21 January 2014

Biblical Christianity and Cultural Christianity

In several previous blogs I have alluded to a certain dichotomy within Christianity.  I believe this distinction has existed throughout Christian history and is at the root of our disagreements about social issues today.  I've suggested that I need to devote an entire blog to this underlying dynamic among us.  I believe it is crucial to make sure we define terms as precisely as possible so we better understand one another and don't argue past each other.  At least if we have a common understanding of terms and ideas, then our debates and conversations may be fruitful instead of frustrating. Below I'm going to give you definition, explanation, and examples of what I label biblical Christianity and cultural Christianity.  Maybe you'll agree with my explanation or not.  Of course, I know this is oversimplification, so I apologize for that up front.

The written testimony to Christianity, the Bible, has been important to Christians since its parts were written, preserved, collected and recognized as authoritative.  Of course, the Old Testament was already long accepted by Jews as sacred writing, and the earliest Christians were Jews.  The first generations of Christians recognized that certain writings produced primarily by the Apostles and others close to them were of equal authority and importance.  By the middle of the 4th century, Christians had come to a strong consensus concerning the writings that now make up the 27 books of the New Testament.  At a gathering of church leaders in 397 in North Africa, the organized church officially sanctioned the collection. 

From beginning to end the means God used to bring about His Word was thoroughly human.  Men wrote the words, copied the words, preserved the words, contemplated and discerned the words, collected the words, and established the words.  It is by faith that the Christian community from the beginning regarded these collective writings, we call the Bible, as words from God.  It is by faith today that I receive the Bible as the Word of God.  I am not ignorant of the human means by which it arrived.  However, this knowledge doesn't lessen my faith in the Bible.  My faith holds to the belief that God superintended the entire process, delivering to us the words that He intended us to possess so that we could know the gospel and how to glorify Him with our lives.  I do not worship the Bible, but I could know nothing about the God I worship without it.  Therefore, it is precious and unique.  It is absolutely necessary as the God standard that I must lay over my entire life. 

You may not share this view of the Bible.  You may not believe it its divine inspiration.  You may believe it is peppered with irreconcilable errors, or that it simply embodies some men's evolutionary development of their ideas of God.  If that is the case, then I would suggest that we are at an impasse and there is really no reason for you to read on.  My appeal to something that you do not recognize will be pointless.  But if you do believe the Bible is the Word of God, inspired in the words themselves and authoritative for doctrine and living, then I hope you'll consider the importance of what I'm unpacking in what follows.  My concern is mainly for those who do believe the Bible is the Word of God and authoritative, but find themselves being drawn away from a biblical Christianity to a cultural Christianity that compromises that commitment.

Biblical Christianity is a commitment to know and allow the precepts and principles contained in the Bible to determine my beliefs about God and my views on morality.  I approach the Bible as God's revelation, doing my best to discover the truth in it.  The Bible is THE source of authority that trumps human opinion or rationale.  Biblical Christianity's goal is to be faithful to God by being knowledgeable of the Bible and having a serious commitment to conform my thinking, choices, and lifestyle to it.

It is important to understand what biblical Christianity is not.

Biblical Christianity is not oblivious to matters of interpretation.  There are diverse interpretations among fallible men and women on various doctrines, teachings and practices addressed in the Bible.  Christians disagree over details concerning what the Bible teaches about baptism, church organization, spiritual gifts, predestination, and many other items.  One could argue that if the Bible is clear in its teachings, then how have we arrived at so many differing views on so many issues.  Certainly, this problem has to be laid squarely at the feet of human fallibility and traditionalism, which includes all of us.  Therefore, just because I dogmatically hold to a biblical Christianity does not mean that I think I have an infallible interpretation and application of all its content.  I simply don't know where I am wrong.  However, I do believe that most issues are clear in the Bible and that Christians committed to a biblical Christianity do find more agreement than disagreement.

Biblical Christianity is not ignorant to textual issues in the Bible.  If you have a good study Bible, you may have noticed in the notes that occasionally a word or phrase in the text may be noted as not appearing in the oldest manuscripts.  However, the reason the words are included in the text is because they appear in the preponderance of ancient manuscripts we possess.  We call these instances textual variants.  There may be other issues in which differences among the Gospel writers are hard to harmonize or one detail of chronology doesn't jive with another.  Some would say that these textual issues constitute "errors" within the Bible.  And once you begin to speak of errors, then you begin to cast doubt upon the veracity of the whole.  These textual issues may constitute unresolvable difficulties from my point of view.  However, I find them inconsequential, and by faith I believe wholly resolvable if we had more information.  None of these textual issues impact any pivotal doctrine of Christianity.  I'm aware of these things, but my faith in God's Word keeps me focused on discovering its truth and applying it faithfully and consistently, not dwelling on what may be incomplete or elusive.  The Bible tells us much, but certainly not everything we would want to know.     

Biblical Christianity is not unaware of the differences between the testaments.  One of the oldest criticisms of the Bible is the apparent irreconcilable differences between the God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus and the New Testament.  It goes something like this:  The God of the OT was intolerant, angry, discriminatory. He laid down the law and punished severely.  He favored His chosen people and excluded all others.  He orders the utter destruction of the enemy and blesses obedience.  The God of the NT (i.e. of Jesus) is just the opposite.  The God revealed in Jesus is forgiving, loving and inclusive.  This God is the one who is long-suffering and patient.  He is gentle and self-sacrificing.  He does not call down fire from heaven, but tells us to turn the other cheek.  Anyone one can clearly see the difference! 

Biblical Christianity is aware of the shift in certain matters from the OT to the NT.  However, biblical Christianity has historically viewed these differences reflective of progression and fulfillment, not inconsistency and contradiction.  With this view, much of the OT has been fulfilled and rendered obsolete.  Jesus talked about coming to fulfill the Law and the Apostle Paul gives much attention to the relationship of the Law (OT) to grace (NT).  Therefore, it's not a surprise that observances and ritual associated with the OT Temple, dietary laws, and the harsh punishments for offences have been superseded by the fulfilling and completing work of Jesus Christ.  There is difference, but not incompatibility. The distinctions between the testaments, however, do help me maintain a healthy balance of God's severity and grace. 

Biblical Christianity strives to know how the various parts of the Bible fit together and to discover the timeless truth contained within its pages.  This view places great confidence in the Bible to be THE source for knowing truth about God and providing the moral compass we need to navigate ourselves faithfully through our culture.  A Christian who holds to biblical Christianity desires above all, in his pursuit to be a faithful follower of Christ, to know what the Bible teaches and let it instruct his views on any given point of doctrine or morality.

Cultural Christianity in its outworking is something completely different.  Its approach to the Christian life certainly includes a place for the Bible in a life of faith, but not a supreme one.  There are Christians who hold the Bible in high regard, but do not ascribe to an infallible Bible.  They believe that the Bible contains the essence of God's truth and that it is certainly essential for knowing God.  However, one has to deculturalize it and peel back the layers of human distortion to get at the kernels of truth.  Therefore, I have to determine what was the product of less enlightened religion and what fits with modern, more enlightened religion.

There are many cultural Christians who may say they "believe the Bible," yet they are significantly unfamiliar with its content and willfully stay ignorant through neglect of it.  They identify themselves as Christian, go to church somewhat regularly, and attempt to live a "good Christian" life, yet knowing the content of the Bible is of little importance to them.  It is impossible for them to pursue biblical Christianity because of their biblical ignorance.  Therefore, they only have cultural Christianity to lean on if they want to make Christianity part of their lives. 

There are some Christians who do know what the Bible teaches about certain issues and the principles it lays down, but choose to cherry pick what they believe is authoritative.  Their personal experience and struggles and the prevailing cultural consensus overrides a commitment to the teachings of the Bible.  In essence, they end up saying, "I don't accept that part of the Bible."   
Cultural Christianity is fickle.  The prevailing notions of a given generation overrun and control the mind of a cultural Christian.  Ironically, cultural Christianity often appeals to the Bible for support.  Inevitably, such appeals misapply the text by divorcing it from it's context.  For example, when European and American Christians justified the African slave trade by appealing to places in the Bible where slavery was mentioned as a cultural reality, they ignored the fundamental differences between the biblical context and their own.  They read their culture back into the biblical content - something we are all prone to do if not very, very careful!  But if you read the totality of the Bible, it seems clear that you cannot justify the race-based, cruel slavery of Africans.  However, many Christians were swept along into this forced marriage of views, rationalizing away any pangs of conviction and accommodating it to their Christian worldview.  Realities like the slave trade, the Crusades of the Middle Ages, religious persecution of all forms, teetotalism, and segregation may have been all propped up and justified with the Bible, but they were not driven by the Bible. Other forces were at work and biblical Christianity was supplanted by cultural Christianity. Today, it seems that the Bible is being used to justify American materialism most crassly (i.e. prosperity gospel).   

Cultural Christianity ultimately accommodates itself to the culture, rather than submitting itself to the teachings of the Bible.  This is where I have to be careful.  I have to remind myself that I am not somehow inoculated from this myself.  This is why saturating myself with the Bible's contents is critical.  They only way I can keep from slipping into the stream of cultural consensus, is by clinging to the rock of Scripture.  Just as water breaks on a rock, so will the unbiblical notions of a world opposed to God.  During every test, debate and personal struggle, I must run back to the Bible to discover what God wants me to think.  The most dangerous thing for me to do is to think for myself!  When I think I'm thinking for myself, I'm typically not.  Something else is informing and ultimately dictating what I think.  The truth is none of us truly think independently.  We have been and are being shaped in our thinking by something.  However, I can choose as an adult to continually renew my mind to the Bible.  When we debate over homosexuality, I want to know what the Bible teaches.  When we talk about gambling, I want to know what the Bible says.  When we talk about social drinking, I want to know what the Bible commands.  When we discuss abortion, I want to know what principles in the Bible should inform my view. 

Cultural Christianity drifts in the opposite direction.  The primary concern is to accommodate my economic, political, or social views to my Christian faith.  Cultural Christianity often gives lip service to the Bible, but either stays willfully ignorant of some content or simply chooses to ignore what is too challenging or contradictory to personal views.  Cultural Christianity can be orthodox on the gospel and compassionate.  Cultural Christians can be sincere and passionate, just like me.  But there is a difference.  And that difference is in the identity of ultimate authority.  Each Christian has an ultimate source of authority.  I find that in my context that ultimate source of authority is pressed the hardest on social issues.  And what I mean by social issues is the debate about abortion, gambling, alcohol, and homosexuality.  There are certainly many other issues Christians need to be engaging, such as pornography, violence, poverty, and missions.  But the first list constitutes the big four that those of us in the Christian camp can't get together on.  I believe the reason the divide exists is because these are issues to which the culture has been and is increasingly giving its approval. Therefore the engagement between cultural Christianity and biblical Christianity is highlighted and the contrast between the two is becoming increasingly distinct. 

Here is the bottom line if you are a Christian.  Either you are a Christian who believes wholeheartedly in the truthfulness of the Bible or you do not.  Either you have a desire to know the Bible and to conform your views to it or you do not.  Either you are willing to go against culture if the Bible leads you there or you are not. This is not to say that I or anyone else who holds the Bible up as ultimate authority believes that we infallibly understand it all.  Above all I have to remain humble and teachable as I pursue greater understanding of the Bible's contents and faithful application to my life. 

For my flock that God has entrusted to me I will say this:  It is my hope that you will pursue a biblical Christianity with zeal.  I can't trust myself to my own thoughts or to the mere thoughts and view of others.  I must commit my mind and heart to something surer and truer.  I hope that your desire is to know God and His will through His Word in all things.  I hope that together as a church we will have the discernment to see God's truth in His Word and the fortitude to side with Him always no matter what our culture declares otherwise.  I hope that we will all be life-long, passionate students of the Bible, more desirous for its truth than anything else.  Its my desire that God will break the chains of complacency and heal the disease of half-heartedness of cultural Christianity and replace it with a sincere, fervent, and bold passion for the Word of God.         

12 January 2014

Let's Rethink the Drink Some More

Over the past couple of days, I've gotten significant feedback on my last post, "Time to Rethink the Drink."  Some has been from the Amen corner; some has been quite critical, although overwhelmingly respectful.  Some has been public comment, some private.  Some have been encouraged; some have been offended.  I still think its a good conversation to be having.  Determining how to faithfully engage the culture around you as a follower of Christ is quite challenging.  None of us, I hope, want to fall into the ditch of legalism and self-righteousness on one side of the road or into the ditch of compromise and worldliness on the other side.  Staying on the biblical path that honors God and helps us fulfill our purpose should be our goal.  We need to be about living for God and sharing the gospel with all.  Along the way, however, there are issues that we must thoughtfully navigate with the Word of God.  It seems we don't get to determine what these issues may be, but we must pursue a biblically faithful response. 

I don't want to rehash what I've said before, but I do want to look at another passage of Scripture that echoes 1 Corinthians 8, and I believe supports my application in regards to Christians and the consumption of alcohol.

Romans 14 is a treatise in itself about the conscience and culture.  As Paul is closing this letter to believers, he encourages them to honor each other by being sensitive to cultural hot-button issues.  He mentions those who won't eat meat and those who do, those who drink wine and those who don't. 

My hope is that you'll read Romans 14 for yourself if you're not familiar with it's content.  Don't just take my word for it.  Nevertheless, here is an overview of it.

Romans 14:1-12 speaks to the freedom that we have in Christ.  It speaks to our liberty and our personal conscience before God.  We are told not to judge each other over such differences (customs and traditions).  We live and die for God and Christ is our Lord.  Each one of us will give an account for our motivations in this life only to God.  No person has the right ultimately to judge another person.  If we do this, then we are treading on God's turf.  This we do not want to do!

This would be difficult and maybe in conflict with the content of 1 Corinthians 8, if Romans 14 ended at verse 12.  But it doesn't.  What follows in the remaining of the chapter does not contradict, but rather complements.  It is true that we should not judge or "regard with contempt" a brother or a sister who may have a different view on some things.  But it is also true that we are to go out of our way to avoid being a "stumbling block" (scandal) to that same brother or sister.

Romans 14:13, "Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this - not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother's way."

In the remainder of the chapter Paul goes on to explain that it is our responsibility to love our brother more than our liberty. Even if the thing itself (meat or wine) is "clean" it becomes evil when you willfully offend with it (14:20).  Then Paul states, "It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles" (14:21). 

Two things are key here, as well in 1 Corinthians 8.  First, we must know our context and what offends.  Second, we must see clearly that the Bible calls us to sacrifice that item that gives offense for the sake of others.  This is not prompted by legalism, but by love.

For me in my context, to drink alcohol runs the great risk of offending.  Therefore, I'm compelled, by what I believe is the clear teaching of Scripture, not to drink.  Maybe you can argue that your context doesn't warrant abstinence because a Christian drinking socially in moderation doesn't offend.  That's between you and Lord to discern.  However, my main concern is for people who are Christian who are clearly in a context in which the culture perceives that it's a sin to drink.  I see too many who simply do not have ears to hear what God clearly says about their drinking.

I don't drink.  I have many reasons for not drinking alcohol.  But in my context, the greatest reason not to drink is because God has clearly steered me away from it so I can have a good reputation as I strive to live for Him.  I don't condemn the social drinking Christian.  That's not my place.  That, as Paul said, is ultimately between him and God.  However, as a Christian pastor it is my God-called place to point out to my flock that in their context when people see them drink they damage their reputation as a Christians, hurt the reputation of the church they are a part of, offend others, and become the "scandal" Scripture tells them not to become. 

Funny, I've never seen that be the case by not drinking. 

10 January 2014

Time to Rethink the Drink

I don't know what you think about Christians and the consumption of alcohol.  Maybe you're a Christian who thinks alcohol is the Devil's brew and you're uncomfortable with even sparkling grape juice because it looks too much like the real thing.  Maybe you're a Christian that has a sense that the general public thinks Christians ought not to drink, but you believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it as long as you don't get drunk.  Maybe you call yourself a Christian and you neatly separate your recreational drinking from your church attendance; when you drink you don't talk about your church attendance and when you're at church you don't talk about your drinking.  Maybe you're not a Christian, but you really do wonder what Christians are supposed to think about drinking alcohol.  With such diverse opinions the church struggles to give a consistent position on alcohol to the broader culture.
As I've stated in previous posts, we first have to differentiate between cultural Christianity and biblical Christianity.  One of these days, I'll devote a post to just this subject.  However, let it suffice here to define the former as a version of Christianity that accommodates itself uncritically to the moral and ideological trends of its culture.  The latter attempts to steer through its culture with a fidelity to the precepts and principles of the Bible, believing it to be the very Word of God. 
I would like to attempt to address this issue of Christian drinking from the point of view of biblical Christianity.  It is my hope that I can offer you a few thoughts to rethink the drink if you are a Christian who has inherited or become accustomed to the behavior of social drinking.
First, let's just get it out that the Bible nowhere prohibits the consumption of alcohol or prescribes total abstinence for Christians.  In addition, we are well familiar with the fact that Jesus' first miracle of His ministry was turning water into wine - real wine.  So, let's look quickly at what the Bible actually says about alcohol.
In Proverbs we get strong warnings against indulging in alcohol.

Prov. 20:1 “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise.”

Prov. 23:19-21 “Listen my son, and be wise, and direct your heart in the way.  Do not be with heavy drinkers of wine, or with gluttonous eaters of meat.  For the heavy drinker and the glutton will come to poverty and drowsiness will clothe a man with rags.”

Prov. 23:29-33 “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes?  Those who linger over wine, those who go to taste mixed wine.  Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly; at the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper.  Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind will utter perverse things.”

The Lord had strong words for drunk priests through His prophet Isaiah:

Isa. 28:7 “And these also reel with wine and stagger from strong drink: the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink; they are confused by wine, they stagger from strong drink; they reel while having visions, they totter when rendering judgment.”
In the New Testament we see similar warnings against excess.

Rom. 13:13 “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness…”

1 Tim. 3:2-3 “An overseer, then must be above reproach…not addicted to wine…”

Eph. 5:18 “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation [self-indulgence], but be filled with the Spirit.”

What we find in Scripture are strong warnings against the indulgence in alcohol and reaping the bad consequences of drunkenness.  We can find examples of this, such as in the case with Noah and Lot.  We do have examples of total abstinence, but these seem to be the exception, not the rule.  In Numbers 6, we read about the special vow of the Nazarite – “to abstain from wine and strong drink.”  We see the example of Daniel who refused the king’s wine and drank water.  And we observe John the Baptist.  The angel announced to his father Zacharias, “he will drink no wine and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
So what are we to think about this topic as believers.  Should we stand strongly against any consumption?  Should we promote moderation?  Maybe you're wondering if we should care at all.  Maybe it's just not that important.  
I believe this issue is a big deal for the church.  I believe earnestly that Christians who drink need to rethink their habit.  However, I believe we have to think about this issue correctly.  We can't just shout louder, we have to know biblically and persuasively why we shouldn't drink. Two pieces of knowledge can guide us – one is historical and the other biblical.

First, we need to understand the history behind teetotalism that is the common perception among those in my Baptist denomination and many of our Protestant brothers.  Second, we need to understand and apply an overarching biblical principle that will give us tremendous guidance on the issue.

The temperance movement of the early 1800s began as a movement against distilled liquors that created an unnatural, much higher alcohol content.  The movement was not aimed at first at wine or beer.  In the 1800s it has been said we were a nation of drunks.  Christian women and preachers led the charge against strong drink, trying to get it regulated.  As the movement grew in the century no one could deny the bad effects that alcohol was having on the culture, such as it's influence in crime, domestic abuse and unproductiveness.  Eventually this temperance movement grew into a prohibition movement that included all kinds of alcohol.  In the late 1800s there was even a short-lived Prohibition Party that ran presidential candidates.   The move to get rid of alcohol gained wide support.  Ultimately, the US Congress passed the 18th Amendment that went into effect in January 1920.  This prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.”  This was the law of the land until 1933, when it was repealed by the 21st Amendment.

Baptists and other groups joined the Temperance and the Prohibition movements.  In the process we became teetotalers.  We became convinced that in our culture that total abstinence was most appropriate for a faithful Christian lifestyle.  A popular “church covenant” even included the topic. The Brown Covenant became popular in the 1830s, and continues to be the covenant that many churches use today.  This is the historical explanation of why Baptists and others understand that Christians are not supposed to drink.   But with this history gone from our memories, we have a hard time understanding the attitude. And frankly, many today find the attitude prudish and legalistic.

Now with all that said, let me be clear and plain.  Even if you know the history of temperance and prohibition and even if you know the Bible does not say “thou shall not drink” but only warns of drunkenness and its consequences, I still believe that abstinence is the right Christian approach to alcohol in our culture because of a key and clear biblical principle that a mature Christian cannot ignore.
I am a 1 Corinthian 8 teetotaler. The context of what Paul tells the Corinthian believers has nothing to do with the consumption of alcohol.  In context, he is addressing a problem of some believers being offended by other believers buying and eating meat that had been slaughtered and offered to idols in pagan ceremonies.  The meat-eating Christians believed they were in no wrong, and Paul technically agrees with them.  However, Paul's greatest concern is for the offended Christians, whom he calls the "weaker" brothers whose consciences are violated.  You might expect that Paul would simply tell the meat eaters to go ahead and teach the weaker brothers to think correctly.  Surprisingly, Paul tells the meat eaters to sacrifice their own liberty for the sake of the weaker brothers who have taken offense.  Why?  Because the overarching concern was to avoid causing your brother to stumble and be the cause of dissension.  In other words, I should care more about the other guy than my own liberty - a clear call to self denial.
Beyond this reason is a more sobering and compelling reason. Paul says that the cavalier Christian who disregards his "weaker" brother does not merely sin against his brother, but against Christ himself since Christ died for the weaker brother too.  DO YOU HEAR THAT?  That gets my attention.
What's Paul's conclusion?  If eating a certain meat among certain folks causes him to be the reason of dissension, then he will gladly become a vegetarian.  End of discussion! Herein lies our relevant biblical principle related to the question of drinking alcohol.  If my drinking of alcohol becomes an offense and poor witness to others, then it seems that the Bible does indeed speak clearly to me.  I shouldn't do it.  This is not legalism. This is liberty choosing to sacrifice itself for love of God and others. 
Maybe your not convinced.  Maybe you think this is an inappropriate application of the text.  If so, I would encourage you to read it and meditate on it and see if God may reveal something to you that you hadn't considered seriously before.  I believe wholeheartedly that the principle that emerges from the context of 1 Corinthians 8 is absolutely clear and completely sufficient to give us needed spiritual guidance on the question of alcohol consumption.  It remains to be seen if we will listen and obey.
To me the choice is clear.  If you are a Christian who drinks in our culture, which tends to view Christian drinking as compromise, then you are arrogant and unloving when you understand this and do it anyway.  Even though you see nothing biblically wrong with the social drink, you don't care about the offense you are giving.  You may indeed be correct that it constitutes no sin.  But being right is not the point.  Being obedient to God and loving your brother through your behavior is the point.  But if this is your attitude, then ironically, in the end, you're wrong. You hurt your own reputation, the reputation of your church, and you most grievously sin against Christ.
It's time to rethink the drink. I can give you all kinds of practical reasons that a Christian ought not to drink (it's addictive; it's destructive; if you take one drink, there will probably be a time when you take too many drinks; it's expensive; you'll pass it to your children; you've got plenty of beverage options; you've got bigger problems if you need it to relax or have a good time, etc.).  But the one biblical principle that God has given us in His Word ought to be all we need.  If you are a Christian drinker, maybe it's time to evaluate if the practice is congruent with who you want to be and the witness for Christ you should want to have.  Maybe it's time to rethink the drink.   

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