Monday, February 20, 2017

The Shack: A Pastoral Perspective

Next Friday, The Shack opens nationwide, prompting full theaters, plenty of box office profits, and apparently, a bunch of ticked off conservative pastors.

I get it.  I really do.

I read the book when it was first released back in 2007.  When I finished, I was simultaneously impressed and fearful.  I was impressed because it was truly a riveting novel that deals with real life issues of pain that too few churches are willing to honestly address.  I was fearful because the "god" portrayed within its pages isn't the one true and living God who has revealed Himself to us in Scripture.

The "god" of the Shack is air.  It doesn't exist.  It's a worthless and damnable idol.

My reasons for making such a broad, sweeping claim are numerous, and too many to list here.  If you are interested in a detailed theological critique of the book, I really cannot improve upon that given by Tim Challies here.  Principally, the author's view of God as presented in this story reflects an ancient heresy known as modalism--a doctrine that conflates the clear Biblical distinctions between the members of the Trinity and as such, compromises the role each plays in the process of redemption.

There are other major issues as well, but in the end, the biggest problem with the novel is that it presents--as an answer to our deepest pain--the theological equivalent of a flying spaghetti monster.  I find it ironic that the main protagonist is played by Sam Worthington of Avatar fame.  The Shack is about as accurate in its view of ultimate reality as Avatar.

As a theologian deeply concerned about accurately representing God as He has revealed Himself, these facts concern me.  But as a pastor whose responsibility it is to point people to the God of Scripture in the midst of their deepest pain, these facts scare me for the sake of their souls.

So what exactly should pastors do in response to what we all know will take place next Friday?

Last week, I sent an email to our staff reminding them that our church family will not be promoting this film in any way.  No one on our payroll is permitted to buy tickets, rent theaters, take groups to the movie, or anything else that would give the impression that Covenant Church approves of this film and its depiction of God.  Its one thing to take in a movie as an individual.  Its quite another to promote something that is likely to be contrary to Christian faith.

But as a Pastor, I must also recognize another reality.  People are going to see this movie!  I have told our staff that I will see it, mostly just to compare its contents with that of the book.  They too are encouraged to see it as individuals.  Why?  Because our people are going to be buying tickets.  Their non-churched and non-Christian friends will buy tickets too.  If when returning to church all they see in response from their leaders is protest, what will they have learned from us?

So, here are three reasons I think EVERY pastor should watch this film, and be ready to interact with its contents with your people.

1. From a cinematic and artistic standpoint, it will probably be an excellent movie.  How do I know this?  One name: Octavia Spencer!  It would appear that audiences can anticipate stellar acting from a phenomenal cast of talented people.

Though it remains to be seen, I suspect that for the sake of time and content, much of the doctrinal substance of the book may be absent from the film, leaving a number of "blanks" that are going to be filled in by someone.  Why shouldn't that someone be a faithful pastor?

One of the biggest and most legitimate complaints about "Christian" movies is that they are, well, terrible!  For the most part, this is because the characters are "flat" and issues are all "black and white."  There is very little tension to resolve--only an affirmation of what we already believe so that we can feel good about ourselves.  My friend Alvin Reid has observed that "our theology IS black and white, and it should be, but we live lives in color!"  He's right, and I fully expect that this film will demonstrate well the "living color" of our lives--particularly the painful parts. It is possible to enjoy a good movie, or a good book, without blindly accepting everything you read or see.  Pastors, this is our opportunity to model for our people how to do just that.

2. The movie will prompt conversations and questions Pastors need to answer.  The pain depicted in the book and film is all too real for too many people in our churches and communities.  Many people are going to see this film because they think that in it they will find the path to healing.  If the "god" presented in the film is compatible at all with the "god" presented in the book, they won't find it.  Or worse, they will think they have found it, and forever be inoculated to the real thing.

If Pastors and church leaders are faithful in responding with compassion to the issues that will certainly be raised as a result of this film, we can point our people and their friends to a God who can bring them genuine healing.  But if our disposition causes them to return from the theater, only to see in the pulpit those two old, grumpy guys from the muppets yelling "Boo!" then we miss out on the chance to find real answers.

3. This is an opportunity!  The most foundational question of faith is "Who is God?"  If you get that question wrong, it only goes downhill from there, and this is the fundamental danger of a book like The Shack.

But great opportunity lies here as well for pastors.  This film will prompt conversation about God, and who He really is!

Pastors who don't willingly join that conversation are derelict in their duties both to Christ and His people.

People in our churches are going to see this film.  Their non-Christian friends will see it as well, and our people need to be equipped to have those conversations by pastors who model how to do it well.  So let's not merely shrug our shoulders and allow our people to absorb idolatry unknowingly.  But conversely, let's be more than the grumpy old guys who pour cold water over people's warm experiences with no explanation why.

Let's engage.  And in doing so, lets faithfully give people the real thing!

Friday, February 03, 2017

Straw Men, Dead Children, and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

"And the King will answer them, 'Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."  Jesus, Matthew 25:40

Over the past week, President Trump's Executive Order to indefinitely halt the Syrian Refugee program has caused quite a stir around the country.  "Fake News" on both sides of the political spectrum have added an annoying level of drama to the situation, and followers of Jesus in the midst have reached differing conclusions.

For me, this is an easy case to figure out.

My international work has involved spending time in refugee camps abroad, and I've also had the privilege of working closely with a number of organizations stateside that minister to this vulnerable segment of our global population.  Additionally, I've also had the good fortune to work with members of our intelligence community whose job it is to ensure the safety of American citizens by "vetting" potential refugees who seek resettlement in our country.  They tell me that our refugee vetting system is as tight as it gets.  I'm thankful.  This is as it should be.

My knowledge and experience with this issue brought me quickly to the conclusion that this order is unnecessary, harmful to Christian mission here and abroad, potentially deadly to those seeking safety from the worst humanitarian crisis in the last 200 years, and ineffective at truly keeping Americans safe.

Many of my brothers and sisters in Christ don't agree, including a few in the church I'm honored to pastor.  I've heard their concerns, and both appreciate and agree with their concerns about national security.  I just happen to believe--based on solid data--that the programs recently halted bore no danger to American citizens.  Quite the contrary, these programs saved lives.

I know this because of my prior work.  I do find it interesting that, by and large, those opposing the recent executive order are those who actually have experience working with and ministering to refugee populations, while most who support it have little experience in such matters.  In some sense, this is understandable, given that its hard to have compassion on people you don't know in a situation you are unfamiliar with.

But that's also the damning thing about ignorance and isolation.  When they combine, they create a fear that causes us to do inhumane things.

Ignorance and isolation in a Pakistani village result in Christian persecution and burned churches.  Ignorance and isolation  in the US in the 1940s meant fear of "Nazi spies" among Jews seeking safety , and caused us to send them back to gas chambers.  Wherever ignorance and isolation are allowed to rule the day, the most vulnerable pay a heavy price.

Additionally, a number of nationally-known Christian leaders have created straw man arguments in an effort to bolster their #norefugees position.  Most of the time, straw man arguments are just annoying.  But in this case, lives created in the image of God are at stake.  So for the sake of their humanity and ours, the following is a list of the arguments the #norefugees movement isn't allowed to make anymore.

It's Not a Muslim Ban!  Yeah, I know that, and so do the good folks at World Vision, World Relief, and the International Rescue Committee.  Though some far-left fringes have tried to forward this argument, most all who actually work with refugees know this isn't a "Muslim ban."  In fact, the first Syrian refugees turned around at the airport after this Executive order were our brothers and sisters in Christ!  This isn't about Islam or Christianity.  Its about humanity.  And for Christians, its about our duty to honor the dignity and sanctity of ALL human life.

We can't just let anyone in who wants to come!  Yeah, I know that too, and I agree, so can we please stop using an argument that no one is making?  The point of objection is the refugee program, not immigration in general.

This isn't a Bible issue!  I was shocked to hear Franklin Graham, perhaps the most well-known evangelical humanitarian, claiming that humanitarian work isn't a Bible issue. Though he is correct that government and the church have separate roles to play, he seems to forget that when government takes action that affects both the work of the church and the vulnerable to whom the church ministers (as this Executive Order does), the church has a duty before Christ to object.  And the last time I looked, serving the "least of these" is a Bible issue.

Your'e just a liberal!  Ah, name-calling!  The last resort of those with no real argument.  Of course, the word "liberal" has now been used so much to define so much that it no longer has any meaning--sort of like this statement.   Caring for the most vulnerable in our world is the responsibility of Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and anyone else wearing any other label who calls themselves "Christian."  Our nation would be in a much better position if those who follow Christ would melt down their respective golden elephants and golden donkeys, and do what we do because God's Word commands it.

What about the homeless here?  That's a good question!  What are you doing about that problem.  Nearly every church I know, including the one I'm honored to serve, addresses this issue.  I'm thankful to say that our community is better because of my church family's work serving the least of these in our region.  And the same is true of many of our sister churches.

So I'm not sure what this objection is besides re-direction from the issue at hand.  Our calling as the body of Christ is to serve them ALL.  Wherever the vulnerable are found, Jesus' people have our marching orders.

So with all of these straw man arguments out of the way, there is still one objection that can be made by those in favor of this recent move:  I don't think our refugee vetting process is safe enough.

Fair enough.  That's a perfectly legitimate objection.  But have you actually looked at this vetting process?  You can find a thorough description of it here.

Additionally, since 1980 our country has taken in more than 3 million refugees from various countries.  In that 37 year time-span, ZERO Americans have been killed by a refugee in a terrorist attack.

If you don't think that's "safe enough," or believe "it could be better," you are certainly entitled to that opinion, but to be consistent, you should also strongly oppose flying on an airplane, driving a car, bathing in a bathtub, or for that matter, getting food out of a vending machine--all actions that have claimed more lives than terrorist activity by a refugee..

Is there a risk?  Of course!  Nothing is 100% guaranteed.

I'm grateful that we are not Europe in this regard and that our vetting process for refugees is tight. It should be tight!  I want to keep it that way, because I have no desire to expose people to unnecessary risk.  But safety and compassion are not mutually exclusive enterprises.

And if you are waiting for 100% safety, you aren't going to make a very effective follower of Jesus.

"And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell"  Matthew 10:28

Kids are dying.  Families are separated.  The worst humanitarian crisis of the last 200 years is unfolding in our time.  We have no time for straw man arguments.  Its time to answer a much more serious question:  Do we or don't we take God's Word seriously?

Monday, January 16, 2017

What Martin Luther King Taught Us About People who Change the World

A civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.  -Martin Luther King.

Today, our nation honors a Baptist preacher who changed the world.

But like so many other heroes we celebrate, we often sanitize their legacy, leaving out those parts of their story that traumatize us.  Every American loves a war hero, but no one wants to see a soldier laying on a beach with his major organs exposed.

Every Christian loves to hear the story about a powerful conversion of a meth-addict, but few are attracted to the "sanctification story" of the next year after his conversion.

Likewise, everyone loves Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.  But on this day, I wonder how many will truly think about the five years after that speech, and the cost involved in bringing about the change necessary for that dream to be realized?

But if you want to change the world for good, its going to cost you!  What follows are but five lessons we learn about people who change the world from the life of Dr. Martin Luther King:

1. You will find your ideas among the unpopular minority.  So many of the ideas Dr. King forwarded are merely assumed today.  Nearly every citizen in our nation is aghast at the thought of segregated lunch counters, burning crosses, and "separate but equal" schools and other institutions.  Yet just a moment ago in time, these things were all a reality, and accepted as the norm.  To that world, King's "dream" sounded more like a sick, Pink Floyd-inspired nightmare.  And the threats on his life, along with police brutality throughout the American south and the confrontation between federal and state governments are the chief evidence that his ideas were not readily accepted.

Standing on this side of that history, we tend to look at the romanticized version of King embodied in his famous 1963 speech in front of Lincoln's memorial.  Its nearly impossible to stand firmly within the 21st century and believe that his lofty picture of "the sons of slaves and the sone of slave owners" sitting down together was so opposed.  But great ideas are often not initially received as great ideas.

2. You must care about something much bigger than yourself.  His life was threatened.  His family was threatened.  He received multiple bomb-threats, and most of his letters were written from jail cells.  To endure such hardship, you have to look beyond your own comforts toward something bigger.  And you have to believe that bigger picture is possible.

3. You will be misunderstood--often.  I was experiencing my childhood less than a decade after King's death, and I remember many in the American south where I was raised speaking of King as a "troublemaker."  I remember asking--quite honestly--how wrong it is to seek equality between white and black.  The multiple answers I received from well-meaning but uninformed adults sounded something like this:

He stirred up things he didn't need to stir up

He caused so much unrest.  Surely there was a better way to do it.

He could have left well-enough alone.  Things weren't so bad. (Of course, it was my WHITE friends who said this.)

Change-agents are often seen as troublemakers.  Honestly, in the midst of any major societal shift people will confuse Martin Luther King with Bobby Seale, and that's what happened during King's life.

4. You may never live to see the change you created.  I was born in South Carolina less than 4 years after King's death, and marriage between white and black was and remained illegal until I was in high school.  Even today, King's dream continues to unfold, and he never lived to see most of it.  Such is often the case with initiators of change.

5. It may cost you your life.  King's life was horrifically, unjustly, and suddenly cut short on a motel balcony in 1968 because--to put it bluntly--people hated him.  Throughout his professional life, Dr. King seemed acutely aware of this possibility, and embraced it as part of the potential cost.  People who change the world are willing to die for the change they believe is necessary.

So who will be the next world-changer?  The next change-agent whose ideas make us a better society?  I'm not sure.  But on this day, I recognize that without the traits mentioned above, there is no hope of another MLK rising from among us.  God, give us more visionaries willing to count the cost--and pay it for the sake of something bigger than themselves.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Five "Short-timers" Who Won't Stay Long

I walked out of a restaurant a few days ago sure of one thing:  the young lady who showed me to my seat and bid me farewell when I left was what we call a "short-timer."  I walked in to find no one to receive me and a waitress had to call this young lady over so she could begin to do what I assume the restaurant hired her to do.  And when I left, she was sitting down in the corner.  Pleasant and kind, but not very excited at all about where she was or what she was doing, and the most subtle of signs were to me a very loud signal.   I thought to myself "she isn't going to be here much longer."

For some reason, that experience got me to thinking about the signals that get sent by people who won't be at your church for very long.  If you are a Pastor with a true shepherd's heart, its always painful to see people depart from your church.  But sometimes, its especially surprising and hurtful because we just didn't see it coming.

Pastors, here are five people who, if they join your church, are unlikely to stay for long.

1. The "Big Fish"  The big fish is the guy or gal who comes to you from another church, usually nearby, who felt their position and influence at their former church was no longer welcome and decided to take it elsewhere.  Usually, the big fish was a board chairman, or a deacon, or a prominent Sunday School teacher, or maybe all of the above!  While in some cases a person with this kind of background is someone to be excited about adding to your roles, be wary of anyone coming into your church who cites their credentials in the first conversation.

The best way to discern the true motives of someone like this is to quickly assign them something that requires a servant's heart.  Once while planting a church, I had a gentleman and his wife visit us.  On his way out the door he informed me that he had lots of skill and knowledge about how a church should operate, and would love to help us out.  In response, I literally handed him a toilet brush and asked him if he'd be willing to help our volunteers clean the bathrooms.  We never saw him again.

If the pastor is any kind of genuine leader, the "big fish" won't stay.

2. The "Recovering Patient"  Hurting people are everywhere, and many times the source of their injury has been a church.  When these people find their way through your doors, they should also find an opportunity to heal.  But once that healing takes place, don't be surprised when they head for the door again.

This can happen for all kinds of reasons.  Perhaps the healing process produced in them a desire to go back to their former church and patch things up, or perhaps they are a little nervous knowing that the guy preaching to them every Sunday has seen the contents of their psychological underwear drawer.  Either way, don't be surprised when they start to leave.  Any good shepherd hates to lose sheep, but in this case, you do want to be gracious, and ensure that they land safely in another pasture where they can be fed.

3. The "Lobbyist"  The Lobbyist has an agenda, but unfortunately, its not Jesus or His Great Commission.  Fortunately, the lobbyist is usually easy to identify because the issues he/she cares about are normally plastered on his or her shoulders like placards on a stock car at the Daytona 500.  When the first conversation a pastor has with someone involves questions like "How often do you preach explicitly about the doctrines of grace?"  or "what supports do you have for my home-schooled kids" or "what do you believe about the rapture" or "Can I talk with you about distributing voter guides to the membership about efforts to take our guns away," well, you have a lobbyist on your hands.  Nearly everything in the church has to take second place to their poverty initiative, mission trip, or theological agenda.  Such a person will only hang around for as long as he/she feels the body is appropriately feeding his/her agenda.  They are there for themselves, not the overall health of the body.

4. The "Early Adopter" It always strokes the ego when someone very quickly falls in love with your church and seeks membership.  But beware:  with rare exception, people tend to walk out in generally the same way they walk in.  Allow and encourage people to take their time when considering a church.  Membership in a local expression of Christ's body is viewed by the Scriptures as a covenant relationship--not at all unlike a marriage.  So don't get too excited when people treat your membership process like a Vegas wedding chapel.

5. The "Peacemaker" Yes, Jesus said clearly that those who make peace will be blessed to be called children of God.  But too often, peacemaking is sorely misunderstood as meaning the avoidance of all conflict.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there is no peacemaking unless there is conflict in which peace can be made!  Yet there are some who believe that a the bride of Christ should never be seen without her makeup, and when honest, and sometimes needed conflict enters the fray, they will bail because "we don't want trouble."  Help such people mature as much as they will let you, but those who seek to avoid all manner of conflict don't generally hang around very long, because genuine intimacy REQUIRES conflict.  They want to keep everything at surface level because to them, this is "peacemaking."

Pastors should be kind to all who enter the churches they shepherd.  But they should also be wise, and tough enough to realize that you can't count on everybody to be with you for the long-haul.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Less Isolation, More Incarnation: A Resolution for the New Year

Next week, I'll make my first visit of 2017 to my local gym.  I dread that visit.

I don't dread it for the reasons you might think.  Actually, I've been faithful with daily exercise through the holidays (though I can't say the same for diet.  But who can at Christmas?)  I will pretty much hate going to the gym until around the end of March, because from now until then, the "New Year's Resolution crowd" will be blocking my access to the elliptical, the pool, the nautilus, and pretty much anything else I want access to. 

I dread going to the gym tomorrow because it's the New Year, and I know there will be a million people there.  Why?  Because too many of them make a New Year's Resolution to "lose weight" or "get in better shape" and truly believe they will be able to do it in a matter of weeks.  Most will be gone by the end of February.

Its that time again for people to start making good on the promises they made to themselves on New Year's Eve.  Some want to lose weight.  Others want their hair back.  Still others want to start a different career path, further educate themselves, or improve a significant relationship. 

With all that is going on it our world at present, I have a suggestion for those who follow Christ--a New Year's resolution that could, quite literally, change the world.  Here it is:

For 2017, I resolve to be less isolationist and more incarnational.  

From the time that I was a child, I remember hearing warnings about "hanging out with the wrong people."  To be sure, there is wisdom--especially in one's youth--about choosing one's close friends carefully.  But too often, that wisdom can devolve into a lifestyle of living in a bubble.  When that happens, you end up spending all your time reading "Christian" books, going only to "Christian" movies, going to a "Christian" school, and living your life in a way that makes every conversation happen in an echo chamber. 

This doesn't just produce an ineffective disciple.  It results in a disobedient life.  Jesus didn't just stand on the precipice of heaven and preach a sermon while refusing to get his hands dirty.  Christians just celebrated a season that observes how God wrapped Himself in human flesh and lived among us.

The Gospel itself is a testament to the fact that Jesus intentionally and strategically invests His life among those who are in no way like Him.  And then, post-resurrection, He says this to His disciples:

"As the Father has sent me, so also do I send you."

In short, following Jesus means that we employ the same incarnational approach that He did.  Conversely, it means that isolationism from the world He died to save--refusing to befriend and invest your life in others who are not like you, don't share your religious, political, or cultural views, bear a different skin color, live on a different socioeconomic level--isn't just wrong.  Isolationism is antiChrist.

However, true incarnation doesn't involve minimizing differences, or compromising or diluting the faith until there is little of it left that is recognizable.  On the contrary, true incarnation is the counter-cultural presence of God.  That's precisely what the life of Jesus involved, and its precisely what we as His followers are called to do.  Some have mistakenly viewed isolation and syncretism as opposites.  The truth is that both share much more in common when it comes to their common, anti-Gospel roots.  Compromise on the clarity of the Gospel obscures the person and work of Jesus and is also antiChrist. 

And antiChrist behavior will yield antiChrist results.  Isolation breeds ignorance, racism, xenophobia, cultural superiority, and number of other conditions that mar the image of God.  Conversely, Gospel incarnation breeds familiarity, fairness, clarity, and respect for every human being. 

Isolation breeds war.

Syncretism breeds an uneasy detente.

Incarnation breeds peace.

Take a look around.  I think we could use some peace.  And as I survey the current cultural landscape that includes jihadists among us, continued racial division, and a political climate that has us  poised for near-civil war, I think followers of Jesus may be the only people capable of bringing that peace.

But the art of peacemaking is, by default, the art of intentionally entering a world of conflict, and loving that divided world with the very affections displayed by Jesus on the cross as He bleeds on their behalf. 

So that's my top resolution this year.  How about you?  Are you willing to walk across the street--or across the political isle--or across the tracks, and live intentionally in relationship with those different from you?  Will you love your neighbor of a different political party during what promises to be a divisive election season?  Will you love your neighbor of a different race?  Different religion?  That's what its going to take, if you want to truly live like Jesus.

Peace is a tall order in any context.  But the Gospel is powerful enough to bring it, and Gospel people are the only ones commissioned to take it.  Let's resolve that 2017 be the year followers of Christ committed to less isolation, and more incarnation.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Itching Ears and Civil Religion

"For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions."  Paul, 2 Timothy 4:3

As a young seminary student, every time I heard this passage expounded upon in a chapel service, it was nearly always applied to theological liberalism.  I was preparing for ministry during the latter period of my denomination's "conservative resurgence," a time when the authority of Biblical truth was threatened with compromise, and a time when we were repeatedly warned by visiting speakers to be vigilant.  After all, there would be those I would preach to as a pastor each Sunday who would not appreciate my devotion to the whole counsel of God--those who might even walk out in protest, and find another church home with another pastor who would tell them what they wanted to hear.

In those same days, Jack Graham had recently moved from Florida to be the new pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church, and Robert Jeffress was burning books in Witchita Falls.  I would never imagine that 20 years later, I'd be reading this passage and thinking first of them.

Yet, this was the passage that came to mind as I read a Wall Street Journal article yesterday, describing these two men--alongside a few others--threatening to pull their church's financial support of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.  The ERLC is the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention--speaking to Southern Baptists to help them best express their faith in the public square, and to some extent also speaking for Southern Baptists and representing our doctrinal distinctives and social concerns to leadership in Washington, D.C.

For several years, I was on record advocating the elimination of this entity, which by 2011 had become little more than a Republican Party echo chamber.  I saw the $4 million given in support of this entity annually as better invested in missionary work abroad.  But in 2013, the ERLC trustees named Russell Moore as their new President.  Moore represented a new generation of Baptist ethics that while holding firmly to historic Christian faith--and subsequently deeply entrenched views on some important social issues--nevertheless presented itself as "above" the fray of partisanship.  Under his leadership, our commitment to protect unborn children hasn't moved an inch, but our "pro-life" position has been more holistically applied to minorities, women, the poor, the immigrant, and the refugee.

Full disclosure: Russ is an old friend and former seminary classmate whom I have always respected and admired.  But it was his leadership at the ERLC that restored my faith in the purpose of that entity.  And it was that consistent leadership on moral issues that made him a sharp critic of Donald Trump as a Presidential candidate--criticism that called into question the apparent hypocrisy of so many public Christian leaders who threw their support behind a man whose lifestyle stood in sharp contrast to the Biblical description of righteousness.  Once Mr. Trump became the Republican nominee, most evangelical Christians understood that hard decisions were in front of them, and respected each other even when  sometimes coming to different conclusions regarding what one should do when arriving in the voting booth.  But Moore's constant reminders that the public support and unbridled advocacy of Trump by Christian leaders was a bridge too far was enough to ruffle the feathers of those supporters, including Robert Jeffress, who later said that any Christian who didn't vote for Trump was a "mamby pamby, panty-waisted, weak-kneed, hypocritical fool."

Now, the same guy who lashed out in this way is joined by others who claim Moore was "disrespectful."

Pot, meet kettle.

What we are witnessing now among too many evangelical pastors is a regurgitated form of Zealotism that seeks to curry favor with power, even if obtaining that cultural favor makes us appear to the culture as just another interest group rather than representatives of a higher Kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:20).   And when zealotism is mixed with theology, the result is a really ugly baby called civil religion.

And in this case, civil religion means orthodoxy is determined by the mob.  Louisiana Baptist Executive David Hankins expresses this view accurately when he stated that the issues surrounding Moore are the result of "disagreement with a large majority of his constituents."  Until reading this, it never occurred to me that in a denomination supposedly committed to the absolute truth and authority of Scripture, "he isn't saying what we want to hear" would, by itself, be sufficient grounds for a heresy trial.

And what about the historic Baptist principle of dissent?  Healthy exchanges during disagreement aren't always comfortable, and they can sometimes even be offensive, but they are an excellent way to arrive at the truth, provided we are listening both to the Holy Spirit and each other.  Without this, "group-think" infects us like cancer, and healthy congregational environments turn into toxic "democracies."

And that sets a horrible example for our churches.  Years ago while leading a local Baptist Association, I moderated a very painful business meeting, the end of which was punctuated by the resignation of a faithful pastor.  Pressured by a group within the church to whom he said things they didn't want to hear, he finally had all he could take, and left.

My next meeting with church leadership was for the purpose of charting a course of congregational healing and restoration, but the leaders wouldn't have it.  "Why," I asked, "wouldn't you want to try to make things right?  You are at odds with your brothers and sisters and the unity of this body is threatened.  Why not make attempts to reconcile?"

The answer from one of the men still haunts me to this day.  "Because we won," he said.

I have yet to hear anyone successfully challenge the truthfulness of anything Russ Moore said this election season.  I have only heard that he was "disrespectful" and didn't say what others wanted to hear.  Those making those claims "won."  The candidate they championed will move into the White House on January 20.  So why keep fighting?  Is it guilt?  It is shame?  Or could it be that their candidate rubbed off a little too much?  Nothing is worse than a sore loser--except perhaps, a sore winner who doesn't feel they have been "congratulated" enough.

Jack Graham, Robert Jeffress, David Hankins, William Harrell and others need to knock it off.  Stop pretending that the ERLC should somehow be punished because its President was more faithful than them in the proclamation of Biblical righteousness.

As it turns out, preachers sometimes have itching ears too.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: One More Word about Depression and Mental Illness

Our church family is currently in the midst of a series called "Hearing God Through the Holidays."  For those of you who joined us yesterday, I spoke about how depression and mental illness go into overdrive during the Christmas season, and we looked to God's Word in Psalm 42 to learn ways to cope, and hear the voice of our incarnate Savior above the depression.

I hope you walked away encouraged, and this morning I wanted to add a couple of things for clarification.

First, I urged caution yesterday with regard to the use of medication.   Our culture has developed a "pill popping" mentality that seeks a quick fix, and we should not give in to that mentality, especially where powerful psychotropic medication is concerned.

That said, psychotropic drugs aren't the only medications used to treat depression or other mental illnesses, and even when they are used legitimately, they aren't wrong.  My warning was for caution, not complete avoidance.  Additionally, while many of these medications result in the same pharmacological outcomes as some recreational drugs, medications for mental illness are NOT cocaine or heroin!  Many of the physicians and other health care and mental health professionals in our church family would want me to make this clarification for the sake of your own long-term mental health.

My point was and is simply this:  Be careful, be cautions, and seek more than one opinion, but if it is determined that medication is the best course for you, by all means, take it!  Listen carefully to the professionals who treat you.  We have many in our church family who love Jesus and His Word who can serve you well as you make the appropriate decisions about your mental health.

Second, mental illness and depression are medical problems.  Just like cancer, heart disease, or any other physical ailment, God can and does heal.  We have seen Him do that here in the past and give Him glory for that.  But He doesn't always choose to do so.  Ultimate healing on this side of heaven is not an unconditional promise to everyone, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.

I say that because yesterday I also mentioned that you can have victory over depression through the Gospel.  I believe that.  But I didn't want to leave anyone with the impression that this means if you don't eventually "get over it" that there is something wrong with you.  In particular, during the 9:00 AM service, I'm not sure I made it clear that depression may be something some of you have to struggle with for the rest of your lives, and the victory Christ intends for you is a daily victory as you surrender to Him for your strength, even as you continue to struggle.

Below is an article I wrote some years back just after the suicide of Matthew Warren.  My hope is that it will give you a broader picture of the posture I want our church family to assume as we move forward.  As always, feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions.

Pastor Joel


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!