Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Churches Cut Out Weddings

Well this is a new twist. In an attempt to protest the illegality of gay weddings, some liberal churches are refusing to do any civil weddings at all. The pastors who are refusing to sign legal wedding licenses are predominately from a handful of small liberal churches, according to the Associated Press article, I believe this past Sunday (the article was handed to me in church undated.)

These churches, however, may perform a religious ceremony "to bless the unions of straight and gay couples - but straight couples must go separately to a judge or justice of the peace for the marriage license," the article reports. The idea being pushed is that the separation of church and state should dictate that civil marriages and religious ceremonies celebrating a marriage are two different things. Under the guise of this separation principle these pastors are thus refusing to perform "civil marriages."

Interesting. As Lutherans we have never had a problem recognizing a purely civil wedding as being a legitimate marriage. We celebrate this union in church in recognition of the fact that marriage was created by God Himself, and is the recipient of His many blesssings. And therein is the rub. Those in support of homosexual unions have been unsuccessful in getting the state to broaden the definition of "marriage" to include the union of gay as well as straight couples. Attempt after attempt was launched across the nation, yet each went down in flames, rejected by one state after another in official referendums. So, now that this attempt has failed, the move is to reject any connection between the civil definition of marriage and the church. Marriage is a "religious thing," and civil unions are religiously neutral? Am I getting it right?

The battle at hand is still very much a cultural one. It is not an issue of the separation of church and state. The issue is the institution of marriage as it has been understood and supported throughout our history. Yes, there are religious issues at state as well. But the fight is to get the state to redefine the uniqueness of an institution that has been the foundation of our social fabric as a nation, and in the process to create a new institution that comes with an entirely different set of values.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Waiting with Patience in Advent

This past Sunday the Epistle reading from St. James, the fifth chapter, reminded us to "be patient" as we wait for the coming of the Lord. The bishop of Jerusalem was writing to Christians under the pressure of poverty and violence and certainly no little persecution since the day of Stephen's martyrdom. In his words of encouragement he pointed to the farmer, who despite the unpredictability of the Spring and Autumn rains, so critical for a successful crop, nevertheless remained full of hope by focusing on the valuable harvest to come. James also reminded his readers of the prophets, who faithfully proclaimed God's Word, even though many rejected their message and turned on the messengers themselves. Finally he pointed to Job, the greater sufferer, who learned what it really means to live under the cross, where the face of God is hidden behind pain and loss.

Advent is a season that teaches patience as we are required to wait for our celebration, first giving attention to repentance and the examination of our hearts, which are too often hard and calloused with the world's cares and concerns. We know that to rush into Christmas without appreciating the great need for this coming Savior would be to miss the essence of this holy day.

Yet waiting is never easy. Even in the church the calendar is often crammed with activities and parties that threaten to disrupt our meditation on the mystery of the incarnation by filling our already full days. I realize that for myself Advent has not been the contemplative season of faith which it ought to be. Unfortunately in our face-paced culture that values being busy over being still, prayer and meditation are too often sacrificed on the altar of seeming productivity.

So I need to listen to James again. I may be waiting, but that waiting is frequently just the counting of days and biding time. Yet when the Lord calls on us to "be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46), He is calling us ultimately to prayer.

May this Advent season still be for all of us a time of faith-filled waiting, and may we resist the pressure that too often pulls us away from the quiet sanctuary of being the presence of the living Christ.

Missionaries Must Also Evangelize

It might seem self-evident that missionary work, by definition, involves proclaiming the Gospel. However social and humanitarian efforts can easily eclipse the normal focus of evangelization. Recently Religious News Service posted this brief note:

Vatican says missionaries must also evangelize
By Francis X. Rocca
VATICAN CITY -- Roman Catholic missionaries should aim to convert people to their faith and not restrict themselves to humanitarian good works, according to a Vatican document released Friday (Dec. 14). The 19-page document tries to correct a “growing confusion” among theologians who argue that “it is enough (for missionaries) to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity,” and who claim that it is “possible to be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ and without formal incorporation in the Church.” The statement is a follow-up to Dominus Iesus, the 2000 document produced by Pope Benedict XVI when he was still a cardinal, which said that non-Christians are in a “gravely deficient situation” on the question of salvation.

What the Roman Catholic church has struggled with has also been a source of contention within the broader church as well. In an article entitled "Peace, Justice, Evangelism: The Mission of the Church," Peter Kroeker indicates the great variety of views within the Mennonite Brethren tradition, which is probably indicative of many others:

"William Richardson (26-37), for example, states that evangelism is social action. Others see evangelism as simply the proclamation of the gospel. Jose Bonino (3), at one extreme, identifies {19} the claim of some people that the gospel implies liberation and revolution. Maurice Sinclair (23-24) makes a case that the gospel of the Kingdom has a vital application to the task of development. Jacob Loewen (121-122) points to the need for defining the gospel in its broadest and deepest dimensions rather than looking for a “one chord” definition."

While serving our neighbor in acts of love and charity is an outgrowth of the Gospel, the actual proclamation of Jesus Christ crucified and risen can never be optional in the mission work of the church. Also, redefining the mission of the church as political liberation and justice is a horrible confusion of the different kingdoms and the true role of the church in the world. There is also a lack of understanding among the liberation gospel promoters regarding the call of the church to suffer and bear the cross of a calling that often involves persecution.

Many churches would do well to reexamine how they have redefined the mission of the church, and to embrace again the original commission of Christ to "make disciples of all nations" by "baptizing....and teaching" them about the only Way, Truth, and Life.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Was Huckabee Right?

Recently Mike Huckabee asked a question during an interview that has caused a bit of controversy. He simply asked if the Mormons taught that Jesus and Satan were brothers? Now, first of all, let us note that Huckabee did not say that the Mormons taught this. He merely asked if it was so, admitting that he did not know a lot about Mormon doctrine. This little piece of fact was conveniently forgotten in the transmission of the story. However, in an election season we can expect such things to happen. Any little word that has potential for controversy is pounced upon with great enthusiasm by those seeking sensationalism.

But aside from this, the question is stilled begged: Do the Mormons teach that Satan and Jesus were brothers? There has been swift response by Mormons to distance themselves from this, and for good reason. Even nominal Christians would be quite offended to be told that the Savior of the Word and the arch-enemy of God are essentially related.

To answer the question, I first turned to the major texts of Mormonism. However, I quickly realized that all I had to do was to turn to the LDS official web site for the answer. Under the section "I Have a Question" one inquirer asks: "How can Jesus and Lucifer be spirit brothers when their characters and purposes are so utterly opposed?" I want to quote the entire response here so that there is no question about the context or overall content as presented. But we must understand a few things before I give you the quote:

-According to Mormon belief Lucifer, like Jesus and many others, are all considered "spirit children" of the Father. Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, and thus God, is not essentially distinguished from other beings, such as the angels, which are not God, or from men, which are not angels. They all enjoy a common source.
-Mormons would not say that Satan and Jesus are brothers, but as this answer shows, would rather indicate that Lucifer and Jesus as spirit brothers, noting that Satan is what Lucifer became when he rebelled.

So, here is what Jess L. Christensen, Institute of Religion director at Utah State University, Logan, Utah, answered on behalf of the LDS church (Note that the words in bold were done by me to greater emphasize those sections addressing the issue at hand):

"On first hearing, the doctrine that Lucifer and our Lord, Jesus Christ, are brothers may seem surprising to some—especially to those unacquainted with latter-day revelations. But both the scriptures and the prophets affirm that Jesus Christ and Lucifer are indeed offspring of our Heavenly Father and, therefore, spirit brothers. Jesus Christ was with the Father from the beginning. Lucifer, too, was an angel “who was in authority in the presence of God,” a “son of the morning.” (See Isa. 14:12; D&C 76:25–27.) Both Jesus and Lucifer were strong leaders with great knowledge and influence. But as the Firstborn of the Father, Jesus was Lucifer’s older brother. (See Col. 1:15; D&C 93:21.)
How could two such great spirits become so totally opposite? The answer lies in the principle of agency, which has existed from all eternity. (See D&C 93:30–31.) Of Lucifer, the scripture says that because of rebellion “he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies.” (Moses 4:4.) Note that he was not created evil, but became Satan by his own choice.

When our Father in Heaven presented his plan of salvation, Jesus sustained the plan and his part in it, giving the glory to God, to whom it properly belonged. Lucifer, on the other hand, sought power, honor, and glory only for himself. (See Isa. 14:13–14; Moses 4:1–2.) When his modification of the Father’s plan was rejected, he rebelled against God and was subsequently cast out of heaven with those who had sided with him. (See Rev. 12:7–9; D&C 29:36–37.)

That brothers would make dramatically different choices is not unusual. It has happened time and again, as the scriptures attest: Cain chose to serve Satan; Abel chose to serve God. (See Moses 5:16–18.) Esau “despised his birthright”; Jacob wanted to honor it. (Gen. 25:29–34.) Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him; he sought to preserve them. (Gen. 37:12–24; Gen. 45:3–11.)

It is ironic that the agency with which Lucifer rebelled is the very gift he tried to take from man. His proposal was that all be forced back into God’s presence. (See Moses 4:1, 3.) But the principle of agency is fundamental to the existence and progression of intelligent beings: as we make wise choices, we grow in light and truth. On the other hand, wrong choices—such as the one Satan made—stop progress and can even deny us blessings that we already have. (See D&C 93:30–36.)

In order for us to progress, therefore, we must have the opportunity to choose good or evil. Interestingly, Satan and his angels—those who opposed agency—have become that opposition. As the prophet Lehi taught, “Men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.” (2 Ne. 2:27.)

Although the Father has allowed Satan and his angels to tempt mankind, he has given each of us the ability to rise above temptation. (See 1 Cor. 10:13.) He has also given us the great gift of the Atonement.

When the Lord placed enmity between Eve’s children and the devil, Satan was told that he would bruise the heel of Eve’s seed, but her seed would bruise his head. (See Moses 4:21.) President Joseph Fielding Smith explained that “the ‘God of peace,’ who according to the scriptures is to bruise Satan, is Jesus Christ.” (Answers to Gospel Questions, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957, 1:3.) Satan would bruise the Savior’s heel by leading men to crucify Him. But through his death and resurrection, Christ overcame death for all of us; and through his atonement, he offers each of us a way to escape the eternal ramifications of sin. Thus, Satan’s machinations have been frustrated and eventually he will be judged, bound, and cast into hell forever. (See Rev. 20:1–10; D&C 29:26–29.)

In Hebrew, the word bruise means “to crush or grind.” Therefore, the very heel that was bruised will crush Satan and will help us overcome the world and return to our Father. As we use our agency to choose good over evil, the atonement of Christ prepares the way for us to return to our Father in Heaven.

We can only imagine the sorrow of our Heavenly Father as he watched a loved son incite and lead a rebellion and lose his opportunity for exaltation. But we can also imagine the Father’s love and rejoicing as he welcomed back the beloved son who had valiantly and perfectly fought the battles of life and brought about the great Atonement through his suffering and death."

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Five Laws of Christian Freedom

As Todd Wilken admits in a recent article in Issues, Etc., the combination of the word "freedom" and "law" seems out of place. "What does the Law have to do with Christian freedom?" However, Wilken is addressing an issue that is often used within the Church as a license for abuse or excess in the name of freedom. The issue is sometimes referred to by its technical Latin name, adiophora, which refers to the area of theology concerning matters that are neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture.

Within the LCMS the appeal to adiophora is often used by pastors and churches to justify massive overhauls of the liturgy and the ministry with the justification that the details of these areas are not spelled out in specific terms within Scripture. However, as the saying goes, "the devil is in the details," and much mischief has been attempted by tampering with the little things that often go unnoticed by the general observer.

Christian freedom has therefore been used in some cases to abandon the historic worship forms of the church, disregard fellowship restrictions in Holy Communion, and mingle the genders within leadership and worship of the church. So, is Christian Freedom a 'blank check,' theologically speaking, that leaves even matters of worship to the whims of the masses?

In an attempt to better define the area of Christian Freedom, Rev. Wilken presents what he refers to as "Five Laws" that govern this area. If you do not currently receive Issues, Etc., I would recommend subcribing and reading articles like this in full. I can only summarize in the space here.

Law 1: Where Scripture speaks, speak; where Scripture is silent, be silent. Wilken is responding with this "law" to the "Regulative Principle" of the Calvinist Reformation that says: "If the Bible doesn't specifically command X, Y, or Z, then the Bible forbids X, Y, and Z. We have seen this principle in action where Christians forbid things that are truly open to Christian freedom (within the limits of decency), such as dancing and the drinking of alcoholic beverages.

Law 2: Don't confuse your refusal to listen with Scripture's silence. Here Wilken is responding to the logic that says if the Scriptures do not address an issue specifically by name, then it must not be important enough to limit or regulate and we are free to do as we wish. This is the "Regulative Principle" turned on its head: "If the Bible doesn't specifically forbid X,Y, or Z, when the Bible approves of X, Y, or Z. An example here could be such 'hot button' topics like gay marriage, cohabitation, or women's ordination. Does the Bible address in detail any of these issue? Not really. They didn't impact the people of this time in the way they do ours. Still, the principles at stake are addressed: sexual immorality, the nature of marriage, and the role of women and the office of pastor. The Bible also does not address genocide, wife-beating or incest, but it clearly condemns such actions as violating the very essence of marriage and family as he created it.

Law 3: Your freedom stops where false doctrine begins. Is the Bible silent on how Christian ought to worship? It is true that the exact form that worship takes is left within the area of Christian Freedom. However, the Bible is never silent about what that form communicates. Today many in the Church are confessing that they are Lutherans, but they worship like Baptists or Pentecostals, and they sing songs that clearly undermine and counter our Christ-centered and sacramentally-based theology. Wilken quotes John Pless who demonstrates how the issue of historic liturgy is actually an issue of faith: "The liturgical crisis is a crisis of faith, for faith lives by the Word of the Lord. The contemporary uneasiness with the liturgy is really an anxiety over whether the Word of the Lord will really do what the Lord promises us that it will do." He is referring, in this case, to those who insist that the historic liturgy be jettisoned because it hinders the evangelistic efforts of the church to proclaim Christ.

Law 4: Your freedom stops where your Christian brother's conscience begins. The first note Wilken makes is that this concerns the "Christian brother" not the unbeliever. He mentions this because some have used this principle again to justify major changes in the church in order not to "offend" the unchurched, such as removing the cross from the sanctuary. This principle, however, is concerned with what Paul would refer to as the "weaker brother." The issue here, therefore, is will my actions undermine the Gospel? Wilken uses examples in this case of Paul's different decisions regarding the circumcision of Titus and Timothy (cf. Gal. 2 and Acts 16).

Law 5: Just because there is more than one right way to do it, doesn't mean that there is no wrong way to do it. Here we confront the the principle of "anything goes." The reasoning is: "I have my way; you have your way; there are no wrong ways; it's all good!" Wilken remarks that "This is the single greatest and most dangerous misconception about adiophora and Christian freedom." He says that it replaces Christian freedom with license. "In the name of Christian freedom, these churches have left free to give sinners less and less Jesus, and in some cases no Jesus at all." Unfortunately too many churches today have given into such license and permit atrocities that would have been condemned as heresy or heathen in an earlier, more faithful era. And with worship - Is there a "wrong way" to do it? I once sat in a church as youth members cart-wheeled down the isle and handled out balloons to children in the pews. I remained in that sanctuary only out of respect for my mother. Should I have been upset? Should such behavior seemed inappropriate for a sacred setting devoted to the worship of God? You be the judge....