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Why Political Speech Is Inappropriate from the Pulpit!

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...

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The Dangers Inherent to Proof Texting

Herbert Armstrong, Jehovah's Witnesses, and many other religious leaders and groups have used proof texts from the Bible to support their beliefs/doctrines/theology. Indeed, if we examine the literature of these groups, we will see numerous scriptural citations/references throughout their articles, pamphlets, booklets, books, and doctrinal statements. Of course, these scriptural citations are seen by them as justifications for their beliefs/teachings - a tangible demonstration that a belief/teaching is derived from God's Word! Likewise, for those seekers of truth who regard Scripture as authoritative, these proof texts can be very persuasive in evaluating the beliefs/teachings of these groups. So, what's wrong with proof texting? Shouldn't all of our beliefs/teachings be based on Scripture?

In the Theopedia article on Proof Texting, we read: "Proof texting is the method by which a person appeals to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they are citing." This problem is summarized in a quotation that is familiar to most first-year seminary students: "a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text." In its own article defining proof texting, the Bible Study website observed that "The problem with this method is that the person who is Proof texting usually gives their selected verses a meaning that may be entirely different from what the writer intended. The Bible is written in such a way that most verses cannot be correctly understood in a stand-alone fashion. The context of a particular verse, who wrote it, the time period in which it was written, where did they write it, etc. is needed to arrive at what God intended it to convey." The same article went on to note that "Proof texting can easily lead to wrong conclusions regarding what is the truth of God. An argument or doctrinal stand that relies heavily on proof passages is ultimately considered weak. In fact, those who preach and teach others based on such special passages in Scripture are generally viewed negatively by true Biblical scholars and those who seriously study the word of God."

While those are excellent ways of defining the problem with proof texting, a concrete example would probably be more instructive in this instance. The statement of belief: God hates soldiers! The supporting proof texts: "The Lord examines both the righteous and the wicked. He hates those who love violence." (Psalm 11:5) and "here are six things the Lord hates — no, seven things he detests: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that kill the innocent, a heart that plots evil, feet that race to do wrong, a false witness who pours out lies, a person who sows discord in a family. (Proverbs 6:15–19) The reasoning: Since soldiers love violence, kill the innocent, plot evil strategies to kill others, and are full of pride, God hates them! Now, most of my readers are probably saying to themselves, "That's absurd!" My point, exactly!

Unfortunately, most of the folks who focus on proof texting in their messaging are NOT really worried about getting at God's will in a particular matter - they are more concerned with demonstrating that their opinions are founded in Scripture. In other words, proof texting is one of the most egregious manifestations of confirmation bias which exists in our world! In their article on the topic, Wikipedia defines "confirmation bias" as: "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values. People display this bias when they select information that supports their views, ignoring contrary information, or when they interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing attitudes." In other words, these folks ignore or discard any evidence which doesn't support their thesis. In terms of logical fallacies, this is "cherry picking" at its finest!

Hence, for anyone who is truly interested at getting at the truth of the matter - of discerning the will of God, proof texting is NOT the best way to do that! Of course, studying the context of verses and weighing ALL of the scriptural evidence related to a particular topic takes a lot more effort and time. Nevertheless, for those who are truly interested in getting at the truth, we can hopefully see that the extra effort will give us a much better chance of achieving that goal! 

Sunday, August 28, 2022

If You're Interested in Christ or the Gospel, CGI Is NOT for You!

The latest offerings from the Church of God International may be of interest to ultra-conservative Americans, but folks who are interested in hearing about Jesus and his message will be very disappointed! I can hear it now: "There goes Lonnie and his sour grapes again!" "Hasn't he got anything better to do?" "Why must he persist in ATTACKING Bill Watson and Adrian Davis?" "Those guys are living rent-free in his head!" "Why is he ATTACKING his family's religion?" "He is an accuser of the brethren!" "Satan is using him to ATTACK God's Church!" The responses are so predictable, because this is the way that Armstrongites have ALWAYS reacted to criticism. Since the days of Herbie, they can run traditional Christians and their beliefs into the ground; but you let anyone criticize what they're doing, and the howls of "persecution" are deafening!

In the latest edition of The International News, there aren't ANY articles wholly devoted to Jesus, his message, or salvation through him. Instead, we find there the following articles: Were the Ten Commandments in Force Before Moses? by Mike James, What Is Mankind's Option for Survival? by Bill Watson, Kung Fu Fighting by Jeff Flanick, A Brief Review of "Thin Again" by Michelle Algarra, What is an Abortion? by W. Adam Boyd, Enroute to the Kingdom by George Roper (at least George mentions Jesus and his teachings), Questions and Answers by Vance Stinson (What about imprecatory prayers? and Is cremation an acceptable option?), Male and Female He Created Them by Mike James, Feast of Tabernacles 2022 in Poughkeepsie, New York, an obituary for Kenneth Bounds, Why Baptize? by Robert Onsando, and Four Baptized in Sheridan, Wyoming.

In his article, Bill Watson wrote: "Consider for a moment the fact that the United States has just appointed a female Supreme Court Justice that cannot define what a women is!" <I think he meant "woman"> "How is that kind of nonsense acceptable? It is also now confirmed that the disgusting information coming out from Hunter Biden’s laptop and the revelation of his business and salacious shenanigans are legitimate and unlike originally portrayed as 'conspiracy,' is now shocking most of us that this is real! Why hasn’t he been arrested and indicted?" He continued: "Compound that with Ghislaine Maxwell’s disclosure of names and mountains of video evidence revealing 'highly influential' men and women participating in and guilty of statutory rape—and shockingly, not one of these powerful and famous political or business leaders, movie stars, or educators have been arrested, indicted, and convicted! How does this happen? Where is the outrage? Who is protecting these people? And what is really behind the 'curtain' that these leaders and elitists don’t want us, the people, to know about them? What evil has been perpetrated? It’s obvious: if the truth were to come out, as it has about Mr. Hunter Biden, Anthony Weiner, Bernie Madoff, and so many others, this would be extremely embarrassing and ruin their images and positions of influence, as was done to some of the above mentioned men—and now, most recently, Prince Andrew. Frankly, it should lead to the conviction and incarceration of ALL those participants!" Of course, there isn't any mention of Donald Trump or his possible crimes!

Not convinced that Mr. Watson's article is too focused on the current political culture in the United States? Bill continued: "Presently, the United States is agonizing and languishing from misappropriated policies that are igniting inflation, interest rates, energy co-dependence, and the dilution of American culture due to immigration policies that are weak in managing restriction and restraint!" Still not convinced? Watson noted: "Never in our lifetime have we seen such negligence of law enforcement. The conditions surrounding the borders of the United States are now being characterized as an INVASION! The smuggling of fentanyl, meth, and other drugs is out of control. And much of this is due to the Cartel dominating the human trafficking, drug, and weapons smuggling industry! In the meantime, government policies are weaponizing specific segments of the government, to reduce the rule of law—and the increasing crime rate substantiates this fact—“blood touches blood”—random violence is now common in many of the western cities of the USA, Britain, and Europe, due to the lack of law enforcement!" To be fair, he does go on to say that Christ is going to return someday and establish God's Kingdom on this earth.

But Pastor Watson's article for The International News was NOTHING compared to the sermon he delivered this past Sabbath at Medina! He insisted that the United States has an ethnicity problem, not a racism problem. He suggested that someone might have a problem if they married a "black lady, brown lady, or an Asian lady." He went on to complain about our modern usage of the word "gay." Apparently, Bill yearns for the good ole days when that word meant "happy." From there he launched into another diatribe about the "CCP" Virus (for those of you who may not be familiar with this terminology in referring to Covid-19, it stands for the Chinese Communist Party Virus). Bill insisted that the Chinese "seeded" the world with the virus. He noted that all of this used to be regarded as a conspiracy theory, but that now we know it's a "fact." He went on to say that Doctors Birx and Fauci have changed their minds again and are now saying that natural immunity is just as good as being vaccinated. Before finishing, he also mentioned the "87,000" new IRS agents, the Chinese threat to Taiwan, and the outrageously high gas prices (although they've recently dropped, I share his discomfort with those gas prices). He did, however, return to a semi-religious theme to conclude his message - He encouraged everyone to attend the Feast of Tabernacles to experience a foretaste of God's Kingdom!

Even so, Bill's sermon was mild compared to Pastor Adrian Davis' sermon just last month! The HOUR AND A HALF long sermon was a diatribe against the Biden Administration. He called his sermon "Build Bad Better" - you know, a not-so-subtle dig at Biden's "Build Back Better" slogan. Once again, one has to wonder why a Canadian pastor is so obsessed with the political culture in the United States! Then, like Bill, he returned to one of his favorite targets - the government's efforts to curtail the spread of the Covid-19 Virus. He said that government restrictions on large assemblies had directly contradicted the command in Scripture to assemble for worship on a regular basis! He even went on to suggest that a SWAT team would have descended on anyone who had tried to hold church services during that period! If that wasn't bad enough, he went on to talk in very graphic terms about the Monkey Pox virus. One has to hope that there weren't any children in his audience as he launched into a talk about how most of the current outbreak could be attributed to "men sharing their genitals with other men!" When he finally got back around to "Build Back Better," Davis claimed that "you will own nothing, but you will be happy!" And, just in case that wasn't explicit enough, he went on to say that it was really a return to communism and feudalism! Talk about over the top and inflammatory rhetoric! He went on to declare that "the American system of honoring the individual is dead!" Ironically, at times, it seemed like Pastor Davis was quoting Yuval Harari more than he was the Bible! At one point, he even challenged anyone to offer just one decision that the Biden Administration has made that makes America better. According to Pastor Davis, every decision that the current President of the United States has made has been calculated by him to DESTROY the nation he leads!

Whether or not you agree with these POLITICAL opinions is immaterial to the point this post is making - It is CLEARLY NOT the job of ANY minister of Jesus Christ to be offering such opinions from the pulpit! Most of us attend Church for spiritual enrichment, nourishment and fellowship. If we want to listen to MAGA talking points, we can turn on our television sets and go to the FOX News channel or any one of a number of other conservative media outlets! A Christian Church should be preaching about the life, teachings, death, resurrection and messaging of Jesus of Nazareth - period! You can't even call this stuff prophecy - it's just PURE politics!

And, just to cut my critics off at the pass, I have raised these concerns privately with Bill Watson, Vance Stinson, Mike James, Jeff Reed, Wynn Skelton and others within the Church of God International's leadership team. You can clearly see from my latest report just how effective those contacts were! To be fair, CGI's leadership did make a feeble attempt to rein in Bill's and Adrian's messaging about Covid-19, but (once again) you can see just how much good that did! Also, please note, that I have used their own words - written and spoken - to criticize their messaging. I have NOT attacked personalities. My criticisms are focused on the messaging of these men.

In conclusion, for those Armstrongites who may be looking for a more reasonable, less political, and more spiritually focused organization with which to fellowship, the Church of God International is NOT that church! Dave Pack, Gerald Flurry and Bob Thiel got NOTHING on these folks!

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Love in the New Testament

And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. - Deuteronomy 6:5

Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the Lord. - Leviticus 19:18

When asked which of the commandments of the Torah was the most important (Matthew 22:36), Christ replied: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments." (Verses 37-40) Did you catch that? Christ said that the WHOLE Torah, along with ALL of the preaching of the prophets, was derived from these two commandments! In other words, he distilled the entire Law into two great principles. (See also Mark 12:28-34 and Luke 10:25-37)

Later, of course, he would make this the basis for what would be expected from everyone who accepted his sacrifice for his/her sins! On the night before his crucifixion and death, Christ told his disciples: "So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples." (John 13:34-35) A little later that same evening, Jesus explained to them why he was making this a part of the terms of the New Covenant in him. He said: "“I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me. You didn’t choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name. This is my command: Love each other." (John 15:9-17) In other words, just as Christ had demonstrated his love for the Father by obeying his commandments, Christians would demonstrate their love for him and the Father by obeying his commandment!

At the very end of this same gospel account, we find an interesting interaction between the resurrected Christ and the Apostle Peter regarding the depths of Peter's love for the Lord. After denying Jesus three times just prior to his crucifixion and death, we are told that the resurrected Christ confronted Peter after having performed a miracle and eating breakfast with his disciples. (John 21:1-15). "Do you love me more than these others do?" Jesus asked. Now, in this connection, it is interesting to note that something is going on in this passage in the original Greek that is not conveyed by our English versions of it. The Greek word for "love" which Christ employed in his question conveyed an overwhelming care and concern for its object (See Blue Letter Bible's entry for agapao). Peter responded in the affirmative and insisted that Christ already knew that he loved him. (Verse 15) However, the Greek word for love which is attributed to Peter is a more casual and affectionate kind of love (See Blue Letter Bible's entry for phileo). Jesus then suggests that Peter demonstrate his love for him by feeding his sheep - taking care of his followers. And, just as Peter had previously denied him three times, the question and response is repeated two more times. (John 21:16-17) In other words, if you sincerely and deeply love me, you will demonstrate it by loving my followers. Hence, the gospel in which Christ issued his "new commandment" concludes with Jesus insisting that Peter obey it!

Later still, Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome that God had filled their hearts with his love by giving them the Holy Spirit. (Romans 5:5) He went on to tell them that "God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God." (Verses 8-11) Further on in the epistle, Paul elaborated on what Christ's sacrifice had accomplished for them. He wrote: "So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit." (Romans 8:1-4) For Paul, all of this had been accomplished because of God's and Christ's love for us.

Toward the end of the same chapter, Paul went on to tell them that NOTHING would be able to separate them from that love. He wrote: "Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, 'For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.' No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:35-39) Now, that's love! - a love that cannot be extinguished, overcome, or defeated by any force in the universe!

Further on in the same epistle, Paul brings his theme to its natural conclusion by echoing the words of Christ about a Christian's responsibility regarding the Law. He wrote: "Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, 'You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.' These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law." (Romans 13:8-10) Like Jesus, Paul identified the hallmark of a true Christian as being the love which he/she exhibits for their brothers and sisters.

Unfortunately, this is a concept that Herbert Armstrong and his followers never seemed to fully grasp or embrace. Instead of focusing on the commandment of Jesus to LOVE, they get bogged down in the written code of the Torah - all of those dos and don'ts! Like the founder of their faith, they're uncomfortable with the mushy, emotional stuff. For them, love is defined by a Christian being scrupulously obedient to all of those dos and don'ts. In other words, love is demonstrated by obedience to all of those laws! For folks in the ACOG's, it's all about the TRUTH. It's NOT love that identifies them as Christians - It's their UNDERSTANDING of certain doctrinal "truths."

This, however, is refuted by what Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth. Paul defined exactly what love is and isn't in his letter to that congregation. He began his essay on love by stating that love was more important than any other gift a Christian could possess, and Paul even provides a number of examples: a proficiency in one of the Biblical languages (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Latin), interpreting prophecy, understanding doctrinal truths, a strong faith, and charitable giving. (I Corinthians 13:1-3) Love was superior to all of those. Next, in what would become one of the most often quoted passages in the entire Bible, Paul gave them his definition of love. He wrote: "Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance." (Verses 4-7). Hence, it should be very clear to anyone who is even remotely interested in a Biblical definition of love that folks who are impatient, cruel, jealous, arrogant, prideful, spoiled, irritable, vengeful, quitters, unfaithful, morose or easily offended are NOT exhibiting the kind of love that Paul described to the Corinthians!

In his letter to the Christians of Galatia, Paul made clear that this kind of love fulfills both the law and God's expectations of them. He wrote: "So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law." (Galatians 5:1) Paul went on to tell them that they would meet God's expectations regarding righteousness if they would simply focus on what Christ had done for them and live their lives in accordance with the commandment which he had given them. (Galatians 5:2-6) He wrote: "For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Verses 13-14) For Paul, Christians were to avoid evil by allowing the Holy Spirit to guide their lives. (Verses 16-19). He concluded his thesis by reminding the Galatians about what the Holy Spirit's influence on their lives would actually look like. Paul wrote: "But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!" (Verses 22-23) Once again, Paul reiterated the crucial role that love played in fulfilling God's expectations of those who had accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Likewise, in his letter to the saints of Ephesus, Paul wrote about the essential role that love occupies in God's plans for Christians. After explaining to them that Christ had given them access to the Father, he encouraged them to have faith in their future. (Ephesians 3:12-13) Then, he went on to offer them some insight into how he used his own access to God. He wrote: "When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God." (Ephesians 3:14-19)

A little later, in the same epistle, Paul encouraged them to "Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace." (Ephesians 4:2-3) Clearly, for Paul, love was the key to success for individual Christians and the Church as a whole. Indeed, he went on to tell them that their spiritual growth (both individually and collectively) was dependent on that love. (Ephesians 4:15-16) In terms of their personal homelife, he went on to instruct husbands to love their wives (5:25,28,33) For Paul, this was also the key to familial success!

We also hear the echo of Christ's command to love each other in many of Paul's other epistles. He told the Christians at Philippi that he prayed that their love would continue to grow and "overflow." (Philippians 1:9) He also encouraged them to love each other and work together "with one mind and purpose." (Philippians 2:2) Likewise, he told the saints at Colosse that he had heard about their faith in Christ and their "love for all of God's people." (Colossians 1:4) He also wrote to the saints of Thessalonica that he prayed that God would "make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow." (I Thessalonians 3:12) Paul continued: "But we don’t need to write to you about the importance of loving each other, for God himself has taught you to love one another." (I Thessalonians 4:9) Hence, we can see that this love for one another was a recurring theme in Paul's epistles.

This theme, however, was not confined to Christ's teachings and Paul's epistles. We also find this same teaching about love present in the other writings of the New Testament. The anonymous author of the epistle to the Hebrews encouraged his/her readers to "think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near." (Hebrews 10:24-25) Indeed, in his/her concluding remarks, the author encouraged his/her readers to "Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters." (Hebrews 13:1) Likewise, James told the readers of his epistle that "it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (James 2:8) Peter also wrote to God's people that "You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart." (I Peter 1:22) He went on to instruct them to "Respect everyone and love the family of believers." (I Peter 2:17)

So, we see that Christ's commandment to his followers is echoed throughout the New Testament, but it probably finds its clearest and most eloquent statement in the first epistle of John. After reflecting on how much God loves all of us, John wrote: "So now we can tell who are children of God and who are children of the devil. Anyone who does not live righteously and does not love other believers does not belong to God. This is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another. We must not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because Cain had been doing what was evil, and his brother had been doing what was righteous. So don’t be surprised, dear brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. If we love our brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead. Anyone who hates another brother or sister is really a murderer at heart. And you know that murderers don’t have eternal life within them. We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions." (I John 3:10-18) He went on to say: "And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us." (Verse 23)

Now, that is powerful testimony about the importance of love to the life of a Christian, but John didn't end there! He continued: "Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us. Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them." (I John 4:7-16)  He went on to say that this kind of love does not entertain or live with fear. (Verse 18). Then, John concluded his thought with this: "We love each other because he loved us first. If someone says, 'I love God,' but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has become a child of God. And everyone who loves the Father loves his children, too. We know we love God’s children if we love God and obey his commandments. Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome." (I John 4:19-21 and 5:1-3)

Hence, we see that for Jesus and his apostles, his commandment to love each other was at the heart of the religion he founded. Indeed, we see that Christ and his apostles made this love an essential component of demonstrating our love for God! So, by loving one another, we demonstrate that we love God with all of our heart, soul, and might. Moreover, the nature of that love is made clear in those same writings. The love that Jesus and his disciples described is giving, kind, patient, forgiving, merciful, joyous, and faithful. It is NOT harsh, legalistic, rude, cruel, impatient, or easily set aside! Christ's commandment for Christians was based on the Torah, but it did NOT forward all of those dos and don'ts into the terms of the New Covenant. For TRUE, Christians the hallmark of their faith is this LOVE which we can clearly see was one of the principal themes of the New Testament!

Sunday, August 21, 2022

A Closer Look at One of Those Clobber Passages

One of the more interesting reactions to my last post came from a good friend who has struggled over a passage from Paul's letter to the saints at Rome. For this individual, the most troublesome passage in Scripture with regard to homosexuality is found in Romans 1:26-27. Paul wrote: "That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved." (NLT) Having done an intensive study of the other "clobber" passages (those scriptures used to condemn homosexuality) and reaching the conclusion that they did NOT constitute a blanket condemnation of homosexuality, my friend still struggled with this particular passage.

Now, from my own perspective, longtime readers of my blog will understand that I reached the conclusion many years ago that a fundamentalist/literalist approach to Scripture is logically, philosophically, and spiritually unsustainable. Again, from my own perspective, Scripture contains many statements that can be described as culture-specific or cultural anachronisms. In other words, statements that are specific to a certain time and place and were never intended to be universal spiritual truths or principles. I think that many Christians forget that Paul was writing to specific communities which existed in the First Century, and that he was addressing concerns and problems that were peculiar to the folks whom he was addressing. Moreover, Paul is often very clear in telling his readers that he is offering his own opinion/perspective on some matter - that what he is sharing with them didn't necessarily come from God! Unfortunately, all too often, we forget that Paul probably had no idea that his letters to these various communities would one day be regarded by Christians everywhere as Scripture!

Even so, for the sake of my fundamentalist friends, a closer look at this passage from Paul's letter to the Romans is warranted. Now, something that almost all of us can agree on relative to the interpretation of Scripture is that CONTEXT is extremely important. Hence, in looking at this particular passage, our very first order of business is to put it into the context of the larger epistle of which it is a part. In other words, what is the principal object/subject/theme of Paul's letter to the Romans?

Long ago, most Biblical scholars and students came to the conclusion that Paul is addressing how Christ makes us right with God in the first half of this epistle. To be more precise, he is writing to this congregation of Jews and Gentiles that "everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard." (Romans 3:23) Sure, the Jews have actually violated the commandments enumerated in the Torah, but Gentiles also stand guilty before God because of the things which he has revealed about himself/his nature to them! Hence, whether Jew or Gentile. Jesus Christ is "the sacrifice for sin." (Romans 3:25) He continued: "People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood."

Now, in the first chapter of the epistle, Paul explains to the Romans how Gentiles can also be considered sinners - despite the fact that they NEVER received (or professed to have followed/obeyed) the Torah! He wrote: "But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God." (Romans 1:18-20) Notice that Paul says that sinful behavior suppresses the truth, and that these Gentiles should have known better just by observing the world around them (which God had created). He continued: "Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles." (Romans 1:21-23) In other words, instead of being thankful and in awe of the Creator, these people turned to idolatry!

This point that Paul is making about idolatry is critical to fully understanding what is about to follow. The Greco-Roman world of Paul's day was literally full of idolatry! There was a god for almost everything and everybody! Moreover, as many Biblical and historical scholars have observed before me, human sexuality was an integral part of almost all of these pagan cults. Temple prostitutes, both male and female, were a common feature of "Gentile" religious practices in Paul's day. Hence, it is no great wonder that Paul would have singled out these practices for condemnation in his letter to the saints at Rome!

In his An Analysis of Romans 1:18-32, Bruce L. Gerig wrote: "Louis Epstein (1948) noted that orgies commonly occurred at heathen festivals, even in Israel (e.g., Hos 4:12-18; Isa 57:3-5; Jer 2:20, 33 and 3:1-2).    And there is little doubt that Paul’s discussion of food offered to idols in 1 Cor 8–10 included a problem with prostitution (porneia), which flourished on festive occasions in some pagan temples.52   Paul’s reference to the Golden Calf incident (Exod 32:6, 1 Cor 10:7), where we find the ancient Israelites ‘eating and drinking and rising up to play,’ there is little doubt that “to play” here is a euphemism for sexual activities.53   Later John the Apostle criticizes the church at Pergamum (now in western Turkey) for being guilty of eating food sacrificed to idols along with sexual immorality (Rev 2:14ff); and the general Church decree in Acts 15 seems to confront this same problem, with its call to abstain “from things polluted by [meat offered to] idols and from fornication” (Acts 15:20, NRSV).54   As Catherine Edwards (1993) explains, sexual pleasure was often expected at the end of a banquet, with prostitutes offered as part of the entertainment.   Dio Chrysostom (c.40–c.120) remarks how brothel-keepers brought “their stock” to these “great festive occasions” (De invidia: Oratio 77-78.4).55"

As part of the same commentary, Gerig went on to note that: "The first 'giving over' (Rom 1:24-25): Heterosexual practices which dishonor the body.    Then Paul writes: “[24] Therefore God gave them up [i.e., these God-rejecters] in the lusts [epithymiai] of their heart to impurity [akatharsia, KJV-ABS: ‘uncleanness’], to the degrading [atimazō, KJV-ABS: ‘dishonoring’] of their bodies among themselves, [25] because they exchanged [metallassō, G3337] the truth about God for a lie [lit., “the lie,” see Van der Pool; Harrison in Gaebelein 10 1976, p. 25] and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!  Amen” (NRSV).    Because these Gentiles refused to worship the true God and thank him for their creation (Rom 1:18-20), they were left with the folly of worshipping their own man-made idols and gods (1:21-24), which were a fake.    But God also “gave them over” (NRSV, paredōken autous, G3860, G846) in three other ways: (1) to engage in sexual activities which ‘dishonored their bodies’ (1:24-25), (2) to exchange ‘natural sexual use’ for ‘unnatural sexual use’ (1:26-27), and (3) to create a social world of chaos and cruelty (1:28-31)."

Gerig continued: "Atimazō is usually translated as “dishonoring [of their bodies]” (cf. Green 1986, cf. UNASB 1999, ESV 2001, cf. Van der Pool 2006), or “degrading [of their bodies]” (NIV 1978, NRSV 1989).    Caught in the clutches of intense sexual passions, these people turned to what Paul considered “filthy [practices]” (NJB 1985, akatharsia), or doing “shameful [things with their bodies]” (CEV 1995).    But what kinds of specific things did Paul have in mind here—relating to heterosexual behavior, since 1:26-27 later seems to turn to homosexual behavior?    First, 1 Cor 10:7-8 and Acts 15:20 suggest that Paul’s biggest sexual problem in his churches were converts who continued to attend the free pagan temple feasts, which generally ended in heavy drinking and group debauchery (cf. the “drunkenness, orgies” in Gal 5:21; and “reveling and drunkenness . . . debauchery and licentiousness, Rom 13:13, NRSV), where prostitutes were also present.4   The Jewish historian Josephus tells of  the lady Paulina engaged in sex all night in the Isis temple precincts in Rome with Mundus, whom she thought was the Egyptian god Anubis (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.3.65-80).5   Paul was aware of the sizable number of slaves in his churches (see ‘the lowly and despised things,’ 1 Cor 1:26, and cf. 7:20-21 and Rom 16); and he no doubt had heard wrenching stories of how good-looking, especially younger slaves, of both genders, were often sexually abused by their Roman masters and mistresses.6    Because these God-rejecters had “project[ed] the sexual license they desired onto their gods,” this left them “free to follow their own unbridled passions” in many and varied ways.7   When Paul visited the public baths, in some places he may have seen erotic scenes like those pictured in the dressing room of Suburban Baths in Pompeii, which showed: a woman mounting a man, a woman performing fellatio on a man, a man performing cunnilingus on a woman, two women copulating (apparently using a dildo), a threesome with two men and a woman, and a foursome with two men and two women, etc.8"

We should also remember that. although the things that we would describe as homosexual behavior were certainly known in Paul's day (and in the days of the Jews who compiled the Torah), the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity were entirely unknown to them. In other words, they had little or no understanding of the actual psychology and biology of human sexuality. Moreover, we are not bringing this up to denigrate them or underscore their ignorance - we are simply stating the FACT that they did NOT have this information.

As part of his commentary on Paul's clear differentiation between natural and unnatural "use" (or sexual intercourse), Gerig observed that: "One approach to understanding how Paul viewed 'nature' here is to see how he speaks about this elsewhere in his letters.    For example, he writes of those being 'uncircumcised' as being Gentiles ek physeōs (“by nature,” G1537, G5449, Rom 2:27, KJV-ABS), while the Jews are Jews (or circumcised) “by nature” (physei, G5449, Gal 2:15, KJV-ABS).    He notes also that idols “by nature” (physei) are not gods” (Gal 4:8, KJV-ABS) and that unbelievers, as “children of [God’s] wrath,” are sinful “by nature” (physei, Eph 2:3, NRSV).    All these references seem to point to a “cultural distinction”12 or to an “inborn character”13.    Then, amazingly, Paul writes that God has “cut [Gentiles] from what is by nature [kata physin, G2596, G5449] a wild olive tree” and has “grafted [them], contrary to nature [para physin, G3844, G5449]” onto “a cultivated olive tree,” i.e., he made them part of his people (Rom 11:24, NRSV, italics added)—and if the Almighty can do something “contrary to nature,” this can hardly mean “sinful per se.”14   Indeed, God sometimes acts in a way that is “more than” or “beyond” nature—and as Strong’s concordance shows, para (G3844) can mean “other than, more than” just as well as “contrary to, against.”    Then Paul also writes: “Does not nature teach you that if a man wears long hair [NEB: ‘flowing locks’], it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is for her glory?” (1 Cor 11:14-15, NRSV, italics added)—and the criteria for “nature” here seems to be “widespread social usage.”15    So in his letters Paul uses “against/beyond nature” or “unnatural” (para physin) as a synonym for “(seriously) unconventional”16 or for something that is “surprising and out of the ordinary”17."

Hence, in the light of all of this context, we can see that making Romans 1:26-27 a blanket condemnation of homosexuality is both simplistic and misleading. Clearly, Paul was NOT thinking about homosexuality or homosexual behavior in the same way that you or I would think about those things. Remember, whatever you decide that this passage means to you, your conclusions MUST reflect an understanding of the context in which Paul made these remarks. In other words, we must try to look at this through Paul's eyes. We can all agree that temple prostitution, orgies, and the sexual exploitation of slaves and children is horrendous and obviously sinful (whether it's heterosexual or homosexual in nature). While there is certainly NOTHING wrong with adapting Scriptural principles to our own time and circumstances, we must understand a little bit about both the textual, cultural, and historical context in which these things were originally penned! What do you think?    

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Why your acceptance of me isn't good enough!

My homosexuality is largely ignored by family and friends, but many of them continue to condemn homosexuality generally. They love me, and they know that I am a "good" and moral person. If confronted about why they accept/tolerate me, they would probably respond with things like: "He's my dad, son, brother, or friend!" or "I love him!" They might also reference the fact that I'm celibate, or that I don't engage in those "nasty" behaviors in which other gay people "wallow." Some of them would undoubtedly point to my profession of faith (in Christianity), or the kindness, love, or empathy which I've displayed toward them. In other words, for most of my family and friends, their support for me is based on their conviction that I am somehow unique - that I'm not like those other "crazy" or "bad" folks who are part of the LGBTQ community! To be clear, for many of them, it is a matter of separating me out of the pack and justifying their decision to do that.

Unfortunately, many of them still believe that homosexuality is evil or bad - that people who engage in that kind of "lifestyle" have intentionally perverted/twisted their sexuality and are wholly immoral. Are you beginning to detect a little cognitive dissonance (harboring inconsistent beliefs, opinions, or attitudes) here? They have scooped out an exception for me - exempted me from the condemnation which folks like me could normally expect from them. They still generally believe that folks like me are "destroying America" - that homosexuals are "undermining traditional values." Overall, they see the LGBTQ community as a bunch of militant and undeserving folks who are demanding rights and privileges which they don't deserve! When they are out of my presence, they are still attacking societal toleration of homosexuality. In other words, when they are out of earshot, the epithets are still likely to fly! The attacks on textbooks, classroom instruction, San Francisco, and the Disney Corporation are still bubbling just under the surface.

Why should this matter to me? Shouldn't I be thankful that they don't paint me with this brush? Shouldn't I be content with the tolerance and acceptance which they've shown me?

These attitudes and beliefs matter to me because I AM GAY! I am sexually attracted to some (the good-looking ones) members of my own gender. I did NOT choose to be attracted to members of my own gender. For me, this is simply the way that I am - a part of my NATURE. I NEVER made a conscious decision to reject members of the opposite sex as objects of desire. I am also obviously capable of experiencing and exhibiting feelings/behaviors like love, fidelity, kindness, compassion, moderation - or what is more generally referred to as moral behavior. My sexual appetites are NOT greater/more intense/less controllable than the average heterosexual male. I feel NO predisposition to degrade or humiliate myself. I'm NOT seeking to corrupt or convert anyone. I understand and accept the fact that heterosexual folks are NOT attracted to members of their own gender. In other words, the stereotypes that exist about people like me DON'T fit.

Still not convinced that I have a legitimate reason to be offended or hurt? Instead of homosexuality, let's substitute skin color. After all, we observe the exact same phenomenon at work there! Many of us have known/accepted/loved one or two individuals from a race other than our own. We may even work with them or go to church with them. Moreover, that familiarity has prompted us to come to the conclusion that he/she/they are fine/decent/upstanding folks. Nevertheless, in so many instances, such personal relationships fail to change our racial attitudes more generally. It's like: "My black person isn't a lazy, uneducated thief!" In other words, your friend/loved one isn't like their folks - he/she is a "good one!" Generally speaking, we don't associate with those folks, but this one is OK! Do we begin to see how our friend/loved one might not be impressed with that kind of thinking?

As a consequence of all of these FACTS, I feel compelled to ask a few questions of my own. Why would you condemn or ridicule a person for a feature of their persona over which he/she had absolutely zero choice or control? Should an employer be allowed to fire or discriminate against me because I'm gay? If love truly does fulfill the requirements of the Law, then how is loving someone EVER legitimately characterized as being sinful? How does my sexual orientation hurt or harm you or anyone else? I'm serious - please explain this to me! If I'm OK, then why is it appropriate to condemn or ridicule people who are like me? And, if God really does love everyone, then why don't you? Let me be crystal clear here: I appreciate and return the affection and love that has been shown to me by family and friends, but how can you love me and hate people who are like me? Would your opinion of me change if Darlene was Daniel? Did I write this post for myself or for other people? The answer to that question is: YES! Is it time for a little soul searching?

Beliefs can be modified or changed - skin color and sexual orientation, not so much!

See https://www.websiteplanet.com/blog/smb-guide-success-lgbtq-market-best-practices/

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Internal and External Evidence Supporting the New Testament Canon

While this blog has hopefully made it crystal clear that I no longer subscribe to a Fundamentalist/Literalist view of Scripture (and that I believe such a perspective is theologically, philosophically, historically, and scientifically unsustainable), I have also affirmed my continuing high regard for Scripture, and my conviction that those writings are Divinely inspired. Hence, just as I have argued against regarding the Bible as inerrant and the "final authority in matters of faith," longtime readers will have also noticed that I occasionally post the reasons for my continuing reverence for that book. For most folks, the Bible is an all or nothing proposition (which I have repeatedly characterized as a false dilemma). In my opinion there are a number of reasons NOT to be too quick to dismiss Scripture as superstitious nonsense of the past.

In this post, we will focus on both the internal and external evidence which supports a respectful view of the collection of documents popularly known as the New Testament. After all, the narrative about Christ and his apostles (along with various letters by them to the Christians of that day and age) are the basis for the Christian Religion/Faith! Moreover, the authenticity and reliability of those documents has a direct bearing on many of the questions which plague modern scholars, nonbelievers, and the faithful around the world. Questions like: Did Jesus Christ really exist? Was he really crucified and resurrected? Why do we have four gospel accounts in our canon? Is it reasonable to believe that what started out as a bunch of oral traditions (and was only committed to written texts thirty to forty years after the actual events took place) about what was said and done could accurately reflect that reality? Why are the Synoptic Gospels so similar (also known as the Synoptic Problem)? Did someone named Paul really write those epistles? Were all of those documents really derived from the Age of the Apostles?

In evaluating the reliability and value of the New Testament, we must first consider the evidence provided by the actual writings that make up that canon. First, there is widespread acceptance among Biblical scholars that Mark is the earliest of the gospels. Similarly, it is generally acknowledged that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. This, in turn, leads one to the inevitable conclusion that Matthew and Luke had at least one other unique source for the information contained therein (as there is material that is unique to each gospel). Now, while a great deal of attention has been paid to the high degree of harmony that exists among the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), many scholars are much more interested in the differences/discrepancies which exist in those accounts of Christ's life. Moreover, I have to say that I personally find those differences to represent the most interesting and compelling textual evidence available to us.

After all, we expect different people who witness the same event(s) to have slightly different takes/perspectives on exactly what happened. In fact, most of us would be more suspicious if these gospels were completely harmonious! For instance, one would expect one person to describe a robe as red, and another person to describe the exact same robe as purple. Likewise, in recalling what someone had to say at some critical event, most folks will often only remember some of what was actually said. It is also not uncommon for folks to emphasize the things which are important to them and to paraphrase and/or interpret what someone else has said. Again, for me, these kinds of discrepancies among different folks' accounts of the same events are to be expected. In other words, for me, these variations/differences/discrepancies make the accounts more believable.

What about someone deciding to write an account of something that happened thirty or forty years ago? We all know that a person's memory fades over time and often "plays tricks" on him. For our purposes, we will ignore that the authors of these writings claimed Divine help in remembering the events. After all, we are trying to evaluate the writings based on verifiable evidence that can be objectively evaluated by everyone! Hence, we should all be willing to acknowledge that there are a number of circumstances related to these writings that make them rather unique in this respect, and that reinforce the impression that they might have more merit than writings derived from other older oral traditions. For one thing, we have already established that most scholars believe these gospel accounts were at least in part derived from older written sources (e/g. collections of the sayings of Jesus).

I am, of course, also thinking about the notoriety of Jesus, and the number of people who would have been familiar with his story and teachings. Even if we allow that the authors of the various writings exaggerated/inflated the numbers of the people who heard Christ's messages or witnessed some of the various events associated with him, we must still come to the conclusion that many thousands of people had to have been exposed to Jesus and his teachings. Moreover, those writings make very plain that fifteen to twenty people (including twelve apostles) were very close to Christ during his ministry.

Hence, it is not unreasonable to conclude that a relatively large number of people would have been intimately familiar with the man and his teachings. It is also reasonable to assume that these folks would have reinforced each other's memories of the man. It is also reasonable to suggest that outlandish deviations from a widely known narrative would not have been well-received/tolerated within this group of people who had personally experienced Jesus! In other words, human nature being what it is, someone would have undoubtedly called "B.S." if the story had strayed too far from what the others knew to be the truth of the matter!

We should also note what a large role the Hebrew Bible played in the writing of the New Testament. Indeed, throughout the N.T. the Hebrew Scriptures are referenced and quoted extensively. In other words, it is evident that Christ's story was guided and influenced by an older and well-established narrative (which would necessarily place further guardrails on the project). After all, if Christ really was who he had said he was (the Messiah), then his narrative would have to conform to those Scriptures. If he really was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, then his own story would have to demonstrate that fact.

It is also widely acknowledged (even by Fundamentalist scholars) that Paul's epistles represent the earliest Christian writings available to us. Why is that important? Because it demonstrates that the basic outlines of Christ's story had already been told and disseminated by the time that the gospels were written. Although Paul's writings have been criticized for how little they reveal about the real Jesus, we must also acknowledge that the framework of the more detailed narrative is there. After all, Paul does make plain that Christ lived a sinless life, taught his disciples to love each other, instituted the Eucharist and baptism, paid the penalty for our sins by his death, was later resurrected, ascended to heaven, and promised to return to this earth someday. There is also abundant evidence in Paul's epistles that he was not bashful about calling out anyone who diverged from the narrative about Jesus which he had promulgated among the gentiles.

How do we know that Paul actually wrote the epistles attributed to him? As you probably already know, there are a large number of scholars who do NOT think that Paul wrote all of those letters! These scholars generally divide the epistles attributed to the apostle into two groups: the undisputed epistles and those which are disputed as being genuine letters of Paul.

However, as longtime readers of this blog know, I believe that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Paul was the author of all (or most) of the epistles attributed to him. To summarize, the internal evidence for this rests in the fact that Paul usually co-authored his epistles with various of his coworkers, and often assigned the actual task of writing the letter to someone else. This would obviously account for many of the grammatical and textual differences which scholars have noted among these writings. Moreover, there is also the early and widespread acceptance of Pauline authorship among folks who would have personally known (or known of) the apostle. Even so, the question of Pauline authorship of these epistles is NOT essential to the wider issues addressed in this post.

Finally, the wide dissemination of Paul's epistles, and the four canonical gospels twenty to thirty years later further served to lockdown the narrative about Christ and his apostles. How do we know that these writings were widely disseminated by the end of the First Century? For this we must go to the writings which immediately followed the Age of the Apostles - those external or extra-canonical sources we mentioned at the beginning of this post. 

One of the earliest external references to the writings of the New Testament comes to us from Clement of Rome who was a contemporary and apparent acquaintance of the Apostle Paul (Phillipians 4:3). In Clement's epistle to the Corinthian church, he referenced information found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke (see Clement of Rome to the Corinthians - 13 and Clement of Rome to the Corinthians - 46). He also mentions two of Christ's apostles, Peter and Paul (see Clement of Rome to the Corinthians - 5), and he demonstrates a familiarity with many of Paul's epistles throughout the same letter.

Another early external reference to the writings contained in our New Testament canon comes to us from Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna (69-155 CE). In his Epistle to the Philippians, we see a number of references to the gospel narrative and Paul's epistles. He wrote: "being mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching: 'Judge not, that ye be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that ye may obtain mercy; with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again;' and once more, 'Blessed are the poor, and those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God.'" (See Polycarp's Epistle to the Philippians -2)

A contemporary of Polycarp's (and probably the most prolific of the early Christian writers), who was also mentioned by the Bishop of Smyrna in the above-mentioned epistle, was Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch (30-107 CE). In his Epistle to the Ephesians, he quoted extensively from the Gospel of John (with a few references to the gospels of Matthew and Luke) and from several of Paul's epistles. Likewise, in Ignatius' Epistle to the Trallians, there are a number of references to Paul's epistles and a few quotations from the gospels of Matthew and John. In his Epistle to the Romans, the bishop quotes from the Gospel of John: "If ye were of this world, the world would love its own; but now ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it: continue in fellowship with me." Again, in his Epistle to the Philadelphians, he made several references to the epistles of the Apostle Paul. In similar fashion, Ignatius' Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, is full of references to Paul's epistles and the Gospel of John.

From the same period that Clement, Polycarp and Ignatius were writing their epistles (late First and Early Second Century), we have what has been described by some as the first Christian catechism. In The Didache, Christ's distillation of the Law into two great commandments (Love for God and love for neighbor) is expounded upon and underscored. Moreover, there are expositions on baptism and the Eucharist. Also, the "Lord's Prayer" is quoted in its entirety. Finally, the catechism concludes with an encouragement for Christians to be prepared for Christ's return.

Also, from this same period, we have an epistle attributed to Barnabas. The letter purports to be "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." While making very clear that Christians are not bound by the terms of the Torah and are operating under the terms of the New Covenant, the epistle (like the canonical gospels and epistles) portrays Christ as the fulfillment of many of the rituals/symbols outlined in the Hebrew Bible. The letter also discusses the cross as a Christian symbol and baptism as a Christian ritual. Like the gospels of Matthew, Luke, John, the two epistles attributed to Peter, I John and Revelation, the second part of this epistle contrasts the ways of light and darkness for Christians. Finally, echoing the words of Christ, the epistle states that Christians should "Give to every one that asketh thee."

Writing in the middle of the Second Century, the surviving works of Justin Martyr indicate a broad familiarity with the material contained in the New Testament canon. In The First Apology of Justin Martyr, we find evidence of a man who was well-acquainted with the gospel narrative and the Christian religion elucidated by the Apostle Paul. Indeed, those writings indicate a profound familiarity with the Gospel of Matthew. He also talks about Simon Magus whose brief story is told in the book of Acts. In this same writing, Justin also offers a detailed exposition on the Eucharist. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin makes plain that he understands that Christians are not obligated to observe the tenets of the Torah and are operating under a New Covenant because of what Christ had done for them. In those same writings (Dialogue), he went on to make clear that Christians believe that Christ will someday return to this earth.

By the second half of the Second Century of the Common Era, the writings of Irenaeus of Lyons demonstrate that most of the writings of the New Testament canon were known widely and considered authoritative. A few examples from his surviving writings will illustrate this point. In his Against Heresies (1-1), Irenaeus mention the Parable of the Laborers found in the Gospel of Matthew. Likewise, in Against Heresies (1-3), he quotes from Colossians, Ephesians, and I Corinthians. In Against Heresies (1-8), Irenaeus quotes Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, I Corinthians, and Ephesians. In Against Heresies (1-23), he uses the story of Simon Magus found in the book of Acts. Irenaeus also quotes from the book of Revelation in Against Heresies (1-26). In Against Heresies (2-22), he quotes extensively from the Gospel of John. Irenaeus attests to the fact that Polycarp received his bishopric by apostolic appointment, mentions Clement, and quotes from Paul's epistle to Titus in Against Heresies (3-3). Likewise, in Against Heresies (3-7), he quotes from Paul's second epistle to the Corinthians and his epistle to the Galatians. In chapters 9-11 of this same third book, he references all four of the canonical gospels! In Against Heresies (3-12), Irenaeus quotes extensively from the book of Acts. Indeed, the fact that he was very familiar with the book of Acts is further attested to by the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters of the same book (3). In Against Heresies (5-35), Irenaeus quotes extensively from the book of Revelation. These are just a few of this Second Century bishop's quotations from (and references to) the writings which would later be included in the New Testament canon. He also quoted from and referenced in his books Against Heresies several of the other epistles not mentioned in the above references.

Hence, we can see from both the internal and external evidence which is available to us that there is sufficient evidence to support the value and reliability of the New Testament canon. In other words, an objective review of the evidence suggests that these writings paint a compelling and fairly consistent narrative about Christ and his apostles. That is NOT to suggest that those writings are inerrant, but it does suggest that they provide a reliable foundation for the Christian Faith.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Some Further Observations About the Law

In my last post, I pointed out the differences between prohibitions and principles. However, although a majority of the commandments listed in the Torah or Law could be classified as prohibitions (as in 8 of the big 10), Dr. Maurice Mizrahi observed that there are Three Types of Commandments back in 2019. According to him, "There are three types of injunctions in the Torah: 1. You must not do this, 2. You may do this, within limits," and "3. You must do this." In other words, there are prohibitions, allowances, and requirements.

In terms of the Ten Commandments, the Israelites were prohibited from: having any other gods before the Almighty, making any graven images or worshipping them, taking God's name in vain, murdering, being unfaithful, stealing, bearing false witness, or coveting. In addition to these prohibitions, they were also required to "remember the Sabbath day" by keeping it holy and honor their parents. Interestingly, however, even the Sabbath command included a prohibition against working on that day!

Even so, Dr. Mizrahi went on to point out a number of regulations surrounding practices that were ALLOWED by the Law (a distinct category apart from those prohibitions and requirements already mentioned) which many of us rarely even think about these days. In this category, we would place things like slavery, polygamy, Nazarite vows, and divorce. Once again, think of this category as activities that the Israelites were permitted to engage in (with some restrictions).

Now, although understanding these distinctions between the different kinds of commandments in the Torah is important, it is arguably even more important to underscore what all of them had in common. All three types of commandments were focused on regulating the activities of the Israelites (those that were required, allowed, and prohibited).

In terms of the New Covenant/Testament, we know that Jesus Christ fulfilled all of the various kinds of commandments and distilled the entire Torah into two great principles (Love for God and love for each other). Indeed, Christ went on to command his own followers to love each other, and he told them that this requirement would identify them as his disciples. Going forward, there wouldn't be any elaborate codes delineating what was or wasn't considered an acceptable activity.

Under the terms of the New Covenant, there wouldn't be any prohibitions or allowances - ONLY the requirement to LOVE (because this would effectively satisfy all of the dos and don'ts of the Torah. In other words, this principle of love would govern the attitudes and behaviors of Christ's followers. Moreover, Christians wouldn't be loving each other to receive forgiveness and salvation - They would be doing so to demonstrate that they had accepted Christ's work on their behalf (and to demonstrate their love and appreciation for God). In other words, Christ was more concerned with what was going on in the hearts/minds of his disciples than in their physical activities.

The Torah is a written code that provided a very physical framework for the Israelites who were expected to conform to its provisions. Christ's Law of Love, on the other hand, was meant to change the motivation and outlook of his followers going forward. He had paid the penalty for their sins, and their lives would be expected to reflect the new and righteous person which HIS work had created!

Friday, August 12, 2022

Prohibition vs Principle: An Example

"We serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code." (Romans 7:6 ESV)

Many Christians like to focus on the prohibitions recorded in the Torah instead of the principles behind them. Jesus Christ, however, was more focused on the principles.

Perhaps the single most glaring example of this preoccupation of some Christians with the prohibitions recorded in the Torah are those dealing with human sexual behavior. There are prohibitions against infidelity, incestuous relations, relations with a menstruating woman, relations between two men, relations with an animal, marrying a Gentile, marrying a divorced woman, rape, prostitution, etc. In other words, there is a whole lot of "Thou shalt not do this or that!" Even so, most of us would benefit from giving just a little consideration to the principles which serve as the foundation of these prohibitions.

As I've said many times before on this blog, Jesus Christ distilled the Law/Torah into two great principles: Love for God and love for neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). Later, Paul told the saints at Rome that love never harms anyone else, and that love fulfills the Law (Romans 13:10). Hence, any sexual behavior which hurts/harms another person would be disqualified by this principle! Paul told the Corinthians that "Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance." (I Corinthians 13:4-7) In other words, if a person truly loves another person, he/she will be faithful to their partner, refrain from forcing themselves on anyone, and avoid hurting children or family members. In other words, if a person is truly behaving in accordance with this principle of loving one's neighbor, then the need for specific prohibitions disappears!

When we think in terms of the principle, we also begin to see why Jesus Christ said what he did about divorce. After all, if folks are truly being kind, patient, faithful, and forgiving to each other, there will not be any need for any certificate of divorce. After all, isn't divorce usually a consequence of folks being unfaithful, cruel, and/or vengeful toward each other?

In similar fashion, if we make the application of this principle the UNIVERSAL standard for Christians, then we must also admit that things like sexual desire, faithful and loving homosexual relationships, and masturbation cannot be labeled as sin! They simply do NOT violate the principle of love for one's neighbor! After all, it is much more superficial and simpler to demand that folks follow specific prohibitions than it is to demand that folks love each other! Unfortunately, humans are often like water - they like to follow the path of least resistance. Nevertheless, if we are truly a Christian, shouldn't we be focused on the principles which Christ laid down for his disciples to follow? Which is more efficient: a governing principle or a list of dos and don'ts for us to try to remember and follow? And we should also be asking ourselves: Is it possible to scrupulously follow the prohibitions and still neglect the principle(s) which underpin(s) them? Does God want us referencing a chart or thinking about the implications of our behavior? What do you think?

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The Very Different Ways That Jews and Christians Interpret the Hebrew Bible

We all know that Jews and Christians both believe that the collection of writings known as the Hebrew Bible are Divinely inspired and authoritative. Even so, in an article for Time back in 2019, John Barton pointed out that "the interpretative keys that each community brings to the texts are so different that it is almost as though they recognized two different Bibles." (See Why Judaism and Christianity Interpret the Bible Differently)

He went on to underscore the fact that Christians view those Hebrew writings as the first part of a two-part narrative - that they constitute what they refer to as the OLD Testament. Barton observed that, for Christians, this "story is about a disaster and a planned rescue mission, Paradise lost and Paradise regained. It tells of the loss of innocence in the Garden of Eden, a consequent history of human disobedience throughout the stories related in the narrative books, and a promise of coming redemption and salvation in the books of the prophets, leading naturally into the New Testament, where we learn how God’s planned rescue of the human race came to effect in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ."

However, Barton also noted that Jews see that same set of writings "as being about God, people and land. The story of Adam and Eve is a minor theme. Much more central is God’s call of Abraham to be the father of a great nation, and a blessing to the whole world through his obedient following of God’s way. There is no grand narrative in the Hebrew Bible, certainly not one that would culminate in the coming of Jesus, but more a collection of individual stories, sayings and teachings that together constitute a tissue of instructions on how to live a good life as a Jew."

How can Christians then have the audacity to offer a different perspective on writings which so clearly belong to another faith? How can Christians make these writings mean things which the original authors never intended for them to mean? What is the origin of this very different perspective on the Hebrew Scriptures?

Of course, we must all remind ourselves that Jesus and his original disciples were all Jewish. Jesus, Peter, James, John, and Paul were all observant Jews! They all accepted the God of the Hebrews as THE GOD of the universe and believed that the writings which the Jews had accumulated over the course of their long history as a people represented God's narrative. Jesus accepted the Torah as the standard which he would have to meet to accomplish his mission (the salvation of humankind). Indeed, he saw himself as the fulfillment of those Scriptures!

As a consequence, it was completely natural for his followers to begin to see him everywhere in those writings. And, of course, this is reflected in the writings of those early disciples of Christ - the collection of writings that the Christian Church now recognizes as the NEW Testament! The gospels, Acts, Paul's epistles, Hebrews, and Revelation all offer an unabashed, Christ-centric perspective on the Hebrew Scriptures. Moreover, just as one would expect, there is a great deal of both internal and external evidence that this very different perspective on the Hebrew Scriptures was highly offensive to the majority of the Jews of that day (and that the modern face of Judaism continues to reject this other perspective).

Simply put, this is a matter of faith. Judaism has one perspective and Christianity has another! It all boils down to whether or not one accepts that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ - the Messiah! In other words, this is a foundational or elemental tenet of the religion you profess. Which view has more merit? Which view is more grounded in the actual text? The answers to those questions are very subjective, and they obviously depend on the faith of the person answering them!

From a more neutral and objective position, we would have to say that one perspective is not superior to the other. In the article cited above, Barton observed that: "the relation of the Bible to its faiths is elliptical, not direct: 'Scripture alone' does not work for either Christianity or Judaism as an explanation of what is actually believed or done. Nevertheless, both faiths find it hard to believe that the Bible does not in some way have a point-by-point correspondence with their religion." He went on to note that: "The Hebrew Bible consists of a collection of the highly variegated national literature of ancient Israel, written and compiled, probably, between the eighth and second centuries BCE. There is no way that such a collection could be identical with Judaism as a worldwide religion that has flourished and developed throughout subsequent centuries, and is still developing today. The New Testament is a first- and second-century CE compendium of writings from an originally Jewish, but later predominantly Gentile, sect in the eastern Mediterranean—one that evolved into one of the most successful faiths in the world." In other words, the human authors of the documents which both faiths hold to be sacred would be bewildered by some of the interpretations of the folks who revere their writings in the present day!

This, however, should NOT be regarded by the adherents of either faith as disqualifying - as a justification for dismissing or ignoring those writings. In scholarly circles all around the world, literature and philosophy are interpreted and reinterpreted on a continuous basis. And anyone who has ever engaged in communication of any kind (verbal, nonverbal, written, etc.) knows that the message received is very often different from the one that the original sender intended. Moreover, it is very often the case that this turns out to be a very positive development for both the sender and the receiver! Humans are social creatures. We are interactive. We nurture each other - evoke things from each other - interpret each other. It is, as they say, what we do! 


Sunday, August 7, 2022

Armstrongism's Systematic Theology Project: The Law

Once upon a time, the Worldwide Church of God made an attempt to do a "scholarly" review of all of its doctrines - popularly known as the Systematic Theology Project or STP. However, as the project came to be viewed by Herbert Armstrong (the founder of the church) as an attempt to liberalize church teachings and usurp his authority to set church doctrine, Mr. Armstrong "killed the baby in its crib," and the documents generated as part of that review never saw the light of day (most of the membership never saw them). In this regard, Mr. Armstrong was much like the kings of old. In other words, "the law is in my mouth" - it is whatever I say it is! After all, when something is codified and subjected to review by others, it is harder to make changes in it or to defend some point that hasn't been given sufficient consideration.

The general format of the STP was to make a "Doctrinal Statement," and then follow it up with a more detailed, scripturally based defense. For instance, on the subject of the "Law of God," the "Doctrinal Statement" read as follows: "The law of God as revealed in the Bible is a good, right and perfect system of eternal directives and principles which reflects God's character and serves as a means of expressing His love toward man. God's law teaches man how to properly worship God, how to love his fellowman, how to live life abundantly, and, at the same time, how to prepare for an eternal spiritual life in the Family of God. The law of God is represented in both the Old and the New Testaments and is expressed by both physical actions and spiritual motivations." Now, for anyone reading that statement who didn't know very much about Herbert Armstrong or his church, he/she probably would not find much in this statement with which to disagree. However, it is as they say - "the devil is in the details!" When the WCG "scholars" began to flesh out exactly what that statement meant to them, we find numerous problems with the church's theology related to God's Law. (See WCG Systematic Theology Project)

In the "Doctrinal Overview" which followed the above statement, we read: "The Worldwide Church of God looks to the whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments, as its fundamental source of doctrine and teachings. We accept Christ's statement that 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God' (Mt. 4:4). Jesus plainly accepted the authenticity and inspiration of the entire Old Testament with its three major divisions—the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (Lk. 24:44)—as being relevant for the New Testament ministry of the Church of God. In support of this, the apostle Paul wrote: 'All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine' (2 Tim. 3:16). Therefore, the character, personality and specific teachings of Jesus Christ--both as the Rock that went with Israel in the Old Testament (1 Cor. 10:4; Deut. 32:15, 18) and as the son of man and the son of God in the New Testament—are the foundations of our biblical understanding of man's relationship to the law of God." (See WCG Systematic Theology Project)

Once again, for those who don't know much about the WCG, this statement will appear innocuous at first glance. Even so, the clear implication of that opening statement is that the WCG is unique in its embrace of "the whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments." In other words, other "Christian" churches aren't using the WHOLE Bible. This is followed by a reference to Christ's statement about mankind living by every word that comes out of God's mouth. Once again, implying that most folks aren't doing that. They go on to point out that Jesus embraced the entire Old Testament. Interestingly, in making this point, they do not include Christ's statement that he came to this earth to fulfill the Law and the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Matthew 5:17). To be sure, they will use that scripture later in their discourse on the Law to prove that Christ didn't do away with the Law, but they completely ignore here Jesus' numerous statements about representing the fulfillment of God's Law and prophets! Hence, one could make a strong case that "the foundations" of their "biblical understanding of man's relationship to the law of God" begins on very shaky ground (by leaving out that very important understanding).

However, before proceeding with this original attempt to outline Armstrongism's approach to God's Law, we should acknowledge and give credit to the Church of God International for publishing their own slightly modified version of the Systematic Theology Project. Unlike Herbie, they at least had the courage of (and confidence in) their convictions to publish their version of the STP! Moreover, as the two accounts are almost identical in content, hereafter, we will shift our emphasis to CGI's document as an expression of the current thinking of one of the ACOGs on this subject.

In CGI's STP, we read: "The New Testament writers clearly express a positive attitude towards God’s law as magnified and given spiritual impact and import by Jesus Christ." (See CGI Systematic Theology Project) Once again, a completely innocuous statement until we find out that they mean for this statement to support the obligation of Christians to observe the Law of Moses! To be fair, they go on to acknowledge that Christ said that the entire Law was "based on the overall principles of love toward God and love toward one’s fellow man (Mt. 22:36–40)." Nevertheless, it must be noted that the positive statements of Jesus Christ and his disciples about God's Law which CGI references in their STP do NOT constitute an endorsement of a Christians obligation to observe the Torah!

CGI's STP continues: "The overall approach to God’s law in the New Testament is summed up in the statement, “He that says, I know Him, and keeps not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn.2:4). (See CGI Systematic Theology Project) The obvious question here is: Which "commandments" was John referring to in his epistle? Was he referring to the entire Torah? Was he referring to the "Ten Commandments"? OR Was John referring to Christ's distillation of the Law into a command for his followers to love each other?

Let's look at some of the language surrounding that verse, and I'll let my readers answer those questions for themselves! In John's first epistle, he talks about the necessity of Christians "living in the light" if they truly want to have fellowship with God and Jesus Christ (1:1-7). He went on to observe that Christians occasionally sin. but that God is faithful to forgive us when we repent of them (1:8-10 and 2:1-2). We then come to the scripture referenced in CGI's STP. This is followed by this statement which clarifies exactly what John was talking about: " Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment for you; rather it is an old one you have had from the very beginning. This old commandment—to love one another—is the same message you heard before. Yet it is also new. Jesus lived the truth of this commandment, and you also are living it. For the darkness is disappearing, and the true light is already shining. If anyone claims, 'I am living in the light,' but hates a fellow believer, that person is still living in darkness. Anyone who loves a fellow believer is living in the light and does not cause others to stumble. But anyone who hates a fellow believer is still living and walking in darkness. Such a person does not know the way to go, having been blinded by the darkness." (2:7-11)

In the third chapter of his epistle, John wrote about how a Christian's life will reflect the fact "that Jesus came to take away our sins." (Verses 1-6) Indeed, John wrote that this kind of righteous living demonstrates that we are God's children (verses 7-10). He continued: "This is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another. We must not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because Cain had been doing what was evil, and his brother had been doing what was righteous. So don’t be surprised, dear brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. If we love our brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead. Anyone who hates another brother or sister is really a murderer at heart. And you know that murderers don’t have eternal life within them. We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God." (Verses 11-19)

Was John suggesting that Christ's distillation of the Law into two great principles (love for God and love for neighbor) is what God expects of Christians? He continued: "Dear friends, if we don’t feel guilty, we can come to God with bold confidence. And we will receive from him whatever we ask because we obey him and do the things that please him. And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us." (I John 3:21-23)

Still not convinced? In the fourth chapter of this epistle, John talked about how to discern between those who belong to God and those who do not - whether or not they acknowledge Jesus Christ (verses 1-6). Then he returns to the overarching theme of the entire epistle. He wrote: "Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us." (Verses 7-12) Next, he ties the two things together - the acknowledgement of Jesus and this love that he keeps talking about (verses 13-16). Then, John declared that "God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers." (Verses 16-21)

We have to remember, however, that the chapter and verse designations were added much later. In other words, John's thought carries over into chapter five. We read there: "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has become a child of God. And everyone who loves the Father loves his children, too. We know we love God’s children if we love God and obey his commandments. Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome. For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God." (Verses 1-5) How's that for context? We went through almost the entire epistle!

Isn't that interesting? In John's first epistle, he came to the conclusion that even our love for God is demonstrated by our love for each other! And, just in case anyone thinks that this is a novel conclusion to reach, he/she should read what Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome. He told them: "Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, 'You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.' These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law." (Romans 13:8-10) And where did these disciples of Christ get this idea? That's right - they got it from their teacher!

Interestingly, in the gospel attributed to a disciple named John, we read that Jesus told his disciples that "I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me. You didn’t choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name. This is my command: Love each other." (John 15:9-17) Indeed, a little earlier in this same account, he had told his disciples: "So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples." (John 13:34-35) Christ obeyed his Father's commandments perfectly, so that he could be a sacrifice "without blemish and without spot." Nevertheless, these statements by Jesus also make plain that he expected his disciples to follow HIS commandments (which were, of course, a distillation of the ten)!

Unfortunately, CGI and other ACOGs don't seem to have fully comprehended that the New Covenant is distinct from the Old Covenant. In other words, there is a reason why one is referred to as old, and the other one is designated as new! Sure, CGI's STP admits that "Jesus stated that 'all the law and the prophets'—the entire Old Testament—were based on the overall principles of love toward God and love toward one’s fellow man (Mt. 22:36–40)." But, a few paragraphs later, they are stating that "The concept of 'law' in the Bible is complex and cannot be defined or summarized in any brief way without danger of oversimplification." Really? Then why, after distilling the Law into two great principles (love of God and love of neighbor), did Christ say: "The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments"? (Matthew 22:40)

Moreover, after pointing out that anyone who claims to be a Christian and doesn't keep his commandments is a liar, they do go on to say: "However, in fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy of magnifying the law and making it honorable (Is.42:21), Christ instituted certain changes. Christ Himself specifically abrogated certain statements in the law, in relation to swearing and to marriage, thereby bringing the laws given at Sinai into conformity with the original intent of the commandments upon which they were based. Moreover, Acts 15 makes clear that the law in regard to circumcision—which had antedated the covenant at Sinai was not binding upon gentile Christians." (See CGI Systematic Theology Project)

In yet another Doctrinal Statement, they admit that: "Both testaments record that God made certain promises to man in the form of specific contracts or agreements with him. These are called 'covenants' and define the terms of God’s relationship with individuals or groups in various circumstances and eras. Of these covenants the best known are the covenants made with the nation Israel and the New Covenant established on 'better promises,' which will be fully confirmed with spiritual Israel (the Church of God) after the return of Jesus Christ." But, once again, in the same breath: "The New Covenant, which also applies to the New Testament Church from the time of the original apostles, makes God’s law even more relevant by magnifying it to include one’s mental attitude and spiritual intent." (See CGI Systematic Theology Project)

Hence, we are NOT arguing about whether or not Christ made changes to the Law which Christians would be expected to obey under the terms of the New Covenant. The Armstrongites clearly admit in their STP that Jesus did make changes, and that the terms of the Old Covenant were clearly different from those featured as part of the New Covenant. Instead, we are arguing over the EXTENT of the changes!

So, you're probably wondering how these Armstrongites justify their cherry-picking of God's Law! In other words, how do they justify obeying certain provisions of the Torah while ignoring others? This question is made even more pressing because of repeated instances in Scripture where the Law is portrayed as a whole - inseverable. In the book of Deuteronomy, we read: "Cursed is anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out." (27:26) Indeed, that book is literally full of injunctions to keep all of the commandments, statutes, and judgements contained therein (Deuteronomy 4:40, 5:31, 6:1-2, 7:11, 8:11, 11:1, 26:17, 27:10, 28:15, 45, 30:10, 16). In the New Testament epistle of James, we read: "For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. For the same God who said, 'You must not commit adultery,' also said, 'You must not murder.' So if you murder someone but do not commit adultery, you have still broken the law." (James 2:10-11) Indeed, in one of the favorite prooftexts of Armstrongites, Christ himself said that: "whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:19) Paul wrote to the saints of Galatia: "For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them.'" And he also told them that anyone who gets circumcised is obligated to keep the whole law (Galatians 5:3).

The STP gets around all of this by muddying the water in terms of what Scripture actually means when it is talking about the "Law." The CGI Systematic Theology Project states that: "An important term in the Old Testament and later Judaism is the well-known Hebrew word torah. It may refer to law as a legal system; it may refer to specific regulations and statutes. Yet torah is often used in the broad sense of anything considered traditional, customary, and authoritative. Perhaps the best English equivalent is 'teachings,' though even that may not be broad enough in meaning." The STP goes on to state that: "Thus, the occurrence of 'law' in an English translation may imply—depending on the original Hebrew or Greek and the context—'legal system,' 'regulation,' 'sacrificial ritual,' 'Ten Commandments,' 'principle,' 'natural law,' 'the Pentateuch,' 'customary tradition,' 'belief,' etc. It is therefore impossible to give a simple definition of 'law.'" Nevertheless, as has already been pointed out, this view clearly contradicts the widespread scriptural perspective which portrays the Law as a whole.

Moreover, it also clearly contradicts the Jewish perspective on the Torah. In their article entitled What is Torah? by Tzvi Freeman, Chabad.org states that: "The word Torah literally means “instruction”—meaning some sort of guidance in life. But when Jews say “Torah,” they’re most likely speaking of the Five Books of Moses, the foundation of all Jewish instruction and guidance. We also call it the Chumash, from the Hebrew chamesh, which means five—just like the not-so-Jewish and somewhat archaic title Pentateuch comes from the Greek prefix penta, also meaning five. Often, when people talk about 'a Torah,' they are referring to a parchment scroll version of the Five Books of Moses that is kept in the ark of the synagogue and taken out to be read during services." Although they go on to explain that the Tanach is a combination of Torah or Chumash (the 5 books attributed to Moses), Nevi'im (the Prophets), and Ketuvim (the Writings), they note that "There is a distinction, however. Although all the books of the Tanach are revered as divine works, the Chumash holds a unique place." Hence, from a Jewish perspective, it is clear that everything else in their Scriptures flows from the Torah!

The STP, however, wants us to dissect the Torah and look at it as a mosaic of instructions with varying degrees of relevance or importance for Christians. In the CGI Systematic Theology Project, we read: "Some laws in the Old Testament clearly encompass broad principles while others are quite specific, minute regulations. The biblical text does not itself always clearly distinguish between the more important and the less important...Thus, even though these were all laws originating with God, some are more permanent and spiritual in nature than are others." The STP goes on to suggest that these "Old Testament laws can be broken down into various categories." According to the STP, the categories are: 1) broad spiritual principles, 2) civil regulations, 3) laws of cleanliness and ritual purity, and 4) laws relating to the sacrificial system. Thus, by breaking the Law down into these categories, the STP makes it easier to formulate a rationale for accepting some laws and rejecting others. However, we should not be fooled by these artificial distinctions (which they admit that the biblical text doesn't do). This is still cherry-picking - we're still deciding which laws to obey and which ones to ignore!

What is the alternative to this confusing and arbitrary picking and choosing? We have already discussed Christ's clear distillation of the law into two great principles: Love for God, and Love for each other. This is the Spirit of the Law, and this is what applies to Christians. Christ commanded his followers to love each other, and he told them that this would identify them as his followers!

Although Jesus and his earliest disciples were all Jewish, Christ made very clear that he did NOT intend for things to remain that way! In what is often referred to as the Great Commission, we read that Christ told his disciples to: " Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20) To be clear, God made a covenant with Israel, and its terms and provisions are clearly spelled out in the Torah. Christ came along later and established a NEW Covenant with everyone who would accept him as their Savior (that is accepting his sacrifice for their sins). Christ fulfilled the Torah and the Prophets, and they are now interpreted THROUGH HIM - PERIOD! Hence, Christians are obligated to obey Christ's commandments (which are clearly based on the Torah) as a way of demonstrating our acceptance of and belief in him (not as a way of achieving our own salvation - which, once again, is accomplished exclusively through him)!

The fact that Christians are NOT obligated to participate in God's covenant with Israel is made very clear in the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts. What began as an argument over whether or not Christians should be forced to be circumcised (the sign of one's participation in the Old Covenant) quickly evolved into a more comprehensive question about a Christian's obligation to the Torah. (Acts 15:1-2) However, when Paul and Barnabas reached Jerusalem (the mother church), some of the Jewish Christians who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees insisted that "“It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (Verses 4-5) This was followed by an intense discussion and debate about whether or not it was appropriate to force Gentile Christians to observe the provisions of the Law (verses 6-21). Notice too, as part of that discussion, the very pertinent question which Peter raised (which could also be asked of Armstrongites in the present): "why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" And, we must not forget James' dramatic summary of the debate: "Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues." (Verses 19-21) In other words, this is a new religion and a new covenant! Moreover, as part of the letter which related the council's conclusions, we read: "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well." (Verses 28-29)

Now, one would have thought that this had settled the question of a Christian's obligation to the Torah for all times, but that apparently was not the case! Paul had to write to the saints at Galatia and remind them that: "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose." (2:16-21) Likewise, he wrote to the saints at Rome that Gentiles had attained a righteousness that was NOT based on the works of the Law, and that the Jews had failed because they had pursued a righteousness based on those works! (Romans 9:30-33)

Thus, we see that Armstrongites have fallen into a very old theological trap. We can readily see why so many Armstrongites have been reluctant to propose a theological justification for their beliefs about a Christian's obligation to Torah - it is subject to many scriptural challenges from the other side. Nevertheless, CGI and a few others are, once again, to be commended for having enough faith in their convictions to offer a justification for them (STP). Nevertheless, it is also clear that their apologetics relative to the necessity of Christian observance of the Torah (or, more accurately, PARTS of the Torah) has been found to be scripturally deficient and flawed. In short, their rationale for a Christian's obligation to observe the tenets of the Old Covenant do NOT stand up to scrutiny - the Scriptures simply do NOT support their view!

***The New Living Translation, New International Version and English Standard Version of the Bible were used in the scriptural citations contained in this post.