"Unity without verity is no better than conspiracy." - John Trapp

Friday, October 09, 2015

Fruitfulness and Debating

I love to debate. At an old job, a co-worker and I would frequently debate trivial subjects just for the sake of debating. Someone, usually me, would make an off-the-cuff remark and the other would challenge the statement. Not that we necessarily disagreed, but just for the sake of the debate. I would be lying if I said I was good at this or won many of these (he was good at it).

Based on what I've seen on the internet, from forums to Facebook to Twitter, we aren't the only ones who do this. The problem with the internet compared to my old work debates is it is much more difficult to judge intensity. With my co-worker, as he backed me into a corner in the debate, I could see the laughter and lightheartedness in his eyes. People in the next aisle might assume we were having a serious discussion, but we knew otherwise.

I was thinking about this because of a couple of things this week. First, for a few weeks I've been part of a Facebook group whose purpose, at least in part, was to discuss theology. While there were some good discussions there, I made the decision earlier in the week to leave the group because, as far as I could tell, there was too much strife. They debates were too serious.

Let me pause to say the topics discussed there were of more importance than the debates I had many years ago with my co-worker. We were debating things like electric versus acoustic guitars; the Facebook group was debating views of baptism and other matters of importance to the Christian faith. So I would expect the debates to be more serious. But, even so, shouldn't we expect the debates to be characterized by love and a genuine concern to understand one another, not merely to impose our views?

This was driven home because, secondly, I've finally gotten back to studying Galatians. Providentially, I've been in chapter five this week where Paul is switching from his (very serious) discussion about theology to what it means practically in the lives of his readers. Many of the sins of the flesh that Paul enumerates in Galatians 5 are relationship sins; they are things that separate us from each other. Most of the fruit of the Spirit deals with how we relate to one another as well.

The problem I saw, and unfortunately see too frequently in these kinds of discussion, is that we are not heeding the Scriptures we claim to be defending. For Paul condemns rancorous debate in Galatians 5 saying:

For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, namely, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” However, if you continually bite and devour one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:14-15 NET)

But we frequently bite and devour another. We show teeth not in a warm smile be with snarling.

Some will argue, of course, that Galatians is four chapters of serious debate before these remarks. That is true, and Paul's condemnation of those who are leading the Galatians into error is strong indeed. But Paul was dealing with a gospel issue in Galatians. Many (most; maybe nearly all) of the debates I see online are about secondary issues at best. Yes, these are important issues and I'm not saying we shouldn't be discussing and debating them. We are called to work towards unity and that will require discussion and debate. The question is about how we are discussing them and what is our motive for discussing them.

For the first part, we shouldn't be, according to Galatians 5:14-15, biting and devouring one another. What I saw in many posts was more like a noisy gong or a clanging symbol (see 1 Corinthians 13:1). Even if the person posting was right in their position, what came through was a need to be right, not a desire for us all to be united in the truth. Which gets to the motive of why we post, and means I need to offer a word of caution. It's entirely possible, because of the nature of the internet, that I misread many of the posts there. Motives are difficult to discern, even in face to face conversation, let alone when all you have are written words. That's why I will not name the group or any of the individuals involved; because I may have totally misread the situation.

But that it occurs is not a question. Paul isn't warning us about a hypothetical. He's concerned that these things will occur. In verse 26, Paul summarizes what he has been writing for the last couple of paragraphs in a single sentence. To get a good feel for what it says, here it is in several translations:

Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (ESV)

Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another. (NASB)

Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other. (CEB)

 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, being jealous of one another. (NET)

The translator notes for the NET Bible help in understanding what these three things are. Of the first term, translated conceited most often but also boastful or arrogant, the translators note that the idea behind the Greek word is "falsely proud." The second term, provoking or challenging or making angry, the translators note has the idea of being "irritating." For the third, envy or jealousy are sufficient.

So Paul is saying that we can become falsely proud (conceited), perhaps because we have, or at least think we have, an understanding of some area of doctrine, that will lead others to be irritated with us creating envy and jealousy between us. Clearly the intent is that we should avoid this. The question is, how?

Paul has told us how. We walk by the Spirit. What does it mean to walk by the Spirit? It means we display the fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the traits we should be displaying in all our interactions, with believers and with non-believers (see Galatians 6:10). By all means debate; study; learn. But remember that if it only affects our heads and not our hearts we have missed the point entirely. Because Paul, along with Jesus, says that law can be simply summarized as "Love your neighbor as yourself."

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Confounding Love and Approval

Recent things on the internet have had me thinking about how we treat each other. John Mellencamp wrote that "what we do to each other are the worst things that we do" ("Another Sunny Day 12/25") and the internet seems to confirm that sentiment. There is a basic disconnect in the way we think about things and it is not just a recent mindset. Disagreements mean separation.

While it's not the main point of this post I want to say up front that I cannot think of a time when threats would be acceptable except in response to someone threatening your person or other people. Even then, I see that less as a threat and more of as a warning. "If you pursue this course, then I will be forced to pursue that course" where "that course" may be anything from involving the authorities to self-defense. But to threaten someone for the ideas they espouse is wrong.

Thinking about this has lead to a simple conclusion, and that is that human beings have a problem confounding love and approval. This isn't a new problem as it is present in the gospels. The Pharisees assume that by eating with "tax-gathers and sinners" Jesus was approving of their activities. But we know this is not that case. Even after rescuing the woman caught in adultery from stoning, Jesus' last recorded words to her are to "sin no more."

We confound love and approval in two different ways. Today, as the culture has shifted, Christians have tried to convince people that disapproving of certain lifestyles does not imply that we do not love the people who are participating in those lifestyles. But we have met opposition saying that such a thing is not possible.

If we reflect on this though, we shouldn't be surprised it is not accepted because for many years we have taught the same thing from the other side. Sure, we didn't use the word love, but we taught separation. When Christianity was the majority, we were comfortable with shunning certain people so that no one would think we approved of their sin. So our arguments now that we can love these people but not accept them rings hollow.

Jesus' approach was different. He associated with and loved anyone who would come to Him. This included the Pharisees. Why then did he so frequently condemn them? Because they should have known better. They had the Scriptures and had studied them.

What does all this mean practically? I don't know how we apply it in every situation, but if we follow Jesus example, then don't we need to be willing to risk our reputation? Don't we need to be willing to love and care for those around us, regardless of whether or not we approve of their lifestyles?

Don't take this the wrong way. Sin is sin and as believers we cannot call evil good. The question is what do we lead with when we deal with others. Until we are leading with love I don't think we can  expect others to believe that we care about them. Perhaps we should worry less that some people might think we were approving of sin and should worry more about displaying the fruit of the spirit.

Just a thought.

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Monday, September 08, 2014

The Problem with the Future

This post was supposed to be about eschatology, i.e. the study of last things. In particular, about the end of the world, not about our individual ends. Millennial views were going to be discussed, perhaps over more than one post.

Then I saw a link to an article on Medium that starts "Every age has a story it tells about the end of the world." The article is not exactly about traditional eschatology. The author's religious beliefs are not shared. But the article is worth a read. Here's a brief portion:

The future isn't the steady, forward march of human advancement anymore. What is “declining”? Constitutional democracy, opportunity, mobility, material prosperity, law, equity, fairness, a sense of meaning in life…hope for the future. Rupture.

The Rupture, a play on "the rapture", a concept which would have figured prominently into this post as originally intended, is the title of the piece. While it is talking about the future, and how the secular hope of a shining future now has a rupture, the thing that sticks with me is the end. The author's conclusion is that the problem isn't with future, it's with us; with our hearts.

Again, the author's religious beliefs are unknown, but what he states is a basic tenet of historic Christian doctrine. The prophet Jeremiah puts it this way:

The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately sick;
    who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)

To fix the future, our hearts must first be fixed. Many throughout history have recognized and taught this fact. The question is, how can our hearts be fixed?

Many have suggested that we must strive to do better. We unlock some inner strength or wisdom or courage through effort. We just have to do better to be better.

But if our hearts are broken, if they are deceitful and desperately sick, this will not work. If we can't understand our heart, we can't fix our heart. We need a physician. The problem is that every human physician is plagued with the same blindness that we are.

We need a savior. We need God to reach into our hearts and do what we cannot, change them. We have to see that we are so sick that we will not get better on our own, but that we need Jesus, the Great Physician, to make us well.

Even then we will struggle. Even then we will have to daily fix our eyes upon Him and trust Him to continue the work of changing us. Positionally, once He redeems us we are righteous, but our sanctification continues. The road will not always, and perhaps not even frequently, be easy. But we have a hope, "that he who began ha good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."

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Friday, September 05, 2014

Four Certain Things

On Twitter yesterday, someone posted a couple of lines from Rudyard Kipling's "The Gods of the Copybook Headings." If you are unfamiliar with this particular poem of Mr. Kipling's, it's not as well known as The Jungle Book or "Gunga Din," then I commend it to you.

It should be noted that copybooks had words of wisdom printed at the top and students would fill the page below by writing the proverb repeatedly. The primary aim was to practice writing but secondarily to ingrain the wisdom into the students' minds. Kipling includes a few of these in the poem (look for "And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said") as examples of the wisdom.

In the poem, this wisdom is contrasted with that from the Gods of the Market Place. If you've ever read  Neil Gaiman's American Gods you might wonder, as I do, if Mr. Gaiman was influenced by this poem. There too old gods are pitted against new (American) gods. Gaiman, while similar to Kipling seems to favor the old gods, does not seem as sure that the old gods will triumph.

Kipling's words are worth pondering for a bit. If he was noticing these things in his time, how much more have we succumbed to The Gods of the Market Place today. Much of the strife I see generally and online in particular could be resolved by paying a little more attention to The Gods of the Copybook Headings.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings by Rudyard Kipling 
AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all 
We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind. 
We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome. 
With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things. 
When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "Stick to the Devil you know.
On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death.
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die.
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more. 
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire; 
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return! 

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Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Apostle's Introduction (Galatians Part 1)

As part of this new effort, I want to spend at least one day a week looking at a specific Bible passage. Rather than just jump around, I'm going to go through a book of the Bible. So to start I'm going to use Galatians and for a translation I'm going to use the Lexham English Bible (a version is free for download at the link). I've had this version for a while in Logos Bible Software and this will also help me to evaluate the translation.

Galatians 1:1-5 Paul, an apostle not from men nor by men but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead, 2 and all the brothers with me, to the churches of Galatia. 3 Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins in order to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. 

This is a fairly standard opening for one of Paul's epistles. He identifies himself as an apostle, that is as one who is sent as a representative. But he is not a representative merely of some humans, like the church in Jerusalem or in Antioch. He is an apostle of Jesus Christ and therefore of God the Father.

In this introduction Paul includes a reminder of what God the Father has done through Jesus by mentioning the resurrection. Galatians is a fairly focused letter from Paul about the need to live in light of Jesus' resurrection. That God the Father raised Jesus from the dead is the Father's seal of approval that Jesus accomplished what He was sent to accomplish.

Paul also notes, as the book of Acts makes clear, that he was not travelling alone. There are others with him who he considers brothers. They are brothers not according to the flesh but because they are also believers. Part of living in the light of the resurrection is recognizing that other believers are now family.

Then comes the statement about to whom the letter is addressed, the churches of Galatia. These are churches that Paul founded during his missionary journeys and also churches that he appears to have visited on multiple occasions.

Paul then provides a benediction of grace and peace for these churches. The source of these blessings is God the Father and  the Lord Jesus Christ. Interesting that the original languages contain an "our" that the translators appear to disagree on with whom it should be associated. The LEB has "our Lord Jesus Christ" while the ESV has "God our Father." Other versions appear to be fairly evenly split between the two readings and at this point I don't see a large theological significance either way. Other passages clearly say that we our now adopted children  with God as our Father. Likewise, Jesus is clearly taught to be our Lord, so either reading is consistent with the remainder of the Scriptures.

Paul now comes back to the point of the resurrection. It was God the Father that raised Jesus but what work did Jesus do that the resurrection is evidence of having been completed? Jesus died in our place ("for our sins") so that we might be delivered ("to rescue us from the present evil age"). This is substitutionary atonement and is a stumbling block for many. Properly understood, this should remove pride from the Christian life. God saves us not because we are good people. Jesus had to die to pay the penalty we deserved due to our sin. This age is evil, but until we are saved we are participants in the evil. We are not rescued because we are good people. Therefore, we should not look down on others who have not yet been redeemed.

This act of redemption did not occur by a unilateral decision on the part of Jesus, but was accomplished in accordance with the Father's will. John says we love God because God first loved us. God does not love us because we love Him, but because of who He is. Therefore, again, pride has no place in the Christian life. Glory belongs to God "forever and ever."

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Wednesday, September 03, 2014


As I mentioned in a post a couple of days ago, today marks the one year anniversary of me going into the hospital near the point of death. This day is also the day when the call was made to have my cat, Alison, put to sleep. She was sixteen and suffering from kidney failure. I have had her for longer than any other pet I've ever owned, though a few come close.

Death is a part of this life. I don't mean that in some Zen way. Paul makes it clear that while Christians should not fear death. He says in Philippians 1:21 that "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." (ESV). Part of what Jesus does to free us is to remove from us the fear of death:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14-15 ESV)

But that doesn't make death a good or a welcome thing. Death is the result of sin. Paul says that death is an enemy, and an enemy that one day will be end:

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:26 ESV)

Because of Jesus' death and resurrection, death will not get the final say. One day we too who are Christ's will be raised just as He was raised. What will it be like? The Bible seems to be intentionally vague on this topic. Paul says our new bodies will be as different from our present bodies as an oak is from an acorn.

I suspect that even most images that the Bible does provide shouldn't be taken too literally. How do you describe things that you have no categories for.  Earlier in Corinthians Paul says:

Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard,
And which have not entered the heart of man,
All that God has prepared for those who love Him. (1 Corinthians 2:9 NASB)

What awaits us is greater than anything we have imagined. What we do know is that in that place, God will be ever present with us. Today we see but a shadow and we have but a promise, i.e. the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In that day God will walk with us, but not as with Adam and Eve where He seemed to come and go. No, the Bible says then He will dwell with us. Whatever else accompanies that is like a cherry on top of a banana split.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Influential Books

My niece tagged me on Facebook to give a listing of ten books that have influenced me. I went in chronological order, based on the time when I had read them. The first book in the list was Jack London's White Fang. I had only been reading a little while when I picked the book up and without it I might not have the love of books that I have today.

The others in the first five are not so important here, but I want to list the second five with a brief description as to why they are on the list.

  • The Bible - If pressed for a version, I would go New American Standard (1985) though the first time I read through the Bible it would have been the New King James. If I was ranking them in order of importance, this would be the first. God used many circumstances in my life to call me to salvation, but primary one was reading the Scriptures. I had tried a couple of times before and never got to far. But during my senior year of college I finally started what would be my first read through the New Testament. It would be after I graduated before redeemed me, but the influence of reading the Bible cannot be overstated. Truly His word does not return to Him empty.
  • Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis - I had read many books prior to this after becoming a Christian, but most were rather light weight on more in a "self-help" category. Lewis gently introduced me to thinking more deeply about my faith.
  • See You at the House by Bob Benson - This little book is a collection of stories that Bob Benson used in his writings and messages. They are a source of wisdom to me from someone who did not have an easy life. Bob was frequently sick and died relatively young but, possible because of this, he speaks from the heart and honestly. It's not deep theology but the matters he touches on are essential.
  • Knowing God by J. I. Packer - As Lewis was a gentle introduction to thinking deeply about faith, Packer was a gentle introduction about thinking more deeply about God. The book was recommended to me by a seminary student who introduced me to Theology Proper. Packer scratched an itch I didn't know I had, the need to know God more deeply.
  • The Doctrine of God by Herman Bavinck - So much for gentle introductions. Bavinck led me into deeper waters, and I'm particularly grateful for his discussion of the Trinity and what it means (or at least should mean) in the Christian life. 
Thinking about this I may take it as a project to re-read each one of these soon and track that reading here.

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