Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Lies, Licentious, and the Renewal of the Mind: A Study of Romans 12:2

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

I’ve been thinking recently about the problem of there being so many immature Christians within the church (in the pews, in leadership, and in the pastorate) who are unable to grow in their faith and, most importantly, discern the truth. In the process of my thoughts, I recalled the verse above and decided to give it some study.

In the previous chapter, Paul has argued that God has used the general Jewish rejection of their Messiah (Jesus) in order to bring non-Jews into the family of God. He then argued that God is using this great influx of non-Jews into the family of God as a means of bringing Jews into that family. This is all by the design of God and Paul refers to it as a great mystery (11:25). Indeed, in 16:25-26, Paul refers to the Gospel and the entire plan of God that is now being revealed as a great mystery (cf. 1:1-2). Up to this point (chs. 11-12), Paul has been explaining how God fulfilled his promise to renew creation by renewing mankind through Israel, the Law, and ultimately Jesus himself. So when he gets to 11:33-36, Paul openly marvels at the unfathomable wisdom and knowledge of God that has constructed and worked out this divine plan. “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (v. 34)

What follows is a pragmatic teaching on how the Christian should practice and live out their faith, specifically in the context of the faith community. The individual Christian’s walk and way of life is always understood in that relation. We are never to be separate. Indeed, Paul will expand on the idea of Romans 12:2 in Ephesians 4, again within the context of the overall faith community.

So now coming to 12:2, Paul writes this amazing sentence about the renewing of the mind. The word for “conformed” is syschēmatizō and it means “to fashion oneself to a pattern”. The word for” world” is aiōn. It’s the word we get “eon” from and means “age” as in the “Age of Man” or the “Age to Come”. The Israelites conceived of life as consisting of two ages: this present evil (Galatians 1:4) and the age to come (Matthew 12:32). The present age is one of evil, idolatry, and sin and in which corrupt power rules and dominates through fear and lies. The future age is one in which God’s Kingdom is brought fully to fruition and his Spirit has flooded creation with the love.

So what are the patterns of this present age? The answer is voluminous. Here we are talking about worldviews, ways of thinking, basic assumptions, everything from what socio-economic systems we follow to how we treat employees to how we treat our kids, how we perceive sexuality. Some false patterns are generally obvious (thievery), others are more particularly contentious (taxation), and others are generally, if not near universally, unobvious (the inherent violence of government). Of course, the Bible is full of passages that deal with such patterns. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is one of the most famous. And, most importantly, I would add Romans 1:18-32 as well. The former challenges the underlying preconceptions of the reader by showing a better way, the latter showing how such underlying preconceptions appeared in the first place. Indeed, as will become clear, I think Paul in 12:2 is referencing back to his argument in 1:18-32. This becomes more apparent in light of the similar subject matter in Ephesians 4:17-25. We need to avoid falling into the patterns of this world, but we also need to be liberated from the false patterns we are already in. Again, some of these patterns are obviously wrong but many more are so ingrained in our worldview and basic assumptions that we don’t know that they are wrong.

We avoid such patterns and are liberated from them by being “transformed” (metamorphoō). Elsewhere Paul speaks of the Christian believer being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). The liberation from the patterns of this world is towards becoming more like Jesus. And this is accomplished by the “renewing of the mind”. The word here for “renewing” is anakainōsis and means “to make new” (see 2 Corinthians 4:16 and Colossians 3:10).

God’s main purpose now is the renewal of his creation by renewing humanity back into its proper role (2 Corinthians 5:1; Galatians 6:15; Revelations 21; 2 Peter 3:12-13; Isaiah 66:22; Ephesians 4:24; Ezekiel 11:19). This particularly and necessarily involves the renewal of the human mind (nous), specifically into the mind of Christ. In 11:34, Paul has already alluded to Isaiah 40:13: “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” In 1 Corinthians 2:16, he does so again, adding, “But we have the mind of Christ” (see also Philippians 2:5). So the transformation is becoming like Christ by renewing the mind into one like Christ’s. Thus, in the parallel passage in Ephesians 4:22-24, the transformation into a new self is connected with the renewal of the mind.

But how did humanity get into this position in the first place? In Ephesians 4, again on a treatment of the same theme, Paul talks about not walking in the futility of the mind (4:17), darkened in understanding, ignorant, with hardened hearts (4:18), not being given over to given over to sensuality, every kind of impurity (4:19), and the lusts of deceit (4:22). Instead, we are to walk in truth and reject falsehoods (4:24, 25). Here the need for mental renewal stems both from a rejection of the truth and licentiousness. Again, Ephesians 4 is an expansion of the idea Paul touches upon in Romans 12:2. However, as stated above, I think that while Paul speaks about the renewing of the mind in 12:2, he has first talked about its corruption in Romans 1:18-32.

Here, in the most haunting passage of the Bible, Paul lays out the lot of mankind. They suppress the truth (v. 18), they are futile speculations (v. 21), their hearts are darkened (v. 21), they profess to be wise but are fools (v. 22), and they exchange truth for lies (v. 25). What is more, they are given over to lusts of their hearts and impurity (v. 24) and to degrading passions (v. 26-27). Lies and licentiousness are to blame, just like in Ephesians 4. The result is that “God gave them over to a depraved mind” (v. 28). And God giving them over (cf. 1:25; Ephesians 4:19) is God letting them go, releasing his providential hand, allowing them to reap the inevitable results of their free choices. The result is a depraved mind. While there are many ways in which the human mind can become corrupted in its thinking, I believe Paul focuses on lies and licentiousness because these, more than others, have a more profound effect upon the mind.

So mankind can be liberated from the false patterns of this world, from the depravity of our thinking by being transformed by the renewing of our minds. This mental renewal allows us to prove (dokimázō) what the will of God is. This word dokimázō means to discern, examine, analyze (see Romans 1:28, 2:18). Essentially, the renewal of the mind enables us to understand what God’s will is in this world: things that are good and acceptable and perfect. Belief in lies, false patterns of thinking, and licentious behavior (and approving of such behavior [Romans 1:32]) will impair your ability to understand the truth and figure out what God’s will is.

But how do we get there? Too often we in the Church have approached discipleship in terms of simply teaching doctrine, reciting catechism, topical studies, and requiring assent to fundamental propositions. All of this can be important and can have its place, but it’s not what will renew the mind. There are people out there who have been abused, exploited, and scarred. Their life circumstances have led them to make poor life choices. They are seeking to justify those choices and escape guilt and condemnation by embracing whatever lie, worldview, and thought pattern does the trick. And here’s the thing: they are not fully conscious of it. They are embracing lies and false patterns not because they know they are lies but because they really really want them to be true. They are using falsehoods as a gate protecting who they think they are, while it’s actually a cage preventing them from being who they are suppose to be. That’s how depravity of the mind works. And what is more about these lies and patterns: THEY. GO. DEEP. Telling people they shouldn’t sin isn’t going to cut it. Giving believers a list of propositions of which to assent isn’t enough. A thirty-week series on the top ideas of the Bible won’t get you there. You cannot expect that when a person becomes a true believer that the Holy Spirit will automatically renew their mind without their participation.

True discipleship must involve challenging the underlying assumptions that undergird the thought patterns, the lifestyles, and the worldviews of average Christians. This must be done within the faith community (Romans 12; Ephesians 4), and the best method is to do so by addressing the immediate needs of the people. Most importantly, it requires church leaders (pastors, staff, teachers, etc.) that have already had their minds renewed from the false patterns of this world.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Mark 13 and the Coming of the Son of Man

I just finished reading Jesus and the Future: An Examination of the Criticism of the Eschatological Discourse, Mark 13 with Special Reference to the Little Apocalypse Theory, by G.R. Beasley-Murray. The book, as its title states, is an examination of 120 years of criticism on the “Apocalyptic” Discourse of Jesus as it is recorded in the book of Mark, chapter 13. Mark 13 has been called the most analyzed passages in the whole of the Gospel of Mark.  Essentially, Mark 13 gives Jesus’ prediction about the coming of tribulation to the nation of Israel in the first century (vv. 5-25), followed immediately by what people interpret to be his Second Coming (vv. 26-27). What Biblical scholars noted was the obvious problem that though the predicted tribulation did occur (66-70 CE), Jesus did not immediately return. How to solve this problem?

If you are more traditional evangelical then you just assume the entirety of Mark 13 is a prediction that has not yet occurred. However, there are some problems with that interpretations of which I will mention below. If you are of a more progressive bent then you reason that either Jesus was wrong about his return or that the Gospel writers have unintentionally misrepresented him. There are many historical, exegetical, and logical reasons why neither of these two progressive options even if you reject the miraculous or the inerrancy of the Scripture. This is why the issue even among liberal Biblical scholars was not satisfactorily resolved.

Now before I read the book I had already previously rejected the conservative interpretation and solved the liberal one. My interest was simply about how various people had approached the problem and how they reasoned the issue out. I was very interested to see that no scholar in this examination had arrived at my conclusion. Granted, this book was compiled in 1954. There has been a lot more scholarship on the subject in the past 60 years and has been, at least for me, satisfactorily solved. So what it is the solution?

First of all, how do we know that Jesus’ prediction of Mark 13:5-25 was fulfilled in the first century CE? We best begin by understanding Jesus’ Mark 13 discourse in its context. Jesus has finished proclaiming judgment upon the Temple in Mark 11. He does so by citing Jeremiah 7:11. If you read the entire prophetic oracle of Jeremiah 7, you learn that it’s about God preparing to bring down judgment upon the whole of Judah for its sins against God and man. This prophecy was fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Put together with his actions to temporarily halt the legitimate business of the Temple, it seems that Jesus’ intention was to enact a prophetic oracle announcing God’s imminent judgment upon the Temple itself and Israel in general. This prophecy was fulfilled with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.

Jesus has further bracketed his prophetic action in the Temple with the example of a fig tree that he purposely withered because it bore no fruit (karpos) (11:13-14, 20-21). Jesus has already used the common metaphor of fruit representing positive works in Mark 4:7-8 with the Parable of the Sower and the soils that yield and don’t yield crops/fruit (karpos). This bracketing technique is designed to indicate that God has returned to his Temple (Mark 1:1-3, quoting Malachi 3:1) and has found it wanting.

When Jesus next returns to the Temple in chapter 12, he gives the Parable of the Vine-growers. This parable is a history of Israel, referencing God’s sending of prophets and ultimately his Son to the people only to see them all murdered. The parable ends with the warning that God is going to destroy the “vineyard” in response. I would also add that in Mark 12:36, in discussion with religious leaders, Jesus references Psalm 110 which is a coronation psalm about a king receiving a vast dominion and sitting at the Lord’s right hand. Remember this.

 So we have these warnings about impending destruction building up when, as Jesus is leaving the Temple, his disciples point out the magnificent buildings of the Temple complex (13:1). Jesus responds that these specific buildings of the Temple complex are going to be torn down (v. 2). This prediction was fulfilled in 70 CE, some 40 years after Jesus predicted it would happen. These are specific buildings that existed in the first century that are being referenced. The disciples then ask what the signs are that this destruction will occur. Jesus then proceeds to give prediction of the persecution his disciples will face (including being flogged in synagogues [v. 9]). This is followed by the prediction of a time of great tribulation that will befall Judaea, in which Jesus warns his followers to flee. These are the events that occurred when Rome attacked and destroyed Jerusalem in 66-70 CE. Indeed, Jesus specifically states that this generation will not pass away until these things occur (v. 30). All the evidence supports the conclusion that the events predicted by Jesus and recorded in Mark 13:5-25 refer to events that occurred within a generation of his prediction. These events are not about the end of the world but more about political upheaval. Images of the sun, moon, and stars are regularly used as code for such events. The poetic language used for the predicted Fall of Jerusalem in Mark 13:24-25 is similar to the language used for the predicted Fall of Babylon in Isaiah 13:10.

But then what do we make of verse 26 that in those days “Then they will see THE SON OF MAN COMING IN CLOUDS with great power and glory”? Most people (both liberals and conservatives) have interpreted this verse as referring to Jesus’ second coming. If, as I have demonstrated, the previous events refer to the first century, then the immediacy of the “coming” poses a problem. Was Jesus wrong?

The solution to the problem lies in the acknowledgement that this verse is a quotation from an apocalyptic prophecy in Daniel 7:13.

“I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him.”

This is important. The “coming” referred to in this verse is not the Son of Man coming from heaven to earth, but him a coming up to the Ancient of Days, i.e., God. It’s a more of a coming from earth to heaven than a heaven to earth. But why is the Son of Man coming up to God? The answer comes in the following verse 14:

“And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.”

These are verses about the establishment of the Kingdom of God with Jesus as the King. These are verses about his enthronement, albeit in symbolic, apocalyptic language as befits the genre. And this is an enthronement that occurred in the first century. This is why Jesus can cite this verse to the high priest at his trial telling him that “you shall see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, and COMING WITH THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN” (Mark 14:62). This is why the Gospel of Mark can begin with Jesus’ pronouncement that the Kingdom of God is at hand (1:15). This is why Jesus can say there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” (Mark 9:1). And, to reference the book of Acts, this is why Stephen can see a vision of “the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (7:56). So the reference to the “Coming of the Son of Man” in Mark 13:26 is not about the Second Coming of Jesus but about Jesus’ enthronement as King of this world, his exaltation, his vindication by God.

Of course, there is a “Second Coming” of Jesus when he will make his appearance (parousia) known to the entire world and bring the Kingdom of God to consummation. Paul references this future event in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17. Also, the “two men” predict his return in Acts 1:11. It’s just that Mark 13:26 is not referencing or predicting that event here. The Gospels themselves are not very interested in the second coming as much as they are in Jesus becoming King of the world.

From a Discussion on the Biblical Concepts of Rape and Exploitation

The next claim is that rape was only condemned because women were considered property. No, the reason both the Bible and the Israelites condemned rape is because they considered it a moral atrocity on the same level as murder. Verse 26 states this explicitly. Consider it: do you really think that if their child is raped a parent’s first thought was “oh, no, my property”? Do you really think that the Israelite people en masse didn’t care about their children? Do you really think men didn’t love their wives and only thought bad about their rape because of property? When Amnon raped Tamar in 2 Samuel 13, did her brother Absalom only become angry because of property rights? No, because of how the Hebrews conceived reality on a psychical level, they fundamentally had a very serious understanding of sex and how it affected the soul. This is why they equated rape with murder.

The next claim is that the Bible teaches that a woman who is raped is required to marry her rapist. This is absolutely not true. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 concerns men who take women for the purposes of sex without the responsibility of marriage. No sense of sexual assault is stated or implied. The word in the NASB for “seize” is taphas and can mean “handle” or “take”, as in when a pastor asks a bride, “Do you take this man …?” We know this to be true because in verses 25-27 above, which is clearly about rape, the word used for “force” is chazaq which is used for rape (see 2 Samuel 13:11 and Judges 19:29). The purpose of the law recorded in 22:28-29 is to prevent the exploitation of women.

The next claim is that “starting in verse 22 it pretty much assumes a married woman can’t be raped.” That is a notion completely absent from the text. I think you are doing the assuming.

The final claim is that the Scripture here implies that if a woman doesn’t scream she wasn’t really raped. It implies no such thing. This is completely absent from the text. You are assuming again. These verses are about protecting women from sexual assault and false accusations.

The oddity is that all these verses (22-29) are specifically designed to prevent the exploitation of and violence towards women. This shouldn’t surprise us. The Israelites believed their god was highly moral, concerned with justice, and hated the exploitation of the poor.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Cross and Pacifism

The Southern Baptists recently adopted a resolution supporting the “doctrine” of penal substitutionary atonement. This is the belief that God punished Jesus for the sins of humanity instead of humanity itself. Supposedly this action satisfied God’s sense of justice. One of the resolution’s authors noted that Christians today are rejecting this view of the Cross because of the growing popularity of pacifism and non-violence. I’m sure there is some truth to this assertion in some places though I do not know how widespread such thinking is. Speaking for myself, I reject the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement for several reasons:

-          The Bible does not teach this doctrine.

-          It conflicts with Old Testament conceptions of sacrifice.

-          It misunderstands key concepts in the Bible (justice, grace, forgiveness).

-          It conflicts with the purpose and ethic of the Cross.

-          It is contrary to the nature and intention of God.

God created a good world based on peace and life for humanity, but, instead, humanity brought evil, sin, violence, and death, throwing creation into futility. Part of the purpose of the crucifixion, and the ethic of Jesus, was that love, forgiveness, peace, and life were superior and more powerful than such futility. In order to set creation right and prove its ultimate goodness, the solution must not fight fire with fire. Death and violence must not be used to fight death and violence. When death and violence attacked Jesus on the Cross, he turned the other cheek, forgiving his attackers, exhibiting self-sacrificial love, and in his resurrection proved that his ethic, the way of God, and the purposes of creation were stronger. The story of the cross is one of love, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, non-violent resistance, revealing the very person of God, and defeating the powers of evil. For me, it is because of the Cross that I am a pacifist and support non-violence.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Government, Violence, and the Gospel

I’ve noted for some time the tendency of progressive Christians to support the idea of a growing, expansive government to regulate society, albeit for the purposes of properly administering economics and social welfare. While this is a noble cause and Christians should be concerned about proper economics and the social welfare, there is a fundamental problem with such support that conflicts with the very heart of the Christian Faith: large, expansive government is contrary to the Gospel, the Kingdom of God, and is anti-Christian. What is more, there is an irony in those Christians who support an expansive government but also reject war in general.
I readily appreciate that the claim that large government is anti-Gospel runs counter to many generations of progressive Christian thinking. But let it be said that the Gospel runs counter to the way all of humanity is naturally inclined to think. Thus the conclusions drawn below are going to make conservative Christians uncomfortable as well.
We need to start off by acknowledging that there are two ethics at work in the Bible: the “eye for an eye” ethic and the “turn the other cheek” ethic. The first ethic is predominately found in the Old Testament and is spelled out in Leviticus 24:19. It is basically the ethic that states that a person who has injured another person is to be penalized to a similar degree. While you can find this ethic throughout the Old Testament, the legality of it has its antecedent in the Code of Hammurabi and in almost every society that has come before and after in every place society exists. Its near universality should not surprise us. This is the ethic of justice, of equality. This is how the world works and this ethic works very well. And, as my Old Testament professor stated, this ethic is still grace. It is grace because it mandates that a person or a society cannot mete vengeance upon the guilty party beyond the crime they have committed. This is grace. Nevertheless, it is an ethic of retribution, violence, and the implied threat of violence.
This ethic finds its fullest expression and most organized principle in government. The purpose of government is to hold back evil through violence and the threat of violence. Paul talks about this in Romans 13 where government is seen as an instrument of violence whose purpose is to fight against evil. And this is seen as a purpose ordained by God.
Government fights evil, first, by protecting society from external threats and, second, by maintaining order within that society, but both through violence and the threat of violence. Max Weber famously formulated that government has a regional monopoly on violence. This is a core concept of modern public law going back to Jean Bodin and the Enlightenment political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who wrote that the sovereign must be invested with the exclusive right to commit violence, the alternative to that being violence, bellum omnium contra omnes. This is the defining conception of the state and what its purpose is on a fundamental level. Indeed, in the Western world, there near universal consensus that if any person or entity in society is to have such power, then it should be the exclusive right of the state.  And government does violence very well. That’s its purpose. It doesn’t do economics or social welfare very well. Government by its very nature is fundamentally incapable of properly administering economics and social welfare without highly negative results. This is why the standards of living and social welfare are always higher in societies with more limited government. Those areas are far too complex for government to manage. But violence is simple. The purpose of a military is simply to kill people and break things. Or at the very least to threaten to. The same goes for the national guard and the police. The government uses violence and the threat of violence to protect society from external and internal evil. Ultimately and fundamentally, government is about violence and the threat of violence. And whether it is socialism, communism, Marxism, or dictatorships, what one finds is that massively increased governmental control simultaneously brings a higher increase in governmental violence. The American Founders knew this through both experience and Enlightenment philosophy. They rightfully saw government a necessary evil but took steps to limit the scope and ability of its violence. Thus we have the U.S. Constitution with its checks, balances, and limitations designed to make it harder for the US government to inflict violence on its own people. As George Washington said, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force.”
We see the purpose and problem of government played out through the Old Testament. Originally, Israel was designed to be a more theocratic community without a king or a hierarchal, governmental system. Yet the sinful nature that infected the world was also found in God’s covenant community. The primary purpose of the Book of Judges is to explain why it became necessary for Israel to adopt a king (Judges 21:25). Each successive story shows a further descent into evil and chaos culminating with chapter 19, in which Israel was shown to be as bad as Sodom and Gomorrah (oppression of the poor exemplified by sexual violence). Those cities were destroyed. In order to keep the plan and purpose of Israel underway, God gave his people a monarchy but warned them of the violence inherent within it as well as the accompanying loss of freedom, corruption, and seizure of property (1 Samuel 8). And the government did keep evil at bay for a time. It did work as it does in every other society. However, while government can hold back evil, it cannot defeat evil itself. Evil and sin creep in and corrupt. Israel’s government grew and oppressed the people, enacting violence upon them, seizing their property, and over-regulating their society. God continued to send prophets with a constant warning to Israel and its government not to go the way of Sodom. But the end and inevitable result was corruption and destruction by the Assyrians and Babylonians.
So government is a necessary evil ordained by God and fundamentally designed to administer violence in order to hold back evil. Yet, the more expansive and controlling it is, the more violent it becomes. But while it can hold back evil, it cannot defeat evil itself.
This brings us to the second ethic is which is found predominately in the New Testament and is spelled out in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, particularly Matthew 5:38-5:42. However, the antecedents of this ethic are found in the Old Testament. In the second century BCE, the Jews were engaged in a violent struggle against the Seleucid Empire for political and cultural control over Palestine. In this time of cultural persecution and violent resistance, we have the production of the Book of Daniel that teaches a response to governmental persecution through prayer, service, and non-violent resistance. This is a later, higher ethic than that is found in the earlier books of the Bible like that of Esther with its retributive justice. At the same time, the Book of Daniel predicts that God is going to deal with these persecuting nations and governments through a “Messiah” and through resurrection. You can see much earlier in the Old Testament that God is going to establish his Kingdom through a Messiah (Isaiah 11) and that a time and ethic of peace will follow where the wolf will lie down with the lamb (verse 6) and people will no longer need their swords (Isaiah 2:4; Joel 3:10, Micah 4:3). It will be a time of freedom (Isaiah 61:1) and forgiveness (Jeremiah 31:34). This is an ethic of forgiveness, non-violence, and non-retribution. And it flows from the character of God himself. In the first case of human violence recorded in the Bible, God gives Cain grace for murdering his little brother even when Cain deserved death (Genesis 4). This is who God is. And this is who Jesus is. And Jesus taught an ethic where abuse, persecution, and violence are to be dealt with by love, forgiveness, and non-violence. Again, you can see this prominently in the Sermon on the Mount, but it is the ethic Jesus took all the way to the cross where he rejected violence (Matthew 26: 52-54; Luke 22:51) and proclaimed forgiveness (Luke 23:34). The power exhibited and unleashed on the cross is that is that of self-giving love and forgiveness. This is the heart of the Gospel.  You cannot fight force with force because, either way, force wins. You cannot fight defeat with violence because, either way, violence wins. The real power lies in self-giving, turn-the –other-cheek love. On the cross, evil and sin were drawn to Jesus. The political parties of Israel’s government (Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, elders, and chief priests) and the Roman government itself attacked him with full force and violence, exhausting themselves upon him. Yet, God raised Jesus from the dead, proving that evil could do its worse but still stand impotent before God’s Kingdom. This is what victory means and this is how it is achieved. This is the ethic that God wants for his people. This is the ethic God wants for the world and will eventually get. This is the superior ethic over that of “eye for an eye”. While the kingdoms of this world run on the basis of force, the Kingdom of God runs on the basis of forgiveness. While the governments of this world run through violence, the government of God runs through non-violence. One is about death, the other is about life.
This is why Christians, progressive or otherwise, should abandon support for large, expansive government. Government is necessarily and essentially violent on a fundamental and unchangeable level. Violence is its raison d’être. It is a beast that cannot be tamed, only unleashed. And it is because of this inherent violence that it runs contrary to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God which is centrally about love, forgiveness, and non-violence. Government must be kept limited in order to limit violence. And while economics and social welfare are very important Kingdom goals and essential to the Gospel, the use of government to achieve them not only fails to work, it utilizes an ethic that is contrary to the Gospel. This is one reason why it doesn’t work. The irony is that those who too often support a big government to administer social change will simultaneously reject government’s essential purpose: to hold back evil through violent war and the threat of violent war.
So what are progressive Christians supposed to do?
1)      Abandon support of a large, expansive, controlling government.
2)      Seek the goals of the Kingdom of God through non-governmental means.
3)      Appreciate that war in general is necessary for a government to hold back evil. Such violence is also necessary for national guards and police.
What are conservative Christians to do?
1)      Do not support war and do not attach Christianity to it. Be sure to state publicly that war is a necessary evil used to hold back evil, but steadfastly maintain that it, and all other forms of violence, are contrary to the Gospel.
2)      Do not fall into the trap of expecting government to be the method by which you advance the moral aspects of the Gospel.
The fact of the matter is that government needs to be put in a proper perspective and limited to its specific, fundamental role. While it is by its nature contrary to the Gospel and at odds with how God intends the world to work, government does fulfill a divine role of holding back the forces of evil. But if government grows and expands beyond its proper role, it becomes a source of violence meted out amongst a fearful populace. Ultimately though, it is the ethic of Jesus, not the ethic of government, that defeats evil.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Condemning Racial Nationalism and the Alt-Right

If you don’t know, the Southern Baptist Convention is voting on a resolution to condemn White Supremacy. The vote was delayed because of the question of whether there should be a general condemnation of white supremacy or whether there should be a specific mention of the Alt-Right. The resolution that will be passed tonight will specifically mention the Alt-Right. I’m generally in favor of condemning both white supremacy and the Alt-Right. It’s a non-binding resolution and good PR. And once you raise the subject, one has to follow through.

My only criticism is that the Alt-Right is more of a White Nationalist movement than a White Supremacy movement. Most of the people who subscribe to the Alt-Right are concerned with protecting so-called “white identity” than elevating whites above other races. In this way, it’s no different from Black Nationalism. And just as Black Nationalism was a reaction to anti-black racism, White Nationalism is a reaction by a few to perceived anti-white racism. Both should be condemned.

The answer to perceived injustice is not to lurch together into racial or ethnic sectarianism. The Gospel message is about bringing the world together into one family under the Lordship of Jesus, in which differences exist but their value is equal and intermingling and appropriation is encouraged. As Paul taught in Galatians, we are to find our identity in Christ, not in our sectarianism.

N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: A Review

The other day I finished reading N.T. Wright’s latest book, The Day the Revolution Began. It‘s about the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross and how God used it to transform the world. I was glad that Wright came out with this book; I’ve been struggling in the past few years to work out my understanding of the atonement. While at seminary I had abandoned the older theories, finding that they did not fully conform to Scripture. Since then I have been building up a more Scripture-conforming model, though, admittedly, there are different pieces that have yet to be connected. My hope was that Wright might help in the process. Being a long time reader of his, I always felt that his work on the atonement was the least formed and least articulated of his subjects.  Having read The Day the Revolution Began, I must admit that I found parts of the book confusing. I attempted to read several reviews of the book to see if these parts could be explained. Instead, I found that the reviewers were just as confused as I was about these parts. This made me feel better. But then I noticed that these same reviewers were confused by parts that I found perfectly clear. I’ll be honest: when I read his massive two-volume work on Paul and the Faithfulness of God, I made extensive notes and read the chapters on Romans numerous times. In fact, I actually had to read Wright’s two-volume Romans for Beginners (twice!) and several of his online lectures on the subject to begin to grasp what he was trying to say. Even then, it significantly helped that I already understood much of Wright’s theology. But when I did finally grasp the coherency of his argument, I found it quite compelling. Okay, I thought, I better reread this current book. So I did.

Just a few bits of Wright’s argument:

·         When Jesus was crucified something occurred that fundamentally changed the world.

·         The Fall of Man was more about the loss of humanity’s vocation in creation than a moral failure to a set of divine rules.

·         Sin is a specific result of idolatry.

·         When humans sin they give up the power of their God-given vocation and give it to the evils of the world.

·         The crucifixion of Jesus was what God had in mind to deal with sin and evil from the beginning when he called Abraham and made a covenant with him.

·         The sacrifice found in the Old Testament law was neither about the transfer of sin or guilt to the sacrifice nor the transfer of punishment to the sacrifice.

·         God used the Law (Torah) to draw sin and evil to Israel and ultimately to Christ. Sin/evil/darkness then did its worse upon Jesus, exhausting itself upon him.

·         When Jesus was crucified, God was punishing Sin, not Jesus.

·         Jesus’ death was an expression of loving self-sacrifice and obedience and an extension of the ethic he taught and practiced.

·         The result of the crucifixion was the forgiveness of sins.

·         The followers of Jesus got their atonement theology predominately from Jesus’ own interpretation of his death at the Last Supper where he combined it with the Passover/Exodus, the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the prophecies Jeremiah 31 and Exodus 24. When God raised Jesus from the dead it was proof that God had verified Jesus’ claims. The followers also added to this their understanding of what the prophecies predicted would happen when God returned to his people and began to consummate the age to come.

A few criticisms:
Wright still wants to use the traditional language of penal substitutionary atonement though he radically redefines it. While the radical redefinition of old concepts is an approach Wright has frequently noted in Jesus and in Paul I’m not sure if such an approach is valid today. It seems almost too misleading.
The application chapters at the end were a bit of a disappointment. But they always are. Wright is a brilliant theologian, scholar, and theologian but 1) he doesn’t understand economics, 2) he doesn’t understand American society very well, and 3) he plays it too safe in areas in which he could be more critical.  I blame BBC News.
Though considered a writing for a wide, popular audience I think this book is far more advanced that some of his other similar, popular works, and only those with a more advanced Scriptural understanding are going to appreciate the theology here. For those intrepid enough to try, I would recommend watching a number of N.T. Wright lectures on the subject of the Cross and the Atonement on Youtube.
Here are three short pieces to get you started:

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

“A Time to Heal …” (Ecclesiastes 3:3)

The Bible talks quite a bit both implicitly and explicitly about the subject of healing. We can read through its numerous stories, oracles, and poems about physical and mental healing, relational healing, the healing of the earth, healing humanity - all this and more, and then all ultimately accomplished in the death of Christ (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 1:24). Often you hear about Spiritual healing either from a preacher or other Christian individual. What do they mean by it? At the very least, spiritual healing involves a combination of the emotional, the mental, and the relational aspects of our selves. A case can be made that the spiritual (healing or otherwise) is more than this, but it certainly is not less. In terms of the relational, that can mean our relationship with God, with others, or with ourselves. But how is such healing accomplished?

It shouldn’t surprise us that God, the author of all things, works healing in similar ways through his creation. Consider some examples. Medical physicians will tell you that a wound cannot heal while there is still an infection. It’s the infection itself that prevents the healing. Professional counselors will tell you that the healing of an emotional wound in a relationship cannot begin while abusive behavior continues. In the same way, spiritual healing cannot occur until the cause of the spiritual wound has been dealt with. That cause is sin, bad behavior. And there are only two ways to deal with sin.

The first way is repentance, a turning away from bad, wounding behavior. There are many places in the Bible where God promises such healing if people turn from the behavior that is causing the wounding (2 Kings 20:5; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Isaiah 19:22; Jeremiah 3:2; Hosea 6:1; 14:1, 4). Here are two examples:

“’AND UNDERSTAND WITH THEIR HEART AND RETURN, AND I WOULD HEAL THEM’” (Matthew 13:5, 15, cf. John 12:40; Acts 28:27).

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16).
Repentance brings healing. You can’t heal if what’s causing the wounds is still active. You can’t heal a situation if the same behavior continues. The person or persons who have inflicted the wound must turn away from their behavior. Any attempt at healing without repentance only draws attention to the unresolved, unrepentant behavior. In a relationship, whether the wounding party is a significant other, family member, friend, co-worker, church member, or pastor, he or she must admit that they have erred and seek to turn away from their error. If possible, they should make amends in order to show that they are serious about repenting. If such sin has become a pattern of behavior over a long period of time, he needs to go above and beyond to make amends in order to heal the relationship.

The second way is to remove the wounding person from the relationship. If the guilty party refuses to repent from their behavior, then one of the parties, either the victim or the abuser, needs to leave. This means either the abuser being removed or the victim leaving. This, again, is about stopping the wounding behavior so that healing can begin. And the practice of church discipline is a great model for dealing with unrepentant behavior (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13).

Healing is a wonderful thing. It redeems our lives. It makes us whole. God wants it. God expects it. And there is a practical process by which to bring it about.  If you want healing in your life, in a relationship, or in a church, someone either needs to repent or be separated.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Gowth in the Assemblies of God

Church growth is ultimately about demographics, methodology, and theology. When I see that the Southern Baptist Convention is in decline it doesn’t surprise me. For years now the Roman Catholic Church has been one of the only major Christian denominations in America that has grown. And the major cause of their growth is the influx of Latino/Hispanics who are from the Catholic tradition. But when I see that the SBC is declining but the Assemblies of God are growing … well, that peaks my interest. So I look at the demographics of the AOG and compare it to the SBC. The age demographics are the same. Then I look at ethnic makeup. The SBC is 3% Latino/Hispanic. The AOG is 20%. … B-I-N-G-O.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Crisis in the Pot: Twelve Years Later

In the late 70s and early 80s, when the SBC was still growing, conservatives claimed that a Conservative Resurgence and an expulsion of “moderates” would not only avoid a presumed decline but that an “evangelical harvest” would follow (the SBC leadership was to blame). In 1995, Thomas Ascol noted some disturbing underpinnings and raised the issue of a possible decline (Troubling Waters of Baptism) but incorrectly said Southern Baptists needed to adopt more conservative theology (the SBC seminaries and agencies were to blame). Thom Rainer claimed a crisis in 2005 but was defensive and at pains to try and prove it wasn’t the Conservative Resurgence that caused the problem (the SBC pastors and churches were to blame). On May 27, 2005, I wrote an article rejecting all of the previous theories about the decline, refuting the idea that the problem was principally a matter of doctrinal fidelity. I also predicted that the next level of blame would be that of individual Southern Baptists in the pews. Twelve years later …

The reason for the decline is there in the data. It was there 12 years ago, 22 years ago, 35 years ago, and it’s there today. I think Thom Rainer knows. The truth was on the edge of his report in 2005 and then on subsequent reports since.

Really, you can look at the data of a nation, a denomination, a church, and even an individual ministry, and not only identify growth patterns but determine the cause. However, the truth can be awkward.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Job and Justice

The book of Job is one of the deeper books of the Bible. It’s profoundly existential, dealing with the lot of the individual human finding himself in life between the twin abysses of preexistence and death and having to deal with the problem of evil.
Like the book of Ecclesiastes, Job offers a counter argument to the theology found in the books of Deuteronomy and Proverbs. The latter two works over a generalized expression of the truths of life: if you do good and refrain from evil, then you can expect good out of life. And this is a generally true formula; practical, every day experience tells us this is so. This theology is the basis for the covenant God made with Israel: if Israel does X, God will do Y. However, there are particulars in life that can trump this general truth. There are times when bad things happen to you undeservingly. You don’t deserve all the evil that happens to you. This is an important point that Jesus makes a few times in his ministry (Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-4). It’s also the central point of Jesus’ proclamation on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; cf. Psalm 22).
This is part of Job’s crisis. He understands the theology found in Deuteronomy and Proverbs – it’s his theology! Job’s three friends articulate it in the face of his predicament and his statements about the sovereignty of God and the injustice of life. Job’s friends are trying to defend God’s reputation. Job hears them and agrees but insists that such theology doesn’t fit his situation. Yet, despite Job’s frustration with God and the world, he never loses his faith and loyalty to God. And God hears Job’s frustrations and recognizes his faith. Job’s only error is the position he tries to put God in. In terms of justice and the legal proceedings of the court, Job sees himself as a plaintiff making a complaint against God. Again, God understands Job’s frustrations and faith but corrects him, identifying himself as the judge in this scenario and not on equal standing with Job. He is the creator god who stands before and after existence itself.
It’s his great wisdom (as is evident by his ability to create) that justifies his position as supreme judge - a judge that presides over the generalities and the particulars. It is he who will administer justice in the world, even when it challenges the reasoning and wisdom of man. And God’s faithfulness insures that justice is ultimately carried out, that history is sorted out, and that the world is put to rights. This finds its ultimate express in the resurrection, both of Christ and everyone else.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Leadership Frustrations in the Church

Because humans are created in the image of God, we’ve also been given the ability to create. The book of Genesis consists of God creating structures on the earth and then filling them. Humans are then created and given the task of filling the earth and subduing it (1:28), of cultivating the earth (2:15). Humans were created to work, accomplish tasks, and pursue artistic means. In this sense, humans are very much homo faber, “working man”. As Umberto Eco argues in “Open Work”, homo faber is a manifestation of man's innate being in nature. The rejection of this innate being represents the alienation from and objectification of nature. However, our ability to work and create is frustrated from a cursed earth producing (in terms of the metaphor) thorns, thistles, and agony (3:17-19; also 3:16). Evil, sin, selfishness – these bring disruption to our working lives, causing frustration.

Part of the work of Jesus is a reversal of this curse on the land and the alleviation of the frustrations, disappointments, and general dissatisfactions. As the body of Christ, the Church and all those believers who follow Jesus are called to be a part of that same work. We are to help people with their frustrations, doing what we can to remove such impediments in order to further the Kingdom of God.

I was reminded a couple of weeks ago that one of the jobs of a minister is to equip volunteers to do the work of the Church by alleviating as much of the frustrations of that work as possible. Much of this can be done through organization, communication, preparatory work, establishing clearly defined goals and expectations, proper training, on-going support, and appreciation. This is all bread and butter in ministry.  Unfortunately though, far from alleviating the aggravations that go on in the work of the church, ministry leaders can be the cause of such frustrations.

I decided to look research websites that talk about such leadership frustrations. Here are the results:

Inability to make timely decisions


Lack of Focus and Direction

Are always right and never wrong

Does not take responsibility

Cannot accept criticism without becoming defensive

Not willing to share the pulpit or spotlight

Feels threatened by other ministers or pastors

Does not allow for pushback or disagreements

Surround themselves with "yes men" rather than edifying leaders.

Does not entrust ministry to other leaders

Undermines programs that they cannot control

Insist that everything in the ministry run through them

Only one who is allowed to think

Seeks a minimalist structure of accountability

Expects behavior of others they don’t expect of themselves

Frequent anger outbursts

Says one thing to some people, but different things to others

Seeks to dismiss or marginalize people before they attempt to develop them

Lacks transparency

Communicates poorly


Never accepts criticism and have to be right about everything

Routinely reminds people who is in charge

Has a poor understanding of Scripture

Not willing to pay the price to make the ministry healthy

Uses of Guilt for Obedience

Ignores the Clear Evidence of Problems

Blind to the Issues of His or Her Own Heart
Family members seem to fill key openings

Shows favoritism

A passive or aggressive pressure by the leader not to associate with others who have left the ministry or church