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.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

5 Things to Say to that Gay Couple Who Visit Your Church

"The church is a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints."

I"m not sure of the original source for that quote, but I know this: our current culture-shift on homosexuality may prove to be the biggest test for its veracity in the last 100 years.  With gay marriage now legalized in the majority of states, and a Supreme Court poised to potentially reach a "Roe v. Wade" style decision that nationalizes this recognition, we've seen a lot of back and forth on this issue in our culture.

In the church, the discussion has heated up even more.  I've written before on why this issue still deserves our attention, but today I want to speak to the pastoral side of this issue.  Two years ago I wrote a post about the future of pastoral ministry, and one of nine scenarios I described was that of a married homosexual couple with children who visit your church.  The post was picked up by SBC Voices, and The Christian Post, and many commenters responded with the assumption that this would never happen.  But the simple fact is that its already happening.  Its been happening for many years in fact, and those in denial of this simply aren't paying attention, which is sad.  People God loves are walking through our doors, and we don't notice.

And when they do, our culture has told us that there are only two choices: hate or full affirmation.  And to a large extent, the church believes this too.  I'd be dishonest to claim that I've never heard what could rightly be called "hate speech" from a number of "Christian" pulpits over the years.  Conversely, many churches who have tried to chart a third way end up merely affirming homosexual behavior and relationships, and their "third way" is simply to "tolerate" those who stay in the church who believe what Scripture teaches about this issue.

Well, there IS a better way, and its not the way of those who hate Scripture, or hate people.  Its the way informed by the narrative of the Christian Gospel.  But what does that sound like?  Let me suggest five things that any homosexual couple visiting your church should hear loudly and clearly--through your words and your actions:

1. We love you, and you and yours are always welcome here.  While the past 500 years of European Protestantism have rightly insisted on the doctrine of original sin, this emphasis often ignores that the Gospel story doesn't begin with sin.  It begins with the imago dei.  At the risk of overstating the obvious, homosexuals are, well, human!  Each is created in the image and likeness of God.  Each reflects the glory of God, and each is worthy of respect, dignity, and hospitality.

Our culture has convinced us that we must be enemies with anyone who disagrees with us.  But the Scriptures declare that Satan is our only enemy.  Everyone else is someone Jesus died to save, which means everyone who comes through the doors of your church should be embraced with the very love of Jesus Himself

Once, when I was arranging for one of our churches to host a large number of people who followed another world religion, I was asked by a member of that church "how should we act toward them?"  My response was simple.  "How would you act toward any non-Christian?"  Every conversation with every fellow human being--regardless of religion, background, or lifestyle--should begin in a way that allows them to hear and feel clearly our love for them.

2. We want to hear your story.  Earlier in my pastoral ministry, I assumed a number of things about the homosexual community that simply weren't true.  Thankfully, a woman who once lived as a lesbian helped me identify these stereotypes.  Listening to someone talk about their life--even the parts of it you may not agree with--demonstrates care and concern for the person.  It also helps you learn how to minister to each individual.  If a gay couple are willing to share their story with you, listen.

But to hear someone's story is to hear everything about them.  Hear about their upbringing, their education, their job, their dreams and aspirations, their likes and dislikes, their hobbies, and their current spiritual journey.  Focusing exclusively on homosexuality is to buy into the nonsense of the sexual revolutionaries, who say that one's identity is defined centrally by what they do with their genitalia.  Everyone has good, bad, and ugly in their life.  If we truly listen, we will hear all three eventually.  That's called friendship, and those kinds of relationships should be built with anyone who comes through our doors.

3. We want Jesus to finish your story.  This is the great hope of the Gospel--that God through Christ seeks and saves.  He restores what is broken, and He makes all things new, including the hearts of those who turn from their sins and place their faith in Him.  If you have experienced this change in your life, you will naturally want others to experience it as well.  Let them know that, whatever their past or present, Jesus holds the promise of an even better future, if they will turn to Him.

4. Our commitment to Jesus and Scripture means that sometimes we will say things that make you uncomfortable.  The purpose of the church isn't to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals.  Its to present a Gospel that turns sinners into saints.  This means that the center of our message isn't any issue over which our culture is currently warring, but instead the person and work of Jesus.  That said, the Lordship of Christ over those who follow Him has no limit, and it covers every area of life, including our sexuality.  This means that the better future Jesus promises may require a long-arduous path out of our former lives and into a new life empowered by a new birth.

So when we faithfully address what Scripture says about sex, those in homosexual relationships (along with those probably sitting close to them committing adultery, fornication, viewing pornography, or participating in any sort of sexual sin) will be confronted with demands that are contrary to their current lifestyle. On this issue, we aren't going to "come around."  Consistent preachers committed to preach the whole counsel of God won't be hammering homosexuality every Sunday, but when the issue comes up, faithful churches who genuinely want Jesus to finish the story will do the loving thing, and tell the truth.

5. We love you, and you and yours are always welcome here.  Every encounter and conversation should be book-ended with love.  We don't say what we say, or believe what we believe, because we are trying to "win a culture war."  We do it because we love people who are created in God's very image, and we are concerned for their souls.  That concern will motivate us to tell the truth even when it offends, but even if the message is rejected and the messenger cursed, we always leave the door open.  As Billy Graham said years ago, its God's job to judge, and the Holy Spirit's job to convict.  It is ours to love.

Come to think of it, there isn't  anything above that doesn't also apply to heterosexuals.  The Gospel is for everybody.  And any message truly centered on Jesus will make all of us uncomfortable at times, as our idols are revealed and Jesus, out of love for those He died to save, makes us new creatures, and finishes our story.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"American Sniper" and the Christian Worldview

"It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we would grow too fond of it."  -Robert E. Lee

In its first 10 days in theaters, "American Sniper" grossed nearly $200 million.  While many critics have scoffed at this film, it is obvious that the American populace is enamored with the story of the late Chris Kyle.  This past week, I was one of that large number who sought a look inside the mind and heart of the man who has been called "the deadliest sniper in American history."

On that front, American Sniper does not disappoint!

To be sure, the movie is graphically violent, and profane language abounds, so this film is certainly no place for small children, or those whose conscience is easily offended by such elements.  But for those curious about the psyche, family life, personal struggles, and overall dedication of our men and women in uniform, no more accurate account could be told on celluloid.  Clint Eastwood, who directed this film, has given us a masterful description of Chris Kyle and those like him.  And, followers of Jesus who desire to think deeply about warfare and its consequences have an ideal case study in this movie.

Unfortunately, both supporters and critics of the movie have already gone off-point.  War protesters want the movie canned.  War supporters are glad its doing so well.  Some left theaters with a "kill them all" attitude of hatred that is, quite frankly, antiChrist.   And of course, there is Michael Moore, whose motives should be pretty easy to spot.  When the pinnacle of your directing career is a low-budget, low-value documentary called "Sicko," there are plenty of reasons to be jealous of Eastwood.

But in fairness to this film and its director,  Islam, the political context of the Afghan and Iraqi military campaigns, and military tactics themselves are all beyond the scope of what is examined in "American Sniper."  It becomes clear from the plot that Eastwood's focus is intentionally narrowed to the psyche of the American soldier.  And that focus is what followers of Jesus should be paying attention to, because it gives us an avenue of ministry to those who serve, and a framework for speaking to our government when it comes to the issue of committing troops to a campaign.

1.  The film gives us a blunt look at the raw reality of warfare.  In the day of the world wide web, its easy to sit in the comforts provided by the west and advocate bombing essentially anything to your east.  But as this film aptly demonstrates, real warfare is not a video game.  Real lives--lives of people created in God's very image and likeness--are taken on both sides of the lines of battle, sometimes in horrific and unspeakable ways.  And even when those deaths can be justified, American soldiers who take those lives are forever affected by their actions.

Its easy to sit in Congress, or the halls of Academia, and wax eloquent about "minimizing civilian deaths."  But in a real war, sometimes its hard to know who the civilians are, and every time a war is declared, that sort of savage moral chaos becomes a reality.  "American Sniper" gives us a picture of that raw reality that should encourage us to truly count the cost before throwing support behind any military solution to global conflict.

2. The film unabashedly presents the effects of war, not only on veterans, but their families.  PTSD is real, and its prevalent among our servicemen and women who return from the battlefield.  The effects of war are seen clearly in this film, not only on Chris Kyle, but on his family.  Eventually, it was the effects of war on another that took Kyle's life.

3. The film should make every Christ-follower think deeply about what is, and is not, "just" war.  It is unfortunate that politicians have so twisted the concept of "just war" that virtually no one in the west knows what it means any longer.  Fortunately, Christian theologians of old are still available to us through their writings.  Augustine, the great 5th century African bishop, first stipulated the terms, and Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Catholic theologian stood on his shoulders and developed a Biblically-informed schematic so Christ-followers centuries after them would have a way of recognizing what is and is not an appropriate use of deadly force.  Unlike some present-day pacifists, early Christians did believe that when evil rises to a certain point in our fallen world, only the use of deadly force can turn it back.  Unlike too many neocons, warmongers and war-profiteers in our day, they also believed that whenever possible--for the sake of all involved--war should be avoided.

So they developed a list of seven questions: 1. Is it declared and fought by a legitimate authority? 2. Is it primarily defensive rather than offensive? 3. Is the cause a noble one? 4. Is the use of force proportional? 5. Are soldiers, not civilians, the intended target? 6. Does this effort ultimately save more lives than it takes?  7. Is it employed as a last resort?

For the sake of human life everywhere, including the military lives that will be permanently scarred as a result of war, Christians whose conscience doesn't allow them to answer every single question above with an unqualified "yes" should think twice before throwing support behind using guns, tanks and bombs to solve a global problem.

4. The film clearly demonstrates the "de-humanizing" effect of war on both sides of the line of battle.  Chris Kyle called his targets "savages."  But he was not the first soldier to employ appellatives for the enemy.  General George Patton is probably most notorious for vilifying and dehumanizing every single person on the other side of the battle line.  In every military engagement in human history, armies on both sides have sought to take away the "human element" from their enemy in order to make him easier to kill.  Let that sink in, because every time we deploy our military, this is part of the cost of warfare.

5. The film demonstrates the difficulties in navigating all the moral complexities that occur on the battlefield.  Thanks to a few impulsive and immature tweets from Michael Moore and Seth Rogen, much discussion has taken place regarding whether snipers are "heroes" or "cowards."  But for anyone who understands basic military strategy, and who wants to limit civilian deaths, snipers become an essential part of that strategy.  If an army is going to strike in a more surgical fashion closer to the ground, snipers must be employed to "keep watch" over the guys on the ground and protect them from surprise attack, and this is perhaps the most clearly displayed concept in the movie.  The only other alternatives are a broad-sword approach that results in hundreds of unnecessary deaths, or a large ordinance drop, which results in thousands of those deaths.  In short, a strategy that employs snipers is a life-saving strategy.

But this discussion itself reveals the moral complexity that surrounds any military effort.  "Kill these in order to save more of these" is an impossible position into which to put someone.  War is ugly.  War is hell.  And though sometimes necessary, war is never a good thing.

I love and care deeply for those who serve in our nation's military.  My first pastorate was near a large Army base and I've spent a lot of time ministering to soldiers and their families.  We should support all who volunteer to serve the country in this way.  But "supporting the troops" is not synonymous with mindlessly advocating a war footing simply because some politician says we have to.  Loving people well means we need to understand their world, and "American Sniper" is a vivid picture of that world.  So the next time our nation faces the choice of whether to go to war, support those who will go by understanding what they will face, knowing the issues involved and whether they truly justify the use of force, and acting accordingly.  Moreover, think about the human life on the other side of the battle lines--lives created in God's image--and whether a situation has truly progressed to the point that our elimination of those lives is truly justified.  The life of a Pakistani, Iranian, or Russian is worth no less than the life of an American to our Creator.

These people aren't walking into a video game.  Those of us who send them--especially Christians--need to think deeply, and Biblically about those realities.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

One Simple Command: Roe v. Wade After 42 Years

42 years ago today, nine black-robed justices handed down a decision that would forever change the moral landscape of the United States.  Since that time, more than 57 million human beings created in God's image and likeness have been murdered within the confines of their mother's wombs.

Is that too strong a statement?  Is it too negative a tone?  Is it too culturally divisive to employ such incendiary language?  Well, let me ask it this way.  If something is bad, do you use good words to describe it?

I understand the moral complexities that come into play where abortion is concerned.  As a pastor of 22 years, I have more experience counseling women through the gut-wrenching decisions our society forces them to make than any politician who has ever voted on this issue.  I've sat with the single mom whose budget is stretched thin.  I've sat with the woman who has just been told her baby has downs syndrome, or some other dreaded, chronic disease.  I've also sat with those who chose to have an abortion.  Women who have submitted to this procedure are 34% more likely to suffer from anxiety, 110% more prone to alcohol abuse, and 155% more likely to take their own lives, and I have seen the flesh and blood evidence of those statistics in my office.  Anyone who automatically equates being "pro-choice" with "pro-women" is either an idiot or a liar.

The emotional havoc that comes as a result of this now four-decade long culture of death should come as a surprise to no one.  Regardless of the circumstances that gave rise to each decision to  terminate a pregnancy, each abortion is the elimination of a human life.   This is not a matter of philosophical or even theological debate.  It is plain science.  Life begins at conception.  And for the past 41 years our nation has been busy eliminating more than 57 million of those lives.

57 million.

Let that number sink in, because its greater than the current populations of Kentucky, Oregon, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, North and South Dakota, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming combined.    To kill that many people over a 42 year period, you must terminate a pregnancy every 20 seconds--and not stop killing for an entire generation.

Meanwhile, God continues to speak clearly.  "You shall not murder."

Anyone who objectively observes this bloodshed must come to the inescapable conclusion that abortion is not at heart a political issue.  It isn't even a philosophical issue.  It is, quite simply, Satanic.  In John 8:44, Jesus states that Satan's natural language is to lie, and his natural actions are to murder.  Anywhere there is deception and bloodshed on a massive scale, you can be sure our enemy is involved.  Whether it is Herod's murderous rage through a blood-soaked Bethlehem, Hitler's merciless and genocidal paranoia, or the lies of a U.S. President seeking to cast this issue as one of granting women "safe, affordable health care," death and deception can always be found holding hands.

Politicians who hide their moral cowardice with trite phrases like "reproductive freedom" and "women's rights" betray with their own incoherence the unvarnished reality that "I believe in a woman's right to choose" is half a sentence.  If you finish that sentence honestly, then what I've seen in the counseling room over the past 22 years begins to make perfect sense. And this bloodshed has happened on the watch of political leaders of both parties who value obfuscation over truth.  A generation ago, C.S. Lewis graphically yet accurately described the character of such leaders:

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function.  We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.  We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.  We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

Satan has lied to us by telling us that there is a quick way out of a tough situation.  He has convinced us that the presence of moral complexity means that there is no moral clarity.

Meanwhile, God continues to speak with abundant moral clarity. "You shall not murder."

Since 1973, we've been told that this was an issue of women's rights and freedom of choice.  We believed that lie, and the result is roughly 29 million females aborted--and having no "choice" in the matter.  We were told that abortion would be, in part, a solution to supposed population control that would result in great financial costs to society.  We believed that lie, and the result is a workforce that lacks roughly 30 million workers who would be contributing to a social safety net that wouldn't be under such financial constraints with their contributions.

And as these ripple effects of our bloodshed continue to puzzle us, God continues to call out and say "You shall not murder."

We wonder why there is such seeming disregard for human life in society.  Why are women increasingly victims of violence?  Why does it seem that men are increasingly unable to control their lusts?  Why do they eagerly seek sex but avoid marriage and commitment?  Why do they think its OK to abandon their children to poverty and all its effects?  Why all the senseless killing in our schools?  From whence comes this beastly ambivalence toward the sanctity of human life.

Once again, God connects the dots with this command. "You shall not murder."

Our nation is swimming in the blood of its own innocent, and we do so because we have believed the lies of our enemy, who wants to see the bloodshed continue.  There is one way to stop it.  Turn from the enemy.  Stop being complicit in his schemes, and return to Jesus.

This is the great news of the Gospel--that even hands covered with blood can be forgiven.  The single mom who killed her child because she thought there was no other way can have peace.  The thug who drove his girlfriend to the Planned Parenthood clinic because he wanted pleasure without responsibility can be forgiven. The doctor who made millions off of baby's bones can be forgiven.  And the nation guilty of purging 57 million of its most vulnerable citizens--largely for the mere sake of convenience--can be forgiven, healed, and restored.  But the bloodshed has to stop.  We cannot find healing in the one true God while still sacrificing our children to Molech.

42 years.  57 million children.  One simple command.

"You shall not murder."