Monday, May 26, 2014

Do I Pledge Allegiance?

My article for this week's newspapers answers a question about participation in patriotic acts and government service:

Q:  Are Christians allowed to serve in elected office or the military, salute or pledge allegiance to the flag, vote, and participate as jurors or parties to a court case; and what is the line where a Christian’s involvement with secular government becomes inappropriate?

Every so often throughout history, a few Christian leaders start to raise questions about whether a Christian may participate in secular government.  Under older systems of empire or monarchy, this largely meant employment as a government official or soldier. 

In those cases, the permissibility of Christian service hinged largely on whether the job included duties that would be sinful (such as ancient Roman tax collectors who made a living by cheating citizens) or whether it required idolatry (such as the requirement for Roman Soldiers to worship Caesar as a god). 

In our American experience, this question takes on a new twist, because we citizens are the government in many ways.  While elected officials write and enforce our laws, those officials are chosen by the people’s vote, and the people serve in applying and carrying out the law in such actions as jury service. 

Although the early Christians were often at odds with government as members of a forbidden religion and a despised minority, it was not government in and of itself which they were separating from, but rather the actions of a government that was hostile to their faith and demanded that they disobey both God’s law and their own conscience in order to be citizens in good standing. 

Understood within the boundary that the Christian’s first allegiance is to the Triune God, and that the Christian must “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), the Bible is actually quite positive toward government and other earthly authorities.  Beginning with the understanding that the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” extends beyond parents to include all who are in positions of authority, and reinforced by numerous New Testament commands to obey those in authority, the Bible intends that Christians would be honest and obedient citizens and be a blessing to their governing authorities and their nation.  St. Paul even writes that governing authorities have been “instituted by God.”  (Romans 13)

So Christians are permitted to salute their flag and pledge allegiance, not by idolatrously considering their government equal or superior to God, but acknowledging that God has instituted earthly authority and called them to respect and obey it.  Military service (as explained more fully in a previous column) is also an honorable vocation for Christians who desire to defend and protect their neighbors. 
Likewise, the courts have been instituted to defend the rights of citizens to their safety, reputation, and property, and Christians may certainly use them, when necessary to prosecute crimes or settle disputes over property.  When Paul criticizes the Corinthians (ch. 5) for their lawsuits against one another, he does not do so because they made use of secular courts, but because they were doing harm to the reputation of the Church by airing grievances between fellow believers in public rather than settling them amongst themselves within the congregation. 

Finally, voting and public office are certainly appropriate pursuits for Christians.  It would be easier to say that one is sinning by refusing to participate in these functions rather than by exercising the privilege to do so.  In a government where the people themselves set the direction of policy and choose who will lead, what better way for a Christian to serve his fellow citizens than by voting for honorable public servants and advocating for moral and beneficial laws? 

The only limitation that a Christian faces in their participation is that they may not give the government higher honor than God or disobey God’s revealed law in order to obey the government’s policy or statutes.  Beyond this, the Christian is free honor his government and its flag and privileged to exercise his faith by honorable service to his neighbors. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Was Jesus Married, and what was His family like?

My article for this week's newspapers responds to an inquiry about Jesus' family:

Q:  What was Jesus’ family like?  Did he have brothers, sisters, a wife, or children?  Was the same true for His disciples? 

From the early chapters of the Gospel of Luke, we learn about Jesus’ family at the time of His birth.  We know that His mother Mary was a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph when an angel initiated her pregnancy with the announcement that she would give birth to the Savior. 

Mary was likely young, as women were typically married shortly after the age where they were physically capable of childbearing.  Joseph was probably older, because it was expected that a man have a home and an established trade before he was considered eligible to marry. 

After Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus, the only other event Scripture records from Jesus’ childhood is when he was unintentionally left behind in Jerusalem by his parents and discovered in the temple discussing theology.  Although Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father, he was His earthly guardian, but after this event, Joseph is never mentioned again in the Gospels, leading many to believe that He died some time when Jesus was between the ages of 12 and 30. 

This would have left Mary as a widow, and Jesus, her oldest son, would have likely been left as the primary provider for the family.  Even though there is not a record of the birth of Jesus’ siblings, the Gospels do mention His “mother and brothers” on one occasion, and on another occasion names four brothers (James, Jude, Simon, Joses) and refers to unnamed “sisters,” indicating two or more daughters born to Mary and Joseph. 

Some have attempted to describe Joseph as a widower, and these 6 or more siblings as children from that previous marriage, and not with Mary.  Others have described them as cousins or other relatives.  While both of these explanations are possible based on the words used in the Gospel for Jesus brothers and sisters, the plain usual meaning of this word is literal, biological siblings, and usage of that word for step-siblings or cousins would be far less common, making the most plain and reasonable conclusion that these 6 or more siblings are Jesus’ half-siblings born to Mary and Joseph. 

This is further supported by Matthew’s description of the marriage of Joseph and Mary, when he says Joseph “took Mary as his wife, but did not know her until she had given birth to her son.”   Compare this to the statement “John did not eat breakfast until he had showered.”  Such a statement indicates that John did actually eat breakfast, but only after he had showered.  Likewise, Matthew’s statement indicates that Joseph and Mary do consummate their marriage, but only after Jesus has been born. 

Some vague fragments and superstitious stories have arisen from time to time about Jesus having a wife, perhaps Mary Magdalene, but none of them are remotely reliable from a textual perspective, and most have conclusively been proven as forgeries that were not written until 300-400 years after the Resurrection of Jesus.  This results in the clear conclusion that Jesus had neither a wife nor children. 

Regarding the disciples, it appears that most of them had wives and typical families.  Paul was single, and he refers to the benefits of this status for His mission and ministry.  At the same time, his words in 1 Corinthians 9 imply that marriage and family were the norm among the other Apostles, and he specifically mentions Cephas [Peter] and the Lord’s brothers [probably James and Jude] as being married.  Luke specifically mentions Peter’s mother-in-law, who was healed by Jesus of a high fever, at the end of chapter 2 of his Gospel, indicating that Peter was certainly married. 

In spite of agenda-driven explanations to the contrary, the simplest explanation that can be drawn from Scripture regarding the family life of Jesus and the disciples is that Mary and Joseph carried on a normal married life after the birth of Jesus, that Jesus remained single and childless throughout His life, and that the average disciple, including their leader Peter, seems to have been married, with Paul as the one notable exception.