Monday, February 17, 2014

How to be Part of a Tribe Without Succumbing to Tribalism

Hopefully, it will surprise no one reading these words to discover that I'm a Baptist.  I was brought to a Baptist church for the first time when I was just a few days old.  I heard the message of Jesus, and became one of His followers in a Baptist church.  I was licensed and duly ordained as a Baptist minister, I'm a two-time graduate of a Baptist seminary, and I lead a Baptist missions entity.  So I'm about as Baptist as they come.

And when I say I'm a Baptist, that's more than merely a statement of how I was raised or who cuts my paycheck.  I am confessionally, convictionally, Baptist.  I love my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, believe we will be in heaven together, and greatly appreciate their focus on the continuity of the Biblical narrative as it is contained in Covenant Theology.  Yet my best understanding of the Scriptures teaches me that infants are not, automatically, children of that covenant and thus, are not candidates for baptism.  So I could never be a Presbyterian.

I also believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still active today--ALL of them, including the ones that make some of my fellow Baptists nervous.  As such, I love and appreciate my Pentecostal brothers and sisters for their focus on the empowering necessity of the Holy Spirit.  At the same time, the Pentecostal understanding of how miraculous phenomenon like speaking in tongues are connected to Holy Spirit baptism are problematic for a guy like me, who believes we are as immersed as we will ever be by the Holy Spirit at the moment of our conversion.  So I wouldn't make a very good, faithful Pentecostal either.

Additionally, I see the book of Acts revealing an early multiplication of very strong, and very free, self-governing churches, which means I'd be inelligible for inclusion in the United Methodist Church also.  Just about any way you cut me, I bleed a brand of Christian faith that can accurately be called "Baptist."

Yet even with the convictions I hold, I've been blessed, encouraged, empowered, informed, challenged, and grown by men and women from across the denominational spectrum of evangelicalism.  In many ways, I would not be the man, husband, father, or pastor I am today without the positive influences of people like Tim Keller, Lawrence White, D. James Kennedy, Jack Hayford, Chuck Swindoll, Anne Graham Lotz, Bryan Chapel, Loran Livingston, Chuck Colson, Eric Metaxas, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and a host of others.  And none of the above-named people are Baptist!

In other words, I don't mind belonging to a particular "tribe" of Christianity, so long as it doesn't succumb to tribalism.  Yet a movement is afoot in my denomination that would seek to "cleanse" us from anything, or any influence that isn't distinctly Baptist.  Sometimes this is motivated by an apparent fear that our people will join another denomination because of someone who influences them.

And yes, sometimes, a brother or sister may come to different convictions than I do about something that causes them to be true to their integrity, and join a tradition that more accurately alligns with their beliefs. Truly, there are worse things that can happen in our churches than the above display of doctrinal integrity.   But honestly,  if reading a single quote from D. James Kennedy turns one of my parishioners into a Presbyterian, I don't think the problem is D. James Kennedy!

Currently, there is much discussion in our denomination about a number of movements and/or theological persuasions, and whether these pose a threat to our existence as Baptists.  But of all the "isms" I know of that exist within our ranks, none from my vantage point seem to pose as big a threat as does "tribalism."

Tribalism might be a threat to you if:

1. Denominationalism is a substitute for discipleship.  By any measurable standard, the evangelical world as a whole is not "making disciples," as Jesus commanded, at least not those of the Romans 12:1-2 sort.  So, when you discover someone who is actually making disciples--marriages are strong, kids are raised in the fear of God, addictions are overcome, and society is positively changed as a result of the Gospel--is your first reaction to celebrate that fact, or is it to make sure that ministry performs baptisms the same way yours does, or holds to your own doctrinal position on alcohol consumption, Calvinism, or worship style?  If so, you may be a victim of tribalism.

2. Secondary issues are elevated to Gospel issues. A few years ago, one of our mission boards actually stated that baptism by immersion as a sign of conversion wasn't enough to be a "Baptist" missionary.  It had to have taken place in a church that affirms "eternal security."  So, if you were confessionally, convictionally Baptist, but were immersed in a Pentecostal or Nazarene environment, you were put out to pasture, unless you agreed to be "baptized" in an SBC church.  When I asked one trustee about this decision, I was actually told that holiness and Pentecostal churches teach "a works salvation in reverse."  This man demonstrated both a horrible misunderstanding of the historical and theological underpinnings of Arminianism, as well as a grotesquely myopic view of the meaning of baptism.  I'm not sure which of these caused the other in this "chicken-egg" conundrum, but the end result was a claim that because Pentecostals don't believe as we do on an issue not central to saving faith,  they don't proclaim the Gospel at all.  When a command of Jesus is domesticated and perverted to the extent that you believe it identifies you with a denominational tradition more than the King of Kings, you might be a victim of tribalism.

3. Identity turns to Isolation. Occasionally, I run into this in the church planting world, when I'm told, in spite of the fact that there may be multiple Gospel-preaching churches in a given area, that we may need to put a church there anyway because "there is no BAPTIST work there." Thankfully, such hubris doesn't exist in my Association or state convention, but I've certainly heard this sort of thing in the larger Baptist world.  If you think we don't need other Christian traditions working with us to accomplish the Great Commission--or worse yet, if you think the Great Commission can't be accomplished unless we are driving the work in a given area--you may be a victim of tribalism.

I think our work is important, and I think our identity is important.  As the head of a Baptist missions entity, that's why I won't put a Lutheran on the field to plant a church, or encourage one of my established churches to hire a Pentecostal, or consider anyone for missionary service under our banner who would be OK with throwing water on a baby and calling it baptism.  But I don't have to be your twin to be your brother, and the sooner all Southern Baptists realize our dire need for the wider body of Christ to accomplish His mission, the healthier and more effective we will be within our own tribe.  Ironically, that will also be the moment when our identity is more firmly established, because it will be in Jesus.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

What to Get Your Pastor's Wife for Valentine's Day

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day, when more money will be spent on cheap, plastic, red and pink junk than on any other day of the year.  For our family, it will include an evening out together, and my boys will give their mom and their sister gifts. (Rainey men don't receive gifts on Valentine's Day, because we use it as a time to teach them that men give first)  And yes, some of it will be plastic, red and pink, because I must do my share to keep our consumer-oriented economy going.

But as this day approaches, I've been thinking about Pastor's wives, mostly because I'm married to one, and have seen first hand the uniqueness of her experiences compared to other women.  Those experiences, coupled with stories I've heard from other women who also happen to be married to pastors in this Association of churches, have motivated me to write this post in the hopes that followers of Jesus will be encouraged to use this holiday to say "thank you" to the woman standing beside their pastor.

So, what makes her life different, and why should you take some time, and possibly even spend a little money, to recognize that fact?

1. Every Sunday, she becomes a single mom.  For most pastors' wives, while you and your family are getting ready for church together, she has long-since kissed her husband goodbye, and every Sunday is in the process of getting herself and the kids ready to take them to church on her own.  Sunday afternoons likewise are often spent without her husband.  Often, unexpected emergencies and acute needs will suddenly take him away in the evening.  But he is nearly always away on Sunday afternoon.

2. She and her children live in a fish bowl.  I spend a good deal of time challenging our pastors to allow their wives and children to be themselves.  Most honor their families in this way, yet this often will not keep criticism from coming their way because, after all "she is the pastors wife" or "he is the pastors kid" and as such, is often held to a higher, and more often an unspoken standard..  Women who marry ministers of the Gospel choose their men, and to an extent, they are also choosing a particular kind of lifestyle.  But they are not, and should not be, choosing a mold.  Yet much of her life is spent resisting the pressure to fit that mold, and protecting her children from it as well. I always rejoice with women who have escaped that squeeze and are living in the freedom of their own identity, but for every one of them, that path was long, hard, and full of a lot of unnecessary guilt.

3. She is often a spectator to conflict she can't control. Most wives realize that, in times of church conflict, you actually do more harm than good if you open your mouth in the attempt to "defend" your husband.  Amy has often taught younger wives of pastors that "the most supportive thing you can do is to keep your mouth shut and just make sure he comes home to a supportive, peaceful environment."  Still, too many wives have to watch as their husbands deal with unspeakable conflict, harsh judgement, and spiritual warfare.  If her husband is the leader he should be, he won't dump these problems on his wife, and will instead rely on the Holy Spirit, and  fellow elders to endure for the sake of the bride of Christ.  But any wife who is sensitive to her husband will know when his mind is occupied and his spirit is troubled, and this will affect her as well. She can't control most of the conflict that erupts in a church, yet she and her children are often profoundly affected by it nonetheless.

4. Like any woman, she needs relationships, and they are sparse in the church. Most women need deep, meaningful relationships.  Yet most pastor's wives can't get those in their own church!  Even if the church environment is such that she feels she can open herself up, to do so is to take an enormous risk that may cost her entire family later on, and she knows this.  Some can find those relationships outside of the church--and are regrettably judged sometimes for not spending enough time with the people of the church as a result.  But for many women, the result is simply loneliness.

5. She has the power to make or break her husband.  Danny Akin said it best.  "A great pastor's wife can take a mediocre pastor and make him great.  But an un-supportive wife can take a great man, and reduce him to the level of mediocrity."  I've often joked that Amy may be the only reason I still have a job.  But the serious reality is that if you have a great pastor, and he is married, much of his greatness is due to that woman you see him with every Sunday.  Pastor's wives understand this, and will often carry this responsibility in a burdensome way.

Now, I'm not suggesting that pastors' wives should be pitied.  Hardship and conflict are realities for women everywhere.  But as I have been married to one for nearly 20 years, I happen to know that the burdens and circumstances of these women are quite unique--and are certainly worthy of attention by those who have been blessed, ministered to, equipped and encouraged by her husband.  So this Valentine's Day, consider a restaurant gift card, the provision of free babysitting, or even a weekend away at a bed and breakfast.

If you have a good pastor and he is married, then it is largely due to his wife.  Find a tangible way to thank her for all she does for her husband so that he can serve you well.  She is worth the investment.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

From One Preacher to Another: An Open Letter to Bill Gothard

Dear Bill,

I write this letter feeling very strange.  In light of the prescribed discipleship method of Titus 2, this younger man who could theoretically be your son feels a bit weird.  Nevertheless, after having read about the accusations of sexual harassment by multiple women who have worked under your authority, I feel compelled to express what I'm feeling right now to an older man who is supposed to model what it means to follow Jesus.

For many years (I've been in ministry for more than 22 years now) I've followed your work from a distance.  During that time I've heard you take bold stands and say some things I thought were very helpful to the church, and I continue to be thankful for those timely exhortations.  From the standpoint of general theology, you and I are basically the same.  You have advocated a few views over the years that, frankly, I thought were narrow, exegetically flawed and a bit goofy, but we both hold a high view of Scripture and an exclusive view of Jesus as God incarnate, who died on the cross as a substitute for sinners, rose bodily from the dead and is one day returning.  But honestly, I never got any closer to your ministry, and my reticence is overwhelmingly due to the strange way you seem to have been revered by your own followers--a way I discerned to be very, very unhealthy, but which you apparently demanded.  Now, it appears my reluctance was warranted.  I recognize that a single accusation does not, and should not automatically constitute guilt.  But the multiple women now coming forward more than warrants pulling the trigger on 1 Timothy 5:19-20.  Regardless of your intent, the net effect of your actions toward these women did not empower and equip them as followers of Jesus.  Instead, they departed from their service with you uncomfortable, afraid, and ashamed.  Such is never the result of a healthy, Biblically sound, God-honoring ministry.

Since hearing about this situation from one of the pastors in the network of churches I serve, many emotions have flooded my soul that I want to share with you, and with the world that is now watching to see not only your ultimate fate, but your reaction to these revelations.

First, you need to know that I am angry with you.  In the next couple of paragraphs, I'm going to be very rough on you.  I hope you will not stop reading, and that by the end of the letter you will know of my love for you as a brother, but you need to hear the following words. I am angry as a fellow pastor/minister. Your behavior has placed yet another black eye on our common profession and calling.  Occasionally, a situation arises in which I need to provide counsel to a young woman, and circumstances like this make her parents understandably concerned. You are now to the rest of us who serve as pastors what the 9/11 hijackers were to Muslims--someone who causes the rest of us to be viewed with high suspicion simply because we are pastors.  By your behavior, you haven't just broken trust with your own followers.  You have also contributed to the growing distrust that the public now has of those of us in ministry.  The Gospel--which is what people need the most for healing, meaning and purpose--is kept from many because actions like yours have broken the trust between them and those of us who are the stewards of that story. To be honest Bill,  the most repulsive thing about what you did isn't just the inappropriate behavior with young women, but that this behavior occurred in the context of an uneven working relationship.  You abused the power and trust of your office to satisfy yourself rather than serve your people.  And as the one with the power in the relationship, the blame for everything that has transpired rests squarely on your shoulders.

I am also angry as a father.  I have two sons whom I love more than my own life.  And yet if I ever discover that they have behaved as you have and taken advantage of a woman, they will experience a level of wrath from their father that they have never seen before.  Taking from a woman to satisfy yourself is what little boys do, and I want my sons to be men.  Real men don't do what you did.  But my anger reaches its peak when I think, not of my sons, but my daughter.  I have to tell you Bill, if one of the young women you abused had been my Gracie, then it is highly likely I would be writing this letter from a prison cell, and you would be reading it through deeply bruised, bloodshot eyes from the confines of a hospital bed.  Yes, I recognize it would be wrong for me to react in that way, but maybe if you understand how incredibly angry I am--how unspeakably angry a LOT of fathers are at you--then perhaps you will also sense how the heavenly Father of these young women feel.  These young ladies--as followers of Jesus--are daughters of the most high God.  They are princesses who were placed in your care and pastoral stewardship, and you abused your authority to your own sick benefit.  Their Creator and yours is also very angry with you.  Public embarrassment and the potential loss of a life-long ministry should be the least of your worries right now.  If I were you, I'd be very, very afraid!

Second, I am brokenhearted.  You and I don't agree on a few things, but one of the things I always appreciated about your ministry is that you were consistently clear when it came to Jesus.  But just as your words in the past demonstrated your strong affinity with Jesus and His church, your reprehensible behavior has tarnished both our Lord and His people.  Paul tells us in Ephesians 3 that it is through the church that the manifold wisdom of God is made known.  As the stories of your harassment of young women and abuse of power begin to spread, they will, in the eyes of the world, grant legitimacy to the charges of misogyny and chauvinism that are so often leveled at us all.  This is what people will think of when they think of the church and her earthly leaders--the exact opposite of the truth, which is that Jesus gave of Himself to give us freedom.  I am profoundly saddened when I think of the way the Gospel will be misunderstood and the church will be held in suspicion because of this.

Finally, I am hopeful.  I've read your doctrinal statement, and assuming that these words didn't just come from your mouth, but also represent your head and your heart, that makes you my brother in Christ.  That means that we are both fallen men who have been redeemed.  From where I sit Bill, it appears that you have enjoyed a level of unchecked, cult-like authority for many decades.  If I had had that same level of unilateral control--if there were not other men in my life, both on my governing board and in my circle of friends, to get in my face, hold me accountable and give me a good swift kick when needed--I would be just as prone as you to abusing my authority in some way.  In other words, I write this letter fully acknowledging that at heart, I'm no better than you, and I'm incredibly thankful for other godly men He has put into my life to keep me on the right path.  We all still struggle with our own sense of self-importance, and are prone to make our ministries about ourselves rather than Jesus.

So as this situation continues to unfold, I hope you will see it as an opportunity to truly repent, and begin a process of restoration that includes full submission to others who oversee your counseling, accountability, and support.  The women you abused need healing, but so do you, because sin leaves all of us scarred, even those who committed it against others.  The great news of the Gospel is that God isn't just a righteous judge who will one day settle all accounts and leave no injustice unpunished.  He is also a loving Father--YOUR loving Father, and He is able to heal even your own self-inflicted wounds.

I hope you see the deadly seriousness of what you have done, and I pray that it drives you headlong toward the Jesus you worked hard to preach over the years.  It is unlikely that you will ever again have the level of power and influence you once enjoyed, and given the gravity of your actions, I'd say that is appropriate.  But the hope of the Gospel means that you can still be used in powerful ways, primarily through a potent testimony of restoration, should you decide to take that long journey under the loving discipline of God't people.  As angry as I am with you right now, I pray this for you nonetheless.

From one preacher to another,

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Myth of the "Melting Pot": What a Super Bowl Ad Can Teach us About Christian Mission

"America, hardly the 'melting pot' described by history texts, has been a land that from the beginning was marked by diversity, not homogeneity."  -Oscar Romo

Like millions of other Americans who enjoy "Super Bowl Sunday" as an unofficial holiday, my family and I settled in this past Sunday night with more than our share of pizza and chicken wings, to enjoy what we anticipated would be a great game between two great teams.

Oh well, so much for the great game!

Of course, people will continue to watch even a boring contest that ends with a 43-8 blowout when the commercials are as good as they normally are for this sporting event.  This year was no different.

Actually, that's not true.  This year was very different.  Women were not objectified and the halftime show was actually classy. Even GoDaddy managed to pull off an ad that, while a bit silly, was at least respectful of my wife and daughter, which is far more than I could credit them with in years' past. Kudos to all of them for that welcome change!

But one commercial stood out above all.  My wife and I sat in amazement as Coca-Cola presented us with a fantastic, multi-faceted, all-expansive view of the greatness of America--as well as the various kinds of Americans who recognize that greatness!  So I was quite surprised to see some sections of social media lamenting that "America the Beautiful" was being sung in more than one language.

"This is ridiculous.  An American song should be sung in an American language!"
"Multiculturalism is going to ruin this country."
"The genius of our country is our common language. Sad to see that starting to come apart."

I could quote a few more, but they only get worse.  And, if you are an American follower of Jesus, the historical ignorance, cultural myopia and false dichotomies revealed in these statements should make you weep. They certainly made me sad, primarily because I work with many of these language groups. When we plant churches in their midst, we encourage the first generation immigrants among them to worship in their "heart language," because we are more concerned about them growing as His followers than we are that they become someone else's idea of a "good American."  These are people God created in His own image and likeness--people that Jesus died to save, and I was saddened to see some who claim to know Jesus taking positions that insult so many of their brothers and sisters.

But perhaps it was the eisegesis of intent that was most disturbing:

"Coke is trying to push a left-wing agenda down our throats!"
"I can't believe an American company is so embarrassed to be American!"

I can't tell from my seat exactly what Coke had in mind, but I'm betting it was primarily about getting people to buy Coke products. That the inclusion of multiple languages--which incidentally, happen to all be languages spoken with regularity in my area--was warrant enough for some to use their cultural paranoia to fire accusations of "being unAmerican" at one of the most American companies on the planet.  For anyone who follows Jesus, these attitudes should be completely unacceptable, because they are based on specious history, and really, really bad information.

Watching these events unfold has reminded me of a few things--both about culture, and the Christian mandate to touch every culture.

First, though many history and Social Studies texts describe our country using the metaphor of the "melting pot," the fact is that from the beginning of our existence as a nation-state, diversity has been accepted and celebrated.  To this day, "little Italy," "Chinatown" and many other ethnically defined districts that have existed for centuries can still be found in many of our nations' great cities, where ethnic groups gather and speak the language of their birth. The presence of multiple languages in our country is not new, and those who speak them have a strong history of finding solidarity with the rest of the nation.  It isn't a lingua franca that has held us together for 238 years.  It was, and is, a commitment to the ideals of the Republic.

Yet many aren't familiar with this American narrative, and the last 20 years or so can probably tell us why.  In the late 1980s, a young college dropout named Rush Limbaugh began forwarding the idea that Patriotism and Multiculturalism were mutually exclusive values.  Tell a lie long enough, loud enough, and sooner or later, everyone will believe it.  20% of the first generation churches we plant are Korean, and those pastors can express their patriotism and thankfulness for being in this country far better if they are doing it in their own language.  Of course we want them to learn English--for their own good!  But I reject the myth that the overwhelming majority of immigrants to this country don't want to learn it.  I've worked one-on-one with too many of them to believe that nonsense.  

The roots of our country can be traced to a myriad of European cultures crossing the Atlantic because of the common ideal of freedom.  From that moment until now, we have always been a nation of many cultures; all of which have loved living in America.

Second, when fake issues are contested, it takes our eyes off of the real issues.  The past half-century has witnessed our two great political parties become increasingly Machiavellian, to the extent that the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 8th and 10th amendments are regularly violated without thought.  Additionally, the failed social services/welfare system of the left and the military-industrial complex of the right have one thing in common; both have been effective at rendering this generation bankrupt, and leaving the next one enslaved to an un-payable and potentially nation-toppling debt. My point?  We have bigger problems than a Coke commercial!

Finally, the cultural myopia demonstrated in reaction to this commercial betrays a sense of western cultural superiority that is, quite frankly, antiChrist.  The United States Constitution is, in my view, a document unmatched in human history so far as human governments are concerned, and I'm very grateful to live where I live.  But our nation is not ontologically superior to any other people, and our founding documents are not inerrant or divinely-inspired.  I know of only one book that meets those qualifications, and I'm appalled to see some who claim to follow Jesus acting as if it is sacrilegious to suggest that we are not "better" than other image bearers in other nations all over the world.  Those who witness such behavior on the part of Christians see our faith as nothing more than a cultural imposition, and they see our God as very, very small.

Our faith teaches us that one day, the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and His Christ.  If the United States exists at the return of Christ, His return will be the last day of its existence.  Christians should be less concerned about the perception that we need to "save" what we know is a temporary kingdom, and get about the business of extending that Kingdom that will have no end.

Years ago a missionary friend of mine quipped, "You know Joel, there are two kinds of people in the world.  There are those who speak more than one language, and then there are Americans."  Yes, its a generalized statement.  But its also funny, because there is a sense of accuracy about it.  As I think about our conversation then, it causes me to think that the "English only" mantra betrays our cultural ignorance at its worst, and the very opposite of the incarnational spirit that should characterize anyone who dares to call themselves a follower of Jesus.

The next time you hear another language on TV, across from you at a restaurant, or in any other context in this country, resist the urge to feel threatened as though our culture is at stake.  Its not.  But eternal souls are, and God's design is for every single language to be lifted up to Him with the praise He rightly deserves.

Perhaps we should stop seeing those whose mother tongue is different from our own as the enemy, and instead thank God for bringing them to our shores and placing them within the reach of the greatest story that has ever been told.