Monday, March 23, 2015

What is a "Great Team Member?" 5 Questions to Ask

Leadership is, by default, a "team sport."  If you have no one to lead, how can you be a leader?  But having a group to lead doesn't necessarily mean you will lead them well, nor does it mean they will necessarily be a "great team."

Over the years, I've often bragged publicly about the folks who have worked for me, and I have been truly blessed through most of my ministry to have some great team members.  But I've also had some bad experiences in this department, and my observations of these contrasting experiences have revealed a few characteristics that make someone a truly great team member.  So if you have leadership responsibilities over a group of people, how can you tell if someone will make a "great team member?"  I've found the following five questions helpful:

1. Do They Want You to Personally Succeed?  Great team members aren't just after their own success. They want the entire team to succeed, and they have a clear understanding that if the guy/gal at the top fails, such failure will also reflect on them.  This  means they will sometimes challenge the leader for what they perceive is the leader's own good.  It doesn't mean they will always get it right, but if their motivation is to see you as their leader succeed, they are someone you want to keep.

2. Do They Care About Your Well-Being?  Great team members aren't all about the work, principally because they understand that anything affecting one's personal life in a negative way will eventually spill over into the professional arena.  Great team members are personally concerned for your family, for your health, and for your mental well-being.

3. Are They Loyal without Being Blind?  One doesn't need to be a "lap dog" to be loyal.  In fact, "blind loyalty" is actually disloyalty, because it ignores things that can bring a leader down.  As a leader, I've always had a policy with those who work for me that is expressed in this way: "My door is open to you, so long as you close it before you criticize me."  If I'm about to do something incredibly stupid, I want people on my team who will tell me that.  Part of "managing up" is striking the careful balance between respect for authority in public, and appropriately challenging that authority in private.

4. When they Offer Criticism, does it contribute to solutions?  Anybody can criticize.  Anybody can find something wrong with the plan.  And anybody can tear down people they work for.  We are all imperfect, and finding those imperfections merely to point them out is the work of kindergarten students.  Great team members are able to offer appropriate criticism, at the right time, aimed at the right place, in order to point toward a right solution.

5. Do they love the mission?  My friend and colleague Mike Crawford says that Marines don't need to sit around for hours discussing their mission.  They simply dig a foxhole and fight together.  Too often in the church, we think that if we can just somehow "create" community, we will have mission. But it actually works in the opposite way.  Community doesn't create mission.  Mission creates community. In the end, it doesn't matter how educated or skilled the individual members of your team are.  If you aren't clear on the mission, and engaged in it together, your team will always be dysfunctional.  This means you have to ask, of each individual member of your team: "Do they understand that the overall mission is more important than any 'part' of the mission, and are they committed to that mission with us?"

Monday, March 16, 2015

Creflo, Character, and the Ripple Effect of a Heterodox Life

Western Christianity never looks more lavish, or less like Jesus, than when its leaders are embroiled in scandal.  This past weeks events proved no different, as Creflo Dollar, an Atlanta area pastor and "Word of Faith" teacher made waves across the internet by asking his congregation to provide funds for a new private jet--at the bargain price of $65 million.

Anyone even casually acquainted with Dollar's background and ministry will not be surprised at this latest development.  Formerly a student of Kenneth Copeland, Dollar promulgates a message of health, wealth and prosperity that sounds less like Jesus' call to take up one's cross, and more like Milton Friedman on steroids.

So first things first:  when scandals like this are caused by prosperity preachers, followers of Jesus need to send an abundantly clear message that this is NOT Christianity.  Often, our Pentecostal brothers and sisters are unjustly blamed because of the more casual relationship that exists between these movements and prosperity teaching.  But the historical roots of the so-called "Word of Faith" movement aren't anchored to Azuza Street, but to Spencer Massachussets, where E.W. Kenyon developed his philosophy of New Thought Metaphysics.  His teachings concerning the nature of reality--and the ability of the human mind to bend that reality by "tapping into the divine" and "positive confession," are a bizarre mixture of eastern panentheism and practices that originated in a form of Vajrayana Buddhism.  The subsequent "positive confession" teachings of the late Kenneth Hagin and his students built on these teachings.

So when it comes to the origins and essence of "health, wealth, and prosperity," Word of Faith theology bears absolutely no historical, Biblical, theological, or philosophical resemblance to anything like orthodox Christian faith.  We may call this twisted faith system many things.  "Christian" is not one of them.  So its important that when non-Christian leaders cause scandal that affects the name of Jesus, genuine followers of Jesus call these false teachers what they are.  But at the same time, we must also admit that many who might otherwise be considered "orthodox" can be guilty of the same things.

To be sure, prosperity teaching certainly makes it easier for someone to do what Creflo Dollar has done.  But Dollar's recent actions aren't primarily about heretical theology.  Nor are they about affluence.  Honestly, I'm not sure who it was who first suggested that ministers should be poor, but whoever did it was forwarding a poverty theology that is every bit as heretical as its prosperity counterpart.  If a pastor is doing well financially, in most cases we should be happy for his success.

But when your net worth is north of $27 million, and you are seeking to bilk one of Atlanta's poorest neighborhoods--one in which the average annual income is less than $29,000--out of another $65 million just so you don't have to fly coach, that's a character issue! 

And when it comes to a lack of character, the ripple effect through the western church is vast!

Too often, churches and ministries have skimmed right past the instruction of the pastoral letters, and ignored their call for character, because they were attracted to winsomeness, or leadership skills, or visionary ability.  The results in too many ministries have been tragic.  And while they will never make the headlines like someone coveting a $65 million plane, the results of low character even in "doctrinally sound" environments are very similar to those produced by religious charlatans.  When we ignore character, in the end we really don't look that much different from the heretics.

After many years of working within denominational systems, and with many, many churches, I've observed three primary ways that low character presents itself, damages the body of Christ, and casts aspersion on the mission:

Pride; When a leader of low character becomes prideful, he or she develops a "God's man" syndrome that causes them to think themselves "above" everyone else.  This sometimes leads to an entitlement mentality.  Like Moses in Numbers 20, they feel as though their faithfulness over a certain period of times means they should be allowed to blow their stack, or otherwise use their ministry for personal gain.  I've seen pastors pad their resumes, embellish their achievements, and use ministry resources for personal pleasure--all because of pride.

Personal:  Personal animus sometimes causes a leader to harm entire ministries simply because he or she won't practice Matthew 18.  I've counseled with churches where staff conflict was handled in an unhealthy way, and the conflict rippled out to eventually divide the church. I've seen church members scarred, staff terminated, and ministries ruined because someone who presumed leadership was willing to damage mission simply to be vindictive.  Leaders unwilling to take the relational high road for the sake of mission are leaders of low character.

Power:  Low character leaders will sometimes abuse their authority for personal gain. More obvious examples of this involve sexual misconduct and/or financial impropriety.  I've unfortunately had to deal with a few pastors over the years who couldn't keep their pants on, or keep their hands out of the offering plate.  At the end of the day, it was their sense of entitlement that fueled these behaviors, and the power they were granted for the good of those under their care was instead used to serve themselves.

In each of these cases, the ripple effect of low character carried a very high cost.

So how do we respond to this dilemma?  The answer to this question has been starring us in the face for the past 2000 years.  In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we read clearly that the first qualifiers for spiritual leadership have little to do with ability, vision or charisma, and everything to do with character.  Unfortunately, western Christendom has too often looked past these essentials, and we have paid a dear price for it.

Pastor search committees, executive search teams, senior pastors looking to hire staff shouldn't ignore the importance of skill and competence, nor should they view visionary leadership as an undesirable trait.  But deep questions to determine if a leader is truly above reproach, genuinely devoted to his family, morally consistent, financially responsible, and relationally respected are the most important questions.  Eventually, the things a leader does when no one else is looking will break through all the "visionary" facade.  When that happens, it suddenly becomes clear whether the things which are most important are inherent in a leader's life.

Creflo Dollar's theology and lifestyle are easy to identify as a false Gospel to anyone with an ounce of discernment.  But for those who call ourselves followers of Jesus, its the less distinct expressions of bad character wrapped in "solid theology" or "visionary leadership" that is the real danger.  The Holy Spirit through Paul has warned us for 2000 years; when it comes to spiritual leadership, character is king.

Monday, March 09, 2015

My Favorite Half of Romans 14

One of the most annoying experiences of ministry often comes, interestingly enough, after I've preached a message. It's that moment when I'm standing in the back of the church shaking hands, and someone comes up and says "great message Dr. Rainey. I wish _________ could have been here to hear it. They need it!"

Honestly, it's hard in moments like that to keep my temper at bay. I want to ask, in righteous indignation, "don't you need it too? What's wrong with you that you see faults in others before you see them in yourself? Haven't you read Matthew 7:1-5?? Are you an idiot?? . . . .

. . .but just before exploding, the Spirit reminds me that often, I too, am an idiot.

For example, many folks on my wife's side of the family come out of a Holiness background. Because of this, they hold strong convictions that I don't hold. I remember early in our dating life when Amy would say "don't talk about movies we have seen around the relatives. They believe going to the theater is sinful."

Of course, my instant reaction was to appeal to Romans 14. After all, Paul has given us clear instruction regarding how to relate to each other on "debatable" matters. There is nothing . . .absolutely NOTHING in Scripture that forbids me from seeing a good movie, especially one in which there is lots of gunplay, fast cars, and buildings blowing up in a hopelessly gratuitous fashion. There is liberty in Christ, and where "movies for guys who like movies" are concerned, I aim to exercise my liberty!!

Furthermore, those who would object to my affinity for fast cars and bullets on the silver screen should consider carefully the following verses from Romans 14:" . . .and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him." v.3b"Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another?" v.4"Why do you pass judgement on your brother?" v.10"Therefore, let us not pass judgement on one another any longer." v.13a

Wow, if only my "weaker brother" were here to read these verses. He sure needs it!

Problem is, in quoting my preferred half of this text, I've totally ignored (i.e. violated) the parts that are addressed to me in an effort to point out those parts that are addressed to my weaker brother. Talk about irony!

As a "stronger brother" in this regard, I should instead be looking at the following passages:"Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains. . ." v.3a". . .but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother." v.13b"For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died." v.15"It is not good to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble." v.21

Do such texts mean that I should totally abstain from seeing the next "Avengers" movie when it releases? Not necessarily. At the same time, it probably means I should keep quiet about it around certain folks out of deference for their convictions. OF course, they have their responsibilities as well. But I'm not responsible to fulfill my weaker brother's responsibilities. I'm responsible to fulfill mine.

The same is true for any other debatable issue. My denomination, for example, has, on the whole, very strong convictions about alcohol consumption . . .convictions that I share to a large extent. So when it comes to beer, I switch teams. I'm no longer a "strong" brother. Now, I'm a "weaker" one. And within our churches, I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon: almost anytime a debatable issue divides the strong and weak, the weak come out on top in the form of additional rules. The strong are often warned against causing others to stumble. The weak are rarely called out for judging their stronger brothers.

Perhaps this explains, at least in part, why there are so many evangelical churches that are culturally unengaged—bordering on the isolationist. To be sure, some of my more aggressively evangelistic brothers sometimes do things, and go to lengths, that give me pause. But when comparing those I believe sometimes go too far with the multitude majority who don’t go far enough, I think we need more of the former!

The thing that interests me about any debatable issue is that most folks are just like me . . .they have a propensity to appeal to those verses in Romans 14 that are addressed to their opponents. The problem with this approach is that it not only ignores those texts most applicable to you, but it also violates the spirit of the very texts to which we appeal; a spirit that is best summarized by Paul's contention that "the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."

"Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding." (vv.17-18)

Appealing to my "preferred half" of Romans 14 is never conducive to the kind of peace and Kingdom thinking that Paul describes. To pursue peace, I have to appropriate the other half . . .the half that describes my responsibilities when it comes to debatable issues.

With this in mind, maybe I don't need to judge my brother who participates in activities I find I can't participate in without sinning. Conversely, perhaps I need to resist colorful descriptions of "Fury" in front of certain family members.

Maybe, just maybe, if we all practiced such things, righteousness and peace and joy would be seen more clearly in us by those who need to know Jesus. Just maybe, this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 14.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Five Things a Pastor Search Team Should Never Do.

For more information on these principles,
check out my book "Side-Stepping Landmines."

The following is an introduction to the principles in my book Side-Stepping Landlines, which can be ordered here. 

Over the past ten years, largely due to serving as interim pastor in 7 different churches, I've consulted with numerous teams who were charged by their churches to find a staff member.  In most cases, the team was seeking a Senior or Lead Pastor, and in most of those cases, the team felt inadequate for the task.

In some parts of the country, that feeling of inadequacy would be no surprise, but in the Mid-Atlantic, where 30% of the population has a Master's Degree or higher, and where 87% of the work-force is white-collar and high-income, its truly shocking.  Many of the people I've talked with on pastor-search teams in this area have themselves been part of conducting executive searchers for Fortune 500 companies, yet they still felt unprepared when it came to serving their church by recommending the next pastor.  I've discovered that, regardless of the demographic makeup of the church, those chosen to search for a pastor always feel a bit uncomfortable.  And I've seen too many search teams make some pretty big mistakes--over and over again.

Over the years, I've seen 5 common mistakes that Teams seeking a Pastor usually make.  These are things a Search Team should never do, but almost always do.

1. There is a fine line between communication and confidentiality, and Search Teams cross that line repeatedly.  Most Search Teams understand that confidentiality is important, and they also get that the congregation needs to be kept "in the loop" on the search process.  Unfortunately, clear guidelines are often missing on how to strike this balance, and the result is that many Search Teams say things they shouldn't, and keep to themselves things that need to be said.

2. They use people with their process rather than using the process to find the right people.  In other words, too many Search Teams become slaves to a process, rather than using that process as the tool.   The process becomes the end rather than the means, and this causes too many Team members to burn out, and too many good candidates to get burned.  Effective search teams master the process.  They are not mastered by it. 

3. They ask hypothetical questions when they interview.  Anyone with average intelligence can answer a hypothetical question in a way that makes you think he is an expert on every subject.  On this issue, many Search Team "handbooks" are no help either, as many of them are filled with questions that are philosophical and hypothetical, but never allow the Team to see for themselves what kind of man they have sitting in front of them.  Asking the right questions, and translating a candidate's answers appropriately will give the team a realistic picture of the person in front of them.  

4. They assume the important stuff, and as a result, fail to ask the hard questions.  Nearly 40% of pastors have had an extra-marital affair since the beginning of their ministry.  37% regularly struggle with pornography.  More than 50% admitted that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way to make a living (Translation:  They are in it for the money!)  The most important questions are aimed right at issues like these, and they come right from the texts of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  Unfortunately, many times these questions are never asked because a committee assumes that the title "Reverend" means they have a morally straight guy in front of them. An effective search team asks hard, and sometimes very personal, questions of a candidate. 

5. They don't consider contextual fit, and often hire the "best" candidate instead of the "right" candidate.  The guy with the highest earned degree, the longest run of experience, or the best "track record" in ministry might be the "best" candidate in a stack of resumes, but that doesn't mean he is right for your church.  Effective search teams don't hire the "best" man.  They hire the "right" one.

Search teams interested in learning more about these principles can find them in my book "Side-Stepping Landmines."  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Monotheism is Not Enough

"You believe that there is one God; you do well: the devils also believe, and tremble."  -James 2:19

This past Monday, I had the honor of joining a multi-faith panel at the University of Maryland.  My role was to describe for students in attendance what it means to be a follower of Jesus in a multi-faith world.  I was joined by a dear Muslim friend of mine, and a Jewish interfaith scholar and student of religion.  

In our current global environment of civil unrest, ethnic strife and religious misunderstanding, there is no better time for conversations like this that allow us to understand and be understood.  Sometimes I'm asked "why would you join Jews and Muslims in a meeting like this where they will talk about their faith?"  The answer is quite simple.  Followers of Jesus aren't just called to make disciples.  We are also commanded to work toward environments that promote peace and mutual understanding. (Romans 12:18).  Over the past several years, I've met many friends who subscribe to Jewish and Muslim faiths who also want to work toward that environment.  If I am to obey Jesus, I have no choice but to say "yes."

Furthermore, our faiths have much in common when it comes to the practical concerns of life.  During our meeting we spoke frequently about what it means to stand for each other's religious freedom, love each other, and share in unconditional friendship.  And our common concern in these areas is fueled by our common belief in a personal God who created people in His image and likeness, and who desires to bring infinite justice to the world He created.  

At the same time, we have to be fully candid with each other about our differences.  It was this issue that on Monday night made me the odd man on stage, and I'm completely OK with that.   As an Evangelical, I believe Jesus when He said He was the only path to God.  A new believing student approached me after our meeting Monday night and said it this way when describing his own conversion:  "I discovered in reading the Bible that Jesus had an awfully elevated view of Himself, and the question I had to answer was, is He right?"  He is right.  For Christians who seriously follow Jesus, He doesn't leave us the option of viewing Him as one of a number of other options.  

This doesn't mean that God's common grace doesn't provide the means for non-Christians to be wonderful people who accomplish great things, nor does it deny that many who claim to be "Christian" have done unspeakable things to their fellow man.  So we can and should work together on a lot of issues where we have commonality, but our differences  are vast and irreconcilable.  I've said many times that I don't believe in "tolerance," because my friends in other faiths deserve more than that.  They deserve my unconditional friendship.  Well, genuine, true friends are honest with each other when they differ--especially when their differences have such eternal consequences.  But occasionally I get a question along the lines of "Why would you even mention your differences in a meeting like this that is supposed to focus on friendship?  Why not just talk about where we agree?  Don't we all ultimately worship the same God?  Why not just see our monotheism as sufficient to hold us together?"

My answer to that question is also very simple.  Monotheism is not enough.

To be sure, James' exhortation above praises belief in only one God.  Its certainly the only true starting point for understanding truth and living in freedom.  "You believe that God is one; you do well," James tells us.  No doubt this Jewish apostle from the tribe of Judah has in mind the Ten Commandments, along with the context in which they were given.  God through Moses had just delivered His people out of slavery in Egypt, brought them out into the desert, parted the Red Sea to let them cross, and then drowned their captors.  And here they were in the Sinai wilderness, free for the first time in 400 years.

Problem is, freedom is pretty useless if you don't know how to live as a free person.  And no one among this group had ever seen freedom, or had known anyone who had lived in freedom.  They now have to be taught by a gracious God to live in the freedom they have just been granted, and to enable that freedom, God gives Moses the 10 Commandments.  And the first sets for us the starting point for living free:

"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me."  -Exodus 20:1-2

The Israelites had been surrounded for four centuries by people who worshipped multiple gods.  The more gods you have, the more you have to serve, the more offerings you have to give, the harder you have to work--and at the end of the day, you are merely working to please the air.  Polytheism is the clearest example of what it looks like to live in spiritual slavery.  Freedom on the other hand, begins with realizing that there is one, and only one God.  Therefore, the highest duty of human beings is to know that God, and worship Him.

But to know Him in the sense that James describes is not necessarily to truly worship Him.  James continues with this warning: "The devils also believe, and tremble."  Satan himself is a monotheist.  He too believes in the existence of only one God, and he knows from his own experience as a defeated vasal the magnitude and glory of his own Creator.  But that knowledge by itself doesn't bring Satan to worship.  It doesn't redeem him.  It gives him no hope.  Because again, monotheism is not enough.

This text is of course couched within a large section where the Apostle deals with the relationship between saving faith and works of righteousness.  Faith without works, James tells us, is dead.  It is fictitious.  It isn't the sort of faith that saves.  1500 years after James, John Calvin would comment on these words with the following phrase; "Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone!"  But what kind of faith is it that James contends produces the good works of which he speaks?  The answer is in verse 23; "and the Scripture was fulfilled that says "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to Him as righteousness.'"

In other words, Abraham didn't just believe in one God.  He believed Him earnestly and perceived him rightly, and this faith is what produced the works which James says vindicated his relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

The event I participated in on Monday night was a great example of this.  We all believed in one God, but we perceive Him in very different ways.  He is either a Trinity or He is not.  Jesus is either God or He is not. You don't have to believe in the Trinity, or the deity of Jesus to love people and do some great things in the service of humanity.  My Jewish and Muslim friends prove that.  But being in a right relationship with God that secures your eternity is a quite different matter.  And where our perceptions of God are concerned, eternal souls hang in the balance.

This is why we develop the maturity to maintain friendships while speaking openly and honestly about our differences. We want peace.  We want friendship.  And we want to work together in areas where we agree and can have a meaningful impact.  But if we truly love each other, we will also talk about our differences, even  if we have to navigate being uncomfortable to do so.

Because monotheism is not enough.

Monday, February 16, 2015

4 Ways Pastors Enable Dysfunction in their Churches

The role of pastors is clear in Scripture: “Equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” (Ephesians 4:12) But unfortunately, some pastors confuse equipping for enablement.

Primarily, this is caused by fear on the part of the pastor. Proverbs 29:25 warns us that “the fear of man is a snare." But often, that fear doesn’t look like fear. Sometimes it looks quite courageous. Sometimes it appears as though the pastor is working himself to death in service to the church, when in reality he is doing all the work because he fears a lack of control. Sometimes it appears the Word is proclaimed in an uncompromising way, when in reality the pastor is just trashing people not in the room to make those who are in the room feel as though they have no sin from which to repent. What follows are some ways I’ve seen pastors enable dysfunction in their churches.

1. Throwing Red Meat to a Crowd Rather than Feeding God's Word to the Flock.   Let's face it. Most of us who preach know where our "Amen corners are, and we know what to say to make them noisy. 

Homeschool Nazis love it when you attack the public school system. Prophecy addicts long for you to spend every Sunday expounding on some cryptic passage from Revelation. Hyper-Calvinists can’t get enough discussion about “historic Baptist thought.” Conversely, those who think Calvinism is the doctrine of antichrist shout loudly in response to a pastor who dismisses the whole discussion with a single, broad-brushed reference to John 3:16.

The issue here is that our people all have their pet subjects, and if we want to stay on their “good side,” all we really need to do is discover what those passions are and focus on them when we are in the pulpit. Problem is, this approach never produces genuine disciples, because when you give inordinate focus to a few subjects, you fail in your duty to teach “the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27)

Another issue that arises from using the pulpit to simply throw out “red meat” for the crowd is that, strangely enough, you never seem to get around to actually preaching to the people who are in the room. It’s always what’s going on “out there,” or “those people” who are the cause of the problem. In the process, our people are reinforced in their own pride and never move significantly forward in the process of becoming more like Jesus.

To be sure, I’m not suggesting that you should never speak of how your people should educate their children, or how Biblical prophecy should affect our Christian walk. I’m simply suggesting that it takes absolutely no courage to stand in a room full of conservative, heterosexual, “red state” attendees and blame the homosexual community for all that is wrong with our culture. It takes very little temerity to appeal to surface-level exegesis in the attempt to get your people all bent out of shape over those evil Calvinists. 

And to stand in the pulpit, week after week, and do nothing but condemn the people “out there” is more like the practice of a Pharisee, and less like a New Testament pastor who follows Jesus by getting to the heart of the real issues. Judgment, the Apostle Peter says, begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). If you genuinely preach the whole counsel of God, what you feed your people won’t always taste good to them.

      2. Hiding from Hard Subjects. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 100 times from a pastor. “We don’t address THAT, because THAT would get us off mission.”

      On the surface, I understand the sentiment. Our preaching and teaching can easily become unbalanced if we focus too much on what we might think are “secondary issues.” Still, too many pastors simply avoid hard subjects altogether. What this teaches our people is that when the pressure is on, its OK to take the easy way out.

      But Struggle is part of the Christian experience. When a baby dies, when a spouse is diagnosed with a terminal disease, or when some other unspeakable tragedy occurs, people need to be already armed with a solid understanding of providence and sovereignty. They need to have already wrestled with the tension between divine providence and human freedom in a way that brings them toward greater intimacy with God BEFORE these things happen in their lives. If that means the pastor has to occasionally “go deep” on a subject like providence, so be it! 

      Likewise, when a child struggling with homosexuality “comes out” or a businessman is faced with the choice between keeping his integrity or keeping his job, the truth of God’s Word from the pulpit should be in the minds of all who are involved so that hard issues can be faced in a way that honors Jesus.

      Too often, pastors avoid these subjects, or worse, they oversimplify them in a way that ignores the difficulties of applying one’s faith during hard times. Enabling your people in this way is a treasonous act of denying them the tools necessary to think and act for themselves in a way that brings glory to God. Sure, there are more “practical matters” to attend to, and those should be addressed as well.

      Additionally, every subject that is dealt with by a pastor should be connected to the larger purpose of lifting up Jesus as the center and circumference of Scripture and our faith. But if God’s Word addresses it, then we are bound by our calling to address it as well.

      3. Doing the work rather than sharing the work. Maybe its motivated by guilt. Or maybe its motivated by a desire to control every ministry. Whatever the motivation, workaholism on the part of the pastor steals time from his family, and steals opportunities for service from his people. Doing anything (or worse, having your wife do anything) simply because ‘no one else will do it’ enables the church in its current state of laziness and consumer-driven sin.

      Furthermore, answering every phone call, making every visit and personally responding to every need means you never equip the church to do these things and are personally worn to the point where you eventually do nothing well. The late Adrian Rodgers said it best: “The pastor who is always available is rarely worth anything when he is available.”

      4. Making the church about you. This is, by far, the hardest statement in this post, but its true. Pastor, the church is not about you! Its about the body of Christ, and your validity in holding the pastoral office is tied inextricably to how well you serve the people God has put under your charge.

      When you act, you should do so with their best interests in mind.
In too many evangelical traditions including my own, the “celebrity culture” has produced many men who believe the church is there so that they can advance themselves. Regrettably, I’ve encountered a few pastors who make decisions that affect the entire church based solely on how they will personally be affected. In the worst cases, this behavior manifests itself in a pastor who uses the pulpit to get out all of his pent-up frustrations, which is the pastor-congregation equivalent of spousal abuse. Pastor, you serve the bride of Christ, and one day, you and I will stand in front of Him and answer for how we have treated His wife while she was in our care!

I’m convinced that codependency is a real issue with many pastors and churches. Rather than empower and bless each other, they use each other in a way that spreads dysfunction throughout the body, and destroys any hope of that local church being faithful to her call. When a pastor simply gives the people whatever they want whenever they want in an attempt to keep his job, or be complimented, or to advance himself, such behavior is not service. It is enablement. To be sure, pastors by themselves cannot change this scenario. But men, we can, and we must, resist the temptation to confuse equipping with enablement.

The fear of man is a snare. (Proverbs 29:25) Resist it, and serve your people well as a result.

Monday, February 09, 2015

What the President Got Right (and Wrong) About Religious Violence; A Guest Blog

My friend Alan Cross is Pastor of Gateway Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and author of When Heaven and Earth Collide:  Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus.  

Last week, many reacted negatively to the President's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on Religious Violence.  Most who offered criticism also seemed to misunderstand the President's intent, but I also felt that the President himself, while rightly contending for religious freedom and opposing violence, demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues as they relate to middle eastern politics and religion, as well as the way in which western intrusion into those issues has often made things worse, principally because of our largely secular approach in deeply religious areas.  Below, Alan expresses many of my own thoughts with clarity and eloquence.  

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, in her first byline this morning for the Washington Post, writes about President Obama's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast where he addressed issues of religious liberty, free speech, and the ways that religion can often be used by those engaging in violence to others. I saw most of the speech this morning and was especially grateful for the mention of American Pastor Saeed Abedini and his imprisonment for his faith in Iran. He spoke of meeting with Pastor Saeed's family and of the letter that Pastor Saeed sent him from prison where he said he was proud of being a prisoner for Christ and that there is power in unified prayer. It was there that CNN cut the feed and went back to Carol Costello summarizing the prior part of the speech and moving on to other news. But, I digress.

One area of interest to me involved President Obama's statements on religious violence and how God does not promote terrorism or violence against the weak in the name of religion. I agree with this, but there are qualifiers to it, as there should be. He brought up Muslim violence in Iraq and Syria at the hands of ISIS and the recent attacks in Paris against Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. He denounced this as a distortion of Islam. Then, he stated that it was not just Islam that had this problem. He then brought up the Crusades and Inquisitions in the Middle Ages, and more recently, slavery and Jim Crow in the American South. He said that these were examples of how Christianity was distorted by those who wanted to engage in violence.

"We have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, profess to stand up for Islam, but in fact are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious, death cult, that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism, terrorizing religious minorities like the Yazidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions."

President Obama was absolutely right in this. Religion is often distorted and subverted, as the French philosopher Jacques Ellul stated, by those wanting to use it for their own advancement. President Obama pointed so something dark and sinister that was within all of us that created this phenonenom and he said that it was not reflective of religion itself, which could be used for great good in the world. I really appreciated this statement and it is one that should receive great attention.

Bailey goes on to report that, "Obama also denounced the historic role of religion in slavery and Jim Crow laws in the U.S., noting that it is not unique to one place or faith to distort faith. 'We are summoned to push back against those who would distort our religion for their nihilistic ends,' Obama said."

This is also quite true. Religion played a huge role in supporting slavery and Jim Crow in the American South. But, what Obama gets wrong is in the simplicity of his statements. He references that there is something wrong in us that would use religion this way (YES!) but then says that WE need to push back against those who would use religion wrongly for THEIR nihilistic ends. The problem is in US, but WE need to fight against THEM. Obama is not a theologian or a preacher, but he played one today on TV. He sought to explain to us why religion is used to support evil, but then fell short of hitting the mark.

When one uses a religion to promote evil against others - take American Slavery and the way Christianity was used to support it, for example - does the problem lie in the religion or in the people using it? That is a legitimate question. Not all religions are the same, despite what secularists want us to believe. If they were, then they would all be, well, the same. And, they are clearly not. There are strong differences between Christianity and Islam, for example. And, between Islam and Hinduism. And between Sikhism and Buddhism. I have traveled to the native lands where these religions emanate from, and I can tell you, there are HUGE differences between the teachings and the types of people that these religions produce - in their cultures, value systems, and worldviews. Anthropologists and theologians and representatives of these religions have told us this for years now. We should listen.

The way that I see it, we have three options when we consider the way that religion is used to promote or disavow violence:

1. What does the Religion itself actually say about the issue? For this, you must go back to ancient texts, earliest adherents, and practices over a LONG period of time. Religion should not be judged by a snapshot and by the actions of few. Absolutely right! Anyone can do anything in the name of religion. Only dishonest critics use the actions of the worst to paint an entire religion in a negative light. But, what are the actual teachings? What do the leaders of the religion say about their own faith? What do they promote or denounce?

2. What are the deeper motivations of those who use their Religion to support their actions? This gets to the "why?" and to the evil that exists in men's hearts, as President Obama alluded to. You can't understand the role of religion in American Slavery if you start with Christianity as the driver. It did not come first. Rather, you have to start with economics and privilege and landowners and political power. Religion was then used as a cover for the greed, or aggrandizement (as Ellul called it) of men. Christianity was employed as a chaplain to give sanction to the economic and social situation employed by those with power (whites) against those without (Africans). The result was asubversion of Christianity in the American South to the larger desires of those who wielded power. The masses went along with it because they also wanted to be accepted and have access to that society and then they began to read the Bible through the lens provided by those who benefited from the arrangement. Racism was a manifestation of the deeper issue, which involved people trying to promote and defend their own way of life - and they used religion to do so. This still happens, of course, and is part of what is driving the actions of ISIS in Syria-Iraq. It also happens in more subtle forms. I cover this history in detail and show how this subversion happens in many different ways in my book, When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus(NewSouth, 2014).

3. Have the actions of those subverting religion to their own ends actuallyaltered the religion into something different than it once was? This question must be asked and considered. You don't go through 300 years of Southern Christianity supporting and defending slavery and racism toward those of African ancestry without Christianity becoming a different thing than it once was. Unless there is real repentance, you do not promote violence and oppression for that long without the religion itself changing. So, what has it changed into? How is it now different than it once was? Perhaps the process of repentance and coming to grips with WHY it allowed itself to be subverted by forces of violence, corruption, and greed can actually be healing and help restore it to its original purpose. But, that can only happen if there is a strong understanding of what the religion actually is - and was - in its original form and a desire to be reformed. Christianity has the ability to reform itself ethically and sacramentally because of the Person and Work of Jesus. Jesus stands as the revelation of God in the gospels that error beats itself against and eventually is shattered upon. While there has been much error and false practice in the church and by its adherents, the Person of Jesus Christ continues to stand firm and clear as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Jesus is the center of all calls for reform in Christianity by both adherents and critics. Without Jesus there is no Christianity and, there is no ability for reform. We can only see the errors of those who used Christianity for their own benefit in the past because we see the sacrificial love of Jesus who gave His life as a ransom for many. We see the error in stark relief because the truth shines so brightly.

This leads us to ask how Islam is being changed by those who seek to use it for their own gain. Are they acting in line with or in opposition to the teachings of Muhammed and the Koran? Are they leading the masses of Muslim adherents toward their violence, or are they being rejected by the masses? We see rejection of ISIS and Islamic Fundamentalism growing in the Middle East and around the world. That is great. But, on what basis? On the basis of secular humanist values? On the basis of Western denunciations? On the basis of Arab Heads of State fearing for their own power and future? The truth is, that unless Islam reforms from within by pointing to a clear core teaching/figure that they can compare the violence of Islamic Fundamentalism to and then renounce it, then the attempts to push back those who would distort Islam for their "nihlistic ends," as President Obama said today, will come up empty. Islam must eject this cancer from itself. It won't listen to Western politicians and liberal atheists telling it what it is. It will just hunker down.

The reason that Southern Christianity accepted and promoted Racism, Slavery, and Jim Crow for 300 years is because it did not have a strong enough vision of Jesus and the Cross and what Christ did. It appealed to a Theology of Glory and believed that God wanted to bless His followers with material abundance and life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. It saw God as a means to an end of personal success and focused on personal salvation and advancement over sacrificial love and the Cross. It got its anthropology wrong and did not understand that ALL were created in God's image and that because of the Cross, ALL were equal in God's sight. It interpreted the Bible not by the Cross of Christ, but by the world it saw and from what benefitted and promoted its own place of power in that world. It brought the errors of European Christendom to America and just morphed it into a social/political/cultural power instead of being sanctioned by the Church/State. It did all of this to serve a god of its own making instead of the God who gave His only Son to set captives free. The reformation of Southern Christianity from this error is ongoing, but it WILL happen as long as its adherents cling to the Cross and their Crucified Savior.

Unless peaceful Islam has its own reforming standard within, then the scourge of Islamic Fundamentalism will continue to proliferate. This is the part that Obama gets wrong. He thinks that all religions are equal and that they are all inherently able of reforming and bringing out the good. There is much good in Islam. But, what is the clear the reforming standard that says that violence is wrong and that people should put down their swords and live peacefully with others - even those who disagree with them and persecute them? I am asking sincerely. I have seen the scriptures in the Koran that promote peace and the mercy of Allah. That is a place to start. But, are those verses strong enough to reform and eject the growing scourge of violence being perpetuated by those who seek to use Islam for their own benefit? Will those people find a growing home in Islam and alter even the parts of it that promote peace and whose adherents get along with those different from them?

We cannot just say that all religions promote peace. We must look for their core teachings that promote one thing or another and then enter into a dialogue with the adherents of each religion and compare the force of those arguments upon those who claim to follow that religion. If you were in Alabama in 1850 or 1900 even, and said that Jesus denounced racism and slavery and wanted black and white people to be equal and it was okay if they were married to each other and they went to church together, there is a good chance that you might be strung up from a tree and covered in tar and feathers. Or shot in the head. Or had your house/business burned down. The organizing principle of Jesus and His Cross was not strong enough to gain a hearing. Southern Christianity was untouchable at that point by the witness of Christ. Or, for those who DID accept Christ's teachings, it was not strong enough to reform society and reject those who used the name of Jesus for their own benefit and advancement. Southern Christianity did not promote racial peace for 300 years, even though its founder was the "Prince of Peace."

So, what of Islam? Are we just entering a dark period where Islam is used as a cover against the cultural, social, economic, and martial advance of the West where the religion morphs into something that spews violence and violent people? Or, was it that way from the beginning? Is there something wrong with Islam or with those who seek to use it? Or, is Islam changing to promote violence agains the Infidel? Unless that central force/truth can be identified in Islam that will be strong enough to reform it from within - or, unless a Truth can reform it from without, Islam will not just automatically reject the forces of violence eating at its core. That is the part that President Obama gets wrong. And, President George W. Bush got it wrong before him, as did Presidents Clinton and Bush before him. The result has been the death of hundreds of thousands, the expended treasure of trillions of dollars, the invasion and occupation of nations, and the continuation of war without end.

You can not reform from outside those who do not want to be reformed. You only drive the nail deeper.

If President Obama wants to learn and teach a lesson from the legacy of slavery and racism in the American South and the role that religion played in it, that is the one that he should learn. It was only when Black Christian preachers began to stand up nonviolently led by their own use of Scripture and appeal to the teachings of Jesus, His call to love all men, and the deeper truths of the American experience rooted in Scripture such as "All men are created equal" that the hearts of Americans began to change. It was only in a country that was working off of the decidedly Christian ideal that all people have certain unalienable rights endowed by their Creator that the heresy of racism was confronted when Dr. King and others stood and declared, "I Am a Man." Dr. King appealed to Scripture and Christian conscience in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. As Dr. Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), "Jim Crow Was Drowned in a Baptistry" because African American Christians appealed to the Truth that White Christians believed and could read in their Bibles but were not practicing consistently. When White Christians listened, repented, and returned to the truths of their own faith involving how other human beings should be treated, reform was possible. It is still ongoing today.

Without that core reform impulse WITHIN Islam, the Islamic Extremists will only gain more and more traction. Secularists believe that they can can reform Islam by calling for Western ideals such as Democracy and Freedom to be adopted. But, they have been proven wrong with every election in the Middle East. They do not understand the religion that they are dealing with.

So, we should listen to the Muslim Theologians. Here are some questions:

What are they pointing TO as the antidote to Islamic Extremism?

How do they interpret their OWN scriptures when it comes to violence and extremism?

How do Sunni and Shiite interpret the Koran on these issues?

How does Saudi Wahhabism speak into this situation?

What is really being said in and through the Palestinian crisis?

How do Muslims see the land that Islam occupies and has once occupied?

How do Muslims see the issue of authority and human rights as understood by the West?

How does Islam really see non-Muslims?

Who speaks for Islam and what are they saying to their own followers and to their rival sects?

What do Western Muslim leaders have to say and how are they and their answers considered by Muslim leaders in other parts of the world?

I do not have the answers to these questions. I admit that I DO NOT KNOW. And, I am NOT saying that Islam necessarily promotes violence. For more than a BILLION Muslims who are peaceful, it clearly DOES NOT. But, if it does not actively and forcefully promote a strong ANTIDOTE to the violence from within, then perhaps those wanting to use Islam violently will have access to subvert more and more of the religion for their own gain - just like what happened in the American South in regard to Racism and Slavery. If we are not asking Muslim leaders these questions and are simply saying that all religions are the same and they are peaceful until they are hijacked by extremists, then how can we understand what is really happening? How can we understand where the solution is to come from?

President Obama is right in saying that religion can be wrongly used by those who appeal to violence to oppress others. And, he is right to reference the role of wrongly used Christianity in American slavery and Jim Crow. But, unless he seeks to understand HOW we got to that point and HOW we got out of it and then ask the same questions of Islam, then his assessment of the actual problem and prescription for the solution will be wrong. Muslim leaders themselves won't even agree with it. And, we will continue to expend blood and treasure against a rock that we ourselves will be shattered upon.