Christian Living

Die Before You Die: Meditations on the Death of a Friend

Die Before You Die: Meditations on the Death of a Friend

It was the always precise C.S. Lewis who urged in Till We Have Faces to “Die before you die, there is no chance after.” This briefest of Lewisian homilies reminds me of our Lord’s words in Luke 9: “For whoever tries to save his own life will destroy it, but whoever destroys his life on my account will save it.” This biblical and glorious paradox certainly underlined Lewis’ statement. Lewis had experienced the death of his mother at an early age. He saw the vast wrath of war as he lost close friends. When he wrote of death it was not merely a result of research but from a deep experiential pain. His book A Grief Observed is an apologetic for dealing with pain when those closest to you die. When his wife, Joy, died, he wrote: “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”

My family, and especially my wife, who knew Melanie Branch so well, grieve today. We grieve because someone whose life shone so brightly the Gospel of Jesus was removed from this earth. She no longer grieves, but we grieve in her absence.

Today I stood outside the chapel with many others because there was no more room in the chapel. Many had come to bid farewell to a life well lived. My dear brother and pastor Rusty Branch stood bravely and broken to eulogize his bride before the cloud of witnesses. He offered a parallel between the three virtues of classical Christianity, namely, truth, goodness, and beauty and their manifestations in the life of his bride. His bride of 15 years, offered in her 38 years of life, a Christian manifesto of truth in her search and determined hope to see others embrace a biblical vision for the education of their children. She left an astounding legacy. My family is a recipient of this investment she made in her life. In the name of truth, she died before she died. She sought truth not for self-aggrandizement, but self-giving.

This dear sister not only breathed truth into the life of others, but she also embraced goodness. She was good in the sense that she embodied the good. Anyone who knew Melanie–even from a few encounters–understood her lucid view of the good life. It was not replete with “work harder” banners, but with a sincere “God has been good to us” theology. It was rich, simple, and unfading. Melanie died before she died by showing that goodness is the art of bestowing a glorious image of our Lord to others in the midst of pain.

Most powerful were her husband’s point about her beauty. Though she was overwhelmed by the choking power of cancer, yet her love of the Triune God provided a life-filled, hope-saturated example of beauty. While her body slowly died, she sought after the beautiful. God’s image becomes even more sobering and precious as his saints begin to see the life to come through the eyes of faith. The beatific vision becomes clearer and the eternal glass that separates life and death become less distinguished. She embodied beauty in life and God robed her with his beauty in her death.

I did not know Melanie as well as many, but the multitudes who came to witness this lovely saint speaks more than words. They all shared similar stories of a woman who endured the unspeakable pain of seeing a disease overtake her little by little, but who died for others before she died.

May the God of all peace comfort her husband, Rusty, and her children, Emma Rae, Elizabeth, and Allen. Your wife and mother died well. She died before death. She was a faithful servant. Her job is done. She will die no more.

The Gods of Externalities

What the Gospel hopes to form in worship is a renewed heart. We may leave here externally fixed. We can put a Band-Aid to cover our pride for the next few hours, we can cleanse our speech, and give lip service to the gods of externalities, but when we live before God that will not do. Yes, if the world lacked a Creator and we were merely the product of a cosmic collapse, then living solely on the basis of externalities would be sufficient. But the reality is we live Coram Deo; in the face of God. God is here. God is everywhere. He knows your thoughts. Since indeed God is everywhere and knows all things, how much should we desire to confess those sins that are egregious in his sight?

Those whom God calls He justifies. God’s initial justification is punctuated by moments of continual justification in the life of the saint. God forgives us and justifies us with each confession. And so God’s people keep coming to Him for forgiveness, not as a way or earning God’s favor, but as a way of being renewed in the favor they already have. If God is your deepest treasure, then come and confess your sins today. Confess those sins that have wrapped and squeezed your heart preventing it from offering a beat to the God of heaven and earth. Come and confess those sins that so deeply hid that only God can excavate deep enough and crush them. Come, confess and like David, God will restore unto you the joy of your salvation (Ps. 51:12).

 

Complementarian Incompleteness

Carl Trueman and I agree on many things and disagree on many others, but here, if you listen carefully, you will hear a slow clap from the back of the theater:

I rarely read complementarian literature these days. I felt it lost its way when it became an all-embracing view of the world and not simply a matter for church and household.   I am a firm believer in a male-only ordained ministry in the church but I find increasingly bizarre the broader cultural crusade which complementarianism has become.  It seems now to be more a kind of reaction against feminism than a balanced exposition of the Bible’s teaching on the relationships of men and women.   Thus, for example, marriage is all about submission of wife to husband (Eph. 5) and rarely about the delight of friendship and the  kind of playful but subtly expressed eroticism we find in the Song of Songs.  Too often cultural complementarianism ironically offers a rather disenchanted and mundane account of the mystery and beauty of male-female relations.  And too often it slides into sheer silliness.

Citizenship and Marriage

Citizenship and Marriage

What does it mean as a Christian to be a citizen of a nation? We can’t separate our Christian faith from our earthly citizenship. We can plant our “God bless America” bumper stickers, we can call out the evils of liberal policies, and we can support politicians that speak our political and ethical language. There is good in all these things.

But don’t forget that God defines faithfulness sometimes in a different way than we would. In this country we speak bravely about the loss of ethics in marriage, but then we spit upon God’s marriage with his Bride, the Church. If you want to support marriage, there is no better way than to begin praising the marriage of Christ to the Church. Begin by loving her above your earthly loyalties (Gal. 6:16).

Worship is an appropriate way to begin stepping back from the mess we have witnessed in this past week. Yes, God is in control, but his control is connected with his loyalty to his bride. He will not leave her nor forsake her and you do so only at your own peril.

Do you wish to be a good citizen of this nation? Begin by loving the new nation of priests called the Church (I Peter 2:9). The more faithful you are to her calling and guidance the more faithful you are to this nation God has planted you. What this nation needs is not some nebulous return for prayer in school; this nation needs an old fashioned return to biblical authority. We may be independent in terms of not submitting to the rule of another nation, but as Christians we should be profoundly dependent on God and his Bride. New days are ahead, yes; hopefully days where God’s people will re-engage in love for the Church and ask God to undo the darkness of this land and fill it with his glory.

Responding to Bob Jones University’s Response to G.R.A.C.E

Bob Jones University has been in the spot-light in these past several months. After hiring and firing and hiring again G.R.A.C.E, Bob Jones found itself in the middle of a firestorm. The multitude of responses came immediately from local pastors in Greenville, SC to well-known figures in the media. BJU finally offered the green light, so that GRACE would finish its report.

The report released on December 11, 2014, offered 300 pages of meticulous accounts and recommendations for the well-known fundamentalist university.  The recommendations were specific. The university asked for 90 days to respond to the report. The response came recently through BJU’s president, Steve Pettit. You can read the entire transcript here. a

Though some were pleased with the university’s response, those who were directly affected by the poor and irresponsible counsel given to victims of sexual abuse and those who understand that abused victims need more than theological propositions to heal from the profound belittling of one’s humanity that occurs in sexual abuse, found President Pettit’s response to be a disgraceful attempt to rescue the reputation of BJU. Rather than reaching out compassionately to those who were damaged by the university’s dangerous counsel, BJU’s response proved that there is no inherent interest in following GRACE’s detailed recommendations. There was no attempt to offer a systemic undoing of the university’s overarching counseling narrative.

What follows are the testimonies of three such people who felt betrayed by BJU’s response and understood the response to be nothing more than beautifying the dead:

Almost two years ago, BJU asked people like me to take an online survey.  They told us that they wished to learn about the experiences of those whom, during their time at BJU, received counseling for sexual abuse.  BJU told us that they wanted hear our stories to assist them in evaluating their counseling program.  And almost two years ago, I went online and took that survey.  Then I was asked to travel and meet with some people who wanted to discuss my experiences in greater depth.  So I went and met a team of 4 people.  Four strangers.  And I told those four strangers my very darkest secrets; memories that I had tried very hard to forget.  It shredded my soul to revisit those parts of my life.  But I believed I was doing something helpful. I was helping BJU to evaluate and improve their counseling program. The counseling that misapplied scripture and shamed me.  The counseling that sent me back to my abuser to make sure he knew he needed God’s forgiveness.  Interviewing with GRACE was a painful experience from start to finish.  But I had no regrets.  I felt that what I was doing was important.

I read the GRACE report, and was proud of the work they had done.  They compiled our stories.  Many voices, from different generations.  Yet our voices echoed each other.  Our stories were similar.  Some so similar, that I wasn’t sure if I was reading my own words or someone else’s.   And those stories clearly showed that BJU did need to make changes.  And I believed that the University would listen to us.  When many others didn’t, and when cynicism abounded, I still believed.

Then, the apology.  An apology from a person who was not guilty of anything other than being the president of BJU on March 10, 2015.  He, personally, had no reason to apologize.  He read his scripted statement.  Told me that they had listened; that they were sorry that we had been hurt.  That we didn’t receive adequate “comfort and guidance.” Please forgive them.  And I continued to believe that the cynics were wrong.  But as I continued to listen, I slowly began to grasp that I was the one who had been fooled.  According to him, BJU had already put in place changes.  They were already doing things the right way.  They had their lawyers go over everything; all of their files and papers and notes, and everything was ship-shape.

BUT, they want to meet with me.  They want to hear my story personally.  They want me to call them and share my experience.  Why would I do this?  They asked me to meet with GRACE and share my experience.  And I did.  At a very great price, I did what they asked.  And they have said that they did everything according to Biblical standards, and in compliance with all laws.  What would be the point of meeting with them?  I’ve told my story already.

Now I sit and watch from the sidelines – the armchair commentary.  Every kind of opinion.  Some, upholding that the University can do no wrong.  An attitude of complete and total idolatry.  Others, that the University can do no right.  An attitude of anger and revenge.  And I feel lost in the middle of it all.  On the one side, I feel scorn.  On the other I feel pity.  It’s said I must be a tool of Satan to destroy God’s school.  It’s insinuated that I must be a needy desperate soul whose entire life has been derailed by the trauma I suffered.  I’ve been called brave.  I’ve been called bitter.  I’ve been accused of being in such poor spiritual condition that I have no right to instruct BJU on any spiritual matters.  Some nod along, some shake their heads.  The cynics still tell me I should have known; they knew how it would turn out and I’m foolish for not seeing it too. It’s easy to try to “paint me by numbers;” to determine what kind of person I must be.  Because I’m faceless.  I’m nameless.  My story, detailed in the GRACE report, is easily torn apart and dissected.  Each side for their own purposes and motives.  My story, pieced together with the stories of others; resulting in opinions, and more opinions, and even more opinions.

And today, one day after BJU’s response, I can only think of one word to describe my current feelings.  Regretful.  I wish I had never taken the survey.  I am told that “they” are sorry, but not by the ones who have something for which they should be sorry.  I’m patted on the hand and assured that they are doing better.  Which I suppose should please me, except that I’m told they were already working their way there long ago. They were already getting it right.  Without me.  My voice, just one among many, wasn’t needed after all.  And both the scorn and the pity, they have tugged at me.  Scorn coming from ones who don’t realize that they know me.  From critics who don’t realize, while they look down on me, that they sat at dinner with me many years ago.  They were my friends.  And now they assume the worst of me.  Pity coming from people who mean nothing to me, who assume I need it because it benefits them.  I am a useful tool in a vendetta that has nothing to do with me.

I can’t say, exactly, what Dr. Pettit could have said yesterday that would make me feel satisfied.  I’ve struggled to come up with the “right answer.”  I’m not writing this to figure all of those answers out. I’m weary of trying to figure it out.  I’m writing this to say – I wish I had never taken the survey.  I wish I had never interviewed.  My voice has been heard, but not valued.  If they didn’t truly want to hear it, why did they ask for it in the first place?  I’m quite certain I would have been better off had I never been involved.  But I wanted it to mean something. And, ultimately, it didn’t.  An extravagant waste.

–Anonymous

 

I believe that Steve Pettit’s apology was basically a non-apology because only external things have been changed.  The heart of the problem is the way they SEE people and how they SEE themselves, and that has not changed.  I don’t know how they can say with a straight face that they want victims to come to talk to them and that they want the university to be a place of solace when they continue to offend by holding onto their pride and refusing to submit to deep change at the level of the heart.

I am heartbroken over their stance, but I still have hope. My hope is in Christ, not an institution of flawed people.  I think the GRACE report has exposed their condition, so the report was not in vain from that standpoint.

–Kristi Wetzel

 

“Over the years, we have had a number of students come to BJU who had experienced sexual abuse prior to their association with BJU. Many of these victims reached out to our faculty and staff for help and were lovingly served and comforted. However, there were some who came to us and did not experience the loving and comforting environment they deserved in their time of need.”b

But he doesn’t mention what we received instead.  In my case I received blame from Jim Berg for my problems of flashbacks and dissociation. I was told the reason I had the problems I did was because I wasn’t thinking on things that are lovely.  I was at fault for not appropriately applying Phillipians 4:8.  He told me I was choosing to dwell on the past and think about those things and that’s why I was there like I was in a TV show that was playing.  I didn’t have the word for flashback and Jim Berg never told me there was a word for what I was describing to him about what was happening to me.  At the time he was counseling me I also described to him my experiences in leaving his office after counseling and “waking up” somewhere way on the back side of campus.  There is a word for that too, “dissociation”.

I really want to write out a well reasoned response to how BJU has responded to the GRACE report. I don’t know that I can. I am still reeling from their claim that their counseling is not the problem and they don’t intend to change it. How in the world can they have read the GRACE report and come to that conclusion?

I filled out the questionnaire and later interviewed with GRACE. It took me almost two years to get back to a place of stability. Right now I am reeling and am still basically in shock, even though I expected them to do nothing substantial or to truly own up to the damage their counseling causes. Maybe way down deep I did have hope for change. Maybe that’s why this hurts so much.

When Steve Pettit said, “I know many of you are saying to yourselves that what I’ve said about our discipline culture and counseling response isn’t a fair reflection of BJU as a whole. I know it’s not. But we have to own this problem, and we have to have the courage to deal with it in the right way for God’s glory.” They aren’t owning the problem. The counseling at BJU is woven throughout the entire school. The things said to me in private counseling by Jim Berg were also said in chapel and also appeared in his book Changed Into His Image. This is the same counsel that caused me such incredible harm. And they are keeping it. They aren’t following the recommendations to remove all of Jim Berg’s, Walter Fremont’s and Bob Wood’s counseling material and books.

I’m out of words, I’m left with shaking and sweating hands. Just this attempt to corral my thoughts that are flying a thousand directions, in order to express my reaction, is emotionally exhausting and I’ve even found myself sobbing uncontrollably.

–Anonymous

  1. You can watch the video here  (back)
  2. Quotation from Steve Pettit  (back)
About Killing Dragons

About Killing Dragons

We were chatting about something. It was common. But then he brought out the uncommon. “Daddy, I’ve never killed a dragon. Have you?” It caught me by surprise. I wish I had a handy answer for that one. I looked at him for a second and pondered what was going through his mind. It was so honest and pure. One of those out-of-the-mouths-of-babe moments. “I have never killed one, but I know who did,” I answered. “Who?” he asked enthusiastically. “Jesus.” I know as a trained theologian that when in doubt Jesus is the answer. And what an answer He is.  I told my son about that old Serpent, Satan, who abandoned heavenly glory because of his deception. I told him that this dragon is the father of lies and how he loves to draw children’s hearts away from God. I told him that this dragon wanted glory for himself.

“Does he know how to fight? Does the dragon know how to hurt Jesus?” “He does. He certainly does,” I answered. I was now willing to develop this a bit. It doesn’t take long to get a preacher going. I said that the dragon/serpent knows how to grieve our Lord when he draws away those whom God created. He is a liar. So, when we lie we are being bad representatives of Jesus. Does the dragon fight? Yes, he does. He fights like a coward. He would love to shoot people on the back without having to look at them in the face. “Well, will he hurt us?” “No, he will not. Because Jesus also knows how to fight.” Now, I’ve reached common ground with Batman’s greatest fan. Every child is invested in hero admiration. He wants to be a hero, but more importantly, he wants to be on the side of the hero who wins.

“Did they ever fight?”

“Did they ever?” This is where I got really creative and probably a little too creative for his comprehension. But biblical narratives are powerful little things.

God had promised many centuries earlier that Jesus would bruise Satan’s head, and that Satan would  bruise Jesus’ heel. It was a big, cosmic fight. The dragon thought he had the upper hand, so he tried for centuries to kill off the seed of the woman. He kept women barren and killed little infants by using wicked men to do his bidding.

But it was hopeless for him. God had promised and when he promises something it will happen.

There was a story about a little boy named David. We had read that story many times. The kids love to hear about the giant’s–the dragon’s–taunting of the people of God and how David took courage to fight on behalf of God’s people and not let the name of God be corrupted. That crazy, gigantic, dragon/creature was a little Satan. He loved to mock God’s people just like the dragon. But God will have none of it. His name will not be mocked. He send Davids and new Davids to defend His Name. And at the right time, He sent the final David. “Jesus?” he inquired. “Yes, Jesus!” He will defeat His enemies and not allow God’s Name to be mocked. That same Jesus will kill the dragon. He will crush the dragon’s head. He will protect and defend His father’s name and He will protect us, his children. And we are His children.

“Will the dragon ever come to our house?” “No!” I said emphatically, but not too emphatically for fear of waking up his little brother. God put the dragon in a big hole. “Will he ever come out?” “Yes, in the great eschaton he will come out, but for a short while before He will be crushed again for ever (Don’t worry. I didn’t use the word eschaton).” 

He was concerned that the dragon would pay us a visit. So, I made that question worth it. “The dragon,” I said, “will never pay us a visit.” That old serpent looks around and sees all the homes that are baptized with Jesus’ Spirit. “Are you baptized?” “Yes, remember, daddy?” “Of course, I remember!” It was a wonderful day for our whole family. Do not fear that the devil will get you. Jesus is in our house and in us protecting us from harm. We are baptized with His Spirit and the dragon fears Spirit-indwelt-people. But there is one lesson for us. Just like we don’t go near a barking dog, neither should we go near the dragon. We should always stay away from him.

I could tell the conversation was getting long and the information was getting heavy. It was wonderful to see him thinking through these issues. He said he didn’t want to tell his siblings the story for fear that they would be scared. “Maybe we can tell them together.” He was satisfied with that answer.

No, I never killed a dragon. But I know who did.

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

It doesn’t happen quite often, but once in a while when I recommend a book or a quote by N.T. Wright on facebook, I will receive a question that goes something like this:

“Do you approve of N.T. Wright? Do you think it’s fruitful to endorse N.T. Wright? Or don’t you know that N.T. denies Justification by faith alone?”

I addressed the first question on facebook and I thought I’d make it available here. My response goes like this:

I think the question ought to be more nuanced. In other words, humans and their ideas, especially new humans recreated by God, ought to be analyzed more carefully and charitably. As a pastor I recommend Wright to my parishioners with the same enthusiasm I would recommend C.S. Lewis, Schmemann, and Martin Luther. I have disagreements with all of them, but charity allows me to communicate with these great thinkers and gain from what they offer, while expressing sometimes strong disagreements on some of their contributions.

Yes, Reformed people, in fact, Christians of all stripes should read Professor Wright. His profound insights, his vision for a renewed humanity in Christ, his invaluable defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his commitment to the historical, Biblical Jesus make him one of the most gifted teachers and scholars of our time and The Jesus Seminar’s worst nightmare.

But what about justification? Shouldn’t we stand for the principal article of the Church? And by standing shouldn’t we reject anyone who denies it?

First, N.T. Wright has written and clarified many of his statements. He stated again and again that he does not deny justification by faith alone. I take him at his word. “But hasn’t he been unclear?” To those who think so, he will always be. “I and many others find Wright’s overall project to be fruitful, despite having disagreements with him at points.” I find Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s humorous, but yet serious points on the Wright vs. Piper debate to be very helpful, and from what I hear from reliable sources, Wright agrees and finds Vanhoozer’s attempt to bridge the two paradigms extremely beneficial.

Secondly, the Reformation did not settle every issue. There are contemporary issues that still must be handled within our context. The Reformers did not exhaust the fullness of justification. There is indeed a robustly corporate view of justification that the Reformers–rightly preoccupied with Romish theological abuse–simply did not address explicitly in the 16th century. In this sense, Wright needs to be read and listened to attentively.

Thirdly, when one poses the question of whether we should eliminate such an author from our library because he is wrong on an issue, no matter how important the issue may be, he is betraying the charitable nature of the Christian vision and our personal libraries. Of course, he may choose to avoid Wright, and other authors who also had some questionable theological presuppositions (like C.S. Lewis), his theological vision will be narrow, and his ability to articulate a vision of the world will stop at the wardrobe (to borrow from Lewis). Those of us who appreciate Wright prefer to open the wardrobe and see Narnia in all its beauty.”

Finally, the West’s over-emphasis on the individual is tragic. The individual matters, but Adam himself knew that the individual is not alone. Just as the Trinity is not alone, so too man needs to be a part of something greater. “Community” is not just a buzzword no matter how often hipster Christian groups use it. In its biblical sense, community is the essence of the Christian experience. Paul’s vision was highly ecclesiastical. The individual who divorces from the community loses his ability to be truly human. He breathes and eats as a human, but his breathing and eating desecrates God’s intention to incorporate him into  a multitude. N.T. Wright offers immeasurable contributions on this subject.

Naturally, there is the possibility of over-emphasizing community, but that hardly seems to be the problem in our day. The reality is if you stress the community you get the individual, if you stress the individual you don’t get the community.

Should we read N.T. Wright? Yes. Read him often with the eyes of discernment. But again, discernment is the Christian’s best friend in any human activity.

Delighting in the Mundane

Delighting in the Mundane

It’s Saturday! In our household that means a little more sleep. We treasure those 30 minutes. In college, time was on our side. Naps were luxuries we took for granted. Now here we are: ten years have passed and three children later (one more on the way). Time matters a whole lot! The children are consistent early-risers. They are punctual little creatures. They love time. They love it so much that even without an alarm clock they detect that 6AM is coming. I am not fully awake, but I can hear them coming. Sometimes they come silently. Sometimes they come like hungry warriors. But they come…consistently. My lovely wife makes the first move. She is more courageous than I am that early. She does it without flinching. “What a mom,”  I utter as I zombie my way back to sleep. Breakfast is ready. Children are fed. Sometimes the beach is a fine option. But the evening is reserved; an early Sabbath.

We begin our preparation for worship. Sunday mornings with three little ones can be a challenge. We try to go to bed relatively early. We usually make no Saturday appointments. Saturday evening is sacred in that we prepare ourselves for the sacred gathering. It is almost a ritual for us. Ironing and showers are constant activities. If we are hosting, it demands extra effort from our team. My oldest child unloads the dishwasher. My second child wants to do everything my oldest child does, which can be both entertaining and frightening to watch. My third child laughs, tumbles, and laughs some more. Preparation is key. And we begin the preparation early. Sunday morning arrives.

The man of the house is also the pastor of the Church. He begins to prepare himself psychologically for the events of the day. Sermon notes run through his mind; mental editing begins and really never stops until he begins preaching. He begins to hum through the psalms and hymns. Sunday mornings are created equal. It is always hard work. “Is the beer in the fridge for the guests?” “Are the floors clean?” “Are the plates set?” “We need to leave in the next ten minutes!” The excitement builds. We love Church. We prepare for it. But with little children nothing is easy. Mommy prepares herself. She makes sure that her war tools are ready: Diapers: check. Milk: check. Snacks: check. “I think we are ready!” She has her army under control. “Where are my clerical collars?” I ask. I have so many of them, but they never seem to be in the same place they were seven days ago. It’s naive of me to think they will be. But that is my liturgical pattern every Sunday.

It would be lovely to be a wizard. “A wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.” a But that’s not how it works for pastors and their families. “Children, what day is today?” “The Lord’s Day!” “What do we do today?” “We worship God and sing His praises.” Yes, we do all these things, but it’s been a long journey until that moment. We died in one hundred different ways during the week, so we can be brought to life on the day of Resurrection. “Live the liturgy,” says the preacher. We are trying. It’s extremely challenging. It’s really very sanctifying. It’s holy work. Yes, it is.

  1. Tolkien  (back)
Counseling and the Work of the Spirit

Counseling and the Work of the Spirit

Theology is deeply intimate. Michael Bird excellently summarizes theology as “speaking about God while in the very presence of God. We are intimately engaged with the subject of our study.” a This theological intimacy builds a certain type of worshiper. This worshiper, then, is aware of the nature of his relationships and his relationality with the Triune God. The theological enterprise, which has largely become a rarely pursued journey by the common parishioner, has fallen into the hands of arm-chair theologians. Instead of finding theology an intimate quest, they see it as an academic exercise to be exercised at a fair distance from the subject of their study. They have academized theology.

But theology, properly understood, is a project of the people of God for the sake of the world. Undoubtedly there is room for academic expertise, but this expertise will not  bear fruit unapplied. And part of this distaste for theology has come from the official divorce between theology and counseling. Simply put, we have abandoned the Holy Spirit while pursuing theology. In doing so, we have broken the Trinitarian commitment to knowledge and life. The Spirit is the divine matchmaker. He puts together man and God. He does this by providing in man a need for the divine. The Spirit’s work in us is to make us into needy beings who can only find fulfillment in a giving God. Jesus’ works on earth were all practically aimed at restoring flesh-beings to a more fulfilling humanity, even to the point of restoring a man to life (Jn. 11).

Counseling is necessary in theology. It is the Spirit-side of theology in the Triniarian diagram. The Spirit is the comforter, and our advocate. When others abuse us, the Spirit is the One who reminds us that our sanity comes from the Father, and though we have been painfully beaten to the point of mental breakdowns, the Spirit says that our sanity is from above and no one can take it away.

John Frame was right when he asserted that Christians understand the distinctness of the Father and the Son, but they view the Spirit “as a kind of impersonal force or power associated with God.” b This un-trinitarian tendency c has infected the theological enterprise. Though most evangelicals are careful to avoid sounding like Mormons, they still practically approach theology as a Spirit-less process. Of course, orthodoxy has always affirmed that there is no conflict in the Trinity. There is mutual glorification among the persons of the Trinity. d But practically, our orthopraxis contradicts our orthodoxy. Though Jesus is promised to be a “wonderful counselor” (Isa. 7), the Spirit is promised to be an abiding counselor; the one sent by the Son to abide in every Christian ( Jn. 14:26).

In large measure due to the misunderstanding of the trinitarian nature, the Spirit has been left out of the counseling room. He is not called nor petitioned to. But the Third Person of the Trinity is the key to the theological intimacy we must all seek. Paul writes:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

This transformation/transfiguration comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. Counseling stresses the Spirit dependency counselees must have in order to be transformed from glory into glory. The work of theology, Frame stresses, “is not simply to repeat the language of Scripture, but to apply the language of Scripture to our thought and life.” e The Spirit applies theology that changes for He is the source of change.

The type of intimacy I am advocating in counseling is the intimacy that communicates the need of the Spirit and the application of truth to all of life. If only truth is stressed f you lose the relationality of the Spirit of God, but when truth is joined with a conspicuous dependence on the Spirit, then true change from glory to glory begins to take place. Theology must be an intimate pursuit, for in it we discover the Spirit of God who provides true fellowship with the Father and the Son. g

  1. An Evangelical Theology, Bird.  (back)
  2. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Christian Belief, 477  (back)
  3. cult-like  (back)
  4. see Frame, 480  (back)
  5. Frame, 482  (back)
  6. certain counseling paradigms operate strictly from this premise  (back)
  7. II Corinthians 13:14  (back)
Watch Out for the Dogmatic Dogs, Ladies!

Watch Out for the Dogmatic Dogs, Ladies!

Paul addresses his famous three “Lookouts” or “Bewares” in Philippians 3. The reference is likely to Judaizers; those who pollute the law of Yahweh and make the commandments of God unbearable and burdensome. But something else came to my attention as I thought about this text in light of my experiences in Reformedom. And that is that we have built a haven for dogmatic dogs. These dogs are well within the pale of orthodoxy. Their creedal credentials are not at stake. What is at stake is what they add to their creedal credentials.

Let me be honest. I love a good dose of postmillennial, paedo-life, psalmic, and predestinarian theology for breakfast…and lunch, and supper. So I am not discouraging the pursuit and passionate embrace of these doctrines. At the same time, there are some who wear these as fervently as St. Nick’s commitment to the deity of Christ witnessed by many when he slapped a heretic over it. These dogmatic dogs would receive the same rebuke from Paul today. In those days, they would have been wearing their Apollos t-shirts to the marketplace. And here is where things get messy: they truly believe they have a high calling to be apologists for the kingdom of God–that really small faction that intends to take over the world one blog post at a time.

Ladies, watch out!

I love the idea and the application of courtships in my congregation and elsewhere. But what needs to be included in this courtship process is not just whether a young man loves Jesus or contemplates deeply the mysteries of God, but whether this young man contemplates unity as the foundation for loving Jesus and understanding the mysteries of God.

Dogmatic Dogs don’t want unity. They perpetuate the myth that unity is for ecumenical liberals. Their strong and rhetorical vision for a united Christendom involves dogs that bark just like them. Ladies, look out! These are the types of men who will go from job to job, and if they are pursuing pastoral ministry they will go from church to church.

If you are a young lady contemplating sacred marriage and a young man has asked your father permission to court you and get to know you, here are some questions to ponder:

First, what is his on-line track record? Is he known as a contentious dog barking everywhere only to get the world to see his point of view?

Second, is he so dogmatic that his parents–who happen to be on opposite ends theologically–cannot bear to hear the words “theology” or “God” for fear of the conversation that will ensue?

Third, does he have friends from different theological traditions? If not, press him on why not?

Fourth, does he only read 16th century authors? Does he think contemporary theological writing is corrupt?

Fifth, is he able to teach you the Bible without making you feel like a theological infant?

Sixth, has he ever read a story? Tolkien, Lewis, McDonald, Rowling? Or are Systematic Theologies his favorite past time?

Seventh, can he engage in any other type of conversation outside theology? I know, I know, all of life is theological, but you get my point.

Eighth, does he consider human emotions a sign of weakness?

Ninth, does he honor and submit to his pastor when he receives counsel? Or does he always think he has a better way?

Finally, how does he worship? Does he treasure gathering with the saints? Does he treasure singing, feasting, loving, submitting, serving, and sacrificing for the saints?

Ladies, watch out for the dogmatic dogs! There is always the possibility they will see the errors of their own ways and change when they get married, but don’t count on it. Pray that they are able to show you a gentle dogmatism that translates to love, patience, and mercy to fellow brothers and sisters before marriage. Pray that they will repent of their vicious dogmatism and re-orient their words and actions to benefit the body and the unity of the saints. If we treasure our Christian faith, we may have at times failed to answer these questions rightly at one time or another, but the real question is whether we have learned to make our dogma attractive, rather than repulsive.