Thoughts on Islam and the Middle East

Turkey   I recently returned from two weeks in Muslim countries in the Middle East, part of my Master’s Degree in National Security Studies, where I’m focusing on the Middle East. I spent about a week in Turkey and a week in Egypt, learning about their culture, religion, economy, politics, and many other aspects of the region. These two weeks — combined with the last eight years of study on Islam — have really opened my eyes to this religion, and I’ve since received many questions about the trip and about Islam. I’ll spend the next several blogs sharing my thoughts and observations about the trip, and answering some of your questions. Is Islam inherently violent?  Are Muslims on a mission to kill all unbelievers?  What is jihad?  Is the Islamic State (IS) acting in accordance with what the Qur’an teaches?  Who decides what “true Islam” is?  This is timely, as I know many are concerned about the recent actions of IS and other militant groups. I’ll do my best to address those concerns, but first a few thoughts on the trip…and maybe a few cool photos as well!  Yep, that’s me…on a camel…at the pyramids…
Pyramids
 1.  I never felt unsafe. I traveled extensively, both on foot and in vehicles, through Ankara, Istanbul, Luxor, and Cairo, and felt no less safe than I would doing the same thing in San Antonio, Charleston, or Montgomery. We were smart about it — normally traveling in groups, and never alone — and when on official business, we had a private security detail. However, this was largely precautionary, and in retrospect I’m not sure it was even necessary. In Istanbul, a friend and I walked several miles from the Hagia Sophia back to our hotel — through the Grand Bazaar, the Sultan Ahmet spice market, along the Bosporous, into the underground and up the hill, through the pedestrian district and back to the hotel. It was dark, most of the shops were closed, and we never felt threatened. Several other members of our group went for runs along the Nile, and all was well. Years ago I made a poor hotel choice in Shreveport, Louisiana…and two years ago I got lost on the South side of Capitol Hill in DC…and I felt far more threatened in those two days than I ever did in thirteen days in the Middle East. This is not to say that everywhere is safe — I certainly wouldn’t spend a lot of time in the Sinai, or on the Eastern Turkish border with Iran or Syria — but the fact remains that never felt unsafe during my two weeks there. That comes from an American Christian in the military, placing me in three demographic groups that are all relatively unpopular in the region at the moment.
2.   The people are simply beautiful. The country, the city, the people, all of it was beautiful. In the a Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, I met an artist named Nick who creates the most incredible artwork, where his only canvas is a plant leaf. Using a cat hair brush sometime Mike and Nick, The Grand Bazaar, Istanbulonly a few hairs thick, Nick scribes Muslim, Christian, and Jewish verses surrounded by the most beautiful artwork you can imagine (watch one of the videos at the link — it’s truly breathtaking). After spending more than an hour listening to him passionately describe his art and how he does it, I asked how he learned to do it or where he saw it done. He simply replied “No one taught me.  I know of no one else who does this. My talent is only from God.”  This generated further discussion, where we shared our faith with each other and I learned that he was an Armenian Christian who fled persecution and had been living in Istanbul since 1968. Simply amazing.
Coptic Prelate, Cairo   In Cairo, we met with the Coptic Prelate (the bishop over all Coptic Christians in Cairo). This amazing, articulate, intelligent man patiently answered our questions, then tearfully asked for our prayers for the families of the 21 Coptic Christians who had recently been murdered in Egypt. As we left, the Bishop said a blessing over me, gave me a replica of the icon of Mary and Jesus that hangs in his church, and even let me choose a small piece of chocolate from the dish on his desk.  He knew the way to reach my heart, no doubt!
3.  Islam is quite misunderstood in the West.  I’ll address this point in much greater detail in future posts.  I was one who thought, after 8 years of study, that I was developing a respectable understanding of Islam — until I spend two weeks in their cities, their culture, talking with members of their religion, visiting the mosques, and hearing their language.  I have much to learn — we all do.  I spent an afternoon at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, which was the Sultan’s palace for about 400 years of the Ottoman Empire.  Beyond its undeniable beauty, I saw an order from the Sultan to have the palace walls torn down and rebuilt so that the local Christian church — the Church of St. Irene — would fall under the protection of the Sultan.  I listened to a former Turkish Ambassador to the UN (a Muslim) speak passionately and tearfully about the 21 Christians who were killed in Egypt a few weeks before our trip.  He was followed by a retired Egyptian 2-star General, now running for public office (also a Muslim) who wants to work toward a community where Christians, Muslims, and Jews can all live in harmony.  As I mentioned previously, I’ll delve more deeply into this topic in future posts, but for now it’s important to understand that any impression that all Muslims want to kill all unbelievers, or that Christians can’t go to Muslim countries without getting beheaded, or other crazy ideas — these are all gross misunderstandings.
In all, it was a wonderful and educational trip.  I’ll share more thoughts, and answer your questions on Islam, in the coming weeks.  Stay tuned!
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Dreams and Visions

dreamingI have a dream…well, I had a dream…but what does it mean? In the past two weeks, I’ve received precisely the same question from two different friends. Both believe that God has appeared to them and spoken to them in a dream, and both wanted to know if it was God or something else or if they were to attribute special significance to the event. Since then, my Facebook wall has exploded with similar questions and a few mildly heated discussions on the topic. As you’ve come to expect, with this topic and all others, here at CTC we will seek to be Biblical first in all things. As my alma mater frequently emblazoned on their entry marquee, “Think Biblically…about everything.” So, what does the Bible say on this topic? And while we’re at it, why do anything halfway? So, I looked up every single instance in the Bible of God appearing to people in dreams, and this is what I found.

  1. Unless you are a prophet or an apostle, this is highly unusual. From the Fall through Revelation, God communicates to people in dreams many times, but in most cases it is to an apostle or prophet. He appears to Abraham (Genesis 15:1), Jacob (Genesis 28 and 31), Joseph (Genesis 37), Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Gideon (Judges 7), Solomon (1 Kings 3), Daniel (Daniel 2 and 4), Peter (Acts 10), Paul (Acts 16 and 18, 1 Corinthians 12), and John (Revelation). In fact, it appears from Scripture that this is one of the primary means, if not the primary means, that God communicates with His prophets and apostles. Here’s the key – the primary way God communicates with His prophets and apostles is through dreams and visions, but the primary way God communicates with His people is through prophets and apostles. For us, that means through their writings in His Word (the issue of whether there are prophets or apostles around today is something for another blog). So, unless you are a prophet or an apostle – a bold claim with fatal consequences if you’re incorrect – you should not expect God to communicate with you in a dream, rather you should be in the habit of looking for His communication to you through His Word.

Now, there are a few exceptions (Abimelech in Genesis 20, Laban in Genesis 31, Pharaoh in Genesis 40, the Midianite armies in Judges 7, Zecharias in Luke 1, Joseph in Matthew 2, and Cornelius in Luke 10). But these are all highly unique circumstances, and are certainly not of the sort that we normally hear today where God appears in a dream to help make some decision (which house to buy, how many kids to have, or whatever — I don’t see any Biblical reason to believe that God answers these sorts of questions though dreams, but that is a completely separate blog.) In fact, after the appearance of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), with the exception of Revelation there is not another instance of God appearing in a dream. It appears, Biblically, that once His communication to the prophets and apostles was complete, His appearance in dreams ceased. [Note – if it wasn’t God that appeared to you, beware. If it was Aunt Sally or your grandmother or some dear departed friend, we are dangerously close to the demonic realms here. I cannot find a single example of this in Scripture – every appearance in a dream is God, Jesus, or an angel. Anything else, in my view, is likely demonic and reason to exercise extreme caution.]

  1. You can’t trump Scripture with your experience. Yes, I borrowed this from Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason, but it’s a great point that is entirely valid in this discussion. No matter how many times I have this discussion with people, it always seems to come back to this: I tell them what the Bible teaches, and they tell me about the dream they had. I know these dreams can be powerful and compelling, but you cannot “overrule” what Scripture teaches with your personal experience. If there is any inconsistency or question about what the dream has revealed, reject it.
  1. God can do what He wants. With point #1 above firmly supported by Scripture, we also know that God can do whatever He desires that is consistent with His nature, and there are multiple examples in the post-apostolic age of God appearing in dreams to both believers and unbelievers. He obviously used a vision to reach Paul, and many have heard the amazing story of Nabeel Qureshi (he told the story to Christianity Today here, if you haven’t), who is representative of many Muslims who have reportedly been converted to Christianity through visions and dreams. However, several points are critically important here.
    1. God will not reveal anything in a dream that is inconsistent with Scripture. God cannot lie, and He is perfectly consistent. If anything in the dream challenges the clear teaching of Scripture – such as a dream telling you to divorce your wife or any dream advocating or supporting sin – you can rest assured the dream does not have God as its source.
    2. God will probably not reveal anything in a dream that He has already revealed in Scripture. God is a good Father. When my daughter asks me a question I’ve already answered – usually multiple times – I quell my frustration and simply ask her to remember the answer I gave the last time she asked. When I asked my mother – a professional linguist – the meaning of a word, you know the answer I received. Yep…”Look it up!” Returning to another great point by Koukl, this actually leaves us with relatively little for God to “reveal” in a dream. If it’s contrary to Scripture, it’s unbiblical. If it’s contained within Scripture, it’s unnecessary.

Biblically, unless you are a prophet or an apostle, you should not expect God to appear to you in dreams, nor should you seek answers in your dreams. So, what do you do if you think God has appeared to you in a dream? First, test it (1 Thess 5). Is what the dream revealed entirely consistent with Scripture? If so, hold onto it…if not, then reject it. Similarly, if you are following a teacher who claims to be receiving revelations from God through dreams or visions, be extraordinarily careful, as this is rare.  Test every statement in light of Scripture.  Second, share it. Talk to other mature Christians, and have them help you understand it. Finally, obey it. If God truly has given you guidance in a dream, then it becomes an obligatory command upon the believer. You do not have the option to obey or not, such a revelation would carry weight equal to His revelation in Scripture.

So, does God appear to us in dreams today? I think He does, but I think it is highly unusual, largely unnecessary, and often misused. That’s all for now…go back to sleep.

What Love Isn’t

heart-3

In the last several weeks, I have been sharply critical of several popular pastors and speakers. I’ll save my concerns about Beth Moore, Perry Noble, Mark Driscoll, and others for another blog – what I want to think clearly about this time is the most common objection I received to this criticism. In short, numerous people admonished me that I shouldn’t be so critical, that I should “just love them,” or that as Christians, we shouldn’t judge other Christians, we are called to simply love them. What this has exposed to me is what I think is a disappointingly unbiblical perspective on Christian love.

The fact is, we are certainly to love each other, but it is not enough to just be loving. I can love my enemy until the cows come home, and he will still spend eternity in Hell if I don’t make the effort to share Jesus Christ with him. News flash to “feel good Christians”: the most loving person you know is still going to Hell if he/she reject the free offer of grace that Jesus provides. You simply cannot love your way into salvation, nor can you love others into salvation, this is nothing more than repackaged works-based salvation. It gets a lot of “likes” as a Facebook status and looks great on Pinterest, but it cannot save. Any of us could quickly flip to 1 Corinthians 13 to find what love is, and any of us could probably quote 1 John 4:8 to show that “God is love.” I don’t dispute this, and I know it’s the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36 – 40), I get all that…but I want to turn it around a bit and encourage Christians to think for a moment about what love isn’t.

  1. Love does not mean agreement.  I can disagree with someone, and still love them – anyone who is married can easily affirm this truth. I love my wife and daughter more than anyone on Earth, yet we disagree frequently. If a pastor – mine or one in the media – says something that I disagree with, and I express disagreement, that is not being unloving. I can disagree with my wife on her choice of hairstyle (not advisable), her preference for Illinois basketball, or anything else, and love her no less. In fact, some issues are so important that love requires – and the Bible commands – engagement and disagreement. Which brings us to…
  1. Love does not mean we don’t correct error.  If someone holds a belief that is clearly in error, in some cases we are required and commanded to correct the error. As Greg Koukl has famously stated, if a diabetic believes that eating ice cream will decrease their blood sugar, we must intervene and correct the error – potentially saving their life in the process. I cannot retreat to my subjectivist corner and simply conclude that they are entitled to their beliefs, and it’s not my business to correct them. The Bible is clear here as well. Shortly after one of the great verses on love, Paul tells us in Colossians, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” We are to admonish one another using the wisdom of the message of Christ in the Scriptures. “Admonish – to express disapproval or criticism, in a gentle and earnest manner.” We are actually being told to express disapproval for and criticize those among us who are acting or speaking contrary to the message of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures. Ephesians follows closely, with a lengthy passage on Christian living. The well-known passage in 4:1 – 14 encourages us to be mature in the Lord, so that “…we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching…” This is a clear warning against false teachers, those whose “deceitful scheming” and “cunning and craftiness” risks misleading the body of Christ. Instead, we are to “speak the truth in love” (verse 15). I don’t see another way to read this verse other than as a command to correct those who are deceived by false teachers. We do so lovingly, of course (which is reinforced in verse 16), but we must guard against these false teachers. We simply cannot lean on love to avoid the requirement to correct error, which leads directly to…
  1. Love does not mean we endorse unbiblical behavior.  Especially from teachers! As young Timothy was under Paul’s charge, preparing to take over the church at Ephesus, Paul knew the Ephesians were already plagued by false teachers. Both of Paul’s letters to Timothy make this point repeatedly – in fact, the first point of the first letter is telling Timothy to “command certain people not to teach false doctrines” (1 Tim 1:3 – 4). These people want to be teachers, but they “…do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” The parallel here to the many false teachers present today could hardly be more obvious. Again, the relationship to love is reinforced – love that comes from a “…pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith,” from which these false teachers have departed. One could easily read 1 Tim 1:1 – 7 as saying that teaching false doctrines is a direct departure from Christian love, thus Christian’s loving response is to correct and rebuke the error. But it doesn’t stop there. After a list of the many false teachings Timothy will likely face in Ephesus, Paul tells Timothy, “If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 4:6). Again, exposing false teachings and holding these teachers accountable, ensuring Christians are following sound doctrine, is what it means to be a “good minister of Christ.” This wonderful chapter ends with Paul’s command to “Watch your life and your doctrine closely.” We could all benefit from such a command! What matters is not only how you behave, but what you believe. Paul’s second letter makes many similar commands, telling us that “Opponents [to the gospel] must be gently instructed,” and the well-known uses of Scripture in 3:16 which includes rebuking and correcting believers. Just prior to his death, Paul’s primary charge to Timothy was to “Preach the Word…correct, rebuke, and encourage, with great patience and careful instruction, for the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine” (2 Tim 4:2 – 3). Not to belabor the point, but Titus echoes these commands in every single chapter: “Encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9), “You must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), “These are the things you should teach, encourage and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15) and so on.

Almost every book of the New Testament stands on these two pillars of belief and behavior. We are to love, that is not in question. But part of loving is disagreement, part of loving is correcting error, and part of loving is rebuking unbiblical behavior and refuting false teachings. Arguably, it is both unbiblical and unloving not to follow these commands. So, if I question the teachings of a popular preacher or teacher, I am not being unloving. Quite the opposite. This applies to me as well – I’ve been teaching for over 20 years, and the most loving things my students could do is challenge me when they think I’m wrong, and hold me accountable to the Biblical standard. I expect nothing less, nor does Jesus Christ, nor should you.

The Christian and Civil Government

CapitolThe Clear-Thinking Christian is back!  After two years off to complete my Master’s Degree at Biola University, I’m “back on the blog” and ready to answer more challenges and questions…this time, with credentials (as if that mattered…).

Having just come through another election season and with another already generating momentum, the Christian’s role in government is a frequent question.  As with most topics, views vary — some suggest that Christians are commanded to participate in civil government, others move in quite the opposite direction, claiming that government is evil and Christians should not participate.  As with most blogs, this one has its genesis in a challenge I recently received, this one from another Christian and classmate, ER.

ER and I were discussing the unique case of Kent Hovind, a Christian creationist known as “Dr. Dino” who has been quite popular among the young-earth creationist crowd over the past several decades.  A little background here:  As one of the primary founders of Creation Science Evangelism (now known as Creation Today) and the driving force behind Dinosaur Adventureland and the Creation Museum, Kent Hovind generated quite a following in the Christian community.  Regardless of how you feel about his theology (not the point of the post, though my views on the topic are likely clear from my blogs), the relevant matter is that Kent Hovind has spent the last 8 years in federal prison for multiple charges involving his tax dealings with Dinosaur Adventureland and the Creation Museum (all the details are available from Forbes Magazine here).  In short, he and his wife were not filing 1040s, and were keeping large amounts of cash for most transactions, which masked them from the IRS, and he treated his theme parks as tax-exempt organizations, though they had not received that designation from the IRS.  That’s the background…so what’s the point?

My friend ER said he was not a fan of Kent Hovind “until the tax thing…then I developed a great amount of respect for him.”  ER’s respect for Hovind was based on his ability to evade — personally and professionally — paying taxes.  When I challenged ER on this point, he further articulated that he believed the state to be “the great Satan” and that we are Biblically commanded to resist the state, which he followed with assurance to me that Jesus would support everything Hovind was doing.  Resisting an inherently evil entity (the state) is not only advocated by Christ, but also Biblically commanded.  He referenced 1 Samuel 8:4 – 18 as support for this view.

That’s the situation…now it’s time for some clear thinking.  As with all things, we will seek first to be Biblical.  What does the Bible say about participation in, and submission to, civil government?  It is far from silent on this topic, providing abundant guidance on on how and in what circumstances Christians should engage with government, setting clear bounds for both obedience and dissent.  Following Scripture, several points seem clear:

1.  Civil Government was not part of God’s original design.  After the fall, mankind succumbed to the temptations of sin and the devil, and while he maintains his special place in creation, the presence of sin no longer allows him to live with complete and unrestricted freedom.  The resulting “society of fallen beings”[1] develops very quickly after the fall, with violent crime (murder) present by the fourth chapter of Genesis, followed closely by urban development, industry, philosophy, and art evident by the end of that chapter.  This society of sinners further degenerates into crime, guilt, corruption, and condemnation, mandating the establishment of some sort of civil order, detailed in chapters six through nine. This civil government cannot provide social perfection and therefore rules with force rather than love, but nevertheless it provides a structure of law, obedience, prosecution, and punishment that creates a flawed but adequate social order in which mankind can fulfill his Biblical mandate.  This was not God’s original plan. The world is wholly the creation of a transcendent, self-existent God, and was created perfectly good.  The entire world, including man and all his social connections, belongs to the divine Creator, but in following Satan’s temptation mankind fell and took the world with him into a state of brokenness. This condition of sin and evil is a perversion of the original good, and has polluted the whole natural order.  However, the Christian can rest assured that no matter how powerful the state becomes, it owns nothing it governs — all of creation, including mankind and his institutions, were redeemed by Christ.  This is the “beginning condition” of the world, in which we then move to establish civil government.

2.  Civil Government is a result of the fall, but is established by God.  God’s attributes of creativity and sovereignty extend into providence – that is, the very same One who created the Earth and all it contains also preserves it and governs it. This means that God established all governments present on the Earth, and their continuation or dissolution is simply a matter of God’s providence.  The first appearance of civil government is in a covenant between God and the survivors of the flood, detailed in Genesis 8 and 9.  This covenant with Noah had four provisions.  First, civil government is for the protection and improvement of human life (Genesis 9:7-11), reinforcing God’s desire to see humans prosper and succeed. Second, the ultimate source of all government is the sovereign Lord Himself, it is not the result of a social contract or natural culmination of human effort (Genesis 9:13, 16, 17). Third and fourth, government has a moral basis, founded on man’s creation in God’s image.  Indeed the very concept of justice is a religious concept, rooted in the perfectly good nature of God, extending to every civil right and all authority on earth.  This divine establishment of all government is mandated by the fact that man is sinful, capable of incredible evil, and can only be curbed by the restrictive power of the Holy Spirit upon man’s heart and of the government upon society.  The fact that all government is fundamentally religious also means that justice – up to and including the death penalty – is actually divine vengeance, God’s vindication as governor of the universe.  This Noahic Covenant is echoed in Jeremiah, Isaiah, Psalms, and Daniel, with many of the books of prophecy and poetry reinforcing the concept that it is God who directs the rise and fall of nations, and that He establishes the criteria for kings and rulers and judges (see Daniel 1:2, 4:17, 5:21, 6:26, 7:27, and essentially all of chapter 2; in Isaiah, see especially 44:28 and 45:13; also Jeremiah 22:13 – 17).

3.  The Example of Jesus Christ is One of Submission and Obedience.  While the majority of Biblical proscriptions for civil government are found in the Old Testament, the New Testament gives us guidance as well, not least in the conduct of Jesus and the disciples when dealing with civil government. From His youngest years, Jesus obeyed both His parents and the local authorities.  Although at times He clearly thought the administration (both religious and civil) was corrupt and unjust, He obeyed nonetheless.  Jesus taught, and taught His disciples to teach, to “Submit yourself to every ordinance of man” (1 Peter 2:13 – 14, 17), to even do the bidding of the Pharisees whom He despised and consistently refuted (Matthew 23:2 – 4, 13 – 29).  He obeyed the laws of the civil authorities as well, whether Herod Antipas or Pontius Pilate, though He never gave them more than they requested.  He never encouraged disobedience, or rebellion against a pagan, idolatrous, and unjust civil government (contrary to the charges brought against Him and for which He was crucified).  Even His famous “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:20 – 22) stands as a timeless synonym for obedience to both civil government and the sovereign God of the universe.

Jesus not only set the example for obedience to civil government in His actions, he taught clearly on the topic as well.  In Matthew 17, Jesus is pressed about paying the legally-required temple tax.  This could have been a difficult issue, since the tax supported both the Jewish religious authorities and the construction of a temple for pagan worship.  Jesus wisely sidesteps the central issues, and details that the tax must be paid if for no other reason than to avoid offending the governing authorities.  The second passage, briefly mentioned above, is Jesus’ command to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  Various Jewish sects, with varying levels of attachment to the Roman authorities and degrees of compliance with Jewish law, were uniting against Jesus, trying to trick Him into blasphemy or into trouble with the Roman authorities.  When challenged by what could be a true dilemma, Jesus’ artful answer not only resolves the implied conflict but also addresses the fundamental issue underlying the question.  Jesus saw no explicit contradiction between politics and religion, nor did He think submission to one excludes the other.   This answer, in the spirit of love and fairness, is perhaps the greatest Biblical text on the entire topic of civil government.

Paul also teaches on the topic of obedience to civil government, in fact giving more insight than we receive from Christ during His ministry.  Five key passages are relevant here – the first in 1 Corinthians 2, where Paul indicates that pagan rulers of human government are all part of God’s providential plan, though they are unaware of it.  Following closely is 1 Corinthians 6, which discourages a litigious spirit in Christians under the assumption that the civil rulers have less knowledge, and less divine authority, than the apostles.  By far the most significant of the five passages is Romans 13, clearly instructing Christians to submit to the power of ruling authorities, all of which are put in place by God.   Simply put, resistance to constituted government is resistance to God’s ordinance.  Paul’s final two admonitions, in 1 Peter 2 and Ephesians 6, round out his consistent admonition to honor God by submitting to governing authorities.

So, what does this all mean?  With great respect to my Christian brother ER, his view is squarely at odds with the teachings of the Old and New Testament, the living example of Christ, and the teachings of both Christ and the Apostles.  Hovind’s tax practices were both illegal and unBiblical.  No doubt, there are limits, and these are evident from time to time in Scripture as well — if man gives a command that violates God’s command, there may be Biblical liberty to resist or disobey (perhaps that will be the subject of a future post).  There will always be exceptions (I’m sure someone will bring up Hitler) — but the nearly unanimous testimony of Scripture, from Genesis through Revelation, is one of obedience to civil government as a divinely-instituted mechanism for God to conduct His affairs among men.

——————–

[1]. Robert Culver, Civil Government: A Biblical View, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2000), 18.  His entire book is worth reading on this topic, and is the foundation of much of this post.

“Biblical” Marriage

20120811-231930.jpgFollowing up from my prior blog on the Chick Fil-A issue, I received a question from Bill in Alexandria the other day. I’ve also received several emails, and had a number of posts on my Facebook site. It’s not directly related to Dan Cathy’s comments or the same-sex marriage debate, but I’ll answer it as best I can.

The question revolves around Facebook posts and a YouTube video that has been making the rounds lately (you can watch it here, but I don’t recommend it…it’s a waste of your time). It’s very, very difficult to respond to a video like this, simply because she’s all over the map and has absolutely no idea how to read the Bible or interpret Scripture.

All of these things — the YouTube video, the emails, the Facebook posts — revolve around the same basic contention. That is, that “Biblical or traditional marriage” is not defined as a man and woman, includes the requirement to marry my brother’s wife if he gets killed, requires me to stone my wife if I can’t prove she’s a virgin at marriage, permits multiple wives and concubines like Solomon and others, you’ve probably seen the list. Let’s try some clear thinking.

1. The Biblical definition of marriage. This starts at the very beginning — Genesis. In the story from Genesis 2, shortly after God creates man, he realizes that “it is not good for man to be alone,” and he creates a companion for him. That companion established the first “marriage,” from a Biblical perspective — one man, one woman, with a relationship described in Genesis 2:24, which outlines a very special spiritual, emotional, and physical union. This is reinforced throughout Scripture, especially in the New Testament. This includes instructions for men to love their wives in Ephesians 5:22-33, and the definition of a godly man being the husband of one wife in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus 1, and elsewhere. Most Biblically-literate Christians are also very well aware of the New Testament’s constant comparisons between marriage and Christ’s relationship with the church, which further defines what marriage is and how it behaves.

All combined, we understand that marriage, Biblically defined, is a lifelong relationship between a man and a woman, characterized by love, sacrifice, Christ-centeredness, and meeting each other’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Divorce, adultery, and fornication are all violations of this Biblical ideal. Are there other examples of marriage in the Bible? Sure, especially in the Old Testament. But to equate these examples with the Biblical “definition” is to make a critical error is hermeneutics (the science of the study of Scripture) — that is, to equate the descriptive with the prescriptive. This simply means that there are many things in the Bible that are describe various situations, but do not require us to emulate the behavior. In fact, many times the Bible describes behaviors that we are NOT to emulate. Paul supervising the stoning of Stephen, for example (Acts 7:54 – 8:1), is obviously descriptive — the Bible does not condone or endorse this behavior. Examples abound, from David’s adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:24) to a hundred other examples — including Solomon and David taking multiple wives.

Throughout Scripture, we see many cases of Godly men taking multiple wives — and then see the consequences of that sinful behavior. Nowhere in Scripture is this behavior prescribed. In fact, every prescriptive passage with regard to marriage always identifies it as a wife and husband. Jesus quotes Genesis 2 when talking about a man leaving his father and mother and being joined to a wife (Matthew 19). This passage is directly followed by one that makes it clear that once joined, the union is permanent (except for unfaithfulness). Fast forward to 1 Corinthians 7, and the story is the same. And note the language in these passages — the language of “should,” “do not,” and similar phrases make it clear that these are prescriptive passages. Every prescriptive passage, from Matthew 19 to 1 Cor 7 and elsewhere, detail a long-term, monogamous, heterosexual union.

2. Old Testament Mosaic and Levitical laws. Now, on to this issue or stoning those who aren’t virgins, marrying my brothers wife if he dies, and other concerns. I have already blogged about the fact that we are no longer under the confines of the Mosaic/Levitical law, and that definitely applies here. The New Testament is perfectly clear that we are no longer under the law, and that Christ has fulfilled the law. It is still useful to us as a historical and teaching tool (1 Tim 3:16-17), but we are no longer subject to the law or justified by it. We have a new law now, the law of Christ. You can read more in 1 Corinthians 9, Galatians 3 & 6, Romans 8, or Hebrews 8. Joel C. Rosenberg also has a great blog on the topic — no need to restate his great exposé here. Biblical marriage, under the law of Christ, is loving, caring, and uplifting, much like Christ Himself.

The Chick Fil-A Uncrisis Nonscandal

20120801-195438.jpgWow! In the short time I’ve been doing this blog, I don’t think an issue has cried out for some clear thinking more loudly than this one. In case you’ve been living in a bubble or doing postgraduate research in Siberia (hey, it could happen), I’ll give you the basics…

Just about anyone who has tried to eat at Chick Fil-A on Sunday knows they’re closed that day — and most know why. Since it was founded in 1946 by S. Truett Cathy, their company has sought to promote and live out Biblical values, including being closed on Sundays to allow employees a day of rest and worship. Now led by Truett Cathy’s son Dan, the company maintains that credo, and for the most part this has been uncontroversial. However, recently Dan Cathy has been in the media — and squarely in the sights of some very harsh critics — for stating in an interview with Baptist Press that he supports “traditional marriage.” When asked about the company’s support to various marriage ministries and donations (through its charitable giving arm, WinShape) to Christian organizations, Cathy said,

“Well, guilty as charged…we are very much supportive of the family — the Biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that. We operate as a family business … our restaurants are typically led by families; some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that.”

Uncontroversial? Hardly. The result of these donations and comments has been a backlash of personal attacks, boycotts, and worse. Why? Because, according to CNN, “the comments of company President Dan Cathy about gay marriage to Baptist Press on Monday have ignited a social media wildfire.” Not just social media, but now we have entire cities taking the unprecendented (and unConstitutional, by the way) step of trying to ban Chick Fil-A, along with universities and other supporters.

Okay, with that background and context, put on your clear-thinking brains. I see at least two major problems here.

1. First I hope you see the biggest problem quite obviously — Cathy actually never mentioned gay marriage. At all. He voiced his support for the traditional family, and that’s all. Does that mean he is against same-sex marriage? Possibly, but he never stated an opinion on the issue. To be fair, I think we can reasonably assume that Mr. Cathy believes homosexual behavior is sinful — thus his affirmation of traditional marriage. But “traditional marriage” also covers other unrelated topics, such as fornication, adultery, and unjustified divorce. “Traditional marriage,” then, generally means a long-term, monogamous, heterosexual relationship. It does not mean — or even imply — hatred or bigotry toward any person or group. Affirming traditional marriage is no more “anti-gay” than it is “anti-divorce” or “anti-adultery”.

2. While Mr. Cathy was talking about his company at the time, it was clear to me from both the article and his prior interviews with Ken Coleman that he was expressing a personal opinion, not corporate policy. News flash — I feel like I should be whispering — sinners work at Chick Fil-A. In fact, I have zero doubt that Chick Fil-A employs adulterers and fornicators. And yes, I have little doubt that Chick Fil-A employs homosexuals. Their hiring practices are not based on Dan Cathy’s personal opinions on traditional marriage, as he clarified in a recent statement. Worst case, we have a private citizen (who is also a CEO) expressing a personal opinion about a social issue. Sure, his opinion is not “en vogue” right now — but that doesn’t make him a bigot, intolerant, or a “hater”. Others who disagree may choose not to patronize his business, which is fine. I still don’t see a crisis or a scandal.

As if this weren’t enough, I have great concern about Cathy’s freedom of speech and freedom to hold and express his religious beliefs — but I’ll leave that out of this blog. I also won’t go into the details of the Biblical position on marriage or homosexuality on this blog (perhaps later), that’s not the point. Please, friends, let’s think clearly about this — read the comments, then look at the response. Is this reasonable?

I did, however, try to eat at Chick Fil-A tonight — the drive-through line was backed up just over a mile, and a line was coming out the door. I settled for Five Guys, but man…Chick Fil-A sounds good right now.

What are Relativism and Postmodernism?

In my blog on “What Must We Believe,” I start with the statement, “I fear that the encroachment of relativism and postmodernism has greatly affected the Christian message…” Over the weekend, I received a question on this statement from Aaron in Alexandria via email. He had gotten into a discussion with some co-workers, and they had all reached some confusion about the ideas of postmodernism and relativism — what they are, why they matter, and most importantly for Aaron, why a clear-thinking Christian should care. Let’s see if we can help him think through this.

First, I’m no expert here. I will rely heavily on a course I took on “The Challenge of Postmodernism” from Dr. Millard Erickson at BIOLA, and on the book, “Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Thin Air” by Greg Koukl. Credit given, let’s proceed.

Immediately, we are faced with the challenge that postmodernism is not monolithic. That is, there is no universally accepted definition of what beliefs or positions constitute postmodernism, and certainly no book (like the Bible or other definitive work) that serves as a common foundation or reference point for establishing postmodernism. However, with little disagreement, we can establish some widely-held concepts that most postmodernists will affirm.

First (and most importantly for the Christian), nearly all postmodernists deny the existence of absolute truth. All truth, then, is subjective — it is “in the eye of the beholder”. There is no such thing as an actual right and wrong, things being intrinsically good or evil, there are only opinions and personal preferences. I like chocolate ice cream, you don’t — I think murder is wrong, you don’t — these kinds of claims are largely equivalent. They’re just personal preferences. When a postmodernist or relativist hears you say something is “wrong,” all they hear is something equivalent to “yuck” or “eww”. To them, it simply means you don’t like it, no different than presenting me with pimento olives. YUCK. You’re just emoting, expressing displeasure.

Some claims, like “murder is wrong”, may have developed some social weight, such that they are frowned upon (even disciplined or punished) by society…but when you commit a murder all you’ve really done is violated a social norm. You haven’t done anything wrong, just gone against the norm a bit and offended some social sensibilities. Similarly, some behaviors (like murder) may be disadvantageous from an evolutionary perspective, and have hence fallen into disfavor…but again, they aren’t objectively or intrinsically wrong, just a dumb thing to do if your goal is to preserve the human species.

This rejection of absolute truth and relegation of all truth claims to the subjective is the basic definition of relativism. So, to answer one of the initial questions AB asked, relativism and postmodernism are closely related — so much so that relativism is likely one of the most significant defining beliefs of postmodernists. The two are related, but not equal…so almost all postmodernists are relativists, but not all relativists are postmodernists.

Hand-in-hand with a rejection of absolute or objective truth is the rejection of religious exclusivity. Most postmodernists will also embrace religious pluralism. To be fair, we can look at pluralism in two different ways — first, pluralism on one definition is a fact. There are many different religions, and they believe many different things. This is pluralism in a largely descriptive sense, and should not be opposed by clear-thinking Christians. However, in a more prescriptive manner, most postmodernists affirm that not only do many different religions exist, but they are all equally valid. No religion is better than any other, no one religion or denomination is “true” and others “false”, they are all equally true (or, for the large contingent of postmodernists who reject theism, equally false).

These two concepts — relativism and pluralism — are as close as we will get to core, defining beliefs of postmodernism. Of course, clear-thinking Christians should see that both views are objectively false, and pluralism is demonstrably false. Biblically, there are actual rights and wrongs, and things aren’t wrong just because they violate some social norm. The “wrongness” of murder and rape aren’t something extrinsic (defined by society or culture), nor are they subjective (defined by individual preferences), murder and rape and other actions are intrinsically, objectively wrong. Wherever murder goes, the wrongness goes with it. In the great words of Greg Koukl, “If you think torturing babies for fun is okay, I’m not going to ‘appreciate your alternative moral perspective’. I’m going to think you need help. FAST”. Beware of the slippery slope you’re on if you think society defines what is right and wrong, it’s a dangerous one. If the Nazis had won, then their values would have been the societal norm, and from their perspective, elimination of “The Jewish Problem” would have been the most advantageous from an evolutionary perspective.

When it comes to pluralism, we can readily concede the descriptive point. There is no question that there is a plurality of belief systems and religions throughout the world. However, they are not all equally valid, nor are they all true. This is easily demonstrable by picking one of a thousand readily apparent examples. Picking an easy one, the Christians claim Jesus was the Messiah, the Jews claim he was not. Now, it’s possible that the Christians are right and the Jews are wrong. I’ll even admit that it’s possible that the Jews are right and the Christians are wrong (though I obviously don’t think that’s the case). However, I hope you can see that at no time, in no way, can they both be right. Christ cannot both be the Messiah and not be the Messiah at the same time in the same way, which is exactly what pluralists propose. This is one of the inviolable laws of logic, called the “Law of Excluded Middle” — something is either A or not-A, but cannot be both.

For clear-thinking Christians, both relativism and pluralism are highly toxic. Absolute (objective) truth exists and can be known, and Christianity is clear in its exclusive claims. You cannot simultaneously affirm the objective truth taught in the Bible and the subjective truth taught by relativism. Of course, you cannot affirm both the exclusive claims of Christianity and the “all are equal” mantra of pluralism. Christianity is objective and exclusive. Postmodernism is subjective and pluralist. Show me a Christian postmodernist and I’ll show you a married bachelor.