Posts Tagged ‘Rachel Held Evans’

Why Adam Hamilton is still wrong (Part 1)

April 28, 2016

In these days leading up to our United Methodist Church’s General Conference, many Methodist clergy who support changing our Book of Discipline‘s still-orthodox doctrine on sexuality and marriage have become increasingly vocal on blogs and church-related websites. None is more high profile than mega-church pastor Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City.

When Hamilton first publicly stated in a 2012 sermon that he now supports changing our doctrine, I wrote about it.

He doesn’t make any new arguments in a blog post he published yesterday, except his tone is more assertive. In his 2012 sermon, he seemed almost circumspect as he shared his testimony about his “conversion” on the subject, after years of towing the traditionalist line. Today, by contrast, he’s far more confident, encouraging his fellow revisionists to hold our denomination together for just ten more years, after which this will become “a non-issue, as even most evangelical young adults in the United Methodist Church see this issue differently from their 40- and 50- and 60-year-old parents and grandparents.”

I suppose, as a 46-year-old theologically conservative evangelical, I should be insulted: What would today’s Methodist teenager or 20-something know about human sexuality that the rest of us don’t? And why should their opinion hold sway? Do they have a biblical case to make on the subject that we haven’t considered before? As even Hamilton would concede—I think—the argument for changing our doctrine must be rooted in scripture.

Maybe Hamilton will get around to making a biblical argument. There’s no evidence of one here.

Instead, he argues about our understanding of the Bible itself. First, he describes a recent letter he received from a group of conservative United Methodists in Nebraska urging him, as a delegate to General Conference, to resist the pressure to change our Discipline. They said, “We believe that the Holy Bible is God’s Word, and that His Word is unchanging.”

Hamilton writes:

These fellow United Methodists seem to be stating that everything written in the Bible is God’s Word, and that it should be applied without question today because “His Word is unchanging.”  But I don’t believe this is actually how they approach Scripture.  Nor is it the way Christians have generally approached Scripture across the last two millennia.

First, let me say that unlike Hamilton, I do believe that everything written in the Bible is God’s Word. I have no “Bucket No. 3” in my doctrine of scripture. In other words, if it’s in the Bible, it’s there because the Holy Spirit guided its writers to put it in there—for a reason.

But Hamilton would say that if I truly believe that, then I’ll inevitably be inconsistent in my interpretation and application of it.

Then, as if he hasn’t listened to any counterargument from my side over the past 40 years—not to mention in my little blog post four years ago—Hamilton continues to conflate the issue of homosexuality with slavery and the subordination of women: since the Bible got it wrong on those subjects, he argues, how can we be confident that the Bible isn’t wrong about homosexual practice?

Please note: He’s not merely saying that our interpretation of scripture has changed over the millennia in light of better exegesis of the texts; he believes the Bible is simply wrong to begin with. As he said in his discussion of buckets, some scriptures “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.”

If you think I’m being unfair, consider the following exchange that Hamilton had on Twitter yesterday after he linked to his blog post:


Ooh, burn! 

Does Hamilton really mean to say that we can’t hold the Bible as “authoritative” if we nevertheless believe, for good hermeneutical reasons, that parts of it are no longer binding on us today? I’ve dealt with this in many other blog posts, but this is a good starting point. Among other things, I say the following:

[C]ontrary to what United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton asserts in this sermon, the church doesn’t arbitrarily “pick and choose” which verses reflect “God’s timeless will” and which verses we can throw in the dustbin of cultural context. We would only be picking and choosing if our hermeneutical (interpretive) principles ignored context and said every command of scripture is equally binding for all time. Maybe there are some fundamentalist Christians out there who believe this—although I’ve never met one—but the capital-C Church (not to mention Jesus himself) never did.

If we have principled and logical reasons for believing, for instance, that some commands in Leviticus are binding today and others aren’t, then it’s not picking and choosing. Hamilton knows this as well as anyone. I wish he wouldn’t play dumb. Rachel Held Evans also played dumb about this in her recent book The Year of Biblical Womanhood, which drove me crazy, but I don’t expect as much from her.

We are picking and choosing, however, if, in spite of our principles, we disregard the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality mostly because we don’t like it. I’m not sure I like it, either, but that’s hardly the point.

For more on this “picking-and-choosing” argument, see Glenn Peoples’s post here.

(Seriously… Read the Glenn Peoples’s post.)

I reject Hamilton’s premise that the Bible got it wrong when it comes to slavery and subordination of women. I fully endorse Asbury president Tim Tennent’s “trajectories” argument. And along with N.T. Wright, I believe that the case for women in ordained ministry comes from scripture. Among other things, I believe that Jesus commissioned Mary Magdalene as the first apostle in John 20—literally the apostle to the apostles. I believe it’s deeply significant that Paul refers to Junia as an “apostle” in Romans 16.

Does the Bible have any such trajectory away from its condemnation of homosexual practice? Or does the same thinker who wrote, “There is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” also warn that homosexual behavior, if left unrepented, risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom?

But even if I accepted Hamilton’s premise about slavery and women, his argument is a red herring unless or until he demonstrates that there’s some connection between slavery, women, and homosexuality. You can’t just say, “We were wrong about slaves and women, therefore we’re wrong about homosexual practice.”

Are we also wrong about incest? Or polygamy? Or premarital sex? I ask because I’m sure that Hamilton has many convictions in common with our traditional understanding of sexuality. By his logic, you could say, “Yes, but we were wrong about slavery and women, so… who’s to say?”

Talk about picking and choosing!

I have more to say, but this will have to do for now.

“The troubling and untamed God that encounters us in Scripture”

September 19, 2014

In the past few weeks, as I’ve preached on the Book of Judges, I’ve reflected on the tension we Christians often feel when we read about God’s commanding Israel to drive out the Canaanites completely. In the case of Jericho, for example, God orders Israelite soldiers to kill every living thing—men, women, children, and livestock. How is God’s command consistent with the teaching of Jesus—to say nothing of the Ten Commandments? Is God authorizing genocide? How do we interpret these texts?

I’ve dealt with these questions in several places—here, here, and here, for instance. The theme of each of these posts is my rejection of the idea that the God revealed in Jesus Christ couldn’t have given this order—that Israel necessarily misunderstood God’s intentions. In other words, I reject the idea that the Bible got it wrong.

Just in time, Rachel Held Evans weighs in on the question on her blog this week, in her review of a new book about the Bible by Peter Enns. Guess which side Held Evans comes down on? One theme of Held Evans’s blog is that she—as someone who grew up evangelical and might kinda sorta still be one even though she constantly complains about evangelicalism—is always “wrestling” with the Bible. Theologian Alastair Roberts, one of Held Evans’s fellow millennials, described her and her fellow progressive evangelicals perfectly: “[A]fter a while of watching progressive evangelicals, one realizes that whatever ‘wrestling’ they are doing, they must be losing, because contemporary liberal values always seem to come out on top.”

Nevertheless, Roberts, a very patient young man, offered some insightful comments on Held Evans’s blog post. For instance, in response to someone named James, who complains that the God revealed in the conquest of Canaan is “so at odds with his revelation through Jesus Christ” that we should reinterpret Old Testament texts, Roberts writes:

The Jesus who causes the death of persons in Corinth who partake of the Supper unworthily? The Christ who destroyed Israelites with serpents in the wilderness for tempting him? The Lamb from whose wrath sinners cower? The Lord who treads the winepress of God’s wrath? The Jesus who employs images of torture and massacre as parabolic images of his future judgment? The Jesus for whom the NT provides hints of pre-existence as the Messenger of the Covenant, who was responsible for killing many thousands in the OT?

The NT portrait of Jesus Christ has various sides and doesn’t fit comfortably into anyone’s preconceptions. Just as Jesus confounded first century expectations of a violent political Messiah, so he confounds modern pacifist expectations of a God without violence. Jesus puts all of us off balance.

To a woman named Cat who responded to this comment, saying that we should reinterpret the New Testament’s words about Second Coming in a strictly metaphorical way, Roberts writes:

Problem is that this isn’t just about the Jesus of the Second Coming. This is about the Christ who was active in the early Church, causing the deaths of such as Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) or unworthy participants in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:29-34). This is about the Christ whose angel caused Herod to be eaten alive by worms (Acts 12:23). This is about the biblical testimony to the fact that pre-incarnate Christ was active in the Old Testament, causing many of the Israelites to be destroyed by serpents and leaving their bodies scattered in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1-11). This is also about the Jesus who brought about the bloody destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, avenging the blood of the martyrs (N.T. Wright is good on this). These events aren’t metaphorical and should be part of our understanding of who Christ is.

One of the things that is missed here is the two visitation motif, something seen in Stephen’s speech in Acts, for instance. The first visitation ends in rejection, but the second visitation is accompanied by authority, power, and judgment. If rejected, serious consequences fall. For instance, David, while pursued by Saul, suffered and did not seek to exercise judgment or avenge himself. However, when he attained to the throne, he did exercise judgment and the appropriate vengeance committed to those in that office. Likewise, the Son of David suffers before he is raised to God’s right hand. However, when he is raised to God’s right hand, those who reject him will be slain before him (cf. Luke 19:27), which is exactly what happened to Jerusalem in AD70, for instance.

Then there’s this:

Before talking about the killing of Canaanite children, we should probably start by talking about God’s slaying of the Egyptian firstborn children in the final plague (joining various biblical dots suggests that these were male children of one month to five years of age). God apparently doesn’t have a problem with killing infants and young children on occasions (and this is certainly not the only case).

For all that Enns and others say about wrestling with Scripture and bravely facing up to the tough issues, the God that we are left with at the end seems to be rather … tame. Hyperbolic rhetoric of ‘courageously’ facing up to the complications and problems of the text, or of God’s supposedly ‘scandalous’, ‘radical’, or ‘shocking’ alignment with our values—pacifist, egalitarian, feminist, whatever—against the misconceptions of a patriarchal and violent society really are little more than a sort of braggadacio beneath which the real impulses dissemble themselves. The ‘wrestling’ is just with the supposed paper tiger of a Scripture whose bark is worse than its bite, rather than with a God who is a consuming fire and must be approached with reverence and a godly fear. All of this masks a deeper cowardice that refuses to recognize the troubling and untamed God that encounters us in Scripture, a God who should unsettle all of us.

Alastair Roberts blogs here. He co-produces an excellent podcast called Mere Fidelity here.

Erring on the side of grace with Mark Driscoll and Rachel Held Evans

August 4, 2014

One of the commenters on my previous post defended Rachel Held Evans, who drew negative inferences about Mark Driscoll’s character today from comments he posted to a church message board 14 years ago. I wrote the following in response:

The 14-year-old comments are relevant, you say, because they show how deep-seated Driscoll’s problems are, which help us understand why he is unable to change, even though he repeatedly tries to change—or says he does.

In Driscoll’s small defense, however, he has changed—in the sense that he isn’t saying the same things today…

You would counter this by saying, “Ah, but he is saying the same things today, and let me tell you why.” But that can’t be true. If he were saying the same things today, why are these comments noteworthy? What need is there to dredge them up? They offer no new insights. It’s the same old story. In which case, just judge the man by what he says now.

If, however, his 14-year-old comments are actually worse (maybe much worse) than what he says today (the shock value of which is what inspires RHE to blog about them in the first place) then doesn’t it stand to reason that he has changed? At least a little? In which case, isn’t it unfair to bring this old stuff up?

You and RHE can’t have it both ways, can you? He’s changed or he hasn’t. And I think that is Dr. Peoples’s main point too.

Both my commenter and Held Evans believe that Driscoll’s comments reveal how crazy the man is. As I’ve since learned, however, based on what he himself wrote about them in a 2006 book, Driscoll would agree that these comments made him seem that way. He said that his posts “got insane” and that he was “raging like a madman.” He continued: “This season was messy and I sinned and cussed a lot, but God somehow drew a straight line with my crooked Philistine stick. I had a good mission, but some of my tactics were born out of anger and burnout, and I did a lot of harm and damage while attracting a lot of attention.”

Aren’t these the words of someone who is genuinely sorry for his sins? On what basis do we have to doubt his sincerity? He didn’t have to reveal to the world that he was “William Wallace II” in the first place, in which case the 14-year-old comments would have never come to light.

But now they have, and I feel sorry for him. As I said in the comments section of my previous post, if someone published a video of us (or, worse, transcribed our thoughts!) during our worst moments 14 years ago—or five years ago, or last year, or last month—whose life could bear the scrutiny? What would people infer about us? “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”

If I believe Driscoll at his worst 14 years ago makes him some kind of monster, how do I know I’m not? How do you know you’re not? Or have we not come to grips with how frighteningly ugly our sin really is?

Regardless, since Held Evans and I both posted on the subject, Driscoll issued a more extensive apology for these comments, which Christianity Today reported.

In his Friday apology, Driscoll noted that, in his 2006 book, he used the forum posts as an example of “something I regretted and an example of a wrong I had learned from.”

“The content of my postings to that discussion board does not reflect how I feel, or how I would conduct myself today,” he told his church members Friday. “Over the past 14 years I have changed, and, by God’s grace, hope to continue to change. I also hope people I have offended and disappointed will forgive me.”

Can we Christians please err on the side of grace?

Sympathy for the devil? No, Ms. Held Evans, just for Mark Driscoll

July 31, 2014

I don’t have the book in front of me, and if I did, I probably couldn’t find the quote. But about 25 years ago I read something by St. Francis de Sales in which he warned against judging others. He said something like this: we cannot say for certain that anyone is a thief, liar, or adulterer just because they’ve stolen, lied, or committed adultery in the past. Why? Because we are unable to look into their hearts at this moment and see what’s going on. Only God can. When we judge, however, we presume to have this God-like ability.

We must always, de Sales says, give our fellow sinners the benefit of the doubt that they’ve changed.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily apply this principle to the criminal justice system or our national defense policy, I think it’s a good principle for our personal lives. Indeed, I think it gets to the heart of Jesus’ words against judging.

With this in mind, you can imagine what I think of this week’s popular blog post by Rachel Held Evans entitled “Inside Mark Driscoll’s disturbed mind.”

How does Held Evans know not simply that Driscoll can be a boorish jerk at times, or that he believes things with which she strenuously disagrees—but that he has an “ugly heart,” that he has a “disturbed” and “troubled mind,” and that he “needs counseling”? Because of some recently unearthed comments that he posted pseudonymously to his church website 14 years ago.

Fourteen years ago.

By all means, at 31, he was old enough to know better, to be smarter—heck, to be a better human being! But is it fair to judge the man today based on what he said or did 14 years ago? Suppose that 14 years ago (or five years ago, or last year, or last month) someone secretly filmed or taped you at your worst. How would you look? What conclusions would people reach about you as a person right now? And would those conclusions be fair?

Driscoll has recently apologized for some of the very things that Held Evans doesn’t like about him. Is it impossible to believe that the Holy Spirit can actually change someone’s heart?

It’s hard to miss the irony when this same Rachel Held Evans complained in a post just two days earlier about her own critics, asking, “What do you do when religious people respond to your questions by calling you names? By mocking you? By casting you out?”

Held Evans doesn’t get many dissenters in the comments section of any of her posts, but she got at least one very smart one—a theologian and apologist from New Zealand whom I read named Glenn Peoples. He wrote:

I say this with not the least bit of hope that it will do any good, and I’d like to be wrong.

You say that there’s no excuse to be had because of “youth,” because he wasn’t even a youth. Fair enough. And yet, the very reason this needs to be pointed out is because you are aware that this was some time ago now, and you know that Mark – even though you evidently do not like him or what he says – no longer says things. He has “grown up,” even if you think he should have known better even then.

You say “I’m as sick as everyone else of talking about this guy.” But the truth is that you’ve spent many words criticising him. However, until now you’ve been criticising him for the person he is – or at very least the person you take him to be – now. Why then do you need, now, to give coverage to this gold nugget, this scoop that someone has uncovered, this smoking gun of how much worse Mark was years ago? Is it because you think he has regressed to that old self?

How is this not just a Christianised version of the British tabloid? yes, Mark has been a jerk and confirmed some male stereotypes in the process. There’s a certain stereotype about girls and gossip too.

Ponder the reactions you are now getting. One woman has said, in effect, that she has been concerned about mark for some time, but now she has seen THIS! As though this represents how bad he has gotten. But it doesn’t, does it?

I’ve criticised Mark in the past and have no problem with those who do. But this? This does not help your own reputation any more than it helps Mark’s.

Keep it juicy, RHE. Apparently it’s the thing now.

Why does Rachel Held Evans hate the Bible?

January 21, 2014

What? You say I’m being unfair to her? You say that there’s a better, more reasonable, more nuanced explanation for her disagreeing with me (and most of the universal Church) on the question of human sexuality than believing that she hates the Bible?

Ah, who cares? I’ll just frame her dissent from Christian orthodoxy in the worst possible light.

In doing so, I’m simply borrowing a page from the RHE Playbook.

Take, for instance, this very popular blog post from late last month, “Everyone’s a Biblical Literalist Until You Bring Up Gluttony.” (I know it was popular because many of my liberal clergy colleagues on Facebook linked to it approvingly.) If you read her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, as I did (and blogged and preached about it), or have read her blog, as I have for the past four years, you’ll know what she’s up to.

She’s a gifted and funny writer who risks squandering her talent making the same argument over and over. Not that her many readers (if only I had her audience!) seem to mind.

And what’s her argument? In the form of a syllogism, it is the following (which I’m borrowing from Glenn Peoples, who isn’t speaking about Evans, but may as well be):

  1. If you interpret a biblical passage in a way that means that its instruction does apply to us today, then you are logically committed to thinking that all instructions that were ever given in the Bible apply to us today with equal force.
  2. Most evangelical Christians (not to mention most of the universal Church) interpret biblical passages that speak about sexual acts between members of the same sex apply to us today.
  3. Therefore most evangelical Christians are logically committed to thinking that all instructions that were ever given in the Bible apply to us today with equal force.

What’s wrong with this argument? The first premise.

Just because you think that a biblical instruction applies to us today doesn’t commit you to thinking that all instructions should apply today. You may instead have a principled reason for thinking that one instruction applies while another doesn’t. And your reason comes down to that 50-cent seminary word hermeneutics—the science of interpretation.

Now, to be clear: Rachel Held Evans knows this. She knows that everyone isn’t a biblical literalist—not even close! (Or is she willing to argue, say, that Pope Francis is also a biblical literalist?) By the end of Biblical Womanhood, she offers intelligible hermeneutical reasons why, for instance, Christians don’t think that Paul’s prohibition against women speaking in church applies today. And even in the “Gluttony” post, after ranting about shellfish, head coverings, and divorce, she says, “While there are certainly important hermeneutical and cultural issues at play, I can’t help but wonder if something more nefarious is also at work…”

Please tell us, Ms. Evans: what exactly are those “important hermeneutical and cultural issues”?

Cue crickets chirping.

In one blog post after another, she plays dumb on the issue of hermeneutics. And she’s not dumb.

Yet she continues to imply (even in her post yesterday) that people like me and the United Methodist Church who support the orthodox Christian position on homosexuality must be hypocritical Bible-thumping literalists. It drives me crazy.

(By the way, I’m using “literalist” the way Evans uses it. I believe in interpreting scripture literally, if and when the author intends to be taken that way. For example, I can interpret Paul’s words about women covering their heads literally, even while arguing against its universal application.)

I agree completely with Glenn Peoples that the classic (and misguided) arguments about slavery and shellfish don’t apply to the issue of homosexuality. I highly recommend that you read this post.

Dave Ramsey is right

December 9, 2013

dave-ramseyOr… certainly more right than his most outspoken critic at the moment, Rachel Held Evans. Last week, she wrote an article on the CNN Belief Blog joining the chorus of criticism against a list that Ramsey published on his blog entitled “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day.” His list contrasts activities that rich people do that poor people don’t do.

I agree with Ramsey’s critics, including Evans, that the list implies causation where none exists. Rich people aren’t necessarily rich because they read a lot, exercise frequently, and watch less TV. And, by all means, poor people may lack the time, money, or resources to do some of the activities on the list, or to do them as often or as well as rich people. I’m reminded of that old Steve Martin routine from the ’70s in which he promises to tell his audience a guaranteed way to make a million dollars. “First, get a million dollars and then…”

But Evans overstates her case when she writes the following:

Ramsey responded to the pushback with an addendum to the original post calling his critics “ignorant” and “immature” and instructing them to “grow up.”

“This list simply says your choices cause results,” he said, again committing the false cause fallacy. “You reap what you sow.”

The list, he said, applies only to people living in “first world” countries, where Ramsey believes economic injustices are essentially nonexistent. While the poor in developing countries are so as a result of external circumstances beyond their control, the poor in the United States have no one to blame but themselves.

Oh, dear.

Let’s be clear: In Ramsey’s addendum, he writes: “This list simply says your choices cause results. You reap what you sow… There is a direct correlation between your habits, choices and character in Christ and your propensity to build wealth in non-third-world settings… ”

Can any Christian, including Evans, deny that this principle is generally true—that, in general, we human beings reap what we sow? Not only is it common sense, it’s one premise behind the book of Proverbs. Of course we don’t always reap what we sow in this life—and we never do so perfectly—which is why the Holy Spirit saw fit to include the Book of Job and Ecclesiastes in our canon of scripture. More importantly, Judgment Day will ensure that the scales of justice will finally be balanced perfectly.

But still, is “you reap what you sow” generally true? Of course! 

Look over Ramsey’s list: It’s true to the point of banality. Who doesn’t think that exercising more, reading more, planning more, eating healthier, and watching less TV, among other things, would make anyone’s life better, including the lives of the poor?

So I’m sympathetic with Ramsey when he writes the following:

If you believe that our economy and culture in the U.S. are so broken that making better choices does not produce better results, then you have a problem. At that point your liberal ideology has left the Scriptures and your politics have caused you to become a fatalist.

To say the least, fatalism is incompatible with Christianity. In my preaching recently, I’ve emphasized that God is in control, always working for our good, and always ready, willing, and able to redeem any suffering or trial. What kind of hypocrite would I be if turned around now and added, “Unless you’re poor, in which case you’re just screwed”?

Ramsey writes:

Biblically speaking, poverty is caused and perpetuated primarily by some combination of three things:

1. Personal habits, choices and character;
2. Oppression by people taking advantage of the poor;
3. The myriad of problems encountered if born in a third-world economy.

The third-world economy is and should be a whole different discussion. If you are broke or poor in the U.S. or a first-world economy, the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is YOU. You can make better choices and have better results.

Evans, interpreting these words, says that Ramsey is really saying this: “While the poor in developing countries are so as a result of external circumstances beyond their control, the poor in the United States have no one to blame but themselves.”

No, no, no… Does Evans really believe that this is what Ramsey is saying? (Any more than she really believed, in her last book, that a fair reading of the Bible implied that wives should sit on the rooftops of their houses for being “contentious”?) Granted, Ramsey isn’t the most eloquent writer, but doesn’t his point number 2 take into consideration the sinful systemic and institutional forces that tend to keep people poor—about which Evans loudly complains?

Those forces are real and harmful, Ramsey says. But they don’t tell the whole story, or most of it. Besides, no one can do anything about systemic and institutional evil in the short run. So just as a practical matter, why don’t we focus on what we can do something about—our personal habits, choices, and character?

Forget the intimidatingly large problem of “the poor” for a moment. Can individuals, regardless of wealth, improve their outcomes by making wiser decisions and forming better habits? Ramsey has enjoyed great success in his career because the answer to that question is, without a doubt, yes.

I’ve known at least a dozen friends and acquaintances whose lives have changed dramatically for the better because of Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. (It sounds like Evans does too.) Plus, I’ve occasionally heard Ramsey’s radio call-in show. I’ve heard many callers recount cringe-inducing stories of their own financial recklessness. They’ve made some incredibly irresponsible decisions, and now here they are, asking Ramsey to bail them out. To his great credit, Ramsey never sounds shocked; he doesn’t make them feel like idiots. He’s compassionate, non-judgmental, and, yes, full of grace. At least every time I’ve listened.

So what has Ramsey done to make any of us, including Evans, fail to give him the benefit of the doubt—whether or not we “agree” with one small, inconsequential blog post? Yet, according to Evans, he’s now advocating a kind of “prosperity gospel.” Give me a break!

Finally, Evans writes,

God does not bless people with money; God blesses people with the good and perfect gift of God’s presence, which is available to rich and poor alike.

This is exactly the kind of liberal Christian[†] pablum I heard in seminary: God is always with us, of course. Suffering alongside us. Hating all this injustice. But he’s not responsible for any of it. Not in charge. Not controlling anything—even when he can do so without compromising human free will. There’s no providential hand at work in our world. God gives us nothing… except the “gift of God’s presence,” whatever that means. Events in the world follow their own course without direction or intervention from above.

God doesn’t do much of anything. Except suffer.

If Evans is right, then she must find this paragraph from Ramsey incomprehensible:

Despite these blessings, there are others who have far more than I do. The talents and treasures on this earth are not distributed equally, and that is not fair—or is it? God has chosen to give most of you better hair than me, to make Tiger Woods a better golfer than me, to make Brad Paisley a better guitarist than me, and to make Max Lucado a better writer than me. With God’s grace, I am fine with that. I am not angry at them, and I don’t think they have done something wrong by becoming successful. As I’ve matured, I’ve come to realize that God is indeed fair, but fair does not mean equal.

If God doesn’t bless us with money, in what sense does he bless us with anything tangible—athletic prowess, musical talent, or even the outward appearances of our bodies? Is it all just an accident? Dumb luck?

Until recently, the Christian answer has been that God blesses us with these gifts in order that we use them for God’s purposes. Whether we’re faithful in so using them is another story, but that doesn’t change the fact that all these gifts are blessings from God.

I’m using the term “liberal Christian” in the theological, not political, sense. I’m not referring to the way Christians vote. I’m referring to the movement begun in the 19th century to accommodate Christianity’s truth claims to the truth claims of the Enlightenment and modernity. I think that Evans’s statement is an example of this. If God doesn’t do anything in our world except to “be present” with us, then we don’t have to worry about questions of evil and God’s goodness, or whether or to what extent God was involved in creating the universe. Events run their course without God—which is what modern man believes anyway.

Enough about millennials already!

August 2, 2013

I was going to ignore Rachel Held Evans nearly substance-free piece on CNN’s Belief Blog last week—the one in which America’s favorite “Christian spokesperson for a generation” tells us why millennials are leaving church. But apparently many people—at least most of my clergy friends on Facebook—seem to think she’s saying something.

What is she saying? What would a church look like that actually took to heart her message?

According to this writer, an African-American and former United Methodist who is now in the Presbyterian Church in America, the hypothetical church that millennials would embrace would look a lot like our very own United Methodist Church.

Don’t laugh: he’s serious.

The UMC is outside of the culture wars. It has no conflicts with science and faith and clearly teaches what they are for instead of against. The UMC is a place where LGBT friends are welcomed. Moreover, if anyone knows anything about Wesleyanism, you know that Methodists have a deep emphasis on personal holiness and social action. Again, the Jesus that Evans wants to find is waiting for her and her followers in the UMC.

And that’s the problem. Why aren’t all these millennials flocking to our churches?

In fact, we have empirical evidence to prove that Evans doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

One of the many blind spots in Evans’ entire project is that young evangelicals are not leaving evangelical churches to join mainline churches like the UMC, they are leaving the church altogether in many cases. Evans’ list does not help us understand that phenomena much at all. In fact, even the UMC, with all Evans’ lauded attributes, is hemorrhaging. The bottom line is that most American Christian denominations are declining across the board, especially among their millennial attendees, and it would require a fair amount of hubris to attempt to explain the decline across America’s 350,000 congregations.

I do not have the answer to my original question but I do know that Evans and her fans seem to long for United Methodism and should be encouraged to join the denomination, and other mainline churches like it, since they do not believe the churches they criticize have Jesus. Criticizing evangelical churches on CNN for not being essentially United Methodist seems bizarre and, perhaps, reveals that what Evans actually represents is nothing but American United Methodism in evangelical whiteface.

Evans writes, “We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.”

What does that even mean? Should we not recite the Apostles’ Creed on Sundays? After all, what are creeds if not “predetermined answers”?

But, I hasten to add, they’re not predetermined from the beginning. Incredibly smart people argued about these questions until they reached consensus. They asked and answered big, important questions like, “Is Jesus divine and to what extent? Is he fully God? Is Jesus fully human or did he just appear to be? If he is fully human, how does divinity and humanity coexist within him? How exactly does Jesus save us from our sins?”

Do we need to reopen the debate? Do we need to re-argue the same questions? We’re not going to out-think Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, or Augustine. By all means, if answers are available, whose answers are we going to trust?

Me, I’ll stick with the old guys. They were really bright.

Evans says churches need to stop getting so hung up on sex. But I like what Trevin Wax (who’s the same age as Evans, by the way) says:

Following Jesus leaves no part of our life unchanged.

That’s why it strikes me as odd that Rachel sees “obsession with sex” as one of the biggest obstacles for contemporary Christianity to overcome. I visit lots of churches, and I find that sexuality is not a frequently discussed subject from most church platforms or Bible studies. In fact, one could make the case that Christians haven’t talked enough about Jesus’ radical zealousness when it comes to sexuality. The fact that cohabitation, premarital sex and pornography are often overlooked among our congregations betrays the vision of sexuality Jesus put forward – a vision of the sacredness of a man and woman’s covenant for life, one that excludes even lustful thoughts from God’s design.

When it comes to sexual obsession, we ought to take a look at pop culture. One can hardly watch a TV show or a popular movie without being assaulted with sexual innuendos, crude jokes, or overt displays of all kinds of sexuality. Pastors and church leaders go on news talk shows and are badgered about their views of sexuality, as if nothing else matters but that the church join in and celebrate our culture’s embrace of Aphrodite in all her warped splendor.

I’ll leave it to Wax and others to pick apart the logic, such as it is, of Evans’s piece. I’ll leave you with this comment on my post yesterday about God’s wrath in the contemporary hymn “In Christ Alone.” This comes from my clergy friend Clay:

Yes! But we mainliners can’t talk about wrath or judgment any longer since we don’t believe in either or are worried someone (a millennial!) might be listening and get offended.

How about we stop worrying about what millennials think and strive to be faithful?

I’ve written about Evans before. See this blog post, for example, about her latest book.

The Bible and slavery revisited

March 1, 2013

Wasn’t it just a few days ago I talked about the Bible’s views on slavery in relation to Adam Hamilton’s op-ed in the Washington Post?

In this blog post, Rachel Held Evans at least moves in the same direction as Hamilton, stopping just short of him (for now):

But I wonder about other things too—about homosexuality, for example—and I confess I spend some nights lying awake, watching the lights from passing cars make strange shapes on my walls, wondering if we’ve done it again, if we’ve marginalized another group of people because we believed the Bible told us to.

Now, to be clear, I’m NOT saying that slavery is the same as the gender debates or homosexuality. So please don’t hear that. Each situation is different, and each should be discussed and debated on their own terms. It’s not fair to the people involved to treat them all the same or to make an unqualified comparison.

But the impassioned, Bible-based rhetoric delivered by both the abolitionists and those who opposed them sure does sound familiar.

And that should give us pause.

Oh, dear.

Well, I finally added my two cents in her comments section. I feel like I’m speaking a different language from her legion of fans, but maybe it will make sense to someone:

Rachel, I apologize if this has already been covered (I didn’t read all 123 comments). I don’t care what antebellum preachers had to say on the subject. They were being unfaithful both to the Bible and Christian tradition. The Bible has a clear trajectory away from slavery (and female subordination), as is clear not merely when we look at larger themes of justice and love, but also when we look at many of the Bible’s direct words on the subject.

If Philemon, for instance, takes Paul’s words to heart and treats his runaway slave Onesimus as a fully equal brother in Christ, who is Lord of us all—and all other Christian slaveowners do the same—then the institution of slavery would be subverted from within. (The same logic applies even to the household codes of Ephesians and Colossians.) And this is exactly what happened, by the way: by the Middle Ages, slavery—this accepted fact of life for millennia—was illegal in the Christian West…

Yes, tragically, legal slavery reemerged with African slavery (which, like it or not, was substantially different from slavery of the Ancient Near East), but it wasn’t just liberal Christians who opposed it: it was evangelicals like, for instance, John Wesley and many others. They—along with most of the universal Church—simply didn’t struggle with the question. And they opposed slavery by standing firmly on biblical authority.

I know that you are a product (and victim?) of deep southern fundamentalism. (I purchased and read your latest book.) I feel like you’re always reacting against that. The truth is that this strain of Christianity represents a tiny blip in the history of Christian thought and biblical hermeneutics.

I agree with you that “biblical” is a problematic word (I prefer “Christian”), but I believe strongly that the Bible is clearer than you make it seem. And none of us ought to interpret it as if we aren’t standing on the shoulders of the saints who’ve gone before us.

“It has to get messy before it gets clean”

January 8, 2013


This week’s Vinebranch Book Club book is Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood. In the following passage, she writes about new domestic chores she’s taken up in her attempt to be a truly “biblical woman” (Proverbs 31:15, Titus 2:5). Using a Martha Stewart book as a guide, she’s decided to maximize her limited kitchen space by cleaning out and organizing the contents of her kitchen cabinets and drawers. Not that I know anything about housekeeping from personal experience, but I liked this insight.

Mom did this every now and then when we were kids. She’d put a Carole King tape in the stereo, empty all the drawers and cabinets in the kitchen, and clean the whole thing top to bottom while singing at the top of her lungs about the earth moving under feet and the sky tumbling down a-tumbling down. Amanda and I watched, bewildered, among the stockpots and frying pans. Shouting above the music, she told us, “It has to get messy before it gets clean”—a philosophy that pretty much sums up every meaningful experience of my life, from homemaking to friendships to faith. Sometimes you’ve just got to tear everything out, expose all the innards, and start over again.[†]

Truer words…

Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 28.

Making perfect the enemy of the good as a disciple of Christ

August 23, 2012

“This time you’ll stick with it,” the back cover tells me.

I’ve confessed to you before that I’m a sucker for buying Bibles. Sadly, I like buying them more than reading them. When I say “reading,” let’s be clear (in case my bishop is reading this): I’m excluding the necessary reading that I do as part of my job—to prepare sermons and such. I do a lot of that kind of reading. Although I thoroughly enjoy this kind of Bible-reading, I’m getting paid to do it, so that doesn’t count.

I’m talking about the Bible reading that I do when no one else is looking. Like dragging myself out of bed earlier than normal or carving out space in the evening in order to read for no other purpose than simply to hear God speak to me. That’s the hard kind of reading, which I fail to do every day (so far).

Even when I was a layperson taking Disciple Bible study, I didn’t read every day. I read every second or third day, and a lot the night before our small-group meeting. Some of you know what I’m talking about.

In fact, one theme of my Bible-purchasing habit is that I’m constantly looking for the Bible that will make this hard kind of reading easier.

My most recent Bible purchase in this regard was the new Daily Companion Bible, from the Common English Bible people. I only bought it, or so I told myself, because I left my earlier edition of the CEB in Panama City on the youth beach retreat earlier this summer and needed to replace it. For almost the same price, I got the CEB plus some devotional material that makes reading the Bible every day a breeze, or so it says. In fact, the tagline on the back cover says, “This time you’ll stick with it.”

How does it know me so well? It’s like the publisher was clairvoyant or something.

It’s only been a month and already I haven’t stuck with it, of course. Daily Bible reading is a great goal, but I haven’t attained it. On the bright side, however, I am reading the Bible more frequently now than before. That’s something, right?

I may be unable to read the Bible every day, but I’ll bet I can read it today. And if I read it today, that ain’t bad. And if I fail to read it tomorrow, that won’t be the end of the world.

I’m reflecting on this personal struggle of mine because of something I read just now from Rachel Evans’s blog that you might find very helpful.

Does it ring true to your experience as a disciple of Jesus?