Religious Freedom Day, Whatever THAT means…

What would Thomas Jefferson think of wedding cake bakers?


Portugal Gay MarriageThere seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding in American society of what religious freedom entails, and this misunderstanding threatens to destroy the actual freedom itself.  Lower court decisions have already stripped some elements in favor of culturally popular dogma, a reality the Supreme Court may or may not reverse. Atheistic groups have unsurprisingly sought to interpret religious freedom into non-existence along with God, but religious groups have not always helped matters, either. Some argue extreme positions while others tie themselves to political parties so closely as to simply be a regurgitation of partisan talking points. Phrasing things ever so slightly into exaggeration, flipping definitions around, and using emotive words to misrepresent ideas has reached elite status in American politics. If it was an Olympic sport, perhaps only the Russians could threaten us for the gold, but meanwhile, the idea of religious freedom has been misunderstood, redefined, and read passionately backwards.

I sound negative, I know. In my defense I’m still reeling from Jon O’Brien and Larry Decker’s idea of “true religious freedom” in their recent opinion piece in The Hill.  They argue that religious freedom does not give one the right to discriminate against others, which doesn’t sound so radical, but in their article it means you must accept and/or participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies, support a pro-choice position on abortion, and refrain from protesting when public advertising slanders your religion.

In other words, religious freedom is fine as long as your religious beliefs have no impact on your behavior, participation, or actions. Do what we tell you and you can be free. Having another opinion is acceptable, but you must participate with the lifestyle, ethics, and opinions of the rest of the world, even when doing so violates what you believe.

Which, by definition, is actually the opposite of religious freedom.

How did we get here? The concept of religious freedom never meant freedom from religion as O’Brien and Decker insist along with millions of others. It does demonstrate that the removal of Christian history in western education (doing so in an effort to maintain a separation of church and state of course) has had pronounced negative effects on the understanding of history itself. Whether we are Christians or not, the fact that Christianity was intertwined with western Europe and early American history is undeniable. Understanding that history is quite literally impossible by strictly focusing on the Enlightenment while ignoring Christian influences. The circumstances of the western world were buried in Christianity.

We should recognize, for instance, that when religious freedom was an issue back in the days of Thomas Jefferson, the norm was to have State churches. Most could not imagine an effective government that did not choose a church to be the State Church. In America, the Congregationalists and the Anglicans enjoyed this status. This meant a portion of taxes would go to the official church. If a pastor preached something that contradicted the doctrines of the State Church, that pastor could be thrown in jail. They often were. In fact, they often preached from jail, which is one reason why there are walls around the outside of some early American jail houses. The State Church didn’t want a rebel pastor preaching to people through the bars of his window!

This was the world of Jefferson. It was the world of early America, and it’s why the separation of church and state was not spearheaded by atheists. It was spearheaded by those Bible-thumping Baptists who teamed up with Jefferson. It was spearheaded by religious people who objected to paying taxes to a church whose doctrines they rejected. One Baptist minister who looked upon Jefferson as a kindred spirit, John Leland, argued for religious freedom this way:

“Is it the duty of a Jew to support the religion of Jesus Christ, when he really believes that he was an imposter? Must the Papists be forced to pay men for preaching down the supremacy of the pope?”[1]

Those were important questions because the problem wasn’t merely whether people personally followed their religion, the problem was people were forced to pay taxes and conform their actions to an official, State Church. There were sometimes even laws that everyone had to have their child baptized by a certain age or face a penalty! Imagine being forced to participate in something that went against your beliefs!

It shouldn’t be hard considering we do the same thing to wedding cake bakers.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Discriminating between various actions, endeavors, and practices is the result of any religious belief. Jewish and Islamic believers refrain from certain types of food, follow certain moral codes, and practice certain religious rituals. Christians have fewer lifestyle restrictions than those two groups, but generally, Christians view drunkenness, certain sexual practices, and certain ethical practices as outside their moral code.  All of this necessarily means that religious people typically do not participate in everything that particular culture, even Western culture, practices. Forcing such people to accept and participate in these actions anyway, regardless of their personal beliefs, is religious oppression. It may not be harsh oppression by any means, but it is certainly not religious freedom as O’Brien and Decker try to argue.

Of course, it’s not so simple. Many would argue that this religious freedom thing is all well and good, but when Christians or anyone else attempt to impose their beliefs on me, they have stepped over the line.  This argument carries some weight since a government like ours can be influenced by society. The majority can begin to write laws and regulations that, in effect, begin to enforce a religion. Islamic democracies, as limited as they may be, tend to have very popular support for Islamic laws and traditions.

Thus, this argument sometimes has a point, but these days in America, it’s rare.

Let’s be real. In the United States today, most religious concepts of sin or bad behaviors are perfectly legal. It’s perfectly legal to buy bacon and eat it regardless of what a religion believes. I live in zero fear of the Presbyterians throwing me in jail for what I preach this Sunday. It’s also perfectly legal to practice more serious sins such as adultery, witchcraft, idolatry, and hatred. Indeed, I sincerely believe that rejecting faith in Jesus may result in eternal punishment yet there are no laws against rejecting Jesus and becoming an atheist. I have no desire to make any.

However imperfectly, the United States has practiced what the actual idea of religious freedom has been since people like Thomas Jefferson and Leland were articulating it. As Jefferson argued (and Leland would repeat):

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

The test for any restriction of religious freedom was whether or not it became “injurious to others.” As examples, Jefferson mentioned having money stolen or being physically injured. Consider how this could be applied today. First, in regards to a thorny issue like abortion, it helps us understand each side. Most religious people oppose abortion, for instance, not because it goes against a specific religious practice they are trying to impose, but precisely because they sincerely view abortion as murder. This is why abortion is a tougher issue. It arguably does rise to the level of injurious. It is also why the danger to the life and health of the mother, or the issue of pain to the unborn child, are also legitimate issues where some sort of balance should be pursued.

The abortion debate, therefore, is not one side trying to force a religion down the other side’s throat. If that were the case, there would be many other rituals or beliefs the religious side would also be attempting to legislate. In reality, abortion opponents are arguing that the action of abortion causes real physical harm to another person. It is impossible to claim that the government should not regulate or restrict such activities, otherwise murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, and abuse would also be legal. Abortion is a real question and should be. Since people have the right to vote in a representative government, the fact they oppose abortion on these grounds is perfectly in line with how the United States has defined freedom.

But what about the harm caused by wedding cake bakers? The follow-up argument against religious freedom says that’s fine, believe what you want, but by not baking a cake or by refusing to provide assistance for abortion, you are harming me or that person who wanted to eat your sugary goodness on their wedding day. O’Brien and Decker argue this very point, asking:

“What about that couple’s right to express their love through their wedding ceremony and their cake?”

In regards to the denial of abortion drugs or contraceptives, they ask:

“What about a woman’s conscience? What if she has her own moral reasons why she needs that birth control to make wise decisions for her wellbeing and that of her family?”

These are good questions. The authors have every right to ask them. Nevertheless, we should be careful how we answer because, as the old saying goes, you can’t please everyone. If we tried, we would quickly find ourselves allowing and participating in all sorts of disturbing actions and behaviors that someone else finds perfectly acceptable or even good. It’s not impossible to find people who sincerely believe a sexual relationship with a preteen child should be legal. So the question is not merely where we draw lines; the real question is how do we draw the lines? How should lines be drawn in regards to baking wedding cakes, or providing contraceptives, or anything else that comes up twenty years from now?

Jefferson and Leland had a good answer. Harm involved violating the conscience or causing real physical or financial damage. In other words, the harm needed to be more than irritation or offense. In regards to the Catholic opposition to contraceptives or the much larger opposition to abortion, these cases could be judged by balancing the possibility of actual harm with basic freedoms. If you can get contraceptives for free somewhere else, it’s difficult to see how there is any harm. By contrast, there certainly are issues with abortion that need to be debated and circumstances to consider.

When it comes to baking a cake, however, a Christian baker’s refusal to participate in a same-sex wedding does not realistically or typically cause physical or financial harm. It does not force the same-sex couple to perform an action that violates their conscience. It does not prevent the wedding ceremony from having a cake at all. If there is another cake baker available, let capitalism solve the problem. As a comparison, surely adultery causes emotional harm, far more than someone refusing to bake a cake, and adultery actually does cause financial harm. But if we are not willing to make adultery illegal, what justification is there for punishing someone for not baking a cake? When other cake bakers are available and the only injury is inconvenience or deep offense, it simply does not justify taking away someone’s religious freedom.

If it does, then religious freedom means very little, and it should be removed from the Constitution altogether to save us the bother.


[1] John Leland, “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, (1791)” in The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding, Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall eds. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Inc., 2009), 341.






Jesus Existed and So Did His Miracles

MangerConsider how difficult it would be to convince someone that an imaginary person existed and had been famously walking around town just two months ago. Now try to convince the same person that they themselves saw this imaginary person perform a miracle. According to the book of Acts, written in the first-century AD, the apostle Peter said this:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— (Peter in Acts 2:22, ESV).

It is sometimes claimed that Luke simply got it wrong when he wrote down these words of Peter. Ancient fake news perhaps. It is sometimes claimed the church must have rewritten the book of Acts somehow, although they would have had to do that very, very early. We do have quite a number of ancient manuscripts after all. What isn’t really up for debate, however, is that the Christian religion was a big presence in Jerusalem very soon after the time of Jesus. The people who lived at that time and in that place sure acted like people who would agree with Peter in the verse above. They had seen Jesus and the miracles for themselves. Why else would they become believers in droves?

A few thousand years later, we aren’t so sure, of course.  Last month as Christmas approached, the Washington Post published a three-year old article that questioned whether Jesus really existed. The article suggested that Jesus was nothing more than a myth. The same idea shows up around the internet but when it shows up in the Washington Post, it carries more weight.

Except it doesn’t.

The three-year old article had been previously debunked (debunked with amazing force) and even atheist historians and archaeologists believe Jesus was a real person. The disagreement is over what Jesus said and did, not whether He was real or imaginary. Ironically, the claims of Christianity are taken more seriously by scholars and experts, than by our popular media culture. Of course, there is that meme of Bart Ehrman saying:

In the entire first Christian century Jesus is not mentioned by a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher or poet. His name never occurs in a single inscription, and it is never found in a single piece of private correspondence. Zero! Zip references! -Bart Ehrman (at a debate in a church)

However, Ehrman wasn’t arguing Jesus didn’t exist as the memes suggest. He was arguing the only sources we have for any large amount of information about Jesus are the Gospels. Ehrman also made a similar statement in his book Jesus, Interrupted to argue that Jesus wasn’t all that important to the people in the ancient Roman world. The internet memes are twisting his words and taking them out of context. I know, shock right?

Historically speaking, Jesus was a real person. He lived and walked the earth and changed the world forever. He is mentioned a few times in some minor written records by Roman authorities like Pliny and Tacitus. Both of them missed Bart’s deadline of the first century, but just barely. Jesus also gets a brief mention or so by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus who did write in the first century. Jesus is also mentioned in writings by ancient Christians. Yes, the writings of Christians such as Paul and the Gospels do count as evidence. Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians, for instance, are mid-first century, and considered very significant by the scholarly world. Notice Ehrman did not say Jewish sources when he made his statement.

It gets better. Consider some sociological facts for a minute. Myths take hundreds of years to develop, but Christianity was growing all over the Roman empire just a few years after Jesus. The teaching of what Jesus had said or done, the miracles He had performed, and fact of His death and resurrection did not take decades or centuries to be written down or preached. Christians were saying these things from day one. The earliest Christian creed that Paul wrote down in I Corinthians 15:3-7 is believed to have been given to Paul just a year or two after Jesus.  Yes, even atheist scholars have said this. Myths don’t usually develop instantly.

Wait, actually never.

Also notice what Peter said above. The famous apostle was preaching this sermon barely two months after Jesus had died on the cross. Many of the people to whom he was speaking had been able to see Jesus with their own eyes. That’s why Peter says that Jesus did miracles “as you yourselves know.”  The people who lived in Jerusalem would have known if Jesus was imaginary, and they would have known if Jesus hadn’t really done any miracles. That’s why myths take centuries to develop. Most people are a bit skeptical of such things, especially if those same people had been there.

It’s also why it is amazing that after Peter finished speaking, 3,000 people put their faith in Jesus. The same city full of people who had seen Jesus with their own eyes, exploded with belief. Even if you reject the accuracy of the story, historical evidence from writings and archaeology shows that Christianity developed in Jerusalem far, far too early to be explained by a myth. The historical evidence implies not only that Jesus was a real person, but that something extraordinary had happened.

It’s not like supposed messiahs hadn’t been killed before. They had. Jesus was obviously different for some reason. I would argue this is the sort of historical evidence that leads toward believing there was something to those miracles and especially, the resurrection.

It’s also why, outside of the internet and the Washington Post, it is difficult to find current scholars or historians who are able to credibly argue that Jesus did not exist. Sure, you may quote one from somewhere, but everyone else can raise you a hundred. Read the link above by John Dickson that debunked the Post’s article in 2014 as just an example. There is a growing body of evidence that easily demonstrates Jesus was a real person, including everything from writings, carvings, paintings, letters, manuscripts, and the history of Christianity itself. His existence is the easy part. The real debate is on the miracles and the resurrection. There are simply too many details to explain away in order to claim Jesus was imaginary. Plus, there’s the big, obvious, glaring detail that cannot be overlooked:

Out of all the ancient writings from Jews and Romans who argued against Christianity, and there were plenty of ancient skeptics, not a single one of them ever argued that Jesus didn’t exist. No one argued Jesus was imaginary until centuries later.

Think about that. It took centuries to develop this Jesus-Is-Imaginary idea.

That’s how myths work. Thus, the actual myth here, the idea that no one believed then but people accept now thousands of years later, is the whole Jesus wasn’t real thing.

If you’re not into myths, then good news, the evidence says Jesus was, in fact, a historical reality. The best part: He is also a present reality.

Bible Thumpers Aren’t the Dangerous Ones…

It was the movements within Christianity to take the Bible more literally, and view the Bible as authoritative, which have in fact been a prime influence toward peace, and have inexorably led away from conflict and toward greater unity.


The use of force in historical Christianity, either by the Church itself or those believers who have acted on behalf of the State, has become more than simply a theological debate. It has also become a point of contention in apologetics as the history of violence by the Church has given atheists and academics grounds for questioning the legitimacy of Christianity. For instance, Sam Harris argues, “A glance at history…reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion.” Painting with such a broad brush is unfair in many respects, yet he is not alone. Professor John Moses notes, “It has been observed that monotheistic religions, with their claim to absolute truth, encourage their adherents to use force to impose their faith…violence therefore, is built into the religious system.” As much as Christians might protest such a statement, Church history admittedly includes the use of inquisitions, the promotion of crusades, and substantial military or social violence from one group of believers against another. While some actions could be justified, many other actions were indefensible. How is it possible that the very Church, which often expects to reign with Christ over the earth (Rev. 20:4), and believes itself to be destined to judge not only the world, but angels as well (I Cor. 6:2-3), could have brought so much suffering and violence to the Middle Ages? The answer deserves a closer look at the sources of both the violence and the reforms in church history. There are more factors at play than can be examined in this short essay, yet one surprising feature stands out with Christianity that flies in the face of modern assumptions. The source of reform in the Church, including the rejection of violence and a more limited scope of the use of force by civil authorities, came from the more fundamentalist side of Christianity. Harris decries those who “believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book,” and blames such beliefs for most of the violence in the world. The argument made here takes an opposite position with respect to Christianity. As this analysis indicates, it was the movements within Christianity to take the Bible more literally, and view the Bible as authoritative, which have in fact been a prime influence toward peace, and have inexorably led away from conflict and toward greater unity. The evidence for this can be seen from the Protestant Reformation to the present.

The Difference-Making Protestant Perspective
Of course, the very idea that placing a high authority on Scripture would lead society in the direction of peace, does not seem to match well with some portions of history or current cultural dogma. It is not without evidence that Harris and others would accuse Bible-believing Christians of being dangerous. Harris calls religious moderation “nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law.” Anyone who does fully submit to God’s law, from his point of view, moves into the realm of religious extremism and violence. This assumption, which sounds true to modern culture, nevertheless struggles to stand up under scrutiny.

There is no doubt, of course, that the Roman Catholic Church and other denominations in the Middle Ages, including Protestants, used coercion, force, and violence. Historian James Wylie wrote about the formation of the Catholic League, noting “the leading object of the League was the restoration of the Popish faith over Germany, and the extirpation of Protestantism. This was to be accomplished by force of arms.” Besides the formation of a military force against the Protestants, the Church eventually began to enforce its authority through inquisitions. Wylie again writes that Inquisitors would “search for heretics in towns, houses, cellars, and other lurking-places…Once discovered, a summary but dreadful ordeal conducted them to the stake.” Protestants and reformers have also been guilty historically of employing violence for their own means. Some like Ulrich Zwingli and Thomas Muntzer openly advocated for military actions. At least some of the Catholic-led Crusades are often held up as evidence of Christian aggression, along with the Protestant-led Salem Witch trials, or other episodes in church history. One scholar notes that during the Middle Ages, “Western peoples came to look upon groups that professed another faith as enemies of the kingdom of God who should be destroyed or converted.” The same author observes “Only one group of Reformers, the Anabaptists, practiced nonresistance.”

Significant theological changes arose with the Reformation movement, however, and those changes began to impact how the Church, and even society, viewed the use of force. What is even more notable is that these changes did not come from a movement away from the Bible, but a greater adherence to it. By this is meant a movement toward the teachings of the Bible as a whole, specifically viewing both the Old and New Testaments, as the Reformers did, as the revealed word of God. Not only did this result in interpreting the Scriptures in the light of the New Testament teachings of Christ, it more importantly meant giving authority to the Scriptures over and above the authority of any person or church.

This was a major characteristic of the Reformation. Prior to the Reformation, not only was the Church itself intertwined with government, something which continued with Protestants as well, but to follow Christ meant specifically to follow the Church. Salvation was attained by performing good works and especially the sacraments. As Millard Erickson writes, “In the historic Catholic view, the sacraments are effective ex opera operato (‘from the work done’) …It indicates that the conferral of grace depends on the act itself.” He summarizes this description by saying, “What all of this amounts to is that salvation is dependent on the church.” As a result, when it came to the Crusades, the Roman Catholic Church presented fighting in the campaign as another work that could earn the blessing and forgiveness of God. One historian notes, “By constructing an ideal of Christian holy war—in which acts of sanctified violence would actually help to cleanse a warrior’s soul of sin—the papacy was opening up a new path to salvation.” The papacy could do this because the Church was viewed as the highest authority. Wylie records that before he was burned at the stake, Jerome was rebuked for referring to the Scriptures. According to Wylie, a Cardinal scornfully mocked Jerome, saying, “The Holy Writings! Is everything to be judged by them? Who can understand them till the Church has interpreted them?”

The exchange highlights the contrast. What drove the Reformation was giving authority back to the Scriptures instead of the Church. Thus, when Martin Luther forcefully argued the case for his ninety-five theses to Sylvester Prierias, he tells Prierias, “You cite no Scripture.” Luther historian Roland Bainton observed, “The radicalism of (Luther’s) tract lies not in its invective but in its affirmation that the pope might err and a council might err and that only Scripture is the final authority.” Indeed, appeal to Scripture became a defining characteristic of Protestantism and has remained so.

That appeal to Scripture made salvation by faith a more personal message than salvation by obeying the Church. The works that were done, were works done for God, and involved more than regular sacraments. Modern-day pastor John MacArthur put it this way, “Salvation by faith does not eliminate works per se. It does away with works that are the result of human effort alone (Eph. 2:8). It abolishes any attempt to merit God’s favor by our works.”

Thus, for Protestants especially, pleasing God daily by how one lived, became paramount. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer opposed war as a pacifist in Germany, when the Anabaptists practiced nonresistance, when St. Augustine proposed the idea of a “Just War,” or even when the American Revolutionaries took arms against England, regardless of whether or not these people were correct in their interpretation, they nevertheless made their decisions on the basis of Scripture in an effort to do what was right in the eyes of God. They did not make their decisions based on a church edict or promise of forgiveness for the act of taking up arms. A greater adherence to Scripture, meant a greater personal concern for living life according to the will of God. A Protestant did not believe salvation could be earned by fighting in a crusade or simply by being a member of the Church.

The Tension for Protestants Between Following Christ and the Use of Force
Once free to use the Bible to guide one’s actions, theological debates and struggles over the use of force immediately ensued. A modern theologian argues, “Jesus clearly explained that the cause of God was not to be advanced through the use of physical force (John 18:36), and He criticized Peter for violently defending Him at His arrest (Matt. 26:52-54).” It is also true, however, that Jesus did not condemn the soldiers he met (Matt. 8:5-10), and He himself used force to drive money-changers from the temple (John 2:15). Thus, there have been, and continue to be, differing views on how to balance force and toleration.

A particularly extreme case, the early Protestant Thomas Muntzer believed it would be necessary to “slaughter the ungodly” and erect a theocracy. Less radical was Zwingli who looked upon the Catholic League armies and was convinced, “the gospel could be saved in Switzerland and the confederation conserved only if the Catholic League with Austria were countered by an evangelical league…ready if need be to use the sword.” Zwingli’s actions especially were intertwined with his political and military involvement, and according to one scholar he did not limit his views to defensive wars. “Zwingli’s intentions were unmistakable,” he writes, “He sought to force the Catholic opponents to accept the evangelical faith and to couple the Word of God with the military might of Zurich.”

Other Protestants, however, vehemently opposed using force to propagate Christianity. The emphasis by the Reformation on salvation by faith led to an emphasis on preaching the Scripture instead of demanding loyalty to a church. When Zwingli was killed on the battlefield, Bainton writes that “Luther considered his death a judgment upon him because as a minister he wielded the sword.” When it came to government, however, many including Luther saw a need for force, within appropriate boundaries. For instance, a key passage in Romans says:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience (Romans 13:1-5, NIV).

The indication in this Scripture that government is to “bear the sword” and to punish those who do wrong seemed to prescribe appropriate boundaries for civil authorities, and as much as Christians were involved in government, these boundaries came into play. That Paul describes authorities, who in his day were hostile to Christianity, as established by God, led Luther and others to reject rebellion. Luther condemned a Peasant Revolt, writing “If the peasant is in open rebellion, then he is outside the law of God.” Yet as an example of the difficulty in wrestling with this issue, one could observe that Luther himself rebelled against authority by standing up against the Catholic Church. Even Paul, who wrote the above statement, ran afoul of the law for preaching the gospel.

The question of disobedience, including under what circumstances and in what way, preoccupied the American colonists prior to the Revolution as well. In fact, they worked diligently to conduct their protests, and eventual decision to declare independence, in a way they felt did not violate this passage of Scripture. The historian David Barton writes, “Reformation leaders turned to the Bible and found much guidance on the subject of civil disobedience and resistance to tyrannical civil authority.” There are indeed many instances in Scripture of resistance to authority, perhaps summed up by Peter and John with a single statement they uttered to the Sanhedrin: “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!” (Acts 4:19). In like manner, according to Barton the Founding Fathers believed “that the institution government” was not to be opposed but only tyranny. Thus, they acted in what they viewed as a defensive posture, and with a colonial government in place so that they were not rejecting government itself. These issues concerned them, and they looked to the Bible for guidance.

Protestants, Revolutionaries, and even modern government officials have also hearkened back to Augustine’s idea of a “Just War.” For Augustine that required “proclamation by a ‘legitimate authority’…a ‘just cause’…and prosecution with ‘right intention’, that is, with the least possible violence.” Of course, despite Christians best efforts, however, it is difficult to know for sure whether a war is just, and mistakes have certainly been made. There continues be debate over the justice, or lack thereof, regarding the Crusades. Although the call to war for the first Crusade was made on the basis of atrocities against Christians and the danger of Muslim aggression, Thomas Asbridge writes that Pope Urban II’s “accusations bore little or no relation to the reality…but it is impossible to gauge whether the pope believed his own propaganda or entered into a conscious campaign of manipulation and distortion.”

Whether Asbridge is correct or not, the point is that Bible-believing Protestants did not commonly launch into Crusades or revolutions with blood-thirsty zeal to expand the faith. Instead, they began to even wrestle with how to use force in government, and with only a few exceptions, were theologically disposed to use preaching to expand the faith, instead of using the sword. Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides a thought-provoking example. A scholar notes Bonhoeffer’s stance as a Christian pacifist, quoting him as saying, “Every form of war service, unless it be Good Samaritan service, and every preparation for war, is forbidden for the Christian.” Yet, even Bonhoeffer may have had second-thoughts as he watched the rise of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler. Although some argue he was unaware, the pacifist Christian minister did get involved with an organization that attempted to assassinate Hitler. The vast majority of people would applaud him, but for Protestants who gave the Scripture authority over every church and government, the question was about pleasing God first. Thus, they wrestled with what to do. They looked to the Scriptures for guidance.

The Protestant Trajectory in History
It made a difference although for centuries, and certainly during the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation as battles raged between Christians during the Thirty Years’ War, it could be argued that God refused to answer the prayer of His Son. Christ had prayed for future believers, asking that, “all of them may be one”(John 17:21), and that Christians would experience “complete unity” (17:23). For much of the Middle Ages and in the years that followed, there was little that could be characterized by unity. Christians were guilty of inventing ways to reconcile wars and violence with Scripture. Prior to the Reformation, Arthur Ripstein notes that “Augustine defended punitive wars” and later “Suarez defended the Spanish conquest of the Americas on the ground that the indigenous inhabitants were likely to resist settlers and missionaries.” Deep divisions also separated Protestant denominations. Those divisions were reinforced by governments that tended to officially recognize a particular church denomination, which was then promoted over the others. Douglas Sweeney writes,

“The Protestant world was broken apart, and its state churches were not the only signs of division. Its theologians developed competing Protestant confessions, or doctrinal statements…They fought theological battles with their fellow Protestant leaders. They encouraged the laity to think of themselves primarily as Calvinists or Arminians, as Lutherans or Anabaptists, rather than those who shared in the words of St. Paul, ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism.’”

If the story were to stop here, the argument that the efforts to return to the Bible did not cause more peace, but in fact, more division. In some respects, the accusation was true. Just as changes from monarchies to more democratic governments handed over responsibility to millions of citizens, thus resulting in an increase of political discussion and disagreement from person to person, in like manner the increase in Bibles and literacy, coupled with the view that the Bible held more authority than any church, gave each person an opportunity to form their own spiritual opinions.  A multitude of groups sprang up, including Puritans and Pietists who encouraged the study of the Scriptures, yet often found themselves with doctrinal divisions.

The divisions, and the proliferation of the Bible, weakened any sort of centrally-powerful church, however. Indeed, it can be argued that the sheer number of churches, and various Christian groups, weakened the ability of any church to use force. In general, preaching replaced armies, and doctrinal disputes, while argued passionately, did not usually result in someone being burned at the stake or arrested by Inquisitors. The arrival of the Great Awakening demonstrated a reliance upon preaching the word instead of advancing Christianity by force, and it was clearly more unifying in nature. Timothy George noted, “The awakenings were international, transatlantic movements of ecclesial and spiritual renewal embracing Pietism in Germany, Methodism in Great Britain and revivalism in the American colonies.”  It wasn’t unity for the mere sake of unity, but it became a unity of purpose, of working together worldwide. George writes, “The awakenings spawned a host of interdenominational ministries, including orphanages, Bible societies…and above all, an evangelical missionary movement of global proportions.” Today, the very group of Christians that emphasizes the authority of Scripture, often goes by the ecumenical label “Evangelical” which encompasses Christians from various denominations all over the world. While the prayer of Christ may not have been answered for centuries, the trajectory of many Protestants has indeed moved closer to unity. 

In many respects, this analysis is subjective, and there are many theological and historical details that lie outside the scope of an essay of this size. However, while admitting that Christianity of all types has struggled to coexist peacefully with others, it becomes undeniable that something has changed in Christianity since the Middle Ages. The most obvious change is the Reformation Movement which emphasized Scriptural authority over the authority of the Church, and emphasized personal faith over seeking salvation by obedience to the Church and the sacraments. As a result, salvation could not be forced upon anyone since it required faith, and the highest official in any church, could be opposed on biblical grounds since Scripture held the authority. While the ramifications of these changes took centuries to work through Protestant, Bible-believing Christians, history has demonstrated a notable difference. It has been the Christians who have gone back to the Bible that then began to wrestle the most with the use of force in society, and who have ultimately experienced a greater unity of purpose and fellowship. The effect has since spilled over into all of Christendom so that today, the Catholic Church is a strong voice for peace. In doctrine, most would agree with Erickson who writes, “The church is to show concern and take action wherever it sees need, hurt, or wrong.” The point here is one of the most crucial factors that has led to this attitude, has been a return to seeing the Bible as the authority. One could then argue the Bible isn’t a danger, and never has been. The Christians who returned to the Bible have reformed Christianity. They have limited the use of force in society, eliminated it in the Church, and encouraged greater unity.

Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades, The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2010.

Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1978.

Barton, David. “The American Revolution: Was it an Act of Biblical Rebellion?” May 5, 2009. Accessed Dec. 15, 2016.

Clouse, Robert G. “War” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Second Edition. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

George, Timothy F. “Why I Am an Evangelical and a Baptist,” in Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity. Edited by Anthony L. Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, and Robert A. Peterson. Wheaton,, IL: Crossway, 2013.

Gordon, Bruce. “Huldrych Zwingli,” The Expository Times. Vol 126, 4 (Dec. 12, 2014): 157-168. Accessed Dec. 16, 2016. DOI: 10.1177/0014524614560493.

Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005.

MacArthur, John. The Gospel According to Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988.

Moses, John A. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Repudiation of Protestant German War Theology” Journal of Religious History. 30 (2006): 354. Accessed 12/15/16, DOI:10.1111/j.1467-9809.2006.00498.x.

Ripstein, Arther. “Just War, Regular War, and Perpetual Peace,” Kant-Studien. 107, no. 1. (March 2016): 179-195. Humanities International Complete, EBSCOhost. Accessed December 16, 2016. DOI:10.1515/kant-2016-0009

Sweeney, Douglas A. The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

Wylie, James A. “The Thirty Years’ War,” in The History of Protestantism: A Complete History of the Christian Church. Book Twenty-one. Harrington, DE: Delmarva Publications, Inc., 2013.

Talking About Same-Sex Marriage in a Society that Disagrees

For too long the political agendas and debates have framed this question, and far too often the discourse has pushed evangelical Christians into a corner where they appear condemning and discriminatory toward LGBT people

Unfortunately, sometimes appearances aren’t deceiving.  Let’s be honest, sometimes it’s hard to find words that don’t come across without sounding… well… bigoted. The Bible calls it a sin. How can I say that nicely?

That’s a struggle for a Christian. We like to be the compassionate ones in the room, and we tend to go out of way to fight against the stereotype of a placard waving protester screaming hell fire and damnation. But the same-sex marriage issue has forced our hand. It has become the club that our culture has used to push back against Christianity in general, and it’s partly because we do sound condemning.

I’m not suggesting we change our views. The truth of Scripture and a belief handed down by Divine precept should not be tossed to and fro with every whim of a particular culture. I didn’t have the chance to sign it, but I agree with the statement signed by 100 other pastors regarding this issue.

My question is how do we talk about it and deal with it, and still love our neighbor?

After all, there’s no denying the love and heartfelt feelings between a same-sex couple. To loudly proclaim the sinfulness of that union is often hurtful. As a friend of mine, whose son is planning to marry another man told me via Facebook “my son (and my future son) respect the institution of marriage so deeply, they seek its fulfillment for themselves. I, for one, rejoice at the dignity this great country has bestowed on our fellow gay citizens.” Can I disagree with that and still be loving? Because I appreciate him, and I know the love of a father to a son, my response involved a little soul-searching and Scripture searching.

It is a weird feeling as a Christian to be “against” what others feel as “love”. It’s weird to condemn something as sin when it seems to be just the way people are made, like condemning a corn stalk for producing ears of corn.

It’s worth noting the Bible never condemns the deep friendship or closeness in spirit that two people of the same sex can have. 1 Samuel 18:1 said David and Jonathan “became one in spirit” and David loved Jonathan “as himself.” That’s a very similar description to a husband’s love for a wife in Ephesians 5:33 which tells each husband to “love his wife as he loves himself.” A bond like that CAN be between two brothers or two sisters.

It’s the sexual actions that the Bible calls a sin, and I do believe that, but the Bible calls many other actions sinful, and they are all common to humanity. I’m not immune to sin. No one is. Sin feels a part of who we are sometimes and it’s not easy to turn off or on. But Jesus is Lord and Savior, and so we turn to Him for forgiveness and help in all things. All of us do. Fortunately, God loves sinners, including me.

Therefore it seems to me to do little good to merely condemn someone’s sin and tell them to quit it. For one, who am I to say that? The message is to believe in Jesus, to make Him Lord and Savior and let Jesus work in us to lead us to righteousness.

It’s what we all have to do, because no one can follow Christ unless they are willing to give up everything. That includes all of us, whether living homosexual and heterosexual lifestyles. If there is anything we withhold from the Lordship of Jesus, we cannot be His disciple. Luke 14:33. So if someone comes to God but says “Lord, I’ll follow you but I’m not willing to give up ______” it doesn’t matter if you’re talking a same-sex relationship or an opposite sex relationship. Everything should fall under the Lordship of Christ.

And maybe, especially when we disagree, we can start and end there. Someone believes a particular activity is a sin, while someone else believes that activity is actually good. We will argue about it undoubtedly, but for each of us, Jesus must be Lord.

For years my dad suspected dancing was a sin. I don’t. We argued once or twice but we still loved each other. Many churches believe playing a piano on Sunday morning is a sin. I don’t. I think it’s a good thing! We can be honest with each other, and we can weigh each other’s warnings. Our wrangling over what is sin and what isn’t, is to be expected. After all, we care about each other. The real question is are we willing to give everything over to our Savior and King if He requires it of us?

As the Bible says “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.” I Peter 3:15  Getting that part right, we can patiently leave room for Jesus to work in other people’s hearts just as He works in our own. And we can remember to let Him work in our own! Because whatever the law of the land is or or isn’t, Jesus is still King of kings and the Savior for all who come to Him. He ranks higher than all human government, and at His name every knee will bow.

THIS is Christianity

Mottel Baleston
check out this video (it will pop up in a new window)
     For many people religion is more of a cultural thing to appreciate and keep around like one does a family heirloom. It looks good on the shelf in the living room, but you don’t really use it all that much in real life.  For others, it’s just …foreign. At least, that’s often the impression given by the comments and reactions to religious expression we see from the talking heads of media and/or Hollywood.
     I’m probably being generous. Hollywood hasn’t understood Christianity or the Bible since the twelve apostles were still available to hire as consultants.
     And some of you… it’s okay to admit it…. won’t even get through the five-minute video above. After all, the Pew Research Center just informed us that Christianity is shrinking in America while the numbers of people with no affiliation with any religion, including atheists, and agnostics are growing. That’s especially true for anyone more youthful than 36 years of age.  So hey, if that’s you, then perhaps you don’t really care that some guy named Mottel Baleston decided to become a Christian after growing up Jewish.

     I understand. And I’m not posting this video to win any of these arguments. I’m posting this because THIS is Christianity.

Continue reading “THIS is Christianity”

Creationism is Wrong, Trust Us

So sayeth those opposed to Creationism, the belief that an all-powerful God created the universe and all that we see and perceive in the physical or even spiritual world.  Regardless of your particular idea of creationism, whether you have a Muslim theology or a Christian one, or whether you believe the universe is very old or very young, you are simply wrong.  All the evidence is against you.

So sayeth others, therefore it must be true.

It’s been going on for awhile in case you missed it and thought it was still up for debate.  Writing about nutrition of all things for Real Clear Science, Ross Pomeroy was quick to compare fad-diets with religion.

“…both cults and diets profess to have “answers” and impart benefits that will irrevocably change your life for the better. Veganism’s pitch isn’t very unlike Scientology’s. Caveman Diet’s isn’t all that different from certain sects of Evangelical Baptism”

Excuse me what?  Baptism?  Are people getting baptized for it’s health benefits or even spiritual benefits? Why didn’t I know this? Someone should mention to Ross that baptism isn’t about its benefits. It’s a outward act that says I belong to Jesus from this day forward. It’s symbolic, not therapeutic for crying out loud. What a weird analogy.

But nice job coming after my religion when I was trying to read an article about dieting… geez.

Ross made a better analogy, at least in terms of actually having something to do with the subject, a bit later.

“With all the conflicting and poorly designed research out there, it’s easy to find evidence to back any dietary assertion. In the same manner, overly religious types, such as those who promote creation science, latch on to data that coincides with their beliefs and disregard everything else. Though their ideas are awash in woo, staunch creationists can present a very persuasive case.”

I certainly qualify as overly religious if that is possible. By this time I have forgotten that the article is actually over diet plans, and have become immersed in the typical attack of our culture against Jesus. Simply dismiss it without another word. Those of you who have been digging into the details, the evidences, and the facts are wasting your time. It’s decided already. No one won the debate, in fact Ross admits creationists can be persuasive, but that’s beside the point. It’s over.

As proof, and as proof that Ross was only mildly interested in writing about dieting, he linked an article attacking creationism entitled “15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense.”

After all who listens to nonsense? That’s the point, see. The argument is over.

Our world does not write these articles or say these things with the purpose of having an enlightening discussion. They say these things to scoff just as the Bible predicted they would in II Peter chapter three.  And although it was talking about something else, the advice of Revelation 14:12 “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus” applies very well.

Patience is very much in order, especially as I perused the article he linked.

You gotta love that the #3 Answer of the 15 Answers to Nonsense was upset that creationists give a “blanket dismissal of evolution.”


Pot? Kettle. Kettle? Pot.

Ok, seriously though. What if we actually dug into these things instead of dismissing each other? I’d be willing to bet Bible believing Christians would realize that not all scientists are militant atheists, and militant atheists would realize that Bible believing Christians often have scientific degrees, credentials, and a valuable point of view.

And we’d all learn a lot of science.

For instance, the fact we do not find humanoid skeletons in the lowest layers of the earth does not prove humans evolved, even though evolution would predict that we would not find humans there.  Score one for evolution, but there are other explanations, even ones consistent with the Bible, which also predict finding the same thing.

Harder questions remain for evolution such as when it misses predictions, which it has often done. Evolution predicted that we would find junk DNA for instance, yet that turned out to be largely untrue. It predicted that Neanderthals would have smaller brains which is completely untrue, and it predicted we would find transitional forms, a slow development of life in the fossil record, and DNA proof that we all came from a single cell in one evolutionary tree.

And figuring out how something mutates into a substantially different creature sporting radically different DNA has been next to impossible in evolution so far. In other words, everyone tells you evolution happened, but no one can do more than guess at how it happened.  But trust us, they say, it did.

One final point. When you are left with blaming alien beings from outer space as your best guess for how it all started… you know you’re struggling.

The crazy thing is all of this is incredibly interesting. Too bad the discussion is over because this is the best it’s ever been. In fact, even though Christians are usually accused of being closed minded, the truth is most evangelical churches I know do NOT tell people to shun science.  Instead they advise to question everything and examine closely.

Even if the rest of the world is done examining.

Knowledge Versus Obedience

As a minister it is easy for me to critique another person by their depth of knowledge, the logic they use, and the way they present an argument. It sounds a little prideful to say that, but don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that I have everything mastered, myself. It’s just part of my every day life to study, teach, and speak in front of people so I look closer at those things.  A basketball player will watch another basketball player with a more critical, discerning eye than the regular fan, and a welder will gauge another welder’s work more closely than I would. So while most people who attend church are listening to what the pastor has to say, when a pastor actually gets to attend another church, it’s easy for us to sit there measuring not only what is said, but how it is said. I’m sure most pastors try to be gracious and understanding, but like everyone else, it’s not always quick and easy to “turn off” the job.

That’s a big reason why it always means more to get a compliment from someone who works in the same field. Not only do they know what they are talking about, but they can judge closer, too.  The best compliment I ever received for doing radio play by play for basketball, came from another radio announcer.  And the best compliments I’ve received for preaching, came from another preacher. It just means more coming from them.

The thing is, however, sometimes in the midst of feeling… ummm… qualified to criticize… 

God steps in and humbles you.

If you haven’t read the discipleship training book T4T, you really should. (It’s reasonably priced on the Kindle, but expensive as a paperback for some reason. Regardless, it’s still worth a LOT more than the goofy $18 paperback price…)  Among the gems you find is the observation that (and I’m paraphrasing here)…

Spiritual growth is not only measured by how much you know, but  also by how much you obey.

So even if I might have my doctrine fine-tuned better than someone else, or might be able to deliver a sermon with more creativity and force, or put together a better organized system of outreach…

…Hey, a guy can dream…

Even if I could do all of that better than someone else, what does it matter if I’m not obeying Christ?

We sometimes judge each other by our doctrine, or some measure of performance. We have baptism figured out, or we understand Bible prophecy better, or we have a better grasp of the New Covenant in Jesus. Maybe our church is better at praise and worship, or our greeting ministry is ten times better than some other group. But what if instead of measuring each other by doctrine, or some outward appearance, we measured each other by our obedience to Christ in our lives?  You know, the actual “fruit’ test where we look for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control etc…?

Sounds obvious? It’s not.

Over the past month I’ve had encounters with people who were extremely opinionated over some point of doctrine and were interested in arguing with me over it.  Well, it’s probably more accurate to say they wanted to educate me because it was hard for me to say more than a sentence or two before I would be interrupted and they continued on with their points.

While I wouldn’t want to judge their specific motivations, I think it’s fair to say that from time to time all of us want to out-argue someone else, or prove our belief is right, because of a selfish desire to feed our ego.  There are also a few people, you probably call them know-it-alls, who always want to be the smartest person in the room. Or on Facebook.

I was thinking these very thoughts, judging them a bit for not letting ME speak enough, and judging their views because they disagreed with ME.  I’ll even admit I thought: hey, our church is way bigger than yours!  But that’s when God hit me with the question…

Who is obeying me in their life?

And that ladies and gentlemen, is an entirely different question than who has their doctrine correct on the New Testament or how many people attend on Sunday. It’s also an entirely more important question.

Some Scripture is vaguely coming to mind here, hmmm… something about not being hearers of the word only, but being doers…. Jesus said something about building a house on sand if you don’t do what he says… knowing a tree by it’s fruit…it’s not what goes into a man but what comes out… but hey… that’s just the Bible.

Anyway, for one of those persons especially, I had to admit they seemed to be faithful to God in how they lived. In fact, I admired their faithfulness.

So while I might still think I’m right on the doctrine part…

They win this time. 🙂