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.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why be moral?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the reason for morality:

Q:  If Christianity is not primarily a moral code, why should Christians pay attention to the Bible’s moral commands?  Couldn’t they just live any way they choose?  Why do churches differ so widely on what moral commands they consider applicable to Christians, and how do I know which church is right on this matter?

First and foremost, Christianity is about Jesus forgiving sins and giving eternal life, as a gift, and as a result of His crucifixion.  Consequently, Christianity is not primarily a moral code, but the Bible’s moral commands do act in service to this primary purpose of distributing forgiveness and eternal life. 

This is because those moral commands first, convict those who do not yet trust in Jesus that they have displeased God and cannot correct the problem themselves; then, once a person does trust in Jesus, which results in a desire to live in a God-pleasing manner, these commands describe what that godly life looks like. 

Even though Christianity is not primarily a moral code, its moral commands do still matter, and it is important that we be able to accurately identify what they are.  In order to make this identification, it is first necessary to acknowledge the ground rule that the Bible will be the sole source for making such a determination.  Secondly, it is necessary to read the Bible accurately. 

The first important part of this is to read the Bible like any other book—that is to look at the whole text rather than reading a verse apart from its wider context; consider the language and structure (subjects, verbs, objects, setting, main ideas, etc.); understand what type of writing is being presented (prophecy, poetry, history, etc.) and how the book or verse fits into the broader picture. 

Then it is necessary, to the highest degree possible to separate oneself as the reader from any presuppositions and read the text for what the text says rather than in light of one’s own experiences and biases.  Most importantly, know when to stop.  Sometimes the Bible just doesn’t answer certain questions, and we have to accept that.  Be confident in what the Bible has said, but don’t give in to the temptation to make it speak where it hasn’t really spoken.  Failure on the three points just mentioned can account for a vast majority of the differences between churches. 

Bible commentaries or Bibles that contain study notes can be helpful, but they also have the potential to be misleading, depending on their source.  Knowing Biblical Greek is the best possible tool to have at one’s disposal, but since time or cost would be prohibitive for most people to do this, settle for befriending a pastor who knows it.  Having expended the effort to learn it, he will be glad to speak with someone who appreciates and takes an interest in this rare ability. 

If evaluating a church, don’t just consider the moral commands but all teachings of a Church.  Whenever a church reflects what is taught in the Bible, it is acting as a true church, but whenever a church overrules a Biblical teaching to suit the leaders or the members, or if they teach in such a way that bends the Bible to fit their presuppositions rather than adjusting their presuppositions to align with the Bible, they are teaching falsely and leading people away from Jesus. 

All of this matters, because the Bible’s promises and commands are inseparable.  Disregard for the Bible’s commands ultimately undermines any confidence in its promises, and if its promises are undermined, it would be just as spiritually powerless as any mere idol statue that human hands have carved or sculpted over the centuries.