Christian Citizenship and the Crazy, No-Good, Terrible 2016 Elections

A talk (October 16, 2016) at Cherry Creek Community Church providing a biblical perspective on citizenship, and how that perspective ought to affect Christians’ thinking about the 2016 elections. I link to some other helpful 2016 election resources below.

http://www.cherrycreekcc.org/guest-speaker-messages/

Here is the handout with the message outline: christian-citizenship-and-the-2016-elections (pdf).


Here is the outline of the whole talk. Below the outline are some election resources for the 2016 elections.

This is the outline of my talk “Christian Citizenship and the Crazy, No-Good, Terrible 2016 Elections,” but these principles are the same principles I’ve been teaching for many years, and can be applied to any election, any candidate, any time. Because these are biblical principles, they apply over time.

1. Philippians 3:20: As Christians, our true citizenship and homeland is in heaven.

2. 1 Peter 2:9-10: Our identity as Christ-followers is that we are a special, distinct, and holy people.

3. 2:11: Therefore, wherever we live, we are aliens and sojourners. That is, we are temporary residents, living among the native population wherever we happen to find ourselves.

  • Recent research shows that only about 18% of Americans believe Christianity is the one true faith; only 36% of White Evangelicals and African American Protestants believe this.[i] That means if you believe our faith the one true faith, 82% of Americans disagree with you. America is not your true homeland, and Americans are not your true people-group!
  • Looking at Christianity worldwide, American Christians (broadly defined, that is Protestants + Catholics + Orthodox) are only 11.3% of all Christians.[ii] 89% of Christians do not live in the US. As American Christians, the USA (as much as I am grateful to live here) is NOT our homeland, these people are NOT our people. OUR people are mostly non-Caucasian and do not speak English.

4. 2:11-12: Because we are aliens and sojourners, our behavior is to be “excellent among the Gentiles”…

  • 2:12: So that our actions will not reflect badly on our King and on our people group (see also Matt 5:16; 1 Peter 3:16-17; Phil 2:15; Titus 2:6-8).
  • Do you think this command includes our political choices? I think so.

5. 1 Timothy 2: 1-4: Our people are supposed to pray for those in authority.

  • What is the ultimate purpose for these prayers (2:4)? So that all people can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. This is our people’s true mission: spreading the Gospel, making disciples. We shouldn’t ignore political goals, but political legislation is NOT the primary reason our King has us on this sojourn, living as aliens here.

6. God establishes institutions of authority for humanity to govern human behavior, including the civil authorities (1 Peter 2:13-14; Romans 13:1-7; John 19:10-11; Daniel 2:20-21; Daniel 4:17).

  • Do you think God already knows who will win the 2016 elections? I do.
  • Do you think God has already taken the result into account in his plan for human history? I do.

7. Scripture tells us quite clearly that God has a number of assigned tasks for the civil authorities …

Romans 13:3-5; 1 Peter 2:13-14: Encourage people to live righteously. Punish people for doing evil. Paul and Peter certainly have specific ideas in mind when they refer to good and evil here, not some vague, morally relative, culturally-shifting concept of right and wrong.

Psalm 72, Psalm 82, Exodus 23:1-8 (see also Deut 16:18-20; Deut 27:19; Isaiah 1:16-17; Jeremiah 7:5-7, Ezekiel 34, and many, many more)

  • 72:1-2: The ruler’s character is to be righteous and just. Again, scripture is quite clear about what that means.
  • 72:3-4, 12-14; 82:3-4: The righteous and just ruler protects and rescues people from affliction, oppression, and violence. Which people? The weakest in society. In the biblical concept this includes the truly needy, and those who cannot provide for themselves and have no provider (usually grouped under the categories of widows and the fatherless).
  • These are recurring themes throughout the Old Testament. The prophets repeatedly have the role of proclaiming God’s judgment on the civil authorities (ie, the kings and princes and elders of Judah and Israel) for failing to act righteously and justly, and for failing to protect and provide for these groups, and even for profiting off of their desperate state.

A Checklist for Evaluating Candidates Biblically in any election year, for any political office

This list is based on the points above.

  • Prayerfully ask God to prioritize the importance of these items for you. (This list is simply the order in which I presented the material above, and is not in order of the priorities God has laid on my heart.)
  • Prayerfully consider whether each candidate’s proposed policies correspond to the biblical principles.
  • In the checklist I use the phrase “seem likely” intentionally. We should carefully assess whether the candidate’s promises are credible, given what we know. For example, in the 1980 elections, Ronald Reagan promised Evangelicals that he would appoint pro-life Supreme Court justices. They thought he was credible. Then, when given the opportunity to appoint those judges he ended up nominating Sandra Day O’Connor (pro-choice), Robert Bork (pro-life, but withdrawn), and Anthony Kennedy (pro-choice).
  1. Do the candidate’s policies seem likely to encourage people to live righteously?
  2. Do the candidate’s policies seem likely to discourage people from doing evil deeds?
  3. Can the candidate’s character truthfully be described as righteous and just?
  4. Do the candidate’s policies seem likely to aid the oppressed and the weakest in society?
  5. Do the candidate’s policies seem likely to protect the innocent?
  6. Do the candidate’s policies seem likely to promote treating all people justly and fairly?

 

[i] Source: 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Survey, my own calculations.

[ii] Source: http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/


Here are some links to 2016 Election Resources for You

See your Michigan ballot: webapps.sos.state.mi.us/MVIC/VoterSearch.aspx

Here’s a Good Quiz for matching your opinions to presidential candidates: https://www.isidewith.com/

Here is a link to what prominent evangelicals have written about their evaluations of the candidates.


Presidential Candidates on the Michigan ballot (in the order they appear)

Democratic – Hillary Clinton & Tim Kaine        www.hillaryclinton.comRepublican – Donald Trump & Mike Pence    donaldjtrump.com
Libertarian – Gary Johnson & William Weld www.johnsonweld.com
Pro-choice, legalize marijuana, local education control and school choice, reduce federal spending and deficit, simplified tax reform, scale back US military commitments and spending.
U.S. Taxpayers/ Constitution – Darrell Castle & Scott Bradley www.castle2016.com
Very Conservative with focus on US Constitution’s specific division of powers (limit federal government involvement in the economy and areas such as health insurance, education, replacing with state government power). Pro-life, withdraw from UN, lower taxes.
Green – Jill Stein & Ajamu Baraka www.jill2016.com
Democratic Socialist. Very Liberal (extensive government planning in the economy, little regulation on moral issues, strong social welfare safety net), abortion on demand, Complete government-funded health care system, , legalize marijuana, focus on environmental issues, create publicly owned utilities and banks, full gay rights.
Natural Law – Emidio Soltysik & Angela Walker www.rev16.us/
Socialist Workers Party. All corporations, banks, insurance companies, and natural resources to be publicly and worker owned. Abortion on demand, full gay rights, full social welfare safety net, legalize marijuana. Complete government-funded health care system, steeply graded tax brackets. Full citizenship after 6 months residence, abolition of borders.
Michigan 6th Congressional District Candidates Republican Fred Upton: www.fredupton.com/
Democrat Paul Clements: www.clementsforcongress.com/Libertarian Lorence Wenke: http://votewenke.com

 

Michigan Family Forum Voter Guides: michiganfamily.org/index.php/michigan-online-voter-guide/

  • Currently only President (Dem, Rep, Green, Libertarian), MI Supreme Court, MI State Board of Education; Website says Congressional guide is coming soon (as of 10/15)

 

Readings from Christian Perspectives on the 2016 Elections

A number of Christian friends have asked me for readings to help them sort through the clutter of the 2016 elections. I’ve been compiling a variety of items that I think are useful, whether your branch of Evangelical Christianity is conservative or liberal (and yes, this difference is important). I think you ought to read selections from both sides. I have not specifically sought out representatives of Mainline denominations, but their views largely align with liberal evangelicals. I also have included a reading each from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox perspectives. I will be putting out my own thoughts soon, but I hope this is generally helpful.

 

Helpful Current Big Picture Evangelical Christian Arguments

Prominent Conservative Evangelical Christians and their Arguments

Prominent Liberal Evangelical Christians

A Roman Catholic perspective: www.ncregister.com/blog/msgr-pope/vote-as-a-catholic-with-a-catholic-moral-vision

An Orthodox Church Perspective: www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/08/04/christians-can-vote-for-trump-but-they-cant-do-it-in-the-name-of-christianity/?utm_term=.f55c5c6a4453

3 Reasons Most Christians Should Go to College

3-reasons-college 

Recently, I’ve heard many Christians challenging the idea that college is something our kids should be considering once they finish high school. Most of the complaints fall into two groups: the high cost (including student loan debt) and ideological objections (colleges are too liberal and too secular).

Student debt meme, grabbed from Facebook

I completely understand these concerns. Parents may not be able to afford college; the basic answer to this concern is to not get sucked into the PR machine of colleges that will cost you an arm and a leg. One important way to do this is to have a specific goal in mind for going to college so you don’t waste your time and money. In short, go to college with a purpose.[i] From the financial perspective, students can work while in school, even if it requires a “gap” year or two, earn scholarships, and go to college while they live at home, or pursue an online degree—all of which so that they need not incur huge student loan debts. Like the guy in this Facebook photo.

Or parents are concerned that their kids will lose their Christian faith in college, given its secular liberal and sometimes anti-Christian environment and pressures. Let me suggest that the real problem here is not the secular or anti-Christian environment and ideas. The real problem is the fact that most churched high school grads are not schooled on the rational, factual bases for the Christian faith. So the issue is that the kids are not adequately prepared with a biblical worldview and apologetics arsenal when they’re sent into Canaan. This is not a reason to avoid Canaan, it’s a call to arms for better, deeper teaching and discipleship in churches. I wrote about how kids can keep their faith in college here.

With those objections briefly noted, there are several reasons why objections to college miss why it is important for most Christians to go to college. Let me propose three.

1. The Great Commission

As Christians, our “marching orders” are to go into “all the world” and make disciples, teaching Christ’s commandments. By “all the world,” I have a strong sense that Jesus didn’t mean “all the world except centers of higher learning,” or “all the world except where postmodern-secular humanist-LGBTQ-New Age-atheist-Marxists are going to challenge my most cherished beliefs.”

Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” (Matt 28:18-20)

Colleges and universities are short-term mission opportunities. There are many good Christian campus fellowships and ministries where college students can grow their own faith while also meeting other, less mature or new believers. Moreover, study groups, dorm life, and a wide range of social opportunities are where Christians are very likely to encounter non-Christians—the people who need to hear the gospel. Even better, these groups are prime audiences for apologetic conversations—most of them genuinely want to know whether there is any reasonable, rational, logical, factual basis for the Christian faith. If Christians are not participating in those conversations with their arsenal of historical and apologetic facts and arguments, many of these students may never hear them.

14 How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? 15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!” (Rom 10:14-15)

Colleges and universities are also long-term mission fields. Biblical Christians are extremely under-represented among college faculty. While the college environment is in many ways antagonistic toward Christians, one major reason for that is that so few Christians choose higher education as a career. How can Christians contribute to scientific knowledge? How can Christians influence such fields as philosophy, sociology, political science, social work, and English, all of which currently seem antagonistic to the faith? How can Christians rise to positions of administrative influence in colleges and universities? There literally is only one answer. More Christians have to choose careers in college education, and this requires Christians to go to college and graduate school in order to be eligible to teach and participate in the intellectual leadership of colleges and universities.

To refuse to go to college so is to abandon these crucial mission fields.

 

2. Economic self-sufficiency

A central economic principle of the Christian life is that we are supposed to provide for ourselves and our families, and even to take responsibility for our extended family if needed (e.g., 1 Tim 5:9-16).

But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim 5:8)

The question is, in modern and future American society, what is the path that provides the most opportunities for economic success? (Keep in mind that God can provide material blessings to whoever He pleases, and that there are no guarantees of any particular income, regardless of one’s education or religion.) In the American economy, a college education provides the best chance of getting a job, and getting a better paying job, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which produced this figure.

Source: http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm

Education and Unemployment Rates. The red bars show the unemployment rates for people based on their level of education in 2014 (the latest year for which data is available). The average for the whole population was 5%, while the rates for people with less than an Associate’s degree are all higher than average. Meanwhile, people with any college degree have lower than average unemployment rates.

Education and Earning. The green bars show 2014 earnings for people of different education levels; the values represent median weekly earnings—the midpoint of all wage earners in each group. The median US worker earned $839 per week ($43,628 per year). People with less than a Bachelor’s degree earned less than average, while those with at least a Bachelor’s degree earned significantly more. For example, people with only a high school diploma earned a median $668 per week ($34,746 per year), while those with a Bachelor’s degree earned a median $1,101 per week ($57,252 per year).

This pattern of college education producing lower unemployment rates and higher incomes is not unique to 2014. The charts at this site and at this site show that this has been a consistent pattern for many years, for both younger and older workers.

Giving. Of course, the point in holding a job and getting a better paying job is not simply to earn more money, but to have more opportunities. A materially “comfortable” life is not the main point. But the reality is that having a better paying job means that, at the very least, a person can be more generous to the causes one holds dear. If Christians tithe on their income, the annual tithe on the median high school graduate’s income is $2,250 less than the tithe on the median BA degree-holder’s income. What could your local congregation or ministry do with an additional $2,250 next year?

10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house.” (Mal 3:10)

The Future Employment Outlook. What will the future hold? What are the jobs that are likely to grow and have good incomes over the next decade? In this report, Kiplinger projects those jobs to be: Speech Language Pathologist, Computer Systems Analyst, App Developer, Registered Nurse, Information Security Analyst, Health Services Manager, Medical Stenographer, Physical Therapist, and Nurse Practitioner. All of these require education after high school, and seven of the ten require at least an Associate’s degree.

College is for Christian Women, too. For many Christians it is not a given that our young women should be college bound, but there are as many reasons they should go to college as there are for young men. This should be obviously the case if God’s calling for her life needs a college degree. But if you are even skeptical of this, consider her worst-case scenario. It is possible your daughter’s husband will die, or that a divorce may unexpectedly rock her world. As news analysis has shown, “The percentage of female-headed households with children living in poverty has gone up, from 33 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2011. All told, more than half of all children living in poverty in this country are part of single-mother households.” The economics of being a single mother are daunting, and having a college education is a hedge against the possibility that, God forbid, a young mom will have to support her own family. This chart, which I created from data on this page, shows that women with a college degree have much higher incomes than women without a degree. It is simply prudent for our Christian young women to go to college, too.

Women's earnings, by Education

The long and the short of it is that In order to have the best prospects in the American economy to provide for your family and to increase your giving, college education gives you the best and most opportunities.

 

3. More Influential and Meaningful Career Options

Part of the testimony of Christianity over the centuries has been our role as public leaders, politicians, educators, and health care providers. Christians in Europe, for example, started most of the early universities, hospitals, and orphanages (see, for example, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart), and most of the early colleges in the US were started by Christians for Christians (including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton!).

As I began thinking about this article, I asked my Facebook friends (the vast majority of whom are conservative Christians) two questions about influential jobs or careers. (As a political scientist, I fully admit this is an unscientific survey, but the results are instructive.) I then researched the basic education requirements of those positions; if they weren’t obvious, I used this Bureau of Labor Statistics table. Below, I organize their answers into categories based on the education required to go into these professions.

Slide2

Slide3In short, most of the “most influential” professions my friends mentioned generally require a college degree; and most of the jobs my friends think have the potential to have a positive influence in our culture generally require a college degree.

Finally, there is the PayScale Report on Meaningfulness of Jobs, based on surveys of workers and how they themselves evaluate the meaningfulness of their own work. The vast majority of jobs that workers consider socially “meaningful” generally require education after high school, and most require at least a four-year college degree. On the flip side, the PayScale report also listed workers who report that their jobs are not meaningful, and the vast majority of those jobs don’t require education after high school. The tables are in this footnote: [ii]

In short, the most influential and meaningful jobs and careers in our culture generally require post-high school education, and the vast majority require at least a four-year college degree. If Christians are going to be influential in our culture, they must pursue educational options that qualify them to hold those jobs in the first place.

 

A few other reasons…

Here are a few more reasons for going to college that I personally think are important, but would take too much space to discuss extensively here.

  • College education tends to strengthen critical thinking skills—so that as citizens in our society and culture we have the ability to evaluate and see through most of the logical fallacies and polemic we are fed by the mass media (liberal and conservative).
  • College education provides an opportunity to interact with a more diverse set of people than most of us will have for the rest of our lives—students get to spend unstructured social time with people from around the world, from different cultures, speaking different languages, and practicing different religions. (Yes—this is genuinely a good thing…see point #1 above!)
  • College students are forced to read an expansive set of works from an expansive set of topics. These improve our literacy and our ability to interact with a wider range of people on a wider range of subjects than we would absent a college learning environment. Yes, yes, you can read all those things without going to college, but once you get married and have children, it is much harder to find the time to do so.

What College Will Not Do

A college education is not the be-all and end-all of a person’s identity and value. People who don’t go to college are not inferior to those who do; indeed, many of the best people I have known in my life have not been college educated. So it’s important to acknowledge what college doesn’t do for us.

  • College will not change your value in God’s eyes. God’s love for us does not depend our level of education. An important result of this is that a person’s educational or social status should never be a cause of favoritism among Christians. Every person, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, influential or not-influential, blue-collar or white-collar is equal in the eyes of the Lord, and ought to be treated with equal respect and honor.

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?…if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:1-9)

  • College will not guarantee comfort and success. Just because a person has a college degree does not mean that they are guaranteed a job, a better job, a more influential job, or a higher income than anyone else. But the statistics are in favor of people who are better educated.
  • College will not change your character. Your personal integrity is not related to your education. It does not mean you will be a superior husband, wife, father, or mother.

 

Conclusion

The potential payoff of going to college is great. It is great for the kingdom of God and the possibilities are great for Christian youth and their future families. Rather than assuming that college isn’t for you or your child, look at the opportunities. The thing is, we have to be wise and strategic in using our limited resources, and we have to prepare young people for the battle over their hearts and minds.


 

[i] One major cost-inflator is changing majors—this extends the amount of time required to complete your degree, and the cost of doing so. If you don’t have firm career goal in mind take a gap year after high school to earn college money; you can also take this time to take general education courses that will eventually transfer into a BA degree program. Give serious prayer to what the Lord wants you to do, and then pursue a degree related to that. Even if you change careers (and most people do at least a few times in their lives) having the BA degree puts you at an advantage over other potential employees who don’t.

[ii] Payscale Report: Most Meaningful Jobs.

Slide1

 

Celebrating the Swastika

Nazi_swastika_clean wikipedia.svg(If you are someone who finds the swastika offensive, please read my postscript at the end before you read this essay.)

For thousands of years, across Asia and Europe and many cultures, the swastika has represented noble cultural and faith-oriented values. Even early Christians used this symbol as a celebration of Christ’s life’s victory over death! Though some people are offended by it, I choose to celebrate it as a symbol of noble human values and our common human heritage.

The word ‘swastika’ is a Sanskrit word (‘svasktika’) meaning ‘It is’, ‘Well Being’, ‘Good Existence, and ‘Good Luck.’ (Citation). This elegant symbol is found in the Christian catacombs of Rome and in many ancient Christian churches, and in Nordic myths about Odin. Even the Navajos include this historically meaningful symbol in their headdresses!

To me, the swastika is a beautiful and elegant symbol of life and success, and represents my heritage as a believer in beauty, peace, and well-being for all mankind. Because I value my world heritage, I believe the swastika bridges cultures, continents, and time. Because I value my Swedish heritage, I value the Nordic tradition. Because one of my best friends is from India, I am actually honoring him by celebrating his culture’s appreciation of the swastika.

Now I know that some people see the swastika as a symbol of evil and hate, simply because for a few years (just a drop in the bucket of human history, really) one distasteful regime chose to use the swastika as its primary symbol. It is unfortunate that for a few people this symbol has come to represent the hatred of that regime; and it is true that this particular country was led by a misguided megalomaniac that some people choose to label as a racist and anti-Semite. But the swastika should not be held “guilty’ due to this temporary association!

And I know that certain people repeatedly connect the persecution of some religious and ethnic groups with the symbol and therefore think it is offensive. But still, we have to doubt the credibility of these people, because there are credible historians who tell the true history of that era, and show that most of the accusations against that regime are dubious and the result of rewriting history from the perspective of that one group.

am flag swastikaAdditionally, how many other people have been oppressed and persecuted by groups using other symbols. I mean, think about the cross! How many so-called Christians engaged in the slave trade? And don’t forget the crusades! What about the so-called “American” flag? For 170 years this symbol reigned over a racially oppressive regime! Some good hearted soul even created this post card joining together these two wonderful symbols of luck and security!

Seriously, people need to get over themselves and learn the true history!

I don’t really care that all those people choose to be emotionally limited to the negative connotation of the swastika. Just because one group led by one misguided soul used our beloved swastika doesn’t mean I should give up my love of the symbol and my freedom to celebrate it publicly. I stand with my brothers to fight the oppressors who discriminate against those of us who love the swastika. We even have our own website to “Reclaim the Swastika.”

Yes, I have heard that as a Christian I should put others’ interests ahead of my own (Phil 2:1-5). But that means they should put my interests ahead of their own too and let me celebrate the swastika!

Yes, I have heard that as a Christian I should seek peace to the extent it depends on me, and that living at peace with others is praised by Jesus and throughout the New Testament (Rom 12:18; Rom 14:19; 2 Cor 3:11; Gal 5:22; Eph 4:3; 1 Thes 5:13; 1 Tim 3:3; Titus 3:2). But that means they should see that the swastika actually represents peace to me, and stop criticizing me for loving it!

Yes, I have heard that as a Christian I should obey Jesus’ “new” commandment to love one another (John 13:34-35, John 15:12-17; Rom 12:10; Rom 13:8; Eph 4:2; Heb 10:24, 1 Peter 4:8; 1 John 3), and that some people don’t choose to find the swastika loving. But they should show their love to me by letting me display the swastika proudly, because I find it beautiful and peaceful!

Yes, I have heard that as a Christian just because something is lawful doesn’t mean I ought to do it, especially if it offends or hurts others or puts their faith at risk (1 Cor 6:12, 1 Cor 10:23-32). But it is their own fault if they let their faith be weakened by this symbol of peace and love! It’s not my responsibility!

Yes I have heard that as a Christian I should live self-sacrificially, going above and beyond what others ask so that God will be glorified (Matt 5:38-42). But they should be the ones who sacrifice, because I love this symbol dearly!

And yes, I know some people will find it odd that as a person who claims Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior would celebrate a symbol that so many people find offensive. But those people have to be better educated and realize that my being a Christian has nothing to do with this! I am saved, and you can’t take away my freedom to express my cultural heritage in the way I want to!

 

Postscript: This post is satire, and the point I’m trying to make, in case some readers have missed it, is that symbols matter. In the same way that the swastika represents hatred and violence now, regardless of what it meant in the past, symbols of the confederacy, such as the confederate battle flag represent racism to large majorities of African-American Christians, regardless of what it meant in the past. The biblical principles of love, peace, and self-sacrifice mean we must be willing to give up what we find precious for the sake of others. As long as some Christians aren’t willing to do this, they are complicit in keeping the Body of Christ divided on racial lines, and God will hold them accountable for that.

Before You Post That…A Call for Civility

backspace ovalPoliticians around the country are declaring that they are officially candidates for the presidency of the United States. Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton…and more are yet to come.

Already I see posts from people who are (or who claim to be) Christians expressing opinions on one candidate or another. Unfortunately, some of those statements are expressed in decidedly un-Christ-like ways, using unChrist-like language, or just being mean and ugly.

And it’s bugging me already, so I’ve decided on a response strategy.

First, I am a teacher, and teachers gotta teach. This blog reminds Christians that the Bible gives us pretty clear instructions on how to express ourselves, including in political matters.

Second, I am developing a series of memes to post on social media that reminds Christians expressing themselves in inappropriate ways of those instructions.

My intent is to elevate the way in which Christians talk about the candidates and about the future president of the nation. I can’t do anything about what non-Christians say or the way they act, but maybe I can improve the tone of the political conversations of the people of God.

This is an important ethical issued for our Christian witness and for politics generally. As Stephen Carter wrote in his book Civility,

“The key to reconstructing civility…is for all of us to learn anew the virtue of acting with love toward our neighbors. Love of neighbor has long been a tenet of Judaism and Christianity, and a revival of civility in America will require a revival of all that is best in religion as a force in our public life.” (1998, 18)

How are we supposed to speak?

Many scriptures directly address the way Christians are supposed to express themselves. Here are just a handful.

There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Prov. 12:18)

Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity Than he who is perverse in speech and is a fool. (Prov. 19:1)

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Cor 13:1)

But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. (Col 3:8)

Let your speech always be with grace (Col 4:6)

in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe. (1 Tim 4:12)

To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but [e]giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. For, “The one who desires life, to love and see good days, Must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.” (1 Peter 3:8-10)

in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified, sound in speech which is beyond reproach, so that the opponent will be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us. (Titus 2:7-8)

the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. (James 3:6-10)

Finally, Christ himself is the “example for [us] to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return (1 Peter 2:21-23; see also Hebrews 12:1-3).

Here are the general conclusions: Christians are supposed to exercise self-control, speak with grace and gentleness, and setting aside ungracious, abusive, perverse, and cursing speech. Our speech is supposed to be beyond reproach so that we give our opponents nothing bad to say about us (even if they will anyway). And our behavior is to be excellent so that our true King—the Lord of Heaven and Earth—will be glorified even if we are slandered (1 Peter 2:12).

What about in politics?

There are many applications of these scriptural principles, but my focus here is on politics, so beyond those general scriptural exhortations, here are two considerations from the life of David.

First, David’s private expressions of anger at and despair about his political opponents and enemies were expressed to God, even though they are preserved for us in the Psalms. We see this in Psalms 3, 9, 27, 35, 41, 64 (among others) and in all of these David leaves the ultimate judgment of his enemies to God.

Second, after David was anointed King of Israel, the then-current king Saul sent armed squads out to hunt David down and kill him. In two separate situations, David had the opportunity to kill Saul, but resists (1 Sam 24, 1 Sam 26). Instead, he publicly challenges Saul in front of both of their armies, pointing out that he didn’t kill him when he could, because he (David) poses no threat to Saul’s reign. He even uses an absurd analogy, saying “After whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom are you pursuing? A dead dog, a single flea?” In the second encounter, David again calls out to Saul, asserting his innocence, and expanding his humorous metaphor, “for the king of Israel has come out to search for a single flea, just as one hunts a partridge in the mountains.”

It’s interesting to hear David shaming Saul for pursuing him, but without being humiliating or insulting. Both times, even though he is being unjustly pursued to death by an obsessed king who is abusing his political power for his own personal agenda of revenge, David does not insult Saul, nor does he does not ridicule him. Instead, he publicly honors the king, even while using some humor in an attempt to defuse the situation.

Returning to Stephen Carter, he observes that violence and nastiness in our public discourse is a self-inflicted wound.

“Nastiness devalues the speaker…because the unwillingness to restrain the urge marks the speaker as less civilized, more animal-like. Cleansing our language of violence is not simply a matter of politess–it is a matter of morality. Nasty language, whether vulgar or violent or simply bigoted, does nothing to encourage a thoughtful and reasoned response. It sparks anger or shame but not dialogue. So it makes it harder for us to talk to each other, and thus hurts democracy.” (1998, 149-150)

Conclusion

If we claim to be Christ-followers, our actions, including our speech and Facebook posts should reflect the character of our Lord. We are permitted to speak truth, but to do so in love (1 Cor 13:1; Eph 4:15). We are permitted to get angry, but not to sin in our anger (Eph 4:26). The ugliness and lies used by your political opponents, and the wrongheaded and even sin-endorsing policies they support, do not justify Christ-followers adapting their ways to the fallen and corrupt ways of this world (Rom 12:2).

My modest goal in my little corner of the universe is to elevate the political discussion by encouraging brothers and sisters in Christ to keep it clean and noble and truthful. If you don’t, don’t be surprised if somewhere, sometime, when you least expect it, I share a meme that links you back to this article. Let’s keep our behavior excellent among the nonbelievers, so that in the things about which they slander us, they will ultimately glorify our King, our Father in heaven.

Adopting Families: Extraordinary Ordinary Families

Isabelle 2-2 Our Angel Tree Sponsored Child

“Isabelle 2-2,” Our Angel Tree Sponsored Child

This summer my family vacationed with a group of sixty extraordinary ordinary families. Almost all of these families had adopted children with special needs, and many of them had adopted their children from other countries. Down syndrome, Muscular Dystrophy, limb differences, dwarfism…you name it, children with these conditions were there. And it was beautiful.

That week was the first time I spent an extended amount of time around special needs children, and I was both amazed and humbled. I expected to meet families of great strength and spirit, and they are, but they are also ordinary families.

Most of the moms had met through online groups, especially Reeces’ Rainbow. But few of the fathers had met or corresponded with each other. It was conversations with fathers that inspired me and one in particular provided a breakthrough moment, making this whole special needs adoption process very real to me.

At the poolIn a pool filled with a hundred children, most of whom had special needs, a beautiful blond girl was in her floater near me, clearly enjoying being in the water. She was splashing and giggling and looking lovingly with her huge blue eyes and charming smile at her daddy. I struck up a conversation with the dad about his daughter. After talking for a while, he happened to mention that one of the ways their family raised money for Lyla’s adoption was by selling t-shirts.

Suddenly I made the connection. We had bought one of those t-shirts! My wife wore it for months, and all of my children knew who Lyla was and had been praying for her. In that moment I realized that before me was a little child of God who only a couple of years earlier had been languishing in an orphanage. I told dad that we had one of the shirts and he looked me straight in the eyes and said a simple, “Thank you.” Even now as I write this down, my eyes are leaking.

You can help special needs orphans and adopting families by contributing to the 2014 Angel Tree drive. Won’t you please help “bump” an angel to their next funding threshold or their full goal? Or you can give Angel Tree Dollars as a stocking stuffer!

Ordinary People

These adopting parents and siblings are just like you and me. They aren’t independently wealthy, and they aren’t Mother Teresa either. The fathers work jobs just like everyone else and are fully sold out to their adoptions. The moms mostly stay at home with their children, making their important contributions one day, one child at a time.

I spoke with several of the dads, and their stories were simple. I asked, “Why did you adopt? How did you get to that place in your life?” There were no lightning bolts, no visions of angels. They just heard the stories and saw the pictures and were convicted that someone had to do something. And the someone was them.

“Samson,” who died before he could be adopted

Their children (biological and adoptive) are outrageously typical. They are sweet, friendly, shy, demanding, generous, whiny, clever, humorous, mischievous and perfectly lovely to be around. That is, they are children are just like everyone else’s children.

Extraordinary People

These families radically transform their lives and families. In many of their home countries, orphans are on the lowest rung of the social ladder, and people with special needs are even lower. The trauma experienced by these children in orphanages is often physically and psychologically devastating, and the parents who graft them into their families take on the medical and therapeutic costs of healing and caring for these precious ones.

They spend months or years raising tens of thousands of dollars to fund the adoptions. They often sell off many their own possessions and spend countless hours fundraising through crafting and activities in their community. Many radically simplify their lifestyles in order to make the adoption happen.

Adopting families open their homes to social services and CPS agency workers in what must be a stressful and intrusive process to evaluate the quality of their home and home life, in detail.

Single moms who adopt children have to do it all—work and fundraise and raise other children they may have.

These are courageous men and women of faith and conviction. Some are Christian, some are of other faiths, but all of them are striving to improve the life situation of orphans, one at a time.

Transformed Children

Adopting families and those who contribute to their adoption funding are literally rescuing children from mostly terrible conditions. The life of a special needs orphan (especially in current and former communist countries) can be particularly brutal, because a person’s value is based on their potential contribution to society. Viewed as a drain on society, those born with special needs are often consigned to poorly-resourced orphanages with underpaid staff.

In most Eastern European countries, orphans with cognitive disabilities are sent to adult mental institutions at 4-6 years old, where they stay until they die or are adopted (huge majorities, at least 90%, of those who remain die within a few years). Special needs orphans without cognitive disabilities age out of the system at around age 16, and are released without job skills and illiterate. Human traffickers are usually waiting for them, and you can guess the rest.

Here are some “Before-and-After” photos of Reece’s Rainbow children whose lives have been transformed by adoption.

RRAT 14 4RRAT 14 3RRAT 14 2 RRAT 14 1 JoJo 1 month homeBy rescuing “the least of these” adoptive families literally transform the children’s lives. Here is one of our favorite blogs about these kinds of rescues, and you can read about various adoption stories here.

You Can Help

Adopting children internationally is quite expensive.[1] The reason I like the financial model used by Reece’s Rainbow is that when money is donated to a child’s dedicated grant, it stays connected to that child until a family is actively in the process of adopting the child. Families who commit to a child can set up their own account. In either case, Reece’s Rainbow strives to ensure that money dedicated to a child helps that child’s adoptive family when the time comes.[2]

Reece’s Rainbow’s annual fundraising campaign is Angel Tree. Angel Tree Warriors select a child, and commit to raise $1,000 to jump-start a child’s adoption grant, increasing the chance that a family will be able to afford to adopt him or her.

You can help by contributing to the 2014 Angel Tree drive. Won’t you please help “bump” an angel to their next funding threshold or their full goal? Or you can give Angel Tree Dollars as a stocking stuffer! We are so grateful to those people who helped our family raise $1,000 for Isabelle 2-2!

In this last ten days of the year, will you please take some time and look at the pictures of these children and find it in your heart to help their warrior reach their $1,000 goal?

As a Christian, God has adopted me into his family, making me an heir to the inheritance of the promises of Abraham, and one of his children.

Romans 8:15: For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!”

Galatians 4:3-7: So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.

Ephesians 1:5: He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.

Helping families do this for children is one way my family pays this gift forward to others.

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Videos Links

Here are a few videos documenting the conditions in orphanages in Romania, China, Bulgaria, and Ukraine.

Romania

China

Bulgaria (The orphanage shown here has since closed; here is a follow up BBC story )

Ukraine

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[1] I originally thought that the high cost was due to corruption and bribes in the children’s home nations. It turns out, however, that most of the money goes toward the demanding travel and nation-stay requirements, and American social service and legal fees.

[2] Reece’s Rainbow is not an adoption agency, and must comply with US and home-country rules for disbursing funds.

Understanding Ferguson’s Fires (updated)

Source: nbc.com

Source: nbc.com

[Updated: I updated this post to incorporate other responses published since I wrote the original.]

In Ferguson, Missouri a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who shot a young African-American man last summer. When the decision not to indict was announced protests and violence ensued, with several fires set as some residents expressed anger and frustration, and other protests occurred around the country.

In a blog comment reprinted on Christianity Today, African-American pastor Bryan Lorrits wrote,

Over the years I’ve been challenged by my white brothers and sisters to just “get over” [events perceived as involving racism]. Their refusal to attempt to see things from my ethnically different perspective is a subtle, stinging form of racism. What’s more is that it hinders true Christian unity and fellowship within the beloved body of Christ.

My purpose with this post is an attempt  to explain this difference in perspective to my white brothers and sisters (of which I am one), and to help people understand why there is often an angry reaction to situations such as that of Michael Brown and Ferguson. In pulling together this post, I draw on what I have learned by studying race and American politics for more than twenty years. I also suggest some solutions from a Christian perspective. As you might imagine, it’s often complicated, but here goes a blog-length attempt.

Why are they angry?

There are obvious immediate causes: the unarmed African-American man[1] shot by a white police officer; the decision not to indict; the militaristic environment after the shooting, and so on. But the reality is that there are longer-term factors at work here. First, there is the perception (or reality) of racism on the part of the authorities in the situation. Second, there are race-based social and economic frustrations in many of America’s communities. Let’s take these apart carefully.

Racism

White people view racism quite differently than do black people. When whites are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “when a person treats another person badly or negatively because of their race or ethnicity.” But when African-Americans are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “a system in which racial groups are treated differently.”

The reasons for these two different views are socially and historically complicated. White people in general do not define themselves in terms of their ethnicity, nor do they view themselves as a social, economic or political group that has any specific common interests. (There are obvious exceptions to this, such as those whites who do view their race as their main relevant social characteristic. These people often end up in white supremacist groups, but are a very small portion of the white American population.)

African-Americans, on the other hand often see their primary relevant group characteristic as being their race or ethnicity. They have a high level of what social scientists call “group identification,” a strong psychological attachment to their group. This leads to a strong feeling of “linked fate,” the idea that what happens to one person in their group is likely to be relevant to one’s own life. So when a black person is shot by a white person, there is a psychological link made between that event and an awareness that this could happen to anyone in the group, including oneself.

White Americans simply don’t think this way based on our racial category, but we sometimes do in other areas. For example, as a home schooler, when I hear about a bad event (child abuse, or social worker’s abuse of powers), I often will say to myself, “I really hope that wasn’t a home schooler.” Why? Because I perceive that what happens to other home schoolers could also happen to me because I am a home schooler. Or if a child abuser is a home schooler, that reflects badly on home schoolers generally and makes us more likely to be viewed badly by society. This perception is due to my strong social identification as a home schooler and my sense of linked fate with other home schoolers.

The System and its Outcomes

Because African-Americans have higher racial group identification and attitude of linked fate, they view their relationship to the American political and criminal justice systems differently than white Americans do. A very important historical fact to remember is that for at least two centuries in the US, the legal and political systems did in fact define people and their status in society in race-based terms. In the South especially, the “Jim Crow” social environment used the law specifically to treat blacks and whites differently, and unequally (See an excellent article on this here). Thus one major reason the African-American community defines itself in that way is at least partially because the political system did so for so long.

While whites might optimistically hope that several decades after Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Acts the group-oriented mindset of African-Americans might have lessened, the reality is that group identity and linked fate still are quite important. To say that they shouldn’t be important is to miss the point that they still do matter to our neighbors.

In fact, the system itself seems to reinforce the sense that the group is systematically disadvantaged, not due to problems of individual motivation or a sense of entitlement, but because of intractable, long term social and economic outcomes in society. Here are just three examples:

The public education system, which is broken and dysfunctional in so many ways, is a particularly harsh environment for black (and Latino) boys. See a report here).

Family income in the black community is persistently lower than other racial or ethnic groups. This is illustrated in this graph:

Racial differences in household income, 1967-2012 Source: businessinsider.com

In terms of interacting with the criminal justice system, the legacy of race-defined unequal treatment still rears its ugly head. See this op-ed on crime statistics.

Differences like these produce the perception that the system is largely rigged against people of color, and persistent differences reinforce those perceptions.

That is not to say that this perception about bias in “the system” is universal among African-Americans. For example, following Ferguson, Pastor Voddie Bauchum reflected on his own experiences, writing,

“for many of those years, I blamed “the system” or “the man.” However, I have come to realize that it was no more “the system” when white cops pulled me over than it was “the system” when a black thug robbed me at gunpoint. It was sin! The men who robbed me were sinners. The cops who stopped me were sinners. They were not taking their cues from some script designed to “keep me down.” They were simply men who didn’t understand what it meant to treat others with the dignity and respect they deserve as image bearers of God.

It does me absolutely no good to assume that my mistreatment was systemic in nature. No more than it is good for me to assume that what happened in Ferguson was systemic. I have a life to live, and I refuse to live it fighting ghosts. I will not waste my energy trying to prove the Gramscian, neo-Marxist concept of “white privilege” or prejudice in policing practices.”

There is, however, in the black community a broad tendency to blame the system because of low trust in the system, for which there are plausible historical reasons. It is true that social, economic, educational, and political advances of black Americans occurred through governmental involvement. Nonetheless, there is a broad perception of stagnation in that progress over the last forty years. Whether white people think this it is unreasonable for black people to think this way is entirely beside the point.

Why Political Solutions Fail

In the big picture, political efforts to solve these problems will fail, because politicians are notoriously bad at changing peoples’ attitudes and hearts. More to the point, I have become convinced that there are individuals and groups in politics and society who have no interest in pursuing genuine healing and solutions to America’s longstanding race problems. They make their money, sell their books, and win elections by taking advantage of black anger and frustration and white complacency, resentment or ignorance. They are liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, black and white. If the “race problem” goes away, so does their income stream and their political advantage. So we can’t look to politicians and talking heads to get us out of this mess.

Christian Solutions

The solution, it seems to me, is just as complicated as the problem, but that is not an excuse to ignore it. As a Christian, what am I to do when Ferguson situations come up? And how am I supposed to think about these problems? I think the Bible speaks in two specific ways—to me as an individual, and to the church as a social organism. The solution is not going to be borne out of a crisis, but out of a long-term systematic commitment of people of faith and their churches.

As an individual, I am to be an instrument of peace (as the old Catholic prayer goes) in my community (Matt 5:9; James 3:18). I can do this by praying for peace in communities where there is unrest, but also in the hearts of people whose hearts are broken or hardened. I must humbly check my own attitude and seek understanding of others’ situations (Phil 2:3-4). This is one area where the social justice movement of Christianity is correct—we are to strive for justice in our communities and to work on behalf of those who are oppressed in God’s eyes (e.g., Psalm 10, Psalm 146). Am I trying to be understanding of the frustrations of others, or do I just view Ferguson-like violent outbursts as unruly mobs engaged in unjustified riots? Am I personally working to be an ambassador of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-21) across racial and ethnic groups in my community?

Our churches are supposed to be voices of truth and reconciliation in our communities. Is your congregation making opportunities to partner across racial and ethnic lines where you live? Martin Luther King, Jr. often observed that “eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour and Sunday school is still the most segregated school of the week.” If your congregation is virtually entirely of one race, is your church leadership doing anything about that?

As Christians we must continue to acknowledge that Christians sometimes were on the wrong side of race conflicts; that some Christians twisted scripture to support their own personal racist beliefs; and that some of those wounds are still painful to brothers and sisters and neighbors. And yet, Christianity provides an extraordinary—indeed a supernatural—means of reconciling the races, and unifying people in our communities. In the Bible we are repeatedly instructed that the arbitrary social groups of society are supposed to be set aside in the church, where

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. (James 2:1)

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:13)

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6)

Instead of being angry or looking on in disbelief, pray for peace, walk humbly, and strive for understanding and peace in your own communities.

[1] I use the terms African-American and black interchangeably here. I also use the term race (and variants) to refer to different groups even though I believe there is only one race—the human race—with different ethnicities and skin tones.

Why the Houston demand for clergy sermons is great news.

church state image

For several years legal organizations (such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the American Center for Law and Justice) have been openly challenging the portion of the IRS tax-exempt status form that prohibits churches and pastors from publicly endorsing candidates or recommending specific actions against legislation. Churches and pastors essentially sell their right to free speech in exchange for letting donors write their contributions off on their taxes. The reason these organizations (and many other people as well, including me) oppose this provision is that it buys off the pastors’ freedom of political expression in an unconstitutional manner. That is, the tax code violates the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech of the pastors and the organizations they represent (i.e., churches). (By the way, we also think it contradicts scriptures’ mandate for the church to be a prophetic voice into the secular world, such as Martin Luther King did for his entire career.)

But the legal organizations lacked ‘standing’ to sue the IRS because the orgs themselves were not affected by the provisions. So for several years they have been baiting the IRS to challenge pastors’ political speech, but the IRS has not been taking the bait, because there is a credible legal case to be made for the code being unconstitutional, and the IRS is likely to lose.

Enter Houston. The demand to review clergy sermons over sermons that addressed the city’s public facilities anti-discrimination law (that is, the law that allow men who dress like women to use women’s public restrooms, and vice versa) is almost certainly based on this unconstitutional portion of the IRS tax code.

Yippee!!!

Finally, the clergy have standing to sue the city of Houston, and however this individual situation ends up, the decision about the free speech of our clergy and our churches will eventually be appealed to and addressed by the federal courts. It will take a few years, but the lesbian mayor of Houston has done for clergy rights what the IRS wouldn’t do.

What does it mean to “be” The Church?

It seems that “being” The Church is cool these days–especially when people claiming to “be” The Church contrast it with “going” to church. But what does it actually mean to “be” The Church? Let’s look at what The Church is, and then what it means to “be” it.

First, what is “The Church”? The Church (in Christianity) is all those who believe in Jesus as the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the Living God. This confession is the rock or foundation on which Jesus declared that he would build his church (Matt 16: 13-18). That means all believers in Jesus Christ as humanity’s Messiah are The Church, and each of them is a “living stone” built upon Christ’s pillars of truth (1 Peter 2:1-5).

So what does it mean to “be” The Church? Webster’s 1828 Dictionary suggests that the verb “be” means “to stand; remain or be fixed; hence to continue; … It forms, with the infinitive, a particular future tense, which often expresses duty, necessity, or purpose.” This suggests that “to be” The Church means to have an existence or presence that matches the purposes for which it was designed and intended.

So what are the purposes of The Church? The New Testament suggests several:

  1. To evangelize non-believers (Matt 28:19).
  2. To disciple believers (i.e, train them in such a way as to produce spiritual growth and maturity) so they can replicate themselves (Matt 28:19-20; Eph 4:11-16; Eph 6:4; 1 Cor 3:5-16; 2 Tim 1:5-14).
  3. To gather together for collective worship, prayer and mutual encouragement, acting in unity for the building of the kingdom of God even while exercising our individual gifts and talents (John 4:19-24; Eph 4:1-16; Heb 10:23-25; Rev 5:9-14; Luke 19:45-46; Matt 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17).
  4. To minister to and care for those in need within The Church (Acts 6:1-4; 1 Tim 5:3-16; Rom 12:3-13; Mark 12:31; Matt 22:39-40).
  5. To minister to and care for those in need outside The Church (Mark 12:31; Matt 22:39-40; Matt 25:31-46).
  6. To glorify God by prophesying to the surrounding community (i.e., speaking truth into the culture) through our words and deeds (e.g., 1 Peter 2:9-20).

The concerns I have about the way people (whom I love) telling me that they are “being” The Church is that they seem to have a narrow idea of what that means. Usually, friends tell me they’re headed off to “be” The Church when they are going down to serve the homeless or needy. This suggests that the people who are really “being” The Church are those whose focus or action is on #5 (and maybe #6) above.

This service is noble and is one aspect of being The Church, but it is an incomplete picture of what it means to be The Church. Without pursuing the other aspects of being The Church we can’t really achieve God’s stated purposes for The Bride of Christ, can we? Being The Church involves pursuing ALL of God’s purposes for The Church. Otherwise it’s like saying that my bride is only really “being” my wife when she feeds me and praises me on Facebook (thanks for that, though, honey!).

Paul foresaw this problem when he warned Christians to avoid thinking that there is only one really useful set of gifts or activities in The Church. He wrote (1 Cor 12:17-31),

“If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. 19 If they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now there are many members, but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23 and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, 24 whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

“27 Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in The Church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. 29 All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30 All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? 31 But earnestly desire the greater gifts.” (NAS)

People who think that they are “being” The Church only when they’re only doing one or two of The Church’s purposes (such as what Paul calls “helps” in verse 28 above) risk developing a tunnel vision of The Church that weakens and dilutes The Church and The Gospel. Each congregation of believers ought to be pursuing all of what it means to “be” The Church—when this happens, we will have the LORD’s desired impact in our world.

Haggai’s first prophesy continued (1:12-15)

For the introduction and historical context for this study, please go here.
For my post on part one of Haggai’s first prophecy, please go here.

In the first part of this prophecy, God reveals that His people got off-track in rebuilding the temple; facing discouragement opposition, they stopped His work, and then in order to justify the work stoppage, they told themselves that it just wasn’t the time for the work to get done. Instead, they focused on their own homes, building “paneled” (luxurious) houses. Thus, they had their priorities out of whack, separating themselves from God.

In the rest of the prophecy the LORD calls them to repentance, to recalibrate their priorities, and to get back into right relationship with Him.

5 Now therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts, “Consider your ways! 6 You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes.” 7 Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Consider your ways!” (NAS) 

Twice He says, “Consider your ways!” (The NIV translates it “Give careful thought to your ways!”).  Now, whenever the Lord repeats himself it’s not because he lacks imagination, it’s because He is making a point very strongly. Even though their houses are paneled, their financial situation is difficult—their harvest doesn’t match their sowing, they never seem to have enough to eat or drink, their clothing is spare, they can’t seem to keep hold of their money. Somehow, God is connecting these situations with what they are (or are not) doing.

The reason for this never-enough life they’re living is revealed in verses 8-11: God himself has withheld His blessings.

8 “Go up to the mountains, bring wood and rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be glorified,” says the LORD. 9 “You look for much, but behold, it comes to little; when you bring it home, I blow it away. Why?” declares the LORD of hosts, “Because of My house which lies desolate, while each of you runs to his own house. 10 Therefore, because of you the sky has withheld its dew and the earth has withheld its produce. 11 I called for a drought on the land, on the mountains, on the grain, on the new wine, on the oil, on what the ground produces, on men, on cattle, and on all the labor of your hands.” 

Why has he withheld the blessings of the harvest? It’s because they have neglected building his house (1:4,9). They rebuilt the altar and the foundation for the temple, but then stopped (Ezra 3-4). They hunkered down in their self-centered worlds and forgot their calling as the people of God! He has been disciplining them, not through catastrophe, but by simply giving them only enough to get by. Because they’re off-track in terms of their priorities and obedience, they have brought poverty on themselves, even though they try to project an image of success through their paneled houses.

What does God want instead? He wants them to

> Reflect on their purpose as His children (“Consider your ways!”). By doing this, they will realize their need for humility before the Lord.
> Be obedient (“rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be glorified”). By doing this, He will be glorified.

Notice what God doesn’t promise: He doesn’t explicitly tell them that if they consider their ways and repent they will get a better harvest or have an easier life. He simply points out the facts of their situation, tells them why it is what it is, and tells them what to do instead. No new covenant is established, He just lets them process these things for themselves.

I love their response.

12 Then Zerubbabel [and] Joshua [and] all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the LORD their God had sent him. And the people showed reverence for the LORD.

Their first response was not to get busy doing stuff, it was to humble themselves and reverence the Lord. This is what the Lord really wanted in the first place…He wanted their hearts. His response to them is immediate:

13 Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke by the commission of the LORD to the people saying, “ ‘I am with you,’ declares the LORD.”

They must have been thrilled! Just a few minutes ago, God wouldn’t even claim them as His Own (1:2), and now he declares that He is with them!

After they re-oriented their hearts in God’s direction, three weeks later they went back to work:

14 So the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the LORD of hosts, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of Darius the king.

What can we learn from this exchange?

Remember, The Church is now the temple of the Lord (1 Cor 3:16-17; 1 Cor 6:19-20; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-6); each Christian is part of The Church; your local congregation is a collection of pieces of The Church in your community.

  1. God wants our hearts. God didn’t “return” to his people when they went back to rebuilding a building, He came back to then when they humbled themselves and reoriented their hearts toward Him. If you, your family, or your church are not humble before the Lord, then you will be adrift spiritually. Even if things seem successful from a worldly perspective (after all, the Jews were in paneled houses), you might not be pleasing the Lord.
  2. Our hearts can get discouraged and distracted. When we get our spiritual priorities out of order, we miss out on opportunities that God wants for us. If we listen to those who discourage (like the Samaritans did to the Jewish remnant) we will lose focus and drive to do what we’re supposed to do. Watch out for leaders or others who are about the business of discouraging and who exhibit a spirit of condemnation. They will push the faithful off the right track instead of edifying them, and dishearten the poor in spirit instead of ministering to them.
  3. God wants our obedience. It’s not that the Jews were particularly evil! They just weren’t obedient. What is God calling you, your family, or your church to do, right now, this moment, where He has planted you? For parents and church leaders, this means calling and equipping those for whom you’re responsible. If you say you’re supposed to evangelize, but never train or equip for evangelizing, the evangelizing won’t happen. If you ask a child to do a task, but never train the child how to do the task, they’ll be handicapped from the outset. In both of these cases, the real problem is with the leader or the parent, not the unequipped church member or untrained child.
  4. Pay attention to the clues! The Jewish remnant wasn’t in right relationship with God, and so He withheld blessings. Are there areas of spiritual blessing that your family or church are lacking? Are you or your children drifting from the Lord? Are people not being saved in your church? Has spiritual growth atrophied? Are spiritually mature people tuning out and leaving instead of plugging in? These may be signs of the Lord withholding his harvest from you because of your wrong priorities, distracted hearts, and disobedience.

Applying these lessons to you is up to you. Consider what aspects of your life you may need to re-orient and recalibrate in order for the Lord to declare to you, “I am with you.” Humble yourself, seek first His kingdom, and He will add all these things to you. I can tell you from experience that when you take these first steps, the Lord will encourage and energize you in ways you may never have known.