Thinking Out Loud

January 1, 2015

LifeWay, the SBC, #the15, and God

#the15As I mentioned yesterday, the latest “tempest in a Tweet-pot” involves a group calling themselves #the15, who have expressed outrage on Twitter against the retail arm of LifeWay, a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) publishing empire, because they sell so many things in their store of which #the15 does not approve, while at the same time claiming to operate by the highest standards. One blogger noted the company even sells a book by a self-professed mystic and Universalist.

In one corner, we have #the15. [Update] In an earlier version of this article, I mis-characterized them as ones whose Calvinism compels them to the most rigorous study of scripture which translates in the real world to acting as judge and jury on every published work, be it written by a blogger or national author. Like the Pharisees of old, they set the bar so high that very few obtain their seal of approval. Jesus said of such people,

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)

Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.  (Luke 11:46)

[Update] After more careful study, I realized I had fallen under a misconception created by Ed Stetzer, and that the original #the15 were desiring to see the retail chain do a better job of being gatekeepers of what people see, than the usual Calvinist judge-and-jury situation which is more common. 

The problem of course, is what gets in and what’s excluded?

The debate has been going on for days now, with members of #the15 and those who align with them taking Route 15 highway signs as their Twitter profile picture.

Some of the books that LifeWay sells are easy targets, such as Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. None of us who work in and around this industry saw the controversy going in, but it’s now quite clear the title is theologically problematic. In the little independent store I oversee, the title will be taken off display tomorrow, though remaining copies will be sold as requested. I’ve emailed our staff over the holiday, and the consensus is that we’ve got to act responsibly in light of what is now so plain.

But there are others I feel are being unfairly criticized like Mark Batterson’s The Circle Maker. In the book, Batterson borrows a story from Jewish antiquity about Honi The Circle Maker and propelling that story into a challenge to all of us “draw circles around” the thing or group of things that constitute our greatest needs or righteous desires. Admittedly, it’s not the analogy I would have chosen. But rather than meet with Mark and get to know him and what drives him, the analogy was just a little too outside the scope of conservatives, even though Jesus’ own story of Lazarus and the Rich Man contains elements of the afterlife which may or not be the case. (Commentators always point this out, that Jesus wasn’t indicating that people in Heaven and Hell can communicate with each other.)

Furthermore, now that he is branded, these same conservatives would be unlikely to touch Batterson’s new work, The Grave Robber, which is an excellent study of the miracles in John’s gospel.  (Actually, of all the stuff in the market, I’m amazed the DC pastor would be lumped in with Sarah Young and that he’s become such a target. I would dare these critics to check out the newer book, published by David C. Cook.)

In another corner, are those who are quick to jump on #the15 bandwagon and side with them in this, but this is more a vote against LifeWay than a vote for condemning books.

Still another group consists of people wanting to be identified as Calvinists who do not support #the15.

And finally, in the last corner, we have LifeWay itself. I have written about them before, and don’t wish to burden regular readers here with repetition, so you can simply check out these posts:

For them, it’s all about money. And more money. Regular commenter here and fellow blogger Clark Bunch replied yesterday:

LifeWay exists for one purpose only and that’s to sell you stuff. Any volunteer VBS director that has ever ordered materials knows that as well as anybody. A box of 15 paper whatevers are easily divided into “selling units” that cost 3X what you could get them for at Dollar Tree.

Heaven is for Real is a book they sell at LifeWay Christian *gasp* Bookstore. LifeWay is not a group of seminary professors or a board of trustees. It’s Southern Baptist Walmart. Our church uses LifeWay Sunday School literature for all age groups. Thom Rainer writes good stuff. But LifeWay should NOT be and I don’t believe claims to be in a position to say “this is what you should believe and teach others.” If you are a Calvinist, non-Calvinist or don’t know the difference, you can walk into their store and buy what you want.

If that’s all it is, a Baptist WalMart, then so be it. Let them stock whatever people are curious to read and throw in The Catechism of the Catholic Church and The Book of Mormon while you’re at it.

In our store in 2012, for several months we had a section captioned, “Heretics Corner – Because every bookstore should have one.” It was my place to include people whose orthopraxy makes others uncomfortable, though we do not stock popular liberal theologians like Marcus Borg or Shelby Spong because they undermine the rest of what we carry. And that’s an important distinction. I wanted to allow other voices to be heard even if I disagree with some aspects: Matthew Paul Turner, Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Webber and even Peter Rollins, despite the lack of a third name.

That’s the part of this story that’s so confusing. I find myself agreeing the book censors because I view LifeWay’s hypocrisy as the greater sin. But I don’t support a very narrow judgmental attitude where only a few books get in. I am always reminded of the Life cereal commercial where the kids say, “We’ll get Mikey to try it; he hates everything.”   I wish all the energy that goes into condemnation was being used to celebrate the good things that God is doing through a whole new generation of leaders and writers instead of mistrusting them. (Life Cereal, LifeWay…I’m sure there’s a punchline there just waiting…) And I’m sure God can use the little boy’s story in Heaven is for Real despite my misgivings, just as he used Left Behind to propel people into a study of the end times, even though it’s not my personal eschatological cup of tea.

So today’s discussion, for me at least, blurs the normal battle lines.

Either way, it’s the online story that ended 2014 and as of the morning of 2015 was still going strong on Twitter.

I’d write more, but I have to prepare my Rob Bell text for this afternoon’s Christianity 201 devotional. That’s right, Rob Bell. He wrote about The Good Samaritan and despite others’ misgivings about the direction he’s been heading, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Yes, in 2015 the lines are quite blurred.


Read more about one of #the15 protagonists here.

[Update] It gets worse: read more about him at this story.  This guy is a menace.

16 Comments »

  1. I really hate to see Christians duking it out this way. Of course we do need to contend for truth….yes blurry lines.

    Comment by Wally Fry — January 1, 2015 @ 12:11 pm

  2. I would think that as good Calvinistic determinists, they would accept as Sovereignly Ordained whatever gets on the shelves of Christian Retailers (Christ would probably shudder at those last two words).
    -mike

    Comment by mike and brandy — January 1, 2015 @ 1:06 pm

  3. The issue with Batterson isn’t his use of Honi, perse. One part of it is outlined here

    From Christian book reviewer and Pastor Tim Challie:
    ” The Circle Maker is a mess. I admire Batterson’s desire to pray boldly and love his call to more prayer, better prayer, more audacious prayer. Yet so much of what he teaches is sub-biblical, extra-biblical or just plain unbiblical. With hundreds of good books on prayer available to us there is absolutely no reason to spend as much as one minute or one dime on this one.”

    What is Tim Challies talking about? Probably quotes like this from the book : “Bold prayers honor God, and God honors bold prayers. God isn’t offended by your biggest dreams or boldest prayers. He is offended by anything less. If your prayers aren’t impossible to you, they are insulting to God.” or “God does not answer vague prayers. The more specific your prayers are, the more glory God receives.

    Those quotes are troubling, are they not?

    Comment by dustin germain (@paperhymn) — January 1, 2015 @ 1:07 pm

    • Tim Challies is probably the best — or more accurately, worst — of everything we’re talking about. If he says he hates it, that only makes me want to read it.

      I’ve been reading Batterson’s original blog, Evotional, long before he was a published author. When I read the quotation you mention, knowing the man and the context, it totally resonates with me. Batterson is neither Charismatic nor a self-help guru. He is simply saying that God implores us to “Come boldly before the throne of grace that we might find mercy and grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:16) We also do need to pray specifically; not to simply ask Him to “Bless Uncle Ralph,” but also ask him to “Help Uncle Ralph resolve his relationships with the people at work he’s not getting along with.” It’s not the God doesn’t hear the former prayer, but the latter is closer to true intercession.

      So no, the quotes are not troubling to me. Not at all. And certainly not in the Joel Osteen sense you think they might be.

      Read The Grave Robber and give the author a chance.

      And remember that Tim Challies is not God. Thankfully.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — January 1, 2015 @ 1:46 pm

  4. Like the Pharisees of old, they set the bar so high that very few obtain their seal of approval. Jesus said of such people,
    This is simply false. No “bar” has been set by these folks. #the15 are simply maintaining the bar set from scripture centuries ago and only abandoned in the last half of the 20th. The issue, as always is, what saith the Lord and we know what the Lord saith from the scriptures. You sir have misappropriated this passage for illegitimate use. I constructively urge you to reconsider.

    Comment by Tiribulus — January 1, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

    • There are so many problematic things in your short reply.

      First, this is not the first era in Christian history to see challenges to orthodoxy. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Church History would know this to be the case.

      Second, I have to disagree regarding the scriptures I referenced. When you listen to ex-Calvinists describing their exit from that doctrinal system, there are much repeated stories of trying to bearing a yoke too heavy to manage, or having to place God in a box of logical constructs. It is for many a heavy weight of legalism and conformity. When you are in a movement, you don’t see it the same way as people do outside that movement, but the idea that today’s militant Calvinists are modern-day Pharisees is simply not unique to this blog.

      Third, “what the Lord saith“? Sigh! Saith? Really?

      Finally, “we know what the Lord saith” which of course is rather presumptuous. While my conservative Evangelical background makes me tend toward “The buck stops here” interpretations, there are times we simply have to defer to those who see the scriptures as precious jewels and as mystery.

      On a personal level, I am so very thankful for those who offer different ways of looking at things. The diversity of writers and ideas is part of the wider Body of Christ, and scripture tells us that no matter what we think, “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her.” There have been a variety of opinions since the days of the First Century church, each with different spins on certain doctrines and practices. God foresaw and foreknew this would be the case.

      If #the15 had their way, LifeWay would sell only Bibles and maybe a very few books beyond that.

      And eventually, they would start disagreeing as to the appropriateness of those very few books.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — January 1, 2015 @ 2:01 pm

      • paulthinkingoutloud: “but the idea that today’s militant Calvinists are modern-day Pharisees is simply not unique to this blog.”
        Oh indeed not. Every mushy apostate emergent website on the internet agrees with you. I don’t care what whining libertine “ex” Calvinists say. I care what the word of God says. What it has always said and what, being the mind of the immutable Deity, it always will say. You are a typical dime a dozen liberal with the convictions of an overcooked noodle. You probably grew up in a decent church where biblical morality was taught and refusing to be restrained by anything vaguely resembling actual holiness, threw off the suffocating bonds of the faith once for all delivered to the saints so you could believe whatever morality you see fit. At least you sure are earmarked by the pattern of a few hundred trillion other neo emergent apostates I’ve bumped into around the web.

        I have no illusions. Your off brand “gospel” and Satanic “Jesus” will absolutely continue to gain momentum. Enjoy it while you can. There actually IS a God and you WILL find out how unimpressed He is with your tolerant, open minded mangling of His word.

        This should now be the part where you tell me how much I’m making your case for you, probably throw in a little “LOL” for punctuation, put up with maybe one or two more of my comments and then threaten to ban me. You haven’t the first flickering clue what you are talking about. You people are spiritual clones of one another.

        Comment by Tiribulus — January 1, 2015 @ 2:31 pm

    • So now that you have me so pigeon-holed, exactly how long have you been reading Thinking Out Loud?

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — January 1, 2015 @ 3:58 pm

      • Call it an educated guess. I would be happy to be wrong (I actually really would) and will publicly say so if I am. I mean it though. I wish I had a nickel for every “ex fundamentalist/Calvinist” I’ve talked to with a groovy God, gospel and Jesus they’ve recreated in their own image. If you are not one of those, you are a dern good impressionist. Of course there are degrees, but the core is the same.

        Comment by Tiribulus — January 1, 2015 @ 4:58 pm

  5. ” “Bold prayers honor God, and God honors bold prayers. God isn’t offended by your biggest dreams or boldest prayers. He is offended by anything less. If your prayers aren’t impossible to you, they are insulting to God.”
    please explain to me how this isn’t awful?

    Comment by dustin germain (@paperhymn) — January 1, 2015 @ 1:49 pm

    • Because anything less than praying-in-faith is demonstrating lack of faith.

      Okay, again, God invites us to come boldly before him. He wants us to be in the communion with him that prayer affords. He is happiest when we are engaged in conversation, as when he walked in the garden with man in the cool of the evening.

      Further, God is positively disposed and favorably inclined to occasionally intervene in the affairs of mankind, and his highest desire would be those situations where by his intervention, no human could possibly take the credit; a situation where people can say, “That was entirely God’s doing; there’s no other way of explaining it.” (Of course, this doesn’t happen every day, that’s why we call it a miracle.)

      Many times people pray and then add the phrase, “If it be thy will.” I think the little five word phrase is a reminder of the sovereignty of God, as Jesus demonstrated with, “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe that we need to pray according to the Word and the will of God, but there are others who feel that by adding that phrase, they are giving God some kind of escape clause; it is giving God an out. It’s saying, “You don’t really have to do this.” Or, “I don’t really expect this.” Or, “I recognize this thing I’m asking for is outside the ordinary.”

      Now, first and foremost, we don’t know the heart of the one praying, we can’t second-guess someone’s motives for adding that phrase, but we know that sometimes this is symptomatic of doubt. Praying, but not committing everything to the limitless power of God is simply not praying in faith. It’s an extension of the “Do you trust me?” question.

      Is Batterson using hyperbole here? No, I think he’s saying, don’t ask for things you’re quite capable of sorting on your own. Approach the throne of grace with your greatest aspirations, desires, hopes and dreams.

      And it’s not just empty words. He’s seen this faith rewarded in the life journey of National Community Church in Washington, DC.

      Luke 17:5 “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!'”

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — January 1, 2015 @ 2:31 pm

  6. I am currently reading “We Will Be Landing Shortly: Now What?” by Mike Hamel. I just checked to see and, as predicted, this title is not available from LifeWay. The book is self published and available from places like Amazon. I have not finished the book but will be publishing a review in the next few days and will highly recommend it to my readers when I do.

    The problem with Hamel is that he raises questions. He describes himself as a Christian agnostic, acknowledging the contradiction in terms. He was raised in a Catholic home but converted to evangelical Christianity. For 30 years he pastored, worked in church plants and evangelized. He then began asking pointed “what if” questions. After he survived cancer, cancer treatment, and multiple surgeries following a car accident, his wife suddenly and unexpectedly died of a heart attack. He had been preparing to deal with his own mortality but was caught by surprise by the death of his wife. He works through his issues on paper, the book resembling a journal more than a novel. He mourns, laments, and wrestles with matters of faith.

    There is a whole section on how he hopes that in end all people are saved. He wants the reader to question our established doctrines about heaven and hell, salvation and judgement. Such a book is dangerous because the reader might question his own beliefs and arrive at “the wrong” answer. I disagree with some of his findings but will recommend the book to others because it is a good book. I feel for the guy because for 30 years he taught and preached the same things I believe but is no longer certain of those beliefs. He hasn’t made up his mind yet and is working through it. I grew up in fundamentalist churches that didn’t want you “working through” anything, they wanted to tell you what to believe. In some ways no different than #the15. I have a built in push back mechanism when told what I HAVE to believe.

    Comment by Clark Bunch — January 1, 2015 @ 3:07 pm

  7. Wow! In one comment I was called liberal, Satanic, apostate and immoral. (And ’emergent’ which is so 2007…)
    But it was the word ‘mushy’ that hurt.

    Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — January 1, 2015 @ 4:07 pm

    • Paul says: “Finally, “we know what the Lord saith” which of course is rather presumptuous. While my conservative Evangelical background makes me tend toward “The buck stops here” interpretations, there are times we simply have to defer to those who see the scriptures as precious jewels and as mystery.”
      This is the very quintessential definition of apostate emergent mushiness. It doesn’t make any difference what year it is. The scriptures are not “mysterious”. Certainly not by your definition. This is a favorite invention of mushy liberals who refuse to believe what they clearly say. Many of the truths the scriptures reveal ARE mysterious though. For instance. The scriptures very clearly teach that God commanded light and matter to exist from nothing by mere fiat command. There is no reasonable doubt THAT they teach that. HOW that works is infinitely beyond the reach of my created finitude. People like you love to rebelliously conflate those categories and make WHAT they teach mysterious. I hope ya knock it off. It will not go over big at the judgement. The God of the bible is not confused.

      Comment by Tiribulus — January 1, 2015 @ 6:02 pm

      • You said something about me threatening to ban you. Does this happen often? I might be able to shed some light on why.

        Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory. I Tim. 3:16

        Again, I wait for your answer: How long have you been a reader of this blog?

        Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — January 1, 2015 @ 6:21 pm

  8. Paul says: “You said something about me threatening to ban you. Does this happen often? I might be able to shed some light on why.”
    Thank you, but I know why.

    Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory. I Tim. 3:16
    “VIII. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men attending to the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel. Westminster Confession of Faith Ch. III sect. VIII”

    No Calvinist denies mystery Paul. Which part of the apostle’s closing to his first epistle to Timothy do you find unclear? Maybe I can help.

    Paul asks: “Again, I wait for your answer: How long have you been a reader of this blog?”
    I spent about an hour lookin around today. You have vastly different definitions than I do. I’m sure you consider yourself quite mainstream and maybe even fairly conservative. I understand. That’s where we are today.

    Comment by Tiribulus — January 1, 2015 @ 7:18 pm


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