The (Im)Possibility of “Christian Conservatism”

The terms “Christian” and “conservative” have almost become synonymous to most people, especially in America. It’s hard for most people to picture Christianity in our context without having a certain, “conservative” image in their head—and vice versa. Not only are many Christians considered conservative, but most conservatives are in fact Christians.

This is taken to be the norm for Christianity. But what if, in fact, the idea of “Christian Conservatism” is antithetical to the very nature of Christianity?

First of all, let us define “conservatism”. To be “conservative” is, as the word suggests, to want to conserve something—for something to remain as it has been. Usually, this has to do with a number of things: politics, morality, method, ideology, etc. Thus, you have people who choose to be conservative, as opposed to being progressive—those who want to “progress” forward, rather than retain something that has been.

So, why is this harmful for Christianity? I’ll give three main ways: Continue reading “The (Im)Possibility of “Christian Conservatism””

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5 Things I Love About Pentecostalism

I have a weird relationship with Pentecostalism.

I was raised in a church that was basically Pentecostal, in that it broke off from a church which was Pentecostal, though never officially entering a Pentecostal denomination. Then, I moved to the Pentecostal church that it broke off from and spent my formative years as a teen until recently there, now attending another Pentecostal church. Though I never denounced Pentecostalism, I navigated through numerous branches of theology and traditions. However, I ended up back in Pentecostalism, both through some awesome Pentecostal people who taught me the truly incredible nature of Pentecostalism, and through a number of other non-Pentecostal people (including Anglicans, Anabaptists, Eastern Orthodox, and more).

However, I am extremely proud to claim Pentecostalism. Most people, when they think of Pentecostalism, only think about speaking in tongues, corrupt money-hungry televangelists, and a number of other things. In the words of Pentecostal preacher, Jonathan Martin, “Pentecostals are not fundamentalists who speak in tongues.” Pentecostalism has a rich beginning, legacy, and worldview. Some Pentecostals may have deviated from its beauty, but it is inherent within the movement.

I’m not saying Pentecostalism is the only way to go or that it’s better than anything else. There are just some beautiful things about it. As Pentecostals could definitely stand to listen to the voice of the larger Church throughout the centuries, there are definitely elements which Pentecostalism is speaking that the larger Church should listen to as well. So, here are some of the things I love about my Pentecostal heritage. Continue reading “5 Things I Love About Pentecostalism”

Alcohol, Tattoos, and Circumcision

What do tattoos, alcohol, and circumcision have to do with each other? I promise it wasn’t just a link baiting title that you see so often on Facebook and other places nowadays. Honestly, I think that Scripture has something to offer when dealing with all three of these topics in a similar way.

In case you’re new to church culture here in America, there is a constant debate going on as to whether Christians should be participating in certain things. Two of the things at the forefront of this debate are tattoos and alcohol. “Should Christians get tattoos? Is that something that a genuine disciple of Jesus could do? What about alcohol? Can someone love the Lord and still drink a glass of wine for enjoyment?” For some, the answer is no and for others the answer is yes. My goal with this post is not to provide an answer either way.

Rather, I want to look to a certain situation in the Bible that might can reveal some wisdom when dealing with such things. Whether it’s alcohol, tattoos, or some other activity that Christians debate over, how can we find a way work out our differences and find unity in disagreement? To find a possible answer, we look to our third category: circumcision.

In Acts 15, Christians do a really funny thing. They gather together ask basically ask the question, “Can God do what God just did?” It actually sounds eerily similar to what a lot Christians ask today. But, that’s besides the point. In Acts 15, they hold a council after Gentiles begin to receive the Holy Spirit and are saved. Their claim, in verse 1, was that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Repeating their point in verse 5, the Pharisees were claiming that circumcision is absolutely necessary in order to be a genuine believer.

However, Peter began to explain how God showed no distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles, the circumcised and uncircumcised. After all, God knows the heart and gave them the Holy Spirit that he had given to the Jewish Christians. Salvation wouldn’t come by bearing the “yoke” of their ancestors. Rather, all people are saved by grace through faith in Christ. Barnabas and Paul began to chime in and support Peter in his declaration. Circumcision was absolutely unnecessary in order to gain salvation.

They couldn’t have made their point any clearer. In order to be a genuine follower of Jesus, circumcision is of no importance. However, in the next chapter, something very interesting comes up. This is what Acts 16:1-3 says:

Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

What is this? It seems as if Paul goes back on everything that was said at the Jerusalem Council the chapter right before. Which is it? Is circumcision necessary? Or is it something Christians should practice? While this is a dramatic example, I think what we see here can help us a lot when we approach debated activity, such as alcohol, tattoos, and other things.

Again, I’m not trying to prove whether these things are acceptable. I have my opinions, but what I’m trying to find is something that can go beyond mere agreement and disagreement. And I think we that thing here in Acts 16.

What if this episode with Paul and Timothy shows us that, perhaps in order to reach a wider community of people, we have to make sacrifices that have nothing to do with our state of salvation? In other words, Paul obviously didn’t think that Timothy was any less of a Christian for not being circumcised. He proved that he believed such in Jerusalem. However, Paul wanted Timothy to have credibility with the Jews and knew that, since they knew his father was a Gentile, they might discount him.

Therefore, Timothy was circumcised. Not in order to be saved. Not in order to be more holy. Not in order to find favor in God’s eyes. But rather, for the result that “the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.” Timothy participated in something that had nothing to do with his salvation in order to be a credible witness to a group of people who both need Jesus and perhaps would have dismissed him had he not bore the signs of their image of a “faithful and genuine” believer. The point isn’t that they are justified in thinking that way. According to Paul a chapter earlier, they aren’t. However, Timothy loved this community of people enough to facilitate to their views at the time in order to be a better witness to them.

So what can we learn here?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking ourselves whether tattoos or alcohol or whatever is something Christians can participate in. Maybe we should be asking, “In this particular context, is the something we should be participating in?” For the record, I am of the persuasion that the particular examples I use, tattoos and alcohol, are okay if treated with responsibility. And I think that makes my point even stronger.

When we enter into the faith and become a Christian, we don’t embark on a private spiritual journey. We become a part of a worldwide community called the Church. Modeling after the founder of our faith, Jesus himself, we are called to live in a manner of self-sacrificial love. Perhaps we should examine what that might practically look like when it comes to issues like these.

For example, though I personally think that tattoos are fine, I probably won’t get one. Because I think it makes me more holy? Or because I think those who have them aren’t saved? Of course not! As Peter and Paul both said, we’re saved by grace through faith. However, I know for a fact that there’s many churches who wouldn’t allow me to preach or minister at their church if I were to get tattoos.

Are they justified in that belief? I personally think not. But, that isn’t my point. My point is that I don’t mind demonstrating self-sacrificial love for them and avoiding getting a tattoo in order to be a better witness to them. Not to mention that in many foreign countries, tattoos are seen as a sign of evil. If I were to go to a Muslim country and they were to write me off immediately because I had tattoos, I would start to feel pretty selfish.

The same applies with alcohol. Though I personally think alcohol in moderation is acceptable, there are many churches who think alcohol is inherently sinful. In fact, my own church leans in that direction. However, I respect the pastors of my church and want to be an effective witness in my church body. Therefore, I abstain alcohol, especially around those whom I know are personally convicted that it is a sinful thing. Whether or not they are justified in their belief is a different matter. Since I’m called to have self-sacrificial love for them, I’m okay with participating in abstinence from alcohol, just as Timothy was willing to participate in circumcision.

My point, then, is that maybe we should treat alcohol, tattoos, and other things similar to them in the same way that Paul treated circumcision. Abstaining from those things don’t make us any better or holy or acceptable to God. Salvation comes through faith by grace! However, in a community that is so much larger than ourselves and with a call to live in a sacrificial way, no matter our thoughts on those issues, we should be at least willing to metaphorically go under the knife and be circumcised, if our particular situation calls for it.

Perhaps, our actions may even make it possible that our church are “strengthened in the faith and increas[ing] in numbers daily.” Isn’t that the goal? Let’s focus less on what we can do and worry about what love has called us to do.

In Favor of Women in Ministry

Of course, there’s a continuing debate on whether women should be preachers, pastors, evangelists, etc. Is this just a role that’s set aside for men? Or is it a role that is gender inclusive? I used to be a part of the camp that thought this kind of role should only be for men. After all, Paul said for women to keep quiet and not to have authority over a man! Also, the requirements for a deacon and elder are in the masculine, not the feminine! That’s surely enough, right? Actually, it’s not. While I’m not going to get into those arguments, I think it’s clear that Jesus supports women preachers, teachers, evangelists, and the whole nine yards.

It’s interesting that whenever Jesus rose from the dead, the first person to witness it was a woman. Mary Magdalene was the one to whom the news of Jesus’ glorious rising from the dead was first entrusted. She ran to tell the rest. This is also pretty good evidence that the gospels weren’t fabricated. You see, people generally saw women as inferior. Who in the Jewish first century would fabricate something that had a woman being the first one to experience an important event?  Especially if the author wanted people to believe it was true! However, it is true and a woman was the first to witness it. This isn’t by accident either. It was to challenge the misogynistic atmosphere in the Jewish culture during Jesus’ time and shoot it to the ground. If a preacher’s job is to announce the gospel, the news that Jesus has died, was buried, and then rose for our sins, isn’t this is exactly what Mary Magdalene did? And she was the first person to do so! If that doesn’t rest the case for you, here’s a little more fun facts.

In Acts, the record of the early Church, there were women involved with all of the crazy things that were occurring. Acts 8:3 and 9:2 record both men and women being persecuted for being a part of “the Way”. They were also baptized and considered full members of the kingdom of God. Acts 8:12 records, “But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” Whatever the Church was experiencing, whether growth, persecution, etc., there were always women along every step of the way, spreading the gospel and sharing in the sufferings of Christ.

Phoebe, a woman mentioned in Romans 16:1-2, was considered a “deacon” or a minister at the church in Cenchreae. Paul spoke highly of her and she is actually the one who he commissioned to deliver the letter to Romans, arguably Paul’s greatest letter. Usually, the person who delivered the letters would be the first ones to read the letters aloud to the church and then answer any questions that they may have concerning it. So, in reality, Phoebe was probably the first person to not only read Romans aloud, but the first one to expound on and preach  that great letter from the apostle Paul. Women were definitely essential in the early Church as preachers of the gospel.

In fact, later on in that chapter of Romans, another woman is mentioned. Her name is Junia and Paul says in verse 7 that she and Andronicus were “prominent among the apostles”. This doesn’t simply mean that the apostles knew a lot about them, but that they themselves were apostles. So, Paul considers Junia, a woman, to be an apostle of the Lord, and a prominent one at that. For a woman to be a leader in a “Jewish sect”, as some thought of it, was unheard of to a lot of the people around that time. However, following in Jesus’ footsteps, the early Church did an incredible job of breaking down the misogyny that had infiltrated the culture of that day. Junia would have been preaching and teaching a lot if she was considered an apostle.

To me, that makes it clear that women definitely had the authority in the early Church to preach and teach the gospel. Even the things that seem to contradict this position has to be interpreted in light of these things. If it was the case in the early Church, why do we marginalize women today? Why do we withhold from them the office of preacher, pastor, evangelist, etc.? That’s not something the Church did back then. And it certainly wasn’t something that Jesus did. If we want to mirror Jesus, then I believe we should allow the full inclusion of women into the ministry of the Church.

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This is an excerpt from my book, “Church Kid: Restoring Your Faith After Being Raised in Church,” now available for purchase here.

Sex, Sacraments, and Signs of the Covenant

First of all, God is a covenantal God. He relates to his own people through covenants. So what is a covenant? Basically, a covenant is a mutual agreement between two parties. However, it’s very different from a contract.

In a contract, if one party doesn’t come through with their end of the deal, then the other party can withdraw. Covenants, though, mean that no matter what the actions of the other party are, you remain faithful to your end of the agreement. We see this with God so beautifully. He promised to redeem humanity and restore this fallen world. Therefore, he entered into a covenant with his people to do so. In spite of all of our disobedience, God has remained faithful to this covenant and will continue to remain faithful.

To remind us of his faithfulness and our call to be faithful, God does something special. It’s interesting because it seems as if God always accompanies a sign with each covenant that he makes. Think back to Sunday School and the story of Noah and the flood. God made a covenant with Noah that he would never destroy the world again through flood and then he called for Noah to be fruitful and fill the earth. It was two parties entering into a mutual agreement. 

What does God do as a result? He gives them a sign of that covenant. Specifically, he gives them the rainbow. The rainbow was a sign to point to the fact that God was faithful and would keep his end of the deal. It also was a reminder of the fact that we’re called to be faithful to God and keep our end of the deal as well. God does this with other covenants as well.

Now that we’re in the New Testament period, we’re part of a renewed covenant with God. There are two major signs with this covenant. The first is baptism and it’s an act that occurs once at the beginning of the covenant. What does it signify? It signifies passing from death to life,from sin to holiness, and represents a fundamental change of lifestyle. You enter the water one person and then are raised from it as a different person. Baptism basically acts as a symbol for entry into this covenant with God. 

The second sign is the Lord’s Supper (or communion, the Eucharist, etc.). It provides nourishment, both spiritually and physically, since it actually consists of bread and wine. Unlike baptism, this sign is an ongoing thing that is celebrated often, occurring every week in some traditions. The Church celebrates the Lord’s Supper often in order to signify unity with Jesus. We are eating his flesh and drinking his blood. We’re, in a sense, becoming one with him. Through the Lord’s Supper we become one with him. Every time we take it, we are reminded that we are the ones with whom he chose to enter into covenant. In response, we are to live as such.

So, I began to think about these signs of this covenant and I thought about another great covenant mentioned in the Bible: marriage. Though it’s on a different level (being between two humans, not God and humans), it’s still a covenant. It’s a promise to fulfill your part of an agreement whether or not your partner fulfill his or hers. If you notice, the Bible often uses the covenant of marriage as a symbol of God’s covenant with his people.

Then, I remembered something Jesus said when speaking to the Pharisees and speaking of marriage: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

 This verse is found both in Genesis and one of Paul’s epistles, so obviously it’s important. In that verse, I see two signs of this covenant that correlate with the ones found in our covenant with God.

The first sign is “leaving one’s father and mother”. This, like baptism, is a one time event. It happens at the beginning of the covenant. What does it represent? It signifies a complete life change. Before, you are walking through life as a single person. You depend on your parents and you’re responsible for no one but yourself. Then, you are transitioning into the life of a covenantal marriage. In that, you rely on your spouse and you’re responsible for him or her. It’s symbolic for entry into this new covenant, the covenant of marriage. You’re “baptized” into your marriage, so to speak.

The second sign is sex, or “uniting and becoming one flesh.” Like the Lord’s Supper, this is a sign that is ongoing. It continues to occur well after the two have entered into the marriage covenant with one another. What does it represent? Like the Lord’s Supper, it represent unity with one another. The two are becoming one. Just as we take in Jesus through the bread and become one with him, the spouses become one with each other. It provides nourishment, both spiritually and physically, just like the Lord’s Supper. Sex is a reminder the couple has decided to enter into covenant with one another. They each have chosen to commit and love the other.

When you look at sex like that, it becomes a lot more serious. It’s not just something casual. It’s like a sacrament, something that only takes place within a covenant. That’s why I think there’s so much sorrow that occurs when people try to have sex before truly committing and marrying one another. It’s like taking the Lord’s supper without becoming a Christian or being baptized. Sex gets stripped of its meaning and its beauty.

No, I’ve never had sex, and for a long time that was motivated by a number of other things. However, now, I realize that sex is a precious thing. It isn’t something to flippantly participate in. It isn’t meant to be done within a one night stand. It’s supposed to be an ongoing sign of a covenant that has already made. In a very real way, sex is marriage. Every time you have sex with someone, it’s like you’re marrying them. You’re rushing into a covenant, one that you’ll be bound to break if you haven’t fully committed to them. As Dr. James Brownson says, “They must not say, at one point with their bodies and their words, what they are not willing to say with the rest of their lives.”

That’s why casual sex takes a toll on so many people. It’s not just a physical thing. Sex is a spiritual thing. You become connected to another person’s soul. It’s profoundly sacred and holy. Unless we treat it that way, we’ll be in for a lot hurt and a lot of heartbreak. Let us preserve the sacredness of marriage and the beauty of the signs of the covenants that God has made with us and we have made among each other! Amen.

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This is an excerpt from my book, “Church Kid: Restoring Your Faith After Being Raised in Church,” now available for purchase here.

God’s Election: What It Is and Is Not

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the doctrine of election. When I first started looking into it, I hated it. Who would spend so much time learning about a useless topic! But, then, I began to study it more, particularly the Calvinistic and Reformed understanding it, and I began to love it. How amazing that God would choose me to be in Christ based not anything in me, but solely in his love and grace! Then, as I began to reform my beliefs and depart with Calvinism, I began to hate it. I didn’t see it as lining up with the picture of God that is revealed in Jesus and the Spirit, but I didn’t know how to explain what they meant. Then, as I did more research on it, looking at a wider range of commentators, theologians, and pastors, I began to love it again. And I simply want to show why the election of God should be a doctrine that is not something we should hate or be embarrassed of. It is a beautiful doctrine that should incite praise and worship and, maybe surprisingly to some, move us to act in a deeply subversive, kingdom-of-God manner.

When it comes to election, it’s important to look at the metanarrative of Scripture. Too many times, people start with some verses in Paul’s epistles and try to prove a certain, presupposed framework with that. But, we have to take the entire story found in the Old Testament, along with the New Testament, into consideration. Because, when encountering OT texts, one finds that words like “election” and “chosen” appear a good bit. And so the question that has to be asked is: how was election understood throughout the OT narrative?

Genesis 3-11 gives an overview of the fall and its effects. Because Adam and Eve fell, sin, murder, immorality, and separation have occurred. The “goodness” that was found in Genesis 1-2 had been devastatingly lost and things had gone terribly wrong. Genesis 12 comes along and God approaches Abraham (Abram) and tells him that he is going to bless him and bless all the families of the earth through him (v. 3). This covenant is repeated to him in Genesis 15, 17, 22, and elsewhere, saying that he was going to make his offspring a great number and give them a great land. In other words, God was setting apart a man through whom a great people was going to come. God would not only bless this people, but he would use this people to bless the world.

We see this calling fleshed out later on. The line continues through Abraham’s son, Isaac, and then onto Jacob. Jacob’s family eventually moves to Egypt, where his son, Joseph, was made second in command, and his family begins to multiply. However, after being there 400 years, Jacob’s descendants, the people of Israel, are subordinated and oppressed as slaves by the Egyptians. Moses rises up and leads these people, God’s chosen people, out of Egypt to inherit the land that God had promised them. As they are in the wilderness, Moses reminds them of their vocation:

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel. (Exodus 19:5-6)

In other words, God was reminding Israel that they were his people. In addition, all of the earth is his and they had a certain role as his chosen people while they were in the world. They were a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Their being a kingdom of priests meant that they were to have dominion over the earth, reflecting God’s wise rule all across the land (the kingdom part), and to act as God’s representatives on earth, reflecting his character to the other people of the earth (the priest part). In fact, this echoes the first humans original call. They were told to have dominion over the earth as well (Genesis 1:26) and were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26 as well), which was a priestly vocation, to represent and reflect God and his character here on earth. This was the purpose of God’s election of Israel. And he would set them apart by giving them a certain set of laws (given in the next chapter, the Ten Commandments), thus making them a “holy nation”. So, not only had he saved them out of Egypt, but they were going to be the vehicle through whom God was going to undo everything that Adam had done and bring salvation to all.

However, Israel was failing at her vocation. God was constantly rebuking them for not fulfilling their call to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Israel begins to see their election as a sign of their own superiority. Instead of doing their work for the nations, they became to focused on themselves. God reminded them of the basis and purpose of their election in Deuteronomy 7:6-8:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

It turns out that the people called to reverse the affects of Adam were, too, in Adam. The body that God had called as a vehicle to save the world, too, needed to be saved. They needed someone, a faithful Israelite, to fulfill the vocation of Israel, defeating the enemies of sin and its consequence, death. The person that was going to do this began to be known as the Messiah. The idea that this anointed One would embody Israel as a whole appears in Isaiah.  Notice in chapter 41, God calls the corporate body of Israel as his servant:

But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
(Verses 8-9)

But in the next chapter, this corporate body of Israel is described as a single person:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
(42:1-3)

Thus, this “Israel-in-person” figure, this one whom we identify as the “suffering servant”, was put in direct contrast to Israel and was going to fulfill the role that Israel could never fulfill.

Obviously, this person is Jesus. Jesus comes and fulfills the role of the royal priesthood and holy nation. He preaches a new, subversive kingdom of God (a royal term), shows us what God is really like compared to what rabbinic tradition had taught (as a true priest should), and defined what it meant to truly be set apart for God (being holy). Why did Jesus do this? To save the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike. Israel could not fulfill this vocation, being in need of salvation herself.

So, we see this elect body of people embodied in one person. In addition to being fully human and fully God, Jesus was also fully Israel. He was Israel-in-person. He, thus, became the Elect One. The Father calls him this at the transfiguration (Luke 9:35). Jesus is representative of Israel as a whole, and is, in that sense, “chosen” by God. Everything that Israel had been called to in her election, Jesus fulfilled. He was the faithful Israelite, doing what Israel could never do.

What becomes of election now, in the New Testament?

Jesus had inaugurated God’s kingdom, his sovereign rule over earth. And he did so in some radical ways that went against common perceptions at the time. One of these subversive new ideas was the fact that Gentiles were now included in this chosen people of God. This doesn’t mean that Gentiles could now be saved, because there were Gentiles saved in the Old Testament (think Rahab, and also Nineveh, where Jonah preached. The whole city of Gentiles repented!). After all, the promise was not only for the Jews, but through them! The new twist was that Gentiles were actually included into the covenant. What had once been for ethnic Jews was now available to all, by placing faith in Jesus Christ.

How was this so? Paul spends a lot of his time talking about how God can still be faithful to his word, his covenant, while including Gentiles into it. One big reason was because Jesus was, indeed, Israel-in-person. Israel wasn’t about ethnicity or Torah or circumcision or anything of that sort. Israel was now associated with one person and one person alone: Jesus. Now, if anyone is included in Jesus, that person is included in Israel. Because Jesus is Israel-in-person! He fulfilled all that Israel was supposed to accomplish. And now, through him, people of all ethnicities and backgrounds could be a part of this chosen people who find their common identity in Jesus.

Notice, though, that Paul doesn’t completely abandon Jewish theology. It’s still about being a part of Israel, but now, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6). All of the things that were important to Jewish theology was still there, but simply redefined in Jesus, not anything else, like ethnicity. Those in the covenant still have to be included in Abraham, but “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” and “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:7,29). Being a circumcised Jew is still an important idea, but now “a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom. 2:29). The law still needs to be kept, but now “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).

So, when we approach the language of election in the New Testament, we have to keep this corporate-body-identified-in-Christ framework in mind. Israel’s election was corporate, not individual. Election in the New Testament is corporate, not individual. Election in the OT was largely about vocation, the call to bring salvation to world. Israel was the body chosen for the vocation and everyone else was the ones who received the salvation. In the NT, the purpose of vocation and salvation have been fused together in one body. Our vocation is to bring the salvation of Jesus about to the world in order that they might join in our vocation to further spread this salvation to the world. Salvation is something that God does for the Church, but also through the Church, in order that more might be added to the Church.

Then we get to verses like Ephesians 1:3-6:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

Notice the words I bolded. “In Christ” or some variation appears four times in those three verses. The reason is because when he speaks of election, Paul isn’t, for some reason, abandoning the Jewish framework of election he was all too familiar with. He was simply redefining it around Jesus. We are chosen, yes! But, we are chosen in Christ. Christ is the chosen One, the Israel-in-person. And if we are in him, then we are in Israel, the chosen people of God. Notice, it doesn’t say that God choses or predestines whether or not we’ll be in Christ. It simply says that for those who are in Christ, you are chosen, blessed, and predestined for wonderful things.

And the beautiful thing is that this intensifies our calling and our own vocation! Many times, theories of election end up doing something more like what happened in Deuteronomy 7. It makes people arrogant and leads them to see themselves as the ones who God specifically set apart. Even if it is by grace and love! There’s something about being individually chosen that boosts the ego and seems to stem from a culture of radical individualism. God chose ME. But God’s election isn’t about his choosing of any woman or man! It’s about God’s choosing a people and that people being embodied by Jesus Christ as the representative for us all. That’s the thing that both sides, Calvinism and Arminianism, seem to miss. Both are wrapped up as to how God goes about choosing individuals, but the reality is that election doesn’t speak to that at all! To read that into language about election is to commit a hermeneutical error. If one concludes that God has to choose individuals because of one’s view of divine providence, then that is simply a deduction, not an exegetical truth. Election is always speaking on a corporate level (which, of course, is comprised of individuals!), but not specifically of individuals.

Peter speaks of the Church in his first epistle and describes them as such:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

All of these things echo Israel. They were a chosen race, a royal priesthood (kingdom of priests), a holy nation, his possessed, corporate people. Jesus called on his listeners to be a “light to the world” (Matt. 5:14), something that Israel was called to do (Isaiah 49:6). We see Israel as a model of what God’s people were called to do, albeit a flawed model. And then we see Jesus as the fulfillment of that, God’s chosen one, King of God’s kingdom, the one who reflected God perfectly, the true Light of the world, and the beloved Son of God’s own possession. It is in him that we find salvation and it is in him that we are chosen and elect. Our being chosen should never be about us. We are chosen in Christ for the purpose of proclaiming the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light, in hopes that the whole world will be saved, restored, and find justice in him.

Justification and the New Perspective on Paul – Part 4: Justification as Covenant Membership

O, the great exchange that Luther spoke of as justification! He declared, “Thou, Lord Jesus, art my righteousness, but I am thy sin. Thou hast taken upon thyself what is mine and hast given to me what is thine.” In one decisive act, which was the cross of Christ, Luther declared that we traded our sin for Jesus’ righteousness, our sin imputed to him as his righteousness was imputed to us.

However, did Luther get it right? Is this what Paul meant as he wrote of justification in his letters? In the last post, we explored the definition of the righteousness of God. It is the glorious good news of the faithfulness of God to his covenant. We’ve also seen that first century Judaism was not, prior to popular thought, a religion and system of works-based righteousness. In addition, when Paul did convert to Christianity, he did not leave his Jewish framework behind, but rather, it was radically reframed and redefined in the person of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel. With all of that in mind, what did Paul mean when spoke of justification?

Justification is a huge topic that requires much explanation and exegesis. In this post, then, I will talk about the covenant membership of justification. However, there is so much to explain in such little space. So, bear with me as I try to hit the major aspects of this facet of justification.

We will first look at the letter which is considered to be Paul’s first, his letter to the Galatians. So, this would mean that this is the first time Paul speaks of justification, at least of which we have record. The main point of this letter is to reassure the Galatians believers that they, indeed, do not have to participate in Jewish ceremonies, namely, circumcision. Paul tells a story in chapter 2 of his having to correct Peter in his error, the error of making distinction between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, those of the circumcision and those of the uncircumcision. Peter had been eating with the Gentiles, but then when his fellow Jewish comrades came around, he separated himself, which was not in accords with the gospel.

What does Paul say in response to this? “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (v. 15-16) Now, looking back to the first post, we know that Paul is not talking about legalistic self-righteous works here. If he were, his response wouldn’t make sense, for he is addressing the question of why it’s okay for Jewish and Gentile Christians to eat together.

Circumcision was not something the Jews used in order to gain favor with God. Rather, it was something they used to mark them out as God’s chosen people.Now, however, Paul says that circumcision is no longer a necessary distinguisher of God’s people. Because of the work of Jesus, he has broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14) by getting rid of outward identifiers and requires a new identifier: faith.

On to Galatians 3, Paul begins to chastise the Jewish listeners for still relying on the law to set them apart as God’s chosen people. Now that they have been begun by the Spirit, they no longer need the law. Paul then brings up Abraham. Before, those who had kept the law (and usually those who were of biological descent) were considered Abraham’s sons. But, now Paul says that the criteria of being a son of Abraham is not because of the works of the law, but because of faith. He points to Genesis 12 and says that this has been God’s plan all along.

Was the law a bad thing? Of course not! Paul was quick to praise the law for doing what it was meant to do. “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith… And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (v. 25-26, 29) You no longer have to be in Abraham by descent or by keeping the law. Now, you are in Abraham because you are in Christ. Those who place their faith in Christ are justified. To be justified in this sense means to be identified as part of God’s covenant people. 

As we saw in the second post, Paul was still very Jewish in his thinking. He still believed that God still had a chosen, elect people. Now, however, that people had been opened to Jew and Gentile alike. And now, neither Jew nor Gentile were required to be identified by the works of the law. Before one had to be circumcised by the flesh, now one has to be circumcised by the heart (Rom. 2:28-29). Before one had to be included in Abraham by flesh and Torah, now one is included in Abraham by faith in Christ (Gal. 3:7, 29). Before one had to follow the law of the Torah, but now one has to follow the law of the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-8).

One is justified, declared in the right, declared an equal member of God’s covenant people, by faith. This is less about how to get saved (as Luther supposed) and more about you can identify those who are saved. When a people is identified by faith, then external identifiers are obsolete and everyone can come to the table and eat together. That is one of the beauties of justification. Justification allows a community built on radical egalitarianism, where all who are of faith are on equal grounds, the ground built on Jesus Christ. After all, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This, then, is a very short and condensed explanation on the covenant membership facet of justification (for further reading, see “Justification” by N.T. Wright). However, in Jewish theology there are three main tenets: monotheism, election, and eschatology. Justification centers around the idea of the one God of Israel and that he is now the God of all, and the covenant membership speaks to election, redefined around Jesus. However, there is another facet of justification. This one speaks to the other tenet of Jewish theology: eschatology. This we will explore in the next post.

[Originally posted on the Collaborative Theology blog, to which I contribute]

“What is the role of LGBTQ+ individuals within the church?”

(This is reposted from a blog, “The Ecumenicals“, for which I wrote as a guest this week”)

Jesus, the One around whom the Christian faith is built, instructed his disciples to love one another. After loving God, this was the second greatest commandment. Unfortunately, people who claim to follow the teachings of this subversive revolutionary fail to follow this equally revolutionary command. This is made evident in mainstream Christianity’s history of oppression, hatred, and violence towards the LGBTQ+ community.

A message that started as loving, compassionate, and inclusive is tragically warped into a hateful, spiteful, and exclusive message. Much of the church has adopted an “us vs. them” mentality that goes against the very fabric of the kingdom which Jesus came to establish. People like Westboro Baptist Church (using both the term “baptist” and “church” loosely”) are among these hate groups which twist the message of Christ to perpetuate their own prejudices, hates, and fears.

So, when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community, in the midst of all of this hatred and mishandling of the gospel, the question arises, “What is the role of LGBTQ+ individuals within the church?” I take the same position as homosexual Christian, Wesley Hill. His view is that the Church should openly welcome admittedly gay men and women (and others in the LGBTQ+ community). And I wholeheartedly agree with him. The Church has turned away these beautiful humans created in God’s image for too long.

However, Wesley Hill, being homosexual in orientation himself, believes that homosexuality is a deviation from God’s original design. Thus, he believes that all sexual activity should be between a biological man and a biological woman. He describes himself more accurately as a “gay celibate Christian”. While I think members of the LGBTQ+ community should be generously welcomed, Hill and I both share the conviction that sex was created to be fulfilled between one man and one woman.

This does not, however, mean that homosexual men and woman should aim to be straight or “pray the gay away”. Just like heterosexual celibate men and woman, Hill makes the point that all people are made for community and fellowship. Much of the American church has made marriage so important that they see all celibate people as second class Christians. This simply is not so. Paul even spends a good amount of time in 1 Corinthians 7 explaining how being single is something he wished more people would pursue. We all need love, and this is especially true for celibate brothers and sisters, both heterosexual and homosexual.

Thus, the Church should not only be welcoming and accepting of members of the LGBTQ+ community, but also make extra provisions to provide community, fellowship, and a loving environment in which the fellow members can do life together as they walk in celibacy. As someone who is not married and does not see getting a spouse as something happening anytime in the near future, celibacy may be a real option for me. I would love to be able to embrace someone of the LGBTQ+ community who shares my convictions and walk that path together.

For too long, the Church has been no place for the LGBTQ+ community.  But, if the Church wants to take seriously the commands of Christ, they need to refigure their approach to these individuals.

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For additional reading, check out Wesley Hill’s book, “Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality”

Why Christians Shouldn’t Be Threatened by “Gay Marriage”

In light of the recent Supreme Court hearings regarding same-sex marriages, there has been much conversation on how Christians should react. With people who support same-sex marriage doing such things as posting an equal sign as their Facebook profile picture, Christians who oppose are making clever reactionary pictures (plus signs, a man and woman holding hands, etc.). But, is the government acknowledging same-sex marriages actually something by which Christians (even the most theologically conservative ones) should be threatened?

My opinion is a resounding “no”. Even if one holds to the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman, then one still should not feel threatened by all that is going on. I’ll explain.

The biggest issue that Christians need to address is the problem of semantics. It is my understanding that the marriage that the government institutes is a very different thing than the covenant of which the Bible speaks and which God established. Honestly, the only things that they have in common are their names, “marriage”. They act as two completely separate things.

The governmental institution of marriage does such things like providing benefits in regards to taxes, estate planning, medical, death, housing, and social security along with other government benefits for the two people who enter into the marriage. That is literally all it does. Christian marriage is a completely different matter, a spiritual covenant acknowledged by God and by the Church. It does not have anything to do with the government or the political realm at all.

Christian marriage does not need to be recognized by the government to be an official marriage. It is only because of the nationalism that is commonly found in the American Church that many Christians have began to enmesh the two together. If one follows this line of thinking, then Adam and Eve were not really married. And if one truly follows a strict version of this line of thinking, then anyone (even Christians) who are married outside of the U.S. are not actually married either. Logically, if one thinks that the way that the American government defines marriage directly correlates with how Christianity in general views it, then no one outside of the U.S. could technically be married, since no one else is under the American government except for America. A Christian marriage does not have to be acknowledged by the U.S. government, or any government for that matter, to be a genuine marriage.

Some people are still led astray because the two still still share the same name of “marriage”. But think about this. What if the government began instituting a weekly ceremony called “The Lord’s Supper”? And what if this ceremony was nothing like the ordinance that Jesus established in the gospels? Would this change how the Church does the Lord’s Supper? Would the traditional/biblical idea or definition of the Lord’s Supper amongst the fellowship of believers be threatened by this governmental institution of the same name? Of course not. Not to mention that even various Christian denominations disagree with the nature of the Lord’s Supper! In the same way, Christian marriage is not threatened by how the government defines marriage.

Not to go too off topic, but why are Christians so adamant about gay marriage being outlawed, yet continue to practice or be indifferent about divorce? This is something that Jesus addressed way more directly than the subject of homosexuality. The most probable answer is the scary reality that homophobia is still rampant in the Church. Perhaps the rally against same-sex marriage is almost an attempt for Christians who are so apathetic about divorce to validate themselves by being really against one thing, while shying away from another issue. Either way, the hypocrisy within the Christian community on this topic obvious.

However, in the end, what I am saying is that, to the Christian who believes that the traditional model of marriage is biblical, marriage is marriage is marriage. It should not matter what the government says or how it defines its own institutions. Jesus said that His kingdom is not of this world. Why, then, do so many Christians insist on fusing the kingdom of the earth with the God’s kingdom? Christians shouldn’t be threatened by “gay marriages”. Because, in the end, Christians shouldn’t be threatened by the government at all. Our kingdom is not of this world.

Thoughts from a Critic

I was in the worship service today at church, and we were singing a song. One of the lyrics says “As I lift my hands toward heaven…”. And, of course, when those lyrics are sung, everyone’s hands across the sanctuary pop up simultaneously.

The critic in me used to hate this. I thought “Lifting your hands needs to be something organic and real, not robotic and done because a lyric tells you to do it!” It was the same with any of that type of lyric, whether it was lifting your hands, clapping, jumping, or whatever.

So, I hated this so much that whenever we sang that song, when it came to that part of the song, I would make it a point not to raise my hand. When it got that part, if I was raising my hands, I would even bring them back down. I would think ahead to make sure that I wasn’t lifting my hands when the lyric said so, in order to make the point that I wasn’t allowing lyrics of a song to dictate when I lifted my hands.

However, I recently realized something. In my attempt to be freed from my actions being dictated by lyrics during worship, I only became further enslaved by it. I was so set on not raising my hands during a lyric that instructed me to do so that, rather, I allowed it to dictate when I didn’t raise my hands. But, do you see the irony? I wasn’t free from it. I was simply enslaved by it, but in a different way. In both cases, I was allowing the lyric to control my actions. The first case it was dictating when I did raise my hands, and in the latter, when I didn’t.

My goal was to make my worship more organic, but in doing so, it just became even robotic. I wasn’t free, but controlled in a different way.

I think the principle is a lot bigger than just raising your hands during a song. So many times, we rebel and act out against certain ideologies, systems, philosophies, and world views, because we may have been raised in them, perhaps. However, in our rebellion, are we truly freed from them? Or are we still simply allowing those things to control us and our actions?

Too many times, it’s the latter. I think about New Atheists and how most of them were raised in religious households. Their disdain, hatred, and open mockery of religion isn’t a sign that they have been freed from the chains of religion. Rather, it proves that religion still controls them. It dictates all of their actions, however, they are all centered around their hatred for religion, rather than their appreciation of it. Either way, religion is controlling them still.

I think about super critical Christians. They usually talk about what they hate about how they were raised, or what their parents did wrong, or how Christianity today is so off. And while there is great value in correcting what is wrong, how many Christians who are this critical are only this way because they are trying to be freed from the religious oppression that they experienced as a child? And they think that to do is to critique every aspect of their oppression. But, they only prove that they are still very much so enslaved by that oppression, and it manifests itself in their constant bickering.

Community even gives a great example of this. Troy Barnes is a college freshman, but still wears his letter jacket from high school (being a star quarterback and all). Everyone gives him a hard time about it and try to pressure him into taking it off. Troy thinks that if he does that, then that makes him weak. But Jeff Winger so wisely said, “Listen, it doesn’t matter. You lose the jacket to please them, you keep it to piss them off. Either way, it’s for them. That’s what’s weak.”

True freedom from a certain system or ideology or philosophy or whatever comes not from raising your fist at it and railing against it. In that case, you’re still giving it too much attention, worth, and value in your own framework. True freedom from it comes from its irrelevance. There’s nothing more liberating than looking at something that once controlled you in the face and saying “I don’t care”. I believe it’s only then that we’ll be free from it.

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This is an excerpt from my book, “Church Kid: Restoring Your Faith After Being Raised in Church,” now available for purchase here.