Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Ok, I'll take you to church; an open letter to Hozier

Dear Andrew Hozier-Byrne,

You've had an incredibly fast run to the top of the music scene! At number 11, this week was the first week that your song, "Take Me To Church," has been out of the Billboard Top 10 since the week of November 1, 2014, so anyone who has ears has probably heard you ask them to take you to church on a regular basis over the past several months. And the popularity of your song is evidence that its message rings true with so many people.

Of course, Hozier, I know you probably don't really want to go to church. The song is an indictment of the church, isn't it? You say Sunday mornings are "a fresh poison every week." You say the church is a shrine of lies where people sharpen their knives of judgment against people who don't live up to their moral standards. And your criticism obviously isn't new; the church has consistently been labeled as judgmental and hypocritical, and, in many cases, rightly so.

But Hozier, since you asked, I'd love to take you to church. And I hope, if you come, that you'll find that the church isn't about knives and lies.

I realize that you wrote the song in response to the Church's stance on homosexuality and same sex marriage. What we believe about homosexuality begins with the understanding that God's design and our desires don't always line up. Our desires are not always good. I know that you know this. All of us have desires that we know should be suppressed, like the desire to take revenge when we've been wronged or the desire to cut corners on work that doesn't interest us. But it's harder to believe or accept when it comes to things that we are central to our self-identity, things that isolate a specific group of people, or things that culture affirms.

In your already infamous song, you made some keen observations about yourself and about the nature of man. "I was born sick, but I love it. Command me to be well," you said, "There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin. In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene, only then I am human; only then I am clean." I've felt all of those things. It's so natural for us to want sinful things, and the church seems to demand things of people that go against who they are. However, instead of seeing sin as an intrinsic part of who you are, my hope is that you'll one day see that our hearts are not meant to be this way.

When Christians look to the Bible for instruction on how to live, we're not looking toward an enslaving instruction that keeps us from the good things that we want. When we look to the Bible for guidance, it's because we believe that God's designs and intentions for our lives are actually for our good. We believe that God is the essence of all things true and good. We believe that God created man to live in His presence, enjoying the benefits of a relationship with the One who provides all good things. However, we also look to the Bible because we believe that the human heart is deceitful. We believe that our hearts take the good and true things that God created and twist them and use them in ways that God never intended. When we sin, we betray the God who gave us life. We've stolen for ourselves everything God gave us for a specific purpose. When we do this, we break our relationship with God, and we separate ourselves from His presence.

The problem is that if God gave us life for a specific purpose and we've used that life for ourselves, then our lives are entirely indebted to God. It would be like letting someone borrow a silk tie and watching them use it as toilet paper, or like paying someone's tuition and realizing they never went to class. In fact, the offer of our own lives to God would not even be good enough to restore our relationship with Him because our lives are tainted and sinful. You believe in standing up for justice, right? Well, if God is the source of all things true and good, then our sinfulness against Him is the most vile form of injustice. And if God is truly good, then he will stand more firmly against that injustice than anyone else. It wouldn't be right for God to simply forgive people; no good judge acquits the guilty.

Instead, Jesus Christ, God in flesh, offered himself as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of His people. Jesus lived a sinless life, but he died a sinner's death. When Jesus Christ died on a cross, he took the wrath of God we deserved upon himself, and when we put our faith in Christ, that sacrifice is received on our behalf. We are fully acquitted because a more-than-sufficient substitute was made guilty in our place.

I can't speak on behalf of the entire church, but I hope you receive it sincerely when I say that I'm sorry that your experience of the church has been judgmental and unloving. We do believe that there is a specific way that man is called to live, and we believe that that specific way to live is actually a more fruitful and satisfying way to live. However, we fail to accurately represent Christianity when we shake our fists and look down our noses at the culture around us as if we're any better. Spreading the message of Christianity shouldn't be primarily about telling people how to live; it should be about telling people where to find life.

Hozier, I don't know much about you other than having heard the lyrics to "Take Me To Church." However, I know that we have some things in common. I'm very involved in the life of the church, but even I hesitate to confess my own sins because I worry about people's judgments. At the same time, I do think it's important to talk about sin. You and I and Selena Gomez all know that the heart wants what it wants, but what I believe is that that's the problem. Our hearts want something that is ultimately treason against our Creator. And, ultimately, our hearts want something that isn't as good as what our Creator wants for us. When we talk about sin, we put our cards on the table in order to see ourselves in light of the Royal Flush. We want to see which of our hands we should fold and which of our cards we should throw away. We want acknowledge where we can improve. We talk about sin so that we can help one another continue to get better.

Have you ever noticed that all of the pleasures of this world are fleeting? They fail or they end. However, the pleasures of God are unfailing and unending. If we were to be reconciled to God, we would be able to enjoy the benefit of having the pleasure of the presence of God for eternity. You said, "My church offers no absolutes. She tells me, 'Worship in the bedroom.' The only heaven I'll be sent to is when I'm alone with you." But I promise you that the presence of God is better than anything you can get in a bedroom.

When those of us in the church talk about sin, and when we talk about how to live, we're doing it because we want everyone to honor God with their lives. We love God. We value what is good. We value what is true. We value the righteousness that Christ offers us by faith. So we want our lives to honor God by reflecting what is good and true and righteous. And we want others' lives to do the same. Sometimes we go about that in unloving ways, but I hope you can understand that, even for those who go about it the wrong ways, we believe that the most loving thing we can do for people is to help them find their lives and their identities in Jesus Christ. Christians aren't better than anybody else. We were sinners desperate for reconciliation with God, and we are joyful that we've found it outside of ourselves in Jesus Christ. And we surely still sin. Hopefully you'll find that we're striving to live the life that God intends for us, but we do fail. I wish I could tell you that you could find an accurate representation of Christianity by observing Christians, but it's all too often that you can't. Instead, I hope you'll come to realize that Christianity is about an offer of incredibly good news for you. Christianity isn't about being good enough. Christianity is about realizing that, even though all of us are guilty before God, all of us can turn from our sin, find complete forgiveness in Jesus Christ, and be empowered to live a new life for God.

I don't know if you'll ever see this letter, but my hope and prayer for you is that you'll one day see that life is truly found in Jesus Christ. So yes, I'll take you to church. But I'm not sharpening my knives. Instead, I'm looking at you the same way I look at myself every day, as a sinner who needs the grace of Jesus Christ. By giving your life to Christ, you truly can look forward to a deathless death, and I hope you'll consider doing so.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Not So, Brand: New

Not So, Brand: New
A response to Andy Stanley's sermon series

In Andy Stanley's latest sermon series, "Brand: New," he argues that the Old Covenant's "temple model" has been completely replaced with the new Christian ethic: love. And he argues that if we are going to embrace Christianity, the "Jesus model," then we must completely abandon every aspect of "temple thinking."

There are several good things that can come out of what Stanley has said. For example, a question that everyone ought to regularly ask himself is, "What does love require of me?" He encourages people to love those who can do nothing for us. He also urges Christians, and especially Christian leaders, to become humble servants who aren't too good for the poor and the dirty. He reminds us that our theology is no good if we are not loving. He reminds Christians to remember that they are not under the law. These are just some of the awesome takeaways from this sermon series that everyone would be wise to hear.

However, there's an incredible flaw in what Stanley has been teaching for the last five weeks, and it is the foundation for everything he says in the series. He describes the "temple model" as a system of religion that involves sacred places with sacred men interpreting sacred texts to control superstitious people. I wish I didn't have to explain this, but what he is teaching is a gross mischaracterization of the Old Covenant. And in mischaracterizing the Old Covenant, he comes to very wrong conclusions about the New Covenant and misses the primary purpose of Christ's coming. To make this point even stronger, in making accusations against the Old Covenant, he essentially is making an indictment on the God who inaugurated that covenant. He says that the "temple model" is about how you as an individual can get right with God and that the "Jesus model" is about loving our neighbor. But the Law was never intended to make us right before God, and Jesus' primary purpose for coming to earth was in fact to make us right before God. From the third chapter of Genesis to the third to last chapter of Revelation, the thrust of Scripture is primarily focused on what God is doing to restore man's relationship with him.

So what is the Old Covenant?

There are hints at the Old Covenant in God's interactions with Adam, but the Old Covenant explicitly begins with a promise to Abraham in Genesis 15. There was a promise of land, which we know from Hebrews 11 to ultimately be the hope of the new heaven and the new earth. And there was a promise that Abraham's descendants, which we know from Galatians 3 and Romans 9 to be those with the faith of Abraham, would become a great nation. Throughout the New Testament, we learn that the truest fulfillment of those promises was found in Jesus. By faith we are adopted as children of God and are given an inheritance. However, all the while, there has been a problem; man is sinful, and God is holy. This is a problem because sin separated mankind from the presence of God. We learn in Genesis 17 that the sign of the covenant with Abraham was circumcision; circumcision was an external sign of an internal reality, namely the circumcision of the heart. When Moses received the Law four hundred and thirty years later, it was not given to help people become righteous through obedience. Instead, the Law of Moses was given to expose people's sin and lead them to faith in the promise of God. God's covenant with Moses was filled with promises for the nation of Israel that were dependent upon their obedience, but God's covenant with Abraham was an unconditional promise. As the nation of Israel developed, the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle were introduced. Since God could not be directly in the presence of Israel because of their sin, these were the specific places where the presence of God would reside. Priests would offer sacrifices for the people of God and for themselves in order to come before God and make petitions on behalf of the people of God. Eventually, under Solomon, the tabernacle was replaced by the temple, and God's presence would dwell in a place called the Holy of Holies inside the temple. The Old Covenant was never about "sacred places with sacred men interpreting sacred texts to control superstitious people." The Old Covenant was about God's promise to redeem his people, and the temple was about God's desire to dwell among his people. Jesus critiqued Pharisees, religious leaders, in the New Testament, but that was because they missed the point of the Old Covenant, not because the Old Covenant was Pharisaical. Instead, Jesus and all of the writers of the New Testament upheld the goodness of all of the Old Testament scriptures.

And what exactly changed in the New Covenant?

The New Covenant does indeed replace the Old, not because the Old was flawed, but because the Old was fulfilled in Christ. In the New Covenant, no more sacrifices are needed because Christ was the sacrifice for sin once and for all. Baptism would replace circumcision as the sign of the covenant, and like circumcision, baptism would be an external sign of an internal reality, namely the baptism of the Spirit. In the New Covenant, God's presence would not dwell in the temple; God's presence would dwell within the hearts of believers through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The old temple was destroyed both symbolically and physically because believers are the new temple.

Why am I writing this?

Andy Stanley actually notes this aspect of the New Covenant, that Christians are temples. However, the conclusion he makes is that being a temple is what makes us valuable and is what undergirds the New Testament ethic of love. He says that the Old Covenant was about making sure our relationship with God was right and that the New Covenant is about pursuing right relationships with others. He even says several times during the sermon series something to the effect of, "Don't worry about how you treat God. God is fine. All you need to worry about is how you treat other people." This is blasphemy. Andy Stanley is right to criticize the Pharisaical qualities of the modern church like legalism, power-seeking, and theological divisiveness. However, in much of this sermon series, he is criticizing very purpose for Christ's coming, to save sinners.

Andy Stanley misses the point of both Covenants, and he completely inverts the Great Commandment. He might as well be saying, "Love your neighbor with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your God as yourself." He does, rightly so, say that our love for God is displayed in our love for others. However, his explanation of what is central to New Covenant thinking reveals that there is actually no love for God involved. In Andy Stanley's explanation of the New Covenant, love for neighbor is central and the cross is simply something Jesus did that helps us not have to worry about our relationship with God anymore.

On the contrary, when Jesus gives us the two greatest commands in the New Testament, he's not only quoting the Old Testament, but he's showing us the central ethic of Scripture across the board. Loving God and loving neighbor are not replacing the Old Testament; they are the two commandments on which all of the Law and Prophets are founded. Loving God and loving neighbor are the driving force behind every other command. Our love for God is and always has been important, and our love for others is and always has been important. However, Stanley seems to think that the first half of this is irrelevant and that the second half of this is something brand: new. Not so.

When Andy Stanley attacks the sacred places of the "temple model," he attacks the dwelling place of God among His people. When he attacks the sacred men of the "temple model," he attacks God-appointed, and yet flawed, men who sought the good of God's people, and he implicitly attacks his own calling as a pastor to lead the church today. When he attacks the sacred texts of the "temple model," he attacks the Scriptures that Jesus and all of the New Testament writers quote and affirm, and he calls into question the validity of the very text from which he is reading.

When he criticizes the church throughout history for becoming creedal and theologically-minded, he neglects the consistent New Testament warnings about false teachers and its urgings to guard our doctrine. When he tells you not to worry about your relationship with God, he mocks the practices of Jesus himself when he would retreat into times of prayer, meditation, fasting, and seeking the will of the Father. He undermines the purpose of baptism and communion which remind us of our right standing with God. He contradicts the consistent call of the New Testament for believers to work out their salvation by living obedient, holy lives. He says that the reasons people give for rejecting the church are things that Jesus called the church to reject as well, but Jesus said in John 15 that the church will be hated precisely because of their affiliation with him. There is clearly a huge disparity between how Jesus described the church and the picture Andy Stanley is painting of the church.

I don't believe it would be wise to write Andy Stanley into the New Testament category of heretics and false teachers. However, I want to say publicly that Andy Stanley has shown, especially over the last five weeks, that he is, at the very least, an untrustworthy expositor of Scripture, and I would encourage those who have followed him to stop following him. Stanley has a tremendous platform and says a lot of good and helpful things, but when you are seeking pastoral leadership, you ought to seek it from those who prove themselves to be, more than just good communicators, faithful teachers of the Bible.

Andy Stanley wants you to stop worrying about your relationship with God and start worrying about your relationship with others. This is an incredibly unloving thing to tell you. We do indeed, as he says, show our love for God by loving others. However, if we truly love God, then our love for others will be driven by the desire for them to love God as well because we understand that a right relationship with God is what is best for them. The primary mission of the Church is to make disciples by preaching the gospel and teaching those disciples to obey the teachings of Christ. This is the mission that separates the Church from every humanitarian organization and non-Christian religion in the world. And it is love that fuels this mission. We want people to turn from their sin and trust in Christ because we care about people's souls.

One of the things that Andy Stanley is right about is the fact that the church has largely been guilty of being unloving, and all of our pursuits of theological knowledge are ultimately in vain if they do not make us more loving. The church has been guilty of being more concerned with theological pride than with loving our neighbor. The church has been guilty of being more concerned with appearing wise than with operating with wisdom. The church has been guilty of accusatory judgment rather than graciousness and patience with sinners. The church has been guilty of selfishness rather than selflessness. The church ought not give up on solid theology, but the church ought to recognize that its theology is intended to propel its love.

The greatest command is not to love our neighbor. The greatest command is, always has been, and always will be to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. The ultimate way we love God is by glorifying him in everything that we do. And the ultimate way we glorify him in everything that we do is by displaying his character in our lives. This is why loving our neighbor is so significant. We are not in the business of love because love is the new law. We are in the business of love because we love God. We love others because, in love, the glory of the God we love and the character of the God we love and the kingdom of the God we love are on display. The church is called to love one another because we know love to be a central element of righteousness and godliness. The church is called to meet needs because we recognize that the kingdom of God is a place void of earthly neediness. When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and show hospitality to strangers, we are displaying the character of God. There are no hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, and poor strangers in heaven, and the church is called to love people in a way that reveals the kingdom of God on earth. More significantly, there are no unrighteous people in heaven. We can die without food. We can die without clothes. We can die as a martyr. We can die alone. But we cannot afford to die without God. Every earthly need pales in comparison to the eternal need for righteousness before God, and the most loving thing we can do for our neighbor is to bring them to the cross of Jesus Christ where that need was met. This is the ethic of the New Covenant.

The Holy Spirit is working in the hearts of believers to conform them to the image of Christ. As this happens, the love of Christ inevitably emanates. If we are truly his disciples, then love for others will be the fountain of our hearts. If it isn't, then I pray that we would recognize that, repent from it, and turn to Christ for forgiveness and renewed life. A living faith works itself out in love, so may all of us pursue this kind of faith and consistently ask God to strengthen our faith to this end.

I love Andy Stanley. I really do. But my love for him leads me to pray for him that the faithful Christian leaders that I know are in his life would come beside him in correction, that the Lord would grant him ears to hear, and that the Lord would use his gifts to become a tremendous platform for the gospel. Will you join me in this prayer?