God and Government #4

October 27, 2016

Here is the last lesson in the series. I enjoyed teaching this at Levy over the last month. 

Our last text to consider in this study is 1 Peter 2:13-17. This is an interesting text and context out of an interesting letter. Peter’s audience was not a single church. Instead he addressed his letter to…

God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. (1 Peter 1:10)

As addressed, the original recipients of this letter were Christians living in various parts of the Roman Empire. The purpose of the writing was to offer encouragement and fortification for the trials they all faced, which Peter acknowledged first in 1:6. That Peter would address them as “strangers” set the agenda for the letter. He would pick up this idea again in 2:11-12 (immediately before the text of our study). Overall his teaching focused on their calling as God’s chosen people. This calling led to an understanding that the world offered no lasting home. Here Christians are just “aliens and strangers”. Peter would detail what that looked like lived out within a hostile world. One point of emphasis within this involved living in such a way to counter criticism. One way to do that would be to submit to governing authorities.

THE TEXT

Submission to all governing authorities—specifically to kings and governors—is called upon “for the Lord’s sake.” This qualifier is significant. Remember the type of government under which these Christians lived. It was not at all favorable to Christian faith. It was often oppressive, unjust and cruel. Why submit to such an immoral governmental system? That is what God asks of his people. He asks because even such evil governments are used to “punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right.” He asks because it is his will for his people—these strangers—to demonstrate their heavenly citizenship by “doing good” everywhere they happened to live and not to become involved in civil disobedience. Compare this text to both Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Timothy 2:1-5 and there is remarkable consistency of message.

Each of these contexts (and in ours) it is taught that Christians becoming involved in rebellion against those in governmental authority would be counterproductive to the spread of the gospel of Christ. Peter further explains why it is vital for Christians to submit to their rulers—to counter criticism or as he states, “silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” Christians were subjects of incredible rumors and misinformation—blamed for incidents not their doing. So it was crucial for Christians to not add any fuel to the false flames. “Peaceful and quiet” lives were the apostle’s mandates.

This could be accomplished four ways:

  • Showing proper respect to everyone
  • Loving each other—the brotherhood of believers
  • Fearing God
  • Honoring the king

But what if everyone was not worthy of respect? Even in the church? What if the king was corrupt? It does not matter. This approach is coming out of a respect first of God and his will. This is all done first “for the Lord’s sake.” It is a kingdom first perspective, which takes maturity to understand and practice. Just consider the next section of teaching—to Christian slaves. They were instructed to submit, obey and respect their masters—even the “harsh” ones. Why? Because it was “commendable before God.” Why? Because “to this you were called.”

It is the same principle. Christians are not to rebel but to respect and submit to those in authority even if that authority is unjust—because in so doing the principles and message of God’s kingdom are furthered. It is exactly why Christ endured the insults and sufferings without retaliation. We benefit from his submission. Others will benefit from ours. Ultimately the kingdom of God will triumph. We have to think more broadly than just the here and now. So we honor the king (even if he is Nero), we pray for him, we do our best to live at peace with everyone by living out the kingdom values as aliens and strangers in our world. This is God’s calling and will for us.

21st CENTURY APPLICATION

So how does all of this connect to us living in a democratic form of government in the 21st century USA? To answer this—again we must remember that the NT texts were not written specifically to us or to directly answer our questions. Understanding that and doing our best to apply the teachings of these texts to our situation, here are some consistent principles to consider:

  • Do our best—regardless of the type of government under which we live to submit and live at peace. Do not engage in civil disobedience or unrest. Our kingdom citizenship supersedes any earthly citizenship and living that out is paramount.
  • Pay our taxes and our debts. Give no one the chance to slander Christ in this regard.
  • If forced obey God rather than man—just like the apostles in Acts 5:29. But remember this still does not give permission to engage in anarchy. Persecuted Christians in the first century died not fighting but praising. Eventually their example won the world.
  • We are called to “honor the king” with no qualifications—even if we do not like his politics.
  • Christians can participate in the governmental process and use their rights of citizenship in peaceful and lawful ways (as Paul did—Acts 22-29) and in ways lawfully beneficial to the spread of the kingdom. Christians should not however partner with politics in any unequal way (2 Corinthians 6:14) nor should we expect the government to be “about the Father’s business.”
  • The latter is our call and that is why the NT so emphasizes living as strangers and aliens; living peaceful lives that are in submission to those who govern us. It not through ballots or bullets that the kingdom of God will spread. It is through quiet and determined faith lived out—consistently upholding the values of God’s kingdom.

God’s call is unchanged regardless of the type of governmental system under which we live. Live first the kingdom of God. Be the best citizen possible in demonstrating what it means to be first a citizen of heaven.

 


God and Government #3

October 20, 2016

Here is the third lesson. I will post the last one next week. Thanks for the feedback so far! 

Our study takes us next to Ephesus and the text of 1 Timothy 2:1-4. Included here is a snippet from Paul to Timothy—instructions for him to pass along to the Ephesian church:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 

As we continue to allow Scripture to inform us and shape our thinking/relationship with those who govern us, these words can further our understanding.

Ephesus

It is not unexpected to find Paul addressing this topic in the Ephesian context. Externally this was a church born (so-to-speak) out of a riot (Acts 19:23-41). Civil unrest had accompanied this church planting—so the idea that they would need clear instructions about not participating in such, but rather in praying for those in authority is not surprising. Further in unpacking the internal situation of the church in Ephesus—it was in turmoil due to false teaching (likely among leadership/elders) creating strife among its members, particularly young widows. A quick look at the verses following our immediate context demonstrate the situation—men needing to direct their hands toward God in prayer and not toward each other in anger and disputing. Women needing to act in accordance to God’s will in demeanor and in worship practice. In the larger picture, those in this church had issues with God-ordained authority. They were not living peaceful lives. For this to spill over and into their community (especially after already being connected to a riot) would not accomplish God’s will. So Paul urges a prayerful stance be taken toward all people, but specifically for kings and those who govern in order to live peacefully and quietly in their community. Note the connection here—peaceful lives could result from praying for/honoring those who govern. Becoming involved in civil unrest most certainly would not. One Bible commentator wrote:

“For kings and all who are in authority” The Bible does not teach the divine right of kings, but it does teach the divine will for organized government (cf. Rom. 13:1,2). The theological issue is not whether we agree with our government or whether our government is fair. Believers must pray for governmental officials because they are in God’s will in a fallen world. Believers know from Rom.13:1,2 that all authority is given by God, therefore, as followers of Christ we respect it. This statement is all the more powerful when you realize Paul is asking believers to pray for governmental leaders like Nero! (Bob Utley from Bible.org)

This was the challenge for the Ephesian Christian, but it also remains a challenge for us as well. We may not always agree with those who govern us. We may not have supported them politically. But we have been instructed to pray for them and to not engage in any civil unrest, but instead strive to live peaceful and quiet lives.

This is What Pleases God

Just in case we question this teaching, Paul clearly informs that this approach to those who govern us is “good” and is what “pleases God.” Again, this should not be unexpected. It is consistent with the other New Testament teaching on this topic (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17) and is exactly the approach Jesus, himself, adopted.

In using the terms “peaceful and quiet” Paul emphasized the importance of both being free from external strife and from inner turmoil. Christians must demonstrate their faith by calm living, which can be quite challenging in times of crisis and tension, but as in Ephesus—is so crucial to pointing people toward the kingdom of God and the hope it offers. Instead of turmoil our focus should be on godliness and holiness.

Why this is good and so pleasing to God is revealed in the text—God is eager for all men to be saved! This salvation comes only through Jesus. Quiet and peaceful lives; those free of the turmoil and tension of the world; those focused on the values of the kingdom instead of the vices of the world are reflective of him and will draw people to him. Conversely, lives full of unrest, engaged in disputing behavior, and demonstrating anything but peace cannot lift up Jesus.

Fairly straightforward message here—Christians are to be engaged in the kingdom business of seeking and saving the lost. Becoming involved in the kinds of disputes that arise out of political strife (or church strife for that matter) will hinder this pursuit. So, pray for those who govern and do your best to live quietly and peacefully while seeking first the kingdom of God. This is what is good and pleases God. Coming to this knowledge of truth releases strife—for everyone!

A second-generation restoration leader among churches of Christ, David Lipscomb, had very strong opinions concerning the Christian’s relationship with government. He was an influential editor of The Gospel Advocate during the early 20th century. He wrote a book entitled Civil Government. Here is an excerpt:

The principles in the Sermon on the Mount are diverse from and antagonistic to the principles that have obtained and must ever obtain in all human governments. No human government can possibly be maintained and conducted on these principles laid down for the government of Christ’s subjects in his kingdom. The spirit that prompts the practice of the principles is opposed to the spirit needful for the maintenance of human governments. The two spirits cannot dwell in the same heart, nor the same temple, or institution. A man cannot be gentle, forgiving, doing good for evil, turning the other cheek when one is smitten, praying ‘for them that despitefully use and persecute’ him, and at the same time execute wrath and vengeance on the evil-doer, as the human government is ordained to do, and as it must do to sustain its authority and maintain its existence.

While we may or may not agree with him—I borrow his words to highlight that the purpose of God’s kingdom and the purpose of governments rarely intersect. In this political season—let’s more than ever depend upon and trust in God, quietly going about pursuing his will, disengaging from the anger/confusion swirling around the election, while praying for those who govern us. It is what pleases God and will accomplish more good in the end. This we can learn from Ephesus.


God and Government #2

October 18, 2016

Here is the second lesson in this series. 

The first major text dealing with Christian’s relationship with the government under which they live is found in Romans 13:1-7.

To fully process this text we must first firmly root it in its original context. The target audience for this teaching was Christians—both Jew and Greek—living in first century Rome, the capital of the vast Roman Empire. An empire by definition is “an extensive group of states or countries under a single supreme authority, formerly especially an emperor or empress.” It is important to the text to grasp the type of government under which they lived. It was not a representative form of government in any way. Those who were citizens (like Paul) did have some rights and civil liberties (such as appealing directly to Caesar to ultimately arbitrate legal matters—Acts 22-28), but it was not democracy. So we first must try to hear and process Romans 13:1-7 through their ears, lives and experiences.

One contextual situation that no doubt formed—at least in part—the occasion for this teaching concerned the civil disobedience rampant among parts of the Jewish community. This had earlier created the banishment of the Jewish population of Rome under Emperor Claudius in 49 A.D. (in which Apulia and Priscilla were caught up- Acts 18:1-2. It also was the background for much of the Jew/Greek problem within the church in Rome that prompted Paul to write the letter). Knowing this and the damage it caused the Jews, Paul realized that this type of rebellion against established government would be counterproductive to spreading the gospel and to the reputation of Christians within that community. He did not want the church to get caught up in such civil unrest.

From an immediate contextual perspective, this body of teaching seems to flow from the previous teaching in chapter twelve concerning blessing those who persecute, repaying good for evil, not seeking revenge, and doing everything possible to live at peace with everyone. This divine advice mirrors the teaching of Christ- who did not embrace the radical agenda of the Jewish Zealots of his day, but chose rather to be obedient to the governing powers (even though they were unjust and killed him).

The ultimate goal Paul was seeking in this section of teaching was to urge the church in Rome not to engage in any type of civil disobedience that would bring undue attention to the church and hinder their ability to spread the gospel of Christ. Instead they were to submit to their civic governmental context and work within it as good citizens (as he himself was doing) to allow every opportunity for the gospel to be spread and influence their community.

TEXTUAL POINTS

From the text we learn:

  • Paul presents a positive picture of government. It is to be seen as established by God for the purposes of punishing wrongdoers and as such it serves God’s purposes.
  • Rebelling against the God-ordained government equals rebelling against God and brings about a judgment.
  • “Everyone” is to submit to the governmental powers and not be in rebellion against them. Considering their context this was wise advice because Rome could and did act swiftly to eradicate rebellious and subversive activity (as they did against the Jewish community in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.) The Christian’s responsibility within their governmental context is to “do what is right” – not just for fear of punishment but because it is the right thing to do (“conscience”- vs. 5)
  • Doing what is right includes paying the various taxes required by government and paying your debts.

Coupled with the other NT texts previously mentioned we see a consistent ethic put forth. Jesus agrees that taxes should be paid (Matthew 22:21). The Romans teaching agrees with Paul’s words to Timothy concerning living a quiet and respectful life within a community (1 Timothy 2:1-4). And Peter echoes the idea of respect and submission to the king and those in governmental authority- as well as emphasizing that in doing so it would best present the gospel message and silence critics (1 Peter 2:13-17).

To really grasp the impact of the Roman text (and the others) is to understand that Christianity was this fledgling movement operating among misunderstandings, suspicion, and opposition in the cities where it had taken root. On one hand it was opposed by most of the Jewish establishment (which often spread salacious rumors about the church) and was viewed by many Roman authorities as simply a splinter sect of the troublesome Jewish community- and therefore untrustworthy and suspicious. So, this teaching was crucial to establishing that Christians were not the threat to the empire so perceived. The call was to be good citizens, live at peace, and conform as completely as possible (sometimes- according to the demands of the ruling powers- complete conformity was impossible- Acts 5:29) to governmental powers so as to give the gospel every opportunity to take root and flourish. This indeed is one major way they could live out the transformation to which they were called (Romans 12:1-2). Such a lifestyle would differentiate Christians from others (especially the Jews who were constantly a problem for Rome).

LIVING OUT THE TEXT TODAY

Reading the text through 21st century filters leaves us with many questions. What if a governmental system is not just? Should we live peacefully within a form of government that oppresses and promotes evil? If Christians fall under persecution what should be our response? Is it okay to participate in activities designed to overthrow evil governments? Can we participate in peaceful protest? Should we become involved in the governmental process?

To address this- we first must remember that the Roman texts (and others) were not written specifically to answer these questions. They were context specific. (In fact, it was only a few years after Paul wrote this that Roman Christians faced horrific persecution under Nero and persecution was at times and in places- harsh for Christians until Constantine).  So just what does this text have to say about the above questions? These are not easy questions to answer but ones we will consider/pursue/answer through this study.


God Isn’t Fixing This?

December 3, 2015

I rarely venture into politics or any type of analysis on national events. It mostly is a no-win situation with wide opinions and endless, usually unproductive debate. I love my country and feel blessed by the freedoms and privileges we enjoy. But I love my God more and realize that his kingdom is about much more than the United States of America. The truth is—that regardless of what happens here or what we become—his kingdom endures forever.

Fortified by that, I try not to be an alarmist concerning the course and future of my country. Nevertheless, I do feel concern as I see us systematically removing values and concepts reflective of God from our society. There are real and lasting consequences to this.

I see them in the latest tragic shooting in San Bernardino and its aftermath. Specifically I am thinking of the headline in The New York Daily News that proclaimed:

God Isn’t Fixing This!

The writer of the article—to me—seems to be using the shooting to mock politicians asking for prayer while making an appeal for gun control. The point? Since God is not fixing it, we need to by taking away guns.

I will let the gun control part of the article be discussed elsewhere.

My thoughts are on the headline. It creates questions for me like, “Why do we even expect him to fix it?” Or, “Why are we calling upon him now, when we have pushed him to the margins in almost every other way?”

Having pushed God out of the public arena means that we have also pushed out his values. What would an emphasis on “love your neighbor as yourself;” or “do not murder;” or “for where you have envy and selfish ambition; there you will find disorder and every evil practice;” or “hatred stirs us strife, but love covers all offenses;” or “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you;” or “learn to do good; seek justice; correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause,” (I could go on and on—literally) do for our societal narrative and behavior? It was said long ago of another nation and people, but it remains ever true:

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people. 

Even if someone is skeptical about the whole notion of God, it would be difficult to deny the positive impact his precepts would have on a society who has forgotten how to treat each other with respect and dignity; who politicizes everything; who exalts and celebrates the vulgar while minimizing and ridiculing the civil; who reward the loudest and most belligerent while ignoring those with no voice; who create and foster an atmosphere of hate and then somehow is shocked when it explodes onto the innocent.

Perhaps God is trying to fix it, but we simply are not listening.

 

 

* Bible verses cited in order: Mark 12:31; Matthew 5:21-24; James 3:16; Proverbs 10:12; Matthew 5:44; Isaiah 1:17; Proverbs 14:34

 


Put Some Clothes on Already!

February 10, 2015

Yesterday I checked out one of my favorite news websites. I go there regularly to be informed about world events–unfortunately it is usually not very good news. Yesterday the bad news was accompanied by something even worse–a picture of the revealed backside of an aging pop star!  Her Grammy “outfit” (meant to shock, no doubt) was all about exposure. I don’t know if I was more aggravated by the picture or that the news site posted it.

News? Really?

Of course it is all about eyeballs on their site and clicks on their ads. Both the site and the pop star mutually benefitting from all of the “exposure.”

But when are we going to get enough of this? Celebrities spilling out of their scant clothing; publically exposing private parts; “leaking” sex tapes; etc.–all to generate a little buzz and keep themselves somehow relevant? That is all sad enough, but when it starts headlining news sites next to the latest bulletin about terror threats?

Enough. Put some clothes on already!

I have two young daughters. I really do not want them influenced by this kind of behavior. It is not to be celebrated. It is not cool. It is vulgar. It objectifies women. It is not freedom. Rather it is a symptom of slavery to sin.

I said it. It is sinful.

It is misguided. It takes the beauty of God’s creation and corrupts it.

It damages girls because they can grow up thinking this is acceptable and how they should dress if they want to be attractive. It damages boys because it trains them to view girls as little more than objects on display.

Is there a chance we can rediscover modesty?

Modesty by definition is about drawing undue attention to yourself. Certainly exposing flesh qualifies. In New Testament times it was more about extravagant dress–elaborate hairstyles and way too much bling. In that context we find this teaching:

What matters is not your outer appearance–the styling of your hair, the jewelry your wear, the cut of your clothes–but the inner disposition. Cultivate inner beauty, the gentle, gracious kind that God delights in. (1 Peter 3:3-4 MSG)

Maybe we will reach some kind of tipping point as a culture–where exposure becomes overexposure and enough will be enough. I don’t know.

In the meantime, let’s work to emphasize the value of what God delights in by demonstrating and teaching that gracious, gentle inner beauty to our young people.

Yep, I am getting older and this bothers me.

What is ironic is that the pop star with the missing material in her costume is exactly my age. She should know better.

Put some clothes on already!

 

 


“Life that is Truly Life”

January 20, 2015

LifeTruly_lThe title is a little phrase snatched from the context of the apostle Paul’s concluding statements in a letter he wrote to his young protégé, Timothy the evangelist, who at the time was in the ancient city of Ephesus trying to sort out a mess of a church.

To many people across the world this letter we call 1 Timothy is likely unknown or obscure. Certainly Christians are more familiar with it, but even to many of them this phrase (from 1 Timothy 6:19) is probably not something they often consider.

It is just there in Paul’s instructions to Timothy on what to teach to the wealthy members of the Ephesian church. Apparently, among the other problems facing this infant church, an unhealthy attitude toward money existed.

Reading the immediate context you get the idea those with money were not using it to God’s glory or to further God’s kingdom. Reading the greater context, you get the feeling others in that church were using the church for their personal profit. Either way, it was not good news.

So Paul instructs Timothy to work to redirect some hearts and practices by encouraging them to “take hold of life that is truly life.”

By making this statement Paul is necessarily indicting the “life” being lived by many (rich included) in the Ephesian church. It is a contrast statement. Their (the Ephesians) approach to life was not “truly life.”

That is a fairly bold statement. How would that come across in our culture? Probably as judgmental and unwelcome. We pretty much pride ourselves on making our own way—rugged individualists that we are.

Who is some long dead, dusty old preacher or anyone else, for that matter, to tell me what life is all about?

Yet, if we ever honestly (brutally so) take personal inventory, how is that really going for us? How really is our life?

Contextually Paul shares three points that I think connect to his “truly life” statement.

  • It has to do with contentment. “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (6:6) is how he put it. Again, this was a contrasting statement—set up against the confusion; friction; and hurt put upon that church by people who were anything but content. The point? We can have it all, but without a God-laced contented spirit, can we enjoy it?
  • It has to do with hope. Real hope as in something true and meaningful after we are done with this world. This is found in one place- “God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (what a great statement—6:17). Everything else is uncertain and temporary. Which is better to build a life upon?
  • It has to do with helping others along the way. Serving, sharing, being generous—that is part of “truly life” according to this teaching (6:18). Self-absorption; self-consumption; and self-centeredness isn’t.

“Truly life” leads us to “lay up treasures” as a “firm foundation for the coming age.”

Awesome.

So, if Paul is to be believed—“life that is truly life” not only allows us to live now in the abundance of the blessings God has given for us to enjoy, but shapes us to do so with a contented spirit and a generous heart in full certainty of an even better future ahead. And it also helps us to avoid many unpleasant situations, which rob us of peace and joy.

Where can I sign up?

Oh yeah, at the foot of the cross.

“ For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:36-37)

 


Haters Gonna Hate

December 16, 2014

Tis the season to hate?

Sometimes it seems that way.

Haters hated on Johnny Football’s first start. Haters hated on practically everything from every angle in Ferguson, MO. Haters hated on the recent election results; Haters hate on the Christmas holiday; Haters hate on churches that do not meet their expectations; Haters hate. That is what they do.

Jesus told us so.

Not often do all four of the gospel accounts share the exact same information in almost the exact same way (this is largely due to the fact that John’s gospel is written from a different perspective than the others), but on this topic they all have Jesus saying basically the same thing to his disciples.

It goes something like this: “Get ready. The world hated me and they are going to hate you too.”

(For the exact statements read Matthew 10:22; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17; and John 15:18 along with the surrounding context.)

So from Jesus–haters are going to hate.

They are not going to dialogue; reason; discuss; contemplate; be patient; act lovingly; or extend grace.

They are going to react; rage; accuse; scream “Crucify him! Crucify him!;” throw stones (see Stephen’s story in Acts 6-7); and behave generally in a very angry and aggressive way.

The result is not pretty, nor is it intended to be. “Hate stirs up strife” a wise man said long ago (Proverbs 10:12). Hate is a tool to intimidate and bully–and to spread misery.

Think about hate’s role in the Christmas story. King Herod was a hater. He heard a rumor about a baby who would be king and instead of investigating, he hated. Hating was easier. Lots of innocent babies died as a consequence. Joseph and Mary with their newborn fled to Egypt to escape his hatred.

Hating hurts. The Bible equates it with murder (1 John 3:15). The families who lost their baby boys to Herod’s hate can attest to that.

Hatred originates from the first hater. His purpose according to Christ is to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). Hatred accomplishes that quite efficiently. No matter how it is presented or justified–hate is hate and it produces nothing worthwhile.

But there is another way, of course. The rest of Proverbs 10:12? “But love covers all offenses.”

Love has absolutely nothing to do with hate (please read the 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 definition of love).

The counter to haters gonna hate is that lovers gotta love.

This will produce something worthwhile–even if we disagree about sports, politics, race, and religion. It will create an atmosphere of mutual respect where healthy dialogue can occur and real progress can be made on what separates us.

Love seeks redemption; reconciliation; peace and goodwill toward all.

It originates with the first lover. His goal is for every person to experience “life to the full” (the rest of John 10:10). Love can make that happen. Hate cannot.

Haters were jeering at him; spitting on him; whipping him with a cutting lash; They put him on a cross to die. This time he did not escape (he could have). Neither did he hate back. Instead Jesus loved–and it continues to cover all offenses.

Think about this the next time you are tempted to hate; the next time you are prompted to straighten someone out on social media with cutting words; the next time you think someone is attacking something you hold dear; the next time the election; the game; or the decision of church leaders does not go your way.

There are healthy ways to handle all of that. Hate is not one of them.

Yes, there are haters who are going to hate.

But let us be lovers of Christ who will love each other and (uh oh) even our enemies.

It might not be easy surrounded by a culture of hate, but Jesus has our back. Haters gonna hate, but against it, “he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

Tis the season to spread the love of Christ.