The Watering Hole - Conversations on 21st. Century religion.
Freedom in Christ
Or the trap in interpretation
Copyright © 2015 Dorian Scott Cole
In recent headlines, people in Southeastern Missouri threatened to burn down churches that engage in gay marriage. Indiana and Arkansas had to revise "Religious Freedom" laws that enabled discrimination, because of public outcry. Many people in the US live in fear, or ecstasy, at the idea that a war may be developing in the Middle East, engaging ISIS, Judaism, and Christians. Fifty-eight percent of people believe that within the next 40 years, there will be a major world war and 41% believe Christ will return, according to a Pew Study. ISIS and these Christians have a Pre-millennial interpretation of scripture that believes that starting this war will hasten the return of Christ, and they won't be here to see it because of the "Rapture."
Religion is tearing apart the fabric of our lives because many believe that, from their perspective, most people in this world are doomed to Hell. These beliefs are inflamed by books such as The Late Great Planet Earth, series by Hal Lindsey, and the Left Behind apocalyptic series by Tim Lahaye. There is a lot of money in this, and influence. Many television religious shows focus on these beliefs, looking daily for signs that this war is about to begin. Many in the government and military are also influenced by these beliefs. Will they push us into a war they feel is inevitable and part of God's plan?
Fear and apocalyptic ideas are considered by some to be much more motivating, and were greatly enhanced by the coming of the year 2000, when apocalyptic fever reached a high. Yet motivating is the work of the Spirit, not people. The Spirit leads people. Setting an example in their behavior and telling others the Good News is the work of the followers of Christ. Christ said that we will know his followers by what they do, meaning good works.
The focus in popular literature is not on Post-millennial ideas. Many religious scholars who know history, believe that most of the events discussed in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelations, and other passages in the Bible referring to Christ's coming, occurred within the 300 years after Christ, and mostly referred to the Roman Empire. These things are a warning to us to watch out for leaders like Adolf Hitler, who pirate religious ideas, strip the Spirit from them, and use them as an excuse to destroy others at will.
What effect does this preoccupaton by 41% have? The difficulty this apocalyptic interpretation of the Bible presents is that people believe the world is full of wickedness and condemned. They are separate from it. They won't have anything to do with the world. So since it is condemned and headed for destruction within 40 years, things like addressing climate change are not even considered. They prevent people in their political party from doing anything about climate change. They feel the earth is here for people to use and exploit. Humans have what they need to prosper and thrive in civilization. God is ultimately in control, so people have no responsibility.
This series won't change the minds of those 41% caught up in this apocalyptic mania. It will look at helping others to understand and shift this dangerous interpretive lens, away from fear and a book of rules and condemnation, and toward the focus of Christ's teachings. The Prophet Jeremiah said that in the new covenant, God would write the law on people's hearts. Did He? What was Pentecost about? Is Christ among us in Spirit, as we claim, and is this part of the law? Also, Christ confirmed that the greatest commandment is love. He also showed how blind adherence to religious laws gets in the way of helping others, and that we should try to understand what the law is for. The Apostle Paul said that all things are lawful, but maybe not expedient. We're also advised not to judge others and not to look for "signs." The context created by Christianity is very different than a simple reading and obedience to rules.
Why the preoccupation with End Times?
This information is not going to convince those who are swept away in this phenomenon - they are impervious to it and only get hardened by opposing information. This information can help inoculate believers who confront this apocalyptic literature and may fall into the trap.
This preoccupation with the apocalypse, "Rapture," and End Times belief was thrust into the popular arena in the mid-1960s, with Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth" series. War and rapid change in societies seemed to be everywhere. People began looking over their shoulder for "signs" that the end of the world was imminent. Every global event, every global leader, every nuance of Middle East politics, has been thoroughly scrutinized for any hint of bringing about the end of the world. Various leaders have been accused of either being the Antichrist, or being the person who will announce his arrival. The EU was pointed to as the one world government that would bring about the end of days. Every decade the focus changes to something new to keep this going, straining at gnats. Dates are forecast for the earth to end, and obviously missed.
This End of Days interpretation of the Bible is the result of several things:
- A profound lack of faith in God, the Spirit, and the Good News from Christ to transform people.
- A pre-occupation with looking for signs, (which indicates a wicked and adulterous generation), during a period of rapid change and instant communications
- Popularity and resonance within certain denominations, especially those with a pessimistic and hypercritical outlook
- Religious non-biblical literature that supports and popularizes this
- A lack of understanding about the intent of prophecy
- Misinterpretation because prophetic statements were purposely veiled to avoid political repercussions
- A fatalistic view of humanity and the future that looks only for the bad and can't see the good or progress
- Poor knowledge of history, regarding the near past or the distant past
- A complete lack of understanding about the spirit (intent) of the law, prophecy, and the implications of Christ's teachings
- The inability to understand, or admit, that these prophecies cited were for a historical context that has passed - mostly referring to the Roman Empire.
- A preoccupation with fear, and spreading fear.
- A lack of compassion for others because of a belief that the world is doomed, ending, and everyone is damned to Hell.
- Identification with certain denominations
Kind of a long list. Human nature and activity is never simple. I have seen this belief take perfectly normal churches and completely take over. It doesn't help that the news focuses on the spectacular, which is usually something negative, so we get bombarded with negativity. It doesn't help that we live in a world of rapid change in technology, culture, economics, and religion, causing hardship and fear.
You can cherry pick enough verses from the Bible to support a very negative view of humanity and the future of the world. A person's identity is probably the most important part. If everyone around you is into apocalyptic fervor, and combine pessimism and a fatalistic view, living in a fearful world with constantly looking over your shoulder for signs, and you don't have a solid understanding of what prophecy is about, and don't understand the intent of the Law, you have a perfect recipe for separating yourself from the rest of the world and condemning it....
Is looking for signs bad? A preoccupation with looking for signs, (which indicates a wicked and adulterous generation, according to Christ), is the result of a profound lack of faith in God, the Spirit, and the Good News to transform people. They judge others as wicked and believe they can't be changed, despite warnings from Christ not to judge. So instead of trying to benefit others, they believe the world is coming to an end, and they look for signs of that to happen. It's the epitome of negativity and polarized thinking.
Are signs important? Maybe. Christ did miracles (signs) which showed his authority. When John the Baptist asked if he was the Messiah, in Matthew 11 - 13, "Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor...." He talked about people who just won't listen, saying, "We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds."
He went on to say that "...if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon [known for having received him well], they would have repented long ago...." When the Pharisees saw Jesus' disciples picking grain and feeding the hungry on the Sabbath, they objected, and when he healed on the Sabbath they tried to trick him so they could prosecute him. They didn't understand the intent of the Law. So when the Pharisees and teachers wanted to see a sign from him, Jesus replied to them, "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." He indicated then that these people had impure spirits, and they would be worse off later because impurity attracts more impurity (comparing them to impure spirits).
Christ went on to say things to people, speaking in parables [like riddles]. He hid things much as apocalyptic literature is hidden. (The book of Revelations title means "revealing" of what is hidden.) The Apostles asked why he hid things. He replied, "This is why I speak to them in parables: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand... " and "You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused...." In other words, these people had hardened their hearts and minds to the truth. It is a phenomenon we are seeing a lot of today. People become polarized and anything that opposes their thinking they go to extremes to refute - they cannot be persuaded. Research has investigated and confirmed this.
- How facts backfire Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. (In fact, quite the opposite.)
- Reasoning on Public Opinion (Partisan motivated reasoning where individuals interpret information through the lens of their party commitment.)
- TEA PARTY AND THE RIGHT - I Helped Start the Religious Right: Here's How We Tried to Undermine Secular America -- and Build a Theocracy
- Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe Humans Are Causing Climate Change?
Christ said that no man, including him, knows the date of the end times. But he gave a strong indication that was keyed to the destruction of the temple. The Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. It was to be the second time that the Romans, who worshipped many man made gods and other gods, entered the Temple, first during the time of Daniel, defiling it with themselves or statues of gods. There is evidence they erected a statue again. Because of the incessant Jewish uprising against their Roman protectors, which many Jews despised, the Roman army would surround the city and tear down the temple. And they did. Every stone on the mountain was thrown down and removed, and the Muslim Dome of the Rock sits there now. Across the Empire, they would also kill the Apostles, which they did. But not before the Apostles went even as far as England and India, and many other countries. Finished with the Jews, the Roman Empire then turned its attention to a time of relentless persecution of Christians, in which they would be asked to deny faith in Christianity or be slaughtered, and many were killed for sport in the Roman arena. There would be many false prophets, which the Apostles did encounter. This would mark the end of an age. Now read the following passage from Matthew through that lens.
From Matthew 24: 1 - 25, "Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation, spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand [Romans or the statue] — then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time.
In these passages, Christ is clearly warning his Apostles of signs to look for, and things to be wary of. These things would begin to happen during their lifetime, especially the attack against the Jews of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the killing of the Apostles, and the persecution and killing of Christians. These end of age things very definitely happened. The end of the age could have been anytime between 70 AD (most likely) to the end of the persecution of Christians.
Signs of the times
Is the Earth getting morally worse, as some claim? No, it is clearly getting less violent, and most believe it is getting more moral. Many don't like things like "gays." Oh, well. We've ended a lot of discrimination, and will continue to stomp it out of existence. Today's violence within nations is nothing compared to the violence in the first half of the 20th. Century. The last 20 Centuries have been dominated by invasions and massive killing, serious diseases with no cures, plagues ravaged nations, life expectancy was in the 30s, war after war was fought between nations, even within religions, often for nothing more than greed and control, food and sanitation were in short supply or non-existant. Suffering was daily, everywhere, and affected nearly everyone.
What are the signs of the times? Today, since WWII, very few nations have attacked other nations. Many diseases have been eradicated or cures found. "Death" doesn't have the "sting" it once had, ending children's lives at a high rate, and limiting most people to only living to their mid 30s with incomplete and unfulfilled lives. Even Social Security was predicated on an average age in the 50s - no one was expected to live this long. Most people in this generation will live to around 86, and future generations will live into their 90s and beyond. Our level of comfort is high. Our working conditions are generally very good and we work fewer hours. Our level of recreation and entertainment is high. On average, we live in good homes, and our security is high. We live like Kings compared to past generations.
No, the earth and its people are clearly not falling apart. This is just cynicism born out of a preoccupation with it.
Is Bible prophecy useless or wrong? The Bible is prophetic to us today in the sense that it tells us to watch out for certain types of people - Hitler being a perfect example. It is also useful in our personal life during our own personal apocalypses. The Bible foreshadows the types of people and trends that can happen. They won't if we don't let them.
Is there an end to the world? If the Spirit of God is withdrawn from the world (it resides in believers), because of the wickedness of people. Yes. The Bible tells us it can happen. But 2000 years of war have failed to produce that, and even the nightmare of Hitler, who systematically killed 42 million, and Stalin's killing of tens of millions - even the entire world at war - failed to warrant the end of the world. The Bible indicates what has to happen in both the Noah story (an evil population), and in Sodom and Gomorrah story in which there was no righteous person in the village of very wicked people. Evil and wickedness have to be nearly pervasive.
Like the KKK, you can interpret much of the Bible to mean what you want it to mean. The problem isn't with the Bible. It's with the leanings and intent of the interpreter. This is one major reason Christianity has been on the decline since the early 1900s in all denominations: Irrelevant, arguing, gloom and doom. These are not the things that Christ offered. If people were busy telling others the "Good News" that Christ asked them to tell, they would have no time left for all of this bad news.
Instead of focusing on bad signs, the Apostle Paul advised to think on these things:
Philippians 4: 4 - 9: "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
For more information on various religious views on prophecy and the End Times, the following article is very good: False Profit: Money, Prejudice, and Bad Theology in Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind Series
My free book on prophecy, The Prophetic Pattern: Discussion Guide for Ancient and Modern Prophecy in my Author's Books section.
My series on the intent of prophecy
Next: Why is there law?
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Why is there law?
Simply put, law sometimes is the beginning of knowledge of right and wrong for some, and for others it is a safeguard for society. But it isn't the beginning and end of what we should be doing. It is a system of "do not do...." Most laws observed by Christians are not a system of "Do...."
How many actually follow all of the "Laws" in the Bible, especially the Law of Moses? The Jewish Talmud tells us that there are 613 commandments in the Torah [First five books of the Bible]; 248 Positive Commandments (do's) and 365 Negative Commandments (do not's). These are broken down into types of laws (artificial categories). One category includes commandments that "are deemed to be self-evident, such as not to murder and not to steal." Those that "commemorate important events in Jewish history." There are also decrees, which "are commandments with no known rationale, and are perceived as pure manifestations of the Divine will."
Even Jews can't follow all of the laws, because some are related to the Temple, which is no longer there. Additionally, people typically don't have children by their brother's wife if the brother dies. Nor do we have more than one wife. Nor do we stone misbehaving children. Times and situations change.
613 Commandments - Wikipedia.org
Suffice it to say that at any given point in time, religious organizations and people pick and choose between the laws that they think are appropriate. Even at least two of the laws in the Ten Commandments, taking God's name in vain, and remembering the Sabbath, are are regularly broken, and adultry is broken by one in four women in any given neighborhood, and countless men. The rest of the commandments are not always followed, and breaking many of them doesn't put people in jail. Even Christ's injunction on divorce, "Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate," is routinely ignored.
We seem to understand as a society, no matter how religious or spiritual people are, that laws were not made to bind us, but to make us free. Christ indicates as much when Priests of his time accused him of breaking Moses Law about the Sabbath (day of worship).
In the Book of Matthew, Ch. 12 (NIV), the Pharisees said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”
"...a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” 11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
And in Mark, Chapter 2 (NIV): "Then he said to them, 'The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.'"
The law about the Sabbath was characterized by Christ as a "sacrifice." He said it was made for man, not for God. This tells us more about what the law is about. But he said something very important. What God wants is mercy, not sacrifice. We'll look more at this later.
Some other important verses:
Romans 6:14 "For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace." What is grace? Grace is the free and unmerited favor of God. We not only don't have to live up to the law, we are not even under the law. Does that mean we can murder others? NO! It does mean that if we do bad things to others, we can be forgiven.
James 2:10 "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." In this, James makes it very clear that really none of us can keep the law. And only one infraction condemns us if we think keeping the law makes us acceptable to God. We can't do it. None of us can do it. We never could do it. This is the time of grace, not law.
As John the Baptist says in John 1:17 "For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." We can now see the truth, which is presented to us in the highest commandment that is over all law, love, and we have the favor of God, grace.
Romans 3:27 "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." It is faith through which we obtain grace. Romans 4:3 "Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness."
Romans 5:20: "Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound." The Law makes us very aware of our offences. It drives us toward grace, and makes us appreciate grace.
Paul says, The Law brings penalties, not blessing. “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’”
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us
Romans 8:3, 4: "For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us..." It is not possible for the Law to transform us. That is the work of Christ and the Spirit.
17, Paul compares that to the covenant God made with Abraham: “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.” What “law” is Paul talking about? The law given 430 years after Abraham — the Law of Moses.
Essentially, the Law was made to be broken, showing that human beings can't keep the full law. It isn't possible. It isn't so much that it was made to be broken, as people simply can't do it. The Law makes people aware of their offences. Christ encountered this "keep the law" belief, which was common among the Sadducees, in Mark 10:25 (NIV), saying, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” He said this so that people would know that it isn't possible to keep the Law. No one ever does. But even those who do keep the law, find they have more to do: Jesus answered, Matthew 19:21: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” As proof that no one keeps the Law, in John 8, when men were about to stone a woman for adultery, he said you who has no sin cast the first stone. They all left. No one is that pure.
The law condemns us. The grace of God transforms us and brings us into the Kingdom of God, which is now, to understand and follow a higher principle: Love.
So called Biblical law imperatives change over time. Here is one tongue-in-cheek example of laws that get disregarded: I am a Christian business owner in Indiana. In reality, societies use the Bible to support their culture, picking and choosing what they want supported or ignored. The Klan does the same thing.
For more information on the development of law in religion, and what it was for, see my free book, Ontology of God: The voices of the ancients speak.
Next: Freedom in Christ VS Laws
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Freedom in Christ VS Laws
The law instructs
Sometimes we think in absolutes. Laws: Absolutes of "can't do." Rights: Absolutes of "can do." Thinking in absolutes does make a black and white world, and for people who can't think for themselves, or don't want to, maybe it is kind of workable. Except that kind of thinking doesn't leave room for compassion. It tells people how to act instead of teaching them higher values.
Quoting from a book, and commenting, "...the basic rule of thumb is this: a law is not the same as a moral standard.... Though Torah's laws are designed to instruct, an essential purpose of them as laws is to regulate." [For example, in the eye for an eye passage, it is a judge who is to dispense a sentence. It is not the victim's right to dispense justice. The perpetrator is instructed on the penalty of the law. The victim is instructed that justice is not his to dispense. A very instructive example is the passage in Exodus 22: 26-27,] "If you take your neighbor's cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor's only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall the person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate." [God sets the example. Compassion and how to treat others is to be learned from this law.] "In learning ethics from laws one must learn how to move from legality to general life principles." - The Ethical Vision of the Bible, by Peter W. Gosnell.
In the development of law in religious teachings, regulating is a very obvious motive. The more powerful are instructed not to use their position to take unfair advantage of the less fortunate. Business people are required to use accurate weights. People who are fighting are instructed not to use unfair methods. Kings are instructed not to put newly married men into military service before allowing them to have time with their new wives. - Ontology of God: The voices of the ancients speak, by Dorian Scott Cole.
What if the powerful must seize a poor person's piece of land because it is the only means of defense. What if the land is being overrun and having every person in battle is essential to survival? What if business people find they can just add water to meat to make it heavier? The law is blank, silent. The law is given to people at a certain time in history to serve as a basis for understanding, not to solve problems. Solving problems requires critical thinking about what is socially just, not what is legal.
Army recruiting must be compassionate, but also sometimes pragmatic. Business dealings must always be honest, and not find ways to cheat. The powerful must always use compassion, but the survival of all is pragmatic.
Citizens of the US are responsible for "knowing the law." We have difficulty just knowing the "Rules of the Road" for driver's exams. There are 20,000 laws regarding guns alone. Congress adds around 40,000 new laws to the legal code each year. No one knows exactly how many Federal laws there are, let alone all of the state laws. "Ronald Gainer, a Justice Department official, is considered the most exhaustive attempt to count the number of federal criminal laws.... Mr. Gainer characterized this fruitless project: “[y]ou will have died and [been] resurrected three times,” and still not have an answer to this question." - Frequent Reference Question: How Many Federal Laws Are There? And still people and companies find ways around the laws. Regulating, and codifying ethics and how we should treat each other, is an exercise in futility. It isn't possible.
Limits and critical reasoning
If we are not under law, can we just do anything? NO! Paul talked about sexual activity, for a great example. What is it ethical to do to ourselves and others? 1 Corinthians 6 (NIV) “'I have the right to do anything,' you say — but not everything is beneficial. [Also translated as everything is "lawful" for me.] 'I have the right to do anything' — but I will not be mastered by anything. You say, 'Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.'” Paul didn't condemn sexual activity. But he pointed out that it's possible what you do may come back to haunt you. For example, sex is bonding, and may make someone think you are in love with them. If you casually get someone pregnant, a lifetime of financial and emotional support may be required of you, and you may have had a very negative impact on someone's life. Since young people aren't motivated by consequences, they may have to make decisions based on what they and society surmise is good to do and not so good.
We may not like the idea, but we also have the responsibility to set examples for others. Paul reasoned like this: "Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?" He also said in 1 Corinthians, "Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall."
Even though everything might be permissible for us to do, our ethics and conduct should be guided by higher principles. If it's going to be a problem for others, or ourselves, we should think twice about doing it. Someone might take drugs and find they have never had a problem with it. Does that make it OK to give it to others, who might be an addictive personality, or use it as a gateway drug to more addictive drugs? Sexual conduct? divorce? There are many areas of our lives where doing something might pose a very bad problem or have very bad consequences for someone else. It might be a "right," but it may be the wrong thing to do.
Moral and ethical development
Morals and ethics are a system of values held by society. They are meta-values (larger and higher values) that we all ascribe to. Those values do change over time, but they are based largely on higher values such as the golden rule.
We are in a time of great debate in our society about what morals should be. On the one hand are the more fundamentalist minded who push the idea of certain absolute rules derived from religious literature. That's a very murky area because what they uphold as rules we all must follow, continually changes. They pick and choose to suit their leanings of the moment. Acting without critical thinking leads people to mistreat their fellow man in the name of some "law."
Another group is seeing that all of those rules were meant for a certain time and a certain people, and that higher values are the bedrock of value development and human conduct. Higher values include concern for your fellow man and action on his behalf (theological love), compassion, and mercy. These are higher meta-values, and include the need for critical thinking.
We can't possibly create enough laws to regulate human behavior. We can't possibly make laws that will be applicable all through history. Paul and the other Apostles realized quickly that subjecting non-Jews to the same laws that the Jews followed, would not work. It created a barrier to their accepting their teachings. We do the same thing today. Churches make all kinds of rules and expect newcomers to follow them in order to be accepted. It doesn't work. It simply creates a barrier to people coming into the church.
People are inexhaustibly creative in finding ways around rules. Rules help people miss the point. They don't help people learn the higher value of the - intent - of the law.
Moral thinking and development is something that develops over time, and doesn't conclude until around age 28, when people become fully aware of the consequences of their actions. These stages of moral thinking and decision making have been fully researched for decades by people like Lawrence Kohlberg.
Around the age of the college Sophomore, people go into a moral quandary, testing morals for validity both critically and experientially. Having tested them, they become theirs, not just something told to them.
A New York Times opinion piece recently stirred a lot of controversy. It contended that our children don't believe there are "moral facts." That is the contention that there are some absolute laws of behavior that we should teach. The article was wishful thinking by those who want to assert their shifting idea of the rules that humanity should live by. The article is cast as "moral relativism," which means there is no basis for morality. NY Times Columnist David Brooks also changed the direction of his columns to have a more moral flavor, citing a "plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another."
Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts. Opinion in NY Times
The Cost of Relativism. - David Brooks, NY Times Columnist.
The opinion piece misses that it is not the school systems' responsibility to teach ethics, or to give ethical anchors. It is the schools' responsibility to teach critical thinking. It is the parents' and society's responsibility to teach a basis for ethics (morals). The sly will always find a way around the rules. But if you teach children higher values, then you have rock solid teaching that will serve them well for life.
Christ didn't come to change the Law, but to fulfill it. (Matthew 5:17-18.) In this He meant that everything in the Jewish Bible pointed to Him. All of the meaning in Scripture comes to life in Christ. All of the agreements (covenants) are completed in Christ in a new covenant, under which the penalty of Law does not apply. It is now a covenant of grace. Ancient Judaism was obsessed with purity. Nothing impure could appear before God. Christ was the perfect (pure, unblemished) lamb (always obeyed the Laws) who was sacrificed for our sins, so that no new sacrifice is ever required. Purity is no longer the accepted answer. The Law is no longer the path to righteousness, and it never was - faith, as in the faith of Abraham, was always the source. In John 5:39, 46: "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me." It isn't special verses and blind obedience to laws that brings people into the Kingdom of God. It is Christ and the way He showed us.
Matthew 22:36-40New International Version (NIV), “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The commandment about love is like the first about loving God. They are one and the same. Love not an emotion. God represents love. How do you describe love? Some characteristics in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth." To state it another way, in action, love is a concern for the well-being of others, and a willingness to tolerate and help them.
Freedom in Christ can't be perverted, as the Sadducees did the Law, to mean mindlessly following an incomplete list of rules or Laws, no matter how long, complex, and well thought out that list is. Freedom in Christ brings a heavy responsibility to understand, share, and apply the love of God.
Next: True Worship
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Is true worship a pair of jeans? Is true worship being on your knees in front of a statue of Jesus? Is true worship listening to a sermon or giving up something for Lent? It's really all very confusing.
Jesus said, "...true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.... God is spirit..." He also said, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." They are actually related statements.
The Spirit is like the wind, without substance in the world, and refers more to spiritual knowledge, thoughts, emotions, and intent. The spirit part relates to Godly ideas and intent, such as justice.
"True worship" hails back to the words of the Prophet Amos, and later Jeremiah. They looked at what people were doing. All week they would ignore the poor and use power to bully their way to get what they wanted. They were rich, corrupt, and immoral. Then they would go to the Temple and sacrifice some animal and think they were clean of any wrongdoing, and then celebrate with feasts on a religious holy day.
Amos said to them, Amos 5:21-24 (NIV) "I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
Jeremiah said to them, "Don't trust in these deceptive words, 'This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord.'" And God left the Temple and soon the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.
Hosea 6:6. "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings." Sacrifice, attending church or Temple, meetings and festivals - are not real worship, they are ghosts and shadows of what real worship means. Real worship is actually doing things like justice. Justice doesn't mean punishing criminals. Justice means making sure the poor and helpless are not trampled by commerce and powerful people, and are assisted (not supported). For more information, read my free online book, Ontology of God, the Voices of the Ancients Speak.
There is always the grim-faced Sadducee, following every law, uncaring toward others, casting disdainful glances at others, and believing that following laws makes you in good standing before God. The Sadducee sect fell with the Temple in 70 AD. That legalistic attitude should have fallen as well, yet it resurrects its ugly head with people and groups that want to take short cuts to good standing. Judgement is reserved for the wicked - otherwise we are not to judge. The kinds of things that make people in good standing are our treatment of others, including going out of our way to help others. That is the message embedded in religion, the spirit, the intent, and the behavior.
This article is worth thinking about: God Hates Religion.
Next: Church of the future
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Next: Church of the future
Copyright © 2012 Dorian Scott Cole
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Church of the future
I don't have a crystal ball. All I can do is look at trends. The trend line for nearly all churches is sharply downward in attendance and membership - stats below. In the face of this, churches with very different character, are having success (growth). As far as I can determine, spiritual hunger hasn't changed. All indications are, the desire to have meaningful things in your life and to be connected to something larger is still there. People simply don't find that kind of relevance in most of today's churches.
We think and act like the church, as it has been, can be the only connection with God and instruction that people can have. Christ did not abandon us. He has returned, but not in the way that many expected, and the Kingdom of God is now. John 14:16-18, New International Version (NIV), "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you." Christ is in us. He is in the world and affects the world through us. And not just us, but through everyone who has the Word of God in his heart, which Paul recognized is many.
Will Christ come again? If He needs to. If the Christ that is in us, becomes so small and insignificant that the world becomes evil, He will return. This is the historical pattern shown in the Bible by the Noah and the Sodom and Gomorrah episodes. God only destroys when people become overwhelmingly evil.
Is a world at war with itself over religion what did Christ came to create? He said pointedly, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." That is interpreted to some to mean an exclusive club of Christians. "The way to God," in its many phrases, was a well known phrase to ancient Jews. The emphasis is on "the way" that Christ taught. Look it up: Way to God. Christ was a very inclusive person. He went unreservedly to everyone and treated them as equals: Hated Romans, despised tax collectors, shunned Samaritans, prostitutes, religious bigots, and sinners of all kinds. He was all about including, not finding ways to be exclusive. Trying to divide the world and exclude others is just nuts. It drives people away and causes animosity. Also see, Jesus Christ, the Way: Avoiding the Ditches.
The more exclusive Christianity tries to be, the more it fails. Religious fervor increased during WWII, and during the 1930s - 1950s, business leaders promoted religion, tying it to capitalism and democracy. The halo effect of the turn of the Century, also provided some fervor. But overall, the infighting in churches over many current issues, has forced people away. Infighting generally means that the church is trying to assert some form of exclusivity: Gays, abortion, women leaders in the church..., saying, "You have to believe this or your not a Christian." When churches become institutions, their first obligation is to assure their survival, and that often raises its head as exclusiveness.
Christ came for all people, and brought them Good News. You are forgiven. You don't need a sacrifice to be acceptable to God. You especially don't need a "pure" sacrifice, or need to be pure, to be acceptable to God. Purity ended. We are all people. We all have different foibles. In our lives, we learn to our benefit, often by making mistakes. God doesn't turn His face from us because we are imperfect humans. He knew what we were when He created us.
The importance of community
Christ said a couple of very surprising things. In Matthew 16:19 (NIV), He said to the Apostle Simon, in the context of the coming church, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In Matthew 18:18, he said to everyone regarding offences, "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Christ said in John 14:11-12, New International Version (NIV), "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father."
In these we see the power and authority of the church, or church members, in defining what they believe offends, and in the power they have in the world to do great things. These verses can be interpreted differently, but I believe that in the intent (spirit) of what Christ was about, and creating a spiritual community that could survive in an ever-changing world, he gave the keys to the followers.
Churches would like to believe that the power is theirs exclusively. But that overlooks the history of the first 300 years of the church. The early churches were just that: Communities. The worshipped in each other's homes. They individually talked about their faith in worship. They helped each other. They helped their communities. They looked at issues affecting them and made decisions on those issues. If they said it was wrong to do such and such, it was held as wrong. Community is important, and community values are important. (See The Origins of Christian Morality by Wayne Meeks, about the first two centuries of Christianity.
Communities understand themselves much better than any high council. They understand the things that affect them badly. But just as Paul and the early Apostles realized and did, they have to understand the burdens they are putting on others. Is it right to get some woman pregnant, and then abandon her? Nope. Still not right. Not in a rural area. Not in a city. Not with wealthy parents. But do we keep the rules about sex that were necessary in 100 AD? Nope. It's a burden that doesn't work, is outmoded, and pushes people away. Is it right to ostracize gays and make them feel condemned by religion. Nope. It's a burden that doesn't work, is outmoded, and pushes people away.
It was easy in the 5th. Century BC to believe that nothing ever changes. Nothing much did, over centuries, at that time. Human nature doesn't change, except through growth. God doesn't change, although convenants with him do. Religion slowly changes. But today the world is changing at a very high rate. Medicine, technology, social values, are all roiling with change. We don't live in the 5th. Century BC, and we have different things to cope with.
Realism about decline and the need for change
All Christian denominations have declined in attendance since 1952. By 2005, attendance halved from 1.6 million to 800 thousand. In the last 15 years the rate has rapidly declined. The number of people in the US who identify as Christians, dropped to 77%. Denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, o9ther evangelicals, and the various fundamentalists thought that they were immune. They took a few decades to be affected, but they are now experiencing the same rate of drop in attendance.
Mathematically, at current rates, unless they accelerate further, in around 50 years only 50% of Americans will identify as Christians. Less than 400,000 people will attend a church, which is barely statistically significant. Most churches with small congregations will close. 4,000 to 7,000 Churches close every year.
I have followed scholarly studies and statistics on church attendance, and what affects it, for around 10 years, and tried to help congregations reorganize their mission, and grow. It is a very difficult task. No single thing works. It depends on what resonates in the community. In small churches, it helps a great deal if they have some outside form of financial support, because congregations give around 5% of income on average and this isn't enough to keep churches below 150 attendance going. During that time I watched several churches close.
What is happening to the Church? A lot of things. Young adults leave the Church when they pursue careers and college and don't come back. They don't find the Church relevant. They don't find older congregations welcoming.
Many people are drifting away because they don't find the Church relevant in their lives. Many simply point to Christians as the reason they don't want to be associated with the Church. Many find their spiritual needs met by watching favorite pastors on TV, or even the occasional attendance. For many, a focus on shame, guilt, punishment, etc., simply drives them away. Society has changed on issues like gays, and the Church has lagged way behind. Too much conflict in Churches drives people away in droves. Child abuse by clergy, and the cover-ups by the Church have driven people away. Fundamentalist preachers on TV, many of whom focus on hate and other bizarre things, have given the Church a bad name - no one wants to be associated with it.
Certainly some will say that moral decay has taken people away, and of course tout Apocalypse and Rapture. Yet in studies and interviews with people, it isn't usually that they have lost faith, or have become more immoral, or they don't want to have a spiritual connection. That's a bogus account. People do want a spiritual connection, just not with these people.
Many don't care what kind of music is played - many youth like both traditional and modern music. These things can both help and hinder. (For me, it is the droning and lack of enthusiasm in music that I can't stand.)
The new church of the future
We are in a great period of transition, not spiritual death. The Christians of the future will likely have the following characteristics:
Do we still need the law?
I started out this series talking about the law, and how it isn't possible to create enough laws, or for people to even know all of them, especially with the mandate that we treat each other with love. But is law necessary.
A lot of dodo birds can't or won't stop mistreating others to get what they want. The law regulates society, and forms a minimum code of conduct. The law helps people understand that their conduct is wrong. The law helps prevent misconduct by some because it is viewed as wrong.
Our conduct tells a lot. Surveys have indicated that:
If you are ever inclined to think that we do not need laws and regulations, think again. But laws need to address what is mistreatment, not stuff that is irrelevant. And we need to be teaching and insistin on a higher standard than just law.
To understand more about the Law and prophecy, see my article, Signs of the Times. Is the world worse? How would we know?
Bono, from U2, talks about his faith in Jesus
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