A Modern Myth

51vrjuzftllI just finished reading N.T. Wright’s How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. He is a great thinker and while I may not agree with him on everything, I do appreciate his writing. Here’s a quote from How God Became King which I found particularly insightful and encouraging regarding the “modern myth” of the failure of Christianity and the attempts to relegate it to the realm of private religion rather than the revolutionary message it truly is.

“The failure of Christianity is a modern myth, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of telling the proper story of church history, which of course has plenty of muddle and wickedness, but also far more than we normally imagine of love and creativity and beauty and justice and healing and education and hope. To imagine a world without the gospel of Jesus is to imagine a pretty bleak place.

Of course the reason the Enlightenment has taught us to trash our own history, to say that Christianity is part of the problem, is that it has had a rival eschatology to promote. It couldn’t allow Christianity to claim that world history turned its great corner when Jesus of Nazareth died and rose again, because it wanted to claim that world history turned its great corner in Europe in the 18th century. “All that went before,” it says, “is superstition and mumbo-jumbo. We have now seen the great light, and our modern science, technology, philosophy and politics have ushered in the new order of the ages.”

That was believed and expounded in America and France, and it has soaked into our popular culture and imagination. So, of course, Christianity is reduced from an eschatology (” this is where history was meant to be going, despite appearances!”) To a religion (“here is a way of being spiritual”), because world history can’t have two great turning points.

If the enlightenment is the great, dramatic, all-important corner of world history, Jesus can’t have been. He is still wanted on board, of course, as a figure through whom people can try to approach the incomprehensible mystery of the”divine” as a teacher of moral truths that might, if applied, actually strengthen the fabric of the brave new post-Enlightenment society. But when Christianity is made “just a religion,” it first muzzles and then silences altogether the message the Gospels were eager to get across.

When that happens, the Gospel message is substantially neutralized as a force in the world beyond the realm of private spirituality and an escapist heaven. That indeed, was the intention. And the churches have, by and large, going along for the ride.”

(N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, HarperOne: 2016, pp.163-164)

Christianity and Singleness

When I lived in Hungary, we used to take our church to a summer conference every year in Vajta, where the group of churches we belonged to ran a Bible college and conference center in an old castle. Every year various pastors from our churches would speak at the conference; I spoke several times.

One of the sessions I remember most vividly, I remember not for good reasons: one year a particular pastor was asked to speak on the topic of singleness for an afternoon session. When he stood up to the platform, he said something to the effect of: “I don’t know why they asked me to teach on singleness. I’m not single and I haven’t been single for a long time. So I decided that I’m not going to speak about singleness, I’m just going to teach a Bible study about something else, since this is the only chance they gave me to speak.” You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this person was never asked to speak at a conference again.

But that wasn’t the only memorable part of his session. Half-way through his session, the speaker got annoyed at some people who were whispering to each other while he was speaking, and he stopped everything and proceeded to call them out, and kick them out of the session, making them take the walk of shame past over 100 people who were gathered in the hall for the study. I admit, I was kind of jealous that they got to leave…

This session should be contrasted with the one on singleness which had been held at the previous year’s conference, at which a younger pastor had spoken about singleness in a message that was so well presented and so encouraging to me (I was single at that time), that I still remember his opening lines: “You are in a race!” He then went on to teach about the biblical perspective on the goodness of singleness from 1 Corinthians.

It was a hugely different perspective: the first man I mentioned had disdained the thought of teaching about singleness – he clearly saw it as unimportant. The second man taught in a way that was encouraging and edifying to the single person.

The other day I posted some thoughts about the topic of gender roles in marriage and how the biblical view on this is based on theological views about the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. I got several comments on it from a single person who expressed feelings that Christianity tends to over-emphasize marriage over singleness. There is some validity to this point – however, statistically most people will be married at some point in their lifetime – and, just because some people are not married does not mean we should not talk about marriage, just like the fact that some people are not airplane pilots doesn’t mean that we should never talk about airplane pilots.

However, these comments did lead me to look into some things about Christian teachings about singleness, and what I found was significant.

Stanley Hauerwas, one of the great theologians of our age, argues that Christianity was the very first religion to hold up single adulthood as a viable way of life. This was a clear difference between Christianity and all other traditional religions, including Judaism, all of which made family and the bearing of children an absolute value, without which there was no honor.1

In ancient culture, long-term single adults were considered to be living a human life that was less than fully realized. But along came Christianity – whose founder was an adult single man and whose great theologian (the Apostle Paul) was also single and advocated for the value and goodness of singleness.

Timothy Keller points out that in Christianity, “single adults cannot be seen as somehow less fully formed or realized human beings than married persons because Jesus Christ, a single man, was the perfect man (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22).”

He goes on to say that, “Paul’s assessment in 1 Corinthians 7 is that singleness is a good condition blessed by God, and in many circumstances is actually better than marriage. As a result of this revolutionary attitude, the early church did not pressure people to marry and institutionally supported poor widows so they did not have to remarry.”2

Keller points to Rodney Stark, a social historian, who states, “Pagan widows faced great social pressure to remarry; Augustus even had widows fined if they failed to marry within two years. In contrast, among Christians, widowhood was highly respected. The church stood ready to sustain widows, allowing them a choice as to whether or not to remarry, and single widows were active in care-giving and good deeds.3

As opposed to societies which idolized family as the only means of giving a person significance, the Christian gospel offers a greater hope and a greater source of significance.

Singleness, according to Christianity, is not Plan B – it is a viable option for those who choose it.

In our modern pop culture, it is not family which is idolized so much as romance. Think about Hollywood and even Disney narratives: they begin telling the story of a person seeking true love, and once two people do come together, the story ends! The message is that what matters in life is finding romance, everything else is only leading up to that, and what happens after that is not worth spending too much time on. This is also reflected in the huge amount of focus which is given to weddings in our culture.

The Christian church provides the space for single people of different genders to worship, serve and study together, to know and be known by each other, without the pressures of our romance-driven culture.

Churches don’t always do a great job at making single people feel that they belong and not pressuring them to get married and treating them as if until they are married, they are incomplete – however, it is in the design. At our church, we have purposefully sought to change the language we use away from always speaking of “you and your family” – so that we don’t communicate the wrong thing to single people who call our church their home.

Interestingly, Timothy Keller, who pastors a church in NYC which is majority single people, points out that single people and married people alike need good teaching about marriage and relationships, so that marriage is held to its biblical place of honor (Hebrews 13:4), without idolizing it as the end-all be-all of human existence.

 

1. [Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, p.174]
2. [Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, pp.222-223]
3. [Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders Historyp.104]
 

Gender Roles in Marriage and Perichoresis: the Dance of the Trinity

Yesterday at White Fields I taught on Colossians 3:12-25. The first part of that text is the one I usually use when I officiate weddings. The title of my message was “Gospel Reenactment” (audio of that message can be listened to here).

Included in this section is a verse which can be controversial for some people: Wives submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord.  The idea of defined gender roles in marriage is not the most popular subject in our day and age, where more and more often, gender is considered a social construct and something which is fluid rather than fixed. Furthermore, it is no secret that some who have held to biblically defined gender roles in marriage have at times used them as an excuse to act tyrannically or even cruelly towards their spouse.

However, what I discovered in studying this passage in Colossians, is that it gives a picture of marriage as a reenactment of the Gospel (who Jesus is and what He did for us), particularly as regards the nature of God: One God, creator of Heaven and Earth, of all things seen and unseen, who eternally exists in 3 co-equal persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The term Son does not speak of origin but of rank: the Son willingly submitted Himself to the leadership of the Father, even though they are eternally co-equal and one. This is the model of what marriage is: two become one, but in that one, they take on different, complementary roles for the sake of a mission.

This is something which the church fathers, such as Gregory of Nazianzus and John of Damascus, and more recently Jürgen Moltmann and Miroslav Wolf, have referred to as ‘The Dance of the Trinity’ – or ‘Perichoresis’ in Greek. It refers to the dynamic relationship which exists between the 3 persons of the Trinity:

The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, the Spirit glorifies the Son and the Son glorifies the Father. The Father sends the Son and the Son obeys the Father. The Son sends the Spirit, and the Spirit and the Son together bring glory to the Father. The Spirit exalts the Son, the Son exalts the Father. The Father exalts the Son and glorifies the Son.

It’s a harmonious set of relationship in which there is mutual giving and receiving. This relationship is called love, and it’s what the Trinity is all about. The perichoresis is the dance of love.  – Jonathan Marlowe

The relationships between the three Persons of the Trinity — “dynamic, interactive, loving, serving” — form the model for our human dance. – Michael Spencer

In their book The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller write about gender roles. This is one of the best books I have read on marriage, and I would recommend it highly. Here are some things that Kathy in particular had to say on the topic of gender roles:

Every cell in our body is stamped XX or XY. This means I cannot understand myself if I try to ignore the way God designed me or if I despise the gifts he may have given me to help me fulfill my calling. If the postmodern to view that gender is wholly a “social construct” were true, then we could follow whatever path seems good to us. If our gender is at the heart of our nature, however, we risk losing a key part of ourselves if we abandon our distinctive male and female roles.

[Philippians 2] is one of the primary places where the “dance of the Trinity” becomes visible. The Son defers to his father, taking the subordinate role. The Father accepts the gift, but then exalts the Sons to the highest place. Each wishes to please the other; each wishes to exalt the other. Love and honor are given, accepted, and given again. There is no inequality of ability or dignity.

The Son’s role shows not his weakness but his greatness.

[In God’s Kingdom, leaders] are called to be a servant-leaders. In the dance of the Trinity, the greatest is the one who is most self-effacing, most sacrificial, most devoted to the good of the other. Jesus redefined – or, more truly, defined properly – headship and authority, taking the toxicity of it away or, at least for those who live by his definition rather than by the world’s understanding.

Jesus as a master made himself into a servant who has washed his disciples’ feet, thus demonstrating in the most dramatic way that authority and leadership mean that you become the servant, you die to self in order to love and serve the Other. Jesus redefined authority as servant-authority.

In Jesus we see all the authoritarianism of authority laid to rest, and all the humility of submission glorified. Rather than demeaning Christ, his submission led to his ultimate glorification, where God “exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.”

Both men and women get to “play the Jesus role” in marriage – Jesus in his sacrificial authority, Jesus in his sacrificial submission.

– The Meaning of Marriage, pp. 194-201

Part of the redemption that we have in Jesus is an invitation into the Perichoresis – the ‘dance of the Trinity’ – and in addition to our relationship with God, this serves as a model and a motivation for our relationships in marriage, work and beyond.

Vacation and Russian Novels

For the past week we have been on vacation in California. For the first week of it we were in Orange County where I attended the Calvary Chapel pastors conference in Costa Mesa. Rosemary and the kids spent time with friends and at the beach, and Rosemary was able to attend some parts of the conference as well. The conference was refreshing; a great time of focusing on the Lord and recentering as well as reconnecting with friends from all over the world. 

After that we went down to North San Diego and visited friends and family there, and then came to Los Angeles to stay with family. We’ll be back in Colorado for church on Sunday.

Overlooking Los Angeles from the Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood hills 

One of the books I’ve been reading on vacation is Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Several years ago I read Crime and Punishment and it became one of my favorite books. I think Dostoyevsky was a brilliant writer, particularly how he developed characters and got inside their minds.
What was interesting about Crime and Punishment was that it wasn’t only a novel so much as it was a platform for Dostoyevsky’s view of human anthropology – in other words: what makes us tick. What I found even more interesting, as I looked more into Russian literature from that time period, was that the other great Russian author, Tolstoy, did the same thing with his novels, but he had distinctly different views. 

Tolstoy was a pacifist, who considered himself a Christian, but didn’t want anything to do with church in any way. In fact, the more you get to know his views, you realize that he was extremely legalistic and held many strange interpretations of Biblical passages. For example, Tolstoy said that since Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39), that means that we should not even have police, because the role of the police is to resist evil people. What he was arguing for was beyond pacifism to a form of anarchy, which was based on his fundamental belief in the basic goodness of humankind: that left to our own devices, with no outside intervention, people would trend towards good rather than evil, and that the trajectory of the human race is towards greater virtue, peace and harmony. Tolstoy’s views were a major influence on Ghandi and others.

Dostoyevsky on the other hand, did not share Tolstoy’s views about humanity. Dostoyevsky considered himself a serious Christian, something which is very apparent in his writing, and he held much more traditional (and biblical) views about the nature of humankind and what makes us tick. 

In Crime and Punishment, for example, the main character is a university student who ends up killing the older woman he lives with. The popular thinking at the time (and still in our time as well) was the Englightenment theory that people are basically good, and that when people do things that are wrong, the reason they do them is either because of lack of education or because of poverty. Thus, the thought is that if you can educate people and bring them out of poverty, then crime and violence, as well as racism and hatred will cease to exist. The Bible does not agree with this theory, and says that the reason people do bad things, is because we are sinful and broken, and sin doesn’t just affect us, but it dwells within us, it is part of our very core. We weren’t designed by God to be this way, and it is for this reason that Jesus came, to redeem us from the curse of sin and death. But apart from redemption, all people are sinful, which is the reason we do sinful things. 

If there is any question about this, Nazi Germany is a perfect case study of how the most educated society in the world, which was well off economically, committed some of the worst atrocities the world has ever seen. If the Englightenment theory was true, that shouldn’t have happened, but the Biblical view would say: educated and rich people are still sinners, they’re just educated and rich sinners. What all people need is a new heart, something which can only be found in and through Jesus Christ.
In Crime and Punishment the main character is an educated young man who kills his landlord simply because he wants to, because he’s curious what it will be like, and then he justifies his actions to himself. Why do people do bad things? Because sin dwells within us, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, Dostoevsky would say.

I am only 20% of the way through The Brothers Karamazov, but am very much enjoying it. It tells the story of a father and his 3 sons, actually 4 – as one of the servants is also the son of the man. The father is a foolish and base man, his oldest son is similarly base, but at least has a sense of conscience which his father seems to lack. The second son is an intellectual and considers himself an atheist, but is torn because he realizes that if there is no God and no afterlife and no Heaven or Hell, then there is no meaning to life. The third son is an apprentice monk at the local monastery, where he studies under a devout elder. There is another elder at the monastery who is crazy, and somehow in his derangedness is more popular with the people than the devout and humble  elder who actually says a lot of things which are good and biblical.

One of the points that Dostoyevsky is making in the book is that the life of sincere Christian faith put into practice is the truly good life. Through the characters he is showing the results of a life of sin and the meaninglessness and pain of life apart from God and encouraging the reader to forsake sin and turn to God.

At least that’s what I’ve gotten out of it so far. I’ll let you know if anything changes!

Here are some excerpts:

“Love God’s people, let not strangers draw away the flock, for if you slumber in your slothfulness and disdainful pride, or worse still, in covetousness, they will come from all sides and draw away your flock. Expound the Gospel to the people unceasingly. Do not love gold and silver. Have faith. Cling to the banner and raise it on high.”  – Father Zossima, the humble and sincere elder to Alyosha, the third son who is a Christian

“Remember, young man, unceasingly,” Father Païssy began, without preface, “[humanism], which has become a great power, has, especially in the last century, analyzed everything divine handed down to us in the holy books. But they have only analyzed the parts and overlooked the whole, and indeed their blindness is marvelous. Yet the whole still stands steadfast before their eyes, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Has it not lasted nineteen centuries, is it not still a living, a moving power in the individual soul and in the masses of people? It is still as strong and living even in the souls of atheists, who have destroyed everything! For even those who have renounced Christianity and attack it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create a higher ideal of man and of virtue than the ideal given by Christ. When it has been attempted, the result has been only grotesque.

What Makes Someone a Missionary?

I spent 10 years in Hungary as a missionary. I had a visa and several legal papers for my residence there which stated on them that I was a missionary. Furthermore, I was sent out and supported by a number of churches who supported as a missionary.

This having been the case, I have put a lot of thought over the years into what it is that makes someone a “missionary”. 

I remember working alongside Hungarians in Hungary, doing the same work – and yet I carried the title of missionary, and they were just Christians who were serving the Lord. Every now and then, some of them would say that they too were missionaries then, since they were doing the same work. But what about the other Christians in Hungary who were not with our organization, who did similar work? Were they also missionaries? They didn’t seem to covet that title, but were content to consider their service simply completely normal Christian behavior.  Some Hungarians we worked with received financial support from churches in the West so that they could serve full time at a church. Did that make them missionaries, even though they were serving in their home country or culture?

Some missions organizations use the term “native missionaries” and raise funds in wealthier countries to support national workers who already know the culture and language of a place. The idea is that with the proper training and some financial support to free them up to do the work, these local Christian workers will be able to reach the places where they live more effectively than foreign missionaries. This is especially popular in countries which do not give visas to foreign missionaries. Is the word “missionary” appropriate in this case? 

What makes someone a missionary?

One time when my wife and I had come back from Hungary to visit family and supporters, we were in Carlsbad, CA, and at the beach some young people, probably in their early 20’s,  approached us and started talking about Jesus. They were evangelizing – and when we told them we were Christians, they told us that they had come from somewhere in the Midwest as missionaries to California. They hadn’t been sent by any church community, but believed they were called and so they had come. Does that make you a missionary?

When I moved to Longmont I knew some people who said that they were missionaries to Longmont, and raised support for their living expenses and various ministry endeavors, so that they could be free to pursue these things full-time. These particular people had grown up in Longmont and felt called to serve God in their hometown. 

What makes someone a missionary?

Something that has often been proclaimed in evangelical circles is that all Christians are called to be “missionaries” and that the work of missionaries is not something which only needs to happen in far off places with developing economies, there is need for evangelism and outreach in wealthy countries, including the United States as well. One bookmark I saw said: “You don’t have to cross the ocean to be a missionary, you just have to cross the street.”

So what are we to make of all of this? What makes someone a missionary?

A little etymology helps to sort things out:

Missio = send. Thus, to be a missionary is to be someone who is sent.

There is a sense in which all Christians have been sent by Jesus to carry out his mission, which he received from the Father, in his mission field, which is the entire world.

“”For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John‬ ‭3:16‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” – ‭John‬ ‭17:18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” – ‭‭John‬ ‭20:21‬ ‭ESV‬‬

However, some are sent and supported by a local body of believers, led by a sense of calling from God, like Paul and Barnabas in Acts ch 13. It is clear from the Book of Acts, that Paul had an ongoing relationship with his “sending church” in Antioch, returning there after each of his missionary journeys. It seems there there was an accountability, and probably some degree of financial support from the church there which had sent Paul out. 

Here’s how I sort it out: All Christians are called by be “on mission” with God, in his mission field, which is the entire world. In fact, to be on mission is an essential and inherent part of what it means to be a Christian. Therefore, it should be normal for all Christians to do the work of a missionary wherever they live, whether it is their home or not. This is the NORMAL Christian life.

And yet, I feel that we should preserve the significance of the word “missionary” for those who are sent out on a mission by a local body of believers to another place, following the leading of God. There is a way in which to use the word missionary to loosely diminishes the sacrifices and the unique challenges faced by those who leave home and country and follow God’s leading to go to another place, having had a local body of believers confirm this by sending them out. Similarly, there is a way in which the concept of the priesthood of all believers can be taken to a degree which detracts from the significance of a calling to be a pastoral overseer. While we are all called to minister and we are all called to be on mission, these titles point to particular roles.

There is an interesting place in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, where Paul tells Timothy: “Do the work of an evangelist.” (2 Timothy 4:5)  Paul, in Ephesians 4, mentions the “office” or official role in the church of “evangelist” – in other words, it seems that there were some people in the church who had this title. However, it would seem that even though this was not Timothy’s official title or role, Paul was encouraging him to do the work of an evangelist nonetheless. 

I believe the same applies in regard to the discussion of the term “missionary” or “pastor”. If you are a Christian, you may not be an officially sanctioned “missionary” – but you are called to do the work of a missionary nevertheless! You may not be a pastor, but you are still called to do the work of a pastor in your interactions with other people.

The Etymology of God

I enjoy linguistics; I consider it a hobby. I speak only 2 languages fluently, and several others to varying degrees. Whereas some people find language learning tedious, I find it invigorating.

One of the areas of linguistics I enjoy most is etymology: the study of the origin of words.

Etymology gives you a window into the thinking of a culture or a people group.

For example: I have been teaching a church history class at White Fields, and last week we were talking about how Constantine, before his conversion to Christianity, had monotheistic leanings and had declared “the venerable day of the Sun” (Sunday) to be a free day, on which no one was to work. Until that time, Sunday had been a work day, and Christians gathered for worship and the taking of the sacrament (communion) before work and then again after work, in the evening. More on that here.

Someone in the class said: Oh, so that’s why it’s called SUNday?  Yes, and in English that’s why it’s called Monday (Moon) and Saturday (Saturn).

In fact, it is interesting to consider the etymology of the names of the week in other languages. In Russian, Sunday is called: Воскресенье, which is a close derivative of the word воскрешение, which means “Resurrection”.

In Hungarian, it’s not quite as cool: Sunday is “Vasárnap” – which no doubt derives from “vásár-nap”: “Market Day”… Definitely not as cool (or as Christian) as “Resurrection”. While Romans were all about honoring the Sun, Hungarians were all about shopping…

But if etymology gives insight into the way a culture thinks, then what can we learn from the etymology of “God”?

The English word God, does not derive from the word “good”, as one might think, but comes from the Germanic Gott, which derives from the Gothic Gheu, which is thought to derive from the Sanskrit: Hu – meaning: “the one who is invoked” or “the one who is sacrificed to.”  It refers to the supreme being.

The Latin Deus, along with the related Greek Theos comes from the Indo-Iranian Deva/Sanskrit Dyaus, which are related to the terms for “to give light”, “to implore”. It is from these roots that the Spanish Dios comes.

In Hungarian, the word for God is Isten.  I’ve been told that this modern form derives from:  Ős-tény – literally: “The ancient truth (or: ancient fact)”

One of the very interesting things to read about is how different missionaries tried to find a given culture’s word for God, sometimes with great success and sometimes without. For example, in Korea, Catholic missionaries believed that the Koreans had no good word for God – as in, the Supreme Being of the universe – so they used the Chinese word for God, a word which was foreign to the Koreans, and which caused the Koreans to think of Christianity as a foreign religion. It was only when Protestant Presbyterian missionaries came to Korea, that they got to know the Korean culture and language well enough to realize that they did in fact have a word (and therein a concept) for the God of the Bible: the creator and sustainer of all things, the righteous judge of all the Earth – 하나님 (Hananim).

It is as Paul the Apostle said: God has not left himself without witness in any culture, or amongst any group of people. (Acts 14:17)  Etymology gives us a window into this truth.

 

Why Studying Church History is Important

christian-history1

Something we’ve started recently at White Fields is a series of classes we’re calling: School of Ministry and Discipleship.

The idea is that have started offering a series of 5-week Christian education classes on various topics in a classroom setting. I like to think of it as Bible college for people who don’t have time to go to Bible college.

We ran a test of this last spring, learned a few things, and are ready to start again with our first 3 classes: Christianity 101 and Church History: Parts 1 & 2.

Interestingly, the Gospel Coalition just put out an article this week titled: The Role of History in Reclaiming the Christian Mind.

Here’s an excerpt:

“One of the besetting sins of evangelicalism is a mostly ahistorical approach to theology and praxis. As evangelicals, we appeal to the supreme authority of Scripture, and rightly so. But we don’t read our Bibles in a vacuum.”

Understanding God’s working in and through the church over the past 2000 years, as well as how Christianity developed in doctrine and practice is important for us as Christians today. For me, studying Christian History was one of the most enriching and enlightening parts of going to seminary, and I hope to share some of that with other people.

If you live near Longmont and would be interested in attending these free classes, they will be held on Sundays at noon starting April 3.

For more information or to sign up, click HERE.

 

Is God’s Covenant Conditional or Unconditional?

covenant_gold

According to the late Ray Dillard, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, one of the great themes of the Bible is the question of whether the covenant with God is conditional or unconditional.

It is this question and this tension which drives the Old Testament.

There are places where it seems that God says to his people: “It’s conditional. You have to obey me.  I’m a holy God. I can have nothing to do with sin. If you want to be accepted by me, or have a relationship with me, then you have to obey me.”

There are other places where it seems that God is saying: “No matter what you do, I am going to be faithful to you. I will be there, I won’t give up on you, I will save you.”

So which is it?

In a way, you could say that the entire Old Testament is one big plot thickening, in which the big question is: Can we have a relationship with God? And if so: is our relationship with him conditional or unconditional? Is it that we have to fulfill something, or is it that he loves us no matter what?

So what’s the answer?

The answer is actually not found in the Old Testament. It it when we get to the cross of Calvary that the answer is revealed.

The answer is… YES.

It’s not one or the other, it’s both.

The covenant with God is BOTH conditional and unconditional.

In the death of Jesus on the cross you find that you have to take both the conditions of the covenant and the unconditional nature of God’s love seriously at the same time.

Jesus satisfied the conditions of the covenant on our behalf so that God could accept us and love us unconditionally.

 

Does the Bible Explicitly Condemn Slavery?

Our men’s Bible study is currently going through Tim Keller’s Gospel in Life group study, and last night’s section was about justice. After listening to Keller’s 10 minute teaching on doing justice and showing mercy to various groups, in our time of discussion, one man brought up something that he said had been bothering him for a while: “With all this talk about doing justice, why doesn’t the Bible explicitly condemn slavery?”

Truly, slavery is a terrible form of injustice, and it is a bit of a black eye on Western culture, that British and American people who considered themselves Christians propagated the African slave trade and even used the Bible to justify it. While it is true that Christians led the charge for abolition, there were many Christians on the other side who argued that the Bible condoned slavery. What are we to make of this, and what does the Bible have to say on this topic?

Linguistic Issues

The Hebrew and Greek words used for “slave” are also the same words used for “servant” and “bondservant.” Essentially, there are two kinds of “slavery” described in the Bible: indentured servitude (a servant who was paid a wage or was working off a debt), and the enslavement of someone against their consent and without pay.

In general, the kind of slavery that the Bible talks about is the first kind (indentured servitude), and parameters are put around it to make sure it is fair and humanitarian – but in Leviticus 25:44-46, the Mosaic law allows for Hebrews to take slaves from the surrounding nations. This seems to be the second form of slavery.

Slavery in Historical Perspective

Slavery was a reality of the ancient world. Hammurabi’s code (2242 BC) discusses slavery, the Hebrews were subject to harsh slavery in Egypt as well as Assyria and Babylon later on. In the middle ages, the Moors enslaved Europeans and sold them in North African slave markets, and later the Norse sold other European peoples as slaves in Scandinavia. Roma (Gypsy) people were sold as slaves in Romania only a few centuries ago, and in our modern time, slavery is still practiced in Darfur in Sudan – as well as many exploited people around the world who live as de facto slaves.

As Christians, we believe that God hates the exploitation of the weak and wants us as His people to fight against it. But how then should we understand Leviticus 25? What about other places in the Bible that talk about slavery?

Slavery in the Bible

Bondservants, i.e. indentured servants, were paid a wage (Colossians 4:1), thus the injunctions that “slaves” obey they masters should be understood as speaking of the relationship between an employee towards their employer. In fact, it was common for educated people, including doctors, lawyers and people of other trades, to be “slaves” of wealthy people – a contractual agreement of employment which one freely entered into and was often limited to a designated period of time, but was sometimes for life. This kind of slavery was not based on race, but economics, and several New Testament writers instruct Christians that a person’s employment status should not affect their standing in the church.

Recently I taught about this at White Fields Church in regard to two of Paul’s travel companions from the church in Thessalonica: one an aristocrat and the other a slave; click here for the audio of that message.

The passage from Leviticus 25:44-46 needs to be understood in relation to the nature of the Mosaic Law. The reason there are some things commanded and permitted in the Old Testament which no longer apply today is because of the nature of the Mosaic Law and the nature of Israel as a nation in the Old Testament. Israel was a political and ethnic entity, with God as their king. It was a theocracy in the truest sense. The Law of Moses contains instructions which apply to all people at all times (the 10 Commandments) as well as civil laws which pertain specifically to Israelite society, much like the civil laws that govern our societies today. Furthermore, God actively asserted his justice upon various nations at various times by allowing or even sending another nation to rule over them and enslave them for a period of time. This happened with Israel specifically in Babylon and Assyria: their time as captives and slaves in those nations was the direct judgment of God upon them. Likewise, God says that he is using the Israelites to judge the Ammonites and other Canaanite peoples during the time of the conquest of Canaan. Thus, the permission to take slaves from the Canaanites during this particular period can be understood in this light, but it does not mean a blanket condoning a the practice of slavery.

Does the Bible explicitly condemn slavery?

If we are talking about the kind of slavery that took place during African slave trade, then the answer is: Yes.

Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:16)

“Man-stealing” or kidnapping someone and selling them into slavery, or purchasing someone who had been enslaved this way, was considered one of the worst kinds of sin, those punishable by death.

This is found in the New Testament as well. In 1 Timothy 1:10, “slave-trading” (also translated as “enslaving,” and “kidnapping”) is listed among the most sinful practices, along with murder.

Philemon

Paul’s letter to Philemon is one of the shortest books in the Bible. Philemon was a wealthy man who had slaves working for him, as most, if not all, wealthy people in the Roman Empire did at that time. One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had escaped and run away, presumably to Rome. Paul ended up meeting Onesimus during his travels, possibly during his imprisonment in Rome, because Onesimus had come in contact with Christians and had become a Christian himself. As they got to talking, Paul discovered that he actually knew the man who had been Onesimus’ master before he escaped: Philemon was also a Christian. So Paul encouraged Onesimus, who had broken contract, and thereby the law, by running away, to return to Philemon and be reconciled with him, and Paul sent him along with the letter which is now part of the New Testament.

In his letter, Paul instructed Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother. Furthermore, he told Philemon that if there was anything that Onesimus owed him, that he would like it charged to his (Paul’s) account, and he himself would compensate him for any loss that he had incurred because of Onesimus. One commentator says of this letter that this attitude towards the institution of slavery shows that from the earliest days, Christians were sewing the seeds to explode the institution of slavery.

William Wilberforce, John Newton and the Christian-led Abolitionist Movement

The Abolitionist movement to end “White” on “black” slavery was spearheaded by William Wilberforce, who was motivated by his Christian faith. In opposing slavery, Wilberforce recognized that the slavery mentioned in the New Testament was a slavery of a different kind than that being practiced by the British and Americans. “Racial” slavery was opposed because it was seen to be contrary to the value that God places on every human being, since all are created in His Image and the fact that God “has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26).

John Wesley supported the work of William Wilberforce to see slavery abolished. In a letter from Wesley to Wilberforce, Wesley described slavery as “execrable villainy.”

Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redress; it being a “law” in our colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this?

February 24, 1791 (6 days before Wesley’s death)

Wesley opposed slavery because he believed the Bible taught the inherent value of every human life, irrespective of one’s skin color or nationality.

John Newton, the hymn writer who wrote “Amazing Grace,” was a captain of slave ships, and actually continued to do so even after his conversion to Christianity because he was convinced by the prevailing attitudes of his time. He later changed his mind and repented of his involvement in the slave trade, becoming an anti-slavery activist who campaigned against it for the latter part of his life. He wrote a pamphlet titled “Thoughts on the African Slave Trade” which that the slave trade was what we would call in our day a “crime against humanity.” For Newton, like Wesley and Wilberforce, it was his Christian faith and the biblical value of human life which was a deciding factor in his opposition to slavery.

Acts 17:26 is interesting in the discussion of the equal value of all human life. It says that God “has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth.” That means that all people, of all nations, of all skin-tones, share the same blood and come from the same origin. Therefore there is no room for looking down on anyone of a particular race or socio-economic class. All human life has value, and as Christians it is our call as the people of God to treat others with dignity.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8

 

The History of Lent & the Lost Celebration

ash-wednesday-cropped

I grew up going to a Lutheran school until 8th grade, and one of the highlights of the year was Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent:  the 40 days leading up to Easter, which is a time of fasting and self-denial in preparation for Easter. On Ash Wednesday we would have chapel service and would get to walk to the front of the church and have ash put on our foreheads in the shape of a cross. Today as I was out around town, I noticed people with these ash crosses on their heads.

Lent is a tradition which predates all Christian denominations, but today is practiced mainly by Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, and Orthodox Christians. However, Lent is more and more popular among evangelical Protestants, some of whom long for connection to the rich history of Christian tradition. I ran across a plethora of articles today from sources like Relevant and Christianity Today recommending that evangelicals would benefit from the practice of Lent. I tend to be inclined this way myself: to appreciate and want to be connected to Christianity’s rich traditions and to embrace the meaningful symbolism.

However, I have changed my thinking in recent years about Lent in particular. In seminary I took a course about the history and development of Christian worship. Here’s what I discovered about the development of Lent:

In the earliest days of Christianity, the time recorded in the Book of Acts, it is clear that new converts to Christianity first came to faith and then were baptized. As time went on, Christians began to feel that it was important that not only faith precede baptism, but instruction also. So they began to require believers to go through a period of instruction in Christian doctrines (catechism) before they could be baptized.

Several early Christian writings indicate that new believers would be baptized on Easter, which from the earliest days of Christianity was the chief Christian celebration. One of these writings that mentions baptisms of new believers being practiced only on Easter is from Tertullian, who argues that baptism need not only be practiced on Easter.

The number 40 held special significance for the early Christians because of the significance of the number 40 in the Hebrew scriptures, and so the 40 days leading up to Easter were the days of preparation, instruction and consecration for those who were getting ready to be baptized on Easter.

Easter itself, for the first 400 years of the church, was a feast that did not last only one day, but which began on Easter Sunday and lasted for 40 days. During that 40 days, people were forbidden from fasting, as well as from kneeling when they prayed, as kneeling is a posture of contrition, and these 40 days were set aside for the express purpose of celebrating the new life, the forgiveness and the redemption that we have because Jesus rose from the grave. It was a 40 day season of joy.

But here’s what changed: in the 4th Century, paedobaptism (child or infant baptism) became the norm. Paedobaptism was already a practice of some churches before that; Tertullian, in his On Baptism (circa 200), mentions that some churches practiced it and others did not, but that it was becoming increasingly popular in his time.

The reasons for the rise of paedobaptism were:

  1. Questions about how those who were born into and raised in Christianity should be initiated into the faith, and how this relates to the Old Testament model of a people in covenant with God.
  2. The emergence of Christendom as Christianity had become the official and dominant religion of the Roman Empire, so to be a citizen of the Empire was equated with being “Christian” and it was presumed that everyone who was a citizen of the empire was a Christian.  This view prevailed throughout the medieval period in Europe and was perpetuated by the magisterial Reformers.
    (I have written more on the subject of Christendom here)
  3. The formulation of the doctrine of ‘original sin’ by Augustine of Hippo, which gave many people a rationale for baptizing infants. The reasoning was that since the Nicene Creed declares that there is ‘one baptism for the forgiveness of sins’, that infant baptism remitted original sin (something Augustine did not teach, but which led to parents wanting to have their babies baptized as soon after birth as possible). Thomas Aquinas also taught that baptism removed the guilt of original sin; however, this teaching was rejected by Luther and other Reformers and is not held by all modern adherents of paedobaptism.

But here’s the issue that paedobaptism brought up in the church: If you baptize babies, then you can’t instruct them before you baptize them, because they’re infants… So what do you do with the 40 day period of consecration and preparation leading up to Easter? Hmm…
Here’s what they did: they decided to make this a time of all believers consecrating themselves to God in preparation for Easter, and catechism was moved to adolescence and paired with a confirmation of one’s faith/baptism.

So, here’s what you had at that point:  40 days of consecration to God before Easter – EASTER – 40 days of celebration of salvation and new life after Easter.

But then, guess what happened with time: We kept one 40 day observance and dropped the other. And which one did we choose? Not the celebration, but the consecration… and over time that consecration became more and more dour and focused on self-denial, penance and contrition.

James White writes:

It is perplexing why Christians have forsaken the season of rejoicing in exchange for the season of penance.

Particularly during the medieval period (and vestiges of this remain in our day in some places and to some degree) some Christians became more obsessed with the process of Jesus’ death – his “passion” – than with the purpose of his death.

Taking this into consideration, I am less inclined to celebrate Lent. I believe that I should consecrate myself to God every day. Romans 12:1 says – I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 

However, I do believe that the discipline of self-denial is healthy and very much needed for some people, and that setting apart a dedicated time of consecration is both biblical and good.

In the end it gets down to WHY you are practicing Lent. If it is a spiritual discipline through which you draw nearer to God by purposefully setting aside something in order to consecrate yourself in an amplified way for a particular time – then I think that is wonderful and would recommend that you do it.

No matter what – whether you practice it or not – please remember the history, and along with your 40 days of consecration, I encourage you to practice 40 days of dedicated rejoicing in the salvation and new life that Jesus made available to you.

Celebrating what He did for you should take precedence over focusing on what you do for Him.