Monday, December 23, 2013

Boycotts, Prime Rib, and Duck Calls - Christians in the Marketplace, Part 1

My article from this week's newspapers:  

Is it acceptable for Christians to patronize a business whose owner’s behavior outside of work conflicts with their morals?

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Western Church is in the midst of emerging from several centuries of Christendom—where the Church, the government, and the culture formed a unified front which suppressed dissent and all three enforced conformity to the same standards—but it seems those who desire to live out a Christian ethic are mystified about how to live in a world where they must interact with people who are different from them. 

I remember the days not too long ago when boycotts were all the rage among Christians and there were whole organizations and publications that seemed single-mindedly devoted to announcing on a monthly or weekly basis which companies should be the targets of Christian boycotts and which had conceded to an extent that it was now acceptable to do business with them. 

It seems to me that this approach has some very serious flaws.  Most importantly, it fails to acknowledge that all of the people with whom we engage in transactions on a given day are sinners and every business we patronize is owned by a sinner.  In order to avoid financially supporting sin, the only option left for Christians would be subsistence farming, because they wouldn’t even be able to do business with one another. 

Additionally, it improperly prioritizes sins so that those which are most emotionally-charged draw more attention while those that are actually more serious go unnoticed.  For example, so many calls for a boycott have to do with sexual ethics, while I have never seen a call to boycott restaurants which display Buddha statues or convenience stores with a painting of the Hindu god or goddess behind the counter. 

A quick survey of the New Testament finds that there are, indeed, several instances where the believers are called to be separate or avoid certain others.  However, closer examination finds that these are always in the arena of church fellowship.  They are called to be separate from those who worship other gods and to avoid those who teach false doctrine.  These calls never involve the Christian’s dealings in business or in the world. 

Instead, on the one occasion this is addressed, Paul answers quite differently.  Upon being asked whether it was acceptable for Christians to eat meat sacrificed to idols, Paul tells the Christians not even to ask where the meat came from when it is served to them, because an idol is really nothing at all.  He encourages them that they should feel free to eat, with the one exception that they should refrain in the presence of a weak or uninstructed Christian who might be caused distress by their doing so.

When choosing a congregation, calling a pastor, or other spiritual matters, caution and thorough examination of these things is certainly in order.  Of course Christians should avoid the book sale or benefit where the explicit purpose is to raise funds for harmful and immoral causes.  And these questions might need to be asked regarding services where the spiritual beliefs of the practitioner are relevant, such as psychological counseling.  But, in everyday commerce, we are called to engage the world, not to hide from it. 

So, instead of investigating which political party your banker donates to, spend your time comparing rates and services.  Instead of grilling the kid making your sandwich what he did or did not do on his date Friday night, ask him if it comes with mustard.  Instead of concerning yourself as to your barista’s lifestyle choices, ask her about the new flavor, how college is going, or maybe even invite her to church.  That is the Christian way to do business.  And pay less attention to what television personalities’ positions are on the grazing rights of endangered mountain goats and ask if their show makes you laugh (or cry, or whatever it is you’re looking for) and watch accordingly, rather than demanding that they keep or lose their job based on whether they agree with you. 

For a business whose owner is working to make a living by providing a respectable product or an ethical service, the Christian’s concern is not what they intend to do with the profit from the business or what causes they support after hours, but whether they provide a good product or are skilled at their trade.  After all, if Christians were to hide from the world in closed enclaves, how would those still needing the truth about Jesus ever hear it?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Duties and Expectations of a Pastor's Wife

My article from this week's newspapers about duties and expectations of a pastor's wife:

Q:  What does the Bible have to say about the role of the pastor’s wife in the congregation?  Are there additional expectations of her, or special privileges in comparison to other members? 

If an individual with no experience in a church were asked to observe the life of several congregations, they would probably report that, when their pastor is married, the pastor’s wife is treated differently, to some degree, than other members of the congregation. 

In traditions with celibate clergy, this is obviously not a question, and in traditions which have instituted female clergy, the social dynamics have been reported to be different for clergy husbands, but in the majority of traditions where married, male clergy are the norm, the pastor’s wife finds herself facing a unique set of expectations not placed upon others. 

Many African-American Protestant congregations even refer to the pastor’s wife as the “first lady” of the congregation, with a role in the congregation that resembles the role of the President’s wife has in our nation.   

It has been a typical expectation in the recent history of American Christianity, that the pastor’s wife be able to play the organ, that she would teach Sunday School, participate heavily in (or frequently to lead) the ladies aid or other women’s organizations in the congregation, and possibly lead a youth group serve (without pay) as church secretary, or direct Christmas programs for good measure.  

In addition to all of this, she was expected to manage her household, largely without the assistance of her husband (who was too busy with congregational business to help at home), ensure perfectly angelic behavior from her children (both in and outside of church), and be prepared at all times to host guests at a moment’s notice in her perfectly-kept home.  And if her husband was found in any vice, such as an affair or alcohol abuse, local gossip would likely find fault with her for “driving him to it.” 

Wives who found themselves living in a parsonage (church-owned home for the pastor’s family) often faced even more challenging circumstances, as not only were their lives (with accompanying mistakes and imperfections) more easily observed by the congregation, with little privacy (what some authors have called “life in the fishbowl”), but often they were held to impossibly high standards for their care and keeping of the “congregation’s house.” 

Even when these expectations are not as severe as they once were, many of them still carry on today, but what does the Bible have to say about the role of the pastor’s wife?  Nearly nothing.

While it does seem that many of the Apostles were married, (1 Corinthians 9 mentions the apostles’ wives, and the Gospel of Luke mentions Peter’s mother-in-law) I cannot recall any instance where the wives actions are described or that their names are even mentioned.  Likewise, the roles of Barnabus, Titus and Timothy’s wives and the rest of the second generation of pastors are also not described within the Bible. 

The closest the Bible comes to describing the expectations of a pastor’s wife is when Paul writes to Timothy and Titus that the pastor must have only one wife, and that he must have his family and children in order—but these are more about the pastor than his wife. 

Biblically, there is no such office in the church as pastor’s wife.  The pastor is called to publicly proclaim God’s Word to his congregation, and the administer God’s Sacraments there—that is his office, and does not extend to her.  His wife finds herself not in the role of co-pastor, unofficial secretary, or full-time church volunteer, but instead that of wife, mother, neighbor, Christian woman, or whatever earthly vocation she has chosen to undertake.  Her she is called, first of all, to carry these out well. 

She may then do some of the things previously mentioned, but not because she is the pastor’s wife, but because she is a Christian and serves in the congregation just like the other members.  In other circumstances, her greatest contribution might not be what she is expected to do in public, but to care for her home and children and thus support her husband’s ability to be about the work of ministry on behalf of the congregation.  All are equally beneficial to the body of Christ, one is not more noble than the others, and she is free to do whatever seems most wise in her judgment for the circumstances in which she and her family live. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mortal, Venial, Lesser, Worse, or Equal Sins

My article from this week's newspapers about different types of sins:

Q:  Are there some sins that God considers more offensive or worthy of punishment than others? 

The endeavor of classifying or comparing sins is one that takes on different nuances depending on the context in which the question is asked. 

The most straightforward example of this would be the context of salvation.  In this context, both the quality and the quantity of the sin are irrelevant.  The Epistle of James reveals this concisely when it states that “Whoever keeps the whole law, yet sins at just one point, is guilty of breaking all of it.”  If one proposes to earn salvation by means of obeying the law, the standard of perfection.  The presence of any sin, great or small, means failure.  In this sense, one sin is the same as the next, whether mass murder or shoplifting, and all incur the same consequence.

In contrast to this, it has been proposed by some that there are two types of sin—mortal sins which lead to condemnation and venial sins which, while still morally wrong, do not necessarily condemn.  However, the type of sin is not what condemns, but rather the un-forgiven status of the sinner who commits it.  Mortal sins really are those committed, no matter how small, apart from Christ’s forgiveness.  Venial sins are really those committed, no matter how large, that are covered by Christ’s forgiveness. 

The fact that all sin does not cease to be true for those who become Christians.  The Bible does not tell a story of sinners and righteous people, but rather the story of one righteous man, Jesus, and a world of sinners—some forgiven and some un-forgiven.  The difference between Christians and non-Christians is not portrayed by the Bible as whether they sin or not, but as how that sin is to be handled.  For one who trusts in himself, in nothing at all, or in some other entity than Jesus, he bears the burden of repaying his sins himself, and even the smallest sin condemns.  On the other hand, for one who trusts in Jesus as his substitute in living a God-pleasing life and in suffering sin’s punishment, no sin can condemn. 

Similarly, there is the case of willful or unrepentant sin—these are sins done with the knowledge that they are wrong, but disregarding concern for the fact that they are.  This is the sort of sin would cause great concern that the one who commits it is apart from Christ.  On the other hand, there are those that might be known as sins of weakness or crimes of passion.  These are committed without contemplation of or with inadequate appreciation for their sinfulness, and might only be realized as wrong after the fact.  These might be committed by the Christian and non-Christian alike, and would include such things as an assault or murder that occurs in a flash of anger or the suicide committed in the dark depths of depression or despair.  While such actions certainly remain sins before God, they would not necessarily indicate to a pastoral care provider that the one who commits them has been denied forgiveness or separated from Christ. 

In another context, there is a distinction between a sin’s implications before God versus before man.  Before God, all sins are equally condemning, as previously described, while at the same time, those sins have varying degrees of impact here on earth.  These consequences before man are significantly different in that some sins merely cause offense to those who are sinned against, while others create a devastating ripple effect that causes immeasurable harm to those sinned against.  This is why society responds more harshly to sins like child molestation and premeditated murder than to gossip or lust and why habitual criminals are more strongly punished than first-time offenders. 

The important realization to be emphasized regarding sin is that all sin must be accounted for, either by the sinner himself, or by Jesus, and that the important factor is not the quantity or quality of the sin, but rather that it be forgiven by Jesus and the sinner reconciled to God through Him.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Matthew 27:52-53

My article from this week's newspapers answers a question about the resurrected saints in Matthew 27:52-53.

Q:  Can you explain the resurrection of the saints that occurs after Jesus death in Matthew 27:52-53?  Who were they, and what happened to them after they were raised?

This is one of those little-known details of the Gospels that is often overlooked and rarely understood.  Even Matthew, himself, who is the only Gospel writer to include this detail, gives us very few details, and no explanation about, the event. 

What we do know is that this occurs at the time of Jesus’ death.  This is a sign that accompanies an earthquake and the thick curtain that divided the Most Holy Place from the rest of the Temple being torn in half.  All of these events are more than coincidental. 

Earthquakes were commonly associated with God’s judgment in the Old Testament.  In this case, the earthquake signifies that God’s judgment has been poured out upon Jesus and now stands satisfied by His death. 

The temple veil marked the boundary which could not be crossed by humans, because God’s presence was dwelling on the other side, and unauthorized entry would bring certain death.  Even the high priest could only enter once a year and only after first making sacrifice for his own sins beforehand.  That it was torn indicated that the separation from God caused by sin had now been overcome and that the forgiven could now approach God directly with their prayers and requests. 

Resurrection of the dead was a sign commonly associated in Old Testament prophecy with the coming of the promised Messiah.  However, these prophecies often did not distinguish between Jesus first and second comings, and what remains to be completely fulfilled when Jesus returns was seen being fulfilled on a small scale during His life and ministry.

We see this as Jesus, for a number of people, gives sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, casts out demons, and overcomes all kinds of illness and disability during his ministry—all of which will be fulfilled completely when He comes again on the Last Day. 

These dead who are raised are similar.  On three occasions, Jesus did raise the dead during His ministry, and now in connection with His death, we see resurrection occurring again.  We know that there were not only a few who were raised, because Matthew calls them “many,” yet this is also short of all being raised. 

We also know that those who were raised were “saints,” that is, those who died trusting in Jesus.  These could be saints who witnessed a portion of the life of Jesus, but died prior to His crucifixion, or they could be Old Testament saints from prior eras who died trusting that He would come one day, or even both, but Matthew does not clarify. 

We also know that they rise in connection with Jesus’ death, which is actually quite appropriate.  Even though Jesus rises on the third day, prefiguring for us what awaits all  believers on the Last Day, these saints rise as Jesus dies, emphasizing that it is Jesus’ death which purchases God’s forgiveness and blessing for us, which result in Resurrection. 

However, they do not appear in Jerusalem until “after His resurrection,” leaving us to wonder where they remained in the meantime.  Matthew does not explain this detail either, but since we know Jesus remained on earth 40 days following His resurrection, which his whereabouts only occasionally being made known, we can conclude that God also made similar provision for these resurrected saints during these three days. 

The destiny of these resurrected saints in the time which follows is also a matter of uncertainty.  Since it seems that the three individuals raised by Jesus during His ministry later died again (as we do not see them walking among us today), along with the few resurrected by the Prophets before Jesus and the Apostles after Him, it seems reasonable that these saints also returned one day to their graves. 

However we also have a concrete example in Elijah, and perhaps a second in Enoch, that it is quite possible for a person to go to be with the Lord while remaining in the body.  So, perhaps these saints, like Elijah and Jesus Himself, dwell with the Lord in their body while the rest of the saints await the Last day for that privilege. 

Even in spite of these uncertainties the message of the resurrected saints is clear—Jesus death gives life to those who trust in Him—first restoring our souls for the remainder of earthly life, but ultimately for physical life which will continue without end. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sola Scriptura?

My article from this week's newspapers:

Q:  Does the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) mean that Christians are forbidden from using any other sources to help them understand the teachings of Jesus?

Sola Scriptura, the idea that Scripture is the only authority for teaching in the Christian Church, was one of the “Four Solas” of the Reformation, which also included Sola Gratia (Grace Alone – that salvation is purely a gift from God, not earned by our deeds or behavior), Sola Fide (Faith Alone – that God’s grace is received by simply by trusting in Him, and not by any human effort or ability), and Solus Christus (Christ Alone – that God’s grace, in which we trust, comes to us only because of the crucified Christ). 

While there have been many historical misunderstandings of each of these, Sola Scriptura can have its own particular challenges.  On one hand, many churches have introduced one or more sources of authority alongside of the Scriptures, while at the same time, many reflexively reject all other documents and formulations out of hand, even when they are not elevated to the same level as Scripture. 

On one side of the equation, it is dangerous to add sources of authority alongside of, or particularly, above, the Bible. The apostle John even warns of this danger in the final verses of the book of Revelation, promising divine consequences to any who would add to or take away from Scripture.

One way in which this occurs is when there is a human official who is given the authority to unilaterally rule on what the Bible means and to speak with divine authority on issues that are deemed to be unclear in the Bible or where the Bible has remained silent.  In addition to the inherent danger of adding rules or teaching beyond the Bible, there is also the potential that the official, whether intentionally or unintentionally, will find themselves in a situation where their declarations contradict Scripture, which results in their ultimately becoming superior to the Bible or reinterpreting the Bible to fit with the new teachings. 

Another way in which this occurs is when a person’s individual experiences are allowed to become a source of authority. Because religious experiences cannot be verified, they leave no reliable way to know whether they were genuine, mistaken, or even a deception sent by the enemy, making them inadequate as authorities regarding God and what He desires or wants us to know, especially in cases where they contradict or go beyond the written Word. 

Another category of extra-Biblical sources is the History, Liturgy, and Creeds of the Church.  These differ, because they are rooted in Scripture itself.  Church History tells us how past Christians have handled questions and understood the Bible.  The Liturgy speaks to what the beliefs of Christians have been through the ages or what the emphasis of a particular tradition might be, and the Creeds are summaries of Scripture intended to aid memorization and to briefly, yet clearly, articulate the core beliefs of the Church to others. 

While these could become dangerous in the event they were made equal to Scripture or placed above it, they are not inherently problematic.  Because the ancient Creeds, for example, are drawn completely from Scripture, they merely repeat in summary form what has already been said, and do not add to the Bible. 

When liturgy or historical documents are used with the understanding that they are drawn from and ultimately point us back to Scripture, they actually aid our understanding of what Scripture has already said and help us to understand and avoid the places where those in the past have gone astray, and as long as the understanding remains that they are secondary documents derived from Scripture, and never equal to or above it, they become aids that allow us to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before as we address the contemporary questions of our age from a Biblical foundation. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Should pastors be called Father?

My article from this week's newspapers about using "Father" as a pastoral title:

Q:  Is it acceptable to call a pastor “Father” in light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:9?  What are the appropriate ways to address clergy in various churches? 

While there are many forms of address for clergy, such as Pastor, Father, Reverend, etc. their particular use does vary from denomination to denomination and according to circumstances. 

Reverend (abbreviated Rev.) is one title for which its use is confined to a particular sphere.  While it is true that clergy of various degrees and in the majority of denominations properly deserve the title Reverend, it is often misused in American English. 

It is intended to be a written form of address, such as when addressing or signing letters, but it is not intended to be used as a form of spoken address (“Hello, Rev. Luther;” “I just talked to Rev. Luther.”) It is also intended to be used with the clergy’s full name (Rev. Martin Luther) and if one desires to be meticulous about it, should be preceded by “The” and followed by the clergy’s familiar title (The Rev. Father Martin Luther, The Rev. Pastor Martin Luther), although this practice is in decline in recent years.

Pastor is typically appropriate for a majority of clergy.  How this title is used will vary between churches.  Traditionally, the word Pastor followed by the last name (Pastor Luther) would be used in spoken address.  Although in past generations, it would have been considered disrespectful, it has recently become more common, especially in more informal churches, to use the title Pastor with the first name (Pastor Martin) instead. 

The title Father is most commonly used among Roman Catholics, but does have some following among Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches.  Some objections have been raised to this term, based on Jesus words in Matthew 23:9, when He says, “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 

However, when taken in context, it would be difficult to understand this as prohibiting the use of Father as a title in the church.  First of all, such an understanding would prohibit us from calling even our biological fathers by that name, since Jesus says to call “no man” father.  Additionally, in the surrounding verses he makes similar prohibitions about using the titles Rabbi and Instructor as well, which have not historically been understood as universal prohibitions. 

Even more, the Apostle Paul speaks of himself as a spiritual father in 1 Corinthians 4:15 and calls Timothy his “true child in the faith” in 1 Timothy 1:2.  Finally, He instructs believers not to rebuke their pastors but to encourage them as they would fathers in 1 Timothy 5. 

Teachers of Christianity, such as Martin Luther have also understood many offices with earthly authority as being derived from the authority of fatherhood—particularly in vocations such as teacher, pastor, and government rulers, and the first generations of reformers retained the title Father for their pastors prior to its later disappearance. 

The most sensible approach to this saying of Jesus seems to be as a warning against those who demand titles of honor (such as the Pharisees who were there with Him) and against honoring a man more highly than God.  So, if a man demands the title Father and uses His authority contrary to God’s Word, it would certainly be inappropriate to give him any honor or obedience.  However, if a man acts in service to God as a ruler, pastor, or teacher, and teaches and rules according to God’s Word, it would be a matter of Christian freedom what title one is to address him by—whether pastor, father, or otherwise. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


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

Q:  Does the Bible allow for polygamy?  If a Christian man lived in a country where it is legal,  would it be acceptable for him to marry multiple wives?

Polygamy can be a challenging question for students of the Bible.  After all, there are numerous examples of polygamous marriage throughout the Old Testament some of which involve men who would undoubtedly be considered heroes of the faith—Jacob, David, Solomon, and Gideon. 

Unlike divorce, which has clear guidelines in the New Testament about if/when it might be acceptable, polygamy has no such mention.  Very likely, this is because it was not a topic of debate among the Jews of the time or among early Christians, but there is no New Testament command explicitly allowing or forbidding a man from marrying more than one wife.

However, the Bible clearly does not envision polygamy as God’s design.  In the beginning, Genesis records that God creates one man and one woman, and not a man with multiple wives.  On numerous occasions, Jesus affirms the statement from Genesis following the creation of woman, that “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cling to his own wife,” using it as the foundational principle for his other statements about marriage and sexuality. 

In the Old Testament, even though God distributes robust punishments for various sexual sins (the Sodom and Gomorrah incident, David and Bathsheba, etc.) he does not do the same for polygamy, perhaps indicating a different degree to polygamy than to other sexual sins, much like hatred and murder or gossip and lying under oath bring different degrees of earthly consequences even though variations on the same sin. 

At the same time, the Old Testament’s example never portrays a polygamous family with good outcomes.  Jealousy overshadows Jacob’s household.  Abraham’s taking of Hagar as a concubine had violent consequences which are still being felt between his sons’ descendants in the Middle East to this day, and Solomon was led horribly astray as a result of his numerous marriage partners. 

In both Testaments, the marriage commands and advice that are given relating to married life, such as in Proverbs and Ephesians, are always given in singular terms, certainly indicating a preference for monogamy.  The New Testament also demands monogamy on two occasions when giving qualifications for pastoral service.  This seems to indicate not only a preference for monogamy, but also a command for monogamy among all Christians.  This is because all other items on the list of pastoral qualifications are also true for Christians in general.  The difference between pastors and Christians in general is not that pastors must obey additional laws, but rather that certain sins (such as poor parenting, or drunkenness), while sinful regardless of who commits them, are grounds for disqualification for the pastoral office. 

Finally, the Bible draws a clear connection between the marriage relationship and the relationship between Christ and the Church.  Monogamous marriage reflects this relationship in that there is one Christ and one Church which includes believers of every nation, race, and denomination (not one church with several saviors or one savior with several Churches).  Other variations on a marriage relationship fail to reflect this reality, because their participants do not match with their counterparts in the Christ-Church relationship. 

Although the Bible lacks a direct statement that “Thou shalt not engage in polygamy,” there seems to be plentiful evidence, that polygamy is, at the very least, discouraged and less than ideal, but also a convincing argument that, linked to the commandment “You shall not commit adultery,” polygamy is unacceptable in all cases for Christians. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines evaluating the place of evolution for the Christian:

Q:  How do Christians resolve the idea of evolution with the Bible’s account of creation in Genesis?  Is it possible to reconcile these two ideas or much one choose between them?

Soon after Charles Darwin published his ideas of natural selection, Christians began to contemplate how it should be received in light of the Genesis creation account and to formulate responses to this new theory. 

Some Christians ardently objected to the contradiction, preferring the Genesis account, refusing to even study or evaluate evolutionary theory in light of its disagreement with Scripture’s record.  Others simply accepted the evolutionary proposition as fact, disregarding the Biblical account as myth or symbolism in the process. 

Later, some arose who attempted to reconcile the two in a concept called Theistic Evolution.  This attempt accepts the premise of species, even man, occurring by means of evolution, but gives God the credit for orchestrating the process. 

All of the responses mentioned so far have their difficulties, though:  For Christians to simply disregard scientific research is problematic, because it gives the appearance of anti-intellectualism and drives Christians to mere belief that lacks a factual foundation.  For Christians to uncritically adopt a scientific position that forces them to disregard Scripture is also problematic, because it leaves no reason to affirm anything in Scripture as true, and ultimately no reason to continue as a Christian. 

Theistic Evolution likewise has inconsistencies which make it an unsatisfying option for the Christian.  However, this is not primarily because, as it might appear on the surface, that it casts doubt on the Bible as a “literal” source of spiritual truth.  This is a concern, but not the most significant problem.  Instead, the foundational problem with theistic evolution is that it abandons a single human couple as the parents of all humanity—and therefore undermines the foundational concepts of salvation and sin in Christianity. 

If God guided the process of evolution so as to produce humanity rather than creating man as a distinct act, then one must discern exactly which generation marked the transition from a former species (lacking an immortal, spiritual, existence; not accountable to God for actions) to humanity (having an immortal soul and accountable to God for actions). 

Likewise, there would be multiple pairs of humans giving rise to the human species rather than a single set of parents, forcing the conclusion that not all people inherit sin from Adam and therefore could be spiritually good, or at least spiritually neutral, and thus not in need of salvation for sin. 

In contrast, the Apostle Paul, in Romans 5 attributes human sinfulness to our common descent from Adam, and portrays Jesus as the perfect man who causes a reversal of Adam’s sin and gifts righteousness to humanity by taking the place of Adam and all his descendants in death. 

Apart from a single set of human parents, sin is not universally attributed to all humanity, and more importantly, sin cannot be collectively forgiven by Jesus’ substitution—thus undermining the foundational idea of all Christianity and rendering the religion of no value, because it could offer neither full forgiveness nor complete assurance to man. 

A reasonable path in dealing with evolution as a Christian seems to be to affirm Darwin’s observable and repeatable explanations of change within species (called micro-evolution) while denying his unobservable, unrepeatable proposal of evolution across species (called macro-evolution).

Although remaining space does not allow much elaboration in this edition, modern research is indicating numerous instances where evolution does not adequately explain many natural phenomena, and while science cannot tell us who is responsible, it is becoming more and more evident with the passage of time that nature shows evidence of design.  As a result, exclusive evolutionists are declining in number in younger generations of scientists and other explanations are being sought as to the source of this design, particularly regarding the complex structures of the human body. 

It is ultimately unwise and inappropriate for Christians to pose an adversarial relationship between science and faith, because it does justice to neither.  At the same time, it is not necessary for Christians to attempt to compromise between the two.  Instead, Christians affirm well-researched science and its conclusions, while questioning agenda-driven or poorly considered theories.  In doing so, it becomes evident with the passage of time that the Bible and modern research actually agree and science ultimately affirms the claims of Scripture.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


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

Q:  Does Christianity believe in Karma?  How does Christianity believe peoples actions toward one another are rewarded and punished in this world? 

Karma is an idea that originates in East-Asian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism.  Their understanding of both time and life is one of repeating cycles rather than the linear progression that we in the western world understand.  So, while we illustrate the passage of time with timelines of history, they would draw a shape resembling a coiled spring that wraps back on itself. 

Part of this understanding includes reincarnation, which is the belief that souls are repeatedly born into a series of lives over the course of time.  Karma carries the result that those who do good in one life will advance in the next while those who do evil will regress in the next life.  Many in these religions also believe that Karma also influences events within lives. 

This means that those who do what is right in this life would receive good fortune in return while those who do evil in this life would suffer loss or tragedy in return.  These karmic responses are not seen as being guided by a personal god, but rather an impersonal universe which seeks to keep balance by repaying actions with consequences in kind. 

While such an understanding might seem quite sensible on its surface, such ideas are completely foreign to a Christian understanding of things.  When Jesus’ disciples encountered a man who had been born blind, they asked whether it was he or his parents who had committed a sin to cause such a thing to occur.  Jesus clearly denies that any such thing is true, saying that neither was the cause of his blindness. 

Even though sometimes sinful or unwise behavior has natural consequences, Christianity does not understand any system, with or without the guidance of God, which repays them in this life.  Instead, the unanimous witness of Scripture is that earthly tragedies are a result of sin in the world.  However, this is not a correspondence of one sin or one person’s sin to certain consequences.  Instead, the Bible portrays earthly suffering as the consequences broken by the collective weight of human sin. 

For Christianity, there are consequences to sinful behavior that go beyond the natural results of the action, but these consequences are eternal rather earthly, and complete rather than proportional—any deviation from perfection deserves eternal death and punishment in hell.

Rewards in Christianity are likewise opposite to the idea of karma.  Christianity sees no ability in humans to earn rewards from God.  Because they fail to achieve perfection, they fail the test of God’s law. 

Instead, rewards are received by the Christian based on Jesus’ performance rather than their own.  Whoever trusts in Jesus’ is promised to be rewarded on the basis of His perfect record which replaces their own.  These rewards are received as a gift rather than earned, and like the punishments deserved for sin, they are only realized in eternity. 

While trust in Jesus has benefits in this world such as peace with God and relief from the anxiety of relying on the uncertainties of our imperfect efforts in relation to God, these benefits are secondary to the primary reward of resurrected life with Jesus that will be initiated on the Last Day and continue without end. 

Karma is ultimately the complete opposite of the Christian understanding of rewards and punishments—both because it relies on a different basis (human performance vs. divine gift) and because it awards them in this life or subsequent lives rather than in an eternity which commences following only a single life in this world. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Doubt and Certainty

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about certainty and doubt in Christianity:

Q:  How can I be certain that I am really Christian?  If I find myself doubting, can I still be saved?

This is a question that Christians throughout the ages have found themselves considering.  Because humans are hard-wired for action for the purpose of survival, we almost automatically translate this capacity in earthly things into our consideration of spiritual things.  In keeping with this, many people even mistakenly attribute Benjamin Franklin’s proverb that “God helps those who help themselves” to the Bible instead. 

Because we are personally responsible for preserving the security of our earthly provisions, although doing so with talents and strength that were given by God, we too often assume that the same applies when we begin considering heavenly matters. 

Even for Christians who acknowledge that Jesus saves us as a gift, which we receive by trusting in and relying upon, the temptation arises to look within ourselves for a measurement of how well we trust in Jesus or how fully we rely upon Him.  But doing this introduces an element of doubt by placing the focus on our believing instead of God’s grace. 

When we consider our standing before God, however, Scripture makes abundantly clear that, spiritually speaking, there is nothing good in us that can cause or improve where we stand with God, and that there is no effort or worthiness in us that is sufficient to participate in saving us. 

Paul quotes the Psalms as evidence of this when he writes in the book of Romans:  “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understand; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; toether they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

However, this is not bad news.  In fact, it serves to prepare us for even greater assurance.  If we were capable of contributing something, we would be expected to do so, and accountable if we failed.  Instead, as Paul tells the Ephesians:  “It is by grace you are saved, through faith…not by works.”  Nothing within man is the determining factor in salvation—not our decision, not our cooperation, not even the quantity or quality of our believing. 

Instead, we place all of our confidence and certainty on Jesus.  He has accomplished salvation.  He forgives sins.  He does it all.  Faith is not a degree of trust that a Christian works up within himself to come to or look to Jesus, but instead, it is the Christian’s denial of themselves and their own participation and their reliance upon Jesus’ death as the complete and already-accomplished cause of salvation. 

When the Bible warns against “doubt,” what it cautions against is unbelief—the prideful rejection of Jesus as the all-accomplishing savior or the denial of His forgiveness.  When the Christian who still trusts in Jesus, finds himself questioning in search of confirmation or feeling a degree of uncertainty because of his own weakness or the deceit of false teachers, this is not the doubt which condemns, but rather, a part of the spiritual battle that rages as long as this life endures.

If embraced or allowed to fester, such doubts could eventually grow like a cancer to endanger a Christians soul, but when treated with the antidote of Scripture and the Sacraments and relieved by the support of fellow Christians, they often prove to be the experiences which ultimately serve to advance the Christian in their understanding of and perseverance in the Faith, as James says:  “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”

Monday, July 29, 2013

Duties of Pastor and Congregation

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the duties of the pastor and congregation toward one another:

Q:  What does the Bible say about the relationship between pastors and congregations?  Are there certain duties that they have toward one another? 

Paul describes pastors in 1 Corinthians 4 as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”  This description may seem different to many American Christians, but it is the Biblical job description for pastors.  It makes clear, first, that pastors are not mere employees who must follow the orders given by their congregations, but instead, they work for Christ and are answerable to Him and serve their congregations on His behalf and at His command. 

In this service to Christ as “stewards of the mysteries of God,” their primary task is to deliver God’s grace by preaching, teaching, Baptizing, forgiving sin, and providing the Lord’s Supper.  All of the administrative, organizational, creative, and other tasks we Americans typically associate with a pastor’s work are really secondary to their foremost task of administering the Word and Sacraments according to the Lord’s institution.  The Gospel of Matthew provides a similar description as Jesus tells the disciples, who were the first pastors, “As you are going, make disciples of all nations by Baptizing and by teaching them to keep all that I have instructed you.” 

In return for their pastor’s commitment to devote His life to serving Christ by delivering God’s gifts to the congregation, the New Testament also assigns duties to congregations in relation to their pastor(s): 

Since the pastor’s time is devoted to delivering God’s Word to the congregation, it is necessary that the congregation provide for the needs of the pastor’s family.  By doing so, they not only honor His providing for their needs, but also remove the anxiety of financial pressures which would ultimately distract from his concentration on serving them. 

This principle dates to the New Testament as Paul tells the congregations, “those who preach the Gospel should receive their living from the Gospel,” and “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor,”  even comparing it to the Old Testament command not to muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain. 

Even more, he instructs the Christians to “respect [pastors] who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.  Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work,” and to “obey your leaders and submit to their authority.  They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.  Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

As one who has a high degree of instruction in Scripture, Christian doctrine, and the care of souls, the congregation is commanded to honor and respect their pastor as he fulfills his office and the duties assigned to Him, some of which include making unpopular decisions and enforcing unpopular positions that are commanded by Scripture. 

The pastor is no dictator, though, because both He and the congregation are called to submit together to God and His Word as their highest authority.  The saying that the pastor “must give an account” for His work among the saints emphasizes this responsibility.  They are also to correct one another if they depart from its teachings. 

The Bible describes the relationship between Jesus and the Church as like a husband and wife, and since, when he serves in the office of the ministry, the pastor represents Christ, the relationship between him and the congregation as a whole resembles that of a husband and wife as well, extending Paul’s commands to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 so that the pastor is commanded to love his congregation and the congregation commanded to respect their pastor(s).

Similarly, the relationship between the pastor and individual members of his parish resembles that of a father and his children, which is the reason Pastors are sometimes called Father among several denominations of Christians, including Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox. 

All of these descriptions of the pastor’s relationship to the congregation are given so that the goal Paul describes would be attained—that the pastor’s service would be a joy rather than a burden, and therefore, his ministry would be an advantage rather than a disadvantage to his congregation. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Believe in God or Trust Jesus?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the difference between believing in God and trusting Jesus:

Q:  If a person believes in God, does that make them a Christian, or does it include something more?    

The phrase “believe in God” can be a difficult thing at times.  I think the meaning of this phrase even tends to vary depending on the generation a person comes from.

In the mid-twentieth century, the question, “Do you believe in God?” was synonymous with asking, “Are you a Christian?”  In that era, to be a mainstream American was to be a Christian, and with very few exceptions, such as the Jewish population of New York City, the alternative to Christianity was seen as Atheism.  So, in that context, the question fit the needs of the time in discerning whether one’s conversation partner was a fellow Christian or not.

Today, though, the first response of many people when asked whether they believe in God might be “Which one?”  With the introduction of eastern religions to the American scene by celebrities and popular musicians later in the twentieth century, as well as a shift where immigrants began arriving from Southeast Asia and the Middle East rather than from Europe, many different definitions of god began to reside side-by-side in our country. 

Even though this does not render all of the definitions equally valid, it does mean that one now has to discern which God one is being asked if they believe in, thus complicating the question and necessitating further inquiry before it is possible to answer. 

There is also difficulty regarding the word believe.  Today, this word typically indicates a either the non-factual acceptance of an idea, such as when asked “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” or at least a level of uncertainty about an answer, such as in the reply, “I believe my favorite driver won last night’s race.” 

Instead, the Greek word used in the Bible indicates quite the opposite.  Its definition includes such things as certainty about, reliance on, and trust in the object of belief.  So, speaking Biblically, one does not believe in God the way one believes in the Tooth Fairy or an uncertain recollection of past events.  Instead, one acknowledges God’s existence as factual, reliable, and trustworthy. 

Additionally, even having a proper definition of and certainty about the existence of God does not make one a Christian.  James writes in the New Testament, “You do well to believe there is one God.  Even the demons believe that, but they are terrified!.”  Even believing in one God and knowing who He is does not make one a Christian, since even the demons do that much. 

Believing that God exists makes one a Theist.  Believing that there is only one God makes one a Monotheist, but both fall short of being a Christian.  Instead, what defines a Christian, beyond just acknowledging that God is a Trinity and Jesus is fully God and fully human, is to trust in Jesus to forgive one’s sin and give salvation and eternal life. 

This means complete reliance on Jesus as the one and only way a person can stand in light of God’s judgment.  It includes that one trust that Jesus has both fulfilled God’s law and suffered God’s punishment as a substitute for humanity and that those promises are applied to a person through preaching, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.

These things, beyond merely acknowledging God’s existence, are the definition of what it means to be a Christian, and are what the Bible means when it speaks of believing in God. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Born that way?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about God's response to our inborn desire for sin:

Q:  If a person is born with the inclination to desire certain things or act in certain ways, then how could God judge them for acting on it when He created them that way?    

This is an interesting observation that has resurfaced only recently—that people possess certain inclinations even from birth, as a sort of default programming.  This time, contrary to the usual way of things, the new observation turns out to be quite correct.  For decades, if not centuries, it was assumed that humans began as a neutral “blank slate,” and that from morality to aesthetic tastes to various sorts of desires, they were shaped by authorities and experiences toward certain outcomes. 

It turns out, however, that the idea that humans are born already possessing a variety of inclinations is quite Biblical.  King David lamented the fact in the Psalms that he was sinful “from birth, even from the time my mother conceived me.”  Likewise the Apostle Paul observed how his highest desire to please God and do good was at war within him against an entrenched inclination to do what is evil and disobey God. 

The difficulty with this newly rediscovered truth is the next step that is often taken in argumentation: that such inborn desires are part of God’s creation and therefore not contrary to God’s will or subject to his judgment.  The Bible describes humanity as created in perfect harmony with God’s will and only later plunged into the desire to do evil after Adam and Eve first disobeyed God and introduced sin into the world. 

Although different Christian traditions handle the details in diverse ways, they do hold in common, first, that the desire for sin is not part of God’s original creation; and second, that humans are fully responsible for the way in which they behave in response to their desires.  Therefore, even though the particular sort of desire might vary from individual to individual and across the seasons of life, all desires are subject to the scrutiny of God’s law, as revealed in Scripture.

Consider the partial and biased way in which society often reacts to certain offenses:  if a person is greedy or lustful, it is typically brushed off as a mere weakness or a character flaw, but pedophiles and drunks are judged harshly and made outcasts.  Certainly some actions bring more far-reaching harm to others, but according to this assumption if these individuals were born that way, they should be exempt from any judgment—whether by God or by man. 

The approach Jesus takes in the Gospels is not to debate which sins to excuse and which to condemn.  Instead, He preaches that all of God’s law be taken seriously, so that not only murder, sexual immorality, and theft are to be avoided, but even hatred, lustful thoughts, and covetousness.  And just as all sin, whether in thought, word, or deed, whether by commission or neglect, whether against God or against man, is judged equally seriously; all sin is also forgiven equally freely through trust in Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t excuse any sin or declare anyone merely close enough to make it.  Instead, He dies for sin, in the place of sinners, even though not guilty of it Himself.  Then He invites all people to agree with God’s law by acknowledging their failure to keep it and to trust in Him as the substitute who did so in their place. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Theological Reflections on Pastoral Pornography

I compiled these reflections for the work of a task force I am participating in on the topic of treating habitual pornography use in pastors, and thought perhaps they might be beneficial for others if they were also made available here:

The starting point for any question of sexuality for the Christian is always the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”  This commandment not only demands that man “lead a sexually pure and decent life,” but also that “husband and wife love and honor each other,” but, as we confess in the liturgy, this decency and honor are to be carried out “in thought, word, and deed.” 
Throughout the Old Testament, from Job’s making “covenant with [his] eyes not to look lustfully at a girl,” to King David’s ill-advised glance at Bathsheba, its consequent calamities, and their son’s admonition in the Song of Songs not to awaken sexual desire prematurely; from Ezekiel’s description of the Israelites’ lust after their Egyptian captors to Hosea’s divinely-mandated marriage to the prostitute Gomer, the dangers of lust are demonstrated and the relationship is established that adultery and idolatry go hand in hand.
Jesus gives this idea New Testament expression in no uncertain terms when He declares, “You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you, if a man even looks upon a woman with lustful intent, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  In saying this, He gives us absolute certainty that there is not a certain plain which one may not cross or a certain base that one may not round.  Instead, the moment that the desire is entertained or the intent is formed, the sin has already been committed. 
The Apostle Paul warns similarly in Ephesians that there should not even be “a hint” of sexual immorality among Christians, and to Timothy that young men and women ought to treat one another like siblings outside of marriage.  Although there may be differing degrees of earthly consequences, pornography, “adult” entertainment featuring live nudity, physical extra-marital affairs, and even inappropriate fantasies about other people who remain fully-clothed, are all, spiritually speaking, sinful violations of God’s intentions for human sexuality. 
While our identity as Christians and as Church is not found in our morality, nor are we to consider ourselves superior to those whose immorality is of a different, less socially-acceptable, variety than our own, out of love for our neighbor, we confess the goodness of God’s design of our physical bodies and His intent for the marital union exclusively between a husband and wife.  We likewise confess that any thought, word, or action which breaks or interferes in this union is contrary to His will and not to be entertained by Christians. 
God institutes all of the horizontal relationships of human life (parent-child, pastor-congregation, government-citizen, etc.) to be reflections of the greater vertical relationships between God and humanity or Jesus and His Church, and whenever an alteration occurs, whether to the number or the identity of the participants (even if only in thought or fantasy) they fail to reflect the greater divine truth as he intended.  Among these relationships marriage is a particular reflection of the relationship between Christ and His Church as described by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 5. 
There is one Christ and one Church just as there is one husband and one wife.  Christ does not have many churches or fantasize over other churches, nor is He satisfied to dwell alone, apart from His Church.  Likewise, the Church does not have many saviors or fantasize over other saviors, nor does she satisfy her own needs alone, apart from Christ. 
As pornography allows one to achieve sexual gratification based on the image of a partner other than one’s own spouse, it certainly constitutes adultery by Scriptural definition.  Furthermore, it causes the practical consequence of relational destruction between husbands and wives, parents and children, pastors and congregations.  In doing so, it causes pain and division between individuals and places barriers between the earthly vocations through which God desires to bless us and illustrate His fatherly care and deliver his forgiving grace. 
This affliction is particularly damaging when the man guilty of such sins is a pastor, because by causing scandal in the congregation it has the potential to become an obstacle to the reception of God’s forgiving grace which is dispensed there.  A fit pastor is therefore described in Paul’s epistles to Timothy and Titus as being “a one-woman man.”  Just as Christ is devoted to His Church, so also is a man to his wife.  While this expectation is true for every Christian, a failure in this respect may disqualify a man from the office of pastor, making pornography habits a particular burden for Christian clergy and, along with the tarnished reputation to the congregation if publicized, a particular concern for their congregations. 
As Christians confronted with the temptations of lust and sexual immorality, we live repentantly, acknowledging our fault for such desires which arise from within our own hearts (Mark 7:21).  Although we do not resist them perfectly, we confess the goodness of God’s law and our failure to keep it; we receive His forgiveness by grace, through faith, on account of His crucified Son; and we desire to go forward in lives which reflect His character and design. 
While the Lord has provided the means to forgive our sin in His Gospel and Sacraments, Confession and Absolution, we continue to struggle against sin just as Paul describes of his own experience in Romans 7.  Simultaneously saint and sinner, we are forgiven yet struggle against the habits and desires of our sinful hearts.  For this reason the assistance of a Christian professional skilled in the observation of human behavior and the workings of the mind is a beneficial support alongside the cure of the soul provided by one’s father confessor.  The grace of God relieves the guilt of this sin and produces the desire to amend one’s ways, and the competent guidance of a Christian counselor assists in the practical struggle toward that end.