Them’s fightin’ words

Don’t know how many people keep up w/ current issues in the evangelical world. It should go without saying that some “issues” are weightier than others. Recently two flashpoints developed around the “Jesus>Religion” spoken word video and T.D. Jakes participation in (James MacDonald’s) Elephant Room despite his reported heterodox views on the Trinity. In both cases language and word choice was a significant source of angst.

Not going to make any comments on either kerfuffle. However, I do find myself a little perplexed (and sometimes troubled) over the sentiment voiced by some which asserts that Christians shouldn’t get too worked up over words & doctrine. On the importance of words and doctrinal formulations I (coincidentally) found this extremely relevant passage as I was reading yesterday:

Last and most important, it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word.

 

It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was not flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world.

 

Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, anyone can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.

 

…Of these theological equalisations I have to speak afterwards. Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would lave broken all the best statues in Europe.

 

A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined with strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.

–G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

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Picking & choosing from Jesus’ commands

The following is a portion of an e-mail exchange I had with a long time friend. Let’s call him B Lamb…actually Benjy L…better yet we’ll just call him BL to protect his identity. Anyway, BL’s questions surround a church’s seemingly arbitrary application of Jesus’ teaching in Mat 5:27-45 (take a quick read for yourself if you’re not familiar w/ the passage). BL’s questions/comments lead off (italicized) w/ the first half of my response (w/ minor editing) following. The 2nd half of my response will follow in a subsequent post.

Why do we take the words about divorce so literally when we do not take anything else taught in that passage literally? No one cuts out their eye or cuts off their hands. We make promises all the time instead of just letting our yes be yes. We fight back against those that hurt us. And we kill our enemies instead of praying for them and doing good to them. But we have strict guidelines about who we allow to get married in our church based on this verse!?! So the only logical conclusion that I come to based on how we practice these verses is that everything Jesus taught in this passage was metaphorical except His teaching about divorce – that is literal.

1) Sadly, it’s easier to hold a literal interpretation on a teaching that doesn’t affect you personally. Many (most?) of us don’t think they have to worry about divorce so it’s easier to take a hard line there than on persecution, swearing, etc. where we’re more likely to be confronted w/ Jesus’ teaching in real life.

2) Christian obedience will always be a progressive work. To a certain extent I shouldn’t find it shocking to find inconsistency in our application of Scripture. Our objective is to commend Spirit-led obedience where it’s found and to challenge ourselves in those areas where we lack. The church’s fidelity to Christ’s teaching on marriage/divorce can be used as a platform to promote greater fidelity to swearing & persecution teaching. (see, for example, Jesus simultaneously commending & convicting churches in Rev 2-3). As we commend & challenge we serve the church well to pray for a greater work of the Spirit to get our eyes wide open.

3) Cultural setting can affect how we interpret & implement certain commands. “Pray for those who persecute you” has a radically different meaning for a constitutionally protected American Christian when compared to an Afghan Christian. It can be difficult to chart a path for living out Christ’s commands when society affords me additional privileges and protections—especially when those protections are God ordained. In certain instances even Paul took advantage of civil law rather than take a beating or suffer a miscarriage of justice (Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:11).

Rational fools who worship an ass?

Beware the deception that we can win the world if only we’re nice enough or smart enough or relevant enough or more scientific or more inviting. To most of the world we’ll never be more than fools who worship an ass.

To say that the world will always consider us to be fools no matter what we say or do is not the same as saying it doesn’t matter what we say or do. No honest reading of 1Cor 1:18-31 can lead us to any other conclusion than that the world will consider us to be fools preaching foolishness but to acknowledge this fate is a far cry from suggesting that the mind is irrelevant in our witness. Our message may be ridiculed but that’s no excuse for abandoning the field of reason and persuasion.

The gospel is the power of salvation but God imparts the saving knowledge of that gospel through various means and methods. We need only look to Paul’s example in Acts to see that a self-identified “fool” will still reason from Scripture (Acts 17:2; 18:19) and attempt to persuade by argument (18:4; 28:23-24).

Fools need not be irrational fools.

Only fools worship an ass

1 Corinthians 1:18, 23a For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…we preach Christ crucified…

Some think the earliest representation of worship involving a crucifix is contained in graffiti discovered in a guardroom near the Circus Maximus in Rome. Known as the Alexamenos Graffito and variously dated anywhere from the 1st to 3rd century, the graffiti is a crudely drawn picture with an inscription. The picture portrays a man standing at the foot of a cross with his hand raised in worship to the man hanging there. The man on the cross is drawn with the head of an ass and the inscription reads, “Alexamenos worships his god.”

Beware the deception that we can win the world if only we’re nice enough or smart enough or relevant enough or more scientific or more inviting. To most of the world we’ll never be more than fools who worship an ass.

Jesus in 2D

In the course of a casual conversation a friend mentioned a book he was reading that had him rethinking his picture of Jesus [I haven’t read the book]. I don’t know how much my friend had read but at this particular point the projected image of Jesus was that of “playful”.

Certainly the author had read the Bible enough to know that no such description is applied to Jesus which is why, through a bit of spiritual extrapolation, he discovered “playful” Jesus by observing that Jesus spent most of His time with 12 other guys {exercise your sanctified imagination}. Along this line of thinking I would surmise other “proofs” could be found in Jesus’ love of children, his ability to tell a good story, and his use of sarcasm.

Now I don’t doubt for a moment that Jesus smiled and laughed or that he was anything but a dour personality. However, I must admit a significant level of discomfort when I hear someone promoting a novel description of Jesus:

1. These new pictures of Jesus are akin to what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”. That is, it gives the impression that previous generations of Christians were oblivious to some espoused truth that only now has come to light. Maybe there’s a reason why 1000s of years church teaching never saw fit to describe Jesus as “playful”. [just as an aside, it’s interesting to note how often reviews and blurbs of these novelty books invite the reader to “discover” this new truth which apparently had been hidden in previous generations]

2. New pictures frequently lack an appreciation for the distinction between the humiliated Son and the glorified Son. Consider that during the days of Jesus’ earthly humiliation John laid his head on Jesus’ chest (Jn 13:23) but when he saw the glorified Jesus John fell to the ground in fear (Rev 1:17).

3. New pictures–especially those that emphasize Jesus’ humanity–are colored almost exclusively by the Gospels rather than a broad reading of Scripture. At the very least this risks an imbalance in which Jesus’ humanity overshadows his divinity [I don’t think this is the normative impression one gets from reading the Gospels]. A full reading of the NT just doesn’t seem to lead one to the impression that Jesus is primarily a comfortable friend.

4. New pictures often speak where Scripture is silent. Closely related to #3, this practice usually comes by a narrow or selective reading of the Gospels. As narrative literature, the Gospels are rarely explicit on subjective details like facial expressions, tone of voice, inner motivation, etc. Consequently, readers often feel a certain freedom in applying his/her own spin on the unmentioned details.

Purveyors of these novel depictions of Jesus promise to deepen our love and respect for Him but I suspect that in the long run such pictures will diminish Him. Rather than marvel at His majesty we settle for sentimentality that is more flat than full.

what am I to think of a gracious greeting to a disgraceful church?

Our adult Sunday school classes just started an 8-month study through 1Corinthians. No doubt the ensuing study & discussion will generate numerous posts of which today’s entry is the first.

If it’s possible for a church to live in infamy the Corinthian church would have to be exhibit A. Compile a list of the issues Paul was forced to correct in the letter you’ll find the Corinthians guilty of abrasive individualism, divisiveness, (one count of) incest, a disregard for corporate holiness, spiritual pride, shameful lawsuits against fellow church members, abusing Christian liberty, drunkenness at communion, disorderly worship services, a lack of love, the misuse/abuse of spiritual gifts, and a denial (by some) of the historical reality of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Now it’s one thing to recognize one or two of these sins in any given church, it’s quite another to find all of these failures in one church at one time!

What then are we to make of Paul’s absurd greeting to this misfit church in 1Cor 1:1-9 where he speaks of these people as saints and thanks God for the display of His grace(!?!) in their lives? I don’t have time to elaborate on the following “takeaways” but most should be self-explanatory.

When I read 1Corinthians and then re-read Paul’s greeting I…

…recall that apart from Christ there is none righteous, not even one.

…marvel that a holy God justifies the ungodly and declares me to be sanctified, a “holy one” in His sight.

…claim the title of “saint” on the basis of Christ’s finished cross-work yet I strive to live in light of my new name.

…feel ashamed to see how insensitive I am to sin’s corruption, how slow I am to repent, and how little zeal I have for God’s righteousness.

…remember that even God’s grace (whether in pardon or power for living) can be abused and perverted by pride.

…rejoice to think that God’s grace for today will be overtaken by a greater grace in a day to come.

…rest in the knowledge that God is faithful to fulfill all of His promises and that He is certain to finish the work He began.

how should we approach the “gay Christian” debate (pt. 4)

Drawing attention to the shortcomings of another position should move us to something better. If the three common attitudes in the debate over Christian homosexuality–justify/affirm, accommodate, condemn–are inadequate can we arrive at a better, biblical response? I think we can because Scripture provides us with a better way. I think we must if we are to maintain a viable Christian witness in society as we uphold the authority of God’s Word. I’ll start with two basic presuppositions before outlining the way forward.

First, all of creation has been placed under sin’s curse and we have inherited Adam’s guilt/curse (Rom 5:12; 8:19-21). Nature & humanity are incapable of self-vindication which means that we can’t offer the mere existence of a disposition as justification for the resulting mindset and/or behavior. A person may be born with an impulsive disposition but that hardly justifies an adulterous one-night stand. On these grounds nature fails to serve as a righteous defense.

Second, in addition to the inherited curse we also acquire personal guilt for individual actions (Rom 3:23; 5:14; Eph 2:1-3). We may not be in control of inherited dispositions but we must still acknowledge that we are responsible for our actions.

Therefore, since the Bible calls homosexuality sin we conclude that view of homosexuality whether it’s inherited or chosen. The only way to contradict this is to redefine the biblical concept for homosexual and, in the process, to supplant God’s Word for ours. Consequently, professing a homosexual-Christian identity is a rejection of the gospel that saves us.

Going forward we want to speak and live God’s truth with grace and humility whether concerning our sexuality or any other area of life that must be brought to the cross. With this in mind we should strive to engage family, friends, and society in the following ways:

Preach salvation by faith and repentance (Luke 24:45-47).
No one can come to salvation in Christ while loving darkness (Jn 3:19-21).

Affirm the miraculous power of justification & sanctification (1Cor 6:9-11). Even the homosexual may become a former homosexual.

Deny that a child of God can embrace or cling to sin (1Jn 3:5-10). Salvation is new birth and conversion (Jn 3:3-5; 2Cor 5:17), a move from darkness to light.

Point people to Jesus Christ, our merciful/sympathetic high priest, to find grace & help in our battle against sin (Heb 4:14-16). We are not left to our own devices in our battle against sin.

Not safe, but good

What is that which gleams through me
and smites my heart without wounding it?
I am both a-shudder and aglow.
A-shudder, in so far as I am unlike it,
aglow in so far as I am like it.
–St. Augustine

“Is-is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King Beasts? Aslan is a lion-the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
–C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

how should we approach the “gay Chrisian” debate (pt 3)

Condemnation is a third common response in the debate over the legitimacy of a homosexual-Christian identity. By condemnation I mean more than denouncing a behavior or lifestyle. What I have in mind is a mindset that leads to condemning the homosexual as a person, often with the implication that they are without hope. Those who would fall into this approach will often assert the following:

1. Sexual sin is the most egregious sin & homosexuality is the worst kind of sexual sin. This line of reasoning usually places the homosexual in another class of sinner. While I would argue the Bible depicts varying degrees of sin, sexual sin often receiving special attention, we run into trouble when our attitude toward fellow sinners set on a sliding scale. First, our scales aren’t exactly calibrated to the divine standard. Jesus declared that Sodom, the quintessential symbol of homosexual depravity, would receive a more tolerable judgment than Capernaum (Mat 11:23-24) not because Capernaum was more sexually depraved but because while living morally they rejected the truth set before their eyes. Second, inordinate attention to behavioral sin distracts from corruption in the heart. I can refrain from engaging in adultery but does my standing before the judge improve if I possess a heart riddled with lust for other women (Mat 5:27ff; see also Jesus accusation against the Pharisees in Mat 23:25-28)?

More important, however, than varying degrees of sin is the matter of repentance (Mat 11:21). We’ll come back to this when we propose a fourth (and better) response to this debate but for now we should consider that as sinners our preeminent concern is recognizing and repenting of the sin by which we’re convicted rather than arguing technicalities.

2. Homosexuality is a choice.
The heart is deceitful and sick (Jer 17:9) and I don’t doubt that some do choose homosexuality even when they claim they had no choice. However, to assert that all homosexuals made a calculated decision strikes me as shortsighted. All of creation suffers corruption as a result of sin (Rom 8:19-22) and mankind’s material and immaterial components don’t always function according to God’s natural design. Affirming our brokeness–bodies, minds, emotions, desires–need not justify sin.

3. Homosexuality is a form of God’s judgment on sinners.
In other words, the fact that someone is a homosexual proves that God has already judged that person. This notion seems to flow from a misunderstanding of Romans 1. The question is how we are to understand Paul’s claim that God gave them over to degrading passions (Rom 1:26). For the sake of brevity, God’s judgment is the “giving over” to passions which were already present. That is, rather than striving against their sin God simply gives them over to be mastered by their sin. Left unstated is whether or not this “handing over” is irrevocable (although the context implies that for God to give someone over is the last step before the final judgment), but homosexuality, in and of itself, is no more decisive than idolatry, murder, greed, and gossip–all sins to which men are “given over” in their depraved minds (Rom 1:28ff).

Finally, to claim that homosexuality is a fixed judgment that foreshadows one’s fate in the final judgment completely ignores the Paul’s claim in 1Cor 6:9-11. The homosexual, Paul states, will not enter the kingdom of God but within the Corinthian church were saints who were homosexuals prior to their new life in Christ. After all, justification & sanctification are all about God making the unrighteous righteous.

how should we approach the “gay Christian” debate? (pt 2)

The previous post briefly reviewed some of the more common reasons offered in defense of homosexual identity for a professing Christian. The second of three responses we’ll characterize as accommodation. By “accommodate” I mean that when faced with the question “Can a Christian be gay?” the respondent is neither willing to affirm nor deny the validity of the homosexual-Christian identity. Rather, he takes something of an “all have sinned” approach which, while implying that homosexuality is sin, essentially validates the identity in question.

We should recognize that accommodation isn’t necessarily the intent of everyone who takes a non-committal stance on the matter. No doubt some Christians genuinely wrestle with this issue and would hate to see anyone shunned by the church absent any clear conviction. But we must also admit that another segment of this group seemingly take this approach as a way to curry favor with those who might otherwise label them as hypocrites and judgmental bigots. As with so many discussions the motive behind the accommodation is just as important as the argument itself. The following statements are often posited as a middle-of-the-road approach:

1. Jesus never spoke against homosexuality. To be fair this sentiment typically reflects more than just an argument from silence. Along with the absence of any direct address by Christ we’re encouraged to consider that Jesus actually spoke most aggressively against religious hypocrites than he did tax collectors, prostitutes, etc. But emphasizing the absence of a rebuke from Jesus related to homosexuality ignores several other facts: (a) Jesus affirmed the authority of the OT which does prohibit homosexuality (b) the NT epistles are just as authoritative as the gospels–God has spoken on the matter of homosexuality. You can’t pursue the “Jesus-didn’t-say-it” argument without diminishing the NT epistles as writings of lesser importance. (c) an argument from silence cuts both ways. Whereas Jesus addressed debates surrounding matters such as divorce & remarriage, sabbath laws, etc. an issue such as homosexuality went unmentioned because there was no argument as to what Scripture had to say on the matter. Jesus’ followers and detractors alike would have been in agreement on the matter (especially since homosexuality was largely considered a Gentile sin).

2. Sin is sin. Yes and no. Sin is sin in that all sin condemns us and brings us under God’s righteous judgment, but some sin receives a greater condemnation. Just a few examples of the degrees of sin: (a) Num 15:28-31 defiant sin was treated differently than unintentional sin (b) Luk 12:10 unlike all other sins, Jesus said blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was/is unforgivable (c) Mat 11:20-24 Jesus claimed some will receive a greater judgment based on the amount of revelation they rejected (d) 1Cor 6:18 sexual sin is unlike other sins in at least one respect

3. We can’t change feelings but we can control actions. This point will be dealt with more fully when we offer our 4th response, but presently we’ll acknowledge up front that this notion falls far short of what Scripture teaches. The Bible calls us to deny sin not to manage it and Jesus taught that even the sinful feeling/attitude within a man makes that man guilty of sin (see Mat 5:21-22). Additionally, the Bible teaches that what lies in the heart will bear fruit in actions (Prov 4:23; Mar 7:20-23). So to suggest that the mark of Christianity is that we simply don’t act on our deeply held feelings is to contradict what the Word has to say concerning our new birth and the transformation of heart and mind.