Category Archives: Trends in Christianity

Colossians as a Paradigm for Handling Today’s Tough Issues

rr1I think I’ve heard a lot of Christians claim that the modern era is unique in terms of the in-fighting and rifts between Christians.  I would say that I’ve seen enough to fill a book, but I don’t think that this is necessarily something new.  In the earliest generations of the church, Paul found himself dealing with challenges in churches.  One such challenge was visible in the church at Colossae.  Now I won’t take much time digging into the nuances of what sort of group Paul was addressing in his little letter to the church in that town, but I think we can observe a little about the general approach of the group and Paul’s critique of the group as instructive for the Church today.

In approaching the Christian life (and Colossians, in particular), I think it is helpful to think of the walk as something of a path or road.  I suppose that this image is rather biblical in that the life of a Christian is often referred to with the Greek verb περιπατεω (Eng: to walk, cf. 3 Jn 1:16; 1 Thess. 2:12; Colossians 1:10; Phil. 1:27; Eph. 4:1).  I would imagine this road as delineated by Scripture.  In other words, think of cliffs where the Bible places cautions.  Think of Paul’s vice lists, the 10 Commandments, and so on.  Think of the road as where the Bible gives positive commands.  Think of Paul’s virtue lists, the Great Commandments, and so on.  The Bible lays out the road and the cliffs to avoid.  Christians have everything they need in Scripture to live a life which glorifies God (2 Peter 1:3).

Now even the most holy person reading this today would have to admit that they know of a cliff or two that they are most prone to lean towards.  I think Jesus spent a lot of time debunking the myth of the life with no spiritual struggle.  I mean, we have the rich young ruler who had everything going for him, but the cliff of covetousness loomed large in front of the headlights of his life.  We all have these kinds of struggles.  So, to summarize my tedious argument thus far, the Christian walk is like a path along which we all tend towards certain cliffs.  Fair?

But what about stuff that the Bible doesn’t talk about?  What about unhealthy foods, and alcohol, and Halloween, and Bible translations, and worship styles?  How do we deal with these issues?

I would suggest that the Bible has given us some help on how to deal with things that it doesn’t explicitly speak to.  I’m not suggesting that this approach is a be-all-and-end-all, but I do think that it will help lend perspective to some debates in Paul’s day as well as our own.

In Colossians 2:16, Paul begins an attack on a group that some refer to the Colossian heretics.  These folks were likely well-meaning people who wanted to help the fledgling church in town hold to high ethical standards in order to affect the overall morality of the city.  And here is how it began.  They held to Jewish laws regarding “food.”  In their day, I can imagine, a Jewish dietary system would have been a source of immediate fixation in the midst of a Gentile city.  Think of the attraction of the lost to those with a spiritual dietary system!  And think of how common or conformist someone may have appeared who simply just kept eating the same old pork he used to eat before he was baptized.  Let’s reserve judgment on this for a moment and draw a parallel or two.  Today gluttony (Phil. 3:19; Prov. 23:20-21) is a folly that many Christians have fallen prey to.  It limits both testimony and lifespan.  On the other side, you have Christians who emphasize exercise and rigorous dieting to avoid the pit of gluttony.  We also have Christians who avoid the sin of gluttony as well as the greed and recklessness of the meat industry and pursue vegetarian or vegan lifestyles.

To sum up the point on eating, we have a cliff that is spelled out in Scripture and we have a reaction by Christians to avoid that cliff.  But there’s more here than just a reaction.  So let’s examine a little closer.

At the beginning of verse 16, Paul says that the people who don’t follow the other peoples’ food laws should not let anyone “pass judgment” on them.  In other words, Paul is primarily concerned about how non-observant believers are being treated by believers who have erected the “higher” standard.  The people who fall under the Apostle’s condemnation saw a cliff and erected a guardrail.  They saw some positives on the opposite side of the road, and put out traffic cones in the road and began diverting traffic to the their side of the street.  Paul is making the point here that, while directing traffic away from the cliff on one side of the road, the Colossian heretics missed the cliff on the other side of the road, namely, legalism.  In trying to help the Christians avoid pitfalls in their lives and in their community, they had unknowingly gone off the road into the chasm of self-righteousness.

Once again, I’ll summarize my point thus far: the Christian walk is a road which is has cliffs on both sides which believers tend to move towards.

Let’s move through the rest of the cliffs that Paul identified as areas in which the Colossian heretics pulled Christians away from and the “higher ground” that they called them towards, and then let’s draw a few more applications.

Second, the area of “drink” is identified.  Now in the Old Testament, there were a lot of laws about eating, but I can’t think of any that applied to the whole of Israel regarding what they drank.  In fact, alcohol is dealt with variously in the Old and New Testaments.  So it seems that the heretics in Colossae had identified the sin of drunkenness (Eph. 5:18) as one of the dangers of their society and were adding to the Old Testament in order to pull their culture from the cliff.  Not much contextualization is needed here as this very issue has been at the forefront of American Christianity since the beginning of the 20th century.

Third, Paul discusses “festival, new moon, and Sabbath.”  These celebrations would have been calls away from the pagan holidays.  Here Paul again condemns the attempt to turn the wheel sharply away from the danger.  Today we still deal with whether or not Christians should work on the Sabbath (now transformed into Sundays), whether or not liturgy should reflect celebrations of Christmas or national holidays, and how Christians should handle other events such as Halloween.

Fourth, Paul addresses “asceticism” in verse 18.  I suppose that a monk beating himself in a crypt seems like a far cry from 21st century sins, but I think it strikes closer to home than we might be aware.  How many times do Christians decry or besmirch good gifts of God in an attempt to avoid their abuse?  I remember hearing one pastor hold as an example to his flock the fact that he only engaged in intercourse with his wife for the purpose of procreation.  At times women have been held to repressive ascetic standards, such as being required to dress in a debasingly archaic fashion to avoid immodesty.  The list could go on.

Fifth, Paul points out the danger of the “worship of angels.”  This phrase could connote either “angelic worship” or “angel worship” (think of the similar construction “love of God”).  In either case, the Colossian heretics thought that the worship of the Church (cf., 1:15-20; 3:16) was somehow lacking something.  This was the 1st century “worship wars.”  Today you have the hip churches decrying the old-fashioned churches who don’t reach out to their culture.  And then you have the traditional churches who declare their more contemporary brothers as conformists.  In both cases, they think that they have the special sauce that the other side is missing.

Finally, the issue of uber-revelation is addressed.  In verse 18 you have people with special visions and insights that went far above and beyond Scripture.  No one else was privy to their deep insights.  This sort of approach is exactly what I see in those who hold to a single Bible translation.  Further, I’ve run across this in individuals who have interpretations of Bible passages or current events that no one else sees (except some blogger in Iowa).  Special privilege and insight easily lead to a sort of spiritual superiority that does not belong in the Church.

I suggested earlier that the Bible may have more to say about unhealthy foods, and alcohol, and Halloween, and Bible translations, and worship styles than we’d like to think.  What I’m suggesting is that the Bible indicates that there is not just one cliff in any given issue.  Often we tend to focus on the cliff that threatens our brothers rather than looking at the cliff immediately at our side.  While we’re busy proclaiming the evils of fast food, wine, holidays, Bible versions, and other peoples’ worship styles, it is so easy to miss that we have a cliff of legalism that we’re flirting with or perhaps have already careened off.  The best intentions in the world do not excuse saying more or less than what Scripture says about these issues.

But maybe you think I’m minimizing the real danger here.  Maybe someone will get drunk or fat because I’m not preaching them into a more rigorous lane.  But this was the problem of the Colossian heretics!  My goal isn’t to preach someone into being like me!  I’m supposed to encourage them to be like Christ!  And thankfully that means that not everyone will look and act just like me.  We’re so busy looking at where others are at and looking at where we’re at, we’re not looking at (to continue the illustration) the road ahead.  The road ahead is the Gospel.  When we look at Christ and stop looking at all the things around us, the cliffs no longer pose the threat to us that they once did.  As I remember my dad telling me once: “keep your eyes on the road ahead, and not on the car next to you.”

The final objection I’ve heard to this point is that perhaps by encouraging us to keep our eyes focused ahead, we’re going to not be very helpful to those who are truly going into sin.  My response is that we need to be very clear about where the road ends and where the cliff begins.  We need to speak clearly to where caution on a given matter ends and where legalism begins.  We also need to speak clearly on where moderation ends and recklessness and loss of control begins.  When we stop articulating what Scripture says and start putting up our own guardrails and traffic cones, then the real trouble begins.  This is why I’m encouraging believers to adopt a biblical paradigm for handling the tough issues of life.  God bless!

What does it mean to be Conservative?

This is a question that has been nagging at me for some time, so I thought I would put down my thoughts on the topic and more clearly articulate some of my personal positions as well.  Let me begin by noting that there are two major difficulties of defining the term.  First, there are so many contexts of the word “conservative” that it has almost lost its meaning.  A quick survey of “Conservatism” on Wikipedia will demonstrate that there are millions of people who all think they are politically conservative, but most of them agree on very few things.  Secondly, there are many contexts for the word; therefore, one must be incredibly clear as to what context they are discussing conservatism in.  For example, many times religious conservatism is equated with political conservatism because many religious conservatives have accepted the political speeches about socially conservative topics within political conservatism and have adopted the party of political conservatism as their own.  In this sense, the politicians have simply made a mockery of Christian religious conservatism by holding out a carrot of social conservatism in order to earn votes.  I could rant about the dangers of being misled and inbreeding religion and politics, but I suppose that I could address that topic more fully at another time.

For now, I want to focus in on a particular facet of Christian religious moral and social conservatism (not to be confused with theological conservatism) that is prevalent in the more Fundamentalist branch of modern Christianity.  It is the sense of conservatism that is used to demarcate boundaries on interaction with modern culture and whatnot.  I’ll offer a few examples to frame what I’m talking about.

Sally and her friend were talking about modesty one day and her friend suggested that Sally should go to Macy’s because there was a sale on shorts going on that weekend.  Sally replied that she holds to a conservative standard of dress and that she most certainly would not be buying such immodest clothing.

Jason wrote a blog post about his conservative standards of music, which kept him from using “sensual music” with a “rock beat.”  He explained that these conservative standards were designed to keep him pure and holy before God.

Brad likes to tell his friends that he doesn’t go to movie theatres because he is very conservative in his approach to movies.  Although he has never attended a movie theatre, he is confident that their use by the pornography industry is more than enough reason to avoid them.  Brad is an avid promoter of Netflix as an alternative to movie attendance.

These three examples of conservatism within Christianity are identical in numerous respects.

First, conservatism for Sally, Jason, and Brad means adding moral standards on top of Scripture.  There is room for a helpful discussion of where creation of personal standards ends and legalism begins, but that is not my point for this article.  My point is that their idea of what is conservative and what is not is based, not on what the Bible says, but on their ideas.

Second, all of these standards gain their relative sense of value from other people, not from God, His Word, or the Gospel.  When someone says that they are conservative, they are comparing themselves to someone else who is less “conservative” or “liberal.”  Inherently, the idea of conservatism when used in such contexts is inherently man-centered.

Third, the notion of “conservative” in moral and ethical situations is almost often able to be substituted for “right” or “best.”  Not only does it imply a man-centered approach, as indicated above, but it also implies that it should be the norm for other Christians too.

Fourth, conservatism, when defined in such a manner, is often based on a misunderstanding of Scripture, culture, or both.  What does the Bible mean by “modest”?  Do “conservative” alternatives to shorts really always demonstrate “modesty”?  What do we mean by “rock beat”?  Is music, apart from the lyrics, really able to make people think sensual thoughts?  Is the modern movie theatre truly a place of pornography and sleaze?  All of these questions and more could be posed in order to question the veracity of the way Sally, Jason, and Brad are using Scripture or understand culture.

Lastly, all three of these views are based on a flawed view of cultural interaction and what it means to be “holy” in contemporary culture.  Whether or not they are aware of it or not, these three individuals are basing their idea of how to interact with culture by simply trying to fight against it.  My question here would be: is this truly the paradigm for engaging culture taught throughout the Scriptures?  In other words, we all believe that caving in to culture is a big problem; however, simply rejecting culture in toto is also a big problem.  It results in an Amish-like approach to all things modern and reduces our effectiveness in reaching our culture.  Christians who don’t understand pop culture, music, entertainment, and dress do not match up to their first-century predecessors like the Apostle Paul who cited the popular secular, pantheistic, Zeus-worshipping poets like Epimenides and Aratus (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12) and attended popular entertainment venues which were filled with the Hellenistic emphasis on the “cult of the body” (1 Corinthians 9:26; Galatians 5:7; Philippians 3:14; 1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7).  If given the choice between popular fundamentalist conservatism and the Apostle Paul, I would choose the latter any day of the week.

So, to conclude, I think we have allowed Christians who add their preferences to Scripture, misunderstand Scripture and culture, and fail to take a biblical approach to culture to define terms such as “conservative” in the moral and social contexts of the day.  This is a rather unfortunate occurrence.   Conservatism should be inherently biblical.  Just as subtracting from biblical ethics in order to merge with our culture is wrong, so adding to biblical ethics in order to fight against our culture is equally wrong.  Attempting to claim a standard of conservatism that is higher than Jesus or Paul, in my mind, is not only ludicrous and legalistic, but borderline blasphemous.  We ought not to allow individuals to call us to a “conservatism” that is anti-biblical, and we should return to defining these terms in light of a proper understanding of Scripture and culture.  Based on the authority of the Holy Spirit, Who spoke through the Apostle Paul, we should not allow ourselves to be taken captive by the manmade philosophy of “conservatism” when used in such a fashion (Colossians 2:8, 20, 23).  When we depart from Scripture in order to seek this kind of “conservative” ethical approach to life, we actually demonstrate a low or liberal view of Scripture.  Isn’t it time that we define conservatism by the Bible and not visa versa?

Takeaways from Southeast Region ETS

I thought I’d share with my friends a little about what I learned while I was at my regional ETS meeting up in Wakeforest, NC this weekend.  I’ll first share observations specific to each meeting and then close with some general observations.

  • Devotional: Doctor Köstenberger opened the meeting with a devotional from 2 Peter 1:3-10.  He urged the group to pursue moral and academic excellence as God empowers us.
  • Parallel 1: I went to a paper reading by Paul Himes (SEBTS) who argued quite persuasively that the primary referent of  “strangers and sojourners” (1 Peter 2:11) was literal (i.e., that the people being addressed were literally strangers and sojourners).  I thought he made some solid points for this minority position on the text; however, I felt that he failed to take into account the intertextuality of the passage and how Peter uses the OT elsewhere.  I also felt that he did not adequately explain the surrounding context as well as I would have liked.  Overall, though, it was a solid paper.
  • Parallel 2: Stephen Stout (New Life TS) presented a great paper which analyzed the Pauline emphasis on the humanity of Christ.  It is often argued that Paul cared little for Christ’s humanity and focused solely on His divinity.  This argument was soundly trumped by this well-reasoned paper.
  • Parallel 3: Jeremy Kimble (SEBTS) did a spectacular presentation of a paper on the use of Deuteronomy in 1 Corinthians 5.  I’ve become more and more fascinated by intertextuality, so this naturally interested me.  I left with a deeper appreciation of the implications of the use of the OT in the NT, the difficulties of church discipline, and the importance of church discipline.  All-in-all, this was a wonderful paper with far-reaching implications.
  • Plenary 1: Doctor Paul House (Beeson) presented a lecture on biblical theology which provided an excellent introductory survey of the topic.  I appreciated his straightforward style and clarity.  He challenged the group to commit to doing biblical theology by looking for how the Scriptures cohere, and not whether they cohere.  Part of his presentation included a segment on Paul and Isaiah as biblical theologians.  Just as Isaiah used Moses and Paul used Isaiah to form their themes, so we must be committed to finding and using the themes of all the biblical writers as we study the Scriptures.  Ultimately, Dr. House challenged us to see the disciplines of Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, and Biblical Theology as streams flowing into the Mississippi River.  All of these valuable exercises are necessary in order to achieve a proper understanding of Scripture.
  • Plenary 2: Doctor Hafemann (Aberdeen) attempted to pursue a new eschatological schema for doing biblical theology.  In this lecture, he decried the use of contrasts (law vs. grace, dispensational approaches, etc.) in favor of a more positive approach to the interconnected whole of Scripture.  In doing so, he appealed to, what seemed to me, stretched parallel structures in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21.  Overall I thought the argument was quite weak and was one of the least interesting sessions.
  • Parallel 4: Ryan Martin (CBTS) presented a paper which attempted to parallel two opponents of Jonathan Edwards and current proponents of the NPP.  The paper was fascinating in that it brought out the fact that challenges in understanding justification have existed for centuries.  Orthodoxy has always confronted these challenges head-on.  I did think, however, the attempt to construct the parallels may have been slightly overdrawn.
  • Plenary 3: Doctor Köstenberger (SEBTS) brought the final plenary address.  This particular lecture was my favorite by far.  He pointed out the importance of Gabler’s call towards a biblical theology back in 1787.  In response he demonstrated trajectories of modern biblical theology.  He listed the following four:
    • The Classic approach of segmenting each writer or book and tracing particular doctrines through their works.
    • The Central Themes approach of allowing for various themes to be traced through Scripture.
    • The Single-Center approach of allowing for one theme (usually unhelpfully broad) to be traced through Scripture.
    • The Metanarrative approach of watching a particular story play out throughout Scripture.
  • Parallel 5: Doctor Maurice Robinson (SEBTS) presented a fascinating paper demonstrating the Byzantine priority in a textual variant in Acts 5:24.  He argued quite convincingly that only the majority reading could explain the rise of the other readings.  He succeeded in convincing even the most skeptical in the group.  I found my views more or less deepened by this interaction.
  • Parallel 6: Richard Winston (CBTS) presented a paper on the use of Leviticus 18:5 in Romans 10:5.  Once again, I found myself fascinated by the importance of intertextuality.  Even at the heart of a tough debate, the insights gained through the OT were critical.  I did think that he attempted to make the Qumran community speak too far into the interpretation of the text.

In general, here are some thoughts I had while riding several hours back home on Saturday:

  • Evangelical Christianity is far more conservative that I had been led to believe.  Not only was essentially everyone I talked with or heard (with only 1 small exception) staunchly conservative theologically, but they also were militantly opposed to doctrinal deviations.
  • God has gifted the Church with an impressive number of scholars who are devoted to an honest study of His Word and ministry to local churches.
  • I’m a nerd.
  • Presbyterians make me smile.
  • I can’t wait for next year.

Bell on Hell

Rob Bell:

Because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the Gospel of Jesus is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus.  What gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God.  But what kind of god is that, that we would need to be rescued from this god?  How could that god ever be good?  How could that god ever be trusted?  And how could that ever be good news?

The good news is that love wins.

William Ellery Channing:

 The idea, which is conveyed to common minds by the popular system, that Christ’s death has an influence in making God placable, or merciful, in awakening his kindness towards men, we reject with strong disapprobation. We are happy to find, that this very dishonorable notion is disowned by intelligent Christians of that class from which we differ. We recollect, however, that, not long ago, it was common to hear of Christ, as having died to appease God’s wrath, and to pay the debt of sinners to his inflexible justice; and we have a strong persuasion, that the language of popular religious books, and the common mode of stating the doctrine of Christ’s mediation, still communicate very degrading views of God’s character. They give to multitudes the impression, that the death of Jesus produces a change in the mind of God towards man, and that in this its efficacy chiefly consists. No error seems to us more pernicious. We can endure no shade over the pure goodness of God. We earnestly maintain, that Jesus, instead of calling forth, in any way or degree, the mercy of the Father, was sent by that mercy, to be our Saviour; that he is nothing to the human race, but what he is by God’s appointment; that he communicates nothing but what God empowers him to bestow; that our Father in heaven is originally, essentially, and eternally placable, and disposed to forgive; and that his unborrowed, underived, and unchangeable love is the only fountain of what flows to us through his Son. We conceive, that Jesus is dishonored, not glorified, by ascribing to him an influence, which clouds the splendor of Divine benevolence.

They’re both saying the same thing.