Ivory Tower Theology

A man named Wheeler MacPherson has just written a post critical of my blog. It was a very interesting post in many ways, and therefore I thought I would interact with it a bit. He raises some very important points about the nature of the church, the nature of theology, and what pastors need to be doing.

He first relates an experience he had while waiting for a congregation to exit the church premises. It was a megachurch that rated three policemen to help with the traffic jam. In rather cynical tones, he relates how they couldn’t possibly be expected to delay their egress from the church on behalf of other people. While waiting for the traffic to lighten up, he reminisces about work as a younger man, and how carefree that life seemed. He realizes that he is just as content now, and asks the reason for it. His words are that “I realized that its genesis is tied to the church building. I am no longer a slave to churchianity, and this fact made me, deep down in the true place, more carefree than a beardless bony boy with a lungful of cheap Mexican weed.” One wonders what he means by “churchianity” at this point, whether that includes all forms of organized Christianity, or only some that really seem to get under his skin. More on that later. The next paragraph needs to be quoted in full, as it is rather important:

On his now-defunct blog, a friend of mine wrote recently with power and precision about the absolute foolishness of elevating the bible to a paper idol, and about how a dearth of the Holy Spirit leaves men to “search the Scriptures” without inward or divine understanding. This is an important observation for this desert age. Christians make fun of pagans for chanting prefabricated prayers at their dumb deities, but it’s been my observation that almost all Christians do the exact same thing with their bibles. They force themselves to sit and choke down a portion of Scripture on a semi-regular basis, and yet this diet never seems to nourish them, never seems to make their muscles grow, never seems to bring the glow of spiritual health to their spiritual cheeks. Christians chirp to each other their favorite verses (almost always lifted out of context and appropriated in the most grossly inappropriate ways) and remain utterly ignorant of what those verses actually mean. They can’t be bothered with the heavy lifting. Instead, they prefer to farm out the actual learning and insight to the paid professionals – and why not? After all, they pay their pulpiteers quite handsomely to churn out their little talks.

What Wheeler says here is something I also have noticed, and I like it almost as much as he does! I would describe it this way: Christians reading the Bible always to confirm their own ideas, and never allowing the Bible to challenge what they believe, or how they live. Their conception of the Christian life is determined entirely by what they learned in Sunday School 50 years ago, and the Bible hasn’t changed their thinking on anything during that whole time. This is probably not the only scenario in which people’s thinking becomes reified, but it is a very common one.

What follows is a sustained critique of the general content of my blog. I will try to concentrate on the substantive points that he makes, and ignore the rhetoric, which is quite strong. The first point he makes is that I identify myself as a “reverend,” when Jesus tells his followers not to give themselves titles. He tries to preempt any kind of a response by saying that if I were to defend myself on this point, I would be “explaining away” the text. I would respond by making a few points about titles. Firstly, Jesus does not condemn all titles, or else He wouldn’t have allowed the disciples to call themselves “apostles” later on in the epistles. Also, what about elders and deacons? It seems to me that Wheeler has absolutized one text and has not seen it in the context of the rest of Scripture. When Jesus ridicules those who arrogate titles to themselves, He is telling us several things: 1. that we should not give ourselves titles; 2. that no title should ever be used as a way of puffing ourselves up by means of pride. Jesus says nothing in those contexts about using titles that other people have given us. If He did, then He would directly contradict Himself when He gave the title “apostle” to the twelve apostles! Jesus gave the titles to the apostles. In my case, I did not give myself the title “reverend.” It was given to me by the denomination in which I serve when I was ordained. Furthermore, the only reason I mention the title in the page is so that people will know something of my background as a minister of the gospel as an ordained minister in the church. I certainly do not intend to use that title as a way of self-aggrandizement.

Still less am I defining myself by that title, contrary to his assertions. It is a formal title. When I introduce myself in person to someone, I do not use that title. I just say “I’m Lane Keister.” Wheeler is therefore reading into my page what is not there.

Next, he quotes something from a blog post I wrote last year, paraphrasing someone else’s comments (!). He attributes the quotation to me, when the thought is not actually mine. It is Joel Beeke’s thought, somewhat paraphrased by me. What follows this quotation in his post is something I am frankly mystified by. I don’t know what he means when he accuses the church as a whole of racism. Nor do I understand his reference to my graduating from a seminary that celebrates MLK Jr. Day. Maybe I’m just dense, but I don’t follow his point here.

The next point he makes is basically the “ivory tower” accusation: that this blog exists to debate irrelevant, unimportant theological points, and does not address what is really important in life. He says, “Real enemies and real lessons to be learned, real challenges that require real effort on the part of men who face real, individual dangers every real day.” It would be nice for him to give us some examples of what he is talking about. It must be pointed out here also that he can’t see my day-to-day ministry. He can’t see me counseling people with marriage problems, or drug problems, or depression, or anger management (all of which are present in the church I serve). He can’t see me visiting the sick in the hospital, or the elderly in their nursing homes. And so he makes the assumption that because this is a blog about theology, that therefore it is an example of unrealistic, ivory-tower theology, and that I’ve effectively got my head buried in the sand.

This brings us to the definition of theology, which I think is a very important point in the discussion. Is theology relevant to our lives or not? I follow the Puritan definitions here and claim unequivocally that theology is always relevant to our lives. The problem here is that Wheeler has a much narrower definition of theology and what is relevant than I do. He seems to be defining what is relevant as what is practical, and by that he (probably) means something that will help with the “real enemies and real lessons…real challenges.” Let me ask him this question: has he ever stopped to think about what kind of impact a proper appreciation of the Lord’s Supper could have on his spiritual growth? Or has he ever stopped to think that the proper understanding of justification can lift infinite weights off of people’s souls? Has he stopped to think that even the doctrine of the Trinity (often considered the least relevant doctrine of all) is actually the most relevant according to Jesus in John 17 and according to Paul in Ephesians 1, that it is the Trinity as Trinity that accomplishes our salvation and applies it to us? The problem here is not that my definition of theology is too ivory-tower, but that his definition of “relevant” is way too narrow. If the Bible talks about it, then it is relevant. Period. I like to talk about the Bible and what it means. I do this on the blog all the time. That is the heavy lifting he is in fact talking about without realizing it.

I suspect that Wheeler has been hurt by the institutional church greatly some time in his past. I know many people like this. My heart goes out to them, because I know exactly how ugly the church can be. It has been quite ugly to me, in fact, and on many occasions. The church has warts and blemishes all over the place. However, Revelation 21-22 invites us to look at the church as she will be in all eternity: like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. This is the true church. Here is a question for Wheeler: does he believe that we can truly love Jesus Christ and not love the bride that He loves so much, and gave Himself for?

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19 Comments

  1. Bob S said,

    March 23, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    Uh, let me get this straight.
    Mr. MacPherson is authoritatively instructing us to “Turn away from the ones who like to call attention to themselves and make long, loud prayers in the public places.”

    Apart from the prayer (unless it’s to his own self righteousness) res ipsit dixit about sums his up.

    IOW some folks aren’t happy unless they are complaining.
    But nobody else is allowed the same privilege.
    Especially if they are Christians.

    Thanks, pal.
    Mighty sporting of you.

    That not to mention, to begin with megachurchianity and then go on to criticize the reformed faith/ministers is arguably to poison the well.

    All the best to our friend on the innernet, but he’s adding enough drunkeness to thirst without any outside help.

  2. March 23, 2014 at 5:19 pm

    I just tried to read the article that mentions you and your blog and was quite stunned at the irreverent hatefulness! May the good Lord have mercy on Mr. MacPherson! He sounds like a nasty old man! I’ll pray for him.

  3. greenbaggins said,

    March 23, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    I see him as someone who has been deeply hurt, and for some reason my blog sounds to him like the people who have hurt him. I am praying for him.

  4. March 23, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    Thank you for your courtesy, Mr. Keister.

    I will answer the one question you addressed directly to me on your blog, which was, “Does [Wheeler] believe that we can truly love Jesus Christ and not love the bride that He loves so much, and gave Himself for?”

    I believe it is impossible for a child of the Father to love Christ Jesus while simultaneously refusing to love the called-out ones who are His. These called-out ones are the same ones whose names were written in the book of life before the foundation of the world. They/we are neither a building nor an organization. And I love my brothers and sisters very, very much. They are, after all, members of my family. I hope this answers your question.

    And now, with your indulgence, I have two questions for you.
    1. Is your congregation incorporated as an IRS 501 (c)(3) organization?
    2. By whose authority do you perform wedding ceremonies and affix your name to the marriage licenses?

    Thank you, sir.

    ~ Wheeler

  5. greenbaggins said,

    March 23, 2014 at 7:06 pm

    Wheeler, welcome to the blog. Thanks for commenting and engaging on the question of the church. Your answer leaves me with some more questions for you. First of all, what is your definition of “churchianity?” You included a few things in your blog post. I mentioned that some of them are just as distasteful to me as they are to you. So I was wondering what churches you would include in your critique, and how you would distinguish one from another.

    You say that the church is neither a building nor an organization. I agree with your first denial, but not your second. The apostles went through all the churches and appointed elders and deacons so that everything could happen “decently and in good order.” An organization, of course, does not have to be lifeless and limp, especially if God is the one who established it. It doesn’t have to be an either-or between people and organization, does it?

    To answer your questions, I am fairly sure that we are incorporated as a 501 (c) (3) organization. I’m curious as to why this is an important issue for you.

    As to your second question, I hold that it is a dual authority. Marriage, of course, does not belong only to the church. Marriages that are done outside the church are still valid marriages. Marriages that are done in the church have the authority of the church and the authority of the state. The state has said that ministers have the authority to preside over a lawful marriage, even while they are the ones handing out the marriage license. I am again curious as to why you asked the question.

  6. March 23, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    Mr. Keister, let me say again “Thank you” for your courtesy. I do appreciate it.

    And thank you for your answers to my questions. These answers, as well as your followup questions (about my questions and about churchianity, etc.) could be a useful point from which to dive into a lengthy back-and-forth where we discuss and debate such things. However, I am not inclined towards such a back-and-forth for several reasons. One of these reasons is that I have no interest in extending my stay here, where so far fully 100% of your commenters have either imputed motives to me, called me names, or a combination of the two. It’s not exactly a welcoming environment, you see. But I will try to follow the example of my Savior and decline to answer back in kind.

    If you would like to correspond with me privately, I would welcome the exchange. If not, I understand. I’ll address this over at my blog for the benefit of my readers, some of whom are intrigued at the reaction I seem to have provoked.

    Cordially,

    ~ Wheeler

  7. Andrew Duggan said,

    March 23, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    Lane, if you have already not done so, I strongly recommend you read Mr. Macpherson’s blog starting at the first posting from May 26 2011. It was pretty easy to figure out where’s he really coming from, especially about the remark about MLK Day.

  8. greenbaggins said,

    March 23, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    Wheeler, that is just fine if you wish to respond on your blog. We can do blog to blog just as easily as the combox here.

    Andrew, I will read those posts. Thanks for the heads up.

  9. greenbaggins said,

    March 23, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    Wow, just read some of those posts. I’ve never even heard of those positions on black people before. For one who claims to believe what the Bible says, I wonder that he doesn’t believe Genesis 10, where the progenitors of the Africans are CLEARLY said to be descendants of Ham, who is a descendant of Noah. His position on the physical descendants of demons is just weird.

  10. musicosity1 said,

    March 23, 2014 at 10:55 pm

    A very charitable and accurate response all around, Lane. (This is Robert Berman, by the way. I finally got a wordpress account.)

  11. March 24, 2014 at 11:56 am

    His views that he expresses on his blog seem to represent the cultish “Lost Tribes of Israel” white supremacy religions. “You’re wasting your time” in missions work to non-white peoples, he said in his first blog post. ‘Nuff said?

  12. Bob S said,

    March 24, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    One of these reasons is that I have no interest in extending my stay here, where so far fully 100% of your commenters have either imputed motives to me, called me names, or a combination of the two.

    But Mr.MacPherson doesn’t do the same?
    While he is to be commended for making an appearance, I can’t say I am surprised he doesn’t want to stick around and “discuss” anything.
    WADR color me nonplussed.

  13. Bob S said,

    March 24, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    Something tells me I have read Wheeler on the topic before, but regardless, he comes across much nicer than let’s say, Jeremiah Wright, who preaches the alternative version of this “gospel”.

    Revelation 7:9  After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;

    MLK? Well, let’s say God can strike straight with a crooked stick.
    That said, Martin was after all, a plagiarist, adulterer/whoremonger, Christian liberal and equal outcome socialist.
    The first disappeared Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in the eighties without a whisper of protest from the liberal media, if not that they were the first to pull the plug.
    The second? Well, it didn’t seem to hurt JFK or Bill Clinton, a couple of other heroes in the progressive pantheon, so no big, I guess.
    The last? If Social Security is not socialism and Medicare Plan D is not a more restrained version of the Affordable Care Act, we knows not what.
    IOW nothing to see here, let the Christian/conservative/ constitutionalist voter move along. We’re all socialists now, in the United State of America.

  14. Tim Harris said,

    March 24, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    Justin I don’t think the term “white supremacy” is either accurate or helpful. The view Wheeler espouses is one that we could easily imagine an OT Hebrew holding, due to a mistaken view of the scope of election. But it wouldn’t be accurate to label such a view “Hebrew supremism.” It would comport equally well with radical humility (the proper response, after all to election).

  15. March 24, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    It may be I am misunderestimating your words, but aren’t you quibbling over semantics? Or perhaps there is some deeper issue you would have me avoid? I just don’t see a better example of KKK theology than what our friend has on his blog.

  16. dannymacgt said,

    March 24, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    Tim, unless you haven’t read the May 26, 2011 post on his blog page, you are truly scaring me.

  17. March 24, 2014 at 8:33 pm

    Slight change of subject: Speaking of dead blogs (you mentioned one in your post, Lane), Michael D. Marlowe hasn’t posted to his website, http://www.bible-researcher.com, in almost two years (his last post in the section “What’s New?” is dated June, 2012). Does anyone know what has happened to him? Is he just tired of the site? Is he ill? Does anyone know?

  18. Sjoerd de Boer said,

    March 25, 2014 at 8:25 pm

    Rev. Keister,

    If you would like to know more about Mr. MacPherson, there is an almost three hour! interview with him about 8 months ago on a podcast “Tribal Theocrat” (which name by itself brings shivering down my spine).

    Here is the link

    http://player.fm/series/tribal-theocrat/tt-live-27-wheeler-macpherson

    He says in the interview that he changed from being a Baptist into a Presbyterian by listening to James Montgomery Boyce, was at one time ruling elder of a PCA congregation, that it is not ok in the PCA, that he despises Tim Keller, that the interviewer Christian Gray told him to check out your blog and much, much more. If you would like to try to show him his errors (of which I am sure there have been many before you, but not in a patient and understanding way, I am afraid), I hope it will give you more insight as to where to start a discussion with him.

  19. March 25, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    […] to the 3-hour interview that Wheeler MacPherson did with Christian Gray that Sjoerd de Boer so kindly gave me. Wheeler himself has responded to my post, though without addressing the issues of […]


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