Monday, July 20, 2015

Sins, Debts, and Trespasses

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about the different lengths and translations of the Lord's Prayer in English-speaking churches:

Q:  Why do some churches say the Lord’s Prayer with the line, “Forgive us our debts” while others use “Forgive us our trespasses,” and why do some stop with “deliver us from evil” while others have an additional line afterward?

While the Lord’s Prayer is considered the universal prayer among Christians because it was given by our Lord Himself, the differences noted in the question are matters of text and translation. 

The account of the giving of the Lord’s Prayer is told twice in the Bible—once by Matthew, and once by Luke.  Many ancient manuscripts of Matthew’s account include the line “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.  Amen” at the end of the prayer.  The ancient manuscripts of Luke, in comparison, do not typically show this line.  In fact, many of the manuscripts of Luke are also missing the line, “but deliver us from evil.” 

These differences between Matthew and Luke’s recording of the Lord’s Prayer account for the diversity of length in the prayer.  The most likely explanation is that the line, “deliver us from evil” is original to the prayer, but that those who copied Luke’s Gospel accidentally omitted it on a few occasions. 

The longer ending of Matthew’s prayer probably arises because as it was used in the liturgies of the early church of the first century, similar to the way that “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.  Amen.”  is typically added to the end of Psalms among Christians. 

Since Matthew’s Gospel was intended as a catechism for instructing people who had come to Christianity from Judaism, he would likely have included the prayer in the form it was said in the liturgy.  Some liturgies of the time even included an even longer ending “…and the glory, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit for ever.  Amen.”  And on rare occasions, an ancient copy of Matthew is even found with this very long ending included in the prayer. 

So, when churches use a longer or shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer, it is primarily just the difference between the version of the prayer recorded in Matthew and the version recorded in Luke—and both are Biblical. 

The difference between “forgive us our debts” and “forgive us our trespasses” is one of translation in addition to synonyms used for sin by Matthew and Luke.  The Matthew version uses a Greek word very similar to the English word “debt,” while the Luke version uses the word that is the typical word for “sins” in the New Testament.  Some more modern attempts at translating the Lord’s Prayer have even attempted to use the translation “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” but they have not been widely accepted. 

When the word “debts” is used in the Lord’s Prayer, it is because that particular translation is based on the King James tradition of translating the Gospel of Matthew.  The translation of “trespasses” has its roots in the Tyndale Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, which pre-date the King James Bible by several decades, so it is actually the older translation into English, although it may seem new to some who grew up hearing the petition with the word “debts.” 

Because of its use in the Book of Common Prayer for Anglican worship, “trespasses” became the default translation of all the natively-English traditions of Christianity.  For Lutherans (who spoke German upon arriving in America) and Catholics (who conducted the Mass in Latin until recent years), they also picked up the translation “trespasses” upon beginning to worship in English, making it the majority version of the prayer in the present day. 

Regardless of the translation, though, the meaning of the petition is the same.  When we sin, we trespass against the boundary of God’s law, and sins committed by humans create a debt that we owe both to God and the neighbors we sin against, which can only be paid back by Jesus crucified death.  Each of the words emphasizes a different nuance of this truth, but all point to the same problem and the same Savior who is its remedy. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


For this week's newspapers, I answered a reader question about displaying flags in church:  

Q:  Why is the American flag often displayed in the sanctuary of churches?  Is it appropriate to have a symbol of the nation in the midst of the worship of God, or does it violate the separation of church and state? 

In spite of the fact that flags have been present for as long as most presently-living individuals can remember, the installation of flags in church sanctuaries is actually a relatively recent and primarily American development. 

The earliest Christians would certainly not have had national symbols among them when they gathered, because they were considered criminals by the Roman Empire for refusing to worship Caesar as god, and throughout Medieval Europe, flags and other national symbols were typically considered something for the ruling classes, and not displayed among the common people or in their churches. 

When the American Revolution began, patriotic sentiments rose among citizens, churches with a more uniquely American ethos began to see the flag displayed outside of churches, sometimes draped from the pulpit for certain occasions and carried in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School processions.  This grew in frequency during the Civil War, but was still not common among more internationally oriented churches, such as Lutherans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics. 

The two World Wars of the 20th century, and the racial and ethnic biases that accompanied them, are largely responsible for the wider acceptance of flag display inside of church buildings, even moving them from the entryways or fellowship halls right up into the front of the church itself.  Today, there is no Canon Law regarding flag display, and it is left to the Diocese or Congregation to decide among Roman Catholics.  Flag display is more disputed among the Orthodox, who do not typically have as close a relationship with governments as the Roman Church. 

For Lutherans, who were some of the last holdouts against flag display, and other people who were ethnically German, World War 1 was the advent of flag display in their churches as a way of refuting accusations that they were sympathizers with the Kaiser in Germany because they still conducted services in German.  In World War 2, flag display became nearly universal in order to avoid similar accusations, and German worship also declined rapidly at this time in favor of English. 

The final volley which cemented flag display in churches was the Flag Day proclamation in 1954, in which President Eisenhower signed the act adding the words “under god” to the Pledge of Allegiance.  Coupled with the patriotism which accompanied the Cold War, this convinced most of the remaining holdouts to end their opposition to flag display in churches, and the Russian Orthodox also began adopting flag display at this time because of accusations of Soviet sympathies for conducting services in Russian. 

Today, support for flag display in churches is common, but not as common as it was in the Cold War era.  One concern raised about the display of flags in churches is that it gives the appearance that the nation or its government are being worshipped or that they have a place equal to or nearly-equal to God.  Others raise the objection that the Church is an international body which is composed of all nations, and therefore the appearance of loyalty to a particular nation is inappropriate. 

Others are uneasy with the possibility of giving the appearance that the church endorses the actions of the nation.  This fear arose in the past during wars which might have been considered unjust.  Similar concerns are rising again today when the laws of the nation are becoming more at odds with the teachings of the Church, and the likelihood that the government will become openly hostile to certain churches and their members is rising. 

On the other hand, some point to the fact that obedience to lawful authority is a virtue promoted in the Fourth Commandment and that the New Testament encourages believers to submit to governing authorities, assuming it obvious that obedience to God outweighs loyalty to the nation. 

Today, with a population of pastors and members who are farther removed from the two World Wars and the Cold War, we may very well see more careful examination of the practice of displaying the national flag in churches, but the ultimate conclusion and how that will impact continued display of the flag remains to be seen.