Archive for March, 2014

A warning to pastors like me

March 20, 2014

What if I woke up every morning and re-read this paragraph, from Douglas Moo’s commentary on James? Here he’s referring to James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” God knows I’ve already blown it a thousand times over—for which I will face our Lord’s judgment. By God’s grace, however, I’m getting better all the time!

Teachers, because they bear so much responsibility for the spiritual welfare of those to whom they minister, will be scrutinized by the Lord more carefully than others. Jesus warned: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). God has given to teachers a great gift and entrusted to them “the deposit” of the faith (cf. 2 Tim 1:14). He will expect a careful account of the stewardship. Paul reflects just this sense of responsibility as he addresses the elders of the church at Ephesus. He stressed that he had been faithful to his task as a herald of the gospel: “I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:26-27)… Those of us who teach God’s word regularly need to follow James’s example and apply the warning of this verse to ourselves. When we undertake to guide others in the faith, we must be especially careful to exhibit the fruit of that faith by the way we live. Our greater knowledge brings with it a greater responsibility to live  according to that knowledge. Of course, James is not trying to talk people who have the appropriate call and the gift out of becoming teachers. But he does want to impress upon us the seriousness of this calling and to warn us about entering into the ministry with insincere or cavalier motivations.[†]

I would only add that we can enter into the ministry sincerely and sober-mindedly. The problem is what happens next: we have an enemy, the devil, who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

I can count on one hand the number of times the topic of spiritual warfare came up either in seminary or throughout the United Methodist ordination process. That, my friends, is a problem!

Douglas Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 150.

“Meaning of Marriage” reflection questions, Week 4

March 20, 2014

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We covered the following questions at our March 16 meeting. (Click to download questions as a separate Word file.) Among other things, we talked about the challenge married couples face “leaving and cleaving”—leaving their families of origins behind and cleaving to their spouse. Everyone agreed that establishing boundaries between a couple and in-laws was a problem. To that end, I showed the following clips from “The Letter,” an unforgettable episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.

Chapter 4

Who is the “us” of Genesis 1:26 (“Let us make man in our own image.”)? What clue does this offer about the reason for marriage?

Keller says that when God created Eve as a “helper-companion” for Adam, more than anything else God gave Adam a friend. Do you agree that friendship is the most important aspect of a marriage? Do you agree with Keller that your spouse should be your best friend?

Does your marriage make friendship with your spouse a priority?

What is sanctification and how does marriage relate to it? What does Keller say is more important than compatibility when choosing your potential mate?

Re-read the illustration of Michelangelo making his statue David. How does this relate to your spouse? Keller says that our spouses are always “works in progress.” How do we help shape our spouses in such a way that doesn’t annoy them or foster resentment?

Name some ways in which your spouse has made you into a better person.

Citing Paul’s words in Ephesians 5, Paul says that your ultimate job as a spouse is to help your spouse love Jesus more than he or she loves you. Why is this “paradoxical”?

How do single people often go wrong when looking for a potential marriage partner?

Has your own marriage experienced problems because one partner or the other hasn’t sufficiently “left” their family or origin to “cleave” to their spouse? Describe them.

What are “pseudo-spouses”? Do you see evidence of them in your own marriage. Re-read the paragraphs related to parents loving children more than one another.  Respond to these words from a marriage counselor: “The best way for you to be a great mother to your daughter is by being a great wife to your husband. That is the main thing your daughter needs from you.”

Keller says, citing Ephesians 5, that purpose of marriage is to “make us holy.” How does holiness relate to happiness?

What does C.S. Lewis mean when he writes, “If we will not learn to eat the only food the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe can ever grow—then we must starve eternally”?

Marriage Link

Listen to this song by Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet called “For Other Eyes.” What is the narrator struggling with in the song? Why can’t the narrator forgive her husband? If you were the husband in this situation, what would you do? Is there hope for this couple?

Sermon 03-09-14: “The Coming Judgment”

March 18, 2014

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There is something within us that demands that justice be done. We live in a world, however, in which justice can never be done fully or perfectly. And sometimes when we try to do justice ourselves, we make things worse.

The good news is that God promises that justice will be done—on Judgment Day. But if God judges the world, that means he judges us as well. Is that still good news? Yes! And this sermon explains why.

Sermon Text: James 2:8-13

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

Some of you watch the PBS show Downton Abbey, about a family of aristocrats and their servants living in 1920s England. One of the story lines this past season revolved around one of the servants named Anna—a “ladies maid” who is one of the most kindhearted, sympathetic characters on the show. This season she was raped by another servant who was visiting the house. It’s difficult enough today for women to come forward and seek the justice of the courts when this happens today; it was much more difficult back then. So going to the police isn’t really an option.

At first, Anna tries to keep it a secret from her husband, Mr. Bates, because she was confident that if he found out, he would definitely take the law into his own hands and murder the man who did it. And then he would be imprisoned and hanged—and what good would that do for anyone? Eventually, Mr. Bates does find out most of the truth, except Anna lies and tells him that a stranger did it—someone she had never seen before who broke into the house. Again, if Mr. Bates knew who really did it, he would hunt him down and kill him.

So, one of the suspenseful elements of the story this season was watching Mr. Bates piece it together, solve the mystery, slowly and surely figure out the full truth about who did it. What’s he going to do?

Since in the past I’ve been accused by my own family of giving away the endings of movies in sermon illustrations, I won’t reveal what happens to either the rapist or Mr. Bates. What I will say is this: the writers wrote the story in such a way that they had even Christian pastors like me rooting for Mr. Bates, hoping that he would avenge this terrible crime against his wife, Anna. I don’t think I’m the only one who felt that way, either.

We want justice to be done in this world. It angers us to see people who perpetrate evil get off scot-free. Read the rest of this entry »

The Bible isn’t merely an “historical witness about God”

March 18, 2014

Adam-Hamilton-at-GC_web

Last week, I wrote this critical response to Adam Hamilton’s “three buckets” approach to interpreting scripture, which he will likely expound upon in a forthcoming book (the three buckets approach, I mean, not my response to it!). The most objectionable part was “Bucket 3,” which includes those scriptures that Hamilton says “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.” One obvious questions is, how on earth does he know or decide which scriptures those are?

And even Bucket 2, which says that some scriptures are “no longer binding,” misses the mark. God still speaks through all of scripture, even those scriptures related, for example, to Israel’s dietary laws—whether we keep kosher today or not.

Dr. Bill Arnold, an Old Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, explains why in this blog post, showing how Hamilton’s interpretive strategy is inconsistent both with what the Bible says about itself (keep in mind that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is literally referring to the Old Testament) and with what United Methodists profess to believe about it.

As sacred canon (or authoritative standard) for the church, we believe the Bible is not primarily inspired for us to know things (epistemology). We learn quite a lot from the Bible, of course. But this is not its primary function in and for the church. Instead, the Bible is inspired and given by God to the church in order for Christians to know God through personal and corporate salvation (soteriology). Even my use of the word “know” in the previous sentences has different meanings. By “know” when referring to things, I’m essentially referring to the use of our brains to accumulate facts. But by “know” when referring to God, I mean encountering God and relating to God in a way made possible by the atonement of Christ on the cross. We believe the whole canon is a gift from God, inspired to lead us to an intimate relationship with God individually and corporately, and to transform us into God’s image…

In our interpretive tradition as Wesleyans, we do not elevate one portion or sub-portion of the Bible as more authoritative than others. There is a definite progression or gradual revealing of God and God’s message in the Bible. But we do not believe that later stages of revelation necessarily replace, dismiss, or nullify earlier stages of revelation (known as supersessionism). When we dismiss any portion of Scripture as outside the character, will, or heart of God for any reason, we have essentially turned Scripture into a historical witness about God, not a revelation from God. What is perceived as today’s superior wisdom trumps or supersedes the wisdom of the church’s Scriptures. The Bible becomes nothing more than a witness to God, not a revelation of God.

In a response to a commenter, Dr. Arnold wrote this nice summary of his objection:

My objection to the “bucket” approach is the language that certain texts “expressed [note the past tense] God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding” or others that “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.” Such language compartmentalizes passages (whichever texts the reader has deemed outmoded or offensive to God) and considers them irrelevant in developing Christian ethics. So while I agree this is not about literalism (and with Adam, I reject literalism), I maintain that such an approach is indeed an exegetical reading strategy, and I maintain that it’s flawed. Our exegetical method always ends in application, and we must do this for every text. In other words, interpretation of the Bible includes an “end-game” we often call “evaluation” or sometimes “appropriation” that takes the result of our exegesis of the ancient text, and asks what meaning it has for today. Or to use the old 3-step questions of the Protestant Reformation, we must ask (a) what the text said, grammatically, (b) what the text meant, historically, and (c) what the text means (the grammatico-historical method). And we do this for every verse in the Bible. The results of our exegesis (including appropriation) then become the foundation for biblical theology.

The “bucket” approach has decided (for whatever reason) that certain texts are excluded (bucket #3) or limited in value for today (bucket #2). I object because I think this approach is simplistically assuming that any grammatical imperative command in Old Testament law must be weighed as whether or not it should be obeyed by modern believers. That’s not really true of any OT law. Instead, these “laws” are to be read for the principles for holiness they are intended to reflect in their immediate literary contexts. This is also a fundamental misunderstanding of OT law, which is really “instruction [for holy living]” more than “law” as we usually think of it. We have no evidence that either Israel or Babylonia really ever enacted the hyperbolic laws, such as stoning the rebellious son. I believe they were “holy instructions” for our edification to indicate how truly serious such principles are.

Anyway, I believe the “bucket” approach is not only a reading strategy but reflects also one’s view of inspiration. What do we mean by taking the Bible as the “word of God”? Is the whole revelatory, or not? And if not, how are we to know which parts express the “heart, character or will of God,” and which do not? Who gets to say? My article was trying to recapture the canonical approach, taking the whole Bible for the whole world.

“‘Til on that cross as Jesus died…”

March 17, 2014

Yesterday I preached on James 2:14-26, which includes Abraham’s offering of Isaac as a sacrifice as evidence of faith and good works “cooperating” with one another. Since I preach Christ crucified in every sermon these days (and I’m sorry for those early years in which I didn’t), I used the Abraham story to make an obvious connection to the cross:

Now consider this: God didn’t ask Abraham to do anything that God himself wasn’t willing to do—when God the Father sent his only Son Jesus to the cross in order to pay the price for our sins, our disobedience, to ransom us from death and hell, to win a victory for us over the forces of evil, and bring us into a saving relationship with God.

By doing so, hasn’t God proven how much he loves you and me?

In these two sentences, you can see that I covered a few different atonement bases (including Christus Victor and moral influence), but my central message, as always, was penal substitution or “substitutionary atonement”: that on the cross Christ takes our place, pays the penalty for our sin, suffers God’s justifiable anger over sin and evil, and meets the demand for justice. In classic Reformed language, the cross satisfies God’s wrath.

As is my wont, I recently got into an online argument with a fellow United Methodist pastor who believes that penal substitution is a misguided way of understanding atonement. That’s putting it mildly. He actually says, among other things:

If God will not forgive us until his Son has been tortured to death for us then God is a lot less forgiving than even we are sometimes.

If society feels itself somehow compensated for its loss by the satisfaction of watching the sufferings of a criminal, then society is being vengeful in a pretty infantile way.

And if God is satisfied and compensated for sin by the suffering of mankind in Christ, God must be even more infantile.

This is me, making the gagging motion with my hand to my mouth.

This pastor/blogger is a smart and theologically well-educated guy, and he knows better than to reduce substitutionary atonement to this kind of caricature. I called him on it in the comments section. He allowed that while there was a “place for God’s wrath” when discussing atonement, it’s “inconsistent” with God’s character for us to make God’s wrath, or justice, or punishment for sin a central motif of the cross.

If he were merely saying that we need to emphasize God’s love above all else, well, I completely agree! But what’s more loving than a God who pays with his very life the debt that we ourselves are unable to pay? As I said in yesterday’s sermon, we can’t comprehend God’s grace without knowing why God needs to be gracious toward us in the first place!

To me, my fellow pastor’s viewpoint trivializes the problem of sin, but he’s hardly alone in doing so. In fact, while penal substitution has always been the primary way that Protestants have understood atonement (not that Catholics haven’t also emphasized it), I’ve read many contemporary Protestants who speak as if this emphasis misreads the Bible and the history of Christian thought. They say that no one considered substitutionary atonement until Anselm in the 11th century, and then Thomas Aquinas came along and set him straight. And that it wasn’t until the 16th century, when the Reformers came along, that penal substitution became a central doctrine among a minority of the Church.

Is that right? Have we gotten the Bible and tradition so badly wrong?

A resounding “no” on both counts, and if you doubt it, read this fine essay by Presbyterian theologian Robert Gagnon, who was himself responding to last year’s controversy over the PCUSA’s decision to reject “In Christ Alone” from their new hymnal.

He makes his primary biblical case from Romans 1:18-3:20. Among other things he writes:

The message here has everything to do with the debt that humans incur before God for their wrongdoing and nothing to do with paying off a debt to Satan. Lest one miss the point that God is an active judge in all this, Paul adds a quotation from Prov 24:12 (= Ps 62:11): God “will repay to each in accordance with his works” (2:6). It is not as if death and permanent exclusion from God is merely a natural or mechanistic outgrowth of one’s choices over which God has no active involvement. God actively repays. And what does God repay to the impenitent? Paul is clear: “wrath and fury” (2:8) and “affliction and distress” (2:9). By “wrath” he clearly means the punishment that God actively inflicts of exclusion from eternal life (note the contrast with “eternal life” in 2:7). Later in ch. 2 Paul refers to “the day when God judges the hidden things of people” (2:16)…

After showing in 1:18-3:20 that all humanity rightly stands under God’s wrath and deserving of God’s cataclysmic judgment because of their sins, Paul offers in Rom 3:21-26 what is arguably the single most important unfolding of the core gospel in the Pauline corpus. According to Paul (and it is “according to Paul” whether or not there is a hymnic fragment in 3:25-26a), we are

24being justified (= pronounced righteous) as a gift by his (= God’s) grace through the redemption [or: the ransoming] that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God set before himself as an amends-making offering [or: propitiatory gift, atoning sacrifice] in [= by] his blood, through faith, for an indication of his righteousness, because of the letting go of the previously occurring sins 26in God’s holding back…

As Gagnon makes clear here, humanity owes a debt to God alone (and not Satan, as a version of the “ransom theory” holds), which means, among other things, that the “ransom” that God the Son pays, he pays to God the Father. And God’s wrath isn’t simply letting human beings suffer the natural consequences of sinful choices (as some theologians and pastors argue): God actively punishes.

What’s the objection to this? That sin isn’t a big enough deal for God to be so concerned, much less angry? How does that not minimize the crisis of sin and evil?

Dr. Gagnon even takes issue with an idea that has become conventional wisdom in mainline seminaries:

It is commonplace for theologians to claim that there are many different ways of conceiving the atonement, of which “penal substitution” is only one alongside of many others such as redemption, justification, reconciliation, victory over spiritual powers and Christ-as-example. This is an instance where theologians are commonly wrong, confusing the results or effects of the atonement (or, in the case of Christ as example, not even an effect) with the atonement proper. Paul indicates here that believers are justified “through” or “by means of” something. From the Godward side it is “by his grace” and from the human side it is “through faith.” When talking about the Christward side it is “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” a means that is further clarified as God setting “Christ before himself as an amends-making offering by his blood (i.e., death).”

For example, the popular “Christus Victor” theory of atonement argues that the cross is the means by which God won a decisive victory over sin, Satan, and the forces of evil. Well, yes… But how is this victory won? What happened on the cross to make this victory possible?

What happened is that Christ took our place and suffered God’s wrath on our behalf, thereby liberating us from sin and Satan and the forces of evil that enslaved us. To say that a “victory” is a means makes no sense. Christ’s substitutionary death is the means.

In an appendix to his essay, Gagnon also gives the lie to the popular myth that Christian theologians never considered penal substitution prior to Anselm. He quotes heavy hitters like Eusebius, Athanasius, Chrysostom, and Augustine, who expressed the idea of “satisfying God’s wrath,” even if they didn’t use those words.

Sermon 03-02-14: “The Sin of Partiality”

March 14, 2014

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What do we need to be happy—truly happy? We often show favoritism because we think we need people or possessions to “fill up our spiritual tank.” The truth is, nothing can satisfy our souls except God. He gives us everything we need, if only we’ll trust him!

Sermon Text: James 2:1-9

A couple of weeks ago, my family and I went to Disney World. We’ve had annual passes this past year, so we went one last time before they expire. Do you know about the “Fastpass” system? It enables you to make an appointment to ride a ride at a certain time, so you don’t have to wait in long lines.

Well, they’ve upgraded the system recently, and let’s just say they haven’t worked out all the bugs. So Lisa went to Guest Relations to complain—and this being Disney and all—they went above and beyond to help us. Basically, they gave us a stack of free Fastpasses that entitled us to go to the front of the line on any ride we wanted, in any park we wanted, at any time we wanted. Just walk right up to any ride and get on! It was awesome!

Did we feel ever so slightly guilty that we had this great advantage not only over those poor slobs who actually had to wait in the “standby” line, without Fastpasses, but also over the people who were using the regular Fastpass system? Did we feel a little guilty?

No way! We just walked to the front of whatever ride we wanted to ride, looked at everyone else, and said, “See you later, Suckers!”

No, we didn’t really do that. But we did feel like we were royalty or something—like if Prince William and Princess Kate came to visit Disney World, they couldn’t have been treated any better than we were.

I’ll be honest. I liked it! I liked being treated better than everyone else. It made me feel very special.

In today’s scripture, a similar situation is happening—only it’s happening in church. Read the rest of this entry »

Confessing “Jesus is Lord” is no magic charm

March 13, 2014

I’ve been leading a small group discussion on the Letter of James on Wednesday nights. Last night, we talked about God’s judgment (while looking at James 2:8-13) and the frightening prospect of backsliding and even losing one’s salvation. Is it possible? By all means! Wesley would say.

But I’ll be honest: My heart resists this Methodist doctrine.

In my defense, I grew up Southern Baptist, which generally emphasizes eternal security (“Once saved, always saved.”). And I see the logic of it: if we’re saved by faith and not works, then how can we do anything that would disqualify us from salvation?

But if scripture is our primary authority and not tradition—even the tradition of Protestant Reformers like Luther and Calvin, who believed in eternal security—how can we not say that backsliding is real?

I read the following this morning, and it felt like a punch in the gut. Dr. Robert Gagnon, New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, is discussing Paul’s view of sin in Romans and the necessity of sanctification after justification. If we are being led by the Spirit, we Christians simply can’t continue in our sins as we did before. If we do, Paul says, we risk eternal death.

The confession “Jesus is Lord” (cf. Rom 10:9) is no magical charm. If one lives as a slave to sin, it is sin and not Christ or God that is Lord of one’s life and it is sin that will pay one back with death. In other words, the “free gift” does not remain with those who do not experience liberation from sin’s power (6:15-23). Those who lead lives under sin’s primary control will die and be excluded from the life of God’s kingdom, whether they are believers or not. Only those who are fundamentally led by the Spirit will live (8:5-14). Although salvation does not come by personal merit, unrighteous conduct can disqualify one from salvation. [Here, in a footnote, Gagnon cites Rom 11:22: “God’s kindness to you, if you continue in that kindness; otherwise, you will be cut off.”] One must recapitulate the Christ event in one’s own life by undergoing the transformative experience of dying to one’s self and rising to a new life for God, through the indwelling power of Christ’s Spirit.[†]

Thoughts?

The only question I might raise is, does “unrighteous conduct” alone disqualify us, or the lack of faith in Christ that such conduct (perhaps) betrays?

In my sermon last Sunday, which I’ll get around to posting eventually (I realize I’m two sermons behind!), I offered a strong message of grace and reassurance to Christians whose consciences convict them about their past sin: “Am I still saved?” they wonder.

I hope I’m not contradicting that message here!

But if their consciences convict them, such that they can still repent, then they likely are still saved. My urgent warning would be for those Christians who have numbed their consciences about their sin, have become complacent about their salvation, and are unaware that there’s a problem. God help me, I have been that person at times in my life!

Regardless, as James himself writes, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Thank God that our Lord is “gracious… and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” who  “relents from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). He is our only hope!

But let us not live as if we presume upon God’s grace and mercy!

Robert A.J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 282.

Church council homily: “God Is in Control”

March 13, 2014

I prepared the following homily for this week’s church council meeting. Our church family has experienced an unusual amount of grief and sorrow over the past month. I thought this was a message we all needed to hear! It crystallizes some ideas I’ve blogged about recently.

Homily text: Matthew 10:28-31

“Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it already. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.” – Matthew 10:28-31

I want to speak as plainly as I can about a doctrine of our church that is very difficult to explain and easy to misunderstand. The problem is, if I don’t explain it well then I risk coming across sounding like an insensitive jerk. I think you know me well enough to know that I’m not an insensitive jerk.

But I find this doctrine immensely comforting to me when I’m going through a difficult time… and I think you will, too.

The doctrine, which Jesus speaks to in the scripture I just read, is the doctrine of God’s providence. A more popular way of expressing this doctrine is to say that “God is in control.”

Just yesterday, one of my clergy colleagues on Facebook posted the following:

I hear people say this phrase a lot “It’s ok. God is in control.” So answer for me: A. What do you mean by this phrase? or B. What do you think of when others use that phrase?

I’ve been reading, thinking, and writing a lot about God’s providence recently, so I felt compelled to offer my two cents. Among other things, I said:

God answers our prayers or God doesn’t. And if he doesn’t, then we can only assume that God has good reasons not to. When God allows bad things to happen, then we can assume God has good reasons for doing so, and that even these things are serving God’s good purposes.

Let me be clear: God is not the author of evil. We human beings are—alongside Satan and his army of demons.

But think of it this way: Suppose Art is praying for my safety and welfare this evening. And while I’m walking to my car, I get flattened by a Mack truck. Well, then it’s clear that God didn’t give Art what he prayed for. Why? Is it because God doesn’t care about Art—or me?

Or is it because God could foresee that the consequences of preventing that Mack truck from flattening me would cause something even worse further down the line. In this fallen world, in which human beings make sinful choices, in which Satan and his army of devils are constantly working to harm us, God often has to choose the best of many undesirable alternatives—between bad… worse… and worst of all.

But we can trust that God knows what he’s doing, and that he’s always working to bring good out of bad.

God knows we don’t always get what we pray for, but as one pastor said, “God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.”

Hasn’t God proven that we can trust him? Can’t we trust that God can transform even bad stuff into something good? On the cross of his Son Jesus, after all, he took the world’s worst evil and transformed it into the world’s greatest good. Surely, he can do the same with the lesser evil in the world that we face.

Paul says, “I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.” I hope what I’m about to say doesn’t sound glib or easy or like pie-in-the-sky, but I believe it with all my heart: All evil and suffering in this world is temporary. The first five seconds in heaven, on the other side of death and resurrection, will more than compensate for anything we face in this life. So we keep our eyes on eternity.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Not long ago I was going through a tough time, and I was telling a friend about it—he happens to be Jewish and a Bible scholar; I think of him as my honorary rabbi. And I said, “Why is this happening to me?” And he said, “No, Brent, that’s the wrong question. It’s not ‘Why is this happening to me?’ It’s ‘Why is this happening to me now?’” In other words, he was reminding me—a Christian pastor who ought to know better—that God is in control and God is using this experience to help me, to teach me, to make me a better human being.

I haven’t suffered much in this life—but I’ve suffered enough to know that everything I’ve gone through has helped shape into the person I am today. If anything had happened differently, I’d be someone else—and I mostly like who I am! So I thank God for that!

One day it will be perfectly clear, even to our finite human minds, that our Lord has governed our universe wisely. In the meantime, our duty is to trust that the Lord knows what he’s doing. Amen?

Adam Hamilton’s bucket list

March 12, 2014

By far my most widely read blog post is this one from 2012, responding to United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton’s change of heart regarding our church’s traditional stance on human sexuality. I won’t rehash the arguments I offered there. I believe that I fairly represented his viewpoint, and I also believe I offered substantial reasons for rejecting it.

Hamilton used this week’s breaking United Methodist news to promote a forthcoming book he’s written about biblical interpretation called Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today. In it, he argues that there are three “buckets” into which scriptures fall. As he puts it,

  1. Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
  2. Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
  3. Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.

I wouldn’t adopt this interpretive strategy—and I would be extremely reluctant to say which scriptures “never fully expressed the heart, character, or will of God.” (Does Hamilton still consider himself evangelical?) Nevertheless, if you are going to adopt it, you’d better have some very principled reasons for deciding on which scriptures belong in Buckets 2 and 3.

So, in which bucket does he put scriptures concerning homosexual behavior? Hamilton is being coy. He writes:

Consider Leviticus 20:13 in which God is said to command: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”  Anyone who has a child that is gay would rightly ask, “Did God ever really command that gay and lesbian children be put to death?”  They might also ask, “Does God really see my child, or the love they share for their partner, as an abomination?”

First, we know God doesn’t “see my child… as an abomination,” because that’s not what this verse says, as Hamilton surely knows. Scripture condemns homosexual behavior in the strongest possible terms, but not the people who engage in it. Inasmuch as two homosexuals “share love”—authentic love—then, no, God doesn’t condemn that, either. God condemns homosexual behavior—which would include same-sex intercourse and lust, neither of which relates to “love” or the state of one’s being.

My point is, let’s not move the goal posts here.

I’m guessing Hamilton would put the Bible’s endorsement of capital punishment in the case of homosexual behavior in Bucket 3. (Jesus himself rejects capital punishment for the woman caught in adultery—”Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”)

I’m also guessing he would put the Bible’s words about homosexual behavior being a sin (including not only Leviticus but the New Testament as well) in Bucket 2. About this bucket he writes:

Bucket two scriptures, those that expressed God’s will for his people in a specific time and circumstances but which do not express the timeless will of God, include the command that males be circumcised, commands regarding animal sacrifices, clean and unclean foods, and hundreds of other passages in the Law.  The Apostles, in Acts 15, determined that most of the laws like these were no longer binding upon Christians.

I’m glad he mentioned the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. This scripture is exactly on point when it comes to the discussion of homosexual behavior. The council met to decide the extent to which Gentile Christians had to first “become Jewish” in order to be fully Christian. Do Gentiles have to be circumcised? Do they have to observe Jewish dietary laws? The council ruled in Acts 15 that they don’t. But the church affirmed some parts of Old Testament law. They said Gentiles must abstain from “pollution associated with idols, sexual immorality, eating meat from strangled animals, and consuming blood.”

So, the church said that Gentile Christians must obey the Old Testament’s prohibition against “sexual immorality.” The Greek word is porneia, which alludes to Leviticus 18:6-23, which prohibits incest, adultery, intercourse between males, and bestiality.[†]

Hamilton wouldn’t argue that Leviticus’s words about incest, adultery, and bestiality fail to express God’s timeless will—in other words, that they belong in either Bucket 2 or 3. By what principle, then, does he argue that Leviticus’s prohibition of homosexual behavior belongs in Bucket 2 or 3?

I don’t blame anyone, in this day and age, for feeling like the Bible is wrong to condemn homosexual behavior. Opposition to homosexual behavior is as countercultural as it gets! But feelings aren’t an argument.

As I said above, if you’re going to adopt Hamilton’s interpretive strategy—not to mention to loudly trumpet your commitment to being a “biblical Christian”—you better have principled biblical reasons for deciding which scriptures belong in these different buckets.

By citing Acts 15, Hamilton shows, by his own logic, that he doesn’t—at least as it relates to homosexual behavior!

My colleagues on the pro-gay side often speak as if the meaning of porneia is impossible to fathom. According to Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, however, it’s beyond dispute that first-century Jewish Christians would have understood porneia to include homosexual behavior—alongside adultery, incest, and bestiality. See, for example, Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 435-6.

C.S. Lewis on the “duty” of submitting to God’s will

March 11, 2014
C.S. Lewis, the amateur theologian, could teach the pros how to write with clarity—especially, as he put it in a letter, "that awful theologian" Karl Barth.

C.S. Lewis, the amateur theologian, could teach the pros how to write with clarity.

Just yesterday, one of my clergy colleagues on Facebook posted the following:

Ok thoughtful people… I hear people say this phrase a lot “It’s ok. God is in control.” So answer for me: A. What do you mean by this phrase? or B. What do you think of when others use that phrase?

Since I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about God’s providence recently, I felt compelled to offer my two cents. After complaining about how Methodists, in general, have a deficient understanding of God’s providence, I said:

God answers our prayers or God doesn’t, and if he doesn’t, then we can assume that God has good reasons not to. When God allows bad things to happen, then we can assume God has his reasons and that these things are serving God’s good purposes.

If not, it’s hard to see how we aren’t left with a deistic God. It’s also hard to see, for instance, how Romans 8:28 is possibly true.

C.S. Lewis has influenced my thinking on this subject. I’ve written about the Appendix to his book Miracles before, and I’m returning to it here. In the following excerpt, he’s writing about how, since God knows from all eternity the prayers that we would pray, he enables our prayers to influence the outcome of history inasmuch as our prayer requests are congruent with his will. Often, in order for the thing for which we’re praying to come to pass, God has to set events in motion before we actually pray for that thing. This, of course, is no problem for God, since he’s outside of time. Lewis writes:

The following question may be asked: If we can reasonably pray for an event which must in fact have happened or failed to happen several hours ago, why can we not pray for an event which we know not to have happened? e.g. pray for the safety of someone who, as we know, was killed yesterday. What makes the difference is precisely our knowledge. The known event states God’s will. It is psychologically impossible to pray for what we know to be unobtainable; and if it were possible the prayer would sin against the duty of submission to God’s known will.[†]

Did you catch that? Although what Lewis writes is completely consistent with what I learned about providence in Systematic Theology class, Lewis writes with a clarity that would be unbecoming of a professional, as opposed to amateur, theologian. (Lewis was strictly an amateur, which is why the pros don’t think they need to pay attention to him!) What he’s saying is this:

What has happened in the past is God’s will. 

I know, I know… Our minds immediately go to worst case scenarios. Reductio ad Hitlerum. “What about this [insert unspeakably evil event here]? Are you saying that God willed even that?”

Yes…

In the following sense: Given that we live in a universe in which God usually allows predictable physical forces to run their course; honors human (and angelic) free will; and permits these free agents, human and demonic, to do evil if they choose, then God wills even evil events to happen when he knows that any other alternative would be worse.

Only God can possibly foresee all consequences of an event either happening or failing to happen.

Theologically, we know God doesn’t cause evil. Am I suggesting that God wills evil? All things being equal, certainly not! But all things aren’t equal: In his providence God often chooses between nearly infinite shadings of bad, worse, and worst.

Whatever ends up happening, therefore, does reflect God’s will—because we understand that God wants more than one thing. For instance, God wants people to live in peace, but not (usually) at the expense of overriding human freedom (which I hope we can agree is a good thing).

One day it will be perfectly clear, even to our finite human minds, that our Lord has governed our universe wisely. In the meantime, our duty is to trust that the Lord knows what he’s doing.

Not only do I believe this to be true, I find it far more pastorally comforting than to throw up my hands and say, “It’s a mystery why this happened, but God really, really feels bad about it!”

C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 292-3.