World Vision and the Redefinition of Christianity

Yesterday news struck that World Vision, one of the top ten charitable organizations in the world would no longer prohibit the hiring of Christians in open homosexual relationships.

World Vision’s American branch will no longer require its more than 1,100 employees to restrict their sexual activity to marriage between one man and one woman.

Abstinence outside of marriage remains a rule. But a policy change announced Monday [March 24] will now permit gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages to be employed at one of America’s largest Christian charities.

World Vision argues that the decision about whether or not homosexuality is a sin is a theological question and as a parachurch organization they leave open theological questions to be solved by local churches. This news did not go unnoticed.

Russell Moore responded:

At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ. If sexual activity outside of a biblical definition of marriage is morally neutral, then, yes, we should avoid making an issue of it. If, though, what the Bible clearly teaches and what the church has held for 2000 years is true, then refusing to call for repentance is unspeakably cruel and, in fact, devilish.

John Piper posted:

When World Vision says, “We cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue,” here is the side they do, in fact, jump onto: We forbid fornication and adultery as acceptable lifestyles among our employees (which they do), but we will not forbid the regular practice of homosexual intercourse. To presume that this position is not “jumping into the fight on one side or the other” is fanciful.

But worse than fancy, removing homosexual intercourse from its biblical alignment with fornication and adultery (and greed and theft and drunkenness) trivializes its correlation with perdition.

Trevin Wax posting at Gospel Coaltion said:

Sex is our god. Children are our sacrifice.

 

Albert Mohler challenged [perhaps my favorite of all the responses]:

Richard Stearns has every right to try to make his case, but these arguments are pathetically inadequate. Far more than that, his arguments reveal basic issues that every Christian ministry, organization, church, and denomination will have to face — and soon.

The distinction between an “operational arm” of the church and a “theological arm” is a fatal misreading of reality. World Vision claims a Christian identity, claims to serve the kingdom of Christ, and claims a theological rationale for its much-needed ministries to the poor and distressed. It cannot surrender theological responsibility when convenient and then claim a Christian identity and a theological mandate for ministry.

I think there is much that is tragic about this situation. What stands out to me most keenly is that our culture’s interest and preoccupation with sexual identity is causing a subtle redefinition of Christianity.  I agree with Word Vision that human sexuality is not at the core of Christianity, it ought not be a part of their intentionally inclusive statement of faith.  But the question of righteous Christian living in regards to sexual practice has become so decisive that I think many churches and organizations will be tempted to place their understanding of Biblical sexuality at the top of their doctrinal standards.

Hearts of the Scattered

A controversy has emerged in the Evangelical community of Utah.  Shawn McCraney announced on his television show his rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity.

I watched the program and found that Shawn seems to be reacting against Mormonism and Mormon apologetics perhaps more than the orthodox teachings of Christianity.  His arguments are first and foremost a rejection of tri-theism (a belief in three gods) and second a anti-parrallel driven narrative.  Whereas some Mormon apologist are quick to pick up on any parallel from the ancient world as evidence that LDS particulars are justified, Shawn has adopted the inverse argument that any parrallel to anything outside of Christianity proves it must be heretical (This argument is often employed against Christian spiritual disciplines as proof that they are New Age).  What’s even more troubling is that one of his primary sources is a dubiously conspiratorial, Anti-Catholic book called “The Two Babylons”.

I wasn’t so much concerned with his emphasis against the existence of three gods as much as I was by his unwillingness to engage the arguments that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons. Towards the end of the program a caller challenged him with an argument that’s a low entry point into Trinitarianism and he was unwilling to engage the argument.

Shawn has a confrontational style and without a force to oppose I think he loses what makes him interesting to watch. This is not the first, nor I think the last time he will set himself up against the Evangelical community in Utah. I’m sure many Mormons are pleased to see this fracture, proclaiming a pox on both of their houses.  It will be interesting to see how Shawn and Utah Evangelicals interact in the near future. Some responses have already begun to appear.  My guess is that without correction, Shawn will be disavowed by Evangelicals and his teachings declared just as heretical as Mormonism’s.

Three Stages in the Decline of a Religion

I was listening to a sermon by Ravi Zacharias in which he credited the poet Lord Byron with the following.

Three Stages in the Decline of a Religion:

1) Heresy – when true God is worshiped with false worship
2) Idolatry – false gods worshiped while we suppose them for true God
3) Witchcraft – adoration for false gods knowing them to be wicked

My friend who directed me to the sermon pointed out that this seems to loosely follow the pattern Paul lays out in Romans 1. I briefly looked but could not find any other reference to Lord Byron. [it actually comes from The Advancement of Learning by Francis Bacon]

Over a year ago I wrote about my begrudging acceptance of a sect of Christianity which I find disgusting but still within the camp of Christian orthodoxy. What I like about Byron’s Bacon’s three stages is that it defines such believers as heretics but still worshipers of a true God.

I would place Mormonism in the classification of “idolatry” because its description of God is so wildly different than that of orthodox Christianity. In turn I think the classic Christian understanding of God is idolatrous if Mormon theology were to be the standard (and appropriately deemed “apostate” – outside the faith).

The place I probably struggle the most in Byron’s Bacon’s paradigm is the description of “knowing the false gods to be false.” I think this might better describe an individual’s posture of religion than a religion itself. I think there are individuals who know their gods are false, but worship them anyways. But I think each religion is at least attempting to direct people toward worship of a true god.

The Apostle Paul: the first Mormon?

St. Paul on road to Damascus

St. Paul on road to Damascus (Photo credit: bobosh_t)

Christian J pointed out in the discussion of my last post that he thought the Mormon model of seeking spiritual confirmation of doctrine was biblical. I think he is right. When I was LDS, I was very impressed by Paul’s discussion in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 2.  It captured perfectly my view of the core of Missionary work.  Those interested in Mormonism would do well to understand how Paul’s words are lived by LDS today.

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Two Too Many

R.C. Sproul took a question from a pastor on his radio show that interested me quite a bit. The pastor had a new convert in his church that had been a polygamous Mormon. The man had left Mormonism but not any of his three wives. The pastor was curious how he should go about disciplining this man and if he should be encouraged to leave his two additional wives.

You can hear Sproul’s answer here. Start at the 9:00 mark.

I expect Christians to encounter more situations like this one. And the dilemma isn’t just for polygamist. What should two married women with children be counseled to do if they join a church? Two married men? How about a man who divorced, as a believer, for unbiblical reasons and remarried?

I’m sure the situation is semi-regular in the LDS church. What must a polygamous man do to be baptized and enjoy full communion in the LDS church?

We Pretenders

When I was a kid, I loved to pretend.  My life was filled with forts, guns, armies, horses, dragons, talking animals, magic swords, and space armadas.  You didn’t have to point out to me that I was pretending, I was doing it on purpose.

Jesus pointed out the pretenders who did not seem to know they were pretending. To the Romans he pointed out that they were merely pretending to be the masters of the world. In fact, the Kingdom of God was in our midst and held sway over what mattered.  To those pretending to be good, he said there is no good but God.  To those pretending to honor the temple of God, he dealt a beating.  To those pretending to be his disciples, he exposed as denyers, betrayers, and court jesters. Jesus was God who pretended to be a man and–in the end–He exposed this pretense as well.

Few would disagree that those who follow Jesus only pretend to.   The Old Testament teaches us that we are foolish and pretending children to a Perfect Father who has given us his law, the New teaches us that we are all fallen and lost, incapable of following the law God gave–we can only pretend. The Book of Mormon teaches that when it comes to obedience, we are less than we are not the dust of the earth, only pretending to be submissive. Joseph Smith taught that our compliance and authority is often–because of our nature and disposition–simply pretense to fulfill our pride and hide our sins. Jesus’ apostles made it clear that Jesus was the Christ, we merely pretend to be Christians. Paul taught that whatever we are of Christ is not us, but Christ in us.

Ironically, Christians also like to point out pretenders.

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The Caller on The Line Wants to Know if He’s a Christian

In a discussion on the on-going controversy over Richard Mouw’s 2004 apology at the Mormon Tabernacle, a fellow Evangelical asked me to comment on a passage from Richard Mouw’s book “Talking with Mormons”.

“My assistant came into my office to tell me that a caller wanted to talk with me: “He says he’s a Mormon and he wants to ask you a question about his personal faith. Should I tell him you’re too busy?” Then she quickly added: “He seems quite nice, and he says he isn’t calling to argue with you about anything:”

I decided to take the call. The person on the line asked whether he could briefly tell me about his spiritual journey. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear his story, but my assistant was right: he did seem quite nice. He had been raised in a mainline Protestant church, he told me, and during his youth he had never felt challenged to make any serious commitment to Christianity. As a student at a university – one of the most distinguished ones academically – his roommate for all four years was a Mormon. ” Continue reading

The Wedding of Jesus

I was wondering how Mormons view Jesus’ status as a bachelor. In Orthodox Christianity singleness and lifelong celibacy are view as acceptable and at times even preferable for followers of Jesus. The value for singleness, devoted to lifelong service of God, is in part centered on the example of Jesus himself.

This lifestyle choice is held in tension in Mormonism. A temple wedding is the penultimate ordinance to qualify for Exaltation. It seems to be THE most exciting and highest honor in temple worship. From an outsider’s perspective it seems the Mormon experience is lacking without a sealing to an eternal spouse.

In light of this, how do Mormons reflect on Jesus’ life without a wife? What kind of justifications are offered for this disconnect? Is it a fact of His life that needs no explanation?

Truly, Honestly. I tell you, this is not just a cheap plug for the post that has become known as “The One True Post.” But I also recognize that I can’t bring up the subject of Jesus and Marriage without referencing it. So consider my obligation to silliness fulfilled.

Have You Been Changed By Grace?

Guest post by Eric

In the perennial debate over grace vs. works, there seem to be two extremes:

  • On the one end is the view that because believers in Christ have been saved by grace, works don’t matter, or don’t matter in any way that counts. The fancy term for this view is antinomianism, which is related to the concept of “cheap grace.” This is the stereotype that many Mormons have of evangelical belief.
  • At the other end is the view that some have labeled “works righteousness,” that grace is something that kicks in only once we have become worthy to receive it. This is a stereotype that evangelicals often have of Mormons, that we are trying to work our way into heaven.

I’m not going to get into an argument over which stereotype is more accurate. Suffice it to say that if you’re looking for adherents to either of those views (although they may not admit it), it isn’t hard to find them.

I do think, though, that there is a type of works righteousness that is supported by much if not most of Mormon culture and even often by teachings of church leaders. (You’ll sometimes find it in evangelicalism too.) For various reasons, we Mormons have become so wary of teaching cheap grace that we forget what even our specifically Mormon scriptures have to say about the infinite nature of the Atonement.

It is possible to teach grace without resorting to cheap grace. I thought this was very well done in a talk that was given to Brigham Young University students last year by Brad Wilcox, a professor there. I was introduced to this talk recently by my son serving on a mission; it was recently viewed by all missionaries in his mission, and missionaries’ parents were asked to view it as well. I’ve been told that the missionaries found it powerful (my son certainly did!), and I did too. The talk, “His Grace Is Sufficient,” is available in text and video formats.

One thing I liked about the talk is that it is specifically Mormon in tone and addresses some common LDS perceptions that keep people caught in the trap of relying on their own efforts — this isn’t Protestant grace with a Mormon veneer. Even so, I hope that even non-LDS Christians can find something of value here.

More Than a Bible

A recent study showed that nearly 50% of disaffected Mormons become atheist or agnostics. A mere 11% identify themselves as Christians. I think this is a matter of serious concern. Regardless of church affiliation I imagine the LDS heirarchy would like to see all of those who have crossed their path to be in some way devoted to the teachings of Jesus.

Disaffection from Mormonism and Christianity is a complicated topic so I don’t thing I can pinpoint the exact reason this occurs. But I think that a portion of the reason this happens is due to the story the LDS church uses to explain its origin. Another reason is found in some of the LDS evangelistic and apologetic messaging. In short, the LDS church tells its members and potential converts that the Bible is weak and unreliable and that Christianity is shallow, hollow and untrustworthy. The church does this in order to give the Book of Mormon and the LDS church a position of prominence and superior relevance in the life of its members. Does it leave any wonder why former Mormons leave Christianity all together when they lose faith in Mormonism?

This answer from FAIR about sharing the best way to tell people about the Book of Mormon highlights my point:

The Bible alone, as magnificent as it is, has not united the believing world under one Lord, one faith or one baptism. In fact, it seems that the Bible itself has never come under more criticism or skepticism at any time since its inception than it is today. Many around the world are concluding that the Bible is irrelevant in their lives. They say that Jesus may have been just a legend or a mere myth which, over time, transformed him into a God in the minds of a group of people who came to call themselves Christians. The very value of scripture seems to be assailed constantly.

The April 2012 General Conference seemed to have a thread of awareness in it that secular materialism is becoming a threat to faith and that there are shared values found in Protestant denominations. If the LDS church wants to consider itself a part of the larger Christian family it needs to do its part to tone down its own sectarian rhetoric. The simple fact is that we are now living in a post-Christian society. Disaffection to mainstream Christianity is not the threat that Mormonism needs to worry itself with (particularly when its making its own move in that direction).

I was glad to hear L. Tom Perry affirm the need for the Bible in this month’s General Conference. I’d like to see Mormon apologist do more of the same. The current apologetic approach seems to be to affirm and build the secular case against the Bible in order to make room for distinct Mormon doctrines. I think this has the unintended consequence of actually weakening Mormon faith. Mormons need to acknowledge and affirm the important place the Bible has in their religion. They need to be strengthening the case for the Bible. There need to be Mormon apologetic resources which make the case for the reliability of the Bible. Until such time I think we can continue to see disaffected Mormons not only lose their faith in Joseph Smith but Jesus as well.

Ehrman & Wallace Debate

The Ehrman Project presents Daniel Wallace and Bart Ehrman discuss the reliability of the New Testament and whether or not we have sufficient evidence of the original manuscripts. I think the thing that may surprise many with merely a passing knowledge of Ehrman is how much he and Wallace agree upon.

I noticed the key thing Ehrman pressed upon was how many experts agree that the discussion about whether or not the “original manuscripts” can be known is a pointless debate. There is a key distinction between what Ehrman and Wallace mean by “original manuscripts”. Wallace is referring to the manuscript the author handed over to be delivered to his intended audience. Ehrman doesn’t dive too deeply into what he means but it seems he’s dealing with a postmodern problem that’s more in line with the existence of truth than a historical document that was delivered to Christians in the city of Rome. That distinction must be reinforced as both sides deliver their evidences.

Ehrman proves himself an excellent communicator and an impassioned advocate. Listening to just the first 40 minutes of the event would undoubtedly leave many with little hope for the historical claims of the New Testament. But Wallace answers those challenges with patience and confidence.

Metaxas and Keller Fireside

Tim Keller and Eric Metaxas have become two of the most respected voices within Evangelicalism in the last 5 years. This video is a “fireside chat” the two had at the New Canaan Soceity Washington Weekend in 2012. They discuss Creationism & Evolution, how to define a “Christian”, hell, Rob Bell, universalism, and personality driven Evangelicalism. I highly recommend that you see this video and get a flavor for how Evangelicals approach these controversial topics

Keller makes reference to a paper by Richard Bauckham on Christian Universalism that you can find here. Keller says it’s the paper that Rob Bell should have read first before writing “Love Wins”.

Reliable Word

Greg Koukl, host of Stand to Reason, interviewed Dr. Daniel Wallace this past week. They were able to discuss the reliability of the Bible, Bart Ehrman and the challenges he presents and the recent discovery of some of the oldest New Testament manuscripts ever found. Wallace gives more details on this discovery than I’ve heard before but promises there are secrets to be revealed.



Direct Download (57 min.)

I found the discussion invaluable and I need to take the time to listen to it again. Wallace’s scholarship and confidence in the New Testament are encouraging.

Fresh Start

I was really encouraged to find this introduction to a class called “Fresh Start”. The class is for those transitioning out of Mormonism and into Evangelical Christianity. I’m very glad to see that churches in Utah understand the voyage many are on and are providing resources for that journey. I think the tone and intention of this video is just right. You can hear the content of the class here.

How to Read the Bible

When approaching the Bible and deciding how to interpret its meaning there are three main approaches used by Evangelicals .  All three approaches overlap to some degree and on their far ends may even be completely dissimilar.  These categories and descriptions can be considered my own and be viewed as a general way in which these approaches are used in practice.

Here are some descriptions pulled from Wikipedia.org:

Biblical Literalism: the interpretation or translation of the explicit and primary sense of words in the Bible. The essence of this approach focuses upon the author’s intent as the primary meaning of the text. It does not mean a complete denial of literary aspects, genre, or figures of speech within the text (e.g., parable, allegory, simile, or metaphor).

Biblical Inerrancy: the doctrinal position that the Bible is accurate and totally free of error, that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”

Biblical Infallibility: the belief that what the Bible says regarding matters of faith and Christian practice is wholly useful and true. It is the “belief that the Bible is completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation and the life of faith and will not fail to accomplish its purpose.”

The three terms are occasionally conflated or synonymous with one another.  Literalism is often used a pejorative for Inerrancy and occasionally Inerrancy and Infallibility are synonymous with one another.
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Genesis 1-3: History or Allegory?

Guest post written by Eric

Many of the posts in this blog, and even more so the discussions that usually follow, have highlighted the differences between Mormonism and traditional or evangelical Christianity. However, there is at least one area where evangelicals may differ more among themselves and Mormons may differ more among themselves than the two religious traditions differ from each other. And that has to do with how to understand the first three chapters of Genesis: Should the accounts of the Creation and of the Fall be viewed as real events that happened in history, or should they be viewed primarily as allegory?

How believers in the Bible answer that question could have significant implications. For evangelicals, those implications were detailed in an excellent cover story, “The Search for the Historical Adam,” published last year in Christianity Today magazine. The article pointed out that while the traditional Christian view, included in some denominations’ statements of faith, is that Adam and Eve were the historical parents of the human race, that belief is about to collide (if it hasn’t already) with research into genetic diversity that shows that the existing human race could not have descended from two individuals a few thousand years ago. Just as in the past century or two science has forced most educated Christians to abandon a belief that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, the article suggested, it is becoming just as clear that defending any idea of two common human ancestors is scientifically untenable.

Part of what is at stake for many adherents of evangelicalism (Catholicism too) is the understanding of original sin being traceable to Adam (and Eve too, although she’s mentioned less often). Also, the writings of Paul develop complex arguments seemingly based on the historicity of Adam, and the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke traces Jesus’ earthly lineage to Adam.

Even though we Mormons don’t believe in the doctrine of original sin, the problem of Adam and Eve is no less acute for us, since we also accept the New Testament as scripture. Additionally, many church leaders, including Joseph Smith, have clearly assumed the historicity of Adam and Eve. Smith even said the Garden of Eden had been located in what is now Missouri.

For many evangelicals, and probably an even higher percentage of Mormons, to question the historicity of the Creation and Fall accounts strikes at a foundation of the Christian faith. Such a view is behind the attempt of many evangelicals to promote intelligent design, which claims that there is scientific evidence of a Creator; smaller numbers, usually from the fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism, have fought against any teaching in public schools that advanced forms of life developed over millions of years. And while the LDS church has no doctrine denying evolution, it isn’t difficult to find Mormons who interpret verses such as Moses 6:48 to support a belief that no death existed before the Fall, which if true would seem to preclude evolution.

But there are evangelicals and Mormons who disagree with the prevailing views. Most prominent among such evangelicals is DNA scientist extraordinaire Francis Collins, who believes that humankind came about through the randomness of natural selection, that while God set life in motion, how we turned out was a matter of chance. Brigham Young University biologist Steven Peck seemingly has adopted a similar view, and has written that he is proud to have descended from apes. Yet both men have reconciled their faiths with what they see science clearly telling them.

Is there a necessary conflict between science and believing that the first three chapters of Genesis are part of the inspired word of God? I am writing to suggest that the answer is no.

In my view, science becomes a problem for the believer in the Bible only when we try to understand the Bible as telling us something the authors never intended to teach us. The Bible (and for us Mormons, other scripture) isn’t intended to be a scientific textbook. And the text of Genesis 1-3 gives us clues that neither is it intended to be seen as history, but rather as a way of conveying divinely inspired truth about the relationship between God and humankind.

In other words, Genesis 1-3 teaches truth even if it isn’t history.

In a comment earlier in this blog, blog host Tim said:

I don’t deny that inerrancists generally reject theistic evolution. What I’m saying is that if the internal textual evidence were clearer (similar to the parables), it wouldn’t be a rejection of inerrancy to say that Genesis 1-3 are an allegory. There is a difference between literalism and inerrancy.

I would argue that such textual evidence does exist, opening the way for us to take Genesis 1-3 seriously without taking it literally. My interest in doing so isn’t intend to weaken anyone’s faith in Genesis; on the contrary, I’m concerned that by trying to make Genesis say more than God intended it to, we set up an unnecessary barrier to faith.

Here, briefly, are what I see as some of the signs that Genesis 1-3 shouldn’t be viewed literally:

  • The account is full of blatant symbols that suggest a truth that goes beyond history, among them the tree of life, the tree of knowledge and a villain in the form of a despised animal. Even the name Adam is simply a Hebrew word for “man” (or “human”), and Eve’s name comes from a word meaning “living.” In this way, the story is written to apply to every man and every woman rather than to two specific individuals.
  • The structure of the creation account in Genesis 1 seems to be written in an order designed for literary purposes. For example, the first day parallels the fourth, the second day parallels the fifth, and the third day parallels the sixth. It would make no sense as history to make plants before the sun, but it does make sense if the writer is trying to evoke a sense of order and awe.
  • A creation account starting in Genesis 2:4 directly contradicts the order of events in the account beginning in 1:1. It makes more sense to see the accounts as having two different purposes than it does to reconcile the factual details.
  • There’s a huge disconnect between Genesis 3 (which ends with the ejection from Eden) and Genesis 4 (which tells of Cain and Abel). The latter presupposes the existence of an agrarian society as well as of other human populations, which makes no sense with a literal reading of what comes before.

So if Genesis 1-3 doesn’t teach science or history, what does it teach? For starters, that God had a purpose in creating us. That God gave us free will, and that our decisions have consequences, including the misery that sin brings. That what God created is good. That the making of humankind is the pinnacle, even the ultimate purpose, of God’s creation. That we were created in God’s image.

I’m not suggesting that there are no problems with taking an allegorical approach to understanding Genesis 1-3. But in our quest to know what “really happened,” it becomes easy to lose perspective on the broader truths of what God is using this ancient, inspired writing to teach us.