Propoganda poster. 1778, 1943. Americans will always fight for liberty. United States soldiers in helmets and coats march past Revolutionary War militiamen with rifles.

Idolizing Personal Liberty

The word liberty comes with a lot of baggage in our United States culture. We view our national history through the lens of liberty. We define our sense of freedom by our secular liberties. And few things cause us to get more vocal than times we feel our liberties are being stifled. “Give me liberty, or give me death!” “Live free or die!” To many of us, liberty is the single most valuable concern.

Unfortunately, we sometimes value liberty to the point that it becomes an idol. Think about Galatian 5:13–15:

For you were called to be free, brothers and sisters; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m pulling this out of context. This is really about misusing our spiritual liberties, but these words continue to come to mind these days as Christians react to, protest, and even defy the social restrictions related to COVID-19. I’d entreat you to consider that you might be idolizing your personal liberties if:

  • You are OK with potentially infecting others so you don’t have to be inconvenienced.
  • You downplay information that contradicts your assumptions so you don’t need to feel accountable for your actions.
  • You express your frustrations in ungodly ways.
  • You feel the freedom to make your own choices outweighs the danger your choices pose to others.

Consider also Philippians 2:1–4:

If, then, there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, make my joy complete by thinking the same way, having the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others.

We all need to look out for others’ interests before our own. This period of social isolation severely tests that commitment. Who is the more powerful deity in our lives — Jesus Christ who calls on us to sacrifice self for the sake of others or Rand-style Liberty that seductively whispers to us that our own interests trump all else?

There’s a pro-life quote that’s frequently misattributed to Mother Theresa: “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.” We must not become so morally impoverished that we are willing to threaten others lives so that we may live as we wish. In fact, the entire Christian call is to give up living how we wish and instead live as Christ would have us.

Show deference to others. Value others’ lives as more important than your physical liberties. Remember the liberty you have in Christ instead — an eternal liberty that nothing can separate us from. Put your hope in that, and then be patient with all else.

image of a boat in a storm

Tossed To and Fro By Every Controversy

Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head — Christ.

– Ephesians 4:14 – 15

In Ephesians, Paul warns his readers against following trends in spiritual matters. This was as important in the early church as it is today. It’s easy to get swept up in the pull of public opinion. It’s easy to want to do things that feel right even if they don’t line up with what God wants. It’s as much a challenge to young congregations as to those that have endured for generations.

There’s another way we let ourselves get tossed about, however, and that’s in the venue of current events. Something may suddenly flare up in the media, in the White House, in the courts, or on social networks, and we feel the need to jump on it immediately. We start sharing our thoughts on it reflexively; we share link after link or meme after meme; and it becomes the topic du jour in Bible classes and sermons — until the next distraction comes along.

Distractions and Reactions

We’ve all seen it happen. I’ve done it myself. A Bible study on the topic of giving somehow ends up including a rant about how unfairly the media is treating a Christian celebrity. A sermon about baptism end up spending twenty minutes on gay marriage. A reading from Isaiah suddenly turns out to be about immigration policy. A Lord’s Supper talk unexpectedly turns into a defense of the pledge of allegiance.

Some current events are worth discussion and study, but it should be done so with considered preparation, removing self from the equation and letting God’s word guide our thoughts. It’s never productive to derail what could be an otherwise encouraging study by letting something that is grating on our nerves distract us. Then the next thing will come along. And then the next. Before we know it, instead of purposeful and meaningful study happening in our Bible classes and sermons, all we’re doing is reacting. We’re being tossed to and fro.

What To Do About It

When something in the news or current events rankle us, we need to step back and ask ourselves some questions.

  • Is it a matter of Scripture? Whether or not someone stands for an anthem or wears a flag pin has no bearing on God’s word. In those cases, it’s not worth discussing in a worship or study setting. Have your opinion, but don’t derail others’ faith and worship with it.
  • Will it bring anyone closer to Christ? Again, will discussing the topic help anyone with their relationship with Christ, or will the topic create secular barriers to discipleship?
  • Does it fit the current topic of discussion? Maybe your current frustration does have scriptural relevance. Does it fit the current sermon or Bible study topic? If not, maybe it’s better to find another time or venue to discuss it.
  • Am I able to talk about it rationally? If I can’t discuss the topic without getting flustered or angry, I’m perhaps not the best person to address the issue.
  • Am I letting God’s word guide me? This is a challenging one. Is your opinion on the topic formed by Biblical principles or by secular sources like public figures or media personalities? We should ensure that God’s word shapes our opinions rather than letting our opinions shape our interpretation.

It really comes down to being able to practice self-denial with our need to express our opinions. We also have to stop assuming that every person in the room agrees with us. Ranting about the evils of gun control in a Bible class where there may be a visitor on the other side of the issue will make them feel unwelcome. You or I may hinder another person’s journey to Christ in our need to vent, and I don’t want to have to face Christ in judgment with that on my conscience.

We have to come to the conclusion that souls are more important than personal opinions, politics, or any other secular controversy. We have to decide that we will focus on Bible topics when we’re studying or worshipping together. Just look at Paul’s prison letters as an example. Does he spend time in his letters complaining about the unfairness of the Roman justice system? Does he complain about the conditions of his prison? Does he rant about the corruption of Caesar? In no case does he let physical distractions upset his spiritual focus.

We cannot be distracted from Christ. There are indeed some current events worth addressing in our Bible studies and our pulpits — our obligations to the poor and disenfranchised, overcoming racial prejudices, addressing violence against women. However, there are many more that we should leave alone lest we alienate believers and those seeking Christ. We should be a body knit together by our common faith and hope. Let’s not let secular distractions harm our unity and purpose in Christ. Stop being tossed to and fro by every controversy, and instead anchor yourself in the upward calling of Christ.

 

What U.S. Christians Miss About North — and South — Korea

Sojourners: What U.S. Christians Miss About North — and South — Korea

Sitting on the 28th floor of the Lotte Hotel World in downtown Seoul having breakfast with a long-time ecumenical friend from Korea, I asked him what the churches in his country were thinking about the present crisis. He immediately responded, “We’re asking, ‘What are the churches in America thinking?’”

•••

Two realities here in South Korea seem unknown or underappreciated in the U.S. First is the fact that the Korean War has not ended. There’s no treaty, and no permanently recognized peace — only an agreement 60 years ago to cease actual hostilities. Traveling through layers of security to Panmunjom, where the armistice was signed, and where North Korean and U. N. forces (mostly South Korean) still wordlessly face one another, brings home this truth. Formally, there is no peace.

Second, for some Koreans, reunification is an earnest hope. In the U.S. we simply assume there are two countries — North Korea and South Korea, end of story. But countless times here I’ve heard prayers and hopes for reunification, some time, in some way. And those prayers come from Christian communities across South Korea. It’s hard to answer how reunification would be peaceably achieved, but that doesn’t diminish hope. Being here, I’m reminded that Korea has been one culture, with one people, and one land for most of its history. The DMZ is an artificial demarcation, similar to the former divisions of Germany and of Vietnam.

We Christians should be careful about hurrying to shed blood through war. While the actions of Kim Jong-un may be unjustifiable, we should all remember the sheer number of innocent souls that will simply be counted as “collateral damage” should we allow his posturing to abandon the Prince of Peace.

#MeToo Must be #WeToo

Timothy Archer: #MeToo Must Be #WeToo

Beyond society in general, I think the church needs to increase efforts to make church a safe haven and a refuge for those who have been abused. To do such, I think that we need to:

  • Condemn any and all abuse of power in the church.
  • Condemn any and all sexual abuse in the church.
  • Stop the ridicule of safety measures.
  • Reject all questioning of a victim’s complicity in the abuse.

Be sure to visit the link to see these suggestions in greater detail.

All I can think is this: if we’re failing to help victims of sexual aggression and violence feel welcome in the church, what are we even doing?

Moloch

an engraving of people offering their children to the idol Moloch

In the midst of commands regarding sexual purity in Leviticus 18, we can find this directive from God to His people:

You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.

– Leviticus 18:21 (ESV)

Moloch is a Hebrew name for a Canaanite god. (It’s also known as Molech, Milcom, or Malcam in various translations.) Later in Israel’s history, Moloch is most often associated with the Ammonites. Solomon actually brings Moloch worship into the borders of Israel at the behest of one of his many wives in I Kings 11:7, and Jeremiah 32:35 specifically condemns some of the children of Israel for continuing to worship this idol or any idol that requires human sacrifice.

What made Moloch unique among the other idols we read about in the Old Testament is that those who worshipped it sacrificed their children, seemingly by burning them before or on the idol. Cleitarchus describes similar sacrifices to Cronus in this way:

There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing. (trans. Paul G. Mosca)

We don’t worship statues any more, but the New Testament writers speak time and again about fleeing idolatry. Paul, in Colossians 3:5, goes so far as to define covetousness as idolatry. In other words, anything for which we are willing to sacrifice our spirituality to obtain, material or otherwise, becomes an idol to us. They are replacing God in our hearts.

Often, from the pulpit, we draw direct comparisons between Moloch and modern abortion, and the comparison is obvious. Both involve children; both involve death. The big differentiator being whether or not the mother involved views their unborn child as a sentient being as most of us Christians do. In the case of the sacrifices to Moloch, there was no doubt that the child was living, sentient, and capable of pain. Yet they would go through with it in hopes that they would receive safety, security, and victory from this god. And that’s where the application opens even further.

Our culture has grown comfortable with sacrificing the lives of “others” in order to preserve security, uphold political ideals, or to obtain some perceived victory. We turn away refugees and their children because welcoming them makes us feel unsafe. We advocate for health care laws that will rip affordable coverage away from those that need it most for some sense of “liberty.” We criticize those who wish to put diplomacy before violence, and praise said violence as strength.

In all of these cases, we’re putting our ideas of security, safety, and victory before the lives of others. We deem our ideals as more important than their existence. But we seldom feel the effects of our own callousness because we’re not the ones affected. Incidentally, sacrifices to Moloch never involved throwing yourself in the fire; it was always someone else, even if that meant your own child.

So challenge yourself with this question: what ideal or victory are you willing to sacrifice the lives of others to obtain? If we’re all honest with ourselves, we might all find forms of Moloch we’re still serving.

God and the Don

God and the Don

CNN has a fascinating piece about the history of President Trump’s faith.

It was clear that Trump was still preoccupied with his November victory, and pleased with his performance with one constituency in particular.

“I did very, very well with evangelicals in the polls,” Trump interjected in the middle of the conversation — previously unreported comments that were described to me by both pastors.

They gently reminded Trump that neither of them was an evangelical.

“Well, what are you then?” Trump asked.

They explained they were mainline Protestants, the same Christian tradition in which Trump, a self-described Presbyterian, was raised and claims membership. Like many mainline pastors, they told the President-elect, they lead diverse congregations.

Trump nodded along, then posed another question to the two men: “But you’re all Christians?”

“Yes, we’re all Christians.”

I think the most troubling aspect, though, is how obvious it is that our current president uses religion as a marketing tool while not actually understanding it. Christian leaders should be able to see through this, but they are either blinded by the power he offers, or — worse — they simply don’t care.