A disquiet in my soul concerning the gospel

For the last few years I’ve sporadically studied the meaning and significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. We have a theological word for it: atonement. It started when I watched a video that illustrated how many modern presentations of the gospel make Jesus and the Father to be very different kinds of people. The Father is holy and unrelenting in his need to dispense retribution on depraved sinners and Jesus the loving and forgiving saviour sent to provide us an escape from God’s wrath. This view is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) and there are versions of it that attempt to maintain the unity of the Father and the Son but I’m not convinced they do a very good job.

I’ve spent many hours studying the scriptures, and now I’ve moved on to books on the subject. I’m still neck deep in it. It has been a fascinating study. The dominate evangelical view really only goes back to Luther and wasn’t fully articulated until John Calvin. When I read proponents of PSA they proudly proclaim this is the heart of the gospel and if we are missing this we are impaired in our faith. So if that were true almost the entire church missed the core component of the gospel until the reformation. That is an astounding assertion.

What have I concluded from my study so far?
That the atonement and our notion of salvation runs far deeper and far wider than forgiveness and the punishment of sin. The themes of victory over sin, death and the devil, reconciliation, redemption, ransom, cleansing, healing, receiving life are all tied with Jesus death and resurrection are all strong and directly related to Christ’s death and resurrection.

At the very least we’ve been proclaiming a gospel message that so heavily oversimplified it is a rump of what is known in the scriptures.

The most common expressions of PSA make God out to be an unrelenting autocrat that cannot tolerate any deviation from his divine will. It finds no common ground between holiness and love, justice and compassion, righteousness and forgiveness.

By viewing all salvation through lens of appeasing God’s wrath we ignore all the wonderful things the atonement has done and is doing for us.

The gospel has many facets and no one way of looking at it captures all the dimensions of it. We should carefully consider the early church’s view on this. It is beautiful.

Like many theological mysteries, where we end up is largely dependant on where we start. One of the most crucial questions is “What is the problem atonement is trying to solve?” I think the problem is human corruption through Adam’s choice to “know” good and evil. Rebellion is a symptom of corruption, and thus corruption is the heart of problem. When we start here Jesus’ death is more about cleansing, healing and restoring in order that we stop rebelling and in doing so end the hostility we have towards the holiness of God and resolve God’s anger over sin. God is satisfied, not because someone was punished for humanity’s sin, but because humanity has been freed from sin, cleansed of corruption and reconciliation has taken place. Jesus’ death frees the prodigal to return home and find the Father is already waiting for him with open arms.



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What does the church need for discipleship?

What does the church need for discipleship? It is almost a backwards question. It should be the disciples asking, how do we function as a church. But that is the state of things today. We have churches full of people that haven’t been discipled.

With the demise of bible schools, and one close to my heart, a lot of people are asking questions like: how do we replace these ministries geared towards young adults? How do we replace the schools that taught our movement’s distinctive theology? How can we ensure that our kids have the same kind of experience that we did?

Those are the wrong questions.

Here is a better one: how does one reach maturity in Christ? I’ve participated in many discipleship ministries and activities. I’ve taught at the college level, led small groups, house churches, preached, mentored and personally cared for people. Here is what I found.

The process of progressing towards Christlikeness is as much about healing as it is learning, it is more about perspective than knowledge, it is more about relationship than accomplishment.

In this post I’m going to talk about the first one: healing and learning.

I’ve walked with, cared for, mentored a number of different people over the last 10 years. What they need more than anything is healing and for that they need connection. Now connection is kind of modern word but it summarizes the biblical concepts of fellowship, abiding, oneness with Christ and each other.

Why is healing important? Without healing we don’t see things accurately. Our perspective is skewed. With our perspective skewed we our ability to learn is impaired. We can teach broken people things, we can give them biblical principles to learn and apply, but their ability to live these things out is significantly diminished. The more wounded people are, the more they live in shame, the more Christianity turns in to a dead religion that just becomes another means to find some sense of personal worth or distract themselves from the pain that lives inside them. Sometimes things get so twisted that what people hear is completely different from what is being said.

I think good theology is as beautiful as art. One needs have to be geared a certain way to see it that way, but that is the way I am geared. I am not geared to appreciate a fine painting in a gallery, but I do know what would even more difficult for me to appreciate it if my vision was blurry. Teaching beautiful theology to broken people is like getting people who can’t see well to appreciate a visual art.

Luk 11:34 NET. Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is diseased, your body is full of darkness.

I think this is one reason the church spends most of its time teaching and yet people learn so little. We have the cart before the horse. We cannot learn until healing has started. To continue the healing process, we need to learn and come to a better understand of who God is. One is no less essential than the other, but an inordinate focus on either leaves us in an impoverished state.

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Not all polls are equal

I’m learning that not all polls are equal, nor is the reporting on them free from editorial bias.

The three main methods for polling are IVR, Online and telephone. IVR is when a computer calls you and you enter your answer buy hitting a number on your phone.

Online polls (Ipsos, Angus Reid, Leger, Innovative Research, Abacus) rely on using a database of people that are signed up to do polls. So they tend to reflect the attitudes of people that would sign up for these things. This election year they have been largely consistent.

IVR pollsters (Forum, Ekos, Mainstreet) have been all over the map. One week the NDP are winning a majority. A few weeks later the Conservatives are cruising towards one. The response rate on an IVR poll is less than 1%. They have to call a lot of people to get anyone to answer.

Telephone polls (Nanos) are the most expensive to do but the response rate is much better at 9%. Nanos has consistently proven to be accurate when compared to the final results. They are generally regarded as the most accurate.

Some polls are properly weighted according to demographics (age, gender, education) and some aren’t. One IVR poll just released today polled 5000 people but only 400 between 18-35 and 2000 for 65+. That is going to skew results heavily towards Conservatives. While those 65 and over vote twice as much as the 18-35 group, the 18-35 group is 23% of the population and seniors account for only 16%.

If I were to get a sense how things turn out on election day I’d have to weigh seniors about 1/3 higher than the youth vote, not 5 times the youth vote.

Sometimes polls are released a number of days actually after they finished polling. The IVR poll I mentioned before finished on Oct 1st. Where three other pollsters have released much different numbers and were in the field in the last couple of days.

So who is winning?  I would guess the Liberals but not by much.  They need to be winning by at least a couple points to actually win more seats than the Conservatives.

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Why play political games when people are suffering?

This whole refugee situation deeply bothers me. Like most people I really, really was blissfully ignorant of a massive humanitarian crisis. I see one little boy lying dead in the sand and poof, suddenly I care. Like so many others my empathy for others is fickle. A week from now, two weeks from now will I be distracted?

So it turns out this boy’s family was trying to get to Canada. They had one application for one member of family rejected, they got desperate and tried to make it to Greece and then the tragedy occurred.

The Prime Minister gets in front of the camera and tells everyone Canada already is the most generous nation in world at settling immigrants and refugees. It is a carefully crafted statement that is true in one sense but it obscures the reality that we don’t take in as many asylum seekers as other nations. Relative to many other countries we aren’t that generous at all.

It was typical political BS. Say something that is technically true but that communicates something untrue. We’ve come to expect that our political leaders will do this over the budgets, programs, and gaffes. Many times it doesn’t really matter because what they are spinning one way or the other isn’t that big a deal.

In this situation however, Canadians have been stirred from their complacency on something that really matters. A real leader would have harnessed the collective compassion of our nation and steered it towards something truly good.

Instead our leader told us to go back to sleep. We already do more than anyone else, he said, and by the way we really need to keep bombing those bad guys. It doesn’t matter that the “bad guys” only displaced about 1/5th of the refugees in question. Perhaps you believe that bombing actually kills more terrorists than it inspires, I don’t. But even if we kept up the military campaign why can’t we find another 100 million in our 275 billion dollar budget to take in more refugees now that Canadians really want to take in more? Can’t we clear away the red tape so that we can take in more than a thousand people year?

I find it reprehensible that we would engage in dishonest political rhetoric when the suffering and survival of the weakest among us is at stake.

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Harper is doing long term damage to Canadian conservatism

“Duffy is a nothing” shouted Earl Cowan, the disgruntled Conservative supporter recorded recently hurling profanity at the media.  Despite the fact that other parts of his tirade were completely untrue Duffy is relatively nothing compared to the bigger issues in this campaign.  What the Duffy trial has revealed about the PMO is the biggest issue for me.  The Prime Minister’s Office has far too much power and has become deeply dysfunctional.  Nigel Wright’s payment of Duffy’s expenses is far less worrying that the other revelations that have come out this trial.

Solid evidence has revealed:

  • PMO interference and control over the senate
  • Attempts by the PMO to manipulate a 3rd party audit
  • Instructing MPs to lie to Canadians
  • Obsessing over optics rather substance
  • The PM disregarded his own lawyer’s “basic legal interpretation” of the constitution
  • Key members of the PMO not paying attention at important meetings or just lying about it

The obsession over who knew about Nigel Wright’s cheque doesn’t matter much unless the RCMP decides to start charging those who offered the bribe.  Only Duffy was charged because he personally benefited from the bribery and it was believed Wright did not.  Duffy’s defence attorney did an excellent job demonstrating that Nigel Wright’s gift was no act of noble charity.  It was clearly intended to end a political problem for the PM and the Conservative party.  It is hard to see how this isn’t a bribe on both sides of transaction now.  I personally think the crown should prosecute those that offered the bribe as well as he who took the bribe.

I find the Conservative denials and spin increasingly improbable.  I understand how if they admit any culpability and expose any measure of deceit that it would submarine the election for them.  In order the keep things going they need to spin increasingly less plausible tales.  As their story changes and their denials become increasingly vapid and disconnected from reality.  Yesterday I observed Conservative MP Paul Calandra dismiss the allegations of manipulating an audit because the audit didn’t actually change.  So trying to manipulate an audit is ok, it’s only unethical when you successfully manipulate an audit?

With each lie, each preposterous statement, with each half-truth infographic spread virally on social media I become more and more disgusted with right-wing politics.  It isn’t that I don’t appreciate fiscal conservatism, debt repayment, free trade and less taxes.  There are lots of things I do appreciate that the right brings to the political engagement.  I believe they are essential. Unfortunately the people at the top of the Conservative party have no respect for the truth.  The cottage industry of alternative right-wing online media claiming to correct the bias of the main stream media is worse than the people they criticize.

As these voices become more deceptive, more preposterous, more ridiculous it has a divisive and caustic effect on Canadian society.   A resentment is building towards the Conservative party.  This resentment will carry on well passed this election.  If the Conservatives fail to form government, and I doubt they will, every act of deception, deflection and obfuscation will haunt them and hinder the movement going forward.  When I think about the Conservatives I see Paul Calandra speaking and acting as if I was a complete and utter fool that is either too blind, too stupid, or too incompetent to check a fact on google.  It would be wise for the Conservatives to find their moral compass again  and start to think about the elections to come.


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Why so cynical? Thoughts on church disillusionment

Why so cynical?

I have for the last 10 years or so lived between the worlds of Christians that run institutions and those that given up on them. As more and more institutions die and the ranks of the disaffected grow tension is growing.

Why are people leaving?

I think people get tired of investing in something that doesn’t seem real anymore. At least it seems like the main thing, whatever it is we put on our mission statement or on the wall or whatever, isn’t really the main thing. Pastors get tired of preaching sermons to people who so rarely seem to learn or change. Volunteers get tired of plugging holes in a program. The more the church or organization is driven by self-preservation, the more contrast there is between the inside story and the public story, the more people are motivated by obligation or hype, more unreal the experience becomes. There is a tension that grows inside more and more until we just can’t keep supporting it anymore.

It has happened to me a couple of times. Now lots of people have come to blame the “system.” Lots of thoughtful people have explored the ways we shape our systems end up shaping us in return. The medium is the message and all that. Those are worthwhile topics to engage in.

The bigger issue is really trust. It isn’t just the system we don’t trust, it is the people in it. Sometimes it is the people in charge, sometimes it is the people who think they are in charge. Even if we change the system we are still faced with issues of integrity and accountability. Having a hierarchical structure or some kind of board doesn’t mean any real accountability is occurring.

We can point to national scandals but the real killers are little scandals. Every little squabble swept under the rug. Every firing that comes out looking like a mutual decision. The awkward silence when another person leaves and won’t say why.

Every organization has a culture and in some cultures there are things you just can’t question, but sometimes they are the very things that need to be questioned. It is a dangerous thing when an organization celebrates and trumpets every morsel of positive feedback and quietly rights off each critical comment because those critics obviously don’t get it.

How do we get back to the place where we are willing engage with each other and build something again? We need to become trustworthy. We need to become faithful. We need to earn back trust by walking sincerely, transparently, and selflessly. Christian leadership has evolved in to management techniques, strategy, and influence with only lip service to integrity and virtue. Christ needs to become preeminent in the church.

But I have this against you: that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the works you did at first. But if you do not, I am coming to you, and I will remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

(Rev 2:4-5 LEB)

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Tony Jones, Julie McMahon and the truth

Having personally walked with and supported people that have been abused in various ways I find the whole story unsettling.  The closest thing to a summary I could find is here at DiagnosingEmergent.wordpress.com.  In short Tony Jones was a recognized major voice in the Emergent movement/conversation and he divorced his wife accusing her of mental instability.  His wife accused him of being abusive, and there are several public documents that verify at least some elements of her story.  Tony Jones and his supporters have accused Julie of making false accusations and claim evidence to back their claims.

Lots of people have weighed in on this issue that are much closer to it so I’m going to avoid trying to figure out that situation.

My experience with abusive situations gives me a grid to process situations like this.

In my all my experiences with abuse situations emotions always twist the perceptions and communication.  We are all skewed by our biases, both the abuser and the abused.  That however doesn’t mean there isn’t truth underneath it all.  For example there may be 5 indisputable events of abuse but the victim sees malicious intent in situations where there was none.  In desperation the victim might exaggerate the severity of the event in order to win people to his or her side.  They may engage in their own malicious behavior and act dishonestly.

There is a mix of truth and untruth in everyone single one of these situations.

If the victim is even the slightest bit unstable the abuser will use that to convince others that all of his or her claims are false.    It is a typical tactic.  When our friends tell us they are being attacked and have proof that at least some of it is unfair we have a tendency to defend our friends without even considering if any of the accusations are true.

When our friends are accused of being abusive we have a personal motivation not to believe the accusations.  We don’t even want to consider the possibility anything that would infer that we’ve been deceived as well.  We all have powerful internal motivations that guide our perceptions.  Jesus talks a lot about having ears to hear and how the light is the lamp of the body.  We often think that the great hinge in discipleship is using our will to act according to a certain behavior, but one step deeper than that is ensuring that we see things correctly, that our own selfish desires don’t cloud our judgment.

Abusive church leaders can be very, very convincing.  Self-professed victims can be just as convincing as well.  All lot of broken people are master manipulators.  They know how to appeal to our values, sensitivities and triggers.  They can convince even their closest friends.

When I hear a story like this I find it is important not to come to rash conclusions, to be diligent in understanding both sides, look at the evidence and consider the weight of each piece of evidence.

One confirmed fact in this is Tony Jones has been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  I don’t know the details behind this, how much treatment has been sought, or how much therapy has been successful, but to get diagnosed with any type of personality disorder means there was significant dysfunction at the time of diagnosis.  People do get therapy and get better, and that might describe who Tony is today.  If anyone is so dysfunctional that a qualified professional would diagnose them them with a personality disorder they shouldn’t be in ministry leadership.

Why?  Because leaders are there to serve people, and if they have a serious dysfunction that inevitably results in more people being hurt, that defeats the purpose of leadership.  In Jesus’ story of the sheep and goats the difference between them was the sheep cared for people who could do nothing for them.  The goats did lots of things in Christ’s name but they didn’t care for the people who could do nothing for them.

Paul wrote the following to Timothy : “So an elder must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money. He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him. For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? An elder must not be a new believer, because he might become proud, and the devil would cause him to fall. Also, people outside the church must speak well of him so that he will not be disgraced and fall into the devil’s trap.”

(1Ti 3:2-7 NLT)

It is time we held our leaders to a higher standard.  If we don’t want to see the church’s dirty laundry aired to the world, than perhaps we should clean our laundry before it gets to that point.  We aren’t doing our friends and leaders any favours by ignoring serious character deficiencies.  If we are covering for a dysfunctional leader in hopes of preserving the reputation of the ministry then we have the wrong priorities.

I don’t know how to make sense of the situation between Tony and Julie, because I am not equipped to figure much out from where I am.  The better question for the rest of us is how can we avoid this stuff from happening in our own communities?  Do we have effective accountability mechanism?  If we had an abusive leader would we be able to figure that out and deal with it?  If people were spreading malicious lies about church leaders how would respond to it?

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What are the factors behind Bethany’s closing?

There are a lot questions, confusion, sadness and even anger over Bethany’s announced closure. I’m going to do my best to say what is appropriate at this time. It is easier to talk about what happened than why it happened because some of those issues are a matter of interpretation.

The two really obvious factors are the number of first year students enrolled this year and debt.

There were only 24 new students this year. Assuming normal levels of retention in to the second year there would be a very small group of 2nd years next year. Project that one year further you really don’t have enough students to make up a class in the 3rd and 4th years.

Why did Bethany have so few students? The most accurate answers lies in the hearts and minds of parents and youth. Without professional level market research it would difficult to determine which factors are the strongest. Here are all the factors that I’ve seen people suggest.

Demographic trends – Bethany’s traditional student came from a rural back ground and families have been migrating to cities for decades.

Church youth engagement – there is a growing trend of youth leaving the church after highschool. If they aren’t interested in church, they are less likely to be interested in bible school.

Cost – The student fees to enroll one year at Bethany and live in residence went from $4500 / year in 1995 when I attended to $15,000 / year today. The cost of other post-secondary education has gone up as well making it more difficult for a student to do both.

Shifting attitudes – young people are more interested in life experience than academics.

Compelling alternatives – Other programs geared at young adults that involve missions, service or were located in more exotic locations were more attractive to some students. Millar college has remained very strong and even started a new campus and appealed to a more conservative demographic.

Accreditation – Some people I’ve talked to suggested accreditation raised costs, and impaired the schools ability to be devoted to scripture and put too many parameters on their programming.

As a close observer of the school I’d say most of these assumptions about the negative impacts of accreditation are exaggerated. Accreditation did modestly raise costs and it did require Bethany to operate to certain standards, but it definitely didn’t impact the school’s devotion to the bible. If accreditation is a significant factor it was how it changed people’s perception of the school. Accreditation did function as worthwhile accountability mechanism, but it never did deliver the hoped for levels of transferability of credits to universities.

According to CRA’s reports found here Bethany had 1.1 million dollars in liabilities at the end of 2012/2013 school year. The numbers for the last school are not posted publicly.

According to the CRA Bethany had $170,000 in liabilities in 2007 and added about million dollars to that amount in 6 years.

I imagine lots of people would wonder how Bethany accumulated so much debt in such a short amount of time. As an outside observer I can only point to the numbers publicly available at the CRA’s website. Those numbers don’t explain the debt levels as the yearly operating budgets were for the most part balanced. I can only guess but the one obvious explanation is the school borrowed money for capital projects and simply didn’t pay it off.

I plotted out the last ten years from numbers publicly available at the CRA. Some noteworthy tidbits:

2010-2012 had record levels of fundraising.
2011-2012 had record levels of revenue.
From 2010-2013 there were significant increases in revenue from student fees while enrollment was declining.
From 2008 to 2012 staff expenditures went from $1.15 million to $1.5 million.
Overall expenditures dropped significantly in 2010 but jumped back up in 2011 and 2012.

In 2013 there was a reduction in expenditures but also a perilous drop in fundraising revenue.

Scale 1  = 1000
Year Charitable Giving Church Giving Fundraising Costs Net Fundraising Revenue from Student Fees Total Revenue Expenditures Rev-Exp Liabilities (Debt) Staffing Expenditures
2013 330 154 298 186 1677 2208 2303 -95 1117 1326
2012 726 194 329 591 1511 2506 2400 106 845 1495
2011 813 204 240 777 1300 2378 2314 64 748 1343
2010 622 207 233 596 1250 2128 2142 -14 754 1222
2009 516 212 254 474 1455 2234 2365 -131 682 1167
2008 416 246 200 462 1536 2295 2336 -41 520 1226
2007 354 246 182 418 1538 2277 2250 27 178 1219
2006 298 251 175 374 1365 2068 2012 56 300 1088
2005 296 202 156 342 1332 1955 1966 -11 243 1052
2004 316 208 116 408 1493 2139 2067 72 270 1048
2003 399 170 51 518 1308 1994 1872 122 160 954

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Logos Mobile Education

I’m a big fan of Logos bible software. It is more than just a bible program. It is a whole library and learning system. Now they have introduced courses that actually integrate with the software. The courses aren’t free, unlike Khan Academy or the stuff available through coursera, but they are a lot cheaper than a bible college/seminary course. The whole idea intrigues me but I think it falls short in couple ways.

In a typical formal course there is about 30-35 hours of classroom time. Most of the logos mobile ed courses only have 4-7 hours of video instruction. That is a lot less than a formal course, even though professors usually don’t lecture the entire time. There is usually group work and discussion in a class but 4 hours of video instruction for a course seems a little light.

There are no assignments, quizzes, or a mechanism to test knowledge.

You are also stuck with the particular theological bent of the online professor. I’d be hestant to embrace professors from certain theological camps.

I can see this being worthwhile if a church bought it and made a little online learning center in their building. That way more than one person could take the course. At that point it becomes much more worthwhile for the money. I think however, that Logos can do better by incorporating more elements being pioneered in Massive Online Open Courses.

However for people who don’t have the flexbility to leave their homes or jobs to go somewhere to learn, or those already in ministry and just want to continue their education it might be the best thing out there. Seminaries haven’t embraced massive online open courses like the universities have.

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My new website on Organic Church

Here is a link to my writings on organic church. I’ve been part of organic churches for over 10 years and am part of a network in Saskatchewan, Canada. It’s book length, but organized like Wikipedia. You can digest the 20 page version or click the links to see deeper stuff on particular subjects. It isn’t intended to be comprehensive, it is my contribution to the conversation.


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