Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How I Disagree With The Christian Right's Response To The Legalization Of Gay Marriage

I've said before that when you're offending people on both sides of an argument then you're probably close to being right. I might be way off on my opinion here, but at least I'm assured to offend people on both sides of the political aisle, so I have that going for me, which is nice.

I suppose I should get this out of the way first; I lived in Oklahoma in 2004 when the (state) constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was on the ballot. I voted yes to ban it. If I had to do it over again, I would make the same vote. I absolutely believe God loves gay people and has a plan for them, and I believe the Church should be a place they are welcomed, but the Bible is clear that homosexuality is sinful and never God's best. (For a review of the seven Bible passages that discuss homosexuality and more on my thoughts on homosexuality click here to listen to a message I did on the topic in the fall of 2013). It's been disappointing to watch a few of my Christian friends celebrate and applaud last week's Supreme Court decision (and those in this category should definitely read this).

But as a pastor, I have much less to say on any one particular sin issue and much more to say regarding the Church's response to it. And this is ultimately my reason for writing.

I was away at camp when the decision came down last week so I'm sure I've missed some of the reactions, but what I have seen from Christians on social media has largely fallen into three buckets:

A. Celebration. "Love wins!" etc (this is the smallest bucket but is far from empty).
B. Silence (this is the bucket I usually prefer to be in on social media political issues).
C. Hysteria. "America is destined for judgement!" "How could God continue to bless America if he destroyed Sodom and Gommorah!" "Five Supreme Court justices just destroyed the fabric of our great nation!" etc.

It is Bucket C I would like to address. Bucket A is sadly off base, Bucket B is impossible to evaluate, and Bucket C is the most vocal (in my news feed anyway), and while they are sort of right, they are right for very wrong reasons. Hopefully I can unpack some of that.

In short, I agree that there is little good to be gained from the legalization of gay marriage in our country, and I sort of agree that things are going to get pretty bad from here (though I think it will take longer than your average apocalypse monger). Where I disagree ever so strongly is with the reasoning behind the impending disaster.

To further break down the average conservative Christian in Bucket C's opinions on this, here are three general premises they seem to accept:

1) Legalizing gay marriage is a terrible decision for our country.
2) "Liberals" are to blame for the legalization of gay marriage - liberal judges, liberal president, liberal media, liberal homosexual activists, Hollywood, etc
3) We must continue to fight against gay marriage no matter what the law says.

I agree with point 1, and mostly disagree with point 3 (I agree we shouldn't endorse or conduct gay weddings but I think the political fight is a waste of time, energy and finances and needs to end). But it's point 2 that I haven't seen anyone address.

Liberals are not to blame for the legalization of gay marriage. Supreme Court justices are not to blame for this. President Obama is not to blame for this. Sure, all of those individuals and groups have contributed to accelerating the process, but legalized gay marriage in the US has been inevitable for quite sometime. This decision just stopped delaying the inevitable.

The American people overwhelmingly want homosexuals to be allowed to marry. Per this poll earlier this year, 61% of Americans support gay marriage while only 35% oppose it. Other polls have found similar results. This has happened quickly, as just a decade ago it was 58% against to 39% support. When 61% of our nation supports a law, it's going to become the law one way or the other. We can debate the constitutionality of the Supreme Court making it the law, but I'm not writing this to address politics, I'm writing to address the Church.

So let's get to it. If liberals aren't to blame for this, who are?


Christians. And not just the ones who are celebrating the legalization of gay marriage. Hardcore, blood-bought, spirit-filled Christians who value the literal interpretation of the Word of God are to blame for the current state of our nation.

"But we fought against gay marriage harder than we've ever fought against anything!" "But we pounded on the the Word of God and shouted it's truths to anyone who would listen!" "But we gave our time, talent and treasure to organizations and political candidates who would stand up against gay marriage!" "How are we to blame for this?"

We are to blame for this because we've drastically missed the point.

Alexis de Tocqueville famously said that "in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve." And I can already hear my conservative friends protesting "we're not a democracy we're a republic!" but the point stands. Regardless what you think America should operate as, it has operated as a democracy for quite some time. And we, the Church, have gotten the government we deserve.

God has given the Church spiritual authority for our nation. As such, it is my opinion that gay marriage would never have become the law of our land unless we allowed it.  How have we allowed it? Not by being too inactive politically. No, we've been plenty active politically. We've allowed it by being too inactive spiritually. And when I point that finger at the Church, I point it squarely at myself.

We've fallen down on the job, Church.

In Acts 4 when Peter and John are arrested for healing the paralytic by the temple gate called Beautiful, they are brought before the Sanhedrin, flogged, and sternly warned not to speak anymore about Jesus. Then they are released. Upon their release, they return to their brothers and sisters in Christ, tell them what happened, and organize a political rally to stand up for their freedom of religion. No wait, that's not it. They invest in picket signs to campaign for free speech. Nope, not quite it either.

Oh yeah, they prayed! 

Acts 4

23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. "Sovereign Lord," they said, "you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.

And they went on to pray for God's protection from the authorities and God to raise up better authorities in the future....Except that's not it either. After giving glory to God and reminding Him of His past goodness to them, the early Church makes two simple request of God:

29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." 31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

Instead of asking God to make their circumstances easy enough for them to bear, they asked God to give them strength equivalent to their circumstances. "Enable your servants to speak with great boldness." And then they asked God to do healings and miracles through them. Not once did they even speak to the political situation except to ask for boldness to not back down from the threats.

This, of course, is the opposite of how we react when our "rights" are violated. We organize a rally, we put together a committee, we form a Facebook group to stand up for our rights! And in the process we treat God like a last resort.

Again, I'm pointing the finger at myself here.

But I firmly believe prayer never would have been taken out of schools (to use another hot button issue for conservative Christians) if it hadn't first been taken out of the home. We get the government we deserve. And I believe that reinserting prayer in schools right now would be a colossal waste of time. God does not respond to the dead rituals of a people whose hearts are far from Him. He responds mightily to the fervent prayers of a people whose hearts are His.

And just as I believe this about prayer in schools, and abortion, and every other movement of our culture away from God's best, I believe it about gay marriage.

These issues and decisions are simply symptoms. They are not the disease.

The disease is not in the culture. The disease is in the Church. If the 25% of Americans who claim to be Christians who believe in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ would invest their energy spiritually half as much as they have politically we would run this nation again within 20 years (which is half the time abortion has already been legal). Why? Because if the 25% started seeking God's face and His will, we wouldn't just be 25% anymore.

What America needs is not more picket signs, nor more petitions, not more Facebook groups nor more political campaigns. It needs a blameless Church without spot or wrinkle that actually believes the God they claim to serve is worth seeking. It does not need more truth declared but much more truth demonstrated. It needs followers of Jesus to daily deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow Jesus.

If this had been going on for the past 50 years in our nation, gay marriage wouldn't even be a debate in the culture let alone the law of the land. But because of the mediocre, lukewarm, Biblically illiterate Church (that I have firmly been a part of), we have arrived at this point.

Many serious Christians can quote to you 2 Chronicles 7:14, which lays out for us a prescription for God's healing on a nation.

"If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land." 

Notice it says "if MY people" will do these things. Or as 1 Peter 4:17 says "Judgement begins in the house of God." While the Church is so worried about a culture that's turned from God, God is simply waiting for His Church to turn to Him. If HIS people do these things, He'll heal our land.

Well, what things? Pray. Seek his face. Turn from our wicked ways. We need ALL of that.

But I skipped one, and I think it might be the most important, simply because it's the one that allows us to do the rest.

"If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves..."

It's time for the people of God to humble ourselves. To humble ourselves and acknowledge that our human efforts aren't getting the job done. To humble ourselves and acknowledge opening the Bible once a week isn't enough. To humble ourselves and begin to pray. To humble ourselves and begin to seek the face of God. To humble ourselves and turn from the wickedness in our own lives, the "practical atheism" that infects us all. 

We must humble ourselves.

And we must humble ourselves and admit the mess that American culture has become is no one's fault but our own.

It's time to stop pointing fingers, and time to start hitting our knees. American culture is only going to get as bad as we allow it to. If Christians are bothered by the developments in our culture and political system, we must respond by humbling ourselves and owning it. Just as Daniel (who walked in far more purity than the American Church has) repented for the sins of His people, it is time for Christians to repent, first for our own junk, then for the junk in the Church, then for the junk in our nation.

It's not too late for America to return to God. But it is far too late for us to think that a better political plan is the solution. 2 Corinthians 10:3-4 "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds..." God never promised we would win when we fight with the weapons of this world. But He did promise we can do all things when we walk in His strength. 

When it comes to the war for our nation we now have two options. Own it. Or give up.

The ball is in your court, Church. Let's show ourselves worthy to stand on the shoulders of the men and women of Acts 4. Let's turn to God with our whole hearts. He's still in the business of forgiving sin and healing lands.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Free Will or Predestination?

NOTE: What follows are my notes, loosely reformatted, from a message I did to a group of young men discussing why I do not believe in Calvinism. I want to be clear that I did not pick this fight - I am hesitant to enter into such doctrinal debates because I find them unnecessarily divisive. I believe that heaven will be full of Calvinists and Arminians, Reformists and Methodists, Cessasionists and Charismatics It is my belief that if we can worship together in eternity, we should be able to worship together on earth, despite doctrinal differences. 

However, this group of young men (a group that leaned heavily towards the Calvinist side of the debate) repeatedly asked me for my views on this subject to the point where I knew they deserved an explanation of my thoughts. This is that explanation.

Quotations from outside sources, Scripture included, are in italics. As I have not gone through and reedited this document for a blog rather than a sermon, I apologize in advance for any points that may not be fully developed. Feel free to ask in the comments if you come across any section that is confusing or incomplete. Also, whereas I typically use the NIV, I used the ESV for this message unless otherwise noted, as the ESV is the translation Calvinists use almost exclusively.

Discussing Calvinism

This morning I want to share with you why I oppose Calvinism both on the grounds of theology and history. I will address both of these, beginning with the most important: theology.

We will examine each of the five foundational Calvinist doctrines, which are popularly known as TULIP though most in the reform movement would call the doctrines of grace.

I’m going to use definitions here from the Grace Online Library, a Calvinist apologist organization. I selected this site specifically since it works to present the doctrines of grace in the best possible light. The last thing I want to do is knockdown theological strawmen, I want to address the doctrines that are put in ways that those who believe them genuinely embrace.

Total Depravity (aka "Total Inability")

Because of the fall, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the gospel. The sinner is dead, blind, and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt. His will is not free, it is in bondage to his evil nature, therefore, he will not — indeed he cannot — choose good over evil in the spiritual realm. Consequently, it takes much more than the Spirit’s assistance to bring a sinner to Christ — it takes  regeneration by which the Spirit makes the sinner alive and gives him a new nature. Faith is not something man contributes to salvation but is itself a part of God’s gift of salvation— it is God’s gift to the sinner, not the sinner’s gift to God.

It seems from all of my readings that of the five core Calvinist doctrines, this is actually the most foundational. I suppose that makes sense, as how one approaches the fall of man certainly affects how he approaches man’s redemption.

 Beginning something of a theme, there is some here that I agree with and some that I do not.

 Let’s start with the common ground. I agree with the doctrine of Original Sin which this is founded upon.

Romans 5:12 “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” 

Thanks to Adam, we are all born sinners.

I also agree that man is incapable of believing on his own. For one example, 2 Corinthians 4:4 says “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

Calvinism goes on to teach that we will not, indeed, cannot, choose spiritual good or evil and that the Spirit must do all the work of opening our eyes and giving us saving faith. 

I see it differently. I believe God opens the eyes of unbelievers but that they still must choose to accept or reject the Lord as an act of their own will.

I believe Scripture repeatedly affirms choice. Joshua, one of the most direct OT types of Jesus, in fact the one who shares his very Hebrew name with our Lord, says this:

Joshua 24:14-15
And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

Obviously the nature of the redemption of the OT saints was different, but there’s a clear affirmation here of the power of CHOICE.

Perhaps an even greater affirmation of that power occurs in Deuteronomy 30:19-20

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.

Choice is not just an Old Testament doctrine. It appears repeatedly in the parables of Jesus. The tale of the Prodigal Son hinges on this statement ... when he came to himself...the NIV says “when he came to his senses”.

In both the parable of the hidden treasure and the parable of the pearl of great worth, there is an item of great value representing the kingdom of God, and the thing representing the kingdom is found by someone, who gives up everything to obtain the kingdom. Notice that in neither story does the kingdom of God find them, they find the kingdom.

In the Parable of the Sower it’s not the one who sows who chooses who grows. The difference is in the soil itself. In fact, Jesus summarizes the good soil this way (
Matthew 13:23):

As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, five virgins were ready, five were not. It was their own preparation which determined which virgins would go with the bridegroom, who obviously represents Jesus.

I don't completely reject total depravity, I completely affirm that all our righteousness is like filthy rags, that there is no one righteous, no not one. I just disagree with the idea that we are so far gone we cannot choose the One who is righteous.

Unconditional Election
God’s choice of certain individuals unto salvation before fore the foundation of the world rested solely in His own sovereign will. His choice of particular sinners was not based on any foreseen response or obedience on their part, such as faith, repentance, etc. On the contrary, God gives faith and repentance to each individual whom He selected. These acts are the result, not the cause God’s choice. Election therefore was not determined by or conditioned upon any virtuous quality or act foreseen in man. Those whom God sovereignly elected He brings through the power of the Spirit to a willing acceptance of Christ. Thus God’s choice of the sinner, not the sinner’s choice of Christ, is the ultimate cause of salvation.

This one is super basic. I believe that salvation is incumbent upon belief. It is absolutely conditional. Scripture teaches this consistently. A few examples include:

John 3:16-18

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

John 3:36
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.

Romans 10:9-17

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
16 But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” 17 Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.

Limited Atonement (aka “Particular Redemption”)
Christ’s redeeming work was intended to save the elect only and actually secured salvation for them. His death was a substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners. In addition to putting away the sins of His people, Christ’s redemption secured everything necessary for their salvation, including faith which unites them to Him. The gift of faith is infallibly applied by the Spirit to all for whom Christ died, therefore guaranteeing their salvation.

This is of course the most controversial element of TULIP. It’s the one that people like me push back against vigorously. While Calvin is obviously viewed as the chief expositor of the Calvinist dogma, there are many voices who have contributed to it’s formation. Prominent in that group was Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor at the University of Geneva. Beza, like many in the reformation, looked to Augustine as the church father with the purest theology, but we'll discuss Augustine more later. However, it was on this point that Beza took Augustine’s teachings one step further.

At this point we must define some foreign theological terms:

Sublapsarianism - This is the view held by Augustine that Adam's sin was freely chosen but that, after Adam's fall, the eternal destiny of each person was determined by the absolutely sovereign God.

Supralapsarianism - This is the view popularized by Theodore Beza that before the fall, indeed before man's creation, God had already determined what the eternal destiny of each person was to be.

Beza’s view became the Calvinist view. It is what Calvin himself taught, summed up in the title to chapter 21 of book 3 Institutes of the Christian Religion:"Of the eternal election, by which God has predestinated some to salvation, and others to destruction".

 This is commonly known as “Double Predestination”: that before the foundations of the world God chose who would receive salvation AND who would not.

There are some members of the modern reform movement who reject double predestination and embrace only single predestination, rejecting that God chooses some for damnation. I did not have time to thoroughly research single predestination, but on its surface I have a much easier time with it.

 What I believe is this - yes, God chooses believers. I believe a strong part of our spiritual identity is that we are chosen, we are adopted into His family.

Where I disagree is that this choosing is exclusive. I believe that we are chosen not to exclude others but to be agents of God’s inclusion. We are adopted to adopt others. As Pastor Perry Noble says “found people find people”.

There are at least two verses that blatantly oppose double predestination, in my view:

2 Peter 3:9

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

1 Timothy 2:4

(God) desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Reconciling Beza and Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination with a God who wants all to be saved is basically impossible. In fact, in Systematic Theology Calvinist Wayne Grudem goes so far as to declare that there are “two wills in God”, affirming that God desires everyone to be saved but declaring that his GREATER will is for some to be destroyed, and that God’s greater will wins out.

Arminius said the arguments against predestination all boil down to one, basically “that unconditional predestination makes God "the author of sin."” I have to agree with him. If God is creating people for damnation then He is creating them with no choice but to sin. I just don’t see that in His nature.

4. Irresistible Grace (aka “The Efficacious Call Of The Spirit”)
In addition to the outward general call to salvation which is made to everyone who hears the gospel, the Holy Spirit extends to the elect a special inward call that inevitably brings them to salvation. The eternal call (which is made to all without distinction) can be, and often is, rejected; whereas the internal call (which is made only to the elect) cannot be rejected; it always results in conversion. By means, of this special call the Spirit irresistibly draws sinners to Christ. He is not limited in His work of applying salvation by man’s will, nor is He dependent upon man’s cooperation for success. The Spirit graciously causes the elect sinner to cooperate, to believe, to repent, to come freely and willingly to Christ. God’, grace. therefore, is invincible; it never fails to result in the salvation of those to whom it is extended.

I Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 are again undeniable here. If God wants everyone to be saved (and he clearly does), how are so many unsaved if grace is irresistible? 

I affirm that the Holy Spirit must make this inward call to us to repent, that God takes the first step, but I do not believe it is irresistible. I don't see any Scriptural evidence of this idea. Man, in his free will, has the ability to 
choose to believe or reject God.

5. Perseverance Of The Saints

All who are chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and given faith by the Spirit are eternally saved. They are kept in faith by the power of Almighty God and thus persevere to the end.

This is the one point of Calvinist doctrine that I can most embrace, and it is ironically the one that I grew up most opposed to. The Assemblies of God and non-denominational Pentecostal churches I grew up in believed and taught that one could lose one’s salvation. I was so steeped in this doctrine that once I arrived in the smalltown south and was surrounded by Baptists, this became the key debate. I had no clue who John Calvin was, let alone Jacobus Arminius, but I fiercely argued that salvation was losable. 

It got so bad that my Baptist friends would introduce me to their Baptist pastors and youth pastors to try and get them to convince me that I was wrong, but these discussions just more fully steeled my resolve.

When I was 20 years old I “took a year off” from Toccoa Falls College to complete an internship program at Church On The Move (henceforth “COTM”). Little did I know that I would be there four years, or that God would rock my theology while I was there much more deeply than he did in my two years at the bible college.

It was at COTM that Pastor Willie George significantly deepened my understanding of salvation. He helped me see that upon salvation we are given a new spirit, that our old spirit is dead and discarded and God gives us a new spirit which is in contact with the Holy Spirit.

Once I really digested this, it made sense to me that we’re not gaining and losing salvation willy-nilly. Our new spirit that is in relationship with the Holy Spirit is not dying and being discarded only to be replaced again.

There is, however, one section of Scripture that still really gives me pause:

Hebrews 6:4-6

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age 6 and who have fallen[c] away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

This seems to suggest that it IS possible to fall away, it’s just not possible to return. To me, this is the extreme of the extreme situations, something that most Christians would never have to really fear. I would say I am 99.8% Calvinist on perseverance of the saints.


While we must build every theological understanding from Scripture, in instances where Scripture seems to teach both sides as it does with some of this, it can be instructive to turn to our church fathers to see what they believed, as the closer they were to the apostles, the more likely they were to have the apostles’ theology.

This look does not turn out so well for the Calvinist. The earliest church fathers who are respected and studied today were unanimous in their belief in free will. To wit:

Justin Martyr said that "every created being is so constituted as to be capable of vice and virtue. For he can do nothing praiseworthy, if he had not the power of turning either way." "Unless we suppose man has the power to choose the good and refuse the evil, no one can be accountable for any action whatever." (The First Apology, 43).

Tertullian also argued that no reward can be justly bestowed, no punishment can be justly inflicted, upon him who is good or bad by necessity, and not by his own choice. (Doctrine of the Will by Asa Mahan, p. 61).

I could go on. Clement of Alexandria, Theophilus, Origen all made strong statements in support of belief in free will. Perhaps most indicative to me is the teaching of Irenaeus. Irenaeus studied under John’s disciple Polycarp, putting him just one generation removed from the apostle. Irenaeus is perhaps most well known as the first church father to recognize that the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were canonical while rejecting the canonicity of all other “gospels”.

Irenaeus said, “ 'Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds’…And ‘Why call me, Lord, Lord, and do not do the things that I say?’…All such passages demonstrate the independent will of man…For it is in man’s power to disobey God and to forfeit what is good.”

Free will was universally the view of the earliest church fathers. In fact, predestination was not embraced by any prominent church father until Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine got saved in his late 40’s out of the Manichaen faith - a gnostic religion that teaches duality of good and evil. While I absolutely affirm that Augustine’s conversion was real and he effectively argued against the Manichaen’s, he certainly brought some of his past with him. And of course, the doctrine that he introduced to Christianity that we’re discussing today, predestination, was a foundational doctrine of the Manichaen’s.

Those church fathers closely connected to the Apostles believed in Free Will. Augustine, some 350 to 380 years after Jesus, began teaching the idea of predestination. We can never build a theology simply off of what the early church believed, we must always build theology in scripture, but it is certainly informative to find where any doctrine originated.

Ultimately I believe this - there is definitely truth to both sides here, but there is a point on the Calvinist-Arminian spectrum that represents the complete truth. I don’t pretend to have figured out where that point is, but for me I would say it's somewhere around 75 or 80% on the Arminian side. In my opinion, much of this debate hinges on a difference in the understanding of the idea of sovereignty.

I believe God is omniscient and sovereign. However I don’t see sovereignty meaning the same thing Calvinists do. In earthly terms, soverieignty means that you are in charge, that you are self determining, that no one else's decisions control yours. You are in control of yourself.

I absolutely affirm God’s sovereignty. God is absolutely in charge. He is on the throne. There is no one higher, no one greater, no one who is even comparable. 

I do not, however, believe that God is in total control. Satan is the prince of this world. He has some authority here. The cross of Jesus reclaimed much of that authority but not all of it - that will not come until the return of Christ and the victory at Armageddon.

And much of what Jesus reclaimed on the cross He then turned around and delegated again to man. We are in control of evangelism - Romans 10 makes this clear. We have authority over spiritual matters - Matthew 18 tells us that whatever is bound on earth is bound in heaven and whatever is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven. We have authority to live our lives as we choose. Some would call this free will.

Now, I do believe that God is ultimately in control, meaning that He holds the outcome in His hands and cannot and will not be stopped from achieving total victory. In the end, He will wipe away every tear, He will defeat Satan and bring in a new heaven and new earth for His people. Until that day, I believe we must exercise our free will, and be agents of God’s inclusion.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What's So Uncool About Cool Blogs? A response to mattarino

What’s So Uncool About Cool Blogs?

Recently, I have had two people who don’t know each other send me the compellingly titled blogpost “What’s So Uncool About Cool Churches?”

First off, let me address the title. Someone once said CityChurch is a cool church and I about threw up. First of all, I don't really think that's true, there are good churches that are much, much "cooler" than we are. Secondly, it's not something I necessarily aspire to. I don't see relevant and cool as direct synonyms.

Regardless, since it seems that that this article is somewhat making the church cyber rounds, I felt the Internet was the best location to respond to it. Besides, I was bound to start blogging again eventually. What follows is my semi-comprehensive response to this piece. I should start by saying I know nothing about the author other than what is stated on this page. I’m not even sure if his name is “Mat Tarino” or “Matt Arino” (Edit: Apparently, it's Matt Marino, who has been gracious enough to visit the comments section. My apologies to Pastor Matt).

Outside of his statements in this piece, I do not have any feelings towards the author or knowledge of him, good or bad.

 I intentionally didn't do any research on him or his ministry as I didn't want that information to bias my response. I was asked to respond to the article itself, and will try to that as best as I can. 

“Unintended Consequences: How the “relevant” church and segregating youth is killing Christianity.”

Pastor Matt (I’m going with my gut on this one) starts out strong and clear. He obviously knows the power of a thesis statement. He thinks Christianity is dying, and that the contemporary church and modern youth ministry are to blame. Points for not burying the lede. I'm going to disagree with a lot of what he says, but the man knows how to write persuasively. Kudos.  

Today I have the sense that we are at the same place in the church. The church may look healthy on the outside, but it has swallowed the fatal pills. The evidence is stacking up: the church is dying and, for the most part, we are refusing the diagnosis.

The anecdote leading up to this paragraph is powerful. I applaud Pastor Matt’s service in the hospitals. I can’t imagine the devastation he deals with on a regular basis. Great ministry.

All that said, I strongly disagree with his conclusion here. I don’t believe that “the church is dying" in anyway shape or form. Any look at the impact of the global church - particularly the rapid evangelization of the African continent and the flourishing house church movement in the parts of the world where the Gospel is under persecution - tells us that the universal church is thriving. It appears that “the church” Pastor Matt is referring to is the American church, or at least the Western church. The supporting statistics he presents seem to be indicative of American specific studies. And while his evidence is compelling, I don’t even necessarily agree that the American church is dying. I do agree that the numbers are bothersome, and the American church is, at the very least, at a crossroads.

What evidence? Take a gander at these two shocking items: 1. 20-30 year olds attend church at 1/2 the rate of their parents and ¼ the rate of their grandparents.  Think about the implication for those of us in youth ministry: Thousands of us have invested our lives in reproducing faith in the next generation and the group we were tasked with reaching left the church when they left us.

2. 61% of churched high school students graduate and never go back! (Time Magazine, 2009) Even worse: 78%  to 88% of those in youth programs today will leave church, most to never return. (Lifeway, 2010) Please read those last two statistics again. Ask yourself why attending a church with nothing seems to be more effective at retaining youth than our youth programs. 

I’m not sure if this blog is getting so much attention because the general populace is unaware of these numbers, but as someone who has spent the last 14 years in youth ministry, most of it full-time, these stats aren’t exactly news. When we started the662 eight years ago we directly targeted the statistic that was prevalent at that point in time - that 80 to 85% of young people will walk away from church during their high school years. We took aim at flipping that number upside down, and while it is too early to declare any sort of victory, a cursory look at the students who have graduated high school out of the662 in the past 8 years tells a great story. With the exception of but one graduating class (2011), the graduates who have come out of our youth ministry are overwhelmingly still not only in church, but serving God and even involved in their churches. 

The glaring difference between 2011 and the other classes is that the vast majority of our 2011 graduates floated into our youth ministry at the end of their junior years or beginning of their senior year, and more importantly, never went through our discipleship program, went on a mission trip, or even attended a camp. In other words, they were only peripherally involved, in stark contrast to the classes that came before.

Zooming out to the bigger picture, the statistics in point two sound awful, and there may be some truth to them, but any amateur statistician knows the dangers of combining results from two different studies to form any conclusion. The idea that students in youth ministries are more likely to leave church than those not in youth ministries is far from proven by those two stats, though it certainly gives the author a great base to launch his ideas.

Two quick questions immediately come to mind about these studies. First, in the Time Magazine statistic it suggests that 61% of churched HS students leave graduate and NEVER go back. The follow up stat says “78-88% of those in youth programs today will leave church, MOST to never return”. What percentage is most? (WARNING, MATH TO FOLLOW) If most is, say, 60% of those in the 78-88%, then we’re talking 42% to 53% off those in youth programs who will leave and never return, or as little as 3/4 of those who are not in youth programs.

Please note: A) I’m not trying to build an argument that it’s only 60% of those who represent “most”. I have no idea. My point is that it appears that neither does Pastor Matt. It’s a terrible misuse of the stats he presents to draw the conclusion he does, and that conclusion is basically used as the foundation of the entire argument that follows.

B) I’m not suggesting that even if it is 42% to 53% who will never return that this makes it okay. That stat is still massively disturbing, even if it does seem to ignore the Holy Spirit’s ability to overcome our shortcomings and turn things around in the future.

The second question that comes to mind is more general: Did these studies use the same methodology? Did they study the same individuals? Did their survey cover the same demographics, the same churches, the same denominations, etc? The answer is almost certainly no, which again, means you can’t marry the conclusions together and pretend they prove something.

We build big groups and count “decisions for Christ,” but the Great Commission is not to get kids to make decisions for Jesus but to make disciples for Him. We all want to make Christians for life, not just for high school. We have invested heavily in youth ministry with our lives specifically in order engage youth in the church. Why do we have such a low return on our investment?

I don’t disagree here at all. The Great Commission is to make disciples (who in turn make disciples), and the American Church is doing a poor job of this. In my observation I would say this is a problem across age ranges as well as methodologies and denominations, though I admit I don’t have a handy study to back this up. But I do not see great discipleship processes at work in much of the American Church.  

What are we doing in our Youth Ministries that might be making people less likely to attend church as an adult?

I see this as a false premise on multiple levels. First, I don’t agree with the conclusion that youth ministry is making people less likely to attend church (at the very least, the evidence presented here is very weak). Second, I don’t agree with his assumption that youth ministry itself is the problem. It’s very possible, perhaps even likely, that the problem is what happens after young people graduate high school. It’s long been my belief that the American Church has done a very poor job of assimilating students out of youth ministry and into the greater church, as well as a terrible job of helping college students handle the unique challenges of their season of life. The latter is certainly not a youth ministry issue, the former is one that youth ministry likely shares the blame with the greater church structure.

When it comes to assimilation, I believe it can and should start during the youth ministry years. At CityChurch of Olive Branch, we strive to plug our students in to various other aspects of our church as early as sixth grade (and we’re looking at ways to do it sooner). We tell students almost every week that they need a church, not just a youth ministry. We find ways to get them ownership in the greater church by serving in virtually every type of ministry that our adults do. By the time young people graduate high school, they are not stranded without anything to grab hold of now that youth ministry days are behind them, rather they have great relationships with other believers of various ages, a sense of pride and purpose in the church as a whole, and a great understanding that they NEED a church not just a youth group.

What we are doing has been highly successful, but it is hardly revolutionary. There are churches all over America doing this very thing, and experiencing the same wins that we are. It might be the rule rather than the exception right now, but from my perspective the American Church is trending in the right direction in this area.  

What is the “pill” we have overdosed on? I believe it is “preference.” We have embraced the idea of market-driven youth ministry. Unfortunately, giving people what they “prefer” is a road, that once you go down it, has no end. Tim Elmore in his 2010 book entitled Generation iY calls this “the overindulged Generation.” They ask for more and more, and we give it to them. And more and more the power of God is substituted for market-driven experience. In an effort to give people something “attractive” and “relevant” we embraced novel new methods in youth ministry, that 20 years later are having a powerful shaping effect on the entire church. Here are the marks of being market-driven; Which are hallmarks of your ministry?

Again, I’m not sure that youth ministry has overdosed on any pill. At the very least, I think that’s a major over-generalization. However, are there youth ministries out there that have gone too far in the area of preference? Most assuredly. Are their places that are more concerned with getting kids to show up than getting their lives to change? Certainly. I just don’t agree that being attractional or relevant is the problem in and of itself. But I’m sure we’ll get deeper into the that as we go. Here are his “Hallmarks” of youth ministry:  

1. Segregation. We bought into the idea that youth should be segregated from the family and the rest of the church. It started with youth rooms, and then we moved to “youth services.” We ghettoized our children! (After all, we are cooler than the older people in “big church”. And parents? Who wants their parents in their youth group?) Be honest: Have you ever thought you know more than your your student’s parents? Have you ever thought your youth group was cooler than “big church”?

A few things here. First, this is obviously a slippery slope. If it’s wrong to have a “segregated” (GREAT persuasive word by the way, very inflammatory!) youth room is it wrong to have a segregated children’s ministry? What about a nursery? Should all people of all ages be present in the same room at all times? What are the implications for small groups?

I of course can not speak for “YOUTH MINISTRY” as a whole and I don’t intend to. But I can speak for my experience. When I started as youth pastor at the662 our well-meaning Lead Pastor asked me to begin a separate Sunday morning youth service and I told him I would do whatever he asked me to do, but that I hated the idea. I told him that our students need to be connected to the full body, and that separating them from the Sunday service would risk making make me their pastor, not him. I told him my goal was the opposite - I wanted HIM to come be with us on a semi regular basis on our Wednesdays youth nights. I told him our students needed to hear from their pastor and be connected to him, not just to their youth pastor.

Thankfully, that pastor was very gracious and listened to me, and he agreed to both of my suggestions - we kept our students with the church body on Sunday mornings and looked for opportunities to get our Pastor (and later, our Associate Pastor) connected to the students on Wednesdays. I believe we made the right call in both cases. And in my experience, while there are some youth leaders who think they are “cooler” than the older people in the church, there are also pastors who want the teenagers out of their hair so they can lead the “real” church. In my opinion, it is in THIS area that the greatest damage is done to teenagers - Senior Pastor abandonment and neglect, rather than Youth Pastor arrogance.

And yes, I have thought I know more than some of my student’s parents from time to time, and if you knew the situations those students were in (parents having them smoke marijuana with them, one poor guy whose parents have had a combined 13 marriages at last count, etc) then you would probably think you had some better wisdom for the child than mom and dad did, too. That said, we have ALWAYS upheld and affirmed parental authority to our students, to a fault.

 “Have you ever thought your youth group was cooler than “big church”? 

Not that I can recall but I’m sure I’ve probably had that thought at some point in time or them. But in general I’ve always been a big fan of the churches I’ve served in, or else I wouldn’t have been serving in them. In fact, that was the primary thing I looked for when interviewing to be a youth pastor - what church (and specifically, what pastor) could I get behind and wholeheartedly serve.

2. Big = effective. Big is (by definition) program driven: Less personal, lower commitment; a cultural and social thing as much as a spiritual thing. Are those the values that we actually hold?

I don’t necessarily believe that bigger is better, but I do believe that numbers matter. We count people because people count. Filling a room with people with no life change is not the goal, but an empty room automatically means no life change. The most effective ministries are the ones who have figured out how to, as Pastor Andy Stanley puts it, reach “deep and wide”. To evangelize and make disciples. To have quantity and quality. I do not believe quantity always equals quality but nor do I believe that quality equals low quantity. I’m idealist enough to think we can and should strive for both.  

3. More programs attended = stronger disciples. The inventers of this idea, Willow Creek, in suburban Chicago, publically repudiated this several years ago. They discovered that there was no correlation between the number of meetings attended and people’s spiritual maturity. They learned the lesson. Will we?

It would be awesome if you provided a link or a direct quote. To my understanding this is a misuse of Willow’s backtracking, but I haven’t studied the issue enough to say so definitively. I’m not sure that Willow “invented” this idea either, though I suppose you could say they popularized it.  

4. Christian replacementism. We developed a Christian version of everything the world offers: Christian bands, novels, schools, soccer leagues, t-shirts. We created the perfect Christian bubble.

We agree on something! I HATE Christian isolationism. We are called to be in but not of the world. Well said, Pastor Matt.

5. Cultural “relevance” over transformation. We imitated our culture’s most successful gathering places in an effort to be “relevant.” Reflect on the Sunday “experience” at most Big-box churches: Concert hall (worship) Comedy club (sermon) Coffee house (foyer)

Jesus met with people on a lakeshore in a fishing boat...and in the synagogues...and one on one...and on a mountainside...and walking down the street. Jesus was pretty “relevant” as far as I can tell.

 Also, the idea that mega churches (or those emulating them) are simply comedy clubs when it comes to their messages is borderline offensive. I’m sure there are a few who value laughter over life-change but I have been a part of one and observed quite a few from a distance and have yet to see one that this descriptor would fit. They might tell a joke from time to time but that’s a considerably small percentage of their message. 
Besides, I happen to believe Jesus wasn’t humorless.

And what about Transformation? Is that not missing from these models? Where is a sense of the holy?

What exactly is the implication here? That small = holy? That laughter is unholy? That music that people enjoy is unholy? 

I’ve been in services that were massively irrelevant, and they gave me a sense of many things, but holiness was not one of them.

6.  Professionalization. If we do know an unbeliever, we don’t need to share Christ with them, we have pastors to do that. We invite them to something… to an “inviter” event… we invite them to our “Christian” subculture. This feels like another false dichotomy to me.

Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church make it clear that it was to be expected that unbelievers may attend your services. I agree that many churches aren’t compelling people to share their faith, but I don’t think this is a problem unique to “attractional” or “relevant” churches. We have spent years and years and years teaching students to share their faith, and yes, a couple times a year we encourage them to invite them to something. I don’t think the two ideas are mutually exclusive.

7. “McDonald’s-ization” vs. Contextualization:  It is no longer our own vision and passion. We purchase it as a package from today’s biggest going mega-church. It is almost like a “franchise fee” from Saddleback or The Resurgence.

Hmmmm. Both of those ministries share ideas and methodologies while expressly stating you have to use them in your context as the Holy Spirit leads. If we can’t learn from others in ministry, why would you have a blog to share your ideas? Classic plankeye syndrome.

8. Attractional over missional. When our greatest value is butts in pews we embrace attractional models. Rather than embrace Paul’s Ephesians 4 model in which ministry gifts are given by God to “equip the saints” we have developed a top-down hierarchy aimed at filling buildings. This leaves us with Sunday “church” an experience for the unchurched, with God-centered worship of the Almighty relegated to the periphery and leading of the body of Christ to greater spiritual power and sanctification to untrained small group leaders.

Funny that he takes such a pro missional stance right after the shot at The Resurgence. I’m not sure who this guy does like. Also, if he actually thinks that attractional models value butts in pews I daresay he hasn’t have a good grasp of what attractional models actually are. But I digress.

As for the bigger point, yes, it is possible to overemphasize numbers and sacrifice life change, saint equipping and genuine, Christ-exalting worship. I happen to believe that the greatest attractional models will be inherently missional and the greatest missional models will be inherently attractional. I feel like many thousands of Christ’s hours have been wasted on this particular debate, so I won’t contribute anymore to it. Suffice to say, I am a both/and kind of guy rather than either/or.

Does not all of this work together as a package to leave us with churches full of empty people?

 Great line. Like most of this article, there is probably some places this is applicable to, but I believe it’s a massive overgeneralization.

Here is an example: Your church. Does it look like this?

No, though it wouldn’t bother me if it did.

If you look closely, you will see the photo on the right is of a nightclub, rather than a church. Can you see what I mean about “relevance” and the clean Christian version of what the world offers? Your youth room is a pretty good indicator of what your church will look like 15 years from now. Because of the principle “What you win them with, you win them to,” your students today will expect their adult church to look like your youth room.

I thought all the young people were leaving the church after finishing youth ministry, why would we need our church to look like the youth room 15 years from now?

In summary, “Market Driven” youth ministry gave students a youth group that looks like them, does activities they prefer, sings songs they like, and preaches on subjects they are interested in. It is a ministry of preference. And, with their feet, young adults are saying……“Bye-bye.”

Again, Pastor Matt is assuming that young adults are leaving church because youth ministry appealed to them, rather than addressing:

1) The church’s failure to engage young people (and yes, many youth ministry’s failure to push young people to engage the church).

2) The church’s failure to engage college students (perhaps the biggest part of this problem, IMO).

3) The poor job of discipleship in many churches as a whole.

4) The lack of relevance that many traditional churches offer their adults. It’s on this point we almost kind of agree - I do think part of the reason some young people leave after youth ministry is because youth ministry was relevant. I just think the problem is not that youth ministry in that church was relevant, but that the church itself was not. Young adults who cannot reconcile the dichotomy can be turned off.

5) The role of parents in all of this, which is huge. Kids who grow up being forced to go to church but have parents who model completely unChristlike lifestyles are often counting the days until they don't have to go to church anymore. The primary issue here is not with any church methodology but with parents who say one thing and do another. Young people see right through that. If they don't develop a personal relationship with Christ, they're going to leave, almost assuredly.

What might we do instead? The opposite of giving people what they want is to give them what they need. The beauty is that Christianity already knows how to do this.

Basic psychology teaches us that there is a hierarchy of needs (thanks Maslow!). In short, the more basic a need is (such as food), the more prominence that need takes when it is not met, and the less that higher needs matter. Spiritual needs are obviously our most essential, but they are rarely our most pressing. I’m a firm believer that when youth ministry meets young people’s felt needs (safety, food, social interaction, etc) it opens them up to discovering their deeper, more critical spiritual needs.

Obviously, I would never advocate simply using psychology to build ministry methodology. Thankfully, this is exactly what I see Jesus doing - twice he meets the masses physical need for food, often he meets individuals physical needs for healing, he meets the woman caught in adultery’s need for safety....and then he tells her to go and sin no more. How different does that story read if he tells her to sin no more first? How different is her response?

Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 9

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

The counter argument to Pastor Matt’s, of course, is that many (not all) *traditional* churches have valued the traditions of men over people. Outside the above passage and a few others in Corinthians, the Bible is curiously quiet when it comes to methodology, but loud when it comes to the gospel, truth and mission. Personally, I don't see this as an oversight. Rather,  I believe God designed the church to be a living, breathing organism that would be adaptable to any and all cultural contexts.

The greatest challenge facing the contemporary church of today IMO is not over contextualization, but the need to maintain flexibility when culture inevitably shifts in the coming decades. The methods that reach and disciple people best today will almost certainly not be the methods that are most successful in 2040. Relevant churches will have to be careful not to let today’s methods become the new normal, or else they will simply become a new type of traditional. My prayer is that we don’t let that happen, but rather continue to seek the most effective tools to reach people for the glory of God.

- PT

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Warning, semi-annual political rant coming: Chicago, Boston and San Francisco claiming that Chik-Fil-A is unwelcome because of their stance on gay marriage and Hermain Cain and company campaigning to block the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, TN (and claiming all communities have that right) are opposite sides of the same ugly coin. No government has the right to prevent someone from building something in the USA just because they disagree with their political or religious views.

It's nice seeing the right stand up against this nonsense, but sooooo many who are against government intrusion in this case were for it in the mosque situation (and, it must be said, vice versa). The hypocrisy is sickening, and both sides are equally guilty.

The government needs to do it's job and quit overstepping its bounds, and officials like Menino and Cain and Emanuel need to be put in check, no matter which political party they are aligned with. People on both sides need to wake up and quit supporting government overstepping its bounds just because they disagree with somebody, or we're going to quickly end up without the right to peaceable dissent.

There's a much bigger picture here than Sharia Law or gay marriage, we're talking freedom to openly disagree with our government (and/or popular opinion/conventional wisdom). When that's gone, we're no longer America.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Gay Marriage

The debate has become front and center in our culture, and it seems everyone has an opinion. This blog post by Geoff Surratt is the best article I've yet seen on the topic, and comes very, very close to articulating my position on it. Check it out and let me know what you think.

P. S. I don't have time to enter a complete discourse on my feelings on the topic, but I did enter a discussion on Facebook with a friend from NC who was frustrated with her opposition to gay marriage being labeled as "hate". Here was my response. This should illustrate fairly well how I feel about this debate:

The sad truth is that there IS a lot of hate spewed towards homosexuals, oftentimes from Christians. Obviously, those with an agenda have exaggerated that and leveraged it so that anyone who opposes the agenda is associated with that hate, but the hate definitely exists. I'll never forget talking to a guy I worked with who was gay and he told me I was the first Christian who ever treated him with any respect.

Homosexuality is a sin, and as the salt and light of the world we must be willing to stand up and say that. However, Scripture compels us to speak the truth IN love, and while many conservative Christians get the truth part right (and many liberal Christians get the love part right), the amount of God's people who walk in both (particularly on this issue) is sadly low.

I'm not saying you aren't walking in truth in love. I'm just saying there's a reason we are being branded as haters, and it's not just because in the last days men will call good evil and evil good. A lot of it has to do with the unChristlike way the church has responded to homosexuality.

Gay marriage is going to be legalized in our generation, I think that's basically a given. I do continue to have hope that the church will rise up and not just proclaim truth, but show Christ's love. We tend to be better at hating the sin than loving the sinner. I believe we can and will do better.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Incredible Article On Arguing For Life

This is one of the best pieces I've ever seen on building a case for zygotic and fetal life on reason. Really well done, and a must read for believers, in my opinion.