The Nature of Christian Persecution

What is the nature of Christian persecution and opposition? Jesus declared that we should expect to face persecution, and throughout history, Christians have often faced different types of oppression and hardships for their. Christians have come to not only expect persecution, but will even find validation in opposition from society. What types of opposition have Christians experienced, what are “good” forms of opposition, and what type of hardships should we reasonably expect and prepare for?

Jesus set the expectation for persecution early on, saying: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”. Jesus went on to encourage and even suggest reward for those who face this persecution.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

First, it is important to remember that persecution or hardship can never alone be used to validate the truth of one’s ways. This is a classic example of the genetic fallacy. Genetic fallacy is when we argue for or against something because of who believes it. A silly example would be saying that Nazi’s drank water, so therefore water is evil. A more serious example, is that Westboro Baptist firmly believe that they are doing the right thing with their ugly protests, and they say the opposition they receive proves it. We must be careful not to fall for genetic fallacy, and assume that since there is opposition that challenges our beliefs, therefore our beliefs must be right. Sometimes we face opposition for our beliefs, because our beliefs are wrong.

However, while recognizing that we can’t use opposition as a solid basis of truth, it is still helpful to recognize what types of patterns of persecution to legitimately expect. We can look for these both in scriptures and in history.

As we look at the verses above, this already gives some narrowing definition to legitimate persecution. Legitimate persecution is tied to who Jesus is and what he represents: righteousness. Certainly the great prototype and example of suffering religious persecution, is Christ Himself. So can we draw from His example?

One of the first things to notice is the source of Jesus’ persecution. The challenges and conflict that led to the cross are a major theme in the gospels. And who is the opposition in this conflict with Jesus? The Pharisees. These were the religious leaders of the day. And these weren’t just any religious leaders, they were, in fact the religious leaders of Jesus’ own religion. They (attempted to) follow the same God that Jesus preached. They were the proto-Judeo-Christian leaders of the day. They were the church leaders. In fact if we look more closely at the major theological division of the day; the resurrection, the Pharisees would even legitimately be categorized as the same denomination as Jesus. Yet these leaders were the major force of opposition and ultimately persecution against Christ. (And I say this as a leader in our church; it is humbling to remember that I am in position which is so prone to being in opposition to Christ).

This story of persecution continues well into Acts, as the early followers of “The Way”, as they called themselves, were thrown and imprisoned and killed. And again, who was the source of these attacks? They were the dominant church/religious institute. The conflicts between the dominant religion and the followers of “The Way” are the main narrative of Acts as they (the disciples) challenge the power structures and traditions of the “church” at the time (the religious organizations).

As Americans, we should recall our history, to be keenly aware of our experience with this. The pilgrims themselves were a group that were persecuted. And who were they being persecuted by? That’s right, again, the Christian leaders and organizational structure of their society. And even within our country Christians spearheaded the oppression of Salem Witch Trials and defended slavery.

Christians have come to expect persecution to come from secular society, but the Biblical narrative and even American’s own history demonstrate that isn’t always the case. They indicate that to follow Jesus is to invite hardship and challenge from Christians and their culture, as much as anyone else. If we are truly follow Christ’s radical and revolutionary call, that turns the natural way of religion upside down, this is as likely to illicit backlash from the Christian culture as anywhere else. The point is that Christ’s teaching are so contrary to our natural ways, that it is a challenge to every culture and sub-culture, whether it be Greek, Jew, American, or even Christian culture.

Now again it is worth remembering that persecution from either side does not validate the truth. You aren’t correct just because you are being opposed by Christians either.

Let’s also consider what types of activities actually lead to persecution. Being persecuted simply for what religion you belong to is actually quite rare. There are indeed cases of it. However, if you study the statistics on Christian persecution, you will see enormous variations in the counts. Why is this? It is because persecution solely due to religious affiliation is extremely rare. But persecution due to religiously inspired or commanded activities is much more common. Categorizing these activities as religious is naturally very difficult and subjective.

Again, this is demonstrated by scriptural accounts as well. They didn’t crucify Jesus because he was a “Christian” or believed in God. In fact, if his only teaching was just that he worshiped YHWH, he would have been welcomed with open arms. Jesus wasn’t crucified simply for being Jesus of Nazareth, or for his religious affiliation. Nor was Jesus even persecuted for laws that he established. In fact, the crime that Jesus was crucified for was clearly stated: sedition, or insurrection.

This points to the fundamental nature of most legitimate persecution in the world. Persecution isn’t usually about religious affiliation. It is not even about what laws the Bible teaches. Persecution is about power. Jesus wasn’t persecuted because he had some good sermons, or for a particular set of rules. He was persecuted because he was subverting the power structures and hierarchy around him. Jesus represented a threat to the order of power that the religious leaders were wielded. Jesus was turning this upside down, creating a kingdom where the first will be last, where the weak are lifted up and the strong are torn down. And this upheaval was not welcome by those at the top of the order.

Of course, Jesus was crucified by the Romans. This was partly due to the Jewish leaders insistence, but their own role was important as well. Jesus immediate challenge to the power structures of the church were most direct, but there was some truth to the threat Jesus played to Romans as well. To be sure, Jesus was very clear in resisting any type of military and violent coup against the Romans. But his followers had indeed switched their alliance. They no longer held to an unassailable alliance to the Roman empire. The Romans certainly didn’t have any physical threat to worry about from the Jesus followers, but to the degree that the Romans hunger for and demanded allegiance, the threat of allegiance to another Kingdom was very real in Christ followers.

And this persecution wasn’t just something that was externally triggered. Christ was on an intentional and committed path of sacrifice. It is on the committed path to sacrifice for others, sacrificing for the subversion of power, for the sake of those in need that real persecution takes place.

Likewise through the history of Christian persecution. It is not those that quietly have a private faith that are persecuted. It is those that are committed to sacrifice that challenge hierarchies of power around them, and choose to stand with the oppressed, that face the greatest threats.

Unfortunately, I feel like we have sometimes forgot this. In our Christian culture talking about persecution has far too easily become a replacement for real sacrifice. We talk about slippery slopes (it is also shocking to me when people explicitly state that they are basing their fears on a logical fallacy, like slippery slope) that will supposedly lead to persecution. This is a convenient replacement for making any real sacrifices.

This slippery slope fallacy is far too common. Many of us have mistaken the path of secularism as moving us towards persecution. But this path is not towards greater interest in (against) religion, but towards disinterest. The secular world is not growing hostile toward religion. It is growing bored with religion. Now this may be a worse fate. It has been said that the opposite of love is indifference. This reality may be hard to swallow, but many people just don’t really care that much about your religion or what laws it includes.

This exaggeration of hardships among Christians is not only out of touch with reality, but I believe it represents a shallow, wimpy Christianity. There are people who are tortured and killed for Christ. Comparing the types of opposition American Christians face with someone has to truly pay for their belief is, to be blunt, pathetic. Not getting your way with legislation and then comparing it to a slippery slope to persecution is nothing but weak and whiny Christianity. Until we have actually bled or been injured for our faith, we have little room for complaint.

Jesus called us to take up our cross (Matt 16:24). This isn’t a passive call, to sit around and worry, and fret, and wait for someone to come persecute you. This is active call, that begins with denying ourselves. Likewise, in our society, sacrifice doesn’t come passively. It comes when we actively and voluntarily give up our time and money for others. Christ-based sacrifice is found when we identify with, help, and give to others that are hurting or oppressed, and challenge the structures and hierarchies that hold them there (Eph 6:12). This is how we follow Christ on the cross.


I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin. – Psalms 38:18

The most sincere expression of our position before the cross is that of apology. To ask for forgiveness, without admission of guilt is meaningless. So what is apology about, and why is it so difficult and neglected?

Confession has long been understood to be at the heart of Christianity. But it is a difficult act. I have seen that with our children, sometimes simply getting an apology, helping them to see their guilt and express regret for it, can be the most difficult, yet important part, of their growth.

The act of confession is performed by expressing our guilt or our wrongs. Confession’s sincerity is demonstrated by regret for our actions. But, as I have talked about before, ultimately we need to look for purpose in our actions. And the purpose of confession, is to bring reconciliation in relationships.

Confession is the opposite of accusation. Confession recognizes our own wrong. Accusation looks for the wrong in others. Confession works to build relationships, accusation tears them down.

The Bible describes Satan as the accuser. When we seek to accuse before confessing, we are joining with Satan.

On the other hand, in response to our sin, Jesus became our confession. At the cross, Jesus heard our cry for help, He saw our need for reconciliation, and He rescued us. But, He had every reason to accuse us, to point out how we were to blame, and to leave us to our corruption. Yet, he did not do that, instead he fully accepted blame himself, becoming our confession.

When Isaiah came into the presence of God, his response was confession (Isaiah 6:5).

The practice of confession means that when we are in the midst of strife and conflict, our reaction is to look for what we have done wrong, not the other.

This is critical both as individuals and collectively. I have, and I am sure you have, seen firsthand how relationships are strained or even severed simply because we dwell on the wrongs of others, rather than confessing our own wrongs.

For some forgiveness seems impossible because because our sins look so great. However, others face a different temptation, that we minimize our sins, as if our sin is merely a legal technicality that has to be resolved. Let’s be clear, our sin is not just an abstract violation, and God’s does not define it as just an arbitrary set of rules to throw His weight around. We have truly fallen short of walking in His glory in our relationships with others, both near and far.

We are sinners. And that means that we really have harmed and hurt others. Sometimes this is active, direct pain we have cause others. Sometimes this may be passive, our apathy and neglect of opportunities to help others, but that resulting pain and suffering of others is no less real, and no less sin (James 4:17). When we don’t recognize how we have hurt others, confession is merely religious ritual, and not an act of relational restoration, as it should be.

Confession seems to be lost on our culture. In fact, it seems that being “unapologetic” has actually become a statement of pride, a badge of honor. We brag about not apologizing for who we are and what we are. And when we see others apologize for us, for our country, for past transgressions, we are quick to condemn.

When we look at the world today, it is not difficult to find plenty of strife. And just like children, we are equally prone to look for opportunities to accuse, rather than introspect for our own wrongs.

Unfortunately, I fear that we have a tendency to be infected by this same unapologetic attitude. The church has been called to draw people to Christ, but if this is case, we live in an era of an unmitigated tragedy of exodus from church as the church has failed to express the purposes of God to our culture. Too often our response has been self-congratulations over uncompromising rather than humbly recognizing our failures to listen to the suffering of those that are different, to communicate the beauty of God’s purpose, and to honestly engage in tough issues. Too often, we have pushed people away, and then proclaimed our self-righteousness, rather then being willing to look at our own faults. We have engaged in “culture war”, and the results are as predictable as a husband that engages in a fight with his wife; he has lost the moment he set out to “win”, rather than understand and relate.

When we consider our collective sins, a pertinent question is whether collective apology is meaningful. Should we apology for others? Again, we must consider the purpose of confession. If it is merely a religious ritual, and act of piety, than the apologizing on behalf of others is pointless. But if we are seeking relational reconciliation, then we must reconsider. Apology on behalf of friends, our fellow Americans, or Christians, even our ancestors, or anyone who has damaged relationships that we might still have a connection or identification with (not in our own eyes, but in the eyes of anyone that is hurting), than anything we can do, including confession (and perhaps foremost confession) should be employed to seek peace and harmony.

The cross was Christ’s confession or apology on our behalf, unto God. It was admission of our guilt, and the sincere expression of a desire to reconcile. Let us not walk in arrogant accusation, but humble confession. Here is a great video liturgy of humble call to confession.

Lord, forgive us our sins. Forgive us for how we have hurt others, those close to us, as well as our enemies. Forgive us for the wrongs of our ancestors, and how we have trampled over those in the way of our pursuit of power, land, and wealth. Forgive us for the wrongs of our country, as we have reaped violence, consumed excessive resources, and ignored the cries of the suffering. Forgive us as a church, for our failure to demonstrate your beauty, your purpose. Forgive us for our arrogance.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:8-10

Invest in Emerging Stock Markets… Now!

This isn’t a financial blog, but I thought I would post a financial suggestion. Obviously, the stock market has been at the center of news lately, as stocks have tumbled (and bounced in the US), with the Chinese stock market plummeted. It may seem odd to suggest investing in emerging countries right now, with such markets in a decline.

However, the great mantra of wisdom of the stock investing is this: “buy low and sell high”. This may seem obvious on the surface, but what it suggests is contrary to our natural emotional response. When a stock has tumbled, we naturally want to get away from it, but when it is low, it is actually often the best time to invest. And when a stock has done well, we may be excited to buy it, yet this is actually the best time to sell. As China has plummeted the emerging stock market, now may be the best time to get in on it.

However, I want to offer another reason that is a little more in line with the theme of this blog, and that is to guide our investing not only by our opportunities, but by the ethics of our investing. I believe that we should be committed to working towards fighting global poverty, helping the poorest of the world, those that are predominantly found in developing countries. Can our investments intersect with this pursuit?

Currently, there have been many that have been encouraging “trade, not aid”, for helping the poor. While pitting trade and aid against each other is false dichotomy, they are actually complementary. Business growth can’t and won’t immediately provide food, water, vaccinations, and education for the current generation of children, and facilitating that generation is actually the foundation of the next generation of business growth. But, business growth is undeniably critical and central to a long-term, sustainable economy that can eventually meet the health, education, and other needs of future generations. However, encouraging growth in business can be difficult, and finding interventions that do not contradict the goal of self-sustainable growth is hard. Some attempts like microloans have helped some, but have had unintended negative consequences as well, with family needs become neglected as loan recipients struggle to pay back even low-interest loans ( though overall, they have usually had a net positive impact though).

But one of the most economically sound and proven mechanism for investing in businesses is right in front of us: the stock market! And if you have money that can be directed towards particular mutual funds or stocks, you already have an opportunity to invest your finances in way that not only can yield dividends for yourself, but can support businesses in these developing countries, that can lead to downstream benefits to some of the poorest.

Lately there has been increasing interest in more ethical product purchasing, like buying fair trade food products, and one-for-one programs. Again, these are noble efforts, and I certainly encourage this, but some of these are built on some shaky economic ideas. Fair trade is prone to market manipulation that suppress signals and can yield stagnation, inequality, and lack of innovation. One-for-one programs, like Toms, well, have kind of become the joke of aid efforts, failing to address the most important needs and having a market undermining effect. While again, I definitely encourage everyone to pursue ethical purchasing, what if we applied these same principles to our investments? What if we not only bought ethical food, but what if also had an ethical retirement plan? What if our investments could help those in the greatest need, and do so based on what seems to some of the most solid and proven economic principles?

Now I certainly can’t claim to be the first to have the idea of ethical investment. However, most of these efforts have been more focused on avoiding companies with questionable business practices, or products (like tobacco companies). But, like with giving, we can almost certainly have a vastly larger impact by focusing on the good we can do by finding important positive investments, rather than just simply avoiding unethical investments. Proactive positive ethics have much more potential passive negative-avoidance efforts.

And to be clear, I certainly don’t want to encourage anyone to use their investments as a substitute for charitable giving. These two efforts meet completely different needs that are complementary. And business investment certainly isn’t panacea for the poorest, the marginal business boost and its downstream benefits for those in poverty are often indirect, obtuse, and slow. But, I do think assessing our investments from the perspective of concern for the world’s poorest is something to consider (and I would love feedback on how you think it may or may not help or impact). From a moral perspective, I believe this may be a great opportunity, and from a financial perspective, this might be one of the most opportune times to consider it.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.

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.