Category Archives: Bible

History or Gospel?

Can the Biblical Accounts of Jesus’s Passion Be Trusted?


It’s Good Friday, the day Christians celebrate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It may seem odd to celebrate the horrific killing of the Son of God, and it may seem foolish to call such an evil act “Good.” But it is Good—infinitely so—because Christ died the death we deserve as sinners who have rebelled against a holy God. I can call this day “Good” because “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:19–20).

History or Gospel?

Whenever someone considers the claims Christians make regarding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, one of the first things they ask is, “Did all this really happen?” Was there an actual man named Jesus? Did he really suffer and die like that? Could he really have risen from the dead? In other words, is the gospel story historical, or merely the stuff of legend?

This question was the subject of a Dateline NBC special entitled The Last Days of Jesus, which aired around the time the movie The Passion of the Christ was released. NBC anchor Stone Phillips interviewed several Biblical scholars about key episodes in the final week of Jesus’s life. Among the scholars interviewed was John Dominic Crossan, co-chair of the Jesus Seminar and author of numerous books about the “historical Jesus.” Crossan, who describes Judas as a “powerful piece of fiction” and who declares that the “Pilate of the gospels” is “absolutely unhistorical,” has this to say about what he sees as the gospels’ lack of historical authenticity:

It’s not that anyone is telling a lie. They are writing gospel. If you read a gospel as giving you straight history you are denying what it claims to be, namely good news. And if we were to confront them and say, well, that’s not history, they say, ‘I never said I was writing history. That’s your problem. I’m writing gospel.’

Crossan does have a point about what the gospel writers were trying to do. They were not trying to write an objective, historiographical account of the events of Jesus’s life. They were writing to persuade their readers that Jesus is the Christ, the only path of salvation for sinful man. They were not merely reporting historical fact; they were interpreting the events they were describing in order to make a theological or evangelistic point. However, that fact does not rule out the possibility that the events they recorded actually took place. They may have been proclaiming the good news, but they also saw themselves as proclaiming the truth — a truth which was historical as well as spiritual.

To his credit, Stone Phillips also interviewed scholars such as Craig Evans who believe the gospels to be historically reliable. Unfortunately, we never see these scholars actually address the specific challenges to the gospels’ historicity which get raised. I contacted Dr. Evans to find out whether he had been asked if Judas was real or if the gospels’ portrayal of Pilate was accurate, and he was kind enough to send me a partial transcript of his interview. In it he ably defended the veracity of the gospel accounts, but for whatever reason, his answers to those questions never made it on the air. Thus, although Dateline’s viewers were presented with scholars from both sides of the debate, they only got to hear the arguments of those who question the Bible’s historical reliability. The net effect of all this was that Dateline’s viewers were given the distinct impression that the gospels are of dubious historical value.

History and Gospel

John Dominic Crossan’s juxtaposition of history and gospel is typical of those who challenge the historical reliability of the gospels, but where is it written that a document must be exclusively one or the other? If I report that I met Christ when I was fifteen years old, at the end of a dock on a lake in Alabama, is it not possible to reject my religious affirmation without denying my historical assertions? In other words, you may dispute my claim that I did, in fact, have a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, but why accuse me of lying about actually being at the end of a dock in Alabama when I was fifteen years old?

Let’s take this personal example a little further. What if, at another time, I told you that I have spent all my life in Florida and that I became a Christian through a small church in Orlando? Now should you question the historical accuracy of my claim that I met Christ (that is, became a Christian) in Alabama? After all, I’ve just said that I’ve spent all my life in Florida! Of course, the apparent contradiction is easily resolved when I explain that I was in Alabama on a week-long youth retreat, and that I was, in fact, actually living in Florida at that time.

When I give a personal testimony of my salvation experience, I am relating historical facts for evangelistic purposes, but my religious motives do not lead me to bend, distort, or exaggerate the historical elements of my message. In other words, my statements are both history and gospel. Yet scholars like Crossan tend to approach the gospels with the assumption that their authors were not above embellishing the truth if they thought it would serve their theological purposes. Thus, any episode which can be clearly shown to further the goals of the gospel writers immediately becomes suspect. In my opinion, this a priori presumption of guilt leads people like Crossan to see contradiction, exaggeration, and error in all kinds of places where it doesn’t really exist.

EcceHomoPilate: A Test Case

In order to assess the historical reliability of the gospels, let’s examine an episode in the life of Christ which has often been declared “implausible” and “absolutely unhistorical” by Crossan and others: Jesus’s trial before Pilate.

The gospels portray Pilate as reluctant to crucify Jesus, as doing so only in response to pressure from the Jewish priests and the crowd. Yet other ancient historical witnesses describe Pilate as a ruthless dictator who did not hesitate to resort to brutality. Philo speaks of Pilate’s “corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity” (Philo, Embassy to Gaius, 302). Josephus tells of several instances where Pilate suppressed minor, religiously-inspired uprisings with violence. John Dominic Crossan summarizes Pilate’s relationship with his Jewish subjects like this:

He would not give in to a crowd. Pilate had his own way of crowd control, which is known as slaughter. He is not the Pilate of the gospels, the meek or the just person who is just trying to be a good governor but that crowd won’t let him go so he finally gives in. That is absolutely unhistorical.

When asked whether Pilate would have crucified Jesus to please the priests, Paula Fredricksen, another scholar featured in the Dateline Special mentioned above, responded, “Pilate is appointed by the Emperor. He doesn’t have to worry about pleasing the priests.”

Scholars who regard the gospels’ depiction of Pilate as unhistorical tend to argue that the gospel writers had an ulterior motive for describing Pilate as reluctant to crucify a righteous man without just cause. Because the gospels were written around the time of the First Jewish Revolt, these scholars see the gospels as an attempt by Christians to distance themselves from Jews. By whitewashing Pilate’s involvement in Jesus’s death and laying the blame squarely at the feet of the Jews, the gospel writers were trying to appease their Roman rulers and avoid being lumped together with the Jews who were proving so troublesome at the time.

Did the gospel writers gloss over Pilate’s cruelty in order to get in good with the Romans? Are Pilate’s actions in the trial of Jesus inconsistent with what we know of him from other ancient sources? Not at all.

To begin with, one of the gospels makes explicit mention of Pilate’s cruelties. In Luke 13:1, Jesus receives news about some Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” In other words, Pilate had ordered some Galileans to be slaughtered while they were in the act of offering sacrifices to God, an act which would have been absolutely reprehensible to Jews. Luke’s gospel, at least, does not try to cover up Pilate’s penchant for brutality.

Neither do the gospels depict Pilate as being particularly eager to please either the priests or the crowd. When the chief priests bring Jesus before Pilate, the gospel of John portrays Pilate as dismissive: “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law” (John 18:31). Later he says to them, “You take him and crucify him” — knowing perfectly well that they have no authority to crucify anyone. When Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd, he repeatedly refers to Jesus as their “king,” almost as if he is enjoying the fact that they are calling for the death of a Jewish king. His famous act of “washing his hands” is not meant to appease the crowd, but to make it clear that they are responsible for Jesus’s crucifixion.

Why would Pilate behave like this? Why didn’t he just condemn Christ immediately and be done with it? Was it because he was so convinced of Jesus’s innocence? Was it because he didn’t want to participate in a miscarriage of justice? I don’t think so. The gospels do not portray Pilate as the “meek or just person who is just trying to be a good governor” (see Crossan’s quote above), but as a politician trying to work out the best way to handle a difficult situation.

Paula Fredricksen is right that Pilate was appointed by the Roman Emperor and therefore did not have to answer to the desires of the Jewish priests. But she is being far too simplistic when she says that he didn’t have to “worry” about pleasing his Jewish subjects. After all, the Jews could, and had, appealed directly to the emperor in cases where they felt Pilate was being unjust or doing something which violated their religious traditions. Philo reports of one instance where Pilate was harshly reprimanded by the emperor for not removing some objects from Jerusalem which the Jews found objectionable. Josephus tells us that Pilate was ultimately removed from office when his Jewish subjects complained about his cruelties to the higher-ranking governor of Syria. In other words, Pilate may have had all the power in Jerusalem, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t accountable to any higher authority or that he could do whatever he wanted. Like most politicians, Pilate likely spent a lot of time looking over his shoulder and trying to figure out how to hold on to his position or to advance his career.

So when the Jewish religious leaders came to him to demand the death of a popular preacher, Pilate found himself in a political quagmire. I doubt there was any love lost between Pilate and the Jewish authorities, but Pilate depended on them to help keep the Jewish populace in line. If he completely alienated them, they were sure to cause him further headaches in the future. On the other hand, if he put to death this popular preacher during the festival of Passover, he was likely to end up with a riot on his hands. And while Pilate certainly wasn’t afraid to put down a riot with violence, there was always the risk of more political fallout from such an action. Pilate may even have suspected the Jewish authorities of trying to set a trap for him. After all, whatever he did with Jesus, it had the potential to backfire.

Pilate therefore did what any good politician would do. He began by trying to pass the buck: sending Jesus off to Herod when he learned that Jesus was a Galilean (Luke 23:6-7). Luke notes that when Herod sent Jesus back dressed in an “elegant robe,” Pilate and Herod became “friends” where previously they had been enemies (Luke 23:12). This new political alliance seems odd considering that Herod failed to take the Jesus problem off Pilate’s hands, but apparently Pilate was so pleased with Herod’s mockery of Jesus’s claim to be king of the Jews that he began to see Herod in a new light.

Pilate then seized upon another opportunity to avoid responsibility for the condemnation of Jesus. All four gospels record that it was customary for the Roman governor to release a prisoner to the crowd at Passover: sort of a low-cost way to show the benevolence of Roman rule. At the time, Pilate had a prisoner named Barabbas who had led an insurrection. It is doubtful Pilate would have wanted to release such a man anyway, and it was apparently clear to him from his interviews with Jesus that this people’s preacher posed more of a threat to the religious authorities than he did to the authority of Rome. By releasing Jesus, Pilate could appear benevolent to the crowd, go forward with the execution of a political prisoner, and, perhaps best of all, irritate the priests who had good reason to see Jesus as a threat. If it had worked, it would have been a pretty savvy bit of political maneuvering.

Unfortunately for Pilate, the crowd did not give him the out he wanted. The priests, who had no reason to want a man like Barabbas released either, may have surprised Pilate by calling for his release rather than Jesus’s. The gospels say that they “stirred up” the crowd to call for Barabbas to be released as well.

Paula Fredricksen finds this whole scene to be “incoherent”:

The whole scene even if you look at it within the woof and weave of the gospel stories is incoherent. Jesus is popular enough to have been celebrated by pilgrims and danced into the city. He was so popular that he had to be arrested by ambush. That was the only way they could risk getting him without causing popular uproar. And yet by morning, there’s a hostile crowd screaming for his death. Where does this hostile crowd come from? Did it really exist? … It doesn’t square. If this were a script for a “Law & Order” episode, you’d say, wait a minute, this is inconsistent. And that’s where you have to sort through.

But is it really that hard to understand? Consider how quickly we can turn on popular celebrities when they get into legal trouble or do something scandalous and the situation immediately becomes more believable. In the four days since he had entered Jerusalem to great fanfare, Jesus had been embroiled in controversy: terrorizing the money-changers at the temple, challenging the religious authorities, prophesying the temple’s destruction, and on and on. By Friday, I’m sure some of those who had hailed him as Messiah were beginning to wonder if they had been mistaken. We must also consider the fact that Jesus was not universally celebrated on Palm Sunday — many Jews were likely suspicious of this latest Messianic figure and nervous about the attention he was receiving. When, on Friday morning, this man appears in chains and looking like he has been in a fight, these people likely would have felt that their suspicions were being confirmed.

Jesus may have been too popular to arrest publicly, but Fredricksen seriously underestimates the effect of his suddenly appearing to people disgraced and already in custody. The same people who might have been outraged to see Jesus arrested right in front of them could easily have felt disillusioned to see him bedraggled and in chains. Finally, we need to consider the composition of the crowd which gathered before Pilate that morning. Many of them may have been Barabbas’s supporters hoping to push for his release. Others were likely just curious onlookers wanting to see the Roman governor release a Jewish prisoner. Such people probably could not have cared less who was released, and could easily have been swayed one way or the other. They might even have enjoyed the irony of seeing Pilate release a known insurrectionist. The point is that there are lots of possibilities which make this episode entirely plausible and quite coherent.

Whatever the reasons, the crowd did call for Barabbas to be released instead of Jesus. Still, Pilate wasn’t completely off the hook. The whole episode could easily have been “spun” as another example of Pilate’s cruelty and injustice: Pilate releases a known murderer and crucifies a popular religious teacher. So Pilate goes to great lengths to show that this time, he cannot be blamed for the bloodshed. First, he has Jesus flogged. His soldiers crown Jesus with thorns and beat him with a staff. When he is returned to Pilate he is seriously disfigured, clothed in Herod’s robe, and wearing a crown of thorns. Still, the chief priests are not appeased. They cry out for him to be crucified.

Why would they not have been satisfied? The cynical answer is that a beaten and humiliated Jesus would have been even more of a threat to their authority. Jesus could have used his flogging at the hands of Pilate to curry sympathy among the Jewish people, as proof that he was more courageous and more faithful to God than the collaborating Jewish priests. The more sympathetic answer is that these men were zealous for the Law, and as a blasphemer, they saw Jesus as deserving of death — a flogging was simply not enough. Whatever their motives, these men wanted Jesus dead.

The gospel of John, which records Jesus’s trial before Pilate in greater detail than any of the other gospels, describes the ironic conclusion like this:

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour.

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

At last Pilate had what he was looking for. There was now no way the chief priests could use this episode against him. Even better, he had their assertion that they had no king but Caesar.

I suspect Pilate enjoyed the irony of forcing a Jewish crowd and their Jewish priests to repeatedly call for the death of a Jewish king. Again and again, Pilate refers to Jesus as “your king,” as if to remind the crowd that the only king Jews could produce was this pitiful figure before him. And how did they reward their “king”? By crying out for his crucifixion!

The gospel of Matthew describes Pilate’s final bit of drama:

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

Was this the protest of a just judge who was unwilling to accept the guilt of innocent blood? Or was it a crass way of taking what the crowd had just done and throwing it back in their faces? Either interpretation is purely speculative, but it is certainly possible to see Pilate as saying to his Jewish subjects: “This one is your doing. You who act so righteous and who have called me cruel, how are you any better than me?”

Whatever his reasons and motivations, Pilate had escaped the political trap, and had most likely enjoyed himself in the bargain. I suspect that he also enjoyed the priests’ objections to the notice which he had posted to Jesus’s cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” What a coup for a petty political dictator: he got to crucify a Jewish “king” and he couldn’t even be blamed for it. He got to warn other would-be messiahs about the dangers of achieving prominence, and in the process managed to extort a vow of loyalty to Caesar from the Jewish priests!

My point in all this is that the gospels do not whitewash Pilate or his soldiers while demonizing the Jews. Rather, they depict the complex multiplicity of factors leading to Jesus’s crucifixion. More often than not, it is the modern Biblical “historians” who end up flattening and oversimplifying history by failing to consider the full scope of the events being described. It is simply easier to dismiss the gospel writers as being unhistorical than it is to try to understand the subtle, hidden, and sometimes contradictory motives which drive people to do what they do.

Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?

So are the gospels historically reliable? Can we trust the accounts they give of Jesus’s passion, his death, and even his miraculous resurrection? Obviously, I believe we can. Have I proven the gospels’ historical accuracy in this article? Not by a long shot. But I hope I have shown that the gospel accounts cannot be dismissed as easily as scholars like Crossan and Fredricksen would have us believe. Yes, they are gospel, and we may choose not to accept the “good news” which they proclaim. But they are also history, and they should not be rejected as such simply because the gospels were written for theological and evangelistic purposes.

The Lang Gang’s 2017 Christmas Letter

“when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son,
born of a woman … so that we might receive adoption”
—Galatians 4:4

Dear Family and Friends,

IMG_7916On our kitchen counter, we have a little decorative chalkboard on which to write the number of days left until Christmas. Each day, Jo Jo (8) writes a new number on the board and then delights to remind us that Christmas is now one day closer. When I was his age, I remember wondering if Christmas would ever arrive. For children, who see only the promise of presents under the tree, time just seems to drag on interminably in the days leading up to Christmas. Parents, meanwhile, have a different perspective on time: each day that passes is one less day to buy presents, decorate the house, plan get-togethers, and otherwise try to have the “perfect” Christmas. For us, time seems to fly by in a mad rush toward “C-Day.”

It’s funny how our perception of time is affected by our perspective. When we’re waiting in hope for something good to happen, time seems to slow down. Later, we look back and realize how short the time of waiting actually was.

Christmas Card 2017When I was a young man fresh out of college, it seemed as if it would be forever before I could find a dream job or meet and marry the girl of my dreams. Now that David (22), Caleb (21), and Bethany (19) have all graduated from college, they are each taking their first tentative steps in pursuit of their own dreams. At times I see in them the same impatience to get started that I used to feel, and I know they’re wondering as I did, “Will I really ever be able to get there from here?” Looking back now, I’m amazed at how quickly I managed to find both my dream job and my dream girl. From my current vantage point, I can see clearly how God was directing my steps the whole time, and I can casually minimize that period of waiting and uncertainty as “a few short years.”

Of course, at the time, a “few” years of waiting seemed anything but “short.” Likewise, it is little comfort to my kids when I tell them they have “plenty of time” in which to see their dreams come true.

Ironically, while our adult children cannot fully appreciate my perspective on their current stage of life, they are already looking back at the challenges of college from a completely different vantage point. Right now their younger sister Alexa (16) is busy filling out college applications, taking entrance exams like the ACT, and scheduling auditions in the hope of becoming a violin performance major. These hurdles all seem capable of determining her entire future, so she is naturally anxious about getting over each one. Her older siblings just shake their heads knowingly and say, “Of course you’ll be accepted. Of course you’ll pass the test. Of course you’ll nail the audition.” Already they seem to have forgotten the fear and trepidation they themselves experienced just a “few short years” ago.

Galatians 4:4 tells us that “God sent forth His Son” when “the fullness of time had come.” In other words, Christ was born at the perfect time—not a moment late, nor a moment too soon. The events which marked His birth were set in motion centuries, even millennia, prior to the first Christmas. Seven centuries earlier the prophets Isaiah and Micah prophesied his virgin birth in the town of Bethlehem. Many millennia before that the “star of Bethlehem” was appointed to appear at exactly the right time. God’s timing encompasses a mind-boggling array of actions and events, and there’s no way to hurry it along or argue with it. Yet when the “fullness of time” finally arrives, God’s orchestrating hand is clearly evident.

Before we met, Lisa and I each broke off a previous engagement. By the end of those relationships, we each felt that we were pressing to make something work that just wasn’t right. Neither of us was eager to start all over again or face a period of loneliness, but we each traded the security of a less-than-ideal relationship for the hope of something better. And then we waited. At times, we felt lonely. But in the “fullness of time,” God brought us together, and we thank Him every day that He made us wait for His best.

This Christmas, whatever your hopes, your dreams, and your secret longings, we pray that you will look to the Savior who came in the “fullness of time.” He came not merely to deliver His people from political bondage and exile, but to deliver all people from bondage to sin and the resulting exile from God’s presence. He accomplishes this reconciliation through adoption, so that by faith in the Son of God we ourselves become God’s children.

Consider for a moment what it means to be a child of God. At Christmas, we go to great lengths to ensure that our children receive the gifts they most hope for. If we, fallible and imperfect as we are, “know how to give good gifts to [our] children, how much more will [our] Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him?” (Matthew 7:11). Yet we also make our children wait until the “fullness of time” to receive those gifts, even when it means seeming deaf to their pleas for an “early Christmas.” In the same way, our Father in heaven is eager to give us every good thing, but only when it is truly good and only at the perfect time, a time when we are truly ready to receive it. Until then, He makes us wait until the “fullness of time.” After all, it is the Christmas presents we unwrap early which are most quickly forgotten, and the ones we had to wait for which are most deeply cherished.

So whatever you’re waiting for this Christmas, look to the Father who loves you, and trust that He will act in the “fullness of time.” Merry Christmas and God bless.

The Lang Gang
David, Lisa, David, Caleb, Bethany, Alexa, and Josiah

The Gospel Does Not Affirm Sin; It Transforms Sinners

NashvilleStatementA few days ago, a number of evangelical leaders released a statement affirming the Bible’s clear teaching that “God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife” and denying that He “designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship.” Known as the Nashville Statement, it contains a series of affirmations and denials regarding what the Bible teaches about human sexuality.

In any previous age, Christians and non-Christians alike would have looked at this statement, yawned, and said, “Of course that’s what the Bible teaches!” Yet in a culture where gender is seen as a fluid social construct and any kind of sexual “love” is regarded as good, the Nashville Statement is being reviled by progressives as an attempt by “powerful people of means” to “use the platform of the Church to demean the basic dignity of gay, bisexual, lesbian, trans, intersex, and queer people.”

This last quote comes from A Liturgists Statement, a progressive response to the Nashville Statement which offers its own set of theological affirmations. It is a stunning example of the self-contradictory and unbiblical worldview currently being promoted as “Progressive Christianity.” It also clearly demonstrates that what is at stake in this debate is nothing less than the Gospel itself.

The Liturgists Statement begins by casting doubt on the Bible’s clarity on the subject of sexual sin:

“Biblical” morality has been used to justify slavery, resistance to interracial marriage, genocide, and war. The scope of the Bible’s narrative allows a broad interpretation of what is right and moral, and both the church and society at large have moved toward universal justice and acceptance on issues once thought to be “crystal clear.”

In regards to Christians across the spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities, it’s past time to accept and affirm them as they are. In the same way that we no longer accept the morality of slavery based on its inclusion in our scriptures, we can no longer project first century notions of sex and sexuality on people today. The very notion of “orientation,” or even “heterosexual” would be completely foreign to the authors of both the old and new testaments in the Bible.

This argument can best be summarized as follows: In spite of the Bible, our views on slavery have changed, so why not our views on sexual sin? The problem with this is that although the Bible was used by slaveholders to justify slavery, it was also used by abolitionists to call for slavery’s end, and over time, the biblical arguments against slavery proved more compelling than those in favor of it. It’s not that the Bible clearly said “slavery is good” and “freedom is bad,” and we suddenly decided to read the Bible a different way. On the contrary, the Bible promised freedom from human bondage in the exodus of the Old Testament and freedom from bondage to sin in the Gospel of the New Testament. In the end, slavery was rejected because it violated the clear teaching of Scripture.

The Liturgists Statement argues that “we can no longer project first century notions of sex and sexuality on people today.” It goes on to argue that concepts of sexual “orientation” or even of being “heterosexual” would be completely foreign to the biblical authors. Instead of making a biblical argument for their understanding of sexuality, the authors of this statement simply brush the Bible aside as irrelevant to the discussion. Those first-century biblical authors simply didn’t think about sexuality the way we do! Okay, so why do we think our understanding is right and their understanding is wrong? How is this anything other than chronological snobbery, the fallacious assumption that the thinking of our own age is inherently superior to that of previous ages?

By the way, shouldn’t the argument that the biblical authors had no concept of “orientation” and “heterosexuality” simply lead us to conclude that such concepts are unbiblical? The authors of this statement are not seeking to live in accordance with what the Bible teaches, but are simply trying to make the Bible conform to an external standard which is foreign to it. In the end, it is not the Bible, but rather some undefined concept of “universal justice and acceptance,” which they use as their ethical foundation.

The Liturgists Statement goes on to make a series of affirmations of what they believe about human sexuality. Here is the first:

We believe that people of all sexual orientations and gender identities are fearfully and wonderfully made, holy before God, beloved and beautiful as they are.

The Bible does indeed teach that all people are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), their bodies being “knitted together” in their mothers’ wombs (v. 13). The Bible also teaches that all people are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6), designed to reflect God’s glory on earth and therefore intrinsically valuable. Yet the Bible also teaches that human nature was radically marred and corrupted by mankind’s fall into sin (Romans 3:23; 5:12). Because of this, our only hope is to be set free from sin through the redemptive and transformative work of Christ (Rom. 6:19–23), by which we become a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). It is therefore contrary to the Bible to affirm that any person, apart from the saving work of Christ, is “holy before God, beloved and beautiful as they are” (emphasis added). It is only those who are in Christ who are “holy before God,” since they have had Christ’s righteousness imputed to them and they are being continually transformed into his image. If you tell anyone—whether gay or straight—that they are holy, beloved, and beautiful “as they are,” you tell them that they have no need of the saving work of Christ. Such “I’m okay, you’re okay” theology may leave them feeling “affirmed” in the short term, but it ultimately damns them to perish in their sins.

The Liturgists Statement then affirms:

We believe all people have full autonomy over their bodies, sexual orientations, and gender identities, and the diversity of identities reflects the creative power of a loving God.

This affirmation clearly articulates the heart of the philosophy behind our culture’s view of human sexuality: the desire for absolute “autonomy” over one’s personal identity. The notion that a fundamental aspect of our identity (our sex) lies beyond our control is completely galling to modern man’s fetish for self-determination.

The irony of this affirmation of “full autonomy” is that it completely contradicts the preceding affirmation that “all sexual orientations and gender identities are fearfully and wonderfully made.” The first affirmation asserts that homosexuals and transgenders were “born this way,” and that it is therefore unloving to ask them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. But the second affirmation asserts their absolute autonomy over their own “bodies, sexual orientations, and gender identities.” In other words, if they choose to, they are able to change any of those aspects of themselves.

So which is it? Are those who embrace homosexual desires or who reject their own biological sex born that way, and therefore unable to change their sexual orientation or sense of their own gender identity? Or are they autonomous beings capable of choosing any number of options when it comes to orientation and gender? If the latter, why not choose to identify with the gender and orientation which corresponds to the body they were born with?

The second affirmation also asserts that “the diversity of identities reflects the creative power of a loving God” (emphasis added). The irony of this statement is that when it comes to sex, only one pair of corresponding identities and orientations actually has “creative power”: the heterosexual coupling of male and female. All the rest of that “diversity of identities” is completely sterile and incapable of creating new life. If God has chosen to show his own creativity by making some people desire members of their own sex or feel as if they were born with the wrong body, he has done so while simultaneously denying those individuals the “[pro]creative power” he grants to heterosexual couples. The theological implications of such a view of God are troubling to say the least.

The third affirmation of the Liturgists Statement attempts to make an argument from Scripture:

We believe that God is love, and that ‘anyone who loves is born of God and knows God’. (I John 4:7) God is honored in any consenting and loving relationship between adults, and therefore, all such relationships deserve honor and recognition.

Note the equivocation when it comes to the use of the word “love.” The Bible says that love is from God (1 John 4:7), and then a few verses later explains what kind of love it is talking about: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (v. 10). The context of this passage is not at all focused on sexual relationships, but on God’s redemptive love for sinners. Yet the Liturgists Statement uses this passage to argue that “any consenting and loving [sexual] relationship between adults” is an expression of divine love. Such an ethical principle will inevitably lead to absurdity. For example, is “God honored” by the consenting and loving relationship between a man and his mistress, even though that relationship constitutes a betrayal of the man’s wife? Is marriage a requirement for God to be honored in a “consenting and loving” sexual relationship, or is any sexual relationship to be regarded as God honoring?

The last affirmation I’ll deal with draws an unequal equivalency:

We believe that same-sex relationships and marriages are as holy before God as heterosexual marriages.

The equivalency being affirmed here is that same-sex marriages are equally “as holy” as heterosexual ones. Yet notice the inequality which got slipped in there. On the homosexual side, it is “relationships and marriages” which are regarded as holy, while on the heterosexual side, it is only “marriages.” Is this just an unintentional slip? I don’t think so. The Liturgists Statement is careful not to require marriage as a condition of holiness for same-sex relationships. After all, that would condemn the many homosexuals who prefer serial monogamy or outright promiscuity to the long-term commitment of same-sex marriage. An ethic of universal acceptance of any sexual relationship cannot impose marriage as a requirement for holiness, even though it is the only kind of heterosexual relationship which the Liturgists Statement describes as holy.

While the Liturgists Statement is written in the form of a Christian creed, it ends up being an illogical jumble of contradictory affirmations and theological assertions which strike at the very heart of the Gospel. The Bible proclaims that a just and holy God lovingly provided the solution to human sin and corruption in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.

The corruption of sin is readily apparent in the countless ways we have perverted and twisted God’s good created order. Hands designed to cultivate and keep the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15) are now used to commit murder (Gen. 4:8). That’s a perversion of God’s good design. Mouths designed to taste God’s goodness and praise his holy name are now used to engage in gluttony and cursing. That’s a perversion of God’s good design. The sexual distinction between male and female designed to fill the world with love and new life gets discarded in favor of sterile forms of coupling between members of the same sex. That too is a perversion of God’s good design.

All these perversions result in misery and death, and the only hope for any of us is to turn away from our sins and trust in the finished work of the resurrected Christ (Rom. 10:9–13). The good news of the Christian gospel is that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). The Liturgists Statement rejects that gospel in favor of the empty promise that sinners are “holy before God, beloved and beautiful as they are.” Rather than calling sinners to repent and believe, the Liturgists Statement simply redefines sin so that Christ and the cross are no longer necessary.

By way of contrast, hear the message of hope contained in Article 12 of the Nashville Statement:

WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ gives both merciful pardon and transforming power, and that this pardon and power enable a follower of Jesus to put to death sinful desires and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.

WE DENY that the grace of God in Christ is insufficient to forgive all sexual sins and to give power for holiness to every believer who feels drawn into sexual sin.

Ultimately, the Nashville Statement is not merely about defending the Bible’s teaching about marriage and sexuality, and it is certainly not about “demean[ing] the basic dignity” of  LGBTQ persons. On the contrary, it is about holding fast to the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the only hope for sinners of every stripe and color of the rainbow.

First Sermon: Do Your Eyes Light Up?

[This morning, I filled in for my pastor and preached a sermon for the first time.
Here is the manuscript of that sermon.]

Do Your Eyes Light Up?
Psalm 19:7–11

How many of you have ever had this experience: You’re worn out from a hard day’s work, feeling beaten up, broken down, tired, and discouraged. You get in your car to drive home, maybe facing a long and stressful commute. Then, at some point during the drive, a favorite song comes on the radio. Maybe it’s a song you loved as a teenager, a song you listened to while you and your spouse were dating, a song that made you feel better during a difficult time in your life. Whatever the reason, it’s a song that is special to you.

JERRY_MAGUIREWithout thinking, you begin singing along, tapping the steering wheel, nodding your head to the rhythm of the music. Your eyes light up, and before long, you’re smiling and singing at the top of your lungs. Where you were exhausted when you got in the car, you now have a surprising amount of energy. You may even get so animated you start to worry about what the other drivers will think of you.

Have you ever had an experience like that?

Somehow music—especially our favorite music—has the power to transform our attitudes, our emotions, and our outlook on life. It doesn’t even seem to matter if it’s a song you haven’t heard in years or one you listen to all the time. These days my kids can download just about any song they want to hear and play it over and over again. Yet when that same song comes on the car radio, they get excited and urge me not to change the station. Somehow it’s still exciting to know a song you love is actually being played on the radio. It’s like a confirmation that other people love the song as much as you do.

There’s something paradoxical about the way we share our favorite music with others. On the one hand, we pride ourselves on loving that music even before it becomes popular. For example, my wife and I love the music of Michael Bublé, who sings all the big band standards from the 30s and 40s. He’s now wildly popular, but for some reason, we take pride in the fact that we discovered his music before he really became big. It’s kind of like that old country song that goes, “I was country when country wasn’t cool.” Somehow, we want to make it clear that we love our favorite music not because it’s popular but because we recognize its intrinsic meaning and value.

On the other hand, it’s not like we want to keep our favorite music secret. We want other people to listen to and appreciate the music we cherish. We say, “Come here and listen to this!” and we’re disappointed if they don’t get as excited about it as we do. If they do share our enthusiasm for that music, we suddenly have a connection we didn’t have before.

When Lisa and I first started dating, she learned that I love the music of Peter, Paul, and Mary, so she surprised me with tickets to see them in concert. The fascinating thing about that concert was that it felt more like a family reunion than a concert. There were grandparents there with their children and grandchildren, passing along the music they had treasured in their youth. I was there precisely because my parents had introduced me to that music, and I have since shared it with my own kids.

How many of you have had this experience: you’re singing a favorite song and you find that you’ve forgotten some of the words? How do you feel when that happens? A little embarrassed, right? A little ashamed that you could forget something that’s supposed to be so important to you. Somehow, we instinctively know that if we say we value something, we should know it really well.

Why am I spending so much time talking about how we react to our favorite songs? Because our sermon text today comes from one of my favorite songs in the Bible, and it speaks to how well we value the word of God itself. Turn with me to Psalm 19:7.

In this passage, David sings about his love for God’s Word, and he reflects on the effect it has on us:

The instruction of the Lord is perfect,
     renewing one’s life;
the testimony of the Lord is trustworthy,
     making the inexperienced wise.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
     making the heart glad;
the command of the Lord is radiant,
     making the eyes light up.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
     enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are reliable
     and altogether righteous.
They are more desirable than gold—
     than an abundance of pure gold;
     and sweeter than honey,
     which comes from the honeycomb.
In addition, Your servant is warned by them;
     there is great reward in keeping them.

Here was a man who cherished the Word of God so much he couldn’t help but sing about it. Just as we want other people to appreciate “our kind of music,” David wanted us all to appreciate the surpassing value of the Scriptures.

First he sings: The instruction of the Lord is perfect, renewing one’s life.

Have you ever felt hurt, discouraged, depressed, or uncertain and found comfort in a piece of music? After breaking up with a girl I had dated for a couple of years in college, I remember listening to a song by Rich Mullins called “Home.” There’s a line in that song that says, “What I’d have settled for, you’ve blown so far away; what you’ve brought me to I thought I could not reach.” It was a reminder to me that while that relationship had ended, it was ultimately because God had something far better in store for me—and indeed He did.

Even more than in a piece of music, we can find comfort and renewal in the Word of God itself. When you fall once more into that same old familiar sin, turn to the Bible and find words of renewal: “Yes! His mercies are new every morning! (Lam. 3:22–23) Yes! He redeems my life from the pit and crowns me with love and compassion. (Psalm 103:4) Yes! Jesus Christ came to save sinners, of whom I am the worst! (1 Tim. 1:15)” When you feel alone and abandoned, turn to the Bible and find words of renewal: “Yes! Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me. (Psalm 27:10). Yes! The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)”

The instruction of the Lord is able to renew our life precisely because it is “perfect”: perfectly true, perfectly sufficient, perfectly trustworthy.

Next David sings: the testimony of the Lord is trustworthy, making the inexperienced wise.

Now, it’s not unusual for our favorite music to give us advice: some of it good; some of it not so good. James Taylor advises us to “shower the people you love with love.” Always excellent advice. Billy Joel reminds men: “Tell her about it! Tell her everything you feel. Give her every reason to accept that you’re for real.” Certainly an important reminder. The Shoop Shoop Song advises young women “If you wanna know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss.” Probably not the soundest advice in the world. And then there was Stephen Still’s recommendation that “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.” Again, we probably should disregard that one altogether!

While musicians are not always known for giving the best advice, David reminds us that the “testimony of the Lord is trustworthy.” As such, it has the power to “make the inexperienced wise.” We grown-ups worry about you young people because your lack of experience is obvious to us, while you have a hard time seeing it. When I was 18, I thought I had lived quite long and become quite wise. Now I look back and realize just how much I was flying by the seat of my pants! But I did have one thing going for me: I read the words of the Bible and took them seriously. If this was really the Word of God, a God who had created me for a purpose, who knew me better than I knew myself, who knew what was best for me and what could bring me to ruin, then I could turn to it whenever I wasn’t sure what to do. I could ask questions of it and find trustworthy answers. I could gain wisdom without always having to learn the hard way.

Looking back on my life, I can see how much pain I was spared when I followed “the testimony of the Lord,” and I can see how much difficulty I had when I chose to ignore God’s Word and go my own way. Proverbs 16:25 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” If you want to live a life of wisdom, don’t follow the way that seems right to you; follow the trustworthy testimony of the Lord.

David then sings: The precepts of the Lord are right, making the heart glad; the command of the Lord is radiant, making the eyes light up.

I’ve already talked about how our favorite music can change our mood and make our eyes light up. How much more ought that to be true of Scripture?

Psalm 1 says, “How happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path of sinners or join a group of mockers! Instead, his delight is in the Lord’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night. He is like a tree planted beside streams of water that bears its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.”

Do you want to be happy? “Delight in the Lord’s instruction.” “Meditate on it day and night.” Let your roots go deep into its well-watered soil so you can grow and bear fruit.

Returning to Psalm 19, we read that “the precepts of the Lord are right, making the heart glad.” What God’s Word teaches is true and right and good. How can our hearts not be made glad when they’re saturated with what is true and right and good? A dark and troubled world makes us weary, and we get discouraged when we see the chronic weakness and hypocrisy within the church, but “the precepts of the Lord are right.” They give us truth and hope and the promise that one day God will make everything right and wipe away every tear. That alone has the power to make our hearts truly glad.

In the same way, “the command of the Lord is radiant, making the eyes light up.” The command of the Lord is radiant, full of light. It shines in the darkness of our failures, our faithlessness, our discouragement, and our despair. It lights a fire within us. A fire that makes our eyes light up.

When I was in college, I went on a summer missions trip with kids from colleges all over the country. One of the girls in our group was a relatively new believer named Jessie. She was pretty and bubbly and always seemed to have a smile on her face. One day she showed several of us some pictures of herself at college, and I immediately said, “These were taken before you became a Christian, weren’t they?” Surprised, she said, “Yes! How did you know?” I told her that I could just tell. Her physical appearance was no different in the photos, but there was just something different about her. She didn’t have the same radiance, the same spark, the same light in the eyes she had now. That’s the effect that knowing God has on a person. His Word is radiant, and if we bask in its glow, we’ll shine with a light from within.

Next David sings: The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are reliable and altogether righteous.

The songs we resonate with most deeply are the ones we believe to be speaking right to us, expressing some truth we cannot help but recognize. Roberta Flack sings a song called Killing Me Softly with His Song that expresses the anguish she feels when a musician starts “strummin’ [her] pain with his fingers and singin’ [her] life with his words.” It’s the same discomfort we get when we feel like the preacher is speaking directly to us.

Or consider Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA. One reason that song became so popular was that it expressed what many Americans were feeling in the early 1980s. Americans’ confidence had been shaken by Vietnam, the economic woes of the late 70s, and our apparent impotence to resolve the Iran Hostage Crisis. Then Lee Greenwood comes along singing about how he’s “proud to be an American” where at least he knows he’s free, and everybody says, “Yes! Me too! And they can’t take that away from me, either!”

How much more are “the ordinances of the Lord … reliable and altogether righteous”! The Bible is truth we can rely upon. It is righteous. It’s teachings are good. Every society that has sincerely followed its teachings has prospered, and every society that has wandered from its teachings has grown weaker and more corrupt. Today we live at a time when many people are questioning the righteousness and goodness of what the Bible teaches. They dismiss it as “Bronze Age Morality” that has no place in a modern society, but we know it as the Word of God. Whatever anyone may say, it is “reliable and altogether righteous,” and, to quote Lee Greenwood, “they can’t take that away.”

Finally, David sings: They are more desirable than gold—than an abundance of pure gold; and sweeter than honey, which comes from the honeycomb. In addition, Your servant is warned by them; there is great reward in keeping them.

Think for a moment about the lengths we go in order to listen to the music we love. Those of us who have been around a while have bought radios, turntables, casette decks, Walkmans, CD players, iPods, and the records, tapes, CDs, and music downloads they play. Some of us purchase pricey concert tickets or sport clothing which announces to the world what kind of music we love. As a society, we spend huge sums of money on something as ethereal and intangible as music.

David compares the words of Scripture to gold and honey, two items whose worth is far more tangible. Gold offered purchasing power and honey offered sweet-tasting food. Who wouldn’t desire such things? Yet David argues that God’s word is far more desirable, far more valuable, and far more sweet. It warns us against those things which can harm us and there is indeed “great reward in keeping [its ordinances].”

Do you have a passion for the Word of God? Do you get as excited about reading it as you do about listening to a favorite song? Do you turn to it when your heart needs to be made glad? Do you look to it for wisdom beyond your years of experience? Do you read it over and over the same way you listen to a favorite song? Do you cherish it because it speaks truth which is “reliable and altogether righteous”? Do you feel embarrassed and ashamed when you forget its words? Do you desire it more fervently than the money you earn and the tasty food you eat? Are you eager to share it with others in the hope that they will cherish it the way you do?

I ask these questions not to load us down with guilt, but to help us take a hard look at how much we really value God’s Word. Typically, the application of a message like this would be to read the Bible more, memorize Scripture more, embark on a daily reading plan, or study the Bible in greater depth. If you’re like me, you leave such sermons with good intentions and then fizzle out after a few days.

I want you to apply this message to your life not by trying to do more with the Bible, but by striving to love the Bible more. David cherished God’s Word so much he couldn’t stop singing about it, but all too often we take it for granted, leave it sitting on a shelf all week, and face the world without benefitting from its ability to renew our life, make us wise, make our hearts glad, and make our eyes light up.

Do our eyes light up when we read our Bibles like they light up when we hear our favorite songs? If not, we need to bask in the radiance of God’s Word until we can’t help but reflect its light.

What Does Christian Love for Homosexuals Look Like?

Debates about gay marriage and gay rights are often cast in terms of love and hatred. Dan Cathy’s remarks about “traditional marriage” have been roundly condemned as hateful to gays. The thousands of people who flocked to Chick-Fil-A restaurants on Wednesday have likewise been criticized for communicating a message of hatred toward gays. I have seen a number of blogs in the past few days complaining that by participating in this event, Christians have missed yet another opportunity to show the love of Christ to the homosexual community.

The problem with these criticisms is that they fail to articulate what Christian love toward homosexuals should actually look like. As we discussed in a previous post, Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) activists see anything short of unqualified acceptance as “anti-gay.” Thus, they would regard any disagreement with their worldview or opposition to their agenda as “unloving” and even “hateful.”

Yet sometimes real love must manifest itself in ways that the recipients of that love regard as unloving. For example, I have a nephew who died of leukemia at age nine. His father often had to hold him still while he underwent incredibly painful treatments, and I am sure little Chad wondered how his daddy could love him and let him experience so much pain. Yet it was precisely because Chad’s father loved him that he subjected him to the pain he hoped would save his life.

A friend addicted to alcohol might think that the best way you could show love to him is to buy him a drink. Yet if you really love him, you’ll do the very thing he regards as unloving and deny him that drink. What’s more, you’ll do everything you can to help him break his addiction, even if he comes to hate you for it.

If Christians take the Bible seriously when it says that homosexual acts are sinful (1 Corinthians 6:9), and that all sin leads to death and eternal separation from God (Romans 6:23), then the only truly loving response is to call homosexuals to repentance and offer them the good news of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Merely letting them embrace their sin with our tacit approval is the least loving thing we could do. In fact, it is the ultimate act of hatred.

This does not mean, of course, that Christians have not often condemned homosexuals in an unloving and unredeeming way. All too often we have acted as if homosexuality is the height of depravity or a somehow unforgivable sin. We have forgotten our own sinfulness and need of a Savior and voiced our disgust at sins to which we may not happen to be tempted. In contrast to such moments of judgmentalism, we are called instead to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

When I was in my early twenties, a dear Christian friend of mine grabbed me on my way into church and said he needed to talk. He was obviously upset, so rather than going into church, we walked to a nearby lake. When we got there, he said, “Last night I went over to someone’s house for the express purpose of sleeping with them.” We were both single at the time, and we both believed the Bible teaches that premarital sex is a sin. My friend was confessing a sexual encounter that did not merely involve unexpectedly succumbing to temptation, but which he had purposefully chosen to pursue.

But there was more. I could hear the fear in my friend’s voice as he asked, “Do you love me, Dave?” I assured him that I did. He then blurted out, “It wasn’t a woman!”

My friend took an awful risk that day: that I would react with disgust, condemn him, reject him, or tell him I could no longer be his friend. Yet on the contrary, I admired the courage it took him to leave the man he had slept with, come to church and seek me out, and confess a sin he feared I might regard as unforgivable.

The first thing I did after he said this was to reach out and put my hand on his shoulder. I wanted him to know that I was still there for him, that I didn’t reject him, and that I didn’t regard this sin as somehow making him unclean or untouchable. He was still my friend, and I wasn’t going anywhere.

I then listened as he told me things about his past he had never told me before: about the male camp counselor who had molested him when he was in his early teens. He then tried to assure me that our friendship had never been about same-sex attraction. I brushed that aside as something that would never even enter my mind. We talked for a long time, encouraging each other with the truths of the gospel and praying together for forgiveness and renewed strength.

My friend knew that day that I truly loved him. Yet I never told him that what he had done was okay. I never encouraged him to embrace his same-sex attractions as his true sexual orientation. I never soft-pedaled the fact that what he had done was a sin. I simply assured him that I understood what it is to be a sinner and that what he had done didn’t make him any more a sinner than I am. Together we asked God to “have mercy” on us as sinners, and together we went away “justified” (Luke 18:13–14).

I understand that those who see same-sex attraction as something you’re born with and can’t help will regard my actions that day as terribly unloving. However, showing someone the love of Christ doesn’t mean leaving them to die in their sins, but offering them the hope of deliverance from sin which can only be found in Jesus. After all, the same Jesus who said, “Neither do I condemn you” also said, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). He then offered us the hope that only His love can give:

I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life. (John 8:12)

That is the love that Christians have to offer homosexuals. It is not a love that leaves them groping about in darkness, but one which enables them to experience the light of life. It is not necessarily the kind of love they are demanding, but it is the very love they need.

In fact, it’s the very love we all need.

Are LGBT Activists “Anti-Christian”?

Jesus once said, “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1–2). In other words, the basis by which we condemn others will inevitably be used to expose any hypocrisy on our part. When church leaders and “family values” political candidates abandon their families or are caught in extramarital affairs, their opponents are perfectly right to scoff at their so-called “family values.”

In much the same way, it is legitimate to apply to Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) activists the same measure they use when they accuse someone of being “anti-gay.” In yesterday’s post, I examined what these folks really mean by “anti-gay.” They do not mean that someone bears open hostility toward those who self-identify as homosexual. On the contrary, they apply this label to anyone who does not accept their understanding of sexual orientation or who opposes any part of their agenda. As I wrote yesterday:

It is not enough to be tolerant of homosexuality in general, to be sympathetic to the difficulties homosexuals face, or to love homosexuals as sinners who, like all of us, struggle with their sinful predilections and addictions. On the contrary, it is necessary to accept their understanding of the world, their assumptions about human nature, their views of what constitutes moral behavior, their reading of the Bible, and ultimately, their theology. Fall short of total agreement, or at least, of unqualified acceptance, and you can count on being regarded as “anti-gay.”

LGBT activists have been very careful to frame their agenda as “a campaign for full LGBT equality” rather than as an attack on Christianity, the Bible, or so-called “traditional family values.” They would understandably chafe at the accusation that they are “anti-Christian,” “anti-Bible,” or “anti-traditional family.” Yet if we apply the same standard they use to determine who is “anti-gay,” how can we conclude anything else? If being “anti”-something means falling short of total agreement or unqualified acceptance, then LGBT activists are clearly “anti-Christian” according to their own standards of judgment.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not think it is helpful to brand LGBT activists as “anti-Christian” any more than I think it is helpful for them to brand those who disagree with their worldview as “anti-gay.” Using such inflammatory labels does nothing to promote dialogue or understanding. I’m simply trying to make the point that if we will condemn as “anti-” anyone who disagrees with our worldview, we are gearing up to fight the kind of sectarian wars which result in many casualties and few converts.

What Do They Mean By “Anti-Gay”?

The recent brouhaha over Chick-Fil-A’s “anti-gay” stance has reached something of a crescendo. Tomorrow, August 1, 2012, has been designated Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day by television talk-show host Mike Huckabee, who is encouraging people to support the company by dining there. Meanwhile, gay-rights activists are organizing “kiss-in” protests at Chick-Fil-A restaurants on Friday, August 3.

Chick-Fil-A has been criticized as “anti-gay” by Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) activists for some time now, but the latest dust-up appears to center around two things. First, a group called EqualityMatters, which describes itself as “a campaign for full LGBT equality”, published a list of so-called “anti-gay groups” to which Chick-Fil-A’s charitable foundation has contributed. Second, in an interview with Baptist Press, Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy described the company as “guilty as charged” with respect to its support of the “traditional family.”

It is Cathy’s comments in particular that seem to have LGBT activists seeing red, but they must be careful how they express that outrage. While they can be quite vitriolic in their criticism of Cathy’s statements, they must nevertheless be careful not to dispute his First Amendment right to make such statements. Consequently, many of Cathy’s critics have retreated to the seemingly more secure position of criticizing the company’s financial support of “anti-gay” organizations. I’ve heard a number of Cathy’s critics say something like, “Sure he has the right to say whatever he wants. The real issue is that Chick-Fil-A gives money to support an ‘anti-gay’ agenda!”

The disturbing thing to me in all of this is that this “anti-gay” label is never clearly defined. On the surface, to be “anti-gay” sounds like it means to bear open hatred and hostility toward homosexuals. The Cathys have protested that they are not “anti-gay,” by which they mean that they will not deny service to homosexual customers or deny employment to applicants on the basis of their homosexuality. But that is not what LGBT activists mean by “anti-gay.”

Look at EqualityMatters’ list of so-called “anti-gay groups,” and it becomes clear that they regard as “anti-gay” any person or group which:

  • understands the Bible to condemn homosexual acts as sinful
  • affirms the value of “traditional marriage” (generally understood to mean monogamous heterosexual marriage for life)
  • disagrees that “marriage” should be legally redefined to include homosexual couples
  • believes that homosexuals can and should leave the “homosexual lifestyle”
  • (apparently even worse) attempts to help people leave the “homosexual lifestyle”

In short, LGBT activists regard anyone who does not accept their understanding of sexual orientation or who opposes any part of their agenda as “anti-gay.” Any Christian ministry which promotes a biblical understanding of sexuality is therefore “anti-gay.” It is not enough to be tolerant of homosexuality in general, to be sympathetic to the difficulties homosexuals face, or to love homosexuals as sinners who, like all of us, struggle with their sinful predilections and addictions. On the contrary, it is necessary to accept their understanding of the world, their assumptions about human nature, their views of what constitutes moral behavior, their reading of the Bible, and ultimately, their theology. Fall short of total agreement, or at least, of unqualified acceptance, and you can count on being regarded as “anti-gay.”

I believe many—if not most—Christians who oppose gay marriage or otherwise disagree with the agenda of LGBT activists do so not because they bear personal animosity toward those who self-identify as “gay.” Most Christians are horrified at the antics of the Westboro Baptists who seem to delight in declaring that “God hates fags.” Most Christians would rightly oppose the persecution of homosexuals or the abrogation of their Constitutional protections. However, many Christians, no matter how tolerant or willing to “live and let live,” are constrained by their understanding of Scripture to regard homosexuality as a “lifestyle” which cannot be condoned, promoted, or embraced. They are likewise constrained by their understanding of Scripture to want to strengthen the “traditional family” by opposing divorce, pornography, infidelity, spousal abuse, and anything else which contributes to its disintegration.

As far as I can see, the Cathys’ position on these matters is hardly exceptional. It is a position consistent with their Christian worldview and their understanding of the Bible. They are only “anti-gay” insofar as their Christian worldview disagrees with the worldview of the LGBT activists, and their only sin appears to be that they lend support to those who agree with their worldview.

Because I too hold to a Christian worldview, I will be supporting the Cathys by taking my family to Chick-Fil-A tomorrow. It may mean that LGBT activists will likewise label me as “anti-gay,” but I reserve the right to disagree with their definition of the term.

The Bible As Literature?

Lately I’ve been writing an article on crucifixion for a project I’m working on. This rather gory subject has led me to examine Old Testament passages which refer to hanging someone “on a tree.” These passages may refer to a number of things: hanging the corpse of someone who is already dead as a very public warning to others, actually impaling a living victim on a pointed stake and letting him die slowly, or crucifying someone by suspending them by their hands or arms. While it’s not always clear which form of “hanging” is in view, the Bible is very clear that any form of hanging on a tree is a sign of divine judgment:

And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:22–23 ESV)

In examining all these passages about hanging, I noticed a number of instances of people being hanged in the books of Samuel.

The men of Jabesh-Gilead remove Saul’s hanging corpse from the walls of Beth Shan.

After Saul dies in battle with the Philistines, they cut off his corpse’s head and hang his body from the walls of a nearby citadel. In order to rescue Saul’s body from this accursed fate, some of his most loyal subjects then embark on a covert mission to recover his body and give him a proper burial (1 Samuel 31:8–13).

With Saul and his eldest sons now dead, David and Saul’s son Ish-Bosheth begin fighting a civil war for the throne of Israel. This war comes to an end when two rogues, acting on their own, murder Ish-Bosheth in his bed and take his severed head to David. They think David will reward them for this, but David punishes them for shedding innocent blood by killing them, cutting off their hands and feet, and publicly hanging their mutilated corpses (2 Samuel 4:12).

When David’s son Absalom rebels against David and seizes the throne, David eventually regroups and defeats Absalom’s men on the field of battle. As Absalom flees through the forest on his mule, he gets his “head” entangled in an oak tree and is left dangling in midair as his mule runs out from beneath him. When David’s men eventually find Absalom in this predicament, they murder him (2 Samuel 18:10–17).

This last passage is especially rich with the symbolism of poetic justice. While Absalom’s hair is not specifically mentioned in this passage (only his “head”), his previously mentioned pride in his long hair (2 Samuel 14:25–26) leads the reader to assume that it was his hair that got entangled in the branches of the tree. The mule he was riding is the symbolic mount of kings, yet it apparently rejects his kingship when it abandons him. Finally, Absalom’s getting hung in a tree shows that he is under God’s curse for rebelling against his father and God’s anointed king.

In fact, all of these “hangings,” as a symbol of divine judgment, reinforce the central message of the books of Samuel, which is that David is the rightful king of Israel because God Himself placed David on the throne.

If we set aside for a moment that the books of Samuel are part of the Bible, we can appreciate the fact that they are a brilliant work of political propaganda. David’s enemies would have had plenty of reason to question the legitimacy of his reign. They would have argued that the descendants of Saul are the rightful heirs to the throne and that David wrongfully seized the throne through civil war and assassination. They would also have celebrated Absalom’s rebellion as a sign that David was finally getting his just deserts.

Against these views the writer of Samuel makes it abundantly clear that Saul and his family were rejected by God in favor of David. Saul’s downward spiral and repeated failures end in his suicidal death and the public hanging of his corpse—abundant evidence that he is under God’s curse. Yet far from celebrating his death, David kills the foreigner who falsely claims he had assisted in Saul’s suicide (2 Samuel 1:1-16). Likewise, Saul’s heir Ish-Bosheth is shown repeatedly to be unfit for rule until he is eventually murdered in his bed. Again, David does not reward the murderers of his political rival but kills them and hangs their corpses publicly. Then there’s Absalom, who reveals his accursed state by getting himself hung in a tree. Over and over again, David’s enemies conveniently die in an accursed state.

Some people dismiss these symbolic evidences of divine judgment as being too convenient to be historically accurate. The assumption seems to be that if these subtle details all serve to advance the book’s purpose of justifying David’s kingship, then they are more likely to be the clever embellishments of the author than a true reporting of actual events. This is why so many “Bible as literature” courses seem to question the historical accuracy of the Bible. While they claim not to be concerned with historical accuracy at all and that they are merely analyzing the literary aspects of Biblical narratives, the subtle implication is that if the Bible’s history is not completely disinterested and unbiased, it cannot be completely trusted.

Biblical narratives such as the books of Samuel or the four Gospels are anything but disinterested catalogs of historical events. On the contrary, they offer theological interpretations of those events and present the historical details within that theological framework. Recognizing that framework and appreciating the literary artistry with which it is presented does not require us to conclude that the historical details are nothing more than clever fictions. We can appreciate the Bible as literature while also recognizing it as the Word of God.

After all, why would we expect God’s Word to be anything less than a literary masterpiece?