Back to School

Yesterday I received my letter of acceptance from London School of Theology, where I will begin my postgraduate studies starting this September to get a Master of Arts in Integrative Theology.

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I will be studying via distance learning, which means I won’t have to travel at all and will be able to make my own schedule, both of which are important to me since I’m a full-time pastor and have a family at home. I looked into a local school in Colorado, but I prefer the British approach to education. Also, British schools are more affordable than US schools when it comes to studying Christian theology because in the US it is only taught in private universities because of the separation of church and state – whereas in the UK public universities can have theology departments. I would recommend Americans who want to study theology to really consider looking into studying via distance learning in Britain.

I’m excited to go back to school and continue my theological education. It’s been nice taking a year off, but I am ready to get back into it.

I am still in Kyiv; I fly home tomorrow morning. Today I got to visit Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary and speak to the students and staff.

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The faculty and students of Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary

Several months ago I met a couple who live in Berthoud, CO who run an organization called Ukraine Orphan Outreach. It was through them that I got connected to people at the seminary, and as it turns out there are several people from Calvary Chapel in Ukraine who work and study there.

I was impressed with their school and its mission: “To strengthen churches and transform society” – as well as the work they are doing to accomplish that. Having an interdenominational evangelical seminary in Ukraine is a great asset to the church here.

The school has many students from outside of Ukraine, and recently they started a second campus of their school in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. They also operate several mini-campuses in cities around Ukraine, for people who want to study with them but have difficulty coming to Kyiv.

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A class at UETS

I’m praying that God uses and blesses the work of UETS to raise up and train many ministers of the gospel to work in this country and the former republics of the Soviet Union.

Politics and Identity

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Over the past few weeks, I, like many of you, have been following the political developments in the U.S. In such a caustic and antagonistic climate, I would much rather be known for my stance on Jesus Christ and the message of the gospel than for my personal convictions about political matters. That is the drum that I will beat and the hill I will be willing to die on.

Why is it that the political climate is so caustic and people are so divided? According to many sociologists, philosophers and theologians, the issue is one of identity: namely, that one of the most common ways that people create identity is through “the exclusion of the Other.”

According to Zygmunt Bauman, “We can’t create ‘Us’ without also creating ‘Them.’ Social belonging happens only as some other contrasting group is labeled as the Different or the Other. We bolster our identity by seeing others in a negative light and by excluding them in some way.” (Modernity and Ambivalence, p. 8)

In other words: I can feel I am one of the good people because I know I am not one of the bad people. Therefore the “Other” must be degraded, excluded and/or vilified in order for me to have a sense of self-worth.

Croatian theologian and professor at Yale University, Miroslav Wolf, in his book Exclusion and Embrace, says that the reason we indulge in these attitudes and practices is that by denouncing and blaming the Other it gives us “the illusion of sinlessness and strength.”

One great example of this, Timothy Keller points out, is: “If I find my identity in working for liberal political and social causes, it is inevitable that I will scorn conservatives, and the same goes for conservatives regarding liberals. In fact, if the feelings of loathing toward the opposition are not there, it might be concluded that my political position is not very close to the core of who I am.” (Making Sense of God, p. 145)

In order to do this, Wolf says, we must “over-bind” and “over-separate”: To over-separate means to fail to recognize what we do have in common, and to over-bind means to refuse other people the right to be different from us.

This practice is common in many areas, not just in regard to politics.

Keller goes on to say: “If my identity rests to a great degree in being moral and religious, then I will disdain those people I think of as immoral. If my self-worth is bound up with being a hardworking person, I will look down on those whom I consider lazy. As the postmodernists rightly point out, this condescending attitude toward the Other is part of how identity works, how we feel good and significant.” (Ibid.)

Jesus himself gave an example of this:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 ESV

Jesus is describing people who excluded, degraded and vilified others for the purpose of bolstering their own sense of self-worth, value and identity. However, much to their surprise, Jesus tells them that God does not play this game – in fact, he is very much opposed to it, because it is rooted in pride and self-justification rather than humility.

What then is the solution?

The solution is this: we must find our identity not in being better than others, but in who we are in God’s eyes, because of what Jesus has done for us. We need an identity which is centered on the Cross.

The fact that Jesus went to the cross to die for our salvation is both a profound statement of our sin and failure, and at the same time the greatest expression of love and of our value to God. In this sense, my identity and value is not based on me being better than other people – rather it does not allow me to see myself as better than others. I, like them, have sinned and fallen short. My value, according to the gospel, is that God loves me so much that he was willing to pay the greatest cost and hold nothing back; he is that devoted and committed to me.

May we be those who find our identity in Christ, rather than in our political or other affiliations, and may the way Christians express their political views not be a hindrance to the message of the gospel.

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)

Happy Reformation Day!

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499 years ago today, Martin Luther – a German professor of theology, priest and monk, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints Church (ironically on the eve of All Saints Day – AKA: Halloween) in Wittenburg, Germany. This act is considered the spark which ignited the Protestant Reformation.

If you own a Bible in your own language, that you can read any time you want, you have the Reformers to thank for that. It was not always that way; people fought for these things.

Before Luther, there were others who sought to bring reform to the church. John Wycliffe (1331-1384) published the first English translation of the Bible. Jan Hus (1369-1415) started a movement of the prolific teaching of the Bible to the common people, and was ultimately executed in Prague. Peter Waldo (1140-1218) commissioned a translation of the New Testament into the local vernacular of southern France. Each of these people were persecuted for trying to put the Scriptures into the hands of the common people.

In 1516, John Tetzel was sent to Germany to raise money for the building of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. His means of raising money was the sale of plenary indulgences, which promised the release of a person from purgatory, based on their purchase.

The sale of plenary indulgences had been one of Jan Hus’ major contentions with the medieval Catholic Church, and Luther took issue with it as well: the idea that God’s favor or blessings could somehow be earned, not to mention purchased, was something he whole-heartedly rejected. Furthermore, the concept of purgatory is in conflict with the Biblical teaching of the sufficient atonement of Christ on the cross.

Luther had long struggled with feelings of condemnation and never being able to measure up, but had experienced an epiphany when he read Habakkuk 2:4: Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith.

This led Luther to the other places in the Bible where this phrase is repeated: in Romans 1:17, in Galatians 3:11, in Hebrews 10:38 – where the message is clear: It is not by our own works that we are justified before God, but it is God who justifies us as an unearned gift of His grace, and we receive that justification by FAITH. That is how Abraham became righteous (Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness – Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3 & 22), and that is how we receive God’s righteous, which he has provided for us in Christ!

Luther’s re-discovery of this Biblical truth came through his reading of the Scriptures. He became convinced that everyone needed to be able to read the Scriptures for themselves, and that the practice of the church at that time, of keeping the Scriptures out of the hands of the common people, was something that needed to end. He believed that people had the capacity and the right to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures for themselves. Luther himself, in the pursuant years, translated the Bible into German, a translation which is widely used to this day.

Luther came to believe that the Scriptures alone are the source of theology, that justification is by Christ alone through faith alone.

The 5 “solas” (alone statements) of the Reformation are:

  • Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone)
    • The Bible is the only source of Christian doctrine
  • Sola Fide (by faith alone)
    • Justification is received by faith alone
  • Sola Gratia (by grace alone)
    • Justification is by God’s grace alone
  • Sola Christus (through Christ alone)
  • Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone)

This October 31st, I hope you’ll remember that there is something much better than “fun size” candy bars: having God’s Word available to you, for you to read and understand yourself.

After all – what is “fun” about “fun size”?  There’s nothing fun about tiny candy bars. They should be called “sad size”…

In April 1521, Luther was brought before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, at which Luther was commanded to recant his teachings. Luther thought he would have a chance to defend his ideas. Charles would only accept an absolute recantation. Luther refused to do so.

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Here is a portion of Luther’s statement at the Diet of Worms:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason – for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves – I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me.”

If the Reformers could speak to us today, they would tell us this: the Reformation never ends. It is a continual movement of returning to the Scriptures and examining our lives and our practices in light of them.

Happy Reformation Day!

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.

Is God’s Covenant Conditional or Unconditional?

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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.