The Most Misunderstood Word In The Bible

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A Biblical fundamentalist, responding to my last blog, asked me to explain John 1:1-14.

Apparently he thought the picture (with the Bible telling a worshipper that it can’t save them) meant that I didn’t believe the Scripture and went on to declare the Bible as being “the only road map we have to salvation.”  Which, ironically enough, is in direct contradiction to what is actually recorded in Scripture.

Jesus said, according to the Gospel of John, that the “Spirit will teach you all things” and that he (not a book) was the only way to the Father.  It is a very clear pattern, throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters, that it is the Spirit that “quickens” (John 6:63, Romans 8:11) and that it was the Spirit that led Jesus (Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1), and this:

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. […] But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.  All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. (John 16:7‭, ‬13‭-‬15 NIV)

If you believe in the Spirit then you won’t settle for a road map.  If you believe that then you will receive the GPS—which is to say the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and the only thing that will make Scripture useful.  Because, lest we forget, those who rejected Jesus also believed in the Scripture and looked to it for their salvation:

And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.  You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:37‭-‬40 NIV)

These people “diligently” studied the Scriptures yet did not have “his word” dwelling in them and rejected Jesus as Savior.  They were using Scripture as their “road map” and failed to recognize Jesus as Lord.

How can it be?

Well, it is simply this: The Bible, while “inspired by God” according to 2 Timothy 3:16, does not provide its own interpretation.  Scripture is written in human language, translated by human translators and requires the reader to correctly understand the words which it contains.

Peter warned the early church:

[Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:16b)

Think about it.

Again, Scripture does not provide its own interpretation.  It can be misunderstood and distorted.  It did not lead those who diligently studied it to recognize Jesus as the source of life and the book itself testifies that we should expect something much greater than a book to lead us to all truth.

What is the most misunderstood word in the Bible?

There are many things in the Bible that are difficult to understand.  There are many words and phrases in it that are misunderstood and misused.  But there is one word that stands out above the rest.  It is the “Word” found in John 1:1-14:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. […] The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1‭-‬5‭, ‬14 NIV)

First off, we should consider the intent and context.  John, in this dramatic introduction to his narrative, is making a thesis statement that establishes the divinity of Jesus.  He uses “Word” to create a link between the Spirit of God that was present from the beginning of time to the perfect incarnation in Jesus.

Second, John wrote in Greek, not English.

The “Word” used by John is “Logos” in the Greek.  It does not mean the same thing as the English word used by translators.  Logos is a word originally coined by Greek philosophers; it is a word used to describe the order of the cosmos, spiritual principles or divine reason.  John, borrowing the terminology of the Greeks, used “Logos” to describe God’s divine reasoning that created the universe, that is behind all events, and became flesh in Christ.  To reduce such a rich and powerful concept to merely written text is a crime against language.

Logos ≠ Bible

John says that the Logos “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” but he never claimed that it became text.  Nowhere in the Bible is “Logos” described as being synonymous with Scripture.  Many, their assumptions formed by an English translation and fundamentalist commentators, read “word of God” to mean Scripture.  However, there is no evidence in the Bible to support this assumption and an unbiased look at the descriptions of the “word of God” in Scripture would lead one to believe otherwise:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

Do an experiment: Take your Bible, set it on a shelf and don’t touch it for a week.  

Will it be “alive and active” if you do that?

No.

The book will not chase you or cause you to do anything unless you read it and that is quite different from what we read about God’s word.

The “word of God,” according to Scripture, is something that can’t be shelved.  Jesus once said that “the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40) if his disciples were to remain silent about his being Lord.  We read about Balaam’s donkey speaking in Numbers 22:22.  There is also the amazing conversion of Saul, whose vast knowledge of Scripture had prevented him from accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior.  He was confronted on the road to Damascus by a light from above and a voice.  The “word of God” is clearly not a kind of word that is constrained to a page.

The “word of God” is something heard and obeyed, not read and studied.  Again, in John 5:37-40, we read where Jesus confronts those who diligently studied Scripture and yet never had “his word” dwell with in them nor did they “hear his voice.”  If the phrase “word of God” was synonymous with reading Scripture then Jesus would be contradicting himself by saying what he did.  Scripture is “inspired” by God, but it is not God.  God’s word, according to the book of Isaiah, does not “return void” and we can’t say that about the Scripture read by those who rejected Jesus.

The Word is God

This is where the rubber meets the road: To claim that Scripture is equivalent to the Logos of John 1:14 is to claim a book is God.  To do that is idolatrous.

The Bible is inspired by God, a written testimony of his work throughout the ages, but it is written in human language and depends on our ability to interpret it correctly in order for it to be profitable.  Correct interpretation of the sacred text is virtually impossible without the “mind of Christ” or promised Spirit of truth.

The Logos is infallible.

All human language is fallible.

Human language is dependent on words and words are basically metaphors and never actually the same thing they describe.  Words are only an arrangement of sounds and symbolic representations that are assigned to or associated with meanings.  These sounds and symbols representing the sounds require proper use and interpretation—words are not always understood as originally intended.

Human language is fallible because it depends on humans for interpretation and we are fallible.  Our words fall empty and void of meaning unless our readers or listeners make the same assumptions of meaning that we intend for the representative sounds or letters we strung together.  How much we understand depends on both parties “being on the same page” or, in other words, sharing the same assumptions about their words.

So how do we get the correct assumptions about Biblical language?

Correct assumptions come from relationship with the writer or speaker.  The better we know a person the more likely we are to understand the language they are using and come to the correct conclusions.  However, since even close friends occasionally have moments of confusion, having absolutely correct understanding requires that author and receiver literally share the same mind.

That is essentially what Paul is trying to communicate:

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”—the things God has prepared for those who love him— these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.  The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:6‭-‬16 NIV)

Paul emphasizes the need for the Spirit as a prerequisite for understanding Scripture, but Biblical fundamentalism gets that in reverse and tries to find God’s living word through diligent study of Scripture.  Yet no amount of study can help a person who stubbornly holds to an incorrect understanding of the words in the book—their study could be a path to destruction.

It is the Spirit that conveys the meaningful content of Scripture.  And we don’t receive the Spirit through our own diligent efforts.  It is a gift of God’s grace that we are saved (Ephesians 2:8) and if we aren’t “quickened” (made alive) by the Spirit we will remain dead in our sins and ignorant.  Our salvation is fully dependent on God’s grace and therefore is not a product of anything else we have done—that “anything else” including our own human ability to read and comprehend Scripture.

A person can’t understand Scripture without having God’s word dwelling in them first.  One must be brought to life through a work of the Spirit because it is humanly impossible to bridge the gap between God and man.  There is no theological or intellectual tower tall enough to reach God.  God must first reach us and that is something done through his own mysterious means.

Biblical fundamentalists get things in reverse and think they save themselves through their reading Scripture.  However, if they understood what they read they would know that Biblical language does not provide it’s own interpretation they might be more humble and give God all the credit for their conversion—afterall, we are saved by grace, through faith, and not by our human knowledge or abilities.

Bibliolatry: A modern bull calf of Yah?

Remember the story in the book of Exodus where Aaron, pressured by the people, helped to create a golden calf as an idol to worship?

What you might not know is that in the original Hebrew they used the proper name of God (Yhvh) to describe their idol.  In other words, their idol was a false representation of the true God and not necessarily made in honor of false gods.  Note what Exodus 32:5 tells us:

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord. (Exodus 32:5 NIV)

They were using the correct word for God (Lord = Yhvh) in their worship before their idol and it seems very likely that they realized the calf was an object constructed as a symbolic representation of God and not God.  But their worshiping this representation in an object was idoltarous because it diminished God—it did not truly bring honor to God.

Modern religious people may think it is absurd that people would worship a golden bull on a pedestal.  Sadly many today worship a symbolic representation of God constructed out of human language.  Unfortunately, for them, in the same way that Yahwah is not a gold bull, the true “word of God” is not merely language.  We are in grave danger of falsely representing God if we turn to written symbols as our path to salvation rather than rely on the Spirit of the living God to guide us.

A person who can’t see the absurdity of putting written text of the Bible on the same level as the one who inspired it doesn’t understand language or God.  The Bible does not save anyone and we should never settle for a “road map” when we were promised a navigation system.  We need to consider thay 2 Timothy 3:16 and other passages written for the benefit of believers who already had the Spirit—the Bible is only profitable for those who have already been made alive.

In conclusion, we dare not confuse a symbolic representation of God created in human language with God.  The Bible should be venerated as something inspired by God—but never worshipped or made equal to God and his Logos.  To reduce God’s Logos to the text of a book is idolatrous.  It is putting human comprehension first and God second.

Will the Real Anabaptists Please Stand Up…

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We are all familiar with that guy—the high water mark of his life being his senior year of high school—who is always looking back on that one moment when he was actually relevant and longing for those glory days to return, right?

It is the tendency of some to romanticize the past and something very easy to do when things aren’t going as well as we’d like in the present.  Occasionally this sentimentalism about the past is useful reflection, but oftentimes it is no more than our fear of a future that seems uncertain and keeps us from the greater fulfillment of our potential as an individual or together as a group.

We read about those who rejected what would have brought them into the promised land who “in their hearts turned back to Egypt” and “worship the symbols of their former greatness rather than understand” (Acts 7:39) in Scripture.  Because of this idolatrous preference for things past-tense a generation of Israelites escaped the bondage of Egypt only to wander aimlessly in the wilderness because they did not trust God to overcome the giants of their time.

It is fashionable nowadays in some conservative Mennonite or somehow otherwise related circles to use the word “Anabaptist” as a means to distinguish themselves.  This resurrection of Anabaptist identity seems to both be a response to a perceived lukewarmness in the established tradition and also a rejection of what is often labeled Evangelicalism.  But what it often amounts to is no more than a change of window dressing and nothing more.

In many cases it seems these new Anabaptists are simply another hybrid/remix version of conservative Mennonite standards with Biblical fundamentalism, Revivalism, Pietism, along with many other more recent innovations and influences.  These self-proclaimed Anabaptists may actually be more at odds with their ancestors than their Old Order cousins whom they consider to be their spiritual inferiors.  There is no new life, only rewarmed leftovers of yesterday’s meals and a new distraction.

Early Anabaptists did not spend their days in obsessive omphaloskepsis or in preserving a religious cultural identity.  They were men emboldened by the Spirit to question the authority of their own human teachers and break from tradition passed to them.  They were rebels, branded as troublemakers and thought to be dangerous heretics. 

If your primary goal in life is raising your quiverful and maintaining a respectable image in church or society in general, then you, my friend, are no George Blaurock.

Are modern day Anabaptist wannabes doomed to wander a spiritual wilderness?

The short answer is, no.  

We all have choices to make in the present that will shape our future and the choice is still in front of us all. 

Here’s your choice: Will you be like those who stubbornly clung to the past for security and missed out on the promised land because of their lack of faith?  Or, will you this day choose to stop burying your talents in fear, invest fully in trust of God’s grace and rest completely in the Spirit’s ability to lead you as it did Jesus? 

Jesus, when his authority was questioned, pointed to John’s Baptism (Mathew 21:23-27, Mark 11:27-33, Luke 20:1-8) and a moment of special spiritual anointing recorded in all of the Gospels. 

We are told the sky was “torn open” (Mark 1:9-11) then the Spirit of God descended upon him “in bodily form like a dove” (Luke 3:21-23) “and alighted on him” (Matthew 3:13-17) and immediately after this: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness…” (Luke 4:1)  I believe those writers wanted us to know what gave Jesus authority and direction—what say you?

This is what I read: Jesus appealed to an authority greater than the experts on Scripture and theology back then could duplicate.  He points to something spiritually significant that accompanied his physical water Baptism.  An anointing by God that immediately leads him to the wilderness where he is tempted and then emerges to read from Isaiah “the Spirit of God is upon me” claiming it to be fulfilled that day in him to a stunned and incredulous audience.

But, besides that, there is another Biblical accounting of the Baptism of Jesus with an added detail of great importance, the testimony of John:

“I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is Godʼs Chosen One.” (John 1:32-34)

Jesus did not only live as an example and die as a sacrifice for our sins.  No, according to the passage above, he came to deliver on a promise.  That promise was a spiritual anointing like his available to all who believe. 

That promise being “the Spirit of truth” that the world (including many who falsely claim to believe Jesus) cannot accept as real (John 14-17) and is only known to those who have been anointed or “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) and is what was experienced on the day of Pentecost in an event Peter claims was foretold by the prophet Joel before preaching a message of repentance:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39)

What is the first step out of the wilderness?

#1) “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17, Mark 1:15) Which means turning away from our sinful attitudes and behaviors—be Baptized, then live in obedience to the teachings of Jesus as we know them.  The Baptism of repentance is something we do as both a symbolic gesture and also as part of sincere effort to put to practice the self-sacrificial love of Jesus.

This is the most difficult step for those raised in a Christian religious tradition.  We know how to follow the rules or behave ourselves and act right.  However, this is often a commitment without sacrifice and an occasion to stumble over our own pride.  We become like the prodigal son who never left home yet was far from repentance.

Keep repenting as need be.

#2) “Ye must be born again.” (John 3:1-21) This was something perplexing to Nicodemus and still mysterious to us.  Jesus says “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” then adds that only the Spirit gives birth to the spirit.  As surely as you didn’t give birth to yourself the first time you will not give birth to yourself spiritually.  For man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

There are many spiritual infants in the church today or those who rely on their own human reasoning and not the power of God.  There was recently a man, ordained in the Mennonite church, who confessed to his not being spiritually born when he started as a preacher.  We send missionaries out full of themselves or a religious indoctrination and youthful ambition rather than tell them to wait on the fullness of Spirit to come to them as Jesus urged his disciples.

#3) “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.” (1 John 2:20)  Do you have that confidence?  Or are you like those Paul encountered who were Baptized in water of repentance and yet…

“While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ They answered, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ So Paul asked, ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’ ‘Johnʼs baptism,’ they replied.  Paul said, ‘Johnʼs baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” (Acts 19:1-6)

There are many who have been Baptized with water of repentance who are still not quickened in Spirit.  There are two Baptisms, one physical and the other spiritual, one is to show our repentance and another is of God clothing us.  I pray God sends the willing of this generation to lay hands on those who are Baptized yet still spiritual powerless and that through prayer they are anointed in the name of the Lord Jesus.

#4) “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint…” (Proverbs 29:18)  The word revelation (also translated as vision) is about spiritual foresight and leadership.  When there is no spiritual vision people cast off restraint, run wild, perish, etc.

Vision is not about looking backwards for answers.  This is not medieval Switzerland, you are not George Blaurock, I am not Conrad Grebel, and we can’t recreate the 1500’s today nor should we want to.  Tent meetings, Sunday schools, VBS (or any of the other innovations of a prior era) do not need to be preserved ad infinitum either.  We have work to do, work God has given us to do in this present moment using the advantages we are given.

Yes, the witness of faithfulness past-tense should not be forgotten and is a great encouragement.  Take these translated words of “Gott, dich will ich loben” (God, You I Will Praise) a hymn written by Blaurock before his martyrs death have great value:

“Lord God, how do I praise Thee
From hence and evermore,
That Thou real faith didst give me
By which I Thee may know.
Forget me not, O Father,
Be near me evermore;
Thy Spirit shield and teach me,
That in afflictions great
Thy comfort I may ever prove,
And valiantly may obtain
The victory in this fight.”

But putting those words to actual practice does not mean we should be consummate historians, full of knowledge of the past and light on vision for the future.  We should not be like those obsessed with their former glory, trying to be great again by looking backwards, rather we should be full of the Spirit and a vision for today.

The real Anabaptist is the one who does as they did and recklessly pursues the truth regardless of personal cost.  We need a radical faith, one that uses the technological means and media of today, that reaches the world with authentic self-sacrificial love.   We have tools at our disposal that give of us capabilities that our ancestors could hardly even imagine.

Ultimately, however, for any of our tools, technology and historical knowledge to be useful, we need a spiritual awakening.  Real Christian vision is not a product of human ability or effort, it comes from the Spirit of God—For any of our advantages to matter we must be born again.

Those who walk in the Spirit look forward with a positive vision and a great hope for the future.

Truth: A Concept Bigger Than Words

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A couple Sundays ago I was riding along with a some church friends on our way to a hymn sing (something us conservative Mennonites do) and we came upon a hitchhiker.

The hitchhiker, a young man, was strumming some sort of ukulele.  He had a sign asking for a ride west.  We were going west.  We conferred quickly, decided to make use of our extra seat and soon were on our way with one more passenger.

The young man, a friendly nineteen year old from Raleigh, North Carolina, has spent nearly two years on the road and told us of his nomadic lifestyle.  He relies on the hospitality of others, often sleeps under the stars, and is on his way to California.

Being that we are religious and on our way to a church service, the conversation turned to religion.  He explained that he is uncomfortable with the “Christian” label.  He described himself as “a follower of Jesus” and later that evening mentioned the influence of Taoism.

We invited him to church.  He accepted the invitation and soon he was amongst us Mennonites as we sang acapella music.  To my ears we sounded pretty good.  He stayed until the end of the service and soon enough was being introduced by me to others in attendance.

One of those introduced, after some friendly chat (the usual Mennonite game banter and assessment of pedigree) ended by quoting John 14:6 at the young man, “Jesus is the way and the truth and the life” and emphatically stating this is the only way… 

As we paused with this sort of nonsequitar concluding statement, presented in such a religiously cliché way, I almost asked this ordained Mennonite man if he knew what it meant.  But, fearing he would try to answer if I asked, I restrained the impulse and smiled.

I have no idea what my guest was thinking, he was courteous and didn’t seem too uncomfortable in our midst.  And so the evening went, some polite conversation and some awkwardly presented evangelical dogma, me holding my tongue with slightly annoyed amusement and answering his questions.

Incidentally, nobody offered this young man shelter for the night (one of those asked apparently making excuse for himself because of his wife) and so we took him a few miles further west to ‘civilization’ where he would have more options.  We prayed with him, gave him some cash and bid him farewell before returning east again.

What is truth?

The incident above, especially the quotation of Scripture, seemed like a good basis for a blog and reason to consider the meaning of truth.  Truth, in this case, the idea of truth (alétheia) found in the passage, the truth of Jesus, that was partially quoted at my young hitchhiker friend.

The words “I am the way and the truth and the life” are cherry-picked from the Gospel of John.  It is a part of a discussion Jesus was having with his disciples about imminent events.  The disciples, as usual, were bewildered and asking questions:

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’

Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.'” (John 14:6-7)

Philip was still confused.  He goes on to ask Jesus to reveal the Father to them. 

Jesus responds to explain in further detail, stating that he is one with the Father, that his words are spoken by the authority of the Father and telling them that the Father will be revealed to them through obedience to his teaching and by the Holy Spirit.

The truth of Jesus is more than book knowledge.

It is interesting to note that Jesus did not tell his followers to diligently study Scripture.

Instead Jesus told them to obey what they knew and that more would be revealed by the Spirit after their obedience.  It might seem backwards, but faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26) and salvation is a gift from God:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

That is not to say that the Scripture is unprofitable, it most certainly is profitable to a believer.  It is “through faith in Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 2:3-15) that Scripture is able to make us “wise for salvation” and only through this truth of faith can we ever understand.

Book knowledge is not the same as correct understanding and those who opposed Jesus most vehemently had a great knowledge of Scripture.  In fact, it was because of their own understanding of Scripture (and dogmatic literalism) that they rejected Jesus.

The truth of Jesus is something more than mere book knowledge, it is more than religious devotion to the study a text or a theological proposition.  The truth of Jesus is something more profound and powerful than words on a page.  It is a spiritual reality that goes far deeper than fallible human knowledge or our finite ability to understand.

The truth of Jesus is something beyond description in words.

Truth is a word, but truth itself is not a word.

We use words to paint pictures in the minds of our audience.  Words are symbols used to describe ideas, they are things we use to describe other things and yet words are not themselves the thing being described.  Words are not truth of themselves anymore than a portrait in acrylic color on canvas is the actual person being portrayed.

Words depend on the ability of our audience to understand them.  One could tell their cat to “take out the garbage” and the poor critter would stare at them blankly.  Language, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and depends on the interpreter to understand the word usage correctly.  Communication is an interactive affair requiring both parties to be on the same metaphorical page.

Furthermore, talk is cheap, words can also be used to construct a false image of reality and deceive.  Jesus warns of false teachers, people who profess with their mouths to be faithful, who present themselves as sheep and yet are inwardly wolves—We are told we can know people by their good or bad fruit. (Matthew 7:15-23)

So truth is more than words.  Truth is an abstraction, it is something greater than the sum total of words and language used to describe it.  Truth is something bigger than us and beyond our own concept of reality.  Truth is trancendent and still it is something that can be fleshed out and represented.

The truth of Jesus is God’s word and a living testimony about a greater reality.

Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate, a Roman civil authority, to be judged.  The Gospels give slightly different versions of the events.  In summary, the religious leaders accuse Jesus, they say he claims to be their king (a crime amounting to sedition against the established state) and insist that he is evil.

Here’s one account of the beleaguered governor questioning Jesus and trying to get the bottom of the issue:

“Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’

‘Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’

‘Am I a Jew?’ Pilate replied. ‘Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?’

Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’

‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate.

Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’

‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him.'” (John 18:33-38)

This conversation is interesting and especially when Jesus claims to have come to “testify to the truth” and says those on the side of truth listen to him.  It is reminiscent of when he told the religious dogmatists that his sheep hear his voice and makes an incredible claim:

“The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’

Jesus answered, ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me,  but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.  My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.  I and the Father are one.'” (John 10:24-30)

For this Jesus is accused of blasphemy.  But to that charge he replies by quoting their Scripture to them.  He quotes from Psalms 82:6, where it says “I have said you are ‘gods’,” and uses that to argue against their idea that his claim of divine sonship was blasphemy.

Pilate seems agnostic about truth and exasperated by Jesus.  He is dealing with a contradiction, he sees an innocent man not worthy of punishment and the religious crowd sees a man guilty of blasphemy against God who deserves death.

Pilate ultimately bends to political pressure and, while washing his own hands, complies with the demands of the crowd.  However, both Pilate and Herod (who’s part is described in Luke 23:8-12) seem to see Jesus as a curiosity rather than as a direct threat to the state.

The truth of Jesus is found in our following his example and being a self-sacrificial testimony of God’s grace.

The truth of Jesus is not a reasonable or rational proposition by worldly human standards.  It is only understood through spiritual means, through having the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and a process that starts in the heart (2 Corinthians 3) rather than through outward means.

It is transformative, as Paul explains:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)

The Orthodox Christian tradition would call this theosis or divination.  Unfortunately my own Anabaptist tradition has picked to focus on the other negative end (the “be not conformed” part) and the result is an idea of “non-conformity” that usually amounts to a reactionary worldly effort to control outward appearance. 

The truth of Jesus is about more than our ability to conform to a man-made list of requirements.  It is a truth that transcends all worldly means and is expressed in our unrelenting, unapologetic and uncompromising pursuit of the divine.  The truth is a positive vision.  The truth is God’s grace made manifest in us.

The truth of Jesus is a path we walk that leads us to greater life and the perfection of divine love.

The words “the way” (hodos) refer to a journey.  It is a path to walk and live out.  The trail was blazed by Jesus who died for our sins, but it is lived also by those who truly believe and wish to be disciples.  As Jesus said:

“Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.'” (Like 9:23-24)

Jesus is using the cross as a metaphor.  A cross, in human terms, represented suffering and shame.  However, in following after Jesus, for a believer this is not useless suffering, it is not pain for the sake of pain or self-flagellation, it is suffering for the good of others or making a path to something greater.

Jesus promises a more abundant life (John 10:10) to those who follow him.  In this he is not promising material or worldly wealth.  But he does say that we should use our worldly wealth to gain friends and gain true riches (Luke 16) which is to prioritize God through our loving people:

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:20-21)

Jesus said we can know the truth of a person’s profession of faith by their fruit (Matthew 7:15-23) and that the fruit of the Spirit is described by Paul “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)  Our truth must be more than words.

So what does ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ mean?

To understand this we need to understand the context.  The context is the last supper, it is during the Passover feast, the night Jesus is betrayed and an intimate moment.  In these passages of Scripture (John 13 and 14) the implications are clear. 

Jesus explains that his disciples will be known by their love for each other, he says he must go so they may know the truth more intimately (promising the Spirit to those who obey his instructions and example) and then goes on to demonstrate a truth of love worth dying for.

The truth of Jesus is not a theological proposition, not a religious profession or book knowledge. His truth is not a product of human reasoning and founded on scientific research or evidence. The truth of Jesus is something found in our walking in the Spirit, it is demonstrated in our love for others and bringing the dead to life.

Truth is living a reality greater than our reality, something that transcends worldly knowledge and human understanding. Truth is both known and still yet to be known, it is reality that goes beyond the currently available evidence and is something that can only be experienced through a true walk of faith.

The truth of Jesus transcends religion and is a walk of faith.

In some respects it seems my hitchhiking friend may have a better grasp of faith than his religiously indoctrinated counterparts.  He is more literally taking no thought for tomorrow (Matthew 6:34) and depending on God to provide.  By contrast we too often rely on our own understanding, planning and abilities.

I wish my traveling friend well on his journey and pray that the truth of God’s word (Jesus) is made manifest in him.  May God’s truth of self-sacrificial love and spiritual life be found in us who claim to know Jesus.

False And True Knowledge

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I am dismayed when fellow Christians (especially those claiming to speak for the church) make definitive statements that are unsupported in the evidence.  There are many who take a dogmatic black and white stand on ideas not supported logically, scientifically or in appropriate understanding of Scripture.

I am dismayed because we stand to hurt our credibility when we make our stand on things we do not actually know and with reasoning that falls apart under closer scrutiny.  It is too often the case that those who think they are defending the Gospel truth are actually destroying it in their stubborn obstinacy and inability to see past their own presuppositions about the evidence.

This is a problem in the fundamentalist circles I am most familiar with.  Instead of simply taking a stand on faith or sticking to the text of the Bible as they claim, many add their own assumptions.  They go another step off the firm ground of what is truly known and onto the quicksand of over-interpretation, unsupported inference and baseless speculation.  It is sad because it is unnecessary, it too often is the bathwater that conceals the true baby of Christianity, and drives critical thinking people away.

Two examples (often given in opposition to Evolution theory) is the idea that there is a clean break between living and non-living things.  The other is a misuse of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the word “entropy” to mean something that it does not.  Both of these ideas originate in extrapolation from Biblical language, but neither one of them is actually as definitive in the Scriptural record as some might assume.

Postulate #1) Life cannot originate from non-life.

It seems obvious enough at first glance, doesn’t it?  I mean, have you ever seen mud materialize into human form, then suddenly become animated, walk and talk as a human would?  I have not.  We do not typically see dead organisms come back to life without a miracle.

And yet, under the microscope, it is interesting that the line between life and non-life is actually blurrier than one might imagine.  Viruses are considered dead because they do not have the ability to reproduce without a host cell and do not replicate themselves in the typical way of cell-division.  However, a virus can reanimate a dead cell, take control of it and use it to replicate.

Cells themselves are not ‘living’ in their individual components any more than a car is alive when you start it.  Yes, in one sense there is life, but it is the ‘life’ of chemical reaction (albeit in a complex system) and in physical processes not considered as living taken independent of each other. 

Think about it: The sun (due to gravity and other forces) is orderly, it takes hydrogen and, through a process of fusion, creates light energy and heavier elements.  Cells likewise, take one form of matter and through chemical process convert it to something else.  The difference between the sun and a cell, when we cut past the descriptive language to the actual material substance, is one of complexity and size rather than living or dead.

Our physical body is basically a complex machine comprised of individual self-replicating cells that work in concert with other different cells to produce organs, tissues and a body.  At the smallest level it is all chemical reaction and a sort of mechanical process that usually considered non-living.  But, at some point, taken together, these dead parts become something considered a living organism.  It is bit of a both/and paradox rather than an either/or dichotomy.

The difference between life and non-life seems to be a continuum more than a black and white line.  We do not consider a bacteria as equal to a plant or an animal equal to ourselves and the difference is probably the amount of ‘life’ each organism represents.  Likewise, I do not know if we can consider an animated universe something ‘dead’ with all the creative processes at work.  All, to me, are expressions of a creative and living God.

Postulate #2) Entropy is corruptive and not a good thing.

Lay people often misunderstand the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the state of entropy of the entire universe, as an isolated system, will always increase over time) as some kind of moral statement.  This misunderstanding is understandable.  Entropy is associated with decay and the universe is (by appearances, because of entropy) like a wind up clock that will finally someday be exhausted.

However, the increase of disorder or entropy in the universe is not an entirely bad thing.  In fact, entropy is how we get the energy and substance we need to survive.  When a man enters an ‘orderly’ forest, cuts a swath out to build a cabin and cultivates the space created, he has increased entropy.  Our favorite star (aka: the sun) taking ‘orderly’ hydrogen and turning it into a mix of heavier elements and light is increasing entropy.  Entropy is what makes the universe work and allows something as complicated as biological life exist.

Another way to understand entropy is to see it as an increase in complexity.  A stack of lumber is an orderly arrangement and has a relatively low state of entropy.  Hire a carpenter and turn the orderly stack into a house and, with addition of work to cut the lumber to different lengths, along with the contamination of nails, drywall, windows, doors, plumbing, and other building materials, you have increased entropy.

A pile of rocks is at a relatively low state of entropy.  People, one the other hand, represent a very high level of entropy.  We are arguably the pinnacle of disorder in the universe with our complexity and creative abilities.  Our turning orderly raw materials into complex creations, the process we use involving the dispersal of energy, is creating a higher level of entropy.  A 747 is a product of entropy as much as human engineering.

Entropy is like the sun or rain.  The same sun that produces the energy we need to survive can also cause skin cancer and kill us.  The rain cycle that we depend on for fresh water is also capable of producing floods and destruction.  Entropy is not exclusively creative or destructive, it is not something moral or immoral, it just is, and it is necessary for life to exist as we know it.

If life is an emergent property of physical complexity or entropy, then what?

The idea of life being an emergent quality of complex physical processes is unsettling to some.  There are serious philosophical questions and potentially big theological implications.  Nevertheless, if honest use of terms is our concern, we must be fearless and follow the evidence where it leads.

One idea at stake is our human exceptionalism.  In the book of Genesis we read an exceptional account describing the creation of man.  In it we both see humanity as being “in the image of God” and also that God ‘breathed’ the “breath of life” directly into man.  This is directness in the creation of humankind is unique in the Genesis narrative, but what does it really mean? 

We are not exceptional to animals in our physical body.  A human heart can be patched with a valve from a pig.  Human insulin can be created with bacteria and our genetic code is not too significantly different from other animals of our level of complexity.  It would appear that other animals also have consciousness at some level.

So clearly, for the Genesis account to be true, we are somehow special, touched uniquely by God, yet not in a physical sense.  When defining the terms used in Scripture, it is good to compare different accounts and see how similar language is used elsewhere.  In the case of breathing we are not without another reference for sake of comparison.

Genesis is not the only time in the Biblical canon that the divine breathed on men and gave them life:

“Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’  And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'”  (John 20:21-22)

The disciples of Jesus were clearly already physically alive.  But they were not yet ‘born of the Spirit’ and therefore could not understand the things of God.  Read John 6, Jesus talks about the “living bread” he represents and understand that he is not speaking about physical bread nor about physical life. There are many cases in Scripture like this one where a completely ‘literal’ (physical reality) interpretation is incorrect.

So, perhaps what many have been taught and think they know about the book of Genesis is wrong?  Perhaps the book is less about physical reality and more about a greater spiritual truth?  I believe that is possible, even probable, and leads to less conflict with what is known through scientific inquiry.

Knowing what we need to know…

I believe many Biblical fundamentalists confuse the bathwater of their own established interpretation, traditions and dogmas with the baby.  The baby or fundamental truth of Christianity is not found in historical documents nor proved with scientific evidence.  The truth of Christianity is found in knowing what Paul knew:

“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:2-5)

The truth of Christianity is Jesus.  And, by Jesus, I do not mean the historical figure who’s words we read in a book and the religious traditions that borrowed his name.  I mean the Jesus that we live out daily and our having the mind of Christ today. The church must represent Jesus to the world presently, the power of the Spirit must be our reality now or our religious words only perpetuate a fraud.  Jesus must be experienced in our lives today and his will expressed through us or the truth is not in us.

When we find our answers in Jesus (rather than Genesis) and should have spiritual experience in our lives.  What makes us unique is the emergent quality of faith and the breath of God’s own Spirit in us.  We are in the image of the divine because we have the mind of Christ.  These are things revealed by faith and not products of mere human knowledge.

We need not know more than the way of Jesus.  If we live that out our lives will reveal the truth of Christianity without our need of superfluous or false knowledge to bolster our case.  Let the proof of faith be in the truth of our actions and the image of God found in our divine love.

Biblical Faith vs. Bible-based Religion

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Two different religious traditions use the same Scripture.  One tradition says the text points to a man named Jesus who preached in Roman occupied Judea a little over two millennia ago and was God’s only begotten son came to save people from themselves.  The other tradition rejected these claims and still waits on Elijah to return as a prelude to the arrival of the Messiah.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

Note the choices in the passage above.  There’s option a) repentance and changed hearts, or option b) face total destruction.  And, depending on perspective, there might be an option c) both. 

We know that Judaism was split in two because of Jesus (some believing him, others rejecting him) and also that Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70CE.  The glorious temple, the very center of Jewish worship, was completely dismantled as Jesus had foretold and has never been rebuilt.

Temple #1: Symbolic, representation of truth, built out of stone and sweat of men, located in Jerusalem:

“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher!  What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’  ‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.'” (Mark 13:1-2)

Clearly Jesus is referring to the destruction of buildings that the disciples were admiring and that destruction literally happened.

But, there’s more…

Temple #2: Figurative, fleshed out truth, the life work and example of Jesus, located in history:

“The Jews then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’  They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’  But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.” (John 2:18-22)

Jesus also used the temple as a metaphor for himself, predicts his own death and promises to resurrect his body.

Then at the trial of Jesus…

“Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree.  Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: ‘We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.'” (Mark 14:56-58)

Note, in the third passage, we are told that the witnesses at the trial of Jesus spoke falsely.  However, we see in the prior two Gospel accounts quoted above that the words they spoke were half-true—It is indeed true that Jesus spoke about the destruction of the temple and probably said something about a new temple not built with hands—The false part is where they claim he would do it by his own hand.

Jesus foretold his own death using a metaphor of himself or his body being the temple.  But he was also prophesying about the literal building of stone in Jerusalem.  His words a double entendre, one meaning of the word “temple” was figurative about his own death and resurrection and a second concrete meaning about the literal destruction of the temple built of stone.  However, there is a third use of temple and not the temple of the body of Jesus or the temple in Jerusalem built of stone.

Temple #3: Spiritual, a truth experienced, lived practically and today, located in the heart of believers:

“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16)

“Jesus replied, ‘Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.'” (John 14:23)

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)

That is a radical message.  It takes us from a man-made building of stone and religion.  It takes us to the man named Jesus “the stone the builders rejected” (Psalm 118:22, Matthew 21:42, Acts 4:11) and then finishes with us being the place where God dwells and being Jesus.  It is the message that got Stephen killed:

“After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.  But it was Solomon who built a house for him.  However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.  As the prophet says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be?  Has not my hand made all these things?‘  You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!” (Acts 7:45-51)

I can imagine why that was insulting.  Stephen basically just invalidated the entire religion of his audience using their own Scripture. 

The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem marked the end of a religious system.  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus was the beginning of something very different: A chance to be a dwelling place for God, and an opportunity to be a true child (adopted, not begotten) of God.

Jesus, talking to a woman who asked about the proper place to worship, said:

“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24)

Oddly enough, many professing Christians today are waiting on a literal temple of stone and a literal bodily second coming of Jesus.  They seem to me like those who wait on a literal Elijah, who did not recognize John the Baptist as the spiritual Elijah, and rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  They have a Bible-based religion, they diligently study Scripture, yet they seem to be missing something as far as understanding and faith.

Bible-centered religion and regulation is false security.  Jesus never told anyone that Scripture would replace him as teacher.  Jesus did, however, promise that the Spirit would “teach you all things” (John 14:26) and will come to all who believe.  I believe many have been deceived and believe their ‘Biblical fundamentalism’ will save them.  What they actually have is fundamental misunderstanding, they are relying on their own human religious traditions.  They have a Biblical religion only and not the true faith described therein.

“The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’  But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:14-16)

It is the Spirit that makes the Bible discernable.  Those who place their security in the Bible itself (or their fundamentalist book-based religion) are not fully submitted to the Spirit and cannot fully understand the things of faith that are described in Scripture.  They bind themselves up in “false humility,” create “regulations” that have “appearance of wisdom,” (Colossians 2) yet they are false and—like those who “study the Scripture diligently” (John 5:36-40) that Jesus rebuked—they do not have the word of God to discern truth from it.

“Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:15-18)

The truth that brings freedom is of the Spirit.  Religions give adherents false security, but true faith that originates from the indwelling Spirit gives freedom and ability to experience God first hand.  Bible-based religion leads men to talk about Jesus.  Spirit-led faith allows men to *be* Jesus and bring salvation to a lost and hurting world. 

Religion relies on rituals, one size fits all prescriptions and manipulation through fear.  Faith is dynamic, applies grace as liberally as necessary and motivates by being an example of a love that transcends.  Religion hides behind a veil of human inadequacy and attempts to legislate morality into existence without ever changing hearts.  Faith overcomes fear and produces fruit out of passion that comes from true unity with God.

The Bible is a book that can only be understood properly by those with the “mind of Christ” and Spirit.  Knowing when the language of Scripture is figurative, metaphorical, spiritual, concrete, literal (or some ‘all of the above’ combination) requires the indwelling of the word.  Discernment through any other means but a mind renewed in Christ (be it be an old tradition or a new commentary) is incomplete.

“…without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)

No amount of religion finagling or diligent study can replace the indwelling word.  Jesus made it possible to remove the veil of religion and experience the full presence of God.  Seek after Spirit-led faith, not Bible-based religion.

Have you experienced the promise and freedom of faith?

Or, are you still waiting on Elijah to return?

Truth and Hypocrisy

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In the midst of this age of information overload is it any surprise that deep thinking people give up on the idea of discernable truth?

Competive and contradictory claims assail us from all angles. Advocates on all sides are seemingly equally convinced that they see more clearly than those who of a different perspective. 

We would be persuaded, they say, if we just opened our minds, examined the facts fairly and were honest with ourselves.  But, despite their confidence, to me often all sides seem to lack a clear perspective and bring a bias that is only obvious to those on the other side.

Hypocrisy in Action

How is it the same people who want to string up leaders as war criminals are the same who demand only compassion and understanding for a woman who aborts a life because pregnancy is inconvenient?

How is it that gun owners and passionate pro-lifers are some of the same saying that we should judge all Syrian refugees as a potential terrorist and protest to keep them out rather than value them as individuals as they demand for themselves?

Everyone is convinced in their own minds.  Everyone believes that they think rationally and most can give reasons for what they believe.  But somehow everyone, including some very smart people on both sides, cannot agree on everything and oftentimes we vehemently disagree.

Even those who claim the same religious texts as their guidebook to life arrive at vastly different conclusions about what it says—often with perspective each claiming they are authentic and the others are the imposters.  Both come with carefully crafted theologies and neither side shaken from the moorings of base assumptions that lurk somewhere outside the realm of their conscious thought.

Muslims see terrorism as the result of western intervention.  They can point to the fact that terrorist organizations like Islamic State and al-Qaeda were nurtured to life or a direct consequence of foreign policy decisions of the United States of America.  Many Americans, by contrast, see radicalization as a genetic flaw of Islamic faith and downplay their own responsibility.

We tend to see only the noble intentions of those who share our own particular ideological alignment.  The same people who demand absolute accountability for others are often the most creative at manipulating the evidence in order to absolve themselves of even shared guilt.

Meanwhile, with a smug satisfaction (that I cannot know is genuine or facetious) I sit here thinking I know something and maybe I do?

Could it be that none of us can claim to have a complete picture of the truth and that all of us share some in creating this flawed reality?

I know it is more comfortable to assume our perspective is infallible and the we ourselves have no major fault.  It is easy to outsource blame for the problems of the world, wash our own hands of responsibility, and pretend it is moral to distance ourselves sanctimoniously.  However, isn’t that exactly what is wrong with the other side?

I say we all resolve all the more to clean our own side of the street.  Lead the world by making no excuses and being an example.  If you wish for people to be open to your own perspective try to see theirs.  If you do not wish to be judged wholesale by the actions of a few bad actors then do not judge others that way.

Truth in Action

I believe there is truth to be found, but it is not something we profess so much as what we practice.  The truth is the love that we live and not a proposition that is only possible when others do our bidding.  Truth is our walk in consistent love not our words in hypocritical judgment.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.  Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  (Matthew 7:1-5)

Do we give up on describing truth?  No.  I believe that there is some value in trying to put truth into words and arguing for what we believe is right and good.  However, we must always speak in humility and be as brutal to ourselves as we are to those who see things differently.

Gothard: Messenger or Manipulator?

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I was walking across the mall with no time to waste.  Up ahead was one of those Dead Sea salt kiosks staffed by Israelis trained to intercept passing Gentiles. 

My intentions were to stride on by, keep my eyes focused ahead and totally avoid the high pressure sales tactics that make men of less mental fortitude into suckers.  I am not a sucker.

But as I passed I failed.  She spoke sweetly with an irresistible accent.  I was too nice to not answer a friendly greeting.  Sales people are human after all.  I let a reply slip.  “Thank you,” I said, “but, I’m in a hurry…” 

She was ready with an answer before I had even opened my mouth, my forward progress had somehow stopped, and she was rubbing lotion on my hand before I could think to protest.  My higher cognitive functions suddenly neutralized by the sensory input filling that primal need of physical touch.

I still was determined to resist.  I refused to make a purchase.  I am a consummate saver, a responsible spender, only buy things I need, and have no need of lotion, deep cleansers or any of that overpriced slime.  And, no, not for my mother, nor my sister, and what girlfriend, right?

“You’re really good at your job.”  I said, as I as I paid penance to the wiles of a soothing seductress, and contemplated male stupidity, and wondered what I would do with all the clutter she left in my hands, as if I had an obligation to spare her embarrassment of failure to sell. 

She never gave me the satisfaction of being right about her insincerity. 

What is manipulation?

To manipulate is to bend, form or move something and make it conform to your will.  We use a hammer as a persuasion device to manipulate steel or to pound a nail into a block of wood.  We try to manipulate our environment to make it more suitable to our own desired ends.

There are also people who manipulate other people, like my temporary friend at the mall kiosk, and try to control people through false means or fear.  This goes beyond simple persuasion.  Psychological manipulation, according to Wikipedia,“is a type of social influence that aims to change the perception or behavior of others through underhanded, deceptive, or abusive tactics.”

In the political sphere there is fear-mongering, demagoguery and pandering as manipulative tactics.  The manipulator plays on the emotions of the target audience.  He set himself up as an authority or in the know and trustworthy.  She poses as a concerned friend, a common person standing up against the bad people, or a heroic altruist.  But beneath the rhetoric is often a cynical calculated effort to buy votes and control people.

This is also an unfortunate aspect of religion.  Jesus warned of those who “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders,” and yet, “they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23) These people, he goes on to say, are “hypocrites,” who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”  He’s speaking of the religious experts, the “teachers of the law” and Pharisees.

The Pharisees were outwardly righteous, they followed many rules trying to please God, they would continually ask, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  But, despite their “diligent” study of the Scripture, we are told, “the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.” (John 5)  They missed the answer standing literally (literally) in front of them.

They were deceived, self-decieved, and destroyed the very people they ‘won’ over by their dedicated missional efforts, making them “twice as much a child of hell” as they are according to Matthew’s account.  They posed as gate keepers to the “kingdom of heaven” and, unfortunately, did not enter themselves.  They are “blind guides” who neglected more important matters of actual spiritual weight.  These were men full of themselves and not the Spirit of God. 

Who is Bill Gothard?

Bill Gothard, PhD is a teacher popular in some Biblical fundamentalist communities.  He is known for his seminars which give “principles” loosely based on the Bible.  He is an elderly man now, he was never married (although he does give marriage and child rearing advice) and founder of Institute in Basic Life Principles.  He recently resigned from his organization amid sexual harassment allegations.

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(Read the “about me” on his website: http://billgothard.com/about )

I was asked for my thoughts about Gothard after my last blog post.  I had made a passing mention of him as one who rationalizes sexual abuse as a product of female immodesty or rebellion (kind of like earthquakes in Nepal) and I was also criticized for jumping on the bandwagon against him.  The link I provided was written from a “victim’s perspective” and apparently (in the critic’s opinion) the only right response for those who suffer abuse is forgiveness.

Well, I am not a victim of Mr. Gothard.  I have never met him in person.  I will leave it for God and others to judge Gothard’s personal life.  But, as one committed to “rightly dividing the word of truth,” (2 Timothy 2:15) I feel I must examine his teachings against Scripture.  I am familiar with his teachings. My church has hosted his seminars. I have had questions about his ideas and long before the Duggar family sexual molestation controversy put Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute in the spotlight.

My primary concern in this essay is with Gothard’s Scriptural hermeneutic and his theology, not his person.  There is some obvious overlap between the influence of his teachings, his behavior as a person and what he believes.  However, I prefer to stick as much to what is verifiable.  I do, as always, recommend looking for yourself rather than just take my word for it.  So I will give my perspective as an invitation to study for yourself and find the truth.

Gothard‘s teaching manipulates Scripture.

There are many different perspectives on Scripture and many opportunities to be wrong about what the Bible says.  I’ve made my share of mistakes when it comes to correctly understanding written texts.  I cannot fault a person for an occasional error in their interpretation and application of the Bible.  The Bible is a complex book and difficult to understand according to what is written in it:

“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16 NIV)

Gothard’s teaching goes beyond just a simple misinterpretation of Scripture.  He makes fundamental and systematic errors in his Biblical exegesis.  He reads his own presuppositions into the text of the Bible and in ways that go directly against the actual explanations supplied within the text itself.  His understanding of Scripture seems to revolve around his own established ‘principles’ rather than go the other way around.  He neglects important concepts of faith while emphasizing his own prescriptions at the expense of whole truth.

This is not a perspective of Gothard’s work unique to me.  In a paper, “Issues of Concern—Bill Gothard and the Bible: A Report,” published May 30, 1984, Ronald B. Allen, ThD expressed the following evaluation:

“Gothard’s approach is not that of the careful exegete who wishes to determine the meaning of the text, but of the engineer who wishes to use the material in his own programmatic approach which is mechanical and not personal, mechanistic and not dynamic. Gothard does not really teach the Scripture; he really uses the Scripture to fit into his own categories.”

Gothard seemingly throws out the baby (what the Bible explains) to keep the bathwater of his own preconceived notions and prescriptive formulas.  His analysis of the book of Job is a glaring example of his editorial manipulation of a text.  Gothard actually comes out on the side of those who are rebuked by God for their false attribution of reasons for Job’s suffering, as Allen explains:

“The clear teaching of the Book of Job is that a mechanistic, cause-and-effect, approach to life may be way off base! Is it any wonder that Gothard tries to evade the clear teaching of the Bible that Job was a righteous man (the only reading on which the book works!), and finds many sins and character flaws in him (overwork in Christian causes, neglect of his family, embittered sons, estranged from family, wrong attitudes toward the workers). In this way the book is turned inside out and by this strange alchemy Job supports Gothard’s lists.

There is nothing in the Biblical text to suggest Job brought his suffering upon himself for something wrong he did.  In fact it was the righteousness of Job that was the theme of the book. At the end of the book God vindicated Job and rebuked his persecuting comforters:

“After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has… My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.”  (Job 42:7-8)

Gothard is repeating the folly of Job’s falsely accusing friends and does so despite having the end of the book where God sets them straight.  So, why would Gothard take the Job story and turn it upside down?  Well, perhaps it is because he over-applies an idea of sowing and reaping (or cause and effect) to every circumstance?  It becomes quite evident in Gothard’s teaching that every bad thing that happens to a person is a result of their own sin.

This erroneous idea is nothing new or unique to Job’s friends or Bill Gothard, the disciples of Jesus made the same mistake when they encountered a blind man in this Biblical account:

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  (John 9:1-3)

Sometimes bad things are the result of nobody’s sin.  Jesus made a similar point as why we should show grace to all people when he reminded that God“causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  (Matthew 5:45)  In other words, sometimes (or even most times) a rainstorm is just a rainstorm and not judgment or a reward for behavior from God.  Not every good thing that happens to a person is a reward, not every bad thing that happens is a punishment.

Gothard’s teaching manipulates people.

One of the responses to my last blog came from a woman molested by her own father at age nine.  She did not invite that upon herself by something she did.  Sexual abuse victims often feel a sense of guilt or shame and need to be freed from that to be able to move on.  But, if she goes to Gothard, this may be the tenor of the advice she gets:

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Note the fourth point, “Why did God let it happen?”  In that there is “Result of defrauding by” and that followed by a list of four subpoints: Immodest dress; Indecent exposure; Being out from the protection of our parents; Being with evil friends?

I spoke at greater length about what the Bible actually says about modesty in my last post and there is absolutely nothing in the Bible that says sexual molestation or rape is a result of female immodesty.  That woman molested at nine years old did not dress to draw her own father’s attention, she was in her own home, she was molested by a parent and, again, in her own home!  So that is quite the exception to the logic of “defrauding” laid out by Gothard’s counseling literature.  There should be a big exception clause at very least.

But Gothardism doesn’t allow for exceptions to his own rules.  In Gothard’s view, as with his mistreatment of Job’s suffering as somehow self-inflicted, if a young woman is raped then she must’ve done something to deserve it.  In his “character sketches” he twists the Biblical account of Dinah by attributing wrongful attitudes to her that cannot be found anywhere in the text.  Gothard makes Dinah out to be a rebellious daughter and thus responsible for what happened to her.  Then he turns the opposite direction and is critical of Tamar for actually obeying her father’s request.  Gothard’s logic is self-contradictory and contradicts the Bible.  Worse, it shames sexual assault victims by implicating them and it adds a weight of guilt undeserved.

The Bible doesn’t support the false dichotomies and overly simplistic principles of Gothard’s teachings.  But, rather than admit his thinking is flawed and repent, Gothard attempts to manipulate the Bible to fit his own preconceived ideas.  That is to elevate his own opinions above the very explanations given in Scripture.  Gothard manipulates Biblical evidence in the same way Satan twisted God’s words to deceive Eve and in the same way Satan later misused Scripture to tempt Jesus.

Gothardism attempts to manipulate God

It also appears Gothard thinks of God like a vending machine: You insert devotion to a list of basic principles, you turn a few levers, pull a few knobs and out pops a blessing.  This is a mechanical view of God.  Another blogger critiquing Gothard put it this way:

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Gothard’s heterodoxy is what it does to God. Not only does God plays little or no part in a believer’s life through omission, but Gothard actually teaches that God’s grace is bound to the limitations of our own abilities. It is not simply that God helps those who help themselves, but that God will not and cannot help anyone who is not already practicing the right principles.”

It is an underestimate of God that essentially makes us our own savior and that is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Sure, I see many good things in what Gothard teaches, his textbook contains many interesting anecdotes and observations about human nature, but it is missing something.  It reminds me of when Jesus said to the Pharisees, “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13)

The quote Jesus used was from the sixth chapter of the book of Hosea.  At the time there was a complex ritual of sacrificial devotion to God and in that chapter the people, treating God like a vending machine, give a superficial repentance.   But God is not impressed.  God answers with “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” and doesn’t accept their religious devotion.

Gothard seems intent on trying to please God by his devotion to a set of life principles.  Unfortunately, in that he seems to have gotten off track and is so concerned about tithing spices of his own system that he neglects the weightier matters of spiritual life (Matthew 23) and that being genuine relationship with God.  God is not a machine.  Faith is not mere religious devotion to a set of principles.

What is missing from Gothard’s teaching?

Grace is the wild card in a black and white world of determinism’s cause-and-effect dictates.  The Gospel without grace is like a car without wheels.  Over and over again in the critique of Gothard’s work is mention of a lack of his proper understanding of grace.  Yes, there is mention of grace in Gothard’s work, but there seems to be a difference between what he means by grace and what is spelled out in Scripture.  Grace is not a mechanical process of our careful application of correct principles, it is a mysterious paradox of God’s love:

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  (Ephesians 2:4-10)

This is the work of religion…

“Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you.  Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind.  They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.  Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely 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.  (Colosians 2:18-20)

This is the work of faith…

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good!  Even the demons believe that—and shudder.  You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?”  (James 2:14-20)

Christianity, authentic Christian faith, is about love and not manipulation.  Jesus told his disciples:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

Is Gothard a false teacher?

I wish matters like this were as simple as the Dead Sea salt kiosk where it was quite obvious I was being manipulated.  My initial reaction is that Bill Gothard is a false teacher.  It is not because he does not have some good insights or points either.  I was reminded of the time when Jesus rebuked Peter, saying “get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23)  Peter went on to be a powerful example of God’s grace.

I worry about the tendency of fundamentalist’s to ‘circle the wagons’ when it comes to someone who claims to uphold ‘Biblical principles’ and conservative values.  The same people who repost scary internet memes about “Charlie Charlie” will welcome a man like Gothard into their church or home without stopping to consider that he could be a false teacher and potential traitor to the Gospel.

“For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men.”

That above is part of the warning Marcus Tullius Cicero gave in Roman times.  He was speaking about threats to nations or governments from within them, but his words could also easily apply to the church today.  We need to be aware of the enemy within the gates.  Satan was described as subtle, are we looking for the subtle deception or only the obvious threat?

As far as Gothard, I have stepped back from my initial reaction.  I am content to let God judge him and his teachings.  However, for myself I will go to another source of authority rather than him, I believe there is a primary source greater than even the best of commentators and it is that wisdom I seek.  For you who teach, I leave this:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”  (James 3:1)

Be careful teachers what you teach!