Tullian keeps digging

I’ve tried very hard to be diplomatic and restrained in my criticisms of Tullian Tchividjian’s writing (here and here). I’ve tried to communicate genuine appreciation for his books while also expressing my deep concerns. I’ve watched others  gently and wisely caution him about the theological trajectory he is on, and yet he seems to just keep on digging deeper and going further. I’ve watched with growing anxiety as his imbalanced and confusing theology gains popularity. But there comes a time when we have to move from concern to alarm.

Yesterday’s blog post God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does pushed me over that edge.

Using truth to eliminate truth
The headline, like much of the blog post contains truth. However Tullian uses that truth to eliminate another truth, a vitally important one. Of course God doesn’t need our good works. But Tullian uses that truth to argue that God is not interested in them, pleased by them, and nor does he respond to them.

Let’s start with this statement:

Forever freed from our need to pay God back or secure God’s love and acceptance, we are now free to love and serve others.

Yes we are freed from our need to pay God back or secure God’s love and acceptance. But please don’t use that truth as a proof that the Christian has no concern to show his love for God by worshipful and grateful service, or to deny that God’s revelation of His love to us, and our experience of it, can and does change depending on our love-stoked obedience (John 14:21, 23).

In a similar vein, he says:

Passive righteousness tells us that God does not need our good works. Active righteousness tells us that our neighbor does. The aim and direction of good works are horizontal, not vertical.

Again I don’t know who Tullian’s arguing with in the first two sentences here. But the third sentence certainly does not follow logically or biblically.

By God’s grace we can do good works of Christian service to others which ALSO please God as sweet-smelling sacrifices:

I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God (Phil. 4:16).

But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased (Heb. 13:16).

Now may the God of peace…make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen (Heb. 13:21).

In other words our works on a horizontal level also impact our vertical relationship with God. Our creature to creature relationships influence our creature-Creator relationship.

Worrying pattern
Here’s the worrying pattern I see in Tullian’s theology.

In Jesus + Nothing = Everything, Tullian worked hard to remove any moral or ethical link between our obedience and God’s blessing.

In Glorious Ruin, Tullian labored to sever any moral or ethical link between our sin and our suffering.

In this latest blog post, Tullian is endeavoring to sever any moral or ethical link between our works for others and our relationship with God.

I keep hoping it’s simply confusion, that he’s unwittingly confusing our unchangeable legal standing with God and our changeable spiritual experience of God’s loving fellowship. But he’s a clever guy with a really sharp mind, and it’s hard to understand that after all he’s read from his concerned friends, that he still won’t accept the difference between:

(i) the believer’s unchangeable and unconditional status as God’s adopted son through justification, and

(ii) the believer’s conditional and therefore changeable experience and enjoyment of God’s fatherly love (see more on that subject here).

His confusion or conflation is really summed up in this paragraph:

Any talk of sanctification which gives the impression that our efforts secure more of God’s love, itself needs to be mortified. We must always remind Christian’s that the good works which necessarily flow from faith are not part of a transaction with God–they are for others.

Again, using words like “secure” and “transaction” create a distracting and plausible cover for the (unintentional) undermining of John 14:21 and 23, which clearly state that love-motivated obedience does result in greater revelations and experiences of God’s love. Maybe Tullian could help me see if I (and many others) have misunderstood these verses.

Brotherly correction
If I was in Tullian’s shoes, I hope by now I’d have stopped digging any deeper and say: “Look guys, you know that I’ve been motivated by a desire to exalt Christ, liberate sinners, and benefit the church. But in my passion for these great aims, I’ve sometimes allowed myself to conflate distinct truths, ignore important truths, and portray an imbalanced Christian ethic.”

And I think I know enough of Tullian’s concerned friends to be confident that they would respond: “Brother Tullian, we’ve all made mistakes in our ministries and we’ll make many more. We appreciate how you’ve helped us to get much greater passion and precision in certain areas of Gospel truth. We’re glad we’ve been able to help you in a similar way. Now let’s move forwards together, striving for biblical accuracy and balance, and serve our glorious God of grace for the eternal benefit of many, many souls.”

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One of the most powerful sermons I never heard

One of the most powerful sermons in my life was totally silent.

22 years ago, I was in the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, courting my hoped-to-be wife, Shona. I’d been brought up in the large and loud city of Glasgow, but Shona was raised in Ness, a little village at the most distant tip of the one of the most distant island in Scotland.

The island was one of the few places left in the world where everything closed on Sunday – apart from churches. No shops, no buses, no planes, no gas stations, no sport. Nothing!

Peaceful paradise
Sound like a nightmare? More like a dream; close to paradise, actually.

I was sitting outside Shona’s family home after the Sunday morning service one summer’s day, and realized that I’d never heard peace like this ever before. A deep and wide stillness lay over everything. This was what Sabbath rest was meant to be like; a community-wide shut down of all unnecessary activity.

The parked planes, the docked ferries, the locked shops, the empty sports fields, they all preached a visible and visceral message: It is finished.

God designed the seventh day of the week to remind Israel of a finished creation, and the first day of the week to remind Christians of a finished salvation.

Sabbath scaffolding
Sadly, most Christians have no idea what a community-wide Sabbath like this feels like, and have no idea what they are missing. It not only rests the body and the mind, but also the soul. The external stillness was like a scaffolding for faith; supporting and confirming the faith that rests in total peace and complete stillness on Christ alone. It was also a visible sermon to those who did not go to church, a weekly reminder of their Creator, of His demands as well as His supply.

Twelve years later, when I had been called to pastor a congregation on the island, I would often stand outside on a Sunday to buttress my own faith with the tranquility and to remind myself of the conscience-pacifying, soul-refreshing, heart-resting message of a finished salvation that I was privileged to preach.

Sadly, when I left the island five years ago, the “modernizers” had succeeded in getting Sunday planes and ferries to run, one gas station had opened, and the roads were noticeably busier. It’s still quieter than most places, but I can’t help think that the Devil was delighted to have eliminated one of the last visible demonstrations of a finished salvation from the face of the earth.

I’ll never forget the Gospel power of that first silent sermon, and I often return to the memory of these rare Sabbath hours. In the meantime, in a much noisier community, I’m challenged, as we all are, to re-create that God-ordained stillness and silence in my own home and family one day in every seven.

Are our children able to distinguish Sunday from the other six days. If so, is the message of a finished salvation and of Gospel rest in Christ communicated as clearly as possible, using all the external helps God has provided?

Am I doing what I can to help others to observe a Sabbath by avoiding any unnecessary activities and travel that would involve the employment of others or disturb the lives of others? As somebody once said, “When one person mows his grass, the whole community loses their Sabbath!”

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If you want to start at the beginning, this is the first 12 months of the children’s Morning and Evening Bible reading plan in Word and pdf.

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And here’s an explanation of the plan.

Church size: Is 150 the “magic” number?

When I tell Americans that most congregations in Scotland have less than 50 people, they’re not only surprised, they usually pity us. But increasingly I’m inclined to say, “Weep not for us, but for yourselves and for your children.”

While most Scottish pastors and Christians would love to see much bigger congregations, they might lose more than they gain, especially if they get larger than 150 people. Sure, they’ll get more money, more activity, more respect, etc, but they will lose something far bigger than all these assets put together – relationships.

I know of some Scottish churches where there are only 10-20 regular attenders and yet, though poor in numbers and money, they are immeasurably rich in Christian friendships and fellowship – something that’s hard to create or cultivate in 150+ size congregations.

Where do I get that 150 number? I get it from Gore-tex, and it’s called Dunbar’s law, after a professor of sociology who studied the success of Bill Gore’s fledgling outdoor clothing factory:

From its modest beginnings, GORE-TEX grew and grew, Dunbar says, until Gore opened up a large factory. That, too, continued to grow.

Then one day, Dunbar says, Gore walked into his factory.

“And he simply didn’t know who everybody was.”

Gore wondered why this was. “It was his gut instinct,” Dunbar says, “that the bigger a company got, people working for the company were much less likely to work hard and help each other out.”

Gore did some counting, and realized that after putting about 150 people in the same building, things at GORE-TEX just did not run smoothly. People couldn’t keep track of each other. Any sense of community was gone.

So Gore made the decision to cap his factories at 150 employees.

“Whenever they needed to expand the company,” Dunbar says, “he would just build a new factory. Sometimes right on the parking lot next door.”

Things ran better this way, Gore realized. In smaller factories, Dunbar says, “everybody knew who was who. Who was the manager, who was the accountant, who made the sandwiches for lunch.”

Business was never better. One-hundred fifty, it seemed, was a magic number.

Although there’s a lot of evolutionary mumbo-jumbo in the rest of this article, I believe there’s a basic truth that we’d do well to consider: “Human beings can hold only about 150 meaningful relationships in their heads.” Apparently it holds true on Facebook too! After 150 “our brains just max out on memory.”

Of course, the church does have the huge additional help of the Holy Spirit to build and bless relationships, but still, this does have implications for the nature and number of churches.

The nature of our churches
One of the joys of a smaller congregation is the comfort and relaxation of just knowing everybody. In larger congregations most people remain “strangers” to us, changing the whole nature of the community, making it more uncomfortably formal or unsatisfyingly superficial. Christians can also hide from responsibility and service, because there are always lots of other people who can step up.

The number of our churches
But this kind of data should also impact our church planting vision and strategy. If this research is true not just for businesses, but for organisations, institutions, and communities everywhere, it should help churches decide what to “cap” it’s numbers at and when to plant churches elsewhere. “Downsizing” like this might decrease income and prestige, but it may increase far more valuable assets – friendships and fellowship, service and giving, etc. – and also multiply Gospel witnesses in many more communities.