A Million Little Popes

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One of the great tragedies of medieval Roman Catholicism is that it claimed the church was the true interpreter of Scripture. Individuals didn’t need to read the Bible because they would probably misunderstand it and get the whole thing wrong. No, no, better to leave it to the clergy and let them dictate the Bible’s meaning to the laity.

But the Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, and even the pre-Reformers such as John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, challenged this doctrine. They believed that Scripture was meant to be read and understood by all Christ’s people, not just the ecclesiastical elite.

As Tyndale famously said, “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he dost.” And according to Luther, “A simple man with Scripture has more authority than the Pope or a council.”

Now, almost 500 years later, most of us would consider that a given. The Bible is the best-selling book in the world. New English translations come out every year. You can find a Bible in every hotel room and in almost every home. Bible apps on our phone allow us to carry the entire canon around in our pocket. Within Christian circles we constantly highlight the importance of “quiet time” when we, all by ourselves, free of distraction, open the pages of Scripture and read. The Bible is more available than it’s ever been, and we, for the most part, understand the importance of personally taking the time to study it.

Praise God.

And yet, for all that, we’ve reverted back to Rome.

What do I mean? Catholicism said the church possessed the authority to decipher Scripture without challenge. And although we’ve seemingly gotten away from that error we’ve fallen into a similar trap, for now the individual possesses that same unquestioned authority. We now treat the Bible as a subjective document in which the individual determines its meaning. If I think or feel that a passage means something in particular, surely it must be so!

We see this on display when people talk about “what this verse is saying to me”, or through the countless Bible devotions I’ve seen that ask questions like, “What does this verse mean to you?”  I remember a Bible study some years ago where one of the ladies attending became quite emotional because I suggested that perhaps she was misunderstanding one of Christ’s parables. “I know this is what it means!” she insisted. “It just speaks to me so much!”

In other words, we’ve made self the new Pope. Instead of Rome, the meaning of Scripture is determined by the papal authority of me.

That’s not what the Reformers had in mind. They didn’t envision a million Christians coming up with a million interpretations of the Bible. They believed that God has objectively spoken through Scripture and each reader has the blessed and individual opportunity to understand that truth. It’s not that each person has the authority to interpret Scripture, but that each individual has the ability to understand Scripture. It’s not that we subject Scripture to our opinions, but that we subject our opinions before the clarity of Scripture.

That’s not to say the personal application of Scripture is always the same. Different people in different phases of life may be convicted or encouraged by different things. Application may vary, but meaning–the doctrine behind the application–is always concrete.

I was recently discussing a piece of literature with a lady at work when she made the comment, “I think one meaning you could get from it is…” I can’t help but fundamentally disagree with that approach to any piece of writing. The written word is not meant to be a vague canvas splattered with paint, prone to the privies of its beholder. Words mean something. The question is not, “What do I think this means?” but “But what did the author intend this to mean?” What does it actually mean?

We have to ask the same question when approaching the Bible. Personal devotion is not the time to formulate what we think the Bible says but rather what God intends the Bible to say. The Pope does not have the authority to interpret Scripture because he’s the supposed Vicar of Christ, nor does the plow boy have the authority to interpret Scripture based on his subjective feelings. All may interpret Scripture because God has revealed it, God has a meaning behind it, and God has made that meaning understandable. The authority of Scripture does not rest in any church councils or individual opinions, but in God Himself.

How do we counteract this tendency in ourselves? Here’s a few helpful ways:

  • Read the passages in context. Instead of taking an isolated verse on its own, read the verses before and after to gain a better understanding of the author’s intention.
  • Cross-reference. If a passage seems difficult to understand, interpret Scripture with Scripture by studying other clearer passages that deal with the same topic.
  • Read both old and new commentaries. There is so much treasure to be gleaned from the research and wisdom of pastors and theologians. Of course their opinions are not divinely inspired, but they can be profound and helpful.
  • Pray. Pray again. Then pray some more. Ask Jesus to open your eyes to the truth of Scripture by the illumination of the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 24:45; 1 Cor. 2:11-13).

Despite how far we’ve come from medieval Roman Catholicism, perhaps we’re repeating many of the same mistakes. The Pope is not our authority, but neither is our own self-understanding. The Word of God stands on its own two feet, and our job is not to decide what it says but learn what it says and submit to it.

The King Will Have His Glory

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Luke 19:28-40

Imagine the lowly son of a carpenter, riding into 1st-century Jerusalem on a donkey, very much resembling the words of a certain Zechariah 9:9. He is the embodiment of Old Testament prophecy—an insignificant figure from an insignificant town riding an insignificant animal, yet welcomed as a king.

As He passes into the city, swarms of people throw down their coats to grace His pathway and wave palm branches like royal banners, shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!  Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” The servant is finally being served. The son of man is finally recognized as the Son of God. Although He has lived thirty-somewhat years in anonymity, He is finally getting the worship He deserves.

Naturally, the Pharisees aren’t very thrilled. Their stewardship is threatened by the arrival of the rightful king, and their religious stranglehold seems suddenly quite flimsy. They refuse to accept Him for who He claims to be. He cannot be the Son of God. Therefore, in their eyes, His worship from the people falls nothing short of blasphemy.

“Teacher,” they say to Him—acknowledging Him as Rabbi but not as Lord—“rebuke your disciples!” Okay, they say, this has gone too far. We’ve put up with your healings and sermons these three years. But being worshiped? Accepting the praise and reverence and glory that belongs to God alone? We’re putting our foot down.

His response? “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” You can do what you want to try to pull the plug on My worshipers. Shut them out, shut them up, shut them down, whatever. But even if for some reason every human tongue in the world were silenced, the rocks would start singing. Nature would bellow My praises.

In other words, Jesus will have His glory.

How often we are guilty of thinking Christ cannot clench His scepter unless we give it to Him! We regard Him as a freelance King, hoping to get hired by whoever will open their door. We flatter ourselves into thinking that without us His mission would fail. So we run His church, we sing His praise, we preach His gospel, then pat ourselves on the back and say, “Good job. Where would Jesus be without you?”

But with those words to the Pharisees Jesus put the “triumph” in “triumphal entry.” He announced His own victory regardless of who was on board. He is King with or without the disciples, with or without the Pharisees, and with or without you and me. There is no physical or spiritual force in this universe that can prevent Him receiving the glory He is due.

That sounds egotistical, you say. Not at all the sappy, teary-eyed Jesus we’re used to hearing about. But it’s precisely that dominance and power that make His love so incredible. Think about it: a King who doesn’t need anyone’s worship, anyone’s affection, or anyone in general, who died because He wants us to participate in His love, His joy, His life. He wants us to find fulfillment by delighting in His sovereign glory.

I remember the time a contestant actually won a million dollars on the game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” He was on the final question, and chose to use the phone-a-friend lifeline (sorry if you’re too young to get the reference) to call his dad. But instead of asking for his father’s help he simply said, “Dad, I already know the answer to this question. I just wanted to call and let you know that I’m about to win a million dollars.”

He accomplished it all on his own. But he wanted the person he loved most to share the glory of the moment with him.

That’s what Jesus does.

Despite the world’s Pharisaical protests, this King will have His glory. Instead of a donkey, there’s a throne. Instead of cloaks and palm leaves laid before Him, there are hosts of angels bowed low. And even if no one else would speak up, nature itself would break into symphony over this King and His glory. That’s how unstoppable and undeniable He is.

And this King, dependent on no one, has graciously called us to join in His triumphant parade. He’s given us the privilege of singing along with creation’s chorus.

The rocks cry out. May we do the same.

The Church, the State, and the crumbling concept of religious liberty.

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On September 1, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination issued its Gender Identity Guidance to define what is considered “discrimination” against “the rights of LGBT individuals” and “to describe what evidence may be submitted to support a claim of gender identity discrimination.”

In other words, here’s what you better not do unless you want to get sued.

Most of it is what you would expect: employers, banks, restaurants, etc. cannot treat someone different or deny them service because of their gender identity, nor can businesses prevent them from using whatever restroom or locker room they want. But then under section D. Places of Public Accommodation, you come to this plot twist:

“Even a church could be seen as a place of public accommodation if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the general public. All persons, regardless of gender identity, shall have the right to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any place of public accommodation.”

Read that again. If a church holds a public event other than its normal worship service, it must fully comply with the LGBT. The commission goes on to clarify that this includes letting them use whatever bathroom they want, calling them the gender pronoun of their choice, and not displaying anything that might disagree with their lifestyle (so make sure no Bibles are opened to Romans 1!).

The significance of those three little words, “even a church,” cannot be overstated. Although the left has long claimed that Christians are hyperventilating over nothing, and that we’re still free to practice whatever religion we want (Hey, didn’t Obama say something similar about our insurance providers? Ah, I digress.), this new terminology says otherwise.

As it is, churches in Massachusetts may now be subject to LGBT discrimination lawsuits within their own walls. As I’ve mulled over this shocking (but not surprising) development the last few days, here’s a few thoughts that came to mind:

#1. This will not stop at Massachusetts.

Most bad ideas seem to originate in Massachusetts or California but rarely stay there. Whatever new legislation passes becomes the new gold standard for tolerance and the LGBT agenda, and so naturally there will be no rest until all other states have followed suit. And if individual states don’t comply, well, as Obergefell v. Hodges showed us, the Supreme Court will simply step in. Rest assured, it’s only a matter of time before this is a national issue. As Eugene Volokh said over at the Washington Post, “…this is where these rules are headed, at least in places like Massachusetts but likely elsewhere as well.”

#2. What happened to separation of church and state?

It’s funny that liberals have been so quick to cry “Separation of church and state!” when they want to keep religion out of politics, because they apparently don’t believe that the same principle applies the other way around. The church should never dictate the laws of the state…but I guess it’s okay for the state to dictate the laws of the church? Such a separation is meant to protect religious groups just as much as it’s meant to protect the government, for instances exactly like this one. Such measures are a gross violation of the church’s religious liberty.

#3. Everything a church does is ministry. You cannot separate the sacred and the secular.

These new “guidelines” are based on the supposed distinction between a church’s worship service and a church’s public outreach. A worship service is for its religious adherents, but an outreach event (like a “spaghetti dinner”) is considered “secular” and “a place of public accommodation.” Therefore, the logic goes, a private worship service can enforce its own guidelines but as soon as you open the door to the public you’re on the government’s terms.

These new guidelines limit a church’s free of exercise of religion to within Sunday morning parameters, which sounds frighteningly similar to Russia’s recent legislation that Christians aren’t allowed to share their faith outside of church services.

There are two massive problems here. For one, worship services are also “public” in that anyone can sit in. So you can bet your bottom-tithe-dollar that it will only be a matter of time before these services would also be required to submit to such “anti-discriminitory” standards.

Secondly, everything a church does is a part of its ministry. You cannot call worship services sacred and every other event secular. Whether a church is singing hymns, listening to a sermon, running a soup kitchen, or hosting a community yard sale, it’s all a part of their religious exercise and it’s all based on their religious theology.

#4. If you don’t like a church’s doctrine…don’t go. No one’s forcing you.

One of the great tragedies in our culture of self-entitlement is the idea that if I willingly go into a place, and that place advocates something I disagree with, my rights have somehow been violated. This is another prime example.

If transgender individuals don’t agree with Christian doctrine and Christian practice, then don’t go through the doors of a Christian church. No one is making them.

That’s freedom, and freedom of religion, at its finest. Person #1 can say what they want, but no one is forcing Person #2 to listen. I don’t agree with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Muslims, or Buddhists. So I don’t attend their services and I don’t attend their events where certain beliefs might be endorsed. For me to do so, and then legally demand that Catholics stop baptizing babies or that Muslims stop facing east to pray, would be as silly as going into my neighbor’s house and then demanding they change the color of their walls.

The left is quick to point this out whenever Christian groups protest a movie’s sexual or blasphemous content. If Christians don’t like it, the argument goes, then they don’t have to go see the film. I agree. So it baffles me as to why the same rules wouldn’t apply here.

If an LGBT person feels uncomfortable around Christians and their moral opinions then there’s a very simple solution: don’t go to their church events. No one is forcing them to.

#5. What should Christians do?

So how should the church respond? On one hand, we should not be afraid to stand up for the religious liberties provided to us by the laws of the land. Although some Christians make it seem like the more holy endeavor is to just shut up and stand down, this certainly wasn’t the apostle Paul’s philosophy when his legal rights were infringed upon (Acts 16:35-39; 22:22-29).

On the other hand, we must remain humble and remember that our reason for desiring such religious liberty is not to win a political battle, but to worship Christ and minister His gospel to a dying world. We must not abuse this freedom by resorting to insults, nastiness, or reducing the kingdom of God to the kingdom of Republicans or Democrats (1 Pet. 3:14-17; Jn. 18:36).

And although these religious liberties are certainly a good thing, we must also remember that the success of the gospel is not dependent upon them. If these freedoms are ever taken away from us, we take it with graciousness, we take it with rejoicing, and we take it with perseverance. Despite whatever threats we face, we must also hold unswervingly the truth of Scripture and remember the determination of the apostles: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

 

Theology of the Tunes

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I recently heard a song on the Christian radio station that made me squirm in my seat. I admit I’m critical of most contemporary Christian music anyway, with its watered-down, self-focused messages, but this song was particularly unsettling:

It’s gotta be
More like falling in love
Than something to believe in
More like losing my heart
Than giving my allegiance

According to this musician’s diagnosis, doctrine takes a back seat to passion and emotion. Christianity is not so much about a specific set of beliefs as it is warm, fuzzy feelings. Such thinking is unfortunately all too common in mainstream Christianity. Theology is denounced as divisive, legalistic religion, and is replaced by a “relationship” that’s little more than romantically strolling down the beach with Jesus.

In a humorous twist, the very next song on the radio went a little something like this:

We believe in God the Father
We believe in Jesus Christ
We believe in the Holy Spirit
And He’s given us new life
We believe in the crucifixion
We believe that He conquered death
We believe in the resurrection
And He’s coming back again, we believe

I don’t know if that was an intentional counterbalance by the station DJ or just plain old irony, but I can’t think of two more opposite songs. While the first criticizes doctrine, the second highlights it as the core of all we say and do.

It affirms the triune nature of God, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the new life of a believer, and the future return and reign of Christ. It features the distinct doctrines that have made up Christianity for the past two-thousand years.

Ir reminds me of one of the great creeds of old such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, proclaiming the truths of Scripture. It’s right in line with a church history that is brimming with beautiful statements of faith. Even the early church affirmed its teaching through confessions such as those quoted in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16.

Those beliefs are not petty issues or hindrances to our walk with God. In fact, they are its heartbeat. Although passion is important, Scripture makes it clear that what we believe shapes who we are and what we do. Our passion must spring from our doctrine, not the other way around.

Paul actually warned against passion without doctrine when he said the unbelieving Jews “have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). All the fervor in the world was worthless when not rooted in a proper set of beliefs concerning God, the Messiah, or salvation. A concern for theology does not have to mean an absence of intimate communion with God. Love and belief do not need to be opposing factors, as the first song implied. The two are not meant to be separate spheres of Christian living, but one.

Christianity is more than a feeling. It’s more than “falling in love”, more than “losing [your] heart.” It is something to believe in, or rather, someone to believe in. Doctrine testifies to the glorious hope of just who He is, what He’s done, and how that affects us.