Saturday, May 24, 2008

'Open Hands' Can Drop Important Things

This post consists of comments on:

An Open-Handed Gospel
We have to decide whether we have a stingy or a generous God.
Richard J. Mouw (Richard J. Mouw is president and professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary.)

Kent will comment in this color bold. The rest is excerpts from this article. You can read the whole thing at and I will say up front that the author says much that is not quoted here. Also, I am not attempting to defend any group of evangelicals, of which group I am not a member. I only want to comment on some of the ideas presented. Away we go.

Many evangelical commentators these days insist that salvation is closely tied to doctrinal clarity. Here, for example, is how one prominent evangelical leader criticized those of us who have endorsed the various "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" documents: "What those signers … are saying is that while they believe the doctrine of justification as articulated by the Reformers is true, they are not willing to say people must believe it to be saved. In other words, they believe people are saved who do not believe the biblical doctrine of justification."

I am passionate in my agreement with Martin Luther on justification by faith alone. But do I believe that a person can be confused about this doctrine and still be saved? Absolutely.

I sympathize with the plea to avoid thinking that everyone who doesn’t understand all of Biblical teaching is headed for hell. My gut instinct is to want to throw the gates of heaven wide open to everyone who wants to come, no matter what they think or do. But my instincts do not count for anything here. There are beliefs, according to the Bible, that we must hold in order to be saved. For example, the Apostle Paul in Romans 10:9 informs us that one belief required for salvation is the “God raised Jesus from the dead.” Many people simply do not believe that, and if they do not, I can offer them no reassurance about salvation.

While it sounds a bit harsh, I don’t make up these rules, I just report them.

And the truth is that we evangelicals often give the impression that we have decided to be a spiritually stingy people. A recent Barna Group survey, for example, offers evidence that many young people in the larger society think of evangelicals primarily as "judgmental" types, hostile toward folks in other religions and mean-spirited in our attitudes about homosexuality. Even many young evangelicals share some of these assessments of the older generation. A leader at an evangelical college said it this way: "A lot of our students worry about typical evangelical attitudes toward people who have different belief systems and lifestyles. It's not that they don't take the Bible's teachings seriously. It's just that they have gotten to know Muslims and gays, and they are embarrassed by the harsh spirit toward such folks that they see in the older generation. If we don't do something about this negative image soon, we could easily lose them for the evangelical cause."

Let’s not worry about Muslims just now. This matter of how Christians (or other people in our society, for that matter) should deal with “gays” is something that some Christian “leaders” have been harping about for some time now. (Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo are worried sick about this very matter.)

Project with me for just a moment. Suppose those who enjoy the sin of having sexual relationships with animals suddenly decided to demand social recognition. (It will happen - it’s just a matter of time.) Suppose if you took your family to Cape Cod, instead of seeing men walking around draped around other men, you saw men (or women) and their “animal partner” of choice, the human now and then kissing or showing signs of affection/perversion to the animal. (I’m not sure how the animals might react, so I won’t explore that!)

Suppose the beastiphiles (yes, I made that one up) were all very sincere. Suppose they believed they were “born that way” and that their actions were something everyone else should “respect.” Suppose most public figures and media outlets began to treat the beastiphiles as a persecuted minority deserving some special legal protection. Suppose the beastiphiles began to demand that their employers cover their “significant animal other” under a healthcare plan. Suppose the beastiphiles began to demand legal recognition for human-beast marraige.

How should a Christian react to all that? Would not a bit of an it’s-time-to-draw-a-line-in-the-sand attitude be justified? The only real difference between this senario and the current matter of “gay” things is that the “gay” propaganda his been force-fed to everyone in almost every venue for many years now. (And anyone who says otherwise simply has an anti-beastiphilia prejudice.)

I will stop there, but you get the idea.

I have spent a lot of time trying to promote convicted civility. I have to confess, however, that I sometimes get a little nervous about that project. It is so easy . . . to err on one side or the other; holding both up simultaneously takes constant effort. And I would hate to have assisted the cause of a freewheeling sense of divine generosity that does not maintain vigilance in protecting and defending the truth of the gospel.

But the effort to keep this marriage together needs to be made. The proper antidote to relativism and universalism is not a retreat into a stingy spirit. We must be clear in telling others about the hope that lies within us, the apostle Peter teaches; but he quickly adds that we must always do so "with gentleness and respect" (1 Pet. 3:15–16).

We need to be careful not to read into “gentleness and respect” things the Biblical writers did not intend. For example, some anti-Christian assertions make the one who makes them worthy of “condemnation” - this according to the Apostle Paul in Romans 3:8. (For other examples, examine the public pronouncements of John the Baptizer.)

Because we live in a culture that itself condemns any view that does not pretend to tolerate every view, almost anything Christians try to say or do is going to be falsely branded as “intolerant” and thus lacking respect. “Respect” has come to mean that we must never seriously critique anyone’s view of anything.

So while some Christians can be overly vitriolic, what we lack more than anything today is a clear statement of truth in a world wedded to relativism. In that context, charges that we lack “gentleness and respect” will often mean that we are stating some truth some members of our culture would rather not hear.

Sometimes, perhaps often times, the problem is not with what we are saying or how we are saying it. The problem is with listener who needs to repent.

[regarding some kind words exchanged between a Jewish rabbi and the king of an Islamic country]

As an evangelical Christian . . . I believe with all my heart that the God I worship, the God of Abraham, looked down on that scene, where a descendent of Isaac gave a blessing to a descendent of Ishmael, and smiled and said, "That's good! That's the way I want things to be!" I'm not entirely clear about how to work this into my theology, I confessed, but I'm willing to live with some mystery in thinking about that encounter.

I find I need to live with some mystery about what God is doing in the Abrahamic religions. At the same time, I cannot fail to proclaim the John 3:16 message that God has sent a Savior, and that those who believe on him will not perish but have everlasting life.

We serve a God whose generous ways with others are beyond our capacity to grasp. But that same generosity has been clearly displayed in the marvelous grace that sent our Savior to Calvary—an abundant grace that is greater than all of our sin. The proclamation of that overwhelming generosity must not be muted, even as we live in the presence of mysteries we cannot comprehend.

There is a pervasive and perverse tendency for those who want to avoid coming to any definite conclusion to hide in “mystery.” In Biblical terminology, what God has revealed is no longer a mystery. There is no “mystery” about “what God is doing in the Abrahamic religions.” He has done and is doing the same thing there as in every other religion. That program is nicely summarized by the Apostle Paul who said (by the way, to a hostile audience whose religious views, Paul had just informed them, were incorrect):

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead." (Act 17:30-31 ESV)

Need I say more?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Unacceptable Costs of 'Social Engineering' Governments

I want to interact here with the article that follows. My comments will look like this and appear throughout the article as needed.

Why We Whisper [Breakpoint by Charles Colson]
The Economic Costs of Sin
May 2, 2008

Imagine the following social experiment: You divide up Americans into two groups. Those who agreed to live by traditional moral values live in certain states. Those who reject traditional values take up residence in other states that would allow them to do whatever they pleased, morally speaking.

I agree with the "spirit" of Colson's thesis. The problems he mentions are real. But I still think that what he and the authors of the book he is recommending miss a key point in this whole matter, as we will see below.

If by “traditional” moral values Chuck means “Christian ethics” then I must agree. All things being equal, keeping the commandments will make life better. Clearly, if we didn’t murder one another, if we didn’t steal from one another, if we didn’t tell damaging lies about others, if we didn’t commit adultery, then life could not help but be better for everyone.

After 20 years, which states would be better off—economically speaking? The traditional values states would be far better off, because the liberal states would be spending $500 billion dollars every year dealing with the economic costs of their moral decisions.

Senator Jim DeMint and David Woodward outline those costs in their book, titled: Why We Whisper: Restoring Our Right to Say It's Wrong. As the authors note, "As elected officials and judges continue to throw traditions overboard from the ship of state," conspicuously absent from the political debate "is the mounting cost in dollars [and] debt."

But, of course, people are not always - or even often - going to live by the moral commandments of the Bible. Chuck wants to analyze the financial cost of failing to do so. While I think this is a worthy project, something very important is assumed in this analysis - and it is something that should not be assumed, but should be challenged.

For example, there is the cost in treating sexually transmitted diseases. Research shows that more than half of all Americans will contract a sexually transmitted disease at some point. The cost: Some $17 billion in higher taxes and health insurance costs every year. And that does not include secondary costs, like treating cervical cancer, infertility, birth defects, and brain damage. And yet, our government does little or nothing to discourage premarital sex.

There are several things here that should be challenged. Not a single tax dollar should be spent treating sexually transmitted diseases. I know taxes are spent on this - but rather than just complaining about it in this way, Christians should be challenging the morality of forcing one citizen to pay for the bad decision of another citizen. As nice as that sounds, it is a version of legalized theft.

And those health insurance costs? That problem could easily be solved if insurance companies were allowed to exclude sexually transmitted diseases from their coverage, or if they were allowed to refuse coverage to people who engage in activities likely to result in such diseases.

Of course, it would be much better if people simply didn’t engage in those activities. But since they do, the next best thing is to allow them to pay for their own moral mistakes, rather than forcing everyone else to pay for their moral mistakes.

And then there are the huge costs of out-of-wedlock childbearing. Welfare costs alone to single-parent families amount to $148 billion per year. We pay indirectly, as well, through costs associated with child abuse—much more common in single-parent homes—and in higher crime rates.

Again, having children outside marriage is a serious problem. And again, part of the problem here is that government actually encourages this activity by paying people, via welfare payments, who engage in this bad activity.

Americans spend billions on abortions—mostly to single women—not counting the expense of treating post-abortion medical and psychological problems.

Once again, this problem could be solved to some extent if our governments ceased all funding of organizations that provide abortions, and if we dealt with those who performed abortions as the criminals that they are.

We also pay huge economic bills associated with pornography and government-sponsored gambling. We pay for the easy availability of divorce and for the choice of many to cohabit instead of marry. In time we will, like Scandinavian countries, be asked to pay the economic costs of destroying traditional marriage.

So our efforts should be directed not just at disseminating good ethics, as important as that is, but in crying “bloody murder” when governments hand out money to people.

As DeMint and Woodward write, the quest for unfettered moral freedom has come at a very steep price—a price we all pay, whether we engage in these behaviors or not. And at the same time as we pay—more and more each year—we are being told we are narrow-minded bigots if we speak out against the destructive behaviors that are causing the increased costs.

I agree that there is an economic price we all now pay for bad behavior on the part of others. But one important mechanism to discourage bad behavior is to STOP PAYING FOR IT. At no point in this article does Colson make this very reasonable demand. Those who do what is right should not be forced to pay the expenses of those who do what is wrong.

The economic costs—not to mention the costs in human suffering—are why you and I need to speak out. We ought to insist that our lawmakers support policies that make good economic sense and relieve human misery. Instead of making biblical arguments, which sadly, most people do not listen to anymore, we ought to make prudential ones: that encouraging destructive behavior is destroying the economic health of our nation. And it is demonstrable.

So, Colson’s argument seems to go, if people will not listen to matters of right and wrong, they might just listen to the matter of what it is costing them. It is a good bet that people who don’t care about murder and adultery won’t be much affected by economic arguments. If you don’t mind destroying your own health by engaging in dangerous sexual activity, why are you going to be concerned about the “economic health of our nation”?

If special-interest groups and liberal lawmakers tell us to pipe down and stop trying to "impose our morality" on everyone else, we need to remind our leaders of that little clause in the Constitution: the one that talks about promoting the general welfare.

That phrase about “promoting the general welfare” occurs in the preamble to our Constitution. That general welfare was supposed to be promoted by the central government exercising only those very limited powers delegated to it by the Constitution.

Paying for abortions, fighting sexually transmitted diseases, payments to unwed mothers, and a host of other such things is not a power granted to the central government by our Constitution. So what we should be complaining about is not that many people are amoral. What we should be complaining about is the fact that our government has spun out of control. In its social engineering efforts, it has encouraged all sorts of bad behavior.

In regard to that bad behavior, Christians should preach repentance to sinners. In regard to policy, Christians should demand that government withdraw from areas where God never authorized it to operate.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Scathing Attacks

In a recent installment (Christian Standard, April 16, 2008) of “And So It Goes” titled “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” Paul S. Williams wrote:

Many of the things on which we differ matter greatly. That is why we express such passion in our rhetoric. I’m good with passion. I just recoil when passion devolves into vitriolic attack. That is when my heart grows heavy and the light in my soul goes dim. That is when I want to say with Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”

I know there are times we all become angry about what another has written. But unless we have additional reason, we have no right to attack the author. After all, that person is a pilgrim on the journey, just like you and me, trying hard to get it right.

I hope we never quit challenging one another’s thoughts. There is no other way to grow. But I also hope we can learn to leave the meanness where it belongs—under the hard and fast control of the Spirit of Christ.

Kent comments:

I agree that we can and should dispense with “meanness.” This word implies nastiness, and a case of the nasties can be, well, nasty.

But I find it interesting that he also rejects “vitriolic” attack. An attack that is vitriolic is scathing. Now, while “scathing” can indicate a harmful attack, whether or not this is a bad thing depends upon exactly what you are attacking. If you attacking a person, that attack is not only un-Christian, it is also illogical, since personal attack is a logical fallacy.

But if you are attacking a faulty, dangerous-to-the-faith position, a scathing attack can be appropriate. If you don’t think so, reconsider some of the things said by the Apostle Paul about false doctrine.

The culture of Christendom is often just “weeniefied” about this matter. We think - for no good reason - that strong attacks are never justified, no matter how ridiculous or even horrible the position we are attacking might be.

There are some views with which we not only can’t, but shouldn’t “get along.” Sometimes even very well-meaning people can very innocently promote very damaging ideas. In cases where those people have an easily-influenced audience, it may be our duty to offer an attack, even a scathing one, of the damaging idea - not the person, but the idea. Some Christian publications promote some very bad ideas. I have even seen a bad idea now and then in the publication for which Paul Williams writes.

We must keep in mind the fact that in our culture, an attack on a person’s ideas will often incorrectly be seen as an attack on the person. That people sometimes make this mistake is no reason not to attack bad ideas - no matter who the author might be.