20151218

Scripture Questions

I was just reading a recent letter from my acquaintance, Abdu Murray, about his interaction with a Muslim questioning a fact about Jesus. Abdu answered the questioner by turning to the actual text of the Bible. The answer was clear and the questioner was corrected in his thinking. The issue, as presented by the questioner, was ‘Here is a scripture that speaks against your position.’ But Abdu wasn’t so easily put off, he did what we all should: he opened up his copy of scripture and read it.

If I remember anything that Dr. Breshears hammered into my thick skull it was this: “Look at the text.” There is no good interpretation outside or detached from the text. You would think that would be obvious: how can you interpret words when you will not read them? But it happens all the time – embarrassingly, especially in the church.

I used to be guilty of this all the time. Somebody at work would make some claim about what the Bible said. Usually some verse or phrase taken wildly out of context. But I would make a mistake; I would say something like, “No, that’s not right” and correct the error, talk about the text, and all of that without looking at the text! That was a weak response.

What I should have done was just respond with, “Well, open up your Bible…,” (always have the questioner use their copy, which they trust) “… and let’s look at the text.” The answer is usually there in the context of that stray verse or clause. That means looking at the sentences above, and then below; understanding the whole paragraph. That means understanding the flow of thought through the paragraph, what the paragraph really is about, and where that stray verse or phrase fits.

Dr. Breshears encouraged us to have the questioner read the text themselves and then to ask them “simple interpretive questions.” Questions like:
            “Who is the author talking about here?”
            “What do you think was happening at that point?”
            “What does this word refer to?”
            “What point is the author trying to make?”
            “After reading the whole paragraph, was the author talking about this, or that?”

Simply looking at the text, rather than talking about the text, is really why the Bible exists. Recently, somebody made an assertion, ‘supported’ by scripture, in a group setting that I ‘felt’ was wrong but was momentarily thrown. So I said the right thing: “Let’s look at the text.” We opened to the passage, read through the relevant paragraph, and by the time we got to the end of the paragraph, it was clear that the assertion was ‘foreign’ to what the text was really communicating.

So what I’m urging you, fellow Christian, to do next time you get into one of those workplace or classroom ‘discussions’ about scripture is to find the passage, get your questioner to read the actual passage, in context, and ask them ‘simple interpretive questions.’


As a postscript, there is a great little essay by Greg Koukl on why you should “Never Read A Bible Verse” that speaks to the importance of context. You should read that!

20151105

The Corrosion Of Lying

When I was but a wee laddy, the idea of lying was – to me – a bad thing. Lying was a bad thing to do; I shouldn’t do that; I should strive to tell the truth. As I grew older, I adopted the semi-joke, “I want to always tell the truth for the simple reason that I’m not smart enough to keep lies straight.” I recognized that “bearing false witness” was a breach of The Big Ten, but lying never really hit me as a particularly evil thing to do. Don’t get me wrong – lying is bad, wrong, and sinful. But it never struck me as a special evil.
    That changed several years back after a particular class session in seminary. Professor Breshears was speaking on sin and evil. He had us read one chapter out of “People Of The Lie” by M. ScottPeck. While there are many interesting thoughts that Dr. Peck expresses in this work, I can’t endorse all of them. However, Dr. Peck’s thesis was that there existed a kind of human evil that was diagnosable. Evil wasn’t merely being a psychopath, or a sociopath, but in his experience he had encountered some other psychological configuration that manifested itself as recognizable evil. Yes, Dr. Peck asserted, we can psychologically diagnose human evil and it looks like this: “malignant narcissism.”
    The phrase requires us to tease it out. Starting with “narcissism:” a profound self-centeredness that expects the rest of the world to shape around the narcissist. OK, sure, we are all pretty self-centered. But this is more; this is the expectation that no one else really matters unless they serve the narcissist’s purposes. This can go to the next level (which we discussed in class) where the narcissist is so self-absorbed that the rest of the world is expected to yield to whatever s/he says is right or wrong. That is, the narcissist’s morality itself becomes a function of it’s-ALL-about-ME.
    Next, the word, “malignant.” Now I’ve known several narcissists during my life. I am one. Several are ‘infantile;’ that is, they are self-centered but harmless – kind of like a small child who is ‘cute’ in their emotional immaturity. It gets awkward when that happens in a 60 year-old, of course. But there are a few who’s self-centeredness actually reached out to deliberately harm others. There was an intent to harm, break, even destroy those who got in the way of the narcissists’ whims.
    Just a word, here; this is not completely Dr. Peck’s description. I’ve taken his work, several discussions, and some real-world experience to construct this model.
    This Malignant Narcissism gets tangled up with a couple of other ‘phenomena’ (I hate using such sterile words because the effects on innocent people is so horrible). One of those, as Dr. Peck described, is a strong tendency to lie … a lot. Remember that a narcissist is all about themselves. By extension of their self-centeredness, their reputations are very important. They want to look good. It would be very difficult for the malignant narcissist to express truly self-deprecating sentiments. In my world, a malignant narcissist will not truly ‘repent’ of bad behavior – they may regret the consequences (very emotionally!), but will strongly resist the notion that they were wrong and need to change. Why? Because they are IT. They are the standard. And to promote that view of themselves, they will say things that are not true to continue that fa├žade. They lie. It becomes a continuous thing. And it certainly does not matter, much, if their lies might hurt others: ‘better them than me!’
    It is not much of a step, then, for the narcissist to turn malignant and systematically lie to cover up or to turn people on each other, even former friends. I have seen this happen.
     All that (and Dr. Peck’s book is worth picking up) being said, I have begun to see that lying itself has a corrosive effect on the soul. With each lie, there is a small death to truth, to reality itself.
    OK, here’s where I get a little abstract. I remember reading a fascinating definition of “truth” in, of all places, a computer programming manual. The definition equated truth with something that exists, is real, substantial. To be false is to be empty, non-existent, nothing. When we lie, we embrace falseness: empty non-existence. When we lie, we go against real substantial existence. Lying, like most ethical issues, is much deeper than mere behavior. There is a ‘metaphysical’ phenomena that is very profound. When you lie, you turn your back on the True, the Real, and even the Good. When you lie, you walk towards empty nothingness. It’s an ‘existential’ thing.
    And if we consider that God is the source of all life, reality, truth, and good; then to lie is to walk away from God himself. Which is probably the real issue behind the Ninth Commandment.
    Lots of big words there. Summary: Lying is really Really bad for you. Don’t do it.

20150906

Family Idolatry

Over the last several years, I have watched people as they relate to “family.” By the word in quotes, you can expect that there is much more to this word than a simple definition implies. There is biological family, there are blended families, there are relationships that are more familial than technical family, and there is family as metaphor for intimate relationships, in general.
    The Christian faith has a high view of the metaphorical “family.” We (I am aware of the presumption being made that I speak for all of Christianity!) speak respectfully and intensely about the importance of ‘the family of God.’ Both Jesus and his appointed successors used the term “brother” and “sister” with ease. And this was not as odd to the Roman culture at the time as you might suppose. There was a long cultural notion that everyone in a family is adopted in – no matter if you were blood or not. To be in the family was an active moment, not an accident of birth (as we tend to think of it).
    Just to clarify, “Idolatry” (which I use in the title) is not merely an old-fashioned word. It is a very current issue, though most people do not use the term. “Idolatry” is the practice of placing anything above, or beside, God’s rightful place. For example, as only God is worthy of worship, worshipping a golden statue that is supposed to represent God is idolatry. As the idea was further developed in Christian scripture, idolatry was living as if anything (money, relationships, ambitions, possessions, desires, and so forth) was greater than God himself.
    Speaking of relationships, let’s bring in “family.” Jesus himself seemed ambivalent about blood relationships. For those unfamiliar with Jesus’ story, the episode where he states that he values God’s spiritual family over his blood relatives is startling. The episode can be found in Matthew 12:46-50.
    Yet Jesus valued his blood relatives and this is clearly shown in the interaction that he had with the Apostle John regarding Jesus’ mother, Mary. Essentially, assuring that Mary would be taken care of, Jesus seems to give her to John as his ward. You can find this interaction in John 19:26-27.
    What is striking is that Jesus did not share the – dare I say it? – obsession with family that seems to have gained so much currency in the last few decades. The evangelical Christian movement has – rightly – recognized both the importance of family for society, as well as the actual decline of family, and has worked hard to strengthen family, marriage, and even sexual morality. And this is important – I personally am highly committed and invested in this work and share the movement’s aspirations.
    However … there is a dark side to “family.” Family can become an idol, even and especially in the church. I remember attending an event for a Christian family close to us and listening to one of the children state publically, “We need to do everything we can to keep our family close. After all, family is everything!”
    And that is where I respectfully and lovingly disagree. As a Christian, nothing is to displace God’s supremacy and centrality in our lives. The whole epistle to the Colossians can be summed up with the text, “Jesus is all.” If you are willing to sacrifice everything, literally everything, for the sake of family, then you are making a religious statement and engaging in the activity of worship. And the god is your family.
    This is wrong.
    Just to play with this more; what about churches who are very up front about being “Family Oriented,” or even “Family Centered?” As Jesus followers, aren’t we supposed to be Jesus-oriented or Jesus-centered?
    OK, OK – I get it. I really do. Churches that are ‘family-oriented’ are not really displacing God with family loyalty. Are they? I hope not, but this is not always clear.
    Christianity is occasionally not “family friendly.” Again, Jesus was not endorsing “blood is thicker than water” (nor the guru-esq ‘love, peace, tranquility’ stereotype) when he said: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division… father against son … mother against daughter ….” (Luke 12:51-53).
    It seems to me that Jesus preached a strong message, generally, against ‘fleshly,’ ‘worldly,’ and ‘established’ loyalties. In the case of family, Jesus seemed to say that if your blood family is contrary to God, you need to turn from them and toward God. This is, in practice, a Very Hard Thing for many people. Many people struggle to take Jesus at his word because they are so engrained into what they have always been told (and have come to believe) that “(Blood) Family is everything.”
    But that is not a Christian notion. That is idolatry.
    Where I have seen the pain of this counterfeit thinking is when a family abuses one of its members, but they will not seek help from loving, gracious, and mature Brothers or Sisters in Christ because, “we have to keep this in the family.”
    BTW, this extends further, “Christian” or “spiritual” or “church” family is not everything, either. There can be idolatry in placing church above God – oh, yes, this happens a lot. In the Bible, there are times when people, deluding themselves into thinking they were serving God before family, actually disobeyed God by not living up to their family responsibilities (Mark 7:10-13; 1Timothy 5:8). And, of course there is the abuse that church family can heap on one of its members (I’m not talking about loving corrective discipline, I’m talking about clear abusive behavior). That is failure and sin.

    At the end of this, my point is that God values natural families, but not above the healthy relationship we should all have with him. And for many, it is important to recognize that one’s spiritual family should overtake one’s loyalty to their natural family.

20150626

Lose Graciously, Preach Patiently

[Updated 2Jul2015]
In the last two days, the Supreme Court of the United States has released two important decisions. The first came out yesterday and affirmed the structure, and therefore the practical existence, of the Affordable Healthcare Act (commonly known as, “Obamacare”). The second was this morning and decided that same-sex “marriage” must be allowed in all 50 states, and any same-sex “marriage” in one state must be recognized in all the others. I'm kind of looking forward to the next SCOTUS business day: something interesting will come!
            The same-sex “marriage” case, “Obergefell v. Hodges,” should not be a surprise to anyone. Public opinion on the issue has shifted swiftly and dramatically in the last half-decade, though the notions have been simmering for several decades. Essentially, when the first state legalized same-sex “marriage” (Massachusetts), then every state was challenged to recognize those “marriages” through the ‘Full Faith and Credit’ clause of the U.S. Constitution (U.S.Const. art. IV,  §1).
            As an attorney with a basic understanding of Federal-State relationships, as well as personal rights, it is tempting to launch into a legal analysis of the case. But the decision, and its dissents (here’s an initial survey: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2015/06/26/top-10-quotes-from-the-dissenting-justices-on-same-sex-marriage/), will stand on its own.
            I offer a few thoughts on the decision; shooting from the hip …
·      I was disappointed that the country has chosen to re-define marriage. There is no debate about what happened. When I hold up a red ball and ask you what color it is, you would be tempted to say, “red.” But now I, with the weapons of the government, say: “It is blue. Also red.” That is re-definition. The court today claims that re-definition of marriage has been a phenomena during all of the country’s history. For example, marriage was prohibited between members of different races. But it is one thing to prohibit marriage between members of a group and another to make gender into merely another group
·      While the concept of civil unions was promising for same-sex couples, ultimately structural discrimination still existed and same-sex couples found little pragmatic help in the Defense Of Marriage Act. It seems to me the failure of DOMA was that it still institutionalized significant discrimination
·      One statement by the court was that any union that was deemed lesser than full marriage would stigmatize the children of that union. Because the concept of civil union was clearly less than full marriage (see above), children of a same-sex union would be stigmatized. I am dismayed by the court’s lack of common sense: children of a same-sex couple are not going to be stigmatized by that couples’ standing before the law nearly to the extent of being stigmatized because the couple is homosexual
·      This leads to another observation: the language of the opinion is triumphant and uncompromising. That is, if you disagree with this notion, you are an outdated moral bigot. The SCOTUS has just declared open season on adherents of traditional marriage. I was personally surprised by this because it does NOT seem to reflect the personality of Justice Kennedy, someone who I have met and chatted with
·      The decision explicitly calls out the protections of the First Amendment for “… religions, those that adhere to religious doctrines, and others ….” Well, we saw how well that worked out for bakers of wedding cakes so I’m not holding my breath
·      Lastly, there is nothing in the opinion that would prevent polygamous and/or polyandrous marriage. Several folks in Utah may be sharpening their legal pencils and within a day, several serious editorials were advocating going to that next step

Regardless, the matter is decided and will stand as law.
Many in the church have been confused about same-sex “marriage” and it seems to me they have confounded the authority of the government and strong public opinion with the authority of scripture. Yes, both public opinion and the law of our nation now affirm the legitimacy of same-sex “marriage.” But scripture does not.
Again, it seems to me well-interpreted scripture does not leave room for homosexual legitimacy any more than it leaves room for any other sexual sin. According to the Bible, homosexual behavior is sin. As such, homosexual behavior drives a wedge between a person and God just as far as theft, murder, dishonoring parents, and all other idolatries do. It is a different question altogether is homosexual behavior is more or less serious than those mentioned. Still, any sin separates us from God: murder and ‘polite’ lies have the same effect.
Further, scripture knows nothing of legitimate same-sex “marriage.” In both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, marriage is described as between genders and homosexual behavior is condemned. There will be lots of hip, cool, and savvy young evangelical Christians who want to challenge this conclusion, but it seems to me ultimately they will lose because the text itself doesn’t yield. To come to their place, they have to weaken, tweak, deconstruct, or flat out ignore the text. As a summary, there are about three scholarly arguments which attempt to deny the plain meaning of the relevant Biblical texts. Those arguments were demolished by a theological liberal in 2002. A fourth argument has come up, the "Trajectory" argument, but it loses, as well. Chat with me offline for details.
Here’s the deal, Church. We "lost." It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but we lost this one. Now – let’s be clear: while it seems like the church is the keeper of ‘civic morality,’ that really has never been the case. We have been fortunate to have been very influential, but the world will do its thing. In terms of the influence we seemed to have, we have lost this one. We will "lose" others in the future.
A few lessons from a talk that Darrel Bock gave back in November 2014 –

  1. The church needs to learn how to lose these battles graciously. Alas, I expect to be disappointed in my brothers’ and sisters’ responses. And … here we go: http://www.addictinginfo.org/2015/06/25/christian-pastor-promises-to-set-himself-on-fire-if-gay-marriage-is-legalized-nationwide-audio/ There is a difference of expectation for behavior in general society and for followers of Jesus. Believers, calm down, do not over-react, and allow the fruit of the Spirit to bloom in your life; specifically: love, peace, patience, self-control, gentleness, goodness, kindness
  2. We need to continue to preach and discipline about ALL sexuality. We need to encourage young marriages to get through the rough patches. We need to guide our youth through the hyper-sexualized culture we live in. We need to affirm God’s descriptions of thriving human relationships between genders. As Kevin Miller stated, we need to understand that following Jesus is “a culture of consistent sexual sacrifice.” Additionally, we need to preach and discipline our responses to failure, sin, and rebellion with the grace and mercy of the gospel. Abuse and violence against gays, just as abuse and violence against children of single parents, must be vigorously condemned. In other words, even though we have ‘lost,’ we need to advocate with every breath what God has told us about human thriving
  3. At the same time, we need to understand and accept homosexuals as people who, very much like ourselves, desperately need Jesus. Just as for me, the best place for gay folk is in the pew hearing the good news about Jesus
  4. We need to be patient. Abortion is a hideous thing. When Roe v. Wade was decided, in 1973, we were in a similar position and the church ‘lost.’ But a curious thing happened on the way to 2015. Attitudes about abortion have shifted back. Even one of our most populist Presidents, Bill Clinton, once stated, “abortion should be safe, legal, and rare” (emphasis added). That was in 1996 and signaled the turning of the tide about abortion. Yes, abortion is still legal. Yet in the 40 years of our national experience with “safe” and “legal,” we are seeing the true costs. I am going out on a limb here, but suggest a similar experience with same-sex ‘marriage.’ In fifty years, we will see the true nature of this phenomena and the conclusion will not be positive
  5. Again, it is important to guard our responses. Any believer's position on this matter is NOT a litmus test for their love of Jesus, their sanctification, or the effect of God's atonement in their life. There are a LOT of Jesus-loving, Bible-believing, heaven-going Christians who disagree with me. This does not mean we hate, ridicule, or marginalize each other. I need to heed this as well and (in the last week) have edited my initial post accordingly. This post seemed to hit many of the right notes for me: http://frankewellersblog.blogspot.com/2015/06/heres-why-your-pastor-didnt-say.html?m=1
Last thing: this is not the end of the world. When we all go to sleep tonight, the sun will come up in the morning and God will still be on the throne. Yes, the world is going to Hell in a handbasket – but it has been doing that for a long time. This is why the gospel of Jesus needs to be proclaimed and lived out. Christian: let’s concentrate on doing THAT.