That Terrible, Exclusivist, Divisive Apostle Paul

Getting ready to preach on Ephesians 4:1-6. For those not familiar, this text reveals just how exclusive and divisive the apostle Paul was. I mean, really, how mean and provincial can you get? In today’s world where I get to make my own rules, decide on my own truth, even get to decide whether I am a male or a female – how can we even read these words, let alone use them as some kind of standard for how the church is to behave itself? Just consider how “unchristian” the apostle Paul is:

  • There is only one body – one and only one church.
  • There is only one Spirit – not a Spirit for each worldly religion.
  • There is only one hope.
  • There is only one Lord – Jesus, not Mohamed nor Buddha nor some angel that claims to have a latter-day revelation from God.
  • There is only one faith – only one road leads to God, all others lead to destruction.
  • There is only one baptism – the death that is focused on Jesus and begins the new life.
  • And, finally, there is only one God and Father.

Wow, you would think that the apostle Paul was some kind of radical or something. And you would be right.

The apostle Paul lived in a time – much like ours – where there were literally hundreds of gods and dozens of competing philosophies and religions. Even within his “home” faith of Judaism there were a number of sects that all claimed to be primary. He lived his early adult life as one of the most strict – the Pharisees. But, on that road to Damascus Paul had his entire worldview torn down. God let him think about things for three days (I just wonder if there was not a subliminal message here – Paul had to spend three days in the darkness of blindness just as Jesus had to spend three days in the darkness of the tomb. God is really good at making these little “coincidences” occur at the most opportune times!) Anyway, Ananias comes and preaches the gospel to Paul, and from that point on Saul the Pharisee becomes Saul/Paul the Christian evangelist, apologist, and author.

The book of Ephesians, I am coming to learn, is really a manifesto for Paul’s new life. Where the world in which he lived had dozens of societal divisions – Roman/barbarian, Jew/Gentile, slave/free – Paul only saw two – those in Christ and those outside of Christ (the “world”). Those in Christ constitute one body, the church of God through Christ. It is not that Paul now views all mankind as saved (the inclusivity or universalist view), but that all mankind can be one through the blood of Christ.

Today we live in a world where individualism and individuality reign supreme. The defining term for our culture is tolerance, but in reality it is a mis-definition of the word tolerance to which we must submit. To be precise, tolerance means that one must identify and actually disagree with the viewpoint of another, yet allow that person to hold that viewpoint however mistaken or ignorant that viewpoint may be. Today, tolerance means that we must validate and even agree with the viewpoints of others, which basically means that we cannot even disagree with the other person. To disagree, and especially to label another’s viewpoint as “wrong,” “ignorant,” or (heaven forbid) “sinful” is to commit the most grievous of societal prohibitions.

Which takes me right back to Ephesians 4. The apostle Paul is utterly, completely, and totally exclusivist. There is only one road to God. One Lord means just that – any person who claims equality with Jesus or to be Jesus’s latter-day prophet is simply a charlatan and deceiver. There is just one body, one church, and all the claims that the divisions we see in Christianity are somehow blessed by God are just ludicrous. There is just one faith, not dozens or hundreds of equal “roads to heaven.” There is just one baptism, not one for the forgiveness of sins, and one for admission to a church, and one for the bestowing of the Holy Spirit, and one for the gifting of special talents and abilities. And, just to top everything off, there is just one God.

Even for many in the church today, the claim of exclusiveness is a troubling and divisive one. Our culture has so absorbed the doctrine of individualism and “equality” that to suggest a differing viewpoint is wrong, and especially worthy of being condemned by God, is just, well, so unchristian. But it is exactly that fear, that uncomfortableness, that reticence, that we must overcome if we are going to fairly and truthfully present the gospel of Christ.

I am in no way suggesting we do so in a rude, hateful, or condescending manner. Within the Churches of Christ I am reminded almost daily of our history of shameful rhetoric. But the pendulum can swing too far the other way, and never to challenge an incorrect or dangerous belief is no more loving than it is to ridicule that belief. I am reminded of Alexander Campbell’s practice (which infuriated some of his supporters) of spending time, and even eating several meals, with his debate opponents during his long, and lest we forget, vigorous debates. Campbell never surrendered an inch to those he disagreed with (and, sadly, his prodigious verbal broadsides became the model for far less charitable disciples), but it appears to me that he viewed those he debated as erring opponents and not enemies. There is a huge difference.

Ephesians 4 is a great passage of Scripture, to be sure. But it has a sharp edge – and Paul will go on to say some very harsh, and condemning, words about those who are outside of Christ (walking in futility, darkened in their understanding, alienated from God, ignorant, hard of heart). We must learn to handle that edge carefully and wisely. But, let us never be fearful of that edge to the point that we bury it.

Book Review – The Recovery of Mission (Vinoth Ramachandra)

Vinoth Ramachandra, The Recovery of Mission: Beyond the Pluralist Paradigm, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 284 pages, with extensive endnotes and comprehensive bibliography.

I get my book suggestions/recommendations mostly from my social media feeds, primarily Twitter (I follow a couple of major book publishers) and through blogs and other odds and ends kinds of sources. This book was recommended personally by a “digital” friend – someone I’ve never met in “3-D” but someone who corresponds with me via this blog. I was extremely hesitant at first because (hangs head in shame) I just was not convinced anyone with the last name of “Ramachandra” could write anything of substance regarding Christianity and the plague of pluralism. To my friend’s great credit he kept asking if I had read the book, and so I finally put it on my “wish list.” I eventually had the time slot and the money to buy the book, and I am very, very, grateful to my friend for consistently pushing me to consider it. It is worth every penny, and a significant addition to the conversation regarding where Christianity is headed. I have to note here that the publication date is 1996 – what would the author’s opinion be today?!

Ramachandra begins with a critique of three authors who, independently and with different emphases, seek to blend Christianity into what they would consider a healthy pluralistic religious amalgamation. They each object to any claim of exclusivism by Christians, and in varying ways attempt to prove that every religion has a common core that should be accepted and valued by everyone, and that no one single religion has a monopoly of what is true, or right, or normal. I have to say that this first part was extremely difficult for me to follow, as I am not at all familiar with Hinduism or Buddhism, and the writers the author critiques are related primarily to those East Indian religions. The main culprit of religious intolerance, according to each of the authors Ramachandra critiques, is clearly Christianity, and each of them suggests that it is Christianity that has the most to repent of in terms of humanity reaching a consensus of religious truth and tolerance.

In part II, Ramachandra draws parallels between the three authors and addresses those parallels more generically. It is in this part that he introduces Lesslie Newbigin, which was enlightening to me. Having just recently started reading Newbigin, it was interesting to me to read a critique of Newbigin, although it is a favorable (and constructive) critique.

It was in the third part that I feel the value of this book lies (although, to grasp what Ramachandra says in part III you have to work through the first two parts!) In part III discusses “The Scandal of Jesus,” “A Gospel for the World,” and “Gospel Praxis” (a fancy word for ‘work’ or ‘practice.’) Here Ramachandra specifically points out that in order to be genuine, the Christian message must be scandalous. It is exclusive. It is not authoritarian (as in the mistaken form of Constantinian “Christendom,” but it is most certainly exclusive). The more acceptable a person tries to make Christianity in relation to the major world religions, the less Christian it becomes. In other words, you cannot make Christianity merely a sub-specie of the generic word “religion.” The belief in Jesus of Nazareth is unique, exclusive, and therefore exclusionary of the major tenets of these world religions.

I should add here that Ramachandra does a good job of pointing out a necessary corollary – people who insist that Christianity can be made compatible with other world religions (especially the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism) do not fully understand those religions, or intentionally misrepresent them. The deeper one understands those religions it becomes apparent that they are just as exclusive, and that they are completely incompatible, with Christianity. Stated another way, you really have to  change those religions as much as you would have to change Christianity in order to make each of them compatible with each other.

This point to a huge issue I have with so many proclaimers of Christian pluralists today. One, they utterly misunderstand Christianity. Two, they utterly misunderstand the world view that they claim is superior to Christianity, and that they try to make Christianity conform to. I believe most Christian pluralists today loathe Christianity, and their complete unwillingness to view the Christian faith from the pages of the New Testament, choosing rather to cherry-pick obvious failings of the Christian centuries (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, etc.) makes it obvious their critiques are not genuine. Their blindness to the moral failings of the major world religions is equally disastrous for their agenda. You simply cannot overlook the atrocities committed by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others against persons of differing faiths.

Okay, I apologize for getting a little preachy here, so I have to get back to Ramachandra’s book. He does raise some questions (and points to answers I am not sure I can accept), but in general he remains faithful to what most would consider “creedal” Christianity – the Christianity of the first two or three centuries. Perhaps his most critical question is this – what is the eternal destiny of those who have never had a chance to hear of the saving work of Jesus? The pluralist wants to say that all roads (and religions) lead to God and heaven. Ramachandra will not go there – but he does suggest that the blood of Christ is effectual even for those who have not specifically heard of Jesus. This is a question that is just above my pay grade for me to answer, but as most pluralists will begin with this question in order to push their agenda, it is one that must be addressed by every disciple of Christ.

At over twenty years, this book is just beginning to get a little “long of tooth,” but it is contemporary enough to be valuable for Christians, and especially Christian teachers (preachers, elders, Bible school teachers) to read. Whether you agree with his answers or not, you need to hear and to consider the questions he raises. His deft, and in my opinion, powerful, responses to three different, but common, objections to the exclusiveness of Christ are important to consider.

This book is a valuable addition to the section of my library that includes Os Guinness and Lesslie Newbigin. They write from entirely different points of view, but each in his own way points in the same direction. The faith of Jesus Christ is exclusive, and to be faithful to Jesus his disciples must honestly and fearlessly present that exclusiveness. Any attempt to marginalize or minimize the message of the cross is simply heretical.

Why is that such a hard message for ministers of the church to understand?

A Fascinating (and Problematic) Text

I was doing some “heavy lifting” (at least for me) in preparation for our mid-week Bible study. Unfortunately, our teacher had a last minute need to take care of, so I was unable to have all of my questions answered. So, maybe this post is a little premature – but this is a fascinating (and to me, fun) text to consider.

The text under discussion is John 12:39-40, quoted here from the ESV:

Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’

Okay, issue number one: this is NOT what the passage in the book of Isaiah reads. You can check me on this, but in the ESV the passage in Isaiah 6:9-10 reads:

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.

So, in John the point of view of the speaker has changed from the Old Testament view. In the Old Testament, the passage is a command to the prophet – it is something that the prophet must do. In John’s quotation, it is something that has been done by an unidentified “he.” So, either John, or the manuscript from which John is quoting, has slightly altered the text. Now, digging a little deeper, I discovered that John’s rendition is perfectly acceptable if you add different vowels to the Hebrew consonants. (Technical aside here: originally Hebrew was written using only consonants. Later, “vowel points” were added underneath the consonants as a benefit to reading the text. Try this – take any paragraph and remove all the vowels. You can still read the words, but it takes some doing. So, in the text above, if different “vowel points” are placed under the consonants, you can legitimately arrive with the “point of view” that John quotes in his gospel). Fascinating.

But it gets even more fascinating.

The text from Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted (or alluded to) in all four gospels and in the book of Acts (Matthew 13:14; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-40; and Acts 28:26). In Matthew, Mark and Luke the text comes in context with Jesus’s parable of the sower. In Mark and Luke the Isaiah passage is only  paraphrased, so we can eliminate those passages. What is fascinating is that in Matthew and Acts the text is quoted, not from the original Hebrew, but from one Greek translation of the Hebrew, called the Septuagint. Once again I quote from the ESV (for continuity):

For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.

Notice that the Greek version (quoted by Matthew and Luke in Acts) follows the Hebrew in the sequencing: heart-ears-eyes-eyes-ears-heart (in John’s quotation it is eyes-heart-eyes-heart). In the Greek version of Matthew and Acts the hardening, the stopping of the ears and the blinding of the eyes is a past event (as in the gospel of John), but it is clearly insinuated (and in the case of the eyes, clearly stated) that it is the people themselves who have made it impossible for God to heal them. In John’s version the agent is an unidentified “he” who is separate from the “I” who would heal the people.

All of the above is fodder for the textual critics, those who pore over ancient manuscripts and attempt to decipher the chain of events that leads one author to quote (or paraphrase) a text in one manner while another will quote (or paraphrase) the same text in a different manner. Quite honestly, that study is miles above my head, although I do find it immensely interesting.

No, what I find to be particularly fascinating (sorry to use a word so repetitively), is that it exists at all – either in the Old Testament message of Isaiah, or especially in the New Testament message of the gospel writers and in Luke (quoting, as he was, the apostle Paul quoting Isaiah).

Why would God command Isaiah to make it impossible (or, at the very minimum, difficult) for the people to repent? And why would Jesus quote this problematic text, and why would Paul once again quote it as he attempted to preach to the Jews in Rome?

In Isaiah, the prophet clearly understands the problem. He asks, “How long?” He struggles too. Isn’t the point of a prophetic message to encourage or to facilitate repentance? God’s response, in verses 11-13 seems to be that there must be a time where people can actually see the results of their rebellion. In other words, God is telling Isaiah, “These people are not going to take your words to heart. So, I am going to show them that your words are the truth – they will turn a ‘deaf ear and a blind eye’ to your prophecy until I prove to them that your words are my words. But by then it will be too late for them, they will be in exile. Yet, for future generations, their obstinacy will be an object lesson, and maybe their children will ‘hear and see.'” Okay, all of that is my conjecture, but it seems to make the most sense to me. A Hebrew scholar I am not – but putting all the passages together that seems to me to be the gist of God’s message.

Jesus, knowing God’s intent, then pulls those same words to use for his generation. The people to whom he speaks are just as “deaf and blind” as were Isaiah’s audience. They too are just too unwilling to accept his words as truth. Ditto for Paul’s audience in Rome.

Some people just refuse to hear God’s message. Until, that is, God acts decisively, and by then it will be too late. God sent the audience of Isaiah into exile. God destroyed the Jewish nation that rejected and crucified Jesus. Paul said that God would “cut off” the branch that was institutional Judaism to “graft in” the Gentile nations. Done, done, and done.

So – is there any message left of Isaiah’s warning for us today??

Do we have any lasting issues with racism, with class distinction, with xenophobia? Do people today still lie, cheat, steal? Is everyone completely honest as they fill out their tax reports? Is there any problem with war, nations hating nations? Do we have any problems with murdering unborn babies? Are we facing issues of abhorrent sexual behavior? Are there questions of people who refuse to accept their God-given sexual nature? Are humans more or less likely to love and take care of one another? Are we “husbanding” our earth as God commanded his first humans to do? Do we fully and completely worship God as our creator and redeemer?

No, now that I think about it, I guess not. I guess Isaiah doesn’t really say anything to us after all.

Fascinating.

The Consequences of Trivializing Sin (2)

As I mentioned in my last post, there are at least two major consequences to our minimizing or trivializing sin (The Consequences of Trivializing Sin). In this post I want to deal with consequence number two – the fact that we have lost, or fail to recognize, the pervasive “systemic” nature of sin. I will attempt to illustrate my conclusion with an example I think few would disagree with – and one that I’m sure will ruffle more than a few feathers.

The first is the way in which sexual sin has truly become systemic in our culture today. Back in the late 1950’s and 1960’s when the “sexual revolution” began to bloom in full flower, the church responded as it is wont to do, by focusing on the “moralities” of the revolution. Thus, instead of recognizing that what was taking place was a total reorientation of our sexual nature, the church focused on the length of a woman’s skirt, whether “mixed bathing” was a sin (um, that has to rate up close to the top for incorrect nomenclature. I don’t think ANYONE was arguing for mixed bathing, but swimming together was surely a hot topic), and the “sin” of dancing (the old “vertical expression of a horizontal desire”). As the revolution deepened, more strenuous objections came against pornography and guiltless cohabitation, but once again, the push back was focused on individual “acts” of sexual immorality, not the larger issue of our sexual natures being “re-imagined.” Fast forward to 2019, and now the sexual content of that harbinger of decadence, Playboy magazine, seems tame in comparison to the repugnant demonstrations of homosexuality routinely presented in “Gay Pride” parades. But, while the content has certainly become more decadent, the underlying rebellion against God’s plan for male and female sexuality has not changed. The church did not recognize it back in the ’50’s and ’60’s, but we what we are seeing today is nothing more than the ’50’s rebellion writ large.

The second area that I wanted to highlight is the area of economics. I have read, and have even heard it taught, that free-market capitalism is “God’s perfect form of an economy.” Such promoters point to the fact that in the Old Testament land ownership was described positively, and that hard work and thrift are praised both in the Old and New Testaments. I’m not sure how many of these free-market capitalists would appreciate going back to a divinely appointed monarchy, but I digress. The idea is that because God allowed, or even blessed, land ownership and hard work and thriftiness, he somehow instituted free-market capitalism as his favored economic platform.

Two comments scream out for attention. One is that in the Old Testament, no Israelite ever owned the land! It was God’s land, “leased” or “lent” to the individual farmer for a period of time. Every fifty years all “ownership” of the land reverted back to the original “owner,” but even that was provisional. All the crops, all the livestock that grazed on the crops, all the proceeds of the land or livestock belonged to God. God allowed the “land owner” or livestock manager to keep between 75 percent and 90 percent of his work, but the implication was clear – everything was God’s and did not “belong” to the man who worked the fields or kept the livestock.

Second, a system of free-market capitalism without extraordinary moral safeguards becomes a demonic system of the powerful abusing and repressing the weak. Slavery is perfectly acceptable in a pure free-market capitalism. Charging “whatever the market will bear” is perfectly acceptable, and even demanded, in a pure free-market capitalistic economy. Usury is basically mandated in a pure free-market capitalistic society. And, as our American history has proven, it is exactly that pure, undiluted free-market mindset that has been rejected in favor of a much more egalitarian capitalism, where laws and opposing forces (such as labor unions) provide a check on unbridled greed. In other words, without a strong moral framework, a pure free-market capitalism is simply impossible to maintain without utterly destroying the weakest and poorest citizens in a commonwealth.

Simply put, SIN runs rampant in a free-market capitalism, and it must be restrained by moral safeguards – such as those instituted by God in Leviticus 19 (and other texts) and as have been initiated in our own culture. It is unbiblical, and highly dubious, to argue that free-market capitalism is God’s chosen economic platform. Leaving the corners of your field unharvested, leaving grapes on the vine, ceasing all labor every seventh day (thus allowing your beasts and your workers rest), letting your land lie fallow every seventh and fiftieth year, freeing your slaves every seven years, refusing to charge interest and remitting debts every 50 years – NONE of these practices are a part of a capitalistic economy, and yet they form the bedrock morality of the Israelite economy. Let us be done with the myth that our form of capitalism is somehow favored by God!

The point that I wanted to drive home here with these two examples (and more could be given) is that SIN is not just the isolated instance of two men or two women choosing to have sex with each other, or charging usurious interest rates. SIN is a demonic force – personalized by the apostle Paul as “the prince of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2. SIN pervades every aspect of our life – there is no component untouched. If we as Christians cherry-pick what we think are the worst of the worst (typically sexual in nature and behaviors the furthest away from our lifestyle) and label them as sins while blithely turning a blind eye to the aspects of SIN that are in our favor (or worse, that we actively support), then our opponents are right to accuse us of hypocrisy.

It is past time for Christians to return to a biblical understanding of SIN. While there certainly is nothing wrong with cataloging individual sins, (and Paul certainly does that!), we need to regain that understanding of SIN that underlies all of the various biblical catalogs of sin – SIN is deeply embedded in our nature, it is not without reason that the Psalmist can say, “I was conceived in sin.” (And, lest you worry, I am NOT promoting the idea of original sin!!) I am simply saying that the psalmist had a much more “biblical” view of sin than we do, and we have his words to help us understand the idea of sin!

Not to muddy the waters even more at this point, but we really do need to return to the apostle Paul in the letter to the Ephesians, and forget the blather of Sigmund Freud!

[Authors note: some rather egregious spelling mistakes have been corrected. Sorry for the poor proof-reading!]

Sound Conservatism

Those who read my post yesterday, (Neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran) who are otherwise unaware of who I am, may have come to the conclusion that I am some kind of flaming liberal. Well, I can assure you that is not the case. I may be a flaming dingbat, but I digress. My point yesterday was to illustrate how conservatism can be, and has been, coopted by ideologies that ultimately destroy healthy conservatism. There is a sound, healthy conservatism, and I believe the Bible teaches that conservatism.

After writing yesterday’s post, it might be surprising for me to say today that biblical conservatism contains aspects of each of those three distortions of conservatism I dismissed. While I firmly reject the conservatism of the political Sadducees, the legalistic Pharisees, and the escapist Qumran covenanters (perhaps the Essenes), I do believe that biblical conservatism holds the basic truths of those movements, but in a way that fundamentally rejects where each of them ends up.

In terms of the political Sadducees, there is a sense in which biblical conservatism seeks to maintain a healthy equilibrium, a measure of the status quo. Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that God’s chosen people can exist, and can even pray for the leaders, in any and every human culture. Daniel did not seek to overthrow Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah commanded the exiles to pray for their Babylonian captors. Both Paul and Peter encouraged Christians to pray for the leaders of a godless, pagan Roman empire. This is because, as I firmly believe, the Kingdom of God transcends human politics. The kingdom is dynamic, and will eventually work to overcome those pagan cultures, but it is not dynamitic – it is transformative but it is not revolutionary. Where the Sadduccean view of conservatism goes awry is that it seeks to maintain a certain political status quo for purely selfish and covetous reasons. It is all about power, and Christians today who are pressing for a political solution for moral issues have sold their soul to the devil when it comes to power. Power corrupts – and there is not a single elected official who does not have to deal with the issue of how to exercise his or her power. Human nature being what it is, and Sin being what it is, that power is virtually always turned inward, and the more power the more selfish and egotistical that power holder becomes.

Regarding the legalistic Pharisees, the Bible clearly enjoins faithful obedience to the laws of the Kingdom of God. The New Testament nowhere repeals every injunction of the Torah (a point not often understood). Jesus himself, in that oft quoted passage (Matthew 23:23-24), clearly states that obedience of the letter of the Law is not to be ignored, but that what is more critical is that the “weightier” concepts (justice and mercy and faithfulness) to which the letter of the Law points is to be observed with greater diligence. To ignore what the Pharisees were trying to protect is to totally misunderstand their righteousness (see especially Matthew 5:20). Jesus never condemned the Pharisees because they were concerned with protecting the Law of Moses. Jesus condemned the Pharisees because they elevated a legalistic interpretation of the Law over the spiritual message that the Law was pointing to. Today’s Pharisees are not to be blamed because they are devout in wanting to follow God’s commands to the furthest extent that they can see them. Where today’s Pharisees share with their historic counterparts is in their devout, almost psychotic, elevation of their interpretation of some jot or tittle of Scripture and who completely miss the truth of that text. Just as one example, yesterday I mentioned an overly literalistic interpretation of the age of the earth. Now, no one knows how old the earth is, and I defy anyone, scientist or theologian, who can prove to me conclusively that he or she knows otherwise. It simply cannot be done – and do not even start with Archbishop Ussher’s chronology – I’ve seen it and while I appreciate its scope, I reject its basic premise. However, today’s Pharisees mandate that a believer holds to a very specific age of the earth, and anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic, certain to be excommunicated if not burned at the stake. It does not matter to them if there are other possible scenarios (and the entire thrust of Genesis 1-3 is utterly ignored). The only thing that matters to them is whether their interpretation is unquestionably accepted as absolute truth.

That leaves the Qumran covenanters, and once again, there is a level of legitimacy to their desire to separate themselves from the pagan society in which they found themselves. Jesus himself clearly taught that there are firm boundaries between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. Paul taught that the call of Christ is a call to “come out” of the world and enter into a new realm – to become citizens of heaven. Peter addressed his Christian readers as exiles in this world. This is an aspect of the Kingdom of God that I find disturbingly missing from much of contemporary Christianity. Within the Churches of Christ we have deep roots in this line of spirituality, and the fact that we have virtually eliminated that strain of thought has weakened our message and out influence considerably. We (and I speak as the majority of Churches of Christ) are far too comfortable in this world, and we have welcomed far too much of the world into our congregations. However, taken to a radical extent, this desire to separate from the world leads to a spiritual pride, and even a physical separation, that is wholly unknown in the New Testament. Paul called on his readers to separate from the world, not at all meaning they were to leave their cities and move to the desert, but that they were to separate themselves from the behaviors and practices of those who were “outside” of the kingdom. It is possible, and even biblically commanded, that Christians are to be separate, to be God’s Holy people. But we can never allow that command to countermand the equally valid injunction that we are to salt and light in a bent and broken world.

So, while I firmly reject the political compromises of the Sadduceean conservatives, and the legalistic dogmatism of the Pharisaical conservatives, and the utopian escapism of the Qumran conservatives, I do equally affirm the reality of a sound, healthy, biblical conservatism. I believe that the church must profess the last, while rejecting the excesses and errors of the first three. There is, to use Aristotle’s term, a “golden mean” that allows a disciple of Christ to be thoroughly conservative, and yet at the same time be energetically concerned with the social issues of the day. It requires that we be thoroughly biblical – that we be Old Testament Christians as well and New Testament Christians. It means that we have to re-learn some texts that we have either forgotten or have ignored – mostly the Pentateuch and the Prophets.

But it can be done. And, when we dive deeply into those books we discover a wonderful new world – it is the world of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Book Review – Foolishness to the Greeks (Lesslie Newbigin)

Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1986), 150 pages.

For those who have followed this blog for any length of time, this next paragraph is old hat, but I am an inveterate learner. For the overwhelming majority of my life that has meant the pursuit of some level of education – college, graduate school, doctoral degree in ministry. Everything I learn just teaches me that there is something else out there to learn, that I have just scooped a thimble full out of the all-encompassing ocean of knowledge. Alas, I am out of money and, quite frankly, brain power to pursue another formal degree, so I satiate my hunger for learning by reading books. One author that I just recently discovered (although, I had been introduced to him in a round-a-bout way some years ago) is Lesslie Newbigin. For most contemporary theologians, Newbigin’s name is well known. For me, reading him is almost a breath of fresh air. He never ceases to astound me. Foolishness to the Greeks is, I believe, the third book of Newbigin’s that I have read.

Simply stated and I hope without over-stating the thought, Foolishness to the Greeks is perhaps the briefest, yet finest expose of western culture that I have read (and I have read many). I think maybe I know the answer to my own question, but I simply cannot understand why Newbigin was not required reading for my Doctor of Ministry courses in post-modern theology. (The answer is, I am guessing that the professors assumed we were all familiar with Newbigin, and therefore did not think it necessary for us to include him in our reading. A very wrong assumption for me, and having Newbigin as background would have been invaluable as we were assigned so much Brian McLaren, et.al., in our course work.) If you are looking for a brief, very readable, and penetrating examination of where we are today as a culture and as a church confronting that culture, this little volume would be my go-to choice.

Newbigin is, in addition to being a deep-thinking theologian, what I would consider to be a true renaissance man – in the sense that he is just as equally adept at discussing philosophy and science as he is theology. I am amazed at the depth of his reading – and of his comprehension of extremely complex cultural issues. As has been said of so many other thinkers, if I had just half of his brain I would be exponentially smarter than I am. (Twice as smart just does not quite cover it.) Newbigin returns to the very cradle of our culture to examine the “plausibility structures” that have created who we are and why we think the way we do. Working not only with influential philosophers, but also intimately with leading scientific minds, Newbigin lays bare the skeleton that frames our “common” way of thinking. And, as staring at a bare skeleton can sometimes be disarming (pardon the pun), so having the bare elements of our culture revealed can be uncomfortable.

As just a brief overview, Newbigin begins with the question, What would it be like if we attempted to address this modern, western culture as a missionary? How would we analyze it? What forces have created this culture? Why is the message of the gospel so strange, in fact, so repugnant to a culture that, at least on the surface, continues to refer to itself as “Christian”? Why is the gospel still as much “foolishness to the Greeks” today as it was in the days of the apostle Paul? The book is divided into six chapters (the book is actually an expansion of a series of lectures, so there is no expansive wasting of words. The chapters are brief, but as they were previously given orally, they are loaded. I like that – excessive wordiness kills many an otherwise fine book!) Newbigin writes for the reader in mind – he uses simple clues (1, 2, 3, a, b, c) and repeats himself efficiently but not obnoxiously. The chapters build on themselves, and if the reader gets lost it only takes a turn of a page or two to get back on track. For simple minds such as mine, this is a genuine benefit.

While reading this book one question kept coming up in my mind, “How could a book with a 1986 publication date be so relevant over three decades later?” I guess, in answer, that our culture has not changed direction during those three decades, but the cracks and fissures that Newbigin identified in the late 20th century have become gaping chasms in the early 21st century, so I have no hesitation but to recommend the contents of this book for anyone who is searching for an answer to the challenges that the contemporary church faces.

This little volume is not just about theory, however. Newbigin was a missionary and a high-church leader, and he writes not just with questions or analysis in mind, but always with answers. True to form, in the final chapter he provides seven “essential” responses for the church to engage if it is going to be effective in confronting this “post-enlightenment” and “post-Christian” culture.

I have recently read where Newbigin is considered by many to be the father (or at least significant promoter) of the missional church movement, or the Mission Dei movement. If so, I think he has been co-opted by that movement. If that is true I am either seriously misreading Newbigin, or I am seriously misreading the missional church people (especially those who remain connected to the Churches of Christ). I would recommend, if you have hitherto been uncomfortable about picking up Newbigin because of this presumed association, that you put that idea out of your mind and read Newbigin for yourself. I am so grateful that I was able to put aside this “guilt by association” and consider Newbigin on his own merits.

OBNOXIOUS, BUT SEEMINGLY NECESSARY CAUTION: I do not agree with everything Newbigin says or writes. He comes from a theological tradition that I find to be problematic. He makes assertions that I do not believe are valid, at least biblically speaking. As a mature Christian I hope that I can recommend a book without claiming that the author to be impeccable, or being blamed for his (or her, for that matter) errors.

The Seductive Atheism of Modern Christianity

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING POST IS POLITICALLY INCORRECT. IF YOU CANNOT HANDLE READING OPINIONS THAT ARE DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSITE TO TODAY’S PAGAN CULTURE, PLEASE DO NOT CONTINUE.

[Author’s Update: It has occurred to me that I need to confess my own bent and brokenness. I am not claiming to be perfect in any way. I need God’s Holy Spirit to straighten me out on a daily basis. My prayer is that, if somehow I can help someone see the error of their thinking, that maybe God can write straight with me as a twisted pencil.]

I just don’t get it. I’m so lost anymore I question my own sanity. I’ve started this post a dozen times in my mind, and each time I just keep coming back to the same phrase, the same confusion. I just don’t get it anymore.

Once upon a time (and quite literally, for almost 2,000 years), the basic premise of the Christian gospel could be stated like this: I am a broken, sinful person and I need the saving blood of Christ to forgive me and I desperately need the power of God’s Holy Spirit to redirect my life in accordance with God’s will.

Today, the popular Christian mantra is this: I’m perfectly okay, and I don’t need the blood of Christ, but I sure do appreciate his loving acceptance of my broken lifestyle.

Just recently, and within weeks after a pagan priestess who repudiated virtually every major tenant of Biblical sexual morality was raised to the highest level of evangelical sainthood, an article has appeared in what many consider to be the flagship periodical promoting evangelical Christianity. The article effusively praises a “Christian pastor” who is openly homosexual. He proudly proclaims that Jesus did not “make him straight,” but that Jesus did remove his shame and guilt. So, he is openly gay, and unashamedly someone who claims to be a leader of a “Christian” church. One of my social media feeds is overflowing with praise for this person’s courage.

I just don’t get it anymore.

I’ll be honest here and put all my cards on the table. This kind of “Christianity” is nothing more than atheism light. It is not the biblical Christianity at all. The best I can say for it is heresy. The worst is . . . it is purely Satanic. Let me explain to the best of my limited ability.

The (il)logic behind so much of our sexual culture today can be summarized with the following syllogism:

  1. I am sexually attracted to members of my sex (male to male, female to female).
  2. I was given this attraction at my birth – I was created to be homosexual.
  3. God cannot condemn that which he created within me.
  4. Therefore, God accepts and even blesses my homosexual relationships.

An additional proposition is sometimes added by those who reject actual homosexual activity, but never-the-less accept the possibility of homosexual “attraction.”

5. Attractions, whether homosexual or heterosexual, are amoral, and therefore God cannot judge or condemn me for the feelings he created within me.

The only proposition of the above that I can accept is #1, because feelings are just that – feelings. I steadfastly reject propositions #2-5. I believe that if you hold them you must reject the biblical teaching of the nature of God, and therefore, if you accept proportions 2-5 you have become a functional atheist, despite any claim to a “Christian” faith that you might have.

One thing that everyone involved in this debate can agree on is that the Bible, as it stands written, uniformly rejects homosexual behavior. The Mosaic code, the lists of immoral behavior in the New Testament, and even Jesus’s promotion of marriage as between one man and one woman cannot be denied. What is denied is that these prohibitions and denunciations are truly God’s intent. So, let us examine proposition 2 in light of this biblical message.

If, as it is argued, homosexual urges are inborn, if they are a creation of God, then God must be viewed as a moral monster, for he condemns that which he has created. In fact, he labels that which he has created an “abomination,” and “gives men up” to what another biblical author would call “dishonorable passions.” If proposition 2 is correct the moral and ethical teachings of the Bible become absurd, incomprehensible. Not to be too dramatic, but the teachings of the Bible become demonic. How can a God who excoriates certain behaviors that he himself created to be exercised be worthy of any kind of love or devotion?

The only way out of this conundrum is to reject what the Bible says about homosexuality, and to posit that what God really believes about homosexuality is not to be found in the Bible, his revelation, but rather it is to be found in human feelings. “God” then becomes a human construct – a mere invention to support and defend my personal inclinations. This is really the definition of paganism (pagans hold to the concept of a god, or gods, but these gods are merely an extension of a human quality).

Bottom line – if you accept proposition 2 you deny the nature of God. Ergo and therefore, whether pagan or atheist, the result is the same. You have rejected the God that is revealed in the Bible.

So, what about propositions 3 and 5? Does God hold us accountable for our thoughts, our “attractions”?

According to the tenth commandment, he most certainly can, and does. Covetousness is not a physical action. One does not commit covetousness with one’s hands or feet or tongue. One commits covetousness by being attracted to the possessions of another, and then allowing those attractions to grow into other feelings – those of jealousy and greed. What is the solution? To argue that since God created the feeling of attraction for someone else’s wife or donkey or bigger barn that somehow that attraction is legitimate and blessed? NO! The solution is to repent and to be thankful and grateful to God for what he has blessed you with.

Jesus himself provided the clearest refutation of propositions 3 and 5 in the Sermon on the Mount when he condemned the emotions (feelings, “attractions”) of anger and lust. Yes, Virginia, Jesus does condemn that which occurs between our ears if God has already condemned the actions that those attractions ultimately lead. If, as we have already noted, God has condemned homosexual behavior, then it is impossible to argue that God somehow blithely overlooks homosexual attractions.

A fatal fallacy is promoted when homosexual attractions are compared to, and equated with, heterosexual attractions. God NEVER condemned heterosexual activity. He did LIMIT heterosexual activity, and condemned improper and abusive heterosexual activity in the strongest terms (rape was punished by death!). Jesus’s condemnation of lust leading to adultery is a case in point. Males are by nature attracted to females, and females to males. That attraction is not sinful, because the sexual union of male and female is itself not sinful. What IS sinful is the illicit attraction of a married man to a female that is not his wife (and, by extension, a woman to a man who is not her husband). There is no possible way a homosexual attraction can be appropriate, because the resulting behavior is uniformly condemned throughout Scripture.

So, if propositions 2, 3, and 5 are all demonstrably false, what can we say of the conclusion in proposition 4? If you are going to hold to any level of the unity and eternalness of God’s holy nature, you must accept that proposition 4 is just as false. It is a lie. It is one of Satan’s greatest deceptions.

This is where I lose my sanity – this is where I just don’t get it. Almost every day, obviously in liberal publications but increasingly in articles promoted by conservative Christians, the pagan concept that “the human is as the human feels,” is becoming the standard by which Christianity is measured. If I feel I am a Christian, then by God I am a Christian and Scriptural truth be damned. To walk down that path one must, it is necessary, to reject the very nature of God as recorded in the text of the Bible, and, forgive me if I am wrong here, but if you reject the nature of God you have become a functional atheist, a pagan, regardless of your claim to orthodoxy.

It occurred to me as I have been questioning this issue, that it is truly ironic that the Christian faith, which struggled so mightily during the first three centuries of its existence to try to understand the nature of Christ, how he could both be fully human and fully God, could now some 1,700 years later founder on the simple question of what it means to be a male or a female. We have sunk from trying to understand the greatest mystery of the nature of God, to debating what it means to have a penis or a vagina.

You call that progress?

I just don’t get it.