There’s No Going Back To Your First Love

Today I will start with a quote to set up where I would like to go.  It is from Christian Wiman’s book My Bright Abyss:  Meditations of a Modern Believer:

In fact, there is no way to “return to the faith of your childhood,” not really, not unless you’ve just woken from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some half-remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you’d been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life—which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived—or have denied the reality of your life.

The idea of “going back to your first love” is all over the place in evangelicalism.  Perhaps the best known example is that Matt Redman song “I’m going back to the heart of worship / And it’s all about you, it’s all about you Jesus”, but there are other examples too numerous to mention throughout the world of evangelical worship.

The idea is that you can basically hit the reset button as it were, and be right back where you were when you first accepted Christ.  When everything seemed so simple, all the answers so clear, and the presence of God so close and so thick you could cut it with a knife.  When things aren’t going right, or you feel stagnant in your relationship with God for whatever reason, it’s time to go back to your first love.

I wish it were that simple.  But I don’t think I can go back, even if I wanted to.  And I’m really not even sure I want to.  It isn’t as if I’ve lost the way and all I have to do is find my way back to the last place I was where I knew the way.  No, the very roads and the very landscape have changed, and all the old landmarks just aren’t there anymore.

That’s just how it is.  A life of faith is a life of change.  There’s no going back, like a king returning triumphantly from exile, dispensing the old wisdom and driving out all the rebellious, insurrectionist parts of yourself by which you’d been betrayed.  Life is not an error, even when it is, and if you still believe at the end of your life what you believed when you first accepted Jesus then you haven’t really lived.

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And This Is Precisely Why TGC Is On My Shit List

Today we’re going to talk about the Brethren in Christ.

The Brethren in Christ is not a big deal here in the US.  Unless you are one of them, know someone who is, or are a complete and total theological wonk who stays up on such things because you have WAY too much spare time on your hands, you probably never heard of them before in your life until I mentioned them just now.

The Brethren in Christ (BIC) is a small Anabaptist/Mennonite-ish sect that originated in eastern Pennsylvania in the late 1700s, when they broke away from other Anabaptist and Mennonite sects over various and sundry fine points of pietistic practice.  They were happy to stay small and in their own little fishtank until the mid 1900s, at which point they became more outward-focused and ditched all the pietistic stuff and came into line with mainstream American evangelicalism, for the most part.  Yet they remained small and failed to register even a blip on the radar screen of mainstream American evangelicalism.  When evangelical leaders came together to craft the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, they weren’t even invited to the table.  For this reason, inerrancy and other such issues of concern to today’s evangelicals aren’t even on the BIC radar.

But in Canada, they are kind of a big deal.  Bruxy Cavey is a rockstar megachurch pastor who presides over The Meeting House, which started in 1996 as a small church plant but now has morphed into a multisite church network with 14 campuses and a combined Sunday attendance north of 5,000.

Of course you can’t have that kind of growth without people sitting up and taking notice.  Some people got concerned; Cavey and the BIC are at variance with the traditional evangelical way of looking at things on a number of issues.  As already noted, inerrancy and many other such issues of concern to today’s evangelicals aren’t even on the BIC’s radar.

One of the parties taking notice and expressing concern was…yep, our good friends over at The Gospel Coalition.

In an exercise suggestive of the first-century Pharisees questioning Jesus on his teachings or the medieval Catholic church sending Johannes Eck to debate Martin Luther on his 95 Theses, TGC had one of their writers up in Canada investigate Cavey; the results can be found here, here, here, and here.  I would recommend that you read the series; you will find it illuminating as to what Cavey and the BIC actually believe on several issues of interest to those in the Reformed world.

I could easily have seen John MacArthur or Tim Challies seizing upon some quote from Cavey’s teaching and using it to denounce him as a universalist or whatever other epithet strikes your fancy.   To his credit, the TGC representative eschews that tack.  Instead he gives Cavey ample space to explain his teachings and make a compelling case that they lie fully within the pale of Christian orthodoxy.

But even so, the whole thing feels less like a conversation and more like an exercise in “Brace yourself Bruxy Cavey, we will question you and you will answer us.  You don’t get to question us on, say, whether our treatment of women presents a barrier to the Gospel or why some of us are so viscerally anti-gay.  That’s not how this works.”  It has TGC showing up suddenly at Cavey’s door claiming to be the gatekeepers of Christian orthodoxy.  You pass muster, they say.  You’re good.

Does anyone else out there find the whole thing just a little pretentious?

This is precisely why TGC is on my shit list.

John MacArthur Is Doubling Down

ICYMI:  John MacArthur, everybody’s favorite charismatic–and all-around–hater, published a blog post a few weeks back about how social justice is a threat to the Gospel.  He went on to expand that into a whole series of blog posts.

Not content by any means to quit while he was ahead, MacArthur got together several other like-minded Christian leaders and produced the Statement On Social Justice and The Gospel.  This is yet another of those point-by-point “We Affirm xxx…We Deny xxx…” deals that evangelicals are so excruciatingly adept at producing, which codifies many of the points made by MacArthur in his blog series.

Once more, with feeling:  The Gospel has inexplicable implications for how you treat other people.  The Bible makes it quite clear that God is intimately concerned with how you treat other people, and therefore you cannot be right with God if you are not right with other people.

This ain’t rocket science, people.

Social justice is not merely the province of those godless liberal mainlines.  It is not merely a passing fancy that evangelicals have only lately begun to catch.  Instead it is something which has been embedded into the very DNA of evangelicalism ever since the days of abolitionism, women’s rights movements, and many of the other great social movements of the prior century.  These movements all arose because the evangelicals of that era were dialed in to the reality that the Gospel message has implications for how you treat other people.

Jesus came to reconcile all the world to Himself and put all things under His rule, not just to assuage the guilt of individual consciences.  Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

Go Away Pastor Tullian And Give Us A Chance to Miss You

Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham with the funny name, was pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Miami, Florida until 2015 when he resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair.

Tchividjian is back.  He has written a blog post along with Chad Bird, a former pastor who likewise committed adultery, in which he calls upon Christians to extend forgiveness to disgraced leaders.

Here are some choice quotes:

The grace of God is not reserved for the “well-behaved.” Yet that is the message we send every time the word “fall” is used in reference to someone who is by nature already fallen. These people are sinners, just like everybody they ever led. That doesn’t justify destructive behavior, diminish the sting of consequences, or minimize the harming effects of destructive choices. But if we’re only okay with preaching grace in theory, but not when someone—even an esteemed leader—is actually in need of it, then perhaps we should all take a sabbatical. As someone once said, “People love it when preachers say they are broken just like the rest of us, until that preacher does something that the rest of us broken people do.”

…It is anti-Christian to remember people primarily by the scandalous things they’ve done. We love to whittle an entire life-story down to a single season. Then, with the authority invested in us by the state of self-righteousness, we proclaim, “This, and nothing else, is who you are.” But the truth is, all of us (including disgraced Christian leaders) are more complicated than the singular narrative by which most people identity us. We have done very bad things, very good things, and plenty of cocktails of them both. Sadly, most people remember only the bad. Thankfully, we have a God who remembers only the good. And the only good he remembers is the good that Christ has done for us, in us, and through us. So, if we want to reduce our life story down to one adjective, if we want to whittle our biography down to a single word, then let it be this: Beloved.

…If the church truly wants to stand apart from the world, it will stand alongside those who have been disgraced. It will risk being falsely attacked as “soft on sin” because it knows how hard life is when guilt and shame are one’s only companions. Rather than shooting its wounded, it will pick them up and carry them to safety, to rehab, to repentance, to whatever it takes to make them whole again. While the world drinks itself drunk on outrage of every kind, the church will exercise outrageous grace and scandalous mercy that doggedly refuses to give up on those ensnared by evil. In other words, the church will be exactly the kind of church Jesus established. Not a gym for spiritual muscle flexing but a triage for the wounded, where moral insurance isn’t checked at the door, but all are welcome and treated, no matter who they are or what they’ve done.

Okay.  I am with you on that.  As the Church, we talk a great game on grace but are largely AWOL when it comes to showing actual grace.  As Michael Spencer would say:

“Amazing Grace” may be the church’s favorite hymn, but I’m not the first person to notice that the subject of God’s actual grace seems to give many Christians a case of hives. Singing about it is way cool. After that we need a team of lawyers to interpret all the codicils and footnotes we’ve written for the new covenant.

That should not be.  The Church should be a place where people are scandalized not by sin but by the forgiveness shown to sinners.  If you are truly dealing in grace then there will be no shortage of voices saying that you are soft on sin.  And you never said, and you made it clear you were not saying, that grace and forgiveness involved restoring fallen pastors to their former positions.

BUT…

You don’t get to go around waving forgiveness in the faces of family, fellow pastors, former congregants, and others impacted by your poor decisions, while continuing to build your brand and profit from your story/ministry.  That’s not how this works.

At this point your calling is to quietly and humbly receive the scandalous grace God has extended to you, and to–quietly and humbly–walk the path God has laid before you, working quietly and humbly for restoration of the relationships damaged by your poor decisions, to whatever extent that is now possible.

I now live with ghosts because a beautiful young woman whom I liked a lot and wished to go out with could no longer feel safe or comfortable in my presence after I expressed that to her.  That is the path God has given me to walk at this time.  That is hard enough.  I can’t imagine what it must be like for you–you had a wife and a family and now you have lost all of that.

But that is your path to walk, and walk it you must.  Quietly and humbly, before God and the community of faith where he has placed you.  You don’t get to put this part of your journey on blast for all the blogosphere to see, building your brand and driving sales of your book (I have a copy.  I got it back in happier times before all this broke).

Just go away and let this part of your journey be between you and God and your faith community.  Go away, and give us a chance to miss you.

Michael W. Smith Thinks He’s Going to Spark The Next Great Awakening

I am not making this up.

Christian singer/songwriter Michael W. Smith apparently thinks he is going to spark the next Great Awakening.

I have learned over the years to cultivate a healthy skepticism towards anyone who claims that whatever event they are putting on is going to spark the next big move of God.

For starters, Michael W. Smith hasn’t graced the CCM top 40 in a decade and a half.  And he thinks his deal is going to launch the next big move of God?  Or is this just a way for him to get himself out there?

But here is the larger issue, and I’ve touched on this in prior posts.  We live in an age in which 81 percent of American evangelicals are completely and totally infatuated with a president whose message is the exact opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus Christ.  The black evangelical world has been rocked over the past few years by scandals involving prominent leaders in that world.  The Catholic Church has a grease fire on its hands because of a basic failure to protect its youngest and most vulnerable members.  Willow Creek, one of the most prominent churches in all of American evangelicalism, also has a grease fire on its hands because its leaders have taken a deny-everything-blame-the-victims-they’re-all-liars approach to handling allegations of sexual misconduct by its pastor Bill Hybels.  The SBC just escorted Paige Patterson, one of its longest-tenured and most influential leaders, out of the building because a pattern of wrongheaded counsel to women in abusive marriages and failure to report domestic violence made him too toxic to keep around.

What we have here is a basic failure of justice, a basic failure of love, a basic failure of Christlikeness that is pervasive throughout the American church, and especially evangelicalism.

To his credit, Smith seems to realize this.  Sort of.

“It all started with the Surrounded record, the worship record that I did. I just felt like, it has a lot to do with unity, honestly. It has a lot to do with justice,” Smith told The Christian Post earlier this month.

He referenced the Amos 5 in the Bible where God corrects His children despite their worship to Him.

“He (God) says ‘I’m tired of your sacrifices and I’m tired of your music.’ That really got my attention. He said, ‘Turn it off. I can’t stand it.’ He said, ‘You know what I’m looking for? I’m looking for justice to roll like a waterfall.’ And it rocked my world,” Smith revealed.

And yet what is he doing?  Planning a concert that is going to draw a lot of people and be broadcast on TBN this fall.

And that is supposed to launch the next big move of God that will right all the injustices in the American church and in our world.

Let me know how that goes.

Carey Niewhopf on Mediocre Churches

Today I give you this piece from Carey Niewhopf entitled “7 Signs Your Church Is Honestly Mediocre“.  This is representative of where a goodly portion of the leadership in evangelicalism is these days.  This quote encapsulates the gist of Niewhopf’s article:

When your church is mediocre, it should be no surprise unchurched people aren’t lining up to join you and that you’re not attracting and keeping the amazing leaders who might attend your church but don’t want to get involved because things are so sub-par.

…So, how do you know your church is mediocre? Here are 7 signs to look for.

1. You have non-singers singing and bad players playing
2. Bad Production
3. School Play Quality Live Streams
4. A Lame Website
5. Your Info Isn’t Current
6. You’re Resigned to This
7. You’re Afraid to Change

As Niewhopf develops each of these subpoints, it is clear that he is not calling for churches to go all big-budget and try desperately to live the sprawling suburban megachurch dream.  Instead he is basically asking churches to just take a look at things through the eyes of outsiders and make some simple changes if necessary.  For instance, he isn’t asking churches to go out and hire professional-grade musical talent, he is asking them to choose musicians who can actually carry a tune.

I get that.  There are lots of churches out there that genuinely struggle with the issues Niewhopf enumerates.  Many are powerless to do a thing about it without a lengthy business meeting featuring more violent deaths than a Game of Thrones episode.  Many of you have probably been in such churches at some point.  If I had been in such a church, I would be more sympathetic to Niewhopf’s point of view.

BUT…

We live in an age in which 81 percent of American evangelicals are enthusiastically and unashamedly enamoured of a president whose message is the exact opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus Christ.  The black evangelical universe is reeling from scandals involving T. D. Jakes, Eddie Long, and other prominent leaders in that world.  The Catholic Church has a grease fire on its hands right now because of a basic failure to protect its youngest and most vulnerable members.  Willow Creek, one of the largest and most influential churches in all of American evangelicalism, also has a grease fire on its hands because its leadership has taken a deny-everything-blame-the-victims-they’re-all-liars approach to handling allegations of sexual misconduct against its pastor Bill Hybels.  The SBC just escorted Paige Patterson, one of its longest-tenured and most influential leaders, out of the building because a pattern of wrongheaded counsel to women in troubled marriages and failure to report domestic abuse made him too toxic to keep around.  And over here we have John MacArthur waxing hypocritically about how social justice is the greatest threat to the Gospel while leaders from his Master’s University basically re-rape a rape victim and then respond with obfuscations and outright denials when she goes public with her story.  And let’s not forget the completely and utterly contemptible act of caging immigrant children separate from their parents, with which 81 percent of American evangelicals seem perfectly okey-dokey.

And Carey Niewhopf says the real problem facing American churches is…wait for it…mediocrity.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sorry people.  I just had to get that out of my system.

Haters Gonna Hate: John MacArthur on Social “Injustice”

Everybody’s favorite charismatic–and all-purpose–hater is at it again.  This time, it is the so-called social justice movement in evangelicalism that has found itself in John MacArthur’s crosshairs.

ICYMI:  John MacArthur dropped this little diatribe last week.  After a lengthy intro about his involvement in ministry during the civil rights era (who knew?), he comes to his point:

Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of “social justice” is a significant shift—and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before, always with spiritually disastrous results.

Over the years, I’ve fought a number of polemical battles against ideas that threaten the gospel. This recent (and surprisingly sudden) detour in quest of “social justice” is, I believe, the most subtle and dangerous threat so far.

In MacArthur’s way of looking at things, social justice is the exclusive province of the godless liberal mainlines who are now withering on the vine.  Evangelicals are now inexplicably looking on with envy and adopting a fascination with this notion of social justice–as he puts it, the idea that one ethnic group must make reparation for the sins of its ancestors against some other ethnic group.  This smacks of law and must be resisted by all who are true to the Gospel, unless we as evangelicals wish to suffer the same awful end as the godless liberal mainlines who are all about social justice.

Reality check:  Evangelicalism has always been about social justice.  The Gospel has clear and inescapable implications for how you treat other people; thus evangelicalism has been at the forefront of the abolitionist movement, women’s rights movements, and other such movements in history both here in America and abroad.  To say that social justice is a “newfound obsession” requires a profound level of historical ignorance.

It also indicates that MacArthur’s understanding of the Gospel is way too small.  Of course it is legitimate to criticize culture war Christianity, and I will continue to do so vociferously.  That is because culture warriors, especially those on the right, adopt means that are contrary to anything even remotely connected to Jesus in order to accomplish ends that are supposedly connected to Jesus.  But that is not MacArthur’s beef.  MacArthur’s beef is with the very concept of social justice itself, which indicates that his understanding of the Gospel is blind to its implications on how we are to treat other people.  Jesus came to change the world, not just to assuage the guilt of individual consciences.