Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

Liberals’ chief disability

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

All modern liberals (actually, illiberals) share a common disability: They are unable to be constrained by the wisdom of those who preceded them. They believe that, as a rule, new ideas are superior old ones and that the new ideas they personally embrace are so obviously superior that no debate is possible and no defense is necessary. The superiority of these new ideas, of course, confers on the liberals who advocate them the right to exercise power and influence.

Nowhere is this disconnect between old ideas and new more glaring than among liberals whose claim to legitimacy derives from a foundational document comprised entirely of old ideas. This disability is most conspicuous among liberal politicians and liberal Christians (leaving aside J. Gresham Machen’s well-argued assertion that Christianity and Liberalism are two entirely different religions, rendering “liberal Christian” something of an oxymoron).

Undermining the Foundations

Ultimately, all American politicians derive their power from the Constitution. It created our nation, defines its governmental structures, specifies the constraints under which the government must operate, and provides the framework for sharing power with the various United States. Liberal politicians chafe under the structure and limits imposed by the Constitution’s old ideas. They look for ways to circumvent them so they can institute a new form of virtually unlimited government – which would, coincidentally, enable them to compel the evolution of a new social order.

Christians’ foundational document is, of course, the Bible. Lacking the power of politicians, liberal Christians and their leaders nonetheless have significant impact. Sometimes they influence government (elections, legislation, and court cases) directly. More often, they shape the church’s messages to Christians and to society. Like liberal politicians, they suffer under the yoke of the Bible’s ancient ideas. They seek to create a new faith and a new church that generally mirrors the social vision of liberal politicians.

Sharing a common disregard for their respective foundational documents they employ similar means of getting around them. Here are three of them:

The One Ring Strategy

In the Lord of the Rings, there is One Ring that has power to rule all the other magic rings (all originally meant for good). It can twist the intended purposes of the other rings and use them for evil ends. The inscription inside this ring reads

One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them.

Liberals often identify a single provision of the Constitution or a single verse in the Bible that serves a similar purpose – their One Text. The chosen text is certainly authoritative in its context, but liberals claim that the One Text is superior to its context, more authoritative than the document as a whole. The rest of the document becomes subservient to the One Text and must be interpreted only through its lens. By elevating the One Text in this way, they impose a method of interpretation that rules and overrides the original meaning of the entire document.

For example, liberal politicians (and Supreme Court Justices) often argue that Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution is the One Text. It begins “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States….[my emphasis]” This One Text is said to overrule, among other provisions, the last section of the Bill of Rights: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” (It’s hard to imagine why, if the Framers wanted a One Text and intended “general Welfare” to mean “virtually everything that happens in the United States”, they didn’t write a Constitution that said so. It certainly would have been less work for them and much less reading for anyone curious about what it says.)

For liberal Christians, the One Text is usually found in 1 John 4 (v. 8 or 16), “God is love”. They claim that the One Text overrules countless commands to be obedient – this despite the fact that, for example, Jesus himself himself gave several in John 14:18-14. It also overrules all commands to be holy such as Hebrews 12:14 and 1 Peter 1:14-16. The liberal – and unbiblical – understanding of love is that loving someone consists mainly of wanting them to feel happy. So the One Text rules because calling someone to obedience or holiness may make them unhappy. Even churches and pastors who would not ordinarily consider themselves liberal in the political sense often exhibit this misguided behavior. 

[Note: Although the 1984 NIV is my go-to Bible, online links are to the ESV, not the readily-available 2011 NIV, for reasons given here.]

The Living Document Strategy

Liberals’ contempt for old ideas requires them to find a way to placate both fans and critics who believe that foundational documents matter. Both liberal politicians and liberal Christians often resort to the same dodge; they claim that the document from which they derive their legitimacy is a “living” document.

The argument starts with the assertion that the original document with its old ideas could not have anticipated the modern world. It follows that a “living” document with its old ideas entitles modern people liberals to derive the new ideas necessary to cope with this new, unexpected world. That the new ideas are often in direct opposition to the old ones is not surprising. After all, the whole purpose is meant to reverse an old idea that gets in the way of a liberal objective.

The long-range purpose, however, is much more grand than mere piecemeal, as-needed reversal of old ideas. The goal is to strip the foundational document of all authority, leaving everything in the hands of whoever is in charge today. Nearly all liberals believe they are or soon will be in charge. They believe that history is a force in itself, that it is marching onward toward some ideal condition, and that it will steamroll anyone who gets in its way. Since they are “on the right side of history,” the power and influence they exercise today in service of that inevitable future must be free of ideas from the old, dead past.

For example, liberal politicians and judges determined that when the 4th and 14th Amendments were written (in the 18th and 19th centuries respectively), no one had anticipated the small but politically-charged demand for abortion on demand that would appear in the 20th Century. So it was necessary for liberals to infuse the old document with new, “living” ideas to bring it up to date and enable the novel result in Roe v. Wade.

Liberal Christians often claim that “sexual orientation” was unknown to either Moses and Paul when they recorded God’s condemnation of homosexual practice. To overcome this difficulty, the One Text noted above is sometimes applied to bring the Bible’s old ideas in line with this new idea. This is necessary because the One Text assures us that God wants everyone to be happy doing what they’re doing.

Another application of this strategy applies only to the Bible. According to this argument, the Bible was written by men who were just reflecting the prejudices of their time. in this view, the obvious fact that God knew about sexual orientation is irrelevant, as proven by the One Text.

Just Do It

The previous strategies are mostly employed by thinking liberals, both politicians and Christians, who fear their respective foundational documents may be important to the people they want to control or influence (or in the case of the Supreme Court, when it is necessary to find some sort of Constitutional justification for what they have decided is the Right Thing To Do).

But not all liberals think about such things. It is much quicker to just ignore the old ideas and forge ahead with whatever plan they have concocted to implement whatever new ideas they find appealing. This can be a very successful approach if the people they are trying to control or influence are ignorant of the foundational documents that are being corrupted – or for that matter, if the target audience doesn’t think much either.

Other Opponents of Old Ideas

There is another group that is showing signs of becoming similarly disabled. While there are no true documents to constrain them, some (perhaps many) scientists operate as though the foundations of their own enterprise – the scientific method and the necessity of reproducible results – no longer matter. This usually happens when the traditional practice of science produces alarming results that threaten their political objectives.

And there are the many celebrities who share the liberal contempt for old ideas. But the celebrity industry has no foundational principles at all and no inherent claim to wisdom, so their opinions are significant only in a culture enamored of entertainment and fame. Such a culture demands no real basis for claiming power and influence and most celebrities offer none.

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Why tithe? Why not?

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Disclaimer: Although pastors may find my conclusion agreeable, none were consulted in the writing of this blog post. Nor am I trying to curry favor. The Senior Pastor of my church – with whom I have joyfully served and sometimes disagreed for nearly a decade – would surely absolve me of any charge of pandering. Smile 

[Note: While I quote from the 1984 edition of the NIV, links to Bible passages go to Biblegateway’s ESV, for reasons I give here.]

Tithing seems to be an endless debate among Christians – should we? Must we? I think the question is too narrow. The real question is “are Christians obliged to do anything?” If the answer is “Yes”, then we must ask whether tithing is one of the things Christians are obliged to do. There are Christians who take the most extreme position and, to the first question, simply answer “No”. End of discussion. Honestly, I think this answer – often given with the excuse that we have freedom in Christ – is nonsense that spans the entire unholy territory between license and cheap grace.

A more charitable explanation for answering “No” might be that it is meant to emphasize the stunning truth of grace without intending to cheapen it or equate it with license. Grace is arguably the greatest single distinctive of the Christian religion, but it doesn’t mean that Christians are without obligations. It means that we are forgiven when we fail to meet them. In fact, the words “obey”, “obedience”, and “obedient” appear 69 times in the New Testament (NIV 1984), with the majority calling for obedience to commands given by Jesus himself. You can see 5 of these instances in John 14:15-15:20.

[Note: The NIV 1984 renders the Greek word tēreō as “obey” while many other versions render it as “keep” or “observe”. I’m no scholar of ancient Greek, but since tēreō is so often used in conjunction with the word “commandment” – rather than, say, “suggestion” or “recommendation” – I think its meaning is clear enough for a layperson to proceed.]

Obedience to … what?

Obedience does not imply legalism. Legalism requires obedience to a specific set of rules, a list of do’s and don’ts. Legalism leaves no room for grace – follow the relevant rules and win God’s favor; break a rule intentionally or not and earn God’s wrath. But believers have been justified by God’s unmerited grace, so what does obedience mean to the Christian?

Obedience is not compulsory. To compel is “to force or drive, especially to a course of action” ( God never forces us to do anything.

We might soften the blow by reframing the question “what are Christians obliged to do?” and ask instead “what ought Christians to do?” But that’s really not much help: “ought; auxiliary verb meaning ‘used to express duty or moral obligation’”. ( Besides, such hair-splitting seems to be in the spirit of “what can I get by with?” rather than “how can I best live out my imperfect obedience to the sovereign Creator of the entire universe?”.

It has been said that “life is a sum of all your choices.” How do Christians make choices that reflect our relationship with God through Jesus? Christians are called to love God (e.g. Mark, Romans, and 1 Corinthians); we are admonished to “be holy” (e.g. Ephesians and 1 Peter). So we are called to make God-loving, holy choices.

We can trust the Holy Spirit to guide us in choosing, but need help recognizing his voice; the Bible is the standard for helping us distinguish the Spirit’s leading from the leading of spirits that would lead us astray. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the greatest value of studying the Bible is not so much to learn what to do in this situation or that, but to learn about God himself – who he is, what he has done, his character, his expectations, what is consistent with his character and what isn’t – i.e. to learn about what it means to be holy (and why we should try to be). Though our knowledge is imperfect, it enables us to make the best choices we can (or, in our rebellion, the best are willing to make) in circumstances the Bible never specifically addresses.

It seems to me that the Pharisees did not read their scriptures this way, that they didn’t approach them with the goal of understanding what the Law and Prophets told them about God himself. Rather, they read the scriptures as a bunch of do’s and don’ts and relied on human wisdom to puzzle out rules to cover behaviors that were outside the scope of the scriptures. Scripture’s scope isn’t a problem if you approach it with the purpose of knowing God because nothing in Creation is outside the range of his character and interest. Because the entire Bible reveals one Father God, the thoughtful follower must seek God’s character in both the Old and New Testaments. So what does tithing say about God?

You might be thinking that I have the question backward, that we should consult the Bible to see what God says about tithing. My answer is that looking for “must tithe” or “may tithe” or “mustn’t tithe” simply repeats the Pharisees’ error. Instead, let’s see what the Bible’s mentions of tithing tell us about God’s character. I suggest that from what those passages reveal, we can infer an attitude toward tithing that will help us make a Godly choice.

A working definition of “tithe”

Before we continue, we need to look at what the word “tithe” means. In both the Old and New Testaments, it is nearly synonymous with “one tenth”. So to tithe means for God’s people to set aside 10% for God’s use by whatever person or organization he has designated. In the Old Testament, it was the Levitical priesthood; in the New Testament, it is the Church Universal and its surrogates – local congregations and possibly denominations (see the first two paragraphs in this post about the PCUSA) and parachurch organizations.

That brings up the question “10% of what?”. A reasonable answer often heard is “to give 10% of one’s increase.” Unlike the Israelites, most Western Christians’ increase is in the form of monetary income, so we’ll use the common meaning of giving a tenth of one’s income to the church (I’ll leave it to others to figure out if that’s before or after taxes). Tithes are different from freewill gifts and offerings, a distinction found throughout the Bible – the former pastor of a little non-denominational church I attend when vacationing used to highlight the difference when he introduced the Offertory by inviting the ushers to collect “the Lord’s tithes and our gifts”.

On to the second question …

… is tithing is one of the things Christians are obliged to do?

Tithing by God’s people is obviously consistent with God’s character, so what reasons might there be to declare that tithing is excluded from our obligations – from our ought-tos, our duties, our obedience – to God? Why might we excuse ourselves from a form of submission that obviously pleases God?

Tithing is a remnant of the Mosaic Law which Jesus fulfilled on our behalf

That statement is true as far as it goes, except that tithing predates the Law of Moses:

After Abram [Abraham] returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand." Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:17-20)

Melchizedek, though little is known about him, is especially noteworthy as a priestly representative of God Most High. He was the priest/king of Salem (Jerusalem); his name means “my king is righteous” or “king of righteousness” To bless Abram, he brought out what are essentially the elements of the Last Supper and of Communion, bread and wine. Further evidence of his worthiness to receive Abram’s tithe is that fact Jesus himself “has become a high priest forever, in [after] the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6:20, also Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 5:5-6)

It seems clear that in the Bible’s numerous references to bringing a tithe or tenth, God is telling us that 10% is an acceptable – and even expected – response to his providence and grace.

“God loves a cheerful giver”

Paul tells the Corinthians and us that “each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

The idea seems to be that as long as you’re happy with what you decide to give, God’s happy too. But let’s look at it in context. Paul is anticipating a “generous [and voluntary] gift” from the churches in Macedonia: “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (2 Corinthians 8:2):

So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given. Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:5-8)

This passage with its pleasant reference to the “cheerful giver” says nothing about tithing. It definitely doesn’t say that if the thought of giving God 10% of your increase makes you sad, angry, or frightened, you are entitled to find some other amount that makes you cheerful. We are free to “decide in [our] heart” what to give and we can decide in our heart whether to tithe. But that heart is not meant to be a selfish or greedy heart but a heart transformed by the Holy Spirit into a grateful and generous heart. God has equipped us – and continues to equip us – with not only a transformed heart but a renewed mind (Romans 12:2) so that we may grow spiritually and make decisions that are more God-loving and holy, “not reluctantly or under compulsion” but out of obedience and gratitude.

For all these reasons, I have come to believe that tithing – even for a Christian living under grace – is a God-loving, holy, and obedient choice.

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NIV 2011? No.

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

As a new forty-something Christian in 1989, I was introduced to the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, published in 1984. Our Senior Pastor recommended it, so when I went out to buy a Bible, I picked the NIV Study Bible. I found it readable and understandable. I didn’t get too hung up on whether it was a translation or a paraphrase or something in between. As a layman, I wasn’t qualified to evaluate the scholarship behind the various versions, so I consulted other versions, commentaries, and trusted Christian friends to guide my understanding of what I read in the NIV. In the intervening years, I’ve spent enough time reading, studying, discussing, and teaching the Bible that I have confidence in the usefulness and reliability of the 1984 NIV.

Not all of my reading and study time is spent with a print Bible. Over the years I have come to depend more on electronic forms, either online (e.g. or software installed on various devices, primarily E-Sword (Windows), AcroBible (Android), and PocketBible (most desktop and portable platforms). So when the 2011 edition of the NIV appeared online and as an option in my study apps, my curiosity was aroused.

As I read familiar passages in the 2011 edition, I noticed a very different tone. Part of it was unnecessary inclusive language that interfered with the literary flow of the text. Much of this language is just plain awkward, e.g. using they and their as singular pronouns. Such wording calls attention to itself instead of to the meaning of the text; it is the triumph of syntax over semantics.  But at least such foolishness doesn’t alter the fundamental meaning of the passage. Then I came across Matthew 15:25-28 in the 2011 edition. Here is how three older versions render the passage (emphasis added):

The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. He replied, "It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs." "Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table."  [NIV 1984]

Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” [NKJV]

Then the woman came back to Jesus, went to her knees, and begged. “Master, help me.” He said, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.” She was quick: “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table.” [The Message]

Then there’s this from the 2011 edition of the NIV (emphasis added):

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” [NIV 2011]

In the first three versions, the woman agrees with Jesus, accepts his analogy, and carries it a step further to explain her confidence that he could help her and might yet agree to do so. But in the 2011 edition, she directly contradicts Jesus and asserts that, as a matter of fact, it is right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.

This viewpoint rang a bell, reminding me of something I had seen a few years before in some PCUSA publication or web page. In her book Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels (2004), Frances Gench, feminist theologian and Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, quotes another writer, Susan Ringe: "In this story, however, [in contrast to Jesus’ usual exchanges with hostile questioners] it is Jesus who provides the hostile saying and the woman whose retort trips him up and corrects him." Gench adds (you can almost hear her chortle) "in other words, she delivers the punch line and trumps him!"

Seven years later, the new edition of the NIV provided a rendering of the passage that fits the feminist interpretation suggested by Gench and Ringe. Did the editors read Gench’s book? It’s impossible to believe they didn’t. Were they influenced by it? Obviously. No thanks; I’ll keep using the 1984 edition.

Thankfully, I had bought the NIV 1984 for all of the software I use, so I’ve been able to keep it on all my devices. Biblegateway offered the NIV 1984 as an option for a while, but now you can only read the NIV in the 2011 version. I don’t bother; if a link sends me to a passage on their site, I read the ESV instead. Fortunately, print versions of the 1984 are available at I don’t think software vendors are allowed to sell the NIV 1984 any longer.

Note: After writing this, I spent a little time Googling. Suffice to say, I’m not the first to find problems with Zondervan/Biblica’s politically correct cash cow.

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“Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship.”

Friday, March 23rd, 2018

This slogan has been bugging me lately. It didn’t come from the Bible. Yet it’s an idea that is often expressed by sincere, well-meaning Christians who (I think) intend to convey the centrality of a saving relationship with Jesus. But both halves of this statement are deeply flawed. Christianity is more than the requisite relationship; it’s a religion.

[Note: I’ve included Scripture links here, not to prooftext or portray myself as an expert (I’m not), but for the benefit of any who might not recognize the source of the Biblical terms or ideas presented here. The sources presented are mostly just samples and are by no means exhaustive.]


A saving relationship with Jesus is certainly the only path to salvation (John 14:6), but we – and new believers in particular – need to clearly understand what that relationship is, how it comes about, and what it means once we enter into it.

First, let’s look at a more familiar human relationship, marriage: One person initiates contact with another, names and phone numbers are exchanged, invitations for coffee or a movie or a royal ball ensue, romance blossoms, a proposal is made and accepted, plans are made, and the two are joined in marriage. What’s important to see is that by getting married, they enter into a covenant that, once entered, produces a change of state from single to married; There is no in-between – they are in either the single state or the married state. Having entered it, the couple remain in the married state until death or divorce ends the marriage.

The formation of a saving relationship with Jesus is similar but also very different. All of the actions are undertaken (Romans 5:8) and brought to completion by God, not humans (John 19:30). God makes the initial contact and God “proposes” to us. God consummates the relationship by his grace and we are born again (Ephesians 2:8-9, 1 Peter 1:23, Titus 3:5). At that moment, Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to us, an event called justification. We enter at once into a covenant that produces a change of state from cursed to justified (2 Corinthians 5:21). We are no longer God’s enemies, we are now his children. There’s no in-between – we are in either the cursed state or the justified state. Having entered into the justified state, not even death or divorce can send us back to our previous cursed state (Romans 8:38-39). It is finished.

But being in a relationship means much more than entering into a new state; our lives should reflect our changed state. Married people don’t go on living as if they were still single – at least not if they want a healthy marriage. And the Bible tells us very clearly that justified people shouldn’t go on living as if they were still cursed. Jesus wants us to abide (“remain”) in him (John 15:4), to go beyond the moment of justification to actively participate in an ongoing process of sanctification, by which the Holy Spirit works within us to conform us to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29). Being a Christian – being a disciple of Jesus – begins when God brings us into that relationship with Jesus, but it doesn’t end there. To be effective ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), we need religion.


Somehow, the idea that Jesus hates religion has been working its way through the Church like the yeast of the Pharisees. An early proponent of this extraordinary claim was an Internet sensation named Jeff Bethke. He posted a video rap entitled “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus”. It was mostly nonsense but contained enough harmful ideas that I was moved to comment on it here. In that post, I explained why, if the word religion has any standard, generally-accepted meaning* (and is not merely a convenient straw man invented to launch an Internet career), Christianity is most definitely a religion. If the reader will pardon the vanity of quoting myself, I wrote that

Jesus selected and taught the apostles. He picked his own theologian (Saul), renamed him Paul, personally trained him, sent him out to plant churches, and inspired him to write letters explaining the Christian religion to them. Paul wrote about both doctrine (grace, salvation, the sacraments, and much more) and such practicalities as accountability, church governance, and the qualifications of elders and deacons. I don’t understand why Jesus thought those were good things if religion is a bad thing. When he ascended into Heaven, Jesus left behind an organization complete with a mission statement.

Since that post, I’ve thought more about ways that Christianity looks suspiciously like a religion:

But why do we need a Christian religion? After all, when we are saved, the Holy Spirit takes up permanent residence to begin the work of sanctification (Romans 8:11). The Holy Spirit knows everything there is to know about how we should live, so can’t we just let the Spirit lead us and do what we feel led to do? Do we really need all that other stuff? For that matter, do we really need Scripture? The answer, of course, is a resounding Yes! (Romans 7:21-23) Why? Because we are led by lots of spirits in many directions, and we just aren’t wise or holy enough to always recognize the leading of the one true Spirit. To “feel led” carries the risk of being led by emotions, not by God’s will. Jesus knew that; he knew our tendency to go astray; he knew our true nature. So he gave us a religion to help us live out our new life in him.

Good milk, bad milk

No one would claim that the existence of milk that has been adulterated with arsenic justifies a condemnation of all milk. Yet the most common defense of this slogan is that Jesus spoke against the religion of the Pharisees. Another is that the Old Testament contains many condemnations of Israel’s religious practices following the Exodus and the giving of the Law. But in neither case was the sincere desire to practice the Law ever condemned. The religion was never the problem; it was how people practiced it that was the problem. Just as a mother provides pure milk for the health, growth, and wellbeing of her child, it was pure religion – both the Law and the religion that Jesus entrusted to the Church – that was given to the Jews and to us for our spiritual health, growth, and wellbeing.

And, of course, Jesus was never critical of his own religious legacy outlined above.


* “The service and adoration of God or a god as expressed in forms of worship, in obedience to divine commands, esp. as found in accepted sacred writings or as declared by recognized teachers and in pursuit of a way of life regarded as incumbent on true believers.” (Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd Edition)

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Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

Update: A related view from Daniel O. Conkle, professor, Indiana University Maurer School of Law

The Indiana legislature has passed the Religious Freedom Restoration act, producing the expected mass hysteria among Democrats and other anti-religious progressives. The bill is substantially the same as the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), signed into law in 1993 by that well-known conservative Republican bigot, Bill Clinton. It is worth noting that the Republic has endured and gay activism has flourished in the 21 years since the federal law was enacted.

What the law prohibits

Except as provided in subsection (b) [next paragraph], a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.

(b) A governmental entity may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest

In short, governmental entities in Indiana are now compelled to conform to the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion. Indiana courts must now apply the same legal test required in the RFRA, providing essentially the same protection at the state level.

It’s interesting – but hardly surprising – that the same people who attack state definitions of “marriage” in federal courts think states should be empowered to deny related rights guaranteed by the same federal courts.

A “disgusting” law

I was recently told by a friend that this law is “disgusting”. This got me thinking about the mindset of the law’s emotional but not especially reasonable opponents. Why is the guarantee of a cherished right – one that predated the Constitution and is embodied in it – so offensive?

From what I’ve observed in discussions with such people – including my disgusted friend – they seem to be mostly agnostics, atheists, Wiccans, or people with vague Oprah-like spiritual urges. Some have a loose association with orthodox Christianity or another religious tradition which they neither believe in nor practice. Still others identify with a religion but practice only the agreeable parts – usually the parts that don’t get in the way of sexual license or other earthly pleasures.

Whatever ones philosophical framework or world view, we all possess some sort of ethical structure based on it. That ethical structure provides motivation, justification, and evaluative criteria for the choices we make and the things we do or decline to do.

It’s obvious that opponents’ ethical structures do not include respect for the needs and motivations of people with deeply held, systematic religious belief or a moral system derived from that belief. It clearly does not include space to allow religious people to exercise their faith when to do so appears in opposition to the opinions or principles of the opponents.

They also seem to have no systematic approach to balancing compelling public needs and private rights. Or if they do, they are just biased in favor of public needs that don’t bother them personally and don’t interfere what they think are their rights.

This is nothing new, of course. This tension has existed throughout human history, sometimes worse on one side, sometimes worse on the other. The problem was well-known when the Constitution was being written. The First Amendment exists because its authors understood both the tyranny of the King and the tyranny of the majority.

In short, they saw a need to protect people like me from people like the law’s opponents.

The purpose of constitutions 

The Constitution’s writers attempted to solve the problem by differentiating between the public person – that sphere of each citizen’s life subject to the coercive force of government, and the private person – protected from that coercive force administered on behalf of an electoral majority. [This idea was originally articulated by John Schaar.] Constitutions exist for the purpose of delineating the public person, leaving the remainder – whatever it may consist of – to the control of the private person.

Indeed, one of the original objections to the Bill of Rights was that it attempted to specify parts of this remainder that must be reserved for the private person. The fear was that proponents of a powerful national government would claim that a right not specified in the Constitution was not protected and could be trampled at will. But that’s not a problem here where the free exercise of religion is specifically named in the first article of the Bill of Rights.

Our Constitution could be said to do nothing more than to establish a political system with sufficient power to preserve the nation – the sum of all the public persons – while paradoxically guarding the sovereignty and natural rights of each private person. As noted, it explicitly places the free exercise of religion in the realm of the private person. Its authors intended – and, until recently, courts have agreed – that the diminution of the private person is permissible only if it can be shown that leaving the private person intact would impose a heavy and unreasonable burden on the public (i.e., a hardship on the majority of public persons); that is the essence of this disgusting new law’s legal test.

The Constitutional crisis of the past 70 years or so has resulted from the national government’s insatiable lust to expand the public person and correspondingly shrink the private person. The Framers anticipated this force and took what steps they could to frustrate it. They were naive enough to believe that future generations would grasp the nature and purposes of the Constitution’s protections and would demand their preservation. They did not anticipate the fatal combination of voters who neither know nor value what they have been given and the collusion of well-educated cynics who see the political tide flowing their way and are prepared to toss away permanently any barriers to that temporary flow.

The Constitution has great value, both to the religious and the non-religious, and even to the militantly anti-religious. It created a remarkable country, a nation that despite its flaws and errors has been a beacon of freedom to the entire world for most of its existence. But the light is fading, being slowly snuffed out by the ignorance, pragmatism, and selfishness of its citizens and by the cancerous growth of the government they have chosen to have rule them

A Christian’s temptation

Naturally, there is a part of me that would like to see an orthodox Christian President, Congress, and Supreme Court running the national government with all its newly-acquired power, running it as passionately and ruthlessly as those who usurped that power do now. There is a part of me that would enjoy the squealing of people suddenly feeling the unfamiliar weight of the over-bearing government they had created. There is a part of me that would smirk while they appealed to a Constitution they had rendered impotent, hoping that it could now somehow restore the lost private person and relieve the pain of being the public person the government suddenly requires them to be.

But that part of me is the very part that Jesus wants to root out and destroy. The vengeance of such a government – and the schadenfreude of a Christian who reveled in it – would destroy the best of what he wants of his disciples, not the worst. Jesus ran no government, coerced no one, levied no taxes, sought no earthly kingdom. All he did was die for everyone who would accept his authority over all earthly powers – including themselves.

In the long run, Christians don’t require political protections, including this law. Christianity flourishes where it is most ruthlessly oppressed, whether in ancient Rome or modern China. It offers freedom that no government can guarantee, no matter how liberal (in the classic sense) or well-intended it may have been.

No, the value of this law is not that it may occasionally protect Christians who choose obedience to their consciences. The value is that protects a fundamental right that ultimately profits every citizen.

Yes, it offends me that opponents of this law often endorse – and practice – political and social bullying of Christians and other people of faith. It occasionally surprises me that the bullies can be so lacking in self-awareness that they can’t see the hypocrisy of demanding tolerance while refusing to extend it. But what offends me most is our society’s willingness to abandon its heritage and leave its children to the whim of whatever party comes to power or to the boundless ambition of the next charismatic leader who promises to singlehandedly “transform America”.

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Prayer request: Islamic butchers of ISIS

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

I received this prayer request this morning; I’ve redacted names lest anyone be placed in even greater danger.

Prayer Request from [redacted] missionaries who are in the areas that are being attacked by ISIS are asking to be showered in prayer. ISIS has taken over the town they are in today. He said ISIS is systematically going house to house to all the Christians and asking the children to denounce Jesus. He said so far not one child has. And so far all have consequently been killed. But not the parents. The UN has withdrawn and the missionaries are on their own. They are determined to stick it out for the sake of the families – even if it means their own deaths. They are very afraid, have no idea how to even begin ministering to these families who have had seen their children martyred. Yet he says he knows God has called them for some reason to be His voice and hands at this place at this time. Even so, they are begging for prayers for courage to live out their vocation in such dire circumstances. And like the children, accept martyrdom if they are called to do so.  These brave parents instilled such a fervent faith in their children that they chose martyrdom. Please surround them in their loss with your prayers for hope and perseverance.

One missionary was able to talk to her brother briefly by phone. She didn’t say it, but I believe she believes it will be their last conversation. Pray for her too. She said he just kept asking her to help him know what to do and do it. She told him to tell the families we ARE praying for them and they are not alone or forgotten — no matter what.  Please keep them all in your prayers.
This came this morning… [source redacted] "We lost the city of Queragosh (Qaraqosh). It fell to ISIS and they are beheading children systematically. … ISIS has pushed back Peshmerga (Kurdish forces) and is within 10 minutes of [redacted]. Thousands more fled into the city of Erbil last night. The UN evacuated its staff in Erbil. Our team is unmoved and will stay. Prayer cover needed!" Please pray sincerely for the deliverance of the people of Northern Iraq from the terrible advancement of ISIS and its extreme Islamic goals for mass conversion or death for Christians across this region.

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Why I don’t hate Jesus’ religion

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

I started to write a response to the video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” shortly after it appeared, but never got around to posting it. The video turned up on my Facebook timeline this morning, so I guess it’s still getting views. That being the case, I decided to freshen up the post and belatedly publish my thoughts. My comments are based on a transcript since I grew up reading, not watching videos.

This video – the work of a man named Jeff Bethke – has had more than 27 million views on YouTube. As a Christian (that is, an adherent of the Christian religion), I find his love of Jesus admirable. Beyond that, I’m not quite sure what he’s trying to say. I know I don’t understand the title of his video. Maybe it was just meant to be catchy – a title that might send a video viral and get a lot of attention. It worked.

A catchy title is one thing, but I don’t understand the content either. To be clear, I know who Jesus is and why Jeff might love him. It’s the hatred of religion, including, apparently, the Christian religion, that I can’t quite fathom. Perhaps a starting point would be to define what it is that he hates. Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd Edition (in my and many others’ opinions the best paper dictionary) gives us a good working definition:

The service and adoration of God or a god as expressed in forms of worship, in obedience to divine commands, esp. as found in accepted sacred writings or as declared by recognized teachers and in pursuit of a way of life regarded as incumbent on true believers.

If Jeff has made up his own definition of religion to rail against, then there’s no point in responding. But I assume he understands the word to mean something like the definition above.

I’d like to answer some of the questions Jeff asks and challenge a couple of his claims.

Jeff: What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?

Grumpy: I’d ask you where you got the notion that Jesus came to abolish “the service and adoration of God” and “obedience to divine commands … in pursuit of a way of life regarded as incumbent on true believers.” My Bible says Jesus came to encourage those things, not abolish them.

Jeff: What if I told you voting Republican really wasn’t his mission?

Grumpy: I’d wonder if maybe you were under the mistaken impression that voting Democrat (or Green or Whig, or some other party) was his mission.

Jeff: What if I told you “Republican” doesn’t automatically mean “Christian”?

Grumpy: I’d remind you that "Democrat", "minister", "poet", "wife", “student”, and "cowboy" don’t automatically mean “Christian” either; then I’d ask why you’re obsessed with Republicans.

Jeff: And just because you call some people “blind” doesn’t automatically give you vision?

Grumpy: Neither does it mean the blind have vision. I assume you’re talking about spiritual blindness. Are you promoting blindness? Or discouraging the recognition of it in either ourselves or others? The Bible doesn’t encourage spiritual blindness and it doesn’t direct us to either ignore or affirm spiritual blindness.

Jeff: I mean, if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?

Grumpy: Jeff, you have fallen for a secular myth; the reality is that religion has played only a minor role in starting wars. If you think about it, religion can’t really do anything. Only people – sometimes acting as they believe their religion directs them [see definition above] – can do things like start wars. If that’s what you mean, I’d ask you, if religion is so bad, why did adherents of the Christian religion abolish the slave trade in England? Why did Christian religious organizations establish countless medical missions in Africa? Why are they so quick to respond with help in places like Haiti or Japan or the Gulf Coast or Joplin, Missouri, or Indonesia?

Maybe some religions promote war while others promote peace. Maybe some religions spread through murder and conquest while others spread through martyrdom and sacrifice.

Jeff: Why does it build huge churches but fails to feed the poor?

Grumpy: Another good question and here’s yet another – why does it sometimes build modest buildings or none at all and feed the poor, the homeless, the displaced, and the refugee? Why do you think it’s a zero-sum game? Don’t you believe God’s resources are sufficient to build dedicated houses of worship that express his grandeur and feed the poor?

Jeff: Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever had a divorce?

Grumpy: Or welcome them and their children and provide help, support, and encouragement? Do you honestly mean to say that you’ve never seen anyone who embraces the Christian religion do these things? If you haven’t, you need to get out more.

Jeff: But in the Old Testament God actually calls religious people “whores”. Religion might preach grace, but another thing they practice.

Grumpy: You’ve discovered hypocrites. Congratulations. You’ve doubtless found them in churches. You’ll find them on street corners and all over the internet; you’ll find them on YouTube. You’ll even find them among the most ardent lovers and followers of Jesus.

Jeff: Now back to the point: One thing is vital to mention, how Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums. See, one’s the work of God, but one’s a man-made invention

Grumpy: A “man-made invention”? Jesus selected and taught the apostles. He picked his own theologian (Saul), renamed him Paul, personally trained him, sent him out to plant churches, and inspired him to write letters explaining the Christian religion to them. Paul wrote about both doctrine (grace, salvation, the sacraments, and much more) and such practicalities as accountability, church governance, and the qualifications of elders and deacons. I don’t understand why Jesus thought those were good things if religion is a bad thing. When he ascended into Heaven, Jesus left behind an organization complete with a mission statement. At least that’s what my Bible says.

Jeff, you say you love the Church. But you hate the structure that Jesus left behind to preserve, guide, and grow it. You exhibit a trendy cynicism about “organized religion” that seems to arise from an inability to separate the structure from the jars of clay Jesus entrusted it to.

Jeff: See this was me, too, but no one seemed to be on to me, actin’ like church kid while addicted to pornography. See, on Sunday I’d go to church, but Saturday gettin’ faded, actin’ as if I was simply created to just have sex and get wasted. See, I spent my whole life buildin’ this façade of neatness.

Grumpy: This seems to be an indictment of your own hypocrisy – passing as a “church kid” while denying in your life everything the Church stands for – not the religion of Jesus Christ. Do you actually hold that religion responsible for your sins? Still, it couldn’t have been a complete failure – that religion introduced you to Jesus.

A final note: I doubt this video did anything to reform those parts of the Church that need reforming, but it may have misled some Christians into believing that the Church is Jesus’ enemy. I’m pretty sure Satan enjoys the idea that the religion Jesus created – the service and adoration of God as expressed in forms of worship, in obedience to divine commands, esp. as found in the Bible – should be scorned by his followers. And the video seems to have launched a career in social media and YouTube consulting for Jeff. I was going to read some of his blog posts, but they turned out to be videos too.

Posted in Christianity, Culture, Personal | 2 Comments »