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Everybody Thinks There's a Pattern

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Since I started blogging about five years ago now, I’ve been exposed to a wide range of religious commentary on my blog feed and Facebook page.  Some of it has been thoughtful and enlightening; some of it, um, gives me the opportunity to engage with ideas with which I disagree.  In the latter category, I would put the following commentary on my instrumental-music sermon, forwarded by a reader:

While I don’t agree with instruments in worship, this line of thought is legalism.

1. Take a concept (follow the pattern)
2. Seek to find the guidelines (command, example, necessary inference) within the NT that backup the concept
3. Make it law
4. Impose that law on everyone else
5. Ridicule others that don’t follow your concept

Pharisees did it ALL the time.

There are certainly some questions that come to mind when I read this (“Other than the conviction that it’s unlawful, why on earth would one disagree with instruments in worship?”).  However, rather than chasing those bunny trails, I want to address the main critique:  that interpreting the Bible in order to discover a pattern of right conduct is legalism. 

The thing is, though, that literally everybody who is a Christian will, at least to some degree, interpret the Bible in order to discover a pattern of right conduct.  There are certainly those who pick and choose the parts of the Bible they like with all the fussiness of a three-year-old at a vegetable buffet, but even those people will point to some things in the Bible and say, “You have to do that.”

For instance, let’s say that I wanted to found the First Aryan Church of Christ (note to readers:  I do not actually want to do this; it’s an illustration.).  I know that Jesus was white like me (I’ve seen the pictures!), I don’t like Jews and black people much, so I’m going to start me up a church where folks like that aren’t welcome.

I’m pretty sure that if I advanced my scheme to self-professed Christians all across the religious spectrum, I wouldn’t get, “Hey, bro; you do you.”  I’d get an indignant, “You can’t do that!”  I’d hear about how we’re supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves, I’d hear about how there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ, and so on.

All of those arguments, though, would take the form described above.  They would presume the existence of a Scriptural pattern for people to follow, use command, example, and inference to interpret Scripture (we have to infer that Galatians 3:28 is about black people too), and define that interpretation as binding on others.

Everybody (nearly everybody, anyway) agrees that we need to follow the teachings of Jesus and His apostles when it comes to racism.  Why, then, are the teachings of Jesus and His apostles not relevant, indeed central, when it comes to worshiping Him?  How do you distinguish between reasoning from the Scripture in Galatians 3:28 and reasoning from the Scripture in Colossians 3:16?

“Legalism” is an epithet to conjure with these days, but it doesn’t boil down to anything more than, “You’re doing what I do with some passages to other passages where I don’t think you should.”  Here, I think, is where we find the genuine Pharisee:  not in the one who zealously seeks to follow the whole law of God, but in the one who honors some parts while neglecting others. 

Unless, of course, Matthew 23:23 isn’t one of those Scriptures we’re supposed to reason from.

Grace and the Self-Defense Debate

Friday, January 17, 2020

A few weeks ago, in the wake of the West Freeway shooting, I put up a blog post that argued that Christians have the right to defend themselves from murderous criminals.  To my complete lack of surprise, this proved controversial.  Everybody kept their comments civil, so I wasn’t bothered by that (though I did, as per my usual practice, refuse invitations to engage in prolonged exchanges). 

I was more concerned, though, by the brethren who expressed their viewpoint so strongly that they revealed incomprehension of why anybody else might believe differently.  I think this is a problematic way to handle a difficult subject.

There certainly are things in Scripture that are easy to understand.  I can start with a dozen different passages and end up proving the necessity of baptism for forgiveness of sins, and anybody who disagrees inevitably finds themselves in the position of explaining away the Bible rather than explaining the Bible. 

However, the legitimacy of self-defense isn’t like that.  At first, the application of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:39 appears straightforward, but I found that the more I studied, the less straightforward the issue became.  The very thrust of Jesus’ ministry appeared to limit the scope of His words.

Certainly, historical views of the interaction between Christianity and violence are all over the map.  Some of the Ante-Nicene Fathers argued that it was wrong even for Christians to hold government office or serve in the military, while Augustine formulated a politico-religious doctrine for justifying war. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, when brethren today find themselves disagreeing.  Often, this disagreement is based as much on moral intuition as on Scriptural reasoning.  Some brethren find the thought of a Christian preparing to kill someone else (even to defend the lives of others) repugnant, while others find the thought of passively watching the slaughter of innocents to be equally repugnant.

Frankly, both perspectives make a great deal of sense to me.  My own convictions (which are still evolving) have ranged from my current position to out-and-out pacifism.  Additionally, I think the whole debate reveals the power of sin in others to rob us of good choices.  In a world that contains church shooters, we are compelled to take one troubling position or the other, but it would be much better to live in a world without church shooters.

These are complicated matters, and for as long as the world continues, I don’t expect God’s people to be able to come to a consensus.  There are many other issues like this.  Therefore, we must learn to judge for ourselves while respecting the legitimacy of the views of those who judge differently.  It is not unthinkable for a Christian to be opposed to all violence, nor is it unthinkable for a Christian to resolve to defend innocents from mortal danger.  The better we learn to understand and honor the views of our brethren, the more useful and peaceful our lives will be.

Self-Defense and Public Order

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Like most brethren, I’ve been transfixed by the tragic events this past Sunday at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, TX.  I mourn the deaths of both the guilty and the innocent, but I salute the courage of the members of the security team who put their own lives at risk to ensure that no more innocents would die.

I suspect that most Christians feel as I do.  Intuitively, we sense that a man who kills in order to protect others from a criminal has done no wrong.  Like a shepherd, he is defending the flock from wolves. 

Nonetheless, our feelings aren’t enough to decide the matter.  We also must reckon with the Scriptural witness on the subject.  Previously, I’ve both written and preached that Jesus’ famous commandment to “turn the other cheek” should be read narrowly, with reference to persecution by the Roman government.  It does not address defending ourselves from criminals.  In fact, at several points, other Biblical arguments assume that people will practice self-defense.

However, that leaves another question.  What about the many times in the book of Acts when Paul and others are attacked by angry anti-Christian mobs that aren’t part of the government?  We don’t see Christians fighting back against the mobs either.  Doesn’t that imply that Paul and the others were pacifists?

The behavior of Paul in Acts 16 and elsewhere is consistent with pacifism, but that’s not the only reasonable explanation.  Throughout the New Testament, in numerous passages, Christians are told to live in a peaceable, quiet way that will bring respect from outsiders.  This makes the gospel more attractive (the kind of people who will submit their lives to Christ generally don’t appreciate disturbance of the peace), but it also protected early Christianity from being crushed by the government. 

The early church had its troubles with both Jewish and Roman officials, but those troubles would have been much worse if the first-century church had developed a reputation for provoking and participating in public disorder.  Gamaliel would not have spoken up to save the apostles in Acts 5 if there had been blood in the streets.  Paul would not have been able to defend himself before Felix in Acts 24 if he had been stirring up more trouble by fighting back.  His defense in 24:12 is based on the fact that he didn’t.

The logic of 1 Timothy 6:1 applies here too.  Disobedient Christian servants and unruly Christian brawlers both lead to the doctrine of Christ being spoken against.  The reputation of the church is more important even than our own lives, and we should act accordingly.

By contrast, Christians protecting their own from murderers does not bring the doctrine of Christ into disrepute.  The opposite is true.  I’ve seen nothing but praise for the West Freeway members who stopped the shooter in six seconds flat. 

Indeed, if all such incidents were resolved so quickly, I suspect there would be many fewer shooters.  Killing sheep appeals to cowards, and shooters are cowards.  Fighting guard dogs doesn’t.

We are responsible for submitting to the government that God has put in place, and we cannot participate in public disorder.  However, the Bible also calls us to be wise in an evil age.  The death toll at West Freeway is heartbreaking, but it could have been much worse.  I am thankful for those whose foresight ensured that it would not be, and I think that all churches will do well to imitate their example.

Both/and Sins and Modesty

Friday, December 20, 2019

Several weeks ago, I stumbled across one of those online debates on modesty that have become drearily familiar since the advent of social media.  On the one hand, you have the don’t-dress-like-a-hussy folks who claim that women who dress in revealing clothing make men lust after them.  On the other hand, you have the I-can-dress-however-I-want people who retort that those nasty men need to keep their eyes and their thoughts to themselves.  On and on it goes, with both sides talking at rather than talking to each other.

The problem is that the whole conversation reflects an ethical blind spot.  For some reason, we want to pin the blame on either the scantily-clad woman or the lustful man without acknowledging that in that scenario, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

First of all, it’s undeniably true that women (and men, though all the New-Testament modesty passages are addressed specifically to women) need to dress modestly, in a way that draws attention to their virtues rather than their assets.  This is true whether those assets are wealth (as is the case in 1 Timothy 2) or a healthy young body.  Any woman of God who dresses (whether intentionally or unintentionally) in a way that attracts notice to her outside rather than her inside is doing wrong.

The same is true of the man who looks with lust on a woman (or anybody who looks with lust on anybody else).  As per Matthew 5:28, that’s committing adultery in your heart.  It’s black-letter sin.

Both of these things are true regardless of what anybody else does.  A woman who dresses inappropriately has still done wrong even if all the men in her vicinity are godly and take up an examination of the ceiling tiles rather than her costume.  On the other side of the coin, a man who chooses to lust after women who are modestly attired still has done wrong too.

Neither party becomes less culpable simply because someone else also is behaving badly.  Yes, O immodestly dressed woman, that icky gross man needs to quit fantasizing about you, but you need to start taking your fashion cues from the Lord, not the world.  Yes, O lustful man (or indignant female relative of lustful man), she shouldn’t be dressing like that, but even if every woman on the planet starts parading around stark naked, their choices do not justify your lust!

In short, when it comes to modesty and lust, all of us need to stop worrying so much about what others are doing and start worrying about what we ourselves are doing.  The decisions of others may make it harder for us to be righteous, but they cannot make it less imperative.  We need to make sure that our clothing reveals Christ instead of ourselves, and we also must make sure that He reigns in our hearts instead of sin.  Looking to excuse our sin because of the sin of others will get us nowhere.

David, Goliath, and Spiritual Gifts

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Recently, one of the brethren at Jackson Heights preached a sermon on David and Goliath.  Though this is a familiar topic, he began it in an unusual way.  He prefaced his discussion of the events of 1 Samuel 17 by reading 1 Samuel 16:13.  He noted that from the time of his anointing, David was a spiritually gifted young man.

I think it’s likely that David’s giftedness had a far greater impact on his encounter with Goliath than we normally credit.  Perhaps the problem is that we limit our awareness of spiritual gifts to the named gifts of the New Testament:  tongues, prophecy, and so forth.  David certainly was a prophet, but that didn’t help him a whole lot with his giant problem!

However, the Old Testament reveals that spiritual gifts could have physical dimensions.  Most notably, Samson was a man who was able to do great feats of strength through the Spirit of the Lord.  Similarly, in 1 Kings 18, Elijah is able to outrun Ahab in his chariot because “the hand of the Lord” was upon him.

David makes similarly impressive claims about his own divinely bestowed abilities in the Psalms.  In Psalm 18:29, he claims the ability to charge and defeat large groups of enemies and to leap over walls.  Vs. 33-34 claim that he has received the gifts of surefootedness, battle training, and superhuman strength from God.  Claims like these appear in other Davidic psalms.

Traditionally, I’ve read these things as poetic license, hyperbole.  Perhaps not.  In fact, in light of David’s resume claims in 1 Samuel 17:34-37, probably not.  There, David discusses his ability to fight and kill multiple lions and bears in defense of his father’s flock. 

On our recent family vacation out West, I saw two bears.  I saw them from a great distance, and I was quite happy about that.  Bears are big, fast, tough, and designed by God to kill animals about the size of a human being.  I have no interest in fighting a bear with anything less than a large-caliber firearm.  Ditto for lions.

David, on the other hand, as a kid, is challenging, fighting, and killing lions and bears up-close and personal.  He is grabbing the lion and the bear under the chin with one hand and hitting it over the head until it dies with the other.  He’s not doing this with a sword or an axe.  He’s doing it with a stick.

That ain’t natural, folks. 

In short, it seems likely that David was already a supernaturally enhanced warrior by the time of his trip to the valley of Elah, and he knew it.  What’s more, all the Israelites who heard his story and believed him knew it too.  They were a lot savvier about what was and was not possible in hand-to-hand combat than we are. 

For that matter, despite the fame of David’s use of the sling, I doubt things would have gone a whole lot differently if David had closed with Goliath instead.  A bear can probably take as much punishment as an economy-sized armored human, and both the lion and the bear are faster.  Goliath taunted David for treating him like a dog, but David likely would have beaten him like a dog.

All of this puts a different spin on the narrative of David’s faith in this story.  Certainly David spoke and acted as a young man of faith.  However, his faith was neither foolish nor unfounded.  He knew that God could help him to do things no other man could do, he had experienced God’s help, and he was confident that God would help him again. 

Today, God calls us to a faith that is similarly well reasoned.  If we rush blindly into X, confident that God will help us to do X even though He has given no indication of it, we probably will get what we deserve.  However, if we study His work and His promises and act accordingly, like David, we will find that He will not fall short of what He has promised.

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