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John D. Pierce | Blog


Soiling good terms

By John Pierce

Just when you think most of the damage is done there arises those who blend their narrow theology and narrow political ideology into yet another poisonous stew. Such mixtures have fed discrimination, arrogance and hostilities for much, much too long.

Along the way, good terms, titles and phrases get perverted. It seems like “I’m not that kind of Christian” is required before engaging in most daily conversations now.

Humbly and lovingly following Jesus tends to get replaced with fighting for my own way. And now such self-seeking, power-driven (all the stuff Jesus said to avoid) behavior is being excused and advanced as seeking “religious liberty.”

There goes another good term if we aren’t careful to protect it like it protects those who need it most.

Last Sunday, many of us preached from the “hard words” of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-48, the Gospel text offered by the lectionary about not fighting an evil person, turning the other cheek, giving to those who ask, loving one’s enemies — and more. I titled the sermon, “Who’s a literalist now?”

Of course, those who claim the highest view of biblical authority are often those who skirt around such texts or seek to qualify or explain them away with words like: “What Jesus really meant was…”

It is a shame when good terms and phrases like “religion liberty” and “following Jesus” are soiled by self-interest, fear and the desire to exert one’s will over others.

In much of American Christianity, we’ve come a long from the kind of behavior to which Jesus calls his followers — and it is not the right way.

Blogger Rachel Held Evans put it bluntly and well recently: “As Christians, …we are called to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love even our enemies to the point of death. So I think we can handle making pastries for gay people.”

It is very important to not misuse religious liberty while ignoring the clear callings that should distinguish those who follow Jesus.

The guarantee of religious liberty is of vital importance to those who suffer under oppression and real persecution — as once did that little, suspect gang of Baptists settling into America. It is not a convenient justification for the powerful to carry out discrimination in unloving ways.

And the call to love beyond those we like; to walk extra miles; and to be generous above what is expected of us is not up for a vote for those who claim to follow Jesus. Those are clear commands.

As I said Sunday, I looked through the Gospels for an exemption to this higher calling for us good American Christians of today. But, I couldn’t find one.

It seems that selective obedience is not obedience at all; that’s called convenience.



A much-needed word

By John Pierce

Christianity, along with other faith traditions, is often soiled by the abuse of power, harsh legalism, and the accommodation and even advocacy of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. Religious faith often looks very ugly.

Martin Thielen doesn’t hide from that fact in his book, The Answer to Bad Religion is Not No Religion: A Guide to Good Religion for Seekers, Skeptics and Believers (2014, Westminster John Knox). In fact, he faces it head on.

The pastor of Cookeville (Tenn.) United Methodist Church, and a former Baptist editor, affirms what should be obvious but is sometimes missed: Ugly religious expressions, though much too numerous, don’t represent the millions whose faith motivates them to live in ways that are kind, loving, generous, and even sacrificial.

Therefore, it is possible (and wise) to reject “bad religion” — without generalizing those negative characteristics to all expressions of religious faith.

Thielen is not on the defensive. He rolls out all the ugliness that is often spouted from the mouths of religious leaders or carried out in the dark corners of religious enterprises. He offers as much condemnation of such hostilities and abuse as any outsider.

Instructively, however, he shifts in the second part of the book to the fair but sometimes missed reality that eliminating all religion because some religion is bad is neither wise nor possible. The Soviet Union and China had that quest, he noted, and it failed.

Thielen does some good theology in chapter seven, addressing the toxicity of bad religion, the abuses that can come from those claiming belief in a literal Bible, and the mysteries (that honest believers acknowledge) resulting from the problem of suffering in the world.

“One of the major challenges to religion is the problem of suffering,” he writes. “I don’t pretend to have easy and simple answers to this issue. However, Christian believers do have some thoughtful responses…” — which Thielen addresses well.

To reject religious faith in toto does an injustice to those whose faith commitments to justice have a remarkable influence on society — even when facing opposition from those with bad religion. The civil rights movement, led by Christian ministers and headquartered in African-American churches, is but one good example.

Thielen writes in a popular style that is intelligent, yet easy to read. He brings good theological insights mixed with historical context as well as recent accounts in the news.

His book will find a spot in my study on the shelf with Wayne Oates’ When Religion Gets Sick (1970) and Charles Kimball’s When Religion Becomes Evil (2002), along with other good writings on this subject. These are important lessons to be learned and remembered.

The fear of scientific discovery by some believers, the selective hostility toward gay and lesbian persons by some pulpit pounders, the continued oppression of women by some churches, denominations and other religious groups, the ugliness of funeral protestors (whose name I’ll not acknowledge), and the numerous examples of tragic abuse of children and others in some religious circles, deserve sound condemnation and rejection.

Such ugliness, however, does not represent the millions whose faith motivates them to free the oppressed, care for the vunerable and speak truth to evil. That’s not a defensive position, just a fair one.

The creator God made known in Jesus Christ needs no human defense. Yet the image of God is soiled as well by those who claim divine blessings on their narrow-minded bigotry and acts of evils.

Rejection of that kind of misrepresentation is needed as well. For as I’ve said before: I don’t believe in the god that people who don’t believe in god don’t believe in.


Stuff people say to their ministers

By John Pierce

In my sermon last Sunday to Macon’s Vineville Baptist Church, titled “This is not Walmart,” we considered the ways engagement in church is (or should be) distinct from all other experiences.

The early church leader Paul’s exasperation with some believers in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3) reminded us that immaturity and pettiness are ageless obstacles to fulfilling the mission that Jesus revealed.

Over in the so-called “love chapter” (1 Cor. 13) Paul speaks more eloquently about the importance of putting away childish things. And, of course, a major mark of maturity is to stop treating wants as needs and putting personal preferences ahead of the common good.

We expect to hear cries of “Give me, give me, give me” and “mine, mine, mine” from toddlers. But such sounds are rather unbecoming of those who are adults, at least chronologically.

I told the wonderful Vineville family of my plan to asked friends who serve in pastoral ministry to help gauge the kinds of things people say to them during the week. So pastor-friends, here’s my suggestion.

On one side of a ledger record those comments and questions you hear about how someone does or does not like the way the congregation functions (or should function) institutionally. For example:

“I liked the offering better at the end of the service.”

“The youth are making a lot of noise upstairs on Wednesday nights.”

“Our Sunday school room is not being set up right after those tutoring people use it during the week.”

“The sanctuary was too hot today?”

“The sanctuary was too cold today?” (Same service, different person)

On the other side of ledger would be comments related to fulfilling the church’s mission, such as:

“I’ve retired and would like to do something helpful to others a couple of afternoons each week — have any ideas?

 “We skipped birthday-present giving in our family this year and set aside $500 to help a family that could really use it — have any ideas?”

“I noticed Mrs. Smith needs a wheelchair ramp. Will you announce that I’ll meet whoever wants to help at her house in the morning?

“My church friends and I play basketball every Saturday afternoon. What if on the first Saturday of every month, instead of a pick-up game, we visited some elderly people who don’t get out much and could use some company. Can you share some names and contact info?

I’d love to hear the results.

Often church leaders spend too much time and other resources addressing the personal preferences of those who mistakenly bring to church the same expectations they take to a restaurant or store: those of a consumer.

Focusing on our wants — and then being hypercritical when everything is not done our way — is neither mature nor constructive. Yet it is always easier to complain than to serve.

Rightly, we choose congregations that fit our understanding of faith and practice. Thereafter, we are to bring our varied gifts and personalities and shared resources for redemptive purposes beyond anyone’s personal preferences.

The higher calling is to ask: “What do I have to offer to this community of faith — at this time and in this place — and then, together, beyond this place to a world in need of love, grace and mercy?”



Bill Gothard and those who pick up the pieces

By John Pierce

Over the years I counseled many students who had naively bought into Bill Gothard’s cult-like teachings that had scarred them. He isolated himself from any questioning — presenting his rigid and often-wrong biblical interpretations as coming directly from God.

Though tragic, I’m not surprised by the revelations of Gothard’s abuse of young female employees nor his refusal to take responsibility for his misuse of power. Narcissists of his order consider themselves above the accountability that they demand in others.

Before writing my doctoral dissertation on Christian approaches to the decision-making process, I attended and critiqued his “basic seminar.” It was far worse than I expected in terms of really bad theology and psychology, legalism that would make a Pharisee blush, and his failure to bring any perspective other than his own into the presentation.

Most astonishing was his overt condescension toward females. His attempts at humor were always mocking of and even hostile toward women. I marveled that those in attendance didn’t rush the stage. But the gullible, gathered crowd just soaked up his nonsense with the sponges they had traded for their brains at the door.

It was hour after hour of note taking without any critical analysis. What a shame.

I’m not exactly sure what Jesus meant about being wise as serpents but gentle as doves. But enough wisdom to see and acknowledge the dangers of this man’s teachings would have saved a lot of tragedies.

But, of course, those who waved warning flags were simply dismissed by his loyal followers as “not believing the Bible.” But we stayed around to pick up the pieces — lots of badly damaged pieces in the name of Jesus.

(Recovering Grace details firsthand accounts of Gothard’s heavy-handed ways including his repeated targeting of young women — who often continued facing such abusive treatment due to their parents’ blind allegiance to a man they believed could do no wrong. See


Bibles among bagels survey

By John Pierce

Two recent studies have stirred conversations about the most “Bible-minded” cities in the U.S. Topping the two lists are places where large chunks of my life have been spent: Chattanooga and Atlanta.

The American Bible Society, in a survey conducted by Barna, considered how often residents of 100 American cities read the Bible — as well as their perspectives on the accuracy of scripture. The first is a pretty good measuring stick while the latter, as worded by Barna, is extremely weak.

Regardless of how much individuals read and revere the Bible, and apply its teachings to daily living, such persons can not be considered anything better than “neutral” or “antagonistic” toward the Bible unless they claim the Bible is without error — as if that is the only valid description of biblical inspiration.

Such categorizing falsely equates an honest acknowledgment of clear discrepancies within the biblical canon with a disbelief in the Bible’s inspiration and authority when properly interpreted. So the survey ignores the many faithful readers and followers of the Bible who consider the biblical revelation to be both divinely inspired and trustworthy on the matters that matter, but are unwilling to make claims that the Bible does not make for itself.

Unless the purpose was to stir another endless debate over theories of biblical inspiration, the ABS should ask Barna for a refund until someone with a better understanding of hermeneutics asks the questions.

The survey results were not particularly surprising — though any of the top tier cities could be swapped around. Chattanooga's top position was held by its neighbor Knoxville in the previous survey. Birmingham came in second. Lynchburg, Va., epicenter of the Falwell empire, came in third.

Of greater interest and reliability, the ABS survey found that 80 percent of Americans consider the Bible to be sacred and that copies abound — averaging 4.4 Bibles per household.

Again, we all know that owning and revering Bibles don't necessarily equate to good biblical interpretation and application. Much carnage has come from those with high regard for the Bible that they misuse to justify discrimination, injustice and all matters of evil.

A second report is interesting too. A recent Time article noted that the online Bible resource (that I use frequently) has provided interesting data on its use by those in various cities.

Even when adjusted for population, Atlanta was first in searching the site's multiple versions of the Bible — with Dallas/Fort Worth and the Washington, D.C. area following.

Of course, there are other online Bible sites and some people still use print-and-paper Bibles and reference books. But such data can be of interest.

However, reading too much into these studies can be misleading. And, as we well know, reading the Bible is easier than living out its reliable and consistent messages of redemption, justice and hope.

It also helps to remember that only individuals can be Christian — not cities or nations. And, as many of us have found, often those who least remind us of the Christ found in the holy texts are those who make the strongest claims on his name and the Bible.

So we would do well to not assume Bible-mindedness equates to Christian faithfulness, though it is wonderful when it does.

However, sociology of religion can be fascinating. The religiosity of some cities is noticeable — and sometimes notably different. It is something I always observe whether in Asheville, Washington, San Antonio or anywhere else.

Mostly, I take note of how often morning conversations at Panera Bread are about church matters or faith issues. That happens a lot in Birmingham, Macon, Chattanooga and other Bible-belted places.

Perhaps more scientific would be for me to start counting the Bibles among the bagels. But like Barna’s errant questioning, there would be holes in my findings too.   

Complete rankings from the two studies can be found in this Time article.