What Do You Do With a Problem Like Freedom?

I saw this amusing video where confused college students willingly walk into proud and unaware declarations of hypocrisy concerning religious freedom.  Videos like this prove little about the actual merits of an argument because it’s not hard to find someone who supports a position while simultaneously not having thought it through very deeply.  It could be that there are thoughtful people with great reasons for holding a viewpoint, but you can be sure the producer of the video isn’t going to put them in the montage for one reason; they aren’t funny.

Nonetheless, you should watch this video because it’s funny and it supports my point of view.

I was talking through these issues with a gay friend of mine who agrees with me that florists, photographers and bakers shouldn’t be required to provide services for events that conflict with their religious values. Continue reading

Skittles In Remembrance

Today a friend from college posted the following on Facebook:

We just took Skittles and iced tea as communion elements at my church in honor of the situation with Trayvon Martin–because being a Christian is an active, wrong-righting, radical-loving, justice-seeking way of life…

I knew immediately that there were a great many things to unpack in this posting.  At the very least I knew her congregation had inspired a conversation about Jesus and injustice and for that I applaud them.  But there seemed to be something else nestled into this radical statement that didn’t sit well with me.

254069-skittlesFor those unaware of the reference, Trayvon Martin was a black, 17-year-old who was killed (some say murdered) in an altercation with a neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was recently acquitted of murdering Martin and the case brought up many controversial conversations about race, self-defense, and injustice. Martin had decided to go out to the store that evening to get Skittles and Iced Tea.

It is clear to me that Trayvon Martin did not deserve to die that night.  His death is a tragedy. It simply should not have happened.  I do not wish to jump into the cultural, political or legal controversies surrounding his death in this space, but I acknowledge the deep feelings of injustice that are conjured in the hearts of many Americans by his death. Trayvon Martin should not be dead because he wanted some Skittles and Iced Tea.

In many ways I understand what my friend’s church was doing by serving Skittles and Iced Tea in communion.  The bread and the wine are two of the most powerful symbols in Christianity.  Skittles and Iced Tea have become powerful symbols of racial injustice in America.  From an artistic perspective it makes a lot of sense to put these symbols in proximity to one another.  The moral complexity caused by creating a relationship between these symbols is explosive.  I believe this symbol clashing expression of a Christian sacrament is powerful, but I also must ask “is it good?”

From a purely pragmatic perspective I believe that Skittles and Iced Tea can be used as a substitute for bread and wine in Communion.  On a deserted island with nothing else on hand, I think God would find them an honorable means of worship.  If I had to guess, I’d say 99% of my worship experiences have been in churches that chooses to use grape juice instead of wine.  The LDS church uses water.  Most churches serve some variety of crackers, wafers or even bread with yeast.  My own church has recently begun to set out gluten-free crackers for those with gluten allergies. I say all of this to acknowledge that many churches use some substitute for the wine and the kind of bread Jesus served in the Last Supper.  Not many make the effort to replicate Jewish, First Century wine and Passover bread.

From a symbolic perspective I think the use of Skittles and Iced Tea is wrong.  I whole-heartedly agree that “being a Christian is an active, wrong-righting, radical-loving, justice-seeking way of life… ”  We should, ought and must be fighting against racial barriers and injustice.  Nonetheless I think it was inappropriate to make the Sacrament an opportunity to call Christians to the fight against injustice.

When Jesus broke the bread and served the wine, he said “do this in remembrance of me”.  He did not say “do this in remembrance of Trayvon Martin and the injustice of racial stereotypes”.  I hope and pray that churches every where are preaching relevant, practical and Biblical sermons on breaking the bonds of injustice.  I strongly encourage them to develop programs to help their neighbors overcome those types of struggles.  But Communion is not the place to offer that charge. The Gospel of Jesus is in part about racial and societal reconciliation, but that is not the entire message.

The error in using Skittles and Iced Tea in Communion is that it places the Christian mission against injustice at the center of the worship experience rather than Christ. In many ways this story illuminates the Conservative/Liberal Christian divide for me.  Churches on both sides of the spectrum fall into heresy when they misplace any one aspect of the Christian pursuit of virtue over Jesus himself.  Churches that designate themselves as “open and affirming” seem to easily devolve into nothing more than the message of acceptance.  Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than that.  Churches that focus on personal piety and moral regulations can devolve into nothing more than the message of righteousness.  Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than than. Churches that focus on nothing but their liturgy and priesthood can become a place where nothing is more important that the right mode of worship and authority. Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than that.  Churches that passionately pursue complex theological teaching can become nothing more than their sound doctrines. Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than that.  Justice, acceptance, righteousness, worship, authority and doctrine are all wonderful things and should be pursued passionately. . . but they aren’t Jesus.  Our Savior calls us to all of them, but they are not saviors.

I imagine the good people at my friend’s church would be appalled if they heard of another church that had replaced the bread and the wine with Budweiser and apple pie.  I hope their outrage would not be because they reject the cultural or political message symbolized by those items, but rather because what those items represent are never meant to displace our call to remember Jesus’ death when we partake of the sacraments.

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.

The Church & Illegal Immigration

The LDS church recently published a statement regarding illegal immigration which outlined some general principles for approaching the issue. The statement reminded me of a forum that was held last summer at Willowcreek Community Church, hosted by Bill Hybels.

You can see that video here:

I think both the LDS church and Hybels took nuanced positions which more than likely disturbed some of their membership but sought to understand the issue from a position that weighed both mercy and justice.

[hat tip to Seth R. for the LDS church article]

Five Preachings on Hell

Perhaps the most offensive Evangelical doctrine to both Mormons and non-Christians is Hell.  It seems unfathomable to some that a loving God would send (or allow) people to go to a place of eternal punishment for a lifetime of sins.

Conversant Life is a popular Evangelical website.  Once a week, they’ve been posting these teachings on Hell from different Christian leaders.  I thought I would borrow what they’ve done and give everyone a quick snapshot of the various ways Evangelical leaders speak about Hell.

Erwin McManus

Mark Driscoll

Tim Keller

John Piper

N.T. Wright (okay, perhaps not an Evangelical)

Legalism’s Place in Christianity

In response to another post, Jared said:

Regarding legalism- What some Evangelicals don’t seem to get is that, Legalism, per se, is not bad for spirituality, it absolutely can foster it and keep people in a life that will allow for it. A pre-occupation with legalism may damage it, but so will a pre-occupation against legalism.

There is plenty in the New Testament supporting a lifestyle guided by strict rules. Denying this seems like over-reading Paul and under-reading Matthew and James. Wilder rejoices in the freedom from the “chains” of legalism while others rejoice in the structure and freedom they get from having “standards” that press them into being better people. It strikes me as naive and self-serving to attack either position because you didn’t like the way it worked in your life.

These comments immediately caused a reaction in me.  I knew I wanted to respond but I also knew that I wanted to give a quality response and not shoot from the hip.  The reason: I think Jared is wrong about the usefulness of legalism in Christianity.

Christianity certainly holds its disciples to a set of lifestyle standards.  There is no doubt about that.  One such list of practices Christians are to have nothing to do with is found in Romans 1:29-31. Christians are contrasted against people who are “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless“.  Paul (who Jared thinks may not say enough about Christian behavior) tells the Christians in Corinth to expel an immoral brother and not even eat with him (I Corinthians 5).

While disciples of Christ have the character of Jesus to emulate and live up to, and this requires discipline.  It doesn’t happen automatically.  The question is how to make it happen.

I think Jared is right that legalism is pragmatically useful in getting people to conform to a strict social order.  It works wherever it is tried as long as the participants are willing and/or motivated by the right level of fear.  But I don’t believe it is what Jesus calls his followers to practice.  It delivers a similarly styled product but fails to produce the authentic version which offers freedom and a “light-yoke” which Jesus promises for his followers.  Legalism works in religion, but it fails in cleaning the inside of th cup and getting to know the true heart of God.  For this reason I think it is the absolute worst thing for spirituality.

Jesus’ harshest words were for the Pharisees, religious and righteous men.  Jesus said in Matthew 5: 20 “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  In speaking these words, he was not saying the Pharisees were not righteously following the law.  Instead he was piggy-backing off of their well-known righteousness to explain that legalism had taken them as far as it could and it still left them short.  If that’s all Jesus had said on the matter, it’s quite a hopeless message.  It says “despite the Pharisees notoriety for following the law, you have no hope unless you can do better”.  No one could do better than the Pharisees and his audience knew it.

But Jesus didn’t just stop at legalisms inadequacies.  He took it further and showed that it produced something quite ugly.  Check out Matthew 23.  Jesus calls the legalists blind, vipers, whitewashed tombs full of bones, hypocrites, greedy, self-indulgent and accuses them of tying up heavy loads and placing them on other men’s shoulders. (Someone really needs to get a hold of Jesus and tell him not to be so critical, it’s really not the way a Christian should behave).   I have a history as a Christian legalist and they’re exactly as Jesus describes. If anything, from reading the life of Jesus, I get the idea that he was against religious legalism, so it makes no sense to me to hear his adherents proposing a new form of legalism.

Galatians 6:1 says this: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. I highlighted the words “restore” and “gently” because I don’t think legalism can accomplish either of them. So how do we go about generating the kind of character in Christians that they are called to?

I recently finished reading Dallas Willard’s latest, Knowing Christ Today.  In it he posits that Judaism uniquely offered the world justice and Christianity uniquely offered the world agape, love that unselfishly seeks the best for others.  Only through agape and grace can we gently restore other people.

I think the books of Galatians has so much more to say about this.  I can’t recommend reading the whole thing in one sitting highly enough.  Try reading it in a different translation to give yourself fresh eyes. Here’s a small sampling:

Galatians 3:1-5
You foolish Galatians! . . . Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? . . . are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? . . . Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?

Galatians 5:1
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:13
You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.

How we take on the character of Christ individually is to give up our list of rules and instead focus on our heart.  Through discipline and prayer, we develop a heart for others that genuninely seeks their good.  Without a list for ourselves, we can’t impose one on other people.  Instead all we have left to give is a heart full of agape.

Poverty Unlocked

Why is there so much poverty in the world? How can God let this happen and what does He plan to do about it? What is my role as a Christian in helping the poor? Should I give money to that guy on the street corner? What exactly can I do when the problem is so big? Is there any hope for the AIDS crisis in Africa?

I want to point you to an excellent resource. There is a new podcast called Poverty Unlocked. It contains some great information and some practical ways to think about poverty and what to do about it from a Biblical point of view. You’ll definitely feel better equipped to be a part of the solution. No more doubts about when to give and where to serve. You can know if your efforts are doing any good.

Do What You Want — You’re Born Again

In the comments section of another post Seth and Lisa made some great comments.

They brought up a theme that I think is consistent in conversations between LDS and Evangelicals. LDS counter our “saved by grace alone” with “so then you can do whatever you want because you’re saved?” And the answer is “NO, absolutely not”. Paul makes it quite clear that we DON’T go on sinning, we start a new life. I have never heard a Protestant pastor preach forgiveness without preaching repentance at the same time. Repenting means leaving your sin behind and not returning to it.

So why do Evangelicals go on sinning? I’d venture to guess for the same reason LDS go on sinning. Because they haven’t fully converted. They still somewhere in their heart believe that their will should be done rather than God’s will (me included by the way).

So why haven’t they fully converted? I think there are several reasons for this. First off, we Evangelicals have done a terrible job making disciples. We aim for converts and then hope that discipleship will happen. We are definitely out of line with Jesus on this one. Your critiques are well aimed (although a 30% activity rate in the LDS church seems to indicate that it could equally be turned on you).

Second, when we do disciple people, we allow it to be messy. When an LDS convert is baptized he commits before his baptism to live a certain way. We don’t believe that people can straighten out their lives without the Holy Spirit first being in them. So we invite people to come worship Jesus with whatever junk they might be carrying with them. Sometimes that junk is substantial. Then we invite them to start the process of sanctification. We spend our whole lives turning away from sin. We don’t pretend that there are nothing but sinless people among us. We KNOW that they people sitting next to us in the pews are sinning.

So do Evangelicals allow people to go on sinning? Yes and no. If someone owns their sin and acknowledges how they continue to mess up, then we help hold them accountable. We walk them through the process of leaving it behind. Some are able to leave their sin cold turkey others are not. We make space for failure. If a person is unrepentant and blatantly goes on sinning with no intention to seek holiness we for sure confront them. Church discipline is different everywhere. If the person is in leadership, they are removed from that position whether they are repentant or not. They are given the resources of the church to seek restoration and it’s up to them to respond.

As far as orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Having right belief entails knowing what is right action. I dare say that those who are strict on their orthodoxy know quite well that sex before marriage is wrong. Those that think fornication is okay are probably missing quite a few other things in their “right belief”. But I think Jesus makes it quite clear that both orthodoxy AND orthopraxy fall short. The Pharisees had their doctrine and the religious practice nailed but their hearts were still corrupt. It’s pointless to focus on belief OR practice if we aren’t first reforming the heart. A right heart will produce fruit. But stapling apples on a lemon tree doesn’t do anything other than make a fraud.

Another comment by Lisa in that same post indicated that Evangelicals believe that all sins are the same. This is true and not true. We believe that ALL sin equally removes us from God. But to say that all sin is equal is ludicrous. I know that many Evangelicals believe that but they’re wrong. They have a very weak concept of justice. The sin of murder quite clearly destroys and corrupts much more powerfully than speeding. Adultery and lust are both sins, but adultery IS worse than lust in it’s consequences.

Lisa also reported that 40-80% of Evangelicals lose their virginity before marriage. The difference between those numbers is so huge it’s obviously not scientific. But even the 40% number is distressing. I’d venture to say that a belief that the numbers aren’t the same in the LDS church is naive. The only thing that might be reducing the number is the fact that the average LDS gets married probably about 8 years earlier than the average Evangelical. That’s no excuse for the Evangelicals. Hopefully I explained why it is happening.

Church Discipline and Grant Palmer

Joseph Smith Translating the Book of Mormon

Recently I listened to the Mormon Stories podcast interview with Grant Palmer. For those who don’t know who Grant Palmer is, he is a faithful member of the LDS church. He wrote a book titled ” An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins.” As a result of writing his book he was disfellowshipped from his congregation (only one member of his disciplinary committee actually read his book). His book at the time was sold in Deseret Books and is still today sold in the BYU bookstore (so I hear). In the podcast Palmer explains that he has no desire to see anyone leave the church nor is it his desire to leave.

One story I thought was of particular interest was that in the 1980s he was disciplined for telling his Seminary students that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon using a seer stone in a hat and not by using the actual golden plates. (Image A as opposed to B) Since that time this story has been confirmed and affirmed a number of times as the truth (even in the Ensign by Apostles Neil A. Maxwell and Russell M. Nelson). Today it would be very unlikely that anyone in an official church position would be disciplined for the same reasons as Palmer was in the 1980s. I think that it is great that there has been a greater interest and acknowledgment of LDS history by those within the church. It makes me wonder if in another 20 years that it will be unlikely to see authors like Palmer disciplined by the church at all.

Cheap Grace

Occasionally I see people level the phrase “cheap grace” at Evangelcal Christians. As if to impune that we don’t know what grace is or that we wish only to accept some cheapened form of it.

It makes me think, is there any such thing as expensive grace? What exactly is the right price for grace? I think any one who thinks that any kind of price tag can be put in front of the word grace really doesn’t get it.

Grace is by definition a free gift. It can’t be cheap, it can’t be expensive and it can’t be reasonably priced (religiously or secularly). It is free no matter what you think you’ve done to deserve it or think someone else has not done to deserve it. You can’t earn or deserve grace. If you could, we wouldn’t be talking about grace, we’d be apealing to God for justice because that’s what you get when you get fairly paid.

Now if you want to say that some people have a shallow view of santification, I’d get on the bus with you. But as long as you are saying that people have a cheap view of grace, I’m going to expect you to start telling me that my view of circles is not square enough and that my concept of black is not at all white like it should be.

AIDS, Bono and a Confession

Recently I watched a documentary on the African AIDS crisis. In the documentary they spent some time focusing on Bono and his efforts to reform the American Church’s response to AIDS. He basically confronted evangelical leaders and politicians with Jesus’s own words on helping the suffering. It was quite powerful and convicting.

It made me reevaluate my own attitude towards those with AIDS. Basically I was of the opionion that a death sentence was pretty much a just punishment for sexual promiscuity. To be sure, what God wants for our sex lives is fidelity within the bounds of marriage. But AIDS is not a judgment from God, it is a result of the fall. The punishment in no way fits the crime. God grieves for those who must die as a result of their sin, why don’t I?

What a sad way for us to respond to those who are in pain and facing death because of sexual sin. Instead of offering love and grace we do our best to prevent policy for funding a cure because we already have the answer. Yes, abstinence is the best way to stop AIDS, but no one will listen to what we have to say if we are content to let people die because they weren’t righteous. If we aren’t righteous in our response to a death causing disease, then our sexual righteousness is filth in the eyes of the lost. (and since when is our example to only offer compassion to the righteous)

There is a ongoing debate about giving every 12 year old girl a vaccine against cervical cancer. There are some who oppose this vaccine because they think it will encourage 12 year olds to have sex. I get it, they don’t want teenagers having sex. But if the threat of cervical cancer is the only reason we can give young girls for purity, then I’m afraid purity doesn’t hold much allure for the next generation.

Our priorities are messed up if we think it’s more important that someone remain a virgin than if they die from preventable cancer.

I’m considering participating in the local AIDS walk this year. I think the Christian silence on AIDS has been deafening for far too long.

Mercy and Justice

This is a parable that really helped me understand God’s use of justice and mercy in my ongoing salvation. The Kingdom of God is like a smoothie store. . . .

I love smoothies. I’d like to drink a smoothie everyday. I have a favorite smoothie shop that’s within walking distance of work that I frequent often. The same guy is working there every day, his name is Josh and we’ve gotten to know one another quite well. The problem is, in the past I have frequently forgotten my wallet. When this happened I would beg and plead with Josh to give me a free smoothie. He sometimes gave me a free smoothie, he would justify it by saying “Ah, you’ve bought so many smoothies you probably deserve a free one.” Well this arrangement worked out great until one week I forgot my wallet everyday. On Monday he gave in, no problem. Tuesday he was hesitant. Wednesday took a lot of begging on my part (it got embarrassing). On Thursday he finally said “ENOUGH! I can’t keep giving you free smoothies. If I keep giving you free smoothies I’m going to lose my job.” He was right of course and I left without my smoothie. Amazingly on Friday I forgot my wallet again and didn’t even bother visiting Josh.

Well, my wife heard about all of this and devised a plan. On her own time she visited Josh at the Smoothie store. She and Josh had a good laugh about what a dope I am. Then she asked Josh if they sold gift cards. Sure enough, they did. So she paid for a $100 gift card and asked Josh to keep it. She told him, “Next time Tim forgets his wallet, I want you to just charge this gift card for his smoothie. Don’t tell him about it and let me know when it’s almost empty and I’ll recharge the card.”

So sure enough, the next time I forgot my wallet, I sheepishly asked Josh if I could have a free smoothie and he said “No problem, would you like a sandwich too!”

Before my wife bought the gift card I was relying on Josh’s mercy for a smoothie. Eventually I exhausted his mercy, I had to pay. But after he had the gift card, my smoothies had been paid for. Justice required Josh to give me a smoothie any time I asked for one.

Christianity teaches that forgiveness is offered by God in the same way. The first time we ask for forgiveness from God, in mercy he gives us his Son and forgives our debt. But after we accept this gift, when we again ask for forgiveness (because we will fail again), justice demands that we receive it because the price has been paid, now and forever more.