The final session of the Gods at War series by Kyle Idleman presented the claim that all of the other idols covered in the series came down to one root idol: ourselves. That, fundamentally, we must choose between serving, trusting, and giving glory to God or to ourselves. That no matter what form the worship of self takes, it is ultimately about a rejection of the one true God and an elevation of self as the ultimate end of all we do. There was a lot wrapped up in this, but one question stood out specifically to me: have you ever chose not to pursue something because you felt it would lead you further from God? For the first time in this series, rather than God using my past errors to show me what this means, He reminded me of how great it is to serve Him rather than me. But I did not learn that lesson quickly.
I don't know if you know this about me, but nearly every federal election cycle hosts a temptation for me. Now, this is partly a religious thing, a desire to see someone in office who stands for the values I stand for without adding in a bunch of stuff I really cannot abide. But when I'm being honest, that isn't my primary motivation. Mostly it's that I have anarchist tendencies (when I'm being more generous and less angry they can be disguised well as libertarian leanings) and a pride issue and this makes me want to get into the government and start tearing things down and rebuilding it in a way that would actually work. Because, obviously, I'm so great and clever that I could do that better than any of the jokers we keep electing. I now know, on a practical level, that this is nonsense and the process would hurt a lot of people, but no one ever said our temptations had to be good or sensible things.
Understand, it isn't that running for office is a bad thing, it's that my heart wants it for bad reasons. If I go into politics, I can let myself believe that I'm saving the world and doing it my way. But ministry, which I have been called to, doesn't allow that. Ministry has a knack for reminding people that we are just servants participating in God's work, and his plans are far better than ours. When I am fighting off the temptation to turn astray from my calling to pursue public office, I am fighting off a very direct idol of self and trying to reject following and trusting God. This will look different for all of us, but we must not give in to whatever it is that pulls our affection away.
By the time I moved from Norwood to Amherst in 2009, I knew that my future involved church planting. I didn't know what that would look like, I didn't know where it would happen, I didn't even know how to start exploring that fact. But it was a fact, I knew that somewhere deep in my soul. God's process of working on me had kept coming back around to this, it was constantly on my mind, and even though our brief and poorly-handled church planting attempt in Norwood went belly up within a few months, the act of being there for it just burned a desire and joy into me that has never really left. And as I spent time looking at what would be required of me to run for office, campaigning around an area that at the time occupied nearly half of Massachusetts and doing interviews and filling out paperwork and raising money, I was forced to realize that I didn't have time to both run a successful campaign and invest in my church in the way I needed to. I had to choose.
I never turned the paperwork in.
In 2017, I was invited to preach at my friend's church in Vermont while he was out of town. He gave me a passage to preach that would lead into a series he would be starting the following week. The actual message I preached was about taking seriously the fact that we, as Christians, are representatives of Christ and the things we obsess over tell the secular world what God obsesses over. The things we oppose tell the world what God opposes. Do we represent Him well? Do we showcase in all that we do that our trust is in Him and His grace, rather than governments or armies or even our own works? When we advertise what it means to be a Christian, are we making more noise about God's love and grace or His judgment and law? In the service they had done a congregational reading of the ten commandments and so I asked, how quick are we to beg with tears that monuments of the ten commandments stay posted in our town squares as a sign of our faith, and how does that compare to how quickly we preach the gospel to the homeless who sleep under those monuments? Are we as serious about the things Jesus described about what a Christian life looks like as we are about the rules? What do you think the world believes about the gospel when all they hear is rules?
Now my friend and I have joked about the fact that, afterward, there were emails about that sermon. I got emails about that sermon. He got emails about that sermon. These were not terribly encouraging emails. I haven't been back to his church. The real reason is that my family moved two hours away and I got pretty busy with another church so the opportunity just hasn't been there as much, but when we ran into each other at the Small Town Summit I joked that it was because of the emails we got from that sermon. My pastor sat in on the sermon and when he heard about the emails he told my friend that he wasn't really surprised. It truly is an act of grace that my pastor let me preach at our church after that.
But in one of those emails, a member of his church asked me what he seemed to think would be a gotcha question. "If you knew that being elected would ensure that you could stop abortion right now," he asked, "and save the lives of so many precious little ones, would you do it?" He was trying to get me to confess to a certain reliance on political power that I had condemned in the sermon, and oh, how tempting that question was. Not only because I am pro-life, but ever since the 2016 election I had been struggling even more with the temptation to get elected and burn the whole system down from inside. This guy was pushing exactly the right button, and I realized it wasn't an accident. So I prayed before I replied.
"I would not run," I answered. "Not because I do not value that cause, because I do value it; but because God has called me to a different path and I would rather turn down a great work than refuse that which God has commanded." I hit send and never heard from that guy again. And that moment has given me great comfort ever since.
I tell you all that so I can tell you this: nothing in my life has brought more joy, peace, and growth than following the road God has chosen for me. Whenever I have sought after my own will, He has reminded me of His call and forced me to make a choice. Idleman noted that God consistently does this throughout scripture and in our own lives. He will not share us with any other lovers, and whatever we choose apart from Him, he will ensure that we must make a choice at some point. He did it in my life when I was seeking political power. He did it in my life when I wanted to give up on Boston and go back to PA but knew that doing so would ensure I fell right back into the same vices and idols I'd been chasing after before He started His intensive work in my life. He did it when I was pursuing a degree in Astrophysics and realized the only school I could reasonably apply to would be a two-hour drive one way and my wife and I came to the conclusion that if I was going to sacrifice my entire day between classes and commuting I better be certain that it is to pursue what God has for me. I do, as it turns out, drive two hours one way to school now during semesters when I'm enrolled in classes; but the degree I'm working toward is pastoral ministry with a minor in church planting.
When people ask me why I feel called to serve in full-time ministry I usually tell them that God has told us as much, and has confirmed that calling multiple times. What I don't mention as often is that He has also made it very clear that I don't belong anywhere else. Any time I go off and start trying to make my own plans and serve my own interest about things that I think will make me feel important and powerful and successful at forging my own path and saving the world because obviously I'm really equipped to be the savior of the world, He makes me choose. And each time, I have to stop and look at the door I'm trying to force open and be reminded of the one He's put my name on, and I have to let go.
And it gets easier. There are things I still struggle with and I'm sure there always will be, but they're diminishing and changing. As I have matured and grounded my joy on Christ more, I have found myself pushing off in my own direction less often. Because in the end, none of my attempts to make my life work by my rules ever brought me lasting joy or peace. Just look at the rest of the posts in this series and see a sampling of the pain I've endured and inflicted on others through my quest for self-fulfillment. When I serve me first, I can drift off into becoming a true monster, and it isn't worth it. Are you any different, really? Does your idolatry of self improve your life and soul and mind any more than mine has?
The Leader's Guide had us close the final session with Psalm 16, and while the whole psalm is worth consideration, I want to highlight two verses as I end my thoughts on this series.
I said to the LORD, "You are my Lord;
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a number of Christian denominations had to wrestle with the role of scripture in the revelation of truth. The primary camps this usually fell into were those who held that the Bible was fully true in both its concepts and facts (called inerrancy), and those that held it was only fully true in its concepts. The former, for instance, would hold that Jonah literally spent time in the belly of a whale or great fish, while the latter would hold that the lesson taught by Jonah's story was important but the details were probably fictional. The SBC's turn to wrestle with these issues began with commentaries and books published as early as 1961, but kicked into a real fight in 1979. Guided by men including Paige Patterson, Adrian Rogers, and Paul Pressler, the churches which held to inerrancy (which was the vast majority of them) sent messengers to the SBC annual meetings and elected Convention Presidents and entity trustees who also held to inerrancy, thereby slowly shifting the seminaries and ministries of the SBC in a conservative direction. The matter was considered functionally resolved with the publishing of the updated Baptist Faith and Message in 2000. Most of those who opposed inerrancy left the denomination.
During the controversy, nearly everything had to be called into question. People seeking to keep their jobs while opposing the shift were very careful about their wording to suggest that they believed in the truth of scripture while avoiding making any solid statements on the details of scripture. Those who considered themselves liberal or moderate described the conservatives as lusting after power and causing unnecessary division in the denomination just to claim control. Some churches that seem to have actually agreed with the inerrantists ended up opposing them out of a belief that the resurgence or takeover was about a political agenda rather than a doctrinal difference. Those who took the side of the conservatives, which ended up winning the day, were those who saw past careful wording or caricatures to look for the doctrinal root of everything that was being said and done. An entire generation started as children, went to Bible college and/or seminary, and then took posts at Baptist churches and colleges during the controversy. That generation, and the one that was leading the controversy, spent over two decades training to see the world along very specific doctrinal lines and to look for the opposition that wore the masks of allies. This was necessary, the whole fight was necessary in my opinion, because ultimately the cause of inerrancy warranted a defense and this was the defense that needed to arise at that time.
The problem comes when you take combat strategies into a time of peace.
So what does that have to do with the letter, or my earlier post about the Founders Ministry dispute? The short answer is that a generation who views the world in terms of finding hidden enemies will always see enemies hiding among their friends.
The Controversy taught that generation that any difference in belief or practice is a signpost indicating a deeper attack on scripture. Those who raise questions about how the SBC handles things are trying to undermine the work of the Controversy Generation in reestablishing the authority of scripture. Those who come from a different perspective and therefore see a different application for the truths of scripture are substituting secular ideologies for the gospel. Every doctrinal or practical difference that can be associated with a different treatment of scripture must be viewed as an attack on inerrancy.
And this is what Patterson was expressing in his letter. Whether conscious or not, the fear was that minority pastors, who have a tendency to view the SBC and the Bible in light of a different set of life experiences than white pastors, are in fact interpreting the Bible as subject to those experiences. That the interpretation of scripture does not begin with the claim that the Bible is factually true and the ultimate source of truth, but rather that the truth claims of scripture can and should be measured against a different standard. This is the same complaint of Founders Ministries, and the same fear that pushes against reform in the treatment of abuse victims, and the same understanding that led John MacArthur to misrepresent the actions voted on by the SBC over this past summer, and the same standard that demanded Kanye West to display a certain level of doctrinal maturity before his conversion can be seen as valid. It is present in churches, ministries, schools, conferences, and online spaces. And the thought process can be shown by example.
Liberation Theology is a school of thought largely held in black churches and present among other minorities that sees a certain relationship between the slavery to sin and the slavery of their ancestors (and/or ongoing issues and oppression they face), and therefore read the liberation from sin and its effects as a particularly notable promise in their lives. While individual views may vary, the core idea of the theology is that freedom in Christ is an important aspect of the gospel that has specific and unique application in their lives. Patterson's letter does not cite the existence of this framework as part of his concern, it is merely being used as an example. Detractors of liberation theology, however, view the emphasis on freedom from sin as a replacement for penal substitutionary atonement (the belief that the primary purpose of the death of Christ is to take on the weight of our sin on our behalf) and, as such, a false gospel. And, of course, a false gospel must come from a different read of scripture; and a different read of scripture, to the Controversy Generation, is probably a sign that inerrancy is being denied. Therefore, by this logic, allowing liberation theology to have a place in the SBC is a challenge to inerrancy and a reversal of the Controversy's achievements. That some opponents also believe the claims of ongoing oppression are false is relevant when it comes up, but on a doctrinal level this is the actual issue.
But this mindset, while a very good tool during the fight for inerrancy, causes more problems than it solves when it is applied to differences that do not come from the issue of inerrancy. Black people who hold to liberation theology, by and large, are not wrestling with what the gospel actually is or how the Bible defines it; they are wrestling with what that gospel looks like as it interacts with their lives and communities. Disputes about the nature of the manifested Kingdom of God do not generally arise from a dismissal of the authority of scripture, but from different attempts to piece together the authoritative clues that scripture contains. Allowing for the use of secular tools designed to help victims of abuse is rarely an attempt to reject the Spirit speaking through scripture as the primary means of healing, but an attempt to understand what specific needs a victim may have and therefore what parts of scripture or aspects of the gospel will best speak to those needs, and how to apply them in a healthy manner. But when these issues are handled with the mindset instilled in the Controversy Generation, the natural response is to oppose good things being handled by righteous servants of God out of fear that anything different is an attack in disguise. This pushes people away who are actually allies, causes continued pain in people who come to the church seeking healing and find only rejection, and damages our witness to those watching how we shoot at each other over every minor dispute.
Brothers, this cannot stand. I have said before that I support the work carried out by inerrantists during the Controversy, and I stand by that; I also believe it is necessary to see the impact the Controversy has had on the people who fought in it, and the ways their scars can cause unnecessary division now. We have had to fight for inerrancy before, and it is possible we shall have to again; but the question right now is what a church that holds to inerrancy will look like in a hurting world coming to grips with a host of problems that are being brought into the light. If we will not fight the battles that really exist because we are too focused on those fought decades ago, we will face a much greater loss than the roughly 1,900 churches who left during the Controversy. It is time to lay these weapons down, pick up the scriptures we fought so hard for, and begin exploring what it looks like to live them out today.
"But to the extent evangelicals despise the small places, we will fail them. We cannot serve what we despise."
The answer to the first question is essentially that small places are both better and worse than the picture our assumptions about them may paint. These first few chapters explore the unique problems, opportunities, and cultural tendencies that small places offer. It also defines the concept of small places, for the purposes of the book, to be "countryside and communities that are relatively small in population, influence, and economic power" (22). Witmer draws from available surveys and data, as well as his own experiences in both rural Maine and small town Massachusetts, to explore the current condition of small places and the ways the gospel may interact with them. While he regularly refers back to the role of the church in interacting with various aspects of small place life, this section is very clearly aimed more at description than application. The goal could best be described as helping the reader see small places the way God sees them. After all, doing so is the only way to honestly answer his first major question about what small places are like. This focus is presented as part of building his argument, which continues in the second section.
"A theological vision for ministry to small places must recognize the deep sinfulness, brokenness, and complexity of people everywhere, in places big and small."
The second section of the book begins to look for application. Witmer encourages the practice of establishing a theological vision in ministry, and points to the example of Tim Keller's vision for cities as a guiding post. Where the first section guides the reader to see small places as God sees them, the second section challenges the reader to love small places the way God loves them.
He then begins to apply the gospel and the examples in scripture to our models of ministry, arguing that the strategy of God is not always the strategies men would choose and that there is value in the small and slow. This section closes out with a chapter encouraging readers to invest in the place where they are and discussing how that looks different in a small place than in a big place, and then a chapter addressing some of the personal struggles that can make small-place ministry difficult to carry out over the long term.
Finally, the third section answers the question, "should I minister in a small place," with a call to ask ourselves a series of clarifying questions. It raises good and bad reasons to go to small places, as well as good and bad reasons not to. Rather than telling the reader to go to small places, it provides guidance on how to determine where God is calling the reader and encouragement to serve there faithfully.
"Churches and ministers who live outside the circle, who ignore their community, will also be ignored by their community."
While the book does allow for its definition of small places to include isolated neighborhoods within cities, much of the language of the book assumes a rural or small-town context. Personally, I found much of it easily applicable to the small and forgotten city where I grew up, a place that cannot be described as rural or a small town in any sense but qualifies as a small place because it had lost most of its population and all of its economic power when the steel industry collapsed. I would encourage readers to focus on what Witmer says about these places and allow them to paint the picture he is trying to present rather than limiting focus to the most overt examples he includes.
Overall, I believe Witmer achieved the goal stated in the introduction. He answers all three of his guiding questions in thorough, detailed, and considerate ways that allow application to all kinds of small places without falling into the trap of assuming they are all the same. Most importantly, he maintains his gospel focus throughout the book. Not only is he concerned with us carrying the gospel wherever we are, he takes the time to clarify the content of that gospel and pours much ink on the role of the gospel in forming us as we work.
"But if the Bible’s clear articulation of the gospel doesn’t shape our thinking, our thinking will fashion our own self-generated gospel, one that conforms to our own expectations."
As someone who has spent most of his life in small places but has in recent years begun to buy into big place emphasis, the book was personally challenging to me. Ultimately, the book performs well at both challenging anyone who has devalued small-place ministry (whether engaged in it or not) and encouraging those who have committed to it. It is my opinion that this is a resource that should be in a great many Christian minds, whether in professional ministry or as a layperson seeking to carry out God's personal calling. Every member of the church has reason to ask the following question Witmer presents, and to consider the guidance he offers in helping to answer it.
"What if we considered this question: How is our church uniquely contributing to the universe-wide display of God’s character expressed in the gospel of Jesus Christ?"
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The video narrator was the late Chuck Colson, who worked his way up to becoming a personal aide of President Nixon and was one of the people who went to prison in the wake of Watergate. He fits the mold of what we may most easily envision for someone who treats power as an idol: driven, quickly rising through the ranks of his chosen field, a known leader and power player on a stage few of us can ever manage to even reach. The questions, however, focused on helping us connect to Colson’s story to see how the idol of power can draw any of us. As Colson noted his youth during the Great Depression and his time in the Marines to be factors in how he viewed the world and himself, the provided questions encouraged us to look back at our past to see how it has impacted our present and the way we view ourselves and others. In response to that goal, and because this topic was so personally relevant, and to help clarify a different way this idol can manifest, I told my own story. Which went something like this:
I had a stubborn father who came from a stubborn family and the only options in that situation are to grow submissive or develop a habit of fighting. I went with the latter. While he still denies it, he also very openly invested in my brothers and their sports while only showing vague, if any, interest in my love of marching band and stage crew. I felt just as forgotten and overlooked as my city, and longed to have someone obsess about me the way I believed I saw him obsess over their cross country meets and baseball games. The combination of these things, a quick wit, and a natural bent toward charismatic leadership resulted in a very overt idol of power and my own clever use of people and situations to my own advantage; I especially sought respect and adoration from people I could control.
The thing is, I wasn’t driven. No one would describe me throughout my youth and early 20s as seeking after power or influence or position. I didn’t look like someone who worshiped power in those ways. What I became was someone who didn’t much care where I ended up, as long as I had manipulated my way there. I wanted to explore loopholes, control situations, make connections, and just freely breeze through life on a series of half efforts and adoring hangers-on. I acquired friends who would follow me, I manipulated people into getting into serious trouble for my own entertainment, and no matter how friendly I seemed while meeting them I instantly forgot anyone who I didn’t read as useful because they were beneath my notice. It was my ex-fiancee that set me on the path to breaking me of that. I’ve mentioned her before, how our relationship was deeply unhealthy and how one aspect of that was her desire to receive the kind of love she felt her life had been missing. The other side of it was my manipulation. Regardless of how much of it was intentional and how much wasn’t, what I actually did was break her down and try to remold her into what I wanted over the span of our entire relationship. My behavior toward her cannot be honestly described as anything but abusive. And when our relationship drove her to attempt suicide, I was forced to face the fact that I had done this. My elevation of self and power combined with her desire to be accepted by me sent us onto a path where she was addicted to the love I had for her and the only love I could offer was so corrupted it had nearly killed her.
But I was so deep into this idol that that still wasn’t enough. It wouldn’t be the first or last time she would make that attempt because of me, and in my attempts to fix things I took a path that still ended up with me controlling where things went and how she would be forced to recover, without receiving any input from her or granting her any power over what happened to our relationship. Rather than face what I’d done, I ran away, and over the course of the next year God beat me down over and over until the day came where I was truly alone for the first time. I had no car, no money, no prospects, and no friends or family close enough to come to my aid. And I was furious. It would end up being a seven hour walk back to my new apartment, and I began that walk demanding an answer from God about His treatment of me, raging at the heavens for the ways everything had fallen apart. During that walk, God finally had His opening to soften my heart and help me see what I had become and how hard He had been fighting for me. It was the summer of 2009, completely lost and alone walking along a road in western Massachusetts, that I finally gave up control of my own life and submitted myself to fully serve Christ. It would be years after leaving my home town before He had done enough work in my life that I could really be trusted with power again.
It was my responses to my environment that set the path to this idol, and the way I played out my worship of it was nearly invisible to everyone around me. Despite how I described it above, to everyone else it just looked like fun little anecdotes and a gift of leadership and a devoted, though deeply mentally ill, significant other. There are people who still, even after I’ve tried to explain how much of it was my fault, blame her and the illness they see in her as the cause of all the problems in our relationship. This idol was unseen to her, the woman closest to me, and she continued to blame herself for years after we last saw one another. It was unseen even to me; I honestly thought my hands were clean through all of it. Because the way I chased after it didn’t look like money and fame and promotions, it looked like a slacker just drifting through life and somehow always having someone to call to avoid the worst effects of the lifestyle.
What should stand out in my story to highlight the idol, and what occupied a large percentage of the discussion as guided by the Leader’s Guide for the session, is how people are treated and viewed. Whether this idol manifests as a drive for success that views people as competition to be crushed or surpassed, or an abusive desire to control those closest to us, or anything else that takes people and views them as something other than human beings with equal standing before God, this idol can usually be seen in the way we view our fellow human beings. Because, as image-bearers of God, how we view one another tells much of how we view Him. Is this not why Jesus said that that which we do to the least of these, we do to Him? The idol of power seeks not only power over situations, but over the course of our lives and everything around us. In some way or another, when this idol is seated in our hearts, our ultimate desire is to be like God in the same way that caused Satan to fall. And no matter how well we hide this desire, it will come out in how we view and treat our fellow image-bearers of God.
As we examine our hearts to find the idols that dwell there, let us also examine the burdens we carry from our youth and the way we interact with other people. When something unhealthy arises in these relationships, with the course of our lives or with others, it may very well be evidence of an idol hidden deep in ourselves that has remained hidden from even ourselves. We must be a people humble enough to let go of control, confess our sins, and submit to the lordship of Christ. Let us be a people marked by humility, confession, and a desire to make our God greater than ourselves in all things.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Gods At War
Gospel Of John
Gospel Of Matthew
Small Town Summits
Stanley E Porter
The Good Place
Who Is Jesus