The term “deconstruction” has never been so closely associated with the Church and Christian theology as it is today. However, according to Dr. A.J. Swoboda, while the term is relatively new, the idea of deconstruction—questioning and dismantling one’s beliefs—has been part of the Church for thousands of years.
On this episode of Church InTension, TKU President, Dr. Jon Chasteen, speaks with Swoboda about the topic of deconstruction and how pastors can help people in their congregations ask healthy questions and ultimately grow closer to Jesus.
Dr. Jon Chasteen: Today, I’m excited to have a guest with us that if you don’t know who this guy is, you have got to start following this guy. His name is Dr. AJ Swoboda, and the reason I know him is because he does some adjunct work here at The King’s University, and he is just an absolutely incredible leader. He’s an author, he’s a pastor, he’s a podcast host, he’s a professor, he has a PhD from the University of Birmingham. Is that correct AJ? He’s the assistant professor at Bushnell University in Bible and Theology. He leads the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller. Is that in “Holy Spirit and Leadership”?
Dr. AJ Swoboda: That’s right, yep.
Jon: AJ, Dr. Swoboda lives in Eugene, Oregon. He’s written a lot of books. He’s written 10 books, a few of the ones that I would recommend is Subversive Sabbath and The Dusty Ones, which is such a cool title. Is this about the children of Israel going through the desert wilderness story?
AJ: It’s all about the wandering stories in the Bible, all the wandering stories.
Jon: Beautiful. And then his most recent book, the one we’re going to talk about today, is the one that I know you’ll love the topic, it’s called After Doubt and really what we’re going to talk about… what we’re going to talk about today, AJ, is really sort of the topics of this book, but I love the subtitle of your book. The subtitle says “How to question your faith without losing it”. First off, thank you for writing this book. It’s such an important topic because I think, for many times we think it’s horrible to doubt our faith, right? Like it’s heresy. You’ve lost it all, you can’t question anything. So, for one, thank you for writing this book, and one of the terms that is kind of a buzzword these days, that I’ve heard you speak about this and you write about it extensively in this book, is this word “deconstruction”. So, let’s just start… First off, thanks for being on the podcast.
AJ: Absolutely honored to be with you, Jon. Thanks for having me.
Jon: Thanks for being a friend to The King’s University, thanks for the work that you do. It’s a blessing to the Kingdom of God. So, tell us what… First, you have a couple of kiddos. You have Elliot who’s 10, and you have a foster daughter, who’s eight.
AJ: I do. We’ve got some life here in this household. It’s fun. And I didn’t mention our dog, Diggory.
AJ: Yeah, named proverbially after a Chronicles of Narnia character.
Jon: What a great name. So, and you’ve been married how many years?
AJ: My wife and I have been married for 18 years. This summer will be 18 years.
Jon: Awesome. Tell us a little bit about deconstruction. What is deconstruction?
AJ: Man… Yeah so-
Jon: I know, I kind of started broad there.
AJ: Let’s go there. And yeah, you’re right. You hit the nail on the head when you said it’s a pretty popular term. There’s a virtual cottage industry of people that are talking about this conversation right now, and it’s a very important term. At its basic core function, the idea of deconstruction basically simply means questioning a belief that one has held or previously espoused or believed something that one holds… We’re talking about, of course, theological deconstruction. There’s a lot of different kinds of deconstruction. When a building is torn down, a deconstructed building. When you take a bunch of Oreo cookies and break them apart, you can make a deconstructed cake with… Deconstruction applies to a lot of things. But when it comes to what we’re talking about here, deconstruction is, kind of at its core, the dismantling, either chosen or, for a variety of reasons, of undoing a particular set of beliefs or beliefs that one has previously held. So, for many of us, what that means is, our kids who are questioning the beliefs that we’ve handed to them for many of us as pastors, it’s people in our Church who are asking really big questions about what it means to be a Christian. For many of us, it’s actually us beginning to wonder if some of the ideas we’ve been given about Jesus, aren’t actually truthfully about Jesus. So, there’s a lot of different dimensions to this, but it is essentially, the questioning or dismantling of somebody’s particular set of beliefs.
Jon: So, I think it’s a cool story to tell, to kick this off. Whenever I heard you tell the story, and I think it’s a cool story for you to tell… In pastoring, you had dealt with a man named Phil. You remember telling the story?
Jon: So, tell us about Phil. What is this story?
AJ: Yeah. Phil, in the book… Naturally. I’ve changed some of the details of Phil’s life for this story. But Phil is… Years ago, I was pastoring in urban Portland, pastor of a church called Theophilus, kind of an urban charismatic Jesus community in the center of Portland. And got an email from young man who moved from middle America to Portland, and he was raised in a conservative Christian town, middle America, moved to Portland and got a tech job and we meet for coffee and he tells me his story. He’s so jazzed to be part of the church. He’s excited to be on mission for Jesus. He loves the Bible. He loves the… He wants to be on mission for God. And-
Jon: He comes to Portland, Oregon, the Bible Belt, right? The easiest place to start a church.
AJ: Yes, Portland, the Bible Belt of… So, Portland, traditionally, as you know, it’s got the reputation of being the most godless city in America. It and Seattle continuously kind of go back and forth as the Secular Belt of the Pacific Northwest and so Phil moves to Portland and is excited to follow Jesus. And in a year’s time, a short year’s time, Phil has completely deconstructed his faith and he wants to meet with me sort of a second time. This is just a year later.
And he is sitting in my office and he says, “I’ve spent this year living in Portland, I’ve got all these questions about everything: sexuality, gender identity, what it means to be a Christian, politics” and he’s sitting in my office and he says these words. He says, “I have all these questions about my faith. Am I still allowed to be a Christian?”
And of course, when I’m sitting with him, a tear cascading down his face, it dawned on me. So, of course in that story, I’m not talking to an individual, I’m talking to a generation. And for many of us, we don’t know how to pastor people that are walking through these kinds of questions.
Jon: That’s so true.
AJ: And for many of us, actually, we are the reasons they are deconstructing their faith. And so that’s hard to deal with, when we realize we have contributed to that. Now the story of Phil is beautiful, and of course I changed some details of the particular character, but there is an actual Phil and I’ve been walking with him now for a good seven years, and the guy loves Jesus more than he ever loved him before.
But it took a long journey of walking together and processing the story of how to follow Jesus through this. It was hard and required a lot more coffee appointments than I probably should have given to it. But at the end of the day, there’s this beautiful story of a guy who’s walked through a really hard time and is following Jesus with his whole heart. We, most of us… I wrote this book because most of us don’t know “A”: how to handle those questions when they come for us. And “B”: don’t know how to shepherd and care for others who are walking through themselves.
Jon: I want to go to that moment. So, you’re sitting there as a pastor, listening to this guy deconstruct, or maybe he’s already in the process, already done deconstructing. How knowledgeable or how aware were you of this topic at that time? Were you panicking like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know how to navigate this, or had you already explored this and you kind of knew what it was and knew how to address this?
AJ: No. Completely… Obviously I’m learning about it as I go. In seminary, I did learn that in the seminary world, often a lot of deconstruction happens. I learned about that idea of deconstruction and what that means, but to be honest, walking with Phil was a graduate level course on the spot. It’s like driving a car and fixing the engine at the same time. You’re every day asking God, how do I serve this young man, and to honor his story with dignity and care, and yet at the same time, have a goal of helping him experience Jesus in a really good way. So, no, I didn’t have a road…
There’s two types of roadmaps, right? Sometimes you get the map and then you go on the journey, but sometimes you go on the journey and the map becomes clear as you go. And I think for me, the map wasn’t clear until I walked it with Phil. So, in part, this book is a set of reflections on what I learned from that journey.
Jon: Was there an anxiousness in you during that? I mean, as a pastor…
AJ: Oh, terrible. I remember moments of feeling like… So, many feelings, this young man coming to terms with some of the ideas about Jesus that he’d been given that just frankly were not biblical. They were not good, they were death and realizing I had to walk really carefully with this, because you don’t want to throw his old church under the bus. You don’t want to throw his parents under the bus. You don’t want to do that, and also realizing that I can’t trick this guy into remaining a Christian-
Jon: That’s so good.
AJ: I have to be really authentic in how I respond. And it’s a day to day process of trusting in the Holy Spirit, of finding words… You can go to seminary and get a script on how to walk into a hospital room and what to say in those moments. But usually those scripts don’t work, because you’ve got to be attentive to the Holy Spirit in the moment. So, yeah, a lot of trusting in God through the process.
Jon: Why do you think… We know that deconstruction and this doubting is not new, but it’s also become this buzzword. What’s caused this buzz recently? The polarization?
AJ: I think that… I’m going to take a moment and stick up for the word for a second, if I could, because there’s a lot being written right now on how deconstruction is all bad. And I want to be the first to say, “No, actually sometimes deconstruction is the way that you follow Jesus” And the way I can say that, is if I believed a lie about God, if I believed a lie about the Bible or about Jesus and I undid that idea, we have a word for that, it’s called repentance.
And repentance is naming lies and undoing lies. And for a lot of us, we were given lies about the Bible or about Jesus, and the process of undoing that is just repentance. We have, by the way, a tradition of people who deconstructed; Jesus being one of them. When Jesus is talking to the disciples and he says, “You’ve heard it said, now I say to you”, he’s undoing-
Jon: That’s really good.
AJ: Of the law. That’s deconstruction. If you’re a Protestant, you follow the tradition of Martin Luther who deconstructed the tradition he was a part of and not all deconstruction is bad. But I think the reason probably this conversation’s has so much power right now is, it can also be really dangerous, or really harmful to a person’s pursuit of the way of Jesus.
And when I’m sitting in my office, at my office hour appointments, and I have a student who comes in and has begun to undo some theology or idea they were given when they were kids. To be honest with you, less important than the theological idea that they’re questioning is the question of why are you doing it? The motive, because if I have a student in my room, who’s questioning something of their belief structure and they’re doing it because they love God with all their heart, and they want to follow Jesus with reckless abandon and follow Him all the way to the end. That’s beautiful.
Jon: That’s great.
AJ: Okay, but unfortunately, sometimes when people are deconstructing, they’re not doing it because they want the way of Jesus. Sometimes they’re doing it because really they just want to sleep with who they want to sleep with.
Jon: Yep, or they went through some pain or trauma.
AJ: Or trauma that’s unaddressed and I’m not shaming a single person, if that’s a reason you’re deconstructing, but the Bible has a word for that. I mean, that’s backsliding or what in the Church is called Apostasy. It’s stepping away from the way of Jesus and that’s a dark journey, and I don’t want to make that… I don’t want to ma somehow valorize that experience because I’ve walked with people who have gone through that and it is hell. So, all that to say, why do I… We are all trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus in a world that is very different than the one we had last week.
Jon: That’s so good. And yeah, COVID, racial tension, politics, everything has become so polarizing that it’s caused us to really step back and do self-analysis or self-thought or self… Deconstruct things in the way that I’ve been thinking. So, I think, that’s a big part of it. One of the things you talk about in your book, and I’ve heard you speak about it as well. And I want you to kind of unpack this. You kind of touched on it, but I’ve heard you say you’ve actually written that doubt implies faith. How could that be so?
AJ: Yeah, years ago, just to borrow a historical precedent for this concept, there was a scientist in the… I want to say the 1920s or 1930s by the name of a Michael Polanyi. He wrote a book called “Personal Knowledge”. He’s a very important thinker because he essentially argued, at the end of the day, that any act of scientific belief is not an act of objective knowledge, it’s actually an act of faith. That if you have any objective knowledge about anything, it requires faith to receive that set of reality. And you hear, by the way, in our language all the time, people don’t know science, they believe in science. So, we’re even using-
Jon: That’s true.
AJ: … the way’s of describing objective reality. Anyways, one of the main points he makes in his epistemology, his view of how we know things, is he says that whenever we say we know something, we are implicitly saying we are having faith in our ability to know something. And he suggests that when we doubt one thing, it actually is not just us doubting an idea, it is us placing our faith in something else.
In counseling, we call this transference, they call this transference. That when somebody is really hurt by a person of authority in their life, they don’t stop believing in authority. They just start… they transfer their authority to another person. So, when I have a student who says, “I no longer believe in the story of the New Testament” or “I no longer believe the Bible to be true”, my question is, “Okay, who are you listening to that you trust more than you trust scripture?”
And more often than not, the more I dig down, it’s not that they’ve actually done their homework and found some historical reason to not believe. It’s because they’ve been listening to some podcast that they have given more faith in than the witness of the early Christians who died to tell the story of Jesus. And at the end of the day, I just happen to think that the people who knew Jesus and died to proclaim his name happen to know a little bit more about Jesus than professors who are tenured at major universities.
Jon: Faith comes by hearing, so what are you hearing?
AJ: Exactly. How are you hearing? I mean, I have a podcast, by the way, so I’m a huge fan of podcasts. But we essentially have gotten to the point where we have a generation of people that are undoing faith because they saw some YouTube clip or listen to some podcast that just undoes their entire face structure. And that’s a problem for us to figure out, we need people’s faith to go way deeper, so that they can hear a YouTube video and not be shaken.
But the truth, again, is who are you listening to?
Jon: That’s right.
AJ: Who are you listening to? Are you listening to Jesus? Or are you listening to some podcast that genuinely wants you to undo your faith and walk away from Christianity?
Jon: Really good. So, I don’t have commercial breaks in my podcast, but let’s pause for a quick commercial break and talk about your podcast. So, AJ has a podcast called “In Faith & Doubt”, is that right?
AJ: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I host it with my friend, Dr. Nijay Gupta who’s a world class New Testament scholar, and we co-host it. And the whole premise of the whole thing is, how do you follow Jesus through doubt? And the whole thing is just for people walking through this stuff.
Jon: So, for our listeners, we would encourage you to go and check out Dr. Swoboda’s podcast “In Faith and Doubt”. Okay, that’s the end of this commercial-
AJ: Thank you… One podcast shouting out another podcast. I love it.
Jon: I want to talk… Go back to the good deconstruction vs. bad deconstruction. So, I guess my question is two… I want to take this two ways. I want to talk to the person who is in the middle of deconstruction or they’re about to start, or maybe they’re wrapping it up, and we’ll do that first.
And then I want to talk to pastors who are watching people deconstruct. So, first let’s talk to the person who’s in the process or considering, or maybe this is the first time they’ve heard this word and they’re like, “Yes, that’s what I’m doing. That’s what I’m doing.” And what they’re saying to themselves is “I want to do this in a really healthy way. I want to make sure my motives are right. I want to make sure that the end of this… I haven’t just tore down the building and haven’t built something back that’s even healthier”.
So, what would you say to that person, to say, what are some things you could do to make sure that this is good deconstruction?
AJ: Ah, there’s a little section in one of my favorite books that deals with this on a very tangential way, it’s C.S. Lewis’ book, “A Grief Observed”, and he in that book is talking about after his wife Joy died. They weren’t married for long before she died of cancer. Joy Davidson was her name, and when she died, he had a photo of her that he just kept sort of looking at, and he’s reflecting in the book about his love of the photo. And there’s this moment where he sort of writes about how he’s figured out that he actually has started to love the photo more than he loved his wife.
Jon: That’s so good. I remember that part of the book. It’s so good.
AJ: And he says, in that section, he says, “That’s what we do to God all the time”.
Jon: Yep. Our picture of Him, our memory of Him is better than the actual-
AJ: Our idea of God becomes more important to us than God himself. And he describes God as the great iconoclast who loves to destroy our false ideas of him. First of all, I would contend that a mark that we are following Jesus is that he is destroying our bad ideas of him and that we need to recognize, there are moments in our life where God is intentionally destroying our bad concepts. We do not follow our ideas, we don’t follow our theology. We follow Jesus, and our theology should follow Jesus, not the other way around. So, I would start by saying, “The journey of deconstruction is sometimes a part of discipleship, don’t assume otherwise”. But I would also say, “Well, how do you know the difference between dangerous and maybe healthy and unhealthy deconstruction?”
And I would say the telltale number one top that I have just observed, that is a non-negotiable, is: are we willing to continue to walk faithfully in a community of embodied people on the ground, who know us and we know? Let me illustrate this. I have a family member, who’s in AA, she’s in recovery, she’s been clean for a number of years, and she’s a faithful AA member. And she said, when COVID happened, AA tried to transition to zoom calls, but she said it didn’t work. You can’t do an AA meeting in a Zoom call, and the reason you can’t do an AA meeting in a Zoom call is there’s one thing that’s missing in a Zoom call. There’s no smell, and if you’re dealing with alcoholics, the only way to know somebody’s truthful or not is if you can smell him.
AJ: And so, because you can’t smell, you can’t actually tell somebody who’s been truthful or not. I don’t think that we can truly discern whether we are on a good path or a bad path, unless we are surrounded by people who can smell us.
Jon: That was my next question, AJ, is it possible to do deconstruction in a healthy way by yourself?
AJ: No, no, no. I would argue that bad deconstruction almost always starts with what you might call theological individualism. I’m going to do God on my own, or I’m going to create God in my own image.
Scot McKnight, who’s a New Testament scholar, in one of his books talks about how he has this experiment that he does with his students, where he in his intro to the Bible student class, he’ll have all the students take a piece of paper and write down their description of what they think Jesus is like. So, what are the characteristics of Jesus? And then he’ll say, okay, put photos away… Put that away. And he says, put on another piece of paper, write down all the things that you’re like, who are you? And he says, more often than you would be comfortable with, when you take the picture of Jesus and the picture themselves. It’s almost exactly the same. And he draws a point: God made us in his image, we’re really good at returning the favor, and what we desperately need is a group of people around us that can hold us accountable to a bigger vision of Jesus than just what we’re listening to in a room. And I, again… Listen, sometimes, please hear me, there are moments to step away from a community because it’s unhealthy. Do not misunderstand this.
Jon: Sure, sure, sure.
AJ: But to do it as a long-term approach to following Jesus. Individualist Christianity is extraordinarily harmful to the human soul.
Jon: That’s so good. So, what about you, AJ? Have you gone through seasons of deconstruction? Is there a particular one? I mean, maybe it happens all the time and over and over, but-
AJ: This week, my goodness gracious. I mean, honestly, when you believe in the Holy Spirit and you believe in the power of God, I think the sign that you’re actually keeping in step with the Holy Spirit is when you find out that you’re not in step with the Holy Spirit. And I’m not in step all the time. It’s a weekly thing for me. I’ve got a counselor and a spiritual director, if they were sitting in this room right now would be like, “Yeah, you’re wrong. Pretty much.”
All the time. Now I will say, I know I’m making a point there, but when I was in seminary, I did go through sort of the traditional deconstruction experience. And I, in seminary, learned… I met Jesus when I was 16. So, the Bible was kind of new to me even when I went to seminary. But in seminary, I learned a lot of things that are really uncomfortable if you love the Bible. I learned… The book of Isaiah is a bit more complex than one might assume, or how the New Testament was brought together. Those things were terrifying concepts for me.
And seminary did impact me at the moment, and I began to question, is the Bible trustworthy? Can I really trust the Church? And that was a hard season. But I’ll say it again, I think the reason I survived that season is that I was on staff at a church and I was held to account. I had accountability structures in my life. There’s a reason I love… Us, Evangelical-ish, Pentecostal, charismatic folks don’t generally read the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed on public gatherings. But I got to tell you why I love it, because sometimes you need to read the creed, even when you’re struggling to believe it. And I heard an Anglican once say, “the reason we read the Apostles Creed every week is because sometimes you don’t believe it and you need people to say it around you”.
Jon: Wow, that’s so good. So, let’s circle back to the… We dealt with the person, who’s trying to figure out if they’re doing deconstruction in a healthy way, let’s talk to the pastors for a second. The temptation of every pastor, I would think when you hear somebody deconstructing or having deconstructive thoughts or doubts, your first thought, your first reaction I would assume would be to correct them. “Nope, that’s not right, this is right. Nope, that’s not… Don’t do that”. So, how does a pastor approach this in their church?
AJ: Yeah. So, correction, in my experience, and I can almost say this 99.9% of the time, correction to a person who’s going through deconstruction only exacerbates the deconstruction. So, to take the… I may be wrong here, so I’m going to conjecture here. I think the New Testament tells us to correct sin, but it doesn’t tell us to correct questions.
Jon: That’s good.
AJ: And when people are having questions, rather than correcting the question, we should celebrate the fact that there is a person coming to a leader and asking a big question.
I would rather my son… When my son has a really big question about God, sometimes I don’t give him an answer. Sometimes all I’ll do is celebrate the fact that he’s asking his dad.
And I want him to know, I’m the safest person in the world to talk about his questions. And here’s why, if he does not take his questions to me, he will take them to TikTok.
Jon: That’s right. That’s exactly right.
AJ: I’m going to go on a limb here and say I have a bit more of a vested interest in my son’s spiritual maturity than TikTok does.
Jon: I would say so.
AJ: And as a pastor, we need to be the safest people in the world for people to say the greatest, deepest questions, and we are not offended by their questions. Where did I learn this? Actually, I learned this from my spiritual director. When I noticed for a long time, that when I would bring a really big question about God to my spiritual director, he would never be offended that I would ask a question. He was at total peace. Now I didn’t know it, there’s a word for this, in the counseling world, they call it containment, and containment is the ability for somebody to truly be honest with you and you don’t take offense at it and make it about me.
Jon: Make it personal, yeah.
AJ: Exactly. That you have the ability to be differentiated to the point where somebody can ask and you don’t take it personally. And what that means as a pastor is when somebody comes to me and has deep questions about the nature of Church and what American Christianity is all about, and they’re mad and frustrated, that as a pastor, I don’t kick into “I need to fix this.”
That they are allowed to ask, and I am, imagine that, I am the person who is safest to talk about their problems with the Church, and I’m leading the Church. That’s called containment, theological containment. Practicing the ability to allow people to have questions without me being angered, mad or triggered sends the message that I am better than TikTok.
Jon: Well, and you see it modeled by Jesus. You talk about it in one of the talks I listen to you do, of Thomas.
AJ: A hundred percent.
Jon: “I want to see the holes in his hand and I want to see the hole in his side.”
AJ: Okay, can I talk about that for a second?
Jon: Please, please.
AJ: Okay. So, how does Jesus solve Thomas? We call him Doubting Thomas, the New Testament doesn’t call him that, but we call him that. But how does Jesus solve Thomas’s faith crisis? It’s really simple.
Jon: He lets him…
AJ: He lets him touch Him.
Jon: That’s right. Walks through a door and says “Peace”. And then “Go ahead, touch the hole.”.
AJ: How does that apply to us? It is striking that Jesus in His resurrected body does not come back without scars. He has scars. Now He could have come back without scars. He comes back with scars. I lead best, and you lead best, out of your scars.
Jon: That’s right, and showing them.
AJ: Showing them. There are moments… There is somebody sitting in your church this week who has the deepest existential problems, that they’re struggling to believe, and on this stuff, and they’re waiting for a leader to get up and say, “You know what? I’ve had that same struggle too”. And to be able to say, “This is how I walked through it and how Jesus was faithful”. Hear me, there is a difference between a scar and an open wound.
Jesus does not minister out of an open wound, he ministers out of a scar. I am not saying, that you get up on Sunday and say, “This last week I looked at porn and I don’t really know what I think about…”
Jon: That’s exactly right.
AJ: You got to remember, these are sheep. These aren’t camels. It’s not their job to carry our junk for us. Sheep need generous, slow, patient kindness. We don’t load people down with stuff, but when we share a scar at the right moment for somebody who needs a leader, game changer.
Jon: Well, I also am mindful of… As you were talking a while ago, I thought about Nicodemus. Nicodemus comes to Jesus with questions and I love… I know it’s not straight from the Bible, but I love the series “Chosen”, I don’t know if you’ve watched “Chosen”?
AJ: Oh my God, so good.
Jon: I don’t know if you’ve seen the episode where Nicodemus comes to Jesus. The way that they crafted that and seeing that on the rooftop, sitting at this picnic table, wherever they were at, the confusion or one could say doubt, Nicodemus was deconstructing, everything he had ever thought. And he is asking these questions to Jesus, “How can I climb back in my mother’s womb?” And he’s having these questions, and Jesus’ response is so pure, he’s not mad, he’s not challenging him, if I was Jesus, and we can all thank the Lord that I’m not, if doubting Thomas would’ve came in and said, “I’m not going to believe until I see scars”, and I would’ve been like, “well, then forget you”. So, I just love that patience and I think that’s how we’re called, not just as pastors, but as believers. Our children… As parents, how deal with this with our kids?
AJ: Absolutely. Notice, by the way, two things. Notice that Thomas, it’s interesting when you read the John 20 passage… John 20, that Thomas, he says he doesn’t believe. Jesus waits a whole week before showing up and allowing Thomas –
Jon: So, good.
AJ: I love that Jesus… Jesus is not freaking out, He’s not like, “Oh my gosh, one of my disciples doesn’t believe anymore”. He’s like… Jesus is total peace. Jesus doesn’t rush anywhere. You don’t rush when you’re the Creator of time. So, Jesus is total peace, but I love that Thomas for one whole week keeps dragging himself to the community of the disciples, and that the disciples made room for a doubter.
Why that’s so important for us… Long term, do you know what happened to Thomas? Thomas becomes the first apostle to go to India. If you have ever met an Indian Christian with the last name “Thomas”, I have three friends who’re Indian Christians with last name “Thomas”, it is because there are 2000 years of Christians faithfully following Jesus because Thomas went to be the first missionary to India. We have got to stop as leaders and pastors, seeing the doubter as a problem. They are our future missionaries and apostles.
Jon: And once they come to the conclusion, once they reconstruct… Maybe we need to focus on the reconstruction and less on the deconstruction, because once they reconstruct, they really have built it on the rock. It’s-
AJ: A hundred percent.
Jon: The stability of the foundation, it’s so much better.
AJ: You do not come back unless you really love Jesus. But man, when you come back, you really love Jesus.
Jon: That’s so good. Maybe we should be… Jesus just asked questions, but it wasn’t because he didn’t have the answers. He asked questions. He was trying to get us to deconstruct… Like, “Hey, think about this. Let me ask you a question. I want you to process this”. He didn’t tell us what to think, he taught us how to think.
AJ: Yeah. Now, beliefs matter and belief in truth and falsehood matters, and scripture is the way we figure out the difference between the two.
But at the end of the day, Jesus willingly walks along with… Go read Matthew 27, there’s this line when Jesus, in his resurrection state, goes up on a mountain side and they go to worship him, and Matthew makes this comment, that they went to worship him and some doubted. Jesus made room in his resurrection community for people who are still asking big questions. Why don’t we?
And I’m saying… Jesus didn’t have a special group for that. He didn’t have an alpha group for people who were asking big questions. They were part of his team.
Jon: That’s really good, and most of this wasn’t in my notes, but that’s good. I’m glad we… That’s usually how these podcasts work, the best content comes from stuff you hadn’t planned on talking about.
AJ: We are called… Can I just say Jon…
Jon: Say it.
AJ: We are called to follow Jesus and nobody else. If I am following an ideology, I need to burn it to the ground. If I’m following a political system, I need to repent.
Jon: Person, a political system, yep.
AJ: If I am following an idea, that’s idolatry. I follow Jesus, and anything else does not get our knees bent. We do not bend our knees to anything else. Only Jesus. And so there should be a ton of deconstruction of anything other than Jesus.
Jon: We talk about big church sometimes on this podcast and I pastor what would be labeled to megachurch. I don’t know if that gives me the authority or the right to talk about it at all, but I do think that there is a movement or a… Without intentionally or knowingly, I think there are pockets of the body of Christ where this happens, where we become so enthralled with a leader or a movement or a ministry that we can, if we’re not careful, we can slip into this, what you’re talking about.
If we begin to think more about a movement or a person or even a theology or whatever, more than Jesus, it’s a slippery, slippery, slippery slope.
Do you think there’s something… It seems like a lot of believers when we hear deconstruction, and that’s why I think it’s so important we talk about this, that it’s almost like people kind of label it as the Christian woke.
Does that make sense? Do you think there’s any parallel there? Is that what people think it is? Where do people miss it? How do people misconstrue, what deconstruction is? I don’t know if I’m asking this question the way I’m trying to ask it.
AJ: I think we’re afraid. There’s rightful reasons to be afraid. I’m terrified of the day my son gets a Twitter handle. I’m terrified of the day that my son gets on TikTok or Facebook. Because this is a weird world with a lot of really weird ideas.
Yeah, I understand why people are afraid, but to say that asking questions is the same as being woke is such a dangerous way to undermine people in our communities who matter to Jesus. They matter to God. To say nothing of the fact, that the last words of Jesus on the cross are a question. “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” If asking a question means you’re woke, what does that say about your view of Jesus?
Jon: That’s really good. So, how do we treat-
AJ: By the way, there are 300…. There’s a guy named Conrad Gempf at London School of Theology who wrote a book called “Jesus Asked” and it’s about all the questions in the New Testament. Jesus asks in the New Testament 317 questions. He asks 317 questions. He is asked about 134. He only answers three of them.
Jon: Are you serious?
Jon: Are you about to tell us what those are-
AJ: The reason is…
Jon: Or you don’t know?
AJ: It’s really hard to give a good answer to a bad question. Some questions are just bad. I get it, but the New Testament is a book of questions.
Jon: Ah, that’s really good. I thought of it-
AJ: If we’re not supposed to ask them, then we got a weird book that we’re supposed to be reading.
Jon: That’s really good. So, there might be people on here that are… They’ve never even thought to question, so how do we go about beginning a process of that? Are there any guardrails we should put into place, so we don’t fall off the cliff?
AJ: Am I asking the question… The posture of my heart really matters? Am I asking the question pointing my finger? Or am I asking the question with open hands?
The difference between those two is massive because one is, “I’m trying to trap Jesus in his words”, and if I’m trying to trap the New Testament, if I’m trying to trap Jesus, I’m not going to get what I need. But if I’m actually coming with the right posture of a heart, and I’m asking as a child or a son of God, that’s a different posture. It’s the difference between saying God… It’s the difference between critiquing Jesus, and honestly, and humbly desiring to know who He is.
So, we need to bring our honest and humble questions to Jesus, not trap Jesus. Jesus, by the way, didn’t… You couldn’t trap Jesus. The Pharisees did their best and he’s always evading everything because he’s a master at evading the trap. But the posture of our heart, do we want to follow Jesus or are we trying to trap Jesus?
Jon: That’s so good. Well, I want to be respectful of your time. I’m actually going to ask you to do something that I’ve never asked a guest to do, to close up here. I want to ask you to pray. To pray for leaders, to pray for people that are in the process of deconstruction or their beginning or ending or whatever that may be. But as leaders, how do we approach this as lay people, how do we approach this…
Before we jump into the prayer, I want to tell people if you’re dealing with this in any way, either you’re leading people through this, maybe you’re leading friends through this, you’re leading coworkers through this or staff through this, or maybe even kids, you have kids that are questioning their faith or maybe you are. I really want to encourage you to pick up AJ’s book, it’s called “After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith without Losing It”. Maybe this is a book you need to buy for somebody that you know is going through some of these difficult situations. I really believe it’s a book that’ll help them or you.
If they want to follow you, AJ what’s the best way? Is there a website? Are you on social media in any way? What’s the best way people can kind of…
AJ: I’m on Twitter, but I hate it. So, don’t follow me there.
AJ: Honestly, I have a website, ajswobodawrites.com. But I don’t have quite an online environment presence. I’m sorry.
Jon: Good for you.
AJ: I wish I had a better brand, but I don’t.
Jon: Good for you. Well, if you don’t mind just kind of closing… Any parting words you’d like to say before or after you pray, feel free to do so.
AJ: Yeah. I just would close by saying, and then I’ll pray, is: if you find yourself surrounded by Thomases right now, this is a really beautiful opportunity for you to grow in your faith and to love people that are hard to love. Embrace it, embrace it, embrace it.
I’ll pray. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Over pastor leaders, shepherds, individuals, God lay people in this Zoom call that are tasked with the responsibility of giving leadership to people for the cares for the care of souls.
I pray by the power of the Holy Spirit, you would anoint them and lead them and guide them for this moment in history. That they would not lose heart and that they would lead with the heart for the lamb of Jesus, the lamb of God, slain before the foundations of the Earth. We pray for the Thomases within us, and the Thomases around us and we pray that all places in our life, that are really struggling would come to you, Jesus. Ideas and strongholds would be demolished and Jesus, we would follow you with our whole hearts, mind, souls, and bodies.
We need you, Jesus, and we cry. Lord Jesus, come. Come real soon and make this world a footstool of your Kingdom.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
AJ, thanks for being a friend, thank you for the ministry that you do for the Body of Christ. Thanks for doing adjunct work for The King’s.
AJ: Absolutely. Jon, it’s a joy. I’m teaching a really fun class on sexuality in a couple months and so…
Jon: Yes, you are. You are teaching a course, check this out, listeners, he’s teaching a course at The King’s University called “Sexuality in today’s Christian world”. Do you already have the content for that ready?
AJ: A lot of it, yes.
AJ: But it’s a… Because the conversation is changing by the day in our culture. My lectures have to change every day with the culture. I’m not changing what I believe, but just the way you tackle the questions is more and more complex as we speak.
Jon: Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, listeners, thank you again for watching and listening today. Again, I’ll sum this up, wrap this up by asking you to share this post, share this podcast, make comments, give us a rating that helps us get spread the word to more and more listeners.
Thank you for all that you do in the Kingdom of God. Thank you for listening today. We enjoy you, we’ll see you on the next episode.