The Church Needs Prophets, But It Wants Lawyers

It’s time to listen to men and women who tell us what we need to hear.

I’m writing this newsletter in the aftermath of a very disconcerting Christmas in Nashville. In the early morning hours, police responded to a “shots fired” call on 2nd Avenue, downtown close to the Cumberland River. Instead of an active shooting scene they came upon an RV parked in front of an AT&T telecommunications building. The RV began loudly broadcasting, “Evacuate now. There is a bomb. A bomb is in this vehicle and will explode.” 

Police acted quickly and bravely to evacuate neighboring buildings before the RV exploded. Mercifully, there are no confirmed fatalities from the blast (though there were reports of human remains found at the site), but the physical damage was considerable. The bomb scored a direct hit on Nashville’s telecommunications grid. 

Within hours, communications began to fade out. 911 call centers went down across Middle Tennessee, Nashville Airport briefly grounded planes, and millions of AT&T customers in the Southeast (me included) lost all phone, television, and internet service. At a stroke, we found ourselves back in 1932—listening to this thing called “the radio” to learn about the outside world. 

Not long after the blast I drove downtown to survey the damage, and it was shocking. Streets I’ve walked countless times were covered in shattered glass, and 2nd Avenue was heavily damaged. 

This has been an especially challenging year for Nashville. We’ve endured COVID and urban riots like every other major American city, but we’ve also faced a direct hit from a tornado, a freak “derecho” storm, and now what appears to be a downtown terror attack. Countless isolated and vulnerable Tennesseans have been further cut off from friends and family. Lots of folks in my state could use your prayers.

Since this is 2020, let’s move from one piece of bad news to another. On December 23, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries released the preliminary results of its independent investigation into allegations that Zacharias had sexually harassed and abused massage therapists at two “day spas'' Zacharias co-owned. While the full report won’t be released until January or early February, the interim findings were devastating:

While some of the massage therapists we have tried to interview are not willing to share their experiences with us, many have spoken candidly and with great detail. Combining those interviews with our review of documents and electronic data, we have found significant, credible evidence that Mr. Zacharias engaged in sexual misconduct over the course of many years. Some of that misconduct is consistent with and corroborative of that which is reported in the news recently, and some of the conduct we have uncovered is more serious. Our investigation is ongoing, and we continue to pursue leads.

This confirmation of Zacharias’s misconduct represents yet another confirmed failing in yet another high-profile Christian ministry. 2020 has been a brutal year for the church. And with each failure, it becomes harder and harder for honest men and women to blame the church’s challenges on “the world” or “the left” or really any other external force. 

The call is coming from inside the house.

And don’t think for a moment that these failings are isolated to Zacharias alone or to people like Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr. or Hillsong’s Carl Lentz. These powerful men were coddled and enabled by other powerful men and then automatically and reflexively defended by thousands upon thousands of angry and loyal Christian followers until the evidence of their malfeasance was open and irrefutable. 

The same day I read the preliminary Zacharias report, I listened to my friends Phil Vischer and Skye Jethani discuss the dreadful Jericho March on their excellent “Holy Post” podcast. The Jericho March represented a different kind of Christian scandal—fanatical Christian nationalism. Vischer and Jethani argued that the American church needed to hear less from popular celebrities and more from courageous prophetic voices, from people who boldly seek justice and call us to turn, individually and institutionally, from sin. 

They’re exactly right, but the sad fact is that most signs point to the church preferring lawyers to prophets. By “lawyers” I don’t mean a legion of literal J.D.’s (though ministries often lawyer-up under fire.) Rather I’m referring to those public figures who function like lawyers—as if they’re representing their church client rather than speaking hard truths. I’m speaking of the voices that both defend the church from meaningful criticism and prosecute the church’s enemies for error, perfidy, and malice. 

Let’s use political punditry as an example. The anti-anti-Trump pundit functions like a prosecutor. He’s constantly pointing out the flaws and sins of the left or the media or Never Trump (or all of the above). He creates a sense of urgency—enemies this terrible cannot be permitted to win. He blinds you to the flaws of your own side with a constant, white-hot spotlight (sometimes exaggerated, sometimes not) on the worst of your opponents.

The pro-Trump pundit is the defense lawyer. He’s adept at spinning, rationalizing, and minimizing. He’s sold you on the false idea, for example, that the Trump campaign never had any improper contact with Russians or that Trump did nothing wrong in his call with the president of Ukraine—that both impeachment and the Russia investigation were a “hoax” or a “coup” from start to finish. 

And make no mistake, we love our pundit-lawyers. If they’re good at what they do, they can state our position better than we ever could. By sharing their articles and quoting their tweets, they give us all the ammunition we need in our online wars. They do not, however, make us search our hearts. They do not make us question our priors. 

If the lawyer-pundit is dangerous and polarizing in politics, the lawyer-pastor or lawyer-theologian or lay lawyer-Christian can present challenges for our hearts and souls. He  protects us from seeing our own sin. He reassures us that while we’re of course not perfect, we are fundamentally right. 

Take, for example, the response to the racial reckoning in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. You might be spending more time listening to lawyers than prophets if you’re more familiar—seven months later—with the flaws of Critical Race Theory than with the details of wealth gaps, achievement gaps, or with the systematic violations of civil rights that are all too common in marginalized communities. 

It’s not easy to find (or listen to) the prophetic voice. I’ve had to learn from painful experience to listen to voices from outside the comfortable confines of my own spiritual cocoon. It’s a source of personal shame, for example, that I couldn’t clearly perceive the realities of contemporary American racism until it was directed at my own daughter, and I was shocked out of my spiritual complacency. 

American Christian culture is rife with congregants looking for lawyers, not prophets and not pastors. The church-shopping phenomenon puts us in churches that make us feel quite comfortable, and the sheer number of available congregations (especially in the South and parts of the Midwest) makes us quite mobile. From all too many members of the congregation comes the cry, “Tell us what we want to hear!” 

Indeed, that is a longstanding cry from Christian pews. I’m reading Nathan Hatch’s invaluable book, The Democratization of American Christianity, and he amply chronicles the rise of populist religion in these United States, a religion that all too often can create celebrities who echo the (possibly apocryphal) words of the French populist Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

What does this have to do with church scandals? After all, who’s defending Ravi Zacharias now? The lawyer says, “These are still isolated incidents. Why are you picking on the church? You’re doing the media’s work for them. For every fallen evangelist, there are hundreds of pastors toiling away with integrity. You critics are trying to curry favor with hostile elites. You want their approval, and by attacking your own tribe, you get exactly what you want—the applause of a lost world.”

But the prophet replies, “How many men must be exposed as predators or frauds before you realize your own church culture is broken? How many ministries must collapse before you realize that the problems within the church aren’t due to ‘them’ but rather rest with ‘us’? You can see clearly the problems with institutions like ‘Hollywood’ or ‘Big Tech’ or the ‘elite academy,’ but you won’t apply the same standards to the church—an institution with the highest possible purpose and calling.” 

Spend five minutes reading the Bible, and you’ll quickly learn that prophets are often unpopular. They often shout into the void—ignored, despised, and persecuted. In the results- and metrics-oriented populism of much American Christianity, the prophet is truly without honor in his own country. His message doesn’t “work”—until hearts break under the weight of their own sin, and then suddenly it does.

Two scriptural examples—one from the Old Testament and one from the New—illustrate the potential power of a true spiritual indictment. In 2 Kings, the text records what happened when Josiah, King of Judah, was read the “book of the law”:

When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then he commanded ... “Go and inquire of the Lord for me, the people and all Judah about the words in this book that has been found. For great is the Lord’s wrath that is kindled against us because our ancestors have not obeyed the words of this book in order to do everything written about us.

In Acts 2, we read what happened when Peter accused the gathered crowd of crucifying the son of God, a message hardly designed on its face to win friends and influence people:

When they heard this, they were pierced to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit . . . With many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, “Be saved from this corrupt generation!” So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added to them.

Note that in both examples above there was a way to evade responsibility. The lawyer had plenty of exculpatory material. Was Josiah at fault for his ancestors’ disobedience? Did any of the people Peter spoke to in that crowd literally hammer the nails into Jesus’s hands and feet? Yet the proper response in both instances wasn't rationalization but repentance.

It’s time to stop listening to the lawyers. Here’s a New Year’s resolution—seek out the prophets. No, that doesn’t mean accepting each and every critique. Apply reason. Demand evidence for challenging claims. But how much more evidence do we need that our church culture is shot through with systemic sin before our own hearts are pierced, before we ask, like our spiritual fathers and mothers who came before, “Brothers, what should we do?”

Lila update …

We remain so grateful for your prayers. Lila is growing stronger every day. She had drainage tubes removed ahead of schedule, and she’s eating ahead of schedule. We’re hoping and praying that she can come home ahead of schedule. We remain simply staggered at the gap between the hopeful reality of her present condition and our worst fears when she was first diagnosed. She improved dramatically while in the womb, while you were praying. Thank you.

One last thing …

It’s hard to think of a better song of repentance than one that begins, “I’m the one who held the nails.” I’ve always loved this, from Crowder: