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.