COVID, the Church, the State and a more excellent way?

COVID, the Church, the State and a more excellent way?

What to think about government public health edicts and the Church regarding COVID-19? In an outburst of representative frustration, a Southern Baptist theologian recently posted the following on Twitter in response to his Governor’s new lockdown restrictions which, among other things, forbade dancing:[1]

As the American philosopher Yosemite Sam has often remarked, “them’s fightin’ words!”

Basic principles

We begin with some principles to help us consider how to react to the latest public health directive from Governor Inslee.

  1. The Bible tells us we need community and relationship to be truly human, and the Church is God’s community.

God saves His people to join them to the brotherhood of faith so we can be in relationship with Him and with our new brothers and sisters in the faith.[2] This is why God gave us pictures of the Church as God’s bride (Hos 1-3; Ezek 16; Eph 5), His body (1 Cor 12), and His spiritual house (1 Pet 2). It means we are only complete in community and fellowship with each other. This cannot be done solely by Zoom or YouTube. Therefore, just as a marriage does not exist unless there is a spatial closeness and relationship, so the Church cannot long exist if it does not meet for corporate worship. There are reasons why long-term, long distance marriages often die!

For God’s people to not meet in community is to deliberately hinder the image of God that Father, Son and Spirit are refurbishing in our individual and corporate lives (2 Cor 3:18; cp. 1 Cor 15:49).

Therefore, the Church should close its doors only as a matter of extreme necessity, as a last resort.

  1. The Bible says God puts the government official in place.

We cannot forget this, no matter who is in office:

Daniel 2:21: “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings.”

John 19:11: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.”

Romans 13:1-2: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

  1. The Bible says we must obey the secular authorities.

This also cannot be wished away.

We do it because we would be disobeying God if we disobeyed the authorities. “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid, God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience,” (Rom 13:5).

Paul told Titus to “remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities,” (Titus 3:1).

We do it for the sake of evangelism. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people,” (1 Pet 2:13-14).

  1. The Bible tells us we can disobey the authorities in certain circumstances.

The penultimate examples are Acts 4:1-22 and Acts 5:27-33. But, before we use these as the escape pod for which we have been searching, we must note three things:

  • The authorities singled the Christians out for discriminatory treatment. They treated the Church differently than other groups.
  • The State ordered the Church to not preach the Gospel. The State wanted to stop evangelism, not corporate worship.
  • The State did this maliciously and on purpose because it hated the Gospel.

We also think of Daniel and his friends who refused to compromise the way they practiced their faith—even after the State commanded them to do so (Dan 1:8). Would they have done so if there were a legitimate public health reason? Perhaps a famine, a crop failure, or something similar? We do not know. We do know the king’s order did not supersede God’s command, and Nebuchadnezzar provided no compelling reason for them to think it did. God blessed Daniel and his friends for their allegiance (Dan 1:17-21).

In non-canonical but very helpful Jewish literature from the period between Malachi and Matthew, the theme of staying loyal to God in foreign lands was also a tough issue. The Book of Tobit is set during the Assyrian exile, and it is about a man named … (you guessed it) … Tobit, who struggled to be a faithful Israelite in a strange land. He explained:

Now when I was carried away captive to Nineveh, all my brethren and my relatives ate the food of the Gentiles; but I kept myself from eating it, because I remembered God with all my heart (Tobit 1:10-12).

Like Daniel, Tobit loved God and so tried very, very hard to observe the dietary laws even in hard circumstances. As with Daniel, it was not about the dietary laws per se; it was about an honest desire to do what God ordered.[3]

What “certain circumstances,” then, allow us to disobey the State? Based on our survey, there are three triggers:

Considering COVID in Thurston County

This brings us to COVID, and Governor Inslee’s proclamation 20-25.8 of 15 November 2020.[5] These are his new directives for congregations:

Governor Inslee explained during a press conference:[6]

This spike puts us in a more dangerous a position as we were in March … And it means, unfortunately, the time has come to reinstate restrictions on activities statewide to preserve the public’s well-being, and to save lives. These were very difficult decisions that have very real consequences to people’s livelihoods. I recognize that and don’t take those impacts lightly, but we must act now and act quickly to slow the spread of this disease.

As of 15 November 2020, the Thurston County Health Department reports the following statistics:[7]

This data shows a 98.4% survival rate and indicates 6.4% of those infected have required hospitalization. The Thurston County Public Health Officer recently wrote the community[8] (p. 1, §7) that her recommendation to abandon in-person school instruction was “made based on our local patterns of transmission, rising transmission rates, hospital capacity, public health capacity, and our likely trajectory of disease going into winter.” It is reasonable to assume Governor Inslee’s proclamation is predicated on similar concerns.

As of 15 November 2020, the cumulative data for the State of Washington is as follows:[9]

This data shows a 98.1% survival rate and demonstrates 7.3% of those infected have required hospitalization. For comparison, here are the State of WA and Thurston County datasets side by side:

COVID and basic principles

We now turn to the triggers we previously discussed which allow the Church to disobey the government. We can eliminate one of these and further explore two others, as follows:

Discrimination?

The State has not engaged in intentional discrimination. Has it engaged in defacto discrimination? In this context, to discriminate means to “make an unjust or prejudicial distinction”[10] regarding the Church. To be unjust is to not behave “according to what is morally right or fair.”[11] Something is prejudicial if it is “harmful to someone or something; detrimental.”[12] Therefore, we can summarize and say Governor Inslee’s proclamation is defacto discriminatory against the Church if it draws morally wrong or unfair distinctions between it and other organizations in society, and these distinctions cause harm.

In his proclamation 20-25.8, Governor Inslee states (p. 3, §3):

These below modifications do not apply to education (including but not limited to K-12, higher education, trade and vocational schools), childcare, health care, and courts and judicial branch-related proceedings, all of which are exempt from the modifications and shall continue to follow current guidance.

Is this distinction morally wrong? Is it unfair to allocate the Church less societal value than a daycare? Is it morally wrong to say the Church is less valuable than an undergraduate institution which runs a course about the sociology of gender, in which students read texts that advocate transgender ideology?[13]

In this context every policy decision has, at its root, a moral calculus that weighs the organization’s value to society.[14] Governor Inslee has decided public schools, universities, trade schools, childcare, health care, the courts and their associated activities are more valuable than religious community. He has conducted a moral reckoning, and he sincerely believes his conclusions are correct.

But, the fact remains he has made a distinction. Is it an immoral or unfair distinction? According to Governor Inslee, both the organizations above are more precious than the Christian church. Thus, they may operate under current guidelines and are not subject to this new proclamation. According to the scriptures, gathering in community is not optional, it harms God’s people to prohibit it, and transgender ideology is a false construct of self-identity and humanity.

Therefore, we could say Governor Inslee’s proclamation 20-25.8 is defacto discriminatory against the Church. However, he has not prohibited churches from meeting. He has set limits on the manner of worship, and he has set similar (financially) harmful limits on how other organizations conduct their operations. The State economy has been crippled and is only now beginning to recover.[15] It is safe to say this latest proclamation will rip the new scab off this wound for all manner of organizations, across all sectors. If Governor Inslee is explicitly or implicitly injuring the Church, even his foes must admit he is making a very clumsy job of it.

Evidence suggests the allegation of defacto discrimination against the Church is ambiguous and unclear.

We turn to the next issue.   

Adequate cause to change the manner of worship?

The question is about predication. In SKRBCs context, the weightiest issue from WA’s new restrictions is whether Governor Inslee has adequate cause to prohibit congregational singing in a worship service. Does he? In his press conference, Governor Inslee declared:[16]

We have a pandemic raging across the state. It is a potentially fatal disease. Left unchecked, it will assuredly result in grossly overburdened hospitals. It will keep people from receiving routine but necessary medical treatment because of the stresses our hospitals will be under.

Left unchecked, the economic devastation, long term, will be continually prolonged. And, most importantly, left unchecked, we will see continued untold numbers of death.

We will not allow these things to happen.

This brings us back to the datasets about COVID:

Just from this admittedly simple review, COVID-19 does not seem to be a serious disease. The number of WA dead (2,519) seems only to be so high because so many have been infected (130,419). And yet, this data masks the true horror of the virus. Even this seemingly modest amount of hospitalizations may overwhelm the public health sector:[17]

… in the hardest-hit areas, there are simply not enough doctors, nurses, and other specialists to staff those beds. Some health-care workers told me that COVID-19 patients are the sickest people they’ve ever cared for: They require twice as much attention as a typical intensive-care-unit patient, for three times the normal length of stay.

The article goes on:[18]

The entire state of Iowa is now out of staffed beds, Eli Perencevich, an infectious-disease doctor at the University of Iowa, told me. Worse is coming. Iowa is accumulating more than 3,600 confirmed cases every day; relative to its population, that’s more than twice the rate Arizona experienced during its summer peak, “when their system was near collapse,” Perencevich said. With only lax policies in place, those cases will continue to rise. Hospitalizations lag behind cases by about two weeks; by Thanksgiving, today’s soaring cases will be overwhelming hospitals that already cannot cope. “The wave hasn’t even crashed down on us yet,” Perencevich said. “It keeps rising and rising, and we’re all running on fear. The health-care system in Iowa is going to collapse, no question.”

In the imminent future, patients will start to die because there simply aren’t enough people to care for them. Doctors and nurses will burn out. The most precious resource the U.S. health-care system has in the struggle against COVID-19 isn’t some miracle drug. It’s the expertise of its health-care workers—and they are exhausted.

Just how difficult is it to care for a single COVID-19 patient?[19]

A typical patient with a severe case of COVID-19 will have a tube connecting their airways to a ventilator, which must be monitored by a respiratory therapist. If their kidneys shut down, they might be on 24-hour dialysis. Every day, they’ll need to be flipped onto their stomach, and then onto their back again—a process that requires six or seven people. They’ll have several tubes going into their heart and blood vessels, administering eight to 12 drugs—sedatives, pain medications, blood thinners, antibiotics, and more.

All of these must be carefully adjusted, sometimes minute to minute, by an ICU nurse. None of these drugs is for treating COVID-19 itself. “That’s just to keep them alive,” Neville, the Iowa nurse, said. An ICU nurse can typically care for two people at a time, but a single COVID-19 patient can consume their full attention. Those patients remain in the ICU for three times the length of the usual stay.

Are some Christians so insulated in their echo-chamber of favored news commentators that they do not realize how awful COVID is? One public health worker recently lamented:[20]

Health-care workers and public-health officials have received threats and abusive messages accusing them of fearmongering … They’ve pleaded with family members to wear masks and physically distance, lest they end up competing for ICU beds that no longer exist. “Nurses have been the most trusted profession for 18 years in a row, which is now bull**** because no one is listening to us,” Neville said.

Add to it that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now concludes COVID-19 spreads through droplets in the air:[21]

Some infections can be spread by exposure to virus in small droplets and particles that can linger in the air for minutes to hours. These viruses may be able to infect people who are further than 6 feet away from the person who is infected or after that person has left the space.

This kind of spread is referred to as airborne transmission and is an important way that infections like tuberculosis, measles, and chicken pox are spread.

There is evidence that under certain conditions, people with COVID-19 seem to have infected others who were more than 6 feet away. These transmissions occurred within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation. Sometimes the infected person was breathing heavily, for example while singing or exercising.

In light of this, does the Church have cause to question the State’s motives in a public health emergency? Can it responsibly ignore the recommendations of public health experts? It seems the following guidelines should apply when considering public health emergency orders:

In the State of Washington’s context, the answers to these questions are, in order, No, Yes and Yes.

Does Governor Inslee therefore lack adequate cause to restrict congregational singing? Only if the Church believes the proclamation (and others like it from other Governors) is part of a conspiracy against Christ and His Church. Such theories abound on the internet, that warm incubator for so much cold darkness.[22]

Of course, these questions do not consider that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14) and rarely works in an overt way. He seeks to destroy the Church (1 Pet 5:8; Rev 12:17). “For we are not ignorant of his designs,” (2 Cor 2:11). We also must consider whether the Church is the proverbial frog in the pan that slowly boils to death … and never notices. Is the burner dial turning to “MED-HIGH” even now? 

We must remember we live in two worlds: the City of God and the City of Man. This world does not like the Church, does not respect it, does not value it, and never will. We must only go along with public health decrees that re-shape our community and our worship as long as we are reasonably certain there is no explicit or implicit evil motivating them.

Is there, in this case? With Satan, we can never be sure. But the evidence suggests no.

A more excellent way?

We make a mistake when we consider COVID and the State from the perspective of Satan as the moving force in the universe. Yet, that is what we have done. It is what we have all done. We forget the most biblical way to think of COVID is as God’s judgment on the world. Examples from scripture are too numerous to list, but here is one (Jeremiah 14:11-12):

The LORD said to me: “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, sand though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.”

God brings curses on a world that rejects Him. True, the world is not Israel. But the point remains—God brings judgment so people might repent. We do not know what His specific message is, but we can be certain it has to do with repentance and allegiance to His name.

While it is necessary to focus on the Church’s obligations to the State regarding public health orders, it is perhaps best for the Church to re-double its efforts to fulfill its mission. That mission is to preach the Gospel. To build bridges to the community in service of that Good News. To be innovative, creative, and winsomely aggressive in this outreach.

That is what God would have us do.

Notes

[1] See https://twitter.com/ostrachan/status/1328413157325410304. This was posted on 16 November 2020.              

[2] See the sermon “Made for Each Other? The Bible on Marriage” (preached 01 November 2020) for an exposition of Genesis 2:18-25. This sermon is essentially about the imago dei and how it is imaged in the covenant of marriage. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/BHZaV6YwXSg.

[3] See also 1 Maccabees 1:58-64 for a similar theme. 

[4] The case of defacto discrimination is well illustrated by Pliny the Younger’s letter to Emperor Trajan querying how he ought to handle Christians. This came about after Pliny issued a general edict outlawing political associations. Christians were then caught up in this administrative dragnet. This was not an explicit, but a defacto discrimination.

[5] Retrieved from https://www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/proclamations/proc_20-25.8.pdf

[6] TV Washington, “Governor Inslee Press Conference on COVID-19,” (15 November 2020). Retrieved from https://www.tvw.org/watch/?eventID=2020111099.

[7] Retrieved from Thurston County Public Health and Social Services on 15 November 2020 from https://www.thurstoncountywa.gov/phss/Pages/covid-19-data.aspx

[8] Dr. Dimyana Abdelmalek, “Letter to the Community: 10 November 2020.” Retrieved on 15 November 2020 from https://www.thurstoncountywa.gov/phss/phssdocuments/11%2010%2020%20letter%20to%20community%20FINAL.pdf

[9] WA State Department of Health, “COVID-19 Dashboard.” Retrieved on 15 November 2020 from  https://www.doh.wa.gov/Emergencies/COVID19/DataDashboard.

[10] New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2010), s.v. “discriminate,” verb, 2; p. 497. 

[11] Ibid, s.v. “unjust,” p. 1893. 

[12] Ibid, s.v. “prejudicial,” p. 1378. 

[13] For example, see SOC 235 “Sociology of Gender” from South Puget Sound Community College. The assigned textbook is Lisa Wade and Myra Ferre, Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 2018).

[14] “A man who acts, makes decisions, ranks things above or below, sets a high or low value on things, is acting according to definite principles—even though theoretically he may deny these principles—and he is acting with the consciousness—although in theory he would certainly deny it—that it is right to act in such a way,” (Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, trans. Olive Wyon [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1947], 18). 

[15] See State of Washington Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, Economic & Revenue Update – October 15, 2020, pp. 3-5. Retrieved from https://erfc.wa.gov/sites/default/files/public/documents/publications/oct20.pdf

[16] TV Washington, “Press Conference,” 00:25 – 01:10. Retrieved from https://www.tvw.org/watch/?eventID=2020111099.

[17] Ed Yong, “‘No One Is Listening to Us,’” The Atlantic (13 November 2020). Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/11/third-surge-breaking-healthcare-workers/617091/.

[18] Ibid.  

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “How COVID-19 Spreads,” updated 28 October 2020. Retrieved on 16 November 2020 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html. Emphasis added.

[22] These theories usually include varying amalgamations of George Soros, the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates, microchips, a belief COVID-19 is not real or is being exploited for nefarious purposes, and conviction that there exists a coordinated, multi-national cabal of political and civil service conspirators ready to execute sinister orders from on high across the globe. I believe the latest colloquial term for this conspiracy at the moment is “the Great Reset.” You can read a short, breezy article skeptical of this theory here.

Real Christian Life . . . and the Government (Part 6)

1 peter 2 (13)The audio from the latest Sunday School is below. As always, all audio and teaching notes can be found here.

Peter tells Christians we’re supposed to submit ourselves to every human authority because of the Lord. He says we must do this because it’s God’s will that, by doing right, we’d silence the ignorant slander of foolish men. We’re supposed to consider ourselves as slaves who’ve been freed from the kingdom of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s dear Son.

In Acts 4-5, the Apostle Peter left us an example of how to draw the line between obeying secular laws, and God’s laws. In short, Peter taught us that, no matter what we decide to do in a tricky situation, we must:

  1. Always be respectful
  2. Always tell them why (“we must obey God rather than men,” Acts 5:29)
  3. Always explain why (i.e. the Gospel)

The goal, of course, is to glorify God and be a testimony for Christ. We have to realize that God wants us to submit ourselves to every human authority so that, by doing right, we’d silence the ignorant slander of foolish men (1 Pet 2:15); so that they’ll see our good deeds and glorify God on the day when He returns to judge the world (1 Pet 2:13).

But, it’s often very difficult to know where to draw the line, and how to draw it. So, today, we discussed two difficult situations from American history to make this command “real” for us. Here they are:

Civil War-era fugitive slave laws

If you were a Christian, living in America in the pre-Civil War era, would you have ignored the Federal fugitive slave laws?

The U.S. Constitution (Article 4, Section 2) made it mandatory for a fugitive slave to be delivered up to his owner if he escapes and makes his way to another state. The Constitution doesn’t say how this should be done.

Eventually, a system developed where “kidnappers” (so labeled by anti-slavery advocates in the North) deployed forth in search of fugitive slaves, apprehended them, and simply brought them back South – with no legal recourse.This set up a terrible clash between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions. The former demanded the federal government assist slaveowners in re-capturing escaped slaves who crossed state lines. The latter factions in several anti-slavery states lobbied their legislatures and successfully passed “personal liberty” laws, which gave fugitive slaves who crossed into their states certain rights (e.g. habeas corpus, testimony, trial by jury) and imposed criminal punishments on kidnappers.

In 1837, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Pennsylvania’s “personal liberty” laws and, in one stroke, invalidated all such laws throughout the country. Even later, in the 1856 Dred Scott v. Sanford decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declared slaves were not “citizens,” as defined by the Constitution, and had no legal standing to petition for freedom.

What should devout Christians do in this environment?

  • If you’re a Christian, and
  • you live in Pennsylvania, and
  • Peter says you must submit yourselves to the civil authorities for the Lord’s sake, and
  • the Federal government says it’s unconstitutional to interfere with slave-owners trying to re-claim their “property” in the North

. . . then what should you do about it? How do you balance this? How do you do what Peter says, here (1 Pet 2:13-17)?

Oregon’s House Bill 3391

The State of Oregon recently passed House Bill 3391, which is widely acknowledged to be the most progressive and aggressive abortion law in this country. The bill (just signed into law this past Fall) requires all insurers in the State of Oregon to cover a large range of “reproductive services” (i.e. abortion) to anyone in the state.[1] More significantly, the bill allows a woman to get an abortion without any restriction, for any reason. 

Because insurers are forbidden to pass these costs along to the consumers, the State of Oregon will be contributing about $10,000,000 to offset the proposed costs for the 2017 – 2019 biennium. This cost is expected to grow to over $14,000,000 for 2019-2021.[2] This means, if you’re an Oregon resident, your tax-dollars will be used to reimburse insurers for abortion procedures – and the costs will only go up each biennium!

What should a Christian do in this environment?

Join us as we discuss these tricky issues, and consider how real and practical Peter’s letter is for our life today.

Notes

[1] See the text of HB 3391, Section 2(3).

[2] See the State of Oregon’s fiscal analysis of HB 3391.

Paul and the Pagan – The Lost Dialogue

paul

Most people in America are aware some Christian bakers prefer to not bake cakes for homosexual “weddings.” These “here I stand” moments often repeat in a similar way each time, as the cultural foes on both sides of this ideological divide rush to their phones, eager to summon their media allies to hear their tales of woe.

In conservative Christian circles, many people say this is all a terrible thing. You’ve heard it before. The government is evil. The government is trying to persecute Christians. The government is a tool of Satan. Pack your bags, stock the bunker, prepare for The End. Things ain’t like they used to be. Etc, etc, etc.

If you were a Christian baker, would you bake a cake for what you know is a homosexual “wedding? Some Christians wouldn’t do it, as we can tell from recent media coverage. Some Christians would do it, what they consider to be biblical reasons, too. So, let me ask a simple question. The Apostle Paul was a tentmaker (Acts 18:1-3). Do you think he only made tents for Christians?

Paul was not a wealthy man, and most people in this period only earned enough to survive. Artisans made money by developing a reputation for producing better quality work than the other guy in the same town, or the next. This means you had to build your business locally – and this could only happen if you stayed in one place for a while, to develop a name for yourself.

Paul traveled all over for years, so it must have been extraordinarily difficult to get work – especially because the locals already had their own guys they went to for tent making. In this context, do you actually believe Paul would have survived if he’d only made tents for Christians?

Thankfully, biblical archaeologists have recently uncovered a perfectly preserved mp3 recording of an actual conversation between the blessed Apostle and a pagan customer. I’ve transcribed it, and you can read it all for yourself . . .

The Lost Dialogue

Paul sits on his stool, sharpening his tools, wondering how on earth he’ll find enough money for his planned trip to Corinth. He hasn’t eaten for almost a day and a half. A man wanders by and stops to chat . . .

Pagan: “Hey, dude! I’d like you to make me a tent.”

Paul: “Are you a Christian?”

Pagan: “What’s that got to do with you making me a tent?”

Paul: “Nothing, really.”

Pagan: “Ok . . . so, I’d like you to make me a tent.”

Paul: “I can do that.”

Pagan: “Ok, so how much?”

Paul: “I’ll tell you in a minute. First, do you want to know how to become a Christian? In four easy steps, you can invite Jesus into your heart. I have an old-fashioned altar nearby, too. I’ll even walk you down the aisle myself, with every head bowed, and every eye closed, nobody looking around . . .”

Pagan (looks nervous, wonders if he’s made a terrible mistake): Uh . . . look, I’m not interested. Wasn’t your leader was a criminal? And, didn’t he tell you guys you had to, like, eat his flesh and drink his blood, too . . . ?”

Paul: “Nah, man – that’s not true. In fact —–”

Pagan (interrupts Paul): “Look, I just want to buy a tent.”

Paul: “What do you plan to use the tent for?”

Pagan: “I plan to use it when I make my pilgrimage to Ephesus, to worship the fertility goddess Diana. During my stay, I plan to bring many cultic prostitutes back to my tent, where we will enjoy ourselves, and I pray our energetic activities will entice the honored goddess Diana to bless me with a wife, and many sons!”

Paul (taken aback, clearly troubled): “I . . . see . . .”

Pagan: “What’s wrong?”

Paul: “Oh, nothing.”

Pagan: “Are you sure, man? You look upset . . .”

Paul: “Well . . . actually, I don’t think I can make you this tent, after all.”

Pagan (visibly upset, confused): “Why not!?”

Paul: “I’m sorry, but I just can’t allow my artistic talents to be used for something my religion tells me is morally wrong.”

Pagan: “What!?”

Paul: “Yes, it’s true. I can only use my artistic expressions to promote messages that align with my religious beliefs.”

Pagan: “What have I said that’s against your “religious beliefs?’”

Paul: “I think sexual activity should only be between a married man and woman. I wrote about this in a little book. Let me get it for you —-”

Pagan (interrupts Paul): “I don’t want to see your silly book!”

Paul: “Ok, no problem. If you change your mind, just Google “Nashville Statement,” and it’s all there.”

Pagan: “I don’t believe this . . .”

Paul: “I don’t mean to offend you. It’s just that I think every Roman should be free to choose which art he will create, and which art he won’t create.”

Pagan: “Art? We’re talking about a tent.”

Paul: “My work is my art. It’s who I am. My artistic expressions are a part of me. They complete me.”

Pagan: Your . . . artistic expressions? What on earth are those?”

Paul: “I’m glad you asked. You see, I believe God has gifted me with a very particular set of skills; skills I’ve acquired over a very long career . . .”

Pagan: “Go on.”

Paul: “Well . . . I earn my living by using these very particular skills. They’re how I express my artistic talent. If I use those talents to make your tent, which you’ll take to Ephesus and use to copulate with cultic prostitutes, then I’ll be participating in your wickedness.”

Pagan: “How do you figure?”

Paul: “Because, man.”

Pagan: “Because, why?”

Paul: “Because if I make you an awesome tent with these skills, which I’ve acquired over a very long career, then I’ll be condoning your sin. I’ll actually be helping you sin! Don’t you see?”

Pagan: “No. Are you actually saying you can only make tents for people who think exactly the same way you do about marriage?”

Paul: “Uh . . . no . . .”

Pagan: “It sounds like that’s what you’re saying.”

Paul: “It isn’t.”

Pagan: “Would you make a tent for somebody who has been divorced?”

Paul: “Umm . . . I’m not sure . . .”

Pagan: “What about Alexander, the tanner? You got your leather from him last week, and he’s the one who recommended you! He’s had four wives!”

Paul: “Well, I didn’t know that.”

Pagan: “Did you ask him about it?”

Paul: “No.”

Pagan: “So, you get to pick and choose who you’ll use your ‘skills’ for, is that it?”

Paul: “Well . . .”

Pagan: “I think I’ll file a complaint with the local EEO office. I’m also recording this.”

Paul: “Let’s not be too hasty, here!”

Pagan: “So, if I hadn’t told you what I’d be using the tent for, you would have made it?”

Paul: “Of course.”

Pagan: “But now, you won’t make it. Is that right?”

Paul: “Right! My conscience won’t allow me to do this. I must use my gifts for the Lord, in a way that honors and glorifies Him!”

Pagan: “Whatever. I’m leaving.”

Paul: “I suggest you try Fred, just down the road. Cheers!”

Paul settles back down, goes back to sharpening his tools, and wonders how he’ll find food to eat tomorrow.

Real Christian Life . . . and the Government (Part 2)

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1 Peter 2 (13-17)What do you think of your political leaders? To be honest, many Christians would have to admit they don’t think much of politicians!

What do you think of the government? What do you think about the institutions, the agencies and bureaucracies at the local, state and federal level? Many people wish some of them would go away. In the recent election, “drain the swamp!” was one of now-President Trump’s rallying cries.

The concept is timeless; the political class is corrupt, underhanded and looking out for itself. There is an implicit assumption that all bureaucrats, at all levels of government, are inept and incompetent at best, and nefarious at worst. Even in the Apostle Peter’s day, one pagan writer referred to Rome as the city “where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.”[1]

It’s almost expected that we should despise politicians, government and those who work for “the state.” In America, we need only look to this recent political season to see the hateful rhetoric and vitriol we often show to politicians from “the other side.” Too often, Christians let their secular political passions get the best of them, and join in on this feeding frenzy of scorn and ridicule. That is wrong.

The Apostle Peter wrote his first letter in a very different context. Christians were under pressure from a pagan society to conform, or at least round some of the “rough edges” off their faith. Former pagans had been ostracized from their communities, cut off from all the support structure they had. Former Jews, who believed Jesus was the fulfillment of their Scriptures, likely had it even worse. The storm clouds of persecution had not yet broken open upon the Christians, but they were about to.

In Jerusalem, James the Just had recently been killed by a Jewish mob, thrown from the top of a building in the temple complex, stoned as he lay injured and crippled, then his head had been beaten in by a club [2]. In Rome, the Emperor Nero would soon conveniently blame Christians for starting a massive fire which had destroyed a good portion of the city. He would use this marginalized “Jewish sect” as a scapegoat, and kill many believers in awful ways. [3]

When Peter commanded Christians to “submit yourselves to every human authority because of the Lord,” he didn’t have our quaint American context in mind. He wrote for a darker time, for a more serious context. In the West, we are blessed beyond all imagination. When we Christians consider “persecution” here, we talk about losing our 501(c)(3) status and cry about bakers being forced to make cakes. In Peter’s day, people died horribly for their faith.

Yet, Peter still wrote those words, and God wanted him to write them. You see, God isn’t concerned with our comfort in the here and now; this is what Peter warned us about elsewhere (1 Peter 1:1-6; 4:12-19). The early Christians rejoiced in persecution, because they knew they were a testimony for Christ (see Acts 4; especially 4:23-31). Instead, we’re commanded to make our entire way of life holy, so we might have opportunity to help draw people to Christ by our own example in the midst of terrible trials. One of those contexts was in dealing with the government.

So to return to modern politics, it’s clear there’s a lot for Christians to disagree with. But, the Apostle Peter tells us we should always submit ourselves to every human authority, anyway. Of course, the Bible qualifies this blanket statement elsewhere (see, for example Acts 4-5).  But, in general terms, we should respect human authority “because of the Lord.”

But, we often don’t do that, do we? This isn’t the way our culture operates today; our culture encourages people to act petulant, childish, angry and crazed when they do not like a politician or agree with his politics or policies.

Last week, we spent some time in Sunday School talking about this. How we speak and think about government institutions and officials, at all levels (local, state and federal) is important. The Christian message is offensive enough; we shouldn’t compound this by crazed activism, un-Christlike rhetoric or insurrection.

Take a listen to the audio (below), and let’s see what Peter has to say about all this. It will take us several weeks to discuss this passage, and some of its implications. The teaching notes for the passage are here. All audio and teaching notes for the 1 & 2 Peter series so far are here. Feel free to contact me with any questions, or to comment below.

Notes

[1] From Tacitus, “Annals 15.44.2-8.” This excerpt is from J. Stevenson (ed.), A New Eusebius, revised by. W.H.C. Frend (London, UK: SPCK, 1987), 2-3.

[2] I follow Eusebius’ account, who quotes from a near-contemporary source (Ecclesiastical History, 2.23). Josephus makes no mention of James being clubbed to death (Antiquities, 20.9.1).

[3] From Tacitus, “Annals 15.44.2-8.” This excerpt is from J. Stevenson (ed.), A New Eusebius, revised by. W.H.C. Frend (London, UK: SPCK, 1987), 2-3.

Real Christian Life . . . and the Government (Part 1)

It’s easy to lose your perspective. We live in a very self-absorbed, historically ignorant culture. We know, intellectually at least, that we can learn from people who have come before us. We get it. But, functionally, we don’t get it. We often act as though what’s happening right now is momentous, unprecedented, and unparalleled. That’s often not the case at all.

We live in a very politically charged atmosphere. Old mores are being toppled, the “shackles” of a Puritan-esque Christian ethic (though, to be sure, our society left Puritanism behind a long time ago, but never mind the facts) and are being cast off with glee. Our society has formerly transformed from a false “Christian Americana,” to outright secularism. To be sure, America has been secular for quite a while, but now she feels free to revel in it, without the rusty, embarrassing remnants of a Christian ethical compass to hold her back.

The historian George Marsden wrote about this bygone age in American culture, which he believes was at its height in the later quarter of the 19th century. He described it well; very well. Those who grew up in the old “Bible Belt” will understand exactly what Marsden was getting at. He wrote:

A veneer of evangelical Sunday-school piety covered almost everything in the culture, but no longer did the rhetoric of idealism and virtue seem to touch the core of the materialism of the political and business interests. It was a dime store millennium.[1]

This dimestore millennium endured for a while. I believe we saw its last gasp this past decade. Now, it’s gone. Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist leader and minister a generation older than me, wrote this about his Boy Scout troop and the cultural Christianity of his childhood in the South:

The “God and Country” badge wasn’t really about conforming us to the gospel, or to the Bible, to any confessional Christian tradition, or even, for that matter, to the “mere Christianity” of the ancient creeds and councils. This project didn’t want to immerse us (or even sprinkle us) into the strange world of the Bible, with its fiery spirits and burning bushes and empty tombs. We were here for the right kind of Christianity, the sort that was a means to an end. We were to have enough Christianity to fight the Communists and save the Republic, as long as we didn’t take it all too seriously.[2]

That version of America is gone, and it’ll never come back.

So, Christians in America are in a quandary. How should we live, work and minister in a culture which is so adamantly pagan and secular? The Apostle Peter tells us how. And (to return to my point about perspective), Peter is a guy who wrote and ministered in a much more secular time than we live in today, in the West.

Not long after Peter died for his faith (likely on the orders of the Roman Emperor, Nero), Christians were periodically ordered to declare their allegiance to the Emperor by offering incense to him, and worshipping him. Now, that’s a quandary. Do you think our political climate is unprecedented? Peter faced Nero. You face MSNBC. Children, please . . .

Our text for next few week is very practical; it speaks to real life, in the real world, and how Christians should think about and deal with the government (really, all people in authority).

1 Peter 2 (13-17)

  • Who are you supposed to submit yourself to?
  • What does it mean to “submit yourself?”
  • How should this inform how you interact with government officials, or refer to them in private conversations, public conversations, and your posts on social media?

Take a listen to the audio (below), and let’s see what Peter has to say about all this. It will take us several weeks to discuss this passage, and some of its implications. The teaching notes for the passage are here. All audio and teaching notes for the 1 & 2 Peter series so far are here. Feel free to contact me with any questions, or to comment below.

Notes

[1] George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 10.

[2]  Russell D. Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2015), 11-12.