The Stench of Injustice and the Power of Community

In Deut. 23:13, God gives the Israelites specific instructions about human waste. “Toilets” were to be located outside the camp, and waste was to be covered up immediately. The “why” for this command seems obvious:  to not do so would lead to a horrible stench and to the threat of disease.

Right after this, in Deut. 23:14 the Bible says, “Since the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp to deliver you and to defeat your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy; and He must not see anything indecent among you or He will turn away from you.”

Now, the idea here is not that human waste is sinful but that it is potentially destructive to the whole community if not taken care of immediately. Today we know this to be true. Human waste can contaminate water or food supplies and cause Cholera, and indeed, it often does in areas affected by war or disaster.

And what’s interesting is that right after these instructions about toilets, the writer talks about the fact that there are other things that can have the same effect. And so God begins to give the Israelites instructions that forbid turning in an escaped slave, that forbid prostitution, and that forbid charging interest on loans to fellow Israelites (Deut. 23:15-19).

What connects all of these things is that all of them were capable of bringing disease into the camp—either physical disease or spiritual disease or both. They were all examples of the way in which one selfish person could bring destruction to the community. You see, if human waste were left lying about the camp, then it would lead to disease and death.  So too with prostitution. It could spread disease throughout the community. If a person charged interest to someone in the community when giving them a loan, then it could create divisions in the community if things didn’t work out and the person became unable to repay.

Another connecting idea in all of these things is the way that selfishness or “me” centeredness lies at the root of them all. The one who refuses to go outside the camp to use the facilities cares only about his own needs. So to does the one who engages in prostitution and the one who makes loans for interest. All of these flow from a focus on ‘me’ to the detriment of ‘us.’

What God desires, though, is that the needs of the community, the oneness and solidarity of the people would trump all of these things – that God’s people would put others first.

Jesus said exactly this on several occasions.

No greater love has a man than that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

Whoever wants to be first must be a slave of all (Mark 10:44).

All of the actions mentioned though, in one way or another, are a threat to the community—the community that God had chosen and was forming to be His agents of blessing in the world (Gen. 12:3). When the community doesn’t function properly, when it becomes divided, then God’s blessings don’t reach their intended target.

So, there is this idea that community is a vital aspect of what God wants to do in the world; and anything that threatens that community threatens God’s purposes. And so for God, evil acts of injustice, rooted in self-centeredness, have the same stench as human waste.

God cannot stand the stench of injustice and selfishness. And too many Christians today are suffering form spiritual Cholera. We have fallen victim to the disease of self-centeredness and lost sight of the importance of community.

The cure is the Spirit of God, who alone can bring unity and peace. This is why Paul begins (or ends) so many of his letters with the words “grace” and “peace.”

As he says in Ephesians, we must be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

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Blessed are the Peacemakers: Rediscovering the Power of Getting Along

It seems these days Christians are anything but unified. And no, this is not a post in which I rail against denominations. Most denominations differ not on the ‘what’ of Christianity, but on the ‘how.’ How are we saved? How does the sovereignty of God relate to human responsibility? How do we understand God’s presence in the Eucharist? And so on. ( Of course, this is not to say that the ‘what’ is not also contentions (especially along the conservative-liberal divide).

But in my view, a far bigger threat to Christian unity than denominations is the general inability of Christians, especially evangelicals, to tolerate, much less actually love as we’re commanded, those who differ from us.

I mean, what do we think Jesus meant when He said, “blessed are the peacemakers?”

Many evangelicals tend to interpret passages like this to refer merely to an internal peace that comes from being reconciled with God (Rom. 5:10). But if that was Jesus’ sole intention, perhaps He should have said “blessed are the peace-takers.” After all, that kind of peace is not something we achieve; it’s something we receive as a gift.

Now, I should point out that peace in the Bible is primarily a covenantal term. It has to do with the peace that comes from God by virtue of being a child of God. God is, after all, the God of peace (Judges 6:24; Rom. 15:33). But this aspect of God’s nature is meant to be reflected in the character of God’s people. “The mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). This is why Paul begins every one of his letters by reminding the churches that they are recipients and bearers of God’s grace and peace. And it is why Paul says, “so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18).

But this quality of the church is rarely seen today. Not only are we not at peace, we often the cause and source of conflict. Christians are deeply divided on everything from politics to entertainment. The problem though is not so much the disagreements as it is the inability to discuss those differences in a kind and civil manner. We have lost the art of civil discourse.

Because of this, there is a tremendous need for the church to rediscover the force of God’s instructions regarding peace, and to learn how to disagree in respectful ways. And I think there are a couple of things we do to accomplish that:

  1. Get to know people personally before you challenge their views. Too often these days we’ve become accustomed to hurling our opinions like rockets into the stratosphere, via the launch pads of Facebook and Twitter, and letting them strike what or who they may.

I have a good friend that I meet with on a regular basis, and theologically, we’re pretty far apart. He’s a Calvinist and I’m an Arminian; He’s a cessationist and I’m charismatic. When we get together we discuss lots of things, from theology to our children, to the challenges of being a missionary, and so on. But we’ve never had a fight or argument, even though we disagree about lots of things. But we can discuss these things without it dissolving into conflict because we care too much about the friendship to let that happen.

  1. Be humble and open to learning new things. You can never have meaningful dialogue with someone who has a different view than you do, if you remain convinced that you have all the correct answers and the other person only needs to listen to you and learn. Learning is a two-way street. We are all broken and flawed people, and we all “see through a glass dimly.” Together, when we’re willing to learn from each other, we all come to see a little more clearly.

The real challenge with this is that we’re often afraid that if we admit to even a small crack in our worldview, then the whole thing will come crashing down, and we can’t allow that because we’ve built too much of our life around that worldview. But all of us are victims of worldviews that have a myriad of influences, some that we are aware of and some that we are not, some that are holy and some that are downright demonic. And because we are so embedded in these worldviews, because we have carried them around for decades,  we can’t escape them unless someone from the outside helps us see the cracks and leaks. This is the essence of community; we come together as mutually broken people and we depart having been made better by the clarity that comes through diversity.

What if, before we argued with someone over politics or theology, we took them out to lunch and got to know them? What might our conversations with each other, and thereby our testimony before the world, look like if we cared more about each other than we cared about being right? We who have received the undeserved peace of God, who have been reconciled to a holy God even when we were rife with sin and rebellion, should understand this better than anyone.

And as we sit down with those with whom we have deep disagreements, wee might just find that we have more in common than we think.

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 five 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.”

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.

BookReview: John Stott, The Living Church. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011.

living church

Few people in modern church history have combined pastoral concern and theological depth as well as has the late John Stott. His book The Living Church, originally published in 2007 but re-released in 2011 (the same year Stott died), is a passionate plea for the Church to be all that it is called to be, holding its diverse callings together. But its more than that. This book is the culminated wisdom of a lifetime serving Christ and the church, and as such should be read by every pastor, missionary, and layperson who cares about the local church and its mission.

Like Stott himself, this book is both scholarly and practical. In many ways, the book is an expansion of one of Stott’s sermons given at All Souls Church, where Stott grew up, pastored, and retired. And at the 150th anniversary of this church, Stott, with apologies to Martin Luther King, offered his own “dream” for what a biblical church could and should look like. He expounds throughout on what he considers the four essentials: a learning church, a caring church, a worshipping church, and an evangelizing church. In concluding, he wraps these up neatly with the slightly broader categories borrowed from Paul’s first letter to Timothy (6:11-2), of an ethical church, a doctrinal church, and an experiential church.

The real value in this volume lies in its balance. Stott let’s no excess go unchecked. For example, he argues eloquently that preaching should be biblical and contemporary—it should speak from the biblical world to the present world. It should be both prophetic—warning people of God’s judgment, and pastoral—comforting those who are distraught. Stott argues that we must not minimize the paradox’s of the church’s life (e.g., “in the world but not of the world”), but learn to balance these tensions in ways that fully capture the reality of the church as the pilgrim people of God.

There is a tremendous need today for the church to more fully understand itself. Various theological and social issues have divided the church into numerous factions that more often than not have led to imbalances in what the church is called to do and be, as everyone is out defending their preferred perspective. This book though will encourage pastors to teach this material to their congregations, and it will encourage congregations to perhaps become more than they have been. Its lucid, its faithful to Scripture, and it is chock full of wisdom. I suspect this will be one of those books that I will pick up every so often and re-read, if for nothing else, for its simple clarity. I highly recommend it.