Monday, February 23, 2015

Issues Facing Missions Today 29: What is Biblical Marriage?

Issues Facing Missions Today 29: What is Biblical Marriage?

Introduction:

Reflection on the creation stories of Genesis 1.1-2.3 and 2.4-25—which are, of course, intended to be read together—helps us to understand a Biblical view of marriage.  Three key aspects of marriage emerge from the stories.  Marriage is between complementary beings of the same human species that form a permanent union: male and female.  Marriage is for the purpose of procreation and flourishing within creation.  And marriage involves the responsibility of exercising authority within the order of creation.  Each of these points can be explored with reference to the understanding of being created in God’s image in Gen. 1.26ff.  Moreover, in light of the cultural confusion regarding marriage in Western countries, that marriage so understood cannot apply to homosexual unions any more than sexual unions between humans and animals is a clear corollary of what is stated in the Biblical account of creation. Yet, to claim that marriage is not a social construction but must be understand in terms of God's purposes in creation has become in the West an opportunity for the Church to make the missional proclamation that God is Creator.

The Image of God and Creation:

In Gen. 1.26ff, being created in the image of God has to do with two things: multiplication for the flourishing of God’s creation and the stewardship of God’s created order by those given responsibility.  As these two functions involve male and female working together, a third aspect of being created in the image of God needs to be appreciated: the necessary unity of male and female.  Multiplication is not possible without the union of male and female.  Neither can produce offspring without the other.  With this understanding of being created in God's image, we have three key parts to any understanding of marriage: (1) the 'one flesh' unity of male and female; (2) multiplication for the flourishing of the species, and (3) oversight of God’s created order.

The first creation story (Gen. 1.1-2.3) emphasizes the binary roles of God’s good creation.  The work of the first three days of creation involves separations of the realms for what will later be created.  Only with these separations will fruitfulness and multiplication be possible and chaos be avoided.  There are the separations of (day 1) the day and night, (day 2) the waters of the sky and the waters of the earth, and (day 3) the dry land and the waters.  The text of Genesis elaborates at this point to emphasize that such binary distinctions permitted the vegetation of the earth to flourish (Gen. 1.11-12).  Vegetation needs daylight, rain, and earth.  Without such separations, the world is chaotic and cannot flourish.

The next three days of creation focus on authority/oversight of certain rulers related to each of the first three days of creation.  Thus, (day 4) lights are made to populate the day and night separation, and a sun is created to rule the day and a moon to rule the night on the fourth day of creation.  Then (day 5), the creatures that dwell in and rule the realm of the waters on the earth are created and commanded to multiply and flourish.  Complementing these fish and sea creatures are the creatures made to rule the realm of the sky--the birds. Finally, (day 6), land creatures are formed to occupy the land realm of the third day of creation.  Then, to rule over all the occupants of the different realms, God created humankind.  These six days of creation, moreover, have their complement in the one day of rest, the Sabbath.

Marriage: Union, Procreation, Authority

Being created in God’s image entails an understanding of the flourishing that derives from marriage.  This flourishing begins with the union of male and female.  It continues with procreation—the multiplication of the species.  And it further entails the right exercise of authority according to God’s purposes.

            Union

First, marriage entails a unity through complementarity of binary authorities, just as in the rest of creation.  Only such an understanding of unity makes multiplication possible, and only multiplication of the species makes dominion of the rest of creation possible.  Any other attempt at unity apart from the coming together of male and female will fail: multiplication is impossible, and the right rule of God’s ordered creation is impossible.  Instead, the species would die out and the order of creation would turn to chaos.

In the microcosm of the family, for God's purpose in creation to be accomplished marriage must first be understood in terms of the complementarity of male and female.  They are both created in God's image.  They both have authority.  Their differences allow for their unity.  This is a point made especially in the second creation story, where it is said that the cleaving of male and female entails becoming one flesh (Gen. 2.24).[1]  For Jesus, this fact argues against divorce (Mt. 19.4-6).[2]  For Paul, this points to the fact that sexual immorality with prostitutes is sin (1 Cor. 6.16.[3]  Both Jesus and Paul insist, on the basis of Gen. 2.24, that marriage is permanent.  And, in Eph. 5.21-33, Paul argues that this passage points to the respect of the wife for the husband and the love of the husband for the wife within marriage.  If a person does not abuse his own body, the one-flesh union of husband and wife should also produce the same love and respect seen between Christ and the Church.  Paul makes this point in a larger context in which he is explaining the reign of Christ’s peace and the unity it brings in various relationships (between God and humanity, 2.1-11; Jews and Gentiles, 2.12-3.10; within the church, 4.1-6.9; and in the face of spiritual warfare, 6.10-18).  Within the church is the family relationship of husband and wife, parents and children, and masters and slaves (5.21-6.9), and these are all places where strife may erupt but where Christ brings peace.  The first two relationships are not social constructions but part of God’s intention in creation: male and female in marriage, parents and children as the fruit of marriage.  Thus, marriage is a result of God’s intention to produce unity through complementarity.[4]

            Procreation

Secondly, marriage allows multiplication through procreation to take place--an essential part of creation.  Again, complementarity is required for there to be sexual union that results in offspring.  This understanding of the purpose of marriage explains why Jesus says that there is to be no marriage in the resurrection (Mt. 22.30): in the life to come, there is no further mandate to multiply.  This does not reduce sex to having children, but it does explain where the emphasis lies: marriage is union between a male and a female.  Thus, a Biblical view of sex makes clear that it is not to be pursued with others outside of marriage.  This also explains why the Old Testament reports sexual union outside of marriage when the wife is barren for the purpose of procreation (as with a handmaid or a deceased brother's widow).  Sex also has the purpose within marriage of being the way to address God-given sexual desire (1 Cor. 7.2-5).

            Authority

Thirdly, coming together in the union of male and female and then multiplying by having offspring leads to consideration of another function of marriage: the exercise of oversight and authority according to God’s order in creation.  The primary focus of the Genesis story of creation in this regard has to do with the authority of human beings created in God’s image over the rest of creation.  Yet it is not a stretch in an essay on marriage to focus on the authority parents exercise over children to raise them up in the way they should go according to God’s purposes.  Children need to be raised, not just left to find their own way, and the ability of a couple to raise their children in the right way is an example of their exercise of right authority in God’s creation.  This function—exercising a role of oversight—reflects being created in the image of God.  In fact, Paul says that someone should not be given the authority or responsibility to exercise oversight in the church if he lacks control over his own household--that is, if the children are not submissive and respectful (1 Tim. 3.4).  Whether in the family itself or in the church as a family, proper oversight is a function of being created in the image of God.

False ‘Marriage’

These three things--(1) unity of male and female; (2) multiplication; and (3) raising children--explain why certain other sexual acts are considered sinful in Scripture.  Bestiality, homosexuality, premarital sexual acts, and adultery are all outside of marriage.  Such acts cannot constitute marriage in the Biblical sense.  First, they represent precisely the chaos God overcame in His act of creation.  Homosexual or bestial sexual acts make as much sense as having no distinction between day and night, sky and water, land and sea.  Homosexual unions make as much sense as having two suns (or two moons) instead of a sun and a moon or no distinction between the creatures of the sea and the birds of the air.  They are simply wrongly ordered unions.  Secondly, homosexual unions cannot result in the mandate to multiply and flourish upon the earth as a species.  Thirdly, since they reject proper ordering, they cannot result in proper oversight and authority, they constitute a failed stewardship of creation.  They are no context in which to raise children in the ways of God precisely because they are a rejection of creation authority itself.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Jews and Christians have a clear teaching on marriage from the creation accounts in Genesis 1.1-2.25.  I have, to some extent, explained how such a view is consistently maintained in the Old Testament, Jewish Scriptures and by the early Church, as reflected in the New Testament.  The Biblical view of marriage is based on an understanding of creation itself and of being created in the image of God.  Jews and Christians who follow the teaching of Scripture insist, therefore, that marriage is not something we can define however we wish but only in terms of what God intended in his creation.  Biblical marriage entails a permanent union between a male and a female, the multiplication through procreation of our species that we might flourish, and an authority or stewardship over the order God established in His creation.  This third point leads to an understanding of marriage that entails an understanding of family that entails the oversight over children that parents give in their role as God’s image-bearers.  For various reasons, others might come under parental rule in the family—what we might consider an ‘extended family’.  Oversight, in fact, extends to all of creation, not just authority in the home.  Yet it is an authority that entails stewardship according to God’s purposes in creation; not an authority to exercise over against or independently from God’s purposes.  The lure of the serpent in Genesis 3 was precisely the lure of exercising divine authority like a god rather than under God’s authority.  The serpent enticed Eve to disobey God’s command and become like God in the exercise of independent authority.  Thus a disordered rule—say, of two men living as though they were husband and wife—is, first, a rule of chaos in the mixing of things that should be separated; second, a sexual perversion that cannot result in offspring; and, third, an abuse of God-given authority by ruling apart from and against God’s order in this world.

Can this argument be made outside the community of faith that understands Scripture as God’s Word?  To some extent, the argument can be put forward without the assumptions of a faith community.  Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher in the 1st c. AD, for example, put forward a similar argument.  He was neither Jewish nor Christian but argued on the grounds of what was ‘according to nature’.  However, Paul, in his day, held out little hope of making such arguments apart from persons first coming to faith.  He states that the minds of persons who have denied God as the creator of this world are sufficiently confused that they will think things obviously unnatural to be natural (Rom. 1.18-28)—as, indeed, we hear argued in our day as well.  The redefinition of ‘marriage’ to include same-sex unions in the West in our day actually goes against the convictions of cultures throughout time.[5]  We are faced with a confusion of the created order that appears to go beyond what the early Christians experienced.  Indeed, the West typically lacks those who might make general arguments such as Epictetus did,[6] it included Jews and Christians who disregard Scripture or who readily twist its meanings for their own ends,[7] and it argues not according to how things are but according to how they wish things to be.[8]  Truth is now thought to be constructed, and tolerance of diversity has become intolerance of the truth.  In such a context, Biblical marriage cannot be mandated, and the laws of the land will not support it.  However, Biblical marriage can now become a counter-cultural witness, and practicing it can now become a part of the Church’s mission.  By it, Christians proclaim, ‘We believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.’



[1] Genesis 2:24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
[2] Matthew 19:4-6 4 He [Jesus] answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,'  5 and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?  6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
[3] 1 Corinthians 6:16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, "The two shall be one flesh."
[4] Paul—and his audience—assumes complementarity here.  His point is that Christ establishes the unity that God intends in every sphere of creation.  He does not argue that egalitarianism will accomplish unity.  In the case of husband and wife, though, he establishes that God created male and female to be ‘one flesh’ through marriage and that Christ makes this possible.
[5] This is not to say that the pre-Christian world of Greece and Rome did not know of such things.  Same-sex marital unions were, however, unique enough to attract comment.  (One example might be the second satire of Juvenal.)
[6] However, there is an excellent article that explores social and legal arguments in particular and considers a wide range of issues in the public debate on marriage that I can recommend.  See Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan T. Anderson, "What is Marriage?", in Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter, 2010): 247-287.  Online: file:///C:/Users/rgrams/Downloads/SSRN-id1722155.pdf.
[7]  The same day this was written, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury reportedly restated the Church's view on marriage: it is 'between one man and one woman for life and sexual activity should be confined to marriage, that's in the Church of England's laws.'  [See Emma McKinney's 23 February, 2015 article 'Archbishop of Canterbury on gays: 'Who am I to judge them for their sins, if they have sins?' in Birmingham' in the Birmingham mail.  See: http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/.]  Sadly, however, when pressed on what he thought about homosexuality, he stated that he 'struggled' with his views on the matter and was trying to 'listen' to what the 'Spirit of God is trying to tell us.'  Of course, listening to the Spirit is what we all want to do.  But to suggest as much in this context appears to mean that he has so far failed to see what the Spirit has said in Scripture and what the Spirit-led Church has understood throughout its history.  It suggests that the Spirit may be invoked as a theological gambit to engage in endless dialogue over against Scripture and orthodox theology.  This was only confirmed in the same interview when the Archbishop, Justin Welby, further stated the following regarding homosexuality: "I see my own selfishness and weakness and think who am I [to] judge them for their sins, if they have sins."  He then added that we should not demonise, dismiss, and hate one another.  Such a statement appears to be an instance of believing that sin as it is clearly stated in Scripture must now be viewed as a sin of hating others.  This is actually a fairly typical waffling on the issue which is possible in a political and postmodern world.  Yet it is an impossible position to hold for a teacher of Scripture or a representative of the historic Christian faith.
[8] In the case of the current US government, the argument is, predictably, based on the Modernistic, totalizing argument of liberation and natural rights.  Secretary of State, John Kerry, announced on 23 February, 2015 the appointment of Randy Berry as his envoy to promote LGBT ‘rights’.  Intellectual colonialism is the imposition of perspectives by a powerful nation using its resources on weaker nations to force them to submit and acknowledge its superiority.  How ironic that this is done in the name of ‘liberation’ or ‘human rights’.  See the article by Associated Press reporter Josh Lederman, ‘Kerry Names Randy Berry as First Global Envoy for LGBT Rights,’ online: http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/02/23/names-first-envoy-for-lgbt-rights/isqOEsNeUJ1o6NhA4AzTeJ/story.html

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Issues Facing Missions Today 28: Three Models for Ministry

Issues Facing Missions Today 28: Three Models for Ministry

Introduction

Part of my role in ministry, which especially includes theological education and involvement with mission groups, has entailed figuring out how to minister through an intentional community of disciples of Jesus Christ.  This has been a life-long pursuit, and I’m fully aware of the challenges this side of Paradise!  In this brief blog post, I would like to highlight several distinctions that might help others—including myself and my colleagues.  This is not formal research, and it is not much based on some body of literature.  It is mainly born out of my own experience and thoughts.

I would like to frame these thoughts around a distinction I first came across decades ago in Edward LeRoy Long, Jr.’s A Survey of Recent Christian Ethics.[1]  Long suggests that there are three ways in which to consider and pursue moral change: the institutional, operational, and intentional community.  I have found these useful when considering issues not only in ethics but also for ministry and missions.

The Institutional Model

The institutional model is well represented in the residential seminary, the institutional Church, a large law firm or business, and so forth.  Part of its appeal is often, in fact, its physical structure and campus.  An institution develops bureaucratically, with its committees and clearly written statements of quality assurance and procedures.  Authority is located in certain offices, and members of the institution relate to persons in their official positions.  Pay scales are variegated to reflect the status of the office a person holds, and there is typically a large discrepancy in pay between the chief executive officer and the secretary.  In my experience, the theological seminary that I have worked for in the US from time to time well represents this model of organization.  Some professors are paid more than others, administrators may be paid more than professors, and some serving the institution may be paid close to minimum wage.  This model produces a lot of reporting—when applied to public schools, as it usually is—students are frequently tested and teachers have to fill out a lot of paperwork to keep a paper trail for an investigating committee to follow to be assured that students have personal educational plans and that measures have been taken to implement them.  Mission committees that relate to their supported missionaries by having them fill out forms about goals and performance are moving in an impersonal, institutional direction.  

The institutional model is difficult to change, and people sometimes find that they are viewed as employees or workers contributing to a great system.  There was once a president of a seminary that began his brief tenure in that position by telling his faculty that they are just employees of the seminary.  Churches that experience growth into mega-church sizes perhaps inevitably gravitate towards the institutional model.  The institutional model is concerned about what is effective, but at times it struggles to make this a priority over what is expected.  Either way, what is morally right frequently dissolves before effectiveness and expectations.  At times, individuals are ‘sacrificed’ for the greater good of the institution—the word ‘restructuring’ is often used for this.  Establishing residential institutions to train ministers can be a way of shaping persons in community, but the costs often outweigh the benefits, and proper training for ministry cannot be done by separating people into an academic institution that then struggles to give its students some slight exposure to actual ministry during their years of study.  An institution can, alternatively, be non-residential and engage the church in its ministries more in the training of students.  However, non-residential institutions struggle to develop meaningful community among the students, who are shaped more by the local church—which is fine, unless that context is actually unhealthy.

The Operational Model

The operational model is somewhat more descriptive (although not in every aspect) of mission organizations.  By ‘operational,’ Long means that the means of moral change is what is effective, not what is official.  In military terms, one might think in terms of the sleek, clandestine, highly trained operations force over against the air craft carrier.  Or one might think of James Bond, the secret agent—someone operating outside the rules, guided by what is effective more than anything else.  Missionaries often fit into a more operational model as well, although with a clearer sense of right and wrong than Mr. Bond!  They are given freedom to assess the situation on the ground and take appropriate action.  This is why they often chafe at the expectations of written reporting by supporting churches, mission agencies, or field directors and much prefer face-to-face reporting—although even that is difficult for the ‘operator’.  Reporting itself requires being ‘pulled out’ of the ‘field of operation’ in order to do so.  Missionaries struggle immensely with bureaucracy—and it they do not, they may be ill-suited for mission work.  When churches want to peg missionaries in terms of a precise form of work that they do, a precise place where they work, or some other such specific definition, this can undercut the reality the missionary experiences, which may involve starting new works, going to new places, forming new partnerships, and so forth.  What is needed is not so much an accounting of work done but a confidence in the person himself or herself—that he has the skills, calling, heart, and is rightly equipped and enabled to be effective.  Of paramount importance in evaluating someone in an operational model for ethics or mission is effectiveness, a slippery term that can be defined in various ways.  (Was Billy Graham’s mass evangelism more effective than the faithful witness of a believer in a country hostile to the Gospel who had only a few converts?  It depends on what we mean by ‘effective’!) 

Theological education is going through a crisis as problems arise with the institutional model—as in much of higher education.  Online education, which ten years ago appeared to be easy and sleazy, can now produce more effective educational experiences (not just teaching of content and methods) than many classroom experiences.  Professors are finding that online forum interaction can produce better interaction than in-class discussions, for example.  Technology of various sorts can improve the presentation of content and methodological material and give students the opportunity to review the lecture material as often as necessary.  (There are other aspects of education, though, that online education cannot easily address, particularly where personal interaction is necessary.)  The institutional model of higher education is terribly expensive, and Christians are rightfully concerned about the social formation taking place at secular institutions.  Online education is presently deconstructing residential, institutional approaches to education, has the potential to bring down the costs of education (provided it is not delivered by an institution!), and can improve the quality of instruction.  On its own, though, it lacks key components of ‘education,’ particularly when this involves collaborative learning, acquisition of skills on the job, and character formation—all significant for ministerial training.

The Intentional Community Model

Long’s third type of a means to moral change is the intentional community model.  This model has been explored through the ethical writings of Stanley Hauerwas perhaps more than any other—although we need to say that John Howard Yoder was greatly influential for him.  The intentional model focuses on significance of a community in bringing about change.  This should be the story of the local church in a larger social setting.  Hauerwas is fond of saying, ‘The church does not have a social ethic; it is a social ethic.’  The oldline denominations, operating out of an institutional model, have concerned themselves with having a social programme that it supports.  Picture the difference between a wealthy Episcopal church concerned to have a programme to help the poor on the other side of town, rather than the Pauline church in which are found home owners, the poor, and slaves as part of the same community in Christ.

In the history of missions, there are many examples of intentional communities.  Some were dead-ends, out of which no ministry flowed, whereas others were both vibrant communities that made a significant difference by the nature of their very existence and the ministry that bubbled up out of the community into the surrounding areas.  Jesus himself first banded together a group of followers and took them as a micro-community into the villages and towns for ministry.  They were a travelling, ministering, missional community, learning together, ministering together, and developing spiritually together.  What we have proposed to do in our approach to mission work is to establish such intentional communities in various areas.  To describe this would be difficult, since description reduces what is experienced to speaing of programmes and types of relationships.  I am reminded of my dear professor, Gordon Fee, saying that one cannot watch worship (he compared this to pornography!): one can and only should experience it. 

Intentional communities can be awful experiences—this should not be absolutized as a perfect alternative to institutions and operations.  Families are intentional communities.  Paul’s churches—the ones who received his corrective correspondence—were intentional communities.  And his own missionary team was an intentional community.  Some intentional communities define their existence around community itself—always a mistake—rather than their relationship to God and their purpose of following his call into mission.  Community is the means, not the end itself.  We’ve seen movements of intentional community that have been hopelessly abusive, with dictatorial leaders exerting their personal power over miserable members—intentional communities can become cultic, even.  Thus, getting the focus, balance, and relationships right in intentional communities is very important.  That focus can only come if people in positions of oversight understand their roles not as leaders exercising authority (as in the institutional model) but as persons in more specific roles (teachers, pastors, e.g.) with responsibility (a different word from authority, mind you) to help others and the community itself flourish—and all this under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. 

Almost invariably, as intentional communities form, some individual or individuals emerge as leaders with personal power.  They intentionally try to ‘shepherd’ the ‘sheep’ in the community along their ‘paths of righteousness’—their own foci not related to the purpose and function of the ministry. They coerce and cajole, try to exert communal pressure on others, call everyone to engage in a certain task that is not really what the community is all about and then shame persons for not participating, and so forth.  All this can only be avoided if people keep their focus on what they are really about, not the personal agenda of the emergent community ‘leader’, and, a Christian would add, keep their focus on glorifying God in all that is said and done.  Even so, coercion and manipulation must be opposed at every turn in every intentional community.  One way an intentional community moves in such a direction can be contrasted with the institutional model.  Pay levels distinguish people on the institutional model, whereas an intentional community model is more likely to determine pay levels in terms of the sizes of families.  A mission agency, as opposed to a seminary, is likely to have a pay scale in which an elderly director is paid less monthly than the family of five that has just joined the mission.

If ministerial training were to start with a model of intentional community, its focus would be more on retreats, communal living, formation of character, ministry together, and relationships that include teachers.  This last point needs expansion.  In the institutional and operational models, education is personal: one studies to attain a degree that certifies a person has reached a certain level of training (institutional model) or can perform to a certain level of competency (operational model).  The intentional community model of learning understands that people are gifted differently, and one person who struggles academically or who simply lacks sufficient education can still function well by being in the same community as someone who is highly capable academically and knows the Scriptures well.  The teacher is a resource to the student—or the pastor, or evangelist, or prophet—in the community.  Education in community relies much more on trusted teachers who know the tradition, who are academically capable, and who are role models for others in the community.  Teachers, moreover, function collaboratively in the community—and this should involve disagreement in the process rather than affirmation of what has become a politically (communally) correct position on a matter.

Conclusion

The specific thoughts in this post are clearly somewhat random, but they are intended to try to flesh out three fairly distinct models of going about education, ministry, and missions.  The three models are the institutional, operational, and intentional community models.  My primary purpose has been to explain these three models for ministry.  Others may also find them useful to form the ongoing discussions they have as they are involved in mission and ministry.  I also hope that particular examples given—out of personal experience—will prove helpful to some.  Finally, I hope that the examples offered show where there are some strengths and dangers in each of the various models.  While my own focus is on developing ministry out of an intentional community, my own personality is likely more comfortable with the operational model: none of us likely functions fully in only one of these models.  Problems arise when we confuse matters, such as when weekly written reporting becomes a tool used to check on others in an intentional community, or when a 'chief administrative officer' in an institution tries to function as though the institution were an intentional community.  And so the conversation might go, using these categories, for others involved in ministry together.




[1] Edward LeRoy Long, Jr., A Survey of Recent Christian Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Issues Facing Missions Today 27: What Does the Quran Say about Treatment of Jews and Christians?

Issues Facing Missions Today 27: What Does the Quran Say about Treatment of Jews and Christians?

The Quran seems to offer different advice on what to do with persons of other faiths.  Those of us accustomed to reading ancient texts know that there are legitimate issues of interpretation that need to be considered.  At times, such issues lead us to a different understanding of texts that, on first reading, appear to be saying something else.  There are, for example, issues of translation (and Muslims insist that the Quran cannot accurately be translated from Arabic), the importance of the original context, a possible trajectory of meaning of some sort (such as when the holy war narratives in the Old Testament give way to the pacifism of the early Church due to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ in the New Testament), matters of rhetoric (is extreme language actually hyperbole and not to be taken literally?), and so forth.  Thus, the following identification of texts is mainly offered to identify which texts need some sort of explanation as one attempts to understand what the Quran says about the treatment of Jews and Christians.

How might someone explain the apparent contrast of views in the Quran?  On the one hand, Surat 2.257 says: 'There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion.'  On the other hand, Surat 9.5 says: 'And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah [a payment showing appreciation for Allah’s blessing], let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.'  Surat 9.12 goes on to say to 'fight them (polytheists) that they may cease.’

The Quran distinguishes between Jews, Christians, and polytheists, but it also sees them as three groups over against Islam: 'Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was one inclining toward truth, a Muslim [submitting to Allah]. And he was not of the polytheists’ (Surat 3.67).  So, what does the Quran say about Jews and Christians?  Surat 5.51 sees them as allies of one another and opposed to Islam: 'O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you - then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.'

Similarly, and apparently in reference to the Jews (see Surat 4.46), Surat 4.89 says: 'They wish you would disbelieve as they disbelieved so you would be alike. So do not take from among them allies until they emigrate for the cause of Allah . But if they turn away, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them and take not from among them any ally or helper.'  Surat 9.123 says: 'O you who have believed, fight those adjacent to you of the disbelievers and let them find in you harshness. And know that Allah is with the righteous.'  Surat 4.47 contains a direct threat of death to Jews and Christians rejecting the Quran: ‘O you who were given the Scripture, believe in what We have sent down [to Muhammad], confirming that which is with you, before We obliterate faces and turn them toward their backs or curse them as We cursed the sabbath-breakers. And ever is the decree of Allah accomplished.’

Conversion from Islam carries an ominous threat of punishment: ‘Or lest you say, "If only the Scripture had been revealed to us, we would have been better guided than they." So there has [now] come to you a clear evidence from your Lord and a guidance and mercy. Then who is more unjust than one who denies the verses of Allah and turns away from them? We will recompense those who turn away from Our verses with the worst of punishment for their having turned away’ (Surat 6.157).

Fighting in the cause of Allah means a great reward: 'So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. And he who fights in the cause of Allah and is killed or achieves victory - We will bestow upon him a great reward’ (Surat 4.74).  Much is made about fighting for Allah (especially in Surat 2)--and a higher reward goes to the one engaged in warfare--see Surat 4.95: 'But Allah has preferred the mujahideen [those who strive and fight] over those who remain [behind] with a great reward.'

Jews and Christians are unequivocally said to be headed to hell: ‘Indeed, they who disbelieved among the People of the Scripture and the polytheists will be in the fire of Hell, abiding eternally therein. Those are the worst of creatures’ (Surat 98.6).  Yet the matter does not end there, even though the Quran gives evidence of people of different religions living in the same region.  Instead, fighting against Jews and Christians is advocated.  Surat 9.29 says: ‘Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day … who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture [Jews and Christians] - [fight] until they give the jizyah [tax on non-Muslims] willingly while they are humbled.’  Those causing Muslims to turn from their religion are promised a painful punishment: ‘Indeed, those who have disbelieved and avert [people] from the way of Allah and [from] al-Masjid al-Haram [the sacred mosque in Mecca], which We made for the people - equal are the resident therein and one from outside; and [also] whoever intends [a deed] therein of deviation [in religion] or wrongdoing - We will make him taste of a painful punishment’ (Surat 22.25).

Texts such as these from the Quran raise questions about how they are to be understood and applied in the present age.  For those of us who are not Muslims, the matter is primarily about how such texts are interpreted, not how we think they ought to be interpreted.  Yet the beginning of the problem for those outside Islam is that most people are ignorant of such texts in the first place, and they stand confused about how a religion purporting to be peaceful can lead so many to acts of such extreme violence.  To be sure, Christians have at different times behaved horribly too, although many would contend—as would I—that in such cases the practice of the Christian faith was completely at odds with Holy Scripture.  Such an argument is not difficult to make once one has read the New Testament—after all, did Jesus not say,

Matthew 5:44-46  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?


In closing, the question with which we are left is, ‘Is there any room at all for interpreting these texts in the Quran differently from what one might understand as the simple meaning of the text?’  If so, then perhaps certain advocates are correct when they insist that the extreme acts of Islamic terrorists we see today are not characteristic of ‘true’ Islam.  If not, then perhaps ‘radical Islam’ is actually not radical at all but the real thing, not some aberration.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Church 7: The Essence of Biblical Worship, Part One

The Church 7: The Essence of Biblical Worship, Part One

Biblical worship is best understood through what the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple teaches us.  What is found there for the Jewish people represents, in essence, what also constitutes Christian worship of the one God in three Persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Holy of Holies helps us to understand worship of God as

1.      acknowledging the worth of God’s holy commandments for His covenant people through obedience and repentance;
2.      being aware of and responding to His glory and holiness; and
3.      giving thanks for and receiving His mercy and forgiveness. 
Each of these might be discussed in regard to the Temple imagery and symbolism, what this means for worship, where this view of worship challenges certain contemporary practices, and how this understanding of worship relates to mission.

A.     Worship as Honouring God by Obeying His Holy Commandments

Imagery of Worship: An Altar of Incense and the Ark of the Covenant

In the Holy of Holies of the Jewish tabernacle in the wilderness and the Jerusalem Temple that replaced it, a golden altar for incense, representing the worship offered before the One God, stood before the ark of the covenant.  The ark of the covenant contained three things: the tablets of God’s Law, a golden urn holding manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded (Hebrews 9.4).  Aaron’s rod was in the ark as a warning to those rebelling and complaining against God (Numbers 17.8, 10).  God had given manna to sustain the Israelites forty years in the wilderness.  A small amount of it was kept in the ark of the covenant (Exodus 16.31-35) to remember that God’s people live not only by bread but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8.3).  The Ten Commandments on tablets of stone were the basis for the words that came from God’s mouth for His people.

Thus the ark represents God’s holiness with regard to His commandments—commandments that define what it means to be God’s own treasured possession.  The ark contained God’s Law for His people.  It contained God’s warning not to rebel.  And it contained God’s reminder that His people live by every word that proceeds from His mouth.  The holiness of this ark is seen in a story that took place when it was being transported.  When the ark began to slide off the cart, a man by the name of Uzzah reached out his hand to steady it.  When he touched the ark, he immediately died because of the LORD’s anger (2 Sam. 6.7; 1 Chr. 13.10).  With the image of the ark for understanding worship, we come to see worship of God as acknowledging that we live in God’s world according to His laws and should not disobey.  Biblical worship, like Biblical wisdom, is the fear of God, and, as Biblical understanding is the departure from evil (Job 28.12, 20; Ps. 111.10), like Christian worship.  The end of the matter of philosophical speculation on the meaning of life, says the author of Ecclesiastes, is this: ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone’ (Eccl. 12.13).  Likewise, to worship God is obey Him as His children.

Worship and the Holy Commandments of God

We might learn from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.  In it, the order of service for Holy Communion begins with praying the Lord’s Prayer and a collect (brief prayer), and then the priest is instructed to rehearse the Ten Commandments.  The people, kneeling, are instructed to ask God for mercy for their transgressions and for grace to keep the Law.  Moreover, the first and second greatest commandments of our Lord are also rehearsed—to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.  Then the priest says (using an older, 1789 version), ‘O Almighty Lord, and everlasting God, vouchsafe, we beseech thee, to direct, sanctify, and govern, both our hearts and bodies, in the ways of thy laws, and in the works of thy commandments….’  While not followed everywhere in Anglican circles to this degree, the focus at the beginning of this part of the service is, as it were, on the ark of the covenant: God’s Law.  Worship that honours God is worship that acknowledges the fact that being God’s people means being under his commandments.  It understands that repentance and mercy are appropriate responses to the God who gives us his Law so that we might live.  In worship, there is a place for recognizing our human sinfulness, and there is a place to pray for God’s mercy.

Perhaps the two classic passages illustrating the failure of worship due to the failure to obey God’s commandments are Isaiah 58 and Jeremiah 7.  In both, God’s people are depicted as following a form of obedience but not a real obedience.  Isaiah says of the house of Jacob that ‘day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God’ (Isaiah 58.2).  Jeremiah says,

Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known,  10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, "We are safe!"-- only to go on doing all these abominations?  11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD (Jer. 7.9-11).

This second passage is one Jesus quotes when he cleanses the Temple (Matthew 21.13).  Jesus’ concern with ‘cheap grace’ worship at the Temple has to do with people who find in their worship a too easy access to God’s blessing despite their sinful behaviours.  Even as he challenged the worship at the Jewish Temple, he would today challenge worship in many churches where sin is taken rather lightly but people, thinking themselves ‘covered’ by God’s abundant grace, do not truly repent and live righteously.  As Micah says,

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"  8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6.7-8).

What Christians add to this understanding is not a new license for sin because of God’s abundant grace through Jesus’ sacrificial death for our sins but both a forgiving grace and a transforming grace in Jesus’ sacrificial death for us.  Jesus not only dies for our sins, but we die to sin in him and are raised to new life with him (Rom. 6.1-14).

A Challenge for Contemporary Worship

Contemporary worship in many churches does not always follow this focus on God’s commandments, human sinfulness and confession, and the grace of forgiveness.  One reason appears to be that some people are uncomfortable with this emphasis on God’s Law and human sin.  They choose not to read uncomfortable passages dealing with human depravity, such as Rom. 1.18-3.20 (check your lectionary, if you use one, to see if it is there!).  God is seen more as a jolly old chap, someone who empathizes with our human challenges and failings, who will not hold his Law over our heads but wants to pour out his love to and through us.  This view of God sees God as a parent who is a little embarrassed over his harsh treatment of us when we were young but now recognizes that we’ve turned out pretty well after all and are grown up enough to make our own decisions.  Thus the holiness of God’s Law is denied as the commandments are relaxed, and so, also, the very notion of sin is relaxed.  The closest one comes to confessing actual sin is confessing that we have not been fervent enough in caring for the environment or treating our enemies and neighbours with divine love or on seeking justice for the latest social concern.  Well and good, but sin is kept ‘out there’—a failure of sufficient action by social activists more than as a condition of the heart that delights to break God’s Law.  The commandments of God, on this view, are, if not outdated, more a general and suggestive approach for life; we had best critically evaluate them before embracing them too fully and readily.

A more typically Evangelical view in worship is also disturbed by too much of an emphasis on sin.  It understands that God has overcome our sins in Christ and no longer counts them against us.  We are not saved by works of the Law but by grace through faith in Jesus.  And so, the emphasis on sin and repentance is played down as a part of worship even if theologically acknowledged—let us rather get on with celebrating God’s mercy, forgiveness, and grace.  Yet this can—indeed has!—led to a diminished focus on the holiness of God and His commandments.  Instead, a more cuddly and fatherly God is worshipped, and we see ourselves less as sinners in the hands of an angry God than as scallywags who’ve had a little too much fun.

The General Confession of sin in the daily Anglican Morning Prayer, however, not only speaks of erring, straying, and following the ‘devices and desires of our own hearts,’ but it also states outright, ‘We have offended against thy holy laws.’  (One can only marvel at the great contradiction when, despite this focus in the liturgy, so many churches in this tradition in the West have celebrated their disobedience of God’s Law in sexual ethics.)  Moreover, a weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins in a way that no other act of worship does.  We are set squarely in front of the cost of our sins with the reminders of Jesus’ body and blood given for us in the elements of bread and wine, while at the same time we joyfully receive the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God in Christ Jesus.

The ‘three songs and a sermon’ form of Evangelicalism that has become so popular in non-denominational churches, along with certain denominational churches, typically undercuts if not totally dismisses any act of worship that focusses our minds and hearts on our own sinfulness before a holy God who has given us His commandments so that we might live.  If we pass too quickly to sing and reflect upon God’s grace, we cheapen that grace by ignoring the gravity of our own sin.  But so great a sacrifice of Christ Jesus, the Son of God, challenges us to appreciate human sinfulness—including our own—and life lived apart from God’s rule.  These typical Evangelical worship services also reduce the amount of Scripture that is heard by the people in worship, and they have one or two short prayers that carry little substance and are easily missed, being more about transitional moments in the service than prayers from the heart of the people of God.

In the contemporary West, as society recoils from the notion of sin altogether, the Church can either succumb to such cultural influences on its own theology and practices or stand up as a counter-cultural witness.  The beginning of such a witness lies first in worship, in hearing God’s Word (reading Scripture and being instructed by it), repenting of breaking God’s commandments and living for ourselves, and receiving His forgiveness.  By not making such repentance a feature of our worship, we signal to the world that our separation from its ways is more about our own claim to superiority than about our own brokenness in sin and reception of a forgiveness available to all.

The first dimension of Biblical worship, then, is to (1) acknowledge God’s commandments (the tablets of the Law) as though we were standing in the Holy of Holies before the ark of the covenant, (2) heed His warning of judgement to all who rebel against Him (represented by Aaron’s rod), and (3) feed upon the manna of His word that we might live.  Thus we pray, ‘give us this day our daily bread’ (both physical and spiritual), ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and deliver us from evil.’  This is itself worship, acknowledging that God is worthy of our obedience.

Without elaborating too much here, the presence of the tablets of the Law also reminds us of the place for instruction in God’s Word as part of our worship.  Teaching from Scripture in a service of worship leads to a response of conviction before our holy God or a response of praise and thanksgiving to God.  The more we turn teaching into rhetorical flourishes—‘sermons’—in the Greek style of public speaking instead of teaching of Scripture, the more the focus is on the rhetorical skills of the minister, self-help messages for the audience in the coming week, or political agendas of interested parties.  The church will be well-served by getting away from the idea of preaching in the sense it is so often practiced and by returning to a more ‘synagogue’ understanding of teaching the Scriptures as part of worship.  Our concern for the message during worship is not to be, ‘What application does the minister have for us of Scripture this week in his engaging message?’ but ‘What does Scripture teach us that we might obey and give glory to God?’

Mission, Worship, and Obeying God

Worship as acknowledging God’s worthiness to be obeyed translates into mission in two ways.  One is within the congregation at worship, the other is that mission is a form of worship.  These points come out in Paul’s two canonical letters to the Corinthian churches.  First, Paul understands congregational worship as having a dimension of mission.  This can be seen when he says that partaking of Communion is a ‘proclamation of the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor. 11.26).  What Paul as an apostle does in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus in the public squares of the cities where he ministered, the churches do in worship during the Eucharist.  Also, as the gathered church meets together and hears, along with any unbelievers who have joined them, the words from God in prophecy, the secrets of the unbeliever's heart are disclosed,’ and ‘that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, "God is really among you" (1 Cor. 14.25).

Second, mission is a form of worship.  Paul sees himself in his ministry as a libation being poured out (2 Tim. 4.6).  The imagery of the Temple’s golden altar for incense features as an image for mission in 2 Corinthians.  Paul says,

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.  15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing;  16 to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?  17 For we are not peddlers of God's word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence (2 Corinthians 2.14-17).


Thus worship is missional in the congregation insofar as it reflects on the death of Christ for our sins and involves God’s prophetic word to us such that we are convicted of our sins.  And, as in 2 Cor. 2.14-17, mission is itself a worshipful service unto God, as the missionary is an incense in society that is the ‘aroma of Christ to God,’ pleasant to those receiving the Gospel and unpleasant to those rejecting it.  The altar of incense, whether congregational worship or missional service as worship, always appears together with the ark of the covenant, challenging us all: ‘Will we, God’s covenant people, live by His Law?’

[Two further articles to follow on worship as awareness of God's holiness and glory and worship as thanksgiving and reception of God's mercy.]

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Issues Facing Missions Today 26: God the Most Holy, God the Most Merciful

Issues Facing Missions Today 26: God the Most Holy, God the Most Merciful

On the one hand, a people’s understanding of God can lead them to uphold his justice, holiness, and glory over against those who would pursue injustice, profane his holy name, and insolently defy his majesty.  On the other hand, a people’s understanding of God can lead them to tell of his mercy, live by his love, and rejoice in his own humble sacrifice for a people’s sins.  Yet the first path can lead to (so-called) holy war, and the second path to libertine indulgence.  Only a complete understanding of God’s character as just and merciful, holy and loving, glorious and suffering is Biblical.  Moses and Solomon understood this, and the first Christians witnessed and testified to it as the fullness of God’s glory was revealed on the cross of Jesus Christ.  In the cross, we see God the most holy and God the most merciful.

God the Most Holy: the Essenes

Getting this answer wrong is the stuff of much theological error across religions.  The Jewish historian, Josephus, describes the Jewish Essene community of the 1st century as a people devoted to holiness.  ‘What they most of all honour, after God himself, is the name of their legislator [Moses]; whom, if anyone blaspheme, he is punished capitally’ (Jewish War 2.145). The Essenes understood God to be holy, and their response was to pursue a life of holiness that had little room for forgiveness.  No wonder they are never mentioned in the Gospels!  Jesus, a friend of sinners, might have made it onto the invitation list of the ultra-pious Pharisees (and they were ever offended by him even so), but he was not even on the radar of the Essenes.  Their rules for keeping the Sabbath were stricter than any other Jewish group (Jewish Wars 2.147).  Any initiates entering the community after a period of testing had to take tremendous oaths (2.139), and any of their number who committed a heinous sin was cast out of the community, not permitted to eat normal food but only grass, and often died from hunger—unless the community, at the last moment, allowed him to return (2.143-144).

Such is a community that understands the holiness of God, but knows little to nothing of his mercy.  King David was once frustrated when he witnessed the holiness of God without mercy.  David was having the ark of the covenant transferred to Jerusalem when the ark began to slide off the cart.  A man named Uzzah reached out to steady the ark with his hand, and he was immediately killed.  He had profaned the holy ark, and there was no mercy.

God the Most Holy and the Most Merciful: King Solomon’s Prayer and Moses’ Revelation on Mt. Sinai

King Solomon, David’s son, also had the ark transferred (1 Kings 8).  He fully understood its holiness as he had it moved to the holy place and situated between the cherubim (v. 6) within the temple that he had constructed.  The ark was transported with long poles—there would be no slipping off of a cart and no possibility of touching it (v. 8).  Innumerable sacrifices of sheep and oxen were offered (v. 5)—some twenty-two thousand oxen and one hundred twenty thousand sheep (v. 63).  Once the ark was in place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, indicating the presence of God’s glory.  Yet, when Solomon offers a prayer on the occasion, we learn more than that God is holy.  We also learn that God is merciful.  In Solomon’s prayer, we hear the truth that God is both holy and just as well as loving and merciful.

In his prayer, Solomon first acknowledges that God is ever so much greater than the temple itself, for ‘even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!’ (1 Kings 8.27).  Yet God’s name is present in the temple.  Thus Solomon prays that God, who dwells in heaven, would hear people who pray toward the temple (v. 30).  While the temple is holy, and the ark is holy, and God’s glory and name dwell in the temple, God himself is not contained in the temple.  God’s holiness overflows the holy temple itself.  So far, Solomon addresses the holiness of God, awesome in its splendour.

Yet, while acknowledging the holiness and glory of God—indeed, because of God’s glory!—Solomon prays that God would heed the prayers of the people and forgive! (v. 30).  Herein lies the Biblical understanding of the character of God.  The glory of God is manifest not only in his holiness but also in his mercy.  This is a truth that was already revealed to Moses, when he learned God’s essential character on Mt. Sinai not just as the God of the Law but also as the God who is ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exodus 34.6).  The glorious wonder of God is manifest not only in the greatness of his majesty but also and most fully in his grace, his compassion, and his love.

At Mt. Sinai, Moses understood this deeper revelation of God’s character, and so he boldly prayed, ‘Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance’ (Exodus 34.9).  Likewise, as the holiness of God settled upon the ark and the covenant, Solomon prays first for justice for the righteous when people come to pray before God’s altar in the temple (1 Kings 8.31-32) and then for forgiveness when people plead before God despite their sins (vv. 33-34). While God might visit affliction on a sinful people because he is just and holy and righteous, Solomon also knows God is merciful, loving, and forgiving.  So he prays,

‘If there is famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, locust, or caterpillar; if [Israel’s] enemy besieges them in any of their cities; whatever plague, whatever sickness there is;  38 whatever prayer, whatever plea there is from any individual or from all your people Israel, all knowing the afflictions of their own hearts so that they stretch out their hands toward this house;  39 then hear in heaven your dwelling place, forgive, act, and render to all whose hearts you know-- according to all their ways, for only you know what is in every human heart--  40 so that they may fear you all the days that they live in the land that you gave to our ancestors’ (1 Kings 8.37-40).

Remarkably, Solomon also prays that foreigners—those outside of God’s chosen people—who come to pray before the house of the LORD might also be heard by God (vv. 41-43).  Again remembering God’s chosen people, Solomon prays that God would stand with them in battle in their just cause as well as forgive them when they sin and repent.  Solomon’s prayer dwells on God’s forgiveness and mercy.  He prays,

If they sin against you-- for there is no one who does not sin-- and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near;  47 yet if they come to their senses in the land to which they have been taken captive, and repent, and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, 'We have sinned, and have done wrong; we have acted wickedly';  48 if they repent with all their heart and soul in the land of their enemies, who took them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their ancestors, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name;  49 then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, maintain their cause  50 and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you; and grant them compassion in the sight of their captors, so that they may have compassion on them  51 (for they are your people and heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron-smelter) (1 Kings 8.46-51).

There are those who see God as loving and forget his requirements of obedience to his commandments, his call for justice, and his warning that he will judge unrighteousness.  Such people are the opposite of the Essenes, and they fail to understand God’s identity and what it requires of us just as much as the Essenes did.  That said, only a balanced understanding of God’s character as holy and merciful is what can guide his people in a sinful world.

Conclusion: The Cross of Jesus Christ, Western Freedom, and Jihad

Jesus never said, ‘Never mind about those dusty Old Testament laws; God is really all love and forgiveness.  Do what you like: our highest value is human freedom, and God will not judge.’  On the other hand, he constantly challenged those who failed to understand that God desired mercy, not sacrifice (cf. Mt. 9.13; 12.7, quoting Hos. 6.6).  But he was himself the perfect sacrifice that showed the glory of God in his death (Jn. 12.23-28) in both God’s justice—for Jesus died for our sins (1 Cor. 15.3)—and God’s love—for Jesus died for ungodly sinners who we all are (Rom. 5.5-8).

Getting this wrong has terrible consequences.  On the one hand, there are those whose understanding of God correctly appreciates his holiness but misses the fact that he is merciful and wants ‘everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2.4).  Such people take on themselves the cause of justice, but in so doing they kill and persecute and, thinking themselves to uphold God’s name, in fact blaspheme him.  They are miserable creatures, filled with hate and doing evil in the name of religion.  There are also, on the other hand, those who are aware of God’s love and mercy but who find God’s justice and holiness offensive.  They offer salvation without Jesus and his death on the cross.  They promise freedom from God’s commandments and deny the need for God’s mercy and forgiveness precisely because they deny sin itself.


Just here is where the post-Christian West meets a militant form of Islam every day in the news, where a libertine society that champions human rights over against God’s law meets a society that pursues its (often confused) understanding of God’s law without his forgiveness and mercy.  For orthodox Christians—those holding to historic Christian faith—we lift up the cross of Jesus for the whole world to see.  We proclaim Jesus crucified to a world that needs to know the cost of sin before a holy God, and we proclaim Jesus’ suffering death for a sinful world that needs to know the forgiveness and love of a merciful God.  Moses heard this same God speak to him when Israel broke his commandments and deserved death.  Solomon prayed to him for forgiveness and justice when his holiness filled the temple.  And we tell of the revelation of his glorious holiness and merciful love in Jesus Christ, crucified for our transgressions and raised from the dead by God’s glory.