Posted on 05/06/2013 at 09:36 AM
The first major controversy in Christianity was whether or not non-Jews could become Christians. We read about this in Acts 15 and Paul wrote his letter to the Galatian churches in response to this. I haven't felt that I completely grasped this controversy in the past. There is a focus on following the Mosaic Law, and it has typically been framed (in Protestantism at least) as "salvation by works". In other words, Christian leaders have taught that some Jews were arguing that salvation came through action—doing "good" as spelled out in the Law. In this view, Paul contrasts their claims by arguing that salvation comes through faith alone. (Hmmmm... that sounds very Protestant.)
But if this is true, why is the major, almost interchangeable focus put on circumcision? This may be a "work", but I can't see most people considering it a specifically good work. It is basically just an outward sign of being Jewish. So if the argument here really was about keeping the Law and doing good works to be saved, why talk so much about circumcision?
I believe that both Paul and his antagonists believed that the Jews were the chosen people of God and that the chosen people of God are the ones who would be saved (see Romans 9-11). Up to the point of Jesus' death and resurrection, the whole idea of a messiah was only really a Jewish concern. Yes, there was an understanding that this would lead to blessings for the rest of the world, but the Jews were always at the center, elevated to a privileged position. A natural result of this was that Christianity began as a Jewish sect. While they are often given a bad rap, even many Pharisees, Sadducees, and other Jewish religious leaders came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.
In other words, the earliest belief was that Jesus came to save the Jews. So Paul message of righteousness by faith in Christ alone to non-Jews was completely out of their paradigm. Likely many of them had never thought of non-Jews participating in the blessings of the Jewish people. But the only way it would make sense for non-Jews to be able to do so was if they became Jewish. And one if not the most important sign of being Jewish was that of circumcision. So to recap, the Jews were the ones who were saved by Christ, and therefore non-Jews must become Jewish in order to be saved.
The argument here wasn't about doing good works in order to be saved. As I understand it, Jews themselves didn't believe they were saved by following the Law. (They saw the Law as insight into the mind and wisdom of God, not just as a set of rules to keep in order to gain God's favor. They understood they needed God's mercy.)
Paul's argument is that faith in Christ alone
was enough to bring non-Jews into the family of the chosen people of God. This was God's great mystery of the ages in Paul's mind. Again, I don't think it was really a faith vs. works debate. All of the discussion about following the Law wasn't an attempt to earn salvation, it was about becoming Jewish. This is why it focused more on external signs of being Jewish rather than on other parts of the Law.
Paul explains his view in detail in Romans chapters 9-11. In his mind, non-Jews are "grafted into" being a part of the Jews by faith in Christ, not by outward signs of Jewishness. Conversely, Jews could be cut off from their place among the chosen people if they didn't put their faith in Christ.
Paul's views on non-Jews (often referred to as Gentiles, Greeks, or uncircumcised in the Bible) was highly controversial. The Jews were in a difficult position because they often had to struggle to keep their identity. They were proud of their ancestry, and rightly so because they are the chosen people of God. However this combination of forces led them into thinking that they were better than everyone else. Paul effectively took away their privileged status, putting them on level with the rest of the people in the world. It was this—not his belief in Jesus—which caused a riot in Jerusalem (Acts 21:15-22:21).
The application is the same for us (most all of my readers I assume are not Jewish). We don't have to become Jewish by following the Law. It is worth noting that in Acts 15, the church agrees to instruct non-Jews to not participate in idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality—the three most grievous categories of sins to Jews1
. It is interesting and instructive to realize that these are all moral concerns and not about outward, cultural signs of Jewishness. If we love God we won't participate in idolatry, and if we love others, we won't engage in sexual immorality and murder.
- Read "Abortion: What the Early Church Said" by Lois Tverberg for more explanation of these prohibitions.
Posted on 05/05/2013 at 10:10 AM
(Note: the primary message which inspired this post can be heard here
kicked off this year's Sacred Friendship Gathering
, themed "Bold Boundaries
". In the year since the first and most recent gathering, I had almost forgotten the intensity stemming from the depth of the presentations and the feeling of being surrounded by such a high quality group of people. Everyone I met was warm, friendly, intelligent, thoughtful, caring, genuine, and passionate to push for new paradigms of understanding which see, hear, love, free, heal, and include those who have been marginalized and hurt. (Seriously, this is probably the highest quality group of people I've ever been around.) To me this sounds like Jesus' idea of love. And in my mind, it was in this way a little piece of the kingdom of God.
Back to Dan's talk; he discussed beauty in friendship. He talked about how one of the push-backs to opposite gender friendships is the feeling that, if people get too close, they will want "something more". In our culture, sexual intimacy is often seen as the pinnacle of relationships (though often this is not conscious). Since many Christians maintain that sex is only acceptable within marriage, marriage is therefore elevated to the place of being the highest relationship.
Dan however argued that sex isn't the pinnacle of relationships. He argued that there is a relational intimacy which doesn't include sexual intercourse but which can be just as deep as a relationship with sex.1
In other words, the pinnacle of relationships is the close friendship, not sex. The "something more" is the beauty of deep, relational intimacy—sharing yourself with another and opening yourself up to receive the other. This is sacred friendship.
There is a beauty in friendship, especially deep friendship. This beauty is a deeper beauty than what typically comes to our minds. There is a certain beauty which comes by way of makeup and clothing. But this is a shallower beauty related (mostly) to outward sexual appeal.2
Yet our culture is highly invested in it: "Sex is the mysticism of materialism and the only possible religion in a materialistic society."3
But the beauty of friendship is the deeper, more fulfilling beauty.
This relational beauty is an image of God's beauty. I hold that we are created to be relational at our deepest levels, and that this is how we are created in God's image. God is love at his very core because of how he exists in the Trinity. God's nature is relationship. Likewise, God is also the source of beauty. It occurred to me that since God is the source of relationship and therefore the definition of the ultimate relationship, sex can't be the pinnacle of relationships (unless we maintain that the members of the Trinity engaged in sex with one another). If God is the definition of ultimate relationship as I believe, then it is relational intimacy which is the pinnacle of relationships. And this closeness can exist in many different relationships, freeing marriage of the need to be the ultimate relational fulfillment.
Through this discussion on beauty and through the people in attendance at the conference, I felt I could see this beauty and that I was subsequently seeing God. God is beautiful. This was the highlight of the weekend for me. I would love to be able to communicate this better. However God is kind of like the Matrix in this regard in that you really can't be told what it's like—you must experience it for yourself.
To wrap up, Dan stated that promoting friendships—even between those of the opposite sex—shouldn't lead to illicit sex as conservative Christians fear, but rather it ought to lead to the community of saints!
This is a theme I keep espousing. As I've said before, early Christians didn't referring to one another as brothers and sisters because it sounded nice—we're supposed to function like a family. This displays to the world God's goodness by manifesting a tangible image of the kingdom of heaven. "Friendships for the world to see." (Brennan) "If you love each other, everyone will know that you are my followers." (Jesus as quoted in John 13:35).
- Hugo Schwyzer stated that in our culture, we have the notion that sexual desire corrupts friendship so that the only acceptable friendships are ones in which sexual desire does not exist. He disagrees with this idea. Others have shared how they believe our sexuality is broader the just sexual intercourse, and how it is what drives us to connect relationally with others, whether sexual desire is present in that particular relationship or not. While this sounds confusing, the bottom line is that even in friendships without sex, we don't cease to be sexual beings.
- In her discussion on modesty, Jonalyn Fincher talked about how the way we present ourselves outwardly (clothing, etc) is ideally an expression of who we are. Yet many times our presentation has more to do with getting people to like us and even manipulating how they feel about us, whether it's to draw attention to ourselves or to attempt to hide ourselves.
- Malcolm Muggeridge. Character qualities are the most important factor in developing healthy relationships. But it's more difficult to sell something which will supposedly make you a good person than it is to sell something which will supposedly make you more sexually attractive. Furthermore, sex is a fleeting fulfillment whereas character and friendship are much less so.
Posted on 04/18/2013 at 1:17 PM
Evangelicals tend to focus on the atonement of Christ. This is certainly an important aspect of Christ's work. However it is not the only thing Jesus did nor is it the only aspect of the cross. But evangelicals often seem to think that "Jesus died for your sins so you can go to heaven" is the entire story.
From what I understand this dates back to 19th century revivals, in which preachers began to encourage their listeners to pray a prayer for salvation rather than be baptized and follow Christ. Evangelists want a simple, "elevator pitch" gospel that they may get someone to agree to in minutes. The doctrine of atonement fits this. However it is a big problem to focus on making converts rather than disciples. But I think evangelicalism has focused on the former because it appears to be easier than the latter. (It also supports many pastor's idea of church, which is to have a lot of people attending the Sunday morning service.)
I believe that focusing on the atonement has some concerning flaws. Penal substitution in itself refers to one person receiving the penalty deserved by another. Christ does this for us. But this has led many to a certain angle of understanding Christ's sacrifice. It goes something like this: "God is perfect and holy; he can't stand sin nor even look upon it; it makes him so angry that he requires a punishment to be made in order to overt his wrath; Jesus takes this punishment for us and removes our sins so that God will allow us to have a relationship with himself." While the latter part does seem like good news (gospel) to a certain extent, it only does so in light of bad news. I think this is why this gospel never felt very much like good news to me.
In the view I describe above, God is more angry than anything and apparently doesn't like us at all—at least not unconditionally, not as we are. However I don't think these ideas are either biblical nor true. It seems that people throughout history have had an innate understanding of not being good enough for God and a subsequent fear of God. With this view, it's understandable why many people will "pray a prayer", attend church occasionally, give a bit to charity, etc. Essentially, they try to do what they can to appease God so that he won't punish them. (This sounds a lot like pagan religions, doesn't it?) But who actually wants to get too close to this angry, perfectionist God who can never be pleased? Is it any wonder more people don't want to get to know God better? And of course many conservatives perpetuate this impression by thinking their highest priority is to point out everyone else's sin.
But the story in the Bible has God going to extraordinary lengths to love
us. And it's not extraordinary because we're so detestable. God loves us because he made us and he made us very good. Yes, we haven't lived up to this, but that doesn't mean we're utterly garbage. To say so is to insult God's work I believe. It's true that we can't fix ourselves, but this doesn't mean that there isn't anything good in us. What kind of god would God be if he loved complete trash? Make no mistake—we're created in God's image. While broken, we still have the goodness of our original design. This is why God takes murder so seriously in Genesis 9:5-6.
I believe we need to focus more on the goodness of God and his kingdom, and on Christ and his love. If people can be inspired by this, they will want to draw closer to God and to align their life and actions with his kingdom. They will understand that they don't live up to God's goodness but will be lifted up by his mercy. This is the good news that Jesus preached: the kingdom of heaven has come: blind people see, deaf people hear, enslaved people are set free, outcasts are included, etc. God's love is so lavish that it pours out to all kinds of unlikely people (though there is still punishment for the truly wicked; a lack of this would not be loving). Really the only people who are threatened by this and don't see it as wonderful, are those who think they've made themselves better than everyone else.
Posted on 04/15/2013 at 10:09 PM
Ten years ago today I wrote my first blog entry. Some of my friends keep up with internet trends and had jumped on board this thing called blogging. So I gave it a try myself. It started out more as an occasional, personal update. But the most interesting this is that it got me writing. I hadn't done much writing on my own prior to this. In fact, my parents and/or teachers at one point thought I was so bad at writing that they got me a tutor. I think it had more to do with the fact I wasn't particularly interested in "planning perfect paragraphs". In any case, blogging has turned out to be a great outlet for me.
In case you're looking back through my archive, this isn't the blog I started ten years ago. However it is an outgrowth of it. And I have also back-posted a few things I wrote before I launched this blog in the fall of 2006.
I had tentatively had in mind launching some new features today. However personal life circumstance have prevented any work being done on this front in the past couple of weeks. So these have been put off, hopefully to be retroactively launched at some point in the not too distant future.
Posted on 04/13/2013 at 4:45 PM
It seems that most people maintain that their spouse is and should be their best friend. I like the sound of this. I really do. It's so... well, romantic. It sounds good and I don't think it's wrong. But... I've also developed some question for which I don't yet have answers.
Where does this concept come from? I have the impression that many Christians take this as "gospel". It's so ingrained in our culture that most of us can't even imagine it being any other way. In fact, to be close to someone who isn't your spouse (or romantic partner) is sometimes referred to as "emotional adultery". But I don't believe it comes from the bible. And I have the impression that it's a relatively new concept in history. Does marriage really forbid having a close, intimate friendship with another person? If so, why?
We of course do think of best friends outside of marriage. But it seems like marriage is always though of as something more and better—not just a different relationship. We have parents and sibling and aunts and uncles and cousins and best friends and good friends and acquaintances and roommates and coworkers, etc. But we seem to maintain that marriage is the highest, most important, closest, and most fulfilling relationship.
That doesn't sound like a problem... until... I recently heard that a majority of the adult population in the U.S. in now unmarried1. So, if marriage is the ultimate relationship, then a majority of the population is missing out in this area. More personally, if spouses must be one's best friend, it means that I am spending my life with out a best friend so long as I continue to be single. Is this correct? Is this the way it is supposed to be? If you are single you're just short on luck?
I can hear some people say "If you have a problem with this, why don't you just get married?" Well this isn't always as easy as you make it sound, no matter what your experience was. It's true that you may never get from point A to point B without putting in some work and taking the correct steps. However the big flaw people make is believing that putting in the work and making those steps guarantees the end results. This may be many people's experience, but it doesn't always work this way. There are no guarantees. So this answer can be insulting to a single person.
Or what about all of the people who have been married and who are now divorced? Some may be tempted to criticize them for being divorced, but remember, if one partner wants out it, won't work no matter what the other person does. So in any divorce there is always potentially one person who honestly tried and who did things reasonably "right". So what will you say to them? They've already tried marriage and had it fail. Are you going to simply say, "Sorry about your luck but you lose—try again next time?" Can they not have a close friendship because they are no longer married?
I kind of hate doing anything that would weaken marriage. Maybe it in part because marriage has been so emphasized as I've grown up. Evangelicals maintain that marriage is in trouble. They seek to strengthen it by emphasizing it's importance. But could it be that this is reinforcing the problem? What if the problem of marriage is that we've put it up on a pedestal which it can't live up to? What if we could strengthen marriage by reaching a more realistic understanding of what it is and isn't.
I don't think the problem is being best friends with one's spouse. I think the problem is that we think of marriage as being above every other relationship.
1. Unfortunately I don't have a reference for this at present.
Posted on 04/01/2013 at 1:18 PM
Can men (and women) control their often strong sex drive? We imply "no" by teaching women to protect themselves rather than teaching men not to rape. The church implies "no" as well when it promotes keeping distance between men and women.
Are sexual desires a strong force? Absolutely. However I think they are more so in our culture than what merely comes naturally. Not only are we constantly bombarded by sexual stimulation, the narrative in our culture is that sex is normal, acceptable (expect for "cheating"), and basically unavoidable (think "The 40 Year Old Virgin", "40 Days and 40 Nights", and about three-quarters of major movie releases and TV shows come to think of it). We believe this story because it's what we've been fed. And it is difficult for us to imagine it isn't true, or at least not entirely accurate. But this is because we live up to the story we know, in part because we don't think there is any other possible outcome and haven't been encouraged to aim for a different goal.
In response to this, Dan Brennan says, "Sacred friendships are about something radically different.
" The idea here is to swim upstream and create a new narrative
. Is it difficult to believe now? Yes, it may be at times. But we believe that people aren't animals and can learn to control themselves. (Come to think of it, we can even train animals to control themselves...) If we can begin to give people models of men and women who learn to control their desires, and begin to give people a new story and inspire them to new standards, then I believe we'll find that these things aren't unattainable.
Is this to say that self-control isn't difficult? No. Is this to say that no one will ever fall and make a mistake? No, not this either. It simply means that the better, healthier answer lies in cultivating the learning of self-control rather than avoidance. (I don't have all the answers as to how we achieve this. One thing I do think is healthy is to be honest about our desires, as Jonalyn describes in her blog
Posted on 03/30/2013 at 12:29 PM
"Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" (Matt. 7:22-23, NIV). I have heard Christians say they think this passage is quite scary. After all, if these people claimed to follow God and were doing all of these miraculous works yet Jesus rejects them, how can we be confident that God will accept us? As I've said repeatedly, context is important. Understood properly, I don't believe the person who sincerely tries to follow God needs to be overly worried about their standing with him. After all, Jesus refers to God as "your heavenly Father". The Father loves us and wants us to be in good relationship with himself. He isn't trying to come up with any way to keep us out of the kingdom of heaven. On the contrary, he has gone to every length possible to keep us from being outside the kingdom.
As he has been doing through much of the "sermon on the mount", Jesus is contrasting those who make an outward show of religion with those who sincerely love God. While some bibles divide them, I believe verses 15-20 are a part of the same thought as verses 21-23. In the former, Jesus states that we can recognize (discern) people's character by observing the "fruit" of their activities. Galatians 5:13-26 contains a good overview of some bad and good "fruit".
To give an example of the type of people Jesus is talking about, there are some preachers who are charismatic and who gain a lot of popularity. Yet their preaching is full of shaming and condemnation. This leads to spiritual death and is not life-giving. Read my recent post about spiritual abuse
for more on this. Again I think the Message sheds light on this passage:
I can see it now-—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God—sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’
This passage in Matthew can be a good reminder to check ourselves and make sure we're not getting too far off track. However I don't think that those who are sincerely following Christ need to be worried about whether or not Jesus loves and accepts them. Know that He does!
Posted on 03/29/2013 at 12:11 PM
I have heard of spiritual abuse but haven't had a clear idea what it was or wasn't. However, after reading these two articles today: "Poets Will Save the Church
" and "'Don't Talk About It': Reflections on Spiritual Abuse
", I believe I have a significantly better definition for it. Spiritual abuse is using God, the bible, and/or religious language and teaching to control, manipulate, and/or heap guilt, shame, and condemnation on one or more people.
This is a difficult and tricky subject I believe. While other types of abuse have the potential to be unclear, I think that spiritual abuse tends to be one of the most difficult to identify. Perhaps it need not be this way, but I think a significant portion of religion is closer to this than it is to Jesus' love. In other words, spiritual abuse is close to what we often traditionally think of as spirituality maturity.
The fact is, spiritual abuse often comes from those who have spent years studying the bible and theology. Therefore many of the things they say are correct-ish. That is, the words they say, taken at face value, may be true. But they are either mis-applied or mis-used. To further complicate matters, I believe that many of the people who say these things are sincere and do desire people to demonstrate more of the character that God desires.
Because of this, it often seems to take a person with true spiritual maturity and wisdom to be able to discern spiritual abuse. This will be the case until we as a culture gain a better understanding of healthy and unhealthy spirituality and religion. In the meantime, making people more aware of this is the reason I started this series.
I think Frank Viola does an excellent job in part 5 of his series "Rethinking the Gifts of the Spirit"
. He says that healthy spirituality focuses on Jesus, promotes a spirit of unity, love for one another, and I would add, confidence and peace in knowing the Father's love. These things are the fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God brings life, peace, healing, and freedom. In contrast, unhealthy spirituality takes focus off of Christ and causes division and confusion. Abusive spirituality may involve gossip, slander, judging (condemning), shaming, and pressure to conform—especially to leadership. The abuser is often the opposite of humble but rather overly self-certain and therefore not open to hearing any criticism, even from other mature leaders.
Because of this, you aren't likely to change his or her ways. My advice, don't even try (see my note on Matthew 7:6
, though I may be wrong about this). I want you to be able to see and discern the difference between Godly spirituality and abusive spirituality. Ask, "Does this person or teaching bring spiritual life or death?" If it is the latter, leave
. Move on. You almost never have to stay in these situations. Don't believe that it is the more spiritual or healthier thing to do. Get out and seek the true life of God. "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free" "and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (Galatians 5:1 and 2 Cor. 3:17).
Likewise, in your desire to see people become better, don't fall into the trap of spiritual abuse either. As I mentioned earlier, I believe that many spiritually abusive people are sincere. But the desire for a positive end does not justify bad means such as coercion. While this may seem to make an outward difference in the short-term, it's not the way to produce true change in people.
Posted on 03/22/2013 at 4:22 PM
Jesus makes a number of statements in Matthew 7:1-12
which at first glance seem to be unrelated. Yet on closer examination, I believe we can see how these tie together. Jesus begins this section by stating "do not judge...". It is important to understand that the kind of judgement Jesus is talking about here is that of condemnation. It is when one decides that another person is less worthy of respect for one reason or another. On the other side, the discerning type of judgement is actually quite important, necessary, and should come with maturity.
In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard suggests that this whole section is about not controlling or manipulating others. Going with this, verses 3-6 have to do with someone who believes they are superior trying to teach others their "wisdom". (Or as Willard puts it, they try to push their "wonderful solutions" on others.) First Jesus says these people completely miss the problem of their own in-authenticity. They want others to do and believe what they say in order to support their feeling of being right, wise, and superior rather than caring about other people's good. Second, Jesus says that you can't help other people until you are doing so in the correct spirit.
I find verse 6 a bit difficult to understand completely. It could be saying that when a self-righteous person tries to teach others, the others can easily turn and point out all of that person's faults. But Jesus could also have in mind not to try giving true wisdom to hypocrites because they aren't the type of people who are likely to accept correction. They are very likely to try to justify themselves and tear down the one trying to correct them rather than listen to the correction.
In verses 7-12, Jesus talks about making requests. Then verse 12 contains what is known as "the golden rule". Again, I think many of us have understood verses 7-11 to be talking about praying to God, while verse 12 is about how to treat others. But the "therefore" at the beginning of verse 12 ties the two together. Willard believes this section teaches us to simply make requests of others for what we need and want, as opposed to being deceptive and/or manipulating to try and get our way. (This is similar to the instruction not to take oaths.) Verse 12 certainly also suggest that we give to others when they make requests of us. Understood this way, verses 7-11 are both about our relationship with God and our relationship with the people in our lives.
Posted on 03/21/2013 at 8:20 PM
"If you don't forgive people, your Father will not forgive your wrongdoing." (Matt. 6:25, HCSB). This is another passage that people wrestle with. However this is a good example of how individual passages need to be understood and interpreted in light of the whole bible. Is Jesus saying that our sins won't be forgiven and we won't go to heaven if we happen to die in the time between being offended and forgiving that person? Does our salvation hinge on this? Does the state of our salvation and eternal destination oscillate back and forth depending on the condition of our heart at any given moment toward those who have offended us? I believe that answering yes to any of these questions would be inconsistent with what we learn in the rest of scripture.
So what is Jesus actually saying? Well let me be the first to say I don't know for certain. However I think we can make some educated guesses from the context. In several cases between verses 1 to 18 in this chapter, Jesus contrasts those who make an outward show of religion with true children on God. He might be talking about how religious people are often quick to point out others wrongdoings and condemn them as unacceptable to God. In other words, people who are only religious outwardly are the type of people who often seem to hold certain offenses as unforgivable. (This could be a perceived offense to God, as when someone sins, as well as a personal offense.) These aren't the type of people who are in God's kingdom. In contrast, the type of person who truly loves God and behaves as a child of God (and kingdom citizen) is humble and strives to forgive.
I don't go fully all the way to the "once saved, always saved" camp, but I don't believe our salvation fluctuates moment by moment either. I don't believe our standing before God is based on whether or not we've prayed for forgiveness for a sin we've committed. God has already forgiven all of our sins. We only have to accept this forgiveness and then continue to walk with God in a general, overall way through our lives. God doesn't expect us to be perfect (in our understanding of perfection as flawlessness). Our standing with God isn't based on how well we match up to a certain set of rules. But he does want us to grow into spiritual maturity. And forgiving others is one aspect of this.