Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: May, 2015

IS MONOTHEISM INTOLERANT?

 

Jeffrey Tayler, in his salon.com article, “The left has Islam all wrong,” argues that Islam is inherently repressive and intolerant. But he goes further than that and tries to argue that all monotheistic religion is intolerant. He says that the God of the Israelites was “jealous and vengeful, capricious and megalomaniacal.” He then claims that the First Commandment (“You shall have no other gods before Me”) is “an absolutist order implicitly justifying violence against those who haven’t gotten the memo.” He then blames Christianity for the Medieval crusades, and Jesus for teaching eternal punishment.

Tayler’s argument raises two basic and distinct questions. 1) Is monotheism inherently intolerant? And 2) Does Christianity sanction violence against unbelievers?

On the first question there is a sense in which monotheism is intolerant: it will not countenance the idea of any other gods besides the one, true and living God. But any system that claims to represent truth will oppose contrary systems as not representing truth. The only way around it is for all of us not to claim to know truth at all. We could then all live in blissful ignorance! And in the case of monotheism the denial of other gods is simply a recognition of the fact that God alone is the Creator. The universe was designed by a single, intelligent Supreme Being. It is this fact that gives the universe its rational structure and logical coherence. Thus everything besides God owes its existence to Him, and it is only proper and fitting that we acknowledge our dependence upon Him and pledge Him our allegiance. Anything else would represent a misplaced loyalty.

Psalm 100 in the Bible explains it this way. The whole earth is exhorted to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord’ (v. 1). (Note: not mumble our way through a couple of hymns and then struggle to stay awake during the sermon!) We are to worship the Lord “with gladness” and “with singing” (v. 2). Our worship is not to be a formal, half-hearted performance, but a genuine expression of joy and gladness.

But why?  “Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves” (v. 3). We are to worship only Him because only He is worthy of our worship. He alone is the Creator. We did not bring ourselves into existence, and everything we are, and everything we have, we owe to Him. Hence it is only proper and fitting for us to acknowledge Him as the source of all our blessings. For us not to do so is the height of ingratitude.

But does this mean that God is a “Despot on High” who is “jealous and vengeful, capricious and megalomaniacal,” as Tayler would have us to believe? Not in the slightest. For the psalm goes on to say, “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting, and his truth endureth to all generations” (vv. 4,5). Just because God is the all-powerful Creator, it does not follow that He is a cruel tyrant. That is a little bit like saying that President Obama is a cruel tyrant just because he believes that he alone is currently President of the United States! (Of course God doesn’t have to deal with Congress!). Indeed, God’s very position as Creator and source of all of our blessings points to His infinite wisdom, goodness and faithfulness. Verse 5 uses three terms to describe His character. God is “good,” i.e., favorably disposed to do us good; and He has “mercy,” or lovingkindness, as the word is sometimes translated; and He has “truth,” or faithfulness as it might better be translated. If God has blessed us with health and life, with food and clothing, and with human companionship, then those very facts point to the goodness of His character. And if He would send His own Son into the world to redeem a lost and sinful human race, then that speaks even more eloquently of His character. A benevolent Despot, yes; a cruel Tyrant, no.

Does this mean that Christianity is intolerant? Yes, but in the same sense that science is intolerant. Neither one will admit of more than one version of the truth (just ask a secular scientist what he thinks of creationism!). Christianity and science both operate on the premise that there is such a thing as ultimate truth. Does that make Christians, or scientists, bigots? Can we afford to be indifferent to truth?

This, in turn, brings us to the second question, does Christianity sanction violence against non-believers? The answer is most definitely “no.” Christ instructed His disciples to preach the gospel; He did not tell them to cut people’s heads off.

To understand why, it is important to understand the nature of Christ’s kingdom. Jesus did, in fact, claim to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but what does that entail? To many Jews it meant that the Messiah would restore the kingdom of David – essentially establishing an earthly, political state, complete with civil laws and political structure to enforce them. Thus when Jesus was arrested and brought before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, Pilate was definitely interested in the political implications of Jesus’ message. He asked Jesus flat-out, “Are You the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33; NKJV). What Jesus told him was this: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (v. 36). Pilate pressed Him for clarification: (Are You a king then?” Jesus’ answer was, that He came into the world to bear witness to the truth, and that those who are of the truth will hear His voice (v. 37). In other words, we make disciples through argument and persuasion, not violence. The sword can produce a multitude of hypocrites, but not true believers. Only the Holy Spirit at work in the hearts and souls of individuals can create genuine saving faith.

Yes, Christianity is intolerant – it will admit of no rivals. But it does not follow from this that Christianity is violent. Truth can be discerned only through free inquiry. And ultimately God must reveal Himself to the individual soul. Only then can true faith arise.

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A RIGHT TO SAY ANYTHING?

The Scream, 1893

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893

 

The attention of the world was arrested not too long ago by the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that published cartoons mocking Mohammed. More recently radical Islamists launched an attack on a “Draw Mohammed” cartoon contest hosted in Texas by Pamela Geller.

Liberal secularists like to see this as a free-speech issue. In a recent article at salon.com Jeffrey Tayler asserted that “The First Amendment protects both our right to practice the religion of our choosing (or no religion at all) as well as our right to speak freely, even offensively about it” (“The Left has Islam all wrong, http://www.salon.com/2015/05/10/the_left_has_islam_all_wrong_bill_maher_pamela_geller_and_the_reality_progressives_must_face/). He suggests that faith “should be subject to unfettered discussion, which may include satire, ridicule and even derision.” Hence Charlie Hebdo, and Pamela Geller, had a right to ridicule Islam, and Muslims were wrong to retaliate.

I would want to make it clear at the outset that I largely agree with Tayler’s assessment of Islam. Jihad is a concept taught in the Koran itself, and while it may be capable of a variety of interpretations and applications, in Mohammed’s own mind, at least, it most definitely included literal military conquest. The ultimate aim of Islam is to establish a theocracy, and to that end it can justify the use of force to achieve its objective. In that sense Islam is a genuine threat to democracy.

But does that give Western journalists the right to ridicule Islam? Pamela Geller and Jeffrey certainly think so, and on narrow legal grounds they may be right. The First Amendment does indeed guarantee the freedom of religion, speech and of the press. These rights, however, are not absolute. They do not give you the right to infringe on the rights of others. We do not have the right to publish material that is libelous, indecent, blasphemous, or injurious to public morals or private reputation.

But on broader moral grounds, however, it is hard to justify the actions of Charlie Hebdo or Ms. Geller. The basic moral requirement of divine law is to love your neighbor as yourself. This means, among other things, that we should not harm our neighbor in any way. But we can harm someone by what we say. We can hurt his feelings, destroy his reputation, and provoke him to anger. And so Jesus could say, “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt. 5: 22; NKJV). “Raca” is probably an Aramaic word that means “blockhead” or “empty-head.” In the context what Jesus is emphasizing here is the underlying motive that lies behind the harsh words, the anger that is virtually indistinguishable in principle from the urge to kill. But the fact remains that words spoken in anger hurt other people. We are not at liberty to insult others at will.

Nor was this some revolutionary new principle that originated with Jesus. The Ninth Commandment reads, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” and the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament is full of maxims about the use of the tongue. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, / And those who love it will eat its fruit” (Prov. 18:21).

Moreover in the New Testament the apostle Paul could apply the basic principle to concrete situations in the early church: “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Eph. 4:29). He goes on to say, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice” (v. 31), and “foolish talking” and “coarse jesting” are not even to be “named among you,” but rather “giving of thanks” (5:3,4). In other words, Christians are not to engage in trash talk.

Our Creator expects us to use our tongues constructively. This does not mean that we are never to criticize or offend anyone, but what we say must be aimed at promoting the other person’s good. We must teach and correct, and occasionally even rebuke someone. But Christian love forbids us from engaging in ridicule and derision, as Tayler advocates in discussions about religion.

The difference between secularism and religion comes down to this: secularism regards nothing as sacred, nothing as inherently deserving of respect, because to a secularist’s way of thinking there is no divinely created order to reality. Everything essentially came into being by accident, and therefore nothing has any particular meaning or significance. Therefore the secularist feels free to ridicule and insult anything he wishes.

Christianity, on the other hand, posits the existence of a rational order to the universe. The cosmos was designed by an intelligent Supreme Being, and therefore everything in it has purpose and design, meaning and significance. The secularist thinks that we are descended from apes; the Bible teaches that we were created in the image of God. Therefore certain things are sacred, especially if they are connected in some way to God Himself. And God wants us to treat our fellow human beings, made in His image, with dignity and respect.

No, our freedom of speech is not absolute. Our Creator expects us to use our tongues and pens in a responsible, constructive way. Let us do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

THE SPIRITUAL WAR

 

II Timothy 3

Up until now here in the U.S. it has been easy to be a Christian. The church occupied a privileged position in society. From the Pilgrim Fathers to the Civil Rights Movement Christianity has exercised a powerful influence on American life.

What most Americans do not realize, though, is how exceptional all of this has been. When the history of the Christian church is taken as a whole, it is a picture of hardship and suffering, of persecution and martyrdom. Indeed, right at the outset Jesus warned his disciples, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as servants and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16; NKJV). The plain fact of the matter is that we are engaged in a spiritual war against a determined enemy. And that war will not end until Christ returns to claim victory.

All of this is reflected in Paul’s comments to Timothy in II Timothy, chapter 3. He begins by setting the stage by telling Timothy that “in the last days perilous times will come” (v. 1). There is a bit of confusion here, because we normally think of “the last days” as the period just prior to the Lord’s return, whereas Paul goes on to warn Timothy about things that were going on back then at the time that he was writing. The answer, I think, is found in I John 4:3: “And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.” We are engaged in a spiritual war that has lasted throughout the church age, but will intensify as we approach the end and will reach a climax during the Great Tribulation.

What, then , is the situation we face? Paul describes a society almost devoid of human qualities. It begins with people being “lovers of themselves” (II Tim. 3:2) – completely devoted to their own individual self-interest. In line with that they are “lovers of money” – frankly materialistic in their outlook. Doesn’t this look like a capitalist society in an advanced stage of social decay? It is an apt description of the “me” generation.

Then follows a list of character attributes that stem from this basic self-centeredness. What is striking is that in the Greek the list includes no less than nine different adjectives that begin with the Greek letter “alpha,” which denotes the absence of something. These people are “unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, without self-control,” among other things. It is almost as though they are incapable of doing good to others, so devoted are they to pursuing their own individual self-interest.

Remarkably, however, the citizens of this decadent society are still religious – at least outwardly. Paul describes them as “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (v. 5). The translation “godliness” is perhaps a bit misleading. The underlying Greek word might better be translated “piety” or “reverence.” The idea here is that this decadent society still goes through the outward motions of religion. They attend church, they sing hymns (or at least mumble their way through them), they put money in the offering plate (at least a token amount). But they “deny its power.” There is not personal acquaintance with or attachment to God, and no evidence of God’s working in their lives. They may go through the motions outwardly, but inwardly they are spiritually dead.

It is in this context that false teachers arise. Paul says that they prey on women, who sometimes can be a little gullible in such matters (it all started in the garden!). This is not to say that all women are gullible or naïve, but there is a certain type of woman who is particularly susceptible to this kind of thing. The may struggle with emotional issues, and as a result can be manipulated by cunning men who reassure them that God loves them just the way they are and wants them to be happy and fulfilled.

As for the false teachers themselves, they are in the position of “resisting the truth” (v. 8). Paul compares them to Jannes and Jambres, who, according to Jewish tradition, were two of Pharaoh’s magicians who tried to counter Moses’ miracles with some of their own.

But why would someone want to resist the truth? What is the advantage of falsehood? Paul says that they are “men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith” (v. 8). They are “evil men and imposters” who are “deceiving and being deceived” (v. 13). In other words, they themselves are hopelessly deluded, and they do not know what they are doing. They constitute a very real threat to the church.

It was in this context that Paul conducted his own ministry. Paul tells Timothy that “you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance. . . .” (v. 10). Doctrine (or, teaching) was, of course, central to Paul’s ministry. But it also involved much more than that. His personal had to back up his teaching. He had a sense of purpose and direction. He had to have a firm trust in God and a love for others. But it also required longsuffering and perseverance. The reason these qualities were so important is that Paul had also encountered outright persecution. Paul refers specifically to the experience he had had on his first missionary journey through central Asia Minor where he encountered opposition from angry Jewish mobs who chased him out of Antioch and Iconium, and stoned him nearly to death at Lystra (cf. Acts chapters 13 & 14). Since Timothy was a native of Lystra he may have witnessed these events firsthand.

Paul’s conclusion to all of this sobering: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (II Tim. 3:12). The Christian life is an offense to a godless, secular society, and if they cannot ignore us they will try to attack us.

Which brings us to Paul’s charge to Timothy. “But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of . . .” (v. 14). Specifically, he reminds Timothy of the importance of Scripture. First of all, because the Bible is God’s inspired Word. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (v. 16). “. . . for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit,” as Peter put it in II Pet. 1:21. Down through history God has spoken through various prophets and apostles, so that we have in our possession a real revelation from God Himself. The Bible must always remain our standard of truth, and we forsake it at our own peril.

But the Bible is also an immensely practical book. It is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Tim. 3:16,17). Scripture is obviously useful for doctrine – indeed, it is only through Scripture that we can know about God, about the meaning and purpose of life, and about what lies beyond the grave. And it is valuable precisely because it comes from a source outside of ourselves – from our Creator Himself who alone can tell us these things authoritatively.

But the Bible was also intended to do more than just fill our heads with facts and information. It was meant to give us practical guidance on how to live. It is profitable “for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Reproof and correction are necessary because we are prone to go astray. Sometimes we need something to get us back on track. Scripture is filled with practical guidance on how we ought to live. And living a life that is pleasing to God ought to be our main concern here on earth.

The end result, Paul says, is that “the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (v. 17). The Bible contains all the information we need to be able to live the Christian life successfully.

We live in troubled times. Dark clouds are looming on the horizon. Increasing pressure will be brought to bear upon us to conform to the perverted values of a godless society. In times like these it is more important than ever that we remain faithful to Scripture. It comes down to a choice between God and man – to whom will we listen? If we follow God’s Word it will lead us to eternal life. But once we forsake the Word, we are doomed to wander in the barren wasteland of ignorance and self-destruction. Which will it be?

GAYS ARE NOT BORN THAT WAY

          One of the most common arguments in defense of same-sex marriage is that gays are born that way and therefore cannot help being the way they are. Therefore it would be wrong to discriminate against them on the basis of their sexual orientation. Federal Appeals Court judge Richard A. Posner, for example, in striking down anti-gay marriage laws in Indiana and Wisconsin, opined that “there is little doubt that sexual orientation, the ground of discrimination, is an immutable (and probably an innate, in the sense of in-born) characteristic rather than a choice.”

Interestingly, even though Judge Posner said that there was “little doubt” about the matter, he had difficulty assigning the cause of homosexuality. He mentioned several theories, and even went so far as to say that “it seems paradoxical to suggest that homosexuality could have a genetic origin, given that homosexual sex is non-procreative.” He then went on to suggest that one possible explanation was that homosexuals are able to provide child-care assistance to their procreative relatives (?!). We sense that the learned judge is grasping at straws here.

The fact of the matter is that no one has been able to prove a biological cause for homosexuality. Homosexuals have been known to have gotten married and produced children the normal way, which suggests that there is nothing abnormal about them physically. What we are dealing with here is a psychological condition.

It is certainly true that many homosexuals genuinely feel that they have no control over their sexual orientation, and believe that they have always been gay. But the evidence points in another direction. In 1962 Dr. Irving Bieber published his report Homosexuality: A Study of Male Homosexuals. Dr. Bieber found that among male homosexuals there was usually an overly possessive mother and almost always a distant or hostile father. In other words, the problem originates in early childhood socialization. Attempts have been made to discredit the report, but other professionals who have worked the homosexuals have noted the same pattern. Homosexuality is an acquired characteristic.

But can it be changed? Most homosexuals would undoubtedly say no – being gay is just the way they are, and they genuinely feel that they had no choice in the matter. And in fact most people would undoubtedly find it very difficult, if not next to impossible, to change a personality trait that they acquired in early childhood. To most of us these traits seem like a matter of instinct, and we have no memory of it ever having been different. But some practitioners have seen positive results in homosexuals who really want to change. The problem is that the majority probably do not, and the matter is further complicated by the fact that their behavior is self-reinforcing. Once in the lifestyle it is hard to get out.

But the same thing is true about almost any lifestyle that the Bible condemns as sinful. We are all born sinners by nature, and what you give yourself to becomes your master. “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves to whom you obey . . .?” (Rom. 6:16; NKJV). Does the drunkard have any control over his drinking? Or does the person addicted to porn have any self-control? What about the person who cannot control his temper, or the covetous person who can never get enough? We all have a natural proclivity towards sin, and sin, when indulged in, becomes compulsive and self-destructive.

But the whole point of salvation is to release us from the bondage of sin. What God has to give us is a new heart, a heart that wants to please Him, to be the men and women He intended us to be. When the apostle Paul took the gospel out into the pagan Graeco-Roman world he encountered people trapped in all kinds of vice and immorality. In I Cor. 6:9-11he could list a whole string of sins, including homosexuality, but added, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11).

Yes, there is hope for homosexuals. But what they need is not psychotherapy, but the saving grace of God.

THE IDEA OF MARRIAGE

 

This past Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court hear oral arguments in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, which involves the constitutionality of laws in four states that restrict marriage to heterosexual couples. A decision is expected in late June.

Supporters of same-sex marriage says that homosexuals have a right to marry under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Opponents of same-sex marriage argue that the decision to legalize such unions is best left to the states and to the democratic process. Michigan Solicitor General John Bursch tried to argue that states have an interest in tying marriage to biological parenthood. The justices, for their part, seemed wary of changing the definition of an institution that has been around for thousands of years.

As we have said before, this is not the beginning of the end for marriage. It is the end of the end, the closing chapter in a long, depressing saga of the decline of marriage in America. The fact of the matter is that “gay marriage” would have been absolutely inconceivable if marriage had not already been pretty well destroyed as a meaningful institution. As it stands now, you do not have to be married to have sex, you do not have to stay married if you don’t wish to. In some place you don’t even have to have sex with your spouse if you don’t want to. Marriage has become a mere legal technicality, a tax filing status, a box you check off on your Form 1040. And so the courts have tended to see it as a discrimination issue. Why shouldn’t gays be entitled to the same benefits of marriage as straight couples?

What are completely forgotten are the duties and responsibilities of marriage. And the reason that these have disappeared is that they are tied to gender roles. There are ( or at least, were) certain things that were expected of a husband and father, and there were certain other things that were expected of a wife and mother. The two roles complemented each other, and together they made marriage. When one of the spouses fell short of his / her duty, the impact was felt throughout the household. The interest of the state in all of this is to ensure that children are conceived and born into relationships in which there is a formal commitment between the biological parents. Homosexuality should be recognized for what it is, something that is profoundly abnormal and dysfunctional.

All of this is past, however. Today we have accepted as normal single parent families, with missing dads and neglected children. In many cases there was never a formal marriage at all, just a changing rotation of temporary sexual partners. What has fatally weakened the argument of some states trying to defend a traditional definition of marriage is that those states sometimes allow unmarried homosexuals to adopt children. And so the argument is made, wouldn’t those children be better off if their parents were married? This is what passes for “family life” in America today.

How very different is the Christian conception of marriage. One of the most eloquent passages in the Bible describing what a marriage should look like is Eph. 5:22-31. Here the apostle Paul compares the marriage relationship to the relationship between Christ and the church. And Paul makes it clear at the outset that “the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body” (v. 23; NKJV). This sword cuts both ways. First of all, for the husband, he is in some sense “the savior” of his wife. Paul explains: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her . . .” (v. 25). The husband is not just to tolerate his wife, nor even just to provide for her financially. He is to love her. He is to care about her and care for her. Moreover, it is to be a self-sacrificing love. Christ gave Himself for the church – He sacrificed His very life for her. Is it too much for a husband to do the same for his wife?

But something is expected of the wife as well. “Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (v. 24). The wife plays a subordinate role in marriage, “For the husband is the head of the wife.”

Is this too much to ask of a husband and wife? Many Americans today seem to think so. We would like to think that we can be married and retain our freedom and independence at the same time. We want to be free to do as we please. We think of marriage as an arrangement into which we enter voluntarily at our own convenience, and which we can terminate at the mutual consent of the parties (the fatal blow to marriage was no-fault divorce, which fundamentally altered the character of the institution). And Feminists reject the idea of gender roles altogether. As a result few Americans today are willing to shoulder the responsibilities and make the personal sacrifices necessary to make marriage work. The divorce rate in America bears grim testimony to how well this has worked out.

In reality all that a Christian couple should be doing is modelling Christian virtue in the home. Love, by its very nature, is self-sacrificing. It puts the well-being of the other person first. It is humble, gentle, and respects authority. It has a servant attitude. It doesn’t ask, “What’s in it for me?”

Is submission to her husband too burdensome for a wife? Has she first submitted her life to Christ, and owned Him as Lord and Master? Is making sacrifices for his wife too much to ask of a husband” Has he ever considered what Christ has done for him?

Marriage is a binding commitment that entails definite obligations and responsibilities, and should not be entered into lightly. But a Christian marriage should exude the warmth and devotion of a couple who genuinely love each other. Yes, we surrender our personal freedom. But in return we found genuine happiness and fulfillment in each other’s love.

Why should gays not be allowed to marry each other? Because they cannot fulfill the gender roles required of marriage nor can they serve as good role models for children in the home. “Gay marriage” makes a mockery of God’s plan for the sexes.