The Scorpion and the Frog: TGC and Tullian

tullianUPDATE:  Tullian Tchividjian reflects on his departure from TGC

Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in the Miami area and the grandson of Billy Graham, is rapidly emerging as one of our generation’s most articulate spokespersons for a Christ-centered, Gospel-focused, Reformation-minded view of Christianity.  If you read my post from earlier this year entitled “The Gospel Is For Christians” and suspected that it was strongly influenced by his latest book One Way Love, you would be correct.  He currently blogs at

Up until recently he was part of The Gospel Coalition, a high-profile network of many of the leading names in this decade’s Neo-Reformed movement.  But lately he was asked to leave and take his blog elsewhere.  He had been planning to transition away in August, but last week he was asked to make the transition effective immediately.  TGC leaders cited doctrinal differences, but it would not be surprising if at least part of this was due to the ongoing Sovereign Grace Ministries scandal and Tchividjian’s critique of TGC leaders’ response to it.

For those of you who haven’t heard, Sovereign Grace Ministries (think Boston Church of Christ but with a very strong Neo-Reformed, Calvinist bent) has been embroiled in an epic sex abuse scandal.  Basically, sexual abuse occurred at some SGM churches and was covered up.  Victims were strongly discouraged from reporting the abuse to the authorities.  But now things are coming to light.  The scandal was recently ratcheted up a couple of notches when a former youth pastor at an SGM church was convicted of sexually abusing three boys.

In the midst of all this, Tchividjian issued a statement which showed an unfortunate naivete about the nature of the Neo-Reformed movement.  This is from a piece at The Christian Post which covers Tchividjian’s side of the events surrounding his departure from TGC:

Tchividjian believes that some at TGC have adopted a very critical tone. “I think that’s their tone. That has become their tone. That’s not the tone of everybody there but that is the tone of some prominent voices there: critical, very, very quick to point out what’s theologically wrong out there, very slow to pick apart what’s theologically wrong in here in terms of their own position … and I think people pick up on that,” he said.

Tchividjian, who considers himself Reformed, noted that just because these voices also considered themselves Reformed, one should not see their behavior as the fruits of their doctrine.

“Theology is not to blame here. You can’t blame theology for the way that you handle it. It’s good theology in the hand of bad sinners. That becomes dangerous,” said Tchividjian. “When the Christian faith becomes little more than theological propositions and categories, you’re not actually thinking about how theology serves people, it can become divisive.”

“Anytime you associate yourself with a movement, you think that is at the center of the universe, and there is a much larger Christian and Evangelical world out there that is now looking at The Gospel Coalition, which seemed to start out as a positive movement that was for Gospel centrality and cultural engagement,” continued Tchividjian. “And now the tone from all the people I hear and my opinion is very much ‘what we’re against.’ People just aren’t attracted to that.”

Unfortunately, theology is very much to blame here.

In The Crying Game, at a couple of key points in the movie the protagonist shares the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog as explanation for his actions.  You probably remember this story: A scorpion is in danger because it’s flood season and the river is rising and his home is in danger.  So he asks a frog to carry him across the river.  He assures the frog that he will not sting, because if he does then the frog will die and he will drown.  Reluctantly and against his better judgment, the frog agrees.  Of course the scorpion does sting the frog halfway across the river, and they both drown.  The frog is shocked and dismayed, and as he is sinking he says “But you promised you wouldn’t sting me!  Why did you do it?”  The scorpion replies “I couldn’t help it.  It’s in my nature.”

The Neo-Reformed movement is a fighting movement.  Its whole reason for being is to expose doctrinal error and point the way to correct doctrine.  As such, it should not be surprising to see it as a movement long on exposing the errors of others and short on internal self-reflection.  Not everyone in the Neo-Reformed movement is that way, but that is certainly the prevailing culture.  The system is set up to fight.  They can’t help it; it’s in their nature.

Why?  Because the movement sees God as a fighter.  Christians who are always spoiling for a fight, who see every issue as an us-versus-them, here-I-stand kind of thing, show us a lot about their view of God.  Such Christians apparently see God as one who is fundamentally hacked off, touchy, easily angered, rigid, inflexible, and demanding of theological precision.  If that is your view of God then you have full permission–in fact you are commanded–to fight.  A lot.  Especially with other Christians who don’t exactly see things your way.

The Neo-Reformed movement is showing us what their God is like.  In their minds, they are doing the work of God.  They are God’s instrument of retribution; a modern-day Phinehas appeasing the wrath of God by slaughtering the covenant-breakers among His people (see Numbers 25 for the full story).

You can see this tendency in virtually every issue that Neo-Reformed leaders speak out on.  We see it in Kevin DeYoung’s comments on the historicity of Adam a couple of years back, in which he basically says that any “self-proclaimed” evangelical who doubts or disbelieves the historicity of Adam is not really an evangelical at all.  We see it in Al Mohler’s thinly veiled critique of an Andy Stanley sermon that mentioned homosexuality but didn’t denounce it in terms strong enough to suit his tastes.  We see it in Tim Challies’ recent diatribes against Pope Francis and Brian McLaren.  We see it in Paul Proctor’s smear job on Kyle Lake after his death by electrocution a few years back.  We see it in John Piper’s response to the tornado that went through downtown Minneapolis when the ELCA passed a resolution approving the ordaining of homosexuals.  We see it in other examples far too numerous to mention.

The Neo-Reformed movement is all about “contending for the Gospel”–a Gospel which is understood not as “Christ died to save sinners” but “Here I stand”.  So don’t be surprised when you see yesterday’s hero become today’s vanquished foe.  There is always a foe.  There has to be.

They can’t help it.  It’s in their nature.

Now Playing at Life in Mordor: Chasing Extraordinary

Because I am all about shameless self-promotion, I am so not above linking my own work.  This is a piece called “Chasing Extraordinary” which I posted over at Life in Mordor, the blog of Mike F. where I post regularly as a guest contributor.

As evangelicals, we are addicted to chasing extraordinary.  We are all about dreaming big and doing big things in order to advance the kingdom of God.  Paul is frequently held up as an example because of his zeal and passion for spreading the Gospel.  But think about this:  Who was Paul writing to?  It wasn’t other apostles like himself, or even other pastors.  It was ordinary, rank-and-file believers in all the places where he planted churches.  These people did nothing special at all except live their lives in the place they were, and remain faithful to the teaching of Paul for all the rest of their days, and when they died they were all forgotten.

For some of you, this seems like a death.  Death to the idea of being someone special or doing something special.  But for others of you this is the greatest piece of news you ever heard, next to the Gospel itself.  You don’t have to burn yourself out striving to be something you’re not, in order to do something big for Christ.  Being faithful where you are, in what you are doing, is good enough.

Read: “Chasing Extraordinary

Getting Worship Right

worshiperIf you have been tracking with me for any length of time, then you are aware that I have strong views on the subject of worship.

Worship is something such that it is of vital importance for us to get it right.  We as evangelicals are not getting it right.  Our problems with worship are at least as old as evangelicalism itself.

In the typical evangelical service, the sermon is, and has always been, of first importance.  This is where God speaks to us through His word, the Bible, as taught to us by pastors whom He has called, equipped, and ordained.  It is through the sermon that the Gospel is preached to unbelievers and they are challenged to yield to the claims of Christ.  Everything else is either preliminaries, designed to prepare our hearts to receive God’s word through the sermon, or a response to what God has said to us through the sermon.

This includes worship.

As a result, worship has been little more than an afterthought in much of evangelicalism.

In the past couple of decades, an awful lot has changed.  People talk about worship much more than they used to.  The landscape is now filled with new music from Hillsong, Vineyard, and many others.  The “worship set” has taken a much more prominent place in the service.  “Worship leader” is now a recognized category of ministry.  Worship leaders, planners, and programmers have sophisticated philosophies about the trajectory which a time of worship ought to take in order to achieve the maximum impact with the congregation.

And yet, nothing has changed at all.  The sermon still trumps all.  The only real difference between evangelical churches is whether they emphasize teaching (whether deep and thorough exegesis or practical and relevant teaching) or preaching for decision–that is, preaching where the end in view is that people will come to Christ.

That is not right.

When we worship, we enter into the presence of a Being who is completely and totally other than who or what we are.  If He had not revealed anything of Himself to us, we would be absolutely clueless about who or what He is.  If He were to expose us to even the slightest fraction of His actual presence, everything about us would be completely and utterly obliterated.  Though I love a lot of the worship songs we sing, I find it hard to believe that such a view of God is in play here.

When we worship, we enter into something much much older and much much bigger than what is happening in the here-and-now of contemporary American evangelicalism.  We enter into the story of God’s redemptive plan for all of humanity.  This story goes all the way back to the Old Testament, when God called a man named Abraham, led him on a long journey, built him and his family up into a great nation, and then entered into a covenant with that nation–the nation we recognize as Israel.  Through this covenant Israel became God’s special people.  There were visible signs of this covenant and of God’s presence in Israel, such as the Temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, and the feasts and seasons.  Worship in Israel was understood as looking back to the event at Mount Sinai in which God established His covenant with the people of Israel.

Later there was another covenant, sealed by the blood of Christ shed upon the cross.  Through this covenant, the Church is identified as God’s special people–a new Israel, if you will.  In this relationship the Church is the body of Christ (don’t think too hard about this one or you’ll creep yourself out), an extension of His presence in the world, an organism inhabited by the Holy Spirit.  Here there are visible and tangible signs of Christ’s presence:  the Word, the sacraments, ministry, discipleship, fellowship, prayer, and love.

When we worship, we enter into this story.  Our worship looks back to all of this, culminating in the event at the cross where Christ defeated sin and death once and for all.  This story ought to inform everything we do in church: the preaching, the sacraments, and the singing.

In order to get worship right, we need to recalibrate it so that it points toward a God who is completely other than us, who we would not know at all if He did not reveal Himself to us, and yet who invites us to join in His plan for the redemption of all humanity, which culminates in Christ’s defeat of sin and death on the cross.

Christus Victor and Modernist Philosophy

Last week’s post about Challies and McLaren touched on some deep, underlying issues that I wish to press further today.

Challies writes out of an ethos which is prevalent not just in the Neo-Reformed universe, but also, to some extent or another, in all of evangelicalism.  It says:  The Bible is the foundation of all truth.  As such, it is a storehouse and treasure trove of propositional truth.  We can get at this truth using the tools of reason and logic.

This is a response to the challenges of Enlightenment, modernist thinking.  In Enlightenment times thinkers and scholars argued that there is nothing beyond this world, nothing beyond what can be understood through science and proven through reason and logic.  In response to this, the Western church has asserted that oh yes we do have a source of authoritative truth which we can all be certain of.  In Catholicism this led to papal infallibility.  In evangelicalism this led to the currently prevailing ethos.

But the world is changing.  Within the last century there has been a scientific revolution.  We have moved away from an Enlightenment-esque, rules-based understanding of how the universe works.  Quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity have reintroduced mystery to the scientific realm.

In response to this, there has been a philosophical revolution.  No longer is there any distinction between subject and object; instead we now recognize that we are all in an interconnected web of relationships.  We no longer see ourselves as individuals interacting with the world around us like a scientist looking at a microscope slide; instead we now recognize that we all are on the slide.  With this, the notion of absolute truth, the idea that there are universal principles which are binding upon all people in all places in all times, has vanished.  Language is no longer seen as communicating absolute truths; instead it is seen as relative, that is, contingent upon context, place and time.

Of course this gives evangelicals the heebie-jeebies.  If there are no absolutes and if language is a relative construct, then we can have no confidence in anything the Bible says, or that anything it said two thousand years ago is still true for us today.  Therefore we can have no confidence that Christ rose from the dead.  Admit it:  You hear these voices running through your head as you read this.

In reaction against this, many evangelicals lash out in defense of the Bible as God’s authoritative, inerrant Word that we can stand upon with complete, absolute confidence and certainty.  In so doing, they think they are defending the faith.  But in reality, they are instead defending Enlightenment, modernist philosophy.

Don’t make that mistake, people!!!!!!!!!!

Instead, recognize that there are new opportunities for understanding and articulating the Christian faith in our age.

If there is no distinction between subject and object…

If there is no absolute truth…

If language is relative and incapable of communicating universal, objective truth…

Then all is mayhem.

And above the mayhem stands Christus Victor.

What is Christus Victor?  It is a fancy Latin phrase for the dominant conception of the person and work of Christ for much of church history prior to the Enlightenment.  Even if you’re not totally up to speed on your Latin, you should not have much trouble figuring out what this one means.  It is Christ the Victor:  Christ who has defeated death, darkness, and all the powers and principalities of this broken world through his death and resurrection.

In the Western church we have largely gotten away from this.  The dominant conception of the person and work of Christ is as sacrifice.  In evangelicalism and in conservative Christianity we focus on Christ’s sacrifice as an atonement for our sin.  In the more liberal reaches of Western Christianity they focus on Christ as example, that is, on his teachings and on the moral and ethical influence of his exemplary work.

Our faith has moved from Christ-centered to Bible-centered.  We equate defending the faith with defending the Bible.  Yet Jesus rebuked the Pharisees:  “You diligently search the Scriptures, thinking that by them you have eternal life.  I am the one to whom the Scriptures point, and you refuse to come to Me for life.”  (my paraphrase.  I’m too lazy to look it up.  Deal.)  And don’t forget the countless times that Jesus said, “You have heard it said….  But I say to you….”

We have limited Christ’s work of redemption to the human race, and still further, to individuals who accept Christ as their personal Savior.  Or are part of “the elect”, if you are of a more Neo-Reformed bent.  In the liberal reaches of Christianity it’s even worse:  Christ didn’t do anything more for us than teach us and provide us with a good moral example.

We have got to go back to Christus Victor–Christ reigning over all of creation, having won the victory over sin and death and darkness, and reconciling not just humanity, not just “the elect”, not just those who “gave their hearts to Jesus”, but all of creation to Himself.  This is what Christ is doing, and this is what we get to be a part of.  Any view of Christ’s work which stops short of this is woefully inadequate.

Challies Is On A Roll (UPDATED: McLaren responds)

hatersTim Challies is on a roll.

Challies has just lobbed another grenade at a fellow believer.  If you’re keeping score, that’s two in just a little over two weeks.  Then it was Pope Francis who earned the distinction of being tagged by Challies as a “false teacher”Now it’s Brian McLaren’s turn to join that club.

(UPDATE:  Brian McLaren has written a response to Challies’ piece.  It’s good.)

Brian McLaren, for those of you who don’t know, is one of the leading voices of the Emerging Church movement which has gained traction over the previous decade.  The Emerging Church movement is a very loose movement of people and churches seeking to explore new ways of doing the Christian faith and living the Christian life.  McLaren’s writings have helped to spearhead this movement.

So what is it that gets Challies’ goat?  Chiefly it is McLaren’s view of Scripture.  After taking some choice quotes from McLaren’s writings, Challies builds to this climax:

This is nothing less than theological liberalism in twenty-first century, post-modern clothing (which is why Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism offers a rebuttal, though it was written 90 years earlier). Like Fosdick and other liberals before him, McLaren has assumed authority over the Bible instead of placing himself under its authority. His understanding of Scripture frees him to see Christian doctrine as evolving, and himself as an instrument of this evolution. In this way he revisits and reinterprets whatever does not accord with modern sensibilities. He has denied the literal nature of hell along with its eternality; he has denied the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ; he has denied Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father; he has affirmed homosexuality as good and pleasing to God. And he continues to think and to write, meaning that his theological development is not yet complete.

Really, it should not be surprising that Challies would react this way to McLaren.  Neo-Calvinists, as a rule, tend to react quite viscerally (think Game Of Thrones) to anything that looks, feels, or even smells Emerging or Emergent.

mclarenNow I know, McLaren has said some pretty crazy things over the years.  But on the whole, he has gotten people to talk about things that need to be talked about and to rethink some things that need to be rethought.  Challies, like many neo-Calvinist voices, writes with the air of one who wishes to shut down all conversation and impose his preconceived ideas of how things ought to be upon all the rest of us as God’s final authority.  I had similar issues with John Piper’s dismissal of Rob Bell a couple of years back.

Where does Challies get the idea that McLaren’s “understanding of Scripture frees him to see Christian doctrine as evolving, and himself as an instrument of this evolution…. He has denied the literal nature of hell along with its eternality; he has denied the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ; he has denied Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father; he has affirmed homosexuality as good and pleasing to God”?  Are there places in McLaren’s writings where he actually comes out and makes these or similar statements?  Or is this, as I suspect, a case where McLaren says a little of this, a little of that, in such a way that if you put two and two together according to the Neo-Reformed way of looking at things, it all adds up to denial of the literal nature of hell, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, etc.?

As to the literal nature of hell, there is an AWFUL LOT that we just don’t know about how the afterlife is going to work.  Though it is quite clear from the Bible that there is a place called heaven and a place called hell and the place called hell is not the kind of place you would want to take a girl on a first date, it is not so clear as to what heaven and hell are actually like.  Portrayals of heaven and hell in Scripture are quite sketchy and inconsistent, and leave an awful lot of blanks to fill in.  Can we at least be honest enough to admit that much of what we know–or rather, think we know–about heaven and hell comes from Dante and Michelangelo and Thomas Kinkade and not Scripture?

As to McLaren affirming “homosexuality as good and pleasing to God”: Why did that one make the cut?  Out of all the things Challies could have said about McLaren, why did he feel compelled to land on homosexuality?  Why include it in a list of charges alleging that McLaren denies essential doctrines about heaven and hell and the atoning work of Jesus Christ?  The Bible is clear in its denunciation of homosexual behavior, but the percentage of verses and passages dealing with homosexuality is minuscule compared to the text as a whole, or the percentage of passages dealing with other subjects.  The amount of attention that homosexuality receives from the evangelical world is completely and totally out of all proportion compared to the amount of attention that it gets in Scripture.

But there are larger issues in play here.  All of this proceeds from a view of Scripture which lies at the heart of Challies’ critique, which one can see in the concluding paragraph:

Where McLaren casts doubt on the idea that we can ever really confidently know and understand the Bible, Christians have long held that God spoke and inspired his prophets and apostles to write because he actually intended to be heard as saying something, and that the message would be carried on and be understood forever after (see 2 Peter 1:16-21). This is why Jude calls it “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and why Paul is so emphatic with Timothy that he “guard the good deposit entrusted to [him]” (2 Timothy 1:14). Kevin DeYoung says it well in Taking God at His Word: “The Bible is an utterly reliable book, an unerring book, a holy book, a divine book. … There is no more authoritative declaration than what we find in the word of God, no firmer ground to stand on, no ‘more final’ argument that can be spoken after Scripture has spoken.”

What is being articulated here is the idea that every Scriptural text has a clear meaning which can be arrived at using the tools of reason and logic.  This view has dominated much of evangelical thought since the Enlightenment.  It is basically an attempt to answer the challenges of Enlightenment thought by basically attempting to beat them at their game, on their turf, playing by their rules.  Who thought that we could possibly win under such terms?  When Enlightenment thinkers dismiss Scripture as irrelevant because it is not scientifically verifiable, we have responded “OH YES IT IS!!!!!!!!!”  And in attempting to defend against such challenges, we have done violence to Scripture and turned it into something it was never meant to be.  Part and parcel of this is the concept of inerrancy, which basically claims that the Bible is completely and totally free from error in everything that it says.  I have lots of issues with inerrancy, which would probably best be left as another diatribe for another day, but the principal issue is that it proceeds out of a view of divine inspiration which would be much more at home in Islam or Mormonism than in Christianity.

When McLaren “casts doubt on the idea that we can ever really confidently know and understand the Bible”, I do not think he is casting doubt on Scripture.  Instead, he is casting doubt on a philosophical system of thought with respect to Scripture that has dominated the evangelical movement virtually since its inception, and which, I believe, has led us down a spiritual dead end.  If our movement is to move forward, we must have conversations about the authority and inspiration of Scripture, and find better ways of representing and articulating these important truths.  Making authoritative pronouncements in an attempt to shut down the discussion, such as we find in this post, does no one any favors.