About Me

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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Defending the Faith...with Gentleness and Respect (the Role of Idolatry)

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:13-17 ESV)

Like most Christians, I have been encouraged many times by pastors, teachers, accountability partners and the like to heed the message of 1 Peter 3:15 to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Yet I find it interesting that the second part of the sentence is often omitted from such encouragement, “do it with gentleness and respect.” Certainly Peter’s primary emphasis here is to ensure that believers put the “best foot forward” in our interaction with others as we defend the faith, but how do we do that?

I believe there are two underlying truths behind Peter’s teaching that are fundamental to our success in being able to give a ready defense with gentleness and respect – trusting God and distinguishing between God and objects God has given us.  The former is overtly given as a means of maintaining gentleness through Peter’s instruction to “honor Christ the Lord as holy.” That is, when we realize Christ’s position and power, this allows us to see that since He is so magnificent and holy, we can trust the outcome of the offender to Him, we can trust in our own outcome and therefore have “no fear,” and we can trust in the outcome of truth because as the Sovereign Lord, Christ will be vindicated in history. Such confidence breeds contentment and therefore gentleness.  This is true because the source of much irritation and harsh expressions is fear and uncertainty.

Distinguishing God from objects He has given us is not overtly stated in the passage but I believe it is a guiding principle throughout Scripture and is especially important in the measured defense of our faith.  More than a few times my own defense of certain beliefs has become more heated than they should. In reflecting on these times it occurs to me that the reason for this heat is that I am giving position to things that really can’t support them and so an uneasiness or fear kicks in that leads to anger.

I believe the recent reaction of Muslims to the video that mocked Mohammed illustrates this truth very well. As has been well documented, the response was hardly a novel expression. Over the last few decades, we have seen numerous protests concerning cartoons, books, and drawings of the “prophet.” In each case the same two reasons for the protests are given. One reason is the “official” line of argument that says that the protests grow out of a deep desire to avoid the potential idolatry that might arise involving images of the “prophet.” CNN had a piece on this a few days after the attacks explaining this rationale:
Violence over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed may mystify many non-Muslims, but it speaks to a central tenet of Islam: that the Prophet was a man, not God, and that portraying him threatens to lead to worshiping a human instead of Allah.
“It's all rooted in the notion of idol worship,” says Akbar Ahmed, who chairs the Islamic Studies department at American University. “In Islam, the notion of God versus any depiction of God or any sacred figure is very strong."
“The Prophet himself was aware that if people saw his face portrayed by people, they would soon start worshiping him,” Ahmed says. “So he himself spoke against such images, saying ‘I’m just a man.’”[i]
The other reason given for the protests is found in the words and actions of the common Muslim participating in them. This reason given is that it is blasphemous to insult the prophet Mohammed. For instance, several news agencies reported that recently in Dhaka, Bangladesh signs were carried saying, “Kill us, but don’t insult our Prophet Mohammed.” Indeed, this rationale seems to be more likely the cause of the protests since it is hard to imagine anyone being tempted to worship Mohammed following a viewing of the video “Innocence of Muslims.”

What I find interesting (and relevant to the discussion at hand) is that these two rationales for protest are directly contradictory to each other. The anger, bitterness, and wrath that has been directed over the years at those who would ridicule the prophet and especially use of the term “blasphemy” in describing this ridicule elevates him  to a position on par with whatever god the Muslims say they are worshiping. Based on the contextual use of the word “blasphemy” I assume they have in mind a definition something akin to the following: Blasphemy is “an irreverent or impious act, attitude, or utterance in regard to something considered inviolable or sacrosanct.”[ii] Raising Mohammed to the level of inviolable or sacrosanct raises him to the level of God and so makes him an idol – something revered to the level of worship.  Furthermore, I believe a major cause of the irrational anger is the faulty elevation of Mohammed to such levels when he can’t sustain such a position logically. As a Christian, this fact is confirmed even more to me when I read defenses online asking me to replace Mohammed with Jesus and see how I feel – since I believe Jesus is God and not just a prophet.

I don’t use these events except to illustrate a reality that I believe sometimes finds expression in true believers lives as well – though on a much smaller scale. The Bible itself is full of accounts where followers of God have replaced Him with something He had given them. The worship of the Ark of the Covenant in 1 Samuel 4 (esp. 4:3), the bronze serpent in 2 Kings 18:4, the Temple in Jeremiah 7, or sexual relations in Colossians 3:5 all demonstrate we have a tendency to take beautiful gifts that God has given us and twist them to our own ends. In my own life I have witnessed this tendency find expression as believers seek to “defend our faith,” but do so by elevating some secondary reality to the first tier status that ought to be reserved for God alone.

Over the next few weeks I am going to take up some examples this activity in the hopes of challenging myself and others to avoid such practices, which are in fact IDOLATRY! In doing so, I will use three questions to draw distinctions between proper responses and idolatrous defense. Three questions I believe we should all use as a means of analyzing the propriety of our positions:

What is the object of my faith? Is it God or something other than God?
Obviously, this is the core of the issue so it is the first question we should ask. It is important for us to keep certain distinctions in mind about the tool given and the One to whom the tool points.

Am I more driven by anger or compassion?
The motivation in the New Testament for a ready defense is the transformation of the non-believer.  Anger is a secondary emotion that arises from fear or frustration.  With these two truths in mind, whether I approach a challenger with anger or compassion says much about my view of God and what role I play in communicating His truth. Another way to ask this, therefore, might be “Am I driven more by fear or faith?”

Does the truth I have discovered/expressed lead me to humility or pride?
Idolatry will inevitably lead to pride. This is true because when we elevate an object or truth to the level of God it stands there based upon our ingenuity and ability to defend it. Whereas, when we are pointing to God Himself, all we can do is feel humility that He allows for our participation in it at all.

What I hope to accomplish is personal growth in this area of discernment, to learn from the mistakes of my predecessors and contemporaries in the beliefs we espouse that go beyond an appropriate level of expression, and to provide a better way to give a defense of our faith that is both gentle and respectful.


[i] http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/09/12/ambassadors-killing-shines-light-on-muslim-sensitivities-around-prophet-mohammed/comment-page-63/
[ii] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/blasphemy

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

GosJesWife a fake?

In my previous post I left open the possibility that the fragment labeled GosJesWife was a fake. Several sources are now saying Dr. Craig Evans has stated that Harvard Theological Review is now declining to publish the article in question because consensus is developing that it is in fact a forgery.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

GosJesWife...A Call to Reason

This past week news hit most of the major outlets of a newly found papyrus fragment that mentions “Jesus’ wife.” A published translation of the fragment (titled GosJesWife by its publisher) is as follows:

Front side:
1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
2 ] The disciples said to Jesus, “.[
3 ] deny. Mary is worthy of it35[
35 Or alternatively: Mary is n[ot] worthy of it.
4 ]……” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[
5 ]… she will be able to be my disciple . . [
6 ] Let wicked people swell up … [
7] As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [
8] an image [

on the reverse side:

1 ] my moth[er
2 ] three [
3 ] … [
4 ] forth which … [
5 ] (illegible ink traces)
6 ] (illegible ink traces) [1]

There have already been a few good articles written in response to the fragment as well as some helpful reflections on the matter of whether Jesus was married and whether or not it even matters (see http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/09/19/the-far-less-sensational-truth-about-jesus-wife/ and http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/was-jesus-married-a-careful-look-at-the-real-evidence/ ). I won’t repeat most of the arguments in these as you can read them for yourselves, but since I don’t intend to take time out of a Sunday service on the issue, I thought I would reflect on the matter for those who I have a level of responsibility to here in my blog.

WHAT THE TEXT SHOULDN’T DO:

First of all, the text shouldn’t cause panic or even concern in any real sense. There is not enough context to be able to determine to whom are what the “wife” in the text is referring. Is this a mystical reference to the Church or to an individual? In fact, without the rest of the sentence we don’t even know if Jesus is in fact speaking in the affirmative or negating the idea of having a wife. Furthermore, even if one could historically prove that Jesus had a wife, this would not change or contradict any part of the biblical record. There is nothing even inherently negative about the idea of Jesus having a wife (Mark Roberts’ blog cited above has some really great insights on this issue and its implications). I am not saying there are no meaningful implications that would grow out of such a revelation, but they don’t amount to anything that would be the death knell of Christianity or any of its key tenets or beliefs.

WHAT THE TEXT SHOULD DO:

The text (and the fuss surrounding it) should cause us to carefully consider the resources we use for our evidence and how our own already drawn conclusions shape how we respond to new information. Those who are already of the mindset to question Christianity and its roots will quickly jump on information that could be used to question traditional understandings as truth that destroys the myth that is Christianity. The person with the heart of a conspiracy theorist will see this as evidence of a concerted effort on the part of early Christianity to squash the truth and maintain power (DaVinci Code anyone?). Of course, orthodox Christians such as myself tend to dismiss such texts as minimal variants representative of an early Christian sect that hold little to no value other than to provide a journey into the mind of an ancient nutcase who had strange ideas about Jesus and who He was.

But if we too quickly dismiss texts without knowing why or without good reason, we create a disconnect between our beliefs and reality that in the long run will undermine our witness to a world that has questions, doubts, and concerns about materials like this and the basis for the beliefs that we possess. The Gospel Coalition article I posted above states quite succinctly why a belief in the Canonical record makes sense from a historical standpoint.

To further a point mentioned there, but not gone into very deeply, it is illogical to give more credence to a second century GosJesWife text than to the Canonical Gospels.  The former dates from the late second century at the earliest; is based upon other texts that date to the mid second century; and  comes from a group known to have had strange ideas about a number of things. The latter were all written in the first century, have thousands of manuscripts to support them, have other contemporary documents and evidence which offer support, and, though they are full of the miraculous, give a very cogent and consistent portrayal of Jesus.

The so called GosJesWife, like the Gospel of Judas and Gospel of Thomas before it causes a stir because people like controversy. But any reasonable assessment of their origin and nature quickly relegates them to a historical curiosity or annoyance, not something to fret over or even give a headline to. But I guess in matters of faith, whether you are for or against, reasonableness often takes a back seat in favor of the passions of our cause.

[1] Copyright © Karen L. King, 2012. Forthcoming Harvard Theological Review 106:1, January 2013.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Cleaning House

It has been quite a while since I last posted on the blog.  It has certainly not been a lack of things to write about that has kept me away as I have often thought in the midst of sermon preparation or daily dealings with people that a certain topic that had come up would be great to write about. In truth, the reason can only be ascribed to laziness. Not that I believe my blog is of such importance to others that I have been robbing them of my great insights by not adding content, rather it has been laziness in relation to the benefits I receive from writing, from reflecting and from taking the time to put it all down.

I don't know if it is my mid-life crisis (truth be told I don't know what age you are supposed to go through one of those) or simply a work God has decided to do in me, but I have spent the last couple of months getting a lot of things in order. I have dropped 37 pounds since May, I have reorganized my office and books, and for the first time in a long time I am pursuing certain aspects of the Christian life that I had long ignored or neglected. I recently led Woodland Heights through a sermon series on Spiritual Disciplines. I don't know how much of an impact it had on them, but God showed me through the series some significant facts about prayer and fasting in particular.

While I have always participated in prayer, I have not done so with the passion and sense of urgency that God has recently brought me to. I had never fasted before.  And yet, these two elements seem so fundamental to the lives of believers in the Bible.  I can't believe I made them such a secondary part of my walk. C.S. Lewis once wrote, "The moment you wake up each morning, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in shoving it all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in." That is what prayer has become for me - not just talking, but listening, submitting, and being transformed! Fasting can easily become about us and an inappropriate ascetic withdrawal from life. But when done in conjunction with prayer and with a mind to glorifying God, one can learn a lot about how needy we are, about how sufficient He is, and how those two realities can come together to bring us to new heights to intimacy with the Lord. I don't feel it appropriate to share too much about either of these things from my own experience because each one is personal and distinct. Furthermore, the intimate nature of each is not something easily communicated. As J. I. Packer once wrote, “Trying to describe what I do in prayer would be like telling the world how I make love to my wife.” Still, I would encourage you to do a biblical study on these two disciplines (listen to my sermons on them if that helps) and see what what you might learn about yourself and God that you didn't know before.

I believe getting back into blogging will allow me to continue my house cleaning well into the future. So, I am picking up the pen again (or I guess in this case pulling out the keyboard). I plan to write about what God is doing in me as well as sharing thoughts on theology and matters of debate. Whether anyone joins me or not, I know this is something God is going to use to help me grow in my relationship with Him.