My daily Bible reading and devotional thought gave me quite a jolt today – but hopefully in a good way. I was reminded, once again, of how many different ways we as humans attempt to justify our existence by our awards, achievements, and accomplishments – the stuff of resumes. And, I was reminded of how virtually all of that striving is utterly rejected in the Kingdom of God.
That truth is especially meaningful to me as I survey the contemporary “postmodern” church scene. Scores of articles and research tools have been published informing church leaders how they are to modify their efforts in order to win and keep this or that generation of believers. The entire message can be encapsulated in the dictum that numbers mean everything, and if you are not growing you are not successful, you are just not “doing” church right. So we have to “re-imagine” church, or re-define church, or whatever the latest poll or survey says we need to do.
Preachers are especially vulnerable to this siren song. Perhaps it has always been this way, but is is clearly true today. Young men look to the trend setting churches and dream of preaching at such a “successful” church. Small congregations that do nothing but stay faithful to the gospel are not even given a second glance. Maybe one day they will be invited to speak at their favorite lectureship. You have to be a “senior” minister at a mega-church for that to happen, though. No “small congregation” ministers need apply. A church that is looking to hire a preacher demands “proven” success in evangelism and church growth. Lists upon lists are given as to what a preacher is to “do,” but very little about what he is supposed to “be.” Job descriptions can run multiple pages long. Sadly, many of the items listed could also describe a “community organizer.” Very, very few items pertain to the gifts of the Spirit.
Somewhere lost in all the search for praise and acclamation is the message of the towel and basin. Jesus gave the greatest lesson on leadership this world has ever witnessed, and he did it without a word. He took a towel, and a water basin, and washed his disciples’ feet. In the Kingdom of God, leaders are defined by service, not by stature. In the Kingdom, we descend upwards. The last will be first, the least shall be greatest.
This morning, I needed to hear a message from God’s word, and it was given to me:
In the Kingdom of God, we will be judged not by fame, but by faithfulness.
I write this the day after the first of the “winnowing” elections in the 2016 presidential election cycle. The war drums from almost all of the partisan camps are beating loudly today – well, except from those who had to drop out due to non-existent support. Next up, New Hampshire. From there – it won’t end until November.
Long-time readers of this space should know I am very conservative when it comes to issues of politics and the Christian faith. Conservative, yes; but not in the manner that most expect a conservative to write. I confess a different type of conservatism, one that is more intentionally based on “conserving” the teachings and implications of the apostolic writings, as opposed to the American Revolutionary fathers.
In that vein, I must say I am deeply concerned with the current association of the ideas of “patriotism” with that of the principles of Christianity. During these heated election cycles we are lectured time and time again that it is our “patriotic” duty to go forth and cast our ballot, and that, in no uncertain terms, it is our Christian duty to do the same.
I challenge the first concept, and flatly reject the second.
First, where is it framed as any kind of law or principle that voting is equal to a patriotic act? It seems to me that the only way voting could be construed as a “patriotic” act is if the act of not voting would be actively destroying the principles upon which the country was founded. The problem is we vote for people, not principles. It seems to me that if we are forced to vote for someone who clearly is working to overturn the principles upon which this country was founded, it would be more patriotic NOT to vote. I have listened to most (albeit not all) of the candidates for president this election cycle, and I can assure you that NONE of them espouse a purely Christian viewpoint. Admittedly, some are more acceptable (from a purely secular viewpoint) than others, but what part of patriotism says I have to hold my nose and close my eyes when I pull the lever at the ballot box? I am not going to vote for someone as a “patriotic” duty, only to see the principles upon which this country was founded be trampled and trashed.
But, second, and by far the most important to me: where is it written in Scripture that it is the duty of a Christian to vote? The closest anyone can come is a mis-application of Romans 13. The only thing Paul (and Jesus!) had to say about the government was that it is the duty of a Christian to live in such a way as to not bring reproach upon the Kingdom of God. If the government forces us to pay taxes – then pay taxes we must. However, the process of casting a ballot is a freedom, a choice, and one that should only be used with the greatest care and only with Kingdom principles as the goal. To say that we have to vote for brand “X” because he/she is marginally better than brand “Y” is just foolishness – and dangerous to the extreme!
Shortly before World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was asked what he would do if war broke out. He said that he would have to pray that Germany would be defeated, in order for Christianity to survive in his country. The government would view that sentiment as treason – the ultimate act of anti-patriotism. Not so! Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the ultimate patriot. He loved his country so much that he wanted it to be defeated in war – so that it could survive in peace.
That, my friends, is patriotism. So do not lecture me about how I have to go vote for someone (anyone) that I am convinced will only work to violate God’s Kingdom principles.
I had a strange dream last night . . .
It appeared that I was summoned as a visitor to a sublime and dreadful courtroom scene. A preacher (whom I recognized, but will not identify to protect his guilt or innocence) sat forlornly at the defense table, while the prosecutor’s table was empty. Instead of one judge, there were a number of men, dressed in strange robes that resembled bedouin clothing more than that of modern judges. The gallery, of which I was a small part, was quiet – acting almost fearful, as if we were not really wanting to watch the events that would unfold before us.
The heavy tone of the room was broken when one of the judges cleared his throat and spoke. “Mr. __________, you have been summoned to stand before this tribunal before your death, rather than following your death, for a very special reason. Your record of service in the name of the one who sits on my left is impeccable. You have devoted the better part of your life to promoting the good name of Jesus and furthering his church. However, it was determined that you have recently become guilty of hypocrisy, and of a type that borders on treason against the kingdom. You will now stand and respond to our questions, for the purpose of ascertaining whether you will be returned to earth to continue your mission, or if you are to be removed from an earthly life altogether. Let us proceed . . . ”
Another of the judges spoke. “Mr. ___________, for the record, let us clarify. When you began your ministry, you professed to speak only of things spoken by Jesus, and written by myself and my partners on this tribunal, is that not correct?”
The preacher, pale and quivering, nodded and mumbled a quiet “yes.” Apparently he was aware of the identity of his interlocutors, although their specific identity was still hidden to the rest of us.
“Thank you.” Replied the second speaker. “Now, based on that confession, we have some questions we would like to pose to you to determine if, indeed, you have been faithful to that promise.”
“Is it not true” spoke a third judge “that as a young minister you spoke often and lovingly about the need to openly identify the Lord’s church through clear references to his name, or title?” “Yes, I did” replied the accused. “Then, why, here in these later years, have you chosen to identify your assembly as “_________________”? (name redacted for privacy reasons). “Well, it became obvious to me that by using the name under which I was first serving, that many people were put off, and refused to give my message any hearing. I wanted to lead as many as I could to my Lord, so I had to change the name on the building in order so as not to offend.”
At this comment the character seated in the middle of the group of judges raised his eyebrows, but remained silent.
“Let it be entered into the record that the accused withdrew any reference to the name or title of our Lord because such a reference was embarrassing and he believed it to be a negative influence” spoke the third judge. The other judges nodded in agreement, “So be it.”
The second judge once again spoke. “Mr. _________, you have stated many times in your early ministry that the record we who are seated before you must be listened to wholeheartedly, and obeyed faithfully, is that not true?” Another nod of the head and a mumbled “yes.” “Then, your proclamations in these later years are very troublesome. Just to name a few – you caused a serious defection in your congregation when you insisted the addition of practices into the worship service which are clearly not present in our writings, and you openly ridiculed certain other practices which are clearly given. You devalued the leadership qualities of men while encouraging women to step outside of their blessed and holy giftedness. You have even gone so far as to recently suggest that marriage vows can be exchanged between members of the same sex, provided those vows remain faithful. How do you answer?”
“That is easy,” the preacher said tremulously. “Modern scholarship has unequivocally determined that many words attributed to my esteemed judges did not, in fact, come from your pens. As a faithful minister I could not preach what was not the word of God. I could not continue to promote a false and dehumanizing gospel. Once that veil was lifted from my eyes, how could I return to chauvinistic and homophobic traditions?”
The gasps from the gallery drowned out the whispered conversations among the judges. The first judge rapped the bench with his gavel, ordering silence.
“So, Mr. ____________, are you telling these judges that the accumulated wisdom of over 2,000 years has been ‘unequivocally’ overturned by your ‘modern scholarship?” A quiet wave of laughter spread through the gallery. The preacher did not answer, but dropped his eyes. We in the gallery could see his face turning red.
The third judge who had spoken earlier resumed the questioning. “Mr. ____________, these are serious allegations, but throughout the history of the church on earth, many similar serious issues have plagued the Lord’s people. God’s grace is certainly able to cover a multitude of misunderstandings – but we are not here to issue your final judgment, only to determine your fitness to return to your ministry. Far more troubling are some of your more recent lectures regarding the very nature of our Lord’s saving sacrifice.”
A fourth judge now entered the conversation. “Mr. ____________, your declaration to speak only the words of Jesus has been duly noted. Yet, you have repeatedly and clearly stated in recent sermons that the sign of solidarity with our Lord is no longer a necessary act of obedience to him. Baptism into our Lord’s death, a symbolic lowering into his grave, and a triumphant resurrection from that grave is, to quote your most recent offering, ‘something that is beneficial for the life of the believer, but cannot be made a requirement for salvation.’ Do I quote you accurately?”
Once again the preacher said, “yes,” but his mood had changed. Rather than meek submission, he was growing irritated with the line of questioning, and his ire was beginning to show. “Listen, I learned from my conversations with people from many different churches and even different religions that there are a lot of wonderful people out there, people who do not believe in baptism, but believe in Jesus. People who are good, moral, upstanding individuals with whom I could not find anything to question. Once again, I could not find any words that were clearly written by you all that would keep those people out of heaven.”
Finally the character in the middle of the group of judges raised his voice, along with his arched eyebrows. “I must disagree – for did not my inspired apostles record my very specific words, ‘Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved”? Did not my inspired apostles speak clearly and repeatedly throughout my new covenant about the sacredness and importance of the new birth into my blood and resurrection? Did not my apostles make it clear that there are most decidedly two groups of individuals, one who trusts in my words of promise and obeys my commands, and one who because of willful rebellion refuses to accept my authority and/or my clear instructions?”
As the final words were fading into the background, a thick and heavy silence fell upon all the assembled – far more thick and heavy than was at first.
After what seemed like hours, but what could have only been a few minutes, the first judge spoke once again. “Mr. ________, you have been accused of hypocrisy and actions that are treasonous to the church that you have pledged your life.”
“It is the decision of this court that . . . ”
Just as suddenly and mysteriously as my dream started, it came to a terrifying end. What was the verdict? What would happen to this well known and popular preacher? Would he be allowed to return and continue his ministry? Would he be sent back to correct his errors? And why was I given this privy information?
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
Rest assured, brothers and sisters, the failure does not lie with the source.
I will not go to sleep comfortably any time soon . . .
Yesterday’s post was the “glass half empty” view of the year of elections that we are facing in 2016. My good blogging friend Tim Archer pointed out in a comment that I was sort of hyperbolic in my statement, and I have to plead mea culpa. I understand various election cycles in our history have been, well, beyond the realm of what would be considered appropriate or meaningful. My experience has been that while campaigns have been hard fought, they have rarely (although perhaps occasionally) been as poisonous as this cycle has demonstrated – and I fear it will get worse. So, yesterday my goal was mostly “negative” in the sense that I wanted to challenge our commitment as Christians to the Kingdom of God. Today, I want to look at the “glass half full” side. I want to demonstrate the positive side of withdrawing from partisan politics.
First, when Christians pull out of the vitriol and mud-slinging of partisan politics, we demonstrate that we follow a greater power. When a Christian says, “I know God is in control, but we have to win this election or I will lose my freedom/job/security/safety (whatever the threat might be),” in effect what he or she is saying is, “I really don’t think God is in control, so I better fix things myself.”
Let me put it another way – whatever you are afraid of losing is that thing that you worship. If you are afraid of losing your guns, then your guns are your idol. Are you afraid of losing your security? Then your well-being is your idol. Are you afraid of losing your job? Then your work productivity has become your idol. Jesus’ call to discipleship is radical – I’m afraid we really do not understand just how radical that call is. I do know, however, that a good many people have had to discover that. I could explain, but that is the source of another blog.
Second, when Christians pull away from the nastiness of partisan politics it frees up a massive amount of time, energy, motivation, and money to invest in the kingdom of God. Just think how much money will be wasted on TV, radio, computer, billboard, newspaper, magazine, and other forms of advertising in every form of media over the next 10 months. The total will be staggering. For what purpose? The purpose will be to get some person (or persons) elected to an office where they can return the favor by providing their benefactors with staggering amounts of federal or state funding. That would be bad enough if that is where it started and stopped – but thousands (dare I say millions) of these dollars will be contributed by Christians who will then not have that money to support their local congregations or national or international charities. It is a monumental waste of financial capital. Beyond finances, however, what about the time that will be dedicated to campaign issues, and mental and physical exertion that will be devoted to the election? Christians who would not devote so much as one week out of the year to attend a special gospel meeting will now spend months putting up signs, going door-to-door to talk to voters, handing out leaflets, and other forms of public interaction in order to get “their guy” elected to some state or federal office. You might want to argue that “major elections only happen once every four years – so I am not spending that much time in politics.” To which I would respond – “Jesus is only going to come back once.” I think that should figure into our priorities.
Third, and perhaps most important, when Christians separate themselves from partisan politics it will elevate the standing of Christ’s church. To me there is nothing more unbecoming of a body of Christians than the impression that the kingdom of God can be identified with one political party or the other. How wonderful it would be if everyone in the United States could look at Christ’s church and see something so different, so radically new, so amazingly transformed that they would learn to become ashamed of their broken ways. The more Christians lower themselves into the muck of partisan politics the less likely that is to happen. “Why do I have to change my ways when you Christians act no better than I do?” is a legitimate question. On the other hand, a church that has been pulled out of the pig-pen of human politics by the blood of Christ should act, look, talk, and think in ways that are radically different from the world. Our citizenship is in heaven, Paul wrote. Christians need to start acting like we are kingdom people, not partisans.
In no way am I suggesting that Christians should remove themselves from critical issues facing our country. Issues of equality, fair trade, human exploitation, poverty, health, and a number of issues should be addressed by the church. But, the critical point is that these issues should be addressed from the point of view of the gospel, and not from the Capitol building or the White House. Christians have for too long abdicated the greatest power in the world – the power of the cross. We have come to believe that only a President or a group of Senators or Representatives can change anything. The early church believed a rag-tag group of fishermen, tent-makers, and tax-collectors could turn the world up-side-down. And, because they believed that (and believed in the one who gave them the power), that is exactly what they did.
2016 will indeed be a year of decision – and for the Church of Jesus Christ it can be a great year of proclamation as well. A year to proclaim that we have been called to a higher righteousness, a greater glory, and a deeper reality. A year to proclaim that we have had enough of the world, now we are going to follow the cross. A year to proclaim that, although some human form of government might be necessary, that government does not have the authority to enslave its people. Jesus came to set God’s people free – free from sin to be sure – but free from all human bondage as well, and that includes a representative democracy.
I need to hear that message as much as anyone. Enough of the half-full glass. My cup is supposed to “overflow.” Let us be done with the empty and vain machinations of abusive power. Let us become what we have been called to be.
And so it begins. 2016 will be a year of significant change, or changes, for Americans. I am not convinced as Christians we are prepared for those changes.
One change for certain is that by the end of the year (unless our Lord returns before then!) we will have a new president, and likely a large number of new senators and representatives. On the local level there will be new governors and state representatives. Not a single vote has been cast in the 2016 elections, and already the vitriol has reached levels never seen before. And that is just within one party – the partisan sniping has yet to even begin in earnest.
2016 will prove to be a pivotal year, I am convinced. This might be true for the country, but I am actually more concerned about the church. Whether the union survives is ultimately inconsequential. How the church weathers this storm will have eternal consequences.
Every election cycle since I have been old enough to vote has been labeled “the most important election of this generation.” The phrase has become so overused I am tired of it. There can only be one election that is the most important of this generation. All the others pale in comparison.
Jesus told Pilate in no uncertain terms, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” (John 18:36, RSV)
I’m afraid that in 2016 far too many “Christians” will elect a new king. They will elect a king from this world – actually they will elect this world as king, with a human being as the face of the power. Already my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of hateful and unchristian postings, “shares,” and “likes.” Many are so full of error as to be scandalous for a Christian to be associated with. Paul would tell his student Timothy, “Shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (2 Timothy 2:22-23) I may be in the minority here, but I simply cannot understand why someone would jeopardize their eternal salvation over something so stupid and senseless as a partisan election.
2016 will be a pivotal year. Choices will be made. Elections will be held, some candidates will win, some will lose. The greatest tragedy will not be that one political party or the other will gain ascendency. The greatest tragedy will be that some children of the King will renounce their eternal heritage for a mess of temporal soup. They will exchange the glory of their Father for the rags of a demonic imposter. They will echo the tragic refrain of those Jewish leaders some 2,000 years ago, “We have no king but Caesar.”
Choose you this day whom you will serve. (Joshua 24:15) Choose partisan politics and you will never know peace. Choose Christ, submit to His kingdom, and you will never have to worry about the results of some meaningless popularity contest.
In the many discussions of the “right to bear arms” and the “right of self defense” one passage of Scripture receives an amount of attention far beyond the weight it can support. This is increasingly true in the discussions generated by the recent terrorist attacks and the “right” of individual states to deny safe refuge to Syrians fleeing the unspeakable horror of ISIS (the Islamic State). That passage is Luke 22:35-38:
And he said to them, ‘When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘Nothing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfillment.’ And they said, ‘Look, Lord, here are two swords.’ And he said to them, ‘It is enough.’ (Luke 22:35-38, RSV)
I want to suggest to you that, first of all, this passage is enigmatic in that there are a number of interpretive issues involved, and second, that regardless of the clarity (or obscurity) of the passage, building one’s theology of the right to bear arms on one text is highly dubious. Using this text to defend a matter of constitutional law smacks of the worst kind of proof-texting. What is worse, if this interpretation of the text is, in fact, erroneous, it turns Jesus into something that he manifestly was and is not, therefore is dangerously close to blasphemy.
To begin, the interpretation that Jesus is in this text promoting the purchase and use of weapons for self-defense is to declare that Jesus is also completely rejecting his own words of comfort to his disciples. To illustrate, compare the last words of Jesus in John 14-16. At no point in this long message did Jesus ever hint or suggest that his departure would in any way limit the future work of the disciples. In fact, it was his departure, and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit, that would strengthen and embolden the disciples. If the interpretation of Luke 22:35-38 is that Jesus is encouraging the purchase of weapons for self-defense, the logic has to be that Jesus is telling his disciples, “Look, boys, I’m about to leave here, so you are all on your own. Better load up on the swords, ’cause your gonna need all you can get.” However, the words of Jesus as recorded in John flatly reject this logic. Jesus told his disciples the coming Holy Spirit would increase their work, and that his absence would be in their favor.
Second, the use of this text as a proof-text for the use of weapons for self-defense is in direct contradiction to the actions and words of Jesus that would take place in the garden in just a couple of hours time. We are familiar with the fact that Peter was only too willing to use one of those two swords (I wonder who the owner of the other was??), and Jesus rebuked him soundly, telling him, “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52, RSV) Not exactly a thunderous affirmation of the right of Peter to defend Jesus and himself with a sword. In fact, Jesus went on to tell Peter if he so wanted, he could call legions of angels down to defend him. Self-defense was not on Jesus’s agenda.
Third, some time later Jesus would yet again reject the idea that his disciples would, or even should, take up arms. In response to a political accusation by the Procurator Pilate, Jesus said, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” (John 18:36, RSV) This is somewhat ironic, as Peter DID take up arms to defend Jesus, but Jesus unequivocally rejected that Lilliputian effort. Once again, self-defense is not on Jesus’s agenda.
Please note that each of these examples comes after Jesus’s statement to “buy a sword.” So – if Jesus is clearly NOT interested in self-defense or the use of swords, what in the world was he talking about? I return to the concept of enigma – this is something that is clearly not an easy passage to decipher, but there are some clues in the text itself.
First, Jesus reminds the disciples of their previous mission and the ability for God to fully meet their needs. Now, unless we are willing to accept that God will somehow be unable to meet their needs in a future mission, we must ask ourselves why Jesus would suggest the carrying of a purse, a bag, and lastly, a sword. Was it because due to his repeated warnings of his impending arrest and death that the apostles were beginning to make defensive provisions? In other words, is it not fully reasonable to see Jesus using the rhetoric of irony here – “Remember how God has provisioned for you earlier, and now you are acting like a bunch of scared schoolboys??” I do not suggest that this is the only way in which these verses can be interpreted, but other clues lead me to believe it is at least a worthy option.
Second, Jesus quotes Isaiah 53:12 – but not the entire verse. Let us then examine Isaiah 53:12 –
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (RSV, emphasis mine)
Now, in the immediate context of those who heard Jesus’s words, who were the transgressors? Maybe those who were planning on an armed defense of their messiah? Namely, could it have been Peter and the unnamed apostle? Maybe it was the fog of exhaustion, or their basic inability to grasp what Jesus was saying, but the immediate retort was, “Look, Jesus, here we have two swords!” (a pitiful response to the armed legions of the Romans, and even the poorly armed police of the Jewish leaders). It is telling that as he was being arrested, Jesus made a special intercession on behalf of his apostles, at least one of which had just attempted an insurrection. Jesus plainly “made intercession” for the transgressors.
Third, Jesus words, “It is enough” are interesting. This is an idiom, and as an idiom is difficult to trace throughout the Bible, but a few references are illuminating. In Deuteronomy 3:26 the NIV (among other translations) render God’s rebuke to Moses as, “That is enough.” In other words, “Be quiet – the discussion is over.” In 1 Samuel 15:16, Samuel cuts King Saul’s excuse off with a brisk, “Stop!” In 2 Samuel 24:16, God stays the hand of the destroying angel with an emphatic, “Enough!” Interjections such as these have both a disjunctive and a corrective sense. They are used to stop the present flow of words or actions, and they indicate a different path of action or discourse will follow. Viewed in this manner, Jesus is simply telling his disciples to shut up; they have utterly misunderstood him yet again, but his last hours are drawing to a close and he does not have the time to enter into yet another time-consuming theological lecture.
Finally, we have to note the reaction of the apostles in the post-Pentecost age of the Spirit. Not once did they take up weapons to defend themselves. Not once did they advocate the use of weapons in the realm of self-defense. Not once did a disciple of Jesus take up a weapon to defend one of his peers. In fact, for the first three centuries one of the sharpest distinctions regarding the church of Jesus Christ was their unflinching and resolute avoidance of violence. To me, this fact is conclusive. The disciples may have misunderstood Jesus’s words in the upper room that night, but by the day of Pentecost they got it. They were transformed. And, with great courage and faith they proudly proclaimed the “right to bare arms.”
The argument is often presented that if a man’s family was being attacked, he has a right, and perhaps even a responsibility, to protect them at any cost. I cannot answer how I would face that situation, and I pray I will never have to make that decision. But one thing I do know: I cannot base my desire to purchase and use lethal weapons on Luke 22:35-38. To do so is an illegitimate use of Scripture. A man may have the right and duty to defend his family – but the scriptural defense of that right and duty must be found elsewhere (Exodus 22:2-3 comes to mind, although there are some problems there, too).
I began by saying this text in Luke is enigmatic. I do not suggest that the interpretation that I have proposed is the only way to interpret this passage, but I do suggest that it offers the fewest problems. It provides the greatest cohesion with the plain teachings of Jesus. It is in clear agreement with the words of Jesus spoken within hours, or perhaps even minutes, of the words recorded in Luke. So, while I may be incorrect, I choose to stand here, admitting my fallibility, but resting in the security that for centuries the early church stood on the same ground.
(some idle ramblings after meditating on a message that was presented last evening . . . and no, I am not picking on the speaker, but rather extending his thoughts and owning up to my own convictions)
I am a part of a small group of Americans. Talk about minority, I bet we do not even show up on the list of endangered species – because there has to be a certain number to be counted in order to even be considered endangered. We could probably hold a national convention in a broom closet. My closest ally and my greatest enemy might both be looking at me from my mirror. Call me a heretic, a traitor, a renegade, a scandalous lout – each probably fits some form of my rebellion.
But, I just simply refuse to accept that America is a Christian nation, that God has specifically chosen America for any purpose (other than to display his grace and his judgment), that any one single political party has a corner on righteousness, or that it is a duty, or even a good idea, that disciples of Christ get mixed up (polluted would be another word) in politics.
Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb are my heroes – and that is probably enough to get my membership cancelled in most Churches of Christ – especially if they know anything about Barton W. Stone and/or David Lipscomb.
My aversion to politics can be summed up thusly:
1. God gave Adam and Eve a specific law in the garden – and that law did not keep them from acting immorally. God gave Cain a specific law – and that did not keep Cain from acting immorally. God gave the Israelites very specific laws (over 600 if the number is to be believed) and that did not keep the Israelites from acting immorally, even at the site where they received those laws. God sent prophet after prophet to remind the people of Israel of the laws to which they had bound themselves. That did not keep the children of Israel from acting immorally. You cannot make a person, a group of people (even the church), or a nation moral by passing laws. Not even God could do that. Why can’t we learn this? Why do we put so much emphasis on trying to accomplish that which cannot be accomplished?
2. The sum total of politics can be described as: money, power, and compromise. If politics was a noble effort once upon a time (as in a fairy tale) it certainly is not now. It takes a staggering amount of money to simply be elected to a state office, let alone a national office. The role of county dog catcher might be different, but money drives politics. Second, politics is all about power. Power as in I have it, you don’t, do you have to do what I tell you. What was it that Jesus said about power and service? Oh, yeah, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28). Third, to be successful in American politics means you have to compromise, because while power is intoxicating and polluting, it is never absolute. There is always someone on the other side of the political aisle who has equal power among his or her constituents, and the only way to move anything in American politics is to compromise. The art of compromise might be acceptable if you are debating the color of carpet in the living room or the price of eggs. But, could someone please tell me how it would be possible to compromise on a question of morals? How can you ‘compromise’ on the question of abortion, or the ethics of the Affordable Care Act (which is neither affordable nor caring)? To say that abortion is wrong after “x” time period, but acceptable before that time period is simply disgusting. To say that homosexuality violates your personal code of religious beliefs, but that you have to vote another way because of some court ruling is to declare that you really have no controlling personal code of religious beliefs. Compromise is the opposite of the gospel call to absolute surrender to the will of God.
3. No matter how you try to wiggle out of this, you cannot vote for someone to do something GOOD, without out equally being responsible for the EVIL that person creates/perpetrates. You cannot applaud and share in the advances of the causes you advocate, and reject the negative consequences. I learned this the hard way with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Regardless of the good each was able to accomplish, each man certainly violated core biblical principles in decisions they made or did not make. I cannot take pride in one part of their legacy and disavow the other. If I voted for them, I am “guilty” for both. I do not think most Christians stop to consider that fact.
4. I could list many Scriptures which call the American system of politics into question. However, one will suffice: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24, RSV). You cannot be a ‘little bit’ political and a ‘little bit’ Christian. You cannot split your allegiance 50/50. You are either going to believe that politics is the answer to the problems of humanity, or you are going to look to the Word (Christ) and the will of God. If you think America is a Christian nation, and that the constitution of the United States comprises some kind of 28th book of the New Testament, then you are going to put your faith ultimately in the power and process of the American political system. You will also never be content, and you will always be in a position of aggression and enmity with your opponents, because they believe you are the enemy and they will not begrudge an inch of political landscape to you. And, by the way, you will never find an acceptable candidate to support unquestionably. No human is perfect, and so you will have to compromise some of YOUR beliefs in order to elect someone who is the “lesser of two evils” in some aspect of your religious beliefs. Sell your soul to the devil and you find some nasty repercussions.
Or, you can stand with Joshua as he gave his final challenge to the people of Israel, “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15)
Many suggestions are made as to why the Church is so ineffective today, why so many people are leaving the church, why, despite the huge numbers of attendees, there appears to be so little conviction among those who profess to be disciples of Christ. While I believe many answers are a part of the answer, I think one major reason is that so many church leaders, and therefore church members, have equated Christianity with the American political system. And, because Jesus actually expects total commitment, (that nasty verse about taking up your cross and following him daily) it is far easier to sign a registration card as a Republican or a Democrat and worship the god of politics and power that way. Simply put, politics IS the religion of the vast majority of Americans.
That’s why I am a heretic, a traitor, and a pacifistic scoundrel. That’s okay by me. As I look at the first three hundred years of church history (up until the great Constantinian debacle), I find myself in some mighty fine company. I may be alone today – but, boy, do I have some awesome ancestors.
I started out my devotional time this morning with a prayer. Funny for me to admit this, but I usually do not – I usually pray to conclude my Bible reading time, but only infrequently will I pray before. That is something I need to change, but I digress.
I guess I felt a special need to pray this morning. This is not a happy time for me right now. For the second time in 12 months my wife and daughter are going through a significant period of loss. A year ago it was the death of a precious friend and mother of my daughter’s friend. This year it is a loss by relocation – but a significant and painful loss nevertheless. I’m also struggling with a number of other things – nothing major, yet nothing trivial either. Just life.
So, I prayed. I asked God for help. I asked Him to speak to me through his word. I wanted some comfort, if not some specific answers.
Then, I turned, as I always do, to my first section of reading, from the Psalms. This is what I read –
Don’t put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there. When they breathe their last, they return to the earth, and all their plans die with them. But joyful are those who have the God of Israel as their helper, whose hope is in the LORD their God. (Psalm 146:3-5, NLT)
I could quote the entire Psalm, and if you are interested you can read it. It is a powerful message of faith, and quiet confidence.
I am sick to death with our “government” in the United States. The Supreme Court just ruled that individuals who pervert the most sacred gift God has given human beings now have the right to “marry” each other in all 50 states. It is sickening. But what is just as sickening is that the Chief Justice, John Roberts, flapped his jaws about how the ruling was all about imposing the will of the Supreme Court instead of upholding the Constitution, when it was HIS pathetic and inexcusable imposing of HIS will that permitted the greatest rape of the Constitution in decades with the Affordable Care Act. The man must have no conscience at all.
Yea, I know – inflammatory rhetoric and all that hogwash. Well, like I said, I am not in a happy place right now, and I tend to be a little blunt at times. But, as angry as I am with the entire miscreant government that we now have, I am only too aware that human governments are human governments, and human governments are steeped in sin and perpetuate sin. So, the ruling by the SCOTUS this morning was sickening, but fully expected. I would have been shocked had the decision gone the other way. When sinful people are given that much power, it is folly to expect a Godly outcome.
What really, really upsets me (and here I WILL bite my tongue – er, keyboard) is that the CHURCH is just as culpable. Yes, you read that – We, the people of God, share absolutely in this decision. For years, decades, and now going on centuries, we have put our faith, our trust, our hope, in the fallible minds and hands of the congress, the president, and the constitution. We have given what is holy to the dogs and we have cast our pearls before swine. We have sown the wind, and we are reaping the whirlwind (tornados, for those of you in West Texas). So, before we go marching off to some rally and demand that we elect more sinful, fallible, broken human beings to a sinful, fallible and broken system of government, maybe we should get down on our knees and profess our faith and submit our heartfelt repentance before a Holy and Transcendent God.
It sickens me to see what our country has lost. It sickens me far more to see the church, God’s people, become so compliant by trusting in the human system that created this cesspool. We can pray all we want, and say “In God We Trust” all we want, but if our initial reaction to today’s ruling is, “We have to elect more Republican (read, “God Fearing”) Senators, Representatives, and a Republican President” then we deserve every single one of the Godless rulings this SCOTUS has handed down over the past decade or more.
No, dear Christian friend. Electing sinful, broken and power-hungry Republicans will not solve any of our problems.
We need to start acting like we actually believe Philippians 3:20 and Hebrews 13:14. We need to start acting like our hope is in the LORD our God, and not some empty suit in Washington D.C.
The early Christians turned the world upside down, and basically converted most of the known world, when the ruling government actively sought to destroy them. Homosexuality and other sexual perversions were rampant. Violence was systemic, not occasional. And, yet, the Christians prevailed, because they believed their LORD was in heaven, not in Rome.
The death penalty has been on my mind quite a bit lately. One reason is that I am teaching a course on Christian Ethics, and the topic came up as a part of the curriculum. Another reason is that there is a case currently in the headlines about a woman on death row who has, by virtually all accounts, made a complete change in her life and has become a Christian, and has been doing remarkable work with other inmates as she has contact with them. Many, both in the secular and the religious worlds, are working for the commutation of her sentence so that she be spared her execution.
I try to keep abreast of arguments on both sides of this issue. One of my mentors (by distance, and now only through his writings as he has passed away) was an avowed anti-death penalty advocate. I read his arguments closely, and while I agree with some of his logic, there are some other aspects of his (and the entire anti-death penalty movement) that I have great difficulty in accepting. So, I write this post as both a statement of my current position, and as a refutation, or a challenge if you will, of some aspects of the anti-death penalty moment that I would like to see clarified or explained.
As I understand the main theological objection to the death penalty, Jesus established in the Sermon on the Mount, and through later teachings as well, that his disciples are to forgive, are not to employ any means of violence, are not to retaliate in any way, and are to bear with any injustice, all for the sake of the Kingdom of God. This is a strong argument, and cannot be dismissed with the flippant attitude that many pro-death penalty advocates demonstrate. In this line of thinking Jesus has abrogated the Old Testament permission to take “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” While this is a strong argument, I believe there is an inherent flaw – a contradiction that weakens the argument significantly, if not totally.
The primary Old Testament passages relating to capital punishment (especially in relation to murder) are Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12-17, and Numbers 35:9-34. There is another key passage that must be included in the discussion, and that is the law relating to false witnesses, Deuteronomy 19:15-21. These passages reveal several critical components of capital punishment that I believe are NOT addressed by many anti-capital punishment advocates.
First, the basis of capital punishment is not revenge, retaliation, or retribution. The basis – the foundation – for the use of the death penalty in the case of murder is that murder violates the nature of God himself. Murder certainly is a violent crime – as is rape and kidnapping, other crimes for which the death penalty could be used. Murder violates the bond of humans in community, as does rape, kidnapping, and the sexual sins for which a person could be executed – adultery, bestiality, even homosexuality. But, while all of these crimes and violations of the Law violated God’s holiness, only the crime of murder violated his nature. Thus, the only crime for which there was no chance for a substitution was the crime of murder (Num. 35:31).
Second, to reverse the rationale or the exercise of capital punishment is to tacitly admit that the God of the Old Testament was a vengeful, angry, violent God, but the God of the New Testament is a kind, loving, forgiving God. It is to tear apart the Trinity – Jehovah is the God of the Old Testament, a warring, violent God; but Jesus is the God of the New Testament, a kind, gentle, forgiving God. This is a separation of the nature of God that I simply cannot accept. God is clearly described in the Old Testament as a forgiving God who seeks the restoration of a broken relationship with man. God is just as clearly described in the New Testament as a God who will ultimately judge the disobedient and unrepentant sinner.
Third, and directly related to the last point, when we turn the God of the New Testament into an exclusively kind, gentle, loving, forgiving God we create a god in our own image. We are just so kind, so loving, so forgiving, so much more mature than those bloodthirsty Israelites that we need a god who looks and acts like us. We need a compassionate god – and a god that condones capital punishment simply will not do. So, we create a new god – an anti-capital punishment god, and we do everything that we can to separate him from the God of the Old Testament. But this is pure idolatry. When we say we worship the God of the Bible, we must let the Bible describe who God is, and then we either accept that God or we reject that God. We cannot create him in our own image.
That leads me to my last point. I have a suspicion that one reason so many are so afraid of allowing that God can still condone the use of capital punishment is that we fear our own punishment. If murder (and other sins, to be perfectly honest) demand the death penalty, then hell is a very real possibility. But, if God utterly and totally reversed himself on that blessed night in Bethlehem when a little baby was born to the virgin Mary, then maybe there really is not a hell after all – how can a God who has abolished the death penalty actually use the ultimate death penalty?
As I said above – I continue to consider this question deeply. I know that in the United States we have employed the death penalty very unevenly and very unjustly. We certainly do not apply the penalty as it is described in the Bible. To pause for a season to make sure our system does not perpetrate the sins of our past is a wise move. However, our very human and very broken use of the penalty does not in and of itself eliminate the just and proper use of the penalty.
I am certainly open to the possibility that Jesus did, in fact, abolish the use of capital punishment. However, in order for me to be fully convinced, the objections that I have raised above must be answered. If murder in particular so violated the nature of a life creating and sustaining God, and if God in his divine justice system created such an explicit and carefully nuanced method of determining guilt and the protection of the innocent, how can we, as mere mortals, claim that justice system is unfair? Is it not OUR system that is unfair?
Just another flight through the thick fog of our broken humanity, and trying to see the light of God’s word clearly and faithfully.
This semester’s schedule calls for me to get back into Christian ethics. So, in addition to the basic text I am using, I have been reading some sources that are “new” to me, John Howard Yoder, in particular. Yoder is perhaps the most persuasive and well-known among pacifist writers. Whether you agree with Yoder, disagree with Yoder, love him or hate him, if you are going to wade very deep into Christian ethics you have to deal with Yoder and the application of his views.
This, however, is not really a post about Yoder. Perhaps I will do that at another time.
What Yoder got me thinking about was how diluted Christianity has become. With very, very, few exceptions, most congregations of virtually every stripe or color of Christians have become conformational. This fact is astounding, given the reality that Jesus called upon his disciples to be transformed, and transformational, and the apostle Paul wrote emphatically that disciples of Christ are to be transformed and transformational. (see Romans 12:1-3)
To explain my terminology here, conformational Christianity is a Christianity that has conformed itself in one or more aspects to the culture in which it resides (for us Americans, that would be a free-market, capitalistic, militaristic, representative republic). We look like good Americans, we act like good Americans, we talk and buy and sell and defend and basically exist as if America was the “promised land” of which Moses spoke to the Israelites.
Transformational Christianity, both individual and communal, would examine that culture (or cultures) and work with the remnant of ideas that might be God affirming, and would reject or transform everything else in order to live fully and whole-heartedly within the “reign of God” on earth. A transformed Christianity would look nothing like its surrounding culture, except as that culture has itself been transformed by the Christian leaven working within it. A transformed people would be known by their inexplicable love for one another. They would be known for their total devotion to the ethics of the Kingdom of God. They would not be concerned about money or power or prestige or whether or not they were being treated fairly under the Constitution. A transformed church would live as if this world was a transition to a better world, a re-created Garden of Eden in which Christians will all share in a re-established image of God.
Conformational Christianity asks, “What is culture saying that we must do in order to appeal to consumers looking for the best religious deal?” Transformational Christianity asks, “How has Christ changed my life, and how can I go out and change my world.” Conformational Christianity asks, “What can we do to keep our young people from choosing another church or to leave the church altogether?” Transformational Christianity says, “I have no idea what you are talking about, our kids are begging for opportunities to serve and lead.” Conformational Christianity worries that maintaining any tradition will hamper its effort to “be relevant.” Transformational Christianity rejoices in traditions that keep its message pure and alive, while willingly looking for new ways to express its faith – with no regard whatsoever for the issue of “relevancy.” Transformational Christianity knows intuitively that a person cannot make the church “relevant” (what ever that means), it knows that the church is relevant for the purpose of transforming people’s lives as a basic, fundamental part of its existence.
I know of too many churches that are sell-outs to cultural pressure. They define the term, “conformational Christianity.” They conform to both the style and content that the western culture demands of them. In the words of Jesus’ parable, they are worthless, their fate is to be thrown on the dung heap.
Transformational churches are salt and light in the midst of a bent and broken world. Jesus called on his disciples to be transformational people (Matthew 5-7). Paul echoed that call in Romans 12. Peter called on the churches to whom he was writing to be a Holy people, just as the God they worship was Holy (1 Peter 1:13-16).
Be Holy. Be Transformed. Be Transforming. That is the challenge given to the Church of Christ. I pray we have the courage of our convictions, and that we can accept this challenge without fear or favor to any earthly power.