T4G 08: Mixed Afterthoughts
Helpful in Many Ways
The Celebrity Mystique – Never has a conference held so many of my own hero's who have shaped me as I have listened to their messages and/or interviews and/or lectures: John Piper, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul. My own convictions have been shaped more by these men than by all my college and seminary professors over the years. T4G was intended to draw a large crowd by it's "celebrity" impact. Mark Dever joked about this at the beginning of the conference. He said they knew they could draw a large crowd this way even though they disagree with the whole "celebrity" mentality. (I won't take the time to speculate on what he means by that)
Dr. Mohler brought the heat by defending substitutionary atonement against certain recent attacks. His message was probably more fitting for a classroom lecture than a conference message (based on the responses I heard from some friends of mine who were not able to follow him, and based on C.J.'s comments afterward during the panel discussion). Nevertheless, I was able to follow and enjoy his critiques of modern attacks against this doctrine. His defense was timely and wholly appropriate to the theme of the conference, for Paul considered it among those things which are "of first importance" in the passing on of apostolic gospel proclamation, along with the resurrection (1 Cor 15:1-4ff).
John MacArthur basically walked us through the proof texts for a doctrine of "total inability." I'm an 8 point Calvinist, so I nodded my head a great deal of the time, but this was nothing new.
Thabiti Anyabwile (pronounced by my own phonetic conventions as: thuh.bee.tee ahn.yah.bwee.leh). He challenged us to think of the whole category of "race" as both unhelpful and unbiblical. His definition for "race," however, seemed to be one that most people do not at all intend by the use of the term. As he was speaking, I looked in my back-of-the-Bible concordance to see if the word "race" was used in the Bible. Sure enough, it occurs in the Bible several times. I thought it was unfortunate, since the Bible is our final and ultimate authority, that Thabiti did not address this apparent tension with his call for us to think of the category of "race" as unbiblical. Have the translators got it wrong all these years?
Dictionary.com shows that the most common definition for "race" is this: a group of persons related by common descent or heredity. According to the same source, the most common understanding of "heredity" is the following: the transmission of genetic characters from parents to offspring. These genetic differences might be as superficial as skin and hair color, as bothersome as unattractive physical traits, or as serious as trends of certain health problems.
Although one might quibble with the way Thabiti defined "race," I heartily agreed with the spirit of the message. "Blacks" and "Whites" are not different species with biological categories of their own. There are more commonalities ("like me's") between all races within the humanity than there are differences. Or, if you like, we are all one race: the human race. I can walk into a group of people from India or Africa or wherever and still say, "Sinner, like me." "Needs Christ, like me." "Bear's God's image, like me." "Human, like me." We all descend from Adam.
Within the human race, there are ethnic cultures which defy any of the superficial "race" categories. Therefore, I agree with Thabiti that the category of ethnicity, which is a more fluid idea, is more helpful than "race," for most people. I used to hate being told that I was "trying to be black," just because all my closest friends were black and because I was immersed in the thug-hip-hop culture (baggy pants, Ebonics with slang words for everything, twisted caps, etc.). I was no more trying to be black than I was trying to be purple. It wasn't about skin color. It was about culture. Thabiti has done us all a favor by helping us see that the category of ethnicity goes deeper, by reminding us that humans are more like each other than we are different from each other (we all bear God's image), and finally, by reminding us that racism can show up in subtle ways (like where you sit and who you decide to talk to in a room full of people). His admonition for us to go out of our way to show unity across cultures was edifying and enriching to the atmosphere of T4G.
Note: I thought it was one of the more ironically humorous moments when just after Thabiti's message about why "race" is not a helpful category, we sang a hymn that went something like this: "Ye chosen seed of Israel's race…." I wish I could've seen Thabiti's face and lips during that hymn (did he sing along?). lol!
John Piper gave a vintage message about how our ministry should be radical and sacrificial. He based this message on the passage in Hebrews, which he basically said was like the punch line of the whole book: "So, let us go out to [Jesus] outside the camp, bearing His reproach" (Heb 13:13). The panel discussion following his message brought out a pleasant surprise (for me anyway). When asked what this radical sacrifice looks like for pastors who "aren't going anywhere" (as C.J. put it) because of long-term commitments to their churches, Piper talked about normal day to day stuff. He didn't talk about being sawed in half or being beaten to death in some Muslim country. He talked about enduring mistreatment as a pastor, suffering yourself to be confrontational with your kids, and other related areas of common obedience. This was unusually helpful for me. When I hear Piper preach, I often get the sense that he has something much greater in mind by "sacrifice" and "suffering" than the day-to-day stuff I experience. Sometimes I walk away from hearing Piper speak with a sense that I haven't even begun to suffer or sacrifice the way he calls for in his messages. But after his clarification of what his exhortation "looks like" for a normal pastor, my eyes began to twinkle. Maybe I understand him after all.
I actually thought Mark Dever's message was most significant. He encouraged us to make a distinction between the gospel on the one hand, and what we think are the implications of the gospel on the other. Much of his comments regarding this distinction encouraged us to be more gracious to our brothers and sisters in Christ who might have different opinions than we do on things not related directly to the gospel itself. Although he realized that some would criticize him as though he were trying to be reductionistic, he rightfully grounded his distinction as a way to actually protect the gospel. This distinction has the potential to overcome divisiveness in the church by fostering unity among all Christians who believe a common gospel. It's easy to get caught up in our differing opinions about what we think the implications of the gospel are. Dever's message was refreshing because of it's potential for greater unity among Christians who believe in the incarnation, death, burial and resurrection and messiahship/lordship of Jesus Christ and yet, unfortunately, differ on almost everything else. Skizmatics are the worst of heretics, as Augustine liked to say.