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The Problem with Stumbling Blocks

Monday, June 22, 2020

Like all the gospels, Mark is not written for everyone.  Those who come to it casually, not willing to invest the effort to understand, will remain ignorant.  Only those who doggedly pursue enlightenment will—eventually—figure things out.

This is certainly the case with Mark 9:38-50.  At first glance, this context appears to contain four unrelated sections:  the story of the man casting out demons in the name of Jesus (9:38-41), a warning against leading others to fall away (9:42), a warning about what we must be willing to sacrifice for eternal life (9:43-48), and a weird discussion about salt (9:49-50). 

However, as is often the case in Mark, these apparently unrelated subtopics are tied together by a common theme.  In fact, everything that Jesus says from 9:39 through the end of the chapter explains why He told John to leave the unfamiliar exorcist alone. 

His first point (9:39-41) is that anyone who does good while operating under the authority of Jesus is good.  Indeed, those who help the workers of righteousness, even by giving them a cup of water in the name of Jesus, will be remembered too.  Sadly, though, that’s not the only way that we can treat such people.  We also can make them stumble (9:42)—by discouraging them, for instance—and if we do, we will be punished rather than rewarded.

In Matthew 5, Jesus’ cut-off-body-parts discussion is appended to His condemnation of lust.  Here, though, it’s directed at a different heart problem—in context, the evil desires that make us want to interfere with those who are doing God’s work.  There are many reasons why we might want to do this.  It could be, as in John’s case, that the worker doesn’t come from the “approved” group of workers.  It could be that we don’t like the way they’re doing the work.  It could be that we think we should get to control them.  Regardless, the Lord wants us to see that being a stumbling block will cause us to meet a horrifying fate.  Nowhere else in Scripture is the ultimate punishment for sin described as graphically as it is here!

Interestingly, in v. 49-50, Jesus describes the fires of hell as having a salting effect.  I think that here, as elsewhere, salt refers to palatability, especially palatability to God.  In other words, the sin of being a stumbling block leaves a bad taste in God’s mouth, and the only thing that can get that taste out of His mouth is the punishment of the sinner.  We’re supposed to encourage one another—that tastes good to God—but if we go through life discouraging one another instead, nothing can salvage us.  It is much better for us to be salty people who are at peace with one another.

Sadly, the need for this teaching has not declined over the past 2000 years.  It’s still true that so-called disciples of Christ have a bad habit of hindering the work of other disciples.  This shows up in those cross-grained folks who have it in for the preacher and criticize and oppose him at every turn.  It appears in the fossilized pew-sitters who squelch the zeal of the new convert because they “aren’t doing it right”.  It flourishes in those who know in their hearts that they could do a better job of leading singing than the song leader, a better job of teaching class than the Bible-class teacher, and a better job of leading the church than the elders.  Somehow, these convictions always end up revealing themselves somewhere, and there are many thousands of Christians who sit on the sidelines because some brother or sister told them they didn’t belong on the field.

When it comes to others’ work for the Lord, our work is simple.  Support.  Encourage.  Praise.  Help.  Don’t say anything critical unless we’ve thought about it and are 100 percent sure that our critique will be received gratefully.  When we find ourselves in the role of the discourager and the stumbling block instead, we endanger our souls.

Believing the Best About Other Christians

Friday, June 19, 2020

I’ve stayed out of the online debate about how churches should respond to the coronavirus, and whether churches that assemble are more righteous than churches that don’t (or vice versa).  As far as I am concerned, this is a marvelous opportunity to honor the great Scriptural principle of congregational autonomy.  If we all mind our own business, Facebook will be a quieter, happier place.

However, I did see an argument advanced that I thought was worthy of further consideration.  Somebody online, I don’t remember who, opined that continued suspension of services was a problem because many Christians would get out of the habit of assembling and never come back.  I don’t think that’s true.  From what I see, the vast majority of Christians assemble because they want to, not out of habit.  Those who stop assembling because of coronavirus isolation probably would have stopped assembling soon anyway.

The argument does reveal, though, a lamentable tendency among brethren—a mistrust of other Christians’ moral capacity and goodwill.  We can’t trust them to figure out the right thing to do, or to do it if they did figure it out, so we have to figure it out for them and manipulate or coerce them into doing it.

I think this is what is behind, for instance, the “conservative” conception of modesty.  In 1 Timothy 2, Paul instructs Christian women to be modest, supplies a few examples that have to do with costly rather than revealing clothing (not normally a preoccupation of brethren today), and then leaves it to the sisters to determine what modest dress means for themselves.

However, some today are not content to leave modesty where Paul left it.  From the Scriptural principle, they draw their own conclusions about appropriate hemline height and neckline depth, using some truly obscure passages (Exodus 28:42, anyone?) to bolster their arguments.  To them, these conclusions have the same force as, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and woe betide the woman who shows up at church with a 23-inch skirt instead of a 24-inch skirt!

I believe that those who make such arguments sincerely believe that they have to, that without such explicit, concrete application, the women of the church are foolish and ungodly enough that they won’t reach the right result on their own.  Here too, I disagree, not merely with the result, but also with the mode of thinking behind it. 

Fundamentally, the churches of Christ exist because of the conviction that individual Christians are competent to understand and apply the Scriptures for themselves.  If we don’t think that’s true, if we believe instead that most brethren are not willing and able to figure out what pleases God on their own, we might as well give it up and join the denomination of our choice! 

What’s more, when church leaders insist on doing all the thinking for their people, even if the sign out front says “church of Christ”, within, a denominational spirit predominates.  The Bible is no longer the authority.  The church leader is.

Second, those who are so skeptical about others would do well to turn their skepticism on themselves.  All of us have our moments of foolishness and ill will.  All of us grapple with the temptation to determine our conclusion first and twist the Scriptures to fit.  When we disagree with someone else’s conclusion, then, rather than seeking to impose ours on them, we first must humbly re-examine our own thinking.  Even after we have done so, we must accord their views the respect we desire for our own.

I recognize that to some, this vision of Christianity will seem unbearably chaotic.  You will end up going to church with people with whom you disagree.  On the basis of their different conclusions, they will say and do things that make you uncomfortable.  Where is the 1 Corinthians 1:10 unity in that???

We must remember, though, that Jesus prayed for His people to become one rather than expecting them to start that way.  Greater unity in local congregations must come from below, as we grow in understanding and love for one another, rather than being imposed from the top. 

Top-down unity, though appealing, is brittle.  It relies on church leaders silencing or driving out those who disagree, which doesn’t sound much like John 17 or 1 Corinthians 1 either.  Instead, we are called to believe the best about one another, speak truth in love, and be patient.  That way, over time, those who are in error will be called to grow beyond their mistaken conclusions.

Maybe we will be the ones who will do the growing.

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.

Sometimes a Light Surprises

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises
With healing in His wings.
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining
To cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God's salvation
And find it ever new.
Set free from present sorrow, 
We cheerfully can say
"Let the unknown tomorrow
"Bring with it what it may."

It can bring with it nothing
But He will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe His people too.
Beneath the spreading heavens
No creature but is fed,
And He who feeds the ravens
Will give His children bread.

Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there,
Yet God the same abideth;
His praise shall tune my voice,
For, while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

--William Cowper, 1779

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.

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