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.

Andrew Peterson in Cookeville on September 6!

I can’t tell you how excited I am that one of my favorite singer/songwriter/authors is going to be back in Cookeville soon! Many readers will remember him from his performance of the Behold the Lamb of God concert at Stevens Street Baptist Church. Many others may be familiar with his work in writing the books of The Wingfeather Saga (see my reviews of the first three books in this series here, here, and here), which are apparently reckoned by some to be “children’s” books, but they are among my recent favorites.

On Friday, September 6, as part of the Humanitas Forum on Christianity and Culture, Peterson will be speaking at Tennessee Tech with a talk entitled, “The Story of Us All: Telling On Ourselves, Telling About Ourselves”. I’m fairly certain this man doesn’t know how to be uninteresting, so I hope you’ll join us! Here’s a portion of the press-release for the evening:

Storytelling and songwriting are autobiography. In fact, every created thing bears the image, in some way, of its creator. Many of us shy away from sharing our own stories because we believe they aren’t interesting or relevant when in fact our stories may be one of the most significant things we have to offer to our communities.

From Rich Mullins to Frederick Buechner to J.R.R. Tolkien, Andrew will explore the ways in which honest storytelling has shaped his understanding of the Gospel. In this talk, we’ll get a chance to hear Andrew unpack the commitment that guides his craft as a musician and a writer:  “To tell the truth, and to tell it as beautifully as possible.”

You can get the rest of the details of this talk from the Humanitas blog. And if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook I’ll make sure you don’t miss it, as I’ll be promoting this event quite a bit over the next couple weeks!

Friday, September 6, 2013 — 7:00 p.m.
School of Nursing and Health Science Building Auditorium
On the campus of Tennessee Tech
Cookeville, Tennessee
Doors open at 6:30

Reflections on the Trayvon Martin Shooting

Unlike seemingly everyone on the planet, I didn’t follow the details of the George Zimmerman trial at all while it was going on. Other than a vague awareness of the fact that the trial was taking place, I just wasn’t paying attention. Maybe I should have been, but the spin and the anger and the speculation turned me off to the whole ordeal. As with other high-profile trials  in the last few years, I decided to wait until the evidence had all been presented and a verdict reached before going back to review the case and form my own opinion.

I had not planned to write anything about the case, since there’s already been so much said, but considering I’ve already posted some other responses to the H&L Facebook page, I suppose I’ve “entered the fray” after all. So here are a few reflections on a trial that has captured the passions of the nation.

The Shooting Was a Tragedy

While it seems this ought to be the one thing everyone could agree on, that’s apparently not the case. I’ve seen several variations of “he had it coming” on social and national media, and that’s a real shame. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that a young man who was made in the image of God is dead.

“Stand Your Ground” Is a Good Law

While it is certainly debatable whether or not this law is applicable in the Zimmerman/Martin case (it was not part of the defense’s case), it’s the right law. People have a fundamental human right to defend themselves and others from a determined attacker. I am thankful to live in a state that recognizes that right. I certainly hope that I will never be in a situation that would require me to defend myself or my family, but you better believe that if we ever were in real danger, the choice between my kids and the bad guy would be an easy one.

Race Is Still An Issue

Another observation that ought to be filed under “obvious”, but it’s worth acknowledging. Maybe Zimmerman’s initial actions were racially motivated. Maybe they weren’t. Regardless, this trial has sparked a national discussion on racial profiling, something that really exists no matter how much some might like to deny it.

Twenty years before George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, Michael W. Smith wrote these words in a song on one of the favorite albums of my childhood:

Somebody’s just assuming
He’s up to nothing good
‘Cause he’s not like the others
There goes the neighborhood
What kind of world are we living in
We judge a man by the tone of his skin
It’s crazy

It’s one thing to say (particularly as a WASP) that Smith was right and that we should all be “Color Blind”. It’s another thing entirely to ignore the fact that, while we’ve certainly made much progress, racism is still alive and unwell in this country. And I’m not giving minorities a pass here. Racism goes both ways.

But I can’t know what it’s like to be a black person in America. When our President says that most African-Americans know what it’s like to be followed just because they are black, I’m inclined to believe him. And for those who are disinclined to believe anything our President says, here’s conservative Christian Trip Lee saying the same thing. I have no frame of reference for beginning to understand how that feels, but when I see things like this video, contrived as it might be, it just makes me angry:

We still have a lot of hard conversations ahead of us in this country to work toward racial reconciliation. We need to be able to have those conversations with hearts and minds open. We need to remember that the only solution to the root of racial tensions is the gospel.

There Are Many Definitions of the Word “Fact”

I am convinced that one of the main reasons people are so divided over this case has to do with where they get their news. It’s so hard to find any semblance of objectivity in today’s news outlets! We expect subjectivity in editorial content, but it all too often appears in reports of so-called “facts” as well.

For example, compare the following two articles:

Both of these articles claim to report the facts. One is from a left-leaning MSM outlet, the other is a right-wing blog. Both resort to a little editorializing, even in the selection of which facts get reported, which can paint a very different picture of a man.

CNN includes details about George Zimmerman’s wife being arrested and charged with perjury for falsifying financial reports during bail bond proceedings. American Thinker includes details about prior crime, and the reasons Zimmerman joined the neighborhood watch in the first place. CNN says that Zimmerman followed Martin “against the advice of the 911 dispatcher,” though it is unclear exactly what happened at that moment, without any eyewitnesses. American Thinker invites readers to “do the math” to determine what Martin must have been doing during times unaccounted for, again without eyewitnesses to confirm whatever suspicions the reader may adduce.

In all my reading this week, the best summary of the case I’ve encountered came from a surprising source, Slate.com’s William Saletan. His article “You Are Not Trayvon Martin” is definitely worth a read. Saletan originally intended to write an article accusing Zimmerman of racial profiling and vigilantism, but after carefully reviewing the details of the case, he realized he “had been wrong about many things.”

He concludes that Martin and Zimmerman both made mistakes that night that led to the tragic shooting, and I think he’s right. I also agree with him that…

George Zimmerman Was a Reckless Fool

Zimmerman had every reason to be suspicious of strangers in his neighborhood after a spat of crimes, but I believe his suspicions got the better of him. Neighborhood watch programs can be great tools for reducing crime, and it is admirable to be concerned for the safety of your neighbors, as Zimmerman was. But to follow and report on the movements of a suspicious person—particularly one who has not been observed in the commission of any crime—goes beyond the role of a neighborhood watch member, even a block captain.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but had Zimmerman merely phoned the police and continued on his way home—perhaps even calling some of his neighbors to warn them to also keep an eye open—the fatal encounter would never have happened. I don’t think he was out looking for a fight,but though he is not the one who initiated the physical confrontation, his actions did result in an unnecessary death. That said…

The Jury Reached the Right Verdict

Foolishness is not illegal. Once Trayvon Martin started beating him up, Zimmerman was within his legal rights to defend himself, with lethal force if necessary (which it very well may have been). But there was no evidence to find beyond a reasonable doubt that his intent was to harm Martin or to provoke him into a confrontation. In fact, I think there was strong evidence to support Zimmerman’s account of the events of that night. Once Martin began assaulting him, Zimmerman was left with few options. But he was only in that position as the result of poor choices made by both men. Again, as Saletan says, don’t “confuse acquittal with vindication.”

So Where Do We Go From Here?

Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know that efforts to politicize this event one way or another are despicable, and oversimplifying the case to the point where one man is completely innocent and the other completely guilty is naïve. I can’t begin to tell non-Christians how to process this trial, but for those who are believers, two of my seminary professors have very wise counsel on the matter.

Russell Moore, whose Ethics course I took earlier this year at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently re-posted a great article (which I shared on this blog when it originally appeared two years ago) about the role of the gospel in fighting racial injustice. As the new president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Moore is one of the leading Southern Baptist voices on ethical issues, and I think he is right to focus on racial justice.

Al Mohler, the president of SBTS, has also published a wise and compassionate article that reminds us of the central tragedy of the case and the immensity of the challenge that lies ahead in our country, a challenge in which compassionate, conservative Christians must take the lead by boldly proclaiming the gospel, and living it out in every aspect of our lives.

I know this world would be a better place
The only race would be the human race
All of those barriers would be erased
Why can’t we be color blind?

Those Who Pervert the Constitution

Many words have been spilled about today’s SCOTUS ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act. Along with the plethora of opinions (of which everyone has one, though I’ll be keeping mine to myself for the time being) have come the predictable quote memes on the Facebook news feeds, thanks to our collective love of appealing to authority.

One meme in particular stuck out to me today, posted to the Facebook page of Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK):

I happen to applaud and agree with this quote. And it has the added virtue of being correctly attributed to our 16th president, unlike so many other Abraham Lincoln “quotes”.

These lines come from a speech Lincoln gave on September 16 & 17 in Kansas & Ohio, during his first presidential campaign. The country was in a state of increasing turmoil over the issue of slavery, with people deeply divided by strongly held convictions. In many ways, this parallels the current divide in our country over the ability for homosexuals to marry. It is somewhat ironic, then, that I have seen Lincoln quoted today by both proponents and critics of gay marriage.

So who has the better case for invoking Lincoln’s support? Let’s take a closer look at the context, shall we?

The Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling is far from its first controversial judgment. In 1857, the Court handed down the infamous Dred Scott Decision. Seven of the nine justices ruled that no slave or descendant of a slave could ever be considered a U.S. citizen. They also declared that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, meaning that Congress had no authority to tell states that slavery must be illegal (because this would be violating the 5th Amendment’s prohibition of citizens being deprived of their “property” without due process of the law).

Proponents of slavery saw this as a big win, and an opportunity to see a controversial practice legalized in more states. Abolitionists cried foul, stating that the institution of slavery was wicked, and that the nation had a moral obligation to prevent its spread. This became the most heated topic of debate between the two leading candidates in the upcoming presidential election: Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

Douglas, citing the principle of popular sovereignty, argued that individuals should have the right to determine for themselves whether or not they would own slaves, and that no one else had the right to object. The government’s responsibility was to protect the sovereignty of the states to determine for themselves whether slavery should be allowed:

Now, I hold that Illinois had a right to abolish and prohibit slavery as she did, and I hold that Kentucky has the same right to continue and protect slavery that Illinois had to abolish it. I hold that New York had as much right to abolish slavery as Virginia has to continue it, and that each and every State of this Union is a sovereign power, with the right to do as it pleases upon this question of slavery, and upon all its domestic institutions. … And why can we not adhere to the great principle of self-government, upon which our institutions were originally based. I believe that this new doctrine preached by Mr. Lincoln and his party will dissolve the Union if it succeeds. They are trying to array all the Northern States in one body against the South, to excite a sectional war between the free States and the slave States, in order that the one or the other may be driven to the wall.

Lincoln countered that slavery was wrong, and that national policy should discourage it. He claimed that what would actually send the nation to war was trying to exist as “half Slave, half Free” (from his famous “A House Divided” speech). But, like Douglas, he affirmed the Constitutional authority granted to the states to determine their own laws. This brings us to our pertinent quote, in it’s proper context (for even more context, read the entire speech here):

We expect upon these principles to ultimately beat them. In order to do so, I think we want and must have a national policy in regard to the institution of slavery that acknowledges and deals with that institution as being wrong. Whoever desires the prevention of the spread of slavery and the nationalization of that institution yields all when he yields to any policy that either recognizes slavery as being right or as being an indifferent thing. Nothing will make you successful but setting up a policy which shall treat the thing as being wrong: When I say this, I do not mean to say that this General Government is charged with the duty of redressing or preventing all the wrongs in the world, but I do think that it is charged with preventing and redressing all wrongs which are wrongs to itself. This Government is expressly charged with the duty of providing for the general welfare. We believe that the spreading out and perpetuity of the institution of slavery impairs the general welfare. We believe–nay, we know–that that is the only thing that has ever threatened the perpetuity of the Union itself. The only thing which has ever menaced the destruction of the government under which we live is this very thing. To repress this thing, we think, is, Providing for the general welfare. Our friends in Kentucky differ from us. We need not make our argument for them, but we who think it is wrong in all its relations, or in some of them at least, must decide as to our own actions and our own course, upon our own judgment.

I say that we must not interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists, because the Constitution forbids it, and the general welfare does not require us to do so. We must not withhold an efficient Fugitive Slave law, because the Constitution requires us, as I understand it, not to withhold such a law. But we must prevent the outspreading of the institution, because neither the Constitution nor general welfare requires us to extend it. We must prevent the revival of the African slave trade, and the enacting by Congress of a Territorial slave code. We must prevent each of these things being done by either Congresses or courts. The people of these United States are the rightful masters of both Congresses and courts, not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.

With all of the obvious parallels, why might both sides of the gay marriage debate see Lincoln as being in their corner? Well, that depends on how you see slavery in relation to gay marriage.

Are homosexuals the equivalent of slaves, being deprived of their rights by a waning majority who see them as second-rate citizens, waiting for their liberation by a President who finally affirms their equal standing under the law? Or is gay marriage an immoral institution that threatens the general welfare of America, leaving the government with the duty to prevent its spread?

Chances are, no matter where you stand on the issue, you can probably make a pretty compelling case for Lincoln’s support. This is why I’m so hesitant to rely on quotes from historical figures as a primary means of building a case for contemporary ethical and Constitutional problems. I just don’t think Abraham Lincoln is all that helpful on the issue of gay marriage.

Incidentally, I find it interesting that the one area in which Lincoln and Douglas at least appeared to agree was on the affirmation of the Constitution’s delegation to the States or the people the authority to decide on matters not delegated to the federal government. Which is why perhaps the greatest irony of all is that, fewer than four years after the Lincoln-Douglas debates ended, President Lincoln issued an Executive Order which emancipated slaves in the “rebellious states”, a clear violation of both his campaign promises and the 10th Amendment.

Considering how slavery is now universally (and rightly) abhorred by Americans, and how Lincoln has been perpetually venerated as a hero for “doing the right thing”, it should probably come as no surprise that all parties in the gay marriage debate seem to be content with nothing less than a national solution. And why not? Lincoln’s our guy, right?

Lower Salaries for Tennessee Teachers?

Today the Tennessee State Board of Education will vote on a change to the State Minimum Salary Structure, which would result in lowering the minimum amount that public schools are required to pay their teachers. Predictably, many Tennessee teachers aren’t too happy about this. They claim that this will result in “decreased lifetime earnings” for all teachers, which has led to nearly 6,000 signatures on a petition to “protect fair and equitable pay” for teachers.

At the risk of making this my least popular blog post ever, I have a confession to make: I don’t get the outrage.

Don’t get me wrong. I love school teachers. My dad is a public school teacher, as are a great many of my friends, colleagues, and church family members. I have no desire to see any of them make a lower income. I just don’t see how the proposed changes would hurt any of them. In fact, this ought to be seen as a positive step toward improving Tennessee schools.

The purpose of the proposal is to give schools greater flexibility in their hiring. The changes are only to the minimum salary that a teacher can be offered; most school systems already pay more than the minimum, which will undoubtedly remain the case. Schools that are willing to pay higher salaries will still attract better teachers, which is why the Tennessee Education Association’s claim that teachers will have “no incentive” to seek advanced degrees is baloney.

Of course, one reality that many teachers do not want to have to face is that the laws of supply and demand are working against them. There are simply more people with education degrees than there are jobs for teachers. Ask an economics teacher what that would mean for salaries in any profession that wasn’t funded by tax dollars.

Here’s what a lower minimum salary will do for Tennessee schools and teachers:

  • Schools willing to pay competitive salaries will be more attractive to better teachers, which should in turn provide incentive for other school systems to pay more than the minimum.
  • Schools that cannot afford to pay above the minimum will be able to hire more teachers, resulting in fewer unemployed teachers.
  • Prospective college students concerned about the possibility of earning a lower salary will be less likely to major in education, reducing the surplus of qualified teachers, and increasing the relative value of those who are great teachers.
  • Under-performing* teachers will not receive automatic raises, becoming less of a burden on Tennessee tax payers.

The bottom line is this: These changes will make the market for good teachers more competitive, and competition is a good thing. The cream will still rise to the top, and the pressure on smaller, less-funded school districts will be eased. If you’re a great teacher, there will be schools willing to pay you for your talents. If you’re a newly certified teacher struggling to find a job, this will make you more employable. If you’re not a good teacher, it’s time to be willing to bring home a lower paycheck or consider another line of work. There are plenty of teachers willing to take your place.

I, for one, hope this proposal passes. Not because I don’t value teachers, but because I do.

* Note: By “under-performing” I am not referring to test scores. I agree with the TEA (and every teacher I’ve ever known) that test-based evaluation of teachers is a terrible idea. But let’s be honest. There are some teachers who are content to merely come to work and collect a pay check. There are also a great many excellent teachers who consistently go above-and-beyond. Save the pay raises for them!