Should Phil Robertson Be Our Spokesman?

The online controversy surrounding Phil Robertson’s suspension from Duck Dynasty highlights the deep divisions that exist in our country regarding Christianity and sexuality. For the most part, I’ve seen two responses on social media: those who wholeheartedly support Robertson and his statements, and those who vehemently repudiate them. Depending on which side of the cultural divide you are on, Robertson looks either like a hero or a hateful bigot.

My first reaction to the controversy was probably similar to many of my readers: anger and dismay at the way “big media” treats traditional Christian viewpoints. How dare A&E go after this man for his stance on sexual morality?

Like many issues, though, with a few hours of thought and consideration I’m seeing things a bit differently. I don’t think we evangelicals should be so ready to jump on the “torch A&E to the ground” bandwagon, or that we should be so eager to line up behind Robertson and his statements. 

Now, I absolutely agree with Robertson that homosexual behavior is sinful. It’s a view that Christians have held and affirmed for a long time. And it certainly troubles me that expressing that view in the public square is now completely taboo. No matter how carefully it’s qualified or explained, believing that homosexual behavior is wrong is considered the unforgivable sin of public discourse. It has become impossible to even discuss the issue without being shouted down or completely silenced. I understand all of that, and as a Christian it makes me sad.

However, I think it’s a mistake to hitch our wagons to Phil Robertson as the spokesman for evangelical Christianity. And without intending to do so, that’s what many Christians have done in the past 24 hours or so. There are a few critical facts that we’re failing to take into account:

First, A&E is a business, and they made a business decision. They calculated — correctly or not — that the fallout from sticking with Robertson would exceed the fallout from firing him. Blogger Matt Walsh has argued that A&E has just committed suicide, that everybody will flee from their network and they’ll go down in flames. I think he’s wrong in this case. Walsh lacks the perspective of history here. If you’ve followed the culture wars for long, you’ve seen this story before. The attention span of those who are furious will fade in a few weeks. A&E will likely cancel the show, the Robertsons might find another network (perhaps a Christian one?), but people will move on. Sticking with the Robertsons was a riskier decision for a secular business like A&E. If they hadn’t pulled Phil off of the show, the advertisers would have fled in droves, not just from that one show, but from the entire network. A few thousand Christian viewers migrating to different shows pales in comparison.

A&E isn’t in the business of preaching biblical Christianity. They’re in the business of making money through entertainment (after all, the network is called “Arts and Entertainment”). It’s certainly within our rights to stop watching their shows, and perhaps we should. But it’s also within their rights to decide who gets on their network and who doesn’t. It’s a hard reality, but it’s the reality of the entertainment business, and it shouldn’t surprise any of us. It also shouldn’t surprise us that our Christian views are minority views. Although those of us in the South are often surrounded with people who share our views, the national picture looks quite a bit different. Frankly, there are more people who disagree with traditional Christian sexuality than who agree with it. So again, A&E made a very deliberate and careful business calculation here, and I don’t think it will hurt them in the long run.

Second, Phil Robertson’s comments do not exemplify how Christians ought to approach the discussion of biblical sexuality. I’m not sure that those who are lining up behind Robertson have carefully read the words he actually said. He was deliberately crude, and he seemed to be trying to poke a stick in the eyes of those who disagree with him. If Robertson had made those same remarks in front of my church’s college group, I would have told him he could never talk to them again. The problem with allowing an entertainment figure to be our spokesman is that his job is to provoke, to draw laughs, and to entertain. Even if he does it crudely and offensively. The Robertson family are skilled entertainers. But they’re paid a lot of money to be silly and shocking. I think Christians need to engage in thoughtful discussions about biblical sexuality. But not in discussions laced with the kind of talk that permeates junior high locker rooms. I do realize that Robertson would have been attacked even if his comments had been measured and careful. That being said, I can’t endorse him as my spokesman, because of the way he said what he did.

Third, if we make Duck Dynasty our rallying point, we might communicate that we care more about popularity than about the gospel. When I stand before Jesus Christ, I am confident He won’t ask me if I went to bat to keep Duck Dynasty on the air. It’s a television show. Our identity does not rest in whether or not Christians remain popular on television. When I read the New Testament I see stories of Christians experiencing real persecution for their faith: loss of property, loss of life, imprisonment. What does it say about us that we go ballistic over the shaming of an entertainment figure? Especially one who will continue to make millions of dollars through books, speaking engagements, and probably a whole new cottage industry based on his Christian beliefs?

What’s interesting to me is that there are some key theological issues in which the Robertsons probably disagree with the evangelicals who watch the show. For example, they attend a church that believes in baptismal regeneration, the belief that baptism is essential to receive eternal life. Yet I’ve heard very few Christians discuss that issue, which is directly related to the gospel. On the other hand, we are very concerned about the issue of homosexuality, an important issue that is more about morality than about eternal life. My point is this: I think we are often more concerned with winning a cultural battle and looking good than we are about sharing the gospel in a winsome and accurate way.

Because I know I’ll receive some pushback on this post, I feel the need to clarify again: I agree with Robertson that biblical sexuality is important. I agree that the Bible clearly teaches homosexual behavior is sinful. I’m troubled and saddened that we can’t have a reasonable discussion about the issue.

I’m more concerned, though, that we take care to faithfully and winsomely preach Jesus Christ before we inundate our culture with messages about sexuality. 

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How to Survive and Thrive During the Holidays

This is a guest post by Brian Fisher, the senior pastor at Grace, and therefore my boss. Enjoy it, and I’ll begin blogging again in January. Merry Christmas!

Holidays are filled with promise. This year could be the best one ever. Perfect presents, grateful children, fabulous food, charming relatives, inspiring conversation, vibrant health. I can’t wait! How about you? Does optimism run high in your holiday heart?

I don’t want to be too pessimistic, but perhaps we should temper our optimism a bit. For most of us, our holiday history suggests that our expectations may go at least partially unmet. Our relatives may not be charming; they may be combative and unkind. Instead of bringing peace, joy, goodwill and love, they may pick fights. Our kids may not be grateful this year; they may complain about everything. Instead of giving you thankful hugs and kisses, they may brashly tell you about all of the presents they preferred but didn’t receive. We’re not allowing pessimism to rule; we’re just being realistic. If reality threatens our blissful hopes and dreams, how can we survive (and thrive) during the holiday season?

Since my first point exhorts simplicity, I’m only going to offer two thoughts. Here they are:

1. Stay focused, stay simple. When we’re removed from our normal routines, what is most important can fall by the wayside, particularly in regard to our spiritual lives. Spend time in prayer and in the Word, but keep it simple and consistent. Read one of the gospels and a few Psalms this Christmas. Don’t set goals that are unrealistic, given the fluid and irregular schedules that dominate the holiday season. Simply put – spend a little time each day allowing God to set your heart right before him. “The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in You.” (Isaiah 26:3)

2. Expect to give, not receive. Expectations are funny things. Often we don’t even know we have them until they go unmet. If we expect people to treat us in a certain way (which is sometimes completely opposite of how they have treated us in the past), our holiday hopes can easily be dashed. Here is a terrible but freeing truth – we are servants. Servants of the One True God, but still servants. And sometimes people treat God’s servants like… well, like servants.

We are servants, but we are also the most blessed people alive. And we have been blessed so that we can be a blessing. Christmas reminds us that our ultimate blessing is Jesus Himself – God became flesh in order to live a perfect life and die a sacrificial death, so that our sins could be removed and we could experience life forever. We are blessed! When we enter the Holy-Days hoping to bless other people with our service, our words and our gifts, nothing can stand in the way of our own joy and fulfillment.

Give and give and give like Jesus, and  you will know His peace and joy this holiday season.

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The Perils of Pastoral Wealth

“Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” 

Proverbs 30:8-9

In the past week I’ve seen two articles about pastors with huge houses. The first was about Steven Furtick, a mega-church pastor in Charlotte, North Carolina. His 16,000 square-foot home drew the attention of local, and eventually national, media. (It turns out that this story is about 6 weeks old, but I just became aware of it a week ago).

The second piece was about Ed Young, Jr., the pastor of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas (near Dallas). He and his family are in talks with A&E and other television networks concerning a possible reality show, and the show would at least partly highlight his 7,100 square foot house and bullet-proof Mercedes.

Both stories have stirred up social media consternation among Christians and non-Christians alike. Is it acceptable for pastors to use ministry funds to buy multi-million dollar homes, bullet-proof luxury cars, and large entourages? Furtick (and other pastors with similarly lavish lifestyles) often make the point that their homes and cars are funded with book and video royalties rather than with church offerings. Critics, though, make the case that pastors’ book royalties are only possible because of the platform and resources provided by the church. In other words, if a book is based on the pastor’s sermons, which he wrote in his church office and preached from his church’s pulpit, then the money rightfully belongs to the church and not to the individual.

As a pastor, stories like this trouble me, although it’s hard to initially pinpoint why they’re so troubling. Part of the concern, of course, is related to perception: I hate to think that people unfamiliar with church, who perhaps don’t know any actual pastors, would get the idea that all pastors are looking to leverage their ministry platforms into extravagant wealth. That’s simply not true.

Since I don’t personally know Ed Young or Steven Furtick, I can’t accurately gauge the state of their finances, or whether they’re using their money well. I’m aware that media reports aren’t always accurate, and even if they are, they’re incomplete. These men might both be immensely faithful with what they’ve been given, and the attacks might be unfair. What I can do, though, is respond to some of the concepts they’ve both expressed about ministry and money in the articles I read.

I think pastors are called to a higher standard when it comes to money. I’m not saying that pastors should live below the poverty line, or even that having a nice home or car is out of bounds. I have friends in ministry who live in relatively expensive homes, and I have friends who live in small and cramped quarters. Neither one is necessarily more spiritual than the other. We all agree that one’s attitude toward wealth, and one’s use of personal wealth, are much more important.

That being said, I think most pastors cringe when we read articles like these. Here are a few reasons why:

First, while everything I have ultimately comes from God, I also am accountable in a heightened way to my church. People give to to their churches expecting that the money will be used for the ministry of the gospel. Most congregations recognize that paying pastors a living wage is part of that ministry. However, we pastors need to be cautious. We never want to communicate that we are using ministry funds so that we can live “high on the hog.” All I really need is food, clothing, and shelter for my family. If I appear to be chasing after a great deal more, my congregation and leadership have the right to ask some hard questions.

When it comes to book royalties, pastors have different opinions on how they should be used. I can only speak to my own situation. Last year, two of my colleagues and I published a series of Bible studies. We made the decision, prior to publication, that we would donate the royalties back to Grace. Without the platform and resources provided by Grace, we would not have been able to publish the studies. One of the studies, in particular, was largely taken from a series of sermons I gave to our college ministry. I prepared the notes in my office at the church and used church time to write the curriculum. I realize that this is a gray area to some extent, but the three of us felt that it was only right, if we used church resources, to donate the money back to our congregation. (It wasn’t a whole lot of money, by the way. Youth Bible studies about Gideon don’t quite sell as many units as The Purpose Driven Life, it turns out).

I’m not suggesting that every pastor who receives book royalties is obligated to donate them back to the church. I will say, though, that I have immense respect for men like John Piper, who have chosen to do so. It’s best if we pastors go the extra mile to stay above reproach in this area.

I recognize that many pastors have sources of income outside of the church altogether. Some have family money, or a spouse who works, or a side business. Even then, I think we need to be cautious, and my second point explains why:

Second, I never want to communicate, even inadvertently, that I love money more than I love Jesus. This is a sensitive topic, one where it’s hard to find a hard line to draw. By some standards, I live in a very nice home. By other standards, it’s very modest. I make more money than some people, and less than others. I think somewhere between living in poverty and owning a 16,000 square foot, $2 million home, there’s a line. Once I cross that line, people will begin to talk more about my wealthy lifestyle than about my ministry. That’s the danger pastors face. When we entered ministry, most of us did so with the understanding that we would need to be cautious.

Again, I can’t find anything in the Bible that explicitly tells people to live in small houses. However, because pastors are accountable to the church, and because we are called to preach and model faithfulness to Jesus, we need to be careful. Jesus said a lot about money and the dangers of wealth. So did Paul and other New Testament writers. Although wealth isn’t inherently wrong, it is dangerous. It has the potential to corrupt our hearts, to make us fall in love with stuff rather than with Jesus. It’s a lot like dynamite — it’s great when used judiciously, but terribly destructive when used recklessly.

Nobody has ever written a nationally published article about my life, and the odds are that nobody ever will. I don’t envy famous pastors who are constantly in the limelight, because they can’t seem to win. (Young astutely pointed out that having too little and too much can both provoke criticism). However, I would be deeply dismayed if somebody wrote an article about me, and the primary emphasis was on my house or my car, rather than on my church and my relationship to Jesus. When visible displays of wealth become a massive distraction to the message of Jesus, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate one’s relationship to money.

Third, and finally, every pastor needs to have true authority in his life, not only in the area of money but in every area of leadership and spiritual life. When a pastor has too much authority over how he gets paid, there are going to be problems. Let’s face it: If you could give yourself a raise, you probably would! Even corporations place accountability structures in place to assure that their executives are compensated appropriately. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I don’t personally want to be trusted to determine my own salary. I am fairly confident that I would be tempted to keep awarding myself more money. The line between “enough” and “way too much” is easily blurred. There is always a way to justify having more. Anybody, even a pastor, who trusts his own heart to determine an appropriate salary, is deceiving himself. I realize that not every church pays its pastors adequately. There is certainly an appropriate time and place to discuss those issues with one’s leadership. There might even be an appropriate time to leave a ministry if it’s impossible to support a family. But I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to let pastors singlehandedly determine their own salaries. Everybody needs accountability. Because pastors are spiritual leaders, we probably need it even more than others, because we’re held to higher standards.

I write this article not to criticize what other pastors do, but instead to highlight some of the challenges of money and ministry, and to lay out a few values that I’ve found helpful. Most of us pastors wrestle, like you probably do, with how to honor God with our money. And most of us deeply pray that our lives and our choices will point you to Jesus. Sometimes we all fail in that endeavor, but through God’s grace we want to glorify Him rather than money or possessions.

If you made it to the end of this post, I’d love to hear your thoughts, concerns, or questions. Where should we draw the line on pastors and money? How do you decide what is “enough” and what is “way too much”?

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You Are What You Laugh At

I recently asked my wife, “What is one thing in our marriage that you hope will never change?” Her answer: “Our laughter.” It was a great response. As long as we’re laughing together, we know we’re still friends. 

Those who know me will testify that I love to laugh and tell jokes. Laughter is often an appropriate response to life — as Solomon tells us, there’s a time to laugh (Ec 3:4). Jesus even said that laughter will be a characteristic of God’s kingdom — those who cry now will laugh later (Luke 6:21).

What we laugh at, though, says a lot about our hearts. Many years ago I overheard a college student talking about the show Grey’s Anatomy, which was extremely popular at the time. The show is little more than a soap opera, full of sexual immorality (and questionable medical ethics). I asked her why she watched the show. “It makes me laugh,” she said. I probed a bit more: Why do you find that sort of behavior amusing and entertaining? She didn’t know why. Not long after that conversation, she became romantically involved with a married man, precipitating his divorce. Her laughter was an early indicator that something in her heart was amiss.

Laughter affects our hearts, and our hearts are where behavior begins. When we laugh at something, we approve of it, at least in a small way. I think it’s easy, especially on social media, to laugh at inappropriate times. If we are what we laugh at, we should think carefully about what we find amusing.

Here are a few questions, then, to help us determine whether we should be laughing at something or not: 

1. Am I laughing at somebody else’s expense (Prov 17:5)? Jokes that target another person aren’t funny. Every human being is made in God’s image, and is worthy of my respect. That includes my spouse, my kids, my co-workers, the disabled, and even the President of the United States. There’s a critical difference between laughing with somebody and laughing at somebody. Too often we laugh at the expense of others, particularly on social media.

2. Am I laughing at sin (Ephesians 5:4)? When I was in college, I made the mistake of watching a Quentin Tarantino movie. The movie was designed to entice its viewers to laugh at violence. I remember being shocked and ashamed when I laughed at a cold-blooded murder enacted on the screen. Laughing at sin is wrong, even if Hollywood tells us to do it. When we laugh at sin, we minimize it and even legitimize it.

3. Am I laughing to hide my pain? Proverbs 14:13 says, “Even in laughter the heart may be in pain.” Sometimes we laugh when we really need to seek help. We laugh in order to deny that we’re hurting. Laughter can often ease our suffering, but we also need to deal with pain directly. If you’re laughing from a dishonest attempt to hide what you’re feeling, get help from a good friend or counselor.

4. Will my laughter honor God and encourage others? Laughter can be a way of celebrating God’s blessings. Laughter can remind us that the minor trials of our lives pale in comparison to the joy God has promised us in Jesus. Laughter can help us appreciate the wonderfully unpredictable adventure of daily life in the presence of God’s Spirit. It can remind us that we’re all in this together, weighed down with trials yet hoping for redemption.

Does your laughter honor God, or do you struggle in this area? Would you add any questions or thoughts to my list above?

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