Justice in the Church

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The Prophet Isaiah, Gustave Doré

In recent days Kathleen and I have been reading through the eighth century prophets — Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and Micah.

These are less familiar to the church than virtually every other part of the Bible. My friend, Pastor John Hendricks, referred to them as “the clean part of the Bible.” He meant the portions of the Bible we don’t read much so they don’t have smudges or thumbprints on their pages or pencil marks in their margins.

Admittedly the prophets are not as easy to read as the gospels, and they often do not seem very warm and “evangelical.” But they are filled with passages waiting patiently to speak to the church today. We should listen to them more than we do.

The second half of the eighth century before Christ (the 700s B.C.) was a time of great prosperity and accumulated wealth for the nations of Israel and Judah, but this created problems. Abundance brings its temptations in every age. Wealth itself gives a sense of power and self-sufficiency; and unless treated as a sacred trust, power seems almost invariably to corrupt.

Amos forewarned the northern kingdom of Israel: “You oppress the righteous and take bribes, / and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. / Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil” (Amos 5:12,13). There was a breakdown of just or fair dealings.

During the same period Hosea, speaking for God, says of the people of the capital of the Northern Kingdom (Samaria) “They practice deceit, / thieves break into houses, / bandits rob in the streets; / but they do not realize / that I remember all their evil deeds” (Hosea 7:1,2). There was a breakdown of moral order.

But in spite of all this secular decay these clear-eyed prophets noted that, curiously, there was no letup in the showy practices of religion.

Elaborate worship practices were an insult to the Lord when offered with soiled hands and from deceitful hearts. “The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me? says the Lord…. When you come to appear before me, / who has asked this of you, / this trampling of my courts? (Isaiah 1:11, 12).

You would think prophets of such courage and candor would sway the people. What giant proclaimers of truth they must have been! After all, their prophecies still occupy a place in the Bible 2800 years later.

But, religious or not, they had a stubbornness in the face of rebuke that would call down severe judgment.

These prophets were actually lonely men, an irritant to those who heard them. Their prophecies of impending judgment were scoffed at and rejected. Across history, true prophets have often disturbed consciences and paid for their courage with their lives.

When Amos went to the northern kingdom he was ordered by a man named Amaziah: “Get out you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there.” (Amos 7:12). In other words, he was saying, our ears are closed to your words.

Yet, there was actually urgent reason for them to pay attention; the mighty Assyrian armies threatened attack and later the Babylonian legions would come. Before such hordes, without God’s protection there would be slaughter and destruction. But somehow pride, self-indulgence and greed blinded the minds of their leaders.

Are these prophets messengers to the church today? Times of abundance tend to blur moral boundaries. Leaders not kept accountable slip easily into the abuse of power instead of the rightful distribution of justice — the exercise of fairness for all. The ancient prophets would caution believers in every age: be alert!

The health of a company of God’s people, whether a local church, a parachurch body, or a denomination of believers spread across the land, must be measured not only by its evangelistic zeal but also by the clarity and firmness of its commitments to be righteous and deal justly in all situations.

 

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Image credit: The Prophet Isaiah, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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About Telling the Truth

A church member offered himself to teach a Sunday School class in a large evangelical congregation. His orienting assignment was to sit in a boys class and help to keep order as the teacher taught.

At the first meeting he was startled to hear the teacher say to the boys, “We all lie.” Then, shooting his own hand into the air as if to include himself, the teacher asked, “How many of you told a lie this past week?” The boys glanced at one another hesitantly and a few hands were raised guardedly.

For a Sunday School teacher to tell a class of growing boys that he lies, that he admits it, and that he knowingly told a lie during the past week, is quite troubling. It would make it sound to them as if lying is nothing out of the ordinary for Christians.

Christians believe that because all humans are “born in sin” (Ps 51:5) we are all by nature disposed to lie. We do this very early in our lives, even before we know clearly what we’re doing or have a conscience about it.

Children don’t have to be taught to lie; it comes naturally. It’s telling the truth that they have to be taught.

Lying, according to a well-worn definition, is “a misrepresentation of the truth with the intent to deceive.” We can lie in many ways, not only by words but also by silence, or a gesture, or even by a hastily crafted alibi or excuse. Lying may even have in it an element of truth but it always involves the intent to deceive.

So when, by the grace of God, the Gospel penetrates our defenses it reveals to us our dishonest ways. We discover that we have a history of being deceptive — sometimes to an extreme degree. That’s why the gospel calls us to repent. That is, to renounce and turn from our deceptive practices.

Opening ourselves to the gospel brings a great assurance of forgiveness. Our sins are blotted out. But at the same time the Holy Spirit enters our lives in renewing power, and begins the construction of a new life. It’s called regeneration (Titus 3:5-7). In this new life there is no place for deceptiveness or hypocrisy (Eph. 4:25). These sins have to be confronted and truth must become our new badge.

That’s understandable, for when we are saved , Jesus — who is very truth itself — lives in us (Jn 14:6). Moreover, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit, whom he promised to send into the world, is “the Spirit of truth” (Jn 15:26). Therefore, his call to truthfulness is a serious call and the Spirit is patient but firm about it.

But as Christians, in our weakness or fallibility we may slip or forget. We may be overtaken by a “sin of surprise.” We dare not forget that for Christians, sin is never necessary but always possible.

In such cases, what do we do? Here’s the prescription written for Christians for just such a situation: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn:1:9) That’s a promise we should always hold at the ready.

This means we are not casual about our slips and stumbles in regard to honesty; we grieve when we fail. But we are quick to confess them and confident that we can trust God’s forgiving mercy.

In fact, in our best moments, God’s Spirit puts the psalmist’s prayer into our hearts, “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts;/ you teach me wisdom in the inmost place” (Ps 51:6).

This is what we should be teaching boys in a Sunday School class.

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Same-Sex Marriage and the Church in Corinth

Photo credit: Caucus' (via flickr.com)When the Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth, he believed he was writing to an genuine body of Christians. He called them “the church of God in Corinth” and addressed them as “those sanctified (set apart to God) in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2).

But he saw them as a body of believers some of whose consciences were still scarcely awake when it came to discerning right from wrong in the realm of marriage. He lamented to the Corinthian church that “it is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you” (5:1).

His reference at that point is to a shocking case of incest such as even the pagans deplored. Yet some Corinthian Christians seemed to feel that in approving this wrong, or at least overlooking it, they had reason to rejoice over their generosity of spirit.

The Apostle is not content to leave the situation (and others like it) alone. He cautions: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy, nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9ff).

He goes on to acknowledge that some in the Corinthian church had been saved out of that class of wrongdoers. They were trophies of God’s grace, liberated from the bondage of sin and set on a new course. How then could others in the body affirm without twinges of conscience the kind of shocking wrongdoing from which some in their midst had been saved?

Now we consider present times. Three or four decades ago, when the living-together-unmarried phenomenon became widespread there were some Christians who offered rationalizations, attempting to show a sort of generosity with the practice. More mature Christians saw that such rationalizations came out of sleepy consciences, and courageous ministers taught their people the truth as drawn from the Scriptures.

Now as the same-sex-marriage phenomenon takes center stage there are sure to be Christians even among evangelicals who will find some way of softening its seriousness in the name of grace. Antinomianism (approval of lawlessness) has always been a peril to those who teach grace.

But there are also sure to be pastors and teachers here and there who will follow the injunction of the pastoral epistles and “correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2b,3).

It requires a delicate balance to acknowledge that a body of immature Christians can be a true manifestation (or outpost) of the church of Jesus Christ while at the same time they need a courageous challenge to awaken their sleepy consciences. The loving challenge of godly leaders may be unsettling to them. It may even cause division.

But under the careful and energized guidance of the Holy Spirit this kind of exercise of scriptural authority to heighten conscience can bring maturity and health to the body of Christ wherever it is formed. And, in the long run, this is most likely to bring stability to the church, and grace along with offers of deliverance to the offenders.

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Why Should Civility Matter?

When I was in grade school in Saskatchewan back in the late thirties of the last century we studied nine subjects simultaneously and each subject ran for the whole school year.

We had exams on all subjects (except one) three times during the year–in the fall, winter, and late spring. Toward the end of June we were then tested over the whole year’s work.

Marks were recorded numerically for each course, and our overall grade was determined by averaging the nine. The results were then posted on the chalkboard.

Achievement mattered during the year because if our aggregate average for all tests throughout the year was above 67 we didn’t have to write the final set of exams.

But, what about that one subject that wasn’t included in this periodic testing process? On our report cards it was simply called, “Conduct.” Our behavior was graded by the teacher and the grade recorded. This grade could affect our overall score for better or for worse.

Memories of those days came back recently when Kathleen and I watched the vice-presidential debate for the American elections, and then next day listened to what the pundits had to say about it.

It was that grading for conduct that I thought of when I watched Congressman Paul Ryan go up against feisty Vice President Joe Biden in what was supposed to be a debate.

To my surprise, on the day after the debate the political pundits were seriously divided in their judgment. Some called the vice-president’s disruptive conduct “rude,” “scornful,” even “arrogant.” According to them, he lost the debate. Other pundits graded his strategy as “hearty” or “aggressive” — a winning strategy in a “good, rousing” debate. According to them, his antics won.

My seventh grade teacher would have had a migraine over such widely varied opinions of the same observable conduct. I’m sure she would have been asking: whatever became of civility?

This recent debate is a good platform from which to launch the whole question of civility from a Christian point of view. In a media world where incivility is demonstrated all too quickly, is civility in day-to-day relationships still to be expected from people of faith?

We are saved by God’s grace — his unmerited generosity! Agreed. We are then sustained by that grace. Agreed also. Then should we expect that this “grace” would enable us to be “gracious” in our human dealings?

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus: “Do not let any wholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29).

It’s a very high standard indeed.

Our Lord taught his disciples: “You are the light of the world.” Think of the power of that word — light — spoken into a world dimly lit by candles and oil-fed lanterns (Matt.5:14). What a picture!

We may not be able to reintroduce into today’s educational systems the rigor of former days. And the vice presidential debate that suffered from a large element of incivility will soon fade from our memories.

But the issue of love-prompted civility must surely stay with us because we face our own final exam — the very day believers appear before Christ’s judgment seat where “each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).

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The Document You Need to Read

If you have not read the MANHATTAN DECLARATION, I strongly urge you to do so. It is posted on the internet and easy to find.

Whether you are a person of deep faith, a nominal Christian, or a non-believer who has strong concerns for the wellbeing of society, you will find this document relevant. It pinpoints the three key areas where cultural battles are now mounting whose outcomes will profoundly affect all of North America.

As background, the MANHATTAN DECLARATION is a moving document released to the world on November 20, 2009. It was drafted by the late Charles Colson along with a professor from Princeton and another from the Beeson Divinity School in California. It is written with goodwill toward all, and reflects strong civic concern and moral earnestness.

More than 100 Catholic, Evangelical and Orthodox leaders — persons of stature in each of those spheres of influence — first signed it. To date it has also been signed by 529,000 individuals throughout the United States and beyond.

The primary value of this Declaration is that it pinpoints the three fundamental issues over which western society – the culture we all live and breathe in – is locked in combat. They are:

(1) The sanctity of human life; (2) The dignity of marriage; and (3) Religious liberty.

In (1) the issue is more widespread and complex than the destruction of pre-born infants. For example, the declaration states, “… in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled and the elderly are severely threatened.”

As well, the life issue includes eugenics, cloning, the abortion-causing drug, RU-486, partial birth abortion, embryonic stem-cell experimentation, semantic gymnastics (the torturing of language so as to make wrong appear to be right) and so-called death panels that decide what medical treatments may, and may not, be allowed for human diseases of the elderly.

In case (2) the declaration speaks cogently in defense of marriage. It asserts, “Vast human experience confirms that marriage is the original and most important institution for sustaining the health, education and welfare of all persons in society.”

Yet for sixty years or so this institution, fundamental to society’s health, has been under attack. Consider the increase in divorce statistics since World War II, laws providing for no-fault divorce, the drift toward living-together-unmarried, the rising call to legalize same-sex marriage, and the growing numbers of children who grow up without one parent or the other – all these contributing to the denigration and perilous crumbling of traditional marriage.

Here is the question often asked by those who crusade for same sex marriage: How can our gay marriage do damage to those of you in traditional marriages? The Declaration answers: it hurts by breaking down marriage boundaries – boundaries that make marriage unique. The first step will lead logically to opening of doors to other anomalies, such as polygamy, incestuous unions, pedophilic marriages, etc.

“No one,” the Declaration contends, “has a civil right to have a non-marital relationship treated as a marriage (defined as one man and one woman).”

Case (3) is the attack on religious liberty. As I write, the TV channels continue to revisit the Chick-fil-A eruption of this past two weeks: a founder of a successful business that has 1600 outlets in 37 states and does more than four billion dollars of business each year states his opposition on principle to gay marriage. He cites the Bible. His statement is personal, and the outlets are operated on the highest principles of civility and law. Yet mayors of three major cities, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, publicly stated upon hearing this that their cities would not welcome the man’s business outlets. The comments of one even sounded threatening.

So, in what ways could the careful reading of the MANHATTAN DECLARATION be helpful to you, whether in Canada or the United States? For one thing, it could help pin down clearly the issues at the center of the cultural wars now coming into the open.

For another, it could help you understand and master the reasoning behind the issues so you could speak clearly when discussions develop. For yet another, by pondering the Declaration you would become more motivated to participate in the debate as it repeatedly surfaces.

Perhaps most importantly it would make you feel a part of the more than one-half million signers rather than merely a lone person whose participation in this colossal struggle would count for nothing.

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The Perils of Moral Softness

On June 22 of this year, Pennsylvania State University’s assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, was convicted on 45 of 48 counts of sexually abusing young boys both in university athletic facilities and in the basement of his home covering a period of 15 years.

The trial lasted eight days and the jury heard from eight of ten victims telling with emotion of Sandusky’s sexual abuse during their childhood. Sandusky now faces a maximum sentence of 442 years.

Twenty days later, on July 12, shock waves crossed the continent when a special committee authorized by the university’s Board of Trustees reported. Their assignment had been to determine fully the university’s degree of involvement.

The law firm headed by Louis Freeh, former director of the FBI, had undertaken the task. Their 267-page report was labeled by one person, a story of “horror in slow motion.”

It revealed that the sexual abuse of young boys by Sandusky in university facilities was far from secretive. Head Football Coach Paterno, recently deceased, knew about it. The president of the University had heard the reports. Three top officials near the presidential level also had been notified.

What the report shows is that the horrendous wrong was breezily overlooked or covered up. Earlier, key officials had lied to a grand jury to protect the reputation of the football program of the university.

Even janitors had witnessed Sandusky’s disgusting sexual abuse of boys but testified that they were afraid to speak up fearing they might lose their jobs.

The extent of the silence and cover-up was truly amazing. Sandusky had actually been given a protected venue in which to carry out his sexually perverse activities.

The president of the university has been replaced. One news analyst predicts that others will possibly go to jail before the ramifications of this scandal are fully dealt with.

Why did this extensive cover-up remain intact across 15 years? Many say that the football culture in the university is so entrenched in the whole university that any price will be paid to protect it from scandal. It can also be argued that just a simple lack of administrative rigor was a major factor. Yet others allege it was the effect of what is sometimes called “the ol’ boys club” when officials protect one another at the expense of the integrity of the institution.

I suggest two other possibilities to ponder.

Could the serious suppression of complaints be traced to the disregard officials showed for university regulations? Did they opt to govern by the ad hoc decisions of individuals rather than by the rules?

In reading from the Freeh report it becomes evident that in order to conceal the information about the serious offences, several officials improvised a response that suited their own commitments instead of the governing laws of the state. They appeared to put their private judgment above the law.

The other possible explanation as to why the offenses went unchecked might be that for them the worth of children was diminished. In the whole cast of players in the Penn State scandal extending across 15 years, not one voice spoke up in indignation or to give protection to the defenseless children who were being brutalized.

This monstrous wrong at Penn State should not be compared to a tornado that touches down, devastating a single community in one spot in Pennsylvania. It is more like a hurricane that has come ashore to reek wide havoc.

Let us pray that the shock of it will alert leaders everywhere who are responsible for the integrity of institutions — the home, the church, the school, the state and all civic governments — to the peril of a moral softness that can bring about such damaging consequences.

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Pray for Moral Clarity

Several decades ago a distraught father arrived unscheduled at my study, dropped heavily into a chair, and announced without preliminaries, “We’ve got a pregnant girl at our house.”

The pregnancy was the result of one passionate indiscretion, not a covert lifestyle the two had adopted. Nevertheless, two educational careers had been suddenly jeopardized, and unanticipated consequences had instantly begun to unfold.

The parents were crushed by the news, but wise in their responses. There was no talk of spiriting the daughter out of town to have the baby in anonymity, no toying with the thought of an abortion nor the counseling of an adoption. They judged that the relationship of the two young people had the marks of real love on it and was a good match. For these reasons, everyone — parents and the couple — agreed to a private home wedding.

The news spread quickly to the youth group of the church and they were filled with empathy. They immediately began to talk among themselves about giving the whole of their church youth fund, a significant amount, to the couple. Their group impulse solidified quickly.

Upon learning of this, I spoke to the group’s leaders saying theirs was not an appropriate response to the crisis. At first my opinion was seen by the teens as cold and lacking in compassion.

It was, however, a teaching moment. I explained that conduct that had grievously broken God’s law, had brought grief to parents, and had set a hurtful example to peers should not be rewarded with such open-handed generosity.

It would be more appropriate, I explained, to pool their own personal resources and give an appropriate wedding gift such as they might give to any other couple from their youth group who were getting married. Emotions subsided and my suggestion seemed to take.

That was many years ago. Things settled quite quickly because in that social context there at least were traces of what might be called moral norms to work from in making moral decisions. Today a Christian community might find even within itself a confusion of opinions regarding what is right and what is wrong in dealing with such moral breaches.

The couple themselves responded to their new situation courageously and with purpose and went on to raise a family and live exemplary Christian lives. And the church community, compassionate in its general responses, settled quickly. It was a testimonial to redemption.

The shift across intervening generations makes clear that moral clarity has become blurred even in the minds of some Christians. Pray for moral clarity in the church around the world. Pray for it in the pulpits of the land, in every Sunday School class, in Christian grade schools, in Christian colleges everywhere. Pray especially that in Christian families reliable consciences will be formed in the crucible of family living and at family altars everywhere.

In a world filled with moral ambiguities and confusions, do you believe moral integrity is worth fighting for in family circles, within the church, and in society at large? It’s a hard but worthy question.

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