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This Month's Scripture Verse:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
2 Timothy 3:1-5


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Too Many Rules, Too Little Heart

I go to an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in the Allentown area. I would say it is a small church but that would be redundant; all OPC churches are small, at least that I know of.  Like all churches, it has its strengths and weaknesses. A couple of Sundays ago, we heard a sermon on Biblical rules for music. The foundation for the sermon Biblical rules for music came from Colossians 3:16 and utilizes a common hermeneutical principle of reducing what the Scriptures say about a subject to a single passage. For all of the rules on music that anyone could possibly ever wish for were stated in that one verse, according to the minister.

A few weeks before that, the minister preached a sermon on being both heavenly minded and earthly good based on the beginning of Colossians 3. And, again, the minister emphasized how what was stated in the beginning  of Colossians 3 was the complete list of rules for all who wish to be earthly good to follow. And the rules listed in this passage had to do with personal righteousness. There were no social justice practices mentioned

There are a couple of problems with this approach to interpreting the Bible. First, there is an assumption made in both passages that Paul's intent was to say everything to everyone about these subjects in a few verses. Thus, what Paul said to the Colossians is what he would say to every Christian regardless of the context. We should note that in Revelation, John wrote 7 different letters to 7 different churches.

But the most troublesome problem with my minister's approach, and he is not alone amongst Fundamentalists, is the eagerness to find, and thus depend on, more principles, rules, and laws to live by. In New Testament Greek, the same word is used for principle, rule and law. Whereas those who believe in too few to no laws are called antinomial, we could just as easily say that those Christians who wish to find an absolute law in every scripture verse are hypernomial--they are overzealous to live by a law.

Being hypernomial does not recognize the complicated relationship that exists between the Christian and the keeping of the law. On one hand, Jesus says that not a jot or title of the law shall fade while there is this present earth. On the other hand we see that the law condemns us and makes us aware of our sin and need for God. And on a third hand, we see a reduction in the hold that the law has on the growing Christian. The reason for this last assertion is that the work of the Spirit in our lives takes the place of the written law (Jeremiah 31:31ff and I Timothy 1:9) and so to continue to rely on the law is to rely on the flesh rather than the Spirit (Paul's letter to the Galations).

But there is another problem with too much zeal for the law or zeal for too many laws; after a certain threshold is reached, dependence on the law turns us inward. And the more inward we become, the more vigilant we become about our inward spiritual state. The more vigilant we become about ourselves, the less love we have for our neighbor and thus the more we break the law that requires that we practice a self-forgetting love modeled by Christ. Frederick Dale Bruner makes a similar point about those in the Charismatic Movement who put conditions on receiving the Spirit in full in his book, A Theology Of The Holy Spirit (see page 239). In fact, the more vigilant we become about ourselves, the more prone we are to be agitated by the outside world and thus the more likely we are to ignore it so as not to miss an important detail brought to our attention by the multiplicity of laws we are trying to keep.

This relationship between law and being self and inward directed works well for the traditional relationship between the Church and those with power and wealth. For the Left has long noted that the Church is just one of many institutions of indoctrination for the maintenance of the status quo. And it seems that the Conservative Church is doing all it can to prove the Left right. Along with the Church's reluctance, especially the Conservative Church, to upset the status quo by preaching repentance to those with power and wealth, this unnecessary Old Testament way of multiplying laws makes paying attention to public sins that must be confronted an unnecessary luxury, if not impossible, for the conscientious Christian.

For a different reason, the individual Christian and those in leadership commit the "crime of silence", as would be described by the Russell Tribunals of the past and present. The silence is in the face of the gross public immorality practiced by those with power and wealth and by those with authority in either the private or public sectors. Here we are not talking about a Clinton type of immorality where we saw a public figure commit a private sin. Rather, we are talking about public sins such as waging immoral wars for profit and prestige. Whereas the Conservative Church seems to even delight in confronting sexual immorality, whether private or public, it flees from commenting on immoral wars, immoral and corrupt political and economic systems, and unjust laws that hurt the weak.

Of course, Conservative Church leaders who are reluctant to confront those with power and wealth about their public sins fall back on Biblical passages such as the 13th chapter of Romans which says that we should honor and obey all who are in authority to rationalize their silence. And yet, these same leaders, who were disturbed by Martin Luther King's use of civil disobedience for the sake of others are remarkably silent when it comes to condemning our nation's founding fathers who violently rebelled for selfish reasons. We could ask such Conservative Christian leaders if those Germans who resisted Hitler and his Nazi government on their own and without the help of a foreign government were violating what was commanded in Romans 13.

It is not that Conservative Christian leaders have no merit in confronting the personal sins of individuals. There is much heartbreak that follows many of the personal sins we take for granted. It is their reluctance to speak out publicly against the sins of those with power and wealth that is the issue here. If Bertrand Russell was correct in saying silence is a crime, then the Conservative Christian Church, because of its silence, should be on Interpol's 10 most wanted list. For whether it is the oppression and theft that is a natural part of today's Capitalism, the assumption to wage war and murder with impunity made by the West including Israel, or the destruction of the environment, the Conservative Christian Church has washed its hands of any responsibility to preach repentance to the perpetrators. And they often do this in the name of submission to authority or following "honorable" ideals such as patriotism.

We started with an example of how one conservative pastor, who definitely does not stand alone, who is piling law after law on people making it difficult for them to pay necessary attention to the outside world. Again, such pastors have significant truths to teach us. But they also have powerful lessons to learn as well. For we see in Isaiah chapters 58 and 59, that "lawful" worship is sometimes rejected by God especially when his people neglect those in need and allow justice to go by the wayside and truth to fall in the streets. Such negligence can never be redeemed by practicing "good form" in worship. For when this occurs, there is only one way to salvation, as Isaiah put it, or to know God, as Jeremiah put it in Jeremiah 22. That is, while believing in Christ for salvation, one must take up the cause of those who suffer from neglect and/or oppression.

Some might confuse what was just written as a gospel of works. That because we are saved by "faith alone," the above statements are not only wrong, they are dangerous. And yet, the same Christians who would make these criticisms would have no trouble telling young Christians that they must abandon serious personal sins such as sexual immorality to prove that their faith is real. Consider then what Jesus said in the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus invited those who selflessly helped those in need, those whom Jesus called the "least of these," into His heavenly dwelling while those who neglected those in need were rejected.

At this point we should also note what it means to help or even stand with the least of these. It certainly includes personal charity. But, as Martin Luther King pointed out, it also includes changing those systems that create the need in the first place. As Bonhoeffer lived and pointed out, there are at least three ways by which this can done. One can challenge the state regarding its policies. One can stand with those who are suffering. And one can "put a spoke in the wheel" of the system that so persecutes the vulnerable. It is time that the Conservative Christian Church carefully consider both the Biblical examples of and call to helping those who suffer from neglect and/or oppression as well as the examples and words of those from the Church. To live too focussed on oneself, as much as the Conservative Church encourages its members to do, is not only to miss the chance to relieve others of their suffering, it could endanger one's own future as well.


Anonymous said...

it's nice to hear someone voice some of the same concerns I have. if rules could have saved people in the first place, then nobody would need Jesus

Iambic Admonit said...

Thank you very much for this post. I am always in awe of your deep concern for other people, especially for the most disadvantaged. Thank you for your tireless work to make people's lives better.

I agree that our church as a body suffers from a significant lack of cultural engagement: both in active social justice and in knowledge and creation of works of art and intellect.

I hadn't thought of any of this as being tied to a kind of legalism. You write that "the most troublesome problem with my minister's approach, and he is not alone amongst Fundamentalists, is the eagerness to find, and thus depend on, more principles, rules, and laws to live by." Really? I hadn't noticed that at all. In fact, our Pastor is very careful to preach against legalism quite frequently. Perhaps there are individuals and families within the church who have chosen to hedge themselves around with rules to keep themselves "safe" from the world; I don't know, and that would be a conversation to take up with them one by one.

But I do think that you have hit on a very deeply-rooted part of our tradition: the desire to "keep oneself from being polluted by the world" as opposed to any meaningful engagement with the world. I think you are right there. Of course, keeping oneself pure is very, very important. Each individual Christian needs to determine what kinds of cultural engagement might be fatally damaging to his or her personal pursuit of sanctity: If someone is terribly tempted by alcohol, for example, he would not be the best person to start an outreach to the local bar scene. Someone who becomes tempted by visual depictions of sex or violence should probably not take on a job as a film reviewer of R-rated movies. And so forth. This principle holds true even in less extreme circumstances. There are times that we may need to distance ourselves from friends, co-workers, material products, or venues that have a detrimental effect on our pursuit of holiness.

Iambic Admonit said...

(continuing)...Yet I understand your point, too. Basically, differences on this come down to priorities: Which is more important, personal holiness or humanitarian outreach? Put like that, the answer seems obvious: how can somebody be holy if s/he doesn't care about others? But in everyday life, it is not that simple. Most days, personal holiness consists in such mundane decisions as getting out of bed to make the spouse's lunch, rather than lying in lazily, rather than answering questions like, "Today, will I put my life on the line to stop genocide in Syria?" Most of the time, we are just trying to get our jobs done and stay healthy and not get caught up in chains of circumstance that could led us down a path into corruption or infidelity, rather than actually making a big difference in the world. Those who can rise above the daily grind to help others are truly heroic.

At the same time, I do want to defend our church even in the very areas you've condemned it. There are people who are engaged in social justice. The 3 or 4 individual or families in our church who might be considered wealthy (or even upper-middle-class) are doing a lot to help others. These richest families are among the most involved in giving time and/or money to organizations such as the Allentown Rescue Center, the Care Net crisis pregnancy center, the El Systema music program, and so forth. These few are doing helping organizations that make real social change, one life at a time.

Others among us who do not have wealth are finding other ways to help. The Players of the Stage theatre company has raised over $10,000 for the Allentown Rescue Mission many years in a row, for instance.

Finally (to wrap up this huge comment!), here is an area that you and I have not discussed very often. I write it here not because I want to undermine the importance of your post (and I know that you wrote it somewhat in solidarity with my critique of the church's lack of engagement with the arts, for which I thank you), but because we rarely get to talk about this in person, and I think better when I write than when I talk. Here it is.

Iambic Admonit said...

(continuing) ...
You write: “For whether it is the oppression and theft that is a natural part of today's Capitalism, the assumption to wage war and murder with impunity made by the West including Israel, or the destruction of the environment, the Conservative Christian Church has washed its hands of any responsibility to preach repentance to the perpetrators.”

What's going on here is not that the Conservative Christian Church is failing to address injustices; it is that our particular Conservative Christian Church has a different perspective than you do on what counts as an injustice. Let's go through some of them.

You believe that oppression and theft are a natural part of today's Capitalism. Many members and leaders of our church believe that Capitalism is a strong, healthy, fair market system with roots in the early Protestant work ethic. Therefore, they would not protest Capitalism, but would merely point out that Christians should not abuse the system, but should avoid materialism and should aid the poor.

You believe that there is an “assumption to wage war and murder with impunity made by the West including Israel.” Many of the members and leaders of our church believe that most (perhaps all) of the recent and current wars in which the U.S. is engaged are just wars. They based their beliefs on, among others, Augustine's just war theory, in which he stated that war can actually be an act of love towards a tyrant or aggressive nation who, if not stopped, would heap more sins on his/its own head, thus gaining more judgment for itself. We should stop them, he believed, to keep them from sinning more. Thus, war is an act of love. I imagine that many members of our church, if asked, would say that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were waged to prevent attacks against the U.S. (terrorist attacks being classified as sin), to prevent dictators from oppressing their people (such oppression being sin), or similar reasons. Thus our church is not failing to act against an injustice: rather, our church has sent out several of its own people to fight in these very wars—which is, according to their value system, one of the greatest acts of social justice.

You believe that “the destruction of the environment” is evidence that our church has failed to “ preach repentance to the perpetrators.” But our church believes that the destruction of the environment is not as serious a problem as the murder of unborn children, for example, and thus focuses its energies on the more important problems.

You see what I mean? What do you think?

Curt Day said...

To Young Iambit,
Actually, my criticisms of the church's position, and this points more to the conservative church as a whole, is that these "different" perspectives come not just from different perceptions, but different allegiances and priorities. To note this, one only needs to apply the principle of universality which says what is wrong for the other to do is wrong for oneself to do and what is right for oneself to do is right for the other to do. Of course this principle is practiced by those who do not assume a superior status and right to rule over others.

So while we justified the war in Afghanistan because of the 9-11 attacks, would Iraq have the right to attack us because hundreds of thousands of their children died because of the UN sanctions we pushed through and enforced prior to 2003? Do the Palestinians have the right to attack Israeli cities because Israel constantly attacks Palestinian civilians? Did Nicaragua and Cuba have the right to attack America because America harbored terrorists who bombed their airplanes? Did Cuba have the right to attack America between 1959 and 1962 when America constantly attacked civilian targets, such as agricultural centers and even manufacturing plants?

Curt Day said...

And if we had the right to invade Iraq because we claimed that they were a "gathering storm," does Iran have the right to attack either Israel or the U.S. because for the past 7 to 8 years, we have been threatening military action against them, including the possible use of nuclear weapons, simply because Iran is progressing in its development of nuclear energy according to the NPT? Realize that none of our intelligence reporting mechanism have verified that Iran is producing highly enriched uranium (HEU). All we know is that they are producing LEU, which cannot be use to create a nuclear bomb.

Should we go into other history such as why we use to sponsor and even treat Bin Ladin and Saddamn Hussein as friends and allies because of whom they were fighting? Their tactics were just the same as when we condemned them but it was their targets determined whether or not we regarded them as defenders of freedom or monsters. We supported Bin Ladin and others when they used terrorist tactics against Afghan civilians when the Soviets were there. And we supported Saddamn Hussein and supplied him with materials for WMDs, some of which he used on his own population, as long as he caused problems for Iran. But once Saddamn attacked our rich friends in Kuwait over borders that were arbitrarily drawn by the British a long time ago, we then called him a "Hitler."

And speaking of Hitler, did you know that the Nuremberg principles condemned preventive war as the Nazis tried to use it as a defense for their genocide the Jews in Eastern Europe. Our invasion of Iraq in 2003 had already been condemned by the same principles that condemned many Nazi leaders to death.

We could also cite our participation in the Iranian coup in '53, Guatemala in '54, Chile in '73, and our terrorist war on Nicaragua in the '80s as totally unjustified attacks and wars, even by Augustine's standards.

Curt Day said...

See, the principle of universality is based on an equality between nations rather than privileged status based on hierarchy. The principle of universality is also based on the Scriptures and you will see parts of it in Romans 2 as it is applied to the individual.

And despite all of this evidence, which did not include our actions in Vietnam where we violated the Geneva Accord that called on the people of S. Vietnam to vote on reunion with the North, there is no questioning of the American authorities and the use of the military.

But let's ask some more questions. Did other nations have the right to attack us during our any part of our history up to the 1960s because of our ethnic cleansing of the American Indians and our brutal enslavement of Blacks both before the Civil War and after?

My friend, I have only touched a small part of America's unprincipled and unjustified use of its military and other resources. Since after WWII, the U.S. has attacked, in one way or another, over 50 nations with over 30 of them practicing or trying to establish democracy. And where we have tried to overthrow democracy, we have replaced the gov'ts with dictators--Iran' in 53, Guatemala in '54, Greece in '67, and Chile in '73 just for samplers.

But, to be so detailed would offend those who blindly cling to patriotism as they cling to the Bible showing that they use the Bible to elevate their own country over others.

IN short, I don't think the difference in opinion between those of us on the Left and the American Conservative Christian church is due to a difference in perception of facts. Rather, there is something afoot here that is being denied.

Curt Day said...

To Young Iambit,
Now I can address some other concerns you had. There are two ways to show charity. One is to show it on a personal level as you have aptly described others as already doing. I agree with that point and applaud those who show such kindness.

But another way to show charity is to demand that the systems that create the need for charity change. Here, we are expressing the concern that the gov't that is elected to represent us does so righteously and when they don't, we will confront them righteously.

The same applies to the economic system. When the economic system causes injustice, then it is our duty to call those who run the system to repentance.

Of course there is a price to taking stands against the system. The system can turn and persecute you if you speak against it or withhold what is necessary to live if you don't contribute to it.

Showing personal charity is important. But are we not sabotaging our personal charity when we support unjust systems that creates the needs we are battling with personal charity?

If the Church is going to adequately represent Christ to the 21st century world, it is going to have to stand up to oppressive systems and call those who maintain such systems to repentance. Just as when the Church does not oppose individuals who commit gross sins can cause people to blaspheme God (Romans 2), how much more does that apply when the Church does not oppose systems that cause far more harm than individuals do.

We should only gaze on the picture that Revelation 18 paints of those in gov't and business who work their jobs to their own benefit without concern for others here.

Anonymous said...

Iambic Admonit writes that:

"You write that "the most troublesome problem with my minister's approach, and he is not alone amongst Fundamentalists, is the eagerness to find, and thus depend on, more principles, rules, and laws to live by." Really? I hadn't noticed that at all. In fact, our Pastor is very careful to preach against legalism quite frequently."

I think it is quite possible to preach strongly against something while yourself committing the very thing you condemn so vehemently. One needs look no further than the catholic priest scandals to realize this. Perhaps the pastor "doth protest too much".

Curt Day said...

To my Anonymous Friend,

But we also have to realize that preaching strongly against something does not imply one is doing what they are preaching against. The scandal of the Catholic Church simply gives evidence that that is a possibility.

My complaint here is not against the behavior of the minister. There are some things he has done which provide a model for all to follow.

My complaints consist of trying to find rules that are not there, depending so much on rules that we no longer depend on the Spirit who is given with faith in Christ, and so overemphasizing personal sins that people feel excused to ignore sins of the society or of the political economic system. We need to preach against both the sins of the individual and the sins of the political-economic system that we support with our activities and whose benefits we enjoy.

Curt Day said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curt Day said...

To my anonymous friend,

I would also add that the post is not meant to be so focussed on one person as much as point out that this is a common practice amongst American conservative Christians.