Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Our Review of Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll

I haven't mentioned Mark Driscoll or Mars Hill on this blog in the 4 years since I stepped back from leading women's ministry there. By conviction, I've addressed principles, not people here, especially in a negative sense. However, in Real Marriage, Mark and Grace recall personal events as the foundation of the book, and they project their conclusions from these personal events onto those reading it. They have brought these things into the public arena and revealed much about intimate areas of their life that affected many people in their public ministry. In light of this, silence on these issues no longer seems the righteous choice.

So for a single blog post for the purpose of a book review, I am going to mention Mark, Grace, and Mars Hill publicly. There is great tension in knowing how to speak truth lovingly, especially when the truth isn't pleasant. I've wrestled and wrestled over this personally.  My husband and I have discussed it for days.  I'm convicted of two particular characteristics of Biblical love. Love is not rude, and love gives the benefit of the doubt. This is my prayerful attempt to speak hard truth with love for both Mark and Grace as well as those affected by their teaching. My husband didn't want me to write this without him, and he has read and reviewed this book as well. I'll start with his insights. While my thoughts are more personal based on my first person experience with Mark and Grace during the story they tell and concern for those it affected, my husband offers a more objective review of the book itself. In an effort to give the benefit of the doubt, I try to deal with what Mark has said at face value, and I use a lot of direct quotes (from the book and other sermons). Andy steps back and offers a more holistic view of the book.  Two reviews make this a very long post, but there didn't seem a better way.

Andy's review 

This book can be read two ways.  First, the way it was intended to be read, as a christian marriage counseling book and second, as an unauthorized autobiography.

This book is a middle of the road marriage counseling book.  Our culture is constantly changing and with it how we view relationships and sex.   Mark has a gifted and close personal perspective on this problem since this is the culture in which he grew up.   Seattle's culture, the culture Mark's ministry is in, represents a complicated, diverse mix of young people here for work, school, mountain climbing, scuba diving, nightlife, music festivals, drum circles, whale preservation, and naked parades on bicycles, along with a few who don't really know why they're here and were kind of hoping you knew.  The common denominator is that they're young.  Sex and marriage in this culture is a huge and relevant topic.

As a marriage counseling book, this book is frank about sex and intimacy in and out of marriage.  Mark and Grace are personal and vulnerable.  They recount years of working through their relationship and offer many conclusions.  Marriage is a difficult institution because it forces two people to learn to live as one. This book offers many examples of life skills learned through years of experience in marriage and counseling.   Two people learning to live as one is the core of what makes a long term marriage work.  This book plainly articulates the stage of life when the "honeymoon's over".  The chapters on friendship, love, communication, and sex are frank and practical.  Not all of the conclusions reached are perfect or without bias, but this book maps the terrain pretty well.

It is a christian marriage book and does draw on Bible concepts throughout the topics in a christian context.  The practical application is more like an outline, though, than anything close to a Bible study.  To put it in perspective, this book is like a field guide for the young people represented by young culture in Seattle, many of whom are like a kite in the wind with marriage and responsibility having not seen it modeled well for them. They need it really spelled out for them like the “big E on the eye chart” to get their lives together.  If you're looking for a gospel centered teaching guide on marriage, this isn't it.  If you are looking for a moderately prescriptive christian perspective on marriage and want to hear it from a couple who are in and of their culture, this might hit that target. Mark and Grace are their target demographic.

The second way to read this book is to allow this book to interpret itself. This book is topical in content, and autobiographical in nature. That's fairly typical within the genre. Yet there is a third literary device in use. This book uses a combination of nonlinear narrative, and finally reverse chronology, to tell a story with the end of the book revealing greater context for circumstances within the book. A commonly known example of this literary technique is the film Memento. This wasn't clear to me until reaching the last chapter, but the last chapter "The Last Day" really comes first!  The Last Day describes a way of looking at your life from the end to the beginning, which basically sets the stage for this book.  This book is a revealingly intimate autobiography of a man who came to a breaking point and rebooted his life.  This seems counter intuitive, but is actually quite enlightening when interpreting the book "Real Marriage".

The reveal within the book begins in chapter 11 with Mark under a great deal of pressure and fighting his way through it. This chapter completely changes how the book can be interpreted.  In this chapter Mark lays out a blueprint for how he wants to change his life.  In the intimate details that follow, Mark tells a story of mistrust and hurt that culminate in what is basically described as an emotional breakdown.  The story now picks up again in chapter 1 with Mark filling in what was going on behind the scenes throughout the book.   Mark and Grace were both sexually active adolescents as was fairly typical in their culture.  This story now shifts to a young couple doing what young people do, making mistakes along the way.  Over the years as their lives became intertwined, Mark and Grace learned more details about each-other's past, specifically as it pertains to this autobiography, their sexual past.  Mark describes the emotional toll and cost in trust this caused between him and Grace.

Throughout the book, when talking about intimacy and marriage issues, Grace describes how her actions had hurt Mark and, in hindsight, how she had fallen into this state of low self worth through abuse, reinforced by patterns that were present in her own view of herself and through people in her life.  Mark describes the toll on him and their relationship and the effect this had on his ministry in the church.   What stands out as odd however is that Mark shares equally intimate details of these events, but from a different perspective.  What started in chapter 11 now adds context to the back story.  This book was written as a chronicle of a young pastor struggling to understand his wife and then her response to him.  Chapter 11 is about reverse-engineering your life from the last day forward.  This sounds like a reasonable approach, everyone needs goals to strive for. Wait, what?! Somewhere things got off course.   Are we talking about life goals or a relationship?

What stood out earlier as odd about Mark's perspective of the past was that Grace was humbly reconciling her past, but HE wasn't! What at first appears to be a book about their marriage is really a book about Grace's marriage. We actually know very little about Mark's.   From the beginning of this book, Mark has made passing references to Grace's mistakes and abuse that lead to difficulty in their marriage, but what about him?  He had been in previous sexual relationships prior to Grace, and with Grace prior to their marriage. What affect had this had on him and how he would view relationships going forward?  Not much is said about this, in fact Mark barely recognizes his responsibility in this at all.

Grace's words are in passive voice, and she bears the burden of her actions and consequences.  Mark's words are active, and based on clarity from chapter 11, it is now clear he has initiated this as a process for reconnecting with his wife.   He fails to take responsibility for his part in their shared emotional baggage however, and ultimately Grace bears most of the burden. How have Mark's previous relationships shaped his needs during sex with his wife?  He describes the change between he and Grace after marriage as unimpressive. He had experience to base this on.   How had his previous relationships influenced him emotionally?  Had previous partners he'd been with left him with scars too?  Had he been abused himself or witnessed abuse he was unable to prevent?

The role that these factors have in the story is described clearly in how Grace was able to relate to Mark, but how had these factors influenced Mark's ability to relate to Grace?   Did he enter marriage with realistic and fair expectations on her?  He's made progress apparently, but there is very little attention given to the emotional baggage Mark carries with him. He seemed oddly silent on these issues in his life and let Grace's story stand on it's own.

When viewed as a whole, the end gives context to the beginning and now some pieces fall into place.  This is a story told by the inside voice in Mark's head about a period in his life when he was a pastor under pressure in a large young church.  He acknowledges the effect his depression and anger had on his relationship with his wife and on the church and then his resolve to attack that problem and take it apart until it was gone. He decided he deserved better and set out a path to achieve that.  He has yet to recognize his own responsibility in much of this, to the point that his wife is publicly apologizing to him for past offenses he participated in himself with seemingly no remorse or consequence on his part. The dichotomy between their viewpoints is striking.


As Andy pointed out, Real Marriage paints an intimate portrait of a couple dealing with the sexual and family baggage of the wife, but not that of the husband. Mark is skilled and precise at diagnosing Grace's problems and those of his culture, but he lacks insight into himself.

Central to Real Marriage, Mark gives testimony of his decade long bitterness toward Grace. “I had a dream …. I saw in painful detail Grace sinning sexually during a senior trip she took after high school when we had just started dating” (p. 11). “Had I known about this sin, I would not have married her” (p. 12). He says on p. 14, “I grew more chauvinistic. … I started to distrust women in general, including Grace. This affected my tone in preaching for a season, something I will always regret.” He repeats this in the first Real Marriage sermon online as well. I don't think the root cause of his chauvinism (his own word from the first Real Marriage sermon) is anywhere near that simple, but that actually explains a lot. I remember Mark telling a husband publicly on the church members' forum during those years that if he didn't shut his wife up, Mark would do it for him. I hope his regret has caused him to reach out to that family in apology (she was also an abuse victim, sexually exploited by an older youth leader) as they left Mars Hill after that.

According to the book, Mark's bitterness and stress culminated in 2007. He recounts on p. 16, “... my adrenal glands and thyroid fatigued, and I finally came to the end of myself …. So we cleaned up the church” and “lost around one thousand people due to changes amid intense criticism.” The intense criticism he mentions came because he fired two older elders while engineering the rewriting of the church by-laws at the high point of this season of bitterness and anger with his wife. A few years earlier, Mark had taught the mutual accountability of a plurality of elders using Alexander Strauch's Biblical Eldership, and it was embraced by the church. The accountability of this system is much less effective when you can fire your elders at will and put the ones who remain through the “wood chipper” as Mark called it at an Acts 29 bootcamp at that time.
I recently put (a Mars Hill executive elder who remains at the church) in the wood chipper in my church. ... He was the guy, he had to nitpick at everything; he had to resist everything, he had to look at the other side. … you'd ask him why, he’d be like, well, I just wanted to make sure we've looked at everything, and everybody is considering all the angles. … I'll tell you what, when you despise your elders, at that point you have no safe place in the world from which to do ministry. ... there's always one guy there who's just like a fart in an elevator, and I'm just counting the minutes till I can get away from this guy. You can pray for me. You may say, “It seems like he's dealing with this right now.” Yes, I am. I'm thinking of certain people. If it weren't for Jesus I would be violent.” (Mark Driscoll, “The Man,” Acts 29 Bootcamp, Raleigh, NC, September 20, 2007)
In Real Marriage, Mark acknowledges a past problem with pride, but he remains blind to his self-centered view of the church, the extent of his disqualifying anger problem, the true root causes of both in his life, and the long term effects that both have on those around him. When you can flippantly write off 1000 members in your church, including elders, deacons, and community group leaders, because (as he explains it) you're burnt out based on long standing bitterness and sexual frustration with your wife stemming from a sexual encounter when she was a teenager 19 years before—well, wow, I'm at a loss for exactly how to address that.

Mark's account of his mindset reminds me of the value of sabbaticals—not powering through ministry because you think it will fall apart without you, but stepping back until your heart is ready to reengage with people in love and humility. What any of us say publicly is inevitably impacted by what our heart feels privately, and you can't be angry and bitter in ministry without it affecting those to whom you are called to minister. Mt. 12:34 “... out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.”

If you don't know the history of Mars Hill from first hand experience, there are other issues with Real Marriage that may or may not be problems depending on what you are looking for in a Christian book on marriage. First, there is little exposition of Scripture in the book. It mentions Scripture in passing and footnotes the references at the bottom. When they do discuss Scripture, such as Esther's relationship with the king from p. 65, they sometimes come to troubling conclusions that are not consistent with a careful examination of Scripture. As Andy said, if you're looking for a gospel-centered Bible study on marriage, this isn't it.

The other issue with this book is the centrality of sex, although I should be clear that I think it is healthy to talk about sex from a Christian perspective. When I was first married, it was taboo among Christians to hear honest sexual talk from a Christian foundation. That was unhelpful to many Christian marriages, and believers need some place that isn't pornographic to discuss it in frank terms. But Mark and Grace's story centers completely around the role sex has played in hurting and helping their relationship, before and after marriage. Mark said in the same Acts 29 Bootcamp message referenced earlier that the pastor's wife has the “most important job” in a new church -- “having sex with the church planter.” I wonder what the Driscoll's story would be if Grace became incapacitated long term. If that became the case, the majority of their marriage book would be useless to them.

My biggest concern about Real Marriage, though, is the abundance of references to Jesus, forgiveness, and repentance without a corresponding understanding of the gospel grace that Jesus Himself teaches. I say it often, and this is a clear example – using gospel language and understanding gospel grace are two different things. The best articulations of the gospel in Real Marriage are those given by Grace on p. 126-127 and p. 137-138 as she recounts dealing with her past sexual issues in the light. But there is little corresponding from Mark about facing the wealth of his own sin and deep need. What Mark actually says in the book reveals a poor understanding of Biblical grace, particularly as Jesus describes it in Matthew 18.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’
Mark felt betrayed by Grace for her sexual sin, but it's stretching it to call Grace's sexual encounter with another guy when she and Mark first started dating primarily a sin against Mark. A sin? Yes. Against Mark? Not so much. According to how they describe it, they had only just started dating when this incident occurred. She was a sexually active teenager in a new relationship with another sexually active teenager (Mark) who was not a Christian. There was nothing remotely resembling covenantal commitment between them at that point. Even though Mark seems to understand parts of the problem in his response to her, there remains much about Mark's “forgiveness” of her for this sexual sin but nothing about Mark asking Grace's forgiveness for how he exploited her sexually during that same season.

According to Real Marriage, both Mark and Grace were sexually active with other partners before dating each other. Grace went through Redemption Groups at Mars Hill and dealt with her sexual history, but Mark never did (the elder leading the early version of redemption groups in which Grace first found her voice on the issue of past sexual abuse was one of the older elders fired in 2007). Grace deals with her parents and issues stemming from her upbringing in a pastor's home. But Mark only makes a passing reference to his and doesn't deal with baggage from his upbringing AT ALL. Does he have NO baggage he brought to marriage from his women-beating, alcoholic, redneck family (his description)? 

The heaviness of Mark's reaction to Grace and his subsequent misogyny in sermons and interactions with individual church members seems well out of proportion to whatever happened between him and Grace early on. In the book, Grace bears the weight for not telling him her sexual secret before they got married. The tangible reactionary thing they insist in the book and Mars Hill's own premarital program is that couples admit every sexual encounter to each other before they get married. But Mark states several times that he wouldn't have married Grace if he had known and never recants. It's disturbing all he projected onto Grace those years (and what she projects on herself in the book--"Mark had righteous anger and felt totally betrayed” p. 12). It might be beneficial for Mark to preach through Hosea for the first time in his ministry before he goes through his Song of Solomon sex talk for the 3rd time in the next weeks. Though if Mark does teach through Hosea consistent with his Nehemiah sermon series of 2007 and his portrait of himself in this current book, he will cast himself as the hero of Hosea and Gomer's story, not recognizing that he himself is Gomer to Jesus' Hosea as much, if not more, than his wife. “(God) said that He ... had chosen me for the important mission of rescuing, protecting, and loving His daughter. This felt like a noble divine assignment and began to change my motivation for pursuing Grace …” (Real Marriage, p. 15).

Mark's last chapter on reverse-engineering your life describes a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps way of writing your life story from the end to the beginning, which basically sets the stage for the autobiographical portions of the book which Andy addressed.   The Driscolls do seem to have genuinely repaired their broken relationship. I am glad they seem at peace with each other personally, though I'm concerned that Grace has excused Mark's unrighteous anger against her by calling it righteous.  While I'm concerned for Grace, I am more concerned for specific individuals to whom Mark directed angry, cutting words over those years of bitterness and anger toward his wife.  The story he recounts in this book was not lived in a vacuum.  Mark bears the responsibility for that, not Grace. Giving a general apology (as he did in the first Real Marriage sermon) to a church no longer filled with the specific people to whom he directed those words is inadequate (no one in our family, by the way).
Matthew 5:23-24 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
I hope Mars Hill's current elders will encourage Mark to stop and repair with those he has specifically directed his anger and misogyny over the years and to seek counsel for his past issues he hasn't addressed, because the past verbal violence he directed toward individuals was verbal violence toward the Savior. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to Me” (Mt. 25:40).  And the issues he hasn't yet addressed in his own heart will resurface again.  In every instance in which Mark's accountability structure (whatever that is now) is aware of his verbal sins without holding him accountable and is aware of baggage from his upbringing without pointing him to gospel counsel, the name of Jesus and the good parts of doctrine Mark teaches will be undermined right along with him, as is now the case in many secular news stories.

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Things that undermine the complementarian position

I've been thinking through this topic since I first mentioned it on the blog in 2010.  I am not a fan of labels, and it annoys me that I can’t just call myself a Christian and that have enough meaning to be a sufficient label. For the sake of this discussion, I will label myself a reformed, evangelical complementarian. When I use the term complementarian, I mean that my conviction is that God created both male and female in His image, He gave to each different strengths and obligations to evidence different aspects of His character, and in marriage, He commands husbands to reflect something about His Head and wives His Body, which includes wives submitting to their husbands. God has limited the office of elder to men only (and not just any man, I should add). And women need to stay home and have babies.

Just kidding on that last part.

For some reason, I am not concerned with influencing egalitarians to my position as I am with encouraging complementarians to examine theirs carefully in light of what Scripture does and does not say.  The entire teaching from Scripture on the roles of men and women is undermined when we are not careful and precise with how we treat this topic.  I have long experience with churches and groups that take a good, true Bible teaching and manage to pervert it by sloppily adding to it their own extra-Biblical notions, subtly influenced by a personal agenda they may not even recognize. If anyone really wants to think of themselves as having a “Biblical” position, they need to CONSTANTLY reevaluate themselves against the Word, because we all, me included, can be easily deceived into not recognizing the ways we warp away from the Word left to ourselves.

I love meditating on what God has called me to be as the Helper after His own heart that is suitable for my husband. I have watched the power of laying down my life in submission and speaking in my husband’s love language of respect. And I am moved by thinking of Christ’s profound love for His Bride as I watch the interplay of love and submission in my home. These are precious doctrines to me. But too often, I watch these ideas misused and misapplied by complementarians in ways that make my concerns about egalitarians pale in comparison.

So here, fellow complementarian, are some concerns I have that I think (and it is only my personal, humble opinion) undermine the complementarian position. And if you are reading as an egalitarian, here I admit that the other side does get some things quite wrong , yet I believe there is still value--really beautiful value--to those controversial words to women—help, submit, respect, and so forth.

1) Problem number 1 is calling this debate a gospel issue. Now it’s true that the interplay between husbands and wives in the home is a TESTIMONY of the gospel as it reflects the nature of Christ’s profound love for the church. But being a testimony of the gospel is not the same as being the gospel. I said in another post that the gospel informs everything, but it is not everything. And we start entering dangerous territory quickly when we are not precise in how we talk about the link between the gospel and the complementarian position.  The gospel plus anything is not the gospel at all.

2) My second big concern is foundational to the discussion-- misinterpreting the curse for women in Genesis 3:16.  Many conservative complementarians insist that "her desire will be for her husband" means that the woman will desire to rule over her husband and usurp his place of leadership in her life.  But that is NOT what that verse says.  It says she has a desire (the word indicates a strong craving or longing) for her husband.  It's straightforward, and women know exactly what I'm talking about.  Apart from Christ, we are predisposed to looking to men to fulfill in us things that only God Himself can fill.  We look to men for affirmation emotionally, spiritually, and physically, and for the most part, its only when they disappoint us that we push them aside and try to do it for ourselves independent of them.  

If you misdiagnose the problem, you will inevitably offer the wrong solution.  When complementarians interpret this wrong, the result is that any woman who pursues independence or egalitarian thinking is thought to be trying to take over the world from the men.  However, most of the time, if you look closely, they have no desire to rule over men.  They don't want to be around men at all!  They likely were seriously wounded by a man who let them down, and they are done with men.  The answer is not to rise up against such women with heavy handed tactics but to point them to Christ as the One who meets them in places even the most faithful, responsible guy can't touch, and in that gospel communion with Christ, the wounded woman can reengage with men with whom God has called her to relationship.

3) Advocating husbands “ruling” over their wives. I gladly call my husband the head of our home. I’m happy when he leads. But “rule” is the terminology of the curse in Gen. 3:16, not the vision presented in Ephesians 5 of what marriage looks like that is in Christ between imitators of God. I talked about it here and enjoyed the follow up discussion.

4) Denying women deacons. Complementarians undermine at least half of the arguments against women being elders when we do this.  But enough was said in this post about it.

5) Denying mutual submission.  This is a controversial one.  Everyone in Christ is called to submit (Ephesians 5:21). Everyone in Christ is called to love (Ephesians 5:2). If I am not called to love my husband, then that means about 50 verses written in general terms (including the Greatest Command) don’t apply to me as a wife.  Similarly, the instructions to submit, lay down our lives, and sacrificially serve one another are everywhere in Scripture and clearly transcend gender. In the marriage relationship, husbands are called to give a particular example of love, and wives to give a particular example of submission.

[edited on 3/6/12 to add this note -- I am in the midst of listening to D. A. Carson on this topic.  He makes compelling arguments against mutual submission from Ephesians 5.  He distinguishes mutual deference from mutual submission.  I love to listen to him even when I don't completely agree.  I can't say enough about the knowledge he brings to the subject from a purely exegetical standpoint. ]

The word for submit in Ephesians 5 means basically arranging yourself in formation under your leader. It’s a willing movement of self in line with another. It cannot be demanded and still be called submission. I willingly lay down my life and rights for my husband. But if he demanded it or attempted to force it, that would not be submission. That’d be oppression -- when submission in the image of Christ ends and the oppressive rule of the man predicted in the curse of Genesis 3:16 begins.

Christ demonstrates this difference for us when He “lay down His life” (I John 3:16) for us. Laying down His life was so very different from having it taken from Him. The Bible makes it clear that Christ willingly gave up the ghost and laid down His life. It was not taken from Him unwillingly. The fact that He had the power and right to do otherwise is what makes His sacrifice so … remarkable? Noteworthy? I can’t think of a big enough word for it.  He LAID His life down for us! It’s profound. And when I, wife of Andy, WILLINGLY lay down my rights (and it will always be willingly, for my husband though strong willed and sometimes ornery is definitely NOT oppressive) I am being like CHRIST. Like the church too. But so very much like Christ.

I value the facets of the character of God that I am uniquely equipped to reflect as a woman. I love the doctrines surrounding what I was created to be in perfection. I have gained much wisdom from understanding the curse of Genesis 3:16 and all the ways left to myself that I reflect it. And I treasure deeply God’s calling me back to Himself and reclaiming and restoring His image in me that was marred by the fall.  The good doctrine in the complementarian position makes me long for us to shake off the misuses of it, because we undermine so much of great beauty and worth in the Body of Christ when we don’t. 

(There are other sub issues where complementarians read into Scripture and impose standards on themselves that Scripture does not. But that’s not so much a complementarian problem as just a universal tendency toward legalism. So I’ll save for another post our often unhelpful projections from silence in Scripture on the topics of working women, childbirth, organic cooking, educational choices, and so forth.) 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Using the words gospel, grace, and Jesus in context does not make you a gospel-centered Christian

I first wrote these thoughts out here two years ago.  In the last few weeks, I've been thinking through this more and more as I watch individuals and groups circle the wagons and  self-justify rather than facing their problems head on when confronted about their sin. Every believer needs to understand this truth -- using gospel language does not make you gospel-centered.  You can say Jesus, gospel, and grace as much as you want in a sermon, book, or facebook update, but that does not mean you understand or live out practically the true meaning of any of it.  

What is the difference?  At first, I thought the difference centered around Calvinism and reformed doctrine.  The churches in which I was raised and attended into adulthood were mostly Baptist (dispensational, KJV-only Baptist if you are familiar with those terms).  When I discovered Martin Luther and the reformation, I thought that was the solution to the ills I had witnessed in gospel believing, though not gospel centered, churches growing up.  But it doesn’t take long running in reformed circles to figure out that they (we) often aren’t any more gospel centered than the independent Baptist crowd.  We might be able to articulate the doctrines of grace with greater eloquence (complete with Scripture references and Calvin/Luther quotes), but that just makes our distractions from gospel-centered living that much more troubling. 

I now understand that a pastor or teacher can say gospel, grace, and Jesus in sermons, books, and facebook updates as much as he wants, but that doesn’t make them gospel centered.  That doesn’t mean they understands grace.  That doesn’t show an awareness of the fullness of whom Jesus is and what He came to live out before us.  

The place I first noticed the disconnect in my own life between gospel language and gospel practice was in conflict -- my sins against others and their sins against me.  I either ran away in shame or rose up in self-justification when confronted with my sins against others.  And I rose up in anger or ran away in fear of conflict when others sinned against me.   The gospel equips me to face my failings head on, keeping short accounts with those I've wronged.  It equips me to endure in grace for the long haul with others in their sin and failings.    And when I think of all I want to do for Jesus, it counsels me to leave those gifts at the altar, and don't do or say another thing in ministry until I've made things right with those I've wounded.  

Matthew 5  23  So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
That's a crucial lesson for any Christian teacher/author to learn.  We love God and want to teach others to love Him too, but we must, we absolutely MUST leave that teaching gift at the altar and repair with those we've wronged first. That is foundational to gospel-centered teaching.  
The gospel isn’t a word.  It’s a paradigm-shifting lens through which we view everything else.  It isn’t something we do to change ourselves.  It’s something done for us, in which we dwell daily.  The gospel changes everything.  The gospel INFORMS everything.  The gospel is the pair of glasses that sits on our nose as we leave Sunday service changing how we view ourselves, our marriage problems, our marriage successes, our disobedient children, our obedient children, the people we don’t want to be like, and the people we do want to be like.

The gospel enlightens us (I did not save myself).  The gospel teaches us  (Neither can they).  The gospel inspires us (Love them unconditionally the way Christ loved me).  The gospel gives us hope (They aren’t past repair).  The gospel gives us power.  (The same force that raised Christ from the dead is at work in me and them).  The gospel changes everything. 

The gospel keeps us from thinking too highly of ourselves.  It keeps us from thinking too highly of others.  It protects us from self-condemnation when we fail.  It equips us to catch others when they do.  It gives us hope that transcends car accidents and relationship failures.  It gives perspective to painful hindsight of mistakes with our husband or children, coworker or roommate.  It just simply changes EVERYTHING.  But it won’t change everything until you learn to look at everything through the lens it provides.  And that means more than throwing the words around, even in proper context.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Proverbs 31 Part 2

If you haven't already, please read part 1 of this series on Proverbs 31, in which I set up how the gospel teaches us to read this chapter.

In this post, I want to look simply at verses 11-12. Apart from the gospel and an understanding of the difference in wisdom and law, these verses have the potential to set up a lot of women for condemnation and shame. If you're tempted to go there, let Jesus meet you in it and give you hope. As Peter exhorts in I Peter 1, “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ."

PROVERBS 31 11The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. 12She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.

Wow. This is a beautiful vision of what marriage looks like between those who are in Christ and imitators of God. But I wonder about the mutuality of their virtue. Is her husband as virtuous as she was? He's respected in the gates, we find out later. But overall, this is wisdom, not law. It gives us ideals, not a specific story. We don't really know that much about him, but that doesn't seem to affect the wisdom of her.

When I read these verses, the Biblical concept of stumblingblocks comes to mind—not setting our husbands up for failure. Stumblingblocks are interesting to think about in the reformed faith. One of the tenets of Calvinism is irresistible grace. We hold to the sovereignty of God to woo our own hearts. I trust it to woo my children. I trust it to draw my husband to Himself. Woe to me if the heart of my children or my husband depends on me. Their heart is God's territory and His responsibility. Yet, God calls me to join with Him as a STEWARD. I can hurt my children and husband. And I can help them. I must hold to the two--stewarding responsibility in my home without living in condemnation for my failures. Our God, who is sovereign over their hearts, calls us to positive, active participation in this venture. He calls us to be ministers of His grace. Yet, He takes the ultimate responsibility on Himself, and He loses none of His own.

The virtuous wife can be trusted with her husband's heart, the place that holds his innermost fears and desires.  She is a safe place for her husband to let down his defenses and be honest about his concerns.     Of all the wisdom in Scripture, this is probably the thing that came least easily in marriage personally yet also the thing to have made the greatest difference ever once I started to understand and believe.  I'm convinced this represents the very best parts of being a strong helper after God's example (Gen. 2:18).  

For a long time, I couldn't handle my husband's burdens because of my own fears. Manipulation and control, instead of trust and faith, were the ways my fears played out in my marriage. In my experience, manipulation and control tactics are completely ineffective methods for dealing with my fears. They can't begin to touch the root of my fears. Instead of being a safe place for him to share his burdens, I became threatened by his burdens/concerns/cares. It goes back to Genesis 3:16 —I wanted him to provide a security for me he was never intended to provide. I had to reevaluate my faith and trust in God.

Meditating on God's sovereignty has been key to bringing me back to faith and trust in God so I can be a safe place for my husband to voice his burdens.
Isaiah 46  9 Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. 10 I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. 11 From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose. What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do. Colossians 1  17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
In a very practical sense, my spoken and written words have been a place God has prompted me to apply this wisdom.
Ephesians 4  29Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.  
This verse never loses its impact when I read it. To think that our words can minister God's grace to someone! They certainly can suck grace right out the room, and I've experienced that many times. But they can also be a conduit of God's grace--grace to our husbands and grace to our children.

When I think about safe words to my husband and children, I need go no further than Christ's example in the gospels. He models the essence of gospel-safe community. In fact, when we read Proverbs 31 in context of Ephesians 5 (and Luke 24, and Genesis 2), we see that our calling simply is to be like Christ in our particular context of marriage. Christ is both our model and our source of strength to obey on this matter. He is the wisdom of God for us. And we are IN HIM.

If any of this resonates with you but you feel at a loss for where to begin, please start with this discussion of how the gospel equips you to face these things head on.  

Monday, February 06, 2012

How to read Proverbs 31 Part 1

One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is Luke 24 where two of Jesus' followers are walking along the road to Emmaus after Jesus' death. They are sad and disillusioned. Whatever they thought the Messiah was supposed to do, being put to death on the cross by Roman soldiers seemed to unravel everything.  Jesus draws near to them, but they don't recognize Him. He asks them what they are talking about, and they explain,

“21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see."

Jesus responds to them,

"O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" 27And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

I would LOVE to hear the totality of that conversation. Later He instructs them,

44 "...These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Note the culmination of whatever specific things Jesus told them about Himself through the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms—Christ would suffer and rise again, and repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name everywhere. THIS is the culmination of the message of the Old Testament according to Jesus.

So how should women who know Jesus read Proverbs 31? Well, not the way I usually hear it taught, that's for sure. Proverbs is wisdom literature. Solomon was the wisest man to live. Yet even Solomon, who wrote much wisdom on raising children and finding a virtuous wife, did not excel at either. The author of the wisdom literature couldn't keep his own advice. But Christ did.
1 Corinthians 1:30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,

Christ is the personification of the wisdom of God. He is the righteousness of God. He redeems us, and He sanctifies us. In Christ there is no condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Just as we bear no condemnation as we wear His robe of righteousness, we bear no condemnation because we are IN HIM and HE is our wisdom.

When you read through the wisdom literature of Proverbs 31, think of Jesus becoming for you this wisdom of God. Make no mistake--Proverbs 31 contains great wisdom. It is wonderful counsel. And it is fulfilled in the Wonderful Counselor! Don't be indicted by the ways you don't fit Proverbs 31. Maybe it's an impossible passage for you because of your life circumstances – your children can't rise up and call you blessed if God has not given you children, right? The heart of your husband can't safely trust in you if God hasn't brought a husband into your life. Or maybe you have a husband or children, but the gulf between the virtuous wife and your reality threatens to swallow you up in hopelessness. In Christ, this isn't just possible, it's already your status in heaven. This is wisdom from God, and it's not here to taunt you. Inspire you? Yes! Give you insight as the Holy Spirit brings these passages to mind in specific situations in your life? Yes! But not to frustrate you or condemn you. Christ has become to us, for YOU, the fulfillment of this wisdom from God.

Furthermore, wisdom is not law. Please check out this link if you haven't already read it, because this post makes no sense without it.   Wisdom is not law. And wisdom is only wise when applied correctly in the right situations. You can't read Proverbs 31 the same as the Ten Commandments, yet in our fight against ignoring Scripture, conservative Christians fear situational wisdom. The result is silly, one-dimensional conclusions.

The answer to our fears of ignoring Scripture is to apply wisdom in ways that are actually wise through the indwelling Spirit.  Paul exhorts us in Galatians 5:16 to “walk by the Spirit,” which literally means to “keep in step with the Spirit.” It is this pressing into God via the Spirit that equips us to apply wisdom in wise ways without fear of moral relativism. It equips us to distinguish principle from application and to know what application God has for us as opposed to what He has for some other woman in a different situation.

In that context—first the difference in wisdom and law, and 2nd the gospel context of Christ as the personification of God's wisdom fulfilled in us and for us, let's look at Proverbs 31.

The virtuous wife of Proverbs 31 reflects back on the first woman created in the image of God in Genesis 2:18 to be a helper to her husband.  God is called the helper of his people throughout Scripture (Ex. 18:4, Ps. 10:14), and the first woman was gifted at creation to reflect particular aspects of his strong advocacy and care for his children.  But the helper created in Genesis 2 was marred deeply by the fall of man.  The battle of the sexes began.  Supportive relationships between spouses became the rare exception rather than the norm, evidenced clearly throughout the rest of Genesis—Sarah, Rachel, Leah, Tamar, and so forth. The Proverbs 31 wife reflects back to the first woman created in perfection, and also reflects forward to the wife of Ephesians 5 who, redeemed by Christ, is equipped to reclaim the image of God in her relationship with her husband. 

In Paul’s beautiful discourse on the gospel in Ephesians, he tells first of God’s plan before time began to redeem back all that was lost in the fall of man (Eph. 1 and 2).  We see that, in Christ, we are now equipped to be “imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1), once again living as the image bearers of God that he created us to be.  In that context, Paul paints a picture at the end of Ephesians 5 of what marriage looks like between husbands and wives who are IN Christ and IMAGE BEARERS of God.  Both are tasked with gospel love for the other. Though the husband is called on to give a special example and manifestation of this love, make no mistake that both the husband and the wife are commanded to love. Similarly with submission. Ephesians 5 tasks everyone in the Body of Christ with submission—submit therefore to one another out of reverence for Christ. Just as the husband is called to give a specific example of love, the wife is called to give a specific example of submission. This is all in the context of what it looks like to be IN CHRIST and IMITATORS OF GOD in marriage.

Proverbs 31 gives us a similar picture of the kind of love and support that a woman who is in Christ and an image bearer of God can provide in her home.  She is a precious gift to her husband, valued far above earthly riches. 

Some translations refer to this woman as the virtuous or capable woman rather than the virtuous or capable wife.  The Hebrew word can mean either, but wife seems the better translation in context.  Otherwise, the chapter makes it seem that the pathway to virtue for a woman is singularly through a husband and children.  But Scripture is the best commentary on itself. And it gives us the story of Ruth among others to clarify this false notion.  Ruth’s virtue and capable nature are most clearly evident as a single widow with no children.  Well before Boaz came into the picture, Ruth is everything in character that God has called her to be. Rather than serving as a taunting, unattainable goal to single women who love and serve Christ, receive the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31 as a model to those who are in marriages tainted by the fall who long for a practical vision of what is possible in their marriage and home through Christ. 

The author of this proverb paints a picture of a woman who is FOR her husband.  She does him good, not evil, all his days.  She is also FOR her family.  She is aware of their needs and is diligent to support, protect, and encourage them.   The great summary statement of the entire section is found in verse 30, “a woman who fears the Lord will be praised.”  Her horizontal relationship with her husband and family is based on her vertical relationship with God.  She remains in close relationship with her God, for without him, she can do nothing (John 15:5).  That is what equips her to be virtuous.   

In part 2 of this two part series, we'll look specifically at verses 11-12.  For the moment, if you are inspired by this but are wondering how Christ has equipped you to face it head on, I encourage to check out this post on how the gospel sufficiently equips us to be like Christ.  

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The God who waits for Lazarus to die before He engages

Our church is working through the gospel of John.  This sermon on suffering from the account of Lazarus' sickness and death is a short but deeply meaningful exploration of our inscrutable God.  The contrast between our very good God and the very bad suffering He allows and seems at times to actually ordain is the hardest of Christian teachings to understand.