What Does It Mean to Be a Prophetic Church?

What does it mean to be prophetic? The word is thrown around a lot, but depending on which circles you run in, it means something quite different. If you’re in the charismatic crowd, being prophetic means speaking the ‘now’ word of God— bringing ‘fresh revelation’, and possibly even doing it in a way that is spontaneous and disruptive to the plan or the schedule. But if you run with justice-oriented Christ-followers, being prophetic is being bold, confrontational, and possibly disruptive not to a plan but to an order, a societal framework. How could the same word have such different connotations? What can we recover from the Biblical roots of the prophetic role?

In the Old Testament, two words are used to describe the prophet. The earlier of the two is the word ro’eh, which roughly means, ‘the one who sees’. Later, the more common word used for a prophet is nabi, which can be loosely translated as, ‘the one who speaks’, particularly, on behalf of another.

A prophet is one who sees a different world, and says a different word.

Specifically, a prophet is able to speak a revealing word because he sees something others don’t, something hidden to others. This is why the woman at the well in John 4 called Jesus a prophet– he revealed the truth about the number of men who had married and abandoned her. And this is why Paul is a prophet– because the mystery of the Gospel has been revealed to him. If we bring all this together, we can outline a sketch of what it means to be a prophetic church.

A Prophetic Church…
1. Sees Jesus as King and His Kingdom arriving here and now.

One of the major themes in the Old Testament is that the Creator-God is the King of His Creation (many of the Psalms praise God in this way). When we read the first few chapters of the Bible through that lens, we begin to understand that human beings were created to reflect the wise and loving rule of God the Creator-King into His creation. This is what having ‘dominion’ means. Yet, the fall was a rebellion that forfeited that privilege.

Until…the True Adam came as the world’s True King. When Jesus announced His Kingdom mission in Luke 4, He quoted Isaiah 61, where the anointing of the Spirit is the empowerment to bring good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoner, and more. In Luke’s ‘Volume 2’— the Book of Acts— the Spirit is poured out on the Church so that this Kingdom mission can continue.

Paul argues through his letters in different ways that the Church participates in the Kingdom by confessing Jesus as ‘Lord’— the true sovereign of the world— and by living under His reign by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is at its prophetic best when it lives in a way the would make no sense unless Jesus is King, and His Kingdom really were arriving here and now. That is why a prophetic church does not divide up evangelism and miracles and justice. We see them as a threefold cord. A prophetic church announces the forgiveness of sins, healing for the sick, and justice for the oppressed in Jesus’ name.

2. Speaks the truth to power.

Our image of the prophet has to be shaped by the Old Testament’s regard for Moses as the greatest prophet in Israel. We don’t usually think of Moses as a prophet, but when we do, we understand that part of the prophetic call is speaking truth to power. In that light, Nathan’s rebuke of David and Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab and Jezebel all begin to make sense. Sometimes the prophet does the truth-telling through the voice of lament, as Jeremiah did.

Thus Jesus is prophetic not only because of His revealing the marriage history of the woman at the well, but also because of His confrontations with power. When Jesus overturned the tables of money-changers in the Temple, and when He defied Pilate— by reshaping his questions, refuting his claims to power, and even by refusing to answer— He was living out the prophetic vocation by speaking the truth to both religious and political powers. (Paul echoes these behaviors in his conversations with various religious and political rulers in the latter half of the Book of Acts.)

The early Christians were not killed because Christianity was a religion Rome did not like. Rome welcomed any and all religions, but they were particularly threatened by Christianity. Why? Because Christianity made a radical, new and exclusive claim: Jesus alone is the Lord of all, worthy of worship; all other gods must be renounced as false. Rome viewed this as a dangerous belief. And every time the Church gathered to worship, there were speaking the truth to power by confessing Jesus as the True Lord– using terms Caesar had applied to himself as political propaganda– and thus declaring the gods of Empire as false.

Every time we show the gods of our age to be false, and expose their claims as a lie, we are speaking the truth to power. We denounce the lie that economic prosperity is the source of joy, that sexual pleasure is the highest end of every relationship, that violence is the path to peace, that a people-group or nation matters more than another. Sometimes our voice is the voice of proclamation and confession; others it is the voice of lament. Both are forms of prophetic truth-telling.

3. Signposts toward the future.

Activism has many appealing qualities. It is better than doing nothing; it unites and mobilizes people toward a common cause. It can raise awareness and even adjust a widely-held cultural paradigm.

And yet, activism is not the same thing as being prophetic. The Church does not care for the poor or feed the hungry or speak for the marginalized for the same reason an activist does. They may be in the same march or use the same hashtag, but the Christian is motivated by something different than the activist. The Christian is not in this— ultimately— to create change or to solve problems. If this were so, then a Christian may weigh the odds of actually changing a situation before speaking up or acting. A Christian is driven to act and speak because she has seen a different future. Remember: a prophet says a different word because he sees a different world.

Every time the Church ‘welcomes the stranger’, forgives an enemy, shows mercy to the offender, or protects the vulnerable, we are a signpost to the future. We don’t do these things to be a good humanitarian or to solve a global crisis. We do it to point toward the day when the Kingdom comes in fullness, on earth as it is in heaven, when every tear will be wiped away, when suffering is no more.

Now more than ever, we need the Holy Spirit to help us live as a witness in the world of a different kind of King and a different kind of Kingdom, arriving on earth as it is in heaven. May God give us the grace to live as a prophetic Church.

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Preparing for a New Year

For the past 6 or 7 years, Holly and I have done a prayer and planning retreat, usually at the end of the calendar year, or sometimes right at the beginning. We were inspired by some wise, older, mentors who talked about their rhythm of intentionally praying and planning for the new year. (Special thanks to my parents for watching our kids this year, as in recent years.) 

Each year, we’ve done it slightly differently, but there has generally been a progression from prayer to planning. Often, we start by listening, waiting upon the Lord, asking Him if He has a word for us for the new year. This year, to aid our listening, we began by sitting in the beautiful church at the Franciscan monastery near our house. Holly and I found separate corners in the quiet, empty sanctuary for about an hour or so. Holly used the ‘Prayer of Examen’ as a way of taking stock of the year [here’s a short article from Peter Scazzero on how Evangelicals can practice the Prayer of Examen]. I sat and quieted my heart, kneeling in silence. We both read passages of Scripture and journaled.


Over lunch, we talked about some of the things we heard from the Lord. Then we made our way to the retreat center in town where we would spend two nights, and took the afternoon to formulate a ‘Rule of Life’ for each of us [here’s a very thorough website from Steve Macchia on how Evangelicals can create a ‘Rule of Life’]. Many people do this as an exercise in solitude, but we found it helpful to discuss it with one another because it helps us to not be too ambitious or unrealistic. Plus, my wife is an external processor so everything is better when you have someone to talk it out with.

Here’s a sample of my Rule of Life (slightly redacted for the public):

rule-of-life-001

A new practice we did this year was to try to set morning and evening habits (or ‘liturgies’ in the very loose James K. A. Smith sense of the word– or in the sense Eugene Peterson called his ‘liturgical nap’ decades before Smith!). We are both rather poor at consistency, but we aren’t willing to give up because we believe in the formative power of spiritual habits (1 Tim. 4:6-16).* So we talked through the physical, habitual rituals for our mornings and evenings– from a consistent wake time, to work-out time, to prayer, Bible reading, and breakfast (and, dinner clean-up, bedtime prep, reading with the kids, and nighttime prayers). We tried to be realistic and not too ambitious. We also discussed a very simple ‘Sabbath’ practice to try– beginning with a walk, our evening meal, a candle and prayer for others as we gather at the table. We have four kids, so life is far from monastic– but rhythms even with the chaos and mess of real life– can make it feel like there’s music to our movements (and not just madness!).

Our first evening was mostly recreational: we went out to eat, came back and read, and relaxed. The next morning, it was time to go over the calendar for the new year. We tried to put in the things we know: from kids activities (basketball, soccer, dance, etc) to meal groups. Then we blocked out my travel and in-town special ministry events. With a year-at-a-glance, we talked about possible vacations, camping trips, and weekend getaways, circling dates on the calendar that would serve as placeholders until plans are actually made. We’ve learned the hard way that if you don’t ‘schedule first what matters most’, then whatever comes will fill the spots. Our goal was not to fill the calendar, but to allow ourselves to see what kind of margin we could create. All the wildness and goodness of life happens in the white spaces we leave, right?

The afternoon was mostly reading and doing a bit of personal work– Holly did some homeschool planning, and I did some dissertation editing. Then, we had dinner, watched ‘The Crown’ on Netflix, and ran out to grab some hot chocolate. I’m telling you all these boring details not because I think you’ll find them compelling, but precisely because they are uninteresting: a prayer and planning retreat is not epic or other-worldly. It is the kind of space in the ordinary for you to breath, and for God to breathe in it.

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One final piece of our annual retreat is writing letters to our children. Years ago, we bought each of them a journal that we write in. Though we may write in it at different points in the year, we make it a point to write in it at this retreat. With some worship music going in the background, we pray for the Lord to give us a ‘word’ or a theme for each child. Then, we write them a letter in the journal, recapping some of what we have seen in them this year, and in what we sense for them in the year ahead. The plan is to give them each their journal when they graduate high school, or something like that. So, they won’t read their ‘word’ now. But, the mere act of journalling a word for them each year allows us to follow up with a personal conversation when we get home, shepherding them into the next season.

Anyway…our retreat is an amalgam of things we’ve learned from others along the way– from the Examen to the Rule of Life to the journalling idea. I’m quite sure none of this is original to us. And it certainly shouldn’t be unique to us. If this is inspiring or helpful to you in anyway, please, use it. If not, forget about it! 🙂


Even if you didn’t get days away to prepare for a new calendar year, here’s a little recap with some helpful questions to guide some reflection on your end:

Spiritual review:

  • Where did you feel God’s joy in your life last year?
  • Where did God’s grace show up in helping you give and receive love?
  • Where did you feel joy drain out of you last year?
  • Where did you fail to allow grace to flow through you by failing to give or receive love?

Spiritual preview:

  • Is there a word or a phrase or a theme from the Lord for this year?
  • What are some relationships the Lord is calling you to be attentive to this year?
  • Are there some projects that the Lord is leading you to step out and attempt this year?

Spiritual habits:

  • What are your repeated actions each morning and evening?
  • Is there a built-in rhythm for rest and weekly sabbath?
  • Are there times during the week where you can be free of your phone (Can you give it ‘office hours’?)?
  • What will guide your Bible-reading this year?

Planning for margin:

  • What activities have you already committed to?
  • What trips have you already planned for work or ministry?
  • Where can you mark out space for retreats and vacations– time for reflection and renewal, and for recreation?
  • Where can you leave margin– unscheduled space– in your calendar?

Paying attention:

  • If you have children, what is the Lord doing in their lives?
  • How can you co-operate with the Holy Spirit’s work in your children or in the lives of those around you?
  • What can you cultivate in your children or in the lives of those around you?

For any of you who have your own rhythm of prayer and planning for your lives and homes…do share so that this can be but the spark for the gathering of collective wisdom in the community of faith.

Cheers to you in 2017!


* For an illustration of how the Holy Spirit works in us to helps us ‘make every effort’ in the formation of character through the training of habits, here’s a 4-min clip from a sermon I gave in 2010! Excuse the scruffy look!

Forget Following Your Dreams

Follow your dream. Write your story. Live an epic life.

I’m sorry, but I’m not buying it.

This has long been the fodder of daytime talk shows and popular self-help books, but when did Christians start talking like this? When did we create conferences, ministries and enterprises out of teaching people to discover their dreams and craft their lives in the pursuit of them?

This was not how the people of God used to make sense of their lives and of their purpose.

Nehemiah sat and wept when he heard the condition of Jerusalem.
Jeremiah said the word of the Lord was like fire shut up in his bones.
Jesus was moved by compassion.
Paul was constrained by the love of Christ.

Not one of these were peering into their heart, tapping into their dreams and longings, and then projecting them outward into a plan for action.

Was Augustine following his dream when he gave up his career for a life in service of the church? What soul-searching, script-writing technique was Francis engaging in when he renounced his wealth and devoted himself to rebuild the church? Was Cranmer pursuing his passion when he refused to recant his convictions before being executed? Whose dream was Hudson Taylor chasing when he sailed to China?

‘Dream’, of course, can be a slippery word. What do we mean by ‘dream’?

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream…but if you listen to the content of that dream— and pay attention to his life as a whole— it was more like a prophetic imagination, a vision of a world not yet visible, of a Kingdom still arriving. It didn’t arise out of a restless boredom from spending too many hours in a cubicle. His ‘dream’ was not anything like the thing to which our use of the word refers. I can’t help but wonder if the ‘dream’ rhetoric in our day isn’t just overly self-conscious and semi-public angst-filled musings.

Vision’ is not much better. Hijacked by a corporate culture fixated on maximizing every opportunity, ‘vision’ can be overly goal-oriented and results-driven.

Passion’ gets closer, mostly because its roots are in the notion of suffering, particularly suffering for the sake of another. After all, whenever we begin with ourselves, we are off on the wrong foot. Purpose is often discovered in service of another.

A word that is missing in our day, a word that brings to bear a whole set of virtues largely absent from the ‘dream’ rhetoric, is burden. Burden implies a weight, a weight that someone else placed upon you. Burden is not what you asked for but what is being asked of you. Burden is not thought up or dreamed up. Burden burns.

The rhetoric of dreams has helped us find the courage to take risks. That’s a good thing. But risk-taking in itself is not a virtue. No one, from Aristotle to Aquinas, would have seen it as one. Taking a risk is implicated in virtue if the telos— the goal— of that risk was virtuous. If one joined a battle to defend a vulnerable village and it involved taking a risk, the goal was virtuous, therefore the act was virtuous. But to make risk-taking in itself a virtue is lunacy.

So while the rhetoric of dreams may have led us to find our courage, there are other virtues we need. We need to recover the virtues of faithfulness— even in the mundane; we need the virtue of selflessness, so that we can sacrifice and serve. These virtues help us not only to create but also to preserve, not only to start but also to stay. Such virtues do not arise from the current rhetoric of dreams; they are the result of surrendering to a burden.

My prayer for you is not that you will have big dreams; it is not even that you will take the risk to follow your dreams; and it is certainly not that all your dreams will come true.

My prayer for you is that you will be gripped by a holy burden, that there will be a fire of the Spirit raging within your bones, that you will be moved by compassion. Dreams can make fools who rush into action; burdens make prophets who weep and fast and pray.

My prayer is that you will not make heroes out of dreamers, but that you will contemplate the saints who lived and died under the weight of a holy burden.

May you never set out to find your life; may you always be led to lose it.

My Favorite Reads of 2014

As 2014 comes to a close, I’m thinking about the books that inspired me, enlightened me, challenged me, and fired my imagination this year. I must add the qualifier, though, that these are not necessarily books that were released in 2014; this was simply the year I read them.

Faith and Culture
“How (Not) To Be Secular” by James K. A. Smith

Eminent Oxford chair of philosophy, Charles Taylor, wrote a tome (900 pages!) on how we got to be the ‘secular age’ that we are (in the West), and what it means for people of faith. It’s said to be a landmark work but remains largely inaccessible to the average person. Enter, Jamie Smith, philosophy prof at Calvin College. In a tenth of the length (90 pages or so!), Smith gives us the basic overview of, and a critical engagement with Taylor’s work. The result is that pastors can now understand a bit more about the world in which we are trying to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel.

Favorite snippet: The ‘secular age’ is like a playing field above which the dome has been closed, but everyone is so consumed with the game on the field that no one even asks about the stars. (In other words, we aren’t preaching to people who already feel a “God-shaped” void.)

Theology
“Evil and the Justice of God” by N. T. Wright

I’ve read (just about) every one of Wright’s ‘pop’ level books, which, as it turns out, still require some serious thinking. I’ve also read significant sections of his thick academic books. I have to say, this is pretty darn good summary of some of his best (and least controversial) ideas. Academics will quibble with the sweeping statements and broad brush strokes with which he paints the biblical narrative, but for the layperson, this is just what we needed. The book gives an outline of the ‘new problem of Evil’, a description of what God in the Old Testament did to limit and contain Evil, how Christ took the weight of Evil (its force and its judgment) on Himself, and how Christians live (and forgive!) in light of this reality. Readable and concise, it’s the perfect book to start with for those unfamiliar with Wright.

Biblical Studies
“Reading Backwards” by Richard Hays

How do the Gospel writers use the Old Testament? Do they read ‘scriptures’ as predictive prophecies? As a failed ‘Plan A’? How would a ‘figural reading’ open up new horizons of understanding? Written from a series of lectures given by Hays, the Dean of Duke Divinity School, there are insights on each of the 110+ pages that are enough to fuel a dozen sermons. Hays works through each Gospel, showing how each Gospel-writer’s use of Old Testament language and imagery articulate their belief that in Jesus YHWH has come to Israel at long last. There is some technical (academic) language and a fair amount of Greek, but not so much as to be ignored outside the academy. Trust me: this is a preacher’s treasure trove.

Worship and Liturgy
“Evangelical versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy” by Melanie C. Ross

You wouldn’t expect a professor of liturgy at Yale to give an even-handed defense of ‘free church’ (read: non-denominational) ecclesiology and worship expressions, would you? That’s more or less what Ross does. She refuses the well-worn critiques by academic liturgical snobs (my word, not hers!). Yet, she names the flaws of the free church movement and its worship practices, in part by rightly tracing its roots to the Frontier Revivals. Her inclusion of two chapters based on her in-depth field work with two non-denominational churches (non-mainline denominations) add texture to her argument. The result is a promising bridge that gives us language for conversing across the ‘camps’ and opens the door to mutual learning.

Sociology (ish)
“Watching the English” by Kate Fox

This is just plain fun. I read it (or most of it) for two reasons. One, my sociologist supervisor (I have two supervisors for my doctoral research– a theologian and a sociologist) said it’s a fascinating example of ‘participant observation’, a technique employed by anthropologists and sociologists– and one I’ll need to learn for my field work next year. Secondly, having traveled to England 8 times in the past 16 months, it not only helped me understand my professors and peers, it gave me a good chuckle every time I read it.

Fiction
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

OK, this is where you either love me or hate me, or at least get concerned about my salvation. Here’s the deal: I started reading these books this year because I wanted to see if we’d ever want our children to read them. And because I needed something to keep the ‘reading muscle’ in use when the ‘grappling with tough theological concepts’ muscles were tired. I viewed it as a low-weight, high rep workout for my noggin.

What I discovered is an extraordinary work of literature that belongs among the best ‘world-making’ like Tolkien’s books. (Baylor lit prof Alan Jacobs agrees.) Furthermore, the arc of the story bends toward the great themes of sacrificial love and courage, which, of course, reminds me of another Story. (Tim Keller agrees.)

For those concerned about the ‘magic’, a few notes:

Anyway, the fun for me was reading many of these books whilst on a train from King’s Cross station in London up to school in Durham, where many of the scenes from the first few movies were filmed. So, will I let my children read them? Probably. But when they’re a lot older– since they don’t have to wait a year for each book now.

Alright. Those are some of my favorite reads from 2014.

How about you?

The Trouble With Exodus

As the buzz would have it, there is much to find troubling about Ridley Scott‘s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Mainstream reviewers are bemoaning the lack of meaningful dialogue, the strangeness of God-as-an-11-year-old-boy, and even the racism in the casting. One critic, writing for OnFaith, suggested that the value of the movie is in the way it projects our discomfort onto the ancient story, giving voice through Pharaoh to a question we have longed to ask: “Is this your god? Killer of children?”

Yes, Exodus is troubling. And there is no ‘solving’ it. But we can at least locate it in the story the Bible tells. In a sense, the trouble with Exodus is that it is only Episode 1.

There are many ways to paint the arc of the Biblical narrative, but one way of seeing it as with Exodus as the beginning. After setting the backdrop of a good world that God made on purpose and with pleasure, the Bible shows us how everything began to fall apart at the seams. Humankind’s relationship with God began to fray, as did the male-female union. It’s not long before brother is killing brother, and by Noah’s day gangs of tribal violence are having the day. At Babel, society is fragmented. By Genesis 11, it seems that all that God has joined together, humans have torn asunder.

And then, God call Abram. And soon, there is a family—three generations with the call and covenant restated and reinforced. But this family finds themselves in trouble. Brothers once again are turning on one another and soon, they find themselves in Egypt. God meets them there, in this strange land, and for a season, they enjoy prosperity. It isn’t long, however, until Egypt began to oppress the foreigners and exploit them for their own gain. This is where the Exodus story begins.

Episode 1: God comes to save his people and judge their enemies.
This is the central theme of the Exodus: God hears the cry of his people, and God acts to save them and to judge their enemies. The killing of the firstborn male in Egypt is a symbolic act of striking down the strength of the enemy. Furthermore, it is a act that stops evil in its tracks. No offspring will carry this wickedness to another generation. It is God’s mighty “Thus far, and no more” announcement to the embodiment of evil and oppression in that day. As uncomfortable as this might be for post-modern sensibilities, even in our world, we have been confronted with evil so heinous we have no choice but to say, “This must be stopped.” There are people who need to be rescued; and there is evil that needs to be ended.

The Old Testament shows a God who offers little explanation for evil but plenty of action to limit and contain evil. Why this incomplete action? Stay tuned…

Episode 2: The people who need saving also deserve judging.
There were hints of this even with Abraham: his lying and his wife’s unbelief. There were foreshadows of the fracture when Jacob’s sons sold Joseph into slavery. But eventually, the seeds of discord bore the fruit of destruction. After the height of glory during Solomon’s reign, the nation splits in two. The succession of mostly wicked kings in the northern kingdom, Israel, lead to their doom at the hands of Assyria. But the southern kingdom falls some 200 years later at the hands of Babylon. God’s people need judging, and God isn’t afraid to use wicked nations to do it. 

Episode 3: The people who deserve judging also need saving.
The story doesn’t end with the realization that everyone has got it coming from God. After all, hadn’t God promised to use Abraham’s family to bless (i.e., ‘save’) all the families of the earth? Now that Abraham’s family had a share in the wickedness, would God scrap his project of creation and decide not to save anyone and to judge them all instead? The story of Jonah—among others—shows us a God who remains committed to saving all people, even the ones who were clearly ‘the enemy’. Ninevah is representative of all the empires who oppressed God’s people. And yet God sends a prophet to Ninevah.

It is at this point in the Old Testament that we find that things are more complicated then they seem. There aren’t simply ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’; God’s people and pagans. The people who need saving also deserve judging, and the people who deserve judgment also need saving. But how?

These three movements in the Old Testament bring the story to the edge of a cliff. Would God abandon his plan to save his world? Or would God forget his promise to do it through Abraham’s family? How can God judge even those he wants to save and save even those he needs to judge?

Enter, Jesus– the seed of Abraham and the representative of Israel; the everlasting God himself, come in the flesh at long last. In Jesus we see not only the faithfulness of God but also the wisdom of God. Jesus is the surprising, unexpected Episode 4.

In Jesus, YHWH comes to save and to judge. But Jesus accomplishes this in a most unexpected way. Jesus, the Gospel writers find many ways to tell us, is fully human and fully God– and thus he is the one doing the judging and the one receiving the judgment, the one doing the saving and the one being saved from death through resurrection. He is the warrior who conquers by losing, the Savior who rescues by dying. Jesus takes the weight of all that is evil and sinful and wrong in the world upon himself, standing in not simply for ‘Israel’ but also for ‘Rome’—not only the covenant people but also the enemies and outsiders.

Jesus saves and judges by taking the judgment upon himself.

And that is tremendous news.

So, as you watch the movie and read and re-read the Exodus story, it’s quite alright to be troubled. Just keep reading. It’s not the end. That’s the trouble with Exodus– it’s only Episode 1.

“Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.”– Jesus.

Is There a Difference Between Public Statements and Pastoral Exhortation?

[NOTE: This is a follow-up piece to my initial response to the reactions to Hillsong’s decision to decline making a public statement on ‘LGBT issues’. The first piece, ‘It’s Too easy to Dismiss Hillsong…and Miss Our Shared Problem’, can be found HERE.]

Well…Now that Pastor Brian Houston has made his position clear— via Paul’s letters, no less– the same writer at First Things (who suggested they were shifting) is concerned that we are making too much of the distinction between public statements and pastoral exhortation. Apparently, if we believe something we must say it every time we are asked, regardless of the setting.

This is worth exploring more.

Does the New Testament give ground for speaking differently to those who are followers of Jesus and those who aren’t?

Jesus reserved his strongest and clearest words for religious leaders and his own disciples– calling Pharisees ‘brood of vipers’ , telling Peter he was colluding with the devil, etc. But when pressed for specific answers, Jesus seem to evade Pilate: “What is truth?” he asked. Now, perhaps this is contextual: Jesus didn’t want to reveal His Messiah-ship to the greater public yet. But considering the amount of things to confront Roman rulers about, Jesus seemed strangely silent when on trial.

So, let’s go to the oft-cited John the Baptist’s confrontation of King Herod for his adultery. What is never said is that Herod was a Jewish king (a puppet king of Rome, but symbolically Jewish no less). John the Baptist does what a long line of Jewish prophets have done: speak the truth to power. And for this, he is beheaded– joining again the long tradition of Jewish prophets being persecuted for speaking the truth to power. But this is not a case of confronting a secular empire. Herod is confronted because he ought to know better; he comes from the chosen people of God. He is technically under covenant obligations. Caesar, on the other hand, is not. And so, I submit, neither Jesus nor John the Baptist confronted Caesar on ethical grounds. To be sure, Paul would challenged Rome on the claim of who the real ruler of the world was…but not on the basis of ethics.

Speaking of Paul. Much is made of how clear Paul was in 1 Corinthians. I agree. I preached through 1 Corinthians this year and tried to be as clear as Paul was in teaching the text. But the letter opens with these words: ‘To the church in Corinth…’ Not, ‘To everyone in Corinth…’ Paul isn’t broadcasting to the general public; he’s writing to a congregation he planted. And what did Paul lead off with when in public? Well, if his speech at Mars Hill is any indication, he tried to make a connection with their world and then draw a line to Jesus as the Messiah. Paul didn’t lead off with ethics; he opened with the core Gospel proclamation: Jesus is Lord!

To be sure, once you accept that Jesus is Lord, you will have to accept a new to live. And Christian ethics– as I have also made clear elsewhere— is not a collection of random rules, but the path to genuine human flourishing. I don’t disagree with the notion that Christian preaching must include Christian ethics, and specifically Christian sexual ethics. The question is one of sequence–which comes first?– and setting— where do we say what?

But for some Christians, this distinction doesn’t exist. It seems they want us to go randomly down the street telling perfect strangers that we don’t support gay marriage or aren’t for homosexual relationships.

OK, perhaps that’s a caricature of their argument. Sorry. The logic of the First Things piece is: If asked a clear question, give a clear answer, even– or especially– if it’s about Christian sexual ethics. I understand the desire for this. But again, I suggest that neither Jesus nor Paul gave the same answer or the same degree of clarity in every setting. Isn’t this what Paul meant when he said that he tries to be ‘all things to all men in order that he might win some’? Isn’t this what the poet Emily Dickinson says to us about telling the truth?

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

What is most troubling about the First Things piece is the use of fuzzy logic. It is a ploy– a ploy, if conscious, a trap if not– of bloggers to cite A (a true event or statement) next to B (a troubling trend or topic) and by placing them side by side insinuate that A is part of B, even if it is not. In this case, A = the statements made by Hillsong pastors in two press events; B = the troubling trend of pastors not preaching traditional (Pauline) Christian sexual ethics. And by placing Hillsong’s media statements in the context of Christian preaching, the reader is left with the impression that Hillsong is compromising, that they don’t preach the Bible, that they are embarrassed about the truth…and on and on. Not only is this sloppy thinking; it is pretty close to slandering our brothers and sisters.

Don’t confuse a media statement for a sermon; a press conference is not the same as preaching. Please: let’s not unfairly characterize another church’s preaching by what is said in a media setting.

I’m sure we will continue to wrestle with what should be said in public and how and why. But perhaps we can try to think a little more carefully about what the New Testament does or does not model.

It’s Too Easy To Dismiss Hillsong…and Miss Our Shared Problem

So, Hillsong declined to publicly declare a position on ‘LGBT issues’.

And the internet was awash with opinions. Some shook their heads in disappointment, because, after all, ‘the Bible is clear’. Others smugly remarked that we shouldn’t expect much from this ‘culturally accommodating’ brand of Christianity. I find neither response particularly helpful or accurate.

First, the response of certainty: ‘A non-answer is an answer.’

I understand this response, and there is some truth to it: a non-answer is indeed an answer.

But it is not saying as much as we might think it is. It does not, for example, (necessarily) mean a ‘shift’ in position. It may simply be a statement about what the church’s mission is: to announce Christ in the pluralistic public square, and to challenge Christians more specifically once they are in the community.

I didn’t read their response as fudging on the what of Christian morality but rather as a statement about the where, when and to whom. Is it the Church’s role to announce ‘positions’ on issues to the public? Or is that tendency a leftover from Christendom– the era where we were gladly the power-brokers of society, blessing presidents and wars and condemning movies and rock stars? The Church is not a government agency; we need not announce ‘policy’ to the public.

Furthermore, there is something fundamentally wrong with thinking about this as an “LGBT issue.” I read with tears an email from a congregant who thanked me for our clear yet tender conversation about homosexuality. It was the first time he felt dignified as a person. Not an issue or an agenda. If we think of this as an “LGBT issue” or a “gay agenda”, then we will rush to announce policies and positions. But if we remember that we talking with and to people– living, breathing, holy, created beings– then we will be careful to have these conversations in pastoral contexts, not in press conferences.

Secondly, the response of smugness: ‘What did we expect from Hillsong?”

If you’re looking to bag Hillsong, you don’t have to work too hard. Criticism from afar is all too easy. The lights. The arenas packed with the young and beautiful. The upcoming movie. But all these critiques are cheap. And wrong.

Today, Hillsong was accused of ‘accommodating culture’, with the not-so-subtle insinuation that this was why they have attracted such large crowds. But I wonder if the people who wrote those critiques have ever been to Hillsong. I wonder if they’ve ever listened to a sermon. I wonder if they realize that they (likely) sing Hillsongs’ songs in their own churches on Sundays. I wonder if they know that one of the biggest new songs on Hillsong’s latest album is one based on the Apostles’ Creed— written humbly in response to a challenge from an outside denominational leader.

I know how easy it is to form an opinion or to cast doubt on a group of people by what you observe from the outside. I know because I’ve done it. But it’s wrong. From an academic standpoint, it’s irresponsible sociological analysis. From a pastoral standpoint, it reeks of the ‘older brother’ all too willing to see another’s faults exposed. And from a Christian standpoint, well…

Let’s look in the log in our own eye. 

Let’s do some theological reflection for a moment. One of the more controversial statements in Merritt’s article was from Carl Lentz’s wife, who said that it isn’t our job to tell people how to live. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and say that by ‘people’ she meant people outside their church.

But what if she didn’t? What if she meant that as pastors it wasn’t their job to teach their congregation how to live? Now, this would be extraordinarily troubling. But it would say more about us— all of us as modern, Western, Protestant, non-denominational Christians– than it would about Hillsong. Let me explain.

What makes it possible to say that it isn’t our job to tell anyone how to live? I submit it is the fruit of seeds many of us have participated in sowing:

  • We have perpetuated an individualistic view of salvation that allows an individual to ‘be on their own journey’– and the Church ought to be silent while they’re on it.
  • We changed the purpose of a church gathering from worship— with the historic ‘four-fold ordo’ or at least the ‘two-fold shape’ of Word and Table– to evangelism, modeling it after the Frontier Revivals– a warm-up, a sermon, and an altar call. If the church gathering is more about mission than formation, why wouldn’t we end up abdicating our role to instruct fellow Christians on a new way to live?
  • We have sent out church planters with little to no sense of ecclesiality (what makes a church a church) or covering or authority, leaving them to give ecclesial authority only to those ‘who are doing it better than us’– which, in short, means those with bigger churches.
  • We have created such a hard (and false) dichotomy between ‘law’ and ‘gospel’ that we have no place for actual moral instruction. All teaching on how we ought to live is too often reduced to ‘law’ and therefore dismissed as ‘legalism’. By misunderstanding grace to be a sort of spiritual autonomy instead of the power that makes us new and helps us live in a new way, we have side-lined any notion of ethics.
  • We have not said enough about the thoroughly biblical notion that the commandments are meant to give us life, that Jesus has a way for us to live that leads us to true human flourishing, that ‘Christian ethics’ is really an invitation to be fully and truly human.

You see, it’s too easy to scapegoat Hillsong and miss the larger problem we all share. We would do better to address our participation in an anemic or flawed soteriology and ecclessiology– the log in our own eye!– than to waste another minute dismissing a church we don’t really know.

UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up piece on whether we should make a distinction between public statements and pastoral exhortations HERE.