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It's About Sex, Actually

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Without a doubt, the greatest marketing campaign of the modern era was (and continues to be) staged by the gay-rights movement.  The recent sea change in the national attitude toward same-sex relationships is the result of a brilliant, decades-long initiative in framing and public relations.  Though I don’t approve of the object, I can’t help but admire the skill with which it was carried out!

Consider, for instance, the erasure of the word “homosexual”.  The progressive attitude toward the word is well summarized by GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide, which says, “Please use gay or lesbian to describe people attracted to members of the same sex. Because of the clinical history of the word ‘homosexual,’ it is aggressively used by anti-gay extremists to suggest that gay people are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered. . .” 

Indeed, just as there is no “I” in “team”, there is no “H” in LGTBQ+.  I am skeptical, though, that the use of “homosexual” in a clinical context 75 years ago is the reason that it ended up on the ban list.  Instead, it is because “homosexual”, unlike “gay” or “lesbian”, contains the word “sex”, thereby reminding the speaker and hearer that same-sex relationships are sexual relationships. 

This was and is problematic for gay-rights champions because most men in the United States, even now, are repulsed by the thought of two other men having sex.  “Homosexual rights”, then, is a viscerally unappealing term to just under half the population. 

The solution to the problem was to drop “homosexual” in favor of “gay” and to make the gay-rights movement about love and marriage, not sex.  Love and marriage poll a lot better than gay sex does.  Who can be opposed to love?

From a Biblical perspective, though, this shift focuses attention in exactly the wrong place.  Scripturally speaking, a homosexual isn’t somebody who feels a certain way or has a certain kind of personality.  It’s a man who has been intimate with other men, and unless you have done that, you’re not a homosexual.  The doing is what the Bible condemns.

By contrast, the Scriptures have nothing to say about men with personality traits that aren’t stereotypically masculine, nor even about men who love one another.  Indeed, the word encourages that!  John was the apostle whom Jesus loved.  Today, it’s commonplace for me to tell a brother in Christ that I love him.  It has nothing to do with sexual desire and everything to with the affection that we share in Christ Jesus.

“Being gay” is not a Scripturally cognizable concept, and it isn’t the problem.  Two men loving one another isn’t the problem.  Two men having relations with one another is the problem.

From here on out, American Christians are going to live in a world that accepts the practice of homosexuality.  We have to acknowledge that and recognize that it’s going to be yet another barrier to our efforts to reach the lost. 

As we discuss these things with outsiders, though, we must keep the real issue firmly in mind.  Our concern is not with anyone’s inclinations and temptations, but with their violations of the law of God.  If we allow others to make the discussion about anything else, we aren’t going to get anywhere.

Honesty with God or Complaining?

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Over the past few years, one of my favorite hobbyhorses has been the need for honesty in our conversations with God.  In our hymns and prayers, we shouldn’t pretend that things are hunky-dory when they aren’t.  If we’re afraid, we should talk about that.  If we’re angry, we should talk about that.  As evidence, I cite Job, who was angry with God, yet did not sin with his lips, and the many psalms of lament. 

After Bible class one day recently, one of the brethren at Jackson Heights approached me.  He said, “You know how in 1 Corinthians 10, how Paul encourages the Corinthians not to complain like the Israelites did?  What’s the difference between complaining and being honest with God?”

I paused.  “That’s a good question,” I said.

“I thought it was,” he replied.

It _is_ a good question, and an important one.  What’s the difference between the godly who brought their anger and fear to God and were commended for it and the ungodly who brought their complaints to God and were condemned for it?  I think the answer has to lie in the way that the Israelites expressed themselves and the heart their expression revealed.

In particular, I think the Israelites’ primary problem was that they complained not in faith, but in faithlessness.  I’d never noticed this before, but as I flipped through the Pentateuch, looking at every complaint the Israelites offer in the wilderness, a striking pattern emerged.  In almost every instance, they direct their complaint not against God, but against Moses.  Exodus 16:3 is typical.  The people say to Moses and Aaron, “You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

This is facially nonsensical.  As Moses points out in Exodus 16:8, “What are we?  Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.”  Nevertheless, the Israelites persist in grumbling against Moses and Aaron for the next 40 years.  They attribute to the Lord the power to kill them (which appears earlier, in Exodus 16:3, among many other places) but not the goodness to preserve them.

This is very different from what we see in Job.  Job certainly engages his friends throughout the book, but his primary complaint is always against God.  In fact, engagement with God is what he most desires.  Repeatedly, he pleads for a hearing with his Creator that will give him the opportunity to justify himself and seek fair treatment.  Even in his misery, he remains confident in God’s ultimate justice and goodness.

To put things another way, Job trusts in God, and the Israelites don’t.  Job believes in a world where God is in control, but the Israelites think they are at the mercy of hostile terrain, powerful enemies, and foolish leaders.  To them, God is nothing more than another threat.

When we are honest with God, then, we also must make sure that we are honest about God.  Maybe we don’t understand why we’re suffering.  Job and many psalmists didn’t.  Maybe we’re frightened and angry.  Job and many psalmists were too. 

However, our misery must not lead us to doubt His good nature nor to reject our relationship with Him.  Job and the psalmists never give up on engagement with God, but the Israelites never really engage with Him in the first place.  Their refusal reveals their fundamental unbelief.  Now, as then, faith and unbelief both will meet with their appropriate reward from Him.

Dressing for the Assembly

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Sometimes, it seems that certain spiritual topics keep coming up in conversation.  For me recently, that topic has been the necessity of dressing up in church.  Both in person and online, I’ve participated in a number of earnest discussions on the subject.  I thought it would be worthwhile, then, to share my thoughts on the matter.

First, I want to address the idea that our clothing choices in the assembly are about God.  Proponents of this view will ask whether we would dress up to see an important human being (the President, for instance) and conclude that we ought to dress up even more to come into the presence of the King of heaven.

The problem with the argument, though, is that it assumes that God is like us, and that we communicate respect to Him in the same way that we do to other humans.  According to Scripture, that’s not true.  1 Samuel 16:7 reports that God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance. 

He doesn’t have to judge our reverence for Him based on how we dress.  He knows the truth.  The reverent heart is acceptable to him, regardless of outward appearance, and the irreverent heart isn’t, again regardless of outward appearance.

Instead, we dress for one another.  That’s fine.  God is mindful of our frame, and He knows that we are silly creatures who use colored bits of cloth wrapped around our bodies to communicate an astounding variety of messages about ourselves. 

Indeed, even the commandments that God issues about clothing make it evident that He is concerned with its impact on other humans.  He is not affected by our nakedness.  He sees it anyway.  He is not intimidated by our ostentatious displays of wealth.  The earth is His, and all it contains.  However, He knows that we care about those things, so He instructs us to dress in a way that will not hinder others.

 Here, I think, is the principle that should guide us as we decide how we should dress for the assembly (and everywhere else, for that matter).  How can we dress in a way that will serve others and help them on to heaven?

This is a simple question with a complex answer.  For instance, there is a sister who worships with my congregation sometimes who struggles with crippling anxiety.  She doesn’t have much money, and she feels like she doesn’t belong.  I am certain that the only time in her life when she encounters men in suits is when she comes to church.  Every time I see her, I try to reassure her that she has a place with us.  Is it possible, though, that my suit is sending a different message than my mouth is?

On the other end of the scale, I know there are brethren at Jackson Heights who aren’t comfortable when I preach a sermon without a coat on.  They are very gracious about it and never would confront me, but they are quick to tell me how nice I look when I do wear a coat!  These are good people who are entitled to respect from me, and I need to take them into account in the way that I dress too. 

Typically, I end up wearing a coat sometimes and resorting to shirt and tie the rest of the time, and I hope that the combination makes my preaching as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.  In other places, the correct answer may be “coat all the time”, “coat never”, or even “tie never”.  By contrast, a one-size-fits-all answer arrived at without regard for the people involved is frequently going to be wrong.

In short, love others.  Dress accordingly.  Your judgment won’t be right in every instance, but in every instance, your spirit will be pleasing to God.

Long Readings in the Assembly

Friday, January 24, 2020

In many churches, it’s been the custom since time out of mind to have one of the young men read a two- or three-verse passage that introduces the sermon topic.  Less commonly, the preacher will get up, read a long context (the Sermon on the Mount) or even a whole book of the Bible (Ephesians), offer an invitation, and sit back down.

Recently, there’s been some discussion online about the practice.  Is a prolonged Scripture reading beneficial to the church when any of us could pull up the same book of the Bible on our phones and listen to it by ourselves?  I think the answer is yes.

Reading long contexts or even books is particularly important because it gets us out of our verse-by-verse mentality.  As I am fond of observing, the Bible was not originally formatted with chapter and verse notation.  The former was added during the medieval era by an archbishop of Canterbury named Stephen Langton; the latter is the contribution of Renaissance printer Robert Estienne.  Certainly, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians did not arrive in Ephesus subdivided into six chapters and 155 verses!

Though an innovation, the formatting of our Bibles has a powerful grip on our understanding.  We read the Bible differently than any other written work.  We don’t go through books or online articles parsing the meaning of each phrase and sentence.  Instead, we figure out the overall point and move on.  The Bible, by contrast, nearly always gets put under the microscope.

This is not to say that verse-by-verse analysis of the Bible is problematic, but it is not the only, or even the most obvious, way to understand the text.  Indeed, it is not the way the text was originally received.  When a church received a letter from Paul, it read the whole letter out loud, beginning to end, in an assembly.  No, the church wasn’t going to get every nuance in the text from that one reading (though there may have been a certain amount of, “Hey, Herodion, go back and read that part again!”), but it was going to get the point that Paul and the Holy Spirit intended it to get.

I suspect that when Christians are resistant to long readings, it’s because they’re trying to import their individual-tree perspective to a whole-forest exercise.  The first time I ever tried listening to the Bible on CD (I know; I’m old), I felt like I was trying to drink out of a fire hose.  I was trying to place more importance on each detail than the mode of transmission allowed. 

The solution to the problem, though, isn’t always to slow down and take in all the details.  Sometimes, it’s to speed up so that we can’t.  I think a daily Bible reading is a great way to speed things up (my usual plan takes me through 3-4 chapters a day), but so is public, out-loud reading. 

I doubt that more than a tiny percentage of Christians habitually listens to audio recordings of the Bible.  Those that do probably have developed the knack of zooming out, but that’s a knack that the rest of us need to learn.  When we listen to public reading, we’re learning not only the message of the gospel or epistle, but a different way of understanding that message.  We’re coming at truth from a different direction, and that’s an exercise that always will be valuable.

Prophetesses and 1 Corinthians 11

Thursday, January 23, 2020

At the risk of re-igniting the smoldering debate about the role of women in the church, I did see one issue in the comments on the subject that I wanted to address (and no, I am still not interested in a sprawling online argument about the issue generally!  I leave that for local congregations to work out for themselves.).  In 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul writes, “. . . every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. . .”  I am not interested in debating the covering either, but it is evident from this text that there were women in the Corinthian church who had the gift of prophecy, and that when they were prophesying, they were supposed to cover their heads.

In this, many see a contradiction with the rule of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which says that women were to keep silence in the assembly.  In fact, back in my religious-studies days, I read authors who argued that 11:5 was proof that 14:34-35 is a later, non-Pauline insertion. 

I agree that these texts could contradict each other, but they don’t necessarily do so.  1 Corinthians 14 specifies a setting:  the assembly.  However, the same is not true in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.  In fact, the language “every woman” is quite broad, and it leads naturally to the assumption that Paul is speaking of what is proper for women in any setting.  Whether the whole church was gathered together or not, Corinthian women were supposed to cover their heads when praying or prophesying. 

Thus, it’s reasonable to read these passages as telling women in the assembly to remain silent and women with prophetic gifts to cover their heads when prophesying outside of the assembly.  As always, we shouldn’t read contradictions into the Scripture unless the apparent contradiction cannot be harmonized.

This interpretation might seem strained to some, but it lines up with the Scriptural evidence.  To my knowledge, there are only two places in the entire Bible where we see a prophetess prophesying (I think it’s unclear what Miriam is doing in Exodus 15).  The first is in 2 Chronicles 34:22-28, when Huldah the prophetess predicts disaster for the kingdom of Judah after Josiah dies.  The second appears in Luke 2:36-38, when Anna the prophetess starts telling anyone who will listen that the Messiah has come.

Neither one of these prophecies occurs in the context of an assembly.  In 2 Chronicles 24, Huldah speaks her piece in her own home when Josiah sends some court officials to her.  Luke 2 is a little murkier because it at least occurs on the temple grounds (in the Court of the Women, naturally), but it’s hard to imagine that the chief priests would have allowed a woman (of the tribe of Asher, no less!) to address a temple assembly.  The best reading of the text is that Anna is going from worshiper to worshiper, telling them the good news. 

Clearly, prophesying outside of an assembly was something that God’s prophetesses could do and did.  On the other hand, we have no examples of a woman prophesying in an assembly in either the Old or the New Testament.  Those with a mind to use 1 Corinthians 11 to overturn 1 Corinthians 14 may object, but the best reading of the text is that the Corinthian prophetesses were out-of-the-assembly prophetesses too.  Thus, the passage poses no obstacle to the plain meaning of 14:34-35.

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