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.

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16 thoughts on “If All You Have Is a Hammer”

  1. Good point. You hit the nail right in the head! Thanks.

  2. Ah, that should say “on” not “in”

  3. Bruce Meyer says:

    Pehaps, maybe, you’re looking at a) specialists who keep going back to their dissertation, or b) negative specialties that must be restrained. I imagine my lawn talking back to me and saying that I’m too preoccupied with rhyzomes, spreading weed networks, and that if I’d just celebrate all the green that IS there, we’d all be happy together. In this case, I plead guilty to my anti-rhyzome ministry, not to forget my anti-dandelion and anti-moss ministries.
    We have, on the other hand, the mythical preacher who would start out with the sermon text, any sermon text whatever, and after getting frustrated, would say, “…what I mean, I mean, what we need to know here is YE MUST BE BORN AGAIN!” Then we have the narrow minded Apostle Paul who said, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” But Paul, what about my felt needs? I remember your predecessor at URC (back in my day) preaching through broad swaths of scripture and creeds–as a teacher to the whole body of Christ, and not just as an evangelist. He did express his frustration with the heresy of the week that seemed to happen at MSU, which he felt responsible to address for the church, as many good pastors do, as do you and Sproul and Piper, e.g.
    My point: God seems to give people a life message, one hammer to carry everywhere; and he also gives the church pastors and teachers who can draw whatever they need from the pantry for all the needs.

  4. KB says:

    You’re my favorite–thank you for pointing this out. I do this all the time–everything that’s wrong with my church is because they’re embracing contemplative spirituality. Thanks for the reality check, I needed to hear this.

  5. Tuad says:

    “The liberal who can’t stop talking about tolerance and dialogue.”

  6. Rachael Starke says:

    Great, convicting words. If we are known more for our knowledge of and love for our pet topics, than our knowledge of and love for Jesus and His good news, we’re doing it wrong.

  7. Jaclyn says:

    You just struck me in a place no one else has ever quite struck before. Wow, thank you. I’m going to be pondering over this for awhile before I can really even react with some response…

  8. anaquaduck says:

    Some nails are slender & bend easily, others are solid & require extra effort & if you get one of those nail guns on high pressure the nail can pierce through the wood & come out the other side.

    What is required is wisdom, which can come in posts such as this. It doesn’t provide a specific answer but gives warning to becoming obsessed. Some actors practise this philosophy when choosing roles over the span of their careers.

    Take my life & let it be…

  9. Chris Barnes says:

    Reminded me of this paragraph out of a book by George McDonald (… and for whatever reason you may not like him, you gotta love the power of this section)

    “To oppose, to refute, to deny is not to know the truth. Whatever good may come in the destroying of the false, the best hammer of the critic will not serve to carve the celestial form of the Real; and when the iconoclast becomes the bigot of negation and declares the nonexistance of any form worthy of worship because he has destroyed so many unworthy forms, he becomes a fool. That he has never concieved a deity worth worshipping is a poor ground for saying such cannot exist.”
    -George MacDonald ‘The Baron’s Apprenticeship’

  10. yankeegospelgirl says:

    Wow, MacDonald reminds me of David Berlinski in that quote!

  11. Paul Janssen says:

    Did I miss the “evangelical for whom every discussion is a proxy for a post enlightenment theory of the infallibility of the Scriptures?” In the next to last paragraph……

  12. Caleb says:

    Kevin, Thanks for this post. I understand the need to stop seeing “one solution” to various problems. However, would it be accurate to say the Gospel is the hammer that solves all these problems? Perhaps it is because I’m taking the analogy too far… but if we see the solution to these problems something other than the reconciling work of Jesus Christ than we may pick up the wrong hammer in an effort to solve the problem. Maybe we need to see the Gospel as the hammer, knowing that each nail needs a different touch from the same hammer…

  13. Brian says:

    I like your article and agree that one moral message doesn’t fit all scenarios. However, I would say that there is one hammer for all. It is the gospel. Those nails that it doesn’t hit, they will be plucked in their own time. We can spend too much time hammering our view but those that do not receive the gospel will not understand our view either. Hammering our moral issues home to a depraved generation is time wasted when we can share the gospel with those who are called.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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