Did Jesus Descend Into Hell?

dantes infernoIn my first response to Mark Sandlin’s post questioning whether Jesus descended into Hell, I focused on the dubious motives that led to his conclusion. Now I’m going to address the theological merits of his post.

To begin with, I’ll repeat what I said to him: I don’t really have a dog in this fight. The existence of Hell makes scripture more theologically coherent, but the scholarly analysis regarding potentially misinterpreted verses is strong enough to be warrant consideration.

But to me, removing the doctrine of Hell raises a lot of problems liberal Christians haven’t satisfactorily answered. Not only does it render a number of key verses nonsensical, it also creates a slippery slope of theological problems: if Hell doesn’t exist, does Satan? If Satan doesn’t exist, do demons? If demons don’t exist, then what exactly was Jesus doing when He exorcised a legion of demons from a possessed man, leading them to seek refuge into a pasture full of 2,000 pigs that respond by hurdling themselves to their death?

Removing the existence of demonic spirits in these verses makes Jesus either a con man (which raises the possibility that his entire ministry was based on deception) or a fool (Jesus really thought He was exorcising demons, but he was too ignorant to know better). If one concedes the existence of these demons, then one must explain how they came to be and where they normally reside.

Liberal theology makes no genuine attempt to answer to these questions because by design, answers would rule out dissenting views. The need to accommodate all possible views trumps the desire to determine the truth.

But let’s get back to Hell. One of the straw men Sandlin trots out is mocking belief in Hell as belief in “Dante’s Hell.” It’s a straw mab because Sandlin doesn’t consider the existence of Hell in any form, and writing orthodox faith off as a misreading of a 14th Century poem makes it easy to avoid addressing the doctrine itself. But Dante’s vision of hell didn’t create the fire and brimstone imagery we are familiar with. Consider this passage:

And I saw on the north a place of various and diverse punishments full of men and women, and a river of fire ran down into it. Moreover I observed and I saw pits great in depth, and in them several souls together, and the depth of that place was as it were three thousand cubits, and I saw them groaning and weeping and saying: Have pity on us, O Lord! and none had pity on them. And I asked the angel and said: Who are these, Sir? And the angel answered and said unto me: These are they who did not hope in the Lord, that they would be able to have him as their helper.

This excerpt doesn’t come from Dante. It comes from the Apocalypse of Paul, a 3rd Century Coptic text that some Christian sects used as holy scripture. It’s startling just how graphic and specific the text (as well as the Apocalypse of Peter, a companion text that covers similar territory) is regarding the punishment awaiting the condemned:

 I further observed the fiery river and saw there a man being tortured by Tartaruchian angels having in their hands an iron with three hooks with which they pierced the bowels of that old man: and I asked the angel, and said: Sir, who is that old man on whom such torments are imposed? And the angel answered and said to me: He whom you see was a presbyter who did not perform well his ministry: when he had been eating and drinking and committing fornication he offered the host to the Lord at his holy altar.


And I saw another multitude of pits in the same place, and in the midst of it a river full of a multitude of men and women, and worms consumed them. But I lamented and sighing asked the angel and said: Sir, who are these? And he said to me: These are those who exacted interest on interest and trusted in their riches and did not hope in God that He was their helper.

To my knowledge, these texts are the earlIest indication that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah had been recast as a condemnation of homosexuality:

And I saw other men and women covered with dust, and their countenance was like blood, and they were in a pit of pitch and sulphur and running down into a fiery river, and I asked: Sir, who are these? And he said to me: These are they who committed the iniquity of Sodom and Gomorrah, the male with the male, for which reason they unceasingly pay the penalties.

Even though the Council of Nicaea dismissed the validity of these apocryphal texts, their influence has reached far beyond our memory of them. Clearly the belief in “Dante’s Hell” was already in place in many sects soon after Christ’s crucifixion. You can also find a thorough explanation of guardian angels in them, as well as condemnations of abortion and homosexuality that are far more explicit than any officially canonized text:

And near that place I saw another strait place into which the gore and the filth of those who were being punished ran down and became there as it were a lake: and there sat women having the gore up to their necks, and over against them sat many children who were born to them out of due time, crying; and there came forth from them sparks of fire and smote the women in the eyes: and these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion.

(As an aside, these apocryphal texts also do a nice job debunking the myth that pre-Council Christianity was a more liberal faith.)

Sandlin spends the bulk of his post focused on the claim that Jesus descended into Hell. Along the way he provides some good information explaining why this part of the Apostles’ Creed is problematic:

The word used in the Acts verse is actually the Greek word hadēs and it just doesn’t mean Hell the way we think of it.

It simply couldn’t have.


Hadēs is a place of the dead – all the dead. It is not a place of damnation. It’s just where you go when you are dead. It’s the equivalent of the Hebrew word sheol: the abode of the dead.


The word used in the Acts verse is actually the Greek word hadēs and it just doesn’t mean Hell the way we think of it.

All of that is true, but guess what? The majority of Christian traditions (including evangelicals) don’t believe Jesus descended into Hell, either. In fact, you can find the exact same proofs against the Creed on John Piper’s website, and evangelical websites. None if them deny that Hell in these verses is better understood as Hades. The teaching comes from Catholicism,  and even Catholic websites acknowledge the merits of counterarguments, and state that it is better to say that Jesus ventured into the Land of the Dead. So disbelieving the claim that Jesus went jnto Hell is only a heresy if you’re Catholic, and even then the church is willing to acknowledge that it’s a very complex teaching.  Even the Catechism acknowledges that this is better understood as Hades.

The debates among these faith traditions isn’t over Hell; it’s what Jesus did while in Hades. So Sandlin isn’t breaking new ground here. If refuting Acts 2:31 led him to doubt Hell’s existence, then he wasn’t paying attention in seminary.

Mark Sandlin’s God

tumblr_lx0ndigYDi1r4u11so2_1280Somehow it’s appropriate that a few days after commenting about how touchy liberal Christians are about contrarian viewpoints on their blogs, I got a post of mine marked as “spam” on one of their blogs.

Blogger Mark Sandlin, who’s written a series outlining his beliefs called “Heresies From A Southern Minister,” apparently doesn’t like it when people challenge his heresies.

I’ll try to recreate the points I made to him here on my blog because they dovetail nicely with my last post. Many of Sandlin’s arguments in his series fit the equation for liberal arguments I proposed here last week:

A  A society that believes Y will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe Y.

In his post about Hell, Sandlin starts with a belief and presents arguments in favor of his predetermined outcome, which is a God that didn’t create hell. He openly states that his primary motive is personal rather than theological:

I don’t believe in Hell, and any confession that requires me to believe that Dante’s Hell is not only real but that Jesus went there…is not a confession that I care to confess.

From there Sandlin reverse-engineers his scriptural analysis so it falls in line with his goal Again, we see the liberal logic: conclusion first, scripture second:

A  A theology that believes Hell does not exist will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must not have created Hell.

Despite his lack of objectivity, my second point was that Sandlin’s flawed approach does not necessarily lead to incorrect conclusions.

I remember an old episode of Cheers that illustrates this nicely. One of the main characters was Diane, a cerebral woman with zero understanding of football. In spite of her ignorance, she kept winning the bar’s football pool. Sometimes she based her choices on how a real-life confrontation between the team animals would play out ( “A bear against a dolphin?” she scoffed without realizing she had picked a major upset), while other times she picked them based which team color scheme she preferred.

Diane ‘s whimiscal approach echoes Sandlin’s approach to “heresy”. Sometimes he stumbles onto legit theological debate (there are good arguments that hell as we understand it might not exist) but other times he’s just plain off-target (like when he argues that you can be a Christian and not believe in Christ’s divinity.)

And while I didn’t compare his approach to a sitcom character in my post, I suspect that what irked Sandlin the most was my claim that he was arguing that God must endorse his beliefs because he’s really sincere about them. Sandlin has a vested interest in worshipping a God that didn’t create Hell, so he created one. Now maybe he’s right and God didn’t really create Hell. In that case his God is closer to the truth than the God I believe in that did create Hell. But the end result is due to Sandlin’s personal preferences rather than an attempt to try to understand God. HIs series is using the same shallow approach as tea partiers who comb the Bible for evidence that God loves the free market.

Ultimately,  Sandlin was making the case for a God who makes no demands upon him. Whatever he believes, God must be fine with it precisely because Sandlin would not worship a God who expected more of him. If your faith doesn’t move you out of your comfort zone or force you to consider the possibility that God might disagree with you or demand that you do things you don’t really want to do, then I would argue that you don’t really have faith. You just have an ego that you like to talk about in the third person.

Matthew Paul Turner’s 38 Theses

matthew-paul-turner1Matthew Paul Turner recently posted a nice list of 38 inspirational suggestions for the Church. It’s a nice list of values and actions he would like to see it embrace. While I agree with most of them, there are some suggestions that I see as problematic.

Let me state up front that I get that these are supposed to be inspirational ideas, not specific agenda items. Most of my qualms are in regards to their application rather than the idea itself. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to skip over those that I’m on board with:

2) The Church needs to sober of its addiction to cool and/or its addiction of trying to be cool. We weren’t called to be cool or to pursue cool. Our addiction to that end is sucking us dry of meaning, depth, and future relevance. Besides, the Church isn’t cool, especially when its trying to be.

There are few things more cringe-worthy than seeing a Christian try to be cool. We’ve all endured pastors who try to use a pop culture reference in a sermon that reveals just how out of touch they are. But every element of our worship tradition was new at one time. What has deep meaning now was once a head-scratching change that lots of people probably didn’t get or feel comfortable with. The church constantly fumbles in its attempts to be relevant, but sometimes these attempts stick. Contemporary worship was a deliberate attempt to appeal to people who found liturgical services stuffy and dull. It’s been so successful that many Christians have never experienced any other kind of service.

8) The Church should be known more for celebrating and experiencing the mysteries of God as opposed to learning and reciting humanity’s definitions of God.

I’m not sure what Matthew’s getting at here. It sounds like he’s critiquing the Catholic Catechism, but I need to hear more.

11) The Church should stop fighting a war against religion and embrace the fact that we are a part of religion, that not all religion is bad, and that sometimes religion (in its myriad of forms) can actually be spiritually helpful for some believers.

I assume that he’s referring to evangelical rhetoric that Christianity isn’t really a religion, but a life-changing commitment. To me that line was always nothing more than a marketing strategy. I agree that it’s nonsensical, but I don’t think it amounts to a war against religion.

12) The Church should stop creating enemies out of people with whom it disagrees.

I agree completely, with one minor quibble. There’s a tendency for liberal Christians to criticize evangelicals for their adversarial mentality and miss the fact that they’re doing the same thing. I’m guilty of this, too.

13) The Church should be known for creating/engaging space, time, and practice for helping people connect to the God of the Universe.

As I see it, this idea conflicts with #2. If the church isn’t helping people connect to God, then it needs to try out new approaches, and this will inevitably lead to attempts at coolness.

15) The Church should be defined by the teachings of Christ more so than the theologies of Paul, the Apostle.

This is one of those tricky ideas that sounds good in spirit but becomes difficult to apply. No matter what denomination one subscribes to, most of our theology comes from Paul. Without him Jesus remains a great prophet whose teachings only apply to Jewish people.

22) The Church should evaluate and/or rethink its role among its community, seeking to serve the greater good of all people regardless of their creed, origins, or orientation.


27) The Church should seek to bring glory to God through worship, confession, prayer, and pursuit of the common good.

While I find postmodernism problematic, I do believe that there’s some merit to the deconstructionist approach to language. The premise that individuals apply their own meaning to language makes sense to me. (The Wikipedia article gives a good example: “Words have meaning only because of contrast-effects with other words. ‘Red’ means what it does only by contrast with ‘blue’, ‘green’, etc“). If I state that I bought a red car, you might envision a slick sporty red corvette, while your husband might envision a beat up old Volkswagen.  

The problem with the idea of a “greater good” or the “common good” is that everyone interprets the concept differently. Few people attend a church that they believe isn’t already serving the greater good. One church might define the community’s greater good as trying to convert as many people as possible, while other churches may interpret it as respecting all religious beliefs.

29) The Church should seek out ways to engage God’s resurrection story here on Earth.

This is another idea that I think needs further explanation.

Overall, I commend Matthew for coming up with a good list. But it’s deceptively easy to read some of these suggestions and come away with the belief that the church is already doing these things, or that a more conservative theology would accomplish these goals better than a liberal theology. Obviously this isn’t his intention, but that’s why we need to take the next step and work out how these goals would be carried out in real life.

20 Things You Really Need To Know About State College

state-collegeNormally I wouldn’t respond to puff pieces on real estate websites, but a number of my Facebook friends posted a feel-good article called Twenty Things You Need To Know About State College Before You Move There, and it irked me just enough to make me want to share my take on my hometown.

I’ve lived in State College (home of Penn State University) for about 29 years. I’ve seen the town from the perspective of a teenager, college student, townie, and adult student. the article does tell a few truths and half-truths, but my take isn’t quite as sunny as most people here. FYI, even though this list is mostly a rant, it’s also intended as genuine advice.

1. The Penn State Child Molestation Scandal Isn’t Over Yet

It’s been almost two and a half years since former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on 48 counts of child molestation. Even though Sandusky was tried and sentenced in 2012, the fallout from his crimes still dominates our news, and people act out about it in all kinds of annoying and embarrassing ways.

If you recall, in addition to Sandusky being charged with molesting children. three Penn State administrators were also charged with covering up his crimes. Their trials have not taken place yet. There’s not even a court date. If you move here, you will have to endure all of the ugly revelations that are certain to come out.

2. This Town Doesn’t Think Sandusky’s Crimes Were The Real Scandal; Joe Paterno’s Firing Was.

Many locals have gone out of their way to prove to the world that this town really does only care about football. You’ll see billboards and signs in storefronts decrying Joe Paterno’s firing, and every few months group of reactionary alumni, led by the Paternos and ex-Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris, hold melodramatic protests complaining about Paterno’s firing. They have also infiltrated the Penn State Trustees Board, creating this weird dynamic where members are suing each other and badmouthing each other during Trustee meetings.

Aside form a few locals who’ve gotten together to raise money for charities that assist victims of child molestation, most locals care more about the fact that Joe Paterno was fired from his job as a result of the scandal.You’ll also hear a lot of outrage over the NCAA sanctions against the football team and the Freeh Report.

3. Penn State’s Academic Calendar Dictates Life In This Town Beyond Football Season.

There are about 40,000 people who live in the State College Area. There are close to 50,000 Penn State students. Businesses that don’t cater to college students tend to struggle, and the ebbs and flows between the academic calendar can be jarring. If you like peace and quiet, the summer months are great. If you like the bustle and energy the students bring, the summer months are dull.

4. Conservative Churches Love College Students; Mainline Churches Hate Them.

I’m not kidding. If you go to an evangelical or fundamentalist church in this town, you’ll see a lot of young couples and college students. They’re always striving to bring in more of them.

The mainline churches and the Catholic Churches tend to be older, grayer, and they like it that way. If you’re a college student and you show up at these churches, you’ll be treated as a nuisance and shuttled out of view until you get the message and leave. Back when I was a twentysomething hunting for a church home, a pastor explained to me that geography was the key: the closer the church was to the campus, the more hostile it was to the students.

5. If You’re A Gay Christian, You Have Three Churches To Choose From.

That number is probably a lot better than most places in rural Pennsylvania, but for a college town, the Christian community is pretty anti-gay, and only three churches accept gays as they are.

6. Be Prepared To Lose A Lot Of Friends.

My church used to call State College a crossroads town, which is another way to say that most people are here for just a few years before they move on to another town. Obviously this affects students the most, but adults tend not to stick around long, either. A long time ago I calculated that every four or five years I had to “start over” with a new set of friends because the old batch would all get jobs elsewhere by that point.

7. The Dating Scene Is Nonexistent If You’re Over 25.

The town is populated by college students, married academics, white collar workers, and retirees. Not much else. If you’re like a friend of mine who got divorced in his 40’s and only wanted to date devout Christian women his age, forget it.

8. The Schools Are Great.

This town has a lot of doctors, professors and wealth. That translates to schools with high academic standards and motivated parents and students.

9. The Cultural Opportunities Are Pretty Damn Good.

Not as good as they used to be, though. There used to be a happening bar scene with lots of good bands and great small-label acts playing. That scene is pretty dead now, but a surprising number of big-name acts do come here, and the university itself draws a lot of well-known speakers and performances.

10. If You Get A Job Offer At Penn State, Don’t Take It.

I’m serious. In spite of the image of an ivy-covered nirvana of intellectual growth and connecting with the future leaders of America, Penn State’s administrative structure is ruthlessly corporate. Pretty much every person not working in a classroom walks in fear of losing their job or getting their healthcare axed. For more than a decade the university has started the new year with by revising health care policies that screw over both employees and retirees who assumed that their healthcare plan was secure. When one plan gets shut down, you can bet that another, more aggressive plan is coming down the pike.

The university also has this really cool policy of laying off employees before they turn 65 so they can save money.

11. Our Idiots Tend To Be A Little Smarter Than Most.

I didn’t realize this until I started traveling to churches across the country. The concentration of academia here tend to add a little complexity and nuance to even our most conservative churches (hence the fact that I belonged to an evangelical church that counted three evolutionists on its Deacon board, including myself.) The obvious first tip is that people here tend to have a better vocabulary and manner of expressing themselves. You still get a lot of Christians who buy into the Glenn Beck/ Sarah Palin political views, but    somehow they’re less off-putting because they can actually sit down and debate with you rather than scream “Obama’s A Socialist!” over and over.

12. This Town Is Like A Lunar Colony.

Like the article says, drive 15 minutes in any direction and you hit farmland. What it doesn’t say is that you have to drive 90 minutes before you hit the nearest city, Harrisburg.

13. It’s A Great Town If You’re Disabled.

That’s something I’ve learned to appreciate as I’ve gotten older. The presence of students combined with the high elderly populations means that the public transportation is excellent, and most sidewalks and buildings are wheelchair-accessible.

14. People Are Very Nice, But Skittish About Making New Friends.

See Point 6. A lot of people carry those scars with them. I can get off the mat and make new friends more easily that most people, but a lot of townies just get burned out and tired of having people come and go in their lives, so they hold onto the friends they have with every fiber of their being and don’t let others into their circle.

That said, State College is refreshingly devoid of the kind of snobbishness you see in towns where the population is static and people have lived there for generations. The snobbery here tends to be directed towards all those drinking and sex-crazed students passing out on their lawns in the middle of the night.

15. The Downtown Scene Is Dead..

This is the one point the article got blatantly wrong. State College has struggled for decades with businesses closing downtown due to high taxes and lack of business. As student housing has spread towards the northern end of town,the downtown situation has become more lifeless.  The bar scene is lively, but the kind of people inclined to visit a real estate website won’t care about that. The restaurant selection is pretty good, but the only stores that succeed are Penn State memorabilia stores, kitschy trinket stores, and pizza joints. And there’s a bank on every block.

16. Penn State Students Tend To Be Politically Lazy.

I say this because some people might be hopeful (or worried) that moving to State College will mean seeing dozens of angry sophomores railing against The Keystone XL or either side of the abortion debate. Don’t worry about it. Once in a blue moon you’ll see a protest, but the only ones that draw a consistent crowd are hellfire preachers who come in from out of town to rile up college students, and Franco Harris’s crew.

17. You’d Be Surprised How Racist This Town Is.

In spite of #11, idiocy is idiocy. Bigots here tend to be very cautious before they show their cards, but if you’re around you long enough that they think they can trust you, you might hear rants about darkies or niggers.

18. If You’re An Evangelical, You Have Five Churches To Choose From.

And if you have teenagers or are a college student, you’re going to Calvary Baptist Church. There’s no point resisting it. Pretty much every evangelical in this town has either become a member of Calvary Baptist or attended enough services there to feel like a member. These churches tend to shuttle members back and forth; if things go bad at one church, you move onto one of the other four. And Calvary will be one of your choices. You cannot resist it.

19. We Turn Centre County Blue.

After almost every election, you’ll see a little blue trianglish-shaped spot in the red conservative “T” Pennsylvania is famous for. That’s Penn State voters flexing their political muscle on the conservative boonies that surround us. Oddly enough, the conservative presence here was much more vibrant in the 90’s. Now it’s a given that Democrats will win most of our local elections.

20. There Are (Almost) No Bookstores.

Back in the 90’s, downtown State College had six bookstores, in addition to two more out in the shopping centers. There were great bookstores with really eclectic and interesting stuff- the kind of bookstores you’d dream a good college town would have. Barnes & Noble and the internet killed off all but one of them. Now we have Webster’s, which is a great used bookstore and Cafe, and a shell of what used to be Barnes & Noble. Oddly enough I’ve gone from resenting our Barnes & Noble store to pitying it, and wishing it could survive. But half of the store space has been converted to a toy store (yes, a toy store!). At least Circuit City had the guts to just pull the plug on itself instead of living off an IV Drip of Monopoly games.

The Mark Driscoll Apology Saga

mark_driscollI’d like to take a break from my Biblical Slavery series and try to piece together my thoughts on the Mark Driscoll Apology Saga. Like a lot of these whirlwind controversies that spread through the blogosphere, the hype usually dies down by the time I’m ready to write something coherent about it, but in this case I haven’t quite seen the Driscoll debate tackled from my perspective yet.

So I’m going to take off the “liberal” hat that I’ve been wearing for most of my recent posts and put my “evangelical” hat back on.

I served as a Deacon at my evangelical church for about 6 years. (As an aside to newcomers: unlike many bloggers who’ve left evangelical churches, my theology and politics didn’t change over time. The liberal evangelical I am now was the same person my conservative church appointed as Deacon way back in 2005, and my views weren’t a secret to the congregation.)

During the course of the time while I served as Deacon, I served on a number of candidate searches for Elders and Deacons. For the uninitiated, here’s how this works: your Elders and Deacons didn’t appear magically out of the ether filled with certainty that God dropped them on this earth to serve their role. In most evangelical churches, a committee is appointed that’s a mix of current leaders in the church and a few laypersons to provide a voice from the congregation. Together they come up with a list of candidates for each office.

(What does this have to do with Mark Driscoll? Stay with me. I’ll explain soon…)

There are a few rules to this process: given our church’s complementarion views, only men were considered (although our Pastor did unsuccessfully push for many years to appoint deaconesses). You also couldn’t call guys up and ask them if they wanted to serve in either role. In other words, the guy who turned down serving as an Elder wouldn’t ask if he could become Deacon instead. Our goal was to always have at least one more candidate than the number of open slots that year. So if we have two “retiring” Elders, we wanted 3 candidates so the congregation would have a true vote.

Our list of candidates usually came down to about 4-6 Elder candidates and 4-8 Deacon candidates. Most of them said no. Sometimes it was because they didn’t feel led to serve, sometimes it was PTSD fro the last time they served (anyone who’s been part of church leadership during a rough patch or crisis knows that it can get very stressful.). Except for one year when morale was especially high and we had a bunch of candidates, we always barely got enough candidates to have a true election.

You learn a lot about your congregation when you serve on the election committee. Guys that you just assumed were easy choices are more complicated than they appeared to be. Some had theological disagreements or personality quirks that disqualified them. One man refused to officially join even though he’d been attending our church every Sunday for 20 years. Even though he loved our church and had no intentions of worshipping anywhere else, his refusal to sign on the dotted line as a member prevented him from being elected as a leader. Another guy was an annihilationist (i.e. he didn’t believe in hell), and another was a member of the Masons. Our leadership didn’t have a problem with that, but enough members were suspicious of the Masons, so we decided he wasn’t worth the trouble.

On the more humorous side, there was one prominent man in our church whom many people looked up to. This guy’s name was always raised when church members approached us. They’d say “Why don’t you ever nominate him?He’s a great teacher and an upstanding man!”

The truth was that every year for more than ten years he made the short list of people we’d ask, and he’s always say no. The funny part was that he had this unofficial understanding with our leadership that every year he wanted to be asked because it was reassuring for him to know that he was still highly respected. And every year we knew that he would say no. The one year we didn’t ask him, he was very upset and hurt, even though he had no intention of saying yes.

And, of course, sometimes you found out that men who seemed to be in very happy marriages were actually pretty awful to their wives. Our church was very judicious about not gossiping about those situations; I rarely heard what the issue was. But if my Pastor said that there were serious concerns about their family life or their ability to model Christlike behavior to their wives, everyone knew that was a euphemism for domestic abuse or substance abuse.

Which brings me to Mark Driscoll. One of the lessons I learned from my Elders was that it was a mistake to view church leadership as a ladder to climb. Serving as a Deacon didn’t mean you were on your way to becoming an Elder down the road; they were different roles with different gifts and qualifications. It’s possible that one might follow that track, but we strove hard to discourage that mentality. I also learned that people shouldn’t take it as an insult if they’re not asked to serve in leadership. Different people have different strengths and weaknesses, and if you have a great vision for missions or evangelism, becoming Elder may not be the best use of your abilities. My pastor was a big advocate of considering younger candidates if they fit the criteria.

And that’s the key: if they fit the criteria. I remember one year there was an incident where one of our most respected members just lost it on the ministry team he was serving with. He was frustrated with the fact that his committee wasn’t showing the same zeal and passion for his ideas that he felt, plus there were a number of difficult trials he was privately going through. And it all came out as a vicious rant against his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. That was the only time anyone ever saw him lose his temper, but it was such a volcanic display that it shut down any possibility that he would be considered a viable leadership candidate unless he showed significant emotional and spiritual growth over time. And part of the growth we were looking for was a willingness to face up to that incident and apologize directly to the people he wronged.

As the years passed and it became apparent the he was going to remain the dedicated guy who served in various ministries but never owned up to his mistakes or apologized for them. He always wanted to run things his way, which is a red flag if you’re looking for Christlike leaders. But we didn’t need his pattern of stubbornness to know he would be a bad fit as a leader. That one incident was enough for us to make sure he never got in the position of being the head of any ministry.

As I see it, Mark Driscoll is that guy times a thousand. I can (and have) spent a lot of time venting about Driscoll’s various controversies, but oddly enough his apology made me realize that it’s best to just think of him as the guy who got to be pastor but wasn’t fit for the job.

It’s not just that he’s controversial or he’s guilty of a number of sins, missteps, and poorly chosen words. It’s that Driscoll gets tangled up in controversies that most Christians (including most evangelicals) wouldn’t even consider doing, let alone be tempted by.

I don’t know of any Christians, no matter how passionate they are about traditional gender roles, who would even think about venting publicly about “effeminate worship leaders.” I can’t think of any other pastor who’s ever made disrespectful public remarks about his Elders. I can’t think of any pastor, no matter how much fame and celebrity status tempted them, who’d go so far as to hire a service to game the NY Times bestseller list. I can’t think of any pastor who would insist that wives perform vulgar sex acts, and insult them if they refuse to. I can’t think of any pastor who would end a letter to his church -especially a otter intended to betaken as an apology – by threatening them with legal action if they distributed the letter to people outside the church.

In my view, that’s the reason why Driscoll gets so much justifiable criticism: he does stuff that would disqualify him from being considered as head of any church ministries, and it’s oddball stuff that anyone over 17 would have outgrown.

If a guy like Driscoll strolled into the average evangelical church, I can tell you exactly what would happen to him. He’d approach the pastor on fire for a more aggressive and zealous vision of church, and he’d volunteer to help spearhead the church towards that new direction. The pastor would patiently praise him for his enthusiasm and gently suggest that Mark needed more experience and spiritual maturity before he could take on such a role. And then the pastor would consult with an Elder, and that Elder would offer to take Mark under his wing and disciple him. The Elder would try to get Mark to see that all of his anger isn’t pure or righteous, and there are ways to communicate his ideas with more humility. (I’m setting aside for a moment that I disagree with many of Mark’s ideas, since my point here is about Mark’s demeanor). And at that point Mark would either agree to submit to the teachings of someone older and wiser than him and learn to set aside his craving for getting what he wants, or he’d walk away in a huff mumbling curses and go hunt for church willing to give him some power.

I’m willing to wait and see if Mark’s apology expand in scope to include offenses beyond the NY Times controversy and people whom he’s wronged over the years, but for now at least the tone seems to reflect a desire to offer the smallest apology possible and still have it be called an apology.

Loving Church Even When It’s Boring

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.51.35 PMI’m only vaguely familiar with Donald Miller, so it feels awkward to dive into the recent controversy surrounding him. Miller is the author of Blue Like Jazz, which was a mini-sensation in evangelical circles a few years ago. All II knew about the book was that Christian teens loved it and youth pastors spent a lot of time condemning or praising it.

The firestorm began when Miller confessed that he had no interest in attending church. Initially I was shocked that a bestselling evangelical author would risk his writing career with such a scandalous confession, but Miller’s appeal resides in his willingness to dance on the edge of acceptable evangelical beliefs a la Rob Bell. But both of his posts dovetail nicely with my last post.

Last week I stated that my comfort level with a church is largely based on its ability to answer the question “Why are we here?” in a universal sense and an immediate “why are we here on thhs particular Sunday morning?” sense.

Miller approaches this from a more immediate angle: he doesn’t get much out of church, and for him it’s a design flaw rather than a problem with one particular style of worship.

I’ll confess that I share some of his frustrations. Personally I’d rather suffer through a Two and a Half Men marathon than listen to contemporary worship music. For me it’s not about the song choice or the quality of the performance; I just find  CCM mind-numbingly vapid, no matter how sincere or reverent its lyrics. I used to tell my Campus Crusader friends that I felt CCM never stops trying to sell its listeners on its sincerity (i.e. We’re really really joyful, and we can prove it if you listen to us sing the word joy forty seven times!)

So for me worship music was thirty minutes of service that I tuned out. I figured that this is the part of the service that other people loved, and I had no business pissing on their joy or tapping into my inner hipster and looking down on their musical tastes. As I see it, there is no worship music that truly moves me, so quibbling over the music seemed like wasted energy.

The irony was that, due to my lack of interest in CCM, I rarely heard the original versions of the songs my church sang. Inevitably I discovered that the rag-tag sing alongs evangelical churches sang every Sunday turned out to be horrifically overproduced dreck, and if anything, the congregations’ lo-fi versions were better than the originals.

All of this is a roundabout way to say that I share many of Miller’s frustrations, and i’m not sure how church – particularly the contemporary worship format-  can be done differently. However, I also don’t expect my needs to take center stage when I worship.

I love going to church (even though I don’t currently have one I’m attending), even when I’ve hit a dry spot where the sermons or Sunday School classes leave me wanting. I look at church the way people look at school: the more you invest in it, offer your services, and connect with people, the more rewarding it will be. Except church has the added bonus of serving and worshipping God, and no matter how rewarding work is, it can’t compare to worshipping with fellow believes. As Jonathan Leeman so adeptly puts it:

“I don’t know how we can say we love and belong to the church without loving and belonging to a church. Or saying we want to connect with God, but we won’t listen to God’s Word for only 45 minutes out of all the minutes in a week. Ultimately, it’s like claiming we’re righteous in Christ, but not bothering to “put on” that righteousness with how we live.”

Church Is Hard


I may not be attending a church right now, but I believe that I should be.

Unlike a lot of liberal Christians, I don’t flinch at the notion that we’re obligated to worship as a community. I believe that true spiritual growth can only happen when we’re challenged in life, and Christians who go it alone tend to seek out self-serving outlets for their spirituality. Confirmation bias may be a major problem for the church, but it’s a problem for the unchurched as well. It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of limiting your social circles to people who already agree with you. It’s also far too easy to fall out of the habit of prayer and devotional reading when you aren’t surrounded by peers who hold each other accountable. Sure, you can wax poetic about how spirituality shouldn’t operate on a schedule, but in our modern age we’re conditioned to live by schedules. And the deeper into an unstructured spiritual life one goes, the easier it is to let other activities take the place of worship.

This might come as a surprise given the amount of space I’ve devoted here to my misadventures in the Christian wilderness. But it was prompted by an essay by Episcopalian priest Tom Ehrich entitled Church Shouldn’t Be This Hard.

When I first read Ehrich’s post, I found myself agreeing with it enthusiastically. Church should be a safe place. It should be safe to confess our sins. It should be safe to love whoever one feels called to love. It should be safe to fail at these things. And yes, for many church is a dangerous place, and even the most dedicated churchgoers agree that  people in church tend to be:

“guarded, self-protective, hemmed in by tradition and expectation, [and] required to obey rules.”

But the more I thought about it, the more I questioned Ehrich’s vision. Anyone who insists on these things as a condition for going to church is setting themselves up for disappointment. Mankind is sinful, and any institution we establish, no matter how lofty its goals, will always fall well short of its ambitions. That doesn’t mean that churches shouldn’t strive to meet Ehrich’s vision. But it does mean that part of spirituality is learning how to deal with the imperfections of those around you. For many people church is hard, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

So when I came across Rod Dreher’s critique of Ehrich, I found myself mostly in agreement with Rod. While I think Dreher jumps too quickly towards assuming that Ehrich’s vision is a “standard liberal Protestant agenda,”  I also believe Dreher provides a more useful vision of a church that functions within the real-life context of sinners trying to make sense of God while they learn to get along with each other. As Dreher puts it:

This is hard. Because our hearts are so hard, the religious life has to be hard as well. Oh, it should be comforting too, in season, but any authentic religion will, at times, be hard. Dying to oneself is hard, but in a Christian sense, if you’re not dying, you’re not living. The saying goes, “The Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners.” True! But a hospital treats the sick, and helps restore them to health. It doesn’t confirm the sick in their sickness.

As I see it, churches should be able to answer the question “Why Are We Here?” in both the theological sense and the immediate context of a Sunday morning service. I worshipped enthusiastically with a congregation of conservative evangelicals because they could succinctly answer these questions: they worshipped Christ and sought to live love each other and live their lives as He called them to. And they show up on Sunday mornings out of reverence for God rather than their own selfish desires and preferences.

I left that church when I realized that its priorities had shifted towards winning political battles rather than spiritual ones. Their church services, like those of the evangelical churches around them. functioned as a refuge from their theological and political adversaries, and as a place to launch counterattack against the community via the Gender Wars and a Randian political agenda.

But even though I believe that evangelicals have become one of the darkest forces in American politics, I also believe that they have the potential to become a light unto the world once more, and they wouldn’t need to become Episcopalians to do it. Just return to the Gospel. Shed the tea party politics, the homophobia, and the misogyny, and get back to what really matters. I’ll gladly go back to church if I can find a church that strives to follow the Gospel, even if going to church is harder than going it alone.