My Struggle With Obediance

“I just needed to obey the Lord without understanding, and obedience is hard for me”: this is a not-unusual testimony heard at churches across the U.S. Whether it’s going to a foreign country, giving a donation, or making job change, obedience to God is a popular subject for both those giving testimonies and preachers exhorting us to follow God. There’s always a knowing smile and a reaction from the congregation who collectively admits this is part of the human condition: we want to be our own people and obedience is not in our nature. Preachers are quick to add this attitude to the list of things wrong with post-modernism.

My problem is that I’m not generally one of the “knowing smile” crowd who nudges my neighbor. I struggle with obedience, but not in the same way, and I wonder if maybe I’m not alone? Because my struggle is that I like to have someone tell me the answers and I like to have a direction. I’m a planner, and nothing beats a plan, even if it isn’t a particularly good one. So when someone in authority tells me “here’s what we’re going to do”, my natural inclination is to obey.

I’m assuming there are some people who really know me reading this blog and are now thinking “What? Jeff questions everything! This doesn’t sound like him at all!” Well, that is true, but I don’t see questioning as the same thing as disobedience. Many times I will raise objections or questions, but then do what I’m told. Thinking for myself is something that is ingrained in me, but obedience is also something that comes naturally. I just need to be heard.

After doing some self-examination, I’ve seen that my desire to obey is really the opposite side of the same coin as those self-autonomous types who have to control everything. While their sin might be one of self-centeredness, mine is more about not wanting to take responsibility when things get hard. The idea of “covering” (a model preached by many which says you obey your pastor/authority so that if something bad happens, it falls on him rather than you) really resonates with my emotions because I like the idea that there is someone who can take the hits if the decisions are wrong. As attractive as that is, though, I think it’s a sin to desire such an arrangement. God wants me to be a person of responsibility who doesn’t abdicate my decisions to other “authorities”. He gave me emotions and a brain to use, not to let sit useless. Which is not to say there shouldn’t be authorities in my life, just that I need to not hand them all the keys of my life.

I’m being completely honest that when I hear people say “God wanted me to do xyz and I didn’t want to obey”, it doesn’t resonate at all. If I’m ever certain I know what God wants, neither hell nor high water is going to keep me from doing it. Why would I? If the God of the universe plans for something, I’m on board by default. Where I struggle is knowing what he wants. I know the principles in scripture, but sometimes making an application in real life to situations is a challenge. And so enters the church and Christians to help and give perspective. But of course the church and Christians are fallible, which is the rub. The key is discernment about when what others are saying is true to God’s will, and when it is counter. And this is where I have an issue: I fear I’ve often been too obedient to men claiming to know God’s will who turned out to be wrong.

You see, for me (and maybe others?), the struggle isn’t about wanting to be self-made and having autonomy, it’s over learning how to detect when someone is giving me false orders. This was painfully pronounced when I was going through the divorce. For those who know my story, I almost wrecked myself trying to stay in a destructive marriage because of the teaching of my church and prominent, respected Christian teachers like John Piper. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say “Why do you care what they think?” as if it should have been an easy thing to just ignore the authority figures in my life and make a decision based on my own understanding. And if I said so, they just get wide eyed at the idea that I saw my pastors as authority figures.

But I’ve been fed over an over again that the heart is deceitful and I must not lean on my own understanding. Therefore, every negative feeling or thought I had was, in my mind, sin trying to trick me. My pastors and the teachers I read were the truth. I needed to obey, not listen to my own heart. I really had gotten to the point that I thought faith could only be demonstrated by acting against what I felt in my heart.

What I learned through that experience was that this is not a good way to look at faith. In fact, I would say faith is more about our hearts being transformed so that what is in them is what God wants, not establishing rules to follow in spite of our feelings. I’ve also learned that feelings are important markers that we must consider. They can help us detect when something is wrong, off, or painful. That doesn’t mean we fly by the seat of our pants and go where the winds of emotion blow us; we were given minds as well. But it does mean we weigh both what we feel and what others tell us.

I don’t think obedience is bad. There are probably many people whose biggest struggle is to move away from their self focus long enough to listen to the wise counsel of others. They need to be rebuked and sermons to exhort them to open up their minds. But what I don’t hear very often are sermons for people like me: people who like to obey to the point of following poor leaders. Surely God cares for us too and wants us to know how to determine the difference between authority worth trusting and authority we must reject? When and how can we listen to what our internal systems are telling us? Because really, I’m still trying to work it out.

I wish I had an answer for knowing how to balance obedience and listening to my internal voice. It would be easy for me to just reject those who would speak truth into my life, but I know I must not do that. I do know that I need more discernment than I had before because even the most well meaning folks can teach some very dangerous things, especially if they are ignorant of the subject (destructive marriages fall into this category).

So obedience is a struggle for me. A struggle because my nature is to obey too much rather than too little. It’s led to some very dark places, but it’s something I’m actively working on. I think I’m not alone in this, so I’m hopeful others like me may be encouraged to know they aren’t the only ones either.

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Are We Worthy?

On the “Love Without Fear” FB page I recently linked a Ted Talk from Brene Brown about vulnerability. Her thesis is that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who are always trying to overcome their weaknesses and those who are willing to accept their own imperfection. Her research shows that it is the second group who finds fulfillment in the midst of life’s struggles, which is no surprise to me given that a foundational truth of the Christian faith is that we have to be honest about our sinful condition and admit that we need the work of Christ in our lives. We are incapable of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and attaining goodness by trying harder. So she says the road to fullfilment begins with embracing our worthiness.

Wait . . . “worthiness“?

Hmmm, that doesn’t sound very Evangelical, and especially not Reformed. We are not inherently good, so how can we be considered worthy? All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and the wages of sin is death. We are not worthy of heaven. We have earned spiritual death, not entrance into the family of God. So is Brown’s talk at odds with the way the Bible describes the human condition?

I don’t think so, and I think this line of thinking (which I engaged in the first time I heard the talk) illustrates a very narrow sense in which some Christians think about themselves. I think we are worthy in the sense that Brown means it, and the concept is thoroughly Biblical. The first question we have to answer is, worthy of what? Here is a quote from Brown where she is explicit (emphasis mine):

You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.

Some might read her words as so much psychobabble, but in fact I would counter that this concept is the core of how we should look at the human condition. We were created for connection, not just to God but to other people. We were created for love, to both give and to receive it. Both Paul and Jesus make this the highest command and summation of the law: to give love to God and one another. So I think it’s clear we were created to need love and belonging, but are we worthy of it?

I think the answer is clearly yes. In creation, God created man in his own image. While we have been marred by the introduction of sin into the world, we still are all image bearers of our Creator, which means we still retain that value- or worthiness if you will. If people did not have worth, there would be no point to “justice”, yet this word is used over and over again in the Old Testament. Justice is giving people their “due”, which means punishing the wicked and elevating the oppressed. If the image of God was completely stamped out, if people have no worth at all because they are utterly depraved, then there is no point to justice. But that isn’t what the Bible teaches. Though sin touched every part of us (which is what “total depravity” is all about), it did not destroy our inherent worth, and so God commands over and over again to make places for the “windows and orphans,” for the “aliens”, and the poor. Why? Because they are human beings still stamped with the image of God. They are worthy of love and belonging.

And, as Brown suggests, the way in which we search for that love and belonging can bring us joy, or it can make us miserable. If we start at a place where we fear unworthiness and work to make up the difference, we’ll think we have to be better, stronger, more beautiful, have more money, and be more successful. But when we step back and say, “I am worthy of love and belonging even though I’m weak and imperfect”, then we can embrace connections with others (and ultimately God) far more easily. Belief that we have worth in our imperfection allows us to be vulnerable about our weakness, which ultimately leads to the road of accepting the love of Jesus to remove that imperfection.

We ARE worthy, worthy of love and belonging. It’s how we were put together and part of who we are as human beings. Brown is completely on point with this, even if at first blush it seems to be contradictory to some of our evangelical language. But in the final analysis, it is the world that says we must overcome our weakness and never admit to failure; it is the Gospel that says God loved us so much that he sent his son to die for our sins. And because we are loved, we know that we have worth. It is the Gospel that reveals our worthiness.

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Coming Out Of The Egalitarian Closet

When I write “love without fear”, a large part of what I mean is the love I have in my life, flowing from Christ, that gives me that ability to reveal things about myself that I’ve been scared to say publicly in the past. The Gospel frees us to be honest and open, even when what we say isn’t popular (and even when we get it wrong). So I think it fitting to take a topic that has been a struggle for me because of its controversial nature, and just be honest about what I now believe. It might turn some folks off from my blog right away, but that’s kind of the point: I don’t need approval because I already have it. I’m not a perfect man with perfect beliefs, but Jesus accepts me anyway and his grace enables me to be honest on the outside about what goes on inside.

When it comes to gender roles, it seems there has been a lot of volatile discussion lately in the church. While the mainline’s have largely adopted a model of equal leadership between men and women, many evangelicals believe that to allow women to lead in the church or at home is to deny the divine authority of scripture. It has become a high stakes doctrine, with even the nature of the Trinity itself becoming a part of the conversation.

For those unfamiliar with the terminology, there are really three basic terms I hear tossed out (though obviously there are a lot more variations on these themes):

  • Patriarchy- the belief that men are the leaders of families and churches, and what they say goes. Generally implied is that men are superior to women, though many will deny this.
  • Complementarianism- very strongly asserts that men and women are equals, but that they have different, complementary roles. One of the female roles is to submit and one of male roles is to lead. There is a wide spectrum of definition of gender roles within this camp, but even the loosest of Complementarians will say that the husband is the head of the wife and women may not serve as elders in the church.
  • Egalitarian- believe that there is no hierarchy based on gender. Husband and wife are to be mutually submissive. Leadership, both at home and in the church, is based on gifting, not gender.

I am not going to go into the scriptural arguments for each of these. The strong advocates of Complementarianism will say that scripture is clearly on their side, and for a long time I believed them. But after having seen the damage that gender hierarchy can do and reading/studying the Bible, I am not longer convinced. In fact, I strongly believe that Egalitarianism is the only view consistent with the character of God as revealed in the scripture. I believe that unless you interpret limitations placed on women written the Bible as aimed at the the culture rather than as for-all-time commands, you end up with contradictory teachings.

So that is where I am. I suspect that many of my friends in the church will think that I’m bowing to the culture, but that’s really far from the truth. In fact, I would say that our culture is still very male dominated. There are feminists working tirelessly for women’s rights, and good for them! Women SHOULD be treated as equals. We’re making progress, but we aren’t there yet. So it isn’t the world I’m trying to please. It is God, and my goal is to love as he loves.

My journey on this road started a bit after my divorce. Ironically, I probably felt the sting of male headship in my marriage more than my ex-wife. I took “servant leadership” to heart (that a husband should love his wife the way Christ loved the church), and in many ways my desire to serve in that way put me in an unhealthy place. The reality is, while a husband should love his wife sacrificially, he cannot save her; only Jesus is Savior. I don’t really regret my actions: when I re-marry, I plan to continue to be a servant to my future wife, and I plan to lead her where I am gifted. Yet, there was a time in our marriage where my ex-wife said “This is your responsibility because you are the leader. This mistake is your fault.” I took the blame because it was my gender role.

Now, clearly my marriage was an unhealthy one and gender roles, if they are God’s design, were not being lived out. So that wasn’t the nail in the coffin of Complementarianism for me; it merely opened the door for me to question. And I did question.

As I began to heal, a part of that process was getting involved in the wonderful blog A Cry For Justice (the leaders of which, as far as I know, are still very much Complementarian). When I was blogging and commenting on that site, I saw how damaging gender roles had been in the lives of so many women. This pulled at my heartstrings even more. Now, I understand that Complementarians will say that these were not normal cases, that it was gender roles gone wrong. I get that, and again, this did not convince me. But it did prompt me to dive deeper. I began to wonder if it is truly possible for a women to be considered equal in her being while being assigned a more limited role also tied to her being (because gender IS a part of our being).

I ended up studying the arguments for and against gender roles. I listened to a lot of Complementarians defend their views, and the more I listened, the more they convinced me they were in error. I’ve joked privately that the greatest apologist for the Egalitarian view is John Piper, as almost all of his defenses of male headship (including an example of a woman being careful about she asks directions from a male stranger so as not to usurp his authority) sounded more and more logically flawed. Tim and Kathy Keller are the softest Complementarians you will hear (and I greatly respect Tim’s teaching), and yet they can’t even really define what male headship means in any practical sense (except maybe that the male gets a “tie breaking” vote).

Finally, after listening to as much Complementarian teaching as I could handle, I tried reading some of the Egalitarian defenses. I started the book Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementary Without Heirarchy which I came to believe made a lot more logical and Biblical sense than the Complementarian teaching I’d read. In the end, it comes down to a question for me: can women be considered equal in their being when they are limited by that same being? And logically, the answer is no, at least by my rational. And the implications of that pulled at my heart, because if we are treating women as inferiors when God made them as equals, we are in great sin.

And yet, I currently attend a PCA church, a denomination that was created because of a split decision over female leadership in the church. How can I worship at a church that teaches something differently than I believe? If I truly believe that women should have equal opportunity for leadership in the church, am I damaging the cause by staying in a church that doesn’t allow it?

I honestly wrestled with this, but the conclusion I’ve come to is that there is a very clear instruction in scripture that sometimes we do have to live by imperfect rules for the sake of community. In fact, if my view of Paul’s instruction on male headship is correct, his direction on this very issue was to live out a less than ideal gender hierarchy for the sake of peace and ministry. And that, I can do. I can meet my brothers and sisters at the Cross with our different views if they are willing to meet me. In the meantime, I can pray for the church to change and women to be given the positions their giftings warrant.

And in my home, where my future wife and I decide, we will live out our beliefs about gender roles in an Egalitarian fashion. We have already started while dating, and what is interesting is we still adhere to and enjoy gender roles. I pay for most of our dinners and open car doors, and she loves it when my “take charge” side comes out. But we fill these roles because we choose to, not because of our genders. And the difference is amazing. She lights up when I recognize that she is the better leader in an area, and she loves to serve me when the time is right, as I love to serve her.

It has been a long journey on this topic, and this post is not about making an argument for Egalitarianism. I doubt I will change any minds. But what I do want people to know is that this is where study and prayer has led me, and maybe if we dialog about our differences (rather than me staying silent and in fear) we can all learn something from one another.

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Love Without Fear

So here’s a new blog- what’s the deal? What is this going to be about, and what can readers expect? What do I mean by “Love Without Fear”?

Quite simply, my life has changed over the last several years, and this blog is an attempt to share the great benefits of the work God has done in my life. I’ve gone from a damaging marriage, to a broken spirit, to a healing man, to an empowered believer with confidence and strength. Along the way God has done great things to me and through me. When I thought I was alone, he brought me to A Cry For Justice and I learned that I was not the only one hurt by the evangelical church. I also learned that I didn’t have to give up my evangelical faith to gain freedom. But God wasn’t done with me yet. He had even more ahead of me.

For a long time I lived in fear. Even once I was out of my destructive marriage, I worried that if I didn’t believe the right things or have the right public image, people would reject me. I’d already been judged enough by Christians when I divorced, I didn’t want those who still accepted me to abandon me when they got to know the real me. I didn’t even realize I was in fear, but looking back I see how it crippled me. I kept quiet when I disagreed and tried my best to go along.

And then I met someone.

This is not a “you complete me” post or anything like that. She was not my savior and I work very hard to never put anyone in that position. But she did give me a gift, a gift I will always treasure: she was (and is) “for” me. She accepts me and gives me room to work out all of my struggles. Suddenly, no matter what happens, I know I have someone in my corner. That makes all the difference in the world.

I’ve believed in the Gospel as long as I’ve known what it was: that because God loved me he sent Jesus to free me from the effects of death and sin. That is the content of the Gospel and it is good news indeed. But I’ve only known the effects of this acceptance in a limited fashion until now. And then recently, in his mercy God has provided someone to allow me to experience that kind of grace in a flesh and blood, tangible way. How good he is.

My soon-to-be-wife is not a perfect woman, and I am certainly not a perfect man. She injures me from time to time, as I injure her. But whatever has come along, she has been behind me, accepting the rough bits and encouraging the good bits. She has been Jesus with skin on, because ultimately it is Jesus who has accepted me as I am. I cannot tell you what that does. It gives me strength like I’ve never known before.

She and I have had so many positive, encouraging discussions. We’ve talked about boundaries, relationships, John Lennon’s “Imagine” and countless other topics. We’ve disagreed about big church vs small church and we’ve wrestled with sermon’s together. And through all of it, I come out a better man. I am encouraged as I get to explore and be refined while we bump up against one another in our thoughts and ideas.

And there is SO much life here that I just cannot keep it inside. We can’t keep it contained to just the two of us. We are experiencing a freedom that is in no-way beholden to a romantic relationship- the basis of our joy is acceptance and encouragement, not romance. (the romance is great too- I just don’t think anyone wants to read a blog about it!) And so I want to share what we’ve experienced with whoever needs that kind of life. I hope for what God has graced us with to spill out into the pages of this blog.

The result of the Gospel should be a love without fear. We should be confident that we are accepted and loved, and as Christians it is our duty to live that out for one another. I don’t have all the answers, and finding some of them will be the work of this blog. But if there’s anything I want people to know, it’s this: there is such thing as love without fear, and you can experience it. Better yet, you can give it. You can be Jesus to those around you by accepting them and allowing them to be who they are, wherever they are on the journey of sanctification.

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