A long time friend, who followed me as the pastor of my second church, wrote me today. He noted that he was tired of wasting time being "theologically precise." Not that theology is bad, he noted, or even inherently wrong. My friend confessed that precise theology became "my idol." He added that this penchant for precision led to his "being driven to have a pure church to the point that I drove people away." That hurts! Me too.

If I have one regret about my reformation journey as a pastor in a real congregation this has to be it. I can forgive my light weight brain for it’s many failures. I can even handle the mistakes of judgment that I made over the course of twenty years. But it is very hard to forgive this—I worked overtime for a "pure church." I did it by using theology in a number of unhelpful ways. And the results were often deeply troubling.

My long time buddy concluded: "I want to speak the truth clearly to the upcoming generations. I want to think outside the boxes that almost collapsed in on me and crushed me!" Wow. Good stuff. What we need, very desperately, is real reformers, not repristinators!!!

I am reminded of the modern day Civil War re-enactor phenomenon. These re-enactors are very ordinary folks, with an extraordinary interest in the Civil War. They dress up in the uniforms of the North and South, take up very old weapons, carry along some of the food of the 19th century, sleep the same tents the troops lived in, the whole thing. They go out on weekend ventures to "become" Civil War soldiers. It all makes for great fun and real excitement. But these are not real soldiers, they are only re-enactors. Too many in the church are evangelical and Reformed re-enactors. May God deliver us from these lovers of the past who do not really live in the present. And may he forgive people like me who pastored like a re-enactor at times.

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  1. Fred April 26, 2005 at 11:55 am

    In McLaren’s book ‘New Kind of Christian’, a critique of Christianity’s acommodation to tradition & historic rationalism, he writes, ” “The people who dislike the book the most tend to be strict, high Calvinists,” McLaren says. That makes sense, he adds, because Calvinism “is the highest expression of modernism.”
    Anyway enjoyed your thoughts John, and used to be in one of those churches myself…Fred

  2. Coffee Conversations April 26, 2005 at 4:23 pm

    Wise Words from John Armstrong

    Armstrong writes:I am reminded of the modern day Civil War re-enactor phenomenon. These re-enactors are very ordinary folks, with an extraordinary interest in the Civil War. They dress up in the uniforms of the North and South, take up very old weapons…

  3. Steve April 26, 2005 at 9:03 pm

    Let me draw a distinction. Being “theologically precise” is actually required by Scripture – for OURSELVES. But I think the danger lies in requiring it from OTHERS. For only a few sins does God delegate punishment to be carried out by men. “Vengeance is Mine”… and so is the conscience. When we require precision from others, we are acting as God, and I believe lording it over the consciences of others. When they don’t obey our version of doctrine, we carry out our own little Matthew 18 excommunications of them. They are no longer fit to receive our grace, mercy, fellowship, etc., and we divide from them, even while still in our midst. Pastors are especially prone, because they have real (but limited) authority over souls they shepherd. Theological precision has driven me out of two churches and, regretfully, I’ve used it to drive friends out of my life. Good comments, Dr. Armstrong.

  4. Keith Darrell April 27, 2005 at 8:34 pm

    The Church, long before “modernism”, was spending her time on theological precision. And, despite the current trend and fashion towards blurry and fuzzy thinking, we can rejoice that she did. After all, Athanasius stood against the world and fought over an iota. Can you believe that? He allowed an ‘iota’ to split the Church, as Gibbon ridiculed. Today, trendy postmodern theologians would scoff at him and claim that his “iota of a difference” is dedicated to Greek thinking, modernity, and a host of other potential four letter words. Calls to feed the poor, build community, unity, and, of all things, be “incarnational” would be heaped upon his head, as his name becomes synonomous with schismatic. “He’s contentious! He’s hairsplitting!” they would shout. “There goes that man with a Napoleon complex, trying to tell everyone what to believe. He is such a high modernist,” I hear them say. The ‘African-Alexandrian Dwarf’, although being African would provide some leeway, would be frowned upon by all, except, of all groups, the Southern Presbyterians. All this mess over an “iota”.
    The emerging guys have their own orthodoxy, categories, and, yes, even “precision” that they look for from others. Pawning things off as “modern” isn’t helpful, although it seems to act like the ‘close minded’ card in secular academic circles and, unfortunately, many think that is valuable.
    The answer to the issues isn’t imprecision, but love. I went through the punk stage myself, driving people away, but I rejoice that the Lord broke me of my sin. I didn’t end up with pieces of ‘postmodernism’ or any other ‘ism’, I believe, but the new wine of love.
    Precision isn’t a call to be a jerk, but to love God with our minds. I want to love the Truth in all His glory and my neighbor as myself. I want the mind of Christ. Strangely, I imagine it to be precise.

  5. Glenn April 30, 2005 at 10:06 am

    John, I enjoyed your post and Keith Darrell’s comment. When I was at RTS-Orlando Richard Pratt would say, “Truth is not the same as precision.” There was a minority, vocal of course, who fit your description of Civil War reenactors, and these guys were strongly committed to precision and to fighting the Reformation. They were abetted by one combative faculty member who explicitly drew comparisons between himself and Luther, and vented his frustration that he had not been able to bring about a Reformation in the United States.
    Just this week I’m reading Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horowtiz and so I “get” your comparison and it gells well with my recollection of the professor and his following at RTS. Thanks for your words of grace and wisdom.

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