Let me begin with some general observations about the nature of truth. Contra both Pontius Pilate and many in our society, I believe in objective truth. For me, this conviction follows naturally from my faith in the capital-T Truth. If God is, then light and darkness, right and wrong, and truth and falsehood also are. Something is either true or it isn’t. Binary. On-off.
If something is true, it is true regardless of source or context. If my best friend is praising some attribute of mine and he’s correct, that’s the truth. If he comes to me in love and correctly points out a mistake I’ve made, that’s truth too.
For that matter, if my worst enemy on the planet (whoever that might be) publicly denounces some flaw of mine, with 100 percent evil intentions, ignoring all the bad things he’s done to me, guess what? My enemy has told the truth. Maybe the conclusions that he wants others to draw from the truth aren’t justified. However, his enmity does not give me the right to deny or ignore my flaw.
I think most brethren are on board so far, so let’s start talking about the Gillette commercial that has engendered so much controversy recently. First of all, like any business that sells ads, Gillette’s motives are entirely commercial. They don’t care about morality or cultural change. They want to sell razors, and if acting like they care about the values of others will sell razors, that’s what they’ll do.
In Gillette’s eyes, if this ad campaign sells more razors and does not change the bad behavior of one bully or sexual harasser, it will have been a success. If it makes America a better place and does not sell more razors, it will have been a failure. Them’s the facts, and criticizing Gillette for that is like criticizing a vulture for eating carrion.
I think too that the ad is meant to take sides in the culture wars. It is meant to appeal to those who seek to minimize, de-masculinize, and diminish men. The ongoing destruction of the two-parent family is both cause and effect here.
Furthermore, the ad focuses on bad behavior by males while ignoring bad behavior by females. If you don’t think that junior-high girls can be even more vicious bullies than junior-high boys, you’ve got another think coming.
Having said all that, you know what? Everything in that commercial was true. Far too many men have behaved badly for far too long, “Christian” and non-Christian alike. They have taken advantage of their power to exploit and abuse those who are weaker. It continues to be a serious problem to this day. Bullying, sexual harassment, and worse are rampant.
I don’t care who calls that out as wrong. It’s wrong. Every last one of us knows that the Bible condemns both that behavior and the heart that lies behind it.
If we deny that, if we reject or minimize the truth because of its source and its context, if we focus on the motives rather than the message (Philippians 1:15-18 notwithstanding), we have lost the right to claim that we are defenders of truth. In fact, we have become every bit as post-modern as those we oppose.
Truth doesn’t belong to us. Truth doesn’t belong to them. Truth belongs to God. Either we acknowledge it, or we don’t.
The other day, I read this fascinating op-ed by David Brooks. It tells the story of a member of a punk-rock band who called out the band’s lead singer for sending an unwelcome explicit photograph to a woman, leading to his banishment from the punk-rock scene. A few years later, someone discovered that she had mocked a nude photo of another girl in high school. She too got called out and shunned.
As always, I am struck by the bizarrely puritanical turn that American progressivism has taken. Sure, progressives are generally very tolerant of many things that the Scripture describes as sinful. However, underneath that façade of tolerance lies an ironbound code of conduct.
If it comes out that you’ve treated somebody in a way that progressives disapprove of, WHAM! The hammer will fall. All of your friends will reject you, and they will never again let you back into the circle of the elect. It’s exactly the kind of behavior that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about in The Scarlet Letter.
Though it’s hard for us to get our heads around the idea, progressives like this are very moral people. Even though they deny that there is any such thing as absolute right and wrong, they behave as though there is. They reject the authority of the Bible, but in their judgments of others, they appeal to the authority of progressive thought. They are more unbending in their insistence on their beliefs than the fieriest church dragon any of us have ever known.
However, for all their zeal, their ethical system has a serious, indeed fatal, flaw. It offers no hope for mercy or forgiveness. You get to feel all self-righteous when you denounce others, but when you slip up and somebody denounces you, it’s all over. You will find no place for repentance, though you seek for it with tears.
Here, we encounter one of the great things that Christ has done for us. As Paul observes in Romans 3:26, the blood of Jesus makes it possible for God to be both just and our justifier. He can simultaneously insist on the righteousness of a perfect moral code and forgive those who don’t live up to it. We see the seriousness of sin revealed in the crucifixion, but the power of the cross makes it possible for all of us to move beyond our sins. Without Christ, either God’s law is unimportant, or our transgressions must haunt us forever. With Him, we can find grace through His self-sacrifice.
In other words, Christianity offers hope. Progressive philosophy doesn’t. Progressives are either justified by works or not justified at all.
By contrast, a church is (or at least ought to be) a community of people who have confessed their inability to justify themselves through their own righteousness. We’ve all messed up, so we are able to welcome and enfold somebody else who has messed up and wants another chance. We are merciful because we have received mercy.
Without that source of mercy, progressives are left with a grim choice. Either they deny the importance of the standards that they prize, or they reject all who violate those standards. Laws or people. You pick.
In Christ, we don’t have to.
I’ve known and appreciated Terry Francis for a number of years now, but his recent series of posts on preachers and churches may well prove to be more valuable to the Lord’s work than anything else he’s done. In them, Terry has confronted some hard truths about elders, about churches, and, yes, about preachers.
In his most recent post, he highlighted the propensity of the latter to get trapped in a Rick Warren church-growth mindset, with a resultant focus on numbers and neglect of brethren. Ouch. Caught me right between the eyes with that one, Terry. Like him, I can look back with sorrow at times in my work when I cared more about number of baptisms per year than I did about fostering relationships with those who were already members of the congregation.
Don’t get me wrong. Saving souls is wonderful, but so too is dwelling with other Christians in unity and peace. We must do the first, but emphasizing the first at the expense of the second is a perversion of Scripture.
I think this is another one of the areas in which the church has taken its lead from wider American society. Society teaches us that the preacher is an employee and the church leadership is his employer. So too, society teaches us that if you want to evaluate the usefulness of your employee, you need data. You need metrics, even if useful metrics really don’t exist. Another one of those American illusions is that only the measurable is important.
According to this way of thinking, the preacher’s job is to keep the church in the black. As long as the attendance and contribution keep rising, all is well. If either starts declining, hmmm. It might be time to “look for a new direction”.
Preachers, at least the ones who think they can “grow the church”, like this metrical method too. It gives them job security (they think), and it gives them justification to become puffed up and proud. How dare any member get crossways with them??? They’re growing the church!
As Terry points out, this is a dangerous delusion. When it comes to the Lord’s work, no man can give the increase. Both preachers and churches must acknowledge this. The data that offer the appearance of objectivity end up distorting the truth instead, either about our preachers or about ourselves.
If we want to test the quality of a man’s work, we have to use Scriptures, not spreadsheets. Three whole books of the Bible are devoted to a discussion of the work of the evangelist, and there is much other material besides. The word reveals quite clearly what questions we ought to be asking.
Among them are these: Does a man work hard? Does he accurately handle the word of truth? Is his conduct an example for other believers? Does he preach the word, in season and out of season? Is he humble and patient in his dealings with others, especially when they’re wrong? Above all, does he love the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength?
These things cannot be measured, but their value is immeasurable. A man who is and does these things, regardless of the number on the attendance board, has won the approval of God. Preachers need to rest themselves in this truth; church leaders need to honor it.
If, conversely, numbers begin to matter to us more than godliness, surely ungodliness will not be far behind.
Last week, my friend and brother Kent Berman shared some of his spiritual reflections on Facebook. He observed that the crush of worship services and church activities on Sunday, and indeed through the rest of the week, left him and his family feeling rushed and stressed out. He suggested that many churches would be better off in thinning out their calendars, leaving more time for Christians to spend on prayer, Bible study, family activity, and getting to know their neighbors.
I thought this was an intriguing idea, and I both partially agreed and partially disagreed with it. On the “agreement” side, I think it’s easy for American churches to follow the pattern of American culture, which tends toward stress and excess. To the American mind, the answer to every problem is a program. Young people leaving the church? More youth devotions! Christians with marriage problems? Let’s have a series of studies!
I don’t mean to suggest that any of these things, or other things like them, are ungodly. Individually, they may even be wise. In the aggregate, however, they result in a calendar so cluttered with worship services and small-group activities and special events that you basically have to be the preacher to show up to all of them. When many Christians are already leading lives that are overheating with stress, this may well push them to apathy rather than spiritual excellence.
It’s good, then, for church leaders to reflect long and hard before throwing a program at the problem. That extra teen devo may well be coming out of the few hours a week that teens have to spend with their families, and time with parents is (or at least ought to be) more spiritually influential than anything the devo leader might say. If parents aren’t spending significant time on spiritual interaction with their kids, well, we’ve found the real problem, haven’t we? No program can overcome that.
Fundamentally, though, the reason why Christian families are stressed out and don’t have time for spiritual growth and each other isn’t the church. It’s the culture. Three assemblies and a small-group meeting aren’t going to stress you out if you aren’t doing anything else with your week (which is why retired Christians show up to things like that and gripe about how younger Christians aren’t). However, if both husband and wife are working 50 hours a week to make the payments on a 3000-square-foot house, two late-model SUV’s, and $10K in credit-card debt, then yeah, those extra five hours will push you over the edge. In fact, you may already be over the edge because of little Johnny and Jane and their 50 million extracurricular activities that you have to take them to or be a Bad Parent.
It’s good to question whether the church is trying to do too much. It’s better to question whether in our personal lives, we are trying to do too much. In many cases, we have drunk too deeply of our society’s assumptions about prosperity and success, and they’re causing us to wreck our lives. We careen through life screaming at our loved ones, and we blame the church and its five-hours-a-week drain on our time because those materialistic assumptions are too deeply ingrained to question.
I’m all for churches being respectful of their members’ busy schedules. However, if our lives are crazy and out-of-control, we need to be honest about where the problem really lies.
‘Tis the season for funerals. Over the past few weeks, my family and I have been to three visitations/funerals: two for relatives of Jackson Heights members, one for the infant daughter of some friends of ours. The two men who died were not Christians; our friends are Christians, very much so.
The differences between the first two and the last one were striking. What, after all, does one say at the funeral of an irreligious man? You look backward. You have to. You talk about what a good friend and coworker he was. You talk about the memories his children have of him. The songs you play are half religious (like that country & western song about going to heaven and petting a lion, which I had never heard before moving to Tennessee and now have heard quite a bit), half not. Then the funeral is over, and you are left with your memories. That’s it.
It’s different if you’re a Christian. Admittedly, these were folks we knew better than we knew the others, but we talked to them for nearly an hour. We certainly talked about memories, but we also talked about meaning. We grappled, as Christians do, with understanding the work of God in a fallen world. We talked about what it means to be a person of faith in a time of despair.
We talked too about their daughter in the present tense. From her perspective, now is much better than a month ago was. We anticipated a tomorrow that would be better for all of us, not least because we will see her again. We will.
Between these two spiritual landscapes, a great chasm is fixed. Mourning with hope is no fun. I’ve grieved for my parents and my daughter that way. However, it is infinitely preferable to mourning without hope. It is much better to grapple with the meaning of tragedy than to be forced to admit that tragedy has no more meaning than anything else.
I know that my friends will grieve incessantly for months and periodically for as long as they live. Some wounds do not completely heal this side of Jordan, and we should not expect them to (or worse, expect the wounds of others to). Our society’s discomfort with sorrow is part and parcel of its refusal to confront the grim realities of life under the sun. We know better, and we should be wiser than that.
Neither, though, should we deny or disparage the comfort that we have been given. Christians are blessed with many gifts. The right to mourn with hope is one of the most precious.