Friday, July 24, 2015

How can Love Require Death?

God is love (1 John 4:8).

Yet, God commanded this Israelites to kill men, women, and children (1 Sam. 15:3). God personally killed thousands, if not millions, of people (Gen. 6:7, Gen. 19:4-5, Ex. 12:29, etc.). God gave the Israelites laws requiring capital punishment for offenses like witchcraft, homosexuality,* cursing one's parents, adultery, and idolatry (Ex. 22:18, Lev. 20:13, Lev. 20:9, Lev. 20:10, Ex. 22:19).

So what are we to do with the seeming contradiction between a God who claims to be the embodiment of love and yet has commanded and perpetrated acts that, by modern standards, appear to be evil?

First a caveat, this is a blog post. I won't be able to fully explore such a complex topic. If you want more to read on this I highly recommend C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain and John Mark Hick's Yet Will I Trust Him.

Throw out the Bible

Perhaps the most common response to the seeming contradiction between a good, loving God and the evil in the world is to reject the source of the contradiction. If the bible says that God is good and that he killed people for making fun of a bald person (2 Kings 2:23-24), then the bible must not be a reliable witness, goes the line of reasoning, either a good God would not do such things or God is not good. Countless atheistic apologetic websites detail the horrors of God's actions -- especially in the Old Testament -- as "proof" that the God of the bible is self-contradictory.

Throw out the Old Testament

Another tack taken in dealing with the problem of a loving God killing people is to place the loving God as the one from the New Testament and the vengeful God as the one of the Old Testament. This solution is so prevalent that it cropped up in the middle of the second century -- just over a hundred years after Christ's death. Marcion of Sinope believed in Jesus, but not the Old Testament. His followers were called Marcionites and they created the first cannon of scripture -- removing the Hebrew Scriptures and anything from the New Testament that portrayed the Old Testament in a positive light. 

Marcion and his followers were quickly condemned as heretics and the church defended the inclusion of the Old Testament and the New together (though the cannon wouldn't be made official for nearly 200 years after that). However some of Marcion's teachings still persist today, namely the rejection of the God of the Old Testament and the idea of dualism.**

It doesn't take much time in church to hear something like, "The Old Testament was nailed to the cross." Or, "Jesus did away with the Law." Which is, in part, an attempt to reconcile the notion of a loving God and the mass killings of the Old Testament. 

Live in Fear

If one is not willing to throw out the Old Testament, then the temptation is to redefine the love of the New. Proponents of this view often cite the discipline of a loving father (Heb. 12:5-13) as evidence that love can be expressed through unpleasant means and yet remain loving. The argument is that God's actions and commands in the Old Testament were ultimately loving, even though they produced suffering in the moment. 

While that reasoning is not necessarily flawed, it often leads to the conclusion that God is ready and willing to smite anyone at any time. Sinners must beware the wrath of the vengeful God who killed the disobedient. 

In my church tradition we often heard the story of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu. They were serving in the Tabernacle and "presented strange fire before the Lord." For that reason God struck them down (Lev. 10:1-2). The story was used as one of warning to any person who suggested adding something to the worship service that was not expressly commanded by God. 

Learn to Love

While I take some issue with the conclusion that we ought to live in constant fear of God smiting us, I do think that it's important to define love well before we use it to say that God can't cause pain or death and still be loving. Love can be expressed through discipline because love isn't simply wanting the other person to be happy, but for them to be healthy. 

The Goal of Love

If you are a connoisseur of romantic comedies or Sheryl Crow songs you might think that the goal of love is happiness. That's what we see, more often than not. A romantic relationship is evaluated based on how much happiness is generated. While happiness is a part of love -- both romantic and platonic -- it cannot be the goal. 

Happiness is fickle. Happiness can be self-destructive. Happiness can hurt others. Love is none of those things. 

Instead, the goal of love is what's best for the other person. What's best may or may not make someone happy, but it invariably makes them more healthy. A drug abuser won't be happy about an intervention. Someone suffering from depression may not be happy about therapy. Yet the loving thing, the healthy thing, can sometimes require less happiness (in the short term) instead of more. 

Loving Everyone

The equation of love is fairly straightforward when there are only two people involved, but things get much more complex as the numbers increase. If the actions of one person are harmful to another, then what's the most loving thing to do? Do you work with the one harming or protect the one being harmed? What if the one harming is unwilling to stop? What if the one being harmed is unable to get away? 

Our world has faced that terrible choice too many times. One of the most clear-cut was played out in World War II (not that it was simple, but as an example it is one of the simplest). Hitler was killing innocent people. He was not going to stop. So the Allies fought the Axis, in part, out of love for the ones being slaughtered. The most loving choice, at that point, was to kill some to save others. 

Cleaning up the Mess

It's clear, from the bible and from history, that things have changed drastically for humanity over the last 3,500 years (roughly the time since traditional dating of the writing of Genesis). I believe that shortly after the fall (Adam and Eve eating the fruit), humanity was the worst it has ever been and has been steadily improving ever since. 

In ancient times the world was a violent, awful place. Murder, rape, torture, and human sacrifice were rampant. The cults of the ancient peoples worshiped death and pain. They sacrificed infants by heating a bronze idol with fire and then placing the babies on the red-hot, outstretched hands of the gods until they died in agony. Women were seen as little better than cattle and even called deformed males

Today there are more people living in safety than at any other time in human history. Today women and children are safer and have more access to education than ever before. Today the infant mortality rate is lower than it has ever been. Today there is food, shelter, and medical care for more people -- and a greater percentage of the world's population -- than ever before.***

Baby Steps

For humanity to go from a global version of Lord of the Flies to the international community we have today (which, for all its flaws, is far better than what we've had in the past), is a massive shift. Were it to have happened over the course of a few decades or centuries, humanity would not have been able to keep up. 

For evidence of this, simply look at the non-Western areas that struggle with democracy. In the West, democracy has been brewing for over a thousand years. The Greeks and Romans pioneered the concept, the people demanded equal treatment under the law (via the Magna Carta 800 years ago), the Europeans took up the classical ideas during the Renaissance, and finally, through numerous wars and revolts, democracy came to the West. But when those same ideas are imported to other regions that haven't gone through the cultural shifts over a millennium, democracy often falters, not because the idea itself is flawed, but because the culture isn't ready for it. 

Loving the Whole World

So if humanity was utterly awful, people were not just killing each other, but torturing each other, selling each other, and taking delight in it, and God chose to act out of love, what would he do?

One option might be to kill the ones who are causing the most harm. If there were people who were so vile that they were hurting so many others, it might be the most loving thing for the most people to kill them (Gen. 6).

But as God is trying to redeem humanity, he might need to step back more and more over time to allow people to learn and grow on their own. That wouldn't immediately remove all of the vile people hurting others and enjoying it. So, for humanity to continue to progress, and for God to love everyone, he might command those faithful to him to kill the wicked ones (1 Sam. 15:3). Then, as humanity progresses further, God might step back again and stop commanding his people to kill others, but instead command them to love their enemies (Matt. 5:43-48).


I know my thought process may not be satisfying for everyone (or anyone). It doesn't seem loving for God to kill or command others to kill (especially when he also commands them to not murder, Ex. 20:13). But neither is it loving for God to allow wicked people to harm others. I don't envy God's position in figuring all of that out.

I believe that God created every person to bear his divine image. I believe that sin entered into the world and corrupted that divine image. I believe that ever since that time, God has been working to reconcile humanity to himself and to restore his image to us. And, I believe that the bible tells the story of that process, not a one-time, instant fix, but a gradual process over the course of millennia that has yet to be fully realized.

What do you believe?

Do you think God's love and his killing of people are contradictory?

If so, how do you respond? Did I miss any options in dealing with the apparent contradiction?

How do you give and receive love?  

*Note: the word 'homosexual' wasn't coined until the 19th century, so the biblical prohibition against male same-sex acts prohibited in Leviticus 20:13 may or may not have any bearing on the modern understanding of homosexuality as an orientation. Further blog posts will take up that matter in detail.
** Dualism is, in short, the belief that there are two natures to the universe: matter and spirit. Spirit is good while matter is evil. This belief is not original to Marcion, but it was one of the hallmarks of his belief system. Other groups such as the Gnostics and Neoplatonics are dualistic as well. 
*** In no way do these advances obviate the continued suffering in the world. There are still awful things that happen to people. Children still die, women and men are still raped, people still go hungry. The fact that there are fewer of them does not excuse the fact that there are any who suffer. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How Can Christians Exclude People?

The way you read the title of this post is all about tone. Some will read it and hear a tone of exasperated wonder. Others will read it and hear a tone of desperate longing. Still others will read it and hear a tone of competent instruction.

Excluding People is the Point

For that last group, the title of this post evokes the idea of setting boundaries, determining who is in and who is out. While there are many, many Christian groups who want to find the best ways to define their membership -- and who's not in -- the impetus to exclude is far from being a Christian-only thing.

Exclusion Culture

To be sure there are positive benefits to exclusion. When we know who is out of the group, we also know who's in. 

In my church tradition I can go nearly anywhere in the world and bank on my inclusion to gain me acceptance. The relationships I've formed within the tradition allow me to play the game we affectionately call: "Do You Know?" We keep swapping names until we settle on someone that we both know and then we're suddenly much more comfortable. 

But the same could be said for a member of the Freemasons or a labor union or a national sorority or even for fans of the same sports team. In many ways our society is built around affiliations with groups (which must also exclude those not in the group). 

Anyone who has lived in Hawaii knows the word kama Ľaina. It literally means "child of the land" but it has come to refer to anyone who lives on the islands. Most restaurants and tourist attractions have special discounts for kama'aina. The ones who are inside the group get special treatment while those excluded are charged a higher rate. 

We exclude others to help define ourselves. If we know who is not one of us, then we can know who we are. It feels more comfortable to know who we are and who we aren't because then we get to offload a lot of mental tasks. We don't have to think about evaluating the trustworthiness of each person, we can trust the evaluation of the organization. If we're both in the same fraternity, the secret handshake vouches for us. The reverse is also true, it allows us to avoid wasting time on people that may not be worth the effort. If they aren't in the group already, then we can know that we don't want to have anything to do with them. 

We also do this in formalized ways. If a lawyer hasn't passed the state bar exam, we won't hire them. If a teacher doesn't have credentials, we won't let them teach. If a realtor doesn't have a license they can't sell a house. 

Christian Infighting

For a thousand years the Christian church presented a united front to the world. That's not to say that there weren't many variations within Christianity during that time, but all of those differences were considered to be under the auspices of the one Church. But about a thousand years ago was the Great Schism when, because of reasons, the Eastern Orthodox Church split off from the Roman Catholic Church. 

After that it only took another half millennium for the Protestants to break off from the Catholics in the West. Once that happened, divisions between Christian groups dominoed to the point where, by some estimates, there are over 33,000 denominations today. 

Nearly all of the denominations started when there was a major disagreement. The Great Schism was, in many ways, about who had authority over the Church. So too was the Protestant Reformation. But it gets all the way down to the point where some of the splits occurred over arguments about church buildings or paid staff or whether it was appropriate to use grape juice in communion.

For whatever reason, all of those debates became intractable. The participants refused to concede and so started a different denomination instead of working through the conflict. That dynamic, with its benefits and problems, is at the heart of American Christianity. We fight each other and when we can't agree, we often exclude those we consider to be wrong. 

Excluding People is Wrong

Those people who read the title of this post and question why Christians would ever want to exclude people tend to focus on the love and acceptance of Jesus. For those inside the church who feel this way, any type of rule or standard that allows some to be members while excluding others is dismissed. For those outside the church, the bible is often dismissed for its exclusive claims (like Jesus saying, "No one can come to the Father except through me" John 14:6).

Jesus for Everyone

Those traditions that place no limits on who can or cannot be considered a Christian place a high value on inclusion. They place great stock in verses such as 2 Peter 3:9, "[God] does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance." And dismiss verses like John 14:6. The most extreme form of this position is Universalism, which claims that in the end everyone will go to heaven.

No One Needs Jesus

On the other end of this spectrum are the people who reject Christianity altogether because of its exclusive claims. They reason that if God was really good he wouldn't create a system that unfairly punishes people who have never heard of him or Jesus. So since the bible claims both that God is good and that Jesus is the only way to God, then it cannot be true.

Inclusive Exclusivity

The final response to the title of this post, "How Can Christians Exclude People?" is one of both wonder and exasperation. The wonder is at how it's possible for groups to place rules around a free gift. The exasperation is at how misunderstandings can push so many people away from God. How can be something be both inclusive and exclusive at the same time? Let's just say that Jesus has never been afraid of a good paradox.

I'm going to sketch out some of my personal ideas on dealing with this conundrum. Take them as that, my personal ideas. Critique them as that. But also consider them, because they might be helpful.


 God really does want to include everyone. He wants every person who has ever lived or will live to be "saved." Well, then we need to define what it means to be saved. Most Christians consider themselves to be saved because they were baptized into the church and that gives them access to heaven when they die.

Instead of focusing on what happens after we die, I like to focus on why we're alive to begin with. In an earlier post I suggested that humanity exists as image-bearers of God to love and be loved by God and each other. When Jesus taught his followers to pray (Matt. 6:9-13), he tied the idea of God's kingdom to God's will being done (on earth as it is in heaven). We were made to love and be loved, the whole Law and the Prophets are summed up in the commands to love and be loved. So heaven, where God's will is done, is a place of loving and being love. God's kingdom, where God's will is done, is a place of loving and being loved.

[Warning: I'm about to say some things that might make you feel uncomfortable. If you disagree, tell me. Challenge me. Help me grow. If I'm wrong, I want to know it.]

It isn't necessary to have read the bible to be saved.

The bible itself says so. Abraham had never read a line from the bible. Neither had Noah or Enoch or Joseph. Even by the most traditional estimates, the Israelites were God's chosen people for over 400 years before a word of what we consider scripture was penned.

Paul also wrote to the Romans that God is evident in nature itself (Rom. 1:18-23 -- note that this is also one of the big-six passages about homosexuality in the bible). According to Paul, those who don't love God from the evidence in creation are just as culpable as those who don't love God based on the writings of scripture.

If it's not necessary to have read the bible, or to have heard of Jesus, to be saved. Then what is necessary? What keeps this from being a universalist position?


Love is both our purpose and our constant challenge. Believe it or not, it's difficult to love some people -- or most people. People are annoying and mean and rude. They can hurt each other, deride each other, abuse each other, and kill each other. They can do all sorts of awful things that are the furthest from loving. 

But people, all around the world, can also be beautifully loving and self-sacrificial. Muslims show love to Christians. Christians show love to the LGBT community. Buddhists and Hindus, atheists and agnostics, Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses, all of them have the potential to love and be loved. Regardless of if they've read the bible or not. 

To put it in theological terms, God's kingdom is not subsumed within Christianity; Christianity is a part (though not the whole) of God's kingdom. God is not constrained to work only within Christianity. 

The exclusivity of the bible is not that one must be a part of Christianity, but that one must be a part of God's kingdom. Though it might seem redundant, if one is a part of God's kingdom now (i.e. those that do his will on earth), then one will also be a part of God's kingdom in the future (i.e. those that do his will in heaven). 

In my, personal opinion,* following Jesus isn't about belonging to a club with the right name on the door so I can know who's in and who's out. Nor is it about following a set of arbitrary rules of behavior that should induce feelings of shame when broken. Nor is it about doing enough good things to outweigh the bad things and so earn a divine reward. 

No, it's much more difficult than that. To follow Jesus I must truly love myself as one created in the divine image, and as worthy of love and belonging. I must truly love others as image-bearers who are also worthy of love and belonging. And I must love God with not only my thoughts, but my actions, and my emotions. That's the life that Jesus lived, that's the life he commanded others to live, and that is the way in which Jesus is the only path to the Father, because he showed humanity what it means to love God and love each other.** 

Hope for Everyone

I get why Christians (and nearly everyone else) want to be exclusive. It's easier. If I don't have to figure out how to love the person who's different from me, it's easier. If I don't have to wrestle with loving those I find reprehensible, it's easier. If I don't have to struggle with loving someone who think's I'm wrong, it's easier. If I don't have to fight to love someone that I think is wrong, it's easier. 

But love isn't meant to be easy. It's not meant to be without struggle or cost. We were meant to learn and grow together. We were meant to wrestle and fight to know and be known, to love and be loved. We were made to look like God. We were made to give and receive love. 

Christians, can we give up trying to decide who's right and who's wrong? Can we stop trying to do God's job of determining who is worthy of getting into heaven? Can we stop drawing lines in the sand that Jesus never drew? We have enough work to do learning to love and be loved. Why don't we let God handle the judging and we'll work on the loving. 

How has exclusivity hurt you in your life? 

How has exclusivity helped you in your life? 

How can we both include everyone and still hold Jesus' exclusive claims to be true? 

*Which doesn't reflect the opinion of my denomination, my congregation, my co-author, or anyone else.  
** I do think that the bible and Christianity paint the best and clearest picture of what it looks like to love and be loved by the creator. Since the root of nearly every other religion is the concept of right-deeds earning an afterlife reward, practitioners of those faiths would need to reject that basic premise and engage in loving God and loving each other. But, then again, most Christians need to reject that basic premise themselves, since it has infiltrated much of Christian thinking too. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Whose Job is it to Condemn Sin?

In the last post I looked at sin as being unloving. One of the consequences that I mentioned about that was shame. In Eden the first consequence of sin is the feeling of shame (Gen. 3). Adam and Eve were ashamed of their bodies and ashamed to be in the presence of God, even though they were made by God in his image.

Conviction, Guilt, and Shame

The bible shows several responses to sin. Some are healthy, some are harmful. Unfortunately, I think the church often tends to highlight the harmful responses to sin rather than the healthy ones. 


One of the foremost researchers on shame, Brene Brown, says:
I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. 
Shame is the feeling that Adam and Eve felt in the garden. They thought that they were not worthy to be in God's presence. They thought that they were no longer made in his image. They thought that they were broken beyond repair.


Again from Dr. Brown:
I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. 
Guilt allows us to hold our values and our worth intact and self-critique our actions based on those things. If I feel guilty it's because I know that I'm better than my actions show. I feel guilt because I'm worthy of love and belonging and I didn't act like it.

The Apostle Paul showed guilt when he, despite having murdered Christians, lead the church to share the good news with the world. He was not defined by his actions, but by his worthiness for love and belonging. That worthiness drove him to change and grow into one of the greatest evangelists in history.


While both shame and guilt are emotions that we feel ourselves, conviction comes from an external source. In the bible prophets were often the tools of conviction. They would hold up a mirror to the actions of the people for the purpose of evoking a guilt response.

When the prophet Nathan confronted King David, the king was convicted saying "I have sinned against the Lord!" (2 Sam. 12:13). The conviction of sin did not drive David away from God. It did not cause him to think himself unworthy of love and belonging. Instead, it drove him back to God in prayer to wrestle with how he did something that he knew to be wrong.

John Calvin and the Holy Spirit

I think it's fair to say that most of the time we don't have a healthy response to sin. Most of the time being convicted of sin is shame-inducing rather than guilt-inducing. And we owe that, in no small part, to John Calvin. 


Without getting too far off-track, Calvin was a proponent of a doctrine called predestination. He liked it, in part, because it emphasizes the sovereignty of God. His ideas about predestination came to be called Calvinism after him.

The basic idea is that God predestined everyone, before he made the world, for either heaven or hell.* Which sort of obviates the need for converting people since God has already done all the work. So as the belief of Calvinism spread, people wanted to find ways to prove that they were predestined for heaven instead of hell. During a period called the Great Awakening one of the methods for that determination (in the minds of the people) developed. 

The Holy Spirit

The people would all get together for a church service or tent revival and they would wait for the Holy Spirit to show up and convict people. They reasoned that since the Holy Spirit could only dwell within the saved, that if they felt the Spirit then they must be saved, so they would know that they were predestined for heaven. 

To this end, preachers would craft their sermons to evoke the strongest emotional response they could and one of the most famous examples of that is Jonathan Edward's sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." In which he says:

The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn Rebel did his Prince: and yet ‘tis nothing but his Hand that holds you from falling into the Fire every Moment: 'Tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to Hell the last Night; that you was suffer’d to awake again in this World, after you closed your Eyes to sleep: and there is no other Reason to be given why you have not dropped into Hell since you arose in the Morning, but that God’s Hand has held you up: There is no other reason to be given why you han’t gone to Hell since you have sat here in the House of God, provoking his pure Eyes by your sinful wicked Manner of attending his solemn Worship: Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a Reason why you don’t this very Moment drop down into Hell.
Those words helped to launch the Great Awakening in the North America. That sermon was so well regarded that it was preached and re-preached throughout the world, not just by Edwards but by countless other preachers. Those that did not preach Edwards' exact sermon often duplicated the effect through their own genre of preaching that we now call hellfire-and-brimstone. 

Convicting without Condemning

Even reading the words of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" to post here is bringing tears to my eyes and causing the bile to rise in my throat. I kept looking for a place to stop the quote, but the thought just kept going. Shame. Utter and complete shame. It sickens me that the shaming of humanity was portrayed as being from God. What's even worse is that nearly all of American Christianity was affected by that idea. 

The bible says that you are worthy of love and belonging. The bible says that you were made in God's image to be his child. It does not, in any way, say that you are "loathsome" or abhorrent or unworthy. No person is unworthy of love and belonging. None. Period. 

It is not the place of any person to say otherwise. It is not the place of the church to say that someone is unworthy because it was God who made that person in his image. It was God who created them as a holy person to be his child. 


But what about conviction? David needed to be convicted. Paul needed to be convicted. Paul even convicted members of the churches he planted (1 Cor. 5), but conviction and condemnation are not the same thing. Conviction calls people to the standards that they know to be right. It calls people to live into their own worthiness rather than calling that worthiness into question.

Jesus taught that the one who would convict the world of sin is the Holy Spirit (John 16:8). That is, the Holy Spirit will evoke a guilt response in people who are worthy, beloved, holy people and do things that are not in line with their worth.


The first message, the core message of the whole bible, is that we are to love God, love each other, and love ourselves. If we don't love ourselves -- consider ourselves to be worthy of love and belonging -- then we can't love others or God. When we see ourselves as flawed, broken, evil people that are unworthy of love, we have no reason to think that anyone else is worthy of love.

But through the Spirit, we're free to love ourselves as image-bearers of God. We're free to love our neighbors as his holy creations. And we're free to love God, not as a vengeful, angry monster, but as the one who loved us enough to live with us and die for us so we wouldn't have to feel shame anymore.

Why Christians Hate Gays

I won't pretend to know all of the reasons, but I think self-loathing is a primary reason why Christians tend to hate those with whom they disagree. We've spent nearly 300 years steeping in the idea that God wants to snuff us out as vile, disgusting, shameful sinners and we're only saved because Jesus took the bullet for us. We're told to hate ourselves for sinning. We're told to be ashamed of sex. We're told to be ashamed of ourselves. 

Then when we see people who aren't following the rules we think they ought to we take it upon ourselves to condemn them, to shame them the way that we've been shamed. In some ways I think the response is similar to an abused child growing up to abuse their children. We're deeply wounded, shamed people who have been so removed from what true love looks like that we actually think we're being loving when we condemn others to hell. For, if the fear of hell convinced us to stop sinning, then perhaps it will do the same for others. 

Whether or not the bible says that homosexuality is right or wrong, it clearly and unequivocally says that every person is worthy of love and belonging. We are to love ourselves as God's image-bearers and we are to love others as his precious children. Love, belonging and worth don't excuse sin, but rather help us to use a guilt-response to align our actions with our values rather than a shame response to align our values with our actions. 

An Apology

I don't know who is reading this blog, but I want to apologize to anyone who has been made to feel shameful because of Christianity. As a pastor it is, in part, my responsibility to convict the church of this. I'm sorry that I haven't done it sooner. I'm sorry that I haven't done it more vocally. I'm sorry that the bible, which its core message is love, has been used to speak hate into your life. You are worthy. You are beloved. You belong. And I will work to make the church a place where that is true once again.

How have you experienced the difference between guilt and shame?

How would your life be different if you were convinced that you're worthy of love and belonging?

*Note: I don't believe Calvinism, but it's important to understand from an historical perspective.  

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

What are the Consequences of Sin?

I grew up with the "sin separates us from God" idea.
So much of the conversation about homosexuality in the bible comes down to what it means for something to be a sin. Are some sins worse than other sins? How does God treat our sins? How do our sins affect us and those around us?

Sin is Bad (mmmmkay)

We all know that sin is something we shouldn't do. It's all of the bad things in the world. It's breaking the ten commandments and thinking naughty thoughts.

I grew up knowing that certain things were bad (cussing, lying, hitting, etc.), and I learned that other things were bad as I got older (sex... mostly sex). But what I was never taught was why things were considered sins. I was told that the bible said so and that's all I needed. 

Based on what I learned growing up, I developed a logical construct that went something like this: 
  • God created the universe,
  • Therefore, God is the source of everything
  • Humans inherently know good from bad
  • Therefore, the ideas of good and bad are defined by God
  • The bible reveals God to humanity
  • Therefore, the bible defines what is good and bad. 
I know I'm not the first person to come up with that particular thought process, but when I was a teenager I didn't know of anyone else who'd thought through things that way. 

For a long time that was enough for me. But I have this congenital defect: I have to know why. I can't be satisfied with just knowing that something exists or works, I must know why it works. That's led me to understanding (at least at a theoretical level) how everything in the computer on my desk functions. It's a sickness; I admit. 

Why is Sin Bad?

For me the whole "sin is bad" construct started breaking down when I learned that there were things in the bible that used to be sins, but aren't anymore. 

Jesus nullified the sacrificial system (Heb. 10:8-18), so it's no longer a sin to fail to observe the Passover or to bring a dove to the temple or any of the sacrifices required under Jewish law. 

The Spirit nullified the food laws (Acts 10), Jesus nullified the Sabbath laws (Mark 2:23-28), and Paul sums it all up by saying that anything done apart from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). 

I was left to conclude that the rules nullified weren't absolutely necessary -- otherwise they couldn't have been nullified. That means that the code of the bible doesn't necessarily point to absolute good, but to what is the good thing to do in the place and time where you exist. 

Ugh! That sounds like relativism, which undermines the whole Christianity thing. 

So, I had to go back to the drawing board to reconstruct my view of good and evil. 

Why did God Make People? 

For me, the purpose of life is inextricably tied to the meaning of sin. I'm going to take you through a really fast version of my current reasoning.
  • Causes exist (yes, I know this is basic, but that's how I think). 
  • Therefore, an ultimate cause must exit (thanks for that Aristotle).
  • The Ultimate Cause made the universe which led to humanity. 
  • Humanity has always sought a relationship with the Ultimate Cause through religions. 
  • Therefore, the Ultimate Cause created humanity to seek a relationship with it (it's a jump, I know, but it's a jump I'm comfortable with). 
  • If God (i.e. the UC) wants relationship with humanity it cannot be for the service humanity provides (because of the whole universe creation thing). 
  • If God wanted worshipers, he could have created automatons instead of people with free will. 
  • Therefore, God wants a freely accepted relationship based on trust. 
  • So, the religions that emphasize that type of relationship are more likely to be correct. 
  • So, when Jesus roots the entirety of the bible in loving God and loving people, he expresses the core reason for the existence of humanity. 
I know that's quick, but you'd probably get bored with all the details. Suffice it to say, I believe we were created to love God and be loved by him in return. And that belief has a tremendous impact on what I think about sin and the commands of the bible.  

Sin in Context

If you're still with me (thank you), then here's where we get to put everything together. I think that sin is a violation of the core principles of the bible. That is, sin is unloving. Sin is when we don't love God and/or we don't love our neighbors as ourselves (which requires loving ourselves). 

So, sin for the ancient Jews included eating pork, breaking the Sabbath, and mixing types of cloth not because God was arbitrary, but because he was giving them instructions on how to love and be loved in their specific context. 


I'll back up to Eden and make my case from there. God commanded Adam and Eve to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (which totally needs a shorter name like T-KEG). I've always been taught that God did that for no reason whatsoever. He just decided to place a tree there that they couldn't eat from and then punished them for doing so. That does not seem loving to me. But, if God put the tree there for Adam and Eve to eat from eventually, after they'd learned enough about love and relationship from hanging out with God, then it starts to make a little bit more sense. 

In eating from the tree, Adam and Eve were declaring that they didn't trust God to prepare them for the T-KEG in the future. They wanted it immediately. And then knowing all of that covered them with shame which is the emotional equivalent of love repellent. If I'm ashamed of myself, I don't think I'm lovable. So, if you try to love me I either think you're stupid or I'm a fraud (which then causes further shame). 


We will get into the specific historical and cultural context of Leviticus and the ancient Israelites in later posts, but for the purposes of this post we'll just look briefly at some of the their situation. Leviticus is the source of what's known as the Holiness Code (for the commands to be holy, Lev. 20:26). 

Holiness is the idea of being set apart for a purpose. God is holy because he is other, he is separate from creation even though he is among it. In the same way, God wants his people to be holy amidst the unholy -- for the purpose of redeeming all creation. 

I'll say that again. Holiness is redemptive. The Holiness Code of Leviticus existed so that the Israelites could be a redemptive presence among their neighbors (not that they did a good job at it, but that was the purpose). It existed so they could love God, love their neighbors, and show that love as an example. 

As we dig further into the scriptures about homosexuality, specifically in Leviticus, this idea of holiness and love will be incredibly important (spoiler alert). Locating the love-based reason for the commands of Leviticus helps to understand why then some of the commands are no longer valid (i.e. Kosher laws), and why some of them are considered the greatest commands (i.e. love your neighbor as yourself). 

Love versus Sin

The consequence of sin is, at the very least, being unloving. It breaks relationship with God and with others. But sin has other consequences. If I'm unloving toward myself and become addicted to a harmful substance, my body will start to fall apart. If I'm unloving to my spouse I can damage the relationship to the point where she might leave me. If I'm unloving to my neighbors and hurt them, there's a good chance that they'll respond in kind. Some of the commands in the bible are consequence management rules to help mitigate the effects of the unloving actions. 

What consequences of being unloving have you seen? 

Do you think being unloving is the best definition of sin? Why or why not?

If you could write the rule for the universe, what would you do differently?  

Monday, July 6, 2015

It's Hard to be Humble

I spend a lot of time mulling things over. Those who know me well know that I want to figure it all out. They know that I am not spending all of my energy to get a gold star, build an audience, or start arguments. Sure, part of my tenacity in hunting down the best answers I can is because of the thrill of discovery, the joy of mental activity, but that is not my primary motivation, my primary motivation is a belief that paying close attention to difficult problems is at the heart of living the godly life, commonly referred to as ethics. In other words, the search for answers leads to healthy spiritual formation.

In my search I have discovered some things that help me keep my humility and drive me to respect those who are different than I; these discoveries must, in my opinion, are foundational for any discussion of controversial topics.

1. I cannot see the world "as it is," even my understanding of things I observe is an interpretation. I believe that this is a blessing from God and that it can allow us to understand even the most chaotic and complicated events and to discover God's work in the world in fresh ways all of the time.

2. You are in the same boat, even if you don't recognize it.

3. Just because I cannot know the world "as it is" does not mean that there are no bad answers. Though finding the one right answer or interpretation is a phenomenon limited to fields with strict boundaries, like most maths and some "hard" sciences. Indeed, when I believe that I have the single right answer it is often a signal that I am caught up in my own purposes, there are a nearly infinite number of wrong or invalid answers. If I asked "Who wrote the declaration of independence?" The answer "Caterpillar" would be invalid, yet the answer is more complicated than "Thomas Jefferson" since there were numerous previous documents from all over the US which provided the rough materials from which it was constructed. This is especially true when it comes to interpreting the Bible, and part of respecting the word is not reducing it to easy answers but allowing ourselves to first explore the range of valid interpretations as best we can and to reject invalid interpretations.

4. We as people are psychologically incapable of retaining our disgust and indignation over the sins of others without allowing that disgust and indignation to form the lens through which we see them. On the other hand, Jesus ate with the most disgusting types of people, rejecting disgust as a valid lens through which to deal with sexual and financial sinners (among others). On the other hand, Jesus seems to reverse his policy when it comes to the religious leaders who claim to have all of the right answers and burden their followers with the weight of their opinions as if those opinions were the word of God.

5. God does not demand that people get all of the answers right, rather Jesus spoke of himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Light, standing in the place of all of the lesser truths and guiding us to the Father. We do not have to worry so much about being intellectually perfect as we do about being virtuous.

6. In a world where most answers are either valid or invalid, and in which God favors virtue over correctness, we are tasked with the virtue of intellectual humility. That means we must be ready to doubt our own interpretations as absolute truth and to accept the interpretations of others as potentially valid until all reasonable doubt as been removed. This does not mean that we jump ship to every new idea, that would be the intellectual vice commonly referred to as waffling, rather it means that we passionately defend our beliefs and allow others to do the same without casting aspersions on them as people and while recognizing that we may be wrong. For those of us who have been wrong a lot, it is not hard to imagine that we might be missing something.

7. We try to find the best paths to biblical understanding through historical and literary study, respecting the fact that God meant something in the past and that understanding what he was saying to them in their language and shaped by their context can help us understand what he is saying now: that process is called interpretation.

8. Sometimes we come to a place where many interpretations appear valid, even some that seem to conflict. When we face this dilemma, we must choose the answer which tends to result in being formed into the image of Christ, noting that we still may not be on the same page.

9. We should always start with the assumption that others are doing their best with the tools they have.

10. Though we may choose to defend our perspectives in the course of a conversation, we must always try to move beyond the arguments and answers of others by looking for ways in which we might answer the questions better than they. I often find the interpretations of others unsatisfying, yet there are times when I see that, though their arguments are not valid as they are, I could make a valid argument myself.

When we first begin to search according to this perspective, it can seem like mental gymnastics, but as we stretch ourselves, it becomes natural and we tend to become better people.

This list is incomplete, and I am sure that clarifications are in order, but we have to start somewhere.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Is the Bible Static or Dynamic?

Here's the post where I might get myself in trouble (as if the previous ones haven't already).

I want to talk about how we see the text of scripture from beginning to end -- and how that might be different today. The idea I'm going to present is called Progressive Revelation, which is essentially the idea that God has revealed himself to his people in greater detail over the course of time.

Read the last post here.

Old Testament

Within the Hebrew scriptures there is a move from less knowledge about God to more knowledge about God. In Genesis, the people have some understanding about God but there is no written, moral code for them to follow. So Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and all the rest) are either told by God (or angels) what to do, or they figure it out for themselves. 

With the coming of Moses (more than 400 years later) the Israelite people finally got a written code of conduct in the Mosaic Law (or Torah). Traditionally the Mosaic Law is considered to be the first five books of the Old Testament. The Torah formed the basis of Jewish tradition and practice and continues to do so even today. 

As the Israelites moved into the land of the Canaanites they developed more writings in history, poetry, wisdom, and prophecy. All of those writings add specificity to the laws of the Torah. So when Hosea shares God's words, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (6:6) it further explains the purpose and meaning of the sacrificial system outlined in the Torah. 

New Testament

That the process of further revelation continued in the New Testament is clear. Jesus' most famous teaching is comprised of further explanation of the Law. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus' refrain is: "You have heard it was said... but I say to you..." Through that he clarifies laws on adultery, murder, divorce, and revenge. 

Further, Jesus promised to his disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit to teach them everything (John 14:26). The Spirit was meant to fill in the blanks for what Jesus was unable to teach his disciples while he was with them (John 16:12-16). 

Then we get the further writings in the New Testament where the apostles (primarily Paul) continue the process of revelation and explanation. For example, Paul taught that the food laws of the Jews were not applicable to Christians (Rom. 14). 

Now What? 

That there is a progress in the revelation of God's word and will from the beginning of the bible to the end of it is without question. The question is when or if the revelation has stopped. This point will likely be one of the first points where the readers will disagree. As such, I will do my best to present both sides of the disagreement as fairly as I can and let you decide where you stand in the issue. 

Revelation has Ceased

One side believes that supernatural revelation from God ceased with the death of the apostles (the 12 plus Paul who were given the special power from Jesus to receive revelation from God through the Holy Spirit). So the book of Revelation (thought to be the latest work in the New Testament) would be the last supernatural revelation in existence, since John the Apostle was the last to die (around 90 CE). 

This belief is often tied to the idea that miraculous spiritual gifts have also ceased to exist in the world. The reasoning is that the outpouring of the Spirit on the apostles was of a different kind than the Spirit received by all Christians. The apostles had special authority to perform miracles, to confer the Spirit on others, and to reveal God's word. There isn't much biblical evidence for this view except a somewhat stretched reading of 1 Corinthians 13 that takes the "perfect" that is meant to come as the completion of the scriptures which would then allow miraculous gifts (i.e. speaking in tongues and prophesying) to pass away. 

This view puts a high value on apostolic authority and the integrity of the bible. It allows for the changes from the Old Testament to the New without undermining the authority of scripture altogether. 

Revelation Continues

Another approach is that the revelation that began in scripture is continuing even today. Advocates of this view will often point to the bible's affirmation (or acceptance) of slavery as being a placeholder until God revealed that no person should be a slave. The strong religious arguments over slavery during the fight for abolition highlighted this divide. Those in favor of abolition pointed to the overall message of love and equality in the bible and cited Galatians 3:28, "...there is neither slave nor free..." in support of their cause. While opponents of abolition  pointed to words by the same author (Paul) exhorting slaves to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5-9). 

Advocates of continuing revelation would say that they are engaging both the Old and New Testaments in the same way that Jesus and Paul engaged the Hebrew scriptures. The newer understandings are proof, to them, that God is continuing the work of his Spirit even today. 

A weakness of continuing revelation is knowing when or how one can find certainty. For if everyone can receive a new revelation at any time, then there can be no certainty for belief or practice. Therefore, grounding any new revelation in the core message of the bible is essential for making continuing revelation a viable Christian belief rather than a departure from Christianity. 

Another weakness of continuing revelation is that it weighs the opinions of people on the scales of interpreting scripture. So the same logic could be applied in the opposite direction -- making something out to be a sin that is not listed as a sin in the bible (as in the case of teetotalers), or justifying actions that are not in line with the core message of the bible (e.g. The Crusades). 


This is the first point where someone can take the bible seriously and affirm homosexual relationships. One must believe in progressive revelation and that it continues today and that the core message of the bible allows for the rejection of the passages prohibiting homosexual behavior. There are similar interpretive moves with affirming gender equality and abolition of slavery, however the gender and slavery issues are easier to process while still holding a high view of scripture (we'll get into that in a later post). 

Without proper constraints continuing revelation can become mob-rule masquerading as religion, and without enough freedom closed revelation can become legalism masquerading as religion. 

Which strengths of the different views are most compelling to you? Why?

Which weakness of the different views are most compelling to you? Why? 

If you had to pick either continuing revelation or closed revelation as a belief, which would it be? Why? 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

What's the Core Message of the Bible?

In setting the stage for discussing the passages in the bible on homosexuality, I quoted Willard Swartley who suggested that one of the healthy approaches to controversial topics in scripture is:
The basic moral and theological principles of the entire Scripture are given priority over statements which stand in tension with these principles or with other specific texts on the subject.
Which raises the question: What are "the basic moral and theological principles of the entire Scripture?"

Read the last post here.

Earning Heaven

So much of religion (not just Christianity) seems primarily concerned with earning a good place in the afterlife. Muslims must have their good and bad deeds weighed at the judgement. Hindus and Buddhists are judged on their karma. Nearly every religion that exists has the same basic equation: Doing good = reward in the next life.

Yet that's exactly what Jesus militated against. He lambasted the Pharisees and teachers of the law for their dutiful adherence to the commands of the Torah and their willful ignorance of God's heart. Jesus rebuked them -- the ones known as the teachers, the ones renowned for their learning, the ones respected as scholars -- by saying, "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'" (Matt. 9:13).

Still though, many Christians teach the bible from the perspective of accruing enough (or the right kind of) good deeds to earn heaven. I grew up thinking this. I thought that if I was only baptized (through full immersion) that I would somehow force God's hand and make him let me into heaven. I also thought that people who weren't baptized correctly had failed to appease God through strict obedience and would be condemned to hell.

That is the same basic belief system that the Pharisees had.

The Greatest Commands

When Jesus was asked about the greatest command he responded with two of them. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:34-40). For Jesus those two ideas summed up all of the Old Testament. 

Fun fact, the command to "love your neighbor as yourself" that Jesus put second only to loving God is found in Leviticus 19:18, which is the chapter between the two mentions of homosexual relations in the Old Testament (but we'll get back to that later). 

So, for Jesus, the commands against adultery are rooted in love (cf. Rom 13:8-10). The commands against eating pork were* rooted in love. The commands regarding hair cuts and tattoos were rooted in love. The commands about not mixing types of fabrics were rooted in love.

Some of the commands are pretty easy to figure out. Don't have idols is the natural outgrowth of loving God completely. Not stealing or lying is the natural outgrowth of loving your neighbor. Observing the Sabbath is a way to love God, love your neighbor (so they get a day off), and to love yourself (having margin in your life instead of working all the time). 

Other commands are more difficult to reconcile with the idea of love. Why would God command the death penalty out of love? Why would God allow slavery out of love? Why would God even care about the mixing of fabric or the edges of a man's beard? 

I hope that, going forward, we can make some sense of those difficult commands. They are, in no small part, related to the commands against homosexuality which, if Jesus was right, must also be rooted in love. 

Salvation Issues

When I was growing up in the church there was a lot of concern about what things were, or were not, salvation issues. The conversation came up around trying to figure out what things we could bend on and what things we had to be firm about. The young people wanted different music or the participation of women or to take communion on a Saturday night instead of a Sunday morning. So we tried to figure out if they were "disputable matters" or salvation issues (Rom. 14:1 "differing opinions" in the NET Bible). 

As we were trying to determine what we could or could not budge on, we almost completely ignored the matters that Jesus considers to be salvation issues. That is, those commands which, if disobeyed, will disqualify one from heaven. 

When Jesus taught about the last judgement he was, in many ways, speaking directly against the legalism of the Pharisees and law-teachers. Instead of the judgement being based around adherence to the Mosaic Law, Jesus taught that it was based on how we treat our neighbors (Matt. 25:31-46). 

If you feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned then, according to Jesus, you have fulfilled the law and treated Jesus with the same kindness that you offered to the least of his brothers and sisters. And conversely, if you withhold those things from the least of Jesus' brothers and sisters, you withhold it from Jesus and are condemned. 

I brought all that up to say that there are both prescriptive and proscriptive aspects to the core commands of love. Love demands that we engage in certain activities and that we avoid certain activities. Love constrains our actions (see 1 Cor. 13). 

What's Next

I feel comfortable with the assumption that, as Jesus said, love is at the heart of scripture. I believe that all of the bible is intended to bring humanity closer to God through loving him and loving one another. So as we move toward the controversial topics of the bible, I will use the greatest commands as the core principle of scripture to help us understand the more difficult ideas. 

Do you agree that love is the core principle of the bible? 

Are there other core principles that I've ignored? 

What would religion look like if it was less concerned with earning salvation?

Read the next post here.

* Note: I switched to the past-tense in referring to food-laws since those were specifically repealed by Jesus and the Spirit. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Challenges in Studying Homosexuality in the Bible

It's not like studying the bible is a clear-cut process without pitfalls, but there are certain topics within scripture that are much more difficult. Homosexuality is definitely one of them.

Read the last post here.


Perhaps the most challenging aspect of studying the bible on the topic of homosexuality is that there is so little content within scripture addressing the topic. For overt statements there are six-ish passages that deal with homosexual relations. 

Genesis 19

This passage is, explicitly, about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Though it has been long used to vilify male homosexuality, the destruction of the cities is the most important part of the story. I consider this to be a kind-of passage due, in large part, to the way it has been used rather than the actual content. 


There are two separate places in Leviticus where homosexual acts (specifically male homosexual acts) are condemned (18:22, 29; and 20:13*). Without getting into the nuts and bolts of interpreting these passage, I'll simply say that they are the most straightforward condemnations of homosexual behavior in the bible. 


In the first chapter of Romans, Paul mentions both male and female homosexual acts (the only place in the bible where female homosexual acts are mentioned). 

1 Corinthians & 1 Timothy

I combined these two mentions because that's all they are, just a word or two in a list. There's no big explanation in either 1 Corinthians 6:9 or 1 Timothy 1:10


While the lack of overall content in the bible makes studying homosexuality difficult, what hampers things far more are the cultural mores surrounding sex and homosexuality that permeate both the modern and ancient cultures. 


When looking at the ancient world there was a whole lot of sex going on and there were a lot of rules governing that sex, but often we don't know what those rules were or what types of sex were going on due to the historians who provide the information. Both ancient and modern historians are subject to their own biases, which means that sexual acts that they find to be distasteful are either vilified or ignored. 

Additionally, the ancient world was not a homogeneous mass of similar beliefs, but an ongoing conflict of ideas. Quite often the morals were enforced through threats of violence, so the early Christians were compelled to worship Caesar as a god or be punished. Thus dissenting ideas and disparate viewpoints are hard to come by in the historical record. 

Finally, the cultic sexual practices are not well differentiated from non-religious sex in the extant documents. When Paul condemns sex with prostitutes (1 Cor. 6:16) we don't know if it is a condemnation of temple prostitution, general prostitution, or even if it matters. In contrast, the lineage of Jesus has Tamar posing as a prostitute to sleep with her father-in-law Judah (Gen. 38) and in the end it is Judah who declares Tamar to be righteous. 


Not that there's not more to say about the views of sex in the ancient world, but that suffices to point out the difficulty in finding some sort of meaning out of the historical documents. But the modern side of culture is no better. The historians, linguists, and theologians all bring their own presuppositions to the table, making it extremely difficult to find the kernel of truth beneath all of that. 

The study of history as more of a science didn't arise until the Enlightenment. Before that time historians like Josephus and Herodotus recorded what they wanted without any citation of sources or corroboration. Modern history is much, much better at uncovering the facts of the past, but it also arose during the same time as Puritanical and Victorian morals were in vogue in Europe. So when the historical conversation moved toward topics deemed unworthy for scholars, they were simply dropped, or at best given a cursory examination. 

Linguistically there are similar issues. The first translations of the bible into the common tongue (instead of Greek, Hebrew, or Latin) occurred in a culture that was almost totally controlled by the Catholic Church and its interpretations of scripture. So even today while there are volumes written on the possible definitions of words like "love" and "peace" the words that are translated as "fornication" "sexual immorality" and "homosexuality" have little, if any, scholarship surrounding their definitions. 

Theologians are, in many ways, in even a worse position than historians and linguists. They must either advocate for a position or against it. Much of the early theological work on homosexuality in the bible is simple condemnation without any discussion. More recently there have been strong defenses of homosexuality from theological circles, but those defenses, more often than not, come from people already predisposed toward their position. Put simply, those who think homosexuality is not a sin interpret the bible that way; those who think that it is a sin interpret the bible to agree with them. 


Just because something is difficult, does not mean that it shouldn't be attempted. I wrote all of this, not to dissuade us from a conversation, but to set the proper tone and expectations. What I really want to happen is for us to set aside our biases (as best we can) and to recognize the ones we can't set aside. And then to step into a reading of scripture with fresh eyes.

It's probably important for you to know that I'm a straight Christian. I'm not trying to prove one side or another here, though. What I want is to understand the bible that I follow, not based on simplistic platitudes offered to me, but on my own study. I came at this process almost 15 years ago with the book Women in the Church and I found that the views that had been given to me weren't the ones I settled on after a closer reading of the bible.

I can't help but wonder what will happen in this reading.

What challenges have you had in reading or understanding the bible?

What has helped you to arrive at the beliefs you have now?

What has made it more difficult for you to understand your beliefs or the bible?

Read the next post here.

* Note: I'm linking to the whole chapter for each passage to give the overall context. I'm also using the New English Translation as it tends to offer a reasonable, scholarly translation (though it's not without issues which we'll discuss later).