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Derek Webb is My Younger Brother


Lump and sort.  Lump and sort.  This is the life of an analyst; you lump things together based on what makes them similar and sort them into different categories based on what makes them different from one another.  There are a myriad different permutations, and it never stops.  The more criteria I can come up with to lump/sort the information or objects or people I am studying, the better I come to know their nature and the possibilities and intricacies of how they relate to one another.

This is true across all disciplines, but it’s especially true with social sciences because of how complex people are.  Where we get in trouble is that people, unlike objects or information, can be offended by the ways we choose to lump and sort them.  It’s important to remember that no lump or sort will completely or adequately describe a person, but it can at least improve your knowledge of people as a whole and come as a handy tool for evaluating certain situations.

One particular sorting criterion I’ve come to appreciate lately is Tim Keller’s older brother/younger brother distinction from Prodigal God.  Keller uses the parable of the prodigal son to sort the world into two sorts of people: 

  • Younger brothers prioritize authenticity, adventure, freedom, individuality, pushing boundaries, questioning authority; they risk being irresponsible, licentious, disrespectful, and cavalier. 
  • Older brothers prioritize order, duty, honor, family, tradition, respect; they risk being stodgy, legalistic, merciless, and dogmatic.

I was tempted to put judgmental, pretentious, arrogant for one or the other, but I realized that it’s equally true of both groups. 

Here’s where Derek Webb comes in.  Around Christmas, an interview with Webb went live in which he had some pointed criticisms for the mainstream evangelical culture, particularly the way this culture interacts (or doesn’t) with Muslims, homosexuals, and atheists.  This isn’t a surprise, considering the trend of Webb’s more recent solo work seems to be, ‘All of you intolerant, mindless, Republicans make it so hard to be a Christian.’  Nevertheless, it caused a small fervor on the biblioblogosphere, which has led some friends and me to exchange some thoughts on the issue.  This post serves as my takeaway from that discussion.

It is clear to me that this is emblematic of the older brother/younger brother tension that Keller describes in the church.  Within that tension, I think there are two, separate issues.

First is the issue of judgment.  Webb rightly decries the way many in the church cast judgment on these outsider groups and suggests that this undermines our credibility as the body of Christ, who taught us to love the sinners, the outcast, and the least of these.  However, it’s just as crucial for this conversation to be had lovingly and without judgment within the church.  There’s room (and need) for a productive dialogue on these issues, but that’s inhibited when one side reads the other as either bigots or moral squishes. 

Secondly, there is an underlying logic to both older and younger positions.  If younger brothers prioritize love (tolerance and inclusion), older brothers prioritize holiness* (virtue and clarity).  I would argue that both types value both qualities, but that it’s a means/ends dispute.  I’ll lay out the cases from each position separately:

Younger – Love begets holiness. 

People will only be attracted to the Gospel if they see it as good news, as love and forgiveness and inclusion.  This is the understanding behind the Belong->Believe->Become model, which suggests that people will only strive for holiness based on a firm belief, which will only arise in an environment of welcoming and love.

Similarly, people are not free to pursue holiness in a loveless state.  They will return hate for hate, allowing resentment and bitterness to calcify their hearts against the call of God to repent.  Love allows people to let down their guard and examine their lives and admit their sins without fear of reprisal or scorn.

Notice that the younger brothers do not discard holiness; they just see love as a prerequisite.

Older – Holiness begets love. 

People will only be attracted to the Gospel if they see the life of the Kingdom as something different, something set apart from the world.  This understanding is built on the ‘choosing the lesser over the better’ definition of sin.  People will only want to be part of the church if it offers (both in guidance and in example) the promise of a better, happier life, free from the ravages of sin.

Similarly, people are not free to pursue love in a state of unholiness.  Sin, being destructive, makes people fearful and untrusting of one another.  Order, provided by delineations of what is and is not holy, allows people to let down their guard and reach out to one another in love.

Notice that the older brothers do not discard love; they just see holiness as a prerequisite.

Of course, the younger brother would rightly point out that love is holy.  The older would also rightly point out that encouraging holiness is an act of love.  Insofar as God is both loving and holy, they are correct; love and holiness are not separate facets of God’s character but one in the same, unified.

Because of this, and because there are people who will respond differently to each approach, I think it’s good to have both in the church.  The younger brothers, though, need to understand the importance of holiness and that the older brothers are not insufficiently loving because they’re concerned about this.  In turn, the older brothers need to make sure their emphasis on holiness is free of judgment (real or perceived) and respect the younger brothers’ emphasis on love without considering them to be apostate.  Each side, then, should balance one another, curbing the other’s likely excesses (in love and with patience), thereby allowing both perspectives to work for the church in its missions to reach the lost with the good news of the kingdom.


* By holiness, of course, I mean the pursuit thereof, not the achievement.

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