Thursday, December 27, 2012

End Times Predictions

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about End Times Predictions:

Q:  With all the different predictions and scenarios circulating these days, how can a person know what is true about how and when the “end of the world” will occur?

Let’s start with a piece of good news:  Since the first newspaper edition this article is intended to be in will be dated December 27, the fact that you are reading this means that the Mayan Calendar hysteria turned out to be false. 

Beginning with Charles Wesley in 1796, continuing with repeated Adventist and Jehovah’s Witness predictions throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries, followed by a variety of Y2K-induced predictions between 1996 and 2006, and carried on most recently by the predictions of Harold Camping, English-speaking students of the Bible have had a fascination with predicting the date of Jesus return. 

However, Jesus Himself says on one occasion, “No one knows the day or the hour of the coming of the Son of Man,” (Matthew 24:36) and on another, “the Son of Man is coming at a time when no one expects Him.” (Luke 12:40)  Based on these verses, Christians can be confident that the world cannot end until Jesus returns, and anyone setting dates, or even years, for the return of Jesus is most certainly not speaking the truth.  Jokingly, I even give a “no-Second-Coming Guarantee,” based on Jesus’ words above, on any date that a major media-publicized end times event has been predicted. 

For about the last 150 years, another trend has been for certain preachers to lay out elaborate timelines of events surrounding the Second Coming.  The sequence and duration of these events varies, but they have the common characteristic of dividing the end times in to a multi-stage event with segments lasting from seven to a thousand years. 

Prior to that time, it had been the common understanding among Christians that the “Last Day” (a more preferred term among Christians than “end of the world”) would come instantly and unexpectedly.  At the moment of Jesus’ return, it would be universally known that it was occurring, and the following events would occur without delay and without the possibility of being prevented.  This agrees completely with the warnings of Jesus in Matthew 24-25. 

Any scenario that proposes particular dates or warning-shot events (such as the disappearance of large numbers of people or the formation of a nation) are the beginning of a count-down before the end of which Jesus will return, is extremely problematic from a Biblical perspective, because it necessitates either that people will know in advance when Jesus is coming again or that Jesus return will somehow be separated from His judgment of the living and the dead.  Either of these possibilities (usually based on the books of Daniel or Revelation, which have particular literary challenges for modern readers who must rely only on English translations) eventually run contrary to the clearer statements of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. 

Christians can take confidence in this:  The return of Jesus will be nothing but blessing for those who trust in Him, so they need not fear its arrival.  Additionally, our preparedness does not rest on our own ability and foresight, but in His provision by the Holy Spirit through the Word, so we can go about the business of serving in our vocations in eager anticipation, rather than fearful anxiety about the end—whenever it comes.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Does God Hate America?

My article fromt his week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Divine Punishment

Q:  When soldiers die and natural disasters occur, are these things a sign of God’s judgment on America for immoral lifestyles or lack of religious belief?

Even though this sort of conclusion is believed by only a small minority of Americans, several times in recent years, those small, but vocal, few have drawn media attention for their claims.  After hurricane Katrina, two prominent religious leaders insisted it was God’s judgment against New Orleans for its sins.  When another hurricane threatened the same area recently, one of them claimed it was for the same reason.  Another group insists that the death of U.S. Soldiers abroad is God’s punishment against the United States because our nation’s laws fail to punish certain types of immorality.

The thing about this, though, is that God got out of the business of having a favorite nation which were “his people” as of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  From that point forward, the New Testament is very clear that God’s people (now known as Christians or the Church) come from every nation.  God no longer works by supporting or destroying nations because of their religious convictions.  Instead, He desires that governments would provide safe and free societies where His Church can do the work of convincing people regarding morality and religious teaching. 

When Jesus is presented with a blind man in John 9, the Pharisees, and even His own followers, speculate over whose sin caused this man to be born blind.  Some said it was his own sin.  Others said it was his parents’, but Jesus responded, “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him,” and He says in Matthew 5, “[God] makes His sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” 

Much like God’s earthly blessings and provision do not come only to Christians, but to all people regardless of spiritual standing, tragedy occurs in the same way.  All people suffer various kinds of illness and disaster.  There are devoted Christians who suffer immensely in this life while there are notoriously immoral people who are wealthy and strong.  When these tragic circumstances come upon a person or a city, it is not because God is particularly displeased with them, but rather because human sin has broken the world and thrown it off course from God’s will for it.

So, when a soldier is killed it is the result of the sin of the enemy who attacked him, not because God is displeased with him and his nation.  Likewise when a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami threaten or destroy a city or a whole region, it is not because God is particularly displeased with them, but rather because the collective sin of humanity has brought destruction even as far as nature itself, which then returns on us—not as compensation for specific sins, but similar to a car whose driver is asleep at the wheel and takes out anyone, righteous or unrighteous, in its path. 

So, when we are healthy and have plenty, we ought not think it is because we are more worthy, and when we suffer pain and need, or even death itself, we ought not think it is because we are less worthy.  Instead, Christian teaching acknowledges that God is the author of every blessing, while humanity and its rebellious disobedience are solely and collectively responsible for all of the evils of nature and our fellow man which we face. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ecumenical Worship

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Ecumenical Worship

Q:  Why is it that some local congregations do not take part in ecumenical services and their pastors do not participate publicly in events which involve the clergy of other denominations? 

Questions of church fellowship, such as joint worship or communion participation can become especially sensitive in small, closely-connected communities like those found in Kossuth County.  For people in many congregations, refraining from participation in joint worship might seem quite foreign, if not offensive, and because of the strong ecumenical tendencies of many denominations over the past two generations, many might wonder why others do not participate jointly like their churches and pastors do. 

Because Christianity was largely united under one or two large communions for approximately its first 1500 years, it was not until after the Reformation that it became common for Christians of different types to live in the same area, and therefore find themselves in a position to struggle with this question. 

The consensus at that time was that it would be inappropriate for Christians of different types (Lutheran and Reformed, Roman and Anabaptist, etc.) to engage jointly in worship or other official acts until they had resolved their differences.  This remained the consensus until a movement arose in the United States in the 19th century which sought to focus on the things Christians had in common and disregard the teachings on which they disagreed. 

Some might be familiar with the saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”  This approach has been popular among many segments of Christianity, because the framework allows them to focus on the commonalities while avoiding disagreement over differences.  While the idea, especially its inclination toward civility and tolerance, is appealing, it also raises the question of what teachings constitute essentials and who gets to decide. 

So, for example, there are groups of Christians who desire to affirm every doctrinal distinctive, and even some things that are mere opinions, as essentials, and therefore insist on dividing, even over the most intricate of minutia.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, others consider nothing essential and place even the most foundational teachings of Christianity under the judgment of the individual to understand as they deem appropriate.

Often, observers are under the impression that pastors and congregations to decline to participate in joint worship or other ecumenical activities do so out of a sense of superiority or elitism—as if they believed their brand of Christians would be the only ones in heaven, as I’ve often heard it described.  While there are occasionally instances where that is the case, they are truly rare, and it is typically not true. 

Most pastors I know who make the decision not to participate do so out of a desire for clarity and because they do not want to confuse observers or give the impression that doctrinal differences are insignificant.  They are not typically seeking to defend their ideological purity or avoid defiling themselves by contact with others, but rather to prevent misunderstandings regarding the nature of the various churches’ positions. 

I know many Christians who are very passionate about a teaching they once believed wrongly, but later learned otherwise, and as a result saw a transformation from despair to inexpressible relief.  For them, the concern that others not undergo the same experience takes precedence over the impulse to participate in joint worship with their neighbors. 

For others, they desire so strongly for all Christians to become truly unified (“of one mind” as Paul says in Philippians 2:2) that they believe separation furthers that goal by giving an incentive to discuss and resolve differences.  This would be comparable to the observation that it is healthier for married couples to resolve their differences rather than merely overlook them. 

I know that in our area, a majority of congregations, even those who do not participate ecumenically in public worship, sustain beneficial connections to their broader communities, and that most of their pastors engage in positive professional relationships with other local clergy and even participate behind the scenes to achieve common goals and satisfy charitable needs in the community—attempting contribute to the good of the community in any way possible, yet without compromising their own convictions.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Health or Pleasure?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about caring for the body.

Q:  What is more valuable in Christianity, to enjoy life or to keep one’s body healthy?  If Christians are going to heaven anyway, why should we be concerned about our bodies while we are here on earth?

I know of a pastor who used to be criticized for promoting bacon in his sermons, because of its health implications.  As much as I question the relevance of bacon-eating as a point in Christian preaching, I do think that his answer reveals how easy it is for Christians to lose balance on this issue.  His answer was, “Of course I’ll die.  I’ll die and go to heaven…full of bacon!”

On one hand, Christians recognize that God has given everything in this world to be used for our benefit.  That fact that this world contains things that we are able to enjoy is a reason to give thanks to God.  Paul addresses this problem in 1 Timothy 4, by saying,

“…The Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to… the insincerity of liars… who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving… For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving…”

On another occasion, in the book of Acts, God offers Peter a meal from any of the animals of the earth, and when Peter refuses, God responds by saying, “Do not call anything unclean that God has made clean.”  (Acts 10)

God wants Christians to enjoy and appreciate the things of this world.  Jesus revealed that what harms a person spiritually is not the foods or drinks that they consume, but the worlds and actions that flow out, from within their hearts and minds.  (Mark 7) 

On the other hand, because our desires are corrupted by sin, we desire to overindulge and therefore harm ourselves and others, and God has placed limits on the pleasures of this world (like possessions, life, intimacy, reputation, and authority) in order to protect us. 

The same is true when we deal with our bodies.  Our bodies are a part of the person that God has created, and he desires us to receive them with the same thanks and honor them with the same care as any other blessing He gives.  This becomes especially clear that we do not merely die and go to heaven to live forever as disembodied spirits, but rather the souls in heaven await the Last Day when they will live forever in resurrected bodies.

Much like Christians have recently discovered that it is important to care for the world and not waste its resources unnecessarily, it has also become clear in the present generation that the same is true for the body.  In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul points out that the body of the Christian is the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  While we might be tempted, to jokingly respond that God deserves the largest temple we can build, we have to ultimately acknowledge that this truth has implications for the way we care for our bodies.  Christian stewardship leads us to conclude that we should not waste or damage any blessing God has given—especially our bodies, and the knowledge that the Holy Spirit dwells within Christians leads us to the truth that our bodies are intended to be treated with the highest respect. 

While leisure, fine food, and even adult beverages are given by God to be received with thanks, the Christian lives in such a way as not to abuse these blessings.  So, we work with intensity while stopping short of a level of stress which would harm our body and its ability to continue serving others.  We enjoy leisure while still maintaining the healthy activity our bodies need to preserve health.  We may enjoy the freedom to choose many foods and drinks—even bacon or adult beverages on occasion—which God has created for us to enjoy, but as part of a balanced life that allows pleasure, without endangering the health and longevity which are also His gifts. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Political Candidates' Religions

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

Q:  Is it a religious requirement for Christians to vote for a candidate who shares their religious identity?  If a non-Christian candidate shares many ideological principles in common with the voter, would it be wrong for the Christian to vote for him over a Christian with whom they disagree?

Even though our constitution prohibits the government from imposing any religious test for candidacy, it does not prohibit citizens from using religion as a factor in their decision regarding their vote, and even though many people do feel more comfortable voting for candidates who share their religious identity, it is not morally required of Christians to do so. 

The preference for candidates of one’s own religion probably has to do with a tendency among Americans to see the president as a spiritual leader.  Some even feel that he is something like a pastor-in-chief of American religion, much like his duty as commander-in-chief of the American military.  So, in a time of natural disaster or national tragedy, they want the president’s response to share their spiritual values. 

This has increasingly become a topic of discussion during this year’s election cycle, because in many prominent races, one or sometimes both, candidates are either members of a non-Christian religion or religiously unaffiliated, causing many Christians to express concern about how to respond to such a situation.  Whether they find themselves largely in agreement with one candidate on the issues, but concerned about his religious affiliation, or whether they see both positive and negative elements in each candidate’s views, but wonder whether they might be obligated to vote for the Christian, such important decisions are sure to be approached with great care regarding their ethical implications.

Although the exact source of the quote is uncertain, it has often been reported that Martin Luther expressed the sentiment that if he were forced to choose between being ruled by a wise non-Christian or a foolish Christian, he would choose the wise man above the foolish Christian.  This approach—to consider a candidate’s capabilities and ideology rather than merely his religious affiliation—might prove very relevant for many when approaching the sort of scenarios described above.

This is because neither the Christian Church’s hope nor its health rest on having elected officials who are members of it.  The Bible doesn’t speak of national officials as spiritual leaders, but instead as those who “bear the sword” (Romans 13) for the purpose of keeping the people under their rule secure and free—an environment in which the Church can then do its work of proclaiming the Gospel and convincing people of the Truth. 

We see evidence of this in history, as the religious affiliation of governing officials does not necessarily correlate with the advance or decline of Christian influence.  The fastest growth in Church history occurred during the first three centuries following the Resurrection, when the Church was under the rule of a hostile Roman government which outlawed Christianity.  In contrast, Europe in the middle ages, where the emperors were affiliated with Christianity and the Popes were integral to policy decisions, proved to be some of the darkest days in history for the Church.  Present insights have begun to reveal that the state-church system of Northern Europe may have even been a contributing factor in the collapse in church participation on the continent of Europe. 

As Christians participate in next week’s election, and hear (whether with delight or disappointment) its results, we remember that our hope is not found in having leaders who check the same box on the “religion” line of the census.  Instead, even though Christians desire to contribute to the good of the nation and participate as citizens for the good of all, we acknowledge that our true hope is in the Crucified King and forgiveness of sins delivered by Him in our congregations.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Church Unity

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

Q:  If Jesus desires, as He prayed in John 17:21, that His followers would be one, why are there so many different churches and denominations instead of all Christians joining together as one?  As long as we all believe in Jesus, shouldn’t we overlook our differences on other matters?

John 17, often known as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, has been the object of growing interest during the past century.  As denominations and individual Christians have increasingly sought to transcend denominational boundaries and definitions, they have often turned to several verses from this chapter as support for their effort. 

In this prayer, it is correct to conclude that Jesus desires unity for His Church.  He expresses this desire not just once, but three times, in the course of the prayer, asking His Father “…that they may be one…” as He speaks, first of His eleven remaining disciples, then of those who would hear their message, then of all future Christians. 

This could appear, before more careful study, to justify the idea that there should be no denominations or divisions within Christianity, and that Christians should overlook their differences to form a single, visibly-united, world-wide church.  However, as we look more carefully at Jesus’ language, as well as statements made elsewhere in the New Testament, we see that the truth is slightly more nuanced than that. 

It is clear from this text, as well as from supporting passages elsewhere, that Jesus does desire a unified Church, without divisions or disagreements.  In fact, the New Testament almost unanimously speaks, not of “churches,” but of “the Church,” and seems to speak of the unity of the Church as an accomplished fact.  This is not only because it was true at the time, but because it is irrevocably true at all times and places. 

This is because the unity of the Church is not based on our effort or ability, but rather on our One Lord.  Because the Church trusts Jesus, it is united—across nations, races, languages, and even denominational differences.  However, this unity is invisible.  It is a spiritual unity based not on human organizations, but upon the accomplished fact of Jesus’ redemption of Christians as their substitute in living a God-pleasing life and dying to bear the punishment of the world’s sin.  When the Bible speaks of The Church, it is speaking of all people of all times and places who trust in Jesus. 

At the same time, we live in the reality where there are many churches, and The Church is hidden from our view.  This is a reality that, this side of the Last Day, we will continue to experience.  These divisions exist because some have departed from the pure truth.  While all people who recognize God as a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who acknowledge Jesus as fully God and fully human, and who trust only in Him to forgive their sins, are Christians, various denominations have diverged on many questions beyond this point, and this is the reason that Christianity became, and remains, divided. 

Jesus makes it clear in His prayer that the unity He prays for is not one where people agree to disagree, but rather where they “agree” and are of “one mind” as the apostle Paul later phrases the idea.  Jesus does this by praying that His followers would “be one, even as we are one.”  Jesus desired that the unity of Christians in the Church would be as close as that which He, the Father, and the Holy Spirit experience with one another in the Trinity.

In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul acknowledged that differences had already arisen in the Church during His time, even explaining to Christians that such a thing was necessary, “so that the genuine among you may be recognized.”  Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament authors desire a united Church, but they desire that this unity be one of agreement and common teaching, not one where each individual believes their own thing under a broad umbrella. 

While The Church is already united by Jesus Himself, and while we certainly desire to make this unity more and more visible, we do a disservice to all people if we achieve this by masking our differences rather than resolving them, and while churches may be more or less divided at various times, it is only on the Last Day, when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead, that the One, united, Church will become a visible reality. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

David and Jonathan

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about David and Jonathan:

Q:  Was the relationship between King David and his friend Jonathan, which is described in the book of 1 Samuel, a close platonic friendship, or was it really a romantic relationship?  If these two men were romantically involved, how can this be reconciled with the Old Testament laws forbidding such relationships?

It has become more common lately for some authors to envision the relationship between David and Jonathan as being a homosexual romance.  However, it is important to note that this is a very recent development.  My research has not revealed evidence that this was proposed by anyone earlier than the 1950s, and even then it seems to have been proposed only rarely and theoretically, and not seriously considered until well after 1970. 

This alone ought to raise skepticism regarding the claim, because whenever we encounter a 40-years-young assumption about a 3000 year old piece of literature, it is highly unlikely that the assumption has any credibility. 

Yet historicity alone is not the only difficulty with this view of the relationship.  The verse that is most frequently the focus of these claims is 2 Samuel 1:26, in which David, while lamenting Jonathan’s death, describes his friendship with Jonathan as “greater than the love of a woman.”  For a reader without a background in Hebrew, I can see how the imagination might seem to suggest a romantic relationship.  However, two linguistic clues lead us to consider other options.

First, the language used in this verse about David and Jonathan’s friendship is that of “love.”  Hebrew does not use the word “love” to refer to a sexual relationship.  In fact, it does not even use it to refer to an emotional feeling.  Instead, to love is to sacrificially and selflessly place another’s interests ahead of one’s own, such as when Jonathan acknowledged God’s will that David be king (1 Samuel 18) rather than clinging to the idea that the throne should rightfully be his own.  In Hebrew it is, instead, the word “know” that is used to refer to a sexual relationship.  Throughout the Old Testament, when a couple consummates an intimate relationship, it uses the language of knowing and not the language of loving.

Additionally, David’s words are set in the context of Hebrew poetry, which was not based on rhyme, as we are used to, but rather on structure and on parallelism.  What we see in 2 Samuel 1:26 is a parallel that is meant to emphasize the difference between the parallel subjects.  So, David is not saying that he relates sexually to both Jonathan and to women and comparing the two experiences.  Instead, He is saying that the friendship he enjoys with Jonathan is not only superior to any relationship he might enjoy with a woman, but that it is of a completely distinct kind.   

Even if it were plausible that the relationship between David and Jonathan were intimate rather than platonic, it would be very difficult to prove with certainty.  On the other hand, the legal prohibitions set forth in Leviticus are very clear.  One of the most basic principles of Bible reading is that the clear passages shed light on the unclear ones, and not the reverse.  Therefore we would have to conclude that the clear prohibitions earlier in the Bible make it impossible that David and Jonathan’s relationship could be simultaneously romantic and honorable in the Old Testament’s worldview. 

Even if this relationship were to be as asserted in the recent opinions, it would not lead to the conclusion that the relationship was moral.  For example, the Bible also describes David’s acts of adultery and murder later in life, but the fact that they are described does not lead to the conclusion that they were exemplary acts.  Elsewhere in the Old Testament, Job’s friends give him all manner of wrong answers about his suffering, but this does not mean that the answers are divinely approved, but rather merely descriptions of the events. 

In any case, regardless of one’s position on homosexual behavior, the fact is that this story is simply not relevant to the question.  The language and context make it quite clear that the relationship was anything but sexual, but even if the potential existed that it were, the mere description of the situation by the Biblical authors would not render it divinely approved, meaning that an intellectually honest person on either side of the question of homosexual relationships will simply have to look elsewhere for their evidence. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Separation of Church & State vs. Two Kingdoms

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Separation of Church and State:

Q:  Is it appropriate for Christians to influence government and promote laws that are consistent with their morality?  Is the idea of a separation between church and state biblical? 

The accusation is frequently being made in our nation that certain Christians are seeking to impose their beliefs on the rest of the country.  These accusations often assume that it is immoral or illegal for religious people to make or enforce laws if those laws are based on religious ideas. 

This opinion is mistaken, though, because the constitution’s protections only go in one direction.  That is, they forbid the government from imposing religious practice on citizens, and they forbid the government from interfering in the religious exercise of its citizens.  However, it does not forbid citizens from choosing leaders or supporting causes based on their religious convictions.  In other words, the constitutional provisions only work in one direction.  The government may not interfere in the practice of religion, but religious people are free to influence the course of government. 

Prior to the Christian Reformation, it was simply assumed that government and religion were unified.  Under this assumption, popes would often coerce kings and princes into ruling according to his desires, and rulers at various levels would often impose their religion on their subjects.  It was in the midst of the Reformation that Martin Luther first introduced the idea that religion and government acted in separate spheres.  Instead of “separation of church and state,” he instead used the language of “two kingdoms.” 

Luther proposed a framework in which God ruled with His “right hand” through the Gospel by grace to forgive sins and save souls, and a separate kingdom where God ruled with His “left hand”, through the work of earthly laws and rulers, to preserve safety and keep order in society.  He saw these as separate, yet complimentary ways in which God provides and protects humanity. 

Often, religious morality makes good public policy, such as when laws are made against murder, theft, fraud, and other ways that people will harm one another, because these laws protect citizens from being injured or robbed by ill-intentioned neighbors by regulating external actions.  On other occasions, religious morality does not make good public policy.  This is particularly true when dealing with internal motivations or desires.  Laws against greed, lust, or hatred, for example, would be impossible to enforce, not to mention universally disobeyed.  Likewise, we have seen that laws prohibiting all alcohol sale or possession and forbidding Sunday commerce have also been ill-conceived. 

This is why you see Christians promoting some Biblical values as worthy of being national law but not others.  So, for example, there is not a strong movement among Christians to promote laws against adultery or the use of obscene language.  When we do see Christians supporting laws which reflect their morality, they are doing so not to impose their morality on others, but in order to help and protect their fellow citizens—not because it is God’s law, but rather because it makes good public policy.

So when we see Christians supporting pro-life measures, they do so for the sake of protecting living-yet-unborn citizens.  When Christians support measures which protect marriage and preserve the family, it is because these interests promote the good of the nation, and it is not in the best interest of the state to adopt innovative definitions in this sphere. 

For the government, religious origin could never become a standard for accepting or rejecting law, because then a vast majority of laws, even those forbidding murder, would have to go.  For the Church, this means that she ought not have the illusion that her hope is in the government reflecting her morality.  The Church does not deal in the sphere of legislation and coercion, but rather in the sphere of proclamation and persuasion by God’s Word, so that Christ’s message will go forth regardless of the laws of the state.  As the Psalm says, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation…the Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations.”

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why do Churches face East?

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

Q:  As I travel, I have observed a tendency for churches to face east.  Is there any significance to this, and is there a rule about what direction a church must face? 

In Matthew 24:27, Jesus says, "As the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man."  Ezekiel 43:4 also speaks of God’s presence as arriving from the East. 

In light of these verses, as well as other verses that compare God’s encounters with Christians to the rising sun, Christians have chosen to represent Jesus second coming in architecture, art, and other types of symbolism as being "from the east to the west."

Since Christian worship is sometimes described as a preview of Jesus’ return as well as a moment of heaven coming down to earth, and because Christians are reminded in Scripture to always be watchful regarding the return of Jesus, the Church chose to represent this in traditional church architecture by situating the Altar (which is the focal point of Christian liturgy) in the East end of the building, so that as Christians worship, they are facing the direction from which Jesus’ return is represented—as if they were watching for the Lord to arrive.

Other passages from the Bible use Jerusalem to represent the center of the reign of Jesus in the life of the world to come, and it is a popular to think of Jerusalem as the location where Jesus will touch down and sit in judgment when He returns “just as [the Apostles] saw him go up into heaven” at His Ascension.  For those of us Christians who live in the United States, Southern Europe, or Northern Africa, this also means that when we worship facing east, we face Jerusalem, making the visual imagery of the Church worshiping in expectation of Jesus’ return even more vivid. 

This custom is also represented in traditional cemetery planning.  Caskets have historically been placed with the head to the west and the feet to the east to paint the picture of the saints worshipping in the Church and being resurrected to face Jesus when He returns. (a person laying with their head to the west would face east if they were to stand up.) Additionally, when funerals are held in liturgical congregations, it is customary during the service to place the casket with the feet toward the altar to reflect a similar image and to remind us that the deceased believer and all the company of heaven continue to worship along with the Church even in death.

One particularly interesting exception to this custom exists, which is the funeral and burial of pastors. Pastors caskets would be situated with the head facing the altar during the service and buried with their head facing east and the feet west. The reason for this is that in the picture presented by this custom, the pastors would rise to proclaim the return of Jesus to their people, thus rising with their backs toward Jesus and facing the rest of the saints.

This is different from the traditions of other religions, such as the tradition of the Muslims which requires them to face Mecca during prayer, because this is not intended as a command or mandatory regulation, nor is it intended to earn anything from God.  Instead, it is for the purpose of visually representing and spatially depicting the reality of Jesus’ promised return, and thus better instructing the gathered faithful about the teachings of the Church.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

False Witness

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the 8th Commandment:

Q:  What does it mean when the Bible commands against bearing “false witness against your neighbor?”  What things does this commandment require Christians to do and forbid them from doing?

Among the Ten Commandments, this one (the 8th) is certainly in the running to be considered the most frequently misunderstood.  Some have paraphrased this commandment as “You shall not lie,” but it is really much more than that. 

The first three commandments deal with how humans are intended to act toward God, and the fourth through seventh commandments can be sinned against with thoughts, words, or actions.    Now this commandment deals primarily with our words, and how they relate to other people’s reputation. 

It is obvious that this commandment forbids Christians from lying—not only in formal testimony but also in private conversation.  This would include repeating untrue things we have heard from others, as well as starting the untruths ourselves, and it includes all lies, both those told publicly to many people or privately to only one person. 

Not only does this commandment apply to lies, but also to telling the truth in ways that are harmful.  This would include revealing secrets or other information one has been told with an understanding  of confidentiality.  It would also include revealing sins or other unfavorable truths that were previously private or giving even greater publicity to unfavorable truths that have already been made public about another person. 

In general, Christians should make every effort not to harm the reputation of other people if it can be avoided.  Private sins and offenses should be dealt with privately for the preservation of the reputations of everyone involved.  In Matthew 18, Jesus instructed the people to first go to a person who has sinned against them privately, then with 2 or three witnesses, and only if all other attempts had failed to make a matter public. 

The only occasion when it would not be sinful to keep a sin or other unfavorable truth secret is if it is revealed for the sake of helping the person in question or other people who might otherwise be endangered if the secret were kept. 

Some obvious examples of this would be when citizens report a crime, children report bullying or other harmful acts in school, or friends and relatives reveal an addictive behavior or suicidal intent with the intent of finding help for the person.  Even in these cases, though, one is not to declare such things in public, but rather only to those who have the proper authority to deal with them, such as law enforcement, teachers, pastors, or parents. 

Another instance in which it might be not only permissible to make unfavorable truths public is to correct an false statement that has been made publicly by another.  For example, if one businessman has publicly defamed another, the only way to correct the lie is to make the first man’s sin public in order to defend the good reputation of the second.

A similar instance comes concerning religious teaching.  If a religious leader is making public statements or publishing books about God, the Bible, or religious teaching that are blatantly untrue, not only would it be a faithful pastor’s option to make this known to the people under his care, and perhaps to the community at large, but he would be negligent if he became aware of such statements and failed to do so.

In both cases, the businessman and the religious leader have made their own sins public, and those seeking to correct them have no choice but to address them likewise. 

In any case, the Bible speaks frequently, such as the books of James and Proverbs, about the importance of using our words wisely.  We do so when we speak for the sake of helping others and defending their reputation rather than with the intent to do them harm.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Happy about Hell?

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about whether Christians should be pleased with people going to hell:

Q:  Why do some Christians seem so happy to declare that other people are going to hell?  Doesn’t Jesus forbid this kind of judging, and if hell is a real place, wouldn’t it be cruel to be pleased that another person going there?

The Biblical teaching about eternal punishment is one that has caused a large amount of distress in recent church history.  Because the reality of the subject is so horrible, people often find it difficult to deal with, and unfortunately, they often do so in inappropriate ways.

One inappropriate response to the Bible’s statements about eternal punishment is to deny its existence.  In spite of severe warnings by New Testament authors about eternal punishment, including very clear statements by Jesus Himself, about the subject, it has been common, especially during the past century, to deny that eternal punishment is real.

Some adherents to this position would cite verses like John 3:16 that “God so loved the world…” and others to deny that God would ever punish anyone, and thus dismiss the possibility of eternal punishment.  In order to achieve this, it becomes necessary to consider the Bible verses about eternal punishment to be inauthentic or to explain them away as meaning something else. 

One variation of this position is to acknowledge the existence of eternal punishment, but insist that only the very worst tyrants of human history, such as Hitler, Osama bin Laden, or various serial killers will actually be sentenced to it.  The trouble with any denial of eternal punishment, either in whole or in part, is that for a Christian to hold such a position, they have no choice but to admit that their position is contradictory to the position expressed by the Bible’s authors.  In addition, it also implies that salvation is a matter of human behavior rather than a result of Jesus’ sacrifice.

The opposite inappropriate response, as mentioned in the question, is to defend the reality of eternal punishment to strongly, that it overshadows the Gospel itself and gives the appearance to the casual observer that the preacher is pleased that certain individuals will suffer eternal punishment. 

On very rare occasions Christian groups have arisen that do seem to genuinely take pleasure in the condemnation of others.  Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kansas, has received significant publicity in recent years for taking just such a stance, as evidenced in their protests at American soldiers’ funerals condemning our nation for allowing various sins that they consider particularly objectionable in comparison to others.

An appropriate response to the Bible’s claims regarding eternal punishment by Christians is concern and sorrow.  For a person who claims that the Bible is a factual account of Christian Truth, it is impossible to deny the reality of eternal punishment, regardless of how uncomfortable that acknowledgement is, but the Bible’s claims about it should never result in joy or pleasure on the part of the Christian. 

Instead, it ought to drive Christians to greater humility concerning their own position before God as forgiven sinners and greater urgency at making others aware of Jesus and His free gift of forgiveness as the only remedy for the consequences all people rightly deserve.  Because the Christian acknowledges that salvation is solely the result of Jesus living and dying as our substitute, and not at all from anything in himself, it would be completely inappropriate to take personal pride in one’s salvation while rejoicing in another’s punishment. 

In my work as a pastor, I sincerely avoid any attempt to judge a person’s unseen thoughts or beliefs, especially regarding their eternal reward or punishment when this life ends.  However, a person’s words and actions are an indication of what they believe, so Christians can speak concerning what we see and hear—although never out of pride or by our own standards.

My typical response in such a circumstance is to say, “Based on what he has said…” or “If he truly believes the things he has written…” what a person would expect to face in eternity as already declared by God in Scripture, while at the same time allowing for the fact that those words or actions may be inconsistent with the beliefs of a person’s heart, or that the Holy Spirit may intervene during the final minutes in a way I am not capable of observing. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Horoscopes & Divination

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Horoscopes and other forms of Divination:

Q:  How should the Christian approach Ouija boards, palm reading, horoscopes and other similar practices?  Can these rituals really allow us to communicate with spiritual beings or discern the future, and are Christians permitted to engage in them?

All of these things fit into a category of actions that the Old Testament calls divination, which includes any method of seeking communication with spiritual beings other than the One True God or seeking to gain knowledge about the future from any source other than God and His Prophets.  The Bible forbids divination because it is a form of idolatry. 

The First Commandment forbids idolatry in every form, commanding the people of Israel that they are not to have anything to do with any other supposed god or to seek spiritual good from any source other than the One True God.  Practices such as the use of Ouija boards, which overtly call on various spiritual powers are obviously forms of idolatry in these terms.  In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul even goes so far in 1 Corinthians 10 as to state that the gods of non-Christian religions are actually demons posing as deities, and therefore the worship of false gods is actually the worship of demons. 

When it comes to palm reading, horoscopes, and other methods which seek to discern present knowledge of future events from entirely unrelated natural signs, it should be completely obvious to any logical person that there can be no possible correlation between the lines on a person’s hand or the alignment of the stars that would indicate what will happen in their future.  If the predictions revealed through these methods prove to be untrue, that should be exactly the result we expect. 

In the event that they do prove to be true, there are several possible explanations to what has happened.  First, and most obvious is random chance—much like a broken clock is still right twice a day.  Second, and nearly as likely, is deception.  Often practitioners of these rituals learn things about their subjects through subtle conversation (like a street-corner fortune teller) or they write predictions that are so vague nearly any event could be seen as a fulfillment of the prediction (as in magazine horoscopes).

A third, and most dangerous, possibility is that knowledge has been in fact being revealed to the practitioner.  This knowledge even comes from the spiritual realm, but it is important to remember that not everything spiritual is good—a truth often overlooked in modern spirituality.  In such a case, the knowledge would actually be demonic in its source and given for the purpose of undermining or distracting from trust in Jesus. 

In any case, all of the practices and rituals in this category are to be rejected by Christians and are unwise for a number of reasons.  All forms of divination are foolish because they are logically unfounded and typically just a trick or deception, but additionally, if one actually relies on these methods, it could be a form of idolatry which would be spiritually dangerous for that person. 

Readers are encouraged to submit questions for inclusion in future issues.  You may submit questions by email to or by mail to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA  50522.

Rev. Jason P. Peterson

Pastor, St. John’s Lutheran Church – Burt

Zion Lutheran Church - LuVerne

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Is Baptism Necessary/required?

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about the necessity of Baptism

Q:  Is Baptism required in order for a person to be saved?  What does the Bible say about people who die without being baptized?  What is required for a Baptism to be valid?

Even though Baptism is a key element of Christian practice and an important point in Biblical theology, there still remains some degree of diversity among the various Christian denominations regarding their beliefs about and the practices surrounding Baptism.
For example, the majority of Christians worldwide believe that Baptism is for all Christians, even infants, while a minority insist that only those old enough to desire and request Baptism should be baptized. Some would set some particular age, while others would judge based on the person's development or understanding, and may insist that Baptisms performed prior to their specified milestones must be repeated at an age when the individual can verbally articulate their faith. An even smaller minority would insist that only baptisms performed in their church or other churches within their specific fellowship are valid, and would insist any person baptized elsewhere be rebaptized.

Even though there are often a variety of ceremonies associated with Baptism, such as blessing and naming rituals in churches which baptize infants, or personal testimonies given before Baptism in churches which Baptize only older individuals, or gifts like a white garment or a burning candle given in recognition of the event and its meaning, such things are not a requirement of a valid baptism.  So, for example, when baptizing an infant in an emergency situation, I may include nothing more than applying water to the child with the words, "I Baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  At other times, only the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer might be added, and some of the previously mentioned ceremonies delayed until the Baptism is publicly recognized in the Sunday Service, but as long as these two elements are present--water and God’s Word, particularly the Triune name--the Baptism is valid, and we can say with confidence that it has done what God has promised.
There is also some diversity regarding the method of baptizing. Some insist on full immersion of the individual in water, while others allow other methods, such as sprinkling or pouring the water on the individual. Again, even though a minority insist on a particular method of applying the water, most agree, with support from the Greek text of the New Testament there is no Scriptural command regarding the method of applying the water.

Baptism is almost universally understood to be the means of entry into the Christian congregation and the boundary between those inside and outside of the Church.  In recognition of this, traditional church architecture often places the baptistery at the entrance to the church building so that one passes it every time they enter the worship space.  However, Pastors and Biblical Scholars would rarely describe Baptism as “required” as something we must do in order to be saved.  Instead, they might choose terms such as “necessary” without being “absolutely necessary.”

What this means is that in the regular order of things, a Christian is always to be baptized. For the child of Christian parents, this may happen soon after birth, while for others who come to Christianity as adults, their Baptism may follow their instruction in the Faith, but if an adult convert were to die after they had heard the message of Jesus and trusted in Him but before it was possible to receive Baptism, nearly no person would question that the person was forgiven and saved. However if an adult convert would claim trust in Jesus yet refuse Baptism for a prolonged time, the question would eventually have to be asked whether they were, in fact, a Christian.

One reason for this is because for a person to claim to trust Jesus, but then refuse to receive the Sacrament He commanded would be extremely inconsistent. More importantly, though, since Baptism is not primarily something the person does as an act of devotion to God, nor is it merely something the priest/pastor does for the person.  Instead, Baptism is something God Himself does for the recipient, by the hands of the pastor or priest, and if the person refused to receive the Sacrament through which God has promised to deliver His blessings, then it would necessarily raise questions about their profession of faith.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Unbiblical, Man-made laws

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about how to respond to man-made rules that do not come from the Bible:

Q:  How should a Christian respond if their church insists on following rules that are man-made instead of Biblical?  How does one know what church rules are Biblical and which are not?

Throughout the History of Christianity, this has been a problem which has plagued churches.  Often people have a hard time separating the biases and preferences of their culture from actual Biblical law, often with the result that the pastors and churches begin enforcing man-made rules and making them equal with God’s law.  

We can see this beginning even during the life of St. Paul, as he writes to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:3) condemning those who forbid marriage and require abstinence from certain foods, as Peter is criticized for exercising His God-ordained freedom to eat non-kosher meat and dine with gentiles, and as Paul has to correct the Galatians after they are misled by false teachers to think they must accept Circumcision to be true Christians.

Over the years, the details change repeatedly, but the tendency remains the same.  Fewer than 600 years after Jesus resurrection, a movement gained traction which forced priests to remain celibate and unmarried.  150 years ago, my own denomination was known to superstitiously forbid the purchase of insurance with the accusation that it was a failure to trust God to provide and protect. 

Early in the 20th century, the movement for a ban on alcohol consumption overtook many churches and for a time the laws of our nation, and to this day new and different ways are being introduced to override God’s Law with rules of human origin.

How one reacts to these demands depends on how and why they are being made.  Governments, for example, are free to make laws not found in the Bible, and according to the Fourth Commandment and Romans 13, Christians are obligated to obey them, unless that law would command them to sin.  When spiritual leaders or church bodies make the laws, however, the situation is different.  If a command cannot be supported by an honest and accurate reading of the Bible, a church or a pastor have no right to demand it be followed. 

When something has neither been commanded nor forbidden in the Bible, the Christian is free to follow His own conscience in the matter and ought not attempt to enforce his choice on others.  Examples of issues where this might apply would include such things as alcohol consumption (in moderation), tobacco use, dancing and styles of dress (within certain boundaries of modesty).

Although I haven’t been able to find the reference in print to provide a precise quote, I heard a story from a professor in college about Martin Luther responding to such a demand, saying something like, “If any man tells me I may not drink Wittenberg Beer, I shall drink a second for him.”  The idea behind this is that if the demand is made out of pride, the Christian should be deliberate in boldly displaying His Christian freedom so that the other person would be freed from their bondage to the man-made law. 

On the other hand, when another Christian fears out of weakness that something is a sin, (not out of pride and trying to mislead others), or when an act may be harmful to a person (such as drinking in the presence of an alcoholic) the Christian ought to voluntarily abstain from that act in the presence of that person so as not to cause them unnecessary guilt or temptation in their weakness.  The Apostle Paul discusses this at length in Romans 13 and 1 Corinthians 9. 

Ultimately, a simple way to know whether a rule is Biblical is to know the Ten Commandments, and see if the law can be connected to one of them.  If it can, it is most likely Biblical.  If it cannot, it is most likely man-made. 

Churches and their pastors ought not ever be hesitant to declare a law that God actually has made, and cautious never to demand obedience to a law that He has not, while Christians in their lives ought never be ashamed to obey a law that God has given, and at the same time careful to discern whether their neighbor with a different position needs to be comforted in their distress or confronted for their pride.