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Lawful Neutral Christianity

Friday, March 12, 2021

DISCLAIMER:  I am a huge dork.  Do not feel the need to inform me of this because of this post.  I already know.

The other day, I found myself explaining the intricacies of Dungeons & Dragons to a couple of Christians who had never played before.  Among other things, we discussed D&D’s alignment system.  In D&D, every character has one of nine alignments.  These describe their attitude toward good versus evil along one axis and law versus chaos along the other. 

As I was setting this out, one of these Christians asked me to explain the difference between the Lawful Good alignment and the Lawful Neutral alignment.  I told him that Lawful Good characters view the laws of society as a tool for bringing about justice and benefiting everyone, whereas Lawful Neutral characters look on law as an end in and of itself.  You follow the law Just Because.

He replied, “Oh; so Lawful Neutral is the way that some people think the church is.”

The more I thought about that, the more I decided it was worth exploring.  Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Lawful Neutral Christianity is not merely a perception of the church that others hold.  Instead, it represents a trap for us.

On the D&D moral axis, our lawfulness is undeniable.  “Do all in the name of the Lord,” we say, and we proceed to explain that in the context of Colossians 3:17, “name” means “authority”.  From that, it is easy to conclude that obedience to the authority of Christ is all that matters.  Thus, we need to marshal our arguments in such a way as to compel even the unwilling to obedience.  Every i must be dotted; every t must be crossed, whether you want to or not.

The problem is, though, that the New Testament doesn’t present itself as a Lawful Neutral system of ethics.  What underlies the law of Christ is not obedience, but love.  As Paul says in Romans 13:9, every commandment can be summed up in, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Rightly understood, every ordinance of God is an expression of love for somebody.  They exist not because God’s call to love is inadequate, but because our understanding of love is.  We are foolish and easily deceived, so we are prone to mistake selfishness for love.  By leading us to reject behavior that appeals to us but really is unloving, the commandments keep us on the path of godliness.

Because Christianity’s moral code is love-dependent, in the absence of love, it falls apart.  If you take love out of Christianity, you end up with Pharisaism or even worse.  Thus, Christian ethics always must be accepted internally rather than imposed externally.  If we make somebody go through the motions of loving God and others when they don’t share that love, all we have done is to create a hypocrite.

Lawful Neutral Christianity is seductive.  All of us have known the desire to compel someone else to be righteous, to beat them over the head with the Bible enough that they give in.  However, unless love is present, righteousness never will be.  The gospel cannot penetrate the hard hearts of the unwilling, but in those who desire to follow Jesus, it will produce not merely lawfulness, but goodness.

It's Not Just a Sin. It's a Crime

Monday, March 08, 2021

There are few evils that appall the soul more than the sexual abuse of children.  Most Christians find the thought so monstrous, so incredible, that they struggle to entertain the possibility that someone they know, someone they worship with, someone they think is a decent human being, might do such a thing.  Sadly, the problem is all too real.  As is true in any church, indeed in any organization that brings adults into contact with children, sexual predators have preyed on children in churches of Christ.

Sometimes, congregations have handled sexual abuse appropriately.  Too often, they have not.  Victims have not been believed because “Brother So-and-So would never do anything like that!”  Church leaders have tried to resolve the situation using the Matthew 18 process.  At its conclusion, they have required victims to continue worshiping with their abusers.  All of these errors have taken a toll of alienation, heartbreak, and too often continued predation.

Perhaps the root of the problem is that because we recognize sexual abuse as sexual sin, we presume that it ought to be treated only as sexual sin.  This is a mistake.  In every jurisdiction in the United States, sexual abuse is not only a sin.  It also is a crime. 

It makes for grim reading, but the penal code of the state of Tennessee clearly sets out every form of sexual abuse and exploitation of children as at least a Class C felony.  Thus, when confronted with an accusation of sexual abuse, we shouldn’t only be thinking Matthew 18.  We should be thinking Romans 13.

Romans 13 first applies to our duty to report.  I’ve been saying for years that preachers are mandated reporters, that we have a duty to report all credible accusations of child abuse to the proper authorities. 

In fact, that’s not true.  In Tennessee, everyone is a mandated reporter.  The Bible class teacher who hears a shocking story from one of her students, the church member who sees inappropriate contact, all must bring these things to the attention of the government.  God and Caesar have taken this decision out of our hands.

Indeed, even if the law did not require this of us, submitting evidence of sexual abuse to police investigation is the right thing to do.  This is true for two reasons.  First, although law enforcement is by no means perfect, they at least have been trained to conduct sexual-abuse investigations, which most of the rest of us have not.  They know what signs to look for and what questions to ask.

This expertise can protect the innocent as well as the guilty.  I’m aware of a case in which a well-meaning but clumsy and foolish ministry staff decided that they were going to go hunting for signs of sexual abuse among the children of their congregation.  In their ineptitude, they took a child’s innocent comment and transformed it into a claim of sexual abuse, putting a blameless family through months of suffering.

Can police investigations do the same thing?  Absolutely.  All human beings can fail in judgment and make mistakes.  The point of training, though, is to keep such mistakes to a minimum.

Second, having outsiders conduct the investigation limits the scope of the bias of the members.  When someone we know and love stands accused of despicable behavior, all of us will face a strong temptation to close our eyes to the evidence in front of us.  It is much easier to believe that a child is a liar than that a brother or sister in Christ is a monster.

In reality, only about 5 percent of accusations of sexual abuse are false.  Given the social cohesiveness of most churches of Christ and the crushing social penalties that would be meted out against those who have brought false accusations, I would imagine that the rate of such accusations in our brotherhood is even lower.  It is much more likely that even the preacher or the elder is a predator than it is that the child who has spoken up is lying.

After the investigation, after all the evidence has been brought to light, then it is appropriate to consider what spiritual steps ought to be taken against the accused.  Again, beware of bias!  We need to be honest enough to acknowledge that the Christian who has been convicted of sexual abuse almost certainly is a sexual abuser, even if we ourselves don’t see it.  I have shared some thoughts about the Matthew 18 process in such cases and its results here.

All of us would prefer to live in a world in which sexual abuse of children did not exist.  Tragically, that is not the world in which we do live, and the reach of the devil in this area extends even into the Lord’s church.  We cannot keep evil from happening, but we can keep it from flourishing.  Showing no tolerance for sexual exploitation and swiftly bringing it to the attention of the authorities is our best hope for protecting our children as much as possible.

NOTE:  This is an area in which all brethren of whatever doctrinal persuasion can and must agree.  If you would like to comment below on your own experience of sexual abuse, or to sit in mourning with those who have, that’s entirely appropriate.  If you would like to discuss the article or explore other ways to make our churches safe for our children, this is the place.  However, I will not allow the discussion to be derailed by ungodly or off-topic comments.

Did Jesus Sin When He Touched the Leper?

Thursday, February 25, 2021

A few weeks ago, I got a request for a blog post on the issue raised in the title.  The question, of course, arises from the story described in Mark 1:40-44 and Luke 5:12-14.  The fact pattern here is simple.  A leper comes to Jesus (apparently in a town, where the leper shouldn’t have been) and asks Him to cleanse Him.  Jesus agrees, touches him, and cleanses him.  Was Jesus wrong to do so?

Here, we kind of already know the answer.  Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus was without sin, so obviously He didn’t sin in his interactions with the leper.  OK, but why not?

Though I hardly qualify as an expert on Old Testament purity laws, three lines of argument suggest themselves.  The first is that intentionally touching a leper doesn’t appear to be specifically condemned in the Law.  Unintentionally touching a leper (or any other human uncleanness) is, in Leviticus 5:3. 

In Numbers 19:11-22, elaborate rules are provided for those who intentionally touch a corpse, but no corresponding ordinances exist for intentionally touching a leper.  This may be because a leper who is isolating himself as per Leviticus 13:45-46 is not going to be touched by anyone anyway.  Who would chase down a leper for the joy of touching him?  Thus, the leper in Luke 5 would have sinned by going into the city, but Jesus would not have sinned by choosing to touch Him.

Second, it may be that Jesus is asserting His priestly status by touching the leper.  During the purification ritual of Leviticus 14:10-20, the priest touches the leper in multiple ways before the leper becomes ceremonially clean (he already had been declared clean from infection in Leviticus 14:9).  Clearly, priests could touch lepers.  Though Jesus was not a priest under the Law, He was a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, and His willingness to touch the leper may hint at that.

Finally, and most intriguingly, Jesus may be indicating His special status.  The usual rule for holiness, as per Haggai 2:10-12, was that it could not be communicated.  That which touched a holy thing did not itself become holy.  However, the Law provides three exceptions to the rule:  the tabernacle and its furnishings (Exodus 30:26-29), the grain offering (Leviticus 7:18), and the sin offering (Leviticus 7:27).  All of those did communicate holiness to that which touched them.

On its face, the communication of holiness is what happens in the story of Jesus and the leper.  Jesus touches the leper, but instead of the leper making Jesus unclean (at least, there is no Scriptural evidence that this happened), Jesus made the leper clean (which the Scripture explicitly says did happen).  Under the terms of the Law, this implies the presence of at least one of the three exceptions listed above.

Indeed, in Jesus’ case, all three exceptions are present.  His body was the tabernacle of the Word among us (John 1:18).  He is the bread of life, the true food of the faithful (John 6:47-51).  Finally, He is the ultimate sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:10-12).  Thus, before the threefold holiness that He possesses, even leprosy could not remain unclean.

Accepting God's Value for Us

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The other day, I received a Facebook message from a Christian that said in part, “Possible idea for article.. addressing self hate when you’re a Christian. When you feel you’re not worthy of love, it can be hard to accept that God loves you and you’re not all the awful things you tell yourself in your mind, but also you want to have a healthy balance of self awareness and not being *too easy on yourself??”

To start with, let me say that receiving this message from this kind of Christian is both shocking and predictable.  Even judging by human standards, the author (whom I will not identify) has a lot going for them.  No one who knows them would assess them as being the least bit deficient in either gifts or godliness. 

However, it’s often people like that, top-tier Christians who are well loved, who paradoxically struggle the most with feelings of being unlovable.  Indeed, their life of good works is commonly the result of a doomed attempt to prove that they are worthy.  Their inevitable failure to do everything perfectly becomes yet another source of guilt and self-loathing.

Not that I would ever struggle with this myself, of course.

To such a person, the grace of God, properly understood, ought to become the most precious thing imaginable.  In Christ, we don’t have to do anything to prove ourselves to be worthy of love.  Instead, it is Christ Himself who has proved that we are worthy by dying for each of us.

His lifeblood is a thing of infinite value, and as any mathematician will tell you, infinity divided by any finite number remains infinite.  The tiniest portion of Christ’s blood, applied or even potentially applied to us, declares each of us to be a being of infinite worth.

Nor should we think that God overpaid.  In His infinite wisdom, He did not put a price on us that was more than we were worth.  He knows us better than we know ourselves, and His assessment must be right.  When He priced us at the cost of the precious blood of Jesus, He merely revealed the intrinsic value that every human soul had held since the beginning.

This is true for me.  It’s true for my correspondent.  It’s true for every human being that ever has existed.  None of us can do anything to prove that we are worthy of love.  All of us are worthy simply because of who we are.  No matter how greatly we sin, no matter how deeply we defile ourselves, no matter what anyone else does to us, we remain beings created in the image and likeness of God.  We remain beings whom the Son of God was willing to redeem with the payment of His mortal anguish. 

Of course we should strive to serve.  Of course we should strive to be holy.  However, we should not think that doing so must or even can add to our value in any way.  That’s both unnecessary and impossible.  Instead, we obey because we are moved by joy and gratitude for what we have received, for the One who has shown us who we truly are and has done so incomprehensibly much for us.

Fear and False Doctrine

Thursday, February 18, 2021

As nearly every preacher with a brain has observed, the response to false doctrine too often is itself false doctrine.  Just because Johann Tetzel promised works-based salvation through the sale of indulgences does not mean that you should conclude that salvation is by faith alone, without any human interaction.  Instead, the Scriptures commonly call us to more nuanced convictions that hold two paradoxical truths in tension.

Consider, for instance, opposition among brethren to the Calvinist doctrine of eternal security, also known as perseverance of the saints, the P in TULIP.  Countless sermons have been preached (by me, among many others) examining the passages that show that falling away is indeed possible.  Hebrews 6:4-8, holla!

So far, so true.  However, in focusing on the passages that highlight the holes in Calvinism, we have not paid equal attention to the passages that Calvinists like to use, which are no less true than Hebrews 6.  They interfere with the clarity of the message we want to promote, so rather than explaining them, we explain them away.  Yes, we are saved by grace through faith BUT WE STILL HAVE TO BE BAPTIZED.  Yes, no one can snatch us out of the hand of Jesus BUT WE CAN STILL FALL AWAY.

It certainly is true that we must be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins and that we must live faithfully thereafter.  However, a distorted emphasis on those truths at the expense of others leads us to a distorted view of our own salvation and our relationship with God.

This view maximizes the importance of right action and minimizes grace and the mercy of God.  No longer is He a God who longs to have compassion on us, who lavishes on us the riches of His grace.  Instead, He becomes a God who is a spiritual miser. 

He yields His grace reluctantly, always asking, “Can’t you do better?”  He watches our spiritual journey with gimlet eyes, and as soon as we set a toe over the line (“Even now it may be that the line you have crossed!”), wham!   Down comes the executioner’s axe!  Severed from Christ, fallen from grace, toast.

The spiritual and emotional consequences of this distortion are profound.  I know brethren who are wonderful A-list Christians yet nonetheless spend their lives staggering under the weight of fear and guilt.  “What if I haven’t done enough?” they ask. 

They sense, correctly, that they haven’t done enough.  No one has or ever will.  The problem is that they’re looking for justification in the wrong place.  Our sufficiency is not in ourselves.  It is in Christ.  We are not reliable, but He is, and because He is, we can contemplate the future with confidence and hope.

Rather than being so concerned about defeating false doctrine, we instead should open our mind to the full truth of the word.  Yes, it contains warnings, and those should concern us.  However, it also contains promises, and from those we should take great comfort.

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