Archive for the ‘False Teachings’ Category

A former seminary classmate just posted that the Westboro Baptist Organization (I won’t dignify them by calling them a church) will be protesting four churches in the small town of Elizabeth City NC this Sunday, May 31, 2015. Elizabeth City is on the mainland near the bay which borders the Outer Banks, and the main highway to and from the OBX passes very close by.  Classmate Rev. Craig Stephans, my former classmate, is pastor of the Anglican Church of the Redeemer in Elizabeth City.

At this point in time the Anglican Church is not on the protest list; protests are scheduled for the local Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopal churches. Nonetheless the Anglican Church stands in solidarity with brothers and sisters in the four targeted churches.

The Baptist group will also be protesting in Kill Devil Hills, just north of Nags Head, on the Outer Banks, the day after.

One suspects the Westboro family simply wanted a vacation on the Outer Banks and figured out a way to make it a tax-deductible church expense.

Please keep the Elizabeth City faithful in your prayers this coming weekend – that all will be safe, and that many will hear the *good* news being preached from Elizabeth City pulpits.

News source: Local press Craig’s response: his blog

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Scripture Readings: Romans 14:1–12 and Matthew 18:21–35

Before I dig into the scripture readings from Romans and Matthew, I want to mention three notes on these readings.

First, there is a third scripture reading assigned for this morning, from the Old Testament, that we did not read, that gives a great context to the words of Paul and Matthew. The Old Testament reading would have been from Exodus chapters 14 and 15, which tell the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery, crossing the Red Sea while God holds the waters back, and then the song of freedom and victory when they reach the other side. This picture of God setting his people free gives us a proper background for these two New Testament readings, because it gives us a picture of God’s mercy and power to set us free from sin and death.

When Jesus talks about forgiveness in the reading from Matthew – it is humanly impossible to forgive the way Jesus says to forgive, unless we know we are God’s people and God is with us. When Paul talks about not judging others – it is impossible to not judge others unless we know our own sins have been forgiven. It is human nature to point out the flaws of others; but as Christians we have been set free from the power of sin and death, through the mercy and power of God, and because of this we are able to live lives of mercy and compassion. So I recommend to your reading this week Exodus chapters 14 and 15.

Second, these two readings from Matthew and Romans are related to each other. They are both close to the very heart of the gospel. Jesus started his public ministry preaching, “the kingdom of God is near – repent and believe the good news.” The word ‘repent’ means to change course, or to change direction, or to change one’s mind. Repentance is not about regret or guilt or shame, it’s about facing into a new direction. So Jesus is saying basically, “The kingdom of God is near – change course and believe the good news.” The coming of the King, the coming of the Messiah, is what makes it possible for us to have changed minds and changed direction.

Third, both of these passages – from Matthew and from Romans – are difficult. They’re difficult to hear, and they’re difficult to live. This is going to be one of those sermons where I’ll be preaching to myself as much as I am to you.

With all that said, let’s dig in. We’ll start with the reading from Romans. Paul is writing to the church at Rome because the Roman church is on the brink of a church split (something that seems to happen a lot throughout church history!) Paul is writing to correct the attitudes of the people who are tearing the church apart.

The division in the Roman church is over the subject of eating meat. Should Christians eat meat or shouldn’t they? That’s the question. This is not about vegetarianism; the issue in the ancient world was that most of the meat a person could buy in the open market – not all, but most – came from religious sacrifices. In other words, these animals had been sacrificed to false gods. Some people said meat sacrificed to a false god was tainted by false religion and was therefore evil and should not be eaten. Other people said a false god isn’t a real god and therefore has no power to harm the meat or the person who eats it. The people who said the meat was tainted by false religion started to question every piece of meat they came across – at a dinner party, for instance, they might ask the host, “where did this meat come from?” You can imagine people started to take offense to this. On the other hand, the people who saw no harm in such meat tended to flaunt their freedom, deliberately eating meat in the presence of the non-meat-eaters in order to offend them.

To give a somewhat more modern parallel, there was a similar kind of debate in many churches when I was growing up. Some of you may remember it. The issue was rock n roll music, particularly its use in the church, and the argument went something like this: one side said, “rock music promotes sex and drugs and a godless lifestyle… and besides the Beatles claim they’re more popular than Jesus… so rock music is evil and must be avoided.” The other side said, “a musical style is not in and of itself good or evil. Rock music can be good and can be enjoyed.” Cliff Richard even wrote a song about the debate called Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

It’s the same species of argument, the debate over eating meat and the debate over rock music. People who are against, are concerned with holiness – they want to do what pleases God and avoid what doesn’t please God. People who are for, are concerned with freedom and justice. They know we are set free from sin by the death of Christ on the cross, and therefore we don’t need to live in fear. So both sides start out with legitimate concerns. But then the arguments quickly devolve into name-calling and finger-pointing and arguments at church councils and nasty messages on Facebook.

It’s interesting to note that Paul describes the abstain-from-meat argument as being the weaker of the two. In Romans 14:2 he says: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” So on this particular issue Paul sides with the meat-eaters. But Paul does not press that point. He goes on to say each person must obey their own conscience. In other words, if a person believes eating meat offends God then for that person it would be wrong to eat meat.

And more importantly, whatever a person does, whether abstaining or enjoying, it is to be done (v. 6) “in honor of the Lord, [giving] thanks to God.” Those who eat meat are not to despise those who don’t… and those who don’t eat meat are not to pass judgement on those who do. The most important issue is the attitude of the heart towards God and toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul nails that argument down by saying (v. 4), “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

Paul says so much in that one little verse! Every one of us is someone else’s servant. Each of us answers directly to God. Each of us belongs to God. It is before God that each of us stands or falls.

This is where Jesus’ parable from Matthew chimes in. Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves.” One slave owes him 10,000 talents. We don’t know exactly how much money that would be in today’s terms, but scholars generally agree it’s far more than a person could earn in a lifetime. So the slave and his family, and all that he has, is to be sold to pay off the debt. The slave begs for mercy and the king forgives the debt. Erases it completely. The slave then goes out and sees another slave who owes him about a day’s wages. This other slave begs for mercy, but the first slave says ‘no’ and has him beaten. The king is furious – he says to the first slave “I forgave you all that debt just because you asked me to, and you won’t forgive the little bit your fellow slave owes you?”

We forgive each other, not because it’s a nice thing to do (though it is), but because we know our forgiveness has come at a higher price than we could ever pay. How can we possibly demand payment from a fellow slave?

Having said this I need to step back for a moment and point out some things people sometimes say about forgiveness that need to be addressed. Three notes, and the first two are caveats:

  • Caveat #1. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is often misinterpreted and mis-applied where it comes to people who are in danger. Are we expected to forgive someone who threatens us? Are we expected to forgive someone who deliberately hurts us or bullies us? Are we expected to forgive someone who is self-destructive and is pulling family and friends down into a vortex of self-destruction? The Christian answer is “Yes, but…” Yes, but forgive from a safe distance. Get away from danger first. And know it may take a long time before we’re able to forgive these kinds of things. Christian forgiveness does not mean being a martyr to someone who may injure you or someone you love.
  • Caveat #2. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is not a command to look the other way or let people off the hook where it comes to immorality or injustice. As much as it is possible, as Christians we need to address issues and concerns without attacking persons.
  • Third note (not a caveat) : Alcoholics Anonymous gives us one of the world’s best examples of Paul’s teaching in Romans, so much so that I would like to spend some time with it.

Most of you have heard of AA’s Twelve Steps. Step Four of the Twelve Steps has to do with “making a searching and fearless moral inventory” of one’s life. This step is essentially a confession, in which the person in recovery writes down everything they’ve ever done wrong, as best they can remember, with the purpose of making reparations where possible. In the process of recovery, the inventory is shared with God and with one other trusted person, and that’s it. As you can imagine this inventory is extremely personal.

What Paul is describing in Romans – the way people were passing judgement on each other – is what AA calls “taking someone else’s inventory”. And it’s a huge red flag in recovery. Focusing on someone else’s inventory is more than just fault-finding. It is one of the primary characteristics of addiction. On a spiritual level, when we’re taking someone else’s inventory we’re not leaving room for God to work in that person’s life – or in our own.

The apostle Paul didn’t have the Twelve Steps to pull from, but he’s got the idea in spades.

So where does this all lead us?

First, where there is disagreement between Christians on an issue, each one of us must do what our own conscience dictates, as best we are able, based on what we know. It helps to be informed on the issues, but ultimately the questions are spiritual, and we will answer to God for what we choose.

Second, we need to remember that our Christian brothers and sisters are someone else’s servants. They belong to someone else, and they will answer to Him. Our job is to do whatever we do “in honor of the Lord, giving thanks to God.”

Third, we need to remember God has already forgiven us far more than any person will ever owe us. Therefore we are in a position where we can afford to show mercy to others.

Fourth and finally, above all we need to remember that the kingdom of heaven is near, and our salvation is already secured. Just as the Israelites passed through the Red Sea to freedom, Jesus has passed through death into life, giving us freedom from sin and death.

Therefore the victory is already ours. We have nothing to fear, and we have nothing to lose.

Lord, help us to forgive and be forgiven. Help us to remember the price you paid for us… and for our brothers and sisters in the faith. Help us to include… understand… confront fairly… and listen with compassion as we seek to follow You. AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/14/14

Soli Deo Gloria



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There are days I look at the news and shake my head wondering how on earth the message of Jesus has gotten so twisted.  Jesus taught love and peace and joy and truth… never disrespect for the dead, or abuse of women and children, or voices raised in anger, or judgmental hatred of minorities.  When I look at the Fred Phelpses of the world I can hardly blame non-religious types for thinking of religion as a mental illness.

For those who say the world would be better off without religion, defense of faith isn’t my purpose in writing today.  It’s enough to say that so much of humanity’s historical, cultural, and intellectual capital is rooted in the positive aspects of religion, that to do away with religion is essentially to saw off the tree branch we’re sitting on.

And, as so many people of various faiths have said before me, fundamentalists do not represent the majority of the faithful.

So how does fundamentalism spread?  Here’s one story that I’m sure has been repeated millions of times in one form or another.

Today I received an email from an elderly friend.  She’s a wonderful lady – matriarch of three generations, community volunteer, lifelong churchgoer.  She sent me a link to a web page and video that was troubling her.  Here is the web page it linked to — an article castigating President Obama and his choice of church attendance on Easter, with a “video” of said service.  The video looked familiar so I popped over to YouTube and discovered the so-called “Easter service” was a tiny piece of a much longer sermon filmed over five years ago.  There’s no indication it was filmed on any Easter or that the President was in attendance.

The website that published all this is a subset of One News Now, run by the American Family Association.  According to Wikipedia, the AFA is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, citing “propagation of known falsehoods” and “demonizing propaganda”.  The AFA is, essentially, our generation’s version of the KKK.

But there’s no way my elderly friend could have known all this.  All she knows is she got an upsetting email with a video containing the n-word and she wants to know what the world is coming to.

And she wonders how people can put this stuff in print if there isn’t some grain of truth in it somewhere.

And that’s how fundamentalism spreads… not in the halls of power, not via FoxNews, not via huge bank accounts, but friend-to-friend and family member to family member, by innuendo, twisted truths, false reporting.  Deliberate misinformation sent out by an organization with its own prosperity in mind, to people who would never think to do such things. People who forward emails to their children and relatives and friends and say, “Have you seen this? Can it be true? If Mom (or Dad or Sis or Bro) thinks there might something in it, maybe there is…”

One News Now, the AFA, Focus on the Family, et al… they make their millions by sending out messages designed to incite anger and play into people’s fears.  The language of their message implies that the nation as we know it will cease to exist if immediate action isn’t taken.  (To be fair I’ve heard equal and opposite jargon from the “other side” but that’s a different story for another day.)  They call people to stand for ‘God and country’ and they define what God said (“Stand firm!”) and what supporting country means (hyper-nationalism, wrapping the cross in the flag, no abortions, no gays, no immigrants, no blacks or women in power, always looking to “get back” to a more “innocent” era).  And of course “taking a stand” really means “Send money! And send us the names and addresses of other people who will send money!”

Blogger and ‘recovering fundamentalist’ blogger Jeri describes the fundamentalist subculture:

Loyalty compels separation and alienation. Paul warned the believers in Corinth about the dangers and flaws of saying “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos.” Yet, this is the very fabric of Fundamentalist culture. […]  We really believed our culture, our leaders, our “standards” put us a few notches above…  Alliances and divisions were (and are) numerous and complex and rock hard.

A lot of Fundamentalist preaching is mayhem and doom, as preachers try to tie people in to the sense of being part of the enlightened and godly few. Fundamentalist preaching attacks music, movies, books, people, political groups, other cultures, etc. Loyalty thrives in a culture that so clearly and frequently culls out most other people as being unfit for God’s approbation, even if they are in Christ. And yet Fundamentalism remains dead silent about its own child molesting preachers, and those who have been caught in deceptions, frauds, and embezzlement. Fundamentalism protects its key men […] it cannot admit to the gross corruption of its leaders. In a culture of loyalty, the leaders must be protected…

How to stop it?  Things that won’t work: Reason. Arguing.  Shouting. Violence.  Trying to understand where they’re coming from.  The passing of laws restricting religious activity.  Ignoring them.  Treating them like idiots. Talking down to them.  Telling them to “get with the times”.

What does work: Defeat the false gospel of power politics with the real gospel of Jesus.  “Gospel” is an ancient word meaning “good news”.  What these organizations spread is “bad news”.  Remind people who are afraid that God loves them and is still in charge. Remind people who are angry that Jesus has already won the victory over sin and death on the cross.  Remind them that real Christians “take a stand” on their knees… and have a duty to pray for enemies, perceived or real.  Pray for them.  Remind them of the depths of God’s love.  Remind them that perfect love casts out fear.  And when appropriate, remind them that Jesus’ sharpest criticisms were reserved for the religious leaders of his day… who sound amazingly like these fundamentalist leaders.  Confront the leaders with God’s truth, especially as found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew ch 5 & 6)  Remind the followers – the flock of Christ – who their real Shepherd is.

Sounds crazy in the ears of a secular society, I know.  But this is a spiritual battle.  Humans are not the measure of all things.  There is a reality beyond what our senses can perceive.  And that’s what’s needed here.  Nothing else will answer.

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At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them.  When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.  If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?  How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.
– Matthew 12:1-14 

When I read this passage, the first question that came to mind was: “What are the Pharisees doing in the same grain field as Jesus and the disciples?”  It’s pretty obvious they are following Jesus around, watching and waiting for him to put a foot wrong.

grain field

One might ask if it’s lawful to stalk a person on the Sabbath.

The second question that came to mind was: “Who do the Pharisees think they’re talking to??”  Just in case his words and miracles aren’t enough to give away his identity, Jesus spells it out for them:

  • He talks about “what David did”.  Jesus is the Son of David, and the Pharisees knew that, at least partly. They had access to the genealogies and would have known about Jesus’ royal lineage.
  • He mentions “the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless” – hinting at the fact that Jesus himself is a High Priest (after the order of Melchizedek)
  • And then he comes right out and says it: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”.   The guy the Pharisees are accusing of breaking Sabbath law is the one who wrote the Sabbath law!

To interject a little context:  the text quoted above starts with the words “At that time” which begs the question, “At what time?”  It was around the time that a lot of people were asking who Jesus really was.  John the Baptist’s disciples had just been there, asking “are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  It was around the time that Jesus had been scolding his listeners, saying that if the people of Sodom and Gomorrah had seen the miracles they were seeing they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes.  And it was immediately following the time Jesus said these words:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

How many times have I read this and focused on the words “easy” and “light”:  the way of following Jesus is a way of joy.

But I’m hearing this last passage in a new way today:  “MY yoke is easy and MY burden is light.” As opposed to the yoke and the burden imposed by the Pharisees. As opposed to living life under the control of legalists.

The question the Pharisees keep coming back to is: what is lawful on the Sabbath?  To find a solid answer, it’s a good idea to look at what the Sabbath law originally said.  “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is one of the Big 10: the Ten Commandments.  The law reads as follows:

“Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy… the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant… You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” – Deut. 5:12-15 [emphases mine]

So keeping the Sabbath Day holy (which means “set apart”) involves resting from the money-making activities of the week and remembering that God has set us free from slavery.  It’s a day of peace, of enjoying freedom, of reflecting on the Creator’s goodness, of spending time with friends and family, of eating and relaxing.  Exercising this freedom once a week is amazingly effective at preventing workaholism and addiction to things. It is freedom from slavery to the gods of commerce and politics.  It is freedom to just be.

This is why I believe Christians should start getting counter-cultural about Sundays in a big way.  Not because God is a meddling old grouch who wants to deny us our pleasure on Sunday… but because God has given us an amazing opportunity, once a week, to tell the world where to get off.  To be free of the demands of work, school, kids’ activities, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and society in general.  To rediscover and enjoy the things that really matter, that make life worth living.  To remember that we used to be a slaves to all these things, but God has set us free.


The Sabbath is primarily about freedom.  Therefore, as Jesus says, “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”.  It is lawful to pull an injured animal out of a pit.  It is lawful to heal a man with a withered hand.  It is lawful to set God’s creatures free from what binds them.  That’s what the Sabbath is for.

but the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus…
(is this lawful on the Sabbath?)

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This blog post — Shifting Evangelicalism — and the comments following it put into words a trend I have been sensing in the world of Evangelicalism for the past couple decades.  The rise of hard-line-ism and attempts to find reasons to exclude various sub-sets of believers from the church is troubling if not un-Scriptural.

Call me old-fashioned but I can’t let go the vision I caught in my younger years of what the author calls “Big-Tent Evangelicalism”, where we agree on the authority of Scripture and allow for differences in understanding.   The ‘new Evangelicalism’ seems to want to force all believers into the same mold and call it ‘unity’.  Forget about ‘liberty’ and ‘charity’.

If Jesus is true then we need to find ways to bring people INTO the kingdom, not ways to keep them out.  And we shouldn’t be wasting time trying to figure out (as if we had the right to) who’s going to make it into heaven and who isn’t.

Thanks to author Scot McKnight for his insights and to Mark for posting the article to FB.

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There are folks close to me who feel like I’ve been picking on Glenn Beck a lot lately, and I think I’ve covered the subject well enough, so this post is basically just a way of bookmarking another post I saw and liked.  Here’s a quote:

“…on the day of the rally I actually yelled at my poor mother for not being more outraged.  We were on the phone making plans for the evening when  she casually mentioned watching the whole thing on TV.

“How can you watch that without getting angry?” I demanded.

“Because if I’ve seen this once, I’ve seen it a million times,” Mom said. “It’s no big deal. It will pass….You guys wanna come over for steak?”

“No big deal!” I shouted. “Are you kidding?! They’re basically taking the Lord’s name in vain! Preaching a false gospel! Worshiping an idol!”

“Oh I know. Your dad’s firing up the grill, so you better get on over here.”

I hate to admit that Mom was right…”

The article is entitled Why Glenn Beck Isn’t a Big Deal.

Thanks to the author for giving us a much-needed term: “Beckianity”.  Excellent — now we can take back the word “Christian”!

It’s comforting to remember that this too will pass.  OTOH I think maybe the author is right to be angry… angry for all the people who will be hurt and disillusioned and maybe even lose their faith when yet one more take-back-America-for-God movement crumbles to the ground.  Angry for all the people who will never give the Gospel a chance because of what they think Christianity is about.

I think she ends in the right place: compassion.  And I would add: prayer.  Remembering those on all sides of the issues who will be hurt by this movement and by the reactions against it… pray for the people.

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Quoting CNN: “In protest of what it calls a religion “of the devil,” a nondenominational church in Gainesville, Florida, plans to host an “International Burn a Quran Day” on the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. […] Muslims and many other Christians — including some evangelicals — are fighting the initiative.”

For the record: ALL the evangelicals I know, including myself, are 100% opposed.

This blog doesn’t get a huge readership, but for those who do read: if you consider yourself an evangelical (or any other kind of garden-variety Christian) and you oppose Quran-burning, please post and say so.  And if you have a blog of your own consider writing a similar post on your blog.

This kind of nonsense only passes for ‘Christianity’ if we let it.

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Dr. Russell D. Moore, Dean of the School of Theology of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has just proven me wrong about the Southern Baptists.  And I’ve never been more happy to be wrong.  Check out his article God, the Gospel, and Glenn Beck.

Here all this time I’ve been blaming the excesses of the ultra-right-wing socio-political movement rooted in Liberty University, Focus on the Family, etc and egged on by Glenn Beck, on the Southern Baptist Convention.  Judging by readers’ reactions to Dr. Moore’s post, the LU-FOF-TeaParty gang have departed from anything resembling a church denomination, including the Southern Baptist Church.  They’ve become more like… well… a political party!

But I digress.  Kudos to Dr. Moore for saying what so many people have wanted to say, and have been trying to say, in a voice that others will hear and from a position that other leaders will (hopefully) take note of.

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He’s an entertainer.  He’s rude.  He spreads misinformation.  He’s inflammatory.  He’s an author and celebrity who makes over $32 million a year stirring up fear and hatred among his fellow Americans.   He’s the conservative’s answer to Howard Stern, and equally as predictable to this listener.  C”mon, folks, can’t we see he’s only in it for the money?!?

Granted we live in a culture where the entertainment industry is the ultimate arbiter of power, where politicians and news anchors must be “personalities” rather than statesmen and journalists, where communication is measured in victories of sarcasm rather than the sharing of truth (“what is truth?”).  Sad words to write on Memorial Day weekend.

What I don’t understand is how Beck got to be the darling of the Religious Right.  Just last week he was the commencement speaker at Liberty University, the school founded by Jerry Falwell and funded by Tim LaHaye of Left Behind fame.

The man is a Mormon.  He is not an evangelical Christian.  He’s not interested in promoting truth, religious or otherwise.  What he does do is support the political platform that is so sacrosanct with the Religious Right: pro-life, limited government, family values, getting out of debt.  Noble causes perhaps, but (as always) ignoring — and often ridiculing — other pressing issues such as poverty, corporate greed, and the environment.  And other Christian virtues such as kindness, joy, peace, and faith.  And his techniques are the same: intimidation, motivation through fear, and a belief that the ends justify the means.

Beck has no expertise in Christianity or in history… and in fact this past week displayed his ignorance of both in this audio.    In this clip he claims:

  • that the Council of Nicaea was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine when he wanted to conscript an army
  • that the Council of Nicaea produced the Apostles Creed
  • that the Council of Nicaea is where the Bible was first bound
  • that the Council of Nicaea said of the work they produced, “anybody who disagrees with this is a heretic and off with their head!”
  • that the Dead Sea Scrolls were produced in order to protect the Scriptures from people who were seeking to destroy the truth
  • that the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden in caves so no one could find them
  • that the Dead Sea Scrolls “were hidden scripture because everything was being destroyed that disagreed with the Council of Nicaea and Constantine”.

The man is doing Dan Brown’s work better than Brown himself.

The problem is, if people haven’t read up on these subjects, what Beck says might sound like a reasonable defense of his ideologies.  Specifically, he’s saying there’s a conspiracy afoot to deprive people of the truth, and that people in the past needed to hide the truth in vessels — in pots or in Creeds — in order to preserve it, and in our day we need to do the same.

Yeah, to protect the truth from people like Beck!

Here are the facts:

  • The Council of Nicaea was called by the Church, not any Emperor.  The Council produced the *Nicene* Creed (hence the name) — the Apostles’ Creed is approximately 200 years older.  The Bible was not bound at the Council of Nicaea; the work of determining what writings would go into the Bible was a process that took a few hundred years.  And the Council of Nicaea had absolutely no power of life or death over people.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls were produced by an ancient *Jewish* community living in Qumran, Israel, a few hundred years before the birth of Christ.  They, like many ascetics before and after them, spent much time reproducing Scriptures by hand.  The Scriptures they copied were from the Torah — what Christians would call the Old Testament — and other prophetic writings.  The scrolls they produced were carefully wrapped and stored in pots in caves not to hide them but to preserve them.  Qumran had absolutely nothing to do with Constantine or the Council of Nicaea — both of which would happen approximately 500 years later!

If Beck is this wrong about things any first-year seminarian would know, how mis-informed is he about things any first-year political science major, or meteorology major, or earth sciences major, or history major (etc) would know?

What all this points to, for me, is that the Religious Right is far more interested in politics than in Christianity.  That in some religious circles it’s more important to vote the right way (and on the right issues) than it is to seek the truth.  That the Christian veneer is just that: a facade preserved to keep people sending in their money.

Yes indeed.  Right now you can send $100 to Beck’s website for an autographed copy of a Washington Crossing the Deleware print.  Did you catch that?  *Christians* are supposed to send what for many people is about half a day’s wages to a *Mormon* *entertainer* so they can hang an icon of a *president* and a *flag* on their walls and feel good about their *spirituality*.  Say what???

Folks.  If you’ve got $100 to spare send it to the nearest overseas missionary you know.  It might make the difference between life and death for someone you won’t ever meet.  You won’t get a plaque to hang on your wall… but then Jesus said it’s only when our left hand doesn’t know what our right hand is giving that we will be rewarded in heaven.

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One of our regular readers keeps an eye on the Liberty University gang for me and sent a heads-up on the recent release of the latest book by popular author Tim LaHaye, The Edge of Apocalypse.  LaHaye is best known for his Left Behind series of books, fictional stories that promote a pre-tribulation-rapture interpretation of Revelation, a belief in global conspiracies, and anti-Roman-Catholicism.  His latest book continues to titillate readers and rake in more cash for Liberty U.

Popular because of their action-packed story lines, LaHaye’s books are essentially thinly disguised Bible lessons from a man who has made a fortune sensationalizing Scripture and whose religious beliefs are some of the most misguided and self-serving of our day.  (For a more level-headed look at end-times prophecy check out this thread.)

Quoting from Amazon.com describing LaHaye’s latest: “As world events begin setting the stage for the ‘end of days’ foretold in Revelation, Jordan [the hero] must weigh the personal price he must pay to save the nation he loves.  Edge of Apocalypse pulls you into an adrenaline-fueled political thriller laced with End Times prophecy.  […] With help from a group of powerfully connected Christian leaders known as The Patriots, Jordan works to save the nation from economic and moral collapse…”

This one paragraph sums up beautifully the problems with LaHaye’s writings: (1) the story is only “laced” with Biblical prophecy — a writer’s technique to add emotional weight — essentially using God’s word for the sake of one’s own thrills; (2) America is placed at the center of end-times prophecy as though it were God’s chosen nation; (3) the story has far more to do with adrenaline and politics than God; (4) the salvation of the nation is brought about not by the preaching of the Gospel but by political power grabbed by a conspiracy of “Patriots” who have all the answers to the nation’s political, economic AND moral woes; (5) with the heroes portrayed as morally upright “Patriots” anyone who disagrees with their opinions or methods must by definition be both anti-American and immoral; and (6) the hero risks his life, not for God, but for America — placing a higher value on the flag than on the cross.

Why is it so few Christians are troubled by this stuff?

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This post is a follow-on to a discussion found here.

Pre-trib, mid-trib, or post-trib?  The question can be a major litmus test of one’s spirituality in many churches today.  For anyone who has missed the argument, the question has to do with when the Church will be raptured out of the world — before the tribulation, during it, or at the end of it?

I submit that the question is irrelevant.

For starters, I submit that theological litmus tests are spiritual poison, leading to pride and self-righteousness on the one hand and discouragement and humiliation on the other.  I submit that where it comes to getting into God’s Kingdom, it’s not what you know, it’s Who you know. Yes, it is a good thing to read and study God’s word, but entry into the heavenly banquet won’t require passing an exam.

Second, I submit that the question stems from a mis-reading of Scripture.  The word rapture appears nowhere in the Bible, and the apostle Paul makes it clear that believers still living when Christ returns will meet Him when He returns.  (I Thess 4:16-17)  There is no guarantee anywhere in Scripture that Christians will vacate the earth before the end times; if anything Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 seem to indicate that the Church will still be here during the end times.  Jesus notes,  “but the one who endures to the end will be saved”. (Matt. 24:13)

A recent New Testament class presented us with a very different reading of Revelation and the end times than any I have heard in any kind of church, and it’s one that makes a great deal of sense.  Revelation is interpreted as a series of seven sections which move in progressive parallelism.  In other words, Revelation tells the story of the end times seven times from seven different perspectives, each re-telling building on the sections before.  This makes a lot of sense because (a) an apocalypse is a genre of writing that is often presented in repetitions; and (b) there are seven re-tellings – Scripture’s perfect number.

Looking at Revelation in this way, all the time-lines and road-maps that people have cobbled together trying to figure out exactly what is going to happen when in the end times become worthless – which they always were to begin with.  As Jesus says, “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matt. 24:36)  He warns over and over in Matt. 24 not to be deceived by people who say otherwise.  “Wherever the corpse is, the vultures will gather,” is Jesus’ wry comment.  And yet the vultures continue to pick the bones of the Bible’s prophecies and grow wealthy publishing their “findings”.

Another interesting thing that happens with the seven-retellings approach is: many other frequent points of disagreement among Christians become settled.  For example, there is no problem defining who the people of God are – they are any and all people who are of the faith of Abraham and Jesus.  There is no problem defining the terms rapture and return of Christ – they’re the same thing.  All the judgments mentioned in Revelation are one and the same; and the two resurrections mentioned refer to spiritual resurrection (salvation) and physical resurrection (Christ’s return) respectively.  Everything fits.   No need to go through all kinds of mental gyrations figuring out which thousand years goes where, and more importantly, no need to view people as being excluded from God’s kingdom based on their eschatological beliefs.

So if we can’t determine some kind of sequence of events from Revelation, what is the book about?  It’s about encouragement.  It’s about hope.  It’s about reminding people who are suffering through difficult times that God is in charge and will set all things right in the end.  It’s about the victory of our Lord.  The aim of the book is not to give us a brain teaser to unravel — it’s to give us a vision of the brightness of our future.  The last chapter says it all.

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I picked up a copy of Michael Babcock’s UnChristian America on a recommendation from a friend.  I’ve been meaning to review it for some time and was finally nudged into action by this conversation.

Author Michael Babcock is a professor of humanities at Liberty University in Lynchburg VA, the school founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell and funded in large part by Tim LaHaye of the Left Behind series of books.  Where it comes to the Religious Right and American politics, Babcock is an insider speaking from personal experience.

This book is a must-read for evangelical Christians.  As Babcock says in the dedication, “May you always seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.”

The book is divided into two sections, Losing the Battle and Winning the War, and is prefaced by an introduction describing the author’s spiritual journey.  Babcock begins his arguments with these concepts:

“We forget that Jesus turned to fishermen, not politicians, when He began His ministry; we forget that He empowered the twelve disciples with the Holy Spirit, not political charisma, to build His church.”

“The real enemy we face has never been godless Communism, the gay lobby, the abortion industry, or the Hollywood elite.  The real enemy is the same one Jesus confronted two thousand years ago: the materialistic values of this world system. […] The central miscalculation of the Religious Right has been its failure to recognize the real nature of the battle.”

“From the catacombs of ancient Rome to the cities of modern America, living for Christ has always meant the same thing: commitment and self-sacrifice, dying to self and dying to the world.  By absorbing the values of the larger culture, evangelicals have neglected their responsibility… to present a relentless critique of our fallen world.”

In Part One of the book, Babcock demonstrates how the Religious Right grew directly out of the racial prejudice of the Deep South in the 1950s, anger at the removal of school prayer in the early 1960s, and backlash against the women’s movement of the late 1960s.  He quotes George Andrews, congressman from Alabama, who said of the 1962 Supreme Court decision removing prayer from schools, “They put the Negroes in the school, and now they’ve driven God out.”  Babcock comments, “By linking these two matters so crudely, Congressman Andrews was putting his finger on the real issue that reverberated throughout the South…”

Babcock goes on to detail “political themes… emerging… in strange ways” such as from Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, which Babcock describes as “breezily written and thinly documented” and which provided a “blueprint for a crude evangelical foreign policy” in the 1970s, giving rise to the Christian Zionist movement.

Babcock then traces the rise of the Moral Majority movement and Liberty Foundation of the 1980s and the Christian Coalition of the 1990s, exposing dirty back-room deals and moral compromises made for the sake of political power.   He also correctly identifies Ralph Reed, “political whiz kid” and former golden boy of the Christian Coalition (until he was discredited for doing business with a convicted felon), as the impetus behind the ‘take back America for God’ movement.   “Reed was a professional operative, not an evangelist,” Babcock writes, and adds Reed once likened his own political tactics to “those of a Turkish assassin”.

After Reed was publicly discredited, director of the Family Research Council Gary Bauer along with Focus on the Family filled the power vacancy created by Reed’s departure.  By this point, Babcock writes, “the distinction between what is “Christian” and what is “American” has become hopelessly blurred.”

In the next chapter Babcock takes on the question of whether America is really a “nation under God” and argues that no nation can claim to be “God’s country” except ancient Israel.  He argues that those who believe America was founded as a Christian nation “fail to distinguish between cultural Christianity and biblical Christianity.”  He points out that Thomas Jefferson was “conveniently selective about which doctrines of Jesus he included in his own anti-supernaturalist edition of the Bible” and “was deeply conflicted about the competing claims of revealed religion and the dictates of reason.”  Bottom line, “the Founding Fathers… certainly did not see themselves founding a theocratic state.”  Babcock then goes on to trace various movements in American history, showing both religious and humanistic influences.  Some important conclusions he draws include:

“When Christians on either end of the political spectrum redefine the church as a voting bloc instead of Christ’s very body, then we have succumbed to a false wind of doctrine.”

“The church’s mission is not to transform a changing culture but to bear witness to the unchanging truth of God.  The church’s mission is not to change the world by using the world’s tools.  We have been given spiritual tools…  because our battle is not “against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age.” (Eph. 6:12)”

“Something is terribly wrong if the world can’t see the ‘old rugged cross’ because we’ve surrounded it with white picket fences and American flags.  Nothing should obscure the Cross.”

“Whatever else the world may think of us, they should hear the love of Christ in our words and see it demonstrated in the way we treat others.”

“Humanism is the religion of the modern age, and the seeds of this humanism were planted in the New World when the shining city was chartered.  America was never ours to lose.”

In Winning the War, Babcock tells the story of how, after his disillusionment with the Religious Right, he stumbled into a worship service led by a fellowship of Calvary Chapel.  He writes: “No flashy illustrations. No politics. No legalism. No light shows. Just the Word of God in all its simple eloquence.  Something awakened inside me that I thought had been lost for good.  My will broke beneath the gentle onslaught of God’s grace…”

Babcock writes, “The eternal truths of God never expire.  Christians today face no new challenges, no new battles, and no new issues. ”  He then outlines principles on which to build a more Christ-like future:

“Acknowledge God’s sovereignty over the political realm.”

“Submit ourselves to the authority of earthly rulers.”

“Recognize the importance God places on honor and respect. […] The belligerent tone of much conservative commentary is inconsistent with the ethic of the gospel…”

Know that “God’s standard remains fully in effect even though society may change.  God allows no escape clause or exceptions for our personal preferences and political platforms.”

“Our civic responsibilities are always defined by godly living.”

Babcock concludes his book with “A Simple Call to Virtue” saying that Christians need to regain the message and importance of the Sermon on the Mount.  He finds that Jesus’ message has been nearly buried in conservative churches by “a modified form of dispensational interpretation… ultra-dispensationalism can obscure the fact that a consistent God lies behind the whole sweep of Scripture.  From beginning to end, He is a God of holiness, mercy, love, and forgiveness. […] The Scofield Reference Bible… divided Scripture into “seven dispensations” and relegated the Sermon on the Mount to the future millennial reign of Christ.”  Babcock soundly rejects Scofield’s interpretation and the later amplifications of Arno Gaebelein, refuting them with quotations from Paul.

Babcock adds, “it really matters that evangelicals have been so deaf to the great Sermon Jesus preached. […] Our casual dismissal of the Sermon on the Mount explains a lot of things that are painful to admit, such as nationalistic and militaristic impulses right now, crude addiction to prosperity and material success right now, and comfort with law and religiosity right now.  Jesus rejected the power paradigms of this world and issued instead a simple call to virtue.”

Recommended reading.

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This news story is incredibly apropos our current readings in Church, Ministry and Sacraments class.  In it you will read about members of the hierarchy of The Episcopal Church soliciting contributions from lawyers to support lawsuits against individual parishes who are leaving the national church.  Notice that the lawyers’ fund (The St. Ives Fund) is self-described on the website as “Mission Funding”!  (I wonder how many new converts they’ve won…?)

Our class has been reading Lesslie Newbigin’s The Household of God, in which Newbigin teaches that salvation apart from the church is impossible — not because the church dispenses salvation (it doesn’t) but because all who have become one with Christ are one with each other in His Body, the Church.  He says the Protestant concept of the “spiritual” church  as opposed to the “physical” church is judgmental and sounds like something the Pharisees would have come up with.

I like Lesslie Newbigin a lot, and his points are very well taken.  But there still must be some way to distinguish The Church (God’s people, the Body of Christ) from the church (the man-made institution).  Confronted with deliberate evil and strategically planned disobedience to God within the church (the man-made institution) isn’t it essential for the Church (God’s people) to take a stand?

When the leadership of a church (the institution) is deliberately deceiving the Church (the people) by calling a lawyers’ war-chest “missions”, and using the money to sue other Christians (which is forbidden by Scripture)… how is it remotely possible that the church can remain undivided? The very act of deception is in itself a breaking of Christian fellowship.

Near the end of his book Newbigin makes a very good point though (speaking of missions): “our Lord forbids His disciples to stay and argue with those who do not receive them…” (p. 144)  It’s a sad thing not to be received, and in fact to be preyed upon, by one’s own church.  It’s no way to run a church, and certainly no way to do missions.

Time to move on and follow Him.

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Following on my post of May 15 – here’s another excellent example of how the “religious right” has lost its way.  Today Liberty University, the school founded by Jerry Falwell, revoked recognition of the College Democrats on campus.  Full story from CNN can be found here.

Quoting from CNN’s story:  “According to the Lynchburg News & Advance, the school decided a week ago the organization “stood against the moral principles” held by the school and therefore could no longer be sanctioned. Maria Childress, the staff adviser to the club, told the paper the school… had issues with the Democratic Party platform.”

The story goes on to say the university feels it is impossible for someone to be a Christian, a Democrat, and a representative of the university.

I wonder where that leaves (lifelong Democrat) Billy Graham?

Update: The situation found a resolution of sorts about a month later.  Not the most elegant solution, but here’s the deal: as reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on June 23, 2009, the student Democrats are now permitted to exist as an unofficial club, and student Republicans have also been changed from an officially recognized group to an unofficial club.  Lack of major media follow-up on this story is not a good thing.

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Ted’s comment a few posts back reminded me it’s been awhile since I visited Internet Monk’s blog.  Always a blessing, he recently (re)posted a very powerful bit of writing entitled “When I Am Weak: Why we must embrace our brokenness and never be good Christians“.

It’s a point that has come home to me powerfully in a number of ways over the past few weeks.  Jesus loves us, keeps us, provides for us, while we are yet sinners.  Trying to make everything look like we’re “good Christians” is tearing us apart, especially those of us in leadership.  One of the reasons the Christian life isn’t easy is because we are never good enough, and never will be in this life.  But that’s OK — it’s our weakness and brokenness that Christ’s light and power shines through.

Great post.  Have a look.

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