Tag Archives: theology

Can Christians Be Unified If We Don’t Want the Same Thing?

vintage-fence-boundaryI used to find Christianity exhausting.

I even found some of my Christian friends exhausting.

Worse than that, I was probably the most exhausting person of them all. With a Bible degree and a Master of Divinity in progress, I was building an arsenal of knowledge. I use a military metaphor here on purpose.

Nevertheless, my motivations were at least partially good.

I wanted to know for myself and for the sake of others which parts of Christianity were important and which parts needed to be dropped.

Why were people so worked up over only using The King James Version?

Why did some Christians oppose Billy Graham?

Is rock music with a pounding drum beat wrong?

Will the earth end with a fiery tribulation and massive bloodshed?

Those were just my “starter” questions. I had plenty of others that came up along the way:

The sovereignty of God, the nature of salvation, the role of the Holy Spirit, the roles of men and women in marriage, the role of women in the church, and the reliability of the Bible, just to name a few.

Let’s just say that there were times in my life when I didn’t know how to have a “light” conversation. I didn’t have time to read novels. I had to figure things out about God.

As I started to learn things, I picked up another skill. I started to draw boundaries and erect fences. People who agreed with me were in. People who disagreed were out. Needless to say, preserving my version of Christianity demanded attacking all who disagreed.

Most importantly, I knew that I was RIGHT. And my entire approach to Christianity revolved around having the facts straight.

If I didn’t get my description of the atonement precisely right, if I misunderstood the role of Israel, if I didn’t precisely understand the Holy Spirit, and if I didn’t believe everything in the Bible was precisely recorded and easily understood by anyone committed to interpreting it literally, my faith would fall apart.

In other words, I had THE ANSWERS to these major Christian doctrines, and my “faith” only worked if my answers all lined up and were preserved.

If my answers failed, then the whole system came crashing down. I lived in constant fear of this happening, and my defensiveness hinted that all was not well.

I had faith, but I’m not sure what my faith was in.

I would have told you I had faith in Jesus, but I didn’t. I had faith in my doctrines about Jesus. If you didn’t agree, then I would either school you in them so that you could be either saved just like me or banished outside the bounds of my version of Christian orthodoxy.

I was exhausted… and exhausting.

Everything about my faith back then was defensive. I used words like protect, defend, guard, and keep to describe my faith.

My faith wasn’t something I used. I didn’t see faithfulness as obedient action. Faithfulness was sticking to my doctrinal script, believing the same things I’d learned and holding onto them no matter what.


Something Better Than Boundaries

I won’t call myself the “Pharisee of Pharisees,” but I was pretty judgmental of other Christians who didn’t meet my standards and read the Bible the same way. My system of beliefs demanded this.

If they were right, my entire notion of Christianity would fall apart. Salvation came through Jesus, but I could only approach Jesus through the beliefs I’d carefully assembled.

No matter how many books I read, I couldn’t keep myself from a nagging thought: I don’t feel like the people in the Bible.

The authors of scripture speak of the deep love of God, the joy of the Lord, and the peace that passes understanding.

I was grumpy, divisive, nervous, and combative.

Worse than that, I found that I related best to the Pharisees.

Doesn’t Jesus know what a Sabbath is for?

You can only man the trenches of truth for so long. I needed to step back from the front lines and stop fighting. Fatigue had set in, and I came to terms with a few things: I did not have the abundant life that Jesus promised and something needed to change if I was going to continue as a follower of Jesus.

The changes took years to develop.

Along the way I saw that I could be a staunchly dogmatic progressive just as easily as I could be a staunchly dogmatic conservative.

Sometimes the nouns don’t matter—liberal, conservative, progressive—if we precede them with words like gracious or loving. Those who have experienced the love of God and have been transformed by it don’t need to use another label.

I’ve lived in fear of my doctrines being challenged. Some days I still get a little worked up when someone suggests that my beliefs are wrong. We all believe something and make important life decisions based on our beliefs. Being wrong could be unsettling to say the least.

However, the key is the fruit of our beliefs. Do our beliefs help us grow in love of God, faith in Christ, and power through the Spirit? Do our beliefs send us out to make disciples, prompting us to tell others that God is reaching out to them too?

I’m not interested in excluding anyone anymore. That was an exhausting way to live. I will disagree, but it’s not my job to defend anything. It’s my job to keep living in the Gospel and using it to reach out.


Should We Exclude Those Who Draw Boundaries?

I don’t want to “exclude” the people who continue to draw boundaries and defend doctrines today. That would defeat my point here. In fact, I welcome diversity. However, the only practical way to be diverse is to be gracious about a diversity of beliefs.

I wonder just how much we can be unified if we don’t want the same things. In fact, we’re almost opponents on some points, I’m trying to welcome in some of the people others want to keep out.

It’s a mess, and I don’t have any solutions.

I just know that my former self who drew up boundaries and defended his faith with grit and determination wouldn’t stand for any of this. It’s not that I would want to exclude my former self. It’s that my former self would never go along with the person I’ve become today.

We need to temper our “Can’t we all just get along?” pleas.

No, we can’t all “just get along,” and here is why:

I am not a truth defender first and foremost. I’ve been transformed by the truth, and based on that, I am convicted to reach out to others and welcome them into God’s advancing Kingdom.

I have committed myself to Jesus and to living the kind of life he modeled and talked about in the Bible. I am fully convinced that it is true. And because I believe it is true, I will live my life erasing boundaries and reaching out to anyone, and I mean anyone, who will listen to the story of Jesus.

Living in the truth of the Gospel means I’m committed to removing the boundaries that others think the Gospel compels them to build.

The only requirement for approaching God in the Gospels and at the end of Revelation is thirst. If you thirst for God, come. We may never work out all of our issues with each other, but if we can agree that the thirsty should come, then we agree on what is most important.

I have beliefs and convictions about certain doctrines, but they pale in importance to experiencing Jesus day to day and sharing him with others, welcoming anyone who is thirsty.

And when the thirsty come, we will speak of God’s kindness that leads to repentance.

We may argue and disagree about every other verse we read in the Bible, but if we can agree that the thirsty should come, then we have agreed on enough. The path will look different for each of us, but that path will require the removal of boundaries and lead to the same place.

That common destiny in the love of God is what unites us.

An Everlasting Meal: She’s Already at My Table

I’m guest posting for my friend Preston Yancey today. Preston consistently impresses me with the depth of his reflections on both writing and Christian theology, especially the role that the sacraments play in our faith. Today I’m writing about one of our most important dinner guests:

She’s Already at My Table

She spotted the theology books first. As we sat down to eat, she eagerly asked, “Who’s the theologian?”

Looking back, I can’t get over how easily she asked that question. The Bible had been used to hurt her so many times. It was like the child of an alcoholic wanting to casually chat about favorite mixed drinks. And yet, there was no mistaking her curiosity.

She had every reason to judge me based on my books. She could have judged me the same exact way Christians had judged her and her girlfriend.

Read the rest at Preston’s blog.

Why I Hate the Word “Inerrancy”

Bible-psalm-inerrancyCulture isn’t supposed to get the last word on how we read the Bible. I believe that and try to put that into practice. Many Christians do as well.

However, many of these Christians unknowingly fight for a doctrine that, in every way, is a product of a culture’s influence on the way we read the Bible.

I’m talking about inerrancy.

If there’s one thing I don’t want to do with the Bible, it’s to let secular culture tell me how to read a divinely inspired document. I am 100% committed to listening to the guidance of the promised Holy Spirit. While I am aware of the influence of my culture on how I read the Bible, I want to let the Spirit speak through scripture rather than letting my culture determine what I can and cannot believe.

Inerrancy has unintentionally allowed the standards of our culture to determine how we use the Bible, creating a demand on scripture that would only make sense for a modern science or historian.

A few weeks ago my friend Zack Hunt wrote a post about inerrancy that got my wheels spinning: see the original post and the follow up post.

When I first saw his post, I hesitated to link to it because I have my own thoughts about inerrancy that I wanted to share with any link to his post. It’s one of those doctrines that’s so delicate and complicated, that I dare not let anyone read into my own story based on a link that I share.

Does Inerrancy = True?

The primary problem with inerrancy for me is that it has been equated with the truth of the Bible. If you’re not 100% on board with inerrancy’s terms and categories, then you’re a godless liberal who is “deceiving the sheep.”

I’m sure someone will offer to “pray” for you.

I completely affirm the truth and trustworthiness of the Bible, but the concept of inerrancy troubles me. It’s incredibly hard to have a conversation about the Bible in which I both affirm the accuracy and trustworthiness of the Bible and distance myself from the term that many equate WITH those concepts.

For many Christians, inerrancy is the only option if you’re going to accept the Bible as trustworthy. However, there are many traditions who affirm the teachings of scripture and view it as authoritative without affirming inerrancy.

In fact, I would argue that inerrancy came into being for the wrong reasons.

The Flawed Origins of Inerrancy

What we know of early church history is that the early Christians were trying to explain Jesus in a culture dominated in many ways by Greek categories. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Christianity to the Greeks was the idea that God would fully reside in a human body.

The incarnation was a non-starter that sent many Christians veering toward Gnosticism, a handy heresy that divided spirit and body into separate realms.

As Christian thinkers hammered out the nature of the incarnation, they used Greek words and ways of thinking, but they did not let Greek culture determine what they believed about God and the incarnation of Jesus.

In the 1800’s, the Enlightenment had challenged what many Christians believed, and a large part of Christian thinkers began to use the Enlightenment’s scientific categories for reading the Bible. Everything in the Bible had to be tested and proven, and if it could not be scientifically proven, then it was ditched.

We know that the Bible says it is God-breathed and useful for training us in righteousness, but it was hardly intended to be sliced and diced by the Enlightenment’s methods. We can look back in retrospect and see that the scientific approach was bound to rip the Bible apart. It’s a true document, but it’s also an ancient document that wasn’t designed to answer the questions of modern thinkers who imposed their own standards on it.

How could Christians demonstrate the supernatural origins and authority of the Bible in a scientific age?

Faith wasn’t going to cut it for the liberal Christians who dismissed the Bible as a series of myths invented by clever storytellers.

The Christians who called themselves fundamentalists arrived at a solution: the Bible could be proven divine since it was inerrant, completely without error. What other ancient document could boast such a thing?

Instead of pointing the doubters to Christ, the fundamentalists pointed them to the Bible.

By allowing the philosophy of the day to determine the way they spoke about the Bible, the Fundamentalists shifted Jesus away from his primary place as Lord of all and slipped the Bible above him. That’s why you’ll often find churches today who inadvertently affirm the trustworthiness of the Bible over the person of Jesus.

The Impossible Wager of Inerrancy

Inerrancy states that any kind of error in the Bible renders the entire book false and made up. If the entire Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit, then everything single verse must be 100% true and reliable.

The primary problem with inerrancy is that it has the wrong priorities. Rather than making Christ our one and only foundation, inerrancy makes an error-free Bible the one and only foundation of our faith.

The passion of Christians in their debates about inerrancy and the accuracy of the Bible testify to the consequences of this kind of thinking. Permitting one error in the Bible isn’t just annoying, it’s a disaster for the faith of many.

The impossibility of inerrancy is that we’re so far removed from the events described in the Bible and composition of each book and letter that we can’t possibly prove the truthfulness at the scientific level that inerrancy demands. I believe that the Bible is true, but not because of inerrancy or because I have 100% certainty about the events it describes.

My faith is built on the person of Christ, the only way, truth, and life, the only foundation for our faith, and the one central focus on the scriptures. Paul wrote, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” 1 Corinthians 3:11.

I can’t point you to one verse in the Bible and say, “I know for certain that this is wrong.” At the same time, proving the “reliability” of the Bible according to the standards of inerrancy is a fruitless quest.

I’ll talk all day about the presence of Christ in my life and the ways that scripture has continually guided me to the truth, but I will not live as if my faith hinges on proving every little detail of the Bible. That’s simply not our goal.

The scriptures  point us toward the trustworthiness of Christ rather than the trustworthiness of their composition.

Inerrancy and Biblical Idolatry

I affirm the historical accuracy and the divine inspiration of the Bible.

I believe the writers of the Bible were truthful.

Could there be a discrepancy over the date of an Israelite king because a writer misunderstood how the rise and fall of kings were dated? (I spent a 3-hour class in seminary addressing this very issue.)

Rather than answering that question, I want to know if a detail like that really matters. If it does, then we need to ask why we think it matters.

Inerrancy demands this level of accuracy because it’s seeking a way to scientifically prove that the Bible is inspired by God.

I do not affirm the word inerrancy because it compromises the Christian faith to the standards of secular scientific thinking. It takes our devotion and worship away from Christ and substitutes a second-rate god that breeds fear and paranoia, threatening to crumble our faith in God with every scientific report, literary device, or historical discrepancy.

This second-rate god demands that we spend our lives worrying about the chronology of the Hebrew kings, the findings of archeology, the age of the earth, and the chronology of the gospels.

This second-rate god drives wedges between the people of God as we fight each other in the name of protecting this false “foundation” of our faith.

On its own, the Bible is incapable of giving life, peace, or healing. It only can give a fragile certainty that must be defended tooth and nail.

That we feel compelled to fight for this god suggests that we may have lost sight of the true foundation in scripture. Our faith rises and falls on the person of Christ alone. We trust that the Bible is true and reliable, but we don’t have to meet a modern, scientific standard in order for Christ to be Lord.

I hate the word inerrancy because it creates a super supernatural standard for truth that the Bible never set up.

I hate the word inerrancy because it clouds the ways that the Bible actually is true.

I hate the word inerrancy because it binds the Christian faith to a set of standards that were never intended for the people of God and that are completely foreign to the centuries of Christians who have gone before us.

I hate the word inerrancy because it has become a way to determine who’s in and who’s out, even though few actually understand what it means or where it came from.

I hate the word inerrancy because it provides a flimsy, easily combustible foundation for the people of God.

I hate the word inerrancy because it takes the focus of our faith away from Christ and places it in a book.

It’s time to stop fighting for inerrancy and to start living as if everything in the Bible is true.

When we see the words of scripture come true in our own lives, we’ll have all of the proof we need that the Bible is reliable.

How David Sedaris Saved Me from Theology Books

mattappling-conpOne of the best blogs around is Matt Appling’s Church of No People blog. I’m honored to be guest posting over there today about the first time I read a book by David Sedaris. Here’s the beginning of my post:

Four years in seminary exposed me to thick, heavy academic theology books. They were all I knew about writing. They were all I imitated.

State a thesis. Defend your thesis. Beat your head against your desk as you format footnotes. Edit to make sure your ideas are clear.

That was writing for me. I thought it was fine. Not great—just something I could do reasonably well.

I’d forgotten the years I’d spent writing silly stories in elementary school.

I’d forgotten the encouragement of my high school English teachers.

I just wrote ideas: bland, simple ideas constructed on a scaffolding of research.

By the time I started to entertain the possibility of writing full time, I happened upon Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. I’d seen it release while working at a Borders Bookstore, but it wasn’t until after seminary that I started to read something other than theology or Christian living books.

Read the rest of my post today at Matt’s blog.

And while you’re there, check out Matt’s fantastic upcoming book! Life After Art.

Did God Do That? Why We Can’t Systematize God

I have a few recurring rants that my wife has to hear over and over again. One of them has to do with the latest NHL lockout…

Everybody knows what they’ll have to agree on, they’re just waiting to squeeze every last dollar out!

Another popular rant topic has to do with bad writers who are really good at marketing…

He just churns out trite ideas that anyone could figure out, but everybody loves it because this guy has thousands of newsletter subscribers and wrote a book!

However, the one topic that really gets me going is systematic theology.

Systematic theology is one of those disciplines that ensures students of the Bible will know a lot about the Bible and still somehow misunderstand what it actually means. I’ve been undoing the confusion brought on by my systematic theology classes for years.

How does systematic theology work?

Let’s say you want to understand what the Holy Spirit does and what it takes to be saved, systematic theology will pull from every single scripture passage related to that topic and present an orderly set of doctrines related to each topic. To a certain degree, we all do a little systematic theology when we cross reference a related passage. And even the doctrine of the Trinity is the result of systematic theology.

However, the problem with systematic theology is that it presupposes that the Bible will give us orderly “systems” related to God and the works of God. It’s not that systematic theology can’t give us good things. It can and has helped us in some areas. The problem is that it promises something that the Bible was never intended to give us: orderly beliefs about a living, active, all-powerful God.

My confusion over God’s sovereignty and its implications for how I pray and make decisions is rooted in part to reading systematic theology or at least succumbing to the expectation that the Bible is presenting a us a blue print for the ways God “always” does things. Instead of reading the Bible as a portrait of how God is working at one particular time and place, I’ve made the mistake of looking for the systems or rules that define how God works.

God’s system is love. The End.

Does God influence some world events? Yes.

Does God influence every world event? The Bible doesn’t give us a straight answer on that.

This is my hesitation when it comes to looking for a system to define God and the works of God. We can get so lost trying to figure out the system, grasping a “clear” picture of the reality of God that we fail to see that some parts of the Bible are just blurry—they may even be blurry for a reason.

The Bible was given to us so that we can meet a perfect God, not so that we can know about God perfectly.

There aren’t clear rules for prayer beyond seeking God and asking. There aren’t clear rules for how God acts. Sometimes he guides us clearly and other times he doesn’t.

My sense is that we systematize God based on what bothers us most. If a weak God bothers you, you can emphasize and systematize the passages where God determines the course of history or guides someone clearly. If an all-powerful God bothers you, you can emphasize and systematize the passages where God lets people choose and reacts to world events.

Lost in the mix of these competing systems is the complex biblical narrative where God has a plan, but this plan does not necessarily determine every single event in my life, your life, or in world events. God is deeply involved in our world, but he refuses to give us a clear blue print of how he does it. I don’t think that’s an oversight on God’s part.

The only system I’m certain about is that God loves broken people and gives them his Holy Spirit to keep and to guide them.

Why We Lose Our Minds Talking about the Bible and Gender

Every Christian has a picture in his/her mind about what a God-honoring, Bible believing household should look like.

Mom has a career or stays home with the kids.

Dad has the final say in everything or dad works with mom as a team.

Women are fully equal with men or women has gender-designated roles to fulfill.

Men must provide or anyone can provide, so long as the bills get paid and someone can figure out what to do with the kids.

We have all of these mixes of families, and how we arrive at these family set ups is not only intensely personal, but deeply ingrained for many of us.

Perhaps we’ve seen our families function like this for so long that we can’t imagine a family operating any other way.

Perhaps we’ve only heard one side’s version of the “biblical” roles for a family.

Each family has a picture of what the right gender roles are and what a traditional home should look like. We develop scripts if you will, and these scripts dictate how we try to live.

Then something very uncomfortable happens. We run into someone with a different script for each gender and hence, for a family.

When we encounter these different scripts, we can make a huge mistake.We can attack that person and try to impose our script onto his/her family.

There’s a good chance that person will attack us back, leaving us feeling embattled and possibly even persecuted.

“Our way of life is under attack!”

Once we make the mistake of attacking, there’s a good chance that BOTH sides will feel attacked, and it’s all just a matter of saying who threw the first punch.

We have a script for our household that deviates from a lot of the traditional scripts where men are firmly in charge and have to provide while the wife stays home with the kids. We believe that women are fully equal with men and that the Bible has plenty to say in favor of that.

If attacked, I will stand up for what we believe. If someone calls my wife’s decisions into question, I will respond. I will be charitable, but I won’t be lectured about what’s truly biblical by someone who doesn’t know us and our devotion to God.

By the same token, there are so many people who I love dearly who don’t see eye to eye with us on this. And I’m equally passionate about defending them and their decisions. They are trying to follow God and structure their families in the best ways they know how. Who am I to impose my script on them?

We serve a non-coercive God. When God speaks about the disobedience of Israel, he speaks from the perspective of a jilted lover. The story of Hosea wasn’t just a scandal. It captures the heart of a God who reaches out to his people without cramming his ways down our throats.

If we have any hope of sharing the non-coercive love of God with one another, a good place to start is recognizing our own scripts about gender in the church and in the home. We need to own our stories, family experiences, and theological backgrounds. These scripts that define us are good things in that they represent where God has taken us so far.

I ache for greater gender equality in the church.

I know that others ache for egalitarians like me to become more “biblical” or committed to “the truth.”

What I’ve come to see as our lives collide with one another and we read each other’s scripts with mixes of shock and fear, we can’t force them on one another. A full frontal attack will not win anyone over, and worse yet, we’ll most assuredly be counter attacked.

I will continue to advocate for biblical equality, but I’m also going to continue loving my friends and family who disagree with me. Their scripts are too long and too complex for me to pick apart and rebuff.

Their stories are too sacred.

Our God is too loving.

Belonging: Why a Broken Church is Still the Hope of the World

I look at myself as a refugee from the thought system of fundamentalism. That world included the rapture and a heavy dose of fear that I have happily left behind and sometimes mocked.

However, there’s an important distinction that God has impressed on my heart over the years. Though I may give up on certain beliefs and practices from my fundamentalist days, I should never give up on the people from my fundamentalist days.


Because they haven’t given up on me.

I can look back to three women in particular who did a heck of a lot more for my walk with Jesus than anything that has come out of the emerging church and its related books and blog posts. That’s not a dig at the emerging church. It’s a statement about the power of God working through these women in fundamentalist churches with hymns-only, KJV-only, suits and dresses-only, and sermons so long they would have killed Eutychus beyond Paul’s healing touch.

I’ve been shaped by what people, even if I’ve left some of their beliefs behind:

  • I have written off the rapture.
  • I never look at the KJV.
  • My suits are shoved in a corner of my closet.
  • I zone out during sermons with remarkable predictability.

And yet, God’s mark has been made on my life because of these women.

My VBS teacher welcomed a lonely, confused Catholic kid who wandered in and had no idea what to make of the songs, games, and crafts. She singled me out and taught me that the church could be a welcoming place that feels like home.

My Sunday School teacher patiently endured the distracted boys and nurtured my curiosity and questions. She committed to pray for me every day for the rest of her life. Who does something like that? Who can dismiss a woman who loves so freely and generously like that? Who cares if she believes in the rapture or doesn’t have as robust a notion of the Kingdom of God as we’d prefer?

Another Sunday School teacher taught me how to pray, to sit in the presence of Jesus and to expect that he’ll show up. She taught me that the Holy Spirit is not only alive and well. The Holy Spirit breaks through our doubts and failures to bring God’s life to us.

We could pick apart some of what these women believe. They may not understand who I’ve become today. Who knows if they’d even doubt my salvation. Few of us would darken the doors of the churches where I met these women.

For all of the brokenness in the church, there are people who have become wells of God’s love and power. They refresh and bless, even if others wear out and condemn.

Even among those who wear out and condemn, I could tell stories of support, acceptance, and joy. The horrible points of fundamentalism make salacious headlines. Who can resist a dig at fundamentalist theology?

There are days when I look at the stuff Christians write and say to one another and spend their time on, and I am filled with despair. I wonder if God’s people really are capable of bearing good news. I wonder why the hope of the word seems so hopeless.

I spend my time pointing at the brokenness of the church, and invariably, I stumble into someone who changes my mind. The longer I look, the more I find people who are faithfully following Jesus and loving others in all kinds of churches. Even if the sermons they hear on Sundays are anything but good news, their lives preach something far more powerful.

When I’m done pointing out every problem I see around me, I’m reminded that my life is far from squeaky clean. That’s when I realize that the marvel of the church isn’t so much God can use a fundamentalist. That’s nothing.

The marvel of the church is that God burns through our clever profile pictures, witty blog posts, and sharp outfits in order to see who we truly are. He sees our hidden moments, where our minds wander, and what our true motives are.

He sees you and me without any explanations or excuses.

He sees you and me, and wonder of wonders, he says that he loves us and we need to go and tell the world that Jesus is here. He’s alive. He’s powerful. He’s ready to change lives.

In his infinite wisdom, God knows that the only way to give hope to a broken world is to cobble together an assortment of broken people, letting their lives testify that his new life is here and it’s able to help anyone.

I know that a broken church is the hope of the world because I’m a broken person who relies daily on the mercies of God and his inexplicable love that has reached me through three perfect women.