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If All You Have Is A Hammer

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Let me begin with an understatement: I am not renowned for my dexterity with tools. It was only last year I got a real toolbox

 (as opposed to the plastic one I had been using for a decade, which my three-year-old now uses for his toys). I’m not real good with a saw or particularly handy with a router or especially adept with a lathe. My specialty is more in demolition, gopher work, and good humor. But if the task is simple enough, I can wield a hammer. Find a slender piece of metal and pound it. Find something sticking out and hit it. Find two things that need to stick together and start thumping away.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

It’s true in carpentry and true in theology. Way back in the 2000s when I was speaking at different venues about the emergent church, I remember thinking to myself, “I sure hope I’m not talking about this stuff ten years from now.” The desire was partly because I didn’t want their bad theology to be such a hot ticket a decade later, but it was also because I feared degenerating into the speaker who couldn’t talk about anything else. I didn’t want to be the Not Emergent guy for the rest of my life. I was desperate to avoid the scenario where the whole world for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years looked like an emergent nail just waiting for me to strike with my Not Emergent hammer.

I have no problem with people having a focus to their ministry, whether that’s abortion, ecclesiology, Christian hedonism, tithing, or racial reconciliation. In fact, God often does much good with single-minded stalwarts like Wilberforce on slavery. Likewise, I recognize that God may give certain people special discernment or passion for a particular topic, error, or initiative. And because of our context we may feel compelled to protect certain doctrines or promote certain endeavors. We need experts and advocates. The problem is not with having a special hammer. The problem is when we whack at everything like its our special nail and whack at everyone for not being just as zealous about our one issue.

What do I have in mind? No one in particular but lots of things in general. The Christian who blames everything on fundamentalism and relates every story to their upbringing where they had to wear long skirts and watch Lawrence Welk. The feminist who sees the oppression of woman in every tweet. The conservative who can only sound the alarm of cultural declension. The Presbyterian who relates everything to the regulative principle. The church critic who sees every weakness as an expression of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The gospel-loving saint who smells legalism in every exhortation against vice and in every celebration of virtue. The philosopher who has concluded that every problem boils down to epistemology or the one and the many or whatever. The academic who thinks everything that ails the church finds its roots in whatever he wrote for his dissertation. The revisionist who is confident that the church is all out of sorts because of Greek thinking, Constantine, or Old Princeton. The wounded soul who can’t see past his own hurts or makes it her life mission to rage against the machine. The liberal who can’t stop talking about tolerance and dialogue. The Sunday school teacher who finds a reason in every class to beat on Charles Finney. The peacemaker who sees every conflict as a third way waiting to happen.

Some of us have one main thing we want to say to the world. If that one thing is true, clear, and winsome, praise God. Say it again and again. But we shouldn’t say that same thing in every situation. And we shouldn’t stop with that one true thing. The Bible is a big book and God has placed us in a big world. There is much to celebrate, much to affirm, much to correct, much to enjoy, much to lament, and much to proclaim. There are a lot of nails sticking up that could use some pounding. So pound away. Just realize they don’t all call for the same hammer.

Kevin blogs at the Gospel Coalition; this article is reprinted with his permission.


Posted on January 16, 2014