Monthly Archives: October 2015

“Only” or “Primary”

Don’t confuse the “primary” with the “only”.

One of the most frustrating logical fallacies is the “false dichotomy”, seeing two ideas as mutually exclusive and pitting them against each other, instead of seeing them as potentially complimentary, or at least non-contradictory.

Setting up false dichotomies can have disastrous consequences. In his book, Haiti After the Earthquake, Paul Farmer described how public health workers engaged in long debates about how to deal with the infectious disease crisis that came about after the earthquake. On the one side were those who wanted to focus on treatment and on the other side those who wanted to focus on prevention. Farmer expressed frustration over the fact that these two “sides” were often pitted against each other. Farmer argued that the two were complimentary and that some level of each would be necessary to get the disease under control.

It’s political season now and, it seems, politicians feed off of false dichotomies like no one else. How else are you going to paint your opponent as a villain? War is not a time for finding common ground (apparently). And so false dichotomies abound. According to my Facebook wall, if you oppose Planned Parenthood then you hate women, if you want some level of gun regulation then you hate the Constitution, and if you want some level of care for Syrian refugees then you must not care about the needs of homeless veterans. Etc. But false dichotomies don’t start and end in the political arena, they just seem more concentrated there.

They’re present in the church as well. “We need to preach about grace, not judgment.” “We need to preach Christ, not personal holiness.” “We need to preach the gospel, not worry about physical needs.” (Why polish the rails of a sinking ship). “We need to concern ourselves with the sins of the individual, not about systematic injustice.” “We need to worry about the church, not about the world of culture and politics.”

One thing that trips us, I think, is that we get confused about the “only” and the “primary” tasks of the church.

The primary mission of the church is to proclaim the good news that Jesus, God incarnate, came to earth, lived a perfect life, died on the cross for our sins, rose again, and is coming again to reign and that sinful people can have eternal life if we put our trust in the work of God in Jesus. Our primary task is to go out and make disciples, calling people to faith and repentance. We proclaim Christ and Him crucified. The gospel is our priority and our aim is to put no stumbling block in the way of those who would come to Jesus.

But this doesn’t mean that the gospel is our only task. Or, at least, that the gospel so narrowly stated above, is the only word we have for the community of faith and the world. The full gospel, the entire counsel of God, speaks into every area of life. When the gospel becomes our primary task many other missions naturally spring up.

When we see people as God sees people in the gospel we learn to care about the vulnerable – babies in the womb, those who are desperately poor, refugees, wounded veterans, and single moms.

When we see that God is redeeming not just our spiritual souls but also our bodies and the entirety of the cosmos, we understand the need to provide for others physical needs and to care about the physical world.

When we see that we are saved by grace, we begin to understand that the motivational force behind holiness is gratitude and a desire to honor the God who not only made us, but also redeemed us from death.

Paul says in Acts 20:24 that his “only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” But if you look at his letters he speaks to a wide range of issues. He calls out sin in the church and in the world. He speaks about judgment and grace. He talks about how we should live as employees, bosses, husbands, wives, children, citizens, and church members. He talks about how we should think, what we should value, and what we should and shouldn’t do. His task of “testifying to the good news of God’s grace” started and ended with salvation by God’s grace, but it had a word of warning and encouragement for every area of life.

Priorities can be tricky. On the one hand we could live our lives as though every good thing was of equal importance and so required an equal amount of time and energy. This would be a foolish way to live. Since we are bounded by constraints, prioritizing one thing always means saying “no” to a hundred other good things we could be doing. On any given Sunday I preach about a single topic, and not about many others. In this way, the church prioritizing the gospel means that it must say no to other good things. Yet saying that the simple gospel is the priority shouldn’t mean that it’s the only thing that we do – it’s just the most important.

Let’s take a practical application from daily life. In regards to my physical resources, I have the primary responsibility to care for the needs of my own family. But if I use all of my money on my family I am ignoring many commands to care for the poor and needy around me. If I then conclude that I must spend the majority of my money on the needs of other people kids to the exclusion of my own then I am disobeying the command to care for my own family. How much our family should divert to the needs of the poor is a question of stewardship, wisdom, and discipleship.

Priorities matter because sometimes we have to decide between two or more good things. Sometimes one “good” can even get in the way of another “good.” For instance, as a local church we are on purpose not very political. We have made this conscious decision because we recognize that being dogmatic in certain areas will detract from our gospel mission. We also recognize that in aligning ourselves with an earthly kingdom we risk taking away from our more fundamental citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. However, we can’t ignore the fact the gospel does have political implications. Again, we must learn to prioritize with the gospel, without reducing the gospel to only what it says about saving lost souls.

Life is complex and requires wisdom. Don’t confuse the “primary” with the “only”.

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Prophetic Office (via Russell Moore)

Onward

I’ve been busy reading and writing (thought not immediately for this blog) but I wanted to quickly pop in and share this quote from Russell Moore in the book Onward.

“The prophetic office is, after all, different from the kingly office. We do not rule in the present era as kings. We have been given no such authority as the church. We have, however, been given an assignment to be a witness. The prophets bore witness to the kings and rulers and nations, pointing to what their consciences already know, if only at the subliminal level. But the judgment was left to God.”

So far anyway, this book is pure gold. It’s a great balance between a call to political and cultural engagement and a call to remain faithful to the gospel.

Exile and Political Engagement: Voting

This post is part of a series (Post 1: Introduction and OutlinePost 2: Four Key Principles for Christian Political EngagementPost 3: Submission and TaxesPost 4: Government Service, Post 5: Justice and Advocacy)

Voting

We now come to the question of voting for politicians. Since this practice was not known during biblical times it was not addressed in Scripture. The idea that private, ordinary, citizens would have a voice in who would rule the nation, or what the laws would be, was unknown to the Jews or the early Christians. But today we are afforded the opportunity to have a say in the nature of our government and the individuals who lead it.

I believe that Christians should vote, just as Christians should we willing to engage in the kinds of advocacy listed above. The reason, as has already been stated, is because of a love for neighbor. That is, we vote not to gain power, but because we realize that a civil government, when functioning properly, can be a force for good in the world and because we realize that a civil government, when corrupt and unjust, can also be a force for great evil. And so, out of love for neighbor, we seek a government which will function within those God-given parameters.

How a Christian should vote is another question. I am simply arguing that a Christian should vote and that the motivation for that vote should be a love of neighbor.

Two objections may be raised. The first is that it is often difficult to tell how to vote. The world is exceedingly complex and citizens are often asked to make judgments about things for which they have very little or very biased information such as foreign affairs or economic principles. Indeed, it can become overwhelming or discouraging to watch the news or follow the debates during the political season. How can we possibly make responsible voting choices in such an environment? Besides, aren’t there much more important things that we can do in order to love our neighbors with the precious little time that we have? I am sympathetic to this argument, but I would argue that we should vote on what knowledge we do have and then continue to work towards a greater level of knowledge.

The second argument points back to the sovereignty of God. If God controls the outcome of the election, which he does, then why vote at all? But this argument could be used for anything. If God is in control why pray? If God provides for my needs then why work? If God takes care of the church, then why serve in the church? The answer is that God invites us to participate with him as he carries out his will. God will carry out his sovereign will, but we are commanded to walk in line with his moral will. We obey God because obedience is what leads to life and glorifies God, not necessarily because we think it will change the world. World-changing is part of God’s job description. Obedience and responsible love for neighbor is part of ours, and voting is one way we can do that.

Additional note: It was observed during the Sunday night discussion that the Christian duties mentioned – work, prayer, and service in the church – are all commands given in Scripture but that voting is not. This is a good observation. I come to the conclusion that Christians should vote via the command to love neighbor, with this being one way to carry out that command. You could get to the same conclusion by following that logic that voting is a means of carrying out the command to honor our civil authorities. Both are, admittedly, points of application on a theme and are therefore not at the same level as the Christian duties mentioned above.

Exile and Political Engagement: Civil Disobedience and Conclusion

This post is part of a series (Post 1: Introduction and OutlinePost 2: Four Key Principles for Christian Political EngagementPost 3: Submission and Taxes, Post 4: Government ServicePost 5: Justice and AdvocacyPost 6: Voting)

Civil disobedience

Finally we must turn to that element of political engagement which is “negative” wherein we actively work against the governing authorities. Submission is the norm for Christians, but civil disobedience is always an option. The question is, when should we disobey the government?

The question of disobedience always comes down to authority. A truly Christian act of disobedience is always an act of obedience to a higher authority. If the authority of the government is in opposition to the authority of God then the Christian is obliged to disobey the human authority in order to obey the divine authority.

When Daniel’s practice of prayer came into conflict with the human decree to pray to no one other than the king, Daniel chose to obey God, thus disobeying the human laws. When the command to worship no other gods came in conflict with the nations call to bow down to an idol, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego chose to obey God, thus disobeying the law of the land. When the religious authorities commanded Peter and John to stop preaching the gospel, they refused, stating that it was better for them to fear (and obey) God, rather than men. Christians are called to disobey the human authorities when obedience to that law would directly cause them to disobey God’s law.

Examples of justified civil disobedience include Christians hiding Jews during Nazi Germany and Christians in China and other “closed” countries gathering as part of an underground church. Some examples of Christian civil disobedience are obvious, but often the line is blurry. Consider, for instance, the recent case of Kim Davis, the county Clerk who refused to sign marriage licenses for gay marriages.

As the news of the Kim Davis case started to come out some Christians called for her to resign[1]. The arguments were two-fold. First, it was argued that Davis’ “principled” stance came off as hypocrisy (because of her prior divorces and political aspirations) and therefore on the whole hindered the message of the gospel. It is worth noting that her divorces happened before she became a Christian. Nevertheless, as my professor Mike Wittmer put it: The optics are bad.

The second argument borrows from Martin Luther’s understanding of “two kingdoms” as it relates to government officials. Luther argued that “Christians who are employed by the state must at times commit acts that would be wrong to do as individuals. For instance, it is wrong to kill another person, but that is what a Christian executioner must do on behalf of the state. Luther said the Christian executioner will put the condemned person to death in a Christian way, with loving respect rather than from hateful revenge, but he will perform this role on behalf of the state.”[2] In this way Davis could have signed the marriage license, not as an individual “condoning” or “celebrating” gay marriage but simply as an agent of the state following the laws of the land. In this way, the case of Kim Davis is different from the case of a baker/florist who is simply acting as a private citizen or a pastor, who is acting as an agent of the church. Finally, if she could still not sign the license with this reasoning based on her conscience and was thus unable to perform her job, she could, instead of obstructing the law, resign.

On the other hand, others argued that she was justified in refusing to allow her office from issuing marriage licenses.[3] At the time she did not have the option (from the perspective of her conscience) of simply allowing others within her office to issue marriage licenses since all the licenses would bear her name. Her initial proposal was actually quite modest – allow her office to issue licenses without her name on it, but the State of Kentucky was not quick to respond to her request. The result was that the situation escalated and got a lot messier than it needed to.

By not resigning, Kim Davis forced an important legal point. It is true that citizens of a state should be able to expect the state to provide those services allowed by law. In this case, based on the law of the land, a same-sex couple should be able to expect the state to issue them a marriage license. However, demanding a service from a state is not the same as demanding that service from an individual and individuals should be able to opt out of specific tasks for reasons of religious liberty so long as the State can still reasonably provide the service (i.e., there are others who could issue the license). The reasonable challenge for the State is to provide services under the law without compelling individuals to break their consciences.

Other States, such as North Carolina, have been able to resolve this issue through legislation. The law in this state “protects magistrates who object to performing solemnizing ceremonies for same-sex marriages and clerks who object to issuing same-sex marriage licenses. It also makes clear that no one can be denied a marriage license, but magistrates or clerks could recuse themselves from the process behind the scenes should they have sincere objections to same-sex marriage.”[4]

So there are some interlocking questions: Could Kim Davis have signed the license simply as an agent of the State, and not as a personal solemnization of marriage? Since in her conscience she couldn’t perform this aspect of her job was she obliged to resign or was she right to shut down issuing all licenses in her county and face the consequences? How does her apparent hypocrisy play into this? Does the legal battle unnecessarily damage the message of the gospel? These are difficult questions[5] and my goal is not to answer them all, only to point out some of the basic questions we must ask before engaging in civil disobedience.

Thankfully, in this case, it appears as though States should be able to accommodate conscientious objectors wherever they are found, either in the military (for which we have a long-standing tradition) or in a county clerk’s office.

Conclusion

Restating a few of the principles above. God, not man, reigns. In Him we have ultimate hope. In the meantime, Christians are free and obligated to engage the political process at some level – obeying the law, paying taxes, serving within the government, and sometimes even disobeying the laws of the land in order to avoid disobeying God. In all this our motivation should be to glorify God and love our neighbor, seeing the government as a potentially good institution.

But while we can see engagement in politics as a potential good we must remember that at best it is only a relative good. As foreigners and strangers we have an obligation to an ultimate good, sharing the good news of Jesus. The gospel trumps politics in terms of priority, even while the gospel has political implications.

[1] Mike Wittmer, “Kim Davis should resign” https://mikewittmer.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/kim-davis-should-resign/

[2] Wittmer, Ibid.

[3] Joe Carter, “Why Kim Davis was Right to not Resign” http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-kim-davis-was-right-not-to-resign

[4] Ryan T. Anderson “Kentucky Clerk Not Issuing Gay Marriage Licenses Causes Uproar. North Carolina Shows Better Way.” http://dailysignal.com/2015/09/01/kentucky-clerk-not-issuing-gay-marriage-licenses-causes-uproar-north-carolina-shows-better-way/

[5] I realize that for some the statement “these are all difficult questions” is one of the most offensive things I could say since, from your perspective, the answer is actually very simple. To this I would only say – please be open to viewing this highly controversial issue from multiple perspectives.

Exile and Political Engagement: Justice and Advocacy

This post is part of a series (Post 1: Introduction and OutlinePost 2: Four Key Principles for Christian Political EngagementPost 3: Submission and TaxesPost 4: Government Service)

Seeking justice for self and others through advocacy

One of the most important roles of the civil government is in providing basic justice to its citizens, but sometimes that justice is not forthcoming. In those instances, political engagement entails advocating for justice, either for yourself or for others.

This idea (that we should advocate for justice for ourselves and for others) is based primarily on the principles that (1) the civil government is a means of limited justice and (2) that we should engage in the political process in order to show love to our neighbors. There are two main biblical examples of this worth highlighting. One is the life of Paul. Paul was regularly imprisoned and, though he accepted his imprisonment as an opportunity to suffer for the sake of Christ, he also advocated for his own well-being. For instance, he made it publicly known that he was a Roman citizen and was therefore due treatment as such (see Romans 16:37-38).

Esther provides the other example. When Haman had set up a plot to kill the Jews, Esther was persuaded to intervene. Mordecai rightly recognized that she had been placed in her present position before the king “for such a time as this” and so, when she had the opportunity, she advocated for justice on behalf of the Jews, exposing Haman in the process (see Esther 7:3-6). The result was that the foreign government was encouraged to function in a more just manner.

Christians should feel free to use the given judicial system to advocate for their own and others justice. Granted Paul discourages Christians from bring lawsuits against one another in the church (1 Corinthians 6:1-11) but that was more an indictment of the failure of believers to judge amongst themselves than it was of the civil judicial system.

Christians should also feel free, and perhaps even obligated in the same way that Esther was obligated, to advocate for justice on others behalf, either through the judicial or political process. Public advocacy for groups being denied justice, or advocacy against laws that are patently unjust, is valid and Christian behavior. This could take the form of non-violent protests (like those done during the civil rights movement, or the anti-abortion protests of today) or by attempting to formulate policy, establish just laws, and remove unjust laws (like in the case of the efforts of William Wilberforce to abolish slavery), or raising awareness of a particular issue (like recent efforts to raise awareness of world wide slavery).

But there are serious dangers and limitations here. In advocacy it can become easy to demonize opponents, fudge the facts in order to make a case, or set up false dichotomies which polarize an issue instead of finding common ground. Popular public advocates could become drawn to idolize their cause, prioritize their cause over the cause of the gospel, or simply see Christianity as a means towards seeking some human conceptions of justice. We also need to be realistic about just how far common grace can go in a world hostile to the gospel. It is reasonable to expect common grace that allows nonbelievers to see that first degree murder is wrong. But the idea that a human gets personal rights at the time of conception is a harder sell apart from an agreement on special revelation. Finally, we must be realistic about the extent to which the effects of the Fall can be rolled back by advocating for public justice. The brokenness of the world is intractable apart from the work of the gospel and no amount of appealing to basic principles of goodness or virtue will be able to usher in a golden age for Christianity. We must always remember that our hope cannot be in human authorities, but only in the authority of Christ.

Finally, while political advocacy can be a good way of demonstrating love for neighbor, Christians need to be careful to demonstrate practical love to those with whom we have direct contact. There is a certain hypocrisy in advocating against abortion but not being willing to provide material and emotional support for women in need. Likewise, there is a certain hypocrisy in speaking boldly about caring immigrants who live far away, without actually being willing to be a good neighbor to the immigrant living next door. It’s easy to tell someone else to provide justice for another group, and its not wrong to, but the Christian must also be willing to love those who are closest to them and in their direct sphere of influence.

Exile and Political Engagement: Government Service

This post is part of a series (Post 1: Introduction and Outline, Post 2: Four Key Principles for Christian Political Engagement, Post 3: Submission and Taxes)

Serving in the government

We move now from a more passive obedience to active participation. Can a Christian actually serve in a government position? To answer this I would like to look at several biblical characters who served in government positions, excluding, of course, those who served in Israel, since we are most interested at this point in the position of Christians as “foreigners and exiles.”

We begin with Joseph. Joseph was thrust into government service after interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. He went from a man in prison to second in command over all of Egypt literally overnight (Genesis 41:41-43). It should be noted that Joseph did not exactly volunteer for service in Egypt. He was not driven by dreams of political advancement. But, when he was placed in that position, he did not refuse. Once he was placed in charge he carried out his duties with integrity and for the good of the nation in which he served.

We turn next to Daniel and to his companions Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were also thrust into government service. Like Joseph before them they were marked out for their integrity. And, as far as we can tell, they carried out all the duties assigned to them, so much so that they were given higher and higher positions, setting them to be the targets of jealousy-motivated plots against their lives. Unlike Joseph, once in service to the king, they had to face several instances where they had to decide to obey or disobey the law of the land. When they disobeyed they faced the legislative consequences, but also experienced divine protection from God.

Finally, we see several instances in the New Testament of Romans soldiers and tax collectors becoming Jesus followers. When John was calling people to repentance at the Jordan River he didn’t call the tax collectors to resign their position, but to not collect more than what was due. To the soldiers, he did not call them to give up soldiering, but to not extort money or accuse people falsely (Luke 3:12-14). None of the Centurions who become believers are called to leave their profession.

While the Bible doesn’t specifically call people to serve in political positions, it doesn’t condemn those positions either. Serving in the government can be done in a corrupt way (taking more money than is due) and it can come with some extra moral strings attached (see Daniel) but nowhere is it seen as something low, base, or evil in and of itself. In fact, if the civil government is something God gives the fallen world as a common grace, then serving in the government can be a way of loving your neighbor. This is certainly true of Joseph who, through his service, prevented the starvation of the Egyptians, those who came to Egypt for aid, and his own family.

Next Post: Advocating for justice