divisive issues and the Christian witness

The cultural divide in the United States seems to be expanding with little or no hope for any meaningful bridging of the gap. Not that Christians should regard that as a chief concern since our calling is to be a witness of Jesus by the way we live, what we do and say. We live in the present time in a kind of exilic state, citizens of heaven, but “resident aliens” on earth, yet praying and hoping for the good of the nations in which we reside (Jeremiah 29), certainly more than a tall task in some places, yet part of our calling.

Those who say experience should override the intellect, or something of the like are themselves making an intellectual proposition. There ought to be a commitment to a reasoning process which includes civil conversation in debate over the issues. And that means all the issues.

The Christian appeal, as Dallas Willard pointed out somewhere in a much more substantial way is to the intellect. I don’t know how Scripture can have such a central, foundational place in the Christian tradition, and anyone think otherwise. After all it is the written words certainly appealing to us as humans through the intellect. That is, if we take it seriously.

I think today’s climate is toxic, not to mention divisive. Christians need to be present in complete humility, willing to learn, but also stating a case made through a disciplined commitment to the study of Scripture, and of life, which of course would include history and philosophy, and whatever else. We should gently and humbly make our case.

Our primary calling to the point that I would simply call it our calling is to the gospel. We are witnesses of it, either good or bad. Our lives either show or fail to show the light of God in Christ. That is what we ought to be known for. Even as we listen and speak out in testimony to the truth as we understand it, and as it stands in Jesus.

hard topics (and the tongue)

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4

Politics and religion can be quite dicey topics fraught with potential fallout for relationships. The heat can be turned up pretty high when topics surrounding either are being discussed. Discussion and conversation is soon lost into heated argument, if we’re not careful. Perhaps it’s better to avoid such altogether. Probably one of the most helpful attitudes is to acknowledge how much we don’t know, rather than what we think we know.

In Paul’s small but great letter to the Philippians, we find an apt exhortation near its end which can help us in this. First of all, referring to values that were esteemed in the culture of that day, Paul directs the church and by extension us, to ponder what is true, good, beautiful, and praiseworthy. And then he reminds them to live as he did in following Christ. When you consider the letter of Philippians alone, that is indeed a tall order. But one within our grasp to grow into in Christ.

Back to difficult, controversial issues. It might be best to avoid them altogether when we know we might differ with a fellow believer on this or that. It can be good to discuss differences, provided there is a listening ear and openness to learn on both sides. And to those who are not believers, we should major on simply loving, and sharing the good news in Jesus.

Above all, we need to inculcate love between us, especially when what could divide us is simply a few words away. And we can’t take that for granted with anyone. If we do touch on the difficult issues, we need to be quick to draw back and make room for the other person, and their viewpoint. Out of love for them, and for the Lord. All of this in and through Jesus.

keeping the peace

There is much controversy today within Christian circles, I’m thinking of evangelical Christian circles. I’m sure the same is true in other Christian places, but it seems more apparent and pronounced in evangelical places, maybe so for me, since that is where I live.

In the midst of all of this, how do we keep the peace? And what kind of peace is it that we’re trying to keep? Do we let everyone go their separate ways due to irreconcilable differences which seem to strike at the heart of our unity in Christ? Or do we try to mediate, and find common ground? Is there a time to simply agree to disagree and go on?

There are first principles (one might say) in the story* which are essential to the faith. That Jesus is the God-Human who in becoming flesh/human fulfilled God’s calling to Israel for the world in his life, mission, death and resurrection; that this fulfillment in its result continues through his ascension, and the pouring out of the Spirit on the church in mission to the world, all of this is at the heart of the gospel, the good news of King Jesus, which is the heart of Christianity. Of course we need to mention the first and greatest commandment, along with the second like it: to love God with all our being and doing, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is the peace in which we must live.

Naturally there will be concerns that that peace is being undermined, if not immediately lost in Christians taking different views, for example in regard to origins with reference to the Genesis account in scripture. Or with regard to same sex relations. These are two issues especially hot right now, but when they cool down, there will be others to take their place.

It is my contention that Christians need to have the freedom in love to debate these issues among themselves, even vigorously, but when all is said and done, to continue to love one another. Hopefully there is an openness on all sides to learn from each other, without compromising what is essential to the faith. Not easy, and not something we will be able to do on our own. We need God’s help to do this. As we search the scriptures and pray. All of us in Jesus together in this for the world.

*Story meaning the telling or account of something that is true.

winning arguments

There are some people who are quite keen and adept at winning debates. I think I used to try to be that way, and at least I thought it was important to some extent. Now as I get older and reflect over time, I’m beginning to think it’s less important, not that important, maybe not of much importance at all.

I think very few people have been won over, who have lost an argument. Now if it is done clearly in love, with some good give and take on both sides, at least the former being clearly the case, then over time the seeds planted could change one’s heart and mind. But by and large I think the debate mentality can be ego driven so that truth is not really what it’s all about as much as winning a contest. We know one could win a debate and yet not really have the substance of truth on their side.

Paul did debate, a debate that was in-house concerning the one faith. And he won over many Jews as a result. So did Apollos, who was quite adept at this. But I’m wondering more about those outside of the faith. I’m not sure I see any scriptural precedent in which debating such did any good, though I would think it could, depending.

I prefer to think in terms of sharing, as much preferable to debating. In the sharing, there may well end up being elements of debate, as the two share concerning their particular faith (or lack thereof). But by and large, those times would simply be sharing with each other, and in terms of a witness. I share what’s important, essential and central to my life and why, and what difference that makes. And I seek to listen well to someone else do the same. And I let them have the last word, and maybe even let it seem that they have won the debate, while doing the best I can to present the faith, or my faith.

And Peter tells us that we’re to always be ready to give an answer to those who ask us about the hope we have, to do so with gentleness and respect. We witness from the witness of Jesus’ resurrection, our lives being in a long chain of changed lives because of that. And we believe the gospel of Christ is the power of salvation to all who believe. The good news that Jesus is King has a power all its own. Our ability to defend it may do some good, but we have to be careful that we don’t get in the way of a message which has a power all its own, and simply needs to be proclaimed, shared as a witness.

In the end it is God through Jesus by the Spirit who changes hearts and minds. Who keeps us in his love and care, so that we continue to have and be a witness. Even though we may not be able to win a single argument.  God continues to do his good work in the world, even through us in Jesus for the good of the world.

the blogging culture

In Lois Tverberg’s new book, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life, which I look forward (with some fear and trembling as I always do when doing this) to reviewing, she mentions how both the Jews along with Christians are known for vigorous debate among themselves, among the faithful. Hopefully the “friendly fire” doesn’t take out people along the way.

I have blogged since around 2004, having my own blog since late 2005. During that time we’ve seen vigorous and sometimes vociferous bordering or crossing the line into incivility, or lack of Christian love. Oftentimes people are talking past each other. We aren’t listening well to each other, but just trying to get our point across. I’m sure I’ve been more or less guilty of that many times.

On the other hand, Lois Tverberg casts this debate in a positive frame. The faith and how we work it out in life is taken so seriously, that we want to discuss it among ourselves. In that discussion there often is disagreement. Maybe the motivation isn’t always what it ought to be. I have sometimes wanted to escape it, something I was a part of. But much can be gained in this practice, if we learn to listen well to each other. Listening should be our priority. And then maybe sharing our own perspective, or view on a matter.

Some discussions can be quite divisive as we know. That seems all the more so today, though it has likely always been the case. It’s partly the fact that we can now debate across the world or far apart at a moment’s notice.

The past year or so I’ve withdrawn from wanting to get into vigorous debate. A big part of that is that I simply don’t have the resources or time to pursue subjects in depth enough so that I really am able to engage well in any debate, or even discussion. On certain casual contexts of simply sharing our faith and what that means to us, I feel more at home. I frankly don’t care to enter into debates on origins (especially hot now) or end times. And if I do enter into a disputed matter I want to tread softly and while voicing my view, not do so as if it’s the last word. Or as if I am right on everything with nothing either wrong or to be refined. I much prefer to share with others in a way in which we can learn from each other within the wide scope and spacious landscape of the faith.

All that said, I appreciate the good that can be done in such debating if we learn to listen well to each other, and try to understand the other, opposing position well, without casting judgments on it so as to set it aside. At least we should learn to appreciate the other and their position in a matter. We should try to understand why they think as they do. And what we can learn from them in the exchange.

Above all in this, we seek together to better understand God’s revelation and will made known in Jesus. And we do so wanting to reflect well that revelation and indeed live in God’s will, what God wants. If we do that blogging can move from a near curse to indeed being a blessing. Helping us to be a blessing to the world in and through Jesus.

theological squabbles

There are some things worth contending for, and other things not. Of course that doesn’t mean people can’t have a pleasant exchange on a lesser matter, such as whether or not one holds to the teaching of eternal security, or how one might see end time scenarios (I think I hold to a post-tribulation position, but I”m so rusty on all of that, I’m not sure I could engage in a good conversation on it).

At the end of Thomas Aquinas’ life he had a kind of revelatory visitation, or revelation from God which made him think that all the amazing words he had written were of little or no value. Of course that was not the case, but our evaluation of life should change as we grow older and more experienced, hopefully walking faithfully with the Lord, or growing in that, over time.

It isn’t having differences–which is inevitable–that break us, but how we handle that. And learning to sort out what is more important, what matters most. For example while I do have strong thinking against popular eschatological books–on end times–I do believe it is essential to hold in faith that Jesus will return, that God will complete making all things new in him. In so many other matters, I would like to find mediating ground. In fact with any of God’s people, though we may disagree over more serious matters, such as whether a follower of Jesus can fight in a war, or take a life, we still need to appreciate why we hold to our positions, and realize that God in his grace and by the Spirit is at work in all of his people everywhere, to make us more like Jesus.

I don’t look down on those engaged in theological discussion. In fact I think that’s wonderful. Some have a calling to engage and write on those things. It is the manner in which we do it, or decide to abstain, which is important. Do we do so out of love, and a desire to follow Jesus more closely and faithfully? Is it because we want to better understand God’s revelation to us in Jesus found in scripture, and the story we find there?

Avoiding theological squabbles as in trying to win an argument, is part of following Jesus in this life. Even as in love we seek to understand God’s revelation and will in Jesus better, so that we can grow in living that out more fully together in and for the world.

letting the smoke clear

Right now there is a heated debate, or should I say firestorm going on over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. There is a lot of heat I’ve seen in recent days, but little light cast on the subject. I’m convinced that too often people have agendas beyond merely trying to discern truth and error. But let’s face it. There are camps that because of their understanding in their theological paradigm are going quite often to disagree at key points. And some of these camps cast off their opponents as either heretical, or condoning heretics and heresy.

I think people have probably jumped the gun on both sides. Rob Bell’s followers and friends want to defend him and see all the good and nothing but good in the book. Rob Bell’s opponents, including some who have seen him as a heretic prior to this book, seem to be out to pounce on anything and everything which they see as heresy which is just about, or actually is everything. Some insist he’s a universalist (or a Christian universalist, which is different), while others who seem equally as learned insist he’s not.

So we need to let the smoke clear if we’re going to see well at all. I for one am not going to be easily moved from where I stand theologically, even on secondary issues. On many issues, I think we simply can’t know. If they enter the realm of speculation, we need to be clear on that, that our view on something is uncertain and speculation on our part. With our reasons given. It seems to me that much of the book at least in a significant way may fall into that category. He seems to be suggesting possibilities, and then saying that we simply cannot know for sure. That it’s enshrouded in mystery, but we do know, he’s saying, that God is love, and love wins. The kind of love that never coerces, so that as one brother was pointing out, he indeed is not a universalist in the classic sense.

I do believe we must major on what is clear and what we do understand from scripture. Would I want to take a chance for either myself or my loved ones, that there is or may be indeed a second chance after death? No! Of course not! Scripture does not indicate that there is, from what I can tell. And as a sister said to me yesterday, about those who have never heard, the Lord may be saying to us, “What is that concerning what you’re to do? Follow me!” I am convinced God is compassionate to such, and will do what is merciful and just in regard to that and everything else.

After some time then I’ll begin to trust that some light can come out. Having read the book myself, I believe it is well within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. But I’m not convinced at this point that Rob has done justice to what scripture says, though I think he’s addressed issues and questions which people nowadays are asking, so that some good biblical, theological reflection and conversation can follow.

In all of this, we need to show to the world the difference Jesus makes. Even as we disagree, that we indeed do love one another. We also must demonstrate careful thinking, as well. Together, as we seek to follow Jesus in God’s mission in him to the world.

Let me add that these are general thoughts. I know at least one defender of Rob who I understand is defending him in general, without necessarily agreeing on every point. Of course that is the way theology works. We work together on it.

Another late edition. I was influenced as you can see by this post, by Scot McKnight.