Monday, August 31, 2015

Circumcising Adiaphora

For this week's newspapers, I answered the final follow-up in a series of 3 about what makes and does not make a person sinful by answering how a Christian chooses about what to do when the action is neither commanded nor forbidden by genuine divine laws:  

Q:  If it is not the things we consume or touch, or even our actions, that determine our status before God, then how do Christians choose a course of action in decisions which involve things beyond the Ten Commandments?

When a person understands the fact that their status with God the Father is determined by Jesus and His perfect life and crucified death rather than their own performance, it can be a difficult adjustment because it seems at first to leave a vacuum in the area of ethics and morality. 

However, the Christian still honors God’s law, and even desires to keep it, but as a result of God’s goodness to them rather than as a condition of salvation.  When it regards which actions are a sin, this is guided by the Ten Commandments, as understood in the light of all of Scripture, but there are many choices where none of the options would seem to violate one of these commandments, but a choice still remains to be made. 

Sometimes, there are clear New Testament instructions on a matter, usually dealing with matters of the way the Church carries out its work.  One of the clearest examples of this is Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus about the qualifications for pastors and elders. 

In another instance, there was a question about whether the gentile Christians should eat certain meats or do other things that were forbidden by the Old Testament ceremonial law.  The result was that the apostles held a council at Jerusalem and determined that these laws did not apply to Gentiles when they became Christians, but that they should observe a few customs out of respect for their Jewish Christian neighbors. 

Paul Himself had to make a choice about the law of circumcision when he began to enlist the help of non-Jewish men as associates in the mission.  On one occasion, he decided that Timothy should be circumcised like the Jews were according to their law, but on another, he refused to allow Barnabas to be circumcised. 

This is because it was neither commanded nor forbidden that gentiles to be circumcised like Jewish people were before Jesus came, so Paul chose what best taught the people what they needed to understand.  This is what he means when he talks about “becoming all things to all men” in 1 Corinthians 9. 

Because Timothy would be serving in a setting where he would be among Jews, Paul allowed for him to be circumcised so that it would not be an obstacle to his congregation hearing and believing the Gospel.  On the other hand, Barnabas would be serving in a time and place where Judaizers were seeking to force the Old Testament law upon Christians, so Paul refused to allow his circumcision in order to demonstrate the Christians’ freedom from Old Testament ceremonial laws. 

In both cases, Paul made the decision that most clearly provided a path for people to hear and believe the Gospel without the corruption of false teaching—making concessions for the sake of those who might be weak, but standing firmly against those whose pride undermined the Gospel. 

Christians are called to similar commitments when faced with present customs and behaviors that are matters of controversy, but don’t relate to the sins specified in the Ten Commandments.  This would include things like alcohol or tobacco use, many expressions of language, and displays of wealth, among many others.  The Christian’s goal is to make such choices in the way that avoids being an obstacle for the Gospel or which tears down obstacles placed by others. 

So, when we make choices, we try to do what would be least confrontational to our neighbors who are offended by certain things because they are misinformed or fearful, but when confronted with opponents who seek to enforce their choices upon us out of pride, then we are called to stand against them so that our neighbors’ freedom and confidence in the Gospel would not be assaulted. 

Questions may be submitted by email to or sent to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA  50522.

Rev. Jason P. Peterson

Pastor, St. John’s Lutheran Church – Burt

Monday, August 17, 2015

Abusing the Root of All Prohibition

For this week's newspapers, I answered a follow-up question to last week's answer about whether physical things can be inherently sinful:  

Q:  If it is not certain substances or objects which are the source of sinfulness, then what about alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gambling, and other things which play a role in so many problems in society?  Does the same method apply to examining the morality of actions? 

This question has made frequent appearance in English-speaking Christianity, particularly here in the United States.  Since so many societal ills involve abuse of alcohol, drugs, or other substances, people sometimes conclude that if you could rid society of the substance, you could eliminate the problem. 

Likewise, with actions, they often conclude that since an action has caused problems for some people in some circumstances, that the action itself must be evil—or at least in decrying the abuse of the action, they give the appearance that the action itself is a sin. 

However, such an approach is not in step with the worldview of Scripture or of the historic way the Church has approached such question.  Instead, honest analysis reveals that the problem is not with objects, or in some cases actions, but rather with the impure desires and motivations which drive people to misuse them.    The problem is not in the use or possession of the things, or the performance of many actions, but in their abuse. 

So, for example, the Old Testament frequently used wine as an illustration of joy and celebration and made other positive references to alcohol consumption, and St. Paul even instructed Timothy to use wine to aid with digestion.  Meanwhile, in the very same books of the Bible, the authors warned against drunkenness—the misuse of alcohol. 

Similarly, there are many prescription medications that are beneficial when used as prescribed, but harmful if misused.  Even in the case of illicit drugs, it is not as if sin was written into the chemical compound, but because the person is harming their own body by their use (5th Commandment), disobeying lawful authority (4th commandment), and treating God’s blessing of the body in a wasteful manner (7th Commandment). 

Sexual intimacy provides an excellent example where this idea can be applied to an action.  When it occurs between a husband and a wife in the context of marriage, it is a blessed thing which results in numerous benefits to the relationship of the couple, the foremost of which is the potential of conceiving a child. 

In contrast, when it is used in any other context, it results in spiritual harm, as well as increased risk of several kinds of physical and emotional consequences.  Similar to the way it is with things above, it is not the action which is sin, but the wrong use of the action. 

Consider also the popular saying that “Money is the root of all evil.”  This thought by many to be a saying from the Bible, but in reality it is a misquotation of a Biblical statement, which really says, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”  The misquoted statement attributes the sin to the object of money, but the genuine statement rightly blames its wrong use, by loving it, as the real problem. 

The Prohibition era in our country provides an excellent case study in this principle.  The Temperance movement advanced the idea that ridding the country of alcohol would result in a utopian society that was free of the problems people felt were most pressing at the time.  In reality, people obtained alcohol in other ways, discovered other substances to abuse in its place, and violent organized crime began to flourish as a direct result of what was intended to be a beneficial reform. 

Ultimately, it is this way with all sins.  Scholars of the commandments have rightly observed that every other commandment really points back to the First, “You shall have no other gods.”  Whenever a person misuses an object or an action, they are treating it as a god—no different than someone who bows down before a carved idol. 

The 2nd through 8th Commandments describe particular ways in which this occurs, and the final commandments about coveting bring the idea full circle by revealing that even the desire to have or do those things which one does not have the right to have or do is itself a sin even though the thing has not been obtained or the action accomplished. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Do not Handle, Do not Taste, Do not Touch!

My article from this week's newspapers answers a question about whether there are certain things that can make a Christian unrighteous by having contact with them:

Q:  Are there certain things that would be sinful for Christians to consume, hear, see, or come into contact with like there were in the Old Testament?  If so, what would those be? 

It seems that human understand instinctively that something has gone wrong in this world and that living here comes with a certain degree of spiritual danger.  In an effort to remedy this, prohibitions on contact with certain items in the physical world are a common feature among religions throughout the world. 

A common example is eating the meat of certain animals, or meat at all.  For others, they see certain places as forbidden or certain words that should never be uttered.  They may even propose that those who hear forbidden words or see others committing a forbidden act or come too close to a forbidden thing are made unholy or unclean by their contact. 

The Old Testament laws given to Israel bear a resemblance to the description above, but those who read them closely will discover that there is a distinct difference in the way that they approach this compared to the religions of the world. 

To begin with, Genesis describes several centuries where the Law of Moses is not in force, yet people like Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons are not regarded as any less accepted because they do not have it or follow it.  This seems to indicate that these laws are for a certain time, place and purpose rather than being universal decrees.  

In addition, the objects and actions they forbid are not treated as defective in themselves, but they are to be avoided to teach a greater truth about sin.  So the people avoid touching lepers or certain animals and they follow certain grooming rituals as a way of showing them that sin corrupts them and must be cleansed. 

The ultimate goal of all of this was a promise given as early as the third chapter of Genesis that a particular descendent of Eve would one day arise to provide the permanent remedy for sin. 

When Jesus arrives, he disregards all of the extra regulations the Pharisees had made regarding what to avoid and how to wash if one might have contacted something or someone who was unclean.  He tells them, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him… Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?”

We also never see him go to the priests or the temple to be cleansed after he touches and heals a leper or someone with an unclean discharge or a demon.  This would have been required not only by the Pharisees but also the Law of Moses.  However, Jesus could not be made unclean, therefor had no need for cleansing.  Instead, his inherent cleanness flowed out to the person to heal them rather than their uncleanness being transferred to him. 

When the Apostle Paul was confronted with people who thought that Christians ought to avoid consuming or coming into contact with certain things, he responds by writing, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink... “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” …These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” 

Jesus and Paul both demonstrate that what causes our problem with God is not what comes into us from outside but what comes out of our own hearts and desires.  For Christians, it is not a thing itself that is bad, such as food, drink, sexual intimacy, or any other earthly element, but rather when it is used in a way that is inconsistent with the Creator’s will.  The sin comes not from the earthly thing, but from our sinful desire to misuse it against our neighbors, against our own physical and spiritual well-being, and against the Lord who gave it.