What is Liberation Theology?

The deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery have led not only to widespread protests against police brutality and systemic racial bias, but have also led many evangelical Christians to pay more attention to the importance of temporal justice as it relates to the gospel.

The following is an essay I wrote as an assignment for a class on Liberation Theology when I was working on my first degree in theology. Several kinds of liberation theologies have been proposed since it was first articulated: Latin American, African American, Feminist, and one I find particularly intriguing: handicapped liberation theology.

What is liberation theology, does it have validity, and is there anything we can learn from it? Hopefully this essay answers some of those questions for you:

An Evaluation of the Key Contributions of Latin American Liberation Theology to Modern Theology

Latin American liberation theology is a distinct form of theology which originated in the Latin American situation of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in South America. Although it arose from this particular setting, liberation theology has contributed to modern theology by raising significant practical and theological questions for Christians, such as the nature of salvation, the proper approach to hermeneutics, e.g. the starting point and sources of theology, and what the Bible says regarding politics, poverty and oppression.

Liberation theology is unabashedly a product of a particular historical situation. Latin America, even today, is the region of the world with the greatest economic and social inequality, where an elite minority possesses almost all the wealth, and the majority of people live in crushing poverty, with the poor often suffering and dying unnecessarily from lack of adequate food, healthcare and nutrition.

In seeking a solution to this problem, and functioning from an Enlightenment, ‘modern’ view of the the world, attempts were made in the 1950s and 1960s to bring development to LatinAmerica. These efforts did not succeed in improving the lot of the poor masses and many turned to an alternative analysis of the problem: Latin America does not suffer from underdevelopment, but from oppression; the real problem being unjust political, economic and social structures, both within individual countries and between the region and the developed world, that created and perpetuate the poverty and suffering of the great majority of the population.

A major factor in the development of liberation theology was the social teaching of Vatican II concerning human dignity and the need for structural change. Latin American bishops met in Medellín, Colombia in 1968 to discuss the implications of Vatican II for Latin America; the papers adopted by this council became the founding documents of liberation theology. The bishops talked about what Christianity had to say to the poor that had been neglected in the way that the gospel had been presented, and about a link between salvation and liberation from oppression.

The consensus of this meeting was that in many places in Latin America there existed a situation of injustice that should be recognised as ‘institutional violence,’ because the existing structures violated basic human rights; they said that this situation called for ‘far-reaching, daring, urgent changes.’

Other notable influences in the formation of liberation theology are political theology, Marxism, and popular religion. Jürgen Moltmann and political theology in Germany challenged the typical European theologian’s detachment from political objectives, Marxism was used by liberation theologians as a tool of social analysis and philosophy of history, and popular religion brought attention to the cultural specificity of distinct people groups as regards religious practices.

Some of the most influential figures in the formation of liberation theology are Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino. Liberation theology is a diffuse movement, but there are some defining characteristics, most notably its orientation towards the poor and oppressed.

In liberation theology, Scripture is not read from the standpoint of wishing to understand the gospel, but out of the concern to apply its liberating insights to the situation of the poor and oppressed. Salvation is interpreted in terms of socio-political liberation and there is the notion of ‘structural sin’ – the belief that society, rather than the individual, is corrupted and requires redemption. Political, economic and social structures that keep the poor down must be abolished.

There is a fundamental belief that theology is not and should not be detached from social involvement or political action. It is argued that political neutrality is not possible for the church and that to profess neutrality is to support the status quo, which in the case of oppression is to support the oppressors rather than the oppressed. To do so, as the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America did for many years, is to go against God, who, in the words of José Míguez Bonino, is ‘clearly and unequivocally on the side of the poor.’ Thus, if God is on the side ofthe poor, then the church must also be on the side of the poor, and act on their behalf; it is then, from that position of active involvement, that a person does theology. This is the reason why Gutiérrez describes liberation theology as ‘a new way to do theology.’

Whereas classical Western theology regarded action as the result of reflection, liberation theology inverts the order: action (‘praxis’) comes first, followed by critical reflection – thus there is a rejection of the Enlightenment view that commitment to an ideology is a barrier to knowledge. In fact, according to Sobrino, ‘the poor are the theological source for understanding Christian truth and practice’.

One of the ways liberation theology has contributed to modern theology is that it has brought attention to the biblical theme of God’s concern for the oppressed and the vulnerable members of society, which is especially apparent in the Old Testament law and prophets, but is also a theme of the New Testament, e.g. in much of Jesus’ preaching and in the Epistle of James.

In bringing attention to this biblical theme, liberation theology has contributed to the current concern across the spectrum of Christianity for issues of social justice, which, beyond simply giving aid to the poor, are concerned with taking action to change social structures that enable oppression and exploitation of some human beings by others – even by working to change policies to defend and protect the poor, weak, and vulnerable. This is certainly not something completely new to Christianity; others, e.g. John Wesley, were known for their concerns for social justice, but it is certainly a major focus in modern theology, and has influenced Christian views on such topics as civil rights for women, minorities and other people who could be seen to be kept down by social structures.

Closely tied to this is the movement in modern theology away from the Enlightenment view that faith and politics are two separate spheres. Liberation theology has raised awareness of the political nature of faith, and that theology is not just something to be learned, but also something to be put into practice in our particular historical and political settings.

Liberation theology has also contributed to the recognition that all theological reflection takes place in a social context, and therefore different social situations give rise to different theological questions, so that the theological questions that are relevant in one part of the world are different than those that are relevant in another part of the world. For example, whereas Western cultures struggle with issues of faith in their post-Enlightenment context of skepticism, science and technology, other parts of the world like Africa and Latin America struggle with issues of faith in a post-colonial context of poverty, injustice and inequality. Whereas westerners might see defending the supernatural nature of God a pertinent theological issue, it may not be such in a place like Africa, where the supernatural is readily accepted, but where the pertinent theological issue is rather ‘where is the God of righteousness in a world of injustice?’ Liberation theology has contributed to the concept that if the Bible is a universal book, then it has something to say to people in every historical and social setting, addressing the issues they face.

Liberation theology has also shown a new way of doing theology – a new hermeneutic, shaped by praxis as opposed to the more traditional way of doing theology by a detached ‘objective’ determination of theological truth which then shapes ethical thought, which in turn drives practical action. Liberation theology has encouraged us to take more seriously the socio-cultural setting of the Bible and brought attention to the blindness of an interpreter to his or her own set of socio-cultural presuppositions.

Liberation theology does not even claim to be objective, because it begins not only with a situation, but with a particular analysis of that situation. It is in this way that Latin American liberation theology has provided a hermeneutical framework for other forms of liberation theology, e.g. feminist theology and black theology. This is also one of the inherent issues that the Vatican pointed out in 1984 in a document titled Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation. While it affirmed the ‘preferential option for the poor’ and urged Christians to ‘become involved in the struggle for justice, freedom and human dignity’, it also warned against starting with a revolutionary praxis rather than belief, because to do so means that all contrary ideas are automatically discredited as reflecting the class interests of the oppressors.

This is precisely the disagreement between the proponents of the various liberation theologies: since they begin doing theology with praxis, what do they do with parts of the Scriptures which seem to contradict their beliefs or predetermined analysis of the situation? How does feminist liberation theology deal with verses such as 1 Corinthians 14:34- 35? Since liberation theology begins with praxis, Scripture is not the primary source of theology, therefore the Bible will be interpreted in light of the given agenda and related experiences.

Liberation theology has also contributed to modern theological discussion by stirring up discussion of a number of theological issues, such as the nature of salvation, the significance of the incarnation, what a Christian’s attitude should be towards politics and the government, and the implications of various eschatological beliefs.

Liberation theology does highlight the important biblical theme of God’s care for the poor, but on the other hand, Jesus seems to say that having a good life on this Earth is secondary to the salvation of one’s soul (Mk 8:36).

Liberation theology presents a legitimate protest against the over-spiritualisation of the biblical theme of poverty, but on the other hand, the Bible speaks of the wealth and poverty in regard to spiritual things as well (2 Cor. 6:10, 8:9; Lk. 12:13-21).

Liberation theology stirs up discussion on eschatology as well; is this world doomed and only going to get worse, until it is eventually destroyed and replaced (2 Pet. 3:7-13), or is this world and everything in it being redeemed by God, and any work we do of liberation is taking an active part in the redemptive work of God?

Should we as Christians rightly challenge the governments of the places we live, even if they are evil; should we work for top-down change in social structures – or should we simply seek to be a blessing to the place where we live (Jer. 29:7) and submit to the governing authorities, accepting them as those appointed by God for us? (Rom. 13:1-7) After all, Jesus lived in an oppressed society, but although he could have, the New Testament tells us he did not incite political revolution, nor encourage his followers to do so. However, although liberation theology may have incited such discussions, finding answers for these questions by studying the scriptures is not its main prerogative. Liberation theology is focused on doing theology from the perspective of the poor and oppressed and for purpose of the liberation and empowerment of the poor and oppressed.

In conclusion, Liberation theology was one of the most significant theological movements of the twentieth century; it has irretrievably changed the theological landscape. It has been both a product and a catalyst of modern shifts in thinking. Liberation theology highlighted the liberative nature of Christianity and the biblical theme of the concern that God has, not only for the spiritually poor and oppressed, but for those who are physically poor and oppressed and suffering in this life. It has raised awareness of the social structures that support and propagate oppression and has challenged us to consider how God feels about both our actions and our inactions for our fellow human beings. Liberation theology has discouraged us from viewing life as sterile and compartmentalised, and encouraged us to see it rather as a unified whole, in which areas such as theology, sociology, politics and economics are not separate, but rather intimately related. It has also shown a new paradigm for doing theology, driven by praxis. It has provoked all people who do theology to realize their own cultural blinders and to listen to the cry of the poor and see what God’s word says to them.

Bibliography

Bauckham, R., ‘Jürgen Moltmann’ in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918, 3rd edn, ed. by D. Ford and R. Muers (Oxford:Blackwell, 2005), pp. 147-162

Boff, L., ‘Christ’s Liberation via Oppression: an Attempt at Theological Reconstruction from the Standpoint of Latin America’, in Frontiers of Theology in Latin America, ed. R. Gibellini, (London: SCM Press, 1975), pp. 100-132

Chopp, R.S. and E. Regan, ‘Latin American Liberation Theology’ in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918, 3rd edn, ed. by D. Ford and R. Muers (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 469-484

Cobb, J.B., “Wesley the Liberationist”, <http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1100&gt; [accessed 08/02/2013]

Conn, H.M., ‘Liberation Theology’ in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. by S.B. Ferguson, D.F. Wright and J.I. Packer (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), pp. 387-391

Ferguson, S.B., D.F. Wright and J.I. Packer, eds, New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988)

Ford, D., R. Muers, eds, The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918, 3rd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005)

Hall, L., THY203 Issues in Modern Theology (Cheltenham: University of Gloucestershire, 2011)

Keller, T., Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010)

Lane, T., Exploring Christian Thought, Nelson’s Christian Cornerstone Series (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996)

McGrath, A.E., Christian Theology: An Introduction, 4th edn (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007)

Norris, F.W., Christianity: A Short Global History (Oxford: Oneworld, 2002)
“Social Justice”, Christianity Today, <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/topics/s/social-justice/&gt; [accessed 08/02/2013]

Vos, H.F., Exploring Church History, Nelson’s Christian Cornerstone Series (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994)

A Word for Christians in a Politically Divided Culture

The COVID-19 crisis has been a major disruption worldwide, affecting the lives of nearly every person on the planet. Movement has been restricted, jobs have been furloughed or ended, businesses have suffered, not to mention the emotional stress it has put on the population. Almost universally, church gatherings have been limited in an effort to slow the spread of the virus and protect the vulnerable.

As the crisis has continued and stay-at-home orders have been extended, the situation has become increasingly divisive, and since the responses in different areas are determined by local authorities, it has also become political.

The discourse has also shifted from simply questioning the actions of authorities, business owners, and other civilians, to questioning their motives and accusing them of everything from indifference to malice.

Christians have not been exempt from this. Differing views on the motives of everyone from government authorities to church leaders have led some Christians to view each other with suspicion or even contempt. In a highly politicized and media-heavy world it is very easy for Christians to get caught up in social and political divisions to the point where their views on these issues become their primary source of identity, and they begin to view those with whom they disagree with enmity.

The Apostle Paul’s words to the Ephesians are particularly important for Christians to hear and take to heart in these times:

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:1-3 NASB

Paul later warns the Ephesians not to “give the devil any opportunity” (Ephesians 4:27 NASB). As David Guzik explains,

The devil’s work is to accuse and divide the family of God, and to sow discord among them. When we harbor anger in our heart, we do the devil’s work for him.

Enduring Word commentary, Ephesians 4

As Christians our identity is found not in our opinions about politics or current events, but in Christ who gave his life for us to make us new people individually and “the people of God” collectively. A powerful example of this can be seen in the example of the people Jesus called to become his closest disciples.

Disciples from Opposite Ends of the Political Spectrum

In Matthew 10:1-4 we have a list of the 12 disciples. Two names in the list are particularly interesting: Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot.

Tax collectors were Jewish people who worked with and for the occupying Roman government to collect taxes from their fellow countrymen, which not only took money away from individuals, but was used to support the Roman occupation and its military. For this reason, tax collectors were seen as sell-outs and traitors by more nationalistically minded Jews, who despised them.

The Zealots were a political action group of far-right nationalists who were willing to use violence in resistance to the Roman occupying forces. Zealots reportedly carried hooked knives under their cloaks with which they would seek to wound or assassinate Roman officials and their collaborators as they walked in public places.

Political divisions are nothing new; they existed in Jesus’ time as well. Simon the Zealot was someone who would have killed someone like Matthew the tax collector because of their differing political and social views.

However, Jesus called both these men, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, to follow him and become his disciples. He gave their lives a new direction and a new purpose. In Jesus, they received a new identity and a new community.

Apart from Jesus these men would have been enemies, but because of Jesus they became brothers, and they set aside their differences for a higher calling and a greater allegiance: not Rome, not Israel, but the Kingdom of God.

As Christians today in this politically divided climate, may we be those who are “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” “showing tolerance for one another in love,” as we have been called together in one body and given a new identity and purpose in Christ.

New Sermon Series: Desiring the Kingdom

For a long time I have wanted to study the books of 1 & 2 Kings with our church.

These are historical books which tell the history of the nation of Israel after the time of King David, beginning with the “Golden Age” of King Solomon, and following the downward spiral that began with his apostasy, followed by the division of the people into two rival kingdoms, and their subsequent apostasies and exiles in Assyria and Babylon.

This history is, on the one hand tragic, and on the other hand full of hope. One of the great “narrative plot lines” that runs throughout the Bible is that of the desire for a king and a kingdom.

While on the one hand these books show us how even the best people are merely people at best, we are constantly reminded of and pointed to the promised Eternal Kingdom and its coming King: the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He alone remains as the sole hero of the stories in these books!

Through the failed kings of Israel and Judah, we are reminded of our desire for a kingdom and a king, and the ever-increasing realization that what we desire will be fulfilled in Jesus and His Kingdom.

I invite you to join us on this journey through 1-2 Kings online on the White Fields YouTube channel and Facebook page, as well as on our website: whitefieldschurch.com

Christian Responses to Plagues and Threats in the Past

A virus that affects the vulnerable, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, is a threat that we should take seriously.

As we consider how to respond to COVID-19, it is worth considering some of the responses to plagues and threats by Christians in the past.

The Plague in Rome

Jesse Lusko posted recently:

In 250 AD the plague wiped out 1/3 of the population of Rome. There was hysteria and most Romans abandoned the weak and the sickly and fled. Pagan historians record how Christians instead sacrificially cared for the sick and faced death with joy and confidence. Cyprian writes “In contrast to the prevailing despair, the Christians seemed to carry their dead in triumph.”

The Atomic Age

C. S. Lewis wrote these words in 1948 after the dawn of the atomic age:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Luther and the Plague in Wittenberg

The Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe in the 14th century, but what many people don’t realize is that it continued to pop up at times afterwards for centuries.

In August 1527 the plague showed up in Wittenberg, leading to the closure of the university and other social institutions. People began fleeing the city in panic, and many people did get sick. In fact, the mortality rate of those who contracted the plague was 70%.

Martin Luther and his wife believed that they were called to serve the sick rather than to flee their city. They opened up their home and treated many sick people.

No one should dare leave his neighbor unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them. In such cases we must respect the word of Christ, “I was sick and you did not visit me …” [Matt. 25:41–46]. According to this passage we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.

In other words, Martin Luther believed there was an obligation to help those who contracted the plague, but so long as they were helped, it was a matter of conscience if one remained to aide in this great task.

He argued that it would be better for hospitals with trained staff to care for the sick, yet if one were not to be found, “…we must give hospital care and be nurses for one another.

For more on this, see: Martin Luther and His Incredible Response to the Black Plague

Conclusion for Today

As the people of God, it is important that we respond to the current situation in prayer, in faith, in service, and in generosity. We are called to look out for the weak and vulnerable among us, to be the body of Christ in the world, and to speak with a prophetic voice – proclaiming God’s words of life and the message of eternal hope in Jesus.

Reader Questions: Was Jesus Really Related to King David?

Last year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

I have been watching an archaeologist/historian video series. She says Jesus could not have been of David’s bloodline because David was Judean from Judea. Any thoughts?

The claim that Jesus could not have been of David’s bloodline because David was a Judean from Judea fails to take into account the fact of the Babylonian captivity.

The Judeans were taken to Babylon for roughly 70 years (it’s “roughly 70 years” because they didn’t all return at once; they returned in waves). Upon return from the captivity, many settled in different places, such as the much more fertile north of Israel, which was also more highly populated and therefore had more work opportunities. Joseph was a builder (“carpenter“ implies wood work in English, but the term used in the Bible implies more that he was more generally a construction worker) and Nazareth was a Jewish settlement right outside of the large Hellenistic city of Sepphoris, where it seems that the Jews of Nazareth went to work every day as laborers.

The lush and fertile north of Israel

Despite their resettlement after the exile, the Jewish people would have kept track of their ancestral hometowns and villages. 70 years is not so long that you would lose connection with your past, especially for ancient people who were more inclined than modern people to keep track of that and value it.

The argument that Jesus could not have been descended from David since he grew up in Nazareth is the same argument made by Nathaniel in John 1. It was an argument which neglected to recognize the fact that while Jesus grew up in Nazareth, his family was originally from Bethlehem, hence the reason Mary and Joseph had to travel there for the census.

Matthew 2 tells us about how Mary and Joseph left Bethlehem because Herod the Great attempted to kill Jesus, fearing him as a threat to his throne. Mary and Joseph took baby Jesus to Egypt, and upon their return they moved to Nazareth in order to stay off the radar of the Herod family even after the death of Herod the Great.

Thanks for the question and God bless you!

What Does Peter Mean by Adding “Virtue” to Your Faith?

parthenon greece landmark

This past Sunday at White Fields we began our study of 2 Peter, as part of our “Pilgrim’s Progress” series. The sermon “Make Your Calling and Election Sure” looked at 2 Peter 1:1-15.

In 2 Peter 1:5-7, Peter urges his readers to make every effort to add to their faith virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love.

All of those seem pretty straightforward, except perhaps one: Virtue.

How Does Peter Understand “Virtue”?

“Virtue” seems like a pretty broad term, and one that different people might define in different ways.

However, keep in mind that Peter is writing to people throughout Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). This is stated explicitly in 1 Peter 1:1: “To those…in…Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” These are the historical regions of Asia Minor, which at this time was a predominately Greek-speaking, Hellenized region. Hellenization wasn’t only about the Greek language, it also included the proliferation of Greek social norms and philosophical ideas.

Greek philosophy included the thoughts and writings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the most influential and prominent stream of Greek philosophy being Stoicism.

The Stoics were very focused on the idea of “virtue” and held that there are four “cardinal virtues”: Wisdom, Morality, Courage, and Moderation.

Keeping this historical and cultural setting in mind, it would seem that when Peter uses the word “virtue,” he does so with the expectation that his readers will associate that with the Greek philosophical teachings on virtue, particularly that of the Stoics.

Without Faith, Virtue Avails Nothing

It is significant that Peter speaks of “adding” or “supplementing” your faith with virtue. In other words, faith in Jesus and his finished work is the baseline upon which we are encouraged to add these virtues.

So, while Peter is affirming that the Stoics were right that these virtues are good, to have these virtues apart from faith in Jesus will avail you nothing before God. These virtues might help you in life and in relationship with other people, but they will not do anything to improve your standing before God.

CS Lewis on Virtue: the Bible vs. the Stoics

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.  But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. 

You see what has happened?  A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.  The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.  I do not thik this is the Christian virtue of Love. 

The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.  If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. 

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.

CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory 

This week Mike and I sat down to discuss this question of what it means to add virtue to your faith for our weekly Sermon Extra video series:

Is the Term “Evangelical” One We Should Embrace or Avoid?

man wearing black crew neck shirt reading book

In a recent post, I reviewed Christian Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossiblein which he takes aim at “biblicism,” which he claims is particularly prevalent amongst evangelical Christians.

This brings up an important question: What exactly is an “evangelical”?

Popular Usage

Recently a friend from church approached me before service one Sunday morning. He pointed out an article in the New York Times about evangelicalism in America, and asked what exactly an evangelical is, and whether our church was evangelical.

Another friend recently posted online about two Christian leaders who had written a book about their support for a particular political issue, and my friend’s comment was that the divide between evangelicals and Jesus is widening all the time.

Obviously my friend is speaking of evangelicals as if they are a single, united group of people, who for the most part do not only hold certain religious beliefs, but also certain political and social positions.

Again, it begs the question: what exactly is an “evangelical”?

Origin of the Term

The word “evangelical” means “of the gospel” or “about the gospel.” It comes from the Greek word evangelion, which means a proclamation of good news.

See also: The Gospel of Caesar Augustus, & What It Tells Us About the Gospel of Jesus Christ

The gospel, which is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and what He has done in order to save us, redeem us, and reconcile us to God, is the core message of Christianity. Thus, an “evangelical Christian” simply means: a Christian who is about the gospel, or a gospel Christian.

Co-Opting of the Term

Since the gospel is the core message of Christianity, one would assume that all Christians would be people who are about the gospel! Unfortunately, some political groups have attempted to co-opt the term evangelical to give the impression that theologically conservative Christians all agree with particular political, social, and economic positions and support certain political parties.

This has led some Christians to feel that they should abandon the term evangelical, as they feel it is no longer helpful in identifying them because the term may be associated in some people’s minds with certain political positions, thus creating an unnecessary barrier for some in approaching Christianity.

So what is an evangelical?

Defining Evangelicalism

Theologian and historian Mark Noll says: “the groups and individuals making up the postwar evangelical movement unite on little except profession of a high view of scripture and the need for divine assistance in salvation.” [1]

Another definition states that evangelicalism is “a transdenominational movement that has sought to transcend its differences in order to work together toward certain common activities and goals, particularly evangelism, world missions, and ministries of mercy and justice.” [2]

Nathan Hatch explains that evangelicals cannot be spoken of as if they are one united group of people who all share the same core beliefs, nor is there one leader who represents or speaks on behalf of evangelicals as a whole. He states, “In truth, there is no such thing as one evangelicalism. [It is made up of] extremely diverse coalitions dominated by scores of self-appointed and independent-minded religious leaders.” [3]

Thus, for my friend to say that “evangelicals are moving farther away from Jesus every day” is to suppose that certain leaders speak on behalf of a movement which is united in both their theological and political views, which is absolutely not true. Nevertheless, many people obviously hold this opinion, partly because of “self-appointed” leaders who act as if they do speak on behalf of evangelicals as a whole, which is the reason why many Christians are considering whether it would be best to distance themselves from this descriptor.

Not an American Movement

One of the problems with associating the term evangelical with Christians who hold certain political positions is that it fails to recognize that evangelicalism is a worldwide movement, not an American one, and evangelicals around the world hold a wide variety of positions on social and economic issues. Even in the United States, evangelicals are not united in their political views or affiliations.

Should We Embrace It or Avoid It?

Words are only helpful until they are not. Furthermore, the helpfulness of words depends on context, because in different contexts, the same words can be associated with different things. If a word carries a lot of baggage in a particular context, it might be better to find a different word.

For example, in Hungary, where I pastored for several years, the word evangéliumi (literally: of the gospel) was a helpful and positive term which gave people a sense of who we were and what we were about. In England, where I have done my theological education, the term evangelical does not carry heavy political connotations, and is therefore helpful in describing a certain kind of Christian who is active in their faith, takes the Bible seriously, and is engaged socially. John Stott, an Anglican, is remembered in England as the face of the Evangelical Alliance, a group of churches that works together beyond denominational lines to further the gospel.

In the United States some Christians, including myself, have opted for using alternative monikers, such as “Gospel-Centered,” which retains the idea of being focused on the gospel, while not using a term which has come to be associated with many things other than the gospel in American society. As I often say: as a Christian, the only controversy I want to be known for is the controversy of the gospel.

Rhode Island & Walden Pond: How They Shaped the Way Americans Think About Church

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It has been said that there are two men who did more to shape the American psyche and culture than anyone else:

#1: Roger Williams, Founder of Rhode Island

Roger Williams moved from England to Boston in the 1600’s to be part of the Puritan colony of Massachusetts

The Puritans’ goal was to create a pure church, free from politics, corruption, and compromise.

Roger Williams loved this idea… the only thing was: after a while he noticed some things in the church there in Boston that he didn’t really like. Things such as how baptisms were carried out, and how the church was managed.

So, do you know what he did?   He left.

Roger moved down south of Boston and established his own colony, with its own church, in what is now Providence, Rhode Island.

But then, guess what happened… After a while, Roger found some things he didn’t like about this new church, and some of the people there (the very church he himself had founded!). And so, Roger Williams left that church as well, and established another church nearby.

And then he left that church too…

Every church he started, he eventually left – because he found things he didn’t like… and they never completely matched his vision for what a perfect church should be, which is particularly interesting since he was the leader of these churches.

Roger Williams ended up alone, still having faith, but completely withdrawn from Christian community.

#2: Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was a writer, who famously encouraged us to “march to the beat of our own drum.”

He lived in a hut, next to Walden Pond, and would write about going for walks in the forest alone.

Thoreau expressed a very powerful theme for Americans: we take care of ourselves, we work for ourselves, we answer to ourselves — and when it comes to church, we do that for ourselves too.

Thoreau shaped American culture by putting the self at the heart of the American psyche.

His biographer put it this way:  Henry David Thoreau “stands as the most powerful example…of the American mentality of: self-trust, self-reverence, or self-reliance.”

But here’s the thing:  if you look at Thoreau’s life, you don’t find a happy person. He struggled to engage in long-term, meaningful relationships with others, and at the end of his life he had no friends.

Rugged Individualism + Personal Religion = Selling Us Short

The “rugged individualism” of Thoreau plus the “personal religion” of Roger Williams shapes American culture to this day.

Like fish in water, it is hard for us to imagine things any other way, but thankfully God’s Word gives us God’s vision for what the Body of Christ, the gathered, redeemed People of God, AKA: the Church is intended to be and called to be. And when understood, it becomes clear that our culture of rugged individualism + personal religion is selling us short. God has something better for us!

See the article: A Culture of Loneliness and What to Do About It 

I love this quote from Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson:

We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.

This Sunday at White Fields Church in Longmont, we will continue our Vision series by looking at God’s vision for the church. If you are in the area, we would love to have you join us!

For more on this, check out the book: A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together by Scot McKnight

Resisting the Sirens’ Song

 

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In Homer’s classic epic, The Odyssey, tells the story of Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, and his perilous journey home after the Trojan War. Along the way, Homer faces many dangers, but perhaps the greatest danger of all are the Sirens.

A Picture of Temptation

The Sirens are seductive, and they sing a beautiful song that sailors cannot resist. However, the Sirens’ song is deadly: when sailors are enticed by it and steer their ships towards it, they are lured to their death, as they crash their boats into the rocks.

The Sirens’ song is a picture of temptation. People are not tempted by things which are grotesque and terrible, but by the allure of something which is desirable and attractive. However, there are things in life which draw us in with a promise that is not only empty, but which will lead to your demise and the shipwrecking of your life.

Two Approaches to Resisting Temptation

In his book, Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain ScienceDrew Dyke points out that the Sirens are not only used by Homer in The Odyssey as a picture of temptation (and how to resist it), but they were also used by Apollonius Rhodius in his epic, Argonautica,  which was written about 500 years after The Odyssey. Interestingly, Rhodius mentioned the Sirens in order to offer a different approach to resisting temptation.

Approach #1: The Odyssey

Odysseus knows about the danger of the Sirens and he is aware of his own weakness. Rather than assuming that he will be strong enough to resist the Sirens’ song, Odysseus makes plans in order to protect himself and his men from lure of the Sirens: he orders his men to tie him to the mast, and tells them not to untie him no matter how much he pleads with them. To make sure the sailors aren’t seduced, he has them stuff their ears with beeswax so they won’t hear the Sirens’ song.

When Odysseus hears the Sirens’ song, he tries to escape the ropes and begs his sailors to free him, but they ignore him and continue sailing. Odysseus’ plan to overcome temptation works and they survive the danger of the Sirens’ song.

The approach to temptation laid out in The Odyssey is akin to asking others to keep you accountable and taking steps to prevent yourself from coming in contact with things that tempt you.

This approach is wise in that it recognizes human weakness. We need more than just good advice, we need help. If all we needed was good advice, no one would be overweight or broke or in experience conflict in their relationships, since a myriad of good advice on these topics is readily available for free. The fact that people still struggle with these things is proof that what we need is more than just good advice: we need help to overcome our weaknesses and do what is right, not only towards others, but even for our own best interests.

For a message on how the gospel is good news, rather than good advice, see: In Thy Dark Streets Shineth)

Approach #2: Argonautica

In Argonautica, the Argonauts have to sail past the same Sirens, but they take a different approach to overcoming temptation:

On board their ship is a musician named Orpheus. When they hear the Sirens’ song, rather than stuffing their ears with wax and tying themselves up to avoid the allure of the song, they rather have Orpheus get out his lyre and play a louder and more beautiful song. Because of Orpheus’ “sweeter song,” the sailors are able to resist the temptation of the Sirens’ song, and they pass by securely.

This approach to temptation does not merely restrain the hand, but seeks to capture the heart.

Dyke points out that while it is wise to recognize your own weaknesses and set up safeguards to protect yourself, the best way to resist temptation and the most powerful means of self-control is to listen to a “sweeter song.”

A Sweeter Song

Augustine of Hippo explained that what defines a person most is what they love. Therefore, in order to change who a person is, we should seek to change what they love.

How do we do that? By showing them a better story and a sweeter song.

That better story and sweeter song is found in Jesus. Ultimately all people are seeking the same things: joy and happiness, relief from suffering and pain, love and acceptance, overcoming the limitations of this physical world, adventure and discovery… the list could go on. However, the ways and the places in which many people seek these things will not only leave them unfulfilled but will dash them against rocks and shipwreck their lives. It is only in Jesus that our deepest longings will be fully and ultimately satisfied.

Jesus and the salvation He gives is the sweeter song. May we help others to see that! There may be times when it is wise to take practical measures to prevent ourselves from giving in to temptation, but ultimately we need our hearts to be won over by the sweeter song. May we listen to it loudly and often, that our hearts may know it and not accept any lesser, competing songs!

Christmas is for “Those People”

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The Ins and the Outs

If you read the narratives about Jesus’ birth, you notice that two very different groups of people came to celebrate the event: the magi and the shepherds.

These groups could not have been more different.

  • The magi were “wise men from the East,” whereas the shepherds were local.
  • The magi who educated whereas shepherds were uneducated.
  • The magi were trained in astronomy: a practice common amongst social elites at that time. The shepherds were illiterate.
  • The magi were wealthy. The shepherds were the poorest of the poor.
  • The magi were elites: they easily got an audience with the king. The shepherds were outcasts: dirty, smelly, and looked-down upon by others.

The wise men were the 1%-ers. The shepherds were the undesirables.

Honored yet Disgraced

Then there’s Mary. When the angel came to her to tell her that God had chosen her to be the one through whom the promised Savior would come into the world, her response was:  “Me?   Really?”  Later on she says that God had “looked upon her lowly estate” (Luke 1:48).

Mary was a young woman and she was poor. She was engaged to a blue-collar construction worker. We know that together they were poor because when they dedicated Jesus as a baby in the temple, they gave an offering of two turtledoves (pigeons), which was the sacrifice that the poorest of the poor were allowed to make (the wealthy were required to sacrifice a lamb, but this allowance was for those who couldn’t afford to buy a lamb). Truly: he was was rich became poor… (2 Corinthians 8:9)

Furthermore, since God’s plan necessitated that the Messiah, the promised savior, be born of a virgin (Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22-23), that necessitated that whoever would be chosen to bear the Messiah would become a social pariah by doing so, because they would become pregnant outside of wedlock.

Mary had to be content with knowing who she was in God’s eyes, because in the eyes of those in her community she was disgraced. In fact, John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus had to deal with insults and people calling him a bastard because of his mother’s assumed impropriety (John 8:41). Scholars also note that when Mark’s Gospel reports that Jesus was called “the son of Mary” rather than the common way of referring to a child as the son of their father, i.e. “the son of Joseph” – that this was a slight, insinuating that Jesus was the product of Mary’s adultery.

Hope for “Those People”

Sometimes people look at Christianity and say, “the problem with Christianity is that it is so narrow and exclusive,” because Christianity says that if Jesus is God, if Jesus is the Savior, then you have to put your trust in Him and follow Him in order to be saved.

But here’s what’s interesting: I have met many people who say: “All you have to do to be saved is: be a good and moral person.”

Most people don’t believe that all people will be saved. They fully expect that Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot will go to hell, as well as those who hurt children or the weak. They believe that those who are cruel and mean, and those who do bad things and hurt others deserve Hell rather than Heaven.

In fact, many people find it scandalous that by just believing in Jesus, a person like Jeffery Dahmer, who has done truly terribly things, could be forgiven of their sins and still go to heaven. People even go so far as to say things like, “If someone like that is in Heaven, then I would rather not be there.” The assumption is that for God to forgive someone like that would be a grave act of injustice.

The problem, though, with saying that “All moral and decent people will go to Heaven,” or “If you live a good life, then you will be saved,” is that not all of us are moral! Not all of us have lived good lives! Some of us are failures. Some of us are broken. All of us have done things that we’re not proud of. We have all done things that hurt other people.

To say that “good and moral people” will be saved, or that in order to be saved you must “live a good life” is narrow and exclusive, because it puts “those people” on the outside. The gospel, on the other hand, offers hope to “those people” because it says that anyone who comes to Jesus will be welcomed, received, forgiven, and transformed.

The message of the gospel is good news for all people – for the elites and the outcasts. For the decent and the indecent. For the good and the bad (see Matthew 22:10 – both “the good and the bad” were invited to the wedding feast). The gospel is scandalously open to all people who will come and receive the free gift of redemption through Jesus. That’s good news for “those people” like me and you!

Merry Christmas!