Christ Above All Rule and Authority in our Churches

“[The Father] seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” Eph 1:20b – 22

As Christians, we serve Christ, the King. When we (rightly) call Christ “The King”, we are echoing a Biblical theme that holds Christ up, not just as a savior, but as a ruler, His has a Kingdom. The entire theocratic line of Israelite kings points to a final fulfillment of the everlasting king, Jesus. We are subjects of the Kingdom, and called to obey our King. One of the symbols we use to represent a kingdom, is a flag. The topic of flags has received a lot of attention lately, with debates over confederate flags, flying flags half-mast (and many waving rainbow flags as well). Flags are typically used to represent a particular nation, society, order, or other affinity, and flying a flag is way to declare one’s allegiance, loyalty, and submission to that nation or kingdom. Flying a flag is a way to lift up, honor, and exalt that kingdom and its king or ruler or ideology. Recently I had been a part of some discussion of what this means for a church. Should churches be flying flags, and if so what? And while I doubt I will ever see confederate or rainbow flags show up in our church, there is still a flag, and another kingdom (other than Christ’s) that it represents, that often does fly in our churches. What does the Bible say about this?

The Bible’s approach to the Kingdom’s of the world is very exclusive. The Kingdom of God is not a kingdom that we simply add to the other kingdoms of the world. From early in scriptures, God declares his exclusive claims of rule: “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God”. We must not be tempted to compartmentalize “worship” here as merely bowing down or singing worship sings. This commandment isn’t for the sake of keeping our knees clean and our voice boxes well-rested. It is ultimately about who we are giving our submission, our loyalty, and our honor too. And God is jealous, he isn’t just asking that we give him some of our submission, but that He would completely displace our submission to any other kingdoms. But surely we can share and divide up our allegiance to God and country and serve both kingdoms? If we justify ourselves by calling another kingdom “godly” or “Christian”, then can’t we fully obey both masters? As I written before, Jesus echoes these Old Testament passages with an emphatic “no”:

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. – Matt 6:24

Calling another master or kingdom “Christian” only lures us further into the temptation of displacing our true King with an earthly country, just as the Israelites desired when they asked for a king. Serving two masters may work for a while, but ultimately they will come into conflict at some point, and your love for one will need to take precedence.

Now, of course as we consider flags, for many, flying a flag is not intended to declare that we have supplanted God with country. For many flying a flag is simply way of paying tribute to our freedom and the sacrifices made to achieve that freedom. But, the flag is still a symbol, used and defined by cultures. The American flag can mean many different things to many different people. To some it means sacrifice and freedom. To others it might mean violence and exploitation. Regardless of whether you, personally, see it as a great symbol or a detrimental symbol, we must remember that we can not control what it communicates to different audiences. It is symbol that is defined by cultures that interpret it. By using the symbol, we are putting ourselves at the mercy of culture, and different audiences, to define what we are communicating. But, if we believe that it is our duty, as Christians, we must strive to communicate clear Biblical concepts, not just wavering symbols that depend on who and how they are interpreted. Scriptures go to great lengths to carefully define the concepts of grace, forgiveness, love, etc., rather than simply relying on whatever culture defines these to mean. We must diligently seek to communicate absolute truths, and not just relative symbols that are up to the observer to apply in different ways. With this in mind, we must remember that we are called to do whatever it takes to bring people to Christ, willing to remove any and every obstacle. Paul says, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:22) Paul never let any personal preference of symbols or imagery that he liked stand in the way of drawing people to Christ.

The question of how symbols are interpreted can not even be limited to how a flag is interpreted by fellow Americans. Much of the New Testament, from the Great Commission, to the events in Acts, to the strategies of Paul are concerned with making Christ known not just among one nation, but among ALL nations. Christ’s commission to make disciples of all nations is preeminent concern, we must certainly consider the vast diversity of interpretations of our flag, and what it mean to other nations, and how divergent those interpretations may be from what we really want to communicate as the church. But are mere symbols that important? The first commandment, to worship God alone, does stand by itself. It is so important, that it is immediately preceded by the second commandment, which forbids any representation of another God. Of course even the ancients were probably smart enough to recognize that idols were symbols of gods. But even these symbols of other entities desiring submission represented a danger.

So what does this mean to the church? I believe that the church’s purpose is to lead people to obey, follow, submit to, and honor Christ. This is the entire purpose of the church, and the church should be a place where every effort is defined by the pursuit of this aim. The church exists to lift up Christ and only Christ, and as the one true, rightful ruler and only ruler, to teach submission to the one and only one Kingdom, the Kingdom Of God. To fly flags that symbolically place the kingdom of America on equal status as the Kingdom of God, no matter how we might wish this to honor certain principles or people, is ultimately a symbolic statement that says Christ is equal in authority. This unfortunately defies the Father’s declaration that Christ is to be “above all rule and authority and power and dominion”. There is just no way around it, the church must settle for nothing less that exalting and submitting Christ, and Christ alone. The church is not a place of mixing allegiances, but of declaring Christ above all rule.

For a minute, imagine arriving an US Army boot camp, and to discover that they were flying a Chinese flag right along the US flag. You would probably find this quite shocking. Now somebody might offer some explanations of why China is a nice country, they have been lifting many out of poverty, and they have some great accomplishments. But this isn’t the point. Boot camp exists to train soldiers in unswerving loyalty, dedication, and service to their country. The US flag flies above all, because the boot camp exists to train soldiers for serving that country. Likewise, the church exists for the purpose of leading people to follow Christ. It does not matter if we think highly of another country or kingdom. If boot camp points to a single allegiance, how much more so should the church do the same in pointing people to their King.

Another Old Testament story that highlights that conflict between God and countries of the world is found in Daniel, when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are faced with pressure to put their loyalty to their ruler alongside God. Again, we shouldn’t think that this story is about the physical act of bowing, God was not concerned with bruises on their knees. Bowing was a symbolic act of giving full submission and honor to the King and the country he ruled. While this story is often held up as an example of uncompromising loyalty to God, it is important to remember what precisely what they were being asked to do. The pressure was not just about some random physical act, but about the pressure to demonstrate loyalty to a country and its ruler, which is, as always, a replacement of loyalty to God. God’s call for our submission and loyalty is not just because God is hungry for followers, hoping that he can satisfy his hunger for a high follower count. It is because God is truly the best leader we can follow, and His leadership is in our best interest

Again, as Jesus clearly stated in Matt 6:24, eventually our loyalty will be determined when our loyalties come in conflict. When this happens whose direction will we choose? Unquestioned loyalty to country has served to facilitate some of the greatest tragedies of mankind. For many German soldiers in the 1930s, serving God and country were united. The churches had defined Christianity and loyalty to country without distinction. Without clarity that loyalty is to God above all, the actions of the third Reich remained unquestioned by many Christians. The same experience occurred in the Civil war as Christianity became defined by the the loyalism to the national traditions of slavery rather than a God who challenged this notions.

Again, I understand that many individuals fly flags to communicate, honor, and pay tribute to different ideas, sacrifices, and ideals. That is fine. But the church must take the greatest of care in recognizing what it might be communicating, and how that might be understood, and how that might greatly differ from the purpose of the church to draw people to the exclusive rule and reign of Christ. I encourage the church to focus solely on the the glorious calling of lifting Christ and Christ alone. The Father gave Christ “as head over all things to the church”, and may we do all that we can to proclaim that He is indeed “above all rule and authority and power and dominion”! Praise to be to our one true King!

Why Did Christ Need to Die on the Cross?

What did Christ accomplish at the cross that required and was satisfied by the cross? I believe we do well to celebrate what Christ accomplished on the cross, and I have previously written about the incredible breadth of accomplishments of the cross. However, I think it is worthwhile to consider more precisely what Christ accomplished that could not have been accomplished by other means. If I go to the store, I might say that the reason was to buy milk and eggs, but this wouldn’t necessarily explain why I chose to go to Trader Joe’s instead of Walmart. And if I traveled further and paid more, you might be quite interested in my selection of stores, and no amount of passionate explanation of my great need for milk and eggs would explain my store choice, if there was an easier way to purchase these products. Likewise, if the death of the Christ is central to Christianity, it should be of great interest for us to consider what it means that our atonement was bought by Christ crucifixion, rather than another path. I would like to explore this question in this post.

Why Suffering On the Cross?

Perhaps we have simply lacked the imagination to consider other possible means of atonement, but assuredly, alternate possibilities were on Christ’s mind in the garden of Gethsemane, when He begged that He would not have to endure the cross (Luke 22:42)! Throughout the Gospel, the Father never turned down any of His Son’s requests, and surely any loving Father would do anything to avoid the needless torture of His Son. How much more so an omnipotent Father that can choose to accomplish His purposes in any way that is consistent with His nature. For the Father and Son to proceed with the crucifixion surely declares that this would accomplish something distinct that no other means could accomplish. And in fact, scriptures clearly state the necessity of His suffering (Luke 24:26), and Paul even spends time reasoning about the necessity of Christ’s suffering (Acts 17:3). So why was it necessary?

First, what are other possible solutions to our need for atonement? I believe a typical explanation of the cross, is that Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins. However, to forgive does not always require a demonstration of suffering to accomplish. We all have experience with the process of forgiveness, and when we forgive someone, we can simply to do so, and resolve to no longer demand reparation for past wrongs. This does not require a nail through the hands or any other new act of suffering.

For example, if someone punches us in the face, we may be tempted to punch back. But to forgive is to restrain from punching back. It is restraint from reparation or creating new injury, not adding new injury. One does not need to punch himself in the face again, in order to forgive the injury, the injury has already occurred. No new injury is necessary for forgiveness.

Not only does personal experience demonstrate that forgiveness can be freely given, but the Bible itself demonstrates the same thing. On various occasions in scriptures, including in the gospels (Luke 5:23, 7:48), God or Jesus offers forgiveness to individuals for their sins against God. In these incidents there is no cross mentioned, no suffering, nothing but freely offered forgiveness. It seems quite clear that God (including Jesus), can and does freely offer forgiveness, without any need for suffering. Forgiveness alone seems insufficient to explain the need for the cross.

Now, the intent of this post is not to try to debunk orthodox atonement theology, but to show how the necessity of the cross gives us a clearer and more nuanced picture of this atonement and theology. With this in mind, let’s look more closely at forgiveness.

Forgiveness

The simplest form of forgiveness is bilateral forgiveness, where the injured person forgives the perpetrator. And it is this type of forgiveness that could be freely offered by God, without any sacrifice; God clearly can, has, and does offer this type of forgiveness freely, as demonstrated by our own ability to freely forgive, as well as scriptural examples of freely offered forgiveness. And again, it seems bizarre and inconsistent that God could provide such forgiveness freely, and instead chose to inflict such suffering on His beloved Son. However, there is another type of forgiveness to consider: when a third person steps in to forgive.

This can be exemplified in the forgiveness of debt. If Ann owes Bill $1000, Bill could forgive that debt without any further loss to himself (he just won’t get back the money that he already paid out). However, what if another person, Chris, steps in to forgive this debt (multilateral forgiveness) on behalf of Ann? In this case, Chris would not be the debt holder, so he could not simply forget the debt, as Bill would still be demanding repayment. But, he could indeed provide the forgiveness or payment of Ann’s debt by paying off the $1000 himself. In this case, when the debt is paid off by a third party, the forgiveness of debt is achieved, but it is indeed costly. As you can see in this example, the one who is owed a debt can forgive without incurring new cost, but for the one who steps into forgive another’s claim of payment due, forgiveness is indeed quite costly, and Chris, who is providing the forgiveness, does incur new costs (also, it is worth noting that payment must be paid voluntarily, which Christ did, Luke 22:42).

Consequently, I believe that the necessity of the cross indicates that Christ was achieving not just forgiveness of an offense to God, but forgiveness of our indebtedness to each other. This logic does not dictate that God didn’t forgive sins against himself (although there may be some other problems with that), but the cross does indicate that the atonement extended beyond just offense to God, and was Jesus stepping in to mediate offense between others.

Ontology of Sin

This leads to questions about the nature of sin itself (or more technically and precisely, the ontology of sin). What makes something a sin? Sin is sometimes described as an offense to God. But is that the root reason that it is sin? Is something wrong because it offends God? Or is it more accurate to say that God is offended *because* sin is wrong, destructive, injurious, ugly and derogatory towards others? I believe that the scriptures point us to understanding sin as the latter, as the direction of loving God to protect people. I have previously discussed how Christ taught that we are to read and interpret scriptures to understand the purpose behind the laws and ordinances. Christ condemned the Pharisees for the interpretation of the Sabbath because they treated it as an arbitrary offense to God rather than a commandment for our benefit.

Likewise, I believe that any forgiveness that requires a cross (suffering), is a forgiveness based on the latter definition of sin. Sin, at the root, is describing actions of intrinsic destructive nature, and this causes the offense to God, not vice versa. If we are to see God as good, than we must see the sin He opposes as a vindication of His goodness, wisdom and reasoning, rather than seeing God as an arbitrary deity who has capriciously created a random set of rules that upset him.

Furthermore, it is worth questioning how we might go about directly sinning against God, at least in the same sense that we talk about sinning against others. Generally, to sin against another is made possible due to the vulnerability of the victim, and the fact that they are prone to be injured, exploited or otherwise hurt. Theft is possible due to lack of fortification of resources. Injury is possible due to the fragility of the human body. Emotional pain is possible due to the vulnerability of the human soul. But do these weakness and vulnerabilities actually apply to an omnipotent God? Of course it would seem that God does not have any direct weakness or fragility, but God did indeed take on the fragility of humanity as Christ. And this isn’t just temporary, scriptures make it clear that God vicariously identifies (Matt 25) with the least of these (those most vulnerable). Consequently, it would seem that to God isn’t directly vulnerable to injury or offense, but indirectly through his vicarious identification with the pain of others.

Ransom

An additional clue to the nature of the forgiveness of the cross is the use of the term “ransom” (Hos 13:14, 1 Tim 2:6, Matt 20:28, Mar 10:45) to describe Christ’s payment. The word “ransom” has much more specific meaning than simply generic repayment of debt. A ransom is specifically a payment to a captor to gain freedom. It seems quite odd to say that God is working to buy our freedom and then turn around and say that God is the captor that needed to be paid off. Not only that, but Psalms 49:15, and Hos 13:14 actually name this captor, from whom we need to be ransomed, the “Power of Sheol”. Again, this seems very difficult to attribute to God.

The idea of describing atonement based on the terminology of “ransom” is not new, the ransom theory of atonement has long been held as a legitimate theory of atonement within orthodox Christianity. This idea seems to be less popular today than it was in the early church, but many still believe it is important part of understanding the cross. This idea was also a core theme of CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

God’s Wrath

The ransom idea often runs into push back when we consider scriptures that teach Christ was satisfying “God’s wrath” on the cross. If God’s wrath is what Christ was dealing with, than does that mean that it must be God’s offense that He was forgiving?

The nature of God’s wrath, in question, can be considered in much the same way as forgiveness. And if anger (or “wrath”) is the obstacle to forgiveness, than we should certainly find parallels between the forgiveness and the anger.

And again, I think we can find insight in our own experience with anger. We certainly have experienced anger to our own injury, but just as forgiveness does not need to only be offered the victim, anger can arise from someone other than the victim. We all have experienced anger and indignation at seeing innocent people hurt or exploited. We don’t have to personally be hurt to experience anger, and this anger in response to the hurt of others is certainly a more virtuous form of anger. Consequently, is it not reasonable to consider that this might be the form of God’s wrath? God’s anger might not be a backlash to personal offense, but rather the anger at seeing the pain and suffering of people at the hands of those that would exploit them.

So if God’s wrath is about anger of other’s injury, and sin is about the destructive behavior between ourselves, it makes perfect sense to say that cross achieved an atonement of forgiving the indebted-ness between ourselves.

Why was the Cross Sufficient?

The converse to the question of why the cross was necessary is why the cross was sufficient. This might sound like an odd question, but there are indeed theological issues to consider with why more suffering wasn’t necessary. While the former question helps illuminate the nature of forgiveness and sin, this latter question speaks to the nature of reparation and justice. The frequent claim that the cross was necessary for a just God must align with what type of justice could actually be properly satisfied with the cross.

Let us consider possible debts that Christ could have been paying with his death. First, the Bible teaches that the payment of sin is death. Furthermore, this “deserved” punishment isn’t just physical death, but may equal the eternal pain and torture of eternal death in hell. But if we consider the billions (or even 100’s of billions depending on whether or not you believe in Calvanistic limited atonement) of souls who were saved from eternal pain, the cumulative tally of suffering is billions times infinite years. Not to minimize the cross, but it would seem mathematically absurd to believe that this debt could really be paid off with a mere three days of suffering, regardless of how intense.

There are other ways of computing debt that also seem terribly disproportionate. We could say that the proper punishment we are due is equal to the pain we have caused others (“an eye for an eye”). However, again, the billions of pain-inducing acts at the hands of those who have been saved by Christ, would easily accumulate millions or billions of years of tortuous pain.

It is also quite obvious the cross wasn’t satisfying economic debt between ourselves. While economic analogies can provide helpful explanations of forgiveness, when Christ died, money didn’t rain down from the sky to all of those in financial debt. I can’t send a note to the credit card company saying that Christ’s cross should cover my latest credit card bill. The cross wasn’t sufficient to satisfy these debts (to be clear, I believe that the cross does have profound economic impacts, just not in this way).

One of the frequently offers solutions is that the Christ’s suffering was worth more because it was offered by one who never sinned. This may well be crucial, and certainly is an important part of the divine act of atonement, but it seems very unclear and magical how this can simply multiply the magnitude of His repayment. Again, I can not send a $10 bill to a creditor on behalf of a friend saying that this comes from someone who has never held debt before, and think that will somehow suffice to pay off a $10,000 debt.

I believe all of these discrepancies of the penal nature of the cross indicate that Christ’s suffering can not be viewed as payment tied to an unbounded accumulation of divine debt that is being paid in total. The cross is often viewed as necessary for a just God, but if God has an account of justice, a compound of debt that we have built up, that must be fully paid off, it is not clear how the cross could do that. What form of justice could be paid off with this act?

Furthermore, this finite and completed nature of the suffering of the cross is not something Christ tried to hide, hoping that maybe He could get off the hook without more prolonged punishment. Instead Christ actually loudly declares, “It is finished!” This is quite a profound statement in response to the plethora of sins that he was atoning for. The finite, bounded, and conclusive nature of the cross is not minimized, but is actually a point of emphasis. Why would He declare the reparation finished, if we would continue to sin and seemingly accumulate the debt of our transgressions?

I believe this can only be possible if the justice that demanded the death of Christ, was a justice that no longer held legitimacy of demanding penalty. “It it finished”, was not a declaration that some accumulated sentences of penalty had all been fully endured, but that the justice that demanded that penalty had reached it’s expiration. It had been concluded. What type of justice could this be?

Vicarious Retribution

Again, I believe the fact that the cross is a satisfaction of the “wrath” of God provides insight into how this is possible. The most natural aim of anger is retribution. Anger desires to give a perpetrator their just desserts, to experience the same pain they have caused others.

But the problem here is that retribution is a terribly ugly form of justice. While we often end up desiring retribution, as we view tit-for-tat behavior in others, we can quickly recognize how pointless and destructive this really is. Watching small children, we often see this immaturity of retribution as an injury can quickly turn into an continuous series of attempts at hurting each other back. Retribution is destructive and painful, and is only solved by forgiveness, the very thing that the cross aimed to provide. So how could the cross be about retribution?

While we may rightly condemn the acts of retribution, we must also be careful to not be too harsh in regards to the feelings that desire retribution. It is a natural desire to respond to exploitation of the innocent, with anger, an anger that desires retribution. The Psalms are filled with expressions of these desires. And these desires have real substance. When one injures another, he lowers the other below himself. He makes himself greater than his victim. The desire of retribution comes not just from a desire to settle economic losses, but to re-equalize our inherent worth and status towards each other.

And again, we see that this anger in God is not a direct response of His to His own injury, but rather is rooted in identification with the suffering of others. If this is the nature of the wrath of God, than any retributive response does not originate with God, but is empathetic identification with retributive response. A divine empathy in retribution is vicarious, a sympathy for the desire for retribution, and a participation in sorrow of the exploitation that desires recourse.

So if this vicarious anger is what is satisfied at the cross, than retribution is satiated in a very interesting and profound way. God’s anger is the empathetic response to the pain and suffering of those who are exploited and mistreated. For God to declare this penalty as needed to be paid, is to uphold the legitimacy of this pain and suffering. And if retribution is not about precise repayment of losses, but about restoration of our position before each other, than penalty is not about duration, but the lowering and humiliation into the depths of suffering experienced by the victim. And this is precisely the nature of the cross. Where we might question the cross if it was about a duration of satisfying a sentence of repayment, no one can question the extreme humiliation of the cross, the intensity of the suffering.

Satisfying retribution by the cross was about taking on the ultimate depth point of the human experience. Jesus took on the aim of retribution, to experience in kind, that pain. And Christ, at the cross, fully and totally experienced the ultimate in human pain and descended into the greatest of suffering. In fact, Ephesians actually uses the terminology of “descending” to describe the cross, equating the cross with identifying with the lowest of human experience.

At the cross, Christ not only legitimatized and empathized with the anger and desire for retribution, but the finality of the penalty of the cross means that Christ also expired and de-legitimatized any further acts of exacting revenge and retribution. Retribution has been exacted, “it is finished”. Our desire for retribution has been fully realized, this justice is done. For us to pursue revenge against our enemies is to deny Christ’s claim of it being “finished”. To get retribution from others is trying to recreate a form of justice that Christ nailed to cross, and is done. And by satisfying and closing the door on retributive justice, God opened the door and pointed us towards restorative justice (as well as deterrent justice).

Why Christ Had to Suffer

While this post is primarily concerned with the necessity of the cross for atonement, it is certainly central to many other aspects of Christ’s teaching. For example, it is the ultimate demonstration of the sacrificial way of life that he taught, the way of the Kingdom of God. Regardless of how his sacrifice achieved our atonement, that fact that he died for the sake of others is central to defining how we are also to live (and die).

In exploring and considering the necessity and sufficiency of the cross, and why “Christ had to suffer” in this way, it is my conclusion that the cross does not make sense as a one-for-one repayment of direct injuries to God or violations of arbitrary decrees of God, but rather as mediation for the pain of God as He empathizes with the victims of our exploitative behaviors towards each other, as the satisfaction and end of revenge, and as the path towards restoration with God and each other.

Sexual Immorality and Biblical Purpose

As I have written about before, I believe that one of the most important aspects of approaching scriptures is to be looking for how it reveals God’s purpose, demonstrating his character and His vision for us. As we consider various rules from scriptures, the difficulty of understanding the underlying purpose can vary greatly. If we read stories, and even obey rules, without looking to understand how they reveal God and His purpose, we are missing the entire point. And, there are some commandments, like prohibitions against murder and theft, where we can clearly see the purpose and benefit, that God lovingly intends towards society. These could be called transparent commandments, because we can clearly see the purpose. However, many commandments are opaque, and it is difficult to see beneath the surface. In this post, I wanted to consider Biblical mandates on sexual immorality, including homosexuality, from this perspective.

Much has been written defending different positions on sexuality and especially homosexuality of late, but it seems they we rarely engage with the preeminent goal of looking for purpose in these mandates. I have seen countless articles, books, and discussions defending a position, and using scriptures to back their polemic. But the actual intent of these scriptures, to reveal the vision and character of God, seems almost completely unexplored. And when we fail to follow Christ’s mandate to look for purpose, and instead jump right to conclusions, we can be almost guaranteed that we will get it wrong (or get it right, and still miss the point). It is amazing to me how little interest there is in the actual purpose of these teaching. Because of this, rather than taking an asserting position, and then trying to defend it with some selected passages, instead I want to start with broader teaching on sexual immorality, and progress to more specific mandates, to try to understand these underlying purposes. And only after considering purposes, can we actually assess further implications.

So why does the Bible condemn certain sexual practices as immoral? These can indeed be opaque commands. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t follow Jesus’ clear directive to seek to understand the purpose here. There are two common errors that can come from failing to go deeper. Some apply a surface-level understanding without any consideration of other factors that deeper understanding can inform. This is incongruous with Jesus’ lesson from the Sabbath, that we are not simply supposed to legalistically follow rules. And others simply throw these opaque commandments out. This does not adhere to Jesus’ upholding and careful observation of the law (Matt 5:17-18).

Consequently, I will give my best effort to understand the purpose of sexual moralities mandates, and the potential implications of different purposes. Again, let us begin with general commands about sexual promiscuity including adultery, sex outside of marriage, etc. What are the possible purposes of these commands?

  1. It is the physical act itself, that is immoral. Obviously, this is nonsensical, since the physical act of sex between an unmarried or divorced couple is physically identical to that of any married couple. Married couples don’t use different organs to accomplish the act. It is the same act, it is the meaning or context of the physical act that actually differs. As Paul said, these physical acts are “just a shadow” (Col 2:16-17). This is clearly not the purpose.
  2. The primary underlying purpose of sexual morality mandates about adultery and pre-marital sex seems rooted in the purpose of relational faithfulness. Or the converse, is that sexual immorality leads to relational brokenness. The impact of the tragedies of divorce are easily measured in terms of negative impact on children. Sex, is a powerful act of intimacy, and it undeniably leads to a deeper level of relationship. These relationships that are characterized by trust and faithfulness towards each other are far more fulfilling, broken relationships are one of the most painful human experiences.
  3. Sexual immorality objectifies woman. If we need objective evidence of this, we need to look no further than the tragedy of the global human trafficking, which is quite clearly driven by prostitution and pornography as well. Of course the extreme cases of sexually driven oppression don’t just happen out of nowhere, there is a clear pathway to this. Every time we treat a woman as simply a tool for sex, whose value was found in physical pleasure, rather than relational value, we further contribute to the objectification of women, and further encourage her and others towards the consumerist treatment of women that has led to misogyny, inequality, trafficking and sex slavery.
  4. Romantic relationships make us less available for others. Businesses often discourage romantic relationships, particularly hierarchical ones, because they know that it can interfere with the focus on productivity, and remaining available to help each other. By restricting romantic relationships to a single monogamous relationship, we retain greater availability for helping others without the confusion or awkwardness of romance.

I think these last three are reasonable ideas for the probable reasons behind some of the rule behind sexual morality.

However, these reasons don’t necessarily give a good explanation for homosexuality. Let’s specifically look at the possible reasons for the Bible’s statements against homosexuality:

Physical Act

Possible Purpose: God is disgusted by the physical act of homosexual act.
This is probably the shallowest possible conclusion. Looking at the purpose behind rules should reveal the wisdom and glory of God, but this idea suggests nothing more than an arbitrary dislike. Col 2:16-17 again makes it clear the laws are not about physical actions, but are shadows of deeper realities. This idea seems further improbable from a God who purposely associated with people and areas that the dominant society found disgusting (Heb 13:13). And if this type of sexual morality is similar to adultery, it would further point away from just the physical act. Using this as the reason for the prohibition against homosexuality is pretty absurd, and contradictory to the rest of scriptures. Let’s try to look deeper.

Commitment

Possible Purpose: Homosexual relationships are less committal.
The idea here is that the purpose of the prohibition is to avoid relationships where the commitment to each other is more likely to broken. This idea gains further merit because it aligns well with reasoning about sexual immorality in general. Prohibitions against adultery and fornication seem to be at least partly for the purposed of fostering stable, committed relationship.

This idea suggests that we can verify that straight couples are more faithful, and indeed, empirical data and studies do seem to have some support for the idea that homosexual relationships tend to be much shorter and more transient (about 4 times shorter, from what I can tell). But, it is certainly not always the case, and it is worth noting that the significant exception is gay marriage. Gay married couples have actually been equal or even slightly more faithful than their straight counterparts. However, this may be due to the resistance to gay marriage that has resulted in a selection bias (only those that are really committed go to the effort of finding a place to get a marriage certificate), but their faithfulness can’t be ignored.

This idea has interesting implications. If homosexuality is to be avoided because of infidelity, than it means that the homosexual relationship isn’t the real sin, but rather the likely infidelity. And if this is the case, the immorality is intrinsically tied to its realization: a straight couple that divorces is guilty of the same root sin of infidelity that statutes on homosexuality are trying to prevent, while the gay couple that remains faithful to each other, have actually avoided the deeper issue of a broken relationship. And if this is the real reason, than encouraging a gay couple to separate would actually be more sinful than staying together. Another interesting implication is that homosexuality is morally equivalent to any other risk factor of divorce (including things like different professions and emotionally instability), although in differing degrees.

If this is true, than discouraging gay marriage is actually counterproductive to the purpose of encouraging relational faithfulness. To discourage homosexuality for the sake of discouraging relational separation, and then turn around and discourage the institute of relation commitment is contradictory. If homosexuality is immoral because of its reduced likelihood of relational faithfulness, than discouraging gay marriage (an institution which certainly encourages relational faithfulness) is immoral for precisely the same reason. Interestingly, most Christians tend to believe that while the Bible condemns divorce and remarriage, they don’t believe that those who have remarried are actively living in sin. But if the statutes for divorce and remarriage serve the same purpose as homosexuality, then the same logic should be applied.

No Reproduction

Possible Purpose: Homosexuals can’t reproduce.
This is probably the most illogical idea. This notion effectively diminishes the purpose of marriage down to procreation. Not only is this incredibly dishonoring to the concept and greater purpose of marriage, it also absurdly implies that marriage with an infertile person would be equally immoral. I would hope no one would be so cruel as to label the inability to bear children as immorality.

Demonstrating Culturally-Specific Uprightness

Possible Purpose: Christians are to exhibit the highest of their cultural values so as to reflect positively on the church and God, and homosexuality was prohibited because it was culturally considered to be perverse, and the authors of the Bible wanted the Christians to be above reproach.
This idea fits well with the context of the prohibition of 1 Corinthians 6, as Paul suggests disassociation, which seems to be more aimed at presenting the church as clean from such behavior that was considered dishonorable, than it is at correcting such behavior. And in fact 1 Cor 6, as well as later sections of this letter, are clearly aimed at helping us to understand how our actions are viewed by outsiders (speaking in tongues, lawsuits, head covering). In fact, the rules on head coverings found just a few chapters later in chapter 11 are almost universally understood to be a cultural-specific way of showing honor and respect, and not to be literally carried out in the same form today.

One of the difficulties of this view is that prohibitions against homosexuality were written to multiple cultures/cities (OT Israelites, Romans, and Corinthians). Did these cultures just happen to have a similarity among each other, that is not shared with modern cultures? It is possible, but this makes it less likely. And further, the language of other passages makes it harder to believe this is culturally specific. Why would Paul (and the OT) so harshly condemn and ostracize people for their orientation, just for the sake of the church’s image, particularly when the Bible usually sides for the marginalized?

Appeal to Nature/Design

Possible Purpose: Homosexuality isn’t according to His design.
As a direct reason, this is a poor reason, but it does have some indirect value. Simply put, God created man to be creative himself. The world is full of the beauty of art, technology, architecture writings, and other delegated creations that were absent from any account of God’s initial creation. These continually creative works of man, are reflections of the brilliance of God in creating man to be participants in the on-going, dynamic creation process that continues to this day. Art, technology, and architecture are not evil because they weren’t a part of the original creation, and it is equally illogical to think that homosexuality is wrong simply because it was absent from the account of the original creation. iPads were just as absence from “original creation” as homosexuality, but one can not logically draw a conclusion about the morality of either simply by claiming it is not natural. Essentially, this is the appeal to nature fallacy, and I have written before how this logic contradicts the theology of creation.

However, God’s creation can be viewed as revealing God’s concept of beauty. As we look at nature, we can see diversity, reproduction, fractal complexity, and countless other elements that reflect on God’s ideas of beauty. Creation can be  an indirect perspective on gaining more understanding of what God finds beautiful. However, like looking at the rules in the Bible, this too, requires that we look below the surface, to see what is being revealed. It is not a direct proof of God’s desire, but an indirect indication. But this perspective may give us additional insight for moving forward.

Diversity

Possible Purpose: Homosexuality doesn’t express the diversity and complementary nature of the male and female.
This idea can find substantial Biblical support if we can compare community of marriage to the community of the church. Paul goes into detail in various occasions about the purpose of different gifts (Eph 5, Rom 12, etc.) in the body complementing each other for the purpose of a healthy community, where different strengths work together for the greater good. This is a pretty strong theme in scriptures, and can be seen in the beauty of nature as well. It would certainly seem to follow that marriage should also be a showcase for diverse gifts being brought together for complementary purposes. If this is true, this idea definitely has the largest and most substantial portions of scripture for backing, with so much emphasis in the New Testament focused on the coming together of diverse gifts and peoples.

However, this too has some very profound and challenging implications and difficulties. If diversity is such a key element of marriage, this should likely apply to more differences than just gender. Is a couple with duplicative gifts, rather than complementary gifts and talents acting immoral in the same way as a gay couple? Should we be just a careful about commending marriage of people that have distinctive perspectives as we are about different genders? Anyone with more than a few dozen friends could probably find at least one pair of same gender match and a differing gender match, where the former’s distinctive traits outdid the latter. And if this is indeed the key principle, are we not obligated to apply this outside marriage as well? If a family really needs to be led by both a female and male, how much more so a church (where often only male leadership exists)? Is an ethnically homogeneous church amidst a diverse community, immoral in the same way as homosexuality? Is church leadership where only a single ideology or eschatology, is represented, equally immoral?

While these are indeed pretty challenging implications, in reality this is probably more surprising to our own church culture. From the perspective of the Bible, this is may well be the most scripturally consistent reason, these implications are not inconsistent with how NT described the formation of the church. Still though, carrying out the implications of this reasoning to its conclusion is pretty radical, and I am not sure if it  is completely reasonable. (It is also quite interesting that the motivation for diversity is same reason given for gay equality).

Uncertainty

It is certainly reasonable to look at these possibilities and simply say that we can’t be sure of God’s exact purpose. Indeed these scriptures are opaque, and having an appropriate level of humility about how to understand these passages is definitely appropriate. However, recognizing our limited ability to precisely determine the purpose does not mean that we can ignore the likely purposes and their implications.

These are my best guesses of what is being revealed by the Biblical teaching on homosexuality. In review, I would believe that commitment/faithfulness and diversity are probably most likely, and culture may have had an influence in some of the language of some of the passages. However, in the end, I simply don’t know, and I don’t know if anyone really knows for sure. So what to do we do when we don’t know? First, we rarely go wrong with simple obedience while we strive to understand further, and I would certainly commend simple obedience to a literal understanding of these passages, if you can’t understand more deeply.

However, the vast majority of us are not facing the question of whether to follow homosexual urges, but rather are more likely to deal with the questions of how to interact with those that they are gay, how to react to homosexual’s in leadership, or if we should pay any influence in legislative issues on the subject. These are all issues that do not simply logically follow from the basic statute. These are all issues that require logical implications to determine the correct answer, and without understanding the purpose behind these Biblical rules on sexual immorality, we are very likely to reach the wrong logical conclusion. Without any inquiry below the surface level reading of these passages, we will probably be as wrong as the Pharisees, and their interpretations that Jesus so harshly condemned.

One of the most discussed issues is if it is helpful to define legal restrictions on marriage so that it is limited to heterosexual union. Again, we can’t assume that a Biblical prohibition implies that legal restrictions are helpful. In appealing to the government to influence behavior, we always face a tension. We want the government to protect the individuals from harm from others, but we also want people to freely make decisions to do right. So does homosexuality actually harm others? We have discussed the possibility of fidelity being a reason against homosexuality, but marriage itself, among gay couples, has actually been shown to be very faithful.

However, the Bible actually seems to give a very explicit answer to the question of whether this type of sexual immorality harms others, in 1 Cor 6:18: “Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” Paul seems to make it clear that the immorality discussed in this chapter (including homosexuality), is mainly about sinning against oneself, and not others, which means it requires the government to go beyond its normal, limited role of preventing harm to each other.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that any such legislative actions are really even effective. It is almost comical to think that anyone has changed their orientation due to government’s restrictions on marriage. The only implications that have resulted from legislative efforts have been driving people away from the church. Many feel that they are taking an important stand, but taking a stand for something that has been demonstrated to have no moral impact, is pointless. It is logically incoherent to think that defending legislation X, if X has no affect on moral behavior, is there somehow moral.

Perhaps an even more important issue to consider here is the significance of God’s ultimate purpose. The Bible consistently teaches that the highest cumulative purpose of God is to glorify Himself. God’s purpose is not moral compliance, but His glory, and He is glorified when people freely choose to follow Him and His ways. As with any laws, one of the drawbacks we face is that when we restrict people’s actions, we restrict their free agency in choosing to obey God. God wants and is glorified when we choose to obey Him, solely because of how good He is. When the choice to obey is partially driven by legal constraints, we are effectively diminishing that free choice towards Him, and diminishing the glory He might receive from that decision. While it may always be appealing to want to maximize Christian moral influence, ultimately we need to decide whether we want to put greater priority on our influence, or greater priority on God’s glory, as found when people freely choose His ways without any coercion.

The Definition of “Marriage”

An important issue in the debate on gay marriage has been the definition of marriage. However, this emphasis on preserving the meaning of the word, has itself been a denigration of the Biblical marriage. It is critical that we understand the purpose of language. Language exists to convey meaning and describe concepts. We use language best when we use words in such a way that others understand the concepts we are trying to describe. Language has always been a product of culture, defined by what meaning people in culture understand from different combinations of letters or sounds. Language is always evolving as culture evolves. A great danger we face in using language is when we equate a word with a concept. When we do this our definition of the concept becomes tied to other’s understanding of the word. When we equate very deep and meaningful concepts, particularly like Biblical concepts of grace, the gospel, God, or even marriage to a single word, we belittle these concepts, turning them into a shifting idea, constantly redefined as culture evolves. If we care about any concept, we must never distill it to a single word, we must care enough about it to describe it with the variety of words necessary to communicate it to the culture around us.

Next, it is also critical that we understand the difference between meaning and context. Many have asserted that marriage is defined as the union of a man and woman. However, in reality, this isn’t exactly the *meaning* conveyed by marriage, it is a combination of the meaning and the context. A simple test can demonstrate: If I were tell your Jim and Bob got married, I don’t think anyone would honestly think I am trying to tell you that one of those men had suddenly turned into a woman. Purpose of the word “marriage” isn’t to communicate the gender of couple, but to indicate they are entering into a committed relationship. The traditional context of the word marriage is indeed between a male and female, but that is distinct from the meaning, and you, as well, as anyone from the 20th century, 19th century, or any other English-speaking culture would have a very good idea of what I meant when I said that Jim and Bob got married. The meaning is distinct from the context. You certainly may get some odd looks from people of different times or cultures if I told you Jim and Bob got married, as again, traditionally the context for marriage has been between a male and female. But one of the most important characteristics of language is to be able to use words, and carry their meaning into new contexts. Our entire vocabulary of being able to meaningfully describe technology because of the flexibility of taking old words and applying them in new contexts, to help communicate new concepts. It is critical that we understand the distinction between context and meaning, in regards to marriage. Seeking legal means to define marriage is a pointless exercise, because not only is it the traditional context instead of the meaning, but it undermines the purpose of language which is about communicating ideas using the the meaning of words ascribed by culture and your listeners.

Now while I am generally critical of efforts to curtail gay marriage, I would also note I don’t find the pursuit of gay rights very compelling, because of lack of comparative and objective benefits. I think it is helpful to make a simple comparison to an other issue that I believe is much more important: the number of undocumented immigrants in America is roughly similar to the number of LGBT that might seek marriage (about 10-20 million). However, the types of rights that are denied undocumented immigrants is not even comparable to the types of rights that are debated for LGBT. Access to a driver’s license, health care, voting, are vastly larger challenges than lack of ability to get a marriage license. These types of rights are not even being discussed for gay equality, no one is even considering denying LGBT access to a driver’s license or any of the other basic opportunities that are denied immigrants. I am hopeful that the recent SCOTUS decision will let us move on to the much more important policy issues of immigrant rights.

Conclusions
In examining these scriptures, by trying faithfully to follow Jesus’ exhortation to look for purpose, there are a variety of interesting and challenging possibilities. I don’t know the exact answers, but I believe the possibilities that exist must guide our response and interaction with the LGBT community. And I also must conclude that attempting to employ the government in preventing gay and lesbians from marriage is likely to be counter-productive to God’s purposes of relational faithfulness, and the pursuit of His glory. I would encourage Christians to consider giving higher priority to the glory of God, and His purposes, and choosing not to compromise the pursuit of God’s purpose for the sake of moral influence.

Naturally Artificial: The Interaction of Technology and Nature

In my previous post we explored the two components of the theology of creation and the importance of both. This is a continuation of that discussion (because Nikki said it was too long for one post)…

Nature as Revealing God

If we ignore the importance of nature as a revelation of God’s beauty, we can quickly turn to an exploitative approach to nature. If we treat nature as merely a resource, a source of extraction of goods, and fail to value the preservation of the beauty of creation. If agricultural or genetic engineering is coupled with species elimination, we have are ignoring God’s design of diversity in creation. Even within technology, we can be guided by the principles of God’s creation. When we engineer for homogeneity, we are not engineering according to God’s style. If we engineer without regard for sustainability, we are not follow God’s approach.

If we ignore God, the creator, it is quite reasonable to erroneously value nature for nothing more than its means of providing resources for humans. But acknowledging a creator demands that we put a value on nature as God’s artwork, something with a value worth preserving beyond just its utility to humanity. Those who worship God, should be those most invested in protecting and honoring God’s creation, yet Christians have acquired a reputation for having the least concern for our planet, our climate, and the creation that surrounds us.

Likewise, this concept is important for how we treat people. We live in a world where people tend to be assessed by what they can produce, their performance. Yet God’s creation reveals beauty that goes far beyond just resource production. The beauty of creation has so many facets and intricacies that no one can be truly appreciated if only seen for their function. Likewise as we approach others, we must look for beauty beyond just productivity. We must appreciate the beauty of diversity, of the uniqueness of individuals, the wide range of gifts that God has given people.

Delegated Creation

On the other hand if we ignore the important of the delegation of creation, it is easy to fall for the appeal to nature fallacy. And not only does the theology of creation teach us that the concept that God has called man to create and design, but the Bible also teaches that while nature may reveal God, nature itself is fallen (Rom 8:19-22), and natural instincts and the natural process of “natural selection” are ruthless, God has called man to step above these. I recently saw Monkey Kingdom, a great documentary of the life and society of monkeys. One thing was clear: monkeys are horrifyingly ruthless towards each other. They have brutal caste systems and the elites will hoard food and inflict horrible punishment on lower caste who attempt to break rank. The natural systems, societies, and structures of monkeys and man are broken and ruthless, God has called us to challenge these with a greater concept of society.

This has implications for how we assess (or can’t assess) ethics, organization, and morality as well. While God’s design reveals His purpose, the delegation and progression of creation means that we can not hold up an image of original creation as an infallible blueprint for morality. We can’t use Adam and Eve as a definition of proper moral living.

This also means we can’t assume that there are “natural” forms of economics or governance that are superior. There are no easy solutions from simple economic models or democratic structures, we are constantly challenged to think, innovate, and consider new ways of improving upon our systems. Simply letting things be is rarely the answer.

Appeal to nature fallacy can lead astray in everyday ways as well. Millions flock to “natural” foods, remedies, and other products that often lack any substantial verification of superiority, and are merely marketed on the basis of being more natural. The tremendous commercial success of organic products has largely been attributed to the appeal to nature, and fear of the artificial. Where these products help improve labor practices, increase species diversity, and reduce antibiotic resistance they are to be welcome and appreciated, but the intuitive superiority of their naturalness is easily overestimated. For many, this “naturalism” distortions may simply lead to extra spending, but for others, on the edge of development, where small improvements in agricultural efficiency can provide the opportunity to properly feed one’s family, advances in genetic engineering can be a matter of life and death, with thousands of lives at stake. Distorted perspectives may not have big consequences for us, but denying the opportunities of engineering, that God has given us, can really mean life or death for others.

If we are to properly respond to God’s design of delegated creation, it means that God has invited us into creation in every aspect. We can’t inconsistently assume that we can rightly engineer computer chips and attempt to actively influence people’s beliefs, while we ignore God’s invitation into creating that also extends to genetic engineering, sophisticated medical and pharmaceutical innovations as well.

Likewise, environmental protection is critical to helping to preserve the beauty of God’s creation, but excessive zeal is manifested in the attitude that any and all human interaction with nature and consumption of natural resources is negative and should be avoided. Shortly after Nikki and I were married, we had the opportunity to go to Switzerland. One of the things that I was very impressed by was not only the beauty of the mountains (of course!), but how the homes that dotted the hillsides actually accented and added to the beauty of the amazing mountain valleys. In the states it seems there is often either total take over of develop-able land, or complete protection. But in Switzerland, I was amazed at how thoughtful design can actually complement nature.

God intends for man to continue to invent, dream, innovate, and create with everything from electronics to genetics, while still being guided by the principles of creation: caring and providing for for others, while cherishing the principles of beauty, diversity and sustainability. Let us embrace both of these aspects of creation.

Naturally Artificial: Two Components of the Theology of Creation

The first teaching about God, or theology, introduced in scriptures, is the theology of creation. This is actually best understood as two sub-teachings that are coupled together to reveal the foundation of God’s purpose and plan in his creation. The first part is the creation of nature, the first “five days” of creation, and the second is the creation and the delegated dominion of man, the sixth day of creation (note: this topic nothing to do with whether you interpret the days of creation as literal 24 hour periods or as figurative descriptions of creation that equally reveal these same principles).

Genesis begins with creation, and the result of God’s creation, nature, reveals God’s creativity and demonstrates His image of beauty and goodness, through that which He created. When we look at nature, we are offered a glimpse of God’s designs, his artwork, firsthand. Any art lover can tell you that looking at artwork tells us more than just about the art itself, but it helps us to understand the artist. Likewise, nature can reveal much about God. Some of this may be opaque, but some attributes of God we can readily observe from creation. While some look to a nature as a validation of God’s existence, this is perhaps the simplest and crudest revelation of God that we can attribute to nature. Nature reveals much about who He is and His goodness, and that goes far beyond simply verifying that He exists.

Nature clearly demonstrates God’s diverse creativity. It consists of millions species with amazingly unique traits and spectacular, wild landscapes. Nature demonstrates God’s grandeur, with vast mountains and oceans, and those in front of us are tiny compared to vast realm of solar systems, galaxies, undiscovered worlds, supernovas and other unimaginably huge, hot, and intense stellar entities (or immense voids). Nature also demonstrates the nuances and attention to detail of God, with amazing the intricacies of cellular and molecular biology, chemistry, even sub-atomic physics. God’s value on sustainability is also revealed through nature. Rather than simply creating something one time that would eventually fall apart, God designed nature to continually recreate itself through reproduction, and even grow both individually and in genetic adaption and evolution.

Scripture reveals the theology of nature in chapter 1, but then reveals the second component of theology of creation before chapter 1 is even finished. In fact, this rapid sequence is important, because these two components must remain coupled to each other. On their own each component risks distortion and misuse.

The second component is the theology of delegated creation, in which God created man, who is then given dominion over creation. God didn’t just create nature, and let it remain as a static piece of art. He invites man to join and partner in creativity. Humans, as caretakers of creation, weren’t just called to pull some weeds and protect a garden, but to continue to advancing creation. God immediately invited man into a creative role, letting him name the animals.

At each stage of creation, God stated that it was “good”, but interestingly, he did not state that it was “good enough”, “perfect”, or “complete”. God could have easily ended creation before he got to man. Man was not simply the addition of another species to nature. God’s creation of man, was the creation of those with the specific purpose of joining with him in creating, in expressing creativity, design, and construction of new ideas, organizations, and structures.

This means that while we can look to nature and creation for understanding God’s design and purpose, we must see it as a starting point, not a final static image that must be preserved. By creating man, God declared creation as something that would continue to grow as humans build in a progression of new ideas, new creations, new art, and new beauty. Creation is a not static model to be preserved, but a growing flourishing dynamic ecosystem, continually bringing forth new, creative elements.

The Lego Movie, provides a surprisingly interesting illustration of the natural-design only God (the plot isn’t completely unique to this movie, but is well-portrayed). In the movie, the evil Lord Business is the main villain, and is intent on freezing creation into its original intended design, with his powerful super-weapon, the Kragle (Krazy Glue with a few letters rubbed out). Lord Business has a great hatred for the Master Builders, who are constantly coming up with creative new combinations of legos, greatly infuriating Lord Business’ pursuit of a static perfect state of the legos. The best solution in Lego World is super-gluing everything in place to ensure that nothing can depart from its intended perfect state. Of course, this is completely contrary to the purpose of legos. While they come with instructions for a certain model, they are specifically designed to be built and rearranged in limitless ways.

The idea of assuming nature to be superior to engineered products is known as the “appeal to nature fallacy“. This fallacy is particularly demonstrated when we deem something natural as superior despite contrary evidence. Not only is this illogical, but the theology of delegated creation directly repudiates this fallacy. Delegated creation means that nature is not intrinsically superior to engineering. While we typically use the term “artificial” negatively (even though it is simply means created or modified by humans), God’s plan is for human intervention, progression, and design to build on nature. And God calls us to often even go against our own natural desires. God’s plan is a synthesis of both the natural and artificial.

Interestingly there are some areas where this reality is more obvious than others. For example, it is quite clear that God intends for evangelism to occur “artificially”, through human proclamation, rather than “naturally” just through observation of nature. Likewise, discipleship generally occurs through human interaction, it is not simply something that naturally occurs without any effort. And in the non-spiritual, few doubt the benefits and usefulness of products like computers, smartphones, and tablets that are tremendously engineered.

The Bible goes on to describe our natural instincts, intuitions, inclinations, and desires as being in contradiction to God. “The heart is deceitful above all else” (Jer 17:9), and the “works of flesh” are described as depraved and in contradiction to the Kingdom of God (Gal 5:19). We are specifically called to “crucify the flesh”. To follow Christ is to against our natural “passions and desires” (Gal 5:24).

These two components of the theology of creation have important implications on numerous aspects of the interaction of technology and nature. In my next post we will look at how holding both of these components together is important, and devaluing either nature as a revelation of God, or delegation of creation, creates distortion.

Immigration: Rule of Law vs Rule of God

Imagine for instance that you lived in a country where worshiping God was punishable by execution. Perhaps you had been quietly defying the law and continuing to worship God. Why would you do that? Presumably you would do that because you believe that there is an ethic or morality that stands above the law. What if someone came up to you and said that while the laws may not be perfect, it is more important that the rule of law be enforced. And that before we can have a conversation about how to improve the laws, we need to make sure that the current laws be fully enforced. Therefore anyone who was worshiping God has to be executed, and once that has happened, then we can talk about how to improve the law. What would you say?

Furthermore, suppose this person claimed that they were actually a Christian, and suppose that there were even some efforts by the leaders to change the law, but this person claimed that these efforts to change the law were going against rule of law, and should therefore be opposed.

Of course such a response to an unjust law is completely absurd. If there is injustice, one does not seek justice by waiting for more enforcement of injustice. If a law is wrong, it does not become less wrong when it is more widely enforced. Our call to obey God supercedes any government laws. We judge the merit of a law not by itself, but by a higher standard of morality. To judge and choose laws with no more guidance than merely the law itself is hopelessly circular with no foundation on higher principles or truth. For Christians to abandon a core teaching of God because it goes against the laws of the state is to abandon actively putting God first. Yet, I would suggest that this type of compromise of faith is almost exactly the situation we find ourselves in today with regards to immigration laws. Scriptures have numerous passages that exhort Christians to welcome the alien, the stranger, the immigrant. Yet one of the most frequent objections to more welcoming immigration policy is that we need to enforce the rule of law.

Yes, enforcing laws is important, but enforcement does not determine the righteousness of a law. Current law and policy has been held up as the determinate of future law and policy, rather than the higher ethics of the Bible. This is circular logic lifts up American law above obedience to Christ. The challenges faced in immigrating to America are huge, and often nearly impossible for the millions seeking a better opportunity for their family. The incredible difficulty and challenges facing the immigrants who are working hard to provide a better life for their family, contrast with the ease of life that we enjoy, in absolute terms, is simply unjust. With the same clarity that the Bible calls Christians to worship, the Bible also calls Christians to welcome the stranger, with the same passion to ensure laws protect the act of worship, we must also pursue law and policy that protects and welcomes the stranger. We must pursue justice of giving all an opportunity to succeed.

Let us not compromise our faith in regards to obedience to worship or welcoming. Those pushing against immigration are generally not intentionally compromising obedience to God. However, when faced with immigration policy, let us not choose to be advocates for simply enforcing the current law because it is law without questioning its righteousness. Instead let us faithfully choose to obey God, not man, and be willing to challenge the current system.

Collective Generosity

Generosity is almost universally regarded as a virtue. When someone with wealth makes a decision to give in order to help the poor, this is generally applauded. However, when a decision is made on behalf of a group, to generously give of that group’s resources to some cause, this type of decision is often less popular. When and how should groups make decisions to be generous, to help those less fortunate? How we view collective generosity can have a big impact on how we see the role of the church and the government. Many feel that when an individuals help the poor it is generous, but when organizations or governments use their resources to help the poor, it is coercion, or even theft. In this post, I wanted to examine what scriptures say about this subject.

Looking for direct scriptural examples can be helpful, but difficult. In 2 Corinthians, Paul points to the church in Macedonia as an example of a church collectively demonstrating generosity, and uses this to encourage the church of Corinthians to follow suit. This certainly appears to be an useful example. However, due to the lack of details, we can’t be certain of exactly how this was carried out, how people gave, and how these decisions to give were made.

It is worth remembering that in reality there is actually a wide spectrum of scenarios from true individual generosity to completely leader-dictated giving. When a family has a discussion and based on the outcome of the discussion decide to give to cause, this has an element of group decision making with a high degree of individual input. What about if a church votes and decides to give a certain amount of the budget to a specific cause? This has a larger degree of group decision making, there may be some members that vote against it. What if leaders make recommendations for causes to donate to? What if a country or state votes on a budget, choosing to allocate a certain amount for helping the poor? What if individuals vote for representatives who then decide on budgets? Again in all of these situations there may be decisions made to use resources that some disagree with, but there was also free-will input from individuals that influenced that decision as well. Of course, on the far side of the spectrum, you could have a dictator that makes decisions on budgets with no input from citizens. However, the majority of group decisions that we experience fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Returning to scriptures, is there any other teaching that can be applied? One of the most important keys that Jesus taught in understanding scriptures is to look for purpose. I described this in more depth in the previous post. One of Jesus biggest critiques of the Pharisees was that they went through surface obedience, yet ignored the purpose behind the law. Likewise, if we take a look at generosity, what it might mean to a group of people, we should examine possible purposes behind generosity. There are a couple possible purposes I think we can consider (and they are not mutually exclusive). Determining the purpose behind generosity has a big impact on what it means for how we apply it to a group.

First, we can consider that generosity is for the purpose of the giver making a sacrifice. In particular, the purpose of generosity might be the voluntary, free-will decision of a person to make a sacrifice. Certainly the notion of sacrifice is incredibly important throughout the Bible. The Old Testament law has a heavy focus on sacrifice, and Christ, as our example, paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Furthermore, freely making a decision to sacrifice, is an opportunity for a giver to demonstrate love. Certainly, love is most clearly demonstrated when someone makes a decision to sacrifice on behalf of another. Without this free-will decision, the giver is not really demonstrating love.

And acts of sacrifice are not simply a negative experience for the giver, a giver, who gives cheerfully can expect to be rewarded by God. As Paul said, it is better to give than receive.

This element of an individual’s choice to sacrifice is indeed important, and in the context of the question about collective giving, we should definitely seek to maximize the opportunity that people have to freely choose their contribution. However, the possible purposes don’t end there.

Next, we can consider that the purpose of generosity for the sake of the recipient. While generosity is important as an act of sacrifice of the giver, obviously it also serves a purpose for the recipient. Generosity is an act that offers mercy for those who are in need. As we consider generosity as a form of mercy, it is important to note the center of focus: the focus is on the target of generosity instead of the donor. This is important when we consider generosity as an act of love, and what form of love that might be. Love may take an emotional form, often manifested by the emotions that a donor may experience as they feel the satisfaction of helping another. However, the Bible frequently lifts up “agape” (one of the Greek words for love) love as the highest form of love. Agape is characterized by a sincere interest in well-being of the object of love, rather than the experience or emotion of love. Generosity with focus on the donor may be an exercise in the emotions of love, but generosity with a focus on the benefit to the recipient is an act of agape love.

Again, the purpose of generosity has a significant impact on how we assess the collective versus individual generosity. If the purpose is making individual choices of sacrifice, than collective giving is pointless. However, if the purpose is mercy for the recipients, than the nature of the donation is not of substantial importance, and trying to make a significant distinction between individual and collective giving is erroneous.

Interestingly, when we analyze generosity from the perspective of purpose, the Bible is suddenly surprisingly clear. Hosea is very explicit about the true, underlying purpose:

Hosea 6:6 For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice;

In fact, this is not only stated in the Old Testament, but it is so important that Jesus actually repeats this verse:

Matt 9:13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

This is one of the clearest declaration’s of purpose found in scriptures. Based on this, it is unavoidably clear that generosity is not all about individual’s exercise of sacrifice (although that is an important mechanism), that the true end goal is to bring mercy.

Another helpful insight from scriptures comes from the emphasis we see on community in scriptures. While the scriptures certainly demonstrate that individual’s are responsible for the decisions, this does negate the strong theme of building community. And community is shallowest when it is simply a group of individuals that tolerate and stay out each other’s way as they all make their own decisions. True, deep community comes when we actually consider, discuss, and see to understand, and work through our values, priorities, and commitments, and seek purpose together, sharpening each other in the process.

The Bible teaches that wisdom is found in the multitude of counselors, and giving wisely has tremendous impact on our giving. If our generosity is for the purpose of mercy, than we should be deeply concerned with the fact some forms of giving have 10s, 100s, or 1000s of times more impact in bringing mercy than other forms. Wisdom is important to the true purpose of generosity, and we can be much wiser together. We should not be surprised to find that the collective generosity of a group has an impact far beyond what individuals might do on their own because the collective wisdom can multiply the effect of the collective resources.

In assessing collective generosity, it is often important to think in absolute terms, rather than in relative terms. While we can certainly make comparisons between individual and collective generosity, we also have to recognize that in many situations these are not even mutually exclusive options. When a group, organization, company, or government is considering generosity, such possibilities are often compared negatively to individual giving, when in fact that this does not replace individual’s opportunity to be generous as well. Leaders that are making decisions to be generous are usually only using a small fraction of available resources, and this has a negligible impact on the individual’s resources and ability (in fact collective generosity can often be just as likely to encourage individual giving as to discourage). The frequent complaint that collective generosity will replace individual generosity or vice versa is a false dichotomy and a poor excuse for the generosity of a group or society.

By looking at the purpose of generosity, we can hopefully can gain a better understanding of appropriate forms of giving. We should indeed strive to encourage individuals to freely choose to sacrifice for the sake of others. However, when individual generosity and collective generosity are not mutually exclusive, the true purpose of giving reveals that we should pursue collective generosity alongside individual generosity.