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How Knowing People Should Change Us

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Over the past few months, a couple of progressive friends of mine have challenged my critique of the LGBTQ agenda by saying that my views would change if I knew someone in those categories.  If I knew someone who was gay, if I knew someone who was trans, I wouldn’t say such things about them.

My initial response was to dismiss the argument.  After all, I do know people who are gay, trans, etc., and I still write the things that I do.  Whatever my motivations, I’m pretty sure ignorance and bigotry aren’t on the list.

However, I think there’s more to consider here than that.  Though I believe that a Christian’s closest relationships should be with other Christians, we also should not isolate ourselves from the world.  That’s a Pharisaical approach, not a Christlike one. 

Indeed, Jesus came to earth in the first place to dwell among sinners.  If He was willing to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes, we also should not shy away even from those whose conduct seems to us to be least consistent with God’s will.  What’s more, knowing them should change our perspective on them and those who are like them.

First, it should teach us compassion for them.  Every human being is created in the image of God, and that does not change, no matter what sins they practice.  The better we get to know someone who is gay or trans, the less we will see the label, and the more we will see the human being.

Second, it will help us see the ungodliness of treating them badly, and I think both sides of the culture wars fail to approach this subject honestly.  On the one hand, progressives are inclined to label anyone who repeats the teaching of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 as a homophobe and a bully.  That’s an ad-hominem attack designed to shut down any discussion of God’s expectations for sexual morality, and it’s frequently untrue besides.  It advances the conversation in much the same way that a concrete bridge abutment advances the progress of a car.

On the other hand, conservatives are so used to being called homophobes and bullies that they dismiss the existence and ungodliness of genuine homophobia and bullying.  It is never, ever right to treat someone else hatefully, regardless of who they are or what they have done, but so-called Christians have justified tremendous cruelty against gay and trans people in the name of Christ.  The best way to avoid such cruelty is to know and love its potential targets.

Third, it will reveal our commonality with them.  In my interactions with people in the world, I always try to keep Hebrews 5:2 in mind.  There, it says of the Levitical priest that he was able to deal gently with the ignorant and misguided because he himself was beset with weakness.  We always must view the sin of others through the lens of our own sin. 

I know what it’s like to be tempted.  I know what it’s like to give in to my own evil desires.  As long as I keep my own failures in mind, it becomes very difficult to climb up on my self-righteous soapbox and give those wicked sinners over there what-for.  On our own merits, we’re no better than anyone else, and the better we get to know people, the more apparent that will become to us.

Finally, forming connections with gay and trans people will motivate us to share the gospel with them.  This is not the fruit of moral indignation, but of compassion, gentleness, and love. 

Satan is not a kind master, and his handiwork often is evident in the lives of gay and trans people.  Statistically, LGTBQ people have a much higher risk of alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and even suicide.  Anecdotally, most whom I’ve known have not been happy, not particularly because they were persecuted, but because they couldn’t seem to make life work. 

Such problems, significant as they are, pale in comparison to the problem of sin and separation from God.  Gay and trans people are no greater sinners than I am, but that only means that they need the grace of Jesus as much as I do.  I feel bound, then, to speak truth in love, to them as much as to everyone else, not because I think that everyone will listen, but because I hope that some might.

COVID and the Scientists

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Throughout this year, most of us have been bemused by the varying claims made about COVID-19 by various scientists in various countries:  “Coronavirus isn’t a big deal.”  “No, wait, it’s a HUGE deal!”  “Well, maybe it wasn’t such a big deal after all.”  “It can only be spread by person-to-person contact.”  “Actually, it can be spread by surface contact too.”  “Really, surface spread doesn’t happen very much.”  “Singing in groups is deadly!”  “Singing in groups is probably OK.”  “Chloroquine might help.”  “Chloroquine is POISON!”  “We don’t actually know whether chloroquine will help or not.”  And so on.

To anyone who pays attention to the human race, the above confusion probably isn’t very surprising.  Scientists are people too, and people err in their reasoning all the time.  We like to reach strong conclusions by extrapolating from inadequate data.  We all have biases, and those biases affect our reasoning, sometimes dramatically.  Pressure from our superiors can shape our results as much as the evidence does (Chinese doctors and scientists, holla!).  All of those factors, plus many more, whether working singly or in combination, produce mistakes.

I don’t say all of these things because I am anti-scientist.  Indeed, I am pro-scientist, just as I am pro-the rest of the human race.  Indeed, I acknowledge that I myself have made mistakes.  I remember both times vividly!

That was a joke, by the way.

It should lead us, though, not to put too much faith in the conclusions of scientists.  For some reason, many of them feel like “I don’t know and can’t tell,” is an unacceptable answer, so they opine with great certainty in areas where a little self-skepticism would teach them to be anything but certain.

Take, for instance, the vast body of scientific opining about the origins of the universe, life, and humankind.  We have real trouble figuring out COVID, a disease that we can observe right now and study experimentally.  How likely are we to be able to interpret correctly fragmentary evidence about events that many believe happened millions or billions of years ago? 

How about bias?  The chloroquine narrative has been driven by bias against a certain American president who has adopted chloroquine as his very own anti-COVID wonder drug.  It led scientists to embrace some fatally flawed findings because they led to the conclusion that said president was wrong.  Is it possible, just barely possible, that scientists who are committed to a naturalistic view of the universe (which necessarily excludes God) are predisposed to reach conclusions that justify their worldview?

How about pressure to conform?  The scientific establishment is staunchly Darwinian.  Dissenters who openly point to evidence for creation get denied tenure or get fired altogether.  Indeed, they often become the target of vicious personal attacks from their peers.  Could it be that scientists who like to eat and be on good terms with their colleagues will, whether consciously or unconsciously, toe the party line?

I will admit that unlike everybody else on Facebook, I am not an expert in virology.  However, I do spend some time trying to understand people (as any Christian should), and when I see virologists making the mistakes that people make, I am not surprised.  I also am not an expert on the fossil record, but if paleontologists as well made the mistakes that people make, that also would not surprise me.

Indeed, I only would be surprised if they didn’t.

Romans 13 and the Second Amendment

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Since I moved to Tennessee, one of the most obvious changes in my life has been a greatly increased interest in and appreciation of firearms.  I think that they’re valuable for any number of uses, from hunting to self-defense.

What’s more, I believe that it’s lawful for a Christian to use a firearm to defend innocent life, whether his own or someone else’s, from the lawless.  I argue here that Jesus’ commandment to turn the other cheek should be read in a context of refusing to resist governmental oppression from the Romans.  Nothing in Scripture prevents a disciple from using weapons for protection from criminals. 

However, this argument has consequences, and it particularly has consequences for our views of whether American Christians have the right to take up arms against an oppressive and tyrannical government.  At least some of the Founding Fathers (most notably Thomas Jefferson) would have argued that we do.  In this case, though, it is the word of God, not the views of the Founders, that must guide our behavior.

Most Christians who have thought about the subject recognize that Romans 13:1-7 is the most relevant text here.  On their face, Paul’s words appear straightforward.  Christians are to submit to the government, full stop.  However, I have heard brethren argue that in the case of the United States, the Constitution, particularly the Second Amendment, is the true government.  Thus, Christians can “obey the government” by asserting their Second-Amendment rights against the villains in Washington who want to take away their guns.

There are two problems with this claim.  First, according to constitutional theory, the sovereign of the United States is not the Constitution.  It is the people.  The Constitution is merely an expression of the will of the people, as are the various officials elected and appointed under the Constitution’s terms.  Yes, there are checks and balances built into the Constitution to protect the minority from the majority, but if the people decide that the Second Amendment refers to the National Guard, or that it should be written out of the Constitution altogether, that is the right of the sovereign.

Second, and more tellingly, the Constitution doesn’t fit the definition of “the governing authorities” in Romans 13.  In Romans 13, the government brings wrath on those who practice evil.  It collects taxes.  It demands obedience from its subjects.  The Constitution does none of those things, so it doesn’t make sense to apply Romans 13 to the Constitution.  Instead, the clear modern analogue of the Romans 13 government is. . . our federal, state, and local governments—all those who make, carry out, and interpret the law of the land.  If they say, “Give us your guns!” and we say, “No!”, we are resisting the lawful, God-established government.

Some might argue that Romans 13 does not require Christians to submit to tyranny, but according to our definitions, all the governments of the New Testament were tyrannical.  They beat, imprisoned, and even executed the innocent without a fair trial.  They imposed taxes to which the taxed had not agreed.  The Roman Empire ruled by the swords of the legions, not the consent of the governed.

Oppressive?  Yes.  Unjust?  Yes.  The government to which first-century Christians were to submit?  Also yes.  Indeed, one of the great overlooked themes of the gospels is Jesus’ desperate attempt to persuade the Jews not to take up arms against Rome.  Christians may sometimes be forced to obey God rather than men, but they are not to be the architects of civil disorder.

I sympathize with the Christians who want to hold on to their guns, no matter what.  I think it’s good public policy for them to be allowed to do so, and it accords with the priority that God’s word places on protecting the vulnerable and weak.  When my daughter moves out of my home, I want her to take with her a firearm that she knows how to use, so that she can defend herself in the hour of desperate need. 

However, our hope is not and must not be founded on these things.  If we are blessed with the opportunity to live under a just and well-ordered government, we ought to be thankful.  If we are not, we must remember that God, not ourselves, is our ultimate hope for justice.  If we assert our rights at the expense of honoring Him, we will have made a bad bargain. 

Confusing Mercy with Justice

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

The other Sunday, I was approached by one of the younger sisters at church.  She had a couple of questions.  They involved hypotheticals that many of us have encountered before.  What about the tribesman in the Amazon jungle who never gets to hear about the gospel?  What about the man who is on his way to be baptized when he gets in a car wreck and dies? 

I gave her my usual answer about not letting hypotheticals and things that happen to somebody else distract us from what we should do, but she didn’t seem satisfied with that, so I promised her I’d consider the subject further.  True to my word, I gnawed on the questions until my subconscious bit off something. 

Eventually, I saw that even though these two questions are aimed at different doctrinal positions (the necessity of the gospel versus the necessity of baptism), they both operate the same way.  Both are an appeal to our sense of fairness.  We intuit that if somebody dies without having heard the gospel and goes to hell as a result, it’s unfair.  If somebody sincerely intended to be baptized but dies before being able to and goes to hell as a result, it’s unfair.

The problem, though, is not with the doctrine in question.  It’s with our intuition.  “Fair”, after all, is a dressed-down synonym for “just”.  We feel that it is unjust for God to punish the sinner who never heard or to punish the penitent sinner who never managed to make it to the baptistery.  However, we need to be suspicious of that feeling.  Not only is it incorrect, it is ultimately fatal to the Christian system of faith.

Let me explain.  Neither in Hypothetical 1 nor Hypothetical 2 is a sinner being unjustly condemned.  God gave both of them the same things He gives all of us:  life, free will, ample evidence of His existence, and a sense of right and wrong.  Despite these gifts, the people in both hypotheticals chose to sin. 

According to the first three chapters of Romans, such sin incurs the wrath of God, and it does so justly.  As Paul puts it in Romans 6:23, the wages of sin is death.  It is just for such people to spend eternity separated from Him, as it would be just for all of us to spend eternity separated from Him.  That is what we all deserve.

However, in the case of Christians, God has chosen to be merciful.  He showed us mercy in two ways:  in sending His Son to die in our place, and in giving us the opportunity to hear and obey the gospel.  None of us are entitled to His mercy.  It is utterly and completely undeserved.

As a result, neither of our sinners has any standing to complain that God has been unfair to them.  They don’t have any right to expect His mercy.  They are entitled to His justice, and God will be scrupulously fair to them as He is to everyone.  They could have chosen to do right, they had all the information they needed to make that choice, but they chose evil instead.  They will be judged accordingly. 

If this is not true, if sin does not invite the just judgment of God, God does not have the right to judge any sinner.  Any attempt to preserve His right to judge anyone will devolve into a standardless exercise in line-drawing.  If the one who never has heard is entitled to mercy, what about the one who heard an incompetent preacher?  If the one who dies on the way to the church house is entitled to mercy, what about the one who dies on the way to a Bible study that would have convicted him?  The more these questions unfold, the more obvious it becomes that our cheap sympathy for sinners (as opposed to Christ’s precious sacrifice) has overwhelmed God’s right to judge righteously.

There is no partiality with God.  This is my chief objection to Calvinism.  How can it be just for God to condemn an unbaptized infant who has done neither good nor evil, simply because of who their ultimate ancestor was?

However, God’s impartiality is a knife that cuts both ways.  If God is just in condemning sinners, He must be just in condemning all sinners.  Only the death of Christ and the faith of those who trust in Him allow God to do anything else.

When to Speak Up

Friday, June 05, 2020

In response to my post about thanksgiving in the midst of a racism crisis, I received a very interesting question.  I had said that I was thankful for all of the brethren who respond to a thoughtless comment from a brother with a thin-lipped smile instead of an explosion of anger.  Consequently, a sister asked when it’s appropriate to trot out that thin-lipped smile, and when it’s appropriate to speak up about the heart issue behind the thoughtless comment.

Predictably, I will open my reply with a great big, “It depends!”  After all, the principle underlying Colossians 4:5-6 is that our speech should be situation- and hearer-dependent.  There are many factors that can figure into our analysis, but here are three that I think are particularly relevant:

First, we should consider the importance of the issue.  How likely is it that someone’s convictions and behavior in a particular area will affect their eternal salvation?  For instance, in my time, I have run into Christians who have the bad taste to be fans of University of Kansas athletics.  As all right-thinking people do, I regard Jayhawk sports with revulsion and disgust.  However, I also know that if God will show mercy to me, He will show mercy to those who root for the Technicolor Chickens.  As a result, though I will harass such people mercilessly once I find them out, we’re not going to have a serious sit-down conversation about their college-athletics allegiance.

On the other extreme, there are a number of things about which the Bible says, “If you do this, you won’t inherit the kingdom of God.”  If somebody’s wrong about one of those things, their souls are in terrible danger.  That points strongly toward, “Have the conversation.”

Second, we should consider how likely we ourselves are to be wrong.  Does the Bible speak directly to this issue, or am I required to reason from the Scriptures to reach my conclusion?  The more I must reason, the more likely it becomes that I have made a misstep along the way.

For instance, it doesn’t take much reasoning to arrive at the conclusion that racism is wrong.  No, the Bible doesn’t say so directly, but it does say that all of us are created in the image of God and that people from all different races can become one in Christ Jesus.  It’s simple to conclude that racism is an affront to the reconciling work of Christ.

By contrast, the pro-racism arguments from the Bible are weak and strained.  Yes, Noah did curse Ham, but a) the evidence that “Ham” means “black” or “burnt” is sketchy, and b) at this point, it’s impossible to tell who is a descendant of Ham and who isn’t.  After thousands of years of interbreeding, all of us may be.  The leap from Genesis 9 to “We get to subjugate and oppress black people!” is long and perilous.  That hasn’t kept people from making the argument, but it probably should have.

Third, we should ask how likely our words are to persuade.  How certain is our hearer that we love them?  How much do they love and trust us?  How difficult are they likely to find the discussion?  Are we confronting them publicly, or are we speaking with them in private?  All these factors, and many more, will affect the reception of our words.

Sometimes, we might need to have that conversation no matter what.  I doubt Jesus was under any illusions about whether His words in Matthew 23 were going to persuade the Pharisees to repent.  However, much like an imprecatory prayer, a burn-you conversation is a fraught step!  You’d better be real sure it’s important, real sure that you’re right, and real sure that some other good will come from speaking up.  Generally, I prefer to pick my spots, to wait for a time when I think my words will be illuminating rather than infuriating.

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