Popular Posts of 2011

I’m taking a short break from blogging to enjoy time with my family during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. I expect to be back at it the week of January 2nd. In the meanwhile, check out this blog’s most popular posts of 2011.

The Proverbs 31 Movement and the Nature of Online Debate

Several weeks ago I noticed a few people on my Facebook feed posting the phrase, “I’d rather have a Proverbs 31 woman than a Victoria’s Secret model.” It turns out that the phrase was coined by a freshman at Baylor University, who wrote a simple post to encourage some of his female friends. They were stressed about their physical beauty in the wake of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. His post quickly went viral and was reposted by thousands of people. He and his friends seized the moment and created a Facebook fan page, a website, and began to discuss merchandising options (the proceeds from which will go to charity). In their estimation, they’d begun a new movement.

Not everybody was happy with the new movement, though. Another Baylor student, a popular blogger named Preston Yancey, responded to the Facebook page. When he felt ignored, he took to his blog and wrote an open letter criticizing the theology behind the fledgling “Live31” movement. He accused the founders of Live31 of suppressing criticism, deleting his Facebook critiques, and generally ignoring him. He also laid out his main theological objections. Subsequently, other bloggers jumped on the pile and dissected the movement, essentially calling it sexist and a poor reading of Scripture.

Yancey lays out both theological and methodological concerns. In order to fully understand them, it’s best to read his post in full. In short, he argues that the Proverbs 31 woman is an idealized picture of femininity presented in an Old Testament passage. Therefore, applying the standard of Proverbs 31 to potential marriage partners is incomplete and a poor reading of Scripture in light of the ultimate standard of Jesus Christ. He also argues that “slogan-based faith can lead to dead faith,” by which he essentially means that the founders are being spiritually shallow and intellectually careless.

I’m not going to wade deeply into the theological issues in this post. Instead, my purpose here is to utilize this discussion as an example of some of the ways theological discussions go awry when they’re conducted via social media.

I will tip my hand and say that I resonate with many of Yancey’s concerns. His theological concern is his strongest objection. Is it appropriate to directly apply Proverbs 31 to modern Christian women and use it as a standard by which men judge potential partners? That’s a good question. His point about “slogan-based faith” has less punch, in my opinion. Ironically, he prefaced that critique with a slogan he likes from a popular hymn: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” The issue isn’t whether slogans are good or bad (the Scripture and church history are both full of them), but whether a particular slogan is biblical. But again, my point here is to delineate some of the challenges of online theological debate, which are evident throughout this discussion.

Here, then, are my observations about the nature of online debate, as highlighted by this particular discussion:

First, criticizing somebody on their Facebook wall is the modern equivalent of slapping them in the face with your glove. It’s said that in medieval times you could begin a duel by slapping somebody with your glove. It was a public affront, one that demanded an answer. The quickest way to escalate an argument online is to write something critical or unkind on somebody’s Facebook wall. Yancey states that he felt a public response was appropriate because the movement was launched in public. Fair enough, but the question then becomes, “What is your goal?” If the goal is to prove yourself correct at the expense of the other party, then post your critiques on a public Facebook wall. On the other hand, if you want meaningful dialogue, the kind that leads to lasting change, then a private message, phone call, or well-reasoned blog post are better options. I’ve rarely had a Facebook debate end well. I’ve learned that private messages are often better if I have questions or criticisms — even if a person posted something publicly, that doesn’t mean that responding publicly is the best way to respond, at least at first. Once a person throws down the gauntlet on Facebook, the person being challenged has limited options: ignore (and risk being viewed as a coward or as secretive), fight back (and risk your pride and dignity) or privately contact the individual who raised the criticisms. The third option is best, but few people think to take it when they’ve been publicly confronted.

Second, the online world often pushes us to respond without serious reflection. I’d love to see a deeper discussion of one critical question: Why did the original post go viral? What chord did it strike that motivated thousands of people to repost it and gravitate toward the sentiment? Clearly the notion of judging a person by her character rather than by her physical appearance impacted people at a profound level. Neither the founders nor the critics have publicly reflected much on that idea, although they may have done so privately.  For the founders of the movement, I wonder if deeper reflection would have led to some different ways to express the same concept. Allowing at least a few weeks before launching a website and a merchandising plan wouldn’t have been a bad idea, either. It would allow them to seek counsel, deepen their roots, and think through how to move forward. On the other hand, the critics of the movement all began with something like this: “I like the idea of affirming women for their character, BUTBUT….” A bit more reflection on the first part of that sentence would be helpful. But the online world implicitly commands us to respond immediately, and that leaves little time for the slow process of thinking before we type.

Finally, online interaction seems to lend itself to making snap judgments about another person’s character. I think this can be mitigated when we personally know the people we’re interacting with, but that’s not always possible. The founders of Live31 have been accused of unfairly assuming that a VS model couldn’t be a P31 woman. One of the main criticisms of the movement is that it carries a judgmental, holier-than-thou tone to it. Further, Yancey complained that some affiliated with the movement called his faith into question and assumed he couldn’t be a Christian. Ironically, there are hints of the same spirit in Yancey’s posts — while he defends the VS model against judgmentalism, he also makes some bold statements about those affiliated with the movement itself. For example: “Most Christian girls who are willing to post ridiculous things about God and their heart that are not found in Scripture are also incredibly foolish when it comes to anything that sounds like it could come from a ‘Godly’ man. A boy says he’d rather have Jesus than a beer and suddenly the Heaven’s have opened and the trump has sounded. The emotional center goes into overdrive and the world looks afresh.” Hmmm…I think the accusation of judgmentalism cuts both ways here. Faceless interactions can lead me to depersonalize my debating opponents. As a result, I assume they are either the devil or an idiot. It’s easier to justify the other things I say about them at that point. Better to assume that my debating opponent is basically good-hearted and intelligent, even if he’s wrong about some things.

If social media debate has these drawbacks, what can we do to ensure civil and productive debate online? First, ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish. There is a place for public critique of another person’s ideas — if you’re primarily trying to educate other people and have no interest in reshaping the views of the one you’re criticizing. But if you want productive discussion that leads to change, consider approaching the issue in private first, or at least in a somewhat detached format like a blog. Second, if somebody writes something offensive or wrong, take a few moments or days and calm down. Our first response is almost always the wrong one. And finally, believe the best. Ask why a reasonable person would write or say what the other party wrote or said. Then engage the actual issues without resorting to ad hominem attacks or character assassination. It’s hard to do, but worth the effort.

Those are just a few thoughts about online interaction as it relates to theological debate. I’d love to hear your comments!

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Singleness and Contentment

This is a guest post by my coworker Sarah Malone, who is the College Women’s Director at Grace Bible Church. These thoughts are distilled from a talk she gave to a Christian sorority on the subject of singleness. I’ve preserved as much of it as possible (so this is a longer post today), because it impacted me deeply when I read it. Her thoughts on singleness can be applied effectively to anybody who is waiting for something, which is most of us most of the time.

I wish I could give you the five steps to walking well through singleness and being content in life. If you get a speaker who does that, can you call me? I’ll sit quietly in the back when she comes. My motivation is actually to help you walk through singleness (or whatever God has allowed in your life to help you learn contentment) better than I have at times.

I have learned and am re-learning many lessons of contentment and who God is through being single in a world of marrieds. I realize that many of you are dating somebody. Even if you end up marrying the guy you’re dating, this will hopefully help you to be a source of encouragement to your single friends.  I can’t tell you how many times a well-meaning friend has told me, “I know you’ll get married someday” (Do you?) or, “I’m sure God is just waiting until that one guy is ready for you” (But aren’t there plenty of godly, single men now?), or my personal favorite, “One day someone will notice how wonderful you are” (NOT ENCOURAGING!)  I’d rather be encouraged by the truth of God’s Word and His promises.

If we are honest, many of us are in some kind of holding pattern, just waiting for the day when the man of our dreams will swoop in with his strong hands and good heart to take care of us forever and ever. I think most of us have been duped by characters in movies who promise something that real men can never give us.  I remember realizing this one day when I happened to be watching Pride and Prejudice.  There’s a scene where Mr. Darcy says something to Elizabeth Bennett like, “You have enchanted me body and soul, and I love, I love you.  I never wish to be parted from you from this day on.”  Bitterness got the better of me that day and I actually threw the remote control at the TV and started crying.  I didn’t have anyone saying these kinds of things to me! But this kind of man is a counterfeit.  He’s not real. He was made up by another woman who wants what no man can possibly offer.  Satan uses counterfeits to breed discontentment in our lives.

Our longing to be loved can sometimes be a little emotionally painful. Heart wrenching is more like it.  There is a verse in the Bible that captures this idea: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12).  I think The Message better explains how I feel when my hopes are dashed: “Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick.”  It’s more like it yanks out my female heart, throws it to the ground, stomps all over it, sticks it back in my chest and tells it to keep on beating.  How can we deal with that disappointment?

I think the answer lies in learning contentment.  Yes, LEARNING. It doesn’t come naturally to us.  That’s why it’s hard.  It’s hard to live for what we don’t see.  But the Holy Spirit gives Christians the ability to choose to trust in Him and in His promises.

I’ve seen God stretch and grow me in huge ways as I’ve been forced to wait. Waiting.  The word alone makes my skin crawl.  “Lord, I’d rather just learn to wait another time.” The truth is that often I don’t want to wait because I have a completely false sense of God’s character.  I think most of us swing to one extreme or the other.  Either God is powerful and can do whatever He wants, in which case He must not be good, since He’s allowing this pain into my life.  Or God is good (like Santa Clause), but He just isn’t big enough to change these circumstances for me.  But, when we read the Bible we see that He’s capable of doing anything He wants and completely good and faithful.  So, if I believe what the Scripture says about Him, then I’ll believe that this tough circumstance is part of His good plan. He could change it if He wanted.  He would change it if he desired.  So He must have some good reason for allowing it. That means I have to remind myself to trust in His greater purpose, even though I don’t know what it is.

Waiting can paralyze us. It can cause us to do nothing until our hopes are realized, or until it’s clear that it won’t be. But I want to be like Abraham, who was actually strengthened as he waited, because he chose to believe God’s promises.  He and Sarah waited 100 years for a son. But they trusted God’s plan, because His plan is trustworthy.

So we have the choice of what we will do while we wait, because waiting is inevitable. I remember having a huge crush on a guy throughout most of my first two years of college.  I spent so much of my mental and emotional energy thinking about him and focusing on him and all the “what ifs”.  What a huge investment in something that turned out to be nothing.  I could have spent that time living in reality. I could have developed better relationships with God and others around me.  He’s taught me that waiting is an opportunity to grow.  Remembering who God is and who I am. Worshiping God for his presence, power, goodness, love and grace. Serving with the abilities God has given me. Praying for the grace of God, who has allowed this circumstance into my life.

It’s during the waiting period that our character is changed, and we are shaped into the image of Christ. If we immediately got everything we wanted, we’d know God’s goodness, but we wouldn’t know Him as well as we do when we’re forced to trust Him through hardship.  Our faith would be quite weak.  So, as we wait, we have an opportunity to get to know God and get to know ourselves. So don’t fight against waiting. It’s a tool God uses to grow our character.

I love the story of the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus tells her that her spiritual thirst will only be satisfied in Him. We so easily believe the lie that we’ll be satisfied once we’re in a great romantic relationship.  But romance or not, you’ll only be fully satisfied in Jesus.  Psalm 90:14 “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”  That sounds dreamy, right?  That is until things happen that we don’t like or don’t understand and it’s really hard to be satisfied by God’s love and we don’t have much to rejoice in or be glad about.  But the Psalm goes on to say, “Make us glad for the many days you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. “  This Psalmist’s life hadn’t been easy, but he knew that God could satisfy him even amidst the hardship and evil that was happening to him.  That is learning contentment.

Philippians 4:6-8 says,  “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made know to God.  And the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”

Don’t focus on what you don’t have.  It perpetuates anxiety. Train yourself to think of and pray about the blessings God’s given you.  Remember the things that are excellent and THANK him for everything!

What does God have you waiting for right now?  Where do you struggle to be content? Start by confessing to Him your discontent and struggle.  But then thank him for at least one blessing he’s given you today.  Then, write out a list of the things that are true of you because of your relationship with Christ.  Train your mind to focus on what you have rather than what you don’t have.  Christ will take care of the details and you will learn to trust Him deeply as you go.

John 16:33 “In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.”

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A New Social Network for College Students

Microsoft launched its new social network yesterday, called So.cl. It’s interesting to me because it’s exclusively for college students, much like Facebook was in its early years. It seems a bit more specialized than Facebook, because it’s intended primarily to be a learning tool. Students will pool their information and interests to build projects and ideas online. It’s intended to be a supplement to classroom learning, and in some cases it will apparently replace the lecturer/listener model.

I’m not sure what to think about the idea. I wonder how many students are interested in an education-focused social site, especially if they’re not required to use it for class. It doesn’t seem like education (or even learning in the traditional sense) is the primary value of social media, and I wonder if people will really sign up to use it that way. I’m also not sure it adds any functionality that Facebook lacks — it even uses Facebook’s social graph.

I’m curious what my readers think about this one:

Do you think social media really have the capability of furthering a person’s education?
If you’re a college student, would you be likely to give this a try? Why or why not?

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How Dads Hope You’ll Treat Their Daughters

As a college pastor, I spend a lot of time talking about relationships between guys and girls. Although I talk about dating a great deal (and I think it’s a critical topic), I don’t often enough discuss the broader subject of how men and women should interact as friends, co-workers, classmates, and neighbors.

As a father of two daughters, though, I’ve become increasingly interested in the ways that young men treat the women around them. I’m not talking here about how to treat women in order to impress them or in order to find a date, but instead how to treat them as human beings and sisters in Christ. To be honest, the patterns I see aren’t always healthy. Some guys do an excellent job of honoring their female friends, but others don’t.

So here are a few thoughts from one dad. If I could give advice to my daughter’s future male friends, this is what I’d tell them:

1.  Think of her as a person, not as an object. That means more than just preserving her physical purity, although that’s important (1 Thess 4:3-8). It also means to keep your eyes and your mind pure toward her. From time to time I see guys look a girl down and up and down again when she approaches. You’re not as sneaky as you think; it communicates disrespect and lust.  On the other hand, some young men, in a misguided attempt to avoid lust, steer away from talking to women at all. Don’t swing to that extreme, either; the fact that she’s a woman doesn’t make her inherently dangerous. Just look her directly in the eye and greet her in a friendly and normal way. Simply treat her like a person, like you would treat any friend or fellow human being. If that’s a serious challenge for you, seek some wise counsel and spiritual guidance to help you develop healthy attitudes toward the opposite sex.

2. Listen to her when she talks. She has ideas and abilities and concerns, just like you do. God made her to have a significant role in His world and in His church, just like He made you. Listen carefully, ask good questions, and wait for your turn to speak. You’ll make some good friends and learn some great things.

3. Serve her. Some might feel I’m old-fashioned, but serving another person is a reflection of kindness (Proverbs 19:22). Opening the door for her is simply a statement that you value her needs above your own. Offering her a glass of water or a coat when she’s cold are expressions of concern and compassion. Service communicates that you value her and want the best for her.

4. Choose your words carefully. I see this principle violated on Facebook all the time, but it happens offline as well. Sarcasm and cutting remarks can seem funny, but they have a way of hurting people deeply. “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘I am only joking!'” (Proverbs 26:18-19). Many times I’ve counseled students and staff who were deeply upset because of a “joke” somebody else told at their expense. They laughed in public and cried in private. Men, use your words to heal and build, not to tear down and destroy. The women in your life will thank you for it.

5. Be honest with your words and with your actions (Proverbs 3:3). Be truthful. Don’t play mind games. If you’re interested in her, then ask her out and be clear with your intentions. If you’re not interested, then don’t string her along just because you enjoy her attentions. Don’t do the “frating” thing. That’s unkind. Pursue your relationships with courage and character.

I pray nearly every day that my girls will marry godly young men who will love them and care for them as Christ loves His church. Until that day, I pray they’ll have godly male friends who will treat them with respect, honor, and concern. I’m guessing that many dads of daughters feel the same way.

What other ideas do you have for young men as they seek to treat the women around them with respect and Christ-like love?

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The Lie of Self-Love

One of the most deeply ingrained beliefs in our culture is that you must love yourself before you can love anybody else. We take it for granted that people who don’t love themselves first will be insecure and needy, unable to engage in healthy relationships.

One of the modern gurus of self-love, Oprah Winfrey, puts it this way: “Your life is a journey of learning to love yourself first and then extending that love to others in every encounter.” Throughout junior high, I constantly heard Whitney Houston’s famous words on the radio: “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”

What if I told you that “loving yourself first” is a deeply unbiblical concept? What if insecure, unhealthy, and demanding relationships are actually caused by people who love themselves first?

The Bible speaks about loving ourselves in a couple of passages. We’ll start with 2 Timothy 3:1-5 (emphasis mine):

But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these.

Hmmm…that’s not the positive connotation of loving yourself we’ve been taught to believe. But what about Matthew 22:39 (which derives from Leviticus 19:18): “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Aha! Maybe this passage is telling us to love ourselves and then to love others? Actually, this isn’t a command to love yourself. This passage actually assumes that you already do love yourself. The problem isn’t that we don’t love ourselves; the problem is that we love ourselves more than we love other people!

Yes, there is a legitimate place for understanding our value as people made in God’s image, saved by His Son and commissioned to do His work. But that’s different from loving ourselves in the way our culture defines self-love.

Seriously, look at the world around you. Browse your Facebook News Feed for a while. Do you really think our biggest problem as a society is that we don’t love ourselves enough, or is it really that we love ourselves too much?

People who love themselves expect validation from others because they feel they’re worthy of  it. And when they don’t get that validation? They become angry, sullen, insecure, and distant. They leave their spouses or make life miserable for everybody around them. Just read the celebrity news in the supermarket tabloids and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Contrary to popular belief, most movie stars don’t fail to love themselves. They usually love themselves to the point of narcissism. It doesn’t make them able to love others any better.

Truly secure people just don’t think about themselves all that much. Instead they take the advice of Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (emphasis mine). Can you imagine Oprah telling her audience to consider other people more important than themselves? Neither can I, because I’ve heard her say just the opposite.

The most enjoyable, secure, grounded people I know are those who do just what Paul commands in Philippians. They trust that questions of value and significance are answered in Jesus Christ. Then they stop worrying about themselves and focus on God’s kingdom and other people.

I think the world has its quota of those who love themselves first. What we really need are people willing to pursue the less-traveled paths of humility and self-denial. God, help us to become people like that.

Be honest: How many of your conflicts, frustrations, and disappointments from the past month stem from thinking too highly of yourself? Have you bought into the lie of self-love with the way you think or act?

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Does Facebook Wreck Your Grades?

According to this infographic (based on a study done at Lockhaven University in Pennsylvania), Facebook doesn’t mess up your grades too badly.

It’s an interesting study, though, because some of the information is surprising. For example:

-The average student spends 106 minutes per day on Facebook.

-There are students who spend nearly 6 hours per day on Facebook — not surprisingly, their grades are usually quite low.

-Students who share links tend to get better grades, while students who simply update their own statuses tend to get lower grades (maybe because the link-sharers are actually reading?).

Here’s my theory: Those students who spend 6 hours on Facebook would find ways to waste time even if Facebook didn’t exist. When I was in college, Facebook didn’t destroy our grades, but video games did. In other words, I think the study demonstrates a correlation between Facebook and grades, but not a causal link.

Do you spend 100+ minutes a day on Facebook? Does it affect your study habits? If so, how?

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7 Questions for Effective Teaching

Whether you’re leading a Bible study, teaching a class of children, preaching to a crowd, or giving a presentation at work, your goal is to communicate effectively. When the audience understands, believes, and applies the information you’ve presented, then you’ve done your job.

As a pastor who teaches to students on a weekly basis, I’ve found that my effectiveness increases when I ask certain questions during the preparation process. They’re called “developmental questions,” and the concept is not original with me (see, for example, Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson). Developmental questions help me to leave no stone unturned when I’m preparing to speak. Many of these questions apply just as well to anybody who teaches others, whether in a church setting or a professional setting.

Here are some of the most helpful questions I ask myself when preparing lessons:

1.  What is the most critical concept for my listeners to remember? Although I’ll have several subpoints, most people will remember only one key idea. Think about your pastor’s sermon from last week. You probably remember one or two things: a funny story, a key idea, an application.  I try to exercise some control over what people remember by relating the whole talk to one main concept and repeating it frequently. If I cram sixteen ideas into my lesson, the audience won’t remember any of them.

2.  Why would anybody want to listen to this in the first place? I can do a thorough job of explaining the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but my listeners won’t pay attention if it has no relevance to their lives. How will this subject matter affect their relationships, their daily activities, or their happiness? I try to communicate at the beginning of the talk why this information is important to my audience on a practical level.

3.  What does the audience stand to lose if they don’t apply what I’m saying? For example, what will they forfeit if they ignore the biblical commands concerning generosity? Greed might actually increase their wealth and make them feel better about themselves. So how will they suffer if they don’t practice generosity?

4.  What factors might prevent my listeners from believing what I say? What doubts or misunderstandings are likely to cloud their minds while I speak? If I say “God answers prayer,” I’d better be prepared to address everybody’s unspoken objection: “Sometimes God doesn’t seem to answer my prayers.”

5.  What forces make application of this concept difficult? If I preach on the importance of daily time in prayer, half of the congregation feels stressed out. Time with God seems impossible when you’re dealing with a full-time job, three kids, church involvement, shopping for Christmas, and keeping yourself alive. As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to address these concerns and suggest solutions.

6.  What are some specific ways in which the listeners can apply this message? Some teachers prefer to let their listeners figure out specific applications on their own. I’ve found it important, though, to at least get them started by providing a few suggestions. I try to limit the practical suggestions to three or fewer so I don’t overwhelm everybody. Many weeks I just give them one concrete suggestion for immediate application.

7. What resources are available to help people? As a pastor I always try to emphasize the power of God’s Spirit in producing life change. But there are other resources available as well — the body of Christ, counselors, books, websites, etc. My goal is to avoid creating expectations without directing people to the enablement they need in order to fulfill them.

Those are just a few of the questions I try to ask when I’m teaching. For those of you who teach regularly, are there any others I could add? For those who listen to sermons and presentations, what do you wish teachers would think about before they speak?

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How Should We Treat “Sinners”?

Last week I ran across this article being shared on Facebook quite a bit. The writer makes a strong and passionate case for accepting people as they are despite their sin — in other words, not shunning or unfriending or hating others even if they have different beliefs or different lifestyles.

He makes some good points. None of us are perfect, and when we forget that we tend to become self-righteous and unkind, qualities that we can’t remotely associate with Jesus. (Self-righteousness is the belief that God loves or favors me more because of the things I do, an attitude that Jesus strongly condemned in the Pharisees. See Matthew 23:23-28, for example).

The question of how we ought to treat “sinners” is a tricky one because we all fall into that category. On the other hand, Christians believe in certain moral standards that reflect the character of God. Our first instinct should be to care for others and to love them as Jesus loves. In addition, we can’t expect that non-Christians will follow Christian principles — not only because they believe differently, but also because we believe that the Holy Spirit is necessary for true life change.

The Bible doesn’t condone hatred or abuse of anybody. However, there are a few key areas where I feel like this man’s article went wrong. I’m going to discuss them thoroughly here, so this is a bit longer than my average post — stick with me, though, and I’ll try not to write unnecessary words.

First, loving a person does not mean always telling them “you’re alright.” This might seem counterintuitive — doesn’t love mean that I never tell a person he’s wrong about anything? Actually, no. Sometimes love actually demands that I step in and confront a person’s sin. Read James 5:19-20 once or twice. There are legitimate times to encourage a person that his sin is destructive and will lead to death. If my friend or family member is an alcoholic, is it kind to just say, “You’re OK, don’t worry about it?” Should we shut down the clinics that counsel people with addictions because they’re judgmental? Of course not. The truly loving thing to do is to help a person escape their sin, not to simply condone it. The writer points out how Jesus said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” What he doesn’t mention is that in the same context (John 8), Jesus also tells her to “Go and sin no more.” He is deeply gracious — not condemning or angry — and yet doesn’t encourage or accept her sin.

Yes, Jesus talks about not judging others, but the context is one in which He ultimately encourages a righteous standard of judgment. He doesn’t do away with standards altogether. John 7:24 makes His meaning plain — don’t judge by appearances, but judge by what is right. In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 Paul actually encourages the church to judge sexual immorality inside the church — and to let God judge those outside. The purpose of confrontation is ultimately restoration and hope, not just to make myself feel better at the expense of others. Yet when done for the right reasons it can be transformative and life-saving. We ought to be cautious (very cautious) in our judgments, but to avoid holding another person’s feet to the fire for fear of offending actually does the person a grave injustice.

I understand that the issue of homosexuality (or any sexual sin) is tough, because it seems like such a private issue — after all, alcoholics hurt other people. That leads to my second concern.

Second, sin is not a “very personal thing” in the sense that this writer indicates. Every sin affects me, other people, and God. Even sins that seem private have an effect on my community or my family. For example, does a person’s decision to view pornography when he’s 17 years old have any impact on anybody else? After all, it’s a private action performed behind closed doors. So who cares? Well, let’s think about it for a moment. It affects the women he’s viewing — most of the women seen in pornographic publications are being exploited. Very few (if any) grew up dreaming of porn stardom — they’re often deeply hurt young women who have been abused and exploited throughout their lives. Every time we choose to view those images, we’re perpetuating a system that objectifies and exploits women. Second, it affects the young man’s view of sexuality, and therefore it affects his future wife and children. A twisted view of sex will find a way to poison the family. Finally, and most importantly, it’s an offense against God (Matthew 5:27-28), a problem we deeply underestimate in our culture. God cares about our sex lives.

The reason for God’s sexual standards is often misunderstood or ignored. It’s not because He’s trying to suppress our enjoyment of sex. It’s not even primarily because He wants us to have “awesome sex” in marriage. Instead, it’s because He designed us and our sexuality to reflect something about His character, something about the relationship between Jesus and the Church (Ephesians 5:25-33) and about God’s plan for the world (Gen 1:26-28; 2:19-25). The relationship between man and woman in marriage reflects God’s design for Creation. It reflects Jesus’ selfless love for His people. Paul calls it a mystery, and it is a bit of a mystery — I don’t completely understand the reasons for it, but I do trust that God’s reasons are good. To settle for less than that (whether in adultery, premarital sex, homosexuality, or pornography) is sinful and disobedient — and it’s not a private matter affecting only me. It affects my ability to love others as God has called me to do, and to reflect Him as He desires. I’m not the only one negatively impacted if I choose to violate God’s sexual standards. Because I live in a community, the entire community is affected by my sin.

Third, relativistic arguments don’t do justice to issues of sin. What I mean is this: when the topic of sexual sin is broached in our culture, people often respond by saying, “Yeah, but what about all the other sinners out there whom you aren’t confronting? I mean, just look at your church — there are gluttons, prideful jerks, adulterers, greedy people, and violent people. Why are you picking on my sin?”

It’s an understandable question, for sure. I’d like to think that every church is vigilant about every sin. Everybody needs people who call them on the carpet, even if their sins seem “small” by cultural standards. And it is true that homosexuality is not some sort of “bottom-of-the pile” sin, worse than everything else out there — even in Romans 1, it’s listed before sins likes pride, disobedience to parents, and malice.

However, whether another person’s sin is better or worse or equal to my own simply isn’t the point. The question is whether my behavior is sin or not. And whether it needs to change. When I evade or sidestep the issue, I’m really acting more like a Pharisee than the person confronting me. I’m looking at everybody else’s sin and thinking, “I’m not as bad as you say I am — just look at that guy.” And that’s an attitude that will completely destroy my spiritual growth.

So how do we handle “the sinners” among us? First, by recognizing that we are sinners, and letting that fact drive us toward humility. Second, by speaking the truth in love. Not for the purpose of putting others down, but for the purpose of edification — to build them up (Ephesians 4:11-16).

And I agree with one key point the author made: running away, avoiding, gossiping, or abusing are not right. Truthful and loving engagement are, however. I’ve failed in this task numerous times, but I pray God will give me strength to represent His character, which is ultimately gracious and ultimately truthful.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this (if anybody actually read this far!). How do you think we ought to approach others when there is a legitimate issue of sin or disagreement, both within and without the body of Christ?

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Standing Under the Word of God

When I was a kid in Sunday school, we often sang a song called, “The B-I-B-L-E.” If you grew up in church, I really don’t need to share the words. If you didn’t grow up singing it, I’ll mention that it contains this line: “I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.”

That’s an excellent line, one that I’m glad we’re still teaching to our kids. The concept is that the Scripture is our primary source of revelation about God and instruction about how to follow Christ. It’s ultimately a statement about authority. My authority for faith and practice derives from God’s Word.

As I’ve been preaching this semester about heaven and hell, though, I’ve been wondering if the preposition should change slightly. Instead of saying that I stand on the Word of God, perhaps I should say that I stand under the Word of God.

I know that sounds weird (should I put a Bible on my head?), and probably doesn’t make for the best song — Sunday school teachers shouldn’t change all the lyrics. However, there is a subtle shift that occurs in my thinking when I imagine being underneath God’s Word.

Because of my theological training and ministry background, I find that I bring a great deal of systematic baggage to the Bible at times. So the Bible is my source of authority, but if I’m not careful it simply becomes a means by which I can justify the things I already believe. In other words, I worry at times about using the Bible to promote my own system — whether that’s dispensationalism or a particular position on sovereignty and freedom or a conservative viewpoint on various social issues.

Lately, though, I’ve been trying to let God’s Word speak to me as it’s written, just soaking in the words on the page. Of course there is a valid place for systems of theology. At Grace we teach our students and interns a basic theological system that hopefully helps them to better understand the flow of Scripture. I don’t plan to abandon that any time soon.

BUT…there are times to simply hear God’s voice and be confused, amazed, and overwhelmed that He doesn’t fit within our systems. (And yes, I’ve also studied enough to know that we can never completely rid ourselves of preconceptions and biases. But I do think God’s Spirit is strong enough to help us hear his voice apart from them at times).

As I’ve begun the attempt to stand under God’s Word, I’ve been reminded of how much I don’t know. I’ve also been reminded of how I often resist or deflect those concepts that live outside my systems. But I’ve also been convicted to consider issues from different points of view and to become more comfortable with my own finitude. This has been most apparent as I’ve read through the Gospels this semester in my own personal time. I really can’t make sense of Jesus at times, and sometimes His meaning is all too clear in ways that make me really uncomfortable. But that’s alright — I’ll keep trying to understand, but I’ll keep reminding myself that He’s God in human flesh and I’m just one guy.

So I’m praying for salvation from the know-it-all stance toward the Bible that creeps into my heart at times. Standing under the Word is a scary and uncomfortable place to be, but it’s also a liberating and wonderful place as well. 

What about you? Do you struggle with the concept of standing underneath the Word? If so, what factors make it difficult?

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