Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Itching Ears and Civil Religion

"For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions."  Paul, 2 Timothy 4:3

As a young seminary student, every time I heard this passage expounded upon in a chapel service, it was nearly always applied to theological liberalism.  I was preparing for ministry during the latter period of my denomination's "conservative resurgence," a time when the authority of Biblical truth was threatened with compromise, and a time when we were repeatedly warned by visiting speakers to be vigilant.  After all, there would be those I would preach to as a pastor each Sunday who would not appreciate my devotion to the whole counsel of God--those who might even walk out in protest, and find another church home with another pastor who would tell them what they wanted to hear.

In those same days, Jack Graham had recently moved from Florida to be the new pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church, and Robert Jeffress was burning books in Witchita Falls.  I would never imagine that 20 years later, I'd be reading this passage and thinking first of them.

Yet, this was the passage that came to mind as I read a Wall Street Journal article yesterday, describing these two men--alongside a few others--threatening to pull their church's financial support of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.  The ERLC is the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention--speaking to Southern Baptists to help them best express their faith in the public square, and to some extent also speaking for Southern Baptists and representing our doctrinal distinctives and social concerns to leadership in Washington, D.C.

For several years, I was on record advocating the elimination of this entity, which by 2011 had become little more than a Republican Party echo chamber.  I saw the $4 million given in support of this entity annually as better invested in missionary work abroad.  But in 2013, the ERLC trustees named Russell Moore as their new President.  Moore represented a new generation of Baptist ethics that while holding firmly to historic Christian faith--and subsequently deeply entrenched views on some important social issues--nevertheless presented itself as "above" the fray of partisanship.  Under his leadership, our commitment to protect unborn children hasn't moved an inch, but our "pro-life" position has been more holistically applied to minorities, women, the poor, the immigrant, and the refugee.

Full disclosure: Russ is an old friend and former seminary classmate whom I have always respected and admired.  But it was his leadership at the ERLC that restored my faith in the purpose of that entity.  And it was that consistent leadership on moral issues that made him a sharp critic of Donald Trump as a Presidential candidate--criticism that called into question the apparent hypocrisy of so many public Christian leaders who threw their support behind a man whose lifestyle stood in sharp contrast to the Biblical description of righteousness.  Once Mr. Trump became the Republican nominee, most evangelical Christians understood that hard decisions were in front of them, and respected each other even when  sometimes coming to different conclusions regarding what one should do when arriving in the voting booth.  But Moore's constant reminders that the public support and unbridled advocacy of Trump by Christian leaders was a bridge too far was enough to ruffle the feathers of those supporters, including Robert Jeffress, who later said that any Christian who didn't vote for Trump was a "mamby pamby, panty-waisted, weak-kneed, hypocritical fool."

Now, the same guy who lashed out in this way is joined by others who claim Moore was "disrespectful."

Pot, meet kettle.

What we are witnessing now among too many evangelical pastors is a regurgitated form of Zealotism that seeks to curry favor with power, even if obtaining that cultural favor makes us appear to the culture as just another interest group rather than representatives of a higher Kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:20).   And when zealotism is mixed with theology, the result is a really ugly baby called civil religion.

And in this case, civil religion means orthodoxy is determined by the mob.  Louisiana Baptist Executive David Hankins expresses this view accurately when he stated that the issues surrounding Moore are the result of "disagreement with a large majority of his constituents."  Until reading this, it never occurred to me that in a denomination supposedly committed to the absolute truth and authority of Scripture, "he isn't saying what we want to hear" would, by itself, be sufficient grounds for a heresy trial.

And what about the historic Baptist principle of dissent?  Healthy exchanges during disagreement aren't always comfortable, and they can sometimes even be offensive, but they are an excellent way to arrive at the truth, provided we are listening both to the Holy Spirit and each other.  Without this, "group-think" infects us like cancer, and healthy congregational environments turn into toxic "democracies."

And that sets a horrible example for our churches.  Years ago while leading a local Baptist Association, I moderated a very painful business meeting, the end of which was punctuated by the resignation of a faithful pastor.  Pressured by a group within the church to whom he said things they didn't want to hear, he finally had all he could take, and left.

My next meeting with church leadership was for the purpose of charting a course of congregational healing and restoration, but the leaders wouldn't have it.  "Why," I asked, "wouldn't you want to try to make things right?  You are at odds with your brothers and sisters and the unity of this body is threatened.  Why not make attempts to reconcile?"

The answer from one of the men still haunts me to this day.  "Because we won," he said.

I have yet to hear anyone successfully challenge the truthfulness of anything Russ Moore said this election season.  I have only heard that he was "disrespectful" and didn't say what others wanted to hear.  Those making those claims "won."  The candidate they championed will move into the White House on January 20.  So why keep fighting?  Is it guilt?  It is shame?  Or could it be that their candidate rubbed off a little too much?  Nothing is worse than a sore loser--except perhaps, a sore winner who doesn't feel they have been "congratulated" enough.

Jack Graham, Robert Jeffress, David Hankins, William Harrell and others need to knock it off.  Stop pretending that the ERLC should somehow be punished because its President was more faithful than them in the proclamation of Biblical righteousness.

As it turns out, preachers sometimes have itching ears too.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: One More Word about Depression and Mental Illness

Our church family is currently in the midst of a series called "Hearing God Through the Holidays."  For those of you who joined us yesterday, I spoke about how depression and mental illness go into overdrive during the Christmas season, and we looked to God's Word in Psalm 42 to learn ways to cope, and hear the voice of our incarnate Savior above the depression.

I hope you walked away encouraged, and this morning I wanted to add a couple of things for clarification.

First, I urged caution yesterday with regard to the use of medication.   Our culture has developed a "pill popping" mentality that seeks a quick fix, and we should not give in to that mentality, especially where powerful psychotropic medication is concerned.

That said, psychotropic drugs aren't the only medications used to treat depression or other mental illnesses, and even when they are used legitimately, they aren't wrong.  My warning was for caution, not complete avoidance.  Additionally, while many of these medications result in the same pharmacological outcomes as some recreational drugs, medications for mental illness are NOT cocaine or heroin!  Many of the physicians and other health care and mental health professionals in our church family would want me to make this clarification for the sake of your own long-term mental health.

My point was and is simply this:  Be careful, be cautions, and seek more than one opinion, but if it is determined that medication is the best course for you, by all means, take it!  Listen carefully to the professionals who treat you.  We have many in our church family who love Jesus and His Word who can serve you well as you make the appropriate decisions about your mental health.

Second, mental illness and depression are medical problems.  Just like cancer, heart disease, or any other physical ailment, God can and does heal.  We have seen Him do that here in the past and give Him glory for that.  But He doesn't always choose to do so.  Ultimate healing on this side of heaven is not an unconditional promise to everyone, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.

I say that because yesterday I also mentioned that you can have victory over depression through the Gospel.  I believe that.  But I didn't want to leave anyone with the impression that this means if you don't eventually "get over it" that there is something wrong with you.  In particular, during the 9:00 AM service, I'm not sure I made it clear that depression may be something some of you have to struggle with for the rest of your lives, and the victory Christ intends for you is a daily victory as you surrender to Him for your strength, even as you continue to struggle.

Below is an article I wrote some years back just after the suicide of Matthew Warren.  My hope is that it will give you a broader picture of the posture I want our church family to assume as we move forward.  As always, feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions.

Pastor Joel


On Monday night, my wife and I watched the heartbreaking interview with Rick and Kay Warren in which, for the first time, they shared with the public their experiences surrounding the April suicide of their 27 year old son Matthew.  Due to the circumstances surrounding Matthew's death, the interview spanned a number of issues: including  parenting, gun control, and the struggle of faith that occurs in even the most committed during such gut-wrenching times. But the primary focus of the interview centered on the state of mental health care in our country, and the role the church should play in that discussion.

I watched, first of all, as a father of three.  There is absolutely nothing I wouldn't do for my children.  I can't imagine the helpless feeling of knowing your son or daughter suffers from an ailment, and that in spite of the best doctors, you are still unable to prevent them from doing something like this to themselves.  My heart broke for the Warren's when I first heard of their son's death back in April.  Last night, this father's heart broke all over again.

But I also watched this as a pastor, and I did so with one question in my mind:  "Why would anyone suffering from mental illness turn to the church for help?"  I want the church to be the first stop for people in need.  Unfortunately, I was unable to answer my own question.

As it turns out, my reservations have some statistical warrant.  Just this week, Lifeway Research released its latest poll on mental illness and the church.  You can find the bulk of that research here, but what haunts me about the results is this:  48% of evangelicals believe that Bible study and prayer ALONE can cure mental illness.  Essentially, that means that half of regular, church-going, evangelical Christians see mental illness as solely a "spiritual" issue.  By contrast, only 21% of those polled who attend church said they believed they would feel welcome in their church if they had a mental illness.  Additionally, 45% of the unchurched don't think people with mental illnesses are fully welcome in the body of Christ.

I believe that prayer works, and I believe that God still heals!  I have no doubt that the people of God, praying in faith, could certainly see someone fully restored to health.  I've seen it with my own eyes--cancerous tumors that no longer appeared on the CT scan after God's people have prayed, for example. At the same time, I don't know of any church who would discourage their people from visiting the doctor, or getting needed medical treatment.  Yet in too many churches, when it comes to mental health that same common sense approach goes out the window.

In my experience, this is primarily due to the misconception by many pastors that to accept the validity of mental health care is to deny the sufficiency of Scripture.  The problem with that assumption is that to deny our parishioners access to care that can potentially save their lives and help their families is to ignore one very important principle that those fully sufficient Scriptures teach.

Scripture teaches that God reveals Himself to us in two primary ways.  General Revelation is the process whereby God reveals truth through the created order (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20-21) and also through the human consciousness (Romans 2:14-15).  Special Revelation is the description given to specific ways in which God reveals truth throughout redemptive history, first through miraculous phenomena such as burning bushes, still, small voices, and messages in tongues, and ultimately in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2), who in turn is revealed in the written Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16).

So, while God reveals Himself in these two primary ways, human beings also explore truth in two primary ways.  Where special revelation is concerned, disciplines like Biblical studies, Biblical and Systematic Theology, and Hermaneutics are employed.  Where general revelation is concerned, we explore the created order through the earth, life and physical sciences, and we explore the inward human psyche through anthropology, sociology, education science, and psychology.

In short, through the behavioral sciences, God has provided us an avenue by which we can learn things about the human mind that will allow us to help.  Sure, some who handed these sciences down to us in history didn't always have the purest motives, and still others were openly hostile to Christian faith.  But we also can't dismiss that they stumbled onto some very legitimate findings that can be of help where mental health is concerned.  Some veins of historical science haven't exactly been friendly to Christians either, but I'm not about to reject the very scientific method that gave my children a vaccine for chicken pox.  Truth was discovered, albeit through some rather crooked vessels.

With all this in view, here is why it is dangerous for pastors to reject the help that can be offered by the mental health field.  First, by appealing to the sufficiency of Scripture, we are rejecting what those Scriptures tell us about the validity of discovering truth via general revelation.  To put it bluntly, we are ignoring Scripture in an attempt to defend it, and that never ends well.

Second, we treat people with legitimate illnesses as though their problems are solely spiritual.  Admittedly there are times when this is the case.  Over the past 20 years, I've met with more than a few who claimed to "need counseling," when what they really needed was repentance.  But often, working together with mental health professionals will help us help our people with the scientific advances God has given us.  My friend Ed Stetzer said it well earlier this week: Let's treat character issues like character issues, but let's treat illnesses like an illness.

Third, the rejection of mental health care sets up a polarization between two disciplines that should be helping each other.  The lack of trust between clergy and mental health professionals is both obvious and palpable in too many areas of our culture, and both sides need to rid themselves of the false assumptions they have about the other, and talk openly with each other.

I'll be the first to agree that we are an over-medicated society.  We pop a pill for just about anything these days--when we get too fat, when we are working too hard, or when we need more vitamins.  It is true that sometimes the answer isn't becoming dependent on a synthetic substance, but instead repenting from gluttony, getting some sleep, or eating some healthy vegetables.  But the answer to a society that over-medicates isn't no medication.  Its appropriate medication.  Only when pastors and mental health professionals work together can we help to strike that balance.  Many of those mental health professionals can be found in our churches each and every Sunday.  Let's seek to understand each other within the church--the very context in which God intends that trust grow between brothers and sisters.  Let's equip those saints to fulfill a calling that is ever more crucial in our day, and let's cooperate with them in a way that integrates our respective disciplines for the glory of God.

As a pastor, I want to see less Matthew Warren stories.  If the church doesn't play a role in mental health, we will see more suicides, not less. The spiritual dimension that churches bring to the healing process is absolutely and critically essential.  But if the church wants to play a role, we have to be more approachable than recent research would indicate we are perceived to be.  

We don't stigmatize people with heart conditions or diabetes.  We pray for them, and we urge them to get the medical attention that we all know they need.  Those who suffer from mental illness should be treated in exactly the same way, and mental health professionals who love Jesus can help us take a badly needed and new approach to these precious image bearers of God.  

Together, we can create the kind of church environment that causes the mentally ill to see open arms everywhere they see a church.  Let's work toward that day!