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.