Don’t Be an Idiot!

Ever been called an idiot?  Ever called someone else an idiot?
Do you actually know what that means?  If not, your use of the term may be rather ironic.

Check out these Greek words:

“Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).

The first of these two descriptive terms is the adjective agrammatos, literally, “unlettered.”  The second is the noun idiōtēs (pronounced id-ee-OH-tace), the fourth of the five terms listed in the box above.  Yes, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem saw Peter and John as idiots, unlearned men.  But they had been with Jesus and, therefore, had a biblical and theological education far beyond anyone in the history of the Sanhedrin.  Whatever else they may have been, they were emphatically not idiots.

The basic idea in the idio— root is that of “one’s own.”  This comes out clearly when we speak of someone’s idiosyncrasies, that is, the peculiar characteristics, habits, or manners that are their own.

The idiot, it turns out, is someone who has not benefited from the wisdom and knowledge of others and has only his own with which to work.  In antiquity it was a word to describe someone who was uneducated in general or untrained in a given area.  This is its use in Acts 4:13, which is shaded from the author Luke’s perspective in a basic way and from the perspective of the Jewish leaders in a more pejorative way.

Clearly, an idiot is not something one would aspire to be.  Yet many people manage to achieve it.

“How I have hated instruction,
And my heart spurned correction!
I have not listened to the voice of my teachers,
Nor inclined my ear to my instructors!”  (Prov. 5:11-12)

Like this fool, many people are going through life armed only with whatever intellectual and sapiential powers they can muster from within themselves.  Rather than learn from others, they must do all their thinking and learning and opinion-forming on their own.  In other words, they are idiots.

In fact, we have now become a society of idiots.  One can easily picture here a jokey meme of the Osment character from “The Sixth Sense” saying, “I see idiotic people walking around like normal people.  They don’t know they’re idiots.”

It is an everyday phenomenon to see man-on-the-street interviews in which a TV news reporter sticks a microphone in the face of some idiot to ask him or her what he or she thinks on practically any issue under the sun.  Often it is clear that the person has never before put a moment’s thought into the idea under consideration.  But that doesn’t matter.  All that matters is he or she has a voice.

This is why we must pay careful attention to the “I think” language of ourselves and others.  Sometimes it is appropriate to begin a sentence with “I think.”  Many times, however, the need to begin that way may betray the fact that we probably do not know enough to comment intelligently and should perhaps refrain from the attempt.

Nowadays, it is common to hear people thinking out loud for the first time about something but doing so with utter boldness and a shocking lack of embarrassment.  They have a brain and a mouth and a whole bunch of “rights” to free thought and speech, et cetera; and this, it seems, qualifies them to weigh in on practically anything.  “I think…”  And off they go.

Yet there is a semi-conscious awareness of many people under, say, the age of thirty that neither they nor their peers are generally qualified to opine about most things.  This awareness does not deter them from doing so, but it is there nonetheless.  You can hear it in the new popular formula for introducing one’s idiotic thoughts: “I feel like…” or “I mean, I feel like…”  Many sentences are now begun with these words, sentences which are not meant to convey feelings at all, but rather opinions:  “I feel like the press has pushed this Trump-Russia thing for long enough.  I mean, I feel like it’s time to move on.”

Sometimes people even use this rhetorical formula to introduce statements of ostensible fact.  “I feel like Oslo is the capital of Norway.”  This always freaks me out a little.

And, of course, what troubles me is that we are now getting to hear from idiot theologians in the church.  “I think my relationship with God is between Him and me.”
“I mean, I feel like it’s all about relationships.”  And so on.

How often do you find yourself responding to questions and concepts of theological significance with the language of “I think”?  If I’m honest, I must admit I do it too much.  At the very least, there are numerous times when my contribution should be either a sentence that begins “Scripture says…” or just silence; but instead, I say, “Well, I think…”  And off I go.

[Sighhhhhhhhhhhhh…]
Lord, save me from the wisdom of idiots!…  Including the one I too often am.

Some Thoughts on Christian(?) Divorce

I have been asked to answer the question, ‘How does the church deal with marriages moving to divorce?’

A Ton of Preventionhosea-and-gomer
The first thing to say is that marriage should be handled more biblically and less Americanly from the start.  This would vastly reduce the phenomenon of “marriages moving to divorce.”  But it implies a more biblical and less American understanding and practice of the church itself, one in which Christians are committed to the local church more deeply than they are to any other social group in their lives, including their blood relatives.  And this is difficult to foster in modernity in the West.  Yet it must be done.

Romantic/sexual/marital love has been privatized and secularized—which is to say it has been dis-ecclesialized.  Where it is understood that a Christian marriage is the not the private property of the couple and that the elders and others of their church have a proper claim to involvement in it, there is early detection of the things that bring death to marriages.  In such a context, mistreatment between spouses will be under the discipline and loving correction of the church while the marriage is merely sick so that it will not as easily end up in the throes of death.

As a vital part of this ministry to marriages, it must be taught and rehearsed often in the church that marriage is not a means of personal happiness or fulfillment, but rather a school of sanctification into which some believers have been called.  It is not a place where we go to find ourselves, but to lose ourselves and to receive ourselves anew.  It is full of pain and death of the kind to which followers of Jesus are called (Phil. 2:1-11).  But no one—no couple—is called to walk this road alone.  Instead, we are called to walk it together in the church in the power and grace of the Spirit of Christ.

Dealing with Reality
Nevertheless, it remains true that we live in a world where evil sometimes is able to take up an entrenched existence in the human heart to such a degree that the realities of marital dissolution, even if reduced to great extent, will probably always be something with which we must deal in the church.  Thus, it is worthwhile for the church to consider its way of dealing with marital disintegration.  For two reasons, it is probably not the best idea to set forth a specific policy.  First, policies have a way of inviting test cases, or at least a view of legitimacy of that which they address.  Second, each marital situation is unique, and the complexity of a policy which would adequately address all the various minutiae would make it unmanageable.

Thus, the church should take as a single rule that all considerations of divorce should be addressed to phenomena of abuse.  Abuse here is broadly defined as the harmful, objectifying treatment of one human being by another such that free forgiveness cannot be the only response.  As such, we can see that abuse is a property of many different kinds of relationships, not just marriage.  But most non-marital relationships may be dissolved without the level or kind of scandal before heaven and earth that is divorce.  So the understanding and handling of abuse in the context of marriage is on a much higher plane of importance.

Every day, human beings fail to love each other in Christ.  Thus, harmful, objectifying treatment occurs all the time.  In terms of our discussion here, it is abusive when it is simply impossible (not just difficult) merely to forgive the sin and leave it at that.  Factors such as a refusal to repent or ongoing danger of serious harm may be present.  In such cases, it may be necessary to bring to bear on the relationship measures which protect a victim or which force a perpetrator from his or her settled position.

With this understanding, then, we can see that the presence of abuse does not necessarily entail the dissolution of the relationship, whether marital or whatever kind.  In dealing with endangered marriages, the elders and pastoral counselors of the couple can examine the nature, level and degree of the abuse present in the relationship.  And they can do so with a constant application of the brakes so as to keep divorce out of the picture until it absolutely must be allowed a place in it.  In this way, there are numerous other steps which may be taken before divorce is even allowed in view.  For example, in a case of physical abuse, physical separation may be necessary for an indefinite period, but it is possible that divorce may be kept out of the picture.  And God may bring full restoration through the ministry of the church.  In many cases, less drastic levels of church discipline may be sufficient.

It is more likely that the need to allow divorce into the picture will arise in the context of spiritual and emotional abuse where the spiritual toxicity threatens the very life of the spouse and/or children (usually in the form of depression or other kinds of spiritual ruin).  This is precisely because of the ability of such abusers to deceive themselves and thereby resist the need to change.

In some cases, it may only be the reality of divorce that is able to shake such people from their self-deceptions.  And this might happen at different points: when divorce is decided upon by the spouse they have abused, when the papers have been filed, when the divorce is final, or maybe a few years down the road when the realization of all that he or she has lost and the realities of the horrors he or she put the spouse through finally dawns on the abuser.  And of course, it is possible that the abuser may finish life on earth stubbornly hanging on to his or her delusions like most of the characters in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

Whether divorce is or is not to be allowed into the picture should be the decision of the elders; the abused spouse must follow their lead as they serve under the Lord.  Whatever the actual outcome, it is important that both the church leadership and the abused spouse only make movements toward divorce with the goal of restoration always in view.  In the most extreme of cases, a spouse may need to leave and, because it is necessary for their sanity, do so with a finality of mind.

Perhaps all this sounds rather like a policy, which we said above should be avoided.  In the sense that it provides a basis for approaching endangered marriage and the possibility of divorce, it might be called a policy, but it intentionally eschews the clear categorizations and flow-charts of contingencies that usually characterize policies.

How Biblical is All of This?
In Matthew 5:32, the Lord Jesus seems to allow for divorce on the one ground of sexual immorality (porneia).  Upon close inspection, however, it appears that what He actually says is that any man who divorces his wife on any ground other than this forces her to commit adultery.  The truth is, while the Bible is keenly aware of the reality of divorce, it never gives any clear permission for it.

Anyone who reads the Prophets knows that God certainly understands how divorce can seem to be the only viable option when dealing with recalcitrant sinners.  Debate continues as to whether YHWH actually divorced Israel or merely filed for separation for a while to wake her up.  But there can be no doubt that He understands that it is sometimes necessary to let the possibility of divorce enter the picture.

Can we use the example of YHWH’s dealings with Israel as a guide to allowing divorce into the picture of endangered marriages?  Before answering in the affirmative, we must take note of two differences between God and ourselves.  First, there is the goodness gap.  The most innocent human spouse of the most horrible human abuser is much closer to that abuser in goodness than any of us is to God.  Israel was unfaithful to an infinitely good Husband.  We must keep this clearly in mind.  The second difference, however, is the power gap.  God is also infinitely stronger than any of us.  So it is that, while he was genuinely injured by Israel’s sin, He was not in danger of being destroyed by it.  The human spouse of a human abuser simply may not have the strength to withstand the onslaught of abuse.  It may actually lead to his or her destruction.  And this may occasion a broken-hearted movement toward separation.

But lest anyone be tempted rashly to take comfort in the thought that he or she is following God’s example in approaching or enacting divorce, we must hasten to remind ourselves—again—that we are not God.  We do not have His wisdom.  We do not know very well how to use the power of righteous anger and righteous battle to love a stubbornly sinful heart.  We do not have the divine strength needed to bring the awfulness of divorce to bear on a relationship while never wavering in a perfect commitment always to desire full reconciliation.  So an abused spouse, following the lead of a praying and trembling eldership, may attempt to trace the steps of the divine Husband of Israel toward the tragedy of divorce, but not with anything less than the utmost of caution and humility.

(Some of) the Truth About Homosexuality

I have been asked to answer the question ‘How should the church minister to people with same-sex attraction?’

It is possible to answer the question in short bursts which are right and true but which are not greatly helpful in and of themselves.  We might give answers such as, ‘With the love of Jesus,’ or ‘With grace and truth,’ or ‘With the good news of the gospel,’ and these would all be right and true.  But it can be seen immediately that more is needed.  It is not merely a question of the practical outworking of these things, though that is part of what remains needful; it is also that there is need for more examination and clarity of the concepts surrounding the discussion.

four-views-homosexuality-book-front-coverMy Appraisal of a Recent Collaborative Book
I have recently finished reading a book exploring this issue.  It is called Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church.  It includes contributions from four authors.  Two represent what the book calls the “affirming” view, that is, the view that the church should affirm homosexual lifestyles and couples as legitimately Christian possibilities; and two represent what the book calls the “traditional” view (they wanted to stay away from the negative connotations of a term like ‘non-affirming’).  The aim, then, was to have one author from each viewpoint approach the subject biblically and one approach it theologically.  I am not sure they succeeded in separating it as neatly as that, but that is not a real problem with the book.

Following each author’s chapter, there were responses given by the other three, which were then followed by brief rejoinders from the author of the chapter.  At the beginning and end, there are introduction and conclusion provided by the editor, Preston Sprinkle.

I am sad to say that none of the five writers, in the end, gave a satisfactorily accurate view.  (Of all the people who are actually involved in this conversation and writing and speaking authoritatively on the subject, I would take Rosaria Butterfield to be the most right on.  I will point to her more a bit further on.)  Loader does pretty good exegesis of the various texts (Leviticus 18 and 20, Romans 1, I Corinthians 6).  He concludes, against an increasing number of liberal interpretations these days, that the Scriptures and Paul in particular, are univocal in condemning not only homosexual practice, but even homosexual feelings and desires as sinful.  Despite this, he says that the church today finds it necessary to “supplement” (which really means set aside) the teachings of Scripture in light of things we now know to be true.  According to Loader, Paul knew nothing of the loving and stable same-sex relationships that we know in our day, and so we must flex our understanding of Christian sexuality to fit what we find in our world now.  Along with Holmes, I will say we must never, NEVER set aside the teachings of Scripture.  Loader’s ideas are out of the question.

DeFranza says she came from a conservative evangelical background and always believed that homosexuality was wrong.  But somewhere in the course of her post-graduate studies, she began to do research on the biological phenomenon of intersex people, hermaphrodites, etc. and found that there were sexual anomalies already built into nature for which a purely biblical view of human sexuality does not account.  Pointing to the existence of amphibians (which she says do not neatly fit into the categories of either land or water animals) as evidence for “space” opening up between the categories and norms of creation, she suggests that there is room for non-majority sex-types in the unfolding story of creation such that human sexuality may legitimately include more than just male-female complementarity.  I simply cannot take the time right now to engage this point.  I only include it here, because it seems to be a major building block for DeFranza.  Suffice it to say that she fails to prove much of anything by this line of thought, a fact which is sufficiently shown in the responses of the other authors.

A more major issue brought out in DeFranza’s chapter is the claim that the biblical image of God and His people or Christ and the church as a matrimonial relationship is based on what she disparagingly refers to as “patriarchal” marriage, not the egalitarian kind of marriage which we all now (supposedly) understand to be better and more Christian.  “Patriarchal” marriage is “the union of an inferior person to one who is superior and to whom one owes obedience” (p. 89).  It is the “imbalance of power between humanity and divinity that led ancient writers to see a parallel in the imbalance of power between wives and husbands which was assumed by them to be natural.”

There are two errors here.  First, it simply is not true that this is the essence of the biblical imagery of marriage between YHWH and Israel or Christ and the church.  The fact that all human marriages in the Bible and in the history of the world fall short of the reality—indeed, that most have been pretty far from the mark—is not the fault of the reality.  DeFranza has the reality-image relationship backward, confusing the object for its shadow.  Second—and this is a common problem running throughout the book and much modern work on the Bible in general—there is the assumption that the meaning of the eternal word of God is located in ancient history.  It simply is not.  But I do not have time to develop this idea right now and must move on.  Suffice it to say that as one who is committed to a literary-canonical hermeneutic (as opposed to a literal-grammatical-historical one), I generally don’t run into problems of trying to figure out how to relate ancient and modern concerns and modes of thought.

Wesley Hill’s chapter is probably the best in the book, but it too has a major flaw.  He identifies himself as a gay Christian and explains that following Christ and obeying Scripture means he is called to a life of celibacy.  With Holmes, who makes the point most emphatically, he reminds the reader of the importance of recognizing that we live in a culture which has over-emphasized sex and romantic love to the point of making everyone believe that they are not living authentic lives unless they are experiencing romantic and sexual fulfillment.  We live in an age where, as one of the authors put it (Hill, I think, but I do not remember which for sure), the existence of a “forty-year old virgin” is self-evidently laughable.  Hill rightly sees through this lie.  His contribution is full very well-seen and well-written insights.  Pointing to Aelred of Rievaulx and others, he calls for a recovery of the ancient practice of Christian friendship.

four-views-homosexuality-book-table-of-authors

The trouble with Hill’s view is that it legitimizes being “gay” as a type of Christian.  This idea, it seems, includes for Hill an ongoing, settled identity of being gay which even includes same-sex relationships which are not physically played out in sexual activity, which is forbidden by Scripture.  Reading Hill’s description, I find myself oscillating between celebration of his call to enhanced and deepened Christian friendships and dismay at his assumptions that ‘gayness’ can be a good feature of these relationships.

Here is where Butterfield is helpful.  She was a practicing homosexual for many years and then came to faith in Christ.  She is now the wife of a Reformed pastor and mother of several children.  While she has respect for Hill and others, she is clear about the fact that it is both tragic and dangerous to remain in a state of identifying as “gay.”  This normalizes something that God has called sin and is unnecessary for anyone who is standing in the robe of righteousness that is provided by Christ.

Holmes’ chapter is the last of the four in the book.  Thus, I first encountered him in his responses to the other three authors.  Based on those brief thoughts, I was looking forward to his chapter.  It turned out to be a great disappointment.  Almost his entire argument was based on an Augustinian model of marriage and a consequent assertion that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation.  This, then, requires a massive pile of explanations and qualifications for how it is that it okay for heterosexual couples to marry and engage in sexual activity despite infertility, being of post-menopausal age, etc. (to say nothing of the holiness of sexual activities in the marriage bed which do not include the physical possibility of conception!).  It ended up being a soft, underhand pitch right over the plate, which Loader and DeFranza obligingly knocked out of the park.

The essence of marriage is NOT procreation, though that is important.  The essence of marriage is, rather, the complementarity of unity in difference with the specific halves of male and female.  By definition, there is no such thing as same-sex marriage.  Regardless of what the state or the culture or liberal churches may say, it does not exist.  And Christians should not speak of it as if it did.  That is why I and others are always careful to use phrasing such as “so-called same-sex marriage.”  This should have been the argument presented by Holmes.  But it was not.

That is not to say that Holmes offered nothing of value.  On the contrary, he brought some very helpful points to bear on the discussion.  In fact, it is worth quoting him at length to get the force of the best thread of his contribution:

[E]very desire of every person is wrongly directed; the church is a company of sinners.  The acceptance offered to lesbian and gay people is exactly the same as the acceptance offered to straight people: we are all invited through the mercy of God and the sacrifice of Christ to come as we are, desiring wrongly in multiple ways, and to find ourselves gradually transformed to desire rightly through the work of the Spirit.  (p.64)

Responding to Loader’s assertion that it is “very unfair and inconsistent to tell people that it’s OK to be gay, but not OK to give natural expression to their sexuality,” Holmes writes,

But that is exactly what we say to all people: it is not OK to give natural expression to our sexuality—or indeed to any other natural desire we have.  Instead, the gospel calls every one of us to repentance and transformation in every area of our lives.  Christian marriage is not permission to indulge our sexual desires, but an ascetic discipline through which our wayward desires are transformed (just as celibacy is).  (pp.64-5)

What Homosexuals and Other Sinners Need
Along with Butterfield, I will say that what all of us need, throughout our lives, is the healing power of our God to conquer and reconcile and restore to Himself all the little parts of us which remain sick and broken and rebellious.  Christians who experience same-sex attraction do not need to settle into a life of “being gay.”  They need healing.  We all do.  The role of the church is to walk the path of healing with all of her members.  This is not to deny the likely reality that there is something in the psychological and perhaps even bio-chemical hardwiring of some folks which gives them a “natural” (read: “fallen”) propensity toward same-sex attraction.  Nor is it to give approval to any of the sinister schemes of “reprogramming” which think of same-sex attracted people as “patients” in need of a “cure” and treat them as objects to be dealt with.  (Butterfield refers to “reparative therapy” as a heresy of the prosperity gospel that says, ‘commit your life to Jesus, and all will be well.’)

Biblical healing in the church means friendship—deep, close friendships between equals in Christ, where the Spirit of God is growing people into the likeness of the Son.  This brother is seeing growth in his years-long struggles with anger, that brother in his critical and prideful spirit, this brother in his lust toward women, that brother in his same-sex attractedness—all of them walking together, building one another up, praying with and for one another.  For any of these people, the struggle may continue throughout their lives.  The same-sex attracted Christian may go to his grave ‘feeling gay,’ just as the Christian power-monger may struggle to his dying day with his idol of controlism.  Nevertheless, the trail will be marked by victories (even if it also includes some failures), and Christ will have been learned and known in the process.  This is sanctification.  Meanwhile, it will not do for any of them to settle into an identity which frames their lives according to their brokenness.

Church and World on the Issue of Homosexuality
One thing that is of great importance is that the church maintain her own clarity of thought.  In many cases in 21st century America, this will mean she must first recover it and then maintain it.  Without a doubt, there are several claims constantly broadcast by the surrounding culture which find their way into the church.  I finish this post by listing several ingredients, in no particular order, that add to the over all confusion we suffer here in this time and place.  Some of these have broader significance than just their bearing on the issue of homosexuality.  After each, I will offer a thought to try to clear the air a bit.

  • Cultural fog:  Everyone–at least all normal and decent people–are affirming of homosexuality as a good thing.
    • Clearing the air:  The ad populum fallacy is an informal fallacy which claims that something is either true or false because practically everyone thinks so. As I have written before here on TLW, ‘Most people believe the things they believe, because they believe most people believe them.’  This is a tremendously powerful weapon in the propaganda arsenal of culture.  It wins a free pass on so many things from evolutionary theory to Whoopi Goldberg’s “god of love and acceptance.”  It certainly holds enormous sway in the public perception of many questions involved in the discussion of homosexuality.
  • Cultural fog:  We have now arrived and know all truth—or at least sufficiently vast amounts of it to make our judgments about practically everything superior to all who have gone before us.
    • Clearing the air:  The Chronological Snobbery fallacy is also alive and well in today’s culture. This is the fallacy that assumes that, simply because an idea is old, it must be wrong.  (It can go the opposite way too,saying that something is wrong or bad because it is new.)  The culture of the day operates with the assumption that we have now arrived and know all truth.  With regard to the discussion of homosexuality, we can now arrogate to our time and place the seat of authoritative truth with disregard and disdain for many other times and places in the history of the world.  The irony is that, far from being a new height of clarity and enlightenment, it is actually a new depth of blindness and ignorance.
  • Cultural fog: True love is what we have been taught to believe it is by our televisions (et al), and it is the most important thing in the universe.
    • Clearing the air:  Romantic/sexual love, especially as a “private” affair “between two people who love each other,” has been elevated to religious status in our culture, and the church has largely bought into it. Romantic and sexual involvement is now seen as necessary for personal fulfillment.  This has resulted in the privatization and secularization (or we might say, the dis-ecclesialization) of ordinary marriages.  It is this unbiblical and sub-Christian understanding of marriage that is in view when the culture says all people deserve the right to be married.  Indeed, it is difficult to defend against such a claim when we have already agreed to this wrong definition.
  • Cultural fog:  Being ‘nice’ is the most important thing in our interactions with each other.
    • Clearing the air:  This is particularly expected of anyone who makes any claim to have faith in God.  Anyone is welcome to speak from a “religious” perspective provided that they only say nice things.  In the church, we tend to fall for a more insidious form of this in connection with the homosexual issue and others.  We have been pressured into believing that it is incumbent upon us to take the nicest position on homosexuality that we possibly can without utterly violating clear biblical teaching.  And when we do express biblical teaching, we hem and haw and apologize.
      As I have written elsewhere, “niceness” is not a Christian virtue.  Kindness, goodness, patience, gentleness–these are the fruit of the Spirit.  But they are not the same thing as niceness.  Niceness is a thin veneer over relationships that usually involves being fake.  Biblical love never involves being fake.  It is real and is the partner of the truth.  Without such a distinction between cultural niceness and actual Christian virtue, the writings of the New Testament apostles are unintelligible.
  • Cultural fog:  “Being gay” is just the way some people are; the discussion of whether homosexuality is innate or elective is settled and closed.
    • Clearing the air:  Similar to the way that evolutionary theory eventually reached the status of unquestionable acceptance throughout the culture, it is now assumed by most people that “being gay” is just the way some people are. (All five of the Christian authors of the book I discussed above seem to take this as a given.) To speak of it as a choice that some people make is to reveal oneself as desperately behind the times.  This has been a huge accomplishment for the ‘LGBT’ agenda in attaching itself to the legitimate plights of people of color, who, in fact, do NOT get to choose their ethnicity.
  • Cultural fog:  The culture, not the Bible or the church, gets to define the terms and set the parameters for discussion.
    • Clearing the air:  Among other things, this means that everyone is expected to accept and use the words “gay” and “lesbian,” the very use of which lends a constant legitimacy to the ideas that these are not only real ontological categories (which itself should be questioned) but ones deserving of acceptance and support.  Moreover, we are expected to use new definitions of terms like “marriage” and “spouse” and to use phrases like “his husband” and “her wife.”  In the case of so-called ‘transgender’ people, we are expected to use the gender pronouns that fit the sex which they claim to have become.  While I will not say that Christians must not acquiesce to these things, I would at least say we better be clear with ourselves and one another as to just what we are doing.
  • Cultural fog:  Being put together means being right and good.
    • Clearing the air:  This idea comes in the form of pointing out that, contrary to other times and places in history (e.g. ancient Greece and Rome), homosexuality is no longer to be associated with abusiveness or sickness.  Gays and lesbians, we are assured, are among the most put together, well-adjusted people in society.  They are responsible professionals who make good parents, etc.  It is important to remember that the measure of the moral quality of a person, thing or phenomenon is not how orderly or robust it appears to be.  In the proclamation of the gospel, the church has always sounded clear warnings to the healthy, happy and well-heeled that their apparent stability was not to be trusted.  Thus, the increasing amount of social polish among homosexual people should not be mistaken for God’s approval of their homosexuality.
  • Cultural fog:  The popular cultural narrative correctly teaches us that gay and gay-affirming people are heroic and “religious” and non-affirming people are goofy, if not downright villainous.
    • Clearing the air:  While it is certainly true that there have been times in the past when homosexual people were cruelly mistreated by society and were terribly hurt by people in the church, those days are pretty well gone now.  And in fact, the tables are quickly turning.  It is no longer brave to be gay or gay-affirming.  It is brave to be otherwise.  Ask any Christian student at a state college or university.

Before signing off here, I do want to try, at least, to avoid having people unnecessarily think of me as a jerk who hates homosexual people.  As I mentioned above, I cannot just say nice, politically correct things at the expense of the truth.  But that doesn’t mean that I have either a license or a desire to be a brash, uncaring jerk.  Never mind anything like a Christian duty to love, I honestly cannot remember ever meeting a homosexual person (unless maybe I didn’t know they were) whom I didn’t find it easy to like.

The aim of this post has not been to get into a public argument with homosexual people.  My aim has been to lay things out in what I believe to be a clear and accurately biblical way for the sake of other Christians.  In fact, I do not know whether any homosexual people will even see this.  In one sense, I hope not.  The things I have written of here have nothing to do with loving and serving actual homosexual people.  It has been, and I trust it will continue to be, my great pleasure to know and interact with homosexual folks.  They are sinners just like I am.  In actual relationship with actual people, I would not stand there laying out these arguments.  I would sit and listen and love.  As Rosaria Butterfield puts it, ‘Strong words belong the context of strong relationship.’

May the Lord Jesus Christ magnify His holy name among us all!

It is Good to be Near God: a Thought on the Day After Inauguration Day, 2017

It is now the day after Inauguration Day.

I watched many of the festivities on television yesterday.  I was struck by a weird feeling unlike anything I know how to label.  On the one hand, despite my Anabaptist persuasions, I felt the (beautiful?) ceremonial solemnity of the occasion.  On the other, I was awash once again in the realization of the depths of degradation this country has reached.  A very strange combination of feelings, to be sure.

This morning, when I awoke, I saw that Desiring God had published an article by John Piper titled “How to Live Under an Unqualified President.”  Also, they posted the prayer that Dr. Piper prayed for the new president.  Both are excellent, and I commend them both to all.

Two elements of these materials stand out to me at this time.  The first is that Piper prayed that the Lord would grant repentance to President Trump but noted that this would be quite a miracle, since Trump is a proud rich man, and it is exceedingly hard for such people to enter the kingdom.  But he also recalled that when the Lord expressed how difficult it was for a rich man to enter, He followed by saying, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  I thought about how it might be good for believers to pray for this president, picturing with a holy imagination what a glorious thing it would be for the Lord truly to grant him repentance—not the phony stuff focused on by the likes of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr.—but real repentance.  With God it is possible.  But for now, we have a president who has said that he has never asked for forgiveness from God or anyone else.

Second, the article also highlights the fact that this new president is egregiously far from being anything that anyone in this country can point to as an example to young people.  As Piper puts it, “Few parents would say to their young people: strive to be like Donald Trump. That is a great sadness.”  Indeed, it is.  But even worse is what Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the Oval Office actively teaches.  The message is clear:  There is no disqualification of leadership based on moral grounds.  If we think that the young people of this country are not getting that message loud and clear, we will find we are sadly mistaken.  They now know that a horrible moral track record—even when multiplied by a brazenly unrepentant hubris—is not sufficient to keep a person from occupying the highest office of the land.  How do parents, grandparents, teachers, youth pastors and others who work to lead young people these days explain the moral lessons of the Trump presidency?  Will they not be tempted to think that there is no point in following the way of Jesus and desiring and pursuing purity of heart?

I took a few moments to feel the concussive force of these thoughts.  Then I spent some time reading and praying over Psalm 73.  Here it is:

A PSALM OF ASAPH.

Truly God is good to Israel,
To those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
My steps had nearly slipped.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 For they have no pangs until death;
Their bodies are fat and sleek.
5 They are not in trouble as others are;
They are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
Violence covers them as a garment.
7 Their eyes swell out through fatness;
Their hearts overflow with follies.
8 They scoff and speak with malice;
Loftily they threaten oppression.
9 They set their mouths against the heavens,
And their tongue struts through the earth.
10 Therefore His people turn back to them,
And find no fault in them.
11 And they say, “How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12 Behold, these are the wicked;
Always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean
And washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all the day long I have been stricken
And rebuked every morning.
15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.
16 But when I thought how to understand this,
It seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God;
Then I discerned their end.
18 Truly You set them in slippery places;
You make them fall to ruin.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment,
Swept away utterly by terrors!
20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord,
When You rouse yourself, You despise them as phantoms.
21 When my soul was embittered,
When I was pricked in heart,
22 I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward You.
23 Nevertheless, I am continually with You;
You hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with Your counsel,
And afterward You will receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart
And my portion forever.
27 For behold, those who are far from You shall perish;
You put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to You.
28 But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge,
That I may tell of all Your works.

Wrestling with Race on MLK, Jr. Day

It is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

More this year than ever before, I find myself genuinely desiring to observe this day.  And more than ever before, I find myself perplexed and dismayed at the seeming impossibility of getting any observance right.  How does someone like me, a forty-seven year old white guy with only a small handful of relationships with people of color and nothing like a real clue about the actual experience of African Americans, rightly observe a holiday honoring someone like Dr. King and all he stood for?

I have decided to observe the day by taking a bit of time to share some of my pained ponderings.  To those who might wish to upbraid me for posting such thoughts as these on MLK, Jr. Day, I simply pose this:  Maybe you’re right.  Maybe it’s indecorous of me to choose this day, of all the days of the year, to air these thoughts.  I don’t know.  And that’s kind of the point.  But right or wrong, I have chosen to take a portion of this day to wrestle publically with my ongoing difficulties in this area.  I am observing MLK, Jr. Day by trying to deal with the thorny issue of race in my own heart and in the arena of relationships.  How are you observing this day?

In a recent course on 20th century theology, I have had the opportunity to gain more exposure to different liberation theologies, including Black Theology.  James Cone, who still occupies the Charles A. Briggs chair of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, began writing books of black theology in the late 1960s.  I find his work to be fascinating and provocative in mostly good ways.  For me, at least, there is no scandal in his assertions like “God is black” and “Jesus is the black Christ.”  I understand his point.  More than that, when he says that the only hope for white people in America is for them to “become black,” my response is to say that I would be glad to.  If I understand him correctly, Cone means by this ‘becoming black’ a forsaking of power and a total identification with the oppressed.  That is nothing less than biblical.  It is the calling of all who would follow the incarnate Son of God.

But Cone and others end up asking too much, it seems to me.  I will explain below.  But first, let me offer some thoughts about my struggle to get a handle on the so-called ‘race issue.’

Recently I saw a few minutes of a sitcom in which a white couple and a black couple were making an effort to spend time together and get to know each other.  The conversation began to get painfully awkward along race lines, and in order to defuse it a bit, the white woman mentioned something about liking the movie “The Help.”  Then one of the black folks said something to the effect of, “Yeah, wasn’t it great how that pretty white girl started the Civil Rights movement?”

Ouch.  How does a white person rightly respond to that?  There is, of course, no such thing as a non-response.  It seems that there is nothing one could do or say—including nothing—that would be the right response.

One wrong response—but one perhaps worth offering anyway—might be to observe the fact that the movie could not have been produced without the willing participation of a number of black actors (and presumably others).  The same can be said of practically any such endeavor.  Perhaps such things as “The Help” should be seen as goofy attempts at white goodness which really just serve to expose how deeply racist we whites really are.  In our misguided attempts to be good white people, we cast ourselves as magnanimously and heroically non-racist.  That is a stinging rebuke, one that does not miss its target with me.

But implicit in such criticism is the idea that we should have known better.  And I can’t help wondering whether the same may be said of the black people who participated in the movie.  I do not mean to commit the tu quoque fallacy (Latin for “you too,” a dismissing someone’s argument by pointing out their hypocrisy).  My point is that, if there is an “Oops—what was I thinking?” to be uttered, it seems that it should be uttered by more than just the white people involved.  And maybe—just maybe—it might be admitted that, while there truly is a foolish white blindness that results in unhelpful gestures like the utterance “all lives matter,” such sapiential failures are not the sole demesne of white folks.

This summer, the website of the Gospel Coalition hosted a piece titled “When God Sends Your Daughter a Black Husband” by a blogger named Gaye Clark.  I never got to read the piece, because it was removed (at Clark’s request) before I became aware of it.  But there has been a great deal of discussion in its wake.  For those who might be interested, here are a few pieces of the discussion:

The address of the original article, offering a link to a discussion about it.

The link of the actual discussion: “A Controversial Article and What We Can Learn”

A news story about it.

A different blogger’s interesting take on it.

Thabiti Anyabwile’s reflection on it.

Apparently, in the article, Clark talked about the surprise she experienced when her daughter announced her engagement to a young black man.  She was happy to say that her son-in-law-to-be was a committed Christian and that that was all that really mattered.  But she also wrote honestly about her… shall we say, unpreparedness for the surprise.  Perhaps the most controversial sentence in the article was, “Glenn moved from being a black man to beloved son when I saw his true identity as an image bearer of God, a brother in Christ, and a fellow heir to God’s promises.”

It seems that a maelstrom of argument followed in the comments section of the post.  Obviously, some people were upset by the inherent racism.  But death threats apparently came from white supremacists who were angry that Clark was okay with her daughter marrying a black man.  She ended up writing a brief apology and asking TGC to remove the article, which they did.

I listened to the discussion between Jason Cook, Isaac Adams and Jemar Tisby, three African American Christians, reflectively responding to the article and the fallout that ensued from it.  They dealt with the sentence quoted above, pointing out that it reveals that Clark sees her son-in-law’s blackness as something to get over.  This and many other points made by these brothers are painful but necessary and helpful.

But one of the things that comes out in the discussion is that, before it was ever posted in the first place, the article was vetted by a number of people, including Clark’s son-in-law-to-be (who is said to have loved it) and Cook himself as an editor for TGC.  Cook briefly acknowledges that he too managed to miss the depth of the racially problematic message in the article.  But it seemed to me that the point was rather quickly set aside.

Now, there are several problems with my observations here about black people sometimes also missing the subtleties of inherent racism in such places as “The Help” and the Gaye Clark article.  First, one might rightly argue that it is not my place, as a white guy, to make that observation—that my job is to own my own white issues.  This leads to the second problem, namely that such an observation might just serve as a convenient distraction from the main issue.  That would, indeed, be a rather gross instance of the tu quoque fallacy.  And of course, there is the basic question of just how helpful it is to the over all conversation to make such an observation.

But my point in making it is not to change the subject or to avoid responsibility or to evade any appropriate white guilt.  My intent is certainly not polemical at all.  My point is to say that I want to think rightly and truly about race.  But if it is so difficult to think clearly that well-intentioned white people and well-intentioned black people can easily miss the mark, I’m going to need some help and some patience from those who are ahead of me in “getting” it.

The other day I remarked to a friend (another white guy like me) that I had thought of coining the phrase “Jim Dove laws” as a term for what I see coming in the not too distant future: legal persecutions of Christians somewhat resembling the Jim Crow laws which make up so much of America’s cruel history toward black people.  But I hadn’t actually used the phrase anywhere until I mentioned it to my friend, because I knew there was something wrong with it.  Mostly, I had thought of “being misunderstood” and looking like I was being insensitive toward the actual plight of African Americans by comparing it  to the discomforts of evangelical Christians in an increasingly secularizing culture.

My friend pointed out what I already knew was the case, though.  It wasn’t just a matter of being misunderstood as insensitive.  It was insensitive.  How could I even seriously entertain the idea of such a comparison?  The fact is that I did.  A worse fact is that the right word for that insensitivity is “racism.”

While I am not some skinhead or KKK member, I am a sinner who has insidious strains of racism in his heart.

One of the problems of the discussions of racism among white people, including Christians, is that racism is too often defined as active, aggressive meanness toward people of other races.  There is not enough acknowledgment of the “soft” racism that inheres in all of our hearts.  For example, why is there some little part of my psyche that thinks it kind of cool of me that I treat a minority person just the same as any white person?  Is there something especially good about me when I am kind toward a black person?  Is it magnanimous of me?  Usually such ideas are only present in me in the form of deeply embedded feelings.  I don’t sit there consciously patting myself on the back for not being racist.  But the latent notions are there.  And I must be honest and call them what they are: racism.

Some months ago, I heard the story of a black pastor in Canada whose wife begs him not to go out to the store at night, not because he might encounter criminals but because he might encounter the police.  Other brothers in Christ who are pastors, scholars, theologians, testify of the daily experience of having white people, especially women subtly shrink away from them on the street or in other public places.  I have no idea of how to respond to that other than to shut my mouth and listen, to try—somehow—to join them in their pain through prayer and my God-given powers of imagination, thinking of how awful that must be.

And of course, there is no denying that, in more than a few cases, this racial xenophobia reaches lethal levels.  If I get pulled over by the police, I am liable to feel annoyed, but I don’t generally worry that it might be the end of my life.

This brings me to another thought.  Most of what attaches to me as so-called “white privilege” is negative in nature.  That is, because I am white, I do not experience certain unpleasant things such as being tailed by security when I walk through a store.  But as far as I can tell, there is not much in terms of positive privilege.  Being white certainly does not mean that doors just swing open for me in life.

And come to think of it, there is such a thing as a white experience which is also unpleasant and which it might be fair to say is something the black person does not share.  It is the converse to the black experience that the white person does not share.  Black people, it seems, cannot know what it is like to be a member of an ethnic majority which is expected to feel guilty for being such.

Many years ago, when I was pizza delivery driver, I had a somewhat disquieting experience on a delivery to a certain apartment.  A young black man opened the door, and we began the normal of exchange pizza for money.  In the background of the room a young black woman suddenly yelled at me, “Hey!  Can you deliver me some watermelon?!”  I was terribly flustered and just tried to pass it off with a nervous laugh.  The young man was merciful and turned to her and told her to shut up, then turned back to me and said, “Sorry.”  As far as I know, my discomfort—and that is putting it mildly—is a distinctively white experience.

Now I must hasten to say that the experience of white guilt, white awkwardness or embarrassment, the burden of actual white racial badness—none of this comes anywhere close to off-setting or comparing to the real pain of the black experience in America or the appropriate indignation that black people feel.  I make no comparisons of scale—or even of kind—between these special white and black experiences.

Moreover, I know that some black people, in hearing the expression of quandary and confusion by white people over not knowing what to do, have responded by saying it is good and appropriate for white people to feel it.  And in general, I think they are probably right.  It is certainly fair for black people, as a group, to feel less than sympathetic toward the awkward and embarrassing struggle of white people as we try to figure out how in the world to be good and right in relation to them.  Maybe it’s really a good problem, healing to black folks in one way and to white folks in another.

But all of this tempts me to despair.  It seems to set us all up for a hopeless separation of races.  Black experience and white experience, and therefore, black people and white people, seem to be separated by water-tight bulkheads.  Can we ever come together?

I know that it is almost inappropriate for a white man to be the one to ask that question.  I know that it must be black people who say when racial tensions are over and forgiveness and reconciliation have done their work so that no more worry is needed.  And I get that, in expressing a desire for that time to hurry and arrive, I may be guilty of trying to forestall the necessary process of going through what we must go through—perpetrator race and victim race—together.  (By the way, if you think it is silly to use such terms, you are probably white and have not really come to grips with the realities of the history of race in America.  The phenomenon of African slavery alone is unparalleled in human history in terms of scope and cruelty.)  Yet I cannot help it.

Matters may be further complicated by the fact that there are some ideas communicated from people like Dr. Cone with which I simply cannot agree.  Again, if I understand him correctly, he takes the force of his black theology to places which are just a bit too far.  It seems that I am asked to recast the gospel as being essentially about the black experience, not just including it.  It is not enough, it seems, to see the suffering of Jesus as including the horrors of the black experience in American history; we are expected to see them as one and the same.  It amounts to a black exclusion of white people somewhat like Jewish exclusion of Gentiles.  And at that point, it goes too far.

I am confident that Dr. King would say so.  (And yes, I know that white people are not supposed to invoke Dr. King.)  He had no desire to see the Lord Jesus and His cross, which is for all people equally, eclipsed by or subsumed under the Civil Rights movement.  He would not tell me that my being white means I can only approach God through the mercies of black people and then take my seat in the outer court.

I am more than glad to look at a black brother and say, “For too long, you and those of your ethnicity have languished under the cruel burden of white hegemony.  I realize that there is something terribly inappropriate about the idea that it is sufficient simply to announce a leveling of the field after several centuries of mistreatment.  I agree that it would be totally fitting and maybe therapeutic for all, for the shoe to be on the other foot for some period.  And I am willing to go through that passage.”

But I cannot agree to a theology of reversal which makes anyone, even us white people, ultimately second-class citizens of the kingdom of God.  I do not know what Dr. Cone would say now, but that is how I read his work of four or five decades ago; and that is an extreme to which I just cannot go with him.

Well, these have been long-winded thoughts on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  I do not have any greater clarity than I did when first began writing them.  But maybe now that I have put them here, I may have the benefit of some good help form others in wrestling with them.

Meanwhile, I look forward to this:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands;  and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
— Revelation 7:9-10

Hymn for Epiphany

Ye who walk in darkness here,
Ye who languish in the vale,
See! The Light of God comes near!
Know that grace shall yet prevail!

God, His promise to unveil,
He to save the perishing,
Ends now Israel’s long travail,
He who bears her suffering.

Sages, come, your gifts to bring,
Thinking not of your largesse.
Learn that He’s the King of kings.
It is you who will be blessed!

Of your pride yourselves divest,
Your anxieties and fears.
Come to Him! He bids you rest,
He who bottles up your tears.

He proclaims to them with ears
Of the kingdom in His wake.
‘Tis the King who now appears
With a kingdom naught can shake.

———————–

Mental Ascent

For some years now, I have been thinking about how Christians—with our anointing (I John. 2:20,27)—participate in the story of our Lord Jesus, the Anointed.  Like Him—or rather, in Him—we have incarnation, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection.  Recently, though, I have been thinking about the fact that the first advent of His story included a final piece which we call the ascension, followed by His enthronement at the right hand of the Father.

If I am crucified and risen with Christ (I can’t take the time just now to explain how I see our sharing His incarnation and life of ministry), am I also ascended and enthroned?  Well, Ephesians makes clear that I am seated with Him in the heavenly realms, so, yes.  This speaks to enthronement, at least; but what about ascension?

There is a day coming when our Lord will return to effect our literal ascension, our being caught up into the air with Him.  That is the ‘not-yet’ part.  What about the ‘already’?

Enter, Colossians 3.

“If you have been raised up with Christ,” says Paul, “keep your upward momentum!”  Look up!  Standing on your tiptoes, focus on the sky, not on the earth!  See Christ seated beside the Father!  Reach up!  Reach up as those who can’t wait to join Him there!

on-things-aboveWhat is pictured as a straining forward in Philippians 3, then, is a straining upward in Colossians 3.  Just as surely as we can live into our (Lord’s) resurrection while not yet having died physically, we are told to live into our (Lord’s) ascension while still living this earthly life.  The apostle says we do this by setting our minds on the things above.  In day-to-day life, this amounts to a murderous eradication of the aspects of ourselves which would seek to keep us chained to the earth (v.5).

One of the most striking features of the ascension that awaits us is that it is to be the moment of our final revealing.   The world around us is really in for a shock.  “The world knows neither Christ nor Christians,” wrote the 18th century NT scholar, J.A. Bengel, “and Christians do not even fully know themselves.”  He was referring to the revealing of Colossians 3:4.

The apostle John speaks in similar terms.  “… It has not appeared as yet what we will be.  We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.”  As always with the Lord’s apostles, such a thought leads quite naturally to a present-time application:  “And everyone who has this hope on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (I John. 3:2-3).  For Paul, in Colossians, it leads to the rest of what he writes in chapter 3: putting to death our earthly members, putting on the new man, clothing ourselves in love and much more.

When the Lord returns, He will start by bringing His dead out of the ground.  Then He will bring us all up into the air with Him.  Will this give us whiplash, or will we be found already stretching ourselves in His direction?  Or as He put it, “…hen the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth” (Luke 18:8)?

Father, thank You for raising us up with Your Son, our Lord Jesus, and for embedding us within Him so that His glorious revealing will be our revealing too.  Thank You for giving us—in Him—the power to kill the ugliness that still attaches to us to the fallen world and to put on the new man whom You are renewing in His image.  Lord, make me into a tiptoe Christian.  Like a toddler anxious to be picked up by his Daddy, let me strain upward to Your throne.  In the name of our risen, ascended and seated Lord, Amen.