December 30, 2008

Obama-Warren Invocation Madness: Why the Big Fuss?

It's the story that just won't go away. When I first heard about the controversy surrounding president-elect Obama's selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration, I didn't think it was a big deal. After all, isn't that what mega-church pastors do best: pray in front of big crowds? Sure, I can understand why gay rights activists who had supported Obama's campaign felt somewhat betrayed since Warren was a big backer of California's Proposition 8 victory, but beyond that, I figured this was a flash-in-the-pan political tidbit that would simmer down over time. Surely there are more urgent priorities for the country than re-stoking the culture war's flames on the eve of 2009. Or so I thought.

Now that we're two weeks into invocation-gate, a slew of opinion pieces have been printed on the pages of publications like Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times as well as popular websites like where just yesterday, Christopher Hitchens offered a predictably angry secularist rant, calling Rick Warren names like "religious nutbag" and "the huckster of Saddleback." But it's not just familiar atheists who are slinging mud at this pastor. According to David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), a whole bunch of pro-lifers are mad at Warren as well. Meanwhile, equally vocal left-leaning interest groups and gay rights activists are just as angry with Obama. It appears that I underestimated how much people still want to keep jabbering about the Obama-Warren connection, as if this event somehow means these two men think exactly alike on hot-buttons like abortion and gay marriage.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but those on the extreme ends of both left and right thrive on anything that will add fuel to the polarization between "us" and "them." After all, the world of politics is so much easier to explain in hard and fast categories of black and white, good and evil. Pro-life pastors aren't supposed to publicly pray for pro-choice politicians, who in turn are not supposed to be on speaking terms with anyone who is "intolerant" of gays. Liberals must have assumed Obama was only talking to conservatives when he gave all of those lofty campaign speeches about moving beyond our partisan differences. For conservatives, it was a lot easier to paint Obama as the enemy when his Reverend of choice was named Wright and not Warren.

Theologically speaking, I consider myself an evangelical Christian, but I'm not a huge fan of Rick Warren per se. I have qualms with his "purpose-driven" sloganization of the Christian faith and market-based approach that sees church growth in terms of customer satisfaction and and pastors as CEOs. And while I'm not sure if agree with his controversial comments on the subject of homosexuality (it's hard to say anything NOT controversial on the topic these days), it really doesn't bother me that he was Obama's choice for the task. As Sarah Pulliam of Christianity Today aptly pointed out, where was all this ruckus when Joel Hunter, a pro-life, anti-gay marriage mega-church pastor prayed with Obama on Election Day as well as at the Democratic National Convention four months ago? How come no one was calling Obama a "traitor" back then? And while he has strongly supported GLBT rights as much as any other Democrat who ran for president in 2008, isn't Obama's official position on gay marriage that he opposes it?

Just as our new president might turn out to be more moderate than some evangelicals fear, perhaps Rev. Warren is not as right-wing as Arianna Huffington's band of liberal bloggers would like to think. Contrary to the prevailing stereotypes held by those on the outside looking in, we evangelicals are a politically diverse bunch that include not just household names like Billy Graham and Sarah Palin, but also respected scholars like Mark Noll and Richard Mouw, as well as a new generation of writers like Donald Miller and Shane Claiborne. We don't all vote the same way or think exactly alike. For a group that has often been associated with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Tim LaHaye and Ted Haggard, you could do a lot worse in choosing a spokesperson than Rick Warren, who again, contrary to popular perception, is actually one of the least politically partisan of those who fit the category of "evangelical celebrity." Despite his strong support of Prop 8, Warren is not a card-carrying member of the religious right. During the campaign season, he hosted both Obama and John McCain at his church, but he never endorsed either one or gave any indication of who he voted for. That fact that people from both parties have suspected Warren of voting for the "other" side is evidence of his non-partisanship.

Much to the frustration of culture warriors on both ends of the spectrum, neither Obama nor Warren seems interested in continuing the practice of using abortion or gay marriage as litmus test issues. If either of them did, there's no way we'd ever see them sharing a stage, much less the U.S. Capitol's steps on January 20th. Beyond the hot buttons, there is a broader set of issues including global poverty, climate change, AIDS and genocide on which they agree. While I would not likely choose Warren as my pastor or favorite author by any means, he's a more than adequate choice to pray at the inauguration. How many mega-church pastors do you know who reverse tithe, giving away 90% while keeping 10%?

So let's all take a collective breath and chillax because Warren's invocation is not an endorsement of the incoming president's entire package of policy positions and Obama's selection of Warren is not an endorsement of everything the pastor believes. If we could just agree on that much, it would be a good place to start.

December 17, 2008

My Wife the Preacher

Two Sundays ago (December 7), my beloved wife preached a sermon, her first ever. The text was Luke 1:26-38, the story of the angel Gabriel's visit to Mary. It was a beautiful, challenging, simple and profound message all at the same time, complete with vivid illustrations, careful exposition, reflective stories and solid theology. While it goes without saying that I am a biased listener who had the benefit of hearing her practice it several times before Sunday morning, my glowing appraisal was confirmed by the feedback she received from others who were in attendance.

Sadly, but not totally unexpectedly, a small number of people walked out of the service when she began to speak, presumably because of her gender. There were also a few complaints from others who are opposed to the concept of a woman preaching, regardless of her gifting or ability, even though the elders and pastors of our church are supportive of the idea. Since I can't pinpoint the exact reasoning and motivation behind the objections, I'm not sure if the disagreement was theological, cultural, or both. Perhaps they had never heard a woman preach before and wanted to keep it that way. Perhaps they were graciously removing themselves from an awkward situation, thereby preventing a heated confrontation so that others could listen without distraction. Either way, they missed out on an excellent sermon.

Out of respect for my complementarian friends who object to women preachers on the basis of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 which, in their view, prohibits all women from teaching or having "spiritual authority" over men, I recognize that there are mature and authentic Christians on both sides this debate. Even in 2008, the majority of evangelical churches in this country do not ordain female pastors and the debate over gender roles within evangelicalism is not likely to be resolved anytime soon. I will not take the time here to explain why I believe the Scriptures provide strong support for women preachers and teachers, but if you're interested, here's a link to a pretty good summary of the egalitarian point of view.

I don't pull any punches about the fact that I am an egalitarian, but I owe much of my spiritual growth to the godly influence of complementarian writers and preachers, most of them men. Of the half-dozen or so churches I've been a part of in my lifetime, only one has had a female pastor on staff. Of the 1000+ sermons I've heard over the course of my life, I'd be surprised if more than 5% were preached by women. I am not proud of these realities, but they have shaped who I am.

My egalitarian theological position is what it is, but what good would it do if I were to blacklist or throw shoes at anyone who is against women preaching? What would my bookshelf look like without the Reformed theological rigor of complementarians like J.I. Packer, John Piper and Sam Storms? Should I categorically write off everything they've written about the truth of Scripture because I disagree with them on this particular issue? Besides, there is an abundance of books on my shelves authored by egalitarians including Dallas Willard, Richard Mouw, Stan Grenz and Eugene Peterson to balance them out!

For better or worse, my wife and I belong to a church community that is part of a denomination that restricts the positions of pastor and elder to men only. We do not agree with this policy, but we willingly submit to it nonetheless. The rules may or may not change someday, but for now, my contention is that women should still be encouraged to develop their giftings even if the rules never change. We shouldn't need to wait for the ordination of women to come along before we can allow women to start sharpening their teaching and preaching skills. Rather than focusing on what is prohibited, we should be empowering women to use their gifts for the Kingdom wherever God has currently placed them, blooming where they've been planted.

Apart from serving as an elder or pastor, there are many opportunities and positions already open to women in our local body. Unlike more conservative churches, I'm proud of the fact that we encourage women to serve as ministry team leaders, worship leaders, small group leaders, Bible class teachers and other positions where both men and women are being taught. There is nothing in the doctrinal statements or policies of either our denomination or local church that prohibits women from leading a ministry team that may include men or teaching the Bible to a group that may include men. In the case of our particular church and denomination, the only rules against women preaching are unwritten, unspoken ones like "men should lead, women should follow" or "a woman's place is in the home."

With respect to these gender role assumptions, is it reasonable to assume that women teachers are needed for children and other women, but not for men? As a man, should I expect to gain a balanced and well-rounded perspective of the Scriptures without ever having to be taught by a woman? Are men the only ones who can ever be intellectually and spiritually gifted by God to exegete biblical texts and preach His Word? If God calls and gifts a woman to teach Sunday School lessons for children, we welcome her. If God calls and gifts a woman to lead a prayer group or start a new ministry, we affirm her. If God calls and gifts a woman to lead a Bible study, we support her. If God calls and gifts a woman to lead the congregation in worship, we recognize her gifts and cultivate a place for those gifts to be developed.

And yet, if God calls and gifts a woman to preach the Word on occasion, we dismiss this calling as "out of bounds" without even listening to the sermon first? I've heard my share of theologically irresponsible and poorly delivered sermons in my day, but I sincerely hope that I evaluated each message on the basis of its content and delivery, not the speaker's gender.

If I were to walk out of a sermon because I found out that the preacher was an African-American or a Native Hawaiian, I would hope that one of my brothers or sisters in Christ would kindly point me to the words of Galatians 3:28 where Paul writes, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." If I were to rationalize my point by saying, "I'm just not comfortable with black preachers because I was raised listening to Caucasian preachers," I would hope that someone would be bold enough to lovingly speak the truth to correct my prejudices. I'm not a radical feminist who derives any joy from humiliating or taking revenge on the entire male species for the oppression of women that has taken place throughout history. I'm not trying to blur every distinction between male and female. I believe that God, in His infinite wisdom and artistry, created plenty of healthy differences between men and women, but the ability to preach a good sermon is not one of them. My wife's homily last week was proof of that.

So the question is this: How do we resolve the thorny issues of day-to-day disagreements within the local church? What happens when people of sincere faith disagree about the role of women in ministry? Should we call each other names like "feminist" and "sexist" and see who wins the verbal slug-fest? Should we wait until 100% of the congregation is "ready" before we allow women to use their gifts? Should we squelch the controversy and hope it will disappear if we sweep it under the rug? As Shane Claiborne likes to say, my hope is that we can learn to disagree without being disagreeable. We must learn to speak the truth in love. We must learn to tolerate, respect and even value differences of opinion when they are expressed with civility and Christ-like kindness. For the sake of our witness to the world, we must to learn to disagree well. The cost of disagreeing poorly is too great.

Theological or cultural differences within the body should not be grounds for severing a friendship or cutting off the lines of communication and dialogue. After all, if I never shared a pew with anyone who didn't have the exact same doctrinal convictions as me, I'd be missing out on a lot of great sermons.

December 4, 2008

I'm Tired...

It's been a long semester, but there's just one week to go. One final 15-page paper to write. One last assignment to hand in. One more week of fighting the traffic. One more week of coming home late. One week from today, my last class will conclude and 4 short weeks of school break can begin just in time for the Christmas season to overwhelm me.

I'm tired.

I'm tired of getting home after my son is asleep and leaving in the morning before he wakes up. I'm tired of looking up journal articles, fretting over in-text citations, APA formatting and layouts for PowerPoint slideshows. My brain is tired of academics. I'm tired of concepts, theories, timelines and and policy specifics.

I'm tired of reading about society's complex social problems, whether in textbooks, blogs or on the front page of the paper. I'm tired of gloomy headlines and cynical forecasts about the economic crisis, bailout proposals, cabinet picks and the Bush/Obama transition. I'm even starting to get tired of politics- wow, did I really just say that?

Don't worry, I still want to change the world, just not today. I still want to help people break free from poverty, just after I finish writing my paper about it. I still want to pursue truth, justice and peace, just let my brain catch its breath. Right now, all I want to do watch NBA highlights and chase my toddler around the living room. That sounds very nice.

With school winding down and the holidays fast approaching, I'm ready for a change of pace. I'm looking forward to drinking egg nog, watching It's A Wonderful Life and going out to see the Honolulu city lights display as we do every year. I'm ready to spend time catching up with family and friends.

On a deeper level, my mind and heart are ready to celebrate the birth of Christ. I'm hoping for a simple, but reflective Christmas this year. Shopping does not interest me, but I'm more than ready to sing carols about peace on earth. I don't need any spiffily packaged presents this year, just tell me the old Christmas story. I want to hear about the shepherds, the angels and wise men from the East. Tell me about Gabriel, Herod and the journey to Bethlehem. Tell me about Mary, Joseph and their newborn King. Tell me about the Incarnation. Tell me about the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. I will never be tired of that story.