Reflections on ETS, Part 1 (and an Apology)

boyd.jpg(UPDATED, see below)

Greg Boyd thinks my kid is cute.

He told me so.

It really is beyond question, I suppose, but it is nevertheless nice to find something on which we agree. (That was an overstatement for dramatic effect, in case you missed the rhetoric.)

On the Monday night before I left for the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in San Diego, I was leading a group of men in prayer and when asked how they could pray for me I told them that I would appreciate prayer for my conversations on my flights.

For whatever reason, I seem to have my most meaningful and substantial conversations about Jesus with the people who sit next to me on flights. It seems that God almost always creates evangelistic opportunities for me any time I plant myself into a fart-stained, low-class, no-free-peanuts, cheap-as-I-could-find coach seat on a plane.

Interestingly, on my return flight from ETS this year, God had a slightly different plan.

As the plane took off and approached cruising altitude, I prayed and asked God to soften the heart of the women seated to my left and to make her receptive to what I had to say about Jesus. Evidently, God had a different idea because this lady proceeded to order two Skyy vodkas, drink them without taking a breath in between, and promptly pass out in a snoring, drooling mess on my shoulder. So much for option A.

I then turned to my right, across the aisle, to see who option B was. To my surprise, as a I realized after trying for some time to place him, option B was Greg Boyd. (When I told this story to the men I teach on Monday nights, some guy from the back [predictably] lipped off with, “So, did you convert him?!” Come on now, guys. Behave yourselves.)

Greg Boyd, undeniably, has stirred up more than his fair share of controversy in evangelical circles. From his advocacy of Open Theism (the view that God does not know the future), to his collaboration with the emerging church movement, to his sermon series, “The Cross and the Sword,” on Christians and politics, along with his best-selling book, Myth of a Christian Nation, which landed him on the front page of the New York Times, and got him an interview with Charlie Rose, not to mention cost him a fifth of his (formerly) 5,000-member church, who departed after his sermon series ruffled quite a few political feathers.

Truth be told, I think Boyd offers some valuable and sorely-needed correctives to ‘evangelical politics’ (if we should speak of such things) in his sermons and in his writing, but one wonders if there was a way to say what he felt compelled to say in such a way that wouldn’t have angered so many and would have avoided prompting such a large exodus. Not to say, by any means, that I could have done better, but to have 1,000 people looking for a new church home does seem tragic to me.

There are other things that are undeniable, in my view, about Greg Boyd. Certainly the most important one is that he is a passionate and genuine disciple of Christ.

One of the first books I read as a new believer was his, Letters From a Skeptic, which is a collection of correspondence between Boyd (who at one time was a committed atheist) and his dad discussing some of the most troublesome obstacles to belief in Christianity. While I read the book, I was just beginning to attend a rather large and well-known church across town, and was sternly cautioned about the ‘dangers of Greg Boyd.’ While I feel deeply in love with this church, its congregation and its pastor, the ‘Greg-Boyd-is-the-enemy’ vibe always sat uneasy with me.

That vibe sits as uneasy with me as ever after my conversation with him four miles above California, Minnesota, and all the states in between.

This is a man deeply committed to Jesus, to his Kingdom, and to the written Word of God. I disagree with him on Open Theism. I think it’s a destructive take on God’s knowledge and providence—biblically, theologically and pastorally. I disagree with him in much of his sympathy for the emerging church movement. I have a few significant issues with what he has to say about politics. Nevertheless, there are times, it seems, that when it comes to folks like Boyd, evangelicals are more like paranhas than peacemakers.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one who screams, “Unity! Unity! Unity!” even as biblical evangelical orthodoxy crumbles at the hands of those who care little for what is important to be united around. But I take very seriously the counsel of one of my former professors, Kevin Vanhoozer, who impressed on me very strongly that when we, as evangelicals (above all people!) disagree with someone, our first calling is to display overwhelming charity. And not merely as a formal prelude to criticism.

Constructive criticism of Boyd and others is necessary. Family squabbles are going to happen. Sometimes family members are wrong, and Boyd is just flat-out wrong about some things (as, certainly, am I). But, as evangelicals, our charity must be overwhelming. It must be disarming. It must clearly demonstrate our real cognizance our own pride, propensity for error, and sinfulness. It must leave the criticized with the impression that he has been loved, not simply attacked.

Evangelicals must do better.

There are plenty of things to talk about from ETS this year, and I’ll get to some of that this week. But I needed to say these things first – if only to caution myself in how I speak about brothers in the Lord with whom I sometimes disagree.

UPDATE: A dear brother came to me today, in the spirit of Matthew 18, and called me to account for an obvious instance of hypocrisy in what I’ve had to say here, and I’d like to address it publicly. In the comments on my post, “Who Cares,” I made some disparaging and excessively critical remarks about President Bush. To make the comments I made was completely out of step with the charity I am pleading that we extend to folks like Greg Boyd. I sincerely apologize for the critical overstatement, and desire to work harder on bridling my (sometimes too flamboyant) tongue. To the brother who brought this to my attention: Thank you for your love for me and your willingness to step forward into the awkwardness of correction for the good of my soul. I could only wish for more brothers to be so bold with me.


14 thoughts on “Reflections on ETS, Part 1 (and an Apology)”

  1. So he rides to the airport in the same shuttle, and then providentially sits next to you on the plane. That’s really cool. Creepy, but cool.
    I look forward to your further discussion.

  2. “[…] One wonders if there was a way to say what he felt compelled to say in such a way that wouldn’t have angered so many…”

    Would you level the same criticism against the likes of Amos, Hosea, Zephaniah, and the like?

    Are you implying that a pastor ought to consider the popularity of a message before delivering it? You regularly pray that the Spirit will speak through you (and I see that prayer answered regularly!). I would guess Boyd does the same.

    Is “how well the message is received” to be another earthly measurement of success in church, similar to “how big is your church” or “how fast can you grow it”?

    I don’t wonder if it could have been delivered better. I wonder if the message was received by the people for whom God intended it. I wonder about the kind of people that put so much emphasis on a single pastor that they would leave after one sermon (or sermon series) in a huff.

    Wow. I sound grumpy today. I apologize in advance.

  3. I’m Brett’s wife. The RSS feed for your blog comes to my email so I get the privilege of reading your thoughts. Greg Boyd is one of the Christians I’d love to talk to. He’s risky, and I like that.

    Anyway, you mentioned reading Letters from a Skeptic shortly after your conversion, and it made me want to know your story. If you have time, I’d love to hear about how God got your attention and how you “crossed the line of faith” (as we like to say at The Journey).


  4. Vince,

    Yes he did. He saw the picture of Owen and I that I have cropped at the top of my blog.


    I’m grumpy today too. So, maybe I’ll just respond by saying: Your mom.

    Apart from that, though, what I would say is that (1) I think the prophets are on a different level than Boyd and were speaking into a much more desperate environment. The people they were speaking to desperately needed to be shaken awake because their problem was idolatry, not questionable politics. There is a substantial difference in order of magnitude there.

    That being said, (2) I agree with you that “How well the message is received”; “how big is your church”; and “how fast can you grow it” are all horrible measures of ministry ‘success.’

    (3) I don’t know Boyd nor the situation with his church well. I simply am led to wonder how either (a) a pastor does not know such a large portion of of his church well enough to suspect that so many would leave because of what he said (according to the NYT article, Boyd was very surprised), or (b) knowing that it would cause them to leave, that a pastor would not craft his message in such a way that people would be convinced or at least encouraged to rethink, rather than compelled to leave.


    About 6 weeks ago, or so, I felt God moving me to ditch the message I had planned for the evening and to give witness to how He brought me to himself. I’ll see if I have a copy of that message somewhere. If not, I’d be happy to share it in some other form sometime. If nothing else, you and your hubby need to come to our place for dinner at some point, if only in gratitude for how generous he’s been with his time and talents with Fusion worship. E-mail me, so that we can extend an invitation, will you? Thanks!

  5. Good reminders Bryan. It is way too easy to use our razor sharp tongues (or blogs) to cut someone open. And many times those cuts are more than just flesh wounds. It is also an easy way out to just write off someone we disagree with. In opening up dialogue, both parties can be sharpened, even if they continue to disagree. Might even find more common ground than was previously thought.

    I ran across this posting on the Desiring God blog this morning, and it goes right along with your post.

  6. Greg Boyd was one of my theology professors at Bethel, and I used to attend his church. In fact he was writing “Letters” when I had him and he would share his father’s letters in class, and asked us to pray for his father.

    I remember the first day of Contemporary Theology in his class he told us “I want to warn all of you that you will lose your faith during this course, but don’t worry, you will get it back before we are finished.”. And that was pretty much true. He was also an excellent apologetics teacher.

    I did come out of Bethel being an open theist, but what’s interesting is that my open theism was learned more from Roger Olson (a staunch Arminian, and definitely not an open theist, who’s at Baylor now) than from Greg Boyd.

    I know it has become somewhat cliche, but open theism really is just the consistent end of Arminian theology.

    Fortunately God was gracious to me and my eyes have since been opened. For those who don’t have experience with open theism, I would caution against thinking that the whole premise is that “God does not know the future”. The premise is more “God is omniscient, knowing all that is knowable. The future, since it does not exist yet, is unknowable, in the same sense (not exactly, but analogous) that a square circle is unknowable. Therefore, God cannot know every detail of the future. However, God does have a plan, and knows for certain what ends He will accomplish. Also, knowing his creatures perfectly, he is able to perfectly predict their actions.”

    I would love to have the chance to talk with him again in a casual atmosphere like you had. It is really amazing how calvinistic 85% of his preaching really is. In talking about he came to faith in Christ he always mentions that it was like a chess game with God moving specific individuals into his path at opportune moments. He also prays like a calvinist. He’s definitely on fire for Christ.

    Having said all of that, I do think he is a real danger. Precisely because he is such a good speaker and a likeable fellow, and on fire for the Lord, it makes his open theism much more attactive. That misleads alot of people. The biggest danger (not the only danger) is where his teaching will lead after he is gone. We should all pray that God would grant him repentance.


  7. “The biggest danger… is where his teaching will lead after he is gone.”

    I would say the same applies to the Emerging church and Brian McLaren. Right now, the EC is trying to find itself and has many good and proper critiques of the traditional evan. church. However, McLaren and Pagitt have some very bad teaching, but most of it they probably understand as subtleties and don’t actually agree with their own most extreme statements. However, those who come after them may not. Unfortunately, many in the EC don’t see the fire with which they are playing. Right now, it’s relatively innocent. However, where does the movement go from here? Does it cleanse itself of the bad theology and become mostly just another denomination or does it become centered around the bad theology and become a cult?

  8. I love the tone of your post. I have read Boyd and find him to be lucid and challenging. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but he is thinking thoughts that some of us are afraid to think because they are “beyond the bounds.” I think it is vital that we remember that we’re not trying to solve a math problem, but we’re trying to discover truth. That sometimes means that old paradigms get challenged and systems (sometimes broken systems that can not hold water) are dismantled. But truth is the goal. Sometimes our certainty gets in the way of our discovery of truth.

    Excellent post. I’m linking your blog.

  9. This may be removed for being off topic…

    How do we know where the line is? What beliefs should be met with peacemaking and which should be met with anathema?

    In the Apostle Paul’s day, the pharisees in the galatian churches were only making minor changes. Something akin to “yes, Christ was God in the flesh, and salvation comes through faith in Christ. But you need to be circumcised too.”. Why didn’t Paul show any interest in peacemaking and Christian unity with them?


  10. James,

    I think it is a fair question and not off topic (although it’s not my blog!).

    There is a difference between being charitable and what we tolerate coming from the pulpit (or any other teaching) of a church. If someone is deviating from the gospel they should not be preaching or teaching in a church. If they are not in agreement with a church’s statement of faith, I don’t think it would be wise for that church to have them as a “guest speaker” (in order not to cause unnecessary division).

    This is maybe a little simplistic, but maybe someone else can expound on that some. Also – go back and read the 5th paragraph from the bottom (begins with Don’t get me wrong…).

  11. Steve, I’m not trying to start something (you know…don’t start nuthin’, won’t be nuthin’), but what happens if what constitutes “the gospel” isn’t universally agreed upon? Our church is a confessional Baptist church and we use the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, and “the gospel” isn’t clearly defined in that document per se. As I see it, this is among the central issues facing evangelicalism and broader Christianity today, namely, the lack of universal agreement on what the gospel even is. So we end up in a sort of dialectical problem that is frustrating to all because we’re using the same words with different meanings.

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