Monday, June 30, 2014

What is Peace in the Bible?

Often when people talk about “peace” they think in terms of not having war.  That might be a form of national peace, but that is only a portion of what peace is in the Bible.  In the New Testament times “peace” was used as a term to mean what some politicians describe today—peace through warfare, through conquest and defeating enemies.  This stands in stark opposition to the peace of Jesus.

In the Bible, there are two main words used for “peace”.  One is “shalom”, the Hebrew word for peace in the Old Testament scriptures.  In the New Testament, the Greek word “erine” was used as a replacement for “shalom” but they really meant the same thing.  In both testaments it was commonly used as a greeting.  We might think that the greeting was simply a general way of saying, “Hey, I won’t kill you,” like shaking hands used to mean that no one was holding weapons.  But “shalom” meant more than that.

1.       Peace is personal and national
Just like today, the term “peace” in the Bible is used as a personal, individual characteristic, as well as a community or national one.  It is used as a characteristic for a church as well as being content with one’s lot.  It also is used to express a lack of conflict between two people.

2.       Peace means “complete well-being”
“Shalom” certainly stood for having a lack of conflict. But it also meant having one’s needs met, and not having anxiety.  It meant being of good health and having good relationships. 
Yet a little while and the wicked man will be no more; and you will look carefully for his place and he will not be there. But the humble will inherit the land and will delight themselves in abundant peace. Psalm 37:10-11

3.        Peace means both security and contentment
To have “shalom” was to be safe from harm.  But it also meant that one’s mind was at rest from oppressions, whether real or exaggerated.  To be at peace is to be free from both spiritual and inner demons.
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7 

4.       Peace is reconciliation
Paul the apostle especially uses the term “peace” to speak of the reconciliation of all peoples under God.  It is the reconciliation of people with God and people with each other. This is the ending of false separations between races, sexes and religions, all unified under God through Jesus.

5.       Peace is unity
Christian peace is seen as unity between all followers of Jesus, forgiveness and holding others as more important than oneself.  Peace is love in community.
So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.  Colossians 3:12-15

6.       Peace is often seen as an agreement or covenant
Peace is sometimes established by a covenant, like a peace treaty.   Covenants, or permanent agreements between people, are tools for peace.  So when Jesus established his “new covenant” is was a peace treaty.
They said, "We see plainly that the LORD has been with you; so we said, 'Let there now be an oath between us, even between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you, that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the LORD.'"  Genesis 26:28-29

7.       Peace comes from God
To truly be at peace is to receive peace from God.  The Bible doesn’t deny that there are other places to obtain peace, but that such peace is temporary and sometimes false.  God is the only source of peace that is complete and permanent.
Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  John 14:27

What is peacemaking?
Thus, when Jesus speaks of his people being “peace-makers”, he is saying not so much that they stop wars, but that they bring peace to all relationships, to communities at large.  That they mend relationships, and create unity in Jesus.  They meet human needs and so create whole communities. 

Depart from evil and do good; Seek peace and pursue it. Psalm 34:14

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Don't Run: A Letter to a Fellow Conservative Pastor in the MCUSA about Same Sex Marriage

My friend, I want to apologize to you for not responding to your paper right away.  It is true I have been busy and my rational mind somewhat distracted from big issues to everyday issues.  But I have spent a lot of time thinking about this issue and have considered it seriously since you sent me the letter on Feb 6.  Now that MCUSA is seriously debating the issue, I guess it’s time for me to give my firm opinion, even if still in the formation stage.  So I will do my best.  I wish I was as straightforward and brief as you, but as you know, my thoughts tend to wander and get a bit large at times.

1.       First, I need to say that I am in agreement with your exegesis of the text.  Paul, in interpreting Jesus, firmly stated that the act of same sex intercourse is a sin, and characterizing one’s life this way keeps one from the kingdom of God.  As Paul is bringing in his idea of porneia from Leviticus 18, this includes same sex marriage.  As such, the church should not be involved in same sex marriages, either creating them or participating in them.

2.       However, this is not the point of view of everyone.  What I stated above is what can be understood from standard exegetical practices. But there is another way of looking at the texts.  If the idea of fornication (porneia) is not based on Leviticus 18, but is based rather on contemporary cultural standards, then we might see the texts on homosexuality differently.  Because Romans 1 has a unique place in its book (which I will discuss in a bit), I’d like to look at the other Pauline passage on homosexuality—I Corinthians 6:9-10.  Paul is listing the characters (habitual, unrepented actions) that cause one to not enter God’s kingdom.  In that list, Paul gives two terms: malakoi and arsenosoitai, a pair of terms that are used to speak of those who participate in same sex intercourse.  Malakoi is a curious term, literally “the soft”, which is not used for homosexuals anywhere else in the NT or the LXX, but possibly connected to wealth in Matt 11:8/Lk 7:25 and perhaps Prov 25:15.  The second term is used also only in I Timothy 1:10 in another, shorter, vice list.  Both terms are understood as referring to homosexual acts.  If so, it could be that the pair of terms refers to the common practice of sexual immorality in patronage, in which a homosexual bond occurs between an older patron and a younger ward.  Paul would be implying that both the aggressor (patron) and the one who agrees to such a sexual arrangement (ward) would be denied entrance into God’s kingdom.   Another passage that has to be looked at is Jude 1:7, which condemns Sodom for their “fornication” and “going after strange flesh.”  This is understood to be about pursuing homosexual intercourse.  It might also, however, be understood to mean sexual acts outside of a committed relationship.  These passages are interpreted in such a way by some NT scholars, and so not speaking of a committed relationship within marriage.  In other words, they would say that the NT does not declare same sex marriage a sin.

3.       Because of this, I think that the argument in MCUSA is not between those who study the NT and those who don’t but between two different interpretations of the NT.  While the purpose of seeking an alternative understanding of these NT passages could be suspect (seeking an excuse to accept those currently outcast due to sinful practice), the result points out a weakness in NT scholarship about homosexuality.  Not that there is anything wrong with what was previously stated, but that it could be interpreted differently.  I am sure that after all your study and hard work you don’t see these two points of view as being equal at all.  And I certainly agree that the connection between Leviticus 18 and these passages is stronger than the cultural arguments.  However, this becomes an argument about scholarship, not about the question of who is in and who is out of the church, which is what the discussion should be about.

Ultimately, looking at both sides, I see this whole argument to be a question of epistemology. How do we know one interpretation of scripture is true and another is not?  I don’t mean how do we study or interpret, but how do we realistically accept one point of view and reject another.  I know that you, W-, study hard and accept truth through hard-won principles and hours of study.  Most people, however, do not.  They leave the hours of study and analysis to people like you who do the work.  And the “scientists” of the church sometimes disagree.  When they do, the majority of people accept the point of view that makes sense best to them.  Not because they don’t care about the truth, but because they do.  Most people don’t have the skills to do in-depth exegesis.  And they certainly don’t have the wherewithal to make a fully informed choice between two different schools of interpretation. They “go with their gut” based on instinct and relationship and what limited information they have.  Will God condemn a person because he or she disagrees with Him on a point of view that he doesn’t have enough information?  Does not God look at the heart and judge based on their mercy?

5.       Same sex marriages are a hot button issue both in and out of the church and emotions are deeply involved.  It is easy to characterize the side we disagree with as the enemy, as people who are opposed to morality and God’s true will in this broader cultural context.  In a counselling situation, when emotions are high and black-and-white thinking is likely, a counsellor would suggest to put the decision on hold until after a “cooling down” period.  Because rational, informed decisions cannot be made in such a context.  There was a less than informed decision made about divorce and remarriage in the 50s and the 60s, but conservative churches weren’t leaving, no one was making an uproar.  I think the question should be revisited, but the question is… should we really be making a demand of our churches and our society to stand firm on one side or another in this age of partisanship and wild accusations?

6.       What is MCUSA really doing?  Are they being cowardly?  Or are they waiting?  What should a church do when there are differing points of view, both of which is based on an interpretation of Scripture? In a situation like this, the Orthodox church has a saying, “Let’s wait a couple centuries and see how it pans out.”  You say that thirty years is enough to make a decision on such a hot-button issue, but as a historian, you should know that this isn’t true.  Neither Athanasius nor Arius saw their hot button issue of the trinity resolved by the end of their lives, let alone by the end of their century.  The issue of spiritual gifts seem to be winding down after a century of debate, but there are still naysayers.  In all probability the issue of same sex marriages will still be debated in fifty years’ time.

7.       The probability is strong that MCUSA will this week allow individual conferences to make their own choices about same sex marriages, and many conferences will pass that decision down to congregations.  And many churches will find this decision unacceptable and leave the Church, like what you are talking about. However, I suggest that you not do that. 

8.       In the NT, there are clear defining principles as to what is true teaching and false teaching.  But it isn’t so clear what to do with the false teachers.  There are many passages that tell the disciple not to listen to the false teacher, and a church is not to “welcome” such a false teacher, and in Revelation it says that Jezebel would be judged for her encouragement of immorality in the church.  But we are never told to leave a church, nor even to kick the false prophets out.  Rather, even in Revelation, we are told that Jesus would judge himself.  We are to hold to the truth, teach the truth and speak out for the truth, but why separate ourselves from others?

You say that I Corinthians 5 says to separate from the sexually immoral, but the debate is not whether to forgive or to accept the sexually immoral, but what is the definition of sexual immorality.  This is not a discussion to run from just because it is being held.  Romans 1 has a discussion about who is judged by God.  The argument is made that Gentiles are sinners and deserve condemnation.  But Paul is not making that argument in Romans 1:18 to the end of the chapter for himself.  Rather that is the standard anti-Gentile argument about why Gentiles should not be allowed in the Church.  Paul immediately responds to that argument, which includes a clear condemnation of homosexuality, "You have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgement, for in that which you judge another you condemn yourself. For you who judge practice the same things." We allow sexual immorality in our churches in other ways, but not homosexuality?  We allow people to hate and to gripe and to gossip and to argue, but we do not allow a point of clarification from people who want to love and accept?  Is there something wrong with this?

9.       I am in disagreement with the 16th Anabaptists in an area: I do not believe that it is possible to have a pure, undefiled church.  We can aim for it, work for it and imagine it, but in the end the earthly Church is a number of weak, semiscient, human organizations.  If all those who have the truth leave the Church to form another, then they are leaving one human organization for another.  They are no longer discussing, no longer convincing, no longer evangelizing, no longer encouraging. They are leaving that institution to be bound for hell, which seems like one of the worst kinds of judging.

11.   Even so, recognizing how much this Church (both as MCUSA and as MC and GC) has given you, is it time to leave because they are allowing congregations make decisions on a debatable point of view?  Even if you do not see it as debatable, can you not remain and make your points?  Personally, I think that the prejudices of the church against the poor are more important issues than the issue of homosexuality, but you have already put in the work, on the salary of congregations of MCUSA.  Why leave the church when they have paid you to come to the conclusions you have come to?  Is it not your responsibility to remain in the Church and to share what the Church has granted you—your time, your studies, the opportunity to share?  Now is not the time to run, but to stand and to speak.  The Church will not stop your speech, but rather encourage it.  Perhaps you will not get a book in Menno Media, but there are many other venues.  Take them.  Don’t fail the Church by leaving it, but change the Church from within.

EDIT: I've received some notice that perhaps my point isn't clear. I am not telling conservatives to change their viewpoint, nor am I telling liberals to change theirs.  I am saying that the Church is about peace and love under Jesus, and that we haven't really listened to each other past the shouting.  I am saying that none of us should leave the church, but keep paying attention to each other until we reach consensus on this point of view.  Yes, people's lives and souls are at stake.  So much so that we shouldn't walk away from them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


A local church has a ministry to the homeless which welcomes folks from the street every Monday to come in, get out of the weather and have some food, get some clothes.  If any of these folks would like to use the bathroom, however, they will be escorted, on the chance that they might wander around the church.  That is better than another church, who welcomed the homeless in, but denied their use of the bathroom altogether, on the chance that they might use drugs in there. Another church thought about opening up their church to the homeless, but after consulting with their insurance agency, they decided it was too risky.  Another church was considering opening up their facility to a successful homeless ministry for three hours a week, but they insisted on having an insurance policy that would cost the lowly funded homeless ministry to pay a thousand dollars a year.

Ministry is not programming, it is love; and true love is risky.  Love makes us vulnerable, opens up possibilities of hurt, exhaustion, sacrifice and pain. The love of Jesus means that we take risk for those who need us most: the sinner, the needy, the desperate, the forsaken.

Yes, boundaries and safeguards are wise and good.  But when we shame or deny others basic help because of possible consequences, then we are not living the love of Jesus.  Love should never be put as a lesser priority to our fears.

It is a shame to be under the name of Jesus, but be unwilling to sacrifice for the lost.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Community X

There are living spaces for community X in every city.  The majority of citizens recognizes most of this community on sight, and are disgusted by them.  Almost all the members of community X are citizens, but their rights are not recognized or upheld by officials.  In fact, many officials are trying to strip the rights of these citizens from them.   Their very right to exist is questioned.

An X'er knows that at any time their home might be violated by the police and, at the discretion of the officer, they could be given twenty four hours or ten minutes to pack up as much as they can and move.  They might be given a list of places they may move to, which includes an overcrowded building full of people who will often take their possessions, or nowhere at all.  X'ers are often told by officers to leave their city and not return.  Often they are escorted by the police to city limits and dropped off on the side of the road.

Some cities have a designated place for the citizens that belong to community X and tell all the members of that community that they may not live anywhere else.  Of course, this is the most destitute part of the city, full of crime and disease.  Often the members of community X feel privileged to have a place to stay at all.  It is hard to say whether those who have a ghetto to live in are better or worse than those who are constantly told to move out of their homes.

Local officials often hire people to steal the possessions of community X.  These men go from home to home, taking the beds, blankets, sentimental possessions, identification and other necessary items out of their home.  These belongings are tossed right into a dumpster and thrown away.  In the rare community, these possessions might be placed in a yard for twenty four hours, where the owners might be able to pick them up.  After the day, they are thrown away to make room for more possessions of community X.

Some churches have mercy on members of community X.  The members of this community may spend a short amount of time on church property, safe from officials that want to ravage their possessions and themselves.  But other churches are just as likely to call the police as soon as they see an X'er trying to hide on their property.   They agree with officials that members of this community are dangerous to society and deserve to be harassed and even arrested.  If a church does help those of community X, they are punished by their neighborhood or police officials, fined or occasionally arrested for assisting those who need mercy.

Members of community X are considered so offensive, that they are not offered jobs, although they may be allowed to work without pay.  Occasionally kids will beat up a member of the community, or an officer will shoot an X'er, but these crimes are winked at.  After all, they aren’t really people.

This is no allegory.  Nor is it a description of early Nazi Germany.  Community X lives in the United States and they are the homeless.  The chronic homeless are the feared and dehumanized of our society, even worse than homosexuals or illegal immigrants.  They are segregated and hated by many in our society. 

The way we treat homeless people is the dividing line of this nation.  When people look back on the individuals, churches and governments within this nation at this time, they will divide us between those who assisted the hated citizens of this nation and those who poured derision and shame upon these citizens who did nothing wrong apart from not having the ability to rent private property. 

We need to take a stand for the homeless, or we will find the next holocaust is in our own backyard. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014


In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and they are His because he made them and subdued them and established good for all creatures—clean water, clean air, good food and sufficient shelter for all.  He then created women and men in His image, and gave us this good creation: all the earth, all the creatures of the earth, the real of the air, the realm of the sea and the realm of the land.  God also gave us ourselves to rule.  He gave us this world to rule for good, not for ill, to sustain and to create the Good, for we were made in His image and we were to rule in His likeness.

Humanity soon decided, although morally we are as toddlers, to rule ourselves and the earth without God’s counsel or assistance.  This is not as it was intended by the Creator.  He and we were supposed to rule in partnership, we ruling and he advising and empowering.  In rejecting the Creator in the rule of the earth, we rejected Love, we rejected Justice and we rejected true Power.  Without the Creator, we became narrow-minded, established self-serving systems and those who understood the good were powerless to establish it.

When Jesus came, he demonstrated a life of true partnership with the Creator.  He lived out and taught the law of Love, which did not have so much as specific rules as the basic principle of living for the well-being of others.  Jesus established justice by inviting the Creator to breathe life into those who are dying.  And Jesus relied on the Creator to demonstrate that true power comes from Him—not from politics, not from medicine, not from education nor from religious ritual.  Rather, it is an ongoing relationship with the Father that justice and love and power arises from.

* * *

The church is but a shattered image of Jesus.  Some pursue a relationship with the Father, praising exuberantly, attempting to live out His will, seeking His truth, to the exclusion of all else.  These will spend hours a day in prayer or study or meditation, seeking the descent of heaven in their lives. They seek God to work in our world, believing that He alone can establish the Good.

 Others are working to establish God’s kingdom on earth.  They are loving all, creating places of peace, establishing justice, working with the needy and establishing the good.  They look to God to infuse them with Love and Truth, and they do the work for they believe that they are His hands and feet.

Both sides have forgotten the partnership.  There is a place for human work and a place for the Creator’s work.  The Creator guides us to acts of love.  Like Jesus, the Creator shows us the work we are to do and we step into it.  But we must pray to depend on the Creator’s power.  We recognize our weakness, but it is easy to rely on human power to establish “God’s work”. 

Yet Jesus didn’t rely on his own power.  He left his home and family.  He had no medical knowledge to heal, yet he healed.  He didn’t carry food with him to feed the thousands, yet he fed them. He didn’t have a degree in psychology to bring peace to the mad, yet he gave them peace.  He accomplished his work through his boldness to approach the most needy around them, to understand the work of God and to step into God’s power to create life.  Jesus had nothing but his compassion and his reliance.

On the day of his arrest, Jesus saw the crowds coming, and he warned his disciples.  The disciples, having not prayed, only saw those who would separate them from their God.  They were the enemies, the hateful, the despised.  So they fought, then they retreated, then they scattered.  But Jesus, having prayed, was full of the love and power of God and saw people whose lives were on the edge.  So he healed, he comforted, he taught and he forgave.  He did not see enemies, he saw the needy.

Even so, God has put in our path the needy.  We know people whose lives hang in the balance.  They will die unless they have the touch of the Creator.  And we are to be Jesus to them.  We are not their Savior, rather, we are here to provide the way for them to touch the Savior.  We are to speak the word of love the Creator put in our mouths.  We are to touch them and pray for healing.  We are to ask them what they need. We are to speak the hard truth in gentleness. We are to feed the hungry.  We are to give shelter to the homeless. We are there to save lives.

But we are not to do this on our own.  We are not the Lifegiver.  We are not the Creator, but simply the mediator for the Creator.  We do not have energy to be there for everyone who is dying.  But the Creator does.  And He will give us the energy and power and love to create justice.  If…

If we would but pray and listen and work His work.  We need to pray because the work is not our own, but a partnership with the Creator and He gives us the power.  Without prayer, God does not act through us and our strength is insufficient to do the work.  We need to listen because in many ways we are still toddlers.  We deceive ourselves into thinking that our way is God’s way.  We listen to truly understand love.  And we need to work.  Without work, our prayer is simply words.  We pray and then we step in our prayers, embodying them, with God to give us the power.

Thus is the world subdued to peace.