread hoping I had missed something crucial. I hadn’t. And then Proverbs 16:19 began its relentless march…

It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor [oppressed]
    than to divide the spoil with the proud.

The chasm between these words and the statements released by both Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition is immense. Boz Tchividjian’s important response to the the two statements rightly diagnoses much of that gap, and I applaud his courage. Like him, I believe both statements reflect either naiveté or overt blindness to the need for a deeper humility on the part of Mahaney and his friends, even if only a fraction of the accusations are true — even if only what already has been acknowledged is true.

I fear those public statements reflect the private thoughts of men who, whether by will or ignorance, are clustering around the spoils of the proud when their calling is to be of a lowly spirit with the poor and oppressed. Even if Mahaney is a victim of some false accusations, his rush back to the platform and the efforts of his friends to protect his place at the head table ought to prompt some deep, Gospel-driven questions about how insulated some of these men seem to be from the thousands of sincere, Gospel-loving followers of Jesus they lead, formally and informally.

While the temptations to love being right, to yield to pride, and to tolerate or even celebrate arrogance are always lurking for the Church universal, I believe that they present some unique challenges among a group who assumes a vanguard identity (in this case the preservation and resuscitation of the true Gospel). In other words, in a movement where correcting error is a central task, these temptations loom large. And, when they are indulged, they easily can be mistaken for virtue and become almost self-sustaining.

The cycle goes like this: The urgency of the cause reinforces the importance of being right, which further fuels the notion that the most important people in the cause are those most skilled at being right in front of the most people. And if that is true, then those people must be protected and kept on stage at almost any cost.  Question them without an air-tight case of disqualifying sin, and you risk being sacrificed for the greater cause.

It’s all very logical. And it’s very common. It just isn’t biblical.

I don’t intend to imply that this is a significant struggle for all (or even most) churches who would place themselves somewhere in this particular camp, but I believe it is sufficiently prevalent, chronic, and serious to demand a wider conversation. While the details of this case and its context matter, again, this is not an anomaly of the neo-reformed movement. Other local churches may be free of the sexual abuse stories apparently so prevalent in SGM’s history (though these too are painfully widespread), but there are many, including some of our flagship evangelical churches led by beloved, well-known personalities, who are following very similar plot lines. The church’s identity becomes deeply entangled with the names and teachings of popular Christian leaders who members of the church will never truly know (and therefore whose authority is rooted as much in personality and skill as personal character). Narrow, extra-orthodox notions of what one must believe and do to be “right” crop up. Pastors, elders, or deacons sit at the head of a relatively impermeable and inaccessible group of leaders, and, often with success and mission as justifications, become either removed or authoritarian (or, far too regularly, both).

When shepherds refuse or fail to live humbly among the people – when leaders are consumed by agendas (however noble those agendas may be) other than caring for the community of God’s people “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thes. 2:7) – when pastors are inaccessible, unapproachable, or just too busy to listen to and know their people…these are not secondary ecclesial breakdowns. They are an abandonment of primary pastoral calling that signals a stunning disconnect from the evangelical ethos Jesus declared (Matt. 22, Jn. 13) and prayed into being (Jn. 17) and that John affirmed as central to Gospel identity (1 Jn. 3).

Our zeal and skill for expanding the doctrine of the Gospel simply cannot obscure or replace our humble submission to life in the crucible of the Gospel’s work — the community that the Gospel creates where the greatest become least and the last become first. (And if that does not mean that the vulnerable, the weak, and the exasperating folks in our churches get at least as much attention from us as our successful friends and heroes, I do not know what it means.)

The Church is not first and foremost an audience for our sermons and our books; it is the people of God among whom we are our real selves. If we live above or apart from that Church in any way, our doctrines and words about the Gospel become theory and conjecture, not a testimony to a truth we know by experience. As pastors, teachers, leaders, and authors in the Church, for the sake of our churches and for the sake of our own souls, we ought to weigh carefully the words of the Lord delivered through Obadiah:

The pride of your heart has deceived you,
    you who live in the clefts of the rock,
    in your lofty dwelling,
who say in your heart,
    “Who will bring me down to the ground?”
Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
    though your nest is set among the stars,
    from there I will bring you down,
declares the Lord.

If those words expose us to be drifting from the simple and clear message of Jesus, the time for coming clean — that time was yesterday. Yet by God’s mercy we have been given another day, so may we heed the prophetic call:

Repent, for the Kingdom of God, which belongs to children and the lowly of spirit who dwell among children, the poor, and the oppressed — that Kingdom is at hand.

Note: I hope to add another post soon, including my thoughts on discernment in publicly addressing allegations like those made against Mahaney and others with care for the possibility of false accusation. More to come.

Context for the post above this one: Depreciating Humility

Though I wrote this post to offer some context for the one directly above, it absolutely is not meant to serve as an objective or comprehensive summary of the events to which it refers. In fact, it is a subjective telling of both my perception of those events and the story of why I’ve written about them at all. Summarizing this very complex saga fairly and briefly seems an impossible task, so consider this my explicit acknowledgement that the words to follow do not accomplish (or seek to accomplish) that task. I defer to Google to fill in the gaps for anyone interested in doing the research to be further informed.

Over the past few years, Sovereign Grace Ministries, which describes itself as a “family of churches passionate about advancing the Great Commission through church planting” and self-identifies as “evangelical, Reformed, and charismatic,” has come under heavy scrutiny. Numerous stories of sexual abuse within SGM churches have surfaced, accompanied by descriptions of a culture in which abuse was overlooked and minimized and children were not adequately protected or cared for. The details of the allegations, both of the abuse and the way children were treated by church leaders responding to the abuse, are brutal. Some criminal charges already have been filed, and there are indications that more are forthcoming. A class action suit also has been filed against SGM, two of its churches, its school, and several pastors and leaders. Some have questioned the motives of such a suit, and I will be the first to acknowledge that litigation between Christians is always complicated and unpleasant, no matter what its motives. That said, those behind the suit insist its primary goal is to bring the truth to light and prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Intertwined in this story is the personal legacy of C.J. Mahaney, the former president of SGM and founding (again former) pastor of SGM’s original and long-time anchor church (thought it recently ceased affiliation with SGM). Mahaney is named in the suit and is accused in broad and specific ways of overseeing the cycle of negligence and shame within SGM churches (including the church he pastored). Alongside the legal issues, Mahaney faces other significant and growing criticism of his personal and pastoral dealings with members of his staff and church. His long-time right-hand-man, Brent Detwiler, left SGM in 2009 and went public with very detailed descriptions of Mahaney’s behavior, and they are complicated and, on the whole, not terribly flattering. Detwiler says he attempted to address these issues privately over a long period of time, but after being ignored and manipulated, decided a public rebuke was his only recourse. How accurate his claims are is a matter of debate. Some of Mahaney’s friends and admirers insist he has acknowledged and repented in all necessary ways and that his character is sound. Yet stories corroborating and adding to Detwiler’s continue to surface, many of them painting a very different picture. In 2011, Mahaney took temporary leaves from both his church and SGM; the former became permanent, the latter did not…and then it did after all.

About a year ago, after 30 years in Maryland and with both legal and ecclesial storms brewing, SGM and Mahaney picked up and moved to Louisville. They were welcomed publicly by Al Mohler, a friend and ministry partner of Mahaney’s and the president of Louisville-based Southern Baptist Seminary. Along with some other long-time associates, Mahaney planted Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, where he is now the senior pastor. Mahaney and Mohler are two of a number of nationally known leaders of the growing cross-denominational movement of churches who are Reformed in doctrine and whose primary public banner is a return to the centrality of the true Gospel (that sentence contains several terms that beg definition, but I am summarizing). These leaders have formed alliances — Together for the Gospel (T4G) and The Gospel Coalition (TGC), among others — and they host conferences and churn out vast resources related to their collective missions. This spring, with a lawsuit pending and many unanswered questions about the other public accusations against Mahaney, he preached at Together for the Gospel’s national conference. He was not a minor presence, functioning in both in a keynote role and as a participant in multiple panels. It’s fair to say that move raised some eyebrows, even within the camp.

On May 17, a Maryland judge dismissed the civil suit because the statute of limitations had expired for several of those filing suit. In Maryland, if you are abused as a minor, you must file suit within three years of turning 18. The dismissal was not a surprise to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, as a challenge to the application of the statue of limitations is actually part of their case. They argue that the statute is unreasonable since it takes years for most victims of sexual abuse to acknowledge and address what they endure — a fact completely void of controversy among those who deal with the aftermath of sexual abuse. They also argue that blocking such cases from continuing based on the statute actually rewards abusers and those who protect them, since their primary goal is to prevent the abuse from being reported until it’s too late for anything to be done about it. To be clear, the court made no ruling whatsoever on the truth of any claims in the suit; it simply declined to hear the case because of the statute of limitations (and, for two other plaintiffs, because they describe their abuse as happening in an SGM church in Virginia, not Maryland). On May 28, a Motion to Reconsider was filed. If the judge rejects it, appeals to higher courts will follow. The legal part of this is a long, long way from being over.

On May 23, six days after the initial dismissal, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan, the other three founders of Together for the Gospel (Mahaney being the fourth) released a statement in support of Mahaney. When initially posted on its Facebook page (captured here), that statement read, in part:

A Christian leader, charged with any credible, serious, and direct wrongdoing, would usually be well advised to step down from public ministry. No such accusation of direct wrongdoing was ever made against C.J. Mahaney. Instead, he was charged with founding a ministry and for teaching doctrines and principles that are held to be true by vast millions of American evangelicals. [bolding for emphasis is mine]

Comments — most of them apparently from within the T4G camp — came quickly, almost unanimously expressing disappointment with the statement. More than one person pointed out that the second sentence I have quoted here (“No such accusation…”) simply is not true, pointing out numerous examples to the contrary. Others noted that the third sentence (“…he was charged with founding a ministry…”) read like a serious distortion of the allegations made against Mahaney by those who claim to have been abused in his church and ministry, then manipulated into not reporting the abuse and, in a number of cases, sitting with their abuser in order to “forgive” them and move on as though nothing had happened. Apparently uncomfortable with the open discussion on the statement, T4G pulled it (and all comments) down, later reposting an edited version on its main website. The two bolded sentences above were altered or removed, though the remainder of the paragraph was left in tact:

For this reason, we, along with many others, refused to step away from C. J. in any way. We do not regret that decision. We are profoundly thankful for C. J. as friend, and we are equally thankful for the vast influence for good he has been among so many Gospel-minded people.

The morning after the T4G statement was released, three leaders of The Gospel Coalition released a very similar statement.

Before I continue, I want to be very clear about something: I have not met C.J. Mahaney or the men who authored those statements. I do not know their hearts, and I do not condemn them. In fact, I love them. This does not prevent me from doing whatever small thing I can do to say out loud that I believe this has been fumbled, and not only in the form of the public statements.

I believe an ethos has crept into our churches (and movements of churches) that, despite our claims to take the Bible and its authority seriously (and usually literally), has de-literalized much of what Jesus actually said. At the top of that list is His very clear description of the movements and coalitions the Gospel creates: communities where the best and brightest among us are (literally) not assumed or portrayed to be more important to Jesus or His cause than the least and where the most feeble and vulnerable are (literally) treated with particular care and celebration, never condescension.

If the teachings of Jesus are taken literally, men and women of apparent significance will search for ways to dwell among and, yes, even behind the overlooked. Precisely because what Jesus describes here runs counter to both human nature and the flow of social darwinism (alive and well in evangelical culture), it must be embraced and modeled with clarity and enthusiasm by those who lead. This is not easy; I struggle daily to figure it out and trip over the inertia of what comes naturally as often as not. But this upside down Kingdom cannot be preached with any credibility until we choose to live into its reality, and that means turning in our exemptions. I love C.J. Mahaney and the men standing with him, and I have labored without hesitation to maintain a spirit of respect and charity toward them. I simply believe they are wrong, and I believe this matters too much to the Church to not talk about it.

Whether or not all claims in the lawsuit (or the accusations leveled by Detwiler and many others) are true, I found the tone, timing, and content of these two statements to be more than a little troubling, and I wasn’t alone. T4G pulling down their statement and erasing the public response (which was almost universally civil, just not affirming) only compounded that. As you can see the in screen capture of the original T4G statement, Boz Tchividjian was one of those who commented. This was the first time I had heard of Boz, though his name caught my attention because I know of his brother, Tullian, a Presbyterian (PCA) pastor and author in Florida. I also knew that Tullian is the grandson of a 94-year old North Carolina preacher named Billy whose name might ring a bell.

To be honest, Boz’s post piqued my curiosity because I knew Tullian had some loose affiliations with some of the other leaders of this movement. I want to be clear that he was not involved in either statement and he is not, to my knowledge, officially connected to either group. I don’t intend to even passively link Tullian to the statements. I just knew he overlapped their circles some, and it was coincidence enough to cause me to pay attention to what Boz wrote.

The next day (May 24, though somehow I did not see it for a few days), Boz authored what I believe is an important response to the T4G and TGC statements: Where are the Voices? The Continued Culture of Silence and Protection in American Evangelicalism. I was moved not only by Boz’s objections to the statements, but by his call to the Church to wake up and speak up. His words poked at the part of me that already was restless over what I saw unfolding. In a weird blur of gratitude and frustration, I fired off an email to Boz intended to thank him for what he wrote. I ultimately did get around to that, but only after several rambling paragraphs of my thoughts on what is happening in the Church. Unusual for me, I didn’t even bother to reread what I sent him. In fact, I couldn’t find his email address on the GRACE site, so I guessed at it, unsure if my note would ever make it to him, and hit send.

That evening, I stood in the kitchen and whined to my wife about the way this thing was eating at me. Why can’t I just move on? There’s nothing I can do about this anyway. We talked about the ever-present pastoral dilemma of rightly dividing time and attention. I expressed frustration that something like this was invading a season of deep contentment in serving among our local community. Though my love and concern for the Church universal continues to grow, in recent months I have been less distracted than ever by discerning my role, if any, in what was happening “out there.” What was happening right here — among our people and our cities — has been calling enough for me. (I even wrote about it recently.) Suddenly being so affected by something that had no obvious immediate connection to our right here was a pain. And even if this was important, what could I do about it? “Not much” seemed to be the answer. So we ate.

Two hours later, I received a reply from Boz. He thanked me for my note, said some other nice things, and asked me if I would tweak it a bit and allow him to publish it as a guest post on GRACE’s site. Honestly, I was a little shocked. I like to write, and I confess that sometimes when I write to someone I admire or would like to impress (because I’m still trying to give Jesus that part of me that wants to impress people), I hope they like what I write. But this honestly never crossed my mind when I made my raw external processing Boz’s problem.

Perhaps no one but me will find this sequence of events terribly significant, but as I told Boz, his response sounded more or less like a, “Hey, dummy” from God to me. Yet again it appeared God was doing something unexpected that I could not orchestrate myself and I was the dummy who was surprised. Though I had no idea what impact my words might have, it seemed foolish to then side-step whatever avenue I’d been offered to address something I really believe matters. And I really believe this matters.

The result, of course, is the post that was published on GRACE’s site and that now sits above this one, here on my site. I already have heard or seen numerous folks, including various pastors and Church leaders, express the same or similar sentiments. Some are happy to do so publicly; others are less convinced that what they say or write matters or they aren’t eager to wade into the fray. I understand that. I’ve felt and acted out of both before. Yet my sincere hope is that my words will prove to be but a few among a gathering answer to Boz’s question: Where are the voices?

Note: I hope to add another post soon, including my thoughts on discernment in publicly addressing allegations like those made against Mahaney and others with care for the possibility of false accusation. More to come.

Part Four – Farewell charity: The day Rob Bell and John Piper broke the internet

This is the fourth in a series of (probably five) posts reviewing not Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, but the public conversation about that book. More than that, it is my attempt to examine the ways we (Christians) engage both one another and the concept of biblical and historical orthodoxy when we feel meaningful truth is up for grabs. I encourage you to read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of this series before you read the words below.

Please take heed: The words below are built on an assertion that love – the kind Jesus models and empowers and the kind that the New Testament reveals and insists on for God’s people – is a core doctrine, essential to orthodoxy and not conditional to culture or season. I spent 1,691 words making that case. You don’t have to read those 1,691 words, but this post is the direct offspring of that one. Don’t be a knucklehead. Go read the other one (or three) first.


This conviction that real, biblical love – for God and for other people – is a core Christian doctrine brings me full circle. I began this series examining how charitable (or uncharitable) we are, not only in discussing doctrine in a given moment, but in drawing broader conclusions about someone’s orthodoxy or lack thereof. I observe in our tribe an irony: We seem to be quite charitable, at least in some cases, to those who taught and practiced apparent heresy with respect to the core doctrine of love while we are often less charitable to those who teach or practice heresy in other areas.

What I mean is if love for other humans in the way the New Testament describes it is a core doctrine in any sense, we have permitted men and women across the centuries to violate that doctrine in some egregious ways – and consistently, not as a matter of momentary sin later repented of – yet affirmed them as orthodox, even elevating some of them as the vanguards of orthodoxy.

I’m not wondering if we should be meaner to those folks; I’m wondering if we should extend to other heretics the same grace we extend to love-heretics. I’m wondering if in understanding the centrality of love to orthodox Christian doctrine, we might more humbly assess the state of our own doctrinal purity and, in so doing, be inspired to love other heretics as we love our(heretical)selves.

At the risk of being redundant (I dare you to accuse me of being redundant for repeating what Jesus said was most important), Jesus said the most important instructions from God – the ones on which all the law and the prophets hang (or, one might say, the foundation of orthodoxy) – are to love God and love your neighbor. Right? And Jesus did not then suggest that your neighbor should have an impeccable theology in order for him to merit you showing him the kind of love that you show yourself. Right?

Both Jesus and John elaborate on this picture of the orthodox Christian life by telling us that real obedience to that command – real love for God and for others – means laying down your life in service to God and to others. “Love as I have loved,” he says. And how did he love? “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

My rough summary: Jesus saw we were bumbling heretics. This is not an untrue way of describing ourselves, certainly at least in our “still sinners” state of being – people not affirming what is true in word and/or deed. Even while were still heretics, Jesus loved us enough not only to tell us the truth, but also to lay down his life to restore us to the truth. Then he told us – and gave us the Spirit to empower us – to love other folks in the same way he loved us. Then Paul broke it down in even more detail as I have described before – you know, all that crazy talk about unrelenting forgiveness, humility, selflessness, bearing all things, and so forth.

So one would assume in our diligence to ensure our orthodox theologians are, indeed, orthodox, we would require of them adherence to this core doctrine. Love. Jesus-love that rejoices in the truth and lays down its life to reconcile people to the truth and demonstrates forgiveness and patience and so on, all because it recognizes this reality: If I know any truth at all, it is only because the Truth loved me enough to lay down his life for me. Orthodox theologians have to teach that, right?

If you aren’t smelling the trap by now you might have an errant smeller, because I’m not very subtly setting this up to make a run at a legend of orthodoxy. Before I do that, let me clarify something – I’m not taking cheap shots. What I’m about to describe really happened. And it’s really a problem that we have to deal with honestly. I know this story has been used as a “gotcha” to discredit a particular stream of theology over the years. Know this for sure: that is not my goal or my heart. I have no agenda with respect to the theological viewpoint derived from this fellow. If this guy is one of your heroes, bear with me. I believe the balance of what I’ll write about him will reveal love and grace if you’ll stay with me to the end. But I believe there is a fair point to be made in dealing in the facts, so give me a few paragraphs to try to make it.

John Calvin wrote Institutes of Christian Religion in 1536 and played a major role in the Protestant Reformation. Among Reformed Protestants, he is widely venerated as one of the most important theologians who ever lived. An entire theological system – one with enormous sway in the American church – bears his name.

Charles Spurgeon wrote about Calvin in his autobiography and had this to say of him:

Among all those who have been born of women, there has not risen a greater than John Calvin; no age before him ever produced his equal, and no age afterwards has seen his rival. In theology, he stands alone, shining like a bright fixed star, while other leaders and teachers can only circle round him, at a great distance — as comets go streaming through space — with nothing like his glory or his permanence.

Not to pick on Spurgeon, who I certainly admire, but that statement always has puzzled me. Spurgeon knew Jesus was born of a woman, right? It’s in the creeds and stuff. I’m sure Spurgeon did not mean to suggest Calvin was the equal of the Son of God and his moment of effusive praise just got the better of him. I can relate. Once in the summer of 1985 after watching The Karate Kid 17 times in 9 days at my cousin’s house I declared that Daniel Larusso had the best life of anyone who ever lived – he won the All Valley Championship, he lived near Golf N’ Stuff, and Elisabeth Shue was his girlfriend. Thankfully I wasn’t writing my autobiography at the time.

Anyway, you get the point. John Calvin is not lacking for esteem as an orthodox theologian.

A large contingent of Reformed, Calvinist folks (who obviously look to Calvin as soundly orthodox) are among those who are ill-at-ease with Rob Bell at the moment. Generally speaking, this crowd pays attention to truth, takes seriously the biblical instruction to defend sound doctrine, and engages publicly when they believe something meaningful is at stake. That description is not meant to be snarky in any way. Really. I’m just explaining the relevance of my aside about Calvin.

So here’s the rub. Calvin’s method for dealing with heretics was slightly more bloody than tweeting them farewell. During the Reformation, there was a Spanish theologian named Michael Servetus who was teaching what amounted to a non-Trinitarian version of Christianity. In essence, Servetus suggested that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not three separate divine persons, but that the Son and Spirit were essentially manifestations of the One God. He did not deny the existence, importance, or deity of either, and he did teach salvation through Christ alone by faith alone. But his teachings on the nature of Christ and the Spirit are not the traditional Trinitarian view.

Servetus wrote:

There is nothing greater, reader, than to recognize that God has been manifested as substance, and that His divine nature has been truly communicated. We shall clearly apprehend the manifestation of God through the Word and his communication through the Spirit, both of them substantially in Christ alone. The incomprehensible God is known through Christ, by faith, rather than by philosophical speculations. He manifests God to us, being the expression of His very being, and through him alone, God can be known. The scriptures reveal Him to those who have faith; and thus we come to know the Holy Spirit as the Divine impulse within us.

As you can see, he was orthodox in many ways, including in his view of salvation through Christ alone by faith alone, but he disagreed with both the common Reformation and Catholic views of the Trinity. For the record, I don’t agree with Servetus regarding the Trinity. I’m just describing what he did and did not teach.

Servetus also rejected Calvin’s strong doctrines of predestination, and he and Calvin got into a bit of a letter-writing war over their differences. It was more or less a 16th century version of what we’ve witnessed in recent weeks surrounding Rob Bell and his critics sans the iPhones, MacBooks, and marketing machines. The dialogue between the two deteriorated from tense to ugly. In 1546 Calvin wrote this to a friend:

Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive

There is no metaphor there. Calvin is saying: “Mike is asking to come talk with me about this in person, but I’m not going to invite him because if he comes, he won’t leave alive if I have anything to say about it.”

In 1553, Servetus, apparently looking for trouble, showed up in Geneva and sat in on one of Calvin’s sermons. He was recognized (which makes me think they had the internet already and Al Gore is a total liar because, really, how do you know what this guy from another country looks like in 1553?) and arrested. He was charged with heresy on two specific counts: (1) his non-Trinitarian teachings and (2) his disagreement with the practice of infant baptism. Calvin was not the chief “prosecutor” because he was in poor health at the time, but he affirmed that Servetus should be executed. Calvin favored beheading. They burned him alive instead.

Calvin’s post-mortem commentary was this:

Many people have accused me of such ferocious cruelty that (they allege) I would like to kill again the man I have destroyed. Not only am I indifferent to their comments, but I rejoice in the fact that they spit in my face.


Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.

It’s lucky for Rob and Zondervan that Calvin wasn’t born 450 years later than he was. They probably never would have gotten Nooma 2 out the door.

But seriously, if the underlying command of Christian orthodoxy is to love God and neighbor in a sacrificial-even-to-the-point-of-self-death manner and John Calvin killed a guy who taught salvation through Christ alone by faith alone but who was, in the opinion of the majority, off in some other areas including the then-essential doctrine of infant baptism, what does Calvin have to do to commit heresy against Christian orthodoxy?

No, really. What?

How can we embrace Calvin as a model orthodox theologian despite his unrepentant advocacy for killing a man, while bidding farewell to Rob Bell (who as far as I know hasn’t capped any suckas) because we suspect from a vague marketing blurb and video that his theology of hell isn’t quite right? A bad theology of hell matters, and it should be talked about openly. But how is Calvin’s error less grievous and more forgivable than Bell’s?

John Calvin wasn’t living under some different dispensation. He wasn’t operating when God was still doing the things he did in the Old Testament that don’t make sense in our modern context. He was living 1,500 years post-Christ, and this episode happened in his mature years, not his youth.

Stop and think about this for a minute. Who among us, according to Calvin, is truly orthodox? Let’s preemptively disqualify all the liberals, Arminians, Catholics, and undecideds and consider just the home team. How many self-described Calvinists these days reject infant baptism as the biblical mode of baptism? I know one or two. It seems unlikely that John would have affirmed such folks as orthodox Christians – much less good Calvinists – since he approved the execution of a man, in part, for such a belief. That leaves us with only the baby-baptizing Reformed crowd (some of whom are thinking, “it is not news to us that we are the only true Calvinists and, possibly, Christians”). Fair enough. Unfortunately, unless they affirm the execution of the rest of us, even their reformed Baptist brethren, they would “knowingly and willingly incur” the guilt of the heretics, according to Calvin.

I often hear quoted as the standard for us getting doctrine right Jude’s admonition that we “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” And man, I’m in on that. But if that’s my standard and your standard and Rob Bell’s standard, it was also John Calvin’s standard. Surely setting on fire a man like Servetus (or cutting off his head), then suggesting anyone who opposed execution for those determined to be heretics, is not what Jude had in mind. And if not, such an action – and all subsequent defense of it – is error. And if it is error, it is error not only in misunderstanding what “contend” meant, but in understanding the essence of the essential New Testament doctrine of love.

Some will have a visceral reaction to me seeming to be so hard on John Calvin, but modernize the story. Would a guy advocating the murder of theological rivals have a book deal with Crossway in 2011? I know he wasn’t the only Christian killing sinners in those days, but we simply don’t excuse our modern theologians such enormous deviations from biblical living and teaching because of their context.

If I may be frank, modern Calvinists certainly aren’t, by and large, known for their eagerness to excuse modern Christians enormous deviations from biblical living and teaching because of their context. I’m not picking on them. I don’t think any of them would dispute that observation. Most would embrace it, as they should.

If we credit Calvin with theological brilliance then we also must hold him accountable for what hardly can be construed as anything other than heresy, presumably largely a function of what was culturally normal at the time, with respect to both his involvement in the execution of Servetus and his unrepentant spirit about it after the fact.

If we still find space for Calvin in the realm of orthodoxy, it’s because of grace. Period. Grace he deserves no more and no less than fallible pastors, theologians, and other assorted jackasses today.

My point is not to undermine John Calvin. I easily could have picked on any number of other heroes of orthodoxy. If it were up to Martin Luther, we wouldn’t even have Jude’s command to contend for the faith because Luther opposed the canonization of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. No really. And thank God for Martin Luther (unless you are Catholic, I suppose, in which case you’ll just have to love us Protestants enough to afford us our own tainted history and heroes).

I appreciate the many tremendous contributions John Calvin made to Christian thought, theology, and practice. That’s not a token statement. I really do. I value him and learn from him and thank God for him. He also was a heretic with respect to what seems to be one of the most fundamental aspects of Christian orthodoxy. But we still allow his voice at the table. In some circles, he sets the table.

I am not uncovering any startling revelation, but at times it seems we have forgotten: even our heroes of the faith were just men. And we should rejoice in any such reminder as it sends us again scrambling for Jesus, our only reliable anchor.

See, Charles Spurgeon was wrong when he suggested that no age before Calvin produced his equal. Peter was his equal. Peter, who after eating, sleeping, healing, and praying with Jesus for years, denied him three times. Peter, whose treason and blasphemy Jesus forgave. Peter who – just days after swearing not to know Jesus – was chosen by Jesus to run point on a new little venture called the Church.

Peter was John Calvin’s equal. Why? Because he was a man, fully capable of error and fully capable, now only because of Jesus, of bearing God’s image in the world. The doctrines of grace tell us this quite clearly.

Peter. John Calvin. John Piper. Rob Bell. You. Me. Men and women created in God’s image, marred by sin, restored by Jesus, and living in the tension of perfect redemption indwelling imperfect people.

Might we learn from John Calvin’s life – or from Peter’s – that we would be wise to use discretion in dismissing people as irrelevant or, worse, malevolent to the Kingdom lest we pick the wrong moment of their lives to flush them completely?

Imagine with me for a moment that we have a Delorean, the flux capacitor, and 1.21 jigawatts of power (and if you can’t imagine that, borrow some of my faith – I have enough for both of us on this one). After brief stops in 1955 and 1984 for the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance and the All Valley Tournament, let’s dial up 16th century Geneva. When we get there, let’s have a conversation with one of Calvin’s contemporaries who believes his participation in and advocacy of execution for heresy is, in fact, contrary to the Scriptures and the Gospel.

What would you say to that person? Would you counsel him to brand Calvin a heretic and warn others to avoid him given his obvious and unapologetic violation of biblical teaching? Or would you suggest he bear with the man in his fallibility and find the value of his many other contributions to the Kingdom?

And what does your answer have to say about how you deal with men and women whose doctrine you find imprecise or blatantly erroneous today?

If you’ve made it this far, I thank you. I also know for some of you there is still a big “but…” in play. For me too. The New Testament warns about false teachers in various ways, and we can’t ignore that. We can’t just have a group hug and watch passively as anyone who says “Jesus” enough claims to speak for him, restrained from heeding biblical instruction with regard to error.

But I think the key to loving truth and loving people more purely is to learn to better discern and distinguish how we handle people and how we handle ideas.

And I’m suggesting that our public discourse reveals that we’re not there yet.

I’m suggesting that we need to be quicker to listen for longer and slower to speak (and write).

I’m suggesting we need to be slower to label and dismiss people for what we deem to be sins of wrong belief, even if the beliefs themselves bear addressing.

I’m suggesting that we look deeper into the future and consider, as Jesus did, that an error (or even two or twelve) of the moment is not the sum of a man or woman.

I’m suggesting that some of what we know that we know for sure probably someday will be determined to be incorrect – or at least incomplete – and that we should hope history will find us humble in our conviction, not eager to sentence dissenters to death, if not literally then – in the economy of Jesus – by doing violence with our words.

I’m suggesting we can – and must – be more intentional in our efforts to retain the union of love and truth even in our dealings with apparently poor doctrine. There is no question that the teaching of sound doctrine and the preaching of the true Gospel are essential to our obedient response to the Great Commission. We simply can’t exalt the Great Commission to the obscurity of the Great Commandments.

Jesus said all truth hinges on two truths: we were made to love God and love people. The New Testament further connects the commission and the commandments in teaching that love amongst the professing Church even in the face of meaningful disagreement is how the Church will be known – how the world will know Jesus is who he said he is.

And then there’s this: In the hours before he was arrested and executed, Jesus prayed for all who would believe in him to love one another fully – for us to be “perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” We have to quit running from that prayer while claiming to be people who are about evangelism and missions.

Coming in Part Five…Concluding (I think) thoughts on finding solid ground as people of love and truth.