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.”

Advertisements

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.

Why I don’t like going to church: Confessions of a Theologian, Part I

I’m a theologian. The study of the Bible and the nature of the Church lie at the very heart of everything that I do and hold dear. Yet, honestly, I sometimes don’t like going to church. I’d rather just stay at home, and here’s why.

First, for a theologian, attending church can be mentally exhausting. It’s my nature (and indeed the way God has wired me) to critically analyze most things. I used to feel terribly guilty about this, until one day a fellow theologian counseled me saying, “you just have to realize that this is the way its going to be for you for the rest of your life. It’s not a bad thing. It’s simply part of your calling and you just have to discover how to manage it with grace.” Since then I’ve tried to live by those words and it has helped tremendously. But still, sometimes I just don’t feel like being gracious and would rather just stay at home.

And then there’s the people.

Churchy people can be especially difficult to handle sometimes. For example, every church seems to have that one lady who lives on Planet Jesus and who believes that every one of life’s challenges can be overcome with a simple cliché and a clack of the tambourine. “You just gotta keep praisin’ brother!” Clack-ity-clack.

But when I think about these things in light of the Gospel, I’m reminded of the real reason I sometimes don’t like going to church. All of these things, the parts of the sermon or parts of the worship service which I wish were different, the people whom I wish I could change and make them someone other than who they are, all point to one thing. They all point to the reality of my own sinfulness. They declare with a load voice that I, the theologian who has made a career out of studying the Bible, have yet to fully abide by its most central precept. Namely, “you shall love the lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8).

In other words, everything I don’t like about church is in reality a reflection of my own self-centeredness. In fact, the word “like” itself suggests that I tend to see church as existing primarily to meet my needs. My lack of grace toward the tambourine lady flows from the fact that I’ve never really tried to get to know the tambourine lady and understand what makes her tick. To put it simply, I’ve never really loved her as I love myself. My dissatisfaction with the music or with the sermon, though sometimes might reflect real issues that need to be addressed, more often testify to the fact that I came to church not to serve, but to be served. Odd behavior, to say the least, for one who follows Him whose whole life was described in exactly opposite terms (Matt. 20:28).

In short, all the reasons that I sometimes don’t like going to church declare with a loud voice that I absolutely need to be there. They declare that I need to continue to grow in the grace of loving others and bearing with them in their struggles. I need to discover and rediscover and discover all over again that Christian community is not just about getting fed (thought it is about that). But there comes a time when we have to stop bellying up to the banquet table and instead find our way to the kitchen, and begin to labor for the nourishment and strengthening of others.

The more I do this, the more I find that church can be infinitely rewarding.

 

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.