Monday, November 20, 2017

Don't Call Me "Rabbi!"

Jesus said not to use honorific titles--does that apply to "pastor?"

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.
Matthew 23:8-10
A few days ago I was asked, but not for the first time, about this passage, and its prohibition on the use of titles like "rabbi" or "teacher" or "father" among the followers of Jesus. Since he spoke this prohibition himself, it certainly ought to be obeyed. So, when we call someone (for example, me) "Pastor," are we disobeying the Lord? And should Christian institutions give up such titles as "Doctor" or "Professor" as being unbiblical?

I'm not going to speak to the educational situation and titles, although the same principles below may apply to them in intentionally Christ-centered organizations. But I've wrestled with this question for myself ever since going into vocational ministry. The passage, for example, tells us we are all brothers (stressing equal standing), but often when we use such titles we create hierarchy among believers. And it's not just basic titles like "pastor," either. We sometimes create other titles that can be used similarly. I know that our previous church association had a "national representative" that wasn't called "President" or "Superintendent" because that seemed too authoritative, and yet even the more cumbersome title was used by many in tones of deference to authority. It's just how people are--we seem to gravitate toward "pecking orders" and titles help establish that process. If you are "assistant" anything, you are under someone else, so we know you have some power, but not the most.

When I was first ordained, I was working as an assistant pastor, was responsible for youth, and was in my early 20's in a church with half its people more than twice my age. They called me "Craig" before and after ordination, and I was happy with that. My work was respected, and I didn't have any trouble being "followed" when teaching or leading.

In my only other senior pastorate, which was a church replant, I kept that practice going, preferring to be known by my name and not a title. This passage had some influence on my thinking, but so did the idea that "pastor" is one of the gifts given to the church according to Ephesians 4:11. Since we don't tend to call most people by their occupation or their spiritual gift ("Plumber Paul" or "Helpful Henry"), I was happy to be just plain Craig.

Later, some parents said they didn't want their children calling me by my first name but to show some respect to me as an adult with a title. I suggested that "Pastor Craig" might be a good option, as long as "Pastor" was seen more as an honorific like "Uncle"--and that thought came from my visits to mission fields, where all the kids of missionaries called all the missionary adults and visiting pastors and wives "uncle" or "aunt."

I suggested the same ideas when I came here, but because this is a long established church, what people call me is all over the map. For some, I am "Craig," for others "Pastor Craig," and others use "Pastor Miller." Some address me simply as "Pastor." Some of you may have other names for me, but I don't need to hear them! :)

But is the use of such titles as "Pastor" or "Reverend" wrong? At first look, this passage would seem to say, "yes." Jesus wanted his followers to see themselves on equal footing, all learning and following one true authoritative teacher--himself as the Messiah.

But if we think about the context and history, we may be a little less certain. In the days of Jesus, religious Jews were sharply divided into various camps. We know about Sadducees (mainly priestly families who denied much of what we would consider basic spiritual truths in favor of an ethical, non-supernatural emphasis on the Temple observances) and the Pharisees (teachers of the Law who were zealous for obedience to the Law and strong believers in the supernatural). But Pharisees divided into lots of different, competing groups, following particular rabbis and traditions. These groups often viewed other such groups as being in error. Thus people allied themselves with their own rabbis and these groups were often at odds over who was right. And their "rabbis" were all too happy to have such followers, who would treat them with great honor and deference. They would call them "father," too, and often such men conducted themselves with a great sense of their own importance. When they were crossed, they had very little hesitation about putting the one who disagreed in his place. Your rabbi was not just a teacher you liked--he was an authority you deferred to and obeyed, and who often required his followers to show appropriate respect and obedience.

Jesus is rebuking the idea that any man (or woman) should be viewed as  the authoritative teacher on the truth of God on earth, and by extension that any person should take such authority to himself, with one clear exception. It was Jesus alone to whom believers were to look as their authoritative teacher/explainer of truth, and Jesus who was to receive that kind of honor and obedience.

Interestingly, Jesus told his disciples that in his kingom they would sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, so he wasn't saying there would be no authority exercised on his behalf among his followers. The apostles clearly understood that Jesus, by his authority was commanding them to go, teach, and baptize people--having already told them that they could "bind" or "loose" things on earth with heavenly power. So it isn't just authority that is in view here.

Rather, it is the exercise of control by a spiritual leader as if he is the ultimate word on all matters of faith. It is self-promotion and self-aggradizement that is in view here--wanting not just the title, but power and respect from others.

So, I believe that using a title like "pastor" need not be considered wrong, as long as the person using it or being called by it is simply acknowledging God's call to fill this role for the benefit of the church. I've had some people say they see the title as showing respect for the calling or "office" of pastor. What must be avoided is the idea that there is, inherent in the person referred to by the title, an authority and power that should only belong to Christ. And pastors need to recognize that their only authority and power comes as they speak what the Word says and apply it as Christ directs. If the "Pastor" is the big shot and everyone else is expected to follow without question, then we are back in the very circumstance that Jesus was rebuking.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The God Who Sings

Of all our conceptions of God, we may miss this one

God reveals himself to us in manifold ways. The creation reveals his power and his order--including the moral order (remember Romans 1). All people, even unbelievers, see this, whether they want to acknowledge it or not.

Jesus came as the express, physical representation of God, being himself fully God, now in human form. This is affirmed in many places in Scripture, including John 1.

The Scriptures are replete with imagery of God that speaks to us of who he is and what he does. He is enthroned above the heavens (Psalm 123:1). He is a righteous judge, who isn't always happy with what he sees (Psalm 7:11). He is "our Father" who gives grace and peace (Matthew 6:9, Ephesians 1:2). He is "great, mighty, and awesome" (Nehemiah 9:32). Time doesn't permit me to survey all the different ways the Bible encourages us to see and understand God--maybe you could take some time later and just begin to recount them all.

But there is one image, one concept, that I came across today (not for the first time), and it blessed me, and I want to share it with you. It is from Zephaniah 3:17--a passage (and a book) you probably haven't been working in recently. Here is what it says: 
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing. 

In a prophetic vision of God's judgment and then restoration of Israel as his people in the "Day of the Lord," we find this imagery in the midst of God's comfort and assurances to people. God says to those he has redeemed and rescued in that final day, that in his joy over them, he will break into loud singing.

That is a picture I don't often conjure up when I think of God. I think of God as serious--even in his happiness. I don't know why, but most of my thoughts of God don't consider him so moved with joy, especially over people, that he starts singing--loudly. That sounds too--enthusiastic! But there it is. He says is "in your midst," "mighty," "will save," "rejoices" gladly over his people, quiets them with his love, and exults with "loud singing."

God takes joy in his redemptive work, accomplished through his Son. We are a part of that redeemed people. And that means, by extension, his joy in us and our promised future is the same. The eternal God, not bound by time and not just seeing us now but seeing us as we will be through the work of Christ forever, sings over us. He sings over me, and if you are his child--he sings over you, too.

Take a moment and just revel in that thought. The great God of the universe looks at us, and joyfully belts out a tune of celebration. My old joke that life isn't a musical isn't really true after all. I wonder what the lyrics will be? We can only picture it now, but one day, we'll hear it and experience it. The Father's joy will be full as he brings all the redeemed into his presence. What a picture to hold on to when you wonder what God thinks about you as his child. Let it encourage you today.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Which Bible?

Choosing one may raise some questions--let me help!

Recently one of our members asked me to comment on various versions of the Bible and what I recommend and why. This multi-part question was so good, I decided to write here about it, because there are some great options out there for you to consider, as well as a few matters to be aware of as you make a choice.

First, I know you have probably figured out that I use the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible in my preaching and teaching. But that doesn't mean it is the only "good" Bible translation out there. You also know that I grew up on and still remember much of the King James Version. While I honor its powerful role in English speaking Christianity (and frankly in the English language), I do not recommend it to those who haven't used it regularly, and would humbly suggest that advances in our understanding of the original texts have allowed other versions to be even more beneficial. And while I consider it a good version, the New King James Version (not so new anymore) did not take advantage of some of the advances in our knowledge but sought to remain close to the KJV.

As you consider a Bible, you should know that you will be well served by any of the following versions, but I will weigh in on the pros and cons of each. As I do, I will comment on how literal the version is, and how readable it is as well. Often "the more readable, the less literal" can apply, because trying to be literal in translation often means having to put things in English in a way we would not say them in most conversation. Translators struggle with the question of trying to accurately convey the meaning of words, phrases, ideas, and "figures of speech" from the original language to ours, and that is a daunting task--especially if you are trying to make sure to communicate accurately what God wants his people to know.

So, with great respect for those who have done the work, here are my recommendations. I am only commenting on versions that are currently readily available and fairly widely used, with one possible exception.

Very "literal" Bibles:
  • The New American Standard Version. This has been recognized generally as the most literal English translation. Because of that, it takes more effort to sit and read than other Bibles, but it is very reliable in its rendering of the original language into English in a word for word style translation. By having "American" in its name, this version guaranteed a limited interest among international English speakers, and it has lagged behind the ESV, NKJV, and NIV in popularity. This was the first translation I used other than the KJV, and for many years it was the "go to" translation in conservative churches if you were leaving the KJV behind. I preached from it for years. It is excellent for study, but not the best to give to a young or new Bible student who is not a strong reader.
  • The English Standard Version--Nearly as literal as the NASB, the ESV made readability a goal as well, but also tried to keep some of the poetic feel of the King James and the Revised Standard Version--an older version that was used as its basis. It has become the most popular among the more literal translations--it is John Piper's and Wayne Grudem's favorite! It would be in the top two of my recommendations in almost every case.
  • The Christian Standard Version--this is a new release, replacing the Holman Christian Standard Bible, released by the publishing ministry of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is a very good, literal translation. I've taken some time to read it, and I find it very good in the sections I've covered. However, it is hard to see what the need for it was, and whether it will gain popularity and staying power (it does have a major publisher and denomination behind it, so that helps). In my opinion, the one great step that the HCSB had made was to use the name of God in the Old Testament where the original text used it. They rendered it "Yahweh." However, the CSV has removed it, going with "LORD" in caps as other English versions do, which makes it even less "unique" as a version. But it is still a good option.
  • The NET Bible--This is the exception I mentioned above, a version that most of you have never heard of. I include it because of its unique helpfulness in giving the English reader access to understanding matters behind the translation. It has LOTS of notes explaining the original language and why a particular translation was chosen--they are the most extensive language notes of any English Bible of which I am aware. If you would like this tool for free, you can download "Lumina" from the app store on your phone and you will get the translation and all of the notes! There are print versions, too. Chris Miller uses this version and highly endorses it--that's another reason I include it. The downside: if it is your regular version, then you will never be reading what everyone else is reading.

Very "readable" Bibles:
  • The New International Version--This is the most popular modern translation of the Bible into English--I think the KJV still is #1worldwide. The NIV is less literal, but still very accurate as it seeks to give more of the ideas than just the words. Sometimes this is called a "dynamic equivalence" method of translation, but what is meant is that instead of translating word for word, the translators tried to give the meaning of each phrase, and if you had to be less "literal" with a word, that was acceptable to be able to get the basic meaning of the phrase or verse across. The most "controversial" point for this translation in its most recent revision is that they have adopted the contemporary usage of plural pronouns to avoid saying "he" or "him" when that is what the original language says in reference to an individual person. They sometimes turn a verse from a singular like "Blessed is the man..." to "Blessed are those..." so as not to imply gender. Frankly, I don't like that approach, but it's not enough for me to keep from making this the other Bible in my "top two." Tim Keller and D.A. Carson both use and recommend this version.
  • The New Living Translation--This translation is even more of a "translate the idea" rather than "translate each word" version, and does the same thing as the NIV with changing singular to plural references to avoid gender. I find that it gives me quite a different perspective when I read it, which often makes me go back to the original languages to discover how they got to the translation they did. I have great respect for those who worked on it, and find it helpful. But it is not the best version to use if you want to carefully study the meaning of the text. 
Some of you might be saying, "but what about 'The Message?'" This is Eugene Peterson's personal translation/paraphrase into English, and it is a very enjoyable read. Peterson often picks up on aspects of the meaning of words and phrases that are helpful, and as a writer his turn of a phrase can be powerful. But there is imprecision and sometimes doctrinal bias that keep this from being worthy of consideration as a main Bible, in my view.

The two versions I've recommended--the ESV and the NIV--both have excellent study Bibles available. The ESV actually has two I appreciate, The ESV Study Bible, and the Gospel Transformation Bible. The NIV has the excellent Zondervan NIV Study Bible. The first and last have very extensive notes on almost everything. The GTB's focus is what its name implies--seeing the Gospel throughout the Scriptures. 
I hope this is helpful if you are considering a new Bible for yourself or someone else. And one more personal preference I have is looking for a good quality Bible--one with a binding that will last. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Does God Hate Divorce?

The answer to that question is more complex than we think

This question came up in a recent situation, and as I tried to answer it, I thought that it might be good for me to write on the matter as an opportunity to remind and instruct all of us. So here goes.

From early childhood in church, I remember that when the subject of divorce came up, it wasn't too long before someone would quote Malachi 2:16 as a proof of how bad it was: "For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the Lord of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously (King James Version)." The phrase "putting away" was the term used for divorce. We hated divorce, too, and in our church if you were divorced, you weren't free to do all the ministries others could do. Even if you never remarried, if you were divorced, you had been a party to something God hated and that spilled over into a permanent status of being less useful to God and the church.

When the New American Standard Bible came out, it seemed to make it clearer: "For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” By this time, there had been a divorce in my extended family, and I wondered if God hated my family member, and if this sin was worse than others.

But then came the New International Version. It reads a bit differently: “ 'The man who hates and divorces his wife,' says the Lord, the God of Israel, 'does violence to the one he should protect,' says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful."

And later still, the English Standard Version also follows this path: "For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

Before I discovered this new direction in translation, my study of the Scriptures related to this subject had led me to conclude that divorce is never God's desire for a marriage. However, Matthew 5, 19, and 1 Corinthians 7 reveal that unrepentant sins against a spouse could rise to the equivalent of covenant-breaking that leads to divorce (the two we see in these Scriptures are immorality and abandonment--I believe there are others related to these, but to hear about that, go online and listen to the sermon from the No Easy Answers series). God allows divorce in such circumstances that manifest the fallen condition of humanity (Jesus referred to it as hardness of heart). But because of my earlier training, I still felt that God somehow hated this sin more because of Malachi 2:16.

It was during my preparation for the "No Easy Answers" series I preached five years ago that I began to dig into the reasons for the translation differences in Malachi. I can't take time to explain all the nuances here, but in the text of Malachi, the Lord is rebuking the unfaithfulness of the men of Israel in a number of ways, and one of them is unfaithfulness to the wives of their youth taken in the covenant of marriage. The Hebrew is better understood saying that the hatred is not God's, but that of an evil husband toward his wife that he chooses to divorce--an act characterized here as selfish wickedness (the Hebrew verb "to hate" is in the 3rd person--"he hates," not the first person "I hate"--so the "hater" must be someone other than the Lord, who is speaking). Even before divorce had become rampant in the culture of Israel at the time of Jesus, God rebuked callous hearts that would cast aside wives so that they could pursue others. He obviously did not "hate" the wives who were abandoned. The KJV hints at what the NIV and ESV makes clear--he hates the unfaithful hearts that would do such a thing to a spouse. To "hate and divorce" is to "cover one's garment with wrong" or "do violence to the one he should protect." Not only does God rebuke this--we should all hate such hard hearted cruelty.

So, in a very real sense, God "hates" the occurrence and consequences of such divorces." But this isn't the same thing that some people mean when they quote this verse. What I hear in some people's citation of this verse is that divorce is especially evil, and by extension anyone who divorces (or is divorced) has to deal with God's special indignation. But as we have suggested, this could not have been directed to the abandoned spouse. Nor, I would argue, is it directed toward those men and women who, despite their efforts, their forgiveness, and their patience, find themselves abandoned or abused by a spouse who flouts their marital covenant, and so finally decide to legally end through divorce or dissolution what their partner has already broken. The unfaithful partner is the one whose actions broke the covenant promises made before God.

So, let's be clear. Because God hates sin, this includes marital unfaithfulness of all sorts. And we could even say that it is especially under his judgment because the promises were made before him as the invited witness. But a spouse that has been so wrongfully treated may decide to end legally that marriage bond. And if they do, they will be acting in a way that God also seems to have chosen when he announced his "divorce" of the faithless northern tribes of Israel (Jeremiah 3:8).

Let's uphold the sanctity of the marriage covenant--it is to be a lifelong bond between a man and a woman, and it requires grace and forgiveness every day. I've not only committed myself to helping each marriage at Grace stay together and get stronger, I've rejoiced to see God help couples overcome difficulties, and plead with you: if there are challenges in your marriage we can help with, come to us and let us walk with you toward God's healing and help. But let us not assume that any time a marriage ends in divorce, that God hates those who experience it. Instead, let's agree with God about the tragic situation of a spouse who is mistreated and abandoned through the callous unfaithfulness of their partner. And let's grieve such brokenness and loss.

Let us also remember what the Lord clearly says he hates:
  • Making idols--objects of ultimate devotion that displace Him--Deuteronomy 16:22
  • The wicked and the lovers of violence--Psalm 11:5
  • ...haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers--Proverbs 6:16-19
  • Robbery and wrong--Isaiah 61:8
Let's praise and thank God that sinners who do the very things he hates can cry out to him for forgiveness through the merits of Christ, and be saved, be cleansed, and be made whole--this obviously includes us if we look at the Proverbs reference and reflect on our own pride, deceitfulness, hatred of others, and so on.

And finally, let's remember that, as with so many other tragic events in this fallen world, God uses divorce, as he uses other violations of his perfect plans, to accomplish greater purposes in us and ultimately to bring about his glory and our good.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

What Happened In Vegas

When Unexpected Evil Invaded Sin City

I got up for our elder prayer time early on a recent Monday morning, and as I picked up my phone to head out, saw the news of a shooting that had taken place just a few hours earlier with multiple victims in Las Vegas. As the deadly details came in, they brought that terrible feeling that is a combination of disbelief, anger, ache, grief, and bewilderment--probably more, too. I prayed right then for the situation and people, not knowing how much worse the news would get.

I've decided previously not to join in the frenzy of social media commenting right away after such events, even the hashtags urging prayers. Personally, I want to know what's happening and try to process that news before commenting. In the days following, some things became clearer, some became more confusing, and some became very personal.

The clearer details were shocking numbers and what was and was not knowable. One man who had no police record and was not known to be a threat smuggled massive amounts of weapons and ammunition into a 32nd-floor hotel room, where he managed to break the supposedly shatterproof glass and shoot victims who were below at a large country music festival. He apparently converted at least one weapon to fire automatically, leading to the eventual toll of 59 dead (so far) and over 500 injured. He had security cameras set up to monitor whether the police were closing in, and there is evidence he had scouted other locations before choosing this one. Within a day we knew it was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. While ISIS claimed him, there is no evidence yet that the shooter was one of them.

Many were wishing he were because what cannot be known is why he did this. His brother was dumbfounded. Details gathered could only reveal a high stakes poker player who lived in his retirement in the desert town of Mesquite, Nevada. He sent his girlfriend out of the country before he acted. He wasn't on anyone's radar as a threat. He didn't leave a manifesto. He wasn't under a doctor's care or diagnosed with a mental disorder. He was just another 64-year-old guy, until he wasn't. 

Confusion came as people, especially the media and politicians tried to discuss the shooter and the crime. It wasn't enough to say that what happened was "tragic," "horrific," and "unfathomable." None of these expressed what everyone felt. Our public figures and media representatives had to find a better word.It was amazing how they referred to the shooter's actions as "evil." That word is a moral judgment, and its use points to some standard of good and evil that is beyond any one of us--it is agreed by all rational people that this is morally wrong. 

Now I agree wholeheartedly, but I wonder if those who call it evil have ever thought about where right and wrong come from? Evolution certainly cannot account for such a way of thinking. If morality is external to us, its source must be none other than the transcendent law-giver--but this is not acceptable to most of the very people using the word. Contemporary society wants to be able to label evil even as it undermines the possibility of its existence. Confusing times indeed. As believers, I hope we, and other Christians, might not let the discussion move so quickly to debates about gun control and security without bringing people back to this foundational question of whether there is a solution for the problem of evil in our world.

The personal piece came home to me as one friend reported that his son was one of the thousands fleeing the bullets (safely, in his case), and another friend reported that his family had lost a loved one in the shooting. The stories of the dead and of the survivors who thought they would die should remind us that this isn't just about a number of victims. It is individuals whose lives were ended or altered in a moment. Each one is mourned by family and friends, who in turn affect their circle of relationships. Each loss is intensely personal to those who cared. And each one is a soul whose relationship to God is most paramount, and has now been forever settled.

The ad campaign says, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." That was always a lie trying to be cute about hiding ones "indiscretions" while visiting what was historically called "Sin City." This week, we've learned that sin can come and wreak havoc even where it is celebrated and winked at, and at least in this case, it definitely won't stay there.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Another Church Visitor Report

Vacation is a time for a pastor to do a good and hard thing...

I wrote this a few months as Kathy and I finished our summer vacation in Myrtle Beach. If you know us, this is our favorite annual get away ever since we moved east and lost "our" ocean. The one back here is nice, too. Events transpired that made me postpone sharing it then, so here it is now.

I'm a firm believer in vacations, and in making sure you really do get away. We've left our phones away from us, spent little time checking them or other technology, and much more time reading, walking, and talking together. It's the best kind of vacation--long enough to get away, but also to make you ready to return. We are ready to come home.

We've learned never to believe weather reports--had we done so we would have stayed home! Instead, we have had glorious days here with promised rain usually not appearing or coming at night. We've each read a number of books, played games, and are completing a 8-episode movie marathon (last of the 8 tonight--we did Lord of the Rings on our last trip). And the toughest decision has been whether to go to the beach in the morning and the pool in the afternoon, or vice versa.

The middle of our vacation was the Lord's Day, and we decided once again to go church visiting. Our last two church visits in Myrtle Beach have been interesting. We visited a church that had taken over an entertainment complex that didn't survive, and got to watch them honor their high school graduates and talk about a missions trip coming up. So while there was nothing at all negative about the experience, it didn't really draw us back.

You may remember my report our last church visit: where we were welcomed as we drove in, but from that moment to the end, no one spoke to us. We stood outside the venue for 10 minutes while they reduced the seating for the smaller, second service. This church's call to worship was having all of us stand, clap our hands and be encouraged to "Shake it Off!" Yes, the music team covered Taylor Swift's hit (and did a very credible job, too), which was a first for me in a worship service. The worship leader's v-neck t-shirt was appropriately tight to let us know that Cross Fit works, and he led us in other songs that were more familiar in a worship setting than the opener. The sermon was a video, but not just any video. In the summer they were doing a "Best of..." series--videos of congregational chosen favorite messages. This one was about vampires. "Bloodsuckers in the Church" actually. We left pretty sure we wouldn't be back on another trip.

This time, we passed on a multi-site ministry that covers most of the Carolinas with campuses, did enough digging on the web to find out what churches named Cornerstone, Journey, Discovery, Wellspring, Newspring, Arms Wide Open, and Crossroads believe. We found one that was covertly Baptist (not in the name) and a part of The Gospel Coalition, and we went.

Unlike our two previous visits, this was a smaller church of about 100 people, meeting in a shopping center. We were greeted at the door, but the only other person who spoke to us other than the greeting time was another first-time guest. During the greeting time, the couple behind us greeted us, but others around us never turned toward us. The service brought back many memories for us of early days in our previous church in both size and setting. The pastor was on vacation (no complaints because so was I) and their youth pastor spoke from Psalm 7 (can't escape Psalms in the summer!). Afterward, as we made our way out, the youth pastor greeted us at the door.

I enjoy visiting other churches. It is a good reminder of the diverse ways that local bodies of believers function and seek to serve and worship God. The commonalities that we share are encouraging, and the differences, whether size or style, are important to remember.

I also struggle visiting other churches. We are far from perfect, but I miss our fellowship when I'm away. And a common problem for pastors is that we are looking at everything through a "ministry professional" set of eyes. We rate (and often criticize) music, service elements, acoustics and sound, environment, and preaching. I have to prepare myself every time to NOT do these things, and rather to seek to join these brothers and sisters in worshiping the risen Lord. Thankfully, both Kathy and I remarked on the positive opportunity we had to worship with this fellowship.

There was one point, however (and you may have already guessed it), where I was both disappointed and warned. It was in the way that we were welcomed--it was pretty weak. Now, it's not that I am important, or deserving of attention, but corporate worship is meant to be a gathering of souls for the purpose of unified worship to God. It is especially hard for a guest or first-time visitor to enter into a "corporate" experience if those who make up the congregation do not make an effort to include them in the corporate expression. We went in and sat down in an empty row, surrounded by lots of empty rows (we were earlier than many). No one came to sit next to us, and only another first-time guest spoke with us (it turns out he is a church planting missionary who just relocated to a small town 50 miles away). In corporate worship, we follow the lead of those in charge of the service so that we can do things together, but there was no other sense of being together created by the congregation.

The warning to me was clear. We are in a season of LOTS of visitors, especially students (along with families). Will you do this pastor a great favor? Welcome them into corporate worship. Don't just nod or offer a quick hello. Speak with them. Get their names and find out more about them. It doesn't matter if they will be back next week or not--you are meeting someone you may spend eternity with. Volunteer a little information about yourself and our church. I would have loved to learn what this church's "story" was--what is their aim, are they a new church, what do they love about being a part of this fellowship. Don't just go walking by new people sitting by themselves. Stop, introduce yourselves, and maybe even sit with them if they aren't waiting for someone. If there are confusing instructions from the platform (sometimes we use words and abbreviations only long timers would know), lean over and let them know what is being talked about. Speak with them again after the service. Let them know they would be welcomed any time they can be with us. I can tell you from personal experience, there have been three churches I have visited in the last five years (and that includes our 2012 sabbatical) where I felt welcomed like that--and I still remember them. Let's make sure we are in that "memorable" camp--so that people will see the love of Christ extended to them as fellow believers or as those who may need to know that love.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Keeping Worship "Corporate"

Each Lord's Day, as we come together to worship the Lord, we are seeking to do something that is unnatural to us. But if we don't do it, we will miss the purpose and the joy that the Lord has for this kind of gathering.

We want to come with our hands and hearts held out to be filled...and they can be.

We want to learn from God's Word...and we should.

We want to hear music that turns our thoughts heavenward...and it can.

We want to praise and thank the Lord for his goodness...and we do.

But beyond all of this, we are coming to be a part of something more--specifically something more than any one of us represents. We are coming to be a part of the Body of Christ seeking all of these things together. We are not to be the collection of hundreds of individual worshipers, but rather the people of God in worship. 

You may wonder what the difference is. Let me see if I can help.

Everything that I listed above that we want to do, we could do on our own, or perhaps on our own with Spotify or Pandora readily available for the music part. But something changes when we all come together to do the same thing as one people. Actually a number of things change.

When we seek to be filled, it is not just my needs but the needs of the Body--individually and as a group--that should fill our thoughts and petitions. We need power corporately to love each other well, to meet each others' needs, to serve together well, and to seek God's direction for us as we serve our community and our world in his name.

When we sing, it isn't just to enjoy a song, or even to sing these praises to God, but to sing them to God together, and in so doing often to remind each other that we are not alone in the endeavor of praise. Sometimes when we sing, especially if you may not favor a particular song, you might want to realize that your singing is an example and an encouragement to those around you and even to the musicians leading us from the front. It says, "yes, we are with you in this praise and testimony." 

When someone leads us in prayer, it is meant to be the prayer of all of us, for all of us. We aren't supposed to be silently waiting for a finish so we can sit down or move on. We are to be affirming from our own hearts the petitions being asked, the praised being offered, the thanks being given, and the confessions being made. 

When we read God's Word out loud, we are saying it for ourselves, but also for those around us--we need to be saying it and we need to be hearing it--interestingly, the public reading of the Scriptures is one of the few elements we are commanded to have in corporate worship. God already knows what the passage says--he had it written for us, after all. But we need to be reminded of it.

And when the preaching is going on, we are to hear it as God's instruction (however imperfectly given by the messenger) to us, together. We shouldn't listen and say, "I'm already doing that" or "my neighbor really needs that." Instead, we should all be saying, "this is important for us; teach us how to do this better, or avoid this more fully, Lord," (depending on whether it's an instruction or warning). 

Something you might not expect takes place when we worship this way. Our hearts are not only drawn toward God, but toward each other. The Spirit uses such worship to remind us of our belonging to one another, and our need for each other. It keeps us from becoming music critics and sermon analyzers--instead, it helps us focus on what the Body is, hopefully, gaining through our time together before the Lord. 

As we worship, we are often told there is an Audience of One. That is true in one sense, because our focus is the triune God. However, our worship is a testimony to angels and demons. To angels there is the amazing truth that these fallen humans, redeemed by grace, have come to know the God they serve night and day because of his mercy, and they marvel. Demons likewise must marvel, and shudder, as they see all of their schemes coming apart and coming to nothing. A watching world also learns about us--not just those who might come as guests, but even the testimony that we gather before our Lord together every week. One of the best parts of that is when we, who are different in many ways, demonstrate a unity that is only explainable by the gospel.

Personal worship is a privilege, and we should engage whenever we can. But we need corporate worship to fulfill our true calling as God's people. And according to Hebrews 10:24-25, the closer the end of this age gets, the more we will need such times together. Let's not miss a moment of shared glory in his presence that we don't have to!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

What Are You Listening To?

For a long time now, I have found great benefit in good listening when I am able to do so while also doing something else--driving, exercising, walking, or mowing the lawn. That last one has taken a bit of a hit because I recently got a faster mower and the one downside is I've lost time to listen! Every once in a while, some of you run into me while I have my earphones on, and ask me what I am listening to (yes, I know that this is not grammatically correct, but you don't say, "to what are you listening," and neither do I). So let me tell you some of the ways I try to redeem my listening time and make it worthwhile.

Of course, there is listening that I do for pleasure. In fact, Kathy and I always have a line-up of audiobooks that we find to listen to on car trips. We download them to our phones, but you can also get them on discs from bookstores and online sources. Some audiobooks have been purchased through sites like audible.com, which has a free book offer with membership (we take advantage of their daily email offering a low-cost book--the email is free, the book may or may not be one we like, but occasionally we buy one).
Another great source is christianaudio.com, and a bonus there is that they offer a free audiobook every month, in addition to many titles on sale. There are also audiobooks available at our local public library to check out or using online services that they provide. Two we use are Overdrive and Hoopla. You must have a library card for these, but they allow you to borrow all sorts of audiobooks, as well as e-books, and Hoopla has movies as well. All of the above have apps for your phone, and so it becomes a rather easy process to download and listen. In addition to novels, histories, and biographies, we have listened to some very good Christian non-fiction. I have Knowing God by J.I. Packer, and listen to it every year. I just finished listening to Paul Little's Know Why You Believe, as well as Matt Chandler's The Mingling of Souls and Taking God at His Word, by Kevin De Young. I'd actually read all of these in print--some a long time back, but listening was an enriching experience.

Of course, shorter listening times can be very well used, too, through podcasts. Don't tell me you don't like podcasts--there are so many different kinds, this would be like saying I don't like words. I listen to lots of different kinds of podcasts. Let me suggest some, all of which I have found and subscribed to on iTunes.

News and current events
 I have two "must listen" items that I don't want to miss. I cannot enjoy watching broadcast or cable news and want clear summaries, preferably from the worldview I share. The first is "The World and Everything in It" by World Magazine. This thirty-minute summary feels a bit like NPR but from a Christian worldview. You start with a summary of the day's news, then a more in-depth analysis of a story or two, then a feature story of various kinds, and a commentary. This fills me in on what's happening without shrill tones or reporting that doesn't tell a story from both sides. They also have a daily e-mail news summary. Sign up for any of their resources at the link above.

The second is "The Briefing" with Dr. Al Mohler (president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville). This is analysis of major news stories from a Christian perspective, and I don't know of any better analyst of events today. This is a great resource, and when he takes a month off in July I miss it!

Culture and cultural issues
"Signposts" is a weekly podcast by Russell Moore, from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and he talks about a wide range of issues--often answering questions he receives from listeners.

"The Breakpoint Podcast" continues the ministry of Charles Colson. The Colson Center provides an every weekday commentary of about 4 minutes, a more in depth 30-minute program on Fridays, and on Mondays and Wednesdays longer interviews or addresses by important Christian voices on various issues. Listen to the short commentaries, or the longer offerings, or both.

"Cultivated" is a new podcast my son told me about, where Mike Cosper interviews people who are making significant contributions to Christian life and thought, including some people you may not have heard of but who are seeking to make a difference.

"Levar Burton Reads" is a podcast Kathy learned about and we've listened to together. It is short stories from various sources, and we've enjoyed most of the ones we've listened to. 

"The Classic Tales Podcast" some great works (and some not so great) read in one-hour portions and downloadable in weekly episodes. 

Sermons
There is no shortage of sermon podcasts (including ours here at Grace!). But here are some I regularly go to.

"Truth for Life"--Alistair Begg. Sermons from Parkside Church. Bible exposition with a Scottish accent, which makes it even more true (OK, it makes us think so).

"Let My People Think" on OnePlace.com--Ravi Zacharias. These are often focused on apologetics, with lots of good stories and illustrations.

"The Village Church"--Matt Chandler (they also download sermons from other campuses, which I sometimes listen to--you have to start the podcast to know who is speaking. Solid preaching in a unique style that resonates.
 
"Grace to You"--John MacArthur. For decades, his sermons have taken thousands through books of the Bible, and they continue to do so.

The Bible
I put this last, but it really is the one I won't miss. As a part of my own time in the Word I choose a listening plan on The Bible App from YouVersion. Right now, it's 40 days through the New Testament. Before that is was the Ten Lists by Dr. Grant Horner. Listening to the Scriptures as I exercise builds up my spirit even as I'm also trying to build up (or at least slow the break down of) my body. You can choose the version you want to hear as well as the program.

Sometimes I may not be able to focus totally on what I'm hearing when I listen to things. Yet even then what you hear gets into your head, and it helps to shape my mental environment. I encourage you to consider doing some profitable listening.

Oh, and yes, I listen to music, too, but that's for another time!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"Hurricane Theology"

What storms can teach us

One hurricane worse than ever, one that was less than expected, and two more out at sea: the Atlantic hurricane season of 2017 is monumental in its devastating potential. Those who preach global warming climate change say, “Aha! We told you so” and insist that such record-breaking storms are proof that humanity has destroyed the planet’s ecosystem. Others cite all sorts of data to “prove” that nothing has changed. I haven’t heard too much chatter from those who would identify God’s judgments unfolding in the storms, although there may be some out there (I did, however, receive an email about the potential prophetic significance of the recent solar eclipse, and the message was, “the end is coming.” I think I already knew that).
 
Why do seasons and storms like this come along and disrupt life so dramatically? After Hurricane Harvey’s “once in a thousand years” rainfall in Houston, and Irma’s 180+ m.p.h. winds in the Caribbean and Florida Kesy leave one in awe of such storms. Those with an axe to grind will point to these kinds of occurrences and challenge us, “How can you believe in a god who would do this?”
 
Should we read specific divine retribution into this? You might think that God is mad at the USA, except that the Caribbean got pounded harder by Irma. God’s specific judgments on nations, if this was one, can be pinpointed better than that. In fact, the storm has caused the postponement of Awana Lifeline’s sponsored event with leaders of law enforcement and prisons from various Caribbean nations. The path of Hurricane Irma impacted lots of believers in God, and the headquarters of Wycliffe Bible Translators, Pioneers, Ethnos 360 (the former New Tribes Mission), and CRU (the former Campus Crusade)—all in Orlando. Various believers, churches, and ministries suffered damage and will be inundated with needs to be met. Certainly God could spare those doing such good work from such potential danger!
 
We who sat in relative safety struggled to deal with watching thousands of families trying to recover from the deluge in Texas, and the tens of thousands fleeing from south Florida. I watched with both dread and fascination as pictures from NASA show this new, massive storm on its way to bring destruction to so many. And I wonder, “who deserves this?”
 
The answer to such a question is multi-faceted, but can be found where God speaks about all things we need for life—the Bible. Here are a few threads we can pull together.
 
As part of the human race that lives in daily rebellion toward the holy and just Creator of all things, we must affirm that we all deserve this and much worse for our rebellion. God is under no obligation to keep his creation tame enough for us to enjoy—his only limitation being his own word not to flood the entire earth again (the rainbow tells us that). Given the history of God’s people’s suffering right along with the rest of humanity in a kind of reversal of common grace (God causes his hurricanes to sweep away the just and the unjust), we know that such tribulations are to be expected—it is our ability to look beyond them that must be different. We see the chaos of today, but we know that this is not how it was created to be (Genesis 1-2), nor is it the way it will be when Christ comes to rule the earth, and it is certainly not the way it will be in the time of new heavens and earth (Revelation 21-22).
 
The storms and terrors of this world are real, powerful reminders of the consequences of Adam’s traitorous surrender of his righteous authority in this world to Satan, and in his role as prince of this world, destruction is the devil’s business—even when done under God’s ultimate sovereignty (see God’s control of calamity in Isaiah 45:7). We should see this as a sobering warning of what’s worse and is coming to those who do not repent. That is what Jesus said about some people who suffered the disaster of having a tower collapse on them—no one should assume that such things make anyone a “worse” sinner than anyone else. The warning is much more specific—worse things await those who do not repent of their sin (Luke 13:3-5). A storm may rise that sweeps away everything you own, and may drown your neighbors, but as frightening as that is, hell will be much, much worse. We should look at the terrors of the storm and thank God that such events can preach repentance, if we will hear.
 
But cataclysmic storms can also reveal the power of our God. It was from the whirlwind that God spoke to Job—as if his words were not already powerful enough! And it was his power over the winds and waves on the Sea of Galilee that caused Jesus’ disciples to redirect their fear from the storm to their Savior—“who then is this, that he commands the winds and the water and they obey him? (Luke 8:24-25)” The creator of the storm has made them yet another revelation of his power and thus a source of praise and awe.
 
Finally, these storms should (and did) ignite our compassion toward all those in danger. I think about God’s rebuke of Jonah when the prophet was mourning over a dead plant, but upset with God’s heart of concern for the population of Nineveh, a city in danger of judgment. On a more positive note, the arrival of a famine that Agabus had prophesied led the church in Antioch to sacrificial compassion toward the affected church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:28-30). There will be many continuing needs to be met in Texas and now the Caribbean, Florida, and perhaps other places. Such moments provide an opportunity for the grace of God to shine through his people.
 
Let’s be praying for those facing very difficult days ahead, and let’s pray that God gives all of us—his people—the hearts and opportunities to help. And let’s be sure to be thankful that the God who created this storm showed mercy on many and caused it to turn westward into the Gulf of Mexico and thus spared many who were in its original path.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Original Gospel "Quartet"

"Why did the Bible include four gospels?"

"Why do the gospels disagree?"

"Why didn't God just give us one gospel, like He gave us one account on creation?"

These related questions come to me from Bible students of all ages and maturity, in varying forms of course. The "lack of agreement" question is sometimes couched in language that lets me know the person doesn't want to say that there must be a mistake in there, but they wonder if there is. 

The uniquenesses, as well as the similarities of the four gospels is one of the ways that we see how a book written by inspired men is clearly human as well as divine. In fact, each book advances our understanding. Let me seek to show you how (briefly) and then recommend a tool that I greatly enjoy for your own use.

First, the four books give us four perspectives on one story. Matthew, likely the tax collector also called Levi, writes with a clear understanding of the Hebrew Bible and how Jesus fulfilled prophecy--the book brims with quotations cited as being fulfilled. That is fascinating when you think that Matthew would have been considered a traitor to the Jewish people as a Roman tax collector. I can't wait to get to Heaven and hear how this man knew so much Scripture, but also whether he had been wrestling with the truth while outwardly having cut himself off from it! He writes with Jewish audiences in mind. Mark is a man of action, and his gospel could leave you out of breath with its quick pace--much like that of his mentor, Peter. Luke is a doctor writing to help convince/educate someone of significance about the truths about Jesus in a factually precise way (he even uses medical terms). His book has a sequel--Acts. And John, writing much later decides to pick up on much material that the earlier three gospels did not cover to give us a very personal glimpse of Jesus. Each writer even orders their material a bit differently to bring out a different aspect or emphasis in the story.

Second, they provide four complementary, not contradictory witnesses to truth. Now, some argue that they contradict each other, but it is more like witnesses to a car crash standing on different corners--each tells what he sees or knows, without contradicting the other. For example when blind Bartimaeus is healed, Matthew tells us there were actually two blind men together (Matthew 20:29-34), while Mark and Luke only mention Mr. B (Mark 10:46-52, Luke 18:35-43). But that isn't a contradiction, just an added detail. That story has another problem detail--Matthew and Mark say Jesus was going out of Jericho when it happened, while Luke says he was going in. Which is it? The answer is, "both." Jericho had been burned down, rebuilt a short ways away, and then the original site was rebuilt as well--both were called "Jericho." So, Jesus was probably between the old and the new site when the miracle takes place. Thanks to history and archeology, we can answer that fairly easily. Comparing the gospels gives us a rich story--or as one writer calls them, "The Life of Christ in Stereo!"

Third, each gospel has some material that we would lack if that gospel wasn't written and preserved. Even with three gospels paralleling each other (Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the "synoptic" gospels--a term that means from the same "eye" or perspective), there are precious stories and important accounts we would be missing without each one. Matthew is our only source about the wise men. Luke gives us the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, the story of Bethlehem and the shepherds, and the prodigal son. Mark has four miracles not recorded elsewhere, and of course the story of a young man fleeing without his robe when caught in the Garden with Jesus--probably an autobiographical note giving us Mark's closeness with the Lord and the disciples. What would we do without John 3:16, or the Good Shepherd, the "I am" sayings, and so much more that only comes from John? 

Yes, think of them as a Gospel Quartet--Mark sings tenor--that part with all the high notes. Luke sings lead--the thread that holds it all together. Matthew is the baritone, covering some of the same ground as the lead but then moving into parallel paths. And anchoring it all with that solid line on the bottom, John sings bass--hitting those resonating notes of God's love that seem to hold it all together and in tune. 

Now, let me finish by telling you about I tool I use regularly when studying the Gospels. It is a book called a harmony of the Gospels (there's another musical idea!). It takes all four gospels and puts them in columns next to each other in chronological order--meaning some passages aren't in the order we find them in their gospel, but in the order in which they most likely occurred. You can read them side by side and see how each tells the story--sometimes word for word, and sometimes differently. Mine is Harmony of the Gospels, by Robert Thomas and Stan Gundry. There is a version in the New International Version and one in the New American Standard Bible (which is the one I have), and you can see it.

I hope that this brief encouragement might cause you to appreciate the gospels more, and perhaps investigate a very helpful tool!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Tapestry of Connections

Every once in a while I am amazed at how God weaves seemingly unconnected threads of life together, much like a tapestry. I often heard that when you view a tapestry from behind, you cannot always discern what is going on. It is only from the top view that you really see the design of the artist. This week I feel like I've gotten a glimpse at the top of a tapestry over a decade in the making. And it's exciting.

When I left California in 2005, I left behind a longstanding friendship with Mike Broyles, a pastor on the staff of another church in my city. Mike had been a constant encourager and partner in ministry in our community. After my departure, Mike's role at his church ended and he transitioned into serving in the jail ministry he had been a large part of while on the church staff. This involvement led to his becoming director of Awana Lifeline, a ministry to prisoners that uses two Bible study curricula to lead prisoners to Christ--Malachi Dads for men, and Hannah's Gift for women. Mike stayed in touch and would let us know what God was doing as these ministries expanded. 

A few years after I came here, Kevin and Tia Reilly returned from Costa Rica because Kevin's leg injury from years ago had created such pain that the solution had to be amputation. Kevin and Tia settled here in Cedarville, took on lots of ministry, helped our church's missions program, and wondered if God had another chapter in missions for them. Kevin got his M.Div., Tia got a Master's and went back to teaching as they served on our Global Outreach Team.

Meanwhile, LuAnn Ragle had heard about a nurse she knew who had wound up in prison in Dayton. She sensed God calling her to reach out to this woman, named Leah. It was out of her comfort zone, but she continued to meet with her weekly to share Scripture and teach her the truth about God through Scripture memory, Leah's faith came alive, and she became a strong testimony to her fellow prisoners as she waited to be released. Once she was released, Leah began to use her testimony to speak to women about how God's grace came to her and redeemed a horrible circumstance. My wife, Kathy met Leah and became a friend, and had her speak to her ABF class here, at "Beat the Blahs," and at Safe Harbor, where she was eventually hired.

A few years ago, Mike asked if Grace might want to help Lifeline take its prison ministry to the Dominican Republic in 2016. We decided to fund their "Returning Hearts" event (reuniting prisoners with their children) through the Harvest Offering and to send two couples to help: the Reillys and Chris and Pam Miller. Kevin and Tia decided to go because it was a Spanish-speaking opportunity. 

Mike came to Grace last July to say "thanks" for our help and our decision to support this ministry to the DR. While here, he mentioned the need to find a woman who could help lead Hannah's Gift and his desire to see Lifeline programs come to Ohio. Kathy thought of her friend Leah. She called LuAnn who called Leah, who came to Grace the next day to meet Mike. He encouraged her to start teaching a Bible study, so she began to do Hannah's Gift at Safe Harbor. 

So, guess what's happened?

Leah's ministry continued to grow, and she received permission to lead Hannah's Gift in the facility where she had been a prisoner--an unheard of development. Mike facilitated training at her church for volunteers. And as July began, Leah led a team of 16 into the prison to begin Hannah's Gift. with 30 women prisoners.

Kevin and Tia Reilly found the Malachi Dads experience in the DR to be a confirmation that they could return to overseas work. We prayed and sought God's will for them, and we determined to send them back to Costa Rica, where one of their ministries will be to begin Malachi Dads for Lifeline there--a new country for this ministry. They arrived back in that country the same week as Leah's ministry in the prison here to take up their work. 

And this fall, a second "Returning Hearts," funded by Grace, will serve Malachi Dads graduates in the Dominican Republic, but also will model the effectiveness of the program to chief law enforcement and prison officials from all over the Caribbean and Latin America. 

A friend far away stayed in touch.

A friend sensed God's call to reach out to a prisoner.

A couple sought to find ways they could serve God again in Central America.

And in God's amazing plan, these three threads were woven together in our midst, and now we celebrate the beginning of a ministry in a prison in Dayton, the renewal of a ministry in Costa Rica that will reach prisoners there, and an upcoming event that will reunite prisoners in the Dominican Republic with their kids and show a whole region of the world what the power of the gospel can do behind prison walls. 

What an amazing weaving together by God!

What an amazing God!

What a privilege to be here at Grace in Cedarville and see how God used us to be the point at which these stories intertwined!

And who knows what God may weave into the the design, or who might be a part of it, next?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

When Trusted Teachers Stray

Eugene Peterson has blessed and edified more believers than I ever will. As a much younger pastor, his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, had a profoundly encouraging impact on my sanctification--even the title has been a powerful reminder of what following Christ is like. Similarly, other books--all named so creatively as to stay in my head--have blessed me and countless others: Under the Unpredictable
Plant, Eat this Book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, are just a few. Of course, many of you have enjoyed reading The Message, Peterson's paraphrase/translation of the Bible that was a bit too casual for my regular reading, but certainly an insightful and generally faithful and accurate interpretive reading. I have an autographed copy of The Pastor: A Memoir, that is valued gift from a dear friend.

So you can imagine my profound disappointment when, in an interview with Religion News Service's Jonathan Merritt, Peterson said he had come to know many more gays and lesbians than he had in the past, felt that the current societal and church "transition" on this issue was good, and that he would perform same-sex "marriages." You can read the entire interview here; it is not long, even though it is painful. Then, just as I had finished the original draft of this essay, news came that Peterson had recanted his previous change of mind--that is, he said he was wrong in his answers in the interview, and on reflection, he wanted to make clear that he held the biblical view of marriage only being between one man and one woman. The retraction is a just a little confusing, but you can read Christianity Today's report of it here. His own statement is here.


The initial interview and the position revealed were disturbing for any number of reasons. It is true that Peterson has always had some other positions and conclusions with which I (and more importantly, many solid biblical scholars) have disagreed over the years, and perhaps these later years of retirement and ministry in the larger context outside of a local church have heightened a move further from constraints he felt there. He has stayed within a large, apostatizing mainline Protestant denomination with ease, while other evangelicals have largely given up and moved elsewhere. But the hallmark of Peterson's writing, as creative as it has been, was its thorough commitment to examine and explain the Scriptures. That is what the interview lacked. He based his shift on knowing "good" gays and lesbians. While the retraction goes back to a biblical view, there isn't any explanation given as to how he wound up affirming so much that was so bad, except to say it was an interview with a lot of hypothetical situations. And his retraction lacked any interaction with Scripture, either.


But the temporary defection from truth was based on a commonly expressed way of thinking--there are such good people who believe and/or live in ways I've held were wrong. What about all these good people?
Let's set aside the fact that no one is "good"--even if we accept and acknowledge that there are LGBTQ people who are kind, humble, generous, and other "good" attributes, should that change our theology? Should "good" Buddhists cause us to abandon the idea of a personal God or future judgment? Should "good" atheists lead us to dismiss the necessity of faith in God? My relatives who are Mormons are very good--in some cases much nicer than I am. Should I let go of the necessity of believing in the co-equality and eternality of Father and Son, and the orthodox conception of the Trinity?


Our faith's content can be testified to by a person's life, but it cannot be erased or altered by it. Peterson, like others before him, found himself surrounded by the culture's shifting currents and felt the urge to move with them. At no point did he cite any scriptural warrant for his change, and almost incredibly rested his argument with "...it's not a right or wrong, as far as I'm concerned."


Unbelievable. I'm so grateful he changed his mind. Even if the change seems less than robust. [After originally writing this, I came across a number of sites saying that this had not been his first affirmation of same sex attraction as potentially good.]


But that leaves us with the question that comes when a teacher we have trusted goes wrong, "What about all I've learned from him? What about his books?" As a Christian, and as a pastor, let me offer some warnings and encouragements.


First, don't make the mistake of deciding that when Peterson, or any other teacher you know shifts on an important topic, this is immediate grounds to rethink your own position. We often grant too much authority across the board to human teachers and assume that, because they are "smarter" than us on a number of issues, they must be being "smart" when they change their minds about something. A similar problem occurs when we discover a teacher or writer who is excellent on a subject. We then tend to give him credence across the board, coming to any new things from that teacher with a pre-disposition to accept them. Yes, there are many people in this world smarter than I am, and some of them who once held views I do have abandoned them. If I've not paid attention to an issue, that may cause me to examine their arguments, but don't be easily moved from confidence in teaching that is longstanding within historic Christian thinking and preaching. In this case, the clear expression of biblical truth on human sexuality witnessed to by two millennia of faithful teaching, must win out.


Second, Peterson temporarily joined an, unfortunately, growing list of writers and teachers that I will no longer recommend without much caution. I do not want anyone to be confused by reading an author, then discovering his or her erroneous views on an important issue, and consider the source "safe" on the subject because I recommended a book written before taking this position. When a teacher goes bad, his previous good books must only be offered to more discerning readers, and then with caution.


Third, I'm so grateful he has come back to a good position, but even if he had not, I cannot forget what I have already read and learned, nor would I want to. I appreciate the multitude of insights I have received from Peterson's writings, and wherever they amplify scriptural truth, they are still helpful and worthwhile. Don't go throwing away an erring teacher's books or forgetting all the ways in which he has enabled us to understand truth if you have been blessed by his past works. On this point, I would simply remind you that a number of our old hymns and our current worship songs were or are written by people with very deficient (and sometimes heterodox) views on God, the Scriptures, the Trinity, Hell, the atonement of Christ, human sexuality, and the nature of the church (to name a few areas). The particular songs we sing are not teaching error, even if the authors believe and teach error elsewhere, and I would suggest that truth can (and has been) taught by people who were not changed by it themselves. That does not negate truth.


Fourth, Peterson's admission of what drove his wrong thinking is instructive to us. It's hard to be on the cutting edge of culture and hold tightly to biblical truth. That hold was undermined, in his case, not just by the constant drumbeat for "acceptance" generally in the culture, but by meeting "good people" who were "spiritual" and also gay or lesbian. But that shows two errors--the first being the assumption that anyone is really good. David, Isaiah, and Paul all weigh in on that question. The second is more subtle--judging gays, lesbians, and other sinners to be inherently incapable of doing things in this world that we would admire. We are all sinners, and all of us fall short of God's glory. But all of us, through the grace of God, are not as bad as we could be, and to be surprised that a gay person might be "good" or have spiritual interests is as wrong as assuming that your atheist neighbors cannot have a good marriage. There are many people who do not believe truth who are, nevertheless, admirable. We must see that, even as we acknowledge it does not change God's evaluation one bit.


 [Note: this is as it was written before the announcement of his change of mind--but I leave it because it's important to remember] Fifth (and I'll stop here), it may be a long shot from a human perspective, but I pray that Eugene Peterson will let the Scriptures that he has loved, expounded, and made clear to so many become the authoritative voice in his mind and heart on this issue once again. I'm praying he changes his mind, and does so soon.
Make no mistake--I consider him a Christian who is in error on an issue that is currently leading many people into destructive and soul-destroying sin by calling what is sinful "good." As a teacher of Scripture, James tells us in his epistle that there is a stricter standard of judgment that he (and I) will be held to. But I consider him a Christian, and one who has shown a long, consistent testimony of love and faithfulness to Jesus. As we age, we are not always careful to make sure that we finish well--holding on to the patterns, the attitudes, and the practices that have gotten us this far. I say to those my age and older--if Eugene Peterson, who has lived and served and thought and written so wisely over so many years can go off the rails on a big, important issue, then so can we if we are not careful to stay anchored to the Scriptures. Take heed.[Prayers answered! To God be the glory! But the warning still stands!]