In Defense of Donald Miller

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I don’t know Donald Miller and I don’t tweet often, but a few days ago I happened to have Twitter open just when Miller, one of my all-time favorite authors, tweeted this:

Tired of the witch hunt. Hardly recognize myself or my friends in this characterization.http://www.christianitytoday.com/parse/2014/february/strange-yet-familiar-tale-of-brian-rob-and-don.html …

The link is to an article in Christianity Today by Kevin A. Miller.  Now, I don’t feel I can speak intelligently to the Bell/McLaren controversies, but Miller, well.  I’m protective of him.  Like I said, I don’t know him.  For all I know, he’s a big, Satan-worshiping liar.  Still, as a Christ follower his writing speaks to me.  Forgive me for employing the over-used buzz word of the day, but his work is authentic, and represents the kind of Christianity I think many of us long to experience.  He just had the guts to say it out loud.

I’m not a theologian or even an established writer, but after reading the article Miller posted, I felt I had to contribute my voice.  Not just because I’m a fan of Donald Miller.  But because I believe this “controversy” speaks to a bigger story that, if we’re not careful, will serve to only solidify the reputation of churches being filled with a bunch of jerks in the minds of the people we’re trying to reach.  Maybe it’s time for the non-theologians in the room to represent.

Essentially, the article argues that Miller (along with Bell and McLaren but for very different reasons) were once shining beacons of Evangelicalism who in the past decade succumbed to the individualistic trappings of celebrity, thereby eroding our love for the church.

This quote from the article terrifies me a little bit:

As a movement, we treasure the individual getting right with God, the religious born-again experience, the innovative way to do mission. Sounds good, but when individual trumps communal, experience trumps received teaching, and innovation trumps the Great Tradition, you get exactly what we’ve all just lived through. It can go no other way.

I almost don’t know where to begin.  The first question burning in my mind:  Who are we worshiping?  Jesus or the church? This paragraph smacks of cultish thought and leader worship.  I’m sure I’ll be vilified as a pierced and tattooed rebel just for saying it. But it’s true.

According to this statement, the communal must be more important than the individual.  Yet on the glorious day of Christ’s return, I will be standing alone before the throne.  As will you, and you, and you.  Personally, I don’t want God saying, “I gave you a brain of your very own, why didn’t you use it once in a while?”

It says that teaching must be more important than experience — but what good is teaching without experience?  It’s the experience of Jesus that leads us to willingly submit to His teachings.  I wonder: if the disciples had not experienced Jesus power and presence, would they have written Him off as just some dude on a hill, talking?

I think it’s very important to Jesus that we examine the teachings of our elders very, very carefully.  In fact, I think we have a responsibility to do so. No pastor — not a single one — is God incarnate, and it’s extremely imperative that we remember who they are.  Leaders, yes.  Visionaries, often.  Teachers, absolutely.  But in the end, they’re people who wear underwear and get stuff stuck in their teeth, just like you and me.  We must be careful to place our worship where our worship belongs.

It says that innovation should not trump The Great Tradition.  Um.  What?  I read that and realized I must be a very non-churchy person (even though I go to an awesome church regularly and, whoops, I’m on staff) but I had to Google The Great Traditionbecause I don’t remember ever seeing it in the Bible.  Must be that lack of theology in my background.

Oh wait — it’s an Evangelical thing.  Or maybe a Catholic thing.  Oh, right.  It’s a man-made thing.  Well.  We wouldn’t want to mess with that, now, would we?  We wouldn’t want to innovate that.  That must be absolutely perfect, with all that tradition and humanity in there.

Here’s another part of the article that I find downright frightening:

How else can you explain Don Miller’s nostalgic delight in do-it-myself Communion: “I remember pulling over on the side of the road with friends, climbing into an old abandoned building that we thought looked interesting and doing communion on a loading dock using hot chocolate and cookies. … It was a fantastic bonding moment between us but also between us and God.”

The same soil that grows create-your-own sacraments feeds create-your-own moral teaching. This explains the recent PRRI/Brookings poll that shows (in the words of scholar Gerald McDermott): “While only 15 percent of white Evangelical seniors support gay marriage, 51 percent of white Evangelicals under thirty-five do.”

Create-your-own-sacraments?  Really?  Did Jesus ever even use the word sacrament?

We’ll never know.  But I’m sure that Jesus is not all offended by the fact that He was remembered spontaneously by Miller and his friends, just as He commanded us to do.  The idea that this beautiful moment was somehow sinfully individualistic because of the absences of — what, a pastor?  An altar?  Something else? —  makes me feel as though the author is trying to embalm and entomb the Living God in Pharisaical legalism.

As far as the leap in logic from roadside communion to gay marriage — um.  Yeah.  Okay.  Makes total sense.  Miller and his friends pulled over on the side of the road, had a beautiful experience of remembering Jesus, and a big Batman-like flood-light lit up the sky letting all the gay people know it’s cool to get married now.

What?

No?

Well then you try to make sense out of that logic.  That was my best shot.

Let’s look at the article again.  Here’s another fascinating tidbit.

It turns out that we evangelicals need a loftier ecclesiology, where the words of St. Cyprian sound natural to our ears: “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother; . . . he who gathers elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ.”

This is where I think Kevin A. Miller gets it dangerously wrong.  Look.  I love church.  I go to church regularly and I bring my kids there, too.  I feel off kilter if I miss a week.  Unlike Donald Miller, I do connect with God when I lift my hands during our awesome worship sets.  I believe in church.

But to say that if I don’t go to church that God can no longer be my Abba, or that by gathering with my brothers and sisters in someone’s backyard on a Sunday for a quiet time of worship, prayer and fellowship will scatter the very people I’m hanging out with — well.  It reminds me of the stories the nuns used to tell my Irish father when he was a kid in the 1930′s and 40′s — that if, as a Catholic, he walked into a Protestant church, the entire building would fill up with blood.  Because not only is God only found inside the buildings the Catholics built, He will smite the hell out of you if go into a building those other heathens created.

How have we come so far away from Jesus?  We don’t need a loftier ecclesiology; we need a more visceral one.  If we’re truly going to share the love of Jesus, it needs to be a love that hits people in the gut.  One that forces them to spontaneously pull over on the side of the road and just love on Jesus for a while because that’s the kind of love He showed us.  When Jesus arrived here on earth in human form, he didn’t go up to find us.  He came down.  The loftier the church gets the less human we’ll seem.  And that will not invite the messy people — you know, like you and me — to come in and stay a while.

Kevin A. Miller provides a solution for all this horrible individualistic loving of God.  Here are his three solutions, each followed by my response.  He says we need:

  • A more robust view of the role of the minister. ”The priesthood of all believers” has been used to excuse rampant individualism. But when God spoke to the Israelites, “You will be for me a kingdom of priests,” he also gave them Aaron and his descendants to serve as priests in a particular way. The New Covenant removes the need for new sacrifice, but not the need for covenantal elders and guides.

Please don’t get me wrong.  Any time a group of people come together, there is going to come a time when a leader is needed and governance required.  I have no problem with this.  But I am concerned by what Kevin Miller’s definition of “rampant individualism” is if he’s shocked and appalled by a roadside remembrance of Jesus. Where does he draw the line?  Because I propose that not only does this sort of thinking put us on the road to cultism and leader worship, it also encourages lazy Christianity.  The kind that only takes place on Sundays.  The kind that doesn’t really have anything to do with Jesus at all — but more to do with wearing your Sunday best and gossiping about who’s there and who’s not.

  • A more robust view of Scripture. ”Sola Scriptura” has been used to mean, “Only the Bible and me–whatever I read the Scripture to mean.” It means instead “Only the Scripture has primacy in authority—yet that Scripture was written by the church to the church for the church, so it must be read within the church.”

This makes no sense to me.  I am confused.  So Scripture was written by the church (wait — not God?) for the church (so wait, we don’t want non-Christians reading the Bible?) so it must be read within the church (oh, so my daily devotional time I do at home, I should stop that, right?).

Again we have this weird, elitist attitude that only serves to keep the unchurched unchurched, the elite elite and the body of Christ uneducated and uninvolved.  It’s like the printing press had never been invented, and we should keep the masses illiterate. Don’t you dare read the Bible and think for yourself, lest we send a knight on horseback to come joust you back to your submissive senses.

  • A more robust view of rejection. Brian, Rob, and Don wanted what we all want, a faith that will make sense to our culture and take hold there. But Jesus taught that the applause is loudest for the false prophets, so we need to learn how to rejoice in being maligned, especially with the growing prospect of persecution.

I understand that as Christ followers there will always be those who malign us.  That’s a given and it’s what Jesus taught.  But in light of the tone of this article, I can’t help but wonder who is rejecting who here.  By actively inviting rejection by the culture at large, are we in essence rejecting those who are a part of it by proxy?  And how will this help us be effective in sharing the love of Jesus, and doing what He asked us to do?

I believe that there is a bottom-line truth, and that truth is Jesus.  But I think we walk a dangerous line when we determine that there is only one path to get to Him.  As the body of Christ, we must change the way we engage culture and stop assuming the moral authority — which only gives people the desire to rebel instead of to investigate and experience.  If all we’re doing is making people feel less than, they will never want to open the door to peek inside.

I don’t believe God wants a bunch of mindless lemmings as his followers.  I believe, like Jacob, He wants us to wrestle with Him.  Scripture is hard.  It’s hard every single day.  It’s challenging and confusing and quite frankly, unless you’re a white middle American male, it’s often offensive.  Unless you engage it.  Unless you argue with it.  Probe it and poke it and ask about it and question it and suspect it and critique it and finally, finally internalize it, experience it.  Fall in love with it.  And by doing so, fall in love with Jesus.

As the body of Christ, we are commissioned to serve humbly, to love unconditionally, and to spread the Gospel.  We must always ask the question: what is our end goal?  To have bodies in church or to have followers of Christ?  To have submissive, uninvolved Sunday followers or a vibrant, active community of believers who experience and practice Christianity daily?  Will we be a church of saved misfits or a board room of legalistic Pharisees?

Why are we so chained to the way our Evangelicalism is that we can’t see what the church is supposed to be?

 

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