19 Sep 2014

Unity and Extremism

Unity and ExtremismI live, work, and worship within the fellowship of Churches of Christ. Many of the readers of my blog do as well, though some do not. This post is primarily for those who do, but perhaps there will be something of use for those who do not.

Recently, it has (again) become apparent to me how strained (fractured?) that fellowship is. I should be clear up front that I am not writing this post in response to one specific event. Rather, it has been prompted by many things: in events I have witnessed, discussions I have had, and blog posts I have read, it seems evident to me that there are many within our fellowship—on both the right and the left—who are ready to throw up their hands and have nothing to do with those with whom they disagree. And that makes me sad…and thoughtful.

And as I was thinking, it became clear to me that there are two facts about me, two determinations about myself that I wanted to affirm.

First, I am determined to be biblical in my views. I do not claim any of the terms which people frequently use to label themselves. I do not desire to be conservative. I do not desire to be liberal. I do not desire to be traditional. I do not desire to be progressive. I really, really desire to be biblical though. I bet that means that sometimes I’ll hold views that some might consider to be “conservative”, and sometimes I’ll hold views that might be thought of as “liberal”. But my standard will always be what Scripture teaches, not what a labeled position is.

Secondly, in my relationship to my brothers and sisters in Christ, I do not desire to camp out on an extreme somewhere; I am determined to be a centrist. This position of moderation is not made out of apathy, but out of passion: it seems to me that it is only from the center that unity can occur; only from the center can I reach out to those on either side of me and try to understand and love them. In religious (and secular) history, the dangers of extremism have been seen time and time again, and I think the Bible teaches the importance of balance in our lives in many places and in many different ways (see, for example, Ecclesiastes 7.16-18; Luke 2.52; Matthew 23.23, etc.).

Of course, that second determination will still be governed by the first: I’ll make decisions based on the teachings of Scripture rather than what the “centrist” position would be, but a substantial amount of the time, I think those two ideals line up very well.

Unity is a messy thing. A lot of times, it involves compromise, and it means we don’t always get what we want. But I think it’s important to God that His children strive for unity, and so it should be important to us as well. But I don’t think it can be achieved through extremism—from either side.

5 Sep 2014

Two for One Book Reviews: Heaven on Earth and The Treasure Chest of Grace

I enjoy reading and sharing helpful things that I read with others. I like to read lots of different kinds of books, but as a minister and a theology students, a lot of what I read tends to focus on those areas.

As a part of my schooling, I read widely across the spectrum of Christianity. This invariably means that I read a lot of things I disagree with, but also that I am challenged to think about what the Bible teaches and what I believe frequently. That’s a good thing, I think.

Over the last several years, I have noticed a marked increase in the number of books being put out by ministers and thinkers within Churches of Christ. This is also a good thing, I think, and I have made an effort to read some of those books when I get the chance (and in the process, have come across some very good material). Having said all that, I wanted to offer some quick reviews of a couple of those books: Heaven on Earth: Realizing the Good Life Now, by Chris Seidman and Joshua Graves, and The Treasure Chest of Grace: Following God’s Map to Untold Riches in Christ Jesus, by Wes McAdams.

Heaven on Earth

Heaven on EarthHeaven on Earth was good, although it was not what I expected. The book is actually a careful examination of Jesus’ Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and how living those out makes a difference in the here and now (while also identifying us as the kind of people who will be with Jesus eternally).

The subtitle, “Realizing the Good Life Now”, could potentially mean a lot of things, but basically, the authors assert that living this way (according to the Beatitudes) constitutes living the “good life”, and helps us to establish the ideals of God’s Kingdom on earth (to be clear, there are no hints of prosperity gospel nonsense in this book about how God wants us to be happy and therefore will shower us with material blessings if we are faithful to Him).

Each chapter covers a Beatitude, and discusses what it means as well as illustrating it with an abundance of real life examples, mostly from modern day. The two authors do not write together, and instead take turns writing different chapters. This is probably my main criticism of the book, as I think it gives it a choppiness in thought and style that wouldn’t be present if either writer was working entirely on his own.

Here are some good quotes:

“The good life is only possible in so far as God is involved. Experiencing the good life is more about what God has done and is doing that what we have done or are doing.” (xi)

“For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven had everything to do with life on this side of the grave while many of us are inclined to think it mostly has something to do with life on the other side. Consequently , we think of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of heaven coming near as meaning through Jesus we now have access to the pace of heaven after we die. Even though this is one aspect of the context, it is not the entire context.” (3)

“The longer Paul dwelled in the kingdom of light the more aware he became of the darkness in his own life.” (16)

“Mourning is a pure vision of the large gulf between how things could be versus how things actually are.” (28)

“How do we respond to the pain and suffering that haunts us? Something’s amiss. Is life beautiful? Yes. But just on the horizon of its inherent beauty is a wild storm, waiting to tear everything to pieces, total destruction. Life is beautiful. But life is also deadly, depressing, and full of pain.” (33)

“Doing the right thing—whether individually (righteousness) or collectively (justice)—is always a primary interest of God in the prophets, because a life is the totality of choices made for the individual and the community.” (57)

“The person you are setting free when you reconcile is yourself.” (99)

“The most dangerous believers in the world to the kingdom of darkness are the ones who live as though they have nothing to lose.” (109)

“Faith is about seeing the world as God sees it. Not simply seeing the world for what it is—in all its paradox of beauty and death—but also seeing the world for what it will one day become.” (131)

The Treasure Chest of Grace

Treasure Chest of Grace

The Treasure Chest of Grace focuses on the fact that we have been saved by grace—nothing we have done or can do on our own has any bearing on salvation apart of the gracious acts of God on our behalf—and then sets about determining what conditions we must meet in order to become recipients of that grace. This is where the “map” of the subtitle comes in: the pages of Scripture reveal to us what we must do in order to come into contact with God’s grace.

This book differs significantly from Heaven on Earth in that McAdams uses no stories or modern day examples to prove his points; he only uses Scripture. This is by design: “I have made every effort in this book to prove every point with Scripture, and only Scripture. No quotations of man are used to prove any point, only words inspired by God” (8). I understand his reasoning and certainly agree with him at the core (we should base our religious beliefs on Scripture, not something else), but I think the writing suffered somewhat as a result: a short book peppered with hundreds of Scripture references and no other illustrations or examples is harder to read. My other gentle critique is a subjective one: I don’t like really short chapters. The main body of the book is 144 pages long, and those pages are divided in 25 chapters, rendering the average chapter as a little less than six pages long. Constantly shifting from chapter to chapter gives the reader the impression that some thoughts haven’t been well developed (which I don’t think is true, I just think that many of the “chapters” would function better as sections within longer chapters).

Anyway, on to the quotes:

“Man is utterly incapable of earning the things we receive from God. This does not mean, of course, that we are incapable of obeying Him, pleasing Him, honoring Him, glorifying Him; but we must remember that by doing so, we have earned nothing.” (16)

“When people try to save themselves, they are communicating to God that they have no need for His grace.” (25)

“If there were nothing man had to do to receive salvation, there would be none who were lost.” (46)

“Too often people have assumed that because God freely gives grace, He gives it without conditions.” (78)

“Unfortunately many in the religious world have tried to sever the biblical ties between salvation and baptism” (97)

“Man is not saved because he obeys the gospel; he is saved when he obeys the gospel. The gospel itself, not the obedience of man, is the reason man is saved.” (106)

“Your salvation lies at the lace where His “amazing grace” meets your “trust and obey”.” (152)

“Do not mistake the emphasis on baptism to mean that it is more significant than it really is. Nor should you make the mistake of assuming baptism is meaningless or insignificant. Because it is a part of God’s plan to redeem man, it has great importance. But without the blood of Christ, baptism is nothing more than a glorified bath.” (155)

I thought both of these books were short, easy-to-read, helpful treatments of two very biblical ideas: what living the Beatitudes means for us as citizens of God’s Kingdom, and how God’s grace and our obedient faith work together in the act of salvation. I was thankful to have read both.

26 Aug 2014

Dynamic Deacons

dynamicI haven’t been blogging much lately, which is usually an indication that I have been especially busy with other things. That is certainly the case right now—I am trying to finish up a challenging research paper, I have begun my fall class, and some ministry projects are requiring a good deal of time as well.

Briefly though, I wanted to offer a report on a seminar we had at our church over the weekend called Dynamic Deacons. Facilitated by Dr. Aubrey Johnson, the minister of the Peachtree City Church of Christ near Atlanta, this Friday-Saturday seminar was made up of five sessions which focused on the role, requirements, responsibilities, relationships, and rewards of serving as a deacon in the Body of Christ. The sessions were a combination of lecture and group discussion and were very practical.

Aubrey was a kind and engaging facilitator, and his love for the local church and his commitment to the importance and value of deacons was clear. I took notes throughout the weekend, and he also said a lot of wise things which I thought I would share:

Dynamic deacons always find a way forward.

Great churches are a consequence of great deacons.

When we do selfless acts that no one sees, God smiles.

God is not indifferent about indifference.

The most important thing you can do for God is to be the man your family needs.

Problems are often providence in disguise.

There are not enough jobs for everyone in the congregations, but there are enough teams for everyone to get on a team.

If you don’t have a real conversation, I don’t think you’re going to get a real commitment.

People do about as well as they’re led.

The congregation can’t be more united than its elders and deacons are.

To multiply your value to the church, build an incredible marriage.

I know that our deacons finished the weekend feeling encouraged and energized, and I am hopeful that some of the things that were discussed will lead to some positive, lasting changes. You can read more about Aubrey’s work, and schedule for him to come to your church, by going to his website; I certainly recommend his Dynamic Deacons seminar.

5 Aug 2014

Is All Sin the Same to God?

Scales of Justice

Scales of Justice Mosaic; photo by Flickr user eflon

During my years of ministry, I don’t know how many times I have heard someone claim, in one form or another, that “all sins are the same in God’s eyes”. Basically the idea is that we as humans distinguish between different types of sin and consider some to be worse than others, but that God doesn’t do that—He is holy, He doesn’t tolerate any type of sin, and therefore, to him one type of sin is just as bad as any other.

This idea has certainly become a basic tenet of pop theology, but is it biblical? I would humbly submit that it is not, and it’s an idea that I wish could be put to rest.

Why Isn’t All Sin Equal?

First off, we should mention that all sin is equal in the sense that it separates us from God. Romans 6.23 says that the wages of sin is death—we can’t have any relationship with God until we do something about the sin in our lives. So all sin, any sin, is a big deal because it damages our relationship with the Father.

So why, then, isn’t all sin equal?

(1) The Bible teaches that there are different degrees of sin.

There are a whole lot of examples that could be used here, but just consider the following:
  • In John 19.11, when speaking to Pilate in the context of his arrest and trial, Jesus  says,“You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.” Here Jesus explicitly says that one sin is worse than another.
  • Speaking to the Pharisees in Matthew 23.23-24, Jesus says that they had neglected the “weightier provisions of the law”—justice and mercy and faithfulness—and had instead focused on minor issues. To me, if some parts of the law were more important than others, then the implication is that neglecting those portions was a greater sin.
  • In Matthew 7.3, in the context of being careful about the way we judge others, Jesus says, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” The clear indication here is that the log is a bigger problem than the speck, and should therefore be dealt with first.
  • Luke 12.10 talks about sinning against the Holy Spirit, and how it is unforgivable. People debate all the time about exactly what this sin refers to (and I have my own thoughts on this), but if there is a certain sin that is unforgivable, doesn’t that mean that it is worse than others?
  • Ezekiel 23 compares the cities of Samaria (the capital of Israel) and Jerusalem (the capital of Judah), and clearly states that Jerusalem was more corrupt than Samaria (v.11) because of her greater degree of unfaithfulness.
  • When the Israelites worshiped the golden calf at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 32), Moses charged them with committing a “great sin”. If all sins are the same, why is this one specifically referred to as “great”?
  • In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he emphasizes how terrible it is for a Christian man to neglect his family. In 1 Timothy 5.8, he says, “But if anyone does not provide for his people, and especially his own household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.” If one can be worse than someone else, doesn’t that imply greater sinfulness?

(2) Some sins have harsher consequences than others.

When you think of the earthly consequences of sin, do all sins seem to be the same? Committing lust in your heart is undoubtedly a sin, but does it have the same consequences as committing adultery? In one case, the sin is limited to yourself, while the other necessarily involves another person and could potentially destroy an entire family. Stealing a piece of gum is a sin, but it is unlikely that it will cause great damage to the person you steal it from. On the other hand, committing murder destroys a life and affects an untold number of people. In short, some sins might not have long-lasting temporal effects, while others literally destroy people’s lives.

This can also be seen in the Bible—if all sin is the same, why did God decide to basically reboot the whole system in the days of Noah and start from scratch? At no other point did God decide to do this, so the indication is that things must have somehow been worse in the days of Noah.
What about Sodom and Gomorrah? Undoubtedly every city on earth is plagued by a great amount of sin—why were these cities singled out for destruction? I would submit that it was because their sinfulness was so widespread—in just the small glimpse we get of Sodom, it appears that the majority of people were guilty of homosexuality, inhospitality, violence against strangers, and sexual assault. It seems that the sinfulness of Sodom was worse than in other places.

There is also some indication in the Bible that different types of sin may have different eternal consequences as well.

First, in Matthew 11.20-24, Jesus pronounces woe upon cities which had witnessed the signs He had performed but failed to repent (particularly relevant parts in the following scriptures are emphasized in bold):

“Then He began to denounce the cities where most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.’”

Now, granted, Jesus seems to be personifying entire cities here and it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions based on passages of figurative language, but the implication is that condemnation will be worse for some in the Day of Judgment than for others. If some persons/cities merit greater punishment in the Day of Judgment than others, that certainly indicates to me that all sins are not equal.

Secondly, in Luke 12.35-48, Jesus tells a parable about the importance of being ready for the (second) coming of the Son of Man:

“‘Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at the table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he wold not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’ 

Peter said, ‘Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?’ And the Lord said, ‘Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.’”

Again, Jesus is speaking in a parable here, but the parable does deal with His unexpected return and the accompanying judgment. Once again, the indication is that in the Day of Judgment, some sins will have worse consequences than others, as some who are guilty and bound for punishment will receive “severe beatings” while others receive “light beatings.”
Finally, Hebrews 10.26-29:

“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

Here the Hebrew writer suggests that those who had come to know Christ and then subsequently forsaken Him would merit worse punishment than others. Furthermore, to underscore why such persons would receive harsher treatment, the author uses extreme language to emphasize the severity of such an action, describing it as trampling the Son of God, profaning His blood, and outraging the Spirit.

Perhaps none of these three passages are crystal clear, but taken together, they suggest at least the possibility that there will be different “levels” or “degrees” of eternal punishment for different people.

(3) Some sins are harder to repent of than others.

Biblically, repentance isn’t just being “sorry” for sin, it’s a conscious turning away from the sin in your life. From that perspective, some sins are harder to repent of than others. It’s one thing to turn away from a sin that you commit by accident; it’s another thing entirely to repent of a sin that you plan out ahead of time and intentionally commit—in other words, it’s easier to turn away from sins we are already trying to avoid than those we seek out.

Hebrews 6.4-8 conveys a similar message, saying that for those who have “tasted the good word of God” and then fallen away, it is “impossible to renew them again to repentance.” This is a much-debated passage, but at the very least, the indication is that the sin of these people places them in a category that makes repentance more difficult than for others.

Furthermore, sinful addictions that destroy people’s lives are much harder to repent of than single, isolated sins.*

(4) Simple logic tells us that not all sin is the same.

To reiterate what I said above, all sin is the same in the sense that it separates us from God, but if it was the same in every sense, then that would mean that stealing a piece of gum is just as bad as stealing a car, which is just as bad as killing someone, which is just as bad as killing 20 people. Does that really make any sense?

Put another way, that would mean that in God’s eyes, Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler are exactly the same, because they both committed sin at some point in their lives. If it’s so easy for us to see the difference in the goodness of those two people, does it make any sense at all that God would look at them in exactly the same way (where do you think our moral code comes from in the first place?)?

Then Why Do So Many People Believe This?

If the idea of all sins being equal didn’t come from the Bible, where did it come from? I don’t have any proof of this, but I suspect it came out of the desire to emphasize two ideas about sin that are very true:

(1) Every sin, no matter how small it seems, is a big deal and requires forgiveness.

Sometimes, in an effort to emphasize the grace of God and His willingness to forgive, some people effectively minimize the magnitude of sin. The idea here is that it doesn’t matter what kind of language you use, it doesn’t matter if you live a sexually immoral life, it doesn’t matter if you are a chronic gossip, because you can just ask for forgiveness and it’s that easy.

The thing to remember is that while grace is free, it isn’t cheap. The sin of mankind is such a big deal that it required the death of the sinless Son of God to make grace possible. Sin—all sin—is a big deal.

(2) Even the “big” sins that we think of as being terrible can still be forgiven. 

Sometimes, when people commit very public, very damaging sins, we tend to write them off. A girl gets pregnant out of wedlock or a man divorces his wife, and too often, they are treated like their lives are over and that God has no use for them anymore. The idea here is that only especially saintly people who avoid all “major” sins can ever hope to have a relationship with God.

As mentioned above, it cost God a lot to forgive sin, but thanks to the work of Christ on the cross, He is able and eager to do just that, regardless of how “bad” your sin is (Prodigal Son, Apostle Paul, etc.).

With these two ideas in mind, it’s easy enough to imagine where the “All Sin is Equal” idea came from: simultaneously wanting to underscore that even the “worst” of sins can be forgiven but that even “minor” sins are a big deal and separate us from God, it’s not a huge jump to just declare that all sins must be the same from God’s perspective.

Hopefully, as I’ve explained above, that idea doesn’t make sense logically, and it doesn’t square with the teachings of Scripture either. As we move forward, let’s emphasize that all sin is a big deal, but that it can still be forgiven.

I want to be clear that my intention in this post is not to maximize or minimize any specific sin, or to encourage active reflection on how some sins “rank” in comparison to others. Instead, I am simply calling for people to quit saying, “All sin is the same in God’s eyes”, because biblically, that just isn’t a true statement.

 *I’m not intending to debate addiction as sin vs. addiction as illness. Really, I think it’s a moot point—even if addictions affect the body and mind like illnesses do, they still begin with sinful behavior.
25 Jul 2014

Book Review: A Grief Observed

grief observedI recently finished reading A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. Basically the book comes from journaling done by Lewis following the death of his wife and the grief he experienced following that event.

One thing that is interesting about the book is that it was written late in Lewis’s own life. To me, that makes his questions and frustrations that much more real, because this is after Lewis was already well-known as a Christian apologist and theologian (i.e. even C.S. Lewis struggled with grief).

I enjoyed this little book because I found it to be very personal and honest in the way it dealt with grief. Lewis didn’t try to explain his grief away or wrap it up in a neat package. This isn’t Lewis’s only book on this topic: The Problem of Pain addresses the issue of suffering in a more general, scholarly, and intellectual way; A Grief Observed is a more specific, personal, and raw treatment of the issue.

Here are some quotations I found to be helpful or insightful:

I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief. (10)

Aren’t all these notes the senseless writings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it? (33)

What’s wrong with the world to make it so flat, shabby, worn-out looking? Then I remember. (36)

What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist? (43)

You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. (45)

We want to prove to ourselves that we are lovers on the grand scale, tragic heroes; not just ordinary privates in the huge army of the bereaved, slogging along and making the best of a bad job. (53)

Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. (59)

My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. (66)

I know the two great commandments, and I’d better get on with them. (69-70)

When it comes to grief and grieving, I find that people are very different, and thus, some books “work” better for some people than others. On the whole, I’m not sure if A Grief Observed was a powerful book for me, but I think it would certainly be very beneficial for some who were coping with grief.