Assessing Belief Importance

Inevitably in our interaction with other Christians, we will encounter differences in beliefs on different questions and issues. Some of the differences may be minor, and some may be more significant. But how do we assess how important a given difference really is?

This has been a particularly interesting question for me lately, we have been reviewing applicants for the position of pastor at our church. With this process, we have been reviewing many statements of doctrine, philosophy of ministry, sermons, and other communications that express a variety of beliefs. With the large number of different beliefs that can be covered, we naturally occasionally encounter some that we perhaps disagree with to some extent. But how important is that?

We often tend expend to a large amount of energy in establishing and defending our beliefs, with the main focus on whether something is right or wrong. But how do we know how important each of these beliefs are? How do we determine which ones are critical, and which ones aren’t?

Typically, these decisions seem to be prone to be a very subjective and vague determination, directed by pretty unhelpful measures, like how strange I think someone’s view is. Those seeking to be more objective, may choose to apply a more verifiable standard. We can divide issues into essential and non-essential, with the essential beliefs typically being something along the lines of a statement of faith, or orthodox creed.

While this is a helpful step, and a great and simple way to describe the variation that exists, a simple binary division still does not address the fact that our beliefs exist on a wide spectrum of importance. Many beliefs might be considered non-essential, but still could have a very large impact on our perspective and behavior. Beliefs can range from totally shaping our lives, to being very important, to somewhat important, to slightly important, to completely irrelevant. Placing beliefs on this spectrum requires a closer look than just determining if it is part of a statement of faith.

For a more objective assessment, I would suggest three measures:

  • Epistemic: This is an assessment of how confident we can really be in our position. Some beliefs can be easily corroborated, having been upheld by centuries of orthodoxy, and we may hold these beliefs with greater confidence. Other beliefs may be more esoteric, or have been hotly contested, with many brilliant people evenly divided on both sides of a belief. It is sometimes foolish and arrogant to claim a strong confidence in the latter beliefs.
  • Theological: The theological measure is an assessment of how a belief affects our perspective of God. How much does this belief shape our image of God? However, we must be very careful with this measure, often this can easily turn into a circular logic fallacy attempt to defend a belief, with both sides thinking their perspective is most God glorifying because they think it is true.
  • Empirical: The empirical measure is an assessment of how much we can actually measure a real distinction in behavior due to a belief. Does a particular belief cause truly distinct behavior? We must exercise caution here as well. We frequently tend to expect a certain behavior, based on our own understanding of someone’s belief. We can easily fail to look no further than our expectation, or even allow our expectation to bias our interpretation of behavior. However, to properly assess a belief by this measure, we must make an honest look at if behavior is really affected by the belief.

Hopefully these measures might provide a little more objectivity as you consider which beliefs are important and really how important they are. There are certainly beliefs that are indeed are very important, and others that are not worth much energy. Are there any other measures that you would apply?

Systemic Injustice

When someone harms someone else, they should be punished.

This is perhaps the most basic and instinctive description of justice, and virtually everyone, every culture, every religion would agree with this notion. As Christians we are called to pursue justice, but we face the common trap of simply allowing our definition of justice to be defined by our culture. The Bible calls us to a much deeper and nuanced understanding of justice.

To put it in simple logical terms, justice is a battle against injustice. When see injustice in the world, it is our natural instinct to try to find the perpetrator and punish him. And indeed, this is extremely valuable. But, we must not think this is the end of the battle against injustice. In Ephesians 6:12, Paul makes one of the profound and powerful statements about the real source of evil and injustice:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Paul clearly articulates our natural instinct, that our fight against injustice is against specific individuals, and then directly refutes it. Quite simply, Paul says, fighting injustice by merely fighting against specific individuals is misguided. There is someone else to blame.

This by no means easy or natural. Our instinctive appeal to justice is naturally drawn toward finding blame with someone, some individual that we can point a finger at, accuse, and punish. When the Bible refutes this instinct, it goes against our instincts. And it is always hard to go beyond our intuitions, and look deeper. While it is certainly true that restraining individuals is critical part of pursuing justice, it is important to understand, from scriptures, that the primary forces of evil aren’t originated in individuals schemes, but the systemic and pervasive strategies and schemes of powers and principalities.

Not only does the human tendency towards blame-based injustice point the blame in the wrong direction, it can also lead to wrongly dismissing injustice. As many voice the frustrations and pain of pervasive and systemic injustice that has been sown, a frequent response is to distill this down to individuals. When others look for individual perpetrators and their intentional acts of evil and can’t find them, then they can easily and wrongly assume that injustice must not exist. This, according to scriptures, is a false conclusion. The vindication or condemnation of individuals and their acts of injustice can neither verify nor confirm the much more widespread and insidious reality of systemic injustice.

So does this mean the battle against injustice is hopeless? Without being able to fully address injustice by tracking down and punishing villains, are we without any real concrete means for bringing greater justice and righteousness into the world? John provides further insight, that points to where we go from here, in 1 John 3:8 (b):

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.

To understand this verse, imagine for a bit that there was a developer that was having a new housing development built, but realized it was being built with rotten wood that would not stand. So he hired a demolition crew to come in, and destroy the house. Now imagine the developer shows up to check on the demolition crew and finds them sitting around looking at the building, and so he asks when they are going to start tearing down the building. They respond saying that their approach is to carefully avoid adding any more rotten wood to the construction. The developer might say that is well and good, but he wants it torn down. The crew again responds that they don’t want to actually tear anything down, that the problem was the improper building materials, and so they think the best thing to do is to make sure they don’t add anymore faulty materials to the building. Of course at this point, the developer would naturally fire this crew, and look for someone that would actually destroy the building and not just avoid causing any further problems.

Likewise, let’s consider what John is saying about Jesus’ purpose. He doesn’t say that Jesus came to *avoid* the devil’s work. John’s description of His purpose is completely different than suggesting he came to try to get people to avoid contributing to the devil’s and encouraging people to avoid sinning and harming others. This isn’t even remotely close to what John says. John says that Jesus came to destroy the devil’s work. This isn’t just avoiding complicity, it is actively undoing and destroying and tearing down the fruit and consequences of the devil’s labor, work, and efforts.

So what is the devil’s work? To be clear, it is not simply some abstract offense against God. It is the real pain and frustration we experience in our lives and in our world. If we are willing to listen attentively, it is not hard to see the depths of the devil’s work of injustice around us. If we are paying attention at all, we should hear the pain and frustrations of racism, inequality, abuse, and violence.

Combining these two teachings should reorient our perspective on justice, on how we respond to these cries of frustration. The natural instinct to find someone to blame and give up if we can’t find a villain is misguided. Systemic injustice won’t be solved by finding a particular police officer, politician, or other leader to blame. Or even worse, it certainly won’t be addressed by blaming victims of injustice, accusing them of just getting what they deserved.

The reality is that the enemy’s strategy is pervasively and insidiously woven into society. Let’s consider the devil’s work in racism. As John Piper recently said, “Racism is part of the seamless fabric of sin in human life.” The truth is that today, most people are not intentionally engaging in racism or perpetrating inequality. And this is an important distinction to make: we generally are not actively engaging in malicious acts of racism. However, at the same time, as humans we are all prone to making imperfect judgments. We are all prone to having our judgment slightly clouded by stereotypes and fears. Of course we aren’t aware of these tendencies, we aren’t making malicious judgments, but the subtle nature of our racial tendencies is exactly why we can’t see it. We are all racists to some degree, because we are all sinners. I am racist, you are, even the greatest champions of equality have bits of racism. And we have also inherited bits of racism here and there in our society.

These slight bits of racial inequalities may seem so subtle as to be completely innocuous in isolation. But our society consists of innumerable layers. Slight differences in education, culture, family life, geography, civil treatment, inherited wealth, and so on, gradually add up. After the collective impact of dozens of layers of subtle inequality add up, the reality of racism becomes real and substantive. The final impact of these layers can easily be measured and verified and the pain and frustration of that experience are deeply grounded in reality.

Is our ability to recognize and respond to injustice, constrained by our desire to identify the perpetrator of the injustice? Again, our response can be to enter into the blame-game, and find someone to blame that will befit our ideological tendencies. Jesus’ purpose was to destroy the works of the devil. That means undoing and tearing apart the results of racism. The devil has worked to leave many minorities in the state of disadvantage and hardship. We undo and destroy that work when we work to advantage and benefit those that have been on the painful side of these disadvantages. When we defend and lift up those that society has stacked the odds against, we are destroying the devil’s work.

When we see injustice and seek to blame, we are letting powers and principalities continue their strategy. But every time we step beyond this, helping those that we might otherwise accuse, defending those that are victims of the systems and schemes of these powers, we are undermining their work and strategy. Helping those who have the odds against them is an act of destroying the devil’s work.

What Does Scripture Really Say About Profanity?

Profanity is typically condemned by Christians. However, is this view backed by scriptures? I’ve been interested in considering the verses that speak to this, and apply this to the meaning of profanity to wrestle with what scripture really says about profanity.

There are several verses that are usually quoted in regards to profanity, including Col 3:8, Eph 4:29, and Eph 5:4. So do these verses really condemn profanity? They do indeed speak to the subject. But, what Paul actually condemns isn’t exactly “profanity”, but rather “filthy” or “corrupting” speech. Quite simply, it is just not accurate to precisely equate these concepts with the English tabooed four-letter words. Furthermore, if we were to back-translate our English profanity into Hebrew and Greek, we would find these words actually appear in scripture. Relevant magazine has a great post explaining how profanity is used in scriptures, and particularly even by Paul. The scriptures on this subject, are not concerned with outlawing certain words, but directing the content of what we say.

We have a tendency to interpret these verses as a banned list of words due to our tendency to be attracted to legalism over relationship. Legalism is attractive because it allows us to define a specific set of actions that we avoid or participate in to gain divine favor. Unfortunately legalism always separates us from God, because it is about mechanism to achieve benefits, rather than God Himself. A relational understanding is more difficult, because we have to seek to understand the purpose behind scriptures. As we look at these verses, we must seek to understand the purpose that God is seeking for speech, rather than just trying to simplify into a legalistic definition of acceptable and unacceptable words.

Again, the words used in these verses indicate that we are to avoid corrupting or filthy speech. This points to avoiding communicating a message or ideas that are degrading to other people, or degrading the beauty or purity of situations or moments.

To consider how this intersects with English profanity, and its usage, let’s consider some of the reasons why profanity is typically used:

    • To express intense and strong emotions–It is not uncommon for people to exclaim expletives, that have absolutely nothing to do with the sexual or excretory meaning of the word, but rather to express their extreme emotional experience. The Bible is filled with intense emotional experiences, that are readily expressed, and it would seem rather absurd to suggest that the Bible wants to condemn language that communicates intense emotion. And again, it would appear that Paul even demonstrated the use of expletives to express his intense emotions.
    • As a social cue–Often profanity is used as a signal of association with lower status or classes. Profanity is partly defined by the cultural selection of words that are acceptable for “civilized conversation”. Profanity is sometimes used as a way of indicating affinity with a lower class, as opposed to upper class that wouldn’t use such language. Interestingly, this type of association is actually Biblical. Jesus explicitly identified himself with “the least of these”, and Paul’s word selection may have been, in part, an act of this identification, demonstrating that though he used to be an elite Pharisee, he now identified with the commoner.

While these are some situations where it seems to me that profanity can be used appropriately, there are certainly situations where it is used destructively.

  • Degradation of others–“F*** you” is almost always used for the purpose of degrading or insulting another person. It is not simply an expression of emotion or association. It is used to maximize insult. Also, in general, sexual profanity is frequently employed in ways that degrade women, implicitly or explicitly reducing them to having nothing more than sexual amusement.
  • To degrade conversations–This certainly isn’t specific to profanity; crude humor, and even just careless joking, can often move a conversation from meaningful to meaningless, or from beauty to parody very quickly. Again, this isn’t about specific words, but we should aspire to avoid to being a force that is pushing the conversation towards the meaningless, and there are indeed words that can be more likely to move in that direction. For example, sexually-based profanity often functions to degrade the beauty and value of sex.
  • To be offensive–This is not an absolute intrinsic evil of profanity, plenty of people are not offended by profanity, and we can not condemn profanity for being offensive if no one around us is offended. This is relative to the audience. However, if you are aware that your audience may be offended, a loving approach to your audience demands avoiding needless offense. Now, it is worth remembering that sometimes offense is needed. The Bible has numerous messages that can be offensive and hard to hear. However, in general gratuitous or unnecessary offenses that only become barriers to more important communication, should be avoided. If you prefer to refrain from using profanity (as I do), this might be a good reason.

These are some guidelines that I think could be applied to profanity. Hopefully that might give us some ideas for looking at these scriptures with deeper, more relational understanding. As Solomon said, “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens”, and most likely this concept applies to profanity as well.

2014 Book Reviews

I didn’t read a lot of books in 2014. For the latter half of 2014, I have been involved in searching for a new pastor for our church, and helping to lead the church through that process. Consequently, I spent some time reading specifically about the search process and lots of resumes. Some of these books were very short; which actually seemed quite appropriate for the subject. Here are the books I read (at least partially), roughly in order of preference:

The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen – This book received a lot of attention in its genre, so I started to read it. I haven’t finished this book yet, but I have been very impressed with it. I came to the book with a bit of skepticism about the difficulty of showing that criminal justice work can really compete with other charitable efforts in efficacy of helping the poor, but I will certainly admit that I found Haugen’s statistics, research, and arguments are very compelling. This is naturally a subject where it is very hard to precisely determine cause and effect, but the stories of outrageous injustice against the poor, and the case for providing a better legal system (that we take for granted) is powerful.

Pagan Christianity – I read this book, as we were in the midst of a church transition, and I wanted to re-examine some of the foundational ideas of how church works. This book provides some provocative critiques of practices of the modern church, and how they have likely originated more from various cultural (and even pagan) traditions, than from scriptures. While I think we can positively redeem many of modern church practices that are criticized, the critiques and suggestions are indeed very valuable for shaping a church around Biblical guidance instead of just cultural expectations.

When the Word Leads Your Pastoral Search: Biblical Principles and Practices to Guide Your Search – This is a longer book about finding a pastor, that was helpful for specifics of things like handling resumes and coordinating a candidating visit. I had some chuckles at how this book was obviously written specifically for Calvary Chapel churches and their culture, including addressing topics like whether or not you could ever consider a pastor who has given a topical sermon at some point in their life (fortunately grace can be extended for such a grievous sin). However, beyond these rather amusing idiosyncrasies, the book offered some good practical details on many of the processes involved, which was certainly beneficial.

Overrated by Eugene Cho – The core message of this book is certainly important and noteworthy: that we need to be engaged in living sacrificial lives, and not just talking about it. However, I didn’t really enjoy the style of this book. The author seemed to be trying too hard to be trendy in his references to social and popular media. The author transparently offered some good life experiences learning to live out his faith, but the core message didn’t really take that long to say, and almost felt like a greatly expounded tweet.

The New Breed – Second Edition: Understanding & Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer – I read this with church leadership to consider how to recruit more volunteers. This had some good tips on how to engage and encourage with different generations, but overall wasn’t particularly memorable.

Influencing Government: A Resource

In my last post, I looked at how 1 Samuel 8 provides a clear warning against appointing and choosing leaders who pursue greater power through military strength, and through extraction of resources for the benefit of themselves, the elite. Now, I want to consider how the New Testament guides our understanding of how we are to use our resources, which includes influencing the government. First, though, there are certainly no direct explicit statements in the New Testament about how to vote or otherwise appoint leaders. Passages like Romans 13 that most literally talk about the government, are focused on exhorting us to subject ourselves to the government, and spoken to people who basically had little to no influence on the government. However, living in democracy, we do have influence, and by properly understanding influence as a resource, there are indeed passages that can give us important guidance.

Taking a step back, I believe it is worthwhile to consider what political influence really means. In reality, influence is simply another resource that we may have, that can be used to accomplish something. Resources that God may give us include finances, talents, skills, and even influence. These things are not ends themselves, but are all resources we can use to achieve and gain other benefits. Influence should not be treated as fundamentally different than these other resources, as like other resources, it can be used to achieve a variety of goals.

From a historic perspective, living under a democracy is a unique opportunity. This opportunity affords an amazing level of influence, and this has significant value, it is a resource, a privilege that God has blessed us with. And like any valuable resource (or “talent”, as Jesus calls our resources in Matt 25), the paramount question for the Christian is how can we be good stewards of the resources we have been blessed with.

Indeed, the opportunity to live as a citizen of a democracy isn’t just an abstract nicety, it has a real, quantifiable value. The US government administrates about 3 and a half trillion dollars a year (about $3,770,000,000,000 in 2014) in the federal budget alone, which comes out to over $25,000 per registered voter per year. That means that as an American citizen, in a democracy, where power comes from the people, the value or quantity of your influence in the governing process is over 25 grand, and even more if you are more proactive in interacting with law-makers. And that is just for the federal government and their budgetary decisions, our potential influence extends to other government desisions as well as to the state and local governments.

Influence in democracy is a resource, and as you can see, is actually a very large and substantial resource. As an American citizen, this influence is a definite and even large form of wealth. Again, as a follower of Christ, the question is how to be a good steward of our resources or wealth, including this one. And just like the question of how we will spend our money, how will we spend our political influence?

When it comes to money, most people will spend their money on themselves, on what will benefit themselves. The same is true with politics, the majority of people’s political leanings are generally very easy to predict based simply on what candidate or party will benefit them the most. But Christ calls us to something different, and He didn’t shy away from the subject of how to use our resources, our wealth. Jesus spent a lot of time talking about how to use what God has given us.

One possible choice for our political wealth is simply to do nothing, to be apolitical. Unlike material wealth, to forgo political wealth and influence, implicitly means that influence is handed over to others, to make decisions and assert their influence (influence is a zero-sum game). While this is deeply anathema to the American ideals of asserting your opinions and desires, to give away our wealth, to submit to the preferences is actually a very Biblical approach. Christ consistently taught us to live self-sacrificially, to be generous with what we have, and to defer to other’s desires instead of our own.

However, if we are to follow the words of Christ closely, I think we can do even better. And this is where we can turn to one of the most pointed and direct statements to one who has great wealth. In Luke 18:18-23, Jesus encounters the “rich young ruler”. This story is powerful and challenging, giving direction towards the wealthy to be incredibly and radically generous. However, we should also not miss the fact that Luke specifically indicates that this man was not only wealthy, but was said to be politically powerful.

What Jesus doesn’t say is just as compelling as what he does say. Certainly, meeting with a high ranking official would be an exciting opportunity for any of us. Jesus has encountered a powerful leader, and not only that, but this leader has basically asked Him what to do. Imagine if a leader wanted such open advice from you. Jesus could have easily responded and asked the leader to provide greater religious liberty for his followers, legislate scriptural commandments and morality, and maybe even offer tax deductions for the religious groups. Jesus certainly knew that great persecution was on the way, a real painful persecution that makes our petty complaints about religious infringements trivial in comparison. But Jesus, even knowing this (and he even foretold this of persecution), sought none of these things. His final command:

You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.
Then come, follow me.

While this statement is unique in how challenging it is, it is quite normal in terms of the common theme of Jesus’ teaching and ways to characterize a Kingdom-oriented lifestyle as living on behalf of those in need (which has many dimensions, spiritual, emotional, relational, economic, and liberty). Here he teaches us to be generous, not living for ourselves, and specifically directs the one with wealth towards using their resources for the benefit of those without.

So how does this principle apply to different types of resources? We are called to use our resources to help those without the same kind of resource. Those with food help the hungry, those with clothing help clothe those without. Financially, the one with accumulations of money, is to help the poor. And applying this teaching to influence, a wealth of influence means power, and the call is to help and defend the powerless, the weak, the oppressed.

It is far too common to dismiss the story of the rich young ruler, claiming that Jesus asks different things of different people. And He does indeed ask for different things. However, there are perhaps few people in scripture that are more similar to most of our socio-economic positions than this rich young ruler. By any global standard, most of us have wealth that puts us in the top few percent of wealthy individuals. And that is just for this time period, if we are to compare ourselves to the rest of history (even adjusted for inflation), the typical wealth of an American is even more uniquely and exceedingly huge. The same is true of our political wealth. As calculated above, our political wealth, as citizens of America is very large (and potentially even larger if we are actively engaged). While we don’t know the exact position of the rich young ruler, if he was merely a municipal official, it is quite possible that simply being an American citizen entitles you to greater political power and wealth than this man. The story of the Jesus and the rich young ruler, is about as close as we can come to a imagining a story of Jesus and the typical American. If this story doesn’t speak directly to us, challenging us, nothing in scripture is relevant to us.

Unfortunately it easy to convince ourselves that we are acting “Christian” in our politics because we support candidates and policies that benefit us and our Christian friends, when in fact, this self-benefiting focus is precisely the opposite of the self-sacrificial ethos, living for those at need, at the core of Jesus teaching.

Therefore let’s recognize that we, in fact, do have great political wealth, like the rich young ruler, and then heed the words of Jesus, follow Jesus. Let us not spend that wealth on ourselves. If we are to spend it at all, let us use our resources rightly, our finances on behalf of the poor and our influence on behalf of the weak, powerless, and marginalized.

Electing Government: A Caution

With another election approaching, I wanted to write again about Biblical perspectives on elections. In the past, I have written about key Biblical principles that can be applied to discerning how to approach and prioritize different issues. Applying these broad Biblical themes is critical to seeing policy issues properly, rather than just pursuing what we want and calling it “Christian”. This year I would like to take a couple of posts to deal with a some Bible passages that perhaps most directly deal with the question of specifically how Christ followers should approach the action of electing and influencing government leaders. One passage is from the Old Testament, and the second from the New. The first passage is a warning, and the second is an exhortation to positive action.

Probably the most direct and applicable statement in the Old Testament to the question of electing officials is found in 1 Samuel 8:10-18. Here, the Israelites have asked for a king (vs 5). God then responds to their request, through Samuel. God’s response begins with a rebuke of the Israelites for rejecting the current theocratical structure (vs 7-8). But God tells Samuel to proceed with their request (vs 9, which may partly be due to the corruption that was occurring in Samuel’s sons, vs 3). However God makes plain the most dangerous pursuits of government leaders, and clearly warns them of what to be wary of in leaders.

The first caution, in verses 11 and 12 warns against leaders who would use their position of authority to invest in military might. It is one of the most common base tendencies of man to hunger for power. After successfully winning a leadership position, the next step in this pursuit is always to extend that power over other countries or regions. This hunger for more power, as sought through military strength, is precisely what God is warning against. And this is warning is against appointing or electing those that would either seek the enlargement of military might in terms of soldier count (“he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots”, vs 11), or those that would seek to expand the economic investment in military might (“to make his implements of war” vs 12).

The clear warning of 1 Samuel 8:11-12 is against establishing leaders who want to expand and grow the military. And there is probably no place on earth (and maybe even in history) where this warning is more pertinent. The US spends around $600 billion dollars a year on the military, more than the next top ten militaries in the world combined. Our obsession and spending on military might is unparalleled. Some have estimated that we spend 50 times as much on war as peace-keeping efforts. God’s warning against this focus on power and war is not just an arbitrary decree of God, this spending has been a huge part (in the trillions) of our federal debt and the tax burden on citizens.

What is the alternative? Support leaders that don’t want to invest so much in the military. As David later writes, in Psalms 20:7: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” This may sound naive to many, but this type of radical trust in God is precisely how Christians demonstrate their faith.

The next verses in this passages, from 13 to 18 warn against choosing leaders who would take resources from the people for their own gain, and even enslave people for their own benefit. This type of self-seeking leadership is not only unethical, but has increasingly been identified as one of the greatest hindrances to the growth of a country. One of the most influential books on developing economies in recent years was Why Nations Fail which defined a contrast between extractive and inclusive economies. They showed how throughout history, extractive economies where institutions and laws were established to primarily benefit the elite consistently lead to failed states with corruption, poverty, and violence. On the other hand, inclusive economies, that are structured such that the majority benefit from the resources and efforts of the economy, consistently flourish and enjoy growth and peace. And interestingly, the concept and definition of extractive leadership is very closely described in these verses. The extractive leadership that God warns against in this passage is exactly what leads to failed societies.

So what types of government activity are extractive? Some may simply think that taxation in general is extractive, but this isn’t actually consistent with this passage or others. In fact, Jesus (Mark 12:17) and the epistles (Romans 13:7) both explicitly state that taxation is a legitimate function of the government. Taxes can be quite beneficially used for the common good of society. The warning in verses 13-18 are not against taxation in general, but specifically against taxation (or enslavement) that is for the purpose of benefiting just the leaders or an elite group.

Historically, America has actually done quite well at fostering an inclusive economy. We have boasted of being the land of opportunity, and indeed millions have reaped the benefits of their investments in the American economy. As a democracy, leaders are held accountable, forcing them to take more inclusive approaches to their leadership. However, we must not be complacent. The most objective measure of an extractive economy, where an elite few are receiving the fruits of the economy, is economic inequality. And, unfortunately, America has steadily been growing in economic inequality.

Some of the most significant recent economic research has shown how economic inequality can naturally grow when nothing is done to abate it. It is important to remember extractive economies can be the result of both proactive extraction from people, as well as passive acceptance of economic structures that may increasingly result in an elite few receiving the majority of resources while most people receive less.

The basic warning of verses 13 through 18, is to avoid leaders who want to lead for their own benefit, or the benefit of the elite. The opposite of these leaders are those that seek an inclusive society, who are concerned about inequality. Taken as a whole, 1 Samuel 8 is God’s warning against choosing leaders that want to invest the country’s resources and efforts into power and selfishness, who hunger for more military strength, and hoarding of resources.

This post has primarily been a caution against negative leadership and focus. In the next post, we will look at an affirmation of positive focus in government power.

The greatest Victim of revenge is the Avenger

With ISIS making headlines and recent remembrance of the 9/11 attack, our attention is again on fighting terrorism. For Christians, our response should be guided by scriptures. One of the most innate responses to attacks, and stories of beheadings, is to seek revenge. But, one of the clearest directives in the Bible it for us to not seek revenge (Deut 32:35, and quoted in Rom 12:19), but rather to love our enemies (Matt 5:44):

Deut 32:35: It is mine to avenge; I will repay.
Matt 5:44: But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

The principle is clear and unambiguous. While Christians often fail to live out scriptures, there is generally at a least a desire to be obedient. However, this is one teaching of Christ, where Christians actually seem unashamed to boldly and blatantly defy and contradict Christ.

One of the strategies for some is to try to twist Romans 13:4 into an excuse for governments’ to enter the business of vengeance:

For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

Out of context, this might indeed sound like a justification for vengeance, but with more context, it becomes clear that this is definitely not the case, for several reasons. First, starting from the beginning of chapter 13, it is clear that Paul is not addressing leaders or government, but rather subjects (leaders can learn from this passage, but only as long as they understand the context). We can not understand Paul’s words as a directive to leaders or governments to seek revenge, when he is not even addressing them. Instead, Paul is indicating that the government’s actions, as they pursue the common good of the people may legitimately engage in punishment (not as the one how is being satisfied by revenge) and taxation, and in doing so, may inflict punishment on you, to deter and restrain you from others, and this punishment may also serve God’s purpose in inflicting divine judgement. However, the vengeance or wrath mentioned is not man’s, they are acting as “agents”, not as a divine judge.

This verse also can not be used as a directive, since it is completely insufficient in declaring what crimes deserve what revenge. Deterrent justice, the legitimate form of justice that governments can and should pursue for the well-being of their citizens, can be empirically determined (we can verify how much punishment it take to significantly deter crime). However, when we endeavor to seek revenge, the only clear measure of the appropriate level of punishment for crimes that the Bible offers is that every crime is deserving of punishment beyond repayment, yet we are shown grace. How should a government’s endeavor enact this? And isn’t the greatest offense we can commit, to reject God? Should governments then started punishing anyone who is not a Christian? This didn’t turn out to well in the Crusades, one of the darkest points in Christian history. While government’s may inflict deterring punishment, that may be used by God for His judgement, it is absurdly unjustifiable for governments to actually take up the divine act of seeking revenge themselves, and it completely contradicts the clear Biblical message that vengeance (the act of deciding the deserved recompense for offenses) belongs solely to God.

Not only is revenge clearly condemned in scriptures, the desire to see others avenged for their wrongs is fundamentally in contradiction to the very foundation of the Christianity, the grace we find at the cross. The reality is that we were deserving of a punishment what we can never payback, and yet God, while we were still in sin, showed as grace. To turn around, and demand divine punishment on someone who is no more deserving of God’s wrath than we are, is to trample on that grace, to reject Christ, and the cross he bore.

I am not pacifist either. The reason I am not, is that I see pacifism is a form of legalism. While Jesus definitely taught us not to violently respond to enemies (it doesn’t get any more non-violent than loving your enemies), Jesus also clearly taught (particular in Matthew 12), the purpose of the God’s laws was not to define a mechanical process to satisfy God, but to reveal his purpose. When he make pacifism a mechanism of obedience, rather than a revelation of his purpose and vision of peace, we risk legalistically following a set of motions instead of looking towards the goal. However, in defense of pacifism, in practice, this actually seems to be relatively rare problem, as we most always err on the side violence as humans, instead of sacrificial peace.

I believe this gives a proper framework for understanding Romans 13, and government’s legitimate role in punishing people. In isolation, it is impossible to justify a punishment that is clearly harming a person. In the broader context of society, the purpose (rather than just the mechanism) of Jesus teaching, the ethic of loving others, loving the whole community, it be comes quite clear how punishing one person benefits the greater society. We can prevent future crimes, and in doing so we are benefiting the community, the society. This doesn’t need to be motivated by a desire to avenge past wrongs, but rather motivated by the legitimate and loving act of protecting future potential victims.

With the whole of scripture in view, Romans 13 isn’t a new revelation of a new ethic, or a new exception. It is in fact, simply a recognition that a well-functioning government that cares for its citizens (driven by Christians wholly devoted to Christ’s ethic, or even non-Christians who also recognize the need for collective actions and providing victims from injustice, which actually was the case of the government Paul was under), may be punishing (and taxing people), and stern warning that evil behavior may earn you a legitimate punishment from that government. There is nothing fundamentally new here, Paul is completely aligned with Christ here. He is not trying to correct a failure in the Christian ethic, he is simply expressing a legitimate expression of the ethic, and how it may affect us.

It is indeed tempting to think that Christ’s teaching, His ethic needs to be excepted for governments. I used to think the same thing. However, as I have studied scripture more, I have realized Christ’s teaching needs no limits placed on them. They are wholly perfect, consistently applicable to every situation, to all people, individuals, groups, societies, and governments, without error, never falling short of guiding us rightly. We don’t have to come up with fixes for Christ, where He didn’t quite foresee how His teaching wouldn’t quite work right for larger governing bodies. As Abraham Kuyper said:

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

The recognition of how dangerous the urge for revenge is in perpetuating violence is why the Just War principles were articulated (by Augustine and later expanded by others). When the only thing needed to justify war is a feeling of righteous superiority and a desire for revenge, virtually every war, battle, and atrocity can be justified. It is only through an objective analysis of the whether war will actually yield better results for the common good of all, that combat can really be justified.

So should we bomb ISIS? If we have learned anything from the last two decades of middle east conflicts, it is that fighting terrorists is incredibly difficult, costly, and complicated, and can often produce the opposite of the intended effect. We are completely ignorant if we think there is some simple way to take out terrorists, so I certainly don’t claim to know the best tactical approach forward. But I do know that the values that drive our strategy our critical. When we take up arms out of revenge, we can be quite certain that we will indeed succeed at the immoral and unethical pursuit that we undertake. And as title, states the greatest victim of revenge is the avenger, and indeed our hunger for revenge has cost hundreds of billions of dollars (if not trillions), as well as thousands of lives, and to pursue revenge now will cost us more.

Again, I don’t know the right tactical strategy, and we are equally at fault if we ignore the oppression and sufferings of the thousands who have been persecuted and displaced at the hands of ISIS. And we may very well be close to erring on the side of doing too little, in this case, and ignoring their plight (it seems very likely that we have done too little for the sake of the oppressed Syrians). But, we can only embark on truly ethical, moral, and just tactics of armed combat, when we start with a foundation of having first forgiven, and recognizing that the death of any human, including a terrorist is a great tragedy. To deny that a fellow human needs God’s grace exactly as much as myself, is to deny the cross itself.

The greatest victim of revenge is the avenger. We, unwittingly, in our hunger for revenge, become our own victim of bitterness, and in our pursuit, costing ourselves the most. And God, in His infinite foresight, undertook the most ironic, and beautiful twist of fulfilling this. As the rightful true avenger, He willingly became the true greatest victim. Indeed, the greatest Victim of revenge is the Avenger.

10 Accomplishments of Christ at the Cross

I want to make a list of some of the different things that Christ accomplished on the cross. It seems to be the tendency of different denominations and time periods to focus more on one, and extol the magnitude of the accomplishment and its implications. However, I believe that great adoration and glory is found not just in the depth of what He did, but in recognition of the breadth of Christ’s accomplishments as well. I attempted to think of distinct achievements, not just different implications of the same achievement. I think if we are to relate these together to a single overarching accomplishment, it would be to glorify God. This is not an exclusive list, just 10 things I thought of, in no particular order, that perhaps you might not have considered before:

  • He took our place for our sins, as a substitutionary atonement, providing legal justification before the Father, satisfying His wrath so that we might be forgiven. This is a major focus of modern protestantism, and for good reasons, the implications of this accomplishment are indeed truly life changing for us.
  • He ransomed us. Matthew 20:28 (and Mark 10:45, 1 Tit 2:6) says he gave his life as a ransom. It is important to note that a ransom is very different than the act of appeasing God’s wrath, as a ransom is paid not to the rescuer (God), but to the captor, which is Satan. Christ’s act of ransoming us was the focus of CS Lewis’s Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Aslan offered himself as a ransom directly to the White Witch.
  • He defeated Satan, triumphed over the powers (Col 2:15, Heb 2:14, 1 John 3:8). Jesus triumphed over Satan on the cross. As Hebrews says, He ‘destroy[ed] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil’. This is often known as “Christus Victor” (Christ is victorious). It is believed that this (or ransom) was the primary focus of the early church.
  • He perfected obedience, sacrificially submitting to the Father (Luke 22:42), pleasing and glorifying the Father (Isaiah 53:10). It is worth noting that this accomplishment has nothing (directly anyway) to do with us, it is purely an act of love and honor directly between the Son and the Father. While we naturally tend to be most interested in what Jesus did that affects us, this act stands above us, demonstrating that not everything God does is for our sake.
  • He satisfied and redefined justice. The natural idea of justice, that someone should be punished for their own crimes, was certainly not demonstrated at the cross, where an innocent man was crucified for the crimes of others. At the cross, Christ revolutionized how we view and understand justice, defining justice, the foundation of His throne (Psalms 89:14), being a justice focused on bringing restoration and freedom, rather than retribution.
  • He became the scapegoat, thus undermining the legitimacy of scapegoating in society. Leviticus 16 talks about the Azazel sacrifice, and Christ fulfilled the sacrificial system with His death. However, scapegoating represents a unique sacrificial act. Rene Girard has explored the implications that this has on society, showing how we grow in conflict, and eventually content ourselves by finding individual(s) that can be blamed for the evils that permeate our society (without actually dealing with the real problems). Christ took on the role of the scapegoat, bringing peace, but also subverted the practice, as the ultimate antithesis of a deserving scapegoat, forcing us to face the real issues (and in doing so, this actually led modern societies to be far more peaceful than ancient societies).
  • He reconciled all things to himself (Col 1:20, 2 Cor 5:18), at the cross, to make peace between God and us, between different peoples (Eph 2:14), for the redemption of His creation. He tore the veil (Matt 27:51), giving us direct access to the throne of God.
  • He made manifestly visible the impact of our sins (1 Pet 2:24). Our transgressions are not evil just by some random arbitrary decree of God, but because they have a real, painful impact on others. Christ took these sins upon himself, visibly demonstrated the pain and consequence that our sins have had on others.
  • He fulfilled the prophecies and covenants (Luke 24:44-46). He fulfilled the prophecies, demonstrating the faithfulness of God, and fulfilled the covenants, satisfying both the people’s requirement, when they couldn’t, and His response.
  • He identified with and become one of the poor and oppressed. Jesus clearly expressed his identity with the poor and oppressed (Matt 25:31-46), but he not only declared solidarity, he actually became poor (2 Cor 8:9) and oppressed (Isaiah 53:7), experiencing the full reality and suffering of the disadvantaged on the cross.

Any that you would add to the list?

Levels of Glorifying God

The Bible makes it clear that our ultimate purpose is to glorify God (1 Pet 4:11, among many others). The Westminster Catechism summarizes the chief end of man as to glorify God and enjoy Him. I want to suggest there are several levels or layers of glorifying God that we can pursue or enjoy. In many ways, God is like an artist, crafting His creation, writing His story, I think it is a helpful analogy to consider the fame and reputation of artist (like a writer, painter, or even engineer) as a way to think about His glory. In this list, I will draw from this analogy to describe different levels of glory.

  • The most basic and shallow level of glory is simply knowledge that a subject, an artist exists. We can come to know of the existence of an artist, just like we can come to know of the existence of God, but this says little of whether they are good or bad. This is weakest form of glory, although proclaiming the existence of God is an important and foundational step towards the greater levels, particularly for those who have not been introduced to our God.
  • The next level is information about the artist. We can share information about the attributes of an artist (or God), for example their purpose and focus in their art, and how they wish to interact with their audience. Some of this information may be favorable (he is popular), but this is still not sufficient to show how the artist is really good, or great, it is just informative, although it is an important foundation for establishing praise-worthiness.
  • Moving on, a deeper declaration of glory, is the declaration of the goodness of the subject. Here the glory goes beyond just declaration of existence, but declaring that he is good, great, or better than others. For an artist this equates to receiving acclaim or adoration for the works of art.
  • Next, we can give great praise by showing, with the explanations, reasonings, or stores, why the art is superior, how it is more lucid, evocative, or compelling than other works.
  • Going deeper is the manifestation of the goodness of the subject. This is the actual individual works of art of an artist. This is a deeper glory, as declarations are only commentaries on the actual works of art. The works of art are the substance that is being commented on. Occasionally God supernaturally interjects some event or creation, but God’s most common visible works of art, are on display in his central creation, people, and their behavior, attitudes, kindness, perspectives, and the work of their hands, visible demonstrations of God’s work, redemption, and creativity in their lives. Most real artists invest the majority of their effort into their art, and rather than marketing.
    It is worth noting that the 4th level’s foundation on the 5th can be comparative. Seeing lesser works of art or absence of art allows us to talk about the superiority of the great artist. In the case of contrasting with God, seeing evil is a critical contrast that demonstrates God’s goodness.
  • The penultimate level of glory of an artist is the collective set of all his works. The collection of all works demonstrates not only his skill in single piece, but the range and diversity of his skills. Leonardo da Vinci is famed not just for the Mona Lisa, but for his remarkable mastery across various mediums and arts, including painting, sculpting, music, engineering, and mathematics. The collective works can also speak to how they relate to each other, and perhaps even forming a coherent narrative. J.R.R. Tolkiens writings are adored partly because many of his greatest works come together to form an epic narrative, greater than the sum of its parts. Likewise, with God, His kingdom, His church, and how they relate to each other and weave together the great narrative that He has composed is the greatest demonstration of His artistry. It is also worth noting that this is the deepest level of glory that we can participate in.
  • The final and ultimate level of glory is the subject himself. The works of art, and all other lower forms of glory flow from the artist himself. Even before an artist has even began to paint or sculpt, the talents, creativity, and potential exist. All else flows from that. The ultimate substance of God’s glory is Himself, and we can neither add nor subtract from it.

There are implications to this perspective on the levels of the glory of God. The act of communicating to people and introduction to who God is and why He is good (often the focus of preaching the gospel), points towards a lower glory of God, but it is a critical foundation towards the higher levels of glory. To those who no know nothing about God, it is difficult to move on towards a deeper appreciation of God, and skipping this step can result in misattribution and misunderstanding of God.

However, once introduced, the main focus should turn towards greater levels of glory, towards participation, as a reflective piece of art of God. The Great Commission makes this goal clear, pointing past simple evangelism, towards the explicit goal of disciples who obey God (the manifested art of God, his obedient people), and towards the diversity of disciples in every nation, together shaping the mission around the image of his God’s collective artwork, made visible.

What do you think, is this a helpful perspective on how we participate in glorifying God?

Welcoming the Nations

There are a number of passages in Old Testament that point to God’s concern for caring for those from other cultures and immigrants, like Exo 22:21a (and emphasized again Exo 23:9):

You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners

However, other OT passages like this (including Lev 23:22, Num 15:15, Lev 25:6, etc.) are not just isolated, but represent a mere foretaste of the grand theme of the mission of the in-gathering of the nations in the New Testament. The famous passage known as the Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20, sets forth this mission in clear terms, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”. The Greek here for “nations”, is “ethnos”, which is more precisely translated as ethnic groups or cultures.

This is more than just a call to evangelize, but reveals God’s aim to glorify Himself through the manifold praise and diverse adoration of every nation. The focus on the nations/ethnic groups, the “ethnos” is repeated numerous times in the New Testament, and is climatically central to God’s final vision of His bride, the Church, in Rev 7:9-10:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!

We can’t compartmentalize this commission, this vision, to just inviting some friends to church sometime, it must redefine every facet of our interaction with our community and society. A singular commitment to this mission means rejecting a zenophobic cocoon, and instead embracing a whole-hearted pursuit of showing God, His Kingdom, His love to every ethnic group both near and far.

This affects both our local activities and broader public policies. We all have refugees and immigrants among us that we can reach out to. But we can’t honestly claim to be committed to teaching and calling the nations to obedience by building fences to keep them out. We undermine the efforts of those that are preaching the gospel when we bomb the very ones God called us to reach out to and love. Welcoming immigrants is not only integral to mission of in-gathering, but many believe migration is one of the powerful opportunities for many to escape poverty, which fulfills another strong Biblical theme of caring for the poor. Our allegiance to God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom of all the nations, even to those that are considered our enemy (Matt 5:43), or that we fear might affect us, or alter our land, must usurp any allegiance to our country or our culture (Matt 6:24). Seek first the Kingdom of God.

Lord, please forgive us for our hypocrisy and lack of commitment to your glory among the nations. May we demonstrate your ways, your welcoming love, your invitation, you forgiveness, your generosity, to every culture both close and distant, friend or foe.

I may try to write about these topics a little more later. Some of these deserve more depth, if I get a chance. But we will see.