Pharisee is a word to often on our lips

words have power

I have come to perceive a shortcoming in my choice of language – the way I use the word Pharisee. Specifically, my readiness to use the term Pharisee when really I mean legalist. It was such a ready term that I never stopped to consider the emotional weight it carried.

Our use of “Pharisee” in modern Christianity to denote those that lean on the law is commonplace. Yet it ignores the fact that not all of the Pharisees were like that. But there are two entirely separate deeper reasons for dropping this term from use.

  1. Respect for our Jewish brothers
  2. Accessibility for newcomers

We Christians are slow to realise that our faith was, once, a Jewish faith. We share a common set of roots with the Jewish communities of today. We should be aware that Rabbinic Judaism has been the mainstream form of Judaism since the 6th century. Rabbinic Judaism grew out of Pharisaic Judaism. Therefore, when we use the word Pharisee as a slur what does that say about our respect (or lack thereof) to an entire community? It does not speak well of us.

words have powerSince learning of this, I have grown uncomfortable with the way we use words drawn from Biblical texts. Historic Christianity has already made itself a by-word for the oppression of the Jewish people. Why should we compound this with careless speech and wording?

We must also consider what our word choice says to newcomers to the faith. Not only does the use of insider jargon make us harder to understand but we run the risk of passing on antisemitic biases without ever realising it. If we mean “legalism” or “legalist” why not use those words instead?

As a result, from now on I plan to stop using the word Pharisee outside of discussions about the actual Pharisees (which is not at all often). Even then, I plan to be a whole lot more careful. I have already begun revising the words I use as tags to reflect my new understanding.

I wish to apologise to the entire Jewish community for my use of words that might have suggested any bias or ill-feeling towards them. It is not my intention to dismiss the validity of your culture nor do I seek to replace you in any way. I was simply careless and ill-informed. I am sorry.

Legalism is killing the church

Legalism – and the legalists that preach it – are like cancer in the church. Until we remove the infection, it will continue to drain our strength and corrupt our good works.

There are legalists in all strands of the church. They serve only to weaken us and leave the body ineffective. We decry the decline of church numbers and the apparent disintegration of morality in the world around us. It is not some outside force that is to blame but the legalists that we have allowed into the body.

Legalists that trade the purity of Christ’s teachings of love and grace for a return to a doctrine of impossible laws. Laws like, “agree with me or you will go to hell”. Laws that place the teachings of the legalists beyond reproach and above question. Laws that condemn anything that differs from the culture the legalists wants to create.

Legalism can never be a form of true Christianity

However, they dress it up, however righteous the legalists claim to be – and they so frequently do – and however cleverly they defend their teachings with Bible quotes, what they preach should never be called Christianity. It has the trappings of the faith but has sold its soul for power and pride (2 Timothy 3:1-7).

Christianity means being like Christ. Christianity means following all of His teachings. Teachings like, “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27-36). Teachings that say truly loving God and a complete love of your neighbour fulfil all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:37-40). Teachings that show that true Christians and fake Christians are separated only by the good they do for those most in need (Matthew 25:31-46).

The legalists pay lip service to the doctrine of grace (Ephesians 2:8-10) but see no disunity with placing ever greater burdens for salvation on the individual. The legalists boast in their self-appointed status as “God’s elect” due to their keeping of laws they have made for themselves. As the prophet, Isaiah says – they honour God with their lips but their hearts are far off (Isaiah 29:13).

Legalism neglects mercy

Puffed up with pride, the legalists neglect mercy because they look with disdain upon any that fail to achieve their impossible standards. There is no grace for the humble sinner, no love to cover a multitude of sins – there is only condemnation and with it hate dressed up as righteousness.

Jesus warned of such people, calling them false prophets. Outwardly they look like sheep but inwardly they are hungry wolves (Matthew 7:15-20). Often they will dazzle you with their fierce passion for “the truth” and rise to leadership roles. Rather than protect the sheep, these shepherds will savage and abuse them. In place of pastoral care, there will be only guilt, condemnation, and a heavy burden.

The legalists do not strengthen the weak. They do not heal the sick. They never bring back the strays but condemn them for straying. They rule over the church with cruelty and verbal violence. Jeremiah spoke out against such shepherds in the harshest of terms (Jeremiah 23:1-2). So too did Ezekiel (Ezekiel 34:1-4).

It was perhaps these legalists – the false prophets we were warned about – that, from the third century until the present day, have led the church into institutionalised racism in the name of the faith. A lingering Christian anti-semitism that has tarnished the church and has yet to be rooted out and purged from our ranks.

Legalism is the enemy of grace

It is tempting to see the legalists and their law-heavy teachings as simply a misapplied passion for the Gospel. This is not the case. Legalism is a poison that corrupts and defiles the church. Even a little spoils the whole body (Galatians 5:7-9).

The fruits of legalism are heaviness, divisions, elitism, pride, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, heresies, envy, and many other things that stand in opposition to the nature of Christ and the work of grace (Galatians 5:16-26). In place of love comes harsh rebuke. In place of peace comes conflict. In place of humility comes boasting dressed as righteousness.

It is not true that legalists are simply overly enthusiastic Christians. The Bible calls them servants of Satan (2 Corinthians 11:14-15). There can be no place for legalism in our churches.

A call to repentance

Repentance worked in Holiness and humble compassion are what we need. It is in that spirit we must root out all forms of legalism. First within ourselves and then within the church. We must recognise that legalism is a grave sin that brings certain death both to the credibility of our witness and to the body of Christ – the church.

If we desire to see a change in this world. If we are to see the day when righteousness is the rule and not the exception. If we desire what some are happy to call revival then we must humble ourselves in repentance (2 Chronicles 7:14). This must not be a lip-service repentance, for a faith without resultant works is dead (James 2:14-26), there must be true change.

This may mean taking a winnowing fork to long cherish doctrines. Your church may shrink as the legalists depart for easier prey elsewhere. It might be painful to give up the righteousness that is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). It may also mean selling or giving up the signs of wealth within your church (Luke 12:32-34) in order to care for those in need. But when the legalism is gone, and only then, will the Holy Spirit be free to usher in true Christianity.

It is time for our churches to call on the Name of the Lord and be saved.

Christian cybermisogyny and hate speech has to end

fire

There is a trend that the church simply cannot afford to ignore – cybermisogyny and harassment of women “in the name of Christ”. I wish I was joking.

I’ve talked before about what I call “Trolls For Christ” – the worst kind of ill-informed Pharisee determined to spill hate in defence of the church. Just recently I penned an open letter to a church leader engaged in cybermisogyny dressed up as a book review.

This “defending the church” argument in support of cybermisogyny (because it targets women far more than men) is wrong on two grounds – a minor point but the church does not need us to defend it (that’s taken care of, read the Bible) but more importantly – because hate speech should have no part in Christian living. Not ever.

Jesus talked about being meek, turning the other cheek, forgiving sins, and healing people. Somehow we have made it all about defending our rights. Did we forget that he said over and over that when someone tries to trample your rights – help them to do it? If they sue you for your coat, give them also your shirt. If someone compels you to go a mile, go two miles. That is literally where the expression “to go the extra mile” comes from.

How bad is cybermisogyny?

The Guardian reports that women writers are facing unprecedented levels of harassment, rape threats, and abuse.

In 2014 there was an organised campaign of harassment that became known as GamerGate. The harassment campaign targeted several women in the video game industry; notably game developers Zoë Quinn, Brianna Wu, and media critic Anita Sarkeesian.

Account upon account of the online harassment of women continues to pile up.

WMC report that this can include defamation and accusations of blasphemy. Defamation, in this case, can include coordinated attempts where a person, or, sometimes, organized groups deliberately flood Google, social media and review sites with negative and defamatory information.

As for the blasphemy charges…

Women face online threats globally, but they run a unique risk in conservative religious countries, where, in blasphemy is against the law and where honor killings are a serious threat. Accusing someone of blasphemy can become, itself, an act of violence.

A 2013 report from the organisation Working to Halt Abuse Online showed that 72.5% of those who reported being abused on the internet were female. That, right there, is cybermisogyny.

This all culminated in a campaign under the hashtag #MeToo. How did the church respond?

What is the church doing about cybermisogyny?

Is the church speaking up those that have no voice like the scriptures say (Proverbs 31:8)? Do we weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15-18)? Do we, as God’s law command, protect the fatherless and the widow (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)?

No. No, we do not.

We don’t do this because the church is too busy joining in with the cybermisogyny. We cannot condemn the sin because we are the sin.

Australian Christian news website, Eternity News, shared an article dedicated to ordinary women revealing sexual harassment by Christians.

#MeToo: Christian women share stories of assault at the hands of Christian men

And we wonder why the church is not seen as relevant any more?

Disagreeing with you is not a sin, church

I hate to have to be the one pointing this out because I thought we were past these basics but disagreeing with someone while being a woman is not a sin; harassing a person you disagree with is a sin, though.

Treating women like something you can own is a sin.

This cybermisogyny, protecting cybermisogyny, and failing to speak out against cybermisogyny from Christians are all sins too.

It is not okay to call women all kinds of names, to suggest their character, their faith, or their life is anything less than it is just because the way they interpret the Bible or chose to live their lives, differs from the way you do.

Jesus said, in John 13:35, that it would be our love for each other that would show we are his disciples. This behaviour shows that we are not His disciples. Maybe few of us ever were.

The church needs to repent, and fast

The moment #MeToo started to break headlines, church groups the world over should have joined with the oppressed and cried out for justice. We did not and that is to our shame.

Our churches must, most urgently, change how we address sexual violence. So far we have done too poor a job of even recognising that it exists. We have failed to be salt and light. I think we all know all that salt which is no longer salty is good for?

I don’t pretend to have a plan for how we can change but Eugene Hung has some strong suggestions.

  1. Ministers and their churches need to address sexual violence on a regular basis.
  2. Ministers and churches must not neglect biblical passages that describe sexual violence.
  3. Churches need to bring more women into upper levels of leadership and decision-making authority.
  4. Church leaders must refuse to be party to conspiracies of silence.

We need to change and we need to change fast.

Fixing Calvinism but you might not like it

There may be a way of fixing Calvinism and the problems that Limited Atonement introduce but I do not think its supporters would like it at all. 

I wrote recently about what I see as the fatal flaw – a hamartia if you will – in Calvinistic doctrine. Today, I’d like to propose a way to correct it.

My problem with the forms of Calvinism (that I have encountered) are the variations on the doctrine of Limited Atonement. More specifically, the behaviour it seems to produce in its adherents. These doctrines that limit the atonement to only God’s elect that are exposed to doctrinal tests go on to fail at every turn.

Calvinism sets up as a core belief that Grace is irresistible. It has to wrestle with the fact that while Philippians 2:10 talks about every knee bowing at the Name of Jesus when very few actually seem to do so. This is where Limited Atonement comes in. It says that God only picks those of us he loves and wants to save – everyone else was born for hell. It is not exactly conducive to loving people unconditionally. Why love those God hates?

As I have indicated before, this can produce a spiritual smugness – “God likes me, but you He hates”. That little bit of the yeast of the Pharisees goes on to corrupt the whole doctrinal system, its believers, and the church as a whole.

The fix (but you might not like it)

The fix to this problem was prosed sometime around the start of the seventeenth century by Moses Amyraut (1596–1664). I’ve talked about this person before when I tried (and utterly failed) to accurately define Amyraldism. My mistake was in not understanding Moses Amyraut’s idea that we are all the elect; everyone will be saved in the end.

Clearly then, I do not understand this doctrine as well as I thought I did. However, it does provide a form of Calvinism that can exist without the Biblically questionable doctrines that God only wishes to save some of us. Of course, you then have to accept a doctrine of the eventual salvation of all mankind. A doctrine is more commonly known as Universal Salvation.

This much wider and more inclusive Calvinism is, at least, more internally consistent, and less at odds with scripture. It would require you to abandon any doctrine of eternal punishment in hell too. In short, it calls for a full dose of metanoia. Which is okay because a change of mind is a vital part of repentance. Something we Christians should be comfortable with.

I am undecided about Calvinism but this way of fixing Calvinism at least leaves it doctrinally coherent.

Testing Doctrines: Limited atonement

In this post, I will try to apply the Testable Doctrine Theory to the doctrine of limited atonement.

Testable Doctrine Theory is an idea I put forward that says that a sound doctrine should be able to stand up to a series of tests and that only sound doctrine would pass these tests.

Limited atonement is the idea that Christ only died for some people and not others.

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The Atonement

What is the atonement, how does it work, and what does the Bible have to say on the subject? While most Christians agree that Jesus Christ is the saviour, things fragment on further exploration

Introduction

Wait, this is not the definition of a single word, what is going on?

I have in the past attempted to define various words used in the discussion of doctrine with varying degrees of clarity and depth. Usually, I cover such terms only up to the depth of my own needed understanding to discuss some other related topic. This time, however, I have no end goal in mind beyond laying out an index of ideas from which I can build.

In other words, I am going to sketch things out with the broadest possible strokes and then revisit the details in later posts.

Definition of atonement

In western Christian theologyatonement describes how human beings can be reconciled to God through Christ‘s sacrificial suffering and death.

Wikipedia

Broadly speaking the atonement describes what Christ did, why (and perhaps how) he did it, and what it means to Christians.

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An open letter to some religious leader called David

Written Letter

This post, in a rapid departure from my usual format, is in response to an open letter by David to Vicky Beeching. I’ll confess I have not read the book in question and am simply responding to the form and content of the blog post in question.

Dear David,

In your open letter, you have the following words to say, and it is by according to these words that I will reply to you.

I’m not quite sure what you mean by the door of my heart, but I hope it is always open to reflect the glory of the God who is love. I also want to keep open the door of my mind and be open to reason, evidence and persuasion.

I hope, therefore that we can reason together. However, for us both, this will be tinged with the same conflict of interest – blogs by their very nature are about public attention and love in its nature is not. Let us continue then, assuming the very best of intentions but with the full knowledge that we are flawed.

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Testable Doctrine – Pure Theory

fire

All doctrine should be testable doctrine – with this one idea we can create an axiomatic faith.

What is an axiomatic faith?

Axiomatic means something that is self-evidently true. So a faith (or more accurately a doctrine) is one which by its own evidence is true.

I am going to add in one external axiom (unquestionable truth) that something can only be true if it is not false. I’ve talked before about the idea of agnosis – that we cannot know everything. This is an extension of that. Each doctrinal idea can be considered true (sound doctrine) only in the absence of evidence against it.

Think of axiomatic faith as the result of a court hearing. A single idea fails if the prosecution can provide reasonable doubt. Where there are competing doctrinal ideas only those ideas that are likely to be true on the balance of probabilities shall be taken as true. In other words, we seek a doctrine that is the least likely to be false or at least fatally flawed.

A scriptural basis for testing doctrines

In 1 John 4:1 we are urged to diligently test everything so as to avoid false prophets. 2 Peter 2:1 tells us to expect not just false prophets but false teachers too. Likewise, 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 says to test all prophets. 1 Corinthians 14:29 says that a few should speak and everyone else must weigh what is said.

Acts 17:11 holds those that check the scriptures to see if what they were told was true in very high regard. In a similar way, 2 Timothy 4:3-4 warns against believing things simply because we wish them to be true.

Tested as with fire

Each doctrine can be exposed to a number of testing fires. Each designed to ask the same question – is this a true (and sound) doctrine?

The fire of scripture

Using Axiom Zero – that scripture is good for establishing doctrine – the doctrine to be accepted must be the one with the best fit with scripture. That is to say, doctrine with the least scripture that could potentially contradict it.

One approach to applying this fire is to list all scriptural passages that address the topic of doctrine and then assess if that passage on its own (but within context) supports, is indifferent to, or disputes the doctrine. The doctrine with the best support and least conflict passes that test.

The fire of reason

This is an idea I first expressed when I introduced the Axioms of Faith. Having passed the test of being rooted strongly in scripture a doctrine must also be examined to see if it is reasonable.

This test acts as a check against concluding wildly irrational and foolish notions because they can be deduced from a specific reading of scripture. Established axioms can, therefore, be used as a reasoned test of doctrine.

The fire of existing doctrine

Doctrine can and perhaps should be tested against other doctrines. A doctrine that is internally consistent but at odds with other dearly held doctrines highlights only that one or more doctrines is in error.

Therefore, should a doctrine fail in this comparison, both doctrines must be re-examined. This cycle must continue until such time that all existing doctrine are consistent with each other.

Other reasonable tests

Other tests of doctrine, such as listed here, might include a comparison to the teachings of the early church, spiritual discernment, fruit, prayer, the origin of doctrine, relevance to spiritual growth, and comparison to long-standing traditions and practices of the church.

The ideal doctrine would pass through all these tests unscathed. At the very least, it should pass most and bring the remainder into reasoned testing.

No one is saved (yet)

Growing up in an Evangelical Charismatic church I thought I knew what it meant to be saved.

What do we mean by “saved”?

As far as my 12-year-old-self knew, you said the sinner’s prayer and then you were saved and going to heaven. Just wait at the rapture bus stop. While you are waiting, preach to people you would like in heaven with you and make them Christian too.

We quoted Romans 10:9-13 which described what we did in the sinner’s prayer (or so I thought). At the same time, we cited Ephesians 2:8-9 in case anyone started thinking that the prayer was what saved us. And we frequently made mention of John 3:17 and so we knew that it is Jesus that saves.

We glossed over Acts 16:31, where a man believes and his entire household are saved. Likewise, Mark 16:16 was only used at baptisms in case anyone got the idea that baptism was required to be saved even though “the Bible clearly says” as much.

The salvation we left out

There is a great deal that we leave out or gloss over when it comes to teachings on being saved. If we are to have a valid and unshakable doctrine of salvation all of these issues must be addressed.

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What is sin?

I wanted to write about something else entirely but before I can, I feel I must clearly define what I mean by “sin”.

Etymology of sin

Sin is an English word used in translation for words from two distinct languages (Hebrew and Greek) with contributions from at least two more languages (Latin and Old English). As such, the meaning of the word “sin” is highly complex and deserves special attention.

Rather than struggle to cover the grounds others already have, this is a summary taken from Wikipedia:

The word derives from “Old English syn(n), for original *sunjō. The stem may be related to that of Latin ‘sons, sont-is’ guilty. In Old English there are examples of the original general sense, ‘offence, wrong-doing, misdeed'”. The English Biblical terms translated as “sin” or “syn” from the Biblical Greek and Jewish terms sometimes originate from words in the latter languages denoting the act or state of missing the mark; the original sense of New Testament Greek ἁμαρτία hamartia “sin”, is failure, being in error, missing the mark, especially in spear throwing; Hebrew hata “sin” originates in archery and literally refers to missing the “gold” at the centre of a target, but hitting the target, i.e. error. “To sin” has been defined from a Greek concordance as “to miss the mark”.

The takeaway point is that our word – sin – is not a perfect match to the source text. It is close but not exact. You might say, our understanding of sin itself suffers from sin (hamartia).

Sin: Crime vs Weakness

The etymology of sin brings up the first of many doctrinal questions. Is sin a guilty state (as, for example, a criminal) as the Latin suggests, an offence (again criminal) as the Old English offers, or a mistake or shortcoming as the Geek and Hebrew might lead us to believe? Continue reading