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.