dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label Christianity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christianity. Show all posts

Saturday 7 September 2013

How do you answer prayers?

The word "pray" is usually used today in a religious context, as in to make a petition to God. However, the broader meaning of the word is an earnest request or entreaty, regardless of who is 'praying' and who is being 'prayed' to. Although uncommon in contemporary English, it can be used in strictly human-to-human requests, as in the expression "Pray tell."

Any earnest request made of us by another person could be called a "prayer", then, in the broad, non-religious sense of the word. As such, all of us are recipients of "prayers". Examples could include: 
  • Requests for material or financial assistance from beggars
  • Requests from coworkers or fellow students on a project or assignment
  • Requests from our kids to buy them something, take them somewhere, etc.
  • Requests for advice or moral support from a friend who is going through a difficult time  
  • Requests for forgiveness from a person who has wronged us
  • Cries for help from a person in danger
Many other examples could be added.

Now, Jesus in his teaching laid down an important principle concerning the relationship between how we treat others and how God treats us. In the context of judgment, the principle is stated thus: "For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you." (Matt. 7:2). In the context of forgiveness, the principle was illustrated by Jesus in the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matt. 18:23-35, and in the Lord's prayer in Matt. 6:12. In the context of deeds of kindness, the principle is illustrated in the picture of the Final Judgment given in Matt. 25:31-46.

I wonder whether we could not apply this principle in the context of prayer, here and now. We believe that God hears prayer (Ps. 65:2). We believe that God answers prayer; but not always. Why does he not always answer prayer? Partly because our prayers are sometimes bad (e.g. Luke 18:9-14; James 4:3) or not asked in faith (James 1:6-7). Partly because God knows better than us what our best interests are. In short, when we pray to God, he weighs our requests and makes a decision - a judgment - on whether to grant them.

Do we not do the same thing when we receive requests from our fellow human beings? Whether your child is asking you for a toy, a beggar is asking you for spare change or a friend is asking for advice, do you not weigh the request, and make a judgment call on whether, and how, to grant it?

And if God deals with us according to how we deal with others, may he not take into account how we answer the "prayers" of other people when considering how to answer our prayers?

When someone makes an earnest request of me, do I unselfishly respond in a way that seeks the best interests of the requester and all others involved? Or am I cynical and dismissive? The Scriptures make it clear that we cannot enjoy true fellowship with God while remaining insensitive to the needs of our neighbour (Matt. 22:37-39; James 3:9; 1 John 4:20-21).

Just as we trust that the eyes and ears of our Lord are open to our prayers (Ps. 34:15), so we ought to keep our eyes and ears open to the requests of those who call on us for help, doing all to the glory of the Lord.

Saturday 31 August 2013

Christadelphians and the Heavenly Hope

One of the definitive doctrines of Christadelphians is that the hope of the just is eternal bodily life on earth after the resurrection, and not an immaterial existence in the heavens beginning at death (or the Rapture).

At first glance, it appears that the gulf between this belief system and the popular Christian belief in a heavenly afterlife is vast and insurmountable. Most Christadelphians would say that they do not share 'one hope' (Eph. 4:5) with other Christians. For Christadelphians who think this, there are two books I would encourage you to read. The first is Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by Anglican bishop emeritus and eminent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. The second is Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell, by Evangelical scholars Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr.

Both of these books (and many others) make what amounts to a critique of the popular Christian belief that disembodied heaven-going at death (or at the rapture) is the hope revealed in the Bible. They both insist that our hope is resurrection to an eternal bodily existence, just as Christ was raised to an eternal bodily existence.

This movement is not new - Boa and Bowman draw heavily on a 1965 essay by the prominent German theologian Oscar Cullman entitled, "Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?" Cullman noted at the time that his ideas had provoked both great enthusiasm and great hostility. The enthusiasm appears not to have abated in the last 50 years but rather continues to grow and flourish.

This shift in direction should not be understood as a wholesale adoption of Christadelphian ideas. All of the above writers argue biblically for some kind of conscious existence after death. However, this is not the final reward; it is merely an 'intermediate state' for those awaiting the resurrection. Boa and Bowman do not mention Christadelphians but devote several pages to refuting the doctrine of annihilation at death as espoused by Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists. This includes positive evidence for the 'intermediate state' as well as refuting alleged biblical support for annihilation.

The question is, if these Christians are in agreement with Christadelphians that our ultimate hope is a bodily existence after the resurrection, does it really matter if we disagree about what and where we will be in the interval between death and the resurrection, which is but a moment when compared with eternity? Does this difference make our hope fundamentally different?

The Christadelphian may respond, "But what about the consummated kingdom? Do they affirm it will be on on earth, or in heaven?" Boa and Bowman point to the language of the new heavens and new earth from Isaiah 65-66 and used in 2 Peter 3:13. The description of the new heaven and new earth in Rev. 21 has the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven with an announcement that "the dwelling place of God is with man." Furthermore, the man Jesus currently exists bodily in heaven. The barrier between heaven as the abode of spirit beings and earth as the abode of material beings is destined to be erased. Ultimately, heaven and earth will be one, so where is the fundamental difference among those who say we will end up in heaven and those who say we will be on earth?

But surely, you might say, the Scriptures must be fulfilled such as Num. 14:21, "All the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord." Boa and Bowman write of two views on the destiny of this earth, which he calls the 'Renewal' view and the 'Replacement' view. In the Renewal view, this present earth will be restored and renewed, but will still be the same earth. In the Replacement view, this present earth will be annihilated and a new one created.

Boa and Bowman rightly stress need to balance the two. There are many scriptures which speak of renewal, such as "the times of refreshing" and "restoring of all things" (Acts 3:19-20). On the other hand, the picture of the physical world's fiery destruction painted in 2 Pet. 3:10-12 is quite complete. A balanced view affirms that while the changes to the earth will be so drastic that it could practically be described as a replacement, there must be some measure of continuity between the present earth and the new earth, otherwise it is not really the earth, and the promises concerning the earth's restoration have not been fulfilled. N.T. Wright draws out the importance of this continuity, applying Paul's words from 1 Cor. 15:58:
"You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that's about to fall over a cliff.  You are not restoring a great painting that is shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that is about to be dug up for a building site. You are -- strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself -- accomplishing something which will become, in due course, part of God's new world" (Surprised by Hope, pp. 219-220)
Paul draws an analogy between the redemption of the creation and of the body (Rom. 8:22-23), so I think we need to bring the same logic to the annihilation debate. In the resurrection, are we 'replaced' or 'renewed'? Just as Christadelphians would argue that there must be some continuity between this earth and the new earth, so Evangelicals would argue that there must be some continuity between the natural man and the resurrected man. If I am recreated ex nihilo in the resurrection, is it really me? Whether conscious or unconscious, there must be something of me that exists between death and the resurrection. This existence is what Wright, Boa and Bowman call the intermediate state.

The important conclusion here is that whomever believes in resurrection to an eternal bodily existence shares the One Hope. Fundamentally, this hope is not altered whether one believes the dead are conscious or unconscious during the brief period before the resurrection. Fundamentally, this hope is not altered whether one believes the redeemed will inhabit heaven or earth, since they will be one. We can all agree that there will be a new world where God and his people dwell. It will have some limited continuity with the present world but will be radically different.

We can and should continue to seek after the finer details from God's Word, while confessing that our knowledge is limited (1 Cor. 13:12). When differences in understanding these details arise, let us not quarrel and divide but unite around the new heavens and new earth, "the hope laid up for us in heaven" (Col. 1:5).

Saturday 24 August 2013

Making children of hell: evangelism gone horribly wrong

In Matthew 23 we find the famous Seven Woes with which Jesus publicly indicted the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy and arrogance. The second of these woes condemns their missionary practices, reading as follows:
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell (gehenna) as yourselves." (Matt. 23:15)
The Greek word proselytos refers to Gentiles who officially converted to Judaism by undergoing circumcision (for males) and agreeing to abide by the Law of Moses. Now, is noteworthy that most orthodox Jews today do not actively seek out Gentile converts. For instance, in a recorded lecture, the late Dr. Leonard Tann, a senior British rabbi in Birmingham, England, explained that in England it is only the Chief Rabbi's Office in London that can approve conversions. Moreover, he himself followed the practice of Naomi (Ruth 1:8-15) in bluntly discouraging would-be proselytes at least three times before agreeing to assist them in converting to Judaism.

However, Jesus' statement here agrees with other historical evidence indicating that the sect of the Pharisees were very active in seeking proselytes at this time. It is apparent that the writings of the first century Jewish historian Josephus (himself a Pharisee) were intended to commend Judaism to his Gentile readers. Indeed, a recent book by Michael Bird which takes its title from Matt. 23:15 argues that Jews of this period were active in evangelizing the Gentiles, both in Palestine and the diaspora.

It has been argued that much of the Pharisees' activity was aimed at converting loose adherents to Judaism (the so-called 'proselytes of the gate') to their stringent brand of religion. The Pharisees compelled people to follow not only the Law of Moses itself but also the many layers of oral law which had been added over the centuries. For this reason, Paul referred to the Pharisees as "the strictest party within our religion" (Acts 26:5).

It seems that the Pharisees thought they had the perfect religion: they had worked out a foolproof formula through which they could ensure that they were following God's laws and thus earning salvation, while their consciences could be put on autopilot!

While we don't have any historical narratives of Pharisees proselytizing in the New Testament, we do have plenty of evidence that they were willing to travel significant distances to oppose non-Pharisaical practices. The Pharisee Saul unilaterally sought permission from the high priest to travel from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest Christians (Acts 9:1-2). Jews came from Antioch and Iconium to Lystra to oppose Paul and have him stoned (Acts 14:19). Jews came from Thessalonica to Berea to oppose Paul (Acts 17:13). Jewish Christians (possibly Pharisees) came from Judea to Antioch to impose circumcision on the Gentile Christians (Acts 15:1-5).

Thus we can see that many Jews, and the Pharisees in particular, were zealous for stamping out any form of Judaism which did not measure up to their legalistic standards. From Matt. 23:15 we can infer that they took the same elitist zeal to their efforts to proselytize Gentiles.

Jesus' emphasis on travelling over sea and land to make a single proselyte suggests that the scribes and Pharisees may have been very picky missionaries. We know they looked with disdain on some classes of people (Matt. 9:11; Luke 7:39; Luke 15:2; Luke 18:9-11). They probably did not see the fields as 'white unto harvest' but rather sought to find a few needles in the haystack. They would probably have written off many as unworthy of their religion based on profession, socioeconomic status, illiteracy and other superficial reasons.

However, their strict law-and-order, salvation-by-merit message would certainly have resonated with some, bringing a sense of purpose and fulfilment. And for Jesus, that was the real tragedy. Once he learns that the formula for righteousness and salvation is strict legalism, the proselyte's zeal may well surpass that of his teachers. He will seek to impress his loyalty upon them by going to further extremes than they ever did. In this way, religious extremism is self-replicating. As D.A. Carson wrote in his commentary on Matthew, “The Pharisees’ interpretations and the rules deduced from Scripture became so fully those of their converts that they ‘out-Phariseed’ the Pharisees” (Matthew & Mark, Longman & Garland, eds,. 2010 p. 538).

Pharisaism with respect to the Torah and oral law is not a major problem in the church today. So is there any lesson in Jesus' words for us in 2013? I think so. Jesus' words apply equally to all those who proclaim that only those who belong to their group, who assent to their statement of faith, who follow their rules, can be saved. They say, in effect, "Come to us!" rather than "Come to Him!"

As soon as the focus turns from the Saviour to the religious system, we have laid another foundation instead of what has been laid - Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11). And, if we succeed in winning converts to our ideology, they may soon turn on us once they determine that our religion is not as perfect as it could be. This is the fate of all who seek to construct their own way to salvation rather than simply believing in the Way (John 14:6). Their religious structures soon bear little resemblance to faith in Christ Jesus, but consign both founders and converts to the destiny laid out by Jesus in those frightful words, "child of hell."

Friday 9 August 2013

The Three Dimensions of Sin

What is sin? It is doing wrong. A simple biblical definition is "lawlessness" (1 John 3:4), which reminds us that sin is measured against a standard: God's law. (There are also more technical meanings of the word, such as original sin or imputed sin, or sin as a power, which we aren't dealing with here).

My impression is that in Western society today, morality is increasingly measured in terms of respect for the rights of other people, and immorality as the violation of those rights. Thus, for an action to be considered "wrong" it must be in direct violation of the rights of another person or group. Individual freedom is so highly regarded that it must not be restricted unless its abuse demonstrably harms someone else.

This shift in thinking is evident not only at a social level but also in the legal system. We hear of lawyers protesting that their clients stand accused of a "victimless crime" and thus do not deserve any penalty. Criminal acts which have been described as victimless (according to Wikipedia) include individual consumption of recreational drugs (especially cannabis), prostitution and solicitation of a prostitute, public indecency, depiction of cartoon child pornography, and not wearing a seatbelt. The victimless nature of consensual sex acts has apparently been a major factor in the overturning of sodomy laws in many jurisdictions.

While our secular, individualistic society increasingly recognizes only wrongdoing with an external victim (human or animal), the biblical concept of sin has three "dimensions." Sin can be vertical (committed against God), horizontal (committed against another person or group of people), or circular (committed against oneself).

The dimension most commonly referred to in scripture is the vertical dimension. There are dozens of references to sinning against God. These include sins of a "religious" nature, such as idolatry (Ex. 32:31-33; Judges 10:10), but also sins which only involve people (Gen. 39:9; 2 Sam. 12:13). There are also a number of references to 'horizontal' sin, i.e. sinning against other people (Gen. 42:22; Matt. 18:15). The circular dimension of sin is less frequently mentioned, but is emphatically stated by Paul in 1 Cor. 6:18-20
"18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body."
Other references to sin against self include Prov. 6:32 and Rom. 1:24. It is noteworthy that all three of these texts refer to (apparently consensual) sexual sin, since many of the alleged 'victimless crimes' mentioned above are of a sexual nature. Why are these sins against oneself? Partly, as Paul explains, because we are not our own. God, the Creator and Redeemer of our bodies, has called us to set them aside for a higher purpose. As such, he has given us commandments on how we may or may not use our bodies. When we ignore these in the interests of individual freedom, we actually remove ourselves from God's presence and blessing. We rob ourselves of peace and joy.

It is important to realize that there is overlap between the different dimensions of sin. David's adultery and murder were described as sins against God, even though they directed involved only human beings. There are a number of cases where a sin is explicitly described as being both against another person and against God. Pharaoh sinned against God, as well as Moses and Aaron (Ex. 10:16). The prodigal son confessed that he had sinned against heaven and his father (Luke 15:21). Paul declares that a sin against one's brother is a sin against Christ (1 Cor. 8:12).

In fact, every single sinful act encompasses all three dimensions! First, every sin is an act of rebellion against God, the righteous Creator, Lawgiver and Judge to whom all are accountable. Second, any sin, even an apparently "victimless" one, violates our fellow humans. We set a bad example for others, causing them to stumble; and we defile our consciences, making us more harmful to others. Finally, every sin is against oneself because it is self-destructive and separates us from our loving Father in heaven. As Wisdom declares in Prov. 8:36, "He who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death."

Just as society increasingly discounts the seriousness of 'victimless crime', so the church increasingly discounts the seriousness of 'victimless sin' - particularly sexual sin. It is claimed that sexual sin was very low on Jesus' priority list compared to sins such as self-righteousness and pride. However, this is an argument from silence, and Jesus' apostle Paul made it clear that sexual sin has a victim (oneself) and is inconsistent with our calling to glorify God in our bodies.

Friday 2 August 2013

The Kingdom of God is both Now and Not Yet

Virtually any person who has read the New Testament would agree that the kingdom of God was at the center of the message preached by Jesus and the apostles. In Matthew, Jesus' sayings refer to the kingdom no less than 45 times, and all four Gospels contain important mentions of this notion of the kingdom of God.

Both Mark and Matthew summarize Jesus' message along the lines, "The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe" (Mark 1:15; Matthew 4:17). In Luke 4:43, Jesus declares that the purpose for which he was sent was to "preach the good news of the kingdom of God". Acts records the kingdom of God as the primary focus of Jesus' discussions with the apostles after his resurrection and prior to his ascension (Acts 1:3). The kingdom of God also features prominently in summary statements about apostolic preaching in Acts (e.g. 8:12; 28:31). It is also mentioned over 20 times in the rest of the New Testament.

While most are agreed on the centrality of the kingdom of God in Jesus' and the apostles' teaching, there is no such agreement on what the kingdom of God actually means. Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology mentions four different interpretations. These are (1) the Political Kingdom (in which Jesus made a failed attempt to establish a political kingdom in rebellion against Rome), (2) the Spiritual Kingdom (in which the kingdom refers to God's rule in the individual's heart), (3) the Consistent or Future Kingdom (in which a supernatural kingdom which does not yet exist will be established after the Second Coming of Christ), and (4) the Realized or Present Kingdom (in which Jesus brought the kingdom at his first coming and fully established it through the church).

While interpretations (1) and (2) no longer have a following among any but the most liberal of Bible scholars, today's Evangelical Christianity is, in some instances, polarized between (3) and (4). Christadelphians (if I may be permitted to lump them in with Evangelical Christianity) have traditionally been firmly at the (3) end of the pole. The kingdom of God is yet future, and any insinuation that it may exist presently is taken as false doctrine, full stop. For instance, the 1877 Christadelphian Statement of Faith contained eight clauses describing the kingdom of God, all of which referred strictly to the future (although it is stated that this future kingdom will be a recapitulation of the past Davidic kingdom). Meanwhile, among the Doctrines to be Rejected is the idea that the kingdom of God is the church.

At the other extreme, in some Evangelical churches, there is an extreme at the (4) end. One could attend such churches for months and only hear references to the kingdom as a present reality. Talk of a future kingdom, for such believers, suggests a detachment from the Lord's powerful present work among his people. Besides, if such a kingdom was going to come, surely it would have come by now!

As is often the case, both extremes are wrong. A comprehensive biblical doctrine of the kingdom of God must incorporate both (3) and (4). There are passages which refer to the kingdom of God as a future reality only to be accomplished at the end of the age (Matt. 8:11; Matt. 25:34; Luke 19:11ff; Luke 22:18; Gal. 5:21; 2 Tim. 4:1; 2 Pet. 1:11), and there are passages which refer to the kingdom of God as having already arrived in the first century (Matt. 4:17; Matt. 13:41; Matt. 21:43; Luke 10:9-11; Luke 17:20-21Col. 1:13; Rev. 1:9).

This balanced approach, in which the kingdom has been inaugurated but not consummated, is sometimes referred to as inaugurated eschatology. It is necessary to hold in tension the paradox that the kingdom of God is both now and not yet. Only then can we avoid the extremes of the one whose anticipation of future events distracts him from the Lord's presence and power in the church today, and the one whose focus on present spiritual realities has left him with no sense of the approaching conclusion of history.

Saturday 15 June 2013

A Canadian's Reflections on Five Years in South Africa

Most of my blog entries are theological in nature and I don't often get personal. However, as this weekend marks five years of residence in South Africa for me, I thought I would share some personal reflections. I am turning 30 in a few weeks' time. I spent the first 25 years of my life in Canada (Grimsby, Ontario, to be precise), and the last five in South Africa (4 1/2 in Durban and the last six months in Cape Town).

Canada and South Africa are very different worlds. One can start with the weather, which isn't as different as  one might think. The heat of summer is fairly similar in the two countries, although of course it occurs at opposite times of year due to being in different hemispheres. Durban can be unbearably humid but the temperature highs in Jan-Feb (30-35 degrees) are similar to what one can get in southern Ontario. As to winter, Canadian winter temperatures are significantly colder: -5 to -10 is typical compared to 15ish in Cape Town, getting down to single digits at night. However, the South African winter can actually feel colder because buildings (including our apartment) are not insulated or heated. Thus in Canada, it can be -20 outside and 20 inside, but in South Africa, if it is 13 outside, it's probably 15 inside.

A more fundamental difference between the countries is economic. Canada is a developed country, usually voted as one of the best places to live in the world. South Africa is a developing country. It is classified as a middle income country but this is misleading because of its high GINI index. This statistic measures the economic inequality in a country - the gap between rich and poor - and South Africa had the highest value in the world as of 2009. Thus in Cape Town, for instance, you have suburbs that resemble upscale Canadian neighbourhoods, only a few kilometres away from slums where people eke out a living in squalor. Unfortunately, after a few months of living here it ceases to be shocking and becomes just part of the scenery.

Of course this inequality, which is very much along racial lines, is the enduring legacy of the country's apartheid history. Many whites have emigrated to the developed world over the past 25 years, and most white South Africans I meet tell me they have family in Canada. Many people are surprised that I, as a white Canadian, would go against the flow and choose to make my home here. Sure, many affluent people from  Western countries come as tourists, or to volunteer for a few months, but to settle down here? Why? This country which, according to some, will quickly degenerate into anarchic chaos once the ailing Nelson Mandela passes away?

The question of why I settled in South Africa is a complex one, but I think the shortest answer I can give is that I believe God called me to come here. My experiences have given me a great appreciation for the story of Abraham. No, I don't have any delusions of grandeur that I've come here to start a great nation. What I mean is that I believe God called me out of my comfort zone so that I could grow as a person, and perhaps be a force for good in this existing great nation of South Africa.

This brings me to the greatest difference between Canada and South Africa. As our pastor mentioned a few weeks back, for all of South Africa's problems, one thing it has going for it is that this is a nation which is spiritually alive and where the Spirit of God is very active. In this country it is acceptable to express one's Christian faith openly without being called a bigot or a violator of human rights. The president can make reference to the Second Coming in a speech, prayer is offered in public schools, and churches are full of people of all ages and cultures. The forces of secularization have not succeeded in pouring cold water on the Spirit's fire in South Africa as they have, to a great extent, in Canada and other Western countries.

The work of the 19th century missionaries from Europe and North America has borne great fruit. While their natural descendants back home have largely rejected the gospel of Christ, the people of Africa and other newly evangelized parts of the world have become their spiritual heirs, much the way that the Gentiles of the Roman Empire became the spiritual heirs of the Jewish apostles. The locus of global Christianity has shifted from North to South. God's purpose has not been and cannot be thwarted.

For this reason I feel grateful to be in South Africa, in spite of uncertainties about the country's political and economic stability. While I miss my family and friends in Canada and the USA very much, God has given me a family here, and many rich experiences and relationships that have helped me to grow in a way I never could have had I stayed put in the land of my birth. 

I do not know what the next five years hold, but the past five have given me many reasons to praise God and His Son Jesus Christ, and great hope that no matter what happens, He is in control.

Friday 3 May 2013

Chris Broussard, the Church, and Homosexuality

I was already planning to write about homosexuality and the church this week, but the topic has now taken on even greater poignancy. On Monday, professional basketball player Jason Collins became the first athlete in one of the USA's four major professional sports to announce he is gay.  Asked for his opinion of this announcement, TV sportscaster Chris Broussard, a born-again Christian, caused a national uproar by stating that living as an unrepentant homosexual is open rebellion against Jesus Christ. Jason Collins noted in a subsequent interview that he too is a Christian, but denies that homosexuality is sinful. Which position is aligned with the will of God?

Before turning to this question I want to make a couple of disclaimers. First, I realize that the church has often treated homosexuals very badly. The heterosexual majority know we haven't committed homosexual sins, which makes homosexuals a great scapegoat, a way of turning the focus away from our own failings.

On that point, I myself am a sinner, and one who has lost battles against my own sexual desires. However, God's forgiveness is available to me on the basis of my faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:22-23). The same forgiveness is available to any sinner, but is conditional on repenting and confessing our sins (Luke 24:47; 1 John 1:9-10). We cannot confess our sins if we don't think they are sins; hence the need to seek God's will concerning homosexuality. We cannot simply err on the side of approval, because justifying evil is just as wrong as condemning good in God's sight (Prov. 17:15).

Thirdly, I realize this is an extremely sensitive subject, and I regret any offense it may cause (but cf. 2 Cor. 7:8-10).

My previous blog concluded that Leviticus 18:22 was a general prohibition of homosexual acts. However, does this commandment apply in the church age? Several issues arise in answering this question. First, does the Bible convey the will of God concerning sexual morality? Non-Christians would answer no, and some Christians (such as Bishop John Shelby Spong) would too. However, since this issue is beyond our scope, it will be assumed that the answer is yes.

Second, are Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 moral laws or ritual laws? Some Old Testament scholars claim that these texts reflect the cultural circumstances at the time, where homosexual acts were part of foreign worship rituals. Since homosexuality has no idolatrous connotations today, the commandment no longer applies. However, there is no indication of such nuances in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13. Furthermore, this view incorrectly assumes that ritual and moral laws are wholly distinct. Adultery and child sacrifice are also prohibited in Lev. 18 but, while these may have been associated with idolatrous worship, their prohibition is also moral in nature (cf. Matt. 19:18).

Other scholars claim that the Levitical laws were done away with by Christ, so the law against homosexual acts is no more applicable for the church than the dietary laws (Lev. 11) or the prohibition of mixing fabrics (Lev. 19:19). However, while these symbolic laws were fulfilled and done away with by Christ, there is no symbolic fulfillment of homosexuality in Christ. And, as will be seen, Levitical laws concerning sexual morality are upheld in the New Testament.

The best explanation of the sexual morality laws in Lev. 18 and 20 is that they are simply an elaboration of the Seventh Commandment ("You shall not commit adultery") and are thus moral absolutes for all time, preserving the family in the way God designed it as the core social unit.

The New Testament confirms that these commandments are still in effect. As recorded in Acts 15, there was a great controversy in the apostolic church about whether the Law of Moses was binding on Gentile Christians. In the end, it was decided that it was not, but they were required to "abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality" (Acts 15:29). The first three prohibitions come from Leviticus 17, and so the fourth must refer to the sexual morality laws in Leviticus 18. Thus we have it on apostolic authority that these laws (including the prohibition on homosexual acts) do apply in the church age.

The same idea can be found in Paul's writings. In 1 Cor. 5:1, Paul writes, "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife." Paul has taken the description of incest from Lev. 18:8 and Lev. 20:11. He orders the Corinthian church "not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality" (1 Cor. 5:11). Based on the prior allusion to Leviticus (and the quotation from the Law in 1 Cor. 5:13), we can only conclude that Paul is taking his definition of "sexual immorality" from the Law of Moses.

Paul then mentions homosexuality directly in the following chapter:
"Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Cor. 6:9-10 NASB)
The two bold words here are translated from the Greek words malakos and arsenokoites. This is the earliest known use of the Greek word arsenokoites, and scholars believe that Paul either coined it himself or borrowed it from Hellenistic Jewish contemporaries. Some have conjectured that the word means something more specific than homosexuality, such as pederasty or homosexual prostitution. However, the most likely source of the word is again Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, where the Greek Septuagint translation used by Hellenistic Jews uses the words arsenos (male) and koite (bed). The highly respected lexicon of New Testament Greek, BDAG, defines arsenokoites as the active partner in a homosexual relationship. Malakos (which literally means 'soft'), is defined by BDAG in this case as the passive partner.

In view of the reference to the sexual morality laws of Leviticus 18 in the previous chapter, and the Greek translation of Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 as the likely source of the word arsenokoites, it is difficult to dispute that Paul is upholding the Levitical prohibition on homosexual acts.

Space prevents us from looking at other significant texts such as Romans 1:26-27. However, the evidence we have looked at demands the conclusion that the Levitical prohibition on homosexual acts represents the will of God for all times and cultures (note that I have emphasized "acts": it is the behaviour and not the orientation that is sin).

Chris Broussard spoke the truth. It is a very inconvenient truth in 21st century Western society. However, it is my hope that some will realize that Jesus does not want to condemn anyone (John 3:17). The Lord desperately hopes (2 Peter 3:9) that practicing homosexuals will recognize the error of their ways as the all-important first step on the road to redemption. This is the same response required of a heterosexual sinner, and the church should be equally emphatic in reaching out to all people with the message of repentance unto salvation.

Friday 26 April 2013

Leviticus 18:22 and Homosexuality

I recently read with interest an open letter to the church from a young American on behalf of his generation, which basically presented an ultimatum: embrace homosexuality or alienate the youth. I also read a response from Dr. Michael L. Brown, a leading voice of opposition to gay marriage.

The socio-cultural issues here are complex, and I've generally refrained from commenting on them. However, as a theology student there is one issue in the letter (and ensuing comments) that I think needs to be addressed. The author of the open letter says that while he has long been told that Christianity and homosexuality are incompatible, he has lately become aware of "evidence that the Bible could be saying something completely different about love and equality."

He doesn't say what evidence he is referring to, but one of the comments gives a take on Leviticus 18:22 which, if it is making the rounds as a legitimate interpretation, needs to be corrected. This verse reads: "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination" (NASB). Referring to the Hebrew word tow'ebah, here translated "abomination", the respondent gives an alternate rendering as: "Not shall you lie with man [in the] bed of woman, [it is] against custom." He goes on to say that the word tow'ebah "essentially means frowned upon", and he reaches the following conclusion: "It appears more that it was saying not to fool around with your boyfriend in your wife’s bed."

It should be noted that, while the comment begins with a quotation mark, it doesn't cite any source. This is unsurprising, because this interpretation is completely untenable and without scholarly support. The respondent considers it "odd" that the commandment refers specifically to the bed. But it hardly needs to be said that "bed" here is a euphemism for intercourse; the issue is the act and not its location (cp. Num. 31:17-18Judg. 21:11-12). Furthermore, it is preposterous to think that this text, contained in what is commonly referred to as the "Holiness Code" of the Law of Moses (Rooker 2004, 4) should presuppose that a married man might also have a male lover!

In support of his view that tow'ebah means "frowned upon", the respondent points out that the word is also used with reference to dietary restrictions, menstruation, mixing of fabrics, and other "minor things." However, this definition lacks lexical support. Moreover, the respondent has drawn our attention to certain uses of tow'ebah while ignoring many others. The word is used, for instance, in Prov. 6:16: "There are six things which the LORD hates, Yes, seven which are an abomination (tow'ebah) to Him". Here, the parallelism suggests that tow'ebah is anything but minor. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, the word is used with reference to child sacrifice (Deut. 12:31), injustice (Deut. 25:16) and idolatry (Deut. 27:15). And it was because of the tow'ebah of Israel that Ezekiel prophesied that they would fall by sword, famine and plague (Ezek. 6:11). Thus the word tow'ebah does not lend support to taking Lev. 18:22 as a minor thing.

Even more problematic for the view that the conduct described in Lev. 18:22 was merely "frowned upon" is the fact that it was a capital offence (Lev. 20:13, where tow'ebah is also used).

There are biblical scholars who argue that the commandment in Lev. 18:22 is not binding on the church today. However, these scholars do not dispute that the commandment (together with Lev. 20:13) prohibited homosexual intercourse in the strongest terms. The interpretation of this text in its original setting is broadly agreed upon. What is controversial is whether or not the commandment applies to the church today. It is this question that I plan to address in the next blog post.

Rooker, Mark F. 2004. The Best Known Verse in Leviticus. Faith and Mission 21(2): 3-14.

Wednesday 31 October 2012

The Accuser of our Brethren, Part 5: Satan in Job 1-2

Five videos into this series, I've finally managed to figure out how to edit out the annoying 'white noise' in the background. I hope this will create a more pleasant listening experience from now on. Special thanks to the developers of three free software packages that have come in handy: Avidemux, Audacity and Youtube Movie Maker.

Thursday 25 October 2012

The Accuser of our Brethren, Part 4: New Testament Overview

The latest video in this series about the Biblical devil provides several observations that will be fundamental to interpreting the words Satan and devil in the New Testament.

Reminder: the full study can be downloaded in written form from www.dianoigo.com.

Saturday 20 October 2012

The Accuser of our Brethren, Part 3: Old Testament Overview

Here is the third installment of my video blog series highlighting the main points in my paper, The Accuser of our Brethren: Unmasking the Biblical Devil. This part gives a very brief overview of the devil and Satan in the Old Testament. I hope you find it enlightening.

Friday 5 October 2012

The Accuser of our Brethren: Unmasking the Biblical Devil (Part 1)

I've decided to go the video route for the next few blogs in order to present my lengthy study on the devil and Satan in an accessible way. If you're interested in reading the full study, you can download it from www.dianoigo.com

Here is the first video installment:

Thursday 23 August 2012

The Hub of Global Christianity - where?

I haven't posted in about six weeks mainly because I got married in the interim. It's a pretty good excuse, right? Going forward I'm hoping to post more frequent, but brief, insights on God, the Christian faith, life, and how they all fit together.

The first of these hopefully pithy observations is about global demographic shifts in Christianity. If you were looking at a map of the world and had to put a push-pin in the location that represents the hub of global Christianity, where would you put it?

Tuesday 8 May 2012

You shall not covet

The last of the Ten Commandments reads, in Exodus 20:17, like this: “You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour's.”

Saturday 28 April 2012

You shall not bear false witness

The Ninth Commandment reads, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Exodus 20:16). This commandment is often paraphrased simply as, “You shall not lie.” This is not strictly accurate, as it refers to lying in a legal setting (often called perjury) rather than general cases of lying. This doesn’t mean lying isn’t a serious sin in God’s eyes; we shall see that it is. However, the Ten Commandments were part of a human legal system, and (like modern criminal codes) set down perjury as a crime because this kind of lie has particularly serious consequences.

Monday 23 April 2012

You shall not steal

I would venture that there are few, if any people in the world who reach adulthood without experiencing theft of their personal possessions. Burglary, smash and grab, pick-pocketing, fraud, and many other strategies are used to take what belongs to someone else. We all feel violated and outraged when we are victimized by any of these crimes. Beyond the pain of losing money or valuables, we react sharply to the feeling of injustice.

However, if we are honest with ourselves, we will probably have to admit that we have also been guilty of the Eighth Commandment, which reads simply, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). We may not have committed any of the crimes listed above, but there are many forms of theft that are more subtle and passive.
For example, you might borrow something (such as a book or a CD) from a friend and never get around to returning it. You may damage someone else’s property and cover it up rather than offering to fix or replace it. In the digital age, millions have openly stolen from the comfort of their own homes via piracy of movies, music and software.

So perhaps we are a bit hypocritical when we become so outraged about stealing. As the Apostle Paul wrote, "You preach, "Do not steal"---but do you yourself steal?" (Romans 2:21b)

The Bible names and prohibits many different types of theft, most of which are still prevalent today in some form. Leviticus 6:1-5 describes theft through deceit (such as failing to return a deposit, or failing to return a lost-and-found item). Indeed, the close relationship between theft and deceit is apparent throughout Scripture (Leviticus 19:11; Proverbs 11:1). Modern crimes that combine deceit and theft include fraud, ‘phishing,’ and identity theft.

Normally the penalty for theft, as for destruction of another person’s property, was to restore the value and then some (an additional 20% in Leviticus 6:1-5, or up to five times as much for outright stealing in Exodus 22:1-4). If, however, it was a human being who was stolen (kidnapping or human trafficking), the penalty was death (Deuteronomy 24:7).

There are certain forms of theft which are usually perpetrated by the rich toward the poor, which could be generally described as oppression or exploitation. These include withholding of a worker’s wages (Leviticus 19:13), charging interest on loans to the poor (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19), and false balances or scales (Leviticus19:35-37; Deuteronomy 25:13-16). In the ancient world, balances were the standard by which goods and currencies were weighed in business transactions. A dishonest businessman could rig his balances in order to cheat his customers, thereby stealing from them. Since businessmen tended to be people of privilege, this sin too was associated with oppression of the poor by the rich (Amos 8:4-6).

Another class of theft could be generally described as abuse of power or corruption. In particular, people who hold positions of influence (such as politicians and judges) are prone to bribery (Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 16:9; Micah 7:3). God also warns against using threats to exact money from someone else (under which fall robbery, blackmail and extortion) (Ezekiel 22:12; Luke 3:14).

Another form of theft which remains relevant in today’s society is tax evasion. Jesus commanded disciples to pay taxes to the authorities of the day (Matthew 17:24-27; 22:17-21), which was echoed by Paul (Romans 13:6-7). Obedience to God requires compliance with tax laws regardless of how the government may use (or misuse) tax revenues.

How many of us have returned everything we have ever borrowed? Paid every cent of tax that we owed? Refrained from paying or receiving a bribe when it would save us a lot of time and money? How many have never taken something that didn’t belong to us? Have never tricked another person out of their money or goods? Have never illegally downloaded a movie, song or software package? Have never scratched a rental car and returned it without informing the company, hoping they wouldn’t notice (okay, maybe it’s just me who’s done that). We may be outraged at someone who breaks into a house to steal, but are we not guilty of the same sin in some measure?

Let there be no doubt that God takes all forms of theft seriously. Jesus listed theft among the basic forms of sin (Matthew 15:19) and endorsed the Eighth Commandment as still binding (Matthew 19:18). Paul listed theft among the sins that exclude one from the kingdom of God, apart from the cleansing that comes through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

It is probably time for all of us to pause and offer a heartfelt prayer of confession and ask God’s forgiveness. Having confidence that our sins are now forgiven on account of Jesus Christ, how do we go about “Bearing fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8)? Paul’s advice for the reformed thief was this: “If you used to rob, you must stop robbing and start working, in order to earn an honest living for yourself and to be able to help the poor” (Ephesians 4:28).

Thursday 3 November 2011

Fellowship: Real vs. Nominal

Words derive their meaning, not from a static, wooden definition, but from the ways they are used. Sometimes a word takes on a misleading connotation. Take the word ‘church’ for example. As used in the New Testament, the word ‘church’ (ekklesia in Greek) refers to the community of believers; but often people take the word to refer to a physical building or an institution. Because of this misleading connotation, the Christadelphian community generally refrains from using the word ‘church.’

Within the Christadelphian community, however, the word ‘fellowship’ has become loaded with unscriptural baggage. Phrases like “The Central Fellowship” or “Is he in fellowship?” suggest that fellowship is a word describing a nominal status of belonging, like membership in an organization. In most human organizations, you have ‘membership’ if you pay the fees, and perhaps meet certain requirements (such as engineering qualifications, if you want to join the Society of Professional Engineers). For people who see Christian fellowship this way, you ‘belong’ to the fellowship if you adhere to a particular set of propositional beliefs (a Statement of Faith).

Christians put their faith in a living person (Christ), not in a set of propositions. In the same way, fellowship (Greek: koinonia) is a relational term, like grace and love (2 Corinthians 13:14). God has called us into “the fellowship of his Son” (1 Corinthians 1:9). Those who put their faith in Christ do not obtain membership in an organization; they become part of a family. Fellowship fundamentally is a state of close relationship, measured in terms of sharing and participation. Shared beliefs and values are an important aspect of fellowship, but they are not the basis of fellowship. Christ is (1 Corinthians 3:9-11).

One person can be a ‘member’ of a certain church, meeting the criteria for joining the church (such as baptism, or agreeing to a certain statement of faith) but have no spiritual relationship with the other people. At the same time, a second person can fail to meet the criteria for nominal ‘membership’ but play an active role in the life of the church and build close relationships with the members. Custom dictates that the first person be addressed as ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister’ while the second person not be.

People in Jesus’ day thought of a ‘neighbour’ as someone of common ethnicity or geographical proximity; but in Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) he blew up such nominal notions of fellowship and showed that being a neighbour is about acts of kindness and love. Once again it comes down to relationship.

What about families? Family terms like father, mother, sister, brother, uncle, and aunt nominally express a biological link. However, in many families, these terms are applied to people who are not biological relatives. An adopted child may not know his biological parents, and he may call his adoptive parents ‘Mom and Dad.’ In such cases the loving bond and shared experiences are more real and important than any nominal ‘blood relative’ status. On one occasion Jesus masterfully illustrated that this is also true in the family of God. Reading from Mark 3:31-35:

“31 And [Jesus’] mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you." 33 And he answered them, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother."”
Next time you use the word ‘fellowship,’ stop and ask yourself if you’re using it to refer to real sharing and participation within the family of God (as God intended), or to nominal membership within an organization.