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Posts Tagged ‘conflict’


The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set) Newton, John cover imageI’m moving toward the end of The Works of John Newton. There are a few items in the 4th volume I want to address separately. The one that seems pertinent to me existentially is Thoughts on the Government of the Tongue.

We are in the midst of political polarization as a nation. As a denomination, we are in the midst of theological polarization. As I think about my own words they are not always what they should be. I also feel kicked around, misunderstood and attacked at other times. I’m beginning to make more use of the FB snooze function. However, I am not looking forward to 2020 because this election looks to be even more polarizing and spiteful than 2016 was.

Newton begins his thoughts this way:

There is perhaps no one test or proof of the reality of a work of grace upon the heart, more simple, clear, and infallible, than the general tenor of our language and conversations; …”

He is applying James 3 in light of Jesus’ words “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” James warns us of the danger of the tongue. It can burn down families, churches and nations. We can build up or tear down with our kids, spouses or friends.

The last year or so has been an exercise in holding my tongue. Some people may not believe it, but they didn’t hear all that is in my heart because I don’t want to damage relationship in my anger. James warns that the one who can’t bridle his tongue has vain religion.

“It is not the restraint of the heart, the apostle requires.”

While it is our duty to watch and mortify the sinful desires of our hearts. But “he supposes that the grace of God in a true believer will check the evils of the heart, and prevent them from breaking out by the tongue.” This means that a husband won’t light into his wife (or a wife her husband) when they disagree. This means that you don’t attack your neighbor who votes differently than you but perhaps seek to understand their perspective. We note the hatred and anger arising in our hearts and refuse to give vent to them.

Newton notes that restraining our tongues is not to be taken so strictly that we think a Christian never speaks unadvisedly. We see godly men like Job and Jeremiah cursing the day they were born. While godly people frequently restrain their tongues, James also notes that we all sin in many ways, including our speech. This is part of the sanctification process.

I don’t know if Trump is a genuine Christian. Taken strictly, one would be tempted to say “No way, Jose.” But if his reported conversion a few years is genuine, we should not be surprised if it takes time for a man who used speech sinfully in many ways to begin to restrain his tongue (and his tweets). If grace is in his heart, “it will so regulate and control the tongue, that it shall not customarily offend.” People need time to change, and it is frequently incremental. This should give most of us hope. We see change, but long for more (if we are honest).

But the counterfeit Christian cannot bridle his tongue because there is no grace in his heart. He may learn theology, help out around the church but the tongue will persist in gossip, slander, unwholesome speech and verbal assault.

Newton moves to what it means to bridle the tongue. One aspect is their language toward God.

“So likewise the hearts of believers teach their mouths to speak honorably of God under all their afflictions and crosses, acknowledging the wisdom and mercy of his dispensations; and if an impatient word escapes them, it grieves and humbles them…”

In affliction the sinful heart wants to curse God, blame God. The Spirit of grace works to restrain that sinful desire. When we do accuse or curse, the Spirit of grace convicts us so we are grieved.

It also restrains our prideful speech of ourselves. That tendency we have to assert we alone are right and good, and those who disagree with us are singularly evil, stupid or blind. We speak as though we have all the answers. Instead, the Spirit moves us to speak of ourselves as unworthy, needy creatures.

“In what they say of or to others, the tongues of believers are bridled by a heartfelt regard to truth, love and purity.”

Not just truth. Not just love. Our tongues are bridled by truth and love. And purity. Truth and love restrain our tongues so we don’t speak falsehood or hatefully. We begin to have an internal restrain, which is the key. That restraint is truth, love and purity. It isn’t fear.

Newton recognizes that we can unwittingly speak untruths. We can speak from ignorance, forgetfulness. We aren’t speaking to deceive. But we are wrong. Sometimes your opponent is just plain wrong, not lying. Keep that in mind as the election draws near.

The tongue is bridled by truth because God is the God of truth. Jesus is the truth. It is bridled by love because God is love. God is light, and in Him there is no darkness. As a result we are restrained by purity. We are holy because He is holy.

“… though true believers may, on some occasions, speak rashly, and have great cause for humiliation, watchfulness, and prayer, with respect to the government of their tongues…”

Yes, we have a goal and a motive but we have not arrived. This is cause for humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand. This is cause for watchfulness when in disagreement with another. This is cause for prayer that God will guard our mouths and tongues.

Newton provides us with some helpful, edifying thoughts and direction for governing our tongues as manifestation of grace. It is well worth heeding as we move into an election year, as we continue in denominational debate and engage in everyday conflict.

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In our day and age humility is not seen as a blessing. We live in the age of the big ego. This is the dawning of the age of narcissism. Our social media usage seems to stroke our pride as we seek after likes.

IThe Blessing of Humility: Walk Within Your Calling‘m aware of the irony. I’m writing this on a blog, part of social media, hoping people will read it. But I’m hoping they will go beyond this blog post to the book I’m writing about: The Blessing of Humility by Jerry Bridges.

Jerry Bridges has written many books that I’ve found helpful in the course of my life as a Christian and a pastor. This is one of the last books he wrote prior to his death. I was unaware of its release until seeing it in a clearance sale. Good for me, but a sad reflection on society and even American church culture. This is a book too many of us need to read.

Pride is like bad breath, everyone knows you have it before you do. The struggle against pride is one that is a daily affair, if we are paying attention. Over time I’ve read a few books on the topic including Humility: the Forgotten Virtue by Wayne Mack, and Humility by C.J. Mahaney. I used Mack’s book for our Men’s study at one point.

In Bridges’ book, he looks at the Beatitudes as a description of humility. Humility is one of the twin traits of mature Christianity. The other is love.

Bridges notes that in Jesus’ day, humility was looked down upon in Roman culture, the dominant culture of the day. Before moving into the Beatitudes, he addresses some key texts including 1 Peter 5 which joins precepts and promises.

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,…

Humility is the metaphorical clothing we should wear as we appear in public. We are to be humble in our relationships with others and with God, in keeping with the two great commandments upon which hang the whole law. While humility seems off-putting and working against our advancement in life, God offers promises of grace and glory for those who humble themselves in this way. There is promised blessing for humility.

Bridges view of the Beatitudes is one of what a sanctified person looks like. While our failure to possess these characteristics as we should points us to Jesus who perfectly manifested them for imputed righteousness, we must not stop there. Like Mark Jones, Bridges sees this as a description of imparted righteousness in sanctification. The Beatitudes reflect whom Jesus is making us as He conforms us to His likeness. Thus we are to seek these traits and therefore humility.

“In the Beatitudes Jesus is talking about the character traits of those already in the kingdom.”

In this relatively short book, just under 150 pages, he explains teach character trait and ties it to humility. With short chapters it can be read devotionally. It contains a study guide in the back for group study or personal reflection and application of the material.

What we find is not an exhaustive book, but certainly a helpful book. It is not very technical, assuming a knowledge of the original languages or lots of theological terminology. It is written for ordinary people to study. He often connects the ideas he is exploring with hymns that express those sentiments. It is rich in Scripture and hymnody.

Humility is poor in spirit. We recognize that we are spiritually destitute and unable to please God in ourselves. Our struggle with sin is far more profound than we realize, and realizing that is half the battle. Maturity means increasing in our awareness of this ongoing struggle. Our focus shifts from our actions to our attitudes and thoughts.

It is because we are still practicing sinners that we mourn. We mourn our spiritual poverty. We aren’t simply aware of our continuing sinfulness but broken hearted about our continuing rebellion.

Meekness points us to the humility of accepting the difficult circumstances in our lives as part of God’s wise, loving providence. Following Thomas Watson (for Bridges loved the Puritans as well as hymns) he applies meekness toward other people in terms of “bearing of injuries, the forgiving of injuries, and the returning of good for evil.” We will all be subject to the sins of others against us. Humility does not retaliate but bears, forgives (!) and bestows good. This is so contrary to our prideful flesh what strikes out, bears grudges and tries to destroy the offender. Our words are often weapons we use against them.

“Meekness is a defining grace, produced by the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian, which characterizes that person’s response towards God and man.”

We also have a hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be personally righteous. Such hunger and thirst is not so we don’t need Jesus but so we are like Jesus and bring Him glory. Prideful righteousness, religiosity, is an attempt at self-salvation. It is in this section in particular that Bridges distinguishes between positional and personal (what he calls experiential) righteousness. If I am a Christian I need not hunger and thirst for positional righteousness. I have it! But I do for personal righteousness.

Jesus then moved to mercy, and so did Bridges. He develops the idea of mercy as compassion in action. It is not simply empathy but moving to relieve misery as seen in Isaiah 58 among other places. Part of mercy is remembering the sins of others no more. This is not forgetting but choosing not to bring those sins up against them anymore. This happens only as we see the fact that God no longer remembers our many and grievous sins.

Bob Dylan plays a guitar and sings into a microphone.Another aspect of humility is purity of heart or whole-heartedness. He ties this into the fact that we are not our own but have been bought with a price. We are property of Jesus, as Bob Dylan sang long ago. Purity of heart recognizes this and seeks to see all of life through that lens.

Conflict is regularly addressed in Scripture. When I recently preached through Philippians I was shocked to discover how much this “epistle of joy” was marked by conflict. As someone going through a prolonged conflict, I found hope as well as conviction as I struggled to preach through such a “simple” letter. Humility seeks peace, and makes peace. Peacemaking is very difficult and goes against all our basic inclinations to seek peace on our terms. In other words, there complete surrender.

“To be a peacemaker, then, means we absorb the hurtful words or actions of others without becoming resentful, retaliating, or even cutting off a relationship with the person.”

Humility is revealed in how we respond to being persecuted for righteousness’ sake. While it is appropriate for American Christians to seek protection in our earthly citizenship (Paul, as Bridges notes, appealed to his Roman citizenship at times) we should recognize that our courts system will fail us eventually. We may lose our rights as the tide rises against Christianity. While experiencing hostility, we are not to be hostile but humble. Bridges reminds to entrust ourselves to our Creator, like Jesus, and continue to do good in keeping with 1 Peter 2.

He ends with humility and the gospel. He channels his inner Jack Miller and talks about preaching the gospel to himself and yourself every day. The gospel is not simply the door we walk through to begin life as a Christian but the path we walk as Christians. Humility only grows in gospel soil.

“It is the gospel that will keep us from becoming discourage and will instead motivate us to keep pursuing humility, even when we fail so often.”

This little book is gospel-drenched. That means it is encouraging, not discouraging. Our failures are opportunities to look to Jesus, not a call to despair or simply try harder. The humble and meek Jesus is ready to pardon and help us. Humility keeps coming to Jesus as our only hope. As we do this we find ourselves no better than others, in part because we are not focused on their sins so much. Our sins, and theirs, drive us to Jesus who deals with us as a wonderful, merciful Savior.

This is a book worth the time to read and think about.

 

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In the first post, I covered the issue of temptation and sin as discussed in the Central Carolina Presbytery Committee Report on Revoice (CC). I also included reference to the North Florida Report on Same-Sex Attraction (NF). This subject took more space than I think the others will. There is more disagreement, even in the Reformed Community including the PCA, on the subject. We saw disagreement between the CC and NF reports, as well as between an older Kevin DeYoung blog post and this report he worked on.

We agree that sexual temptations arise from the remnant of sin within each of us. They are temptations to commit sin. We agree that such temptations (all temptations) should be mortified as Paul encourages in Romans 8 and Titus 2 among other places. The disagreement is about whether being tempted itself constitutes a sin.

“To conflate the two ignores the reality of God’s gracious promises of deliverance to those facing temptation (1 Cor. 10:13; Heb. 2:18) and the sinless obedience of Jesus Christ in the face of temptation (Mt. 4:11; Heb. 4:15). Christians can be confronted with an opportunity to sin and, by the grace of God, resist the temptation and pursue obedience.” NF, pp. 3

There is fundamental agreement but the focus seems to be on the finer distinctions made. None of these differences imply that same-sex attraction (SSA) is morally neutral or “good”. They have a pastoral application as to whether the person has in fact sinned or is tempted. Those are treated differently: repentance vs. mortification. No person should experience church discipline for being tempted, but persistent patterns of sinful action should usually be addressed.

Further, when we consider the Westminster Shorter Catechism on repentance we see:

Question 87: What is repentance unto life?
Answer: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

Repentance properly includes a “full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” That properly describes what happens if we don’t put our temptations to death. Temptations are not a matter under our control and therefore, themselves, a matter of obedience. Obedience is about whether we entertain those temptations or mortify them.

Temptations do reveal the depths and character of our remaining corruption. In addition to mortification, they are also an occasion for lament. They also reveal to us our on-going need for Jesus so we respond much like Paul in Romans 7- O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of sin? His answer and ours is to be Jesus. That is true no matter the types of temptations, and sins (which is the context of Romans 7), we experience and commit.

I hope I’ve said enough on that topic.

The Question of Identity

Related imageCC then shifts its attention to the question of identity. At times I will appeal to sections of the Missouri Presbytery report from their investigative committee (MP). It is my opinion that this has become something as a shibboleth for some. If you don’t say it the right way, with no regard what you mean by it, you are considered wrong and should be outside the boundaries of our community of faith (see Judges 12:1-6).

Labels do matter. And what people mean by the labels matters too. Communication includes both the speaker (and their intention) and the listener.

One of the things bringing criticism to Revoice is their use of the terms “gay Christian” or “homosexual Christian.” The criticism is that these are (necessarily) terms of identity and they are therefore identifying themselves with their sinful inclinations at best, or sinful actions at worst. Revoice does, as we saw in the earlier post, affirm biblical sexuality and marriage. So theirs would presumably be a best case scenario.

The Scriptures speak of two fundamental identities: in Adam or in Christ. These can be expressed in many ways. For instance, regarding our identity in Adam, Paul refers to people in accordance with their dominant sin: the sexually immoral, idolators and adulterers among others (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Regarding our Christian identity we see Peter referring to Christians as a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9).

Additionally, our union and identity with Christ is to shape our thinking. We see this in Colossians 3:1-4. As the text unfolds in the following verses our actions, not just our thoughts, are to follow our new identity. Sanctification is the putting off of our old identity in Adam with its sin, and the putting on of our new identity in Christ which is righteous.

Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with ChristThese ideas are developed by Rosaria Butterfield in her book Openness Unhindered. In particular in the chapters Identity (pp. 35-58) and Self-Representation: What Does It Mean to Be Gay? (pp. 113-136). Christopher Yuan offers a briefer treatment in Holy Sexuality and the Gospel (pp. 7-13).

CC recognizes that Revoice accepts at least some of the identity language of our culture. For instance, they use the term “sexual minority”. Even the terms “gay” and “homosexual” in some way bow to the Freudian origination of sexual orientation (see NF, pp. 4-5). Rosaria Butterfield also traces this development of use of orientation in Sexual Orientation: Freud’s Nineteenth Century Mistake (pp. 93-112).

Sam Allberry addresses all of this as well.

CC spends time delving into General Revelational arguments in this case. They are not ignoring Scripture (for there are plenty of quotes) but explaining and assessing the worldly theories that NF simply recognizes as worldly.

Adjectives, at times, may be helpful modifiers of the noun “Christian”. Reformed Christian differentiates me from Orthodox Christian, Evangelical Christian etc. American Christian may be used to differentiate me from an Asian or African Christian as well. Cultural background has an effect on how you tend to live out your faith.

The problem both CC and NF express is when the adjective describes a sinful inclination or action. Both reports acknowledge that due to the remnant of sin, many Christians continue to experience these sinful inclinations. Regeneration does not remove them in every instance. We don’t want to promise anyone that if they come to Jesus, they will suddenly have no more SSA. But the reports warn against using the terms “homosexual Christian” and “gay Christian”.

How and why does Revoice use those terms?

Revoice generally uses those adjectives to refer to their struggle, not their identity. In this they are following the lead of Wesley Hill, on of the keynote speakers from his earlier book, Washed and Waiting. In the introduction he explains his usage.

“I hope to send a subtle linguistic signal that being gay isn’t the most important thing about my or any other gay person’s identity. I am a Christian before I am anything else. My homosexuality is part of my makeup, a facet of my personality. One day, I believe, whether in this life or in the resurrection, it will fade away. But my identity as a Christian- someone incorporated into Christ’s body by his Spirit- will remain.” pp. 22

Later he writes:

“Washed and waiting. That is my life- my identity as one who is forgiven and spiritually cleansed and my struggle as one who perseveres with a frustrating thorn in the flesh, looking forward to what God has promised to do. That is what this book is all about.” pp. 50

You can’t properly understand Revoice on this issue apart from this book. They should be more clear about that! They use Christian to express their identity. They use “gay” or “homosexual” to express their struggle.

In doing so they are addressing those who struggle with SSA and the gay community more than people like me and other PCA presbyters. Their audience shuts down, so the claim is made, with the terms SSA or ex-gay.

While I do not prefer their language, I seek to understand their meaning by the phrases instead of demanding they not use those terms based on how I’d use them. Instead of refusing to acknowledge how they are used and bearing false witness against them (imputing an erroneous meaning), we should faithfully express their intentions. We can criticize them for it, but we should properly interpret their intention, not the one that we think it should mean.

After her chapter on Self-Representation, Rosaria Butterfield has a chapter called Conflict: When Sisters Disagree. There she focuses on this particular disagreement. Rosaria strongly believes that the phrases not be used. Yet she wrote:

“The conservative Christian world is one of the only places where gay still means primarily an identity associated with a sociopolitical community.” pp. 139.

She focuses on the need for Christian love in these matters of disagreement. Those relationships may be complex, but we don’t cut them off. She notes:

“Friendship and neighborly proximity are necessary components to working through theological differences in Christian love. Ideas are not enough. … Ideas that divide must travel on the back of Christian life practices that allow us to stand shoulder to shoulder as we submit before our holy and loving God. This is the Christian labor of real neighbors.” (pp. 146)

I take those words to heart. I was dismayed when Rosaria responded to Revoice in a way that seemed inconsistent with those words, at least to me. She focused on her material on identity (which, I do agree with), but offered a very different tone to Revoice and the PCA than she seems to have offered her friend with whom she disagreed more profoundly.

MP offered caution to both Revoice and their detractors on this point. I find their counsel to both to be wise.

We agree that the way Revoice and Side B believers in general use terms has been confusing to many of our churches. But we reject the claim that this is because terms like “gay,” sexual orientation,” “queer,” and “sexual minorities” are always or necessarily unbiblical. These terms pose a particularly challenging problem for both the Revoice project and its critics. We encourage Revoice and those who would adopt such language to do so with great care, recognizing its potential to cause offense and division within the church. At the same time, we would encourage those who are inclined to hear such language and dismiss those who would use it, to charitably, sincerely, and carefully listen to what those people are intending to mean by it. The ongoing and evolving discussion of terminology around sexuality in the 21st century has led the committee to suggest that terminology be one area of study taken up by a General Assembly study/consensus-building committee. (pp. 61)

To one: be careful you don’t confuse or create unnecessary offense. To the other: be charitable and listen to what they actually mean. Don’t assume and accuse.

Summing Up

Revoice and the PCA (and other conservative denominations) agree that our identity is in Christ. The point of disagreement is on appropriate terms to be used to speak of professing Christians who struggle with SSA. As in many disagreements, we should define our terms so people don’t misunderstand what we are saying. We should also take those definitions at face value even if we tend to use a different definition.

Bottom Line:

Revoice is not using these terms to signify people who profess to be Christians but also embrace a gay lifestyle and/or their attraction to people of the same sex. Revoice is seeking to help them live as chaste Christians. They could clearly be more clear about that.

 

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Often Philippians is called “the Epistle of joy.” There is much there about joy. But as I preach through it, I’m discovering it is also “the Epistle of conflict.”

On Sunday I preached on Philippians 4:1-3. It was a short week of preparation, and a busy few days for the holiday. After I preached the sermon, I wish I had developed a few things more thoroughly. I needed to meditate on this text more thoroughly (more so than usual, I suppose).

Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

This passage begins with a reference to the conflict without. Paul calls on them to “stand firm”, applying the realities of gospel humility and discipleship he’s been discussing since the 2nd chapter of this letter. They are to stand firm against the Gentiles who persecute them, and the Judaizers who seek to lead them astray into ritual. Both are enemies of the cross.

They were to stand together as “my beloved brothers (a better translation of the phrase), whom I long for, my joy and crown … my beloved.” Philippi was a Roman colony. Many of the people gained their Roman citizenship by their service in the military. They were familiar with fighting formations requiring them to stand firm together. Now they stand no simply as fellow soldiers but people bound in love by Jesus.

Image result for roman phalanx

Our conflict with them is about the claim of the gospel. It is about the contrast between living as good citizens of Rome versus living as citizens of the heavenly city (1:27; 3:20).

In this conflict we are truly enemies, citizens of two different and warring kingdoms. They may use earthly weapons against us, but we are not to use earthly weapons (material or immaterial) against them. We’ve been given the armor of God (Eph. 6).

We can find points of commonality with the surrounding culture. We won’t disagree on everything. Those points of commonality are windows of opportunity for the gospel (to borrow Rick McKinley’s terminology).

What we cannot do is compromise. Acknowledge common ground, but not compromise. There are also windows of opposition we must contend with. They must be converted, which includes changing their views that are out of accord with sound doctrine. Stand firm in the face of an intimidating enemy though outnumbered. Our God will be faithful.

But remember that at the moment, they are your enemy, not your brother, and should be treated as one.

Paul then addresses conflict within the congregation. You can’t stand firm together if you are at odds with one another. Internal conflict distracts us from mission, even if it is about how to carry for the mission.

Paul urges both women to work it out, come into accord. First this indicates that women are important and do important things. They were gospel partners with Paul. Their conflict was not incidental to church life but threatened it. No conflict between siblings in Christ is insignificant. They must be worked out, and both parties bear responsibility to do so. It was not just Euodia’s responsibility. Not just Syntche’s responsibility.

Image result for slippery slope

If we think of this in terms of the slippery slope of conflict these women were likely “peace-faking” by engaging in flight. They were avoiding each other, operating on opposite sides of the room, refusing to acknowledge each other. Perhaps there had been times of peace-breaking, fighting. There may have been verbal assault. Nothing as serious as Cain deciding to kill Abel, but still attacks upon one another.

Image result for cain and abelThey weren’t living like people who were beloved brothers & sisters. Instead they were treating one another as enemies. They needed help to begin treating one another as beloved siblings. They needed help to get on the same page when it comes to worship, discipleship or evangelism. Those are things that matter, but frequently we act like our way is the only way. The need to agree with one another is even more important when we are fighting about things unrelated to the gospel (carpets, paint, loans or which property to buy).

Paul calls the “true companion” to act as a mediator to make peace, a peace rooted in Christ’s dying on the cross for our sin. Unity was to be restored by repentance and reconciliation, which are impossible apart from the gospel which makes us sons of God in the first place. Because of the gospel we treat the sins of our brothers differently than the sins of our enemies. This is important because of how we engage in conflict. The issues we disagree on are likely not sinful. What is sinful is our peace-faking and breaking. That sin is contrary to our status as brothers. In the conflict with the world it is in keeping with our status as enemies.

We are to once again find the common ground, the places we agree. Stand firm in your agreement. Then find a place of principled compromise among options that fit within biblical boundaries. You don’t compromise with the enemies of the cross, but you do with your beloved brother.

Sadly we often reverse this. We compromise with the world and stand our ground with our brothers as if they were our enemies.

Paul wants gospel partners to sort it out, as much as it depends on them. He knew the pain of a sharp disagreement that dissolved his partnership with Barnabas (Acts 15). We know he reconciled with Mark. We don’t know about Barnabas.

Paul recognizes that we engage in two different conflicts: within and without. How we respond is different. Don’t reverse them or you’ll really mess it all up. Get it right and you’ll see the gospel work powerfully in your community.

 

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The next subject McHugh covers in Introverts in the Church is that of community and relationships. He notes that this is the chapter he didn’t want to write. Contrary to some people’s opinions, introverts have relationships. They participate in community. They often feel the burdens of community, pressure to engage early and often.

“I cannot escape the fact that growth inevitably involves the messiness of genuine human contact and the struggles of intimacy.”

The goal is love because God is love. The commandments hang on the frame of love: love to God and love to one another. Love requires relationships. Many of the fruit of the Spirit require relationships because they are aspects of love. For humans like us, this means relational struggles so we can learn how to forgive, be patient, long-suffering, perseverance etc.

Different cultures have different understandings of the individual and the community. In modern western culture we focus on the individual: self-identity, self-actualization, self-fulfillment. In Ancient Near East cultures, the community took precedence. The individual didn’t cease to exist, but understood himself within the context of community and the roles & responsibilities they had as a result. We misunderstand the Bible if we try to interpret it from our American individualistic point of view. Why? We misunderstand the author’s intention and original meaning since they weren’t writing to “me” so much as “us” (contemporary English obscures this by not differentiating between the 2nd person singular & plural).

This means that much of Evangelical Theology and practice has been shaped by individualism. We neglect the communal emphasis of the Bible. This is one of the presuppositions that drives many people’s understanding of baptism. The New Covenant didn’t do away with “you and your children” (see Acts 2 for instance) or a focus on the people of God. We see it with Good Shepherd having a flock, the church as the Body of Christ, and a living temple. The Bible isn’t just about you & Jesus but about you, Jesus and everyone else united to Jesus (commonly called the communion of saints in older creeds and confessions).

This means there will necessarily be a culture clash between western society and the church (if we are faithful to Scripture). We will be counter-culture to modernist individualism and post-modern communalism. We see unity and diversity in the Body of Christ!

In terms of introverts, they often belong to churches that view belonging in external ways: attendance at corporate  worship, small group etc. Those can be manifestations of belonging and maturity. But they aren’t absolute manifestations. You can attend lots of things but really not belong or really not be mature. Your reason for attending can be erroneous- social or business- rather than an expression of your union with Christ.

The converse can be true too. You can belong and/or be mature in Christ even if you aren’t there every time the doors are open. As a pastor, I confess I want measurable things to know if I’m doing my job. It can be difficult to trust God is at work in ways you cannot see.

“Too often churches ask introverts to change, rather than stretching their own understandings of participation.”

Another way churches can measure belonging is “vulnerability”. Usually that is in a particular setting, like small group. In an earlier post I noted that for introverts there is a smaller circle of people with whom they are vulnerable. We can’t expect people (introvert or extrovert) to be vulnerable in the settings we want them to be vulnerable.

I think I’m pretty vulnerable. A friend calls me “King of the Over-share” and teases me that I wear this moniker with pride. But there are things about me I don’t share with just anyone. It’s my story to tell, and I don’t tell many people. Need to know basis stuff. I should get all this. But sometimes I struggle with the vulnerability or lack thereof in our small group. I need to remind myself they won’t share their secret sins unless this group is their closest group of friends. You can’t demand it. But some churches essentially do.

Introverts share like I get into a swimming pool. One step at a time, slowly. I don’t like cold water. Introverts often gauge how you handle information to see if you are safe. If you are, they will trust you with a little more. Little by little they reveal themselves to you. If they sense danger, they will pull back.

McHugh notes the “introvert spiral”. I’ve seen this in some people, but certainly not all introverts. They spiral in and out of the community depending on whether or not they are overloaded. This dynamic is about trust and their personal limits. They move in and pull back, rather than slowly moving in. To others it may look like they are double-minded.

“Sometimes introverts need to step outside of a community for a period of time, even after years of faithful participation.”

This can also be described as a rhythm in which they engage and then retreat. Like a dance. For the more pronounced introverts “too much time in social interaction, no matter how satisfying, is disruptive and disorienting”. They need to get some space to “rediscover a sense of identity.” Every relationship includes togetherness and apartness. Each person has a different blend that works. Introverts need more apartness. Sometimes they can lose their sense of self in community and need time to regain it so they can reengage.

Like extroverts, introverts have gifts to offer. God has gifted them. How they utilize or offer those gifts will look different. They are likely to be used behind the scenes, and they won’t necessarily tell others when making small talk. Ironically, some of those gifts are born out of their self-awareness: compassion and insight, for instance. Instead of acting, they may be observing and have a better idea of what is going on.

Introverts, who like space, are more likely to give space to others. This shows up in conflict, where they don’t press in hard but give others room to think (whether they want it or not, or know how to use it). I wonder if this fits in with my distaste for micromanagement as both employee and supervisor. If I need direction I’ll ask, and expect employees to do the same. I want space to work, and give space to others to work.

Space is also given to people to talk. Since they take time to formulate thoughts, they don’t fill every opening because the other person may be formulating a thought. This means that an introvert among extroverts can feel left out since they may not leave room for him/her to think and speak.

He offers a few ways in which introverts can find their way into community easier. I’ve discovered some of them on my own. But one is to identify the influential people. This is not to gain influence for yourself, but this person will connect you to others. They network for you. It is also helpful to identify a role you can play. You have a sense of responsibility within the community which also enable interaction with others.

“While some introverts are attracted to smaller communities, others are drawn to the resources and anonymity of larger churches.”

In those larger communities, it is helpful to join a group. This regular interaction with a smaller pool of people helps build relationships. This can be a SS class, small group, ministry team etc. When working with others, talk through your process and not just your conclusions. This may feel pointless or boring (and at times it may be) but it helps others see how you arrived there and may increase buy in.

He then notes some relational challenges. Introverts are prone toward enmeshment- when your identity gets intertwined with another person. We can become overly dependent on them, or surrender our interests to theirs. Introverts can also fall prey, so to speak, to relational parasites who take and don’t give. All of the relational energy flows in one direction. Many introverts struggle to think on their feet (not so good in interviews!) which makes conflict difficult when it involves quick-thinking extroverts. Introverts are better at replaying the conflict and realizing what they should have done than actually doing it.

Most introverts need to remember that extroverts prone to speak first and think later. They regret more of what they say (introverts regret more of what they failed to say). Give them room to back up, and forgiveness when they realize what they said was hurtful.

Introverts were made for community. This is because they are made in the image of God too. How they experience and engage in community will be different. This provides challenges for both introverts and extroverts. Love doesn’t avoid these challenges but presses on despite them. Both introverts and extroverts needs to flex. It is not just one or the other. Whenever we think only one side must flex, conflict will destroy both parties.

 

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Openness Unhindered is Rosaria Butterfield’s second book. Her first, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, was largely autobiographical and took the Reformed community by storm. Her story of how God worked to turn her life from that of a very liberal, lesbian professor of English and Queer Theory to a conservative, Reformed Christian who is married to a Presbyterian pastor. Her book succeeded in annoying many who are not conservative, Reformed Christians. They made some faulty assumptions, like that she think God makes every Christian a heterosexual. In many ways she was a threat to the narrative of the gay community.

Her second book really isn’t like the first. It covers some same ground as the subtitle indicates: Further Thought of an Unlikely Convert- Sexual Identity- Union with Christ. But how it covers it feels very different to the reader. There are portions that seem more like the section in the first advocating for exclusive psalmody. She’s writing much more like a professor teaching us what she used to believe and how it is incompatible with Christianity.

She steps into the sexual identity debate that is going on in the church. The concept is a “gay Christian” is becoming popular on one hand. And one the other some think that a Christian can’t even struggle with same sex attraction (SSA), confusing temptation with sin itself. This is what much of the first half of the book is about.

In the preface, she explains the title in terms of union with Christ. Paul’s union resulted in his being open and unencumbered about his life and struggles. If we are united in Christ, we can be open and unencumbered about our struggles instead of acting as if all is well though your inner life is filled with chaos.

“Even our struggles, our failures, and our suffering are redemptive in Christ. But there is blood involved. There is a cutting off and a cutting away that redemption demands. Stepping into God’s story means abandoning a deeply held desire to make meaning of our own lives on our own terms based on the preciousness of our own feelings.”

She sets up the method, so to speak, in the preface. She argues for God’s created order as one that includes norms and boundaries for life which includes sexuality and gender. They are not social constructions, but about essence. Many, however, are pragmatists and think these boundaries and norms don’t exist and can be manipulated to please ourselves.  These people deny the authority of Scripture. But there are also some who while affirming the authority of Scripture “unbiblically believe that the struggle is the sin (pp. 7).” They believe that conversion experientially restores all boundaries and norms sooner rather than later.

In other words, Christians can struggle with SSA because they are still sinners. The desires they experience are wrong, but they are not themselves sin. Those desires are not innocuous, but neither are they impossible for a Christian. The Christian, when experiencing them, is to put them to death in the power of the Spirit, as they would any other temptation. Christians can experience SSA just like opposite sex attraction, temptation to greed, revenge and any other sin.

14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. James 1

There is a method as she covers conversion, identity, repentance and sexual orientation. She works through these theological categories. At times she brings us back to her story, but this book is more theological than autobiographical. As she notes, life stories, including her own, “are messy, contradictory, and humiliating. (pp. 12)”  She says she had a heterosexual adolescence. The sexual meat market of college threw her for a loop, and she felt out of control and her sexual desires became tangled and confusing. For 6 years she dated men, but fantasized about relationships with women, “especially my friends from my growing lesbian and feminist community base” (pp. 13).

Here for instance she distinguishes between homosexuality and homosociality. The latter is “an abiding and deep comfort afforded in keeping company with your own gender, and finding within your own gender your most important and cherished friendships. (pp. 31-32)” Lines get blurry at times.

She then moves into identity. So often we carve out our identity from the wrong things: vocation, past experiences, social status etc. Today people build theirs on their sexuality. We have a tendency to hold to Sola Experiencia- where our feelings and personal experience shape our identity, forming the lens through which we see life. These, for instance, judge the Scripture instead of Scripture evaluating our experience.

She argues that a homosexual identity is not removed by a heterosexual identity, but by Christ. We are converted to Christ, not heterosexuality (though that is a norm by the created order). A person may never be free from SSA until glorification, but they are to find their identity in Christ, not their desires.

One of the issues I had with the book was some of the terminology she uses for sanctification. She follows Vos’ commentary on the Westminster Confession and using “infuse”. This is idiosyncratic. Protestants typically use imparted because Roman Catholic theology talks of us being infused with grace through the sacraments. She doesn’t say this, but this former-Catholic struggles with the use of the term. Vos and Rosaria are the only Protestants I know that use it. Not sure why.

Because God gives us grace, we are able to say ‘no’ to our desires for sinful things (see Titus 2). In Christ we have been sanctified and are being sanctified. We don’t have to act on our lust, hatred, envy etc.

She ends the chapter discussing shame which leads her into the chapter on repentance. Shame is about being exposed, reveled as dirty, disgusting and disobedient. Shame for past actions refuses to stay in the past. We feel it now afraid people will discover what we did back them. She points us to confession of sin that we may be cleansed of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). She distinguishes this from admission. Confession not only admits our actions were wrong, but also appropriates God’s grace.

In all of this she talks about original sin, which she sees as the great equalizer. We all suffer under it. Sin continues to dwell in us, and produces actual sins. She is highly dependent on the Puritans such as John Owen and Anthony Burgess. Because sin dwells in us, we experience temptation internally. We can either say ‘no’ to it, or ‘yes’ to it and sin.

In the 4th chapter, Sexual Orientation, she gets into theory and the history of sexual orientation. Prior to Freud no one thought in such terms. They thought in terms of behavior: that is a homosexual act. They didn’t think of themselves in terms of identity: I am a homosexual. She argues for this precisely because many Queer theorist and postmodernists argue for this. As a former English professor and Queer theorist she talks about why words matter, building a case against terms like “gay Christian”. This continues in Self-Representation or What Does it Mean to Be Gay?.

While she is very black and white, very theoretical, and sounds dogmatic (not necessarily a bad thing), she isn’t drawing lines in the sand. The next chapter, Conflict, is about her disagreement with other Christians about this. She recognizes that while these terms find their basis in a movement in which she was a mover and shaker, younger people don’t come at it with the same theoretical underpinnings and don’t mean by it what she believes it means. They agree to disagree without consigning one another to the region of hell.

She then moves into the living of the Christian life, focusing on community and hospitality. Her understanding hospitality  “starts with adoption and ends with keeping the Lord’s Day together, because the purpose of our adoption is worship. (pp. 150)” She starts with how community begins, which is important for Christians to remember. Community begins with a group of strangers, who have different ideas, passions and interests. True community is not homogeneous. We have Christ in common, but differ in many ways. Community recognizes that it is dangerous. We are in community with people who are sinners of all kinds. We can get hurt! But the perfect love of God is intended to cast out our fear. Open and unhindered, we share life together even the unpleasant parts of life like grief.

She then talks about how they have practiced hospitality in their neighborhood. I don’t think it would work in mine. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. That just means it is an example, not the only way. It is also shaped by her Covenanter convictions. In some ways it seems similar to her defense of exclusive psalmody in the first book. It all seems a bit too perfect (to this admittedly cynical soul).

She then moves into church membership, and why we should take it seriously. She is standing against the consumer approach to membership. She quotes from G. I. Williamson about how there is no perfect congregation, and no perfect denomination (oh that more people in my denomination would understand that!).

“As a pastor’s wife, I have seen the ugliest side of people when they start to believe that the sins of others in our church are intolerable, or when they pack up and leave instead of receiving the repentance of other, or sticking around long enough to work on reconciliation. The people who leave the church because they think they are too good for it have no idea that hurt that they cause- for the people who love them and miss them, and for the people hurt by the things they said and the things they didn’t say when they broke fellowship.”

This is a good book. It is not as easy to read as her first book. It does get more deeply into some very important ideas, theologically and philosophically. It gives those of us who haven’t read gay theorist a summary of sorts from a former-gay theorist.

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Very few people enjoy conflict. Most of us avoid it unless we absolutely have to face it. When our backs are against the wall, then we’ll fight.

This is one of the Mistakes Leaders Make. We are not exempt from this fear of conflict. This is not call to become contentious. Paul tells Timothy to silence contentious people. If they won’t abide by that, they are to be put out of the church.

Another mistake would be making everything a conflict. Who’d want to go to THAT church?!

But I’ve seen people not engage in constructive conflict “out of love.” I’ve had this happen. A quick conversation would have resolved something. But they refused to talk to me, because they loved me and thought I’d change without anyone’s help. As a result, their frustration grew into destructive conflict. Yeah, that is so much better.

“We are not to be so loving that we don’t speak the truth, or so truthful that we don’t speak with love; there is a fine balance between the two that is essential to all human relationships, especially among church staff and in a leadership role.”

(more…)

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