Strange introductory paragraph: within the past year or so I read (and reviewed) a book on baptism edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright entitled Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. The book is basically a refutation of the arguments in favor of infant baptism, or to put it positively, a defense of adult, believer’s baptism. As the purpose of the book is the efficacy of infant versus believer’s baptism, the topic of baptism for the remission of sins is dealt with only tangentially. And, because the editors (and, I would assume, most of the authors) are Baptists by denomination, you will not find much of a defense of Restoration Movement beliefs regarding the importance of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. However, and this is the point of this really strange introductory paragraph – I learned a great deal about the Calvinist approach to baptism, and why even many neo-Calvinists are opposed to infant baptism. It is an enlightening book, and I highly recommend it to all who are interested in theology, and especially the topic of baptism.
Baptism and the Remission of Sins: An Historical Perspective, David Fletcher, ed. (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Co., 1990) 432 pages.
I’m not exactly sure when I first read this book, but my copy has a 1990 publication date, so undoubtedly it was sometime in the 1990’s, or perhaps early in the first decade of the 2000’s. I just finished re-reading it, and I am struck with a profound thought: This is a book that needs to be read and digested by every member within the Churches of Christ who is concerned about the recent developments within the brotherhood of congregations of the Churches of Christ. Quite simply, this book places the Restoration Movement’s theological wrestling with the practice of baptism within its historical perspective, and as such, provides a wealth of information for understanding the rejection of the importance of baptism by many of the “leading voices” within the Restoration Movement.
The book is a collection of independent studies, and as such, suffers from the general problem of collections: some are outstanding, some are not so much. The opening chapters by Jack Cottrell I hold to be nothing less than brilliant – and provide a historical perspective that is utterly missing in most discussions regarding baptism. Beyond question, the information detailing Huldreich Zwingli’s distortion of baptism is absolutely critical to understand if you want to fully grasp the significance of Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and the other Restoration leaders. Chapter 3 on the British Restorers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was valuable, but not as illuminating as the first two chapters. Chapters 4 and 5 examining Alexander Campbell’s views on baptism (by John Mark Hicks) are superb – distilling the amount of material and the oftentimes contradictory nature of Campbell’s teaching is a monumental task. Hicks performs the task admirably, and if you know nothing of Campbell and his writings, these introductory chapters will help you immensely. Chapter six is especially eye-opening, and is critical to know in light of present controversies: it details the debate between Campbell and John Thomas regarding the necessity (or lack thereof) of a person’s knowledge and understanding of the meaning of baptism prior to that person’s baptism. My guess is that chapter alone will shock and disturb many within the Restoration Movement. I was personally disappointed with Michael Greene’s treatment of Barton W. Stone in chapter 7 – I believe a far more sympathetic view is both possible and necessary – but I tend to be more of a Stoner than a Campbellite, so I am a little prejudiced there. Chapters 8 and 9 are good (discussing the Rebaptism Controversy between David Lipscomb and the Gospel Advocate versus Austin McGary and the Firm Foundation; and the Open Membership controversy between the Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ), but not exceptional. I believe the subject matter of chapter 8 deserved greater detail, and the material of chapter 9 was also covered in far too cursory manner – but still those are tiny quibbles against two very informational chapters.
So much is being written and discussed today about the meaning and purpose of baptism, how much one must know before baptism, and probably most discussed – how should the members of Churches of Christ view the baptisms performed in the denominations (and increasingly, non-denominational churches)? The practice of baptism is becoming more and more common, and more and more theologians are openly discussing the importance of baptism related to a person’s salvation. I find it distressing to the point of absurdity that, at the very moment when the eyes of more and more preachers and theologians are turning to baptism again, so many “leaders” or “prominent preachers” within the Churches of Christ are backing away from baptism as fast as they can, and promoting the neo-Calvinistic view of baptism promoted in Schreiner and Wright’s book.
While not the only reason I can give for this movement, I would suggest that increasingly more and more preachers, elders, and congregational leaders within congregations of the Churches of Christ are utterly ignorant of the history, and yes, theology, of the practice of baptism. While this book does not delve deeply into the second topic (chapter 10 does cover the design of baptism), the history of baptism as practiced in the early church, the Reformation, and particularly within the Restoration Movement is covered in exceptional care in this collection of essays. If you are struggling to understand baptism in this post-modern context, or if your congregation is struggling to understand baptism today, you owe it to yourself and to your fellow believers to buy, and study, this book.
(Note: In searching for images of the cover of the book, I noticed a 2009 publication date – I provided images of both titles of the books. I could not discern if there was a substantial change from 2000 to 2009, so the 2009 might be a simple re-print, or it could entail an updated and/or corrected copy.)
Pardon me for a little whimsicality, but that phrase always returns to me when I think of things that are easily explained, but just as easily confused and exaggerated. The expression (actually just a series of unrelated abbreviations from the aviation world) came from a friend who liked to claim he could speak in tongues. If you are a pilot, that is pretty funny. If you think you can speak in tongues, not so much.
Today I revisit my last offering and expand upon it. When we speak of God in Platonic or Aristotelian terms (like saying God is the ultimate idea, or that he is the “unmoved mover”) we utterly lose the biblical concept of God and therefore create God in our own image.
Specially, and to the point, the more “omnies” we put in front of our descriptions of God, the less Hebrew (and therefore less biblical) and more Greek (and therefore, more philosophical) our understanding of God. The classic definition of God in virtually any sermon or class that you will hear revolves around three “omnies” – omniscient, omnipowerful, and omnipresent. In English that would translate into, “all knowing, all powerful, and all present.” So we have come to know and believe about God. But are these descriptions true?
Let’s take the first one – does God know everything, as in everything? Many passages could be provided to affirm that. What is less well known are the passages that limit, or at the very least, appear to limit God’s knowledge. For example, 2 Chronicles 32:31, “And so in the matter of the envoys of the princes of Babylon, who had been sent to him to inquire about the sign that had been done in the land, God left him [Hezekiah] to himself, in order to test him and to know all that was in his heart.” (ESV) God did two things here that are quite unacceptable for an Platonic/Aristotelian God – he “tested” Hezekiah (meddled in Hezekiah’s business) and he had to learn, or discover, or find out, what was in Hezekiah’s heart. But what about a more well known example – Genesis 22:12, “He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.'” (ESV) Once again, as in the previous text, a Platonic/Aristotelian God would already know what the outcome of the situation would be, and in fact, would not have put Abraham to the test to begin with. In fact, the whole episode is an intolerable and grotesque act for a Platonic/Aristotelian god – why would an all knowing and all loving God make such a brutal command. In Greek terms it is simply unthinkable. God would be beyond such “inhumanity.”
What about the second – that God is all powerful. Can God do anything he wants? Let me rephrase the question – Would it please God if no one ever sinned, if no one ever hurt anyone else, if everyone strove to serve God and him alone? Can God force that outcome? Well, I suppose theoretically he could, but would God then be God? Yes he would, in the Platonic/Aristotelian mold, but not in the Hebraic mold. In other words, according to the Old Testament, God is a limited God – he is limited by his own holiness. There are things God cannot do simply because if he did them, he would not be the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Many things transpired that were against God’s will, and any being that could speak the world into existence could have stopped those unwanted events. However, God limited his actions in the world for the express purpose of remaining God – so that his holiness might be revealed through the events, and not through his overpowering them not to happen.
So then, is God omnipresent – is God everywhere at once? Once again, theoretically yes, but following the last example, does he limit himself in his presence in the world? Well, if you read Ezekiel 10, you read that the glory (presence) of the LORD clearly leaves the temple in Jerusalem, allowing for its destruction. Once again, God could have protected the temple, and if his presence was truly there I doubt if any human could have destroyed the temple, but God wanted Ezekiel to know that there are times and places where God abandons this earth!
What I have discussed here is clearly open for discussion – are these passages to be interpreted literally or figuratively? But, to be honest, every description of God can be equally challenged. When the poet speaks of God knowing everything or being everywhere – are those statements to be taken literally or figuratively?
To repeat myself ad nauseam, my point is simply this – the more language that we borrow from Plato and Aristotle to define or explain God, the further from the Bible we travel. And when we speak of God getting angry (a no-no for Aristotle) or repenting, or forgetting, or leaving his people, or testing individuals to learn what was in their heart, the more biblical and “Hebrew” we become.
As I closed the last article, so I close this one. Athens (philosophy) is a great place to visit, but we are much safer, and beyond question more biblical, if we reside in Jerusalem.
So, its been a while since the ol’ Freightdawg has gone smashing through the clouds. Time to kick the tires and light the fires again.
Two passages of Scripture struck me this past Sunday as I was worshipping. I quote them here in their entirety:
When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? (Luke 5:22, ESV)
. . . having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints. (Ephesians 1:18, ESV)
Did you see a common feature of both of these passages? I’ll narrow it down a little . . .
“. . . question in your hearts . . .” and “. . . eyes of your hearts enlightened . . .”
Those phrases should strike us as being odd – or even more straightforward – should strike us as being psychologically incorrect. We question in our minds, our eyes are in our foreheads, and it is our intellect that is enlightened, not our hearts.
That is because we are philosophically more the descendants of Athens than we are of Jerusalem. In other words, we think (and feel and relate) more in line with Aristotle and Plato than we do with Moses. We are, for all intents and purposes, Greek and not Hebrew.
This realization could be, and may be, the source for a great many posts, but here and now for today one thought will have to do. This philosophical orientation has played all kinds of havoc with our understanding of the New Testament (not to mention the Old Testament!!) It was the Greeks, not the Hebrews, who gave mankind the idea of a tripartite human being – body, soul and spirit. For Moses (just to make things simple) there was one being – the human being (note Gen. 2:7 – God breathed into man His breath, and man became a living being). There was no separation of body and mind, or body and spirit, or body and anything else. If you sinned in your heart, you sinned in the body. If you sinned in the body you sinned in the heart. (Does this not sound like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount?) This is why, for the most part, there is simply no discussion of what happens to the “soul” or “spirit” after death in the Old Testament. A person died, was buried (“gathered to his fathers”) and that was it. There is, of course, several references to “sheol,” the shadowing realm of the dead, but never a fully developed understanding of what that place was or who (or what) resided there.
The difference between Jerusalem and Athens is probably most visible in this regard – the New Testament speaks clearly and emphatically of a bodily resurrection following death. There is no thought of disembodied “spirits” flapping their non-corporeal wings around in some ethereal void called “heaven.” Jesus is clear, Paul is clear, Peter is clear, John is clear. There will be a “new heaven” just as there will be a “new earth,” and there will be a bodily resurrection, not a bunch of Casper the Ghosts floating around. The idea of pure “spirits” separated from a physical body originates in Plato (the “ideal versus the real”) and not in our inspired Bibles!
To be sure we, and even the inspired Paul and Peter themselves, do not know what that future realm will be like. Paul was emphatic, though, in saying that our resurrected status would be in the form of a body. (See 1 Cor. 15:35-49. Note that Paul does refer to the body as “spiritual,” but never “spirit.” His point is that the nature of the new body will be radically different from this body of “dust,” but it will be a “body” never-the-less.) The “heaven” and the “earth” will be new – undoubtedly beyond our wildest imaginings – but it will still reflect what we as imperfect mortals would recognize as a “heaven” and an “earth.”
Aristotle and Plato and all those other fellows running around in bed sheets gave us a lot to think about, and some really sound wisdom to boot. Athens (philosophy) is a great place to visit, but I think I would rather live in Jerusalem (theology).
Many Christians despise theology, and especially theologians (I will overlook the irony for now, but believe me I see it). “We don’t do theology – we just read and study the Bible” is a common belief, if not outright statement. Alexander Campbell stated emphatically that there would never be a chair of theology at the first college established for ministers of the Restoration Movement (okay, more irony, but let’s move on). In my undergraduate and graduate studies I had courses in Old Testament Teaching and New Testament Teaching, but they could not be labeled Old Testament Theology or New Testament Theology.
So, last night I was reading a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer has become one of the early 20th centuries most studied, admired, and discussed theologians. Underline that – he was a preeminent theologian, educated by some of the most famous theologians in Germany – and at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He argued with Karl Barth, for crying out loud. No one who rightly knows which end is up can argue that Bonhoeffer is anything other than a top-flight theologian.
Okay – so have I made my point?
So, as I was saying, I was reading in Bonhoeffer and I came across this section –
Theology is the discipline in which a person learns how to excuse everything and justify everything. A good theologian can never be cornered theologically; in everything he says he is just. And the theologian can acknowledge even this without a word of penance. Whoever has begun to justify himself with the help of theology itself has already fallen into the devil’s grip, and as long as he is a theologian, he can never get free! Be a good theologian but keep theology three paces away from you; otherwise eventually it will mortally endanger you. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lecture on Pastoral Care, see Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (in English) vol. 14, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937, p. 591, emphasis Bonhoeffer’s).
What was Bonhoeffer’s corrective to the danger of “theology” as he presented it? Staying in the word of God, reading the word of God, preaching the word of God, meditating on the word of God, and praying unceasingly.
Hmmm. Sounds very restorationist, if you ask me. And, if you ask me again, very unpretentious of a top-rate theologian.
This post is intended to be a companion piece to my post of yesterday, so if you did not read that article, use the little arrow thingy and back up a page.
I think most Americans are familiar with the screech made by our former Secretary of State when she was being questioned about the murders of our ambassador and assistants in Benghazi. “What does it matter, anyway?” was her response when being questioned about what she knew, when she knew it, and what could have been done differently. “What does it matter, anyway” has become the mantra of an entire generation of Americans – not just politicians with a failed policy on their hands.
Yesterday I discussed the fact that we (primarily in the church) simply do not have the ability to stand firm anymore. Well, that is only partly true. We will fight to our last drop of blood over the color of the curtains, the positioning of the furniture, and the name of the song book that gathers dust in the book rack; but when it comes to issues of genuine faith, of matters that cut to the core of the gospel, we have one timid little response – “What does it matter, anyway?”
I see three primary reasons why congregational leaders, and therefore the congregations they lead, have found it impossible to stand firm against the onslaught of post-modern secularism. They are: a lack of a foundation, a lack of support, and a lack of courage. Let me address each of these individually.
First, I see the primary issue involved in an inability to stand firm as being the complete lack of a solid foundation. Most important, we have lost the foundation of knowing Scripture. Although we exist with the veneer of being a “Bible people,” we really do not know the Bible. This is true to varying degrees in many elderships, and is only magnified as we move down the generations. Elders today are not selected because of their knowledge of the Bible and their ability to put that knowledge into practice. Elders today are chosen because they are good business men, they are popular, they have the “perfect” family, and maybe even because they come from a long line of previous elders. My wife relates the story of having an elder get furious with her because she corrected him during a teen Bible class. If teenagers can correct men who are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of a congregation, that congregation is in serious trouble. I wonder, though, how many teenagers would know more Bible than their elders? Our knowledge of the Bible is pathetic, and it is impossible to stand for issues of faith when we do not know what that faith is.
In addition to a lack of knowledge of Scripture, we have an even lower (if possible) level of knowledge of our history – our tradition. Some would even argue that we do not have a tradition. Yea, and babies come from underneath cabbage leaves. Tradition is a wonderful thing – a blessed thing. But you would not know that by talking to the average member of the Church of Christ. We know nothing of Alex and Bart and Walt and my favorite – ol’ Raccoon John himself. How could we know anything of our history, and why would we even want to, the way it is disparaged and ridiculed from the majority of pulpits and lectureships in the country? Here is a indisputable but despised fact: the more liberal a person is, the closer that person is to the most radical conservative in at least one respect – they both hate our history. Liberals hate it because, to them anyway, it makes us look foolish, immature, and ignorant. Ultra conservatives hate it because we are simply not supposed to have a history – we popped out of the ground fully grown in 33 A.D., and except for a few hiccups now and then, have been pretty much a perfect people. Both extremes are utterly and damnably wrong – contra the conservatives we have a history that stretches back to Abraham at the very least (remember, the “Father of the faithful”), but is made up of every nook and cranny of human history from that point on. And, contra the liberals, it is a wonderful, beautiful, mesmerizing, and totally enlightening history. Alex and Bart and Walt and ol’ Raccoon were brilliant theologians and practitioners. But you would not know it if you read any of our most recent attempts at explaining our Restoration History. (Okay, rant over.)
Second, elders – and especially our young people – find it difficult, if not impossible, to stand firm because they get little or no support when they try. It’s one thing to get shot in the chest when you are facing an opponent – but it is something entirely different when you are getting shot in the back at the same time. I have seen good men reduced to meaningless figureheads not by their opponents, but by the congregation they were leading. There is a good reason the author of the book of Hebrews wrote, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” (Hebrews 13:17). It is frustrating when an eldership appears to be paralyzed, but it is disastrous when an eldership takes a stand on an issue they consider to be a matter of faith, only to be skewered by the flock they are attempting to protect. Or imagine the confusion of a spiritually mature 16 year old girl who objects to having to shower next to a psychologically damaged 16 year old boy (in all his anatomically glorious self) only to be told that she is being a bully and needs to be more sensitive – and this by members of her own congregation! It is often difficult to take a stand when you know it is going to be controversial, or even worse, contradictory to secular theories. That difficulty is multiplied exponentially when the people you believe to be your spiritual family abandons you.
Finally, there is the issue of courage. It is difficult to take a stand on a matter of faith if you are confused about what that faith is, and if you are convinced that no one will stand with you if you try. But it is utterly impossible to take that stand if you are a coward, even if you know the truth and have a whole army standing behind you. I believe most elders and a majority of young people are good men and kids. But there is a disturbingly large percentage of elders (and adolescents) who are nothing more than weak-kneed, limp-wristed, lilly-livered cowards (I am trying to restrain myself here). These are individuals who know the truth, and who know that there are people who are looking to them for leadership and will defend them to the last bullet. They choose – willingly – to accept the path of least resistance anyway. They do not want to cause a scuffle. They do not want to be seen as being “old fogies.” They are more interested in their image than in their position of leaders (and yes, young people can be awesome leaders). Ignorance can be educated away. Support can be generated. But cowardice? Cowardice kills before the battle is even joined. “There is nothing to fear, except fear itself.” Oh, what timeless words.
Christians who are concerned about the perilous times in which we live must do three things. We must return to the Bible, we must once again become a people of the book. We cannot stand firm for a faith of which we are ignorant. We must also not only accept, but we must come to appreciate our history – from Abraham to the apostles to the Reformation to the Restoration to our present day. We are products of our history – and we must learn from that history or we are certainly doomed to repeat its disasters. We must stand in solidarity with those who are taking a risk to defend their faith. We must support our elders when they say “no” to the Baals and Asherahs of secularism. We must support our young people when they refuse to be driven by the twisted beliefs of this culture. And finally we must learn what it means to be biblically courageous – to “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). In a memorable line from one of my wife’s favorite movies, “Courage is not the absence of fear – courage is the decision that there is something more important than fear.”
All of this is critical because our faith, our morals, our beliefs, that which we stand on – all of these things matter very much.
What does it matter anyway?
Stand at the foot of the cross and ask that question. Then you may get it.
(Update, Aug. 11, 2016 – it occurred to me that some might notice that I omitted preachers from this discussion. Be assured, I have no mistaken ideas that ministers/preachers are exempt from being cowardly and just flat-out ignorant. As I was writing I was thinking primarily of congregational leadership, and for some strange, backward, unknown reason I still believe that ministers serve under the eldership, not above them. Yes, ministers/preachers lead, but if the elders would exert their God-given authority, fewer young trash-talking preachers would have a pulpit to do so.)
Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13, RSV)
One of the benefits of growing older, I have learned, is that your vision becomes more clear. Not necessarily your eyesight, which I have also learned, becomes more blurry – but your vision. You are able to apprehend things in a manner that youth simply cannot perceive. A few people can see them when they are young, and we notice these individuals and label them as “visionaries” or “mystics.” Old people are called crotchety or old fogies. I appear to be approaching old fogyism.
One of the things I have perceived over the past few years is that with each new “generation,” the ability to stand firm with any teaching or principle that contradicts the prevalent culture – what we call “political correctness” – is slowly but steadily disappearing. In other words, it is perfectly acceptable to “stand firm” when you are defending the garbage that issues from the LGBTQ faction. Such firmness is even considered downright heroic. However, let a high school boy or girl raise their voice in defense of Biblical sexuality and you would think Adolf Hitler himself had been reincarnated. Defend the “right” of a male to use the female locker room just because he “identifies” as a female and you win humanitarian of the year award. Defend the right of a female to be safe in the same locker room and you are vilified as being inhuman (or worse). In many ways I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a young Christian in the typical American high school. The pressure to conform or to be ostracized must be monumental.
I see this trend being played out increasingly within congregations of the Lord’s church. “Can’t we all get along” is the mantra of the day – and that is a very difficult idea to argue against. We have been divided over so many inconsequential things; it would be wonderful if we could learn how to put our personal wants and wishes aside for just a few moments and genuinely consider how we can work together for the kingdom. But there are limits to “just getting along.” There is a line – however narrow – between right and wrong, truth and error, holy and profane, good and evil. God gave us the sense, and he gave us the instructions, to know the difference. To fail to draw those distinctions is to fail to obey God.
The key to understanding the difference between standing firm and looking for compromise is in the above verse (just to list one). Paul said to “stand firm in your faith.” He did not say to demand your opinion in matters of methodology or in matters that are by their nature “inconsequential.” He dealt with those issues in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 9. There are matters that cut to the very core of what it means to be a unified body of Christ, and there are matters that are of individual preference and taste. The first are matters of faith the second are matters of function.
I do not want to suggest that determining the difference between these two poles is always easy. I do want to emphasize that doing so is necessary. To divide a congregation over an issue that is simply a matter of methodology is to sin against the body of Christ. To accept, and to practice, a teaching that violates either the letter or the spirit of Scripture is to commit either heresy, or at the very least, heterodoxy. Read the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. Note the difference between being reprimanded (the loss of love, the need to stand firm) and being condemned (the teachings of the Nicolaitans, the woman “Jezebel”).
It is absolutely critical that congregational leaders learn the difference between what is of faith, and what is of opinion. An entire generation is at risk. One of my beloved professors, Dr. Eugene Clevenger, taught in his class on the Corinthian letters, “The greatest right I have is the right to surrender my rights.” Equally critical, especially in the 21st century is this, “The greatest responsibility I have is the responsibility never to surrender the truth of Scripture.”
It is a question of sailing between the Scylla of legalism and the Charybdis of anarchy. It is a narrow and difficult passage. But difficult does not mean impossible. It is not only possible, it is imperative. To fail to make the choice is to utterly fail, and that is something this old fogey simply cannot accept.
How many times have you heard the admonition, “You have to be consistent.” The subject at hand can be a myriad of topics – from discipline to study habits to philosophical approaches to life. Consistency, it would appear, is the holy grail of all being. If we can be consistent, we will have achieved perfection.
Except, that is, when being consistent in one area actually forces us to be inconsistent in another area. Then we have problems. How do we achieve consistency when reality forces us to be inconsistent? Hmm.
I have in mind a couple of examples. One is in the area of ethics. For many people the idea of being pro-life means both opposing abortion and opposing the death penalty. This is a commonly held belief – held by prominent Catholic and Protestant ethical specialists. The idea of consistency is prominent among the arguments given to defend both positions. If you are opposed to the taking of a human life, you have to oppose both abortion and capital punishment, or you are being inconsistent. Consistency demands the rejection of both.
Or does it?
If your only criteria is the taking of a human life, then I suppose you can make the argument. That argument, however, reduces most human life to the level of existence. That is, because we started to exist, we must continue to exist until nature or some disaster, ends that existence. The measure of the importance of life then depends solely upon the quantity of life signs, not their quality or value.
However, this argument utterly dismisses the textual (and contextual) support for capital punishment as stipulated in the Old Testament, and some would argue, is repeated at least in theory in Romans 13 in the New Testament. Passages such as Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12-14, Leviticus 24:17 and Numbers 35:9-34 make it clear that capital punishment is based on (1) the fact that human beings are made in the image of God, (2) the planned, intentional nature of the crime of murder, and derivatively, (3) the crime of murder strikes at the very core of community life. Provision was made for deaths caused by accidents, although even in an accidental death, the one who was involved in the death lost a certain amount of freedom until the death of the high priest. So the issue is not mere life, mere existence. The issue is that the image of God was destroyed, and the ongoing life of the community was put in peril by allowing a murderer to live.
Therefore, to be consistent, a person has to argue that it is the intentional taking of innocent human life that should be uniformly opposed. Therefore, abortion is clearly a violation of God’s will, but capital punishment is not necessarily a violation of God’s will. Now, to be sure, the manner in which capital punishment has been administered in the United States leads many to conclude it is unfairly used. Personally, while I cannot reject the use of capital punishment out-of-hand, the fact that the use of capital punishment has been used unequally in the past does give me great pause as to its moral grounding. What is often overlooked in the contemporary situation is that such a punishment required two eye-witnesses to the crime, and the punishment for falsely accusing someone meant that the accuser was dealt the same type of punishment that he/she was demanding of the accused (Deuteronomy 19:15-21). How many trumped-up charges involving the death penalty would be pursued if the prosecutor was liable to undergo the death penalty for falsely accusing a defendant? Not many, I would venture.
Therefore, I do not see opposing abortion and opposing the death penalty as being consistent. Abortion is the murder of an innocent, unborn child. Capital punishment is the legal execution of a person who has intentionally, with prior planning and “malice aforethought,” taken the life of another human being. In the realm of ethics, the two are light years apart.
On a more specific theological level, the case is often made that to be consistent, once you determine the use of a word or a phrase used by one author, that same word or phrase must be interpreted in the same manner every other time it appears. This is just linguistic (and theological) nonsense. For just one crystal clear example, consider the word translated into most English translations as “church” – the Greek word ekklesia. The argument is made, based on dubious etymological arguments by the way, that the word means “called out,” and so this is the Holy Spirit’s way of identifying the new people of God. Now, the case might be made (and I emphasize the word might) that the word ekklesia is used in such a manner in one place or another in the New Testament, but it is by no means the case that it is always used in that manner. Just read Acts 19:23-41. There an unruly mob gathers in the theatre and even the legal authorities have a hard time getting them under control. Once order is finally restored, the town clerk finally was able to dismiss the assembly. Twice the word ekklesia is used of this unruly mob, and I dare say no one is going to argue that the holy, sanctified, born-again body of Christ is being referred to in these verses (39-41).
This point is really very obvious in many situations. Paul in Romans and James in the book that bears his name use the word faith in strikingly different ways. I would argue that Paul himself uses faith in slightly (or perhaps even more significant) different ways. As with any situation, context is controlling. To be consistent, we have to bear in mind the entire context of the passage, and define and apply each word as is appropriate for that setting.
So, being consistent in one manner (always using a word using one, single definition) is to be inconsistent in interpreting that word when it is used in a different context. To be consistent in the application of one ethical norm is to be inconsistent in the application of another ethical norm that is built on a different theological foundation. This sometimes creates untidy, even messy, questions of interpretation and moral decision making. Life is that way – flying is not always in CAVU conditions (clear and visibility unlimited). Sometimes you have to fly in the fog. That requires great care, and a determination to understand the entire picture, not just one tiny little slice of it.
Sometimes I wonder what people think about me. At other times I’m fairly certain, but I try not to think about those times. Specifically, I wonder what people think about me when I stress the significance of the meaning of similar, but ultimately different, words. I imagine most people think I’m a nut. Who cares what words mean? A word means what I want it to mean, so just get over it.
Well, I am an inveterate lover of words, so I cannot just “get over it.”
So, I was reading a commentary today in which the author made several references to Jesus “accepting” sinners. Every time he used the word “accept” or “acceptance” I cringed and made a little comment in the margin of the book. (I am always correcting authors when they make mistakes. Hopefully, none of them will ever see my corrections.) Something made me pause and ponder for a moment why it was that I was so put-out with the word “acceptance.” I realized that I was reacting against what I perceive to be the modern connotation of the word. When I hear the word accept used today it is virtually always used in the context of approval. When someone suggests that I “accept” a particular viewpoint or choice of behavior, they are not suggesting that I simply recognize the behavior and move on. That person (or persons) want me to approve the behavior or ideology. So, when I read the author’s continued use of the word “accept” for Jesus’s association with sinners, all I could think of was that the author was trying to communicate that Jesus saw nothing wrong with the behavior of the people he chose, or allowed, to be around. That grated on my nerves – and still does, for that matter.
The meanings of words change with time. Take, for one tragic example, the word “gay.” It used to mean “happy, carefree, exuberant, joyful.” Now it means – well, you know what it means. I fear that the word “acceptance” or “accept” has changed as well. Maybe it is just me, but I cannot accept (pardon the pun) that a lifestyle of sexual depravity is normal or – to use a word to define a word – “acceptable.” In other words, I cannot approve of a lifestyle that is condemned in Scripture – and that would include lifestyles marked by any of the “works of the flesh.” Sin still has to be sin; otherwise the sacrifice of Jesus becomes far less than divine, indeed it becomes positively diabolical.
I want to acknowledge that Jesus freely associated with those that the Pharisees referred to as “sinners.” Some of those people were truly rebellious against God – and some probably just did not wash their hands before supper. But I struggle with the modern connotation of the word “accept.” He recognized sinners, freely associated with sinners, even perhaps welcomed sinners – but in absolutely no way, shape, or form did he ever approve of their sinful behavior.
Maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill, straining a gnat while trying to swallow a camel. As one whose life depends upon the correct usage and understanding of words, however, I must urge caution when certain words are used in relation to the life and teachings of Jesus. We may intend to mean one thing, and our audience may hear something entirely different. I suppose to a certain degree this is unavoidable – but we do not need to carelessly compound the issue.
Thanks for flying in the fog today – I hope you will excuse me, I need to get back to correcting some more authors.
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ (Luke 13:1-5, ESV)
Trigger alert – for those who believe that Christians must “join in solidarity” with every group that experiences some misfortune, this post will definitely be damaging to your mental health. Continue at your own risk.
Literally within hours of the horrific murders in Orlando, social media sites were lit up with accusations against Christians, Muslims, and anyone else for that matter, who disapproved of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning – I’ve heard both explanations) lifestyle. The fact that no on knew any of the pertinent facts of the case did not stop anyone. Well known and highly respected “Christian” authors jumped into the fray, calling for the “church” to join in solidarity with the LGBTQ community and excoriating anyone who dared to disagree.
Well, I disagree.
I just have one question – a question that has not been answered by any of those who call for this solidarity – “WHY?” Is it because of the manner of death? Is being shot by a crazed psychopath a more horrific death than dying as your plane falls from 30,000 feet into the ocean? Is it because of the alleged religious background of the killer? Does being killed by a Muslim terrorist make you more vulnerable than being killed by a Christian terrorist – or even an atheistic one?
No – the only reason I can decipher from reading the quotes and commentary is that Christians should join in solidarity with the victims because – they practice forms of sexual deviancy that are clearly and emphatically condemned in Scripture! Not as, “we are all sinners” (which we are, note the above Scripture), but we should be particularly sympathetic – and even empathetic – to this group specifically because of their lifestyle.
As more facts emerge from this tragedy I feel like my head is on a swivel. First the murderer was alleged to have sworn allegiance to ISIS – the terrorist group that is wreaking havoc all over our world. But, then a funny thing happened. It has also been reported that the killer had an account with a homosexual dating app – and frequented the very club in which he committed this atrocity. Apparently he was a common visitor in a part of town known for its gender-bending clientele. (So much of this is allegation, early and mistaken reporting, and who knows what else. I doubt we will know the whole truth for weeks, if not months). If any of this is true it certainly casts a deep shadow over the “Muslim terrorist” angle. I am no Muslim scholar, but I seriously doubt that Allah would approve of one of his followers hooking up on a homosexual dating app.
I understand the outrage. I feel it myself. I feel it after every mass shooting, bombing, or other form of mass murder. It was a horrific act – make no mistake and the victims did not “deserve” their deaths (contrary to the stated opinions of many other “Christian” commentators) any more than those little children and their teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school. As Christians I feel we have several responses that would reflect the love of Christ. Certainly we are to “bind up the wounds” and treat the survivors and the families of all the victims with love. I also believe that now is not the time to pull out the sermons on Sodom and Gomorrah or Romans 1. There is, as the Preacher once wrote, a time for weeping.
However, to suggest, even in the most innocent sounding or oblique manner, that the bride of Christ is somehow united or in “solidarity” with a community that flagrantly repudiates the beauty and wisdom of God’s creation is patently absurd bordering on obscene. Physicians heal, not by becoming one with the disease or the patient, but by standing over the patient and against the disease. Light does not become one with darkness, but light drives darkness away. The Son of God drew crowds of broken sinners to himself, not because he became one of their number, but because he showed them how to be reconciled to his Father.
Events such as these should cause us all to stop and reflect – to what extent are we guilty of prejudice, hatred, and, yes, even sexual sins that are just as clearly condemned in the Word of God as homosexuality. One of the most profound aspects of the faith and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was that he openly confessed the sins of the German church in regard to the crimes of the Nazi party. But while he was willing to sacrifice his life to protect the defenseless, he never proclaimed himself to be anything other than a Christian. He could, and did, protect the other, the outsider, without claiming to be the other. And it was only because he maintained that separation that he could be an authentic witness to Christ.
That kind of behavior requires an enormous amount of courage – and a clear, focused theology. Our response to events like Orlando should come from Christ, through Christ, in order to bring people to Christ. Let us work to unite the world to Christ, not the church to the world.
Okay, a word of warning. Today’s installment is going to be a tad more theological than most of my fulminations. It will be perhaps a bit more philosophical as well. I will attempt to keep it as short as possible. (Yea, you’ve read that before!)
I was tempted to title this piece, “An Anthropological Defense of Theology,” but I figured no one would know what I was talking about. I’m not sure I would even understand that title (but it just sounded so erudite.) So, I went with a simpler, and perhaps more “click bait” title as above. So, I am going to be addressing the current debate over gender and all the related issues. But, understand, this discussion is not just about bathrooms, locker rooms, and the associated politics.
One truth I have discovered over the past few years is this, stated in bold and italics to emphasize its importance to my argument:
We cannot come to know, love, or serve God as He has called us to know, love, and serve him until we become fully what he has created us to be. In other words, we cannot be transformed into His likeness until we become fully and completely human – created to be in his perfect likeness at the beginning of time.
There, now you may want to get another cup of tea and cogitate on that for a while . . . I’ll be here when you get back.
And, (drum roll, please), the very, very first physical description of the what he created when he created mankind is . . . “male and female.” Yes, folks, you read it here first, there are two flavors of humanity – male and female. XX and XY chromosomes, and nothing else. At the very core of our being is the description “in the image of God.” Attached to that core – inseparable from that core – is our maleness and femaleness. Our gender* is a biological gift from God, written into the very DNA which also determines our fingerprints, eye color, and whether we will ever have the ability to play for the Minnesota Vikings or not.
How we accept this basic anthropological fact determines our theology. We cannot, and I repeat, we cannot, have a true and healthy understanding of God if we reject this fundamental truth of our own existence. While I am sure that volumes could be written (and indeed have been written) further exploring this concept, I want to bring that truth to bear on this issue of “gender” and bathrooms, and, just to make everyone mad, the issue of male spiritual leadership in the church.
The most fundamental question is this: Do we get to choose our gender? The answer from God’s word is an unequivocal “No.” We are born male or female. Now, it is also clear from Scripture that we as humans can choose how we participate in sexual behavior once we reach the age of maturity, but we cannot change our birth gender (surgical procedures and massive doses of hormones cannot change DNA structures!) From that fundamental question a host of questions follow. One of those questions is “What happens when I feel like I am a member of the opposite gender?”
The psychology of gender dysphoria is well beyond my expertise. I will, however, offer this thesis – having a feeling, and acting on that feeling, are two entirely different kettles of fish. I may feel like I am qualified to play running back for the Minnesota Vikings, but the reality is I would die trying to live out that feeling.
I see a profound irony in the current discussion of “transgender” and the use of restroom facilities. There is (currently) a huge uproar over the possibility of a full grown man who “feels” like a woman walking into a women’s restroom or gym locker room and being able to undress and shower with females who resent his presence. But, a woman who “feels” like she is gifted and can fulfill the responsibilities given to males is honored and praised. Am I the only one who sees this incongruity?
Regardless of the position you hold regarding complementarianism or egalitarianism, there is one thing you cannot deny. Throughout Scripture it is the male who is given the role of spiritual leadership. Now, if you hold the egalitarian position you can (attempt to) explain this univocal position away – but you cannot deny the fact of its existence. From Adam to Noah to Moses to David to Jesus to the apostles, there is virtually no variation in the role of men providing spiritual protection and leadership.**
It is an inconvenient truth – a number of women want to keep men out of their locker rooms, but have no problem at all with accepting the mantle of spiritual leadership. The irony, at least as far as I see it, is that they deny the “feelings” of the transgender male/female, while at the same time they want to legitimize and promote their “feeling” that God has given them the same gifts and responsibilities as a male.
I don’t get it.
If a woman can “feel” gifted and therefore demand the role of a male regardless of her physical gender, why is it so hard to believe that a male can “feel” feminine and therefore demand access to facilities our culture has previously limited to those of genetic femaleness?
I return, then, to my statement made earlier in bold and italics. Until we come to fully accept our humanity – including our birth gender (sex) – we will never be able to be transformed and grow into the full likeness of God.
Has the church been too “patriarchal?” Have we limited the role of women in the church more than what God would have them to serve? Can we do a better job of honoring and promoting the gifts and abilities of the women in the church? Perhaps the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes!” I do not want to perpetuate stereotypes just because they are comfortable.
But this is not just about bathrooms, people. Ultimately, this is about how we understand God. If we can’t understand anthropology, how in the world do you think we can understand theology?
*There is a considerable debate as to whether the correct word should be “gender” or “sex.” I have heard it argued that “gender” is the appropriate term for the study of linguistic categories (as in, masculine, feminine or neuter nouns in inflected languages). Others interpret the word “sex” as primarily a verb – we participate in sex (as in sexual intercourse) but we are born with a gender. Honestly the debate is over my head. I prefer the less provocative term “gender,” but if it is a technical misuse of the word, I would be content to use the word “sex.” For the purpose of this article, I will use the term “gender” to refer to our maleness or femaleness. If any of my readers can explain the difference to me, I would love to be set straight.
**Whatever her position was, Deborah was not described a spiritual leader. The role of “Judge” was more of a political/tribal leader, not spiritual (see Samson, for example). The weak and highly debated arguments from Romans 16 suggesting that a particular female was a leader of a church would only describe a significant exception (if proven), not the rule. With no unambiguous evidence to the contrary, I will defend the position that the leaders of the New Testament congregations were all males.