Easter. It’s Okay… Really.

I wrote a post a few years ago called, “Christmas. It’s Okay… Really.” You can read it by CLICKING HERE.

I am writing this during Holy Week (Maundy Thursday to be exact). Easter is just three days away. The points of my previous post also applies to this holiday. The former post had several points:

  • It is Okay to Christianize a “Pagan” Holiday (Issue of Contextualization). I deal with this in more detail with regards to Christmas. In actuality, Christmas does not actually appear to have sprung up from a pagan holiday, but has been affected by pagan festivities over the centuries. Good contextualization comes from making a connection of the divine with the cultural. In some ways Easter is even less ‘pagan’ than Christmas. Unlike Christmas where the birthday of Jesus is highly speculative, we know fairly precisely when Jesus was crucified and when He rose (especially if utilizing a lunar calendar). Additionally, Easter is connected to the Jewish holiday of Passover. On the other hand, some practices, such as Easter eggs and Easter bunnies have connection to pre-Christian practices (apparently). And regardless of pagan roots, the eggs and bunnies are tied to the cycle of life as both relate to productivity and fertility— issues of special importance in Springtime, especially in Norther temperate climates. A few days ago, I was sent an article that connected Easter to all sorts of pagan practices. Some sure sounded quite… fanciful. some were based on more solid data. However, I am not focusing on the details here because I don’t have problems with “redeeming a holiday.” No day of the year is off-limits to Christian celebration.
  • It is Okay to Celebrate a “Civil” Holiday (Issue of Separation). Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Pentecost Sunday, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday and such are Christian religious holidays. The same can be said of Christmas, Easter, and Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras). The difference of these last three is that each of these share their day with a civil holiday of the same name, at least in some parts of the world. Christmas has a civil Christmas that is rather disconnected from its religious anchor. The same can be said of Easter and Mardi Gras. Some are very bothered by this, but there is something quite wonderful in that Christians and non-Christian can join together and celebrate the same day together. Of course, both Mardi Gras and Christmas have civil elements of excess that is quite problematic. It is rather nice that, generally speaking, civil Easter does not have this as much. Yes, candy companies have tried to make Easter a springtime equivalent to Halloween to market various products, but the excess has never been as ridiculous as with the other two. As such, I think it is quite nice that Christian and non-Christian alike can join together on Easter.
  • It is Okay to Celebrate Easter when we do (Issue of Historicity). I know the Eastern and Western churches have separated on when to celebrate Easter. Some wanted to separate Easter from Passover (a rather stupid idea I think). That being said, the key point is that it is meant to be a memorial to the event of Christ’s resurrection. Eusebius of Caesarea spoke in the early part of the 4th century on this matter of Easter. He notes that at that time, there were two “ancient traditions.” (Those today that see Easter as rejected by the early church are certainly guilty of over-simplifying the issue.) In the time of Eusebius, one group saw celebration of Jesus’s resurrection once a week on the Lord’s Day as sufficient. The other believed it good to have a once a year festival (presumably in addition to the Lord’s Day, not a replacement for it. You can read on this HERE. One group does not appear to be better than the other.
  • It is Okay to Celebrate (Issue of Asceticism). I don’t have anything to add from the one on Christmas. However, we should learn to get comfortable with addressing the issue of celebration. I have written on that somewhat: A Theology of Celebration. It is in two parts— PART ONE, and PART TWO.
  • It is Okay not to Listen to me (Issue of Conformity). I recently left an online discussion where one of the participants took great offense that many of the others did not agree with him. He appeared to believe that the rest of us were disagreeing with the Bible. In truth, what we were disagreeing with was his interpretation of the Bible and with the theological construct that he developed, in part, from the Bible. I won’t do that. You can take what I say to heart or not.

I will add one more:

  • It is Okay to Change the Name (Issue of Labeling). Some are concerned by the name Easter because of its non-Christian roots. They prefer the term “Resurrection Sunday.” That is perfectly fine. It certainly reminds us, as Christians, “the reason for the season.” However, I would recommend NOT trying to push this on everyone. As noted before, Easter has the benefit of being a celebration (in many countries) that bridges faiths. As a Christian with Christians, I celebrate Resurrection Sunday, but as a Christian with a more diverse crowd, I can joyously celebrate Easter— that strange holiday that brings together the religious and the mundane.

What’s Wrong With a Good Mystery (in Theology)?— Part 2

Continued from Part One

As noted before, Conservative Christians tend not to want to say “I don’t know” when it comes to Biblical or Theological questions. Some of that may be cultural. Having taught in a rather conservative seminary, I have certainly met my fair share of students who don’t like “wishy-washy” answers to questions. This is especially common with students who have received their training primarily from TV or Radio preachers (or from local pastors trained by those same individuals) who treat their own opinions as canon. There is something pretty shameful in this.

Perhaps no greater rejection of Mystery is found in Theology than Theodicy. This area seeks to explain or “justify” the existence of evil and suffering in a world created and maintained by an omnipotent and benevolent God. People REALLY don’t like to answer “I don’t know” to questions of Theodicy. I recall a class that I was leading where Psalm 44 was being reviewed. This is a wonderful lament with a lot of ambiguity. Bad things are happening without any simple answer as to why. One of my students, a pastor, did not like this at all… and went through a whole lot of mental gymnastics to show how that Psalm was consistent with his own view of suffering. (Fine… that is each person’s right.) Theodicy is not a strength of mine, but being an administrator of a counseling center certainly has led me to dwell on some of these issues more than some. After all, when someone asks, “Why is this happening to me?” after (or during) a crisis, it begs a theological answer. Although not always. Often it is rhetorical, saying, “I am in pain, please listen to me and be with me.” Still, when an answer is actually requested, what are some of the answers you have heard to this sort of question?

  • It is God’s will. (Do we know this? Doesn’t the Lord’s Prayer, and a number of statements of Jesus, suggest that many things happen that are NOT God’s will?)
  • It is for your good. (Again… do we know this? Certainly many things have indeed ‘come together for good,’ but does this mean that God intentionally did something harmful? And what about situations where redeeming the past is not really feasible?)
  • It is for your punishment. (This works for those who believe like Job’s friends that God only gives enjoyable things to those he favors, and only miserable things to those he does not. However, since Job’s friends were wrong, and much of history seems to bring doubt to this as well, it seems best to question this.

The Bible gives many different answers:

#1. Bad things happen to bad people (and good things happen to good people). Those who like this simple principle are attracted to places like Deuteronomy 24-25, and Proverbs.

#2. Bad things happen to good people. 1 Peter and much of the Gospels makes it clear that suffering is an expected result of faithfulness to Christ.

#3. Bad things and Good things happen to good (faithful) people. Read Hebrews 11.

#4. Bad things and Good things happen to both good and bad people. Read Ecclesiastes.

#5. We cannot know why Bad things or Good things happen to good people. Read Job or Psalm 44. Note that even though the book of Job gives a limited answer to us why bad things happened to Job, that information was not shared to him or others.

#6. We really shouldn’t speculate too much on why Bad things happen to people, especially as to whether they are bad or good. Read Christ’s guidance in Luke 13:1-4.

I am sure there are more answers given, and more nuanced variations of these, but just looking these over should make one reticent in giving universal answers to evil and suffering. Nevertheless, there are still attempts to come up with universal answers. One of my supervisees was leading a class where he was teaching different models for Theodicy. He listed four. They are Christian views and so do not include other answers like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. I forget the titles, but the following are the descriptions:

Model One. Suffering exists because God chose to give us Free Will, and that freedom of choice has resulted in a lot of bad things happening. This does not really address Natural Disasters very well, in my opinion. I guess this is more of a Reformed theologian favorite.

Model Two. Suffering exists to give us opportunities to grow. This was promoted by John Hick.

Model Three. Suffering exists in a condition of mutuality with God. God suffers with us in our pain. This is promoted by Jurgen Moltmann, along with, I believe, some Liberation Theologians.

Model Four. I believe this is called the Anti-theodicy view, and rejects coming up with a justification for evil and suffering. Rather, one should focus more on what is practical— What should I do with regards to the the existence of suffering and evil?

I tend to gravitate to the fourth one. The others appear to me to be too narrow. However, I really don’t like the name. “Anti-theodicy” to me suggests a turning off of the mind to the searching and reflecting on this issue. That may not be the intent.

I prefer the term “Mystery.” I like the term because I believe it points to two truths.

First, the ancient meaning of mystery refers to what is hidden. The reason/justification for the existence of evil and suffering has not been fully revealed. It may not be that we lack the faith to accept the truth. It may not be that we have not studied hard enough. It may simply be that God has not fully revealed it… only giving us tiny bits and clues.

Second, in the more modern understanding of mystery, it is something that drives a quest for truth. Just because we may not have been informed fully on this topic does not mean we throw up our arms and say that it is hidden and so a waste of time to even think about. Logical Positivists would state that questions that could not be answered in terms of definitions or empirical tests were meaningless. This is a rather lazy way to avoid most of the most interesting questions out there. To simply say that the reason for evil and suffering is hidden to us by God and so it is a waste of time to consider the question is, I feel, rather like the Logical Positivists.

Instead of that, we can recognize that God may have kept this hidden from us. However, that truth should not invalidate the question. We can grow greatly in questions that cannot be completely answered; but we should be very cautious of anyone who has claimed to answer it fully.

I believe there are a lot of mysteries in the Bible. We don’t really know what Heaven is like— is it a natural paradise? Is it a bejeweled city of gold? It is a giant room with a throne in the center? Is it a place of leisurely perfection, unceasing adoration, or of meaningful service? Each of these can be argued true based on very limited clues we are given. What is Hell actually like? Outside of being a place you or I (or anyone for that matter) would want to be (or perhaps cease to be), we only have hints. What are the actual boundaries of God’s grace? Do we absolutely know who is beyond God’s grace?

Mysteries are not necessarily to be answered… but they are to be explored. When we are given an ambiguous answer, we are in effect, being told “This is the whole truth. Stop looking.”

Happy exploring.

What’s Wrong With a Good Mystery (in Theology)? —Part 1

I do enjoy a good mystery novel. I enjoy True Crime podcasts as well. Of these, I particularly like solved crimes. I think solved satisfies my yearning for justice, something that unsolved crimes lack. However, there probably is also a bit of a side to me that just wants to know what is— as Paul Harvey would say— “The REST of the Story.”

This happens in Christian Theology as well. I have heard so many give very dogmatic answers to very good questions that appear to lack a clear unambiguous answer. I have sat in many Bible Studies where the leader (usually it is the leader) struggles to crush a great question with a dogmatic answer. It seems like this is especially true in Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity. Perhaps it is true of other branches of Christianity as well. After all, the Roman Catholic Church has the Magisterium, and many denominations have creeds and catechisms that exist, in part at least, to avoid giving the answer, “Well, I really don’t know.”

I think in Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity (a land I am more familiar with) the issue is probably tied to Sola Scriptura and “Sufficiency of Scripture.” While Sola Scriptura is historically different from “Sufficiency of Scripture,” in some denominations they have melded together. Quoting from that famous theologian, Wikipedia (in the article, ‘Sola Scriptura’), “Some evangelical and Baptist denominations state the doctrine of sola scriptura more strongly: Scripture is self-authenticating, clear (perspicuous) to the rational reader, its own interpreter (“Scripture interprets Scripture”), and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of Christian Doctrine.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith says something similar,

“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”

I don’t really care for the Westminster Confession. The term “deduced from Scripture” appears to me to be a bit cavalier— encouraging people to find clear dogma where there is none. becomes bad when people read into it meanings that were not necessarily intended. Also the broadness of the first part of the sentence is concerning— ‘whole counsel,’ ‘all things necessary’ for glory, salvation, faith and life. The term ‘Life’ is pretty broad. Does the Bible give whole counsel in how to fill out a tax return. No doubt the Bible gives ethical principles and Christians regarding honesty, finances, and relationship to government— but is that the same as ‘whole counsel.’ I am sure the crafters of the confession has a more narrow understanding of the word ‘Life,’ but the term certainly lends itself to abuse. Words can inform, but also confuse. Much like the “T” in TULIP (Total Depravity of Man) does not really mean that everyone is always living in complete depravity (understanding ‘depravity’ in the normal laymen’s use of the term), Sola Scriptura does not really mean “Only Scripture,”— the approximate direct translation of the term. That is part of the reason I prefer “Prima Scriptura” (since I feel it is simply more intellectually honest— no one has EVER theologized or lived out their Christian life through Sola Scriptura).

Why am I talking about this when I am supposed to be talking about Mystery? Because, some people when they hear Sola Scriptura (Only Scripture or Scripture Alone) what they interpret it as is, “The Bible has the answer to every question that I have— I only have to dig deep enough.” This has led to many novel things such as using numerology to figure out secret messages in the Bible to determine the time of the return of Christ. Many have found such secret messages while somehow not seeing the clear statements that Jesus did not know the time, and that we are to be ‘always ready.’ Of course, looking for secret messages goes back to the impulse of the Gnostics of the first few centuries of Christianity: so it is most definitely not a new thing.

I recall a Bible School extension facilitator that refused to use textbooks or other reference books for any of the classes at the center based on the argument that the only book a pastor needs is the Bible. And yet there are many things that a pastor is expected to know and do that are not in the Bible— such as “How to write a sermon,” “How to develop a music ministry,” and “What should be included in a church covenant.” Even the basic question of “What does a Pastor do?” is only answered in a very general way in the Bible. In Pastoral Counseling, there was the Biblical Counseling movement that interpreted Sola Scriptura as “Everything one needs to know about counseling in behavior and in counseling content is in the Bible.” Often this has led to some pretty heavy cherry-picking of Bible verses to try to work around the fact that the Bible is silent on many things.

But we are still not talking about Mystery. Up to this point, I am only talking about the fact that many people think that all answers are in the Bible, when there is no such claim in the Bible. However, you can see how this disconnect can lead to an avoidance of Theological mystery. After all, if a theological question comes up where the answer appears to be “I don’t know,” some would say that simply means one must DIG DEEPER (in Scripture). Sadly, digging deeper often means coming up with theological constructs that are grounded on one’s own preferences and held together with a loose collection of proof-texts. So, to take a question that is important to some people, “Do Dogs Go to Heaven?”, the Bible is stunningly silent. Some don’t leave it at “I don’t know”— a perfectly valid answer— but start suggesting drawing on Genesis one with humans having the breath of life to suggest that dogs have no souls… and therefore cannot be in heaven. Others give a pretty strong affirmative answer to the question based on how wonderful and perfect Heaven is, based on numerous Bible passages, and how could such a place be perfect if one’s favorite pet wasn’t there as well for eternity? The intellectually honest answer is “I Don’t Know and my lack of a definitive answer is NOT because I have not dug deep enough, but because God has (quite intentionally I presume) chosen not to give a definitive answer, but rather to leave it for speculation and mystery.”

Of course, to say that there is not clear answer should not be a call to stop thinking. I believe God has left us a lot of mysteries for our benefit. The benefit is, largely, in our opportunity to explore and to contemplate. Not having a final answer actually adds to the joy, rather than detracting from it.

I will explore this further in PART TWO— with Theodicy as the primary are of consideration.

Spiritual Abuse Collection

Years ago I created several slide presentations on Spiritual Abuse. I am not an expert, but I have a great interest in the topic, and modest experience in it. So, I did some minor updates and have them below.

Part 1. Spiritual Abuse— Characterisits and Methods. https://www.slideserve.com/embed/11233222

Part 2. Spiritual Abuse— Abusive Leaders. https://www.slideserve.com/embed/11235566

Part 3. Spiritual Abuse— Religious Addiction. https://www.slideserve.com/embed/11233250

Part 4. Spiritual Abuse— Structures. https://www.slideserve.com/embed/11235582

Part 5. Spiritual Abuse— Where Is It From. https://www.slideserve.com/embed/11235587

Part 6. Spiritual Abuse— Treatment. https://www.slideserve.com/embed/11235595

Struggling with the Issue of the “Wrath of God”

I was raised up in a fundamentalist (but not all capitalized FUNDAMENTLIST) church. One of the things I learned is that the death of Christ is to turn away God’s wrath. I was told in college that propitiation was the term meaning to turn away God’s wrath. When I became a little more familiar with Greek, I realize that this seems to be more of a “theological interpretation” of the Greek, “hilastērion” and “hilasmos,” rather than an actual translation of the Greek. Still, in the Bible it is pretty clear that the sacrifice of Christ in some ways remove an impediment to the tangible receipt of God’s favor.

I kind of feel like there is nothing wrong with this basic understanding. HOWEVER, my issues has been in the abuse of the idea.

#1. Excess. I remember reading “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards. I have friends who are big fans of Edwards and his Puritan theology. Since I don’t really embrace the Reformed Tradition, I can’t really see the appeal. Nevertheless, the imagery in the sermon of Edwards is quite memorable. I can still picture in my mind’s eye, myself dangling by a thread as if a detestable spider over the fires of Hell with God looking at me with repugnance, ready to drop me to eternal doom.

There are a lot of problems with this. First, it really makes God to look pretty awful. Some may saw that we are not to judge God (whether awesome or awful), but if we are supposed to love God, it would help if we see something in God that is lovable. Second, it seems to perpetuate with Tritheistic view of God. With Tritheism, there is not a unity of God expressed in three persons, but three persons expressed as three Gods. The imagery looks like there is God the Father entirely repulsed and angry at mankind and looking forward to cast well-deserved judgment on all forever, but then Jesus comes in and spoils the show by showing that He took on the judgment. The imagery makes God look double-minded— almost like the overly-simplified view that the God of the OT is angry and judgmental, while the God of the NT is merciful and loving. (Had a friend who tried to reconcile this seeming contradiction by pointing out all the places in the NT where God is angry and judgmental. I feel a better direction is to show all the places in the OT that God is merciful and loving.) But if we accept a Trinitarian understanding of God, then God is not “at odds” with Himself.

And what are the ramifications to a Trinitarian understanding of God as it relates to propitiation (and expiation if you want)? For one, God is apparently not as consumed by wrath regarding sin as we may be tempted to think. This is not suggesting that God approves of sin, or that sin has no divine consequences. However, the “wrath of God” regarding sin and how God “cannot look upon sin” is probably more metaphoric. Why? Because Jesus, ‘in very nature God, lived on earth for 33 years without living in deep anger. There are one a couple of times when Jesus was described as angry and neither was about behavior that we would typically describe as ‘sin.’ The most common emotion noted in the Gospels for Jesus was compassion. Compassion is essentially love and empathy that motivates a behavioral response.

A second ramification of a Trinitarian understanding of God is that the metaphor of justification (the court room with God the Father as judge and Jesus as mediator) is just that… a metaphor. And metaphors always break down when you try to reify them. The Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit) are not at odds. They are all on the same side. In line with Missio Dei theology, the Father sent the Son into the World, and both sent the Holy Spirit into the World, for our salvation due to God’s love and benevolence.

ἱλασμὸν (Hilasmos), the word that is used mostly for “propitiation” is found twice in the New Testament, both by John. It is found in 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10. (It seems like ‘Hilasterion’ is more commonly translated as ‘expiation.’

Let’s look at 1 John 2:2 for a moment. I would like to start with the Amplified Version.

And He [that same Jesus] is the propitiation for our sins [the atoning sacrifice that holds back the wrath of God that would otherwise be directed at us because of our sinful nature—our worldliness, our lifestyle]; and not for ours alone, but also for [the sins of all believers throughout] the whole world. -1 John 2:2 (Amplified)

Now let’s look at the same verse in the Christian Standard Bible (CSB)

He himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world. -1 John 2:2 (CSB)

While there are values to the Amplified Bible, I think, I believe you can see here one of the risks. Essentially, the Amplified version tries to force this verse into a theological framework. There is nothing in the verse about the wrath of God, unless one understands the term “wrath of God” as simply a colorful way of referring to “God’s judgment.” The verse doesn’t really have anything to do with sinful nature. In fact, the broader passage is about the call to live obediently according to the will of God. It is possible to surmise that our need for atonement comes from our sinful nature, but it is simply not spoken of in this verse. Frankly, later on the Amplified limits to sacrifice of Christ to all believers. Not sure if the paraphrasers of the Amplified were 5-point Calvinists and so felt that the work of Christ was only done ‘for the elect,’ or whether they were simply trying to avoid people assuming a sort of salvific Universalism. Regardless, it seems to me that the additions to the verse is presumptive at best, and arguably quite manipulative.

1 John 4:10

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation [that is, the atoning sacrifice, and the satisfying offering] for our sins [fulfilling God’s requirement for justice against sin and placating His wrath]. -1 John 4:10 (Amplified)

Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. -1 John 4:10 (CSB)

The Amplified version is not so egregious here, but definitely assumes that propitiation is tied to ‘wrath,’ even though it is doesn’t really appear to (unless, again, one is using the term as short-hand for God’s judgment). The Amplified also seems to push for a Penal Substitutionary Atonement perspective of the atonement. I think that is somewhat justified, although I think the atonement is a concept much bigger than what can be fit into one theory/perspective. The CSB avoids the problem the same way it did in 1 John 2:2 where Hilasmos was translated at atoning sacrifice— leaving a lot of room for mystery.

Ultimately, a Trinitarian understanding of Propitiation does not show a God overcome by wrath, needing blood to appease Him. Rather, we find a God overcome by love who seeks to demonstrate that love in a remarkable act of self-sacrifice— providing a way to restoration of God’s favor (expiation) and away from judgment (propitiation).

I noticing that I am spending more time on Propitiation than on God’s Wrath. However, in many of the passages in the Bible that describes God’s wrath, the term seems to be used as a substitute for God’s judgment. In some ways that is not an issue. However, if the term is most commonly used as another way of speaking of God’s judgment, then images such as the one I described from Jonathan Edwards falls apart. God’s judgement does not flow from God’s wrath. Rather God’s judgment is something That God desires not to impose due to His love. If the dominant character of God, according to Jesus is that God is love, that seems appropriate. God’s love doesn’t mean that He may not mete out judgment, but rather that it is never His desire to do so.

<If this post sounds a bit ‘all over the place,’ I apologize. I am wrestling with some theological stuff that is outside of my own specialization. As such, this wrestling is going to be a bit messy. I haven’t settled on a fully reconciled understanding. However, if we take the two NT passages that use Hilasmos, it is clear the focus is squarely on God’s love, not wrath.>

Churches That Make Avoiding Church Not Seem So Bad

I have heard it said that if you are a REAL Christian, then you will, of course, want to join together as believers in church. And I have been in situations where I could really relate to this. I remember being in the US Navy (a culture with its share of toxicity) and going to church or Bible study was a great joy. I have seen Christians living in predominantly non-Christian cultures who joyously use up their only day off from work just to join together with other Christians at Church and Bible training.

But I have also seen the other side of things. I have seen churches that seem to diverge so greatly from a place of healing and joy that one wonders why people actually show up. I have been to those churches as well. And while such a feeling rightly should lead me to self-reflection about my spiritual life… I think it is safe to say that sometimes the problem is the church.

I must admit that my attitude about churches has changed a bit. I am in missions and so I often have gotten frustrated at churches that seem to do nothing. I have often thought of how wonderful it would be if a church was filled with Christians who were so on fire for God that it outflows with missional fervor. I have tended to look down on churches that could be labeled (in a condescending manner) as a “Social Club Church” focused on potluck dinners rather than on the Kingdom of God.

And while I haven’t completely rejected my concerns, I have to admit that I have had to rethink things a bit over the years. In line with that, here are a few churches that are worse than a “Social Club Church.”

Abusive Boyfriend Church

This is the church that everyone knows to avoid. Every woman knows that an abusive boyfriend is a bad thing. However, abusive boyfriends rarely start out that way. Often it starts with respect and love-bombing. However, the love-bombing is done to establish the relationship. And once the relationship is established, the toxic side expresses itself. The new members of the church gradually have greater and greater burdens placed on them. The leadership becomes coercive. The church body seeks to dominate the time of the member and feels betrayed by anything less than total commitment. Emotional and spiritual manipulation will be put on the members to ensure that they don’t leave— sometimes threatening their (eternal) life if they leave. Theologically orthodox or not, they operate under the patterns that have been generally thought of as defining “cults.” It is better for a Christian to stay home on Sunday than to stay in that relationship.

Church of Procrustes

One of the stories from Greek mythology is about Procrustes. Procrustes had a bed that purportedly was a perfect fit for any guest. But the “Bed of Procrustes” succeeded in being a perfect fit by SSSTRRRRETTTTCCCHHH-ing a person who would other wise be too short, or lopping off body parts that don’t fit in a person too tall.

Some churches want everyone to be the same. While few churches truly embrace the Biblical ideal of many different members united without uniformity, some take it further by pushing to have everyone operate by the same system, involved in the same activities, and judged by the same standards. Personally, I have seen this most clearly in Cell Churches. The system is simple but not generally very flexible. There is one way in and one way up. It often works well with high schoolers and college age because it is simple and they have the malleability of youth, but the MLM (multi-level marketing) churning does not fit everyone. Some try to adjust, some get stuck, and some drift away. I do wonder if some “Simple Church” models also have a similar problem. In truth, however, all churches have a tendency for this. I was part of a church years ago that had two main ministries. You could be part of Ministry A, or you could be part of Ministry B, or you could simply show up on Sundays for a church that really has no place for you.

While the Church of Procrustes clearly works for some people, it is quite clearly a “sub-biblical” assembly.

Human-Doing Church

For good or for bad, church leaders often see themselves as “vision people.” And of course, associated with having vision is commonly a desire to see the vision turned into reality. That is done through people. It is always a temptation to see the members of the church as “worker bees” whose reason for existing is to carry out the vision. The value of the members is in what they do, rather than who they are.

Often there can be a tendency to confuse “serving God” with “serving our specific church.”

I have sometimes been unhappy that churches are not enough like parachurches— made up of people with drive and vision. But parachurches are too narrow in scope to be a church. Churches are broad, diverse, and messy. That is a good thing.

NLOC Church

All churches are special in some way. They are all unique. However, some embrace their uniqueness uniquely. They are NLOC (‘not like other churches’) churches. They may see their uniqueness in terms of being better than anyone else. They value stealing members from other churches. They struggle to play in the same sandbox with other churches. Some may see their uniqueness in their special dubious spin on theology or Bible interpretation. They commonly reject the catholicity of the church and in some cases are particularists (they have a special in with God that others don’t).

That attitude is toxic and certainly not good for the members.

Fed Up Church

Some churches are simply angry, mean-spirited, judgy. Commonly, the church is reflecting the attitude of the pastor or pastoral staff. Westboro Baptist is kind of the best known of this type, but there are other flavors. Some are angry about goverrnmental politics that don’t give them special privileges. Others may not appear angry until a person visits the church of a different race, ethnicity, region, sexual preference/orientation, etc.. One might call this church a Pharisaical church, but that is really unkind to pharisees. Most were commendable. However, outsiders remember Pharisees much the way they think of churches— that is, in terms of the most angry and judgmental.

A church should be a diverse community… a family. It should be less know for what it does than what it is. As such, a church that is well-known for being a place of warm welcome and potluck dinners (“love feasts”) is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a need to do more… but it is a good foundation.

I know that it is often said that the main purpose of the church is Worship. Perhaps that is true… but “worship” often gets converted into something very narrow. Perhaps it is best to say that the church’s main purpose is to Glorify God. Some people think they can worship by singing especially loud, or perhaps dancing or fasting or who knows what. And that may be true to some extent. But we glorify God when we dwell as brothers and sisters in Christ in the harmony of God’s kingdom.

An unhealthy church may be able to worship in some way, but it cannot glorify God.

Doing Missions Both Wrong and Right

We live in a world of nuance, but as humans we like to categorize things. Nothing wrong with that. Things are complicated and so we simplify things to understand them.

One way we simplify things is to assume that much in the world can be placed into one of two bins— “The Right Way” or “The Wrong Way”— or sometimes truncated to “Right” or “Wrong.” While we know this is way too simple, such a binary can become a default setting for us. It is not always bad. The Bible uses binaries to teach— Wide versus Narrow Ways, Light versus Darkness, Adam versus Christ. We know there is more nuance than that, but there is value in the simplicity of the model.

But we live in the real world and not in an idealized simulation of the real world. The real world is messy… by design. Back when I was a mechanical engineer, I would have to have designs evaluated, and evaluate the designs of others. The evaluation was never “Good” versus “Bad.” Each design would have its good points and its bad points. And there were points that were both good and bad— and alternative designs could be better, worse, or equivalent in different aspects.

Christian missions is grounded in the real world and as such, similar messiness should occur. One of the great Biblical examples of this is found in the book of Galatians.

11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

This passage can be viewed as an argument regarding Theology of Missions. Paul says Peter, Barnabas and some of the Jews in a multi-cultural setting associated with Jews rather than Gentiles.

This story has been controversial for many years. St. Jerome had an interesting theory regarding this episode. He considered it to be a form of Theo-Drama. In other words, Paul and Peter were play-acting— to teach the others a valuable lesson. While I don’t find this view convincing, I do find it interesting. I think it may have been motivated in a desire to “sanctify” them. As “Saints” of the Primitive Church, it is uncomfortable to think that either one could be wrong. Such a view is common today as well.

  • I have heard arguments why Elisha was not wrong in placing a curse on a bunch of youths… and then Gehazi some time later.
  • I have heard arguments why Peter was not wrong in cursing Ananias and Saphira.
  • I have heard arguments on why Paul was not wrong in his conflict with Barnabas, and later in his conflict with church leaders about going to Jerusalem.

There is often a temptation to believe that our leaders are always right. But sometimes they are not. I think Luke knew this. I would argue that Luke expresses considerable ambiguity regarding Peter with Ananias and Saphira, and Paul’s trip to Jerusalem. Despite this, we want our leaders not to have failings. I think Jerome wanted to find a way to make Paul and Peter both be right. Personally, I doubt Jerome is correct, but it is clever.

St. Augustine was very bothered by Jerome’s interpretation. In Augustine’s view, that would mean that Paul and (or?) Peter are liars. I don’t see that. Telling a story utilizing drama seems to be no more of a lie than telling a story of something that had not actually happened (like the parables and illustrations of Jesus). Theo-drama was used in the Old Testament on a number of occasions, Ezekiel being an example. I am not studied up on Augustine’s arguments but perhaps he was embracing the Western tradition of Tertullian that saw theater (in both performing and viewing) as being sinful. In such a case, Paul and Peter would both be wrong because they were doing something wrong (taking on the role of actors). For Augustine, I guess Paul had to be right and Peter had to be wrong, because it assumed that what Paul wrote was… true.

I think Jerome’s interpretation is more creative than Augustine, which is hardly surprising seeing that creativity was never really a strength of Augustine. Still, creativity is hardly a test for (or against) truth.

But there are other options… What if Paul and Peter were both right… AND both wrong?
Such a perspective may not fit easily into a two category system.


Paul seems to be right. The Gospel of Christ tears down the artificial boundaries that separate Jews from Gentiles. As religious leaders, it is a great lesson to others to show that these boundaries are gone.
Paul seems also to be wrong. Making a scene with Peter undermined any attempt to demonstrate Christian community. Being right, but handled poorly, is still wrong.

Peter seems to be right. When dealing with people who are uncomfortable with Christian liberty, sometimes one must help them by being supportive, rather than risking their stumbling. Paul taught this very same thing.
Peter seems also to be wrong. In the attempt to be supportive of his Jewish brethren, a controversy arose that divided the room. Multicultural settings are often challenging. If missionaries from country A are serving in country B, who would they join with when people from country A visit. Do they show their rootedness in their mission field setting, or do they show themselves as good hosts to the guests from their sending country? Either decision could be problematic unless it is done in the context of good communication. Being right, but handled poorly, is still wrong.

The idea that both Paul and Peter were both wrong and both right makes sense to me. That does not undermine the passage in Galatians. Paul is correct that Peter was wrong. The reliability of the epistle is correct, and its canonicity is unchallenged. However, if Peter decided to have this incident described in his first epistle, he could also have pointed out Paul’s errors. Both would be accurate… but having both perspectives would be even more accurate than having only one perspective.

Martin Luther seemed to struggle with the fact that Paul expresses faith in a way that is different than James. Thankfully, we have writings from both. I believe that a far superior understanding comes from embraces these writings as accurate but viewed through different perspectives. We have certainly seen unhealthy understandings of faith that fail to be interperspectival within Scripture.

In Missions we should expect the same things to occur. It is fine that people argue:

—Should mission work flow from and through the local church, or from specialized sodality structures?
—Should mission work focus more on evangelism and churchplanting, or more on compassion ministry?
—Should we seek to focus on BIG “God-sized” vision and projects, or on small “God-sized” vision and projects?
—Should most mission work be done by foreigners or locals?
—Should churches send people, or send money?

These questions are useful… but they become destructive when they are viewed as Either/Or or Right/Wrong. The “Creative Tension” should lead to creative and nuanced (and tentative) answers. Forcing answers into completely right or completely wrong, is likely destructive.

Divine Empowerment to do Evil

BACKGROUND STORY

Today I have reached my 11th anniversary on this webpage. A few months ago I figured out that if I took all my my writing, removed the images from it, and then published it as a standard hard-cover book, it would be over 2000 pages long. That is a lot of writing. Today, I am breaking a record that I have had for years. I have had more views of my website in 2021 (as of October 25th) than I have had in any other year. That is not hugely impressive. I don’t get huge numbers and that is fine. But I have now passed 2016 as my formerly biggest year as well as 2013.

Those two years, my relatively high numbers came from people doing bad things. In 2016 there was a Russian ponzi scheme (apparently) that had the initials “MMM,” like my site. The 2013 stats was even a bit more disturbing. In 2012 a self-styled prophet declared all sorts of bad things happening in the Philippines. One of those predictions seemed to come true— a typhoon came through the Visaya region of the Philippines and did great damage. A moderate earthquake in Bohol seemed to reinforce his predictive skills.

Many Filipino Christians began rallying to the support of this (again, so-called) prophet of God. They began looking into his prophecies for more guidance as to the future, despite this man’s poor scorecard in other parts of the world. I wrote a couple of posts where I took his predictions and tried to come up with an overall score for him in the Philippines. I could not do a straight-up Yes or No on many of the prophecies because of their overall vagueness., The Philippines is among the most prone to natural disasters in the world, so almost any natural disaster (earthquake, typhoon, volcanic eruption and such) will come true somewhere in the Philippines. So I gave weighting to different predictions based on their level of fulfillment as well as their specificity. I came up with a score of 35%. Truthfully, I was very generous in that number.

I found it strange that many Filipino Christians wanted this man’s predictions to be true. He claimed this was God’s judgment for Filipino Christians not being on fire enough and judgmental enough. I have known some people talk of the judgments noted in Revelation with a certain glee, so I suppose it is not that strange— especially for those who embrace a war-metaphor understanding of the the Christian faith.

So here is what happened. I kept hearing about there being a flesh-eating bacteria in Pangasinan. I live less than 2 hours from Pangasinan and heard no such warnings, so I assumed it was over-enthusiastic followers of this (still so-called) prophet. That is because that man had made two predictions that were quite specific. One was a flesh-eating bacteria that would begin in Pangasinan and spread around the world. The other was a skin disease in Cebu that would cause skin to turn black, and it would spread around the world. This second prediction was not promulgated much, perhaps because it could be seen as having racist overtones (Filipinos have more than a bit of a post-colonial preference for lighter skin tones). The Pangasinan plague was pumped up on line. Then one day, a major news source in the Philippines put up a report about a flesh-eating bacteria spreading in Pangasinan. This proved not to be true. Perhaps an overzealous reporter took these rumors of the plague shared online by followers of the “prophet.” In a matter of minutes after that news piece came out, my little blog post was inundated by people trying to find out what was going on.

REFLECTION #1: Can a true prophet be a bad prophet?

My first thought on this story is the classic test of a prophet. A prophet who says something that is not consonant with Scripture or not consonant with truth is a false prophet. I rather wish that more American Christians would embrace this simple truth when it comes to so-called prophets predicting the results of the 2020 election incorrectly.

But then I got thinking— That may be the test of a false prophet, but is it an adequate test of a good prophet. Note, I am separating “true prophet” from “good prophet.” The Bible has false prophets, like Hananiah, who foretold based on what tickled the ears of his patron. However, the Bible does appear to have many true prophets who were flawed, and at least one who was downright bad. Balaam appears to have been a true prophet. Some may disagree with this, but our only interaction with him as an oracle showed him accurately giving God’s revelation to others. However, the Bible looks at him as being bad— opposing God’s work.

I have heard preachers dance around this issue in a number of ways, but I believe there is support elsewhere for recognizing Balaam as a true prophet who was not on God’s side.

REFLECTION #2: Can a true miracle worker be not on God’s side?

We, of course, see fakes in the Bible, and we see those who at least might be doing the miraculous works through demonic empowerment. The miracle workers who opposed Moses and Yahweh may be frauds or may be using demonic empowerment. Ultimately it does not matter. But if a miracle worker does do something by God’s empowerment, does it necessarily mean they are on God’s side? We know, of course, the Scripture (Matthew 7:21-23)where Jesus talks of those who have done miraculous things in God’s name (prophesying, exorcising, and doing mighty deeds) but end their life with the very clear statement, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” This seems to suggest that a person who is not a follower of Christ may be able to successfully take on these roles (prophet and exorcist at least) successfully. However, there is wiggle room as far as whether these roles were divinely empowered. An example of this may be Judas Iscariot who appears to have been able to do divine healing and teaching Christ’s message, while still being identified as the “Son of Perdition.”

This suggests that some people may not be on God’s side, and yet still do miraculous works (presumably empowered by God).

REFLECTION #3: Can a good and true follower of God do something evil with divine empowerment?

An interesting tiny story is found in Luke 9:53-55. In it, Jesus and His disciples were rejected and sent packing from a Samaritan village. James and John asked if Jesus would want them to call down fire from Heaven to consume the village. Jesus rebuked them. In essence, James and John asked Jesus permission to use God’s power to destroy a village. Jesus said NO. But are there other times where a sincere follower of God “lost it” and reacted with wrath— where God did not disempower them? I have written on Elisha and the bears before. While I have heard valiant attempts to put this story in a better light, I feel the best light is that Elisha was young (newly taking on the mantle of Elijah at least) and impulsive and reacted with malevolence to some detractors. The fact that God did not stop him does not necessarily mean that what he did was good. Peter with Ananias and Sapphira could be another example. While, again, some have tried to put it in a positive light, Luke appears to respond negatively to it in noting that the church was filled with fear after this event. Moses lashed out in anger on a number of occasions. On one occasion God carried out a necessary miracle due to compassion for the people even though Moses disobeyed God. It is hard to be dogmatic whether every miraculous thing that Moses did, was God approved.

But if God would not stop someone from doing wrong by disempowering them, why would this be? I can think of at least a couple of reasons. First, it can help give maturity to the servant of God. “Be careful what you wish for” may be useful guidance for children, but it is important for us as well. I like to think that Elisha and Peter (two volatile men) were better stewards of their gifts afterwards. Second, we need maturity as well. Jesus did not simply say, “I am doing miracles so you must accept everything I say and do.” While it was clear that one of the reasons He did it was as a sign, it was clear that He actively tied His ministry to the Hebrew Scriptures, as consistent with them, in character with the God revealed in Scripture, and as fulfillment of them. Miraculous power is simply not enough.

REFLECTION #4. So what about us?

I am not a miracle worker. I don’t foretell the future. In fact I am pretty sceptical of people who do. I doubt their power and I doubt their motives. However, we are all given power. God gives us spiritual gifts and talents. He gives us passions and interests. He gives us experiences and spheres of influence. God also gives us open access to the throne of God through prayer. These are divine empowerments. Are we able to use these empowerments for evil? Certainly. People argue about why God would place “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” inside the Garden of Eden. The garden (paradise) was a hedged-in place. That is, it was a protected place. Yet, the tree was placed, prohibitions and all, inside the protected zone. Adam and Even were empowered by God to do evil. We can ask why this is, but we would also need to ask why God has given us empowerment that can be used for evil? Why doesn’t God stop us?

For me, as interesting a question that is, I rather take a different response…

“KNOWING THAT IT IS GOD’S WILL TO EMPOWER ME TO DO WHAT IS GOOD, WITHOUT CONSTRAINING ME, NECESSARILY, FROM DOING WHAT IS BAD, I SHOULD FOCUS MORE ON SEEKING GOD’S CHARACTER, HEART, AND WISDOM, RATHER THAN HIS EMPOWERMENT.”

The Faithful Servant

<A sermon I did for seminary chapel>

I would like to go over a very familiar parable of Jesus. It is the parable of the Faithful Servant. It is found in Matthew 24:45-51 However, I would like to go through it with a bit of a missiological spin to it.

An expression that has been commonly thrown about in the late 20th century up to today in Missions is “Finishing the Task.” The idea is that God has a missional task for His people and that particular task is almost done… or perhaps can be almost done. Groups like Student Volunteer Mission, Discipling a Whole Nation and AD2000 have used this phrase or a similar one like “Evangelizing the Whole World in This Generation” to inspire people to do certain things. When this is tied to Unreached People Groups and linking it to a dubious interpretation of Matthew 24:14, the idea has sprung up that once Missionaries have shared the gospel to every single unreached people group on earth in a way such that they can now form an indigenized church, the task of missions is done, and Christ can finally return. Until then, Jesus is waiting in heaven for us to Finish the Task.

I don’t believe in that interpretation, and, frankly, I don’t really like the expression FINISHING THE TASK. I prefer the expression FAITHFUL TO CHRIST’S MISSION. Why is that? It is because I believe that the first one puts the focus in the wrong things.

First of all… Finishing the task has the focus on… finishing… or being done. This doesn’t sound bad. However, I believe that it commonly leads to problems. Decades ago I ran on the track team at my high school, believe it or not. Watching runners near the finish line— most of them would slow down before they reached the end. Why? Because they are so focused on the finish line that they lose focus on running. The same happens with jobs where people often begin to work less hard as one nears the end of one’s time on the job. But perhaps even more common is for people to do the exact opposite. It is tempting to be lazy or sluggish until a deadline nears. Perhaps teenagers are supposed to take care of the house while the parents are gone. They might be tempted to leave it a mess until just before mom and dad get home.

They hope they can get everything done just in time. Or perhaps one is a seminarian and should be faithfully studying every day. But it is tempting to not study very hard until right before the test. Focusing on the finish line often leads to laziness and lack of quality in one’s work. I believe it is better to focus on faithfulness to the work and on the one who assigned that work

Second, I don’t really like the term “Task” in the expression Finishing the task. Over time, people tend to become confused about what their task really is. Early on it may seem clear that their task is to act as ambassadors of Christ, serving as witnesses of Christ, and following the example of Christ. But as time goes on, there is a tendency to drift away from this. The task often becomes something that may sound like it is the same… but is very different. Maybe the task is now… Growing the number of people in my church… or Growing the people who are part of my sect or denomination… or me planting as many churches as fast as possible… or get people to dress and act like me rather than like people in their own culture…. or see how many people I can get to say the sinner’s prayer. Some of these may sound right and good… but they really aren’t the mission that Christ has given the you or the church

So with all of that in mind, let’s go to Matthew 24:45-51

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

When we first look at this, it is tempting to see this as a contrast between Saint and Sinner— between the Narrow Path and the Wide Path. However, there are no unsaved in this story.

This is about two servants… trusted and competent servants of the Master.

In fact, it is not even about two servants, but only one. And only one Master. This one servant has been given the job to maintain the Master’s business of the household including those who serve within the household until he returns. The Master leaves, and this servant is doing a good job taking care of things.

But then one day the servant realizes something. The Master has not returned as soon as he expected. The servant will have to keep doing his job for longer time… not sure when it will end.

This is the challenge. We can handle almost anything except time.We can be enthusiastic and committed for a day… a week… maybe a month. But as time goes on, it becomes harder to keep the motivation going— even more so when it is unclear when the end will come. The servant can choose NOT to focus on when the master returns… but in doing each day what the master wants, in the way the master wanted it done. This decision is identified as being for a faithful and wise servant, one who pleases the master.

But that is not the only possibility. The servant could become focused on when the master returns, and allow his understanding of his task to drift. He still does his job generally. He still keeps the household running. He still handles the accounting. He still feeds the people under his care. We know that because the business has not collapsed, the bank has not foreclosed on the house, and the other servants have not starved. But he is no longer doing things the way the master wanted. He begins seeing the other servants not as people but as tools to get his job done and make his life easier. When they fail to do this, he beats them.. He uses the benefits accorded to him to increase his comfort and extend his authority and power. He is not stupid… he knows the master could return, but he probably thinks that he can get warning when the master will return and can get things in order in time. But much like the seminary student who thinks he or she can figure out when there will be a pop quiz in class, this servant is likely to be shocked and disappointed. He will not know when the master will return. He was focused on the wrong thing. Jesus calls this servant a wicked servant. It may be true, but frankly, few of us can keep our motivation and focus unchanged year after year.

As I suggested before, I don’t believe the parable is about good versus evil in the classic dualistic sense. The servant corresponds to a disciple of Christ. But the story gives warning that it is all too easy to lose track of what it takes to be a good disciple— faithful to the mission of Christ— following the example of Christ.

Let me give a parallel story from church history. A few years after Pentecost, Philip of the Seven traveled into Samaria to be a witness of Christ to the people there. He followed the example that Christ gave. Jesus healed the people and shared the good news. He did not use His power and authority to abuse them. When they did not want to listen to Him, Jesus simply went to another village. When Jesus sent out the 70 disciples to Jewish, Gentile, and Samaritan villages, He ensured that they would bless the people and in no way harm them. In fact, if the people of the village did not want them there, Jesus instructed them to leave and take nothing from them… not even the dust that stuck to their sandals.

I believe Philip was a good and faithful servant. He was focused not only on the mission of Christ, but sought to follow the example of Christ.

A few centuries later, things changed. In the late 400s, Emperor Zeno, of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, ruled over Samaria. The Byzantines were Christians and they had legal authority and military power now over the Samaritans. Emperor Zeno was the Christian leader given responsibility over the land and people of his dominion. Emperor Zeno decided to require all Samaritans to become Christianity. At this time there were between 1 and 2 million Samaritans in his realm. The Samaritans, understandably, revolted. So, tens of thousands were killed by the Byzantine army. A few decades later, Emperor Justinian, also the Christian leader of the land, essentially made being a Samaritan illegal. To avoid charges of being a criminal, they had to convert to Christianity. Again the Samaritans revolted and tens of thousands more Samaritans were killed by the Christian Byzantine army.

Some time later the Muslims invaded. At first they were better than the Byzantine Christians. However, they also gradually gave in to the temptation to abuse power and lose track of their own mission… so much so that by 1000 AD, there were only around 1000 Samaritans alive— a 99.9% reduction of their numbers.

I cannot speak for the leaders of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate, but I believe that the Christian Byzantine emperors felt like they were good servants of God. By using their political and military power to require Samaritans to convert, I think they felt that they were doing the task of bringing people into the church. And Samaritans rebelling against the Christian rulers probably felt like them rebelling against God and so killing these rebels could certainly feel like finishing the task. Using the power God gave them to force people to become Christians might sound like doing the Lord’s work. Nevertheless, I believe they were bad servants. They had lost track of the mission given to them by Christ, and had become abusive much like the servant in the parable became abusive.

Probably none of us will have an army that we can control… or have millions of people that we use or abuse. But all of us will have to decide whether in church, in school, or the mission field… what type of servant will we be. Will we be focused on finishing or on being faithful. Will we have our attention caught up in tasks, or on Christ has has sent us on mission.

How Does One Find Balance?

This Sunday I was at Sunday School, and we were discussing Ecclesiastes 7. This chapter is problematic for some Christians since right in the middle of it, a passage says.

Do not be overrighteous,
    neither be overwise—
    why destroy yourself?
Do not be overwicked,
    and do not be a fool—
    why die before your time? (v. 16-17)

I appreciated the class. They did not embrace the classic Evangelical/Fundamentalist position that most of the book of Ecclesiastes is human wisdom, and the last couple of verses is Godly wisdom. I believe that is a deeply flawed look at a beautiful book. In the class, the focus is on balance.

BUT HOW DOES ONE FIND BALANCE?

Balance makes me think of three places. One is extreme position “A.” The second is extreme position “C.” The third is the balance or “golden mean” that we could call position “B.”

So what should we focus on?

  1. One perspective is to embrace an extreme position (either “A” or “C”). This, not surprisingly, leads to extremism. I recall a boss of mine (my first boss actually) who served as a camp director. He would say that when one is driving on a mountain road, should one drive as close to the edge of the cliff or as far away as possible. The answer he wanted was to drive as far away from the cliff side as possible. In my view, the middle of the road is likely the safest, since the opposite to the cliff is likely to be the mountainside with falling rocks, or another cliff side. He was, however, simply expressing a position of embracing an extreme— the more extreme the better. Of course, for this position, Ecclesiastes 7:16-17 is nonsense.
  2. A second perspective is to focus on both of the extremes (both “A” and “C”). For a long time, I had embraced this. Find two extremes and recognize that “the truth” exists somewhere between those two extremes. The problem is in the word “somewhere.” Just because one may have bounded the truth, doesn’t mean that one has located it. So returning to Ecclesiastes 7:16-17, if over-righteousness is an unhealthy extreme, and over-wickedness is an unhealthy extreme, where is the unhealthy balance? Is a healthy balance being a little bit wicked? Somewhat righteous?
  3. A third perspective is to focus on the healthy balance “B.” Ecclesiastes is a book with a recurring theme— “Fear God and try to enjoy the life that God has given you.” This is a good message, and clearly places this as “B”— the healthy balance. If that is the healthy balance— what are the extremes? Legalism, asceticism, or licentiousness would be ungodly extremes.

We can use this principle in many ways. For example, one can look at the qualities of the Fruit of the Spirit are not extremes, but balances. From there, one can identify extremes. For example if Gentleness is a healthy balance, one unhealthy extreme is its clear opposite— abuse. But another is the perversion of the balance— in this case weakness.

A post I wrote on the opposite and perversion of various virtues is The Two Sides of Christian Virtues.