Keeping Your Head on Straight

A couple of unrelated experiences have lately oozed together in my mind to form something resembling an idea.

The first is the mundane recognition that I was tired of living with chronic low-level back & neck pain. This led to my visiting this week, for the first time, a chiropractor. I’ve had my skepticism about the more expansive claims of the discipline, but some research and lots of recommendations from friends leads me to think that it might actually be helpful in relieving muscle pain associated with spinal misalignment.

As the the lopsided ess of my should-be-straight backbone stared back at me on the x-ray screen, I was more than a little embarrassed that I’d refused to seek care for so long. Though there could be many causes for this situation, it’s likely that it’s the follow-on result of a bad fall on ice when I was seventeen that nearly dislocated my left hip. That’s 15 years ago, folks, and I’m just now dealing with it.

There’s another metaphor or two in all this (i.e. “Take better care of yourself; there is no glory in stoic suffering to save a few bucks.”), but what stood out is the fact that your body will go to great lengths to literally keep your head on straight. That hip trauma led to a minor twist between two lumbar vertebrae…which caused my left hip to sit slightly higher than the right…which caused me to lean almost imperceptibly to the right…which made me tilt my shoulders ever so slightly to the left so that my head stayed vertical. That series of tiny shifts, plus years of gravity, resulted in constant, nagging soreness—all for the sake of keeping the top level.

The second experience involved dropping in on a session of my boss‘s college course (Economic Development in the Majority World) this morning. Our staff does that from time to time to show our support for that side of his work (he might say it’s to keep him on his toes, but…). Today’s lesson looked at the differences between Development Economics, Neoclassical Economics, Behavioral Economics, and a Christian approach to economics. Key to this is recognizing a) certain institutions must be in place for the neoclassical approach to make sense, b) that institutions must come from somewhere, and c) that cultural realities must be reckoned with.

Culture BoxAs part of the discussion, he brought up the “Culture Box”, which describes the ways that institutions are shaped by worldview, values, and actions, as well as how they shape those in return (see my rudimentary diagram at right). In an economic context, this helps to explain why simply importing an institution (say, a reserve banking system or fair taxation of markets) on to a culture that lacks the values (rule of law, equal rights for all people, etc.) that would generate consistent actions necessary to sustain that institution does not result in meaningful positive change.

Here’s where things get weird these two thoughts converge into a notion. This culture box functions like a “spine” of sorts. In the same way that your head has to be properly supported by the rest of your bone structure, the visible institutions of a culture have to come from solid underpinnings of worldview, values, and actions. If your spine is out of line, your head (hopefully) won’t fall off, but holding it in place creates discomfort and dysfunction all the way down. If the way you see the world doesn’t match with the institutions attempting to govern your culture, either your culture will be squeezed to match the institutions or the institutions will come crashing down like so many philosophical Jenga blocks.

So how does positive change actually come about?

Chiropractic can’t be a cure-all because your spine and your head are not all there is to your body. Your muscles, your posture, your nutrition, and many other factors also play in to your overall health. The culture box model likewise assumes an overly rational approach to life, leaving out the critical dimension of our hearts and habits (and the sin nature of those hearts) that impacts all the rest. It leaves us vulnerable to what James K.A. Smith calls “Thinking-thing-ism” by giving undue credit to our minds alone to drive our flourishing.

What we need (which is where the Econ Development class wrapped up) is the fulness of Christ. Christ not only renews our minds, but he dwells within our hearts. He is not only the head of the Church, but is its animating spirit—enabling the very actions He commands of us. “For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17).

All things” means “all things,” and any view of life or cultural structure that refuses to come to terms with this Lord will not ultimately stand. The sin that so twists and distorts our lives and our systems cannot move Him from His place as the head. But rather than toppling or crushing us, He redeems and restores. In His grace, he chastens those He loves, cracking our weary backs into alignment with His righteousness, justice, and peace.

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Epigrammar

A comma belongs between each of your great thoughts;
Otherwise folks might confuse your “is” with their “oughts.”

Verbs make the world go ’round, ’tis true,
But for their acts, nouns are the glue.

To end a sentence, a preposition is more
Apropos than something else you could use it for.

“Every day” is an everyday phrase,
But using it rightly earns you great praise.

The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.
Why that matters is just too hard to ‘splain.

“If Ogden Nash could see me now,” I said,
“He’d tell me, ‘Write about a cow instead!”

Metered verse constrains the form of these words,
If only we could trim these thoughts by thirds.

Honor Codes and Celebrity Woes

A musing from several years ago.

When is honor dishonorable?

A major subject of discussion in the American evangelical scene over the past several years has been the presence and influence of certain “celebrity pastors”. Much has been written on whether well-known personalities in Christian ministry qualify as “celebrities” or merely “public figures”—whether they gain notoriety for faithfulness and accomplishments or whether they seek fame and power and use the Church as their platform. A helpful roundup of these thoughts is available here (ironically enough, a panel discussion of well-known pastors in front of a crowd of 7,000).

There are other issues underneath this general discussion, notably the increasing lack of oversight and accountability for famous pastors and speakers. Carl Trueman (who appears on the panel mentioned above) writes incisively about a few flare-ups of this phenomenon here (N.b.: Since writing this in 2013, the list of fallen Christian celebrities has sadly grown longer and longer).

Most of what I hear on the subject focuses on three areas in particular 1) the aforementioned accountability issues, 2) the seeping into the Church of the general celebrity culture of the contemporary West, or 3) the role of mass and social media in “feeding the beast”. What if, perhaps, there was something else operating in the shadows here? Something more primal, more dangerous, because it comes from within?

Honor Codes and Christ
One of our church elders (who also happens to be a professor of English literature) and I were talking about the prevalence of honor codes in world literature. He noted that, despite surface differences, shame/honor cultures typically function by elevating the social standing of men who conform to a given culture’s ideal of manhood and shielding those who rise from dishonor or any damage to their reputation. Christianity, he argued, subverts that model in the person of Christ—He receives the highest honor (being seated at the right hand of the Father and receiving worship from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation forever) through being subjected to the highest dishonor this life could muster (emptying Himself, betrayal by friends, false accusation, public humiliation, execution as a criminal). That radical perspective shift upends the notions of manhood, leadership, and power in the Church, giving Christians a framework by which humility, tenderness, patience, etc. become markers of strength rather than weakness.

The Code Redeemed in the Church
In a sense, Paul expounds this redeemed code of honor in his description of the character of elders/overseers in the Church: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:2-7).

To qualify as a leader in the Church, a man must be recognized as holding to the standards to which all believing men should aspire—pastors and elders are not called to be a breed of theological übermenschen, but rather faithful men who lead others by teaching and example to greater Christ-likeness so that the witness of the Gospel may be upheld and spread. Paul says as much in introducing this list of qualities: ”It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Tim. 3:1).

Double Honor
Even so, this is not an easy calling, and Satan desires the distortion and downfall of God’s good plan for Church leadership. For this reason, Paul shares (later in the same letter), that “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). He suggests that those who labor in the Word for the benefit of the body should be compensated for their work (5:18), and that criticism and accusation against them should be weighed carefully (5:19).

It is right and good that we should honor and, in some measure, elevate those who serve the Church well. Like cream, they rise because of their obedience and perseverance over the long haul. Perhaps they even gain notoriety beyond their local church and community through media transmission of their teaching. Though it is easier to gain a wide audience through today’s technology, this goes all the way back to the beginning of the Church in that its leaders often wrote widely and impacted wide swaths of the population. The Church Fathers, and later the Reformers, were something of “celebrity pastors” in their own day, and their writings continue to wield influence. Again, to be a celebrated teacher of God’s Word is not inherently problematic, and the Church past and present has benefitted through the very public ministries of some men.

The Code Resurgent
Perhaps this is where we swerve. All it takes for the old pagan code of honor to overtake this righteous double honor is the most natural of human weaknesses—pride. As soon as the man who gains fame from ministry begins to believe that this condition arises from his work rather than the Lord’s, he will chafe against any attempt to counsel or correct him. When other godly leaders pointing out his errors or character flaws, he sees it not as loving reproof but an affront to his reputation. To save face, he may surround himself with yes-men and go to great lengths to remove himself from those who would correct him. From there, it is a short road to disaster, for the celebrated man, his church, and the witness of the Church of Jesus Christ around the world.

Our enemy is endlessly creative in the ways he can bring this to bear to the ruin of the Gospel. For some, he delights in allowing them to faceplant into sexual or financial sin that anyone who was listening to godly counsel would have fled long before it consumed him. For others, he seeks to have them continue in authority but tempts them through their pride to teach false doctrine and lead many thousands astray from Christ. Most dangerously (and most germane to the issue at hand within the evangelical and Reformed communities), he seeks to get believers to separate the life and doctrine of public teachers, so that we accept many failings so long as their words retain the truth of Scripture. In such cases, the ripple effects of unaccountable leadership trickle down to cripple churches with leaders who answer only to their own egos.

The Corrective: Biblical Authority
The shame/honor dynamic is deeply embedded in our sinful hearts, and it is always ready to creep back into the Church. This is why, almost in the same breath as he urges honor for Gospel ministers, Paul minces no words to ensure that honor is well checked: “[Elders] who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality” (2 Tim. 5:20-21). The Lord knows that men, even His chosen redeemed, are sinful and would abuse the honor given them to make much of themselves at the expense of Christ and His Church. Therefore, He establishes 1) a plurality of elders to keep the whole church in submission to God and prevent any one man from co-opting a local church, and 2) a firm standard to rein in those who go too far.

Public ministry is a privilege, but it can become a precipice without the oversight of faithful elders. Any man given a broad platform to teach and preach ought to be exceedingly careful to submit to the authority within his local church, to men who know him and his proclivities and who will not hesitate to strike loving blows upon his sinful heart when necessary. To step out from under that umbrella is to cross the threshold from public figure to “celebrity”—without authority over you, you are left unprotected from both the enemy’s snares and the destructive capacity of your own heart.

As to those of us in the pews who are in no danger of becoming publicly known pastors, what is our responsibility in this? First, we should be shrewd in accepting teaching from any “celebrity pastor” and “test the spirits,” checking their words and  by the Word and being wary of any who are not fully submissive to the elders of their local church. Second, we should submit ourselves to the Word and elect our  own pastors and elders with great discernment. As Paul warns, “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin” (1 Tim. 5:22). To exercise that level of care and concern for sake of the Gospel and its teachers is honor indeed.

Novelty and Idolatry

In another very busy stretch, writing has taken a back seat, so here are some “new-to-the-blog” musings from a few years back.

When Paul and Luke first came to Athens, Paul was moved to preach the Gospel there “as he was observing the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Luke, almost as an aside, succinctly captures the root problem: “Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new” (17:21). These two reflections go hand-in-glove; the Athenian obsession with novelty fed their idolatry. I fear this same lesson (though often missed) applies today in our popular practices of theology.

What hath Athens to do with today’s Church?

The city Paul and Luke described seems positively stable compared to the pace of change (in fashion, technology, politics, economics, entertainment, morality, etc.) we experience in today’s West. There are few pleasures we savor more than “something new” to “shake things up” and give us a “fresh perspective”. “What have you done for me lately” may as well be our credo; the accumulated wisdom of the ages is uncritically cast off as outmoded and old-fashioned.

As with so many other aspects of our culture, this proclivity seeps into the Church. To be sure, some “new blood” is helpful and necessary—refreshing our passion to reach the nations, shedding inefficiencies in how we manage our resources, etc.—but the temptation to go too far is always at hand. When we are fully caught up in the new-for-the-sake-of-new, it is easy to seek “original insights” into our faith, to discover “new readings” of Scripture, or to find “fresh applications” for God’s standards to life that may or may not reflect His design.

The pressure to continually improve and distinguish one’s methods and message is greatly intensified for all of us in the harried habitat of the information age. Pastors and teachers are not exempted from these “adapt or die” anxieties. Faithfulness to the Gospel, however, demands consistency rather than novelty. The most damning epithet that can be applied to any theology is “innovative” (to paraphrase R. C. Sproul).Paul

Paul greeted the morass of belief in Athens not by giving them yet another new idol, but by boldly proclaiming the ancient and unchanging truth of “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). He pointed the men of Athens back to “the God who made the world and all things in it,” who “does not dwell in temples made with hands” (Acts. 17:24), and in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In other words, Paul did not share something new, and certainly not of his own invention, but something old in a new place.

In the same way, the Gospel has spread across the globe and is still being carried into myriad hard-to-access corners still in darkness—faithful servants who heard the truth went to new places to speak the blessed old words. For nearly two thousand years this has gone on, the same message taking root in the nooks and crannies of the nations. For most of this time, if preachers heard of the work of others at all, it was by writing or listening to oral reports. There have been “innovators” across the ages, to be sure, but the pressure ran in the direction of orthodoxy and conformity rather than toward self-expression and differentiation.

Now, any given pastor can be influenced by any other (or host of others) through the Internet and mass media*. His congregation likewise no longer is limited to his teaching alone, but has access to thousands upon thousands of sermons from thousands of pastors (orthodox or not) from all over the world. Insofar as this ever-expanding web of influences steers believers to deeper understanding of Scripture and greater commitment to their local body, this is a development to thank God for.

Too often, however, what actually happens is that pastors see this network as competition for their own influence and (in the case of other local pastors with a large media footprint or satellite campuses of megachurches in nearby cities) for keeping their own church’s members. Many of these same members use the high-exposure preachers to critique their own local pastor’s style and substance, and some check out from the local church altogether, relying on screen time to effect a disembodied pseudofellowship that meets their felt needs at the expense of the self-sacrifice and sanctification that church membership demands.

In the face of this, some despair, some hold the line with a watchful eye for the health of their congregations, and many seek to regain footing for their ministry by building their own media “brand” that can establish their sway beyond the walls of their church (and perhaps recall members that previously left, or even pick off a few from the “competition”). Following that route requires breaking through the “noise”—either by being recognized for skill in preaching and teaching or by “innovating” their message.

Therein lies the problem. The solution is plain, but painful to our pride: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

*Recognizing the irony that a) this musing is posted on (gasp) the internet, b) that I indeed hope thereby to minister to those beyond my own local church, and c) that things posted out here in the ether tend to live forever and acquire a life of their own…I feel the need to point out that a) there are many, many fine pastors who are a blessing to many through media ministries undertaken in humility and a spirit of service, b) that I personally benefit tremendously from these men, and c) that name-recognition and broadcast reach do not inherently equal “celebrity” or “influence-peddling”. That is all.