Two or More are Gathered

“For where two or three gather in my name,  I am there in their midst”

Mathew 18:20

After the Ascension of Christ, one of the big questions that presses the Church is, “Where is Christ?” Those from a more reformed perspective might immediately state “seated at the hand of the Father.” If you grew up in more Baptist or Wesleyan/Arminian circles, your answer might be “in my heart.”

Personally, I’m inclined to agree with the reformed perspective, despite much of my theology leaning in the Arminian direction. When I started my PhD, the movement that was beginning at the King’s College London Theology department was known as “Transformative Theology.” It began, at least for some, with that same question: where is Christ? I never joined the project, really, in large part because of my disagreement over the response to this question. Christ rose as a bodily human, albeit one with a transformed body. He ascended still in that body. Whatever else you might say about heaven or paradise, whatever your view of life after death, there is at least one human in the presence of the father, Jesus Christ. The incarnation, and even moreso the resurrection, represented a change in God.

Not a change in the nature of God, the language of Philippians 2 (μορφη) makes it clear that the change was in the appearance and representation of the Son, not his fundamental nature. But this change, as I understand the scripture, was a lasting one that continues on today. So if Jesus is physically embodied as a particular human, and as that human seated at God’s right hand, or standing before the throne, he remains in heaven. So when posed with the question of “Where is Christ?” I want to turn the question to also state that “His Spirit is with us.”

The Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity is an interesting doctrine. On the one hand, the early Church Fathers were very clear to note that the Son is not the Father is not the Spirit. On the other hand, they also want to affirm the doctrine of circumincession, the idea that each person of the Trinity is interpenetrated by each other person of the Trinity while also remaining distinct.

perichoresis-40c6ad68-6abd-43d1-b62e-4eff5a520be-resize-750

The way this distinction is usually maintained is by saying only the Father begets, only the Son is begotten, and only the Spirit proceeds (whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son or from the Father and the Son was one of many of the precipitating factors behind the split of Easter Orthodox Churches and the Western Churches). To that distinction I might only add that only the Son is incarnate. True there is some discussion of God taking on a temporary human form, such as when YHWH visits Abraham a year prior to the birth of his son with Sarah or when Jacob wrestles with Elohim by the Jabbok river at night, but the kind of full embodiment and lasting incarnation seems unique to the Son.

Regardless, the connection between the three persons of the Trinity is somewhat fluid. Augustine, among many others probably first by Gregory of Nazianzus, referred to it as a kind of circle dance (περιχωρησις). Each member of the Trinity inhabits the space of each other member of the Trinity without assuming the identity of that person of the Trinity. The fundamental entity (ουσια) exists as three fundamental realities (υποστασις) turning and spilling one into the other. So when Christ declares at his departure that the disciples will receive the Holy Spirit, in a very real sense, the Spirit is also a real presence of Christ. So while it is certainly correct to say that Jesus is “seated at the right hand of the Father,” it is also as correct to declare that Jesus is “within my heart” by the power and presence of the Spirit.

Where is Christ?

This brings us back to the quote above. I have long considered the above passage a reason to gather together as a Church. Of course the Bible presents us with many reasons to gather, but one of them, I thought, was that there needs to be at least two people together in order for Christ to be there two. Indeed, Matthew 18 seems to speak at length about the Church and its power. But I think to narrowly focus on physical proximity misses something. And, in an age of social distancing and the (understandable) censure of large gatherings, where the location of Christ matters.

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Surely physical presence is important. If it were not so, God would not need to become incarnate in the the person of Christ. When this is over, I will enjoy being physically present with so many others, there are many whom I look forward to hugging (and I am not a hugger). But the physical presence is not what this passage is about. By the Spirit, God is always with the Christian. So much so that the Spirit often prayers and intercedes on our behalf when we are unaware (Romans 8:26). So we have the presence of the Spirit even when we are alone.

Instead, the more narrow passage where this is located is discussing the work of the Church, not the gathering of the Church (that’s important, but addressed elsewhere). Instead, as the Church comes together and meets in one Spirit about some work, so does Christ also join them in the same Spirit. Whatever we bind, he will bind, whatever we loose, he will loose. God in Christ is in the midst of our work, of our worship, or our prayer. So, as you pray alone, feeling isolated from others, know that as the Church prays with you, so also there is Christ, in your midst. In the midst of your loneliness, join the prayers of the Saints (among whom you are now counted) and feel their presence along with the presence of Christ.

The gathering together, then, is not restricted by either time or space. If you are gathering individually in your homes, but around the same worship, you are not alone and Christ is in your midst. If you are reading through the Book of Common Prayer, or through a passage of the Bible, you are joining with saints throughout the ages. Where two or three are gathered, even across distances of time and space, there is Christ, in the midst of them.

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When Exile Doesn’t End

“Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people”
says your God
“Speak comfort to Jerusalem,
and cry unto her
that warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
for she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.”

A voice of one crying out:
“Prepare, in the dessert, the road of the LORD;
make straight a highway for our God.
Every valley will be raised.
every mountain and hill will be made low;
the rough will become smooth and the rugged become plain.
And the LORD’s Glory will be revealed,
and all will see it together
for the mouth of the LORD has declared it.”

Isaiah 40:1-5

man wearing face mask in a dark room
Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

The season leading up to Easter is known, in liturgical traditions, as Lent. During these forty days Christians fast from something. Usually you hear people saying they’ll give up one item or habit, such as chocolate, or sleeping in rather than an outright fast, but still a noticeable shift. It’s meant to recall other significant periods of forty. Forty days of fasting that Jesus experienced between his baptism and temptation, forty days of rain upon Noah’s ark, forty years of wandering and waiting in the untamed lands between Egypt and Canaan. It is also meant to recall the period of exile in Babylon. Here, it was not forty, but seventy years of exile. Exile to pay back the land its Sabbath that had been neglected and forgotten.

When Easter ends, the fasting should stop, there is great celebration. In more liturgical traditions (such as Roman Catholic or Anglican churches) they might not use the word “hallelujah” from Ash Wednesday until Easter. So when it reappears in the church, it’s a big deal. Celebration, rejoicing. Christ has come back from the dead, laying death down in its grave! The time for fasting is over! It’s time for celebration and feasting, a fore-echo of the wedding supper of the lamb.

This year, many hundreds of millions, if not billions, experienced a taste of some form of fasting or exile, if not necessarily voluntarily, due to the now ubiquitous term “social distancing.” Still, it may have been made more bearable for some as it seemed appropriate for Christians to be more secluded, to spend time struggling, and to have more isolation during the period of Lent, even while we wish and pray the circumstances were more voluntary and less dire. But now, Easter has come. Shouldn’t this fasting and exile be over? Shouldn’t we be coming out of homes, seeing and touching, interacting, and playing and dancing? Shouldn’t the exile of businesses be over and done? Shouldn’t I be able to go to a restaurant, or to a movie theater, or to a coffee shop, or library, or classroom? Why isn’t the exile over?

The bible has a lot to say about exile. During graduation season, which this year will be more than a little different, many seniors receive cards quoting the prophet Jeremiah “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper and not harm you, plans for bright hope and a future.” The greater context for this passage is, of course, that this message of hope and good will is delivered on the eve of exile. None that could hear and understand it would return back to that land. They would die in exile. Many of their children would be born, grow old, and die in exile. Knowing this, Jeremiah goes out and buys a parcel of land. “I’ll be back for this” he declares; but Jeremiah is never seen again once exile comes.

In the New Testament, after the resurrection, the early Church waited for the soon return of Jesus. They heard his words that “I go to prepare a place for you. If I go, I will come back” and waited…and waited…and waited. The delay in Christ’s return, it seems, caused something of a crisis. This is likely behind Paul’s admonishment to the Thessalonians to continue working as they wait for the return. It may even be a large part of the reason John wrote his letters to the seven churches in Revelation. The people were stuck between Easter and the end of exile (and exile under Roman Emperors renown for their persecution like Nero and later Diocletian, no less). The Resurrection had come, Jesus had ascended, but still they waited. This period, where the tension between the already present and still coming Kingdom of God is felt strongest, continues on today. As citizens of another country, we Christians live in exile, one that has not yet ended. The message for those in exile is one of hope.

The book of Isaiah spends roughly 39 chapters hammering at the people to turn from their sin to avoid exile. In chapter 40, Isaiah changes his tone and audience. The prophet begins to speak not to those who lived prior to exile, but to those who have come through the other side. His opening words are “comfort.”

Opening words are often important, especially in ancient literature. The Iliad begins with “Rage, rage of Achilles” signifying a major theme that would be that hero’s undoing. At this critical shift, the prophet’s words to the people are “Comfort.”

It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that Isaiah wrote this prior to the end of exile (prior, even, to the beginning of exile). All throughout the years of laboring and waiting and wondering when or if it would ever end, the people of God could look to God’s words of “Comfort” to “my people.”

And so, as this exile feels a bit more acute with the onset of isolation, quarantine, social distancing, shuttered businesses, lost jobs, financial strain, and so much death and mourning all due to a virus most of us scarcely understand, we can still look to these words: “Comfort, Comfort.” God, though not seen as expressly, closely and intimately as before, is still active. He is still working. God is preparing a straight, level, even and therefore swift path in the dessert. All will see it the Glory of God because God Himself has declared it will be so. And on that glorious day, God will bring comfort.

“In this world you will have trouble” Jesus assured his disciples as his death drew near, “but take heart, I have overcome the world.” So in your own exile, take heart, and hear the words of comfort. This is not the end. This is the tension and sorry that comes with anticipation!

Everybody needs to calm down about the Blood Moon (especially Christians)

I didn’t really believe it at first, but there it was, right on my Facebook feed. Someone talking about how the lunar eclipse that happened on Tuesday. Or, in their terms, the “blood moon.” I don’t really blame them, there are people who like to stir up hysteria and they make very convincing arguments with nice rhetoric. But they are mistaken about it, and usually don’t really care how often they are wrong (and if you look at the track record of the sorts of people who cause these hysterias they are almost always wrong). Nor was simply talking about the moon a problem. I mean everybody was talking about it. This was one of the clearest and fullest lunar eclipse of our lifetimes, and so it is a rare opportunity to view the moon looking almost entirely red. No, the problem was that the talk focused entirely upon a discussion of how the end of the world is about to happen at any minute. Now it may be the case that the end of world really is about to happen at minute, but it has nothing to do with the “blood moon” and here are three reasons why:

Someone get that moon a bandage. It's bleeding everywhere.

1. This is not the first lunar eclipse and it won’t be the last

This point is really pretty obvious. It is true that most ancients and medievalists thought the red moon or “blood moon” was a bad omen, but they thought that because it occurred periodically. However, when bad things followed such an event, it was really just a case of confirmation bias. That’s a phenomenon where you only pay attention to observations that confirm your already held suspicion. It’s not proof, it’s selective observation. “But this one’s different” I’ve heard and seen people say. Well…

2. This lunar eclipse is not really that different

It’s different in the sense that it looks a lot clearer and more obvious than most lunar eclipses we will likely witness in our lifetime. But it’s not different in the sense of paying attention to specific dates and times, etc. Do you know who set about creating calendars and such? People did. They are a social convention. Now, it is true that they’ve conformed generally to some external phenomenon, like the revolution of the earth around the sun, or the lunar cycle (note: the current Jewish Calendar is somewhere between the two). Still, it is ultimately a human invention. The Holy Days enacted in Scripture are an example of God accommodating his revelation to us. At least that seems to be the opinion of Paul in the 2nd chapter of Colossians (NIV):

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

In fact, the obsession with timing specific days and alignment with the planets as somehow an omen is not routed in Christianity. Instead, you would expect to find that sort of thing in Astrology and Paganism (both ancient and modern or neo-paganism).

“But” someone will object “what about those bible verses?”

3. Those Bible verses don’t necessarily mean what you think they do

There are, by my count, exactly three verses of the bible that refer to a red moon. And one of those is a New Testament passage explicitly quoting an Old Testament passage. So let’s look at that one first.

In Joel 2, it reads:

28 “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
30 I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. (NIV)

Now that doesn’t sound so bleak. I mean, it does call it a “dreadful day of the Lord,” but the Hebrew text uses words in different ways than we do. I mean what’s with the prominence  of “Fear of the Lord” in Proverbs. Does that mean we should be scared and hiding from God, or does fear mean something else? Does “dreadful” mean something else? This becomes particularly clear in the context of the chapter. Immediately prior to this section, the prophet Joel describes the restoration of the land and provision from God, and immediately after Joel notes that all who call upon God will be saved. That’s not very bleak at all. In fact, if we look to the New Testament, we see how they understood its fulfillment.

At the beginning of Acts, immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, Peter gets up and starts shouting that this very passage has just been fulfilled. After all, the Spirit is being poured out on all of the church, not just an individual (as had been the case in the Old Testament). What’s more, he quotes the bit about the sun being black and the moon being blood during what, by all accounts, seems to be a pleasant day (people are outside celebrating this festival and no one is terrified). There’s no black sun and no red moon. What gives? It could be that the black sun and red moon mean something else entirely.

One more passage before I come back to that. In Revelation 6 we have the following appear:

12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (NIV)

It’s always interesting to me how different people treat the book of Revelation. (Sidenote: pet peeve of most biblical scholars: putting an “s” on the end of Revelation. If you know one, try it out and watch them squirm a little before apologizing). Everyone talks about taking it “literally” but what they mean by that varies.

-Revelation mentions that there will be two prophets against the city of Babylon? Well then, we better look for exactly two men who are prophesying against a pagan city, bonus points if that city is actually named Babylon.

-Revelation talks about a beast rising up out of the sea, a third of the stars falling from heaven? Well, I mean it’s not a “beast” but a person. And those stars are demons. Clearly a metaphor.

-Revelation mentions Jesus standing at the door and knocking? Well that is not bound to a specific time period in any way shape or form. Come on, give us some credit.

Here’s the problem with the above. How literal one takes Revelation depends upon how literal the one doing the reading decides to take it. And it usually is a personal choice, with little to no respect (or even awareness) of the genre in which the book was written. It’s read like a modern book, and one that the reader knows based upon a gut feeling (that gut feeling is not the Spirit, by the way. The Spirit is expressed in the full body of believers known as the Church). So we read it “literally” when it is convenient, and dispense with literality any time it is convenient or interesting to do so. That’s a problem. Revelation is a hard book to understand. I don’t claim to fully comprehend it, but while I’m willing to admit that, I do understand it on some level.

So what’s going on here?

Well John, the author of Revelation, is very adept at blending into Revelation and referencing a wide variety of Old Testament symbols. He doesn’t do so explicitly (partly because that would violate the genre in which he’s writing), but it is permeating by the Hebrew Bible. Given that the only reference to a red moon found in the Old Testament is in Joel, we should probably see if there is any overlap. For Joel, the use of the images of a black sun and red moon were indications of the end of the world. Not because Joel thought there natural occurrences would actually foretell the end of the world, but because this was an already established motif. Other cultures sure seemed to think that, but Joel didn’t (or, at the very least, Peter quoting Joel didn’t believe that). They are merely a more poetic way of talking about the end of history.

That fits pretty well with Revelation, but it doesn’t explain why Peter references it in Acts.

It helps if we understand that Peter was a Jew, not a Gentile Christian. As such, he had certain expectations about how the world would end. During the first century, this included a belief in the “resurrection of the dead.” Peter, and all the early church, wholeheartedly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. For the early church, then, that meant the end of history wasn’t only eminent, but already present. The end of the world had come. Indeed, one question that 1-2 Thessalonians and Revelation are all trying to deal with is how the end of the world could have so clearly arrived, and yet the world not be over yet. It is then that the church began to make sense of Jesus’ statements that “A time is coming and is now here.” This is two Kingdoms theology. The end of the world has come, it has come in the Kingdom of God, which is the Church as it should be. It is at war with the kingdom of the world. Yet, in light of the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost, the kingdom of this world has already lost to the Kingdom of God. The end of the world has already happened. It’s coming, yes, but it’s already here. Maranatha!

Why “Noah” may actually do more good than we admit

Noah Movie Poster

First things first. This is not a practical joke. I am making a serious claim about the movie “Noah” as a cultural phenomenon (not necessarily about the movie itself). So, full disclosure: this is not a review. You can read a good review from an evangelical perspective (with links to many more) at Christianity Today. Also, this is not even really a comment on the content of the movie. I get it, some people find it very questionable. Noah was a righteous man in bible, and isn’t shown as one here (actually, he is said to have found favor first, and only then described as righteous. The author of Hebrews (ch. 11) very heavily implies Noah’s righteousness is a direct result of this “favor” from God, not the other way around, something very much in keeping with Pauline theology). But this isn’t about that.

There’s also some debate about whether this is even a Christian themed movie. To be sure, Aronofsky likes to ask very big and very deep questions in his films, but these tend to be more about the nature of being human and how we relate to each other. The Bible, in contrast, is not (fundamentally) about people, but is about God. It’s written to people, but it’s written about God. But this isn’t about that either. This is about the impact that media has in our very visual culture. So here are some reasons that “Noah” may have a more positive impact on the culture than other Christian-themed movies.

1) People who aren’t Christians will go to see it

Say what you will about God’s not Dead, or other such movies. The truth is, very few who are outside of Christianity will ever consider going on their own (and not as a favor to a friend). The same is not true of “Noah.” Why? Because it has already sparked so many conversations about it. Conversations drive people to explore. In contrast dogmatic answers drive people to shut down and stop engaging. One is much more effective than the other and fostering genuine searching.

2) People are talking about it

Like everywhere. You can’t seem to avoid talking about it, or reading about, or seeing it somewhere. Everyone has an opinion about this and everyone (at least in the US it seems) has heard about it. This is sort of a spin off of number 1, so I’ll leave it at that.

3) They are actually pointing people back to the text

Here’s something that bothers me about many (but not all) Christian movies: they don’t actively encourage people to read their bibles. Sometimes there is a note and the beginning or end (not always), but often there is not. Even where there is, who actually reads those and thinks, “ok, I’m going to do that”? And even if you did, did you remember when you got home? People want to be entertained and anything that takes them out of that mindset is very hard. This is why I was very encouraged to see this:

Ad from the New York Times

That’s an ad for the movie appearing in the New York Times. Let me say that again: that’s an ad for the movie. Yet they included in their ad, under no real obligation to do so, a link that (if you were reading on a phone or tablet) you could click and then immediately download the entire bible. What’s more the “bibleapp” is specifically designed to encourage more reading of the bible than just handing it to someone. This is fantastic. I don’t really care if you see the movie or not. They are pointing people directly to the source material outside of the movie-going experience. Not only that, they have removed virtually all barriers to reading the bible. Do we not believe that the bible is powerful, transformative and redemptive? Anytime someone is pointed back to the revelatory witness of God’s redemptive work in history, I am excited. That has a lot more potential to foster change than virtually anything else we do.

In the end, I don’t really care if you see the movie or not, but I do think we should, at the very least, be ready to engage in positive conversations about what people have seen. Again, I’m not saying you should say you liked it if you didn’t, but if someone who is not a Christian is excited after having watched it, redirect that passion back to God and God’s word (encourage more conversation). The last thing we should do is try to squash that enthusiasm right off the bat with diatribes against its accuracy. This is a rather unique opportunity here, let’s not waste it trying to show how right we are and how wrong everyone else is.

But what do I know? Let me know what you think?

UPDATE: It looks like the film has substantially increased the number of people reading the bible:

 

6 Things for the Last Day of Women’s History Month

Rosie the Riveter

For those who are unaware, March is Women’s History Month. From a theological standpoint, women are created in the image of God (as Genesis says “in the image of God he made them, Male and Female he created them”). The creation accounts end with women, the crown jewel of creation. In light of the fact that yesterday was the UK’s “Mothering Day” (aka Mother’s Day) and that this is the last day of Women’s History Month, here are six things you can do to show women (and other women) you care.

1. Appreciate women you know

Only, don’t appreciate them in some awkward “you’re a woman, so, er, um, I guess I appreciate you for being born without a Y chromosome” way. Instead appreciate the women you know for the things they do as people because, you know, they are people. Kinda a prerequisite there. So really look at what they excel at as a human being and take the time to say thanks for that.

2. Read a little about women’s history

It’s fascinating stuff. Try to get past Amelia Earhart too. I mean there are tons more fascinating women. Since this is a Christian theology blog, I’ll point out Hildegard von Bingen, or Julian of Norwich, both amazing women who impacted through their Julian of Norwich Picturewritings, and in many ways continue to impact, the church, theology and, in Hildegard’s place, music, yet lived during a time when most people, not to mention women, were illiterate. Of course there are many more (really these are just two of so many more within Christianity and outside of Christendom), so go do some research and get reading.

3. Acknowledge the fact that women get less credit, (and less pay) than men

This is not the product of a bygone era. Women still are regularly paid substantially less than men for performing the exact same task. They are also less likely to be promoted and generally have a steeper climb than men do. This is despite laws designed to prevent this sort of thing from happening. You may disagree about whether a woman should work out of the home or not, but if she is working, it is hard to make a case that her work is somehow less valuable for any reason other than the fact that companies can get away with it.

4. Realize that there is a negative double standard for women

This is related to the work issue, but goes beyond it. Women who spend lots of time in the office are considered neglectful of their families, while those who spend more time with their families are seen as less committed. In contrast, men who do these same activities are viewed as either driven or “family men.” Beyond the workplace, though, there is a different standard for sexuality. Men who are sexually promiscuous or who look at pornographic images are seen as subject to biology beyond their control or somehow just being manly. Women, however, are viewed as…well I try not to use that sort of language on this blog.

5. Understand that modern slavery disproportionately affects women

More people are kidnapped or born, bought and sold, or currently held captives as slaves today that at any point in history previously. Exact numbers are difficult to pin down, but roughly 80% of those in slavery are little girls and young women put into prostitution or other forms of sexual slavery. This is the disgusting and cold hard fact of our world. I currently live in Houston, the American Capital for human trafficking/slave trading/sex trafficking (with an international port, airport, and interstate highways close to an international border it makes it terribly suited for this sort of thing).

6. Work to end numbers 3-5

We should work to remove these disparities and end modern slavery. Not because these primarily affect women, but because they universally affect people. We are all created in God’s image and are all in need of God’s rescue. We should work to live out that equality in our lives.

For more on what you can do to end modern slavery see these organizations or find other reputable ones: Free the Captives, Free our City, and Houston Rescue and Restore.

4 Things to know about Non-profits, or Why World Vision’s Change is not about you

After having worked in a variety of roles at various non-profits (both Christian and non-religious), I’ve noticed some misconceptions most of us seem to have about non-profits, including ones to which I sometimes fall prey. Also, and let’s be clear about this, I am very clearly writing this post in the context of the World Vision controversy. If you are unaware, World Vision formally announced that it, as a parachurch organization, was deferring the decision about hiring gay World Vision Logoand lesbian individuals who were married to the churches. For those unaware, employees of World Vision must be endorsed by a church. Some churches marry gay and lesbian couples, others oppose such an act on biblical grounds. World Vision works with both types of churches. They expressly state that they are not theological, but are focused on action. [Complete disclosure, my reading of the bible is that Christian marriage is between a man and a woman] Still, there some common traits of non-profits of which we need to be reminded that are certainly pertinent in this situation.

Update: Just yesterday, World Vision reversed its position and now has stated expressly that it will not hire gay or lesbian individuals.

1. Non-Profits and Charities are Not-For Profit

Really this should go without saying. I mean, it’s right there in the name. Ok, so we know this in theory. Yet often times our actions don’t match up. If it is not-for-profit then that means there are no shareholders, there is no owner. If a non-profit does really well, no one pockets the extra money. All funds raised go into the work of the non-profit.

This is important when we look at World Vision in light of the recent events. Without using the term, many evangelicals engaged in what can only be described as a boycott. They began stop payments on pledged donations, they urged others to do the same, etc. Here’s the problem with that: there is no CEO feeling the pinch. There were no board of directors who were upset by a loss in profits. Instead, without really meaning to do so I’m sure, they were putting the pinch on kids. World Vision does amazing work with impoverished children around the world. Again, I don’t think any one thought of their actions in this way, but the fact is, that people were using children to make a political point (or possibly a religious one) against someone else.

As a certain Ethicist noted a few centuries ago, it is always immoral to use another person as a means only and never as an end in themselves. Why? Because people, all people, are inherently valuable. Kant is also not the first person to make this claim; the bible precedes him by quite a bit. That’s what it means to be in the image of God. That’s the primary argument that James gives in his epistle that’s in the bible: don’t think you can speak ill of someone and then turn around and praise God because those people are made in the image of God. You can’t worship God without regard for other people. All people are integral to your worship regardless of how you feel about them. (James 3:9-10, loosely and wildly paraphrased).

Picture of Immanuel Kant looking wryly at the viewer.
You Called? — Immanuel Kant

In general boycotts are a perfectly acceptable way to indicate dissatisfaction with the policies of a company. After all you’re going to hit them where it hurts: by going after their bottom lines and pocket books. Sometimes they work, other times they won’t (ask Disney how the SBC boycott worked out). But when you are dealing with a non-profit, especially one whose central mission you do not oppose, things get a little bit more complicated. Here a boycott sends a very different message, especially when that central mission is help and aid to children. You’re going to hit them where it hurts: by going after…the children?

That can’t be right. I don’t think anyone thought of the issue on those terms. People who called for a boycott looked at the issue and saw what they perceived to be another step in the gradual erosion of biblical authority and genuine followers of God. This was not motivated out of homophobia, nor would these individuals necessarily stop supporting other charities that help children. However, it does send a very clear message: we will do whatever it takes to make our theological point and our voices heard. Anything. Even holding children hostage.

That may sound harsh, but that’s basically what happened. It may not have even been your intention, but lack of clear intention does not make the action that much better. World Vision changed not because they agreed or disagreed with anyone. They changed initially because they thought they could work better if they widened the pool of applicants and let churches handle the theological issues (which they totally should). They switched back out of concern for the fate of the children. Not you. Not anyone else in comfortable middle-class America. The children. They paid a ransom to hostage takers. And it was wrong of us to take hostages. Nothing justifies that. This doesn’t mean you have to be happy about the decision, it doesn’t mean you have to keep supporting them indefinitely, but the manner in which the fallout took place was just unambiguously, morally wrong. You aren’t going after the people who work there because…

2. Non-Profit Employees aren’t in it for the Money

People work at non-profits because they believe in the non-profit. Very few individuals (though I’m sure there are some) work at non-profits because it’s the only job they can get. There are other reasons to work: a sense of calling, intangible benefits (like flexible schedules, nice people to work with), and the feeling that you are making an impact, not just doing things for a paycheck. I work at a non-profit (a college) and could certainly make more at a for-profit, but I choose not to do so. Why? I really believe that what I do makes a positive impact in other people’s lives and I like being able to see my family. I don’t make more money or get a bonus if I somehow generate extra revenue. In the unlikely scenario that I did (somehow) generate extra revenue, that money would be put right back into the mission of the college. Most people who work at non-profits aren’t really greedy, we’re not doing it for Pennies, Nickels and Dimesfame, or acceptance, or anything else. We believe we are making a positive and lasting impact, usually in people’s lives. That’s why we do what we do.

3. Non-Profits do not have Customers

We don’t. The customer may always be right, but we don’t have customers. If you pay something, whether a donation or tuition, or whatever, that does not entitle you, necessarily, to a product or a service. Now, in general, tuition will get you a seat in the classroom and provide the opportunity to improve your knowledge or skill set (and if successful in doing so to get a degree), but you don’t buy knowledge or skills or credentials. You still earn them. We provide the setting for it. The same applies to a charity. Sure you may receive a nice letter, a picture, a statement of where the funds went. At certain charities (not World Vision as far as I know), top donors get special perks like meetings with famous people or fancy dinners. These are not things you have bought. They are part of a strategy to keep you engaged, to be sure, but they are not items to purchase. The overwhelming majority of the money you send to a (reputable) charity goes to support it’s mission. In the case of World Vision, it goes to children. It does not go to gay propaganda, it does not go to anyone’s salary, it goes to children. To cut off funding so abruptly displays a consumerist mentality at best, and callousness or genuine disdain and disregard at worst.

This is not to say that we don’t value those with whom we work. Of course we do. I want every student I meet to succeed, to excel in classes, to graduate quickly with his or her degree, and to find a fulfilling and great career. I love that kind of thing. But no, you don’t buy your college credits, and no, you don’t buy a right to decide how the HR works. (Sidenote: Please don’t ask to “escalate” a call with me. I don’t work at a call center, and I do want to find a workable solution to any problem you may be having.)

4. A Non-Profits Goals are not necessarily your Goals

This follows on from the previous, but is a common misconception. The fact that you give money to a non-profit, in whatever form it takes, does not give you the right to dictate the mission of that non-profit. If you want to do that sort of thing, you are free to start your own. There are other voices besides yours, and not every voice is equal in this. Someone who has studied poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa for twenty years has a stronger voice than me and my friends do when it comes to making policy decisions for a charity that deals with global poverty. That’s true, even if me and my friends each give ten times more to the organization than the lone researcher. That’s also how it should be. I’m not a customer. I’m a donor in that scenario. I agree to donate because I trust that others know better than me about the central mission of the organization. Also, they know how to achieve that central mission better than I do. If something is a peripheral or minor issue, I should probably leave well enough alone. Once it starts to affect the core mission and goal of the organization, or that goal begins to drastically change, then I may need to pull back (preferably slowly) from donations. But I accept, going in, that I do not control how an organization is run, no matter how much money I give to it.

 

But what do you think? Do you believe non-profits should be run more like a corporation? Do you think some are already run too much like corporations?

Also, if you are able, consider donating to either World Vision (they will never get some of their donors back), or a similar organization with less controversy around it, like Compassion International.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are entirely my own and in no way reflect the position of any of my past or present employers or other individuals who work there. Second disclaimer: Not everything I’ve said here applies to politically based non-profits, they are a whole different beast

4 Reasons I won’t be going to see “God’s Not Dead”

Let me set the record straight before I go any further. I am (obviously given the content of this blog) a Christian. I also used to be a huge fan of the Newsboys, and, when I was in High School, I likely would have gone to a movie liked this and encouraged others to do the same. That being said, I simply cannot advocate that anyone goes to see this movie for the following reasons:

1. It’s just a bad movie.

Unfortunately, as many reviewers have noted, the “Christian movie industry,” if there is such a thing, is doing poorly. They keep turning out mediocre or just bad movies. Stop! you might say, those reviews are from the secular media. Well here’s one from Crosswalk,  a site dedicated to providing Christian resources, news and devotional material for free. That review notes that there have been some good movies (like the animated “Prince of Egypt” and Terrence Malik’s “Tree of Life”), but most of them are just bad.

But don’t we need to support the making of Christian movies so that studies see them as a good investment and will spend more money on them? No. When evangelicals support mediocre movies, the only message it sends is that the quality of a movie doesn’t matter, evangelicals we go to see it no matter what. By supporting sub-par movies we are actually encouraging more subpar movies. If you want quality Christian movies, either get involved in making them, or only see those movies that are genuinely good.

2. It presents a caricature of philosophy

I am a philosopher and a theologian. My current dissertation (aka the reason I rarely update this blog) forces me to study, engage with, dispute, and agree with a wide range of philosophers. I am not, however, an atheist. When I first studied philosophy as an undergraduate student, many people from various churches told me to either “watch out” for it, or else that they were “praying for” me. In case you don’t know, my undergraduate degree was from the very conservative Oklahoma Baptist University. I did not become an atheist, and in many ways actually grew stronger in my faith as I studied these philosophers. Philosophy does not equal Atheism.

The movie would also have you believe that Richard Dawkins is the apex of philosophy. Richard Dawkins: Not being a PhilosopherThis may sound a bit insulting to Prof. Dawkins, but he barely understands what constitutes professional or academic philosophy. Dawkins is, or at least was at one time, an eminent biologist. Unfortunately he has devoted an obscene amount of his time recently to being a pop-philosopher. The vast majority of pop-philosophers could not handle anything beyond what most freshman learn in a first year philosophy course. Now, there is nothing wrong with not knowing anything about philosophy beyond Introduction to Philosophy (although I personally think everyone should take one or two philosophy courses beyond intro.), but to consider him a philosopher of any order beyond a college sophomore is just a mistake. It would be the equivalent of me taking one or two biology classes and then declaring myself to be a preeminent physician.

Additionally, it is a bit insulting to those who are philosophers. This includes Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and Dean Zimmerman who are leaders in their fields, and also members of the Society of Christian Philosophers, which is a completely legitimate group whose members are also part of the American Philosophical Association (of which Dawkins is not a member). It also ignores the fact that no philosopher would want to “avoid the debate and jump straight to the conclusion” as the atheistic professor wants to do. Philosophy is the debate. This, of course, includes the fact that the phrase “God is dead” is not used by any legitimate philosopher today as a declaration of atheism. When Nietzsche used the phrase he was operating under the presumption of atheism, not arguing toward a point. For Nietzsche it was a lament that became a triumph for those who recognize it. It was not, however, his attack of Christianity (that can be found elsewhere).

3. The Non-Christian Characters are One Dimensional

Maybe this is a take off from points one and two, but I think it deserves its own mention. The reason for this is that many Christians have a very simplistic, uncomplicated view of those who are outside of the faith. As long as the religious “other” is viewed as a caricature kept at more than an arms length, there will be no radical transformation of those individuals. Christianity is not about conversion divorced from all else. It is about relationship, family, and citizenship. It is an invitation to a family, a marriage proposal of sorts, not a declaration of war or a debate to be won. The bible declares that “our battle is not against flesh and blood” and that instead we are invited into “the new covenant” in Christ’s blood. This is not the language of putting myself first or being comfortable for my own sake, but of sacrifice for the sake of others. We need, then, to acknowledge those who are not within the Kingdom of God as individuals in their own right.

This may mean that we admit that some atheists (perhaps even most atheists) are actually pretty moral people (or at least as moral as we profess to be). This may mean that we accept that not all who have turned away from the Christian faith have done so for traumatic reasons. This may mean that we note that fundamentalist Muslims are not the only ones who are intolerant of others and who would abuse children who deviate from their perception of the norm (spoiler alert: that happens in the movie). Christian families have kicked out children who have renounced their faith, or who have identified themselves as gay. What’s the difference between that and the girl who comes out to her Muslim father as an evangelical Christian? You can’t have a true and genuine conversation with someone about matters of eternal significance until you recognize them as a person and not an idea, a concept, an adversary, a talking point, or as in any way not created in God’s image just as much as you.

4. They made the wrong movie

If you have Dean Cain and Kevin Sorbo together in one movie, there should only be one reason: A Marvel/DC crossover movie:

Superman versus Hercules

For those of you who don’t know. Dean Cain used to play Superman/Clark Kent on the TV show Louis and Clark. Kevin Sorbo is perhaps best known as Hercules on a different TV show. I used to watch both of them. You may also not know that Hercules is a Marvel superhero and Superman is one for DC. Every now and then Marvel and DC do a crossover battle between their heroes/villains. Really, if you have Hercules and Superman in the same movie, this should be the only logical outcome. It would be Epic!

Man of Steel

Son of Zeus

Plagiarism is a Kingdom issue

Background

So if you haven’t heard: Mark Driscoll has done it, yet again. During an appearance on the radio call-in show hosted by Janet Mefford, Driscoll became incredibly hostile in relation to probing questions about his book and antics related to it. To summarize, there were two issues of conflict. First, Janet Mefford questioned Driscoll as to whether John MacArthur’s security actually confiscated his books, as Driscoll had said, or whether Driscoll tried to make it appear that way, as video evidence has suggested. Immediately Driscoll, rather than owning it, became defensive and began to blame Mefford for not being concerned about the Kingdom, claiming he was doing her a favor by appearing (via phone) to promote his book. Ok, well Mefford let that go and proceeded to actually talk about the book.

After Driscoll gave a summary of the key point of his book, Mefford called him out for plagiarism of that exact point. Specifically, Mefford notes that there are 14 pages representing the crux of Driscoll’s argument in his latest book (A Call to Resurgence) and possibly a few pages later, that represented the ideas and sometimes exact phrasing of Dr. Peter Jones. Specifically Driscoll’s use of the terms “one-ism” as representing “neo-paganism” (the hyphen is somewhat unique to Peter Jones) and “two-ism” as representing a Christian worldview. This, and the specific manner in which Driscoll addresses it, is not Driscoll’s idea. It is clearly that of Dr. Jones. Driscoll, who seems simultaneously shocked and annoyed at this point in the interview, says that it must have been a mistake and that he used to have dinner with Dr. Jones, where he (Dr. Jones) did most of the talking while Driscoll mostly listened, but did not take notes.

At this point Driscoll then begins to again turn the tables on Mefford, claiming that she is following tribalism (declaring that she is merely defending MacArthur), claiming to be the victim in this situation, telling Mefford she has “an opportunity for growth,” strongly implying that she is inappropriately taking on the role of a domineering teacher (a clear no go in these circles), and trying to claim that he is just trying to talk about the kingdom of God and all Mefford is concerned with is a “footnote,” implying again that this is a silly thing to be worried about. After Mefford points out that Driscoll’s own sermons on stealing and lying suggest that plagiarism of the exact same sort that Driscoll has done are wrong and possibly cause for a pastor to step down, and after she notes that on Mars Hill, Seattle’s website (Driscoll’s church), it specifically says that those who use any portion or idea of Mark Driscoll without citing Driscoll, something happens with alarming frequency in pulpits, is plagiarism (and may be subject to lawsuit).

Now the last bit has been up for debate, with Mefford claiming they lost all connection and Driscoll claiming she cut him off and editing the audio. Both sides have released raw audio, one clearly recorded from Driscoll’s end (supporting his version) and the other obviously from the radio recording in a single track (and so it could not be edited as Mars Hill staff have alleged). At best someone slipped and hit a button, at worst this was planned out and intentional from one side or the other. However, such debate misses the point.

Following the interview, when Tyndale House (Driscoll’s publisher) was reached for comment, rather than acknowledging an error in the editing phase, or noting it was an honest mistake, Tyndale House, who as a publisher should know how serious plagiarism is, instead doubles down in defense of Mark Driscoll by attacking Janet Mefford. Additionally, Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition’s “Between Two Worlds” blog (who famously attacked Rob Bell’s last book based almost entirely on its trailer) called for a Boycott of Janet Mefford’s show. Just so everyone is up to speed, Mefford is not some liberal secularist, or anti-Christian brow-beater. She is incredibly conservative. You can read about all this drama from Jonathan Merritt at Religious News Services, and from the blog Pyromaniac (both of which provided additional facts related to this brief summary).

Additionally, to thicken the plot, Jonathan Merritt has reported that Mefford has shown indisputable proof that this was not a one time thing for Driscoll. Specifically, Mefford shows that two entire pages from Driscoll’s book on 1&2 Peter were taken word-for-word from a commentary by D.A. Carson, also without attribution. You can find that story here.

What’s at stake

Throughout this entire ordeal, whenever Driscoll has responded, it has been with a tone of indignation. Without saying it, he, and his supporters, have implied that this is a very minor offense and that it is being used to attack him. To be sure, I have seen anti-Driscoll-ites saying this is like bringing down Al Capone on tax charges on Facebook and Twitter. On the other end, I’ve seen supporters of Driscoll claiming that we’re missing the entire point by arguing about a footnote. Driscoll himself, in the initial interview, claimed that “this” would be used by opponents of Christianity to make fun of all Christians and hurt the Kingdom. What Driscoll meant by “this” seems to be what he considers division. Driscoll, however, has an odd definition of division. If someone disagrees with him, or challenges him, it seems, then they are a cause of division. If the roles are reversed, though, then the one in disagreement with Driscoll are deemed heretics.

Let me be clear, “this” will be used by opponents of Christianity. And most of those involved are missing the entire point. But “this” and the entire point are directly related to these footnotes. Ask anyone in college (or high school) if plagiarism is a big deal. Do the words failure or expulsion ring a bell? This isn’t just for doctoral dissertations, either, as Driscoll tries to intimate (interesting, though, considering he has no issue touting his Masters degree when it suits him), but a universal standard. Nor is it confined entirely to academe.

In the publishing world, such as the press carrying Driscoll’s book, plagiarism often leads to lawsuits and immediate terminations, not to mention someone being “blackballed” from the industry not only for committing plagiarism, but for failing to catch it. The non-Church world seems to take plagiarism very seriously, and not at all in the flippant way that Driscoll and his cadre seem to approach it. But why?

At the heart of plagiarism are two primary issues. One has to do with the act itself, the other has to do with the motivation behind the act. Janet Mefford, who certainly seems to understand the gravity of plagiarism, has said much about the act itself. It is simply lying and stealing, and, by Driscoll’s own admission, a pastor who commits plagiarism is unworthy of the office (see Driscoll’s book Vintage Church).

The second issue has to do with motivation. There are two principle motivations for plagiarism, and both of them may very well be at play in Driscoll’s case. The first is hubris. The thought is that I am so amazing that either a) I certainly thought of that first, or b) it doesn’t matter who thought of it first, people will want to give me credit because of how great I am. This may have something to do with the celebrity pastor movement. Namely, if you have church membership in excess of 15,000 members spread over an area broader than 100 square miles, who are you accountable to, and why do you think that your message is so important that the sermon is divorced from personal pastoral care? Now, I don’t think all megachurches or all multi-site churches are de facto wrong, but one should approach these type of things with an extra measure of vigilance because the Church is not a corporation. The Aquila Report has a post dealing on issues of celebrity and the pastorate related to this case.

The other principle motivation is just laziness. Here it may be primary: “I just don’t care,” or ancillary: “what I have to say is so important I don’t have time for due diligence.” In either case, the issues seem to relate back to pride, though perhaps less of the vulgar sense seen above. Still it does not promote the Christian ideal of hard work and working in all things as unto the Lord.

There is another issue that is also related. This has to do with perception of the Church. Certainly the fallout will lead many to view Driscoll and his ministry as epitomes of liars, hypocrites, thieves, and arrogant or lazy people. But the main issue for most of the “millennial generation” is authenticity. If you mess up, intentionally or not, you should own it. Admit that you are a liar, a thief a hypocrite, whatever. Own your mistakes, especially when you are called on it. Don’t put up a façade to hide behind while you blame those who point out structural issues. Own it, and try to fix it, maybe ask for forgiveness or the help of others.

Driscoll’s response only serves to circle the wagons and alienate those outside. The response of Tyndale House sends the message that they are not be respected by readers, nor to be trusted by authors because rather than investigate plagiarism, they may just side with their superstar author. This is particularly sad given its prior excellent history. All in all, this will not get better until someone steps up and admits that, at the very least, someone made a serious mistake, and then apologizes. If Driscoll really wants to end “tribalism” and move toward a more global view of the church, now is his chance to prove it.

The Value of Higher Education

So my other passion beyond theology, if you don’t know (and even if you do), is higher education. More specifically, higher education in the Western liberal arts tradition. There has been a lot of talk, on the news, in trade journals, and in blogs or on social media, recently about whether it is “worth it” to go to college–even the past two US presidents have been getting in on the action. I would argue that, in defiance of the claims and arguments about education and its value, there is a worth the liberal arts education completely excluded from the conversation; and this, while not a quantifiable worth, is nevertheless one of the most important aspects of a democratic society.

Frequently, the conversation is phrased in terms of ROI, or return on investment. That is, education is reduced to a mere utilitarian concept and is guaged useful if it leads to a greater level of material income, less lost costs of work, than if you went into work directly after high school. Most of these analyses show that, on a pure economics level, yes, the college degree is worth it. That is, if you factor in income lost over a 4 or 5 year period in a job without a college degree, and compare it to the increase in income from getting such a degree, and balancing this out with experience and promotions/raises associated with both scenarios, the college degree comes out on top. However, it is quickly noted that in general, especially if one takes 5 years to complete a degree and even moreso if you pick the wrong field, the ROI is not very high, and occasionally negative. In other words, college may only be “worth it” if you pick a utilitarian degree, if you graduate in 4 years, and if you take the highest paying job, ignoring all other factors. Also, usually included in these analyses, is the point that college tuition is going up, and soon it will not be worth it to go to college.

That’s all well and good, but I find myself looking at these studies and seeing a fundamental flaw in them. The assumption is that the only value in a degree, or a liberal arts education, is in what type of earnings it can potentially provide (and in the current economy, including future projections of it, that is not guaranteed). Here’s the problem: that’s not the only value higher education has. Such an analysis assumes that the college education is only a professional qualification; it claims that all education is vocational training. Implicit is the assumption that anything beyond vocational training is either a) easily done alone, or, more alarmingly, b) should only be undertaken by the elites of society. I would suggest that both assumptions are false.

The assumption by the first claim is that one does not need anyone else to learn. It implies an idealistic picture of a lone individual sitting in a room reading book upon book. While that may make for interesting movies, like “Good Will Hunting,” or compelling historical narratives, such as Bill Gates, such individuals are the exception, not the rule. Most learning requires a broader community and, along with that, an individual materially connected to that community who guides and leads it, giving it structure and substance. We learn from each other, and we learn best when we have a guide who is invested in our education on a personal level. In short, the best learning happens face to face, not through a book or on a video screen. Even though I value reading widely and rigorously, unless there is someone to guide us as to what we should read or watch, anything goes. “Zeitgeist” is an incredibly popular youtube video, but it is factually inaccurate throughout. Holy Blood, Holy Grail may be a bestseller on religion and Christianity with a compelling story, but it hardly qualifies as quality research. We need a guide, and we need a larger community to help us. As the biblical book of Proverbs says “As iron sharpens iron, so one person does another.” We learn from each other in dialogue, in disagreement, and through mutual struggle.

The second assumption, that learning beyond credentials is reserved for the societal elite, undermines the very nature of a democratic society or of a republic. Education should not be for the elite only, but for everyone. Soceities function best when all participants are educated as best as they can be. Only then can meaningful dialogue about the future direction of a country, or city, or state, occur. Only then can we actually discuss the merits and failings of various proposals without descending into angry animals barking at each other. Education, and in particular higher liberal arts education, encourages to see past empty rhetoric, to view the heart of an idea and evaluate its substance, and to see the point of view of those with whom we disagree. Only those who seek control and power over the masses would knowingly discourage such a practice or undervalue such education. The conversation in America should not be about the value of education, but about increasing access to it. And the increase in access should not focus on MOOCs, or the cheapest, or most cost efficient way to do so. Aside from the studies showing many of these forms fail when it comes to student success (MOOCs, Massively Open Online Courses, tend to show only 2-5% of students who actually learn the material or could pass with a “C”), such talk inherently encourages a two-tier system in education, with the elites (read: richest) getting direct interaction, and everyone else watching videos and left to struggle on their own. In other words, those least equipped to teach themselves would be those most likely to be required to do so.

Of course, both of these points I’ve made assume something about education. Namely: it is inherently valuable. To phrase discussion about education purely in terms of ROI is to miss the point completely. Let me argue by way of analogy. What is the value of having and/or raising a child? Unless you work on a farm in the middle ages, this has a terrible ROI. Yet most of us do not question that such a thing is valuable. Even if we do question it, the arguments tend to focus on more than return on investment. Or how about this: what is the value of voting? of giving to charity? of going to church? of reading beyond what is required for a job? of simply sitting and enjoying a cup of coffee/tea? These all have terrible ROI because you have lost opportunity costs (at the least, sometimes material losses as in donating to charity), and very little prospect of them producing anything to materially compensate them. Yet, are they valuable?

“Get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, gain understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)

What Kind of Fire is it?

Ok so yes, this is late. But it is still important.

If you haven’t heard, John MacArthur released a new book and he did so with gusto, including a conference advertised by this video:

Now, I can’t tell you everything that is going on in that video. There’s a whole thing with what appears to be random scenes from the bible enacted by action figures. (Is that Stephen at the beginning? And why is he missing a leg?). This much I do know, John MacArthur does not think the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement is part of true Christianity.

Now I should be clear about something up front. I like John MacArthur’s studies. When I first started to undertake serious study of the bible, MacArthur was one of my early entry points. While I don’t tend to read him as much today, I nevertheless think many of his studies and earlier sermons are invaluable.

Also, in case you were unaware, I should note that I am not a Dortian Calvinist. Look, I’ve got lots of friends who are. That’s fine. We can disagree on that and still speak constructively about the message of the bible and partner together for God’s Kingdom and to fulfill the works he has called us to and prepared for us (“that we should walk in them” as the Apostle Paul says). So already I’m in disagreement with MacArthur who has become increasingly vocal about Calvinism, and more intolerant of those who disagree with his position (sadly I have lots of former friends who are Calvinists in much the same vein).

I also would not characterize myself as being Charismatic or Pentecostal. “So why,” you might ask, “do you even care about this?” Quite honestly, it’s about unity. And the whole Strange Fire issue directly undermines the unity of the Church. I say this not to shun MacArthur, because one does not build unity by pushing others to the fringe, but to encourage other Christians not to write off what has become the largest and fastest growing area of Christianity today.

I get that there are certainly some abuses within the Charismatic church, largely centered around the so-called “health and wealth gospel.” If you are unfamiliar with that term, let me explain. The health and wealth gospel takes the focus off of the redemptive, transformative, revolutionary and radical power of the cross and empty grave and places it on personal material gains in this life. Does God want you to have joy? Absolutely. Does that joy consist primarily in being materially wealthy and physically healthy? Not remotely. Yes, it is true that the bible says “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7 NIV) and one verse later “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Gal 6:9 NIV). Yet it is the intervening verse that directly undermines the health and wealth message “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal. 6:8 NIV). This message, which is purported sometimes by charlatans and, more often than many of us would like to admit, by earnestly believing preachers who simply don’t know any better, is a dangerous message. It appeals to those who are desperate, tells them to focus on a false and quickly fading hope, taking their eyes off of the goal Christ has put before them, and blames the individual for not believing strong enough when things don’t work out. In this way it makes the poor even more poor and blames them for that, it encourages the ill to divert their funds away from genuine treatments (ones that God had a hand in making) and tells them to buy snake oil. It is dangerous and preys (either intentionally or unintentionally) on the most vulnerable. Yes it should be opposed because it is not the gospel.

Still, to argue that all, or even most, Charismatic and Pentecostal churches are part of this false gospel, as MacArthur very strongly implies, is grossly mistaken. You don’t reject all of them for the abuses of a minority. MacArthur, though, goes even one step further. He declares that members of this church are practicing “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” That is very serious charge! This comes from Matthew 12. Jesus says that anything will be forgiven, even blasphemy against the Son of Man (referring to himself), but blasphemy of the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. MacArthur, fully aware of the content of what that means, quickly passes judgment that millions, if not billions, of those professing to be Christians, those who have died to themselves with Christ, are consigned to hell, and will not be raised with Christ. But judging by the way in which he does so, you would think he is wholly unaware of this. Further, he explains that he is sure he is correct because, according to MacArthur, blasphemy of the Spirit is “assigning to God the work of Satan.” But right away there’s a problem.

Let’s actually look at Matthew 12. In it, Jesus has just performed a miraculous healing on the Sabbath. For doing such a work on the Sabbath, the Pharisees begin their plan to have Jesus executed. Not too longer afterward, Jesus performs an exorcism, driving out a demon from a man, healing him of his physical maladies at the same time. The Pharisees declare that Jesus does this under the power of Beelzebul, another name for Satan. It is in this context that Jesus brings up the “blasphemy of the Spirit.” If anything, it is not assigning to God the works of Satan, but rather it is assigning to Satan the works of God, exactly what the Pharisees are doing.

However, I think the issue is much deeper than that. Jesus declares that “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters,” (v. 30) just before he mentions this unforgivable sin. I would argue that this sin has more to do with disrupting the unity of the Church. Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that John MacArthur has committed blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. I am saying that there is a lack of caution here that should give us pause, especially when speaking about the broader Church. The Spirit works to preserve and unify the Church. As Jesus prayed in John’s gospel (ch. 17, NIV)

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

If what we do is damaging to the unity of the church, it should be abandoned. We should strive to work together with others, even when we disagree, so long as we have our eyes fixed on the cross of Christ, and not our own wealth or lack thereof. Pray for unity. Build up, do not tear down. May we all grow together into God’s building.

This was written in response to a direct question. If you have a question you’d like me to write about on the blog, let me know (comments below are a great way to do that).