Blind Obedience? Some Thoughts on Christianity and Government

What does it mean for the Bible to declare that all authority comes from God? Does that require that all Christians acquiesce to every government authority and never challenge or question presidents or world leaders? Does it mean that even bad leaders are chosen by God? What does the Bible say?

In addressing these issues, there are several points I’d like to make. Importantly, the admonition of Romans 13:1-2, which does say that all authority comes from God, must also be interpreted in light of all else that Scripture says about God, authority, and those in power. I think four things are especially relevant.

  1. Submission to Government authority does not entail blind obedience.

Romans 13:1-2 reads:

Rom 13:1-2   Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (NASB95)

Perhaps the key to understanding this passage is found in the meaning of the word here translated as “subjection” (or in some translations, “submission”). A number of commentators have pointed out that this word (Gr. hupotassō) is less strong that the word “obey,” and that this is likely an intentional move by Paul. As Everett Harrison says, “he seems to avoid using the stronger word “obey,” and the reason is that the believer may find it impossible to comply with every demand of the government.”[1] As Doug Moo explains, this is because all of our allegiances are subject to our supreme allegiance to God.[2] In other words, “submission” to government is always subsumed in the Christian life under obedience to God. Christians therefore not only have permission to question whether leaders exercise authority in accordance with God’s will, but have an obligation to do so.

  1. God grants authority with the expectation that leaders will be just and righteous.

The Bible is quite clear that God appoints leaders for the specific purpose of carrying out justice and righteousness. Consider the following two verses (among many others):

Gen 18:19 “For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”

1 Kgs 10:9 “Blessed be the LORD your God who delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel; because the LORD loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.”


This of course raises the question of what exactly is meant by “justice” and “righteousness.” First, justice in Scripture is often related to the fact that all people have rights by virtue of being made in the image of God. As Lewis Smedes has pointed out, the Ten Commandments, for example, are inherently rights oriented. Murder is forbidden because people have a right to their own life, theft because they have a right to their own property, and so on. Righteousness then refers to actions that uphold the justice expected of God in all human relationships. Thus, the terms “justice and righteousness” appear together often in Scripture, and refer to what we in modern parlance would call “social justice”—that is just-ness in the way we treat others, especially the poor and vulnerable. For example, Jeremiah declares

Jer 22:3 ‘Thus says the LORD, “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

Therefore, basic human rights are not granted by governments, but by God. Governments may protect human rights, but they don’t establish them. All people as divine image bearers are due fundamental protections and provisions. The Bible especially highlights the poor, the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan because these are often most vulnerable and therefore most likely to have their rights impinged upon by those that would unjustly take advantage of them.

  1. God-given authority does not guarantee obedience to God.

We should carefully note that justice and righteousness are action words. They relate to what we do and define the nature of our relationship with God. Because God himself is just and righteous, those created in his image are to embody these same characteristics. Furthermore, the lack of these qualities leads to the judgment of God, but the practice of justice and righteousness restores one to a right relationship with God. In Ezekiel we read:

Ezek 18:21  “But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die.

Because people have free will, there is no guarantee that leaders will embody this concern for justice and righteousness that God expects. Perhaps no story in Scripture illustrates this better than the story of Saul. Saul was chosen of God, but failed to demonstrate the kind of leadership God expected. At the end of Saul’s life, he had become prideful, disobedient, and jealous and God judged him for it. He rejected God’s word and chose to go his own way. As Origin said regarding Romans 13:

God will judge us righteously for having abused what he gave us to use for good. Likewise, God’s judgment against the authorities will be just, if they have used the powers they have received according to their own ungodliness and not according to the laws of God.[3]

  1. Humility is a requirement for those in authority.

Remember, it was humility that God desired in Pharaoh during the Exodus (Ex. 10:3). God over and over again judges the kings of Israel for their lack of humility (e.g., 2 Chron. 33:23; 36:12). Throughout the wisdom literature humility is described as a prerequisite for obedience to God and for knowing the will of God (Ps. 25:9; 69:32; Prov. 11:2; Prov. 29:23). And Isaiah declares that humility and obedience to God’s word go hand-in-hand:

Isa 66:2 For My hand made all these things,  Thus all these things came into being,” declares the LORD.“But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.

  1. Those in power must value and stand for truth.

When Jethro advised Moses to appoint leaders that can assist him, he told him to select “men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain” (Exod. 18:21). Solomon later described his father David as having served the Lord in “truth and righteousness” (1 Kings 3:6). And when Hezekiah pleaded his case before God, he declared that he had “walked before the Lord in truth” (2 Kings 20:3).

Because of these five things (and one can likely find more), we cannot simply declare based on Romans 13 that all people in authority are so by the will of God or that they are acting in obedience to God. Romans 13 is teaching the broad principle of authority, not endorsing the actions of every person in power. Christians are to be discerning in their obedience to governments and leaders, and evaluate whether obedience to government demands is compatible with faith in God. The true test is to ask whether the actions of governments and government officials are grounded in justice, righteousness, humility, and truth. Nothing, not even concern for our own safety, can justify the neglect or rejection of these fundamental qualities of godly leaders.

[1]Everett F. Harrison, Romans, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas, vol. 10 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), n.p.

[2]Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 797.

[3] CER 5:92–94.

Are Democrats Welcome in Your Church? Some Thoughts on Election Day

During this election cycle, as with all elections I suppose, passions have run high. I get that. We all care deeply about what we believe and we want the best for our nation. Yet, we differ sharply on what “the best” means and on how to achieve it.

But I’m always concerned during election years by the tendency to align the gospel with a particular candidate and/or political parties. What I mean is that sometimes our defenses of particular candidates suggest that one must support so-and-so in order to truly be a Christian. I am especially shocked by the number of pastors who publically declare their support for candidates. Not only is this a dangerous violation of a church’s 501(3)c non-profit, status, but it is (more importantly) a violation of the church’s biblical mandate according to the New Testament. The primary purpose of the church is to provide entrance into the Kingdom of God (Matt. 16:13-19), not to endorse a political agenda. By tying the church to a candidate or party, we risk minimizing the church’s effectiveness among the very people we are called to reach.

Now, before I go further, allow me to come clean. I’ve certainly had my share of public discussions (via Facebook, for example) on the various candidates running. But, (1) I’m not a pastor, and (2) I haven’t endorsed anyone. Yes, I’m a missionary and in some circles we call anyone with minister credentials a “pastor.” But a pastor is (biblically speaking) the shepherd of a flock, one who leads a group of people in their journey of discipleship. So, a true pastor is one who leads (or helps lead) a church. Not everyone who has ministry credentials fits this description.

So, let’s get back to the question. Are Democrats welcome in your church? I ask this because many of the pastors whom I’ve seen defending a particular candidate give the impression that to be a Christian one must first become a Republican. Now I know what you’re about to say, so let me say it for you: They don’t have to become a Republican, but they do have to side with Republicans on a number of issues, like abortion, for example.

But the truth is, good people can have sound reasons for disagreeing on the best way(s) to be pro-life, just as they can have good reasons for disagreeing on a host of other issues. For example, if a person thinks that a candidate is likely to start WWIII, then wouldn’t this also have to be factored into what it means to be “pro-life?” I could go a long way with this analogy, but you get the idea. One could argue that being pro-life ought to mean far more than just trying to reverse Roe v. Wade.

Whatever your take is though on this, the point is that pastors and churches have a primary responsibility to reach the lost. And we do that through one means and one means only—preaching Christ crucified, risen, and coming again. Whatever else we attach to that is not the gospel. It is the gospel—plus. The gospel plus nationalism, or the gospel plus Republicanism, or the gospel plus…whatever. The point is, the gospel plus anything is not the gospel, no matter how good our intentions may be. This is very much the point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. If the gospel plus Judaism was a corruption of the good news, how much more is the gospel plus Americanism?

Some are sure to interpret this as my being anti-Republican or even anti-American. Be sure, I am neither. I proudly served my country in the Armed Forces and have voted for Republican candidates for most of my life. But we must never confuse the ideals on which this nation is built with the tenets of the gospel. They are not the same thing and any attempt to homogenize the two is to ultimately dilute the significance of the cross.

When we align the gospel with a particular party or candidate, we risk diminishing the gospel when that party or candidate does something that is out of step with Christian values. And I promise you, every party and every candidate will eventually come up short. To paraphrase Greg Boyd, that is the nature of the kingdoms of this world, and why Jesus said, “my Kingdom is not of this world.” In saying this, Jesus explicitly rejected the this-worldly ways of achieving His purposes. So why then do we his followers so often act as though God’s purposes are dependent on worldly forms of government?

The primary role of pastors (and arguably, church members too) is to proclaim, not a party platform, but rather that Jesus says to a world searching for genuine hope and enduring love, “if anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.”

Let’s then do our best to ensure that “anyone” really does mean “anyone,” and not “anyone who agrees with my politics.”

From Solidarity to Sodality: Compassionate Missions, Local Churches, and the Fostering of Cross-Cultural Missionary Bands

Next week I will attend the national meeting of the Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS) in Dallas. The theme of this event is Missions and the Local Church, and I will be presenting a paper titled “From Solidarity to Sodality: Compassionate Missions, Local Churches, and the Fostering of Cross-cultural Missionary Bands.”

In this paper, I argue that compassion constitutes a vital component in the development of indigenous missions movements and that because of this, missionaries should focus compassionate efforts on training and equipping local believers.

You can download the full paper here. I welcome your comments and feedback!

Conference details and program information are available here.

Link

Review: Impossible Love by Craig and Médine Keener

Yesterday I had the chance to read the new book by New Testament scholar Craig Keener and his wife Médine. It was so good, I read it in one sitting. What especially gripped me about this story–this story of many stories that intertwine to form one amazing testimony to the faithfulness of God, was what great story tellers both Craig and Médine are. As I read, I laughed at Craig’s description of learning how to tie a tie and becomekeener1 a Baptist, and I wept at the horror of Médine’s ordeal in western Congo. And, I found myself deeply challenged by the practical, charismatic faith of these two scholars (Médine has a PhD from the University of Paris). Their story is a story about the triumph of love and faith over racism, war, bureaucracy, and doubt. That is to say, it is a story in which God is the hero.

As someone who lives and ministers in Africa I was reminded of (yes even for missionaries), how easy it is to become complacent about things like racism, or being desperate for God and wanting above all, His will and presence.
Many of us have learned a great deal from Craig Keener’s scholarship. His two volume edition on Miracles is one of my favorites. But the world also has something to learn from the way Craig and Médine Keener live their lives in the real tension between the present and coming Kingdom, between miracles and doubt, between human frailty and divine intervention, between violent war and inner peace, and between impossible circumstances and a mighty God who intervenes in dynamic ways simply because He loves us.

Impossible Love is worth a read and I highly recommend it. You can find it here: http://www.amazon.com/Impossible-Love-African-Miracles-against/dp/0800797779?ie=UTF8&keywords=Impossible%20Love&qid=1459761260&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1

*For full disclosure, I should mention that Craig sent me a complimentary copy of this book.

Burdens

My wife came across this poem I wrote a few years ago in Zambia and I thought it was worth sharing. Merry Christmas friends!

Burdens
By Jerry Ireland

Cornmeal and cases of orange drink.
Eight foot long poles of sugar cane,
babies, laundry, groceries, charcoal,
crates full of live chickens.
Water buckets and buckets
full of rocks, dirt and sand.
Iron beams, lumber and dirty dishes.
Things to sell, things to clean,
things to gather, things to throw away.
Work to be done.
This is what Africans do.
They bear burdens.
The small ones upon their heads
and upon their shoulders.

Death and funerals.
AIDs, malaria, children, orphans,
alcoholism, battered wives,
broken lives, jobless, hungry, cold.
Mosquitoes, flies, dust – dust all the time.
Dry and hot. New season. Rain, wet, damp,
drizzle, muddy, soaked. Bogged down.
Things to mourn, things to heal,
things to comfort, things to protect,
things to love.
Work to be done.
This is what Africans do.
They bear burdens.
The big ones on their minds and in their hearts.

Manger, baby, king, miracles, ministry.
Bread, Life, Way, Truth, Hope.
Arrest. Mocking, spit, fists, beaten.
Thorns, blood, cross, nails, flesh, death.
Sacrifice, forgiveness, resurrection.
Salvation to bring, captives to set free,
liberty to proclaim, healing to give.
Work finished.
This is what Jesus does.
He bears burdens.
All of them on the cross.

Full stop.

If You Care About Abortion, Do Something About Gun Control

It’s really that simple.

Evangelical Christians are losing credibility by the day when we declare out of one side of our mouths that we are “pro-life” and yet, over and over again reject any and all measures to make it more difficult for people to buy semi-automatic weapons like those used in San Bernardino that are designed, marketed, and sold for the purpose of taking human life. As was said in the first NY Times editorial to appear on that paper’s front page in almost 100 years: “It is a moral outrage and national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency.”

We cannot continue, with any credibility at least, to say we are ‘for’ life, and do absolutely nothing to prevent it being taken by gun violence.

And let me add this. The president is right. If a person is on a terror watch list that prevents them from boarding a plane, then they should not be able to walk into a gun shop and buy an assault rifle. And yet, immediately after the attacks in San Bernardino, every Republican senator except one voted against measures that would have made that very thing hard to do. Yes, that is correct. Republicans in the Senate decided NOT to ban people on a terror watch list from buying guns. Their reasoning: such a law might accidentally keep somebody from buying a gun who is not a terrorist.

That is complete idiocy! I mean after all, accidentally keeping someone from buying a gun seems to me far less serious than accidentally executing the wrong person, something these same people seem completely unconcerned about doing. There are just inconsistencies piled upon inconsistencies here and its time we take stock of them if we are to be taken seriously in public debate (And no, I’m not unilaterally against capital punishment, nor am I a pacifist – in case you were wondering). Rather, It seems to me that this is an argument of convenience, and not one built on firm moral convictions (or else it would be applied broadly, no?).

No, stricter gun laws won’t prevent every atrocity, but they will most likely prevent some. That certainly seems to be the case with conservative-led Australia, and it may work here. In Australia, “There have been no mass killings — defined by experts there as a gunman killing five or more people besides himself — since the nation significantly tightened its gun control laws almost 20 years ago.”

Even if one mass shooting is averted, is that not better than none?

So what does all this have to do with abortion? I am appalled by the callousness of the pro-choice movement and its cry for abortion-on-demand simply because a baby would be inconvenient. Yet, I am becoming almost equally appalled by the unwillingness of gun owners and politicians to even budge on the issue of stricter regulations, regulations that would almost certainly curb SOME of the violence that is racking our nation. There can be no doubt that this unwillingness by certain politicians to give even a little ground is driven by an immoral gun lobby whose primary concern is their own financial gain. As far as I’m concerned, the gun lobby and the NRA in America have become the immoral equivalent of Planned Parenthood. Because of the gun lobby, Congress refuses to restrict the sale of body-armor piercing bullets and refuses to expand background checks. They are therefore morally culpable for the current wave tsunami of shootings.

At what point will Evangelicals become so fully “pro-life” that giving up a cherished privilege will not be too much to ask (like owning an assault rifle or purchasing “cop killer bullets”). When we will start caring enough about human life that we’re willing to do whatever it takes to reduce gun violence?

But what about the 2nd amendment? After all, I have a constitutional right to own a gun, don’t I?

Ok. If that’s your argument, here’s my (tongue-in-cheek) proposal.

I say make black powder rifles the only legally obtainable guns. First, this would allow gun enthusiasts to exercise their 2nd amendment rights in the most literal way possible, as that was most assuredly the type of gun in mind when the amendment was written. Second, for the sport enthusiast, it would make hunting even more enthusiastically sporting. I mean, if you only get one shot at the bear before it comes after you, you better have darn good aim right? Third, these rifles require so much effort and hard work to use and maintain, I suspect it won’t be long before we’re back to pre-Civil War numbers on gun ownership in America: Somewhere around 14% of the total population.

But what about the fear factor? If only the criminals have assault rifles, and everybody else only has muskets, won’t they run roughshod over the country, raping and pillaging while we haplessly and helplessly stand by?

Ok. That’s a valid point. I’m being slightly facetious about the musket thing (only very slightly). But I’m doing so to make a point. We don’t need to ban all guns except black powder rifles. But why, though, can’t we keep a guy on a terror watch list from buying an a rifle designed for mass destruction? Because it might keep Bubba from getting one too? Give me a break!

The point is that our choice is not between a total ban on all guns and doing absolutely nothing. Its between doing absolutely nothing and doing something that may save even one life! And the something we can do is force our elected representatives to either enact stricter laws or lose their jobs.

So, back to my main point. If we have any hope of winning the argument against abortion in America, we need to start doing something about gun control. It is too late now to sit idly by and declare that this or that won’t work, when we haven’t so much as tried. Human life, all human life, from infants to adults, are too precious to do nothing. And if we are going to be credible in declaring that we oppose abortion because we are pro-life, then we must do at least something to show that we are consistent in this. Laws making it harder for people on no-fly lists to buy assault rifles would be a good start.

The Missiological Necessity of Presence: How Being Gives Purpose to Our Doing

In all honesty, I don’t always love being in Africa. I do love the people we work with and I love the work we do. But Africa itself can be a taxing place to live. This past week was a good example of the challenges, ranging from the mildly frustrating to the somewhat terrifying. On Tuesday I spent hours trying to stay online long enough to do something as seemingly simple as book airline tickets. Then, we spent the next two days running back and forth to the clinic because our daughter had malaria. In the midst of all this, I found myself asking…

…Could we not be more productive in a country with slightly better infrastructure and a little less malaria?

After thinking about this for sometime, I’ve come to the conclusion that productivity is perhaps the least important reason we should pack up our family and move to a foreign country as missionaries.

In missions, we are often driven by the need to do. Sending churches want regular updates telling, not about what we have thought about, prayed about, or read about, but rather what we’ve actually done. Because of this, cross-cultural missions work tends to be action-oriented. Plus, I think as Americans, we’re sort of wired that way to begin with (at least the adult versions of us are).

But Jesus taught that presence is more important than productivity. And I think there is a significant missiological implication to this.

In the Gospel account of Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42), we find a discussion that well captures the importance of being. While Martha is busy making preparations, she becomes agitated with her sister Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet, listening carefully to what He has to say.

The point of the story is not to make Martha out as the bad guy for being productive. Productivity is a good thing and is commended in Scripture (Prov. 10:4). Rather, there is a cultural dynamic that one might easily miss in this passage. In Jesus’ day, women were not usually considered worthy of receiving religious instruction, and instead were usually confined to domestic tasks. As one commentator observes, “Jewish women were normally cast in the role of domestic performance in order to support the instruction of men rather than as persons who were themselves engaged in study.”[1]

Jesus though transforms this cultural norm. Martha, in her busyness, has missed a golden opportunity. She was looking for her sister to provide a little temporary relief from her domestic burdens, not realizing that Jesus was offering that very thing in far greater measure!

Mary would surely at some point return to her domestic chores. But she would do so as one who had sat at the feet of Jesus, heard his words, and been transformed by them (cf. Luke 6:47–49). She would never again be simply a woman going about her duty in a society that had little regard for women. She would be a woman forever born along by the transformational Words of her Lord. She would return to her work knowing that her work did not define her as it seemed to define Martha. Rather, Mary would be defined by the radically different door to self-understanding that Jesus had opened to her. She was now one worthy of instruction in the things of God, and not just somebody who set out the coffee and doughnuts for others.

So what is the point of the story then? I think it’s this: Presence gives greater meaning and greater significance to our productivity. Otherwise, we can be very productive in a lot of things that really don’t matter very much. But spending time with Jesus transforms us and gives us clarity about who we are and what we should do. This is true of us spending time with Jesus, and its true of Jesus’ disciples spending time with each other. Our being with Christ should compel us not to busyness, but to community:

“By entering into fellowship with Jesus, who emptied himself and became as we are and humbled himself by accepting death on the cross, we enter into a new relationship with each other. The new relationship with Christ and the new relationship with each other can never be separated.”[2]

So what precisely is the missionary implication of this? I believe the key is exactly the point made by the story of Mary and Martha: effective doing depends first on effective becoming.

What I mean is that when we spend time with Jesus and with fellow believers, we become defined (like Mary was) by his transformative words rather than by cultural definitions of success or significance. For cross-cultural workers, this means we cannot know our task or even ourselves until we know Christ and the faith community to which we belong.

Remember, Jesus’ missionary commission to the disciples was followed by the promise of His presence: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Likewise, Paul frequently spoke of the necessity and importance of being with those he served. To the church in Thessalonica he said, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). Therefore, we need not only time in the presence of Jesus through personal devotion, but time in his presence through fellowship with the saints. We need to be with each other in order to be truly for each other.

Whether living in West Africa or the West Bank then, our reason to be there must first be about who we become in the shared reality of togetherness. Only when we have through the power of community become who Jesus wants us to be, can we then begin to do what Jesus wants us to do.

[1]Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), n.p.

[2] Henry Nouwen, et. al. Compassion (New York: Doubleday, 1982), 48-49.

When Christians Took Down the Ten Commandments

A few days ago a marble statue of the Ten Commandments was removed from the grounds of the Oklahoma Capitol. Some of my fellow Christians are all up in arms, claiming that this is just another example of the cultural oppression of the Christian faith. The world may not have ended last Wednesday, they say, but it surely will end one Wednesday soon.

I happen to think though that it was us Christians who took down the ten commandments long ago. Let me explain.

First, I agree that American culture holds a certain antipathy toward Christianity that doesn’t just border on bizarre, it specializes in it. For evidence we need only consider that last week the NY Times ran an article on the deliberate and intentional shooting of Christians in Oregon, without ever using the term “Christian,” invoking the ire of actor James Woods via Twitter.

But here’s the problem with the outcry over the Oklahoma Capitol: The Ten Commandments were given, not to be inscribed upon the tabernacle wall or upon the grounds of city hall but upon the lives of God’s people. They were given as a means for the people of God to draw near to God and served as the fundamental basis for loving God and loving neighbor.

It is at least interesting, then, to observe that the original ten commandments were not publically displayed at all. They were put away in the ark of the covenant and kept in the holy of holies. Why? Because their public display was to take place in the daily lives of God’s people! They were not written on any walls or inscribed on monuments because they were meant to be etched upon people’s hearts. The commandments were to be evident in the everyday living and being of the Israelites as an indication of God’s presence among them.

And yet, among Christians in America, the argument could easily be made that we haven’t done a very good job of keeping even the first commandment—you shall have no other god before me. The materialistic idols of American culture are no secret. Our addiction to technology, to houses, cars, and clothes that we neither need nor can afford is evident in that Americans spend over $6 million per minute on stuff. All this while most of the world ekes out a living on less than $2 a day. And there is no national outcry.

So, here’s my point. We have no right to demand the display of the ten commandments in any public sphere other than in the lives of those who call themselves Christ followers. And yet, oddly, that is precisely where our enthusiasm is most wanting. Perhaps it’s because it’s much easier to erect a monument (or, more truthfully, have someone else erect one) than it is to pass on the latest iPhone or settle for a 27 inch TV.

Consider this then: Maybe God allowed or even brought about the removal of the ten commandments from the Oklahoma Capitol in order that they might be more prominently displayed in the lives of Oklahomans.

It’s at least a thought worth considering.

Politics and the Lost Art of Empathy

To empathize means to share the feelings of another. It means to put ourselves in the place of the other, as though that person’s perspective was ours and as though their pain was ours. It means to enter into their lives so deeply that our feelings and emotions are inextricably entangled.

The Bible is full of instructions that empathy should characterize the life of believers. Jesus said, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). Jesus’ compassion often flowed from his concern for the plight of others: “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). Paul in his letter to Galatians says “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). And in another letter he says “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). For Paul, not only was this to be a way of life characterizing the inner life of the church (though it seems to be especially that), but it was also part of church’s concern for others. Paul writes, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). For Paul, it seems, every thing took a back seat to the need for the Gospel to get through and he refused to let anything get in the way of that, and especially pride and the need to be right. In short, we might say that the Gospel and empathy go hand in hand. The more we care about others, the more we try to understand the struggles others face, the more opportunities we have to share with them the greatest story of empathy ever told, namely that of God who so identified with the struggles of humanity that, as John says, “he pitched his tent among us” (John 1:14).

As I contemplate the current political climate in America, I can’t help but think that it would, at the very least, be a much more civilized debate if Christians would re-discover the power of empathy. What might that look like? Perhaps like this:

With empathy, we would see those who identify as homosexuals as real people struggling with real issues that are complex and that defy simplistic explanations.

And…

with empathy, we would see county clerks who struggle with questions of faith and public office not as bigots, but as human beings struggling to live out their convictions authentically, however imperfectly it may appear from our positions of comfort and care-free commentary.

Should not this fact alone prompt us to see through the lens of grace and to seek after more dialogue and less name calling, mud slinging, and overly-simplistic analysis? I tend to think that empathy, and the kind of love for others that Jesus modeled, demands at least this.

Another Reason I Hate the Prosperity Gospel

I had a rather fascinating conversation today with a friend who is helping me with my French. This friend asked me what I thought about foot washing services. It was sort of a strange and out-of-context question because at the time, he and I weren’t really talking about church or theology at all. Rather, right in the middle of an explanation of when to use “leur” and when to use “eux”, my friend sort of blurted out a question about foot washing services that apparently his church holds with some regularity. He asked me what I thought about these services, and I responded that I needed more information. He then went on to explain that his church has regular foot washing services, because, as he put it, “through foot washing you can get special power.”

I almost choked on a past participle. “What did you say?”

I was stunned and had to investigate this for myself. So, as soon as our language session finished, I went online and did a quick search. Within seconds I found exactly what my friend had described, clearly outlined on one of the church’s blogs. If you would like to see for yourself what I found, you can, here. After reading it, honestly, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Basically the pastor of this church uses the biblical story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet to teach that this was “a mystery” by which Jesus transferred to the disciples things such as “power, wisdom, riches, strength, honor, and glory.” From the Genesis account of the fall, and God’s declaration that the heel of Adam would crush the head of the serpent, the pastor deduces that “dominion is in the feet.” I confess to having no idea what that means.

According to the blog post, the “mystery of foot washing” was supposedly handed on to Jesus’ followers so that they might continue to acquire these things (power, riches, wisdom, etc.). The use of the word “mystery” is meant to highlight a special insight that this pastor has which others do not. The site even states that the reason others have not understood the story in this way is because they supposedly view it as a parable. To quote the website, “To many Christians these Mysteries are Parables and therefore they loss [sic] where they are expected to win.” Ironically, I don’t know of a single pastor or theologian who treats the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet as a “parable” other than the pastor of this church. The fact that he goes on to describe foot washing as a “symbol” seems to indicate that not only is he a terrible exegete, but he also doesn’t know what the word “parable” means.

My language partner in fact, went on to ask me how he could get more wisdom, because when he compared himself to his pastor, he felt that clearly his pastor had insight that he didn’t. I wanted to tell him it wasn’t insight that his pastor had, but an overactive imagination and total disregard for the basic principles of interpretation, but I refrained.
Of course, what is absolutely appalling about all this is that the real point of Jesus washing the disciples feet is exactly opposite of what this pastor claims. The story (John 13) emphasizes the servant role that Jesus took in coming “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). In Luke 22:24 we find that when this event took place, the disciples were arguing about who would be greatest in the Kingdom. In the midst of that, Jesus stoops down and performs a task normally performed by a slave or servant. In other words, it was an act of complete humility, an act of service. Its purpose was to teach that serving one another through simple but practical acts of kindness is fundamental to being a follower of Jesus. In other words, the real meaning of the passage is diametrically opposite the meaning taught at my friends church.

What really bothers me about this, and what bothers me about the prosperity gospel in general (of which this is clearly a variety), is that this teaching takes one of the most important Scriptures calling the church to a life of service and care for one another, and inverts it in favor of self-centered “riches and glory.” It would be one thing if this pastor were merely a poor exegete, and had inadvertently come up with the wrong interpretation. That would be forgivable. But this is clearly not the case, since the pastor claims to have “mysterious” knowledge that others do not. The fact that he makes this claim shows that he knows quite well that he’s gone off the reservation, but wants to justify his departure through having uncovered this secret “mystery.”

Perhaps worst of all, this teaching represents a turn away from the most fundamental aspect of the Gospel, namely the death and resurrection of Christ. In fact, this is the very argument (involving not too different circumstances) that the apostle Paul addresses in his letter to the Colossians. In Colossae too there were teachers claiming special knowledge, claiming visions (2:18) from which they gained knowledge not available to others. And through this supposed special knowledge, the false teachers at Colossae were leading members of the church astray. Paul responds by asking the church, “why are you turning now to religion after you have been given the Gospel?” (my paraphrase; see 2:20-23).

All through chapters 2 and 3 of Colossians Paul keeps coming back again and again to the importance of the resurrection. And he over and over emphasizes that for the Christian there are two aspects of the resurrection that form the foundation of our life in Christ. The first is that we have died with Christ (2:20), and the second is that we are raised with Christ (3:1).

But the main problem with the prosperity gospel folks is that they want to be raised without having died. Because the Bible does indeed teach that there is abundant life for the people of God, and there is even glory for the people of God. Paul says so explicitly in the beginning of chapter 3. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you will also appear with him in glory!” But what the prosperity folks leave out is that you can’t have resurrection without crucifixion and you can’t have glory with out Calvary. And if you really believe the Gospel, if you really want to follow Jesus you have to have both: crucifixion and resurrection.

And if you put crucifixion first, then there’s no room prideful interpretations that take a beautiful example of selflessness and transform it into a monstrosity of self-indulgence. And this is what the prosperity gospel folks consistently (and conveniently) leave out of their message time and time again.