Friday, April 27, 2018

Why We Must Understand the Covenants to Understand the Bible

I have gleaned much from Tom Schreiner's writings over the years.  This is a helpful and concise summary of the covenants and how they are a seamless thread of redemptive history. . . 


By Thomas R. Schreiner
The covenants are crucial to properly understanding Scripture, as Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum have argued, because they are the backbone of the storyline of the Bible. The Bible isn’t a random collection of laws, moral principles, and stories. It is a story that goes somewhere; it is the story of redemption, the story of God’s kingdom. And the story unfolds and advances through the covenants God made with his people.

If we don’t understand the covenants, we will not and cannot understand the Bible because we won’t understand how the story fits together. The best way to see this is by quickly surveying the covenants in the Scriptures.

If we don’t understand the covenants, we will not and cannot understand the Bible.

God created the world and human beings, showing he is the sovereign ruler of all. He created Adam and Eve as priest-kings, as those made in his image, to rule the world for God. They were to extend God’s rule over the entire earth.

As God’s son and daughter they would be confirmed in life and righteousness if they obeyed the Lord, but they would be cursed if they transgressed the command not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In other words, there was covenant blessing and covenant cursing. They ate from the forbidden tree and experienced the covenant curse.

By God’s grace the story doesn’t end there, for the Lord promised to triumph over the serpent through the offspring of the woman (Gen. 3:15). The rule originally given to Adam and Eve would be restored through the offspring of the woman.

As history unfolds, the horrific consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve became evident. Evil and corruption permeated the world. By the time of Noah there were only eight righteous people left in the world, and the promise of redemption through the offspring of the woman seemed like a distant memory.

The entire world, except for Noah and his offspring were wiped out in the flood. God made a covenant with Noah, promising that the human race wouldn’t be annihilated again until the plan of redemption through the offspring of the woman was fulfilled. Noah was in some ways a new Adam on a new earth, and thus the creation covenant with Adam was rejuvenated. Still, salvation would not come through Noah because like Adam he sinned in the garden, and the fundamental evil in the heart of human beings persisted.

After Noah the world again slid into sin, with the tower of Babel as the signature of sin. In this dire situation God called one man, Abraham, and made a covenant with him. The Lord promised Abraham land (Canaan), offspring (Isaac), and a blessing that would extend to the ends of the earth.

Abraham was like a new Adam and Canaan was to be a new Eden where God dwelt with his people. As the children of Abraham trust in the Lord and obey him the promises would be fulfilled. At the same time, the Lord promised in a dramatic covenant-ceremony that the promise would certainly be fulfilled (Genesis 15). God pledged that he would keep his promise but he would do it through the obedient offspring of Abraham.

A covenant was also made with Israel after they were freed from Egypt by God’s grace. Israel was God’s son and Abraham’s offspring and the means by which blessing would flow to the whole world. They were priest-kings, mediating God’s blessing and rule in the world. They lived in Canaan, which was to be like a new Eden, a place where God ruled and dwelt in the midst of a holy people.

The stipulations of the covenant with Israel are summarized in the ten commandments, and the Lord promised blessing if they obeyed but if they violated God’s prescriptions they would suffer the consequences. Indeed, they would even be ejected from the land and go into exile.

The promise of victory over the serpent and his offspring will come through a child of Abraham (Gen. 3:15; 12:1–3), but in God’s covenant with David a new feature of the promise appeared, though if one reads the story carefully there were indications of this promise all along (2 Samuel 7). The new feature is that victory over the serpent would come through a king. The child of Abraham who will conquer sin and death will be a son of David. The promise of land and universal blessing will be secured through David’s dynasty.

The king, then, was a kind of new Adam in a new land, and for a brief time it almost looked as if all the promises would come to pass during Solomon’s reign. The covenant with David, however, had conditional and unconditional elements as well. If the kings transgressed, they would face God’s judgment.

As history progresses, it becomes evident that something was radically wrong with the kings and with the nation. In fact, the sin of the kings of Judah (and Israel) were so significant that Israel was expelled from the land. God had pledged that the world would be transformed through a son of David, but the promise was going backwards! Israel and Judah were thrown out of the land in 722 and 586 BC respectively.

What was happening to God’s great promise?

Israel had made a mess of things, and it almost seems as if the promise of triumph over the serpent had been withdrawn, but we remember that the promise in Gen. 3:15 was unconditional, and that the Lord also guaranteed that victory would come through a child of Abraham and a son of David.

Still, there was a problem with covenant made with Israel, and the cancer resided in the people: they failed to keep God’s commands and thus experienced the curses of the covenant. The Lord enacted a new covenant with his people which fulfilled the promises made to Adam, Abraham, and David (cf. Jer. 31:31–34).

The new covenant finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ who is the true son of Abraham, the true Son of God, the true Israel, the true David, the Son of Man, and the Servant of the Lord. The new covenant promise of forgiveness of sins is fulfilled in Jesus himself, and thus he pours out his Spirit on his people so that they are enabled to do God’s will (Ezek. 36:26–27).

All those who belong to Jesus are his offspring: they are the children of Abraham and members of the Israel of God. The land promise is also fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The first glimmer of the promise is located in Jesus’s resurrection, which guarantees the resurrection of believers and the new creation which is coming. In the new creation the entire world is God’s temple, and the whole universe is the new Jerusalem where God and the Lamb dwell (Rev. 21:1–22:5).

The universal blessing, blessing for all nations and peoples, also comes to pass in Jesus. In the old covenant God’s people consisted almost exclusively of Israel, but the fullness of God’s promise to Abraham has become a reality and every tribe, tongue, people, and nation are blessed in Jesus Christ, as they trust in him for eternal life.

This article was originally published on the Crossway blog

Thomas R. Schreiner
James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Professor of Biblical Theology
Thomas R. Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Professor of Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he also serves as associate dean of the School of Theology.


Thursday, April 26, 2018

Wild Wild Country

An observation from James Emory White on a Netflix documentary on what people will do who are looking for community, spiritual experience, and a sense of purpose. . .
One of the more provocative and fascinating documentaries you will ever watch that released last month on Netflix is "Wild Wild Country."

It's the true story of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, often called Osho, his personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, and their community of followers in what became known as Rajneeshpuram in Wasco County, Oregon.

The goal was to build a utopian commune in the Pacific Northwest, but it didn't end up very utopian at all. Instead, after conflict with local residents escalated, the cult responded with bombings, assassination attempts, poisoning and the first bioterror attack in the United States.

Along the way, you enter into the dynamics of this cult, which include the removal of any and all sexual boundaries, manipulation and mind control, mass wiretapping and too many Rolls Royces for the Bhagwan to keep up with.

But as fascinating as the story of the rise and fall of the cult itself proves to be (brought to life through extensive documentary footage), it is the stories of the people who were involved that are most engaging.

And enlightening.

To this day, they look back on their involvement with an air of wistfulness, while acknowledging the horror of the drama's end. As I watched each installment, I was struck by how these smart, seeking people, were drawn into such a ridiculous mess. Three things seemed to pull them in: the longing for community; the longing for some kind of spiritual experience; and the longing for some sense of purpose. Three things they still long for and look wistfully back on as having existed—even if for a fleeting moment before ending in chaos.

The commune certainly gave them community. The Bhagwan led them into a spiritual experience (occultic, but an experience). And the building of the utopian paradise gave them their sense of purpose.

What was lacking, of course, was truth.

And therein lies an important lesson. There is nothing wrong with the desire for community, experience and purpose. They are good and God-planted desires. But, when divorced from God, they turn in on themselves and lead to decay and eventual destruction. In this case, community became dictatorial, experience became amoral and purpose was used to rationalize every manner of evil with the means justifying the end.

This is the riveting story of "Wild Wild Country."

Christianity traffics in all three desires as well, but adds the important dynamic of the truth God has revealed about community, experience and purpose. When we were first given the Garden of Eden, it provided community, experience and purpose, but we were also told of the tree from which we must not eat, establishing authority, truth and boundaries. Community does not exist for itself, nor does experience or purpose. That is the great difference between the cult's manifestation of all three and the Christian vision for all three.

I could not help but feel like "Wild Wild Country" is a depiction of what C.S. Lewis once called the "apeing" of the Christian faith by the evil one. This is the "apeing" of the new community and God's desire for humans within it.

"Wild Wild Country" should be required viewing for leaders, though it is often difficult to watch and deserves its "Mature" rating. It reminds us of the foundational longing inherent within us that cries out for community, spiritual experience and purpose.

And how we need to offer each of them, along with truth, to the world.

James Emery White

Monday, April 9, 2018

On Pastoral Failings and the Fallout

By Trevin Wax at TGC . . .

When I was a college student in Romania, I served a church in a farming village near the Hungarian border. One of the leaders was an older man who lived next door with his wife. He was the keeper of the keys to the one-room church building. He led prayer meetings, gave the tone for congregational songs, and kept the fire going in the stove at the center of our sanctuary. We all called him Grandpa, because he treated us young people like we were his spiritual children. He had the kind of relationship with God that, when you talked with him, made you feel like you’d just been with someone who had just been with Jesus.
One day, our conversation turned to fears for the future, and considering the fact he was getting up there in years, I expected him to mention the fear of losing his loved ones or the fear of a terminal illness. Instead, he looked right at me and, with a pained expression marked by watery eyes, he said: What I fear most is doing something that would embarrass my Lord and bring shame to his people.
That answer bothered me at the time. Surely this fear was misguided—a leftover of legalism, perhaps. Why fear sin when we’re under grace?
I believed this fear was also irrational. Here was a man in his 70s, whose walk with the Lord was evident to everyone. I couldn’t imagine him falling into a sin grievous enough to bring shame upon the church he loved so dearly. His answer bothered me because it seemed so groundless.
Fast forward nearly 20 years. His answer doesn’t bother me anymore. In fact, the older I get, the more that fear makes sense to me. It is not groundless. Neither is it faithless. It is inoculation against spiritual pride and presumption.
Truth be told, that man of God knew himself better than I knew him. He knew that we do not “graduate” from sinful struggles on this earth. Never do we reach a spiritual plane where we are totally untouched by the traces of former rebellion. He knew the stories of men and women who stumbled into sin after lifetimes of faithfulness—failures that cast a long shadow over many years of fruitfulness, tainting even the good years of faithful ministry.
Scripture gives us example after example of men who finished poorly. David’s adultery left his family in shambles. Solomon’s appetites turned his heart to idols. Asa fell prey to a prideful spirit that kept him from relying on the Lord when he grew ill. Hezekiah’s pride left the kingdom vulnerable. Moses’ moment of faithlessness kept him from the Promised Land.
In recent months, we’ve seen a number of Christian leaders acknowledging their complicity in immoral or unethical behavior. In each of these cases, sinful patterns in the present have caused a reevaluation of ministry fruitfulness in the past. Tragic, isn’t it? Perhaps the evil one is not interested in sidelining older leaders because he wants to stop them from future ministry; instead, he wants to stain their reputation so that all the fruit from their past becomes spoiled as well.
To be clear, sin does not erase the good fruit of people in the past. The psalms David wrote when he was truly a man after God’s heart still minister to us today. We can praise God for the ways someone has blessed us, and we can be deeply grieved by the ways that same person has disappointed us.
Still, sin does affect our view of the past. That’s why I now have a better idea of what my Romanian “Grandpa” felt when he shared his fear of slipping up in his later years. He was wise. He was not presumptuous. He didn’t see himself as a member of a saintly class of Christians (the way that I viewed him at the time). He saw himself as a follower of Jesus who remained vulnerable to sins and temptations. He knew that sins in his future could undermine the credibility of his Christian witness in the past. That’s why, as he approached the valley of the shadow of death, he prayed fervently to escape the shadows of sin that would bring disrepute to God’s people.
Brothers and sisters, we will waste the sense of profound grief we feel if recent revelations lead us to judge rather than repent. Public revelations of private sin give us all the opportunity for repentance and renewal.
As Eric Geiger has pointed out, the apostle Paul urged Timothy to “pay close attention” both to his “life” and his “teaching.” Stumbling into personal sin or falling for false doctrine—both are ways we can finish poorly. “Persevere in these things,” Paul wrote, “for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Let’s not waste these painful moments of sin and sorrow. Let’s not presume that we are above a fall. Instead, let’s persevere with a holy stamina in life and doctrine, so that Jesus is exalted and his people are edified.

Build the Fence!

Simple and practical advice from James E. White for saving your life and ministry from sexual sin . . .

I am far from alone in being stunned about the recent news regarding another batch of respected Christian leaders resigning over, or being accused of, sexual misconduct. I've been nothing less than heartsick.
For Christ's sake, can't we just build the fences we need?
We're all weak, we're all prone to wander, we're all vulnerable to our libidos. Which means we must – I repeat must – build sexual fences around our lives. If you build a fence, you will inevitably bump against it and know you've gone too far. But at least the fence will keep you from going over the cliff. If you don't have the fence, you will never know it is time to turn back.
So here are five fences to start constructing immediately:
First, monitor and control your thought life. That's where sexual sin begins. Adultery, in all its forms, doesn't just happen—it begins. You're in bed with someone mentally and emotionally long before you are in bed with them physically. And for many of us, what sexualizes our thinking about others is our exposure and use of pornography. So build the fence! When it comes to porn, get accountability software on all your devices and some accountability partners to report to (I do this with my two sons.).
Second, don't have "the" conversation. And I mean the conversation that is the most dangerous, most destructive, most "first foot on the slippery slope" you can have with someone of the opposite sex. Ready for it? It's the conversation about what's wrong or disappointing with your marriage. Never, ever, ever talk negatively or disappointingly about your spouse to another person of the opposite sex outside of an actual counseling or pastoral setting. And if you are the counselor or pastor? My goodness, that would be the most inappropriate and sin-baiting conversation imaginable. So build the fence! Swear off any such conversation—period.
Third, avoid vulnerable or compromising situations. Watch how and when you are alone with someone of the opposite sex. Watch how you interact with people. Don't visit someone alone, at home, of the opposite sex. Watch out for that long lunch alone together, or staying late and working together on a project, finding that the conversation turns to anything but work. So build the fence! Decide such situations are off-limits for you. Make this fence particularly high when you know you are already attracted to someone because the temptation will be to take them down with you and to rationalize doing so because you desire to be with them.
Fourth, practice thinking long-term. Left to themselves, our sexual urges will press us to seek immediate gratification as if there are no long-term repercussions. If you don't engage your brain, you will endanger your marriage, undermine your values, risk your health and trade away long-term happiness for short-term satisfaction. Remember that with sexual sin, you will lose the life you now have. Your family, your ministry, your reputation… everything. So build the fence! Practice thinking about what the consequences of your decision will be in 10 minutes, in 10 months and in 10 years. That's the kind of thinking our sexual impulses need because, left to themselves, they will only engage the first 10 minutes. But it's the 10 months and 10 years that matter most.
Fifth, choose humility. The most frightening thing imaginable is to say to yourself, "It could never happen to me." When you have that kind of pride, you don't build any fences because you don't think you need to. "Fences are for other people. The weaker people." And then comes the fall. So build the fence! Here's the truth about me that I must never forget: I can fall. I can be tempted to have an affair. I can be lured into adultery. I can find myself vulnerable to… anything. And then let that reality scare you enough, and breed enough humility, to build whatever fences you should.
I hope I am never in the news for sexual misconduct. But if I am, it will be because I didn't build a fence where I needed to or because I decided to take it down or ignore after it had been built.
Either way, it will have been my fault.
So to all of us, myself first and foremost, let's take out the hammer and nails and build the fence!
James Emery White

Friday, April 6, 2018

Pop Church

James White is an articulate observer of our culture.  Here are some observations of the church adopting the culture around it. . . .

There is a thin line that one must walk, but never cross, between relevance and compromise, between translation and transformation, between being "in" the world and being "of" it. Which is why I'm growing increasingly concerned about a trend within churches and church leadership that I will call "Pop Church." Yes, as in "pop culture."
Pop Church is where the overarching goal seems to be hipness and cultural acceptance, not for the gospel's sake but for its own sake. And, at almost any cost.
These churches have names like Eruption, Zeitgeist, Factory and Distillery. Okay, I made those up… but you get the drift. They are the names one would choose for a band, not a church. Which, they would probably say, is the point.
The mission is to go viral, which is precisely what anyone who prays for spiritual awakening is after. But in Pop Church, it's more about the brand or the leader going viral in a culturally affirming way. Meaning, becoming the next U2.
And speaking of the leader, the more Kardashian-style posts on Instagram, the better. This explains the eagerness not only to self-promote on social media ("Watch me cut my hair! Watch me color my hair!"), but also to pursue anything that provides exposure. Shooting a pilot for a talk show on Amazon, getting on Oxygen or following in the footsteps of Ellen almost seems to be the goal (Using a church or ministry to springboard into wider cultural fame.).
There seem to be few rules to follow besides being the kind of person you would want to share a bowl of acai with. First, avoid any public positions on moral issues; translation: anything about the LGBTQ community. Same with abortion. The cardinal sin would seem to be alienating any cultural demographic. So whatever you believe the Christian faith would dictate along those lines in terms of stance or conviction is relegated to something privately engaging, but socially irrelevant.
Second, be fun. As one Pop Church leader said: "If you aren't making people laugh, what are we doing? What is the point?" One would think the "point" would be making people think. But no – in Pop Church the point is to make them feel entertained.
Even the New York Times laid out the path for any Pop Church wannabe: "First, they lease an old theater or club. Next, they find great singers and backup musicians. A fog machine on stage is nice. A church should also have a catchy logo or catch phrase that can be stamped onto merchandise and branded – socks, knit hats, shoes and sweatshirts… And lastly, churches need a money app [like Pushpay] to make it easy for churchgoers to tithe with a swipe on their smartphone."
The cynicism is palpable.
It's not that any of these things are, in and of themselves, to be avoided. It's how they are being manipulated not for the sake of the gospel, but the sake of self-promotion and wider cultural acceptance.
Pop Church seems built around goals of achieving a Sally Field moment at the Oscars ("You like me! You really like me!"). So the ultimate cultural "win" is not making a difference in culture, but getting culture's stamp of approval. Which is why the holy grail seems to be engaging with any cultural celebrity who has a Jesusy side – not for their testimony, per se, but to snap a selfie to post ("Paging Chris Pratt… wait… make it Justin Bieber.").
Richard Niebuhrs' classic work on Christ and culture outlined two very different approaches to cultural engagement. One was being the Christ of culture, and the other being Christ the transformer of culture. The first approach simply mirrors the world; the second attempts to change it. Pop Church seems much more interested in being the "Christ of culture" model, where Jesus bends and molds Himself to culture in order to be accepted.
And again, with acceptance the ultimate goal and rejection the ultimate fail.
But the actual gospel of Jesus is very different. There, we have Christ as the transformer of culture. Yes, we build cultural bridges across which we can walk to a post-Christian world. But we walk across it for a very specific reason—to offer something to the world it does not already have.
I have written that there are three primary "voices" we can employ in our cultural engagements: the prophetic, the evangelistic and the heretical. In short, the prophetic denounces where needed, the evangelistic builds bridges of understanding with an eye toward conversion, and the heretical distorts the gospel for, say, acceptance.
We must recapture a blend of the prophetic and the evangelistic while avoiding the heretical at all costs. I do not believe Pop Church has embraced a heretical voice.
I just think its goals may inevitably lead it there.
James Emery White

*Laura M. Holson, "Instagram Age Has Its Pastor," The New York Times, Sunday, March 18, 2018, read online.
*I offer this source due to the NYT quote in the blog, but I want to say that I do not make it a practice to criticize other Christian leaders, and that, by citing this, I am not trying to demean the motives or character of this particular person or church.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

It’s Time to Reckon with Celebrity Power

Here is a great article for every leader to read by Andy Crouch at Gospel Coalition . . . 
It was not a great week. In three separate cases in my immediate circles, a person with significant power at the top of an organization, each one a subject of flattering major media exposure during their career, was confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct and related misdeeds. In one case, the person resigned from his role and board memberships, accompanied by a direct and remorseful confession. In the second, the person resigned, but not without posting a defiant denial of all allegations against her. In the third, the person likewise denied all allegations in the strongest terms—at one point with physical force, banging on a table—and, as I write, remains in his position.
All three were, or at least had once been, seen as among the most exemplary Christian leaders of their generation, including by many who worked closely with them. While I wasn’t personally close to any of the three, I have experienced and benefited from their exceptional gifts in leadership and ministry, as have thousands or millions of others.
I am not naming them here. If you are in their sphere of influence, you’ve already had the wind knocked out of you by the week’s revelations, and there is no need to redouble the trauma. If you are not, then the desire to know their names, though understandable and human, is a prurience I will not indulge. And while I pray that such a tragic trifecta will not happen often in a single week, the truth is that I could have written this essay many times in the past few decades, and will have occasion to do so many times in the future. The names are actually not that important for my purposes—it is the system in which not just they, but we, are so deeply complicit.

Our Complicity in Celebrity Power

Two systems, actually. First is the one, almost as old as humanity itself, that gives the powerful the opportunity to exploit, plunder, murder, and—last, worst, and perhaps most common of all—rape. By direct command or by mere implication (“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”), those in positions of power have long been able to actualize their fantasies and grievances—no different in kind from what the rest of us indulge in without having the means to realize them.
Among the many dark gifts of power is distance—distance from accountability, distance from consequences, distance from the pain we cause others, distance from self-knowledge, distance from friendship, distance from the truth. The palace rooftop, the back entrance, the executive bathroom, the private jet, not to mention what Andrew Jackson’s critics called the kitchen cabinet and what C. S. Lewis called the Inner Ring—the accommodations that hide us from others’ sight, the adherents who are actually dependents if not sycophants, the accoutrements of plausible deniability.
In that privacy and at that distance, we become capable of acts we would never have imagined. (If all of this week’s allegations are true—which I cannot possibly know, and absolutely do not presume, to be the case—and these leaders’ denials are lies, part of the vehemence of the lies is their inability to truly comprehend that they have so completely failed to live up to their own ideals.) This has been true ever since human society became complex enough to grant some people the power to distance themselves in this way—and in a way, it was true even when human society was just two brothers in a field, just out of sight of the only kin they had in the world.
That part of the problem—the distance of power and its distorting effects on the powerful—is ancient and will never go away. But it is compounded by something genuinely new: the phenomenon of celebrity. Celebrity combines the old distance of power with what seems like its exact opposite—extraordinary intimacy, or at least a bewitching simulation of intimacy.
It is the power of the one-shot (the face filling the frame), the close mic (the voice dropped to a lover’s whisper), the memoir (the disclosures that had never been discussed with the author’s pastor, parents, or sometimes even lover or spouse, before they were published), the tweet, the selfie, the insta, the snap. All of it gives us the ability to seem to know someone—without in fact knowing much about them at all, since in the end we know only what they, and the systems of power that grow up around them, choose for us to know.
Celebrity combines the old distance of power with what seems like its exact opposite—extraordinary intimacy, or at least a bewitching simulation of intimacy.
For systems of power do indeed grow up around the modern phenomenon of celebrity, because in its way it is so much more powerful than the older regime of position, status, and coercion. The distance of that ancient regime gave those at its pinnacle a kind of power, without a doubt, but a kind of vulnerability as well, because the distance worked both ways. Out of the king’s earshot, the courtiers could mutter and the bodyguards could plot. In the lord’s field, the peasants could complain. The workers could make jokes about the Man, and kids on the corners could scatter long before the fuzz arrived. The new regime of intimacy is ever so much more powerful because it is based fundamentally not on fear and coercion and distance—at least at first—but on desire and imagination and indeed on eros, the desire for union.
Celebrities embody who we aspire to become and invite us—so it seems—into the inner circle of their lives. We are their kitchen cabinet, we are so close to being in their Inner Ring. They are so disarmingly transparent with us. They tell us so much of the truth. They live in our own imaginations, their faces more familiar to us than our neighbors’ or even some of those we call, loosely, in the American way, our friends. They inspire us, ordinary in their extraordinariness, assuring us that they are people like us and thus that we can be people like them. Above all, they beckon us to come closer.

Vanishing Institutional World

Over centuries, millennia really, philosophers and political theorists wrestled with how to tame the arbitrariness of distant power. At a glacial pace—taking different courses if you compare China after Confucius with the West after Plato and Cicero—societies gradually hedged in those at the pinnacle of power with what we conventionally call institutions, systems bigger than the powerful themselves that held the powerful in certain ways to account. None was anywhere near perfect, and the institutions themselves could be bent to terrible ends.
But nonetheless, over a long period of time and with countless fits and starts, we learned something about how to tame the worst of power. Coercion had to be justified and violence could be redressed; we came to believe in, and to some non-trivial extent came to be, nations of laws, not men. In the United States, where this experiment was in many ways carried to its furthest extent, the powers were separated across the land—not just in the three branches of government, but in organizations of many kinds, in the solemnly elected officers of countless clubs and fraternal societies, in presbyteries and elder boards, in the legal requirement for independent directors in publicly traded companies.
Our grandparents and great-grandparents built extraordinary institutions, of many kinds, along these lines, including the churches whose stately buildings still line many a town square and urban downtown street. Those institutions were nowhere near perfect and perpetuated all kinds of injustice. But at their best they preserved and gave expression to a profound and radical idea: that the best things human beings do together are bigger and more lasting than any person who may occupy a temporary position of power.
It is not wrong to be offended at the homogeneity of the faces of past presidents who stare down from portrait after portrait in institutional hallways ( males in some, black males in others, since African Americans so assiduously and proudly developed their own institutions in the years after Emancipation). But it is not wrong, either, to marvel at how anonymous they are to us, and to a great extent were to their own contemporaries; how much they saw themselves as stewards rather than sole proprietors; how much continuity they preserved even as they led necessary change; how peacefully and graciously they handed on leadership from one to the next.
Their world was an institutional world. It is now almost entirely gone.
It is gone because celebrity power has swept the stolid institutional buildings and stolid institution-building people of our grandparents’ generation before it like so much chaff before a tornado. In the Oval Office of our country sits a man with the apparent emotional age, based on his public persona, of an 8-year-old, albeit with the libido of a 15-year-old. He cannot keep faith with anyone, in all probability because he does not actually fully grasp the existence of anyone besides himself. And he is simply brilliant at manipulating the power of celebrity.
Celebrity power has swept the stolid institutional buildings and stolid institution-building people of our grandparents’ generation before it like so much chaff before a tornado.
He has colonized all of our imaginations—above all, one suspects, the imaginations of those who most hate him, who cannot go an hour in a day without thinking about him. He has always aspired to be, and now is, the ultimate celebrity—someone we know all too well but do not know at all because there is actually no one there to be truly known. He has never truly sought anything beyond the validation of fame and the uniquely modern power it brings, but having sought that one thing, in some demonic inversion of the gospel promise, all these other things have been added unto to him as well—including the fatal distance that still may allow him to do anything he pleases, up to and including total war.
At least that puts this week in perspective.

Road Less Traveled By

It could have been otherwise for the church. There was one and only one celebrity in Jesus’s world, one face on every coin, one name on everyone’s lips. And when Jesus was shown that face and that coin, he dismissively suggested the coin be returned to the one who had been so eager to imprint his image on every corner of the empire. Render back to Caesar the coin of his realm, Jesus said—and render to God whatever, or whoever, bears his image (Mark 12:17). The visible image of the invisible God left no portrait. The one time he wrote, he wrote in the dust (John 8:6). He had a different way of using power in the world, a way that turned out to outlast all the emperors, including the Christian ones.
He offered no false intimacy—his biographer John said that he entrusted himself to no one, because he knew what was in every person’s heart (John 2:24–25)—but he kept no distance, either. He let the children come to him (Matt. 19:14). He let Mary sit at his feet and let another Mary wash his feet with her tears (Luke 7:36–5010:39). Hanging naked on a cross, he forgave, blessed, and made sure that yet another Mary would still have a son (Luke 23:3443John 19:26). His power, truly, was not of this world.
As the power of celebrity overtook the power of institutions in the second half of the 20th century, we could have made a different choice in our churches. Indeed, some churches and some leaders did. The Anglican priest John Stott was an incomparably powerful figure, in the best sense, in 20th-century evangelicalism. He lived with a divine indifference to power. He spent long, unsung stretches of his life and ministry in what was called in the Cold War years the “Third World,” long before Instagram mission-trip reports. He was reserved, as almost all British men of his generation and class learned to be. He never married. Yet his life was utterly open to friends all over the world, to the assistants (always male) he invited into the most intimate place an Anglican rector possesses—his study—and to his personal secretary of 55 years, Frances head. The fruit of his life is incalculable.
As a young man I was impatient with some of Stott’s theology. I found it insufficiently creative, insufficiently imaginative in response to the creative image implanted in human beings and in God’s living Word. And in some ways I still do. But as I get older I am in increasing awe of the leaders he fostered, the institutions he built and served, and the legacy he left—even though, since he had the misfortune to live before social media, probably only one in a hundred people who call themselves “evangelicals” knows his name.
Likewise Billy Graham. I have never kept the “Billy Graham rule” that says a man must never be alone with a woman not his wife—it strikes me as unhelpful in countless ways, above all in the ways it can rob women of the chance to influence men and to be mentored and raised up in the formal and informal power they ought to possess by the gift of God’s Spirit. But most people have forgotten the context of that rule, which was a broader set of commitments, hammered out in a hotel room in Modesto, California, in holy fear that the abuses of power that had characterized several generations of “evangelists” would ensnare the young evangelist and his team. They made four commitments, not just that one—equally important were their commitments to financial transparency and simplicity, to utter honesty in their reports of numbers and conversions, and, perhaps most notably for our purposes, to always partnering with the local church.
Graham made grievous mistakes, as he admitted freely later in his life, above all when his celebrity intersected with the toxic distance, privacy, and paranoia of Richard Nixon. He was probably more of a celebrity than was healthy for him, his family, and the revival he sought to lead. But the way he tempered his celebrity with simplicity, accountability, and voluntary limits on his power is the road less traveled by, and in the eternal accounting of his life it may well turn out to be what made all the difference.
Stott and Graham are gone. The institutions they worked hard to build are fragile, though by no means doomed. There are still countless pastors, evangelists, and other leaders in American Christianity who live modest lives, submit themselves to others out of reverence for Christ, and are building something bigger than themselves. But the revelations of this week remind us that we are in a perilous position. Not because the allegations are necessarily true, but because many of our seemingly strongest institutions actually are weak in the most important way: they are not strong enough to be able to convince us that the allegations against their leaders are not true.
The transmutation of the power of intimacy into the distance of power is an inescapable feature of all too many of our churches and ministries.
The most damning facts in the disheartening emails and news reports that came across my desk this week are not about the alleged actions of certain leaders—which from my limited point of view cannot be treated as facts at all—but the uncertain and partial reactions of the systems around those leaders.
When boards are beholden to founders; when elders allow it to be publicly said that “no one person can replace” a senior pastor; when information systems can yield the number of emails exchanged between a senior leader and a given person but somehow the content is not recoverable—none of this means that any malfeasance has been committed. But it does mean that the sheer gravitational pull of those charismatic figures has nullified the institution’s ability to protect itself, and indeed its leader, from both legitimate and falsified allegations of misconduct.
And whatever the facts of any given case, anyone who has been backstage at Christian events knows just how distant, how untouchable, how buffered are certain celebrities who on stage seem so transparent, so natural, so unguarded. Even if not one of the allegations I read about this week can ultimately be proven, the transmutation of the power of intimacy into the distance of power is an inescapable feature of all too many of our churches and ministries.

Change Starts with Us—It Starts with Me

We need profound change, and it starts less with our public figures than with ourselves. We will, paradoxically, need to expect less transparency from our public figures, less alluring displays of intimacy and “vulnerability,” and more accountability from the systems around them. We will need to put more energy into building systems, including systems that account for the temptations of power, that will last for generations. We will need to somehow quell our lust to feel close to people who can charm the camera and hold the spotlight—recognizing that the half-life of such leadership has always been measured in years, not generations, and now is numbered in something more like months or days. We will need to commit ourselves to the institutions that have maintained their integrity, sometimes through painful episodes of public accountability. I serve on the board of trustees of two such organizations, and there are many, many more.
Meanwhile, those of us who find ourselves with a measure of public fame must make radical commitments to limit our power. I have tried to do this myself as I realized my public profile and influence was growing. Some of my commitments ought to remain confidential—so that my right hand doesn’t know what my left hand is doing, let alone my right hand Instagram what my left hand is doing—but I can name at least some of them.
I have served alongside, learned from, mentored, and promoted women, and the women of all generations who are my partners in the ministry of the gospel are among the great gifts of my life. I often have good reason to meet with them one on one (though I have also found that almost all work, ministry, and even counseling is more fruitful in groups of three or four than in dyads). For two decades now it has been my intentional practice that we meet in public places, and on the rare occasion when we meet over dinner it is early in the evening and in the front of the restaurant, not in the back. My wife, Catherine, knows of every such meeting ahead of time and hears about the conversation afterward. Catherine has all my passwords. I ensure that every woman who entrusts something deeply confidential to me understands that she is entrusting it to Catherine as well.
We need profound change, and it starts less with our public figures than with ourselves.
I have joined an organization I did not found, led by a CEO to whom I report, who in turn reports to a serious, empowered, independent board of directors, and I spent 12 years before that working for another organization. I have submitted all my travel and speaking decisions to my CEO as well as to Catherine, and was finally able, gladly, to shift from a freelance speaking career, with income flowing to my sole proprietorship, to one where all fees flow to the organization. I publish my speaking fees and terms online. I minimize my use of agents who would have a financial incentive to increase my celebrity and would interpose themselves between me and the churches and ministries that wish to engage me as a speaker. (I do have a literary agent, but she is eminently and unshakably sane.) At conferences that offer speakers a “green room,” I use it only for prayer and preparation immediately before I speak. The rest of the time, I sit in the audience like everyone else. At events that use name tags, I wear one.
Every Sunday I rest. Every summer I turn off my email, entirely, for two weeks. (My vacation message begins, “Unfortunately, I will never read your email.”) Every seven years I aim to leave my daily work and all the significance it gives me. Twice those sabbaticals have come because what I was trying to do had failed. They have been the most creatively fruitful periods of my life.
Every January I meet with seven other men who have similar positions of public leadership. We call ourselves “The Eulogists.” We aim to know one another so well, and for so long, that we will be able to give a genuine, honest, and complete account of one another’s lives at our funerals. We also aim to hold one another accountable to lives that would be worth a eulogy. We are relentlessly transparent with each other. I have told them everything of substance there is to know about my life, my temptations, my consolations, and my desolations, and we have wept and prayed and rejoiced together. That is all I will ever tell you about the Eulogists.
This is just what I do. The details are less important than the reason behind them. I have all this in place because, still and all, if you knew the full condition of my heart, my fantasies and grievances, my anxieties and my darkest solitary thoughts, you would declare me a danger to myself and others. I cannot be entrusted with power by myself, certainly not with celebrity, and neither can you.
But we don’t have to be entrusted with it by ourselves. We can constantly be pouring our power out, handing it over to others, reinvesting whatever power comes our way in a community that will last longer than our short lives, building something that will endure even to our children’s children—a community to which we are genuinely accountable, a community that will rescue us from ourselves and set us free to be the people we wanted to be, the people we knew we could be, when we first began this journey of life, full of heart and hope.
It is not too late—for the three names I’ve been grieving over this week, for the names you know and grieve over, for you, for me, for the church, perhaps even for our nation. It is very late, but in the goodness and grace of God, it is not too late.

Monday, April 2, 2018

God’s Sovereign Plans Behind Your Most Unproductive Days

This was an extremely helpful article for a task driven person by John Piper . . . .

Interview with
Founder & Teacher,
Audio Transcript
How is God at work in our most unproductive days, when it feels as though we’ve accomplished nothing and fallen far short of our own plans and expectations? Those days are frustrating to us, but they are not outside of God’s sovereign power. It leads to today’s question on what efficiency looks like in the first place, a very good question from a listener named Melinda.
“Hello, Pastor John, thank you for this podcast! Back in episode 1115, about caring for those with dementia, you closed your remarks with this phrase: ‘God’s priorities for efficiency in this life are not ours.’ Can you please elaborate on this? I struggle mightily with time management skills. I’m a homeschooling mom trying to balance kids’ needs and activities, ministry, household duties . . . and sleep. I feel overwhelmed with the need to be efficient every minute even though this does not come naturally to me. What should efficiency look like in the busy Christian life?”
I will explain what I mean by “God’s priorities for efficiency in this life are not ours.” But let me say first, right off the bat, that the reason I want anybody to know that is not so that they can get more done, but so that they do what they do in the right spirit. That’s preface over everything I have to say.

Your Priorities

Now what do I mean by saying, “God’s priorities for efficiency in this life are not ours”? I mean that our priority may be that between 10:00 and 11:00 this morning I planned to run to the bank and get some cash so that I can be back in time to pay the teenager who is cutting my grass while a neighbor watches my two- and four-year-old for me. That’s the plan.
“Frustrating human efficiency is one of God’s primary means of sanctifying grace.”
You feel good — I’m making this up — that you very efficiently worked. You feel good that you worked it out. You worked it out so that the neighbor was available, the teenager could come, and you could get to the bank and get back before both of them had other engagements.
Those are your priorities, and you have an efficient plan: cut grass, kids watched, bank trip made, boy paid, everyone off to their next engagement. Victory. Efficiency. That’s what I mean by “our efficiency.”

God’s Priorities

However, God in this case has a totally different set of priorities.
Your neighbor was scheduled to be at a real estate office at 11:30 a.m. so she could join her husband to close on a new house — a house which, unbeknownst to them, has a flawed foundation. The teenager was planning to take his money from cutting the grass and pool it with some of the guys and buy some drugs that they shouldn’t be using. You hit a traffic jam caused by a rollover of a semi (which has another story behind it). You’re locked up on the freeway for an hour. You never even get to the bank.
You rush home as fast as you can, but you get there an hour late. You have no money to pay the boy, and your neighbor has missed her appointment. You are frustrated almost to tears.
Your efficiency proved utterly useless to accomplish your priorities. You failed, but God’s priorities totally succeeded. He wanted to hinder that boy from buying drugs, he wanted to spare the neighbor from purchasing a house that’s a lemon, and he wanted to grow your faith in his sovereign wisdom and sovereignty.
Now, that’s what I mean by “God’s priorities for efficiency in this life are not ours.”

Joseph’s Slow Journey

In my view, this isn’t happening just now and then; it’s happening all the time. When you read the Bible, you see in virtually every book the story of God doing things that are not the way humans would do them or want them done. God almost never takes the shortest route between point A and point B.
“You’re not being measured by God by how much you get done.”
The reason is that such efficiency — the efficiency of speed and directness — is not what he’s about. His purpose is to sanctify the traveler, not speed him between A and B. Frustrating human efficiency is one of God’s primary — I say primary, not secondary — means of sanctifying grace.
The story of Joseph in Genesis 37–50 is one of the clearest examples, right? Joseph is hated by his brothers, thrown in a pit, sold into slavery, sold to Potiphar, accused of sexual harassment, thrown into prison, forgotten by Pharaoh’s butler, then finally — seventeen years in? — made vice president of Egypt so that he could save his family from starvation.
The moral of the story comes in Genesis 50:20. Joseph says to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” God had an agenda. God had a plan. God meant it for good.
It’s as if he said, “You guys, you rascals, were the ‘traffic jam’ that kept me from getting to the bank for seventeen years. But God was positioning me to be the savior of my people, and he was in no hurry. I was being tested at every single point. Would I trust him with his seemingly meaningless inefficiency? It wasn’t meaningless.”

Paul’s Change of Plans

When Paul was trying to get to Spain, he did so with a good plan. He had a plan — he had a really good plan. He basically said, “I’m going to go to Jerusalem and deliver the money. Then I’m going to get on a boat, go to Rome, gather some support, and end my life in Spain.” What a great plan. But then he found himself in prison in Rome. What did he say?
He says it in Philippians 1:12–13: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.”
His priorities for efficiently getting to Spain were shattered, but God’s purposes to evangelize the imperial guard in Rome stayed right on track.

A Daily Plan

Here’s the implication for Melinda.
“Efficiency of speed and directness is not what God is about. His purpose is to sanctify the traveler.”
By all means, make your list of to-dos for the day. By all means, get as good at that as you can get. Prioritize the list. Get first things first. Make your plan. Do the very best you can. Go ahead and read a book about it.
Then walk in the peace and freedom that, when it shatters on the rocks of reality, which it will most days, remember, you’re not being measured by God by how much you get done. You’re being measured by whether you trust the goodness and the wisdom and the sovereignty of God to work this new mess of inefficiency for his glory and the good of everyone involved, even when you can’t see how.