Doctrinal Discernment: We Do Not Give Scalpels to Angry Children

Doctrinal discernment in the church is lacking. For many Christians, tradition and/or experience trump doctrine. This is harmful to the church and rampant in the church.

But so are the kind of Christians and bloggers that are always looking to be against something instead of for something. Cynicism is not a spiritual fruit or spiritual gift.

Richard Lovelace has a great phrase in this regard. He states,

Considering the capacity of variant orthodoxies to divide the church, we might also question how much doctrinal discernment God can safely entrust to the church. We do not give scalpels to angry children. [Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 286. Emphasis added.]

Scalpels are ultimately to be instruments of healing for the whole body. An angry surgeon is a horrifying thought for anyone suffering from a chronic disease looking for wholeness. The same is true for the church, the body and bride of the Lord Jesus.

There are few things more frightening than those self-proclaimed doctrine police who wield there “discernment” scalpels like machetes. According to the apostle Paul, the man of God must not be quarrelsome, kind, and correct those in error with gentleness (2 Ti. 2:24-25).

Scalpels are needed. It’s the angry surgeons we could use a lot less of.

Hate, A Neglected Christian Virtue & Prayer

Hate doesn’t normally come up in the list of Christian virtues. But it should.

We are to hate what is evil. This is a command, and a neglected one at that. God through the prophet Amos called his people to: “Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts” (Amos 5:15). Notice how hating evil relates to justice. Justice requires hating injustice. There is no passivity here. Evil is not to be tolerated. It is to be hated. So much for tolerance.

We must pray our hate.

Now, this is Old Testament stuff, right? No. It is for the Christian. In fact, hate follows love. Paul knew this connection well. He could speak of love in one sentence and in the very next one mention hate: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9).

Christians are not to take the sword. Jesus told Peter to put his away. However, Christians are still called to hate. If you are like me, you’ve experienced a desensitizing of evil. We can blame TV or video games. Or we can blame it on overly optimistic, smiley-faced, sentimental Christianity. But fundamentally we can blame a low view of God.

We don’t hate like we should because we don’t love like we should. To love God, as he is revealed in Scripture, is to love a God of justice and a God who will one day punish his enemies and banish the curse from the new heavens and earth wherever it may lay. Hatred of evil requires delight in the justice of God—both his restorative justice and his retributive justice. Evangelicals are giddy on the restorative justice of God—and we should be—but we tend to ignore his retributive justice. We love little and hate little because we ignore God in his fullness, especially his holiness.

We don’t hate like we should because we don’t love like we should.

I started thinking about this in reading Psalm 139 and how David prays his hate. This Psalm is usually taught in Sunday School, but we make sure to edit out all that slaying and hating enemies stuff near the end of the Psalm. We like the very end. The just me and God part, but not the speaking out on matters of public injustice part.

We are to hate all that God hates, not just what the world wants us to hate. Our society hates environmental injustice and hates racial injustice, and we should do the same. But we must go further and not remain silent on other things that God hates. We tend to want justice for giraffes more than we do unborn human embryos–which this Psalm says, God himself spends time carefully knitting together (119:15-16). So we must acquire a hatred given by God and not just by culture. We must pray for the hate we do not feel.

We must pray for the hate we do not feel.

In some ways, though it must be said with proper nuance, we hate too little and demonstrate that we do not love enough. The Psalms don’t let us do this. Psalmists like David cry out regularly for evildoers to be brought to justice. Complacency is far removed from the songs of these worshippers. They hate that there are victims in the world and that injustice seems to reign. Eugene Peterson, in Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, writes,

Just as hurt is the usual human experience that brings us to our knees praying for help, provoking the realization that we need God, so hate is frequently the human experience that brings us to our feet praying for justice, catalyzing our concern for the terrible violations against life all around us. Hate is often the first sign that we care. If we are far gone in complacency, it is often the only emotion with enough velocity to penetrate our protective smugness and draw red blood…

Hate, prayed, takes our lives to bedrock where the foundations of justice are being laid. (99-100, 101).

We must pray our hate. What else are you going to do with it? One of the reasons prayer is impotent is because we sanitize what we say to God. But he can handle it. We think a high view of the sovereignty of God, means a passive, emotionless, stoic prayer. It doesn’t. Psalm 139 demonstrates this: David knows all his days were planned by God before they happened in verse 16 and yet he channels his hate in prayer in verses 19-22.

Now, you pray yours. Pray your hate.

We can talk theodicy, but do we pray it? Enough of philosophizing and theologizing alone.

Don’t vent it on other people, but vent it on God. We can theologize about the problem of evil, but we should also pray about this problem. Part of the prayer of the kingdom is praying our hate. Asking for the Father’s kingdom to come, implies the demolishing of the kingdoms of this world.

Anger at the state of the world, even anger at God, is expressed in the Psalms (and Prophets). There is a wrestling with God that needs to characterize more of Christian prayer. We can talk theodicy, but do we pray it? Enough of philosophizing and theologizing alone. True prayer does more than think. It emotes and feels. The Psalms liberate us to be human and teach us to pray the way we should. They show us what the relationship of God with believers who have gone before us looked like.

Finally, our hate must also be gospel-shaped. One thing we learn is that God came as a man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to die for his enemies. Jesus was slain in the place of the wicked. Therefore we love victims by hating what victimized them–naming and identifying evil personally and publicly–but we also pray for the salvation of perpetrators. Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of the perpetrators that crucified him, and we should pray for those who have victimized us and ones we love. We love our neighbors and we love God in his holy justice by telling the ungodly the good news of the cross—where divine love and justice kiss—and abhorring the evil that creates victims of all kinds and crucified our sinless Savior. Christians hate evil and like their Savior love their enemies even in the face of their own death.

So Christian, pray your hatred and remember genuine Christian love hates.

Dr. Reza Aslan’s Jesus: Safe & Subjective

Dr. Reza Aslan’s version of Jesus of Nazareth has been getting a bit of press lately, and the viral Fox News interview with him discussing his recent book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth sure didn’t hurt the sales any. I haven’t read the book, but from the sounds of it (see paragraph 3 in the following interview) Dr. Aslan, like other scholars before him, are attempting to extract the Jesus of history from the Jesus of the four gospels. In another interview with The Atlantic author Joe Fassler, Dr. Aslan presents Jesus as a revolutionary who confronted the powerful religious establishment for the sake of the powerless and offered a salvation to people that comes from within:

In Dr. Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus you get to be your own Yahweh or at least make God whatever you want him to be, while in the gospels Jesus reserves the sacred divine name for himself.

I think that, obviously, is an enormous threat to the power-holders whose authority came from—precisely as Dostoevsky says—from their ability to appease a man’s conscience. Pay us your dues, your tithes, bring us your sacrifices, submit to our authority, and in return, we will give you salvation. And Jesus’ challenge to that idea was based on the notion that the power for salvation does not rest in any outsider’s hand: that it rests within the individual. I think that’s an idea that a lot of Christians need to remember. Those who state that salvation comes solely through the Church or belief in a set of doctrines that a bunch of men wrote many years ago are forgetting what Jesus himself said: that salvation is purely an internal matter. That you are the only one qualified to define what God is for you. No one else is qualified to make that decision for you.

This version of Jesus isn’t unique or new. In fact, he’s quite popular. He’s got a message of empowerment and self-salvation, which is eaten up by spiritual but not religious Americans. His Nazarene upsets the safety of the establishment through confrontation, while offering the safest of religious sensibilities. This Jesus grants justice for the weak and marginalized in the here-and-now and then basically gives us what we naturally want out of religion anyway–God and salvation on our own terms. He’s out to revolutionize the injustice of the world, but not to revolutionize the human hearts propensity to subjective idolatry.

The kind of radical revolution of religion that Jesus is promoting is not an internal, relativistic theism, but he’s calling the ones in power and the powerless to worship him and find salvation in him alone.

This is quite the opposite of Jesus, the Jewish man of the New Testament (I recognize that Aslan isn’t after that Jesus anyway), who was steeped in Israel’s identity and embodied Israel’s story in himself. According to this story, Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, had quite a different understanding of God than Dr. Aslan. In the book of Exodus Yahweh called himself rather simply and almost curtly, “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14). In other words, “I am and there is nothing you can do about it. I’m the definer. You are not. I exist independently of you, and you exist dependently upon me.” And the crazy-if-it-isn’t-true thing about the man Jesus of Nazareth is that he called Yahweh his Father, and not only that, he identified himself with Yahweh himself.

Dr. Aslan, as Fassler’s interview showed, doesn’t like this kind of Jesus. He’s distrustful of “anyone who presents themselves as a gatekeeper to truth, or a gatekeeper to salvation”. But this is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus, according to his own words, was the exclusive gatekeeper of the truth because he was the gate (Jn. 10:9) and the truth (Jn. 14:6).

In Dr. Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus you get to be your own Yahweh or at least make God whatever you want him to be, while in the gospels Jesus reserves the sacred divine name for himself. According to the gospel writer’s Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t put to death because he simply upset the religious establishment by breaking tradition and coming alongside the lowly, he upset the religious establishment most of all because he blasphemed by making himself out to be God.

These claims are found in many places in the gospels, yet there is one particular place in chapter five of John’s gospel that seems particularly revealing over against Dr. Aslan’s differing representation of Jesus. Here in a moment where Jesus is operating as a kind of revolutionary, doing good and overturning the religious establishment by healing on the Sabbath, at the same time, he is claiming to be God. Not only is he doing justice by restoring a paraplegic man to wholeness, in spite of the rules of the religious system, he is claiming to being doing the very “work” (a big no-no on the Sabbath) of his Father: “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (5:17). In the next verse, the narrator of this gospel, fills out the results of Jesus’ words and actions,

“This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (5:18)

Jesus goes on to say this very same thing by identifying himself with his Father, Yahweh, and comes up with different claims than Dr. Aslan’s Jesus. John’s Jesus says,

The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (5:22-24)

Key word here: honor. Key phrase: just as. Jesus is claiming to deserve the same honor–the same worship–as Yahweh. Furthermore, he is saying that eternal life, salvation, is found in him. The kind of radical revolution of religion that Jesus is promoting is not an internal, relativistic theism, but he’s calling the ones in power and the powerless to worship him and find salvation in him alone.

I’ll leave it to New Testament scholars like NT Wright (in places like this) and Richard Bauckham (see Michael Kruger’s recent post on the historicity of John’s gospel) to demonstrate the historicity of the Jesus of the gospels, but Dr. Aslan’s Jesus is not the Jesus of history or the gospels. The Jesus of the gospels is more like CS Lewis’s Jesus-figure, Aslan, the King of the mythic world Narnia who is a simultaneously unsafe, untamed and entirely good lion, while Dr. Aslan’s Jesus is more like a chameleon who changes the colors of the divine to whatever you want him/her/it to be.

Abortion: President Obama’s Position, Dr. Gosnell’s Practice, & All of Us

Recently more and more of the press are picking up on the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell and his abortion practices, and many are being left horrified by them because of his treatment of both women and babies. But the parallels between this practice and that of late-term abortion (partial-birth abortion) should not be ignored.

The most stringent gate-keepers of pro-choice rights have defended late-term abortion because they know that if late-term abortion is banned more and more abortion practices could be banned and the “rights” of women to these medical procedures could be diminished. For instance, when President Obama was a senator he voted no on banning late-term abortion for the following reason: “…not because I don’t recognize that these are painful issues, but because [he] trusts woman to make these decisions.”

 

In a fundraising letter in 2004 Michelle Obama argued that her husband would fight for women’s rights and against the then rising conservatism in America, and used his denial of the partial-birth abortion ban to establish it.

So what’s the difference between “terminating” [medical procedure of late-term abortion] a fetus inside the womb and killing [crime of infanticide] a baby born outside of it? Tim Carney, of the Washington Examiner, shows that there is none:

…late-term abortionist LeRoy Carhart, who operates in Germantown, Md., snips their spines with scissors.

In his first U.S. Senate race, Obama used Carhart’s procedure as a fundraising pitch. In a 2004 campaign mailing, Michelle Obama tried to rally the donor base by explaining how Republicans were trying to ban partial-birth abortion, “a legitimate medical procedure,” as Michelle put it.

The most substantive difference between the partial-birth abortions on which Obama fundraised and Gosnell’s abortions is this: Dr. Gosnell did the snipping outside of the mother’s birth canal, while Dr. Carhart reaches his scissors inside the woman’s vagina to snip the baby’s spine.

This fact points us to the most likely reason the mainstream media ignored the story as long as possible: The Gosnell story has an inherent pro-life bias, because the Gosnell story leads us to discussing abortion procedures.

When you discuss the act of aborting — even perfectly legal abortions — you have to discuss the blood, the scalpels, the scissors. You might use terms like “dilation and extraction” or “dilation and curettage.” Think through those terms (“curettage” is defined as “a surgical scraping or cleaning”) and recall that what is being extracted or scraped has a beating heart.

Discussing Gosnell threatens to start a discussion on abortion procedures — and that’s not good for anyone in the abortion industry.

The argument is often made that pro-choice candidates don’t like abortion and that they hope to see abortions dwindle. I am not arguing that President Obama or any other vigorous pro-choice defenders “like” abortion at any term during a woman’s pregnancy and a baby’s development in the womb, but I am noting, as Carney put it, that there is no “substantive difference” between Dr. Gosnell’s practice of “snipping” and the President and other advocates of late-term abortion rights positions.

When it comes to pro-life arguments, like the one I’m making, Dr. Gosnell is an easy target and late-term pro-choice politicians like the President and his wife are too. The particularly gruesome details of abortions under Dr. Gosnell’s practice and the similar though more, dare I say, conveniently hidden (via in the birth canal) practice of late-term abortion, puts on display the horror of all abortion in general. It’s easy to be sickened by the obvious violent killing of babies under Gosnell’s regime, but what is truly sickening is that all of us are not equally disgusted by the 50 million abortions that have taken place in the US during the last four decades at any term.

These are not just digits. These are babies. And Gosnell’s trial throws this up in our faces.

The Goal of Life is Not to Be Liked

Here is an edited version of something I wrote on a previous blog.

Pop culture author extraordinaire, Chuck Klosterman, identifies our relentless desire to be “liked”:

“…being likable is the only thing that seems to matter to anyone. You see this everywhere. Parents don’t act like parents anymore, because they mainly want their kids to like them; they want their kids to see them as their two best friends. This is why modern kids act like animals. At some point, people confused being liked with being good. Those two qualities are not the same. It’s important to be a good person; it’s not important to be a well-liked person.” IV, 275

To make your personal mission being liked by everyone in the world sets you up for a life of frustration and depression. You will end up living your life based upon others expectations and your discernment on what is right and wrong will fly out the window as the litmus test of everything becomes what will and will not make this or that person happy.

The goal of life is not be liked.

The compulsion to be liked by anyone is actually the fear of man. Your sinful desire for likability is actually a revelation of your own fear. Humans were only made to fear one person–God. And when your value becomes defined by what other people think of you, you will not be “a good person” nor a “godly person”, but a narcissistic person who needs the praise of others for self-fulfillment. This will always disappoint.

Fearing God is what you were made for. His opinion of you is the only thing that matters and fulfills, and God’s good news for our culture is that his value-system does not fluctuate on your likability. Because he does not like–he loves. And the measure of his love is seen in the crucifixion of his Son for unlikable, no, rather, hell-deserving sinners.

The love of God on display here is not the like of God. God did not die to affirm you, but to save you. His love is never based on your good actions, but always based on the perfect work of Jesus. For those who trust Christ, God’s likeness of you never fluctuates because it is never mere likeness but is wrapped up in his eternal love for his own Son, Jesus.

God loves you with Jesus-sized love. Knowing and experiencing this love is human wholeness and brings radical freedom. It frees you from the desire to be liked, and imparts the experience of being loved by the Creator of the universe forever. It’s not that important to be well liked, but it is eternally important to be in the favor of God.

I doubt Klosterman would agree with my Christian perspective here, but it is the only ultimately satisfying remedy to the cultural problem that he sees. People act like animals not just because their not liked, but because as sinful human beings created in the image of God they have traded the glory of God for the idolatry of likability.

The Devil, No, My Brain Made Me Do It: Neuroscience, Sin, & Personal Responsibility

I came across an article the other day on how neuroscience is playing out in the courtroom. In some cases, if a person is convicted of a crime, say, rape, murder, or child molestation the perpetrators and their legal team are using neuroscience to essentially show that their brain made them commit the crime or at least influenced them in such a way that they bear less of a responsibility for it. The writer states,

It’s the latest example of how neuroscience – the science of the brain and how it works – is taking the stand and beginning to challenge society’s notions of crime and punishment.

The issue has been thrown into the spotlight by new technologies, like structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) scans and DNA analysis, that can help pinpoint the biological basis of mental disorders.

A series of recent studies has established that psychopathic rapists and murderers have distinct brain structures that show up when their heads are scanned using MRI…

The lawyers for American serial killer Brian Dugan, who was facing execution in Illinois after pleading guilty to raping and killing a 10-year-old girl, used scans of his brain activity to argue he had mental malfunctions and should be spared the death penalty. In the event, Illinois abolished capital punishment while he was on death row.

Further breakthroughs in psychiatry and neuroscience are continuing to bring up complicated moral questions. The question of biological and genetic determinism is a classic battle between behavior and identity and brings up all kinds of questions about human responsibility. Courts, families, and churches will all be affected by these scientific breakthroughs and the debate that ensues. After all, if my brain gives me a propensity toward something that is immoral, am I responsible for it? For instance, in legal matters, if murder and/or child molestation is immoral and someone murders or molests someone else but had a “malfunction” in their brain that led to the act, should their punishment be reduced? In biblical studies, If homosexuality is sinful but you were born with a homosexual orientation and disposition, can it be considered sinful? The list can go on. Essentially the excuse “the Devil made me do it” has now been replaced “my brain made me do it.”

There is no doubt that neuroscience is uncovering all kinds of intriguing and important reasons for why we do what we do and feel what we feel as human beings and it should not be ignored by Christians. But not ignoring it does not mean necessarily embracing all the conclusions that judges, therapists, and psychiatrists will give.

From a Christian perspective, every single one of these breakthroughs is subject to the authority of God and the authority of his Word. Most likely we will continue to find biological reasons for human behavior but this will never take the sinfulness out of sin.

We humans love excuses for our sinful and immoral ways. Since the Bible assumes a view of human nature that is already bent toward sin, if neuroscience continues to uncover sins that human beings are bent toward it should not be surprising. An internal biological influencer toward a particular immoral act or crime does not strip us of personal responsibility. The Bible assumes original sin–all of us don’t just commit sins but are born sinners because of our father Adam–and personal responsibility–you are responsible for sinning like your father did. Being prone to a particular sin (whatever that is) is normal and does not exempt us from that particular sins penalties. Dr. David Powlison puts it this way,

Those with the “worry gene,” the “anger gene,” the “addictive pleasure gene,” or the “kleptomania gene” will be prone to the respective sins. Such findings cause no problem for the Faith. They do trouble a Pelagian view that defines sin only as conscious “choice.” But sin is an unsearchable morass of disposition, drift, willful choice, unwitting impulse, obsession, compulsion, seeming happenstance, the devil’s appetite for souls, the world’s shaping influence, and God’s hardening of hard hearts. Of course biological factors are at work: we are embodied sinners and saints. [Quoted by Justin Taylor from his blog post “Powlison on Biological Tendencies, Homosexual and Beyond” (March 6, 2007)]

 

As sinful human beings in a complicated world within and without, we need more than the mending of the malfunctions of our brains. We are not primarily in need of an innovative rehabilitation program, a new antidepressant, or sexual “freedom”, but a great Savior. And God has provided this in sending his Son to die and rise from death for sinners–those who are biologically predisposed to sin and simultaneously actively choose sin in their behaviors–and make them new creations.

Sure, your brain influences all kinds of your sinful behaviors, and for that matter so does the devil, just ask Jesus’ disciple Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Neuroscience will probably give us more biological insight and psychiatry may give more medical ways to alleviate and manipulate certain biological tendencies, but neither one can do what Jesus does and give the freedom he provides. He calls sinners to repent (take personal responsibility for their sins and sinfulness) and believe his good news–that he has taken the penalty of death sinners deserve and alone gives the grace of true freedom and transformation.

 

Mosaic Liberalism: Returning to Our Beginnings

Pulitzer Prize winning Novelist Marilynne Robinson:

“The law of Moses puts liberation theology to shame in its passionate loyalty to the poor.”[When I Was a Child I Read Books, Location 1479]

“At present, here in what is still sometimes called our Calvinist civilization, the controversies of liberalism and conservatism come down, as always, to economics…There is clearly a feeling abroad that God smiled on our beginnings, and that we should return to them as we can. If we really did attempt to return to them, we would find Moses as well as Christ, Calvin, and his legions of intellectual heirs. And we would find a recurrent, passionate insistence on bounty or liberality, mercy and liberality, on being kind and liberal, liberal and bountiful, and enjoying the great blessings God has promised to liberality to the poor.” [Ibid., Location 1227]

Yahweh’s prophet Moses:

“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that theLord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother,but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be…10 You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” (Deut. 15:7-8, 10-11)

“You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)