Posted by: vicholdsforth | May 20, 2011

Naperville Organic Church

This is a bit of a re-hash of some of the information in “About Vic,” but I wanted to make it a post so I could tag it in the hopes of increasing the possibility of connecting with some of you out there.  We are looking for Christians in Naperville to form an organic worshipping community that meets primarily in homes.  We value every-member participation, consensus leadership, and unity.  Our reason for existence is to exalt Jesus Christ together, and we do not wish to divide over or dispute peripheral doctrinal issues like predestination, male headship, creation, or spiritual gifts; nor do we rally around cultural distinctives such as home-schooling, speaking in tongues, or niche ministries.  (The other posts here represent what I have learned from my own personal study and are not intended to form a doctrinal position for this group.)  If you are not already part of a local worshipping community and would like to join other believers for meetings that are led by none other than Jesus Christ Himself, please contact us at OrganicChurchNaperville@gmail.com.

Posted by: vicholdsforth | September 22, 2010

Cap and Trade: Act Now

The mid-term elections are only a month and a half away, and legislators expecting a shift in control are scrambling to rush through their bills before they lose their majorities.  One piece of legislation expected to receive attention in the Senate is the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (S. 1733), also known as Cap & Trade. Unfortunately, this bill’s counterpart has already cleared the House, and has President Obama’s support, so it is dangerously close to passing.  Here is some information about this legislation:

  • Few Americans are aware that Europe has been underway with a cap-and-trade style energy policy for years now, and it has been an abysmal failure. Unemployment and energy costs are up, AS ARE CO2 EMISSIONS!
  • A study of the policy in Spain shows that 90% of the green jobs created were temporary, and more jobs were lost in other sectors of the economy than were created in green energy.
  • Europeans have discovered that the regulations have resulted in a bureaucracy that is expensive, corrupt, and ineffective in curbing CO2 emissions.
  • The European regulations have resulted in the transfer of wealth from everyday working people to well-positioned corporate interests.  Green companies are not making a profit, so their governments have given them the green light to take their profits from the pockets of taxpayers instead.
  • Because the cost of compliance is passed on to consumers for basic essentials like heating & lighting, cooking, and getting to & from work, it falls disproportionately on the working people least able to afford it.
  • The Department of Energy and the Congressional Budget Office both estimate that implementing these policies here will result in a net loss of jobs over time. American employers will either go out of business or ship jobs overseas as a result of the increased cost of doing business this legislation will impose upon them.  With unemployment still near 10%, our economy can’t afford to take this hit.  America’s capital needs to be invested in real private-sector jobs that create wealth, not temporary government-subsidized jobs that make certain politicians look good for the next election cycle, but then disappear and put people back in the unemployment line.
  • And let’s not forget that this scheme is intended to address a problem that we now know was fabricated from falsified climate data.

If your Senator is a Democrat, as mine are, hopefully he or she will respond to appeals to the inherent unfairness of the cost of compliance being passed on to those least able to afford it, the potential for favoritism to corporate interests, and the real prospect that it will result in shipping American jobs overseas.  Please contact your Senator today!

Last weekend, I took advantage of an opportunity to “be still” for a day at a lovely 13-acre property in the country not far from my home in suburban Chicago.  After some brief introductory comments and a short prayer, the facilitator turned us loose for six (yes, six!) hours to wait in stillness before the Lord.  I stepped out into the crisp spring air and God spoke to me through the sounds, smells, and sights of His creation.

The first thing I noticed was the variety of sounds coming from all directions.  Overhead, I could hear the creaking of large tree branches as they swayed in the wind.  The tap of a woodpecker as he mined those branches for a meal.  Leaves, shrubs, and tall grasses rustling.  Birds chirping.  Geese honking.  As I strolled down to the river, I could hear the splash of fish jumping out of the water.  Intruding upon this peaceful symphony, though, was the noise of trucks, motorcycles, and cars coming from the highway.  At first I was annoyed, but then I realized what a perfect illustration it was for the peace in which God wants us to dwell, even as busyness, chaos, and turmoil swirl around us.  Hebrews 4 (paraphrased) says “Now we who have believed enter that rest…anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from His own work.”   God wants us to dwell in His peaceful presence at all times, not just during the occasional retreat, for a couple of hours on Sundays, or for a half hour in the morning.  Always.  We are not to strive.

The next thing I noticed as I walked were the fragrances.  As I headed towards the river, I encountered the fragrances of pungent eucalyptus, fresh mint, aromatic pine, and sweet lilacs.  I sat down on a fallen tree to gaze at the lilacs with the river meandering by in the background.  Soon I also picked up the musty smell of decomposing leaves and wood.  2 Corinthians 2:14 (paraphrased) says “through us God spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him…we smell of death to those who are perishing, life to those who are being saved.”  The fragrance of a flower draws insects to feed on its nectar and pollinate the flower, resulting in life for the insect, and fruit on the plant.  The lilac does not have to run to and fro searching for bees to pollinate its flowers.  It emits its fragrance, and the bees come.  As I live to love Christ and others, people around me will be attracted to that fragrance.  Life and fruit will be the natural result.

God spoke through the things I saw in many ways.  I observed butterflies, birds of many kinds, half-eaten acorns, and a seemingly endless variety of plants.  There were 4 different varieties of violets alone!  These spoke of God’s endless provision, power, resources, and goodness.  I observed many wild roses springing up along the path.  They had no blooms on them yet, because it was too early in the season.  In fact, it was so early that they didn’t even have any buds on them yet.  All they amounted to was a collection of scraggly, thorny stems popping up out of the ground.  Yet they reminded me that God is at work to bring about a beautiful end even when all we can see is thorns (Romans 8:28).

There were many other kinds of plants.  As I looked at a eucalyptus tree, I was reminded of the Tree of Life.  Revelation 22:2 tells us its leaves are for the healing of the nations.  Like the eucalyptus tree and the Tree of Life, some plants have medicinal properties.  Some are edible, and some have other useful applications like controlling erosion.  Some have been carefully cultivated for the pleasant sound they make when the wind blows.  Some have been included simply because they are “pleasing to the eye.”  Some transplant and spread quickly while others struggle when they are uprooted.  Each has its season.  No one goes looking for grapes in April, nor do the daffodils call out to the peonies saying, “Hey!  What’s wrong with you?  Why aren’t you blooming like us?”  The dandelion does not criticize the tulip for not having vitamin-rich leaves.  Each plant blooms and produces its fruit in its season, and it is absurd for anyone to expect otherwise.  Just so, God has made each one of us to bloom in our season.  At other times, He is at work as we grow in ways that are less noticeable.  I do not have to internalize criticism from others because I do not have the same function or bloom time that they do (1 Corinthians 12).

I have spent most of my life immersed in a performance-based paradigm.  God met me here to communicate what I so needed to hear:  that He made me and gifted me in the way that pleases Him.  He accepts me and I no longer have to wear the shackles of the expectations and criticisms of others.  Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom!  (2 Cor 3:17)

We’ll take the first few installments to visit the families of Rome, starting with the main character, the paterfamilias, or male head of household.  The first-century Roman family bears enough similarities with its Greek and Hebrew counterparts to serve as a case study for all three:  while women enjoyed varying degrees of freedom and/or protection, all three societies were patriarchal; slaves and extended family figured as a part of the household; and, in contrast with modern sensibilities, marriage was arranged around labor, inheritance, economic, and political concerns; love was a fortuitous development, not a given.  Of course, Roman culture was heavily influenced by the Greeks.  Additionally, because Jewish families of the Diaspora typically adopted the customs of the ambient culture, and the early church incorporated gentiles so quickly, a separate study of first-century Jewish culture is not imperative to the understanding of New Testament-era families.  In addition to the lessons these first-century families can teach us, an understanding of what terms like “family” and “household” meant to the original readers of the New Testament texts is critical to the correct interpretation of texts like Ephesians 2:19 and Galatians 6:10.

The Roman concept of familia differs in many respects from the modern American notion of family.  Although a man usually occupied his own living quarters with his wife and children, the ancient Romans would never have considered such a nuclear family in isolation from its larger network of connections, namely, the familia;  neither was the nuclear family a familia in its own right.  Nor was the Roman household simply multiple generations of a single family living under one roof.  The familia comprised everyone under the authority of a paterfamilias, or head of household.  It included a man’s wife (although in certain circumstances the wife continued to be considered part of her father’s familia even after marriage), unmarried children, and both current and former slaves and their families, plus his adult children and their families and current and former slaves and their families, as well.  The familia did not typically reside in a single home.  Additionally, the Romans would not have recognized providing love and emotional support to its members as one of the family’s most important functions (or a function of the family at all, for that matter), as we do today.  The Roman household might, in some sense, be thought of as a collection of persons allied around a common economic or political interest.

We begin with the main character of the Roman household, the paterfamilias.  The paterfamilias would have received an inheritance, or patrimony, from his father at the time of the father’s death.  One of the primary responsibilities of the paterfamilias was to augment the patrimony and prepare his children to receive and manage it prudently.  While children may or may not have been beloved members of the family, they were certainly the means to continue the family line, a source of labor, and assurance of support in old age.  Affection for one’s own children was not assumed, but considered just as much a matter of chance as developing an affectionate bond with anyone else life might bring across one’s path.

Roman families, regardless of economic status, seldom had more than two or three (legitimate) children.  Historians suggest several explanations.  Some assert that most families actually had several children, but the high infant and child mortality rate (approximately 40% for ancient societies in general) coupled with less formal burial practices for children, leave us lacking manuscript or archaeological evidence for their existence; others suggest that factors such as lead poisoning and intermarriage compromised fertility.  Still others point to the active use of birth control, abortion, and infanticide, suggesting that for wealthy Romans, keeping families small was a strategy to avoid losing wealth and power as a result of dividing an estate amongst several children generation after generation. Alternatively, husbands might cease having sexual relations with their wives and turn to slaves, prostitutes, or a mistress instead.  Children produced by such liaisons could not be acknowledged and, because they were illegitimate, had no claim on their father’s estate.  Others families were simply too poor to feed many children.  Additionally, under legislation designed to provide incentives for families to have more children, a woman could achieve emancipation from her husband by bearing three or more children.  It is possible that some men kept their families small in order to maintain control of their wives.  Parents also occasionally exposed infants en masse as a form of protest against a god or civil authority.  Although most exposed infants died, some were taken in by other families as slaves or foster children.

Childrearing was seldom handled by parents alone.  The involvement of the familia began at birth.  In addition to the midwife (who stayed to help care for mother and child for as long as a week after the delivery), as many as ten female members of the husband’s and wife’s families would be present for the birth.  In addition to the familia, friends of the husband and wife attended religious ceremonies related to the birth of the infant (lustratio).  This set of relatives and friends provided moral support to the mother in the birth, they provided social support for both parents, they filled a potentially legal function for both parents and child, and they provided the foundation for the child’s support network for the future.

A nurse or tutor was retained by the parents during infancy, and sometimes remained well into adulthood as an advisor or sort of surrogate parent (especially if a boy’s father had died while he was still young).  Both boys and girls attended school, learning reading, writing, arithmetic, and history together until age 12, when girls returned home to learn homemaking skills from their mothers.  Upper-class girls might additionally study music and literature.  Upper-class boys continued on to study literature and rhetoric, and began to accompany their father in public (most importantly to the meetings of the senate if eligible), while the rest learned a trade.  It was not unusual for sons to be given up for adoption in order to further their employment or political prospects.

In our next installment, we’ll join the familia as the children reach marriageable age.

Today I’d like to begin a series based upon the research I did as a graduate student at Wheaton College.   If you are concerned about the state of the family today, or if you like history, I think you will find it interesting.  Enjoy!

Jonah’s attitude toward pagan culture is an old standby for the church.  Avoid outsiders, and when you can’t, protest against them.  Lament the sorry state of things.  Call God’s judgment down.  Imagine, with pleasure, the punishment to be visited on the disobedient.  Meanwhile, make yourself as comfortable as possible.

Pastor and author Mark Buchanan offers a disconcerting picture of the North American evangelical church.  Our unsaved neighbors, unfortunately, view this picture all too frequently.  Citing Matthew 24:12, many Christians believe people are getting “worse and worse,” and flee to the safety of their carefully constructed Christian cocoons to wait it out until the rapture comes.  Others yearn for a bygone era that, they believe, better represents God’s design for home, church, and nation.

Are people becoming more evil as time marches on (or as this age draws to a close)?  Perhaps; however, it may simply be that we have more and better technology with which to do evil more quickly and on a larger scale than in earlier times.  Moreover, modern technologies such as television and the Internet make information, including coverage of atrocities committed around the globe, more accessible than ever.  Additionally, in our culture, stories that make the news are frequently the ones with the greatest shock value, not the most significant or most representative happenings of the day.  Finally, most of us are simply ignorant of history.  For example, few people know that comic books readily available to children in the late 1940s and early 1950s featured storylines containing gruesome torture, dismemberment, and sexualized violence; or that the first drive-by shooting occurred in 1919.  Or that in colonial America, the number of women who became pregnant out of wedlock outnumbered those who were the members of a church by two-to-one.  Or that no-fault divorce and abortion (and its post-delivery counterpart, exposure) were common practice in the Roman Empire.  There is disagreement within the Christian community regarding whether or not people really are “getting worse.”  We can, however, definitively state the biblical response to the ungodly culture in which we find ourselves, and it is not “cocooning,” nor is it trying to recreate a bygone, and largely romanticized, era.  Rather, our Lord exhorted us to serve our neighbors as “salt and light” (Matt 5:13-14).

We’ll drop in on families at key points in history to glean insights into how they interacted with their respective cultures and communities, then mine this wisdom from Christian families of ages past to discover what insights it holds for contemporary families striving to be salt and light…instead of caterpillars.  We’ll look at four key historical moments:  the Roman Empire, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, and the Psychedelic Era.  The Roman Empire is significant as the birthplace of the Church and the setting for the writing of Scripture; and, as in post-modern America, not a “Christian” nation.  Once the original apostles had died off, it didn’t take long for freedom tempered by holiness to be replaced by asceticism.  Soon, the denigration of marriage and family life became the mainstream teaching of the church.   So the next historical moment to which we will turn our attention is the Reformation, especially the teachings of Martin Luther, since it was he who, after a millennium and a half, reinstated marriage as a legitimate choice for Christian adults, and family as a vehicle for faith formation.

Of all the events of recorded history (with the exception, of course, of the Incarnation), the Industrial Revolution stands apart as the single most influential moment for families.  It precipitated cataclysmic changes for society in general, and families in particular.  Urbanization, child labor, and the home/workplace schism all introduced profound changes in family life.  Although many evangelicals view the male breadwinner/female homemaker family structure as biblically ordained, we’ll see that it has only been since the completion of Industrial Revolution, coupled with a brief moment of economic prosperity, that such an arrangement has been remotely possible for even a fraction of the population.

The Psychedelic Era of the 1960s is noted for sexual experimentation, the drug culture, radical feminism, no-fault divorce, and the advent of child-centered parenting.  Traditional morality and social institutions were thrown off in an attempt to provide individuals with the opportunity to live without constraints.  Contemporary families are, in many ways, still reeling from the social upheaval of a generation ago.  Many adults struggle with the trauma surrounding the breakup of their parents’ marriage, or regrets connected to a decision to experiment with sex or drugs.  Today’s parents turn from one expert to another in search of parenting advice because consensus no longer exists in their extended families or communities.  Tolerance is now the supreme value.  Rather than being able to turn to their communities and traditional institutions for support and guidance, contemporary families, instead, are struggling to piece together a value system amidst the fallout of the Psychedelic Era and the whatever-works-for-you philosophy of post-modernism.  Unfortunately, Christian families seem to be struggling just as much as everyone else.  Let’s spend some time looking into to the truth of Scripture and the wisdom of Christian families who went before us so that we may truly be salt and light to our culture rather than indistinguishable from it.

Tomorrow:  Ancient Rome…it’s not like home!

Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 23, 2010

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Over the weekend, I got into a discussion on Facebook about the health care legislation.  One of the participants pointed me to a report in which Senators Harry Reid and John Rockefeller were making the claim that the government needed to become a player in the health care market because health insurance companies’ profits had increased by 400% since 2001.  I did some checking to see if I could confirm this claim.  This statement has a grain of truth in it, but it has been selectively mined and exaggerated  in order to further an agenda by making the insurance companies look like vampires.  Here are the facts, which you can check at Morningstar.com if you’re so inclined:

http://quicktake.morningstar.com/StockNet/IndustryPeers.aspx?Country=USA&Symbol=AET

Just click on any of the insurance company names, then choose the “Key Ratios” tab. If you scan down a couple of lines below the second black bar, you’ll see a row labeled “Net Margin.”

  • Of the 14 health insurance companies tracked by Morningstar, about half are making less now than they were in 2001, some significantly less. WellCare’s profit, for example, was 1/5 in 2008 what it was in 2001.
  • It would appear that that “grain of truth” I was referring to was culled from two isolated examples, Metropolitan Health Networks and Aetna. Yes, they did realize dramatic improvements in their net profits, but they’re not the predators they’re being made out as.  Here is a more complete picture: Aetna was losing money in 2001 and MHN was only making .73%. In 2008, the most recent year for which tax data is available, Aetna made a “whopping” 3.87% and MHN 3.22%. (Compare that to the average return over time of a stock portfolio invested in US stocks, 8%.)
  • Most of these companies are making less than half that, and the best performer, HealthSpring, is only making 5%. Overall, health insurers in the US have posted a very meager increase in profits of only 5%, not 400%, in 7 years. That’s not 5% each year, that’s 5% spread over 7 years. Reid’s comment that insurance companies make more money than any other industry in America is patently false.  Perhaps, like my friend, he misunderstood 400% increase to mean the insurance companies were making 400% profit (which is mathematically impossible, by the way).

The data offered by Messrs. Rockefeller & Reid has been very selectively presented and exaggerated in order to inflame outrage and manipulate voters, not to paint a realistic picture or to help anyone make an informed decision.  One is left to wonder whether they knew this or just accepted the story offered them at face value.

Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 22, 2010

Galatians (Part 2: Keeping the Law)

Last time, we began a two-part study on Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  In Part 1, we noted that this letter was prompted by the fact that the Gentile members of this congregation were getting circumcised at the insistence of their Jewish brothers.  Paul interpreted this behavior to mean that these believers had embraced a serious theological error (1:6, 5:2).  I wanted to study this letter again closely, because I’ve encountered the subject of Christian obedience to the Old Testament Law several times recently.  An old friend has been researching this for many months now, and I learned last week that she apparently still hasn’t settled the question in her own mind. It has also come up a couple of different times at at our weekly church gathering, and I’ve encountered some “friends-of-friends” on Facebook who are Christians and keep the Law.

One of the primary arguments presented by the Law-keeping community concerns motive:  we should observe the Law not in an attempt to earn salvation, but rather, as an outworking of saving faith, because, as James says, “faith without works is dead” (2:17).  I think it is important to note that at no point in this letter (or anywhere else in the New Testament, for that matter) does Paul say anything like, “you’re keeping the Law with the wrong motivation.”  Instead, Paul forcefully argues throughout the letter that the Galatian believers should not try to keep the Law at all.  James speaks of obedience to “the law that gives life” (2:8-12). Is he talking about observing the Ten Commandments?  Let’s compare what James and Paul have to say.  In Gal 4:1-7, Paul writes,

What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.  So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.  But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.  Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”  So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.

Clearly, when Paul here speaks of “the basic principles of the world,” he is talking about the Old Testament Law.  Paul uses the same terminology in Col 2:20:  If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees…” (NASB)  Many Christians believe that Paul is not talking about the Old Testament Law here because in verse 22, he continues:  …in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?”  We read “of men” to mean that the teachings and commandments to which Paul is referring are ones that originated with men instead of with God, and so exclude things like the Ten Commandments and the Jewish festivals.  In the Greek text, “of men” is twn anthropwn, which is the genitive case.  The genitive case indicates possession, not origin.  To illustrate, years ago I was in France and had a conversation that referenced my mother-in-law.  The Frenchman replied, “I do not understand ‘mother-in-law.’”  I explained, “My mother-in-law is the mother of my husband.”  She doesn’t come from him, she belongs to him. Similarly, the Old Testament Law does not come from man, but it was given to man; it is in man’s possession.

Thus, there is no basis to assert that the Old Testament Law is excluded from Paul’s comments in Col 2:20-23:

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules:  “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?  These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.  Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (NIV)

In fact, in verse 14, Paul said that Jesus “canceled the written code.” Paul here is contrasting abiding in Christ (2:6, 3:1-2) with following rules that are in man’s posession.  He clearly states, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law,” (Gal 5:18) and “I myself am not under the Law” (1 Cor 9:20)  Throughout his epistles, Paul connects the Law to sin, slavery, and death (1 Cor 15:56, Gal 5:11).  But Rom 8:2 says “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”  James 2:8-13 directs us to “the law that gives freedom,” and away from the Ten Commandments.  What is this law?  Love:

  • Love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom 13:10).
  • You, my brothers, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love (Gal 5:13).
  • If you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well (James 2:8).

Paul clearly, consistently, and unequivocally waves off believers from trying to follow the Old Testament law.  Yet, even as he is on a journey to notify the churches that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised (Acts 16:4) the first thing he does when he recruits Timothy is have him circumcised (verse 3)!  What are we to make of this?  By God’s grace, we are not left to wonder, or draw possibly mistaken conclusions from the narrative.  Paul explains himself in 1 Cor 9:19-23:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.   To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.

For the sake of others, God may at times call certain of us to be “like one under the law,” but we are very clearly not under the Law.  So the Law-keeping community is right to say that motivation is key; but the motivation must be to give others an opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel.  God does not expect or even want us to attempt to keep the Law as an endeavor to “show how much we love Him.”  He has told us how He wants us to demonstrate our love for Him, and it’s not by observing Old Testament festivals or dietary laws:  “This is His command: to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” (1 Jn 3:23).

Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 19, 2010

Galatians (Part 1: Male and Female)

This week I’ve been studying in Galatians.  I was prompted to go there for two reasons.  The first is that in Part 11 of my series on gender theology, I touched on Gal 3:27-28.  The complementarian interpretation of this passage holds that we are all equal in the sight of God, and salvation is equally available to everyone, but this text holds no significance for how we are to relate to one another in this life.  I argued that this cannot be the correct interpretation in light of Jesus’ teaching that our faith should result in a noticeable difference in how we relate to others.  Since then, I wanted to revisit Galatians to answer the question, “What did Paul mean by this?”  Today, we’ll take a look at that question.  Tomorrow, I plan to share some thoughts on Christians observing the Old Testament law.

Many pastors and teachers are of the opinion that epistles are the easiest type of literature to interpret because they’re just like reading an instruction manual.  All the epistles, however, were written to specific people in specific circumstances, and for a reason.  Most believers have an intuitive grasp that this is so.  Few would suggest that it would be appropriate to interchange, say,  Eph 1:1, “to the saints in Ephesus,” with 1 Cor 1:2, “to the church in Corinth.”  Yet many Christians approach the epistles as though we can take Gal 1:2, “to the churches in Galatia,” and just cross out “Galatia” and write in “Chicago” instead.  To do so is to deny the divine inspiration of the first one or two verses of nearly every book in the New Testament.  And it lays the foundation for anything and everything said in the letter to be taken out of context.

I think Dr. Tim White makes a good point:  reading an epistle is a lot like listening to one side of a telephone conversation.  In order to correctly handle the text, we must learn as much as we can about the characteristics of the recipients and what prompted the letter.  The text always tells us to whom the letter was written, and many times is very clear about why.  Sometimes we need to do a little detective work to discover this information, but in Galatians it’s pretty straightforward.  Gal 1:2 says this letter is to the churches in Galatia.  This church comprised both pagan and Jewish converts (Gal 4:8, 1 Pet 1:1).

Paul doesn’t waste any time explaining why he has written:  “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (1:6).  In 2:3, he tells us very plainly why he has concluded that they are turning away from the gospel:  circumcision.  It’s very clear from this letter as well as other texts (Acts 15, e.g.) that Jewish Christians enjoining obedience to their law upon Gentile believers was a widespread problem facing the New Testament churches.  We know that these were Christian Jews in particular, and not Jews in general, because if they weren’t a part of the church, there would be no reason for them to concern themselves with what Gentiles did or didn’t do. Conversely, Christian Gentiles weren’t terribly concerned with what Jews thought of them, but Christian Jews were (Gal 6:12-13, e.g.). Remember that persecution of Christ & His followers came first not from the Romans, but the Jews, Saul/Paul chief among them (Acts 7-9). This letter is, in its entirety, a repudiation of the Judaizers’ theology that had infiltrated this church.  Paul begins with this theme in 1:6 and talks about it nonstop right through to the end of chapter 6.  His goal for this church is for them to not only get their minds right theologically, but also to change their behavior, because their behavior showed that they had embraced theological error.  When Paul wrote “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female,” he wasn’t simply waxing metaphysical here; this spiritual reality was the reason they needed to change their behavior.  So to take 3:27-28 (or some portion of it) and insist that Paul doesn’t mean for this truth to have any application in the here and now is to divorce it from its context and thereby evacuate it of its meaning.

So if this letter is all about circumcision and the Judaizers, why didn’t Paul just stop with Jews and Greeks?  Why does he throw in socioeconomic status and gender here?  It’s interesting to note that all 3 pairings in this passage involve one group of Christians that was requiring some type of deference from the other.   In an attempt to avoid persecution from unsaved Jews, Christian Jews were demanding deference to their law from Gentiles (Gal 6:12-13).  Others believers thought it was acceptable for them to require deference from those members of the household of faith who stood lower than themselves in socioeconomic class (1 Cor 11 and James 2).  And some Christian men, even to this very day, argue that they are owed deference from women.  To all of these, Paul’s answer is a resounding “no.”  The point of Gal 3:27-28 is not that “the ground is level at the foot of the cross,” but that believers must not place behavioral requirements upon other Christians because of who they are.

Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 18, 2010

The Least of These: Why a Christian Would Oppose Obamacare

A few months ago I was a part of a conversation about health care reform in which one of the participants said “I can’t understand why so many Christians oppose a plan to provide care to ‘the least of these.’” In an effort to help build bridges of understanding, here is why I, a Christian, oppose the liberal agenda for the United States.

While the Bible does charge us with the responsibility to care for the poor, it never consigns this activity to government. It is always at the initiative of the individual. The foundational principle of capitalism is the right to own private property. Socialists argue instead that vital resources like food and the means to produce it should be shared. The Bible consistently affirms private ownership. “Thou shalt not steal” is meaningless absent the notion of private property rights. In the theocracy God intended for the children of Israel, private rather than community ownership was stipulated. Ex 23:4, for example, required that if one spotted a neighbor’s livestock wandering around loose that it be returned to him, not that livestock should be held in common. Several Proverbs refer to honestly and diligently amassing wealth as a virtue: 10:4, 12:27, and 13:22 are just a few examples. And Prov. 11:26 says, “People curse the man who hoards grain, but blessing crowns him who is willing to sell.” Not give, sell. In Acts 5, Peter clearly explains to Ananias & Sapphira that their property was theirs to do with as they pleased. Note that they were struck down not for withholding money, but for lying. The Bible contains numerous admonitions advocating principles such as charity and fair wages, while condemning things like usury; it never once advocates shared ownership of resources or the forced redistribution of wealth.

I haven’t found anything in Scripture that supports the notion that having money, even lots of it, is a sin. God blessed Solomon and Job with wealth far beyond what any of us can imagine. 1 Tim 6:10, which is often misquoted as “money is the root of all evil,” explains that “love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” As with so many aspects of the Christian walk, it’s the heart attitude, not the thing.  Restructuring our economy does not purge greed from the human heart, nor does it ameliorate poverty. One interesting fact I learned while researching my thesis is that we still have just as many juvenile delinquents as a percentage of the overall population as we did at the height of the Industrial Revolution. This was a period in our history in which former slaves and uneducated and unskilled immigrants from Southern & Eastern Europe were flooding into American cities looking for work. There were no government welfare programs in place to address the resultant social ills. And after spending trillions of dollars on the War on Poverty, there is no evidence that we have accomplished anything to ameliorate it.

In fact, “the least of these” have instead suffered some very damaging unintended consequences as a result of government involvement in charity, probably the worst of which has been to undermine family cohesiveness. Government welfare has created a financial disincentive for a woman to marry the father of her children, and freed many men from feeling any responsibility to provide for the children they father. The rate of out-of-wedlock births has skyrocketed since the 1960s, and the stigma has all but disappeared. Early and out-of-wedlock childbearing is far and away the single greatest predictor of poverty in the US, and children in single parent families face significantly higher risk of a host of problems including dropping out of school, addiction, and criminal behaviors.  Instead of lifting people out of poverty, welfare keeps them trapped there.

Another unintended consequence has been to provide a disincentive to work. Lev. 19:9 gives instructions for the care of the poor, namely, to leave a portion of one’s crops in the fields for them to glean. I think it is important to note that in God’s economy, the recipients had to work in order to receive the benefit. Not so under socialism. About 10 years ago I had a tenant who asked me to review her finances and help her develop a plan to get off welfare. We calculated that she was receiving the equivalent of about $15/hour in benefits. And she would lose them dollar-for-dollar if she went out and got a job. She, along with the other welfare recipients in the complex, enjoyed spacious, clean, well-maintained accommodations (per government regulations) with community resources like a park and forest preserve nearby. There was even a private pool staffed by a lifeguard.  One of my family members, meanwhile, was struggling by on a teacher’s salary with taxes and student loans to repay; she could only afford a poorly maintained apartment with none of the aforementioned amenities, and only one bedroom for herself and her son.  That welfare recipients should enjoy far better housing than those who are paying for not only their own, but the recipient’s, too, is outrageous.

Socialism relies, even if only implicitly, upon the assumption that people will work hard even if there is no personal reward in it, and that no one will take unfair advantage of their neighbors. I think one would be hard-pressed to argue that the Bible or the lessons of history teach us anything other than that people are basically self-interested. Americans have been alarmed as unemployment has reached 10%, and rightly so. What many do not realize is that in more socialist-leaning France, unemployment is around 10% pretty much all the time, and many who do have a job cannot work as many hours per week as they’d like to. Socialism has provided a disincentive to work hard and take risks. Sweden, for example has seen as much as 20% of its able-bodied workforce choose to stay home and collect welfare benefits, instead.  And the French are saddled with a stagnating economy that has been hobbled in its ability to provide enough work for its laborers. In spite of decades of socialist policy, France still has millions living in poverty. What the poor need are jobs. Governments do not create them. Entrepreneurs and the free flow of capital do. Socialism has failed to eliminate poverty anywhere it has been tried, around the globe and throughout history.

Imposing a socialist regime robs us not only of the fruits of our labors, but also of the blessing of freely sharing them. In Philemon 1:14, Paul writes, “without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, but voluntary.” Dinesh D’Souza calls this a “moral transaction.” When we freely help our neighbors in need, both experience positive emotional and spiritual benefits. Moreover, community cohesiveness is strengthened. People are reassured that when they are in need, their neighbors will be there to help them; and the recipient is inspired to “pay it forward” when in a position to do so. Creating government programs destroys all of that. Generosity and gratitude, attitudes that enhance community, are replaced by resentment and entitlement, which undermine it.

To conclude, I would like to submit for consideration the notion that the conservative political position is more logically cohesive. To wit, many liberal Christians support social policies like abortion rights and gay marriage based on the notion that, although they may privately feel that these behaviors are wrong, it is not their place to impose their convictions upon someone else. Yet they freely impose their interpretation of the biblical mandate to care for the poor upon the rest of us. Why one and not the other? Rather than picking and choosing some of my moral convictions as appropriate to impose upon the community while consigning others as “none of my business,” I attempt instead to allow the biblical texts to inform all of my views. I submit that all biblical principals represent the wisdom of God and as such, hold pragmatic value for society, even for those who do not subscribe to Christianity. There is therefore no dichotomy between my public self and my private self, my individual self and my community self.

My friend can’t understand why a Christian wouldn’t want the government to do more to help “the least of these.”  What I can’t understand is why any Christian would advocate for a system that demonstrably traps people in poverty, undermines families and the community, and finds no support in Scripture.

Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 17, 2010

The New Testament on Authority (Part 6: Authority in the House)

Before we began our study of authority in the New Testament, we undertook a lengthy study of gender.  The New Testament is heavily laden with imagery of believers as members of a household or family.  Every book of the New Testament, with the exception of Jude, employs the language of family.  Paul explicitly makes the connection in 1 Tim 3:5:  “for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?”  Today we’ll review some of the highlights of our gender theology and authority studies and examine some useful parallels applicable in the Christian home, particularly with regard to women.

We expect children to obey their parents during their childhood, but children are not meant to remain dependent upon their parents forever.  The parent-child relationship changes as the children attain maturity:  while they should still respect their parents, the expectation that they will obey no longer exists once they reach adulthood.  Eph 4 speaks of church leaders bringing believers to maturity, so they will “no longer be tossed here and there by every wind of doctrine.”  We have seen that Peter expects “the recently born” to submit to the elders in a way that is not expected of the mature (1 Pet 5:5).  1 Cor 12 describes everyone participating in the meeting, rather than the elders carrying everyone along.  Just like children, new believers are expected to mature to the point that they no longer require the perpetual protection and provision of the elders.

Just as God has distributed responsibility and accountability to both the leadership and directly to the congregation as a whole, He has also distributed authority to both the husband and the wife in the Christian family.  1 Cor 7 is the only passage in the New Testament in which exousia, “authority,” is used with respect to marriage partners, and it is clearly conferred upon the wife as well as the husband (7:4).  Both Peter (1 Pe 3:1) and Paul (1 Tim 5:14 & Titus 2:5, 10) explain that the reason wives were instructed to submit to their husbands was to avoid any obstacle to the proclamation of the gospel.  In light of the vastly improved status of women in this new sect compared with its cultural backdrop, it is not difficult to understand why such an admonition was necessary.  Similar consideration for cultural sensibilities may be seen in 1 Cor 14:33.  After acknowledging that women are free to pray and prophesy in church, Paul then enjoins, “women must be silent in the churches…for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”  If it were “shameful” in God’s sight, it would have made no sense for Paul to give instructions for women speaking in church.  This shame must, then, be a part of the local situation; Paul instructs believers to avoid acting in ways that would be considered an affront to the sensibilities of the larger community.  Similarly, even though Paul forcefully argues against circumcision in Galatians and elsewhere, the first thing he does after recruiting Timothy is have him circumcised (Acts 16:3).

An understanding of female submission to male authority as a cultural concession intended to eliminate an obstacle to evangelism offers multiple advantages.  First, plurality of leadership in the home is consistent with the pattern of plurality of leadership in the household of faith (Titus 1:5, e.g.).  Moreover, it is consistent with the distribution of authority by God directly to both marriage partners described in 1 Cor 7.   1 Tim 5:14 describes the wife as the oikodespotayn; according to Strong’s, the “head of the family” or “master of the house.”   It is interesting to note that when Paul wrote the “husband is the head of the wife” in Eph 5, he chose the present-active-indicative verb form, indicating punctilliar action; not the future-active-indicative form, which would have indicated ongoing action.  In other words, Paul’s statement described the situation as it was at the time he was writing; there is nothing in the grammar that indicates a mandate for future action.  Husbands did, in fact, wield a god-like power over their households in the culture in which the New Testament texts were penned.

Second, understanding female submission as a cultural concession is consistent with the New Testament writers’ preference for the use of influence rather than the wielding of authority within the household of faith.  Eph 5:21, for example, is very difficult to make sense of if authoritarian structures are implied by submission.  To help illustrate, consider the instruction “Everyone obey everyone else” in the context of the military, in which chains of authority are integral to the functioning of the organization:  the result would be anarchy.  Understanding submission in non-authoritarian terms of putting others first is consistent with the Greek phraseology as well as the immediate and larger context of Scripture (Phil 2:3, e.g.).

Third, the cultural concession view is consistent with the overarching theme that ties together all 66 books of the Bible; namely, God’s direct, personal, and miraculous intervention in human history to repair the effects of the Fall in order to restore us to fellowship with Himself and each other.  Additionally, it represents an integrated approach that is informed by the entire body of biblical texts touching not only on gender relations, but relationships between Christians and Christian maturity in general, rather than interpreting one passage in isolation (such as Eph 5) and then subordinating the others to that interpretation.  In fact, it is those who are preoccupied with rules that the New Testament depicts as weak:  “What can I eat?  What can’t I eat?  What day is special?  What days aren’t special?”  (Romans 14:1ff)  To this list we might add, “Whom do I have to obey?” and “Who has to obey me?”  Finally, for those who believe women are able to function as leaders in the church but remain subjugated at home, this interpretation eliminates that dichotomy.

At the very least, those who remain unconvinced that the egalitarian position is God’s ideal should consider that it might be appropriate to follow Paul’s example and make a cultural concession here.  Male authority is not an issue central to salvation; indeed, it is even farther removed from the central doctrine of salvation by grace through faith than the circumcision question.  Complementarians maintain that to take this approach destroys the marriage metaphor found in Scripture.  But when we look at complementarian marriages, the fruit is decidedly bitter:  millions of women have been murdered, maimed, and abused in the name of gender hierarchy; the overwhelming majority divorce or describe themselves as unhappy, male and female alike.  The truth is, the story of Christ and His Bride is not about the Groom wielding power over his Bride, but on her behalf.  It should come as no surprise, then, that gender hierarchy is a documented obstacle to serious consideration of the gospel for both women and men in modern western societies.  Just as Paul had Timothy circumcised in order to prevent anything from distracting from the proclamation of the gospel, perhaps conservative church leaders today should at least abandon their rigid interpretation of male authority as a spiritual litmus test, and stop blaming egalitarians for society’s problems.  Did Paul attack the character of people who needed to hear his message?  No, he said, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some”  (1 Cor 9:22).  If both marriage partners genuinely and actively “esteem the other as better” (Phil 2:3), how critical is it really that they concede that God has endowed the husband with all the power in the relationship?  Romans 14 gives us the answer:  stop “passing judgment on disputable matters…let each one be convinced in his own mind…and do so unto the Lord.”

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