Christianity: A Centered Set

Many things about faith cause me to struggle. I’m not a guy who claims to have all of it figured out: while there are a few beliefs I think are important enough that I’ve put my stake in the ground regarding them, there’s a lot, even things that are very important to me, that I hold in fairly open hands. One of my bigger challenges are those Christian churches with a wildly different set of beliefs from my own. What do I do? Do I embrace them even though I think some of their beliefs are dangerous (and they no doubt think the same of mine) or put them on the “outside”, labeling them a “bridge to far”? Or what about when I disagree with something taught at my own church? It can be challenging to both be open mind while having a passion for pursuing the truth.

I was introduced to a concept recently believe has a lot of promise: it’s called a “Centered Set”. The idea is to differentiate between “bounded” and “centered” sets. The first kind of set is fairly familiar: you draw boundaries, and everything that is outside of them does does not belong to the set. Think of a farmer with cattle. He puts a fence around them to identify which cattle belong to him. But say that farmer has too much land to build a fence, so instead he builds wells that attract the cattle. The cattle aren’t bounded, but rather they are grouped by the points that attract them. Centered sets are identified by movement in relation to a point rather than movement within a boundary, and that is a very different way of looking at groups of individuals.

The visible church (made up of those who are externally identified as Christians) operates a lot like a bounded set: members confess doctrines/creeds that identify them as believers and they are defined by these professions of faith. The problem with this is that we can’t agree on the boundaries, and even if we could, we don’t really know the true state of a person’s heart, whatever he or she confesses. Because of this Christianity has long held the notion of the invisible church: real Christian who truly have faith and belief. The visible and invisible churches may line up a great deal (one would hope), but they will not always coincide: there are those who fall within a bounded set by profession that are not true believers, and those who are outside the bounded set yet truly do have real faith. This is where I think the concept of the centered set becomes compelling.

I believe the real key to someone’s faith is answering this question: is he or she moving toward Jesus? Not distance, but direction. If someone seems close to Jesus but is moving away, that person is not part of the centered set, unlike someone far away who is moving closer (note: when I say “moving away”, I mean permanently; not someone who is going through a season of struggle- often those kinds of struggles may look like walking away, but are really about drawing closer to Jesus than ever before). I would say it is reasonable to identify Christians as those moving in the direction of Jesus and pursuing him.

I was reminded of this today as my personal study and the Sunday morning preaching collided. I’ve been reading through Judges, and the awful behavior exhibited by many of these leaders has caused me great pause. For example, Samson neglected his wife, broke his nazarite vows, and slept with a prostitute. There’s no record of repentance for these actions, though God used him in mighty ways. It is true God that can use sinners and unbelievers, but Samson found his way into the great hall of faith in Hebrews 11 (the verse we studied this morning), so he is the real deal.

But this morning’s text had one verse in particular stood out to me:

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6, ESV)

The emphasis here is just what I’ve been thinking about with centered sets. The measure isn’t the righteous acts a person has accomplished or the ability to abstain from evil, but rather the overall direction. Did Samson believe in God? Absolutely he did. But believing in God is not enough, we must seek him, even through our sin. No matter how far or close we are to him, we need to turn and walk toward him. Samson did a lot of terrible things, but he also ultimately sought to do the Lord’s will, sacrificing himself in the end.

I’ve begun challenging myself to think in terms of a centered set, not bounded one, when it comes to Christianity. Certainly I have my own set of bounded beliefs, and I don’t think that’s wrong. That is the fruit of study, prayer, and experience. I would be foolish to not try to make sense of my own faith and place limits on what I think is good and true. However, I think the takeaway is that I should not be quick to assume someone within my same bounded set is a brother or sister in Christ, and someone without is not. I probably can’t see the true trajectory of the heart, and that means I should be humble, speaking the truth as I know it, but not quick to judgement of others.

The personal challenge for me is not to measure my distance from Jesus, but whether I am drawing nearer to him. Am I going a direction that centers him in my path, or somewhere else? It can be easy to rest comfortably within a bounded set of beliefs and behaviors others deem acceptable, but such does nothing to protect me or give me hope. The only real hope is my destination and center. And when it comes to other believers, I can accept when we don’t agree, even on big doctrines, if it seems we are ultimately headed after Jesus. And those who do agree but behave in ways that concern me, that should send up red flags. How all of this works out in practical terms is still a challenge for me, but I think I’m drawing closer to the kind of unity and discernment God calls me to in scripture.


Teaching The Rebellious To Rebel

Recently I had a conversation with some friends about some very popular teachers in the evangelical world who we believe are teaching false doctrine, and we considered why these men are so popular. Why do people flock to hear these teachers who claim to represent classical Reformed Theology, and yet seem to undercut it with their applications, returning to a very works orientated type faith?

This post is not about those teachers so I’m not going to name names, but about us and why we find them compelling. Why do so many of us (and I say “us” because I know I’ve been guilty of this) like to follow and trust men who will teach us how to earn our way into God’s grace, when the Bible makes it clear that such a thing is impossible and that our works are of no value toward attaining salvation?

Personally, my suspicion is that it has everything to do with the American ethic of ego and rebelliousness. By that, I mean that that it is very much in the typical American D.N.A. that we want to one up each other and just prove how tough we are. We want to stand out among the crowd and be seen as rebels who fight the system, proving our importance; nothing serves such a spirit as well as a tough works-righteousness message: “Show me the hard rules, pastor, I can take it- and I’ll do it faster and better than anyone else”.

Wait a minute, how is following rules rebellious? Surely I picked the wrong world there? Legalistic certainly, but rebellious? Nah.

No, I mean rebellious, and I’ll illustrated with a true story from my past.

Several years ago I was involved in a very powerful youth ministry. My band led the music for the Sunday evening youth service at a small church, and the youth group absolutely exploded within months. The youth pastor had a radical vision for growing his ministry, and it worked! Fun games? Nope. Pandering to their tastes and cultural designs? Not that either. What then?

It was a simple plan: he preached the scripture expository style, we spent hours in prayer with the youth, and we focused on worshiping God. There was nothing else. The focus was pure and awesome. I was hooked, and so were the youth. This was not a typical youth group, and we all knew it. The youth pastor just kept on preaching and more and more youth came.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? It did seem that way at the time. It seemed like this was the recipe for success. How could anything so purely focused on God be wrong? And yet, there was a sleeping dragon; I never saw it coming. Disunity grew between the youth and the adults. The youth pastor grew increasingly dissatisfied with the church, “abandoning” everything except for his own ministry. He convinced many of the youth that their parents might not even be saved. In his mind, the adults certainly didn’t have authentic worship. And then one day, the youth pastor didn’t show up to church. His wife came instead, and said he wasn’t coming back. The youth group fell apart completely after that, many returning to (or adopting new) bad habits.

What happened? I was bewildered. We were doing all the right things. We would spend hours in prayer with these kids, preaching directly from the scripture, line by line (and make no mistake, they were good sermons- for all his faults, the youth pastor was a fantastic expositor), and we didn’t pander to “entertainment”. How could that have ended so wrong?

I posed this question to the Senior Pastor of the church, and his words will remain with me forever: “It turns out that it is no great trick to teach teenagers to be rebellious”.

And that’s when it clicked: I got it. There’s no doubt that we were doing all the right things: the prayer, the preaching, etc. I wouldn’t change a thing if I went back. But we were deceived about our “success”. We didn’t grow because of the attractiveness of these things (though undoubtedly there were some who genuinely saw the value in what we were doing), but because we were counter-culture. We were different. We were rebellious. And what attracts a teenager like rebellion? Whether it is rebellion against parents or rebellion against the norms of the world, in those angst ridden years nothing pulls in a teenager like the idea of doing something different and radical.

And so, the truth was, we attracted many who liked the idea of rebellion, and that it was rebellion in the name of Jesus probably didn’t matter than much. And as the group grew and the youth minister attributed our success to the righteousness our methods were cultivating, a feedback loop began because he started pitting youth against their parents. When that happens, boy then you really have an attractive ministry. As the youth grew, more contempt for the adults came right along with it. Of course it all fell apart, because the hearts of the youth weren’t grounded in Christ, they were grounded in rebellion.

Was this an indictment against our methods? Hardly- what we did was good. But where we erred was believing our success was due to our methods. A heart of humility would have gone a long way toward preventing the breakdown of the ministry. We shouldn’t have been so naive as to believe that the group “got it” and measured ourselves by such success. If we had been a little more humble, no divide between the youth pastor and the parents would have occurred; instead, the families could have grown together, with parents leading their teenagers while we added the meat of authentic worship and serious Bible study.

So what does this have to do with why popular teachers are able to mislead so many? It’s because for many of us, as much as we’d like to think we’ve left the rebellious years back in the past, rebellion is still attractive. We love to prove our worth through how counter-culture we are to the world. We can show that we are big and strong by the “hard teachings” we are willing to endure “for the sake of the Gospel”. And there’s no doubt that some of these teachings are good, but I can say from experience that often my motives stink.

When you add into the mix a false teacher who will provide even more rules and a higher standard in order to receive God’s grace, then our rebellious natures kick in to overdrive. We don’t want to settle for average or what everyone else does. We want to be the big bad Calvinists (or pick any other doctrine people argue about) who can proudly speak of how awful our sin is and how we don’t know anyone as bad as us. Our self images might as well be in leather jackets and eye patches as we growl at those who won’t live as righteous a life as we do. False teachers just egg this on, allowing us to be proud of how different we are and how much disunity we can sow between ourselves and the world. Because really, they are just teaching rebellious people to be rebellious, which is not so great a trick.

What is a great trick is to humbly teach people how to work out their salvation in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, not rebelling against the world in contempt, but lighting the way for those who do not yet have the truth. Yes, part of the Christian life is living counter culture, but not to add battle scars we can brag about, but rather to increase the light around us. We are not leather-wearing spiritual soldiers destroying everything in the culture that opposes us, but rather a redeemed people rising out of our rags with humility and loving the world as God does, so much that he sent his son to die for it.

Let’s be careful about allowing ourselves to be motivated by rebellion; even if the methods and cause is right; if our hearts are proud and ready to fight, we are missing the point. This is my own struggle and I’m a susceptible as anyone, but my prayer is to be a person of a different nature, transformed and operating to a new code, not one of rebellion, but of meekness and grace, finding strength and power in the giver of all life.

Marriage and Children: Idols?

Recently I was engaged in a discussion over on The Gospel Coalition about “child-free” marriages. The general thrust of the topic is that people who elect to be married but not have children are selfish and in sin (a pass is given if you are unable to have children). I realize this is a debatable topic among Christians, and I respect those who disagree with my position peacefully, but I believe that the decision to have children is a choice, like many others, in which we should seek the will of God. I laid out my reasoning many times in the comments if you dare dig through them, but essentially I believe this is another “bolted on to the Gospel” idea that is harmful to many people (especially when taken to the extreme view of “Quiverfull” that means you have as many children as nature/God allows).

But that’s not the thrust of what I’m writing about today. What concerns me is a comment from another person as we were discussing this topic. I’d specifically called out the plight of many singles in church who are treated like second class citizens because they are not married. This is related to the arguments regarding childless couples because I believe the church has turned marriage and children into an idol. Here is my original comment:

Every page of scripture drips with the truth of the Gospel, pointing toward or pointing back to the life of Jesus and what he did for us. By comparison, the scripture says very little about families and how they ought to be conducted, and even less about children’s place in them. The central person of our faith and the greatest evangelist/theologian in Christianity both remained unmarried and without children, further suggesting that marriage and child bearing are not central to what it means to be a Christian; yet those who are unmarried and/or without children find a difficult place in the church today.

The church needs to repent of this idolatry and re-focus back on the core mission: making disciples of all nations.

Here is her response:

. . . to suggest that those who urge married couples to keep to the procreative pattern that God created at the beginning of marriage are being idolatrous is kind of ludicrous, really.

This really bothers me. I completely understand that she and I are coming from different perspectives on what we believe is a “procreative pattern that God created”. She believes that marrying and having children is a prescriptive command from scripture and I do not. I can agree to disagree there. However, I think she goes too far by calling my position “kind of ludicrous”. By doing so, she’s declaring that family can never become an idol. The very idea is appalling in her mind.

So what about it? Can something like a family that is a sure blessing from the Lord become an idol? Can it become an idol to an entire evangelical subculture? I think it absolutely can. Not only can anything that is not God become an idol for us, I think Jesus DIRECTLY addresses this issue:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26, ESV)

Now just about everyone agrees that Jesus is not telling us to hate our spouses: if he meant that it would create a huge contradiction in scripture. What we generally understand him to mean is that he MUST come first. We must count the cost and be willing to put Jesus before absolutely everything, including our families. If we don’t, we are putting our families above Jesus; in other words, making them our idols.

But the second question is: have we done this? Are families idols in the evangelical world? This is a bit more debatable, especially since we’re talking about something as fuzzy as a trend. But I would come down on the side of “yes”.

In evangelical churches, talking about families is the norm, not singles. Events are structured around families, not those who are unmarried. If you are not married, it’s a little harder to fit in, and if you ARE married but don’t have kids, people are going to be asking when they are coming. The pressure is immense and intense. Is this true everywhere? No, and I can’t cite statistics, but I’d invite you to find the single adults in your church, or the adults without children, and ask them. Ask them if they feel included as a part of the community and welcome at church. If they are not, we are showing partiality, and that’s NOT a good place for the church to be.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:1-9, ESV)

It’s true that in this passage James is talking about personal wealth, but clearly what is in view is not to set up divisions within the church. Single or married, children or not, we should feel welcome in the house of God. If we are not seeing singles over the age of 30 in our congregations, we are not doing a good enough job of “show no partiality”. All believers should feel welcome, without division and segregation.

I think in many cases, this segregation is not intentional. I believe many married Christians really do WANT singles to feel comfortable at church, but in many cases simply don’t know how to relate. I get it: people are busy, especially when there are children with sports, piano lessons, school, and a myriad of other things going on. It’s not an attack on singles, but mostly just a different world. But that’s the catch: if we are the body of Christ, our worlds should collide. We should be known by our love for one another. The single life and the married life may be very different, but we can find communion at the table of Christ. Yes, it takes being flexible and bending for people who aren’t quite like you. They are in a different place with different goals. You may not even like some of their choices. But the body of Christ isn’t about finding other people like us, but about finding other people who are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

I’ve heard that the church is a collection of families, but this simply isn’t true. The church is a collection of CHRISTIANS, brothers and sister of Jesus, adopted into the faith. Some of those believers are married, some are single. Some have children, others do not. But if they are in Jesus, they are beautiful in his sight. And that’s the key.

Folks, we can do better, and it starts by reaching out and tapping into lives of others, wherever they are in their journeys. And yes, the idea that we would place families above God should be “ludicrous”, but sadly it is the reality in many churches for many singles or childless couples. Please, let’s tear down those walls and realize that God is not only for the married with children, and that to truly come to him he must be first in our lives, above absolutely everything, even the greatest blessings he’s given us.

Good vs. Godly

Recently I had a discussion with a friend about a meme that was sent around contrasting “good” with “Godly”. Something about how the world seeks to be good while an abiding believer seek to be Godly. This struck a nerve with me, as I think the two are inherently the same: anything that is good is by nature Godly, and vice versa. God is defined by his goodness, or rather, goodness is defined by the nature of God.

Her rebuttal to me was that people seek to be good by doing the right things, but for the wrong reasons. Like the child who apologizes for doing wrong with no contrition in his heart. This is an important distinction, and I wholeheartedly agree that this is a problem. In fact, the Pharisees exemplified this: they would do all the right things (Jesus even pointed out how they’d tithe a tenth of their spices), yet they never did it with right motives. For me, I’d call this distinction “right vs. good” rather than “good vs. Godly”, but however you want to make the point, it’s certainly there. In fact, I’d say that the theology of the New Testament, and really the Bible in its entirety, is rooted in this idea that we don’t get by on the “rightness” of our actions, but rather the condition of our hearts. The foundation of the Gospel is that our own “rightness” falls so short before God as to condemn us, meaning we need salvation outside ourselves only found in Jesus.

There’s another side to this, though, that we need to be very careful about when we talk about our faith and contrast such things. A great deal of evil has been done in the name of Christianity. Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in physics, has a quote that I think sums up how many unbelievers view faith:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.

It’s sad, but he’s not far wrong. My own experience with how the church deals with abuse and divorce is a great example. By far there has been more “goodness” in the way unbelievers have dealt with me than the Christian community as a whole (though the Christians who “get it” have met me in a way no unbeliever has). If religion were not around, my life would have been far less painful, and I think that’s true of many events throughout history, and many much bigger than my own struggles.

Of course, I believe that religion is not the culprit, but rather false teaching within the church and wolves who seek to devour Christians. It’s no surprise that the NT writers (and Jesus himself) were very concerned about those who would lead flocks astray. Consider these words from Paul:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. (1 Timothy 4:1-10, ESV)

There are many other scriptures like this one: there will be liars and deceivers who will lead people astray. Their consciences are “seared” Paul says, while he exhorts us to stay away from “irreverent, silly myths”. But many of these “silly myths” can appear to be “right” and yet have no value at all:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23, ESV)

When we fall victim to this kind of asceticism, things that have “an appearance of wisdom”, we provide more fuel for the fire of men like Weinberg, who rightly criticism the false Gospel proclaimed with such lies.

How does this relate to “good” vs “Godly”? I think we need to be very humble when we start contrasting ourselves with the world. The world doesn’t distinguish between false and good teachers, all of whom claim to represent “Godliness”. Whenever we start drawing lines between what is “good” and what is “Godly”, we only provide more fuel for the flames the false teachers have started. When someone says “Don’t be good- be Godly”, my mind translates that into “Don’t worry about feeding the poor or helping the downtrodden- ensure that you always show up to church on time and study your Bible consistently without fail”. I know that isn’t the intention of the statement, but if I hear that, imagine how an unbeliever with an uncharitable view of faith will hear it. Just more confirmation that Christians aren’t concerned with doing good in this world, only imposing rules and regulations.

Good vs Godly? I don’t think you can put a “vs” between the two words. It’s the world that doesn’t see them as the same, but we should be working very hard to change that. We should not have an attitude of “I scoff at your ‘good’ and offer my Godliness”, but rather “Look at God in me and see what true goodness looks like”. And if the world saw true goodness in us, the Steven Weinberg’s of the world will have far less ammunition for their arguments against faith and the wolves would snare less victims.

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.

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

Is Christian Music “Safe”?

One of the local stations here in Atlanta once ran an ad campaign (no idea if they still do) claiming to be “safe” for the whole family. I have to say, such a term applied to Christianity really gives me pause. Now, I understand why the station does this- it’s a marketing move to attract families that don’t want to hear the worldly music and foul language/situations found in secular music. That actually is a fine goal, but I wish it weren’t tied to the notion of being a Christian.

I have two issues with deeming Christian music “safe”. The first is that it simply isn’t. Singing about spiritual matters does not automatically put a song into a category that requires no discernment, though that’s what calling it “safe” implies. Unless there are trustworthy gatekeepers guarding the music that gets put out in the name of Jesus, we are talking about the HIGHEST potential for danger there is if we do not approach the music with discernment. When it comes to the topics of the world: dating, sexuality, greed, idolatry, fun, politics, etc. there are a wide array of good and bad topics, but at the least we know we have to listen with a discerning ear. But music about God- that seems to be the MOST dangerous of all topics if bad theology or unloving attitudes get baked into the music. And is the record company primarily motivated by good discernment of what is spiritually good? Are the radio stations? I have no doubt that there are many good Christian individuals working in these places, but at the end of the day, spirituality is a dangerous subject that requires discernment, and the record companies are always going to print what sells- that’s what they do.

So I think it isn’t “safe” to just tune out when a Christian song comes on- in fact, this might be the place where we need to pay attention the most. In the music of the world it can be easy to spot the lies, but with music about God, how easy is it for something to slip in that we don’t even realize because of all the good stuff that’s also there (like, for example, say a modalistic view of the Trinity)? I’m not suggesting that Christian artists are nefarious and trying to lead us down the wrong paths, but by in large music is a young person’s game, so we aren’t hearing content developed by mature, weathered Christians (this is true of my own music as well) and there’s no one really guarding the spiritual core of what is CCM. So I think it would be very dangerous to turn off our sense of discernment just because some song plays on Christian radio.

The second issue I have with labeling Christian music as “safe” as that it creates a very dim view of what Christianity is. It paints a picture of a way of being that is much like the world, only with the edges softened. Christian music is the diet version of what the world has to offer- it might not taste as good, but at least it won’t kill you. This can be an easy perception for people to gain of Christianity in general, and largely because a lot of Christians live this way. We are the same as everyone else, but there are lists of things we don’t do that the “pagans” do. We are just the fat free version of the world. Does that sound like a great testimony?

But this is not the New Testament view of what being a Christian is. We are salt and light. We shine in the darkness, preserve the truth, and agitate when that is what it takes to do God’s work. I am not my unchristian neighbor with the edges filed off- I am a whole new creation, dangerous to those who serve evil and empowered by the Creator of the universe. There is nothing “light” or “safe” about me.

Now I don’t want to be overly critical here. I get what Christian stations are trying to do, and I understand they are trying to appeal to families with children who just don’t want to hear the garbage on the radio that leads to uncomfortable questions and conversations. As much as I understand that, though, I think it is super important we don’t get lulled into the idea that what we do with faith is in any way “safe”. When we get faith wrong, people get hurt- badly. When we accept lies and are not properly discerning, we can become dangerous and hindering to the faith of others. Spiritual abuse is a real thing and VERY damaging, and I believe it starts with people accepting and not questioning- a lack of discernment. My goals is not to be a “safe” Christian who participates in a “safe” bubbled subculture, but one who the darkness fears to see coming because it knows I come with the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit- and that I’m not afraid to use these things. We may strive to be a lot of things as people of faith, but let’s not make “safe” be one of them.