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For years now, I have been criticizing the preaching of politics from the pulpit. Why? What's so wrong with talking about issues and can...

Saturday, January 25, 2020

What if...

Faith has been the subject of numerous sermons, books and pamphlets throughout the Judeo-Christian world. It has been extolled by theists as essential and dismissed as an irrelevant relic of a superstitious past by others. The Christian New Testament defines faith as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1, KJV) And most of us understand that faith involves a belief in something that cannot be proven or demonstrated by ordinary means - that is through the five senses available to us as humans.

Well, what about it? Is faith a necessary and useful component of the human experience or is it a useless relic from man's ignorant past? And, if we determine that it is a positive, where should that faith be directed? Should our faith be in God, the Bible, a church, a pastor or all of the above?

In that same New Testament book referenced above, we read: "it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him." (Hebrews 11:6, NLT) So, according to the anonymous author of this book, we must believe in God and the things which "He" has promised us. Following this statement, the author cites several Biblical characters as being representative of what real faith looks like and concludes the discourse by noting that all of them had died without receiving what had been promised to them. Nevertheless, the author of Hebrews makes the point that all of the individual examples which he/she cited believed God and the things which God had promised to them.

Now that is fundamentally different from what many modern Christians do when they place their faith in a book about God - the Bible (pun intended). Thomas Jefferson believed in God and Jesus Christ, but he didn't have any faith in the miracles recorded in the New Testament (He even copied and pasted his own version of the gospels without them)! Which should bring some questions to mind for all of us.

What if the account of creation in Genesis is not literally true? What if all life on this planet evolved from simpler life forms? What if there really was a Big Bang? What if there really wasn't any worldwide flood that wiped out all terrestrial life on this planet?  What if there wasn't any physical exodus of the Israelites from Egypt? What if Jesus Christ was married and had a son? What if Christ's bones were recently discovered in an ossuary near Jerusalem?

Would these things destroy your faith in God and what "He" has promised you? Is it possible to maintain one's faith in God, Jesus Christ and the promises attributed to them if some or all of those things cited above are true? It is for me, what about you? 

Thursday, January 23, 2020

God and Church Government

Few issues have caused more division within the Christian community than the question of how best to govern the Church. As with all human organizations, humans have devised and employed a number of different systems to govern their members, decide on policy and provide for the implementation of those policies. Most of these systems follow some variation of an authoritarian or democratic model. Theopedia suggests that Christian Church governance has followed three basic formats: episcopal, presbyterian and congregational. https://www.theopedia.com/church-government A popular tome on the subject suggests that there are five basic formulas that have been employed in Church governance. http://www.bpnews.net/19143 Interestingly, all of these formats were devised by humans to rule over humans, and each one of them has produced apologists that appeal to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures to support the model which they believe most closely represents God's will in the matter.

Although the group which I formerly affiliated with (Herbert Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God) initially rejected the Roman Catholic hierarchical system with its dependence on the "Primacy of Peter," over time, Mr. Armstrong embraced that teaching and adopted his own version of the hierarchical system which it supported. In his book, Mystery of the Ages, Mr. Armstrong recounted his experiences during his association with the "Church of God, Seventh Day" (and prior to founding his own church) regarding divisions over church governance (pp 241-242). Then, after a brief survey of the government within various Christian denominations (p 242), he concluded with a characterization of the Biblical evidence regarding Church governance: "Notice especially, there is only the ONE CHURCH. Not MANY churches. The CHURCH is not divided. There is only one Church. Not a parent church and many little daughter churches that have split off in disagreement. Divisions splintering off are NOT STILL IN THE CHURCH. It is the CHURCH that is to marry Christ in the resurrection at his coming - not disagreeing churches - not groups who have broken off! Not a parent church and apostate daughters." (p 243) Of course, Mr. Armstrong did not see this last statement as applying to his own actions when he separated from the "Church of God, Seventh Day" and founded his own group! Finally, he summarized the Biblical evidence as demonstrating that: "The CHURCH is organized under theocratic government, hierarchical in form. The members do not set officials in the Church. God sets EVEN THE LAY MEMBERS in the Church (I Cor. 12:18)."

Was Herbert Armstrong's characterization of the Biblical evidence regarding Church governance correct? And, since his Worldwide Church of God no longer exists, do any of its daughters (Grace Communion International, United Church of God, Restored Church of God, Living Church of God, Philadelphia Church of God, COGWA, CGI, etc.) meet the criteria laid out in Mr. Armstrong's statements quoted above? Have any of them continued the Church government model established by him without amendment? Are the Roman Catholics correct? Where did the Presbyterians and Baptists get the models which are employed within those organizations?

Although most of these groups appeal to Scripture to justify their different systems of governance, the Biblical record indicates that YHWH/God has never been very enamored with human notions about government! Sure, under the terms of the Old Covenant, YHWH established a priesthood and created the office of High Priest; but that priesthood was tasked with performing rituals and was largely dependent on the support of the Israelites. Yes, eventually, the office of High Priest was joined to the office of king under the Hasmoneans, but where is that sanctioned in Scripture? One whole book of the Bible (Judges), tells the story of a loose confederation of tribes judged (not ruled) by an itinerant justice. Indeed, at the end of that book, this entire period of Israel's history is summarized with the statement: "In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes." (Judges 21:25) "Yes, Lonnie, but what about what followed?" some may ask.

Scripture tells us that it wasn't YHWH's idea to terminate the system of judges. On the contrary, Scripture records that the leaders of the various tribes came to the last judge (Samuel) and asked him to appoint a king to rule over them (I Samuel 8:1-5). What was YHWH's reaction? "'Do everything they say to you,' the Lord replied, 'for they are rejecting me, not you. They don’t want me to be their king any longer. Ever since I brought them from Egypt they have continually abandoned me and followed other gods. And now they are giving you the same treatment. Do as they ask, but solemnly warn them about the way a king will reign over them.'" (verses 7-9) Thus, we are informed that Samuel told them that their king would draft their sons to serve him in war, take their daughters to serve in his harem, confiscate their land and tax their wealth (verses 10-18). Hence, not only was it NOT YHWH's idea to give them a king, we are told that he ordered Samuel to warn them about just how oppressive their new system of governance would be!

Most of the remainder of the Hebrew Old Testament relates the story of the failure of the kings who followed the judges (including the very first one to fill that office, Saul)! Indeed, we know that the kingdom was eventually divided and mostly misruled thereafter. Scripture tells us that YHWH used a series of prophets to warn the kings and their people to forsake their evil ways and return to him before it was too late. We are informed, nevertheless, that the kings and their people refused to heed those warnings and were eventually conquered by their more powerful neighbors. Thus, the entire history of human governance recorded in the Old Testament was quite purposefully divorced from YHWH (except in the instance of certain Gentile rulers which were used to punish Israel or otherwise carry out some purpose of His) and characterized as a failure by the human authors of those writings.

What about the New Testament? Didn't God take a more active role in the governance of the Christian Congregation than he had for the Congregation in the Wilderness? Once again, lets examine the scriptural evidence for ourselves.

In the writings known as the Gospel according to Matthew, we are told that Christ addressed the issue of leadership among his disciples. We read there that he told them: "You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:25-28)

After criticizing the leadership of the Pharisees, Jesus said: "Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your Father. And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." (Matthew 23:8-12)

Now all four of the gospel accounts make plain that Christ personally selected and designated twelve men to serve as apostolos to carry his message to the world. There is, however, no indication within these accounts that the designation carried any governmental authority. Indeed, the sense of the Greek word employed in this instance is one sent forth with a message, nothing more. Moreover, Christ's final instructions to these men reflect that mission of carrying his message to the world and making new disciples, baptizing them and teaching them about how a Christian was supposed to live (see Matthew 28:18-20 and John 21:15-17).

Naturally, over time, the role of these apostolos expanded within the Christian community. After all, they had been personally chosen and taught by Christ himself - a designation that only one other man (Paul) could subsequently lay legitimate claim to). Subsequently, we read in the writings known as the Acts of the Apostles that these men took it upon themselves to replace Judas, carried out Christ's final instructions, called at least one council to settle disputes that had arisen over the Church's expansion into Gentile regions, designated certain individuals to serve within the Jerusalem congregation, collected donations and met with local elders of the various congregations which they had founded and visited.

In the various epistles which follow the account of the early Church in Acts, it is also clear that the apostolos assumed more duties and authority over time. In similar fashion, the elders within each congregation assumed greater importance over time. Nevertheless, Paul, Peter and John made clear in the epistles attributed to them that they intended that the model of servant leadership established by Christ should continue within the Church.

In his first letter to Timothy, Paul stressed the importance of leading by example. He wrote: "'If someone aspires to be a church leader, he desires an honorable position.' So a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money. He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him. For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? A church leader must not be a new believer, because he might become proud, and the devil would cause him to fall. Also, people outside the church must speak well of him so that he will not be disgraced and fall into the devil’s trap. In the same way, deacons must be well respected and have integrity. They must not be heavy drinkers or dishonest with money. They must be committed to the mystery of the faith now revealed and must live with a clear conscience. Before they are appointed as deacons, let them be closely examined. If they pass the test, then let them serve as deacons. In the same way, their wives must be respected and must not slander others. They must exercise self-control and be faithful in everything they do. A deacon must be faithful to his wife, and he must manage his children and household well. Those who do well as deacons will be rewarded with respect from others and will have increased confidence in their faith in Christ Jesus." (I Timothy 3:1-12)

Likewise, in the first epistle attributed to Peter, we read: "And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you: Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor." (I Peter 5:1-4)

Finally, in his third epistle, John wrote about a Church leader named Diotrephes "who loves to be the leader, refuses to have anything to do with us." (verse 9) He continued: "When I come, I will report some of the things he is doing and the evil accusations he is making against us. Not only does he refuse to welcome the traveling teachers, he also tells others not to help them. And when they do help, he puts them out of the church." (verse 10) He goes on to characterize this as a bad example of leadership which should not be emulated by anyone in a position of leadership within the Church. (verse 11) In other words, this authoritarian model should not be imitated by other Church leaders!

Hence, when we review the evidence from the perspective of the Old and New Testaments, we are forced to conclude that those Scriptures reject human notions about government and decline to endorse ANY of the various systems devised by man for that purpose. Indeed, noted New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd once stated: "It appears likely that there was no normative pattern of church government in the apostolic age, and that the organizational structure of the church is no essential element in the theology of the church." Thus, sincere Christians everywhere, should be highly suspicious of anyone who seeks to underscore the importance of Church government and attempts to employ the Judeo-Christian Scriptures to support their claims in that regard.     

Friday, January 10, 2020

The God of Biodiversity

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, "Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We're currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago." - from their article on the Extinction Crisis which is available for your perusal here:

And, although mass extinction events have occurred throughout the history of life on this planet, this one has the unpleasant distinction of being intimately associated with us (humans). The CBC article goes on to say that "In fact, 99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities, primarily those driving habitat loss, introduction of exotic species, and global warming. Because the rate of change in our biosphere is increasing, and because every species' extinction potentially leads to the extinction of others bound to that species in a complex ecological web, numbers of extinctions are likely to snowball in the coming decades as ecosystems unravel."

I believe that God, through the process of evolution, has created the great diversity of life which we currently enjoy on this planet. Moreover, this biodiversity is essential to the continuation of life on this planet. And, while biodiversity is a worldwide phenomenon, it is an essential element of the many individual ecosystems that make up this planet's biosphere. And, as the CBC article makes clear, "Species diversity ensures ecosystem resilience, giving ecological communities the scope they need to withstand stress."

When we focus on the United States alone, we realize that human activity has resulted in the near or complete extinction of numerous species. Most Americans are familiar with the story of the Buffalo and the Passenger Pigeon, and many of our citizens have a vague awareness of the fact that bears, wild cats and wolves used to roam the forests of the places where they now live. And, while many Americans are currently experiencing the death of our native Ash trees, the vast majority of them are completely unaware of the mass die-off of our Chestnut and Elm trees that occurred in the last century. Currently, our honeybee and amphibian populations are threatened.

In the Judeo-Christian Bible, we are informed in the second chapter of Genesis that "the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made." (verse 8) A few verses later, we are informed "The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it." (verse 15) How well have we been tending and watching over the garden that God has given to us?

How can anyone who believes that God is the author of the biodiversity that exists on this planet think that mankind's conduct with regard to his natural environment is acceptable to God? Do we think that all of this exists for us to destroy? And, are we really even taking care of us if we are eliminating the very things which sustain our life on this planet?

It is ironic that so many Christians love prophecy and delight in speculating about what different passages mean in the book of Revelation, and how they might apply to modern times. I wonder how many of them have pondered what the twenty-four elders meant when they announced from heaven, "It is time to destroy all who have caused destruction on the earth.” (Revelation 11:18) Hmmmm, that sounds like a prophecy that we may all want to focus on a little more.

We Will Serve the Lord!

Over the holidays, two of the young adults in my family posted comments on social media that reflect very different perspectives on the principle outlined in Joshua 24:15. You know, the one that goes something like this: "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." One is a member of a prominent Armstrong Church of God splinter, the other belongs to a non-denominational Sunday-observing church. Both are hard-working, devoted parents and appear to be sincere in their beliefs.

The non-denominational Christian has a plaque on her living room wall with the Joshua quote. She posted a comment on social media recounting her experience as a child whose parents believed that Christmas was pagan and did not celebrate Christ's birth. She went on to mention the fact that some members of her family still don't celebrate Christmas, but that she respects them, accepts their devotion to Christ and loves them just the same. She said that Christ was/is the most perfect expression of God's light and love and concluded that this was something that everyone should be able to rally around.

The Armstrong Church of God Christian posted the Joshua quote in his explanation of why he and his family don't celebrate the holiday. For him, his choice to not observe this holiday reflects his decision to put God's will first. In other words, those who choose to observe the holiday may not be serving the Lord.

As I read through their comments, it occurred to me that their remarks demonstrate that this scripture (Joshua 24:15) means very different things to both of them. For one of them, the words reflect their devotion and commitment to God. For the other, the same words seem to imply that we are doing the Lord's will and you aren't. Both of these young people appear to be devoted to God and their faith. Both of them give one the impression that they are sincere and good people. Both look to be following the dictates of their conscience in this matter.

For me, this family interaction perfectly demonstrates the point that Christ made to his disciples about judging each other. It also illustrates the point that Paul was trying to make to the saints at Rome and Colossae about different religious observances. If it is your personal conviction to observe or not observe a particular day, then follow that conviction. Your observance or lack of observance is not the thing that matters in the end - it is your attitude toward what you are doing that matters in the final analysis. I believe that both of these young people have exhibited the light and love of Christ in their lives, but I worry about any feelings of superiority or self-righteousness that might poke its slimy way into their hearts. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Evolving God?

In the comment thread for "Symbol and Meaning" by Stoned Stephen Society posted over at Banned by HWA, Dennis Diehl wrote that "The whole Bible is full of theories on who and what 'God' is, does, thinks, needs, demands and expects. From Genesis to Revelation this God evolves from an original Canaanite Supreme God and intimate with the first two humans, to the Hebrew chosen one they called YHVH. This YHVH then rather quickly begins to fade, as a Cheshire Cat God, away in any real human contact, replaced by it's chosen kings and priests who theorize what this god wants from everyone and want to enforce it upon the people. There are different enforcers with different perspectives of course."

As one would expect on a forum whose audience includes many Biblical Fundamentalists, some of the reactions to Mr. Diehl's comments were in the nature of a defense of God and the Bible. And, to be fair, Mr. Diehl obviously intended his comments as a criticism of Christian notions about both (God and the Bible).

Nevertheless, as someone who is not a Fundamentalist and has a rather expansive view of the nature of God (as evidenced by many past posts on this blog), I was intrigued by his remarks. While Mr. Diehl and I arrive at different conclusions, I share his conviction that our notions about God have evolved over many hundreds (indeed, thousands) of years. I also agree with his observation that this evolution is apparent in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, and that many different perspectives on God are present there.

For me, this reality does not threaten my faith in God or Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that humans have speculated on the nature of God and have put forth arguments in support of that speculation. Isn't that how this world that we inhabit works? Hasn't ALL human development and understanding evolved over many thousands of years? Why should our understanding of God be the exception to the rule?

What about revelation? What about inspiration? Are we suggesting that speculation can't be instrumental in revealing things? Isn't the formulation and testing of a hypothesis an integral part of the scientific method? Are we suggesting that speculation can't be inspired? What causes us to wonder about God and things spiritual? From whence do our philosophical musings arise? We say that authors, artists and musicians are inspired. Is it that implausible to imagine that inspiration could extend to other areas of human interest?

What if our reality is a mathematical construct or Divine dream? Is it possible that the statement that God doesn't change might be wrong or mean something other than what many of us have attached to it? Is it possible that God itself is still growing/expanding/evolving?

Moreover, if we admit that the concept of God has evolved and been presented from a number of different perspectives within the Hebrew Bible, how does that harm or negate the value of those writings? When we look at the history of humanity's gods and religions, don't you find it just a little bit interesting and peculiar that a majority of humanity has settled on the god of the Hebrews? Why the god of an insignificant tribe of people who originated in a relatively unimportant piece of land that was dominated by its more powerful neighbors throughout most of its history? Why not the gods of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks or Romans? What about Eastern religious notions? Wouldn't the adoption of any of those deities have made more sense than El or Yahweh?

Ah, but the Hebrews borrowed from all of those traditions, the skeptics will reply. And what does that demonstrate but the process of evolution? As I have said before, nature/evolution/God has equipped us (humans) with this self-awareness and notions of the Divine. Should we abandon all of that as the relics of a superstitious past OR is it possible that our ancestors were really on to something? Was it really just a coincidence that Jesus Christ arose from the Jewish tradition? I may be wrong, but something tells me that it would be the height of foolishness to dismiss all of this as foolishness!

I'll freely admit that I don't have all of the answers, but I'm also confident that you don't either. I am tempted to invite anyone who is certain that the Hebrew God does not exist and the Bible is useless to drop me a line, but I know I'd be inundated with replies! For my fellow wanderers and searchers with a smattering of humility, you can drop me a line or two when you have it all figured out - I'll do the same.


Monday, January 6, 2020

Your Choice To Be Gay

As a heterosexual, do you ever find members of your own gender to be sexually attractive? If so, how frequently do you have such thoughts? Do you have to suppress thoughts of being attracted to members of your own gender? Have you ever lusted after someone who shares your gender? Have you ever fantasized about engaging in sexual acts with members of your gender? If so, does that make you bisexual? OR Are you always attracted to members of the opposite sex? Do your sexual fantasies always center on the opposite sex? Do you find that you are repulsed by thoughts of engaging in sexual intimacy with members of your own gender?

If you are not sexually attracted to people who share your gender, what would it take to make you attracted to them? Would staring at images of people engaging in same sex acts eventually engender sexual arousal for members of your own gender? Would reading homoerotic literature eventually engender sexual arousal for members of your own gender? What kind of conditioning would be required to get you to abandon your disgust at the thought of engaging in same sex acts? Would you be tempted by a sexual proposition from a beautiful person of your own gender? If a member of your own gender forced him/herself on you, would that make you more likely to engage in same sex behavior? If you went to a gay bar, would you be tempted to engage in homosexual behavior?

Do you recall the occasion/moment when you decided that a woman's breasts were more sexually attractive than a man's pecs or vice versa? Do you recall the occasion/moment when you decided that you preferred vaginas over penises or vice versa? In other words, did you ever have to decide between the two? OR Did a preference for one over the other come naturally to you? When did you decide to be a heterosexual?

In short, what would it take to make you gay? What would it take for someone to convert you to a homosexual orientation? And, if anything could make you gay, can you really claim to be a heterosexual?

And, finally, if you really are a heterosexual, why would you ever want to engage in homosexual behavior? Why would you ever decide to engage in behavior that does not excite passion within you? Why would you ever want to engage in behavior that you find repulsive? Could you, over time, ever learn to enjoy that kind of behavior?

Now, what do your answers to the above questions tell you about the nature of  your own sexual orientation? If  some authority ever decreed that a homosexual orientation was the only acceptable expression of sexual desire, how would you fare within such a society? Does it seem plausible to you that Almighty God would ever require you to go against your own nature or force you to engage in behavior which you find repulsive?

Friday, January 3, 2020

Sometimes the Wicked Prosper

Donald Trump told the King Jesus International Ministry in Florida, "I really do believe we have God on our side. I believe that. I believe that, or there would have been no way we could have won, right? People say how do you win, you don’t have the media, you have so many things against you, and we win. So, there has to be something." https://www.yahoo.com/news/trump-tells-evangelicals-that-god-is-on-our-side-234723118.html The evidence that God is on the side of Trump and Evangelicals: The fact that he wins against enormous odds.

When I read that statement, it occurred to me how different this perspective is from the one offered by the sixteenth President of the United States. A clergyman commented that he hoped that the Lord was on our side, Lincoln responded that he didn't worry about that. The President went on to say "But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord's side." politifact.com

In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln mused about whose side God might be on in the ongoing Civil War. He said: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes." https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=38&page=transcript

Interestingly, Trump appears to be more in sync with modern evangelical thought on this subject than Lincoln. Millions of Christians believe that success is a clear indication of God's favor. They reason that God is on the side of the righteous (them) and against the wicked (liberal Democrats).

According to the Bible, however, this line of reasoning is very flawed. The author of Ecclesiastes observed that very often the wicked prosper in this life (see Ecclesiastes 7:15 and 8:14). Christ once told a parable about Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31). The rich man had prospered in this life and was punished after he died. Likewise, Lazarus had suffered in this life and was rewarded in the next life. In other words, the success of the righteous is not necessarily guaranteed in this life. Christ also finished the parable with an assertion that the wicked would not be persuaded by someone who had been resurrected from the dead - very interesting in this connection!

The truth is that the cream doesn't always rise to the top. Sometimes that's a turd floating on the surface!

Is God on your side? OR Are you on God's side?