Archives For Theology

Leslie Leyland Fields’ latest feature on Christianity Today, The Gospel Is More Than a Story,” starts by expressing ambivalence for an unnamed but “much-hyped” story version of the Bible.

I’m pretty sure she’s talking about one of my old projects.

I helped create The Story in 2005, intending it to be an easy way for non-Bible readers to get a handle on the scriptural narrative, so that when they opened a real Bible, they could see how the various pieces fit together.

To our surprise, some of the strongest response to The Story came from churches that wanted to use it for their own congregations. Randy Frazee, then a teaching pastor at Willow Creek, began developing a curriculum to take churches through The Story. When he moved to Oak Hills (pastored by Max Lucado), Randy took his idea for The Story with him.

To date, hundreds of churches have used The Story. It became a #1 bestselling Bible. There have been all manner of product spinoffs: companion books, kids versions, CDs, even a concert tour.

Field’s chief concern with The Story — assuming I’ve guessed right on which “story version” she was reading — seems to be its tendency to discard everything in the Bible that isn’t story. (Though to be fair, The Story does include a sampling of other biblical genres. But yes, the overriding focus is on the narrative.)

Fields argues that much of what makes “narrative theology” so compelling gets lost whenever it’s translated into a commercial product like The Story:

Though the larger narrative theology movement revives a deep respect for the Bible’s language and literature, many of the commercial products show little respect for Story. Story, as all high-school English students know, relies not simply on what happened but also on the language and literary devices used to tell it: metaphor, description, analogy, repetition, parable, image. Nor does this larger narrative movement pay heed to the other literary genres God chose to speak his words through — poetry, lament, epistle, proclamation, prophecy.

She’s got a point.

We often think of the Bible as a story, and indeed story is one of the dominant motifs in Scripture. My own “gospel sketched for kids” is yet another attempt to present the core message of the Bible in story form.

But Scripture is not simply one big story. It is a collection of books, representing a wide array of literary genres: poetry, correspondence, prophetic oracle, song lyrics, laments, legal codes, genealogies, apocalypses — and yes, narrative. Each has to be read in light of its particular form. You wouldn’t read a poem the same way you’d read a legal text. Nor should we read an apocalypse the same way we read a more straightforward piece of narrative — not if we want to understand it properly, that is.

In the past, many Christians insisted we read everything (or almost everything) in the Bible literally. This tended to flatten Scripture, obscuring its many genres and literary devices. Fields seems to think the modern-day obsession with narrative carries the same risk, and again… she may be onto something.

All this points to an even bigger series of questions being asked by a growing chorus of people:

What is the Bible? What do we do with it?

Simplistic, reductionist answers will not do. If you’re interested in the growing conversation about the Bible, I encourage you to start following blogs by people like Scot McKnight, Rachel Held Evans, and Peter Enns. Pick up a copy of The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith, while you’re at it.

And if you’re one of many who’ve read The Story, great. As one of its creators, I’m thrilled to see the impact it’s having. (I’d be even more thrilled if I’d gotten a royalty out of it!)

But don’t stop there. The Bible is so much more than narrative, just like it is more than a series of propositional statements or a list of do’s and don’ts. The Bible represents the collective effort of God’s people to tell God’s story through all manner of genres and literary devices. When read with this in mind, I can’t promise the Bible will always be easy or enjoyable, but it can be deeply rewarding.

Christian.co.uk was kind enough to republish a few of my recent posts on gender roles, including “A letter to my daughter,” which I originally wrote during Rachel Held Evans’ Week of Mutuality.

They also repurposed my series on my journey from complementarianism, turning it into two articles for their “Is leadership male?” series (see part 1 and part 2).

Today, their series continued with Aaron Trommler representing the complementarian perspective. I’m grateful to Christian.co.uk for allowing me to contribute — and to Aaron for engaging in a constructive dialogue.

Because my original posts were intended more as a narrative of my personal journey rather than a defense of egalitarianism, I thought I’d use this post to engage some of the issues Aaron raised in his article.

Wives and slaves
Aaron began by citing 1 Peter 3:1-2, where wives are told to submit to their husbands “in the same way.” This leads Aaron to ask (quite rightly), the same as what?

Aaron notes that Peter mentioned “many other situations where Christians (not just women) are to submit themselves to different authorities… even if those authorities are harsh.”

In fact, Peter talked mostly about one other situation: slavery. The apostle commanded slaves to obey their masters, even the abusive ones (2:18-25). From there he moved immediately to wives, telling them to submit to their husbands in the same way that slaves submit to their masters.

I wondered why Aaron didn’t specify that slavery was one of the “other situations” to which Peter referred, but in any case, I think it reinforces my point that the arguments once used to justify slavery are inextricably linked to the those used today to argue for the unilateral subordination of women.

But that’s also why I was a little surprised to read this near the end of Aaron’s piece:

Furthermore, I don’t know about the arguments, supposedly used to justify slavery, that are being used to justify complementarianism, nor am I about to suggest that the Bible does the same. There is an article on the Desiring God website that quite clearly demonstrates that Paul did not think that way at all.

The Desiring God (DG) article claims the New Testament viewed a slave’s submission differently than a wife’s. DG proposes the instructions to wives “have theological strings attached to them that slavery does not.” But if that were true, then it wouldn’t make sense to argue (as Aaron does) that Peter’s instructions to slaves should govern how we read his instructions to wives. You can’t have it both ways.

As it happens, I think DG is wrong, as I argued in this post back in June. Both the wife’s submission and the slave’s were rooted in the same thing: obedience to Christ. Seems to me this is a pretty big “theological string.” And as Aaron reminds us, Peter told wives to submit in the same way as slaves.

So if we’re going to insist on wives submitting to their husbands on the basis of Peter and Paul’s “household codes,” then we’ll also have to argue for slavery and the submission of slaves to their masters.

Indeed, when you study 19th-century theologians from the American South, you will find the arguments they used to justify the enslavement of blacks leading up to the Civil War are the same as those used today to justify the subordination of women.

About Ephesians 5…
Aaron also cites Ephesians 5:22-23, claiming that Paul couldn’t have endorsed mutual submission, since he told wives to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ. This is a better argument, though I suspect that as with most analogies, Paul wasn’t trying to suggest the husband-wife relationship is like that of Christ and the church in every way.

More importantly, Aaron didn’t account for two vital pieces of context. The first can be found just one verse prior, in Ephesians 5:21.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

This is the governing statement for everything Paul says in the “household codes” of Ephesians  5:22–6:9. In fact, the Greek word for submit (hupotasso) doesn’t even occur in verse 22; it has to be supplied from verse 21. Grammatically and logically, then, Paul appears to subordinate the wife’s submission to the greater call for mutual submission. Which convinces me that the wife’s submission and the husband’s love (Eph. 5:25) are in some ways two sides of the same coin for Paul.

Second, we have to look at the historical/cultural context of the “household codes” in letters like Ephesians and Colossians. Rachel Held Evans has a good summary on her blog, but the short(-ish) version is that these codes were relatively common in first-century correspondence. You can find similar codes in the writings of Philo and Josephus, for example. The household codes were considered vital to the preservation of Roman society and the all-important pater familias. Any attempt to undermine the established system would have drawn unwelcome scrutiny from the authorities. So for the sake of the gospel, it was necessary to defer to Roman cultural sensibilities about how a family should be run.

Women, prophesy. No wait — women, be quiet!
In my first post for Christian.co.uk, I noted that 1 Corinthians contains an apparent contradiction concerning the role of women in the church. In chapter 11, Paul offers some ground rules for women who wish to prophesy. In chapter 14, he appears to tell women to keep quiet.

In response, Aaron suggests there’s a difference between “teaching” and “prophesying” — which may be true (though both involve speaking with some kind of authority), but that’s beside the point. Aaron never explained how he reconciles Paul’s apparent call for strict silence (the word Paul uses in chapter 14 could easily be translated “shut up”) with his instructions to prophesying women three chapters earlier. Unless, of course, women had to mime their prophesies.

Aaron closes with a brief reference to 1 Timothy 2:12, which someone once dubbed the “worst verse in the Bible.” If you’d like to know more about what I think was going on there, I encourage you to read this.

In the end, I think the values of mutuality and equality make better sense of the New Testament, especially its radical claim “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

_________________

BTW, Aaron is continuing the conversation with a series of posts on his blog, starting here.

Yes, but the cross is an offense. So if you’re being true to the gospel, you’re going to offend someone.

 
This is one of the more common rejoinders I hear when Christians are accused of being unloving.

(The idea that it’s OK — perhaps even necessary — to offend for the sake of the gospel has come up recently, for example, as a result of the Chick-fil-A debate. It’s implicit in J.P. Moreland’s response to Matthew Paul Turner’s Chick-fil-A post.)

And it’s true. The cross is an offense. It was scorned as utter folly by many in Paul’s day, just as it is by many today.

The way of Jesus is a stumbling block for lots of people.

The question is, what made it a stumbling block in the first place?

“The offense of the cross” is sometimes used to justify any offense we cause, however loosely connected to the gospel it may be. Like our participation in the never-ending culture wars and the “us vs. them” mentality we’ve cultivated. Was that really the original offense of the cross?

Let me suggest the cross is an offense for reasons that have nothing to do with politics, gays, or societal decay.

The cross is an offense because it rejects the world’s idea of power.

By going to the cross, Jesus renounced any claim to power. By staying his hand — by refusing to wield a sword in his defense or summon a hoard of angels — Jesus showed us that the way of the cross is the path of a servant, not a conqueror or a culture warrior.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said during his trial. That’s why his followers didn’t fight to prevent his arrest. The kingdom of God doesn’t play by world’s rules.

To take up your cross, you have to lay down your sword, your placard, and maybe even your chicken sandwich. You have to give up the pursuit of power. You have to give up your “rights” — including the right to fight for your rights.

The kingdom of God comes through a cross. It will not come by any other means. To go the way of the cross, then, is to live like people who actually believe the best way to transform lives is by loving and serving others — rather than fighting, protesting, or waging an interminable culture war.

That is the offense of the cross. That is the “weakness of God” which, according to Paul, many find so laughable. We do not fight the world’s war; we have more important work to do.

I’m not against offending people with the gospel, but let’s not offend for all the wrong reasons. There is only one legitimate “offense of the cross.” And that is when we set aside our agendas and self-interest in order to love and serve our neighbor in ways that baffle a watching world.

Next month, our daughter turns two. Ever since she was born, we’ve wondered: how do we introduce her to Christ? We had her baptized a year ago — now what? How do we help her to embrace faith in God for herself? Somehow, coaxing her into praying the sinner’s prayer as soon as she can mouth the words and leaving it at that doesn’t feel like the best way.

That’s what led me to Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel several months back. (You can read my review here, if you want.) Scot argues that what we call the gospel isn’t really the gospel — or at least it’s an incomplete gospel. The true gospel is not four spiritual laws or some other formula. It is a story — specifically, Jesus’ story, which in turn was the fulfillment of Israel’s story. That is the gospel the ancient church confessed from its its earliest days (see 1 Corinthians 15). And that’s the one we should be sharing today.

Near the end of his book, Scot takes a stab at sketching this gospel in story form. It’s not something that can be distilled into a sound bite, though. As Scot writes, “The assumption that the gospel can be reduced to a note card is already off on the wrong track.”

The gospel sketched in Scot’s book is the one I want to share with my daughter someday. What I wrote below was an attempt to translate it into simplified (hopefully not simplistic), kid-friendly version. Someday, when my daughter is ready, we’ll sit down and read this together. (In the meantime, any suggestions or feedback would be welcome, especially if you’ve interacted with Scot’s book.)

_______________________

The King Jesus story

It all began with God.

God made everything you can see.
(And even some things you can’t see!)

God made the world to be his home.
Then God made the very first people
so he could share his home with them.

God gave them a beautiful garden to live in.
He gave them a job to do:
take care of God’s good world;
rule it well on his behalf.
But they didn’t.

They didn’t like doing things God’s way
and not theirs.
So they took what wasn’t theirs,
and tried to rule the world their own way.
They tried to be God.

So the very first people
had to leave the garden.
They had to leave God’s presence.

Without God,
they began to die.
But God never gave up on his people.
He still loved them.
He promised to fix the world
so he could share it with them again.

But it wouldn’t be easy.
Everyone who’s ever lived,
from the very first people
all the way to you and me,
have gone the same way.

We’ve all taken what isn’t ours.
We’ve all tried to do things our way.
We’ve all tried to be little gods.

 
Things kept getting worse.
But God had a plan.

God chose a man named Abraham.
He gave Abraham children,
and grandchildren,
and great-grandchildren.
God turned Abraham into a great nation
and called it “Israel.”

God made Israel his chosen people.
They would help him fix the world.

God went with Israel
everywhere they went.
When they were slaves in another country,
God remembered them.
When they were treated badly,
God rescued them.

God gave Israel a home.
He gave them a job to do:
show the world what it’s like
to be God’s people.

God gave Israel priests
to teach them how to love God.
He gave them laws
to teach them how to love each other.

God told his people,
“If you follow me,
you’ll have a good life.
You’ll get to help me fix the world.”

 
But Israel didn’t listen.

God’s people didn’t want God
telling them how to live.
They wanted to do things their way,
just like the very first people — just like all of us.

God’s people didn’t want God
to be their king.
They wanted a king of their own,
a person just like them.

So God gave Israel a king.
Then another king.
And another.
Some were good. Some were bad.

Mostly, the kings did whatever they wanted.
They took what wasn’t theirs.
They ruled Israel for themselves, not God.
They tried to be little gods.

So God sent prophets
to tell the kings and their people
that there is only one true King;
there is only one true God.

But the kings and their people wouldn’t listen.
So they had to leave their home.
Other nations came and conquered Israel
and carried God’s people off by force.

Israel lost everything.
Then there was silence.

Years went by.
No one heard from God anymore.

 
Until . . .
something new happened.
God sent someone:
a person just like us, yet different.
Someone who could rule the world
the way God wanted.

God sent Jesus,
his chosen one,
to rescue Israel
and fix the world.

Jesus did good wherever he went.
He healed the sick.
He fed the hungry.
He rescued people from all sorts of problems.

Jesus did everything God wanted,
but it wasn’t what God’s people wanted.

They didn’t want Jesus to be their king.
They didn’t want the kind of kingdom he would bring.

So one day, some powerful people decided
they’d better put a stop to Jesus
before he took their power away.

So they arrested Jesus.
They stripped him naked.
They nailed him to a cross
and watched him die.

Jesus didn’t fight back.
He didn’t raise a sword;
he didn’t even raise a finger.

And so the powerful people
thought they had won.
They thought they had beaten
God’s chosen one.

But there was something they didn’t understand.
They didn’t know that Jesus died
not because he had to,
but because he chose to.

They didn’t know that they,
like all of us, deserved to die
for all the times we’ve gone our way
and ruined God’s good world.

They didn’t know a servant’s death
was the only way to live.
They didn’t know a servant’s cross
was the only crown worth having.

The one true King had come
and given his life for the world.
But they didn’t even know.
No one did.

But then God —
the one who made the world,
rescued Israel,
and sent Jesus —
raised him from the dead.

Lots of people saw him alive
before he went back to God.

But Jesus didn’t just rise from the dead.
He defeated death,
so it wouldn’t have power over us any longer.

God gave us the King we needed,
a King who loves, forgives,
and changes everyone who comes to him.

This King gave us a job to do:
love each other with all we’ve got.
Because that’s how we show others
what it’s like to be loved by God.

That’s how we show others
what kind of King we serve.

 
For now, the world is still broken,
still waiting to be fixed.
But someday, our King is coming back
to rescue us and share his home with us again.

Never again
will anyone take what isn’t theirs.
Never again
will anyone ruin God’s good world.

God will live with us,
and we will rule the world for him.
Forever.

 
(For Elizabeth)

The next few words might come as a bit of a surprise, especially if you’ve followed the Jared-Wilson-quotes-Doug-Wilson-who-likes-slavery controversy of the last week or so.

Anyway, Doug Wilson is right about something.

The Bible never explicitly condemns slavery.

Now, before you grab your pitchforks (which you’d be right to do if I left it there), just bear with me for a bit.

Scripture never says, “You shall not own slaves.” The Mosaic law included a number of stipulations regulating slavery, many of which tilted the scales in a slightly more humane direction; and the apostle Paul certainly took a dim view of the slave trade. But nowhere does the Bible flat-out say it’s a sin to own another human being. In the New Testament, slaves are instructed to obey their masters, even the abusive ones.

So how did Christians come to view slavery as a moral evil? It’s because they intuitively understood the folly of a literalist approach to the Bible. They understood that Scripture doesn’t try to give us the last word on absolutely everything. The kingdom of God is not a static entity; it is a living, breathing, moving reality.

Pentecostals might call this the leading of the Holy Spirit. Progressives might call it the redemptive movement hermeneutic.

Whatever you call it, the seeds of this movement can be found in Scripture itself. On slavery, for example, Paul encourages slaves to seek their freedom (though by legal means). Elsewhere, he urges one of his wealthy patrons to welcome back a runaway slave “no longer as a slave, but… as a dear brother.”

Seeds of abolition can even be found in the Old Testament — in the very first story, where God created humanity to be his eikons or divine image-bearers. How can one eikon claim ownership of another?

Most importantly, we have Jesus’ inaugural sermon, in which he declares that his mission was to “set the oppressed free,” among other things. And it was not just “spiritual” oppression he was talking about, as his subsequent years of ministry would attest.

And yet, these were just seeds. It would be years before the church caught up to the Holy Spirit. True, there were some who caught the movement before others. St. Patrick, himself a former slave, was one of the first to speak out against slavery. Gregory of Nazianzus was another. In more recent history, the cause of abolition was taken up by Christian luminaries across the theological spectrum, from John Wesley to Charles Spurgeon.

Whether they knew it or not, they were implicitly rejecting a literalist, absolutist approach to the Bible.

To those who say the only way to read the Bible is to read it literally — or to those who say we dare not go beyond the words of Scripture: do you oppose slavery? Because if you do, you’ve already gone beyond the Bible.

No one — except maybe Doug Wilson — follows a literal interpretation 100% of the time. And he doesn’t even practice what he preaches, judging by the fact that women in his church aren’t required to wear head-coverings.

Jesus anticipated that his followers would wrestle with matters not definitively settled by the Bible. Twice he told Peter (and the other disciples), “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:13-20; 18:18).

“Bind” and “loose” were rabbinic terms meaning to “forbid” and “permit.” Jesus invested the apostles with authority to discern difficult matters. He didn’t tell them to just stick with whatever the Bible says and leave it at that. He told them to “bind” and “loose” on behalf of the church.

Today, the church still has this responsibility to bind and loose. We still have to discern the Spirit’s trajectory on matters not definitively settled by the Bible (or where the Bible doesn’t necessarily speak with one voice) — from the role of women to homosexuality.

So how do we do this without going off the rails? Where do we ground this trajectory, so it doesn’t just lead us wherever we want it to go?

I believe the answer is in Christ himself. In The Bible Made Impossible, Christian Smith calls this the “christocentric hermeneutical key.” Everything in Scripture has to be read in light of the “centrally defining reality of Jesus Christ.”

“In the beginning was the Word,” wrote the apostle John. But he wasn’t talking about the Bible. He was talking about Jesus. And if we really believe in the resurrection, then this Word is a living, breathing entity — not a static object frozen in time.

This changes how we read the Bible. To quote Christian Smith:

Truly believing that Jesus is the real purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture causes one to read the Bible in a way that is very different than believing the Bible to be an instruction manual containing universally applicable divine oracles concerning every possible subject it addresses.

The trajectory we encounter in Jesus is radical indeed. It’s worth hearing his inaugural manifesto in its entirety, which he borrowed from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good new to the poor.
 He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
 and recovery of sight for the blind,
 to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Of all the Old Testament texts Jesus could have used to define his mission, he chose this one. The reality is, the Bible contains a mix of both radical ideas (“liberate the oppressed”) and not-so-radical ideas (“it’s OK to beat your slaves as long as they recover within in a day or two”).

When Jesus taught, he didn’t just gravitate toward the more radical texts; he superseded the less radical ones, too. “You have heard that it was said,” Jesus was fond of saying, “but I tell you something else.” For example, where the Old Testament law tolerated an “eye for an eye” mentality up to a point, Jesus said that wasn’t good enough anymore. Instead, he forbade his followers from using force: “Do not resist an evil person.”

Jesus shines a great big spotlight on the most radical parts of Scripture. Then he goes even further. So this is where we must start in our quest to discern just how to embody this thing we call Christianity in the 21st century. To quote blogger and Episcopal priest Nate Bostian:

It might be that this “radical” trajectory is inspired by God in such a way that it subsumes and transforms less radical Scriptures, because “less radical” Scriptures represent a divine accommodation to ancient culture, whereas the “more radical” Scriptures more fully represent God’s vision. This could be argued on the basis of the Incarnation: God’s word is present in a preparatory, incomplete way prior to Jesus Christ. But when Christ comes, he is the full embodiment of God’s Word which the earlier words pointed to. So also, the radical trajectory of the Bible is hinted at haltingly in less radical Scriptures, but they subtlety point us to the more radical Scriptures as their fulfillment.

A literalist approach to the Bible represents a lower view of inspiration, because we end up trying to make the Bible something God didn’t want it to be. The higher (and harder) path is to try to find and follow the trajectory of Scripture, while staying rooted in the incarnational reality of Jesus Christ. To do otherwise is to be stuck with a pre-Jesus point of view.

So here’s something we learned last week…

Neo-Reformed theologian and self-described “paleo-Confederate” Doug Wilson thinks slavery was basically all right.

In fact, he wrote a whole booklet about it, Southern Slavery As It Was, in which he erroneously claims:

  • That most enslaved blacks were happier and better off than most free blacks and even many urban whites.
  • That Southern slavery created a veritable multiracial utopia. Quoting Wilson: “Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that… has never existed in any nation before the [Civil War] or since.”
  • That slavery is biblical and abolitionism nothing less than “rebellion against God.” Again, quoting Wilson: “The New Testament opposes anything like the abolitionism of our country prior to the War Between the States.” (“War Between the States” is how neo-Confederates refer to the Civil War.)

Conveniently, Wilson relies almost entirely on pro-Confederate, pro-slavery revisionists like 19th-century theologian R.L. Dabney to lend a veneer of credibility to his questionable history.

But Wilson has already been vetted and debunked by properly qualified historians. (See, for example, Southern Slavery As It Wasn’t.) So enough about his historical malfeasance. For those interested, Anthony Bradley and The Wartburg Watch have done an excellent job shining a light on the real Doug Wilson — bravely so, considering Wilson’s history of going after anyone who dares to criticize him.

Wilson’s views, abhorrent as they are, aren’t what I’m wondering about. What I want to know is this:

Why does the neo-Reformed community embrace Doug Wilson as one of their own? Why are they giving this guy a platform? Jared Wilson is hardly the first neo-Reformed blogger to get mixed up with the other Wilson. The Gospel Coalition features several articles and resources from Doug Wilson. He is a recurring speaker at John Piper’s Desiring God conferences. The only person with more stage time at the 2012 conference was Piper himself. And when Piper invited Wilson to speak at the 2009 conference, he introduced Doug Wilson with this video:

“Doug gets the gospel right,” Piper said. Namely, because Wilson affirms “substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone.”

Never mind that Doug Wilson tries to justify slavery, directly contravening Jesus’ inaugural sermon in which he announced that he had come to “proclaim freedom for the prisoners” and to “set the oppressed free.”

Is this what it’s come to? Is it really OK for Doug Wilson to get Jesus categorically wrong, so long as he ticks John Piper’s “substitutionary atonement” box? Is it really OK that he defends the oppression of an entire race, so long as he whispers “sola fide” in John Piper’s ears?

I think it’s unlikely that most members of the Gospel Coalition share Doug Wilson’s thinking on slavery. (At least I hope they don’t.) So why are they giving him a free pass? Maybe they weren’t aware of his views before, but they sure as heck are now.

What does it say about their priorities that they have refused to denounce Wilson for his reprehensible views? What does it say if they’re more comfortable associating with someone who rationalizes slavery but adores Calvin than someone who may not be a Calvinist in good standing but has the good sense to admit slavery was and is a horrendous evil?

I hate it when the wrecking ball arrives just as I’m settling into a new home.

A little over a year ago, my wife and I joined the Episcopal Church. We were confirmed on a Saturday. Our daughter was baptized the following day, Pentecost Sunday.

Last week, Episcopalians wrapped up their triennial convention, and the big story was our denomination’s impending demise.

Over the last three years, nearly 200,000 people have fled the Episcopal Church. The long-term picture is even more depressing. One in four regular worshippers have disappeared from our pews during the past decade.

You can feel it in our more-than-half-empty churches. If this pace continues (and it probably will), in 20 years the Episcopal Church will be half its already-diminished size.

Episcopalianism has been a part of this country for over 400 years. At this rate, we won’t make it another 400. We won’t even come close.

Enter conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who blames the decline on the extreme liberalism he sees in mainline denominations like mine. In a recent New York Times editorial, he asked whether “liberal Christianity can be saved.”

Despite some of the reaction to his piece, I think Douthat asks some important questions. His article  was thought-provoking and nuanced. We should listen, for example, when he urges liberal Christians to come out of their denial:

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction.

Yet Douthat sees no cause for celebration in the demise of liberal Christianity. He warns conservatives — many of whom left denominations like mine years ago — against triumphalism:

The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

Douthat encourages liberal Christians to remember why they exist in the first place — and what sets them apart from their secular counterparts. He laments that most “leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”

There are days when I worry about that too. In my tradition, we’ve devoted plenty of time and energy to the ways in which Christianity needs to evolve. But at the end of the day, is there anything left of “historic Christianity” which, to quote Douthat again, we would “defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world”?

I think it’s a valid question.

I believe that historic, orthodox Christianity offers a compelling foundation for many of the “progressive” causes taken up by my denomination (and many other Christians as well). But is our engagement consciously rooted in the reality of the resurrected Christ and his kingdom? Would anyone even know if it was?

For example, are we advocating for the Millennium Development Goals (a subject on which our Presiding Bishop has spoken eloquently a number of times) simply because it’s the cause du jour of the industrialized world? Or is it because the resurrected Christ compels us to labor so that everyone can experience life “to the full” now and in the future?

Are we demanding diversity and equality outside the church only? Or do we also practice it in our churches, acting from the conviction that God is making a new, worldwide family — one where the old barriers are rendered meaningless?

Are we just welcoming gays and lesbians into our congregations, or are we also inviting them (and everyone else, for that matter) to make Christ the center of their lives?

These are questions we ought to be asking as we take stock of our diminishment. If what we have to offer the world is indistinguishable from secular liberalism — if it is not at its core a vibrant, Christ-centered faith that compels us to embrace causes like caring for the poor and the planet — then, well, who needs us?

Or as the apostle Paul put it once, if the tomb is not empty, then what’s the point?

That being said, I think there were a few other factors which Douthat didn’t address. (To be fair, Douthat only had about 800 words to work with). Here are some other lessons I think we should take from the Episcopal Church’s decline.

1. All Christians, liberal and conservative, are in the same boat.

Last week, Gallup revealed that public confidence in organized religion has reached an all-time low. Just 4 in 10 Americans have much faith in the church, down from 60 percent as recently as September 2001.

It’s not just liberal Christianity that’s in decline. We may have been hit with it first, but now others are joining the party. The Southern Baptist Convention, a stalwart of evangelical conservatism, has been declining five years in a row. Their rate of decline increased more than 600 percent from 2009 to 2011. (In fairness, they still have a long way to go before they catch up to us.)

Pundits will offer competing theories to explain Christianity’s decline in the West. Whatever you make of it, though, it’s no longer confined to one ideological corner of the church.

2. You can’t have it both ways.

It’s fascinating to hear some Christians interpret the mainline church’s decline as proof of God’s disapproval. Mark Driscoll, for example, is fond of comparing the growth rate at his church with that of other groups with whom he disagrees.

There are, of course, a couple problems with this approach. First, if numbers are the clearest sign of God’s (dis)approval, then we should all drop what we’re doing and start imitating Joel Osteen. (Mark, you’re gonna need a new hairdo.)

Second, let’s be honest. Most of us only apply this logic when it works in our favor. How many Southern Baptists would countenance the notion that their decline is punishment for some doctrinal error or apostasy? When it’s some other group who’s hurting, we tend to assume it’s because they’ve lost their way. Yet when we’re the ones facing decline, either we go into denial (it’s just a fluke!) or we nurse a martyrdom complex (being right has a cost!), as Douthat rightly points out.

Speaking of martyrdom complexes…

3. Sometimes the right course is the unpopular one.

Within two years of ordaining its first openly gay bishop, the Episcopal Church lost 115,000 members. No one questions why they left. And the debate over that decision is a long way from being resolved.

But when was the last time Episcopalians experienced a comparable exodus? 1967 to 1969.

During that two-year period, the church lost an almost identical number of people — in part because it started speaking out against racial discrimination.

Was the fallout from that decision a sign of God’s displeasure? Was the Episcopal Church capitulating to culture, or was it leading prophetically? (Bear in mind it would be another 25 years before Southern Baptists apologized for their support of slavery and segregation.)

Doing the right thing is no guarantee of success. Nor are skyrocketing numbers always proof you’re doing the right thing.

4. Maybe all our fighting is driving people away.

There’s no question many have left the Episcopal Church because of the national body’s more controversial decisions in recent years. Heck, we’ve lost entire dioceses. So in one sense, the commentators are right. This fight is costing us.

But that’s the point. What if it’s the fight (more than the underlying issues) that’s turning people away?

Most people who’ve left the Episcopal Church have done so because their conscience compels them — not because they’re hateful or mean-spiritied. But in the process, both sides have engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight — including, among other things, taking each other to court. (Didn’t Paul have something to say about that?) I haven’t followed every sordid detail, but it seems likely to me that both sides have escalated this fight in ways it didn’t need to be escalated.

So what if it’s not just the Episcopal Church (or the congregations who’ve left) that people are staying away from, but Christianity as a whole?

Today, most outsiders define the church according to its worst characteristics: anti-gay (91% say this), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), and too political (75%). Meanwhile, most major denominations are experiencing (or are about to experience) some form of decline.

Is it possible these two facts are related?

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that how we — and I mean all of us, liberal and conservative — handle conflict is driving people away.

_______________________

Related: 

Well, I was wrong.

Someone decided to play the judgment card.

As reported on Matthew Paul Turner’s blog today, Christian author and prophecy enthusiast Joel C. Rosenberg wrote that the Colorado wildfires were indeed sent by God to get our attention.

Here’s an excerpt from Rosenberg’s blog yesterday:

Is it possible God is using natural disasters to get our attention? Natural disasters continue unfolding one after another here at home and around the world as they always have. But have you stopped to notice that so many recently are described as ‘historic’ and ‘unprecedented?’ Eight of the ten most expensive hurricanes in American history have happened since 9/11…

The fact is that throughout the Bible and throughout history God has used natural disasters to shake families, cities, regions and entire nations. Why? To get the people’s attention. To warn people to stop drifting and/or rebelling from God and repent…

Thousands of years ago, God told the Hebrew prophet Haggai to write down these words: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. I will shake all the nations… I am going to shake the heavens and the earth. I will overthrow the thrones of kingdoms and destroy the power of the kingdoms of the nations’” (Haggai 2:6-7, 21-22). This is Bible prophecy. This is an intercept from the mind of the all-knowing, all-seeing God of the universe. It is a weather report from the future, if you will, a storm warning… God told us well in advance that he was going to “shake all the nations.” That certainly includes the United States.

Let us urgently begin praying 2 Chronicles 7:14 for our country… time is running short.

OK, first… let’s talk about this Haggai. His oracle was addressed to Jews in the 6th century BC who, on their return from exile, needed a good kick in the pants in order to get working on the new temple.

THAT was the point of the very passage Rosenberg quoted. Not that his readers would know, since he left out the part that doesn’t fit his theory:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory.’

“This house.” As in, the second temple. The one built in the 6th century BC.

When King Solomon built the first temple four hundred years earlier, the glory of Yahweh descended on it (2 Chronicles 7:1-3). That same glory, God’s divine presence on earth, vacated the temple shortly before its destruction in 586 BC (Ezekiel 10).

In order to get construction of the second temple back on track, God promised Haggai that his presence would someday fill the new building, much as it had the old one. According to Christian tradition, this came to pass 500 years later. When Jesus Christ set foot in the finished building, God indeed filled “this house with glory” like never before. The aftershock of his advent reverberated across the nations, just as God had promised.

That’s what this prophecy is about. Not wildfires or earthquakes in 21st-century America. Haggai probably wasn’t even thinking about Colorado when he wrote this oracle.

It’s time we start respecting the Bible’s context — and stop treating it like a horoscope.

More importantly, let’s not take advantage of people’s pain and suffering in Colorado in order to score a few “oohs” and “ahs” from like-minded prophecy enthusiasts.

There is one thing Rosenberg was right about, though. We are seeing an increase in the frequency and intensity of certain natural disasters: droughts, fires, etc. Since 1975, the number of natural disasters has increased fivefold.

But instead of blaming God, let’s should look a bit closer to home. Climatologists have been telling us for years that global warming will have this effect. Maybe it’s time we listened. Maybe it’s time we started taking better care of the planet.

The earth is, after all, the Lord’s.

Colorado burning

27 June 2012 — 2 Comments

Yesterday, photos of smoke, ash, and devastation began to fill my Facebook feed.

I have a lot of friends in Colorado Springs.

I heard from one who spent the evening watching the ash descend on his house and praying it wouldn’t light. Another spent the morning watering her roof.

Then came the updates from those forced to evacuate — who don’t yet know whether their homes are still there.

As Christians, the best thing we can say (if we say anything at all) is Kyrie eleison.

Lord, have mercy.

Sadly, if the fires had struck any other city, some religious leaders might be tempted to say more.

If this were New Orleans, for example, someone might declare the fire God’s judgment on homosexuals, as John Hagee did when Hurricane Katrina struck.

If this were Port-au-Prince, someone might attribute the victims’ misfortune to a pact their ancestors supposedly made with the devil. That was how Pat Robertson explained the 2010 earthquake that killed over 300,000 in Haiti.

If this were Minneapolis, and there was a gathering of liberal Lutherans in town, someone might proclaim the 15,000-acre conflagration as “God’s gentle but firm warning” to repent, much as John Piper did when a tornado briefly disrupted the ELCA’s national convention taking place in his hometown.

But this is Colorado Springs, home of Focus on the Family, Compassion International, The Navigators, and a hundred other evangelical ministries. This is the veritable Jerusalem of the Rockies, with THREE Christian radio stations.

So who’s going to stand up and condemn it? Who’s going to claim insight into the divine counsel and tell us why God allowed and/or caused this disaster — and precisely who he’s mad at this time?

Is it Focus on the Family? Has God grown weary of their conflict with those whose values don’t line up with theirs? Is he mad at the entire state of Colorado for voting to ban gay marriage in 2006 — an effort spearheaded by Ted Haggard, a once-prominent Colorado Springs pastor?

Should progressive Christians take this opportunity to do some pontificating of their own?

The answer is, of course, no.

You see, even if you believe God is meticulously sovereign — that he not only allows bad things to happen but determines each and every one of them, it takes a colossal amount of hubris to point the finger at someone else and say, “God brought this disaster to judge YOU.”

Even if you believe God has used calamity to judge people in the past, that doesn’t mean you or I have the authority to say which disasters (if any) are divine judgments today.

“But unless you repent, you will all perish.”

When the tornado hit Minneapolis during the ELCA’s convention in 2009, John Piper took to his blog and quoted Luke 13:1-5 as proof the cyclone represented God’s judgment against the gathering of liberal Lutherans, among others.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

On the basis of this and a few other texts, Piper believes every disaster, natural or manmade, is the judgment of an angry God.

But let’s take a closer look at Luke 13.

Jesus learns that some Galileans were slaughtered in the temple by order of the Roman governor. Galilee and the surrounding area was a tinderbox of Jewish resentment against Roman occupation. (See this post for more about the political climate of first-century Galilee.) It’s more than likely these Galileans were killed in retaliation for some challenge to Pilate’s authority — whether they were the instigators or just “collateral damage.”

Many Jews of Jesus’ day longed to thumb their noses at their Roman oppressors. All they needed was a messiah who would rise up and lead them to a blood-soaked victory.

But when Jesus hears about these martyrs for the cause, he doesn’t mince words. He tells his listeners, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

This is not a general call to repent of just any sin, lest some disaster overtake you. Jesus is warning his listeners to abandon their plans for armed revolt. “Unless you repent of this futile effort to retaliate against your enemies,” he tells his compatriots, “the entire nation will perish.”

Indeed, Jesus’ prediction came true when the temple was razed and Jerusalem destroyed in A.D. 70.

Again, it was not a natural disaster he was talking about in Luke 13. It wasn’t even divine judgment. It was manmade and self-inflicted.

The Bible gives no encouragement to those who interpret every act of human suffering as divine judgment. There’s even one story where three individuals, too smart for their own good, are condemned for doing so.

Rather, we are told simply to “mourn with those who mourn.”

So as Colorado burns, we put our hands over our mouths and say,

Kyrie eleison. 

_______________________

Related posts:

Here’s an article I wrote for Q, an organization started by Gabe Lyons to help Christian leaders wrestle with the biggest issues impacting the church today…

Biblical Literacy Begins With… Reading

3.9 billion.

That’s how many copies of the Bible we’ve bought over the last 50 years, according to one estimate. As you might have guessed, that makes the Bible the bestselling book of all time. The Bible has sold more copies than Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Twilight. Combined.

But we all know there’s a difference between “bestselling” and “most read.”

When J.K. Rowling sold 400 million copies of Harry Potter (#3 on the list), there’s a good chance most of those copies were actually read.

Can we say the same for the nearly four billion Bibles in circulation? I think we all know the answer to that.

Not all copies of the Bible are read, and almost none are read cover to cover. If we turned our attention to a modern novel, it would be a bizarre and ludicrous experience to only read a few pages in the middle and ignore the rest.

These are the words of an atheist blogger named Jake Wilson. They are a chilling indictment of our relationship with the Bible. The worst part is, he’s absolutely right.

We buy a lot of Bibles. We just don’t read them. And if we do, it’s usually a verse here or a chapter there. We don’t read; we cherry-pick. And cherry-picking is a guaranteed path to a miserable reading experience.

I want you to change two things about the way you engage the Bible. If you do, you might just find yourself reading — seriously reading — God’s Word.

Read the full article here.