“Women Aren’t as Visual as Men” and Other Dangerous Lies

I read yet another article today in which a mother of boys reminds young women to be cautious about the pictures they post of themselves on facebook. It was all fair enough, though made slightly ironic by the photographs of her sons doing muscle-man poses in their swim trunks that were scattered throughout the article. But post Twerk-Gate, I’m not surprised by the content: the message that girls need to be counter-culturally modest gets recirculated around the Christian blogosphere every time a celebrity strips off in public or there’s a new case of teenage boys being arrested for passing around naked pictures of their girlfriends. You could practically write a Post-Scandal Mad Lib template: something about degradation, something about self-respect, something about how far our society has fallen, and a whooooole bunch about modesty, but only, or at least primarily, in the context of preventing lust among men and boys.

It’s all well-intentioned and mostly not terrible, but when it comes to modesty… you already know how I feel about that. (If you’re too lazy to click on those links, here’s a tip: in the Bible, modesty isn’t exclusively or even mostly about not looking “sexy.” It’s not mostly about covering up. It’s not even mostly directed at women, or in reference to men.)

But you might not know how I feel about the underlying assumption of a lot of these appeals, namely that men are always and forever, world without end, stimulated visually, and women just… aren’t; that there is a direct line between scantily clad women and men’s sexual sin, so please please ladies, if you love your brothers, cover up — I know you don’t understand because you’re not wired that way, but we are, so please please please…

So are you ready for this? That stuff is just not true. Men and women are different; that’s awesome, hooray. And I think mothers and fathers need to encourage their daughters (and sons!) to dress and comport themselves with modesty and dignity… but y’all, come on: we can’t just look at men, extrapolate from their experiences and preferences, and then assume women are the opposite. It’s lazy. It’s ridiculous. Women are women, humans made in God’s image in their own right, not just un-men. People will often cite these mysterious “studies” in which it is “proven” that women are more into words and men are more into pictures. But let me tell you why I have a problem with that.

First, I’m not sure you can deduce biological causality about men’s wiring from actions and characteristics that could just as easily be attributed to cultural expectations about how men act and what they like. A boy who’s grown up in our porn-saturated, women-as-props-in-male-fantasies society is not exactly a good control subject for an experiment designed to reveal pure biology. Second, just anecdotally, I don’t know one (straight) woman who isn’t physically attracted to the hotness of “hot” guy, whatever her definition of “hot” is. No, not every woman finds shirtless Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love attractive, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t visually stimulated for goodness’ sake. I also don’t know any men who don’t care about personality or character when choosing a potential spouse. And regarding that last point, I think it’s terribly insulting to men to imply that they’re basically just big hairy bundles of id, derping along until they find themselves in proximity to a hot, immodestly-dressed woman, whereupon they can do nothing but fall immediately into sexual sin.

Third, I think this set of lies is particularly dangerous because of where it leads. A couple of anecdotes:

A popular marriage book (which I won’t name here lest I get some of its terrifying supporters in the comments) describes in graphic detail the supposedly-true story of a young man, filled with lust at the sight of the snug-skirted young woman standing in front of him in church; the book’s author blames the young woman’s immodesty for causing his problem, implying that the young man’s lust was a purely biological response for which he couldn’t possibly be held responsible. If you can’t see the danger of blaming women for the sexual sin of men, maybe you need to read about the judge who last week sentenced a 49-year-old man convicted of raping his 14-year-old student to just 30 days in prison, claiming the victim’s maturity and apparent sexual control over the relationship as mitigating factors in the perpetrator’s guilt, despite the fact that, in the state of Montana, a 14-year-old cannot legally give consent, and the fact that the girl went on to commit suicide.

In addition to that issue, there’s also the fact that pornography use among women has skyrocketed in the last few years; among older teens and women in their early 20s, rates are rapidly approaching those of men of the same age. When we constantly beat the drum of Men Being Visual And Women Being Emotional, we are driving women who struggle in this area into seclusion and shame; when we offer resources to conquer porn addictions primarily in the context of men’s accountability groups, or hasten to add, “We know this won’t apply to most of you ladies” when teaching about pornography, or in any other way make sexual sin a male or female thing, we are heaping condemnation on these sisters, who now have to deal with feeling like freaks because they’re struggling with something that “isn’t really a woman problem.”

When the sum of our exhortation to women regarding sexual sin is to tell them to avoid Fifty Shades of Grey and make sure they don’t show any cleavage, we’re doing a disservice to them. When we treat men like out-of-control sex maniacs, we’re doing a disservice to them. When we talk about any sin as though it’s the exclusive territory of one group or another in the church, or rely on stereotypes and hackneyed statistics, we do a disservice to everyone in the church. Let’s seek a better path.

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Fandom, or Pageview-Grubbing

People have always been drawn to others who share their tastes and preferences, but it seems like the last few years have seen a pretty remarkable expansion of the whole “fandom” concept. Between social media (especially Twitter and Tumblr) and fan fiction, fans of shows, movies, books, authors, actors, and characters can interact with those alternate worlds in a completely new way. Transmedia projects, which go beyond standard episodic formatting and tell parts of their stories using social media platforms, are increasingly successful, and storytellers of all kinds have taken to social media to build communities around their work.

I think fifteen years ago, if you’d had a dream about two brothers who live 1800 miles apart  turning their weekly life-update-style videos into a wildly successful educational YouTube video series, an extremely popular conference for web-content creators, and a community of a couple million smart, curious millennials who’ve not only put one brother on the New York Times bestseller list several times, but who’ve funded dozens of charitable projects around the world — including wells, wildlife sanctuaries, and at least one school… well, I think you would have dismissed it as a really cool (and weirdly specific) dream that could never, ever happen. And yet John and Hank Green have almost a million subscribers on their Vlogbrothers channel, half a million each on their CrashCourse and SciShow channels, and 150,000 on Hank’s update of Pride and Prejudice, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries; they helped raise close to half a million dollars last December for their charity Project For Awesome; John’s book sales have numbered in the millions. Oh, and they’ve added vocabulary to the American vernacular, coining the terms “nerdfighter” and “nerdfighteria” and making the phrase Don’t Forget to be Awesome common enough that the President referenced it in his post-State of the Union fireside hangout on Google+.

That’s a crazy extensive fandom right there: an empire, one might say. But not a media empire in the traditional sense — this isn’t Ted Turner cosseted in some downtown panelled office calling shots and fighting to dominate a timeslot, it’s an interactive, participatory, collaborative, extremely postmodern empire that celebrates the other fandoms of its own fans. In a recent sold-out appearance at Carnegie Hall, for example, John and Hank brought other well-known YouTubers onstage — people who, in a different era, would have been seen as competitors, not potential collaborators. They frequently give shoutouts to other fandoms, and are avid Whovians, Potterheads, and Sherlockians themselves.

I’m interested in where we go from here. What happens to the traditional content distribution model for movies and television when the Starkid generation, that grew up on Twitter and fanfic sites and Tumblr and meme generators and charlieissocoollike and transmedia and YouTube adaptations of classic literature and Vlogbrothers and CrashCourse, starts making decisions about a household budget and decides that cable is stupid and pointless? How are networks and moviemakers going to adapt to customers who are demanding a more immersive experience and more responsive content creators? And, most importantly, how can I convince you to watch The Lizzie Bennet Diaries? IT IS SO GOOD, YOU GUYS.

That’s all I’ve got for today on this topic. Watch this space for upcoming Big Scary Series on feminism. Peace out.

Reasons/Excuses/Fear

So. I started and stopped and started and stopped writing a series last year about feminism and the church and Christians and how we’ve historically been so opposed to the negatives of feminism (and caricatures of feminism) that we’ve thrown out the stuff we could really stand to learn from feminists and ignored the beliefs we share with them. I would read something exciting, get pumped to write the series, do some research, and then freak out because… well, for the following reasons in no particular order.

  1. The Internet is not known for its ability to understand subtle, nuanced arguments; trolls are no fun to deal with.
  2. I don’t want people to think I’m some lefty wacko, or that my views on this subject mean I’ve abandoned historic Christian teaching on God’s will for human sexuality and gender.
  3. (REALTALK:) I don’t want dudes to read this and say, “Ew, I don’t want to marry some man-hating feminazi.”
  4. Not a lot of people want to read about things like sexual abuse, objectification, the male gaze, and other five-dollar terminology that tends to populate the syllabi of Women’s Studies classes at universities across the country… no matter how much I absolutely believe they need to believe rightly about those things.
  5. It’s easier to write about Downton Abbey and the Bible study Methods class I’m teaching and the fun stuff I do on a Friday night (HA!) than about deep, complex issues.

Are those reasons? Are they excuses? Are they nothing but manifestations of my own fear of man? Am I basically permanently walling myself off from marriage by writing about feminism? (No, seriously, am I?)

Anyway, I feel really strongly about this stuff, and I think I’m going to go for it. So I guess the alternate title of this post could be “In Which Laura Psychs Herself Up.”

My Throat Is Hoarse

And it has nothing to do with this cold.

We had community group for the first time in almost TWO MONTHS tonight, and it was great. We talked and laughed and then split up into guys and girls and talked and laughed SO MUCH MORE. I miss these people when we’re apart.

Community, when you’re a Christian, is essential. We’re not called to live this life alone. We have to have people in our lives encouraging us and kicking our tails now and then, sharing our joy and sorrow and our success and failure. It’s a must. But what a blessing to get to walk through life with people I genuinely enjoy and love.

You Know What I Wish?

I wish that churches would have parties instead of “outreach events.”

I wish that unbelievers could walk into a church’s football party or Christmas open house or Trunk-or-Treat or summer BBQ and not have to be nervous that they’d have to stop talking to their friends, set down their refreshments, and go into the sanctuary and listen to a “message.”

I wish that every event didn’t have to be baptized or Jesus-ified to be considered church-appropriate.

And I wish that those changes would result from a deep conviction that the proclamation of the Gospel is a task for every Christian, not just for church leadership and pastors; that alienating unbelievers with uncomfortable bait-and-switch drive-by evangelism does more harm than good; and that loving our neighbors actually involves developing a relationship with them, not just programming three worship songs and a twenty-minute devotional in the middle of a Harvest Party.

In which I attempt to encourage dudes. Here we go.

By far the most common objection to what I’ve said to men in the Details series goes something like this: “It’s all well and good for you to say men should initiate, but that means that they’re taking on the majority of the risk. I’ve been turned down, and it sucks, and now I find myself gun-shy and unwilling to take on the chance of more disappointment.”

I guess there are a couple ways for me to approach this. I don’t have the spiritual gift of mercy and I’m not terribly sympathetic as a human being so my knee-jerk response to this sort of reply is typically something along the lines of, “Oh, just grow up.” But I know that’s not actually helpful, much as some men (and women) need to hear it. So. Read on.

First, I do want men to remember that, as I said in another “Details” post, attraction is a complicated thing. When a gal says, “No thanks,” to a man’s request for a date, it’s a bummer for him, but men need to stop seeing it as a personal rejection. It’s not. It’s just that, for whatever reasons from legit to ridiculous, she’s not feeling it. And — here’s the kicker — she’s not under any obligation to explain or justify those reasons to the guy who asks her out. In fact, I generally have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for things like that.

I think a huge part of the problem is waiting too long and investing too much emotionally in the potential date. If you find a girl interesting, ask her out, soon after the interest develops. Don’t wait until you’re into “hurt and disappointment” territory if she turns you down. It’s not that big a risk — or it shouldn’t be unless you’ve spent weeks mentally composing a speech about how much you like her or whatever. And nine times out of ten, it’s not really “about you” at all, it’s something intangible. And please know that I’m working just as hard to encourage women to take a chance and say yes (it’s a risk for us too!) to good guys.

My second thought is, well, is there a common theme emerging as far as the reasons you’re getting a “no thanks”? Among my friends, probably the most common reason for saying no is too much intensity rather than just, “Would you go on a date with me?” I’m not saying guys need to change who they are, but it’s wise to be willing to work on your approach if that’s causing problems. I mean, you know the old definition of “crazy,” right?

So, are you coming on too strong? Only asking out the hottest girls in your circle? Overlooking the solid female friend right in front of you? Do you get stage fright and just need to practice a thousand times? Are you investing your heart in a girl pre-asking-out, and just feeling the pressure? Are you one of those guys who asks out girls he’s never spoken to before? All of those things are pretty quick fixes. Ask a girl out if you’ve talked to her a few times (great opportunity to work on your conversation skills) and find her interesting. Don’t wait weeks or months, don’t invest too much, just keep it light and casual.

And since this is always the elephant in the room in conversations like this, I’ll touch on the whole “looks” thing. Just the other day I read an article about online dating site profiles and the fact that the more polarizing a person’s looks were, the more likely that person would be to have others contact them. In other words, the more classically pretty/handsome people were getting contacted far less often than the ones who some people thought were not just less-attractive, but actually ugly. And in my own experience I can tell you that the men of my acquaintance who’ve had the most success in the dating world are not necessarily my best-looking guy friends. The three or four of them who have just rocked it out in the last couple of years aren’t the face-melting hotties, they’re just the ones who’ve been persistent in the face of a lot of “no thanks”es from girls, even stuck it out through a series of girls going on three or four dates with them and then calling it quits — and they’re the ones married, or engaged, or in serious relationships. Their attitude was that they just had to do what the Lord called and equipped them to do, which was to be initiators, and leave the results to Him without worrying about women’s responses, trusting that He uses means to accomplish his purposes.

From my own experience, I know that, because I’m not a five-eight, 110-lb blonde volleyball player or a Megan Fox lookalike or whatever, there’s going to be a narrower range of men who find me attractive. That is totally fine — I’ve gone out with guys who thought I was perfect looking and had no interest in the skinny blonde type, much to my surprise. And I have some really gorgeous friends, so I know from their experiences that being the prettiest girl in the room isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. The less conventionally-attractive you are, the more specific your dating pool is going to be, sure. But haven’t you seen some weird-looking married people? Don’t all sorts make it down the aisle? Tall, short, fat, thin, gorgeous, ugly, and everyone in between? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: attraction is complicated. And that can work for you as well as against you. Play up your quirks. Roll with them. And at the same time, work on your character. Whatever you look like, strive to be the godliest, most contented, most gentlemanly, most confident Whatever Type You Are that you can possibly be. (I’m going to throw in a pitch for The Art of Manliness here. Seriously, guys. Check it out. Taking their advice is going to put you way ahead of many, many dudes in the 20-35 age bracket.)

Third, and just getting really practical here, it occurs to me that it might be a good idea for guys to have a quick definition of “date” to throw out to girls who might think “date” means “OH MY GOODNESS HE LOVES ME.” You might say something like, “Hey, I’ve been wondering if you’d go on a date with me sometime. And I’m using the old-fashioned definition of the word ‘date,’ as in, I find you interesting and I’d like to get to know you better. Casual. What do you think?”

Overall, what I want to say to the men reading this is, be encouraged. Hurt and disappointment? It’s part of life. You can’t insulate yourself from it. It’s going to happen whether you ask interesting girls out or not, so if you want to be married, why not take the bull by the horns?

Blah blah men and women blah blah friends blah blah sigh.

We’re so hung up on this and it’s really not as complicated as people make it.

People who give advice in this area often use words like “friendly” and “boundaries” and spill a lot of ink over the verse that talks about treating younger women “with absolute purity” and stuff. But they forget about the middle of that verse, which says “AS SISTERS.” Not “as potential seductresses, with absolute purity,” or even, “know your own weaknesses, and therefore treat women with absolute purity,” but “as sisters,” in a passage that encourages us to treat older people as parents and younger people as siblings — i.e., family! The purity of relationships in the body of Christ is grounded in familial affection, not “boundaries.”

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t even have boundaries (and here I’m talking about relationships among peers, not pastor-church member or employer-employee relationships or whatever which will likely need a little more specificity and care). But if your boundaries preclude you from paying what you owe to your brothers and sisters, they’re too narrow and — dare I say it — possibly sinful!

We’ve gotten so negative on all this when I think it would be much biblical — not to mention more effective and less neurotic — to say, “Treat your friends of the opposite sex with MORE care, MORE genuine, selfless love, not less,” than to say, “Distance yourself from others because they’re a sin danger to you.”

Trouble is, the principle of love is always more complicated than a list of rules. We like rules. We think they make us holier, that they protect our reputation from the slander of the world, that they actually stop us from sinning. But they don’t. They might channel our sin in another direction, or give us the reputation of being fastidious or scrupulous or (best of all!) righteous, or make us look holier. But listen, if Jesus was slandered, we will be too, even (or perhaps especially) if we require of ourselves His standard. They’ll know we are Christians by our fussiness about boundaries? No, man. They’ll know we are Christians by our love for one another.

That means a mental shift — in fact, a behavioral shift without a mental shift is just going to get you in trouble. So, repeat after me: “This brother/sister does not belong to me. They don’t exist on this Earth to fulfill my emotional or relational needs. I have a joyful obligation to love them, serve them, and to consider their ultimate good above my desires, which necessarily precludes seducing or using them, but which also excludes coldness or distance or lovelessness.”

We are in the same family, y’all — we are actually truly really brothers and sisters. We have got to stop letting ourselves off the hook about loving one another by making a list of supposedly sin-preventing rules that distance us from one another. I honestly believe that what keeps us from sinning is not a longer list of rules but a bigger vision of Jesus. And I believe a bigger vision of Jesus — who He is and what He did to make us one with God and one with each other — will result in more love, more self-sacrifice, more connection, more genuine affection, more of just being the family that Jesus made us. More.

The Fixup

Married friends, I just want you to know that I love you. Which is why I want to help you out. Not just MY married friends, but all married folks who are friends with single folks. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

So. Say you’ve got a couple friends you think would be great together, and you want to set them up. Here’s what happens ALL THE TIME. Married Mary comes to her friend Single Sue and says, “Would you be cool with a fixup?” Sue says sure, and Mary starts telling Sue all about Single Sam, her husband’s best friend since junior high who’s moving to town next month. Every time they get together, Mary extols Sam’s virtues, shows Sue pictures of him, tells her why she thinks they’d hit it off, and assures her she’s going to set them up. Meanwhile, Mary’s husband Gary says to Sam, “Hey, Mary’s got this friend she wants to set you up with.” And Sam says, “I dunno, man, my life is going to be so crazy in the next few months with moving and school and work and stuff. I’ll let you know once I get settled.” So Sam moves to town, gets busy with school and work, and two months later starts dating a girl from one of his classes. Sue, who’s been thinking about Sam this whole time (at Mary’s encouragement), is really disproportionately upset, and feels rejected and ugly and undesirable and all those things unmarried ladies often feel about themselves.

Do you see where this all went wrong? I hope you do. So I’ve got some advice about how to manage a fixup in a way that doesn’t end up with somebody mad or hurt.

First, KNOW YOUR DANG FRIENDS. You should know if your unmarried friends are cool with a fixup on general principle because that’s the kind of thing friends know about each other, right? You should also have a broad idea of their “type.” If your friend is really into, say, the preppy, classic all-American boy, it’s not a fantastic idea to set her up with your brooding tattoo artist friend. There are exceptions (like if your average-looking pal refuses to go out with anyone who doesn’t often get taken for Megan Fox, or if one of your bestie’s “standards” involves net worth), but be considerate. You have a type, everyone has a type. Respect the type.

Second, think minimalist. You want to give two great people a chance to see if they could potentially hit it off, not orchestrate a David O. Selznick-style epic romance starring your friends, complete with soaring violins and exquisite costumes. Accordingly, don’t daydream on their behalf, don’t paint them a picture of their future life with this person, and for heaven’s sake don’t exaggerate.

Third, go to HIM first, either the dude or as a couple (i.e., don’t just do this by yourself, married ladies; you need your husband’s help not to be a Yenta). And, again, keep it simple. Say something like, “Hey, my friend Sue is terrific and I think y’all would get along really well for reasons X, Y, and Z. I’d like to set you up. Here’s a picture; she seems like your type.” Then go to her and say something similar.

Fourth, get their input on the next step if they both say sure. Would he prefer to just ask her out? Or ask her out after you’ve introduced them? Or would it be less pressure to have some kind of social event be the first meeting? Or to have pizza and cards at your house, the four of you, some Tuesday night? Or go the Facebook route? Leave it up to them. And then…

Fifth, BACK. OFF.

OK, married folks, go forth and set up your friends! 😉

Guidelines for the Guidelines (Part 2)

4. Any rules or guidelines for modesty that fail to address the heart, particularly issues of pride or self-righteousness, or that make men’s lusts or preferences the focus of the conversation, miss the main purpose of the teaching of Scripture on the subject.

The question to ask here is: Does it work? If you can dress like an old-order Mennonite and be eaten up with pride, desiring nothing more than to draw attention to your “holy” attire, your rules have failed, man. Also, any guidelines about anything that focus on sin-management, as though you can ameliorate or eliminate sin by following this set of rules, miss the Gospel, which is pretty darn important.

5. While Scripture does give some broad standards related to dress, what specifically constitutes modest dress varies among nations, cultures, regions, and times.

Public nudity (as in, revealed genitalia) seems pretty clearly off-limits in Scripture, as does dressing with the intention of being taken for a member of the opposite sex. Apart from that, who am I to tell a South Asian woman to stop wearing her modest, culturally-appropriate shalwar kameez and start wearing only long skirts or dresses? Or to tell a Papuan man to stop wearing his culturally-masculine layered grass skirt and put on a button-down and slacks?

6. Christians should strive to dress, speak, carry themselves, and generally behave in a way that best befits their gospel witness, factoring in their climate, local culture, jobs and responsibilities, body type, preferences, etc.

This means that someone ministering to Northern European Muslims is not going to dress, speak, or act exactly the same way as a someone making meals in an un-air-conditioned Central American orphanage. Nor is a Christian interviewing for a job at a Chicago law firm going to dress or behave exactly the same way as a Christian running a surf shop in Maui. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a slender size four is going to have to watch out for different things, both in her dress and comportment, than a buxom size fourteen. There is no Christian uniform, and there is no universal “neckline” or “skirt length” rule, either.

Reverence

I said a couple months ago on Facebook that I think one of the causes of a lot of controversy in the church is a difference of opinion about the meaning (and application) of the word “reverence.” What I mean by this is, every denomination reads the same Bible, you know? And yet we have some denominations whose normal Sunday worship experience looks like a dance party while others’ looks like an evening in the first-century catacombs — and everything in between.

I think you can chalk a lot of those differences up to personality. Some people are naturally drawn to mellow, even subdued worship gatherings, while others are naturally drawn to boisterous, expressive ones. And then I think what happens is that the boisterous folks emphasize that they’re bringing the loud praise and shouts of joy commanded in Scripture, and the subdued folks emphasize that they’re demonstrating the awe and silence a Holy God requires. And then the criticisms begin. Loud Church criticizes Quiet Church for treating God like he hasn’t drawn near to us, like he hasn’t commanded “loud, clashing cymbals,” and for acting as though we haven’t been set free from an incredible burden, as though we have no cause to celebrate. Quiet Church accuses Loud Church of being casual and presumptuous with God, treating his presence like a rock concert, acting like worshiping God isn’t a heavy and sober responsibility. Each thinks the other is being irreverent — Quiet Church by denying joyful expression and Loud Church by ignoring God’s holiness.

But the thing is, they’re both right. Lots of churches on the hymns-only, piano/organ, liturgical, traditional end of the spectrum could stand a swift kick in the Somber Pants, in the direction of loud, expressive joy and delight in their Rescuing God. And lots of churches on the worship-band, rock-and-roll, contemporary end of the spectrum need to seriously dial down the mood swings and the key changes, and remember that they’re singing to the holy God of the universe every week, not their girlfriend.

In heaven, we’ll get this balance right, but in the meantime I think it’s healthy for us to consider how we can (within our own traditions, obviously) move toward more expression or more awareness of God’s grandeur in our worship gatherings.

Pilgrim Hill

Please watch this beautiful short (which made me cry as I saw not only the loveliness of one of my favorite places in the world but also the faces of people I love and miss) about this fantastic hospitality ministry. Maybe you could consider helping move Peirce and Christina’s vision forward by praying or giving!

(Also, isn’t Christina’s hair glorious? And I love how Oz Peirce’s inflections are. Little things like that make me super happy.)

I’m Praising God For…

…this wonderful post by Ray Ortlund that reminded me that for Christians, death is only a temporary separation.

…a job that’s more than a job, it’s a calling from God. 

…the body of Christ, and especially the members of that body who meet in my house every Thursday night to learn more about our great Savior.

…God’s word.  (Side note: why do I so often take this for granted?  The infinite God of the universe communicates with us in a way that we can understand!  Amazing.)

…Jesus. 

Discernment

In the church, there seems to be an idea that “discernment” means “praying and waiting for God’s specific, personal direction on every decision in my life” — see John Eldredge’s book, Walking with God for a classic example. But is that the view of Scripture? I think not. Such an understanding of discernment leads to several errors:

1. A separation between Christians who “know God’s will,” i.e. the super-Christians that God speaks to, and the “ordinary” Christians who seem not to hear from God about stuff like the color of their wallpaper.

2. Using “discernment” to excuse unwise behavior and even sin. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, “Well, I’ve prayed about it for months and the Lord has told me it was OK,” even if “it” was buying a $300,000 house when you’re $60,000 in debt, or living with but not sleeping with your fiance, or being slack in disciplining your kids. Those are not areas about which we ought even to pray. The best advice I can give people who encounter this “God told me” business from people is to remember that it’s not a trump card. We have a responsibility to one another in the body of Christ, and letting someone off the hook just because they played the “God told me” card is hardly showing love to our brothers.

3. Total paralysis in decision-making, stemming from not using your brain and instead waiting for some sign or feeling to show you that God has given you direction. I strongly believe that for the Christian, the ordinary way of making decisions goes like this: Learn, study, and love God’s word. Use the mind that God is sanctifying to make wise decisions. Rinse and repeat. But too many people seem to think that’s just not “spiritual” enough. A Christian’s life IS spiritual — it’s life IN the Spirit! And it can look very ordinary, but an ordinary life lived faithfully still results in “Well done, good and faithful servant.” That’s not to say that I don’t think God sometimes uses other methods to reveal his will to us — I certainly do believe that he does! But the ordinary way seems to be knowing God’s word and living wisely in accordance with that.

Take a minute to read this great excerpt, written by Sojourn’s worship pastor Mike Cosper, and then head over to Sojournmusic.com and read the rest, from a three-part installment on the climate of modern worship in churches.

This is the landscape others see from the outside looking in – musicians who almost barely know how to play their instruments, music without roots or traditions, songs without dynamics, services with rock star worship leaders wearing faux-hawks and designer jeans. They look great, they sound okay, but don’t ask them to change keys. Contrast this with the classical traditions of the church, where musicians spend 15-20 years, starting in early childhood, studying music, studying musical performance, working with choirs, orchestras, and various ensembles throughout their educations, and then often continuing through a seminary “church music” education.

Of course, much of this is a caricature. I know many worship leaders and pastors in churches like this who have a deep knowledge of and love for music. I know many worship leaders whose humility guards them from the excesses of rock culture. I know many leaders who have a love of theology, hymnody, and scripture, and whose services reflect that love. But I also believe that this is the unfortunate exception and not the rule.

And the warning cries abound. It’s both redundant and fashionable to sit around and lament how devoid and barren our worship music is today. But what’s the way forward? Pastors have this dual responsibility in North America to be faithful and to be attractional (two forces that are often at odds with one another). And what attracts people to churches today more than the poppy music of contemporary worship?

As with so many places in our culture, we’ve severed the connections with traditions that can help inform, correct, and guard us from mistakes from great to small. While certainly, in the light of God’s sovereignty, we have to say that there is something good afoot in the radical shifts in worship culture in the US, there is also a road ahead so fraught with dangers that without some kind of roots, some kind of theological grounding, some kind of historical connectedness, we will SURELY lose our way.

What I want to ask is who will guide us? What will the reformation of church music education give birth to in twenty years? Will it look different, or will we simply look back in twenty years and laugh at our young foolishness? Worship leaders aren’t the only ones asking these kinds of questions.

Discipline

There’s been a bit of a dust-up over on Boundless Line lately, regarding a pretty great summary of Mark Dever’s view of church discipline. The usual comments ensued — you can’t kick people out of church for sinning! We wouldn’t have a church! Doesn’t the Bible say, Judge not, lest you be judged? Who are you to say what is a bad enough sin to kick people out? Since when is “membership” a biblical concept anyway? Etc. etc.

It seems to me, in my experience with these kinds of discussions, that people’s misunderstandings about church discipline fall into a few categories:

1. They don’t understand the nature of the Church.

2. They don’t understand the nature of church membership.

3. They don’t understand the seriousness of sin.

4. They don’t understand the nature of church discipline.

Let’s start with the first one. People who get their knickers in a twist about church discipline often seem to view “church” as an activity for people who call themselves Christians — something they do on Sundays and Wednesday nights, a group they’re a part of by choice, but nonetheless and organization that doesn’t necessarily have the right to make any claims on their lives — maybe slightly more that their book club or union or Facebook group, but not much more. They come to Sunday services to get blessed or “be fed” spiritually.

But what is the Church, really? Two things: 1) the Church is true followers of Christ everywhere, at all times throughout history, and 2) the Church is the local gathering of Christians in particular times and places. Paul’s letters, for example, are written to both groups — the church at Rome in the 1st Century A.D. and by extension to all believers everywhere at all times. Let me emphasize what I think is an extremely important point: if you are a Christian — a genuine follower of Christ, not just a “Christian” by default — you are, by necessity, a member of the first group. All believers at all times in all places are members of the first group. But the first and second categories were never meant to be thought of separately. Read Paul’s letters and see if you think that the pioneer of the early church had any category in his mind for a person who was a Christian but not a part of any local church. (I’ll give you a tip to save you a little time: he didn’t.) It’s not optional for a follower of Christ to be consistently out of fellowship with a local body. In fact (brace yourself, people, this is pretty serious), I would go so far as to say that if you steadfastly refuse to join yourself with a local congregation of believers, you are in serious danger of revealing that you are not a follower of Christ at all. And now I’m just going to back away… slowly… slowly…

That leads to the second misunderstanding. There is a whole group of folks in the church, as I mentioned in my previous post, who glance through their Bibles, don’t see the word “membership,” and conclude that any formal affiliation with a church is unnecessary at best and unbiblical at worst. First, I have bad news for those people — the word “trinity” isn’t in the Bible, either. Ruh-roh, Raggy.

Second, there is substantial evidence throughout the New Testament that the pastors of the early churches kept very precise, formal records of the believers they had charge of. I would basically defy anyone to do a careful study of the Jerusalem church in the book of Acts, the job description of an Elder in the pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), and Hebrews 13 and come away with the idea that it’s cool for a believer to sorta hang out on the fringes of a church and never commit to it.

Side note: one of our teaching pastors, Daniel, tells a pretty great little story at the beginning of our membership classes about a guy who falls in love with this amazing, beautiful girl, spends all his time with her, can’t shut up about her… and then three years later, they’re still dating, but not married or even engaged. Of course she’s frustrated, all his friends are saying, “What are you waiting for, dude?” but he keeps telling her, “We don’t need to get married to prove I love you, right, baby?” Well, obviously the story is about us and the church. Of course we don’t “need” to join a church to prove we love it, but we also can’t reap the benefits of commitment unless we’re actually committed!

Well, what are the benefits of commitment to a church, i.e. formal membership? First off, when a church admits you to membership, they’re saying, “We testify to your salvation. We believe and acknowledge that you are a Christian.” (Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why walk-the-aisle, sign-the-card “Baptist” membership is so pernicious — if your pastors don’t examine you and make sure you’re actually saved, how on Earth can they be accountable before God for your soul?) What a precious testimony this has been in seasons of doubt! I have often countered the lies of the enemy and of my sinful heart about my salvation by saying, “No! 417 other people, including my pastors, daily witness to my salvation! They see fruit in my life! They believe I am a Christian!” Second, formal membership provides a structure of accountability in a way that mere attendance cannot. You are consciously, intentionally placing yourself under the authority of your pastors, and humbly opening yourself up to be held accountable to a life worthy of the gospel. You’re also taking on the responsibility of bearing the burdens of your brothers and sisters in the church and being willing to call them out when they sin as well.

Speaking of sin… Sin. I’m always surprised to read the “Dear Boundless” letters that deal with couples having sex or living together outside marriage — the writers almost always characterize their behavior as “mistakes” or “slip-ups” or “crossing the line” or some other such convenient phrases; rarely does anyone write in and say, My boyfriend and I have been violating the standards of a holy God every Friday night for three months. We’ve also been dragging the name of Jesus through the mud by our behavior, and we’d like some advice on how to stop being an offense to the Gospel…

But that’s just what sin is — defiance against the rightful Ruler of the universe. Listen, I don’t know if you know this, but God, as the Creator of all things, has the right to rule the universe as he wishes. You don’t go to Iran, dance around on a picture of Muhammad in a town square in a bikini, and then think you’re going to get away with it by calling it a “slip-up” when somebody throws your butt in jail. Sin is a serious, serious matter — why would we look at our brothers and sisters in the church falling into persistent sin and look the other way? We should feel shame at the thought of standing idly by while those who bear the name of Christ deny him with their actions when we could do something about it!

And that’s just what church discipline is, people. Church discipline, at heart, is the Body of Christ refusing to allow the beloved children of God continue in sin unchecked. It is a reminder to those who have ignored the Spirit’s whispers that danger lies ahead.

99% of the time, church discipline does not involve “excommunication.” Usually, the preaching of the Word, worship, the sacraments, and community life are the means the Lord uses to discipline his people. Occasionally, a brother or sister will have to call you out for a particular sin. Less often, someone will have to be confronted in love by the pastors if they continue to live in unrepentant sin. Usually, that person will repent in the course of one of those events. If not — if that person continues to refuse reconciliation and ignore the pleas of his brothers and sisters, acting like he is not a believer — then the church is to treat him in the way he is acting! The problem is, people see Paul’s command to the Corinthian church to treat the adulterous man in their midst “as an unbeliever” and think that means they kicked him out. But doesn’t your church welcome unbelievers? Don’t you pray that unbelievers will show up? Don’t you invite unbelievers to your services?

Church discipline is a beautiful ministry of the local body; I for one am blessed to be a part of a congregation that has the structures for church discipline in place — it reminds me of both the grace and the judgment of God. I pray that I never have to be placed under formal discipline by my church, but I know that my fellowship with them is part of what ensures that I never will!

Letter of Truth: Part "Community"

Oh m’gosh, y’all.

I seriously have the greatest community group in the history of the universe. I’m just sayin’. I can’t name a person in the group that doesn’t rock, and some of ’em rock extra. Like Sarah Beth Plummer, who is a total hoot and way smarter than the average four year old. I swear, some of the things that she says — like: “Witches do not accomplish God’s plan.” Who says that? Chandi Plummer, that’s who, and that explains why Sarah Beth says it too. Or… the time when Rob was putting Sarah Beth to bed just as we were all getting ready to do prayer time, and SB leaned down the stair (in Rob’s arms) to sing “So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodnight…” to us. Priceless.

And who else has a community group where all the ladies stand around the living room and sing snippets of show tunes and laugh at each other? Or a group where people regularly say, “Can we pray for you about that right now?” Or one so full of servant-hearted folks that nobody can express a need without someone immediately asking how they can help?

This is the family of God, y’all. Meals. Help packing a rented truck to move. Cleaning. Babysitting. Coming early to set up and leaving late to help clean up. Simple things that, done out of love, reinforce the truth of the Gospel lived out in community — they remind us that we do not walk this road alone, nor are we blazing new trails. We tread a well-worn path, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

That’s a Good Question!

Christine received this outstanding, insightful question on her blog. She and Mike are fielding questions about their first month of marriage (can you believe it’s nearly been that long!?):

Just wondering… but as another self-described “independent woman,” I find myself wanting to know which parts of the engaged/married experience (so far) have been the most trying for a woman who had been used to making her own decisions in every area without having to submit to another human being in each of them. I think it will be very difficult for me to adjust to that, given that I’ve been living on my own since 1999. Have you experienced frustration or fear or similar feelings along the way? Has it been harder or easier than you expected to live in Biblical “coupledom”? Or is it, frankly, too soon to tell?

Hey, Anon. As a single gal myself, I’ve been hashing out this issue in my own life for quite some time. The Lord has brought about two major changes in the last year: my living situation, and my job situation, both of which have helped me address the complex tangle of how to practice being a godly woman while being single. The situations don’t really matter except as they revealed sin in my own heart, so don’t read this as though I’m telling you to move and get a new job!

About 9 or 10 months ago, my community group leader’s extremely wise wife advised me to start looking for a situation where I wasn’t living on my own. She asked me to consider it not just as a way to assuage my loneliness, but also as a way to learn to live in community with other believers — as I will someday do with my husband! I had become ingrown and selfish. I resisted strongly at first — I loved my little apartment, having privacy at the end of the day, being able to decide when and if I wanted to see my friends. Mostly I loved having something that was mine! But my friend encouraged me to pray about it, and almost as soon as I started praying, the Lord changed my heart and provided me with a place to live. I moved in January into a beautiful old house in a quiet neighborhood with two lovely Christian girls.

During this same time, the Lord in his grace started revealing the sin in my heart regarding dissatisfaction with my singleness. I struggled with (and lost against, more often than not) bitterness and resentment toward my Creator for putting me in such a horrible situation — pretty good attitude, right? Two of my good friends reminded me that discontentment is not a function of our circumstances, but of our satisfaction in Christ. The Lord was giving me an opportunity to deal with my sin of discontentment (which is really just a euphemism for distrust) now, while my life is simple and independent. Otherwise, my sisters reminded me, I was going to end up likely married and still struggling with bitterness — just with a different set of circumstances!

This Spring, while I was unemployed and fast running out of money, I started coming in to volunteer at the church, answering phones and making copies, just a few hours a week at first, but quickly building up to nearly full-time. It was an agonizing time. I was frantic about my finances, and pretty resentful of the pastors, who I (wrongly) felt were taking advantage of me. I knew they were probably going to hire someone to do the job, and I was almost certain it wouldn’t be me. I had a terrible attitude toward my pastors and took many opportunities to roll my eyes and sigh heavily when they would give me yet another task. I began looking for other jobs, and even had a very promising interview, but the Lord seemed to be closing door after door. Finally, at my most frantic, in the midst of my distrust of the Lord’s good purposes, our counseling pastor called me into his office and offered me the job. I cried, and laughed, and cried some more, and was deeply convicted. I had failed to trust the Lord and he still provided for me. It was truly the Lord’s kindness that led me to repentance!

Since that time, the Lord has been taking me to the woodshed — lovingly applying discipline in lots of circumstances with my housemates and my job. I’m learning a lot of lessons about what it means to be faithful in this time of singleness.

I’m starting to “get” the fact that being single doesn’t mean I’m a junior-varsity Christian. My marital status doesn’t determine my eligibility for ministry or service, my contribution to the body of Christ, my maturity in the faith (or my personal maturity), my sanctification, or anything else. Marriage isn’t a higher calling than singleness (although let’s not get into that whole “called to be single” shenanigans right now). I don’t think anyone would say, “Y’know, if only Paul had been married, then he really could have dug into some deep theology in Romans. He would have been way more qualified to preach to people if he’d just had a wife!”

I have a precious opportunity to learn how to rely on and submit to Christ now, while I am still single, when I can recognize my need in a more acute way, rather than trying to learn that lesson once married, when I will doubtless be tempted to substitute a relationship with my husband for my utter dependence on my Savior.

I am learning what it means to wait on the Lord and lay all my hopes and desires before him, trusting that he will lead me in the best path, for his own glory.

I have time to serve and love my community, especially those who are in a season of stress and busyness, like new moms or ladies with several small children.

I am discovering the joy of community and the delight of having close friendships with older, wiser women who will correct and rebuke me in love. Submitting to their correction deepens my trust in the Lord’s desire for my sanctification!

I am really beginning to understand that God’s purpose for my life is that I become like Christ, who perfectly submitted to the Father in all things, not that I get married or have children — those things might be a part of God making me like his Son, but those things, no matter how good they are, are not the ultimate goal. Christlikeness is.

I can practice submitting to my leaders as the Lord has commanded — not just because it’s good practice for marriage, but because it’s obedient to God. This has been a tough practical step for me as an opinionated woman. Sometimes this bunch of men make decisions I think are insane, but I must respect and submit to their authority! Hebrews 13:17 even says I must obey them! It’s an intelligent, deliberate obedience, but my desires, will, and choices go to support those men in my church who teach God’s word.

Wow. That turned out to be a long, long discussion. But I hope my journey can help you see how many opportunities we single ladies have to learn how to be godly women. Christian singleness and Christian marriage have something in common — they’re all about the Gospel. The Gospel motivates and enables our obedience to God, our submission to earthly leaders, and (Lord willing) our submission to our husbands!

Loving Ned Flanders

This blog post by Matt Chandler over at The Resurgence convicted the heck out of me — just what do I think I’ve become when I criticize, judge, and secretly (or not-so-secretly) despise believers who wear suits to church, sing tearfully that “the cross is my statue of liberty,” carry tapestry-and-mauve Bible holders, and frown disapprovingly at any artwork not by Thomas Kinkaid? I’ve become, Matt reminds me, the very thing that I despise! If I angrily denounce their efforts to make punks take out their gaged earrings and comb their hair and purge all the black from their wardrobe, shouldn’t I reject with as much fervency anyone’s attempt to make them start singing Matt Redman songs or dress down for Sunday services?

I’m still going to question my friends who listen only to K-LOVE or Air1. I’m still going to challenge folks who think you have to dress a certain way to go to church. I’ll probably never watch TBN, nor will I stop discouraging people from doing so. I’ll likely never be comfortable with the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance or the singing of patriotic songs in church. But it’s high time I started re-evaluating the attitude of my heart towards believers who are different than I am.

A Long Road to Recovery: the Wounds of a Friend

Two of my friends were recently in a car accident. They both lived to tell about it, but the car is totaled, and they both will have to spend quite a while getting better. One friend, especially, is now looking forward to weeks, maybe even months, of physical therapy to get her spine back in alignment. It’s going to hurt. A lot. And, since it’s her spine that was most affected, there are a lot of things she won’t be able to do until she’s completely healed — things that wouldn’t be a problem ordinarily.

That got me thinking.

I’m a sinner, “wrecked” by sin, if you’ll pardon the bad pun, “lost and ruined by the Fall,” as the song goes. I know from experience that if my back goes out, or I sleep the wrong way on my neck, or get too tense, my whole body feels it — not just the parts that are directly involved, but everywhere, and the longer it goes on unaddressed, the worse it gets. The same is true of our sin: even something that seems small and insignificant can start to take over our lives.

A couple of months ago, two of my dear community group sisters saw one of those kinds of sin in me. As I stood in front of them crying, they lovingly and gently called the sins of my heart to my attention. They showed me where I was deceived, where I was sinning, where I had erected idols, and they pointed me to the truth. They humbly admitted their own similar failings and told me of the Lord’s work in their lives as they had submitted to His correction.

It hurt.

But, thanks only to the grace of God in restraining me, I kept my big mouth shut. What I wanted when I poured my heart out to these wonderful, compassionate women was a band-aid. I wanted them to say, “Oh, there there, it’s all right, you’re just so sweet and we can’t understand why something like this would be happening! Shame on those other people!” I wanted them to pat my shoulder and give me comfort, not point out my sin! But Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.”

My friend’s physical therapy is going to take a long time. But wouldn’t it be foolish of her not to go through with it simply because she knows it’s going to be unpleasant? The fact is, she’s already injured, and she’ll take the only wise course of action over the next few months as she recovers — she’ll obey the instructions of her doctors and keep working at it, no matter how difficult or interminable it seems.

And that’s true for us as well. We’ve already lived with the grave and deadly injury of sin, but God by His grace has placed us in a community founded on the Healer, Christ, and imbued with the Holy Spirit, that great diagnostician. And when a believing friend loves us enough to obey God’s command that we “exhort one another every day, as long as it is still called today, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13), shouldn’t we humbly listen to their exhortation, before it’s too late — before our hearts are hardened?