Engaging the anti-critics

Some of us are convinced that AS’s prescription for deconversion will end up doing more harm than good. Should we still keep quiet?

Last week I tweeted a link to Michael Kruger’s response to a recent message by Andy Stanley (AS) in which Stanley asserted that a mature Christian faith can’t be sustained by “the Bible says so” mindset.

Since my massive following on the interweb isn’t a monolithic group of like-minded cynics, critics, and ministerial Luddites, I wasn’t surprised to see contrary opinions toward Kruger’s piece. What was unexpected (but not surprising) was the dismissive stance toward the criticism in general (i.e. the act not the substance).

My purpose here isn’t to rehash any of the details from Stanley’s talk or Kruger’s critique but to offer a different perspective for the anti-critics who seem to fit somewhere within the following cross-section:

  1. The Groupies — Pastor X¹ can do no wrong. In the face of criticism, he is a priori impeccable.
  2. The Ends-Justifies-The-Message — Maybe he shouldn’t say xyz but he’s bringing people to Jesus. God is blessing his ministry so who are you to criticize?
  3. The Matthew 18 Peaceniks — Pointing out the error is just as wrong (if not more so) than the error itself because you haven’t personally spoken to Pastor X.²

Regardless of where the anti-critic finds his motivation I hope these thoughts might lend a new perspective on these friendly skirmishes:

(1) If it’s a conversation then we should converse. AS and North Point don’t “preach” they have “conversations.” All fine and good. But words mean things and a conversation is, by definition, an exchange of ideas. So let’s talk.

(2) Don’t assume the worst in the critic. Yes, there are AS-detractors for whom AS can neither say nor do anything good. Kruger’s critique, however, was a far cry from the irrational rant one would expect from a devoted detractor. His was measured and irenic. Some of us are convinced that AS’s prescription for deconversion will end up doing more harm than good. Should we still keep quiet?

(3) If AS can passionately assert we can certainly tolerate a dispassionate critique. As is true of most effective communicators, AS is passionate in his efforts to win the deconverted. Conviction expressed with passion is infectious. But when a contrary view can’t even be countenanced it’s worth asking what we find more attractive–light or heat.

As a man who is nothing if not hip and relevant, I’m all about continuing the dialogue. Feel free to talk back.

¹Groupies aren’t limited to AS. Every high profile pastor of every theological stripe has his groupies.

²See D. A. Carson’s editorial for helpful clarification and correction on the application of Matthew 18.

Judas & Peter

Christian community is a means by which God keeps us from falling away (Heb 3:13; 10:23-25). But “choosing community” doesn’t explain the divergent fates of Judas & Peter.

Recently heard someone present Judas & Peter as two disciples with a shared experience but different outcomes. Both men walked with Jesus, both men turned on Jesus, & both men expressed remorse; but whereas Judas hung himself, Peter was restored and became a prominent leader.

What accounts for the different results? On this telling, it was that Judas never returned to his fellow disciples while Peter never left. The difference was community.

True, Christian community is a means by which God keeps us from falling away (Heb 3:13; 10:23-25). But “choosing community” doesn’t explain the divergent fates of these two men.

There’s no need for psychoanalysis when Scripture details the difference between the two.

Concerning Judas:

John 6:70 Jesus answered them, “Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?”

John 13:18  “I do not speak of all of you. I know the ones I have chosen; but it is that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘HE WHO EATS MY BREAD HAS LIFTED UP HIS HEEL AGAINST ME.’

John 17:12  “While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.

Concerning Peter:

Luke 22:31-32  “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat;  but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Look to the text.

Nonidentical twins: legalism & antinomianism

Legalism and antinomianism are, in fact, nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb.

Some counter-intuitive insight:

The root of [Eve’s] antinomianism (opposition to and breach of the law) was actually the legalism that was darkening her understanding, dulling her senses, and destroying her affection for her heavenly Father.

…what the Serpent accomplished in Eve’s mind, affections, and will was a divorce between God’s revealed will and his gracious, generous character. Trust in him was transformed into suspicion of him by looking at the “naked law” rather than hearing “law from the gracious lips of the heavenly Father.”

…legalism and antinomianism are, in fact, nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb.

…legalism and antinomianism seem to be simple opposites–all that is needed, it seems, is right doctrine. But the more basic issue is: How do I think about God, and what instincts and dispositions and affections toward him does this evoke in me?

It cannot be too strongly emphasized, therefore, that everyone is a legalist at heart. Indeed, if anything, that is the more evident in antinomians.

-Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ

Irreverent musings: pop apologies

I’m under no illusion that the Christian community has an impeccable record on any social issue, but isn’t it possible that our critics are just using us as convenient scapegoats?

And so, to get rid of this rumor [that he was the cause of the great fire of Rome], Nero set up as the culprits and punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians. …an immense multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of arson as because of hatred of the human race.

-Tacitus, Annals (from Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed)

It’s one thing to have liberal secularists blame Republicans, conservatives, and Christians (but I repeat myself) for the mass murder in Orlando. It’s something else to have Christians blaming Christians for it.

To cite just two examples, Sammy Rhodes (RUF campus minister) and Jen Hatmaker (author/blogger) have both posted mea culpas* for our contribution to the barbarity that claimed the lives of 49 people in a gay night club.

I have no intention of divining the sincerity of these apologies or the impetus behind them, but I do want to draw attention to some troubling aspects.

First, it’s striking to note that these comments were offered in response to charges leveled by prominent gay & lesbian individuals. Hatmaker was “listening to my gay friends and leaders” while Rhodes came across a tweet from “author and lesbian Támara Lunardo.” I’m under no illusion that the Christian community has an impeccable record on any social issue, but isn’t it possible that our critics are just using us as convenient scapegoats?

For example, here is the tweet that drove Rhodes to his keyboard:

When Lunardo was told that Christians had, in fact, been speaking out she responded:

Maybe I’m just a hardened cynic but it sounds to me like Lunardo (et al) would be shaming Christians no matter how we responded.

Second, the language in some of these apologies can actually dull the Christian witness in an important way. We know what militant secularists mean when they accuse us of promoting inequality, supporting injustice, denying civil liberties, etc. These charges are leveled against us any time we affirm a biblical sexual ethic or seek to live out our faith in the public square. Parroting their lingo in an apology sounds like tacit agreement. We can love others without adopting their terms. Language matters.

Third, a personal apology should regularly employ the singular personal pronoun (I, me, mine). I may be in a very small minority here but when your personal apology goes on to talk about “we” and “us” it sounds like posturing.

Tacitus’ account of the events in 64 AD isn’t a perfect analogy but it makes for an interesting thought experiment. Had social media been available during the Roman empire, a large segment of the population would have been happy to blame Christians for the fire. Assuming that Christians were no more perfect then than now, would Peter have taken to the blogosphere to apologize for the anti-pagan bigotry that rendered Rome combustible?


*On the whole, Hatmaker’s post wasn’t exactly an apology.



Let the Christian remain in the world

The value of the secular calling for the Christian is that it provides an opportunity of living the Christian life with the support of God’s grace, and of engaging more vigorously in the assault on the world and everything that it stands for.

Let the Christian remain in the world, not because of the good gifts of creation, nor because of his responsibility for the course of the world, but for the sake of the Body of the incarnate Christ and for the sake of the Church. Let him remain in the world to engage in frontal assault on it, and let him live the life of his secular calling in order to show himself as a stranger in this world all the more. But that is only possible if we are visible members of the Church. The antithesis between the world and the Church must be borne out in the world. That was the purpose of the incarnation. That is why Christ died among his enemies. That is the reason and the only reason why the slave must remain a slave and the Christian remain subject to the powers that be.

This is exactly the conclusion Luther reached with regard to the Christian’s secular calling during those critical years when he was turning his back on the cloister. It was not so much the lofty standards of monasticism that he repudiated, as their interpretation in terms of individual achievement. It was not otherworldliness as such that he attacked, but the perversion of otherworldliness into a subtle kind of “spiritual” worldliness. To Luther’s mind that was a most insidious perversion of the gospel. The otherworldliness of the Christian life ought, Luther concluded, to be manifested in the very midst of the world, in the Christian community and in its daily life. Hence the Christian’s task is to live out that life in terms of his secular calling. That is the way to die unto the world. The value of the secular calling for the Christian is that it provides an opportunity of living the Christian life with the support of God’s grace, and of engaging more vigorously in the assault on the world and everything that it stands for.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Visible Community”, The Cost of Discipleship

It’s not what you got but what you give?

Christian #1 goes to church looking for what he can get. Christian #2 goes to church looking for what he can give. Which Christian is most spiritual? Maybe neither.

Get&GiveFor I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established;  that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine. Rom 1:11-12 {NAS}

Christian #1 goes to church looking for what he can get.

Christian #2 goes to church looking for what he can give.

Which Christian is most spiritual?

Maybe neither.

If Paul can be trusted to shape our perspectives on church life, the mature Christian is the one who gathers with other Christians looking to give and get. In Pauline lingo we call this mutual edification (see 1Cor 12:7ff; Eph 4:16). The irony is that while Giver and Taker look very different, they actually share the same heartbeat.

Taker — He appears humble & hungry but he might not consider anything beyond his own desires. The church exists to meet his needs and if they aren’t met he’ll walk. He’s prideful.

Giver — He appears selfless & mature but he might not sense his own inadequacies and brokenness. He endeavors to be God’s gift to the lesser brothers in the church. He doesn’t expect to receive anything because he can’t imagine what anyone would have to offer him. He’s prideful.

God save us from our pride and pop spirituality–in all their variegated forms. 

When obedience is the opposite of obedience

I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship with one of our church’s spiritual mothers (1Tim 5:2). We’re three chapters in and I’m sure this won’t be the last excerpt I post.

Here’s Bonhoeffer reflecting on Jesus’ command to the rich man to “go and sell your possessions”:

Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power. If, for instance, we give away all our possessions, that act is not in itself the obedience he demands. In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might then be choosing a way of life for ourselves, some Christian ideal, or some ideal of Franciscan poverty. Indeed in the very act of giving away his goods a man can give allegiance to himself and to an ideal and not to the command of Jesus. He is not set free from his own self but still more enslaved to himself. . .

The shocked question of the disciples “Who then can be saved?” seems to indicate that they regarded the case of the rich young man not as in any way exceptional, but as typical. For they do not ask: “Which rich man?” but quite generally, “Who then can be saved?” For every man, even the disciples themselves, belongs to those rich ones for whom it is so difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven. The answer Jesus gives showed the disciples that they had understood him well. Salvation through following Jesus is not something we men can achieve for ourselves–but with God all things are possible.

Bonhoeffer on faith and obedience

. . . only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes. It is quite unbiblical to hold the first proposition without the second. We think we understand when we hear that obedience is possible only where there is faith. Does not obedience follow faith as good fruit grows on a good tree? First, faith, then obedience. If by that we mean that it is faith which justifies, and not the act of obedience, all well and good, for that is the essential and unexceptional presupposition of all that follows. If, however, we make a chronological distinction between faith and obedience, and make obedience subsequent to faith, we are divorcing the one from the other–and then we get the practical question, when must obedience begin? Obedience remains separated from faith. From the point of view of justification it is necessary thus to separate them, but we must never lose sight of their essential unity. For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

‘Purge the evil from your midst’

If there is found in your midst, in any of your towns, which the LORD your God is giving you, a man or a woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, by transgressing His covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them . . . and if it is told you and you have heard of it, then you shall inquire thoroughly. Behold, if it is true and the thing certain that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out that man or that woman who has done this evil deed to your gates . . . and you shall stone them to death. On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. {Deut 17:2-7 NAS}

A few observations on the practical effects of this law:

  1. Neither apathy nor fanaticism.  When sin is reported you must investigate (inquire thoroughly) but you must not assume the report is true (2-3 witnesses must corroborate). This effectively vitiates the “it’s none of my business” excuse while also preventing you from breaking out the torch & pitchfork.
  2. No anonymous witnesses. Witnesses were obligated to throw the first stone on execution day so your testimony better be rock solid (no pun intended). If I have to throw the first stone I doubt I’d base my testimony on hearsay or innuendo. [see Deut 19:16-19 for how the Law handled false witnesses!]
  3. No bystanders. Even if I’m not a material witness I still take part in the execution. Compulsory participation is significant in two ways. First, I pay attention because I have a personal interest in the outcome of the proceedings. Second, this setting makes your good my good–if I can help you stay free from apostasy I keep myself (and the community) free from the messy consequences. I have good reason to be my brother’s keeper.
  4. A community purge. Negatively, this law is about purging evil from the body politic. Positively, the law is about keeping evil from metastasizing. Either way the pursuit of holiness is an individual and corporate endeavor.

Christian, take note of the Law’s severity but don’t get stuck there. Sin still kills and holiness is still a group effort (1Cor 5; Heb 3:12-13; Jude 22-23).

10 Special Helps & Rules Against Satan’s Devices

I’ve been revisiting the nature of temptation and sin over the last couple of weeks. A helpful resource in this area is Thomas Brooks’ work Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices. At just under two hundred pages and with chapters neatly broken down into “Devices” and corresponding “Remedies”, it’s easy to work through the book in small doses even if you’re mildly allergic to old English.

After dealing with specific devices and remedies, Brooks concludes with ten special “rules and helps against all [Satan’s] devices.” [emphasis added] Read through and see if you don’t find any of his (lightly edited) counsel particularly meaningful in light of your past and/or present battles with sin:

1) Walk by the rule of the Word of God. He who thinks himself too good to be ruled by the Word, will be found too bad to be owned by God; and if God does not, or will not own him–Satan will by his stratagems overthrow him.

2) Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit. If you cause that sweet and blessed Spirit to mourn, who alone can secure you from Satan’s depths–by whom will you be preserved? Man is a weak creature, and no way able to discover Satan’s snares, nor to avoid them–unless the Spirit of the Lord gives skill and power.

3) Labor for more heavenly wisdom. It is not the most knowing Christian–but the most wise Christian, who sees, avoids, and escapes Satan’s snares.

4) Make immediate resistance against Satan’s first motions. It is safe to resist, it is dangerous to dispute. . . The promise of conquest is given to resisting, not to disputing: ‘Resist the devil and he will flee from you’ (James 4:7).

5) Labor to be filled with the Spirit. Satan has his snares to take you in prosperity and adversity, in health and sickness, in strength and weakness, when you are alone and when you are in company, when you come on to spiritual duties and when you come off from spiritual duties, and if you are not filled with the Spirit, Satan will be too hard and too crafty for you . . .

6) Stay humble. A humble heart will rather lie in the dust than rise by wickedness, and sooner part with all than the peace of a good conscience.

7) Keep a strong, close, and constant watch. A sleepy soul is already an ensnared soul. . . Satan works most strongly on the imagination, when the soul is drowsy.

8) Keep communion with God. A soul high in communion with God may be tempted–but will not easily be conquered. Such a soul will fight it out to the death. . . Communion with God is a shield upon land, as well as an anchor at sea; it is a sword to defend you, as well as a staff to support you; therefore keep up your communion.

9) Daily draw new virtue and strength from the Lord Jesus. You must lean more upon Christ than upon your duties; you must lean more upon Christ than upon your spiritual tastes and discoveries; you must lean more upon Christ than upon your graces, or else Satan will lead you into captivity.

10) Pray. Tell God that Satan has spread his snares in all places and in all companies! Tell God that he digs deep, and that he has plot upon plot, and device upon device–and all to undo you!Tell God that you have neither skill nor power to escape his snares! . . .Tell God how His honor is engaged to stand by you, and to bring you off a victor, that you be not ruined by Satan’s plots! . . . Tell God of the love of Christ, of the blood of Christ, and of the intercession of Christ for you, that a way may be found for your escape! Tell God that if he will make it his honor to save you from falling into Satan’s snares, you will make it your glory to speak of his goodness and to live out his kindness.

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