Yesterday we reported on the LGBT conflict which is breaking the United Methodist Church apart. The dispute over sexual morality is also affecting one of the oldest and most highly regarded theological seminaries in the United States–Fuller Theological Seminary. The conflict involves Christian seminary students in same-sex marriages.
Fuller has a “Sexual Standards Policy,” which states that the seminary “holds marriage to be a covenant union between one man and one woman.” The policy also says that “homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct” are “inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture.” Two students, one man and one woman, were expelled because the seminary learned that they were in same-sex marriages. They are both suing the school for one million dollars each.
The problem here is that Fuller and many other Christian colleges and seminaries receive government assistance in scholarships and other educational funding. Title IX government funding rules bar “discrimination based on sex.” The original intent of this rule was that women could not be refused participation in educational programs just because they were women. Now LGBT supporters are mounting legal efforts to expand Title IX protections to gender identity and sexuality.
What happens here will have a profound effect on Christian colleges who participate in any scholarship program where government grants or loans allow students to get an education. This would include those with minority and military scholarships. It will also affect those schools and churches that use government commodities in benevolent programs or minority support programs.
Christian seminary students in same-sex marriages is only one aspect of a growing problem. It seems that the government’s beliefs about morality are dictating what Church programs can teach. The only option is for churches and schools not to use government support in any way, or else they must change their moral teachings.
Many of the atheist diatribes do not try to counter the massive evidence for God’s existence. Instead, they criticize things that have been done by people who claim to be Christians. From the Crusades to inquisitions to witch hunts, people claiming to be Christ-followers have conducted themselves in un-Christlike ways.
King James 1 had a major role in the effort to eradicate witchcraft from 17th century England. The Lancashire witchcraft trials in 1612 were a part of his legacy. Of course, he also commissioned the 1611 King James translation of the Bible into English. There is no Hebrew or early Greek word for “witch,” but because of the cultural climate of the day, the term “witch” was used in passages dealing with idolaters, mediums, or sorcerers.
Denominations who came to America with the King James Bible in their hands used the word “witch” to deal with even such things as a charm or remedy. Galatians 5:20 uses the Greek word “pharmakia” to describe sorcery, which refers to casting spells. It is translated as “witchcraft” in many Bibles. In 1 Samuel 15:23, the Hebrew word “qasam” is translated “witchcraft” in the KJV. A better translation is “divination,” which is the pagan parallel to prophesying.
In the Old Testament, anyone who was into astrology or enchantments was dealt with harshly. (See Exodus 22:18, Deuteronomy 18:10, 2 Kings 9:22, 2 Chronicles 33:6, and Micah 5:12.) When Jesus canceled the old law by “nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14), He did away with the violent retaliation that the law prescribed.
Witch hunts resulted in the terrible things that happened in the witch trials of Salem, Massachusets, in 1692 and 1693. People were tortured and killed because they were accused of witchcraft. Read Matthew 5-7 to see how Jesus dealt with the opponents of His teaching. God is a God of love, full of compassion and care for all human beings. Those who claim to be witches need the same love and care that all humans seek. Instead of condemning them to torture and death, Christians should show them that Christ’s love can meet their real needs.
Whom or What Do You Worship? For many people, the immediate reaction is to say something like, “I don’t worship anything. I am a self-made person.” A more degrading answer might be, “Worship is for sissies, and I don’t need that junk.” Webster’s dictionary defines worship as “rendering of homage to something or someone” or “rendering religious reverence to something or someone.” Worship is not confined to an activity done in a church building. Some people worship nature, some worship an experience, others worship celestial objects or animals, or even their job or their mate. God doesn’t need our worship. Worship is for our benefit, not God’s.
From a biblical perspective, there is an easy answer to why we do these things. God created us in His image, and God is a Spirit (Genesis 1:26-27 and John 4:24). We all have a spiritual component which is a part of our makeup. Romans 8:16 tells us, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Atheists have this spiritual makeup, and they express it in their obsessions in life. I have known atheists who worshipped sex or their material possessions or an activity like fishing. They would render homage to the object of their worship that would shame any preacher.
What is unique about Christian worship is that it can be controlled and directed to productive uses. Jesus warned his followers to avoid worshiping “the traditions of the elders” (See Mark 7:1-8). Paul reflected on the same idea in Colossians 2:8 warning about making philosophy the object of one’s worship. He goes on in verses 16-23 about making religious rules an object of worship. In Romans 1:25, Paul talks about “worshipping the things made instead of the maker.” Thus we must ask, “Whom or what do you worship?”
How we express the spiritual drive that is built into all of us is essential and within our control. To establish meaningful worship, 1 Timothy 4:12-13 and Hebrews 10:24-25 encourage reading and learning. James 1:27 points out that pure religion and worship comes in meeting the needs of those less fortunate than ourselves. Our worship as Christians is not just a Sunday morning thing. Worship is a continual activity. Hebrews 13:15-16 talks about worship through voices. James 5:13 talks about personal prayer, and in Matthew 6:5-15, Jesus talks about private prayer worship as a part of daily life. Even giving is an act of worship, expressed in Hebrews 13:16, 2 Corinthians 9:7, and Acts 20:35.
Worship with the wrong attitude can be destructive, even for Churches. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-22, Paul says the worship of that congregation did more harm than good. Those with no relationship to God are likely to find whatever they worship is disappointing and unfulfilling. Learning to look to a higher power is widely recognized as a technique to help us find satisfaction and overcome problems in life. Ephesians 2:18 tells us that Christians have access to the Father. Worship in private and in corporate service can be a tool to bring us great satisfaction and solutions to the major problems of life.
Whom or what do you worship? Other worship alternatives don’t benefit the worshipper or anyone else in such profound ways as when we worship God.
We have just finished the Christmas and New Year holiday, and Christmas cards are piled up on my desk. It isn’t that I have so many people who send me Christmas cards. Most of the cards are from organizations wanting a donation. They send a “gift” of a bunch of cards and hope it will shame me into giving to their cause. What is interesting to me is the Christmas card picture of baby Jesus in the manger.
I have Muslim and Buddhist friends who laugh at that Christmas card picture. Muhammad was an upper-class, wealthy military man who married into money and lived in comfortable conditions. Buddha was a Hindu prince who was not even allowed to see a diseased or suffering human. Sometime after the age of 29, he left the palace behind and became a wandering ascetic.
In contrast to these founders of major faiths, Jesus Christ was born in a town in which He was an alien. He grew up in Nazareth, a low-class village in the occupied territory of Galilee. (See John 1:46.) When you read passages like Matthew 5:41, you realize how much Rome controlled everything. John 19:10 points out that the Romans knew they had control. Christ had no political power and no army. He was born an “illegitimate child” to a mother who left town when she realized she was pregnant. (See Luke 1:38-39.) People wondered why Jesus spent His time with the poor, despised, and downtrodden. (See Matthew 9:11-13.) Unlike Mohammed or Buddha, Jesus came into a world of misery, war, prejudice, pain, strife, and violence and did not associate with political leaders or the social elite.
Because of the birth and upbringing of Jesus, people were amazed at His teaching. (See Matthew 7:28-29.) It is also because of the background of His life that we cannot have a problem that Jesus doesn’t understand. He had no money – only his cloak. He was “born on the wrong side of the tracks.” He was born an “illegitimate child.” Unlike followers of all other faiths on Earth, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way just as we are – yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
I have seen mangers. They are dirty with mouth slime from cattle plus insects and worms and unprotected from the elements. The sterile, clean, neat, ordered Christmas card picture is not reality. However, but it can remind us of how God in His wisdom provides for us and understands our needs. The birth and upbringing of Christ provide an apologetic for the validity of Christianity.
Every year around Christmas and Easter, various secular publications and websites carry articles that are critical of Jesus and the Bible. This year LiveScience.com published a page questioning, “How Much of the Nativity Story is True?” Often articles like this make the mistake of confusing Bible and traditions. This one is no exception.
The article begins by quoting Brent Landau, whom they refer to as “a religious studies scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.” Landau says, “My overall take on this, which would be the opinion of most other biblical scholars as well, is that there is very little in the Christmas story of the Gospels that is historically reliable.” Mr. Landau is not only stating that the “Gospels” are historically unreliable, but he is going farther by asserting that “most other biblical scholars” agree with that! His statement is inaccurate on both counts.
We have many times before dealt with the historical accuracy of the Gospels and the Bible as a whole in our publications, videos, and websites. Most biblical scholars would NOT agree that there is “very little in the Christmas story of the Gospels that is historically unreliable.” Actually, there is very little of the “Christmas story” in the Gospels. The story has been embellished by traditions resulting in people confusing Bible and traditions. Only Matthew and Luke say anything about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, and their accounts are brief. Most of the gospel narratives tell of the ministry and teaching of Jesus leading up to His sacrifice and resurrection, which is much more important than details of His birth.
To provide some balance, the article also quotes Ben Witherington III, a well-known New Testament scholar who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary. Witherington is author of more than 30 books and is a strong advocate for the accuracy of the Scriptures. He points out that we should apply the same principles of historical investigation to the Bible as we do to the records of other ancient historical events such as Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. As we have pointed out before, the historical evidence for the biblical events is better supported by documentary evidence than any other event of ancient history.
However, as we said, secular writers often make the mistake of confusing Bible and traditions. The article talks about December 25 not being Christ’s birthday. Of course, it isn’t. The Bible doesn’t give a date for His birth, but it was most likely in the spring. The article also says, “Most scholars agree that Jesus wasn’t born in A.D. 1.” That is true also, but that doesn’t mean the Bible is wrong. No year of His birth can be found in the Bible, but the Scripture does connect it with the reign of Herod the Great. In fact, shouldn’t Jesus have been born in 0 A.D? The A.D. And B.C. designations were assigned years later after people came to understand the importance of His birth.
When Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem to a humble couple from the backwater town of Nazareth, only a few shepherds recognized the significance. Herod was the powerful ruler building monuments to himself. Today, Herod’s structures are in ruins, and nobody bases their calendar on his birthday. By contrast, our calendars remind us of the (approximate) date of Jesus’ birth, and the Church that He established is a monument to His love and sacrifice. The Gospel accounts meet the standards of historical integrity when we avoid confusing Bible and traditions.
Almost everything about Christmas is rooted in history and in Christmas symbols that people use to remember things that are important to their faith. Even the date of Christmas has such a root. In the year 354 a leader in the Church named Liberius declared that December 25 would be a holy day for celebrating the birth of Christ. This date was chosen because there was a pagan festival which celebrated the winter solstice, and the Christian celebration was safer when other celebrations were taking place.
During this same time, Romans decorated their homes with evergreens which they considered to be a symbol of the regenerative power of nature. The shape of the Christmas tree was chosen in some cultures because it pointed toward heaven. Wreaths were used because they were in the motif of a wheel indicating the cycling of the Sun or of the seasons.
In Scandinavian tradition, decorative wreaths were hung on the door with a red ribbon and were called “welcome wreaths.” Anyone who came to the door was welcomed to the Christmas feast and a place setting was always present for “the poor man’s plate”.
While all these customs, traditions, and Christmas symbols are separate and apart from the teachings of the Bible, they reflect the history of Christianity. Our Christmas stories such as “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens and “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry reflect the values that have existed in many different cultures through the ages. Paul discussed this in Romans 14:5-19 and he ends it by saying, “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.”
We wish you the best for the holiday season, however you decide to participate in it, and may we also wish you the best for a joyous and wonderful new year.
Christmas reminds us of the birth of Jesus, but why is the birth of a baby two millennia ago relevant today? The answer to that question depends on the answer to another question. Who is Jesus? People have various ideas of who Jesus is. Some say He is God. Others say He was just a man who was a good moral teacher. But, if Jesus is not God, He could not have been a good moral teacher. Let me explain why.
There is no doubt that Jesus was born a human being. The shepherds who saw Him in the stable and the people who watched Him grow up in His hometown of Nazareth could verify that. He grew to be a rabbi, a teacher, and He had many followers. His select group of disciples who talked with Him and ate with Him and lived with Him knew that He was a man. But His teaching was like no other man. He taught with the authority of God. He claimed to be God. He claimed to forgive sins, which only God can do.
Thus, if that baby born in Bethlehem were merely a human being who grew to be a man and said the things He said, He would not be a good moral teacher. He claimed to teach the truth, and He even claimed to be the truth. He claimed to be God! If He were not God, He would be a liar or a madman, but He would not a good moral teacher.
So who is Jesus? What do we celebrate at Christmas? We remember that God took on flesh as a baby who grew to be a man. He lived a sinless life because He is God. But He did not come merely to show us how to live a sinless life. He knew that we could not. He came to redeem us—to be a sacrifice for our sins.
When Jesus was on Earth, He was truly man and truly God. He could be the sacrifice for sins only because He was God. Although Jesus was sinless, He was not a third-party victim selected to bear our punishment. It would be immoral to punish an innocent man for the sins of all the guilty people. He was also the divine lawgiver and judge, so He could choose to suffer the penalty of His own law and bear the sins of all people. One man could only bear the punishment for His own sins. God can bear the punishment for all.
So who is Jesus? On that night near Bethlehem, the angel did not merely announce the birth of a baby boy. The angel said, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people…a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11 CSB). Have you allowed Him to be your Savior?
In my atheist days, I ridiculed religious people for believing something that has no power. I didn’t realize the power of faith and love.
“What good does being a Christian do you that I can’t get at my local bar or club?” That was my challenge. I said that I could have fellowship and share love and material blessings without going to church. I pointed out with some validity that going to church is similar to being a member of a country club. I pay my dues and enjoy certain privileges to be a member of the club. For many church attenders, their contribution is their dues, and they get to go to social events and have some name recognition.
This distorted view of Christianity misses the point at many levels. The Church is not a social club, but a service organization. People in the Church serve the community. They provide relief, take care of the sick, educate children, and support good causes.
Even more important is the power of faith that comes by having a relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus states things in Matthew 5-7 which are ludicrous to an atheist. How can a rational person love those who hate them (Matthew 5:44)? What is the logic of turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39)? How can anyone be willing to go the second mile (Matthew 5:41)?
To answer the atheist challenge, just ask what is causing the problems for most people living in 21st century America. Why do we have such a high suicide rate? Why is drug usage high and growing? What causes so many people to struggle with depression? It isn’t physical needs that are the most significant problem. It is emotional and spiritual ills that push people into behaviors that sometimes take their lives.
Paul describes the power of faith expressed in love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-5. People of faith understand the love which surpasses physical needs. “Love is patient and kind: love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing or keep a record of wrongs but rejoices in the truth… Love never ends.”
There is even a particular Greek word “agapao” to describe that kind of love. It’s a love that fulfills the emotional and spiritual needs that we all have, and God’s Spirit brings that love to life in us. The power of faith is available to anyone who will seek it.
4. I wouldn’t have a basis of secure family relationships – neither physical, emotional, nor spiritual. All the ingredients of “family” are rooted in the concept of there being a God. Terminating a life that has nobody to speak up for it is a function of one’s moral behavior. Abortion and involuntary euthanasia are both functions of rejecting the value of all human life. The survival of the fittest necessarily places one in the position of rejecting family when that family interferes with your fitness. Belief in God fosters a desire to have a role that puts others above yourself and breeds love and fulfilling peace. It even spreads to those of like faith so that brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and children can be family even if there isn’t a blood relationship.
5. I wouldn’t have hope for anything beyond this life. If there is no God, then our entire existence is couched in what happens in this life. If I am not fit, then death is the best I can hope for. I will never be in a positive survival mode, no matter how hard I struggle. If I am fit, it will only be for a short time until old age makes me less fit. Faith in God means that whatever my lot in this life, this is the worst thing I will ever experience. I have great hope for what lies ahead, and obeying and serving God, which involves serving others, is a real joy for me.
Those are two things I wouldn’t have without God. As an atheist, I didn’t have any of the five things I mentioned yesterday and today. Neither did my atheist family and my atheist friends. For many years now, I have lived a life based on belief in God. It hasn’t always been easy, and I have failed in many ways. But even if someone were to convince me there is no God, I would still want to be a Christian. I have seen the love and hope and joy of living as Christ has called us to live. The evidence for the existence of God is massive, and that simply elevates the importance of the five things I wouldn’t have without God.
1. I wouldn’t have a meaningful explanation for why there is something instead of nothing. If there is no God, then the creation is meaningless. Even if a model is eventually constructed that explains how time, matter/energy and space came into existence, the purpose for the existence of time and space remains unanswered. The existence of God, who is love, goodness, peace, and the creator of all kinds of beauty, opens the door to an understanding of the things we all enjoy. The struggle between good and evil gives us a role to play as sentient beings who can choose and facilitate love, goodness, and beauty. Being created in the image of God embodies our very make up, so there is a reason for us to exist. That means there is a reason for something to exist instead of blind, silent, unthinking nothingness.
2. I wouldn’t have a pattern for life except “survival of the fittest.” If there is no God, then each of us is independent of any responsibility for anyone or anything else. Why would I do or give anything to anyone that would detract from my own existence? If the strong survive and the weak die, why would I not want to devote myself to being strong? The foundation of survival of the fittest is not only being strong but also being selfish and dominant. There is no room for altruism in a belief system that tells me to make sure I am the best and the strongest and the smartest. Looking after number one is my passion and guide to behavior.
3. I wouldn’t have a fixed standard of moral behavior. To be the strongest and most fit, I must have a moral standard that accommodates those attributes. That means that I must have a flexible moral standard so that I can adapt it to what fits me the best. My sexual morals must match my physical capabilities. My concept of ownership must revolve around my capabilities. There are times when lying will promote my station in life. Deception in the natural world is a key to survival in many situations, so why would it not be a part of my basis for making moral decisions? If there is no God, then trust ceases to exist. No contract of any kind has meaning if there are no absolute concepts of what is right and what is wrong.
Those are three things I wouldn’t have without God., but they are not all. There are two more I want to share with you tomorrow.