Dealing With Tough Cultural Issues

In light of last weeks post, and in particular responding to Hester’s comments about course language and such, I started thinking about how Christians deal with clashes between the Christian ethic and the cultural ethic. How do we come across? How are we supposed to come across?

Invariably I hear “outsiders” constantly complain that Christians are “judgmental”. The passage they generally have in mind is Matthew 7, when Jesus says “Judge Not”:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (Matthew 7:1-6, ESV)

They will say that Christian judgement is full of hypocrisy, and frankly they don’t understand our blatant contradiction of Jesus teaching.

Most Christians understand this passage a little differently and do not see it is a blanket prohibition on judging, but rather that we must not judge without first understanding, accepting, and dealing with our own sin. In fact, in another passage, Paul is quite clear that Christians are to judge:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13, ESV)

But oh, there’s a big rub here: are we supposed to be judging the world? There is no ambiguity here, we are not. Our judgement is for within the church: those who identify as believers and are involved in big scandalous sin (in the first verse of 1 Corinthians 5, Paul describes the person he’s talking about as being involved in sexual immortality “of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans”). But outside the walls of the church, we can, and should, let God handle it.

In fact, I think looking at the life of Jesus we see this lived out perfectly (no surprise there!). If you read the Gospels with close attention to who Jesus treats gently and who he treats harshly, his harshness is always used for the hypocritical religious leadership, not the unrighteous outsiders. Yes, Jesus got angry enough to wield a whip, but it was within the temple he did so, not in the market. This aspect of Jesus life was the inspiration for the song Nothing Less– that we in the evangelical church would not distort the truth by living devoid of love:

Tell me when did we become

So confident that we are strong

Upholding every law but that of love?

When did we accept the lie

That compassion can be pushed aside

When the truth demands we give both light and love

Nothing less could ever be enough

As the church, our mission is to bring light to the world. We cannot let this light be marred by such grievous sin that our message becomes distorted.  When scandals like sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church or Sovereign Grace Ministries occur, we need to be open about judging and dealing with the sin in our own ranks. If we do not, we risk being seen as a threat of darkness rather than a hope of light.

So given that we are to judge within the church but not the world, how are we to interact when it comes to difficult issues, especially when we are convinced that the values of the world do not line up with scripture? Should we withdraw away, slink into the shadows, and give up? Is this consistent with the Great Commission?

There isn’t a lot of scripture showing the clash between Christians and non-religious. Usually the emphasis in the New Testament is on dealing with corrupt religious leadership. However, there is one place where we have an account of Paul clearly dealing with unbelievers: his sermon at Mars Hill in Athens:

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. (Acts 17:22-34, ESV)

I find this evangelism by Paul very interesting, almost more for what he doesn’t say than what he does. Paul is addressing a culture completely ignorant of Jesus and the Gospel. They are involved in all manner of sinful lifestyle, sensuous and idolatrous. American culture has nothing on these folks. But while he clearly identifies that they are in rebellion against God and need to repent, he doesn’t spend his time enumerating and publicly lambasting their individual sinful behaviors; instead he shows understanding of their philosophy and search for meaning, and then provides an answer in the Gospel. In fact, he shows them that they already had part of the truth, but that he could complete the picture for them. In one of the most sinful epicenters in history, he didn’t spend time trying to convince them of their sinfulness, but rather showing them the answer to the true yearning of their hearts. Many rejected him, but some wanted to know more.

Many people will say we have to be absolutely clear on issues like homosexuality so that people know their sin and therefore how to repent, but this is where I must differ. I think the issue behind all sin is where our hearts lie: in idolatry against God. I believe Paul didn’t explain to the Athenians their sins because  he assumed their deceitful hearts already knew. He didn’t show sick people their sickness, but rather the cure. And no, not everyone responded. People mocked him. But some believed. I think the same is true in modern culture. Deep down, people are aware that they are sick and need a healer. They may not be willing to admit it, but that is beyond our mission. Our job is to identify and present the healer.

I understand that when issues become political to the point where we are forced to behave in ways that are against our beliefs (for example, being coerced by law to participate in a homosexual wedding), we end up having to take a stand. When we are asked a direct question, we may have to be clear about exactly what we believe (though there are times that Jesus avoided direct questions because it was not yet an appropriate time to answer; we do not always have to answer). But we must keep in mind that the world is not ours to judge: our mission there is to make disciples. The more we can focus on identifying hope to the world and how to receive that hope, the better. And to be clear, the hope for a person entrapped by any sin is not to perform better and sin less, but to earnestly seek Jesus and turn from an idolatry of self.

My friend Jenny Hintze on Facebook recently wrote these words, and I think they have incredible wisdom:

If we saved whatever tough conversations or difficult thoughts that we have for face to face conversations with those whom we have earned the right to speak freely with, we would have a lot less thoughts to share.

I imagine that Paul in Athens had to have a lot of “tough conversations” with folks who came seeking Jesus. Maybe there were those who wanted to respond, but had a lot of sinful habits and idols accumulated over the years. Those tough conversations do have to happen, and I know they aren’t easy, but at the least they can take into consideration the real person, who has an identity, hurt, pain, and hope, and not end up devolving into vitriolic soundbites hurled across ideological walls.

So my answer to dealing with tough cultural issue is to follow Jenny’s advice: let’s be very open about hope and what it takes to grab hold of it, not feeling that we have to be ashamed of our beliefs, but focusing as much as we can on earning the right to have face to face conversations. I think that’s what Paul did on Mars Hill, and I think it’s the pattern for most effectively dealing with culture clash between God’s ethic and the ethic of the world.

My Thoughts On Duck Dynasty

I realize I’m late to the party on this one, and maybe (hopefully?) we’re all tired of talking about Duck Dynasty by the time this gets published. Such is the natural result of publishing a blog only once a week: unless something happens over the weekend, I’ll always be behind the excitement curve. But it also gives me more time to reflect. So here is my take. I won’t pretend all of these thoughts are original. In fact, probably none of them are. But no one pays me to be original!

Freedom Of Speech?

First off, this is not a freedom of speech issue. “Freedom of Speech” is a right that guarantees we can say what we want and the government will not step in an censor us. It does not protect us from the consequences of the things we say; other people have the right to react however they will.  We must face the consequences of what we say, even if we speak the truth and people punish us for it. This is something that I try to teach my four year old child: our choices have consequences. Phil is experiencing the consequence of a choice he made. As Christians, we may have ill things happen to us because of choices we make, even good choices. A Christ honoring walk isn’t only standing up for truth when there won’t be consequences, but also standing up when we might suffer for it. But as for “Freedom of Speech”, the government did not sanction or take away and of Phil’s freedoms for what he said.

From A&E’s standpoint, it is very reasonable for them to act in a way that caters to their target audience. Now, you might argue that by doing what they did they actually alienated their target audience, but that’s their call: I’ll leave running their business well up to them. When I walk into a Christian bookstore, I do not expect that company to carry pro-Muslim material. This isn’t a violation of the right of Muslim writers to speak their views, but rather the bookstore choosing to do good business for its target audience. A&E isn’t a Christian company and their goal is the bottom line. We shouldn’t expect them to do any differently.

Just Speaking His Beliefs?

I’ve heard many times that Phil is being persecuted for simply stating his beliefs. We need to be really careful with this logic. This argument makes it sound like it doesn’t matter what his beliefs are, that there should be no backlash for him simply stating them. But this simply isn’t true. If he’d said that eating babies is a tasty treat there would be backlash from ALL quarters because everyone agrees that such a thing is abhorrent. Christians have certainly united against people saying things they didn’t like in the past. It’s disingenuous to label what Phil said as simply “Stating his beliefs”. It’s more accurate to say “Stating his beliefs that many people find highly offensive”. That some of what he said was backed by scripture doesn’t make it less offensive to many people.

Yes, I believe that men having sex with men is a sin. I also understand that when I say that, I’m likely offending a lot of people. Honesty means I have to be truthful about what I believe, and integrity means that I accept some people are not going to like it and the consequences that come because of that. For what it’s worth, I think Phil and I are probably on the same page here; I suspect he accepted the cost associated with the statements he made.

Stand With Phil?

I’ve seen many people stating that they “Stand with Phil”. I think we need to be very cautious here. What does it mean to “Stand with Phil”? Does it mean that you stand by everything he said in that interview, complete with very explicit references to sexual and non-sexual private parts? Does it mean you stand by the implications he made about oppressed African Americans? Does it mean you stand by statements he’s made elsewhere, such as homosexuals are “full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant, God-haters. They are heartless, they are faithless, they are senseless, they are ruthless. They invent ways of doing evil.”

Because if you aren’t clear when you say you “Stand with Phil”, these are the things people are going to assume you stand for. And worse, this is what they will understand to be the primary content of Christianity. That following Christ is more about curbing homosexual activity than it is about lifting up the oppressed and sharing the light of Jesus into the darkness.

“Now wait!” you might say. “I don’t mean that I stand behind everything Phil does!” I know you don’t, but this this the problem with making a man a symbol. Human beings are complex and nuanced; symbols are not. We might intend for “Stand with Phil” to be narrowly defined to mean one specific thing, but there’s not guarantee that is what will be communicated. In fact, I guarantee that as soon as the “symbol” slips up and does something you don’t like, you still will be assumed to be supporting him.

What Are We United Around?

Suddenly, like the recent blow up over Chick-Fil-A, Christians are galvanized into action. And once again it is over the issue of homosexuality. It is not over the cross or the love of Christ. It’s not even around providing for widows and orphans (the purest form of religion, according to James). No, it is over the issue of the sexual activities of people who, for the most part, do not even claim to follow our beliefs or moral code.

The world is convinced that evangelicals are bound together by hatred; hatred of homosexuals. Jesus said “they will know you by your love for one another”, so how is it that we are known for hatred instead? Sure, it’s easy to blame people on “the outside” and claim it’s their corrupt values that cause them to misunderstand, but from the inside, it seems their conclusions are not unreasonable. When we blow up Facebook to stand by a man with crude language that most of our churches would not allow in our pulpits, it becomes clear that his stance on homosexuality overrides any other concerns we might have. That sends a strong message.  If he had not condemned homosexuality, how many Christians would have been comfortable with the words he used to describe private parts and the comparisons he made of their relative merits when engaging in sexual activity?

I Stand With Christ

In the end, I do not stand with Phil (though I don’t stand against him). I may agree with some of what he said, but I also disagree with some of the ways he said it. I think he could have handled it better, but whose to say I’d have done any better in his shoes? I’m not judging him- none of us are perfect, and he seems to know it. Good for him. And if what he reaps from this is the hatred of the world, I think he knew that was coming and accepted it. Sometimes we have to make the hard choices to stand by what we believe.

But as for me, I stand with Christ and scripture. I believe that same-gender sex is a sin because I think that any consistent reading of scripture leads to that conclusion. Could I be wrong? I could, but I don’t think it’s likely. I’ve read the pro-homosexual arguments and I know there are people who stand by that reading of scripture, but I personally don’t see it. All I can say is what my own conclusions are. I know that all men will fail and fall short of truth, Phil and myself included. I’m not tying myself to any man but Christ, because only Christ is without blemish, perfect and sinless.

Phil is a rich man. He can take care of himself. Most of us have no real knowledge of the man and what his true faith is like. He made a choice and he can live with it. Let’s pray for him, but I think we should not turn him into the icon of Christianity. That spot is reserved for Jesus, always and forever.

Dealing With The Fear

I think there is a real fear that drives a lot of the passion on this topic. Those who believe that homosexuality is a sin are fearful of what we see coming: our freedom to worship following our own religious beliefs will be threatened if things continue on their current trajectory. I know that the homosexual community scoffs at this, saying that no one’s freedom has been taken away by gay marriage, but it isn’t true. That couple who lost their cake making business because they refused to participate in a gay wedding tells us there will be a time that we will have to choose between government sanctions and observing our faith. I agree that no business should be able to deny serving someone on the basis of being homosexual; Christianity doesn’t say we should. But for many Christians, participating in a wedding is a different story: it’s a religious ceremony with deep significance. When I attend a wedding, I take it seriously what my participation in it means. I may well choose not to attend if I believe it is violating my faith values. According to the US Constitution, this is my right, but that right is threatened by recent events.

So yes, we see this threat looming over us and so we react with outrage. We cry loudly and make waves when we feel an injustice has occurred. That is our right by law, but I don’t know that it is the Christian way. What have we to fear? That the world will turn against us? The world already IS against us. Should we instead welcome the coming trials so that our faith may be approved and God’s work perfected in us? I think James says “yes”:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4, ESV)

We need not fear the coming storm or fight our battles with strength. There may well come a day when truly our religious freedoms will be taken away, but I don’t think we need to go toward that day kicking and screaming. We can forge ahead with confidence, come what may, for God will work it all for our good.

In the meantime, my wish is that we would not allow the fight over same-sex marriage to become the focal point of Christianity. It isn’t the focal point of scripture, and I think we have important things to say that are obscured by the battle we do on this issue. Yes, we need to stand for what we believe, but we also need to make sure we keep our message in proportion to the significance the scripture gives it, and the scripture makes clear that the nature of any individual sin pales in comparison to the import of the Gospel.

Celebrity Pastors

Last week I gave my opinion on the greatest mark of a great pastor: service. I recalled an example in my local pastor, a man who I see every week and who brings me so much encouragement. It should come as little surprise, then, that I’d like to talk about the opposite side of the coin: the celebrity pastor. Celebrity pastors are everywhere around us, writing blogs, recording podcasts, and radiating their thoughts over social media, and yet we don’t see them like we do the local pastor. We don’t get to shake their hands, meet their families, and see them as they serve week in and week out.

Celebrity pastors are a powerful force in today’s evangelical world. They shape not only doctrine, but the way it is lived out. Their churches are huge and people flock to hear them preach. The Apostle Paul traveled far and wide, but never had the kind of immediate impact on the world that these men (and sometimes women) have. This can be a huge blessing, but it can also be a chance for great failure if we are not diligent in how we approach them.

Some of my good friends are really concerned about this phenomenon, with good reason, but I’m not utterly critical of celebrity pastors. I read their books, visit their blogs, and listen to their podcasts. I even follow some on twitter. When I was coming out of my divorce and feeling crushed by the way the church handled it, it was RC Sproul’s podcasts that encouraged me and kept me in the race of faith (OK, well it was the Holy Spirit that did that, but it was Sproul’s podcast he used!). It is an amazing thing to have access to evangelical preaching and teaching around the clock, wherever we are.

However, I do believe there is a dark side to this if we are not careful.

What Are Your Qualifications?

Celebrity pastors often have very long lists of qualifications: seminary with master’s or doctorate degrees, reams of written books, large churches with thousands of members: this list goes on. From the standpoint of the world, these men can exude success, and we hear it all the time. If ever there’s a concern about pastor xyz’s teaching, someone will be quick to point out the number of people who have become believers through his ministry. You can’t argue with numbers.

Certainly a lot of these qualifications are very compelling. If lives are being changed by these men, surely we want in on whatever it is they have to say, don’t we? There’s nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, but what are the scriptural qualifications for leadership? A quick read through 1 Tmothy 3 and Titus 1 gives us some pretty good lists:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7, ESV)

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:5-9, ESV)

Certainly “able to teach” is in the list, which celebrity pastors have in spades, but how about the other requirements? Can we assume because a pastor sells a lot of books and has a lot of followers that he is “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable” and all the rest?

I go back to my local pastor, who has impressed me so much with his acts of service and the way he lives. He’s not a just a voice on the iPod or words on a computer screen. He’s a REAL, flesh and blood human being who lives out Jesus right before my eyes, and no remote teacher can ever replace that.  The way he serves, the way he lives with his family;  the qualifications for leadership found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is presented before my eyes. Celebrity pastors cannot do that. They might be wonderful examples of a 1 Timothy/Titus elder in their individual communities, but that’s not something I see or can know.

If we realized this and did not extend celebrity pastors undue trust, I think none of this would be a problem. But unfortunately, I do see it. I hear people talk about what “pastor xyz” said way more than I hear them talk about the teaching they receive at their own church. It seems a celebrity pastor gets immediate credibility because of his worldly success, whereas a local pastor has to earn it over time and will always be measured to the celebrities his congregation is reading. This is not at all the way it should be. Our local pastors should not supplement the celebrities; it should be the other way around . Those we can see living out real faith before our eyes should compel us far more than two dimensional personalities we don’t see beyond their ability to teach.

What Is The Measure Of Success?

Celebrity pastors have a lot of obligations and are measured on many different axis. Blog hits, followers, book sales. All of those things get tracked and people watch. If books aren’t selling, they have to answer to the publishers. But the one thing that really matters, the lives of those consuming their teaching, is essentially unmeasurable. How is a pastor who publishes a book to know if it is popular because it has resulted in changed lives or due to some unintended error that appeals to the sinful flesh?

Local pastors have the same goals, but if they are doing their jobs they are tapped into the lives they touch. They can see their congregation members living transformed lives and reaching spiritual maturity. Even the Apostle Paul, remote as he was, was in good enough communication with those he led that he could write books like Galatians rebuking the Judiazers or Philippians full of encouragement.

Once again, a lot of celebrity pastors have great teaching with wonderful influence that does result in transformed lives. But what happens when a popular teacher starts going down the road of error and people latch on? Is it easy for him see he is in error and course correct, or will he continue to follow his bad logic down the hole because that is what people are buying? Of course this can, and does, happen at the local level, but I think a local pastor has far less riding on defending his public mistakes: The “cage” around him is a lot weaker than the one around a celebrity. Once a celebrity goes out and plants a flag on a given issue, changing his stance is all but impossible. With humility, a local pastor who finds himself in error may have to deal with the embarrassment of admitting he was wrong, but those who know him won’t resent him for it. In fact, they will likely appreciate the humility. He won’t be getting in bad with a book publisher or legions of adoring fans.

Does this happen? I don’t know for certain, but I’ve seen some very bad teaching on critical issues from some very well regraded teachers, and my suspicion is that sometimes this is the result of a minor issue spinning out of control. It’s not that they are deliberately teaching error, but that the whole system is set up to hide their mistakes from them. Their teaching is re-enforced through blog hits, positive testimonials, and high numbers of books sales, all the while they never see the destructive effects their teaching may have on individual lives.

Of course, when a local pastor goes down such a road, often he can explode an entire church. This definitely happens, especially when there isn’t accountability. But I feel like I always have the choice to walk away from bad teaching if a pastor persists. At the celebrity level, I can stop reading a pastor or buying his materials, but if he’s popular enough I’ll still be hearing about him from my close Christian friends.

One Way or Two Way Conversations?

One thing I really like about my church is that the preaching isn’t just a one-way conversation. Certainly it starts that way, but I know my pastor is always available, sometimes even for lunch after the service, to ask him questions, get clarity, and perhaps even challenge him. I remember specific instances where I thought my pastor had oversimplified something, and after the service we hashed it out until we both understood each other better. This kind of thing is impossible when it comes to celebrity pastors.

I’ve had several moments where I wanted to respond to something I’ve heard RC Sproul preach and get clarity. Heck, I even wrote him once (but didn’t get a response back). He’s a smart man and obviously a good teacher, but you can only pack so much into a sermon. Sometimes a pastor has to pick out the important parts and gloss over the details, even critical details for a given situation.

I’ve also seen people challenge celebrity pastors on twitter or other social media. It seldom goes well, even when the pastor responds. There’s just no context of who the people really are in such a conversation, so it becomes a debate of topics or chance to trap one another in their views rather than an earnest search for what the Bible really says. I even remember my own attempt at doing this via Twitter with Paul Baloche. It was an interesting conversation talking with a “celebrity” individual one on one, but I ended up very cognizant that we didn’t know one another and he really wasn’t going to easily see my perspective. At least he was very polite and respectful, even if he never really got the point I was trying to make.

The best way to go deep in faith is not consuming what others have to provide, but iron sharpening iron in two way conversations. This simply cannot happen with celebrity pastors.

My False Dichotomy

An astute reader at this point may have been saying all throughout this post: “But wait Jeff, these celebrity pastors ARE local pastors, just not local to you.” This is true, and a point that should not be missed. I’m not trying to sit here and say “My pastor is great, Timothy Keller is second rate because he’s a celebrity”. My guess is that Keller is a huge asset to Redeemer and the local congregation there. It’s not about comparing him to my pastor, but for me, in MY world, the elders and pastors here in Suwanee, GA are the most important teachers. Keller, as much as I enjoy his work, is supplemental.

And that’s really the point: all of this stuff needs to be kept in perspective. Real Christianity is lived out in our relationships with others, not the books we read or ideas that we consume. Books by these celebrities may help us do the living out better, but they’ll never carry the ball for us.

In the end, I think it’s important that we never invert this relationship: making celebrity pastors and what they teach more important than our own local pastors. Celebrity pastors are very two dimensional: they may be great for one aspect of the Christian life, but beyond that they have very limited value. Whereas our local pastors are fully fleshed out, multi-dimensional people in our lives who have many different ways of changing us and helping us become more Christ-like.

With all of this, I’m only saying we need to be careful. Our rule of faith is scripture, and we should not allow celebrity pastors to have undue influence in our lives. They are a good tools and can bring much encouragement, but lets not do ourselves (or them) a disservice and raise them beyond the role they can fulfill.

What Makes A Great Pastor?

I’m certain there are lots of different criteria by which we could effectively measure how great a pastor is. Certainly the ability to understand the scripture is very high. The early apostles thought so highly of this role that they assigned others to do works of charity so they could focus on studying theology. Another is a charismatic personality and engaging teaching. Jesus surely was an example of this in the way he drew in and engaged his audience with parables and bold conviction. But an experience this year reminded, and convicted, me of a very different aspect of pastoral leadership.

My church, Christ Church Suwanee, is a very young church. We probably have more children under the age of ten than we have adults over the age of forty. Such a large number of children is a huge blessing, but it also requires a lot of people to step up. Sunday school for the children doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of intention, organization, and (most importantly) volunteers every week. So for the first year I was at Christ Church, every week I heard about the need for people to volunteer in the classroom. I have been one of those volunteers, and I can tell you that it is certainly not my “gift”, but it IS a place to serve where I am needed. But it takes a lot of people, and the church needed more. So constantly the leadership appealed for more people to help out with the children so we would never have to turn anyone away for lack of numbers.

Then one week, something really strange happened. It was a week that the senior pastor of the church wasn’t preaching. This in itself isn’t odd: we often have different ordained preachers within the congregation speak. As a church, we are very blessed with many people who can fill the role on a given Sunday. What WAS different is that our pastor was at church, but not in the service.  Instead, he was teaching my 3 year old son’s class. I was at once shocked, impressed, and then convicted that I had the attitude (that many have) that this was something he was “above”. Who would expect the senior pastor to watch the 3 and 4 year olds during the worship service?

The truth is, ministering to our children is a very important ministry. He had been saying it for months, but it took on a different meaning when he stepped up and did it himself. Good for him, but looking inward, why would I ever think that the ANY ministry in the church was “beneath” the senior Pastor? Is it because we’ve elevated the role of “Pastor” to a place of exaltation, above the “rank and file” of the church? I think we have, myself included. But what view of leadership does Jesus give us?

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13:1-17, ESV)

Jesus, the greatest teacher and leader of all, served his disciples by doing the lowest of jobs, washing their feet. And then, lest the point be missed, he commanded them to do the same. REAL leadership is in the serving. Yes, understanding theology and being able to teach are key attributes we need in a pastor, but nothing surpasses the ability to serve, because that is what leadership within the Christian faith is all about.

I’m not suggesting that every pastor needs to go work in the Children’s ministry. The pastor does have a responsibility on most Sundays to be in front of the congregation. But I AM saying we shouldn’t be surprised when a pastor chooses to do the things he’s asked other people to do. In fact, I think it’s something we should expect, and if it isn’t seen, that’s a time to ask questions.

My pastor isn’t a perfect man or leader; no pastor is. But what he IS is a humble man who does not see himself as special or exalted. When there is something that needs doing, he’s the first one to do it. When you visit my church, he will go out of his way to try and follow up personally in the coming weeks. There are some pastors who hesitate to get involved with ministry beyond preaching and teaching, but I find my pastor’s leadership to be far greater when he is (metaphorically) washing feet than teaching on the big stage.

So thank you, Rod Entrekin, you are the kind of leader that I need in my life, and I hope the kind of leader I can be in whatever sphere of influence God places me in.

The Evangelical Attack On Self

On the new album there is a song entitled “Who I Am”. It’s a very personal song (aren’t they all!) about a sensitive subject. The opening lines are:

Does it matter who I am?

They told me it was OK

That the way that I was made to be

Should all be wiped away

When I was going through my divorce, I struggled mightily with my sense of self. You see, from my church I understood that I was supposed to ignore hope, pain, or really anything that felt good or bad. I was supposed to put off myself and take on Christ, and if I was doing that then it wouldn’t matter what happened in this life. So for the longest time my goal was to rid myself of anything that was ME and “replace it with Christ”, whatever that meant. This is a popular construct in many evangelical churches, where the concept of “self” and “selfishness” are often implied to be one in the same.

I’ll admit, I swallowed that lie for a long time— that what it really meant to be a “living sacrifice” was to rid myself of anything that was Jeff and replace it with Jesus. If I was in pain, this was because I was too focused on self, and I need to rise above it and focus on God. There’s a certain beauty about the idea . . . and simplicity. Jeff is completely evil, Jesus is completely good, therefore Jeff needs to go away and become Christ. The problem is, this is NOT Christianity.

The first problem is how we think about ourselves as evil. Any good evangelical will quickly quote Romans 3:23 (“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”), and I’m among them. But what we can miss is the notion that all people, Christian or non-Christian, have been created to be the image bearers of God. We have a stamp of Him on and in us, and The Fall did not wipe that stamp away. Beyond THAT, though, is that in Christ I am a new Creation, as are all Christians. I am not the man I was once, hopelessly beset by sin. I am a man being improved by the Holy Spirit, joining with God in the work of my sanctification. So what am I fighting against in this life? Am I fighting against Jeff, to make him go away? I don’t think that’s what Paul had in mind:

So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:17-20, ESV)

Yes, we still struggle and we still sin. We still do evil. We do not posses the ability to do the good that we desire. But what is the source of evil? Is it “Jeff” or is it “the flesh”? It seems pretty clear that it is the latter— for Jeff, the new creation, does not WANT to sin. I HAVE sin, and I DO sin, but I am NOT sin.

I think the second problem is how believers view what it means to be a “living sacrifice”. What exactly are we supposed to be sacrificing? Here is what Paul writes:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.(Romans 12:1-2, ESV)

What is in view here is not saying the “self” is bad, but that all that we are and all that we have must be devoted to God. So it’s not that Jeff must be gone and replaced with Jesus, but that Jeff must take all that he’s been given and use it for Jesus. That’s a big difference. And honestly, I think most Christians would agree with this distinction. There may be many scratching their heads wonder just who it is teaching that we should be emptying ourselves of our identity.

Few people explicitly teach that we empty ourselves of our identities, but the implication is all over modern evangelical Christianity. Christian pastors take a certain sense of pride about how bad they can portray themselves (“I’m the worst sinner I know!”) and our songs constantly emphasize this point (“You are good, you are good, when there’s nothing good in me” or “Rid me of myself, I belong to you”). The line is thin (and dangerous) between dealing with our sin and just accepting the sin and moving on with spiritual sounding words about how we are depending on Jesus. With this constant message in the evangelical church, it’s easy to walk away from a worship service thinking that the things that make up ME are bad, and only God is good. And this echos the ancient heresy of Gnosticism that matter is evil and only spiritual is good. The things that make up me— my hopes and dreams, they should go away so that I can truly follow Christ.

But this is not the way the God of the Bible views humanity. God loves individuals and who they are so much that he used their unique voices to tell the story of Redemption. The Bible is written by many different authors with different skills, outlooks, and styles, each book bearing its writer’s individuality while being inspired by the Holy Spirit. And what’s more, God is personally involved with creating each individual person:

For you formed my inward parts;

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well. (Psalm 139:13-14, ESV)

These are not the words of God who wants us to lose our identities, but rather to embrace how we’ve been made and use ourselves for His Glory.

This attack on self is not just found in our theology, but is also practiced in our modern worship. Many services are built around the idea of getting people to a heightened emotional and mystical state where they are no longer focused on themselves, but only on God. This sounds pretty good, right? If we are truly worshiping then we should be focused only on God— doesn’t that make sense? It does, but I think the kind of worship I’m describing here is more like an eastern mystical concept of “joining the over-soul” than it is what Christian worship looks like in the Bible. A worshiping Christian is responding to God by bringing who he or she is and devoting it all to God. He or she hasn’t forgotten self, but rather is applying self wholly in an act of worship. Look at Isaiah— he is aware of who he is and he responds to God’s calling very clearly.

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” (Isaiah 6:1-8, ESV)

We need to tread very carefully, church. VERY. We need to confess sin and be repentant. We need to turn from sin and depend on God. But what we must not do is try to take ourselves out of the equation. We each have a “self” and we are stuck with it. We can respond by trying to get away from that self, or to be like Isaiah and say “Here I am! Send me”. The latter is the pattern of scripture.

Selfishness is bad. Taking stock of who we are, understanding why we feel the way we do, and  figuring out which of our hopes and dreams are God honoring and which are just the products of sin— those are not bad things. These activities are what a Christian who is concerned with the Kingdom does. This is what a Christian who wants to bring himself as a living scarifies does. Sometimes in our pain and suffering we are to flee like Paul and Jesus both did on numerous occasions. Or sometimes the pain and suffering will bring Glory to God and we are to submit to it with confidence in his plan. But what we must not do is ignore what our sense of self tells us about the goodness of something. If something being done to us feels evil, our answer should not be to disengage and search for a higher spiritual plane away from self, but to understand how our “self” and all that God has put in it is to respond for the glory of his Kingdom. It might not look the same for every individual, for we are all different with different paths.

I’ll finish this post with some more lines from the song “Who I Am”, because ultimately this all comes back to God. What he has created in me IS good, and everything good I have is because of him. I don’t want to lose that, I want to embrace it:

Your voice is growing stronger and I hear you speak to me

As you tell me that I always was your plan

So I lift up all that I have to worship and adore

And thank you for who I am

December Newsletter

Hey Steady On fans!

We’re going to try something new, so let us know what you think: a monthly newsletter to let you know what’s going on with the band and keep in touch. We’ll publish it on the blog and email it out to our fans, so if you want to comment on the goings ons, you now have a place to do it.

New Blog

The first exciting bit of news is the new blog. We transitioned Jeff’s old blog entries off the steady on website and onto WordPress because we just think it’s a better platform for exposure and interaction. It’s mostly going to be Jeff’s thoughts and not strictly related to the band, but it will probably center mostly on topics of Steady On, Christianity, and music.

New Addition For Live Shows

Meagan Shaw has been joining Jenny and Jeff for live acoustic shows adding her talented voice and percussion abilities. Meagan is a fantastic musician and songwriter, accomplished on many instruments, so make sure you come out to hear her; we might even be adding some of her songs to our show! She’s also an accomplished guitar player, so if we get a chance to do any full band gigs, she’ll be playing guitar. All around just a neat person, Jeff and Jenny are thrilled to have her around and part of the Steady On family!

Looking Back At November

We played at two coffee shops during November, Abundant Grounds Cafe and Boulder Creek Coffee, and had a blast at both. It was neat getting a chance to connect with some new folks as well as hear some other local (and not so local) musicians. We hope that those of you who are near us will get a chance to come out and see us the next time we play. If you do, make sure to introduce yourselves. We always want to connect with our fans.

We also created a page on Reverbnation, quickly ascending to the top spot on the Suwanee Christian Rock charts, and are very pleased with that. Hopefully that will be another opportunity for people to hear our music.

What’s Coming In December

We are excited to be performing at Boudreaux’s in Duluth for Christ Church Suwanee’s open mic night. It will be a great time with many different acts from Christ Church, including Laura Sully. Meagan will also be performing some of her own songs (as well as playing with Laura and us- whew!). For our part, we’ll be playing a couple of originals along with some Christmas music.

We are also printing out press kits to send to local churches to make them aware of our performance and worship ministries, so if you know of a church who might be interested in having us out to play some of our music or lead worship (or both!), make sure to let us know.

We pray that you all have a happy holiday season and a very blessed Christmas!

Steady On