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:
http://vidego.multicastmedia.com/player.php?v=a3922afd

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.