Willie Deutsch.com

Religion and Politics from a Young Christian in Northern Virginia

Separation from the World: An Astonishing Concept for Paul

January 16th, 2013

There is an idea among many Christians that separation from the world is an intrinsically good thing.  This stems from the idea of being “In the world, but not of it,” (John 17:14-15) and Paul’s command to “not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) among other passages.  Many have taught that these verses teach that being separate or different from the world is an intrinsic good.  (“The World” in this case refers to people, views, and institutions that are simply non-Christian.  Not things that are militant towards Christianity, but rather those that are non-Christian.  It is similar to the concept of a distinct sacred v. secular divide.)  The idea is furthered by the idea that holiness means being separate, so when we are being separate or distinct we are being even more holy.

This has lead for many to a disassociation with non-Christians by many Christians so that they have really no friends or serious interactions with non-Christians.  Even more tragically, this focus on being distinct has lead Christians to disassociate from other Christians who don’t share their distinctions.

While discussing this issue, a friend pointed out a fascinating passage in I Corinthians 5.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you. (I Corinthians 5:1-2,9-13)

You can hear Paul’s astonishment at the absurdity of being in the world and not associating with those who are of it.  There is almost a little chuckle in his voice as he says it.  To him it makes no sense.  It doesn’t compute.  How can one be in the world and not associate with those in it? Paul is explicitly refusing to tell people not to associate with those of the world.  He doesn’t believe it is possible for people living in the world to do this.

Probably the reason this idea is so foreign to Paul is that it is contrary to the last command of Christ, The Great Commission.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Funding missionaries is a good thing, but funding and sending missionaries isn’t everything that is meant.  If the Great Commission means anything, it has to include reaching the people right where you are.  This is impossible if you are separated from the people you are trying to reach.  Building relationships, knowing people, and reaching them where they are is crucial to obeying The Great Commission.

However, our focus on distinctions makes many more focused on building their subgroup of Christianity than bringing new people into the Kingdom.  While “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance,” (Luke 15:7) many churches are more focused on the ninety-nine.  Helping other Christians come to a “better” understanding of certain doctrines seems to be a greater focus for many.

Ironically this focus on becoming Christians who better understand various Christian teaching stems in part from the fact that most Christians only associate with other Christians, and so they are doing their best to help and teach those they associate with.  You can’t influence people you don’t know, so maybe we should rethink the idea of disassociating ourselves from those we are supposedly meant to be reaching.

Putting this a different way… When Dale Carnegie wrote How To Win Friends and Influence People I’m pretty sure separating yourself from them didn’t make it on the list for a reason.  If the church is supposed to be about influencing people to come to Christ, it’s illogical to value separating ourselves from those we are trying to influence.

How Does Love “Keep No Record of Wrongs?”

January 13th, 2013

Recently a Christian friend shared with me about an effort to reconcile with another Christian, with whom he had some relational difficulties due to a series of disagreements and altercations. He shared with me that during the course of his attempt to reconcile and heal his relationship with the other party, he was told that if he was truly loving, he should follow Paul’s description of love and “keep no record of wrongs” (I Corinthians 13:5). My friend expressed his confusion over the fact that this line of reasoning was used to justify a seeming unwillingness in the other party to admit wrongs committed in the recent past.  When he tried to address the issues hindering his relationship with this other Christian, he was essentially told that he needed to just “forgive and forget.”

In light of this conversation, I’ve been pondering the idea of love, and wondering how love intersects with working through past wrongs. Is it true that when we forgive, we are required to just forget about the past? Was that what Paul meant when he said that love “keeps no record of wrongs”?

My initial reaction was to try to look up the meaning of the Greek words involved in Paul’s description of love. I discovered that the idea expressed in I Corinthians 13:5 can be translated variously as: “love is not resentful,” “love does not count up wrongdoing,” or “love does not entertain evil thoughts.” It appears that the phrase is not equated with the idea of “forgive and forget,” but rather with the idea of being resentful and bitter towards another person because of past wrongs, and harboring evil thoughts toward them or about them.

Thinking about what the phrase could mean, I found myself turning to 2 Samuel 12 and the story of the prophet Nathan’s confrontation of King David. This is the story of Nathan’s convicting parable, and the punishment pronounced for David’s murder of Uriah and sin with Bathsheba. After Nathan pronounces the penalty, and David confesses his sin, there is a fascinating verse in 2 Samuel 12:13-14.

And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die.”

Here we see God forgiving David, yet clearly not forgetting what He did, nor sweeping away the consequences for David’s evil actions. I think this passage can be insightful in terms of how God deals with sin.

While it is also true that God blots out our sin (Isaiah 43:25 and Isaiah 44:22), and removes it from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12), He does not forget them so that He could not recount them. To believe this would be to deny the omniscience of God. It also denies the fact that everyone will give an account to God for the sins they commit.  (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 and 2 Corinthians 5:10)  Instead, God in His mercy no longer holds those sins to our account. In terms of our justification, or right standing before Him, He attributes Christ’s righteousness to our account, and wipes our record of the many sins we have committed.

If God’s blotting or forgetting is in terms of holding things to our record, this is the way the idea of “keeping no record of wrongs” should be viewed. Following His example, when we forgive someone, we must choose not to “hold their hurtful actions against them.” In other words, we must choose not to view them with resentment or vengeance in our hearts. Fostering bitterness is dangerous, and contrary to love. However, this does not eliminate the need to work through issues as a consequence of sin, or in order to bring about restoration.

If you are trying to resolve an issue with someone else in a loving way, but are being told to just move on and “forgive and forget,” this is something to consider. You may not be able to forget the actions of another person, and it may not even be wise to try. However, you also can’t force people to reconcile with you, or admit past wrongdoing. If you are in this situation, it may be helpful to remind yourself that it is not a sin to remember wrongs that someone else has committed against you.

Choosing to continue acting with love towards that person is what matters. Be open to reconciliation. Walk in forgiveness. Choose grace.

The Hobbit: A Beautiful Story for Christmas

January 1st, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has garnered all sorts of reviews, yet amid the discussions of plot and the general techno-babble, perhaps one thing has been missed. What struck me the most about the film was the way it captured Tolkien’s meaning behind the idea of a “Hobbit.”  The character and adventures of Bilbo Baggins demonstrate the importance of ordinary common folk , as well as the idea that heroes are found in the most unexpected places.

As a Baggins, Bilbo can not imagine sacrificing the comforts of home for a life of danger, but Gandalf knows that Took blood flows in Bilbo’s veins and believes he will be an invaluable member of the company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield, who are headed east to reconquer a lost kingdom of gold and defeat the dragon who hoards it.

Obviously, in many ways Bilbo is not the ideal pick for a quest to kill a monster and save a kingdom.  He wants to return home for his handkerchief, he has no experience using a weapon, and the thought of death makes him faint–literally. Bilbo’s inadequacies cause his companions to doubt him, and at one point Bilbo almost leaves because he feels he is a useless part of the baggage.  However, it is Bilbo who uses his wit to save the dwarves from being eaten by trolls, and at the very end of the movie, it is Bilbo who rushes into battle to save Thorin from being killed by his arch-rival Azog. 

One moment of dialogue that depicts this concept happens when Gandalf and Galadriel are discussing the fate of the company. Galadriel asks the wizard, “Why the Halfling?”  Gandalf responds:

“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps because I am afraid… He gives me courage.”

The Hobbit’s portrayal of the unexpected importance of ordinary folk reminded me of I Corinthians 1:27-29.

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

The Bible is littered with examples of God using the most unexpected people to accomplish great things.  He delivered his people from the greatest ruler in the world with someone who had spent 40 years as a shepherd.  He used another overlooked shepherd boy to defeat a blasphemous giant and become the greatest King of Israel.  Jesus’s handpicked disciples were a collection of uneducated fishermen.  The greatest apostle was someone who once was infamous for stoning and imprisoning Christians.  Just as Gandalf chose Bilbo as the fourteenth member of the company and asked Thorin to trust that he would prove himself invaluable, so God regularly uses people to do great things–people no one on earth would think to pick.

This is the great confidence we have as Christians, that God in His mercy does not use us and bless us because of who we are, but He chooses the low, weak, and despised of the world.

In this way The Hobbit points us back to the Great Story–the ultimate story of an unexpected and seemingly ordinary person accomplishing great things.  The story of a Child conceived by a young unmarried mother, born in the earthiness of a donkey stable, and whose first cradle was the trough from which the donkeys fed.  The only other humans who cared about the birth of this child were shepherds, the outcast of society.  His adopted father was a working-class carpenter or stonemason.  Somehow, from these humble beginnings, the Savior of the world was born–a man who would transform the future of the world.  It is the birth of this Child that we celebrate at Christmas.  As the bumblings of the unexpected adventurer Bilbo Baggins show how the ordinary and unexpected are used to accomplish great things, they point us back to the incredible humble story of Christmas.

Willie Deutsch.com

Religion and Politics from a Young Christian in Northern Virginia