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.

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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.

“But they are our children”: The Crucial Role of Women in Development

I’ve been reading Ron Sider’s new book on non-violent action (see my review here), and in it Sider provides a beautiful quote that perfectly captures the essence of development and community building. This statement well captures what we do in Africa and why the local church is so crucial, primarily because a local church focus maximises and values the insights of local peoples. The following quote is by Leymah Gbowee, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work toward ending the civil war in Liberia primarily through the empowerment of women. Gbowee writes:

Organizations like the UN do a lot of good…but there are certain basic realities they never seem to grasp…Maybe the most important truth that eludes these organizations is that it’s insulting when outsiders come in and tell a traumatized people what it will take for them to heal. You cannot go to another country and make a plan for it. The cultural context is so different from what you know that you will not understand much of what you see. I would never come to the US and claim to understand what’s going on, even in the African American culture. People who live through a terrible conflict may be hungry and desperate, but they are not stupid. They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked.

That includes women. Most especially women. When it comes to preventing conflict or building peace, there’s a way in which women are the experts…we know our communities. We know our history. We know the people. We know hot to talk to an ex-combatant and get his cooperation, because we know where he comes from. To outsiders like the UN, these soldiers were a problem to be managed. But they were our children.

1. See Ron Sider, Nonviolent Action (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2014), 114; and Gbowee, Mighty Be Our Powers, 171-172.

Should Evangelicals Believe in Purgatory?

Walls

A Review of Jerry L. Walls’ Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: A Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama (Brazos Press, 2015). Reviewed by Jerry M. Ireland

This excellent text by Jerry L. Walls, professor of philosophy and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, is a more popular-level treatment of his trilogy on hell, purgatory and heaven, which emerged from his PhD dissertation at Notre Dame (p. 16). His basic argument can be summed up as follows: Heaven is necessary in order for life to have real meaning. Hell is necessary in order for there to truly be libertarian free will. Finally, purgatory is a logical possibility and even likelihood that flows from an optimal view of God’s goodness and mercy. Surely, most evangelicals will heartily affirm the first two of these propositions, but at the very least, raise an eyebrow at the last. So, the crucial question is, does Walls make a solid case for purgatory, one that can or even should be accepted by evangelicals?

In what follows, I will briefly argue, first, that Walls has made an intriguing case for a recovered doctrine of purgatory that is compatible with orthodox doctrines of God and eschatology. Second, I will argue that Walls has in this book presented an interesting enough case that many readers (myself included) will be inclined to study these matters further. That said, though, let me clarify one point. I have here described Walls’s argument as “an intriguing case,” and “interesting enough.” However, these, for me, do not add up to entirely convincing. To say something is compatible with orthodoxy doesn’t mean that it is orthodox. For me, the jury is still out, and here’s why.

Walls’ discussion of purgatory centers around a couple of interrelated ideas. First, he argues that the concept of purgatory fits well with the Christian doctrine of sanctification (ch. 4). Specifically, he argues that most protestants believe that since perfection is a necessary condition for entering God’s presence, God will perfect humans instantly upon death. Walls though prefers a sanctification model of purgatory (versus a satisfaction model; p. 98). To make his case, he leans heavily (perhaps too heavily), on C. S. Lewis, who rejected the idea of imputed righteousness and understood purgatory as a necessary period of purification in preparation for entering the presence of God (p. 110). It is “the transformation of our character” as we open ourselves to divine love. The general idea here is that love demands contrition and a genuine desire to love God more fully, and this can only be realized if one consciously and willingly moves and allows themselves to be moved by God in that direction. On this view, the process of sanctification is as vital after death as it is before.

The reason that I am intrigued but not quite convinced is two-fold. First, I think there needs to be more interaction with the biblical text on this issue. Though, I think Walls is correct to note that the Bible does not rule out the possibility of purgatory understood in this way, there does seem to a good bit of speculation at work. For example, when the word “perhaps” is repeated five times in one paragraph (p. 115-116), I’m inclined to think that we are on tenuous ground. Granted this paragraph is not the heart of Walls’ argument, but it well sums up the essence of it. Second, the talk of “process” to me raises the question of whether time itself and the concepts of both instantaneity and process can even be made sense of in any real way, when we are talking about the things that transpire after death. In other words, I wonder if Walls is not looking at non-temporality through a temporal lens and thereby drawing false conclusions. I don’t know that he is, and I would be the first to admit that the philosophy of time is a bit outside of my wheelhouse. But all of this is simply to say that the text has raised a number of questions for me both exegetically and philosophically that are not answered. Perhaps they are (I hope!) in his trilogy.

Beyond this provocative and thoughtful discussion of purgatory, though, Walls raises another issue that is worthy of at least consideration. Specifically, he argues that salvation might be possible even after death. Essentially, Walls puts forth the idea that if purgatory as he has described it exists, then it seems logical and consistent to assume that God could allow for some to repent and be saved, even after death. He again here turns to C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. He makes use, as he often does in this text, of Lewis’s claim that the door to hell is locked from the inside. That is, those who will spend eternity in hell are those who refuse at every opportunity to turn toward God. They are in hell not because they have been forced to be there, but because they have chosen to be there. Central here is the idea that God will afford each person a genuine opportunity to fully understand and respond to the Gospel. But perhaps some, during their lifetime are too emotionally handicapped, for example, to have been able to respond to God’s grace. Does it not seem logical, asks Walls, that God might give them an opportunity after death? Essentially, this argument for Walls is built on the belief that God will afford every person “optimal grace,” and that we only have to look around us to realize that some have not experienced optimal grace during their earthly life.

As someone who has lost a family member whose eternal destiny was uncertain at the time of his death, I find myself hoping that Walls is right on this. But, again, I’m not fully convinced because his argument seems to presume that C. S. Lewis, on whom Walls depends heavily, is correct, without much critical assessment of his theological assumptions. For instance, some have accused Lewis of having a more platonic view of the afterlife than a biblical view and Walls simply does not address this. Again, I would hope that these issues are addressed in his more scholarly tomes, but some minimal discussion of these issues here would have been helpful. Plus, if he hopes to convince evangelicals, Walls will need to build his case on the positive statements in Scripture about the afterlife, and not on what is ambiguous.

To conclude, any book that encourages evangelicals to dig a little deeper is one that must be counted a roaring success. And this book does that on multiple levels. I suspect in the near future I will purchase his trilogy for that purpose. On the whole, I heartily recommend this text for those wanting to explore these issues. For professors of theology, this text makes an excellent catalyst for generating lively conversations among students. It is well-written (Walls’s description of hell is worth the price of the book!; see p. 89), engaging, and even if one disagrees with Walls’s conclusions, his ideas are well worth considering and sure to stir things up.

 

Cathedrals, Christianity, and the Survivability of the Church

Yesterday my wife and daughter and I visited Chartres Cathedral, just outside of Paris. The Cathedral is perhaps the world’s greatest surviving example of medieval Gothic architecture, primarily because it remains much the way it was in the 13th century, including having the original stained glass windows, which are nothing short of stunning![1]

chartres_2

These amazing works of art (and indeed, the Cathedral itself is a masterpiece), incredibly survived not only the French Revolution but WWII as well, despite all odds. The story of how the Cathedral survived WWII is especially fascinating.

When Allied Forces decided to bomb the cathedral on the suspicion that it might be occupied by German troops, an American colonel by the name of Welborn Griffith challenged the order, and volunteered instead to cross the front lines and investigate to see if Germans were actually holed up in the church. His request was approved, and after making his way to the cathedral, he discovered indeed that there were no Germans. As a result, Chartres Cathedral was saved from total destruction. Unfortunately, Griffith was killed a few days later in the fighting to liberate the town of Chartres.[2]

chartres_

Commonly, parallels are drawn between the great churches of Europe and the decline of Christianity there, and the general tendency is to criticize Catholicism for having built enduring buildings but no lasting churches.

Our trip to Chartres though had a different effect on me. Instead, what I saw in this magnificent Cathedral is rather a symbol of the survivability of the Church. God, working through frail and imperfect human agents, like Colonel Griffith, will ensure the survival of His Church. After all, He promised as much when He said the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).

And so as we walked around Chartres, taking in its incredible beauty and history, I found myself reminded that the Church will survive the moral decline of western cultures and the propensity of men for war. It will survive terrorism and it will survive revolutions. And most incredibly, it will even survive the theological differences among its members.

[1] See for example http://www.sacred-destinations.com/france/chartres-cathedral.

[2] Story here: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/266849/colonel-chartres-jay-nordlinger.

Book Review: Global Evangelicalism

global evangelicalismLewis, Donald M. and Richard V. Pierard, Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History, and Culture in Regional Perspective. Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2014. Reviewed by Jerry M. Ireland.

Its rare to read an edited volume and find very little to criticize. This, though, is precisely the case with Global Evangelicalism. This text quite simply is an excellent introduction to the varied and complex nature of modern evangelicalism. In fact, I’m somewhat hesitant to label it an introductory work, because most introductory works tend to oversimplify. This work does not. Instead, it underscores the complex issues involved in formulating an evangelical identity, historically, theologically, and culturally. In doing so, it highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the movement, and offers ample fodder for scholarly and practical reflection on the future of evangelicalism.

Rather than summarize each of the chapters, I shall instead focus my review on what are the important strengths and weaknesses of the work. And I will do this in light of the author’s stated goals of helping both insiders and outsiders better understand the global and diverse nature of evangelicalism.

Perhaps the best part of this work is the broad sweep it offers of the global evangelical movement. The editors have rightly chosen to extend their gaze beyond the shores of the United States and Great Britain, and included essays by some of the leading scholars of evangelicalism from across the globe, including preeminent scholars such as René Padilla and Ogbu Kalu. One might think, though, that such a broad sweep would lack in depth and detail, but that is not the case. Yes, the authors tend to present the usual suspects on evangelical definitions, theology, and history (for example, Bebbington’s quadrilateral), but they also offer some insightful and less well-known critiques, such as Kalu’s observation regarding the way in which evangelical shortcomings in West Africa contributed to the spread of Islam in that area (chapter 5).

I also found Donald M. Lewis’s chapter on “Globalization, Religion, and Evangelicalism” (chapter 3) especially insightful. His discussion of “glocalization” and the closely associated concept of “globalization from below” help show Christianity’s adaptability, its cross-cultural power, and ability to influence society at every level, and to do so not by destroying the receptor culture, but building on them and adorning them, as Lewis points out regarding the Karen people of Burma who value Christianity’s culture preserving ability. Also, Lewis highlights that some of the very things that make evangelicalism difficult to define, such as the lack of a single holy language or precise holy place, make evangelicalism highly adaptable, allowing for constant growth and expansion. In addition, missions leaders will find this chapter enlightening as it underscores the need for both urban evangelistic strategies and social activism, in light of the reality of increasingly “global cities.”

If there is a weakness to this work, it would be that I found myself wanting more, especially in regards to part III, “Issues in Evangelical Encounters With Culture.” The issue of evangelicalism and culture is, in my view, the arena for which the future is most uncertain, and so it would have been nice to have more than the two excellent chapters in this section on ecumenism and gender. For example, given that marriage equality and LGBT issues are among the thorniest issues facing evangelicals not only in the west but also in Africa and other parts of the world as well, an article on this topic would have greatly added to the volume. Also, though several chapters reference evangelicalism’s response to the poor and the need of social concern, an in-depth discussion of the prioritism-holism debate would have helped the unaware reader better understand one of the more divisive issues among evangelicals.

But these are very minor critiques, and without a doubt, the authors could not have addressed everything. Overall, this text makes an excellent resource on the global nature, unity, diversity, history, and potential of evangelicalism. For the uninitiated, it provides insightful scholarly reflection from some of the most knowledgeable scholars on this topic. For those who have studied evangelicalism in some depth already, this text too will prove valuable as it implicitly hints at numerous avenues for further scholarly study. For example, when Padilla warns of the dangers inherent in rapid numerical expansion in Latin America, and of growth apart from a biblical understanding of the kingdom of God and the mission of God, I find myself compelled to consider this statement in the African context and in reference to the often lauded growth of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity there.

In sum, I highly recommend this text to academics, missionaries, and to non-Christians who desire a more accurate and robust understanding of evangelicalism around the world. And, I would hope that many of evangelicalism’s critics would also read this work, as it would surely temper some of the more unbalanced and ahistorical accusations leveled against it.

Disclosure: Thanks to Alisse Wissman at IVP Academic for providing a review copy of this text. However, the opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.

 

Tattoos, Homosexuality, and the Bible: An Apologetic Response to an Internet Meme

tattoos

It would seem that Leviticus 19:28 has become a favorite passage of Christianity’s critics. It especially crops up these days in Facebook rants and other forms of social media where unsupported arguments tend to easily succeed. Often, the claim goes something like this: Christians say that the Bible forbids homosexuality. In fact, they say this often, and at times are so passionate in their opposition to homosexuality that some even get tattoos of a particular verse denouncing it (e.g. Lev. 18:22). Yet, these Christians are evidently unaware that this very same book (Leviticus) also prohibits tattoos (19:28). This therefore proves (according to the critic), that (a) some Christian beliefs are outdated and simply cannot be applied literally in a modern world, and (b) most Christians themselves only cherry-pick which passages to believe and which to ignore. Otherwise Christians would be as opposed to tattoos as they are to homosexuality.

There are many, many problems with this claim. In fact, there are so many problems, its difficult to know where to begin. For example, first, there are the contextual and historical problems. I would venture to guess that probably 100% of the people who make this claim could not provide a brief but accurate purpose statement regarding the book of Leviticus. Nor could they likely describe in even the most general terms the historic period in view. Yet, apart from knowing these things, one can’t begin to dissect the material in Leviticus with even a remote hope of arriving at a proper interpretation. The point here is that the Bible, and this book in particular is not a list of do’s and don’ts that are disconnected from one another and are strung together in random order. There are themes and structures to these books, and these themes and structures prove vital to understanding, as do the cultural and historical contexts.

To illustrate this, we might take as an example the Shakespearean line, “beware the Ides of March.” What does this mean? What is an Ide? To answer this we need to first understand the Roman context in which the play Julius Caesar is set. We would have to know the meaning of “Ide” and how the concept functioned in the Roman calendar. We would also want to know who says this line in the play (the soothsayer), and how Caesar responds (he ignores it). Notice though that none of this information can be discerned solely from the line itself. Some further investigation is necessary. In the course of that investigation, one would also want to ask how Shakespeare’s audience understood this? What was its significance in their historical context? And, how does this single line contribute to the overarching story that Shakespeare has crafted? How does it move the story toward its climax? In other words, if we are to understand a line of text from any literary work, there is a whole host of other information that must be understood first. One cannot simply rip the line from its context and expect to understand it with any accuracy or depth. Every passage of Scripture, just like every line of prose, is part of larger story. Understanding that larger story is crucial to fully understanding the various parts.

The thing that is overlooked in these passages boils down to a very simple question. That question is, “why?” Why are tattoos and homosexuality prohibited in Leviticus? Is it for the same reason, and can these prohibitions be easily equated with one another? Answering this will tell us if the argument above holds water, and whether or not the prohibition against tattoos is as straightforward as critics would like to believe.

In addition to the question of “why”, another extremely important aspect of Scripture must be considered, namely, how do the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT) relate to each other on this issue? For example, does the underlying issue represent an OT practice that was fulfilled in Christ? This is the case with the temple sacrifices. Christians no longer are required to offer animal sacrifices, even though the practice is commanded in the OT, not because the OT is irrelevant or outdated, but because Christ fulfilled this in becoming the ultimate sacrifice. The NT states this unambiguously (Heb. 7:27).

 The Prohibition Against Participation in Pagan Religion

Some might reasonably argue that it’s asking a lot to expect the casual reader of the Bible to seek out and explore additional resources such as commentaries and theological dictionaries to gain a clearer understanding of these ancient texts. Yet, if the critic would take the time to actually read the text in question, they would immediately realize that their interpretation is problematic. They would see, for example, that the prohibition against tattoos is based on and is an extrapolation from the first commandment: worship YHWH, and Him alone (Exod. 20:3).

Even by simply reading the verse in question, Lev. 19:28, this can easily be understood. Of course, these critics are usually not really interested in what the Bible actually says, but only in holding on to their erroneous indictment. But let’s look careful at vs. 28:

Lev. 19:28 “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.”

I’ve put in bold two phrases that alert the reader to the fact that the issue at hand is holiness, or rather, pure devotion to YHWH, the God of Israel, and a simultaneous rejection of foreign religious practices. “For the dead” regarding the prohibition against cutting obviously refers to pagan religions.[1] The final phrase, “I am the Lord,” serves to remind the Israelites Whom it is they are to serve and worship.

Furthermore, there is extra-biblical evidence to support the notion that tattoos in antiquity often carried religious connotations: “Such markings may have been designed to protect a person from the spirits of the dead or to demonstrate membership in a group. Some evidence for this has been found in the examination of human remains in Scythian tombs dating to the sixth century B.C.” [2] There is also archeological evidence that the ancient Egyptians, among others, practiced tattooing, and that it had religious significance.[3] So, the prohibition against tattoos must be seen as a prohibition against marking one’s flesh in ways that have religious significance or connotations, especially when considering that holiness, or separation and devotion to God, constitutes one of the dominant themes of Leviticus. This is especially true of the portion in which our verse is found. This section in fact, chapters 17–25, is usually referred to as the Holiness Code, based on the command, “You shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy” (19:2; 20:7). When this is considered, it becomes even clearer that it is the connection to pagan religion that is the issue. Participation in ritualistic tattoos and scarring violate God’s command to be separate from, or to be set apart for service to God, which is the literal meaning of holiness. As Harris says, “There was nothing morally wrong with cutting the hair or the beard or with tattooing. But these practices then, and also now in some places, were parts of heathen ritual.” [4]

As such, this is a clear violation of what Jesus called the most important commandment, namely to love God with one’s whole life and self (see Matt. 22:36-37). So, the claim that the book of Leviticus forbids tattoos, especially the innocuous modern sort, is simply false. To say so would be like saying that William Shakespeare thought everyone should be extra careful and on guard against intrigue on March 15th. It would be a gross misrepresentation of the text in question, and demonstrate a complete ignorance of the main story line.

Does this not imply then that the prohibition against homosexuality should only apply only to homosexual acts that are attached to pagan (i.e., non-Christian) worship? The answer is no, because though holiness is in view in both cases, the underlying issues differ. With tattoos the issue at stake is participation in false religious practices, as I’ve pointed out. Here the issue is a violation of the order of creation and complementarity of maleness and femaleness. This is the meaning behind the phrase “as one lies with a female.” The author is pointing out that a male and a female compliment one another sexually in ways that two males or two females do not. Contra the tendency of our culture, the Bible does in fact distinguish gender, like it or not. Again, the key lies in the wording of each verse in question. Plus, that homosexuality is contrary to God’s design and ordering of creation is explicitly reiterated twice in the NT (Rom. 1:27; 1 Cor. 6:9).

The Greater Fulfillment

The NT though has more to say about both of these issues. At the end of his letter to the Galatians, Paul makes a very profound statement about marks on his body. In 6:17 he says, “From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus” (NASB95). The word translated “brand-mark” here could also mean, tattoo or scarring, and it has tremendous relevance to the Levitical passage we’ve been considering.

Commentators are widely agreed that Paul is here referring to the various physical sufferings he endured in his service to Christ, such as his being stoned in Lystra (Acts 14:19).[5] Elsewhere Paul makes a similar statement, when he says true believers are “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:10 NASB95). In Paul’s day, many participants in the mystery religions used tattoos or branding as signs of devotion to their god. But Paul says in both the Galatians passage and in the 2 Corinthians passage that for the Christian there is a better mark of devotion, namely the marks that come from a life of surrender and sacrifice that are in continuity with the sacrifice and suffering of Christ.

Therefore, the most important question for the Christian related to NT reference to tattoos then, is not “does the Bible forbid tattoos?” but rather, does my life bear the true marks of a Christian, marks bought in the trenches of sacrificial service to Christ? The question ultimately is, does our life bear true signs that YHWH is our King, and that we are but sojourners in a hostile, foreign land (1 Peter 2:11)?

If Christians would focus more fully on understanding and applying this, it may be that our authority to speak to the issue of homosexuality would greatly increase as well. After all, how can we ask those that struggle with homosexuality to make the difficult sacrifice of celibacy (a sacrifice Paul also made), if our own lives lack the evidence of sacrifice?

There is a stark contrast here between the type of self-inflicted suffering made in the name of religious pretention, and the genuine scars that will inevitable come to those who have fully entered a life of humble service. Perhaps our arguments against homosexuality too often go unheeded because our “markings”—the things meant to declare “we belong to Christ!”, tend to be superficial and decorative, like tattoos of Bible verses and fish emblems on our cars. Paul would likely have been bewildered by these! Instead, if our bodies were “branded” the way Paul’s was, by enduring whatever hardships it took to advance the Gospel, by physically suffering in order to help others find the Truth, then we might find people somewhat more interested in what we have to say, simply because it would be evident that our own comfort and agenda was not our primary concern.

[1] See also 1 Kings 18:28, “So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them.”

[2]John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 134.

[3] See John A. Rush, Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding and Implants (Berkely: Frog, 2005).

[4]R. Laird Harris, Leviticus, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas, vol. 2 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), n.p.

[5] Cf. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1982), 275–276.

Our Communalized Life in Christ

Paul writes in Galatians, “The one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him. (Gal. 6:6).

 The word ‘share’ here in Greek is koinōneō–a verb derived from the noun koinonia. Given Paul’s usage and uniquely Christian appropriation of the word koinōnia as the community of God’s people formed in relationship with Christ by the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit, the word “share” doesn’t seem to quite do justice to what Paul is getting at. “Share” is probably the best English translation, which also seems to highlight the inadequacy of English for certain concepts. When I read this passage in the context of Paul’s usage of this word throughout his writings, wherein he often talks about things like Gentiles sharing in the spiritual heritage of Israel (Rom. 15:27), sharing in the body and blood of Christ through the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10), churches sharing in his sufferings (2 Cor. 1:7), and likewise sharing in the grace of giving and receiving concerning those in need (Phil. 4:15), or sharing in the responsibility of appointing faithful leaders (1 Tim. 5:22), it becomes apparent that for Paul koinōnia relates to the fellowship one has with Christ by the Holy Spirit as an entire lifestyle and attitude. The difference then between Christian fellowship that calls for the sharing of resources and socialistic ideas of common property is that it’s not the things that we share primarily in Christianity that are central, rather its ourselves. We are to “communalize” our very lives because of the undeserved inclusion we’ve found in Christ and the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit, that leads us to fulfill kingdom purposes.

Transformational Mission

The framers of the Cape Town Commitment of the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism in 2010 helpfully articulated the integrated nature of Christian faith, when they stated that ‘nothing commends the gospel more eloquently than a transformed life, and nothing brings it into disrepute so much as personal inconsistency. We are charged to behave in a manner that is worthy of the gospel of Christ and even to ‘adorn’ it, enhancing its beauty by holy lives. Transformation, in other words, refers to both who we are and what we are called to do. Transformation involves both words and our deeds.

That said, there are a few fears I would like to dispel about the notion of transformation. First, when we talk about transformation we are not saying that our deeds are equal to words or that the two are the same thing. We cannot preach the Gospel with our deeds. The Gospel is verbal, Scripture comes to us in verbal form, and it demands a verbal communication. Second, preaching the Gospel is a non-negotiable and essential aspect of the Church’s mandate in the world (Mark 16:20). Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God, not by the work of our hands.

However, there is nowhere in Scripture a dichotomy between our calling to preach the Gospel and our calling to embody the Gospel, our call to proclaim the love of God and our call to practice the love of God. Perhaps nowhere is this more explicit than in John 3. Though the focus of the famous vs. 16 is on belief that leads to eternal life, that life is further described as a present tense reality manifest in deeds of righteousness (3:21). The emphasis is not simply on knowing the truth, but rather on practicing the truth. Remember, Jesus Himself was a prophet mighty in word and deed. He wasn’t only the Word, but the Word made flesh. He was and is the Living Word who taught and who touched. He preached against sin and cared for the sick. He offered the riches of heaven and he met the needs of the poor. He commended those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and he fed those who hungered and thirsted for bread and water.

To understand the biblical idea of transformation, we must look at three very closely related concepts in Scripture, namely the Nature of Evil, the Kingdom of God, and the Purpose of the Church.

1. The Nature of Evil

Evil has steadily gained in popularity and influence ever since Adam and Eve’s first “unfruitful” act of disobedience. From the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, to the murder of 52 million babies in the US alone due to abortions, from Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery, to 12 million humans trafficked in the year 2010, evil has steadily gained in popularity and influence, and the church has sometimes forgotten that we are our brother’s keeper.

 2. The Kingdom of God

The Kingdom of God in Scripture refers to the rule and reign of Jesus over the whole cosmos and at the heart of the biblical concept of the Kingdom is the overthrow of evil. Thus, Jesus said, “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God then the Kingdom has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28). The coming of the Kingdom and the destruction of evil in every form are intractable and inseparable aspects of who Jesus is and what He does. Thus, when He taught his disciples to pray, he said pray like this: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

3. The Purpose of the Church

As Harvey Conn says, “the keys of the Kingdom are not locked in a drawer, they are given to the church.” Christ begets a people who are to be conformed to his very image. As Paul says, we are to be imitators of Christ (Eph. 5:1). As such, the Church is a visible sign of the invisible Kingdom. That’s what Jesus is getting at when He says “let our light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify our Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

The church of Jesus Christ then ought to exist as a microcosm of the future to which God is leading us. The call of every Christian is to not only preach about our heavenly destination, but to also in all truthfulness be able to point to the church and say with confidence and conviction, “this is a taste of what it will be like! This is where the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control abound. This is where healing and wholeness, love and compassion, justice and righteousness live.” Or, as one writer put it, “The Gospel is Good News concerning the Kingdom, and the Kingdom is God’s rule over the totality of life. Every human need therefore can be used by the Spirit of God as a beach-head for the manifestation of his kingly power” (Graham Cray in Mission as Transformation, 28).

To preach the Good News without embodying the good news declares loudly and unequivocally that we have not understood the good news.

But when the church embodies in practice the qualities of the Kingdom because we have spent time in the presence of the King, then we together show the world that our God is not a distant God who sits aloof in a far-away heaven, but a living and active God who steps into human history and brings about the transformation of all things. We give evidence that our words and the words of Scripture are not hollow products of our imagination but flow from an intimate connection with a God who both speaks and shows. And so we are admonished, as John says, “to not love with words or tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18).

When we practice the qualities of the Kingdom, then we set the whole world proleptically before the judgment seat of Christ. Evil stands condemned because the Kingdom has come and is coming and because the King dwells actively with His people.

To participate in the Kingdom is to live by the ethical demands of the King. The Prince of Peace does not beget a people unconcerned about the extension of Peace. Because justice and righteousness are the foundations of His throne, justice and righteousness must characterize the work of those who call themselves His subjects.

To be Kingdom minded is to care about the things God cares about. It is to share our abundance with those who lack, to give alms to the poor, to make peace with our enemies, and to produce the fruit of righteousness. It is to empty ourselves, to give up our comfort and to go sacrificially to those in need. It is to lay down our lives for our friends.

To close, I’d like to share a quote I recently came across in book by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. The book is What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom and the Mission of the Church. In the opening pages of their book, DeYoung and Gilbert point out, rather helpfully, that there is a lot that Evangelicals can agree on when it comes to this issue of social justice or transformation. Here’s what they have to say:

 The gospel, is, at the very least, the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection; proclamation is essential to the chruch’s witness; heaven and hell are real; people are lost without Jesus; bodies matter as well as souls; and good deeds as the fruit of transformed lives are not optional. (p. 16)

The Manner of Christians: A Second Century Look at the Nature of the Church

The Letter to Diognetus provides a potent description of early Christianity. This letter, sometimes known as the Epistle of Mathetes and written by an unknown author, represents what may be the earliest apologetic defense of Christianity (Schaff, loc. 1557). It is usually dated to around the mid to late second century; Justo Gonzales classifies the letter with the second-century Greek apologists (see Gonzales, 116). The author simply identifies himself as a “disciple” (Gr. mathētes). Schaff believes the author to have been either a disciple or associate of the apostle Paul, and since the writer speaks of Christianity as a recent development, it seems reasonable to place it in the second century (Schaff, loc. 1568). Schaff also believes that the recipient, Diognetus was the tutor of Marcus Aurelius. The text though offers a beautiful description of Christianity in its formative years. You see here a Christianity that is markedly different from the surrounding culture–and thus a potent message for today’s church, which too often looks exactly like the surrounding culture! Below is the text of chapter five from The Letter to Diognetus:

The Letter to Diognetus: Chapter V – The Manner of Christians

They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Sources

Gonzales, Justo. A History of Christian Thought Vol. 1: From the Beginning to the Council of Chalcedon. 1970. Reprint, Nashville: Abingdon, 1987.

Schaff, Philip. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. 1885. Reprint. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition, 2012.