Monday, February 23, 2009

War and Peace in Revelation - A friend's post

I want to call your attention to an excellent post by Mason over at the New Ways Forward blog. He has done a great job of pointing out why, despite the violent language of Revelation, it is not justifying or encouraging violence on the part of believers. He points out that the violence in Revelation is all done either by the evil powers, the Beast, etc., or else by God in effecting justice on those who oppose him. . .and NEVER by the people of God.

Right judgment and wrath for wrongdoing is only to be placed in the hands of God. A Christian doctrine of nonviolence is based not on the idea that evil is really not such a big deal, so violence is an overreaction, but rather on the fact that evil is an incredibly big deal and that fallen humanity simply can not use violence and justice together without our sinful natures twisting the violence into injustice, vengeance, and in doing so pushing along the endless spiral of violence.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A New and Different New Testament Translation

I'd like to take a sidebar here to introduce you to a new-to-the-web translation of the New Testament. The Pioneers' New Testament is a wholly original translation from the Greek by my Mom, who studied Greek in college and had planned to work for Wycliffe before a variety of life's circumstances changed the trajectory.

Mom's translation has appealed to some people who aren't familiar with "Christianese" precisely because she's avoided some of the common buzzwords that "everybody knows" who's grown up in the church. At times I find the language a little more folksy than I would have chosen myself, but the value there may be that it forces you to think of the original writers as real people instead of exalted demigods as they are sometimes perceived.

The translation particularly excels at highlighting a few concepts that are not visible in most English translations due to limitations on our language and usage. Among other things:
  • It highlights the difference between singular and plural "you," a concept that matters a great deal if you realize Christianity was always intended to be a team sport rather than a lone-ranger business;
  • It breaks apart the two different Greek words we usually translate as "sin," "hamartia" (which Mom renders as "shortcomings"), and "paraptoma" (which she translates as "deliberate transgression")
  • It designates in capitals the places in the gospels where Jesus used the Greek "ego emi"--equivalent to the "I AM" of the burning bush--to help us understand Jesus' nonstandard usage and what it may mean Christologically.
Anyway, I encourage you to check it out at

Monday, February 16, 2009

War and Peace - Part 8 - Words from a 20th-Century Prophet

In June of 1984, while I was en route to a two-year assignment at a mission hospital in Shirati, Tanzania, I attended the Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg, France. There, in front of an audience of about ten thousand Mennonites from around the world, author and professor Ron Sider delivered the most compelling address I have heard anywhere. Sider is, of course, best known for his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, as well as his role as founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action. But it's his 1984 address on Christian peacemaking that I will always remember. The full text is here, at the site of Christian Peacemaker Teams, an organization that formed out of Ron's call. I encourage you to check out the site in further detail if you dare. . .I want to share a few excerpts from that speech.

Sider was addressing a Mennonite audience, obviously, and I doubt anyone reading this blog is unaware that Mennonites have a tradition of nonviolence and nonparticipation in the military that extends back over the entire 450-plus years of the movement. He suggested that the times in which we were living (the US-Soviet arms race was in full swing, and the US was intervening actively in conflicts around the world), were times in which the Mennonite peace witness was particularly relevant:

Our 450 years of commitment to Jesus' love for enemies finds its kairos in these two terrifying decades (the last 2 decades of the 20th century). This could be our finest hour. Never has the world needed our message more. Never has it been more open. Now is the time to risk everything for our belief that Jesus is the way of peace. If we still believe it, now is the time to live what we have spoken.

To rise to this challenge of our Lord and history, we need to do three things: we need to reject the ways we have misunderstood or weakened Jesus' call to be peacemakers; we need to embrace the full biblical understanding of shalom; and we need to prepare to die by the thousands.
. .

Sider challenged Mennonites' willingness to basically sit back in their conscientious objector status without engaging the wider world in peacemaking. He suggested that Christian isolationism was not an acceptable option:

. . .The most famous advocate of pacifism in our time, Mahatma Gandhi, once said that if the only two choices are to kill or stand quietly by doing nothing while the weak are oppressed and killed, then, of course, we must kill. I agree.

But there is always a third option. We can always prayerfully and nonviolently place ourselves between the weak and the violent, between the oppressed and the oppressor. Do we have the courage to move from the backlines of isolationist pacifism to the frontlines of nonviolent peacemaking?

He went on to describe the way in which Mennonites in particular had shirked their duties by basically living in our contented pacifism without seriously engaging questions of injustice that lead to violence in our world, and followed that challenge with an overview of Jesus' active but nonviolent challenge to the status quo in his time. He laid out the case for Christians as peacemakers, drawing directly from the Biblical accounts of Jesus' life and teachings, and deriving from Jesus' own sacrifice to bring peace between humanity and God. Then he got personal and called us to engage the world in a new effort to represent God's shalom to humanity.

But to do that , we must not only abandon mistaken ideas and embrace the full biblical conception of shalom. One more thing is needed. We must take up our cross and follow Him to Golgotha. We must prepare to die by the thousands.

Those who have believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die. Proudly, courageously, they gave their lives. Again and again, they sacrificed bright futures to the tragic illusion that one more righteous crusade would bring peace in their time. For their loved ones, for justice, and for peace, they have laid down their lives by the millions.

Why do we pacifists think that our way--Jesus' way--to peace will be less costly? Unless we Mennonites and Brethren in Christ are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic, vigorous new exploits for peace and justice, we should sadly confess that we really never meant what we said. We did, of course, in earlier times. In previous centuries, we died for our convictions. But today we have grown soft and comfortable. We cling to our affluence and our respectability.

Unless comfortable North American and European Mennonites and Brethren in Christ are prepared to risk injury and death in nonviolent opposition to the injustice our societies foster and assist in Central America, the Philippines, and South Africa, we dare never whisper another word about pacifism to our sisters and brothers in those desperate lands. Unless we are ready to die developing new nonviolent attempts to reduce international conflict, we should confess that we never really meant the cross was an alternative to the sword. . .Making peace is as costly as waging war. Unless we are prepared to pay the cost of peacemaking, we have no right to claim the label or preach the message.

Sider then proposed that the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches lay the groundwork for a 100,000-strong "nonviolent peacekeeping force" ready to interpose itself in prayer and witness--ready to die if necessary--between warring factions. He suggested a "force" that was not merely going out and holding candlelight vigils in front of military bases, but rather trained in diplomacy, history, politics, etc., and deeply involved in (and supported by) intercessory prayer.

Our world needs that alternative. Now. But the world will be able to listen to our words only if large numbers of us live out the words we speak. Our best sons and daughters, our leaders and all our people must be ready to die. The cross comes before the resurrection.

There is finally only one question: Do we believe Jesus enough to pay the price of following him? Do you? Do I?

Friday, February 13, 2009

War and Peace - Part 7 - Hippolytus

A much briefer statement on Christians participating in the military comes from the third-century bishop Hippolytus. As with Tertullian in my previous post, I must caution that no reasonable person would take Hippolytus' writings as authoritative at the level of Scripture, and there are plenty of instances within his writings (nude baptism, for one) that we clearly don't care to emulate today. That said, the Apostolic Tradition ascribed to Hippolytus provides us with another insight into the pre-Nicene perspective of the church. As with Tertullian, I have yet to find a contemporary source (any pre-Nicene source) who made any effort at all to refute the proscription on soldiers. This leads me to suspect that, whatever variations there may have been in practice, there was no serious contention that Hippolytus and Tertullian were wrong in their assertions.

Herewith, then, I excerpt from Hippolytus' Apostolic Tradition, a section of the regulations on who may be accepted for baptism:

A soldier in command must be told not to kill people; if he is ordered so to do, he shall not carry it out. Nor should he take the oath. If he will not agree, he should be rejected.

Anyone who has the power of the sword, or who is a civil magistrate wearing the purple, should desist, or
he should be rejected.

If a catechumen or a believer wishes to become a soldier they should be rejected, for they have despised God.

(These quotes are taken from page 100 of the Google Books online edition of On the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus by Alistair Stewart-Sykes. Full source here)

There is another document, sometimes ascribed to Hippolytus, that is all the more blunt. Most historians I've come across in my search suggest that the so-called "Canons of Hippolytus" (also known as the Canons of the Church at Alexandria) are actually later than he, but still pre-Nicene. I cannot find the full text though the internet is loaded with identical quotes of the headings of the canons. They all agree that Canon 14 states that a Nazarene (that document's term for a Christian) "may not become a soldier except by order." I shall be indebted if anyone can come up with a full-text resource for these canons as I cannot find one. The closest I can come is a partial text in C. John Cadoux "The Early Christian Attitude to War" (full text here) in which he reproduces partial translations of the Canons along with two parallel documents (page 122 in the PDF edition). Rather than reproduce the variations in readings here, I refer you to the entire discussion (pages 119-128 in the PDF edition), which essentially says that soldiers were to be refused baptism unless they renounced their office, or at least refrained from shedding blood; and that no believer should voluntarily become a soldier.

Incidentally, the entire Cadoux text is worth further reading for those who would like to go into this subject in depth.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

War and Peace - Part 6 - Tertullian

I want to present to you some very interesting writings by some of the church fathers regarding participation in the military. In doing so I am not claiming that the early church was monolithic in its stand against the use of violence, for if it were, the writers I'm about to cite might not have had to make their arguments at all. There have been at least some historical accounts of Christian soldiers during the first 2-3 centuries of the church--many (but not all) martyrs. Nevertheless I think the Christian-soldier apologists fail to appropriately reconcile the fact that, while some pre-Constantine church fathers are explicit in their opposition to war, and others may seem to acknowledge Christian soldiers as a reality, I have yet to see a single pre-fourth-century Christian writer who defended or advocated military service by the believer. An argument that military service may have been tolerated is not the same thing at all as claiming that it was encouraged.

A point of clarification before I proceed: I appeal to these writers, not because I suggest that they have Biblical or "inspired" authority, but rather as evidence of teaching within the early church, close to the time of Jesus. There is plenty within the writings of the very authors I quote, that I would consider quite weird (for example, the descriptions of pennance and preparation for baptism). Their testimony, however, is still compelling.

Tertullian (around 160-220 AD) was an early and prolific apologist for Christianity, hailing from Carthage. He had some interesting things to say about the use of the sword, which I offer below. These quotes are taken from the compilation "Latin Christianity: It's Founder - Tertullian" by Philip Schaff. The complete online text is available at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. In each passage I have put the quote in green with added emphasis to key phrases in red.

(In answer to the accusation that Christians are the enemy of the state) If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies, as I have remarked above, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as bad ourselves: who can suffer injury at our hands?
(and later in the same passage)
For what wars should we not be fit, not eager, even with unequal forces, we who so willingly yield ourselves to the sword, if in our religion it were not counted better to be slain than to slay? Apologia, ch. 37

(Speaking of Jesus) He to whom, had He willed it, legions of angels would at one word have presented themselves from the heavens, approved not the avenging sword of even one disciple. The patience of the Lord was wounded in (the wound of) Malchus. And so, too, He cursed for the time to come the works of the sword; and, by the restoration of health, made satisfaction to him whom Himself had not hurt, through Patience, the mother of Mercy." De Patientia (On Patience), Ch. 3

And probably the most comprehensive:

To begin with the real ground of the military crown, I think we must first inquire whether warfare is proper at all for Christians. What sense is there in discussing the merely accidental, when that on which it rests is to be condemned? Do we believe it lawful for a human oath to be superadded to one divine, for a man to come under promise to another master after Christ, and to abjure father, mother, and all nearest kinsfolk, whom even the law has commanded us to honour and love next to God Himself, to whom the gospel, too, holding them only of less account than Christ, has in like manner rendered honour? Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs? Shall he, forsooth, either keep watch-service for others more than for Christ, or shall he do it on the Lord’s day, when he does not even do it for Christ Himself? And shall he keep guard before the temples which he has renounced? And shall he take a meal where the apostle has forbidden him? And shall he diligently protect by night those whom in the day-time he has put to flight by his exorcisms, leaning and resting on the spear the while with which Christ’s side was pierced? Shall he carry a flag, too, hostile to Christ? And shall he ask a watchword from the emperor who has already received one from God? Shall he be disturbed in death by the trumpet of the trumpeter, who expects to be aroused by the angel’s trump? And shall the Christian be burned according to camp rule, when he was not permitted to burn incense to an idol, when to him Christ remitted the punishment of fire? Then how many other offences there are involved in the performances of camp offices, which we must hold to involve a transgression of God’s law, you may see by a slight survey. The very carrying of the name over from the camp of light to the camp of darkness is a violation of it. Of course, if faith comes later, and finds any preoccupied with military service, their case is different, as in the instance of those whom John used to receive for baptism, and of those most faithful centurions, I mean the centurion whom Christ approves, and the centurion whom Peter instructs; yet, at the same time, when a man has become a believer, and faith has been sealed, there must be either an immediate abandonment of it, which has been the course with many; or all sorts of quibbling will have to be resorted to in order to avoid offending God, and that is not allowed even outside of military service; or, last of all, for God the fate must be endured which a citizen-faith has been no less ready to accept. Neither does military service hold out escape from punishment of sins, or exemption from martyrdom. Nowhere does the Christian change his character. De Corona Militis (on the Military Crown), ch. 13

There is no question, in the broader context of De Idolatria and De Corona Militis, that one of Tertullian's major objections to military service was the frank idolatry that came with the territory. This is particularly clear in the last passage I quoted above. To argue, however, that idolatry was the only reason Tertullian had an issue with military service is to go against the plain language of his argument. He is abundantly clear that the use of the sword is contrary to the character expected of the Christian, and that trying to justify otherwise-sinful behavior because of the military command is "quibbling."

It is important to acknowledge here that Tertullian is not making any argument as to whether or not the state should have armies, or whether it should use them. He is merely arguing (but quite vehemently) that the follower of Jesus has no business taking part in this activity of the state. I suggest his argument still holds.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Homosexuality - It's really about which kingdom you're in!

So far, most of my posts have addressed areas that cause me concern within that part of Christianity that would tend to self-identify as "conservative." In fact the casual reader could be forgiven for pretty quickly lumping me in with a "liberal" stream of thought. I'm about to change that. A responsible reading of the Christian scriptures according to the "Word of God" hermaneutic that I advocate, will come up with plenty to challenge on the self-styled "left" side of the spectrum as well.

A major battle in the American culture wars today is the issue of homosexuality. (I must stress at this juncture that I don't think the various gay-rights issues should be as high on the radar screen of the church as they are. It ought not to be the priority it has become. Nevertheless, since the church left and right has taken its cues from the surrounding culture and MADE it an issue, the debate rages on, and it is for this reason I'm addressing it at all).

Like most such issues, the battle seems to have invaded the church along largely partisan lines, with each "wing" assuming the position of its secular compatriots, and then hitting up the Biblical text for support to the position already decided. Though this is a vast oversimplification, the conventional territory for Christians seems to have broken down to three main perspectives:
  1. "Conservatives" say homosexuality is an abomination before God. They cite various texts, notably Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26-27, as clearly calling homosexuality outside the pale. They then proceed to try to force secular society to hew to their religiously-defined sense of right and wrong through laws, censure and the rest.
  2. "Progressives" or "Liberals" say that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, and that what's more, he taught a love of all people that clearly extended to "sinners," not just those who already follow his decrees. They argue that people who have sexual desire for the same gender are created that way by God, and that the only way we can behave in a loving, Jesus-like manner, is to welcome those with same-sex attraction into fellowship, blessing their union as equivalent to a heterosexual marriage.
  3. A third group wishes the issue would just go away and they wouldn't have to think about it or deal with it. One might surmise they'd appreciate a spiritual equivalent to "don't ask, don't tell" in the church.
Number 3 has no chance of happening, and I'll dismiss it at that. But I submit that numbers 1 and 2 both have elements of truth and elements where they've missed the boat entirely.

Starting (as we always ought) with Jesus, we find he wasn't quite as silent on the issue as the progressives say, or as the conservatives imply by their lack of appeal to his words. While it is true that we have no record of Jesus addressing same-sex relationships directly, he made some very clear statements about marriage and adultery that we must consider. First of all, adultery: Although the word occurs (according to my quick search) 15 times in the four gospels, it is never fully defined. It's clear by Jesus' usage that he's using a working definition that was already extant in the minds of his hearers. The Old Testament, whether law or prophets, gives only a partial definition itself, frequently also just mentioning the word without definition (e.g. Exodus 20:14). However, O.T. passages make it clear that, at the very least, adultery is sexually violating a marriage (Lev. 20:10, Jer. 29:23), and using the services of a prostitute (Jer. 5:7, Ezekiel 23:43-45). Jesus then expands the definition to divorce and remarriage (Matt 5:32, Matt. 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18) and even to lustful thought (Matt. 5:27). But here we're looking at the edges of the definition. If we are remotely honest with each other, we have to confront the reality that the Biblical authors saw no need to fully define the term "adultery," nor its cousin "fornication," for their hearers already knew these words meant "sexual relations outside the confines of marriage." Therefore, what we find in the Scripture is not a comprehensive definition, but rather a clarification and extension of the boundaries.

So we come to the Biblical concept of marriage. Here, Jesus simply quotes and then explains Genesis 2:25 in Matt. 19:4-6 and Mark 10:8-9:

He answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."

Here Jesus clarified what his hearers already would have known, that marriage is God's way of joining a man and a woman. There is no other form of marriage in the church, and God doesn't make two men or two women "one" in a marital way.

So the problem with homosexuality and bisexuality is the same as the problem of cheating on one's wife. They're all adultery. One is not "worse" than the other according to Jesus' words, and when the church gets itself into a lather over homosexuality but ignores divorce in its own ranks, it's playing a selectivity that is not Scripturally countenanced. Straight or gay, adultery is not an acceptable practice for the follower of Jesus.

One more point before I turn to the conservatives. . .the progressive will often protest that some people are simply, naturally attracted to the same sex, that this is a biological fact, and therefore same-sex attraction must be lovingly accepted as acceptable (even holy) practice. There are several fallacies to this argument, but I'll highlight just three:
  1. The argument of a biological basis for same-sex attraction is really a red herring. The entire history of God's call to faithfulness among his people includes myriad examples where God expects us to act contrary to our fallen, earthly-powers-dominated nature. Some people's nature urges them to have multiple straight partners. Others find the urge to couple with the same sex. Still others are attracted by their nature to addiction, to domineering over others, to greed or theft, to deception. We have an old-fashioned term for this. . .the church fathers called it "original sin." Without getting into the theology of the fall, it's clear that Jesus calls us to act contrary to our fallen nature in a wide range of behaviors. To carve out an exception to this pattern in the case of sexual attraction is wholly unjustified.
  2. Since when did loving someone mean unquestioningly blessing whatever actions make them feel fulfilled or satisfied? I can personally testify that some of the most withering criticism I've ever received was justified confrontation of my selfishness or bad behavior by people who loved me absolutely. In the same vein, I love my children totally. But it is precisely because I love them that I cannot simply let them do what I know or believe to be a deeply wrong action. Simply granting them license to do whatever they were inclined to do would be the most unloving thing I could do as a father.
  3. It's not unique to our society, but we have the notions of love and sex hopelessly confused. In entertainment, in people's description of their relationships, in the various messes that people get themselves into over and over, it becomes abundantly clear that too many have bought the lie that if you love somebody, it's inevitably got to be sexual. This is not how God intended sexuality to function, nor love either, for that matter. Love alone is neither a reason nor a pass for sexual activity.
OK, so now that I've criticized the "progressive" point of view, what about the conservatives who, by now, should be cheering me on? Well, conservative Christians seem to have missed an even more fundamental point: Everything I'm talking about here is based on what I believe Jesus' standard is for his followers. Until one accepts the authority of Jesus, the standard doesn't apply--not because the act in question is not ultimately wrong, but because we can't expect those who aren't subject to the King, to live by the King's rules. "The world" (for want of a better term) is living according to the rules of its prince, and the Christ-centered solution to this problem is not to get the powers to change their rules, it is to get the citizens to shift their allegiance. We cannot, and we must not, attempt to accomplish by earthly fiat, what we have failed to accomplish by evangelism. The works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21) are what we can and should expect from those who do not have the Spirit of Christ, and the fruits of the Spirit (v. 22-25) come once a person has been subject to the Spirit, not before.

What this means to me is that believers have got to face the reality of the two kingdoms. We should make no bones about the different life that is expected of citizens of the Kingdom of God, but we have got to get off our high horse about trying to convert the kingdom of this world to good behavior without its citizens first shifting their allegiance to Jesus.

Now, does this mean that someone who's gay "can't be saved" as I know someone will ask me? To this I respond "You are asking the wrong question." Jesus extends his saving invitation to all humanity, and that includes gay humanity. He does, however, demand a different standard of behavior for those who have accepted his lordship. I don't claim to know how this might work out from a timeline point of view. God knows, a lot of us who have joined Jesus' kingdom still have areas where we have failed to fully surrender to his lordship. It is (thankfully) not for us to determine who's "saved" and who's not; however as 1 Corinthians 5 makes clear, it IS the responsibility of the assembled body to confront unrepentant sin among its members. This is something I think the individual body probably has to work out prayerfully, together. It very well may look different in different assemblies, even if all are doing their level best to remain faithful. But I think it is clear that we cannot go to the other extreme and bless these behaviors as appropriate for the faithful.