Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Busy season strikes again

Our annual busy season at work has started. I have some pieces that I've written for other series or purposes that I'll try to get posted. In the meantime, if I seem a little scarce, it's because I'm working extra hours.

Take care & God bless

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Controversies in the church: The moral authority of the Bible (part 2 of 2)

Due to length and time considerations, this was posted in two parts. Part 1 is available here.


The progressives believe that our moral sense has grown beyond the days of the Bible and is perhaps still growing. The days of slavery and witch hunts are seen as a spiritual dark age in which the teachings of Christ were not given their proper place, and the great command to love your neighbor as yourself was placed lower than some of the lesser commands. Laws were kept that should have been abolished in light of Christ.  Progressives generally believe we are in the same situation today with the question of female leadership; some also believe the same about abortion and the acceptance and inclusion of homosexuality.

Internal diversity: Some Christian groups simply want to distance themselves from the wrongs that have been done by people who carried the name of Christ but did not follow the teachings of Christ. Some are embarrassed by several seemingly barbaric laws in the ancient Torah, and assorted other passages of the Bible that seem less good and less holy – not merely in their human eyes and personal judgment, but especially in light of the teachings of Christ. They are determined to see that such problems do not happen with other issues, and have particular items in mind for today. Some progressives see excluding women from leadership roles as oppression and injustice, and believe that Christ's teachings will lead us to change our practices there just as surely as we did with slavery in centuries past. Some - though not quite as many - would make the same argument about homosexuality.

Strong points: The Bible passages that forbid women in certain roles seem outdated and unjust to many people. Based on this, and the history of slavery, progressives make an appeal for taking a fresh look at all of our morals. The progressives believe that we are called to re-evaluate all teachings in light of the higher standards of Christ's own teachings so that we do not bring Jesus' name into disrepute - as has been done in the past – by people who put other teachings above Christ's.

External criticisms: The pro-family side sees the progressives as systematically attacking their efforts to promote strong and lasting families, sexual responsibility, and sexual integrity. They point out that, while some Christian progressives claim to uphold values of sexual purity, in practice, when it comes to defending these things and teaching them to the next generation, the Christian progressives often stand silently by -- or take sides with the secular anti-religious people -- when the secular progressives mock the pro-family Christians. The "non-judgmental" approach to sexual promiscuity is seen as being little different in practice than endorsing or accepting it. At any rate, the pro-family Christians note a lack of support and common cause as they try to teach moral uprightness to the next generation, and the silence of the progressives leads them to wonder if the progressives still believe in sexual integrity in such a way that they are willing to speak up for it. While a certain number of the pro-family people are supportive of equality for women, they may hesitate to voice their support because the call for the equality for women is typically also bundled with a call to accept abortion for any reason and divorce for any reason, to be relatively accepting of promiscuity, and to normalize homosexual behavior. 

Response to criticism: Some progressives, though certainly not all, see sexual purity as an outdated concept. Many -- possibly most -- progressives see the larger issue as simple injustice.  The focus is eliminating discrimination against women. Almost all progressives would also include allowing women to end a pregnancy. Again, many progressives would include ending discrimination against homosexuals.

The slippery slope: If homosexuality is in bounds, what exactly is out of bounds? In what ways do you see morality applying to sex and sexuality? Do you consider sexual responsibility as a good and necessary part of human society? What does "sexual responsibility" involve? When there are public disagreements on it, do you stand up for sexual responsibility and morality?

Uncharitable moments towards the other side: Progressives routinely compare religious conservatives to murderous witch hunters, slave owners, or terrorists who intend mass murder. Others mock them as Puritans or prudes, allowing no place for legitimate sexual morality.

Charitable moments: The progressive side may recognize that the people who hold traditional family values desire happy lives for their children, grandchildren, and future generations: a stable society that endures, lives in prosperity and not poverty, and has lasting families more often than loneliness. They believe that sexual integrity and traditional family are different from slavery because stable families have been a powerful force in human history for building healthier, happier lives.

Fair questions:  When it comes to public-square discussion about morality, does it bother you to see that certain anti-Christian groups consider you as allies? Which moral commands of the Bible do you consider to be timeless and eternal? On what basis do you choose between "keepers" and "tossers"? Is there anything in the Old Testament, or in Paul's writings, that you believe is morally good?

Because there is a collection of issues under the umbrella of "progressive morality", some of the fair questions depend on which particular issue is being discussed. What things are you willing to stand up for as certainly right or wrong when it comes to sexuality? What do you make of the fact that single parent families are more likely to live in poverty, have children drop out of school, use drugs, and commit crimes -- do Christians have a role to play in preventing these through building lasting families? What do you make of the role that sexual promiscuity plays in health problems such as AIDS and cervical cancer, or the role that abortion plays in risk of cancer? What do you make of the fact that homosexual activity has played a significant role in the spread of AIDS and therefore in the disease and deaths of many homosexuals? Do you believe that promiscuous people (maybe particularly the youngest adults) frequently engage in deceit, peer pressure, or emotional blackmail to get sex? If so, does your church body have a clear teaching that would empower a young adult to hold his or her ground and not be taken advantage of? Does your church body have a clear teaching that would give people a sense of direction and purpose in building a lasting and healthy family life? If an individual does not belong to a lasting and healthy family, will that affect the ability to be a healthy, happy, well-adjusted individual? (Again, not all of these questions apply to each progressive; the wide range of the list is related to the wide variety of issues that are considered.)

Related controversies

All of the controversies in the conservative/liberal group tend to revolve around the moral authority of the Bible -- where that authority lies, whether it shows progress over time, and how we understand the source of its authority. Here are some related posts on controversies on the Bible's moral authority.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Controversies in the church: The moral authority of the Bible (part 1 of 2)

The controversy: The moral authority of the Bible

In this controversy, both sides desire to please God and to live good lives. There is agreement on many specifics, from not lying and not stealing to showing kindness to our neighbors. The main differences are over abortion, homosexuality, and women exercising leadership over men. For some, the controversy also involves premarital sex.

Some of these specific differences were already discussed separately, but they are part of a larger question about the moral authority of the Bible. The controversy over the Bible’s moral authority seems to have developed among Christians because the moral authority of the Bible is one of the more common arguments for the conservative position, and for many it is not only persuasive but decisive.

In this controversy, more than any other so far, the different sides see themselves as nearly part of different conversations, even though they argue over the same ground. The conservatives see the controversy as being largely about promoting healthy families and decent, happy, productive lives; they see themselves as pro-family. The liberals see many of the teachings in the Bible as outdated; they see change as progress and see themselves as progressives.

Due to the length of time involved in developing this material, it has been split into two parts. This first part covers the "pro-family" view; the second part covers the "progressive" view. Both are complete at this point and were scheduled to post in advance.

Pro-Family:  The conservative or "pro-family" groups believe that the Bible's moral guidance is still valid today. In particular, they see the laws about responsible sexual behavior and self-control as eternal laws that are vital to a healthy society.

Internal diversity: Few if any Christian groups believe that all of the Old Testament applies to Christians. Some groups hold to more of the Torah than others. For instance, it is considered unusual to strictly observe a Sabbath of rest on the seventh day. More typical is the view that only certain laws and principles from the Torah apply to us; beyond that, the teachings of Christ and his apostles are considered binding on Christians, but not the laws of Moses. This is based on a meeting of the apostles to discuss the topic, recorded in the Bible in Acts 15 to discuss the extent to which the Laws of Moses and Jewish customs should apply in the Gentile church. While some of those considerations discussed in Acts 15 were dietary, the one that has the most bearing to our current discussion is the one about abstaining from sexual immorality, which has the support not only of the council recorded in Acts 15, but also the separately recorded teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

Strong points: The Bible's morality seems good and right to a vast number of people. In particular the parts that are commonly challenged in our culture, forbidding promiscuity, forbidding homosexuality, encouraging marriage and commitment to marriage, seem simply the necessary building blocks of stable relationships, happier lives, more prosperous families, and children with better mental health and education.

External criticisms: Much of the organized opposition to the Bible's moral authority, when it comes from Christians, has the goal of normalizing women's leadership on the one hand or normalizing homosexuality on the other hand. The arguments used, however, typically revolve around slavery, dietary laws, clothing laws, execution of witches, or the morally questionable actions during the conquest of Canaan in the ancient history of Israel. These are brought up, not to change the subject, but as examples of moral questions where both sides already agree to some extent that there are things accepted in the Bible that no one accepts any longer. The way some laws are accepted and others are not is seen, if not as hypocrisy, then at least as inconsistency.

Response to criticism: The highly-questioned laws of the Old Testament were already set aside by the early church in the Council of Jerusalem, which took place so early in church history that it was attended and decided by people who had known Jesus directly and recorded in the Bible. That does not mean that every ancient teaching in the Bible is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus, but it does mean that Christians are not bound by the Sinai covenant, which is where we find the laws to which people object. Since the apostles discussed whether the ancients laws of the Jews applied to Christians and decided they did not -- and this is recorded for us in the Book of Acts -- questions like "Why do you not keep the dietary laws?" are often seen not as clever and telling arguments, but as demonstrating that the critic isn't familiar with the Bible or the history of the church –that the critic may not have done his homework.

The slippery slope: Why don't you keep the dietary laws of the Old Testament? Do you believe in the death penalty for witchcraft, adultery, and various other sins? If the Bible is morally pure, why did it accept slavery? If you oppose female leadership in family and the church, does that apply to the business world or the political arena as well?

Uncharitable moments towards the other side: This group often sees the other side as being anti-family or anti-morality. Sometimes the accusation is made that the other side only argues in order to justify their own sexually immoral lifestyles.

Charitable moments: The pro-family side may recognize that Jesus himself questions some of the ancient laws, such as "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", or Moses' divorce law. In light of that, we can't assume that every law recorded in the Torah was the ultimate expression of God’s will; it may have been a temporary measure “because of our hardness of heart”, as Jesus said about divorce (Matthew 19:8). Since the Bible's letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus is greater than Moses and the New Covenant is greater than the Old Covenant, Christians need to make sure that we're not holding to principles from a pre-Christian time.

Fair questions: Do you believe that Moses taught with an authority equal to Jesus? What about Paul -- did he teach with an authority equal to Jesus? Do you believe that Jesus ever considered Moses' laws to be less than perfect? Back at the first Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) when the apostles discussed what laws of the Old Testament would still apply to the Gentile Christians, they said to abstain from the meat of animals that have been strangled; does that apply today? If not, then is the Council of Jerusalem the last word about what applies from the Old Testament? Do any passages of the Old Testament bother you or seem morally questionable to you?

A link to Part 2 will be added here after part 2 is published. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

The moral authority of the Bible: links

The question of the moral authority of the Bible is probably the most involved question I've written about. There are so many facets, so many individual topics, so many perspectives. It goes beyond the question of the moral authority of the Old Testament in a New Testament era. After this post, I have my "controversies"-format post done according to the usual template. Because it took me awhile to develop, I'm going to break it into two parts. The first is scheduled to post on Sunday and the second on Tuesday. Here is a roundup of the related posts written while I was thinking through different parts of it.
Two other series also came out of thinking through what it means to be moral, and the place of Christ in understanding morality.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

How does play put God's glory on display?

You don't want to hear God speak these final words: "Fool, how did all that pointless play put my glory in display?" (John Piper, with some words he envisions God speaking) (h/t Bird over at Thinklings)
 To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven:
A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4)

God is not always what we expect. God has shown himself to be playful at times: he included a pun (wordplay) in his instructions to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:11-12). It is not always a time to play; but there is a right time for it.
  • God is said to delight, rejoice, and sing. (Zephaniah 3:17)
  • If the Book of Psalms was in any sense written by God, then God writes poetry and music.
  • The Bible tells us also to play music and sing. (Psalm 33:3)
  • Jesus' first miracle for the multitudes was wine for a wedding feast. (John 2)
  • Jesus compares the coming kingdom to the celebration of a wedding feast. (Matthew 22:2)
  • Morality is, in its highest and truest form, love (Matthew 22:37-40).
  • Love is meant to be the special mark of Christ's followers (John 13:35).
  • Love is by nature joyful, though in a broken world this has exceptions.

So how does play put God's glory on display? It is an act of faith in God's goodness, an act of love towards those included, and a demonstration of hope in the feast to come.When it is a time to weep and mourn, then laughing does not glorify God; when it is a time to laugh and dance, then staying solemn does not glorify God.

Or, for those who like to rhyme (as Piper did), we might say, "How does all that angry coldness demonstrate God's love's boldness?"

A fair hearing for moral objections against the Torah

I've written about moral issues in the Torah before. I've written about the good, how the Torah was in some ways ahead of its time, and in some ways better than the laws we have now. Some issues I've discussed at more length, like the question of slavery, since that issue definitely deserves more visibility than some of the smaller questions. But once you get through the big, high-visibility issues, there remains a collection of small issues that, cumulatively, make people wonder about the laws in the Torah. This is a brief round-up of things of that nature, more a collection of examples than an exhaustive list, meant to show the type of objections that are often felt by Christians against the older Torah laws. Some would simply answer that these laws are not binding on Christians. But that's almost the point, really; if we thought they were good laws without qualification, wouldn't we voluntarily bind ourselves to them simply for the sake of their goodness? And so we find ourselves still wondering about those laws. For instance:
  • Ban on eating shellfish and other dietary laws. I have never heard anyone suggest that the Jewish dietary laws harm anyone or are immoral. I have also never heard anyone suggest that the Jewish dietary laws help anyone live a more godly life, more just or honest, more filled with love of God or neighbor. They seem arbitrary. Many suggest that the arbitrary-sounding laws had a use in their own time and place. Many Christians have taken Jesus' comments to mean that the kosher-diet laws are not an essential matter of morality, when he commented that whatever food entered the mouth did not make someone unclean, as it went into the belly and passes on out. The early Christian Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) also did not see the dietary laws as binding on Gentile Christians.
  • An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This law is found repeatedly in the Torah; it is also found in the older Code of Hammurabi. We can easily look down on earlier people as barbaric, but we still don't have a good solution for what to do when one person causes irreparable harm to another, such as blinding him in one eye. The ancient law may have accomplished one good thing: It would make people far more careful of whether they caused an irreparable injury to another person in a fight. It is a law that we may mock as barbaric, but it would have had a civilizing effect on people who actually were barbaric. This particular part of the Torah was singled out by Jesus for comment when he spoke of confronting evil in more peaceful and constructive ways.
  • Death penalty for crimes in which nobody died. While we may dislike the law of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth", that law does have this much to say for it: the punishment fits the crime. The Torah calls for the death penalty for murderers, for those who had taken a life, and the punishment there does fit the crime. But it also calls for the death penalty in a variety of other crimes in which nobody died. There are several offenses like this; one example is that those who commit adultery were condemned to death. Again, when the crowds brought an adulteress to Jesus to see if he would approve if they executed her by stoning as they intended, he instead turned the question of judgment back to them and invited whoever was without sin to cast the first stone -- which, famously, saw each of the accusers turn around and walk away.
  • Animal sacrifices. There is a certain mercy in a person who is worthy of death being permitted to offer a substitute. There is even some measure of genuine purification when a person joins in condemning the evil that they themselves have done. But back in the day when the Jewish Temple still stood, there was ritual animal sacrifice daily. The annual Feast of Atonement called for a large number of animals to be sacrificed. The laws about atonement from guilt and sin, about dedication of children and so forth would have seen a steady stream of animals brought to be sacrificed. Christians see, in Jesus, the end of the ancient animal-sacrifice practices. In the Letter to the Hebrews, an early Christian writer called attention to the sheer endless number of sacrifices, and called that as a witness that the end goal of purifying us from sin was never in fact accomplished in that way, or the day would have come that the sacrifices could cease -- and mentioned that the means of sacrificing animals could never have actually accomplished that goal.
  • Guilt or innocence determined by odd tests. In general, the Jewish justice system called for establishing facts on the testimony of witnesses. But with the suspicion of marital unfaithfulness, where there would not be two or three witnesses other than the people involved, there was another test for guilt or innocence. It involved a curse being written down, the writing washed off into a cup of water, and the person under suspicion drinking the water and inviting that curse to take place if guilty. Was there something harmful in the water, and it was presumed that God would act to save the innocent? Or was there nothing harmful in the water, and it was presumed that God would act to punish the guilty? Or was it more like a Solomon's test, where the innocent and the guilty would identify themselves by their reactions? I wouldn't want to comment on it too much without knowing how it was supposed to work. But that's a problem in itself: If it's a system of justice, shouldn't everyone know how it works?
While it may be a relief to Christians that such laws are not binding on us, it does leave us wondering: What were those laws meant to accomplish in the first place? What does it say about the Torah that it contains laws of that nature? And if the Old Testament is eternally perfect, the question goes beyond explaining why it contains laws like this; the question is also why Jesus himself had a direct role in why we no longer observe a number of them.

No, I'm not really leaving it there. And finishing with rhetorical questions is definitely not meant to imply that there are no answers. I'm finally getting back to my series on "controversies", and this is some groundwork towards the controversy about the moral authority of the Bible. Comments are always welcome; I just wanted to make sure everyone understood that this is a piece of a larger series, and not meant to be my own last word on the subject.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Prohibition of the Slave Trade v the Abolition of Slavery

The Bible takes a fair amount of criticism in some circles. The charge of outmoded and barbaric moral codes is heaped on it fairly regularly, and this by some Christian camps as often as by atheists. One of the favorite proofs that the Bible is morally repugnant (and therefore there is license, if not mandate, to abandon it on many moral questions) is the issue of slavery.

"Slavery" is a prime example of "injustice and oppression": In the colonial days of the New World and for some time after that, people were kidnapped and forced into a life-long imprisonment, viewed as less than human, subject to harsh treatment, and had no realistic hope of escape or rescue. Even the "justice" system was against them, and if they managed to escape to freedom, they would find the law against them.

But in the Bible, someone who kidnapped a person to enslave him was the one on the wrong side of the law.

Moses' Prohibition of the Slave Trade
It is plain that the morality taught by Christ -- to do unto others as we would have them do unto us -- would necessarily abolish all forms of oppression, if his words were taken to heart. But what is less well-known is that the slave trade as we know it was actually prohibited under the law of Moses, and carried no less than the death penalty.
Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death. (Exodus 21:16)
The type of slavery we know from the colonial era of Europe and the immediate post-colonial era in the U.S.A., which is the slavery of people kidnapped and sold, would have seen the kidnappers and profiteers condemned to death by the Old Testament law.

Temporary Bankruptcy-Slavery
Even though the Law of Moses called for the death penalty for human traffickers, there was still a different kind of thing also called slavery: commonly when someone sold himself temporarily to pay off his own debts. It was an ancient system for handling bankruptcy. Under Moses' law, this type of slave was released every the seventh year when debts were forgiven. It could be either for a person who had mismanaged a debt or for a thief. When a thief could not repay what he had stolen, with restitution, he would also be forced into temporary slavery to work off his debt. After the seventh year the slave was returned to freedom if he desired it, or allowed to remain with his new household if he found his situation was better off in his new household. Under these circumstances, temporary slavery was a matter of economic justice; it could not become permanent without the debtor's consent.

It is easy to criticize the Old Testament system of working off a debt because it was called by the word "slavery", even though that did not mean either "kidnapping" or "lifelong imprisonment" or even "injustice" in the case of working off a debt. But it is questionable whether our current system for handling bankruptcy and debt is better than working off the debt for a reasonable length of time then having the balance forgiven. Our modern system has the potential for endless debts that are never forgiven and follow an estate beyond the grave, creditors who are never repaid for their bad debts, and people who have been robbed but are never repaid for their losses. We also don't have an effective way to handle that rare person who never does figure out how to manage his own finances or coordinate his own employment. The older system sought out the worker's consent, but with his consent it could make the arrangement permanent, to work for this particular person in return for food and shelter.

Slavery of Foreigners

Moses' slavery code seems most at odds with Christ's teaching of love when it comes to the different status of slaves bought from other nations or taken as prisoners during or after a war. In this light, I think a Christian should take direction from the fact that the Christ's job description included proclaiming liberty to the captives (Isaiah 61:1). That makes its own comment, in a way, about whether the practice of keeping captives was good in God's eyes.

The New Testament Condemnation of the Slave Trade
Many people are aware that, in the U.S.A.'s own arguments over the abolition of slavery, the Bible was often quoted on both sides. It's easy to see that the authors of the Bible took slavery for granted. It's less easy to remember that they lived in a world where "slavery" didn't necessarily mean "kidnapping" or "life-long", where the good guys thought the slave trade was a capital offense, and where many slaves were in their situation temporarily to work off a debt.

The slave trade was condemned explicitly, not only in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament, as Paul writes Timothy about the lowest of sinners:
... for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers -- and whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine ... (1 Timothy 1:10)

What finally finished slavery in Christian lands was not the explicit prohibitions against the slave trade in the Bible. That, in itself, is testimony to whether the people were reading the Bible to learn from it or using it to justify themselves. What finished slavery in Christian lands was ultimately Jesus' teaching that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. The longer people had that saying in their conscience, the less we could tolerate oppression. That is to say, it took a change of heart and a change of conscience before we could recognize that our system of slavery was wrong.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Prayer for the lost

Let him see the good in you, and love you for it, and seek it, and follow you all his days. May he see the good in you, and recognize the excellence of your ways; may he set his moral compass by you, and steer a good course by you, and follow you all his days. May he desire the good that is in you, and call himself by your name.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

What's the difference between justice and revenge?

I heard a challenge question once, asking: What's the difference between justice and revenge? (I think it was on an old TV show.) The answer given was, "One is right, and the other is wrong." The answer was good for a laugh, but it doesn't exactly answer the question. Here are some thoughts towards a fuller answer.

Justice aims to restore something: to balance scales, to restore order, to limit evil, to repay a loss. Justice is meant to put things right again.

Revenge aims to harm the other person, whether through injury, or financial ruin, or lost reputation, or some other means.

We would not want to insist that "justice" never does any harm to the criminal. A thief who is ordered to repay an amount stolen -- with extra compensation -- may find himself financially ruined; but that ruin was not the goal. Restoring the loss was the goal. Justice is satisfied when things are right again. It is easy to think of cases where justice is satisfied without harm being done to the criminal. But revenge is not satisfied until some sort of harm is done.

So for justice, restoration is the goal. Harm may be permissible if it is necessary to the goal and if the goal warrants it, but not otherwise. For revenge, the harm itself is the goal.

Which is why, as the old quip said, "One is right, and the other is wrong."