Church leaders & believing our own hype

Churches and denominations are often guilty of talking themselves up in unrealistic ways. In certain charismatic and Pentecostal churches, for example, there is the perception that their calmer brethren are devoid of the Spirit. In the non-denominational church that I grew up in we seemed to think that the big Anglican church down the road was where our lukewarm members would defect to if they tired of our zeal and wanted to be anonymous.

One of the long-standing fictions that has befouled the denomination in which I now serve (and which in some measure is most likely true of every church) is that we are “getting it right” in a way that other churches are not. We have the Spirit (unlike the mainline churches). We have the Spirit without performative excesses (unlike the charismatics). We teach the Bible faithfully and well (and people only don’t flock to come hear us because we don’t tell itching ears what they want to hear).

All of us (I guess) believe our way is right, or else surely we’d do things another way, and so such prejudices are part of being human. Fortunately, many of our leaders have been self-critical enough to oppose such silly rhetoric.

Nevertheless, there is a fiction that our leaders might need to recognise in themselves, and that I think is universal enough to be worth raising more generally. For all our talk of servant leadership, it seems as though we actually have some difficulty coping with positions of authority, especially when a leader is clearly gifted in certain areas, and when God has used such leaders in the past. It can become difficult for such people to relinquish control or to acknowledge that God might gift and use others (even in their own congregation) without their help or permission.

I am prompted to bring it up because I discovered an interesting formulation of the problem in a book I am now reading about the prophet Samuel by an author named Marti Steussy.

Steussy is asking the question whether Samuel the prophet perhaps isn’t entirely blameless in the conflicts with Saul, and whether he isn’t motivated a little bit by the rejection of his own leadership and a desire to see Saul fail? (I think I probably disagree with her suggestions in this case, but nevertheless, the question is good. Whether one sees it in Samuel or not, it is certainly true that all of Israel’s leaders were deeply mixed characters, and it is appropriate to ask whether they are behaving rightly at any given point.) About the possibility that Samuel is over-stepping in his old age, Steussy writes:

“I have heard yet another kind of reaction to Samuel from students whose church traditions accord extremely high respect and authority to the pastor. A handful of such students have told me that Samuel reminds them of pastors they have known… These mentors were powerful, well-loved leaders who had earned respect by years of wise advice and courageous leadership. But eventually their leadership would be challenged, and the results could be ugly. The pastors seemed unable to accept that others might responsibly differ in their assessments of where the church should go. Too quickly, sometimes, the pastors equated questioning of their own programs with disobedience to God… Sometimes they used their power not only to resist but to punish those who, in their view, stepped out of line… Always they were hurt and confused by what they perceived as the ungratefulness of their congregations.” (Samuel and his God, p. 6)

Now I am not disputing that there is a legitimate problem when members of a congregation become divisive and oppose the pastor in ungodly ways. However, it is surely necessary to acknowledge that there is equally a possibility for leaders to become too convinced of their own centrality to what goes on in a congregation? Surely leaders can assert their leadership in ways that are arrogant or divisive or controlling?

Batman at the end of The Dark Knight preferred to die a hero rather than to live long enough to become the villain, and my concern is that leaders all run the risk of neglecting the wisdom of this idea. Countries often become enslaved to their old liberators, and church leaders too can become guilty of believing their own hype.

As wrong as Israel’s request for a king might have been, Samuel had raised wicked sons and intended to hand the reins over to them. When the people resisted that idea, he took it to be that they were rejecting his leadership. God had to re-align his thinking even on that point. Samuel’s leadership was only ever a proxy of God’s own rule—it was God they were rejecting.

The Apostle Paul, on the other hand (himself not a blameless character), was able to view opposition to his ministry with remarkable humility. When other preachers were trying to raise their own profile and add to his misery in prison—genuine selfishness on their part—what was Paul’s response? At least the gospel is being preached! (Php. 1:18)

Similarly, Christian leaders need to take extreme care that they cultivate humility and a deep sense of the precarious responsibility that they exercise. We who hold some position of leadership need to acknowledge with Paul that our achievements are losses (Php. 3:7) and that our only responsibility is the advance of the gospel. We might be called shepherds of the flock, but we are not owners. In another real sense, we are sheep ourselves. Whatever role you might think you have, it is Christ who is the head, and he demands that we recognise that our place in the body is limited and partial. The minister needs the church more than the church needs the minister: “The body does not consist of one member but of many” (1Co 12:14), and “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1Co 12:7). Ministers do not lead a dumb flock; on the contrary, the point of good leadership is to facilitate the exercise of everyone’s gifts.

All Christians, but our leaders most especially, need to consciously and regularly remove ourselves from any thoughts that we are central to God’s plan. We are to remember that whatever gifts we have are lent to us, and they are to be humbly exercised for the gospel, for the many, and for the common good.

If it takes deep humility to become a Christian, how much more does it take to lead other Christians? May God help us all to give humility pride-of-place among the virtues.


Josh Garrels

I wrote a post a year or three ago about two musicians I had come across: Josh Garrels and Mumford & Sons.

Having listened to more albums from each of them, I have found that M&S tend to be more repetitive and sentimental than they first appeared, and Josh Garrels is fast becoming one of my favourites of any kind. M&S are now becoming one of the world’s biggest acts, and they’re doing cool ironic videos with Jason Bateman. Josh remains relatively unknown, but you should undoubtedly give more of your time to the latter. Profound, poetic, and unusual.

2011 at George Whitefield College

GWCA number of friends have been responsible for helping to finance my three-year stint at the Student Y on the UCT campus, and now more recently my work at George Whitefield College. I was in the habit of sending newsletters to these kind people, but I have not done so for a while (for a few uninteresting reasons). So what follows is the first experiment with a newsletter-blog crossover, because perhaps even some of those who don’t know me might like to hear about the college. It’s a little college with a big job for Africa, so you might be interested…

Not only a Thanksgiving bird

TurkeyThe handful of students that we had not managed to entirely kill with overwork during the year decided to club together and go on a short mission to a partner church in Turkey. Turkey is fairly hostile towards Christianity, so I’m certain it will be an eye-opening visit when compared with complacent South Africa. We trust they’ll return safely and write their story for us. It’ll be on the GWC site in the new year, I’m sure.

My studies

One of my major tasks at college is to study up and become less of an idiot. Seeing as the former part of that is measurable, I’ll tell you how that is going. The short answer is ‘not well’, but allow me to elaborate. I’m busy with a Masters degree in Old Testament Biblical Studies at Stellenbosch University, and officially I’ve been at it for two years. I completed some the necessary course work and reading reviews last year, and this year I was meant to get down to the thesis itself. The first semester was devoted to writing a 300-page course on introduction to the Old Testament for GWC, which left no time for other things. When that was done, I rushed my research proposal through to meet the July deadline, without having done the kind of work it needed, and since then I have been discovering exactly how many rookie mistakes I make and how little I know. I managed to write two chapters, both of which have been entirely rewritten three times, and the second needs to go back to the drawing board again.

When the whole thing is finished, I will hopefully have written something interesting about how the OT understands prosperity and how we should carry it forward into Church life.

There have been other distractions from my studies, including:

A New Website

The GWC website had always looked like it was for a low-cost 1990s Mozambican short-sea shipping company, and after I had moaned incessantly about how long it was taking to have it redesigned, Sigrid and I somehow inherited the job of getting it up to code. The proposed new look that had been languishing in the development phase was not well liked or functioning ideally, so we chose a new template and managed to relaunch fairly quickly. After discovering some inoperable problems with that template, we chose a newer, shinier one, which is now working well and growing.

Remedial classes

Joc and Barry

Jocelyn and Barry: Obviously special needs.

Another thing that’s kept me busy has been remedial classes for some of our students. It’s become increasingly clear that we demand things from our students that we expect they will have learned at school (rhetorical and essay-writing skills, for example), but we have little or no plan for those students who have not developed these skills. Many of our students, especially the non-English students, have been struggling with high-level courses as a result. One successful fix was to begin the year with mandatory English testing for the first time, and we then streamed some students into an English course taught by a professional ESL teacher. I volunteered to offer some tutorials for doctrine courses with a focus upon the skills necessary to process doctrinal information, rather than merely reteaching the content. It was very clear that this kind of help is urgently needed, and as early in the curriculum as possible, so I hope to get a skills-based remedial course into the 1st Year programme next year, but I haven’t worked out how to sneak it in yet.

Next year’s classes

With some of our senior faculty on sabbatical in the 2nd semester next year, I have picked up the responsibility for 1st Year Greek (84 lectures!) and 2nd Year OT Exegesis in addition to my usual courses. I’m looking forward to more teaching, but it will mean stricter discipline in my thesis work. Right now I’m giving exactly no thought to thesis or lecture load, and paying more attention to doing nothing (or—during office hours—reworking an old writing project that’s been on my personal to-do list for 2 years).

Church movements

For various reasons (travel difficulty and ministry opportunity being two) we’ve decided in conjunction with leadership of both churches to move from St James in Kenilworth to St Peters in Fishhoek.

We’ve been at St James for 12 good years, and it really has been a life-changing experience being there. I went there on my first Sunday after moving to Cape Town to humour a friend from back home who said I should visit. Having come from a tiny family church of baptist leanings, I had wandered into an Anglican church of 2,000 members that used a prayer book and happened to be having a thing that involved children wandering down the aisles waving flags to loud music. They may have even baptised some babies that day, although to be fair I’m certain I would have run off if they had. I hated it a lot until the sermon, which made me quickly realise that I needed to give them another chance. I never looked back.

The teaching and encouragement that I have received at St James has been directly responsible for draining my taste for graphic design and getting me excited about teaching the Bible. In the early years, I was bringing my housemate to services, because she said she’d lift me, and she got converted under St James teaching too. As a result of that day 12 years or so ago, I’m now teaching at the denomination’s training College and married to my housemate with two small daughters. I wonder what I’d be doing now if I had run off that Sunday?

Christmas greetings

Thanks to all those who are supporting me at the college, or even just supporting the college in general. I think GWC is a great investment, and I’m happy that you’re sharing in what we’re doing. Have a great Christmas.

Becoming Perfect

I came across an interesting passage today — or rather, it’s an extremely popular, well-loved passage, but I saw something that I hadn’t noticed before. It’s from Psalm 32 and it reads as follows:

1 Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.
3 When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD” — and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
6 Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found; surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him.

Holy Grail MonksI like this passage because when we confess our sins — especially in church — we usually allow a sombre mood to descend, perhaps the mood equivalent of those farcical monks on Monty Python’s Holy Grail marching to their dirge and hitting themselves with boards. Of course, shame and regret are appropriate responses, but they’re not appropriate enough. They certainly can’t be the whole story. This Psalm correctly captures the idea that being forgiven is actually a blessing and a great privilege. Joy and praise belong with confession as much as self-reflection and sorrow.

The thing that I hadn’t noticed before was in verse 6. Perhaps I’m making too much of it, but I was struck by the description of the praying person as ‘godly’. It is striking because we would be comfortable using the name ‘godly’ for someone who doesn’t sin. Here it is the person who does sin, but runs to God for restoration. In other words, godliness is not here a statement about someone’s ethical uprightness, but their relational stance. I suppose that’s why the Pharisees always got it in the neck from Jesus: they made every effort to be not in need of forgiveness, but therefore failed ever to approach God for forgiveness, refuge or relationship of any other kind. They would do anything to be within the law, but they were never godly by the standards of this Psalm, because they never put themselves in the appropriate relationship of reliance upon God.

Flipping to Philippians
I was also prompted to think of another verse that is similarly strange, this time from Philippians 3. For this one I’ll have to leave the NIV behind and use a more woodenly literal translation:

12 It is not that I already received or already have been made perfect, but I pursue if also I may apprehend that for which I was apprehended by Christ Jesus.
13 Brothers, I do not consider myself to have apprehended; but one thing, forgetting what is behind, and straining forward to things ahead,
14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus.
15 Therefore, as many as are perfect, let us think this way; but if any are differently minded, this also God will reveal to you.

The surprise in this passage is the identity of those that Paul calls ‘perfect’ in v15. The ‘perfect’ (i.e. those who are acceptable to God) are those who recognise that they have not received or attained perfection. Paul says that we were apprehended for perfection, but this life can hold nothing more than the pursuit, not the attainment of it. Seeing as fulness, completion and perfection can only be ours if we’re given them as a ‘prize’ from above (i.e. at the resurrection), then neither those who think that they have reached the goal nor those who refuse to pursue it are on the path any longer. The latter have obviously drifted off after worthless things, and the former have attained nothing but Pharisaic self-righteousness, the complete antithesis of being apprehended by Christ.

So both these passages seem to me to be saying that the attainment of godliness and perfection has everything to do with clinging to the one who can grace us with those things, and nothing to do with our ethical excellence.


I am now officially sick of homeopathy.

We visited the pharmacy recently to purchase some colic medicine for the new little bundle of joy. Renette went to the lady positioned behind the prescriptions counter — the one wearing the white coat that usually indicates someone who’s endured an obscenely long period of rigorous study — and asked her advice about a certain brand. The woman looked distrustfully at the bottle in question, and advocated instead the homeopathic option. Renette then asked what the active ingredient in the mixture is, or why in general it is preferable. The woman responded:

“This one [the homeopathic mixture] is natural. That one is medicine.”

Now I can only assume that this person was a serial killer and, having just brutally dispatched the real doctor, now took on her victim’s identity. But this represents a common perspective, and a huge victory for what a friend of mine calls ‘the march of unreason’.

Before there existed what she sneeringly referred to as ‘medicine’, homeopaths ruled doctoring. Seeing as people had no idea whether or why certain ‘cures’ worked, there was no way of testing or improving upon ‘received wisdom’. And so in the early days, to release the evil spirits that were causing your migraines, you had a hole delicately drilled into your skull (presumably causing a different kind of headache). In more enlightened times, you might have been subjected to leeches or blood-letting, or, more mercifully, a good dose of fish oil.

Now, science has been able to study, test and isolate what works as a cure for certain problems (and what doesn’t), as well as to concentrate it and synthesise it. As a direct result, human life expectancy in countries where medicine is practiced is at an unprecedented high. We have surgery that works and that is painless. And, importantly, we have colic medicine that is backed up by research (even if your baby still screams nearly as often, and the research tells us that it causes paralysis in rare cases).

But now, scaremongers have somehow convinced us that science is evil (a recent Dove soap ad says, ‘”Who would rather believe, a scientist in a white coat, or real women?”), and that the wonders of nature can be harnessed for your eternal wellness. How do we know that weaselroot is good for toothache? Are you sure that there are no side-effects to Red-knob Devil-thorn, simply because they’re not catalogued on a paper insert? Let’s look at some of the things that are also ‘natural’:

  • Marijuana
  • Opium
  • Black Mambas
  • Poison Ivy
  • Oleander, Hemlock, Snakeroot and countless other deadly plants.

And so it goes on. Nature is not always so friendly. Eating almost anything will get you vomiting. While you’re busy vomiting, almost everything else will eat you. If homeopathy can’t demonstrate its value rationally and experimentally, then we might as well go back to drilling holes in our heads. Please can I have the medicine?

Misunderstanding Pascal’s Wager

Richard Dawkins explains and refutes Pascal’s Wager as follows:

“The Great French Mathematician Blaise Pascal reckoned that however long the odds against God’s existence might be, there is an even larger asymmetry in the penalty for guessing wrong. You’d better believe in God, because if you’re right you stand to gain eternal bliss, and if you are wrong it won’t make any difference anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in God and you turn out to be wrong you get eternal damnation, whereas if you are right it makes no difference. On the face of it, the decision is a no-brainer. Believe in God.

“There is something distinctly odd about the argument, however. Believing in God is not something I can decide to do as a matter of policy. At least, it is not something I can decide to do as an act of will… [I can do religious activities] but none of that can make me actually believe it if I don’t. Pascal’s Wager could only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God. And the God that you claim to believe in had better not be of the omniscient kind or he’d see through the deception.” (The God Delusion, pg 130)

Dawkins’ explanation of the Wager reflects the popular way that it is understood, but I believe this to be a misunderstanding. Certainly, the way in which Dawkins answers it would suggest that he either has not read Pascal’s own explanation of it, or that he gave Pascal as uncharitable a reading as possible. Continue reading

Shack Attack 5: Sin and Salvation

Postmodernity in many ways arose out of the ashes of the World Wars, which drew to an end much of the optimism and self-belief that characterised Modernism. It is our capacity for destruction and cruelty that is the ultimate enemy of postmodernism. Therefore, its big project has been disarmament. Ideologies and power systems are at the heart of all our conflicts, and so if we can do away with arrogance and power, perhaps we can do away with war.

In my last post, I discussed the attitude in postmodern Christianity, in evidence in The Shack, towards hierarchy and church structures. Now, I turn my attention towards the issues that are most important, and most troubling, in The Shack, that is, teaching about God’s wrath and salvation.

The fact that these issues touch most deeply upon the heart of the Christian gospel means that one must also be the most careful, both to avoid over-reaching (and thus wrongly condemning a fellow Christian), or to avoid tolerating teaching that is potentially most destructive. And this is just the problem in analysing The Shack. As a work of fiction, teaching is unfolded in an unstructured, unsupported way, and one is left to guess whether the words of a confused character such as Mack represent the author’s belief, or Mack’s mistake.

Furthermore, postmodernism highly prizes ‘reader response’ , which is the belief that the reader is ‘an active agent who imparts “real existence” to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation’ (cf. Wikipedia). In other words, the reader is the one who finally decides what the text means, or even creates its meaning. Ambiguity is thus not an enemy, but rather an opportunity for the reader to decide for himself what the truth is. The Shack is so difficult to analyse, and it has been so well received by all kinds of people, precisely because at the point where the gospel is likely to offend, ambiguity and confusion reign.

I was correctly criticised for labelling William P Young as a universalist in a previous chapter. He has directly claimed in interviews that he is not. He claims only to be restating scriptures from Paul (which universalists also do, mind you). But it is ambiguity and inadequate discussion of teaching on this matter that makes the actual view of salvation in The Shack so elusive.

As we have seen, the flaw in the postmodern view of hierarchy is that it assumes that hierarchy always violates genuine relationship, an assumption that is not shared by scripture:

“Submit to one another [that is, those various people to whom submission is due] out of reverence for Christ… Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Ep. 5:21, 24).

Our submission is a sign of reverence for Christ and reflects our attitude towards his rule. Yet this submission comes within the most intimate description of his loving relationship with us.

Similarly, The Shack makes a mistaken assumption that a God of love and a God of wrath are incompatible.

In the book, God’s relationship with people is likened to the relationship of a good parent to his child. ‘Papa’ is therefore ‘especially fond’ of every one of us. On pages 118-120, a key discussion about sin takes place:

Mack: “Are there any [people] you’re not especially fond of?”
Papa: “Nope, I haven’t been able to find any. I guess that’s jes’ the way I is.”
M: “Do you ever get mad at any of them?”
P: “Sho ’nuff! What parent doesn’t? … but that anger, especially for me, is an expression of love all the same. I love the ones I’m angry with just as much as those I’m not.”

So far so good. God does tell us that He loves all people, and if it were clear that the last line expresses that God can exercise wrath as well as love, Young and I would be walking the same path. However, in the story, Mack struggles to reconcile this assertion with the Biblical accounts of wrath and punishment of sin. Instead of clearing up this obvious objection, Young opts for evasion and ambiguity:

Papa: “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”

The genius of this line is that Papa never says that she doesn’t punish sin, and it comes in the context of the accusation that God enjoys punishing sin (which is an unhelpful exaggeration of the problem—it ought to be a discussion of whether God punishes sin). So, if you’re an evangelical in a generous mood, one might harmonise this with the numerous scriptures that directly teach that God does punish sin, though without enjoyment. However, given that it follows Mack’s anger at Biblical testimony of God’s wrath, the most natural way to understand Papa’s words is denial. Without attempting to find a place for God’s wrath in evidence in scripture, Young seems to be saying that God is not at all in the business of punishing people for their sins, but only in curing them.

A quick look at Hebrews 10:29-31 is enough to show the danger is Young’s teaching here:

“How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

This passage is one of many that shows the reality of God’s wrath and punishment of sin. The theme of God as avenger (hinted at here) also shows us that God does need to punish sin, because justice is not done in this life. Finally, it also reveals most starkly that sin is not in fact its own punishment. It may indeed be punishment in itself, but the damage that it does to us is entirely beside the point. The horror of sin is that is it rebellion: spitting in the face of God—more than that—in the face of God who gave Himself for us in ultimate self-sacrifice as a demonstration of His love and as the price of a New Covenant for us. Spitting in that face is the one thing that is worthy of punishment. The answer to our anger at God’s acts of judgement in scripture is not to pretend that they are not there, or that they’re not acts of God. The answer is to correct our convictions about the seriousness of sin.

In the chapter titled ‘Here come da judge’, discussion of sin and judgment is renewed. Young again equates God’s love for all people with a human father’s love for each of his children. One doesn’t have more or less love for any one of your children, you love them equally, despite their differences and failings. When you think of each individually, you’re ‘especially fond of each’. Their ‘sins’ don’t change your love for them. This analogy is compellingly developed in order to correct the view of God that sees Him delighting to send people to hell. Sophia, a figure representing Wisdom commands Mack:

“You must choose two of your children to spend eternity in God’s new heavens and new earth, but only two… and you must choose three of your children to spend eternity in hell.”

At this, Mack understandably expresses disbelief and panic.

Sophia: “I am only asking you to do something that you believe God does.”

This triggers in Mack an internal dialogue in which he realises that, while he always assumed God would be able to send people to hell, he finds it impossible to conceive of sending someone there who he cares about. Surely this is impossible for God, the book seems to suggest, whose love for everyone is deeper and more intimate than ours even for our own children?

Sophia: “So you suppose that God does this easily, but you cannot?”

Sophia insists that he choose which of his children to condemn. Mack thinks:

“How could God ask him to choose among his own children? There was no way he could sentence [one of his own] children to hell just because she sinned against him. Even if [they] committed some heinous crime, he still wouldn’t do it. He couldn’t! For him, it wasn’t about their performance; it was about his love for them.”

The breakthrough comes when Mack offers to go to hell in their place, and Sophia congratulates him for finally understanding judgment. Right judgment is judging everybody

“worthy of love, even if it costs you everything. That is how Jesus loves” (pages 162-163).

This chapter is moving and convincing, and as a father, it’s hard to argue with the idea that condemning a beloved child to hell would be impossible. However, as a parable to explain God’s judgment, it is seriously mistaken. The analogy between human fathers and God the Father fails for a few reasons.

Firstly, it ignores the reasons behind God’s insistence that He is the one who must avenge, and not us. God is able to judge impartially and justly, whereas we are biased and tend towards revenge rather than justice. Of any relationship, the human parent-child relationship is perhaps the most biased, a bias that is good for the survival of the child, but not good for justice. How many parents believe that their child is a genius, or will believe their child’s innocence even over the witness of a teacher? Furthermore, human judgment is severely limited by our inability to see the total consequences of our behaviour, and especially the true nature of sin. The fact that we are sinful as judges, and the fact that we are unable to perceive the true extent of our sins against our perfect creator, means that we tend to imagine our sins to be minor blemishes of no real significance. Every indication in scripture is to the opposite. When Isaiah is shown God’s holiness, he passes his own death sentence for his sinful lips (Is. 6:5). Later in his prophecy, God reveals that even the good works of rebellious people are as offensive as (literally) used menstrual cloths (Is. 64:6).

This diminished view of sin is the second problem evident in Young’s analogy. Mack cannot conceive of punishing his daughter “just because she sinned against him”. Even heinous sins are apparently not worthy of punishment. I find this hard to believe. If we imagine that the child in question had repeatedly raped and tortured another of your sweet young children, eventually killing her, could you really be a loving father if you decided to ignore the crime? You may indeed even continue loving the murderous child (as God surely does), but would you consider just punishment out of order for this child, and opposed to that love? How much more then, must hell (whatever the nature of the place ends up being) be both a place of God’s just punishment of deserving sinners, and yet also in keeping with his love?

The third problem with the scenario is that God’s love isn’t based upon our performance, but judgment is(e.g. Pr. 24:12; Ro. 2:6). Young sneakily forces us to choose whether we believe that God is characterised by love or by judgment by jamming the two ideas together. Yet, there is no reason to set love over and against punishment. A father disciplines those he loves.

Finally, Mack is considered to have understood Jesus’ love when he offers to go in the place of his children, because Jesus-like love “costs you everything”. Again, this is true, but not in the way that Young applies it. Jesus-like love does cost everything, but Jesus’ self-sacrifice does not exempt people from judgment by showing us all worthy of love. Jesus goes to the cross so that He can go under the penalty of God’s judgment and God’s outpoured wrath that we deserve. A just God cannot leave sin unpunished and choose simply to ‘love’ instead. Only by punishing sins in Christ can God be both just (satisfying His wrath) and also the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). Judgment is much, much more than ‘judging someone worthy of love’.

Young claims in interviews that he is not a universalist, but that he’s only restating what is clear from scripture about our salvation. There are indeed a number of statements in the book that do not fit well with most kinds of universalism, as Young is clear that salvation is only possible through Christ. Precisely what he means to teach on this matter is not clear, as the passages about salvation suffer from ambiguity more than most. It seems to me that The Shack is opposed to the idea that God will condemn anyone, which is the overwhelming message in the ‘Here Comes Da Judge’ chapter, and Young clearly states that Christ’s death has fully reconciled the world to God. As we shall see, it is impossible to know exactly what he means us to understand here, but it’s hard to see how one can hold to categories such as ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ under Young’s teaching.

Universalism & Religion
One of the key passages in matters of salvation comes on page 182:

Jesus: “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian… Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists, Muslims… I do not desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.”
Mack: “Does that mean that all roads will lead to you?
Jesus: “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”

The idea that Jesus was not a Christian is a well-worn favourite of postmoderns who despise systems and ‘outgrouping’. It’s supposed to be an enlightening line (judging by Mack’s response in the book, which is not quoted above), but what precisely does it enlighten? Is it supposed to indicate that Jesus doesn’t approve of any of church history up ’til now? That we got it all wrong having elders and preachers and formal meetings, despite the fact that all of these were clearly part of the Apostolic conception of ‘church’?

What does Young mean that Jesus doesn’t desire that people of other faiths become Christian? He says they ‘were’ Buddhists etc., but what are they now? ‘Brothers and sisters’ is no answer at all, because that is clearly true of teaching about the church (i.e. the gathering of brothers and sisters) in scripture, and giving a group a new name doesn’t change the group itself.

What does it mean that Jesus joins us in our transformation? What does it mean actually when a road leads ‘nowhere’? Or that Jesus will ‘travel any road to find us’? Mack poses the direct question about universalism (all roads leading to Christ), and even though the answer is ‘no’, Young still hasn’t given a clear answer. All roads don’t lead to Christ, but Christ nevertheless finds us on every road and doesn’t care too much whether we join ‘Christianity’. Is this really any different to universalism?

I can’t help but feel that Young is deliberately avoiding clarity here, in true postmodern fashion, so that the reader can have the room to respond in whatever manner comforts him.

Universalism & the Cross
A second important issue is raised on page 192:

Papa: “Honey, you asked me what Jesus accomplished on the cross; so now listen to me carefully; through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world.”
Mack: “The whole world? You mean those who believe in you, right?”
Papa: “The whole world, Mack. All I’m telling you is that reconciliation is a two-way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It’s not the nature of love to force a relationship, but it is the nature of love to open the way.”

Here is another instance of sublime reader-response material. It is impossible to know from this exchange exactly what Young means. Look at how the material fails to clearly answer its own question:

Papa’s first statement is supposed to be the ‘big reveal’, explaining the extent of Christ’s work. Bear in mind that ‘reconciliation’ is relationship language. In other words, when Papa says that He is fully reconciled to the world, in English it means that the relationship between God and man was perfectly restored by the cross. If one were to say, “At last! I have been reconciled to my estranged son!” it would be a lie if your son wasn’t aware of it. As it stands, Papa’s is a universalistic statement. He is, of course, probably trying to restate Romans 5, which is a favourite of universalists too, but Romans 5 is only claiming that the cross surpasses Adam’s sin in power, and in principle has the power to extend to all men and over all sin. The fact that not all people are automatically so covered is well attested to throughout scripture, such as Romans 3:26.

Mack’s response asks for clarification. He wants to know whether Papa really means the whole world, or whether reconciliation belongs only to those of faith. In other words, aren’t the benefits of the gospel only extended to those who believe? Isn’t relationship only restored once we have trusted in Jesus? If Young were really not a universalist, the answer would have to follow the likes of Romans 3:26 in saying that justification (and the reconciliation that follows this) is dependent upon faith. A universalist believes by contrast that Christ’s death has reconciled the world totally and in spite of itself.

Mack effectively asks for Papa to be clear whether salvation is universal or not, and Papa’s answer is that reconciliation has been effected for the whole world already. This would be universalism if it stopped there, but the rest of the statement shows that Papa probably doesn’t know what reconciliation means. It is indeed a ‘two-way street’, which is exactly why it is impossible to conceive of one-sided reconciliation. Yet this is what Papa then says, “I have done my part, totally, completely, finally”. You can’t consider yourself reconciled to someone who hates you. It’s nonsense.

So, between some universalistic statements, Young leaves a hint that people still have to do their part. The fact that hell and judgment seem to have no place in Young’s theology makes his claim not to be a universalist seem somewhat hollow. Whatever he believes is not too important (except for him). The most important thing is that the reader is given half-formed ideas that promise clarity (Mack asks for it on both occasions) and instead supply confusion. Perhaps the gospel isn’t meant to be hammered into postmodern moulds.

Universalism & the law
Young makes an extremely patchy analysis of the role of the law in the Christian life. Again, the ambiguity in the discussion makes it open to broad and easy misunderstanding, and in the final analysis, Young’s cynicism towards expectation and judgment leads to an inevitable conclusion that God has no requirements of us.

Sarayu: Jesus laid the demand of the Law to rest; it no longer has any power to accuse or command. Jesus is both its promise and its fulfilment.”
Mack: “Are you saying I don’t have to follow the rules?”
Sarayu: “Yes. In Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful… Trying to keep the law is actually a declaration of independence, a way of keeping control… [law-keeping mentality] grants you the power to judge others and feel superior to them… Enforcing rules, especially in its more subtle expressions like responsibility and expectation, is a vain attempt to create certainty out of uncertainty…”
Mack: “Whoa! … Are you telling me that responsibility and expectation are just another form of rules that we are no longer under? Did I hear you right?”
Papa: “Yup.” (Pg 203)

As a postmodernist first-and-foremost, Young is unsurprisingly ill disposed to ideas of law, because law also means the possibility of transgression and therefore punishment. All of this smacks of systems, organisation and power plays: postmodern swearwords.

Immediately prior to this quote, Young does a first-rate job of explaining that the law functions like a mirror to reveal our sinfulness, that we are unable to keep it, and that the Spirit indwells the believer in order to fulfil the law in us. He also makes it clear that this promise of law-laid-aside is void if we attempt to live life independently of Jesus. This certainly is an idea that is seemingly opposed to universalism, although it is never developed, and he never explains the implications of a life in rebellion against Christ. Having already said that sin is its own punishment, are we to assume that this is the end of it? On page 227, Papa says of Missy’s murderer, “my love will burn from his life every vestige of corruption… you [Mack] may well know this man in a different context one day”. Masterfully vague again, if this refers to an afterlife event at all, ‘hell’ is much the same as the usual concept of purgatory. Mack ‘may well’ meet the man (presumably) in heaven, but it is unclear what precisely this means or what the alternative is.

Young would no doubt claim that his discussion of the law is merely a paraphrase of scripture (e.g. ‘You are no longer under law, but under grace’), and the first line of the dialogue does so passably well, as long as the Torah (Jewish national law) is in view. Jesus is indeed its promise and fulfilment, and through the death of Christ, the death penalty has been paid on our behalf, freeing believers from any further legal condemnation.

Unfortunately, Mack’s clarification question forces the discussion into the domain of rules of any kind. The Spirit responds that Christians are free from any laws, rules, responsibilities and expectations. For a Christian, this is half true. It is true that none of these hold us in slavery and under death any longer. However, it is not at all true that we are no longer bound to any laws and responsibilities. Consider what scripture says:

“I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:18-20).

In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does not downgrade the law in the slightest. In fact, he intensifies it so that it is understood to rule the heart, not just the behaviour. Of course, we cannot interpret this passage in opposition to what Paul says about the law, and all the Apostles were adamant that the law did not apply in the same way to us that it did to national Israel. Nevertheless, this passage makes it clear that there is an expectation upon us to keep the spirit of God’s law from the heart. This is because the law does more than reveal our sin. It also reveals God’s character. “Be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45 etc.).

“…Command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work — which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. We know that the law is good if one uses it properly” (1Ti. 1:3-8).

Paul is the one who most readily claims that the law has been set aside, and the line ‘all things are lawful’ is his (although possibly taken from Corinthian theology, and quoted to indicate his disagreement with the sentiment). However, in this quote, God warns us to be cautious in the way that we deal with the law, because if we don’t know what we’re talking about, we’re in danger of becoming false teachers. He also affirms that the law is good if used properly, which he’ll later explain in broader, more positive terms than conviction of sin (2Ti. 3:15f).

In Young’s discussion, Sarayu (the Spirit character) also protests that law keeping ‘grants you the power to judge others’. I agree that legalism is an attempt at controlling what belongs to God, but law keeping is not wrong for the postmodern reason given here. In fact, in complete contrast to Young’s opinions, God commends and commands judgment of sin in the church in 1Co. 5:1-13:

“Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? … And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present… But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.'”

Enforcing rules is not ‘a vain attempt at creating certainty’. It is a clear Biblical command in order to preserve the holiness of God’s community.

Young goes on to say:

Sarayu: “Let’s use your two words: responsibility and expectation. Before your words became nouns, they were first my words, nouns with movement and experience buried inside of them; the ability to respond and expectancy. My words are alive and dynamic – full of life and possibility; yours are dead, full of fear and judgement. That is why you won’t find the word responsibility in the scriptures… Religion must use law to empower itself and control the people who they need in order to survive… If I simply gave you a responsibility, I would not have to be with you at all. It would now be a task to perform, an obligation to be met, something to fail.” (Pg. 204)

Papa: “Honey, I’ve never placed an expectation on you or anyone else… Why would I have an expectation other than what I already know? That would be foolish. And beyond that, because I have no expectations, you never disappoint me.” (Pg. 206)

Young once again confuses issues in these quotes, thereby giving the impression that God does not have requirements or expectations of us.

In the first quote, he makes out as though law is an invention of ‘religion’ so that it can gain power to control and exploit people. No doubt, religions (in so far as they are false) do this. However, it ignores the fact that God is the lawgiver, not some impersonal machine called religion. The law in both Old Testament and New is summarised by love for God and love for neighbour, and Jeremiah 31:31f says that the law is written on our hearts, but not that it was a mistake.

Young confuses the issue by saying, ‘If I simply gave you a responsibility, I would not have to be with you at all.’ Having polarised the discussion into radical extremes (either God or responsibility), the choice of God-with-us is the only real option. However, there is no reason to suppose that these are alternatives. We have many responsibilities in scripture (not least to repel false teaching), and God promises to be with us until the end of the age too. Why should these be mutually exclusive?

In the second quote, Young tries to dismiss the idea that God has expectations of us by setting expectation at odds with God’s omniscience (His ability to see our hearts and the future). Unfortunately, Young is mixing up two uses of the word expectation. ‘Expectation’ can mean ‘something looked forward to, whether feared or hoped for’ (Collins). God’s omniscience means that He never lives in this state, because He knows and determines the future. He will not be surprised or let down. However, when we say that God has expectations of His people, we do not mean this kind of expectation. We mean that God has decided ‘that something is requisite, necessary or required’ (Collins). This kind of expectation is not affected by God’s omniscience, because although He knows our weakness and propensity to disobedience, He still commands us, both in the OT and NT. So He does indeed have these expectations, and we certainly do disappoint God when we disobey.

So, Young again introduces confusion at a place where clarity is desperately needed. The result is a concept of a God who makes no demands, has no expectations and is never disappointed in anybody. Young may not call himself a universalist, and what he is exactly is never made clear. But his teaching about judgment and salvation is so vague and affirming that it is closer to universalism than it is to Biblical faith. At the very least, Young has happily stripped the gospel of the kind of radical call that saw Jesus refusing to accept a promising disciple who was only willing to share Christ with his love for his money (Mark 10; cf. Luke 14:26, 28, 34).

The Shack has impressed many Christians, and not without reason. The church is always prone to becoming cold and formal, devoid of life. In the place of dead orthodoxy, The Shack provides a vision of a God who is real, personal, loving and involved, infinitely patient and caring; a vision that has fanned into flame dormant embers of devotion in the lives of many.

However, for all its strengths, The Shack exhibits some serious weaknesses that make it dangerous at best, and deadly at worst.

Particularly troubling is Young’s tendency to tear down the God-given safe-guards of scriptural authority and church order, which are both set in place to train us in the knowledge of God and to protect us from destructive false teaching, and to nearly erase clear Biblical teaching about sin, judgment, hell and redemption by means of repentance, faith and obedience. It seems as though Young has a greater commitment to orthodox postmodernism than to orthodox Christianity.

Young makes a comment that is well worth hearing, but perhaps for him as much as anyone else:

“Mackenzie, I am what some would say ‘holy, and wholly other than you’. The problem is that many folks try to grasp some sense of who I am by taking the best version of themselves, projecting that to the nth degree, factoring in all the goodness they can perceive, which often isn’t much, and calling that God. And while it may seem like a noble effort, the truth is it falls pitifully short of who I really am. I’m not merely the best version of you that you can think of. I am far more than that, above and beyond all that you can ask or think” (pg. 98).

I wonder whether The Shack’s concept of God is derived from much the same practice that Young condemns. He might value different attributes of God, such as His kindness and motherliness and passion, but God is more than ever cast into the 21st Century human image; one that has been trimmed of all of God’s actual revelation of Himself that has proven culturally embarrassing, such as wrath, judgement, transcendence, hierarchy, Lordship, fear, and piercing purity. This is not the God from whom the Seraphim hide their faces and their feet. This is not the God so holy that to see Him means death.

Whether Young’s teaching about salvation should be labelled universalist or not is irrelevant. Even in its vague and ambiguous form, it represents a deep erosion of the doctrines that most directly have eternal destinies in the balance. Paul’s words to those who meddled with these matters in Galatia are chilling (Gal. 1), but should not for that reason be softened or dismissed. It is not a trifling thing when gospels other than that of the Apostles are preached, and it is not intolerant or nasty to point these things out. Paul warns of eternal condemnation for those who mislead. If I have erred or been too harsh or failed to understand Young at certain points, I apologise for my ignorance. If his teaching is true and mine false, I look forward to being shown from scripture where my error lies. Given what’s at stake, correcting false teaching, whether it be Young’s or mine or anyone else’s, is the most loving thing that we can do.