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.

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”

New Year’s Eve Post

Blogging through the New Year on Central Standard Time. Another year is going into the books tonight and where are we?  Where are you? Where am I?  Beyond a shadow of a doubt things are changing in our world, our culture, and always, always, always things change for us on a personal level. Here are some thoughts on all three. I’ll be blogging for the rest of the year, so feel free join in below.

World.  Christianity garnered some sympathy because of the increase in real persecution, especially in the Middle East.  From Egypt, to Iraq, to Syria, to Libya, to a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, Christians have been under real attack by Islamic militants.  Shades of Revelation chapter six going on in Middle East?  Well how about those famous four horsemen of the apocalypse? A white horse that represents revolution perhaps? Check. A red horse that represents war? Check. A black horse that seems to represent shortages and high prices of basic goods? Check. A pale horse that represents Death? Check. Move on from the four horsemen to the Fifth Seal which represents persecution? Yep that one too.

Most Bible prophecy teachers believe the Seals of Revelation are world-wide problems, of course, not merely local Middle Eastern events.  Still, it’s a little spooky.

The big change for the West has been the rise of an aggressive populist atheism, and social changes including same-sex marriage and the view among almost all media that the Bible, and those who believe in it, are no longer anywhere close to the mainstream.  From movies, to books, to talk shows, traditional Christian beliefs are increasingly being viewed as morally wrong, or intellectually bankrupt. Ironically, this comes at a time when the arguments in favor of Biblical Christianity are at their strongest.

In recent times, atheism surprised Christianity with a deluge of new and old arguments, and fresh styles of attack. The culture, which today values the style of debate over the substance, is often swayed by fierceness of the attack. Christianity is not argued against as much as ridiculed, scoffed at, and laughed away.  And as we’ve seen in presidential debates that award someone the win based on how well they interrupted or talked over or laughed at their opponent, so the new atheism uses a new attitude as much as any new argument.

Nevertheless, because of evidence of design the arguments for Creation have never been stronger.  Genetics has also presented what I consider insurmountable hurdles for macro-evolution, and even paleontology has challenged, of all things, the age of the dinosaurs.  Despite these and other advances on the evidence side of defending the Bible and the existence of God, the debate is as much about style now.  In fact, I get the distinct feeling it’s a lot like a fashion show, and what is “in style” now currently isn’t the Bible.

Personal.  There are lots of things we can say have changed on a personal level. We may have gone through triumphs or tragedies or both.  Kids grow up, we grow older, new opportunities come, and sometimes we leave things behind. This being a blog about spiritual things, however, let’s talk about where our views have gone, perhaps some things we’ve learned along the way, and definitely where God has led us.

For me, a few things stand out.  A trip to Kenya opened my eyes to the role of the rich in this world. And yeah, it’s we Americans who are rich.  It was in Kenya when God showed me our role was to give it away. Someone has recently said we need to be more ruthless in giving away our material blessings.  I couldn’t agree more, but I didn’t really GET this until Kenya.

While there, we gave away clothes, we gave away our reading glasses, our shoes, our spending money, and whatever else was needed. We didn’t do it at random mind you, but like any accountant at any business, we wanted to know where, why, and if it was a good idea to give in this way or that.  As managers over a trust fund, we invested as wisely as we could, but we made sure we invested.  God opened doors for us to purchase food, Bibles, medical treatments, pay for school fees, and even, before it was over, give a family a new home.  Going back to the Bible, we realized the role of rich believers is simply this: to give it away as good stewards of God’s money.

Not only was that big for me in regards to doctrine, it was a time that opened a door for the Gospel. With the help of two on-fire local pastors, we met with people, sharing with them about Jesus. Many already attended a church but believed they were “saved” because they were a member, or because they followed a particular preacher.  We didn’t try to get them to change churches, we simply wanted to tell them about Jesus, and shared with them the basics of the Gospel.  The Bible says that the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ.  It didn’t say the gift of God was eternal life in Church XYZ, or Preacher So and So.  It said Jesus.  And Romans 10 says if we confess with our mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart God raised him from the dead we will be saved.

There’s just no getting around it, the Bible preaches salvation through Jesus, not religion or anyone else.  And through the ministry that began with our little group, 42 people who already attended a church, accepted Jesus for the first time.  Today, a church is forming, one that preaches Jesus instead of religion. That was just cool.

There’s more to say on the Personal side of things.  A new understanding of what worship is, what living by the Spirit really is all about, will impact the new year.  What about you? Hope you’ve had a good one, too.

Talking About Baptism in a Room Full of Diverse Backgrounds

We had a great Sunday. Seven people were baptized. I know, I know, if you are at a mega-church then seven baptisms is just another day. Maybe a slow day. On the other hand, anytime someone accepts Christ it’s a great day, whether it be seven, or just one. The Bible does say that heaven rejoices when just one sinner repents, and at our church, it’s a big deal. We work at it and God has blessed the work. On average, we see 1 salvation for every 10 members each year, which is a little better than the 1 for every 100 that is the nationwide average. I think any Christian church could do this, honestly because it’s the same God… But I digress.

This week the baptisms were the after-effects from an evangelistic drama called “The Battle: The End is Coming.” The Battle presents scenes of life and death-heaven and hell. We use video, music, special effects, even pyrotechnics. (yeah, actual fire!) Did we scare people into being saved? Well, the idea of standing before God can be a little scary. Or a lot scary. So probably. There were a total of 25 decisions that we know of this year. Awesome stuff. You should have seen the smiles on faces when people came out of the water on Sunday. There’s really not a much better feeling anywhere in my opinion.

So here’s the thing, with so many baptisms, we geared the entire worship service around them. Plus, family members attended for the main purpose of witnessing the event and taking pictures. Do we allow pictures in a Worship Service? Why yes we do. That’s how we roll. And these families, plus many people in the congregation, have diverse backgrounds in what baptism is all about, and how a church “saves” people.

I did the scary thing and actually talked about the meaning and purpose of baptism. Yes I know that sounds mundane, but in reality it’s like poking a badger. Some of you who don’t attend church or don’t believe in God may not realize how divisive the subject of baptism or the method of salvation can be in churches. Trust me, it’s one of the worst. Baptist churches and Christian Churches primarily split over this very issue, and both oppose the practice of infant baptism in the Methodists, Presbyterians or Lutherans. The Catholics and some Baptist churches won’t even count your baptism if it happened in one of the other groups, and some Christian/Church of Christ’s won’t count your baptism if you didn’t have a “correct” belief about it when you were baptized. And that’s just the beginning, Continue reading “Talking About Baptism in a Room Full of Diverse Backgrounds”

Coming to Grips with the Christmas God

There are several details about the Christmas story that don’t exactly match up with… well the actual Christmas story.  It makes for some interesting trivia during this time of the year, which could make you a hit at parties perhaps, but it is also symptomatic of our culture.  Are we content to believe a tradition-filled caricature of the Bible, or are we interested in the real thing?

Take the 3 wise men for instance, or magi, or kings or whatever you want to call them.  Their story is in Matthew chapter 2, and here we find one of the more glaring instances of tradition versus the Bible.  We can start with the fact the Bible never said there were 3 wise men, but only that there were 3 separate gifts.  The Bible never said they traveled on camels, ( John MacArthur’s research says they traveled on Persian steeds and with a sizable cavalry) and the Bible never said their names, or the color of their skin.  In fact, the Bible never calls them kings, and we know from history the magi were advisers to kings, but likely not kings themselves.

Nevertheless we have an entire tradition about the magi, which is often assumed to come from the Bible, but doesn’t.  Ironically, we even sometimes we try to prove the Bible to be false, or a myth by disproving things the Bible never said.  A youtube video called Zeitgeist claimed that the Christian story was simply made up of earlier myths, which also included stories of 3 wise men and births of a Savior on December 25, etc…  While the video is largely a hoax (those earlier religious myths did not make those claims either) it nevertheless convinced a lot of people who assume the Bible talks about things like 3 wise men, or December 25, or being born in a stable, when the Bible actually says nothing about these things.

How much do you think you know about the actual Christmas story?

Continue reading “Coming to Grips with the Christmas God”