Put the Church in Charge

Christian ministry is fraught with issues requiring oversight and structure, but I don’t believe mission¹ organizations are the cure.

For several years now I have followed the personal blog of Eddie Arthur. While I don’t always agree with his views, I have grown to respect the thoughtful way he approaches issues of church and culture and his willingness to raise hard questions. At times he comes out in defense of the status-quo, at other times he advocates for controversial changes. Sometimes, as in the post I’ll be reviewing, he just stirs the pot. I particularly appreciate that he doesn’t try to sugar coat complex topics (such as Bible translation) to make them seem easy or palatable but instead points out the extra levels of nuance required to even discuss them profitably.

Two days ago he opened a hum-dingier can of worms. Few topics are as likely to pique my interest as much as the question, “Who Is In Charge of Mission?”¹ Now I know half of you just started to fade on me. “What’s the big deal?” you say, “Isn’t that all up to God anyway?” And of course it is, but that’s not the direction Eddie takes the discussion—so go read his post now!

Even having read the post, I imagine some of you still wonder why this is a big deal. Meanwhile a few of you who know me better are rolling your eyes and mumbling, “There goes Caleb on his hobby horse again!”. For the rest of you, humor me for a moment. Anytime you either a) don’t care about an issue or b) hold a view that’s in the majority, it becomes easy to let any discussion surrounding it roll past without a care. This can be a good filter mechanism, but it is also the mechanism by which enormous cultural blind spots form. The opposite is also true—and that’s the problem I struggle with. Since I am a) passionate about this specific issue and b) my views fly in the face of popular wisdom, it seems like the iceberg is always surfacing somewhere. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that few questions have reached into and shaped so many areas of my life. Where I am on planet earth, who I work with, what sort of connections I cultivate, and what occupies me on a daily basis are all informed, in large part, by my answer to this question—more so than political views, personalities, or even many other major points of theology.

Yet, as outspoken as I am, many people can’t find a box to put me in. The familiar story played out again just this Sunday when a pastor visiting town (and not primarily to visit me, we just happened to cross paths) asked me where I was from. 60 seconds into an informal conversation I sensed he was slightly at a loss because he couldn’t figure out what category to file me under: I am not affiliated with a missions organization or sending agency, yet here I am on the ground doing Christian ministry in a language and culture not mine by birth. I can almost hear his thought: “So is this guy a real missionary or what?”

And before anybody panics, allow me to slam the door on missions being a freelance affair. Lone-cowboy missionaries are the worst. Anybody calling all their own shots needs to saddle up and go home². Now that you know how I feel about that, lets get back to Eddie’s points.

My question is to do with the accountability how missionaries and mission agencies are accountable to the wider church for what they do and say.

This is a great question, but I would answer it by re-framing it: people should be accountable to their churches. End of story. Being a missionary doesn’t change that, if anything it should intensify it. We should be setting the example for what that looks like! This changes the framing of the question on two points:

  • It drops the ‘wider’ qualification. Missionaries aren’t responsible directly to the wider (little ‘c’ catholic) church, they should be responsible in fellowship with their local covenant community of believers to the leaders that God has placed over them in the local church context. That local church body and its leaders should, of course, be accountable to other church bodies and their leaders, and so on³. This distinction may seem trivial but I think that it’s crucial not to link up the chain anywhere else.
  • Agencies don’t factor in at all. The question at hand is about accountability for the things missionaries do and say, and I think the burden for this lies squarely on the shoulders of the church. Whatever role, if any, external agencies are to play, they should not distance the church from its responsibilities.

As simplistic as this view is, I believe it is the right answer.⁴ Pragmatically I think it heads off the major concerns that Eddie goes on to bring up. For example:

We have to face up to the fact that we live in a far more complex world than those early disciples. We no longer have a single “mother church” in Jerusalem and a clear set of Apostles who oversee things. We have to work with what we have and in the Protestant, Evangelical world, this means a very fractured system. So if a mission agency steps out of line, who holds them responsible?

Churches have—at least are supposed to have—built in mechanisms for dealing with members of the body (lay or otherwise) that step out of line, whether into doctrinal error or into sin. Shepherding the body to better reflect the glory of Christ is one of the primary roles of church leaders. If the mechanisms for keeping the bride pure are functioning, they will naturally extend to make this question a non-issue for any activity that is either wholly contained in or is an out-flowing of the church context. If the church is the base point for all mission then the question of accountability is answered in scripture. Only if it is divorced from the church do we have to hunt around for other mechanisms and start taking our clues from business or politics.

Eddie suggests several accountability scenarios. For example, “the most obvious answer is that mission agencies are responsible to their boards of trustees or directors.” Yet he rightly raises a red flag on that asking, “What background do these people have to address the theological and missiological questions that missions face?” My answer is that they don’t—unless of course they do, in which case they should be using those gifts in the service of the church!

It doesn’t seem to be the author’s intent—at least not in that one post—to stop and propose a solution; instead he moves on to another scenario. “Another suggestion is that missionaries should be accountable to their supporters and sending churches.” Again he sees a flaw. “The problem is that many churches either feel unequipped or are simply unwilling to invest the time needed to stay in contact with their missionaries.” Eddie goes on in the next paragraph to describe things that make his hair curl, but my beard goes all crinkly starting here. Yes of course this is a flaw, but this is a flaw that needs to be fixed, not circumvented in the name of pragmatism! A church not equipped to serve or unwilling to invest in ministers of the Gospel describes a church that has not grown into—or has abdicated—one of its primary callings. Lets address that scenario for what it is and see that our local church bodies are fed on and properly equipped to minister the Gospel at home before we trot them off to save the rest of the world. Any church for which this is a defining concern should deal with the log in its own eye first.

I’m going to quote the third scenario in full and note only that I think his objections are spot on!

Another possibility is that mission agencies should be accountable to their donors. In a sense, this is already true; if people stop giving money, then the mission has to stop doing stuff. However, there are a couple of problems with this. Firstly, I’m not convinced that having money to give away (even if you have lots of money to give away) qualifies you to make sound judgements about mission strategy on the other side of the globe. Just because you have made a gazillion dollars manufacturing widgets, it doesn’t mean that you understand what it takes to plant a church in a Chinese megacity. Secondly, one of the areas where I believe mission agencies need to be held to account is in their publicity and fund-raising strategies. Some agencies pitch for donations in a way that would make my hair curl, if I had any. They do this because it works and because the donors are prepared to buy in to the (frankly dubious) promises that some agencies make. We can’t expect those same donors to hold the agency to account.

As soon as mission strategies are decided and put in motion outside the local church the door is opened to all manor of abuses.⁵ Sadly, these are not just theoretical issues but very pragmatic ones that end up hurting the very cause they wish to support.

The early church knew that some sort of oversight and accountability was essential in mission work. That is just as true today as it was then, but I’m not entirely convinced that we have the systems in place.

I’m not convinced the systems are in place either, but I am convinced the church is where the systems need to be placed. Likewise I’m convinced that the source for them is the same as the church’s every other need, its one head and His Word. Besides the much talked about issue of inerrancy, I also believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. Of course it’s not a play-by-play handbook for every twist and turn in our lives. It doesn’t tell me whether to cook the Mantı or the Spaghetti for dinner; but the great commission and the coming of God’s kingdom being one of the great themes of the Bible, I cannot imagine it not giving us the tools we need for mission. Would God seriously not have foreseen how great a task it was going to be? If some structure other than those given the church in general was necessary to make it all come together I would expect to find some hints at least.

Which brings me to the context in which this issue surfaced for me last month.⁶ I was at an Acts 29 conference and having a great time fellowshiping with like minded brothers—yet at the same time I was ill at ease. As much as Acts 29 gets right, I still feel like it gets this equation wrong. Lets start with what it gets right.

Why are we so single-minded? Because we believe that the church is God’s primary mission strategy, and so the means by which Jesus is made more famous as communities of light are scattered throughout the world to dispel the darkness.

Preach it brothers! I’m with you there.

That being said, I have no intention of joining the network and, at least in many cases, would try to dissuade other pastors from doing so. So what gives?

The break for me comes in this twist of logic. Acts 29 specifically claims not to take the place of the local church. So far so good. It also claims not to be a denomination. As well it shouldn’t because it doesn’t do most of what a denomination should. But then it steps in to fill a handful of roles that churches and denominations ought to have taken care of anyway. I can’t get it out of my head that if our churches and denominations were functioning and doing their jobs in the first place, the scope Acts 29 maps out for itself would be entirely redundant. If it’s not redundant, then the former is broken. So lets fix it at the core rather than patch on something from the outside.

Ergo, as far as I can see, the only churches that really have a need for what Acts 29 provides are ones with non-functional local church or denominational relations. In that event I would advocate getting those fixed before substituting something that does part of the job but doesn’t also shoulder the other responsibilities that go with those roles.

Am I missing the boat?

¹ Sadly the word ‘Mission’ has come to mean a host of different things to Christians around the world. Additionally, where I live ‘Missionary’ is commonly considered a bad word to use because of the images it conjures up of subversive behavior, hidden agendas, and cultural indiscretion. However I’m going to leave those debates for another time, and for this post will just use the terms in as generic a way as possible for lack of more meaningful substitutes.
² Ironically, for most of them this means pointing their horses west.
³ For my geek friends, picture an ad-hoc network in a fully connected mesh topology. Once it outgrows a meaningful number of links, it can morph into a hybrid ring & bus topology. The tree and star topology should be reserved for our Catholic cousins. For my nerd friends, see Presbyterian church governance.
⁴ A round Scriptural defense of the view is probably something I should work on writing up. I’ve read several before, but, if this is something you want to hear, poking me to work on it would be good for my own clarity of thought if nothing else.
⁵ You Unix hackers know that some things work nicely in user-space, others are rightly reserved for the kernel. Conflating the two would be horribly misguided. Also please stop me before I compare your favorite sending agency to systemd and start babbling on about the apocalypse or paint it as an “all-devouring octopus monster about crawl out of the sea and eat Tokyo and spit it out as a giant binary logfile.”
⁶ I’m skipping from this week to last month, not because this didn’t come up for a whole month but because it’s easier to pick on public statements than personal situations!


Not a scrap of Turkey, but plenty of thanks.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I find myself alone. And sick. The litany of ailments which plagues my body this week is almost comical. I am too weak to write this post at a computer and so I peck it out on my phone. Making for myself a cup of instant chicken soup (and keeping it down) is my big accomplishment over yesterday.

And yet I am profoundly thankful.

I think the worst of my fever is past, although I may still be delusional. I’m quite sure some may write me off as raving when they hear what I am too say.

A few weeks ago, under no virus induced delerium, I posted on Twitter a thought which I think bears repeating in light of this day.

This thought was not the utterance of an armchair. These words were not formed while staring listlessly into a fire dreaming about how life should be. They were a cry from the trenches; hue from the battle. I was under pressure and I didn’t know how much more I could handle. “My last breath” was less a poetic construct than it was the flavor in my mouth.

And I meant it.

There weariness of the last few months, esp the last several weeks of crisis management, and constant knowledge of all the needs I was unable to attend to, undoubtedly contributed to how hard this illness has hit me now.

And yet I do not regret the expenditure.

It is truly better too give than to receive. And more importantly, I know who I am thankful to. It is not for health nor wealth nor fame nor any other pleasure that I am thankful for. I am not an asceticist that I take no pleasures in the beauties that do exist even in our fallen world, yet it is not for them that I live or die – and die I will soon enough. It is for my master and His bidding that I yet live. It is He who gives me each breath – and allows both health and sickness for my good in their seasons – and it is He who will one day cease to grant me breath because my work on earth is done.

On this Thanksgiving, it is far less about what I am thankful for than who I am thankful to.

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. — Jude 1:24-25 ESV


Beauty: a revealer of truth and disguiser of lies.

Some men have such a gift for expression that we revel in their words, marveling as truth and beauty are inextricably woven together before our very eyes. Yet this gift is also dangerous…

The other day I was reflecting on the writings of one of my all time favorite authors, George McDonald. His writings are inspirational. His prose have a flair of the heavenly about them while the subjects are down to earth. Just reading him makes you want to believe that the pictures he paints are true. Most of them are. Yet while many of the ideas behind even his fiction are sound and true, one major idea heretical to orthodox Christianity runs through all of his work. It isn’t named or specifically endorsed, but you hear it’s echos in nearly every scene.

I ended up posting this thought on Facebook (to which this post is the back-story):

Some men have such a gift for expression that we revel in their words, marveling as truth and beauty are inextricably woven together before our very eyes. Yet this gift is also dangerous, as the same skill that wakes our sleeping souls to glory, if not indeed moored to truth, cannot fail but weave a veil which blinds us to the rubbish behind the pretty shroud.

Cut the flowery language, and my point was simple: Just because something is well said doesn’t make it true.

Later the same week, I ended up watching several sessions of the Mormon General Conference. So many articulate men and an elaborately beautiful presentation … and yet so wrong! One sentence is true, the next utter rubbish. One phrase from heaven followed by one perversion from hell – yet so seamless you hardly notice where one leaves off and the other commences – and both dressed up in such fine trappings.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. — (Colossians 2:8 ESV)


Redacted roads

It’s always a little disappointing to see backwards progress. In the last few months quite a number of ambitious mappers have gotten on board and have started to flesh out the roads of Izmir on Open Street Map. Unfortunately, it seems at least one major contributor from the past failed to convert their contributions to the new licencing and their efforts have been redacted from the map. The following ways have recently been removed from the OSM database entirely.

Redacted ways

This is an unfortunate loss of a large number of contributions. Without them, the stats now have me as the largest contributor of ways in the Izmir area. Considering I only contribute as a sporadic hobby when I’m bored (never) or frustrated with normal pursuits (more often), that’s not a very promising statistic.

Contributors to the Izmir map

If you enjoy (or want to learn) about cartography, feel free to sign up and contribute to the Izmir map!


Easter Refractions

Paskalya’yı aniden algılayamıyorum ben. Yüreğim sağır mıdır ki bir gün yetmiyor? Resmi olarak kutladığımız gün bitmek üzereyken gözü dalıp günün önemini düşünüyordum. Ancak o zaman gözyaşı dökmeye başladım. İnsanlar metroda ağlayan bir yabancıyı görünce ne düşünmüşlerse benim umurumda değil. Ben ölmeye hak ederken yerimde bir kurban kesildi. Fakat o kurban mezara tutsak kalmadı. O nasıl dirildiyse ben de O’nunla dirildim. Ancak buna layık değilim. Sabahtan beri O’nu düşünüp kutladığım halde bugün içerisinde O’nun güzel adını sayısızca lekelemiş oldum. Yaşamasını kutlarken ölmesinin sebebi olmaya devam ettim. “Ne zavallı insanım! Ölüme götüren bu bedenden beni kim kurtaracak? Rabbimiz İsa Mesih aracılığıyla Tanrı’ya şükürler olsun!” Her pazar günü resmi kutlamamız devam edecektir ta ki kutladığımız kurtarıcı dönene kadar. “İşte, dünyanın günahını ortadan kaldıran Tanrı Kuzusu!”

I am unable to comprehend Easter in a moment. Is my heart deaf that one day is not enough? As the day in which we officially celebrate was almost at a close, I was staring into space and reflecting on the importance of the day. It was only then that my tears began to flow. It matters not to me what people must have thought to see a foreigner crying on the metro. While I deserved death a sacrifice was made in my place. However that sacrifice did not stay entrapped in the grave. As he rose to life so I have been made alive with him. Yet I am not worthy of this. Though I have thought on and celebrated Him since the morning, I have brought countless stains upon his beautiful name. Even while celebrating His life I have continued to be the cause of his death. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Our official celebration will continue every Sunday until the day when the savior we commemorate returns. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!


Do all roads lead to Rome?

All the world’s religions are but man’s attempts to create a road to God. Christ is the road God paved to reach men.

The legions of men who blithely assert that all religions lead to God in the end are right in this: that the many varied roads mapped and traveled by men in their attempt to reach God merely merge into one wide way. The exception invariably overlooked is Christ: the narrow road that God mapped and traveled to reach lost men.

Dinlerin hepsini zaten Tanrı’ya ulaşır diye israr eden insanların tasasız kalabalıkları yalnız şunda doğrulardır: Tanrı’ya ulaşmaya girişimde bulunan insanların çok çeşitli çizdiği ve seyahat ettiği yoların tümü ancak geniş bir yol oluşturmak üzere birleşir. Devamlı gözden kaçan istisna, Mesih’tir: Tanrı’nın, kaybolan insanlara ulaşmak üzere çizdiği ve seyahat ettiği dar yolu.


Dear Mr. Bell

Dear Mr. Bell,

I was saddened to learn this evening, through various members of the body, that you have chosen not to believe in truth as laid out by our Maker. I realize that I am drawing many conclusions based on very short statements in a film clip promoting your upcoming book, but to my ears you were very clear in marking out the ground on which you stood. If you feel your meaning has been mis-read, I beg you to stand up and clarify what you really mean. Otherwise, the lines between yourself and Christianity have been drawn. Like my other brothers, I appreciate your clarity. It makes you easy to approach respectfully even if I could not disagree more strongly.

Perfect honesty would compel me to state that I am not surprised. Having read some of your previous works, I knew you were playing with fire, chasing after how things feel more than how they are. However I am still both saddened and shocked.

It is not shocking to me that somebody would draw the conclusions you have drawn. Very many people in this world do; although few express them as succinctly as you have. What shocks me is you seem to have grasped the core issue and yet not seen the beauty in the Truth.

Of course I am sad that you are not walking on the narrow way and as a fellow human invite you to investigate again the man who claimed to be God. Yet beyond this, I was saddened by your commentary on the whole of Christianity. Apparently, we are not doing our job!

I take from your words a challenge. You make this statement:

“…what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God…”

You are very perceptive in identifying that detail as one of the core teachings of Christianity, buried deep in the heart of our doctrine. What makes me sad is that you perceive this truth as being taught “subtly”. We must be proclaiming this from the rooftops! I myself have taught this truth many times … and yet not enough. It was this truth that compelled me in desperation to first pray the sinners prayer (even if that’s not exactly how things work); and it was this truth again that later set me free to serve a new master. It was to pronounce this truth that I chose to live in a strange land and learn a strange tongue. Just as Christ lived among us and spoke our language that He might proclaim the good news that He would take the wrath of God against sinners on His own shoulders and that in following Him we would be rescued from that fate, so I pray my life among and speech with those still under that curse would point them towards Him.

My allegiance lies with the God who saved me from himself for himself. Thank you for the challenge to make this truth less subtle through every breath I take. I humbly invite you to examine the Gospel again. It is the LEGENDARY GOOD news that we have been presented a solution to the EPICALLY BAD news.


P.S. You ask, “How could that god be good; how could that god ever be trusted?” I answer, because He gave up the life of His own Son as a propitiation. If that’s not worth trusting…


The second Adam / İkinci Adem

From the day Adam donned the first rags to hide his shame so has every man ever sought to guise his depravity. History is littered with tales of meanest peasant and richest king who but scraped together the means to salvage their own honor by bartering another’s shame. All but one man. The second Adam willingly shed His perfect covering of glory that hid no fault so we might behold Him. And because our wretched states cannot abide such perfection we cast Him out and crucified Him. Yet by His death the veil between heaven and earth was torn asunder and The Way for our redemption was revealed. Come sinner! Cast aside your rags, take up your cross and follow Jesus.

Adem utancını gizlemek için ilk paçavra giyindiği günden beri soyundan gelen her adam günahkarlığını saklamaya çabalar. Tarih, kendi onuru kaybetmemek amacıyla başkasının utancını takas eden mahrum köylülerin ve zengin kralların hikâyeleriyle doludur. Tek bir adam hariç. İkinci Adem, biz kendini görebilelim diye gönül rızasıyla hiç bir kusuru kaplanmayan mükemmel görkem örtüsünü bıraktı. Biz ise, sefil günahkâr halimizin O’nun mükemmelliğine katlanamadığından dolayı O’nu dışlanıp çarmıha gerdik. Fakat O’nun ölmesiyle cennet ile dünya arasındaki peçe yırtıldı ve kurtuluşumuzun Yol’u açığa vuruldu. Gel günahkâr! Paçavralarını terk edin ve çarmıhını yüklenip İsa’yı izleyin!


1 day of sickness cures 3 years of silence

The simple story of a bed-ridden programmer cleaning up his own site.

This afternoon I decided to attend to some house cleaning and repair tasks that have been outstanding for longer than I would like to admit, but the previous post date on this blog probably gives me away. As a programmer, it seems the most neglected code is always my own. In the course of several server changes in recent years, the software powering my personal site got pretty out of whack.

Yesterday I was quite sick and didn’t get anything done. Today I was still feeling sick enough to not want to work on anything that was actually work. As a result, I poked around at my own stuff and got some of it wired back together again. The archives still need a bit of work, but the upshot of the change today is that comments should finally be usable.

Besides the blog, several other things got cleaned up on my home page so that it’s actually a useful place to point people towards again. I will continue to use this as a central place to organize my presence on the web.


Consider it Jousting

Constructive criticyzm is a well accepted concept, but add a little sarcasm you have probably crossed the line.

Having a good round of “jousting” with a friend who knows you well enough to make fun of you but loves you enough not to actually break anything can be a fun and stimulating experience. As long as the parties are considerate of each-other, even sarcasm can be fair game.

Now switch mental gears for a minute and consider criticism.

Our society is fairly accepting of the concept of constructive criticism. Done in the right manor, it is possible to make observations about other people that encourage them to change for the better. This is effective only to the point where the parties trust each other.

Now mix the two. (insert explosion here)

My experience says that there needs to be a very distinct separation between these two operations. As long as you can trust a friend to pull you aside and be intentional and loving with real criticism, the jousting can be a blast.

I recently felt the need to make an apology to a relative that I had been jousting with for several days. We had given each other considerable amounts of grief in a humorous sort of way and to a point, I was confident that it was all in the spirit of fun. That “point” came when I said something a little to close to being a real put down.

Although I did not intend it derogatorily, something told me that the comment was inappropriate and so I brought it up the next day and asked forgiveness. Thankfully no inferences had been made, but the mistake got me really thinking about what things are safe topics for jest.

In the pleasant conversation that ensued with this individual, I found out that I was not the only one to have jousted with them and hit the same unsafe topic. Unfortunately the other party had long since crossed the line and was mixing real criticism with the humorous comments. The effect was devastating.

The moral of the story? If you are going to seek this kind of fun, please make the extra effort to ensure that your engaging in considerate jousting. Save any topic even remotely close to real criticism for a real “in love” discussion, and make sure this is well understood in the relationship!