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A couple of months ago I attended the BioLogos national conference in Houston. BioLogos are Christians who espouse evolutionary creationism, one of the positions on creation I know the least about – and not one I’ve held. I attended not because I think their viewpoint is the best but because I felt the need to learn from my Christian brothers and sisters, most of them scientists, who deeply love Jesus and his gospel and maintain there’s no real tension between science and faith as it relates to one of the most controversial and taboo topics in Christian circles: evolution. Needless to say, they’ve got a big hill to climb. But I appreciate them. They are asking questions I believe the church is going to have to answer sooner than we think (e.g., DNA editing, Genomic studies, embryonic medicine, and, not the least of which, what latest genetic studies claim about evolutionary theory).

As far as the conference went, I had nothing to share. I was just a fly on the wall. I wanted to learn, dialogue, and ask questions of them theologically and biblically. I discovered being with them the same thing I believe I would if they were the Intelligent Design, literal six-day, or some other camp – that they were sincere, winsome believers who genuinely wanted to live the truth of God in their lives as best as they understood Scripture and nature. It was moving for me to see their sincerity of faith, humility of spirit, and desire to honor God and his word. To be fair, I probably left with as many questions as answers, but that’s more than okay. One thing in which I did remain steadfast was the fact that there is no unanimous agreement on how believers understand the creation account of Genesis (even the BioLogos crew don’t agree amongst themselves).

All of it reminded me of a question I frequently get at CCCC: Yancey, what’s the church’s view of creation? It’s usually from members or leaders who’ve finally plucked up enough courage to ask their Teaching Pastor about how their beloved local church interprets Genesis 1-2 in the hopes CCCC’s view will match theirs. When they hear my answer, it almost always (not all the time) ends in relief. Let me explain.

Famous atheist and political commentator Bill Maher, on his television show Real Time with Bill Maher, questioned New York Times columnist and author Ross Douthat as to if he agreed all religions are anti-intellectual. Douthat disagreed by way of an illustration. He said the assumption is critics like Maher look at religious history and assume all Christians have taken the Genesis account of creation literally. Then Douthat went the historical route, adding:

But the truth is the idea that you take Genesis literally, as like six literal days of creation is pretty much a modern invention. Fundamentalism starts in the late 19th century…if you go back and look at ancient Christian authorities, they look at Genesis [differently] saying, “Look, this obvious isn’t [literal]…If you actually look at the first few chapters of Genesis, whoever wrote the Bible clearly didn’t mean to say this is a scientific account of creation. And actually, serious Christians have known that all the way back to the 1st century A.D.1

He’s right, at least with the point that Church History is full of godly, earnest, Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christian leaders who’ve held to different interpretations of Genesis 1-2.

For example, Church Father Augustine of Hippo, in his book The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, argued for an allegorical interpretation of the days of creation. His thoughts were ‘published’ in the early 5th century. Origen of Alexandria, an influential Christian thinker, taught Genesis should be interpreted symbolically. He lived all the way back in the 3rd century. This gives greater weight to the idea that it’s a modern invention to believe the church must have a uniform view of Genesis’ creation account in order to be considered ‘orthodox.’ Even in the 21st century, I can think of at least six different views current Christians hold concerning the creation account:

  • Literal six-day
  • Gap theory
  • Day-age theory
  • Literary framework
  • Intelligent Design
  • Evolutionary Creation

Each are attempts to best understand the creation account of Genesis in light of what is known about the universe today. Why so many? Well, the text isn’t so cut-and-dry as people may think. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are other questions: Do you believe in an Old Earth or Young Earth? Was the flood localized or global? Is Adam a singular person or could he be representational (or both)? Does the prehistory of Genesis 1-11 have the same kind of intent as Genesis 12-25 or is it different somehow? Did God speak via the Big Bang or not? These questions aren’t new. Actually, people have been asking questions like them for decades or even centuries.

That’s why at CCCC we are not dogmatic about one particular view over another. Personally, I’ve held most of the views listed. They all have pro’s and con’s. When I teach the doctrine of creation to our lay leaders in systematic theology I encourage them to wrestle with it themselves and ascribe to the position they believe best makes sense of the two books of God: nature and Scripture (Ps. 19). If you pick six literal days, great! If it’s Gap theory, good for you! If Intelligent Design is your choice, more power to ya! I try to emphasize that ultimately all these views at least agree on the critical truth that God created all things for his glory.

Frankly, I view the interpretations of the Bible’s beginning the same way I view interpretations of the Bible’s conclusion, namely, that since there are different, legitimate positions to which honest and earnest believers hold (e.g., amillennial, premillennial, postmillennial). CCCC does not have an official “end times” position either. We believe Christ’s return is personal, visible, and imminent. As to exactly what and how he will return, we’re not going to be dogmatic, just like the what and how God did creation.

It’s one more reason why CCCC doesn’t have an official position outside of this: We believe God created all things for his glory as expressed in Genesis 1-2. As to exactly how and what, well, now it’s your turn to do the hard work, learn, dialogue, ask questions, and choose…

In their blog this week The Gospel Coalition commemorated John Piper’s famous 2000 Passion Conference message “Don’t Waste Your Life” (aka, the “seashells” talk). It not only fixed Piper’s influence in the hearts of the 40,000 twenty-somethings gathered in Memphis on that afternoon in May but also became, as the blog notes, “formative for a generation.” For many, Dr. Piper’s words were prophetic, arresting, and spoke to them in the deepest of ways. I call that kind of a message a life message. It’s the kind of message that ruins you for all the right reasons and boldly changes the trajectory of your life.

It got me thinking about my own life message. I heard a talk (also a conference message) that spoke to me in the deepest of ways. It was one of those rare moments when you read or hear something by someone who puts into words what you believed but couldn’t put into words yourself. You just can’t quite formulate it yet. It was like an essential code in the back of your mind (and the middle of your heart) always frustratingly suspended on the verge of being broken. But the second someone finally deciphered it and you beheld its long-awaited clarity in all its glory, it became the Aha! moment where you shouted, “That’s what I believe!”

My “seashells” message was given by Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. This was before he had written his bestselling books or attained national notoriety. It was 2007. A friend of mine in NYC encouraged me to listen to “this Tim Keller guy” whenever I had the chance, so when I came across a video of his address to the newly minted Gospel Coalition in May of that same year with a message entitled, “Gospel-Centered Ministry,” I thought it something I needed to hear. I settled into my office, closed the door, and watched his 55-minute address.

I was spellbound almost from the word ‘go.’ Dr. Keller’s struggles in church paralleled mine. Yet his answer to those struggles was exactly what I’d thought but couldn’t put into words: a theology of gospel-centrality. My growing angst in ministry had finally found the answer. Indeed, as I heard him eloquently speak about not only what the gospel is but how it should intersect all ministry, especially the pulpit (as he also was a preaching pastor), I kept saying aloud, “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” Although his address wasn’t significantly animated or charismatic like John Piper’s message, I was continuously moved to tears throughout it.

Finally, I had the clarity I was looking for. The code was deciphered in my head and heart. It was such a “moment” for me I watched it again. Another 55 minutes of me nodding my head, dabbing tears from eyes, and saying in my heart, “This is what I believe!” In author Jared Wilson’s parlance, I was experiencing a gospel awakening.1

The grace in it all was Keller’s ability to not only put into words what I couldn’t about gospel-centered ministry but to provide a framework and paradigm for it as well. Now that I had it (or better yet, it had me), I was dangerous because I knew what this meant. I knew this would define me, my ministry, and the local church I served. There was no turning back. I wanted to know everything I could from those who sought to keep the gospel central to ministry. In short, I was ruined.

I read a lot, studied a ton, and even chose my doctoral work based on a seminary that would deepen me in gospel-centered ministry. I began to dialogue with those who were way ahead of me. I couldn’t get enough! I even called up Redeemer and asked for their discipleship materials, and our executive staff spent weeks working through them.2 Needless to say, gospel-centrality would be a defining mark of CCCC. Indeed, ten years later, it has. In a survey a few years ago of our staff and small group leadership, when asked what makes CCCC “CCCC,” at the very top of the list was our commitment to the centrality of the gospel in all things.

So, for all my Passion friends who were marked by God through Piper’s words, Keller’s did the same for me with this message3:

New church plants aside, it’s very easy to make the church all about the pastor by making everything revolve around his leadership.

  • He authorizes every check.
  • He oversees every ministry.
  • He makes every weighty decision.

But that’s not wanting to be a pastor. That’s wanting to be a pope. If the lead pastor gets hit by an asteroid on Monday and the church boards its doors on Sunday, the head honcho has failed. Unfortunately, many leaders who initially aim to lead gospel-centered churches often, years after planting, still find themselves a pastor-centered church.

For example, a pastor-centered church is one where you never really pass the ball of leadership to others. You make all the final calls, remind everyone the buck stops with you, and spend more time making decisions instead of developing decision-makers. You’re always working in the ministry than on the ministry. Again, it’s one thing to endure this type of pastor-centeredness when you are starting a church. Honestly, it’s likely necessary for more reasons than this post will allow. But if, over time, you’re not willing to expand the circle of leadership responsibilities to include others (and yes, this includes preaching), you may be succumbing to the temptation of indispensability.

Indispensability whispers to us that things won’t get done without our involvement. It betrays us into thinking that if we’re not in the middle of everything then somehow we’re not being a good pastor. It hamstrings our ability to entrust things to others for collective good of the church. It plays on our insecurities grinding down the health our leadership. Frankly, the feeling of indispensability bloats the ministry of a pastor to a size of idolatrous proportions. It can also alienate you from your family and your marriage.

Brave pastors fight the temptation of indispensability. They do it by investing in other leaders, giving away ministry, and realizing the church doesn’t belong to them but belongs to Jesus. Brave pastors fight indispensability by confessing their limitations to God and others. They make it clear that leading the church is a team effort. Brave pastors learn to not only endure but appreciate the fact that church ministries may be a bit different than they would personally do it because they’ve let trustworthy, gospel-centered leaders actually lead. Brave pastors fight the temptation of indispensability by reminding themselves of passages like,

Eph. 4:11-13, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”

2 Tim. 2:1-2, “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

which remind them that pastoral ministry is measured just as much by what you pass down to others as what you keep for yourself.

That’s one reason why my church has spent countless hours and tons of resources putting together a Leadership Development Program that keeps us in a healthy rhythm of pouring into leaders “for the work of ministry.” It’s why we make the pulpit a team endeavor, eschew personality-centered communications, and structure leadership in such a way that distributes many responsibilities of the lead pastor while still having a very real (and very fine) lead pastor.

Know this, the temptation of indispensability is very real pitfall for the heart of a pastor.

Brave ones fight against it.