Leadership Lesson from the Trump Administration

wh-pressThe Trump administration has certainly moved with great effort and rapidity since taking office. I usually do not comment on political issues as such, but I was caught by one item that I could not shake.

The issue is the temporary halt to refugees and/or immigrants from seven specific countries. Many have labeled this a Muslim ban. Many have taken issue with that characterization. I am not going to comment on the policy decision in and of itself, but rather how the administration has reacted to the responses to it.

First, I am amazed that the administration would use the “lemmings” defense for justification of the executive order. This is also knows in my house as the “six-year-old” defense. It goes like this:

Everyone else is doing it. Why can’t we?

Rather than make a decision and stick to it, the administration pointed to all of the other administrations that have also enacted similar policies to try and justify its actions. This is actually not the mark of strong leadership. (I was also amazed at how the Obama team won its first election on the “Bob the Builder” platform of Yes we can!, but that is for another time.)

Actually, this response shows the real leadership lesson I wanted to point out. When a leader makes a decision, it is not just the decision itself that is debated or analyzed. It is the perceived character or intention behind the decision that is debated. The fact that other administrations may or may not have made similar decisions and did not face the same repercussions in the public sphere is exactly the point. It is not just the policy that is in question, it is the intention and character of the person creating the policy that is the concern.

For leaders at any level in any organization, whether it is civil service or the church, our character matters. Our character matters even more than our decisions at times. This is because we can make all the right decisions our entire lives, but if people suspect our character of being self-serving or antagonistic or hateful, they will not agree with the decisions on principle.

The Trump administration has reminded me of this leadership lesson every time I turn on the news. My character counts in my leadership and my decision making.

Thank you, Mr. President.

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Polarization Damages the Church

conservative-liberal-281x300In America we are seeing the increasing polarization of our country. This is especially clear in this election year. The polarization, though, is not just in politics. It is in the Church.

The right/left divide is harming the Church in subtle ways. Christians who are on the left of social issues mistrust Christians on the right, and vice versa. We now have a Church culture where people who advocate for evangelizing and converting others are suspicious of the motives of those who want to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Those who want to help the immigrant and foreigner among us are wary of those who adamant about the fundamentals of the faith.

Christians paint caricatures of each other as either being so open-minded their brains fall out or so closed-minded that they want to establish a theocracy in the US. (Unfortunately, there are fringe groups on the extreme right and left that live up to these pictures, but the vast majority of Christians do not.)

Now, I do not believe that unity is a virtue that ought to be held no matter what anyone believes or how anyone acts. Denying the divinity of Christ is not Christian, nor is killing an abortion provider. But we in the Church have allowed the political polarization in our culture to affect us.

It is now uncommon to hear from the same Christian that we have a bounden duty to not only offer Christ to the lost, but to seek justice. We not only are called to proclaim the Name by which all may be saved and offer a cup of cold water in His Name. We are to care for the widow, orphan and loose the bonds of oppression as well as seek and save the lost.

We have a responsibility to care for the poor and to protect the unborn.

If Christians do not find ideas, policies, and platform points from both the right and the left with which they agree, they are not reading the whole Bible. If Christians do not find ideas, policies, and platform points from both the right and the left with which they disagree, they are not reading the whole Bible.

Put another way, Christians ought to equally offend the right and the left as we follow Jesus.

Think about this and listen carefully to what each side is saying, in politics and in the Church. You may be surprised by what you hear.

Texas Planned Parenthood Decision and a Christian Response

Before I begin this post in response to the indictment decision of the grand jury in Texas against the anti-abortion activists instead of Planned Parenthood I would like to make two points very clear.

40th Anniversary March for Life in 2013. My family was here and did the March.

40th Anniversary March for Life in 2013. My family was here and did the March.

  1. I am against abortion. I was adopted at birth in 1975, two years after Roe v. Wade, and have a personal stake in the decision not to abort unplanned pregnancies. I am also a father of four and cannot even conceptualize having ended any of their lives before they had a chance to live.
  2. This is one response, not the only response, a Christian can have to this news. Obviously I believe I am correct, otherwise I would not be posting this piece. Yet I am not narrow-minded enough to think that my opinion is the only one that matters in the world.

So, now that I have made those two points, here is my take on what Christians ought to do in response to this issue.

STOP trying to have the government regulate everyone in the country to follow a Christian outlook on life! Abortion is morally reprehensible. That is a given. Any society that would willingly kill its own children is a weak and selfish society. It is a barbaric practice that we sterilize by performing it in a medical setting and calling it a procedure. It is infanticide, plain and simple.

Yet we Christians would not have to bring legal action if we would spend more time discipling the people we have to live by a higher standard than what is legal in our country. We would not have to bring legal action if Christians took seriously Thou shalt not kill and Whatever you did to the least of these you did to me. And We would not have to bring legal action if we not only lived this way, but encouraged others to convert and live this way with us. Planned Parenthood would disappear if there was no market for their services because there was no demand by potential patients and customers. It would not matter that abortion is technically legal in the US if our society did not avail themselves of the procedure.

We need to quit trying to have the government, at whatever level, try to force us by law to live a certain way. If something is morally wrong and sinful, convert others and train ourselves to live to the higher standard God calls us to live. This is how the Church functioned in the first 300 years of its existence. We did not petition the Roman government to change laws. We simply lived according to God’s vision of life. And at that time we were persecuted, had our property confiscated, our rights revoked, imprisoned, and killed. Yet we never led a legal drive to change the laws of the Empire. We simply lived as Christ taught us. That was what converted the Empire, not law suits.

Just a thought.

Revelation 2:20 and Tolerating Heresy

It always amazes me how many Christians will tolerate heresy within their churches and denominations. Sure, there can be differences of opinions on many different aspects of the faith which are not heretical, but there are denominations that have people in leadership who deny the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, and other central aspects of God.

The letter to Thyatira, contained within Revelation 2, deals with this issue. Jesus dictates seven letters to seven different churches, and this one has issues like this. Jesus praises the church in Thyatira, and then he follows it up with this:

20 But I have this against you: you put up with that woman, Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. You allow her to teach and to mislead my servants into committing sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols.

Jesus counts it as a sin for righteous and faithful people to tolerate heresy being taught within the Church.

This Christmas, as we celebrate the Incarnation of the Living God, we would do well to remember that differences of opinion are one thing, heresy is something completely different. A good starting point to tell the difference would be a few questions:

  • Does this opinion contradict who the Church proclaims God is? Does it deny the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the personhood of the Holy Spirit? Does it try to blend the identity of our God with other gods through teachings, rituals, or other corporate events?
  • Does this opinion lead people to behavior or condone behavior that the Church has taught is immoral?

If any of these questions can be answered yes, then you may want to take Jesus’ warning to Thyatira seriously for yourself.

Jolly old St. Nicholas did not tolerate heresy. He is famous today for giving gifts to children, but he was also famous during his lifetime in the 300s for punching Arius at the Council in Nicaea in 325 when he heard Arius’ position that Jesus was not God but was created.

Nicholas-Icon-Meme-2

James 2:26 and Dead Faith

2013_08_FaithI have lived in many places over the years and every once in a while I end up in a community that is adamant that Christians can’t have “works” because we are saved by faith alone.  Apparently those Christians have never read James.  It would not be surprising.  Martin Luther, that venerable reformer, wanted to remove James from the Bible (why not, he got rid of several Old Testament books!) but was prevented from doing so by others.  James didn’t fit his theology of sola fides or faith alone for salvation.  Here’s why:

As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.

That is pretty clear and straight to the point.  If you want to read it in context, here is a link.  In fact, the only place the phrase faith alone occur in the Bible are in James 2:24:

So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone.

Luther was fighting against a corrupted system in the Roman Catholic Church of his time in which there was no discussion of faith, but only a system in which people worked for God to work off their sins.  His message of salvation by faith alone was a radical return to the idea that God saves us by grace so that we can live a Christian life.

Christians today who say there is no place for works in their lives take Luther’s statements (consciously or unconsciously) and try to apply them to a radically different situation.  They would do well to reexamine James, because James has the antidote to much of what is wrong in many Churches in the West today.

Faith is not really faith if it is not strong enough to lead to a transformed life.  This is because faith is not an agreement to a group of ideas about God.  It is a relationship with the Living God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–that leads us to be transformed step by step, grace by grace, and glory by glory, into the likeness of Jesus Christ.  If there is no transformation, if there is no changed life, if our lives do not increasingly look like Jesus, there is no faith.

John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement, said that we are not saved by works, but neither can we be saved without them.  If we say we believe in Jesus Christ, but our lives do not show that belief, what does it say about our profession of faith?

Does this mean that in order to say we have faith we must be perfect?  Absolutely not!  If we have faith we must struggle against sin and seek to do God’s will, obeying Christ’s commands–for if we believe in him we acknowledge him not only as our Savior, but also our Lord.  We obey our Lord or we are unfaithful.  As we try to live the life Christ calls us to live we seek his help in fulfilling his calling upon our lives.  God gives even more grace to those who pray for it so they can live the Christian life.  This transformation occurs over time, as our relationship with God grows deeper.

Do not be drawn away by the idea that we are saved by saying we have faith alone.  Faith is not faith unless it results in a transformed life.

Hebrews 10:39 and Christian Courage

faithsignI really don’t like the image of Jesus that some people have of a meek, mild man (who tends to look like a woman with a beard in paintings) and went around just talking about love.  Its an image of a hippie Jesus I would expect sitting around a campfire singing kum ba ya with flowers in his hair.  That is not the image of the Jesus who made whips and beat the people in the Temple as he overturned the tables and chased everyone and everything out of it.  Nor is it the Jesus who confronted hypocrisy with harsh words and stern rebukes.

I also don’t like the image of the Church as a fortress of saints huddling together for protection from the evils of the outside world.  Its an image of a weak group of people whose purpose is to watch out for each other and separate from the rest of the world.  If someone else happens to hear of the Church and what she believes, that person may join, but the bulk of the Church’s efforts is on keeping evil out and protecting who it has.

This image of the Church does not line up with Scripture.  Take this verse from Hebrews as a prime example:

But we aren’t the sort of people who timidly draw back and end up being destroyed. We’re the sort of people who have faith so that our whole beings are preserved.

Christians are on the move, not timidly retreating from the world as it gets darker around us.  Paul writes about the armor of God and in it the main protection we have is a shield and breastplate–neither of which protect when armor-of-godsomeone turns around to retreat or run away.  They only protect the front of the body as the person is moving forward.  Jesus said as well that the Church would be so strong the gates of hell will not be able to withstand it.  This is an image of the Church marching against the strongholds of evil in the world.

If our understanding of the Church is meek and loving–and ultimately helpless in the face of evil in the world, this is not the biblical understanding of the Church.

Whether it is social issues or terrorism, the Church is not helpless, nor should it be afraid.  We have the presence of the Living God with us and nothing can change that fact.  Actually, that is not entirely true.  We can leave God’s presence when we do not live into the reality of the Church that God has created.  When we shrink back from our faithful witness in the world, we leave the power of God and we will be overcome.  Short of that, though, nothing can inhibit God’s power among us.

What is it that we are afraid of, then?  My suspicion is that we are afraid of losing the comfort and security we have.  It is a dangerous thing to stand up for Jesus in the face of a hostile world, but the only weapon the world has against us is fear.  To that we have a ready answer from Paul (Romans 8:35-39):

Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, We are being put to death all day long for your sake.  We are treated like sheep for slaughter.  But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us.  I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.

Do not be afraid.  Do not timidly draw back and be destroyed.  Stand fast.  Christ is with us and no one can change that fact.  Thanks be to God!

Philemon and Public Honor in the Church

philemon1Jesus said his followers ought to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.  I always thought that was five parts serpent to one part dove.  The letter of Philemon is perfect proof of this concept.  Paul’s subject in this letter is a runaway slave named Onesimus.  He converted to the faith while in prison with Paul, and now has an opportunity to return to his owner, Philemon.  Philemon happens to be a Christian, converted under Paul’s ministry as well.

Paul writes this letter to try and convince Philemon to free Onesimus and treat him as a brother in Christ rather than as a slave.

Here is where the wise as serpents is applied to this letter.  The letter is not sent directly to Philemon.  Look at to whom this letter is addressed:

 From Paul, who is a prisoner for the cause of Christ Jesus, and our brother Timothy. To Philemon our dearly loved coworker,  Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church that meets in your house.  May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

This letter was sent to specific people and the entire congregation that meets in their house, of which Philemon was a member.  Paul takes this issue of a runaway slave, something that was personal property, and throws it out into the public realm of congregational life.

Now, instead of this being an issue that Philemon can decide in the privacy of his own home, this becomes a an issue of Philemon’s public honor.  Will he claim his rights under Roman Law as a dishonored owner of a slave, or will he show his honor as a Christian to the congregation?  Everyone now knows this is the choice Philemon now has.

We surmise that Philemon did free Onesimus because his name shows up in two other places.  Colossians 4:9 has Onesimus as one of the deliverers of the letter.  And in Ignatius’ letter to the Church in Ephesus in around 108 AD Onesimus is identified as the bishop of that congregation.

Paul was wise in having this become an issue for the entire congregation, not just one person.  After all, Christian behavior and ethics are not personal.  When we are Christians, we are all a part of the same body.  When one of us suffers, we all suffer.  When one of us has suffering relieved, we all rejoice.

We would do well to remember this as we look at the suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world.