Shooting the Bible in the foot

If the existence of disagreement over what the Bible teaches means we can’t be sure what the Bible teaches, then the Bible teaches nothing and commands nothing.

The Bible can’t teach us that there is one God, because some believe the OT teaches henotheism.

The Bible can’t teach us that the one God exists in three persons, because some people are modalists.

The Bible can’t teach us anything about sexual ethics, because people disagree on where the Bible draws the lines.

The Bible can’t teach us to serve the poor, because people disagree on who exactly “the poor” are and what our responsibilities to them are.

The Bible can’t teach us to love our enemies, because Jesus may or may not have existed, and may or may not have said that.

The Bible can’t teach us not to be hypocrites, because how do we know those passages weren’t added later as a dig at the Pharisees? (I just made that theory up, which is how we get a lot of smart-sounding ideas about the Bible.)

The Bible can’t teach us that the Gospel is for all sinners, including homosexuals, because there’s this one “church” in Kansas that believes they can’t be saved.

Of course, this is nonsense. Sure, there are lots of topics where there’s legitimate debate over what the Bible means. But there are also lots of topics where the Bible speaks very clearly, and there has been overwhelming consensus for centuries on what it means. When we shrug and say “who’s to say?” we’re not helping anyone. We’re just shooting the Bible in the foot.


Never assume that smart people know what they’re talking about.

Especially when it comes to the Bible.

I’m reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer-winning The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismIt’s excellent if you’re into that sort of thing. I am.

Today, though, an aside caught my eye. President Roosevelt, having asked Taft twice to return from his post as governor of the Philippines twice to serve on the Supreme Court, wrote him a third time to insist that he return to replace the retiring Secretary of War.

“You will think I am a variety of the horse leech’s daughter,” Roosevelt began, alluding to the biblical parable in which a blacksmith’s perpetually dissatisfied daughter demands ever more of him.

My first thought was “I know the Bible decently well, and I have no idea what she’s talking about.” So I took advantage of my vast theological library Googled it.

Roosevelt is referring to Proverbs 30:15, which starts out “The leech has two daughters: Give and Give.” It can also be translated “The leech has two daughters; ‘Give! Give!’ they cry.” Admittedly it’s a strange verse, having to do with forces in nature that are never satisfied.

At any rate, the KJV uses the word “horseleach,” which is a certain type of leech, but also apparently a term for a veterinarian or blacksmith for horses. The Bible verse, though, is referring to the leech.

This is fun, isn’t it. But here’s the relevance: You can see how Goodwin got where she got. However, in regards to Roosevelt’s allusion,

  1. There is no parable, just [a half of] a proverb.
  2. There is no blacksmith, and therefore no blacksmith’s daughter.

Goodwin is a smart person and a good writer. In all likelihood, she read this obscure reference from Roosevelt, looked up a couple of things, and patched together a backstory. It’s just that the backstory was wrong. It’s a little more interesting is that no one in the pipeline— Goodwin, research assistants, editors– was familiar enough with the Bible to raise an eyebrow. But even there, hard to criticize non-Christians for not knowing obscure Bible passages super well.

Here’s the point: Smart people get things wrong, just like the rest of us. People with Pulitzers and PhD’s are human. They have gaps in their knowledge and understanding, to say nothing of the little biases and mental tricks we’re all prone to. This problem is magnified when the Bible is involved. People who know very little about it feel very confident in making bold assertions about its contents and their value. (I’m not accusing Goodwin of this.)

Never assume that something’s true just because a smart person said it.

Remember that the next time you read something about the Bible that makes you say “wait, what?”


Note: It’s possible that I’ve missed something here, that Goodwin is right and I’m wrong. If that’s true, I invite you, kind reader, to bring evidence to my attention, and perhaps you will prove my larger point by refuting my example.

In defense of Facebragging, sort of

You know Facebragging— always only posting amazingly flattering pictures and giddy exclamations about how great life is. Your 857 friends roll their eyes but dutifully click “like” so you’re good and validated. Don’t be that guy.

However, if you read through my timeline, I’m aware that you’ll see tons of cute and funny kid pictures, lots of funny kid quotes, occasional links to things I find interesting, and not much else. Even on Twitter, where I’m purposefully more unfiltered, I don’t share much about bad days. Perhaps this makes me sort of a Facebragger. But I have reasons.

First, in the share-ALL-the-things moment we’re living in, it makes sense to have a bit of a filter. I’m all for being real, for permission not to be OK, all that. But I have… hang on a sec… 901 Facebook friends. (I feel like I crossed 1000 at some point. Hm.) I am under no obligation to be as “real” with all those people as I am with my wife, close friends, coworkers. The idea of 901 people knowing that the combination of sin, stress, and sinus headache is making me not at all fun to be around today is not appealing to me. If the first days of spring are making me glad I’m alive, I’m a little more likely to share that.

The second reason is one I feel more strongly about. My family is not perfect. We (yes, all of us) have tantrums and inappropriate talk and whining on a daily basis. But my family is also freaking fantastic. I am more than happy to highlight how much I love our adventures, and since we have friends on several continents I’m grateful for how Facebook lets us see and share day-to-day stuff. When one of our kids is having a hard day or does something embarrassing, that’s not to share with everybody. If a picture or story doesn’t communicate “this kid is awesome and I love being their dad,” it’s not going online. One day, my kids will be able to look through my digital footprint or whatever, and I hope that’s their takeaway: Dad always loved being my dad.

I don’t suggest we Facebrag, selectively sharing to make our life look like a comparatively flawless paradise of awesomeness. Facebook permanently proved its worth to us when Eliza was sick, allowing us to easily share what was going on and helping mobilize people to pray. Just this week I learned via Facebook of a crushing blow suffered by some friends we’re not in close touch with anymore, and I was able to grieve and pray for them. I appreciate honesty in any and every forum.

I do suggest we think about what and why we’re sharing. Christians in particular are to let our speech be gracious, seasoned with salt. I suspect Paul would also say something like “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, post about these things.”

Actually, our church looks a lot like the book of Acts.

Donald Miller, whose writing I enjoy, had a  disappointing article a couple of weeks ago on why he doesn’t go to church very often. Plenty of people have offered critiques on the piece as a whole, so I won’t do that, except to observe that most members of my small, young church could give a better explanation of why church matters than this best-selling Christian author.

I do want to respond to one point in Miller’s followup post.

Your church likely looks nothing like the church in the book of Acts, which, was not much of a prescription on how to do church anyway…

Unless you are Shane Claiborne, your church probably doesn’t look anything like the church in the book of Acts, so let’s not get self righteous.

Yes, the irony meter is spiking in that last sentence. And yes, a better conclusion than Miller’s would be “Well, I’ll saddle up with the imperfect church that God provides and try to help make it better.” But the more I thought about this critique, the less sense it made.

Certainly our churches are flawed. We have many blind spots. We can always do more to care for each other, to teach the Bible more powerfully, to serve the poor in our city, to share the Gospel more consistently. But actually, the church I serve looks a good bit like the church(es) in Acts. And I bet yours does too.

  • We devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, and to prayer, like in Acts 2:42.
  • We share with each other sacrificially when one is in need, like in Acts 2:45 and 4:34-35.
  • We gather on the Lord’s day to worship, like in Acts 20:7.
  • We receive the preached Word with joy, like in Acts 8:8 and 13:48.
  • We take up offerings to help the poor and do other good works, like in Acts 11:27-30.
  • We pray for boldness in sharing the Word, and for God to move in power, like in Acts 4:29-31.
  • We ask God to work miracles for the sick, like in Acts 3:1-7 and about a hundred other places.
  • We work to train and recognize godly leaders, like the deacons in Acts 6:1-6 and elders in Acts 14:23 (and elsewhere).
  • We bring these leaders together to make biblically-informed, Spirit-guided decisions on doctrinal and practical matters, like in Acts 15.

We need to grow in all of these. And I would love to see some things I don’t see. I would love to see God adding to our number daily those who are being saved, like in Acts 2:47. I would love to see undeniable miracles pointing to the power of God, like we see throughout the book. I would love for us to pray more faithfully and more boldly. In short, I would love to see revival in my city, as we see it in several cities in the book of Acts. But revival, miracles, conversions– these are God’s work. Faithfulness is our job; fruit is his.

Church-bashing is a popular sport right now, and you can always find the ammo. Many of the critiques are true. But there are many imperfect-but-healthy churches filled with many imperfect-but-growing Christians seeking to be faithful and obedient. Being part of one of these churches, appreciating the good and trying to help correct the flaws, is one of the best things you can do for your own spiritual growth. And we need all the help we can get.

Breaking and bruising

When Jesus knew Peter was about to deny three times that he knew who Jesus was– while Jesus was suffering to save Peter’s skin– he spoke to him very gently.

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)

When Peter had just been the first of the disciples to confess Jesus as the Messiah– for which Jesus praised him– and then tried to talk Jesus out of doing something that was going to be very hard, because he loved Jesus and didn’t want him to suffer, Jesus was not as gentle.

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:23)

Many times Jesus spoke gently, reassuringly. This follows Isaiah’s prediction of how the Servant of the Lord would proclaim God’s word:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:1-3)

Other times, sometimes with the same people, he could be very forceful. And we haven’t even brought up his words to the Pharisees.

Pastors, along with all Christians, should look to Jesus to learn how to treat people. He never broke a bruised reed, and neither should we. He never spoke harshly to someone who needed to be reassured, to the downcast who needed their heads lifted up. But you might say that he did bruise some reeds. He spoke strong words to those who were unbroken in their sin, who needed to be humbled so they might seek God’s grace. Sometimes that’s a pastor’s job. Sometimes that’s every Christian’s job.

Who is sufficient for these things?

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:5)

The only thing there is

On Sunday, 9 June of this year I was rehearsing with the band at church when I got a text from Melissa: “Kels just called. They’re taking your mom to ICU.” Mom was in the hospital with pneumonia, but I had talked to her the day before and she sounded ok. Now her blood pressure was dangerously low. By that night they had her on a ventilator, and we decided I needed to fly to Georgia.

As I lay down for a couple hours of fitful sleep, some words played on a loop in my head. “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” I’m not sure I’d read those words on a page in 10 years or more.

When I was in college I spent a lot of time memorizing Scripture. I did some in seminary and afterward too. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t do much memorization anymore, though I have a big stack of index cards on my desk. But that day, while on a long flight not knowing whether my mom would be alive when I got off the plane, lots and lots of Bible verses came to mind, many of which I had memorized a dozen years ago or more.

In those moments, there was no clever tweet, no episode of Arrested Development, not even a John Piper sermon that kept me sane. Only God’s word could do it.

Mom rallied. After two weeks I came home to Prague. I had a wedding to prepare for the week I arrived. Then I spent a week clearing off my desk, and planned to start all my regular meetings back the next week.

Except that at the end of desk-clearing week, my daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and our old life ended, and a new life started.

We have had 9 or 10 hospital stays of varying length. Our boys have been with lots of different people and watched more tv (and gotten more care packages) than usual. Most of our test results have been good, though the waiting never gets any easier. E has gone under general anesthesia six times. And we have stayed sane. I attribute this mostly to Scripture and prayer.

I certainly don’t mean we get up early every day for a long and substantial quiet time. It would be better if we did, but we don’t. I do mean we cry out frequently, and we remind ourselves of what we know to be true: not the vague assurance that everything will be ok (it might not, not the way we want it to be), but the actual promises God makes to us. I mean our friends copy and paste from their devotional reading and remind us. Like the IV that gives Eliza the fluids and nutrition she needs, God works by his Word and Spirit to keep us.

On Eliza’s first night in ICU after her surgery the wheels were coming off for me. There was a point where they wouldn’t let us in and we didn’t know what was happening. It turned out not to be a problem, but it was the most scared I’ve ever been. Then her numbers just weren’t as stable as they had been through the afternoon, and the stress of staring at them was driving me up a wall. I went outside and paced back and forth in the cool night air, reciting Psalm 46 out loud over and over. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. The Lord of Hosts is with us. The Lord of armies is with us.

That was enough to calm me down enough for that hour. Nothing else was working. I memorized that psalm when I was in seminary, and however long it took has paid off richly in the last three months.

God is always so eager to speak to us, to reassure us, to give us a firm foundation to put our feet on. His Word is so rich, so deep, so powerful and effective. And we are– I am– so eager to run to cheap things like the iPad I’m writing this on for fun.

I am 20 years older than I was in June. I hope some of the changes last. I still like to zone out plenty, but I have less patience with trivial and more desire for real. I have less energy, so I think hard about what will sap it and what will increase it. I want to pick up that stack of index cards again.

Please run to God’s Word. Do it when it feels good and when it doesn’t. When the earth beneath your feet gives way, his truth is all you have to stand on. It’s the only thing there is. It is sweet, solid ground.

A case for weekly communion

At the church I serve, we take the Lord’s Supper every week. We don’t think this is the only way to go, or that it makes us more spiritual than churches that practice monthly or whatever-other-interval Communion. And yes, it’s more work for the preacher to also prepare a somewhat-different meditation on the Lord’s Supper each week. But here are some reasons I’m glad we do it the way we do.

the Gospel every week

We want to make the Gospel clear in every sermon. Since we generally preach through books of the Bible, and our emphasis in preaching will reflect the emphasis of that day’s passage, the core of the gospel will be more obviously presented some days than others. Weekly Communion gives us one more opportunity to preach the center of the Gospel every week.

The Lord’s Supper also demonstrates and explains the Gospel in a way that goes beyond verbal explanation. So people who struggle to pay attention to preaching are given an additional way to learn and appreciate its truth.

good for non-Christians

The fencing of the Table, where we announce that it is for believers and not for nonbelievers, means we can draw a clear line every week. It forces attenders to ask where they stand with Christ and is a reminder that the Gospel calls for a response. It is a relatively easy way to plead with people to come to faith.

good for believers, especially struggling believers

Weekly Communion means a weekly reminder that the promises of the Gospel are not just true, but true for me. It’s a reminder that God does not simply demand that I meet his standard, but that Christ was broken and poured out in order to meet God’s standard for me. It’s a reminder that he gave himself up for me, and that he continues to feed and strengthen me. Especially for our people who are struggling (to believe at all, with besetting sin, with besetting self-righteousness, with an especially difficult season of life), it’s an important reminder that we do not struggle alone.

practical considerations

With monthly communion, it’s easy for some people (mothers of young children, those who travel often) to go several months without taking the Lord’s Supper. Weekly Communion means that if you miss one week, you have another chance in seven days. It also gives our children more chances to see this demonstration of the Gospel, which is sure to lead to their asking questions that open the door to conversations about the Gospel with them.

as simple as all that

Again, taking the Lord’s Supper every week is not necessarily the mark of a more mature church, and it has its own challenges. But Communion is a gift God wants to give his people. He promises to strengthen us through the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments. So we feel like we might as well give him as many chances to do that as we can.

Christian, are you ready?

The brouhaha over Chris Broussard’s comments on homosexuality could not be more predictable, and it’s an indicator of what we should now expect. This is the new normal.

Broussard did not inject himself or his Christianity into this event. He was asked about his personal views, and he explained them. He’s done so before, in an honest, non-hateful manner. This is not Pat Robertson blaming the latest natural disaster on “the gays.”

Most of us are fortunate enough not to have a million people listening in on our responses, but we will have these same conversations. We need to have answers for these questions. We need to be ready for our reasonable, humble, respectful, Gospel-flavored answers to be condemned as hate speech. And we need to be ready to respond with grace when we are slandered and hated.

Are you ready?

Are you ready to explain that, yes, because you’re a Christian, you accept the Bible’s teaching that God created sex for marriage, and marriage for a man and a woman?

Are you ready to respond to the question about why we eat shellfish but still believe homosexuality is wrong?

Are you ready to affirm that people with homosexual desires are created in God’s image, that they’re not in some especially gross class of sinner, and that he’s eager to extend his forgiveness and grace to them, just like to liars and gluttons and nice well-behaved Republicans?

Are you ready to put yourself in the same category, a fellow sinner in need of God’s mercy? To open up and talk about the specifics of your own need for God’s forgiveness?

Are you ready to love and support your fellow Christians who have these desires? Who act on them? Who feel lonely and abandoned and rejected by God and the church?

Are you ready, even if you do all the above, to be called a homophobe and a bigot? To be compared to the Taliban, or segregationists, or slaveowners?

Are you ready to respond with grace and love when you’re treated this way? To pray for those who hate you? To repay good for evil?

We need to be ready. This is where we are.

Hating evil without being hateful

Zion hears and is glad,
and the daughters of Judah rejoice,
because of your judgments, O LORD.
For you, O LORD, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods.
O you who love the LORD, hate evil!
He preserves the lives of his saints;
he delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
(Psalm 97:8-10 ESV)

God’s people are supposed to love what is good and hate what is evil. We’re to rejoice at God’s righteous judgments, including his judgment against sin.

God’s people are also supposed to be marked by our love, by our eagerness to forgive, by our mercy toward sinner and victim alike. We’re to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (and, by implication, for those who are neutral toward us as well).

So there has to be a way to hate evil without being hateful.

To be sure, we will at times be misunderstood. There are some opinions you cannot hold without being called hateful, no matter how nice you are. That fact tempts us not to hate evil, or at least to change the subject whenever possible. But then we’re not being faithful, just like we’re not being faithful when we demonize those we’re supposed to pray for. If we only stand up for socially acceptable truths, our faith isn’t worth much.

We must hate evil. Hate it. We must not be hateful toward people created in God’s image.

As in so many things, I suspect the key to getting this right has to do with being amazed that God would save sinners like us. A sinner like me.

Good fences and good neighbors

I go to a monthly ecumenical prayer meeting for English-speaking pastors in Prague. It looks like the setup for a joke: couple of Baptists, a Catholic, a Pentecostal, assorted parachurch folks.

Denominations get a bad rap. Many people don’t see why we can’t just all get along, why there have to be so many different churches. (Actually my city could use more, but that’s another post.) But every month at this prayer meeting, I’m grateful to belong to a denomination.

Now that sounds bad. Allow me to explain.

It’s not that I think my denomination is the best, or that my flavor of Christianity is the only viable one. There are lots of great churches and groups represented at this meeting, a lot of people who love Jesus and are doing amazing things to proclaim him in Prague. There are also a lot of different perspectives. A couple of charismatic guys who pray in tongues under their breath. Several Baptists who would not have enjoyed seeing me baptize 4 young kids on Easter Sunday. A few female pastors who may or may not know where I stand on women’s ordination.  My favorite of the lot, for goodness’ sake, is the Roman Catholic priest whose ideological forebears tried to kill mine. And me, the Presbyterian desperately trying not to come across as a stodgy Presbyterian and keeping his theological humor to himself. (Although there’s been some promising banter with the Catholic priest.)

I respect all these people. I’m glad to pray with them for Jesus to be lifted up in our city. And if we tried to pastor the same church, it would be a train wreck. On second-level-but-still-very-important matters, we’d have no consensus, and we’d spend lots of time arguing and trying to force agreement when there wasn’t any.

As it is, we’re each free to search the Scriptures and follow Jesus the best we can. We can work more effectively, within the structure that best suits our personality and convictions, while wishing the best for each other and coming together to support each other in many different ways. We don’t debate theology at our monthly meetings; that’s not what they’re for. We don’t have to.

Yes, denominations exist in part because of sin and finitude. Yes, it’s bad to think our church is the only real one. But if you have a hard time with all the different flavors of Christianity, remember the proverb: “Good fences make good neighbors.” And when the fences are good, it’s nice to have a neighborly visit.