Monday, December 22, 2014

Inns, Stables, Upper Rooms, and the Holy Family

My article for this week's newspapers answers a question about the details of the stories of Jesus' birth:

Q:  How accurate is the Christmas story that we hear read and see performed in churches around this time of year?  Does the Bible say anything else about the events of Jesus’ birth? 

The Bible offers a surprisingly small amount of information regarding Jesus’ birth, preferring to devote more attention to the crucifixion and resurrection than to the birth stories.  Mark simply quotes three Old Testament prophesies, then moves directly to talking about Jesus as an adult.  Rather than telling a birth story, John provides a chapter-long theological discourse about the fact that Jesus is True God in human flesh. 

Matthew provides some information on the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conception, along with telling the story of the Three Wise Men (which, contrary to popular art, probably occurred well after Jesus’ birth) and the family’s escape to Egypt to flee from murderous King Herod, but he only casually mentions Jesus actual birth in less than a half-sentence.

Luke’s Gospel stands out in its detailed description regarding the events of Jesus’ birth, and thus, is the source for our well-known version of the Christmas story.  It also stands out for its reliability, because, while we honor all of the Bible as accurate and true, we can have a particularly high degree of confidence in Luke’s historical account, because he would have obtained it by interviewing Mary herself – as he mentions when he lays out his method of collecting the historical facts in the first verses of His Gospel.

However, much like when a book is made into a movie, things often become distorted; our perception of the birth story often tends to differ from the version actually authored by St. Luke. 

An excellent example of this is the way we often think of the “inn” in Luke’s story, as we imagine an inn-keeper (a common Christmas pageant character who isn’t actually mentioned in the story) stoically turning away Jesus’ mother and Joseph because there was no place to stay.  Instead, though, the “inn” mentioned in English translations of the story is not what we would think of.  Instead of an establishment that commercially rents rooms to several travelers, the word Luke records indicates the second-story guestroom of a private home – the same sort of room Jesus would use later in life when He gathered with His disciples for the Passover the night before He was crucified. 

Similarly, the place where Jesus was born was not a barn, stable, or cave as popular imagination would suggest.  Instead, homes in that part of the world at that point in history were typically composed of 3 rooms – the main room where the family would cook, eat, and spend the night, the guest room mentioned previously, and a third room, often a half-story lower than the rest that would be used for living space during the day and a shelter for the family’s animals during the night.  Because the guestroom was already taken, this unnamed family would have tied up the animals outdoors and allowed Mary and Joseph to lodge in this room, where Jesus would be born, and the manger that is mentioned would be a ledge dug out between the home’s main room and the lower room where Mary and Joseph would have been staying.

It is highly unlikely that the real events included an overwhelmed Joseph alone with his wife in inadequate shelter as she goes into labor promptly upon arriving in town.  Instead, from what we know of the customs of the time and Luke’s text, Joseph and Mary probably arrived as much as two weeks prior to Jesus birth, found lodging with a relative of Joseph or another citizen who was willing to treat Joseph well because of his royal heritage as a direct descendant of David, and the women of the household and their neighbors – common people like the Luke’s shepherds and their wives - likely assisted Mary with Jesus’ birth. 

Those shepherds would come back from the fields to worship Jesus at the angels’ invitation, Jesus would have been circumcised on his 8th day of life, and they would then travel to the temple for His presentation and Mary’s purification from childbirth when He was 40 days old before returning home to Nazareth. 

Information in this article was summarized from the interview with Ken Bailey found at:

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Love the Sinners; Hate the Pharisees? - 4 thoughts on responding to departures from Scriptural sexuality

For this week's newspapers, I responded to a question about Christian responses to those whose behavior is not consistent with the Lord's creation regarding gender and sexuality:

Q:  How should Christians respond when they are confronted with demands and behaviors that are in conflict with their Scripturally-informed convictions on marriage, sexuality, or gender identity?

It seems that a false dichotomy exists regarding how Christians should interact with people whose behaviors do not match up with their standards or who advocate for causes with which they disagree. 

One stereotypical response is represented by those who surrender the question and modify their articulation of morality to accommodate the standards of the time and place in which they live, while the opposite stereotyped response is to be committed to defense of a historic Christian positions, but do so in a manner that is argumentative and inflammatory. 

Ultimately, neither of these responses is helpful, because both extremes avoid the question rather than engaging it with the honest inquiry it deserves.  One response merely concedes the question to the surrounding world while neglecting the possibility that divine commands could differ, while the other prefers isolation and vocal opposition over genuine interaction with people who are different and who might be in need of compassionate support. 

Some might respond that the middle ground is “Hate the sin; love the sinner,” but besides being a quote from Gandhi rather than a Christian proverb, it is still too simplistic to handle such deeply-felt and potentially sensitive questions.  I am convinced that a genuine Christian response to these sort of questions is both less polarized and more thoughtful than any of the above. 

The first principle that Christians must remember when engaging those with whom they differ in these issues is that they are dealing with people – real humans with whom we share a Creator.  Even though there are times when it may be necessary to act in defense of children or the innocent, and even though Christians must stop short of becoming accessories to immorality, it can be far too easy to diminish opponents into rivals with whom we must do battle rather than real people who face equivalent – although different – spiritual struggles, and deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion. 

Second, it is necessary to distinguish between fellow Christians in need of correction and people outside of the Church whose behavior is not within our sphere of concern.  When Paul deals with an issue of an illicit relationship in 1 Corinthians 5, he clearly articulates to the Corinthians that while they must admonish and correct their erring brother, that they are not to exercise the same judgment outside of the Church or ostracize sinners in daily, secular life. 

For too long though, American Christians have expected non-Christian neighbors to clean up their act before Jesus will receive them, when the reality is precisely the opposite.  We may live more righteously because our Lord forgives us, but we could never be forgiven based on how righteously we might live. 

Third, respectable defense of Christian morality requires a distinction between Biblical command and culturally-conditioned customs.  Matters of style, preferences in recreation, and other auxiliary details are not equivalent to divinely-established callings.  Because a person does not conform to the expectations and appearances that tradition or local culture dictate does not mean that they are in sin.  Instead, a great deal of diversity in such details is still possible while remaining faithful to Biblical commands regarding these issues. 

Finally, the outcomes of national politics, the victory or defeat of a particular party, or even how well national laws reflect Biblical ones is not determinative of Christianity’s health and vitality.  While it might be expedient for legislation to confirm one’s church’s ideals, the church does not stand or fall based on acts of congress or the decisions of the judiciary.  In fact, Christianity has typically seen its greatest advances when it is surrounded by a culture and government which are a contrast to it rather than which confirm it. 

So Christians live in the hope that their Savior has taken their place in life and death and sealed His promises with resurrected victory, so that regardless of the culture that surrounds His Church or the behavior of its neighbors, their role while they wait for His return is not merely to make the world a more moral place, but to both boldly proclaim and compassionately apply His reconciliation to a world in need. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Do Christians Fast and Why?

This week's article for the newspapers answers a question about fasting among Christians:

Q:  What place does fasting have in Christianity?  How and why would a Christian fast? 

Fasting—the practice of reducing or ceasing the consumption of food for spiritual reasons—takes on a variety of forms, both among Christians and non-Christians.  While the term fasting has sometimes been used metaphorically to speak of abstaining from any number of things, it historically refers only to food. The concept also includes the idea of hunger, so it is not merely to refrain from a particular item while indulging in an equal or greater quantity of something else. 

Probably the most well-known example of fasting among the world’s religions is that Muslims fast from all foods during daylight hours one month of the year.  Another method of fasting, engaged in by many communities of Buddhist monks, is to eat a single meal prior to noon, then to fast for the remainder of the day. 

Fasting in the Christian tradition actually dates to before the time of Christ, as fasts were common practice for the Old Testament people, and the Pharisees, who lived at the time of Jesus, fasted two days a week—on Monday and Thursday.  Many Jewish Christians continued to fast two days a week, although on Wednesday and Friday, during the first centuries of Christianity. 

Perhaps the most familiar form of fasting among present-day Christians is Lenten fasting, where Christians fast to varying degrees from simplifying their diet, to giving up meals on a certain day or at a certain time of day, to even a full 40-day fast which imitates what Jesus endured while He was tempted in the wilderness.  In fact, the name for Lent in many languages is often related to the word for fasting. 

Jesus addresses fasting two times in the Gospel of Matthew.  On one occasion, a question is raised of Jesus about why His disciples do not fast.  He replies, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”  From this, it appears that Jesus’ disciples did not fast during His earthly life, although some did later, as seen in the book of Acts. 

The other occasion on which Jesus addresses fasting is in Matthew 6, when He instructs that those who fast should do so quietly, not telling others or looking miserable, but rather to keep their fasting between God and themselves. 

Jesus does not give any instructions how often or how intensely His followers ought to fast, though, nor do the other New Testament authors.  In fact, no text of the New Testament ever commands fasting of any kind as mandatory for Christians.  This is one characteristic that is unique to Christians regarding fasting.  While fasting has a strong history in Christianity and there are occasional references to it in Scripture, it is never required of Christians. 

In fact, fasting is never to be given credit for advancing a Christian’s status before God or earning them anything from God.  It cannot earn salvation or merit any kind of blessing from God for the Christian.  Instead, Christian fasting is a practice used to build discipline by removing distractions or using hunger as a reminder of our Spiritual poverty before God and the needs of less-fortunate neighbors. 

In addition, the Christian who is not burdened by the necessity to prepare and consume food will then have additional time to devote to prayer, and because they have reduced their expenses for food, they are free to give greater gifts to benefit their neighbor who suffer from poverty or offerings to further the Church’s mission of proclaiming the Gospel.

So it is that Christian fasting is not mandatory, nor is it a method of compensating for sin or gaining status with God, but rather a beneficial exercise which a Christian might choose to perform for the sake of devoting Himself more fully to Scripture and Prayer and the assistance of his neighbors. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Did Christians Steal Pagan Festivals?

My article for this week's newspapers answers a question about the accusation that Christian holy days were imitations of pagan festivals:

Q:  Is there any validity to the claim that Christian holy days like Christmas and Easter were borrowed from pagan festivals, or that religious leaders designed them to replace pagan festivals?

These accusations have taken several shapes over the years.  The least accusatory of these claims assert that Christians created new holy days to replace the pagan festivals of the people who had converted in new lands.  More aggressive versions claim that the Christians simply recycled the pagan festival by making them about Jesus, but using the same traditions as the pagan festival and giving them new meaning. 

The most offensive of these accusations construct a scenario in which the authors would have us believe that even the person of Jesus and the events of His life were lifted from previous Egyptian or Middle Eastern religious systems rather than being genuine historical events. 

This most severe accusation is the simplest to answer.  The first people to make such claims were two 19th century authors named Gerald Massey and Godfrey Higgins.  Prior to their assertions, there is no evidence that anyone had ever drawn these connections.  Additionally, there is no evidence that early Christians had access to any information about Egyptian mythology in order to imitate it. 

In addition, there is ample evidence to the historicity of the events of Jesus’ life and that His disciples began teaching and believing the familiar teachings about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection during the generation who witnessed His crucifixion.  This evidence comes from both Christian and Roman historical documents.  When putting the events recorded in the Gospels about Jesus on an even playing field with any other event or person of the Greek and Roman world, we find that the evidence relating to Jesus is superior both in quantity and consistency. 

Regarding the proposed links between Christian holy days and Roman or other pagan festivals, we find that the evidence is similarly lacking.  No accusation of these links existed during the times contemporary with their initial celebration by the churches, but only arose, like Massey’s and Higgins’ assertions, only in the 19th century. 

In fact, prior to the reign of Emperor Constantine around 313 B.C. the Christians were well-documented to avoid all things Roman rather than to imitate them.  So, since we have documented evidence that Christmas was observed by the churches at least a century prior to this date, it certainly would have caused enough controversy if Christians were imitating the Roman Saturnalia what we would have record of it, which we do not. 

Instead, we know that the Church has observed the festival of the Annunciation (Jesus conception when Gabriel announced Jesus coming birth to Mary) on March 25 since very early times, making it only logical to celebrate his birth 9 months later – on December 25.  This is done not because anyone believes Jesus was born then.  In fact, most evidence would indicate his actual birth was in another season of the year, but this is ritual time that enacts Jesus life and its events in the course of a year, rather than celebrating the literal date of events. 

Likewise with accusations that Easter was an imitation of a festival to the goddess Oestre, because of the similarity of names and common time of year.  The weakness of this accusation is that it is only the English-speaking world that uses the word Easter to refer to the day we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus.  The rest of the Christian world uses terms related to Resurrection or Passover in their names for what we call Easter.  In addition, Resurrection Sunday was a well-established festival of the Church centuries before Christianity ever reached the English-speaking world. 

It is often said that every legend and false understanding has some grain of truth at its core, and that grain is this:  In lands where Christianity was being preached for the first time, people were often attached to the seasonal festivals and traditions that were related to their former gods.  In order to alleviate anxiety about leaving behind their former rituals, Christian pastors often pointed people to the already-existing Christian ceremonies that occurred around the same time of year, as an outlet for their natural desire to gather in communal celebration of common faith. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Congri-presby-piscopal Church Structure and Governance

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about different types of church government:

Q:  How does a church or denomination handle its business?  What is the meaning of all those unfamiliar words I see on church signs, like Congregational, Episcopal, or Presbyterian?

If we begin with the Bible, we find that the New Testament has very little to say about how a congregation or a group of congregations govern themselves.  While there are exhortations for Christians to unite with a single mind around the doctrine of the Apostles and to help support one another in times of hardship, there are no details of structure given to govern how this is to be administered. 

There are three traditional forms of structure that have been adopted by groups of churches, and these bear the labels of the three terms listed in the question above.  Often, if a denomination is convinced that one of these forms is Biblically mandated, they make the choice to include that term in their name. 

When the term Congregational is used this typically indicates that the congregation is externally independent of control from a larger national or regional authority.  Internally, this usually means that the congregation is operated as a true democracy with congregation members having equal influence over decisions of the congregation.  While Congregational churches may join together as a denomination, this is usually for the purpose of joint work like missions or seminary training and affairs are governed from the congregational level upward to the denominational leadership. 

The term Episcopal is derived from the Greek word for a bishop, and is used to refer to a structure in which one or more levels of bishops are given authority to govern a group of churches.  While bishops are given a great deal of influence toward the congregations over which they are assigned, they also bear a great deal of responsibility to exercise care for them as a pastor would his congregation, particularly by being a pastor to their pastors. This is the most top-down of the structures, and often the local clergy exercise a high degree of influence over congregational life just as the bishop exercises influence over the congregations under his care.  

The term Presbyterian refers to leadership by a group of elders and is derived from the Greek word for elder.  Presbyterian denominations typically govern each congregation with a group of elders, and each level of structure above the local congregation is usually governed by a group of authorities rather than a single individual.  If a single individual is named in a leadership role, his role would be primarily administrative, consisting largely of organizing and facilitating the work of the larger group that actually does the governing. 

Some denominations do not bear one of these words in their name, even though they do adhere to one of the above structures.  The most prominent example of this would be the Roman Catholic Church, which has an episcopal form of governance.  Other denominations do not fit into any of these categories of governance, but instead have a hybrid form of governance, which might embrace elements of two, or even all three structures.  Many times, several denominations in the same theological family, bearing the same name, might all have different forms of governance.  Lutherans, for example, can be found with any of the three traditional structures or a hybrid form of governance. 

Still other congregations consider themselves independent, or might prefer the term non-denominational.  If a congregation is truly independent, then they would have only internal governance and would not be accountable to a larger structure beyond the congregation.  They could also structure that internal governance in any way that they were convinced was proper. 

However, most congregations have found that there is great wisdom to having accountability beyond their own congregation, so even those that are not part of a formal denomination have begun to form "networks" in recent years.  These networks are considerably looser than traditional denominations, but allow their member congregations to provide accountability for one another and to work together on things such as mission work. 

Ultimately, it is what a congregation teaches, and not how it governs itself, that is of primary importance.  Each of the forms of governance has its benefits and its challenges, but when used properly they do not become the focus of attention.  Instead, their intended role is that of supporting and advancing the Church’s proclamation of Christ.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What is the Appropriate Age to First Receive the Lord's Supper?

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question seeking an explanation for the diversity of ages at which different types of Christians begin receiving communion:

Q:  Why do different types of Christians begin allowing children to receive communion at so many different ages?  Is there a connection between Communion and other rituals such as Baptism or Confirmation? 

The most likely reason that there is so much diversity on this matter of congregational practice may be that there is no instruction given on the topic in the Bible.  Church history, likewise, has shown significantly mixed outcomes on this question. 

We do have writings from the second generation of Christians that show evidence that young children were being Baptized soon after birth, and an instruction that only the Baptized are to be communed.  However, it does not specify whether communion ought to begin immediately after Baptism or if there is a time later in life where communion reception is initiated. 

In today’s churches, we see that the Eastern Orthodox are communing even babies so young that the bread and wine must be mixed together and fed to them with a spoon.  Roman Catholic Christians begin communing children during their elementary years, then administer confirmation during adolescence.  Some Sacramental denominations outside of Catholicism also commune children prior to Confirmation, while others begin administering communion to children at the same time as confirmation, usually in their early teenage years. 

Among Christians who emphasize the Sacraments to a lesser degree or who see them as merely symbolic acts, there is a greater diversity of practice.  Some allow children to commune immediately upon being baptized (although not as babies, but at an age old enough to request Baptism).  Others allow children to commune when the parents and pastor deem them ready at some point after Baptism, while still others have disregarded the Baptismal connection altogether and allow individuals to make their own decision about communing, regardless of Baptismal status. 

The only Bible verse that approaches an answer to this question comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, when he says,

“Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself”

Paul instructs the Corinthians that those who receive the Lord’s Supper need the ability to examine themselves before receiving it.  This includes some degree of awareness regarding sin, repentance, and what is actually occurring at the Lord’s Supper, but beyond that it does not seem possible to discern a particular age from Paul’s instructions. 

At some times and places, it was assumed that children were not capable of reason until a particular age – usually around puberty.  This same assumption, which comes from human observation rather than from Biblical research, is the source of both the tendency for protestants to commune children around that time as well as the Baptist and Anabaptist assertion that an “age of accountability” exists prior to which children are not responsible for their sins and should not be baptized. 

However, based on purely Biblical considerations, we are left only with the imprecise requirement that communicants be capable of examining themselves.  The broadness of this command leaves us with a situation where, except for those communing babies and toddlers or communing the unbaptized, the rest of the Christian world seems to be within the boundaries of New Testament instructions on the matter. 

With the understanding that the Lord’s Supper is one of the diverse ways that our Lord delivers His grace, along with His Word and baptism, and with the understanding that it is the Lord’s promise that makes His Supper valid and effective, it would be unnecessary either to fear that a church is withholding salvation by delaying admission to communion until a certain age, or that one must necessarily complete certain additional milestones to be admitted.  

Instead, within the previously mentioned boundaries – that recipients of Communion be baptized and capable of self-examination - it is the responsibility of congregations and denominations to discern what is wise for their circumstances and develop a consistent practice that accurately reflects the doctrine that they teach. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Can a Christian be an Environmentalist?

My article from this week's newspapers answers a question about Christians and Environmentalism:

Q:  Can a Christian be an environmentalist?  What should be a Christian approach to care of the environment? 

Responsible care of creation is a concern which should resonate with most Christians.  From the beginning, the Bible’s account of creation portrays man as the caretaker of creation.  Even before sin entered the world, Adam was tasked with the work of tending to the Garden in which the Lord had placed him, and both creation and Adam’s care for it were very good in the eyes of God. 

Throughout Scripture, humans are described as the stewards of the material blessings of the earth.  A steward is one who does not own the things he manages, but has been given authority by the owner to distribute and use those things, but with the understanding that he is also to care for them responsibly – since they are not his own, but belong to the master. 

In this case, man is the steward, and God is the master to whom it belongs.  We do not truly own any of the things that we possess or use in this world, but instead, they belong to God Himself, and we are given the privilege to use them for a time along with the obligation to care for them responsibly. 

Even though commands in the book of Genesis such as “be fruitful and multiply” or “fill the earth and subdue it” are occasionally taken out of context to conclude that man can carelessly consume the earth’s resources without limitation or concern for the consequences, a proper reading of Scripture leads the Christian to take this concept of stewardship to heart – that while we have the authority to consume resources, advance society, and build upon the earth, both form comfort and survival, we are not to do so carelessly. 

While abuses have occurred in history, be it out of selfish malice or simple ignorance, toward the earth’s resources, the focus of modern environmental movements may be both an overcorrection as well as a moral concern for Christians. 

One reason for concern is the connection of modern environmentalism to other spiritualities.  Much of the activism that surrounds the environment has foundations in philosophies and religions that are not only foreign to Christianity, but are even in opposition to Christianity.  For example, the Hindu earth goddess Gaia played a significant role in early environmental activism, and much of the underlying ideology of the environmental movement arises from an understanding of the earth as “mother” that comes to us from Wiccan and other pagan sources.  Because of this, it is important for the Christian to make sure it is science, and not assumptions based on foreign spiritualities which are informing their concern. 

Additionally, and of a more practical concern, are the tendencies within some sectors of environmental activism to portray humanity as the enemy of the created world.  This flawed assumption directly contradicts Biblical descriptions that man is the high point of God’s creation and the divinely-appointed steward of nature and its resources.  It also creates a worldview in which children, particularly large families, are to be avoided and frowned upon as burdens to the environment rather than understood as divine blessings to be desired and received with thankfulness. 

Ultimately, while responsible care for the environment is absolutely consistent with the Lord’s commands to humanity, it is necessary to use caution that we do not make the world or its care into an idol which supplants the Lord who created it.  At the same time, Christians should be at the forefront of responsible environmental stewardship out of respect for the Lord who created the world and appreciation toward Him who is the supreme source of its many blessings. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Why Do Churches Excommunicate?

My article from this week's newspapers responds to a question about excommunication:

Q:  What is excommunication, and what are the implications if a church has excommunicated a person? 

Although the term excommunication might initially evoke mental images that resemble an Amish shunning or a scene from the Scarlet Letter, the reality is much less dramatic and much less common than many might imagine. 

Christians believe a person is saved as a gift from God because of the crucifixion of Jesus for them.  All who trust that this sacrifice forgives their sins confess them – that is they agree with God’s law concerning their actions – and receive God’s forgiveness.  This occurs privately between the person and God, as well as being spoken corporately in the services of many types of churches, and in some traditions also occurs privately between the person and his pastor or priest. 

While many sins are known only to the sinner and to God, occasionally a sin becomes known to a person’s pastor or their fellow Christians, who may need to confront them regarding that sin.  When the person who has committed the sin agrees with God’s law about his actions, he receives forgiveness.  In such a case, his pastor and fellow Christians would not have further concerns about his spiritual condition, even though it may still be necessary to provide counsel and support to help him overcome any inclinations to return to that particular sin. 

However, when a member is confronted with a sin and either denies its sinfulness or disregards its sinfulness, concern about his spiritual condition quickly intensifies.  In Matthew 18, Jesus instructs His disciples that if the correction of one person does not convince the person they ought to take along 2 or 3 people with authority in the church and confront him again.  If after this second intervention the person still defends his sin, Jesus says to take the matter before the whole church to plead with him, following which he is to be excluded as long as he does not repent. 

Paul instructs the Corinthians in his first letter to them to do this regarding a particular man in their congregation who is involved in an illicit intimate relationship with his step-mother, saying to “Expel the evil person from among you.”  But, contrary to what many first impressions might be, this is not an effort to keep the congregation pure by removing sinners.  Instead, it is intended as a method by which the unrepentant would be guided to recognize their sin.  Paul makes this clear when he says, “you must deliver this man over to Satan… that his spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord.” 

Similarly it is not done in order to place condemnation onto the man, but rather to recognize the fact that he has already separated himself from God’s forgiveness by refusing to acknowledge his sin.  Jesus reflects this same understanding when He assigns His disciples the task of forgiving and withholding sins in John 20, saying, “If you forgive the sins of any, they have already been forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness, it has already been withheld.”

Many traditions prefer the term Church Discipline rather than Excommunication to refer to this process, because it emphasizes the intended result that the person be restored to the congregation rather than the method that they are placed outside the church’s fellowship.  Correspondingly, a public removal from the congregation is not the only form of church discipline. 

Instead, on some occasions, a pastor might privately exclude the individual from the Lord’s Supper in the congregation because of the danger of doing spiritual harm to them, according to Paul’s warnings in 1 Corinthians 10-11 against receiving Communion while unrepentant.  On some occasions, this is a first step before formal removal from the congregation, but frequently it results in the restoration of the person to a repentant and forgiven status without proceeding to bring them before the congregation for removal.    

Regardless of the procedure by which this is achieved, the goal is the same – restoration of the sinner to the reception of the Lord’s forgiveness.  While such a practice might appear intolerant to the world outside of the Church, it is done as a matter of responsible spiritual care, in order to avoid the most dreadful consequence that a Christian would abandon His Lord’s forgiveness in favor of defending and embracing his own sinful acts.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why (Real) Lutherans Do Not Do Eulogies

For the newspapers this week, I wrote a bit about the Eulogies and Christian Burial:

Q:  Why do some churches always include eulogies for the deceased, while others forbid eulogies during the church service?  What is the nature and purpose of a Christian funeral?

A eulogy is commonly understood is a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly, typically someone who has just died. In some traditions, this might be given by a pastor, or perhaps the floor might be handed over to a close friend or relative to give a positive description of the person’s life.  On some occasions, congregations even open the microphone to any person with something to say about the deceased.

For many congregations, particularly among individualistic Americans, this seems a natural thing to do during the services following a friend or relative’s death, but for others, a eulogy would be extremely foreign, and in fact, would be understood as a standing against what that congregation believes and teaches.  While there are many factors which influence how a congregation or denomination approaches the practice of giving eulogies, several seem to be most prevalent: 

First, if a congregation understands the Office of the Ministry to be something instituted by God to preach His Word to the congregation and administer His Sacraments, it would be unheard of to hand the pulpit over to a non-pastor in the midst of a service or to allow non-ordained persons to speak authoritatively in the course of any service of the church.  This would immediately rule out most eulogies. 

Additionally, in congregations which take seriously the responsibility to proclaim only pure teaching, it would be unthinkable to allow speeches in front of the congregation which may include elements contradictory to the congregation’s beliefs. 

Similarly, a congregation’s understanding of worship plays a large role in their approach to eulogies.  Much like congregations who see worship as an offering from the individual or congregation up toward God worship in one way, while congregations which understand worship to be an occasion where God delivers His grace down to the congregation, particularly those who focus that delivery in the Word and Sacraments, worship in other ways; approaches to eulogies follow a similar pattern. 

If a congregation understands a funeral’s purpose to be that of honoring the deceased and making the mourners feel better, a eulogy is a natural element to include.  However, if a congregation understands the purpose of a funeral to be that of honoring God by proclaiming Christ and to give the grieving hope in the face of death through the promise of Resurrection, eulogies would be potentially difficult. 

The most important factor, though, seems to be the church’s understanding of salvation.  The historic position of Christianity, and that by which it stands out from the world’s other religions, is that God saves by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Jesus alone, and that good works play no role in this.  Historically, Christians even discourage the faithful from looking at their good works as evidence of salvation.  In such a case, the giving of eulogies during the funeral service would only confuse the communication of that belief, and if the eulogist is not particularly careful, may even explicitly contradict that belief.  Therefore congregations which this approach to the idea of salvation by grace alone typically do not include eulogies. 

In contrast, some denominations believe that the Christian cooperates with God in saving themselves by doing good deeds.  Based on that understanding, recounting the deceased person’s goodness at their funeral would fit what they believe. 

Even those which do not believe that the Christian helps save themselves by good works often turn them back to their deeds by other routes.  For example, John Calvin strenuously defended salvation by grace alone, but he directed believers to look at their own good works as comfort and evidence that God had saved them.  John Wesley looked at the Christian’s good deeds even more favorably than Calvin, going so far as to assert that Christians were capable of moral perfection in this life and relying heavily on the Christian’s good works in their remaining saved after conversion.  In these cases also, it makes sense that eulogies would be part of a congregation’s funeral ceremony. 

Like most questions about worship, the inclusion or exclusion of eulogies comes down the connection between belief and practice.  Churches who believe in certain ways will naturally lean toward eulogies, while churches which believe in other ways will find them to be problematic and request that such expressions be shared privately among the mourners or reserved for the visitation or the funeral luncheon rather than included in the services of the church. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Services of the Church, the Worship of the World, and the Diversity of Style and Structure

This week's article for the newspapers describes what makes the services of the Church different from the worship of the world and touches on the reason behind the differences in style from church to church:

Q:  What makes Christian worship distinctive, and why is there so much diversity in the structure and style of services from church to church?

If one surveys the world’s major religions, a common pattern emerges with regard to their beliefs.  They begin by observing that the complexity and the beauty of the world indicate the activity of one or more personal creators or creative a force.  Sometimes the personal spiritual experience of a founder is also set forward as evidence for this belief. 

Typically this creator is also understood to influence events in present life and make judgments concerning whatever sort of afterlife or next life they perceive.  In response to this conclusion, they formulate a set of moral rules and/or ritual practices which are to be performed in order to satisfy this creator, influence events in spiritual realms, or compensate for the moral failures of the worshipper.  

This pattern holds true throughout the world for all of the major religious groups, as well as many of the minor ones, with one exception—historic Christianity.  The thing which set Christian faith apart from the beginning is that it set this pattern in reverse.  They acknowledged the existence of the Lord as creator, revealed to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and other prophets throughout the Old Testament, as well as their sin—that is their failure to live up to the demands of His law. 

But they taught that the Lord took action to solve the problem of their sin and the division it caused between creator and creation.  Rather than specifying a course of actions that humans must take to bridge the divide, Christians believe that God took on humanity in Jesus and lived a perfect life according to the Law to satisfy God in our place, then was abandoned by God the Father in our place while He died by crucifixion—doing all of this in order to exchange places with us so that He suffered the penalty for human sin and humans who rely on His sacrifice receive God’s blessings of forgiveness and eternal life as a pure gift. 

For this reason, historic Christian worship has taken on a certain form.  Since the Bible teaches that God delivers His grace by connecting His Holy Spirit to the reading and preaching of Scripture, to Baptism, and to the Lord’s Supper, Christians have traditionally ordered their service in such a way that emphasizes these things. 

This can be seen even by the words they use.  Rather than speaking of “worship,” (a more recent English term emphasizing what is given to God by the worshipper) Christians in other parts of the world used terms such as Divine Service – emphasizing that in the service God serves man rather than man serving God (as occurs in the rest of the religious world).

In the late 20th Century, American culture became extremely consumer-oriented – a trend that did not spare the Church – and the attempt began to use the service for the purpose of attracting visitors and gaining membership rather than delivering God’s gracious gifts to humanity.  As a result, styles and structures developed that took attention away from God’s gifts and placed more emphasis on what man offers to God. 

As part of this effort, church music began to shift from telling about God and his actions to talking to God, and instead of receiving forgiveness, life, and salvation from God, emphasis shifted toward offering something (like the worshipper’s heart, praise, or adoration) up to God. 

Even the preaching became more about what those in attendance were to go out and do rather than what God had already done for them in Christ.  As a result, the distinctiveness of the Christian faith became hidden, and its worship and its purpose were redefined to look more like the rest of the world’s religion rather than a unique contrast to them. 

The diversity that is seen is not so much about traditions or preferences, but about what that church believes.  It was said in ancient times, “lex orandi, lex credendi,” which means that the Christian’s worship and their doctrine are intricately tied.  Congregations and denominations whose belief centers on what we have to offer God will worship in a way that emphasizes the things directed from earth up toward heaven, and those whose belief emphasizes God’s grace and gifts to us will conduct their services in a way that emphasizes the things given from heaven down to us on earth. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Why did High Places anger the Lord?

My article from this week's newspapers deals with a question about the Old Testament High Places:

Q:  What are the “high places” that are spoken of in the Old Testament?  How were they used, and why was God angered by them?

The high places were large platforms  that we today might say resembled a small, open-air stage.  They were often built on mountains or hilltops, but remains of them have also been found in valleys and on plains as well.  They were originally used as sacrificial altars for the worship of idols by the Canaanite people who inhabited the land before the Israelites returned from Egypt. 

For the Israelites, God had ordained the Tabernacle as the place where He would be present among His people.  This tent of worship housed the Ark of the Covenant, where various significant items of divine activity were stored, as well as other divinely-instituted ritual items and furniture for use in the worship of the Lord. 

Later, the Lord would allow Solomon to build a permanent temple in Israel where the divinely-ordained sacrifices and worship would occur, and which would be the promised location of the Lord’s presence. 

When the Israelites returned to their promised land, the Lord demanded that they abandon all idolatry and allow no worship of false gods in the land.  At times, the Israelites honored this command, but at other times they neglected it, sometimes worshipping idols instead of the Lord and at other times mixing the worship of the True God with that of false gods in various ways – a pattern in which the high places were prominent, especially among Samaritans. 

One way in which these high places were used in false worship would be to place an altar to Baal or an Asherah pole alongside of an altar to the Lord.  Often the worship of these false gods did not only include idolatry, but also divination, acts of sexual immorality like ritual prostitution, and acts of murder such as child sacrifice, further amplifying the repulsiveness of these acts of idolatry. 

At other times, the Israelites were more subtle in their idolatry in that they would imitate the acts of worship of an idol, but direct the worship toward the Lord and His name instead. 

But the Lord is not a god who receives self-appointed worship from man.  Just as God saves by His choice and forgives as a pure gift, so He also specifies the methods by which His grace and forgiveness will be delivered, and thus no humanly-invented worship will suffice. 

So, on a few occasions, the Lord even disciplines the people who offer the right sacrifices to the right God in a place of their own choosing, or He disciplines those who offer the wrong sacrifice to the right God in the right place, or even those who offer the right sacrifice to the right God in the right place, but who are not authorized to make such a sacrifice. 

While these things occurred in the Old Testament, their example still reveals much to us about the worship of Christians in the New Testament.  The clearest of these is that mixing the worship of the Triune God with that of another is expressly forbidden – for example, a Christian pastor praying jointly in a public service with a Muslim Imam, a Jewish Rabbi, or a Native Medicine Man. 

It also remains that the Lord has given promises concerning the ways in which He will become present to us.  The most common of these is through His Word.  So, when God’s Scriptures are preached or studied, He is delivering grace to create faith and forgive sin.  Similarly, the Lord’s promises are expressly attached to the Visible Word of His Sacraments.  So, when Baptism is administered and when the Lord’s Supper is received, the Lord is present in a special and tangible way to apply His grace to individual Christians for the forgiveness of their sins. 

These divinely-instituted methods of delivering His forgiving grace are certain and when we come into contact with Him, we can know that we are receiving Him and His promises.  Common elements such as prayer and song surround these gifts, but it is to the gifts of Word, Baptism, and Supper themselves that the Lord has attached His promises.  Therefore, Christian worship has them at its center, and if we seek to find the Lord elsewhere or by our own methods, we surrender the certainty of having received His Grace and run the risk of finding another spirit rather than the Lord who saves. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

What about the Ethics of In Vitro Fertilization for Christians?

This week's article for the newspaper answers a follow-up from last edition's contraceptive explanation, extending the question to in vitro fertilization and other fertility treatments:

Q:  If there are concerns among Christians around the ethics of contraception, are there also similar issues raised in connection with In Vitro Fertilization and other fertility measures in light of Biblical ethics?

The inability to conceive or carry children to term has been a source of great heartache from the beginning of recorded history.  Women from ancient times like Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah were troubled by this problem and we have their stories recorded in the Bible, along with the Lord’s intervention in response to their prayers. 

One of the consequences when sin entered the world through our first parents was that our bodies and the world around them were thrown into general disarray.  We see this in natural disasters and our struggle to keep up with the assaults of the natural world.  We also see it in disease and dysfunction in our bodies – of which infertility is an example. 

Unlike Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah, many do not conceive naturally in answer to their prayers, but today, we have medical knowledge and treatments which could not have been imagined the ancient times in which those women lived.  While these have the potential to be a great blessing for couples seeking children, they also raise moral concerns for some Christians. 

There are a number of interventions which are not a subject of concern among Christians.  These include:  examination of reproductive health, medically correcting hormonal irregularities, and surgically correcting anatomical irregularities. 

The Roman Catholic Church raises the greatest number of concerns regarding responses to infertility.  Among these are concerns regarding the methods of obtaining samples for diagnosis, whether treatments interrupt the couple’s marital intimacy, and whether third parties become involved in the act of conception. 

Other concerns are shared by both Roman Catholics and other denominations of Christians.  For example, there is significant debate concerning the appropriateness of using genetic material from a third party in the process of conceiving a child.  For some, this raises both moral concerns about whether such a treatment constitutes adultery as well as social concerns about the impact on the family by the lack of biological connection to one of the parents. 

Likewise, surrogacy is a topic of debate among some Christians, because even though the genetic material came entirely from the married couple, a third party is carrying and birthing the child, raising similar concerns to those involved with using donor genetic material. 

In Vitro Fertilization requires probably the most complex examination among fertility measures. Some discourage this method based on the assertion that it is an unnatural interference between the married couple or involves a third party in conception, but the majority of consideration revolves around other factors.  The most prominent of these are questions concerning proper respect for human life. 

Because In Vitro fertilization is such a costly process, it is most practical to create numerous embryos at one time and freeze them until they are needed.  In most cases, numerous embryos are implanted into the mother in hopes that one or two will implant and grow to term.  However, when a large number of embryos survive, the mother is left to face the high-risk scenario of carrying all of them to term or the decision to abort several of them to reduce their number, which would be considered immoral by a majority of Christian traditions. 

It also leaves the question of what to do with excess embryos that were created during the process.  Many Christian traditions would consider most of the available options (which include removing them from cold storage to die, leaving them perpetually frozen, or making them the subjects of medical research) as immoral treatments of a living person. 

As a result, many Christians who choose to use In Vitro fertilization choose to take several measures to ensure proper respect for human life.  These include creating only as many embryos as can be used (even though this may incur additional cost) and implanting only as many embryos as can be safely carried.  In the event a Christian couple inadvertently finds themselves with embryos they are not able to use (which can happen due to unforeseen circumstances, in spite of attempts to avoid doing so), many are now choosing to offer those embryos for adoption so that they can be given life by another couple who is willing and able to carry them to term. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Explaining Christian Positions on Contraception

For this week's newspapers, I (very briefly) explain the differences between different types of Christians on contraception and how this relates to Hobby Lobby and other recent Supreme Court and Affordable Care Act issues:

Q:  I am having difficulty understanding the religious convictions which led to the recent Supreme Court cases about health care and contraceptive coverage.  Can you explain why the parties to the case object to providing certain medications or treatments to their employees?

While this story that has received considerable attention and raised some intense emotional responses, the religious elements of the story have, unfortunately, been poorly explained or largely ignored in the majority of news coverage.  This missing element would reveal that rather than a two-position issue (contraception vs. no contraception) there is a vast diversity of approaches to this question among the various branches of Christianity plays a significant role in understanding the convictions represented in these cases. 

For one group of denominations, there would be no prohibitions whatsoever regarding contraception.  It would be viewed as a matter of unrestricted individual opinion, and no further inquiry regarding the method of contraception, nor regarding the mechanisms by which they function would be necessary.  The list of denominations with this approach would largely align with those with accepting stances toward abortion and approving positions toward same-sex relationships.  In some cases, members of this segment of denominations may even provide or promote contraceptive products as a matter of human care or social justice. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum would be those traditions which disapprove of contraception as a matter of principle.  Most notable among this segment would be the Roman Catholic Church, which approves of only complete abstinence or the natural timing of cycles as methods of avoiding or delaying pregnancy.  Additionally, there is an understanding among a small, yet broad, portion of the conservative evangelical community which encourages couples to be open to receive as many children as God would grant them.  Proponents of this end of the spectrum typically point to verses where God commands Adam and Eve, as well as Noah’s Family to “Be Fruitful and Multiply,” and the many Psalms and Proverbs which speak highly of numerous children as a blessing from the Lord.  They may also employ an argument from nature – that it is unethical to interfere with nature by the use of chemical or barrier contraceptive methods. 

The remainder the Christian spectrum falls between these two bookends.  For these Christians, children are acknowledged as a blessing, and openness to children is typically encouraged.  At the same time, it is also recognized that each family’s situation is unique, and some may find it necessary to provide a longer break between pregnancies or that medical, economic, or other reasons make limiting family size the wisest course of action. 

While they trust the conscience of each husband and wife to guide this choice, they place one firm boundary – that it is not permissible to take actions which have the potential to end the life of an already-conceived child.  In most cases, this would allow a husband and wife to use barrier methods of contraception as well as surgical sterilization, without concern, as dictated by their circumstances. 

Many would also be open to the use of traditional contraceptive pills, patches, and shots, although this is less universal due to questions about the potential of these methods to prevent a fertilized egg from implanting. 

IUDs are often seen even less favorably because of their potential to prevent implantation.  Those who observe this boundary would always exclude such methods as “morning after” pills, which intend to prevent ovulation, but have a secondary mechanism of preventing implantation of a fertilized egg.  They would also exclude “week after” pills or any method which exclusively prevents implantation after fertilization. 

It is this final category of contraceptives that were at the center of the most prominent of these cases.  In fact, the most prominent plaintiff in this series of cases actually provides 16 out of the 20 contraceptives specified by the Affordable Care Act, and only objected to providing those methods which have the intention or potential to end already-conceived life, for the reason that they believe they would be contributing to an act of murder by funding such methods in their insurance coverage.