Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Living in the Future: A Repost

Imagine a married couple are expecting a child.  Now imagine that during that 9-month period they do absolutely nothing to get ready for that child.  They do nothing to provide a nursery, a bed, or a place to change diapers.  They don't think through how their work schedules are going to change in order to care for this child, or how they will afford childcare outside the home should the wife decide to go back to work.  They don't add the child to their will.  They don't provide life insurance for the child.  Worst of all, they don't secure medical coverage for the child once he or she is born.  How could they could have possibly been so short-sighted.  And imagine them responding by saying "we are doing just fine right now. We don't have a baby yet, and there is no need to do any of that until we have one."

You have just observed a couple who live consistently in the present, and think nothing of the future.  How many churches do you know like this?

Churches are often accused of "living in the past," but if the truth were told, too many churches are simply "living in the present," and simultaneously wondering why there is no growth, no excitement, and no vision.

Not long ago I was consulting with one of our congregations, and made some recommendations on steps forward they needed to take.  My work with Baptist churches means that I don't have any final authority over the churches I serve, but I also figure they wouldn't be paying me if they didn't want my input from time to time. However, one particularly strong objection to my recommended changes was punctuated by the phrase, "besides, we are doing just fine as we are."

"That may be true," I replied, "but you are not doing just fine as you will be."

A church with 100 active members will always--ALWAYS be at around 100 members unless it begins living in the future, and as such, behaving as if it were at 200 or 300.  But that sort of behavior demands change that can be uncomfortable.

1. Governance.   Smaller churches can have monthly business meetings and discuss everything....and I do mean EVERYTHING.  I once sat through a meeting in which the church body had a 45 minute discussion about how to spend $100.  Unfortunately, they were also very kind and civil to one another while having this conversation, so I couldn't accuse them of being ungodly.  But I did come very close to offering to write a check if they would simply stop talking!

But once a church begins to grow, monthly gatherings where every member of the body has the opportunity to offer input become increasingly impractical.  In Baptist churches, this means that our congregationalism becomes less "democratic" and more representative.  And this may be the hardest thing to change because everyone wants to be heard!  Problem is, once a church gets to the 250 mark, its not possible for everyone to be heard any longer, and if you want to get there, you have to start behaving like you are already there!

2. Staffing.  Conventional wisdom where church staff are concerned is "we will hire them when we can afford them."  To be sure, I have sometimes consulted with churches that are "over-staffed" and did so with the false notion that simply filling a position would somehow create excitement and subsequent growth.  But hiring the right people will create growth.  Generally speaking, you shouldn't wait until you can afford them.  Instead, you should hire who you can't afford to lose, and then watch them earn their keep!

3. Budget.  The ministry budget of a church is the real statement of a church's core values, and without faith-filled and calculated risk playing a role in the budget process, churches will inevitably budget "in the present."  Instead of starting with "what we took in last year," churches should instead start with the financial necessities involved in meeting the needs of its community and the world.  Too many resources that could otherwise be invested in Kingdom advance stay in the hip pockets and purses of God's people simply because we fear dreaming big, and being straight with the church about what it will take financially to live that  dream!  We aren't "all about the money," but we are all about Jesus and His Kingdom, and church members should be challenged to give sacrificially based on a future vision.

Churches that grow and impact their communities and the world are churches that live in the future!

This article was originally published on May 29, 2012 at this site

Monday, March 17, 2014

Mental Illness and the Church: Where do We Go From Here?

I little over a year ago, Rick and Kay Warren suffered the unspeakable loss of their son Matthew.  The Warrens used this family tragedy to shine a brighter  light on mental illness, and the role the church should be playing in helping society address it.  Below is the post I wrote a few months later.

On Monday night, my wife and I watched the heartbreaking interview with Rick and Kay Warren in which, for the first time, they shared with the public their experiences surrounding the April suicide of their 27 year old son Matthew.  Due to the circumstances surrounding Matthew's death, the interview spanned a number of issues: including  parenting, gun control, and the struggle of faith that occurs in even the most committed during such gut-wrenching times. But the primary focus of the interview centered on the state of mental health care in our country, and the role the church should play in that discussion.

I watched, first of all, as a father of three.  There is absolutely nothing I wouldn't do for my children.  I can't imagine the helpless feeling of knowing your son or daughter suffers from an ailment, and that in spite of the best doctors, you are still unable to prevent them from doing something like this to themselves.  My heart broke for the Warren's when I first heard of their son's death back in April.  Last night, this father's heart broke all over again.

But I also watched this as a pastor, and I did so with one question in my mind:  "Why would anyone suffering from mental illness turn to the church for help?"  I want the church to be the first stop for people in need.  Unfortunately, I was unable to answer my own question.

As it turns out, my reservations have some statistical warrant.  Just this week, Lifeway Research released its latest poll on mental illness and the church.  You can find the bulk of that research here, but what haunts me about the results is this:  48% of evangelicals believe that Bible study and prayer ALONE can cure mental illness.  Essentially, that means that half of regular, church-going, evangelical Christians see mental illness as solely a "spiritual" issue.  By contrast, only 21% of those polled who attend church said they believed they would feel welcome in their church if they had a mental illness.  Additionally, 45% of the unchurched don't think people with mental illnesses are fully welcome in the body of Christ.

I believe that prayer works, and I believe that God still heals!  I have no doubt that the people of God, praying in faith, could certainly see someone fully restored to health.  I've seen it with my own eyes--cancerous tumors that no longer appeared on the CT scan after God's people have prayed, for example. At the same time, I don't know of any church who would discourage their people from visiting the doctor, or getting needed medical treatment.  Yet in too many churches, when it comes to mental health that same common sense approach goes out the window.

In my experience, this is primarily due to the misconception by many pastors that to accept the validity of mental health care is to deny the sufficiency of Scripture.  The problem with that assumption is that to deny our parishioners access to care that can potentially save their lives and help their families is to ignore one very important principle that those fully sufficient Scriptures teach.

Scripture teaches that God reveals Himself to us in two primary ways.  General Revelation is the process whereby God reveals truth through the created order (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20-21) and also through the human consciousness (Romans 2:14-15).  Special Revelation is the description given to specific ways in which God reveals truth throughout redemptive history, first through miraculous phenomena such as burning bushes, still, small voices, and messages in tongues, and ultimately in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2), who in turn is revealed in the written Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16).

So, while God reveals Himself in these two primary ways, human beings also explore truth in two primary ways.  Where special revelation is concerned, disciplines like Biblical studies, Biblical and Systematic Theology, and Hermaneutics are employed.  Where general revelation is concerned, we explore the created order through the earth, life and physical sciences, and we explore the inward human psyche through anthropology, sociology, education science, and psychology.

In short, through the behavioral sciences, God has provided us an avenue by which we can learn things about the human mind that will allow us to help.  Sure, some who handed these sciences down to us in history didn't always have the purest motives, and still others were openly hostile to Christian faith.  But we also can't dismiss that they stumbled onto some very legitimate findings that can be of help where mental health is concerned.  Some veins of historical science haven't exactly been friendly to Christians either, but I'm not about to reject the very scientific method that gave my children a vaccine for chicken pox.  Truth was discovered, albeit through some rather crooked vessels.

With all this in view, here is why it is dangerous for pastors to reject the help that can be offered by the mental health field.  First, by appealing to the sufficiency of Scripture, we are rejecting what those Scriptures tell us about the validity of discovering truth via general revelation.  To put it bluntly, we are ignoring Scripture in an attempt to defend it, and that never ends well.

Second, we treat people with legitimate illnesses as though their problems are solely spiritual.  Admittedly there are times when this is the case.  Over the past 20 years, I've met with more than a few who claimed to "need counseling," when what they really needed was repentance.  But often, working together with mental health professionals will help us help our people with the scientific advances God has given us.  My friend Ed Stetzer said it well earlier this week: Let's treat character issues like character issues, but let's treat illnesses like an illness.

Third, the rejection of mental health care sets up a polarization between two disciplines that should be helping each other.  The lack of trust between clergy and mental health professionals is both obvious and palpable in too many areas of our culture, and both sides need to rid themselves of the false assumptions they have about the other, and talk openly with each other.

I'll be the first to agree that we are an over-medicated society.  We pop a pill for just about anything these days--when we get too fat, when we are working too hard, or when we need more vitamins.  It is true that sometimes the answer isn't becoming dependent on a synthetic substance, but instead repenting from gluttony, getting some sleep, or eating some healthy vegetables.  But the answer to a society that over-medicates isn't no medication.  Its appropriate medication.  Only when pastors and mental health professionals work together can we help to strike that balance.  Many of those mental health professionals can be found in our churches each and every Sunday.  Let's seek to understand each other within the church--the very context in which God intends that trust grow between brothers and sisters.  Let's equip those saints to fulfill a calling that is ever more crucial in our day, and let's cooperate with them in a way that integrates our respective disciplines for the glory of God.

As a pastor, I want to see less Matthew Warren stories.  If the church doesn't play a role in mental health, we will see more suicides, not less. The spiritual dimension that churches bring to the healing process is absolutely and critically essential.  But if the church wants to play a role, we have to be more approachable than recent research would indicate we are perceived to be.  

We don't stigmatize people with heart conditions or diabetes.  We pray for them, and we urge them to get the medical attention that we all know they need.  Those who suffer from mental illness should be treated in exactly the same way, and mental health professionals who love Jesus can help us take a badly needed and new approach to these precious image bearers of God.  

Together, we can create the kind of church environment that causes the mentally ill to see open arms everywhere they see a church.  Let's work toward that day!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why You Should Read "When Heaven and Earth Collide."

I've had the honor of knowing Alan Cross for about 9 years, and every time I'm around him, I learn something new, and I'm encouraged by both his wisdom, and hope in the Gospel.  For this and many other reasons, I was pleased to write an endorsement of his newest book When Heaven and Earth Collide.

Alan is a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama--where slavery, racism, segregation and the subsequent civil rights movement all found their epicenter for a period of about 100 years.  His book takes a hard look at how many southern evangelicals were a willing accomplice in the atrocities that plagued this part of our nation.

We speak often today about the temptation followers of Jesus face to simply ignore Scripture and capitulate to the prevailing views of culture, even if those views are contrary to Scripture.  Alan's book illustrates that these are not new temptations.  It also speaks honestly to a period in our history where the church in the south twisted the meaning of God's Word in order to prop up a sick and twisted view of humanity.

I'm a native southerner who was born in a time when these issues were beginning to finally be resolved.  The "new south" I see now when I visit extended family is a very different place than the one in which I spent my formative years, and that's a good thing.  I think Alan's book is important primarily because an entire generation is now coming of age that really doesn't understand how that history continues to affect not only race relations, but also social policy, demography, and economic disparity.  But most importantly, Alan is frank and honest about how southern evangelical capitulation to "Jim Crow" has affected the perception of the Christian Gospel by so many we seek to reach with the message of Jesus.

Here is my endorsement, that appears in the preface of the book.  Every human culture reflects both the image of God and the effects of the fall.  My friend Alan Cross vividly describes a 100 year period in which southern evangelicalism's theology and culture collided in a violent way that continues to affect economics, demography, social policy, and race relations.  Alan writes of an evangelical church largely unaware of how its own history has affected the perception of the Christian Gospel by so many.  The hard questions he asks come from the humility of one who lived through some of that history, and the boldness of a Christ-follower determined to change it.  Be prepared to be changed yourself! 

The foreword was written by Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, TX and author of Beyond Roots: In Search of Blacks in the Bible.

This book will be an invaluable tool toward understanding the history of your culture if you live in the south.  But regardless of where you live, the book will serve as a solemn reminder of the consequences that come each and every time the church rejects the clear teaching of Scripture in favor of the prevailing cultural presumptions that surround it.  Buy this book to inform yourself, and to be encouraged by a faithful and hopeful pastor who is committed to changing history.

Available here:

Monday, March 03, 2014

On Wedding Cakes and Religious Freedom

A few weeks ago, I had a hard conversation with someone who wanted my pastoral counsel.  A woman who owns a remodeling company was contacted by a family who wanted her to renovate a building they use to celebrate something she strongly opposes.  If she accepts the contract, she will, in her mind, be serving the interests of people whose lifestyle clearly violates her deeply held beliefs.  If she refuses, and the reason is discovered, these individuals could take her to court, and she could lose her business.

Thankfully, I had just finished reading this piece,  and in the same spirit, told her that remodeling a building isn’t an endorsement of what goes on in that building.  It’s just a job.  Furthermore, she should not first consider her convictions, but instead think of others and serve their interests.  Finally, after about an hour of back and forth, I honestly got tired of her struggle and told my transgendered friend to “suck it up” and say yes to re-modeling the WestboroBaptist Church.

That story not end the way you thought it would?

For several weeks now, I’ve followed the banter on both sides of a national discussion that is nearly out of control.  Though a number of legitimate issues have been raised from religious freedom to compassion and understanding, to tolerance and Christian servitude, this conversation predictably, and regrettably, became incredibly polarized. (We Americans are getting really, really good at that)

I’m not a pundit, a news commentator, a pie in the sky blogger or a politician.  I’m a pastor who currently serves a network of churches, all of whom are asking serious questions about these issues.  After the cameras are turned off and all the online news and blog sites cool down from this recent controversy—after Jonathan Merritt and Rachel Held Evans have moved on to other pots to stir--our churches will still be left to navigate the minefield that is left behind, and they will do so with both a desire to honor their convictions, and an equal desire to serve people in the name of Jesus.  And if we don’t start admitting that these issues are far more complicated than current discussions suggest, we will do neither.

Where this issue is concerned, my convictions as a follower of Jesus lead me toward two unavoidable conclusions that, on the surface, would seem to conflict.  On the one hand, the Scriptural concept of the imago dei brings me to conclude that no individual should be denied essential services, or otherwise treated as “subhuman,” regardless of who they are, or what they may be involved with that I might find objectionable.  As I understand it, the recently debated Arizona “religious freedom” law would have potentially created that kind of environment, and so I was disappointed that so many Christian leaders would thoughtlessly stand behind such a reckless piece of legislation.  I don’t want to live in a country where someone could be denied service in a restaurant because they are gay anymore than I want to live in a country where a cab driver can refuse to take me to a Baptist church because he thinks we are all ‘full of hate.”  Additionally, I tend to agree with Andy Stanley, who has recently stated that serving people who are not like you and disagree with you is, in many ways, the essence of what it means to be Christian.

On the other hand, I’m very concerned that religious freedom is being significantly diminished.  For 238 years this nation, with few exceptions, has been a model for complete and unfettered religious freedom.   I also believe that faith isn’t something that can be merely confined to what happens on a Sunday in a building, but spills over into one’s daily life and includes one’s vocation.  Contrary to those who contend that baking a wedding cake, taking pictures, or any other service-oriented task is “just a job,” 1 Corinthians 10:31 would seem to indicate that nothing a follower of Jesus does is “just a job,” and should be undertaken with this solemn realization in mind.  In light of that recognition, I want people to be able to think deeply and meaningfully about how their faith is best expressed without the outside compelling influence of Caesar—or fellow blogging Christians screaming “hypocrite!”

To be sure, some of those bloggers are asking some VERY legitimate questions: “Why would you photograph the wedding of a heterosexual couple who lived together, but not a gay couple?  Aren’t we all sinners?  Isn’t there something in Scripture about ‘going the second mile’?”  These deserve deep, prayerful reflection for churches to formulate a response.  Unfortunately, the same folks asking these questions are also insisting that those they ask be forced by law to simply comply.  To be sure, there is something quite ironic about telling your brothers and sisters in Christ to “suck it up,” and not be concerned about freedom of conscience.  “Just do what a follower of Jesus should do.  And in the event that you don’t know what to do, never fear.  We will tell you.”

Trouble is, religious freedom and the Christian responsibility to serve others aren’t mutually exclusive enterprises, and I’m alarmed at the dismissive approach to this issue that seems to be taken by more progressive evangelicals.  As a follower of Jesus, my mandate is to serve both conscience and people, and legislation from either side of the aisle won’t bring about that end.

The reason this issue is more complex than most in the media recognize is four-fold:  First, evangelical Christians hold to a sexual ethic rooted firmly in Scripture that speaks clearly to a number of things, including homosexuality. Sexuality isn’t the center and circumference of who we are, Jesus is.  But among the innumerable things over which Jesus has declared His Lordship, our sexuality is included.  As His follower, I can’t simply play the M.C. Hammer game of “can’t touch this” if I’m going to be faithful to His entire counsel, and on this issue, His counsel is clear.  I’m amenable to discussions of Biblical authority.  Send me a Dan Savage who saysthe Bible is “full of B.S.” any day and I’ll have an open, honest conversation with that guy.  But please, let’s have no more of the laughable hermeneutical acrobatics some in the evangelical world are attempting in order to harmonize a high view of Scripture with the affirmation of gay relationships.  The sheer exegetical incoherence and academic dishonesty inherent in those discussions makes me nauseous.  Disagree if you want with what the Bible says.  We can have radically different views of the authority of Scripture and still be friends.  But first let’s be real and admit that on this issue, Scripture speaks clearly.

 I love people, and I love to be loved by people.  In our current environment, I recognize that it would be much easier on me to capitulate on this issue—or to simply say nothing.  I have gay friends.  I have lesbian friends.  I have transgendered friends.  They are precious, image-bearers of God that I believe Jesus died to save.  My affections for them, combined with what I know God has revealed about this issue in His Word, compel me not to roll over.  Instead, I’m commanded to take “every thought captive” as I contemplate how to interact with those who are different from me.   The result of this will be obedience to my conscience as guided by the Holy Spirit, as well as a God-given desire to reach out and love all people.  Followers of Jesus, don’t have the luxury of choosing one of these over the other.


Second, there is a broad way in which the balance of conscience and service will be struck among churches and those who are a part of them.  if asked by one of the roughly 10,000 people who attend our churches what they should do, I would encourage them to seriously contemplate “baking the cake.”  Personally, I’m in agreement with others who contend that there is a marked difference between solemnizing a ceremony and providing the accoutrements for that ceremony.  Additionally, I don’t know of any other way that people can feel the love of Jesus unless they are around people who belong to Jesus.  At some point, we have to think about how people can be surrounded by Gospel communities that not only preach, but live, a message of loving both God and neighbor.  So as I’m consulting with churches on this issue, I encourage them to have these conversations at a much deeper level than they experience in American media or on internet blog sites.

Third, I want our churches and those who are part of those churches to come to their own conclusions as to how to respond to this without outside coercion, because freedom of religion means, well, freedom.  We have a number of churches in our Association who have policies on things like divorce, ordination, et al that I personally disagree with, but if I know that the local body of Christ has come together and, within Scriptural boundaries, come to a consensus on an issue after long, mature and prayerful discussion, then I stand with them.  My role is to encourage them to think deeply and prayerfully.  Some may take my advice above, and some will disagree. For those in the latter category, I wouldn’t want them lending their resources to something they believed to be sinful any more than I would want my transgendered friend in the hypothetical example above forced to work for Fred Phelps.

Unfortunately, the rushed discussion around these issues doesn’t allow for that.  In the face of gay marriage being legalized in my state, many churches were quickly advised by attorneys to add language to their governing documents that on the one hand would protect them from a potential lawsuit that could drive them into bankruptcy, but on the other hand, has shut down the conversation altogether.  I want people in our churches to talk with homosexuals, not with attorneys about homosexuals.  It is tragic that our current environment actually encourages the latter.  We need a better, more mature, less trite conversation than the one we are currently experiencing.

And the more I listen to the voices on all sides of this discussion, the more I’m convinced that legislation and/or enforcement from either side won’t solve the problem.  Regardless of which side prevails in a battle of this nature, the inevitable result would be that the problem gets worse, not better. 

The simplistic logic, reactionary judgment, and vitriolic division that surrounds this current discussion illustrates clearly that this is a distinctly American argument.  Our realpolitik has, for decades, created the very culture in which conversations like this one naturally turn sour.  Followers of Jesus must aspire to a higher form of dialogue.  But to do so, our clear mandate to love our neighbor must continue to be informed by and balanced with our prime directive of loving our God.  Harsh, reactionary legislation on one side, and litigious efforts to put people out of business under a “Jim Crow” mantra on the other will ensure that love is the absolute last thing that characterizes any of us.

Monday, February 17, 2014

How to be Part of a Tribe Without Succumbing to Tribalism

Hopefully, it will surprise no one reading these words to discover that I'm a Baptist.  I was brought to a Baptist church for the first time when I was just a few days old.  I heard the message of Jesus, and became one of His followers in a Baptist church.  I was licensed and duly ordained as a Baptist minister, I'm a two-time graduate of a Baptist seminary, and I lead a Baptist missions entity.  So I'm about as Baptist as they come.

And when I say I'm a Baptist, that's more than merely a statement of how I was raised or who cuts my paycheck.  I am confessionally, convictionally, Baptist.  I love my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, believe we will be in heaven together, and greatly appreciate their focus on the continuity of the Biblical narrative as it is contained in Covenant Theology.  Yet my best understanding of the Scriptures teaches me that infants are not, automatically, children of that covenant and thus, are not candidates for baptism.  So I could never be a Presbyterian.

I also believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still active today--ALL of them, including the ones that make some of my fellow Baptists nervous.  As such, I love and appreciate my Pentecostal brothers and sisters for their focus on the empowering necessity of the Holy Spirit.  At the same time, the Pentecostal understanding of how miraculous phenomenon like speaking in tongues are connected to Holy Spirit baptism are problematic for a guy like me, who believes we are as immersed as we will ever be by the Holy Spirit at the moment of our conversion.  So I wouldn't make a very good, faithful Pentecostal either.

Additionally, I see the book of Acts revealing an early multiplication of very strong, and very free, self-governing churches, which means I'd be inelligible for inclusion in the United Methodist Church also.  Just about any way you cut me, I bleed a brand of Christian faith that can accurately be called "Baptist."

Yet even with the convictions I hold, I've been blessed, encouraged, empowered, informed, challenged, and grown by men and women from across the denominational spectrum of evangelicalism.  In many ways, I would not be the man, husband, father, or pastor I am today without the positive influences of people like Tim Keller, Lawrence White, D. James Kennedy, Jack Hayford, Chuck Swindoll, Anne Graham Lotz, Bryan Chapel, Loran Livingston, Chuck Colson, Eric Metaxas, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and a host of others.  And none of the above-named people are Baptist!

In other words, I don't mind belonging to a particular "tribe" of Christianity, so long as it doesn't succumb to tribalism.  Yet a movement is afoot in my denomination that would seek to "cleanse" us from anything, or any influence that isn't distinctly Baptist.  Sometimes this is motivated by an apparent fear that our people will join another denomination because of someone who influences them.

And yes, sometimes, a brother or sister may come to different convictions than I do about something that causes them to be true to their integrity, and join a tradition that more accurately alligns with their beliefs. Truly, there are worse things that can happen in our churches than the above display of doctrinal integrity.   But honestly,  if reading a single quote from D. James Kennedy turns one of my parishioners into a Presbyterian, I don't think the problem is D. James Kennedy!

Currently, there is much discussion in our denomination about a number of movements and/or theological persuasions, and whether these pose a threat to our existence as Baptists.  But of all the "isms" I know of that exist within our ranks, none from my vantage point seem to pose as big a threat as does "tribalism."

Tribalism might be a threat to you if:

1. Denominationalism is a substitute for discipleship.  By any measurable standard, the evangelical world as a whole is not "making disciples," as Jesus commanded, at least not those of the Romans 12:1-2 sort.  So, when you discover someone who is actually making disciples--marriages are strong, kids are raised in the fear of God, addictions are overcome, and society is positively changed as a result of the Gospel--is your first reaction to celebrate that fact, or is it to make sure that ministry performs baptisms the same way yours does, or holds to your own doctrinal position on alcohol consumption, Calvinism, or worship style?  If so, you may be a victim of tribalism.

2. Secondary issues are elevated to Gospel issues. A few years ago, one of our mission boards actually stated that baptism by immersion as a sign of conversion wasn't enough to be a "Baptist" missionary.  It had to have taken place in a church that affirms "eternal security."  So, if you were confessionally, convictionally Baptist, but were immersed in a Pentecostal or Nazarene environment, you were put out to pasture, unless you agreed to be "baptized" in an SBC church.  When I asked one trustee about this decision, I was actually told that holiness and Pentecostal churches teach "a works salvation in reverse."  This man demonstrated both a horrible misunderstanding of the historical and theological underpinnings of Arminianism, as well as a grotesquely myopic view of the meaning of baptism.  I'm not sure which of these caused the other in this "chicken-egg" conundrum, but the end result was a claim that because Pentecostals don't believe as we do on an issue not central to saving faith,  they don't proclaim the Gospel at all.  When a command of Jesus is domesticated and perverted to the extent that you believe it identifies you with a denominational tradition more than the King of Kings, you might be a victim of tribalism.

3. Identity turns to Isolation. Occasionally, I run into this in the church planting world, when I'm told, in spite of the fact that there may be multiple Gospel-preaching churches in a given area, that we may need to put a church there anyway because "there is no BAPTIST work there." Thankfully, such hubris doesn't exist in my Association or state convention, but I've certainly heard this sort of thing in the larger Baptist world.  If you think we don't need other Christian traditions working with us to accomplish the Great Commission--or worse yet, if you think the Great Commission can't be accomplished unless we are driving the work in a given area--you may be a victim of tribalism.

I think our work is important, and I think our identity is important.  As the head of a Baptist missions entity, that's why I won't put a Lutheran on the field to plant a church, or encourage one of my established churches to hire a Pentecostal, or consider anyone for missionary service under our banner who would be OK with throwing water on a baby and calling it baptism.  But I don't have to be your twin to be your brother, and the sooner all Southern Baptists realize our dire need for the wider body of Christ to accomplish His mission, the healthier and more effective we will be within our own tribe.  Ironically, that will also be the moment when our identity is more firmly established, because it will be in Jesus.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

What to Get Your Pastor's Wife for Valentine's Day

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day, when more money will be spent on cheap, plastic, red and pink junk than on any other day of the year.  For our family, it will include an evening out together, and my boys will give their mom and their sister gifts. (Rainey men don't receive gifts on Valentine's Day, because we use it as a time to teach them that men give first)  And yes, some of it will be plastic, red and pink, because I must do my share to keep our consumer-oriented economy going.

But as this day approaches, I've been thinking about Pastor's wives, mostly because I'm married to one, and have seen first hand the uniqueness of her experiences compared to other women.  Those experiences, coupled with stories I've heard from other women who also happen to be married to pastors in this Association of churches, have motivated me to write this post in the hopes that followers of Jesus will be encouraged to use this holiday to say "thank you" to the woman standing beside their pastor.

So, what makes her life different, and why should you take some time, and possibly even spend a little money, to recognize that fact?

1. Every Sunday, she becomes a single mom.  For most pastors' wives, while you and your family are getting ready for church together, she has long-since kissed her husband goodbye, and every Sunday is in the process of getting herself and the kids ready to take them to church on her own.  Sunday afternoons likewise are often spent without her husband.  Often, unexpected emergencies and acute needs will suddenly take him away in the evening.  But he is nearly always away on Sunday afternoon.

2. She and her children live in a fish bowl.  I spend a good deal of time challenging our pastors to allow their wives and children to be themselves.  Most honor their families in this way, yet this often will not keep criticism from coming their way because, after all "she is the pastors wife" or "he is the pastors kid" and as such, is often held to a higher, and more often an unspoken standard..  Women who marry ministers of the Gospel choose their men, and to an extent, they are also choosing a particular kind of lifestyle.  But they are not, and should not be, choosing a mold.  Yet much of her life is spent resisting the pressure to fit that mold, and protecting her children from it as well. I always rejoice with women who have escaped that squeeze and are living in the freedom of their own identity, but for every one of them, that path was long, hard, and full of a lot of unnecessary guilt.

3. She is often a spectator to conflict she can't control. Most wives realize that, in times of church conflict, you actually do more harm than good if you open your mouth in the attempt to "defend" your husband.  Amy has often taught younger wives of pastors that "the most supportive thing you can do is to keep your mouth shut and just make sure he comes home to a supportive, peaceful environment."  Still, too many wives have to watch as their husbands deal with unspeakable conflict, harsh judgement, and spiritual warfare.  If her husband is the leader he should be, he won't dump these problems on his wife, and will instead rely on the Holy Spirit, and  fellow elders to endure for the sake of the bride of Christ.  But any wife who is sensitive to her husband will know when his mind is occupied and his spirit is troubled, and this will affect her as well. She can't control most of the conflict that erupts in a church, yet she and her children are often profoundly affected by it nonetheless.

4. Like any woman, she needs relationships, and they are sparse in the church. Most women need deep, meaningful relationships.  Yet most pastor's wives can't get those in their own church!  Even if the church environment is such that she feels she can open herself up, to do so is to take an enormous risk that may cost her entire family later on, and she knows this.  Some can find those relationships outside of the church--and are regrettably judged sometimes for not spending enough time with the people of the church as a result.  But for many women, the result is simply loneliness.

5. She has the power to make or break her husband.  Danny Akin said it best.  "A great pastor's wife can take a mediocre pastor and make him great.  But an un-supportive wife can take a great man, and reduce him to the level of mediocrity."  I've often joked that Amy may be the only reason I still have a job.  But the serious reality is that if you have a great pastor, and he is married, much of his greatness is due to that woman you see him with every Sunday.  Pastor's wives understand this, and will often carry this responsibility in a burdensome way.

Now, I'm not suggesting that pastors' wives should be pitied.  Hardship and conflict are realities for women everywhere.  But as I have been married to one for nearly 20 years, I happen to know that the burdens and circumstances of these women are quite unique--and are certainly worthy of attention by those who have been blessed, ministered to, equipped and encouraged by her husband.  So this Valentine's Day, consider a restaurant gift card, the provision of free babysitting, or even a weekend away at a bed and breakfast.

If you have a good pastor and he is married, then it is largely due to his wife.  Find a tangible way to thank her for all she does for her husband so that he can serve you well.  She is worth the investment.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

From One Preacher to Another: An Open Letter to Bill Gothard

Dear Bill,

I write this letter feeling very strange.  In light of the prescribed discipleship method of Titus 2, this younger man who could theoretically be your son feels a bit weird.  Nevertheless, after having read about the accusations of sexual harassment by multiple women who have worked under your authority, I feel compelled to express what I'm feeling right now to an older man who is supposed to model what it means to follow Jesus.

For many years (I've been in ministry for more than 22 years now) I've followed your work from a distance.  During that time I've heard you take bold stands and say some things I thought were very helpful to the church, and I continue to be thankful for those timely exhortations.  From the standpoint of general theology, you and I are basically the same.  You have advocated a few views over the years that, frankly, I thought were narrow, exegetically flawed and a bit goofy, but we both hold a high view of Scripture and an exclusive view of Jesus as God incarnate, who died on the cross as a substitute for sinners, rose bodily from the dead and is one day returning.  But honestly, I never got any closer to your ministry, and my reticence is overwhelmingly due to the strange way you seem to have been revered by your own followers--a way I discerned to be very, very unhealthy, but which you apparently demanded.  Now, it appears my reluctance was warranted.  I recognize that a single accusation does not, and should not automatically constitute guilt.  But the multiple women now coming forward more than warrants pulling the trigger on 1 Timothy 5:19-20.  Regardless of your intent, the net effect of your actions toward these women did not empower and equip them as followers of Jesus.  Instead, they departed from their service with you uncomfortable, afraid, and ashamed.  Such is never the result of a healthy, Biblically sound, God-honoring ministry.

Since hearing about this situation from one of the pastors in the network of churches I serve, many emotions have flooded my soul that I want to share with you, and with the world that is now watching to see not only your ultimate fate, but your reaction to these revelations.

First, you need to know that I am angry with you.  In the next couple of paragraphs, I'm going to be very rough on you.  I hope you will not stop reading, and that by the end of the letter you will know of my love for you as a brother, but you need to hear the following words. I am angry as a fellow pastor/minister. Your behavior has placed yet another black eye on our common profession and calling.  Occasionally, a situation arises in which I need to provide counsel to a young woman, and circumstances like this make her parents understandably concerned. You are now to the rest of us who serve as pastors what the 9/11 hijackers were to Muslims--someone who causes the rest of us to be viewed with high suspicion simply because we are pastors.  By your behavior, you haven't just broken trust with your own followers.  You have also contributed to the growing distrust that the public now has of those of us in ministry.  The Gospel--which is what people need the most for healing, meaning and purpose--is kept from many because actions like yours have broken the trust between them and those of us who are the stewards of that story. To be honest Bill,  the most repulsive thing about what you did isn't just the inappropriate behavior with young women, but that this behavior occurred in the context of an uneven working relationship.  You abused the power and trust of your office to satisfy yourself rather than serve your people.  And as the one with the power in the relationship, the blame for everything that has transpired rests squarely on your shoulders.

I am also angry as a father.  I have two sons whom I love more than my own life.  And yet if I ever discover that they have behaved as you have and taken advantage of a woman, they will experience a level of wrath from their father that they have never seen before.  Taking from a woman to satisfy yourself is what little boys do, and I want my sons to be men.  Real men don't do what you did.  But my anger reaches its peak when I think, not of my sons, but my daughter.  I have to tell you Bill, if one of the young women you abused had been my Gracie, then it is highly likely I would be writing this letter from a prison cell, and you would be reading it through deeply bruised, bloodshot eyes from the confines of a hospital bed.  Yes, I recognize it would be wrong for me to react in that way, but maybe if you understand how incredibly angry I am--how unspeakably angry a LOT of fathers are at you--then perhaps you will also sense how the heavenly Father of these young women feel.  These young ladies--as followers of Jesus--are daughters of the most high God.  They are princesses who were placed in your care and pastoral stewardship, and you abused your authority to your own sick benefit.  Their Creator and yours is also very angry with you.  Public embarrassment and the potential loss of a life-long ministry should be the least of your worries right now.  If I were you, I'd be very, very afraid!

Second, I am brokenhearted.  You and I don't agree on a few things, but one of the things I always appreciated about your ministry is that you were consistently clear when it came to Jesus.  But just as your words in the past demonstrated your strong affinity with Jesus and His church, your reprehensible behavior has tarnished both our Lord and His people.  Paul tells us in Ephesians 3 that it is through the church that the manifold wisdom of God is made known.  As the stories of your harassment of young women and abuse of power begin to spread, they will, in the eyes of the world, grant legitimacy to the charges of misogyny and chauvinism that are so often leveled at us all.  This is what people will think of when they think of the church and her earthly leaders--the exact opposite of the truth, which is that Jesus gave of Himself to give us freedom.  I am profoundly saddened when I think of the way the Gospel will be misunderstood and the church will be held in suspicion because of this.

Finally, I am hopeful.  I've read your doctrinal statement, and assuming that these words didn't just come from your mouth, but also represent your head and your heart, that makes you my brother in Christ.  That means that we are both fallen men who have been redeemed.  From where I sit Bill, it appears that you have enjoyed a level of unchecked, cult-like authority for many decades.  If I had had that same level of unilateral control--if there were not other men in my life, both on my governing board and in my circle of friends, to get in my face, hold me accountable and give me a good swift kick when needed--I would be just as prone as you to abusing my authority in some way.  In other words, I write this letter fully acknowledging that at heart, I'm no better than you, and I'm incredibly thankful for other godly men He has put into my life to keep me on the right path.  We all still struggle with our own sense of self-importance, and are prone to make our ministries about ourselves rather than Jesus.

So as this situation continues to unfold, I hope you will see it as an opportunity to truly repent, and begin a process of restoration that includes full submission to others who oversee your counseling, accountability, and support.  The women you abused need healing, but so do you, because sin leaves all of us scarred, even those who committed it against others.  The great news of the Gospel is that God isn't just a righteous judge who will one day settle all accounts and leave no injustice unpunished.  He is also a loving Father--YOUR loving Father, and He is able to heal even your own self-inflicted wounds.

I hope you see the deadly seriousness of what you have done, and I pray that it drives you headlong toward the Jesus you worked hard to preach over the years.  It is unlikely that you will ever again have the level of power and influence you once enjoyed, and given the gravity of your actions, I'd say that is appropriate.  But the hope of the Gospel means that you can still be used in powerful ways, primarily through a potent testimony of restoration, should you decide to take that long journey under the loving discipline of God't people.  As angry as I am with you right now, I pray this for you nonetheless.

From one preacher to another,
Joel