Wednesday, July 6, 2022

The Great Divide: Biblical Unity

I think that it is fairly obvious to the casual observer that we are living in very divisive times. When viewing the increased political polarization of our nation and the divisive effects of social media, it is natural to appeal for unity. I believe these calls are made from sincere hearts. However, unity is a word, much like the word “love”, that is viewed as being universally positive. 

As Christians, we must be discerning in our use and evaluation of the word “unity” as the biblical definition carries a distinct meaning. Depending on your preferred translation, the word “unity” appears only a handful of times in the New Testament and only in a few of those cases does it refer to unity within the New Testament church. There are two different Greek words that are used to describe unity within the church and the specific meanings of these words, as well the surrounding context of the passages, should inform our understanding and pursuit of biblical unity.

Biblical unity is found as one body of Christ.

In what is known as his high priestly prayer, spoken immediately after the Last Supper, Jesus prays for the unity of all future believers. He asks that “they may be one as we (Jesus and the Father) are one - I in them and you in me - so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23). The Greek word “heis” is translated here as unity, but is rendered as “one” in the vast majority of other usages in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul uses the same word to explain that “as the body is one (heis) and has many members, and all the members of the body, though may, are one (heis) body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12:12). In the same way, Jesus prayed that future believers would be one as he and the Father are one.

A couple distinctions are essential to understand the unity that Jesus petitioned. First, this united group of believers is to provide contrast to the world so that unbelievers may clearly see God’s character and redemptive purpose in sending Christ to Earth. While believers are called to be united to one another, they must be distinct from the world. This point is further emphasized when reading Jesus’ preceding prayer for the disciples. Jesus said the following of the disciples: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” (John 17:14-16). When transitioning to pray for all believers, Jesus prayed, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.” (John 17:20). There is a connected flow of thought in Jesus’ desires for the disciples and his wishes for all future believers. One of those desires is that this unified body would be within, but clearly separate and distinct from the world. If Christians seek a form of unity that blurs or erases the distinction between the world and the church, then the unity that they seek is not the biblical unity that Jesus desires.

Second, biblical unity cannot be achieved apart from a commitment to truth as revealed in God’s word. Jesus asked the Father to “sanctify [the disciples] by the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17). The word sanctify means to separate from a profane world to be consecrated and dedicated to God. As the transition between his prayer for the disciples and his prayer for all believers indicates, Jesus desires this sanctification by the truth for all believers. Christians must reject any pursuit of unity that requires believers to deny or ignore the truth revealed through God’s word. This commitment to the truth will set believers apart from the world and the world will often hate them for it. However, the ultimate purpose of this distinction is not to puff up the pride of “righteous” Christians, but “that the world may believe that [the Father] has sent [the Son].” (John 17:21).

Biblical unity occurs when believers have unanimity or agreement regarding doctrine.

The Apostle Paul urged the church in Ephesus to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which [they had] been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3). He later explained that apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers had been appointed by God to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until [they] all attain[ed] to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” (Ephesians 4:12-13). In both of these cases, a different Greek word, “henotes”, is used to highlight another important aspect of biblical unity. 

The word “henotes” means unanimity or agreement and believers are encouraged to maintain the unanimity of the Spirit and the agreement of the faith. In other words, Christians should have agreement and unanimity regarding Christian doctrine and the truth revealed through the Bible. One of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to “guide [believers] into all the truth” (John 16:13) so that they “might understand the things freely given us by God.” (1 Corinthians 2:12). The unity of the Spirit is not some ephemeral, emotional driven sense of connection, but an agreement on the central truths of Christian doctrine that is enabled by the Holy Spirit as he directs believers into an accurate understanding of God’s word.

The idea that Christian unity depends on a common understanding of doctrine is further clarified when Paul describes the job of church leaders as leading the saints to attain unity of the faith. When the term “the faith” is used in the New Testament it often refers to the teachings of Christ that were handed down to the apostles and the church. This can be seen in Paul’s letters to his apprentice Timothy, who had been “trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that [he had] followed.” (1 Timothy 4:6). Paul encouraged his mentee to “follow the pattern of the sound words that [he had] heard from [Paul], in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13) and warned that those who “oppose the truth” would be “disqualified regarding the faith.” (2 Timothy 3:8).

However, we don’t even need to appeal to Paul’s other writings to understand that the unity of the faith refers to an agreement regarding doctrine because his letter to the Ephesians carries on to explain that goal of achieving unity of the faith is that Christians would “no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of (false) doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:14). Biblical unity will prevent believers from being carried away by false doctrine because they will be rooted and knit together in sound doctrine. 

Although doctrine is often seen as unspiritual or legalistic in the modern church, scripture clearly teaches that biblical unity cannot be achieved or maintained without a shared understanding of the core tenets of the faith. To be sure, scripture also speaks of disputable matters about which Christians can hold different opinions (Romans 14), but believers should unanimously agree on core teachings such as the death and resurrection of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, and the reliability of God’s word. Different seasons will also require believers to agree upon biblical teaching regarding hot topic issues of the day. For example, I do not believe that it is possible to maintain biblical unity in the present day if believers do not unanimously hold to the clear biblical standards regarding marriage, sexuality, and gender. A lack of agreement in these areas will lead to fissures in local churches and will result in a lack of zeal in evangelism and a lack of confidence in the authority and goodness of God’s word. In this case, as in many others, biblical unity cannot be achieved or maintained by agreeing to disagree.

J.C. Ryle, a 19th century Anglican bishop, cautioned against the increasing ecumenicalism and liberalism of his day, which sought peace at the expense of doctrinal truth. In his paper titled Pharisees and Sadducees, Ryle offered a warning that is relevant for the church in the present day. He wrote:

To keep gospel truth in the church is even of greater importance than to keep peace . . . The Apostle Paul valued unity very greatly as we know, but here he runs the risk of all the consequences that follow . . . Why? Because he dreaded false doctrine. He feared the loss of truth more than the loss of peace. Many people have a morbid fear of controversy. They would have said, with Ahab, that Elijah was a disturber of the peace. They would have thought that Paul at Antioch went too far! To maintain truth in the church men should be ready to make any sacrifice, to hazard peace, to risk dissension. They should no more tolerate false doctrine than they would tolerate sin. Peace without truth is a false peace; it is the very peace of the devil. Unity without the gospel is a worthless unity; it is the very unity of hell. Let us never be ensnared by those who speak kindly of it.

Unity, quiet, order . . . give beauty, strength, efficiency to the cause of Christ. But even gold can be bought too dear. Unity which is obtained by the sacrifice of truth is worth nothing. It is not the unity that pleases God.

I believe that the present times require a disturbance of the peace and the risk of dissension. Within the world, it is time for the church to be a distinct light and city on a hill. Within the church, it is time to hold dearly to truth, even if it results in division. We cannot settle for a false unity that does not please God and does not prepare the body of Christ to face the pressures that are already coming from the world. 

To many Christians, the thought of division seems, well, un-Christian. Is that really the case? In the next part of this series, we will look at what the Bible says about division.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The Great Divide: The Myth of Neutrality

During her senate confirmation hearing, recently confirmed supreme court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson was asked, “When does life begin, in your opinion?” Jackson initially responded, “Senator, I don’t know,” but when pressed further, she relented, “I don’t know. I have a personal, religious, and otherwise beliefs that have nothing to do with the law in terms of when life begins. I have a religious view that I set aside when I am ruling on cases.”

Jackson’s response reveals a myth that is readily accepted both within and outside the church, that there exists a neutral position from which one can make objective moral, philosophical, and scientific judgments. Such neutrality is a myth. The position does not exist. When Jackson sets aside her religious beliefs to occupy the “neutral” ground of the judge’s bench, she is not operating from the unbiased position that she claims, but is entering a position with godless, humanistic, and naturalistic presuppositions and biases. This neutral position is every bit as biased as the religious worldview that she claims to set aside.

If Christians are going to live faithfully amidst the cultural tumult of the current season, we must both realize and embrace that a position of neutrality does not exist. We will receive praise from the world if we claim to judge political and social matters from an objective and unbiased standpoint. Such praise is hollow and deceptive because we are not entering the presumed neutral territory that we claim, but instead operating from a worldly mindset that is hostile to the law of God and contrary to the mind of Christ. C.S. Lewis brilliantly summarizes this reality: “There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.”

It is essential for Christians to embrace this truth for two reasons. First, we must transparently state that we cannot rightly judge from an illusory position of neutrality. When we claim to do so, we deceive both ourselves and the very people we are trying to influence with the gospel of Christ. Second, we must prepare ourselves by recognizing that the world and the spirit of this age will not allow us to remain in a position of neutrality. The incrementalism of humanistic philosophies will eventually force us to choose a side.

  1. We cannot make right judgments from a position of neutrality

The Bible does not describe the disconnected religious and secular spheres that Judge Jackson claims to occupy in her personal and professional life. There is not a square inch of the universe that is not under the authority of God. King David declares,  “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1). The prophet Isaiah confirms that because of God’s mighty power not one star amongst the heavenly hosts is missing and that He calls them forth by name (Isaiah 40:26). The New Testament expands on this theme and explains that through Christ “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him or for him.” (Colossians 1:16). Judge Jackson attempts to assert that, for the Christian, there can be some neutral sphere of existence that is not under the sovereignty of Christ’s lordship. This sphere does not exist.

Furthermore, our minds are either devoted to Christ or conformed to the patterns of this world. The Apostle Paul insists that believers must “no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. [Unbelievers] are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” (Ephesians 4:17-18). Instead, having come to “know Christ”, believers are to put off [the] old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of [their] minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness or holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Far from staking claim to a neutral position, Christians are called to have a transformed and renewed mind, which is clearly opposed to the pattern of the world in order that they would be able to test and approve God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2). It is only by having a mind devoted to Christ and God’s righteous standards that we possess the capacity to make good and righteous judgments and decisions.

Instead of trading a personal, religious position for a standpoint of neutrality, Judge Jackson and many other professing Christians have adopted a worldly and humanistic philosophy that is directly opposed to God’s laws and commands. This position of neutrality is lauded by the world as wise and virtuous, but the Bible clarifies that “although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” and exchanged the glory of God for idolatry (Romans 1: 22-23). Such people do not possess neutrality in their thinking but have been given over by God to “do what ought not to be done” and “approve of those” who act against “God’s righteous decrees.” (Romans 1:28, 32). Thus, claiming a neutral position of wisdom, a professing Christian finds herself unable to answer the question, “What is a woman?”, and unable to stand up against the slaughter of millions of pre-born image bearers of God. No, this is not the neutral position of objective wisdom, it is the foolish position of rebellion against God’s clearly revealed moral law. If we are going to make just and righteous judgments, we must reject any pretense of maintaining a neutral position and instead maintain unswerving commitment to the commands of God and strive daily to devote our minds to Christ.

I believe that such a position is actually more respectful to others than Judge Jackson’s obfuscation. We clearly delineate where we stand. We clearly state our presuppositions and biases. We don’t pretend to be neutral, because a mind devoted to Christ cannot be neutral on moral issues to which God has clearly spoken. Judge Jackson tries to keep a foot in both camps, a mind devoted to God in her personal life and a mind devoted to neutrality in her professional life. This position is neither biblically or logically tenable and will consistently lead to judgments that run contrary to God’s designs, plans, and decrees.

2. The world will not tolerate neutrality

Some may think, “I agree that the Bible clearly condemns abortion and provides clear definitions for sexuality and gender, but I don’t want to get involved in politics or culture wars, so I prefer to just stay out of these debates and focus on sharing the love of God.” While I agree that a Christian’s commitment is not to a particular political party, but to Christ in his kingdom, I would argue that these issues are not political issues, but moral and biblical issues that have been politicized. However, the larger problem with such a position is that the world will not allow one to maintain a position of neutrality. Eventually, incrementalism will force one to betray their true position, either embracing worldly and godless philosophies or standing for biblical truths.

The Apostle Peter warns that unbelievers will not simply accept that Christians have chosen to leave a life of “debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry”, but will “think it strange that [Christians] do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation and heap abuse on [them].” (1 Peter 4:3-4). I believe that we will increasingly see this play out with the identification and use of preferred pronouns in the coming years. Employees will be directed to include their preferred pronouns in their email handles and Zoom names. Participants will be expected to give their preferred pronouns during ice breakers at professional and community meetings or provide their preferred identification for their name tags at conferences. If someone refuses to participate in such rituals, it will not be interpreted as taking a neutral position but will be viewed as a transphobic attack on LQBTQIA+ community.

This phenomenon recently played out at a neighboring school district in Maryland as district leadership partnered with a LGBT advocacy group to provide pride flags for every elementary classroom in the district. Although teachers were given the “choice” to not display the flag in their classroom, such a decision would not be interpreted as choosing to remain neutral in a sensitive political debate, but as a homophobic refusal to provide safe spaces for queer and questioning youth. Those who support the gay agenda have no tolerance for neutral spaces. They will force you to choose a side and anything less than full affirmation and celebration will be interpreted and construed as hateful and bigoted intolerance.

Neither is it possible to support some aspects of the social justice movement without embracing all aspects of the movement. In an interview with Don Lemon, leading antiracist activist Ibram X. Kendi explains, “To be antiracist is to actively oppose homophobia and transphobia in ourselves and in our society. Whether it’s a homophobic joke from a friend or transphobic policy in our community, aimed at trans women or kids, it is our responsibility to call out injustice.” Obviously, Christians should not engage in hateful or coarse joking (Ephesians 5:4), but when Kendi talks about transphobic policies he is talking about laws that restrict school districts from teaching kindergartners about gender fluidity and policies that prohibit biological men from competing in women’s sports. If you think that you can put a black square on your Facebook profile or a BLM sign in your lawn but remain “neutral” on matters of sexuality and gender, you are sorely mistaken. The incrementalism of the social justice movement, which is rooted in godless neo-Marxist philosophies and identity politics, will not allow it.

To conclude, let us learn from another person who falsely claimed to maintain a position of neutrality in regards to Christ. Pontius Pilate had the power to release Christ, but instead sentenced him to crucifixion, a free will choice that corresponded with the manifold wisdom and preordained plan of God. Attempting to justify himself and maintain a position of neutrality, Pilate washed his hands and said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility!” Yet, Pilate was acting in his own self interest and clearly violating biblical justice by condemning an innocent man to die. He was not neutral. Like Pilate, we have all at times abandoned the clear teachings of scripture to support worldly ideas, whether through silent complicity or active promotion. Rather than washing our hands and pretending to maintain an illusory position of neutrality, may we wash ourselves with the sanctifying blood of Christ and devote our minds anew to his gospel, kingdom, and purposes.

Monday, April 11, 2022

The Great Divide: Introduction

Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel is one of my favorite stories in the Old Testament. To set the scene, under the immoral leadership of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, the northern kingdom of Israel slid into a dark period of idolatry and immorality. All of the true prophets of Yahweh had been put to the sword, or so Elijah thought, as he summoned the prophets of Baal and Asherah, as well as people from all over Israel, to a showdown on Mount Caramel. Elijah said to the people gathered, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21). Then, he issued his famous challenge in which the false prophets were unable to call on their false gods to rain down fire on their altar, but fire from the true God of all the earth fell upon and consumed Elijah’s drenched sacrifice. This act of God was in answer to Elijah’s prayer that He would act “so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (1 Kings 18:37).

As Christians, we are called to discern the times, and I believe that we are living in a season in which we are called not to waver between two opinions, but to bring into sharper clarity the distinction between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. King Solomon writes there is a time for everything: “a time to plant and a time to uproot…a time to tear down and a time to build…a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them…a time to tear and a time to mend.” (Ecclesiastes 3:2-7). I believe that this is a time to bring division. 

Complicating this season is a cultural wake following the Trump presidency that has left Christians particularly vulnerable to a message coming from both within and outside the church that Christians always need to pursue unity and reach a sort of peace with the world so that they would not cause offense and more people would be open to “having a relationship with Christ.” While I believe that this pressure from within the church often comes from a place of genuine concern and love, I believe that it is misguided. The purpose of living as light in the world is not merely that the world will see Jesus through my friendliness, but to bring stark contrast between the evil deeds of darkness and the righteousness of God’s kingdom. Without question we do this with humility, compassion, and a desire that all would be saved, but we also do so without wavering in our commitment to God’s commands, ways, and righteous decrees. The purpose of this series is to expand upon my conviction that God is calling faithful believers to boldly bring contrast between the ways of Christ and the ways of the world in the hope that many would be called into repentance from darkness into the glorious kingdom of light. To do so requires a clear demarcation. 

I will be speaking about a number of social issues in this series to provide context for my exhortations. Some may be shocked at my calling for division since such language is rarely used from the Sunday pulpit. Therefore, I would like to start by sharing a specific example of the division that I am proposing.

Recently, the state of Florida and Governor Ron DeSantis have been at the center of controversy over a recently passed piece of legislation called the Parental Rights in Education Bill. The bill stipulates that "Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards." This bill, which seems very reasonable and appropriate, is even supported by 52% of democrats in Florida. After all, who would feel a need to teach six-year-olds about gender fluidity and homosexuality? Well, apparently plenty of people on the progressive left.

The activist class and left-leaning mainstream media have slandered and misrepresented the bill as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill”, even though the bill doesn’t even include the word gay and would equally apply to prohibitions against providing early elementary students with instruction on a heterosexual orientation. During the Oscars, a trio of hosts took a shot at the bill and the citizens of Florida by joking, “We’re going to have a great night tonight. And for you people in Florida, we’re going to have a gay night…gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay…” The Disney Corporation has condemned the bill and vowed to fight for its repeal. Meanwhile, internal meeting videos were leaked in which Disney’s president of content vowed that future content would include “many, many” characters who represent the LGBTQIA+ community and another employee openly admitted to strategically trying to push the gay agenda through her content creation. The reaction of activists, mainstream media, celebrities, and corporations shows that there are many who are outraged that anyone would stand against their desire to expose kindergartners to woke gender and sexuality ideology.

That is the worldly mindset that I want to divide from. It is more pervasive than I think many Christians realize and is spreading like gangrene under the guise of social justice. I want no unity with such thinking that “calls evil good, and good evil; that puts darkness for light, and light for darkness; that puts bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20). We must speak the truth in love and clearly delineate the darkness from the light. It is not the time for nuance. It is not the time to worry about causing offense. It is the time to speak with clarity and conviction.

Yes, I desire that all will come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, but the chains of a depraved mindset will not be broken by showing people that we are not “that kind of Christian” by distancing ourselves from anything that could be labeled “right wing.” Instead, we must trust the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to break the power of sin when the darkness of the spirit of the age is exposed for its true nature and people are urged to repent from their rebellion against their creator and to put their full trust in Christ, who died to pay the due penalty of our sins and raised victorious from the grave to demonstrate his power over death that we may enter into his glorious kingdom of light. May division result in this glorious salvation and transformation.

Yet, the question remains: How shall we divide in a way that is both loving and faithful to truth? I will be providing several practical suggestions throughout this series, but to offer a taste of what is to come, I will start with one simple step. Refuse to use the intentionally deceptive euphemisms of the world and instead clearly describe things for what they are. This should be done without personal attacks on persons who hold these ideas, but with clarity and without wavering from the truth. For example, refuse to use terms such as “reproductive justice” or “terminating a pregnancy.” Instead, highlight that these terms are referring to an act in which the life of a human being is intentionally extinguished. Bring to light that the term “gender affirming care for minors” is really referring to the use of hormone therapies and puberty blockers that can render youth sterile and sometimes even to the genital mutilation of a minor. When institutions insist on using terms like “pregnant people” or “teens with testicles”, clearly state that only women can get pregnant and only teenage boys have testicles. Those with opposing views will likely become hostile, but let it be due to their irritation with the truth and not the manner in which we conduct ourselves. Our goal is not to be the language police, but to recognize that language is used intentionally by the other side to shape culture and to obfuscate deeds of darkness. We must counter with language to bring them into the light.

However, before any practical steps are undertaken, a pre-requisite is to realize that the position of neutrality that is assumed throughout much of our culture and in many of our institutions is a myth. Many Christians assume that we should try to operate from a place of objective neutrality in our interactions with the world. Such a position does not exist. I will further explore the myth of neutrality in the next installment of this series.