11 Things I’m Thinking in the Wake of Recent Events
In the immediate aftermath of ER2, a wise older brother counseled me to avoid the inevitable flurry of blog activity for at least a week. That was really wise advice and I’ve taken a tad bit longer because I’m a tad bit slower than most. One benefit of the advice given was that it allowed a lot of the early reactions (pro and con) to come and go. That was useful simply for getting some perspective and not getting caught up in heat rather than light. As time wore on, more light began to shine through as godly people on both “sides” of the issue joined in with helpful thoughts. I’ve particularly appreciated the balanced and insightful piece Carson and Keller offered late last week. If you haven’t read it, you should. And if you have read it, you’ll probably want to read it slowly a few times. I certainly did.
Reading and re-reading Carson and Keller, as well as a number of other post-game reports, left me with a few reflections, for what it’s worth.
1. Nothing has changed with Jakes. I won’t belabor this point because Carson and Keller’s piece covers that quite well, as does a couple other posts around the blogosphere. Jakes’ comments on the Trinity were essentially the same comments he’s been making for the last 10-15 years. He says he has moved and the Scripture prompted him to do so. Comparing his statements in 2000 and 2012, it’s difficult to see that he’s moved at all unless the movement happened before 2000! As far as I am concerned, the man’s teaching on the Trinity remains heretical.
2. Something may have changed with us. The Church is split more than it was previous to the ER. We have new lines of division. Are we among those who favor public discussion or those who are against public discussions with heretics? Are we in the truth camp or the love camp? Again, Carson and Keller expose this false dichotomy nicely and point us forward in healthy ways. My only point is to say, “This division inside the broadly ‘Reformed’ camp feels new to me.”
3. Theological depth is critical. Honestly, I was surprised that so many could make such quick and bold pronouncements of Jakes’ orthodoxy after a short conversation before cameras. Jakes used the same spiel he’s always used. The entire discussion revealed not only Jakes’ poverty but the poverty of a lot of evangelical and Reformed Christianity. In the final analysis, we were given not only a view of Jakes’ modalism but also of our own slippery and sometimes lazy grasp of the Trinity and other doctrinal issues of importance. Let’s admit there’s truth beyond our knowledge here. But let’s also admit that too many of us have not really sought to grasp what may be known. Consequently, a lot of observers weren’t theologically prepared to discern truth from error, heat from light, wheat from chaff. For me, that was painfully clear in the celebratory declamations following the event. It saddened me and left me with a resolve to teach more systematic theology to my own church. It also left me more determined to be a watchman on the wall. How urgent it is for us “to watch our lives and doctrine closely.” I think I’ll read Spurgeon’s “The Minister’s Self-Watch” again today, just for my own soul’s sake.
4. We need a practical understanding of repentance. ”Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance” was John the Baptist’s declaration. The apostle Paul preached that men should “perform deeds in keeping with repentance” (Acts 26:20). So, how do we know a person is genuinely repentant of false teaching or other sins? Well, there should be some practical outworking of the changed mind and heart; there should be “deeds in keeping with repentance.” What would that look like with Jakes? Answering that question keeps us from making snap judgments and prematurely assuring someone in their error. So, ask yourself: If I were a pastor and Jakes were on my staff while teaching these the prosperity gospel and modalism, what would I ask him to do to demonstrate his repentance? Most of us would probably have a few things in mind, including: (a) a definite retraction and renunciation of previous error taught, (b) a clear and unprompted statement of the changed belief, and (c) a request for forgiveness from any offended. In short, we’d look for him to clearly own his error without equivocation, advance the truth, and look to make amends where possible. That would be the minimum we would expect before we gave him another public opportunity to teach. Or, at least that’s the minimum I’d expect in the church I pastor. But the evangelical practice of repentance can at times be so shallow, and we can at times be so desirous of a good outcome, that we grab at any mirage or any pretensions to repentance. But group hugs are no substitute for thoughtful pastoral engagement. In the end, we hurt ourselves and the very one needing to change.
5. Divisions come swiftly and easily. My heart breaks to see how quickly and easily the unity of the Spirit can be broken. It really doesn’t take much at all… a few poorly stated sentences, hurts nursed and rehearsed, the refusal to reach out or keep short accounts. Ephesians 4 and 5 contain critical instructions for us! And this medium that I’m using right now can make the divisions deeper, wider, and quicker than most anything else I can imagine. And, yet, some divisions are most certainly necessary. I wish the necessary divisions could be recognized and enacted more quickly while the unnecessary divisions could be avoided all together. Is it just me, or doesn’t it seem the unnecessary variety comes at the speed of light while the necessary toddles along slowly?
6. A lot of reconciliation and brotherly affection gets shared privately, but it’s sometimes not useful to be insisted upon publicly. A lot of people have taken it upon themselves to be the “private conversation police.” They want to enforce a new rule for public discourse: Talk privately with those with whom you disagree before you disagree publicly. I think that’s well intended, but it’s quite problematic. Again, Carson and Keller handle this very well. I just want to add that this desire to require private conversations before public redress has two unintended and negative consequences. First, it means that the first persons to speak have the controlling leverage in the conversation. That’s not much of a problem unless the first one to speak speaks heresy or some false teaching. In that case, everyone who would act to counter the falsehood is held hostage by the purveyor of falsehood! That’s a very bad outcome. Second, the vocal insistence on private conversation, or rather the suggestion that no such conversation is happening, can actually frustrate and undermine very real private efforts at unity, restoration, and correction. It’s surprising how public comments (ironically, without first making private contact!) about perceived private failings actually complicate the very private efforts being called for. It’s also interesting to note how many unrelated parties feel entitled to know what’s happening in private sessions. They don’t seem to realize that asking for private matters to be disclosed publicly might actually hinder trust and communication. As it is, these things don’t always work out. So, it’s probably prudent to use that few moments of keyboarding to instead offer a few words of prayer and intercession.
Here’s a rule of thumb: If you have to speculate about whether this or that conversation is happening, you’re probably not close enough to the situation to be useful. If you can’t pick up the phone and ask one of the parties, “What’s going on?” then you’re probably not positioned to help or insist on private communication.
Speculative and sometimes accusatory writing in public forums, in my opinion, actually do very little to help situations while doing a fair amount to complicate matters and frustrate people. I’ve become a fan of the old rules of engagement: If a person speaks or publishes something for public consumption, that speech or publication is automatically fair game for public critique and correction. It can be useful, courteous, and sometimes necessary to contact a person to be sure you’ve understood them correctly. But public addresses are fair game for public redress. This in no way releases us from all the biblical requirements for charity, grace, and the like. But it does free us to respond where situations warrant.
7. Our cooperation needs to be principled rather than pragmatic. This has really come home to me in a powerful way. I realized something about myself. My cooperation in TGC has largely been pragmatic. I learn so much when I’m with the guys. I’m stimulated by the conversations we have. Many lessons and resources are shared with the church I pastor. In all these ways I benefit from TGC. Here’s the problem: I’ve been essentially selfish. I was in danger of only cooperating for as long as it benefited me. I was in danger of being “at the table” but not really contributing fully. That’s selfish and it’s sin. The divisions and threats to unity forced me to remember (realize?) that I need to remain involved in TGC because there are important principles at stake. There is the evangelistic signal effect of unity with other disciples who hold the same gospel (John 13:34-35). There is the need for unity beyond my local congregation. There is the necessity of defending and confirming the gospel (Phil. 1:7; Jude 3-4). There is the necessity of every part of the body contributing to the whole (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4). I could go on. The point is simply this: One danger to our unity and our coalitions may be the tendency to think in pragmatic rather than principled terms about our cooperation. I need to be principled.
8. Our cooperation can have a liberalizing tendency. I’m all for a more robust unity across denominational lines. But I’ve seen enough situations where “cooperation” becomes code for liberalizing. I’ve seen this in denominational mergers here in the Caribbean, where groups from quite distinct confessional traditions have rushed to the lowest theological common denominator to create unity. I’ve seen it in international churches in some of the great crossroads cities in the world. The great diversity in those churches can subtly pressure leaders to minimize doctrine in order to “fit as many people in as possible.” The victim will inevitably be doctrinal integrity and truth. This doesn’t have to happen; it’s not a foregone conclusion. I’ve seen international churches thrive quite well across wide diversity anchored in a shared confessional stance. And we’ve seen the rise of trans-denominational networks that have held fast to robust theological commitments. So, the act of cooperation does not lead inexorably to theological laxity and liberalism. But it can if we’re not watchful and if we’re not constantly sharpening our commitments and restating them in fresh, living ways.
9. There are descriptive and prescriptive ways of using “race.” I injected the notion of ethnicity in my original post on the Jakes invitation. I did so by pointing to the enormous influence the man has in predominantly African-American churches. The intent was simply to describe an effect, to note a phenomena. Such description is sometimes necessary and helpful. But description is miles apart from injecting “race” in a way that prescribes how people should act, whether coercing certain behaviors or playing to certain expectations and stereotypes. These prescriptive uses cross the line, in my opinion. Attempting to prescribe behavior along “racial” lines keeps us locked into unhelpful “racial” categories, histories, and sins. It’s one thing to say descriptively “Thabiti is African American” or “Sarah is Kikuyu.” It’s an entirely different thing to say prescriptively, “All African Americans must act this way” or “Kikuyu people should be treated thus.” One simply helps us observe the world as it is while the other attempts to sinfully manipulate and control others.
10. ”Race” is not only powerful, it’s also about power. These categories and histories affect us–sometimes viscerally. They’re powerful. Just the mention of racial stereotypes or insinuating racial motives is enough to stir heated reaction and even riots in the streets.
But another thing for us to keep in mind is that “biological race” as a construct has always been a sibling to power. Racial categories were created and put in the service of oppression and claims to supremacy. The categories became justification for slavery, prejudice and bigotry, and all manner of evil. The ability to define someone as a “racial other” is, plain and simple, an act of power. The greatest acts of power occur when you not only define someone else’s reality but also when the persons so defined willingly accept your definition. We have real power when people freely see themselves as we tell them to see themselves. So, when African Americans or any ethnic group accepts “race” as a category–a category we did not invent but was forced upon us and used to justify our subjugation–we unwittingly succumb to the power of others to define us. Without question, African Americans have appropriated those categories in subversive ways. Think of the romantic appeals to Ethiopia in the 18th and 19th centuries, the New Negro movement, the Black Pride movement, and Afrocentrism. All of those efforts to redefine categories–Ethiopian, Negro, Black, African American–largely thrust upon us but ultimately accepted, while subversive, are ultimately capitulations to the very categories themselves and to the power dynamics coupled with the categories. The real power of self-determination doesn’t settle with redefining the categories, tinkering around the margins of color symbolism and cultural romanticism, but rejects the categories outright.
The Power we should be happily submitting to is that power to define us that YHWH alone has. He has purposed that various families, clans, and ethnic groups exist, but not that those families should be categorized, marginalized, subjugated, or separated based upon the phony notion of “race” as “biological otherness.” The question simply becomes: Who has power to define us and to define our behavior–God or man? The answer ought to be obvious. But here’s the challenge: Will we willingly endure the cognitive dissonance, social dislocation, and emotional discomfort to live under God’s definition? In other words, will we be sanctified enough to conform more fully to the new humanity in Christ to which we’re called?
While I’m at this, I should point to something that seems to escape the notice of some people. It’s just as much an act of power to define people in such a way as to deny their ethnic identity as it is to define them in ways that insist upon a racial identity. Some people think that saying “‘race’ does not exist” provides a warrant for saying all that’s happened in the name of “race” did not happen or does not matter. They seem to think that saying “‘race’ does not exist” means there is no sense or aspect of “otherness” that matters. ”Race does not exist” becomes a magical mantra that wipes the slate clean and absolves us of any responsibility for pursuing reconciliation and justice. ”Forget about culture. Forget about ethnicity. Let all that stuff go,” they tell us. But, friend, doing that to someone is no less an act of power than defining them in a “racial” category of your choosing. It’s simply a box marked “nothing,” which can be as debilitating as one of the many boxes marked “race.” And it trades in the same power differential and dynamic.
What’s the solution then? Let people self-identify. Let’s be honest: None of us has this figured out. Even those who feel they understand the Bible quite well on these points, if they’re honest they must admit that they understand these truths better than they live it. So, people are in progress. The light we have today we didn’t have five or ten or fifteen years ago. If that’s true of us, then we should give others the five, ten, fifteen, twenty or more years they need to figure some things out, too. Let’s be patient with one another and let folks grow into what Christ has called them to be. Relax. We don’t actually have to define one another into neat boxes with stereotypes and judgments. We can actually allow the Lord by His word to define us and to define others. We can and must allow Him to remove the old man and to renew us in the new man, a new man who remarkably includes in himself every ethnic group, family, or clan of the world. It’s worth figuring out our ethnic selves because in the age to come our ethnicity will redound to the Lamb’s glory.
11. My assumptions about my usefulness need chastening. What do I mean by that? Two things. First, it was evident that a lot of the actors and commentators before, during, and after the event had very little knowledge of Jakes and his teaching. Some of the least familiar have been the most unhelpful. I’m not blaming them because I recognize in this situation my tendency to sometimes speak when I should really remain silent, listen, and learn. I’m sometimes asked to speak at various places or address certain topics for which I have little to no expertise. Thankfully, to this point, I’ve been able to spot most of those invitations and turn them down. Recent events have made me all the more concerned about rightly assessing what I know (or don’t know!) and responding accordingly. I can’t be helpful where I’m really ignorant. Second, it was also evident that we live in a complex world with lots of factors and pressures acting on people all the time. We can sometimes think that action ‘x’ should lead to result ‘y’. But, if I’m honest with myself, I almost never see that happen in life and ministry. I’m far less influential than I sometimes think. Seeing the complexity and seeing my limitations have taught me in some measure, however small, to think less of myself and my ability to be strategic, influential, helpful, etc. I’m not that useful. The work and the battle is the Lord’s. I rest in Him.
Well, that’s my 11 things for tonight. Tomorrow, Lord willing, we’ll try to put a face on some of this.
In the comments, I’m not looking for more debate about recent events. I’m registering my thoughts for what they’re worth. Feel free to comment. But if the comments get steered toward acrimony or allegation, I’ll either delete the comment or close it altogether. I’m hoping these are constructive thoughts and hoping yours will be, too.