witness

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

Romans 12:9-10

I was recently informed that the church I serve risks becoming known for what it opposes rather than for what it supports. This is a familiar rhetorical approach in discussions when churches are willing to publicly question or even oppose things that the society, in general, supports. There’s an appeal to the argument because no one wants to be seen as the grumpy fundamentalist church that views itself as “against the world.”

It’s a warning that’s worth heeding and worthy considering seriously.

Yet often those who introduce it have no problem with churches when they oppose the “right things.” In other words the line “becoming known for what you oppose” actually means, “I disapprove of what you oppose and it’s convenient for me to characterize your opposition to it in a negative manner.”

The Bible suggests that opposing what is wronghating what is evil--is actually an appropriate expression of the true love that marks the Christian (see Romans 12) in the communion of the church.

What we’re talking about is not arbitrary hatred addressed toward people simply because they are different. Quite the contrary: we are never instructed to hate anyone, rather to love them. We are, however, instructed to hate that which is wrong, or put another way, those actions that are contrary to God’s moral law.

We’re instructed to love what is good—those things that align with God’s character and God’s purposes in the world.

We’re instructed to hate what is evil—those things that are at odds with God’s character and God’s purposes in the world. The church is instructed to stand against what is evil with the same vigor we stand for what is good.

By doing this, according to Paul, our love is genuine “hating evil” and “holding fast to good” are the expressions of authentic love. Genuine love does not toy with evil—it flies from it knowing what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews knew, “sin easily entangles.”

We’re often told that we should let our conscience be our guide.

This is the classic “that’s beyond my pay grade response” to difficult and divisive issues. The church–at least the church as envisioned in the New Testament– doesn’t have the option to simply say to its members you decide whether adultery is sin, homosexual practice is sin, or theft is sin.

The truth is, however, that our consciences are not infallible, our consciences are not unaffected by sin.

Our conscience is simply an internal, error-prone voice that is shaped by a variety of forces including our culture, our ethnicity, our sub-culture, our peer-group, and can easily lead us astray.

It’s for this reason that we—Christians—were given the Scripture: in order to learn what God calls good and what God calls evil. The church is a school of virtue tasked with forming Christians to love and hate rightly.

At the end of the day, for the Christian, our moral judgments must align with the Scripture because this is the principle means by which we discern God’s will.

The conscience can only BE a guide of the conscience HAS a guide.

We need a book from God that points to God and reveals God.

Christians have confessed for millennia that the Bible is the Word of God—it reveals God to us, it is our “rule of faith and practice.”

What does that mean? A rule is a standard against which something is measured or tested. We test our experiences of God, we test our experience of self and others, we measure our beliefs and our instincts against the Bible because the Bible is the Christian’s ultimate standard.

By all means follow your conscience. However, if your conscience has not demonstrably been shaped and formed by the Bible then it’s unlikely to be a guide worthy of following.

Allow careful reading of the Bible to shape your understanding of God. Allow careful reading of the Bible to shape your understanding of your self and your neighbor. Allow careful reading of the Bible to shape your views on current issues. Christians are to be shaped by the Bible and there is no excuse for a Christian who neglects to read it.

It’s not enough to recognize what’s negative and seek to eliminate it—Most counselors will tell you that simply rejecting something isn’t enough to make a positive change in your life. Many couples go through their remarriage counseling sessions swearing: “this is not going to be like my parents’ marriage!” In the absence of a positive alternative, it’s virtually guaranteed that history will repeat itself. That’s why Paul suggests that we cannot simply hate evil; we must actively seek that which is good.

What Paul seems to have in mind is not some slight preference for good over evil. Rather, Paul is urging his readers to “be glued to” the good. It’s the same word that appears in Jesus explanation of marriage found in Matthew 19:5:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”

The idea is of joining two things together in a permanent and indissoluble relationship. The Christian is wedded to the good because the church is the bride of Christ and Christ’s purpose for the church is, according to Ephesians 1:4—

“To be blameless and pure before [God].”

Each of us has the opportunity to faithfully live out this sort of life—one that is marked by true love, which hates evil and clings to that which is good.

At root of this is the example of the self-giving, self-emptying love that Jesus demonstrated:

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8, NRSV).

Last night I decided to take action on something I’ve been contemplating for a while: I deactivated my Facebook account. My next twenty days will be Facebook free. Here’s why.

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Jeff Gissing:

Since we just started a series on Jesus’ teaching on divorce, here are some older thoughts on the nature of marriage as it relates to procreation.

Originally posted on Jeff Gissing:

As I’m writing this, it’s ten till seven on a Sunday morning. The kids are playing in loudly in their bedroom. I’m on my first cup of coffee and trying to get at least three hundred words written before making breakfast, showering, getting the kids ready for church, and heading out the door.

I opened the tab on my browser where I store pages that I’d like to read later and landed on a post from Christianity Today’s Her.Meneutics Blog, “The fruitful callings of the childless by choice.”

The post asks its readers to reconsider how the church treats those who choose not to have children. The deeper question is whether or not procreation legitimates marriage. Is marriage compromised by not having children? 

colourful-kids

The Scriptural basis of the church’s teaching on procreation is found at the very beginning of the Scriptural canon:

So God created man in his own image…

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Dictionary definition of divorce

Dictionary definition of divorce

The issues of marriage, divorce, and remarriage have caused much debate within the Christian community and are of significant pastoral weight. Until recently, the locus of this discussion has been on whether and when a divorce between husband and wife is permitted. Of late the discussion has shifted to the very nature of marriage: whether Christian marriage may be redefined to include same-gender relationships.

Many progressive interpreters of Scripture appeal to changing views on divorce as evidence for the ways in which our scriptural understanding may evolve over time. Attitudes certainly shift over time, but whether the shift is meaningfully connected to a shift in interpretive approach or simply ignorance or indifferent to Scripture and tradition is less easy to discern. The vast majority of evangelical Christians–those who profess a high view of Scripture, among other markers–have capitulated to the concept of no-fault divorce and, perhaps more insidiously, have successfully removed the church from speaking into these sorts of issues in the lives of its members. This bracketing, while understandable, also denigrates the theological purpose of the church as a school of virtue in which members are shaped and formed into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Of course, affirming the authority of Holy Scripture is easy when one understands–or thinks one understands–clearly what the Bible says. However, when the teaching of the Scriptures is more obscure, a diversity of opinions arises and conflict is likely not far behind.

How then do we make sense of what Jesus says about divorce in the Gospels?

A fundamental presupposition to a helpful discussion is that since Jesus spoke and taught in the context of first century Palestine, an understanding of that context is of critical importance to interpreting what Jesus meant.

A discussion of Jesus’ teaching on divorce must focus on the four sections of the Synoptic Gospels that deal with the subject: Matt 5:31ff., 19:3ff.; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18.

These four accounts, episodes if you will, can be synthesized to provide a single coherent and consistent teaching on the subject of divorce that  appeals to the Old Testament.

We can then compare Jesus approach to the Hebrew Scriptures with that of the two, well-documented schools of interpretation found in first century Judaism: the schools of Shammai, and of Hillel. As we compare the different approaches to interpretation both with one another and with that of Jesus, we will be able to delineate the ways in which Jesus’ approach varies from the dominant Jewish approaches of the day.

This is the second post (read the first here) in a series about competing understandings of the Scriptures found in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I am tracking the discussion found in the 1983 position statement, The Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture (.pdf available here) which was adopted by the Presbyterian Church in the United States and carried into the creation of the newly-formed PC USA in 1983.

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The central point offered at the beginning of the document is an acknowledgment of the variety of understandings of what the Bible is and how the Bible is to be used both in the life of the church and the life of the individual believer:

Since Holy Scripture is the principal criterion of judgment in taking positions and making decisions, radical differences among us in the way we understand and use Scripture as the rule of faith and practice can weaken our ability to live and work as a community of faith. Especially in the case of theological and ethical decisions that the courts [i.e., councils] of our church [i.e., denomination] must make corporately, the diversity has become an important source of difficulty in deliberation and agreement.

The plurality of views has, if anything, widened since 1983.

In the last post we explored the first four differing views from the list of eight found in the document:

  1. The inerrancy view
  2. The supernatural book view
  3. The infallibility view
  4. The critical view
  5. The biblicist view
  6. The record view
  7. The political view
  8. The doctrinalist view

Let’s now turn our attention to the remaining positions.

The Biblicist View

I’m not certain that I am clear on what the framers have in mind. I assume that they’re describing what might be called the liberal baptist view: “I have no creed but the Bible.” Or, it could be a view of Scripture that lends itself more to Biblical theology as set over against the historical tendency of presbyterians to engage in systematic theology. Traditional presbyterianism is Calvinist in nature and the highest expression of that tradition is the Westminster Confession of Faith and Shorter and Larger Catechisms. These standards exclusively informed the theology of the Presbyterian churches from the time 17th Century until the 20th. A Confession and creeds are systematic summaries of the witness of Scripture according to topic or heading. Some presbyterians feel that the project of systematic theology makes the Bible do something it wasn’t meant to do, which is provide a systematic description of what we know about God. I disagree.

The Record View

This view holds that the Bible is “one of the revered documents of the church” but “does not seriously expect it to be illuminating or determining for important issues of faith or life in the present day.” This is a troublesome view which, in my opinion, is the predominating view of Scripture I have observed in my interaction with ministers in two presbyteries of the PC USA. The Bible, we are told, captures the reflections of ancient people as they encountered God–it is their record of the revelation of God rather than revelation itself. This is a seriously deficient view of the Bible, which is a product more of European Romanticism than Scripture Christianity. It produces statements such as “the Biblical writers could not possibly have known [xyz] therefore what they said outdated or does not control…” This view marginalizes Scripture to an inspirational book rather than a rule for faith.

The Political View

Some on both the left and the right seem happy to use the Bible to advance their political agendas. On the left, the Bible has nothing to say about homosexuality but virtually anything said about immigration in any passage is held to be controlling for the church today. On the right, issues of personal morality are focused on sometimes to the neglect of social and structural sin.

The Bracketed View

This view holds that the Bible is our source for religious knowledge alone and ought not to be consulted for anything other than learning doctrine. Frankly, I’m not sure that I know anyone who holds this view but I am sure that it exists in certain hybrid forms with others of these views.

Each of these views has something unique to it and something that it offers to the church. However, each of these views results in a (sometimes vastly) different conclusions as to belief or practice in the church, as we’ll see next week.