Saturday, August 16, 2014

Just Like the Church

Last Wednesday, our brothers and sisters at Sojourn Montrose got a little write-up in the Houston Press. If you're not familiar with the Houston Press, let's just say it's where I go to keep my "ear to the streets" on the counter-sub-counter-sub-sub-culture in town. It's an interesting publication, but it's not the bastion of fairness that the Houston's not a bastion of fairness. The articles have an agenda, and that's fine for them. I write with an agenda all the time. 

The article focuses most of its attention on Sojourn's beliefs about human sexuality, which happen to be biblical. This excerpt expresses it well enough: 
But Sojourn isn't likely to budge on its theological stance against same-sex relationships. Church leaders are upfront about that, and though some attendees leave as a result, others stick around to wrestle it out. Gays are welcome to be members, provided they repent for their same-sex attraction. Gay members that refuse to renounce homosexuality would eventually be booted from the church.
To be clear, I'd say that Sojourn wouldn't ask people to repent from their same-sex attraction, just like the church wouldn't ask me, a single man, to repent of my opposite-sex attraction. There's nothing to repent of. But we ask all people everywhere to repent of their lust. There's a difference between attraction and lust. Attraction is a predilection to a certain desire, whereas lust is thought, imagination, or desire that leads to sexual misconduct. So keep that in mind when you read sentences like the one in the article. It belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what is really going on. 

What I want to do is address some of the fallacies implicit in the article—and made more explicit in the comments section. By the way, take a look at the comments if you want to see what modern tolerance looks like in practice. 

First, there is a deep underlying assumption that the morality of a person's desires and their actions cannot be separated, at least when we are talking about homosexuality. Of course, no one would extend this thinking into many other areas of life. "I really desire my neighbor's stuff, therefore I have a right to take it" doesn't fly when you are in front of the judge on theft charges. But notice how, in the article, the author has a terribly hard time distinguishing same-sex attraction from homosexual activity. It's just assumed that if you identify as gay, then homosexual activity is inherently a part of your life. The article says that "gay members who refuse to renounce homosexuality would eventually be booted from the church." Well, yes and no, depending on what you mean. This is the fallacy I'm talking about. 

Maybe the author truly doesn't understand that we would not excommunicate someone merely for their sinful desires, which everyone has. Maybe, under their moral framework, asking a gay person to be chaste for life would be inhumane. Or maybe that notion is so unconscionable that it didn't cross the author's mind as a distinct possibility. Who knows. But I do know this: rarely have I seen people give equal treatment to the fact that we ask all people who are not married to a person of the opposite sex to abstain from all sexual activity. Chastity is not limited to gays. Maybe that makes us even more oppressive...

Second, a common objection I hear is that Christianity is really about love, acceptance, and tolerance, so we should be loving, accepting, and tolerant of the LGBT crowd. This is always a troubling statement for me. What do you mean by "love?" What I think people really mean when they say this is that Christians should support and affirm each aspect of a person's identity. So love, accept, and tolerate get wrapped up into approve. Therefore, we have a completely different framework for what love means. If you are not approving, then you are not loving. This, of course, is false. The Bible defines love as the laying down of one life for the good of another. And that which is good is defined by that same Bible. So how could it be loving for us to refuse to lay down our lives (and popularity) and watch the destruction of another? It is, rather, utterly hateful.

Third, and this is closely related to the first one. The underlying assumption here is that, for a homosexual, that person's dignity and their sexual activity are irrevocably intertwined. If you ask a person to change their sexual behavior, it is tantamount to denying their humanity. (Although you would never say the same thing, for instance, about a pedophile or abuser—a remarkable denial of a logical conclusion). But this notion is simply untrue—and ignorant. A person is so much more than their sexuality. That's why, as Christians, we can encourage each other to "put to death" the sinful lusts of the flesh—because those things are not our identity. Killing sin will not kill our humanity. Our identity is in Christ and Christ alone. And that is the fundamental misunderstanding: one of mistaken identity. 

Fourth, let's get down to the root—idolatry. What's really going on? A deification of the autonomous orgasm. And according to the doctrine of this idol, all religions are welcome as long as their god bows to the great Sex God. Therefore Sojourn Montrose's presence is acceptable so long as its moral priorities conform to the moral priorities of the neighborhood (hint: sexual autonomy). So we can worship God however we want, as long as God submits to the prevailing sex god of our culture. Sorry—not gonna happen.

Fifth, there is some real irony in all of this, courtesy of the comments section. (As an aside, we've thrown around the word "bigot" so much in our society that it's lost almost of all of its original meaning). Marshall Dallas is excoriated for his bigotry, hatred, animus, and intolerance for homosexuals (all of which, of course, is blatantly untrue). His presence in the community, really, is not tolerated. It's a harsh reality these days that the most "tolerant" communities are the most intolerant of different viewpoints. Where's the appreciation for diversity? Where's the real tolerance? 

In the comments you'll notice a consistent demand for moral conformity when it comes to sexuality—just like the church. Consider my eyebrow raised. And the eyebrow says "ironic, isn't it?" Inescapably, we come to this end: it's not whether morality will drive our communities, but which morality will drive our communities. To me, it's better to build a culture of righteousness—not because it is justifying, but simply because it's better to live in a culture of righteousness than it is to live a culture of unrighteousness. That applies across the board. 

Last thing, I promise: I wrote this to help us think through these things foundationally. When we engage in these conversations, I want us to think about what everyone's assumptions are—and to challenge them. But when we work through these things on the way to the cross, things are different. The cross allows us to bear a burden on the hard road to its eventual destruction. As I've said before, a commitment to holiness is so much more than righteous indignation at sin. It requires us to enter into sin as we make our way out of it. And that can only happen through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

When revival sweeps through Montrose, we'll have no recourse to ourselves; we will only be able to credit the work of the Holy Spirit. So come, Jesus, and repair our minds as well as our hearts. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Patient Pursuit of Holiness

The pursuit of holiness is more than righteous indignation at sin. In a community of believers, it requires patience and long-suffering. It requires burden-sharing.

Think of the way the Lord—our holy God—has dealt with us. Bountifully. Patiently. With long-suffering and kindness. With sacrifice. His steadfast love endures forever. This is not contingent on our performance and works but rather on God's promises. Since turning to God in faith many years ago, have I maintained holiness of heart and deed? Not a chance. Has God remained faithful and holy, even in the midst of my unholiness? Yes, he has. And he will. God continues to push me (and pull me!) towards holiness, even when I am unwilling, unfaithful, and adamant about pursuing my own selfish ends. Yet he perseveres, and he preserves me. He is patient with me as the transformation takes place.

A holy God's faithfulness in the amidst of our unholiness has huge implications for us as a community committed to holiness. And it turns things on their head, in typical Kingdom fashion. We think of holiness as being "set apart," blameless, without sin, and utterly pure—singularly righteous. Yet in our communal pursuit of holiness, we are called to wade through each other's muck and yuck, with patience, in order that we may be refined, like gold being put through the fire. We are called to restore people, to be patient with them, and to forgive them.

Why must we put ourselves in the wake others' sin if we are pursuing the absence of sin? Because it reflects the character of a holy God, who did the same for us. "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Because God wanted us to be free from sin, he entered into our sin. It was the only way. When you are a slave and prisoner (to your sin), someone has to come to the prison and set you free. You cannot break your own shackles. Christ had to do it. Once he did it, with all authority in Heaven and on earth given to him by the Father, he told us to do the same. And then he gave us the same authority and the same power.

So with all the authority of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we were commissioned to enter into peoples' brokenness, in pursuit of holiness. Think about this. Let it imbue your marrow.

Holiness does not retreat from darkness. Rather, it shines forth a brilliant light into the darkness that seeks to envelop us. And in order for the light to reach every corner of our hearts, we have to search out the dark places together. For holiness.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Equal Confusion

On Wednesday, May 28, Houston City Council passed the controversial Houston Equal Rights Ordinance after an 11–6 vote. The ordinance prohibits discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics in city employment, city services, city contracts, housing, public accommodations, and private employment.

The language in the ordinance is controversial, and its passage raises a host of questions for individuals, employers, and small businesses in Houston. For example, what does the ordinance specifically protect? To whom exactly does it apply? What are the consequences if one disobeys the ordinance? And how might it affect Christian business owners? The following is a bullet-point summary of the ordinance and what it prohibits:
  • The ordinance prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy.
  • The ordinance applies, with certain limited exceptions, to Employers with 50 or more employees (that number decreases to 25 employees in year two and 15 employees in year 3); City employment; City services; City contract awards; public accommodations; and housing.
  • Religious Organizations are exempt (Religious Organizations include churches, educational institutions controlled or managed by churches or denominations, and non-profits controlled or managed by churches or denominations).
  • People who believe they have been discriminated against must file a written complaint with the Inspector General within 180 days of the alleged violation.
  • Violations of the ordinance are punishable by fine up to $500 for the first offense and no more than $5,000 for the same complaint. It is also a Class C Misdemeanor for the first offense.

For small businesses and employers who fall within the 50-employee minimum, there are a couple of provisions that will be important to consider. Federal anti-discrimination laws, which have been in place for many years, cover most of the acts prohibited by the Ordinance. The new areas of protection, however, are gender identity and genetic information.

The ordinance prohibits places of public accommodation from discriminating against a person on the basis of their gender identity, an inherently subjective characteristic that is determined by a person’s perceived gender expression apart from their biological sex. In other words, there is no objective way to verify a person’s gender identity like there would be to identify someone’s race, ethnicity, or age. When we legally protect the dissonance between someone’s feelings and their reality in this way, we have laid the foundation for confusion and abuse of power. Imagine if we gave the same protection to someone’s perceived race, age, pregnancy, or military status—“yes, I know I am only 14, but my body and experiences tell me that I am 21. Can you please serve me a beer?” Or, “I know I never served in the military, but I inherently identify with those who have. Where are my veteran’s benefits?” We may scoff at such ridiculous examples, but the underlying reasoning is the same. When it comes to sexuality, our culture has replaced true reality with a false reality and called it equality.

In light of this new reality, however, Christian business owners (and Christians in general) need to be discerning in how they think, speak, and act with regard to this ordinance. 

Christians should recognize that certain parts of this ordinance are an attempt to normalize and protect activity that turns God’s creation on its head. The Bible tells us that God made men and women, and he made them differently (Gen. 1:27). Gender is given to us as a grace of God and reflects different aspects of the glory of God. Therefore, we are right to treat men as men and women as women. The cultural confusion surrounding gender and sexuality, however, now makes it illegal to treat men as men when they view themselves as women (and vice versa). The City of Houston is inadvertently requiring business owners to forsake their conscience or face fines and penalties. The ordinance is bad for families, bad for businesses, and bad for society.

But how should Christians act in light of these new prohibitions? At the very least, faithfulness to God’s Word in this area requires much wisdom. The Bible tells us to be submissive to the rulers and authorities that God has placed in the civil realm (Titus 3:1). Peter also reminds us to be “subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution . . .” (1 Peter 2:13). As Christians, we have the freedom to do this because we know that the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world. Christ’s Kingdom will not be brought about through legislation, political power, or the prevailing rulers in our municipalities. It will be brought about by the transformation of peoples’ hearts through the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. No city ordinance can accomplish that. 

At the same time, this new ordinance places extra restrictions on our liberty and poses a threat to our society. In this sense, Christians should resist this and any similar ordinances through all lawful means. Business owners should make use of the public square to declare the excellencies of God and the way he ordered creation. We should be well-reasoned in our positions and passionate in our pleas for robust liberty. We should implore our representatives to allow business owners to conduct business according the dictates of their consciences. Most importantly, we should strive to spread the gospel in Houston and live honorable lives. But until the Holy Spirit moves first in peoples’ hearts, we should not be surprised that the culture continues down this path. 

Christians are called to be reformers, not revolutionaries. And reformation moves from the bottom up, not the top down. If we’re honest, we can likely act in full obedience to this ordinance without disobeying God’s ordinances. Until a full-throated revival takes place in Houston, we should work towards obedience whenever possible. That said, if you find yourself having to choose between obeying God and obeying man, obey God. Ultimately, we only answer to Him.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The End from the Beginning

I ran across this little snippet in a piece of correspondence between the great John Milton and one of his friends concerning the reformation of education:
"I am long since persuaded, that to say, or do aught worth memory and imitation, no purpose or respect should sooner move us, than simply the love of God, and of mankind."
Later, he says this:
"The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection."
From whence have we come? And how shall we return?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Real Counterculture

I want to follow up on this post with a few more thoughts. Not on Don Sterling per se, but on the way in which our culture treats people like him—people guilty of serious cultural sins.

First, consider the culture at large. Our morality as a culture is so whimsical, yet we are willing to metaphorically crucify people when they offend that morality. I can name several examples in the past six months alone. The main culprits of late are verbal offenders of our culture's obsession with sexual liberation and what I like to call "haters"—people who don't get along with the tolerance police. The most serious offenders of this squishy morality are cast out of the public square and the marketplace. Their ideas and opinions have no place among us, so they become ideological pariahs on their way out.

In other words, we live in a culture with a deeply imbedded "scapegoat" narrative. In order to appease our conscience as a nation, we place our sins upon the backs of the designated scapegoats—homophobes, racists, and evolution-denying crazies. Then we send them packing from the public square feeling much better about ourselves in the process. It's so cathartic, but there is no forgiveness there. And as long as we heap judgment on the appointed class, we never have to examine our own hearts—dark as they are. No introspection, no condemnation, and no forgiveness. We don't need true forgiveness when we have a scapegoat.

But here's where the gospel is countercultural. The culture at large is not willing to forgive offenses against its whimsical morality; Christ is ready and willing to forgive offenses against his perfect, pure, and consistent law. The culture at large avoids self-examination and condemnation by placing its guilt on others who are "more deserving" of it; the gospel confronts each of us with the darkness of our own hearts, but places the guilt of that darkness on the one who didn't deserve it but can actually remove it. The culture at large will not abide the haters; in the gospel, Christ redeems his own haters and makes them his sons and daughters, not his enemies.

The prevailing culture isn't forgiving of people who commit serious cultural sins. I think it's because we are trying to avoid the actual guilt of our own sins. The good news, however, is this: though our sins are many, Christ offers us forgiveness through his death. And when he rose from the dead, those sins were no more. The culture at large, no matter how many people we banish, can never accomplish something like that. That's why the gospel is truly countercultural.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sterling, Silver, and Gilded Standards

Yesterday Adam Silver, the Commissioner of the NBA, banned Clippers owner Don Sterling for life, based on racist comments he made to his girlfriend in private. And he also fined Sterling $2.5 Million, banned him from any League activities, and is urging the collective owners of NBA teams to force Sterling to sell his interest in the Clippers. If you follow the news, at this point the story isn't news anymore. However, I do want to address a few things and ask a couple of questions.

First of all, I am not going to talk about the merits of Commissioner Silver's decision or of Don Sterling's comments—or of racism in general. Others have done so ably, here and here. What Don Sterling said only accentuated and made public what he has believed and practiced for years. He probably deserved what he got, but consider my eyebrow raised.

I think it interesting that this whole thing exploded over comments made in the privacy of Don Sterling's own home. It just so happened that his 20-something girlfriend (Sterling is 80!) hit record on the iPhone when this conversation took place (yay technology). Magically, then—not to mention illegally—we discover that Sterling is in fact a deep-seated racist, philanderer, and, well, a creep. So the NBA must do something, right? They have to punish the immoral evil-thinker, which is what Adam Silver did—in the most heavy-handed way possible. Boom—cultural "death penalty" sanctions.

But let's step back and look at what is really going on here. I believe there's a deep-seated inconsistency, and a process that, under the right conditions, would not bode well for Christians. First, what were the circumstances surrounding the exposé of Don Sterling's views?  He made a statement in the privacy of his own bedroom, albeit to his mistress. It was a nasty and dirty statement, but it was behind closed doors. We shouldn't go around prying into what goes on in peoples' bedrooms, right? At least that's the message we get regarding who's sleeping with whom. When it comes to sexuality, the sanctity of the "bedroom" is off limits from public scrutiny and judgment. Just ask Jason Collins. But why isn't it off-limits when it comes to issues of race? We're not even talking about one's actions (sexual behaviors); merely one's beliefs. Can you imagine the uprising if Commissioner Silver sanctioned Jason Collins in a similar way for his homosexual preference? It won't happen, because it goes against our society's moral consensus, but I think it illuminates the inconsistencies of our cultural mentality.

The bedroom is off limits in matters of sexuality because we worship our sexuality as a culture. And the reason we want the bedroom to be off-limits is because we know that our sexual worship is deeply, deeply wrong, and we don't want it exposed to the light. So as long as we keep the door closed, we can keep the lights off, so to speak, and go about our merry way without fear of judgment. I don't even think the issue is homosexuality and the moral position of the behavior itself. The real issue is that, once you start prying into the bedroom actions of homosexuals, you have to also pry into the bedroom actions of heterosexuals. And believe me, there is just as much to hide there, too. So we give a wink and a nudge and say "I won't worry about what you do sexually in your bedroom if you don't worry about what I do in mine." Repentance would have to start with the home, not the homos. But that's too hard.

Racism, on the other hand—not many people are holding on to that as their object of worship. At least not publicly. The White Supremacist lobby is not working public opinion to just get a little bit of tolerance for their views. Racism is condemned (rightly so) across the societal board—it generally knows no political or socio-economic grounds. It just happens to be one of those moral issues we all agree on at the moment. That's why no one raised an eyebrow when Don Sterling's words and thoughts behind closed doors were made public—everyone thought that he was wrong, so why bother? Here is where we uncover the deception, however slight.

The reality is that any society will form some moral code, enforced by those who have the most social power. Sometimes we refer to them (whether pejoratively or not) as the "cultural elite," etc. Or we just call them "the media." These social moral codes may or may not have any resemblance to the moral code of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible. Either way, the root is the same: the mob mentality, which is thirsty for judgment and vengeance against those who violate that mob's moral code. It's terribly unforgiving.

So when society says that what goes on in the bedroom is off-limits, that's not what it really means. The principle is not the sanctity of the privacy of the bedroom. If it were, then Don Sterling would not be banned from the NBA. This would be a non-issue. The real issue is the enforcement of society's moral code, which has no solid foundation. The lynch-mob is the foundation. As Doug Wilson put it, "lynch mobs sometimes hang guilty people, but this is not a good argument for the protection of public manners being turned over to lynch mobs." I agree. Yes, the societal moral code got it right this time. But do I want that to be the foundation? Of course not. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, but the squirrel is still blind.

I place zero faith in the ability of our society to grasp, affirm, and police the intrinsic worth and dignity of all human beings. I don't care how many Don Sterlings the NBA banishes, or how much money they donate to anti-discrimination causes, or how loudly the media cheers when it does. I will still be dubious about our ability to pursue true justice in this area. When we have a hard time understanding what a person is, we are not qualified to judge whether someone else accurately affirms the inherent equality of those persons. How could we? We will never get it because we are fallen. There is only one way we will get this right, and it involves the total desecration of the Asherah we have set up in our straw homes built on our foundations of sand. Repent and believe, and build your foundation on the eternal Word. Then we will truly see.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ash Wednesday, Lent, and a Slow Repentance

A couple of days ago, Sojourn Heights held its second Ash Wednesday service. It was a heavy, somber time of reflection and confession, capped with a reminder that, left on our own, we are sinful unto death. That is serious, which is why the cross is so glorious. But all of this has been explained before. Right now I want to address the Lenten season specifically and what I think it can mean for us as a whole. 
Lent is the 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, a representation of the time in which Jesus fasted in the desert in preparation of his public ministry. The number 40 is significant in scripture. Rain fell in Noah’s generation for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses lived in the desert for 40 years before the Exodus. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years after their disobedience. Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days before being tempted by Satan. And after his resurrection, Jesus’s ministry continued for another 40 days. There are many more examples, but the point is this: 40 is a number in the Bible often associated with cleansing, repentance, and testing. 
So that’s what we view Lent as: a time of cleansing, repentance, and a testing of our faith. Forty days of it. If that seems like a long time to be sorrowful over your sin, please consider these things. Moses, the judges, and the Israelite Kings often implored the people to don sackcloth and ashes for a period of 40 days in order to repent as a nation of their sins. It was a period of mourning for how they had offended a holy God. And it was a time to earnestly seek God in repentance.
We are doing something similar when we consider our sin and lament it before God for 40 days during Lent. In a culture that places a premium on instant gratification, we often question the value of a consistent somber state for such a “long” period of time. Isn’t it depressing? Where’s the good news? Jesus wants us to be happy, right? Those are all legitimate concerns, and believe me, there is plenteous good news in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But wouldn’t the good news be that much greater after we’ve spent a considerable time unearthing and facing our deepest sins? God, in his loving kindness, shows us the depth of our sin so that he can refine us, like the gold or silver whose dross rises to the top when exposed to the fire. In the same way, let's allow the Holy Spirit to expose the sins hidden deep in our heart—once they are exposed, the Spirit will remove them faithfully because He loves us.
Here’s my challenge: let’s take Lent seriously this year. Let’s really spend 40 days asking God to uncover the depths of our sin. Let’s ask God to make us mournful over the many ways in which we grieve the Holy Spirit and damage our fellowship with him. Let’s take a humble posture before the Lord that reflects the inner reality that we are more sinful than we thought. And when Easter rolls around, we will be ever more thankful and in awe of what Christ’s resurrection accomplished.