Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Blogging Through The Bible: Hebrews 5:1-6

For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, "You are my Son, today I have begotten you"; as he says also in another place, "You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek." (Hebrews 5:1-6)

Why don't we have a distinct priestly caste among God's people today?

That certainly is how things worked in the Old Testament and the priests of the Old Testament played a major role in the life of God's people. Moreover they were very clearly distinct in the way they were viewed and functioned within the greater body of God's people. Many groups, from Roman Catholicism with a distinct priestly vocation to mormonism with their aberrant understanding of "the priesthood" to the unspoken but very real clerical class among many Protestants, still retain a vestige of a priestly caste and often turn to the Old Testament for support. Certainly there was a unique group of men known as the twelve apostles, the disciples of Jesus but that seems to take on less importance after the cross as the church spread and elders were appointed from among the Body to serve in the Body. We do see this and it is right and proper to imitate those who have gone before but what we don't see are a distinct priestly class among the church. Why?

The crucial difference is that human priests were just men like anyone else, flawed and sinful. As the writer of Hebrews makes clear, we have a perfect High Priest, one who doesn't have to offer up sacrifice for His own sins and therefore makes His sacrifice available to others. A perfect sacrifice from a Lamb without blemish atones for every sin of His people. The priests of the Old Covenant were a shadow that served a temporary purpose under a covenant that has been made obsolete, just like the temple and the sacrificial system and the nation of Israel.

It is so important to get this. I firmly believe that too many sheep have forgotten that they are just sheep. None of us are called to be above the church, to rule over other sheep. We are all sheep and we have one Shepherd. Many of us, although not nearly enough of us see it, are called to lead by example, to be be encouragers and equippers as sheep who have been following the Good Shepherd longer than newer sheep.

With Jesus Christ as our perfect, flawless High Priest we have no need for human intercessors or priests. Indeed we all minister in different ways as priests, not to offer sacrifices but to serve our God as His ambassadors, doing works of mercy in His name and proclaiming His Son to the lost.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Following Christ In The Midst of Persecution

In America, many Christians expend a great deal of energy and effort finding situations where they would feel justified in using force to defend themselves, their property or others. It is our right and it is our duty, one we will defend vigorously even though the vast majority of us will never face one of the hypothetical situations that we love to put out there.

Meanwhile many have watched with horror at the extreme persecution of our brothers and sisters around the world, especially in Africa. I saw this story posted on Facebook and found it encouraging.

Nigeria: Christians Will Not Retaliate Church Attacks - CAN

Akure — National President of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor yesterday said Christians will not retaliate despite killing of their members and attack on churches in some parts of the north.

Oritsejafor said at CAN's extra-ordinary council meeting of in Akure that the association will continue to pray for the peaceful co-existence of the country.

"We will not encourage our people to carry arms against anybody whatsoever the situation may be. For those that are behind Boko Haram, you come to us with AK47, bombs, charms and other dangerous weapons, but we come to you in the name of God.

"I want to assure Christians in Nigeria that Christ has always been with his people. He will never give victory to those persecuting Christians and the Church. Whoever is trying to exterminate Christians and Christianity from Nigeria is neither pleasing God nor his people", he said.

Why do Americans not trust God and rest in Christ in this way? Perhaps we don't really believe what He has said, that He will never leave us or forsake us, that we are blessed when we are persecuted, that we must overcome evil only with good. Why is it that those who face real persecution for the faith seem the least concerned with defending themselves?

The general attitude in America is that we need to send missionaries and clergy to Africa to teach them about the Gospel.

Sometimes it sounds to me like we need Africans to come to America to teach us instead.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The solution to the seminary student loan debt situation

While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them "If you sense a calling to ministry I can recommend several solid Bible based seminaries. Please pick one and if you are accepted go and spend the next three years learning how to be a minister. Don't worry about your jobs as fishermen, the church will support you after you get your degree. Once you graduate with a bunch of debt and have been awarded the M.Div. and after you have been properly ordained by an official religious organization you can follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Immediately they left their nets and followed him went online to apply to seminary. (Matthew 4:18-20 remix)

Russell Moore is the guest writer for today's Houses of Worship column on the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal and the title of his post drew me like a moth to the flame, Student-Loan Debt and the Future of Seminaries. This is a topic I have written about a lot and it is one that, like so many others, gets very little attention. We just assume that men have to go to seminary to get an education so they can be "ministers" so young men feel obligated to leave their local assembly, head off to seminary and get an expensive vocational education before looking for a job that is likely to not pay nearly enough to offset the debt they leave seminary with, a debt that Dr. Moore (a dean at Southern Seminary) estimates at around $30,000 to $80,000.

He gets close to where I think this conversation should go, recognizing the need to nurture young men locally although ultimately he sees the goal as sending them to seminary anyway. After all Dr. Moore is a seminary guy although he also tends to be willing to buck tradition...

There will always be those who get a law degree or an M.B.A. (and the resulting debt) and then sense a call to ministry. The history of the church—see Augustine and John Calvin, not to mention the original 12 disciples of Jesus—is filled with "second-career" ministers. But the ideal pattern is for churches to seek to identify, early in life, those who are gifted and called to ministry; the churches should then be held accountable for guiding these potential ministers in seeking strategic, sound and affordable training. What if local congregations didn't merely rely on the availability of seminary graduates who decided to embark on a theological education after college, but actively kept an eye out for the stirring of the religious calling in young people all the way back to vacation Bible school?

What struck me as interesting is that men who have a law degree or an M.B.A. would need to sense a "call to ministry" and seek a "second-career" as a minister. For all the talk of vocational ministry as a "calling" we can't avoid talking about it like a job because that is what it is.

Here is my comment over at the Journal....

The real solution here is not new one but rather very old. Instead of sending aspiring ministers off to get a seminary education and then have them look for a job among people that likely are strangers (until a better job...er calling....comes along), we should be recognizing and appointing as elders men who exhibit the Biblical qualities of eldership from within our own local assemblies. The idea of hiring men to become elders in a local gathering of believers has no basis in the Bible (This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—Titus 1:5 ). The church doesn't need more over-educated young men saddled with debt and burdened with unreasonable expectations, we simply need to raise up and recognize those already among us and seek to imitate them.

This ties in to an oldie but goodie I wrote a while back, Home Cookin' and I stand by every word.

I don't consider myself to be an anti-intellectual. I read a lot and write, albeit poorly, on a regular basis. I appreciate having scholars in the church who can translate the Bible and who write weighty tomes about the deepest issues of theology. What we don't need are professional ministers in every location around the world who have taken coursework on hermeneutics and homiletics. We just need to equip the men we already have right where they already are to minister to the people right around them. That is cheaper in terms of student loan debt, more effective and frankly more Biblical.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A much better series of posts on relationships between believers

Much as I found the prior post distressing I likewise found a series of posts Alan Knox is putting up to be encouraging. Here is what he has so far...


I really like where Alan is going with these posts. When Paul spoke of other believers the language he used was family language, not authoritarian language. We are supposed to be a family not a corporation. 

Read Alan's posts so far and watch as more come out, I think this is a great discussion to be having in the church and one that is overdue.

Not a Pastor? Shut yer pie hole!

I come across stuff like this all the time and often via well respected ministries but they never fail to make my heart ache. Bobby Jamieson writing for the 9 Marks blog Church Matters addresses the question of how "laity" can make changes in the church. His answer? They can't and they shouldn't.

Read Why You Can’t Change Your Church (Part 1 of 4) and weep.

Seems like at least once a month I get an email from a church member—not a pastor—asking how they can change their church. Not “change” as in printing the bulletins on different paper, but as in reworking the church’s leadership structure and membership practices. Should they give the pastor some books? Call a meeting? Start a study group?

If you’re in this situation, what can you do? How can you change your church when you’re not the pastor?

The short answer is, you can’t. If you’re not the pastor, you can’t change your church. Really. I mean it. No surprise retraction waiting in the wings.

Now, I’m a congregationalist, so of course I believe that a church can—and must—fire their pastor if he starts going where the Bible doesn’t go. The pastor doesn’t have final authority; the congregation as a whole does.

But apart from those exceptional times, if you aren’t the person who is formally charged to preach the Word and lead the church, then you can’t change your church in any fundamental ways. This applies almost equally to a pastor who is not a church’s primary preacher. (I’m referring primarily to “the pastor” since most churches only have one.)

I am not saying that Bobby is inaccurate but what he says is terribly wrong.  Basically it boils down to this. If you aren't a "pastor" as our religious culture defines it, you don't get a voice other than when it comes down to hiring or firing the guy that does (assuming you are in a church that has a congregational form of government, many people don't even have a voice in hiring/firing). Not only are you not permitted to have a voice, you are not even able to because the system isn't designed that way. If you disagree with something he says you have three choices:

1. Shut up, grit your teeth and take it

2. Leave

3. Work to get him replaced

The system is designed to be this way and we wonder why we have pastors that are burned out and laity that are tuned out. We have changed a relationship where elders are more mature believers who we are to emulate and turned it into a relationship based in conflict. In many churches men are disengaged or absent and we bemoan it but what do we expect?

Don't misunderstand or perhaps misrepresent me. The point here is not that we should always demand to get our own way. The point is that there needs to be a better way, a way that reflects "one another" rather than "one and all the others". When the system is designed in such a way that the "laity" is silenced we should expect the sort of conflict we so often see in the church. When we stop seeing elders as more mature members of the family and instead see them as employees to be hired, constantly evaluated and often fired, we have lost any semblance of what Biblical leadership is about. When some sheep start to see themselves as something more than what they are because of education or "ordination" or titles, they find themselves stepping on the robes of the Good Shepherd.

I can take some solace in knowing that this system is dying out but as it does many people are going to get hurt by the death throes. Pastors who find themselves under fire from fellow believers who become their employers and demand the impossible from them. Their wives and children who dwell under unimaginable pressure. The regular pew sitters who slow atrophy and die week after week wondering why the guy they are paying to be their pastor is so flawed.  I think we have just assumed this to be "just the way it is" for so long we can't imagine anything else but we must. The church cannot and has not thrived under this system and never will.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

An Unnecessary Distraction

The news media is giddy over the incredibly stupid, incoherent, inaccurate and damaging statement by Todd Akin over rape and abortion. I am not even sure where he pulled that idea from but the media wasted no time in splashing it all over the news and doing their best to link anyone who is pro-life with this buffoon. The voices are loud and growing louder calling on Mr. Akin to drop out but I don’t know that it will do any good at this point. A Democrat in a vulnerable seat with an incompetent and mediocre incumbent is probably going to get re-elected thanks to stupidity on the part of Republicans, a scene that quite likely will be repeated in the Presidential election. That isn’t really my concern here.

The reason this is so damaging is not political, although certainly it seems that an all but locked in Senate seat gain is likely to evaporate. The real issue here is that this debacle has struck a blow for the culture of death in a crucial part of the battle for life. The question of the “rape, incest, life of the mother” exception in abortion is always lurking at the periphery. It makes for a difficult discussion. Is an unborn child less of a child if he was conceived by an abhorrent act? It is a rhetorical trap that places many unwary people in a no-win situation. Say you don’t support the exception and you are a brute that doesn’t care about women. Say you do support it and you concede that in a fundamental way an unborn child is a lesser life form. Neither response does justice to the pro-life position.

The question about the “rape, incest, life of the mother” exception should be answered this way:

No, I do not support an exception that permits a woman to abort her child if that child was conceived as the result of rape or incest or in the case when a woman’s life is in danger. I believe that a child is fully human at conception regardless of the circumstances. As such she deserves the same legal protection that any other human being is granted under our laws.

If a child is a human being deserving of legal protection and recognition that doesn’t change based on the circumstances that surround her conception just as a child born to a single mother addicted to drugs is not less deserving of human dignity and legal protection than a child born to an upper class couple. This country was supposed to have advanced beyond the stage where some humans are worth less than others and not given equal protection under the law. There is no right more fundamental than the right to life and our laws rightly reflect this. Finding loopholes where life can be extinguished for external reasons, punishing a child for the malfeasance of another, are an abomination and a perversion of the basic tenets of human dignity.

So Mr. Akin for whatever reason (ignorance, poor preparation, whatever) has not only done an enormous disservice to his political party, he has provided ample ammunition to those who fight to retain the “right” to snuff out human life for any or no reason. He should step aside and he should leave public life until he gets his head screwed on straight but I am quite sure he will not. His attempt to balance a political position with public opinion has made a mockery of an issue that demands our most sober reflection. This incident is once again proof that the church cannot leave matters of highest import to the state.

Monday, August 20, 2012

You don’t learn to fish by going to fishing school

(This is going to be one of those rant/retort posts that I am semi-internet famous for)

A week ago Ben Witherington penned an essay at Patheos blasting the “emerging church” for being “anti-ecclesial” . His essay, The Anti-Ecclesial Rhetoric of Emerging Church Movements, is well written as always and at the same time way off the mark. Throughout the essay Ben makes the flawed assumption that the church is really a series of vaguely related, independent, autonomous and competing local assemblies that function primarily in a weekly gathering and that the church cannot function without a class of professionally trained clergy. That is the traditional Protestant understanding and while it is marginally preferable to the top down authoritarian hierarchy that Protestants were protesting against, it misses the Biblical mark by a wide margin.

Right out of the gate we have a problem, namely the clunky use of the term “anti-ecclesial” to describe anyone that doesn’t toe the religious line (as well as lumping organic church proponents with the “emerging church” something that doesn’t follow at all). Accusations of being “anti” something are a clever but lazy rhetorical device to shut down discussion. Mormon apologists have made a living by labeling anyone who points out the glaring inconsistencies and errors in mormonism as “anti-mormon”, thus making those so labeled easier to dismiss. People who are advocates of abortion label those who are not “anti-choice”. So “anti-ecclesial” is a cheap way to draw a line, on one side are people who are pro-church and on the other are people who are anti-church, as if the only way to be “pro-church” is to swallow the traditions that surround our religious gatherings without question.

For someone with as much education as Ben has, this essay boils down to two things:

Lots of assertions. Little evidence.

For example:

The word ekklesia, often translated ‘church’ actual means ‘assembly’. One person is not the church. A group of unassembled Christian friends is not the church. No, there is an element of assembling for worship, fellowship, service that makes a group of people a church. You need to be having church to be a church.

So you have to go to church to be the church? Absent from that statement is any sort of support from Scripture, something that marks the entire essay. Absolutely there is a corporate element to the church but the church is not just the church when it gets together on Sunday morning. In many ways it seems that the church is being the church the least at those times! Is the church not “the church” when Christians are volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center or working at a food bank or caring for orphans outside of the boundaries of a "local church"? Reducing the church down to a regularly scheduled and choreographed weekly meeting makes the church largely indistinguishable from the rest of the world’s religions. Make no mistake that the church is more, infinitely more, than a weekly religious ceremony and the church worships at least as much outside of Sunday morning.

Are there instances of being overly zealous in opposition to the abuses, real and exaggerated, inherent in the ecclesiastical world? Sure and I have been guilty of that. The response is not to further hunker down into our traditions and defend them to the death but to have the intellectual curiosity to consider that just because we are comfortable and perhaps personally invested in these traditions it doesn’t follow that they must be right. The entire genre of traditional church apologetics is based on pointing out what is perceived to be wrong about those who don't fall in line and often lumping them all together under some arbitrary and often false umbrella (like "emerging church")

Another example, full of assertions and quite a bit of unintended irony (emphasis mine)

Nor do we need the arrogance and foolishness that says ‘I can learn all that on my own, thank you very much. I don’t need formal training by experts.’ Really? Would you go to a dentist who said— ‘I’ve got no degrees and no formal training and I’ve never extracted a tooth, but lets start with you.’? I think you get my drift. Ministers (clergy and lay), need as much training by experts as possible in the core Christian curricula. They just do. Because if the leaders are not the resident experts for their people, then we are dealing with leaders who simply pool their ignorance with that of their people. And that only furthers the darkness of the Dark Age into which we have been descending.

They just do. Well that is a persuasive argument! Especially persuasive because it is arguing against something I don’t think anyone is seriously arguing for although I am not sure what the “core Christian curricula” means since that is somewhat different from “church” to “church”. Especially especially since we have never had any gross error coming from "ministers" trained by experts. We certainly need plenty of study and training in the Scriptures but we also need, at least as much and probably more, living examples to follow: men who care for their families, who love their wives, you make a living by the work of their own hands and preach Jesus Christ to the lost. That doesn’t require a seminary education to create self-described “experts”, it requires community among believers where we spend time with one another outside of the confines of a sacred building doing sacred stuff led by a sacred cleric. I have learned far more in ministering alongside other men and getting to know how they live their lives than I have ever learned by listening to a prepared lecture by a so-called “expert” on Sunday morning. As someone who is something of an expert in being arrogant I find it amusing to read someone accuse others of being arrogant right before putting together a string of arrogant statements.

Somehow the early church managed to get along just fine without a professional, seminary trained clerical caste but in this day and age with unprecedented access to the best writers and thinkers of the last two thousand years, Bibles in virtually unlimited formats and no persecution to speak of in the Western world we are somehow to believe that we need “experts”? Absolutely the church needs trained linguists who can translate the Bible. Does that mean that every local gathering needs to have men professionally trained in the rudiments of translating from the original languages along with extensive training in being a vocational minister? Not hardly.
The comparison, one often thrown out for laughs, of clergy to dentists (or heart surgeons or some other elite professional class) inadvertently exposes a bias that sees the clerical class as a profession for scholars and the elite who are above the rest of the church and in turn dispense bits of wisdom via 45 minute monologues weekly to the ignorant masses. Oddly the masses largely stay ignorant in perpetuity in this system, never coming to a mature faith and rarely being equipped for the work of ministry, leaving them dependent on the same people who are in turn dependent on them for financial backing. It is absolutely necessary for a person to go to dental school to learn dentistry but Jesus called His disciples to be fishers of men, not professionals or experts. You don’t need to go to “fishing school” to learn how to fish and you don’t learn how to fish by listening to a fishing expert talk about fishing. Most of us learned to fish by going fishing with our fathers. Jesus chose for His disciples fisherman and tax collectors and throughout the New Testament the church was led by common people, not professional or elites. We need fewer “experts” in the church and more simple fishermen.

I understand the fear and often the anger that comes from those who make a profession out of ministry and why they are so fearful of anyone who questions the house of cards that is the institutional church. If my livelihood were threatened I would be upset as well. Fortunately, dare I say providentially, many Christians have walked away from the traditions of man and are pursuing community and fellowship outside of the four walls of church buildings and the confining rituals that have both marked the visible church and crippled our ministry. Essays like this and books like Kevin DeYoung’s “Why We Love The Church” are little more than desperate attempts to prop up a system that is dying away and becoming irrelevant to the church but the future of Christianity is not found in “experts” or religion or institutions but in the community of believers ministering side by side in love amidst a world that hates them. For that I am eternally grateful.

As a side note, I think many of the 100 comments that follow are excellent, some for their content and others for the angry way that some people respond. There are a lot of them but worth the read.

Friday, August 17, 2012

What if we didn't have "church"?

Swanny over at Allergic to BS asks some provocative questions today in his post Oblivious Addictions. Like many of us, Swanny was addicted to religion. I know I was. I loved everything about "church" but looking back I don't think I loved it for any of the right reasons.

In his post Swanny asks a great question:

So, what would happen to your spiritual life if “church”, as I have defined it above, just ceased to exist?  

I know that will not happen, but let’s say it does for kicks and giggles.  Let’s say all “church” buildings are locked and banned from use, and then all “Christian” conferences, concerts, and seminars were no longer permitted, and all children’s youth groups are shut down, and all men and women ministries disbanded.

Also, all presentations, Easter pageants, Christmas plays become illegal, along with organized Christian counseling, food pantries, church-based homeless shelters, crisis hotlines, and church-run childcare & preschools.  Then finally, every ordained minister’s credentials are revoked under threat of imprisonment, and the vocation of a pastor providing formal paid instruction to other believers is no longer allowed.

So, would your “walk” with Jesus be serious disrupted if you did not have a “church” to attend this Sunday or ever?

Is your “Christian” life wrapped up in a building, programs, ministries, and meetings?

Mine was, and I got the heck out of that “organized religion”.  And you know who I finally found just sitting in the street, or laying in the gutter… Christ.

Those are great questions and probably a lot more pertinent than we think (and of course the post attracted the warning against "forsaking the gathering"!). The days when we don't have "church" might not be far off. Many Christians have lives so wrapped up in the weekly rituals of "church" that I wonder how they would react if they couldn't "go to church" anymore.

Ask yourself those questions. What would happen to your life if you had nowhere to go on Sunday. Would you still live your life following Christ? Or perhaps would you start to live your life that way?

Interesting food for thought.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why Complementarianism?

John Piper, Tim Keller and Don Carson talk about why The Gospel Coalition is complementarian and why this is an important issue. The video is 17 minutes so it is not a quick watch and it covers some deep issues but I think it is worth your time. If you are not going to watch and interact with the video, please don't comment.

Why Is TGC Complementarian? from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

I think Piper is at his best here and his best point is this one:

"We live in a culture where for the last 30 or 40 years, the collapse of the meaning of biblical masculinity has not produced a beautiful egalitarian society," Piper observes. "It has produced a brutal masculine society."

That is exactly true. I have been toying with a post about this but egalitarianism in the church and more broadly feminism in the culture has not made life better or happier or more fulfilling for women and it certainly has not been beneficial to families and especially not children. The only people it has benefited are those in the swelling population of child-men, men who reap the benefits of an egalitarian society but don't do much to contribute. It is the cruel irony of feminism that the primary beneficiary of feminism has been the most irresponsible of men.

This is an interesting video. Piper is right on the mark most of the time, again where he speaks of how we handle 1 Tim 2:13 or Ephesians 5 (at around the ten minute mark) and what that implies about how we handle Gospel texts as well as a powerful statement about how our unwillingness to stand against the culture on this issue speaks to whether we will stand for other issues.

I think they stretch the point a bit in places but I obviously believe this is an important issue Some suggest that these questions are divisive and distract us from the more important stuff. I reject the idea that we should ignore issues like this and just concentrate on the "big stuff". If God deigned to reveal and preserve something, He did so with a reason. As Carson points out, the relationship between husbands and wives is so deeply interwoven with so many other issues (esp. Christ and the church) that if we start to miss this issue we will start to miss other issues and pretty soon the church devolves into an anything goes religious club that does good work but misses the big truths that the church is founded on (for evidence of this see pretty much every "mainstream" and egalitarian denomination).

This is an unpopular  topic but one that demands more than platitudes and "I thinks". How we handle these passages speaks volumes about how consistent we are about other passages.

The difference one little word makes

Language is such a funny thing. The spoken and written word is so crucial to human interaction and yet is also so often the source of anger, contention and cruelty. With our words we tell our family we love them, we comfort a friend who is hurting and most importantly we preach Christ and Him crucified. With words, first orally and then in writing, God has revealed Himself to His people.

We also use words to destroy.

The word "slave" for example turned a human being into a piece of property. Auctioning off a slave, tearing slaves from their families, abusing and even killing a slave is much easier than selling a person, tearing a father from his children or murdering another human being. The Nazis were masters of this. When a Jew became "vermin" it was easier to cram them into a room and gas them. Our hands are not clean here either. Look at some of the dehumanizing ways the Japanese were presented in American propaganda in World War II, as subhuman beasts that had it coming when we dropped atom bombs onto women and children.

In our culture a simple change of a word dehumanizes another group. A mother who carries a child that, expected or not, will reach term is carrying a "baby". They talk to their baby and name her. No one asks "have you picked out a name yet for your fetus?". A woman who decides for whatever reason that she is not able or willing to care for a child or carry her to term and placing her for adoption is told by our culture that her baby is now a "fetus", a nice clinical word or even better the baby becomes a "choice", a concept steeped in emotion and political overtones that reduces an unborn child to a political issue like tax policy or interstate commerce.

If you are driving drunk and you kill an expectant mother and her unborn "baby", you get charged with double homicide. Kill a "fetus" in an abortion clinic and you get paid by that woman and receive financial incentives from the same government that would prosecute that drunk driver. With one simple word change, a "baby" loses any legal protection and becomes a "fetus".

Not every unborn child has the blessing of an intact family where a married mom and dad pick out names, get nervous about having the hospital bag packed and gently argue about paint colors in the nursery. Some unborn children are being carried by women who never wanted to get pregnant, or where the dad has already taken off. Some live in poverty and have no way of caring for a baby. I understand that. I see that every week where I volunteer. I see the fear in the eyes of young women, some in their teens, as they wait to find out if they are pregnant, staring blankly at their phones to avoid eye contact. I talk to the dads in the other half of those relationships and am so thankful that so many of them are trying to be dads to their unborn child.

I get the reality of this world but no child deserves to lose her legal protection, her humanity and her life because of one word. A baby doesn't stop being a baby because you call him a "fetus". A baby doesn't stop being a human being when you turn him into a theoretical legal construct called "choice".

Monday, August 13, 2012

Broaching The Bikini Question

As summer starts to wind down, Eric Carpenter raises the heat with a discussion of swimwear. His initial post, Two Related Questions About Bikinis for Christian Women Who Wear Bikinis, was directed at Christian women who wear bikinis and asks for their input. Alas he got none. His second post, Bikinis Part Deux, opens the floor to the general public. I am hoping he gets more interaction on the second post because this is an important topic.

I see this question going far beyond bikinis. Sure they are the low hanging fruit in the debate but the issue doesn’t stop there. Certainly you can see “more skin” when a woman is in a bikini but even a modest one piece suit leaves very little to the imagination. What about shorts, how short is too short? Tank tops, low cut or sleeveless shirts, skirts that are too short, pants that are too tight? To state it more broadly, is modesty a discussion about swimwear and hemline or does it go much deeper? It is easy to get mired in a morass of specifics and miss the proverbial forest for the trees.

The question of modesty is one that gets a lot of people pretty riled up. It runs smack dab against our culture self-reliance and independence. Perhaps even more so it makes us standout from the culture. Women in denim jumpers are just weird in our super casual culture where people go out in public looking like they literally just rolled out of bed. Wearing pajama pants to the grocery store? Really? We live in a world where women in lingerie prance around in commercials during prime time and the Olympics feature women playing beach volleyball in the most ridiculously tiny outfits imaginable to try to attract male viewers.

You may be thinking: “Bah. Don’t we have more pressing issues to worry about like preaching the Gospel and feeding the poor? When we get the ‘big stuff’ figured out we can worry about the ‘little stuff’!”

To be blunt, which is really out of character for me, that is nothing less than a cheap dodge. This isn’t really an “either-or” issue but a “both-and” one. I am of the opinion that when the Bible speaks on a topic it deserves our attention and reflection and Paul addresses the issue of modesty (albeit without much detail) quite directly.

…likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. (1 Timothy 2:9-10)

If Paul thought it was worth the time to bring up in a letter to Timothy, isn’t it worth our time to ask the hard questions as well? In other words, there are no "little issues"!

I have heard it argued that a woman can be modest depending on the culture wearing virtually anything. That is perhaps true but for my purposes I am talking about the Western, and more specifically American, culture. In our culture, at best, the bikini serves the purpose of enabling vanity by facilitating a more even tan. At worst it feeds into the “if ya got it, flaunt it” mentality that has been embraced even by many religious folks. The “safest” way to ensure modesty is the method adopted by certain conservative Christian groups including many of the more traditional Anabaptist circles with rigid rules of dress. A woman in an ankle length dress that is cut intentionally to not be form fitting, wearing no jewelry and with her head covered is about as safely modest as you can get. I don’t know that it has to be quite to that extreme. Is a jumper with a short sleeve blouse underneath it sufficiently modest? What about pants? You can see where this goes.

Here is where we get into trouble. Paul is speaking pretty generally here and his silence doesn’t tend to lead us to humble reflection but instead a contest between a camp on one side of legalistic rules and an opposing camp of libertinism. Either way this has to be one of the worst cultures around in which to have this discussion. You can find church-going women who wouldn’t think of wearing a bikini out in public but show up to church with their hair done up in an expensive dress wearing lots of jewelry, thinking they are pleasing God by dressing up for church. It is tragically ironic that we embrace our cultural notion of pridefully dressing up for church when that seems to fly right in the face of what Paul is saying (of course so is bowing our heads and closing our eyes to pray when he says right before these verses: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Tim 2:8) , but I digress).

What Paul is describing here goes well beyond simply avoiding bikini swimsuits, although that is a good place to start. Some things are so egregious and obvious that they don’t really require discussion and bikinis, essentially quick drying underwear, fall into that category. The real issue is a heart issue, as so many of these issues are. A woman in a plain dress with her hair severely pulled back into a bun and under a bonnet who harbors an angry and prideful hart toward women who are less pious than she is not modest in any sense of the word. A sister wearing pants and a blouse yet is humble in heart and reflecting the love of Christ in her words and deeds certainly is modest in a more meaningful way. At the most basic level a modest heart is one that sees others as more valuable than one’s self. Clothing that distracts or causes stumbling, whether  because that clothing is revealing and intentionally provocative or because that clothing is designed to demonstrate one’s class and wealth, is immodest because it places my need for approval above my brother or sister’s needs.

Modesty is much more than avoiding revealing clothes although real modesty will certainly arrive at that conclusion. We should be spending our efforts not in making rules for others to follow but instead by demonstrating through the manner of our lives what modest living looks like. I once dreamed of having a fancy sports car but now that idea and what it would say about me is abhorrent, not just because it would be an enormous waste of money that could go to the cause of the Kingdom but because it would be something designed to attract envy from others. I am hardly a model of modesty but I am trying and I often look to my wife in this respect as someone who reflects a simple modesty in far more than her clothing.

Wearing modest clothes and avoiding bikinis does not make you modest but a Christian with a modest heart will dress, speak and live modestly.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

An Evangelical-less Election, What Will We Do?!

American evangelicals, a group I find less and less in common with each day, find themselves in a pickle. 

Did I mention that your church is the Whore of Babylon?
With the choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate Evangelicals find themselves in an interesting situation. Choosing between a ticket featuring a Roman Catholic (Ryan) and a proud member of a cult (Romney) versus a ticket of another Roman Catholic (Biden) and someone who was a long time member of a liberal black liberation theology "church" (Obama). What is not found anywhere on stage is anyone who would hold to anything resembling Evangelicalism at all. In contrast to the years when tickets featured Baptists like Clinton, Gore and Carter, Episcopalians like George H.W. Bush and Methodists George W. Bush and Dick Cheney this year gives Evangelicals no one of a comparable faith tradition.Interesting factoid, Richard Nixon was a Quaker. Huh.

I think it puts many Evangelicals in a predicament. There is not a guy running that they would share a church pew with on Sunday. With no one running that many of us would consider "going to church with", who is "our guy"?

Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe we can see this election for what it is, a secular fight over secular issues. Important issues perhaps but not issues that are Gospel related. Sure one ticket is far more pro-life when it comes to abortion but that same ticket is far more pro-war as well (although the current administration seems to have found the power of the commander in chief to it's liking). This election cannot be framed like the Bush v. Gore or Bush v. Kerry elections of siding with God's guy. That is a good thing.

Anyone who knows me knows that I consider political issues to be important. I find that many policies that purport to "help the poor" and save the middle-class are in fact a means to control people and trap generations of families in permanent poverty. I also see many of the "security" related issues to be little more than a pseudo-conservative means of spending money and keeping power while waving the flag of patriotism and invoking a variety of bogeymen to frighten voters into unlimited military spending that eventually goes to preemptive wars, hardly a "Christian" position.

All of that aside, I think we are entering a period of time when a candidate being religious is going to mean less and less to an increasing proportion of the voting population. I am hopeful that this will help sever the ties between "the church" and Caesar. Time will tell but I know that we are in the midst of a unique political race that is going to change the way we view politics. I am hopeful that the change will be for the best.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Blogging Through The Bible: Hebrews 4:12-16

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:12-16)

This passage is all about the Word of God but what that term means might be different than how we use it.

I am not sure how often I have referred to the Bible as "the Word of God" but I am pretty sure that if I had a nickle for every time I did I would be able to feed a lot of orphans! I have been starting to really question that. This passage is one that I have seen used in reference to the Bible on many, many occasions but is the writer of Hebrews saying that the Bible is living and active or is he referring to something else?

There are times that "the Word of God" seems to be referring to Scripture but there are many places when it does not. For example, in Ephesians 6:17 the word of God is used to describe "the sword of the Spirit"...

and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:17)

In other places the Word of God is seen as the efficacious declarative power of God...

For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God (2 Peter 3:5)

Of course in other places we often see Jesus referred to as the Word and specifically the Word of God...

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.
(Revelation 19:13)

So it seems pretty clear that the Bible doesn't refer to itself as the Word of God very often, if at all since the Bible as we understand it was still being formed at this time. Paul wasn't standing up in front of the crowds waving his calfskin single column ESV Bible around although I think we sometimes think that he was. Certainly the Bible is a manifestation or revelation of the Word of God but it is not the only way to think of the Word of God. Christians of the evangelical and especially "fundamentalist" variety are often accused of making an idol of the Bible and that is a charge that might stick more than we like to admit. In reality it is not so much the Bible we make an idol out of as much as it is our religious traditions and the Bible simply gives us cover by use of plucking verses out of context, twisting them or outright misrepresentation. If I declare my tradition with enough force and sufficient Bible waving it helps to keep people from asking too many questions!

I think it is clear from the context that the writer of Hebrews is speaking of Christ and these verses are far more powerful when viewed in that light. Jesus is not some dead figure from a dusty old book, He is alive and active! He is also not impressed at all with our words and our religion but sees the heart of man. You aren't pulling a fast one over on the Word. Fooling man is easy, all it takes is some fancy clothes and religious bleating. Jesus though sees right through us into the places that often times we are blind to ourselves.

While that seems quite scary, knowing my own heart and the dark recesses of my mind all too well, there is such a wonderful hope. We are not facing some grim, angry God but a God who is not only the Judge but also the Advocate for His people. Greater yet He has lived as we have lived, was tempted as we are tempted and because He responded without sin His perfect obedience and His perfect atoning sacrifice to make propitiation for the sins of His people makes eternal life our reward. His pain, our gain!

The end of this passage is a familiar verse but one that doesn't get enough attention. Because of all that we know of Christ, we can come before God as a subject before our King. Not in arrogance as those who deserve an audience with the Lord but in humble assurance as those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. We don't require the intercession of a human priest nor the intervention of long dead "saints" nor via some religious ritual that serves as a "means of grace". When we seek mercy and grace we go directly to the source, Jesus Christ Himself, as the source and dispenser of all that is right and good.

The picture that we get from the letter to the Hebrews speaks to me of just how we underestimate Christ in the church. Jesus is so much greater, His mercy so much broader, His love so much deeper than we give Him credit for. His ministry is far more than a series of confusing teachings, some cool miracles and an inexplicable resurrection but is instead so efficacious, so magnificent and so deeply intertwined with the entirety of God's revelation. One of the things I love so much about Hebrews is that it presents such a rich vision of Jesus Christ especially pertaining to how the cross and the High Priesthood of Christ fits in with the rest of the Bible. I really think you cannot understand the Old Testament unless you understand this letter.

Reason #3,278 that I could never keep the Law

The latest addition to our farm, five Hampshire feeder pigs (one is a little girl pig and might be a permanent resident)

I admit it. I love these magical animals that give us bacon. And sausage. And pork chops. And ham. And innumerable other yummy delicacies.

Mmmm. Magical animal.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Farming Pics

Things have been pretty heavy and often fairly heated here the last few days, here are some farm pics to lighten the mood!

Monday, August 06, 2012

Repost: Was Paul preaching a sermon when he met with the church at Troas?

(post in honor of my friend Joe)

There are some cornerstone verses that are used to prop up the traditions we have come to expect in the traditional church, verses like 1 Cor 9:14 as a defense of paid clergy. These verses, taken out of context, are offered up as an unquestionable bulwark that makes cause even the mere suggestion that some of our traditions may not be as defensible as we think to be met with derision, dismissal and often anger.

One of the most frequently cited of these verses is Acts 20: 7-11. It is part of the cultural mythology of organized religion that these verses describe a proto-worship service, the earliest example of the church a) gathering on Sunday and b) listening to a sermon. As I hope to demonstrate in this reposting of Was Paul preaching a sermon when he met with the church at Troas?, this is not only not apparent from the text itself when studied as a whole but in reality what is being described is something quite different, radically so, from what we normally practice on Sunday morning.


Back to this topic again.

Like a certain canine owned by Dr. Ivan Pavlov, there are people who will reflexively respond to the assertion that there is no command or example regading monologue sermons in the New Testament with “Oh yeah, well what about Acts 20:7?!?!” It never fails. What is also apparent is that this response is based on a knee-jerk reaction. Teacher X that I respect taught that in the account of Paul speaking to the church in Troas in Acts 20, what was going on was a sermon. In fact more often than not it will be accompanied by a joke about not complaining about how long someone "preaches" because when Paul preached to the church in Troas, a young man fell asleep and fell from a window! Hilarity and chuckling ensue but no one asks “is that really what happened or is that just what we were led to believe happened?”. Well I am asking!

I think some of the problem comes from the King James translation. Most Christians are familiar with the language in the KJV (i.e. our Father who art in heaven) and in the King James language from 400 years ago, it certainly sounds to our ears like Paul is "preaching", which of course means a sermon. If you read the King James rendering, this is what you get (emphasis mine in all three examples):

And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. And there were many lights in the upper chamber, where they were gathered together. And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead. And Paul went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him. When he therefore was come up again, and had broken bread, and eaten, and talked a long while, even till break of day, so he departed. And they brought the young man alive, and were not a little comforted.

The English Standard renders it slightly differently but in an important way.

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, "Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him." And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted.

The same is true with the NASB. The New American Standard renders it:

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered together. And there was a young man named Eutychus sitting on the window sill, sinking into a deep sleep; and as Paul kept on talking, he was overcome by sleep and fell down from the third floor and was picked up dead. But Paul went down and fell upon him, and after embracing him, he said, "Do not be troubled, for his life is in him." When he had gone back up and had broken the bread and eaten, he talked with them a long while until daybreak, and then left. They took away the boy alive, and were greatly comforted.

What is the difference? In the King James translation, the word “preach” is used twice and that word has a connotation of a monologue sermon because of our cultural understanding of what “preaching” involves. But both the NASB and the ESV strongly suggest that Paul was involved in a conversation with the assembled body by rendering it “talked with” and “conversed with”. So which is correct? I am not a Greek expert but I think we can draw some conclusions from what we have been presented with that support my contention that Paul was involved in a conversation, not a sermon.

First, there is the ESV/NASB translations which imply that Paul was involved at least partially in conversation with the church, that he was interacting with the people there and not merely “preaching unto them” a sermon. Certainly Paul would have been leading the conversation as an apostle but there is nothing to suggest that the gathered church sat mutely while he spoke. Given what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 14, he definitely would have expected all of the brothers to bring something to the meeting (a hymn, a prayer, a teaching, etc.) and not just sit quietly and listen politely. 

Second, does it make any sense at all to assume that Paul was preaching a sermon for perhaps eight hours? At least twice the church was eating so he certainly wouldn’t have been preaching then. Just from a practical standpoint, there is no way he was the only one speaking. If you have ever spoken to a group you know that it is draining and hard on your voice. An hour is a long time to speak, two hours is pretty extreme. By contrast I can talk with friends for hours on end because I am not the only one talking.

Third, trying to draw a parallel between Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ entrusted with writing large swaths of the New Testament as an authoritative text and your local church pastor delivering a spiritual lecture is foolhardy. I think it is ironic that many people will embrace Paul as their role model when they think he is supporting their traditions, like sermon preaching, but not when he exhorts church leaders to earn a living by working rather than coveting money from the church, something that happens a few verses after Paul allegedly was preaching a sermon in Acts 20:7.

Fourth, the purpose of the church gathering is important to look at. The church was gathered together to “break bread”. This was not a worship service where the expectation was that they were going to get a sermon, they were there as the church for a meal specifically as a going away meal with Paul (and they met on Sunday not because Sunday is the "sabbath" but because Paul was leaving the next day but that is a post for a different day). Certainly there were important conversation about matters of theological importance and certainly there likely was prayer going on (based on Acts 2:42) but the gathering was for a meal. Paul spent a lot of time speaking with the church because he was leaving the next day and apparently he had lots to talk about. Keep in mind that he was there for a week and during that time was no doubt also engaged in teaching and laboring alongside the believers in Troas.

What seems apparent from Paul’s time with the church in Troas in Acts 20 is that he was talking with the church in Troas while they were gathered to share a meal. Paul likely was leading the conversation because of his unique position in the church as an apostle but the church was engaged in conversation with him, an assertion I base on the text (“talked with” and “conversed with”) and on the sheer implausibility of Paul preaching a monologue sermon all night. Those who claim that Acts 20:7 is an example of monologue sermons in the New Testament have a difficult task because a) it is the only place they can even try to turn to and b) the actual text itself doesn’t support their contention unless you read Acts 20:7 convinced that your tradition is correct before you even start to read. If you base your notion of the centrality of sermons in the life of the church on Acts 20:7 you are on pretty shaky ground indeed.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Not Going Back To Church?

A friend sent me a link to a religion story from the Huffington Post by "Reverend" Mark Sandlin, I Don't Want to Go Back to Church and Why I Will. It was quite interesting. As I have mentioned the religion page of the Huffington Post is usually a seething swamp of bad theology but every now and then something interesting pops up like a beautiful swamp flower among the weeds. This is one of those rare times. Mr, Sandlin has been away on sabbatical and is getting ready to "go back to church" but doesn't really seem to want to. Here is the end of his essay...

Here's the thing though, this way of operating has become so indoctrinated into the system, so artfully woven in and out of the dogma, governing structures and informal peer-approval networks that from within the system it is nearly impossible for most people to see it has hypocritical. It is the air we breathe, the support system which gives us meaning, the stuff of church life. It's how you fit in.

We've been trained to follow faithfully and not so much thoughtfully, which is probably why some ministers seem to think "faith is so fragile." Then, when some of us do see the error of our ways and try to do the difficult work of turning the ship around, we find that the forms of government and the unofficial power brokers are designed and operate in ways that bend but do not break. Even people who are sympathetic to the cause find themselves ultimately bound and constrained from affecting change because of the system within which they exist. The Church system produces the results it currently produces because it is perfectly designed to produce them and will continue to do so until radical change is instituted.

I'm going back, even though I honestly don't want to, because my time away has given me a little perspective on the disease behind the problem and I can promise you it will not change because of outside voices. The change must come from within, and I, for one, still believe the Church is redeemable. I just hope it's not too late.

When you get to the end of his essay, you come up with the same sort of realization so many of us have had. What we know as "church" is about the furthest thing from "The Church" that you can find and yet so many of us, even knowing that, keep on going back somehow expecting that the weight of thousands of years of error are suddenly going to be overcome. In spite of his recognition that there is so much that is so far from what church is all about in organized religion, Mr. Sandlin is "going back" thinking that he can change things but even he ackowledges that it might be too late. Guess what.

It is too late and it has been for over a thousand years.

The best chance for change came about with the Reformation and it died just as quickly when the magisterial Reformers chose the path of retaining the Roman forms and practices and quashing the dissenters among the Anabaptists. I don't believe we can "fix" the church from inside the institutional system because that system isn't really broken. In fact it is working exactly as intended, providing a religious experience with no real cost, a way for people to check the religion box for the week, a system to employ clergy and distance the laity which makes everyone happy. As I have learned too often and to my chagrin, the system doesn't want anyone to ask questions or change anything and those who benefit in various ways from that system will fight tooth and nail to keep it running. Perhaps they no longer put dissenters to death but they certainly do their best to make life miserable for those who refuse to walk the line: "How can you say you love Jesus but hate His bride!", "You are just rebellious and individualistic and don't want to submit to authority!", "You are always welcome to attend but you will be treated as a second class citizen unless you become a 'member'", "You are forsaking the assembling of the saints!". I hear this stuff all the time and it always strikes me as an attempt to shout down those who ask the wrong sorts of questions.

I wish "Reverend" Sandlin the best but I am quite certain his quest is doomed to fail. The system will keep on chugging along until, like Europe, people finally grow disinterested and all that will remain are the foolish cathedrals. Unlike Europe most of our "churches" are so hideous, ostentatious and tacky that no one will want to visit them. Perhaps they will becomes mosques. When that happens we will see the church of Christ rising up from the ruins to do what has been going on quietly for centuries in spite of, not because of, organized religion: Christians telling others about Jesus, helping the downtrodden, visiting the widow, feeding the poor, loving the unlovable. We will realize that we not only don't need organized religion of any flavor to follow Christ but that it actually hampers our walk far more than it helps. I am looking forward to that day in spite of the angst that will accompany it because only then will we be free to be what we are called to be rather than being coerced into doing what we never were intended to do.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Render but how much

The words of Jesus in response to the Pharisees attempting to trick Him are well known in the church. It is so common that we almost instinctively say them in the archaic King James language: “Render unto Caesar…”. It is pretty clear that while Jesus was addressing a specific issue, namely the payment of taxes to the occupying government of Rome, He based this in a broader doctrine of the relationship of believers to the secular government wherever God places us. How we should live in relationship to the world and the governing authorities and how much we should submit to them, and even participate or cooperate with, is a tricky one. It is also an important issue and one I want to take a look at in more detail.

What follows is the entire “render unto Caesar” conversation from Matthew 22…

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

You have to love it when Jesus turns things around on His accusers like that! This teaching on paying taxes to Caesar is not an isolated incident. When Pilate was questioning Christ and tried to play the authority card on Him, Jesus was having none of it and told Pilate that he had no authority at all except what God had given him, something that would be worthwhile for us to remember in the highly politicized church culture of America...

Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:11)

Pilate and all rulers before him and after him have no authority except what has been given them by God. Pilate didn’t have the ability to arrest Jesus or release Him because God gave Pilate the authority he wielded. I wonder if Pilate ever realized that he was addressing the Creator and Sustainer of the universe? I suspect not.

This entire line of doctrine relating to worldly authority is brought to a bold crescendo in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, a church in the shadow of one of the most repressive empires to ever exist, where Paul calls on the church to do the unthinkable: submit to the governing authorities, i.e. Ceasar.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7)

Paul is not talking to people living in a democratic republic. He is talking to people that we would think would be justified in rising up and casting off their chains by any means necessary. In fact it seems that this is what more than a few people both expected and wanted and were quite disappointed when Jesus didn't agree. The context here matters so much. The first century Christians, the early followers of Christ and subsequent disciples, weren't battling over contraception mandates or fast food chicken sammiches, they were in a struggle for their very survival and clearly asking some hard questions. The answer they got was consistent and unambigious: submit to the authorities that are over you becuse they are over you by God's own sovereign decree.

So the Bible is quite clear on this topic. Christians are to render to Caesar what is his and to God what is His. How that looks, especially after 1700 years of  a perverse state-church marriage, is a little harder to discern. What do we render and how much? Rendering sounds kind of like something unpleasant done to animal parts left over after slaughter but that is the word we have to work with.

I have divided up "rendering" into three major levels. These of course are arbitrary but I think they work.

On the first level is simple submission. I obey the laws and little else. This would be the traditional Anabaptist position and is the source for conservative Anabaptist positions against voting. The rationale is largely based on active participation beign tantamount to approval. For example if I vote for candidate X and then candidate X become President and orders an air strike on a town where civilians are killed I am partially at fault for supporting this individual. Very few Christians outside of Anabaptist groups would fall into this camp.

The second level is where most Christians in the West find themselves, being active participants in civic life, chiefly by voting and otherwise being politically and civically active. Taxes are paid, votes are cast and perhaps doantions of time/money or the application of bumper stickers in support of a political candidate. Being an active citizen is seen as not only our civic duty but our duty as Christians, rendering through participation.

The third level is the most problematic and involves being active agents of the state. This can range from being a municipal official to a police officer to a soldier all the way to President of the United States. In any case being this involved actvely as an agent of the state carries some obvious issues, primarily that you find yourself in a position to use coercion or force to enforce the laws of the state. A President might be called upon to give the order to bomb a city. A soldier might be called upon to kill an enemy. A police officer must be willing to use force, including deadly force, to subdue criminals. Even being a municipal official requires things like the threat of arrest or fines to coerce behavior.

The third level is the one I am most interested in today. Being an agent of the governing authority in my mind leads to a blurring of the distinction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of man in a way that most jobs do not. Government, the kings and rulers and principalities of this world, are given special treatment in Scripture in a way that working at a regular "job". It has a particular role to play that makes active participation problematic.

Government, by and large, survives by means of coercion. If you don't pay your taxes, if you break a law, you are threatened with punishment. This is not a bad thing. The threat of punishment partly keeps those with a predisposition to crime at least partially in check and this is how God designed and intended it. This by nature seems to be contrary to how a disciple is to live. It is hard to be gentle as a lamb, peacemaking, cheek turning and meek while arresting a guy who is hitting his wife or ordering an air strike on a target knowing the risk of "collateral damage". I think that being an agent of the state raises some serious questions and concerns for the Christian and in fact might be seen as sufficient reason to shy away from those professions, just as being employed by a payday lender or a strip club should be professions we stay clear of. Obviously this is not a clear cut issue. Is being an air traffic controller or working as a garbage man for a municipal government or being a custodian at a local school the same thing? Clearly not. Lots of jobs are indirectly tied to the governning authority but not all of them require acting as an agent of the state.

I have been gradually moving down this scale, from being a enthusiatstic "wanna-be" third level Christian who saw no conflict and in fact something quite noble about active participation through the second level and teetering on the edge of the first level. For me it is not so much a matter of "can I be a soldier/policeman/politician" and more "is there a real and likely potential of a conflict of interest in this role"? I used to be a bank manager and while that was a nice job I was often in a position where I felt like what I was being asked to do in my job was contrary to how I should live and witness as a follower of Christ. In those circumstances I think it is best to stay clear rather than toe the line.

What are your thoughts? Is this reasonable when viewed in light of the commands of Christ and within the culture that He was in when He spoke these words?