Many Protestants are proud of not having a liturgy, which smacks of tradition, the papacy, and salvation by works. But when it comes to Christmas, we all have traditions. My mother makes the same variety of cookies every year. My father always needs coffee (and us kids made orange juice), read the Christmas story in Luke, and forced us to take turns opening presents on Christmas morning1. We have Advent calendars, tree lightings, gift shopping trips, special meals, and so on that we feel compelled to attend to. For many Christians, Evangelical or not, the December holiday revolves around dozens of revered family, church, and cultural traditions. Most of us wouldn’t have it any other way.
Nearly every church I’ve been to in December celebrates the four weeks of Advent. I bet your church does too. But I wonder how many people know that the Advent tradition is observed by nearly all Christians? Even the Scripture readings are common between Catholics and most Protestants2. There’s something wonderful about the worldwide Church agreeing on something (anything) and our local church, at least, is trying to get on board with that.
If you went to church this week, there’s a really good chance the Old Testament reading was:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’—Jeremiah 33:14-16 (ESV)
As Christians, we believe that this promise was fulfilled by the birth of Jesus, a descendant of David. But when Jeremiah heard this word and spoke it, he was in Jerusalem as it was under siege by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II, for the second time. Since after the time of Solomon, David’s son, the Kingdom of Israel had been split into two kingdoms. Then the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians and the Southern Kingdom was defeated by Babylon and a puppet government was established in Judah. God’s promise that a descendant of David would rule a united kingdom forever seemed, at that moment, as far away as could be possible.
In some ways prophets, such as Jeremiah, were ancient editorialists. They commented on the direction of the nation, influenced public opinion, and often disagreed with each other on partisan lines. Near the end of the Kingdom of Judah, there were two camps: those that predicted Babylon would be repulsed and the other that warned that God would allow them to purge the land of idolatry. Jeremiah and Ezekiel were the primary proponents of the later view.
We read Jeremiah’s despair over the destruction of Jerusalem in the book of Lamentations. Nearly his entire career was marked by pessimism over the future of his nation; the Lord required him to prophesy the inevitability of Babylon’s victory. When their armies surrounded the city of David, Jeremiah was imprisoned in palace of Judah on charges of defeatism. God had decided that Israel would be carried into a foreign city because the people would not turn from worshiping other gods. It must have been hard to have hope for the promised peaceful Davidic kingdom.
And yet, he did preach hope. For the next 600 years, Judah waited for the promised messiah. And even now, we wait for His return and the culmination of the promise with expectation and hope. This week of Advent is all about those layers of hope.
How far do you hope? We read in Revelation that God will bring together His Church from every ethnic group who will worship Him forever. As we look around at the brokenness of our culture and the division in our religion, it’s easy to assume that God will need to start over. In a lot of ways, the Protestant Reformation was founded on that assumption. It’s been 2,000 years since Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose again. Is it time to give up on His return?
Who do you put your hope in? Do you expect politics to solve the problems in society? Jeremiah opposed his government, but at the same time affirmed God’s promises that the line of David would one day establish peace. He was impatient with sin, but patient with God to deal with it3. God, unlike anyone else is always good. He always comes through, though not always at the time we expect.
In the coming weeks, we will see how God fulfilled His promise in His Son, Jesus. But we must recall that we are still, in some ways, like the Old Testament prophets: we are waiting with expectation for God’s next move.
- His father did the same thing, but on Christmas Eve. That part of the tradition got lost as we attended churches with candlelight services on Christmas Eve and doing everything that needed to get done got complicated. My dad now has a tradition of watching the Pope’s midnight mass on TV while he wraps presents. I guess the papacy isn’t all bad.
- The Orthodox church does things a little differently, largely because they have retained the Julian calendar.
- Jeremiah acknowledged God’s justice to punish Jerusalem for her idolatry, but also pleaded that she would be restored. God is big enough to take our frustrations with Him, but we cannot allow ourselves to completely lose hope.
Let me start by apologizing to readers who are not interested in US politics—it’s the only politics I know. It’s also, I think, a somewhat unique system that has loads of interesting implications for Christians. As we rush to the finish line of the 2012 US Presidential election, you might want to know that I’m a registered Democrat who usually votes for Republican Presidential candidates. I’m also a perfect swing voter according to USA Today. Right at this moment (and I could very well change my mind by the end of this essay) I’m probably going to vote for Obama because I hate the title of Romney’s book.
But this post isn’t about my politics. Instead I’m writing about the ofttimes strained relationship between Evangelicals and the United States’ political process. We trace our heritage through the Puritans, who were a frustrating contradiction: Jonathan Edwards died of a small pox inoculation he took to help the Mohicans and was disquietingly silent on the issue of slavery. I believe that our political history shows that Evangelicalism has redeemed itself when it has taken firm stands against injustice and has failed when we put the cart before the horse. Remember that Jesus healed first and preached second.
The Founding Deists
If our country was founded on a religious foundation, it was deist. Or, if you prefer nuance, the US was established by theistic rationalists. That is to say, our political principles derived from the work of Descartes, Locke, and Hume, which place reason at the center of all human endeavours. Given the religious warfare and civil strife that these Americans escaped when they left Britain and Europe, we should not be surprised they took refuge in the hope of human intellect and industry. Rationalism would be the ultimate mediator in the nation they were forming.
As an Evangelical, I’m thankful for the great words of the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Constitution (and the First Amendment especially) went on to secure those rights for all Americans with one startling exception: African slaves. With all of the reasoning of Solomon and none of the wisdom, slaveholding states tried first to minimize the personhood of slaves to reduce their tax burden and later to maximize their influence on representation in Congress. The conclusion they came to was that African slaves were worth exactly “three fifths of all other Persons”.
That’s an insane answer. Either slaves are just property, in which case they don’t count as people, or they are people and also property, in which case they count as full people. For a country that was created on the principle that “all men are created equal” to build a government on a document that states that some men are to be treated as less than equal shows that it’s founders sacrificed their ideals for pragmatism.
Abraham Lincoln—Our Greatest President
I recently read Eric Foner’s book, The Fiery Trial, which traces Lincoln’s political career from his early days with the Whig party to his Republican presidency. Like the most prominent Founding Fathers, whom he adored, Mr. Lincoln can not be classified an Evangelical Christian. He attended many churches, but never became a member. Though he opposed slavery all his life, he was not an Abolitionist. Rather he objected to the economic consequences of slavery on the value of free white labor and the conflict between the words of the Declaration of Independence with the realities of slavery in the South.
It was not until the collapse of the Whig party that Lincoln aligned himself with the Abolitionist movement and he did that out of political savvy rather than religious conviction. His private words and his hope that Colonization would resolve the deep national divide would expose him to the charge of racism if he lived today. I do not believe the Great Emancipator was an Evangelical, but his movement from a position of gradual, compensated emancipation to his final decision to free Southern slaves on 1 January 1863 was heavily influenced by Evangelical, Catholic and Quaker advocates for African Americans.
Our nation paid a heavy price for the short-sighted pragmatism of the Constitution. At the cost of a brutal Civil War, America eliminated the system of legal slavery that devalued humans. I’m certain that if Lincoln had served out the balance of his second term, Reconstruction would have set African Americans on a course to become full citizens as well.
Martin Luther King’s Dream
If I could, I’d quote the entirety of Dr. King’s famous speech. It was a turning point in the Civil Rights movement and a prophetic wakeup call to the nation:
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
If you read or listen to Martin Luther King’s speeches, you’ll quickly notice that he quotes frequently from the Bible—especially from the Hebrew prophets. While he certainly learned from Gandhi’s nonviolent protest tactics, King drew inspiration from the promises of God to Israel and their fulfillment in the person of Jesus. He took a stance on social issues from the firm foundation of his Protestant upbringing.
Remarkably, there are some Evangelicals who question King’s Christian credentials. Perhaps I can’t lay claim to King as a member of my particular brand of Christianity, but I can walk with him (metaphorically) and call him my brother. If Martin Luther King wasn’t an Evangelical, I don’t want to be either. More Christians (especially those of us with a Conservative bent) should listen to his words and follow his example.
Where do we go from here?
There so much more to be said about the ways that Evangelicals in America have succeeded and failed to be positive forces in politics. I was inspired to write this topic by reading John Piper’s excellent book Bloodlines, but that’s all I have time to say about it. It convinced me that race is the overriding political problem our nation has faced since it first emerged from being a British colony. We have not yet freed ourselves from that struggle.
To non-Christian readers: Almost everything you read, see and hear about Christians, particularly Evangelicals, is a distortion. As Martin Luther King once noted, if a store window gets broken in a peaceful protest, the newspapers will report it as a riot. While there are certainly hateful Christians and Christian groups, most all of the people I know are loving and concerned for the well-being of our nation and its citizens. Get to know a Christian; you might be surprised.
To Christian readers: Despite the prevalence of the word “God” in our nation’s founding texts, we are not a Christian country. We never have been. Please don’t think that our goal should be to put the right people in office or to enforce correct theology via government action. On the other hand, don’t sacrifice your belief for the sake of pragmatism. Politics is about turning the collective convictions of a community into its public policy.
Sometimes people say, “if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain about the results”. I take it one step further: if you aren’t doing something to make the world a better place (visiting prisoners, assisting the unemployed, tutoring students, and so on) you don’t have the right to complain that the world is falling apart. That’s how we will earn the political currency to make real and lasting changes.
When I first proposed this topic, I figured I’d take a Bible-thumping, fundamentalist position. But as I thought about it, I realized I can’t do it justice and will probably come off as a caricature. Besides, I really do “accept the Holy Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, as the word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct”. As John Piper put it, “Everybody to my left thinks I am [a fundamentalist]. And there are a lot of people to my left.” Where I diverge from fundamentalism is not in my confidence in the Bible, but rather in my confidence in my interpretations of it. That’s why I spend so much time on Biblical Hermeneutics.
The Evangelical tradition traces it’s roots through the Reformation, which paralleled the Cartesian movement in science. Just as modern science rejects the traditions handed down from our ancestors, Luther and his spiritual children rejected the traditions of the Roman Catholic church. Since Catholics lay claim to apostolic succession, it’s natural to assume Protestants abandoned our connection to Jesus’ followers through the ages. That is not the case.
More accurately the Reformation (and the early moderns in general) sought to discover first principles using new techniques. Innovations in literacy, translation, and publication allowed more people to read and understand the historical sources of Christianity. Globalization (round one) put ordinary folks in contact with the huge array of belief systems: Christian and otherwise. Political winds shifted toward rudimentary democracy as ancient Greek and Roman texts were rediscovered. In short, people began examining the world around them with a more critical eye.
When the Reformers looked at the church, they were troubled by what they saw. It did not seem to conform to the picture Paul painted:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.—Ephesians 2:13-22 (ESV)
What they saw wasn’t one church built on the foundation of Christ, but two churches at war with one another. In the earthy glory of the public face of Christianity, it was difficult to see the surpassing glory of its founder. Each branch of the church claimed the Holy Spirit was directing them to build strikingly different dwelling places for God. Something had gone wrong and it was time to peel back the layers and find our firm foundation.
At this moment, our master bedroom doesn’t have a door. When we repainted, we decided to replace our boring flat door with a fancier door that’s less beat up. As I drilled the last hole and screwed the last screw to attach the hinges, I discovered that it didn’t close all the way. To fully illustrate my ineptitude, it doesn’t open all the way either. So I had a choice: I could fix my mistake or I could play out an episode of Home Improvement and “fix” the door frame.
At some point in the past, the Catholic Church made a few small mistakes in laying out their floor plan. It happens; we’re human. When you make a mistake, you need to fix it as quickly as possible to avoid problems down the line. But that gets tricky when the Pope speaks ex cathedra. It gets even more complex when other branches of the church claim other sources of authority. You don’t solve this sort of problem by ignoring it and continuing to build.
Reading Paul’s letters to early churches, I’m struck by how often he appeals to the witnesses of Christ’s life, death and resurrection: the apostles. The church must be “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone”. His readers would have known that “the prophets” were the third leg of the Tanakh: the Jewish Scriptures defined by the Pharisees. All that remained of the men, who foretold of a coming King of the Jews who would put things right between God and humanity, was their writings that had been carefully preserved.
Meanwhile, Paul’s first readers had probably heard of Christ via eyewitnesses who were scattered by persecutions in Jerusalem and the surrounding country. (Ironically, Paul himself was one of the reasons the message of Christianity spread to Gentile regions—first because he harassed followers of The Way and later because he was commissioned on the road to Damascus to preach to the Gentiles.) To them, “the apostles” were people, not writings. But within a few years, Mark and Luke saw a need to start recording the memoirs and acts of the apostles so that they would be preserved for future generations. Soon other writers began publishing accounts of Jesus under the Gospel classification. What began as an oral foundation, quickly emerged as a corpus of written material.
By the end of the second and start of the third generation of the church, all of the New Testament texts had been written, though nobody called them that yet. Other Christian writings also survive from that time, but they were a trickle compared to the explosion of written output that began in the second century. Meanwhile, various theologies were proposed and propagated at the same time. It shouldn’t be a surprise as the apostles themselves dealt with theological controversies. For the average Christian, who grew up in a polytheist culture, it must have been confusing and overwhelming.
Perhaps more than anyone else, we can thank Irenaeus of Lyons for clearing up the orthodox position. He particularly addressed the Gnostic thinkers and writers who believed that Jesus had passed “secret knowledge” to His closest followers. In response, Irenaeus points to the writings of the apostles, who were Jesus’ companions on earth, and those who learned the gospel at the apostles’ feet. If the disciples of Jesus taught publicly what He Himself taught them, they weren’t keeping His knowledge secret! Analysis of Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses shows that he considered John’s Revelation and letters, Paul’s letters and Luke’s history of the first generation of the church to be authentic. More importantly, he made an explicit case for the four (and only four) canonical gospels. It would be a few hundred more years before the New Testament was finalized, but it’s shape was clearly outlined by Irenaeus.
Irenaeus also noted that none of the bishops of the major Christian centers espoused the Gnostic heresy. So oddly one man substantially contributed both to the theory of Episcopal polity and Sola Scriptura. But when you get right down to it, why not? At that point in history, the leaders of the church had over and over again come down on the side of the apostolic teaching found in the Gospels. The phenomena is easy to explain: they recognized the authentic Jesus taught to them by their spiritual parents in the biographies of the fourfold Gospel. Other accounts of Jesus’ life, many of which were written to justify Gnostic teaching, did not look like the person they acknowledged as their Lord.
So we can thank our common tradition, the fathers of the church, for recognizing, compiling and preserving the teachings of the apostles. As we read in Luke’s account of the apostles activities, they were filled with the Holy Spirit as they wrote our New Testament just as the prophets were filled with God’s Spirit when they wrote the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit gives us the assurance that the Scripture is reliable, but He doesn’t do His work along. He always uses the Church to perform His good works, which is how tradition gave us our Bible.
If you’ve been following along with my posts, you might have noticed that I’ve managed to cover all the standard characteristics of Evangelicalism except “conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed”. I admit to stretching the assigned topic at times to get through the list, but this month’s topic, “Faith and Works”, is a softball pitch of the beer-in-one-hand variety for me. Salvation is the term Christians (especially Evangelicals) use to describe the conversion event and Protestantism was founded because of our insistence that conversion is an act of faith and not of works. I could dig up a quote from one of Paul’s letters and be done with it, but it turns out to be not that easy.
A few weeks ago, my son asked me what the most important two parts of a walkie-talkie are. (He’s at a very analytic stage in life.) My answer was maybe the transmitter and the receiver, which sounded about right to him. Then we talked about which parts we could get rid of. For instance, our set has a little LED flashlight, which is handy, but not necessary. They also have a hands-free feature that makes the Push-to-Talk button potentially superfluous. If you don’t mind the cross-talk from being locked into one channel, there’s a bunch of parts that are used to set up the frequency that could be removed. The only functions of a walkie-talkie that really can’t be taken away are the ability to send and receive radio transmissions. Without one or the other, it’s just not a walkie-talkie.
Salvation is a bit like a walkie-talkie: you need both faith and works or else you don’t really have salvation.
One of Protestantism’s touchstone stories for illustrating that faith is all you need for salvation is the two criminals crucified on either side of Jesus. One mocked Jesus mercilessly, but the other asked Jesus to remember him when he came into His kingdom. It must have struck observers as pretty humorous since all three men were surely destined to suffer for a few more hours and then die. Jesus promised the man who asked that they would meet that very day in paradise. By implication, the man was saved purely by his faith in Jesus as the literal Son of God.
We have a walkie-talkie like that: it can only send pre-loaded call-tones since the microphone broke somehow. My son set up a convoluted game of hide-and-seek that involved the seeker using the receive-only device while the hider transmitted hints. (He’s at the arbitrary rule-making age too.) Lots of folks figure God works a bit like this: we are looking for Him and He transmits revelations to guide us now and again. All you need to do is know the right things and you will be saved.
Historically, this view is associated with the heresy of Gnosticism. Bonhoeffer called the modern variation “cheap grace“. Jesus’ brother, James, called it dead faith. Taken to the extreme, once a person makes the salvation decision they are assured of eternal bliss and believe nothing else matters in this life. Nothing could be further from the truth—Jesus spent the bulk of His teaching exhorting His followers to love others as themselves (the Golden Rule) and to love God with everything they had.
But there is a kernel of truth in the idea that we don’t have to do something for God in order for Him to rescue us. Way back in Genesis 3, humanity was captured by evil and we cannot escape without divine intervention. The Hebrew Scriptures tell the story of a failed attempt to free one nation from the tyranny of sin via religious activity. Occasionally an individual will achieve a greater level of righteousness than their contemporaries, but when sin rubs against human institutions God’s priorities usually get lost in the shuffle. That’s why, when Jesus walked among His chosen people, He had to drive out profiteers who changed foreign money so that worshipers could pay the temple tax.
While I was on vacation in Hawaii last week, I witnessed a man pulled back to the beach by a pair of divers who had found him on the bottom of a snorkeling lagoon. Most likely, he got tired from fighting the surf, panicked, and accidentally swallowed some water. At that point, he would have been helpless to rescue himself. That’s what happens when we start getting sucked down by sin—we start off doing something a little dangerous and end up overwhelmed. I know that’s what has happened to me.
In the depths of sin, we need God to rescue us and we can never rescue ourselves. But you can’t say you’ve been rescued if you keep going back to the dangerous place and taking crazy risks. Salvation is a lot less like a ticket to heaven and a lot more like an AA chip. Thankfully and paradoxically, God has provided a way for followers of Jesus to escape sin daily: His own Spirit.
To me, salvation is the total package. We can’t save ourselves from our addiction to sin so we need faith. And yes, we risk falling back into sin if we don’t continue to pursue a godly life via works. In order to be effective at either faith or works, we need God’s Spirit to guide our steps. Further, we need the other believers to support us in these things. And prayer! Don’t forget prayer. Reading your Bible can help too. And so on.
All of this is to say, you could probably communicate with a pair of walkie-talkies that have just a transmit and receive function, but that’s not the best option. Even seemly pointless features, like a flashlight, turn out to be wonderfully useful and appreciated at times. God isn’t really interested in giving us the most basic tools to live a good life. He’s interested in giving us the best tools:
For thus says the LORD: “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘O LORD, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’—Jeremiah 31:7 (ESV)
So in the weeks to come, starting with Bruce‘s Arminian/Wesleyan perspective, remember that we all agree that Salvation is what Jesus has done for us even though we disagree about the mechanism of Salvation.
Evangelicals have a long tradition of activism. Unfortunately, we haven’t always exactly been honorable in our activism lately and at critical moments, we’ve done too little to speak out against injustice. As a result, at least in the United States, Christianity has developed a strange split-identity. On the one hand, we are making a difference with our actions, but on the other, we are ashamed to be called “Christian”.
A few years ago, a co-worker found out I was Christian. Whenever he came to talk about a Bible study or prayer or spiritual things, he would want to close my door and/or talk in a whisper. I guess it had something to do with a fear of persecution. He must not have heard or remembered what Paul said to Timothy: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.“
I really think we can learn a thing or two from the LGBT concept of coming out, which has successfully transformed homosexuality from a crippling social stigma into being a respected community within Western culture within the last hundred years. Coming out changes perceptions because the people who do it:
- boldly lay claim to their identity, and
- tell their own stories honestly.
All too often, Christians do exactly the opposite—especially in the workplace when we rub shoulders with people of other religious convictions. We want to be faithful to our identity as Christians but we don’t know how.
One approach that doesn’t work goes something like this:
- Hang a Thomas Kinkade print in your cubicle hoping that the “positive image” will help co-workers find religion.
- Begin each day with a silent prayer asking that our work will be pleasing to God, but not praying for specifics.
- Wear a “Lord’s Gym” T-shirt under your work apparel so that you will always have Jesus close to your heart.
- Drop vague references to Christian rock lyrics in conversation.
- Place Chick Tracts on co-worker’s desks after they’ve gone home for the night.
This way, we can feel like we are claiming our identity in Christ without actually risking being held to it. It’s like a coded language that Christians will understand and agree with, but won’t be clear to others at work. It amounts to a refusal to take on an association with Jesus in the public sphere.
- Hang a print of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in your cubicle.
- Begin each meeting with an invitation to join in prayer.
- Wear a “Lord’s Gym” T-shirt as your work apparel.
- Be sure to say “Lord willing” and “God bless you!” often in conversations.
- Put the “Four Spiritual Laws” on your business cards.
Unless you happen to do these things naturally (and I have met few guys with that personality), these over-the-top displays of Christianity are hypocritical. They tell a story, but not our story. Here’s what the early Church took to be it’s story:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.—1st Peter 2:9-10 (ESV)
I became known as a Christian at my office when I started dating my soon-to-be fiancée. She had always been interested in international missions and I preferred to stay at home reading, playing computer games, and making ill-advised suggestions for Perl 6. But we were getting serious about our relationship and she was planning to spend two months in Mexico City as a short-term missionary, so I figured I better find out if I could be involved in it myself.
Meanwhile, I was changing projects at work and told my new boss that I was thinking of taking two months of unpaid leave. If truth were told, I sort of hoped he would say that he couldn’t spare me for that long and I would have to (i.e., get to) stay home. But he was glad to let me go since work was slow at the time. So I started making preparations: practicing my high school Spanish at a Hispanic church service, applying to the missionary program, and raising/saving money.
At long last, the program accepted me (I was secretly disappointed), I got my airline ticket, packed my bag, and arrived in Mexico City. At that point I finally discovered the biggest hurdle to my new calling: mime ministry. Somehow I failed to notice that our team would be asked to put on face paint and do pantomime. Miraculously, I survived. More than that, I fell in love with the city and the people who welcomed me there. God made me a new person—a person who enjoys missionary work. (I have never gone back to miming, however.)
When I returned, everyone knew that I was a Christian. A few months later, 9/11 happened. A Muslim co-worker put two and two together and invited me into a dialogue seeking reconciliation between our religions. We didn’t solve the problem of world peace, but we did have some very enjoyable lunch conversations. I continued to worship in Spanish (to this day).
My girlfriend and I got engaged and married and took even more short-term trips to Latin America. Each time, I simply told people where we were going and when someone asked what we were doing, I told them. One person found out that I was going to Bolivia and told me, very sincerely and sorrowfully, that Machu Picchu is in Peru! That gave me an opportunity to explain that my purpose wasn’t tourism, so I hadn’t made a mistake. I’ve even sent support letters to people I know will be interested in what our team is up to.
So far, the only “persecution” I experienced was being told to remove a Bible verse from my email signature, since it was “unprofessional”. Otherwise, people either ignore my faith to treat me like anyone else, or engage with me as a Christian. People regularly ask me to pray for family members with illness and ask me about what Christians believe. I put up a couple of printouts of 3:16 passages that I think are kinda awesome and I keep a Bible at my desk. A few years ago, I joined the Gideons and wear their pin on my badge holder. I don’t hide my story anymore, nor do I force it on unsuspecting passers-by.
When you come right down to it, Christians who give the church a bad name and Christians who are embarrassed by the church have missed the main point of the gospel. Whatever God is doing, whether we understand it or not, is good news. We need to share our joy in His work. And if we don’t have joy in it, we ought to reflect on why not and pray for God’s spirit. But that’s a topic for next month.
Previously in this space, I noted four characteristics of the evangelical movement. George M. Marsden, a historian of American Evangelicalism, suggested a fifth: trans-denominationalism. In a nutshell, we don’t believe the Church instituted by Christ through His Apostles is confined to any human hierarchical structure, but is infused in all denominations in the form of individuals of faith. We are eager to cooperate with our like-minded Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant brothers and sisters because when God gathers together the Church in the end, there will be representatives from every Christian tradition.
Christians and non-Christians alike (though for different reasons) question how the proliferation of schisms, sects, denominations, synods, conferences, and offshoots fit in the plans of a monotheistic God. I don’t propose to answer that question here, but rather to tell a story of one significant split that I hope will help us think through the issues.
Our story begins in 1517 when a middle-aged, Augustinian monk named Martin Luther wrote a letter to his bishop protesting the sale of indulgences by a Dominican friar in Germany. Luther claimed that the transaction violated the Church’s mission to offer the free gift of salvation by faith to all people. This seemingly insignificant dispute sparked the first fire of the Reformation and simultaneously propelled Luther into a late-life career in which he translated the Bible into German, wrote numerous hymns and commentaries, standardized written German, and became a leading figure in the founding of the German state.
It was this last accomplishment that attracted German National Socialism to his writings. Sadly, the antisemitic movement found much in Luther’s work to reinforce their warped view of genetics and culture. Never mind that these opinions were expressed late in Luther’s life, opposed his earlier views, and were largely ignored after his death; any attack on Jews could be justified. (It probably didn’t hurt that Luther was particularly crass in those later years.)
Hitler himself was indifferent to Christianity, but many of his lieutenants were actively anti-Christian and wished to replace, what they saw as “the one immortal blemish of mankind” to quote Nietzsche, with something more Teutonic. Hitler was pleased to encourage the German Christian movement which busied itself promoting German interests and was only marginally Christian. In 1933, Germany reorganized Lutheranism into a centralized, national church. Initially, Friedrich von Bodelschwingh, a pastor who ran the Bethel Institution which provided care for orphaned children, mentally ill people and the poor, was elected to lead the new church as Reichsbischof.
But von Bodelschwingh resigned after political maneuvering a month later. Ludwig Müller, an obscure naval chaplain who was an early member of the Nazi party, eventually got himself appointed Reichsbischof. Within the year, he institituted the Aryan paragraph which removed pastors of Jewish decent, proposed removing the Jewish Scriptures from the Bible, and advocated a more “positive” Jesus. The last re-imagined the Jewish Jesus of the Gospels into what one German Christian called a “burst of Nordic light into world history“. A new German Religion based on Nazi ideals was poised to supplant Luther’s Christian denomination.
We might expect that interference of this level would prompt worldwide outrage within the Church Universal. It didn’t. Yes, there were great heroes to match the great villainy:
- Martin Niemöller who spent 8 years in prison for attempting to help people dismissed from church employment for being Jewish or being married to a Jew.
- Karl Barth who wrote the Barmen Declaration which was the founding document of the Confessing Church.
- Friedrich Weißler, the Confessing Church’s lawyer and a Jew, who was tortured to death for leaking to the foreign press a memo the church wrote to Hitler. The memo made the Führer look bad.
- Wilhelm Busch who was repeatedly arrested by the SS for leading youth in Bible study in his home and once for holding a church service that was too popular.
- Bishops, teachers, and pastors who defied Vidkun Quisling‘s attempts to duplicate Hitler’s results in Norway. (While I am proud of my distant cousins, they did have the benefit of seeing what a disaster appeasement brought in Germany.)
- Anglican Bishop George Bell who rescued many German pastors and their families from Nazi persecution, worked tirelessly to expose Nazi atrocities, and advocated for the German resistance movement.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose complicated life story (told in Eric Metaxas’ brilliant Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy) ended a few weeks before he would have been saved by the collapse of Nazi Germany.
But ultimately, the majority of German pastors did not oppose the German Christian heresy until it was far too late. International ecumenical movements presaged Chamberlain’s folly by continuing to recognize the German National church after it was reorganized on Hitler’s terms. At the moment of crisis, the Church proved as feeble and irrelevant as her critics predicted which hurried Europe’s long process toward secularization.
From a human perspective, the Church has, at times, succumbed to the Iron Law of Oligarchy. That is, the preservation of the organization has occasionally overcome the expressed purpose of the organization. We see it not only in huge, globe-spanning hierarchies, but even in the little Bible study I lead for years until I finally let it go last fall. (To be honest, it had lost its focus on the mission and became more about me than about the Word of God.)
From a Biblical and historical perspective, the Church was divided right from her birth. Immediately after Jesus announced the ceremony that signified the Church’s unity, one of his hand-picked followers left to bring arresting officers in exchange for money. The other 11 scattered when it became clear Jesus wasn’t going to call down fire from heaven or angels to rescue him. His lieutenant, who had sworn to follow Jesus to the death, refused to even admit he knew his leader. Only one male follower and a few women watched him die. It was not a propitious beginning.
Here’s how Augustine of Hippo explained the situation:
But let [the pilgrim city of King Christ] bear in mind, that among her enemies lie hid those who are destined to be fellow-citizens, that she may not think it a fruitless labor to bear what they inflict as enemies until they become confessors of the faith. So, too, as long as she is a stranger in the world, the city of God has in her communion, and bound to her by the sacraments, some who shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints. Of these, some are not now recognized; others declare themselves, and do not hesitate to make common cause with our enemies in murmuring against God, whose sacramental badge they wear.
In truth, these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effects their separation.
Nothing that we think of as the Church, from towering cathedrals to secret meetings in catacombs, will survive that last judgment intact, but neither will it all be lost. In the end, Jesus will draw out the true Church to Himself:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.—2nd Corinthians 5:17-20 (ESV)
Come back next week for Bruce Alderman‘s answer to “What is the Church?”
Last month, I gave a definition of Evangelicalism that mentioned one of our four core values: “crucicentrism”. We believe (along with most Christians) that the cross of Christ represents the turning point in human history and the start of God’s victory over evil. That the early Christians interpreted the death of their Messiah as a victory and not the defeat of a failed revolutionary rabbi stands testimony to their belief that Jesus stepped out of the tomb alive.
Here’s how Paul of Tarsus put it in a letter to the church in the Roman colony city of Corinth:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.—1st Corinthians 15:3-9 (ESV)
Scholars agree that the letter was written by Paul sometime between 53 and 57 AD, which places it, at most, 27 years after the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion. Interestingly, the Corinthians were skeptical that Jesus could have risen bodily from the tomb and Paul gives this passage as evidence. A portion of the passage (“that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”) was most likely a creed or statement of belief that scholars have dated to within 5 years of the crucifixion. So it’s not so much evidence of the resurrection per se as evidence of the belief of the Jerusalem church.
The creed lists witnesses to the events in chronological order of when they saw the risen Jesus. Most intriguing is the mention of more than 500 brothers (and possibly sisters—the Greek is ambiguous on the point). We have independent accounts of when Jesus appeared to all the other witnesses (including Paul) but we don’t know for sure who the 500 plus were. However, Paul did and almost challenges his readers to contact them: “most of whom are still alive”.
It wasn’t an idle challenge either. We look back on ancient travel and communication as dangerous and unreliable. There’s truth to that, but in the ancient context, the Roman system of roads and sea routes was vital to the operation of empire. Corinth (or Corinthus) was a critical waypoint between the Eastern and Western provinces. Acts 4:33 talks about apostles “giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” and Paul mentions apostles traveling to Rome before he got there, so the Corinthians likely had direct access to witnesses of the resurrection.
Paul also refers to a problem that was fast approaching: “Some have fallen asleep” is a euphemism meaning “some have died”. How would the church continue to bear witness to its creed when the eyewitnesses had gone? Sometime between 65 and 80 AD somebody wrote down the first Gospel (or biography of Jesus). The book includes an account of the resurrection:
When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.—Mark 16:1-8 (ESV)
Believe it or not, that’s how the story ends; Mark 16:9-20 is marked as a later insertion in most modern editions. There are several theories about why Mark ended there, but it’s possible the author intended the reader to seek out a Christian to answer the burning question: “What happened next?” In any case, Mark began a transition from a largely oral tradition to written history. In the decades to follow, Christianity produced a remarkable corpus of four written accounts of the life of Jesus.
To understand why our written history of Jesus is so remarkable, let me turn our attention to one of the biggest stories of the early Roman Empire: the Great Fire of Rome. That event had roughly a million eyewitnesses. In terms of significance, it was in the same league as 9/11. We have three surviving accounts, all of which are secondary and at least 50 years removed from the event. In turn, those sources draw on three primary sources which are now lost. None of the accounts, however, agree on the central facts: who set the fire and why, and where Nero was at the time. Even so, with a great deal of detective work, historians feel confident in claiming the fire was an accident that Nero blamed on the Christians.
Considering there were at most a few hundred witnesses to the risen Jesus, it’s remarkable that we have four written histories. Occasionally skeptics point to the various contradictions between the gospels as evidence that the story is made up. But the truth is that multiple historical accounts increase our certainty that the event happened. Historians usually extrapolate from meager evidence in ancient text (a passing reference or an incomplete narrative), so four secondary sources that reflect at least as many primary sources is highly unusual. We have orders of magnitude more biographical data about Jesus than we do about, for instance, Shakespeare who we know mostly from scraps of business and legal documents outside of his plays and poetry.
- Christ died
- he was buried
- he was raised on the third day
They agree that third day was the first day of the week: Sunday. They also agree on several details that seem to have no theological significance: the first witnesses were women who worried about how to move the stone door of the tomb, which was donated by Joseph of Arimathea. Quite likely Paul left out the women in his list of people who saw Jesus alive after the cross because, in the ancient world, they would not be seen as reliable witnesses. But without the women, the gospel writers would be left without a narrative.
When it comes to disagreements among the gospels, probably the most famous concerns the messengers who were already at the tomb when the women arrived. Were they angels or men? Did they sit on the stone or were they inside the tomb? How many were there: one, two, more? What, if anything was their message? These stories are difficult, even impossible, to harmonize. But these are exactly the sort of oddities we should expect from several, independent memories of the same event.
There is no solid archaeological evidence for the empty tomb. Most likely, the site was destroyed by the city of Jerusalem remaking herself. At any rate, the tomb might have looked like this one, which was uncovered in 1874:
Early Christianity showed little interest in the site of the tomb, or even in travel to Palestine before the 4th century, which isn’t surprising since the New Testament asserts that there was no body to be found there. For the gospel writers, the important thing to establish was that Jesus had, in fact, risen.
There is so much more to tell, but I need to stop somewhere. If you would like to explore more, I suggest N. T. Wright’s article “Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins” or, for the ambitious, his book The Resurrection of the Son of God. Don’t worry if the material above made you question presuppositions; as I was writing the post I had many doubts. But doubt is the sign of self-honesty, so it’s a good thing.
Tune in next week when Peter Turner writes about something many Evangelicals wouldn’t expect.
For my first post to the Eschewmenical blog, I have two goals: define my tradition (Evangelical) and explain our position on contraception. But the second task will require extensive work, so I will simply point to the definition supplied by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College:
British historian David Bebbington … notes four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and “crucicentrism,” a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
For my purposes, “biblicism” stands out. My approach follows the (unofficial) motto of The Evangelical Covenant Church: “Where is it written?”
When it comes to contraception, we Bible-thumping Evangelicals are at a disadvantage. Until recently, contraception was unreliable, unscientific, and (among the ancient Hebrews at least) rare. Hence, there aren’t a lot of texts that address the issue. Men and women typically wanted children. (See Genesis 29-30.) The story of Onan might provide some insight, but interpreters are uncertain about why God condemned him.
Thankfully, however, we can apply Biblical principles to the problem at hand. For instance, we know that sex outside of marriage is forbidden by many texts, so contraception for unmarried people just doesn’t accord with the Bible’s way of thinking. As I shared with the high school group at our church recently, the Bible warns us to avoid pre-marital sex:
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases. —Song of Solomon 2:7 (ESV)I think we sometimes justify our actions by imagining the Bible didn’t really foresee reliable birth-control or social conventions that do not shame coming to the marriage bed as a non-virgin. But in Hebrew, this verse is an oath (repeated three times in the poem) with consequences so severe that the bride dares not say them. Given the delight the couple finds in enjoying each other, the bride seems intent on warning against premature sexual relations. God isn’t in the business of stealing our fun; He wants us to avoid ruining the good things He’s provided us. And that includes the deepening pleasures of sex within marriage.
When the Bible was written, the most common form of birth control (or more accurately, population control) was infanticide. Unwanted newborns were regularly exposed to the elements, sacrificed to blood-thirsty gods, or sold into slavery. What a brutal world it must have been when the most merciful option was involuntary slavery! But both Judaism and Christianity reject infanticide because of the high value the Bible places on human life and its prohibitions against child sacrifice. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for his role in the German plot to assassinate Hitler, was not the first to extend the principle to the pre-born:
Marriage involves acknowledgement of the right of life that is to come into being, a right which is not subject to the disposal of the married couple. Unless this right is acknowledged as a matter of principle, marriage ceases to be marriage and becomes a mere liaison. Acknowledgement of this right means making way for the free creative power of God which can cause new life to proceed from this marriage according to His will. Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.—Ethics (p.173-174)
For this reason, even Evangelical Christians who accept other forms of birth control, usually avoid any sort of abortifacient. Since some forms of contraception could act upon a fertilized egg rather than by preventing the sperm and egg from meeting, I’ve known Christians, who are otherwise uninterested in science, do serious literature reviews about how these medical interventions work at a cellular level.
Christians from other traditions might find it strange that Evangelical denominations don’t usually have an official position on birth control. The reason is simple: according to Genesis 2, the marriage covenant was instituted by God. The role of the church and of the state, therefore, is merely to stand witness to the agreement made between the couple before God. Thus, the church may advise, but not proscribe marriage practice. Each couple must be free to act on their own convictions when it comes to having children, which means anything from not limiting family size to refusing to have children at all.
The first two chapters of Genesis provide us with two important considerations:
- The first command God gives humanity is: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”—Genesis 1:28b (ESV) Since marriage is the only institution that allows that command to be fulfilled, it’s hard to justify purposefully childless marriages as a general pattern.
- Sexual intercourse is not just allowed, but assumed to be a normal part of marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”—Genesis 2:24-25 (ESV) Except for limited periods of time and by mutual consent, abstinence is no more a natural form of birth control than the most invasive contraception.
Personally, this is not an empty, academic topic to mull over. Even before we were married, friends from all sides counselled my wife and I about whether and how we ought to manage our family’s size. Issues of ethics, medicine, church authority, finances, career, and so on entered into our discussions. Ultimately, we found ourselves in agreement with Bonhoeffer:
Human reproduction is a matter of the will to have a child of one’s own, and for precisely this reason it would not be right for blind impulse simply to run its course as it pleases and then go on to claim to be particularly pleasing in the eyes of God; responsible reason must have a share in this decision. There can, in fact, be weighty reasons which in a particular concrete instance will call for a limitation of the number of children. If precisely during the past hundred years birth control has become such a burning question, and if very wide circles of men of all religious denominations have expressed agreement with the principle of birth control, this is not to be interpreted simply as a falling away from the faith or as a lack of trust in God. It is undoubtedly connected with the technology in all fields of life and with the incontestable triumphs of technical science in the widest sense over the facts of nature, for example in the reduction of infant mortality and in the considerable raising of the average age of the population.—Ethics (p. 175)
In the end, it didn’t matter: our birth control method failed and we found ourselves with a son, who we love dearly, just 10 months after our wedding. God is in control! Since then, we’ve agonized, consoled, comforted, and rejoiced with our friends who have faced decisions about infertility, adoption, birth control, and raising children. Having children can entail both deep disappointments and pure joy, but it has been one of the most fulfilling experiences in my life.
Next week, we’ll hear from Peter Turner on the Catholic Church’s view on contraception. I disagree with that view for the most part, but I (and many other Evangelicals) stand with the Catholic Church against any mandate by the US government requiring religious institutions to pay for contraceptives. Even when there is a clear and compelling public good requiring citizens to compromise their beliefs (such as drafting pacifists), the government must make reasonable exemptions for religious, ethical and moral convictions (such as conscientious objector status). The United States may have many problems, but access to affordable contraception simply is not among them. Unaccountably, the Federal government appears to hold that when it comes to healthcare, the First Amendment does not apply.