Is It Okay to Criticize Pastors?

In the last couple weeks, there have been several stories in the news and in the Christian blogosphere about Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church in Matthews, NC. He’s certainly no stranger to criticism, for everything from his unorthodox ecclesiology to his association with prominent “Word-Faith” pastors to his 16,000 sq. ft. mega-mansion. For a run-down on the most recent brouhaha—involving the methods used by Elevation Church to engineer mass baptisms—check out this post by Jeff Wright, pastor of Midway Baptist Church here in Cookeville.

As I’ve seen Jeff’s post and many others like it appear on social media in recent days, there has been one response that seems to insert itself into every comment thread. It goes something like this:

Paul wrote in Philippians 1:18 that we should rejoice whenever the gospel is preached, no matter the motive, so what gives you the right to criticize any Christian pastor?

First of all, let me applaud those who have asked this question. I appreciate arguments made from Scriptural authority, even when I may disagree with someone’s conclusions from that Scripture. But the question for today is, does Philippians 1:18 mean that we are never to call out pastors who we believe to be in error?

Let’s turn to J. Gresham Machen, who addressed this very question in his book Christianity and Liberalism (my review) way back in 1923:

In short, the rival preachers made of the preaching of the gospel a means to the gratification of low personal ambition; it seems to have been about as mean a piece of business as could well be conceived. But Paul was not disturbed. “Whether in pretence, or in truth,” he said, “Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, ye, and will rejoice” (Phil. i. 18). The way in which the preaching was being carried on was wrong, but the message itself was true; and Paul was far more interested in the content of the message than in the manner of its presentation. It is impossible to conceive a finer piece of broad-minded tolerance.

But the tolerance of Paul was not indiscriminate. He displayed no tolerance, for example, in Galatia. There, too, there were rival preachers. But Paul had no tolerance for them. “But though we,” he said, “or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. i. 8). What is the reason for the difference in the apostle’s attitude in the two cases? What is the reason for the broad tolerance in Rome, and the fierce anathemas in Galatia? The answer is perfectly plain. In Rome, Paul was tolerant, because there the content of the message that was being proclaimed by the rival teachers was true; in Galatia he was intolerant, because there the content of the rival message was false. In neither case did personalities have anything to do with Paul’s attitude. (p. 22, emphasis mine)

So whether it’s Furtick or any other pastor, the real question is whether the Jesus he preaches is the real one. If so, then our task is to correct with gentleness whatever errors may be present in his teaching. If not, our task is to warn sheep about the wolf in the fold.

The Soul With Its Pants On

I enjoyed this quote by the title character in Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow:

I took to studying the ones of my teachers who were also preachers, and also the preachers who came to speak in chapel and at various exercises. In most of them I saw the same division of body and soul that I had seen at The Good Shepherd. The same rift ran through everything at Pigeonville College; the only difference was that I was able to see it more clearly, and to wonder at it. Everything bad was laid on the body, and everything good  was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around. If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins–hatred and anger and self-righteousness and even greed and lust–came from the soul. But these preachers I’m talking about all thought that the soul could do no wrong, but always had its face washed and it’s pants on and was in agony over having to associate with the flesh and the world. And yet these same people believed in the resurrection of the body (p. 49).

Polishing Off the Old Blog One Last Time in 2013

*Cough* Wow, it sure is dusty in here! *Cough*

A few months ago, I mentioned that I’d be posting less frequently here because of a new hymn-related writing project. (Which, by the way, has been a lot of fun! Check out Systematic Hymnology and follow along on Twitter and Facebook if you haven’t already.) But “less frequently” became “not at all” pretty quickly, so I wanted to squeeze in one last blog post in 2013 to catch up those interested with the twists and turns life has thrown our family in the last few months.

The biggest adventure by far has been learning that both of our daughters were born with moderate hearing loss. When our first daughter was born, she failed her hearing screening at the hospital, and went on to fail hearing screenings scheduled about every 6 weeks until her second birthday. While we noticed that her speech was not developing, our local doctor told us there was nothing to be concerned about and that she would probably catch up on her own, so we didn’t think too much of it. Maybe we should have.

When our second daughter also failed her newborn hearing screening, we began to suspect that there may actually be something wrong. We scheduled an appointment with a different audiologist for a second opinion. Her opinion was that our older daughter should have gotten a referral for hearing aids a year earlier. She referred us to an ENT at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, who seconded her opinion.

Suffice it to say that we aren’t very happy with the local doctor… but I don’t want to dwell on that part of the story. We won’t be back to see him, but we have been extremely pleased with the care we have received from our new doctor, and the entire team at Vandy. They’ve been very accommodating in fast-tracking both of our girls through all the various tests and procedures it took to get their hearing aids, which we received a few weeks ago. We’re still adjusting, but the difference already is amazing! I continue to marvel at the gifts God gives to the world through scientific progress and the development of new technologies that make life easier. The prognosis for both girls is that, while they will likely need hearing devices for the rest of their lives, they should quickly catch up with their peers in all the areas they are delayed. And even though they won’t “need” sign language in order to communicate, we have found that learning ASL has been incredibly beneficial as well as a ton of fun! (If you have kids, I can’t recommend the Signing Time series enough! Some episodes are available on Netflix, and many of the DVD’s are at our local library.)

Blessed as we’ve been through this process, it has been exhausting in many ways. For the last several months, we’ve had appointments at Vanderbilt nearly every week. It has seemed at times that every day we are either making a trip or recovering from one. There have also been hours of research into hearing loss, and the various procedures the girls have been undergoing, and hours more working through tough financial decisions as we adjust to our new reality, and the necessary adjustments it has meant for our family budget. This is definitely the #1 reason for my reduced writing capacity recently!

Added to all this, though, is the fact that our house is currently on the market. It has been showing well and frequently (which certainly doesn’t help with the exhaustion, but we’re not complaining!), but no sale yet. It’s not an ideal time to sell a house, but we have had several very interested potential buyers, and are hopeful that the house will sell quickly after the holidays are over. While we love our current house and location, our desire is to purchase land outside Cookeville, so that we will be able to raise some chickens, goats, and who knows what else, as well as starting a large garden. We have also felt a strong desire to downsize and simplify our lives… which probably should be a separate post at some point soon. We’re excited to see where the Lord will lead us as this process is completed! If you know anyone in the market for a home in an ultra-convenient Cookeville city location, we’d appreciate you kindly directing them to our listing!

One last thing:

As many readers follow this blog for book reviews (of which there have been none for months, sadly), let me assure you that I’ve not stopped reading, despite everything else! I can’t guarantee that I’ll get reviews written for some of these books, but I can at least share what I’ve read recently, along with a brief thumbs-up or down:

Recent Reads

Clash of Titans: Atlas Shrugged, John Galt & Jesus Christ, by Chad Brand and Tom Pratt — Big thumbs up for this one, though it won’t appeal to everyone. If you enjoyed (or hated) Atlas Shrugged, this book will give you a deeper appreciation/understanding of it. It’s the best  critique from a Christian perspective I’ve seen, pointing out Ayn Rand’s merits (of which there are many) while not hesitating to also warn against her flaws (which are profoundly dangerous).

Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians: Pushing Back Against Cultural and Religious Critics, by Mark Coppenger — Like the last book, this was written by one of my seminary professors. I loved their classes so much, I figured I’d love their books too, and I was right! Dr. Coppenger has a unique take on apologetics, in which he bases his defense of Christianity on the moral fruit it has brought to the world (e.g., hospitals, universities, ending slavery, etc.). He also does a “fruit check” in the lives of Christian leaders contrasted with the lives of leaders of rival world religions and philosophies. Quite interesting!

Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem, by Kevin DeYoung — This book seemed fitting given my recent circumstances, and it was tremendously helpful. I’d say more, but I really don’t have the time.

Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry — Ever since I read Hannah Coulter (my review), I’ve been looking forward to another visit to the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. As much as I enjoyed HC, I enjoyed this one even more!

Reading Now

Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology, by Vern Poythress — Admission #1: I bought this book pretty much based on the title alone. That said, it has been really interesting! Poythress (an author I’ve read and enjoyed before) encourages Christians to be open to differing perspectives on the interpretation of Scripture. While the Bible is infallible, our understanding and interpretation of it is now, and it is good to acknowledge that no one perspective gets everything right. We have much to learn from those who view things differently, and from attempting to look at Scripture in a fresh way ourselves. Admission #2: I set this book down a few weeks ago and haven’t picked it back up, mostly because I decided I wanted to use my vacation time to indulge primarily in fiction reading… I’m hoping to get back to it soon.

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel — This is the second book in the “Thomas Cromwell Trilogy”; I finished the first book (Wolf Hall) last week. The trilogy is historical fiction based in the court of Henry VIII, told from the perspective of his Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell. I’ve wanted to read this series ever since I heard an interview with the author on NPR earlier this year, and it hasn’t disappointed. Go pick up a copy and read it!

Up Next

Other than finishing the Mantel trilogy, I’m most looking forward to reading The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down With the Titanic. I’ve heard wonderful things about this book, and am glad it’s finally staring at me from the very top of my “to read” pile. After that, I hope to be getting back into seminary classes (I’ve had to take a lengthy break for both financial and schedule reasons), which means my reading will once again be dominated by textbooks.

Many blessings to you this New Year!

The Hayekian Book of Revelation

Gregory Alan Thornbury, the new president at The King’s College, recently gave a fascinating convocation address to begin the school year. In it, he made reference to Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, and encouraged students to think about philosophical ideas that have stood opposed to some of the philosophies that dominated much of the world during the last century: “totalitarianism, fascism, and a century of holocaust.”

Jerry Bowyer of Forbes magazine interviewed Dr. Thornbury on this and other matters—ranging from economics to Harry Potter to Dr. Who to Christian eschatology—and I thoroughly enjoyed it! For those who don’t want to listen to the entire interview, Bowyer has transcribed the portion of the interview devoted to Hayek and John’s Apocalypse. Here’s an excerpt:

I think that when you study the texts of particularly the New Testament, although it has its origins in the Mosaic Law, I think what you see there is the seedbed of freedom of conscience. You see democratic religion in the pages of the New Testament. So whereas some people in Acts chapter 5 see some kind of nascent socialism, actually what you’re seeing is free people electing to gather together in solidarity around key principles and ideals and goals, and the people who joined in that were people like Lydia. There was a mercantile aspect to the early Christian movement. When I read Hayek and I see his argument for the link between private property and freedom, I see a direct line going all the way back to those pages of the New Testament, because what the Apostle Paul and others were representing was an alternative to totalitarianism. When you look at the Apostle John – and whatever else you think the Book of Revelation says about the future—what it definitely was, was the greatest political protest letter ever penned in the history of the world, because he was saying, “The state has no business telling us how we should govern our own life together.” And when I say “society” or “culture”, here’s how I’m defining that, Jerry: I take a nineteenth century definition by Johann Herder, who many recognize as the founding father of modern sociology. He said, “Culture is the lifeblood of a civilization. It’s the flow of moral energy that keeps a society intact.” So, when I see Hayek talking about making sure that we stay free of tyranny, I see the entailments of that going all the way back to the emperor and Domitian and the Apostle John.

This article is definitely worth your while! Read the rest here.

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New Blog is Live!

I’m really excited to announce the launch of my new blogging project, Systematic Hymnology! There I’ll be publishing stories and doctrinal studies based on the great hymns and songs of the Church. So far there are only a few posts  over there, but I’ve got plenty more written and plan to publish 2-3 a week. I’ve been working on it for quite a while (which explains the lack of recent posting here at H&L), and hope you’ll head on over there. I’d also love if you will follow the blog on Facebook and Twitter!

Not to worry, though. Now that I’ve done the hard part, I hope to get back to writing posts (especially book reviews) here on this blog as well. It may take me a while to get into a new writing groove, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Retooling

After taking some time to think and pray about the direction of my writing and the use of my time, I have come to the decision to change the focus of H&L. I’ll still be using this blog to post book reviews (of which I have about a half dozen in the pipeline that I need to finish and post), and will periodically write other blog posts and articles as well, but these posts may become increasingly few and far between… at least for this season of my life. I do plan to keep using the Facebook Page and Twitter feed to link to noteworthy content in the realms of theology, politics, and economics, and look forward to interacting more there.

The reason for all the changes is that I am going to be launching a new writing project soon! This will include a new blog, but hopefully will also lead to other publishing opportunities as well. I’ve been working ahead and have the first couple months of blog posts already written, so when I get a design I’m happy with and am ready to go public, I’ll be sure to publicize it here. I hope those of you who have been faithful readers here will enjoy the new blog as well.

I don’t want to give too much away just yet, but I can tell you that the new project will be in the area of the theology of the arts, something which is a passion of mine and which will integrate well with my job, making it easier to make more efficient use of my time. I’m pretty excited about it! Stay tuned…

Bottom-Up Leadership

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Ron Paul’s latest book, The School Revolution: A New Answer for Our Broken Education System. Last night I particularly appreciated a passage where Dr. Paul wrote about the process of becoming a good leader:

Successful leadership begins with self-government. It is extended through successful followership. A person learns the basics of leadership by working closely with a competent leader who serves as a model. He gains access to the leader through his willingness to submit to leadership. This is the principle of bottom-up leadership. It begins at the bottom. Then, over a period of time, the follower advances in his level of responsibility. Maybe he attends a meeting on a regular basis; he shows up. This is basic and absolutely necessary to success in life, because a lot of people do not show up. Maybe he gets there early. He helps to set up the chairs. He learns how to make the coffee. He offers himself as a servant to whoever is running the meeting. He becomes useful to somebody else.

The themes of responsibility and servant leadership are recurring ones as Paul outlines his methodology for producing educated citizens who are ready to succeed in whatever course they choose to pursue, and to lead with humility:

So few people are faithful servants that those people inevitably rise in the chain of command, even if there is no official chain of command. So few people are reliable followers that leaders reach out to them, train them, disciple them, and put them in positions of leadership.

The discipleship model of servant leadership is prevalent in the Bible, so it should come as no surprise that Dr. Paul frequently credits his study of Scripture in forming his own style of leadership. Yet another reason to love the good Doctor!  I hope you’ll check out his book. You won’t regret it!