Thursday, February 18, 2021

Discerning the Body: A Biblical Defense of Modified Open Communion

Who should be allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper in a Baptist church, and who should not? Some leading views advocated by Baptists are close, closed, open, and the view I personally take, modified open communion. I do not consider myself technically to be an advocate of open communion since I don’t believe the Lord’s Supper should be offered indiscriminately to anyone and everyone, nor even to all those without exception who profess to be Christians. Paul had some pretty serious words to say about taking the bread and the cup in an unworthy manner. And he relates taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner to a failure to “discern (or recognize) the body of the Lord”:

 

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. (1 Corinthians 11:27–34, NIV)­ 


*other versions translate the phrase “recognizing the body” here “discerning the body.”

 

Thus, I believe it is very important that we not participate in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner and that we encourage those who are participating with us not to participate in an unworthy manner. However, neither do I agree with the close communion position, which requires Baptist churches to only admit to the Lord’s Supper those who have been immersed in water after their profession of faith in Christ. And I do not agree with the closed communion position, which requires that Baptist churches only admit fellow members of the particular local congregation in which the Lord’s Supper is being served.

 

Lest for some reason anyone think differently, let me make perfectly clear that I do think that those who profess faith in Christ should be baptized shortly afterward and that only truly born-again people should participate in the Lord’s Supper. So I am in agreement that the normal order would be conversion, baptism, and then participation in the Lord’s Supper. However, when we think of the Lord’s Supper and who should be permitted to participate, we need to think first of all about just what it is and what we are celebrating when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. 


At the core, the Lord’s Supper is a memorial of what Jesus did for us—not of what we have done for Jesus; that is, a memorial of and witness to our salvation won by Jesus on the cross of Calvary—not a witness to our obedience to the command to be baptized, nor of our meeting the requirements for local church membership. In addition to this, the Lord’s Supper is also a celebration of the unity of the Body of Christ, the Church. Consider the words of Paul in 1 Cor. 10:16-17:

 

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

 

The Lord’s Supper is not just a celebration of the unity of the local church. Neither is it a celebration of the unity of all of those who have their doctrine right concerning baptism. It is a celebration of the unity of the entire Body of Christ. Paul says clearly, “We, who are many, are one body”—not many different autonomous bodies. And when we don’t admit folks to the Lord’s Supper, we are in effect telling them we don’t believe they belong in the Body of Christ.

 

Among Baptists, the traditional understanding of the phrase “discerning the body” in 1 Cor. 11:29 has to do with the responsibility of taking the Lord’s Supper in a respectful manner, realizing that what we are doing at that moment is commemorating the death of our Lord Jesus and that it is a solemn occasion, not one for joking, jesting, or behaving in a flippant manner. Certainly, there is an important element of truth here. In the overall context of 1 Corinthians, however, I believe that “discerning the body” also has a very important application to our stance with regard to our fellow brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 10:16–17, Paul links the two senses of the body of Christ—physical and mystical—and it appears that in 1 Cor. 11:29 he does so again. The specific sin pointed out by Paul in 1 Corinthians in relation to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was a sin against one’s fellow members in the Body of Christ. Notice chapter 11, verses 18–22:

 

In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

 

What was the problem at Corinth? It was primarily a problem of division within the Body of Christ. Specifically, some of the people (presumably the more wealthy) were despising those who had nothing (i.e. the poor). Essentially, what they were doing was treating certain bona fide members of the Body of Christ like second-class citizens. One chapter later, in chapter 12, Paul develops this same theme further (vv. 12–27):

 

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

 

In the context of the specific abuses of those taking part in the Lord’s Supper, Paul is pointing out a particular division: the division between the rich and the poor within the congregation at Corinth. He makes a special point to show that, whether we be slaves or free, members who are humanly speaking “less honorable” or members who are “more honorable,” we are all part of the same Body. In the overall context of 1 Corinthians, he also decries divisions based on loyalty to certain teachers—i.e. Peter, Apollos, and Paul himself—what we might call today a denominational or sectarian spirit. Whatever the cause behind it, though, Paul is saying there is nothing that should come between us as brothers and sisters in Christ if indeed we are truly members of Christ’s Body. Because of this, it is vitally important for us to know, to the degree it is possible to know this side of heaven, who is a part of Christ’s Body and who is not. And as I understand it, this is an important part of what it means to correctly discern the Body of Christ.

 

How do we discern who is truly a part of the Body of Christ and who is not? Paul in 1 Cor. 12:13 tells us how. All of us who were baptized by one Spirit and given the one Spirit to drink were baptized (by the same Spirit) into one body—that is, the very same group to whom Paul addresses the letter of 1 Corinthians when he says in chapter 1, verse 2, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.”

 

Notice that for Paul the “church of God in Corinth” is one and the same with all “those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy”—that is to say, every single born-again believer in the city of Corinth. Notice, also that he does not treat them as an independent group unto themselves, but rather as a local representation, or expression, of a broader group: “all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

 

Along with most Baptist students of Scripture and church history, I agree that in the context of the NT it would have likely been very rare, if not impossible, to find individuals who had been baptized by the Spirit yet who had not yet been baptized appropriately in water. However, in the context of today, due to the tragedy of divisions and false teaching within the Body of Christ, sadly that is no longer the case. There are many paedobaptist brothers and sisters in Christ who, though mistaken (as I understand it) in their understanding and practice of water baptism, have nonetheless been baptized by the very same Spirit as we (as Baptists) have. And when we attempt to discern the Body and we notice there is not an exact correlation between the group of all those who have been appropriately baptized in water and the group of all those who have been baptized by the Spirit, we come to the conclusion that the group of those who truly comprise the Body of Christ is made up not just of those who have been baptized both by the Spirit and in water, but rather of all those who have been baptized by the Spirit.

 

Now it is true that if someone has studied out what the Bible teaches on baptism and has come to the understanding that Jesus has commanded them to be baptized in water, and yet in spite of this has not yet followed through with what they understand, then they are living in disobedience and need to get their baptism on the right side of their salvation. In such a case, we need to warn them about the danger of participating in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, which includes allowing any known, un-repented-of sin in one’s life, no matter what that sin may be. At the same time, however, an objective consideration of the reality present in Christendom today leads us to the conclusion there are many authentically born-again Christians, who are sincerely endeavoring to be obedient to Jesus in everything, including baptism, yet for one reason or another understand baptism differently than we do as Baptists and as a result have not been immersed in water subsequent to their profession of faith in Christ.

 

Some claim that maintaining a practice of close communion serves as a good opportunity to proclaim to the unbaptized their duty to be obedient to Christ’s command, causing them to reflect on the reason for their exclusion from the Lord’s table. However, while this perspective may have an element of truth to it, two wrongs do not make a right. I personally agree that it is wrong for believers not to be immersed after professing faith in Christ. And I agree that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is indeed an opportune moment to remind people of their need to be obedient to the command to be baptized. But at the same time, on the basis of my understanding of Scripture, I also believe it is wrong to deny true believers—whether they have been biblically baptized or not—access to the Lord’s Supper, which is a celebration of the unity of the entire Body of Christ, not just a part of it.

 

There are other ways to proclaim to the unbaptized their need to be baptized without at the same time despising the unity of the Body of Christ by denying them a place at the Lord’s table. The question has been raised how someone who is presiding the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the context of a Baptist church can follow through with what I am saying here without at the same time being disloyal to the Baptist distinctive of believers baptism by immersion. However, I don't think this is necessarily a problem. The following is an example of what I have said, when I have presided the Lord’s Supper:

 

“The Bible teaches that before partaking of the bread and the wine we are to examine our hearts. I believe this includes examining ourselves to see if there is any known sin we have not confessed or for which we have not repented. Before sharing together with us in the Lord’s Supper today, I ask, and indeed urge, you to examine the condition of your own heart before the Lord. If the Holy Spirit convicts you of any sin, please make it right before Him before partaking in the Lord’s Supper. This is a very serious matter. The Word of God says that some in the congregation in Corinth had ‘fallen asleep’ (that is, they died) as a result of not taking this admonition seriously. I would also add that in our congregation we believe that Jesus commanded each believer after truly repenting of their sin and placing their faith in Christ to seal their surrender to Christ by means of believers baptism, or being immersed in water, after having been saved, in obedience to the Lord’s command. If you have not been obedient to Jesus’ command to be baptized, I urge you to not put off any longer doing so. At the same time, I am aware that there are some who have sincerely repented of their sin and placed their faith in Christ alone for their salvation and yet believe, as they have examined Scripture, that their baptism before they were saved is an authentic and biblically condoned baptism. Though in this congregation we believe and teach differently on this matter, we consider the Lord’s Supper to be a celebration of the unity of the entire Body of Christ, not just of those who agree with us on this particular matter. In any case, I urge you to carefully and prayerfully study the Scripture and examine your own heart on this matter. If you are convicted you need to be biblically baptized, don’t put it off any longer. If you before the Lord have a clear conscience about being obedient to the Lord’s command in this area, then follow before the Lord the dictates of your conscience. In any case, if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and are attempting to the best of your ability to serve and obey Him, we warmly embrace you and accept you as a fellow member of the Body of Christ.”

 

*What do you believe about who should participate in the Lord’s Supper?

 

*What is the practice in the churches in which you have been a member, and/or the churches you are aware of?

Monday, May 25, 2020

Christ the Faithful Suffering Servant in the Midst of Culture

What perspective should we as Christians take toward culture? What is the basic task to which we as Christians have been called here on Earth? How should we relate in our attitudes, actions, and priorities to the world around us? Should Christians be involved in politics? What is the ultimate goal of Christian missions? The answers to these questions are complex. And there is nothing close to unanimity among those who claim to follow Christ as to how best to answer them. Yet the repercussions are very significant and affect at a fundamental level many of the choices we make in our everyday life as Christians.

The Background of the Discussion

I am not the first to think and write about these questions. Far from it! One of the most significant and influential contributions to the ongoing discussion is H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic, Christ and Culture, published in 1951. More recently, D. A. Carson advanced the discussion with the 2008 release of Christ and Culture Revisited. As  I have mulled over these questions, I have come up with some thoughts I would like to offer for discussion.

Niebuhr, in his seminal work that has framed much of the subsequent discussion, describes five general approaches that Christians of various stripes throughout the centuries have adopted, which he calls Christ against Culture, The Christ of Culture, Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ the Transformer of Culture. One of the most significant observations to be gleaned from Niebuhr is that even though we are not always aware of it, each of us comes from one general perspective or another on these particular questions that colors the way we approach the specifics—and if we are able to understand the model from which one is operating, we will have significant insight into the motives behind the positions he/she takes on various issues. Rather than taking the space here to review each of these different models and potentially misrepresent or oversimplify Niebuhr’s thesis, I refer you to Niebuhr’s book itself or Carson’s review of Niebuhr’s models in his book. A briefer synopsis of Niebuhr’s thesis can be found here.

The Transformationist Model

Most (not all) Christians today would be in agreement that the first two models—Christ against Culture and The Christ of Culture—are overly extreme, one being overly reactionary and the other overly accommodating. According to Carson (and, no doubt, many others), the model favored by Niebuhr himself (though he seeks to maintain a semblance of personal detachment in his presentation), and one that has become increasingly popular among Christians of various theological and political convictions both on the Right and the Left in recent years, is the Transformationist model. The basic premise of this model is that as Christians, though we live in a fallen world in which evil exerts a great amount of influence, we are called to be salt and light, exercising a redemptive influence over the structures of this world, letting the leaven of Christian ethics and morality work its way through the lump and contributing toward the progressive and eventual Christianization of culture and society.

As I understand it, the extreme version of this model on the Right is that of the Reconstructionists/Dominionists/Theonomists, and on the Left that of Liberation Theology. However, there are many others a step or two toward the middle, both among conservatives (“Culture Warriors,” and “Seven Mountains” crusaders), as well as among more liberal versions of Christianity (some “Emerging” Christians, and even some—not all!—who would prefer the label “Missional”), who would not answer strictly speaking to either of these descriptions, yet who in their basic approach to these issues follow a Transformationist model.

The Christ the Faithful Suffering Servant in the Midst of Culture Model

Personally, as I study Scripture and reflect on what it says, I am not totally convinced by the Transformationist model. In what follows, I would like to present an alternative model that I call Christ the Faithful Suffering Servant in the Midst of Culture. Though the name itself and the description I give of this view are mine, I don’t pretend the basic ideas behind anything I say here are original. If they are truly biblical, they cannot at the same time be truly original. Besides this, various others have already articulated a view, which, though not using the exact same language, is very similar in many aspects to mine. From what I have read and listened to of Carson, for example, I would consider him to be among these.

Our Understanding of the Terms Christ and Culture

Key to a good understanding of the various perspectives one may take on Christ and Culture is the definition given to the terms Christ and culture themselves. In the model I am proposing, I take as determinative for our understanding of the term Christ the commission of Jesus to His disciples and consequently to the Church throughout the centuries in John 20:21, in which He sends them to carry out the same task with which the Father had sent Him. As the Body of Christ on Earth we are His hands, feet, eyes, and ears, continuing on through the power of the Holy Spirit the same work that He inaugurated in His first advent. We do not yet, however, represent Christ in His post-second-advent role as sovereign Ruler, which remains to be manifested at a later date.

As far as culture is concerned, I see a significant parallel between culture and what the New Testament in many passages* calls the world, encompassing the structures, thought systems, and godless values that comprise the present world order. This, however, does not preclude the appropriation and use of such cultural elements as music, art, and literature for the glory of God. For example, when we speak of Christ against Culture, we do not mean to imply that Christ is opposed to music, art, and literature, etc., in and of themselves as independent categories. These are, rather, neutral elements that may be used equally in the service of Christ and His Kingdom as well as in the propagation of the godless value system we call the world.

Called to Suffer

Having made that clear, the first aspect of the Christ the Faithful Suffering Servant in the Midst of Culture approach is the recognition that as Christians we are called to suffer here on this earth. Though there have been certain times and places down through history in which professing Christians have been more accepted and less persecuted than at other times and in other places, and there have been assorted seasons of spiritual awakening impacting the general attitude toward Christianity in a given time and place, this is not the norm, either from the standpoint of history or the Bible. At times, the advance of Christendom has, ironically, been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the persecution of authentic Christian disciples. Bible prophecy, as I understand it, does not present a view of the end-times that would lead us to expect this reality to one day disappear or gradually diminish as history progresses. It would appear that Jesus’ words describing the path that leads to life as narrow and those that find it few are just as applicable in the end-times as they were in the time He first pronounced them.

Called to Rescue the Perishing

The next aspect of this approach is the call to “seek and to save those which are lost,” rescuing them from the cruel dominion of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and calling them to come out and be separate from the ungodly structures and systems of the world, symbolically depicted in Revelation 16–19 as Babylon the Great. However, those who are rescued are not rescued solely for an existence of eternal bliss in the fully consummated Kingdom of God in the age to come. They are also called to live this present life as signposts of the coming Kingdom as members of an alternative community in which they grow together in faith, hope, and love, continually experiencing spiritual healing and ministering it one to another in the therapeutic community that is the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Called to Serve

Closely related to the call to “rescue the perishing” is the call to serve. It is at this juncture that the Christ the Faithful Suffering Servant model departs significantly from the Christ against Culture model. While it is true that culture, inasmuch as we equate it with the structures and systems of this world, will almost always set itself up in opposition to uncompromising Christian discipleship, the calling and purpose of Christians in this present dispensation is not to condemn those who are presently subject to this world but rather to lead them to salvation through faith in Christ, who came to “give his life as a ransom for many.” As those sent out by Jesus, in the same way as He Himself was sent by the Father, we identify with His call “not to be served, but to serve” and to direct this service to the very ones among whom we are to live as candles in the midst of the darkness.

In the Midst of Culture

As the old saying goes, and as Jesus makes clear in John 14:14–18, we are called to be in the world but not of the world:
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
As faithful suffering servants, we do not isolate ourselves from the world around us and from the dire condition of those who groan under the oppression of its cruel taskmasters. We are not passive quietists living our own lives and minding our own business, separated from those we are seeking to rescue. No! The love of Christ constrains us to actively and enthusiastically pour ourselves out in acts of service and practical kindness, following the example of our Lord, who healed the sick, set the captives free, and graciously showered His love upon them during His first advent here on Earth.

Called to Be Faithful

As faithful suffering servants, we also patiently wait for the consummation of the Kingdom in the day when our Lord returns to judge the wicked and the just and establish His visible rule over all the cultures and structures of this earth. In the meantime, we refrain from seeking to forcibly introduce the Kingdom of God with its ultimate implications ahead of time, cognizant of the fact that on those occasions when Christians have sought to exercise dominion over the structures of this world independent of the physical presence of Jesus Himself to take charge and rule the nations with an iron rod of justice, the end result has more often than not proven disastrous for the true advance of kingdom values.

None of this means that in the meantime we refrain in any way from actively rescuing the perishing, diligently working toward the edification of the community of the redeemed, and passionately serving the needy and oppressed in our midst to the very best of our ability, with the strength and wisdom the Holy Spirit gives us. Indeed, we seek to be the most faithful stewards we possibly can, knowing the way we live our lives here on Earth will have momentous consequences for eternity.

*See, for example, Matthew 4:8; Luke 12:30; John 8:23, 12:31, 15:18, 16:33, 17:6–19, 18:36; Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:12, 11:32; 2 Corinthians 10:1–6; Galatians 4:3, 6:14; Ephesians 2:2, 6:12; Colossians 2:8, 20; James 1:27, 4:4; 2 Peter 1:4, 2:20; 1 John 2:15–17; 3:1, 13; 4:1–6; 5:4–5, 19.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

God, God's Kingdom, and God's People First



As followers of Jesus, our first love and priority commitment in all of life must be directed toward God Himself, His Kingdom, and His People, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Consider the following passages:
“Jesus replied, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22:37–38) 
“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” (Matthew 6:33) 
“Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith.” (Galatians 6:10)
It is relatively easy to accept this teaching when we contrast our loyalty to these things with our loyalty to bad things, things of the world, our fleshly desires, our greed and selfishness, etc. It may not be quite so easy to follow through with these things, but at least it is easy to understand why we are called to put our love for God, His Kingdom, and His People in front of these things. But it can easily rub us the wrong way when we apply this truth to other loyalties in our life, loyalties we normally think of as healthy and positive—our loyalty toward our family, our community, or our nation. Yet Scripture has some very specific things to say to us about putting our loyalty toward these things in front of our loyalty to God, His Kingdom, and His People.

Let’s think first about family. Now it’s true that God places us in families and instructs us to love, honor, and take care of our family members. The following passages come to mind:
“Honor your father and mother. Then you will live a long, full life in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12) 
“In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as they love their own bodies. For a man who loves his wife actually shows love for himself. No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church.” (Ephesians 5:28–29) 
“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting for those who belong to the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly. Children, always obey your parents, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not aggravate your children, or they will become discouraged.” (Colossians 3:18–20) 
“Take care of any widow who has no one else to care for her. But if she has children or grandchildren, their first responsibility is to show godliness at home and repay their parents by taking care of them. This is something that pleases God.” (1 Timothy 5:3–4) 
“But those who won’t care for their relatives, especially those in their own household, have denied the true faith. Such people are worse than unbelievers.” (1 Timothy 5:8) 
“If a woman who is a believer has relatives who are widows, she must take care of them and not put the responsibility on the church. Then the church can care for the widows who are truly alone.” (1 Timothy 5:16)
So, lest anyone understand differently, I am NOT suggesting we should not obey these verses about loving, honoring, and taking care of our families.

However, there is another series of passages that warn us against placing our loyalty and devotion toward our family above our loyalty and devotion for God, God’s Kingdom, and God’s People. Consider the following:
"While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew 12:46–50) 
“Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they couldn’t get to him because of the crowd. Someone told Jesus, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, and they want to see you.’ Jesus replied, ‘My mother and my brothers are all those who hear God’s word and obey it.’” (Luke 8:19–21) 
“As they were walking along, someone said to Jesus, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ But Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.’ He said to another person, ‘Come, follow me.’ The man agreed, but he said, ‘Lord, first let me return home and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead! Your duty is to go and preach about the Kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘Yes, Lord, I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:57–62) 
“If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine.” (Matthew 10:37) 
“If you want to be my disciple, you must, by comparison, hate everyone else—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
Without a doubt, these are very difficult passages to swallow. But with respect to putting obedience to God above our love for our families, the Bible is even more radical yet, as we see in that most radical of passages, that passage in Genesis 22 that tells us of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Even though other parts of Scripture make plain that God did not intend for Abraham to ultimately follow through with His command to sacrifice Isaac, the implication is very clear that God tried Abraham’s faith in order to make sure he was willing to do so and that Abraham did not put his love for his son in front of his supreme love and loyalty toward Him.

Let’s think a bit now about national loyalty. Once again, even though it is perhaps not quite as explicit as it is with respect to the command to love, honor, and take care of our families, the Bible has a few things to say that commend a healthy love and respect for one’s own community and nation, along with its leaders.
“And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7) 
“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21b) 
“Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.” (Romans 13:1) 
“Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority.” (Romans 13:7) 
“I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity.” (1 Timothy 2:1–2) 
“Respect everyone, and love the family of believers. Fear God, and respect the king.” (1 Peter 2:17)
There are also various passages, especially in the Old Testament, that speak positively of the patriotic love that God’s Old Testament people, the people of Israel, had for their nation. From a New Testament perspective, though, these passages apply more for us as followers of Christ with respect to the special love we are to have toward the New Testament people of God, the Church, than toward the specific country of which we are citizens on earth. There are a whole set of other New Testament passages, however, that make very clear that our ultimate allegiance is not to be toward nations here on earth but toward God’s Kingdom and toward God’s people who transcend the nations of our earthly citizenship:
“Jesus answered, ‘My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.’” (John 18:36) 
“But Peter and the apostles replied, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.’” (Acts 5:29) 
“But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.” (Philippians 3:20) 
“All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13–16) 
“For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.” (Hebrews 13:14) 
“But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.’ Once you had no identity as a people; now you are God’s people. Once you received no mercy; now you have received God’s mercy.’ Dear friends, I warn you as ‘temporary residents and foreigners’ to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls.” (1 Peter 2:9–11) 
“And they sang a new song with these words: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and break its seals and open it. For you were slaughtered, and your blood has ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. And you have caused them to become a Kingdom of priests for our God. And they will reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9–10)
What’s more, there are also a few passages that appear to imply that the entire collective of earthly nations and their rulers will one day unite in opposition to God, God’s Kingdom, and God’s People, yet will ultimately be defeated by Jesus and His followers. Consider the following passages:
“In your vision, Your Majesty, you saw standing before you a huge, shining statue of a man. It was a frightening sight. The head of the statue was made of fine gold. Its chest and arms were silver, its belly and thighs were bronze, its legs were iron, and its feet were a combination of iron and baked clay. As you watched, a rock was cut from a mountain, but not by human hands. It struck the feet of iron and clay, smashing them to bits. The whole statue was crushed into small pieces of iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold. Then the wind blew them away without a trace, like chaff on a threshing floor. But the rock that knocked the statue down became a great mountain that covered the whole earth.” (Daniel 2:31–35) 
“During the reigns of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed or conquered. It will crush all these kingdoms into nothingness, and it will stand forever. That is the meaning of the rock cut from the mountain, though not by human hands, that crushed to pieces the statue of iron, bronze, clay, silver, and gold. The great God was showing the king what will happen in the future. The dream is true, and its meaning is certain.” (Daniel 2:44–45) 
“One of the seven angels who had poured out the seven bowls came over and spoke to me. ‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘and I will show you the judgment that is going to come on the great prostitute, who rules over many waters. The kings of the world have committed adultery with her, and the people who belong to this world have been made drunk by the wine of her immorality.’” (Revelation 17:1–2)
“A mysterious name was written on her forehead: ‘Babylon the Great, Mother of All Prostitutes and Obscenities in the World.’ I could see that she was drunk—drunk with the blood of God’s holy people who were witnesses for Jesus. I stared at her in complete amazement.” (Revelation 17:5–6) 
“And this woman you saw in your vision represents the great city that rules over the kings of the world.” (Revelation 17:18) 
“After all this I saw another angel come down from heaven with great authority, and the earth grew bright with his splendor. He gave a mighty shout: ‘Babylon is fallen—that great city is fallen! She has become a home for demons. She is a hideout for every foul spirit, a hideout for every foul vulture and every foul and dreadful animal. For all the nations have fallen because of the wine of her passionate immorality. The kings of the world have committed adultery with her. Because of her desires for extravagant luxury, the merchants of the world have grown rich.” (Revelation 18:1–3) 
“Then I saw the beast and the kings of the world and their armies gathered together to fight against the one sitting on the horse and his army. And the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who did mighty miracles on behalf of the beast—miracles that deceived all who had accepted the mark of the beast and who worshiped his statue. Both the beast and his false prophet were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. Their entire army was killed by the sharp sword that came from the mouth of the one riding the white horse. And the vultures all gorged themselves on the dead bodies.” (Revelation 19:19–21)
Are you beginning to see a pattern here? There is indeed a place for love and loyalty to our families and to our countries; but we had better be extra specially careful to never let our love and loyalty for family and country surpass the love and loyalty we are to have toward God, God’s Kingdom, and God’s People.

Indeed, I would say that God gives us our families and communities (or nations) as a stewardship through which we are given the opportunity to demonstrate our supreme love toward Him in practical ways.

As parents, we are called to be God’s priests for our families in order to intercede for them and to guide them in God’s ways. As husband and wife, we are joint heirs together of the gift of life and are called to help each other grow more and more like Christ. As children, we demonstrate our ultimate submission to God’s authority as we submit to the authority He delegates to our parents. Indeed, when we truly love God first, we are able to love our families better.

As Christian citizens, we are ambassadors of Christ, called to represent the values of God’s Kingdom among the various human institutions in our midst, even though during this already-but-not-yet time while we await Jesus’ return when He will establish His earthly reign from the New Jerusalem we are not led to expect anything beyond outsider and immigrant status. Yet, we are to love our neighbors, and we are to love them well.

So as followers of Christ, in order to truly keep God, His Kingdom, and His People in their proper place in our hearts, we must be aware of the other things that compete for our allegiance, the other things that may well end up becoming idols in our life.

For some of us, it may at times be something as mundane as our fandom for our favorite sports team. Now there’s nothing wrong with being a loyal sports fan. But there should never be any doubt as to where our true loyalties lie. Simple enough.

For some of us, it may be a political party, or our cultural tribe, or our team or side in the culture wars. Once again, there may not be anything wrong in and of itself with party affiliation or joining forces with likeminded people to advocate for certain moral or cultural causes. But we must always be on guard to make sure our loyalty toward these things never replaces the place in our heart we are to keep reserved for God, His Kingdom, and His People alone.

We may feel a special love toward our people group, whether that be defined ethnically, racially, or nationally. We may have a special love for our city. Some of this is natural. And there are positive ways we can channel this special love for our own people into an effective way of showing God’s special love for each of the people groups of the earth. Our hearts may ache for the wounds of our people and we may seek to see those wounds healed by God’s grace and love. But we must always remember that our ultimate allegiance is to lie with the entire People of God, made up of individuals called out from among every tribe, language, people, and nation.

Finally, we are called to lay down our lives in sacrificial love for our families. There is no doubt about it—this is not an option, but a mandate from God. But this deep, heartfelt love we are to have for our families is, nevertheless, to look like hate when we lay it side by side and compare it to the supreme love and loyalty we are to render uniquely to God, His Kingdom, and His People.

* All Scripture quotations from the New Living Translation

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Macroeconomics and the Bible

* originally posted October 12, 2011, at sbcimpact.org

Even though, way back when, I took college introductory courses on both micro- and macroeconomics, I freely confess that I have never had a very good understanding of either one. Since then, I have spent quite a bit of time studying other subjects, such as the Bible and theology, but I freely confess to having a whole lot to learn on all that as well. As far as I am able to tell, though, the Bible does not have a whole lot to say about macroeconomics—microeconomics, yes, but macroeconomics, not so much.

So why am I writing about macroeconomics and the Bible? Not to argue in favor of one theory of macroeconomics over another. My main beef is with those, from all sides of the spectrum, who talk and act as if the Bible had a lot more to say about macroeconomics than it really does. The ideologues, in this regard, are the advocates of dominion theology (on the right) and liberation theology (on the left), but there are a lot of folks in between these extremes who are swayed to one degree or another by their arguments.

The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about microeconomics. No argument from me here. It clearly teaches basic principles of financial integrity, frugality, sound investing, and strategic saving. In addition, the Bible, all through its pages, in both the Old and New Testaments, has a lot to say about honesty and generosity. Jesus himself talked a lot about personal finances, and the importance, as God’s children, of being good stewards of the resources He commends into our hands.

As far as I can tell, though, the closest thing to a particular theory of macroeconomics advocated in the Bible is found in the civil law given to the theocratic society of Old Testament Israel. With respect to the economic practices of kings and other civil magistrates, the main revelatory content has to do with general principles of justice in favor of the poor and underprivileged, and against corruption and vice on the part of the rich and powerful. All in all, though, in spite of the arguments of the dominionists and liberationists, there is extremely little that can be adduced to conclusively support contemporary theories of economics such as free-market capitalism, neo-liberalism, or socialism.

If anything, certain practices, such as the year of Jubilee, the third-year tithe for the poor, the law of gleaning, and the sharing of material resources in the Jerusalem church, appear to lend support to certain aspects of socialism. In both the OT and NT, however, there also seems to be an assumption of private ownership of property. But, as I understand it, reading support in the Bible for any one theory of macroeconomics as practiced in modern-day nation-states is anachronistic and intellectually inconsistent. 

Though it is true that in many modern contexts, socialism has been linked to atheism, and espoused by evil totalitarian regimes, as far as economic theory in and of itself is concerned, this is not inextricably so. From what I can tell, from a strictly biblical point of view, government-facilitated redistribution of wealth, in and of itself, is neither as inherently reprehensible as many dominionists and right-wing Christians make it out to be, nor as virtuous as many liberationists and left-wing Christians make it out to be.

In the New Testament, there are several obvious reasons why there is very little, if any, instruction given to Christians with regard to macroeconomics. Decisions made with regard to issues such as macroeconomics are normally made by those with the power to make them. And for the most part, New Testament Christians were not included among this group. For Christians, as well as for practically everyone else in the historical milieu of the New Testament, decisions on public policy regarding taxes, government spending, the coining and circulation of money, international trade, interest rates, ownership of property, hiring and firing of employees, etc. were totally out of their hands. In addition, it is unlikely that even those who did have the power to make such decisions thought through these issues in any way close to the manner that modern-day government officials do.

Fast-forward 2,000 years and a lot of things have changed. In modern democracies today, we as Christians (along with everyone else) have the opportunity to speak meaningfully into issues such as macroeconomics. We also have the possibility of speaking into questions of public ethics and morality. Even though we, as individual Christians, may not hold any public office, we have the opportunity—and many would argue, the responsibility—by way of our vote, to influence the establishment of public policy.

This is an eventuality that the Bible does not appear to take into account. A lot of times I find myself wishing the Lord had revealed more in his Word concerning these matters. In the end, however, I trust he knew perfectly well what he was doing. Nevertheless, there are some things that seem pretty clear to me. For instance, if I as a Christian can make a difference through my vote and participation in the political process to counteract the sacrifice of innocent human life through abortion, it seems pretty clear to me that I ought to do what I can. Exactly how I should go about it may not be so clear, but, at least, I think it is pretty clear I should do something. The principle of the sanctity of human life is sufficiently clear in the Bible. Many other matters debated in modern-day partisan politics, though, are not nearly so well defined in the Bible. Equally sincere and orthodox Christians may legitimately argue both sides of many issues.

Most today would agree that the questions of macroeconomics are among the most significant issues of contemporary politics. As that erstwhile and once-successful political candidate Bill Clinton poignantly summed it up, “It’s the economy, stupid.” My personal thinking on this is that, from a certain perspective, the economy is indeed really important. Politicians do well to major on these issues. It is good that we have people who spend time studying these issues and developing theories on how to best make the economy prosper on a macro level. In no way am I denigrating the important work of those who give their time and effort toward studying these subjects.

As Christians, though, I think it is very difficult to demonstrate a specifically biblical basis for the superiority (whether on moral or other grounds) of one economic theory over another. We can certainly make a sound case for good ethics and morality. We can generally argue from the Bible against greed and corruption, and in favor of justice and personal generosity. But what public policy decisions best serve to grease the wheels of the national economy and cause the nation (or the world) as a whole to prosper is a totally different matter. There may well be (and probably are) sound principles of economic theory that help to answer these questions, and those who study these matters scientifically (including Christians) can help us to find these answers, but I don’t believe the Bible itself purports to do so.

As such, I don’t have any problem with Christians espousing personal views of macroeconomics, nor participating in the political process that helps to set public policy influencing the national economy. What I do have a problem with is Christians insinuating that one particular economic theory is THE Christian view on macroeconomics, or claiming biblical support for their theories, when there is none.

Unfortunately, more and more, as of late, a lot of high-profile Christians in public media appear to have developed a special penchant for doing just this. As national elections draw closer, heated rhetoric on public media in general, but on many Christian media outlets as well, is escalating with regard to issues such as macroeconomics. In an effort to discredit one’s political opponents, certain views of macroeconomics are frequently held up as the Christian or biblical view, and opposing views as anti-Christian and immoral. This may happen from both the right as well as the left, though on the particular media outlets I happen to listen to, I hear it more often, as of late, from the right.

When I hear Christian media personalities launch into their tirades on these issues, my heart sinks. I believe this type of rhetoric, whether issued from the right or from the left, is divisive to the unity of the Body of Christ, counterproductive for our ultimate aim as Christians, and contrary to Jesus’ will for us as his disciples. Also, whenever we publicly mock and sarcastically denigrate the policies and economic theories, as well as impugn the motives, of politicians with whom we disagree (especially those currently in office), I believe we are violating the biblical injunction to “honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). That is not to say we cannot ever voice our views on these topics, but we should watch our attitude and the language we use to do so.

Lest anyone misunderstand what I am saying: I am not personally opposed to right-wing views of macroeconomics. As far as I can remember, whenever I have voted in national elections, I have voted for Republican candidates. Certainly, my views on the sanctity of human life and other moral issues have a lot to do with this, and I am not ashamed or reticent of speaking out as a Christian on these issues. But I am careful to not put forward my personal views on macroeconomics as specifically religious convictions.

In the Church (and in our churches), we should be united by the gospel, not by our views on macroeconomics. It should not be perceived as in any way scandalous when a brother or sister in Christ espouses a theory of macroeconomics different than our own, or than that of the majority of the members of our church or denomination. And we should not use official church or denominational channels to advocate views of macroeconomics that do not have specific biblical support.

Also, though I am thankful for the freedom of press we have in the United States, and in no way would want to limit the right of broadcasters and publishers to advocate the political views they choose to advocate, it seems to me that, ideally, there should be a clear difference between the programming of Christian media outlets and that of secular politically-driven media outlets. If I want to hear someone give a defense for one theory of macroeconomics over another (unless they are citing clear biblical principles), I would prefer to hear them do so on a secular station, where the reputation and clear gospel witness of the Church is not at stake.

To paraphrase a well-known verse of Scripture, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of monetary policy, taxes, and government spending (or the lack thereof), but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Do You Have an Abner Spirit or a Joab Spirit?

It was a time of civil war in Israel. King Saul and his oldest son, Jonathan, had died in battle. The people of David’s native tribe of Judah had proclaimed him the new king. The prophet Samuel had anointed David years earlier and had let it be known that God had rejected Saul. But those who were loyal to Saul had rallied around Saul’s son Ishbosheth and proclaimed him as king.

The rivalries were deeply seated. Those on David’s side, including his military captain, Joab, were convinced they were on the right side. They had been unjustly persecuted by Saul and his army for years. And now, they felt, justice was finally on their side. Now it was time for David, the slayer of his tens of thousands of Israel’s enemies, to take the throne.

But those on Ishbosheth’s side were just as convinced that they were in the right. Ishbosheth, they thought, as the son of God’s duly anointed and appointed king, Saul, was the legitimate heir to the throne. David’s army was nothing but an upstart band of renegades and rebels. His support base was centered in his home tribe of Judah and was not as widespread as that of Ishbosheth, who commanded the loyalty of the majority of the rest of the other eleven tribes.

There didn’t appear to be any sign of peace and reconciliation on the horizon. In a winner-take-all challenge match between twelve leading warriors of each army, they all ended up as losers, with each pair of warriors simultaneously killing each other. And then, Joab’s young, fleet-footed brother Asahel chased after Abner with the intent to kill him. But the older and wiser Abner, after pleading with Asahel to desist, ended up killing him instead, in self-defense.

It was in this scenario of escalating violence and resentment that Abner shouted out to Joab, “Must we always be killing each other? Don’t you realize that bitterness is the only result? When will you call off your men from chasing their Israelite brothers?” (2 Samuel 2:26 NLT) 

For a brief moment, Abner appeared to have gotten through to Joab, and he agreed to a short-lived truce. But before long, both sides were back at it, and the long, bitter war once again raged on.

After some dicey personal matters came to light and words of disagreement were exchanged between him and Ishbosheth, though, Abner came to his senses and finally decided that enough was enough. He humbled himself, came to David, and offered terms of peace. He agreed to use his influence to convince all Israel to lay down their arms and support David as king. Finally, it appeared, there was a real opportunity for peace in the land. 

But Joab would have none of it. He secretly connived and laid a trap for Abner, and while his guard was down and he was not expecting it, he ruthlessly murdered him in revenge for his brother Asahel.

Joab convinced himself he was acting out of loyalty to David. But David was profoundly heartbroken and disappointed with Joab. “Don’t you realize that a great commander has fallen today in Israel?” he told Joab and the rest of his troops. “Tear your clothes and put on burlap. Mourn for Abner.”

There were still many twists and turns in the plot-line to be told before we come to the end of this sordid story, but David’s bitter wound stayed with him until the day he died. While giving his parting admonition to his son Solomon shortly before he died, David made a special point to include the following words:

“And there is something else. You know what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me when he murdered my two army commanders, Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether. He pretended that it was an act of war, but it was done in a time of peace, staining his belt and sandals with innocent blood. Do with him what you think best, but don’t let him grow old and go to his grave in peace.” (1 Kings 2:5–6 NLT)

Though perhaps some might find the illustration a bit extreme, I believe there are some interesting parallels between several elements of this story (which you can read about more fully in 2 Samuel 2–3) and the current atmosphere in the SBC—and to some extent in the broader evangelical world.

We also live in a time of combat and combatants. We have culture warriors. We have social justice warriors. And we have many on every side who claim to just be soldiers of the cross.

Everyone thinks they are on the right side. Just like Abner was convinced he was on the right side, and Joab was convinced he was on the right side, most of the warriors in our wars are sincerely convinced they are on the right side as well.

And don’t get me wrong. It is important to be on the right side. It is not a matter of indifference. Ultimately, from the perspective of redemption history, we learn that David and those who supported him were on the right side, and Saul and Ishbosheth and those who supported them were on the wrong side. 

It is good to have convictions. We are not called as soldiers of the cross to be wishy-washy in our convictions. Just as Paul told the Roman Christians who were grappling with divisive issues among them, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5 ESV)

But even though Abner was ultimately on the wrong side, and even though he was not without his own flaws, in this situation he had the right spirit. He was able to recognize the writing on the wall. And he was able to lay down his own impetuosity and stubbornness. But Joab, who was ultimately on the right side, had the wrong spirit—a petty, vindictive spirit. He was more dedicated to a cause and loyal to the human champions of that cause than he was to God and the ultimate welfare of His people Israel.

Hear me out well now. I am not saying that in the current discussions and conflict in the SBC (and American Evangelicalism at large) one side is Abner and the other side is Joab. I indeed have my own views on various of the issues up for discussion, and will almost certainly continue to defend these views here and there, but that is not what this post is about. I am not calling for anyone to compromise on their heartfelt convictions. What I am saying is that we may well be on the right side of a particular issue, but approach it with a Joab spirit. And a Joab spirit is not something that God can bless. It is poison. It is destructive. It is satanic.

What I am attempting to do here is to echo and apply the words of Abner in our current context and hope that maybe, just maybe, it will get through to someone who needs to hear it: “Must we always be killing each other? Don’t you realize that bitterness is the only result? When will you call off your men from chasing their Israelite brothers?”