Evangelism and Pyramid Schemes

One of the most touted strategies of evangelicals is “relational evangelism”. While this can describe a valuable pursuit, I would like to take a closer look at its roots. In particular, in this post I wanted to offer some critiques of making friendships for the sake of evangelism, while also offering possible ways to make this pursuit more God glorifying, based on scriptures.

Relational Evangelism?

Relational evangelism is typically a strategy of forming friendships for the sake of evangelism. One of the first concerns of the specific strategy of making friendships for the sake of conversion is fairly simple: it seems surprisingly absent from the Bible. From what I can tell there is virtually no examples of or instructions telling anyone to make friends for the purpose of evangelism. The best reason I can find for the strong emphasis on relational evangelism is that it is a relatively successful mechanism for getting converts (lessons learned from the business world, perhaps). This isn’t to say that outcome-justified strategies are bad, in general this would be a strong reason. However, the outcome-driven reasoning for relational evangelism has other problems based on questionable assumptions. The first problem is that relational evangelism can have negative side-effects in the pursuit of its goal, and secondly a singular focus on the outcome of conversions may misrepresent our essential goal as Christians.

In considering possible side-effects, we need to face the potential deceptive nature of relational evangelism. If friendship is pursued, with the implied goal of a relationship, when in fact, the real goal is conversion, this is disingenuous. Often this deception isn’t a sophisticated covert operation, but when underlying motives are hidden in relationships, that can easily lead to feeling slighted by the (apparently) insincere motives.

Again, I can find no direction in the Bible to pursue relationships for the ulterior motive of evangelism (in fact, surprisingly, evangelism is never even given as a universal mandate for Christians). Instead, within the Bible, I find pages and pages of instructions for how to do relationships for the sake of… good, loving relationships themselves. The God of the Bible doesn’t seem to treat relationships as a means to some other end, but rather something to be cultivated themselves. If it has a further end, it is for nothing short of God’s glory. God seems love to healthy caring relationships simply because he desires this for his people, it is his nature, reflected in humanity, and this glorifies Himself. Relational evangelism, then, runs the risk of degrading the value of relationship, lowering relationships to merely a tool, instead of having intrinsic worth itself (or at least in finding its worth in directly glorifying God).

Pyramid Schemes

I believe a helpful analogy in understanding the concern with relational evangelism can be expressed by comparing it to a pyramid or multi-level marketing scheme. Let’s consider the basic definition of a pyramid scheme: A pyramid scheme is a model in which participants receive rewards for enrolling other people into the scheme, rather than supplying any products or services to the public.

So how can a religion be similar to a concept that we typically apply to a business model? The core analogy is that a religion behaves like a pyramid scheme when it conveys that the highest and most valued activity is the conversion of others into the religion. The problem with this type of approach is that it is an empty cycle of recruitment. When the goal is nothing but converting people who will in turn seek to convert people, we are left with a circular pursuit that lacks any real substance. As a friend once said, we are recruiting soldiers, whose battle is nothing more than doing more recruiting.

The alternative to this empty scheme is that we pursue being obedient followers or disciples of Christ that make meaningful contribution to those around us, bringing blessing and peace. We want to make real disciples.

However, even “disciple-making” can easily shift into pyramid scheme. One can easily teach disciple-making as an alternative to evangelism for the purpose of making reproducing disciples. But again, if the goal is simply reproduction, without meaningful transformation that leads to substantive impact for others, in which case, disciple making has simply become a more sophisticated and effective pyramid scheme.

In a pyramid scheme, marketing (particularly by leveraging friendships) has overtaken the product or service itself, as the central component of the organization. Christianity must not be centered solely on marketing or reproduction, because it demonstrates that the core essence of Christianity (the fruit of the Kingdom, and the King himself) are not worthwhile themselves, and that relational manipulation is needed to grow. Followers of Christ exist to glorify the ways of God, not to demonstrate their own marketing and growth expertise.

To illustrate this further, I like to compare Amway and Apple. The former company is known for relying on multi-level marketing to sell products. No one (except the participants who are trying to sell) really considers Amway to have exceptional products. Rather they are known for exceptionally successful recruitment and marketing push. On the other hand, Apple is a company that has thrived on the reputation of their products. People buy their products not because a friend, who will get commission if he makes a sale, has convinced them they are good, but because of their reputation for, and people’s direct experience with their beautiful, well-designed products (this isn’t always the case, I am actually not a big fan of Apple products myself, but I certainly recognize their high reputation. There are a number of other companies that are perhaps even better examples of being built on product reputation, with very little marketing investment, like Asics, Krispy Kreme, and Sriracha.)

Scriptures frequently use the analogy of fruit to describe the result of meaningful faith. The primary significance of fruit is that it is distinctive in substance and nature from the rest of the tree. A tree consists of hard wood, but fruit is an entirely different substance. When a fruit tree grows, this can be good and healthy, but it is not fruitful if it only increases in size and branches. It must produce an distinct substance (something that can be distinctly tasted as good) from just more wood. Likewise, this means that while it is very good when Christians spread Christianity, and this growth is important, this alone is not fruitfulness. Fruitfulness is demonstrated not when Christianity produces more Christianity, but when it produces distinctive fruits (love, joy, peace, etc.)

Ultimately, the Gospel is good news, not good marketing. To love the gospel is not to be a lover of persuasive communication, but rather a lover of the revelation of the goodness of God.

Ultimate Purpose

The second questionable assumption of relational evangelism is that the outcome of conversions, and the number of conversions, is the central goal of Christianity. Indeed this is a logical conclusion if we assume that all humanity is destined for infinite joy or infinite sorrow, and every other finite matter (reward or punishment) is infinitesimal in comparison. This conclusion makes logical sense to me. But apparently it didn’t to Jesus, as his ministry does not align at all with this conclusion. Jesus, throughout the gospel, consistently pursued a holistic ministry, not a sole focus on conversion. However, this conclusion is perhaps most clearly contradicted in John 6. Jesus teaches that “whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (vs 56). The response: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (vs 66). We are left with one of two possibilities. Either Jesus had no idea how poorly his sermon would go over, or he had something more important in mind than how many people would simply label themselves as followers or “Christians”.

I believe that the Bible makes clear that the central mission of God is to glorify Himself. And He works through the church to reflect his amazing wisdom, grace, love, and justice (Eph 3:10). God is honored and glorified by a church that truly reflects these characteristics. The church in America has reflected many of these characteristics at times, but in contrast we also struggle with dishonoring God as our actions and attitudes build up a reputation of hypocrisy, judgment, arrogance, and selfishness. This struggle for the church to properly reflect God, to pursue His honor, is our most critical pursuit. And it seems nearly absurd to think that this struggle will be solved or even significantly helped by increasing the numbers and size of the American church. In a country where tens of millions, the majority (or nearly majority) of the country, identify themselves as Christians, the quality of the church properly representing and glorifying God hardly hinges on growing or shrinking a few percentage points (and possibly it may even fulfill its role better with fewer numbers).

As we consider how to glorify God, imagine that we were to make a serious research inquiry into who was the greatest leader in human history. How might we evaluate different leaders? While we might consider the number of followers as a simple filter for who to consider, we would almost certainly value things like integrity, inspiration, morality, and courage above simply the number of followers. For example, who would seriously think that Hitler was a greater leader for leading tens of millions than Oskar Schindler, simply because he only led a few thousand?

After leveling some criticism at relational evangelism, I want to try to now more clearly affirm the positive aspects of relationships and evangelism:

  • God delights in healthy, loving, self-sacrificial relationships themselves. Relationships don’t have to serve some other end, to be God glorifying, relationships that reflect His love and selflessness can honor Him regardless of whether they lead to presenting the gospel.
  • Relationships can authentically reveal the gospel that have developed in the spirit of mutually, humbly pursuing a right, just lifestyle.
  • A true, genuine relationship is characterized by people sharing their deepest cares. If God is the center of our lives, than honestly revealing ourselves should include revealing our passion for Him.
  • A community of healthy, loving relationships can be a brilliant display of God’s character and a great attraction to others.
  • Relationships themselves can communicate God’s hope.
  • Disciples in a mutual pursuit of God, and learning to obey His ways, can be one of the most power foundations of a friendship.
  • We are called to be ambassadors for God. Part of being reconciled to God is helping others be reconciled to God.
  • Evangelism can be one of the higher forms of praise. When we freely proclaim God’s goodness in response to how we have genuinely experienced Him, we are offering one of the greatest forms of worship (more than simply evangelizing out of duty or reward).
  • While I believe the American church doesn’t lack for size, many cultures and regions of the world lack a viable expression of the church. Strategically building trust and relationships that communicate the good news to enable the worship of God in every ethnicity is clearly integral to God’s vision of being glorified and worshiped in great diversity (Matt 28:19, Rev 7:9).

While I have perhaps been a bit critical of some evangelistic strategies, strategy is definitely in the Bible, and next I want to look at some of the strategy that is revealed.

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Advocating For the Poor

There are well over a hundred verses in the Bible about caring for the poor. These take various forms: some condemn the wicked for their oppression or disregard for the poor, some talk about God’s concern for the poor and the hope He offers them, and many are also direct mandates to care for the poor. Of these verses, most of these speak in general terms about caring for the poor, but others discuss the specific ways that we should care for the poor. While the general nature of these verses should compel us to care for the poor in any way possible, there are more specific mandates. There are two main mechanisms to help the poor;we find a number of passages instructing us to give to this poor (financially, or with goods), and there are also sets of passages instructing us to advocate for or defend the cause of the poor. These passages include verses like Psalms 72:4, Proverbs 29:7, and Proverbs 31:5-9.

These verses are translated in variety of different ways, including “defend the afflicted”, “care about justice for the poor” (NIV), “defend the poor”, “care about the rights of the poor” (NLT), “defends the poor”, “knows the rights of the poor” (ESV), “considers the cause of the poor” (NKJV). In contrast to giving to the poor, these verses speak to the importance of working to ensure that the poor have a just, fair, and equitable life and opportunity in society. This might have the most literal implications for a judge, but for us (assuming you aren’t actually a judge), we need to think a little more about how we can proactively pursue this command.

Outside a direct position of making judicial or governing decisions in regards to the poor, I believe our primary role in fulfilling this command is found in advocating for the poor. As citizens we do indeed have an influence on government. And following these two Biblical categories of instructions for the physical welfare of the poor, giving to the poor and advocating for the poor, the first can be carried out by offering our material (financial or goods) resources, the second by offering our influence (certainly we should also pray for the poor and care about their spiritual and relational needs as well). Our giving page talks about opportunities for the first, but I wanted to consider our second in this post. While often it may feel that the only way we can help the poorest of the poor is with money, advocacy gives the opportunity to invest our time and voice as well.

I have previously written about how our citizenship is a profoundly substantial resource. And this isn’t just a subjective superlative, our influence as an American voter can be objectively and literally measured; every voter effectively influences roughly $25,000 per year in government funds, which doesn’t even include other impacts the government has. If we are called to defend the poor, our voting privileges give us the ability to defend the poor with advocacy that has potential for very meaningful and substantial benefit to the poor.

So what are ways that we can defend and care for the poor through advocacy? And what does that look like for an American citizen?

The great opportunity that we have is found in simply contacting our representatives and encouraging them to have concern for the poorest. There are numerous bills to consider and budget decisions that they will make, and as they come to focus, we can easily email, write, and call them to push that to consider first and foremost how to protect the most vulnerable. Even calling a representative is very easy. An aide will answer the phone, you can tell them what position you want your representative to take, and they will politely record your response. Remember, they want your vote, so they are always very friendly, and will never argue or dispute (unless, perhaps you insult them, but I have never tried that).

Probably the easiest and most effective way to get involved in advocacy is to join or even just follow (mailing list, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever you prefer) a poverty advocacy group. These groups often will research and follow legislation as it is considered, and send information on who you can call and when, to promote bills that help the poor. These groups all invest effort in research to ensure that they are advocating for the most effective measures and policies to help the poor. There are several great groups that help citizens advocate for the poor:
Bread for the World – This is Bible-based Christian group, working to fight for the poor, here and abroad, although they tend to be more focused on domestic issues (I tend to believe that domestic policy tweaks are more complicated with smaller impact).
RESULTS – This group is probably the best organization at specifically equipping and training people to advocate for the poor in an effective way. They offer numerous ways to engage, and provide a lot of assistance in how to influence representatives, and will often organize in-person meetings with representatives and letter-writing campaigns to local newspapers.
ONE – This is probably the largest poverty advocacy group, and they do a great job staying focused on the most severe international poverty issues. This group is more focused on mobilizing large numbers of people, so they offer very-low effort advocacy opportunities (sometimes just clicking through to sign a petition, sometimes encouraging a quick phone call), but don’t tend to push for as much depth as RESULTS.

There are also a number of other advocacy groups that also do great work, but tend to be more focused on technical suggestions and in-person lobbying, or advocacy with foreign governments, rather than getting members to advocate. This is very important and effective work, but these groups are supported more through financial donations, and rely less on personal advocacy. This may be a great way to be involved if you have more money, and less time (but I wanted to focus more on personal advocacy in this post). These include groups like Jubilee (focused on debt relief and more technical trade and tax issues), International Justice Mission (focused on criminal justice systems in other countries), and Oxfam (focused on an array of social justice issues with various governments).

It is easy to be cynical of online advocacy. We often see online petitions going around. Does this really have any impact? Recently, our local RESULTS group sent out a request to contact representative Chris Stewart to encourage him to co-sponsor a bill that starts a working group in USAID to better support child and maternal health in developing countries. There were about seven or eight of us that called his office to encourage co-sponsorship, and sure enough, he agreed to sign on. It is worth understanding the significance of this. Representative Stewart represents about 700,000 people. Each of us were effectively representing the voice of about 100,000 residents by our simple phone calls! This is an incredible level of influence and impact! People often think that voting is the key to change, but our vote has a relatively small influence compared to the influence we carry by actually contacting our representatives.

Some may be concerned that some of the policies may not be effective. These groups’ advocacy is often focused on aid efforts, and often “foreign aid” is frequently criticized. However, “foreign aid” tends to be an unhelpfully vague term, often encompassing completely different types of international funding from military funding of other developed countries, to programs really directed at the poor, and an anecdotal examples of waste and misuse tend to ignore the incredible impact of well-targeted aid programs. Most of the efforts that advocacy groups fight for are around health initiatives, education, and microfinance. They are very well monitored, with excellent accountability, that save and empower countless lives and really are about giving the poor a fair opportunity, saving them from the injustice of preventable diseases, inaccessible schooling, or lack of basic capital. There may be critics of other types of foreign aid, but there is little, if any actual debate about the positive impact of such efforts to help the poor. In fact, it is almost undisputed that these efforts save more lives per dollar than basically any other government expenditure. This is less of question of efficacy and more about making the poor a priority. This is very straightforward way of simply being a voice to help the poor.

Finally, in closing I’d like to point out that one of the great things about advocacy is that it is complementary to giving. Are you already giving all you can to help the poor? Great, you can engage in advocacy without have to cut giving somewhere else. While you glorify God with your finances by giving, advocacy is something you can do with your time and voice.

Kris’ 2015 Book Reviews

It’s a little late, but here is a review of the books I read in 2015. I actually didn’t finish most of these books, or in some cases skimmed them pretty quickly. I think I have increasingly felt that when my goal is to gain more knowledge (or wisdom), with limited time, the time it takes to fully read a book is sometimes better spent spent quickly skimming or reading several book summaries, and gaining the broader perspective of multiple authors. Of course, I don’t expect that to be true for everyone. If you have more time to read, or actually enjoy reading… Anyway, here are some quick summaries of things I have read (at least some of, even though I didn’t finish all these books).

A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristof – This book followed Nicholas Kristof’s amazing book, Half the Sky. This is a great book, as it looks at some of the great injustices in our world, and focuses on practical ways that we can help. This book is not mere theory and sad stories, it is full of hope and concrete, positive suggestions. However, I personally grew a bit bored reading this book; I think Kristof follows all the same blogs and research that I do, and his suggestions echoed what I heard others say (although I certainly agree with them). However, I don’t think that would be as much of an issue for others.

A Farewell To Mars by Brian Zahnd – A friend posted that this book was available for free, so I thought I would skim some of it. I was very impressed, Zahnd is in incredible author, and this book is remarkably thought-provoking and challenging. Brian Zahnd is focused on resisting the urge towards violence, and even though I am not a pacifist, his perspective is very thoughtful and his challenges to the church should definitely be heard.

Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly – Easterly is a well-known aid critic, so I wanted to read for another perspective. He offered some good insights. Most of these critiques are actually more aimed at improving the quality of our research, approach, and efforts to help those in developing countries, not to eliminate such efforts. Unfortunately, his comments are often pulled out of context and used by those looking for an excuse to not be generous and help the developing world.

The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier – This book examines the countries where the poorest of the poor live, and what are the forces that have kept them in poverty. This looks at the frustrated issue of fragile and unstable states and the economics of international trade and considers the right time for military intervention in countries that face violent upheaval. This book is considered a classic of international development, and I learned a lot.

Politics for Christians by Francis Beckwith – This book is more about political philosophy. I suppose it is a decent survey of how different philosophies have shaped politics, but it ultimately doesn’t deal directly with existing political issues (at least in any useful or distinctively Christian way), nor offer any real meaningful or new thoughts on the subjects. The preface, by J.P. Moreland, on Christian integrative thought was really good, though. But it went downhill once the book actually started.

Healing by Francis MacNutt – This is a good book looking closely at the subject of healing, and is regarded by some as the definitive book on the theology of healing. I didn’t read the entire book, but skimmed through some of the key parts. I am already a believer in healing, so I don’t think he really suggested anything contrary to what I already believed. One particular entertaining aspect of this book is seeing the intersection of a Catholic priest in pursuit of social justice working side-by-side with the charismatic movement. What a fun combination this must have been (and I am not being sarcastic, there are great stories at these intersections of perspectives). Probably the most challenging and defining question about healing (at least for those that believe in it) is how we understand and respond when healing doesn’t or hasn’t yet occurred for someone. He had a chapter on this, which offered some insights, but I think there could be a lot more to explore and consider on God’s purposes in this, that the book only lightly touched on it.

Most of my reading during a typical day is outside of books, so I thought I might mention a few favorites there. My favorite blog (of original content) is probably still Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology, who continues to produce very thought-provoking content (even if I don’t agree with all of it). My favorite new (to me) blog I started reading is Bruce Wydick’s Across Two Worlds. Wydeck is a Christian economist who has extensively studied and researched child sponsorship programs, and found very positive results, and he offers a lot of unique perspectives.

The Church and the Kingdom, Part 2

This is part 2 in a series on the way my understanding of certain term used in the bible and in Christianese has changed and how that has affected my faith. You can read the first part here
In the previous post, I looked at what I have been learning about the meaning and purpose of the Church and the Kingdom. I used to vaguely consider these simply other words for Christianity, but I have come to think of these as very distinct. The Church has the specific purpose of nurturing, training, and preparing people to follow Christ, and ultimately model the community that should arise from following Christ. The Kingdom is the actual actions of following Christ. In this post, I want to consider a few other terms, and how they relate.

Other Terms

Within scriptures, the word “Christianity” is never actually used, and other forms, like “Christian” are only used a few times. There are instead several other words that are used that are applicable to our concept our “Christianity”, and I wanted to try to describe my understand of these distinct words and concepts.

The Believers

This is the most simple and straightforward description in scriptures for the collection of people that believe in and follow Christ. This is probably most analogous to what we mean when we say “Christians”.

The Way

“The Way” was the initial term that Christians used to describe their religion. This term obviously emphasized the teachings of Jesus as a distinctive “way” of living. In Acts, it is reported that they soon started to be called Christians by outsiders. The Christians didn’t seem to object to this, and as the early church increasingly understood and formulated the divinity of Christ and His centrality, the name seemes fitting, even though it was rarely mentioned in scriptures.

Brothers, Children of God

If you look up all the references to brothers and children of God, they seem to exclusively refer to believers. However, it can be easy to recognize the object of these terms, but miss the meaning. If we take these terms to be nothing more than a synonym or replacement for believers, this would seem to suggest that the Bible uses these words as a code word, to obscure the meaning, rather than using the clearer term “believer”. But of course these terms aren’t intended to be obscure, but rather add meaning. So while the object of these words is the believers, the descriptive meaning that these terms add to the reference to believers is to describe a familial, relational connection between believers with each other and with God (which builds our understanding of the Church and the Kingdom). When we see these terms we should recognize that scriptures is pointing us to a relational element (and not just a code word for believers).

Christianity

Again, the term “Christianity” doesn’t appear in scriptures, but I was comparing other words with it, so it seems worthwhile to try to define this as well. Being more colloquially originated, Christianity has come to mean more of the culture of Christians. Christians certainly do have their own sub-culture, with certain language characteristics (Christianese), worldview, ideologies, and traditions. However, not only does the term “Christianity” not really have a Biblical origination, but the sub-culture, like any other sub-culture is often a mix of perspectives and ways, some that are redemptive, and some that are in opposition to Christ’s teaching. Christianity, as a culture, needs to be transformed and redeemed by the Kingdom of God, just like every other culture.

OT Precedent

Perhaps another helpful way of distinguishing between the Kingdom and the Church is to look at their Old Testament precedence. For the Kingdom, the precedence is found in the theocratic kingdom represented by the Davidic line of Kings. The Davidic succession of Kings found its ultimate fulfillment in Christ as the ultimate King of the Kingdom. And their battles they waged, in their partial understanding (Col 1:25-27), are representative of the real battle that was to be revealed.

For the church, finding the precedence might seem a little harder. Conventantal theology sometimes is described as treating the church as a successor to Israel. While I definitely affirm conventantal theology (that there is no distinct spiritual category of people with obligated blessing based on ethnicity, Matt 3:9, which clearly contradicts dispensational teaching), the church as a successor isn’t quite precise. According to Romans 9:6-8, it is the believers, the children of God, that are the true heirs of Israel. It might also be tempting to compare the Church, or at least its ministers, to the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood. This is also misguided. The purpose of this priesthood was to act as a mediator between the people and God. The necessity of this function was decimated at the cross, when the veil was torn, and all believers were effectively made priests, with direct access to God. This also means that the associated rituals of the Aaronic priesthood, like animal sacrifices, a temple, and required tithes do not carry forward to the church.

However, finding the precedence of the church in the Old Testament is actually much easier than searching for metaphors. Why? Because the church is actually frequently referenced in the Old Testament. Now, of course, this may sound like a bizarre claim, as you probably have never seen the word “church” in the Old Testament. But, that is because you are reading an English Bible, and an artifact of English translation is the Hebrew equivalent word is traditionally not translated into “church”. However, the Hebrew word that is most equivalent to “church” or “ekklesia” is the Hebrew word “qahal”. And this Hebrew word for church (and it is varying forms, including a verb form) not only is mentioned in the OT, it occurs over a hundred times in the Old Testament (and even in the Septuagint, this is typically translated to Ekklesia, and occurs 80 times there). If you want to see the church in the Old Testament, just look for this word, which is typically translated more literally as “assembly”, “congregation”, or in verb form as “gather”. Now, I would certainly affirm that, thanks to Paul’s epistles, the church is much more fully developed in the NT, but it certainly is present and described in the OT.

What does this mean for us?

In response to my first post, a friend asked how (mis)understandings in these things work themselves out (for good or ill) today. This is a great question, and I don’t really have a complete answer. I wrote this post more to try to wrestle with the relationship and responsibility of these different aspects of God at work in His people. As a church leader, I feel it is important that I try to understand this. However, to take a rough stab at how a lack of distinction in these concepts might affect our thinking, I will offer this: I think we have tried a little too hard to make our virtuous efforts be tied to a Christian source. My assertion would be that when we pursue helping the poor, social justice, or evangelism, that there doesn’t need to be a church banner flying overhead, because the church isn’t and doesn’t need to claim direct responsibility. God will be glorified by these actions, (eventually), even if the immediate audience isn’t aware. This may diminish the church in one respect; in terms of our expectation of its direct capabilities. However, I think this (greatly) magnifies the Church in another respect. I like to characterize the role of the Church as a catalyst, and a catalyst can often trigger something that is orders of magnitude greater and larger than the catalyst itself. The Church has, can, and will continue to plant seeds of change that permeate and grow far beyond what the individuals themselves could ever accomplish. Through the Church is a thrilling and amazing potential! Lowly followers of Christ, by gathering to disciple and encourage, have triggered new patterns of living that have rippled through generations and have truly formed and shaped the world we live in today. We can and should legitimately hope to see our gatherings do the same today and tomorrow.

Putting This All Together

If I were to try to weave these together, I think I would say this:
Believers are called to periodically come gather together, like a family, relationally and lovingly, to train, nurture, equip, encourage, and prepare each other for following Christ’s way, that we might live our lives (not only inside, but outside the church) obeying the ways of the Kingdom, showing the way, like a catalyst, for transformation (for all cultures including Christianity) to a new way of living. As we do this, and manifest the Kingdom of God, demonstrating compassionate, merciful, and just ways, we tear down the barriers between ourselves, and draw people to gather together in harmony, a delight to Christ, radiating as His bride, walking in ways that anticipate our future closer union and gathering as relational community with Him.

The Church and The Kingdom, Part 1

The New Testament is very focused on describing the Kingdom of God, and the Church. Often times we use these terms interchangeably with Christianity. However, one of the most notable shifts in my Biblical understanding has been in seeing these concepts as very distinct in what they describe, and their function and purpose (for better or for worse). I wanted to describe how I currently understand these words. Some of these differences may seem minor and even pedantic, but I believe that these distinctions are indeed important in making well-informed decisions on our priorities and goals.

The Church

The church isn’t a building, its the people, right? Well, kind of, but not exactly. The word “church” is specifically for describing the greek “ekklesia” in a Christian context. And while the English word “church” is religious, the meaning of “ekklesia” isn’t actually a reference to a group people, nor did it originally have a Christian connotation. It literally means “assembly”. It was most often used to refer to something like a town hall meeting, or other gathering. And when we talk about an assembly or meeting, we don’t mean that the people are equivalent to the meeting. They obviously exist outside the meeting as well. The main meaning of this word was focused on the gathering of people (and the teaching, discipling, worshiping, etc. that we do together), more than the people themselves. Now to be fair, scripture does use the term somewhat loosely, and sometimes it is used to refer to people (like the churches of the different cities), but the reference still draws its basis from these people’s gatherings.

The assembly or gathering of believers has two purposes, a functional purpose and a representational purpose. The functional purpose is centered around the equipping of the saints (Eph 4:12), and is focused on the discipleship, teaching, training, and exhortation that will help fellow believers to obediently follow Christ. The representational purpose means that the church not only exists to facilitate the action and participation in the mission of God, but it also exists as an an example or demonstration of the outcome of the mission of God. The church gathers to train people to follow Jesus, and following Jesus ultimately leads to people gathering in harmony. The gathering is both a catalyst for a means and an end to those means.

I used to think that the church represented and was responsible for the whole mission of God. However, I have changed my view, thinking of the church in much narrower terms, as the training, enabling, and support part of the Kingdom of God. I believe the church should be the main catalyst and instigator for the ways of God, but carrying out the efforts of the Kingdom isn’t primarily done by the church, but the people who the church has shaped. This doesn’t lessen the importance of the church, but more tightly defines its scope. Like a productive business, the direction, training, and organization is absolutely critical and defines the success or failure of the business, but it must also not be the majority activity. Any company whose employees all endlessly spent the majority of their time in training and vision-casting, rather than putting their training in practice, will quickly fail. The major focus should be on actually carrying out the mission.

Often there are exhortations that the Church should rise up to fight poverty, slavery, and other forms of oppression, and to evangelize the world. I certainly agree with this sentiment. However, I am not sure if this is technically precise. It is not the direct responsibility of the church to do these things, rather it is the direct responsibility of believers to evangelize and fight poverty and oppression. The church, on the other hand, as an indirect responsibility, it’s responsible to call and equip believers to action in these areas.

Another important note about the distinction between the Church and Christianity is that one can be a Christian, but if you are not gathering with other Christians, you aren’t a part of the church. Likewise, you could gather with the church, and not be a Christian. Being a part of the church is not synonymous with being a believer.

How We Gather

I believe it can be naive to think of gathering in only physical terms. While we certainly have traditionally done church in terms of physical gatherings, if we actually think about the key elements of the church, physical presence is pretty minor and petty compared to the elements of communication, encouragement, forgiveness, and love that are not dependent on physical presence. In fact, it is interesting to remember that the much of the foundation of the church, established in the New Testament, was actually done in physical absence, from prison cells (where Paul and John wrote much of their letters).

Likewise, just as the church grew through “gathering” with the apostles who were imprisoned, and communicating remotely, the church can easily exist in our remote communication, like email and even social media. Any medium where we communicate and encourage each other to follow Christ is place where the church can exist and function.

The Bride of Christ

This term is used in Revelation (and a similar analogy is found Ephesians). It does not come with a precise description, but Ephesians does equate it with the church, and their future union with Christ. This metaphor seems to be focused on describing the representational purpose of the church. Revelation does make a specific description of the adornment of the bride as “the righteous deeds of the saints”, which would presumably be what Christ savors in His bride. This term similarly adds a relational connection with Christ, but with a strong emphasis on an anticipation of union together. Again, the church represents what Christ anticipates, a harmonious gathering of His people. We are looking forward to greater union with Christ. This anticipation that the term “bride” indicates, might be obscured in Christian culture, because for some strange reason, Christians commonly misuse the term “bride” to refer to their wife, even after their wedding and honeymoon (and associated anticipation) is long over and past (I have no idea why the wrong of use of this term is common in Christian culture).

The term “bride” seems to be reference to the representational purpose of the church. I think it is fair to say that Christ’s anticipation of the bride isn’t about the functional purpose of the church. I don’t think He is looking forward to sitting in on sermons and Sunday school lessons through eternity. Rather, as the bride, the church is representation of the family-like assembly that foreshadows our future society under Christ.

Kingdom of God

Jesus used this term frequently, which refers to that which is in accordance or subjection to God’s will, His purpose, His plan, and His vision. Again, a kingdom is not technically really a reference to a group of people, but a subjection to a King. Of course we can talk about the subjects of kingdom, but those who are subjects are not defined by the Kingdom directly, but are derived from their obedience to the ways of Kingdom. The laws of the kingdom are not defined by what the subjects do, but rather the subjects are defined by who follows the laws of the Kingdom. If you choose not to follow His ways, that doesn’t mean you are still a subject and changed His ways, it means you are no longer acting as a subject.

When I described the church as the catalyst of a means, and an end to a means, the Kingdom of God fills in this gap: the Kingdom is the means. To follow the way of the Kingdom is what the church is to train people for. The church points people to the Kingdom. The Church equips people to follow the way of the Kingdom. The mission of the Kingdom is the real substance of our calling.

This also means that the Kingdom of God is perhaps the hardest to pin down. One can’t isolate the Kingdom of God to the church or too a certain people. Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to yeast in bread. You can not look at rising bread, and say “there, that’s the part that’s do the rising”. While we can look at a can of yeast, and say that is where it comes from, but once it is actually in use, mixed and in action, it is transparently permeated through the bread. The yeast itself, once activated, is nearly impossible to see, but its affects are plainly visible. Likewise, the Kingdom of God is something that can subtly permeate lives, organizations, and cultures, and we can’t pin the Kingdom down to a group of people.

This isn’t just an idea illustrated by yeast, Jesus himself makes this aspect of the Kingdom very clear and explicit:

“The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

When we pray that God’s Kingdom come, this is not a prayer for the growth, victory, growth, or promotion of any earthly group of people, institute, political party, or even church. We see Christian groups “win” or “lose” battles against non-Christians, this is not wins and losses of the Kingdom of God. Jesus clearly taught that the Kingdom can not be identified in this way. Rather the Kingdom consists of the various acts of compassion, mercy, grace, and justice performed in the world. These can not be identified by the people, they can only be identified by their fruit.

And again, one can be a believer but rebel against the Kingdom in behaviors and areas of our lives (we basically all do this), and one can be a non-believer and yet have behaviors that are in accordance to the Kingdom (and virtually all non-believers have these areas too).

The terminology of the Kingdom also highlights the struggle against or opposition to the kingdom of evil. The Kingdom represents not just rule within the Kingdom, but united battle against the opposition. And again, just like the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of evil isn’t something that we can pin down to a group of people, it is not ISIS, non-Christian religious groups, or a political party. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood” (Eph 6:12). We battle the forces of evil like greed, oppression, exploitation, arrogance, and entitlement. We are called to “destroy the works of the enemy” (1 John 3:8).

Not only are the Church and the Kingdom referenced in scriptures, they are used in distinctive ways with distinctive meanings, and the these differences provides insights into how we relate to each. Again, I am still trying to learn more about what these mean, and I would love to hear what you think. In my next post I want to look at a few other terms that are often used to describe different aspects of Christianity, or Christianity itself, for the purpose of contrasting.

Scarcity

One of the most important contexts from which we demonstrate our affections, and our love is in the context of scarcity. Scarcity is the reality we all face (in differing levels of course), in making decisions about how to use our finite and limited resources. The decisions we make within this context reveal our true desires and pursuits.

Within Christianity there is tendency to ignore or downplay scarcity, because we serve and can petition a God with unlimited resources (Matt 7:7, John 14:3). However, these verses are caveated by being in accordance with God’s will, rather than our own. This means that these verses are intended to give us hope and comfort of a God who can and will provide for us, but it does not mean that we do not need to make decisions on how to best use the finite resources given to us. We often easily redefine “faith” to be about ignoring scarcity, but in fact, the concept of stewardship as expressed in scriptures (Like 12:48, Matt 25:14-30) is all about making decisions with finite resources. Faith does not ignore our finite resources, it acknowledges them. The reality is that we continually have to make decisions about how to use our time, effort, and money. We buy items, with a limited amount in our bank account. We schedule our time, we have a fixed amount of time each week. We only have so much effort we can expend before we are exhausted.

But, rather than being discouraged by this, we should understand how valuable this situation is in giving us an opportunity to demonstrate our love and affections. Imagine for an instance, if my wife needed a vehicle, but I wanted to buy a fancy sports car for myself. If I had unlimited resources, I could simply buy both. While on the surface, this might seem loving, as I gave my wife what she wanted. But, I really have not demonstrated much, other than I can swipe my unlimited credit card with ease. However, in the context of scarcity, working to meet a loved ones needs takes a new meaning, as we actually make sacrifices of our own wants to help another. From this, love is truly demonstrated. Love is demonstrated by what we are willing to give up, our true affections are proven by what lesser affections are willingly set aside for a greater one.

One of the reasons God took on flesh, as Christ, was to demonstrate living in the scarcity of the human existence. In this, he was able to truly demonstrate and prove his love for us, and demonstrate his true affections. Anyone with the slightest bit of imagination could easily come up with laundry list of things that we would have liked God to do while he was here on earth, if he was acting with unlimited resources. We might wish that we would have setup hospitals on every corner, implemented robots that caught every criminal, and discipled every believer (and don’t think he couldn’t have made robots that are way better disciples than you and I), and put reader boards in the sky proclaiming the gospel. But, as demonstration of his love and affections, he operated with scarce resources (and quite scarce, his carpentry work probably wasn’t that financially lucrative, and he had relatively short time/life to work with). And consequently, by looking at his life, we can see the things that God truly regarded as important and worth pursuing. Where Christ spent his time and energy clearly reveal God’s greatest desires.

This doesn’t mean that we voluntarily choose to be poor. One of our resources is time, and using this finite resource to produce more resources (like money or other good, for the benefit of others, and glory of God), is good stewardship. Our resources are also not bounded, there is no fixed bound on how big of impact we can make with our efforts (there is a critical difference between bounded and finite). Exchanging resources is a key way that we do the most with what we have been given. But ultimately we will still need to decide for who and what purpose we will use what we have.

Our affections are revealed by how we respond to scarcity. We may affirm the goodness and value of many things, but our financial statements reveal what we truly regard as important. And our schedules reveal what we truly care about. We live in a society where people seldom say no to things that they really want, for the sake of something else. But this demonstrates our affections with the greatest of clarity. Our finite-ness gives us the opportunity to unmistakably declare what we value, what we love, and what we prioritize.

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.

Confession

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!