Author Archives: stevenkopp

About stevenkopp

Steven Kopp is a Pastor / Software Engineer / Author / Husband / Father in West Michigan.

Tullian, Boz, and the Nature of Grace

Tomorrow I begin a sermon series on the topic of grace. It’s been on my mind a lot recently. But the meaning of the word is contested, not in terms of its dictionary definition, but in how it takes shape in a community, especially among leaders.

This is illustrated most recently by the news that Tullian Tchividjian was coming back to pastoral ministry, launching a new church. He is coming back from a high profile scandal. Christianity Today summarizes:

“[Tullian] was forced to resign as senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in northern Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2015 after acknowledging that he cheated on his wife. The couple later divorced.

A year later, he was fired from an administrative job at Willow Creek Presbyterian Church in Winter Springs, Florida, after leaders there became aware of another, earlier sexual tryst.”

The nature of Tullian’s sin is contested. He argues that it was a purely consensual relationship. But many counselors believe any sexual relationship between a pastor and a congregant introduces a power dynamic that brings it under the category of abuse. The woman with whom Tullian had the relationship says that he abused his position of power over her.

Tullian, for his part, is marketing his church, The Sanctuary, in the language of grace:

“The Sanctuary is a judgment-free zone where people can come as they are, not as they should be. A place to find love and laughter and hope and healing and acceptance and forgiveness and mercy and help. Sadly, churches tend to be the scariest places, rather than the safest places, for fallen people to fall down and for broken people to break down. The Sanctuary strives to be different.”

I resonate with these words, and these words resonate with the gospel, but within Tullian’s context, something seems off. The Episcopal priest Paul Zahl says that “Tullian’s personal experience, as bad as you want to make it out, has qualified him (and qualifies him brilliantly!) to preach the Gospel.” Is that true? Does Tullian’s “experience” qualify him to return to the pastorate? Should we celebrate Tullian’s return to pastoral ministry as a triumph of God’s grace? Should his critics “extend grace” to him by supporting his return to ministry?

One of those critics is Tullian’s brother Boz. I’m familiar with Boz because of his role with GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environment). A report from GRACE was instrumental in our decision as a church to restrict funds giving through a mission’s organization that had a poor record with dealing with abuse on the mission field. Boz described clergy abuse as follows:

“Adult clergy abuse is when a ministry leader uses his position to identify, groom, and engage in “consensual” sexual contact with someone in his congregation or under his influence. There are no exceptions to this kind of dehumanizing objectification, exploitation and betrayal.”

This kind of behavior disqualifies Tullian from pastoral ministry. That’s not to say he can’t be a productive member of society, or that he can’t find forgiveness, but that given the seriousness of his error, his role needs to change.

We have here two differing accounts of grace. For Tullian, his sin magnifies God’s grace, and qualifies him for ministry. For Boz, grace is shown in taking sin seriously, demonstrating care for the abused, and protecting the church from potential further abuse. Tullian’s sin disqualifies him from ministry because it minimizes sin and puts the flock at risk.

If I were in Tullian’s camp I would point to two heroes of the faith in my defense: David and Paul. David slept with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband. Yet, he continued in his role as a King and his psalms of repentance magnify God’s grace. Paul, also, was shown incredible grace. He presided over the persecution and murder of Christians. He referred to himself as the worst of sinners. And yet God showed him grace and called him to be an apostle. In fact, the difference between Paul’s life before and after his encounter with Christ made him a particularly good messenger of the gospel.

But we should always be wary of comparing ourselves, or our pastors, to David or Paul. God used these men in unique ways for his glory. A pastor isn’t a king or an apostle. Paul himself established qualifications for ministry, for who could be a leader in the church. Amongst those are the following qualifications:

  • Above reproach (1 Tim 3:2)
  • Faithful to his wife (1 Tim 3:2)
  • Have a good reputation with outsiders (1 Tim 3:7)

Church leaders aren’t squashing grace by insisting that pastors and elders meet these qualifications. They’re ensuring that the message of grace goes out unhindered and they’re demonstrating grace to the flock by protecting it from moral error.

God’s grace is merciful and forgiving. He gives his people second, third, fourth, and fifth chances, and on and on and on. His faithfulness is magnified in our unfaithfulness, his grace is magnified in our sin. But God’s grace is also protective and just, and sometimes hard. God’s grace protects the vulnerable from the strong. God’s grace never minimizes sin – it atones for it. God’s grace removes the consequences of final judgment, but it doesn’t always remove earthly consequences. To the repentant sinner who comes home, God opens his welcoming arms, and the church should, too, but that doesn’t mean such a man is qualified or ready for a position of spiritual authority.

I think this is the full understanding of grace that Boz understands and to which I subscribe. I can’t pretend to know where Tullian stands with God. But I worry that his view of grace is too simple, that it ignores too much and that, as such, in can be used, as Paul warned, as a license for sin.

References: 

TULLIAN TCHIVIDJIAN’S UPSIDE DOWN CHRISTIANITY (First Things)

Tullian Tchividjian Is Back. So Is Scrutiny About His Past Infidelity. (Christianity Today)

Dear Pastor, You are not King David

 

84 evidences of God’s grace at our church

In the last post I concluded by asking the question, “What does a church saturated in the grace of God look like?” I’ve been spending the past couple of weeks writing down ways the God’s grace could be manifested in our church. I did this by mentally walking around our church, sitting in our worship service, listening to our sermons, sitting in on our groups, and participating in our various ministries. In some cases, I looked beyond present reality, to what our church could look like in the future.

This is a highly contextualized list. It makes no attempt to describe what the manifestation of grace would look like in every church, but hopefully to key in on basic principles in Scripture.

I’ve been tempted to write out my rationale for each of these – explaining how each connects to the broader theme of grace, but I’ve decided against that and just list what I “see”. If you have questions and want me to explain my reasoning, go ahead and ask.

The Worship Service:

  1. Welcoming to all who enter
  2. Man-made barriers to grace are removed (example: people know where to go, we don’t expect certain clothing, etc.)
  3. No one is favored, no one is shunned
  4. There’s a diversity that reflects the reconciling work of Christ across age, class, race, nationality, and gender
  5. The worship songs in music and lyric draw our hearts and minds to God
  6. The songs adorn the gospel
  7. The congregation is eager to sing
  8. Worshippers defer one another’s stylistic preferences
  9. Corporate prayers demonstrate dependence on God’s grace
  10. Lord’s Supper draws us to Christ and results in contrition, reconciliation, thanksgiving, and joy
  11. Baptisms celebrate God’s work of grace
  12. Life stories illustrate God’s work of grace
  13. Congregants look forward to coming to church and make it a priority
  14. Looking forward to worship, members invite their friends
  15. Tithing is seen as a thankful response to God’s grace
  16. Mourning together in hard times – depending together on God’s grace
  17. Rejoicing together I good times – praising God for his grace
  18. There are regular celebrations of God’s grace as he works throughout our church
  19. Sermons honor Scripture as God’s gift
  20. Sermons rightly and clearly divide the Word of God
  21. Sermons prioritize the gospel – the word of Grace
  22. Sermons tell the whole gospel – the full story of God’s grace
  23. Sermons draw hearts and minds to see the generous nature of God
  24. Sermons call us to receive Grace by abiding in Christ
  25. Sermons call us to extend grace as a proper response to God’s grace

Fellowship Time and Bible Fellowship Groups

  1. Established members ensure no one is left out
  2. New people are welcomed
  3. Conversations and food are received as a gift of God
  4. Groups are welcoming
  5. Groups are safe for all
  6. Groups build up the members of the group
  7. Groups build up the whole church
  8. Groups are places of encouragement and prayer
  9. Groups are grounded in the Word
  10. Groups are eager for service

Bible Studies, Spiritual Formation Groups, and Prayer Meeting

  1. Truth is honored as a precious gift
  2. Members practice honest confession, humbling themselves to receive more grace
  3. Participants commit to growing in God’s sanctifying grace
  4. The number of people digging deeper is expanding
  5. Participants find ways to practically receive and extend grace – and hold each other accountable as an act of grace
  6. Prayer meetings center around fervent prayer for our church, our loved ones, and our world
  7. We pray for those who don’t yet know Jesus
  8. Prayer is valued and practices
  9. Prayer is based on Scripture

Ministries within the church

  1. The work of the ministry is spread out – lots of people serving in lots of ways
  2. Congregants understand the gift of God’s grace
  3. Congregants use those gifts to serve the body
  4. Congregants are growing in the use of those gifts
  5. We’re patient with one another as we grow in those gifts
  6. A team mentality pervades – there’s a common mission with diverse contributions

Local and global missions

  1. We know our neighbors
  2. Our neighbors know us as a church the loves its neighborhood
  3. We understand our neighbors spiritual and physical needs
  4. The gospel proclaimed is adorned with the gospel performed
  5. Congregants are brave in their ministry – understanding the greatness of the gift of the gospel
  6. Congregants are creative in their service – seeking the help of the Spirit
  7. We provide financial and prayer support for missionaries around the globe
  8. Corporate celebrations of the faithfulness of our missionaries
  9. Missionaries spread the grace of God in unreached areas
  10. Some of our members feel the call to missionary service and are empowered by the church

At home and work

  1. Response to God’s grace extends beyond the church walls
  2. Individuals have meaningful times in the Lord’s presence throughout the week
  3. Parents lead their families in the presence of God throughout the week
  4. Devotional times are not rote, but enable us to know God and his great love
  5. Devotional times are rich in prayer
  6. Members are representatives of God’s grace in our families
  7. Members are representatives of God’s grace in our jobs
  8. Members are representatives of God’s grace in our places of recreation
  9. God’s sanctifying grace gives is victory over sin
  10. We apply God’s grace to every area of public and private life – seeking both personal righteousness and public justice
  11. Others are coming to faith, or deepening in their faith, because of personal witness
  12. Our homes are places of hospitality
  13. We know our neighbors
  14. We adorn God’s grace with good works
  15. We’re known as humble people
  16. We practice personally forgiveness and are freed from bitterness
  17. Our inner lives match our outer lives

Church culture

  1. If you look close, you see countless small acts of kindness, patience, and generosity
  2. Conflict is worked through with an aim towards reconciliation
  3. Each person considers others better than themselves
  4. We’re unified in the gospel of grace
  5. We love each other across differences
  6. Our tone and posture is first vertical (towards God) then outward (in mission)
  7. We steward the physical resources of the church as gifts of God’s grace

The list is incomplete. What would you add?

Dear church, What will define us?

What will define us as a church?

Churches could be, and are, known for many things: “That’s the political church.” “That’s the cool church.” “That’s the mega church.” “That’s the church with traditional worship.” They can be known for good things: biblical preaching, inspirational worship, or friendliness. Or they can be known for not so good things: decline, apathy, or scandal. Each church needs to reckon with their own identity, not just with how they are known, but with who they are, with what defines their center.

So do we.

For a long time, I believed that we are defined by what we do: We preach the Bible. We build community. We serve our neighbors. We proclaim the gospel. I defined myself by what I did, too, and by how well I did it. Too often, I still do. But my thinking has been shifting recently. It’s a shift from performance to grace.

What makes a Christian?

In our church tradition, we love to quote Ephesians 2:8: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” When it comes to salvation, we place grace at the center. From there it’s easy to fall into two traps – legalism or lawlessness.

In legalism, having been set free by God’s grace, we submit ourselves again to the yoke of slavery by establishing rigid rules. We’re saved by grace, but as far as we or anyone else is concerned, we’re defined by how well we conform to our rules.

In lawlessness, we rejoice in the grace of God and then go on to abuse it as a license to fulfill our own desires. We deny the transforming nature of grace. We say we’re defined by grace, but the “grace” we’re defined by is counterfeit. We’re not defined by grace after all, we use a caricature of it, but end up being defined by our own selfishness.

Jesus rejects both legalism and lawlessness. We’re saved by grace, transformed by grace, defined by grace, and we live by grace. And since grace is more than a concept, it’s more accurate to say that we’re saved by Jesus, transformed by Jesus, defined by Jesus, and we live by Jesus. Or, with Paul we can say “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

For the Christian, not only our salvation, but everything is grace. Everything is a gift: Our daily bread, our families, our resources, our skills, our breath, the community of faith, our perseverance, our holiness, the revelation of God in the Scriptures. All of it comes from the hand of a generous and good God. And, not only that perspective, but that reality, will work its way out. Grace is the heartbeat of the Christian life. Grace brings us to life and sustains us, so that not even death can separate us from the love of Christ.

What makes a Church?

As with the Christian, so the church. The church was birthed through grace and is sustained by grace. Jesus gave us life and the Spirit of grace sustains us. We’re animated by “Christ who is our life” (Colossians 3:4).

I’m saying nothing new or surprising. Of course, a church must be defined by Jesus. But I’ll submit to you that I believe we will be tempted to be drawn away from our Center. Or, perhaps, to drift away.

There’s a Presidential election coming in 2020. Will we be drawn away? Will we allow politics to define us?

We have some major capital improvement projects on the calendar. Will they define us?

We may stay the same size. We may grow. We may shrink. Will our size define us? Will it take center stage? (“We’re the growing and vibrant church” or “We’re the faithful few”, we always interpret in our favor.)

There will be challenges. There will be interpersonal conflict, differences of opinion, arguments over strategy, hard words. On those days, will there be evidence of God’s grace?

We’re finding ourselves more and more out of step with prevailing notions of morality. Will the culture war define us? Will we draw in for protection or push out in grace? Will we welcome or wall off?

Perhaps all will go well. Will we be drawn to pride? Will we come to believe that it was our power all along? Perhaps we will fail. Will we be begin to distrust the loving hand of our good father?

Weeds abound in this field, and they threaten to separate us from our Source, to make us unfruitful. It’s going to take tenacity and perseverance to keep Jesus the center.

Action which grows out of identity

By placing such a high premium on identity, I don’t mean to denigrate action or set aside mission. But identity must always be prior. The disciples had power because they had Jesus. They had authority because he gave it to them. Their mission grew out of the personal indwelling reality of Christ.

Grace comes in from the outside, it transforms our inner reality, and then it manifests itself in action. We see it and feel it. What does it look like? What does a church look like that has truly internalize the grace of God? That’s a future post.

Did Jesus speak in parables to be confusing?

Why did Jesus speak in parables? Did he use parables to make is abstract teaching concrete by connecting it to everyday life or did he use parables to intentionally obscure his teaching? Passages like Mark 4:11-12 make it seem like the second option:

He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “’they may be ever seeing, but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

This seems to contradict Mark 4:33 which says that Jesus spoke to the people in parables “as they could understand.” And, more significantly, 1 Timothy 2:3-4 which says, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Could it be that Jesus speaks in parables to intentionally prevent people “on the outside” from understanding and being forgiven?

Jesus the Prophet

Jesus’s language in Mark 4:11-12 is that of an Old Testament prophet so his words here are best understood in that light.

The word translated as “secret” in the NIV can also be translated as “mystery” (NASB). I prefer “mystery” because “secret” connotes something that should not be revealed. Secrets are meant to be kept. But for prophets, mysteries are meant to be revealed, in the proper way and time. A mystery, then, is a message that was hidden, but is now being revealed. Jesus is on a mission of disclosure as he says later in verse 22: “For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” However, he is disclosing his message in different ways to different people, directly to his disciples and through parables to the crowd.

Next we come to his quotation of Isaiah 6:9,10. God gave Isaiah an impossible task. God called him to be his messenger to wayward Israel, which was already under God’s judgment. Their hearts were hard and their necks were stiff against God’s word. At one level, God’s word could be a message of salvation, if it was accompanied with repentance. But, because they had already turned off their spiritual senses, they responded to Isaiah with only more hostility. In this way, God’s word was transformed into a word of judgment as the people became guilty of yet another rejection. Isaiah asked how long he would need to speak to deaf ears. God’s response: until his judgment was completed.

Jesus came into a very similar environment. The people had already rejected God so he know they would also reject his word. They would also reject his Son. For those closed off to him, his words intended to bring salvation would only bring more guilt. For those closed off to Jesus, everything about Jesus would be a riddle, a puzzle, a parable. They would see the outer layer but could never perceive it’s meaning. Jesus is speaking as a prophet, revealing the hearts of men.

Parables, then, function as a sort of filter. For those of the “good soil”, they are an open gate, an invitation to dig deeper. They reveal in a way that leads to further revelation. For others, they function as a wall. The word falls on soil and the devil comes and snatches it away. Jesus is offering a stern prophetic warning: “Whoever has ears, let them hear” (4:9).

Clarity doesn’t seem to effect response

This becomes clear when we realize that Jesus’s method doesn’t seem to really have a big impact on the response of his hearers. Jesus’s disciples, to whom he gave the most clarity, to whom he revealed the “mystery of the kingdom” are consistently the most spiritually blind in the book of Mark. They act more like the bad soils of Jesus’ parable than the good.

The experts of the law and the religious teachers, those with the most knowledge, saw Jesus’s miracles – a clear indication of his power – as the work of Satan.

But those who, from a human perspective, were “on the outside” respond with the most faith: lepers, the demon possessed, the Syrophoenician woman.

The parables in Mark 4 point to one of the mysteries of the kingdom: It’s growth and influence seems to defy logic. It is met with obstacles and enemies and still yields its crop. It starts out tiny, almost imperceptible, but grows to have massive influence. It has a power of its own, an internal vitality that works completely apart from human influence. Those we expect to respond, don’t. Those we don’t think will, display the greatest faith. All we can do is watch in expectation as it happens.

From the prophetic perspective, it’s unsurprising that the word will be rejected, what’s incredible is that despite all the obstacles, the word will not fail to produce a crop, an explosive harvest, for the life of the world.

Note: I’m primarily following the argument of William L. Lane in the NICNT Gospel of Mark commentary.

On Gun Control

I was asked the other day if I had ever blogged or spoken on the topic of gun control. While I’ve made fleeting references to it, I’ve never dedicated a post to it. The reason is simply this: My own position has been taking a while to solidify. It’s still not totally solid, but given the importance of the topic, I think it is worthwhile to sketch out a few of my thoughts on the topic.

What’s clear:

Gun violence is a horrific evil. Whether in the form of mass shootings, daily crime, or suicide, it rips bodies, lives, and families apart. All people of good faith – conservatives and liberals – want a more peaceful world and grieve whenever we hear yet another act of violence. News of violence should cause us to ask probing questions: Why is this happening? What can we do?

What can we do?

In polarized America, two overly simplistic narratives take center stage.

1) Gun violence is evil. We can solve gun violence with gun control. Therefore, anyone who opposes gun control must not really care whether or not people keep getting shot.

2) Gun violence is evil. Gun control won’t solve gun violence, or it will make it worse. Therefore, anyone who thinks we need gun control is stupid.

These are, of course, caricatures of the arguments, but in a Facebook and Twitter world, that’s about all we’re left with these days. The nuanced arguments are pushed to the side. The fringes get the press.

Most arguments hinge on the second part of the argument: Would gun control actually work to stem gun violence? (I’m setting aside the constitutional question for a moment). To answer that question we’ll need more than simplistic arguments, we’ll need data. I’m not an expert on this by any means, but I’d wager that some gun control ideas might work well, and others might be useless, unproductive, or even counter-productive.

Instead of asking the question: Will gun control work? Perhaps we should instead ask, Will this gun control measure work? To do this, we would need to set aside ideological bias and come to the specific policy proposal open to wherever the data and analysis leads. Approaching the question in this way values the Christian virtues of wisdom and truth.

Joe Carter’s recent FAQ on mass shootings provides an excellent example of this sort of moral reasoning. He concludes as follows: “[W]e must debate the issue in love by following the dictates of a biblically informed conscience that has been shaped by facts and evidence.”

What about the constitution?

I’m no constitutional expert. Ideally, we would find a way to address gun violence without infringing on citizens’ constitutional rights. I’ll leave interpretation to the courts. The answer is surely important and you probably have a strong opinion about this and want me to as well. Sorry to disappoint.

A weak “theological” argument

I want to address one overly simplistic argument I see on the religious right. It goes like this: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. The problem isn’t with the weapon. It’s with the human heart.”

I agree with one part of that argument: Evil finds its source in the human heart. No amount of external constraints is going to make people good. We will find a way to injure or harm one another. We’ll use our bare hands if we have to. That part is true.

But this argument dismisses two important truths: First, guns are not entirely neutral tools, but are designed for a purpose. Second, guns make it possible to kill a lot of people really quickly.

Guns didn’t make the Dayton or El Paso shooters evil, but they gave a lot of power to their evil. They made their evil far more destructive than if all they had had was a knife, a fist, or a rock. You’re not killing 9 people in 30 seconds with a rock. Could evil people still make bombs to kill a lot of people? Sure. Could they use airplanes as guided missiles? Sure. But it’s nevertheless true that in our country, guns are used to give lethal power to a lot of people who end up doing a lot of damage, to themselves or others.

If you want to argue against gun control because people are evil, then you need to also ask the question: If people’s hearts are evil, why are we so comfortable giving them the power to kill others so easily?

Finally, a note on Christians and guns

Whether Christians end up owning guns or not, Christians are called to be people of peace. We, of all people, should shun violence, return evil with good, and grieve over the victims of gun violence. We should love our neighbors and think deeply about how we can live in a more just and peaceful world. We should be a city on a hill and a lamp on the stand in the darkness and chaos of our world. Doing that might take a variety of forms – understanding and analyzing the data, proposing and supporting sensible legislation, providing emotional support for people with deep hurts, vigorously opposing ideologies that incite violence, or preaching the gospel of peace… until the Lord returns.

Presence precedes activity

I’ve been thinking all week about Mark 3:14-15.

He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. Mark 3:14-15

Specifically, I’ve about the sequence in this verse. Notice what comes first in Jesus’s call: “that they might be with him.” The disciples’ mission – to preach and cast out demons – came later. Drawing near preceded sending out. Presence preceded activity.

I’ve started reading Skye Jethani’s book With this week. Jethani talks about four common ways of relating to God: Life over God, life from God, life under God, and life for God. Those who relate to God with a posture of being over God seek to control life apart from God. The “life from God” posture seeks God primarily for the blessings that he gives, like in the prosperity gospel. Those with an under God posture relate to God primarily as a rule-giver. They tend to have a moralistic view of religion.

The most celebrated of these four postures is the for God. Those with this posture want to do amazing things for God, to live a life of meaning and purpose. Certainly, Scripture calls us to mission just as he called his disciples to preach the good news and to cast out demons and called the Apostle Paul to preach to the Gentiles.

But Jethani points us to a more fundamental posture than the other four: Life with God. Before we relate to God as a rule-giver or as the One who sends us out to “change the world” we must first be with him. This is the story from Genesis to Revelation and everything in between: Life in the garden with God, Jesus coming to dwell with us, the Spirit taking up residence in our hearts, the New City, the dwelling place of God, descending to earth.

For me this is a call to pause and commune with God, a reminder that before I do work for Jesus, I must first be with Jesus.

The Most Interesting Thing: Digital Minimalism

Big Idea: What makes digital tech addictive isn’t what makes it useful

Source: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

More: Many tech companies operate in the “attention economy” where your time equals their money. These companies invest a lot of resources in keeping your eyeballs on their products, on keeping your attention. But while this means more money for them, it’s behaviorally addictive for you, keeping you from more meaningful social connections and work.

Cal Newport isn’t against technology, but he’s critical of the uncritical way we have adopted it. Social media does have value for some people, but not compared to the time the average person is putting into it. Newport’s suggestion is to start with our core values and then only adding in digital technology as it pertains to those core values, replacing those hours on line with more life-giving tasks.

Why is this interesting to me: I sense in myself that psychological addiction and I don’t like its effect on my life.

Critique: While Newport doesn’t write from a Christian perspective, his emphasis on core values, meaningful leisure, social engagement, and the practice of solitude resonates deeply with key tenants of the Christian tradition. I think many Christians would be more effective in their spiritual lives if they adopted his Digital Minimalism philosophy. Personally, this has been a year of making adjustments in how I engage or don’t engage online.

Book Recommendation

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World