On not guilting ‘Mericans for loving ‘Merica

Several years ago, while a seminary student and a student pastor of a small rural church, I wrote a blog post around the 4th of July bemoaning how Christians celebrate this day. I said I would not, as my allegiance was to King Jesus alone.

What a bonehead I was.  How self-serving and unloving it was for me to write such a thing, alienating every person in the church and town in which I served as pastor.  My ivory-tower thinking, and the impersonal way I chose to communicate it, did nothing to bring one person to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ or make a disciple.   It only won me the applause of those who read the books I had been reading, who already bought what I was selling.

While telling everyone else not to make an idol of America, I was making an idol of my position.   Those who refused to bow to it were somehow sub-Christian, unlike me and my more progressive friends.

But then I got into the actual work of ministry (as opposed to just writing about it) and learned that out on the front lines the things I was learning in books just didn’t add up.  When I took the time and actually talked to the people I was serving I learned a few things.

None of the people I worshiped with on Sunday were actually worshiping America.  Rather, they were simply grateful for it.  None of them were actually worshiping the flag.  Rather, they were showing respect for it.  None of them were celebrating all the past (and present) sins of our nation, including slavery and segregation and more.  Rather, they were honoring the good that our nation has accomplished in the midst of a world of pain and hurt.   None of them were saying “God bless America” because they desired to be better than all other nations or, even worse, rule the world.  Rather, they were remembering that any good thing we have comes by God’s grace and as Abraham was blessed to be a blessing to nations, they desire to be used in the same way.   None of these people were idolizing war or those who fought and died in war.  Rather, they were honoring men and women who under seemingly impossible odds made the ultimate sacrifice – sacrifices far too many of us today take for granted and cannot even begin to comprehend.

In all these ways no gross sin or idolatry was being paraded  but rather a rich tradition of thanksgiving, joy, celebration, honor and remembrance was and is taking place.  In all this, the people of God were being very much biblical, giving thanks in all things and rejoicing with those who rejoice, while even mourning with those who mourn.  These were, and are, real people with real stories with real legacies.   Shame on me, or any of us, for raining on that parade with our pride.

Today, I do not apologize for being patriotic, for asking God to bless America, or for celebrating this day which declared our independence from imperial rule.  I do, however, apologize for how in the past I made others feel guilty for their American pride while I blogged from my privileged bunker armed with a Mac Book and a seminary degree.

Today I would gladly trade theological pride for American pride.   Pride in my theological position never won a single person to the ultimate freedom found in Jesus Christ.  Pride in America, however, has opened many avenues for me to talk with everyone else in the world who hasn’t read Yoder or Hauerwas (turns out that’s most of the world), making me “one of them so that I might win some.”

So, today I choose to celebrate rather than make others feel guilty for loving ‘Merica.  Today I choose to rejoice and wave flags and light fireworks and eat good food alongside the many people who I pray will be worshiping with me tomorrow morning as we gather for the Lord’s Day.  My hunch is they will find their way to churches led by people celebrating life with them over those who, like I once did, remind them annually at this time how much bigger my thinking is than theirs.

God bless America, and America bless God!

Dear Heterosexual Struggler, you are not forgotten

It’s been almost a week since the Supreme Court voted to make gay marriage legal in every state.   The vote was 5-4, mirroring what I’m noticing the in the news and on social media:  5 out of every 4 discussions are about gay marriage (let that sink in for a moment).

The fact that this issue has so captivated mainstream thought and life is quite impressive. Why?  Because according to a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013, only 3.4% of Americans self-identify as gay, lesbian or bi-sexual.   In this study, 96.6% of Americans identified themselves as straight.   What is so impressive is how the sex lives of 3 out of every 100 people has so captivated our consciousness, both within and without the Christian community.

It got me thinking:  What about the other 97% of us?  It can feel as though we have been forgotten.   It can feel as though our struggles and our sins are of little consequence.  With the spotlight so intensely focused on what 3% of the population is doing behind closed doors it’s easy to minimize or even justify our own struggles.

With 97% of Americans uninterested in marrying someone of the same sex it seems strange that 97% of our conversations about sex have little to do with what we are struggling with, such as….

Pornography

I wish 5 out of every 4 discussions were about this rather than gay marriage.   While we obsess over the 3%, consider these statistics regarding pornography

  • The porn industry generates 13 billion dollars in revenue in the US alone.
  • 1 in 5 mobile searches are for pornography
  • 69% of the internet pay-per-view market is pornography
  • 51% of pastors say pornography is a real temptation
  • 64% of Christian men and 15% of Christian women say they watch porn at least once a month
  • 71% of teens hide online behavior from their parents
  •  9 out of 10 boys and 6 out of 10 girls are exposed to pornography before age 18
  • Average age of first exposure: 12
  • 68% of young adult men and 18% of young adult women use porn weekly.

This sin, legal to view and purchase everywhere, affects every one of us.  The struggle is real, and it is destroying more families and lives than gay marriage ever could.  Our nation’s legalization of gay marriage pales in comparison to the overwhelming acceptance of pornography in our culture and our silence addressing it.

Premarital Sex

Even before pornography began to flourish with the advent of the Internet, virtually everyone was having sex outside of marriage.  A study published by the USA Today in 2006 showed that 9 in 10 women born in the 1940’s had premarital sex.  The median age in 2003 of those having sex for the first time was 17.  Of those interviewed in 2002, 95% said they had sex before marriage.

According to one study, 61 percent of Christians said they would have sex before marriage. Fifty-six percent said that it’s appropriate to move in with someone after dating for a time between six months and two years.

While everyone is talking about who 3% of our population is now allowed to marry, the church has often failed to offer to the struggling rest of us a healthy, positive view of sex and why God intends it to be reserved for marriage.

Sexting

While we as a nation focus on who can and cannot get married, our youth are floundering as we turn blind eyes and hearts to their struggle.   Sexting, which is sending sexually explicit material through mobile devices, is a growing phenomenon among both youth and adults.  40% of all teenagers have sent and received sexual material through their phones.  You can read more stats here, and this CNN article suggests that over 60% of youth are using apps on their phones to send sexually suggestive material.  It’s worth checking out, parents, to learn ways to safeguard your kid’s online behavior.

I know firsthand the reality of these struggles, and know all too well the pain they bring to bear on all of one’s relationships.  Even more, I know the guilt and shame surrounding these behaviors and I know how easy it is to minimize and justify these things because they are done in secret.  Because so few will admit they struggle in these areas, and because the church spends so much time talking about the 3% rather than the other 97%, shame and guilt abound.

The church, when operating as she ought, is a hospital for the broken.  She is to be the place where sinners like you and I, the 100% of us, can be real about our struggles without fear of being shamed or judged so that we might discover the transforming power of grace at work in each of our lives, healing our brokenness and restoring our communion with God and each other.

This is not to say the church has nothing to say about marriage, or shouldn’t address the 3% of our population, but it is to say that as we look at the landscape of sexuality around us, we must admit we are deeply broken and in desperate need of healing.   Ever since The Fall we have been this way.  As I read Scripture, it says that judgment begins in the church, not upon those outside of it (1 Cor. 5:12).  Perhaps the most faithful and God-honoring thing we can do at such a time as this is to look within ourselves and bring to the cross our own struggles and sexual brokenness.   Perhaps the best thing we can do as a church is to beat our chests and cry out, “Have mercy on me, Oh Lord, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

As a pastor of a church, I want to be sure we are offering places of healing for all people, no matter what their struggle.  I don’t want to see us become so fixated on one sin that we forget that we are all sexually broken.  We all need healing.  We all need to have our minds renewed.  We all need to lay our sexual selves down at the altar and offer our bodies to God as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2).   We all must remember that our bodies our not our own, but have been bought with a price, and we are to therefore honor God with how we use them.

The only sense in which “all means all,” a line often used by those fighting for affirmation and acceptance, is truly accurate is in the sense that we are all broken and are all in need of a Savior who not only can forgive us, but can transform our desires into holy affections, pleasing to God and for the glory of His name.

So to the 97% of us out there who are struggling, please know you are not forgotten amid the cacophony of voices, both gleeful and despairing, over gay marriage.  And you are far from being alone.  I hope you’ll seek out a church this weekend to offer up your own struggle to the lover of your soul, and find a brother or sister to walk alongside you as you both recommit to surrendering your bodies, and what you do with them, to God.

The SCOTUS Gay Marriage Decision: Blessing or Cursing?

Supreme CourtThe recent Supreme Court decision to impose Gay “marriage” on every state in the union has been and will be analyzed from a variety of different perspectives, many quite elaborate and sophisticated. Nonetheless, I think a simple biblical analysis should not be missed or taken for granted.  In response to a groundswell of cultural affirmation fomented by a hurricane of LGBTQ advocacy and propaganda, five unelected justices read a right to the same into the fourteenth amendment. God has given our culture what it has demanded, but it is anything but a gift. I think the first chapter of Romans sums up quite well what has actually happened.

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Romans 1:21-32 (NET)
21 For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged the natural sexual relations for unnatural ones, 27 and likewise the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed in their passions for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done. 29 They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they fully know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but also approve of those who practice them.

Here we have not the exhaustive description of the state of each individual human being, but a rhetorical sketch of the idolatrous sinful state of humanity in Adam in general and in this case Gentiles in particular. Homosexual relationships, here described as mutual and consensual, are held out not as the only sexual sin, but as the most obvious example of rebellion against the designs of the Creator evident in the obvious complementary sexual differences between the males and females. Same-sex relationships were much more common among Gentiles, and virtually non-existent among Jews, a good indication that in Romans 1 Paul has primarily Gentiles in mind. Nonetheless, the Jews too, as revealed in the scriptural record of their own history, (i.e. the history of Israel and Judah 1 & 2 Kings), are indicted in the overall sin of humanity because they too, as descendants of Adam and inheritors of the corrupting power of sin passed down from him, could not resist idolatry and its corresponding morally corrupting influence (see Romans 3:9 ff; Romans 5 ff).With the specific reference to “the creation of the world” in Romans 1:20 and other echoes of the first three chapters of Genesis in Romans 1, especially in light of the explicit reference to Adam as the source of original sin throughout the human race in Romans 5, Paul certainly has the the story of the beginnings of the human race in Genesis in mind. There, especially in Genesis 2 and 3, we find a phenomenon that is repeated throughout history, the history of both Gentiles and Jews.

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God gives a clear command with its corresponding consequence: “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17 NRSV and hereafter). Genesis 3 reveals the nature of temptation and the basic tactics of the tempter. The serpent slithers into the garden and first begins to question the integrity of God’s command even as he caricatures it. He questions God’s word to stir up doubt and he distorts it so as to overemphasize the restriction of the “thou shalt not” while ignoring altogether the generous Divine permission to “freely eat of every tree of the garden” except one. Then afterward with Eve on her heals downplaying the freedom in God’s command herself, with Adam consentingly and culpably looking on, the serpent boldly proclaims, in direct contradiction to God himself, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened (open hearts, open doors, open minds?), and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5). In other words, he assured them that not only would disobedience to the straightforward command of God not bring cursing, but that it would actually bring them blessing. Adam and Eve bought the lies, the false assurance and the pseudo wisdom and enlightenment, that the serpent was selling and the rest is history, as they say, the history of the fallen human race under the curse of God’s judgment.

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In support of the secular LGBTQ movement, many in the church began by simply questioning whether we have properly understood God’s word regarding the prohibition of same-sex sexual intercourse. Many are the distortions of revisionists who insist that the church just misunderstood those commands (i.e. Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13) until the Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s. Equally numerous are those who have assured us that breaking these commands is really not that big of a deal, in spite of the fact that the prohibitions are reinstated under the New Covenant as recorded in the New Testament, along with the warning that those who practice these things will not inherit the kingdom of God (i.e. 1 Corinthians 6:9 ff). Moreover, under the New Covenant this part of God’s moral law should not only be written in the pages of the New Testament, but also on the tablets of our hearts (i.e. Jeremiah 31:31 ff & 2 Corinthians 3). Less numerous but still significant are those who have argued that although they acknowledge the Bible unequivocally prohibits all forms of same-sex relationships, consensual or otherwise, the Bible, as Luke Timothy Johnson, a distinguished scholar at Emory University who is liberal on this issue, put it, “the straightforward commands of Scripture” are just wrong (see here). William Loader is an Australian scholar and expert on ancient Jewish and Christian beliefs and attitudes regarding sex who has written over 4000 pages on the subject, who takes the same track. He admits that the record is straightforward that all Jews in antiquity including Paul and Jesus would not have accepted the legitimacy of any form of same-sex sexual relationship because they would have considered them, as Paul says explicitly in Romans 1:26, as contrary to nature, God’s intent evident in the complementary design of male and female. Like Johnson, Loader rejects the straightforward commands of Scripture and the only historically plausible view of Jesus himself as simply wrong (see a concise summary of Loaders voluminous work in “Making Sense of Sex”). People like this insist that modern reason and experience make them wise enough to reject the straightforward commands of Scripture and decide better what is right and wrong for themselves, and not only for themselves, but for the rest of society as well.

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Almost all of the mainline denominations have already bought and ratified the same lies that the serpent was selling in the garden, and now, after the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage, the government of the United States of America has done the same. These ecclesial and civil rulings have all come with the promise of blessing, but proclaiming themselves to be wise, they have become fools. Disobedience, rejecting the straightforward commands of God has never brought humanity blessing, and it never will. Obedience, and obedience alone, will.

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The curse of exile from the garden came on humanity as a whole through the disobedience of Adam. The curse of exile from the Promised Land came upon Israel and Judah because the people rejected the straightforward commands of Scripture. Hence passages like Hosea 4:6: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge, because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” Even before exile, we see king Saul rejected for rejecting the straightforward command of God (1 Samuel 15). Disobedience has never brought blessing and it never will.

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The Good News is where Adam and all of the rest of humanity including Israel failed, Jesus of Nazareth, the word of God in the flesh, the Messiah of Israel, the second Adam, succeeded, not by rejecting the straightforward commands of Scripture, but by fulfilling its true intent through offering to God perfect obedience (see Matthew 5:17-20). Christ came not to destroy the law or the prophets, who called God’s people back to God’s law, but to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) who is a deceiver who works to make people comfortable with sin and lures them into rejecting the straightforward commandments of Scripture. Jesus succeeded by rejecting all the temptations of the evil one with the result that “just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19).
The blessing of God came through Christ’s obedience and through faith in him both Jew and Gentile, you and I, can be made righteous to walk in newness of life, which is a life of obedience (see Romans 6) and submission to God’s law (see Romans 8) by the power of the Spirit of God in Christ. This is the path of blessing.

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Whether they realize it or not, people, in the church and without, have been lured into rejecting the straight forward command of God, either the will of God revealed in creation or in the pages of his revealed word. Some naively believe because of the distortions of revisionists that they have just not understood the commandment clearly; others have been convinced through the teaching of cheap grace that the penalty for willful disobedience isn’t really that bad after all; and some with their minds wide open have simply rejected the clear commandments of Scripture in favor of a worldly wisdom that deems the wisdom of God foolish. In any case, the end result is a rejection of the straightforward commandment of God and the rejection of the God who gave the commandment.

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Truly, “the word of God is living and active sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4:12-13).

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If under the judgment of the word of God, whose judgment alone is final, we have been found naked and ashamed in disobedience, there is only one thing that we need to do. Repent, turn away from sin and turn to God in Christ to receive forgiveness by his blood, have his laws written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:31 ff), be filled with his Spirit to live a life against which there is no law (see Galatians 5:22-23) because it is a life in which “the just requirement of the law is fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (see Romans 8:4). The word of God sets before us life and death, blessing and cursing (Deuteronomy 30:19). Life and blessing comes through obedience, death and cursing through disobedience. Therefore choose obedience; therefore chose life and blessing; therefore choose Jesus Christ!

Christian, how will you respond to #SCOTUS decision on gay marriage?

Today the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of same-sex marriage across the land.  My Facebook and Twitter feed, like yours, is blowing up over it.   Reactions range from despair to glee.  In the words that follow I want to offer my personal feelings on this decision and how I believe Christians are called to respond.

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:4-7)

My initial reaction was to turn to Paul’s advice to the church, one that was living under the thumb of a corrupt and godless empire, and to rejoice.   Rejoice not because a decision was reached that I agree with but rejoice because in all things, whether good or bad, Jesus is still Lord, he is has defeated sin and death, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again.   I rejoice because this ruling, like so many other things this life throws our way, proves God is true.

What does that mean?   It means that when Jesus promised us there would be trouble in this world (John 16:33) he was correct.  It means that when Jesus promised that this world would hate us (Matt. 10:22, John 15:18) he wasn’t mistaken. It means that when Paul wrote the the last days would be marked by disobedience and sacrilege (2 Tim. 3:1-2) he was right.

The events of today are only further proof that God’s word is true.   It is reason to rejoice!  And if these things are true, so are the promises that Jesus will one day return.  And so are the warnings for we Christians to remember that we are but mere sojourners in this land.  This is not our final home, and while we are here we must guard our hearts from becoming entangled with the cares of this world (Heb. 13:14; 1 Peter 2:11).

Paul’s advice to the Christians at Philippi is what sets the Christian apart from the world.  How will people who have been transformed by the resurrected Christ respond in the wake of adversity, trials and oppression?  How will they react to their enemies, perceived or real?   They will rejoice. They will be considerate of everyone.  They will not worry or be anxious.   They will pray.   They will place their hopes and fears and trust and distrust into the hands of God who holds all things together. None of this has taken Him by surprise.

This means I will choose to pray rather than post on Facebook my despair or glee.  I will choose to rejoice rather than grow bitter or fearful.  I will choose to be considerate of those with whom I might disagree and entrust them and the future of our nation into the hands of my heavenly Father.

To be a biblical Christian in this world means more than just having right opinions about marriage.  It also means obedience to the many commands which tell Christians how to respond to trials, as hard as that may be.

So, Christian, what will it be?  Will you rejoice and pray and allow God to be God or will you reveal that your real hope and trust lies not in the Supreme Judge of the Universe but in the Supreme Court of one nation?

Sin makes even our breath stink

“For false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.” (Psalm 27:12)

I’m reading a wonderful book of daily meditations on Psalm 27 called A Shelter in the Time of Storm by Paul David Tripp.  Today’s reading focused on the above verse, capturing well the degree to which sin has so corrupted the world around us and within us that we can actually exhale violence.   We have fallen so far from God’s original intention for the world, for our relationships, for our selves, that our very breath betrays us.

Paul Tripp writes,

Sin isn’t about human beings being basically okay and just needing a little tweaking in order to be what they were meant to be and do what they were meant to do.   No, the damage of sin reaches to every area of our personhood, deeply altering what we think and what we desire.

Everything we think and everything we desire is tainted by this thing called sin.  The divine verdict that Scripture repeats again and again is not that we are good people who sometimes do bad things but that we are spiritually and physically dead people who need resurrection.   God is not interested in making better people but new people (2 Cor. 5:17).

When I forget this, or when the church forgets this, I cheapen grace.   I remember a time during my seminary days when I resisted the doctrine of original sin – that we are all born into sin and every facet of our being is corrupted by it.   Because my greatest concern was offending other people, I relegated original sin to social justice issues and worldly systems of oppression.   Sin, I then concluded, was a force to be reckoned with out there, and the church was the means God intended to use to fight it.

Any good lie always contains an element of truth.  The bible teaches that the enemy disguises himself as a “angel of light” and his servants as “angels of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14-15).  I was blind to it at the time, but without the knowledge and humble acceptance that my heart is deceitfully wicked (Jer. 17:9) and my breathe is laced with violence I marched on, battling the sin that is out there while ignorant of the sin that was in me.   And since I was blind to the sin in me, I could not and would not preach or teach on the sin residing in the heart’s of everyone God entrusted to my care.  That, in my “angel of light” thinking, would be offensive.  But this sort of thinking is akin to being under the care of a doctor who will address all the symptoms of one’s cancer without ever attacking and eradicating the cancer itself for fear of offending the patient by telling him or her there is something inside of you destroying you.  Tripp says this about sin…

Its effect is so pervasive and so comprehensive that it influences everything we do and everything we say.  It causes us to think, desire, choose, say, and do things that are the polar opposite of the way we were created to function. So, we don’t actually love our neighbor.  No, we’re jealous of him, or we see him as an obstacle in the way of what we want, or we treat him as an adversary, or we ignore him altogether.  And we don’t love God with our whole hearts.  No, we put creation in his place. We’d rather have the temporary pleasure of physical things than the eternal satisfactions that can be found only in him.  Sin causes us to place ourselves at the center of our universe.  Sin causes us to be obsessed with what we feel, what we want, and what we think we need.

My thinking changed when I desired to be more concerned over offending God than I am offending people.  When I minimize the totalitarian way in which sin effects not only the world around me but the world within me I offend God because I ignore his word which declares this truth regarding my condition and I minimize the glorious, trans-formative power and need for grace.

I cannot begin to comprehend the magnitude of God’s grace without first reckoning with the stench of my own breath.  I cannot appreciate the power of God’s grace without acknowledging the depravity of my own thoughts, feelings, desires, words and deeds.

Tripp concludes today’s meditation this way…

In light of the fact that sin brings all of us to the point that we exhale violence in some form at some time, it’s amazing how much peace and cooperation exist in our relationships.  What’s the explanation for this apparent contradiction?  It can be said in one word: grace. There’s not a day where you and yours are not protected by the most powerful, protective, and beneficial force in the universe – the grace of God.  Every situation, every location, and relationship you’re in every day is made livable and tolerable by his grace. In the majesty of his love, God causes his grace to restrain us, just as he causes the sun and the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust.

There are times while in prayer that I shudder as I imagine what my life and this world would look like should God withdraw his hand of grace.   The chaos and pain and degree of wickedness that would result from such a withdrawal would eclipse anything we have witnessed thus far or could imagine. The flood waters of sin would destroy the earth as they did in Noah’s day.

Seeing sin for what it truly is helps me to see grace for what it truly is.  Sometimes I frustrate God’s grace in my life because I rely on my own understanding and make decisions based on the world’s logic and cultural dictates rather than his wisdom.  I can usually catch myself in those moments by asking the question, “Who am I trying to most please or not offend? God or somebody else? Myself?”

Take time today to consider the ravages of sin on us all, and how it distorts every thought and deed we have.   When you do this, I pray your thoughts and words will be turned to praise the One in whom grace abounds, giving you a deeper appreciation for God’s power to hold all things together in Christ, including yourself.

Why Unity should never be the Goal #UMC

As I and many others return home from our annual conferences I imagine the word we heard most often was “unity.”   If not during annual conference then you no doubt have read about or heard a sermon on unity many times in the past year.   Unity, it appears, has become the goal for we who call ourselves United Methodists.   I want to share here why this should never be the case.

I’m reading a wonderful book by Dr. Larry Crabb entitled The Marriage Builder.   About half way through he writes about how to achieve soul oneness with one’s spouse and suggests that the reason so many couples fail to achieve soul oneness is because they do not understand that goals and desires are not the same thing, or worse yet (and more likely) they mistakenly believe that their desires are goals and vice versa.

Dr. Crabb defines a goal as an objective that is under my control.   When reaching an objective requires that I do certain things, that objective can reasonably be called a goal.  In relation to marriage, ministry to one’s spouse can be a reasonable (and healthy!) goal.   One can choose to minister to another regardless of the way one feels or how the recipient responds.

A desire, on the other hand, is an objective that I may legitimately and fervently want, but cannot reach through my efforts alone.  A desire requires the uncertain cooperation of people and forces outside of myself.  In relation to marriage, a husband may desire that his wife be more attentive to his needs but to make it his goal to change her is to assume a power he does not have.   To make this his goal, he must think in terms of his response to her rather than her response to anyone else.

Whether we perceive our objective as a goal or a desire makes a world of difference in how we live.  If, for example, my objective is that it rain today, I will only end up frustrated and angry when I go about trying to make it rain and fail (or, on the off chance it does rain I will become full of pride in my delusion of success).   All I can do is pray that the One who is in control will allow my objective to become realized.

A legitimate goal, on the other hand, can be reached through my efforts.  I may not feel like doing what is necessary to reach my goal, but I can do it if I choose.  My desire may be that it rain, but my goal is that my lawn receives water.   I can choose to go to the store and buy a sprinkler to water my lawn.  I may not want to drive to the store and spend the money, but I can choose to do so if I wish to reach my goal.

Dr. Crabb goes on to say that the proper response to a desire, then, is prayer.  To a goal, the appropriate response is a set of responsible actions.  A good principle to remember:

Pray for your desires and assume responsibility for your goals.

What is true for marriage is true for the church.   Because unity requires the uncertain cooperation of people and forces outside of ourselves it is a legitimate desire but an illegitimate goal.   It is something that can be hoped for only.   We can pray for unity, as Jesus did in John 17, but if we make it our goal we will only end up frustrated and angry, and even worse, missing our God-given goals.

So what is the goal?  Throughout scripture the goal is always faithfulness.   Faithfulness to God’s truth.   Faithfulness to the church. Faithfulness to our spouse. Faithfulness to one another.  Faithfulness is a legitimate goal because you and I can choose today to do what is necessary to remain faithful.   We may not feel like it, and many times it may inconvenience us, but if our goal is to be faithful to God we will make the necessary choices and sacrifices to achieve our objective.

In the church in which I serve, I desire greatly that we be united but if that were my goal it would cause me to do many things that would be unfaithful to God’s higher calling.   I wonder if those who have been making unity the goal of the United Methodist Church would change how they do church in order to cater to the desires of someone deciding they are leaving their church?  If unity is our goal, we will fall prey to and become servants of the shifting sands of desire.   Unity is a terrible goal, but a healthy desire.

The wonderful thing about faithfulness is that it oftentimes begets unity.   As the Holy Spirit was poured out into the early church, we find they were devoting themselves to the apostles teaching and worship and fellowship.  They were choosing to be faithful in the things they had control over.  And when they did this, God showed up, bringing “awe” and “wonders and signs” and then, and only then, do we find that they were united, having all things in common.

Many of us in the United Methodist Church have mistakenly made unity our goal.  It’s a bad goal. A legitimate and healthy goal is faithfulness.  If and should we make faithfulness our goal, we will find people remaining faithful to God, to the church, to the orders of elders and deacons whom we are in covenant with, and to the vows we made when we became United Methodists.  We will do this even when we do not feel like it or when it costs us something.   And as we are being faithful, we may pray fervently for unity, and wait with hopeful expectation that God will show up and give us the desires of our heart.

Let us pray for our desires and assume responsibility for our goals.

Why I love being (and need to be) a Methodist #UMC

There are many ways the body of Christ talks about how to do life with Jesus.  This is evidenced by the number of denominations that exist and will continue to exist until Christ returns and we learn that all of us were right about some things and wrong about many others and that the one thing we all have in common is our desperate need for a Savior.   But of the many denominations there is a reason I love being a Methodist in the Wesleyan tradition.

I love being a Wesleyan Methodist because when we are our best and connected to our roots we believe passionately that God is not done with any of us yet.

In theological terms we call this the work of sanctification, or growing in holiness, or Christian Perfection.  It is, for Wesleyan’s, the thing which sets us apart from many other ways of following Jesus, insisting that salvation is holistic and ongoing.  The doctrine of Christian Perfection, rightly understood, insists (even against evidence to the contrary) that the root of sin in all of us can be put to death.  We can become not better people but new people through and by the grace of God (2 Cor. 5:17).

This grace of God is to us not just a gift from God that forgives us of our wrong doing but also an empowerment by the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead to resist the devil, flee from sin and change our very natures.    But why do I need that?  Because we believe as Methodists that all of us are born in sin and every facet of the image of God within us has been effaced.  Our will, our intellect, our desires, our reason  – all of it – have been dulled by sin.  We are all broken and in desperate need of a Savior.

This is why we are such a grace-filled church.  We don’t expect you to be perfect.  We don’t expect you to come to us without struggles.  We don’t expect you to be without desires that elicit shame and guilt or that fly in the face of God’s perfect plan.   We don’t expect you to be cleaned up because all of us come to God as beggars in need of grace.

But we don’t stop there.  Or should I say, when we are at our best as Wesleyan Methodists we don’t stop there.   Rather, we claim that while Jesus accepts us just as we are he did not die that we should remain as we have been.    We hold out before one another a vision of being transformed from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).    We insist that holiness, or growing in the likeness of God, is the destiny for each and every person called of God.   We confess our great need for sanctifying grace to change our hearts – our will, our intellect, our desires, our reason – so they they will conform more to the image of God tomorrow than they have today.

And because salvation is holistic, it encompasses not just our mind and soul and heart but also our bodies.  What we do with our bodies matters to God.  We have been bought with a price and are not our own to do with as we please (1 Cor. 6:20).

I love that as a Wesleyan Methodist I am never told that my desires are always right and holy but that they must daily be surrendered on the altar of Self.  I must daily offer up my self to the God who is not finished with me yet or with any of the people I encounter whether they be my wife and kids or my congregants or the random person whom I meet in the store.

The degree to which transformation can occur in me and in which God can be glorified through that process is the degree to which I agree with God that what He desires trumps my desires, what He wills trumps my will, what He thinks trumps my thoughts, what He reasons trumps my reason.   For us Wesleyan Methodists, that is what it means to die to self, take up our cross daily, and live as slaves to righteousness.

I need that vision of the gospel for my own life and I believe the world is crying out for it, too.  Wesleyan Methodists, at their best, offer a hope of transformed lives from the inside out which then transforms the world into places where the holiness of God is made manifest.  Should we as a church ever cease to boldly proclaim such a vision, I, and I’m sure many others, will not cease being Wesleyan Methodists. Rather, the church will have ceased to be what Jesus died to create and the Holy Spirit calls out from among the world.

From Creeds to Covenant and Beyond: Unity of the Spirit

In the past few weeks there have been a few blogs highlighting the importance of the creeds for demarcating the Christian faith over against beliefs that cross these essential boundaries between what is and is not Christian.  Progressives like Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox (see “The Future of Faith”), and his kindred spirits, decry the setting of such creedal boundaries as a corruption of, ironically enough, a purer and more primitive form of the Christian faith, which was part of the purpose of the ancient creeds to begin with.  Of course this supposed purer form of the faith was much more “diverse” and “inclusive” just like the progressives like Cox think they are today.  Yet, in spite of the criticism of the attempt to define the boundaries of Christian faith, as minimal as they are (as they were never intended to be exhaustive descriptions of everything about the Christian faith), Cox and friends cannot not lay out specific statements of beliefs of their own, which of course they do, that, as as any meaningful language would have it, must mean something over against something else.  No matter how much Cox tries to insist what is really important is some vague experience of oneness with the mystery of the universe, he can’t help but to express specific beliefs that are inevitably in harmony or disharmony with other statements of faith.  At any rate, I believe creeds, whether formal or informal, are inevitable whether you are orthodox are heterodox, or whatever.  So I commend those who have held up the creeds, the Apostles’ and Nicene, to reveal the lines and where they have been crossed by those who still claim the name Christian, who after such analysis seem to have “progressed” past Christianity and into paganism.

What I can’t commend, however, is the suggestion that the creeds are the sufficient standard by which to assess the faith and practice.  The creeds are a wonderful starting point, and, as Scott Fritzsche pointed out in his experience with Afghan Christians, who clung to the creed while longing for more, they can be a wonderful guide and resource when nothing else is available.  Yet of course the creeds are minimal statements, succinct summaries of that something more, which of course, as Scott’s beautiful story reveals is, Scripture, the Bible.

There are couple of ways the creeds point beyond themselves to something else, something more.  In the Nicene Creed, the phrase, “in accordance with the Scriptures”, itself a line from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (15:4), for instance, would seem  to point us beyond the Creed to the Scriptures.  And the proclamation in both the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead surely begs the question, by what standard will we be judged?  Again I think the creeds at this point direct us to something beyond themselves, beginning with the Bible.

It is in Scripture that we should encounter a vitally important concept called covenant.  In the Old Testament we see the covenant God made with Abraham and his offspring, Isaac and Jacob.  Hundreds of years after Jacobs death we see God remember his covenant promise to Abraham and reveal his covenant love when he delivered Jacob’s descendants from slavery in Egypt.  In the wilderness before he brought them into the homeland that he had promised, he made a more specific covenant with them through his prophet Moses.  Even before they entered into the land of promise, however, there was a further promise of renewal after exile wherein God would circumcise the hearts of his people so they would obey and therefore live.  The covenant God made with Israel required obedience on the part of the people; obedience would bring blessing; rebellion would bring cursing.  The covenant with Israel contained regulations that only pertained to them and their distinct identity as an elect people holy to the Lord; it also contained moral laws that were universal for all people, including the Canaanites who were judged accordingly (Leviticus 18).  Nevertheless, within the Old Covenant itself there was the hint of something new to come (Deuteronomy 30:1-10).

The prophets picked up on this hint when Israel was under judgment for disobedience.  Jeremiah 31:31-34 refers to it as a “new covenant”, and as such it would be different from yet similar to the former covenant that God had made with Israel at Sinai.  Indeed, it would be different but not entirely; there would still be much continuity and overlap with the old.  Ezekiel also picks up on this hint and promise from Deuteronomy when it declares that after the judgment of exile God will give his people a new heart and put a new spirit, his very own spirit, within them so that they will wholeheartedly obey, and thus live in harmony with the word of God and the God of the word (Ezk 11:19-20; 36:26-28)

Of course as Christians we believe Jesus, as the true Messiah of Israel, fulfilled the precepts and the promises of the Old Testament thus ratifying by his shed blood the New Covenant, which is made effective in God’s people by faith and the Holy Spirit.  Jeremiah says under the New Covenant God would write his law on the hearts of his people; Ezekiel says God’s spirit will empower his people to follow his statutes and ordinances, terms that may be summed up by the word “word” (i.e. Psalm 119).  Thus, the main difference seems to be the motivating and empowering principle of obedience, but, as the New Testament reveals there are others as well.

Although I am aware of the quibbles that some scholars have with it, the traditional distinction the Church has made is between the moral law which is universal and the ceremonial and civil laws that were unique to Israel under the Old Covenant but not for the Church under the New as they fulfilled their temporary purpose and find their ongoing significance and meaning in Christ.  Without going into great detail – as the topic really needs and deserves – as our United Methodist Articles of Religion make clear, the Church under the New Covenant is still obliged to obey the moral law (see Article 6)

Contrary to what is sometimes thought, Jesus did not come to say forget about the law and do as you please because you are under grace.  The Good News of the kingdom of God is not that we have license to do as we please; rather the Good News is that through Christ we receive forgiveness and the grace and the Spirit to do as we ought, which is to keep the moral commandments of God.  As Paul might say, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything” (1 Cor 7:19 NRSV).   Of course this is something that we must continue to grow into in the “already/not yet” until the kingdom comes in all of its fullness and glory in the New Creation.

The moral law would most certainly include the prohibitions of the sexual immorality delineated in Leviticus 18,and unsurprisingly are reiterated in the New Testament.  Some of those who have argued for the acceptance of same sex sexual relationships have been reticent to say that they simply reject the commandments prohibiting homosexual acts.  Instead they have tried to argue that we have just misunderstood the biblical texts, which never condemned consensual and committed same sex relationships.  Others still argue that the issue is sufficiently unclear enough to go against the traditional understanding.  Still others, however, have been brazen enough, albeit also commendably honest enough to simply reject these particular commandments while acknowledging  that the biblical texts are clear that all forms of same sex sexual relations, consensual or otherwise, stand unequivocally condemned.

Luke Timothy Johnson, a renowned biblical scholar and professor at Emory University, for example says he “has little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties.”  He goes on to say “The exegetical situation is straightforward : we know what the text says.”  Nonetheless, although he doesn’t doubt that the Bible unequivocally prohibits all forms of same sex acts, Johnson further states that he does, in fact, reject the the clear commands of the Bible, Old and New Testaments, in favor of the authority of the testimony of personal experience.  But Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.   For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  (Matt 5:17-20 ESV)

I believe what Luke Timothy Johnson admits is more to the point of what is actually going on.  Even those who try to use the argument that Scripture is sufficiently unclear enough to disregard the traditional understanding of Christian sexuality and marriage, – a claim that is in itself extremely dubious in my opinion – frequently seem to fall back on “the Bible is flawed anyway” argument when pressed.  I think the reality, as many liberal scholars like Johnson admit, is that Scripture is sufficiently clear enough – more than sufficiently clear enough – to abide by the traditional position on sex and marriage.  What we are being asked to do is to reject the straightforward command of Scripture, which reveals to us the expectations of the covenant into which we were baptized, which in turn reveals the heart and the word and will of God.  And the Word and Will of God was most clearly revealed in the Word become flesh, who offered to God what Adam, Israel and the rest of humanity failed to offer God, perfect obedience (see Phlp 2).

The New Covenant as revealed in Scripture, and as ratified and embodied by Jesus must be our ultimate standard of faith and practice.  Although the creeds provide an important starting point, they themselves point beyond themselves to Scripture; Scripture directs us to the New Covenant; the New Covenant points us to Jesus, who in turn reveals to us God the Father.  It is the Spirit of God, promised in the Prophets, that puts this into effect in our lives when we believe.  According to the promise of the New Covenant, true believers shouldn’t be trying to figure out what is the least they can believe and still be Christian; rather true believers should be trying to figure out how much they can do to please the one who gave His only Son for us.

Pentecost is upon us, and for all of the wonderful gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to the church; the greatest gift is the gift of new life, a new heart, a circumcised heart designed and tailor made for our obedience; so God’s people will obey, rather than reject the straightforward commandments of God.

HolySpiritPeacemaker

I think that John Wesley would agree that the demons would assent to the statements in the Nicene Creed regarding the Triune God and the full divinity and humanity of Jesus as God incarnate.  According to Wesley the devils would acknowledge that “Jesus is the Christ, and that all Scripture, having been given by inspiration of God, is as true as God is true” (the latter many in our denomination deny as adamantly as Wesley affirmed it!) (Sermon 18, “The Marks of the New Birth”);  they wouldn’t, however, obey the straightforward commands of the covenant.

Wesley, as he was wont to do for his hearers and readers, might ask us to ponder whether we have the faith of a Christian or the faith of devils.  The difference of the former from the latter he describes thus: “it is not barely a speculative, rational thing, a cold, lifeless assent, a train of ideas in the head; but also a disposition of the heart” (Sermon 1, “Salvation by Faith”).

The unity that we so desperately need cannot be found in assent to a few truths in a couple of creeds; the unity we are called to keep (not manufacture ourselves) is a unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:3), and the Spirit was given so that we will obey God’s word from the heart.  It should be evident that the unity of the Spirit can only be found within the boundaries of the New Covenant, which necessarily includes the recapitulation of the moral law found in the Old Covenant under Moses.  Hence Paul, in Ephesians chapter 5 precludes the possibility of fellowship with those who flout the laws against sexual immorality (Eph 5:1-20).  Neither is the concern for sound doctrine and the preservation of the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” in Jude about the nature of God and the incarnation, but those “who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (v. 4).  The following verses would indicate that one of Jude’s primary concerns was sexual immorality as his reference to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah would suggest.

We are not called to just keep the unity of the creeds, as significant and as important as that is; we are called “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  As Romans 8 makes plain the Spirit was given “so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but according to the Spirit” (v. 4).  The unity of the Spirit can only be found among those who set their mind on the Spirit and seek to obey and please God from the heart.  The mind set on the flesh, being hostile to God, will not submit to God’s law, and naturally cannot please God; those who are in the Spirit will submit to the moral law and therefore please God (see Rom 8:8-9).  In the United Methodist Church we are of two minds because we are of two spirits.  We can only find unity in the Spirit of God according to the terms of the New Covenant set forth in Scripture.  Whether we like it or not we are divided; the divide is spiritual; and I don’t think there is any legislation that can fix that.  Only the unity of the Spirit and the mind of Christ as revealed in Scripture can.

 

Romans 8 (NRSV)

8There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. 12So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,

17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

 

To Bring Glory to God: #UMC and Homosexuality Debate

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.

So begins the Westminster Catechism, written in the 17th century as a means to educate the Church in the faith.  It’s worth noting that of the 107 questions and answers it begins by stating unequivocally what our role as humans is:  To glorify God.  We exist solely for this purpose.

How do we do this?  The second question tackles that:

Q: What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?

A: The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

We exist so that we might glorify God and the only way we know how to do this is through the revealed will of God as stated in the Old and New Testaments of Scripture.

As the United Methodist Church continues to wonder how we can best address the current sexuality debate facing our church, I wonder if it would not do us all well to return to these simple yet profound questions of catechesis.

What is our chief purpose and how do we accomplish it?

Sadly, the chief end of the United Methodist Church appears to be something other than bringing glory and honor to God through fidelity to God’s holy word.  Far too often our chief aim appears to be appeasing the culture around us or a lobby within us or even the noble yet subtly idolatrous goal of church unity.

Today, the Connectional Table of the UMC voted to put forward a proposal to the General Conference, a “Third Way” to move us beyond the impasse in our church regarding homosexuality.   The Rev. Kenneatha Bigham-Tsai, chairperson of one of the subcommittees proposing this “third way”  had this to say about how they came to their decision:

“We believe this proposal will keep everyone at the table, allows for the exercise of conscience, better provides for the inclusion of LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and best maintains the unity of the church.”

Notice what is lacking from the logic behind this decision.   This is but one example of many found in and throughout our church where we – and by “we” I mean both sides of the aisle – have lost sight of our purpose for existence:  To bring glory to God.   Instead we have fallen prey to the always alluring idol of worldly glory, choosing to please the desires of humankind rather than submit to the demands of God.

Unity while forsaking fidelity to God’s rule is rebellion.

This disease is rampant in our church and our current struggle is but one of many ways in which it manifests.   Far too often pastors and leaders in the church organize around the wrong question.  We ask how might we make the folks we serve happy or how we might increase our attendance or how we might slow our decline when the first and primary question we need to ask ourselves is how well are we glorifying God?  How well am I conforming my life, my thoughts, my will, my desires, my hopes, my words to the rule of God as set forth in the Old and New Testaments?   How much am I submitted to God’s ideas over my own or yours?

So long as we make decisions based on polling or money or lobbies or probability of fallout we will fail not just as a denomination but as human beings.  We will fail to live up to our chief end which is to bring glory to God.  It’s fascinating to me that the Westminster Catechism was written as a means to help bring the Church of England into greater conformity with the Church of Scotland.  In other words, their goal was a more unified church.  How did they proceed?  By directing everyone’s goal towards glorifying God.

As we move forward, may we prayerfully consider whether every decision we make and every vote we cast is one that brings glory to God through submission to God’s word.   To do anything else might result in keeping us united but united to the wrong things with the wrong goals and a god that is of our own making rather than the one revealed to us through Scripture.

Ministry to ALL Sexual Sinners

In the last couple of posts (see here and here) I tried to show that the Bible clearly describes same-sex acts of any variety as sinful because it is contrary to nature, God’s intent according to Divine design in creation.  I also tried to show that there is no scientific consensus regarding the nature and origin of same-sex attraction; and that evidence, reason, and experience actually show that there are multiple factors at play that would include possible biological predispositions, but also psychological conditioning due to a complex web of personal experiences.  Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience also clearly indicate that although we do not choose our sexual desires, we do have a choice as whether or not to act on them; and just because we have certain sexual desires it does not follow morally that we should act on them.  In other words, again, the Bible is clear and the nature of same-sex attraction is much more complicated than to simply say, “born that way, end of story, now bake my d%$& wedding cake!”  To talk about it as if it is more like race than other forms of sexual desire is misleading blatant propaganda.

Professor Richard Hays, renowned New Testament scholar, in his book, “The Moral Vision of the New Testament,” makes basically the same point when he says that he and his best friend from Yale, Gary, who was gay and dying of Aids, came to similar conclusions in 1989.  Hays writes regarding the pressure for the church to condone same-sex relationships: “As a New Testament scholar I was concerned about certain questionable exegetical and theological strategies of the gay apologists.  As a homosexual Christian, Gary believed that their writings did justice neither to the biblical texts nor to his own sobering experience of the gay community that he had moved in and out of for twenty years” (p. 380).  Hays’ friend Gary, who at one time had been hopeful about the research that had claimed to find justification for some same-sex relations, came away after actually reading and considering the arguments believing that those authors had simply read their own wishful thinking into the Bible.  Indeed, the greatest challenge to accurate biblical interpretation is not the foreignness of the original languages and the biblical culture, but the deceitfulness, the denial and rationalization of the sin sick human heart.  This is not only true for homosexual sinners, but for all sexual sinners in general.  In this post I want to discuss how we might faithfully and compassionately minister to all sexual sinners.

1.  First we must recognize and humbly acknowledge that we are all sinners before God and in need of God’s forgiveness through the blood of Christ, and in need of God’s Spirit to give us new birth so that we can live no longer as sinners but as saints who are new creations in Christ.  Homosexual sin is not the only sexual sin; it’s not even the most prevalent sexual sin, although it is certainly the most politicized by far.  Because of original sin, the reality that we are all born with a predisposition toward sin generally, we are all disordered sexual beings in one way or another and to one degree or another.  The only proper outlet for sexual desire for Christians is within a marriage covenant relationship between one man and one woman according to the teaching of Jesus (Matt 5; Matt 19; Mark 10) and the apostle Paul (1 Cor 7).  I certainly know that I have fallen far short of Jesus’ standards in many different ways, as all have.  Within the body of Christ we must judge others behavior, but we must judge rightly, not hypocritically or pridefully.  As Jesus said, “First remove the beam from your eye , and then you can see clearly to remove the speck form your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:5 NET).  (Note also that he didn’t say just ignore, much less affirm, the speck).  Paul puts it this way, “Brothers and sisters, if a person is discovered in some sin, you who are spiritual restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness.  Pay close attention to yourselves, so that you are not tempted too” (Gal 6:1 NET).  So we must proceed in a spirit of humility and compassion in order to restore rather than condemn.

2.  Preachers must be courageous to speak the truth in love. I think preachers have been far too squeamish for far too long to preach and teach sexual holiness, probably to preach about holiness in general as far as that goes.  Nonetheless, the church has desperately needed to be a place of sexual education. Although there are some preachers who continue to insist that our doctrine of God is essential, but sexual ethics is non-essential, the teaching of the New Testament grounded in the witness of the Old Testament is that we should flee from idolatry and sexual immorality
(see 1 Cor 10:1-22).  Assent to the creeds would only indicate that one is Christianish, as Wesley might say, and “almost Christian”; faithfulness to the creeds and the New Covenant of which they are a summary would indicate that one is, as Wesley might say, an “altogether Christian.”   The teaching of Jesus is incredibly challenging, quite stark and gravely serious with regards to sexual ethics, and not to be taken lightly (see Matt 5:27-32).

Unfortunately, the church has taken a back seat to the world in terms of sex education, and the world, now in the driver’s seat, has taken much of the church on a joy ride on the wide road headed for destruction. We must take a back seat no more! We must teach the truth beginning with the positive, the beauty and blessing of sexual holiness, found in chastity in singleness and marriage. We must also warn of the dangers of sexual sin, temporal and eternal, in accordance with the witness of scripture. We must call people to repent of sexual immorality of every variety, to offer them the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ and ensure that they truly receive it along with new birth by the Spirit, who enables and empowers us to live holy lives of self-denial on the narrow way that leads to life. We also must help parents teach their children at appropriate ages the blessing of God’s prescribed way; and we must teach sexual holiness to our youth as they enter into middle school.

With two middle-schoolers myself now, I am well aware of the many pitfalls and powerful temptations that exist for them. I have seen Instagram posts by seventh graders with sayings like, “Give her a shoulder to cry on, and pretty soon she’ll have a d&#% to ride on!” Some kids in the middle school are a part of an internet group called “the c&$% swallowers club”.  We mustn’t be naive. Preachers, talk to the parents and with their consent help teach the kids in your church!  It should be a major topic in every confirmation class!

Preacher

3.  We must teach the truth about sin and salvation in general.  Cheap grace will not do!  It is itself a tool of the enemy.  Grace is more than just forgiveness, it is also transformation through the new birth and empowerment through the Holy Spirit.    An over-realized eschatology will not do either.  That is, we must not give people the impression that salvation means instantaneous and complete deliverance from all of the power of sin now.  This can only lead to hopeless despair.  Believers will still struggle with sin, but as people equipped and empowered by the Spirit to be an overcomer until we receive the final victory in the resurrection.  Salvation is a past event in the sense that we are “saved” the moment we believe, but the Bible also teaches us that salvation is also a process in this life as we are still “being saved” as we anticipate in hope the day when we “will be saved” finally and fully at the return of the Lord.  On this side of the resurrection we will still have to battle the forces of evil, beginning with our own remaining sinful inclinations.  We will daily have to take up our cross and deny ourselves on the narrow way with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:2).  (Rev. Chad Hotlz just recently wrote a wonderful reflection on overcoming sinful desires using the “Twilight” vampire movie as an illustration).

We must encourage believers, including ourselves, not to give in to the temptation to lay down our cross of self-denial and pull up our recliner of self-indulgence.  There will be plenty of temptation to cozy up and get comfortable with our sin.  Likewise there will be plenty of well-meaning false teachers happy to bring a nice warn blanket to make us more comfortable in our “La-Z Boys”.  This calls for wisdom and discernment.  We must help disciples to become fully equipped for every good work through the teaching of the whole counsel of God so they are no longer tossed to a fro by every wind of doctrine and are able to stand firm against the wiles of the devil (see 2 Timothy 3; Acts 20:17-35; Eph 4 -6).

4.  We must be welcoming, patient, and abundantly forgiving of all sinners.  We should welcome all people regardless of the particular sins with which they struggle, but without condoning any particular sins no matter how popular, fashionable, or entrenched they may be, and without singling out any particular sinful sexual desires as worse than others.  Homosexuality is certainly not the only sinful inclination that we should help people to master by the grace of God.  The church needs to warn people generally of the dangers of incubating and reinforcing lust within their own hearts and minds through fantasy fueled by the various forms of soft and hardcore pornography in the culture today.

I myself was exposed to hardcore porn at a very young age, long before the advent of the internet.  I have struggled with lustful thoughts ever since, although since 2006 I have been free from the grip of pornography addiction.  My new birth broke the chains and daily prayer, Bible study, worship, and Christian fellowship have helped me to renew my mind to be transformed.  The frequency and intensity of lustful thoughts have been greatly diminished and my desire to please God greatly increased.  As a result I have found abundant fulfillment and thankfulness in my one and only covenant relationship with my wife.  The illicit desires have not gone completely away, but they no longer bind me and control me.  When they arise in my heart I nail them to the cross and put them down by the grace of God!  Since 2006 I did succumb to temptation with regards to pornography a couple of times, but I repented and confessed my sin to receive the ongoing cleansing of the blood of Christ.  It is an ongoing battle, but it is a battle worth fighting in light of the war that has already been won in Christ.  Because of him and through him we can conquer sin and vanquish the enemy!

We also need to preach and teach the word regarding premarital sex, adultery, divorce, and all other forms of sexual immorality including of course, homosexual behavior.  Some have referred to the attempted justification of homosexual sex to be the beginning of a slippery slope, but the truth is, as others have recognized, the first slip down the slope probably began with no-fault divorce.  That’s when marriage was first redefined to be more like a glorified high school fling with a modern marriage certificate just a fancier version of the “will-you-go-with-me-check-yes-or-no” note that kids pass around in classrooms.  That’s a bit of hyperbole for sure, but it certainly changed the marriage landscape enough that Christian adults with kids think “I love her/him, but I’m not in love with her/him” is a valid enough justification for divorce.  We have to do better; we have to teach better all across the board; but we certainly shouldn’t use failure in other areas to justify further rebellion against the will of God for his New Covenant people.  Sinners will inevitably seek to justify sin, but the man or woman of God should preach and teach so that people are convicted of their sin and then point them to the only Savior who will forgive them because his Son died for them, to the Spirit who will transform them so that Christ will live in them, and to the Lord who will lead them like a shepherd in the way that leads to eternal life.

5.  Thus, the church needs to be prepared to work with people all along the Christian journey.  In many churches this is difficult because for many church-goers now, one hour of worship a couple of times a month is about all they are willing to do.  This is a major problem in itself; nevertheless Christians need the rest of the body to help build them up in love.  This also is difficult in churches they may be divided with regards to what constitutes sexual sin.  Regardless, pastors need to take a stand on truth and righteousness in spite of the potential conflict.  I don’t believe it wise to continue to pretend that this is an indifferent matter when scripture repeatedly and consistently warns that unrepentant sexual immorality will exclude one from the kingdom of God.  People need prayer partners, opportunities for accountability groups, and access to and support for therapy and rehabilitation programs if necessary.

Ministries like Karen Booth’s through “Transforming Congregations” is a good example and much needed in more churches.  Chad Holtz’s testimony and the help he received through “Pure Life Ministries“, as well as the “Recovery at Dayton” ministry that he got started at his local church are also great examples.  Moreover, for all of the “pray-the-gay-away” straw man attacks against ministries and therapy geared toward helping people with unwanted same-sex attraction, this is also still an important ministry that churches should be aware of and support.  Contrary to mischaracterizations or misguided attempts to help, the goal of such ministries is to help those who struggle to be faithful to the New Covenant standards for sexual holiness, not to cure them in this life of all illicit desire or to replace homosexual attractions with purely heterosexual attractions.  The later, however, may and has happened for some as a by-product of seeking God’s grace to be chaste (see a response to attacks on such therapy by Robert Gagnon and Andrew Comiskey).  “Restored Hope Network” is an faithful example of this type of ministry.

 

Is it really that big of a deal?

The controversy over sexuality in the church and society is such a big deal because it is a big deal.  The issues do in fact strike at the very root of the Christian faith.  How else could you honestly characterize it when scripture repeatedly warns that unrepentant sexual sinners will not inherit the kingdom of God, so often topping the list of vices in the respective texts that carry that warning.  It’s also becoming more and more obvious that gay marriage laws and special protections for sexual orientations is clashing mightily with the free exercise of the traditional Christian faith in society.

The message of the book of Revelation is quite pertinent and extremely poignant here, especially for those who may be tempted to compromise with the culture and an apostate church or just remain silent because of intimidation.  Revelation 21:7 indicates that the New Heaven and New Earth is for those who “conquer.”  The message of Jesus to the churches in chapters 2 and 3 shows that this means remaining faithful in the face of cultural pressure, threats to livelihoods and lives, to compromise with idolatry and sexual immorality.  Hence, Revelation 21:8 specifies those who will be excluded from the New Creation and cast into the lake of fire, soberly beginning with cowards and the faithless, but also quite conspicuously, again, including unrepentant sexual sinners.  This is serious business; the man or woman of God must be bold and courageous enough to show genuine mercy by warning sinners and snatching them out of the fire (Jude).  “Let us then be true and faithful, trusting, serving everyday,” because, “just one glimpse of him in glory will the toils of life repay!”

Just before I was getting ready to post this, I happened to see this powerful testimony that was wonderfully fitting.  I leave you with a powerful testimony from a ministry called XXX Church.  Someone gave a porn star a “Jesus Loves Porn Stars” Bible.  A word from Jesus from Revelation 2:18-29 changed her life and set her free!  Praise God!!!!!