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Lighten Up Already: Something Evangelicals can Learn from Mormons

March 27, 2014

Two interesting things happened to me in the course of about six hours yesterday. First, I heard the news that World Vision reversed its decision to hire Christians in same-sex marriages. Then, my wife and I went to see THE BOOK OF MORMON at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. The show was awesome. The decision by World Vision, not so much.

So what’s the connection?

First, a little background for those who have not been following the story: World Vision is a 65 year-old Christian humanitarian organization that provides aid and development to impoverished communities around the world. My wife and I are big fans of the organization and have sponsored a child through them for almost four years.

Earlier this week, World Vision’s president announced that the organization would remove language from its employee ethics policy that prevents the hiring of gay Christians in church-sanctioned same-sex marriages. Rather than being a political statement on one side or the other, the change reflected a conviction that homosexuality is an issue on which Christian churches may agree to disagree (much like divorce, remarriage, baptism, etc). Harmless enough.

But that’s when the shit storm began.

Evangelical leaders cried foul and churches across the country threatened to withdraw their financial support from the organization. Faced with the collapse that a mass exodus of its supporters would no doubt cause, World Vision publicly apologized and reversed its decision, giving into the demands of those who would hold their contributions to starving children hostage over a doctrinal dispute.

Disgusted at yet another public display of Christian indecency and a little embarrassed to call myself an evangelical, I joined my wife for a fun night out and turned my brain off for a few hours at a showing of the hit broadway musical THE BOOK OF MORMON, written by the co-creators of SOUTH PARK.

The play was irreverent, obscene, loaded with profanity, and included a musical number about flipping off God when life gets you down. Merciless in its mockery of Mormonism and its adherents, the play poked fun at some of the faith’s more odd-ball beliefs, depicted Joseph Smith as an AIDS-infested practitioner of bestiality, and even featured a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, American Jesus who called one of the nice Mormon boys a “dick.”

How did the Mormon church react to all of this?

There were no picketers, no boycotts, no public outcries. Instead, the playbill was loaded with advertisements for The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints. One page featured a smiling Mormon with the caption, “You’ve seen the play… now read the original.” A similar ad read simply: “The book is always better.”

Now that’s funny.

Mormons can take a joke.

Those are the impressions left by this well-thought out Mormon response to a play that mocks them and some of their deepest held beliefs.

As for evangelicals, our insistence on treating homosexuality as a litmus test and salvation issue leaves a whole other set of impressions on outside observers.

These people are bigoted.

Judgmental.

Homophobic.

Care more about doctrine than the needs of the poor.

The evangelical reaction to World Vision’s decision (and the company’s subsequent change of course) is an embarrassment to our movement. It implies that our worst critics are correct. God forbid we allow homosexual Christians to follow Jesus’ calling to minister to the least of these by working at World Vision. Not on our watch!

Lighten up people–you’re making Jesus look bad.

 

Doctrine: snippets from my ordination paper (part nine)

February 3, 2014

This post continues a series of excerpts from the doctrinal section of my ordination paper. I’m looking for feedback, questions, etc. Visit the main page of this blog for past posts in this series.

Part 9: Eschatology

Eschatology (the study of “last things”) is the climax of Christian theology. The life of the church is guided by a future-oriented hope that drives our mission and witness here in the present. While the Lordship of Christ remains hidden from the majority of society, Christians mindfully choose to live under his Lordship as we await its arrival in full. Although the world has not yet been made right with God, we pursue a reconciled existence in the here-and-now, acting as agents of reconciliation in the hope of a coming completion.

Hope is bold, powerful, and dangerous to all who have a stake in maintaining the status quo. Thus, the Christian hope competes with all other narratives from which human beings draw meaning. Christians believe that Christ is returning to reconcile the world with the Father. As that hope gives way to action, our eschatology exerts a transformational influence on the present.

Christians believe that Christ will one day return to resurrect the dead, enact judgment, and establish a new heaven and earth on which God will dwell with his people (Rev 20-21). The second coming is not a spiritual ideal or messianic reincarnation, but the literal, bodily return of Jesus to carry out his Lordship. The Bible tells us that one day every knee will bow, “in heaven and earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11).

Jesus will return as the great judge–securing justice for the oppressed, annihilating evil once and for all, and establishing God’s peace in the cosmos (Rev 20). The dead will be resurrected, some to eternal life and others to “the second death” (Rev 20:6, 14; cf. Dan 12:2). All of creation will be recreated and human beings–drawn from every nation, tribe, and language (Rev 14:6)–will enjoy God’s presence forever.

The notion that some will be excluded from the reconciled cosmos comes as troubling news to many, and for understandable reasons. Christ taught his disciples to have a heart for outsiders (Luke 4:18-21); so what are we to make of a God who seemingly excludes the majority of human beings from his presence? This uneasiness is exacerbated by the popular depiction of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment, where God delights in the roasting of sinners over open flames by little red devils.

A few points are needed to address these concerns.

First, this view of hell derives more from the imagination of Dante than the testimony of Scripture. Biblical imagery such as the all-consuming lake of fire (Rev 20:15) and the destruction of body and soul in hell (Matt 10:28) imply that the second death is just that–death.

Second, the final judgment should not be understood as an exclusionary act, but one of release. God is a loving Father who wills for all to be saved (Eze 18:30-32; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9) but he will not violate the free will of those who reject him in order to get his way.

Finally, Christ’s example provides us with reason for hope. The cross reveals the lengths to which God is willing to go to save rebellious human beings. Jesus spoke of having sheep in other folds (John 10:16) and the only explicit mention of hell in the ecumenical creeds is the affirmation that Christ himself descended there. On this basis, Christians should refrain from speculating about the ultimate fate of unbelievers. While we cannot confirm salvation beyond the visible church on this side of the eschaton, we remain hopeful that Christ might make a way where there seems to be none, so that one day our God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:20-28).

The transformational power of the Christian hope is unleashed when our eschatology begins to influence the way we conduct our lives in the present. The Lordship of Christ relativizes all other claims of power and authority made over human beings.

Our belief in the justice of God sets us in opposition to the unjust systems and practices of the present. Hope of bodily resurrection deepens our appreciation of the physicality of life and our own bodily-ness. Knowledge of God’s redemptive plan for the cosmos changes the way we view the earth, infusing the universe with meaning. The vision of people from every tribe and nation gathered around the heavenly throne challenges our prejudice and empowers us to overcome earthly divisions.

In sum, eschatology calls Christians to remember forward, manifesting the kingdom of God in the present as we align our own hearts and actions with that which we already know to be true about the future.

Doctrine: snippets from my ordination paper (part eight)

January 28, 2014

This post continues a series of excerpts from the doctrinal section of my ordination paper. I’m looking for feedback, questions, etc. Visit the main page of this blog for past posts in this series.

Part 8: Purpose and Mission of the Church

Scripture provides us with a wealth of metaphors to describe the church: it is the body of Christ in which every member is important (1 Cor 12:12f), the bride of Christ that eagerly awaits the return of the bridegroom (Rev 19:6-10), a kingdom of priests empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue Christ’s work (1 Pet 2:9-10), the family of God whose adoption is secured through the gift of the Son (Eph 1:3-10), and the Spirit-filled temple of which Jesus is the cornerstone (1 Pet 3:14-15).

The church is the setting in which Christians live out and practice our salvation. An eschatological community of hope, the church embodies the kingdom of God in the present as we eagerly await its arrival in fullness. The church’s mission is carried out on (at least) two fronts: (1) inside the community of faith, as we encounter God and pursue Christ-likeness through worship, fellowship, and discipleship; and (2) in the world, as we put our faith into practice as a testimony to the gospel.

The inner-life of the church enables Christians to experience the Lordship of Jesus in a communal and deeply personal way. Our worship fosters participation in God’s kingdom through joyful celebration and earnest lamentation. While worship is upward-focused, fellowship is horizontal–focusing on our connection with other believers. Christian fellowship anticipates the New Jerusalem community (Rev 21) and allows believers to practice the new humanity modeled by Jesus.

Discipleship is the center of the church. As disciples, we are called to learn from our more mature brothers and sisters while being examples for those who are new to the faith. Discipleship aims at grace-filled transformation into the likeness of Christ through accountability, mentoring, serving others, growing in knowledge, and the regular practice of spiritual disciplines. It is the heart that maintains the body of Christ.

The outer-life of the church is characterized by witness to the Kingdom of God. The world has not yet arrived at the salvific fullness previewed in the resurrected Christ. Christians have glimpsed this marvelous reality and are therefore charged to spread the word (Matt 28).

While the inner-life of the church provides an important counter-example to the way of the world, Christians must also engage in prophetic actions outside the walls of the meeting house. The church must be a voice for justice in society and an advocate for the powerless. We have inherited the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:11-21) and should therefore work to bring individuals, institutions, and cultures in line with the will of God.

As God’s children, we are called to be peacemakers (Matt 5:9, 43-48) promoting grace and healing in our communities and throughout the world. It is also important to preserve the created order, advocating for creation care and modeling godly stewardship of our natural resources. In all things we must speak boldly for the gospel, inviting lost sheep to find reconciliation with God as we model the way of Jesus in a fallen world.

Doctrine: snippets from my ordination paper (part seven)

January 23, 2014

This post continues a series of excerpts from the doctrinal section of my ordination paper. I’m looking for feedback, questions, etc. Visit the main page of this blog for past posts in this series.

Part 7: View of Scripture

The Bible narrates the good news of God’s saving work. As someone who loves the Bible and takes it seriously, it strikes me as a bit ironic that the language many Christians use to talk about Scripture is so radically unbiblical.

Words like “inerrant” and “infallible” occur anywhere in the Bible, reflecting more of the sinful desire to defend our own correctness than of the actual content of Scripture. When I talk about the Bible, I prefer to utilize the language Scripture invokes to describe itself: trustworthy, perfect, and refreshing to the soul (Ps 19:7); God-breathed and useful for teaching (2 Tim 3:16); living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword (Heb 4:12); sweeter than honey (Ps 119:103).

The Bible reframes our imaginations around the reality of God revealed in Christ. It is indeed a good book; the clearest picture of divine revelation we possess outside of Jesus himself.

It is important for Christians to broaden our understanding of the inspiration of Scripture, especially when so many in our culture question the reliability of the Bible. Many contemporary faith statements ascribe inspired status to Scripture “in the original autographs,” i.e. the initial drafts written by the biblical authors. While it is important to affirm that individuals like Moses and Paul wrote under divine influence, allusions to “autographs” we no longer possess (paper decomposes, after all) are of little use in the present.

We need a broader view of Scripture’s inspiration. Long before the stories in books like Genesis and Kings were written down, they were passed along orally by generations of Israelites giving testimony to God’s history with their people. Likewise, the text of the gospels is based upon the oral traditions of the early church, shaped under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

It is crucial to affirm the breadth of inspiration that characterizes the entire process, right down to the text being written, copied by scribes, preserved by the early churches, canonized, translated into new languages, and received into the hands of contemporary readers.

As bearers of the written word, Christians are responsible to study Scripture, interpreting it in light of church tradition, orthodox theology, and lived experience. While individual study is an important discipline that should be encouraged, the Bible does not come fully to life until it is engaged in the lived context of the congregation.

It is here–in  life of the faith community–that the Bible speaks most deeply into our individual lives and pushes us toward maturity. The local church is ultimately responsible to interpret Scripture, possessing both the presence of Christ (Matt 18:20) and an acute awareness of the spiritual needs of the community.

As we study the Bible together the text becomes authoritative–interpreting our lives as we interpret it. This is the power of Scripture, awakening us to blind spots and areas of weakness, leading toward a life of grace, and shepherding us along the path of holiness. The Spirit of God is present and active throughout this process, continuing the inspirational work by transforming the readers and hearers of the written word into disciples.

Doctrine: snippets from my ordination paper (part 6)

January 20, 2014

This post continues a series of excerpts from the doctrinal section of my ordination paper. I’m looking for feedback, questions, etc. Visit the main page of this blog for past posts in this series.

Part 6: Salvation and the Nature of the Gospel

Many Christians have too narrow a view of salvation. Our emphasis when evangelizing tends to be on restoring sinners to right-relationship with God. While this is essential to the gospel, it overlooks three-fourths of the relational matrix that is affected by sin.

The Israelites spoke of salvation in a manner that acknowledged the totality of the human being, not only an individual’s relationship with God (Is 65:17-25). Likewise, the salvation Jesus offers makes a holistic impact on all of life–bringing us into right relationship with the Father (John 14:6-7), establishing peace with nature (Mark 4:35-41), restoring our communities (Matt 9:10-12), and freeing us from the demons affecting our own selves (Matt 9:27-35).

The Lordship of Christ secures our salvation on all fronts. Jesus restored the whole of human life, culminating with his defeat of death in the resurrection. As he proclaimed, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b).

Salvation, properly understood, is not merely forgiveness of sin but the transformation of life through discipleship. It is not an insurance policy for souls, but the restoration of our bodies, and indeed, all of physical life. Salvation is also not only for individuals; communities, governments, and social structures are all called to reckon with the age of redemption Jesus has initiated.

The gospel Christ preached centered on the Kingdom of God, a new reality established through his ministry. Jesus announced the arrival of God’s Kingdom through stories and teachings that took the order of things in this life and inverted them–putting the last first and the first last, blessing the meek, and commanding his disciples to love their enemies (Matt 5). If the gospel we proclaim does not center on the Kingdom of God, it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While this may sound obvious, it is important to emphasize that the good news of God’s Kingdom is both good and newsworthy. The way in which many churches talk about salvation doesn’t sound very good. I think especially of those teachings that emphasize God’s wrath, exclude certain groups of unworthy sinners, and dogmatically assert certain doctrines. Such an approach lacks humility, turning away more people than it attracts and failing to speak redemptively about the salvific love of God offered in Christ.

On the other hand, the way many Christians live implies that the gospel is not all that news worthy. This is the case when we fail to share the good news with our lost neighbors, refuse to be personally challenged by the content of the Christian message, and live in a manner that looks no different from those who do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord. If Christians do not care enough to live out the gospel in our daily lives, why should we expect those outside of the church to pay attention?

Thankfully the gospel is both good and newsworthy–the transformative movement of God that beckons our response.

Doctrine: snippets from my ordination paper (part five)

January 17, 2014

This post continues a series of excerpts from the doctrinal section of my ordination paper. I’m looking for feedback, questions, etc. Visit the main page of this blog for past posts in this series.

Part 5: Sin, Evil, and Suffering

An honest look at the world reveals that something has gone terribly wrong with the relational universe God created. The cosmos is in chaos and God’s icons (human beings) are broken. What is sin? And where did it come from? While the answer to the second question lies in our primordial past, the first question can be addressed by observing the present.

The relationships that define us as human beings have been corrupted, and the opening chapters of Genesis serve as a fitting illustration. In the beginning, Adam enjoys a state of perfect relatedness to himself, God, other people, and creation. But once he and his wife eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, all of their relationships begin to crumble.

It begins with shame as their eyes are opened, their sense of self is corrupted, and they rush to cover their own naked bodies (3:7). Their relationship with God is affected next, as Adam and Eve hide in terror from their Creator (3:8-10). It isn’t long before their relationship with each other falls apart (3:12) and they are expelled from the Garden (3:22-24). Thus, we see that sin corrupts all of the relationships that define us as human beings.

The effects of sin are visible throughout the world today. Feelings of shame and insecurity plague even the most devout Christians. This is often where sin begins, with an inward turn to the self that isolates us from other people. In our shame we find it difficult to face God and look to other things to make us whole. Once our idols fail us, we blame God and enter into a state of rebellion.

The breakdown of human relationships is visible everywhere from broken marriages to the brutality of war. We lose trust in God and begin competing with each other, embracing greed and leaving destruction in our wake. The erosion of our relationship with the earth could not be any clearer. Human beings are draining our planet of natural resources with little concern for future generations, consuming more than we need without regard for God’s will.

Why did God allow this to happen? Why were evil and suffering permitted to creep into God’s good creation and pervert it? While it is tempting to speculate about such questions, there are few compelling answers to be found.

Perhaps God desired to give human beings the freedom to embrace or reject his love, necessitating the possibility that we would choose rebellion. Maybe everything happens for a reason and our suffering, no matter how terrible, ultimately serves to glorify God. It could be that we are being tested, passing through the sufferings of this life as a refining process to prepare us for the next. None of these options are very comforting, especially to those who are in the midst of suffering. However, there is reason for hope.

God did not abandon human beings in our brokenness but comes alongside us, bestowing grace and mercy (Gen 3:21; Matt 5:45). God entered most radically into human suffering through Christ, joining with us in our shame and dealing with the world’s evil once and for all on the cross. Scripture doesn’t offer an answer to the problem of evil and suffering. It only paints us a picture of the God who suffers with us, meeting human beings in the depths of our own God-forsakenness and carrying us through.

Doctrine: snippets from my ordination paper (part four)

January 15, 2014

This post continues a series of excerpts from the doctrinal section of my ordination paper. I’m looking for feedback, questions, etc. Visit the main page of this blog for past posts in this series.

Part 4: Creation & Humanity

Creation and humanity are usually treated as two separate topics in Christian theology. To put it bluntly: creation is typical given a cursory treatment before the more “important” topic of human beings. While a degree of anthropocentrism is inevitable, I have combined these doctrines because I believe that human beings can only be rightly understood (in a theological sense) within their context as part of the created order.

Creation is first and foremost a work of God that glorifies its Creator. The splendor of nature bears witness to God (Ps 19:1-6) and has much to teach us about our Father in Heaven (Rom 1:19-20). As human beings learn to live in harmony with the earth and our fellow creatures–embracing simplicity, creating less waste, and caring for God’s creation–we will find our lives coming more in tune with the will of our Maker.

Creation is also our home–it is where we were made, reside, and are destined to spend eternity with God. The incarnational example set by Christ leaves little room for an I’ll Fly Away attitude that abandons the world to escape into heaven. Instead, the way of Jesus is to manifest the kingdom of heaven here on earth (Matt 6:10).

Following this, we can affirm that creation is an important part of God’s redemptive plan. The salvation of human beings can only be properly understood as part of the restoration of all things (Eph 1:7-10). Indeed, the glory of God will not reach its fullness until all of creation has been made new.

Human identity begins with our situated-ness on the earth. We are a part of the animal kingdom, made from the same material and by a process similar to that of our fellow creatures (see Gen 2:7, 19). The primary thing that makes human beings unique from other animals (as far as Scripture is concerned) is our status as image bearers of the divine (2:27). God looks at us and sees something of his own likeness; much like a parent may recognize shared traits in a daughter or son.

The image of God equalizes all human beings, infusing us with intrinsic value. As God’s image bearers, humans possess the capacity to relate to God and respond to God’s relational invitation. We are also invited to join God in shaping creation. The first humans were commanded to exercise dominion over the earth, organizing and caring for that which God had created (1:28). As God’s vice-regents, we have been commissioned to manage creation in a manner that glorifies its Creator.

Human beings are also relational creatures. Just as God’s identity is revealed through a community of persons, our identities as God’s image bearers are also formed through community. We are shaped by relationships with God, the earth, other people, and ourselves. This relational view of the person is an affront to the radical individualism of the contemporary age. “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18)–and so God placed Adam in community!

We can never truly know ourselves without first being known by others. Without relationships the human person effectively ceases to exist. It must be noted, however, that this is not a sign of weakness, but a trait we have inherited from God. After all, the Father is not the Father without the Son, and there is no Incarnate Son without the Spirit.

Human beings are creatures-in-community because we were designed that way. We are image bearers of God who take after our Creator.

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