Tuesday, October 31, 2006

ABS - The Current Platform

I've been mulling this over for some time. I saw it in the 2004 presidential race. It appears to be prevalent right now in the congressional races around here. It's the latest platform, and it seems to be quite popular.

I'll give it a name because no one else has. It's ABS -- "Any But Syndrome". When John Kerry ran against George Bush, I had no idea what John Kerry had to offer. It appeared as if his platform was "You don't want him for another 4 years; vote for Anybody But him." I've seen it in the current races here in Arizona. Jim Pederson is going against the incumbent John Kyl with the very same "You don't want him in Washington anymore; vote for me" without offering me reasons to vote for him. (Well, to be completely fair, he has given a few. He's in favor of abortion and intends to get elected to the Senate at which point, according to him, he will change Washington.) Over and over I'm seeing challengers who seem to be running solely on this "anybody but" syndrome. They don't offer us anything better. They just know we don't want more of what we've had. They could be offering us a fascist regime. It doesn't matter. Whatever it is, we want "anybody but" what we currently have.

[Edit to eliminate the offending part while still making the point]

It's not just me. I've seen this suggested by others. I drive down the street and see signs. "It's time for a change." A change to what? "No more business as usual." So what business do we change to? Commercials, billboards, mail flyers, so many seem to ask the same thing: "Do we want four more years of ____?" Painfully few ever say, "Here is what I propose instead." As an example, look at the recent brouhaha over John Kerry's remarks about the intelligence of our troops (or not). John Kerry is not running for office. George Bush is not running for office. John Kerry says that his remark was intended to insult George Bush. I have to ask, "WHY?"

So much do we despise the current government that any other government would be better. It doesn't matter what. Are they in favor of killing babies in the womb? Who cares? Do they intend to double your taxes? It doesn't matter. Are they on the side of open borders and automatic citizenship for illegal aliens? Don't ask; it isn't important. Would they like to remove God from the country? Stop asking questions! It isn't the issue. Anybody but is the issue.

Some time ago I asked "And then?". I wanted to know what those who are unhappy with the current situation wanted to do in its place. The best answer I have received to date is "Don't ask! We just want anything but what it is now!"

When the Clinton scandal hit the streets, there was an outcry about the character of the President. Those who complained were told, "Character doesn't matter." Now it seems that nothing matters except the removal of the status quo. This is progress?

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Case for Election

It's Election time, so I thought this would be good. Okay, not that kind of election. Way back in July, I made the Case for Predestination. In that piece, I suggested that predestination was much more than the common concept of Election. Instead, biblical predestination covered all that occurs. Well, you can read it for yourself.

I didn't offer at the time the case for Election, and having recently run across it (again), I thought I'd give it for your perusal.

The case is pretty simple, yet comprehensive. It's source is not Luther, Calvin, or even Augustine. It is the Bible. And it isn't a product of manipulation, but straightforward reading of the text. Here it is for you to see:
1 I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, 5 whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 neither are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants, but: "through Isaac your descendants will be named." 8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. 9 For this is a word of promise: "At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son." 10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God's purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, "The older will serve the younger." 13 Just as it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."

14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 15 For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth." 18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.

19 You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?" 20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it? 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? 22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23 And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles (Rom. 9:1-24).
Well, now, that pretty much settles it, doesn't it? Personally, I can't see how it doesn't, but I realize that for many Christians it still isn't clear. I don't know why. It's explicit. So let's look at this point by point.

Point 1: The topic. Israel. Paul has deep compassion for his "kinsmen according to the flesh" (v 3). If he could surrender his salvation to save them, he would. But his kinsmen according to the flesh is not the "Israel" ultimately in view. Paul speaks here of the Israel of promise, not flesh (v 8). This is the topic of the entire text. Who is "Israel"?

Point 2: Israel of promise. Israel is defined as the offspring of Isaac - the children of the promise (v 7). This fact is further illustrated in Isaac's two sons, Esau and Jacob. According to Paul, God makes His choice of who will be "Israel" on one factor and one factor alone: "God's purpose" (v 11). Paul is explicit that it is not based on something Jacob or Esau would or wouldn't do.

Let's examine, for a moment, the objections to what appears to me to be unavoidably clear in this passage. One popular conception is that the topic is Israel, not Gentiles, and therefore not applicable to us. I think that a simple reading of the passage makes it clear that it is precisely the Gentiles who are saved who are in view here. Chapter 11, in fact, speaks of the Gentiles being grafted into the tree. And Paul is absolutely clear here; he is not talking about "Israel" that is flesh, but spiritual Israel that includes the children of promise ... all believers. To write this off as "Israel, not Gentiles" is to completely void the chapter. The next popular conception is that, while Paul plainly states that God's choice of Jacob was not because of works, it actually was. You see, God knew in advance that Jacob would choose Him, and therefore God chose Jacob. This is a nice sidestep, but it is a sidestep. While Paul clearly states that it was not because of anything they did and unavoidably makes the point that God's reasoning is His own purpose, Christians will still argue this "foreknowledge" position, which simply nullifies Paul's point. "Sure, Paul, it wasn't for anything they did, but God knew what they would do." So it is not because of God's purpose, but because of their choices. There is another problem that these two arguments cause. If either is true -- the topic is physical Israel or God chooses who will be spiritual Israel based on our choices -- then the next two paragraphs are moot. You see, in verses 14-18, Paul answers the first obvious objection, and in verses 19-24 he answers the second obvious objection. However, there is nothing in the least objectionable in saying, "It doesn't apply to us" or "God chooses those who choose Him." If either of these were in mind in the first half of the chapter, then the last half is pointless.

Point 3: The first objection answered. It seems abundantly clear that Paul is making a statement here that will raise objections. He says that God chooses purely on the basis of His own purpose who will be His. If this is true, the first, most obvious objection is the very same one we who defend Election hear almost every time: "That's not fair!" And this is precisely the objection Paul addresses first: "What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there?" (v 14). Allow me to distill Paul's response to "That's not fair!": God does whatever God wants, and we have no room to argue about it. Expanding this, Paul uses Pharaoh as an example. Scripture says repeatedly that God hardened Pharaoh's heart. Paul says that this was God's intent. He states confidently and without apology, "He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires" (v 18). If that runs against your grain, perhaps your grain is heading the wrong direction. Paul is absolutely clear, despite all our arguments to the contrary: "It does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy" (v 16). Try as we might, this is unavoidable. The popular conception of the world is that salvation is dependent on "the man who runs" -- what we do. Paul says, "No." The popular conception among evangelical Christians is that salvation depends on "the man who wills" -- our choice. You've all heard it. "Accept Jesus." "Choose Christ." While we are to choose Christ, Paul is stating directly that God's choice of who will be a part of spiritual Israel is not based on the individual's choice of Him. Period. To our "That's not fair", Paul says, "God is sovereign and does whatever He likes.'

Point 4: The second objection answered. Well, if God is sovereign and does whatever He likes, if His choice of who to save is not based on anything that we choose or do, then the next objection is quite obvious. "What's the point? If God is sovereign, how can we be held responsible?" This is exactly Paul's next objection answered. "You will say to me then, 'Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?'" (v 19). Paul doesn't exactly reason with his readers at this point. He chastises them. "Who are you, O man, who answers back to God?" (v 20). Paul makes a startling claim here. He claims that God makes some people "for honorable use, and another for common use" (v 21). And that's His prerogative. He defines "honorable use" and "common use" in verse 23. The common use is "vessels of wrath, prepared for destruction", and the honorable use is "vessels of mercy". It is commonly missed, but Paul states boldly here that it is God's will to "demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known". Why are there bad people in the world? Because God's plan includes demonstrating His wrath. Why doesn't God prevent evil? Because God's plan includes demonstrating His wrath.

There is one other popular objection to this passage as I have explained it. It is the "group theory" approach. "Sure, sure," they will say, "All that you say about this is true. However, Paul is not speaking here of individuals, but of groups. God did not ordain individuals to be part of spiritual Israel; He simply ordained that there would be a spiritual Israel. Individuals are still 'elect' by their choice of Him." That's nice, I suppose, but it doesn't fit the passage. Paul starts not with a group, but with individuals -- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Esau. Paul continues with individuals -- "the man who wills", Pharaoh. His references are all individual. The "vessels of wrath" are clearly individual people, as are his "vessels of mercy". The objections he addresses, in fact, are again nullified if this is a generalized "group", not a reference to individuals, because who objects to the notion that God ordains that there will be a group? Finally, this "group" is comprised of individuals. These are the individuals addressed in all the references to individuals. Paul is clear: "It does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy" (v 16). This is not group language, but individual language. Sure, God has ordained that there would be this group I'm calling "spiritual Israel", but Paul makes it abundantly clear that the individuals that comprise this group are chosen by God apart from anything in the individual for God's divine purposes, He is right in doing so, and we don't have the option of complaining about it. Ultimately, Paul says that the question is not "Why would God ordain to save some and not others?", but "Why would God ordain to save anyone at all???" Deal with that question first.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Free Will

I'll make this short because it's such a hot topic and I don't need to make anyone mad. I was just talking to a friend about "free will" and he asked a question I couldn't answer.

Let's define "free will" as "the ability to choose what I want without coercion." That's the simplest version I can think of. People will go to great lengths to defend that "free will". I am assured from many Christians that God would never intrude on Man's free will. To do so would be wrong. Pointing to a passage like Gen. 20:1-7, where God specifically tells someone, "I kept you from sinning" doesn't seem to phase them. Man's free will is sacrosanct. "God doesn't want robots." As if that is the basis for all biblical truth, the end-all of the conversation.

So then we read this from Paul:
15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me (Rom. 7:15-20).
It begs the question, doesn't it? If Paul doesn't do what he wants to do, exactly how free is his will? If he does the things he hates, exactly how free is his will? Sure, it is "sin that dwells within me" that causes him to do what he doesn't want, but it is within him, not external. "So," my friend wanted to know, "exactly how free is free will?"

Saturday, October 28, 2006

How Are We Known?

Let your reasonableness be known to everyone (Phil. 4:5).
That's the English Standard Version. The word there is "reasonableness". The King James uses the word "moderation". The Latin Vulgate uses "modesty". Syriac and Arabic versions say "meekness" or "humility". The New American Standard renders it "gentle spirit". Other translations use "forbearance". The Greek behind it is epieikes. The prefix, epi, is an intensifier, and the suffix, eikos, suggests "reasonable". Vine's says, "likely 'equitable, fair, moderate, forbearing, not insisting on the letter of the law;' it expresses that considerateness that looks 'humanely and reasonably at the facts of a case;' it is rendered 'gentle' in 1 Tim 3:3, RV (AV, 'patient'), in contrast to contentiousness; in Titus 3:2, 'gentle,' in association with meekness; in James 3:17, as a quality of the wisdom from above; in 1 Peter 2:18, in association with the good; for the RV rendering 'forbearance' in Philippians 4:5." So, let's run with that: "Considerateness that looks humanely and reasonably at the facts of a case."

Paul tells the saints in the Church at Philippi that this quality should be so obvious in them that everyone would know it. Everyone should recognize in believers a "reasonableness". In this sense, I like the translation "forbearance". Forbearance is "tolerance and restraint in the face of provocation." Note that this use of the word "tolerance" isn't the common use, where it suggests "agreement." Instead, it includes real "provocation". In other words, "I am encountering genuine provocation, but I will allow them to continue on without retaliating or defending." This is "forbearance". It is the idea behind "considerateness that looks humanely and reasonably at the facts of a case."

Christians in America are not known for their epieikes. As Americans, we are taught to defend our rights. We are taught to be vocal. We are encouraged not to be meek or moderate. As Christians in this post-modern world, we are taught not to be "reasonable", but to be "people of faith" -- anti-intellectuals. We don't "consider all sides" -- we're right and we know it. God said it, I believe it, that settles it. Beyond that, the Bible promises that we won't be liked. We will, Jesus promised, be hated for His sake.

I'm not suggesting we should try to be liked. I'm not suggesting we should try to "get along". I'm suggesting something radical: Obey God. We are told, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). Is our love for one another the attribute people know us by? We are commanded, "Let your reasonableness be known to everyone" (Phil. 4:5). Are we known as people who compassionately and reasonably consider all sides? Regardless of how we are known, is it true of us? I'm not asking us to be more likeable to the world. I'm asking us to follow the Master we claim to follow. I'm asking us to be so reasonable that everyone will know it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Another Logical Fallacy

Another logical fallacy is called "Tu Quoque" (pronounced "two coke"). It is Latin for "You, too". And I am quite sure that you are all familiar with it, even if you aren't aware of it. The argument tries to deflect opposition by pointing the finger at the opponent. In its most crass form, you'll hear it on the playground. "You're stupid." "Oh, yeah? Well, your mother wears combat boots!" You see, the response doesn't address the claim; it simply points the finger at the opponent. We've heard this argument recently in the debate on torturing Islamic detainees. "It's wrong to torture prisoners." "No it's not! Look at how they treat our people!" It's the "two wrongs make a right" approach ... which is obviously wrong.

Teenagers seem to come armed with this argument. Mom: "You shouldn't have premarital sex." Daughter: "Did you have premarital sex?" Mom: "Yes." Daughter: "Then who are you to tell me not to?" You see, whether or not Mom ever committed the offense is not relevant to whether or not it is wrong.

I recently saw this approach over at H.H. Patriarch Anthony. The author takes Sean Hannity to task for his comments about Democrats. In his response to Mr. Hannity, these are the kinds of comebacks he offers:
Hannity claims that the Democrats have no plan for winning the war on terror. We have been fighting this war for 5 years now under Republican control and have yet to capture Osama Bin Laden or stop any significant terror plot ourselves. All the terror plots that have foiled since 9/11 have been stopped by other countries and most of the time the US was unaware of them until the arrest were already made.
I don't offer this in defense of Hannity or even to assault the author of the post, but to illustrate the logical fallacy. Nothing in this retort answers Hannity's claim that the Democrats have no plan for winning the war on terror. It may prove that the current plan (which, by the way, requires that it exists) isn't working, but it doesn't offer an alternative. It is the classic "Tu Quoque" error: "Oh yeah? Well, your plan isn't working, is it?" Maybe not, but the assertion that there is no alternative plan hasn't been answered.
As to border security, the only change to border security that the Bush administration has brought about in its six year history is to make it easier to cross the border. They have consistently failed to secure our borders then they blame it on the Democrats. Excuse me? Who controls both houses of Congress and the White House and has for the last six years? Even with all that power, the Republicans cannot secure our borders, thus making us less safe than before 9/11.
I've explained the error. Can you see it here? Hannity asserted that the Democrats don't have a better plan to defend the borders. This response doesn't offer a better plan, but simply says that the existing one isn't any better.
When it comes to the idea of raising taxes, the Democrats may very well do that. And while I would hate to let go of the lower tax rate, I would hate to know that my son would have to pay for my careless attitude toward the future. Under the Bush administration’s tax cuts, the deficit has doubled and tripled. We went from have a budget surplus under Clinton to a budget deficit under Bush. More people are unemployed now than under Clinton and in order to make their numbers look lower than Clinton’s, Bush made it more difficult to apply and receive unemployment benefits, thus lower the number of claims and making it look like he has lowered unemployment. But the fact of the matter is that unemployment may be higher than ever, but due to their creative bookkeeping we may never know the truth.
This one is a really good illustration of the "Tu Quoque" fallacy and here's why. The upshot of the fallacy is that it essentially says, "Yes, you're right." It doesn't refute the allegation; it simply points a finger back at the allegator. (Yeah, I know, no such word ... but it's fun making them up, isn't it? My "allegator" would be "one who alleges".) Hannity suggested that the Democrats would raise taxes and, in defense of Democrats, the author here ... agrees. The argument is not that Hannity was wrong, but that it's good to raise taxes. This argument is supported by pointing fingers at the current system. "Tu Quoque". "Oh, yeah? Well, you're no better!" (Interestingly, on June 20, 2005, the Christian Science Monitor reported that there was actually a decline in the deficit. It appears that the President's tax cuts are bringing in greater revenue. Oh, well, that's another discussion.)

Please, please, please note: I am not taking the author of this piece at H.H. Patriarch Anthony to task. I am not saying that the Democrats are wrong. I am not saying that the Republicans are right. I am not saying that Sean Hannity was right. I am not saying that President Bush is infallible, inerrant, or even right. I am simply pointing out that this type of argument is so very, very common, especially among Christians (we are so prone to point out faults rather than to offer valid arguments), and it is so very, very ... wrong. It does not address the issues. It does not answer the "What is right?" question. It does not offer answers. Worse, it simply confirms the allegations against your position. I am not disagreeing or agreeing over the political issues discussed, nor am I defending Hannity. I'm simply asking you, the reader, to take time to consider your defense of right and wrong.

Remember my premise: There is little as damaging to the truth as a bad argument offered in its defense.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Logical Fallacy

It is entirely possible, when one is defending the truth, to use a poor argument to do it. This doesn't mean that the truth being defended is not true. It means the argument is poor. Unfortunately, a bad argument used to defend a real truth merely does damage to the credibility of the truth. I would like to address one of these bad arguments that I hear so often from Christians. Consider it a learning opportunity.

The logical fallacy is in the family of causal fallacies. We tend to mistakenly attribute cause to things that may or may not actually be the cause. The most common is the "post hoc" fallacy, short for "Post hoc ergo procter hoc". It's Latin for "After this, therefore because of this."

Here's how it goes. Event A occurs before Event B. We would then attribute the cause of Event B to Event A. However, without more than mere time as evidence, it's an improper argument. Let me give an obvious example -- an obviously bad example. "Fast food restaurants have really taken off since the 1960's. However, since they have become popular, the prison population has risen exponentially. Obviously, fast food restaurants makes people into criminals." You can see without blinking an eye that this is absolute nonsense.

So, let's see if you can see it as easily when I give you this extremely popular Christian argument. "In the early 1960's America outlawed prayer in school. Since then, morality in the United States has plummeted. Clearly the removal of school prayer has caused the decline of American morality." Yeah, I'm sure you've all heard that one. You may have used it yourself. You probably like it. Can you see that it is as wrong as my silly "fast food" example?

Now, understand, it could be that removing school prayer has damaged American morality, but simply listing it in time doesn't make the point. And, if you think about it, I'm not sure you want to argue that it did. I mean, do we believe that mandatory praying makes good people? I don't think so.

Let me offer a different theory (just for fun). On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This event precipitated a series of events that resulted in World War I. This "war to end all wars" decimated Germany. As the country slowly tried to recover from its massive wounds, a young, charismatic leader surfaced. He told them they were the master race and he would lead them to world domination. Before the end of the the 1930's, Adolf Hitler had launched his attack on Europe.

This war spread to the world, and America was soon fighting on two fronts. As a result, every able-bodied, patriotic American male joined up to defend his country. This left a unique world of an inordinate number of "single parent" families, which in turn brought about a new classification in American society -- the "teenager". Prior to World War II, you were either a child -- under the full responsibility and education of your parents -- or you were an adult, having finished being a child. But in this time of crisis, this particular class of people were too young to go to war, but too old to need direct supervision. Many of this new category of people ended up fatherless from the war, but all of them suffered years of a lack of education that being a child necessarily offers.

This generation of "teenagers" became the new parents of the 1950's. Stunted in their education, they tended to be less rigid, questioning authority more than their predecessors, less inculcated in tradition. Their children moved farther from these values and became the 60's generation, whose catch phrases included "Don't trust anyone over 30" and "Question authority". It was the generation that came from World War II that pushed prayer out of public school, and it was their offspring that enlarged this removal of God from the public square. Each subsequent generation has been a devolution of the previous one, adopting less and less of the prior values and moving ever so slowly away from America's roots in morality.

Why would I say that America had its roots in morality? First, we were started by people running from religious persecution. The Puritans are fabled for their moral values. Then, when this young nation adopted democracy, they were quite clear on the limitations. Our form of government only works when people are basically moral. When the masses determined that they could vote themselves money, it began the decline. "Entitlements" -- that's what they're called. The Puritan notion of working for the best of one's society ... that was poisoned ... sometime around 1914, I theorize.

Okay, it's a theory. Honestly, it's one of my little pet theories. It very well could be wrong. But one thing I know -- it more comprehensively addresses a far more complex question than does the answer "The elimination of school prayer has caused the moral decline of America." It is my suspicion that the elimination of school prayer was a symptom, not a cause. A nation dedicated to Christian values would have deflected that problem. Since we didn't, I have a hard time thinking that this event is the cause of American immorality. And since nations are not people, God is free to judge nations temporally. I don't think, when that day comes to America, that it will be because we eliminated school prayer. I think it goes a lot deeper than that.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Emergent Church

Scott, over at Christian Telegram started a little, friendly discussion (in comments) about "Emergent" theology ... right after a post on postmodernism. (The two concepts are linked.) I suspect, however, that "the Emergent Church" theology isn't very well known yet. Perhaps it ought to be.

According to Wikipedia, "Proponents of the emerging church embrace the reality of postmodernism and seek to deconstruct and reconstruct Christianity in order to meaningfully engage with Western society which is pre-dominantly post-Christian." If that doesn't send off alarm bells in your head, perhaps you aren't paying attention.

First, "postmodernism" is all about "relative". The fundamental tenet of postmodernism is that all truth is relative and no truth is absolute. That is a problem when we have a God who claims to be absolute. Second, the phrase "deconstruct and reconstruct Christianity" ought to raise a serious problem. What went wrong with God's idea of Christianity? It worked in the past, but it doesn't work now? In what sense does biblical Christianity fail to "meaningfully engage with Western society"?

How does the Emergent Church movement go about deconstructing and reconstructing Christianity to make it more relevant to our society? Well, here are a few of their ideas.

- Missions are largely carried out by social activism. If you work to decrease poverty and meet people's felt needs, then you can better bring them to Christ.

- Theology isn't really important. It's better to share your personal narrative, your personal experience.

- Orthodoxy is generalized and ecumenical. Try not to make divisions over doctrine. Some encourage "dialogue with non-Christian religions and non-religious people." (One specifically listed who encourages this is Pastor Brian McLaren, the guy with whom I had some conversations earlier in my blog over the question of the poor. I wasn't aware of that at the time. He left saying, "This isn't the site for me." Is it that he encourages dialogue with non-Christian religions and non-religious people, but not so much with Christians who might disagree with his position?)

- The movement encourages a commitment to emulating Jesus' way of living, in particular his loving of God, neighbors and those normally considered enemies. (On the surface this would seem a good thing, but digging a little deeper, wasn't it changed hearts that Jesus was trying to obtain, not merely emulators?)

- The Bible is to be viewed with an open mind. There may be a plurality of interpretations, often determined by your own culture. This is contrasted with the primacy of the author's intent and cultural context.

One of the "beating drums" of this movement would be Schleiermacher's idea that "Experience unites; doctrine divides." This precisely plays into postmodernism. Truth isn't the issue; experience is. As such, how we experience God is of much higher importance than how we think of God. Everyone knows that these days. Make worship more "relevant". (Being in the presence of the Most High surrounded by other saints joining with the heavenly hosts to offer praise to God isn't really relevant if I don't feel warmly about it.) All that talk about "truth" and "the only way" is just alienating people. And "sin" ... that topic has to really be avoided. We don't want to hit that too hard at all because it just pushes people away. No, no, we need to conform more to the world's image. Our music should be more like theirs; our messages should be more appealing like theirs. We are competing with an entertainment glut and if we don't make it more experiential, well, it just won't work. At this point, truth is not the issue; survival is. So it's better if we just slough off the traditions of Scripture and the historical Church and work better in the direction of relevance and "feeling God".

Okay, I would say that from the churches around me that I see, I'm likely in a minority here, but I have a real problem with this type of approach. This "Emergent Church" concept is not merely sending off warning bells. I'm getting klaxons, flashing lights, and "Run, do not walk!" messages in my head. I'm seeing "vain philosophy, traditions of men, and elementary principles" (Col. 2:8) here and I am desperate to avoid captivity.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Ready Always to Make a Defense

Over at Ales Rarus, we get a post offering questions from an atheist buddy. Clearly the questions are intended to dispute Christianity. The claims:

1. "Countries with high levels of atheism are also the most charitable both in terms of the percentage of their wealth they devote to social welfare programs and the percentage they give in aid to the developing world."

2. Why is the United States alone among the developed Western nations both in its religion and its violent crime rates?

3. Why do the so-called 'red states,' where Christianity is more popular, have higher violent crime rates?

4. Why are the percentages of atheists in prison so low?

Where do these claims come from? On what are they based?

1. What makes a country one with "high levels of atheism"? Pick one. Define "high levels of atheism". Of course, for some reason the numbers don't seem to bear out the claim even if it can be defined. According to Johns Hopkins University, the United States ranks 3rd out of the top 34 countries in volunteering and giving as a function of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In this study done in December, 2005, the United States ranked #1 in terms of giving. One has to ask where the claim comes from. It would appear that the claim is an outright fabrication.

2. The United States is alone among developed Western nations in its religion. I wonder why that would be true? Could it be that it was a nation founded on a religious premise? Could it be that the nation is rooted in religion? Indeed, this nation required a religious morality to become a great nation. (And if, as the atheist's assertions are trying to say, religion makes for bad people, why did this nation at its most religious succeed so well, along with lower crime rates and higher giving?) Note, however, that while the U. S. may be alone in its religion among Western nations, it is not alone in the world as far as entrenched religious beliefs. Thus, the question makes presumptions regarding the value of "developed Western nations". Moving on, there is the claim that the United States is alone in "violent crime rates". Now, according to CSDP.org, the claim is false. While the U. S. may lead in numbers of crimes reported, the "violent crime rate" isn't as high as other nations. Russia, for instance, weighed in with a 22% crime rate and South Africa had a 55% crime rate, while the U. S. had a 5% crime rate. And it should be obvious to the casual observer that documenting and proving such an allegation would be extremely difficult.

3. What makes "Christianity more popular" in the so-called "red states"? And on what is the claim that their violent crime rates are higher? According to the 2005 crime rate statistics, it appears that the "blue states" are equally dispersed in the rankings of violent crime rates. Of course, there are 22 "blue states" (if you include the District of Columbia) and 29 "red states", so does that affect the numbers any? It appears that this is a claim without defense. For instance, the District of Columbia ranks #1 in violent crime, Maryland as #5, Delaware as #7, and Michigan and Illinois as #11 and 12 respectively. Note that the difference in crime rate between South Carolina (#2) and Illinois (#12) is 761.1 per 100,000 to 551.5 per 100,000. The District of Columbia tops the list with 1459 per 100,000 while North Dakota (a "red state") bottoms out at 98.2 per 100,000. That ought to tell us something ... that "red state" and "blue state" are no indicators of 1) whether or not they are "Christian" or 2) who has the higher crime rate between the two.

4. On the percentage of atheists in prison: One site provides the suggested number of 0.2% atheists in the prison population (compared to 8-16% in the general population). I'm sure this site is unbiased, since it includes the comment, "Let's just deal with the nasty Christian types." I'm confident that there is no agenda being driven here, no axe to grind, no reason to skew numbers. The fact that nearly 20% gave no answer for their religious affiliations is surely nothing to notice. The fact that other similar studies offer different numbers really ought to be ignored. Or, am I making too many assumptions?

Bottom line, the arguments are just as wrong as the popular argument among Christians that American morality has declined since they eliminated school prayer. The variables are too vast, the truth statements too skewed, and any real causality is too distant to call these valid arguments. As an example, Barna reported that while 96% of Americans claim to believe in a god, the numbers decline radically from there. Some 75% call themselves "Christians", but only 15% go to church, and only 5% say that their beliefs make any difference in their lives. In fact, the same percentage that call themselves "Christians" also hold that there is no such thing as "absolute truth", a simple contradiction of logic. (There cannot be a God and no truth.) So while anti-theists are tossing these highly questionable arguments at us, we're not even admitting that the U. S. is a "Christian nation", since our definition of "Christian" is much more narrow than the more common, vague "if you call yourself one, you are". If we used Barna's 5%, it would appear that real Christians are in a severe minority in this country and would not be expected to have a major impact on the nation's crime rates, giving, or politics. So before we feel the need to toss out religion altogether, perhaps we ought to examine whether or not there is a valid argument for the causal implications of the objections offered.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Halloween Debate

I guess it's that time again. You know, the annual debate about whether or not Christians should be involved with Halloween. Many churches offer alternatives to "trick or treat" and are careful not to call it anything "Halloweeny". You've seen them. "Harvest Festival" or the like. In most cases, wearing costumes is fine, but not anything "demonic" or "pagan". Some insist on biblical characters. (Go ahead ... find an "Abraham" costume at your local KMart.) Individuals take it farther. No decorations. At least no "demonic" things, like ghosts, skeletons, spiders, vampires, or some such. And then there are the origins of Halloween to consider. Lighted, carved pumpkins were put out to scare away evil spirits, so they're definitely wrong for Christians to use. Or is that accurate?

Halloween itself has its origins in Celtic fire festivals and druid religions. It was originally Samhain, the beginning of "the dark time" in ancient days. It was considered an "ambiguous" time for spirits who could, at this time, go between the world of the dead and the world of the living. The Roman Catholic Church couldn't get its people to stop celebrating it, so they modified it. Instead of a celebration of darkness, they called it "All Saints Day", a celebration of the saints who had gone before. Also called "All Hallows Eve", it was shortened to "Hallow E'en" and then to today's "Halloween". In America, the event wasn't observed before the late 1800's when Irish farmers immigrated to the U.S. Before that, the influence of Puritan tradition prevented its observation. (The Puritans didn't allow the celebration of Christmas, either.) So Americans really didn't get into Halloween until the 20th century.

The practice of "trick or treating" came from a middle ages practice in which poor people would go door to door and receive food in return for prayers for the dead on All Saints Day. The practice of wearing costumes didn't seem to become a practice until the 1930's in America. And the idea of "trick" -- the threat that "if you don't give me a treat, I'll do something bad" -- didn't seem to really occur anywhere prior to America's version of it, and not until the 1950's. In other countries, children would be required to do a trick such as sing a song, do a card trick, tell a joke, and other such things to receive their treat.

Here it is, thousands of years past anything that resembles the origins of so many of the ideas that are incorporated into today's Halloween. And I suppose it's a product of my poor upbringing, but I just don't get the reason for the debate. When I was growing up, we would wear costumes and go house to house and say, "Trick or treat", but it never occurred to us that "trick" indicated a prank. It was just what we said. Some of the "bad kids" would TP a house or throw eggs, but those were the fringes, not the mainstream. The costumes I remember most were certainly evil, I suppose. One year my brother and I built a robot costume out of boxes. Surely that's demonic. And my most memorable (because it was my most embarrassing) was the year I went as a sack of potatoes. Truly evil, I'm sure. I was never informed that Satan was most powerful on this particular evening. I was never taught that real witchcraft and evil spirits were the focus of this event. My poor parents seemed to think that witches were ultimately fictional and God ruled the universe, and they passed that uninformed idea on to me.

Should Christians allow their children to dress up as princesses and Spiderman and visit the neighborhood collecting candy and treats? My abysmal education would say, "Why not?", but you need to "vote your conscience". I'm not here to pass judgment on the servant of another. Whatever is not of faith for you is sin. As for me, the mere suggestion that Satan actually rules at some point in time is too terrifying to contemplate. I have to believe in a Sovereign God or life for me would be intolerable. Besides, I kind of like the idea that God can take something that supposedly belongs to Satan (like Samhain) and redeem it for something good.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Christian Right

Can there be any question at all? Scripture isn't ambiguous.
A wise man's heart directs him toward the right, but the foolish man's heart directs him toward the left (Eccl. 10:2).
Clearly it is unwise to be on the left, so "Christian" and "right" at least ought to be synonymous.

God is the Gospel

God is the Gospel. That was John Piper's theme in this two-day conference that ended yesterday. Nice idea, I suppose, but what exactly did he mean? He tried to say it as many ways as he could. "If Jesus isn't there, it's not heaven." "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied with Him." Indeed, he had 23 bullet points he tried to impart in our brief time, 23 ways to say it over and over.

The best, in my opinion, was when he laid out the Gospel. The Gospel can be described in 4 basic ways. It is an event, an achievement, an offer, and an application. The event of the Gospel, according to 1 Cor. 15, is that Christ died and rose again. The achievement of the Gospel is four-fold: Christ's event 1) appeased God's wrath, 2) paid the sin debt, 3) provided perfect righteousness, and 4) obtained eternal life. The offer of the Gospel is ... it's free! The application of the Gospel is "by faith" -- all that the event achieved is yours for free if you believe.

So ... how is it that "God is the Gospel"? We've laid out the Gospel here. How is God the Gospel? Piper spent hours explaining to us that while God does all that He does for us and we should be grateful, and God provides the Gospel and all that it entails to us and we should be grateful, we still need to ask Why? So God's wrath is appeased ... so what? So the sins are atoned for ... so what? I can have righteousness and eternal life, and that's all good stuff ... but to what end? The answer is in the Bible:
Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation
(Rom. 5:9-11).
Why did He appease God's wrath on our behalf? Not merely so we could walk away free of wrath, but so that we would be reconciled to God. But beyond reconciliation, we rejoice in God. The mark of a reconciled believer is joy in God!
How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit!

Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous ones, and shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart (Psa. 32:1-2, 11).
Cancelled debt is nice, but the purpose of cancelled debt is restored relationship and rejoicing in the Lord.
Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2).
Having Christ's righteousness imputed to us ("justification") is marvelous, but the point of it is that we would "have peace with God" and "exult in hope of the glory of God".

And eternal life is a good thing ... but just what is eternal life?
This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent (John 17:3).
Eternal life is knowing God!

We have the description of the Gospel in its various aspects, and we find that all that Christ achieved in His death and resurrection He achieved for the purpose of connecting us ... to God! God is the final end, the ultimate point, the first and last thought of the Gospel!

Piper made it most clear to me when he gave this illustration. Early one morning he gets up and stubs his toe on something his wife left laying about. (He admits this isn't likely -- it's merely an illustration.) Before she's even awake, he berates her for leaving this out. Later, she is at the kitchen sink "with her back manifestly toward me". He knows what he has to do. He has to ask her forgiveness. The question, though, is "Why?" What does he want? What does he hope to accomplish? He doesn't simply want an "all clear" from his wife. He doesn't want to be able to go about the rest of the day thinking, "I'm okay." No! He wants a restored relationship. He wants her to turn around, to say, "I forgive you", to hug him and tell him it's alright. That is the point!

It was very good stuff. I recommend the book. I recommend the time spent examining the idea. I recommend removing all the "stuff" we associate with God -- the things He does, the blessings He gives, the good things He offers -- and remind ourselves that
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail,
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold,
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the LORD,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation (Hab 3:17-18).

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Is it Heaven?

I had the privilege to go to John Piper's conference here in Arizona last night, finishing up today. The title of the conference is God is the Gospel, and John is laboring to explain what he means by saying it as many ways as he can. It is simply marvelous stuff.

One of the first things he offered was a vignette. His daughter-in-law and his granddaughter were flying in to Minneapolis. The mother looked out of the window and saw a beautiful cloud formation with the sun behind it and was awed. She pointed it out to her daughter. "Look! Isn't that beautiful? It's a little bit like heaven." To which her 5-year-old daughter said, "But, Mommy, Jesus isn't there."

Piper asked this: "Is that okay with you?" Say that God promised you heaven. You would walk on streets of gold, never want for anything, never have sorrow. You'd see your loved ones again, never suffer, have eternal joy ... but God wouldn't be there, would that be okay with you? Piper said, "If you get that, then I'm done and we can go home."

How many of us love God for what He gives us rather than for who He is? How many people come to Christ for wholeness, for repair, for gain rather than for Him? If we can get rid of guilt, improve our marriage, make our children better children, get more money, have happier, healthier lives, then we want Jesus. But it doesn't take a Christian to want those things, and when that is our motivation ... we're still lost.

Perhaps Asaph said it best: "Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth" (Psa. 73:25). When we arrive there, we are beginning to understand that God is the Gospel.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Is God?

This test, Which theologian are you?, has been making the rounds among Christians in the blogosphere. It's a series of theological questions with which you strongly disagree to strongly agree or somewhere in between, and at the end it will tell you whose theology you most match. It's a fun little test. I'm not going to let on where I fall ... simply because I've taken it three times and come up with three different answers. But there is one statement in there that I thought I'd address because it is so likely misunderstood ... and frankly because the idea is just fun to me.

"God does not exist. Rather, He is the ground of our being." Do you agree or disagree? Well, I suspect that the vast majority of Christians answering this question wouldn't even get to the second sentence and would immediately disagree because, well, we all know God exists. This would be a mistake, of course, because if the statement "God does not exist" means "There is no such thing as 'God'", then the second sentence is nonsense. How can an entity that is not be the "ground of our being"???

The question, then, is not about whether or not there is a God, but about the word, "exist". If you look the term up in a reasonably good dictionary, you will find that the word originates from Latin and is formed by two components. The first is "ex" meaning "out of", and the second is "sistere" meaning "to stand". The original word meant "to stand out of". Beyond that, the concept of "sistere" could be taken, at its core, to mean "being". In other words, the first part -- "ex" -- is "out of", and the second part -- "ist" -- is ... "is". At its roots, the word, "exist" means "that which is out of that which is". It is rooted in Greek philosophy, where there is an "is-ness" -- an essence of being -- from which all things ... exist -- is out of.

If one understands this concept, then, one would have to agree that God is not out of any essence. Instead, God would be the essence out of which everything is. Or, as Paul put it, "In him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). Indeed, Paul's phrase exactly captures the essence of the question with which we started. God does not have being out of anything. Instead, God is the essence of all that is. God does not exist in the original sense of the word; He "ist".

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Perfect Timing

I just have to add this little bit. I just read an article from MSN on the top 10 reasons young men (ages 25-33) don't want to commit. Lo and behold, they're quite predictable. For instance, Reason #1: Men can get sex without marriage. Surprise, surprise! The old "Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free" is crass and cold ... but apparently true. And the corollary, Reason #2, is just as obvious. Men can enjoy the benefits of having a wife by cohabiting rather than marrying. So ... why marry? Equally obvious is Reason #8: Men face few social pressures to marry. Given #1 and #2, now add to the decline of the understanding of marriage and the fall of morality, and there is very little today in the realm of social pressure to marry.

It's not a stunning study. There are no stark revelations. The primary reason (in terms of overall motivation) that young men do not want to get married is that they are self-centered. They want to guard their finances, wait to have children, avoid compromise and change, and enjoy the single life as long as possible. In other words, we've made God's perception that marriage is right and beautiful and the best into a "later possibility" before everything I want to get for myself. There is no downside to not marrying, like celibacy, lack of companionship, or social pressure. So why do it? Indulge your self-centeredness!

(Now, ladies, before you jump on this bandwagon, I think you'd have to admit that a large portion of women today are equally motivated by self-centeredness, so let's not jump on this "Men are pigs!" mindset, okay?)

In Defense of Marriage

So, what did you come up with? Is marriage defensible, or are we left with "committed, healty relationships"? Are you able to provide reasons to Christian young people who are buying the line of society today that "Marriage is simply a committed relationship and doesn't need a ceremony, public statement, or civil agreement"?

No one offered their suggestions, so here's what I came up with. Understand, I'm speaking from a Christian perspective to Christians. I expect non-Christians to be non-Christians and don't hold them to a biblical standard. They are "blinded by the god of this world". Why would I expect them to see? So, to Christians ...

The first definition of marriage comes from Genesis. "A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). Leave and cleave ... and two become one. Jesus expanded on this very idea, kind of like a commentary from God on what He wrote. "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matt. 19:4-6). So this union is performed by God and is not meant to be separated. This, then, is a permanent relationship. He went on to say, "Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery" (Matt. 19:9). Yes, that's pretty permanent. This is not a lightweight, "we're in love", private-promise event.

Further, all biblical marriages are public. There are no "private commitments". If we are Christians who truly believe that the Bible has authority and is the source of matters of faith and practice, then the universal example of biblical marriage is public, not private commitment, and we dare not violate that position.

In Rom. 13, Paul makes this "suggestion": "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment (Rom. 13:1-2). Since we are to obey the commands of our government, what does the government say is "marriage"? Marriage, in our society as in almost every society, is the legal union of a man and a woman. Therefore, for the government to recognize a marriage, it must be performed within the legal process. Without this legal process, the connection between people may be recognized, but not as marriage.

Now turn in your Bibles to Hebrews chapter 13. I'll wait. Hebrews is near the end of the New Testament, right after the little book of Philemon and right before James. Is everyone there? Okay. The author of Hebrews says, "Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous" (Heb. 13:4). Now, we've already determined that God has commanded us to obey the governing authorities, and we've seen that the governing authorities define marriage as a legal union. So this passage tells us to hold these unions in honor. Further, it says that sex outside of these legal unions ("fornication" and "adultery") are judged by God. Clearly that means they are wrong.

Thus far, then, we have the biblical arguments. Scripture defines marriage as, among other things, a permanent relationship performed by God, not to be broken. No biblical marriages are private commitments. Instead, we find that we are to obey the government which has defined marriage as a legal process and we are to hold marriage in honor. Sex performed outside of the confines of this legally recognized relationship is sin. There is one other aspect that ought to be considered. From a practical perspective, if marriage isn't recognized by governmental authority, then marital rights are not offered. There is no legal familial relationship. There is, in fact, no recognized family here. Varying places have varying rules on "domestic partnerships", so perhaps your difficulties will be more or less, depending on your location, but no such problems exist for the legally married. A married couple is universally recognized as a family, with all the inherent rights thereof.

There is one other side to consider. The question could be asked from the negative. Why not get married? I suppose there could possibly be reasons I haven't considered, but all of the ones I've seen or heard have all been, ultimately, from a refusal to "be one", to give up self, to truly commit. In other words (and this will sound quite silly when I say it), the reasons people give not to marry are reasons not to marry. In other words, they are reasons for people not to be living together, reasons not to be committed to each other, reasons not to even have a sham marriage they are trying to defend as real "without the paper".

There are more reasons, some practical, some biblical, some common sense. I think it is unavoidable that the Bible is in favor of marriage as a publicly-stated commitment. God initiated marriage. Jesus blessed marriage by performing His first miracle at one (John 2:1-11). On the other hand, there are no real good reasons not to marry if you are claiming to be committed. The world may play its games with words, but we Christians ought to be lights shining on a hill. Let's not dim those lights by joining the world in this kind of obvious immorality.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"Protect Marriage" -- Part 2

Robin Hood, Men in Tights is a Mel Brooks comedy. There are the typical spoofs in there, like the line where Robin Hood says, "Unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent." There are some funny lines in there. Prince John is bored by the mime doing the entertaining, so the sheriff orders him put to death. Prince John stops him. "Wait! A mime is a terrible thing to waste." Funny. In one scene, Robin sings a love song to Maid Marion. When he finishes, she delivers this monologue: "Oh, my dearest, I'm ready for that kiss now. But first, I must warn you -- it could only be a kiss. For I am a virgin and could never ... go all the way. Unless, of course, I were married ... or if a man pledged his endless love to me ... or if I knew that he desperately cared for me ... or if he were really cute."

It's good for a laugh. Marion is a paragon of virtue, and this isn't ... virtuous. But the media gives us another standard of virtue. One of the "good guys" in the series Cold Case on CBS is a character by the name of Lilly Rush. She is outraged, for instance, when a male coworker has an affair with her younger sister. So this season starts out with her living with a guy. In a recent episode, the guy tells her, "I love you." Lilly is stunned. She doesn't know what to say. Love? That was never part of it. Sure, they were sharing an apartment and sharing their bodies, but ... love? You see, what was a punch line for Marion was a truth for Lilly. "If he were really cute" is all that is required.

All this to illustrate the monumental task before us. "Gay marriage" is said to be one of the key issues in the minds of conservative Christians -- you know, the "Religious Right". Yesterday I discussed the issue of Prop. 107 here in Arizona. I explained that I wasn't opposed to "gay marriage" because I thought homosexual behavior was sinful. I am opposed because of the definition of marriage. Thus, the "Protect Marriage Act" would be a good name for the proposition. There is, however, another aspect to the fight over this act, and it goes beyond homosexual marriage.

The proposition clearly prevents people of the same gender being recognized as "married", but it adds this line: "No legal status for unmarried persons shall be created or recognized by this state or its political subdivisions that is similar to that of marriage." This, obviously, has the heterosexual community up in arms. If this were to pass, it would likely eliminate "domestic partners" as a category, and government entities would not be able to extend benefits to domestic partners of government workers. (Please note: The "No on 107" crowd falsely suggests that no one will be able to extend benefits to domestic partners. This is tacitly false. Any private company can extend benefits to anyone they wish for whatever reason they wish. Thus, the proposition would affect only unmarried government employees.) In a statement from a local association of police officers, we get this: "This proposition will prohibit the City of Tempe and all other public employers statewide from offering domestic benefits to unmarried couples in committed, healthy relationships."

As I said before, I am opposed to "gay marriage" on grounds other than "sin". I am opposed on grounds of definition. On the other hand, I am in favor of this part of the proposition on moral grounds. Ironic, isn't it? The complaint is that the proposition would force one group's view of sin on everyone. My view of sin doesn't come into play until we talk about the heterosexual couples.

So here's the difficulty. Our society has gotten to the point that the Tempe Officers Association can say that there is such a thing as "unmarried couples in committed, healthy relationships" who are living together and deserve the same rights as married couples. A "committed, healthy" relationship today isn't much more than Maid Marion's punchline ... "if he's really cute." So entrenched is this view that Christians are trying it on for size ... and liking it. "Why marry? We can be in a 'committed, healthy' relationship without going through any formal marriage." There are lots of reasons offered. Older couples want to protect their pensions or Social Security. Younger couples just don't want the hassle of marriage. Maybe they come from divorced homes and don't trust marriage. Maybe they don't feel like they have enough money for a wedding or they want to be established first before actually marrying. Maybe they want to "try it out" to make sure it will work. According to the 2000 Census, there are about 118,000 domestic partner couples in Arizona, nearly 11% of all couples in the state. Around 12,000 of these are homosexual couples. So, better than 10% of all heterosexual couples in Arizona today are living together without being married. These are what would be called "committed, healthy relationships". Our difficulty: Explaining why this is not a true statement.

You see, it really is about defending marriage. An inordinate number of people in our society, including Christians, now believe that “marriage” is simply “being committed to one another”. There is nothing public, nothing “on paper”, nothing “civil” about it. It’s simply my commitment to another. Without me expending more typing on the topic, try, if you can, to counter that argument. On what basis (preferably biblical) would you argue that marriage is more than a private commitment to another, requiring some sort of public statement, even civil recognition? Try out this argument for yourself. It’s not easy. I believe it’s there, but it’s not as easy as most of us would like to think.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Prop 107 - The "Protect Marriage" Act

Here in Arizona we will be voting on Proposition 107, the "Protect Marriage" Act. The proposal is to modify the State Constitution to include this article:
To preserve and protect marriage in this state, only a union between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage by this state or its political subdivisions and no legal status for unmarried persons shall be created or recognized by this state or its political subdivisions that is similar to that of marriage.

According to one of the No on Prop 107 websites, "What this amendment WILL do, if it passes, is take one group's definition of sin and force it on others through civil laws. The so-called 'marriage protection' amendment is backed by the ultra-conservative Christian group the Center for Arizona Policy. Even within Christianity there is not agreement about the sinfulness of same-sex relationships, and yet this group seeks to define for everyone else in the state of Arizona a narrow and exclusive view of love and the will of God. Efforts and attitudes such as those behind this proposed amendment misrepresent and misuse the Christian faith in particular, and faith traditions overall."

I would like to say this is a strawman argument. I would like to say that the issue is not the sinfulness of homosexual relations. I would also like to say that there is agreement "within Christianity". But it would all fall on deaf ears. Here are the current facts. 1) Most Christians opposed to homosexual marriages are opposed because they think homosexual activities are a sin, not because they see a fundamental difference between homosexual and heterosexual marriages. 2) There are those who claim to be Christians (and by that I mean I am not prepared to say they are not Christians) who are not convinced that homosexual behavior is a sin. In other words, the opposition statement above is, sadly, accurate.

It is not, on the other hand, an accurate representation of why I intend to vote "Yes" on this amendment to the Constitution. You see, to me it is not a matter of morality, but a matter of definition. To me, the term "homosexual marriage" is an oxymoron. It is a contradiction in terms. That's because I understand the definition of marriage to be something other than what they do, and by "they" I don't merely mean "homosexuals", but also all of those who are clamoring over "It's sinful and shouldn't be allowed". You see, back in August I explained that the primary purpose of marriage is two-fold: 1) companionship, and 2) procreation. If marriage is defined this way, then it is nonsense to suggest that homosexual unions are marriages, since procreation is not possible. And this goes to the fundamental question. The argument of the homosexual side is "equal protection". "We deserve the same rights as heterosexuals." Yes, they do. The problem is not that they don't deserve the same rights; the problem is that a union of two people of the same sex is not marriage. To make it so is to redefine marriage. In this case, marriage becomes 1) permission to have sex, and 2) societal rights (such as health care, etc.). That is a radical decline in the definition of marriage.

But, look, it's not their fault. (Remember, by "they" I don't mean "homosexuals", but "all who are arguing the question from a morality issue".) We've done this. All of society has done this. We've made too many deviations. Just in the history of the United States, there has been many changes to "marriage". "Plural marriage" has been outlawed. Contraception has been legalized. (I bet most of you didn't know it was once illegal.) Laws prohibiting interracial marriages have been dropped. In terms of societal norms, procreation has been eliminated as a basic function of marriage. It is not uncommon for a couple to marry and plan to never have children and take steps to insure that plan is met. Having allowed all these shifts in the definition of marriage, is it any wonder there is such confusion? I mean, what was the point of prohibiting interracial marriage? How was that relevant to the definition? And why does societal norm get to define "marriage"? But we've arrived here now. And so obscured is the question, that few are even clear on it.

So we're left to argue whether we should allow homosexual marriage based on the morality of the activity rather than the definition of marriage. We are left debating the "Equal Protection" clause of Article XIV of our Bill of Rights rather than the definition of marriage. We are left with "a segment of religion forcing its views on the rest of the country" rather than the plain, straightforward question ... "How is the union of two people of the same gender marriage???" Of course, when I ask it, I'll simply be thought of as a right wing religious homophobe nut job. That's helpful. Dismiss the folks you don't like with sweeping generalizations. That ought to solve the problem.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Political Questions Abound

Election season is upon us, and as Christians, we have an obligation to be good citizens and perform our civic duty. As such, we should 1) understand the issues at hand and 2) vote our consciences based on our understanding. So ... here I am, posting about what I don't know, trying to do what I think is my duty.

Here in Arizona we have a proposition on the ballot regarding early childhood education. I'm somewhat intrigued by the correlation to a similar measure passed in California in 1998. In California, the organization is "First Five Association of California".

First Five Association of California: "The FIRST 5 Association of California works to improve the lives of California's youngest children and their families through an effective, coordinated, and inclusive implementation of the California Children and Families Act at the local and state levels. The Act, also known as Proposition 10, was enacted in 1998 to create a comprehensive and integrated system of information and services promoting early childhood development from prenatal to age 5, as well as to support the needs of parent of young children. The ultimate goal is to enhance the health and early growth experiences of children, enabling them to be more successful in school and to give them a better opportunity to succeed in life."

Their Mission Statement says"Current research in brain development clearly indicates that the emotional, physical and intellectual environment that a child is exposed to in the early years of life has a profound impact on how the brain is organized. The experiences a child has with respect to parents and caregivers significantly influence how a child will function in school and later in life. The California Children and Families Act of 1998 is designed to provide, on a community-by-community basis, all children prenatal to five years of age with a comprehensive, integrated system of early childhood development services. Through the integration of health care, quality child care, parent education and effective intervention programs for families at risk, children and their parents and caregivers will be provided with the tools necessary to foster secure, healthy and loving attachments. These attachments will lay the emotional, physical and intellectual foundation for every child to enter school ready to learn and develop the potential to become productive, well-adjusted members of society."

Here in Arizona, an organization called First Things First has sponsored Proposition 203. Their take on this proposition says, "Through an increased tax on tobacco, Proposition 203 will raise $150 million annually to fund voluntary early health screenings and education programs for children zero to five years old throughout our state. The foundation for a child's ability to grow healthy and succeed is laid long before a child enters a classroom. Innovative new science has shown that 90% of a child's brain is developed in the first three years of life when most of their skills, thought processes, self-confidence, discipline and values are formed. Investing early is the best and most responsible use of our resources."

Now, it seems to me that these two are linked. Further, it seems to me that the primary goal of these two organizations is to gain influence over our children while their brains are developing. And I have to ask, "Why?"

Proposition 203 is disturbing to me. First, the way they plan to pay for this "prenatal to 5-year-old" education is by passing an 80¢ tax on each pack of cigarettes sold in the state. You see, smokers are the cause of the educational deficiencies ... no, wait, that doesn't make sense. Tell me again ... what is the connection of cigarettes to educating children in their first 5 years?

You see, this is such a confusing message. Let's assume that I thought that parents were bad educators of their own children and the state should take control. So, what should I do? Well, I had better start smoking so I can help support this program. I should encourage others to smoke and to smoke as much as possible to help support this program. Are you considering stopping? I would urge you not to. "Think of the children!!" I might want to encourage young people to smoke as an early training method of showing concern for children. And, of course, none of this makes sense!

Fortunately for me, I'm not of the opinion that parents are bad aducators of their own children. I'm not of the opinion that the state should take control. That means I do not have to encourage smoking ... and won't have to vote for this proposition.

But I am still not getting the point. I'm not getting the connection of smoking to the education of children. I'm not getting why it is that a growing number of states thinks it's their job to take children from parents and educate them. I see a vast leap of logic that says, "If we teach them before they go to kindergarten, they will be better off." Frankly, if I am properly understanding this movement, then I'm scared. It is bigger than "Big Brother", and closer to Germany's "Hitler Youth" of World War II. Do we really want to hand our children over to a government that has specifically rejected God from their allowable curriculum? Do we actually think that an educational system without any fundamental morality would best serve our children in their first 5 years? Since the obvious responses appear to scream "NO!!", I have to think that I'm not understanding what's going on here.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Believes All Things

Paul wrote the definitive piece on biblical love in 1 Cor. 13. Not as much a definition as a description, perhaps, he listed all sorts of aspects of what God calls love. And we get most of them:
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends (1 Cor. 13:4-8).
Yes, yes, we get it. Patient and kind. Sure, everyone knows that. Not self-absorbed with arrogance or "what I want". Of course! Love, by definition, is concern for the other person. Everyone knows that love isn't rude, doesn't seek its own interest, and isn't easily upset. A little more difficult, I suppose, but if we think about it we know that truth and righteousness are good for those whom we love, so we would be happy about those. Love never ends. Okay, yeah, maybe we don't see as much of that in our world as we would like, but we get it.

So why is it that that other part is so missed? "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." Paul lapses into superlatives here, bumbling about with terms like "all" as if he needed to use them up. No, that's not the case. He was writing aspects of love that the Holy Spirit inspired him to write. These "all" terms are not lightweight things. They speak of bearing, believing, hoping, enduring when circumstances don't seem to merit it.

C. S. Lewis once wrote, "Love believes the best of the Beloved, even against the evidence -- yea, against much evidence." This is what Paul is saying. If you love someone, you believe the best of them, even if it looks like there are reasons not to. I heard one Christian radio host say, "I don't trust my wife. 'Trust' implies that there might be the possibility that she would do something wrong. I know she would never cheat on me, so it's beyond 'trust'." You see, that's love.

How many of us actually love our spouse? She acts suspicious. Do you leap to the conclusion that she's doing something wrong? He works late. Do you assume he's got someone on the side? She smiles at the waiter in the restaurant. Do you wonder if she's interested? He gets an email at home from a female coworker. Do you suspect the worst? Love "believes all things". We ... don't. For most of us, it takes very little to make us suspicious. I just want to point out -- that's not love.

I know, I know. Some people earn our suspicion. Some admit to affairs. Some put it in our faces. Some of it is unavoidable. I'm not talking about them. But husbands, wives, parents ... if you love, the first response will be an expectation of the best. If it isn't, you are not loving.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Hard Sayings - "God so loved the world ..."

Note: This will not be a popular post. Perhaps you might want to just skip this one and wait for the next.

Right after "Judge not", there's John 3:16 as one of the best known verses in the Bible. You'll hear it over and over again. You'll see it plastered on signs, bumper stickers, even in the end zone at football games. So ... what could possibly be so difficult about this verse? We all know what it means. Or do we? What does it say?
11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life. 16 "For God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. 18 Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God" (John 3:11-21).
Okay, let's look at a few facts about this passage. First, I need to point out something that it does not say, despite our favorite attempts to make it do so. John 3:16 does not say, "God loved the world so much that He ..." I know; we all like that version. But it's not an accurate rendition of the text. When John writes "so" in this text, it is in the sense of quality, not quantity. We use the word that way at times as well. Imagine someone building some furniture. They ask for help while they glue a piece to another, and they ask you to "hold it just so." That is, "just this way", not "just this much". The word used in this verse is in terms of manner, not quantity. The best rendition, then, is "God loved the world in this manner ..." As such, the text does not actually say that God loved the world.

I know. That will cause ripples, murmurs, complaints. But the text is not a comment on God's love for the world, but a comment on the character of God's love. Look at it from this perspective. Imagine someone asked Jesus, "So ... does God love the world?" Jesus would say, "Well, God loves the world in the sense that He gave his only Son." Does this, then, mean that He loves the entire world? Well, in truth John 3:16 is limiting that love, not expanding it. What is God's purpose in giving His Son? "Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." So, the full answer to the question is that God specifically loves those who believe in His Son.

How can that be? Why would I suggest such a thing? Look at Jesus's High Priestly prayer in John 17. In verse 9 He makes a startling statement. "I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours." If the love of God for the world is universal, what could Jesus possibly be thinking? Why would He not pray for the world He loves? I submit it's because He loves His own. Or how about God's statement regarding Jacob and Esau? God specifically states, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" (Mal. 1:12; Rom. 9:13). Doesn't sound like the warm, universal love we like to imagine, does it? Logically this makes sense as well. The Church is described as "the Bride of Christ". Now, what bride would want her husband to love everyone equally? Should there not be a special love reserved for the Bride that is not for everyone else?

I believe that God loves the world. I'm not suggesting that He doesn't. I am suggesting that the manner of love He has for the world is different than the love He has for His own. I am suggesting that John 3:16 does not speak of a universal love for the world, but a love that is expressed by the giving of His Son and finally given to those who believe. He loves the world. He provides "common grace". "He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:45). I am not suggesting this is not true. What I am suggesting is that the love God has for His own is incomparable to the love He has for the world, and to mix or mistake the two is a grievous error. In other words, like the other "hard sayings", I'm simply suggesting you "think it through".

Why? Because the mistaken version we give of God's love is one of the most common arguments against God in general and Christianity in particular. "If God loves everyone, why would anyone go to Hell?" "If God loves everyone, why is there evil in the world?" "What kind of loving God requires people to believe in Him?" The answer? A God who loves His own in particular, not a God who "loves everybody equally". That God does not exist.

One final thought. Remember, I started this series with this: "Feel free to discard my view." I retain that offer. If you do, however, you'll need to come up with new answers to the very, very tough questions about how a God who loves everyone equally could allow what we see in the world today.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Hard Sayings - "Knowledge Puffs Up"

We live in an age of anti-intellectualism, at least in the Church. I cannot tell you how many times I've been told "You just have to take it by faith; you aren't supposed to use human logic." On what is this wisdom based?

"Knowledge puffs up" (1 Cor. 8:1). There it is, plain as day. We are called to be ... ignorant. Okay, let's be fair. There is more. "We walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7). And how about the ever popular, "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding" (Prov. 3:5). Okay, it should be clear. If you want to be a Bible-believing Christian, you must not use your own mind. It's a spiritual thing ... you wouldn't understand.

What's the catch? Why would we think to perhaps not take these at face value? Well, it appears that if these are talking about a prohibition of Christian thinking, then we have a contradiction on our hands.

Let's start with this one. "How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?" (Prov. 1:22). Wait ... if knowledge puffs up, then why would Solomon say that fools hate knowledge? Actually, Solomon has a lot to say about knowledge. "The wise lay up knowledge" (Prov. 10:14). "By knowledge the righteous are delivered" (Prov. 11:9). "The tongue of the wise commends knowledge" (Prov. 15:2). Oh, I could go on and on.

What, then, is Paul saying? Well, it would likely be helpful if we included his whole sentence. "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Cor. 8:1). Paul is saying here that knowledge alone will only make you arrogant; season it with love. So when he goes on to explain that meat offered to idols is meaningless because idols are not "gods", he also includes instructions not to offend your brother just because you know this. Knowledge seasoned with love.

Indeed, the mind is an important part of biblical instruction. We are to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37). That would seem to indicate that failing to use your brain for God would be a sin. God tells Isaiah, "Come now, let us reason together" (Isa. 1:18). If reasoning is a sin, God is calling for sin. Paul says, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Rom. 12:2). That's not the neglect of the mind, but a focus on it. Peter says, "In your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). We are to be prepared to give reasons for why we believe what we believe.

There is a logical fallacy called the False Dilemma. You know the one. The lawyer asks, "Yes or no, Mr. Jones, have you stopped beating your wife?" Poor Mr. Jones. If he answers "Yes", it means he used to beat her but doesn't now, and if he answers "No", it means he's still beating her. The other option, "I never beat her", is not allowed. We are offered this same false dilemma with those who would use these Scriptures to remove reason from Christianity. Yes, we walk by faith, but that doesn't preclude reason. Yes, knowledge without love puffs up, but that doesn't preclude knowledge. Yes, we are to trust in the Lord and rely on Him for understanding, but that doesn't mean there won't be any understanding. We need, instead, to love the Lord with everything we have, including our minds.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Hard Sayings - "Judge Not"

There is perhaps no more widely known Bible verse in all of America, Christians and not, than this one. "Judge not, that you be not judged" (Matt. 7:1). Non-Christians like to throw that in the face of Christians who are "too judgmental" and "not tolerant enough". Christians like to throw it in the face of Christians who may be stepping on their own toes, or who may be questioning someone else's behavior. It's plain. It's clear. It's unequivocal. "Judge not." Clearly, Christ commanded that Christians don't judge others.

Did He? It would appear that Jesus did it with regularity. He told the woman "caught in adultery", "Go and sin no more." (That's "You've been sinning up until now; stop it.") He certainly cut the Pharisees no slack. Regardless of one's viewpoint, calling people "white-washed sepulchers" cannot be construed as less than judgmental. Paul also disagreed with the "judge not" concept. In his well-known passage about believers going to court against believers he says, "When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?" (1 Cor. 6:1-2). John says, "If anyone sees his brother committing a sin ..." (1 John 5:16), an impossibility if we aren't "judging". James says, "If anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:19-20). That's not possible if we aren't allowed to judge ... to determine whether or not someone is right or wrong ... to decide if someone is sinning or not. So it would appear that we have a contradiction. Did Jesus command us not to judge, or are we misunderstanding something?

Let's look again at Jesus's words:
"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye" (Matt. 7:1-5).
Note, quickly, one important point. Jesus says, "... then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." That's judgment. You are to detect the "speck" in your brother's eye and assist him in removing it. So, either Jesus contradicts Himself when He says, "Judge not", or the standard "face value" isn't working here.

I think it only takes the context of the statement to see the thought involved. To read it as "judge not" is doing it a disservice. There isn't a period at the end of the statement; there is a comma. "Judge not" is not the end of the thought. What, then, is in mind? I suppose it's best to look at what else is said to illustrate what He was trying to say. "First take the log out of your own eye." That's the idea. The idea is not "Never notice the sin in someone else's life", but rather "Be sure that you are judging yourself above all others." Jesus says here, "With the measure you use it will be measured to you." So, if you see someone that you think is guilty of, say, lusting, are you guilty of lusting? Have you remedied it in your life yet? If a woman thinks that husband isn't being what God requires, is she being what God requires of wives? Further, what is your motivation? Is it your intent to point out faults in another, or is it your intent to assist? Motive makes a difference.

Christians are constantly being told by non-Christians and Christians alike, "Judge not!!!" We, on the other hand, have a command from God to assist people who are in sin. We must do so with great care, testing ourselves before others, and only with the motivation of love. But we must do so. To take this passage at face value, cutting off the sentence in midstream, is to ignore the truth, and we dare not do that.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Hard Sayings - "Sell all your possessions"

16 And behold, one came to Him and said, "Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?" 17 And He said to him, "Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." 18 He said to Him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 20 The young man said to Him, "All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?" 21 Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." 22 But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieved; for he was one who owned much property.

23 And Jesus said to His disciples, "Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 "And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." 25 And when the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, "Then who can be saved?" 26 And looking upon them Jesus said to them, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:16-26).
Of course it's a "hard saying". Even the disciples were baffled. But the part I want to look at is verse 21. Jesus said, "Sell your possessions and give to the poor." "Yeah, yeah," you might counter, "but Jesus was only talking to this guy. He didn't say it to everyone." Oh?
"Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Luke 12:33-34).

"No one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions" (Luke 14:33).
Oops! So it isn't just to the rich young ruler. In fact, it's an imperative without which we cannot be His disciple.

What does He mean? Well, let's take it at face value (always a good idea if possible). It would appear as if He is commanding us to sell all we have. What would that mean? Well if "sell all your possessions" is taken purely literally, then I would need to sell off this computer, get rid of the house, the car, the furniture, stove, refrigerator, etc., my clothing, anything I possess. If this is the case, then the command is to become a homeless person with nothing of your own. Well, perhaps you could rent a place, but it couldn't have any furnishings or the like. Is this the command? Maybe. Jesus had no place of His own. And others have taken it quite literally. The first disciples appeared to do so. Some monks have taken vows of poverty. Saint Antony of the Egyptian Desert took it quite at face value, sold everything, and went to live in the desert. It was these passages that started the Monasticism movement.

Others suggest a different understanding. One site's interpretation says, "Jesus does want us to ask this question: where does my ultimate loyalty lie?" Carl Rohlfs, in a sermon preached in the University United Methodist Church says, "He does not say 'Sell ALL your possessions'; just 'sell your possessions.' Sell those things available for sale. Don’t hang the weight of excess wealth and accumulation as the millstone holding you down." Tracy Lesan of the Berean Bible Society suggests that the command was for a particular time, and that God isn't doing that anymore.

We are at an impasse here. If we are to take the Bible at face value, then nothing less than abject poverty is the command for all Christians anywhere. We need to sell everything we own or we aren't "Bible-believing Christians". On the other hand, there are rational approaches to these passages that suggest that "sell all your possessions" was not really in mind here at all, and it is not necessary to do so.

Allow me a few observations. First, what is in view? Is it God's intention that His own be people of poverty? I don't think so. What is His intention? "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Luke 12:34). The goal isn't poverty, but rather love. What do you love? If it is your possessions, you're in trouble. Clearly the problem with the rich, young ruler was an inordinate love for his possessions. That's why Jesus said it was hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom.

Second, consider the parallel:
34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of Me" (Matt. 10:34-38).
It seems quite obvious that Jesus isn't commanding us to hate our families, or this would contradict too many other Scriptures. What He is saying is that there will be a conflict between earthly loves and a heart for God. What He is saying is that love for Him must clearly outweigh love for even family. In like manner, the point of the command to "sell possessions" isn't poverty, but the question of "Where is your heart?"

Third, note that it is true that only one passage mentions "all", and that one doesn't say to sell all, but to "give up". The ESV says "renounce". This doesn't mean "divest yourself", but "surrender ownership". When you hear yourself say, "That's mine", you haven't surrendered ownership.

Finally, notice the first century church. According to Acts, they "were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:45). Some have said, "See? Sell all you have! They did." But this isn't an accurate representation. First, it wasn't compulsory; it was voluntary. Second, we have the example of Ananias and Sapphira. In their example, they sold what they had, then lied about the price. What did Peter tell them? "While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?" (Acts 5:4). You see, keeping the property, or even retaining part of the price was not a sin. Their sin was not in withholding something for themselves, but in lying about it. So Peter was not mandating that they sell all they possessed. That was not required.

On one hand, it appears to be a mandate for all Christians to live in abject poverty. On the other hand, there appears to be viable alternatives to this "face value" concept. Which is right? I'll leave that up to you. One thing that is inescapable here. Jesus called for radical disciples who would cling to nothing here on Earth and who would follow Him at all costs. This isn't the vision of the American Christian. We tend to be comfortable, accumulating wealth if possible, certainly not giving to charity as we could and should. Indeed, we worship comfort. Perhaps Jesus didn't mean a literal "sell everything", but He unavoidably commanded that we should not be materialists ... and for the most part, we are.