the idolatry of the cross with the flag

While there may well be a subtle critique going on in the New Testament of the idolatry of the state in light of the gospel, and the kingdom that brings, I think by and large the Christian faith was meant to be planted in a way that transcended any nation or government, internationally, and yet not tied down to any one nation or all of the nations put together, but very much on its own, in our American terms today: independent. The church was to be submissive to rulers and authorities, or at least those making up the church, but only insofar as that submission is faithful to the lordship of Christ. We bow the knee in the end to one Lord, and are submissive to those placed in authority insofar as they remain in their place.

In the beginning America was kind of a breakaway from the old world of church and state, but in another way, not. Yes, many people came here to have religious freedom from the state which imposed on the church much of its will in the old world, in fact we might say all of it. The roots of that is back to the Constantinian shift which began what was called the Holy Roman Empire in which only Christians could serve, everyone else essentially excluded. The Reformation in large part was responsible for this shift, though it was the Anabaptists and Baptists who pressed that. Infant baptism, except for Jews was required in the old world and was part of what it meant to be a member not only of the church, but a citizen of the state. In the complexity of that time, many came over with no axe to grind on that score, but to put their roots into the new world. Many of them were of the Church of England, Anglican, called Episcopalian here. While the new world in theory would hold to religious liberty, it was not practiced until the 1830s except for the Quaker state of Pennsylvania. This was a huge shift from the old world, yet almost the same allegiance of the church to the state remained in place. Of course with all kinds of varying understanding as to what that meant depending on the tradition, but except for the Anabaptists who were surely a relatively small minority (Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, and the like), the state in some measure and degree could be considered Christian.

Fastforward to today. There are many who find no problem at all with pictures of the US flag draped over the cross, maybe with an image of Christ hanging on it. And even for Christians who would be uncomfortable with that, there is little or no hesitation to see the United States in its best version to be a Christian nation. Of course the US always had both believers and nonbelievers in its mix, and while scripture was pointed to as part of its original understanding of what is right and wrong, there was never any pretense on the part of the founding fathers (except for a very few) that the United States was to be a Christian nation, but quite to the contrary. They more or less invoked, or wanted the blessing of the church and of Christianity on and in their endeavor, but this was wholly another experiment entirely, steeped in the Modernist Enlightenment which was still relatively new and fresh at that time.

We have those today on the left and on the right as it’s called, who both make the case more or less of what the United States ought to look like, yes, as a Christian nation. And neither vision is the vision we find in scripture, and specifically in the New Testament in which we read of God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus, and what form that takes through faith and baptism in the church, and instead of what place that has in the world, how the nations and the world should be seen in light of that. One might say the place the state has in the picture in which the gospel and Christ’s kingdom is the main point of it all.

And so the idea of draping a flag over a cross, or for that matter even having the US flag to be understood as basic to the identity of any church, or of course any other national flag for that matter, is idolatry at its core, or at least in danger of bowing the knee in worship to something other than the Lord Jesus. Due respect, honor and submission is one thing. But amalgamation is quite another. Churches, denominations, and individual believers have to make difficult decisions related to this, like whether or not one can be Christian and serve in the military, or in the political arena, and to what extent. But there should never be any question in all of the due submission to the state just who is lord. It is never ever the state, and never the state with the church. Christ is Lord over all, King of kings and Lord of Lords. The gospel is at the heart of our existence as Christ followers, as Christians, whether we recognize that or not. And nothing else can be a part of that.

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working through disagreements

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Philippians 4:2-3

If you think at all, you won’t always agree with others. That is life. It’s not that the others are always wrong and us right, or vice versa. It is simply a case for a host of reasons of us having different opinions and perhaps even convictions on some things.

I think a key for us as Christians is to listen well to each other, really listen. Try to hear what they’re saying in its entirety, and ask questions for further clarification when needed. If we have serious disagreements, we can then express our concerns. But at a certain point in order to maintain the relationship, we have to agree to disagree, and agreeably so, in a way in which we can get along well with the other, and maintain good fellowship together in our Lord.

The key for me from the passage quoted above is the idea of being “of the same mind in the Lord.” It is where we’re united that we need to land on, and we as Christians are one in Christ. And in that union, we’re to find, I take it, something like a consensus in which we find agreement in a relational, functional kind of way, which is willing to set aside whatever disagreement remains for the sake of peace and for the sake of the gospel. And with a dependence on the Lord that he will see us through.

The idea expressed in this passage of a Christian leader mediating is of course of great value, and part of God’s word for us here. God can give that third party wisdom and an objectivity which is not possible for the parties in disagreement.

In the end we all need to work through and learn to live well with our differences because of and through our union with Christ. The gospel being the uniting factor from which we grapple with all the rest. So that even when our disagreements on other matters remain, our unity in Christ and in the gospel helps us to remain united in mind and heart. As we look forward to a better day to come beyond this life in and through Jesus.

a settled trust beyond reason

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3

Life can be a struggle. Ask any homeowner, for example, who is trying to keep up basic repairs. Or concern over a host of other factors. Money is often involved, but other things as well. Priorities, and sometimes dealing with people. One can soon feel overwhelmed by it all.

Then we turn to scripture and read a passage like the one quoted above. In fact a couple years back this passage seemed especially impressed on me.

If there’s one thing I believe in humanly speaking, it’s the importance of reason. Too often people go on their emotions, or impressions, what might seem like the right, or best thing to do. I could wish to be like some who don’t seem to have a care in the world no matter what. Usually I get rid of my cares in a relatively short time, maybe in a day or less, and soon go on to the next care I have to deal with.

Scripture does not tell us to throw our reason away. In fact just to read scripture is in itself an appeal to our reasoning, but that appeal, while not suggesting we leave our reason behind, doesn’t stop there.

We are to employ our human reasoning the best we can, but in the end we’re to rest on God, to trust in him. No matter what we might cover through human investigation and reason, we can’t be foolproof. There will always be something more to know, which we may not uncover until years later, if at all. We do the best we can, but then let it go, and leave it in faith, in God’s hands.

This is a discipline with a much bigger goal in mind than simply succeeding in doing well enough in projects which need to be done, though we certainly want to do our best in them. We want to learn to live in a settled trust in God beyond our own human reasoning, and really all human reasoning. So that we live ultimately in dependence and submission to God. We want to be those who beyond anything else have an unwavering faith and trust in God.

That can be a struggle, since we’re so used to depending on ourselves, or others. But something for us to both aspire to, and grow in, through the normal day to day situations of life which we encounter. In and through Jesus.

the faith required for salvation

Matthew Bates has a most interesting new book out entitled, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. From what I can gather (and I would like to read the book, so far only bits and pieces of it, and this interview), I think Bates is hitting on something which better explains all of scripture and specifically the passages on salvation, than the normal explanations we hear and have grown up with in our evangelical and fundamentalist churches.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t truth in many of our explanations, maybe in all of them, as Bates acknowledges himself. It is more like left to themselves, they’re not enough. As one of my wonderful professors in seminary used to say, Dr. Joe Crawford: Saving faith is always submissive faith. If not submitting to Jesus as Lord, then there’s no salvation, pure and simple. I think that strikes the iron against both easy believism and eternal security as sometimes taught in our churches (see Scot McKnight’s foreword, accessible in the “Look inside,” here).

Faith is not mere intellectual assent, or simply receiving a free gift, although both are part of it. It is more, much more. Even grace, biblically understood, is more than we make it out to be. It involves a free gift to be sure, but also a reciprocation of that gift to the giver, and to others. At least that’s so if what this book argues for it’s original meaning is the case. Such rings true to me.

Of course it is by grace we are saved through faith, not of our works as foundational, so that we certainly can’t boast. But good works not only follow, but seem part and parcel of this gift, nothing less than creation in Christ Jesus (see Ephesians 2:8-10).

Sometimes we need new challenges, some seismic, perhaps even paradigmatic shifts in our thinking. Let it sift us, settle, and shape and change us, if need be. The goal is to be true to the faith as revealed in scripture and the gospel, the good news in and through Jesus.

submitting to the church

the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.

1 Timothy 3

As Protestants we refer to sola-scriptura meaning that we derive our teaching from scripture. I may have personal wishes or even leanings about this or that, which I may believe scripture is not completely clear on. I actually would be considered quite traditional and conservative by most Christians, and certainly by the world. Not that it matters at all what I think as far as Christian teaching is concerned. It does not matter, period.

What does matter is how the Spirit has led the church. And concerning the gospel, even though there are ins and outs of various differences among Christian traditions, in essence it’s the same: the gospel is Jesus and all that surrounds him in his coming, life, death and resurrection, ascension, with the promise of his return.

Together we have to keep returning to scripture to understand afresh this gospel and its application to our present lives and world. Scripture mirrors the depth of life, and while simple enough so that we’re to have a child-like faith in believing, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” it is also hard in some places, and has depths in many others, so that as we return to it again and again, new light will come to us.

But we must ever submit both to the authority of God in scripture, and in the church itself. I submit all of my own thoughts and opinions to that. And will teach only what scripture and the church of which I am a part, teaches. To that we in Jesus are called in our faith, lives and witness.

the great need in the world today (and everyday, forever)

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Romans 1

There is much that’s needed in the world. After all, God put humankind on earth to be stewards of it, caretakers, as well as to enjoy it, and live off of it (Genesis 1-2). There is much that needs to be done for sure, on different levels.

But our greatest need is the gospel, the good news in Jesus. That good news is about our salvation, personally, for sure, but it’s about the salvation and new creation of the entire world, and on every level, the beginning of that to be seen through Jesus in the church, and its completion when Jesus returns and heaven and earth become one in him.

The good news is Jesus himself, in his becoming one of us in the Incarnation, his life and teachings, his death and resurrection, all of this fulfilling God’s call to Israel for the world. His ascension and the oupouring of the Holy Spirit. And the promise of his return. All of that is the good news in Jesus, and to understand it, we have to be reading the Bible from cover to cover. But all we need to enter into it is the faith of a little child. Simply trusting in God’s word to us, that if we believe in Jesus in the sense of submissive trust, we will be saved, and begin to recover our true humanity and calling in him.

Although I made that commitment years ago, I still need that good news in Jesus every day. God’s grace in God’s unfailing love to us in Jesus is present with us always, no matter what we’re facing, no matter what actually happens. Even no matter what we do, but to help us get back on track. The truly one good news that will last forever, in and through Jesus.

who sets the agenda?

Some people are excited over the new president of the United States. Others might be excited about this or that, so that their thoughts and lives end up being preoccupied with that. There are a host of factors which influence what we do, and the bottom line seems to be somehow securing some sort of happiness. Is that wrong? I think not. I believe God created us for a life that is abundant in realizing the fulfillment of our humanity, or what it means to be human. The question ends up being, just who determines that, and why does that matter?

The freedom that seems to be in vogue now is simply to fulfill whatever desires and dreams one has. A self-fulfillment which has nothing to do with any notion of truth, but everything to do with a freedom which is determined simply in how one feels, their desires. And from that people say that what is true for you, might not be true for me, in other words it may not work for me in realizing my self-fulfillment, or simply in letting me be and do what I want.

For us in Jesus there is only one who sets the agenda: God the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit: the Triune God. Jesus is Lord, period. And all other authorities have their authority only under him, under God. What they say, and their values are not determinative for us, even if they might have legitimacy in their place.

The one who sets our agenda is the Lord, King Jesus, by his person, teaching and work, through the gospel, the good news, which really is Jesus, and is actually all throughout the Final/New Testament. That is where we find the truth for life, the true humanity fulfilled in him, and from that, real, neverending freedom. But that freedom is a byproduct. We follow and submit to God in Jesus no matter what. God is the one who sets our agenda.