On Women and Spiritual Leadership

There is a church of another denomination near where I live that has a man and woman co-pastoring. This is a relatively new development for that church, and there are a few individuals (possibly more) who are having difficulty accepting this situation.

A friend of mine approached me, and asked for some thoughts he could pass on to someone he knows within that church who is wrestling with the recent change in leadership.  Rather than submit to the “Outrage Culture” that grips even the Church when this subject is brought up, I decided to do some study and posit some thoughts rather than argue about this. The following is a rather lengthy letter I put together on the topic.

I decided to post this letter, as this topic has come up in multiple isolated conversations recently. Perhaps someone will find it interesting…

 

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My dear brother in Christ,

I was asked recently by a mutual friend to help clarify the Scripture’s teaching on whether or not women can serve as spiritual leaders within the home and within the Church. I was saddened by this question, though not because of your thoughts regarding this topic. I was saddened that this topic has been so neglected, yet simultaneously politicized, within the church that such a question would need to be asked at all. But, I am also grateful that you are wrestling with this subject. It is my hope that I can help bring some clarity, or – at best – supply a starting point for the direction of your searching.

Allow me to say that in my experience, beginning with the question, “What does the Bible say about…” is a precarious starting point. What is usually implied by this statement is that the Bible should be read without regard for careful study (such as neglecting historical context, translation challenges, what has been historically taught by the Church, and what speaks to human reason). Thus, the Scriptures are approached with the mindset of “whatever my translation of the Bible says, I will believe that.” In turn, this means that “whatever I think the Bible means, that is authoritative.”

It is true that the Holy Spirit illuminates our thinking and helps us to understand the truth communicated through God’s Word, but the Spirit does not act as a crutch for willful ignorance.

I am not suggesting that you have this mindset, but I say that only to preface that my response to the topic will include extra-Biblical insights. And, if we do disagree, it is not because one of us is reading the Bible and the other is not, but that our interpretations of the texts differ. The Holy Bible was not written with a study guide attached (alas!), so we are left to use our faculties to the best of our abilities to reach a conclusion.

John Wesley, the theological father of several groups of devout believers, taught that Scripture is best interpreted through the employment of Reason, Tradition, and Experience. I will follow his lead and employ those tools throughout our exploration of the Bible.

On the Role of Man and Woman as Spiritual Leaders

Genesis 1:27

I almost always draw attention to the semicolon in this verse. God created man (collective Ha-adam; mankind) in his image. Not just man (singular; a man), but mankind. The semicolon suggests that the division of clauses present communicate the same principle. In other words, it is men and women together who best reflect the image of God. It implies, then, that the best way to demonstrate and teach who God is (a sound working definition of a Christian Spiritual Leader, I feel), is not by one individual acting alone, but by multiple people – both men and women – working together.

Genesis 3:6

The woman eats the fruit first. This is clearly evident, and causes many to conclude that women are the spiritually weaker sex and thereby incapable of properly leading others (in most cases, specifically men) in the faith.  What is not often noted is that the man in this passage is with the woman the entire time – listening to the conversation between the woman and the serpent, watching the woman as she takes the fruit, and then subsequently eats it – all without saying a single word. He does not try to intervene in the least. In fact, he even receives the fruit from the woman and eats it himself. If the woman eating the fruit is demonstrative of her inability to lead well, then the man’s inaction demonstrates the same. They are equally at fault, and equally sinful.

Judges 4:1 – 5:13

To be sure, several women are spoken highly of in the Bible, but here we have an instance of one women – Deborah – who served as a judge of Israel. There is nothing in her story that implies she was a ‘lesser’ judge, nor that God was displeased with her serving as the leader of Israel (4:4). She leads the people and honors the Lord by doing so.

1 Samuel 1:21-23

This is the first of several passages I found fascinating in my study. Throughout the Bible, it was the women who seemed to be more attentive to their spiritual lives and the spiritual lives of their children within the home. Much like today, where we generally see more women in our churches than men (and women tend to be more active within the church). It serves to personal experience and even the writings of Scripture that it is generally women who are the spiritual leaders within the home, rather than men.*

*this is certainly not ideal, and I am not making that case. It is merely an observation made by both human reason and Biblical accounts.*

Here, it was Hannah who prayed, and God heard her and blessed her. There is no mention of her husband’s spiritual nature, but in verses 21-23, we see Hannah determining the spiritual direction of their child and Elkanah submits to her decision. There is no negative recourse nor scolding of Elkanah; Hannah’s spiritual leadership of her household is honored.

Conclusion:

I am not attempting to say that women are more sensitive to the Spirit, nor more capable of being spiritual leaders. Instead, it seems reasonable to conclude that the role of “spiritual leader,” whether within the household or within the community, is a position shared by both sexes.

The aforementioned stories, although few, are not treated as exceptions to some rule about only men being the spiritual leader. There are no asterisks or clauses to indicate that God would have preferred a man to lead Israel, or that Elkanah would have been a stronger spiritual head. Instead, these women are included in the story of the people of God as equally capable even in the presence of equally capable men.

The Story of Christ and the Role of Women in The Church

Luke 1:26-56

I will confess that I may be reading too much into this passage, but I find it intriguing that the presence of the Messiah is noticed by the unborn and women before anyone else. If spiritual leadership requires a certain sensitivity to the Spirit of God, then it appears that women are quite capable of having such sensitivity. Even Elizabeth, whose husband served as a priest (certainly a man of strong faith), recognized Jesus as the Christ before he did. More emphatically, when Zachariah was confronted face-to-face by the Archangel Gabriel, he did not even believe his words.

Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20 (esp. 10-18)

The Gospel (the Good News) is that Christ is risen!  Evangelism (from the Greek word meaning “Good News”), is the communication of the Truth that Jesus the Christ is alive! I can think of no higher role one has than to tell others about the risen savior.

We should note, then, that the first ones to carry the message of the risen savior were not men. Rather, the first evangelists were women. Admittedly, the gospel accounts do differ in who exactly was at the empty tomb, but they all clearly say that it was the women who told the disciples of the risen Lord.

I have heard the argument that the women were not actually being evangelists because the disciples already believed.  I find that unconvincing, personally, because it suggests that one can be a believer while simultaneously not believing in the resurrection of Christ (which the disciples rejected until the resurrected Christ revealed himself).

The New Testament and the Role of Women

At this point, it would be beneficial to admit that we should tread carefully when reading the New Testament. Even Paul makes references to his writing being from his own thoughts and not necessarily from the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:12 & 25). This makes it difficult sometimes to understand the meaning of certain passages because much of what is written is speaking out of a particular cultural context.

In my tradition, as well as most others, we distinguish between three types of text: Normative, Corrective, and Descriptive.

  • Normative texts are those whose message and meaning are universal: “I am the way, the Truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Luke 14:6). This is universally true, regardless of where we find ourselves in history or location.
  • Corrective texts are those that are only authoritative in certain instances. When Paul is discussing to the Corinthians that men should keep their heads shaved and women should wear head coverings, it should be evident that he is addressing a specific issue (in this case, the cultural understanding of human sexuality and reproduction. See Troy Martin’s article “A Testicle Instead of a Head Covering” for more on this).  Therefore, what Paul is teaching here should not be viewed as universally true.
  • Descriptive texts merely describe events, much like a narrator. They do not intent to communicate a lesson.

For many of the following passages, I imagine that some would disagree over what should be classified as “Normative” and “Corrective.” In fact, it is this reason that has led to such widespread disagreements regarding women in the Church and within the home.

Acts 2:17-18

Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit with power upon men and women. This passage is a quote from Joel, and it clearly mentions the Spirit of God being poured out on both men and women, sons and daughters.  Although it may be suggested that men and women are set up in a spiritual hierarchy, that view would need to assume that the Spirit is given unequally to men and women.  While it is true that the Holy Spirit gives us different gifts, the same Spirit lives and works within us all (1 Corinthians 12) and its power is not diminished nor inhibited based on sex.

1 Corinthians 7:1-16

Here, Paul makes a lengthy argument for an egalitarian view of marriage where each spouse submits to one another and neither one assumes a spiritually authoritarian role.

1 Corinthians 11:3

This passage is good practice for the mantra “understanding the particular in light of the whole.” The Bible is consistent in its teaching of the Faith. As such, when we come across discrepancies, we should exercise careful study.

Here, Paul is saying that the head of every woman is man just as the head of every man is Christ. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that Paul is laying forth a spiritual hierarchy. However, that would flatly contradict what was stated earlier in chapter 7, as well as much of Paul’s other writings. I confess that this passage has me perplexed. I cannot confidently identify what Paul’s point is, here. Is he stating his observations – that men tend to be focused on Christ while women tend to be focused on their husbands? Or is he using this passage as a lead-in to what he is about to say about head coverings (referenced earlier)? I believe it is the latter, and I will refer to Martin’s article to gain some clarity on the subject.

1 Corinthians 14:34

Myself, and most all of my peers, recognize this as a “corrective” passage. Let’s be frank on this subject: women talk more than men do. It has been scientifically and anecdotally proven. I have been a part of many groups, and by and large it is women who tend to occupy the most time with talking.

We should not wrongfully assume that people throughout history were any different. Paul, in his other letters, sheds light on the fact that many women who attended church were not educated enough to teach, and many were prone to gossip and speaking ill of their husbands (it appears we haven’t changed much since Timothy and Titus).  Thus, Paul is most likely referring to issues he has heard of regarding women who would teach unintelligibly within the church or cause disorder via talking too much.

Fitting into the larger context of Paul’s message in this chapter, he seems more concerned with addressing an orderly style of worship (apparently the Corinthians had no solid worship structure), so this is probably an issue specific to their context.

Galatians 3:26-29

It would be difficult to suppose that Paul teaches a spiritual hierarchy within the Body of Christ when, here, he directly states that there is “neither male nor female” for “all are one in Christ Jesus.”

Ephesians 5:21-33

Commonly referred to as the passage that overtly teaches the man’s superiority over the woman, this section actually begins in verse 21 with Paul stating “submit to one another.” He then goes on to illustrate what an equal submission looks like within marriage.

He does begin with the wives, needing to submit to their husbands. But, he then goes on to tell husbands that they ought to love their wives as Christ loved the church and “gave himself up for her.” If men are to be the spiritual leaders of the home, it is of a type in which he gives up his own life for his wife.

If one is to interpret this passage as the male taking a higher position of spiritual leadership, then it would be difficult indeed to reconcile that position with verse 31, where the two become one flesh. This harkens back to Genesis 1:27; it is not the man nor the woman who reflects the image of God the best, but man and woman together.

1 Timothy 2:11

I recommend what I wrote on 1 Corinthians 14, though I would point out that Paul tells Timothy in 5:14 that it is the women who manage the homes (not the men).

2 Timothy 1:4-5

As to women being spiritual leaders within the home, I want to recall what I wrote about 1 Samuel. Here, Paul refers directly to Timothy’s upbringing, and commends his mother and grandmother for the faith they had and passed on to Timothy. There is no mention of Timothy’s father or other male role models, but it was the women in Timothy’s family who appeared to have been the spiritual heads. Similar to my note after 1 Samuel, this is not treated as extraordinary.

Titus 2:3-5

Once again, I am been convinced that this is a Correctional passage. Paul is writing a personal letter to Titus, and he appears to be addressing a specific problem within that church; the women were slandering and drinking too much, not respecting their husbands nor taking care of their homes.

1 Peter 3:1-7

Peter does refer to wives as “the weaker partner,” but he does not indicate this as a spiritual weakness. Earlier in chapter 3, he illustrates how wives can win their husbands to the Lord by how they live (an argument he makes earlier in his letter for the whole church).

Conclusion

I hope this brief study serves as a help as you continue your journey. Although I admit my bias on the topic, I will readily confess that not everything in Scripture is abundantly clear and it was not my purpose to argue against a particular stance, but to communicate my standing on this topic.

I was once in a heated discussion over prospective leaders in our denomination. Some were arguing that we needed to have more women and non-white leaders in high positions because we needed people who “represented the diversity of the church.” I was utterly perplexed by this, because it is not the role of a spiritual leader to represent the people to Christ; it is the role of a spiritual leader to represent Christ to the people.

From there, I would like to leave this question: Is Christ represented better through the lives of men than of women?

I feel this is a good place to start. And wherever you land on this subject, brother, I pray God’s wisdom.

 

If it is of interest, I’ve copied what is written in my denomination’s Manual on the subject:

Ҧ 501. Theology of Women in Ministry. The Church of the Nazarene supports the right of women to use their God-given spiritual gifts within the church and affirms the historic right of women to be elected and appointed to places of leadership within the Church of the Nazarene, including the offices of both elder and deacon.

The purpose of Christ’s redemptive work is to set God’s creation free from the curse of the Fall. Those who are “in Christ” are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). In this redemptive community, no human being is to be regarded as inferior on the basis of social status, race, or gender (Galatians 3:26–28). Acknowledging the apparent paradox created by Paul’s instruction to Timothy (1 Timothy 2:11–12) and to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:33–34), we believe interpreting these passages as limiting the role of women in ministry presents serious conflicts with specific passages of scripture that commend female participation in spiritual leadership roles (Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2:17–18; 21:8–9; Romans 16:1, 3, 7; Philippians 4:2–3), and violates the spirit and practice of the Wesleyan-holiness tradition. Finally, it is incompatible with the character of God presented throughout Scripture, especially as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.”

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On Cimena and One-on-Ones

The other day I was sitting shotgun while a good friend of mine and I were taking someone home from the airport. A conversation started that revolved around the movie God’s Not Dead. I only said one or two things about it; how my friends who saw it thought it handled the philosophical aspects of theology with kid-gloves, and how it was obviously made for a Christian audience instead of a non-Christian one. The other people in the vehicle talked about how it blatantly showed stereotypes like the Muslim family and the atheistic classmates, and how it only presented canned answers to easy questions.

[Side note: apparently they showed the movie at one of the local universities here and right from the beginning one of the Muslim students up and walked out on it (because it was one of ‘those’ movies: Christians and their families are good; everyone else and their families are bad).]

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I have never seen the movie myself, so I can’t offer a meaningful critique outside of what others are saying. But, I have been noticing a trend among Christian media that is a bit disheartening to say the least.

Some who know me already know that I am not a big fan of ‘Christian’ films. This is mostly because I’m not particularly fond of the typical plot development they build off of: person has an imperfect home life > person rejects advice from Christian friend/relative > major life crisis happens > person fails at fixing situation themselves > ‘coming to Jesus’ moment > person struggles > another life crisis > everything gets fixed, and all conflicts are resolved > the end. Quite frankly, I wish that Christian movie producers and writers would wrestle with deep issues and not have every ending be ‘happily ever after.’ I’d even love to see someone develop a movie with a similar development and story as Requiem for a Dream. Let’s be honest with each other, just because you have a relationship with God does not mean that all your problems get fixed.

But that’s not really the biggest reason I’m not a fan of Christian films. I think my biggest reservation is that we tend to become dependent on them to start conversations with non-Christians, and we tend to rely on them to do the evangelizing. Barring the fact that most non-Christians would never see a Christian film (I mean, c’mon, how many Christians would willingly go see a film with an overtly atheist/Muslim/agnostic message?), we should realize something very important…

Some years ago I was spending Thanksgiving with my extended family and several of us were bemoaning the fact that stores had stopped displaying the message “Merry Christmas” and had opted to only use the phrase “Happy Holidays” on their banners, commercials, and wherever else stores display things. After a bit of discussion, my uncle spoke up and said, “Well, it’s not their responsibility to share the Christmas message; that’s our responsibility.”

I feel the same truth applies to Christian media in some way. Although I am glad Christians have stepped into the movie-making business and are producing some good quality films (in terms of production quality, not necessarily screenplay), and that they are using their talents to glorify God (even though I feel you can glorify God without telling an overtly salvific message), music and movies only go so far. In the end, true disciples are made through relationships, and you can’t develop a relationship with a movie that tells one story in almost two hours.

Christian films should not be used for evangelism. They can be tools in evangelism, but at the end of the day they serve mostly to support Christians’ pre-conceived notions and thus far have not truly wrestled with things that a non-Christian would wrestle with. At best, the message being sent through the screen is this: “Oh, you don’t believe in God? Well, you should! Why should you believe in God? Because something good happened to the person in this story for doing so, and his life was fixed. If you don’t believe in God, then your life will be a mess; but if you do then you won’t have to struggle with losing your daughter or having your spouse divorce you. You say the real world doesn’t work like that? …This movie says different, so don’t focus on reality; just watch the movie and have someone pray for you.” Not a very welcoming message.

Evangelism and discipleship are responsibilities we have been given. Perhaps someday ‘Christian’ media will be at the place where non-Christians will actually want to watch them, but the true heart of the Church’s mission still lies within each of us. And so it is up to us to not depend on televisions to do our work. If we are disappointed with how movies with Christian messages are received by non-Christians, then we ought to reevaluate what exactly we’re doing – we could be causing more harm than good.

On Disconnect and Player 1

I was working on a long blog post, but my thoughts got all jumbled and I had to start over. This happens from time to time.

Anyways, I had an interesting interaction earlier this week between a couple students and myself after one of my Formation groups got out. After group was dismissed, two of my students came up to me and we talked for a good hour or so. We talked about some interesting stuff; the practice of prophecy in the Old Testament, the nature of God throughout the Bible, different genres of music, and one thing that really caught me off-guard. One of my students is an avid Zelda fan! I was pretty psyched to share my favorite childhood experience with a like-minded individual. It was a unique experience that made my week. It also led to a conversation with a good friend of mine this morning.

We were having our weekly breakfast time, and the topic of expectations came up. To be honest, I am not sure what exactly we were saying, but the conversation got to the point where I expressed my frustration with how I am viewed when I bring up my affinity for gaming. It has seemed, throughout my life, that when I bring up my hobby of gaming that I am viewed as immature, or at least childish in some way. It’s as if gaming is something you eventually grow out of. I believed this idea for a long time. Before I came to Olivet I sold all of my gaming devices and games except my Gameboy and N64 (you can’t toss the classics), because I believed that I was not a grown-up and would develop a more sophisticated hobby. What I have found, however, is that I had to eventually come to a defining decision, and it happened last year: I admitted that I am a gamer.

Hanin' with Navi

It’s true, I love to game! I love talking about game theory (philosophical messages of games, timelines, characterizations, themes, etc.), playing all kinds of games (FPS, RTS, Tabletop, card games, MMO, RPG, and recently I have gotten into MOBA’s), and interacting with other gamers. What I have found, once I owned up to the fact that I am a gamer for life, is that the gaming community is very disrespected by people who are outside of it. For instance, the Olivet newspaper came out with an article that talked about how there is a League of Legends team forming at Olivet and will attempt to compete with other teams in the area. When I mentioned this to my professor, he laughed at the notion that gaming could be a sport (because people who form these teams compete in E-sports tournaments). I looked at him and in all seriousness started talking about how difficult these types of games are; they require strong teamwork, quick reflexes, incredible strategizing, impeccable micromanaging and macromanaging skills, and a lot of dedication. Whenever I bring up stories about my gaming escapades, like how I started pwning the Hearthstone ladder with my constructed Druid and Paladin decks, or played some old school Pharaoh, I am usually met with sideways glances, smiles that say, “you’re kind of pathetic,” or an outright laugh. At best, gaming is seen as an inefficient use of time by most non-gamers.

What many people fail to realize is that the gaming community is an extremely close-knit group, and it is largely non-Christian. Not only is it non-Christian, but it is violently so. Go onto any gaming forum and mention anything about God, the Church, Jesus, the Bible and you will be met with an incredibly aggressive response. In internet terms, such conversations end up being “flame wars;” massive arguments that burn everyone who comes in contact with it. But, contrary to popular belief, gamers are very social… with each other. If you become a part of a gaming community, then you basically become a part of a tribe. It has its own language, social expectations, allies and enemies, and belief system (this is hard to explain if you don’t game). I know this because I grew up in it. Ever since I was a kid I have been connected with this community. It’s because of these reasons that I mentioned to my breakfast buddy that I cannot give up gaming.

I feel called to this largely unchurched community. Does this mean that I will become an internet pastor? No, it just means that my ties to gaming won’t end just because I take on a church. I grew up in this community, I know what these people are like, and I know how they think. How could I reject such a community of people who, in many cases, are socially exclusive to their gaming brothers and sisters? If people can develop sports programs in churches to reach people, then why not gaming teams? Why not start a Pathfinder society in our church, or an ESO guild, or a Final Fantasy Fan club? Granted, not many people in the churches I go to even know what an RTS is. I bring this up because I really want to do this in my church. I want to have my church serve as a place where like-minded people can gather and enjoy something together that we all love. Of all the places to gather, should the church not be the best place? What an incredible opportunity for relationship building and evangelism – you are a gamer, and that is okay. Honestly, most of the classmates I met during my time at ITT-Tech would never step foot in a church or listen to anyone who mentioned “God.” But you bring up the topic of gaming and suddenly they’re hooked in the conversation.

I think we need to stop making gaming out to be a waste of time and something that the church has no place participating in. Gaming is a hobby, like anything else. It’s an incredibly social activity. Plus, it’s freaking fun! I don’t know how many other gamers have wrestled with this idea that they are somehow less of an adult for gaming, or less of a Christian for doing so, but I would imagine that it is a good number. I do know that this is something that took me until I was 25 to accept.

To my fellow Zelda-loving student and all my closet-gamer Christians out there: enjoying video games doesn’t require being sent back to Kokiri Forest, so take the Master Sword out of the pedestal and game on!

On Bait and Switch

Can I confess something with you? This might be a small thing, but it is something that has started to irritate me a little bit, and I feel the need to get it off of my chest. I am starting to get annoyed with certain Facebook posts. Now, I know we all have our own preferences on what types of Facebook posts we like or don’t like, and I’ve made mention of Facebook posts before, but this particular type of post is quite aggravating. I’m talking, of course, about what I call the ‘bait and switch’ posts.

bait-and-switch

You all know what I’m talking about. The posts that have the eye-catching titles that seem to be communicating a summary of an article but it turns out the article says something completely different. For example, the post titled, “This Man Is Dating Someone Even Though He’s Married. Sounds Disgusting, But I’m On His Side.” [SPOILER ALERT] After reading the article, I found out that the man in question is actually ‘dating’ his wife and the article is about how married people need to be constantly pursuing their spouse. But, the title of the article draws you to conclude something entirely different than what the content of the article is. [end of spoiler alert]

There are other articles similar to this, but you know what I’m talking about. I’ve stopped clicking on them simply because I hate being tricked. I don’t trust those provocative links anymore; the one’s that shout out, “This is a different view on something and should spark controversial conversation, click on me!” I’m beginning to wonder, however, if we tend to do the same thing in our Christian lives.

I’ve been to several different churches, and I’ve read about several more. It is always amusing to me to listen to a pastor talk about how ‘hip,’ ‘different,’ or ‘loving’ his/her church is, and then when I step in the door I’m confronted with an entirely different story. The ‘hip’ church just plays a different genre of music while the people are stoic and wear jeans, the ‘different’ church is unorganized and doesn’t really communicate a coherent message, and the ‘loving’ church has a lot of hand-shakers but no one will sit next to you in the sanctuary. I will admit that this is a gross generalization, but it has happened enough that I have given up trusting what pastors have to say about their churches. Let the actions of the people in the church speak for themselves.

On a more personal note, I have come to realize that we tend to do this in our own lives. The way we act, the way we talk, and the way we treat others all communicate a message of who we are. But, do we really communicate the reality of who we are? Or are we performing our own bait and switch on people?

“I love people! (except those who think differently than I do.)”
“I’m not judgmental (unless I see you drinking alcohol)”
“Anyone is welcome into my home (but you have to nice to me first)”
“Of course I don’t look down on you (until you start talking about abortion)”

We carry around this notion of a God who loves all people and has his arms open wide to even the most vile of persons. We shout this message as loud as we can, but when someone starts to respond to this we turn the tables and assimilate them into a mindset that looks down on everyone that looks different, thinks different, and acts different than ‘we’ do. We talk about how Jesus offers forgiveness, and yet we don’t forgive. We talk about a God who hates gossip and yet we spread rumors all the time. And we talk about a church that welcomes any and all, but will shun someone if we see them in a bar.

I’ve said this before to people, and I believe it is true. If I were not born into the Christian faith, I would most likely outright reject Christianity. I look at how we talk about ‘the world’ and I see the ‘Christian’ movies we tout as being life-changing, and I honestly don’t see much that is very warm or welcoming in those.

If we’re critical of ourselves, then I think we would see that we often pull a bait-and-switch on people. The way I see it, we need to either look at ourselves objectively and realize that we are messed up people who don’t have it all together and stop trying to make ourselves seem perfect, or we need to start taking our faith more seriously and start living out what we believe (which is not intolerance, hate, and judgment as many would claim). To be fair, I think we need a little bot of both; We ought to be real with who we are and recognize that God is still working in our lives, and we should also see that we are called to live a life that we cannot live on our own.

If the Gospel is manifesting itself in our lives, then there is no need to perform some elaborate marketing campaign. Our lives becomes testimonies in themselves of who God is, and our God is a God who accepts us where we are in spite of our flaws. But, do we accept others in spite of their flaws or do we only say that?

On Revelation and Assimilation

I remember the first interaction I had with my ex-fiance.  We didn’t really know each other personally, but we would engage in conversation and do some activities together. A few months and several interactions later, we began to date one another.  Still more months and interactions later we got engaged.

Woman Receiving Engagement RingThis is a fairly typical story.  Two people meet, get to know each other, and then after a time they continue making deeper and deeper levels of commitment to one another.  Engagement, as well as marriage, are two moments which solidify a certain depth of commitment between two people.   It is odd for us to think that two people would meet for the first time, chat for a few minutes, and then immediately commit the rest of their lives to one another.  Even in arranged marriages there are people who  understand the individuals well enough to know if that kind of relationship will work, and there is still a ‘leading up-to’ time where the two people are at least aware of what is going on.

Why is it, then, that we tend to see evangelism as a ‘blind marriage’ occasion?  We think it’s crazy for two people to get married if they have only know each other for a few hours (or even days), and yet we impose that kind of perspective on our un-saved neighbors.  I would like to propose that we rethink our understanding of evangelism.

To be perfectly honest, I never felt comfortable inviting my friends to church with me.  While I was in youth group, we would be asked several times to bring our friends to church for special occasions or for Wednesday night Bible study or whatever.  I would always feel awkward about this.  It’s not because I didn’t think God was important or that salvation didn’t matter, but it’s because whenever I did invite my friends I would hear the messages they were hearing and it would unsettle me.

“You’re an outsider.”
“You don’t know what’s going on here.”
“You don’t know who God is.”
“You need to dedicate your life to Jesus tonight!”

My friends were seen as outsiders, as strangers, and in order to feel truly welcomed they needed to get with the program and convert.  Then, and only then, could they be a part of the community.

Now, I know that this was not the intended message of the youth leaders or laypeople.  However, these were the messages that were communicated through what was said, how people acted, and what people said about our friends when they weren’t there.  And I am as guilty as everyone else for sending these messages.

Now I have another story to tell:

when I was about five, I remember coming home from church and climbing into the top of my bunk-bed and asking Jesus into my heart.  This is my conversion story, and it is entirely made up.

The truth is, I don’t know when I was saved.  I can’t point to a calendar and say, “here, on this day, I became a born again believer!”  I do know that at some point I did, but I don’t remember how.  I remember something about a Sunday school teacher talking with me about it, so maybe it happened then?  I don’t know.  I do know that I invented a story because people kept asking me about my conversion experience and when I came into a relationship with the Lord, so that’s where the bunk-bed conversion story came into play.

Honestly, I don’t know when Christ became my savior because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Jesus was.  I grew up hearing about him all the time.  I would pray to him before meals with my family, and I would hear about him at church.  I never had an opportunity as an infant to not know who he was.  And this is why I believe there is a big weakness in how we do evangelism.

One of the biggest assumptions we seem to build off of when talking about evangelism is that people who are not Christian do not have a relationship with Jesus.  I think this is one of the most harmful and, frankly, ignorant assumptions we have.  There is rarely anyone in the United States who does not know who Jesus is.  You can ask anyone, “Who is Jesus?” and I believe most people will give you an answer.  Everyone knows who Jesus is.  Everyone has feelings about who Jesus is.  Everyone has some sort of a relationship with Jesus, even if that relationship is simply an acquaintance.

So why do we approach evangelism as if they don’t?  Why do we talk to non-believers as if Jesus is some total stranger to them?  Why do we treat them as if they couldn’t tell the difference between Jesus and George Bush?  And why do we assume that he is not already working in their lives?

The problem with not recognizing a relationship that is already there is that we then set up all kinds of persuasive arguments aimed at getting people to like Jesus. We talk about his character, what he did, what he does, and what he is doing as if Jesus were on a blind date with this person.

But what if evangelism became more declarative than persuasive?  More acknowledging that coercing?  More about revealing a God who is already there than introducing a completely foreign concept?

If we are to take this perspective seriously, then evangelism isn’t about trying to get someone to marry a complete stranger they just met.  Instead, it is about helping someone develop a relationship that is already there.  I didn’t get engaged the first moment I met my ex-fiance’.  That didn’t happen until months into our relationship.  Similarly, expecting someone to surrender their entire lives to a being whom they hardly know is expecting too much (and I would contend is ultimately damaging in the long run).

What does this say about that moment of ‘conversion,’ then?  Maybe when someone becomes a born-again believer it is not a moment when they first enter into a relationship with Christ.  Instead, it is simply the moment when Christ went from being ‘some guy I know’ to ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior.’  I am not trying to say that the salvation experience is not important, but we ought to consider the implications of suggesting that Christ is completely unknown to people who aren’t saved.

I sense that our views of others, and creation as a whole, could benefit greatly is we seriously begin to open our eyes to the work that God is already doing in our world and in the lives of those around us.   Maybe we would begin shedding ourselves of an ‘us/them’ mentality and simply see ourselves as being on a different stage in this journey. No one is a stranger to God, and who are we to take people on blind dates with a ring in our pocket?

On Facebook and Obama

About a year ago I was approached by a middle-aged woman after one of my sermons.  A very unexpected conversation took place:

Woman: “So, did I hear you right in your sermon when you said you were gay?”

Me: [confused look on my face] “Uhh.. I don’t believe I said that, ma’am.”

Woman: “You mentioned in your sermon that you live with your boyfriend.”

Me: “Oh!  No, I was referencing a paper one of my students had written.”

Woman: “I see.  Are you married, then?”

Me: “No ma’am, I’m single.”

Woman: “Okay.  I looked over during the service and saw that a nicely-dressed young man was visiting and I thought, ‘well, he’s either married or he’s gay.”

Me: “Well, I can honestly say that I’m not gay even though I’m not married.”

I’ve found a profound truth through my time at Olivet:  problems don’t occur because of what you say; problems occur because of what people hear.  In this instance, even though I was trying to be clear in my message, the woman heard something completely different than what I was saying.

During the last few weeks I’ve begun to pay more attention to what we, as Christians, say, and I’ve noticed that there is often a large gap between what we are saying and what others are actually hearing.  In our attempts to promote Christian ideas, including the Gospel, we inadvertently push people away and draw lines in the sand.  Where social media like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Youtube could serve as effective vessels to communicate God’s love to others, we have used them as battle trenches from which to launch our missiles toward our opponents – as if doing so will force them to surrender, and walk – defeated and humiliated – to our side.

It should not take long to notice what I am talking about.  Posts about popular topics such as Duck Dynasty, Obama’s policies, same-sex marriage, and gun laws are rarely inviting.  Typically, you can fill in the blanks with such posts:  “____ is/are being fools!  Why are they doing _____?  _____ is going to ruin our country! We need to stop _____ because _____  is going directly against scripture!”  While some of these statements may be true in some cases, I can’t help but think of what people are hearing when they read such posts:  “They think I’m being a fool?  They don’t know why I support ___?  They think I’m going to ruin the country?  They want to stop people like me, and say I am going directly against scripture?”  – We should not be surprised when people stop attending our churches when they hear such messages.

(picture taken from

I understand that the reason we tend to be so strong and direct in our words is because of our passion.  I do get that.  But we gather on Sundays to talk about how much God loves people. and yet we regularly go out of our way to find creative ways of telling people how much we despise them.  We try to beat down others for thinking differently than we do as we drag them kicking and screaming to the altar, hoping to secure yet another prisoner for Christ.  At least, I’m assuming that’s what our purpose is by treating others the way we do; it’s either some perverted form of evangelism or we’re trying to hold people underwater as we drown them in Hell, instead of extending a loving hand.

I am perplexed by all this, to say the least.  Do we really think we have it all together, that we are so pure, that we can claim to have the power to not just judge others, but to abuse them for not being on the same side of some arbitrary man-made line in the sand as we are?  Or maybe we like to stick to our version of the Great Commission: “Go, and make disciples of all nations… bashing their heads in with traditional American values instead of scriptural truths, and show them how wrong they are so that they feel that I don’t like them.  After all, I only died for the good Christian republican/democrat people.  I didn’t die for all humanity.”  –  That’s what Jesus was getting at, right?

Not only am I perplexed, but I am disappointed.  It makes me feel disappointed to see Christians I once looked up to lobbing grenades at ‘those liberals,’ ‘those homosexuals,’ ‘those God-haters,’ ‘those religious fanatics,’ ‘those baby-killers,’ ‘those bigots,’ ‘those sexists.’ Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that we should engage in conversations about current topics.  But, can we not approach such topics with even a little grace?  Does not the world already draw enough lines as it is – why should we be trying to draw even more?  Do we even listen to those who disagree with us, or do we stay barricaded within our trenches looking at the opposition through rifle scopes and satellites?

Sometimes the greatest method of evangelism is offering our ears.  It’s a dangerous thing to get out of the trenches to walk to the other side and get to know ‘those people.’  Once you enter that ‘no man’s land’ you’re likely to get shot by your own side, if not the ‘opposition’.  But how else are we going to know what our listeners hear?

We ought to take seriously the words we say, and the impact they have on others, because what we are trying to say may not be what they are hearing.