Biblical Accuracy


pulpitLast week, five Houston area pastors were told by the courts to produce sermons and other communication that referenced HERO (the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance). This law protects, among other things, the right of any man or woman to use whatever public restroom they want, depending on which gender they identify with. The mayor of Houston, Annise Parker, a lesbian herself, tweeted “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game…” This brings up several thoughts here at Rotunda Reflections, since this has caused such a firestorm of criticism by many in the religious community.

Annise Parker Mayor of Houston

Annise Parker
Mayor of Houston

1)  The first thought was, “When (not if) this happens in Maryland, what will be the response of pastors and churches?” The Maryland General Assembly passed a bill last March (the Fairness for All Marylanders Act of 2014) guaranteeing the same rights to transgenders. The governor signed it into law in May. California is the only other state with such a law on the books.

2)  Any fair-thinking person, liberal or conservative, should be able to see the unconstitutional nature of this subpoena of sermons. By the way, the original subpoenas were amended to demand the pastors produce speeches instead of sermons. This was surely due to the public outcry over the clear violation of the pastors’ first amendment rights of freedom of speech and religion. And isn’t a pastoral “speech” just a sermon anyway?

3)  Christians began immediately opining what they thought the pastors should do. It’s still early, but if Houston moves forward with the demand for these sermons (which are public anyway), those who follow Christ will have to come to terms at some point with what they believe – the dilemma of this issue may be in our backyard next. I’ve seen some believers say the pastors should comply and be grateful their sermons will be read. Others say defiance is the way to go. It’s not a cut-and-dried answer since the Scriptures give us both ideas relating to interfacing with government. Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13 speak of submission to governing authorities. Also, 1 Timothy 2:1, 2 point us toward an attitude of quietness and peacefulness regarding government relationships. But there are also examples of civil disobedience that clearly show there are times to refuse obeying government’s demands. The three Jewish youths disobeyed Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:12), Daniel prayed when it was forbidden by Darius’ decree (Daniel 6:7-10), and Peter and John kept preaching when they were commanded to stop (Acts 4:18, 19). So, which is it? Quietly submit or defy authority?

I would lean toward the latter, but not necessarily because of the examples above. Each of these examples were fairly extreme and don’t have a direct parallel to the Houston case. But for American Christians under the rights and privileges of the constitution, there seems to be a biblical precedent to stand up here. Paul, on several occasions, appealed to his status as a Roman citizen when his freedoms were threatened. And freedom of religion is such a basic right of those in our nation, it would be wrong to quietly let that right erode in small increments (because it won’t happen in one big reversal). Just as Paul reminded rulers of his rights and forced leaders to acknowledge them, we have a biblical and constitutional responsibility now and for generations to come to refuse our government’s inappropriate erasing of those rights.

The other part of this equation is that there may be consequences to pay for refusing the demands of government. Will we see the day that pastors are fined or jailed for preaching against homosexuality and same-sex marriage? I pray not. Even those who champion the homosexual agenda in America should fight against forcing anybody to think and act only as the government tells them to. Our core values and freedoms are at stake now. Let’s prayerfully move forward with a desire to submit, but be ready to challenge if that’s what we’re called to do.

So, if my sermons were subpoenaed, I would definitely pray hard, prepared to refuse Caesar’s overreaching and suffer whatever consequences might come.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . . .

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

When Charles Dickens began his famous novel “A Tale of Two Cities”, he was comparing London and Paris. It’s interesting, though, that his words so appropriately describe two politicians found in the pages of the New Testament. Both were rulers. Both sought to hear the Word of God. Both responded to the Word when they heard it from Paul. And they both teach us lessons as we share the same Scriptures.

THE RESPONSE MAY BE ACCEPTANCE

Acts 13:6, 7, 12 –  When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. . .Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.

Sergius Paulus was the governor of Cyprus when Saul (later renamed Paul) and Barnabas began their first missionary journey. Paphos was the capital of the island and the novelty of Paul’s message reached the ears of Sergius. This passage says he sought to hear the Word of God, which Saul was happy to deliver.

The encouraging lesson here is that there are times that God’s Word will penetrate the hearts of leaders and this is a result for which we should all pray. Dickens’ “epoch of belief” was realized here in first-century Cyprus.

THE RESPONSE MAY BE ALARM

Acts 24:24, 25   After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.” 

Felix (procurator of Judea) and Drusilla didn’t have the purest of relationships. She was married to someone else when she started seeing Felix, then Felix abducted Drusilla to take her as a wife, even though she wasn’t divorced or a widow.

With these two as his audience, what topics does Paul cover from Scripture? Was it time for some soft acceptance of this couple’s strange marriage – who was Paul to judge if they were right or wrong? No – Paul spoke to them about being righteous and having self-control and that everyone will give an account to God at the end of their lives when there will be judgment. Felix responded to this teaching with unbelief and fear.

There will be times when people will respond to the Bible like Felix, running from God. Even anger toward hearing the Word is a form of showing fear – fear of facing what has been heard and being accountable for sin. Prepare to lose popularity with some people when you tell them the truth from God’s Word.

IMPLICATIONS FOR US

The implications from these two accounts are stark and clear. Paul’s example of steadfastly teaching the Scriptures should motivate us to depend on the power of the truth of God’s Word and share it with others consistently.

Also, we must realize that the message may be accepted or rejected, but we are not in control of the results. This reality should keep us in humble reliance on the moving of God’s Spirit in the hearts of leaders who come under the truth of the Bible.

Our president has caught some flack in the last couple of years for his lack of church attendance.  That’s why the press took notice recently when, while on vacation, the Obamas went to services on consecutive Sundays for the first time since moving into the White House.  One article’s headline even assigned a motive for President Obama’s stance on faith – “Obama Tries to Reassert His Christian Bona Fides, With Words and Deeds”.  Click here for the full piece.

So what should believers think about their leaders’ attendance patterns at church?  Is it our business?  Is it right to pile on with other critical voices if we don’t think they go to church often enough?  Should we care?

In a word, yes.

But there should be a deeper desire that Christians need to express for their leaders’ spiritual lives than just their presence at worship services.  That desire should be for leaders to know and accept the gospel of Jesus Christ, having a growing, vital personal relationship with Him that changes who they are and how they think from the inside out.  Paul described that change when he wrote to Titus:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.  Titus 2:11-14

Having true faith in Christ is the same for everyone, politician or not.  We all must come to Christ on his terms and bow to His revelation of Himself, not what we or other men construct Him to be.  It may comfort us to know that we have leaders who are in the pews every Sunday, but if they are not saved and being changed by the gospel we need to seek more for them.  If they are there merely to assuage their religious critics, that’s obviously not enough.

Should we be glad that they are in church even if they have political motives?  If the Word of God is faithfully preached to them, sure!  The Word is powerful and may make inroads into their hearts.  But as we look at those verses in Titus, key words must be defined for these leaders to truly glorify God in their lives and church attendance.

Among those words are salvation, ungodliness, passions, self-controlled, upright, godly, redeem, lawlessness, purify and good works.  When believers plumb the depths of the true meanings of these words and live them out,  regular church attendance will be a natural outflow of that faith.

Until then, anger is not needed when we see leaders failing in church attendance, but renewed prayer for them to grow in the grace of God and have hearts that are being transformed by Christ.  Pray that those who lead us will humbly go to public worship to commune with their Maker, not to control the media.

In this final post on the 2009 Immigration Statement of the National Association of Evangelicals, I’d like to focus on this paragraph:

The Bible does not offer a blueprint for modern legislation, but it can serve as a moral compass and shape the attitudes of those who believe in God. An appreciation of the pervasiveness of migration in the Bible must temper the tendency to limit discussions on immigration to Romans 13 and a simplistic defense of “the rule of law.” God has established the nations (Deut. 32:8; Acts 17:26), and their laws should be respected. Nevertheless, policies must be evaluated to reflect that immigrants are made in the image of God and demonstrate biblical grace to the foreigner.”

This summary paragraph in the section on Biblical Foundations reviews a few of the arguments made earlier.  I’ve commented on their thoughts on the image of God and migration in the Bible in previous posts, both of which were a little confusing to me.   I don’t disagree, however, with the statement that Romans 13 can be used simplistically to blindly follow whatever law is on the books.

Romans 13:1-7 is a key passage that details why government exists and what the Christian’s attitude should be toward it.  Basically, the command for us is to submit to government since God ordained it as an institution and has placed office-holders in power.  Just because a law is a law does not mean it is just and there are several examples of instances when believers were justified to break unjust laws.  But civil disobedience is not the norm and a systematic study of biblical teaching from several passages (Titus 3:1, 2 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, et al) emphasize submission, even in the face of suffering caused by that government.

It would be simplistic to point only to Romans 13 to formulate a biblical view of immigration, but the truth of that passage must be given much weight when letting the Bible guide our thinking on this or any other issue.

As for the rest of the NAE document, there are some great stands taken in the call to action.  Again, if the Bible is to be used to form our position, we have to take care to shape a convincing argument from rightly applied passages.  We also should include as much contemporary reality as possible, admitting what makes up the big picture of an issue.  For example, migration in the Bible came from very different geopolitical situations than today, so much needs to be taken into consideration.  Some biblical passages should be consulted that contain principles to apply rather than objective references to migration. 

There’s no question that immigration is a serious subject, especially right now.  I can appreciate the effort the NAE has made to speak out for a biblical approach and I have learned from their statement how to and how not to appeal to the Scriptures.

The central fact remains that unregenerate leaders will not necessarily be swayed by a biblical argument.  The church may make short-term pronouncements on policy matters, but the long-term task Christ gave to His church was to make disciples.  If believing lawmakers were making laws shaped by a biblical worldview, then we would be getting somewhere.  Not only would law be God-honoring, but the very lives of our leaders could be honoring Him as well.  The way that happens is for the church to sharpen its focus on evangelism and discipleship rather than only political activism.

This is the third installment in a series to encourage followers of Christ to rightly divide the Word of truth when using biblical support for policy statements.  The example we’re analyzing is the National Association of Evangelicals’ 2009 Immigration Statement.

Last time we considered the questionable use of historical migration examples from the Bible to apply to current immigration patterns.  In the same paragraph (citing biblical examples of people going to other countries), we find the following sentence:  “Peter referred to the recipients of his first letter as “aliens” and “strangers,” perhaps suggesting that they were exiles within the Roman Empire.”

This reference is found in verses such as 1 Peter 1:1  and 2:11.   Here is the wording of these two verses from the New American Standard Bible:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen(1 Peter 1:1) 

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.” (1 Peter 2:11)

We can clearly see that from the first verse the believers were scattered.  There’s no question, so we don’t have to say “perhaps” like the NAE statement.  Constable says “Davids estimated that when Peter wrote this epistle about one million Jews lived in Palestine and two to four million lived outside it.” (1)   But does that tell us what “aliens” means?  No.

The end of that verse says they are “chosen”, a spiritual concept.  The second verse (2:11) is another reference to the inner, spiritual reality of being an “alien”.  In fact, the whole letter (especially the beginning verses of chapter 2) shouts out how believers should behave in and respond to a world that is hostile to them, not because of their ethnic roots or national origin, but because of their spiritual identity.

Maybe a parallel thought that Paul wrote gives us more direction:

“…remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world… So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household,”  (Ephesians 2:12, 19)

This uses “stranger” and “alien” in the reverse sense.  Those who aren’t in Christ are spiritually exiled from Him.  The Ephesians were there at one time, but not when they got this letter.  Another Pauline hint to the meaning of “alien” is from his letter to the Philippians:

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ;” (Philippians 3:20)

When these words (aliens and strangers) are used in New Testament epistles, the idea of citizenship is overwhelmingly spiritual, not earthly.  The context of Peter strongly relates to the believers’ new heavenly citizenship, not where they happened to find themselves after the diaspora.  In fact, his aim in the letter is to ready the church for suffering.  As new immigrants, should they have demanded better treatment from the governments of Pontus, Galatia, et al?  That doesn’t seem to be Peter’s advice at all.

How interesting, though, that even though his readers were living outside of Palestine, he reminds them to obey human authorities and submit.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.  For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.  Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.  Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.” (1 Peter 2:13-17)

Next installment:  “Immigration and Romans 13”

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(1) Tom Constable. (2003; 2003). Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (1 Pe 1:1). Galaxie Software.

When Christians make comments on public policy, they should be shaped and informed by the truth of Scripture.  But even when referring to the Bible when speaking up on issues, our statements must be coherent, well-thought-through arguments.  This second blog post analyzing the 2009 Immigration Statement by the National Association of Evangelicals will focus on the biblical foundations this document presents – specifically the historical examples from Scripture.

Frankly, this argument in the statement is so confusing, I’m asking the help of any reader to post a comment to explain it to me.  This statement condones the illegal presence of millions of immigrants in America right now, blaming the government for laws that apparently aren’t worth following.  Here is the appeal made to biblical history:

“The Bible contains many accounts of God’s people who were forced to migrate due to hunger, war, or personal circumstances. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the families of his sons turned to Egypt in search of food. Joseph, Naomi, Ruth, Daniel and his friends, Ezekiel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther all lived in foreign lands. In the New Testament, Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus to escape Herod’s anger and became refugees in Egypt. . . These examples from the Old and New Testaments reveal God’s hand in the movement of people and are illustrations of faith in God in difficult circumstances.”

What this paragraph is saying is that each illustration presented here were people “forced to migrate due to hunger, war, or personal circumstances.”  Third graders from Mrs. Jones’ Sunday School class could refute the error in this paragraph.  Did Joseph end up in Egypt by his own decision?  (Or maybe a better question is: Is migration the result of a personal decision, or is one forced?)  If he was just “forced to migrate” because his brothers sold him into slavery to some Ishmaelites, does that even have relevance to the current immigration debate?

How about Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and other Israelites who lived in exile?  How did they get to foreign nations?  As I recall, the people of Israel were removed from the land God promised them because they rejected their God and suffered the consequences.  They weren’t just moved because of war.  They were exiled by the judgment of God.  And was their intent to stay and become naturalized citizens?  I’m glad Jesus’ family didn’t make plans to live life in Egypt – many prophecies would never had been fulfilled and God’s entire plan of salvation for mankind wouldn’t have happened. 

I’d love to know how this applies to illegal immigration as a foundation for how we should look at the law in America.  Seriously, I need help seeing the correlation.

This argument seems to be based on the premise that, if it happened in the Bible it is normal and should be acceptable under any circumstance today.  The only problem with that is a lot of things happened in the Bible that we wouldn’t think about allowing today at all.  Some in the nation of Israel burned their children as sacrifices to Molech, a historical fact.  I don’t hear anyone, thankfully, demanding the right to do that. 

So, “These examples from the Old and New Testaments reveal God’s hand in the movement of people and are illustrations of faith in God in difficult circumstances.”  True.  They just don’t have anything to do with people coming to America deciding not to obey the law with every intent on staying.  1)  Just because people move doesn’t mean it is right or beneficial.  As an example, terrorists, drug cartels and murderers aren’t coming here because God’s hand is leading them and any attempt by American law to defend itself against them is justified.  2) Is the document saying that every act of migration is motivated by “faith in God in difficult circumstances”?  Come on.

If a person or organization makes such sweeping arguments from Scripture, then they must also be prepared to apply its veracity across the board.  This paragraph of examples is just too weak to bolster the NAE’s position.  Speak for right from the Bible, but connect the biblical illustration with the contemporary issue so there is clarity, not confusion.

And boy, am I confused by this.

Next installment:  “What was that, Peter?”

The National Association of Evangelicals will be running an ad in the May 13th edition of the Washington newspaper Roll Call promoting immigration reform (see the Yahoo! News article about it here).  As I read the NAE’s 2009 document on immigration, I thought I might comment on it, but it quickly became obvious there were too many comments to be made.  I’ll have to break this up into several entries so that you and I can digest each of these without choking.  When we’re done with all of these points, we can consider the efficacy of religious organizations making such public pronouncements.

In any event, I invite you to make the journey with me and think it through.  Don’t accept my thoughts as infallible, but let’s be careful in our approach.

In the 2009 statement, the document says the NEA feels the need to speak out “boldly and biblically”, mining “Scripture for guidance”.  Therefore, “A biblically informed position provides a strong platform for the NAE to make a contribution in the public square that will be explicitly Christian.”  This assumption that their view is “explicitly Christian” is interesting since many Bible-believing followers of Christ would not come to the same political conclusion.  But we’ll get to that.

Following the opening paragraph is a section entitled “Biblical Foundations”.  The first point under this heading is “Discussion of immigration and government immigration policy must begin with the truth that every human being is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28).”  No Christian would have a problem with that, I think.  But I don’t ever recall in being forced to think through the issue of illegal immigration having to decide if immigrants were human or not.   Is this a human rights issue or a rule of law issue?  That seems to be the real question.

The next statement again is solid.  “Immigrants are made in the image of God and have supreme value with the potential to contribute greatly to society.”  That’s how America got where it got.  Few of us are from here originally.  Immigration is a great thing and American history bears that out.  It’s strange that we have to even avow this. 

To their credit, the writers offer some history of immigration in the next section (“National Realities”), but only twice is the adjective “undocumented” paired with the word “immigrant” and never is the adjective “illegal” seen.  The closest they come is “Due to the limited number of visas, millions have entered the United States without proper documentation or have over stayed temporary visas.  While these actions violate existing laws, socioeconomic, political, and legal realities contribute to the problematic nature of immigration.”

Never do I read anything about a responsibility on the part of the immigrant to respect or obey the laws of the land they’ve come to.  The blame seems to fall on America’s shoulders only: “Most undocumented immigrants desire to regularize their legal status, but avenues to assimilation and citizenship are blocked by local, state, and federal laws. This has generated an underground industry for false documentation and human smuggling.”

Wrapping up the “image of God” argument: “Jesus exemplifies respect toward others who are different in his treatment of the Samaritans (Luke 10:30-37; John 4:1-42).”  OK, all people are made in God’s image and should be respected.  But when making a case for a Christian political position on immigration, it’s a good idea to include all so-called “national realities”.  We live in a dangerous time in which America is being attacked by several sources originating in several cultures – a fact this document does not address.  

Being created in the image of God does not give any person the license to decide whether they will follow a law or not.  You may have objections to a law, and America’s immigration policy may be an encumbrance and an inconvenience, but there are better ways to change law than to coerce the government by breaking that law, then claim moral high ground by blaming the government.  That’s how men have justified bombing abortion clinics.

If Christians are to point our world to Christ, we must let Scripture speak for itself and be honest about its application to real-life issues.  I would argue (as I do in just about every post) that the church should intentionally pour more effort, resources, training, energy and emphasis on our mandate to disciple the nations (Matthew 28:18-20).  However, I realize there are times when we need to instruct our society what the Scriptures say and apply it to current situations.  When we do that, though, it must not be colored by any political motivation.  And we can’t consider it the highest form of impacting our world.  The world’s ultimate need is Christ.