Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Are We Really Scorned?

John Piper tweeted something this morning that I thought was fascinating...

That raises a couple of questions for me.

First, are we really scorned by the culture? It is pretty hard to make that argument when the church demands and is given all sorts of special privileges from the world. We live in a culture with a church on every corner, where our donations to religious organizations (both "churches" and groups like Desiring God) are given special tax treatment, where our religious employees get preferential tax treatment, where weddings performed in our religious ceremonies are given the approval of the state, where many rules of employment and other regulations don't apply to us.

Second, as Dan Edelen pondered when I posted this on Facebook, to the extent we are scorned by the world and the culture, is it because we reflect the love, grace, sacrifice and Spirit that should mark a follower of Christ? Or is it because we are arrogant and prideful, judging those who are unregenerate for acting like unregenerate people? I think it is often the latter.  I mean really, do you know anyone in this culture that is persecuted? Granted Desiring God is an international ministry so maybe Piper meant people living somewhere else.

If we were really living as Christ would have us live, I think we would truly be scorned by the culture and persecuted. We would scorned and persecuted because our way of life would be a threat to the existing order: economically, politically, socially. Instead we are a willing participant in the existing order and largely responsible for it's creation in the first place. Much, if not most, of what we know as Western civilization is the result of a historical context where the church and the state worked in tandem and we now find ourselves in the bed we made. We don't get to play the persecution card whenever something doesn't go our way and true persecution is not something that we can respond to with a lawsuit. We will know for certain when we are truly being persecuted and reviled and scorned but it certainly isn't happening now and we just as certainly are not prepared to meet it when it does come.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Together for the Lawsuit?

Over the last year or so the Western idea of "religious liberty" has taken hold of the church in America in an unprecedented way. "Religious liberty" was always just sort of assumed when Christianity was the dominant cultural institution but now that we perceive a threat from the government (as if this is the first threat or even in the top 100 gravest threats from government) we suddenly are so very concerned that our religious culture might be under assault. So concerned are we that we find Roman Catholics and evangelicals banding together to file lawsuits against the demonic force known as Obamacare.

It has been remarked, somewhat tongue in cheek, that what the Reformation tore asunder Obamacare has brought back together. How sad indeed that after hundreds of years we find common ground in a political dispute rather than in the truth of the Gospel and the simple community of believers united for a common mission. How ironic indeed that two groups that descend from traditions that formerly persecuted those who disagreed with them and killed one another over those disagreements suddenly find themselves in solidarity without a hint of irony based on a single provision in a single law in a single country.

Let me be clear that I find Obamcare to be a reprehensible overreach of Federal power, not just in the birth control mandate but at the very core. It is risible to imagine that any vision of the founding fathers would have included Obamacare. Of course the same is true for Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, food stamps, a huge standing army and navy, farm subsidies and pretty much everything else we take for granted from our benevolent overlords in Washington, D.C.. We are awfully selective about the things we get outraged about and usually that selectivity is based on how it impacts our pocketbook and convenience.

Obamacare, bad law though it certainly is, even with the mandate to provide birth control coverage to employees that choose to use it, is not a Kingdom issue. Jesus commanded the Pharisees to render unto Caesar (a topic for another upcoming post) even when paying taxes to Caesar, an ancient equivalent of Obamacare perhaps, meant subsidizing a repressive regime and even by proxy paying the salaries of the soldiers and the cost of the nails that crucified Jesus Himself plus countless of His followers. Rendering to the modern equivalents of Caesar, even when those equivalents are people we vote for or against, is something we are called to do and has really no impact on the mission of the church. The notion of the church going to Caesar's courts to sue Caesar over how Caesar spends a denarius is ludicrous.

Perhaps we would be better serving our King by telling the lost about Him rather than suing pretender kings over "religious liberty".

Not searching for a "perfect church"

Just to clarify, because it seems this needs some clarification. I am not on some Quixotic quest to find the "perfect church". I have already found the perfect church thank you very much! It has a perfect Shepherd and He not only has a perfect plan, He is perfectly and infinitely able to bring to pass all that He desires.

Those of us who are part of this perfect church must nevertheless find ways to relate to one another because that is how we are strengthened and encouraged, that is how new believers are equipped and shown by example what to do, older believers are renewed and all of us are supposed to be stirred up to good works. Where the rubber hits the road is how this occurs and it certainly seems to be the case that the very reasons for the local gathering to happen, listed above, are not happening with any sort of regularity. The evidence for that is all around us and most of us get it to some extent but the "solution" is always to reshuffle the things we are already doing in the hopes that if we move them around we can make a tower out of marbles. I reject the notion that all we need to do is tweak the particulars without confronting the core assumptions.

I think we really need to stop thinking about the church in terms of local, exclusive assemblies that are loosely related in theory but not in any practical sense with one other, local or globally. Those local gatherings certainly are an important part, even a critical part, of the Christian life but I believe we have elevated our own local groups to an unhealthy, almost obsessive and even idolatrous extent. When Christians start every conversation with another Christian they just met with "where do you go to church", it speaks volumes about where our focus is.

The solution is not some sort of top down authoritarian hierarchy ala Rome or Salt Lake City. Nor is it a never ending series of competing local churches that not only don't fellowship or cooperate with one another but instead see one another as competitors for the scarce resources of people, influence and money. I am not ever sure I know or begin to understand what the solution is. I am sure that I am completely disinterested in being part of the problem.

I am not sure that helps to clarify anything but there it is.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Church of Up

Is this what church is all about?

Dress up

Show up

Shut up

Pay up

That is what the religious culture says to us, even if it does so in different words. You need to put on your "Sunday best" to prove you are serious about church. You need to go a church building somewhere where a properly "ordained" cleric is present. You need to sit respectfully and listen to the aforementioned cleric give you his interpretation of a passage of Scripture or a topic. You don't say anything because that is not your place. You of course need to "tithe" to show how serious you are, "giving back to God" by funding the organization that allows you to dress up, show up, shut up, pay up with as little disruption to your life as possible.

I have news for you. When the world looks at followers of Christ, they don't see people who are marked by love for one another, love for God and love for their neighbor. They see "dress up, show up, shut up, pay up". How do I know this? Because like every other Christian I used to be one of those who looked at the world and saw "dress up, show up, shut up, pay up" and now that I am a Christian it seems that the world is more often right about how we view church than the church is.

I have no interest in being part of "dress up, show up, shut up, pay up" and perpetuating that system. It is not being faithful, it is not worshiping or honoring God. It simply acquiescing to the religious culture and perpetuating a false vision to the world that confirms every negative stereotype and damages our witness.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Aurora, Self-Defense and Non-Resistance

With the horrifying events in Colorado filling the news, the reaction has been varied and often predictable. Those who advocate for "gun control" wasted no time in using the actions of a madman to push their agenda, missing the obvious flaw in "gun control", namely that making the possession of something illegal doesn't dissuade criminals. That is what makes them criminals in the first place. I will admit that my reaction was just the opposite. My first thought was: If someone in that theater had a legal concealed weapon perhaps they could have stopped him before he got off so many shots.

That is a perfectly understandable reaction and one that would get affirming nods and perhaps an amen or three in most "church" settings. Respond to violence with overwhelming violence is the mantra of many churchgoing, moral Americans. Force is met with force. He brings a knife, you bring a gun. So our response is understandable in our culture but our culture, no matter how deeply ingrained it might be, should not be what defines us and forms our reactions. The question we should be asking ourselves is how we should react to this event. As hard as it is we should also think about how we should react if we found ourselves like the moviegoers, in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time, facing a man bent on violence. It is always our best course to turn to the Scriptures in times like these and one event in particular speaks powerfully to this situation.

It is quite plausible to assume that Christians in the first few centuries saw innocent people arrested and brutally executed on a daily basis and yet they did not rise up and respond with violence. Just the opposite, often Christians were the victims of violence and did nothing to defend themselves. Jesus Himself was executed by a repressive regime and when He was arrested in the garden He rebuked Peter for trying to use violence to intervene in the defense of an innocent Man. Peter saw a violent injustice taking place and he responded in a natural way but in the wrong way. It is an event recorded in all four Gospels....

And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?" (Matthew 26:51-54)

Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, "The one I will kiss is the man. Seize him and lead him away under guard." And when he came, he went up to him at once and said, "Rabbi!" And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him. But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. (Mark 14:44-47)
While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, "Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?" And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, "Lord, shall we strike with the sword?" And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, "No more of this!" And he touched his ear and healed him. (Luke 22:47-51)

Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant's name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?" (John 18:10-11)

Jesus did not command His disciples or the legion of angels at His command to defend Him. He rebuked Peter when he attacked Malchus. He even went so far as to heal this servant of the high priest. He did everything in precisely the opposite way that we would expect.

Now a case can be made that this was a unique event and Jesus even said that He had to be taken so that His grand mission could be fulfilled. That is certainly true but His response in Gethsemane is consistent with His life, His teaching and the teaching of His disciples. We cannot overcome the world by acting like the world. We cannot defeat evil with evil. Jesus didn't conquer sin with sin, He did not overthrow evil with evil, He defeated death and hell for His sheep by love, sacrifice and submission.

As Al Mohler writes in his eloquent response to these events, we as followers of Christ must remember that evil can only be answered by a cross.

Third, we must admit that there will be no fully satisfying answer to these questions in this life. Christians know that God is sovereign, and that nothing is outside of his control. We also know that he allows evil to exist, and human beings to commit moral atrocities. We cannot allow the sovereignty of God to be denied and evil allowed its independent existence. Nor can we deny the reality of evil and the horror of its threat to be lessened. We are reminded that evil can be answered only by a cross.

The cross overcomes evil. We cannot, we must not, fall prey to the mindset of the world that sees overcoming a greater evil with a lesser evil as good and proper. We cannot live our lives in fear, arming ourselves so that we can wield justice in place of God. He has instiututed the powers of this world to deal with evil by wielding the sword but He has also called us to a different path, one that often leads to suffering and persecution and even death but has as it's reward eternal life.

When the question is raised, why does God allow evil to happen to the innocent, the Christian response must be to praise Him that He allowed, indeed ordained, the most evil event to ever occur to happen to the only truly innocent Man to ever live so that those who by nature were His enemies could be redeemed. Jesus has shown us the way by His teaching and His example. It is our calling to follow Him no matter the cost.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Book of Mormon As Gateway Drug

I penned a quick post this morning on my mormonism blog that you might be interested in, The Fo-Mo Chronicles: The Book of Mormon: Gateway Drug To Mormonism. You have to give mormons credit for a solid marketing plan to draw people in. I give them an "A-" for marketing, a "D-" for retention and of course a solid "F" for truth.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Movie Review: Machine Gun Preacher

We rented Machine Gun Preacher from Redbox yesterday and it was about what I expected, equal parts inspiring story of redemption  and an "ends justifies the means" American style adventure story.

The main charcter,Sam Childers is played by Gerard Butler (King Leonidas of 300), a man who grew up violent and abusing drugs before being converted to Christianity. I had a hard time with Butler as Childers because he is so commonly known for his role in 300. Every time he spoke I imagined him shouting: A youth hostel? THIS! IS! AN ORPHANAGE!

The movie has many poignant moments. At one point, when he is at rock bottom and getting ready to go to church with his family he is shown sitting on his bed because he doesn't have decent shoes to wear. I wonder how many people do the same thing on Sunday morning? The scenes with the frightened children, victims of Jospeh Kony and his war in Sudan are heart-wrenching because they are a pretty accurate representation of the humanitarian crisis in Sudan. You certainly get a sense of how being thrust into a desperate situation can cause some people to go overboard.

Having said that the flaws in this movie are serious. It is not a family friendly movie. The language is pretty raw and the movie is quite violent. There are a couple of sexually explicit scenes as well. The message overall is that it is OK to overcome evil with evil, that the ends (helping orphans) justify the mean (violence and bloodshed) and that is a message that is incompatible with the Gospel. I understand the desire to help orphans but we cannot let our zeal to do good be combined with the methods of the world. We cannot overcome the world by playing by the world's rules.

What could have been an interesting movie and a powerful story is marred by unnecessary explicit material and a deeply flawed message.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Stuff you should read

So I am pretty low on original content today but there is a lot of good stuff to read that other people have posted.

I really liked this one, Small Church Gives 100 Percent of Tithe to Needy for a Year.

"When you really start to live generously, and especially if you feel this is something that God has asked you to do, it just opens your eyes to how incredibly generous God is to us," he said. "Generosity is not just a nice thing to do. It's probably the answer to the biggest spiritual hurdle that we have today in becoming disciples. When you are generous that's an antidote to greed.

"So, generosity helps you imitate the ways of God and become more like Him. It's a huge piece of the discipleship process that I think most churches are missing out on right now."

That is great. We don't give God enough credit. Sure we trust Him but we want to keep funds in the church bank account in case of a rainy day. Maybe we should trust the One who sends the rain?

On a more somber note, Tim Challies is reviewing Debi Pearl's Created To Be His Helpmeet. The Pearls are pretty popular in certain circles of the church, mostly conservative, homeschooling circles and while they have some useful stuff I think overall they are kind of dangerous,.

Created To Be His Help Meet (Part 1)

Created To Be His Help Meet (Part 2)

I think Tim captures the spirit of the problem in this early paragraph:

Pearl seeks to be the Titus 2 woman, sharing with her readers wisdom that she has accumulated in many years of being a Christian, of being a wife, of raising a family. But there is a serious problem. Throughout the book, Pearl shows that she is a poor and unwise mentor. In place of the wisdom and the fruit of the Spirit that ought to mark a mentor, she displays a harsh and critical spirit, she offers foolish counsel, she teaches poor theology, she misuses Scripture, and she utterly misses the centrality of the gospel.

Just a brief look at some of the quotes gives a disturbing picture. I liked that Tim offered a solid list of alternatives at the end of the second post.

Christopher Dryden writes a great post on the issue of the love of money and slavery, Slavery, The Love Of Money and the Economic Crisis. As Christopher writes, being generous with our possessions liberates us and keeps us from being enslaved by the love of money:

I am reminded again that something has to be different as far as the follower of Christ is concerned.  We are to be good stewards of what God gives us and money falls into that, but we cannot afford to become enslaved to what we are meant to be steward over.  That is why a life of generosity is liberating because we declare again to God that our lives are not defined by possessions and money, but they are defined by a love that gave the best.

Good stuff, give it a read!

Finally Alan Knox is writing a series on preaching in  the LXX Old Testament, Preaching in the LXX (Old Testament): Genesis-Micah. This is his intent:

In this series, I plan to examine the use of the term κηρύσσω (kerusso – usually translated “preach”) in the Old Testament. Specifically, I will examine the use of the term “preach” in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament.

Looks like good stuff if a bit technical. Check it out!

Perhaps the best thing I have ever read on Christian leadership

Check out this post by Frank Viola on leadership in the church and how we have completely changed it from what the Bible describes: The Myth of Christian Leadership. Many people accuse Frank and others like him of being anti-leadership when in reality they are simple against forms of leadership in the church that are not only not found in the Bible, they actually work against the Biblical model.

Some who haven’t read my work have misconstrued my position to suggest that I believe there are “no leaders” in the church . . . or that there shouldn’t be any.

Not true.

My position is the opposite. I believe that the New Testament envisions all Christians as leaders in their own sphere of ministry and gifting.

To put it another way, according to the New Testament, there is no clergy/laity distinction. Instead, all Christians are kleros (clergy) and all Christians are laos (laity).

The clergy/laity dichotomy is a tragic fault line that runs throughout the history of Christendom. Yet despite the fact that multitudes have taken the low road of dogmatism to defend it, this dichotomy is without biblical warrant.

His treatment of the words we misuse, clergy and laity, is outstanding and understandable by anyone. We are all laity, the people, and we are all clergy. As Frank writes, the New Testament doesn't do away with clergy, it makes all believers part of the clergy! Certainly we lead in different ways but those differences are functional rather than hierarchical.

So many alleged leaders in the church are truly obsessed about being respected and recognized as leaders. Waving around their ordination certificates, insisting on being called "pastor" to the point of making their Facebook or twitter user name "Pastor Smith". Expecting deference and respect because of a title.

A true leader simply leads by living how they already live and doesn't have to keep telling people they are leaders. The more you have to remind people that you are a leader, the less of a leader you probably are.

Be sure to also read one of the comments from Jim Wright, I think he makes some good points as well.

Why aren't you reading it yet? Arnold has something to say to you...

A future where liberal and conservative mean nothing in the church

An exchange has taken place that I almost missed between the excellent writer and token, sort of conservative, New York Times Ross Douthat and Diana Butler Bass, writing for the consistently liberal but occasionally accurate Huffington Post religion page. Thankfully I saw the links on the First Things blog Evangel. Douthat started by responding in an essay to the all too predictable but still tragic decision by the Episcopal Church to bless sinful behavior and call it marriage, declaring that which God has declared an abomination to be blessed. In his brilliant, if somewhat off the mark essay, Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?, Douthat rightly diagnoses what ills the religious left and then calls for a return to a Biblically based robust liberalism rather than a somewhat religious but mostly secular liberalism...

But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right. 

What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God ... the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.” 

Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that per haps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.

Well said by Mr. Douthat, a rising intellectual star in the religious world. Ms. Bass responds in her essay, Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat and seems to get the "big picture" but ultimately returns to form and posits a liberal resurgence that is quietly taking hold, something I have not observed. Here is a passage regarding the missing piece from Douthat's essay....

That was 1972. Forty years later, in 2012, liberal churches are not the only ones declining. It is true that progressive religious bodies started to decline in the 1960s. However, conservative denominations are now experiencing the same. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, one of America's most conservative churches, has for a dozen years struggled with membership loss and overall erosion in programming, staffing, and budgets. Many smaller conservative denominations, such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans, are under pressure by loss. The Roman Catholic Church, a body that has moved in markedly conservative directions and of which Mr. Douthat is a member, is straining as members leave in droves. By 2008, one in ten Americans considered him- or herself a former Roman Catholic. On the surface, Catholic membership numbers seem steady. But this is a function of Catholic immigration from Latin America. If one factors out immigrants, American Catholicism matches the membership decline of any liberal Protestant denomination. Decline is not exclusive to the Episcopal Church, nor to liberal denominations--it is a reality facing the whole of American Christianity.

Douthat points out that the Episcopal Church has declined 23% in the last decade, identifying the loss as a sign of its theological infidelity. In the last decade, however, as conservative denominations lost members, their leaders have not equated the loss with unfaithfulness. Instead, they refer to declines as demographic "blips," waning evangelism, or the impact of secular culture. Membership decline has no inherent theological meaning for either liberals or conservatives. Decline only means, as Gallup pointed out in a just-released survey, that Americans have lost confidence in all forms of institutional religion. 

The real question is not "Can liberal Christianity be saved?" The real question is: Can Christianity be saved?

Both essays are worth your time to read. Both make good points and do so eloquently but I think both miss the fundamental issues. Here are my thoughts, posted at the Evangel's article Collapse or vitality: liberal versus conservative Christianity. They are nothing new to anyone who has read here but here they are nevertheless...

Both camps are missing the big picture. It is not that liberals are declining or that conservatives are thriving. What is being missed is that the religious culture of the West where we found room for both liberal and conservatives expressions (a church on every corner) is collapsing all around us. The social cost of not "going to church" has evaporated and many people are simply abandoning organized religion and rightly so. So-called conservative churches may be declining more slowly than liberal groups that seem bent on rushing headlong over the cliff to extinction but they are heading the same direction.

Amidst all the doom and gloom, those who follow Christ should see hope. As cultural Christianity with its religious trappings, rituals, liturgies, clericalism and all the rest is in her death throes, the church can finally start to function as a peculiar, distinct, called out people who break free from the largely empty formalism that has been the hallmark of Western civil religion for centuries. We should certainly expect to see persecution as a result, actual persecution and not the silly fights over Ten Commandments monuments on public land, but that is a sign that the church is finally being who she is called to be, just as the lack of persecution we so often give thanks for is a sign of an utter lack of faithfulness. It is in times like these that we would be wise to look to the Anabaptists to see what life is like when being faithful runs counter to the prevailing culture.

The future of Christianity in the West is not going to marked by fights over "liberal" versus "conservative". Those sort of fights are the marks of a religion that has too much power, too much money, too much prestige and is too comfortable with the world it is supposed to reach. Our future is one where preaching the Gospel is going to happen outside of pulpits and have a real cost, a future where picking up our cross daily actually means something. I am afraid that most of the church has its collective heads in the sand, desperately clinging to the crumbling religious foundations and not preparing to minister in a culture where "Christianity" is no longer the religion of choice. Rather than hand-wringing over declining "membership" we should be preparing and equipping the church right now for the very different landscape we face in the very near future. Alas those with a vested interest in the status quo are more concerned with clinging to the past than preparing for the future which is precisely why very few "leaders" in the church are really leading at all.

We need only look to Europe to see our future. While they are way ahead of us in the collapse of cultural Christianity, we are very close behind and the collapse here might be even more precipitous. These fights over "conservative" versus "liberal" are going to mean less than nothing very, very soon. This is a conversation that needs to happen in the church right now. Rather than preparing the church and our young people to fill in the impending vacancies among the clergy, Sunday school teachers and seminary professors, we need to be preparing them to minister in a world that is going to look very different from the one we grew up in and live in today. Whether one is liberal or conservative, this denomination or that, are going to be irrelevant in the Western culture of the next few decades. What will matter is whether one is a follower of Christ or not and whether we will be willing to suffer for the sake of the Gospel or not. The church of today is utterly failing to prepare us for the world of the future and very few of our leaders are leading us toward the path where we are headed and are instead trying desperately to cling to a past that has already started to fade away. Thankfully I know that God is sovereign over even the religious future of America and I already am seeing signs of a new generation of Christian that He is raising up to lead the church in the years to come, leaders that don't care for the religiously proper way of doing things but care only for the mission of the Kingdom.

Let those in the halls of power and influence cling to the past if that is where they find their reward. Let God call out and raise up others who will be up for the challenges of the future.

Monday, July 16, 2012


I said a few weeks ago that we were taking the plunge and looking to start up a home fellowship. Thanks to work and life that hasn’t really taken off. I have to say though that being away from the pressure to “go to church” has actually been pretty nice. We definitely need to get some fellowship going but I feel zero urgency to have any sort of formalized meeting time. I don’t think we are “forsaking the assembly” because we have not “gone to church”. We minister on Tuesdays with other Christians at the pregnancy resource center, praying together and encouraging one another while serving others. My wife has spent a great deal of time over the last few weeks (months!) helping a Christian neighbor prepare to move because her husband has Parkinson’s and is completely disabled. We have had company over to our house and shared meals with friends. Not to mention the constant busyness of a home with ten people plus a teen-aged house guest who is spending an indeterminate amount of the summer “down on the farm”!

I think this short time of decompressing from “church” has been good although it definitely is temporary and needs to be ending soon. I really needed to get some distance between me and the more traditional church setting. Having gone through a series of disappointments including the latest and most stinging, we needed time away.

Do I desire more and more fellowship with the Body of Christ? Oh absolutely yes! Do I miss “going to church”? Not at all! Our vision of fellowship is far too limited and tradition bound if we can only think of Sunday morning meetings when we read Hebrews 10:25.

Marriage and weddings

Eric Carpenter has an interesting post up this morning, What Makes Two People Married? . Eric looks at the idea of marriage from Genesis 2:24 and how that passage applies to marriage and what makes two people married in the eyes of God. Here is a snippet.

So what takes a couple from not being married to being married? We find the answer back in Genesis 2:24. Although the wording of the verse is directed to the male, it applies to both parties involved. There is a three-step process. First, they leave their parents. This is not necessarily a physical departure (in some cultures the young couple lives with one set of parents for quite some time). Instead, it describes a departure of identity. Second, upon leaving the parents the couple holds fast (clings) to one another. They become closer to one another than anyone else on earth. They hold on and don't let go. Third, they become one flesh. In many ways they go from being two people to one person. They are one unit. This describes much more than just physical union. It talks about a couple becoming one in covenant with each other, forsaking everyone else.

What we see described in 2:24 is usually accompanied by a public ceremony of some kind (a wedding). That's where the becoming one can be seen and declared publically. This seems appropriate. That's probably why it occurs in all cultures. However, it is not necessary.

Absolutely true. Not only is a public ceremony not necessary, I wonder if it is even beneficial, at least in its traditional form. I wrote something about this earlier in the year in my post, Marriage and membership. Here is the pertinent portion….

To get on my soapbox for a minute, I have long thought that the church should not be in the business of performing wedding ceremonies in partnership with the state. In other words the church should not serve as an agent of the state to facilitate legal weddings. I think that it turns “church weddings” into just another cultural institution and along with that it loses value as the culture devalues marriage. Marriage between two Christians who become one flesh in the eyes of the church should be completely separate from two generic people getting married in the eyes of the state. Two Christians do not need the approval of the state, the blessing of an ordained cleric or a piece of paper to be wed. If Christian couples who wed want to go to the justice of the peace to get legal recognition for various purposes in the eyes of the state after the fact, that is fine. I just think that the weird system where the state recognizes marriages performed by the church yokes the two parties together and we certainly should avoid that wherever we can. The church never makes the state more holy but the state certainly infects the church and diverts it from the work of the Kingdom wherever the two are combined.

I would still affirm this. Marryin’ and buryin’ are two ways the state gets the church to act as its proxy while bribing (and controlling) the church with preferential tax and regulatory treatment. If there is any example of the church being unequally yoked it is found in our perverse partnership with the godless secular government.

As Eric writes, this perspective should help us to frame the issue when dealing with “gay marriage”. As the state has no right to define marriage, it really means very little if the state declares “gay marriage” to be valid because it runs contrary to what God has decreed for marriage and therefore is by definition null and void, regardless of tax breaks and health benefits. Now, when a "church" recognizes and blesses sinful relationships and call them marriage, that is a different issue. Regardless, as my perception of marriage has changed from a church-state partnership I have become increasingly less interested in the fight to preserve “traditional marriage”. Keeping homosexuals from receiving state recognition of their union does nothing to bring them the Gospel nor does it make America a more holy nation. Since homosexual “marriage” is inherently invalid in God’s eyes, why should we expend our energy and money as the church fighting against “gay marriage” and preserving “traditional marriage” rather than preaching the Gospel to the lost and helping the poor, the widow and the orphan? Unbelievers in a lifelong monogamous heterosexual marriage don’t get a pass at the Judgment any more than homosexuals living a licentious lifestyle do. We should focus our efforts where we have been called rather than on trying to make unbelievers act externally less like unbelievers. Certainly homosexuality is abhorrent and a grievous sin but the remedy is the Gospel, not legislation. That doesn’t mean that as a citizen voting my conscience I would support something that God declares an abomination but nor does it mean that I should spend time, money and effort to preserve something that cannot be overturned or affirmed by the votes of man.

Marriage in the eyes of God requires far more than holding an hour long religious ceremony in a “church”. The world can do what it likes, it always has, but that doesn’t change what God has decreed. Our mission is not to preserve traditional secular marriage. It is to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God and no amount of legislation can accomplish that.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Is Just Being A Christian Good Enough?

I read a brief but very thought provoking post this morning, From the Pew: Expectations, Agenda, and Just Being A Christian. Steve asks:

What if I use some other book on child rearing?  Or maybe none at all?  What if I never listen to sermons of the pastor's favorite preacher?  What if I want to have my kids with me in the service as opposed to in Sunday school?  What if I prefer to invite other people over to my house for lunch instead of signing up for the church program that places people on a list to come over to my house for lunch?  Is it OK to just be a Christian?  I hope so. 

That is an interesting question. When someone says they are a Christian, don't we often ask a bunch of clarifying questions starting with: where do you go to church? Depending on the answer to that question other questions follow. I almost always get asked within just a few questions if we homeschool. By contrast I almost never get asked: how are you serving God?

When someone in America says they are a Christian, we have certain expectations of them. We expect them to "go to church", have daily quiet time and devotionals, perhaps dress a certain way and look a certain way. If someone meets our expectations they get the stamp of approval as a "real Christian" and if they don't we look at them with suspicion as if they are perhaps not a "real Christian" because they fail to meet our expectations.

Maybe we should all ask the question that Steve asks. Is it OK to just be a Christian? I hope so too.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Being Anabaptist Without Being Mennonite

A quick link for you this morning. Scott Peterson has a blog called Welcome To Churchlandia and he wrote a post a couple of days ago titled I’m not a Mennonite. I’m an Anabaptist.  Here is part of what he wrote....

That being said, I want to claim the faith history of the Mennonites as my own because I see just how much they sacrificed for the sake of the gospel and I want to be counted as part of that lot. The faith of Michael Sattler, Dirk Willems, and the many other Anabaptist martyrs reflect the faith of Jesus. Reading their stories causes a restlessness in my heart to be part of that lineage; that movement. That is the group of Mennonites I want to join. I want to be with those who aggressively seek peace and the Kingdom.

I want to be a Mennonite not because of Friendship Bread but because they offer a desirable faith which looks like Jesus.

I appreciate that. Like Scott I am drawn to Anabaptist teaching but less so to the modern culture of Anabaptism. I don't find the traditions and culture of conservative Mennonitism to be very appealing but the underlying teachings of the Anabaptist and their early witness of humble and meek lives being lived for the sake of the Kingdom is very appealing to me. I enjoy the fellowship of our local conservative Anabaptists but I have no desire to reconfigure our lives to be acclimated to their culture because I simply don't find it in the Bible. I am going to keep an eye on what Scott is writing, it looks to be an interesting perspective!

(Hat Tip Robert Martin)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

What's Love Got To Do With It?

Channeling Tina Turner this morning…

A few days ago I posted a list of characteristics of the church by Dave Black. As I said I like his list a lot. I also promised to give you a look at a list I like a whole lot less. The list I found troubling comes courtesy of the Resurgence, one of the arms of Mars Hill and ultimately Mark Driscoll and carries the bold title of 8 Biblical Marks Of A True Church. No surprise, it turns out that all of the marks are what Mars Hill is already doing.

At the outset I have to say that while what is going on at Mars Hill it doesn’t impact me personally, it does impact the church both locally with those in fellowship at the various Mars Hill campuses as well as globally through those that are influenced by Mark Driscoll around the world. I look westward with a growing sense of alarm, the sort of alarm that can only come from someone who has come out of a highly authoritarian, controlling and hierarchically cultic setting. When someone frequently brags about firing people and chortling about the trail of bodies he has left in his wake of those who didn't get with his program, warning bells and flashing lights should be going off. When a local church starts absorbing and assimilating other local churches, firing staff and driving away people who refuse to be assimilated, what is happening might be "successful" but it isn't the church.

Even the title "Biblical Marks of a True Church" reduces the church into a bunch of local, autonomous groups that are only loosely linked together with a linkage that is barely there in theory and completely absent in practice. Asking “what is a church” without first asking “what is the church” puts the cart before the horse. Unless we grasp what the church is globally and universally, in her entirety, we will never understand and correctly practice church community locally. Mars Hill in Seattle is not an independent local church, or at least it shouldn’t be. It should be a local expression of a larger community, one more concerned with the health of the church around the world than it is with preserving its own identity and snatching up other struggling “local churches” to be assimilated.

As you peruse this list, you will find a lot of the typical stuff: "preaching", authoritarian leadership, "sacraments" and "church membership", but something is obviously missing. The vital characteristic of the church that is absent from this list, and many others, is love. Such a simple thing and yet so crucial to the life of the church. Still we find list after list where love is not mentioned other than in passing. Even the vaunted 9 Marks, a list that spawned a ministry, doesn’t list love as one of the 9 mark of the church. Preaching? Oh yes, we must have that! So called sacraments? Can’t have a “real” church without them! Love? Well that is just sort of assumed and implied. I mean I obviously love my fellow Christians, at least the other members of my church, because I grace them with my presence on Sunday and I dress myself and my family up to impress them.

What does it mean that so many people are convinced that the church either is already loving one another in spite of the evidence to the contrary or that it isn't as imortant as adherence to all manner of manmade reigious traditions? When we don't even consider love or unity or self-sacrifice to be an essential of the church, doesn't it mean that our view of the church is horrible distorted? We cannot have a "biblical true church" if we are missing these crucial characteristics. I don't care how exegetically sound the preaching or how conservative the attire or how detailed the statement of faith, if you don't have love you are not manifesting the church. Some of these other things are important (and many are not) but they all come in a distant second to love.

Jesus said to His disciples and by extension to us:

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:35)

If that is true and it most certainly is, then the opposite is also true. If we don't love one another people will not recognize us as His disciples. Perhaps that explains why the world doesn't persecute us in the West because the world doesn't even recognize who we claim to be. I have come to a point where I would rather fellowship with a "liberal" Christian that loves his brothers and sisters than a "conservative" Christian who sees his brothers and sisters as people to be made to conform to man-made rules.

The church was birthed in the supreme act of self-sacrificial love and loving God and one another is the top priority of the church. Anyone who fails to recognize that and give love its proper place of prominence frankly doesn't understand the first thing about the church and really has no business declaring what are or are not the "marks of a biblical church".

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Strange Bedfellows Indeed

For most of the history of "the church", and I hesitate to even use that term, there have been two major religious forces contending with one another under the auspices of "Christianity". Both of them have in turn used violence and manipulation to gain ascendency over the other and then persecute and repress those who oppose them. This cycle has repeated so often and for so long that it really has become a more or less accepted part of Western culture. The entanglement of pseudo-Christian religious nationalism with the actual church has served to make the two virtually indistinguishable to people inside the church as well as on the outside and our witness has indisputably suffered for it.

This state of affairs has lingered for centuries, mostly in the West and especially in Europe, leading to countless wars and even today largely responsible for the current geo-political situation in Europe. Now we find both camps in the ironic position of neither being in power which has both of these once warring factions that happily persecuted each other with impunity now banding together to cry "persecution!" and rally for religious liberty as if demanding our right to "religious liberty" is something that the church should be concerned with. Given that the church was birthed under one of the most despotic reigns of persecution in history and never once seemed concerned with fighting for religious liberty, it seems odd that threats against the same should now be the rallying cry that is unifying the church. Not the Gospel. Not Christ. No, the great unifier is inexplicably a political squabble over health insurance mandates. It would be a lot more amusing if it were not so tragic.

Please don't misunderstand. I am a proponent of liberty and freedom and I try to be engaged in the political process to what is undoubtedly an unhealthy extent. However I am coming to understand that political and economic liberty is not a Kingdom priority and the pursuit of it has probably been mostly a hindrance to the mission of the church, distracting us from what we are called to do and be amidst the world.

With this in mind it was with interest that I read an interview with Robert A. Sirico of the Acton Institute, Getting Religion Back into Our Economic Lives. Mr. Sirico is a Roman Catholic cleric and an eloquent writer and he was speaking with National Review about his new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, a book that makes the case that "the link between economic liberty and public morality is not tenuous; it is clear and direct." Mr. Sirico seems to be channeling the thoughts of John Adams who argued that the republican form of government and the free enterprise system are only suitable for a "moral" people. I found a great deal to disagree with Mr. Sirico on in this interview.

It bears repeating that this is not an indictment of the average Christian, Catholic or Protestant, that for whatever reason was born or converted into a religious system. Virtually every brother and sister in the faith and co-laborer in the work of the Kingdom is part of some sort of religious group. It is an indictment of those who manipulate and murder in the name of faith to enrich themselves or to gain power and wealth. There are countless examples, great and small, of this manipulation throughout history from Judas and his fake concern for the poor to modern "prosperity preachers" that fleece the flock to line their own pockets. We can be certain that as November approaches in America we will see politicians of all stripes appealing to the Almighty to "bless America", invoking Biblical language in support of their political cause and rallying powerful and influential religious leaders to their side to smite the heathen on the other side.

This was my response I posted in the comment section to the interview...

The Roman Catholic church is an ironic Johnny-come-lately to the cause of religious liberty having spent centuries of her existence repressing dissenting views by intimidation, violence and murder and then more centuries manipulating geo-politics in Europe and elsewhere that led to war and countless deaths to retain her alleged “authority”. To respond to the inevitable comments that statement is not “anti-Catholic bigotry”, it is demonstrably a historic fact. Pretending that it didn’t happen or worse that it was justifiable doesn’t change the facts of history.

This line was especially rich…

“LOPEZ: How is government-run health care uncompassionate?

FR. SIRICO: As in most institutions dominated by politics and bureaucracy, a gap grows between those being served and the ones doing the “serving.” This is especially the case when the bureaucracy is far away from the need and the principle of subsidiarity is ignored. The latter do not know the former and it is difficult to have real compassion without personal relationships. Human beings are lost sight of in politics and bureaucracy.”

...coming as it does from a staunch defender of an incredibly political bureaucracy where a man claims to be the vicar of Christ and demands recognition of his alleged authority over untold millions of people he has never met.

So-called economic and religious liberty has created some strange bedfellows indeed. Opposing forces that happily repressed one another and killed one another in the name of Christ when they were in power now find themselves banding together in the face of being out of power and rapidly diminishing influence. How the once mighty have fallen. Unfortunately rather than finding common ground for the sake of the Gospel and shedding the religious traditions that were created as means of obtaining and retaining control, they are finding common ground in the pursuit of personal property, wealth and economic security.

Civic religion is a great way to create a false sense of public morality that makes a people easier to rule but it has little to do with Christianity. Christianity is not a faith that is focused on wealth accumulation, religious liberty, economic and physical security and individual rights. It is a faith that expects to be persecuted and to suffer, a faith that thrives amidst the worst environments, a faith where others are always more important than self. In other words the very antithesis of American civic religion. The best thing that can happen to the church in America is to see the complete and utter collapse of any vestige of civic religion. Perhaps then we can get back to going about doing the work of the Good Shepherd.

This entire system of civic religion has been, as I wrote, a great boon to those who rule over populations. A people who adhere to a religious based moral system are easier to govern (i.e. control) but that does not mean that those religious systems are reflective of authentic Christianity. We had better figure out the difference before it is too late. Perhaps it already is.

Check Out My New Ride

Just got this last night, trying to keep up with the neighbors...a little cleaning and some phat rims and we are ready to roll. Get it, roll? Never mind...

What features should we find in the church?

A lot of people throughout the ages have tried to define the church. It is an admittedly tough task. How do you define in human terms a diffuse people through the ages dispersed in time and place over thousands of years and separated by continents, a people that walk among others who are not the church, a family that has been supernaturally formed? That hasn't stopped us from trying and I think it is by and large a good thing. We should constantly be testing what we understand and practice regarding the church against the Scriptures and never allowing our assumptions and traditions to push aside what Scripture teaches. Dave Black took a stab at it yesterday and here is his list....

I've always despaired of coming up with any exhaustive list of what I believe a New Testament church ought to look like. The notion of a royal priesthood captures well, I think, my overall perspective of the composition of an authentically New Testament congregation. I have frequently argued this point on my website and in my more recent print publications. However, there are several strands in this perspective that bear unraveling, if only in a tentative way. The following list is a good place to start.
  • I am convinced that the house church rather than the sanctuary church was the New Testament norm.
  • I am convinced of the normalcy of tent making leadership.
  • I am convinced that the church exists in part to equip all of its members for ministry.
  • I am convinced that the leadership of the church should be shared for the health of the congregation.
  • I am convinced that top-down structures of leadership are unquestionably more efficient -- efficient in doing almost everything than equipping, which is the primary task of leadership. 
  • I am convinced that the process of appointing new elders is best done on the basis of recognizing who is already serving as an elder in the church.
  • I am convinced that any local church that takes seriously Jesus as the Senior Pastor will not permit one man to become the titular head of the church.
  • I am convinced that the essential qualifications for ministry in the church have little or nothing to do with formal education and everything to do with spiritual maturity.
  • I am convinced that the church is a multigenerational family, and hence one of the things that makes the church the church is the presence of children, parents, and other adults.
  • I am convinced that because every local church has all the spiritual gifts it needs to be complete in Christ, believers should be exposed to the full expression of the charisms (grace-gifts) when they gather, in contrast to specialized ministries that center around singularly gifted people.
  • I am convinced that the local church is the scriptural locus for growing to maturity in Christ, and that no other training agency is absolutely needed.
  • I am convinced that the local church ought to be the best Bible school going.
  • I am convinced that Paul's letters were not intended to be studied by ordinands in a theological college but were intended to be read and studied in the midst of the noisy life of the church.
  • I am convinced that the church is a theocracy directly under its Head (Jesus Christ), and that the will of the Head is not mediated through various levels of church government but comes directly to all His subjects.
  • I am convinced that the goal of leadership is not to make people dependent upon its leaders but dependent upon the Head.
  • I am convinced that since all believers are "joints" in the body, ministry is every believer's task.
  • I am convinced that pastor-teachers, as precious gifts of Christ to His church, are to tend the flock of God by both personal care and biblical instruction, equipping God's people for works of service both in the church and in the world.
  • I am convinced that the role of pastor-teacher is a settled ministry in a local congregation.
  • I am convinced that leaders should communicate that every part of the body is interrelated to the other parts and indispensable; every member will be appreciated, every charism will be treasured.
  • I am convinced that the whole church, the community of all the saints together, is the clergy appointed by God for ministry. The fundamental premise upon which I operate is that each believer in the church needs to be equipped for his or her own ministry both in the church and in the world. If the church is to become what God intended it to be, it must become a ministerium of all who have placed their faith in Christ. The whole people of God must be transformed into a ministering people. Nothing short of this will restore the church to its proper role in the kingdom of God.
What do you think? I think that is a pretty good list.

Later today a less than useful list...

Monday, July 09, 2012

Sovereignty and Mercy

I come from a theological perspective that is commonly (at least among this group!) described as a high view of God’s sovereignty. When I read the Scriptures and consider issues in life, everything is viewed through that lens: government/politics, the natural world, the church, salvation. While virtually no Christian would deny God’s sovereignty over some things, it is much harder to accept it when it comes to natural disasters or “bad things happening to good people”. It is exponentially harder to accept when it comes to salvation as it requires us to bend the knee and declare that salvation is entirely the work of God. In the “big picture” nothing really trumps salvation. Eternity doesn’t hinge on how you vote or the balance in your bank account or which denomination you belong to. Everything comes down to whether you are justified by faith through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit and by the atoning sacrifice of Christ or whether you find yourself before the judgment seat of God with nothing but your vain works and sin.

A high and proper view of the sovereignty of God is a good thing, a crucial reminder of the relative positions of God versus man. That view can also lead to an unhealthy fatalism if not coupled with an equally high view of God’s merciful and loving nature. One of the potential pitfalls of this focus on sovereignty is that the other attributes of God are overlooked or put on the theological backburner.

The problem seems to tie back to an overly anthropomorphized view of God, or in other words we project our human limitations and failings on God. While different people have different personalities, which explains the plethora of personality tests to identify which personality traits are more prevalent in certain people, where some people are more empathetic or stronger leaders or whatever, God is 100% of all of His attributes. He is not more sovereign than loving, He is not more just than merciful. He is completely and perfectly all of those and more.

A balanced view keeping God’s mercy and love in harmony with his justice and holiness and sovereignty makes it easier to deal with issues like children who die in infancy. What happens to a child who dies at birth? If we believe, as I do, that unique life begins at conception, what about unborn children who die in miscarriage or are tragically murdered through abortion having never heard the Gospel? Rather than some tortured attempt to form a doctrine where the Bible is silent, we can rest in God’s sovereignty and His mercy, knowing that whatever He does will be the right thing to do. I would rather we devote ourselves to embracing God as merciful, just, holy Soveriegn than trying to provide possible false and empty reassurance.

Of course this goes the other way. Many people seem fixated on God’s love. Amen! In doing so we must be cautious to view God’s love as a reflection also of His sovereignty and His holiness and justice. The divine and perfect judgment of God is one of the highest expression of His love as is His incredible mercy! A God who is loving but not holy, merciful but not just, is simply not the God of the Bible.

God is infinitely more complex than we can understand but a good place to start is to keep all of His attributes on equal footing.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

One Is The Loneliest Number

But twins are twice as nice! Our poor mama goat finally had her babies yesterday and had twin does (female goats) which is a great outcome. It was super hot but the babies seemed OK and look good this morning....

In other news we are just drowning in milk. We need to make more pudding and custard! That Jersey cow is a milk machine!

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Taking about unity

I haven't blogged much this week other than a couple of intentionally inflammatory posts but I have been keeping an eye on a series by Alan Knox on unity. His cleverly named series on unity titled "Unity: The Series" takes an important look at a much discussed and rarely practiced doctrine, namely the unity of the church. I would encourage you to check out all of his posts. Unity is one of those topics that I write about a lot but that are awfully difficult to put into practice but that is no excuse for our division.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Happy violation of Romans 13 Day!

My annual repost of A nation born of rebellion against God ....

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

With these words, the Declaration of Independence begins to list the grievances suffered under the despotic rule of King George over the English colonies in America. After a lengthy list of grievances, the Declaration declares that the colonies are no longer under the rule of England but are instead free and independent.

Powerful words. Solemn words. Words that, at least until recently, were taught to all schoolchildren and words that are part of our American lore. I am in awe of the power and eloquence of the Declaration and the subsequent Constitution that at one time was the law of the land in America. So that is great, we all agree that America is swell. So what is the point? Here is where I am going with this: Are these statements in the Declaration of Independence the founding words of a Christian nation, a country founded on "Judeo-Christian" values?

Simply put: No.

Why in the world would I say that?

Because America was birthed by an ungodly act of rebellion against authority.

Yikes! Stay with me here. This is a long one but I think it is important and thought provoking.

This post is not intended to bash America. I would not choose to live anywhere else in the world unless I was led to do so in God's providence. I love my country, in fact I love my country more than may be healthy as a Christian. I am also not saying that the founding fathers were wrong or that the end result is bad. Clearly America has been a force for more good than ill in the world. This statement is intended as a wake-up call to the church. Evangelicals must remember that being an evangelical Christian must of necessity take priority over being an American. I hear lots of lip-service to that effect but practically speaking our American upbringing impacts our doctrine and practice in some troubling ways. There are no special secular nations, even ones where the founding is full of religious overtones. I think this is important because there is such a blurring of the distinction between the church and America that it sometimes seems as if we are evangelists for American culture more than witnesses of the risen Christ. So if you will, please indulge me for a few minutes to explain why I would make that assertion.

The core issue here is one of submission. Submission gets a bad rap in the church in America because it is either tip-toed around or it is used as a club. Americans don't like to submit to anyone for any reason. The Founding Fathers decided that at some point they no longer wished to submit to King George, to pay his taxes without representation. I think most historians would agree that King George was a poor ruler. So it is little wonder that the colonies eventually revolted. The question we are pondering here is a dramatically different one: Is our submission to authority based on the worthiness of the one in authority? That is an important question because we are called on to submit all over the place in the Bible, a subject we looked at yesterday when the church gathered.

Let's take a look at what the Bible says about submission to authorities and it says a lot.

The first place I want to look is at the third chapter of Paul’s letter to Titus.

Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. (Titus 3:1)

Paul is somewhat vague here. He exhorts Titus to remind Christians to be submissive to authorities. Who these rulers and authorities are doesn’t get much clarification but I certainly think that Paul is at least implying governing officials. The following sections of Scripture reinforce this idea quite powerfully.

Next we have a powerful statement from the lips of Christ Himself. Pay careful attention here.

He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” 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 19:10-11)

Here is Christ, mere hours away from His death on the cross, telling Pontius Pilate that he has no authority (including the authority to condemn Christ to die) except that which he has received “from above”, i.e. from God. Stop and think about what Christ is saying here. Pontius Pilate received his authority from Caesar. So by proxy Caesar has been granted the authority by God to put Jesus Christ to death. I can’t overemphasize this point that the most unjust and tyrannical government ever faced by Christians was given its authority directly from God and it used that authority to crucify Christ and persecute the church for the next three centuries. Roman Emperors like Nero and Caligula make King George look like Mr. Rogers in comparison. Ponder that as we move forward.

Next, a look at what Peter wrote regarding this issue. I think this is important as well because this is not a “Paul-only” doctrine. It is something found in the words of Christ and Peter as well as Paul. Just once in Scripture should be sufficient but for purposes of staking a position I think it adds even more weight when there are multiple sources.

Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17)

Please note a few things here. Be subject to every human institution, emperor and governors. Not to be subject to only the just rulers or those you voted for. Remember again as a frame of reference that when Peter says “emperor” he must be referring to Caesar and when he refers to “governor” that likely refers to men like Pilate. Verse 17 is especially telling; we are to honor everyone, love the brotherhood, fear God and honor the emperor. Honor Caesar? Absolutely.

Next up is Romans 13, the seminal passage on human governing authorities.

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)

There is no authority other than those God has instituted. That would obviously include the Roman empire and of course the good ole United States of America. Wouldn’t it similarly include Nazi Germany? The Stalinist Soviet Union? Castro’s Cuba? North Korea? England under the reign of King George? Lichtenstein! All of the above. So Paul is saying that by resisting the authorities placed over us, we resist God and bring judgment upon ourselves. We are to submit and pay taxes, whether we consider them just or not.

Look at what precedes Romans 13, keeping in mind that the chapter breaks are not in the original. What Paul wrote right before this passage is vital to understanding Romans 13: 1-7.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12: 14-21)

That is important to remember. Christians in Rome would be facing persecution just as Paul himself, a frequent guest in prison cells, was subjected to. In the face of such injustice, the natural response as an American is to overthrow the scoundrels, the whole refresh the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants and patriots thing. Paul is saying just the opposite and we must consider the end of chapter 12 and the beginning of chapter 13 as one continuous thought. Is the government unjust? God will judge that nation. Are the rulers despotic? God is the one who will avenge their injustice, either immediately (see the death of Herod in Acts 12: 20-23) or at the Judgment seat. “Don’t tread on me” is not a concept that would be understood by Paul.

What is the overarching message here? It strikes me that God is sovereign over all nations, not just Western democracies but all nations, and that God will judge those nations. We all understand this and accept this, at least in theory. Submission is an easy topic to talk about but when you apply it as a practical matter, it gets messy and sometimes flies in the face of certain ideals that we hold dear. This issue is one that is easily turned from “Scripture says” to “Well, I think”.

So that brings me back to my original point. Was the founding of America a “Christian” action? I have to say “No”. No matter that the lofty ideals espoused by the Founders sound pleasing to our ears or that we can argue that no secular nation on earth is a better one. The notion that America was once a “Christian nation” and needs to return to that state is demonstrably false because the very founding of America was done as an act of rebellion against the very authorities that God had ordained.

Am I missing something here? Is there anything in the New Testament that would lead a follower of Jesus Christ to think that we are called to overthrow unjust rulers? Should we pray for our leaders? Well certainly we should and that is perfectly Biblical. Should we take up arms to overthrow them? Absolutely not, not even if they force high taxes on us or unjust laws. Not even if they persecute the church and not even if they put Christians to death. God will avenge, not us and we are never called to return evil for evil, even when we are sure that our cause is right. We shouldn’t turn to George Washington and Patrick Henry to form our beliefs regarding human government. Our model for how we should relate to the government is found in Scripture, in Paul and Peter and most especially in Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Flag Fetish

As I had lots of time to read over the weekend being sans internet I made some real progress in Hauerwas. In one chapter  I saw an interesting term that I wanted to look at more closely. Hauerwas is quoting from a book by Carolyn Martin and David Ingle called Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag. Here is the quote, emphasis added (I do love e-books for the ease of copying and pasting quotes!)

Marvin and Ingle argue that self-sacrifice is the central theme of the American civil religion of patriotism and that nowhere is that better exemplified than in the American fetish of the flag. They provide extraordinarily rich and diverse iconographic and textual evidence to sustain their argument. For example, they call attention to a quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s published account of his induction into West Point. Eisenhower begins by describing the rough first day of initiation into West Point, at the end of which he confesses to being weary and resentful. Eisenhower writes, however, that “toward evening we assembled outdoors and, with the American flag floating majestically above us, were sworn in as cadets of the United States Military Academy. It was an impressive ceremony. As I looked up at our national colors and swore my allegiance, I realized humbly that now I belonged to the flag. It is a moment I have never forgotten.” - Hauerwas, Stanley . War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity (Kindle Locations 1232-1239).

I found it ironic to be reading that just days ahead of Independence Day. That is the sort of statement that a few years ago would have caused me to chuck this book in the trash (or delete it since it is an e-book). Today it makes more and more sense as I try to take a step back from the culturally acceptable narrative of America.

The way that America reveres the flag is kind of disturbing, doubly so when Christians are involved. The American Legion has an entire page of "flag etiquette" that describes the proper way to fold a flag, care for a flag and even dispose of a flag. The flag folding section even includes this sentence: "The flag-folding ceremony represents the same religious principles on which our great country was originally founded". Reading the alleged symbolism in each fold of the flag kind of creeped me out to be honest. This reverence is drilled into us from a very young age. I still get a twinge when I see Old Glory, I still get chills at the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. I still to this day, in spite of a pretty radically different view of America in light of the Gospel and the reality of my Kingdom citizenship, carry the cultural baggage of reverence for a piece of cloth. Little wonder. Like virtually every other American kid as a child I stood every day, faced the ubiquitous flag and recited these words along with my classmates:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

As a child I had no idea what that meant, the notion of pledging allegiance to a flag representing a republic “under God” even though at that time I didn’t believe in God at all. Nor did my classmates understand the significance but somehow I did know that refusing to say the Pledge would have singled me out as a troublemaker and likely drawn the ire of my classmates. So the rote repetition of the Pledge is meaningless at that age as anything other than a conditioning mechanism but that doesn't stop our society from having children memorize and parrot back a slogan that they completely don’t understand. In many ways it reminds me of the “testimony” meeting as a Mormon when parents would take their small children up front and whisper in their ears the words they would repeat back: “I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that Gordon B. Hinckley is a prophet…”. These words mean nothing to a five year old child but getting them to repeat them over and over makes them part of the fabric and culture of mormonism, a culture that makes it hard to doubt and even harder to leave mormonism.

The same is true for the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. The idea of a theocratic republic might be hard to fathom for a child but America as a concept personified by a flag, the same flag and the same pledge that I stood next to my classmates and recited over and over? Now that I believed in and as a child dreamt of one day killing the enemies of our fair land with the flag waving overhead. Not in those terms of course, as a child the idea of killing our enemies heroically in defense of flag and freedom was formed by movies and books but it certainly was something that seemed very noble. Granted as a child I didn't grasp what that meant but it builds the foundation for later in life when America asks teenagers to leave home to kill and be killed and asks parents to sacrifice their children in some foreign war, receiving a folded flag in return for the life of their child.

I sort of doubt this is (entirely) intentional but certainly the flag and what it represents serves as a totem for American self-sacrifice. Going to some foreign country to kill some foreigner who is trying to kill you in return doesn’t sound very appealing, but going to “defend” some sort of ideals and serving the flag? Fighting and killing for God and country, which are often portrayed as one and the same? Well that is something we can get behind and by get behind I mean be willing to die for and preferably to kill for.

So what does this mean for the church? Well for starters it means we need to be very cautious about how entangled we get with the civic religion of America and that starts with the American flag. I am not hesitant at all to say that no Christian should recite the pledge allegiance. First, the swearing of oaths to some authority other than God is not something Christians are permitted to do (Matthew 5: 33-37; James 5:12). Second, it is simply bad theology as this nation is no more "under God" than any other nation. Third, swearing allegiance to this nation implies a willingness to defend this republic which often has meant going to war against the very people we are called to reach for Christ.

On those same lines, as I have said before, there is no place for an American flag among the gathering of the church. Granted, if the church meets in a school or other public place where flags are already present I wouldn't suggest removing them but the ubiquitous nature of flags in most evangelical churches is disturbing and no doubt jarring to visitors from other nations raising the question of just who or what we are worshiping. Now having the flags of many nations, none raised higher than others, to remind us of the global mission of the church seems like an OK idea but for the Christian there is no choice land that is exalted higher than others. The singing of patriotic songs or of honoring the military? That just doesn't have a place in the gathered church.

For Christians who live in America we must always keep in mind that God has placed us in this land to reach Americans for Christ, making disciples here as well as elsewhere, just as He placed Christians under the rule of Caesar, of Hitler and Churchill, of Davis and Lincoln. Our purpose is not to serve America as Christians but to serve Christ in America even and perhaps especially when that means being unpopular or living at odds with the culture of this land.