Church Planting, Leadership, and the Search for Humility

Part 2 in the Series: What I Learned Failing to Plant a Church

I recently published my first post about what I learned failing to plant a church. I suspected then, and am more convinced now, that this will be a series of posts. By God’s grace, I have a few more thoughts to share here, in a second installment, which is shaping up to be largely about leadership. (I consider the first post to be chiefly about Christian identity.) Who knows how many we’ll end up discussing over time, but for now, here are a few more lessons painfully but worshipfully learned in the process of failing to plant a church.

  1. A Word on Context
  2. Lesson 6: Leadership is important, hard, and misunderstood
  3. Lesson 7: Let Jesus choose your battles
  4. Lesson 8: Every Christian leader is primarily a follower
  5. Lesson 9: New ideas require moving slow and communicating more

A Word on Context

By the way, check out the aforementioned first post for a little back story on our church planting aspirations in general. But what you really need to know to set the context for this post is that we attempted to plant a different kind of church: a house church network focused on discipleship, in the neighborhood … something that would leave behind tradition-for-the-sake-of-tradition and focus on the beauty of Jesus in our midst. We failed. I failed. But God doesn’t ever fail. And He is very, VERY good. He redeems … well … everything we break.

So, I invite you to join me in rummaging through some broken pieces together. Be careful with them, though, because I am absolutely convinced that our amazing God is still making something beautiful with them.

Lesson 6: Leadership is important, hard, and misunderstood

Leadership” is my 3rd spiritual gift — behind “knowledge” and “teaching.” A more robust discussion of spiritual gifts can be saved for another day, but I share this to emphasize that I went into church planting believing that I was a gifted leader. Moreover, I believed I was leaning on a supernatural empowerment from God to do what we imagined were going to be great things. God did in fact do great things (as He always does), but they looked nothing like we imagined they would.

Leadership [my definition] is the art and science of casting vision and empowering a team to achieve that vision together. It’s about equipping people to be the best possible versions of themselves in pursuit of a common dream. It’s about supporting and encouraging and reminding everyone what’s true as we all take the hill together. It’s about going first, as an example to others. It’s about celebrating the successes and sharing in the challenges with a team. Leadership is vitally important, because without vision, without a rallying cry, without the one to marshal the troops, every group of people will wander aimlessly. It’s in our nature; we were made to be led … perfectly by King Jesus, and very imperfectly by those He appoints to the task under Him. There can be no effective mission without leadership.

“Sounds pretty good,” you might be thinking. So, what’s the problem?

In part, the problem is that leaders have a tough row to hoe in our day. Our culture isn’t very tolerant of leaders or leadership. Everyone pretty much feels like everything should be their way. It’s often less about “a common dream” or “a shared vision,” and more about “my way or the highway.” Our culture is absolutely drenched with entitlement and independence and hyper-crunchy judgmentalism. We cancel people who make the smallest undesirable move; they don’t even have to be “wrong” anymore. Most of us don’t even realize how blithely we’re demanding that the world bend to our every whim … everything exactly the way we want it when we want it, free from even the smallest inconvenience. We have allowed our selfishness to grow and our resilience to be eroded to such an extent that challenges that have become threats and comfort has become king. Most Americans effectively refuse to be led.

But that’s only half the story. The other side of the coin is that many leaders aren’t doing a very good or godly job being leaders. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in power and celebrity. It’s easy to forget that leaders are servants and that leadership is about getting under others and supporting them … not about standing over them and ordering them around. When vision-casting is met with skepticism or uncertainty, just about everything is easier than godly, patient, humble leadership. The lure of manipulation, condemnation, aggravation, capitulation, and … it goes downhill from there … can be downright overwhelming. It’s simply not easy to be a good leader. There are pitfalls and ditches all over the place, and we have many, many, MANY examples of leaders who have fallen into them.

I certainly did.

When we set out to plant the church, the vision and call were clear. God had communicated them to me repeatedly, with clarity, and through all manner of intermediary sources. I felt certain that God had spoken to Faith and I, and that He had given us a clarion call for a different kind of church … a mission into the neighborhood. It was a vivid and compelling dream, and we were excited about it! And it was obvious to me that leading the church plant was not only my privilege but my responsibility. I literally felt I was on a mission from God … and the truth is, I wasn’t wrong.

What was wrong is the way I lived that out, especially once the traumatic pressures of the pandemic years started mounting and the train started coming off the tracks. And my reaction to all the stress and pressure and brokenness … well, it was a lot of things, but skilled, godly, dependent-on-Jesus, others-loving, others-preferring, others-elevating, servant leadership it was not. Most of this post will zoom in on that thought, but just to get the ball rolling, here’s a huge pothole that blew the alignment for our fledgling church…

When everyone started to shut down and back away from me and what I considered to be the mission, I responded in some really healthy and helpful ways.

Let me unpack…

First, the team was shutting down and backing away, not opening up and moving toward. There was little constructive engagement. No concerns expressed; just crossed arms and blank stares. No asking questions; just obvious-but-unspoken dissatisfaction. I tried over and over, in many different (in retrospect, not great) ways, to get input and cast vision, to repent of wrongdoing, and build consensus, but my efforts were largely met with awkward silence, terse responses, and widening chasms of misunderstanding and miscommunication. There wasn’t enough real dialogue. I didn’t know how to create it, and neither did my team. I was hurting them and they were hurting me, but none of us knew how to express that in healthy ways. So instead, we all ended up creating and perpetuating a fairly negative feedback loop. As a group, we were neither leading nor following very well.

So (secondly), that’s where I started to melt down. Because I felt like my team was stonewalling me and devaluing the mission, I judged them instead of moving toward them. I pressed harder instead of asking more questions, listening well, and letting it take as long as it took to draw out their concerns. I powered up instead of waiting in awkward silence. I knew where I wanted them to go, and I was getting increasingly frustrated that they seemed to refuse to go there. I thought, “Hadn’t they agreed to all this when they agreed to join the mission?! Let’s get it together, people. We’ve got work to do!”

What I realize now (far too late) is that my internal assessment of my self-worth was dependant on successfully achieving the mission. I had a gun to my own head, and so anyone I perceived not to be helping me achieve the goal posed a threat to my security and self-worth. I didn’t know how to rest in God’s acceptance or let Him be the one to do the achieving. I just kept pushing harder for those around me to get with the program. And the more I had to get this thing done to prove who I was (all unconsciously, of course), the more they became widgets I felt I needed to fit together to create some kind of image of success I was carrying around in my head.

That, of course, pushed them farther away. And as I sensed I was losing them, I (thirdly) started chasing their approval. Without realizing it, I got into a cycle of trying to figure out what would make them happy, chasing it, failing to make them happy, feeling like a failure in general, and trying harder. So the cycle would reset and repeat, and I had no idea what was happening in the moment or how to get out of it. This looks a lot like co-dependence, but bears very little resemblance to good and godly leadership.

So, what did I learn?

The Takeaways: A bunch of things…

Leadership is vitally important. It’s necessary. Casting a big vision and directing people toward it is by no means sinful or wrong, but it will probably always be messy and slow. Don’t let the particular failures of your leadership or the particular failures of their followership make you question the way God made you. Leadership is your shape, but you’re broken by sin, just like we all are. So, take your frail and failing shape to Jesus. Work with Him, walk with Him, and He’ll grow you up … not to mention, He’ll give you rest.

Secondly, my leadership was bad but it wasn’t all bad. The failure… It was me, but it wasn’t all me. My team could have done a better job at meeting me halfway as I tried and failed, but they didn’t. I was demanding and judgmental, but so were they. There was plenty of hurt and blame to go around. I needed to repent for many things, but that includes trying to bear all the weight of all the responsibility. Not everything was on me! Don’t let the part of it that is on you tempt you to pull the rest of it down on you as well. God’s grace is enough for all of it, but everyone needs to own their own sin … not just you.

Third, my value doesn’t come from success … or anything else but who and what Jesus says I am. If God says you’re loved and valuable (and He does!), then you are. Period. I wish I’d realized earlier that I have nothing to prove. You don’t have anything to prove either. It’s enough to just be His.

Fourth, people are not puzzle pieces. I didn’t mean to and I didn’t realize I was doing it, but I ended up treating my team like goal-achievement-widgets. People are not pawns. Yes, we can all work together to achieve goals, and leaders need to call teams to that honorable reality. But team members are not tools. We’re human beings, not human doings. And our humanity has to come before our utility, not from it.

And finally, don’t chase their approval. It doesn’t matter what anyone but the Lord thinks of you. Leaders will always have to make unpopular decisions. If you start chasing “making them happy,” you’ll never stop, and you’ll run around in circles until everything collapses. Focus on the Lord’s approval. Seek His face. And be really gracious toward all the people around you who are struggling with the same things you are.

I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

John 13:34-35

Lesson 7: Let Jesus choose your battles

Like I said, once I started to sense that I was losing them, I tried to make them happy because I thought that would keep everything from falling apart. Boy, was that a bad idea! Because it created this bizarre fear-driven dynamic which scrambled my conflict mechanism. I got passive when I should have made more waves and stood my ground in some areas, and I powered up when I should have slowed down and let things flex way more in others. I wish I had fought more at the right times, backed off more at other times, and listened more all the time. But fear and brokenness threw all that in a blender, and torpedoed my leadership.

When I got blank stares or looks of disapproval, I should have halted everything until they shared what they really thought. That would have been more honest, and more in the spirit of the community we were trying to build.

When I felt unsupported and accused, I should have said so outright, instead of trying to figure out how to make them happy so that they would start supporting and stop accusing. Yes, they could have communicated better, but as the leader, I should have modeled that healthy communication. Then maybe we could have gone to prayer for one another and collaboration with one another, instead of [perhaps misunderstood] accusations of one another.

When I felt someone was devaluing the mission, I should have admonished them more clearly, so they could have either been convicted or refuted me (maybe I would have been convicted instead). I think I even remember Matthew 18 having something to say about an approach we could have taken. Double facepalm.

When my expectations weren’t met, I should have restated them more clearly (communicated more, rather than nursing indignation, working harder myself, and silently judging others), so that we could have discussed how reasonable my expectations really were. And that goes for everyone else around the circle too. Or even better, what if I had moved slower and been more clear about those expectations out the gate? (We’ll come back to that below.)

When I felt that the men I’d appointed as elders weren’t the right fit, I should have said so. That would have been super hard and messy, I know. But here again, at the very least it would have been a mutually beneficial, God-honoring, building-together kind of conversation (even conflict), instead of my just being frustrated but afraid to call someone out for fear of losing them. (This point deserves greater treatment in the future as well.)

When I sensed that people were hurting, I could have sat with them in their ashes and pain instead of assuming that “being missional” meant “sucking it up and getting back to work.” I was too judgmental, too arrogant, too cold in the face of their pain, too indifferent toward their concerns, and too desperate for “success” to sit with them and listen well. I wish I had loved them better!

Sadly, I could probably go on for a while, but you get the idea.

The Takeaways:
First, my identity has to come from Jesus. He’s the only one who gets to tell me who I am. If the church plant or the other church planters have that power, then I’m doomed to scenarios like those I described above. Take your identity questions — “Who am I?” and “Am I enough?” — to Jesus, and nobody else.

Second, the decision-making has to come from Jesus. He’s the only one with the wisdom and clarity to pick our battles for us and tell us how to respond to all the diverse opinions and stimula flying at us everyday as leaders. When to give and when to stand immovable … when to charge ahead and when to wait … only He knows how to navigate those difficult waters. We must truly depend on Him.

The person who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence indeed is the Lord, is blessed.
He will be like a tree planted by water:
it sends its roots out toward a stream,
it doesn’t fear when heat comes,
and its foliage remains green.
It will not worry in a year of drought
or cease producing fruit.

Jeremiah 17:7-8

And that leads to my next lesson…

Lesson 8: Every Christian leader is primarily a follower

Out in the world at large, there are many amazing entrepreneurs and innovative leaders. Guys like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and Walt Disney establish visions for worlds that others can’t see or still others think are impossible … and they create them anyway. And they bring armies of people along with them for the ride. They dream up some kind of amazing future out of essentially nothing, and lead others to make it real together. It’s pretty incredible!

But that really can’t happen in the kingdom of God. Not in the same way anyway. Because there are no totally original, truly innovative visions in God’s kingdom. There’s only one CEO in God’s economy. Only one Master Vision-Caster. One King … as in absolute monarch … as in sovereign Ruler of the universe. And everyone else is a follower.

Yes, King Jesus commanded us to subdue and rule the earth. Yes, He hands out gifts of leadership, calling us into lives of casting visions and leading people to accomplish them. But unlike the kingdom of Elon Musk, a Christian leader’s mission and vision always come from Jesus. Nobody gets to make anything up out of whole cloth.

And the power to achieve these visions also comes from Jesus. Nobody has the strength to create something from nothing.

And the directives about how to orchestrate and organize others around them … they come from Jesus too. Nobody has the wisdom they need for that.

See a pattern?

If my thinking as a Christian leader is foreign to the people around me, it had better be because the Lord is using me to teach them something, not because I got really clever. If the vision is innovative, God Himself had better be the Innovator. Because imagineering is His job, not mine.

Wait! Does that mean leadership gifts aren’t valuable? Does that mean there is no place for creativity or innovation or entrepreneurialism in the Kingdom of God? Absolutely not! I just wrote several paragraphs on the value of leadership. But Christian leadership is always in context of Christ followership. We leader types were made this way to serve … as a particularly-shaped conduit for the dreams and plans and amazing grace of the God of the Universe, not our own.

Here’s a hard truth… The leader in Scripture that had His own independent, clever, really cool plans for the universe was Satan.

That’s sobering.

You and I, whether we’re leaders or not, are called to follow Jesus, to get our gifted empowerment from Jesus, to walk everyday with and absolutely depend on Jesus. Full stop.

My wife Faith and I started the church plant well. We prayed and prayed and prayed (though too much of that was independently and not enough was together as a couple). But we sought the Lord about every little thing … from every nuance of the model to where we’d go to how we’d do it when we got there to who we’d invite to be involved. Truly, the beginning of that effort was bathed in prayer. But then the day came when I felt like I had my marching orders. I thought I knew what to do. And I believed I was strong enough to do it. So, very unintentionally, I struck out on my own and left Jesus in the dust.

But Jesus intends life to be an exercise in staying with Him. In all our church planting aspirations, my only real job was to depend on Him. So is yours! Everything else flows from that and, in a sense, will take care of itself. Whatever comes, we have to let Jesus lead, so that He gets to choose when I respond in boldness and strength and when I respond with patience and flexibility. Well that, and we must surround ourselves with godly men and women who will help us keep these commitments.

I still believe that the idea and the model came from the Lord, but our first attempt at tactical execution did not. Of course, now that I look back, I believe He was always doing something greater than I realized, but that doesn’t absolve me from needing to learn this lesson…

The Takeaway: Just one this time…

Stay with Jesus. Get the plan from Jesus, and then execute the plan with Jesus … by staying with Him. Every step. All the way to the end.

Because He’s the real Leader here.

Without vision (revelation), people run wild, but one who follows divine instruction will be happy.

Proverbs 29:18

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own understanding;
in all your ways know him,
and he will make your paths straight.
Don’t be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and turn away from evil.
This will be healing for your body
and strengthening for your bones.

Proverbs 3:5-8

Lesson 9: New ideas require moving slow and communicating more

Pace and communication may be the two most important considerations in effective leadership.

You may be thinking, “What about following the Lord?” or “What about vision?” or “What about empowering the team?” … etc. And rightly so. But if a leader doesn’t figure out how to keep pace with the Holy Spirit and the team, how can he receive the vision from God (keeping pace with the Spirit) or empower the team (setting a pace they can effectively sustain, especially over time)? And if a leader doesn’t figure out how to communicate, how will she hear from God or speak the team’s language, such that they will understand and buy-in and be willing to throw down with her to achieve the vision?

I’ve always had a problem with pace, and I’ve always known it. I tend to figure things out pretty quickly, lock into a vision I feel the Lord has given me, and then charge ahead. And I did that with the church plant, as we’ve discussed. My pace was inappropriate on multiple levels. First, I was out of step with the Spirit, charging ahead instead of waiting for Him and moving at His speed — spoiler alert: the Spirit moves pretty slow. And because of that, second, I was out of step with the team. They didn’t understand what we were doing, even though I felt like I’d cast the vision 1,000 times in 1,000 ways. But they weren’t really bought in. They were afraid and in pain, and so they just simply couldn’t keep up with me (nor should they have).

And my reaction to that — instead of grace, borne of love, or slowing down, borne of humility — was judgment and offense. Somehow, I ended up with an “if you were serious about this mission, you’d get off the couch” chip on my shoulder. Somehow, I came to view my own team as “dead weight” or even “the enemy,” because I perceived them not to be helping me achieve the “success” I was increasingly desperate to achieve. I think the “somehow” involved some pretty fundamental identity issues for me, as we discussed, and that led to an unsustainable pace — both for me and for my team.

Similarly, I totally failed at communication. And this one surprised me, because I thought I excelled at communication. I’m a gifted teacher after all. I know how to communicate the Scriptures and the things of God. People affirm that all the time. And everyone seemed to understand and get excited when I talked about the vision for the church plant … which I felt like I did a lot.

Well, all that may be true at some level, but looking back on the implosion of the ministry, I’m forced to admit that I utterly failed a) to communicate the vision for the church plant to my team in such a way that they could appropriate it deeply, b) to listen well, and c) to build community well … to just sit and talk about our lives in a way that made them feel loved and safe and connected.

Let’s unpack that…

  1. Early on, I shared the vision enough for people to declare how smart I was and how wonderful it was, but not enough for the team to deeply understand it, question it, object to it, process through it, and own it. We should have waited to start until more of that had happened.
  2. My team members were not as mature as I thought they were, so I treated issues at a higher level than I should have … and that treatment was laden with unhelpful and inaccurate assumptions. (More on this in a future post.)
  3. I wasn’t humble enough to believe that if we’d taken longer to work on the vision together, I might have learned from the team and they might have improved the vision. I felt like the vision was from God and I had it figured out. My arrogance meant the ministry missed out on all the value that would have come from the ideas of others and from the additional soak time we could have had together.
  4. As frustration, tension, and COVID-related stress mounted, I got more command-and-control (“just do it!”) when I should have slowed down, been more patient, and talked through things even more (e.g. “how’s everyone doing?” and “what’s everyone think?” and “how can we do this better together?”). Collaboration and connection could have strengthened the team and me and the mission, if I had been more humble and patient.

I think the lesson to be learned is that this kind of “slowing down” and “talking more” leads to more success, not less. But even there, fellow leader, it’s not about how much success we think we can squeeze out of our teams, it’s about depending on and following Jesus and inviting others to join us as we do. And the byproduct will be the fruit of effective ministry.

The Takeaway:
The more foreign or new or challenging a vision is, the more a leader needs to slow down and take a ton of time and intentionality to communicate it. In both these things, we have to keep pace with a) the Spirit and b) the team. There is no effective Christian leadership without appropriate pace (slow!) and effective communication (more!).

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.  Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. 

I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me. If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown aside like a branch and he withers. They gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be my disciples.

John 15:1-8

Image Credit

  1. Business Leader Ideating – Unknown
  2. Man Concentrating – Decision-Making in High-Stress Situations (LinkedIn)
  3. No Puzzle Piece – Judy Endow: Goodnight Autism Puzzle Pieces
  4. Chess Board – iStock Photos
  5. Child with Jesus – Peakpx
  6. Keeping Pace – Runtastic: Pace Calculator
  7. Miscommunication – How to Avoid Miscommunication in Relationships
  8. Leadership word map – New Mexico State University
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God’s Goodness vs Eternal Conscious Torment

How can a good God send people to hell?

(Question 7 of 8 in the Goodness of God series)

One of the latest trends in the ongoing quest of the human heart to ascend the mountain and be like the Most High has been labeled “Progressive Christianity” (read more). This new “tent” is fairly large, and the people who dwell in it are diverse, but one of the common sticking points for many of these folks is the view of hell long held by orthodox Christianity. In the progressive camp, there is an increasing desire (demand?) to explain away hell as traditionally defined: “eternal conscious torment.”

Why does that matter? What is hell? How can a good God send people there?

Great questions! Let’s see if we can shed some gospel light into a few places which progressively shifting shadows are trying to darken. Here’s my outline…

  1. What are heaven and hell?
    1. Understanding “Heaven”
    2. Understanding “Hell”
    3. An Alternative Model
  2. Is God’s goodness compatible with “eternal conscious torment”?
    1. Is hell really a place of “eternal conscious torment”?
    2. How could a good God send people to hell?
    3. Wouldn’t God be more loving if people simply ceased to exist in hell?
  3. Don’t God’s love and power mean that everyone will be saved?
  4. Why should I care about any of this?

What are heaven and hell?

First, it’s important to understand that our material universe is not the only “realm” in creation. It’s big and we think we understand it pretty well, so sometimes we think it’s the only game in town. We tend to think of our universe as the only kind of reality that could exist.

For example, some think the universe is infinite and eternal, that it is the ultimate context for everything. This is not true. The universe had a beginning, but it will not have an end … since Jesus is renewing it and has promised to dwell here forever with us someday (Rev 21:3). And the universe is finite, contextualized (surrounded) not by more physical things, but by God Himself. Metaphorically, God holds our entire universe in the palm of His hand (and there is absolutely nothing “holding God up”).

Heaven and hell are the names we’ve given to other kinds of reality. God has given us glimpses into them in the Scriptures, which is how we know they exist. The Bible is called “God’s revelation to us,” because how else could we know anything about otherworldly realms, except that the God who made all realms reveals them to us “from the other side” of the great divide that separates us from them?

To even call heaven and hell “places” or “realms” or “realities” is to make a bunch of assumptions about them, based on our limited understanding of our own world. Are they physical places (full of matter and energy, like our world)? Probably not, or at least, probably not in the same way. Does time pass in those places like it does for us? Probably not, or again, probably not the way we experience / think of it. Etc.

Understanding “Heaven”

We tend to conflate two different things / realities when we use the term, “heaven.” First, we call the realm in which God, angels, and demons dwell “heaven.” This is referring to another kind of reality in which spiritual beings live. Like our world, this is a place God created in which the beings He created (angels and demons) live and move and have their being … ostensibly similar to the way we exist in our universe. God Himself is likely as transcendent and beyond that reality as He is transcendent and beyond ours (because God stands outside and contextualizes all realities as their Creator, by definition). The Bible does depict God sitting on a throne conversing with angels and demons in this realm (see Job 1 or Rev 4), so who knows?! I suspect that God the Father shows up “bodily” in any other realm in the same way He does in ours: strictly metaphorically. The Bible also talks about God’s walking in the garden with Adam and Eve in our world (see Gen 1), which we know probably doesn’t mean that He had a physical body that crunched leaves when He steps on them. Because God transcends the realities that He has created, He bodily inhabits physical reality only in the person of Jesus … who actually has a physical body.

But I digress. The point is that one way we talk about “heaven” is to describe this spiritual realm. But the other reality that we’ve labeled “heaven” is part of the ultimate end of history when God has completed His project to redeem and restore the world. In this sense, “heaven” is the world that will ultimately exist when our realm and the spiritual realm are someday united in what the Scriptures call “the new heaven and the new earth,” where “the New Jerusalem” will be (see Rev 21). Many think of heaven as the place to which all the Christians will be whisked away by God someday in order to escape the horrors of this world. They think God is going to condemn and ultimately destroy this world, but show favor to His faithful followers by rescuing them from the dumpster fire that is sinful, rebellious human history.

But that’s not what the Bible teaches.

I don’t want to get too far into these weeds, but what the Scriptures actually tell us is that God is in the process not of destroying this world but of redeeming and restoring and renewing it. The ultimate end of history, when God has completed His work to bring total justice and complete redemption, will see this earth made new. God will bring heaven to earth, not evacuate the faithful from earth to heaven. “Heaven” will ultimately be where those who love God and accept His invitation to life will dwell with God intimately and personally and fully … forever. This will be not be a new, different physical universe, it will be this universe, but reborn … in which God’s power rules unopposed and God’s character is present in the hearts of every single person who has chosen to allow Him to develop it there. Every person who has recognized the incomparable value of the blood of Jesus, which has purchased our freedom and restoration, will dwell on this very earth with God after it has been radically regenerated by Him.

But what about all the people who refuse God’s invitation to life … who steadfastly refuse to let Him claim their lives and transform them into the likeness of His Son … who trample underfoot the blood of the eternal covenant? What about them?

Great question! These are the folks for whom heaven will not be a fitting place. They will neither want to be there nor will they be qualified to enter. A completely different eternal destination has been reserved for them — a place we call “hell.”

Understanding “Hell”

If heaven is deep and abiding union with Jesus, becoming one with Him to share in His life and His inheritance (ruling the world and enjoying the benefits of intimacy with God) forever, then hell is the opposite. Hell is deep and abiding separation from Jesus, absolutely and permanently unable to share in any aspect of His life and His inheritance forever. If heaven is experiencing the benefits of God’s presence — life, joy, security, abundance, wisdom, peace, power, deep satisfaction, wholeness, the total rest of Shalom forever — then hell is experiencing the complete absence of these things — death, misery, fear, scarcity, foolish ignorance, conflict, impotence, deep dissatisfaction, radical emptiness, and a total inability to rest — by being cut off from God’s presence forever.

Wait! I thought God was transcendent, not to mention omnipresent. How can anything be “outside” the presence of God?

Because God’s “presence,” in physical terms, is a metaphor. We’re not talking about God’s sitting at a restaurant, such that if you’re in the room, you’re “in His presence,” but if you’re out in the parking lot or out on the expressway, you’re not in His presence. I know the expressway can feel like hell sometimes, but neither heaven nor hell are likely physical places the way the parking lot, the expressway, or the restaurant are. You can’t take a spaceship to get to either “place.” Physical location is used as metaphoric language in the Bible to help us relate to things we can’t truly understand. Here’s another example that might help… If God were a fire, then we could (very imperfectly) say, by analogy, that “heaven” is the reality of or the place of warmth and light we experience by being close to the fire, and “hell” is the reality / place of cold and darkness we experience by being out in the woods a mile away from the fire.

Losing the analogy… “heaven” is the reality or “place” where we are united with God, in God’s presence, fully accepted and welcomed, because the blood of Jesus has been shed to give us access to God’s person and presence. It’s not about physical proximity, it’s about God’s (again metaphoric) face being turned toward us in welcome and acceptance. Similarly, “hell” is the reality or “place” where a person is totally separated from God, cast out of God’s presence, not accepted or welcomed at all, because he has rejected the blood of Jesus and his own merit is woefully inadequate to qualify us for life with God. It’s God’s face turned away from a person in judgment … because she demanded to stand on her own merit and approach God drenched in sinfulness that demands the judgment and wrath of a holy God.

Here are a few NT examples of how Jesus describes hell, this place of condemnation …

  1. “Throw [the one not clothed appropriately] into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 22:13b CSB)
  2. “Throw [the one who didn’t trust the Lord enough to invest his talents] into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 25:30)
    • From Jesus’ Parable of the Talents
  3. Depart from me, you who are cursed (because you did not love your neighbor) into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels … into eternal punishment” (Matt 25:41,46a)
    • From Jesus’ teaching about separating the sheep and the goats at the end of the age
  4. A great chasm has been fixed between us and you, so that those who want to pass over from here to you cannot; neither can those from there cross over to us” (Luke 16:26)
    • From Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

An Alternative Model

At the risk of adding confusion, I feel compelled also to mention an alternate way of thinking. I hope this helps more than harms.

Another way of thinking about hell… Perhaps it isn’t so much being “separated” from God as it is remaining in God’s presence forever but unprotected by the blood of Jesus. If my friend Joe is “in Christ,” clothed with Christ (Gal 3:27), made a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), given a heart of flesh (Ezek 36:26), then standing in the radiance of God’s presence is light and warmth and joy — like a super-cool futuristic spaceship with unimaginably good shields hanging out in the sun’s corona sphere. But take that same spaceship with no shields, fly it that close to the sun, and I don’t care what it’s made out of, it goes up in flames. This might be a fitting analogy to hell, except with no end. If the same person (Joe) is ushered into God’s presence but is NOT in Christ, NOT clothed in His blood, HASN’T been made a new creation or given a new heart, then the radiance of God’s presence is no longer wonderful, it’s agonizing and highly destructive. But if Joe is an eternal being, enabled by the tree of life to live forever, then the agony and burning and unbearable brilliance of the glory of the Lord becomes “eternal conscious torment.”

And this sounds an awful lot like the way Jesus described hell in other places in the gospels…

  1. “Throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:42)
    • From Jesus’ parable of the Wheat and the Weeds
  2. “[The one who remains in his sin will] be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43-48, quoting Isaiah 66:24)
    • From Jesus’ warnings about the devastatingly serious consequences of sin: “It’s better to have one eye or one hand than to be thrown into hell whole.”
    • Jesus is quoting the closing words of Isaiah, where Isaiah contrasts those who will live in the new heavens and the new earth with those who rebelled against Yahweh and are left outside the kingdom to rot in the valley of Gehenna (where dead bodies and other garbage was burned outside the city walls of Jerusalem): “[As those who worship Yahweh leave the city], they will see the dead bodies of those who have rebelled against me; for their worm will never die, their fire will never go out, and they will be a horror to all humanity.” (Isaiah 66:24)

Regardless of which of these models best describes hell (they might even be the same, from heaven’s perspective), the discussion brings up another important question about the nature of hell and, by extension, about the character of God…

Is God’s goodness compatible with “eternal conscious torment”?

We could break this one question down into a progression of good “sub-questions”…

  • Is hell really a place of “eternal conscious torment,” as the church has taught for 2,000 years (and the progressives are now inclined to deny)?
  • And if so, how could a “good” God create such a place or send someone there?
  • And by implication, wouldn’t it be better (more humane) to just snuff people out who don’t go to heaven?
  • Surely a loving and merciful God would just cause someone to cease to exist rather than torture them forever, right?

Let’s take these one at a time…

Is hell really a place of “eternal conscious torment”?

The bible teaches (somewhat indirectly), and the church has always held, that hell is a place of “eternal conscious torment” (the theologian’s words, attempting to summarize numerous references in Scripture, but not a direct quote). Recently, however, many have questioned if this is a proportional response to a life that rejects God’s grace. The argument goes like this:

If I steal something or hurt someone or violate God’s law, that’s sin. Yes, sin is bad and requires some sort of corrective action, even punishment. But it’s totally unjust for the sentence to be “eternal conscious torment.” That punishment doesn’t fit the crime, because it’s too extreme. Therefore, it’s unjust and unloving. So, any God who would create such a system is also unjust and unloving. Even if someone killed a zillion people or something else extremely, unbelievable horrible, still some kind of never-ending torment would be a disproportionate response. The progressive view is to see the sin as finite and the punishment of hell as infinite, so therefore disproportionate, unjust, and unloving.

But here’s the fly in the ointment (and the flaw in their thinking)… The magnitude of the offense isn’t in the particular wrong committed or in the one who perpetrates the wrong. Rather, the magnitude of the offense is determined by the one against whom the wrong was perpetrated, because only the offended party is qualified to judge the wrong that was committed. We’re judging hell as unnecessarily cruel, because we don’t really think sin is all that bad or that a human victim of sin is worth enough to warrant an eternal consequence for the perpetrator.

This is all because we too are sinful and see these things through sin-darkened lenses. But God is not and does not.

What makes sin so horrible (even worthy of hell!) is that it is an offense against God Himself. Sin violates the One who is infinitely perfect, infinitely beautiful, infinitely holy and infinitely good. Therefore, sin incurs a debt that is infinitely large. Even the smallest sin violates an infinitely perfect God and therefore requires an infinite recompense to “make Him whole” again in the face of the wrong committed. Parenthetically, this is also why Jesus had to be both God and man. He had to be fully human in order to be counted among us and pay the bill for human sin. And He had to be fully God in order to have the infinite resources of God with which to pay it.

So, if sin is an infinitely serious offense, then either the infinitely valuable sacrifice of God’s only Son will cover the debt incurred by it, or we will be punished in the infinite torment of hell because of its severity. Those are the only two options, unless we plan to throw justice out the window entirely.

Put another way, it’s precisely because God is so good and so just that hell is so horrible

How could a good God send people to hell?

Simply put, God doesn’t send people to heaven or hell. We choose. If it were up to God, everyone would have either obeyed Him in the garden in the first place or would today accept His gift of salvation, which is free to us but cost Jesus everything. The only people that need worry about hell are those who spit in God’s face and tell Him where He can put the priceless, unparalleled treasure of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Jesus, talking about Himself, puts it this way…

“God loved the world so much / in this way: He gave His one and only Son [Jesus], so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned [welcomed into heaven], but anyone who does not believe is already condemned [cast into hell], because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. This is the judgment: Light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:16-19)

Wouldn’t God be more loving if people simply ceased to exist in hell?

And that brings us to our last two questions in this section: Wouldn’t it be better (more humane) to just snuff people out if they can’t go to heaven? Surely a loving and merciful God would just cause someone to cease to exist rather than torture them forever, right?

First, it’s a really gutsy move to tell God you’ve got a better strategy for running the universe than He does. Anyone thinking this way… Well, that’s not going to work out very well in the long run. But let’s set that aside for a moment.

Secondly, God very intentionally made us immortal beings. Death was not part of the plan, and neither is just ceasing to exist. If God had made us to have an end, I suspect it would compromise our ability to relate to Him the way He designed us to. I have no specific Scripture to point to on this; it’s speculation. But it feels much like the question: Why doesn’t God prevent us from sinning? And the answer is: because then we’d be a totally different kind of being that couldn’t have a love-relationship with Him. I think the idea that some human beings would just cease to exist violates the same kind of “physics” in the spiritual world … it would mess up our ability to have the kind of love-relationship with God that is the highest and best form of life for us. So the goal isn’t to have a “party hardy until I cease to exist” option available to us, it’s to get onto the “be truly human” plan by submitting to God and finding out satisfaction in Him forever, like we were made to.

Plus, we already talked about the justice involved in serving an infinite sentence for rebelling against an infinitely holy God. Seen in that light, it would be a severe injustice if hell wasn’t an eternal punishment, because only an eternal punishment is just in the face of an infinite offense.

Put another way, it’s precisely because God is so just and good that hell lasts forever.

Don’t God’s love and power mean that everyone will be saved?

But wait (again)! If God is so great, then why doesn’t He just save everyone and make hell unnecessary? Doesn’t God’s great love and immense power and the incredible sacrifice on the cross mean that everyone will be saved? If so, then the whole concept of hell would just go away, right?

Well, yes, I suppose if we could guarantee that everyone would choose Jesus or if the cross could be applied to everyone, whether they wanted it or not, then yes, hell “goes away.” But how would that work?

God can’t force people to choose Him, because then, by definition, they aren’t really choosing Him. There is no relationship, no love without choice. And choice means that I can choose to reject God and walk away from the relationship. It’s a terrible choice, but it has to be a choice … or else “love” is meaningless.

And how would we apply the power of the cross and the forgiveness Jesus offers to someone who doesn’t want it? Would it not be a severe violation of that person’s dignity for God to force the relationship He wants to have with us on people who don’t want it? How is that loving? How is that good? God’s not like that!

Instead, God gives us choices. We are not robots. He doesn’t force us, He woos us. He wants love and worship, not slavish obedience, and He has provided a means for every single person who wants to be with Him to spend forever gazing upon His beauty. If you want eternal life with God in heaven, literally all you have to do is ask! It doesn’t make God unjust or ungood that He honors our choice; in fact, quite the opposite.

And just so there’s no misunderstanding about what I’m saying… Jesus’ atoning sacrifice makes eternal life possible for everyone who accepts it. So, everyone can have eternal life, but not everyone chooses to have it. And in the end, if you were to round up all the saints of heaven and do a crosscheck before takeoff, you’d discover that this is exactly the same group that God has chosen for Himself. (The “both-and” nature of which is fodder for an almost endless series of blog posts, and for sure more than we can tackle here.) Salvation is not universal. It is given by God as a free gift that must be received (chosen). The power of the cross applies only to those who receive it by faith.

Check out how the Scriptures say it…

“The true Light (Jesus!) that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was created through Him, and yet the world did not recognize Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, He gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in His name, who were [born again].” (John 1:9-13, c.f. John 3:1-21)

“For you are saved by grace through faith…” (Eph 2:8a)

If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved… For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes on him will not be put to shame’ since [God’ richly blesses all who call on Him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13, quoting Isa 28:6 and Joel 2:32)

… and probably a hundred other passages.

You have to receive the gift of eternal life from God by faith in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no other way to be saved.

Why should I care about any of this?

And that brings us to the point of this entire discussion. The real question isn’t: “Is there a hell?” or “Is hell a just and fitting punishment for sin?” The question is whether or not you know and trust and believe Jesus, so that the hell’s existence is irrelevant for you.

Because if you say “yes” to Jesus’ marriage proposal, then a perfectly good, perfectly just God will credit your account with the infinite righteousness of His Son. Jesus will pay your unpayable debt with His own blood. And you will spend an eternity of worshipful gratitude in the presence of the God of the universe, enjoying the inheritance He desired for you since the foundation of the world: Jesus Himself.

And if not, then God will again prove His perfect goodness and perfect justice by giving you what your life of rebellion and wickedness (all sin is wickedness — the fact that we don’t believe that is part of the problem) has demanded. He will leave you where you are demanding to be. Not rescued. Not transplanted from the dying vine of fallen humanity to the new vine of a new humanity that gets its life from Jesus. Not transferred from death to life (Col 1:13). Not spiritually reborn (John 3:3). Instead, you will remain where your sin has landed you … condemned to eternal separation from the One who made you for Himself, which is the most severe torment imaginable.

The whole purpose of your life is to make this choice. And whatever you choose…

It will last forever.

Come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For He is our God,
and we are the people of His pasture,
the sheep under His care.
Today, if you hear His voice:
Do not harden your hearts [as others have done,
who] tried me, though they had seen [my power].
For forty years I was disgusted with [those who rebelled];
I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray;
they do not know my ways.”
So, I swore in my anger,
“They will not enter my rest.”

Psalm 95:6-11

Image Credit
1) Chasm: Church of the Holy Family
2) Aragorn on Horseback: The One Ring Blog
3) Campfire: Dreamstime
4) Layers of the Sun: Wondrium Daily
5) Fork in the Road: Lisa Merlo-Booth blog
6) Minions and Ice Cream Truck: YouTube
7) Two Natures: Original (from 11/6/2022 sermon on Galatians 5:16-25)

Posted in Theology | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

What I Learned Failing to Plant a Church

(Part 1 of ?)

The King's Table

It’s been four years since my wife and I first felt the Lord calling us to plant a church. More than that, we believed God was giving us a vision for a different kind of church … something ancient and modern at the same time … focused on discipleship … oriented in the neighborhood … small … and intentionally resisting professionalism, consumerism, and a few other “isms” that have become (in my opinion) somewhat toxic in the Western Church in our day. We, like many, believe the Church needs renewal … while still being the bride of Christ, whom He deeply loves. So, we felt drawn to some ancient-modern, New-Testament-y ways of thinking about the church that are catching fire all over the world in one form or another. Everywhere I look, people are asking: What if we left some of the traditions behind and just tried to focus on Jesus, His Kingdom, and the community of people God has placed around us? Rightly so!

And we thought: what if we could bring that kind of thinking to a tiny corner of Southern Illinois, where I grew up, where my aging parents still live, where there is very little EFCA presence (our denomination), and where hopelessness seems to be in ample supply?

So it was that we started recruiting friends and family and fellow churchmen, handing out books we felt had been insightful and convicting, and asking people to pray about possibly joining us on this mission. In the end, two families signed up, and on June 22, 2020, my family moved from the NW suburbs of Chicago to Fairview Heights, IL (just east of St Louis), eager to get started on an audacious mission we felt was from the Lord. By this time, one of our partner families had already moved to the area, and the other would move several months later (and even live with us for a couple months while they found a home of their own). And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic was then in full swing.

It was only 3 days after we moved into our new home that serious problems started to surface. Relational tension and trauma-induced stress from the pandemic had already been mounting for months at that point, and that unfortunate trend was only the beginning. Things went from bad to worse until, right at about the 2nd anniversary of our move to the St Louis area, we officially dissolved the legal entity of the church we had tried to plant.

To say the least, it was a wild and extremely difficult ride. To be blunt, the whole thing was heartbreaking. But God is so good and so gracious … and looking back on the whole experience, I believe He had a completely different plan all along … for all of us. I believe God’s intention was to mature us … painfully … to do work in all of us that desperately needed to be done but that He couldn’t do without humbling and humiliating us first … without exposing some needs we weren’t even aware of when we were reading Francis Chan and dreaming about an ancient-modern home church network in the neighborhood.

I’m writing this to dwell a little on some of the lessons I believe God has taught and is teaching me. I don’t know if I have any brilliant answers, and I for sure am not done learning these lessons, but lately the Lord has been compelling me to write. So, let’s take a look at a few thoughts together that feel pretty important to consider for anyone considering church planting. I’m sure this will turn out to be more than one volume, but this can at least be the first installment…

  1. Lesson 1: It’s God’s story, not mine; seek continually to be with Him
  2. Lesson 2: It’s God’s work, not mine; slow way down
  3. Lesson 3: Become the kind of person God wants to replicate
  4. Lesson 4: I didn’t know how to care for my soul or for the souls of others
  5. Lesson 5: There is a being that doesn’t involve doing
  6. Wrap Up

Lesson 1: It’s God’s story, not mine; seek continually to be with Him

Prayer -- Seek the Lord continually

God is always the point of what’s happening … not just in the “religious” sphere of the church or church planting, but always, in all things. It’s always His goals and His dreams that are going to be realized. In all things, He is sovereignly at work doing more than we can imagine, exceedingly beyond what we can understand or ask Him for (Rom 8:28; Eph 3:20-21). So, the plans, the ideas, the innovation must come from Him, or they could just as easily be against the flow of what He’s doing. That means prayer … no, really, a LOT of prayer. Not ritualistic or perfunctory prayer, but “I want to know what you’re doing so I can keep up” prayer. And “if you don’t show up, this will all fall apart” prayer. And listening. James 1:19 listening (“quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” listening). It means not charging ahead. It means holding “great ideas” and “lofty goals” and “the mission” with an open hand.

Maybe the most important thing I learned in this whole effort is that I think too highly of myself. Well, I mean, I learned it again. Sigh. We did a great job of praying for guidance up front: What kind of church? Where? How? Who? But, now I wish that we’d spent longer dwelling on even these questions … extending those early days of seeking … taking more time to sit with Father and listen to His heart. But once I felt like I had my marching orders from the King, I came charging down to Southern Illinois confident in my ability to execute the plan. Where I really failed was in not remaining in a posture of dependance, humbly asking the Lord every single moment where He wanted to go and what He wanted me to do. I thought He had told me what to do with the next 10 years, and I tried to go do it, largely on my own. In truth, God tells us where He wants to go for the next 10 minutes … in this conversation or in that meeting … or maybe over the next day or two. God doesn’t issue many long-term strategic directives. He walks with us … or at least tries to. It’s our job to depend on Him fully while we do whatever He brings us into, and then stop and ask Him what’s next.

The Takeaway: We are the beloved children of the King. BUT, we are not His competent, adult children. We’re not anything like His peers. We’re (extremely dependent) toddlers. My role in this world isn’t to perform well the tasks He’s given me, it’s to stay by His side as He walks through His world executing His plans. To strike out on my own is to act like I’m an orphan – fatherless – when the Christian life is almost entirely about dependent union with the Father … being with, waiting on, and working with Him.

Lord, my heart is not proud;
my eyes are not haughty.
I do not get involved with things
too great or too wondrous for me.
Instead, I have calmed and quieted my soul
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like a weaned child.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
both now and forever.

Psalm 131 (CSB)

Lesson 2: It’s God’s work, not mine; slow way down

Walking -- Be with God in His things

Because I thought I was bearing the responsibility of getting it all right (it’s on me!), I raced around crazy, trying to do “enough” to achieve ambitious, kingdom-oriented goals. There was so much work to do, I believed, and I was the one God had sent to do it. Why wasn’t everyone else working as hard or running on all cylinders the way I felt I was? Why weren’t they pulling their weight? Don’t they sense the urgency?! Don’t the know our neighbors are all dying in their sins?! Don’t they love God like I do?!

We only think like that when we believe we’re the ones in control … with the power to move mountains. But that’s not true. Almighty God is never out of control, and I’m never truly in it. And if any mountains are going to be moved, it’ll be because God is using me to move them. It’s God’s plan and God’s wisdom and God’s strength, so it’s His work to do. It’s His power that matters, not mine.

And here’s the deal… God moves really really REALLY! slow … at least, by my still-thinking-way-too-highly-of-myself standards. I imagine Thanksgiving dinner can be cooked in the microwave in 30 seconds, because I don’t really know anything about cooking. The God of History is the gourmet chef, and it turns out “Thanksgiving feast” isn’t the same as “microwave burrito.” Who knew?! Unlike me, the Lord God actually knows what it takes and has the skill and patience to prepare an epic meal full of hundred-year-old recipes and mouth-watering delights. And it takes days to prepare, hours to eat, hours to recover in naps and belly-rubbing, and still more hours to clean up. My life, my son’s journey of faith, the redemption story of my neighbors, the trajectory of my church … none of these are TV dinners, they’re gourmet meals of epic proportions. We’ve gotta let the One who knows what He’s doing prepare them the way He knows is best. Someday, I will stand in His presence looking back on history and declare that His ways are perfect. And on that day, I promise you’ll agree.

The Takeaway: If I really believe that God is in control and sovereignly, perfectly at work in this world, then I’ll slow down to His pace, learn to rest (which means “learning to trust Him and His ways”), and focus my energies on being with Him, rather than pouring all my energy into solving problems and executing tasks.

Come, see the works of the Lord,
who [acts miraculously and unstoppably] on the earth.
He [does the impossible in pursuit of peace].
“Stop fighting, and know that I am God,
exalted among the nations, exalted on the earth.”
The Lord of Armies is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Psalm 46:8-11 (CSB)

PS – Of course, following the Lord and being on mission for Him will often involve making plans, defining tasks and executing well, but there’s a difference between God’s tasks executed by God’s power working through a human being on God’s time table and the tasks I think are God’s tasks (but that really I created as the 123rd and 124th step in a super high-level task I feel He gave me a year ago) executed by my power on my timetable as I ask God with increasing desperation to make sure it all works out. See the difference?

Another Takeaway (or maybe the same one, said another way): Seek the Lord every day. Let Him direct. Let Him bear the weight of the decisions and the plan. Ask Him what His priority and agenda are for the day, put on His yoke, and fall in step with Him … whether it makes sense or not … comfortable or scary … easy or hard … whether it costs a little or a lot …

You get the idea.

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus, in Matthew 11:28-30 (CSB)

Lesson 3: Become the kind of person God wants to replicate

Discipleship -- Starts with being someone God wants to replicate

I was definitely focused on making disciples, but not focused enough on being a disciple myself … on submitting my own broken, sinful, ambitious, arrogant, overly-opinionated character to Jesus to be transformed into His likeness (Romans 12:1-2).

Jesus was (and is!) magnetic. Everyone (who had the eyes to see that trying to rule the universe themselves wasn’t going to work) wanted to be with Jesus, to know Jesus, to be loved by Jesus. Broken people flocked to Him!

I wanted broken people to flock to Jesus. Great goal. Godly goal. Kingdom goal. Well done, Jeff. But what I missed was that the most important variable in whether or not I will draw people to Jesus is whether or not I personally was drawing near to Jesus … and becoming more like Him. Our church didn’t need more clever ideas about how to reach the neighbors, it needed more renewal, restoration, regeneration and revival in the hearts of people who were already a part of it … beginning with me.

The Takeaway: If God transforms you into someone who’s increasingly, everyday a little more like Jesus, then people will want to be around you (or they’ll hate you because you threaten their idols), just like they wanted to be with (or hated) Jesus. That’s the goal!

Being a disciple, leading to transformation, necessarily precedes being a disciple-maker.

“My prayer is … that all of [my followers] may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Jesus, about us, in John 17:20-23 (NIV)

Lesson 4: I didn’t know how to care for my soul or for the souls of others

Soul care -- Learning to nurture the deepest parts of who you are

Living in this world is hard. It wears you down. And none of the technology, relentless notifications, social media, so-called “news”, or extra-loud my-way-or-the-highway options pounding us senseless every day is making that any better. It’s getting worse. We have more comfort, more access to information, more “time-saving” gadgets of convenience than our grandparents could have even dreamed of, but life isn’t getting any better. Why?

Because all that stuff is hard on the soul. All our nonstop connectedness. All the vitriol in the media. All the expectations we place on ourselves and others. All our attempts to build paradise with our own two hands. None of that is the way it was meant to be. Said another way, your soul wasn’t made to function in that kind of environment. Neither was mine. And I didn’t understand that.

So, when setting out to plant a church, I set out to execute on that worthy, noble, Jesus-centric goal just like I set out to manage an IT project or develop a new line of business for a startup or whatever else I’d done in the past (by the strength of my right arm!)… I had received orders from the Lord, and I believed I was strong enough to just get’er’done. And I even had a team of eager beavers so spiritual that they were willing to move to a totally new place to work on the project with me. Surely, all it would take to succeed would be the favor of God and a lot of really hard, really clever work … right?


More than clever strategies and diligent labor – not that those things are unimportant – I needed more time with Jesus, more silence, more margin, more rest, more learning how to honor and listen to my emotions. I needed less on my calendar, and fewer demands on myself and others. And I needed to care for my soul – even at the most basic level of learning to be kind to myself (and others). I needed grace, not the pressure of performance. I needed more nights alone in the wilderness, not more speaking engagements or neighborhood events.

Then, on top of everything, COVID happened. That was traumatic. For everyone. And my already weary soul – from all the years of powering up, throwing down, long hours, busy calendars and the twin, devastating expectations of self-made success and comfort – wasn’t able to bear the load. What the people around me needed was a man who knew how to bring all the stresses and pressures of life (even COVID pandemic life) to Jesus and invite Him into them. They needed someone who knew how to just sit with them in the pain and confusion, and be filled by Jesus, not by great plans and positive energy and expectation. And I needed that from them too. And if we’d have done that… If we’d just sat together, like Job’s friends did in the early days, gazing at Jesus, the Spirit of God might have come and overflowed from me to them and from them to others … like pools that cascade into other pools that cascade into other pools. And we might have had a shot at being a church.

The Takeaway: If you think God has given you an important mission, then the primary need isn’t for activity for God, it is for time with God. If others are involved (and they always are), then their primary need is that you lead them to Jesus, not to mission or ministry.

So, again…

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus, in Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)

Lesson 5: There is a being that doesn’t involve doing

Human being -- Way more of who you are than human doing

Speaking of trading the soul-crushing frenetic pace of modern life for Jesus’ light burden and easy yoke… Counseling in the aftermath of our failed church plant is teaching me a whole new way to live.

A year ago, I would have said that being and doing go together, and wouldn’t have questioned the implication of having only one way of “being” … which is “doing.” But I’m learning that “doing” isn’t the only way to navigate life. There is a “being” that doesn’t involve “doing.”

Confusing? Sorry. It was for me too until recently. Let me try to explain…

Somewhere along the line, as I was growing up, I seem to have deeply committed to “achievement” as the tool I would use to attack life. Yes, that fits with my personality, but it’s more than that… I found myself a big-ole’ hammer and so, for my whole life, everything that comes at me looks like a nail. No matter what happens to me, I think, “What do I have to do to deal with this?” What action is required of me? How do I solve this problem? How do I achieve my way into / out of / through this circumstance, bending it to my will and channeling it into “success” or “accomplishment” or whatever word indicates that the ball is heading down the field toward the goal and (if I’m honest) that I’m going to get the credit?

But what if not everything is a task to be done, a goal to be accomplished, or a success to be achieved? What if something happened, and I didn’t do anything? What if I just sat with Jesus and experienced the fact that something just happened to us … with Him? If someone expresses fear, maybe I could just sit with them in it and try to empathize. If someone is angry, maybe I could just listen and not respond. If I’m sad or hurt, maybe I could just sit in those feelings … and invite Jesus to sit with me. What if the best thing to “do” isn’t to “do” anything about those things, but just “be” in them? What if that were enough for Jesus? What if I didn’t need to have a plan or a goal or a solution or a revised project plan? What if I entered that circumstance knowing I was already deeply and truly loved, and required no accomplishment to gain that acceptance? What if I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone?

I’m hoping to find out.

The Takeaway: There’s a lot of “doing” in life, but we are human beings, not human doings. Who you are is more than what you do. It is from being with Jesus that strength and resilience and “success” is derived, not from my actions. The power of God is in the presence of God. Yes, ministry involves doing things for Jesus. And that will involve solid plans and hard work. But if we want to be fully human, then they must come from and come after being with Jesus.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

John 15:5-8 (NIV)

Wrap Up

Well, friend, thanks for sticking with me through all that. That’s it for now, but I have a long-and-growing list of other lessons I’d like to share, so I’m fairly certain I’ll be back with a sequel. Until then, I’d like to close with a prayer I’m sitting in often at the feet of John Eldredge. When he reads it, it’s almost always from the New Living Translation, so that’s how I’ll share it here. This is the Apostle Paul’s prayer for us … me and you both … and it’s my prayer for us too. And the King of Heaven… it’s His prayer for us as well. And if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32).

Rest with me in this, and we’ll talk again soon…

When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from His glorious, unlimited resources He will empower you with inner strength through His Spirit. Then Christ will make His home in your hearts as you trust in Him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep His love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.

Now all glory to God, who is able, through His mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to Him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.

Ephesians 3:14ff (NLT)
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Time-Tested Orthodoxy and the Early Ecumenical Councils


The Complexity of Theology

Theology is complex, because God Himself is complex. We do not and we cannot fully understand God’s nature because we are nothing like Him and He is completely beyond us. We are small and dependent on the world around us, while God is vast and immeasurable. He stands outside of space and time, cannot be measured by anything in the physical universe, and is fundamentally beyond the reach of our finite minds. We are able to comprehend Him at all only because He chooses to reveal Himself to us. We are the characters in a story God has written. We can only know about the Author of the story because He makes Himself known to us. Indeed, our God is just that amazing in that He wrote Himself into the story of Creation by becoming a character Himself. That’s what it means for Jesus to be “incarnate” … to “pitch his tent among us” (John 1:14). This Jesus was at the same time a man from Nazareth in the 1st century AD and the eternal divine Son of God, equal in every way to the Father (see John 1:1-18, Colossians 1:15-20, Hebrews 1).

Seek to know God, not “figure God out”

Over time, many have tried to “figure God out” by attempting to simplify the complexities or resolve the tensions encountered in the study of theology. Theology is simply a compound Greek term for the discourse (logos) about God (Theos); Theos + logos = theology. But every time someone claims to “figure God out,” it’s because they are oversimplifying and trying to make God fit in a box they’ve created for Him. That, of course, never works.

It’s easy to misunderstand the profound complexity in God’s nature in our struggle to relate to Him, because we subconsciously think of God as mostly like us, when He’s not like us at all. God is not the greatest being in a category of beings that includes grasshoppers, dogs, dolphins and humans, such that He is the greatest being on the spectrum with a bunch of lesser beings. That’s the wrong (and horribly misleading) way to think about God. Instead, God is in a category all by Himself. Nothing anywhere, in any context is at all like Him. Every other being in the universe, including angels and human beings, are of the same type: “created, finite being.” God alone is of the type: “uncreated (eternal), infinite being.” Every tool we have to understand God is also created, is locked within our limited, creaturely experience with us, and is therefore totally inadequate to describe or measure or define God. The only tool that “works” is God’s self-disclosure to us (the holy Scriptures), and even that has to be done in language and via analogy that we would understand. In fact, John Calvin said that God uses “baby talk” so that we would have a hope of understanding anything He says to us. And every time human beings have gotten it into their heads that God’s “baby talk” is the full language of the divine, presuming that we are mature enough to sit at the adult table (so to speak) with God, it has ended badly. When we try to drag God down out of His heavenly shroud of mystery, totally-other-ness and unresolvable tension, it always leads to heresy (wrong theology).

Solomon said, “There’s nothing new under the sun”

What’s fascinating is that pretty much every heretical view of God has been tried and failed. Even 2,100 years after Jesus walked among us, people are still regularly thinking they have come up with some new revolutionary idea about God. But you might be surprised to discover that most of these theories were already taught all the way back in the first few centuries of the church, and after careful consideration by a then-much-smaller and far-more-unified church (not saying much when comparing to today), were rightly identified as wrong understanding.

Common Wrong Beliefs about God

The most significant and frequent sources of this kind of oversimplification and misunderstanding surround the church’s thinking about two concepts:

  1. The Trinity – the reality that God is one God (of one kind or essence) but is three Persons
  2. (Brace yourself for technical theological word) The hypostatic union – the reality that Jesus is only one Person, but has two natures (fully God and fully human)

Neither of these concepts is explicitly stated in the bible. You cannot look up a specific chapter and verse that make concise statements like I just did. In fact, it took the church centuries to formulate these statements so succinctly. However, both these concepts are everywhere in Scripture. There are literally dozens of ways in which each of these concepts is implied. So in the early days, the church burned a lot of calories carefully considering and documenting exactly what impact the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus did to the existing Jewish understanding of monotheism. Followers of Jesus poured over the Scriptures trying to understand the full breadth and depth of what it is really teaching us, putting together all the implications of what one can clearly read in the Old Testament (the teaching of the prophets) and what would come to be known as the New Testament (the teaching of the apostles), and formulating systematic statements like the two I’ve made above.

Because well-meaning students of theology can easily arrive at any number of heretical (wrong) conclusions by simply trying to resolve tensions (even seeming paradoxes) in our understanding of God, or simplify how we relate to Him, or even give more weight to our human reason or instincts than they deserve, a few heresies have come up often in history. They all have funny names that are hard to remember, so I thought it would be useful to create a reference for easy access and recall.


In the early 4th century AD, a leader in the church in Alexandria, Egypt named Arius (c. 256-336) declared that Jesus must have been created by God because He was a man. This led to an enormous debate about Jesus’ deity which was resolved at the 1st ecumenical (entire church speaking with one unified voice) council at Nicaea in AD 325. The reality is that Jesus was not created by God. He is at the same time the eternal God who created the universe (fully divine) and a human being just like you and me (fully human). Any attempt to resolve this tension leads to a wrong understanding of who Jesus is.

Read more about Arianism: GotQuestions? or Britannica.


Macedoniansim was a fourth-century heresy that denied the full divinity or personality of the Holy Spirit. This idea was popularized by a former bishop of Constantinople, a semi-Arian named Macedonius. According to this heresy, the Holy Spirit was a created being, subject to the Father and Son in something of a servant role. This error was addressed and soundly refuted at the 2nd ecumenical council at Constantinople in AD 381. The reality is that the Holy Spirit is a person (not a thing) who is fully equal, eternal, divine and of the same essence and substance as God the Father and God the Son.

Read more about Macedonianism: GotQuestions? or Britannica.


Nestorius (c. AD 386–451) was the Archbishop of Constantinople in the early 5th century AD. Nestorianism wrongly emphasized the disunity of the human and divine natures of Christ. According to the Nestorians, Christ essentially exists as two persons sharing one body. His divine and human natures are completely distinct and separate. This sparked great controversary, of course, which was resolved at the 3rd ecumenical council at Ephesus in AD 431. The reality is that Jesus has two natures in one unified person. He is both fully God (sharing the divine nature with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit) and fully human (sharing human nature with all of us), but in a single, whole, complete, undivided person.

Read more about Nestorianism: GotQuestions? or Britannica.


Pelagianism is the unbiblical teaching that Adam’s sin did not affect future generations of humanity. According to Pelagius (c. AD 360-420), Adam’s sin was solely his own, and Adam’s descendants (us) do not inherit a sinful nature. Pelagius wrongly believed that since God creates every human soul directly, every human soul starts out in innocence, free from sin and basically good. This heresy was repudiated at the 4th ecumenical council at Chalcedon in AD 451. The reality is that Adam’s sin poisoned the entirety of human nature, so we are all born sinful, separated from God, and desperately in need of a savior.

Read more about Pelagianism: GotQuestions? or Britannica.

Reference of the First Four Ecumenical Councils

The First Council of Nicaea (AD 325)

  • Repudiated Arianism, which wrongly believed that Jesus was a created being. Nicaea affirmed that Jesus is “homoousios with the Father” (of the same substance or essence as God the Father)
  • Adopted the original Nicene Creed
  • And, btw, established the date for celebrating Easter, which is a cool fun fact.

The First Council of Constantinople (AD 381)

  • Repudiated Arianism (again; this time, it would stick)
  • Repudiated Macedonianism, which wrongly denied full personhood and divinity of the Holy Spirit, understanding the Spirit to be a “He” (Person) not an “it” (not a “force” as in Star Wars) and paving the way for understanding Him to the 3rd (full) member of the Trinity
  • Constantinople clearly affirmed that Jesus is “begotten of the Father before all time”
  • Revised the Nicene Creed to speak more directly to the Person of the Holy Spirit, resulting in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. When the Nicene Creed is recited, it’s typically this modified version. Read both the original Nicene creed and the 381 updates.
  • Here’s another link to a helpful article about the creed and its meaning: The Essentials of Christianity

The Council of Ephesus (AD 431)

  • Repudiated Nestorianism, which wrongly claimed that Jesus is two distinct Persons, one divine and one human, each with its own separate nature. In truth, Jesus has two natures (divine and human) but (Read more:
  • Affirmed that Mary was Theotokos (“God-bearer” or “one who gives birth to God”). Nestorianism claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was only a man (so Mary had given birth to a mere human), and that the Divine Logos (the eternal Son of God) was a separate person who was only loosely joined with Jesus the human being. This is false. Mary did in fact “give birth to God” because Jesus is both fully God and fully man. (Read more)
  • Repudiated Pelagianism, which wrongly claimed that people are born good and that both sin and righteousness are simple choices. His followers took this a step further to claim that there is no original sin. Augustine of Hippo famously championed the campaign against this wrong understanding of human nature and sin, giving us the doctrine Luther would later refer to as “the bondage of the will.”
  • Reaffirmed the 381 Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed

The Council of Chalcedon (AD 451)

  • Repudiated the Eutychian doctrine of monophysitism, which wrongly claimed that Jesus was not fully human. They “explained” the incarnation by claiming that Jesus’ human personhood was “overcome” by his divine nature, making him more of a “phantasm” than a human being. Instead, we understand Jesus to be a full human being and fully God (two natures) at the same time in one Person. (Read more)
  • Adopted the Chalcedonian Creed, which described the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ, both human and divine, in one Person. (Link to the creed)

Looking for more information?

For more information about the ecumenical councils of the church:

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Dogmatic Rank and the Quest for Christian Maturity

Archery: woman aiming at target

All theology is important,
but not all theology is of the same importance.

Words to live by! I’m not sure who originally said them in that exact form. But when I search on the phrase, two of the first three hits on Google are: 1) an excerpt from the classic Mere Christianity by CS Lewis and 3) an article from the Gospel Coalition. It’s not surprising that these would all be bound up together, given my love of all three: this guiding principle for theological study, CS Lewis (my hero!), and the TGC, which is closely linked in my mind with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where I’ve been hanging out these last few years getting an M.Div. But wherever it came from, I’ve been itching to write about it since the earliest days in my seminary career. The time has finally come.

Failure to study theologian with discernment has created more problems than anyone could enumerate. And although correcting that bad trend can’t possibly be in the scope of a single blog post, I want to at least talk about one of the critical ingredients in doing theology well. For lack of a coherent, disciplined, repeatable system for classifying theological topics and discerning their importance and meaning, a great many have ended up defaulting to unhealthy and unhelpful extremes in their views of God. In this post, I hope (summarizing the work of giants who came before me) to describe a better way.

A Tale of Two Theologians

First, the world is full of lazy and lawless theologians, who treat all theology as somewhat unimportant. Typically, this is because they don’t want to do the hard work of thinking through difficult concepts and their implications. Or, it’s because they are desperate to protect a favorite and familiar sin that would be threatened by a serious study of Scripture that might lead to conviction and the call of God to obedience.

Lazy TheologianThis position leads to a church that ceases to be a church, because anyone can wander in and flop down on the couch believing whatever suits their fancy or proclivities. This allows people to subscribe to a “choose your own adventure” kind of religion, that doesn’t take Jesus seriously at all. Tragically, many fool themselves into thinking that somehow they are part of God’s Kingdom even though they do not actually attempt to know God for who He really is or take seriously the need to obey His word (Rom 1:21-25; Jas 2:14-26).

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the legalistic theologian, who attempts to treat all theology as maximally important. Of course, it’s impossible to live like this in a logically-consistent way. So, this person invariably ends up treating as very important the theological concepts they feel they’ve mastered or that make them look superior, and relegate areas in which they struggle to be far less important. In other words, they emphasize their strengths and others’ weaknesses. This lets them — justifiably in their own minds — stand in judgment over everyone around them. This person is invariably ready to do battle about things that Jesus would likely find unimportant (the kind of music on Sunday morning, the way children’s ministry is organized, the color of the new paint in the sanctuary, etc.) while ignoring the things nearest to Jesus’ heart (unity in His church, caring for the poor, sharing the gospel with our neighbors, etc).

PhariseeThis position leads to disunity and the “foolish and useless arguments” against which Paul passionately warns us (2 Tim 2:22-26; Titus 3:1-11). It leads to a church full of Pharisees, who can end up believing they are right on every issue that matters and that the only way others can be real Christians is to come around to their views on their favorite issues. And it results in the fracturing of churches that is absolutely antithetical to the unity to which we have been called (Eph 4:1-6; 1 Cor 12:12-27) and which Jesus desires for His church (John 17:20-23). Oddly enough, this too is a kind of “choose your own adventure” religion.

If we accept the premise that these are ends of a spectrum, and if both these paths end up in the same place of personal-preference-as-ruling-authority, then I think it’s safe to re-affirmed that extremes are unhelpful and unhealthy and we need to forge a middle way.

A System of Dogmatic Rank

In order to do that, we must put some kind of system in place to discern differences between the really important stuff and the concepts and positions which are debatable or even optional. We need a method “to correctly teach the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). To this end, theologians have long preferred a hierarchical categorization scheme that labels issues by their “dogmatic rank.” Though there are many nuanced variations of this system, I subscribe to a very simple three-tiered version, as follows…

Rank 1: Essentials

First, there are issues — such as the identify of Jesus of Nazareth or the nature of the Trinity or the reality of sin — that separate Christians from non-Christians. To believe certain things about these issues either makes you a Christian, or not. If you give someone a test about these things, there’s one right answer and a ton of wrong ones. These are issues of 1st dogmatic rank.

Rank 2: Convictions

Then, there are beliefs which are less important and do not determine whether or not a person belongs to Jesus. These may include one’s approach to baptism, for example, or models of church government, or some of the details around how the Holy Spirit works in our lives, etc. Having agreed that these are not issues that categorically separate Christians from non-Christians, every Christian must decide for herself the relative importance of these issues in her own life. If a Christian develops a strong enough conviction about a given issue, then he might only want to be a part of a church with others who are of like mind.

For example, many disagree on whether or not women have a biblical warrant to serve as pastors or elders in the Church. Some feel they do (a position called “egalitarianism“), and others feel the Scriptures expressly forbid women from serving as pastors and elders (called “complementarianism“). Churches tend to take one or the other of these two positions, and those of like mind gather in one church or the other. One who feels that disagreement on such an issue is important enough to divide fellowship in this way has determined that issue to be of 2nd dogmatic rank in her own theological matrix.

Remember those who disagree here are all still saved, all still love the Lord, and are all still family (brothers and sisters in Christ). But there is a separation between them.

Rank 3: Preferences

If it doesn’t define what it means to be a Christian and it’s not important enough to break fellowship over, then the issue is 3rd rank. This is the “everything else” category. These are personal preferences on which we may disagree, but we still go to church together and do ministry side-by-side. We just see something differently … and are totally okay with that. Some, picking up on Paul’s language in Romans 14:1, call these lesser issues “disputable matters.” I like this term.

So, in summary:

  1. Essentials: You must believe this to be a Christian (e.g. Jesus is fully God and fully man and the only way to the Father). These differences separate Christians from non-Christians.
  2. Convictions: We’re both Christians, but this issue is so important to me that I’m only willing attend a church where we all agree on it. These differences separate us within the body of Christ.
  3. Preferences: We’re both Christians and we might disagree, but we get along great, enjoy fellowship together and serve the Lord side-by-side. These differences don’t really separate us.

So, now we can categorize ideas; so what?!

From my perspective, there is a defined set of 1st rank issues on which all Christians, by definition, must agree in order to in fact be Christ-followers. These are defined by the proper interpretation of Scripture and summarized well in the historic creeds of the Church (e.g. the Nicene Creed or 1 Cor 15:3-8). I also think the EFCA statement of faith does a particularly good job focusing on issues of first importance.

Beyond these essentials, I content that the children of God should strive to identify as few issues to be “rank 2” as possible. If it’s not an essential, then the mature, gracious, unity-minded Christ-follower should endeavor to relegate as many issues as possible to the status of personal preferences … which do not divide churches, cause arguments, or birth new denominations. In my opinion, Christians should be able to amicably disagree on a ton of lesser issues while remaining united on as many fronts as possible.

Dogmatic Rank Sets

This is not to say that convictions are somehow bad or unimportant. In fact, they’re vital. And there are times when division is necessary. Every Christian should know what they believe and why and on which hills they’re prepared to take a stand. But we live in a culture that has elevated personal preference to godhood, and therefore either tries to ignore theology all together (the lazy and lawless theologian) or makes everything but the brand of the kitchen sink a matter of deep, intractable conviction (the legalistic theologian). Too many Americans live our lives like we configure our Facebook profiles: demanding that every interaction, news feed, political view, friend group, etc meet an increasingly-exacting definition of “right for me.” Despite all the talk about “tolerance,” many seem anything but tolerant with those who don’t share their  perspectives. We seem to have lost our ability, as a society, to disagree respectfully, let alone lovingly. Many of us seem to prefer to scream at each other on social media. This is fundamentally antithetical to the mature Christian life, which should value love and unity and self-denial and cross bearing over rights, preferences and comfort (see Mark 8:34, 1 Cor 6:1-11 and 1 Pet 2:21-25 just to get started). Christians must espouse and live out counter-cultural lives with regard to these things, if we intend to honor Christ with our theological convictions.

It doesn’t help you grow to surround yourself only with people exactly like you or listen only to those who reenforce your pre-existing opinions.

It doesn’t reflect Christian maturity to demand that everyone in your church see every theological issue the same way you do.

On the essentials, yes, be exacting. Demand clarity and consensus. Accept no compromise or substitutes. But on everything else, let’s work harder — against the tide of our culture — to develop habits of compassion, empathy and love. Who knows, we might even learn something from one another.

How do I discern which issues are essentials?

It takes a lot of humility and grace to lay down our pet issues and agree to disagree on the non-essentials as friends and ministry partners. But we also can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We need a way to identify the essentials on which we will not compromise, so that we don’t end up making too many things a matter of considered (or not) opinion.

It won’t surprise you that I have a few suggestions.

Study the Scriptures

How to Read the Bible for all its WorthFirst, read How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, and then apply the timeless principles it teaches to study the daylights out of the Scriptures. Learn what it really says. Become an expert at biblical interpretation. You don’t need a fancy degree; you need time and intentionality — and there’s nothing more important to give time and intentionality to than the study of the word of God.

Adopt a Formal Method of Discernment

Second, develop a plan. Use the same approach or method every time you try to answer the “What dogmatic rank should I assign to this topic?” question. I commend to you the EFCA’s six principles / questions for evaluating theological significance. You don’t have to use them, but you need to use something. And they’re really good. Perhaps at least take this a starting point.

Consider, concerning any given issue, its…

  1. Relevance to our understanding of the nature and character of God: To what extent does this doctrine or practice reveal the person and nature of God?
  2. Connection to the gospel and the overarching narrative of the Bible: How directly is this doctrine or practice connected to the gospel and to the storyline of the whole Bible?
  3. Exegetical clarity: To what extent does Scripture unambiguously affirm this doctrine or practice?
  4. Biblical prominence: How prominent is this doctrine or practice in Scripture?
  5. Historical consensus: How widespread is the consensus on this doctrine or practice in the Church of both the past and present?
  6. Application to the church and the believer: How relevant is this doctrine or practice to us today?

(Read more from TGC)

Put Accountability Structures in Place

Lastly, I recommend a simple three-prong model for discernment in general that I think every Christian should use to hear and understand God’s voice well. It focuses on accountability, attempting to minimize “hearing from God” by any one means in isolation.

DiscernmentWhat we learn in God’s word we test in prayer and with the people of God throughout history to make sure that we are interpreting it rightly. What we hear from God’s people, we test by God’s word and in prayer. And what we hear in prayer, we test by God’s word and with God’s people [1]. And over all this, we trust the Spirit to reveal and illuminate truth to us, to be our Teacher and our Guide (John 14:26).


I hope this was a helpful (if perhaps long-winded) excursion into the principle of dogmatic rank.

A.W. Tozer said that what we think about God is the most important thing about us. Don’t be lazy or lawless or legalistic when you think about God. Major on the majors. Focus on what’s essential, and learn to love radically in the face of everything that isn’t. In this way, we obey Jesus and glorify Him.


[1] Relying on God’s people means three things that every Christian should rush to do:

  1. Join a church that is deeply committed Biblical authority and taking Jesus seriously
  2. Get in a small group where you are transparent and speak truth in love to each other
  3. Read dead guys, who loved the Lord in their day and can speak into your life

Image credit:
– Woman aiming at target:
– Lazy guy with Cheetos:
– Pharisee:
– How to Read the Bible for all its Worth:
– Dogmatic rank and discernment models / images: mine
Posted in Theology | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Seeing Jesus Changes Everything: Word Pictures in Revelation’s Prologue

Jesus Among the Lampstands 1


Submitted to Dr. Dana Harris in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course
NT 6253 Interpreting Johannine Literature at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School


The last book of the Bible is “the revelation of Jesus Christ,” written “to show God’s servants what must soon take place” (Rev 1:1). It is not designed as a chronology of future events, but as a fleeting glimpse of the end of the story. In it, you can flip to the last page of the book of cosmic history and see that God wins. He keeps His promises. No matter what kind of fear or uncertainty or injustice faces us in the world today, no one who puts their hope in the Lord will be put to shame (Ps 25; 1 Pet 3:13-16). It is the testimony of Jesus, the Messiah (Rev 1:2), who told the Apostle John to “write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches” (1:11). These seven churches represent the Church universal in all of history, particularly those who are suffering for the sake of the gospel. It is with these in mind that I write this brief reflection.

In His revelation in general and this prologue (Rev 1:1-20) in particular, Jesus paints a number of vivid word pictures of Himself, designed to give confidence and comfort to the hurting (and to unsettle and motivate the complacent). While space does not permit me to treat every image presented in this passage, I will touch on seven selected images to highlight their value in encouraging those who are afflicted and oppressed because of their faith in Jesus. And I think it’s very appropriate, as Christmas approaches, to take a long look at Jesus, the way He revealed Himself to us, rather than the way our cultural image of Him has evolved over the centuries.

1) Jesus, the Faithful Witness

Truth in DictionaryFirst, Jesus is “the faithful Witness” (Rev 1:5a). Those suffering for the cause of Christ can be assured that Jesus sees their pain and intercedes for them before the Father (Rom 8:31-35; Heb 7:25). He will personally bear witness to their faith and suffering, and His testimony is faithful and true (c.f. Rev 19:11). When He proclaims that they belong to Him, it is the final, faithful and unassailable word. This should assure those struggling with pain or fear or uncertainty that God will ensure justice and reward those who are His. They may be obscure or feel alone, but God sees them, and will remember them. In the end, He will be proven faithful.

2) Jesus, the Firstborn from the Dead

Resurrection Empty TombJesus is also “the firstborn from the dead” (Rev 1:5b), alive forever, and “holding the keys of death and Hades” (1:18). What awaits those whom God has chosen is resurrection into a glorified life directly in the presence of the Lord. Of all the messages of Revelation, the most important is that God wins, and as a result, He will dwell with His people forever (Rev 21:3). The seemingly insurmountable barriers of sin and death to our true communion with God has been forever conquered, not by our blood (which would be just recompense for our evil ways), but by the blood of the spotless Lamb, who was slain on our behalf (c.f. Rev 5:6-10). No matter how bad things get in this world (and they are bad!), a glorious future awaits the children of God. As the firstborn from the dead — not just the first to be resurrected to this new life, but the rightful heir to all its glorious benefits —, we know that Jesus has the authority in Himself to grant us life (John 5:26). Because He lives, we too shall live, and someday soon, we will be like Him, seeing Him as He truly is (1 John 3:2). The persecuted Christian – in John’s time or ours – can embrace this blessed hope for the future.

3) Jesus, the Ruler of the kings of the earth

Royal Crown and SceptorNext, Jesus is “the Ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5c). Caesar may be king for a day, but Jesus is the eternal King. Empire may appear to have the power now, but in fact, even what little it has will soon be taken away from it (Matt 13:12). Christians who are hunted by the authorities of this world can look forward to the final judgment by ultimate Authority, who will set everything right. Jesus will reign in power, bringing justice, peace, stable government and firm-but-loving rule to the people of God. The images of the golden sash (Rev 1:13), white hair (1:14), and bronze feet (1:15) all speak to Jesus’ kingly power and authority. And certainly, His divine sovereignty is clearly demonstrated in statements like, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8) and “I am the First and the Last” (1:17). Jesus is the just, all-powerful King who will conquer and supplant the corrupt and abusive authorities of this world. This too should bring us great hope, and help the oppressed to persevere.

4) Jesus is Coming Back Soon

Fourth, Jesus is coming back for us. He has not left us as orphans (John 14:18). Behold, “He is coming with the clouds” (Rev 1:7; c.f. Isa 19:1; Dan 7:13), and every eye will see Him. There will be no confusion or contest or subtlety when Jesus returns. None who belong to Him will remain in hiding or continue to suffer, for when He comes for us, He will make all things new (Rev 21:5), establish justice, and finally bring rest to the people of God (Heb 4:1-11).

5) Jesus Stands Among His People

Jesus Among the Lampstands 2

Even now, fifthly, Jesus stands “among the lampstands, one like a Son of Man” (Rev 1:12). This depicts not only that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah (Rev 21:16), prophesied by Daniel (7:13), but that He is present even now among His people. Christians persecuted in this world are not far away from Jesus, because Jesus stands in the midst of the Church in every time and place. We have far more than some vague hope to someday be reunited with Him. Rather, Jesus restates in this passage His promise that He is always with His people, even to the close of the age (Matt 28:20). To those who know Him, it is a matter of great comfort to know that Jesus is always present, always walking through dark valleys with us, and having already gone before us to face every horror there is to face in this world. He has conquered, and therefore, we too shall conquer. And in the meantime, He is with us.

6) Jesus, the Sovereign Head of the Church

Jesus is “the one with seven stars in his right hand” (Rev 1:16a). This is the sixth image. Not only does Jesus walk among the churches, but He holds them in His right hand. Holding the churches gives a sense of His greatness and power and protective care. He not only knows us, but has the power to nurture, support and protect us. Also, in the use of “the right hand,” we see again Jesus’ sovereign, kingly authority. He not only desires to ensure that all things will work together for our good (Rom 8:28), but He is strong enough to achieve His purpose (Ps 135:5-7; Isa 55:10-11). It should be a great comfort to know that Jesus is not only present, but powerful. Even when suffering, we can rely on His protective care, not from pain or unmet expectations or even physical death, but from the one thing that we should truly fear: separation from Him. And as long as He holds us, no one can snatch us out of His hands (John 10:28-30).

7) Jesus, the One Wielding the Sharp, Double-edged Sword

Sharp, Double-Edged SwordFinally, “a sharp double-edged sword comes from [Jesus’] mouth” (Rev 1:16b). The Lord is a warrior (Exod 15:3), who created the world by His word (Ps 33:9), and who will judge the world, destroy evil and recreate it with His word in the final hour (Rev 12:11; 20:11ff; 21:3-7). The word of God is often depicted as a sword (Heb 4:12-13; Eph 6:17), demonstrating that it is powerful and effective for achieving God’s purposes, which are to conquer evil and to reconcile everything He created to Himself, especially us. So, the one who feels molested by evil can rest in the knowledge that God’s word will conquer it (Col 2:15; Eph 6:10-20). The one who lacks wisdom can experience in God’s word a light to their feet and a lamp to their path (Ps 119:105; Jas 1:5). And the one who feels uncertain about the future can know from God’s word how the story ends: “To the one who conquers I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev 3:21). This is particularly good news for the one living under the boot of earthly empire. Someday, God’s word declares, all the empires of the earth will become the footstool of the One who wields — He who is Himself — the Word of God (Heb 10:12-13; Ps 110:1; Rev 11:15).


One of God’s key purposes for the book of Revelation is to bring comfort and hope to the hurting and persecuted (while afflicting those have grown comfortable and complacent). This theme runs throughout the book, as we watch the drama of redemption unfold and the curtain fall on the final act of human history. But even in the letter’s prologue, we see at least seven comforting images of the Messiah, Jesus. He is the faithful Witness, the Firstborn from the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth. He is returning soon, in power, yet even now He walks among His churches, supporting and nurturing them. And with absolute power, by the word of His mouth, He is preparing to destroy every power and earthly authority that would raise itself against the Most High God.

Thus, the persecuted and suffering Christiana can experience in Revelation a profound and renewed sense of comfort, as can any Christian preparing his heart to celebrate the birth of the Christ-child, who is in fact our Lord and King. And so we say with the Spirit and the bride, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! Come!” (Rev 22:17, 20).

Jesus Returns

Image credit:
1) Jesus among the lamp stands — Pintrest
2) Truth – Alchonaa
3) Empty Tomb – International Bible Society
4) Second lamp stands image – Pintrest
5) Sharp Double-edged sword – Quora
6) Jesus returning – Woodland Baptist Church
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