Typically when I begin a coaching relationship with a pastor the first phone call is an orientation to coaching. I begin by sharing a little about my background. Next I explain my philosophy of coaching. Finally I talk about expectations, i.e. what I will expect from the coachee and what the coachee can expect from me. It is at this time that I will say, among other things, “You can expect complete confidentiality from me. I will never talk to anyone else about what we discuss in our calls. I want you to feel that I am safe, that you can talk to me about anything and it won’t come back to bite you.”

It is important to me that the person on the other end of the phone understands this. It’s important for a pastor to have someone like this in their life. Few pastors do. Far too many ministers have stories of opening up to someone they thought they could trust only to later regret being so transparent. This is one reason many pastors feel so lonely. They don’t have anyone they can talk to, really talk to, really and honestly talk to…that is safe.

I feel it a great privilege to be this type of person to so many who lead our churches. Because of this, pastors will open up to me about things they are afraid to share with their church leaders, their supervisors, or their colleagues. Such was the case with pastor Bob (not his real name).

My coaching call with Bob took place before the Supreme Court’s ruling on same sex marriage. Bob’s state was about to decide whether or not to legalize SSM. As was the case in so many states approaching a moment like this, tensions were high, rallies and demonstrations from both sides of the debate were happening regularly. The topic of homosexuality and SSM had never come up in Bob’s church before but now with the issue in the news and on the street Bob realized he would have to say something about it because so many in his church were looking to him for guidance.

Bob had always held the more traditional view that the Bible clearly condemned homosexuality. But Bob was also aware that there was a small but growing group of Evangelical pastors and authors who looked at the same Bible Bob did and came to the conclusion that either the passages typically used to condemn homosexuality and SSM, had either been misinterpreted or did not address monogamous, committed relationships between same sex attracted people. Keep in mind that Bob did not agree with this interpretation of scripture but he felt a need to at least hear the other side being presented by his brothers and sisters.

After Bob’s sincere attempt to objectively look at the arguments of those Christians who were in favor of full inclusion of homosexual believers in the church, I asked him, “So what conclusions have you come to?”

“I haven’t changed my position, but can I be honest with you?”

“About what?”

“I have to admit that the other side has some good arguments. They are not simply disregarding the authority of the scriptures like I use to believe. I guess I’d have to say that the topic is not as cut and dry as I thought. Don’t tell anyone that I said that.”

(laughter)

“What do you mean?” I said.

“If some of my colleagues knew I’d read some of the books I did I would get in trouble. And I can’t imagine what would happen if I admitted that the opposite side has some legitimate arguments.”

“So what you’re saying is that even though you still believe the Bible condemns homosexuality, your reputation would be damaged simply because you were willing to listen to the other side?”

“Oh yeah”, said Bob, “definitely. Dave, you’re the only one I feel safe to talk to about this. I know you’re not going to turn me in.”

(more laughter)

Bob is not alone. There are many conservative Evangelical pastors out there who feel caught in the middle. Even though they still believe that homosexuality is wrong they no longer believe that the Bible is entirely clear on the subject. They have come to understand and appreciate those who interpret the Bible differently than they do. But they are afraid to say so. Some have doubts about what they have always believed. But they are afraid to say so. Some have even changed their position. But they are afraid to say so. Some have told me that they are not exactly sure what God thinks of homosexuality but they are afraid to say so to anyone but me.

We’ve gotten to the place where you can be attacked or get in trouble just for thinking, or re-thinking, or questioning, or respectfully listening to those who think differently than the group you belong to thinks. You can be judged and slandered and ‘unfriended’ on Facebook (and in life, I know, it’s happened to me) for revealing that you appreciate certain authors or speakers. This isn’t limited to the subject of homosexuality and SSM.

Whatever denomination you belong to there is a good chance that there are certain theological distinctions held by your group that if you strayed over to a different position you would get in trouble and possibly defrocked. In some groups you would be attacked if you simply said, “I’m rethinking my position on…

Spiritual gifts
Women in ministry
Ecclesiology
Baptism
Eschatology, to name a few.

Notice that my imaginary friend did not say, “I’ve changed my position on…” but only, “I’m rethinking my position on…” That alone is enough to be called into the principle’s office.

How many times have you said, or heard someone else say, ‘The Bible is clear…’ or ‘The Bible clearly teaches…’? When I read my Bible I tend to see more clarity than I do vagueness but there are definitely some things that I see as gray while some of my friends see the same things as black and white. It seems to me that some things some Christians think the Bible is clear about are not as clear as they think. If the Bible were clear then why are there so many denominations and different opinions held by Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians?

There is a small but growing group of Christians who are caught in the middle. They don’t see black and white. They see gray. Not everything is gray to them, it’s not like they don’t believe in absolute truth or the basic tenets of the Christian faith, but some of the other things are gray to them. They have friends or fellow-pastors who see many things as black and white…but they see those same things as gray. This group doesn’t have as strong an opinion about some things other Christians have strong opinions about. And some in this group are afraid to admit this publicly. Rather than saying, “The Bible is clear about…” or “The Bible clearly teaches…” they would say, “I’m not sure what God thinks about…”

Do you see certain theological topics as gray while those around you see the same subjects as black and white? It’s okay, you’re not alone. Be humble and patient with those who see black and white. Remember…they could be right. I wish I didn’t have to say this but be very selective with whom you share your ambiguity. Ambiguity can get you in trouble.

Do you see certain theological topics as black and white? It’s okay, you’re not alone. Be humble and patient with those who see gray. Remember…they could be right. Work at being a loving, respectful, honoring and safe person for those who see gray. After all, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ. We all love Jesus. We all believe that the Bible is God’s word, it’s just that some of us see things as black and white and others of us see things as gray.

We may never know with certainty who is right and who is wrong until we die and take that required theology exam that will determine who gets into heaven and who stays outside with the rest of us C+ students.

 

 

 

I became a Christian in 1973. Because of some early Christian influences in my life, I naïvely believed that there were only three kinds of churches. There were Catholic churches. There were Liberal churches. And there were real churches, i.e. Evangelical churches. Let me say again, I was naïve, but this is what I had been taught.

I believed that the Roman Catholic church was a cult so I dismissed them and placed them in the same category as Jehovah’s Witness and Mormons. I disregarded the Liberal churches (keep in mind that I couldn’t have told you who they were but I knew they were out there) because they didn’t believe in the Bible and Liberal churches were nothing more than a religious social club. Did I mention that I was naïve? So the only thing that was left, the only churches that really counted were the type of churches that I went to…Evangelical churches.

Now fast-forward to today.

I still (kind of) think of myself as an Evangelical and attend an Evangelical church. I have a degree from an Evangelical university. Most of the pastors I work with in my coaching and consulting practice would be considered Evangelicals. But over the years I’ve had a growing group of Liberal pastors as clients. At the beginning of this series I mentioned that I am the founder and moderator of a large pastors group on Facebook. Pastors of every denomination and persuasion are welcome in my group. The stated purpose of our group is:

The Small Church Pastor group provides a safe place of encouragement, resources, ideas, prayer requests…and laughs between senior pastors and the spouses of senior pastors. This group does not allow challenging, debating, or attacking other denominations, pastors, or controversial issues that churches and pastors might disagree on. Our group stays away from discussing the meaning or interpretation of specific scriptures or doctrines Christians and denominations might disagree on.

This group is one of the few places on the Internet where Conservative Christians and Liberal Christians can come together and not get in a fight. We are not always successful, but we are learning and trying.

Progressives are the new Liberals.

Both my Conservative Evangelical friends and Progressive Christian friends may disagree with me on this but as I dialog with today’s Progressives I find very little that is new in what they believe in comparison to what most Liberals of yesteryear believed. But if you listen to some Conservative Evangelicals you would think that the Progressive movement has introduced something new to the story of Christianity in the world. If I am right, if Progressives are, basically, the new Liberals, why then are some Conservative Evangelicals sounding an alarm as if the building was just set on fire?

I have a theory. I can’t prove it. I’ve seen no scientific study to verify it. I don’t have enough money to commission Gallop to look into this. But I think the reason why Evangelicals are so concerned with Progressives is because of one significant way in which the Progressives of today are different than the Liberals of the past.

This is not true of all Progressives, but many Progressives today still think of themselves as Evangelicals. In the past, Liberals didn’t think of themselves as Evangelicals. Because of this it was easier for Evangelicals to dismiss them and relegate them to the category of ‘apostate church.’ The interesting dynamic today is that there is a growing movement of what is called Progressive Evangelicals. Progressive Evangelicals believe that one can be both Progressive and Evangelical whereas some Evangelicals do not believe this is possible. Therefore, many Conservative Evangelicals feel a responsibility to preserve the true meaning of Evangelicalism and sometimes attack and debate the popular voices of Progressive Christianity. It’s kind of like, as long as you weren’t claiming to be one of us (Evangelical) everything was okay but now that you’re using our title it’s not okay.

Did you know that most Progressive Evangelicals and most Conservative Evangelicals agree upon what it means to be an Evangelical? In addition to this, most Progressive Christians and most Conservative Christians agree upon the basic tenets of Christianity.

The Future of Evangelicalism in America

 I don’t think Progressives, whether they consider themselves Evangelicals or not, are a fad that will pass. I believe that Progressive Evangelicals are here to stay. I think Progressive Evangelicals will continue to grow in number. I don’t know if they will ever catch up with the number of Conservative Evangelicals but they might. If my prediction proves true I see only two possibilities:

1. Progressives and Conservatives will learn to respect each other, find common ground and do what they can to work together to reach people with the gospel without compromising their theological differences. We saw something similar to this happen between the Charismatics and the non-Chrasimatics. Or…

2. Progressives and Conservatives will become two totally separate and distinct camps at best ignoring each other or at worse at war with each other.

I, for one, am hoping and praying for number one rather than number two.

It seems to me that some Christians always need something to be mad about, afraid of, something or someone to be against. It’s less work to have an enemy than it is to have a friend.

Way back in 1988 Tony Campolo came out with a popular book entitled: 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid To Touch. Recently Tony has become a hot potato himself after coming out in favor of same-sex marriage (after having been against it) and therefore falling out of favor with many Evangelicals.

When Tony’s book originally came out I read it but I don’t think I appreciated it as much as when I recently read it again. 20 Hot Potatoes was ahead of its time. Campolo’s book listed topics that either Christians typically fought over or chose to ignore completely back in the 1980’s. Although his positions on these controversial subjects seem rather tame for today I am amazed that he was able to stay in good favor with his conservative friends back then. In other words, if these topics are contentious today think how much more so back in the 80’s.

Tony dared to present another perspective on hot topics of the day like:

How do we respond to people with AIDS?
What about women preachers?
Christian women choosing a career rather than staying home.
Homosexuals and the church.
Can Christians kill?
Are Evangelicals too pro-Israel?
and a favorite of mine, Is hunting a sin?

You’d be hunted down and run out of town for suggesting that where I live. Any way…

Reading 20 Hot Potatoes again reinforced to me that very little changes over time. Solomon apparently was right when he said that there is nothing new under the sun. There was controversy among Christians back when this book came out and there is controversy today. If Tony were to write a new 20 Hot Potatoes he would probably have some of the same topics in his list and some new ones.

I’d like to share with you my own ‘20’ list. These are not so much ‘hot potatoes’ as they are buttons, belligerent buttons. Buttons that when pushed, bring out anger, meanness, disrespect, contempt, and condemnation from some Christians and some pastors. I will not be elaborating on these points as Tony did in his book. Maybe that’s because I’m more of a coward than Tony was but I think it’s because I just want us to be able to see clearly the topics that have, can and do, bring out the worse in us.

Presidential election years
Politicians we disagree with
Homosexuality/same sex marriage
Rob Bell
Abortion
Gun control
Immigration
The relationship between the church and Israel
Harry Potter
The secularization of Christmas
Halloween
Popular Christian leaders who have fallen
Oppression of women
The role of women in the church and in the family
Evolution
Literal or figurative 7 days of creation
Racial injustice
Feminism
People on state or Federal assistance
Islam

If I were to post something on Facebook, either for or against any of these topics, within minutes there would be angry, judgmental attacks. People who had been my ‘friends’ the day before would suddenly treat me differently. One can go from friend to foe in seconds on social media.

Can you see any belligerent button on my list that is a sensitive subject for you? When you come across someone who thinks differently than you do on this topic do you get angry? Why do you get angry? Have you ever taken your feelings to the Father and asked him, “Show me the real reason why I am angry.” This can be a risky thing to do. You might be surprised what he shows you. Maybe you think your anger is ‘righteous indignation’ as you remember the story of Jesus turning over the tables used by the money-changers and other merchants in the temple.

I believe that there is such a thing as ‘righteous anger’ but ours is seldom righteous. James told us that the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.

There is no virtue in being right if I am belligerent to those I think are wrong.

 

If you haven’t been following this series it might make more sense to you if you go back and try to catch up. You can start here.

****

If you have been following this series you know by now that I am not a big fan of labels. When we label we limit. When we label fellow Christians we draw a line in the sand with you on one side and me on the other. The thing that is hard for us to accept is that we’re all on the same side even though we might have serious disagreements about serious subjects. If unity means 100% agreement on every important theological point then Jesus’ prayer in John 17 hasn’t a chance of being answered.

Popular labels among Christians:

Egalitarian
Complementarian
Charismatic
Cessasionist
Conservative
Liberal
Progressive
Mainline
Calvinist
Armenian
Liturgical
Welcoming and Affirming
Welcoming and Non-affirming
Evangelical…to name a few.

Labels can be helpful as long as we realize that they come with limitations. Labels are like clothing, seldom does one size fit all. For example, it might be helpful for me to know if I am coaching a conservative or a progressive pastor. But after more than eight years of working with both conservative and progressive pastors I’ve come to realize that there are degrees of every label we assign to someone and therefore, knowing who is a ‘liberal’ (the old fashioned word for ‘progressive’) and who is a conservative Christian is only of little value.

Did you know that there are progressive conservatives and conservative progressives? Not all progressives agree with each other. Not all conservatives agree with each other. Some conservatives are liberal in some areas of their politics and theology. Some progressives have areas in their belief systems that align more with some typical conservative positions. It’s almost impossible to say, “All conservatives believe ______. And all progressives believe ______.”

The irony in what has been said up until now is that I’m about to use labels. In fact, I’m going to attach labels to labels.

Allow me, for the sake of this article, to oversimplify things by saying that Christianity can often, but not always, be divided into two groups, conservative Christians and progressive Christians. I’d also like to use the labels ‘close-minded’ and ‘open-minded.’

Being close-minded (at least not in the way I am using the phrase) is not necessarily a bad thing and being open-minded is not necessarily a good thing. Try not to read into my use of these words any bias.

If you tell a progressive Christian that they are ‘open-minded’ there is a good chance you mean that as a good thing and that they will take it as a compliment. However, if you tell a conservative Christian that they are close-minded there is a good chance you mean that as a bad thing and that they will take it as an insult. Let me be very clear again, especially to those of you who consider yourself a conservative Christian…I am not using the phrase ‘close-minded’ in an entirely negative way nor am I using ‘open-minded’ in an entirely positive way.

It seems that conservatives get a bad rap as being close-minded simply because they have firm convictions about what the Bible says and what it does not say. Conservatives tend to see things as black and white, truth and error. They are not ‘open-minded’ to things outside of what they understand the Bible to teach. Progressives look at the same scriptures but see many things as grey. There is a lot of black and white in the Bible and there is, or so it seems to me, a lot of grey in the Bible. Conservatives and progressives can’t always agree on what is black, what is white, and what is grey.

Below you’ll find a list of observations I’ve made after working for eight years with both conservative pastors and progressive/liberal pastors…open-minded and close-minded church leaders. Whether you are a conservative or a progressive it is my hope that what you’re about to read will help you understand better those who think different than you and possibly recognize weaknesses in your own approach to life and ministry.

Both the ‘open-minded’ and ‘close-minded’ demonize one another. This represents a closed-mind no matter which group is doing the demonizing.

Being ‘close-minded’ does not mean you will never change your mind, it just means it might take you longer to change your mind about an important conviction you’ve held than the one who is open-minded.

It’s risky to be open-minded because you might change your mind for the worse.

Being ‘open-minded’ does not mean you don’t have strong convictions, it means you are willing to challenge those convictions and listen objectively and respectively to those who do not share your convictions.

Some open-minded people find it difficult to listen objectively and respectively to those who do not share their convictions.

Some close-minded people find it difficult to listen objectively and respectively to those who do not share their convictions.

Close-minded people don’t think they are close-minded, they think they are right. Open-minded people do think they are open-minded and they think they are right. This can indicate a closed-mind regardless of who is doing the thinking.

Being ‘open-minded’ can be a slippery slope…but that’s no guarantee that one will slip.

Some things are worth being closed-minded about.

Both the open-minded and the close-minded can have a pride problem.

There are extremes of open-mindedness and extremes of close-mindedness. Both are dangerous.

In many ways God is ‘closed-minded’.

The close-minded tend to think in terms of black and white. The open-minded tend to think in terms of grey.

The only balance in regards to open-mindedness and closed-mindedness is found in Jesus. All the rest of us are imbalanced.

Both the open and the close-minded find it hard to be like the balanced-Jesus.

The trick is knowing when to be open-minded and when to be close-minded.

If you are open-minded and feel superior to the close-minded you grieve the heart of Jesus.

If you are close-minded and feel superior to the open-minded you grieve the heart of Jesus.

Both the open-minded and the close-minded must learn to accept one another. This is a form of open-mindedness in both.

If there is something more virtuous than open-mindedness or close-mindedness what would it be?

It is possible to be an open-minded conservative and a close-minded progressive.

It is unwise to assume that a conservative is totally close-minded or a progressive is totally open-minded.

Just because one is open-minded is no guarantee that it is easier for them to admit when they are wrong.

Just because one is close-minded is no guarantee that it is harder for them to admit when they are wrong.

Both the open and the close-minded find it difficult to admit when they are wrong.

No doubt there will be things the open-minded are open to and they are wrong; and there will be things the close-minded are closed to and they are wrong.

Any virtue in close-mindedness or open-mindedness is negated when accompanied by pride.

Our secular culture will appreciate us more if we are open-minded but this is not necessarily a good thing.

Our secular culture will appreciate us less if we are close-minded but this is not necessarily a bad thing.

****

Are you open-minded or close-minded? Are you a conservative Christian or a progressive/liberal Christian? Are you a mixture? Are you friends with anyone who is the opposite of whoever you are? When we lay down our labels, fears, and pride, and sit down with brothers and sisters in Christ who are different than us, engaging in respectful and open-minded discussion, we soon discover that we have more in common than we originally thought.

You might be wondering, “Dave, which are you? Are you a conservative or a progressive?”

My answer is, “Yes.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ellen’s closet is packed. Mine…not so much, especially during the winter months. I have four flannel shirts that I rotate through each week. Ellen threatens me that she is going to burn them. I threaten her that I will leave her if she does. Of course I’m joking. I’m not sure she is. A man shouldn’t have to put a lock on his closet door. Anyway…

Shirts remind me of the labels we put on people. Everybody has favorite shirts, or pants, or shoes, and everybody, or so it seems to me, has their favorite labels that they like to put on others.

In the church world we have shirts we like to put on people. We’ve got Evangelicals and Liberals, Charismatics and non-Charismatics, Egalitarians and Complementarians, Gay welcoming and affirming and Gay welcoming but not affirming, Calvinists and Arminians, Traditionalists and Progressives, pro-Flannel shirts and anti-Flannel shirts. This is just a partial list of the many labels we like to put on people. As I see it there are four problems with labels.

1. With labels, as with clothing, seldom does one size fit all. For example, many Evangelicals believe some things Progressives believe (politically and theologically) and vice versa. Some Progressives consider themselves Evangelicals. I know some Southern Baptists that are more Charismatic than some Charismatics.

2. It is hard to label a person without there being contempt attached. Just listen to the next person you hear put a label on someone. They might not use these exact words but you can still hear in their voice “Those stupid…” tacked on to the beginning of their sentence, or, “…and I’m better than they are.” added to the end of their sentence.

3. Labels lead to arguing and arguing never works.

Arguing doesn’t work. It is pointless. The only thing an argument does is make someone angry or hurt. The same is true with debating. You might win the debate but in so doing you create a loser. No one wants to be a loser. You’ve won but forced someone else to become something they don’t want to be. Arguing and debating draws a line in the sand and eventually the sides retreat away from each other with the line in between them.

Some pastors seem to enjoy arguing and debating and kicking sand in the eyes of those they disagree with. I want none of that.

Some pastors can be so bold, brave and belligerent on social media. These opportunities to rant or vent or express ones opinion or “get something off ones chest” seldom change anyone’s mind. All this does is reveal who is on their side and who is not. Ultimately no one has grown from either side, no one has learned or changed. Hurt and pain grows, but not much more than that. I don’t want to be that kind of Pastor.

This reminds me of Paul’s advice to Timothy when selecting elders in the church. “Don’t pick anyone who is addicted to wine or pugnacious (loves a good fight, quarrelsome, one who leaves a bruise), but look for one who is gentle and peaceable.” I Tim. 3:3

That’s the type of pastor I want to be.

4. Finally, when I label a person I fail to see the person as a person and instead see them as a label. Labels limit. Labels limit my ability to love the person as God loves them and see the person as God sees them. The person I label, the person I have contempt for, is dearly loved by the Father we both share.

When I was a kid I remember an advertisement at the back of a comic book for a pair of glasses that would enable you to have x-ray vision. They led you to believe that with them you could see through people’s clothes. Hot Dog! I ordered one. It didn’t work.

I want to see through the clothes, through the labels that I try to put on people. I want to see naked people.

 

 

When I was a small boy growing up, my grandparents had a cabin up in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California. Most weekends would find my parents packing up me and my older brother Gary into our car and heading for ‘the cabin.’

To me, our cabin was a mysterious place. Across the street were these people called, “those dirty hippies” by my grandparents. At the end of a long dirt road you would come to a locked gate preventing you from going further. If you looked up the mountain to your left you could see a deserted two-story building partially covered by the forest. More than once my brother took some sadistic joy in telling me that the building used to keep crazy people in it, that some of their ghosts still haunted the place, that if you came out there in the night you could hear their spirits crying out.

I never came out there in the night.

If you took the same road in the opposite direction you would eventually come to the “parrot lady’s” house. That’s what we called her. I don’t remember ever being told her real name. What I did know was that she had three large Macaw parrots. Like Dr. Doolittle, she could talk to these animals and they could talk to her. It was as if I had stepped into a Disney movie. Amazing!

Did you know that parrots don’t have vocal cords? They make noise by releasing air from their trachea. Parrots love to communicate with people and they love to communicate with other parrots. If you put a mirror in a parrot’s cage they will think that another parrot is in their cage. Parrots will actually interact with their own reflection. Parrots are able to talk without being able to understand words. Parrots tend to mimic a lot of things that they do not fully understand. Hmmm…

The way I see it, we have too many pastors and parishioners who act like parrots.

I am concerned by the number of Christians (and even some pastors) who are more “talking parrots” than they are Bible-informed followers of Jesus. I’m troubled by how many believers don’t think for themselves but merely “parrot” what they’ve been told they’re supposed to believe by their pastors or fellow Christians. I am worried about those poor souls who do not know how to think biblically for themselves.

You see…it is really hard for us to freely and objectively “think.” By this I mean: to be willing to revisit previously accepted ideas, theologies, and convictions, and see if the buckets we hold our opinions in (our ideas about what the Bible says about this or that) really hold water or not?

We all have filters through which we think and reason. Some filters are better than others. Thinking, re-thinking, and thinking for ourselves will never happen if we live in a sheltered environment that protects and defends one view while attacking and ridiculing any views that are different.

The willingness to re-think will not happen if one is intimidated by their church or friends or pastoral colleagues.

The result can be congregations, and sometimes pulpits, filled with talking parrots.

***

People were created by God to think, explore, and be inquisitive. The sad, if not dangerous thing about talking parrots is that they don’t realize they are talking parrots. I believe that many Christians today are talking parrots. We may be right in what we “parrot”, or we may be wrong, but still… we are parrots. In regards to theology and the application of theology to our lives and culture, the church can create parrots instead of Bereans.

You remember the story. Paul was on one of his missionary trips. Some cities were more open to his message than others (kind of like the people who sit in our churches each Sunday). Anyway…right after a not so good experience in one town he comes to Berea and we read in Act. 17:11:

Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”

The word ‘examining’ means: to judge, to investigate, inquire into, scrutinize, sift, question, to interrogate, to examine the accused or witnesses.

When we fail to read and study the Bible for ourselves, whenever we fail to “… search the Scriptures to see whether these things be so…” we run the risk of being parrots and belonging to a parrot farm rather than a church.

I was and am still, an occasional parrot. Very early in my Christianity I parroted certain theological positions that Christians disagree on.

At one point I had to ask myself, am I a Berean or a parrot? I decided to think for myself, examine my position as objectively as I could, listen and read those that thought differently than I did. What was the result? I held to some of my opinions and changed some others. In addition to that, pertaining to those areas that I changed my thinking about, I came to understand and respect those who thought the way I used to think. We all love Jesus. We all believe that the Bible is the word of God. But we all looked at the same scriptures and ended up coming to different conclusions. I can live very comfortably with that.

Not all Christians and not all pastors are belligerent towards those they disagree with but there are enough to have caught my attention and caused me concern.

There are too many Christians today willing to go to war over certain issues and yet they have never sat down and had a constructive conversation with those who think differently than they do. There are too many pastors, yes pastors, who feel so strongly about controversial issues they are willing to sever relationship with fellow Christians and in some cases label them heretics, but they have never read a book from the opposite view in an attempt to at least understand where their sisters and brothers are coming from.

***

One of the greatest fears pastors have is that their people will fall into ‘false-teaching.’ This is a legitimate fear. We have been entrusted with our people and expected to love them and help them grow spiritually. Part of this involves teaching them from the Bible. I can’t think of one epistle in the New Testament where the author did not have to address and attempt to correct false teaching. But every time we teach on a subject that is controversial in the body of Christ and fail to acknowledge in a respectful way that other Christians might think differently, every time we say, “The Bible is clear…” when we know that if the Bible was clear then there would not be so many different opinions on the topic, we do our people and the word of God a disservice. How so?

When we try too hard to shield our people from those churches, those denominations, or those Christians who think differently than we do we inadvertently train them not to think for themselves. We’re creating parrots instead of disciples.

Do we subconsciously think our church members are too dumb to read the scriptures and other opposing views of the scriptures without falling into error? Do we believe that the word of God is powerful enough to speak to people without any help from us?

I know, I know, you are probably thinking that if Christians were reading their Bibles as much as you do then you wouldn’t be half as worried. I get that.

But can you imagine visiting a church one day and hearing the pastor say, “This morning we’re going to begin a series on the role of women in the church and in the home. I’m going to do my best to share with you what I understand the Bible says about this subject but I want you to know that there are many Christians out there who think differently than me. In fact, I would like to recommend to you a book that makes a pretty good argument for the other side. Why don’t you get the book, listen to me in the weeks to come, study the scriptures on your own and then you can come to your own conclusion?”

Never gonna happen.

 

 

 

 

If you have been following this series from the beginning you already know that my job puts me in contact with a wide range of Christians and Christian thought. My coaching practice allows me to talk to pastors from every denomination you could imagine. I also moderate a large Facebook group page made up of pastors and church leaders from all the various streams of Christianity. I stay on top of what’s going on in the church/Christian world by subscribing and reading the major, and some minor, Christian and ministry periodicals and newsletters. I think I’ve got my finger on the pulse of something going on in a portion of the church in North America.

Some Christians and some pastors can get really mean, nasty, belligerent and contemptuous when talking theology, more specifically, when talking about how someone’s theology is wrong. In pt. 12 of Belligerent I want to focus on The Contemptuous Pastor.

Sociologists and psychologists are giving more and more focus on the emotion of contempt and it’s effect on those who give it and those who receive it.

Professionals in the field of human behavior tell us that contempt is an emotion felt towards others that puts the other person in an inferior, lower status position. The other person is regarded as being less in some way that the person feeling contempt considers important.

In the latter case, the person is seen as being bad, especially when they have broken specific values held closely by the one who has contempt, in which case the contempt may be associated with disgust and other strong negative emotions such as anger and hate.

It’s not hard to recognize disgust in the words, actions, and expressions of some Christians and some pastors when describing someone who has committed adultery, become addicted to drugs or pornography, or when talking about homosexuality. Many Christians find behavior like this disgusting, it makes them angry, and sometimes, even though they may not recognize it, causes them to hate.

Feeling contempt can also become a way to separate or build a wall between the one feeling contempt and the other person. Because contempt requires a mental position of superiority, the person feeling this may actually experience a certain amount of pleasure in contempt. It feels good to think that you are better than someone else.

Contempt is an emotion that thinks of people, groups or actions as inferior or worthless. People feel contempt when they judge that someone or something else is beneath them. Contempt serves to differentiate acceptable groups from unacceptable groups, and helps individuals to depersonalize others. The depersonalization of others makes it easier for collective violence to occur, as it gives people permission to do unto others what they would normally be restrained from doing. For examples of this one has only to log onto Facebook and read the words some Christians and some pastors use when talking about politicians they don’t like and fellow Christians who hold theological perspectives different than theirs. More than once I have asked myself, “How could a pastor talk like that to another human being not to mention another sister or brother in Christ?” Belligerence and contemptuous go hand in hand. Belligerence is always outward (it can be heard, seen, read) while contemptuous can be outward or inward, it can be hidden. We would never admit that we disagree with someone and also think we are better than they are. We don’t want others to think that we are that way and we don’t want to think that way of ourselves. We will either hide our contempt or fail to recognize it.

In research on married couples, contempt towards one’s spouse has been found to be one of the main factors that lead to divorce.

Contempt between Christians (it can go both ways at once but usually contempt is held by one towards another) is what’s causing a divorce in the Body of Christ.

 

***

 

Have you ever noticed how hard it is for us to describe how we are different from another Christian group without contempt or sounding like we are putting the other group down?

A Charismatic might describe themselves as “Spirit led”, implying that non-Charismatics are not “Spirit-led.” Non-Charismatics might say that they are led only by the Word of God instead of emotional experiences, implying that Charismatics are not led by the Bible or that they place emotional experience before the Bible. Ask a conservative to explain the difference between themselves and progressives and you might hear, “We stand on the clear teaching of scripture rather than watering down the Bible in order to be politically correct.”

All of this is contempt accompanied by feelings of superiority which results in separation and divorce between Christians, pastors, and denominations.

What would it look like for someone to describe the differences between themselves and someone else and it not sound contemptuous or like a put down? Let me make up a conversation between Chip (a new believer) and Dale (an older believer).

Chip: Hey Dale, the other night after Bible study I overhead Cindy and Denise talking about Egalitarians and Complementarians. What’s that?

Dale: Yeah, those are two different thoughts on the role of women in the home and in the church.

Chip: Which are you?

Dale: I’m a Complementarian.

Chip: What’s the difference between the two?

 

Dale: That’s a pretty complex question. Whole books have been written on the subject but let me give it a try. Complementarians and Egalitarians both look at the same scriptures but come to different conclusions pertaining to the role of women in the home and in the church. Egalitarians sincerely believe that the bible teaches that men and women are equal, equal in the home and equal in the church. Egalitarians would be okay with women pastors. Complementarians sincerely believe that the bible teaches that the role of women and men in the home and in the church is different and that these differences complement each other. Complementarians usually believe that women should not be pastors and women are under the spiritual authority of their husbands. Complementarians might say things like, “The husband is the head of the home.”, while Egalitarians would probably not say that.

Chip: And you say you are a Complementarian?

Dale: Yep.

Chip: Why?

Dale: Well Chip, Egalitarians have some good arguments in their favor. Some of my best friends are Egalitarians and they love Jesus and love the word of God just like I do. It’s just that after listening to both sides and studying the Bible on my own I concluded that the Complementarian position made more sense to me.

Chip: Well if it’s good enough for you it’s good enough for me. I’m gonna be a Complementarian.

Dale: Well I appreciate that Chip but you can’t believe something as important as the role of women in the church and in the home simply based on what I believe. You need to look into the subject for yourself. Buy a couple books from both camps. Study what the Bible has to say and then you’ll be in a position to come to your own conclusion.

Chip: That’s too much work. I’ll just believe what you believe.

 

***

 

Ellen and I have a game we play, it’s called Contempt. Here’s how it goes. Whenever we are driving around or talking at home and one of us is talking negatively about someone else (we like to call it “talking negatively” rather than use the words gossip or slander) and it begins to sound like contempt, one of us will say to the other,

“So what you’re basically saying is that you think you are better than they are?”

“Yes, apparently I do.”

We’ll laugh and then whoever stops the contempt first is the winner.

It’s time for those of us who call ourselves Christians, and or pastors, to stop the contempt. Our position on an important topic could be the right one but if it is held with contempt that makes us the one who is wrong.

In the last installment of this series I shared with you how I recently completed a one year Bible reading plan focused solely on the gospels. I was using what they call “a harmony of the gospels” that conveniently gathers together in chronological order the stories in the life of Christ laying them side by side so it is easy to see how one writer sometimes differs from another. In order to get the whole story one often needs to read all four accounts. It’s not unusual for one gospel writer to leave something out that another writer includes. For an example, come with me now into the garden of Gethsemane to witness the betrayal and arrest of Jesus.

Although Matthew, Mark and Luke tell of Judas leading the mob to arrest Jesus, only John includes Jesus identifying himself as the one the mob was looking for which results in the soldiers falling to the ground. Matthew and Mark tell us how someone with Jesus drew a sword and cut off the ear of a servant of the High Priest. Only Luke tells us that Jesus healed the man and only John identifies the man swinging the sword as Peter and the servant being Malchus. Only Matthew records Jesus’ words, “Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

For me, one of the beautiful things about the Gospels is that although there are four different writers recording events from four different perspectives, when you bring them together you get the big picture. Leave one perspective out and you’re going to miss out.

Reading a “harmony of the gospels” reminded me of the different branches of Christianity in the world today. Some studies suggest that the number of denominations might be up to 43,000. One thing we need to remember is that most of these groups agree on the fundamentals of the faith or what we might call “orthodoxy.” Having said that, all of these groups disagree with one another on certain lesser points of doctrine. The number 43,000 is a loud reminder that we don’t agree…and yet, together we make up the body of Christ. As I pointed out in my previous post, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do not always agree with one another and yet together they give us the big picture of the life and teachings of Jesus. The relatively few times the gospel writers differ from one another does not bother me. Their differences are not over anything important. Their similarities far outnumber their differences.

We agree that there is orthodoxy but we can’t agree on our definition of orthodoxy. For one group something is regarded as ‘essential’ and for another it is ‘non-essential.’ In one group someone is branded a heretic and in another group they are accepted. One denomination calls another apostate because they interpret the Bible differently than they do. Every denomination believes they have the Bible on their side.

If I am right then you must be wrong.

Once I buy in to this way of thinking an adversarial relationship develops between us. The apostle Paul once called the scriptures “the sword of the Spirit’ and Christians have been stabbing each other with it ever since. Let’s return once more to the garden of Gethsemane.

When we read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John side by side here’s what happened.

Jesus and his disciples are alone in the garden. Judas arrives leading a group of soldiers charged with arresting Jesus. Judas had informed them that he would welcome Jesus with a kiss thus making it clear to the soldiers who it was they were to arrest. Judas kisses Jesus. The soldiers arrest Jesus. Sometime before or after the arrest, Jesus asks them who it is they have come for. They answer, “Jesus.” Jesus says, “I am he.” The soldiers fall back to the ground under some unknown power. They get up and start to take Jesus away. Peter gets a sword and intends to defend Jesus but in the confusion manages to cut off the right ear of the High Priest’s servant who is named Malchus. Jesus then touches Malchus and either heals the wound or puts the ear back on. Jesus says, “Stop it!” It is then that Jesus tells Peter, “Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

Peter meant well. He was just trying to defend Jesus but in so doing he cut off Malchus’ ear.

There are too many who are rushing in with swords drawn to defend God’s word. There’s too much of this. Does Jesus need me to defend him? Does God’s word need me to defend it? Does truth need me to defend it? If there is a need for Christian Apologists, do they need to be carrying a sword? Apologists always seem to morph into doctrine-police or orthodoxy-officers who patrol the streets looking for criminal activity. But they are rogue officers taking upon themselves the combined role of judge, jury, and executioner. They and they alone decide what is a violation of the law. They have no place or patience for an interpretation of the law other than theirs. When they find someone in violation they draw their sword and let it swing. Someone always loses an ear, or worse.

And Jesus said, “No more of this!”

If you are a hammer you see everything as a nail. If you are an orthodoxy-officer you see every point of theology as black or white, no gray, and the black gets lopped off like Malchus’ ear.

Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. What goes around comes around.

If I am short on grace, mercy, love, and respect towards those I have serious disagreement with, there will come a time when my need for grace, mercy, love, and respect will come up short.

I believe that there is a place for Christian Apologists. I believe that there is a time and a place to ‘defend the truth.’ I realize that the New Testament epistles are filled with correction of false doctrine. Paul defended the truth in his letters, as did Peter and John and James. But I’m not worried about them. I’m worried about us. I’m worried that we have too many apologists swinging swords and too many doctrine-police locked and loaded.

I’m puny and insignificant in comparison to God, kind of like an ant versus an elephant. God’s truth has been standing the test of time without my help. God does not need me to defend the truth of his word. I intend to continue to teach the truth as best I understand it. I will attempt to inspire all those who will listen to do their best to line up their lives with God’s truth as found in the Bible. I have no interest in being a sword-carrying apologist nor to enter into a mission to defend the Bible, especially towards those who love the Bible as much as I do but come to different interpretations than I do.

There are enough defenders of the truth out there already. I don’t think the world needs another one, especially not me. I think the world needs more Christians and pastors who are peace-makers. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” I want to be a peacemaker. I invite you to join me.

If you haven’t been keeping up with this series you might want to start with pt. 1.

Recently I completed an entire year reading only the gospels during my quiet times. More specifically, I read the gospels using Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry’s The NIV Harmony Of The Gospels. Have you ever used a ‘harmony of the gospels?’ It can be a meaningful, interesting, confusing, and troubling experience all at once. Why confusing and troubling? Because in books like this the editors line up in chronological order the events from the life of Christ providing a comparison of the similarities and sometimes differences between the gospel writers as they attempt to retell the stories and teachings of Jesus. What you soon discover is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John often disagree as to what happened, or one of the writers might leave out something significant that the others included or vice versa. Critics of the Bible use words like discrepancies and contradictions to describe these differences. I like the word differences better than discrepancies or contradictions. You see, I’m not trying to discredit the Bible or prove that it is a man-made book which is usually the agenda of those who revel in discovering the differences in the accounts of Jesus’ life. I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God but I also know that there are some differences, and sometimes significant differences in the four gospel accounts. How do I explain those differences? I don’t. I have no good explanation for them. I’ve heard some attempts but nothing that was completely satisfying to me.

I don’t know why Matthew said it was the mother of James and John who asked a favor of Jesus, and Mark says James and John were the ones who asked. I don’t know why Matthew tells the story of two blind men being healed by Jesus and Mark and Luke, telling the same story, say it was only one man. I don’t know why Mark says that Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would give his disciples the words to respond with when standing before their interrogators but Luke tells us that Jesus promised them that he would give them the words. What did Jesus really say? Was it the Holy Spirit who would visit the disciples? Was it Jesus? I don’t know. Why does Mark say that the women who visited the tomb of Jesus on that early Sunday morning were met by a young man, while Matthew says it was an angel, and Luke says it was two men? Which story is right? I don’t know. And to be honest with you, I don’t really care that much.

None of these differences touch upon anything too important. However, if we had discrepancies between gospel accounts pertaining to the nature of Christ, the Trinity, the virgin birth…subjects like that, then we would have a problem on our hands.

Critics of Christianity and the Bible argue that even if these differences are minor they prove that the Bible was written by man, contains errors, and cannot be trusted. This is not an entirely incorrect line of reasoning. In other words, if Mark was wrong in reporting that there was one man waiting at the empty tomb when there were really two…where else was he wrong? I understand this way of thinking but it’s not my way of thinking.

I’m not bothered by these differences. They make me curious as to what really happened, whose story is the correct one, but they don’t bother me. The overall harmony of the Bible, for me, is an argument in favor of it’s inspiration. I find the relatively few ‘contradictions’ interesting but not something I stumble over.

After spending a year reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John I felt that together they gave me the whole picture of Jesus’ life and ministry. I guess even that is not entirely true since John tells us that there were many other things Jesus did that were not recorded. I need all four of the gospel stories in order to get the whole picture. If I only had Luke there would be details I missed out on. If I only had John there would be a lot of information missing. No single gospel writer possesses the whole story.

No single Christian or denomination possesses the whole story. Every stream of Christianity has some important point of teaching where they are wrong. We need each other with all our differences in order to see and experience the totality of Christ. And even with one another’s unique perspective, we still “see in a mirror dimly.” I want to be looking for that part of Jesus in others that is lacking in me. Regardless of the ‘group’ I identify with the most, those outside of that group have something to teach me, something to show me, something I need. We might have significant disagreement over important theological topics but they are still my sisters and brothers in Christ. Even if I am right on a certain point and they are wrong, God loves us the same.

The gospel writers, like the body of Christ, do not always agree and yet there is a harmony between them. There is far more that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have in common than not. At any given time I can choose whether to focus on my differences with someone or focus on my similarities. It is at those points of similarity that we have harmony. When we disagree with one another we have an opportunity to practice love, humility, honor, and respect. Disagreements provide us the opportunity to experience harmony despite the disagreements.

Coming up next: Belligerent pt. 11: Chopping Off Ears While Defending the Truth.

 

 

 

 

Twice a year I offer free coaching to the first ten pastors who sign up on Facebook, Twitter, or by my monthly newsletter. Even though coaching is how I make my living I believe that you need to always give something away. Call it Christian Karma, What goes around comes around, or Whatever a man sows he will reap (Gal. 6:7). So, twice a year I give away six one hour coaching sessions to ten people.

A couple of years ago a young pastor made it into my group of freebies (yes, that’s what I call them). With about fifteen minutes left of our introductory call the conversation took an abrupt turn.

Dave, could I ask you a question?
Sure.
What’s your theology?

(Keep in mind that I have about fifteen minutes left of our phone call.)

Well _____, that’s a pretty big question. I don’t know that I have the time to explain to you what my theology is. I bet there’s something specific on your mind, something that’s important to you. If you want to ask me specifically about that you can but to tell you the truth, I’ve never been asked that question before by a pastor I was coaching. Why is this important to you?

 Well, he said, I don’t want someone counseling me who does not think the way I do.

(I’m glad my friend could not see my face because I’m not that attractive with a dropped jaw.)

Well let me explain that I am not going to be counseling you. Coaching is different than counseling. I have no desire to talk about any differences we might have theologically nor to change you over to my way of thinking. When I coach pastors, theological distinctions between us never come up.

Oh, I see, I guess you’re right. Sorry.
No problem.

I was surprised by how much my friends words, “I don’t want someone counseling me who does not think the way I do.” saddened me. I couldn’t help but think what this young pastor was poised to miss out on if all he ever did was surround himself with people who thought the way he did.

***

If I have decided to be a learner then everyone and everything becomes my teacher.

In 2005, at the age of 47, I returned to college to complete a degree I had put on hold in 1978. After two years of ministry training at San Jose Bible College (It’s not there anymore. The school is now north of Sacramento, California and is called William Jessup University) the church I was serving at offered me a full time position. My academic Dean thought I should take the job even though it meant I would have to postpone my education.

“Dave”, he said, “you’re young. You can always go back to college. This is a great opportunity. I think you should take it.”

So I said goodbye to college and hello to full time ministry. I did come back to finish my education but it took 27 years. I was part of a newly developed accelerated degree completion program. One night a week. One class at a time. Each class lasted five weeks. I was part of a cohort, a small group of students who stayed together throughout the entire program.

Over the years my college had morphed into a Liberal Arts Christian University which meant my small group of fellow students made up a wide range of theological thought. Each week I interacted with those from the far right to the far left. Some were more patient with those they disagreed with and others were not. Some seemed eager to learn new things and understand different ways Christians interpret the scriptures and then there were those who seemed threatened by such differences.

William Temple (Archbishop of Canterbury 1881-1944) said, “In our dealings with one another let us be more eager to understand those who differ from us than either to refute them or press upon them our own tradition.”

You can learn a lot when you are willing to explore outside of your own group. Your group is made up of people who think the way you do on important political, societal, and theological issues. What concerns me is how some (not all, but some) Christians and how some, (not all but some) Pastors respond to those they disagree with belligerently, refuting them and attempting to press upon their brothers and sisters in Christ their own tradition. There is no humble, respectful, teachable, open-minded dialog representing genuine interest in learning the perspective of the other person. Our opinion-door is closed, locked tight, and has pinned to the outside a sign which reads “Do not disturb. Trespassers will be shot.”

***

In pt. 8 of this series I mentioned the changes I’ve made in some of my theology over the years. For example, for many years I was very confident in what I felt the Bible said about women in the ministry. I taught my position and implemented my position in the churches I pastored. When the subject of ‘women in ministry’ became a hot-topic in my group, when I discovered that there were some in my group that interpreted the scriptures differently than I did, I decided that I was going to revisit the topic and try really, really hard to be objective. It’s really, really hard to be objective when you already feel that you are right. But I tried really, really hard. I read position papers from fellow pastors in my group. I read books by theologians who believed differently than I did. I wanted to be open, even though in my mind my understanding of women in ministry was a closed issue.

Do you know what happened? You guessed it. I changed my mind. I still think that my old position has some strong points but I feel my current position has more strong points. That’s usually how it is. Usually we have to choose the better of two good arguments. We have to make that choice for ourselves. Someone else will make a different choice. One will feel an argument is weak and the other that it is strong. Over the years I have discovered that my positions on controversial topics have their own weaknesses in them.

I wish there were one person designated by God to be the debate-fixer. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could tell us authoritatively whose interpretation of the scriptures is right and whose is wrong? I wish we had someone like that to turn to but we don’t.

I doubt that any of us will get 100% on our theology exam when we get to heaven. I wonder if in heaven all the issues we strongly disagree about will be cleared up? I wonder if we will care? Imagine the heavenly scene…

Hey, I didn’t expect to see you here.
What?
Nothing. Did you hear that Paul is gong to be giving a lecture at two on ‘Who was right and who was wrong?’
Really?
Yeah, wanna go?
I think I’ll pass. Besides, John is giving an introduction to the harp at two-thirty and I don’t want to miss that.

If I have decided to be a learner then everyone and everything becomes my teacher. Don’t be afraid to learn from those you have serious disagreements with. Everyone has something to add to our faith if we are willing to look, listen, and learn. And it is at that point where we allow our lives to be enriched by someone we disagree with that our hands are joined together rather than separated and forming fists.

Coming up next: Belligerent pt. 10: The Bible Does Contradict Itself

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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