Monday, April 30, 2012

C. Gordon Olson’s Inductive Method against Calvinism

In all fairness to Dr. Olson, he would say that his method is not against Calvinism as much as it is a mediate position somewhere between Calvinism and Arminian theology. As a good Calvinist I would say either you are for me or against me, but you cannot be sort of for me and sort of against me. Soteriology is either monergistic, synergistic, or owned outright by man. It is either all God, all man, or part God and part man. To say that it can be between being all God and all man is ipso facto admitting that it is part God and part man. By definition, this view falls in the middle of Arminian theology. Dr. Olson claims that his mediating position is the result of objective, inductive exegesis which would mean that alternative views must be the result of bias. The only question that I am attempting to address in this blog concerns Dr. Olson’s inductive method. I would like to keep it short and to the point realizing that such an endeavor might be too optimistic.

Dr. Olson writes,

“Calvinists also use Philippians 1:29 (‘For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…’) to prove their point, but it is clear that we are given faith only in the same sense in which we are given suffering, that is, mediately through circumstances. No one would argue that suffering is an immediate and irresistible work of grace. As in the two Acts passages above [Acts 5:31 and 11:18], Paul is referring to the privilege and opportunity given to the Philppian Christians to believe, while alerting them to the fact that suffering for Christ comes with that privilege.”

He continues,

“Calvinists also use Philippians 1:29 (‘For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…’) to prove their point, but it is clear that we are given faith only in the same sense in which we are given suffering, that is, mediately through circumstances.”

What does Phil. 1:29 actually say and what is the context in which it is said? Paul, writing to the Philippian believers from jail, the result of persecution and suffering for the gospel writes, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” Olson’s point is that suffering comes through agency, in fact, human agency. It is not immediate. Therefore, he concludes that faith must also come through agency. Before I address the inductive method in this instance, I should point out that Calvinist does not deny agency, human agency in salvation. It is the nature of that agency that is the sticking point. Arminians claim that salvation is synergistic while Calvinists hold it to be monergistic. Both recognize that God saves through the preaching of the word and that such preaching requires human agency. Faith comes by hearing which is quite impossible apart from a preacher or author. What is Phil. 1:29 doing? From an illocutionary standpoint, the text is offering encouragement to persecuted Christians. It seems rather clear that Paul is striving to offer a theology of suffering and the context of this verse offers exceptionally strong support to that end.

First, Paul tells us up in verse 17 that he is in prison. In verse 19 he begins to share a biblical theology of suffering. His attitude is one of joy. He says I will rejoice, knowing that this will turn out for my deliverance. He recognizes that suffering if actually a gift from Christ because it results in Christ being glorified in his body. This, of course would not be possible without also faith in Christ. Man, being completely cut off from God must consider it an act of grace for God to permit even suffering for His name. Paul’s theology of suffering is in fact the right theology of suffering, having been revealed by God’s Spirit. This suffering is such a blessing that Paul places it on par with leaving to be with Christ immediately and admits he cannot decide which is best. Should I stay and preach and suffer or should I go to be with Christ?

Secondly, Paul begins to acknowledge that the Philippian believers are also facing persecution of their own. In the face of this persecution Paul says, “only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” He tells them to stand firm and not to be alarmed by their opponents. Paul says that such suffering is a sign of destruction for their opponents and of salvation for the Philippians.  He emphatically says that this salvation is from God in verse 28.

Then we arrive at verse 29 which begins with the Greek casual marker “hoti”, which requires that we look back to see why the word “for” is there in the first place. We can tie this back to Paul’s words in verse 27, “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him but also to suffer for His sake…” The idea is that since it has been granted to you to believe and to suffer for Christ, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel in the midst of this suffering.

Olson thinks the Philippian believers were given the privilege and opportunity to believe, not that they were given immediate faith. They were only given the opportunity and of course, what this means is that what they choose to do with that opportunity is, in the end, up to them. This theology sounds very familiar. I fail to see how this view is any different from the traditional Arminian position. From my vantage point, there seems to me to be nothing mediate about this thinking. It sounds quite consistent with traditional Arminian theology.

In response, the inductive method offers little support to Dr. Olson’s suggestion that we insert the idea of privilege or opportunity in Phil. 1:29. That concept seems to be the result of reading something into the text more than being exegeted out of it. Just as God grants faith through preaching, He grants that we may glorify Him through suffering at the hands of human agency. If suffering for the name of God is one means by which we glorify Him, then we must grant that this appointment comes only by His hand. Depraved sinners are cut off from glorifying God.

In addition, agency is nowhere a concern in the text. Paul is interested in focusing the Philippian believers on the glory of suffering and on God’s sovereignty over such suffering. The temptation to take a temporal perspective on suffering is ever before the believer. Paul reinforces the idea of the purpose and sovereignty of God in suffering just as God has a purpose and is sovereign over salvation. Finally, it simply does not follow that because Paul anchors the gift of faith and the gift of suffering firmly in the sovereign purpose of God that both must be granted by identical means. To insist that they do does more to expose bias than it does to demonstrate the use of inductive exegesis.

A final point is in order I think. 2 Timothy 2:25 contains this important phrase: μήποτε δώῃ αὐτοῖς ὁ θεὸς μετάνοιαν εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν ἀληθείας. This phrase would seem to indicate that God does more than simply grant the "opportunity for repentance" or the "privilege of repentance." These men were familiar with the gospel and in opposition to it. Paul instructs Timothy to be patient with these opponents, correcting them, with the hope that God might actually grant them repentance into true knowledge of the truth. It is clear that the use of the subjunctive indicates that this granting is only a possiblity. There is no guarantee that God will grant repentance with Timothy's gospel correction. If Olson is right, this makes no sense. If Paul is rightly understood, Olson's idea of opportunity and privilege makes no sense. The two ideas clash violently in this text. Olson implies that preaching extends, or grants to men the opportunity and privilege to repent should they decide to do so. Here, in this text, it is clear that such an offer is absent. Timothy would have understood that His gospel correction may not have produced repentance BECAUSE God had not granted it. God is the clearly the subject who does the acting. That is, God is granting! What is He granting? The possibility of repentance? Not according to a simple inductive investigation of this text! This indicates that the granting of repentance is within the sovereign control of an absolute God who is not dependent on anyone for anything, including the salvation of men.
Olson also calls on Acts 5:13 and 11:18 to support his view that God does not grant men faith, but rather He grants them the opportunity and privilege to believe. This does not answer the question how a totally depraved unregenerate person can actually have faith since they have no ability or desire to actually do anything pleasing to God. Acts 5:31 records Peter’s answer after being ordered not to preach Jesus any longer. Peter said, “He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” The Greek word didwmi, which is here translated grant, means to cause to happen, to produce, to give. From an inductive standpoint there is nothing in the language to indicate potential, privilege, or opportunity. In addition, such a position introduces a serious threat to substitutionary-penal atonement. Once more, we end up, not with an efficacious death of Christ on the cross ensuring the salvation of God’s elect. Rather, we end up in a state of possibility. Jesus’ death accomplishes nothing actually in Dr. Olson’s treatment of this text. It merely renders repentance a possibility. It makes the opportunity for salvation possible. In Dr. Olson’s view, man is placed back in the driver’s seat to reign supreme over his own destiny. God is back on the sidelines, hoping of the best, cheering man on like a divine cheerleader on the sidelines of the football game of life.

Acts 11:18 is the conclusion drawn at Peter’s defense of Cornelius’ conversion to the fellow Jewish believers in Jerusalem. “When they heard this, they became quite and glorified God, saying, so also to the Gentiles God has given repentance to life.” The problem with attempting to read possibility, privilege, or opportunity into this text is that it refers to a very specific event of legitimate repentance already occurring: the conversion of Cornelius the Gentile. From this event, after hearing Peter’s irresistible argument, the Jewish Christians have no alternative but to conclude that God is also saving Gentiles along with Jews. To read more into this text or to broaden it beyond its clearly intended use is to bend it to a particular theological grid. This practice is very common for all of us, but it is not at all consistent with inductive exegesis. Dr. Olson violates his own rule of induction when he draws upon these particular texts to prop up his mediate position between Calvinism and Arminian theology.

I wonder if the seething hatred and disdain for Calvinism is the result of an almost purely American theology of autonomy. It seems to me there is a high correlation between American culture and a hatred for this system of theology. The more we think of ourselves as enabled, empowered, capable of fixing our own problems, setting our own destiny, the less appealing a system of theology like Calvinism becomes. In that system, God is entirely in control of all things. He is, “A Se.” God is from Himself, depending on no one for His being, His plan, or His own eternal glory. Man is cursed, separated from God, esteemed worthy to be damned due to his willingly wicked ignorance. This means all of us. It took, not a city, as Hilary Clinton would say, but a Prince. It took a Savior! Without man’s wretched and hopeless condition, not to mention radically helpless, a Savior is unnecessary. As John Newton once said, I am a great sinner, and He is a great Savior. Without Christ, I remain cursed from God, helpless and hopeless. The gospel is that a Prince came, a Lord, a Savior, to remove the curse and reconcile me to the God who made me! That is redemption. That is repentance that brings life! That is something to be joyous about!

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Divergence and Convergence of Biblical Hermeneutics with Biblical Exegesis – Part 1

Hermeneutics Defined
Hermeneutics might seem like a very intimidating word. After all, it is not part of our common jargon. However, few subjects are as significant as hermeneutics when it comes to the Christian worldview. In Introduction to Hermeneutics, Mosés Silva defines hermeneutics as “the discipline that deals with principles of interpretation.” In Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Jr. state “Hermeneutics provides a strategy that enables us to understand what an author or speaker intended to communicate.” Some take exception to the idea of authorial intention, preferring to see it simply as what the author actually did communicate. Thistelton writes, “Hermeneutics explores how we read, understand, and handle texts, especially those written in another time or in a context of life different from our own. Biblical hermeneutics investigates more specifically how we read, understand, apply, and respond to biblical texts.” [Hermeneutics: An Introduction] Ramm says, “Hermeneutics is the science and art of Biblical interpretation." [Protestant Biblical Interpretation] Robert Thomas defines hermeneutics as "a philosophical and linguistic mind-set; a set of principles; an interpretive use of these principles; an application of the resulting interpretation to contemporary situations.” [Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New versus the Old] It is clear that hermeneutics is concerned with how one approaches a work of communication in order to understand it. This assumes that someone has communicated something and that there is an interest in understanding it.
A responsible hermeneutic seeks to get at the meaning of the divine-human communication that is Scripture. It is rude and irresponsible, not to mention unethical to misrepresent the communication of others. Most of us know what that is like and can evidence that such an experience can be opprobrious and unpleasant. Above all, it seems to me that the last thing anyone should ever desire to do is place words in God’s mouth by putting them in the mouths of His holy authors. God has something to say to His people and He has said it in Scripture. We have a divine imperative to engage in whatever work is necessary in order to obtain a right understanding of God’s communication and to appropriate that communication in order to ensure that we conduct our life in a manner worthy of the calling by which we have been called into His glorious light. There is one right way to read the bible, to approach the text, and there are countless erroneous ways to read it. The problem is if there is one book that we must understand rightly, it is this book. Misunderstanding this book can have eternal consequences. Just as we have something to convey when we speak, so too does God. Moreover, it is in our eternal best interest to uncover His meaning. However, hermeneutics is inherently dangerous. The road to understanding is wrought with perils. The human condition is such that within human nature remains a seed of hostility toward God. The sin in us seeks to pervert God’s meaning in the text. This is no less true for the scholar and pastor than it is for any other believer. Satan once appeared to man as a serpent, perverting the word of God. Ever since, he mostly appears as clergy, perverting the text of Scripture through the most likeable men we know. In the end, it comes down to our choice between the ultimate authority of God and His word on the one hand, or unaided, autonomous human reason on the other. Our approach to Scripture will reduce, in one way or another, to this choice.
Presuppositional Hermeneutics
There are two extremes in hermeneutical method we should avoid. The first is an uncritical approach to the text that disregards almost any need for education and neglects to ask, not only the right questions, but the right kind of questions. At the other end of the spectrum, we must also avoid any approach to the task that leads to skepticism. The former misses much of the meaning in Scripture by engaging in a heavily anachronistic understanding of the text while the latter denies the possibility of uncovering any authorial meaning whatever by relocating meaning to the reader. One tends to lean heavily on a mystical approach supposing the ability to do an end-around scholarship with a naïve claim on the unction of the Spirit while the latter leans heavily on unaided human reason propped up by rationalism. We seek to find balance in our hermeneutic so that we can engage in an exegetical method that is respectful of and faithful to the text it seeks to understand. We avoid the naïve idea of the “purely objective” as well as the radical notion of liberal rationalism. To this end, we admit that it is not only the case that our hermeneutic informs our theology, but that the converse is just as true. Our theology also informs our hermeneutic. Hence, we see the idea of presuppositional hermeneutics. When I use this phrase, I intend to express the same idea found in theological hermeneutics.

In the preface of his book, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics, Jens Zimmermann wrote, “Hermeneutics is all about self-knowledge, and self-knowledge is impossible without knowledge of God.” In other words, without a theological foundation, hermeneutics is impossible. Building a hermeneutic without a theological system is like trying to build a house without a foundation, sort of. It is always a bad idea to press an analogy too far. But you get the picture. The theological task depends on hermeneutical method and hermeneutics depends just as much on theology to get going. Zimmermann adds, “Both theology and philosophy have forgotten that the main goal of interpretation before the Enlightenment was communion with God.” This should remain the chief goal of hermeneutics today. After all, Jesus said “my word will never pass away.” Unfortunately, scholars started treating the Bible like a book full of treasures to be mined, a human product, with a human, temporal purpose: to transfer information, facts, and knowledge. Scholarship lost sight of the fact that the book before them was the “truth that will make you free.” It is this presupposition that we must be recovered if we are to formulate an ethical and biblically faithful method for interpreting the sacred Scripture.
One fundamental presupposition of a biblically faithful hermeneutic is that meaning begins with God, is transferred to the text, and remains to be discovered by the reader. This conviction is in contradistinction to postmodern concepts that seek to relocate meaning to the reader or to encapsulate it in a hopelessly impenetrable vault of skepticism. Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “Strictly speaking, a sequence of words means nothing in particular until somebody means something by them. It is the author who determines verbal meaning.” [Is There a Meaning in the Text]
Another fundamental presupposition of a biblically faithful hermeneutic is that we are capable, through the aid of the Holy Spirit, to discover the meaning of the text. How irrational to think that God left us with a revelation while at the same time leaving us helpless to understand it. Paul says that Timothy knew the sacred Scripture from a child and admitted that these writings were capable of imparting wisdom. (II Tim. 3:15) Obviously, Paul would have been ridiculed by modern scholarship for such a display of optimism, not to mention blatant arrogance. Jesus Himself believed that we could understand the Scripture. He said to His disciples, “And you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) Contrary to Derrida’s deconstructionism, hermeneutical realism seems to be the position of the biblical authors as well as our Lord. This is not to say that a naïve realism should be the norm, but that one must admit that human construction of reality, while an obstacle to understanding, is not an insurmountable obstacle. It simply means that understanding Scripture is not always going to be easy and at times is going to involve significant effort.
Finally, presuppositional hermeneutics acknowledges the nature of Scripture. Scripture is the product of dual authorship. It is both a divine and a human project. As a human project, written in a specific culture, in a different language, it affords distinct challenges to all humans living in other times and places. Hence, education in the biblical languages, in literary criticism, in history, and a variety of other areas are necessary to enrich one’s understanding of the text. On the other hand, it is an overstatement of significant importance to imply that only scholars can really understand the Bible’s meaning. After all, Scripture was not restricted to the academy. Scripture was assigned by God to the Christian community, and hence, to every believer within that group. God does not sanctify groups without first sanctifying persons. In addition, the Christian group humbly accepts the Scripture as its sole authority for faith and practice, recognizing that Scripture is trustworthy from top to bottom. From this, the reformed view of sola scriptura naturally emerges. The Bible is the inerrant, fully reliable, authoritative word of God that it claims to be. From this starting point, we now have a foundation in place to begin the undertaking of a biblically faithful exegesis. This will be the subject of my next blog. It is my aim that once you have worked through the posts, a clear distinction will emerge between biblical hermeneutics and biblical exegesis.
Phil John's "No Compromise"

Monday, April 23, 2012

TD Jakes, Oprah, and the Homosexual Response

I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted with the continual bombardment of hostility directed at the Society of Christ from the homosexual movement because of her views on homosexual behavior. On the one hand, I realize that some conservative Christians have treated homosexuality as if it is the worse sin anyone could commit. We have viewed homosexuality with disdain and disgust while at the same time hardly winking at anger, slander, malice, discontentment, and even divorce in our communities. Indeed the hypocrisy of it is difficult to understand. I understand this and am sensitive to the fact many Christians, including myself, have just not done such a good job giving the truth of Scripture to the gay community. Too many times, our own self-righteousness comes through and it is clear that we view our own self as better than and superior to the person who has made the homosexual choice. To be sure, we have some work to do in this regard. However, I am not convinced that people who have made the homosexual choice really are sincere when they point these kinds of things out to the Christians.

The common denominator I hear from those within the gay community is that Christians hate them and display no love toward them whatsoever. When one listens to a person from that community, you get the sense that they really are sincere. You get the impression that if Christians just approached the issue without such hostility, it would change things. The gay community leads one to believe that if Christians treated them the same as they treat everyone else, the relationship between Christians, and the gay community would immediately improve, and that, considerably. I have my doubts about this premise and that is the purpose of this post.

Good, bad, or indifferent, TD Jakes recently gave Oprah Winfrey an interview. I am no fan of TD Jakes or Oprah Winfrey. It is clear that Jakes is an imposter dressed in sheep’s clothing and I have no idea what Oprah is. That is not the point of this post. What is the point of this post is the fact that Oprah brought up the issue of homosexuality. Oprah asked several questions about Jakes’ views on homosexual behavior. Being a conservative, charismatic, word of faith teacher, Jakes held firm that God condemns homosexual behavior.

In one response Jakes said, "The perception in our society today is that if you don't say you're for same-sex marriage or if you say homosexuality is a sin that you're homophobic and you're against gay people. And that's not true."

Jakes elaborated, "I'm not called to give my opinion. I'm called as a pastor to give the scriptural position on it," the pastor added. "Doesn't mean that I have to agree with you to love you. I don't dislike anybody. I love everybody."

Jakes continued, "I think that sex between two people of the same sex is condemned in the Scriptures, and as long as it is condemned in the Scriptures, I don't get to say what I think. I get to say what the Bible says," Jakes said.

"I'm not particularly political. I'm not particularly denominational. I'm not worried about any of that," he added. "I'm not anti-gay, I'm not anti-anything. I don't want to even be known by what I'm against."

From my perspective, I do not believe TD Jakes could have been kinder or gentler in his response on the issue of homosexual behavior. As a “professing” Christian, he said the right things and took the right position, at least on this issue. There is nothing whatever in his response that is provocative, hateful, insensitive or unloving. Despite that, the gay community has responded and that response was predictable.

New York based portrayed the conversation as if Oprah asked Jakes if he “liked” gay people. Of course, that is not at all what the questions were asking. But Gawker doesn’t seem to be at all interested in being fair in their criticism of anyone who disagrees with their chosen lifestyle.

Gawker commented, “she lets Jakes spout anti-gay sentiment while swearing off homophobia," Gawker's Rich Juzwiak writes in his article, titled "Anti-Gay Pastor Doesn't Want to Be Known For Being Anti-Gay."

Juzwiak claims that by "disagreeing" with gay people, one is actually "disagreeing with something that is fundamental to their existence: how they love." He goes on to insinuate that holding a biblical view of homosexuality "values an institution over human beings who are going to love each other and be together anyway, like they have been since the dawn of time." [The Christian Post]

Gay publication,, took its criticism of Jakes stance on Scripture and homosexuality even further, stating that the minister "is condemning the countless LGBTQ youth who are among his flock at the Potter's House, perhaps pushing some closer to suicide" and shaming those possibly infected with HIV/AIDS through a homosexual encounter.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us not be ignorant of the devices and strategies of the Devil. Without legitimizing hateful and self-righteous thinking among Christians, I do believe we are delusional if we believe that those who chose the homosexual lifestyle sincerely want to be treated the same as any other sinner. That is the whole point of this argument. The homosexual community insists that their sin be treated differently than every other sin. The homosexual community will stop at nothing short of having homosexuality removed from the list of ungodly behaviors revealed in Scripture.

The first step is to get Christians accepting them and loving them as if they are engaged in natural, normal sexual behavior. The idea behind the strategy is to remove the sting from the perversion of the lifestyle. Part of our challenge is to distinguish between our response to unnatural behavior that is on the same plane as pedophilia and behavior that is sinful. A pedophile engages in perversion that is unthinkable to most of us and we naturally recoil from the thought. The same is true for most of us when we think about homosexual acts. We find them beyond reason, nature, the norm. At the same time, we must acknowledge that our filthy, natural sin really isn’t any different to God than those sins that are against nature. Perhaps the degree of depravity appears deeper, darker, or more sinister to us. The point here is that the homosexual community is working on a strategy of wholesale acceptance.

The Dallasvoice assertion, if taken at face value, pins the blame of teenage suicide among gay teenagers squarely on the church. This is a strategy that will be used to outlaw any gay talk anywhere whatever. The gay lobby will push for legislation that makes it illegal to preach or teach against the lifestyle because it is harmful to youth. It contributes to suicide rates among young people who have wrongly chosen the homosexual lifestyle. The church must recognize this for what it is and refuse to budge even an inch on the issue. Publically, we must continue to state unequivocally that God condemns homosexual behavior in the strongest language. He destroyed two entire cities whose moral decadence had sunk so low that they were nearly given entirely to the gay lifestyle. The best strategy for the church is to quietly and deliberately address any issues her members have with their self-righteous treatments of homosexual sinners. It is better that we address these issues in the locker room, if you will, in private that to permit such a discussion to take place publically. In so doing, we prevent any confusion or misunderstanding that we are softening our position on the issue and inadvertently provide the homosexual movement with additional momentum. Jesus instructs us to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. All too often we are more naïve in the name of transparency than wisdom would dictate.

As a Christian, my biggest problem with the homosexual movement is not perverse sexual behavior. That isn’t it at all. My concern is that the homosexual movement desires to eliminate Christianity. The goal of the gay movement is to force everyone to acknowledge their lifestyle as a normal, healthy, and acceptable alternative to heterosexuality. I am not offended that gay behavior is gay behavior any more than I am that adultery is adultery. What really offends me the most is the movement’s insistence that it’s behavior be re-categorized  as “not sinful.” I know of no other group that identifies itself by the sin it engages in and then establishes a movement based around that sin. Even people who have had abortions do not identify themselves as distinctly a “person of abortion.” There is no adultery movement the last time I checked. I have yet to encounter anyone who has even tried to tell the church that adultery is normal and acceptable and should be permitted by the Christian community.

As brothers and sisters in Chris, let us continue t to publish the truth about homosexual behavior. Let us not get distracted by it as some do. Let us also recognize that there is a certain strategy at work within that movement. At the same time, let us recognize that all men are our neighbors regardless of the sin or perversion in which they may be involved. We should love the homosexual the same as we love other sinners. We should not treat them any different from anyone else. We are all sinners before the face of a holy God. But for Christ, we are all condemned to eternal damnation. Recognize the gay community desires to destroy Christianity. Equip yourself to think better about this strategy and to respond and interact with this community accordingly. We must hold firmly to the truth that has been revealed, not letting it slip, applying it to our lives in every area and publishing it from the housetops.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The American Captivity of Christianity

Is America a genuinely Christian nation? Is American culture uniquely Christian in its attitudes, values, principles, practices, and beliefs? What does a “Christian nation” look like? What would a uniquely Christian culture look like? Is American Christianity dissimilar from Christianity in other parts of the world? If so, how it is different? Perhaps a better question is why is it different?  Furthermore, is American Christianity really Christianity at all or is it something else altogether? These are good questions for any Christian living in present-day America.

 Before I begin, I am not suggesting that the Christian community become a group of insurrectionists. I am also not suggesting that in order to be a Christian, American’s have to disavow their country. What I am thinking is that one of the essential components of discipleship in the American culture is altogether missing from this process: cultural catharsis.

Americans are no different from people groups anywhere else in the world in terms of loyalty to their country. We are Americans and very proud of that, and I do not mean in a bad sense. As in any other culture, Americans have a core set of values that drive how they look at the world. We will call that the American worldview.

In American culture, the one value the culture esteems more than any other is the “right” of the individual. Think about how often we hear about the “self.” We have been inundated with self-esteem lectures, books, and it has even become part of our public education philosophy. Children are told they are very special. We have eliminated losing in competitions because it reveals that we may not be the best at that activity and this knowledge may hurt our self-esteem. Think about how often we hear about individual “rights.” I recently heard a woman, whose son was on death row for murder talk about justice for her son because his sentence had just been commuted to life because he was black and there wasn’t enough black jurors on the jury when he was convicted. She made no mention of the person he murdered or of the family of the person he had murdered. All the woman seemed to be concerned with were her own interests in the situation, and that, to the complete disregard of others. However, this is the American way.

America is the land of opportunity. But it is the land of “individual” opportunity. We see ourselves as individuals in the most radical way. As individuals, we have rights. We have all sorts of rights. We have a right to individual freedom. We have a right to happiness. We have a right to believe whatever we want. Employees have a right to sick days and to be paid for them as well. We have a right to marry and to divorce. We have a right to engage in whatever pleases us sexually. We have a right to success, as we define success. In America, the individual is empowered above all else, and has all the rights necessary to be, well, happy and prosperous. American culture is about the individual almost to the complete disregard of all else. The Christian of American culture must ask if this “individual” emphasis is in accord with the cultural context in which Scripture initially came to us. Moreover, he/she must also ask what implications this individual emphasis could have on gospel proclamation. In addition, the Christian American must ask how this extreme individual consciousness of Western culture may affect the Christian worldview. In other words, are American Christians purging the American worldview from their thinking or are they Americanizing the Christian worldview so that they view everything spiritual through a distinctly American grid?

In contradistinction to this radical individualism, Mediterranean culture strongly emphasizes the group. The individual does not disappear entirely as Scripture clearly reveals, contrary to some social science critics. However, the individual does not view themselves as entirely separate entities apart from the group to which they belong. The individual is who he/she is within the context of that group. Take away the group and a large part of the person as an individual disappears. It is in this social context that the church and the nation of Israel existed. A Jew sees themself not merely as “me” or “I” in individual terms. He sees himself as the “Jewish me or I that exists.” This mindset was surely behind much of the writings of the NT when we read about all the “one anothers,” and certain the “body” of Christ. This mindset is foundational to Christian community. Sadly, it has been entirely lost in American culture, having been erased, and whited-out by the American individual. What does this mean for Christian community? More importantly, what does it mean for gospel proclamation, not only from a methodological standpoint, but most significantly, from the perspective of content?

The gospel has been hi-jacked, eclipsed, taken captive by the American worldview and this is due in no small part to the number of imposters within the Christian community who came in, claiming to know and love Jesus all the while clinging firmly to the American worldview. Subsequently, these attractive personality types, the sales type, the business manager type, have been pushed to the echelon of Christian leadership because of their considerable skills elsewhere in life. Since discipleship has fallen on hard times and liberalism has gripped the seminaries, very little scrubbing of the ungodly thinking process took place before they were put into place. Couple this with a staunchly semi-pelagian theology and you have the perfect recipe for taking the true Christian gospel captive to the American worldview.

Since people are not actually dead in their trespasses and sins, they don’t need a miracle from God to restore them to a right relationship. All they need is some guidance and “spiritual” life coaching. They can do it themselves with just the right information communicated in the right, non-threatening, non-offensive, non-exclusivist kind of way. Without realizing it, most evangelicals have adopted a form of soteriological deism. God did all the work necessary for salvation and literally left the rest up to us. The preacher has to find an attractive and compelling way to communicate the message and all the individual has to do is take the time to analyze what he/she hears and make a decision.

The American gospel is a gospel of hyper-freedom. The core message is that God has done everything that is necessary for you to have your best life now and all you need to do is appropriate these things to yourself, make a decision to have a private, personal relationship with Jesus Christ and you can see your dreams begin to come true. American Christianity is not about the “body” nor is it about the “church.” It is about “me” and God. In fact, there is a country song with that very title. American Christians do not seem to realize that the idea of “individual” Christian is oxy-moronic. To be a Christian is to be in, to be part of the Christian group. Moreover, this is not something a person does. You do not join the Christian group. You are placed there by God’s eternal decree.

In terms of truth, the American worldview is radically relativistic. There is no such thing as objective, transcendent truth. There is “my” truth. Christianity is Americanized when we eliminate sound exegetical process in exchange for “my” interpretive process for finding meaning in Scripture. It is Americanized when Christians behave as if they have a “right” to handle the text in whatever way they see fit. We Americanize Christianity when the individual knows better than the collective group.

In terms of morality, the American worldview is radically experiential. If it feels right to you, then it must be right. The most egregious thing one American can do to another is judge their lifestyle. The culture seems powerless to recognize the inherent contradiction with which this thinking is carried out in real life. We Americanize Christianity when Christians think that God understands their unhappiness to the point that He is okay with illicit divorce, or extra-marital affairs, or even homosexual behavior. I heard a woman once say that Christians have no business feeling guilty when they sin because guilt is so unhealthy and that God loves them no matter what they do. Apparently, she was not acquainted with James and I John or much of the rest of Scripture.

In terms of authority, the American worldview seeks individual autonomy above all else. Americans cannot tolerate the idea that there are some things that they simply cannot fix. They rely entirely on their own ability to fix whatever problem comes along and will not submit to any authority they deem unworthy. Americans are about the freedom of the individual, not about tradition or the transcendent. God is not one to whom they are held accountable. Rather, he is the self-help guru in the sky. He is called on only when needed and He is needed rarely. For most Americans, God is a daddy figure who wants us to be happy, healthy, and successful. He only wants what is best for us and we get to decide what is best for us.

The hyper-individualism of the American worldview has privatized religion. Michael Horton points out that talking about one’s Christian testimony means “…one’s inner experience and moral transformation. Once privatized, religion becomes relativized. No longer truth, it is your truth. Since religious beliefs are no longer claims about public events, they can only be justified now in terms of what each individual finds meaningful, useful, and transformative.”[1]

Christianity has been taken captive by American culture. J. Graham Machen wrote, “A solid building cannot be constructed when all the materials are faulty; a blessed society cannot be formed out of men who are still under the curse of sin. Human institutions are really to be molded, not by Christian principles accepted by the unsaved, but by Christian men; the true transformation of society will come by the influence of those who have themselves been redeemed.”[2]

Sadly, Christians in America are Americans first, and then Christian. American Christians have turned the gospel into a proclamation of self-help for individual success in areas of personal worth, finance, family, profession, and too many other areas to mention. The pop-psychology that passes itself off as a sermon on Sunday mornings in thousands of American churches doesn’t even remotely resemble the traditional message of Christ preached in the history of the Christian community. In America, the gospel is about “me.” God is there for me. He cares for me. I have a personal relationship with Jesus because I have decided to follow Jesus. It does not matter that Scripture knows nothing of this private understanding of the God-man relationship. It matters not that Scripture nowhere speaks of a personal relationship with Jesus. Scripture presents the gospel in terms that are glaringly antithetical to the American gospel. Man is dead, helpless, unholy, unrighteous and radically depraved from birth. God, for reasons known only to Him, determined to rescue man from his wretched and miserable condition by sending Christ to stand in as punishment for sin. God, for His own glory, redeemed man to Himself, calling man out of his state of blindness, deafness, dumbness and death, into a state of life, joy, and peace.

We must do a better job of recognizing the fundamental differences that exist between the Christian and the American worldview. They are not the same, contrary to what many Christians might believe. There are fundamental beliefs within the American worldview that are clearly contrary to sound Christian thought and praxis. New converts must be educated in this areas. The earlier we engage this in the discipleship process, the better off we will be.

[1] Michael Horton, Christless Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 50.
[2] J. Graham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1923), 158.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Christians Judging Christians over Politics

The Sin of Judging & Political Engagement

I have been having a little debate over at SI about "ought" within the context of Christian political behavior. The position I have taken is that there is no "ought" in Christians and political engagement. If a Christian wishes to be engaged or not is left to their own descretion. Below is one except of the point I am attempting to make IF we conclude that Christians MUST be politically engaged.

Let's suppose that those who assert that (1) Christians "ought" to be politically involved, that (2) Christians "must" be politically involved and that (3) Christians who are not politically involved are irresponsible, bad citizens, and sinning against God and country, are actually right for arguments sake. That is where we land after all. Either it is a sin not to be politically involved or it is not. Either Christians are going to stand before Christ and given an account for voting or they are not. There is no middle ground. After all, if Christ will not have anything to say to non-voters for not voting, then this whole discussion is useless. So, that being said, there are a few more issues that emerge; hundreds is more like it.

1. Can I vote for a president who is for abortion because I like his tax policy? Would that be a sin?
2. Can I vote for a president who is for higher taxes because I like his abortion policy?
3. Can I vote for a president who is eliminating certain benefits from seniors and unwed mothers and their children because I like his abortion and tax policies?
4. I have some extra time on Thursdays and Saturdays and the local democrats or republicans need help signing people up to vote, am I sinning by not doing my part?
5. I have never made a political contribution, is that a sin?
6. Can I refuse to vote for a conservative president because I don't like his illegal immigration policies.
7. Which party is "more" Christian, democrats or republicans?
8. How do I vote for a president who is liberal on abortion but conservative on the other issues?
9. Is it a sin to vote for a politician who is for gay marriage?
10. Is it a sin to vote for a conservative politician if he is an atheist?

If this argument is true:
It is a sin not to be a good citizen
All good citizen are politically involved
Therefore, it is a sin to be politically passive

Then so is this one:
It is a sin not to be a good citizen
Good citizens know the best path for the country's policies & laws
Good citizens engage in the polical behavior that will move the country down that specific path
Therefore, it is a sin for Christians not to be politically engaged in those specific activities that move the country down the path that is best for its well-being and future health.

This would mean that it is a sin to vote for any politician who holds a view that may move the country down a path that is bad for the country.

Okay, now we have to figure out what is bad for the country.

So now we have this thorny little issue facing us. If it is true that being a "good citizen" means "x," and the Bible commands us to be good citizens, then it naturally follows that if we neglect "x" we actually sin against God. When we allow "others" to define what a good citizen is, as opposed to exegeting that information from Scripture, we are now in a position to create rules and standards that are firmly extra-biblical. Of course we have not even approach the question regarding who gets to define what a good citizen really is. That must be answered since the avoidance of sin depends on it.
This is why we should search the Scriptures to see if they give us any help understanding what a good citizen is, what God expects in terms of our relationship to governing authorities.

1. A Christian citizen is to be in subjection to civil authorities.
2. A Christian citizen is to recognize civil authories are ministers of God.
3. A Christian citizen recognizes that resisting civil authority is resisting God.
4. A Christian citizen pays their taxes.
5. A Christian citizen prays for the civil authorities.
6. A Christian citizen submits to civil authorities, kings, and governors for the Lord's sake.

Paul says we do this, recognizing the authority as a minister of God as well as for conscience sake. Peter clearly tells us we should be good citizens for the sake of the gospel. The Christian interest in society is the gospel. We seek to do all we can to be the most capable witnesses to that gospel that we can be. When civil authorities look at the Christian community, it should be as a very narrow religious entitity with a religious interest. They should not see us as one more group to pander to.
Christianity became the official state religion under Theodosius (378-395).

I strongly recommend that anyone who is truly interested in the question concerning church-government relationship begin with Scripture that actually addresses that issue specifically and then jump over to this period in church history and take a look at what resulted once Christianity began to become politically aware and involved. I will submit to you that since the late fourth and early fifth century, it has been utterly devestating. There may be an occassional bright spot, but only occassional. On the grand timeline, it looks quite dismal.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hermeneutics: Implications and Ramifications

The goal of biblical hermeneutics is a transformed life. This is because the goal of the Holy Text itself is transformation. Without proper understanding, proper change is impossible. The only change that really matters is eternal change. This change is genuine. It is real and therefore, lasting. Moreover, the only way this change can happen is by divine action. Not to confuse the issue, I am not contending that outward change is beyond the reach of carnal men. It is not! Carnal men change their behavior all the time. They do so because the consequences of some behaviors become distasteful, unattractive, or unsatisfying. While the percentages may be small, men can and do reform for various reasons. The church has neglected to recognize this phenomenon with devastating consequences. True change, real change begins with the heart, a new heart, and works its way into outward behavior. Therefore, in order for change to take place in any meaningful sense, a true understanding of the meaning of Scripture is indispensable. The authority of the text rests in its significance. An egregious interpretation of the text is no more authoritative than any other book. Jesus pointed this out to the Sadducees when He accused them of invalidating the word of God through their tradition. The Sadducees did not overtly replace Scripture. They hoisted a meaning on it that was never there to begin with and in so doing, they robbed Scripture of its authority by changing its significance. Their understanding was no more authoritative than any one of the pagan philosophers’ view of living at that time.
The authors of Scripture, Divine and human, had something to say, something to communicate, and something they wanted us to know, to understand, and to do. What was it? Can we discover the significance of the text of Scripture in a culture as far removed from the biblical culture as ours is? If the answer to that question is yes, then it only stands to reason that we ask how we can know what the authors’ of Scripture wished to accomplish by penning the sacred Writings. After all, if it is true that Scripture is revelation, then it is necessarily true that something or someone very specific was the subject of that revelation. The thing revealed does not depend on the object to which it is revealed for meaning. What is being unveiled has self-contained meaning to the one doing the unveiling. Contrary to popular notions about meaning, it is not merely individual, dependent on the experience of the one to whom it belongs. Meaning is not neutral any more than observed facts. Meaning is simply one’s interpretation of the encounter. This does not mean (pun absolutely intended) that there is no such thing as one right meaning and many wrong meanings. Of course, I use the word meaning in the sense of one’s personal understanding. What does the text, a text, actually mean? Is there real meaning in the biblical text? Kevin Vanhoozer thinks there is and I agree. Vanhoozer says, “So it is with the interpreter: he or she must be assured that literary knowledge and understanding are possible, but not led to think that reaching understanding is easy.”[1] Sometimes the text is very difficult to understand. But this is not the same is impossible. And it is not justification for defaulting to skepticism.

The problem with the Bible is that it threatens our way of life. It represents a way of living that is antithetical to man’s desires for autonomy. Ah, there it is again! That intriguing word we all love to say but so few truly understand: autonomy. Yet, no word has ever damned more humans than this one. Vern Poythress writes, “Christianity has been practiced in the West for hundreds of years. In the course of that long history, Christians have committed plenty of horrendous sins and made ghastly mistakes that discredit the faith. Moreover, those antagonistic to the God of the Bible, have over a period of several centuries, produced a whole marketplace of culturally fashionable stratagems for evading God. Some are incredibly sophisticated and awesomely complex. They include ways of immunizing ourselves from the Bible and its message. So we have plenty of ways to hide our spiritual nakedness.”[2] There you have it. The Bible does its sanctifying work in us only when it threatens us! It threatens to remove that one thing we love so dear: us! It threatens to kill “me.” I should die that He may live in me. John said I must decrease but He must increase. Is it any wonder that men hate the Scriptures? Scripture indicts us for our sin from one end to the other! But, you may say, they also contain a grand and glorious story. God loves us! He sent Christ for us! Ah, yes, the gospel is indeed a grand and glorious story. But it is only a grand and glorious story for those who are being saved. To the saved ones, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. But it is only so for the saved ones. To the rest, it is either foolishness or a scandal! The sin nature that remains in us, also finds Scripture offensive on several fronts. To spot these areas, we must rely on the presence of God the Holy Spirit. He leads us into all truth, the truth that is sacred Scripture. Scripture leaves sin open and naked, exposed for us to see. This is why sin blinds us from that glorious light. Scripture exposes it for what it really is. Unless we have a new heart, we love our sin. Love for sin places strict limitations on man’s willingness to change. It clearly affects man’s motivations for the change he is willing to accept.

By its nature as revelation it is necessary that Scripture come from without. Otherwise, internal, radical change is impossible. If meaning is experiential and subjective, the only change that takes place is change that has its source within. This kind of change is not true change because, it has its source within and as such is part of the very object that is supposed to change. Domestic change is mechanical. Behavioral change that is limited to behavior is not true change. Godly change begins by changing the nature, not merely the behavior. Change that is limited to behavior always fails to meet the standard of motive. Unbelievers never change behavior for the right reason, out of a love for God. They are completely unable to change their behavior for the right reason. Their nature must be changed! They must be born again. Enter the Scripture! God changes the human heart through the preaching of the gospel. But this is only the beginning. Progressive sanctification is the process by which the life of the individual is transformed by the renewing of the mind as it absorbs and appropriates the Scripture. A deficient hermeneutic impedes this outcome by obfuscating the understanding of the only message capable of true transformation.

What is at stake? In short, the integrity of divine revelation is at stake. Hence, truth itself is at stake. The product we call Scripture is a product of divine action. God did something in order to provide us with His revelation. His person demands that we approach the text with the gravity that the idea of divine action merits. Finally, what is at stake is transformed lives. If transformation depends on clarity of understanding, then it follows that the entirety of salvation and sanctification depend on a sound hermeneutic. Otherwise, we risk preaching a false gospel and engaging in religious moralism with a Christian label. Many pastors and elders have abandoned the basics of Christian doctrine. So bad is the situation that entire generations have grown up in the church that cannot even begin to articulate the basics of the gospel. I taught a Sunday school class a few years back and asked anyone to define justification. No one was able to provide a biblically accurate definition of this doctrine. Basics can never be abandoned. They must always be part of the discipleship within the local church. There is nothing more basic to the “people of the book” than being able to clearly understand that book. That being said, there is nothing more basic than hermeneutics.

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervon, 1998), 466.
[2] Vern Poythress, God Centered Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: Press & R Publishing, 1999), 4-5.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Poem On Hermeneutics

Pat Bergeron

It cannot mean what it never meant
I’ve etched that on my brain
And when I study scripture
I echo that refrain
I’ve studied hermeneutics and exegesis too
So, as a consequence of this
I’ve somewhat changed my view
I’ve learned some nomenclature
too lengthy to define
like cultural relativity and textual design
There is so much I want to know
How to ferret out the truth
I hope someday that I’ll become
a Bible reading sleuth
A new respect has taken me, for God’s own holy word
inspiring me to know the truth, to hear as it was heard
But I know I must remember, I stepped through an
open door
and never can return again to where I was before

Sunday, April 8, 2012

On Persecution

Persecution: A Biblical Perspective

καὶ πάντες δὲ οἱ θέλοντες εὐσεβῶς ζῆν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ διωχθήσονται.

Indeed, and all the ones desiring to live in a godly manner in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Tim. 3:12) Diōchthēsontai, the Greek work translates persecuted in this text, is a form of diōkō. It appears 45 times in the Greek NT. The range of meaning begins with hasten, run, press on; persecute, drive away, drive out, run after, pursue. In 30 of the 45 occurrences the NAS translates it persecute. The meaning in our text is unambiguous: persecute. The immediate context strongly supports the idea that persecute is clearly in view. Paul begins the chapter with a prediction that difficult times will be the predominate character of the last days. He then points to Jannes and Jambres who opposed Moses, instructing Timothy that the false teachers and evil imposters will do the same to the gospel. Then Paul offers a word of encouragement. He say that the folly of these imposters will be obvious to all. All who? you might ask! All those who have the light of the gospel and the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding them into the truth will be able to recognize imposters when they see them. Paul then references his own trials, including the persecutions he suffered, recognizing the Timothy had followed him in them all.

It is in the middle of this discourse that Paul says all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted. In some way, shape or form, genuine Christians will be persecuted for their beliefs. This is a promise of Sacred Scripture. It should take no one by surprise. Christians should expect to be persecuted. As my pastor recently pointed out, persecution is a natural part of being a believer. It is part of the package. But we don’t expect it. In fact, American Christians have adopted the philosophy that they have a “right” not to be persecuted even though Scripture promises them just the opposite. Evangelical leaders are busy propagating philosophies about how political involvement can not only preserve a quasi-theocratic state a.k.a. “a Christian nation,” but that this involvement should be undertaken with great zeal because it is the only way we can avoid persecution. Comfort is really the central concern as I see it. No one wants to sacrifice or suffer loss for the sake of the gospel. Again, the American before the Christian attitude appears in this arena as well. There is nothing wrong with wanting to live a peaceful life and to live in a society where one can share the gospel without civil interference. Paul instructed us to pray for civil leaders to that end. However, the same Paul who told us to pray for such tranquility also informs us that the avoidance of persecution, for those who desire to live godly, is a fruitless endeavor.

Scripture informs us to make the most of our time because the days are evil. (Eph. 5:16) Jesus said that we must work while it is day, because the night comes when no one can work. (John 9:4) Time is finite. We all have the same amount of time each day and what we do with it is extremely important. Every minute you spend “not sharing” the gospel, not teaching the faith, not making disciples is one less minute you have to do those things. If I have 7 days this week in which to work and engage in those things that the Lord has called me to, then every day I spend engaged in something else is a day lost. I am not arguing that you should spend every waking minute involved in bible study, evangelism, and other ministerial activities. What I am asking is this: if I spend 15 hours each week involved in political activism aimed at avoiding persecution, is that the best use of my time? Is that something Scripture teaches, endorses, encourages, or even permits? I think this is a good question for us to ponder. Since we only have so much time in a day, week, month, year or lifetime, how should we spend it in light of the teachings of Scripture? Some evangelical leaders think the Church should spend its time on political reform for pragmatic purposes while others have theological reasons for this suggestion. The majority think this way because they have been given over to American ideology.

The problem with this attitude is that it is distinctly American. Here is how it works. First, the single most important factor in American ideology is freedom! Above all else, freedom must be protected! Now, I admit, freedom is a great blessing. But from a spiritual perspective, do we really know if persecution or loss of freedom is perhaps a greater blessing? Because freedom is the sacred American idol, Christians believe that somehow, it is God’s will that they do everything in their power to preserve it to extreme degrees. Yet there is absolutely no reason for us to draw such a conclusion based on exegetical investigations of the text. In fact, the writers of Scripture enjoyed no such freedom when they penned the New Testament. Therefore, the idea that it is the duty of the Christian church to preserve religious freedom in America through political activism is not only unsupported by Scripture, it seems to run contrary to the promise Scripture made that we should expect persecution if we desire to live godly in Christ Jesus. This is not fatalism. The Church should proclaim the truth, preaching against sin, including the sin of tyranny. The difference is found in the mechanism. My detractors would use political activism while I suggest that Bible teaches we use preaching. Moreover, the preaching is not for the purpose of influencing in a political sense, although that would be the natural result if conversion ensues. Preaching is for the purpose of regeneration, personal salvation. If you want to see an elected official do a 180 on abortion or homosexuality, give him the gospel and if God regenerates his heart, there will be a 180 unlike anything you could ever see with political activism.

The record of Jesus’ very first comment about the subject of persecution is located in Matthew 5:11. There He says, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.” Jesus did not see persecution as something to be avoided, or even feared. Rather, it seems that Jesus saw persecution as something to be embraced, and even celebrated. He went so far as to say that we are exceptionally blessed when men persecute us for His sake. Jesus’ view on persecution was quite radical compared to our own. He said that we are to rejoice and be glad when we are persecuted. (Matt. 5:12) Is this the attitude of the Church? I can say that it clearly is not the attitude of the American Church. The sad truth is that you cannot tell the difference between America and the American Church and that is exceptionally disturbing. There is a natural antithesis between the Church and the culture. That antithesis is becoming more and more difficult to detect in the West. The Church and culture have blended into mirror images of one another.

There are a number of ancillary issues in Western culture that have led to a noticeable decline in religious persecution. The most telling is the marriage between Christian theology and cultural ideology. The Church has abandoned the concept that the gospel is offensive and foolish to the world. She has forgotten that her members are in fact, peculiar, unique, dissimilar from the cultural. Her acceptance of tolerance has led to the purging of any true preaching of repentance. But such preaching necessarily involves making a judgment of sorts and this contradicts the very foundations of western thinking on the idea of tolerance and moral relativism. In essence, rather than looking like the bride of Christ as she should, the visible Church looks more like the bride of western thought. However, it seems the culture is ready to push the limits of what this Church is even able to handle, with its policy of murdering innocent babies in the womb and calling it abortion and its views on homosexual behavior. With these shifts, we can see the elements of persecution arising as the church is slower to accept these views than the culture would like for her to be. Unfortunately, however, the weakened state of the visible church with her weak views of God, Christ, man, Scripture, and the Gospel virtually ensure that she will eventually integrate these beliefs into her own theology.

For the true church, however, the true bride of Christ, persecution is just beginning in the west. And this is not a bad thing in my opinion. Persecution will cause the Church to once again focus on the right things. It brings with it the possibility of narrowing the scope of mission, which I believe the church desperately needs. And what is this mission? It is to honor God by making disciples through being faithful witness to the gospel of her resurrected Savior, Jesus Christ. This witness emerges in her praxis, her theology, and her message! For this witness, she is willing to lay down her life and spill her last drop of blood. She will not be silenced. This is the glorious Church of God that has been called out by God the Father, redeemed by Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, and empowered and preserved by God the Holy Spirit. She will not sit down and shut up despite the persecution and insults of a god-hating culture like the one that is now America. She will lift her voice against the butchery that is abortion, the deviance that is sexual license parading about as love, which includes adulterers, fornicators, and homosexual wickedness. She will do so with compassion and love, but with somberness and seriousness and great fear.

Persecution will help us separate the imposters from the genuine. The sad truth is that the overwhelming majority of people in the west who call themselves "Christian" are deviant imposters. There is very little that is actually Christian about them. A casual examination of their ideology and behavior quickly reveals that they despise God’s law in a variety of areas. Genuine believers delight in God’s law while imposters despise it. For example, a professing homosexual Christian despises God’s law of marriage and sexual relations. This is also true for the Christian who practices illicit divorce. The Christian who considers abortion acceptable despises God’s law of life and His prohibition against murder not to mention His freedom.

Persecution is clearly increasing in western culture. Christians are made fun of for believing the Bible. They are called bigots because they oppose homosexuality and gay marriage. We are called oppressive because we deny that a woman has the right to murder her baby in the womb because it is an inconvenience for her to have him/her. This persecution is a blessing according to Christ, not cause for alarm. We should respond with deliberate focus on our message and our behavior. We should respond by rejoicing, not by seeking ways to avoid it. When we change our message because the world finds it offensive, silly, or stupid, we are allowing persecution for the gospel to change the gospel. When scholars change their views to gain academic respectability, they are compromising under pressure to persecution. The first step in responding to persecution rightly is being able to recognize it when it comes. Insults, angry rants, name-calling, and polarizing tactics are all strategies of persecution. We respond by firming up our message, making sure our answers are biblically sound, rejoicing, and giving the gospel with compassion, love, respect, and gentleness in the hope that God will grant the gift of repentance.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Frank Turek and Politics: Do Christians have to get involved in politics.

According to the Christian Post, Frank Turek told First Baptist Church of Charlotte, N.C. that unless they get involved in politics they won’t be able to preach the gospel. I empathize with Turek’s concern about the loss of religious freedom in America. There is no doubt that these freedoms are being pushed back ever so slightly with each passing week. However, Turek’s statement makes the preaching of the gospel dependent on an increasingly secular and godless government rather than on God. This has to be one of the most eccentric statements I have ever read from a Christian apologist, not to mention, manipulative and soundly unbiblical.

We are quite fortunate to have the witness of the NT revelation to help us understand how Christians should relate to their government, and to politics for that matter. We have specific instructions regarding the issue as well as some fine examples given to us by the first century church and the apostles of our Lord. The objective of this blog is to examine Turek’s remarks to determine if Scripture provides the kind of support that such a dogmatic statement merits.
The first passage that informs believers on the subject is Romans 13:1-7. In this text, Paul instructs the Roman believers to be in subjection to the governing authorities. Paul places no conditions on this subjection. In other words, our personal endorsement is not a prerequisite for an obligation to subjection to exist. Of course subjection to man is always overruled when that subjection contradicts subjection to God.

In addition, there is nothing in the text to indicate that Paul considered it appropriate, wise, or right for the Christian to manipulate the governing authorities toward a Christian worldview outside the normal role of evangelism for purposes of personal salvation. On the other hand, there are no prohibitions against it appearing in this text either. However, I remind the reader that this blog is dealing with Turek’s dogmatic assertion that Christians should be politically engaged if they want to be able to continue to preach the gospel. I have not indicated that I will be making a case against Christians being involved in politics, although I do have questions about that involvement, especially when it begins to crowd out the preaching of the gospel, which is the core mission of the church. In other words, when evangelical pastors spend more time pushing through a piece of legislation than they do shepherding their flock, I have to wonder if that is the true calling of the shepherd. I have no choice but to question that behavior. I am not drawing a conclusion in this blog. What I am doing is asking you to give the matter serious thought and examine Scripture as far removed from the 21st Century as you can and make up your own mind. The first point here is that Paul provides explicit instructions on church-government relations. We need to understand and appropriate them to our lives top to bottom.
The principle of Proverbs 8:15 comes to mind when I think about Christians attempting to shape the leadership of secular government. “By Me kings reign, And rulers decree justice.” God, not the church or the influential pastor, evangelist, or apologist is in charge of establishing leaders of nations. Paul repeats these very same instructions to Titus, commanding him to remind the church to be subject to the rulers, and to authorities. (Titus 3:1) To some, Paul apparently did not go quite far enough. He should have instructed Titus on political strategy, but he did not. His only strategy was to instruct Titus and the Roman church to live a life that did as much to support the gospel message as preaching it did.

Daniel provides us with sobering insight into the question of establishing governments. “It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and He establishes kings; He gives wisdom to the wise men and knowledge to men of understanding.” (Dan. 2:21) Clearly God is the one who is maneuvering leaders to the lot He ordained for them, in the countries of the earth from the least of them to the greatest. Does this mean I believe we take a fatalistic approach to politics and socio-cultural issues? Not at all. While I deny that passivity is the right behavior, I certainly challenge the modern American Christian who seems to have the strongest tendency to baptize just about every Christian principle he/she can get his hands on in Americanism. The biggest problem with American evangelicals is that we are American Christians rather than Christian Americans. We have the greatest degree of difficulty separating our faith from our ethnicity as Americans. It is this issue that leads good men like Frank Turek to unwittingly place a burden on the backs of Christians that Scripture and God do not. This ideology leads to the view that it is a sin “not to vote.” Others claim that it may not be a sin, but it certainly is irresponsible. Still others say that a good Christian is a good citizen and a good citizen votes. Some will even say that you damage your Christian testimony by not voting. I vote every chance I get. But I do not engage in the legalistic absurdity of turning the right to vote into a biblical command. This is what happens when you are trained to be American first and Christian second. A good, responsible Christian citizen is busy giving his culture the gospel in whatever way God has called him to do it. It may be pastoring, teaching, street evangelism, one on one, or going door to door. The silliness of this may be observed in the number of “Christians” who vote and who do not share the gospel with a single person over the course of an entire election cycle. Worse, some of these same people will cast stones at a person for not voting and engage in illicit divorce, fornication, lying, slander, and a host of other behaviors that actually are clearly condemned in Scripture. Daniel tells us that God is in charge who setting up kings.
Paul tells Timothy that prayers and supplications should be made for kings and all who are in authority. Why? So that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness. (1 Tim. 2:1-2) Paul shared Turek’s concerns about Christians being able to lead a quiet and tranquil life. But Paul’s way of addressing the issue and Turek’s are fundamentally different. Paul called for prayer. Turek calls for political activism. Paul points to faith in God as the means by which we will live in tranquility and stands ready to accept the opposite should God so will it. Turek threatens the unsuspecting and uninformed that if they are not in the voting booth, their Bibles will be gathered up and burned in mass. I admit this is a scary scenario. I readily understand that religious freedom, to be specific, genuine Christian freedoms, are in serious jeopardy. But were they not also threatened in Paul’s day? Of course they were. Did the apostles set up political rallies designed to theocratize the Greco-Roman government? It seems not.

Peter was not silent regarding the Christian’s relationship to secular authorities any more than Paul was. He wrote, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.  For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.” (1 Peter 2:13-15) Could Peter’s instructions have been more unambiguous? I don’t see how. Peter says that it is for the sake of Christ that we must submit ourselves to human institutions. He looks to the Christian group and its reputation in the culture. He hopes to demonstrate with action, with living, that what the group preaches is genuine. Part of that is proof is witnessed by the fact that the church was not to be viewed as a group of insurrectionists going against the authority for the sake of independence. Where it is possible, the church is to live at peace with civil institutions. It is only during times of contradiction that the church must cut against the grain. When the civil authority says to the church, you may not preach that gospel or you must not discriminate based on any human behavior, to include sexual behavior, then the church has no choice but to say she must obey God rather than man.
Where does Scripture instruct the Church to engage in establishing laws which unregenerate men must agree with and obey or suffer the consequences? It is true that the moral codes of human civil institutions have in back of them the fingerprint of the Divine. God’s moral law is etched in the conscience of humans. We have a proclivity for order, justice, and fairness. Only the Christian worldview can adequately account for this fact. But that is not the same thing as saying that it is the business of the Society of Christ to stand in authority over the unbeliever. Outward compliance to the law of God is self-righteousness. At best, the Church would create a society of self-righteous moralists who are no better off than Sodom or the Nazis. Is that the aim of the church? Is that the mission Jesus gave to the body?

Is Frank Turek’s statement true? Must Christians continue to be engaged in politics if they are to continue to be able to preach the gospel? Well, maybe yes and maybe no. If you mean that Christians must continue to be engaged in politics in order to preserve our freedom to preach the gospel, that answer might be yes. If that is your view, then it is better to be safe than sorry. However, it is my view, and I think Scripture teaches that Jesus Christ did not come to bring about political and social reform. The first century church knew nothing of political engagement. Even when the church was forbidden to preach Jesus Christ under punishment of threat and even death, still without waver, she continued to preach the gospel. There are no human laws powerful enough to stop the mouths of the prophets. There never has been and there never will be. God has promised that this word will continue to go out to the ends of the earth and then the end of time will come.
What the church must become comfortable with, and once against acquainted with is persecution. Persecution is to the church what workouts are to the human body. It serves to make her stronger, more faithful, focused, and more deliberate. But it seems to me that somehow, in America, the modern church, the visible church postulates that the secular government should be hers to shape and form in whatever way she pleases. What Turek’s view reveals is a desperate church fearing persecution at the hands of ungodly men. But the church, the Church has always been the object of persecution from ungodly men who despise the true God of Scripture. I would argue that we should not be surprised when a God-hating culture passes legislation that is not only inconsistent with but antithetical to biblical values. How then should the Church respond? With political activism? Not from what I read in Scripture. The Church should respond by preaching the gospel of repentance and faith in the only Son of God who died so that undeserving men might know the life and light that is in God.

One final thought regarding Christian politics, if there is such a thing. Jesus Christ Himself lived among a culture in Palestine that was one of the most moral cultures a person could find themself in. These religious zealots were extraordinarily passionate about God’s rules and laws. They kept parts of the Law to a degree that most of us are incapable of understanding. Yet, in the midst of this culture, Jesus called the most moral men from that culture, the leaders, the holiest of the holiest, vipers, wolves, liars, and self-righteous hypocrites. We are deluding ourselves if we think we are accomplishing anything by engaging in political activism because at best, it only creates the illusion of a changed life. The heart-change necessary for genuine, lasting change can only occur by the hand of God. And God was clear when He said in Scripture that He changing the heart by the foolishness of preaching! To Frank Turek and First Baptist Church of Charlotte, I would say, preach the word! God is faithful and will not allow it to return to Him void. It will accomplish, not our purpose, but His purpose. The best way for the church to approach political issues to thunder God’s word for the purpose, not of influencing laws in the culture, but for the purpose of changing hearts within the culture.

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