Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: March, 2017

THE MORAL CASE FOR UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE

 

 

Earlier today Speaker of the House Paul Ryan pulled from consideration a health care reform bill that was designed to replace Obamacare.  The speaker, it turns out, was unable to secure a consensus within his own party to get the bill through Congress.  Obamacare remains the law of the land for the time being.

The debate surrounding the bill reflects a logical dilemma underlying the American health care system.  Should the government take steps to insure that everyone has access to affordable health care?  One faction of the Republicans wants to keep the government out of the picture altogether.  Another faction worries about the political consequences of possibly millions of low income and high risk Americans losing their health insurance coverage.

The Republicans’ perplexity is understandable.  The American healthcare system had been plagued for decades with two major problems.  On the one hand there were large numbers of uninsured patients; and, on the other hand, health insurance premiums continued to rise at unacceptable rates year after year.  The U.S. would spend an enormous amount of money on health care each year, but often got less results than in other countries in terms of health outcomes.

One obvious solution to the problem would have been to adopt a single-payer national health insurance plan like that of Canada and many other industrialized countries.   But in the U.S. there is a strong tradition, rooted in the Constitution itself, of limiting the role of the federal government.  What else was it for which our ancestors fought in the American Revolution, if not freedom?  And so the Obama administration decided to take a different approach.  Adopting an idea that was originally conceived by the conservative Heritage Foundation, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as it came to be known.  Republicans were appalled, partly because it involved an individual mandate.  The federal government was forcing people to buy something they didn’t necessarily need or want.  If this wasn’t tyranny, what was it?

Obamacare was a failure.  Not enough younger, healthy people signed up.  Insurance premiums skyrocketed; insurers dropped out of the program.  Something obviously had to be done, which brought us to the Republicans’ current dilemma: is the aim to get the government out of the health care business?  Or is it to make sure that everyone has access to affordable health care?

It is important to recognize that there is a moral dimension to this question.  Can we, collectively as a society, consciously leave a significant part of our population without health care?  Libertarians might be inclined to say “yes”: no one is “entitled” to anything, and our freedom depends on keeping the government out of our personal business.  But Christians should think twice before accepting this line of argument.

It must be remembered that we are first and foremost human beings, and that as human beings we are accountable to our Creator for our actions.  And what exactly does our Creator expect from us?

The question was once put to Jesus by a Jewish legal scholar.  “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25; NKJV).  Jesus in turn asked him a question: “What is written in the law?  What is your reading of it?” (v. 26).  The lawyer responded by quoting Deut. 6:5 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind”) and Lev. 19:18 (“and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”).  Jesus commended him for having answered correctly.

But then the lawyer went on to ask a typical lawyer’s question: “And who is my neighbor?” (v. 29), and Jesus responded with His famous Parable of the Good Samaritan.

The story goes that a certain man was making his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, and was attacked by robbers who beat him severely and left him half-dead.  A Jewish priest happened to come by, saw the wounded man, and ignored him, going on his way.  Then a Levite, another Jewish religious official, came by, saw the same man, and also passed by.

Finally there came a Samaritan.  The Samaritans were a group of people who practiced an unorthodox hybrid form of Judaism, and were looked down upon with scorn by the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem.  This Samaritan, however, reacted differently to the situation than had the previous two passersby.  We’re told that “when he saw him [the injured man], he had compassion” (v. 33).  What he did next was most extraordinary.  First, he dressed the man’s wounds, “pouring on oil and wine.”  The oil, basically olive oil, acted as a salve; while the wine, containing alcohol, would have served as an antiseptic.  Having thus administered first aid, the Samaritan then placed the injured man on his own animal (perhaps a mule or donkey) and apparently walked the rest of the way to Jericho on foot leading the four-legged ambulance along the way.

Once in Jericho the Samaritan took the victim to an inn and there personally attended to his needs.  Then, when he was ready to depart the next day, he left the wounded man in the care of the innkeeper, paying the innkeeper two denarii, roughly equivalent to a working man’s wages for two days.  And perhaps most extraordinarily of all, he told the innkeeper, “. . .and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you” (v. 35).  Thus the Samaritan assumed the financial risk of caring for the patient – and the patient was a complete stranger!

The point of the story, of course, is that the lawyer had failed to understand what God really requires of us.  The lawyer thought that the question hinged on the definition of “neighbor.”  The point that Jesus wished to make, however, is that the key word is “love” – we are to love our neighbor, to be genuinely concerned for his well-being.  And love never asks the question, “Do I have to?”  Love responds to human need no matter where we find it.  This, then, is the basic principle of the moral law.  This is the responsibility that each one of us has towards God.

Some of my Libertarian friends will undoubtedly argue that this is an individual responsibility, that there is no biblical warrant for a state-run health care system, or a state-run welfare system for that matter.  And up to a point this is certainly true.  In the Old Testament the social safety net consisted of extended family relationships.  If your second cousin was in financial trouble it was your responsibility to act as a “go’el” or kinsman-redeemer to him, and come to his aid.  The New Testament church recognized itself as a spiritual brotherhood and took care of its members by practicing a form of communism (Acts 2:44; 45; 4:34,35).  Nevertheless all human beings are ultimately accountable to their Creator for their behavior, and they are not permitted to do collectively as a society what they are not permitted to do as individuals.  And the Bible makes it clear that God judges entire nations for their cruelty, oppression and injustice.  It remains to each society to devise the practical means by which pressing human needs can be met.

If we Christians, then, believe that abortion involves the taking of innocent human life, and that physician assisted suicide is a violation of the Sixth Commandment, how can we morally justify withholding medical treatment from someone who is critically ill?  The only remaining question, then, is how do we pay for the treatment provided?

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WHAT GOD THINKS OF THE MODERN CHURCH

 

            Near the beginning of his controversial novel The Shack author Wm. Paul Young has his main character Mackenzie Phillips (Mack) complain that “. . .Sunday prayers and hymns were cutting it anymore, if they ever really had.  Cloistered spirituality seemed to change nothing in the lives of the people he knew . . . He was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs that don’t seem to make any real difference or affect any real changes” (The Shack, p. 66).  Most of us would probably have to acknowledge that there is more truth to this accusation than we would care to admit.

In many ways the condition of the modern American evangelical church resembles that of the church at Laodicea, described in Revelation 3:14-22.  Ancient Laodicea was a prosperous city, situated on a fertile plain in Asia Minor.  Located at an important crossroads, it was a center of trade and commerce.  But its material prosperity affected the spiritual life of the Christian church located there.  It was the infamous “lukewarm” church of the seven churches of Asia that were addressed in Revelation chapters two and three.

What is especially striking about this particular church is how different its perception of itself was from the way God saw it.  Their self-perception is summed up in verse 17: “You say ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing . . .’” (NKJV).  Material prosperity leads to a sense of self-sufficiency.  Outwardly they appeared to be doing very well – they had financial resources at their disposal and could pretty much do as they wanted.

But how very different was God’s perception of them!  “You . . . do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked . . .” Their material prosperity masked a spiritual poverty.  “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot . . .you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot” (vv. 15,16).  They were half-hearted Christians, content to go through the formalities of public worship, but not really devoted to Christ; precisely the kind of church life described by Young in his book.

And so it is with us today.  We have impressive looking buildings and institutions and “ministries” galore, but can scarcely bring ourselves to spend any meaningful time in prayer.  What passes for “worship” is hardly more than glorified entertainment.  We sit passively in the pews (or theater seats) and when the service is over we go our merry ways, scarcely giving any thought at all at how we may serve Christ in our daily lives.  We are all too prone to ethical compromise.  “ . . .these people draw near with their mouths / And honor Me with their lips, / But have removed their hearts far from Me, / And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men . . .” (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8).

The problem is that the modern American evangelical church is a holdover from the Victorian era.  The early nineteenth century was marked by genuine revival – the Second Great Awakening (the First Great Awakening had taken place in the 1740’s).  But during the Victorian era of the late nineteenth century it became quite popular and respectable to identify oneself as a Christian.  Being a Christian came to be equated with being a respectable middle-class American.  It was easy to attract an audience, and impressive looking church edifices were built, complete with stone masonry, stained glass windows, and carved wooden pulpits and pews.  But an institutionalized form of church life developed that was unhealthy.  The theology was watered down, the sermons were filled with sentimental commonplaces, and a variety of religious practices were developed – processionals, robed choirs, responsive readings – that had little to do with actual discipleship or developing the spiritual life.  In short, Protestant Christianity became an American civil religion – comforting, supportive of the standing order, but superficial.

And then the twentieth century arrived, along with the intellectual challenges of evolution and higher criticism.  The more affluent churches in the urban centers tried to change with the times, adopting a liberal theology.  The more conservative churches in the rural areas clung to the older ways.  But the surrounding culture continued to change and drift further and further away from its Judeo-Christian moorings.  First it was the denial of the supernatural, and then it was the abandonment of basic moral principles” the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.  Churches were faced with a painful dilemma: either conform to the changing mores of society or risk being marginalized and irrelevant.  The liberal churches caved in; the more conservative churches tried to keep the faith, although with many of the Victorian trappings.

But what does God think about all of this?  What He told the church at Laodicea in our text is striking: “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich: and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (v. 18).  What they needed was true wealth – spiritual wealth.  And the way He described it has an ominous ring to it – “gold refined in the fire.”  Gold is a precious metal, but it is refined or purified in the fire.  Likewise the Christian’s true spiritual worth is sometimes tested by the fire of persecution.  And this gold, the Lord says, must be “bought from Me.”  Genuine life must come from God himself – it is the fruit of the Spirit.  We cannot work it up ourselves.

Likewise the church at Laodicea was counselled to buy “white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.”  They were so utterly destitute of genuine godliness that they were spiritually “naked.”  They were the proverbial emperor with no clothes.  In Rev. 19:8 the bride of Christ (the church) is “arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”  God wants His people to live lives that are pleasing to Him; only then will we be attractive in His sight.

And then the church was advised to “anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.”  They were so spiritually blind that they could not see their own true spiritual condition.  What they needed was spiritual insight and discernment so that they would have a clear view of God’s will for their lives.

The Lord goes on to say, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.  There be zealous and repent” (v. 19).  If God truly loves us, what will He do to us when we are in this condition? What will He do to us now?  Our text says that He will “rebuke and chasten” us.  God loves us, but that means that He will not stand by idly while we wander into sin and apostasy.  A loving parent will discipline his children when they misbehave, because he wants what is best for them.  But the same token God may bring pain, suffering or hardship into our lives to awaken us, humble us, and make us feel our dependence upon Him, and thus restore full fellowship with Him.

What Christ tells the church next is nothing less than stunning: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (v. 20).  This verse is often taken out of context and given an evangelistic meaning.  But taken in its context Christ is standing outside of the church.  This, of course, is not where we would expect to find Him, and yet that is where He is all too often.  He has, in effect, been excluded from the life of the church, so used has it become to operating without Him.  But there may be a few within the church who are still listening to His voice, and to them He makes a promise: “I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  Even in the worst state of the church it is still possible for individual Christians to maintain a meaningful relationship with Christ.

The aim of the modern evangelical church, then, should not be to revive  the American civil religion of the past; it ought to be to become authentic disciples of Jesus Christ – and that means going back to the first century and sitting, as it were, at His feet.  The answer is not to try to become more relevant; it is to become more spiritual.  It is not to become more accepted by the world; it is to become more conformed to the will of God.  The aim is not to become more like the world but to be lights shining in the darkness.  When the world looks at the church, it should not see a reflection of itself, but rather the image of Christ.  Only then can the church have the kind of testimony to the world that it ought to have.

THE SHACK: The Book and the Movie

 

Review:

The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity

Wm. Paul Young

Windblown Media, 2007

248 pp., pb.

 

Currently there is playing in movie theaters around the country the motion picture version of The Shack, a novel by Wm. Paul Young.  The book is largely a treatise on theology set in the form of a novel.  It has stirred controversy largely because the theology is unorthodox, to say the least.

The central figure in the book is Mackenzie Allen Phillips, or “Mack” as he is more generally known.  Mack experiences an unbearable tragedy when his youngest daughter Missy is murdered by a serial killer while on a camping trip.  Mack is overcome with grief and bitterness, until one day he receives a mysterious note in the mail inviting him to return to the shack in the woods near the place where Missy disappeared.  There he has an encounter with God, although not in the sense in which we would normally think of it.  And this is where the theological problems begin.

What Mack encounters in the shack are the members of the Trinity.  But God the Father is presented as an African American woman, generally referred to in the book as “Papa,” while the Holy Spirit is represented as a woman of Asian descent.  Jesus, however, is more accurately portrayed as a Middle Eastern male.

Strictly speaking, of course, God is neither male nor female.  But the Second Commandment’s prohibition against graven images is intended to prevent just such an attempt to portrait God in human form (Dt. 4:15-19,23,24).  Young, however, makes the various members of the Trinity out to be all too human – they are a bunch of chummy pals instead of an exalted Deity.

Much of what Young goes on to say in the book is a justifiable reaction against dead orthodoxy.  Church membership is a poor substitute for a real relationship with Christ, and knowing theology is not the same thing as knowing God himself.  But Young does not just reject dead orthodoxy; he rejects orthodoxy itself.  And instead of taking a fresh look at what the Bible actually says, he pretty much ignores the Bible altogether.  Young characterizes conservative theology as saying that “God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects” (pp. 65-66).

The main theme of the book is the age old question of how a good and loving God can allow evil into the universe.  To answer this question Young has recourse to the idea of human free will.  God is a God of love.  Love does not force or coerce anyone.  Evil is the result of man’s free will decisions.  At one point “Papa” tells Mack, “All evil flows from independence, and independence is your choice.  If I were simply to revoke all choices of independence, the world as you know it would cease to exist and love would have no meaning.  This world is not a playground where I keep all my children free from evil . . . If I take away the consequences of people’s choices, I destroy the possibility of love.  Love that is forced is not love at all” (p. 190).

Young insists that God calls us to have a personal relationship with Himself, and of course he is quite right on that.  But the basic flaw in Young’s argument is the assumption that love precludes the exercise of authority.  Young has Jesus telling Mack, “Have you noticed that even though you call me Lord and King, I have never really acted in that capacity with you? . . .To force my will on you . . .is exactly what love does not do . . .” (p. 145).  At another point Young has “Papa” telling Mack, “I am good, and I desire only what is best for you.  You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation or coercion, only through a relationship of love.  And I do love you” (p. 126).   “True love never forces” (p. 190).

This, in turn, leads Young to two patently unbiblical conclusions.  The first is that God has already forgiven the entire human race.  At one point in the book “Papa” tells Mack that through the death and resurrection of Christ “I am now fully reconciled to the world.”  Mack asks in disbelief, “The whole world?  You mean those that believe in you, right?”  Papa replies, “The whole world . . .I have done my part, totally, completely, finally.  It is not the nature of love to force a relationship but it is the nature of love to open the way” (p. 192).  At another point in the book Christ is pictured as saying that those who love Him come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but “I have no desire to make them Christian” (p. 182).  But the apostle John, who certainly knew the historical Jesus better than Wm. Young, said that personal faith in Christ was a necessary condition of salvation.  “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36; NKJV).  And faith in Christ ordinarily requires that we publicly identify ourselves with Him in baptism (Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:3,4; Gal. 3:26,27; I Pet. 3:21).

The other major problem with Young’s theology is his conclusion that in a genuine relationship with Christ there are no rules which one must obey.  Young has the Holy Spirit telling Mack, “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules” (p. 197).  “There is no mercy or grace in rules, not even for one mistake.  That’s why Jesus fulfilled all of it for you – so that it no longer has jurisdiction over you” (p. 202).  “In Jesus you are not under any law.  All things are lawful” (p. 203).  Then “Papa” adds, “Honey, I’ve never placed an expectation on you or anyone else” (p. 206).  But the real Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15; cf. vv. 21,23,24; 15:10).

A film adaption of a book, of course, will focus on action as opposed to dialogue, and as a result the film version of The Shack only briefly touches on the more controversial points of theology.  The film comes across as a deeply moving story of tragedy, love and redemption.  But beneath the surface are the more disturbing implications that are explicit in the book.

In the final analysis Young has left us with a universe in which there is no final justice – in the end God punishes no one and forgives everyone, regardless of what they have done.  We are to forgive and not to judge because God forgives and does not judge.  Evil is an unavoidable consequence of man’s free will.  But the apostle Paul tells us that we are not to retaliate against those who have done us wrong precisely because God will judge.  “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give placed to wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19; quoting Dt. 32:35).

Young pretty much sets aside practically everything that the Bible says about God’s transcendence, sovereignty, holiness, justice and wrath, not to mention the Last Judgment and eternal punishment.  Yet our theology must be based on what the Bible actually says.  While we may be able to infer certain things about God from His creation, and while we possess within ourselves a certain knowledge of right and wrong, the only way we can really know about God is through the written revelation which He has given us.  He himself must tell us what He is like and what He expects from us.  We have no other way of knowing about His attributes or His will, let alone the plan of salvation.  Hence our theology must be based on a careful study of Scripture.  Anything else is pure fantasy and self-delusion.

Yes, it is certainly true that a genuine relationship with God is a relationship of love.  God loves us, and we are called upon to love Him with all our heart, soul and might.  And at the practical level salvation involves the Holy Spirit living within our hearts and transforming us from the inside out.  But it also remains true that in a genuine relationship with Christ He is our Lord and Master and we are His servants.  And to that end the Bible is filled with commandments and exhortations to obey God.

It is easy to see why so many people find The Shack appealing.  It comes across as an invitation to a warm, loving and forgiving relationship with God.  But it is a siren call into the mire of false teaching, and should be avoided by anyone desiring a genuine relationship with Christ.

 

 

THE SANCTITY OF HUMAN AUTHORITY

 234

 

 

Thomas Jefferson famously stated in the Declaration of Independence that “to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . .”  And most Americans sincerely believe that – they routinely drive over the speed limit when the cops are not watching.  The law, in and of itself, means nothing to them.  But is Jefferson’s statement really true?

In the limited sense in which Jefferson probably intended it, it undoubtedly is true.  Human governments are, after all, institutions created by human beings for the purpose of establishing law and order in society.  Society could not function without government of some sort.  And so it logically follows that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness.”

But that does not mean, however, that individuals are free to disobey the government any time they happen to feel like it.  A lawfully constituted government must be obeyed except in cases when it is acting immorally.  If everyone took the law into his own hands it would defeat the whole purpose of government and chaos would ensue.

Respect for authority begins in the home.  And so it is that when the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the church at Ephesus he had a special word of exhortation to the children of the congregation: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph. 6:1; NKJV).  He then goes on to point out that this is, in fact, one of the Ten Commandments: “Honor you father and mother” (v. 2; cf. Ex. 20:12; Dt. 5:16).

Paul says “for this is right” (v. 1).  When he says “right” he does not just mean that it is technically correct.  The Greek word that he uses (dikaion) is usually translated “righteous,” and means “morally right,” i.e., in accordance with God’s moral law.  The idea here is that there is a certain form of behavior expected from us as human beings.  We have a moral obligation to Someone outside of ourselves, and our actions must be brought into conformity with His moral law.  And part of our moral obligation is respect for duly constituted authority.

We are confronted with the issue at the age of two, when we throw our first temper tantrum.  We didn’t get what we wanted and we responded with an outburst of rage.  It is total depravity in its rawest form, and if left unchecked it will lead to a lifetime of ruinous, destructive behavior.  It is the very opposite of that love for neighbor that God requires from us as His creatures.

Paul points out that this is the first one of the Ten Commandments that has a promise attached to it: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth” (v. 3).  In its original context in Deuteronomy, the promise refers specifically to the land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, which God promised to bless if Israel remained faithful to Him (Dt. 11:8-17).  But there is also a broader sense in which human prosperity is tied to the soil, and is ultimately dependent upon God’s blessing on that soil.  We are the offspring of our parents, and a harvest is the produce of the land.  If we fail to honor our parents who brought us into the world, and upon whom we are dependent during our childhood years, we cannot expect the land to yield its fruit.  In this, as in other areas of life, we really do reap what we sow.

Respect for authority does not end at the parent – child relationship; it extends to other areas as well.  The apostle Peter could write: “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (I Pet. 2:13,14).  Paul himself could refer to the civil magistrate as “God’s minister to you for good,” and exhorted his readers to “be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Rom. 13:1-7).  Individual rulers, of course, are chosen by chosen by men, or at least come to power by human means.  But God is ultimately the Lord of history, and controls events through His providence; and thus the authorities can be said in some sense to be “appointed” by Him (NKJV) or “established” (NASV) or “instituted” (ESV) by Him.  Politicians may be dishonest, incompetent, or even corrupt, but society needs politicians nonetheless.  The alternative is rampant crime and chaos.  We are to respect and honor them for the office they hold; not necessarily their personal attributes.  When Barack Obama was in office, he was the President of all of us as Americans.  Now that Donald Trump holds the office he too is the President of all of us.  And both facts are true no matter what we may personally think of the views of either man.

What the Bible offers us, then, is a basically conservative social philosophy.  Yes, we are morally obligated to care for the disadvantaged in our society.  But we must respect and honor those who are in positions of authority.  Human society simply cannot function in the absence of authority structures needed to plan to organize tasks and maintain order.  We are ultimately accountable to our Creator for our actions, and He expects us to act responsibly in all our affairs.  “Rugged individualism is the essence of human arrogance, and is the opposite of Christian love.  It has no place among Christians.