Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Just Another Poor Hermeneutical Principle

I love good preaching and teaching of the scriptures. I get off on people expounding about the truth. I can only imagine that the feeling is what enthusiasts of spectator sports experience when watching a good game. Likewise, I want to yell at the players during the game when they drop the ball or at the ref for making a bad call.

One such time is when poor hermeneutical principles are employed. They seem forgivable when the preacher/teacher manages to score despite playing badly, but I cringe realizing that it was a fluke. Poor hermeneutics do not typically generate tenable teaching.

One such bad hermeneutical principle I have heard could be stated as such that the more a topic is mentioned in the Bible, the more important it is. To be sure, I can’t seem to find a reference to this in formal hermeneutical teaching anywhere, but I hear otherwise good preachers appealing to this principle all the time. I won’t name names, but a classic one is “1/3 of the Bible is nothing but prophecy. Therefore, it must be important to God.” Now, prophecy might be important but it’s not because of how much of the Bible could be considered prophecy. An argument could be made that the whole Bible is prophetic. To be sure, if this principle is applied consistently, then we must conclude that the doctrine of the trinity is irrelevant and the virgin birth is relatively unimportant. And the gifts of the Spirit were mentioned only once, but there is a whole book dedicated to the Levitical law! Haw many times are all those sacrifices repeated? I lose track when I’m reading through.

Rather, my desire is for preachers and teachers to make arguments for significance based on the reasonable certainty of a doctrine and its place in supporting the focus of scripture on the overall message of the gospel.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Straightening Nails

We renovated the bathroom a few years ago and reused the old crown molding, filling in old nail holes and repainting it. I don’t know what it is with the old molding, but it’s been a great place for mold to grow. We’ve scrubbed and scrubbed and re-painted and re-painted, but the mold keeps growing. So today I took the moldy molding off and am putting up some new molding made of some kind of fibrous vinyl or other polymer. Silly me for re-using old things.

Well, I’m still re-using old things. The nails that held up the molding before we renovated the bathroom were straightened and reused to put the molding back up. Yesterday, I reused those same nails a third time to hang the new molding. I get paid a decent salary to do my job. I know about how much I’m worth an hour and it hardly seems worth spending the time carefully straightening these old nails carefully with a hammer, the back of one piece of the old molding and occasionally the end of the concrete porch, when I have a difficult twist in the nail to get out.

But there is more value that the mere cost of new nails. It was a beautiful day out, relatively quiet in my neck of the woods. Somewhere in the distance a church chimed a couple of hymns. And time goes back to when this was a more agrarian culture. More nails were straightened in those days and reused. More planks of wood were carefully removed from old construction and reused in new construction. The very oak timbers that make up my front porch came out of an old barn that was torn down years ago. I have connected with a meaning that God presents to us.

I consider that when Noah built the ark, he didn't go down to the local Home Depot and purchase the lumber, nails and newest power tools. Rather, I imagine that he had to locate many of the materials himself. He had to see to the construction of his own tools. Such thing were not in abundance at the time. He may have already had some tools, but tools wear out and must be repaired or new ones fabricated. He had a whole ship to build, a zoo to collect, and only a handful of people to help him. It took a lot of time to accomplish his assigned task.

But God didn't reuse humanity. Rather, he promised to destroy humanity and start back over with Noah and his family. He fulfilled this promise. He promised to not do it again. With the birth of the Church and the gospel of grace, we can see that he has fulfilled this promise as well. And he never faltered on his promise to "crush the head of the serpent", that is to conquer death, which he promised at the fall.

But utterly destroying everything is not a typical pattern of God's. He did save a still-sinful remnant. Moses perhaps realized this when God threatenend to destroy all the Israelites and start over with Moses. God knew he wasn't actually going to do it. Moses pleaded for the Israelites on the honor of God's glory, making no excuses for the Isrealites and God reused his wayward people according to his plan.

So there I stood for some time hammering bent nails using the back of a piece of the old molding and occasionally the edge of the concrete porch when I came across a particularly twisted nail.

We are sinners - bent and twisted like used nails. We can make an economic choice to throw the old out and purchase new ones, but God is extravagant, giving value to twisted nails by spending the time to straighten them out. This involves the forming power of the hammer on each nail and a stone to sharpen them somewhat with the understanding that a slightly dulled nail still penetrates the material, but doesn't split it.

But if we think that God redeems all things, let's not forget the molding. We worked with the old molding to cleanse it and purify it from the mold, but the mold had gotten into the wood and no matter how we scrubbed and painted, the mold would resurface. We could make the molding look good for a time, but the mold was too deep to remove. The new molding is now in and it looks great. There is no mold. It is pure. The old molding is on the pile in the back of the garden to burn. It seems only in it's destruction by fire will it be purified.

Note the floor of the porch. There are some rust stains where some metal chairs have been and some imperfections in the concrete. But it is still happily used. Kids still ride their scooters across it and we still hold get-togethers on the porch. A couple of weeks ago some passengers on a church bus that ran out of fuel in front of our house were able to rest on this porch. Likewise, the nails, now straightened, still bear some imperfections, but I am capable of hammering them in. the hammer has some rust and some pits, but it is still capable of hammering in some nails. Likewise, all imperfections do not compromise our ability to serve God. Rather, he is most clearly seen in our weaknesses, not that we exalt our weaknesses, but rather that we bear some shame for them and yet are seen to have the power of the Master. He is therefore exalted. No one came into the bathroom when I had hung the new molding and marvel at the fine nails I reused. Rather, they comment on my handiwork. "It looks good, Jim. Much better than that old moldy molding." Likewise, God is exalted when others see him in our humility.

Are you a bent and twisted nail? Are you being subjected to the blows of the Master's hammer that he might straighten you and make you useful? Do you dwell in his house as a part of his magnificant handiwork? I pray that you are not taken to the fire.

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Monday, September 07, 2009

John 3:16 - What Does It Mean? - Really

In the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, John 3:16 is often tossed out by Arminians as sure evidence for two things: that the atonement isn’t limited and that free will is libertarian. Both issues revolve around a misunderstanding over the intended meaning of the passage. So here’s the passage in as close to a semi-transliterated Greek as I can find:

houtos gar agapaoen ho theos ton cosmon hoste ton huion autou* ton monogene didomen hina pas ho pisteuon eis auton me apollutai alla eco zoen aionion

Here’s a word-for-word translation without correcting for syntax and usage:

In this way / even / loved / this / God / his / world / that / his / son / himself* / his / only / gave over / in order that / any / that / trust / on / him / not / will die / but / have / life / eternal.

*In Byzantine but not Alexandrian texts. Could have been a copy error or an attempted usage update.

Here is the passage translated literally correcting for syntax and usage.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (ESV)

Regarding free will in this passage, Arminians claim that “whoever believes” (pas ho pisteuon) indicates that anyone can believe. This is based on the flawed notion that Calvinists believe that the elect are saved whether they believe in Christ or not and the equally flawed interpretation that “whoever” means that “everyone has the ability to” believe. Calvinists point out that a better translation of “pas ho pisteuon” is “the one believing”.

While a good point, it really doesn’t address the misconceptions of Arminians. The real debate here is cosmological, or whether God is absolutely the first cause or not. In other words, do the ones believing believe because they have been made alive to believe or not? This passage doesn’t address that issue. So it is sophomoric to read an answer to the cosmological debate in this passage.

Regarding the extent of the atonement, Arminians point to the word “world” (cosmon or cosmos) and say that this refers to absolutely everyone in the world. The fact that Arminians bring it up, even to the extent of naming an Arminian conference after John 3:16, means that they believe that this all-inclusinve meaning is explicit in the passage. Calvinists typically address this by observing that “world” refers to each ethnos, or “people group”, but not every person. Sometimes, Calvinists will correctly point out that the understanding of this meaning in the context of the debate must be understood through the study of other passages.

The problem is that the debate has been allowed to color our thinking on this verse. Another factor is the evangelistic flavor of the verse and its use in recent church history as such, especially in English-speaking Sunday School classrooms. The verse has not been well-treated as such. The meaning as passed on by many can be summed up as such:

“God loved everyone in the whole world so much [hold your hands up about chest-level, open up your hands, turn your palms out, and move your hands in circles to indicate the largeness of this statement] that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever will believe in him will not perish but have everlasting life.”

The meaning of the verse is distorted by a lack of understanding of the translation as well as a failure to take into account the context of the passage.

I’ve already addressed the “whosoever will” misconception. The word “will” doesn’t exist, even as part of an English future tense of the verb “to believe”.

I haven’t mentioned the word “so”. I cringe when I hear well-intentioned Sunday School teachers explain how this means that God loves us all a whole lot. The word “houtos” doesn’t indicate quantity. It indicates quality. The meaning is lost in modern English. Today, when showing someone how to do something we say, “Do it like this.” Once upon a time a demonstrative explanation would be accompanied by the phrase, “Do it like so.” The English word “so” originally meant “in this way”. It was an expression of manner or quality. Today when we use the word we often say things like, “That is so cool!” Here it’s an expression of magnitude or quantity. Usage has changed the typical meaning in modern American English and the difference has significant impact on our ability to understand this verse.

But I want to primarily discuss the term “cosmon” or “world”, because I have a possible “aha” insight. Actually it’s my wife’s insight. She’s not well versed in the Calvinist-Arminian debate, but I think God may have revealed something to her recently.

We were distributing Bibles on the streets of a large European city recently to a challenging people group. Part of the work is that team members will take turns praying while the rest are distributing. It was Lois’ turn to pray and as she prayed for the people passing by, she was impressed with John 3:16 and the meaning of word “world” applied to those sinners as such as God loves. The people passing by were these people. The “world” meant the “pattern of fallen creation” (my words).

When she shared this with me, two passages came to mind. One was Paul’s comment in Romans 5:8 “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (ESV)

But the other was in John’s gospel itself. In chapter 15 John writes of Jesus discourse from the “I am the true vine” statement regarding the relationship of love between the Father and those who abide in him. All along he uses the Greek word “agape or “agapao” to indicate this love and defines it somewhat in verse 13 of chapter 15: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (ESV)

But Jesus, as a matter of contrast, brings up the love of the “world”. John uses a different word, “phileo” to indicate the love of the world. A side point is that the disciples are not of the world, but that the world is a general terms for the pattern of God’s fallen creation.

So I thought about this and wondered if “world” in John 3:16 might truly mean this. One problem I thought of is that if the disciples were not of the world and the same meaning is to be applied to John 3:16, then we are left wondering if God loves the world or the disciples. However, it actually makes sense. John 3 doesn’t negate the fact that God loves the disciples in john 15 since they came out of the world. The kind of love that the world is capable of is limited to a selfish affection, but God only loves with a perfect love. John 15 doesn’t negate John 3 if the meaning of “world” is the same.

But I have to consider that “world” as “the pattern of fallen creation” is a general term and has nothing at all to do with the scope of particular applications of love. I needed to investigate the context of John 3:16 to see if I was on the right track, or if my thinking was in vain on this point.

In John 3:1-21, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus who came to Jesus to discuss his teaching. Here’s the passage from the ESV:

1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

The logic of the passage goes like this: Nicodemus visited Jesus at night so he could talk privately. He either didn’t want to be seen, or he didn’t want any distractions, or both. Nicodemus started with a statement that the Pharisees recognized that Jesus came from God because of the signs that he worked and that his teachings were likewise from God. This statement of Nicodemus’ characterizes the whole of Jesus’ response.

Jesus draws a dichotomy between the Kingdom of God (spirit) and the earth or world (flesh). He did this because Nicodemus recognized that Jesus came from God to the earth. Jesus was reinforcing his authority. The issue with the Pharisees was not that they didn’t believe Jesus was from God. They were full of sin and couldn’t understand the message. Jesus explained that he used earthly messages to elucidate spiritual truth, but Nicodemus and the Pharisees couldn’t even get past the earthly message to understand the spiritual truth. Only those who have been born of the spirit can understand and the Pharisees had not been born of the spirit.

Jesus then explains, in this vein, that they can at least recognize him because inasmuch as he bears the light of truth, the light reveals those who live in darkness. They can recognize that Jesus is of God because he reveals their sin, and it is to their condemnation. (So it was that Nicodemus came to visit Christ.)

In verse 16, the word “for” (gar) links this verse to the logic of the passage as an intermediate thought. It is at least partially based on previous statements and supports subsequent passages. “For God so loved the world” is a statement intended to continue the discourse on the dichotomy. “…sent his only Son” brings Jesus into it and is his explicit claim as the Messiah since the discourse is about Jesus coming to from God in Nicodemus’ statement. “…whoever believes in him” is contingent on being spiritually born again and while from and in the world, now belonging in the Kingdom of God.

Christ includes these believers as his disciples in the works that they do in the name of God that they will light to the darkness. He said in verse 11 “we speak” and later in verse 21, “whoever does what is true comes to the light so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

So this is the logic of which John 3:16 is a part. It is meant to explain to Nicodemus why he could understand that Jesus came from God, but couldn’t accept or understand his message - and also why others could understand enough to bear the message themselves. The word “world” is pretty clearly indicative of the dichotomy that Jesus uses and not particularly indicative of the scope of the atomement.

  • Is there something of a spiritual nature that you desire to understand and cannot?
  • Do you consider yourself "born again" "of the spirit" "of the light" but are not shining in the darkness?
  • Perhaps you think you have the light but are just annoying rather than recognized as having the light of God.
  • Are you submitting to and trusting God in all matters and coming to the light yourself?

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

When Division is Necessary - The ELCA Approves of Sin

First, let me say that my parents and in-laws are all members of an ELCA church and I have many friends in the ELCA. What I'm about to write may seem harsh and I want it understood that I write this in all love and concern first for brothers and sisters in Christ who are in the ELCA as well as the witness of Christ that is severely jeopardized by recent actions in the ELCA.

Second, I want to disclose that I was once a member of an ELCA church myself and still find occasion to serve the Lord by filling in as a leader of worship at my former church. This issue is one reason I left. There are other reasons I left, such as the fact that I'm credobaptistic rather than paedobaptistic, but they aren't relevant here.

Third, I want to state that I have had homosexual roommates in the Marines and in College and got along well with them. I have no hatred for homosexuals, but I'm bound by the clear teaching of scriptures according to a hermeneutic that is certain in its ability to apprehend the meaning of the bulk of scripture.

Relevant articles and resources can be found on the Internet regarding what the ELCA has done:

The last link contains a link to the ELCA's statement in PDF file format that I'll give you here. I'll be addressing the primary arguments and presuppositions that the ELCA puts forth:

This wasn’t the only release from the ELCA. The ELCA news service released this article August 21:

This last is an approval to ordain practicing homosexuals as Lutheran pastors. The basis for this action is found in the statement on human sexuality, so I'll address some of the flawed logic I read there.

Below are a few things I noticed as I read the statement. I categorized them as presuppositions, arguments, and dodges. There is one stated purpose. Presuppositions are unsupported assertions or supported facts. Arguments are syllogistic in nature and suggest conclusions. Dodges are statements that either serve as red-herring arguments or whiny suggestions of explanations as to why things aren’t answered very well.

  • Presupposition: Only three of the five solas are mentioned as having bearing. Sola scriptura is not mentioned here. I’ll go into this in more detail later. pg 2
  • Presupposition: Christian familial relationships must engender trust and safety. Much of the document mentions this. The suggestion is that some traditional families are bad and some non-traditional [read: homosexual] families are good. This begs the question without actually making any argument that homosexuality should not be discounted on the pragmatic basis of the establishment of familial relationships. Most of the document is spent reiterating this as though it were the strongest argument for homosexuality. Much was not in the document regarding what the Bible has to say about human sexuality.
  • Argument: Moral equivocation between homosexuality and eating meat sacrificed to idols. I’ll go into this in more detail later. pg 11 (Argument actually buried in the footnote.)
  • Presupposition: Conscience is preeminent in morality. Romans 2:15-16 was used to make this statement. No mention as to why the Holy Spirit would give different people different convictions of conscience. Hint: He doesn’t. Differences in conviction are a result of sin. pg 11
  • Presupposition: Question is begged that stated intent is adequate to determine intent in matters of discerning the conscience of others. This follows from the previous presupposition. pg 11
  • Argument: World is complex therefore traditional dogma is inadequate. The word "complex" mentioned often without explanation of how complexity necessarily results in throwing out significant portions of scripture.
  • Dodge: The statement includes details irrelevant for the purpose of obscuring or making more palatable the intent of the statement. Such statements as social responsibilities and of the church, government policies the church supports, and what the church apparently does find wrong with regard to sexual activity, are iterated. What they don’t mention is by what hermeneutic they arrive at the reason some matters of sexual deviancy are not to be tolerated while another, homosexuality, is.
  • Argument: We are free from the bondage of sin (apparently recognizing that homosexuality is a sin) and can respond in love (somehow justifying sinful behavior that has the appearance of love) - in the conclusion on page 19
  • Dodge: No specific questions answered because it's too complex. Observation of issue’s “complexity” made more than once throughout the document.
  • Stated Purpose: But that everyone is encouraged to find their own answers. - also in the conclusion on page 19

The three-of-five solas issue was striking to me. The five solas are five doctrines that emerged as a result of the Reformation.

  1. Sola scriptura – By the “scriptures alone” is God authoritatively revealed to us today. While truth is revealed through the Holy Spirit as well, he never controverts the message that he inspired and in a world of lies wrought by sin, the Bible is the only means by which we can discern what is indeed a true revelation of the Spirit.
  2. Sola fide – By “faith alone” do we receive the declaration of justification by God, not by works. This means that we trust the work of God rather than our own works for salvation.
  3. Sola gratia – Where faith is our trust in God for salvation, “grace alone” is the God’s gift of salvation to us based on his unmerited favor; not that we do anything to earn salvation.
  4. Sola Christus – If we can do nothing to earn God’s favor, then salvation is entirely the work of “Christ alone” on the cross.
  5. Soli Deo gloria – “The glory of God alone” Given that God is the creator, that he has created us, that the work that we have accomplished is to sin against him, and that the work that he has accomplished is to save us from our sin, the only reason for him to save us is that he desires to glorify himself.

I had the chance to hear a Lutheran pastor deliver an impassioned message regarding this action. He explicitly mentioned “sola scriptura”, referred to the account of Martin Luther making his stand on the scriptures and proceeded to remark that there were some passages that the pro-homosexual movement just couldn’t get around.

I observe that they have made attempts to deal with these passages. The problem is that in order to justify homosexuality, one must twist hermeneutical principles to the extent that the Bible largely becomes unreadable if you follow the principles consistently. Theology, like any “-ology” as a rational study, is an academic tool that can either be used well for elucidation or poorly for obfuscation. If we are to be enlightened by the Holy Spirit, then we must recognize that the gift of the Spirit is to love the truth of God beyond our own justification such that we would rather accept the condemnation we deserve than tolerate the propagation of lies against the character of God. (Yet, with the gift of the Spirit comes faith that God fulfills his promise of salvation to us.) But if our purpose is to justify ourselves before God, not relying on God but on our own desires, then we are not justified and rather condemned. Our handling of the truth of scripture therefore becomes one of distortion where we would rather propagate lies against God for this purpose.

The five solas are not equal in foundation, but rather the first, “sola scriptura,” is foundational to discerning the middle three and the fifth one, “soli Deo gloria,” transcends all of them as both Spiritually foundational to and logically discerned from the other four. For this reason, I believe the first and fifth were not mentioned in the statement.

The three solas that were mentioned were not used to elucidate soteriology, but to obfuscate for the purposes of justifying a sinful practice that the scriptures clearly indicate is an abomination to God. In fact, the whole statement is ostensibly the result of a theological study of the Bible regarding human sexuality in general as commissioned by the synod in 2001. In eight years, they failed to mention much of what the Bible says about human sexuality and rather focus specifically on matters arguing for the acceptance of homosexuality within the denomination. As a basis for this, the statement completely ignores the clear commands in the Bible and rather misuses select portions of the scripture to produce subjective arguments for the inclusion of homosexuality to those who read the Bible and understand a prohibition against sexual sin of all kinds, explicitly including homosexuality.

One reason is clear why they did this, and I’ve heard too many pastors sound equally as unclear. The fear is that a denominational rift will occur and the denomination will break apart over some irreconcilable difference. While I want to be careful to condemn no one out of hand, I have to consider that many who have pushed for and supported such issues as this are unregenerate. It’s foolish to think that everyone a church body allows to join the church is a genuine Christian. There are many who profess Christ falsely who have no faith. There are even some who seek membership with churches for the purpose of destroying those churches. If the truth causes a split, then the split is necessary. The truth should never be compromised in an attempt to preserve unity, for there is no true unity outside of the truth. Such an ostensible unity as exists that is founded on untruth will fail.

Some of the arguments are not even biblically based. They are simply assertions made that may bear some element of truth, but have been made to appeal to readers unaccustomed to thinking critically and exegetically. Since much of the preaching and teaching in the ELCA is not exegetical, it is relatively easy to make fallacious arguments that most of the people will be unable to see the error in.

Many of the bullet points above fall into this category.

However, there’s an argument made in the statement that is more telling than any other. This is one area of unintended clarity, I’m sure. Namely, buried in the large body of footnotes on page 11 is the following statement:

“The Apostle Paul testifies to conscience as the unconditional moral responsibility of the individual before God (Romans 2:15–16). In the face of different conclusions about what constitutes responsible action, the concept of ‘the conscience’ becomes pivotal.”

“When the clear word of God’s saving action by grace through faith is at stake, Christian conscience becomes as adamant as Paul, who opposed those who insisted upon circumcision. (Galatians 1:8). In the same way Luther announced at his trial for heresy, “Unless I am persuaded by the testimony of Scripture and by clear reason . . . I am conquered by the Scripture passages I have adduced and my conscience is captive to the words of God. I neither can nor desire to recant anything, when to do so against conscience would be neither safe nor wholesome” (WA 7: 838; Luther’s Works 32:112). However, when the question is about morality or church practice, the Pauline and Lutheran witness is less adamant and believes we may be called to respect the bound conscience of the neighbor. That is, if salvation is not at stake in a particular question, Christians are free to give priority to the neighbor’s well-being and will protect the conscience of the neighbor who may well view the same question in such a way as to affect faith itself. For example, Paul was confident that Christian freedom meant the Gospel of Jesus Christ was not at stake in questions of meat sacrificed to idols or the rituals of holy days (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8:10–14; and 10:23–30). Yet he insisted that, if a brother or sister did not understand this freedom and saw eating this meat as idolatry to a pagan god, the Christian was obligated to “walk in love” by eating just vegetables for the neighbor’s sake (Romans 14:17–20)!

“This social statement draws upon this rich understanding of the role of conscience and calls upon this church, when in disagreement concerning matters around which salvation is not at stake, including human sexuality, to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), honor the conscience and seek the well-being of the neighbor.”

Don’t miss the first alarming suggestion that “the clear word of God’s saving action by grace through faith is at stake.” The suggestion without saying it is that if we don’t accept homosexuality because of the good conscience of homosexuals who profess to be Christian, then the message of the reformed gospel is at stake.

But beyond that, homosexuality is clearly equivocated morally with eating meat sacrificed to idols. The problem is that eating meat sacrificed to idols is not intrinsically wrong, being prohibited nowhere in scripture. The issue was that it could cause people once caught in the sin of worshipping the god of that idol could be burdened to return to the worship of a false god or would be unnecessarily distracted from sanctification by the temptation to legalistic condemnation.

As an aside, I’ve wondered how it was that Paul, in his absence, managed to discriminate between those who were spiritually weak and those who were spiritually strong when his letter was read. Nowhere in there is it said for the pastor of the church to only read it to those who were truly mature in the faith. Surely he didn’t want the spiritually weak to have some paranoia that some people were actually eating meat sacrificed to idols behind their backs and only pretending to be righteous while in their presence. No, but I suspect that Paul intended for everyone to hear the message and each wonder if he was as spiritually strong as he thought he was.

But to equate homosexuality with meat sacrificed to idols in this argument is for the ELCA to tacitly, but clearly, declare homosexuality not sinful. What they are saying is that homosexuals need to keep mum about their homosexuality if they are confronted with those of weak faith who cannot accept homosexuality as not a sin. Even if the synod seeks to convey the message that all church members ought to be gracious toward one another, it’s a false grace that ignores real sin. I don’t call what happened at the cross in any way representative of God forgetting or ignoring our sin, and that was the pattern of grace for us to follow. Rather, sin was confronted head-on in a most sacrificial way.

I explained it to my kids the other night. We’ve been plodding through Luke and made it to 12:49-53. They were astonished that Christ would cause them to be set against anyone in our family, so I explained what happened in the ELCA recently, especially since it affects all of their grandparents.

I read to them the passages concerning homosexuality in the Bible and explained what homosexuality was in terms that they could apprehend without going into “the talk” since that wasn’t my focus. I asked whether the Bible says it’s a good thing or a bad thing for two men or two women to get married. They were incredulous that I had to ask. “Of course the Bible says it’s wrong” they agreed. I told them that they had more godly wisdom than some older men with lots of letters after their names who were in charge of the ELCA.

Then I explained that not everyone who is a member of a church is saved. They agreed. I pointed out that Paul talks about the Church as the Body of Christ. I asked that if part of the body is alive and part of the body is dead, will the body live for long? It’s like if one whole leg was dead and was rotting and had worms eating it, how do you save the part of the body that is alive? “You have to cut it off,” the replied. So if someone in a family is spiritually alive (saved) and someone else is spiritually dead (unbelieving), will there not be division in the family? Christ has come not to bring peace, but division. They understood.

I also went back to an older lesson and reminded the kids of the meaning of “holy” – that is “set apart”. As Christians, we are not of this world. If Christ, who is God, brought division, then is it not a good thing for the purposes of demonstrating the distinction between the gospel of grace and the world of works? So we can give thanks when the message is clearly seen in the division made between the Kingdom of Heaven and the pattern of this world.

Now, Christ did come to bring that peace that passes all understanding, but this is in the face of certain suffering when the truth comes to bear against the lies of the world. When the decision-makers in a denomination trade necessary division for the obfuscation of the truth in the hopes that unity will prevail in the denomination, especially if such results in the condoning of sin, then the denomination has died to the God they are supposed to honor and who demands their lives.

To God alone be the glory.
Soli Deo Gloria.

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