On the difference between judgment and discernment: A response to Mark Sandlin, Part II

Over two and a half months ago, I began a series of posts in response to a blog post by Mark Sandlin (a liberal PC(USA) pastor) titled “At What Point Do We Get to Say Parts of Christianity Are No Longer Christian?”  Yes, this is the second in that series.  I truly did not intend to take that long to get back to this; life and other topics intervened.  I’m quite sure I’ll have the third up much more quickly than that, since I’ve already started working on it.  For now, though, go read Sandlin’s post and the first part of my response; I’ll still be here when you get back.

If you’ve done that, then I can take my positive comments on Sandlin’s post as read and go from there.  This is important because my first critical observation is actually implicit in my praise of his work.  Sandlin frames his subject in terms of judgment, and frets that identifying and calling out people who are using Christianity rather than practicing it (the distinction is his, and it’s a good one) is “judgmental” and “mean.”  My response, by contrast, is framed in terms of discernment, which is related but significantly different.  I believe there’s a category error lurking at the heart of Sandlin’s argument; it’s a subtle one, but important nonetheless.

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David Foster Wallace and the life-giving church

As I wrote earlier this month (though I didn’t say this in so many words), for the church to be healthy, we who make up the church need a lived knowledge of our own sin, and we need to confess that and wrestle with it each week in the context of our worship.  Michael Morgan recently offered an excellent reflection on that point, out of his reading of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.

At a meeting of the “Advanced Basics” Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group in Boston [Wallace gives us] a crisp—though finally inadequate—picture of what church could be like.  The group is so compelling because of three fundamental dispositions of its people:  they are profoundly empathetic, they are profoundly gracious, and they are profoundly consistent.

First, their empathy. . . .  They all came to be in the same room because their addiction, once invisible, had steadily bubbled to the surface until it had thoroughly enveloped and ruined them.  Right there, on the edge of a cliff between death and AA, they admitted their problem and sought help.  This same basic story unfolds with variable particulars as the rest of AA listens or, more importantly, as they identify.

This remarkable empathy leads to graciousness.  Nobody’s story is too broken, too “Out There.” . . .  Nobody can confess their way out of this strange fellowship.  This is because there’s absolutely zero pretense and therefore zero capacity for condemnation.  Each person in the room has touched the void of their own helplessness, so they can be present with the darkness in others with the humility of one who knows what it’s like to be freed.

Last, the core members of the Advanced Basics group are rigorously consistent.  Wallace writes that each member attends the meetings even if they “feel like they’ve got a grip on [their addiction] at last and can now go it alone.”  For them, AA isn’t a break-glass-in-case-of-crisis option.  They all realize they are never out of crisis since their disease is always prowling around, just waiting for them to misstep.  Their need for healing is innate, not circumstantial, so they pursue healing religiously.

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Relativizing ourselves

The great problem I have with moral and cultural relativism is that they’re only ever wielded in one direction.  When we invoke relativism, it’s to relativize and thus dismiss those who disagree with us; we never seem to use it to relativize our own assumptions.  Functionally, moral and cultural relativism are a cloak of humility to disguise tyrannical moral/cultural imperialism.

Many of the assumptions contemporary Western mass culture considers self-evident and holds sacrosanct are actually far from obvious, and in fact would be seen as strange and highly implausible by most cultures in human history.  Gavin Ortlund is right:  “Secularizing late-modernity is a strange, new animal.”

Of course, as he goes on to say, “Identifying the historical and global isolation of our culture does not discredit it.  ‘Weird’ does not always equal ‘wrong.'”  However, we should always bear in mind Tim Keller’s wise observation that if the Bible is really God’s word, it will inevitably offend and infuriate every culture somewhere.  There will always be assumptions in any given culture which the culture considers self-evident and sacrosanct that Scripture flatly contradicts.  To that end, it’s worth looking for those aspects of our culture which are atypical or even strange in the broader context of human history, to help us see where we need to treat our own culture as relative rather than normative.

Ortlund identifies three for our consideration:

  • God is in the dock.
  • Morality is about self-expression.
  • Life is starved of transcendence.

It’s tempting to respond to these points with complaint, castigation, and nostalgia; but such a response is not productive.  As Ortlund writes,

Gospel faithfulness demands we engage our culture with both truth and love, yielding neither to compromise on the one side nor escapism on the other. This means we cannot simply bemoan the encroaching cultural darkness, swatting at the errors around us with our theological club.  As TGC’s Theological Vision for Ministry puts it, “It is not enough that the church should counter the values of the dominant culture. We must be a counterculture for the common good.”

In responding to these metaphysical, ethical, and existential Copernican revolutions in our culture, I believe we must work hard to establish the corresponding subversive biblical doctrine in each of three areas: (1) a high view of God, (2) a thoroughgoing notion of repentance, and (3) a transcendent vision of worship.

Read the whole thing.  It’s more than worth your time.


John Horsburgh, Bell Rock Lighthouse during a storm from the northeast, 1824, engraving, after a drawing by J. M. W. Turner.  Public domain.

The freedom of facing our sin

I have thought for some time that one of the greatest problems in the church in America is that our knowledge and understanding of ourselves as sinners is largely theoretical and abstract—and I’m not talking about the liberal wing of the church when I say this.  (Not primarily, anyway.)  We airily acknowledge that of course we’re all sinners, and each of us is willing to admit that he is a sinner or she is a sinner in some generic sense—but try to get most churchgoers to accept that they are specific sinners, that they are guilty of various behaviors and heart attitudes which merit the wrath of God and are deserving of his judgment, and you find out very quickly what it feels like to hit a stone wall at a hundred miles an hour.

As a consequence, our understanding of the grace of God and our need for grace is equally abstract and theoretical.  We may agree that we have a generic need for generic grace, but that doesn’t often penetrate to the reality of the sin in our hearts.  For ourselves, this goes one of two ways.  On the one hand, we minimize our sin:  it’s not that big a deal, God can’t really be all that bothered by it, and what right does that person over there have to get so upset?  We brush it under the rug, where it can grow happily without interference and rot out our floorboards.  On the other, we maximize it:  if anyone knew, they could never forgive me, and God can’t possibly really forgive me either.  Our prayers become desperate pleas to God to just give us more time or more help so that we can stop doing these things before he judges us in his wrath and utterly crushes us.  We set our sin up like a statue in the middle of everything where it can dominate our thinking; we can never get free of it and move past it because we’ve identified it as the central reality of our lives.

Either way, our functional expectation is that we can’t, or perhaps shouldn’t have to, live by grace.  Grace is for “salvation,” which we implicitly understand as simply a “get out of Hell free” card; for normal life, our pattern of living by law remains largely unchallenged and unquestioned.  If we’re guilty of sin, we deserve to be condemned for it; therefore, either we accept that we’re guilty and heap condemnation on ourselves, or else we reject condemnation by insisting that we’re not really guilty in any important way.

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Bearing witness

This has been a brutally hard month for me.  I’m not going to get into the reasonsit wouldn’t serve anyone to do thatbut the result, unfortunately, was not that I rose to the occasion.  Instead, I relapsed into a pattern of escape behavior.

That’s a distinction I learned last spring from a colleague here in northern Indiana.  Talking with a group of fellow pastors and our wives, he noted that we will inevitably have times when we are stressed beyond what we can bear.  That’s true of many people these days, but it’s universally true in pastoral ministryit’s just the nature of the work.  When those times come, he told us, we have two choices:  withdrawal and escape.

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Getting outreach backwards

A great frustration for many pastors is the common expectation of church members, including lay leaders, that it’s the pastor’s job to grow the church.  The truth is, most pastors have less ability to grow the church directly than any committed member of the congregation.  That might seem strange to say, given that so much of the American church has convinced itself that programs and style are the keys to growth, but it’s true.  Programs and style may help one congregation steal members from others, but they will not grow the churchDean Inserra makes the point well:

“We need an outreach event to bring in some young people.”  I hear that from Christians often about their church, assuming it must be the key for City Church in getting the “young folks.”  Other times I eavesdrop on conversations at Chick Fil A, where a table of staff members from another church in town are hoping their pastor will take off the tie and “go contemporary,” since they want to be “relevant,” and “reach the young people.”

– Do an outreach.
– Change the music.
– Dress in jeans.
– Use more technology in the service.
– Increase social media presence by getting on Twitter.
– We need to be more creative.

I hear it all.  It once made me sad for these nice folks who I do believe sincerely are trying to reach more people, but now I just roll my eyes.  An unbeliever doesn’t care about any of those things because, wait for it . . . he’s not a Christian.  Why would someone who isn’t a believer and doesn’t attend a Sunday church worship service, care about the music at the local Baptist church?  Have you ever met a new believer who in his or her testimony mentions that he or she heard the pastor didn’t wear a suit, so this new believer decided to try it out, heard the gospel, and was baptized?  Maybe that story exists somewhere, but I haven’t heard it.  Why would an unbeliever follow your church on Twitter?  I’ve never heard someone who came to church because the pastor sits on a stool rather than standing in a pulpit.

Very few see it, but there’s idolatry underlying the folly Inserra critiques.  “Relevance” has been a major idol in the American church for decades, and on the whole it has gone largely unchallenged.  Read more

On naming the barbarians at the gates: A response to Mark Sandlin, Part I

In my nine years pastoring in the PC(USA), I never ran across Mark Sandlin.  I don’t just mean that I never met him, which is entirely unsurprising; it’s a big denomination, he pastors down South, and I never did.  I also mean that for all the conversations/debates I got into online across various websites, I never noticed his name.  (As far as I remember, anyway.)  Apparently, though, he’s something of a big wheel in the liberal wing of the American church, and this week my amazing wife called my attention to a column of his which asks a provocative question:

At what point do we get to say parts of Christianity are no longer Christian?

Sandlin opens with a brief YouTube clip of a preacher bragging about leading a teenaged boy to the Lord by punching him in the chest.  I don’t feel any need to repost the video; my own theology is sufficiently expressed by saying that whatever Lord this guy led that kid to, it isn’t one I know.  Sandlin acknowledges that this guy is an outlier, but nevertheless takes him as the jumping-off point for his column.  I think this piece deserves some careful interaction, and so I intend to respond to it in several parts; as you can probably guess, I have some critical things to say, but it seems right and proper to begin with some positive comments.

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Addition to the sidebar

A comment from my friend Kaleb Marshall prompted me to add a new site to the sidebar:  Spiritual Friendship.  I first discovered this group blog some time ago through the work of Wesley Hill, who’s one of the editors.  Here’s how the blog’s other editor, Ron Belgau, summarizes its thematic center:

Reading Aelred of Rievaulx’s little treatise On Spiritual Friendship as an undergraduate was a life-changing experience for me. Aelred, a 12th-century Cistercian abbot, insists that we need to test our beliefs about friendship with Scripture. The treatise is a series of dialogues in which three monks join Aelred to examine their ideas about friendship in light of their Christian faith.

One of Aelred’s insights made a big impact on me. He points out that friendship is based on shared goals, and distinguishes between different kinds of friendship: carnal friendship, based on shared pursuit of pleasure; worldly friendship, based on mutual advantage; and spiritual friendship, grounded in shared discipleship.

The dialogues helped me to see that although Christian discipleship is costly, it need not be lonely. Our culture has become very fixated on sex, but sex and romance are not the same as love. Nor is Christian love the same as the kind of casual friendship that is common in our culture (Facebook informs me that I currently have 554 “friends”).

Aelred insists that, contrary to the transitory nature of so many contemporary friendships, a friend in Christ “loves always” (Proverbs 17:17). He and the other monks discuss how to select and cultivate lasting and Christ-centered friendships.

Growing up as a gay teenager, the only messages I heard from the church were negative. Most in our culture—including many Christians—uphold romantic and sexual love as the most important form of love. But God forbade the sexual and romantic love I desired. Was I just to be left out in the cold?

Aelred helped me to see that obedience to Christ offered more to me than just the denial of sex and romance. Christ-centered chaste friendships offered a positive and fulfilling—albeit at times challenging—path to holiness.

As Kaleb noted to me, the question “What should a same-sex attracted Christian do?” is a perfectly fair one to address to those who believe that sexual activity between two people of the same sex is intrinsically against God’s will, but it’s one which tends to be met with blunt-force answers that treat people as abstractions rather than as individuals.  Hill, Belgau, and their co-laborers for the gospel answer that question better than anyone else I’ve seen, from the inside.


Photo of Holyrood Abbey ©2006 Lazlo Ilyes.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice . . .

. . . in practice, however, there is.

Things that should work, don’t.  Things that shouldn’t go wrong, do.  Other people act in ways that make absolutely no sense to us (though if we looked more closely at our own sin and saw it more clearly, their actions would make more sense to us, at any rate; but of course, we don’t want to).  The unlikely happens, spoiling our plans, and always (it seems) at the irredeemable moment.  The world outside our head proves to be a chaotic system filled with influences of which we know nothing, far more complex—and, consequently, far less tractable—than the world as we construct it inside our head.

This is one reason for the temptation Courtney Martin has dubbed “the reductive seduction of other people’s problems.”Read more

The importance of showing up

The above graphic comes from a church down around Dallas, but if you’re a Christian and you use social media, chances are this isn’t the first time you’ve seen that slogan.  (It may be the first time you’ve seen it used to advertise a sermon series, though.  I have to admit, that amuses me.)  I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen it, but it’s been at least twice this week.

In many cases, the people pushing this line clearly mean it in a rabbinic way, much the same as Jesus when he said, “If anyone comes to me and doesn’t hate his entire family, and even his own life, he can’t be my disciple.”  Did Jesus really want us to hate people?  No, he was using a typical rabbinic figure of speech:  the idea is that our love for God should be so great that our love for everyone else, true though it is, looks like hate by comparison.  (Given the propensity of people to declare that “If you loved me, you would . . .” and that if you refuse, you must hate them, this is no mere metaphor.)  Similarly, in this case, the point isn’t to dismiss the importance of going to church—as noted, the graphic above is for a sermon series at a large church in Dallas—but to emphasize the truth that the church is much bigger than just a place to go on Sunday mornings.  To quote from the description of that sermon series, “We are to be the church, we are to live dangerous lives for Christ, allowing ourselves to be God’s vessels for accomplishing extraordinary things.”

Though the intent is fine, this is a deeply problematic slogan, for two reasons.  Read more