Featured Post

Resurrection in Jewish and Christian Thought

The notion that humans who have died can be resurrected by God is found in both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, and al...

Monday, January 31, 2022

CGI's Murray Palmatier and Fear: The pot calling the kettle black

Murray Palmatier of the Church of God International Canada recently delivered a sermon titled "There Is No Fear in Love." The message was delivered within the context of two sermons by Pastor Adrian Davis against public health measures related to Covid-19 which had been previously deleted from CGI's website by the executive council of the church. With this background being clearly understood by his audience and in the forefront of their minds, Mr. Palmatier decided to push back against the fear which he believes has motivated these public health measures.

He quotes I John 4:18 - "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." Mr. Palmatier implies that fear has manifested itself in the general public's exercise of these public health behaviors as a reaction to the appearance of Covid-19. He suggests that this fear has caused people to alter their lives and belief systems in irrational and outlandish ways. Of course, there is no mention of the fact that Covid-19 poses a real and lethal threat to humankind, and that those public health measures were designed to mitigate its deadly consequences. He also doesn't mention the fact that the folks who are opposed to these measures are motivated by a FEAR of government overreach and/or the loss of their freedoms/rights.

Mr. Palmatier then proceeds to take a fresh look at the first seven verses of the thirteenth chapter of Paul's letter to the saints of Rome. You know, the one that states: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor." According to Mr. Palmatier, these instructions to be subject and obedient to rulers ONLY applies to righteous rulers. Hence, according to this unique interpretation and understanding of these verses, the implication is clear - Christians aren't REALLY obligated to follow these wicked public health officials!

Mr. Palmatier went on to single out the folks in Ohio as being courageous for calling attention to "these things" (could he be talking about Ohio's antivaxxer-in-chief, Bill Watson?). Unfortunately, they aren't courageous enough to plainly say what they are talking about! Like Mr. Palmatier, they imply, suggest, use posters and euphemisms to talk about their resistance to public health measures. He goes on to laud truckers for having the courage to protest those measures. He goes on to strongly imply that the executive council of CGI is trying to shut them down - to silence any discussion about these public health measures. Yeah, sorry I'm hearing a whole lot of anger and fear in Mr. Palmatier's remarks. Finally, didn't I predict that the anti-public health folks within CGI wouldn't be content with the executive council's attempt to deal with this division/controversy and unify the church? Does that make me a prophet?  

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Christians Who Defend Corrupt Leaders

A friend forwarded an article to me by conservative, Christian commentator David French today. The article is titled "Why Christians Bond with Corrupt Leaders." As I was reading through the article, it brought to mind the state of California's attempt (many years ago) to rein in the financial abuses of the leadership of the now defunct Worldwide Church of God (more particularly, the mismanagement of Herbert Armstrong and Stanley Rader).

I remembered how, at the time, church members rallied around Armstrong and Rader and viewed the state as being malicious, evil and inspired by Satan to persecute the church (an attack on these leaders was viewed as an attack on the institution). Likewise, most members were incredulous that the CBS television news magazine "60 Minutes" would dare to slander "God's apostle" and "God's Work." The charges of corruption were dismissed out of hand - they weren't even considered by most of the rank-and-file membership of the church!

In his article, French reminisced about how a number of similar scandals within the modern Evangelical Movement were received within that community. He talked about Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University, Ravi Zacharias, Mark Driscoll, and Kanakuk Kamp.

French also referenced what happened with Moses when he struck the rock to provide water for the Israelites and failed to acknowledge that God was the real source of the miracle. French went on to show how this was analogous to a phenomenon that he believes to be behind what has happened in many of these modern scandals - that people forget the real source of the benefits which they have derived from the works/organizations of these failed leaders. He wrote: "But here’s the reality: We often fail to distinguish between God’s love and mercy for us and God’s approval or favor or endorsement of the man or woman who built the institution or delivered the message."

French went on to point out that it is very natural for some of us "to attribute to man what comes from God" or to give that person our trust and loyalty. He observed that this natural inclination often plays itself out in three steps: "Step one is already outlined. It’s the leap from receiving a benefit or blessing through a person to granting them excessive appreciation or loyalty. A sure sign of excessive loyalty is extending trust to a man or a woman in a way that you wouldn’t extend it to anyone else...Step two is when the personal becomes tribal. The leader becomes an avatar, a representative of us and our community. The difference from step one can be subtle, but it’s still profound. It’s the turn from saying, 'I have loyalty because I’m grateful to this man' to 'I have loyalty because he represents me.'...A siege mentality leads to step three: the refusal to hear criticism from the outside and crediting critique only from the inside. In part because of my three-decade experience defending religious believers, I’ve been prone to make exactly that mistake... I often considered the source of criticism (hostile media, angry bloggers) before I considered the substance of criticism."

French's evaluation of this process really resonated with me - I recognized myself in this process in times past. Don't we all sometimes forget the source of our blessings and begin to imagine that some leader has produced these benefits for us? We look to a man or men, instead of looking to God. And, when we do that, all criticism becomes illegitimate - we don't even consider it. We tell ourselves that it's bitterness, sour grapes, bad attitudes or jealousy. And, as French points out, we sometimes do the same thing with political leaders (I'm thinking of the recent phenomenon of Trumpism). We accept and condone behavior from our heroes that real Christians would NEVER condone or accept in someone else. What do you think?  

  

Saturday, January 29, 2022

The Moral and Intellectual Dissonance of CGI's Anti-vaxxers

The arguments advanced by the Church of God International's Bill Watson and Adrian Davis against mandating public health measures to fight Covid-19 bring to mind the old axiom: "There are none so blind as those who will not see." It's appropriateness in this instance is underscored by the fact that it was derived from a spiritual principle which originated in Scripture. We read in the fifth chapter of the book of Jeremiah: "Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not" (Verse 21).

Since Covid-19 first made its appearance and began sweeping across the earth, Watson and Davis have railed against mask wearing, social distancing and vaccine mandates from their pulpits and church platforms. They claim that mandating compliance with these public health measures infringes upon their rights to make health decisions for themselves. In fact, they see such mandates as part of a broader effort on the part of government to take away their rights and impose its malevolent control over their lives. They believe that they should be able to research the available options and make their own health choices. Bill and Adrian have bristled at the fact that many platforms (including the Church of God International's website) have banned them from promulgating their anti-vaxxer views. They believe that this has infringed upon their freedom of expression/speech. They have bristled at mask-wearing and social distancing standards as erecting impediments to their freedom of assembly and right to practice their religious beliefs in the manner which they see fit. Indeed, they have even drawn parallels to the biblical language surrounding the infamous "Mark of the Beast" (not being able to buy or sell without it).

It is interesting to note that Watson and Davis appear to not see any inconsistency in their anti-mandate stance and their anti-abortion stance. However, it is apparent to many of us that Bill and Adrian have adopted some of the very same arguments in favor of their opposition to public health mandates that pro-choice folks have used to defend access to abortion. Pro-choice advocates point out that outlawing abortions deprives a woman of the right to make her own health decisions. For them, it is entirely a question of being able to exercise control over their own bodies and make their own decisions about whether or not they will reproduce. Hence, any attempt by the government to limit or eliminate access to the medical procedure known as an abortion is seen by them as a direct infringement upon their rights. They also see efforts to deprive them of the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy as an infringement on their rights to research the moral/religious and health implications of an abortion and make their own choices. As a consequence, they see these things as having a direct impact on counseling about reproductive choices. Hence, for them, abortion also has profound implications for their freedom of religion and expression.

What about the rights of those with weakened immune systems - the vulnerable among us? Once again, Bill's and Adrian's responses are much the same as those of the pro-choice folks to questions about the rights of a fetus. My rights and life must take precedence over those of the weak and vulnerable. My rights should not be limited or infringed upon to protect the lives of the innocent and vulnerable. OR If those don't work, we're not really hurting or harming anyone anyway! This is nature's way of dealing with this (pro-choice folks point out that spontaneous abortions occur all the time). Masks, social distancing and vaccine mandates are the things that are really harming everyone - especially the healthy. Pro-choice folks like to remind everyone that backstreet abortions kill women, just as Bill and Adrian claim that mRNA vaccines sterilize, make sick or kill people.

While the similarities and parallels between these positions will be apparent to most of my readers, Bill and Adrian see absolutely no inconsistencies inherent in their positions on mandates and their anti-abortion views. They are blind to the fact that they are employing the same arguments that pro-choice folks use to support the right of a woman to obtain an abortion. Indeed, there are none so blind as those who will not see! 

Friday, January 28, 2022

SALVATION THROUGH JESUS CHRIST

In his booklet, Just What Do You Mean…Kingdom of God?, Herbert Armstrong proclaimed:

“When Christ comes, He is coming as KING of kings, ruling the whole earth (Rev. 19:11-16); and HIS KINGDOM - the KINGDOM OF GOD - said Daniel, is to CONSUME all these worldly kingdoms.

Revelation 11:15 states it in these words: ‘The kingdoms of this world are become THE KINGDOMS OF OUR LORD, AND OF HIS CHRIST; and He shall reign forever and ever!’ 

This is THE KINGDOM OF GOD. It is the END of present governments - the governments that rule Russia, China, Japan, Italy, Germany - yes, and even the United States and the British nations. They then shall become the kingdoms - the GOVERNMENTS of the Lord JESUS CHRIST, then KING of kings over the entire earth. 

This makes completely PLAIN the fact that the KINGDOM OF GOD is a literal GOVERNMENT. Even as the Chaldean Empire was a KINGDOM - even as the Roman Empire was a KINGDOM - so the KINGDOM OF GOD is a government. It is to take over the GOVERNMENT of the NATIONS of the world.” (Pages 13-14)

Clearly, for Herbert Armstrong, the Kingdom of God was to be a literal, world-ruling government. This was the gospel that he and his Worldwide Church of God proclaimed to the world. BUT is that the real gospel message? Was he right about the Kingdom of God?

In answering these questions, it is instructive to survey the various scriptures associated with the topic. The Gospel According to John informs us of an exchange between Jesus Christ and the Roman governor during his trial that is more detailed than what is found in the other gospels. We read there: “Then Pilate went back into his headquarters and called for Jesus to be brought to him. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ he asked him. Jesus replied, ‘Is this your own question, or did others tell you about me?’ ‘Am I a Jew?’ Pilate retorted. ‘Your own people and their leading priests brought you to me for trial. Why? What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.’ Pilate said, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus responded, ‘You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.’” (John 18:33-37) Thus, we can see that Christ’s statement that his kingdom wasn’t an earthly kingdom demonstrates that he did not view it as being a part of this world. This clearly contradicts Herbert Armstrong’s understanding of what the kingdom was!

And what about all of those parables regarding the Kingdom? In the Gospel of Matthew, we find the Parable of the Sower (13) where Christ compares seeds falling on the ground to the way folks react to God’s message. Next, he gave them the Parable of the Weeds Among the Wheat (13). In this one, Christ compares the Kingdom to a farmer’s field where an enemy has planted a bunch of weeds among the wheat. He told his disciples that the weeds would not be removed from the good wheat crop until it was time for the harvest. After finishing that one, Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom was like a mustard seed (it would start small and grow into a large plant). Next, he compared the Kingdom to yeast (a little yeast eventually works it way throughout the dough). He then returned to the Parable of the Weeds and explained that the wheat represented the people of the Kingdom, and the weeds represented wicked folks who would NOT be a part of the Kingdom. Next, Jesus compared the Kingdom to a hidden treasure and a valuable pearl. In the final parable of the chapter (13), Christ compares the harvest of people into the kingdom to a fisherman casting his net into the water and hauling all of the fish onto land and sorting the good fish from the bad. Notice that in ALL of these parables NOTHING is mentioned about a literal kingdom!

Later, in the same gospel (Matthew 18), Christ told his disciples a parable about an unforgiving servant. In the story, a master has decided to settle accounts with his servants. One servant that owes a large debt begs his master to give him more time to repay the debt, and the master has mercy on him and forgives the debt altogether. Even so, the man who had just been shown such compassion and mercy has the gall to go out and demand immediate payment (on pain of imprisonment) from a man who owes him a small amount! The master hears about his despicable behavior and reinstates his debt! Christ went on to say that the story demonstrated how God would treat anyone who refused to forgive his brother.

Later still, Christ gave his disciples the Parable of the Vineyard Workers (Matthew 20). In this story, the owner of the vineyard went out at various times throughout the day and hired people to work in his vineyard. At the end of the day, he called the workers together and paid them, but the folks who had been hired first felt like they should be entitled to more than the workers who had been hired later in the day. Christ went on to make clear that the vineyard owner (God) was entitled to reward his workers (people) as he saw fit!

In the next chapter (Matthew 21), we read about Christ’s Parable of the Tenant Farmers. In this one, a man rented out his vineyard to various farmers. Later, he sends his son to collect his part of the harvest, but the tenant farmers kill his son! He went on to make clear that he was really talking about himself, and that his Father would not allow the people who killed his Son to inherit the Kingdom! Likewise, in the following chapter (Matthew 22), we read a parable about a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. However, the people who were invited to the celebration didn’t show up, and the king ended up sending his servants out to invite complete strangers to attend the banquet!

Finally, in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, we read about two more parables about the Kingdom which Christ gave to his disciples. First, he compares the kingdom to ten virgins who take their lamps out to meet the bridegroom one night. He told them that five of the virgins were wise and made sure that their lamps had oil, but that the other five forgot to check their lamps for oil. When the bridegroom finally arrived, the five that had oil and were ready were permitted to attend the wedding banquet, but the others were forbidden from entering. The moral of the story? Be ready! This is followed by a story about a man who entrusts different amounts of wealth to his servants and goes on a journey to a distant land. When he later returned, he called together his servants and asked each of them about what they had done with the money he had entrusted to their care. Two of the servants had ended up doubling the man’s money, but the one who had received the least amount hadn’t increased the money entrusted to his care at all. The first two servants are then invited to share in their master’s happiness, but the other servant is thrown out into the dark!

Once again, notice that in ALL of these parables that deal with the Kingdom that NOT one of them is dealing with a literal kingdom or government! Instead, they are all concerned with the behavior and/or enthusiasm of the people who are invited to be a part of the Kingdom. Indeed, the very definition of a parable is that it is a story or allegory that contains some moral or spiritual lesson. Hence, ALL of the parables about the Kingdom that we find in ALL of the other gospel accounts are along the very same lines as the ones we examined in Matthew!

“What about the Parable of the Ten Pounds of Silver in Luke?” some of my Armstrongist friends will demand. In the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells “a story to correct the impression that the Kingdom of God would begin right away.” (Verse 11) The story is about a nobleman who was called away to a distant land to be crowned king (Verse 12). However, “Before he left, he called together ten of his servants and divided among them ten pounds of silver, saying, ‘Invest this for me while I am gone.’” (Verse 13) When the man later returned as king, he called his ten servants together “to find out what their profits were.” (Verse 15) The first servant reported that he had invested the pound of silver which had been entrusted to him and had gained ten times the original amount (Verse 16). The king tells him what a good servant he has been and rewards him with rulership over ten cities (Verse 17). In similar fashion, the king rewards the remainder of his servants according to the amount which they had added to their original pound (Verses 18-24). Interestingly, Christ said that the final servant (who had merely returned the original pound without adding anything to it) had his pound stripped away and given to the servant who had been given ten cities. We are then informed that this decision prompted the servants to note that that servant had already been well rewarded (Verse 25). To which, the king replied: “to those who use well what they are given, even more will be given. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.” (Verse 26)

After reviewing the parable, I would ask my Armstrongist friends: “Why would we regard this parable as being different from any of the many other parables of Christ?” “Why would we interpret this parable literally when we don’t do that with any of the others?” Hopefully, we all realize that Christ wasn’t really talking about seeds, wheat, weeds, farmers, vineyards, and wedding banquets! Moreover, didn’t Christ himself give the moral of the story to his disciples at its conclusion? In other words, the story is obviously NOT about how many cities you’re going to rule over in the Kingdom!

In addition to his parables, however, we should also note some of Christ’s many other statements about the Kingdom. If Mr. Armstrong’s understanding of the Kingdom is correct, then why did Christ say that it was at hand? (Matthew 3:2, 4:17, 10:7, Mark 1:15) Why did Christ tell folks that the Kingdom was then near or among them? (Matthew 12:28, Luke 10:9, 11, 11:20, 17:21) Could Christ have been implying that he represented the Kingdom of God? And why did Christ repeatedly make entrance into the Kingdom contingent upon the righteousness of the individual seeking entrance? (Matthew 5:19-20, 7:21, 18:3, 19:23-24, Mark 10:15, 25, Luke 9:62, 18:17, 24-25) And, according to Scripture, how are people made righteous before God? Don’t Christians believe that they are made righteous before God through Jesus Christ? Isn’t that the essence of the gospel?

In this connection, it is also interesting to note what Christ told Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God. In the third chapter of the Gospel of John (Verse 3), we read that Jesus told him: “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” He went on to say: “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life.” (Verses 5-6) Christ summarized: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” (Verses 16-17)

Moreover, this message of salvation through Jesus Christ isn’t just confined to the four gospels! The rest of the New Testament is literally full of the exact same message! We are told in the book of Acts that the Gospel of the Kingdom of God was intimately associated with the story of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:12, 28:23, 31). Likewise, Paul’s writings make clear that his message was about salvation through Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1-5, 9, 16-17, I Corinthians 2:1-2, Galatians 1:3-9, 15-16, 3:1-4, 10-14, Ephesians 1:3-11, 2:4-6, Philippians 1:5, Colossians 1:15-23). Indeed, Paul echoed Christ’s teaching to Nicodemus about the Kingdom in the fifteenth chapter of his first epistle to the saints of Corinth (where he speaks about the resurrection of the dead). He makes clear that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God (Verse 50). Likewise, Paul makes plain in a number of places that those who are not righteous will not inherit the Kingdom (I Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:21) – the same message that Christ preached in the gospels.

Jesus Christ said that he came to this earth to seek out and save those who were lost (Luke 19:10). Paul told the Romans that everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:23-24, ESV). He also told them that they received the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ (6:23). He wrote to the saints of Ephesus: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (2:8-9, ESV). Likewise, Paul wrote to Titus: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (3:4-6, ESV).

This is the “good news” (gospel means “good news”) of the Kingdom of God – that we have salvation through Jesus Christ! If we look at the Scriptures with an open mind, we see that Christ was continuously pushing back on the notion that he had come to establish a literal, physical, earthly Kingdom (even among his own disciples). Hence, the Armstrongist notions about the gospel message are misguided and flawed. The “good news” is about much more than a physical Kingdom on this earth. It is about Christ superseding all of man’s systems and saving humankind from its own sins and errors. Indeed, the very heart and core of the gospel message is the salvation that is available to humankind through Jesus Christ of Nazareth! It is a message about the efficacy of his life, teachings, death, resurrection, and ascension for humankind.   


Sunday, January 23, 2022

Genealogy in Scripture

Many theologians have speculated about the relative importance of so many genealogies being recorded in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Many more lay folks have labored through those same genealogies or have simply skipped over them altogether. Why so many genealogies? What is their significance?

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, genealogies were important to the Hebrews because: they had to prove their tribal and familial descent to own land, kinship carried certain legal rights and obligations, priest and Levites were entitled to their positions or status based on their descent, and the messiah was prophesied to spring from the tribe of Judah and the house of David. The folks at Compelling Truth, on the other hand, inform us that these genealogies: "confirm the historical reliability of the Bible," "reveal the importance of family to God," were useful "in determining who could serve in certain roles," "prove many Bible prophecies," and they demonstrate "how God has used a wide diversity of individuals throughout history."

Now, while serious students of the Bible will be able to discern some validity in these various reasons that have been advanced for the importance of these genealogies, if we take just a moment to think about how these genealogies are employed in Scripture (and how we use them today), a number of common-sense reasons for their inclusion in the Bible come to mind. First, they demonstrate descent from a particular ancestor and kinship with other individuals. Second, they demonstrate a person's right to exist within the community, their place within that community, and the individual's right to inherit their ancestor's estate. Third, they provide continuity and context to the larger narrative. Fourth, they demonstrate the messianic line of descent. Fifth, they demonstrate that God is our Creator and ultimate ancestor - that all humans are God's children (Adam was the son of God).

Thus, while some of us may have regarded these genealogies as distractions/intrusions in times past, we can see that their presence in Scripture makes a great deal of sense. Hence, in the future, perhaps you will take the time to appreciate all of those instances where this one begat that one, and so-and-so was the son of so-and-so!

The Church of God International's Messaging Problem

Over the years since leaving CGI, I have watched the evolution of that organization with fascination. For those who are unfamiliar with this history, CGI began as a reaction to the autocratic and intellectually stagnant atmosphere within the now defunct Worldwide Church of God. Unfortunately, one of the "founding fathers" of the organization was the morally flawed son (Garner Ted Armstrong) of the autocrat (Herbert W Armstrong) who ruled over the parent organization. Eventually, the moral failings of GTA became so egregious that some folks abandoned CGI (like Ron Dart) while others (like my own father) forced GTA out of the organization and attempted to institute a more spiritual and democratic direction for their organization. It is as they say, however, good intentions so often go astray.

Like many of the other organizations which descended from Herbert's Worldwide Church, CGI began as a mix of true believers who sought to perpetuate the "core" doctrines of Armstrongism and those who recognized that there were real problems with some of the teachings of the parent organization. Over the years that followed those major disruptions within the organization caused by GTA's indiscretions, these two groups grew further and further apart. Unfortunately, the conservative forces within the church (those loyal to Armstrongism) came to be led by Pastor Bill Watson of Ohio. The reformers, on the other hand, were represented by men like Charles Groce, Vance Stinson and (more recently) Jeff Reed. The illusion of unanimity between the two groups has been preserved by the desire of the men in both camps not to further dilute the already diminished resources and reach of the organization. Both sides recognized that a rupture between them would effectively destroy the ability of the church to promulgate its message to a wider audience.

More recently, this uneasy truce between the two camps has been sorely tested by the radicalization and extreme polarization of American society at large. In short, the larger tensions between liberals and conservatives within the United States have exacerbated tensions between the two camps within CGI. Indeed, the same denigration of the motives, morals and intellectual capacity of the other side which has characterized the larger society has excited those same kinds of recriminations within the church. The reform camp sees the other side as stubborn reactionaries that are preventing the church from reaching a wider audience. Likewise, the Bill Watson camp sees the other side as being caught up in the same deception and wickedness that is afflicting the larger culture and views them as an obstacle to getting out their message of warning.

Of course, for CGI, this tension is further underscored and exacerbated by the fundamental differences in the way the two camps react to those "core doctrines" of Armstrongism. Watson (and most of his supporters) still embraces Anglo-Israelism, and its attendant notion that the church's primary mission is to proclaim a warning to the "nations of Israel" (chiefly the English-speaking peoples of the earth). Hence, for these folks, the message of the church should be one of warning against the evils of socialism, homosexuality, globalism, gender identity, abortion, immigration, etc. In other words, the culture war on steroids! Most of the reformers, however, reject the teaching of Anglo-Israelism and believe that the church's messaging should be focused on the commission to preach the gospel which God gave to his disciples. For the Watson camp, the thirty-third chapter of Ezekiel is paramount. For the Groce/Stinson/Reed camp, the twenty-eighth chapter of Matthew is supreme. Sure, both camps claim that their objective is to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to the world. Nevertheless, we can see that their respective understandings of what that encompasses is fundamentally different.

How have both sides handled this dilemma? Heretofore, the reformers have told themselves that the conservatives are simply stuck in the past and haven't seen the light yet. They pride themselves on being inclusive and not censoring the messaging of the conservatives with which they disagree. The conservatives, on the other hand, feel like they are being stifled and censored! They feel like the impact of their messaging has been thwarted and diluted by the reformers. Of course, for those of us on the outside, it just appears that this organization is speaking out of both sides of its mouth. The messaging is mixed, and both sides have only succeeded in engendering a great deal of cognitive dissonance in their audience! 

Friday, January 21, 2022

Clement's Epistle to the Saints of Corinth

"Ye see, beloved, how great and wonderful a thing is love, and that there is no declaring its perfection. Who is fit to be found in it, except such as God has vouchsafed to render so? Let us pray, therefore, and implore of His mercy, that we may live blameless in love, free from all human partialities for one above another. All the generations from Adam even to this day have passed away; but those who, through the grace of God, have been made perfect in love, now possess a place among the godly, and shall be made manifest at the revelation of the kingdom of Christ. For it is written, "Enter into thy secret chambers for a little time, until my wrath and fury pass away; and I will remember a propitious day, and will raise you up out of your graves." Blessed are we, beloved, if we keep the commandments of God in the harmony of love; that so through love our sins may be forgiven us. For it is written, "Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not impute to him, and in whose mouth there is no guile." This blessedness comes upon those who have been chosen by God through Jesus Christ our Lord; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen." - Clement of Rome to the Corinthians

Clement of Rome, First Epistle

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Importance of Kindness

Although kindness is a rare commodity in some quarters these days, the Judeo-Christian Bible makes very plain that it is an essential quality for Christians to exhibit. However, even in the Old Testament, the importance of this quality (kindness) to God is underscored in numerous passages. In the 145th Psalm, we are informed that "The Lord is righteous in everything he does; he is filled with kindness" (17). Indeed, in the book of Proverbs, we are warned that "Your kindness will reward you, but your cruelty will destroy you!" (11:17) Kindness is one of the central themes of the book of Ruth. A lack of kindness was one of the things for which the prophet Hosea reprimanded the Israelites (4:1).

In the New Testament, however, kindness is shown to be an essential feature of being a Christian. In fact, the Apostle Paul included kindness as part of his famous definition of love (I Corinthians 13:4), and every serious student of the New Testament knows that Christ made love the hallmark of his people. Indeed, in his letter to the saints of Galatia, Paul identified kindness as one of the fruits or evidences of the Holy Spirit (5:22). Likewise, he enjoined the saints of Colossae to "clothe" themselves with kindness (3:12) and told the Ephesians to "be kind to each other" (4:32).


In this connection, Strong's informs us that the original linguistically related Greek words that appear as "kind" or "kindness" in English translations convey the sense of benignity, usefulness, helpfulness, gentleness, and/or mildness. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines the adjective "kind" as "of a sympathetic or helpful nature, of a forbearing nature: gentle, arising from or characterized by sympathy or forbearance." Hence, we see from this definition that our English words "kind/kindness" perfectly convey the sense of the original Greek. In other words, even without the context of Christ's teachings on meekness, forgiveness, empathy and helpfulness to others, it is clear that Christians were/are expected to eschew harshness, aggression, and the kind of judgmental attitudes which are, unfortunately, all too often a common feature of the world around us. Clearly, the God of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures expects better of his people!


“Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
― Mark Twain 

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Slippery Slope to Perdition

Not to be outdone by UCG's homophobia, the Church of God International has published a post by Mike James titled Slippery Slope decrying a bill which was recently enacted by the Canadian Parliament to outlaw conversion therapy. Of course, Mr. James doesn't even mention the fact that a consensus has developed among mental health professionals that the therapy doesn't work, and that it is potentially very harmful to those who are subjected to it (see In the Aftermath of Conversion Therapy). James sees the law as taking away the rights of Canadian Christians to treat homosexuality and transgenderism as sins. He wrote: "In other words, a minister counseling a child or a parent counseling their child could be in violation of the law if they try to dissuade the child from following a path to changing their gender or taking part in a homosexual lifestyle. We are beginning to move faster down the slippery slope to destruction."

Mike went on to note that France and twenty of these United States had already banned the practice. With Canada's action, Mr. James makes clear that he believes that the collapse of Western culture is at hand. For Mr. James, Christian opposition to homosexuality is essential to preventing the decline of civilization. Although he admits that "Homosexuality and transgenderism are complex issues." Mr. James believes that "God tells us what sin is in His Word, and we must work to fight and overcome it regardless of what the state says. When the Bible is clear on a matter, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29)." Unfortunately, Mr. James appears to be completely unconcerned with the rights of LGBTQ folks!

Nevertheless, in the Canadian Government's discussion of the bill, it is interesting to note that they made clear that the law was/is intended to protect the rights of these folks. With regard to LGBTQ rights to freedom of religion and expression they state: "Section 2(a) provides that everyone has freedom of conscience and religion. The freedom of religion guarantee protects sincerely held practices or beliefs that have a connection with religion. A law or government action that interferes with the ability to act in accordance with such practices or beliefs in a way that is more than trivial or insubstantial will engage section 2(a). Because the prohibition on causing another person to undergo conversion therapy may affect the ability of individuals to engage in practices that have a connection with their own sincerely held religious beliefs, it has the potential to engage the freedom of religion.
Section 2(b) provides that everyone has freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression. Section 2(b) has been interpreted broadly to encompass any activity or communication, aside from violence or threats of violence, that conveys or attempts to convey meaning. It protects the rights of both speakers and listeners. Because the offence of providing conversion therapy would prohibit discussions between providers and recipients of conversion therapy, it engages section 2(b)." (see Bill C-4) You don't mean to tell me that freedom of religion and expression also apply to LGBTQ folks?

Mr. James is also apparently unaware of the fact that the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity are foreign to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. Likewise, he appears to be unaware of the fact that conversion therapy is not mentioned in the Bible. However, that book does have somewhat to say about the dangers inherent to someone going against their own nature and conscience. In other words, NOTHING of Spiritual value is gained by a homosexual or transgender person pretending to be something they are not!

Finally, I believe that the institutions of marriage and the family are threatened by a number of real problems which these kinds of discourses ignore and/or dismiss. I'm talking about things like adultery, divorce, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, lying and the many things which divert our attention away from our families (and take away from the time we spend with them). If we're really serious about saving our society, let's talk about the materialism and pursuit of entertainment which consumes us. In other words, while the LGBTQ community might serve as a convenient scapegoat and diversion, our society has real problems to confront. And, if we're really worried about that slippery slope to perdition, we may want to address those problems and leave homosexuals and transgender folks alone!

Saturday, January 15, 2022

UCG Returns to Sodom

Darris McNeely of the United Church of God asks Are We Returning to Sodom? in an article posted ten days ago on their Beyond Today website. McNeely opens his piece with a reference to the archaeological dig at Tall el-Hammam (a nod to his colleague Peter Eddington's article titled What If Sodom Has Been Found?) which some folks have proposed as the site of the city of Sodom referenced in the book of Genesis. Laying aside the problems inherent in transforming the Bible into a historical textbook, both men acknowledge that even fellow Fundamentalists have problems with assigning these ancient ruins as the site of the biblical Sodom (see Biblical Problems with Identifying Tall el-Hammam as Sodom). Even so, whatever the merits of the speculation surrounding Tall el-Hammam, McNeely sees this as an opportunity to resurrect Sodom and use it as an example for modern America.

In the article, McNeely stated: "What the Bible tells us about the sins of these cities is a sobering indictment of the direction of modern culture, as today’s culture is much like that of Sodom. At issue in the culture wars that have spread through America and other nations is the intent of many to alter the essential fabric of the family and society as we have always known it. It’s critical that you understand what God’s Word teaches us about Sodom, its sins and the connection to our modern culture." Is McNeely right about that? Is America following in the footsteps of Sodom and Gomorrah?

To make his point, McNeely references the story found in the thirteenth and nineteenth chapters of the book of Genesis. Students of Scripture will remember that Abram and Lot decided to go their separate ways, and that "Lot took a long look at the fertile plains of the Jordan Valley in the direction of Zoar," because "the whole area was well watered everywhere, like the garden of the Lord or the beautiful land of Egypt. This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah." (Verse 10) A little later, however, we are informed that "the people of this area were extremely wicked and constantly sinned against the Lord." (Verse 13) So far, so good - many of us can see the similarity between the fertile, prosperous and sinful Sodom and modern America; but McNeely took an unfortunate detour at this point in his article which threatened to undermine his entire narrative.

Instead of following the biblical narrative, McNeely decided to introduce the notion that Sodom was all about homosexuality (which has been thoroughly discredited by serious biblical scholarship). However, before he proceeded to the events of the nineteenth chapter of Genesis, McNeely decided to interject a misleading portrait of modern America. He wrote: "Today more than half of Americans are accepting of same-sex marriage, made legal in all 50 states via a Supreme Court ruling in which five men and women overruled the holy Word of God." Horror of horrors - a majority of Americans and the Supreme Court believe that homosexuals should be able to settle down into monogamous relationships that enjoy the same protections and benefits afforded to heterosexual couples! Let's keep these depraved people in the bath houses and bars where they belong!

McNeely went on to cite a study conducted by the "Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University" which "found that over 30 percent of Millennials, and a shocking 39 percent of 'young Millennials' (aged 18-24), now <identify themselves> as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer or questioning.)" However, these findings that homosexuals are taking over the ranks of our young people are not supported by more reputable and scientific studies. In an article published in February of last year (LGBT Identification Rises to 5.6% in Latest U.S. Estimate) by Gallup, we are informed that 9.1% of Millennials and 15.9% of Generation Z folks identify as LGBT. Moreover, this is consistent with broader findings that older adults are much less likely to identify as LGBT (could this have anything to do with the stigma and persecution experienced by older folks?). Now, while all of us should be willing to acknowledge that this is a significant group of people, we should also be willing to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of young people still identify as heterosexual. In short, America isn't gay!

After that little diversion, McNeely finally returned to the subject of Sodom. He went on to note that the whole society of the city was corrupt - that not even ten righteous people could be found therein. Although McNeely briefly hints at the fact that Sodom is the story of a host of sins (with being inhospitable to strangers as chief among them), he inevitably returns to the fact that the young and old men of the city wanted to gang rape the two angels. Like many before him, he seems completely oblivious to the fact that there NEVER has been an instance in the annals of human history where an entire population of people were homosexuals! Mr. McNeely also appears to be oblivious to the fact that rape has always been more about power and control than having anything to do with sex. Moreover, although he referenced the scripture earlier in his article, McNeely seems to ignore that Ezekiel characterized the iniquity of Sodom as being spoiled, not helping the poor and needy, being haughty and practicing "abominable deeds" before the Lord (see Ezekiel 16:49-50). And, for the record, most Bible scholars would characterize gang rape and being inhospitable to strangers as "abominable deeds."

For McNeely, however, Sodom is a story about sexual depravity - more particularly, a story about the wickedness of the LGBTQ community! In his article, he noted: "Western society is having a 'Sodom moment.' The cultural perversity against the natural order that is sodomy and homosexuality has recently expanded to include the gender identity war encapsulated in the LGBTQ label." He then proceeded to launch into a diatribe against those folks whose mental gender does not match their physical gender. Instead of demonstrating an awareness that human psychology and physiology are prone to experiencing anomalies from time to time and reflecting the empathy and compassion that one might expect, McNeely sees gender identity as just another instance of willful sexual perversion and sinfulness.

Now, while we can all agree that things like male prostitution, pedophilia and promiscuity could rightly be characterized as sinful behaviors, many of us would disagree with Mr. McNeely that all homosexual behavior is perverse and sinful. Many of us believe that all homosexuals who follow the biblical principle of fidelity to another individual (as embodied in one of the Ten Commandments and Christ's instruction to love one another) can be Christians and should NOT be accounted worthy of suffering the same fate as the Sodomites of long ago! Indeed, we believe that it is NOT good for any human to be alone, and we believe that marriage is an honorable estate that is appropriate for people everywhere.

Nevertheless, if we look at how materialistic American society has become over the course of our history as a nation, many of us can see similarities to the situation extant within the ancient city of Sodom. Likewise, if we look at the pride and widespread lack of empathy and compassion for other folks which currently permeates American society, we can definitely discern some parallels with the circumstances that existed in Sodom before its infamous fall. Finally, when we consider the dearth of hospitality that currently exists within many quarters of the United States, we can see why Americans might have some trepidation when we consider the fate of Sodom! However, by focusing on the LGBTQ community, Darris McNeely undermined his narrative that Sodom has much of anything to teach modern Americans. In other words, the story of Sodom probably does have some pertinent lessons for modern nations, but a blanket condemnation of homosexuality is NOT one of them!


Friday, January 14, 2022

Francis of Assisi

A Prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Some Admonitions:

The deeds you do may be the only sermon some persons will hear today.

We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

A Scripture for Whatever

A little over a week ago, Banned by HWA posted a piece by me which challenged CGI Pastor Bill Watson's assertion that it may be appropriate for Christians to offer imprecatory (cursing) prayers to God. A few days later, the same blog posted a response to Bill's thesis written by CGI's Vance Stinson which also came to the conclusion that such prayers are inappropriate for Christians. Not surprisingly, one individual posted a lengthy comment in support of Bill's position on imprecatory prayers, and he/she referenced a number of scriptures to buttress their argument. After this exchange, however, Dennis Diehl (the resident atheist over at Banned) observed: "Let's face it. There's a scripture and explanation for just about anything one wants to do or not do."

Is Dennis correct? Is it possible to interpret Scripture to justify almost any belief we might harbor? Of course, most Fundamentalists would say that Mr. Diehl's position is preposterous. For them, every word of Scripture is inspired by God, and any problems which we have in interpreting those documents are of our own making. Nevertheless, many of us look at the wide diversity of opinion about the meaning(s) of various scriptures within the ranks of the Fundamentalists and wonder if Dennis might not have a point! To be fair, it does seem that various people have ascribed profoundly different meanings to the same set of scriptures (the above-mentioned posts and comments being a case in point).

Even so, I believe that these differences can be traced back to false assumptions about Scripture, and the faulty principles which have guided their interpretation(s) of Scripture. Many Fundamentalists begin with the premise that God is the real author of all Scripture, and that it is error free as a consequence of this fact. Hence, any scripture which appears to contradict another scripture is only an illusion. In other words, there has to be some way to explain and/or reconcile the apparent contradiction. For many of these folks, the Bible is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, and there MUST be only one way to put all of the pieces together and create a coherent picture.

Some years ago, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association posted a piece by Janet Chismar on How to Interpret the Bible. However, while some of the points which Chismar makes about the proper way to interpret Scripture make sense, many of the principles are based on the assumptions already noted above. To summarize, Chismar identifies six principles that Christians should employ to interpret Scripture: 1) "Remember that context rules," 2) "Always seek the full counsel of the Word of God," 3) "Remember that Scripture will never contradict Scripture," 4) "Don't base your convictions on an obscure passage of Scripture," 5) "Interpret Scripture literally," and 6) "Look for the single meaning of the passage." Now, I can get behind principles 1, 2 and 4; but I see real problems with 3, 5 and 6!

Remember those assumptions of Fundamentalists that I mentioned earlier? The fact is that Scripture was always a joint project. In other words, sure, God was doing the inspiration; but there were also a bunch of different humans (over an extended period of time) who actually did the writing, editing and deciding about what was and wasn't appropriate to include in the Bible. Hence, the Bible is a collection of different perspectives on many different issues, and that reality is reflected in its pages. The fact is that there are a number of different writing styles and genres of literature present in the collection of writings which we call The Holy Bible.

As a consequence of these facts, the various parts of the book do NOT always agree with each other. Add to all of this the fact that NONE of the human authors of the various writings which constitute our Bible had the advantage of modern scientific and historical understandings, and we begin to understand that many of those apparent errors and contradictions have an excellent chance of being real errors and contradictions! Hence, we can see that any assertion that "Scripture never contradicts Scripture" is an exercise in circular reasoning (in other words, faulty logic).

So, what do we do with this reality? Let's take a closer look at some of those principles of interpretation that make sense. If we understand that context encompasses much more than just the surrounding scriptures, we will look at things like the social, political, economic and religious circumstances which helped to shape the human author of Scripture. With this information in hand, we can often discern some of the things that probably motivated and/or influenced the author to write the things that he/she wrote. Thus, if the author has clearly contradicted some other passage(s) of Scripture, then we must take a closer look at what a preponderance of the evidence indicates within the context of the "full counsel of the Word of God."

Moreover, as we have already acknowledged the presence of very different genres within the book (e.g., prose, poetry, prophetic, apocalyptic, metaphorical, etc.), we must also acknowledge that the universal employment of a literal interpretation of any given passage will inevitably sometimes lead to a flawed understanding of the intended meaning. Also, with such a diverse and complex collection of writings, it is hoped that most of us can see that it is entirely plausible and possible for there to be multiple layers of meaning for some passages.

Finally, I would say that there is another very important principle of interpretation which most Fundamentalists never mention in their discourses on the topic: For Christians, ALL Scripture MUST be interpreted through the lens of the life, teachings, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ! In other words, for Christians, Christ's perspective MUST trump all other perspectives (Moses included). This includes everything in the Torah (e.g., laws, rituals, sacrifices/offerings, Holy Days, etc.), the Prophets, and the other Writings of the Old Testament. Now, I'm sure Mr. Diehl would tell us that "a scripture cannot mean what it was never intended to mean," but a Christian who ignores this principle is almost certain to fail in their efforts to properly interpret some passage. However, we should also note that this principle CANNOT be seen to excuse the clear misappropriation of some Old Testament Scripture by one of the human authors of the New Testament.

Now, will the application of these principles automatically result in a perfect and unanimous understanding of Scripture by all Christians? The short answer is NO. Like the human authors of Scripture, we are all imperfect. Hence, it is very important that we all acknowledge the distinct possibility/probability that we will still misinterpret some passage(s) of Scripture. In fact, even the Apostle Paul said that we (Christians) currently "see through a glass darkly." As a consequence, it is also wise to consult the conclusions which other folks have reached regarding a particular scripture. In other words, I may have missed something that someone else caught. Thus, if we allow for our own imperfections and follow the principles outlined above, we are more likely to be among those who correctly handle the word of truth. 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

The Myth of A Righteous America

Many ACOG leaders believe they have a solemn duty to warn Americans away from their sins as a nation. Of course, a large part of their motivation for doing so is based on the fact that they believe that the people of the United States are the descendants of one of the "lost" ten tribes of Israel. However, even if we remove this strange and discredited doctrine from the mix, the truth is that most ACOGs would probably continue to preach their warnings to America and urge "God's People" to repent. Why? Because they believe that the founding and subsequent governance of the United States was inspired by Almighty God!

Hence, for many of these folks, the former righteousness of the United States is a given. For them, not only did God found America to keep his promises to Abraham, he also directly inspired the Founding Fathers to establish this republic and its commerce and governance on Divine principles! Indeed, they look upon the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as Divinely appointed documents. For them, these documents are almost on a par with Scripture, and the Founding Fathers who fashioned them are regarded with the same reverence and esteem that most Christians reserve for Christ's apostles!

Now, while a majority of Americans probably do believe that God had a hand in inspiring those men and the documents which they produced (and with some justification), they also clearly see that those men were flawed, and that many of their notions about commerce and governance did NOT originate in the mind of God. After all, we must remember that the United States was fashioned from a system which embraced imperialism, colonialism and mercantilism. Likewise, we must never forget that English settlers appropriated the lands and resources of the original inhabitants of North America and enslaved their African brethren to work it. As high-minded as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were, they both owned large numbers of slaves. Moreover, although Jefferson and Franklin were both brilliant men, their extramarital activities were legendary even in their own time! Finally, most of these Christian men subscribed to religious beliefs that would be very foreign and often repulsive to today's Fundamentalist/Literalist/Evangelical believers.

Hence, while it may be accurate to look back on a time when divorce was rare and church attendance was almost universal, it would be highly inaccurate to suppose that the folks of those times were somehow more moral/righteous than are the folks of today. We must not forget that things like domestic abuse/violence, alcoholism, land speculation and greed, ignorance, lack of sanitation, wanton exploitation and waste of resources etc. were widespread/common features of days gone by. Moreover, there has NEVER been a time in human history when folks didn't lie, cheat, betray and kill each other! Hence, while some of the vices of times past may have been different from those of modern times, the notion that there ever existed some golden age of virtue/righteousness becomes highly suspect and problematic.

In other words, America has always had MANY sins which could/did evoke calls for repentance. And, like ALL of the other nations of the world, America has developed a governing, economic and military system that incorporates more of the features of Babylon and Rome than anything that resembles a Godly or righteous system. Thus, the notion that America has fallen from some previously perfect/more perfect state is shown to be absurd on its face. It is pure fantasy to suppose that America has degenerated from some golden age - that it has somehow turned its back on God in the last two or three generations. The fact is that, from its foundations, America has been juggling MANY sins. Indeed, it's hard to imagine anything more heinous than murdering an indigenous people and stealing their lands - unless one counts our original sin: SLAVERY!

Sure, America is an economic and military powerhouse. However, as the old saying goes: "Might does NOT make right!" Wealth and resources do not equal righteousness, and they are NOT a definitive sign of God's favor! The truth is that sometimes the wicked prosper, and the righteous are oppressed. What about you? Are you a patriotic citizen of God's Kingdom, or are you a patriot of the United States of America? And, if you're thinking to answer "both," you may want to rethink your priorities.


Friday, January 7, 2022

Is there any good in this world?

After making the points that I've been making about a Christian's responsibility to avoid becoming a part of this world's human systems, some will inevitably throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Yes, there is a great deal that is wrong with this world, and that should be avoided by Christians. Nevertheless, it is also clear that this present world has a number of features that are very good!

Indeed, after every act of creation enumerated in the first chapter of Genesis, we are told: "And God saw that it was good." Likewise, when everything was finished, we are told: "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good." Moreover, as "everything" which God had created is encompassed by this language (light, darkness, sky, hydrologic cycle, oceans, land, plants, animals, humans), we are forced to conclude that ALL of those things were/are very good.

And, if we focus our attention exclusively on what is revealed in the first three chapters of the book of Genesis about the human portion of that creation, we are forced to conclude that humans are NOT inherently evil. In fact, if we stick to the text and avoid reading our own notions into what is revealed there in black and white, we see that evil entered into the human experience through the lies of the Serpent, the choices that the humans made for themselves, and engaging in sinful behaviors (doing those things that were contrary to God's instructions). In other words, God did NOT make humans evil.

In this connection, we should also note that there are a great many scriptures which speak in very positive terms about the God-given capabilities of humankind (e.g. the ability to imagine, create, fashion). In short, God has distributed a whole host of talents to the humans which he created. And there is also the phenomenon of Divine inspiration of humankind. Of course, we all recognize that there has been a great deal of spiritual inspiration down through the millennia of human existence, but there has also been the inspiration of human emotions like love, kindness, compassion, and empathy. Moreover, many of us have discerned God's inspiration in various areas of human endeavor like art, music, literature, architecture, science, etc.

Hence, it would be very inaccurate/misleading to characterize everything in the present world as evil. An oak tree is a good and beautiful thing. There is much to admire in some of the music of Mozart, Handel, Beethoven, The Beatles and John Denver. Likewise, more than a few of us have found great joy and benefit in the discoveries and inventions of science. Thus, we must conclude that any blanket condemnation of all that currently exists as a part of this world as evil is obviously wrong! Moreover, we know that Paul instructed the Christians at Philippi to focus on the good (Philippians 4:8). To be sure, there is a lot to avoid/shun in this world; but there's a whole lot of good around us as well (and I'm thinking it's probably a sin not to acknowledge that stuff too). What do you think?

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Letting God Decide

In the second and third chapters of the book of Genesis, we find two trees mentioned: a "tree of life" and a "tree of the knowledge of good and evil."  Interestingly, we are told that God had planted a garden and stocked it with a wide variety of fruit bearing trees and gave his human creations permission to eat the fruit of every tree, with the notable exception of one. Indeed, we are told that God warned the first human: "You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden— except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die." Unfortunately, most of us our familiar with the story about how the Serpent persuaded Eve to eat the forbidden fruit by suggesting that "your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.” She, in turn, eventually persuaded her husband to join her in eating the fruit, and the rest is history. From God's perspective, the humans had been given the opportunity to choose to follow his instructions and freely partake of the fruit of the tree which represented life, but the humans unceremoniously declined his offer and chose another path.

Interestingly, this same theme is repeated over and over again throughout Scripture. In fact, in that same book (Genesis) we read that God promised great blessings to Abraham if he would only choose to follow God's instructions! Likewise, we are told that God presented the same offer to the Israelites. In the thirtieth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, we read: "Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. For I command you this day to love the Lord your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy. But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and if you are drawn away to serve and worship other gods, then I warn you now that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live a long, good life in the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy. Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!" (Verses 15-19)

Moreover, as I mentioned in several of the posts which preceded this one, early Christians believed that people had a choice between two ways: The way through Jesus Christ which represented LIFE, and the way of sin against God which ended in DEATH. Indeed, in the gospel of John, the founder of their religion had proclaimed that he was "the way, the truth, and the life." Likewise, in the final book of the New Testament, Christians are contrasted with everyone else who has chosen this world's systems as influenced and deceived by that same old Serpent referenced back in the very first book of the Bible. Hence, we can see that this theme of choosing God's way and life or deciding to go one's own way and end up dead is something of a universal theme in the Bible.

At first glance, the choice seems stark and easy. We simply cannot fathom just how foolish Adam and Eve turned out to be - How could they have decided to reject God's way and the opportunity which that choice represented? However, if we take a little time to stand back and look at the situation, we must all inevitably come to the conclusion that each and every one of us has faced the exact same dilemma that Adam and Eve faced in the garden. In a real sense, each and every human who has ever lived must someday choose between life and death. We can drive in a direction of our own choice and making, OR in the words of an old Country tune, we can let "Jesus take the wheel."

At some point, we begin to understand that we must surrender our choices to God - to let him "take the wheel" and direct our path. Over time, we see how many of our own choices have turned to ashes in our hands and led us (and/or those we care about) to disaster and/or sorrow. In one of my comments on another blog, I recently quoted a pertinent observation on this subject by the famous fantasy novelist, J.R.R. Tolkien. He wrote: "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends." Only God is omniscient. Only God has the necessary foresight to see the possible consequences of some action. In the book of Proverbs, we read: "There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death." (Proverbs 14:12)

Jesus instructed his disciples not to obsess and worry about what was around the next curve or behind the next door. He pointed out how little real foresight or control that they had at their disposal, which made all of their worrying wasted effort. And, finally, one of his disciples, a man named James (perhaps his own brother) once wrote: "Look here, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.' How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, 'If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.' Otherwise, you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil." (James 4:13-16)

The book of Hebrews talks about a Sabbath rest for Christians - a rest from our own ways. Maybe it's time for all of us to let "Jesus take the wheel." Maybe it's time to choose God's way (LOVE) and let go of our own choices and decisions. What do you think?

 

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Babylon as a prophetic template

Why? Why did John go to what we now refer to as the first four chapters of the Book of Daniel and the Kingdom of Babylon for so much of the imagery which he used in his Apocalypse? (Which is not meant to suggest that he didn't use other parts of the book.)

Most of the folks who have studied the book of Revelation have recognized these elements which the author pulled from the Old Testament prophet, but I sometimes wonder if many of them have actually given much thought as to why John was so comfortable with this imagery. First, let's begin with the obvious: For John, the Rome of his own day was the very image of the Babylon outlined in these first four chapters of the book of Daniel. When he looked at the power, reach and influence of Rome on all aspects of life in the world known to him, the Babylon of Daniel offered the perfect template for his own time (and whatever would inevitably someday follow the Roman Empire).

After all, the chapters of Daniel which deal with Nebuchadnezzar, his impact on Judah, Daniel and his friends, and what all of those things revealed about the Babylonian Empire as a whole have proved to be a timeless and universal model of human governance on a grand scale. Indeed, all of the elements of all subsequent kingdoms and empires are right there!

Like the Roman emperors, Nebuchadnezzar was synonymous with his own empire and his word was law. The book begins with his great army besieging Jerusalem and ultimately conquering the Kingdom of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar is supreme in power and authority. He ordered the removal of King Jehoiakim and promptly appropriated all of the Temple's furnishings for his own use. Finally, Nebuchadnezzar took the flower of Judah's nobility and provided for their training/indoctrination and absorption into his own state.

In the second and third chapters of the book, we learn that Nebuchadnezzar relied on a vast arsenal of HUMAN expertise and advisers. Moreover, Daniel's interpretation of the king's dream (Daniel 2:25-45) makes very clear that the statue which he had observed in his dream was meant to represent him, his kingdom, and some of the kingdoms that would follow his throughout history. And, when Nebuchadnezzar builds a statue of his own and commands his subjects to worship it in a manner also specified by him, we see that the king's reach extends even into the religious beliefs and practices of his subjects.

Finally, Daniel also starkly portrayed the king's bombast and arrogance in the fourth chapter of the book. The king's word is absolute, and the entire world was to take note of his pronouncements! Even so, in this same chapter, we also see Divine intervention to remind Nebuchadnezzar that he ruled at the pleasure of Almighty God, and that the human mind can be a very fragile thing - subject to stop functioning properly without warning.

So, YES, when we take a little closer look at these chapters in Daniel, we begin to truly comprehend why this imagery was so appealing to John. Moreover, this understanding helps us to better understand and appreciate Babylon as the prophetic template it became as a consequence of what Daniel revealed about human governance.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Strangers and Pilgrims on the Earth

A Christian's responsibility to maintain his/her separateness/aloofness from this world's systems (especially those of a political nature) has been a constant theme on this blog. Moreover, in light of the two posts which immediately preceded this one, I thought it would be important to underscore the importance of this principle for anyone who claims to be a Christian. Nevertheless, although most Christians would acknowledge that this principle has strong Biblical support, the exact nature of that separateness/aloofness has been much debated.

Indeed, the extent of a Christian's separation from the world has engendered a number of questions down through the centuries. Questions like: Should Christians gather together and cloister themselves away from the worldly communities which surround them? (Some sects have certainly interpreted the principle in that way.) Should Christians avoid any friendships or socializing with the "wicked" of this world? (Unfortunately, some Christians have shunned the immoral "dregs" of society - the very folks to whom Jesus sent them as his messengers) Should Christians avoid all cultural contact with the world? (Once again, we have more than a few Christians who have interpreted the principle to rule out any enjoyment of "worldly" music, television, movies, plays, books, art, etc.) Should Christians avoid participating in the governments and politics of this world? (Indeed, some have suggested that Christians shouldn't vote, hold office or serve on juries.) The list of questions could go on and on, but we get the point - such questions have generated a great variety of opinion within the Christian community about the extent to which this principle should be applied to its members.

Even so, I believe that an open-minded look at the scriptures which establish the principle will also supply us with answers to our questions about the extent to which a Christian in 2022 should apply it to his/her particular place and circumstances. Moreover, I am not ashamed to admit that my own exploration of this subject has engendered some soul-searching of my own and has modified my own outlook on the appropriate answers to many of the questions which I mentioned earlier as having been associated with the topic. Finally, as I find to be the case with most issues, I believe God's truth in the matter can be found in careful deliberation and moderation. In other words, the truth is rarely found in the extremes. 

In Matthew's gospel account, we are informed that Christ said: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Matthew 6:19-21) Hence, from the perspective of the founder of our religion, it appears that he believed that our focus and energy should be directed at God's Kingdom - not on the accumulation of the shiny things of this temporal life which we currently enjoy. Within the context of this same thinking, we are also told by Matthew that Christ offered this further instruction: "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other." (Matthew 6:24) Hence, for Christ, the importance of focus (the question of where all of our attention and energy is directed) was all important. In other words, are we primarily focused on this world or God's Kingdom?

In John's gospel, however, we are informed that Christ never envisioned that his followers would be completely removed from the precincts of this world. When approaching his death and praying for his followers, we are told that Christ said: "I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world." (John 17:14-18) Notice that Christ is sending his disciples "into the world," but he is appealing to the Father to protect them from being overwhelmed by its evil influences. Hence, we can see that cloistering in Christian communities was NEVER envisioned by Jesus Christ as being any part of the separateness from the world that he had in mind.

Nevertheless, from the other writings of the New Testament, we can see that that concept of separateness was clearly picked up by the men he had chosen to carry his message to the world. Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome to not be "conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." (Romans 12:2) Once again, there is a recognition that the Christian is in this world, but Paul warns them not to adopt its mindset. Indeed, when we are reading Paul's remarks here, we hear the echo of Christ's admonition to his followers that "In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) In other words, Christ overcame the world, and we can too!

In the first general epistle of John, we see the same principle at play. He wrote: "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever." (I John 2:15-17) Once again, although we are clearly in the world, John warns us not to fall in love with the world, and he admonishes Christians that the things that the world has to offer us are only temporary - that they will pass away.

This sense of Christians not allowing themselves to get too close to the world is also found in the epistle of James to the twelve tribes. He wrote: "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." (James 4:4) Once again, the necessity for maintaining a disconnectedness to the world is enjoined upon Christians.

When writing to Timothy, the Apostle Paul likened the Christian's predicament to a soldier serving in an army. He wrote: "Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier." (II Timothy 2:3-4) Once again, we hear the echo of Christ's admonition that it is impossible to serve two masters simultaneously. The New International Version renders the passage as "No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs." The clear implication being that we don't want to get entangled by/in this world. Again, we hear the echo of the repeated admonition to not get too involved in this world.   

Likewise, in the book of Hebrews, we are provided with a list of the faithful of God down through the ages, and then we are informed: "These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city." (Hebrews 11:13-16) Hence, for the Christian, all of the authors of the New Testament make clear that his/her primary focus and allegiance must be on/to God's Kingdom. They all anticipated that a true Christian would live in this world like an alien - obeying the laws and residing peacefully among the inhabitants of the land but maintaining their own connectedness to a different place and system.

Which brings me back to a question that I have wrestled with more than any other: What is my proper relationship to the place I currently reside - the United States of America? After all, as a citizen of the U.S., I have been given a small voice in what is decided here - a vote. And, after reviewing all of the scriptures we have just discussed, it seems reasonable to me for a Christian to conclude that it would be appropriate for him/her to exercise that franchise to make some positive contribution to the place where they currently reside. However, having said all of that, it also appears very clear to me that the traditional notions of patriotism, nationalism, capitalism and socialism are NOT productive things for a Christian to be preoccupied with!

As someone who should recognize that ALL human systems are flawed and fall short of the solution (which is represented by God's Kingdom), it is unproductive for me to seek to perpetuate any system which God's Kingdom will replace. In reviewing all of those scriptures, I also find myself reaching the inescapable conclusion that it would be completely inappropriate for me to give my loyalty, service and devotion to ANY nation of this earth. As a Christian, I must always remember that my primary and undivided allegiance belongs to God and his Kingdom. In other words, Christians must always be strangers and pilgrims on the Earth!