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.