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Life Ministry

Pastoral Environment and the Fight for Holiness

My heart was deeply saddened yesterday when I heard about another resignation of a well-known pastor of a mega-church. This time, it was Tullian Tchividjian, pastor at Coral Ridge in Miami. This came about, he said, because of ongoing marital issues. His wife admitted to adultery. He developed an “inappropriate relationship” with someone in the aftermath of the news from his wife. God is grieved by this, that church will be greatly affected, and two people (Tullian and his wife) must deal with the destructive effects of sin. It breaks my heart. But I believe God is gracious and he can bring redemption to the darkest valley. I pray he does.

I’ve pondered this story a bit more deeply than other readers perhaps. I have a different perspective. Why? Because I’m a pastor.

Reading this as a pastor, I’m looking under the surface. I’m wondering what else was going on. I’m thinking about how it might have been avoided. I’m trying to see themes and trends and triggers that are plain as day in hindsight and might have signaled something like this was coming.

Now, hear me clearly, adultery is a human problem. People sin. Pastors are not exempt. What’s more is that sinners are responsible for their sin. We can’t shift blame elsewhere. Because of the gospel, we can own up to our sin and confess it, knowing that we have an advocate before God, Jesus Christ the justifier of the unjust. So yes, we are responsible for our sin, but the good news of the gospel is that Jesus takes responsibility for our sin on the cross.

And yet, as we learn to deal with failure, we learn that life is complicated. Sin is complicated—adultery is complicated—and there are always multiple factors and variables in play. This is a tension that, as Westerners, we would probably rather not acknowledge much less deal with.

While adultery is sin—and sinners are called to repentance—this does not mean environment is unimportant. You can’t make a plant grow but you can improve the environment, the conditions, so that the seed has everything it needs to flourish. No rain? Find a hose and a sprinkler. The same goes for people—including pastors. A quality, genuine, redemptive environment doesn’t guarantee spiritual fruit. But by God’s grace, it helps.

This leads me to ask: was there something about this particular pastoral environment that made holiness more elusive? More specifically, was there something about Tullian’s mega-church environment that was not conducive for growth? Holiness is hard because of our sin nature—the Spirit of God and the flesh oppose each other to keep us from doing what we want (Gal. 5:16). It takes work (Phil. 2:12-13). Throw us into a garden where the conditions are not optimal—or even good—and growth can be “more elusive.”

In Tullian’s case, he was in a mega-church environment that exalted him to celebrity status. Christianity Today, reflecting on what brought Tullian to the church in the first place, wrote, “[Coral Ridge] elders hoped that Tchividjian’s youth, vision, and name could revive the fortunes of the aging congregation.” This mega-church environment centered on the lead pastor’s personality, charisma, preaching ability, and energy. Sadly, this isn’t unique to this church. It’s a mega-church trend. Building around a dynamic, visionary, CEO-type. (This is what happened with Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill, though with a different issue and over a longer period of time.) No human can bear this burden. So the pastor grows into a celebrity and becomes isolated and beyond accountability. And when this happens, he’s vulnerable.

This is not just a mega-church trend. What about churches in different contexts that are smaller and relatively unknown? Like many mega-churches, a small church could still be centered on the pastor. Maybe not his personality or charisma or vision, but his ministry credentials, his administrative skills, his ability to be available to everyone all the time (or his sense of guilt to be so). He does all the preaching, all the counseling, all the hospital visits. He is “the minister,” the one “doing ministry.” No human can bear that burden. So the pastor becomes desperately needed yet at the same time, curiously, he’s lonely. He becomes isolated. Now, he’s vulnerable.

I don’t know all the reasons for pastoral failures when it comes to adultery or “inappropriate relationships.” The sinful nature is, of course, bent on desiring other things above Jesus. We are fighting not against flesh and blood here and I’m not making any excuses because sin is sin, sinners are responsible for their sin, and we repent and trust that Jesus has taken care of not just our sins, but us.

But in the North American church, we seem to be quite adept at centering ourselves around our leaders. We cultivate pastoral environments that make holiness elusive for pastors—the people who are to take the lead in modeling a gospel-shaped life. And anytime we center our communities of faith on a pastor—even a very good one with much to offer the church—and not the Person of Jesus Christ, that pastor is doomed to fall.

We (pastors), too, are great sinners in need of a great Redeemer and we need help. Surely there is something churches (including the pastors) can do to help pastors fight for holiness, see fruit, and finish the good fight of faith. In my next post, I’ll look to the Scriptures to find out just how we can do this.

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Theology

Jesus, Paul, Homosexuality, and Identity

You have heard the argument before—or maybe you have argued this way: “Jesus never talked about homosexuality. So, he doesn’t condemn it.”

It’s an old argument and a tired one. It’s tired because ancient Jewish culture did not celebrate homosexuality like Western culture does today. How do we know? Though people probably engaged in homosexual activity, it was simply known to be wrongIt was labeled as an abomination in the Hebrew Scriptures (Lev. 18:22; cf. 20:13). That did not change between the Testaments. Even today, rabbis do not condone the practice. We can be confident there was no Jewish effort in Jesus’ day to get so-called “gay marriage” enacted as law. In the Gentile pagan culture, however, people were more apt to practice homosexuality (as is evidenced by Paul’s letters, one of which I will address below).

When Jesus had the chance to talk about marriage (and thus God’s design for covenant, sexual relationships), how did he talk? Fielding a question about divorce, Jesus said this:

And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart [Moses] wrote you this commandment [i.e. allowance for divorce]. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:5-9)

The context is about divorce, but the point is clear enough: marriage was instituted by God from the beginning of creation to be a life-long union between man and woman. For those still waiting to hear the words “homosexuality” out of Jesus’ lips, you won’t hear it. You won’t hear it because, according to Jesus, there’s not a debate to be had. Marriage is for one man and one woman. Case closed.

Paul, on the other hand, speaking and writing authoritatively as an apostle of Jesus did talk about homosexuality:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor. 6:9-10, et al.)

What this means is that homosexuality (and a host of other sins!) are contrary to the gospel. Each sin is contrary to the gospel in its own way. Homosexuality is contrary to the gospel because marriage is designed to be a picture of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:32). When marriage is altered to serve sinful desire, it not only communicates, “Marriage doesn’t matter,” but it essentially tries to falsify the gospel by saying, “The gospel doesn’t matter.” This is why Christians get fired up in the marriage debate. It’s not that marriage in and of itself is the end goal (though, I admit, some Christians come across that way). Rather, marriage is a picture of something far greater: the gospel! It is a live-action dramatization of the gospel: the husband (illustrating Christ) loves and self-sacrifices; the wife (illustrating the church) respects and defers ultimate leadership to her husband. This is the gospel in action. A Christ-centered marriage will be the best sermon a Christian couple can preach.

What this passage (1 Cor. 6:9-10 above) does not mean is that people who identify as gays and lesbians are “worse sinners” than anyone else. Let me put it simply: a person can be a Christian and have same-sex urges, temptations, and even behaviors just like a person can be a Christian and desire to lie (and engage in lying behaviors) to gain approval from her friends. Why can this be? Both people are fighting. Both people are continually repenting of and confessing the root cause of their sin and seeking to cling to Christ by faith. Both of these people fight to believe daily the gospel promises that Christ is their new identity, he is their righteousness, and his death provided their forgiveness. No one is immune to sexual temptation and sin, so Christians should cease acting as if same-sex attraction is in the “God-could-never-deal-with-that-sin” category. If the heterosexuals reading this are honest (along with me), we have sexual baggage, too. Christ deals with us in his kindness and calls us away from the lie of our (fill-in-the-blank) sexual temptation toward  the fullness he offers us in the gospel. The way Jesus introduced his ministry is what the Christian life is about: “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

So in this “vice list” in 1 Corinthians 6 (cf. 1 Tim.1:10; Rev. 21:8), Paul is talking about people who find their identity in sin: sexual immorality, idolatry, homosexuality, greed, alcohol, swindling, etc. A 20-something who claims to be a Christian but sleeps with his girlfriend and wastes his days and nights on the XBox and shows no signs of repentance does not find his identity in Christ. He is in the same precarious position as an openly gay or lesbian person who professes faith in Jesus yet fails to acknowledge that homosexuality is contrary to a gospel-shaped life. Both find their identity in something other than Jesus. Both people are suppressing the truth and exchanging the glory of God for created things (Rom. 1:18-23). They may not be true Christians, therefore they should examine themselves to see whether or not they are truly in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5).

A person who finds their identity in Jesus, however, will listen to Jesus’ words.. And listening to Jesus’ words means repenting and going to him by grace through faith, rejecting the lies of sin and fighting to continually believe the promises of the gospel.

Categories
Theology

How Did St. Augustine Get Saved?

St. Augustine of Hippo is a giant of the faith. He was monumental in helping the church establish a doctrine of grace against Pelagianism.  He also wrote many influential works, the two most famous being Confessions (his spiritual autobiography) and City of God. The story of how he came to Christ is marvelous and encouraging to all who are longing for true rest.

Augustine’s life can be characterized as a search for joy. His main pursuit was carnal pleasure, which left him empty. Augustine reflected on his search, “I did not ask for more certain proof of you, but only to be made more steadfast in you.”[1] Augustine did not want a water-tight argument for Christianity. He wanted a water-tight Person who would promise and deliver true joy.

His pursuit led him to sexual promiscuity. Aside from some very wild teen years, he lived with one woman (whom he never names) for a long time, though they never married. He admits that this experience helped him discover the difference between a marriage covenant with the purpose of raising Christian children and a “bargain struck for lust.”[2]

In search of deliverance from this lust, Augustine sought out his friend Simplicianus. Simplicianus told him the conversion story of Victorinus. Augustine remarks that the story “shows the great glory of your grace.”[3] Most likely, Augustine meant that the story shows God’s grace in Victorinus’ life, but also how God used it to change his own life.

When Augustine heard of Victorinus’ public profession, he “began to glow with fervor to imitate him,” which was precisely why Simplicianus told the story in the first place.[4] Mere imitation cannot change a heart, but what transpired after this encounter was that Augustine increasingly realized his depravity and need for a Redeemer.

Augustine describes his conversion in terms of being “released…from the fetters of lust.”[5] Another story brought that about. One day with his friend Alypius, Augustine was visited by a fellow-African named Ponticianus. Just like Simplicianus, Ponticianus shared a story with Augustine: this one about release from the world through monastic living.

Augustine realized God was using Ponticianus’ story to help him see “how sordid…how deformed and squalid” his heart was.[6] But Augustine prayed, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”[7] The Holy Spirit overcame such resistance and God drew Augustine to Christ. After Ponticianus left, Augustine was in the spiritual birth canal, as it were: “I was beside myself with madness that would bring me sanity,” Augustine wrote. “I was dying a death that would bring me life.”[8]

Augustine’s self-understanding heightened as he wrestled with his desire for holiness and carnal pleasure.[9] After a physical assault on his own body,[10] he isolated himself from Alypius and asked his soul, ‘How long shall I go on saying, ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?”[11]

As Augustine surrendered, he heard a voice saying, “Take it and read!” He returned to Alypius where Paul’s letters lay on the table. He read Romans 13:13-14 and embraced the call to clothe himself with Christ. Augustine wrote, “You converted me to yourself, so that I no longer desired a wife or placed any hope in this world.”

Who saved Augustine? God did. But he did not use not water-tight, rational arguments to save Augustine. God used two stories that exposed Augustine’s desire for worldly pleasure and showed the glorious, eternal joy available when God is the object of pleasure.


[1] Augustine Confessions 8.1.
[2] Ibid., 4.2.
[3] Ibid., 8.2.
[4] Ibid., 8.5.
[5] Ibid., 8.6.
[6] Ibid., 8.7.
[7] Ibid., 8.7.
[8] Ibid., 8.8.
[9] In 8.9-10, Augustine enters into a fascinating reflection on the nature of the will.
[10] Ibid., 8.8.
[11] Ibid., 8.12.

Categories
Life

A Few Thoughts on R-Rated Movies

A friend and co-worker asked me today if I had any thoughts on R-rated movies. Since I have an opinion on everything, I gave my opinion to him. I probably don’t think about this as much as I should, and with a baby in the house, we simply don’t have the time to watch as many movies as we used to. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s what I told him:

  1. The first thing I research is the amount of sexual activity, innuendo, or nudity that a movie has. I want to keep that to a minimum, or have it non-existent, to honor God, keep my mind and body pure, and honor my wife. If an unexpected racy or sexual scene pops on the screen, I do my best to literally close my eyes or look at my wife (she looks at me too).
  2. I do not mind vulgar language, so long as it is not an extreme amount of taking the Lord’s name in vain. That really bothers me. Now, vulgar language doesn’t need to be in a movie to make it good, but sometimes without it the reality of the movie would be lost (e.g. Training Day or Saving Private Ryan).
  3. Violence normally isn’t a factor for me when picking a movie. I am not the kind of person who will watch The Dark Knight and then want to go out and beat the pulp out of somebody. That said, I’m not going to see a horror-filled, blood-bath flick. Neither will my wife, thankfully.
  4. There are some R-rated films with particular actors that I know will be raunchy, embarrassing, or just plain bad stories. Some of those include actors are Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, Will Farrell, and anybody who has been in Hangover or Hangover 2 (yes, they did make a sequel). These men have been in good PG and PG-13 movies, but for some reason, when the rating turns ‘R,’ the movies are not worthy my $9 or $1.20 at a RedBox. There are other actors I’m sure who immediately turn me away. These three just happened to be on the top of my mind.
  5. Above all, if the movie is about a good story, it will probably make a good movie even if it’s R-rated. The Shawshank Redemption is a beautiful, moving, passionate, emotion-jarring story. It draws you in. On the other hand, Step Brothers is not a story that (most normal) people want to be engaged in.

So I don’t just reject a movie because it’s R-rated. It basically comes down to this: every story, whether good or bad, R-rated or G-rated, points to the ultimate story, the story of God and his redemption in the world. We attribute this to the common grace of God, for he even uses non-Christian filmmakers and actors to point to his story. Every story, then, is a faint picture of good, evil, guilt, redemption, restoration, forgiveness, judgment, heaven, hell, and a thousand other biblical themes. Every story points us to the story that we all want to be apart of, even if we don’t believe it’s true. Every story is a reflection of human brokenness and the need for a Savior. Some movies just do a better job than others of telling it.

There’s a few raw thoughts. What about you? Do you watch R-rated movies? If so, do you have any “filters”? If you don’t watch them, why not?

Categories
Theology

Android App Created to Hide Calls and Texts

An Android app called CATE (call and text eraser) was created by Phillip Immler, a cop and law student, to hide what you don’t want your spouse to see on your phone.  No joke. In the online story, the author quotes Immler:

“I had a good friend of mine who went through a divorce because his wife was finding things on his phone. It intercepts call and text messages from people on your lists and stores it within the app,” says Immler.

The author continues:

Only the app owner has the passcode to unlock the contacts he or she decides should be hidden from view. There’s already buzz over the app online.

Divorce attorney Robin Roshkind says while the app may promise to hide your infidelity, it won’t stop a determined woman or man wanting to know the truth.

The story ends by quoting Immler again, when he says that he doesn’t condone cheating. Really, Immler? Yet you help adulterous people hide their sin from their spouse?  This is not surprising–this is the way the world works.  God has spoken of actions such as these–listen to Paul’s words:

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them (Romans 1:28-32; my emphasis).

The good news of Jesus is that even adulterers and those who approve of adultery can be saved: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom. 10:9).