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Scriptural Silence and the Burden of Proof

Thursday, July 11, 2019

 

In my life, I’ve had training in logic from two main sources:  the church and my secular education.  The further I progressed, the more I realized that the same principles were taught in both settings.  I used the same canons of logic in formal debate and law school that I saw preachers use in establishing Biblical authority.

Admittedly, the Lord’s church has developed its own weird (and unhelpful) jargon over the past 200-odd years.  Nobody else talks about direct command, approved example, and necessary implication.  Because of this, many brethren have concluded that we’re doing something logically unsound.  In reality, the jargon is nothing more than a mask over universal principles of reasoning.  We reach the same conclusions that anyone who engages the text logically will reach.

Take, for instance, what we call the silence of the Scriptures.  To the argument, “The Bible doesn’t say we can,” many will indignantly reply, “Well, the Bible doesn’t say we can’t either!”

That counterargument may be emotionally satisfying, but it has a fatal flaw.  It fails to consider who has the burden of proof.  Outside the realm of religion, that burden of proof is universally understood to lie with the affirmative. 

This holds true in formal debate.  The affirmative has the responsibility of establishing the truth of the resolution that is the subject of the debate.  That’s their burden of proof.  If they never make a prima facie case for the resolution, the negative wins by default, even if the negative doesn’t say a word.

In the same way, in criminal law, the prosecutor has the burden of proof.  He is required to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime.  That’s what lies behind the saying, “Innocent until proven guilty.” 

Conversely, the defense attorney is not required to establish the innocence of the accused in order to secure an acquittal.  His job is to poke holes in the prosecutor’s case until reasonable doubt exists.  This is why juries in such cases return a verdict of “Not guilty” instead of “Innocent”.  They don’t have to know that the accused is innocent; they merely have to doubt that he’s guilty.  A not-guilty verdict is another way of saying, “The prosecutor didn’t meet his burden of proof.”

The silence of the Scriptures is a burden-of-proof argument too.  Silence as such proves nothing.  However, if the Scriptures are silent concerning, say, the use of instruments of music by Christians in worship, that silence still is extremely significant.  It shows that advocates of instrumental music do not have the evidence they need to argue their case.  They will fail not because the silence of the Scriptures is dispositive, but because silence means that they will be unable to meet their burden of proof.  In emphasizing Scriptural silence, we are skipping analytical steps, but the conclusions we reach are sound.

My answer, then, to those who want to introduce some new practice is the same as the answer of the negative in a debate.  It is the same as the answer of the defense attorney.  You say that this is right?  Fine.  Prove it. 

If, instead, you try to hold me responsible for proving a negative, you are implicitly acknowledging that your case is impossible to make.

Re-Creating the Corinthian Church

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

 

I’m currently in a Sunday-morning Bible class that is studying 1 Corinthians.  As the teacher observed, if any church in the New Testament has a bad name, it is the church in Corinth.  Only the church in Sardis can compare, and we have much more information about the misdeeds of the Corinthian brethren.  In fact, Christians today will often use the problems of the church in Corinth as part of an appeal to church unity.  The argument goes, “If first-century Christians were supposed to stick it out in a rotten church like Corinth, we shouldn’t leave our not-nearly-as-rotten congregations today!”

Less frequently, though, do we pause to ask why the church in Corinth was the way it was.  We don’t see evidence of the same kind of problems in the church in Lystra, for instance, and I think it’s because the Lystran congregation wasn’t made up of the same kind of people. 

Many of the churches that Paul established had a high percentage of Jews and so-called God-fearers, Gentiles who believed in the God of Israel but weren’t willing to become proselytes because of the social implications of circumcision and food restrictions.  Thus, Paul could appoint elders in all of the churches of the first missionary journey almost immediately because many of the “new” converts had been living righteous lives for decades.

Not so in Corinth.  Unlike other accounts of evangelism success in Acts, Acts 18 does not mention large numbers of God-fearers obeying the gospel.  Some Jews did, but most remained hostile.  Instead, the Corinthian church contained significant numbers of people who came out of the wicked lifestyles mentioned in the doleful catalogue of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10:  the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, practitioners of homosexuality, and so forth. 

There is also evidence in 1 Corinthians that many Corinthian disciples were former members of pagan mystery cults who tried to import mystery-cult practices into the worship of Jesus.  Not surprisingly, elders do not appear in any of the Biblical accounts of Corinth.  The necessary baseline of spiritual maturity wasn’t present.

It is also hardly surprising when a church with many converts from the world with all kinds of baggage has serious problems.  However, let’s not miss the forest for the trees here.  Corinth was a church WITH MANY CONVERTS FROM THE WORLD.  Today, we may pride ourselves on how well behaved our congregations are compared to Corinth, but the good behavior is due to the near absence of new converts.

Here, I fear, is one of the underlying reasons for the near-universal failure of the Lord’s church in the United States to be evangelistically effective.  We have our nice little churches, full of nice people from the right social classes, and we don’t want to reach out to the have-nots with all kinds of lifestyle problems, even though they are the ones most likely to listen. 

Do you want to go to church with somebody who thinks incest is a grand idea?  Do you want to go to church with people who are so disputatious they sue each other left and right?  Do you want to go to church with people who view Christianity as a way to reject the rules of polite society?

Exactly.

If we want to re-create the first-century church, we have to be willing to re-create the Corinthian church.  Yes, dealing with converts with baggage can be horrendously frustrating (just ask Paul!), but if we want to have evangelistic success, we can’t go to the folks who think they’re well.  We have to go to the folks who know they’re sick.

Self-Defense and the Christian

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

 

Last week, I did something I’ve never done before.  I bought a firearm.  There were many reasons why I did this, but ultimately, it was because of my desire to protect my family if the need arose.

In making this decision, I had to reckon with the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-41.  For centuries, people have understood this passage to mean that it is wrong for Christians to use violence, even if they are defending themselves.  If that’s what the test requires, brethren, that’s what we have to do.  We can’t pretend like this passage doesn’t exist and do what we want anyway.  If we defend ourselves, and it’s against the will of Jesus, we are no different from anyone else who chooses to defy His will.

However, before we reach that point, we have to decide whether that is, in fact, what the text is saying.  Just a few verses up in Matthew 5, Jesus tells us to tear out our sinful eyes and cut off our sinful hands.  We know that isn’t meant to be literal, and it may well be that turning the other cheek doesn’t mean what it appears to mean either.  Let’s explore this issue as we consider self-defense and the Christian.

It’s appropriate to open this exploration by looking at some PROBLEMS WITH THE LITERAL READING.  Why shouldn’t we understand this text as a general prohibition of self-defense?  I see three issues with that reading, and the first of these is that it doesn’t correct the way that the Jews were misreading Scripture.

“An eye for an eye,” after all, is taken from the Law of Moses in Exodus 21:24, and in that context, it’s not about self-defense or even personal revenge at all.  Instead, it’s a standard for determining the severity of judicial punishment.  The Jews of Jesus’ time are taking this judicial standard and saying, “We have the right to dish out punishment ourselves.”  If “Turn the other cheek” is about self-defense, it does not correct this misreading of Scripture.  Instead, it is introducing an entirely new topic, and for Jesus, that would be extremely sloppy logic.

Second, this reading doesn’t fit with the rest of Jesus’ answer.  In Matthew 5, He spells out three ways that His disciples are not to resist evil:  by turning the other cheek, by not fighting lawsuits, and by going the second mile.  Of these three, the second two are about state action.  Famously, Roman soldiers had the right to compel peasants to carry their gear for one mile.  Similarly, lawsuits are part of the machinery of government, and just as they do today, rich people in Jesus’ time commonly used them to oppress the poor.  If the last two parts of Jesus’ answer concern the government in some way, that should at least leave us open to the possibility that turning the other cheek is about the government too.

Third, much of the rest of Jesus’ teaching presumes that people will defend themselves.  Look, for instance, at Luke 11:21-22.  This parable, of course, is not about self-defense, but it does reflect a cultural assumption that a strong man will fight to protect his home.  Jesus does not describe him negatively for doing this, as opposed to the unrighteous steward and the unjust judge in other parables.  Instead, He takes the strong man’s action for granted.

If the obvious reading is untenable, we need to look for A STRONGER READING instead.  A passage that will get us going in the right direction is Lamentations 3:25-30.  In context, of course, Jeremiah is mourning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the people being led off into captivity.  In that situation, his inspired advice is to submit to the Babylonians and wait for God to have mercy.  That’s what v. 27 is talking about when it says that it’s good for a man to bear the yoke.  As part of that, Jeremiah says, the Jews need to give their cheeks to those who are smiting them—the same idea that Jesus is promoting in Matthew 5. 

In fact, I believe that in Matthew 5, Jesus is quoting Lamentations 3.  He’s telling the Jews of His day to submit to an unjust Roman government in the same way that Jeremiah told the Jews of his day to submit to the unjust Babylonians.  “Turn the other cheek” is about submitting to the government.

This reading resolves all of the problems we identified earlier.  First, under this reading, Jesus is correcting the Jewish misunderstanding of Exodus 21.  He’s saying, “Don’t take the law into your own hands.  Honor the government, even when it is oppressive.”  Second, “Turn the other cheek,” now fits thematically with “Let them have your coat,” and “Go the second mile.”  All three now concern the disciple’s responsibilities to the government.  Finally, it does not call into question the accepted practice of defending one’s family and property from criminals.

Additionally, this ties into one of the major themes of Jesus’ ministry.  Among other reasons, God sent Jesus when He did as a last-ditch attempt to turn the Jews aside from a disastrous rebellion against Rome.  Jesus warns them repeatedly to seek a heavenly, not an earthly, kingdom.  If “Turn the other cheek,” is a warning against rebellion too, that fits perfectly.

This leaves us with THREE APPLICATIONS.  First, just as the Jews were not allowed to take revenge into their own hands and justify it by misapplying the Law, we aren’t allowed to take revenge into our own hands either.  Christians are supposed to be merciful and forgiving rather than vengeful.  If we have opportunity, we are to do good even to those who have done evil to us.  Punishing wrongdoing is God’s job and the government’s job, not ours.

Second, like God’s people in the first century, we are to submit to the government.  We are to honor the laws and pay our taxes, even when we believe those laws are unjust and the taxes are oppressive.  Certainly, our brethren 2000 years ago faced unjust laws and oppressive taxes to a degree we can hardly imagine, but they never took up arms against Roman tyranny. 

Sometimes, I hear people arguing that in our country, the Constitution is the true government, so we have the right to rebel against a government that has gone beyond the bounds of the Constitution.  Frankly, I think that’s sophistry.  As Peter says in 1 Peter 2, we are not merely to honor the law.  We are to honor the emperor.  The godly obey the man in charge, even if he’s as crazy and evil as Nero.  Of course, this is not true when the law directly contradicts the commandment of God.  Then, our responsibility is to obey God rather than men.

Finally, we have to make up our own minds about gun ownership and self-defense.  If Matthew 5 does not offer a clear command on the subject, we must be guided by our own conscience.  There’s no reason to criticize the Christian who resolves that they can never take life, no matter what, nor is there reason to criticize the Christian who is willing to kill to protect the life of another.  This is a decision that we must make thoughtfully and prayerfully, but if we do, whatever we choose will be to the glory of God.    

Summaries, Psalms 67-70

Monday, July 08, 2019

 

Psalm 67 calls all the nations to praise God.  It begins with an appeal to God to bless Israel so that all other nations can recognize His power.  This will give them reason to praise Him, an idea that is repeated as a “chorus” throughout the psalm.  The psalmist continues to observe that the nations should rejoice in God because He judges them righteously and guides them.  The psalm concludes by celebrating the recent good harvest and observing that God’s blessing of His people gives the nations reason to fear Him.

Psalm 68 is a war song written by David, probably as the Israelites are about to leave Jerusalem to fight against enemies from Bashan (northeast of the Sea of Galilee).  It opens by describing the totality of God’s victory over His enemies.  He will crush the wicked, and the righteous will praise Him for it.  He blesses the humble and provides rain for His people, but the rebellious will suffer drought.

From there, the focus shifts to the Israelite women (probably actual women in this assembly) who will rejoice in the good news and spoils of battle.  David then contrasts the rebellious mountain of Bashan with Mount Zion, where God dwells and leads His people victoriously (note that 68:18 is quoted in Ephesians 4:8).  He anticipates that God will completely defeat the rebels from Bashan.

After this, we see a recounting of the parade that is passing out of the gates of Jerusalem as the psalm is being sung:  singers and musicians, then contingents from Benjamin, Judah, Zebulun, and Naphtali.  The closing portion of the psalm appeals to God to punish the warmongers who have started this conflict, then calls all nations to praise Him.

Psalm 69 is another Davidic psalm, but is about a time of trouble instead.  In it, David compares his troubles to a flood.  His problem is the numerous people who hate him though he has done nothing wrong.  As a result, he appeals to God to punish them instead.

From there, David laments all of his troubles and says that their source is his devotion to God.  His enemies laugh at his godliness, but David continues to pray to God for help.  He pleads to God to rescue him and points out all the bad treatment he has received.  He asks God to return his tormentors’ malice on their own head.  He promises that if God will do this, he will praise Him and call all the earth to do likewise.

Many portions of this psalm prophetically anticipate the suffering of Jesus and are applied to Him in the New Testament, particularly vs. 4, 9, 21, and 25.

Psalm 70 is similar in content to its predecessor.  Once again, David is in trouble and wants God to deliver him and punish those who hate him.  In comparison, David asks for God to give those who seek Him reason to rejoice.  The psalm concludes with a plea for God to help him quickly.

Doing All Things Through Christ

Friday, July 05, 2019

 

There are some texts of Scripture that it seems nearly everyone knows.  They’ve made the leap to become part of popular culture.  One such text is the punch line to Philippians 4:11-13.  Our society idolizes success, and Philippians 4:13 appears to promise success in everything because Jesus will help.  I can remember my high school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes putting Philippians 4:13 on T-shirts.  My wife’s childbirth-class instructor suggested that women might want to repeat Philippians 4:13 when they were in labor, and so on.

All of that was very inspiring, no doubt, but is it really what the passage is about?  Is Paul telling us that Jesus is the gateway to achieving our earthly goals, or is his point different?  Here, as always, we need to tune out the cultural noise and ask what the Scriptures truly are saying.  Let’s turn our attention, then, to some passages that will help us understand what it means to do all things through Christ.

When we are determining whether Philippians 4:13 applies to what we are doing, we first must EVALUATE OUR GOAL.  Paul offers us a useful template for so doing in Colossians 3:1-2.  Notice that the distinction here isn’t between setting our minds on righteous things instead of things that are sinful.  It’s between setting our minds on things above instead of things that are on the earth.  This is important because it tells us that there are goals that aren’t sinful that are still earthly.  It’s OK for Christians to have goals like that, but they shouldn’t be where our minds are set.

This is the problem with applying Philippians 4:13 to scoring touchdowns or delivering children.  Contextually, the passage isn’t about being able to do whatever we want to because Jesus gives us superpowers.  It’s about doing what He wants us to do through the strength that He provides. 

In context in Philippians 4, Paul is not being given the strength to succeed.  He’s being given the strength to endure.  Jesus is helping him to be content despite not even having enough money to eat so that he can go on spreading the gospel.  That’s not something that most Americans would recognize as a success, but it was something that brought Paul closer to Christ.

So too for us.  Again, it’s fine for Christians to pursue earthly achievements, but those things should not be the pursuit of our lives.  Athletic success is fine, but not important.  Career success is fine, but not important. 

Instead, we ought to be concerned with the triumphs of the spirit.  How am I doing in my battle against secret sin?  Am I becoming more compassionate and merciful in my dealings with others?  Am I, like Paul, patiently enduring suffering for the Lord’s sake?  Those are the things that we should be looking to accomplish through the strength that Christ gives us.  They never will shine on our resumes, but they are the kinds of things that get recorded in the book of life.

Second, we ought to PRAY FOR BOLDNESS.  Consider the example of the apostles in Acts 4:29-31.  Contextually, this is impressive.  In the previous chapter, Peter and John had been arrested for healing a lame man—for doing good!  They have been released from custody only after the leaders of their nation have warned them that if they continue to proclaim Jesus, they will suffer for it.  What do they do?  They come together with their friends and pray for boldness to continue preaching.

Here, I think we come to the difference between FCA-style leaning on Jesus and Bible-style leaning on Jesus.  Usually, the pop-culture version of Philippians 4:13 is about ability.  God, help me run faster.  God, help me make better business decisions. 

By contrast, the Bible version of Philippians 4:13 tends to be about commitment to Christ.  We know what we should do.  We have the physical and mental abilities to do it.  However, there is some part of us that is afraid, so we need Christ’s help to do it.

This is obvious when it comes to serving the Lord—with evangelism, for instance.  We know how fear can cripple us then, can keep us from doing what we know is right.  However, the same is often true of our struggles against sin.  If there is some sin that is constantly present in our lives, be it porn, alcoholism, or gossip, we physically could quit.  However, we’re afraid to.  We are comfortable in our sin, and we allow our minds to dwell on how unpleasant life would be without it.

In both of these cases, prayers for boldness are the answer.  We don’t need stronger quadriceps or stronger brains.  We need stronger hearts.  We need the Lord’s help to do what we know we need to do. 

Once we recognize that need, we should ask for help constantly.  Prayer is not supposed to be a one-and-done thing.  It is supposed to be a constant thing, especially in the times when we are tempted to be less than we should be.  If we turn to Jesus, He will make us strong.

Finally, we must BE STRONG AND ACT.  Look at the exhortation recorded in Ezra 10:2-4.  Again, this is significant in context.  Ezra has only just arrived in Jerusalem.  Immediately, though, he has been confronted with a spiritual disaster of epic proportions.  The Jews again have begun intermarrying with foreign women, even though that was one of those things that got them carried off into captivity in the first place!  Worse still, the leaders of the people, those who were supposed to be leading them in righteousness, instead have been foremost in sin. 

Somebody has to do something, and that somebody is Ezra.  Nobody else has the same understanding of the Law that Ezra does.  Nobody else is in the same elevated position.  If he does not act, it may be that the Jews will be carried off into another captivity, never to return to the land.

The same holds true for us.  There will be times in our lives when we are called on to take a stand.  The stand could be in private, a defiant declaration that we are not going to practice that secret sin ever again.  It could be in the context of our families, when somebody isn’t living right.  It could be in our workplaces or even our churches. 

However, wherever it takes place, the stand will be lonely.  That’s what it means to take a stand.  Rather than looking around sideways to see what everybody else is going to do, we do what we know we must and leave it to others to follow.

What Jesus wants us to know, though, is that when we are taking that stand, no matter how lonely it may feel, we never will be alone.  He will be with us, and when we act with His strength, we will be certain to fully accomplish His will.  Maybe the earthly results won’t be what we wanted, but in the spiritual realm, God will be glorified, and that’s what matters.

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