Monday, March 02, 2015

The Donald Trump Model Of Church

I got some great discussion on Facebook surrounding my prior post, Pastoring is who you are, not a job you can be fired from. One that got me thinking was this idea of firing men from a calling, especially the calling that the institutional church and our religious culture sees as the "highest calling" possible in the church. Again, I am not talking about men who disualify themselves based on their own behavior, I am talking about men who are dismissed over petty power struggles or failing to be as awesome as that famous preacher from the pulpit.

When a local church tosses an elder aside because the numbers aren't there or his sermons are boring or in a petty power struggle, what is that telling the guy who was fired?

- Looks like you aren't good enough.

- I guess you weren't called after all.

- Sorry about spending all of that time and money in seminary, maybe you can turn those homiletic and Greek language skills into a job in the secular private sector.

- Sure being a professional pastor is the "highest calling" in the church and you want to serve God but you don't have what it takes. Maybe you can be a deacon or perhaps an usher? God's highest calling is just not in the cards for you. In the immortal words of the prophet Judge Smails, "Well, the world needs ditch diggers, too.".

Who needs the Good Shepherd when you can model your organization after The Donald?

How incredibly cruel is this system, to raise up to unattainable lofty heights the coveted position of "pastor" making it the gold standard for Christian ministry and then to fire men from this supposed calling for failing to meet standards that have no basis in Scripture? Many men are endlessly auditioning to either keep their job or prepare to move on to a new "calling" that coincidentally happens to pay more and provide a bigger office. How are they supposed to have time to be godly husbands and fathers (which is an actual qualification for elders), to get out and evangelize the lost or to serve the people of the church when they are constantly battling to keep their job?

What a weird, twisted, dysfunctional hamster wheel we have created. We lavish adoration on these men to almost cultic levels one day and then kick them (and their family) to the curb on a whim the next.

God's Kingdom is made for servants who are talent-less, feeble and weak. Why would we reject those from leading who exhibit the very qualities that the Kingdom is designed for?

Pastoring is who you are, not a job you can be fired from

Sometimes I read something that just strikes a nerve. Actually it happens a lot but sometimes it really strikes a nerve. Today I read something that did just that. The article was on the impact of a pastor losing his job on his wife, When You Are No Longer A Pastor's Wife.

My husband is—now—a former pastor; the words still seem surreal. Unfortunately, the term “former pastor” isn’t unique to our situation. Many men walk away, willingly or not, from the ministry (I am thinking of believers who, for a season or the rest of their life, turn from an earlier call of pastoral leadership for reasons other than gross misconduct). According to an article from 2012, nearly 800 Southern Baptist pastors are terminated each year; that is just one evangelical denomination. Paul Tripp has accurately labeled the pastorate a dangerous calling.

Since this situation affects so many ministers, my husband had many outlets to turn to: other pastors, his mentor, support groups for wrongly fired pastors, and historical precedents. He, like other men before him, could take comfort in thinking, Take heart, Jonathan Edwards was fired from his first pastorate, too.

Strangely, there are fewer avenues that address the proper response for the wife. Perhaps this is because the term “pastor’s wife” is nebulous and undefined in the first place. Initially, I bucked the phrase “pastor’s wife,” citing the ill-informed stereotypes. However, as the years have passed and the Lord has changed my heart, I have grown into the role. I thoroughly enjoy ministering to those in need and especially treasure the opportunity to teach, love, and share Christ with teenagers and children.

However, because we don’t share our husbands’ responsibilities or spend every day at the church, we don’t see or experience the less desirable things: the conflict, the emotions, or the sin in many of our churches.

First a thought about the wives of professional pastors. As bad as the professional clerical model is for the men who are employed as pastors, it is doubly destructive for their family and especially their wives. Sure there are undoubtedly some women who love the extra attention being the wife of the pastor brings and most pastor's wives would never say what they are feeling but I think for most wives it adds an additional degree of difficulty to the already incredibly complex calling of being a mother and a wife. Just as many people in the church scrutinize the children of pastors for any transgression, real or imagined, the wife of the pastor gets even more scrutiny. If the kids are not being perfect angels during the sermon, if they run in the church building, if they are not perfectly groomed, people look at mom. She of course needs to likewise always be cheerful and impeccably dressed, often serving as an additional resource for the church. It kind of comes with the territory. It is also incredibly damaging.

Second, this notion that you can fire a pastor is so contrary to Scripture and does so much violence to the Biblical understanding of church leadership and what it means to be an elder that a conversation about the aftermath of a pastor being fired should be unthinkable. Sadly it is not. The essay cites a 2002 report that shows hundreds of pastors are fired every year just in the Southern Baptist Convention alone. These aren't men fired for misconduct or moral failing, they are mainly fired in struggles for control of a local church. When I type those words it makes me literally sick to my stomach. So many people craft essays allegedly defending the "Bride of Christ" from any criticism but they tolerate a system like this where men are hired and fired like fast food workers. I posted this comment on the Gospel Coalition webpage (as a fun sidenote it seems I have been banned from commenting on their Facebook page, apparently no dissenting opinions are permitted for the moderators. I was shocked that my comment on the actual article made it through moderation).

You could hardly craft a better example of everything that is wrong with the professional pastoral model than this essay. One cannot be fired as a pastor just as one cannot be hired as a pastor, being a pastor has nothing to do with a title or your place of employment. It is what you do and who you are. The damage this entire system has done to the church, to the men who are engaged in ministry-for-pay and their families is incalculable.

As I have said so many times, you don't start pastoring because you get hired and paid to do so, a man is called as an elder because he is already being a pastor. Furthermore, being able to prepare and deliver a sermon and beg and cajole people to donate to "the church" has nothing to do with being an elder/pastor. The men employed in the ministry-for-pay system are largely professional religious lecturers with a smattering of amateur psychology thrown in for good measure. Some of them might be pastors and many are not, just as many actual pastors in the church have never delivered a sermon or gotten a single paycheck from a local church. In short we have managed to completely divorce the true meaning of the tern "pastor" from the cultural understanding, reducing it from a recognition of a life worthy of emulation to a job title like bus driver or orthodontist.

Lest I be accused of being anti-pastor or anti-leadership (or rebellious or anti-authoritarian or whatever), I am actually just the opposite. I know three guys who are elders of a local church in our area, two who have their own small businesses and one who works as an employee of the first two. They are godly men and great leaders and don't draw a salary from  the church. When we lived in the East Lansing area we met with a Plymouth Brethren gathering and, kooky dispensationalism aside, the elders there likewise worked for a living and took nothing from the local assembly, instead giving rather than receiving (Acts 20:35). All of them are men I wish I was more like. In short they were actual elders. We need more men like that, not fewer.

Every year churches hire and fire thousands of religious employees and the seminary system churns out replacements for the clerical meat-grinder. The ravaged landscape of families chewed up and spit out by this system are one of the tragic testaments to the deeply flawed and destructive professional ministry-for-pay system. It is high time that we end the soft, subtle domestic violence being inflicted on the families of the church.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Confusing the Bride and the Dress

I saw yet another article last week conflating the institutional religious organization with the Bride of Christ, in this case an article titled Does Your Youth Ministry Mess With Christ's Bride?. The point being a concern that youth ministry takes away from the "mission of the local church", i.e. Christ's Bride. I am not much of a fan of most of what passes for youth "ministry" but this article misses a bigger point.

Jesus did not die for First Baptist of Dallas and their $130,000,000 "campus". He didn't even die for your local Presbyterian church. He died for His Sheep, for His elect people. Not to put too fine a point on it but He died for people, not for religion. That doesn't mean that all forms of local gatherings are inherently bad but it does mean we miss what ought to be a pretty clear distinction between the people and the trappings.

It is probably not unexpected. In our culture we place an enormous amount of emphasis on the wedding day and all that goes along with it, getting just the right dress and having just the right caterer serving just the right meal. What is missed is the marriage. Ask couples twenty years down the road of marriage if they would rather have had the perfect wedding and a miserable marriage or a small, simple wedding and a solid marriage. You know they answer for anyone not named Kardashian. The church tries but needs to do a better job of preparing young people for a lifetime of marriage rather than helping them plan for one day. In fact it might be appropriate for elders to pull a couple aside and suggest they spend as little as possible on the wedding to instead prepare the foundations for a financially responsible marriage.

Perhaps that same mindset is what leads us to focus on the trappings of religion rather than on the people of the church. When a pastor talks about his "vision" and urges a capital campaign to raise funds to build a fancy new building (that mainly benefits the donors), people trip over themselves to give money. When a family in the church is in need they are often too embarrassed to ask for help and if they do the request is often looked at with suspicion. It is so much easier to place our emphasis on that which is flashy and obvious rather than that which is often messy and uncomfortable. In doing so we miss the reality of the Bride of Christ and substitute an empty imitation.

Jesus didn't die for a wedding garment. Let's keep that in mind and focus instead on what He focused on, His actual bride, His people.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Terror Of Convenience

The news is splashed with the latest dire warning from our benevolent overlords of a new terrorist threat. This time it is a warning about threats to the Mall of America in Minnesota. Emphasis mine:

A new video from Al Shabaab purportedly shows the terror group calling for an attack on Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minn.

According to Fox 9, the mall is one of three similar targets the terror group specifically names, including West Edmonton Mall in Canada and the Oxford Street shopping area in London.  

The video purportedly shows 6 minutes of graphic images and the terrorists celebrating the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, that killed more than 60 people.

The narrator, his face wrapped in a black-and-white kaffiyeh-type scarf and wearing a camouflage jacket, spoke with a British accent and appeared to be of Somali origin. He accused Kenyan troops in Somalia of committing abuses against Somali Muslims.

He ended the video by calling on Muslim men to attack other shopping malls in Western countries.

An image of the Mall of America is shown in the video, alongside its GPS coordinates. The mall says it is ramping up its security in response.

U.S. authorities said there was "no credible" evidence suggesting a U.S. mall attack was in the works

No credible evidence of an attack being in the works. Just what sounds like a fairly random terror video. (By the way, every time I hear Al Shabaab I have to fight the urge to sing it over and over like the refrain from a doo wop song.)

I am quite certain that there are new threats and warnings on a near daily basis. So why does this one warrant so much media play and why now, especially since it doesn't seem to be an imminent threat? Well it turns out that there might be an ulterior motive based on a funding squabble for the Department of "Homeland Security"...

A top Obama administration official warned several times Sunday about the potential, far-reaching perils of Congress allowing the Department of Homeland Security to run out of funding in several days and got some Republican support in the Capitol Hill stalemate.

Congressional Democrats and Republicans are in a standoff over legislation that will fund the agency through late September but also roll back President Obama's executive action on immigration.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said allowing the agency to lose its federal funding after Friday could jeopardize the U.S efforts to thwart a domestic terror attack by the Islamic State and will result in 30,000 employees being furloughed.

So. We have a political squabble where the House has sent a DHS funding bill to the Senate that seeks to also undo the President's despotic and unconstitutional fiat that gives a pass to millions of illegal aliens. What is the connection? It comes at the bottom of the story....

Johnson on Sunday also linked the purported Mall of America warning from the Africa-based al-Shabaab terror group and other recent terror alerts to what he described as a "new phase" of challenges by extremist groups abroad that have used alarming Internet videos and social media to gain adherents in the U.S. and potentially prod some to action.

If I were a suspicious person I might wonder at the timing of this latest scare tactic. Now it might very well be a legitimate warning. It more likely seems to be a way to force political action in a way that frightens the American people and likely costs a bunch of employers money as shoppers stay away. I am all for people staying out of malls as there is essentially nothing you can buy at the mall that is a necessity but I am not in favor of using the "terror" threat to extort more money for a bureaucracy that does very little involved in security.

On a daily basis, really even on a minute by minute basis, we are being manipulated by base emotions: envy, greed, lust, fear. The government is every bit as active in doing this as a Manhattan advertising agency. We get played all the time and are told it is for own good. There is a desperate need for some critical thinking in this culture, especially among the church which seems to be more susceptible and even enthusiastic in having our base emotions played upon. It is pretty much impossible to carry out the work of the Kingdom when we are spending all of our time cowering in fear, sending others off to kill on our behalf because of that fear, greedily accumulating wealth and possessions or whipping up class envy and resentment. Pavlov and his dog have nothing on frightened, affluent Americans and cable news.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Next Up On My Reading List

Having finished a few books I am plunging into a couple more.

The first is one I have been eager to read since I heard a conversation with the author on NPR. The book is God's Bankers: A History of Money and Power At the Vatican by Gerald Posner. You can get a good flavor of the book by checking out the interview on NPR, From Laundering To Profiteering, A Multitude Of Sins At The Vatican Bank. As Posner, who considers himself a Catholic, points out:

It us not about faith, belief in God, or questions about the existence of a higher power. Instead, God's Bankers is about how money, and accumulating and fighting over it, has been a dominant theme in the history of the Catholic Church and often in shaping its divine mission.

I am already seeing some applicability in the cautionary story for the Christian church. Money is a demanding task master and there is a reason why warnings about love of money abound in the Scriptures.

The second book I am getting ready to read has a lengthy title: The Hutterian Brethren, 1528-1931, and The principle of nonresistance as held by the Mennonite Church by John Horsch. It is so old and obscure that it doesn't even show up on Amazon! It will probably go to the back of the pack as I have other books I want to read first and it is a topic I have read a lot about recently but it still looks to be a good read.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Book Review: Separated Unto God

As I mentioned yesterday, I read a lot while on vacation. One book I finished up was pretty meh but the second was mostly irritating and disquieting, not because it was wrong but because it struck a little too close to home. Below is my review.

The main failing of much of Christendom today, however, is not the development of a neolegalism, but of unvarnished worldliness. 

- J.C. Wenger, Separated Unto God, p 144

Nestled in a lengthy book, the above quote from John C. Wenger in 1951, makes a point that was true in the middle of the 20th century and is even more true today. In spite of frequent dire warnings of the "legalism" boogeyman, the greater danger in the church is and has always been a compromised posture toward the world, an attitude that sees progressive surrender to stay one step ahead of the world's displeasure as the safest path. For the vast majority of the church the time to make a stand has passed but in some places there still is a healthy appreciation for the need for the church to be a separate and distinct people who do not look, think or act like the world.

J.C. Wenger's comprehensive look at separation, Separated Unto God, is perhaps the gold standard on the topic from an Anabaptist perspective. Granted that many contemporary "Anabaptists" would be shocked and horrified at what he describes, I nevertheless find far more of value in what Wenger wrote six decades ago than I do in most of what passes for Anabaptist literature today. While some of what he wrote seems archaic and even quaint in our "enlightened" culture, even in the church, I found virtually every page to be convicting. I also found it unsettling because too often I recognized where I was likewise engaged in cultural compromise, often without giving it much thought.

For virtually every subject from how we dress to involvement in war, Wenger goes to the Bible and makes a compelling case for simple non-conformity. It is a refreshing change in an era of compromise at breakneck speed from most corners of the church apart from those that are still trying to tilt at the windmills of the culture wars. It is important to note that Wenger approaches this entire topic as a positive separation toward God rather than away from the world. The difference might seem quibbling but it is an important difference to understand.

Wenger also touches on one of the (or perhaps the) major weaknesses of the separated, conservative Anabaptist tribe, namely their tendency to bunker up, rely on tradition and eschew the evangelistic zeal of their Anabaptist forefather. Speaking of the Pennsylvania Mennonites, Wenger quotes the following:

Their Christianity was not that of "radical" Christians; it had settled down to a comfortable, conventional, denominational type. There was no thought of evangelistic work, no need of any kind of mission work, or occasion to alter any of the set patterns of worship. The faith and practice of the immigrants was good and satisfying, why change?

From Mennonite Life, quoted in Separated Unto God, p. 80

That rings true even today and it is a major issue but compared to having conversations on accepting "gay marriage" it pales in comparison and is an issue that can be fixed.

If there are weak points they come when Wenger turns to certain church traditions like close (although not closed) communion and church membership. In spite of these flaws I found very little to disagree with. The writing style is a bit archaic and dated but that is quite common among books written in the middle of the 20th century. It is not an easy read but it certainly is a worthwhile one, not just for Christians who embrace Biblical separation but for any Christian who looks around at the race to compromise and wonders if that is what God really has in mind for His church.

Amid the confusion of the church culture we live in and a redefinition of "Anabaptism" that looks suspiciously like run of the mill "progressive evangelicalism", Wenger's writings from so many years ago is a refreshing change and even more necessary today than it was in the 1950's. May God's people recover a healthy separation, not so much from the world but unto God along with a vigorous zeal for evangelism. The world desperately needs it.

Love out of the corner of my eye

Today my wife and I celebrate 23 years of marriage. That seems like such a long time when you say it but looking back it appears as the blink of an eye.

We are past the gazing longingly into each others eyes stage. At least I am which is probably not to my credit. Twenty three years is a long time, more than half of my life. Today I as often as not see my wife out of the corner of my eye. Or hear her voice from the next room. Or just know that she is upstairs sleeping. She might never know just how comforting that is to me, how much of a desperately needed anchor that provides me. As a guy I understand that might not make much sense to a woman with their longing for more direct and overt connection but for me there is little more comforting than seeing my wife out of the corner of my eye, always there just on the periphery.

Twenty three years. Eight kids. All those moves, all those places we lived. No matter what, whenever I think back on the years gone by as I went from a haughty 20 year old who had it all figured out to the place where I am today, my wife is always there, sometimes right there in front of me but often just nearby. Regardless of the trial or the trauma she was there, even before I came to faith in Christ she was there modeling what it meant to love someone self-sacrificially. She submitted to my often deeply flawed leadership in our family long before I knew what that meant but I understand and am humbled by it now.

I do love and cherish my wife. Not as Christ loved the church, no husband has ever loved in the same way our Lord loves His Bride, but that is what I aspire to do. Our first meeting and our blossoming love was as unlikely as you could imagine but I am as certain as I am of anything that God's hand was guiding it.

Today we are in the midst of a transition of our family. Three of our kids are adults and the rest are growing up fast. Perhaps marriage for our children, children-in-law to welcome into our family and grandchildren to love are not far down the road. Whatever happens, until one of us goes home to the Lord, we will be together. She will always be there out of the corner of my eye.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Book Review: A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor's Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace

While I was in Florida for the last week I read. A lot. I finished two books and made decent progress on a couple of others, here is my first review.

Given that I am an orthodox, evangelical believer who holds to a position of non-resistance, I came at Brian Zahnd's book, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor's Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace with a mix of hope and trepidation. I was hopeful because it purported to be written from a viewpoint I am sympathetic to, one of a more traditional evangelical coming to a place where support and advocacy of militarism and violence was not compatible with the Kingdom. I was cautious because of some of the things I had seen about Zahnd in social media. I came away with pretty disappointed.

From a stylistic standpoint I found Farewell to Mars to be a disjointed and rambling book. Brian didn't seem to have thought through what we wanted to say other than war is bad. I also found it excessively self-referential. I understand that it is a book about his own personal journey but it would have been a little more useful in convincing a skeptical reader of the value of the non-violence position if he spent less time talking about himself and more in engaging the text. Not that he doesn't but his engagement was not terrible strong in my opinion.

I intentionally didn't do much studying of Zahnd before I read Farewell to Mars but I found his constant allusion to politics and his incessant references to "empire" and Jesus as a "victim" really undermined the book. I know it is hip to talk about "empire" and I guess it is integral to his thesis but it rang hollow to me and made the book less about non-violence for the Christian and more about trying to be a contemporary John Howard Yoder. To reach an audience of evangelicals with the message of Jesus on non-violence it is not helpful to bury non-violence in your own political agenda. Maybe that is not what he was after, if he was looking for affirmation from people already in his camp then perhaps he succeeded but as a message to the broader church on a critical and misunderstood topic it missed the mark by a wide margin.

For a better treatment of this topic without all of the less than subtle progressive talking points, check out Preston Sprinkle's book Fight. You can read my review of Fight here.

Toto, I don't think we are in Kansas, er, Florida any more....

Hey, at least it is sunny!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why I Am A Lake Person Rather Than An Ocean Person

I wrote last week about my love for Black Lake, Michigan as a place of comfort and respite. For the last week I have been in Florida visiting my parents on the east coast of that state, right on the ocean. The ocean is quite different from a lake and I have never spent a lot of time at the ocean but after being next to it since Sunday I have concluded I am a lake kind of guy rather than a ocean person.

I find the ocean unsettling and disquieting. Unlike the lake I am familiar with where I can see the other side, the ocean seems endless and vast. Rather than the (usually) gentle and welcoming lake, the ocean seems angry and disrupted. Knowing that the ocean goes on and on over the horizon is not comforting to me at all. Perhaps it is a symptom of growing up going to a lake rather than growing up near the ocean. Certainly not being a swimmer has something to do with it.

While I understand intellectually that the ocean is finite, it certainly doesn't seem that way when standing on the shore. Vast and endless it seems to be, a threatening barrier rather than a welcoming source of recreation. It is mind-boggling to me that men in ages past, before GPS and modern navigation not to mention weather forecasting, would set out from the shore and into what is largely the unknown. Of course the ocean also has all manner of fauna that can sting or kill you, a far cry from lake minnows that nibble on your toes.

As I head home from sunny (although kind of chilly today) Florida to my frozen home state of Indiana I look forward to warmer weather and visits to Black Lake. You can keep the ocean, I will take the lake any day of the week.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Friday, February 13, 2015

Finally A Voice Of Reason

Had enough of the Crusades kerfuffle? I didn't think so!

Trevin Wax posted on the topic, President Obama and the Problem Of Religious Conviction, and he hit on the key point. There was a lot wrong with President Obama's speech but the Crusades comment wasn't the real issue. The really telling statement was that for the President and a lot of modern religious progressive pontificators, what they really dislike is confidence in your faith or as Trevin writes: For President Obama, faith is not the enemy, but confidence.

Our society is moving to a place where the only sin is believing too seriously. As Trevin also points out, believing in Christianity too seriously, being too confident was not the problem of the Crusades. Rather they were not Christian at all.

My point is this: you don’t deal with violent expressions of faith by pretending that confidence is the problem and content doesn’t matter. 

 And yes, sinful humans have committed atrocities in the name of Christ, but in each of these cases, the problem was a failure to be true to the content of the Christian faith. It wasn’t certitude and confidence in Christianity that led to the Crusades, but the idea that Jesus could be coopted by a political and military endeavor. The crusaders weren’t “holding too tightly” to the content of Christianity; they weren’t holding tightly enough. How else can we explain the transformation of a Savior suffering for His enemies into a warring king charging into foreign lands?

Thank you, finally someone who doesn't feel the need to respond by claiming that the Crusades weren't all that bad and after all those darn Muslims started it! Just because something has a cross on it, we are not obligated to defend it when the actions are antithetical to the Gospel.

This event has exposed a serious flaw in our thinking as the church and it is long overdue that we stamp it out. The more serious we are about out faith, the less willing we should be to use the means of the world rather than following the way of the cross.