Thursday, December 29, 2011

God's Name

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about God's name:

Q:  What is God’s Name?  Many religions talk about “god,” but does the Christian God have a unique name?

For Americans, it used to be that the identity of “God” was very clear.  55 years ago, the nation was largely Christian, and the question, “Do you believe in God?” meant, “Are you a Christian?”  In the years since, that clarity about the identity of God, along with the answers to many other spiritual questions has been largely lost.

Today, when someone speaks of “god,” they could mean the Christian God, but it is just as likely that they mean the God of some other religion, a deity they have cobbled together from the various thoughts of many religions, or merely a generic “higher power” which may or may not have a precise name.

This lack of clarity in the language for god is not unique to our culture.  For example, in nations which speak the Arabic language, both Christians and Muslims use the term “Allah” to refer to their god.  Likewise, both Jews and Christians could recognize the many terms used by the Old Testament as references to their god, even though their definitions of that God are drastically different.

The two most common Hebrew terms that the Bible uses for God are “Elohim” and “YHWH.”  Elohim is a general term used for a deity in the Hebrew language, but since the Israelites believed that only one real God existed, and that the others were false, this term came to be used as a specific term for their God, much like Americans would have used the word “God” until the late-1950s. 

YHWH, on the other hand was the proper name for God.  This is the name revealed by God to Moses when He spoke from the Burning Bush, saying, “I am that I am.”  Sometimes this word is written in English as “Yaweh,” and it is thought to be pronounced like “Yah-way.”  However the precise vowels within the name as well as its pronunciation cannot be decisively identified by modern scholars.  This is because the Israelites took the commandment against using God’s name in vain so seriously that they refused to pronounce it at all, instead substituting the word “Adonai” (which means “Lord”) or “Ha-Shem” (which means “the name”) when they would read it out loud.  Eventually, the vowel sounds within the word were no longer known by later generations and therefore lost to history. 

These Hebrew Words were translated into Greek in the New Testament as “Theos” (the generic term for a god) and “Ho Kurios” (which is literally translated as “the Lord”).  We also have specific revelation of God in the person of Jesus, who said that the only way to know God the Father was to know Him and the only way to come to God the Father is through Him.  Therefore, it is also accurate to say that God’s name is Jesus, as reflected in the early Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord.”  (i.e. “Jesus is YHWH.”)

For Christians, it is important to choose our language carefully when speaking about spiritual things, because we must remember that when we say the word “God,” it may not be understood by our neighbors in the same way we mean it, which can be an obstacle to accurately communicating the Truth. 

For myself, I have a personal habit of avoiding the generic word “God” to a large extent, when preaching or writing, because it is too easy today for every person listening to simply fill in their own definition.  For the sake of clarity, I instead attempt to use terms like The Trinity, The Lord, Triune God, God the Father, God the Son, Jesus, God the Holy Spirit, or The One True God as much as possible so that it will be abundantly clear to anyone listening that I am not speaking about a generic deity or about the God of every person’s individual understanding, but instead about a specific God who has revealed Himself in specific ways resulting in a precisely definable identity. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011


My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the use of creeds:

Q:  Why do some churches say creeds during their worship services?  Isn’t believing in these creeds a way of adding onto the Bible?  If a church requires adherence to any document other than the Bible, isn’t that against the Reformation principle of “Scripture Alone” that protestants claim to believe?

There are many forms of creeds found throughout Christianity.  The three that are almost-universally accepted, and which many churches speak publically as a part of public worship are the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed.  The Apostles’ Creed is typically associated with Baptism and with the prayer offices of the Church.  The Nicene Creed is typically associated with the Lord’s Supper, and the Athanasian Creed, the longest and most complicated of the three, is traditionally said on occasions specifically associated with the doctrine of the Trinity, such as the first Sunday after Pentecost.

During the first 400 years after Jesus ascended into heaven, representatives from all of Christianity met seven times in response to false teachings that had arisen.  They gathered in council to evaluate these new teachings and responded by formulating statements of what was true, based on the writings of the Apostles, which we know as the New Testament.  These three creeds are the result of the councils mentioned above, and from that point until the founding of the United States over 1300 years later, they were considered the standard for Christian orthodoxy.  If anyone agreed with these creeds, even if they disputed other teachings of the Church, they were considered within the scope of Christianity, and if anyone disagreed with elements of these creeds, they were considered outside the scope of Christianity.

This is true to such an extent that my Lutheran predecessors emphasized their consistency with historical Christianity by including them as the first documents in their collection of statements about what they as a group believed in comparison to their Roman Catholic and Reformed neighbors of the time. 

To confess these creeds, whether as foundation for one’s written doctrine, or as a public act of worship, is not a way of adding onto the Bible, though.  This is because these creeds are summaries of what is contained in the Bible.  In fact, fragments of these creeds can be seen already in the letters of the Apostle Paul, as he quotes them as evidence for which doctrine is true or false in the congregations he is addressing. 

The reason these creeds are necessary is because throughout the history of Christianity, people have frequently misunderstood the message of the Bible, and as a result, strayed from the truth.  These creeds serve as a succinct and time-tested way to begin instructing new Christians in the faith, so that as they begin to read the Bible, they can “stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before them” as these foundational statements undergird their personal reading, as well as an easily-memorized way that Christians can test the statements of unknown teachers against established truth to judge whether the teacher in question ought to be believed. 

In the centuries since these creeds, the tradition of summarizing the doctrines of churches in a written statement has continued with documents such as the Book of Concord among Lutherans and the “Westminster Confession” and the “Canons of the Synod of Dort” among protestants.

However, this is not to say that these creeds or other confessions are to be considered equal to the Bible.  Instead, they are always subject to what is taught in the Bible, and derive their authority from the Bible. 

At the same time, the three major creeds listed at the beginning of this article are not merely examples of what Christians have believed in the past.  Instead, they are statements of timeless truth which reflect the essence and foundation of Christian teaching.  Since God Himself does not change, neither does His Truth, and since these creeds reflect and embody that Truth as revealed in the Bible, they themselves remain true for all time, regardless of the changes in human opinion and perspective which may have occurred in the generations since.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Divorce & Remarriage

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about divorce and remarriage:

Q:  Under what circumstances does the Bible allow for divorce?  After a divorce, are one or both of the parties allowed to remarry, and under what circumstances? 

Strictly speaking, the Bible allows only one circumstance under which a marriage ought to come to an end.  That circumstance is the death of one spouse.  A widow or widower is given no special restrictions in the Bible regarding when or whom they may marry beyond those given to other single Christians, so they may remarry as soon as their own conscience allows them. 

However, in light of human sin, Jesus is recorded in the gospels as allowing one condition under which a marriage may end by divorce, which is adultery (sexual unfaithfulness) on the part of one spouse.  In such a case, Jesus said that the spouse who was the victim of the adultery has the option (but not the requirement) to divorce the spouse who committed adultery.  As in all things, the Bible prefers reconciliation of the marriage when possible, but does allow for divorce as a result of adultery when reconciliation is not possible. 

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives several pieces of instruction, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as an Apostle, regarding marriage and divorce.  In doing so, he specifically rejects the idea that spouses may divorce, even over matters as  serious as religious differences, but he does expand upon Jesus’ instruction to allow for divorce in the case of abandonment by one spouse.  Under the circumstance where one spouse unilaterally leaves the marriage against the wishes of the other, he does not fault the spouse who was abandoned for the dissolution of the marriage. 

In reading these instructions from St. Paul, Bible scholars and Christian ethicists have typically concluded that these instructions not only include the allowance for divorce as a result of literal abandonment, but also what has been termed “malicious abandonment.”  Malicious abandonment would include such circumstances as abuse by one spouse toward another, and addiction or other circumstances under which the actions of one spouse significantly compromise the safety of the other spouse or the children in the family. 

Under the circumstances listed above, one spouse in the dissolved marriage would be ethically and morally faulted with causing the divorce, while the other would be considered justified in their decision to end the marriage.  At the same time, a divorce is never solely the fault of one spouse.  Since all marriages are between two sinners, both spouses have always sinned against the other in some manner, even if not in ways that justify divorce.  Remembering this, it is important that both parties acknowledge their sins to God (and perhaps to one another or to their pastor) in the aftermath of the divorce and repent of them, knowing that Jesus’ death is sufficient to forgive all sin, and taking corrective action before considering remarriage.

After a divorce, a pastor would treat every situation individually when divorced Christians are considering remarriage.  If the divorce was not Biblically justifiable based on the criteria above (adultery, abuse, abandonment) then he will need to address this in caring for those desiring remarriage.  If the divorce was Biblically justifiable, then he will have different needs to address in his spiritual care of the person depending on whether they were the guilty party in their divorce or the victim. 

A victimized spouse is morally free to remarry, but should certainly seek guidance and pastoral care as they enter their new marriage, because of the mental and spiritual factors involved with recovering from divorce.  On the other hand, it is also necessary that a spouse guilty of causing their divorce repent of their sin and take corrective action before a responsible pastor will agree to participate in joining them in a new marriage. 

Ultimately, Christian ethics insist that marriage is intended to be a life-long commitment between a husband and wife, but human sin has interfered with this intention and continually causes broken marriages.  Acknowledging this, it is the task and desire of the Church and its pastors to care for all who are broken by the effects of sin in the world, especially making use of God’s gifts of Prayer, Blessing, Scripture, and Sacraments so bring the forgiveness of Jesus to those who have sinned, allowing them to proceed in a new life. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Moneybags Superstition

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about superstition:

Q:  On many occasions this year, I have received emails or seen social networking posts that the way days of the week fall within a month or the way numbers align in the date have the potential to bring wealth, luck, or other benefits if I take certain action.  First, is this legitimate?  Second, is it acceptable for a Christian to trust in such things to receive the promised benefits?

I have seen these posts myself.  One of them claimed that the circumstance that there were five Fridays, five Saturdays, and five Sundays occurring during July 2011, was called “moneybags” and only happened every 823 years.  It claimed that if a person re-posted or forwarded the message, they would receive money, but if they did not, the message warned, they would be without money. 

Another message attached special significance to four particular dates:  1/1/11, 1/11/11, 11/1/11, and 11/11/11 with similar promises and warnings that the recipient’s actions, which must occur at or before 11:11 on 11/11/11, would bring them either a blessing or a curse. 

To begin with, claims such as the “moneybags” myth mentioned in the first example are factually inaccurate.  The phenomenon described actually occurs once every 5-11 years, depending on where the leap years fall.  Secondly, even if the events described were as rare as they are claimed to be, there is no observable evidence that the benefits described have occurred in the past. 

For Christians, 1 Timothy 4:7 gives perspective on practices such as those described above.  In that verse, Paul says, “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths.  Rather train yourself for godliness. 

In the Old Testament, God had forbidden all types of divination, which was the practice of seeking guidance or knowledge of the future through manipulating or observing elements of nature unrelated to the events in question.  So, for example, kings of unbelieving nations might ask a priest of their religion to slaughter a sheep or goat and study its organs to find out how an upcoming battle would go, or they might observe the pattern in which a flock of birds fly to discern which strategy to use.  Horoscopes are an example of how this ideology continues even to this day. 

God clearly commanded His people that they were not to engage in such practices, and connected this command to the First and Second Commandments, which forbid idolatry, and the misuse of God’s name.  As such, these prohibitions continue into the New Testament era for Christians.  Because all of the above actions describe trust in some other force than the Triune God for blessing, they are a form of idolatry to be avoided by Christians. 

The Bible does at times speak positively about discerning the signs found in nature, but these are always observed natural correlations between an event and the result which follows, such as the color of the sky relating to weather which might follow, or the color of leaves indicating the change of seasons. 

Regarding the alignments of days in a month or dates in a year, we must also note that our modern calendar is not a divinely-given system, but rather a humanly-devised method or organizing time.  So, as such, it would bear no correlation to divine promises for blessing. 

Finally, assumptions such as those above are opposed to a Christian worldview.  In the religion from which these superstitions arise, it is assumed that the god/gods/universe are against us and inclined to do us harm, and it is only if we act in the specified ways that they will be forced to bless us. 

Christianity, on the other hand, proposes that God, in fact, desires to act on our behalf and takes the initiative Himself to bring us blessing.  He does this by providing for our obvious needs of food, clothing, shelter, etc. but more importantly by forgiving sins because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for all who trust in Him. 

Even though it might appear that we need to appease the deities and forces of the universe by our own action, the God who created them has already acted, both through creation and through His Son, to provide us with all of our needs of body and soul, not based on our own worthiness or ability, but because of His own kindness and righteousness. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Grace vs. Works?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about salvation by grace alone:

Q:  I know Lutherans and most Protestants teach that people are saved “by grace alone,”(based on Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 3, etc.) but I see so many verses in the Bible which seem to say otherwise (James 2:24, 1 Peter 4:8, etc.).  Which is true?  Do these Bible verses contradict each other, or is there some other explanation?

Verses like those noted here can be very challenging for those who understand that humans can only be saved by grace and contribute nothing from themselves to receive it, because the verses seem to contradict that idea. However, there is a subtle distinction which helps to shed light on why James and Peter can speak in this way, which seems drastically different from what we see Paul saying in Galatians, Ephesians, and Romans.

This distinction is that there are two kinds of righteousness portrayed in the Bible, and along with them two kinds of justification. This word, justification, can be used as a technical term for the forgiveness of a sinner by God as a gift, but it also has a more general meaning of validating or confirming the truthfulness of our position or actions in the eyes of other people.

The first type of righteousness acts in a vertical direction--that is between God and man. This vertical righteousness is what we normally think of as Lutherans when we hear the word, justification.  This is the type of righteousness that comes from God as a gift to us, apart from any worthiness on our part.

The second type of righteousness occurs in a horizontal direction--that is between man and his fellow man. While the vertical sort of righteousness or justification is where our salvation occurs, we continue to live in relationship with other people in our everyday lives. It is within these relationships that the horizontal sort of righteousness or justification occurs, where the actions of the Christian are intended to validate or confirm the truthfulness of the claims of Christianity in the eyes of those who observe our lives

So, when James says, “You see that a person is justified by works, and not faith alone,” he is speaking of the way that our actions serve to validate or invalidate the Christian faith we claim to believe, when our actions are viewed by other people, particularly those outside of the Church.  If we act in a way that reflects what we believe, it confirms the Christian faith in their eyes.  If we act hypocritically or in habitual sin, it invalidates the Christian faith in their eyes.  If we read James' words in context, we can see that this is the sort of thing he is speaking of with the word "justification" and that he is not discussing how we relate to God.

Just as there are two directions in which righteousness and justification occur, there are also two directions in which sin occurs. We can sin against God alone by breaking any of the first three commandments. However, when we sin against the remaining commandments, we sin not only against God, but also against our fellow man. When Peter says, “Above all, keep loving one another, since love covers over a multitude of sins,” he is speaking to those who are already Christians.  So, when he talks about love covering a multitude of sins, this is what he speaks of--not that our love reduces the burden of our sins in God's eyes (because Jesus has already completely fulfilled that need), but that love covers over or abates the division and discord that are the result of our sins and separate or embitter the relationship between the sinner and the one against whom he has sinned.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Semper Reformanda

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about continuing reform of the Church:

Q:  Is Christian teaching something that is always developing and evolving or must it remain the same from age to age?

The most direct answer to this question is that Christian doctrine cannot and must not change.  Since God does not change (Malachi 3:6, James 1:17, etc.), the truth which He has established and His will for humanity are also without change. 

This is not to say that new generations of Christians do not face challenges unfamiliar to those who have gone before them, or that the Bible is not a valid guide in such matters.  Even though the truth can never change, it may be applied in new ways in response to new ethical questions. 

For example, topics like genetic engineering, human cloning, and embryonic stem cell research are brand new issues for Christians today that were not faced by former generations, but the Scripture still informs Christian responses and actions as they address new questions.  While Christian doctrine never changes, it is constantly applied to new circumstances and ethical questions.

Likewise, the language and illustrations which Christians use adapts over time in order to best communicate the message of Jesus in present circumstances.  For example, the Apostles make use of a wide variety of language to describe the work accomplished by Jesus.  While that truth is singular, the Church has emphasized some of these descriptions more in some periods of history, and others in another period of history because it finds a greater resonance with the people of that culture. 

So, while the truth about Jesus remains the same from generation to generation, the Church may draw more or less from the various portions of Scripture to proclaim this truth in different generations, and it may apply this same truth to new questions while remaining in harmony with what has been taught before.

At the same time, we can look back at history and see where Christian teaching has gone astray and was in need of correction.  The events of the Reformation nearly 500 years ago are an example of this.  The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church had departed from truth, and men like Martin Luther and John Calvin called church leaders to correct these abuses while teaching the public the truth which had been obscured.

An important thing to note about this Reformation, though, is that it did not seek to teach anything new, but rather to return the Church to the truth that it had left behind.  This is the case with all valid reformations in the Church. 

It has been said that “The Church is always reforming” or “The Church is always in need of reformation.”  While this is true, it has often been misunderstood.  This saying does not mean that Christian doctrine develops and evolves over time, but rather that because the people and leaders of the Church are sinners, someone is constantly trying to adapt truth to match their opinion rather than conforming their opinion to the truth. 

As a result, reformers are constantly arising to call the Church back to what is true.  Today it is often being said that “God is doing a new thing,” or “The Spirit is moving us in a new direction,” or even “God is still speaking,” but these slogans are not examples of true reform if they contradict or abandon established truth.

Even the definition of the word “reform” itself indicates going back or returning what has gone before, and not progress toward something new, and so it is that Reformation is the continual calling of the Church to repent of its doctrinal innovations and return to the truth. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Definition of Covet

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about coveting:

Q:  What does the word “covet” mean in the Ten Commandments?  What is the difference between coveting and desiring success or a better life?

The Ninth Commandment says that we should not covet our neighbor’s house, and the Tenth Commandment forbids coveting our neighbors, wife, workers, or animals.  To covet is to have a sinful desire for something that belongs to someone else.

Most often when we think of coveting, we think of coveting the possessions of another person.  For example, one might covet their neighbor’s house or their brother’s car and seek to find a way to make it their own. 

In explaining the Ninth Commandment, Martin Luther said that we should not scheme to get our neighbor’s possessions or obtain them in a way which only has the appearance of being right, but rather that we should help and be of service to our neighbor in keeping what is his.

When explaining the Tenth Commandment, he went on to say that we should not seek to entice away another person’s wife or workers, or turn them against him, but rather that we should encourage them to stay and do what is their duty toward him. 

In the Tenth Commandment, we see that the object of the sin of coveting might also be a person.  For example, one man might desire to be with a woman who has already been married to another man, or an employer might desire the services of an employee who is already contracted to work with another company.  If they plot or attempt to lure the wife or the employee away and make them their own, they would be coveting. 

Coveting differs from greed in that greed is simply the desire to trust possessions above God and the sinful desire to obtain them, even if through means that are otherwise lawful and moral, while coveting specifically refers to the possessions of another person. 

If a person desires to improve their standing in life or to achieve greater success and compensation, this is not an act of coveting.  In fact, it is a wise an noble aspiration if it is done righteously rather than by taking what belongs to another. 

The simplest summary of the sin of coveting is as the desire to commit any of the other sins listed in the previous commandments.  If a person covets another’s possessions, they would also be breaking the seventh commandment.  If they covet another’s spouse, they would be sinning against the sixth commandment, and if they covet another person’s authority or reputation they would be sinning against the fourth or eighth commandments. 

Ultimately, all of the commandments relate back to the First Commandment.  So that when a person sins against any commandment of God, they are placing someone in a superior position to God, and therefore committing idolatry.  To steal is to make money or a possession one’s idol.  To commit adultery is to make another person or an act of intimacy your god, and likewise with the other commandments. 

Instead of covetousness, God’s desire for humanity is contentment.  This is reflected in verses like Philippians 4:11, where Paul says, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances,” and 1 Timothy 6:6, where he says, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” Christians are called to recognize all things as God’s blessings and give thanks to Him for whatever He has given—whether it is great wealth, or the basic needs of life—rather than comparing their blessings to those of others or expressing discontent over the quantity of their blessings.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Luke 23:34

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Luke 23:34:

In Luke 17:3, Jesus says, "If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them." This seems to indicate that Christians only need to forgive when the person to be forgiven has repented, but at the time of his crucifixion (Luke 23:34) Jesus asks God the Father to forgive the executioners, who had not expressed sorrow over their actions.  How do these seemingly different examples inform the way Christians are to forgive?

As I look at these verses, I think the answer becomes clear when look at three details:

1. Who is Jesus speaking to?
2. Who is to He telling do the forgiving?
3. Who is He saying should be forgiven?

In Luke 23, Jesus is speaking to God the Father, asking Him to forgive the executioners. This is not to say that Jesus expects that God the Father will forgive them without repentance, because it is the clear elsewhere in Scripture that God does not forgive the unrepentant (Luke 13:1-5). Rather, the answer to Jesus' prayer would be that the Holy Spirit would lead them to repentance, resulting in their forgiveness. We even see this prayer answered in part when the Soldier in the Gospel of Mark confesses "Surely this man was the Son of God" after Jesus has died.

Now, when speaking of Christians forgiving Christians in general, it is safe to state that we ought to forgive all sins, even those which are not repented (See Colossians 3:13). This is not to say that we maintain the same relationship with those who have unrepentedly sinned against us, or that we reconcile with them prior to their repentance, but that we release the right to avenge their sin into God's hands.

But, in the case of Luke 17, Jesus is speaking to the disciples, the Church's first pastors, regarding how they are to forgive. In John 20, Jesus tells them, "If you forgive anyone his sins, they have already been forgiven. If you do not forgive anyone his sins, they have already been retained." The way that the pastor deals with the sins brought to Him is different than the way Christians handle sins against one another. Because the pastor is charged with announcing God's forgiveness rather than merely his own, he does not forgive all sins when acting in his authority as pastor.  Instead, he announces whatever God announces regarding sin. What this means is that pastors forgive sins when the one who confesses is repentant, and they refuse to announce forgiveness for as long as the one who has committed the sin refuses to repent.

Forgiveness works in different ways based on the vocation of those involved. While Christians are to forgive one another at all times, and Jesus, as God, certainly has the right to pray for the forgiveness of whomever He chooses; when pastors are acting in their office as the spiritual shepherd of the congregation, then they are called on some occasions to forgive and on others to retain sins, based on the repentance or lack thereof displayed by the sinner before them.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Church Dress Code?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about dress codes for church:

Q:  Does the Bible give any requirements about how to dress for church?  What is the reason it has been common for people to dress up to attend services?

On a few occasions, the New Testament does address the issue of clothing, but in a general way rather than specifically in reference to attending a church service.  On those occasions, it encourages modesty in the style of dress and discourages Christians from relying on their clothing, jewelry, or other merely outward qualities as a source of pride or value.

There is one occasion in 1 Corinthians 11 on which the Apostle Paul addresses appearance and particularly mentions the way a person dresses for prayer.  At first glance, this appears to be a set of instructions on hair length and whether it is appropriate for men and women to pray with or without their heads covered. 

Many have interpreted this chapter over the years as a command that men may not have long hair and must not wear hats in church, while women must wear their hair long and must wear either a hat to church or pin a symbolic covering on some portion of their head during services.  However, such a reading is out of harmony with the character of the rest of the New Testament and ignores what is really at issue in the Church at Corinth. 

This is because beyond a few basic commands on church discipline and the institution of the Pastoral office, the New Testament does not make a practice of pronouncing commands on the appearance, diet, or other areas of Christian life, except for those which flow from the Ten Commandments. 

The issue at Corinth was that the way a woman wore her hair and whether she covered her head were an indication of her sexual availability, and it had become a trend in the city for even married women to give indication by their appearance that they were available, either for free or for pay, then to follow through on that indication when their appearance provoked interest from men. 

In this chapter, Paul is not making a divine pronouncement about the morality of hair length or the wearing of hats in church, but rather he is saying that Christians in general should be careful about the witness that their appearance gives, and in particular that women ought not attend church dressed as if they are prostitutes. 

The American tradition of dressing well for church, with men in suits and women in dresses, is a reflection of our culture’s expectation that people dress nicely for important occasions, especially when those occasions involve an encounter with someone in a superior position, such as the president, or a judge in court, or in this case, God Himself.  American Christians have typically dressed up for church as a sign of respect for God.  This is especially true in traditions, such as Lutheran and Roman Catholic, which believe that Jesus is really (not just symbolically) present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.

Likewise, the American expectation that men not wear hats in church is in keeping with the etiquette that it is appropriate for men to remove their hats indoors, especially in formal situations.  As in many other instances, even when a social expectation has begun to decline in society, it often holds on longer in the church.

Ultimately, the question of how one dresses for church is not a matter of right and wrong or whether it is a sin if one fails to dress well enough.  Instead, it is a question of what is wise and what best reflects to those around us what we believe about God and about what is happening when we attend the services of the Church.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Foul Language

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Foul Language:

Q:  Is it a sin to use “curse words” or “foul language?”  Where in the Bible can this be found?

The acceptability of certain language in our culture is certainly a standard which has seen a great deal of change in the past two decades.  I grew up in the era of the “Seven words you can’t say on Television,” which seems to have been a transitional time which left behind the excessively-conservative portrayals of married  couples sleeping in separate twin beds, but preceded broad availability of networks such as HBO, Showtime, and MTV, where nearly anything goes. 

During those times, I remember being instructed, sometimes even by well-meaning Lutheran School Teachers, that there were certain words one ought not say because they are sinful.  This reflects one side a divide that often exists regarding the morality of using certain language.  Some teach that there are certain topics that are not permitted for discussion or combinations of syllables that are immoral to vocalize, while others take the approach that, since there is no list of forbidden words in Scripture, that anything goes.  I remember once hearing it said that there is no commandment reading, “Thou shalt not say **** an awful lot.”

These opposing positions are both partially correct.  On one hand, there is no Biblical law regarding certain four-letter English words (since English as we know it did not yet exist in the first century A.D.) or outlawing the discussion of certain topics.  On the other hand, the Bible does frequently speak about our use of language. 

For example, Jesus’ brother James speaks in his letter about “taming the tongue,” and Jesus speaks once in the Gospel of Matthew against the use of “idle words.”  Several verses throughout the Bible, especially in Proverbs, encourage pure speech and maintaining a good reputation before one’s neighbors, but none of them specify the content of that speech in such a way that certain words are permitted or forbidden. 

Additionally, the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians that “everything is permissible, but not all are beneficial,” and in both 1 Corinthians and Romans, he discusses how Christians ought to treat their “weaker brother” on matters which are neither commanded nor forbidden by God’s law.  

Most Christians regard the Ten Commandments as the foremost summary of God’s law for humanity.  Many of them would point to the Second Commandment, which says, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God,” as forbidding the use of certain words.  This is true, but this commandment only forbids misusing God’s name.  This means that Christians ought to use the names and titles ascribed to God by the Bible in the ways that He has commanded, but what about those other words that do not involve God’s name?

Some of the other commandments can be helpful in this respect.  For example, for children to use language forbidden by their parents, teachers, or other authorities would be to sin against the 4th Commandment.  To use language in such a way that harms another person, either by damaging their reputation or by being verbally abusive or intimidating, would be a sin against the 5th or 8th commandments.  And, to use language in a way that is sexually indecent would be a sin against the 6th commandment. 

In light of these verses and commandments indicated above, we could probably conclude that the traditional list of “naughty words” is pretty accurate, but not for the reasons usually argued, and that not only they, but many of the other ways that we typically use language, are also not in harmony with God’s commands.  Even in the case where we could not say we have a clear command from God regarding a word or phrase being sinful, the Bible encourages us to consider how our actions will affect our reputation in the world or the state of our neighbors with a weaker conscience. 

In the end, it is not the vocalization of certain syllables, but the manner in which we use our words and the impact they have on our neighbor that informs its use.  Therefore we ought to choose our words carefully and consider their impact before we speak.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What are the Boundaries of Christianity?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about what makes a religion Christian:

Q:  What are the beliefs that define what a Christian is?  What is the least a person could believe and still be considered a Christian?

There is a short statement which appears a few times in the New Testament, which answers this question in three words.   “Jesus is Lord.”  A Christian is a person who acknowledges that Jesus is Lord.

As simple as that seems, these three words mean a lot more than it seems at first glance.  They aren’t a phrase that each person can infuse with their own meaning or interpretation, but they actually make a very radical statement. 

Jesus – a certain Jewish man, born in Nazareth just over 2000 years ago, who lived approximately 33 years, whose cause of death was crucifixion carried out by Roman soldiers, and who rose to life on the third day following His crucifixion and death. 

Is – means exactly what it says.  Not “represents,” “symbolizes,” “displays qualities of,” “appeared to be,” or any similar elaboration.  If it were a math equation, you would use the equals sign.  This makes “Jesus” and “Lord” equivalent terms—they are interchangeable. 

Lord – This is the word that carries all the weight.  While the word does have a meaning of “Master” or “Ruler,” this is rarely the meaning that it carries in the New Testament.  Instead, it means something far more significant the majority of the times it is used in the Bible. 

In the Old Testament, God’s name as He revealed it was equivalent to the English letters YHWH.  In some Bibles, whenever you see the word Lord spelled in capital letters in the Old Testament, it means this word was used.  Because the Second Commandment warned against misusing the God’s name, it eventually became common practice not to use God’s name at all.  Instead, they would substitute other words, such as HaShem (which translates as “the Name”) or Adonai (which translates to “Lord/Master”), and when they read out loud, they would say these words instead of YHWH. 

When the New Testament authors wanted to use God’s name, they used the Greek word Kurios, which was equivalent to “Adonai/Lord/Master.”  So, in the New Testament, the majority of the times one sees the English word “Lord,” it is a translation of a translation of a word that was the substitute for God’s proper name. 

So, to say “Jesus is Lord” is to say that Jesus is God, Jesus is YHWH, God became man, God was born, God died, God rose from the dead, God paid the penalty even though we committed the sins which angered Him, God ascended into heaven and will come again to judge the living and the dead in the same body in which He performed all of the previously mentioned acts, and in which He awaits the last day when He will come again. 

Over the years which followed the death of Jesus’ Apostles, different ideas frequently arose which challenged this teaching about who Jesus was as taught by the Apostles and recorded in the New Testament.  In response to these new teachings, the Church compiled statements called creeds, which clarified which of these teachings were in harmony with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles and which were contrary.  Today, we call these the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. 

While there are numerous religious movements which consider themselves Christian, the definitions of God and the understandings about Jesus within them are sometimes so different that independent scholars of comparative religion can no longer consider them segments of the same religion. 

When these scholars classify religious movements, it is two primary doctrines, as expressed in the previously-mentioned creeds, which they take into account.  The first of these is the Trinity—that God is three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), yet one God, and the second is that Jesus is both fully God and fully Human, yet one person.  They classify any religious movement that holds these two doctrines as Christian.  Any movement that teaches differently they classified separately.  

Of course, it is impossible for us to know for sure what another person truly believes, so when discussing these questions, it is not the individual faith of a person which is in question, but the written teachings of the movement or denomination, since individual beliefs often differ either knowingly or unknowingly from those of the religious organization to which they belong. 

In the end, however, the question is not  “How much can I disagree and still be considered a Christian?” but rather “What is True?” 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why Emphasize Doctrine?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the importance of doctrine:

Q:  Why do many churches emphasize doctrine so much?  As long as a person is sincere, does it really matter what they believe? 

Christian doctrine, that is the content of what a Christian or denomination believes and teaches, has become a difficult subject in recent years.  The large number of Christian denominations today are a result of the fact that over the course of Christian history differing positions developed on certain teachings, with the result that those on opposite sides of the issue formed separate organizations as a result of their differing beliefs. 

In contrast to this, the most recent century of Christian history has been characterized by different church bodies either merging or reinitiating fellowship with one another across denominational lines.  However, as the various churches have come together, it has not been because they resolved their differences, but instead, because they decided to overlook those differences and agree to disagree. 

But many Christians sincerely question whether this approach is acceptable or beneficial to Christianity at large, because although it might be more comfortable to overlook differences rather than resolve them, it merely ignores the problem rather than solving it.  Look, for example, at a marriage.  A couple who overlooks or ignores their differences rather than solving them will not have a healthy marriage, or perhaps a marriage at all, for very long.  And so it goes for churches. 

Doctrinal compromise, rather than resolution, also has other risks.  Some teachings stray so far from the truth that those who believe them cease even to be Christians, because the definitions have changed so much as to result in not just different beliefs, but a different God.  This was the case when the Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness religions arose in the mid-19th century.  Because they no longer taught that Jesus was God or that God was a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they became not just another denomination of Christianity, but a completely different religion.

Other teachings do not stray so far as to cause the loss of salvation, but they do differ enough from truth to pose a danger to those who believe them.  For example, I have had friends in the past who believed that it was necessary to contribute some small part, such as responding to an altar call, in order to be saved, rather than God doing 100% of the work of saving.  I witnessed people who responded to as many as a dozen altar calls, because they were uncertain whether they were sincere enough the previous time they went forward.  This seemingly small difference in doctrine became an occasion for the enemy to cause them doubt and attempt to shake their faith.

Ultimately, Christian doctrine could be compared a sweater.  When a snag occurs and a small thread is exposed, the sweater still serves its purpose, but if the thread is pulled, the damage continues to increase until the entire sweater is unraveled. 

We can see this happening in recent church history.  Around 60 years ago, some denominations began to question certain commands in the New Testament regarding church order and morality.  As they began to change their churches’ teachings over the following decades, more and more topics became open to question.  By the time a generation had passed, such foundational teachings came into question that their seminaries began to teach that Jesus did not really rise from the dead and that Mary was did not really conceive Jesus as a virgin.  This trend eventually reached the point that the presiding bishop of a major denomination declared a few years ago, that she believed that there were paths to salvation other than Jesus.

If Christianity were merely a mystical path to enlightenment, individuals could shape and form it to fit their personal preferences, but that is not the type of spirituality the Bible portrays.  Instead, Scripture makes factual claims that can be weighed according to the evidence and proven or disproven, trusted or rejected.  As such, it is not a customizable set of principles, but instead, a united proposition concerning spiritual truth which stands or falls as a whole.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Violent Sports

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Violent Sports:

Q:  Is it a sin when a person injures another person in the course of a sports competition?  Is it acceptable for Christians to enjoy or even to participate in sports which appear violent or have a high risk of injuring one’s opponent, such as Boxing or Mixed Martial Arts?

Participation in sports competitions is one issue which has never become significantly controversial among Christians.  This is probably because there are several occasions where Biblical authors, especially St. Paul, use athletic competition and the physical training athletes undergo as comparisons for the way Christians ought to approach the spiritual struggles they face. 

While there are a very small minority of Christians who have avoided all sports out of an understanding that it is an unfruitful use of their time, Physical training and athletic competition have typically been enjoyed by Christians throughout the ages, and have been a traditional part of the curriculum in Christian educational institutions because of the understanding that our bodies and our minds are connected, and when both are trained and disciplined, a person benefits more than if only one is emphasized.

But with this kind of competition does come the risk of injury to varying degrees.  Certainly some sports have elements which lend them to a higher injury risk, and some sports appear more violent on the surface than others, but appearances can often be deceiving.  Many of us would guess that highly physical sports like Football or Boxing would have the highest injury rates, but I have heard that sports that seem very safe, such as Cheerleading and Basketball actually have higher injury rates.

Sports have rules intended to prevent serious injury, but the risk will always be there, and if a player competes according to the rules and does not act with the intention to injure, he ought not fear that he has sinned if an opponent becomes injured.  On the other hand, if one causes injury intentionally or as a result of going outside the rules of the sport, they may have sinned. 

Mixed Martial Arts is probably the sport that could cause the most concern among Christians as to whether they can participate in good conscience because of the apparent level of violence involved in competing.  The Bible has some very clear commands regarding murder, assault, and other acts intended to harm another person, but there are two significant factors which prevent us from concluding that all highly-physical sports such as MMA or boxing are sins and unfit for Christians to participate in. 

The first is that the intent of these sports in not to injure.  No one can deny that the nature of the sports leaves a competitor open to injury, but the intent of the sport is not to injure.  For example, in MMA, the goal of the competition is to use several disciplines (boxing, wrestling, martial arts) to cause one’s opponent to submit or to win by a judges’ decision at the end of the match.  In fact, there are numerous rules set in place to prevent the competitors from injuring one another in the course of the event.  If the goal were to injure, a sport like this would be unfit for Christians, but that is not the intent of the sport. 

Secondly, no one is assaulting or mugging their opponent.  Instead, both competitors enter the competition with knowledge of the risks and consent to participate according to the rules.  If the intent of the sport were to injure one’s opponent, this factor would not even come into consideration.  For example, dueling with pistols is an unfit sport for Christians, because even though both parties compete with consent and knowledge of the risks, there is no other intent but to injure. 

A Christian might certainly refrain from participating in such sports because of the guiding of his own conscience, and Christians certainly ought to consider the impact of all of their actions on their own reputation and that of their congregation and the Christian faith as a whole. However, for a Christian to impose commands on fellow believers based on their own preferences or weaknesses is inappropriate without a clear universal command from Scripture prohibit the action.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Doctrine vs. Life

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Doctrine and Life:

Q:  Which is more important:  to try to live the way that the Bible says we should, or to understand theology and doctrine correctly?

The best one-word answer to this question, when asked by a Christian, is “Yes!”   A person’s good deeds, their ability to closely follow the Bible’s commands, or their attempts to live in a Biblical fashion can never, under any circumstances earn them God’s blessings.  However, for one who is already a Christian, correct doctrine and a God-pleasing life are both things that they should strive for. 

Far too frequently, it happens that these two aspects of the Christian faith are placed as opposed to one another, and individuals, and even whole denominations, who strive for one often make the mistake of neglecting the other.   While the Christian seeks to keep these two aspects in balance, it is important to remember that neither of them can be the cause of salvation.  It is only trust in Jesus as the only savior which can do that.  At the same time, unrepented errors in either doctrine or life have the potential to endanger faith and salvation.

Without correct doctrine, a person could easily be misled into trusting in the wrong thing for their eternal salvation.  Even small doctrinal errors have the potential to grow into faith-destroying, salvation-threatening false teachings.  In addition, if one does not have a proper understanding of the Bible, how would he even know what a God-pleasing life really looks like?

On the other hand, a person who has correct doctrine, but pays no attention to their way of life runs the risk of developing a sinful pride which leads them to believe that their doctrinal understanding makes them spiritually superior, or of developing sinful habits, which if continued without repentance, have the risk of separating them from Jesus and the blessings He gives. 

Since God is the one who designed and made humans and all creation, it only makes sense that following His commands can bring blessing, but while living according to a Biblical morality has the potential to have earthly benefits for any person, good deeds can never earn them anything from God.

This is the vast difference which exists between Christians and their Bible compared to every other religion of the world and their respective holy books.  Every other religion of the world has a code of behavior or a path to enlightenment proposed in their holy books, which, if followed, claims it will bring divine blessing or good fortune to its adherents.  Christianity, on the other hand, proposes that humans are incapable of satisfying God by their deeds, and therefore, God Himself took up the task of satisfying His commands by taking on Human flesh in the person of Jesus, then gives His blessings to humans by grace, that is, as a gift. 

The purpose of the Bible’s commands, in light of this, is to show humans how badly they have failed to live up to God’s moral demands and force them to look outside of themselves, to Jesus, to obtain the righteous status that God demands.

I’ve seen often two slogans on bumper stickers and t-shirts which reflect the failure of Christian preachers and Bible teachers to properly convey the Biblical truth regarding these two aspects of correct doctrine and a god-pleasing life.  Both of these are usually imposed above a picture of the Bible, and they say: “When all else fails, read the Instructions.” or “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” 

In Christian teaching, the Bible is far more than mere instructions.  From beginning to end, it is the true story of God’s actions throughout history to bring about the salvation of humanity.  This message emphasizing the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the Bible’s central message, and the commands and moral teachings contained within are never intended to dominate over that message, but instead to act in service to it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Law and Gospel

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Law and Gospel:

Q: I have heard preachers say that a person is saved by “grace alone,” as God’s gift, but when I read the Bible, I see so many laws and instructions that tell us what God expects. If God saves as a gift, why does the Bible spend so much time saying what we should do?

These two messages in the Bible can often be an obstacle for Christians when they are reading their Bibles or attempting to understand theology. On one hand, the Bible has very clear statements such as, “By grace you have been saved, through faith, not by works…” while there are others that say such things as “Do this and you shall live.”

This is because there are really two types of teachings in the Bible. The first is called the Law. The Law tells humans what God expects them to do. The clearest example of this kind of teaching in the Bible is the Ten Commandments. The trouble with this teaching, if we look at it in isolation, is that requires perfect obedience for anyone to be saved through it. If any person would present their good deeds to God as a reason to be rewarded, they must keep God’s Law flawlessly. Since no natural human has ever accomplished this, we would be led to believe that all people will be eternally condemned.

Thankfully, the Law is not the last word in the Bible. This is where the other teaching comes into play. This teaching is called the Gospel. This teaching states that, in spite of the fact that no human can satisfy God’s demands by their good behavior, God Himself took on a body, becoming a man Himself, and fulfilled it in place of humanity. After Jesus had done this, He was abandoned by God while He was being crucified, and in that event, He also suffered punishment in place of humanity.

The Law tells us what we must do. The Gospel tells us what God has done. Anyone who trusts that Jesus has fulfilled the Law in their place and suffered punishment in their place, receives the reward earned by Jesus’ perfect life and innocent death—namely eternal life.

The Law has absolutely no power to save anyone, because no person can keep its demands. Instead, the Law works in service to the Gospel. First, it shows every person who hears or reads it how badly they have failed to please God, and forces them to seek a solution outside of themselves. When a person has been forgiven for their sins by God, through trust in Jesus, they then desire to do God-pleasing things, and the Law shows them which things are God-pleasing.

These two teachings create a balance which Christians, even preachers, often have difficulty maintaining. When one strays to one side, it is often tempting to say that one must behave according to the Law in order to be saved. In that case, our behavior, not the work of Jesus would be the cause of salvation. When one strays to the other side, it might be said that because we are saved as God’s gift, our behavior is unimportant. In this case, the Law is completely irrelevant. When the tension between these two teachings is maintained appropriately, we say that Jesus saves without any human contribution, but that the Law of God still stands, first to reveal sin and force people to look to Jesus, then to guide and inform Christians, not as a cause of salvation, but as its result.