Monday, December 29, 2014

Serving Two Authorities: God and Culture

I asked a General Theological Seminarian, “Does going to General shake up your faith?” She responded that it has been one of the greatest experiences in her life.

Probing deeper, I asked about some of the untraditional/unbiblical teachings General seems to promote. “Well, I already believed in committed same-sex relationships before I ever came to General. Jesus received all who came to Him!”

“Yes He did,” I agreed, “but He also demanded repentance.”

“But the Bible requires a lot of things that no one follows, like not eating swine,” she confidently responded. For her, the irrelevance of the command to not eat swine was reason enough to override even Jesus’ teachings!

“That’s not a fair comparison. The kosher laws had been temporary and merely representative or shadow of the Reality (Christ - Col. 2: 16-17), who fulfilled these laws (Acts 10; Mark 7). However, there is no indication that the laws regarding sexual conduct, or murder for that matter, were merely symbolic and therefore fulfilled and set aside,” I fired back.

Besides, her faulty reasoning – we no longer follow one law à therefore, we no longer need to follow other laws - could be used to invalidate all of the Bible’s teachings, including those about love and justice.

“But I don’t take the entire Bible as God’s Word. I also look towards culture and reason!” she responded.

Did she understand the implications of this? With multiple and conflicting authoritative sources – Bible, culture, and reason – which voice would prevail? Ultimately, it’s up to her. She is has appointed herself the captain of her ship, even if it is infested with termites.

Instead of allowing the Bible to judge her and her beliefs, she had made herself judge over Scripture. Her wisdom reigns over any alleged wisdom of Scripture. She would no longer have to bow to its authority – God’s authority. If any teaching failed to pass her judgment, well, it was history. The Bible was consequently no more authoritative than the New York Times!

However, I was glad she was forthright about this central difference in our faith perspectives. Many refuse to admit that they lack a high regard for the Bible and dishonestly claim that our differences are merely a matter of interpretation. In essence, they are saying, “We are just as committed to Christ and His Word as you are. However, we are unable to honestly interpret the Word as you do!” By dishonestly hiding their true beliefs, communication becomes frustrating at best.

I gave her one last challenge: “I would just encourage you to see the implications of the position you have taken. By elevating culture and your personal intuitions to the level of Scripture, you have thrust open the doors to virtually any belief system. How can you claim your religion is any more correct than Satanist’s, Muslim’s, or even Suiciders? They too have their cultures and reasons.” She then excused herself, claiming other urgent commitments.

I’ve been through this discussion many times and could anticipate where it would have gone:

  • “I don’t need to believe that the Bible is any more the Word of God than the Koran in order to know that Christ died for my sins. The Holy Spirit is alive and well within me and continues to guide me.”
I certainly don’t want to deny this. The Spirit does lead people to faith without a belief in the “inerrancy of the Word.” I therefore responded:

  • “People from other religions also claim supernatural guidance, but “guidance” that leads them into very different beliefs. How do you know that you’ve received the correct guidance?”
At this point, they usually reassert what they know in their heart: “I just know that Christ died for my sins and that works for me.” While this might be okay for starters, it won’t suffice in our multicultural world. We need to become mature in our thinking (1 Cor. 14:20) in order to be able to adequately answer the challenges, from within or without.

Besides, we need to know for ourselves that the Bible is God’s pre-eminent and authoritative Word! Without this confidence, we will eventually lapse into agnosticism and cognitive dissonance.  Our faith will also be inconsistent and unconvincing, even to ourselves. If we cannot be confident about the entire Bible, and if we only embrace the parts that we want and reject what we don’t want, we cannot be confident about any of it.

Here’s a common example of this: “I know I’m a believer in Christ and that Christ died for my sins, but I can’t judge the faith of others. I can’t insist that Christ is the only way.”

This constitutes a denial of the Christian faith. By insisting that my faith is only relevant to me, I can no longer take it seriously. If Christ didn’t die for everyone, then He didn’t die even for me! Furthermore, if there is salvation outside of Christ, then Christ died in vain, and the Father required unnecessary blood.

Such a faith is contradictory and can’t withstand the challenges – whether internal or external. We can’t just pick-and-choose those verses that feel right to us. There remains a small, indicting voice within that cries, “Hypocrite! You take from Me what you want and reject what you don’t want to suit yourself. I’d rather you be hot or cold!” How can the Holy Spirit endorse and support such a faith!

Jesus warned: “No one can serve two masters [like both God and the culture]. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. (Matthew 6:24)

God, through His Word alone, must be our Master!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Mysticism, Experience, and Doctrine

Christian doctrine is degraded in a vast variety of ways. Some conservative pastors preach, “I’m not so interested in knowing about God, but in knowing God!” Although we can sympathize with this sentiment - we all long for a greater sense of intimacy with God - this statement dismisses doctrine. It suggests that we should pursue a mountaintop experience with God apart from doctrine.

This is Biblically unsupportable. Moses had had the premier mountaintop experience— so much so that his face actually glowed! After spending 40 days and nights in the presence of the Lord, Moses climbed back down off the mountain to share with his brethren what he had learned. Instead of relating his “transformative experience” – his “union with the divine” - and how the Israelites might attain a similar experience, Moses confined himself to teaching “the commands that the Lord had given him” (Exodus 34:32).

What was it that had made Moses’ face glow? Was it merely being in the presence of God? No!

·       Now it was so, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai…that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him. (Exodus 34:29).

The Bible never degrades feelings or experiences, but consistently makes them subservient to growth in understanding of His Word:

·       And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:2).

Scripture consistently relates spiritual maturity to growth in understanding God’s Word.  To have any meaningful and lasting effect, experience requires an interpretive framework. Two people will hug me, identically. However, I will experience them in an entirely different way depending upon my relationship with them and how I interpret their hug. If I interpret it as manipulative, I will feel very differently than if I interpreted it as genuine affection. If we cannot put an experience into an interpretive framework, it will quickly disappear and lose any significance.

Besides, the wrong interpretation or understanding can prove deadly! I had some remarkable experiences with the Ouiji board. We encountered beings who used profanity, cursed at us, but answered our questions. Lacking any biblical wisdom at the time, I erroneously concluded that these beings simply had a more advanced sense of humor and were, therefore, fully trustworthy. Consequently, they almost succeeded in leading me to take revenge upon an innocent party. It was only after I was able to correctly interpret these encounters that I was able to make beneficial use of them. Even though these encounters had been profound experiences, when accompanied by the wrong interpretation (doctrine), they would have been disastrous.

We need the right doctrines/teachings so that we can profit from our experiences.  When we apply the wrong doctrine to our experiences, it is like buttoning our shirt by starting with the wrong button. Consequently, everything else will be out-of-place – a frustrating experience.

God's Judgments: A Source of Embarrassment or a Cultural Response

We are embarrassed by God’s harsh judgments – for example, the destruction of the Canaanites, the Amalekites, and others.

I had long been troubled about the account of Ananias and Sapphira. As had many of the brethren, they sold their property and gave the proceeds to the Apostles for the church. However, this couple only gave half of the proceeds – no sin in itself – but they lied that they had given the church everything.  Peter’s response was absolutely chilling:

  • “Ananias, why hath Satan filled thy heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back part of the price of the land? While it remained, did it not remain thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thy power? How is it that thou hast conceived this thing in thy heart? Thou has not lied unto men, but unto God.” And Ananias hearing these words fell down and gave up the ghost: and great fear came upon all that heard it. (Acts 5:3-5) 
I was troubled by this. Such a harsh judgment from God and absolutely no expression of remorse by Peter! After all, Ananias did donate half of the proceeds, and his was just a little white lie, wasn’t it?

Not only that, but Peter then spoke to Ananias’ wife Sapphira in a seemingly callous manner, especially in view of her great loss:

  • “Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yea, for so much.” But Peter said unto her, “How is it that ye have agreed together to try the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of them that have buried thy husband are at the door, and they shall carry thee out.” And she fell down immediately at his feet, and gave up the ghost. (Acts 5:8-10) 
Peter gave her only the briefest opportunity to repent and then pronounced judgment on this unfortunate woman.

After each of these “exterminations,” Scripture records:

  • And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all that heard these things. (Acts 5:11) 
Well, no wonder! No one was above sin. If it happened to Ananias and Sapphira, perhaps it could happen to anyone! Who then could serve such a wrathful God? Who could continue to rejoice in Him and regard Him as their Savior, if He might snuff them out at any moment? Well, it seems that some distanced themselves from the church because of this (Acts 5:13). Who could blame them, right?

Is it any surprise then that we, as members of Western culture, should not be embarrassed by such a God? Didn’t these two judgments sour people to the Gospel message? Consequently, when we evangelize, we tend to soften these harsh aspects of our God, but should we? Perhaps not! Right afterwards:

  • The apostles were performing many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers were meeting regularly at the Temple in the area known as Solomon’s Colonnade. But no one else dared to join them, even though all the people had high regard for them.  Yet more and more people believed and were brought to the Lord—crowds of both men and women.  As a result of the apostles’ work, sick people were brought… and they were all healed. (Acts 5:12-16; NLT)
Oddly, rather than discrediting the church, God’s judgments built the church!

We often wonder, “To what extent has the church been taken captive by the culture and the ideas of the culture?” Has judgment and justice gone out of style in Western culture? Atheist Richard Dawkins, speaking for many of the educated in the West, famously claimed:

  • The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. 
Although church-goers wouldn’t go so far, we still find Dawkins’ words stinging and embarrassing. We therefore tend to want to make excuses for His judgments, even to the point of proclaiming that God will save everyone, or that He has repented of His harsh ways. We would also like to be able to say that Ananias and Sapphira died because of a stricken conscience and not the judgments of God, but this would misrepresent God.

Understandably, we want others to be attracted to our God, and so we give Him a face-life. However, what represents an improved image in our eyes, is unacceptable to Him. Instead, His blessings accompany our faithful disclosure of who He really is.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Chrislam, Common Prayer, and the Hope of Unity

What is Chrislam? As its name suggests, it is a synthesis of Christianity and Islam. Wikipedia explains the way it is practiced in Lagos, Nigeria:

  • Chrislam uses both the Bible and Qur'an and sees them both as holy texts. During the worship service, verses are read from both the Bible and the Qur'an. The Chrislamic people believe that Muhammad, Moses and Jesus were all great prophets and we need to love them all. Worship services include singing of Christian and Islamic hymns to praise God and attract his presence. The people of the congregation are also free to shout out the name of Allah or God in worship. Christmas, Easter, Ramadan and other Christian and Islamic religions celebrations are accepted and celebrated without judgment or hostility. Inside their place of worship there is an altar similar to those built by Abraham where the worshipers pray and seek the face of God.
In the West, a milder, more acceptable form Chrislam is being peddled. Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President Interfaith Alliance (Faith Shared”) describes it:

  • Faith Shared asks houses of worship across the country to organize events involving clergy reading from each other’s sacred texts. An example would be a Christian Minister, Jewish Rabbi and Muslim Imam participating in a worship service or other event. Suggested readings will be provided from the Torah, the Gospels, and the Qur’an, but communities are encouraged to choose readings that will resonate with their congregations. Involvement of members from the Muslim community is key. We will also provide suggestions on how to incorporate this program into your regular worship services. And we will assist local congregations in their media and communications efforts.
  • While there is a strong preference for all of the events to happen on the same day, a number of congregations held interfaith services in January and February giving us wonderful examples of how communities can come together in support and fellowship. We will be posting photos, sample programs and audio files from these services.
  • Faith Shared will collect images and videos from these events to use in our efforts to spread this message of respect and understanding from America. 
This is something that the apostate Emergent Church seems ready to endorse, according to one Presbyterian USA minister:

  • Brian McLaren, the leader of the Emerging Church Movement wrote on his five-part blog entry why Christians should join with Muslims in the Ramadan fast. As to be expected, another leader in that Emerging Church movement is Dr. Tony Campolo. Campolo says he is not convinced that Jesus lives only in Christians. In his distorted view, an Islamic “brother” who has fed the hungry and clothed the naked clearly has a personal relationship with Christ, only he doesn’t know it.  How’s that again?
Why is Islam willing to participate in something that seems to go directly against their faith? Their doctrine of Taqiyya authorizes Muslims to deceive the infidel for the sake of spreading Islam. According to the Koran, the Muslim cannot “befriend” the infidel accept for two reasons – 1) fear of harm when the Muslims are vulnerable yet weak; 2) as a tactic to convert the infidel:

  • [Surah 5:54] O ye who believe, take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors. They are but friends and protectors to each other.
The following fatwa (judgment) quotes the Koran in support of the deceptive use of friendship (; fatwa 59879):

  • “Undoubtedly the Muslim is obliged to hate the enemies of Allaah and to disavow them, because this is the way of the Messengers and their followers. Allaah says:
                  [Surah 60:4] “Indeed there has been an excellent example for you in Ibraaheem (Abraham) and those with him, when they said to their people: ‘Verily, we are free from you and whatever you worship besides Allaah, we have rejected you, and there has started between us and you, hostility and hatred for ever until you believe in Allaah Alone’”

  • “Based on this, it is not permissible for a Muslim to feel any love in his heart towards the enemies of Allaah who are in fact his enemies too. Allaah says”:
                  [Surah 60:1] “O you who believe! Take not My enemies and your enemies (i.e. disbelievers and polytheists) as friends, showing affection towards them, while they have disbelieved in what has come to you of the truth”
  • “But if a Muslim treats them with kindness and gentleness in the hope that they will become Muslim and will believe, there is nothing wrong with that, because it comes under the heading of opening their hearts to Islam. But if he despairs of them becoming Muslim, then he should treat them accordingly.”
According to Mark Durie, an Australian authority on Islam, Islamic opposition to the infidel is embedded in their daily prayers:

  • “A prominent element in Islamic daily prayers is the recitation of Al-Fatihah (the Opening), the first chapter of the Koran. Often described as a blessing, Al-Fatihah has a sting in its tail. After introductory praises, the final sentence of Al-Fatihah is a request for guidance ‘in the straight path’ of Allah’s blessed ones, not the path ‘of those against whom You are wrathful, nor of those who are astray.’
  • “Who are the ones who are said to be under Allah’s wrath or to have gone astray from his straight path? According to the revered commentator Ibn Kathir, Muhammad himself gave the answer: ‘Those who have earned the anger are the Jews, and those who are led astray are the Christians.’
  • “Al-Fatihah is as central to Islamic devotion as the Lord’s Prayer is to Christians: It is recited at least 17 times a day as part of daily Muslim prayers. Yet according to Muhammad himself, this prayer, which is on the lips of every pious Muslim day and night, castigates Christians as misguided and Jews as objects of Allah’s wrath.”
It is therefore not surprising that shared worship or prayer is not practiced in Islamic nations. Even the idea of interfaith dialogue would be unthinkable.

Also, we must consider whether we Christians have the liberty to participate in an interfaith service with shared prayer. Although we have the liberty to eat food offered to idols at a pagan temple (1 Cor. 8), we do not have the liberty to participate in their rituals or worship. This would violate our oneness with our Lord. Paul therefore warned:

  • But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have communion with demons. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of demons: ye cannot partake of the table of the Lord, and of the table of demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? (1 Corinthians 10:20-22)
We cannot relate to God in any manner we so choose. We cannot drink from the Koran and from the Bible. Worship and the Lord’s Supper reflect our unity and common blessedness in Christ. It also reflects the fact that we are yoked together in the one Body of Christ. The Apostle Paul warned us to not be yoked with unbelievers:

  • Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers: for what fellowship have righteousness and iniquity? or what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what portion hath a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement hath a temple of God with idols? For we are a temple of the living God; even as God said, “I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Wherefore, “Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate,” saith the Lord. (2 Corinthians 6:14-17) 
Common worship and prayer is a yoking – an intimate attachment. Instead, we are required to be separate – to be in the world but not part of it.

We are mandated to relate to Him in truth and faithfulness, as we would a spouse. Jesus explained to a Samaritan women that true worship is not about the place – Mt. Gerizim vs. Mt. Zion – but about truth:

  • Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." (John 4:23-24)
Truth belongs to God. We are not free to distort it according to our own purposes. “We must worship in spirit and truth.” I joint worship service with Muslims speaks volumes. It says that we share the same God and equally valid faiths. It tells the Muslim that their religion is as adequate as ours.

We certainly want to engage lovingly with Muslims. However, unity cannot be created where unity does not exist.

In His denunciation of Job’s three friends, God illustrates that worship must be according to His truth:

  • "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7-8) 
Job’s three friends had been very sacrificial. They had spent days with the ailing Job in a vain hope of correcting him of his putative errant ways. Yes, they had misrepresented God in their denunciations of Job. However, it seems that they had been speaking in this manner for Job’s own good. Nevertheless, this didn’t make up for the fact that they had not “spoken of me what is right.”

We are not free to worship God in any manner we choose. Our worship must also reflect truth. We cannot bow down with knees or even words before the god of expediency. Mordechai understood this:

  • And all the king's servants who were at the king's gate bowed down and paid homage to Haman, for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage. Then the king's servants who were at the king's gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you transgress the king's command?” And when they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai's words would stand, for he had told them that he was a Jew. (Esther 3:2-4) 
Mordechai was no one’s fool. He understood the price he would have to pay for his faithfulness to his God. However, he also understood that faithfulness to God’s truth was more important than political gain.

The three faithful Israelite young men also understood this. All Babylon had been commanded to bow down before the golden image of the King. However, they would not. Even after King Nebuchadnezzar gave them a second chance to bow down and worship, they still would not, even at the threat of a fiery death (Daniel 3).

Faithfulness trumps pragmatic gain – any consideration of finding unity and peace among the world religions. The Apostle Peter had wanted to keep peace with the Pharisaic believers in Christ. However, he paid a high price for this. Paul charged that Peter’s behavior had denied the truth of the Gospel:

  • But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned [before God]. For before certain [Jewish believing] men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel. (Galatians 2:11-14)
We are not our own. We belong to God and must never betray the truth of the Gospel, whether in word or in deed, as Peter had done. How did Peter betray the Gospel? He acted in a way which said, “We are not all equal in Christ.”

We also belong to our brethren. When we betray the Gospel, we also lead others to do so! After all, if Peter could bend the truth of the Gospel, so can we, right?

Having a mixed service with Muslims will inevitably lead to compromise and division among the brethren. Many will correctly see it as a violation of our marriage to our Savior. Paul warned that:

  • If a man see thee who hast knowledge sitting at meat in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be emboldened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through thy knowledge he that is weak perisheth, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And thus, sinning against the brethren, and wounding their conscience when it is weak, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat causeth my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore, that I cause not my brother to stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:10-13)
By partaking in common prayer with Muslims, we are not only communicating the wrong message, but we are also contributing to the spiritual decline of the church.

There is nothing at all wrong with eating meat. However, for the sake of the brethren, Paul vowed that he would abstain from all meat if this meant placing a spiritual roadblock in their path. How then can any Christian leader consider common prayer with Muslims!