Monday, January 29, 2018

Being Wrong About Being Right

The scriptures referred to are Deuteronomy 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

I don't know who edited the passages we read each week in our lectionary but they often end the selection too soon. In the verses that come after our passage from Deuteronomy, there is a test given to see if a prophet is speaking for God or not: if what he foretells does not come to pass, he is not speaking for God. In that case, verse 22 says, “The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.” I think this part is important. In fact, I would like to see those who say they take the Bible literally apply it to some of their own. Pat Robertson, for instance, has prophesied that the Tribulation, the 7 year period preceding Jesus' return, would start in 1982. And then in 1984. And then again in 2007. He predicted Jay Rockefeller would become president in 1996 and Mitt Romney in 2012. His track record is terrible and yet his viewers do not follow the instructions found in Deuteronomy and abandon him as a false prophet.

And remember Harold Camping? He was the president of Family Radio, a Christian network that broadcast in 150 markets in the US. He predicted that Jesus would return to rapture believers on May 21, 2011. When that date passed, he revised it to October 21 of that year. He retired and his network suffered significant losses of their revenues and staff. To his credit he admitted that his attempt to predict a date was “sinful” and that he should have heeded Jesus' words that no one knows the day and time when he will return. (Matthew 24:36). Too bad he didn't come to that realization after he first predicted things, such as Judgment Day occurring  on September 6, 1994.

In the words of Deuteronomy, these men, and others who have said erroneous things in the name of the Lord, are doing so presumptuously (“arrogantly” is another good translation) and we need not be afraid of them. But this is nothing new. Many, including Pope Silvester II, thought the world would end on January 1, 1000 AD. William Miller preached the world would end in 1843 and then revised it to October 22, 1844. The day after was known as the Great Disappointment to the between 50,000 and 500,000 Millerites. Today's Seventh Day Adventists came out of Millerism. Christopher Columbus and Cotton Mather came up with multiple dates for the end of the world. Isaac Newton said it could not happen before 2060. He later revised that to 2016. So we are living on borrowed time.

Newton is not the only scientist to predict the end of the world. German mathematician Johannes Stoffler thought the earth would be flooded in 1524 when all the known planets would align under Pisces. In 1910, some scientists thought all life might perish when the earth passed through the tail of Halley's Comet. Most scientists, though, predict the world will end a long time in the future. 300,000 years from now, WR 104 is expected to go supernova and explode, according to astronomer Peter Tuthill. The burst of gamma rays could threaten life on earth. Presuming we don't get hit by an asteroid in the next 500,000 years, the Geological Society predicts a supervolcanic eruption in 1 million years, comparable to the Toba supereruption that took place 75,000 years ago and may have triggered a 1000 year glacial period and severely reduced the global human population.

But as entertaining as all this mass death is, perhaps there is a bit of wisdom in ending our passage from Deuteronomy where the lectionary does. The point is that there will be people speaking in God's name and some will be false prophets. Both listening to the false ones and not heeding the real ones are spiritually dangerous. We need to be discerning.

One way to avoid problems, in my experience, is to notice if the preacher is making a big thing out of stuff not covered in the Bible, as if God had somehow left out the most important parts of his message. I once had a lady denounce our church for having a headquarters! I'm not sure how you run a national church without some kind of central location for its administration. I'm also sure scripture says nothing against having a headquarters. And there are preachers who get bent out of shape by whatever the latest fad is whether it's clothing fashions or popular games or movies or the Internet. At the Christian college I attended, traditional playing cards were forbidden, because they could be used for fortunetelling and gambling. I remember a book that came out in the 1970s denouncing Star Wars as Satanic. I was happy that my son got into Dungeons and Dragons. When people asked me if I didn't think it was of the devil, I would tell them that the most diabolic thing about it was that to play the game, you have to buy an encyclopedia's worth of rule books. It was however a brilliant sales strategy. Thus it taught my son to make and save money if he wanted to buy the latest tome. And he had no money left over to buy drugs (were he so inclined.) Today he and his wife play it with friends. It reminds me of the Canasta parties of my parent's generation.

The Bible doesn't cover absolutely everything that the future will bring, at least not in detail. The best we can do is judiciously apply the principles we derive from it to new developments. Obviously we need to avoid anything that is harmful to ourselves or others, whether physically, psychologically, or spiritually. But sometimes we just need to stop fearing every single thing that comes along.

In Paul's day, a major controversy had arisen over whether it was all right to eat meat sacrificed to idols. After pagan priests offered the meat to the idols, it was consumed by people, of course. Usually there was so much excess that the meat was served in the temple's dining hall (kinda like today's banquet venues) and sold in its meat markets. When there was a major pagan religious festival, there was so much meat left over that it had to be consumed before it rotted and the beneficiaries of this oversupply were often the poor, who could not otherwise afford the luxury of meat. The problem for Christians was how to act when dining with pagans, such as business associates or members of their trade guild or when guests at the wedding of a friend or relative. And what if they were poor and could only eat meat during pagan festivals?

Now some Christians reasoned that, since there are no gods other than Yahweh, the ritual sacrifice meant nothing and therefore they could eat such meat with a clear conscience. That is the “knowledge” to which Paul is referring. And they felt that having such knowledge made them stronger Christians than those with weak consciences, that is, consciences not able to withstand temptation.

Remember that most of the Christians in Corinth were converts from paganism. Eating at a temple or eating meat bought there could cause some of them to relapse. So Paul said to those with stronger consciences that they should, out of love, refrain from exercising their right or freedom to eat temple meat, at least when with Christians who were less secure in their faith. Knowingly endangering the faith of a sibling in Christ is tantamount to sinning against Christ.

I think the key verses in this passage are the first three. Paul says that “knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” In other words, being knowledgeable can inflate your ego but being loving builds up other people spiritually. Also knowledge is not always accompanied by wisdom. People with lots of knowledge do not always know what to do with it. Smart people can be thoughtless. Being an arrogant know-it-all who simply criticizes others as stupid does not make the world, much less the church, a better place. That's what Paul means by “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.” I like the way the New Living Translation renders this: “Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn't really know very much.” It sounds like Paul is describing the Dunning-Kruger effect: people who are ignorant don't know enough to realize just how little they actually know.

But it is not really a lack of knowledge that is the problem; it's a lack of love. Paul's phrase “...but anyone who loves God is known by him” recalls 1 John 4:8, “The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” If we really know the God who is love, we will not use our knowledge, however sophisticated, to harm another person.

I had situation that was similar to the one Paul is dealing with. I have a friend who is Muslim. The Halal diet of Islam are roughly analogous to the Kosher diet of Judaism. We were at the Cheesecake Factory and I think I was going to order either pork chops or a club sandwich, which of course has bacon. My friend asked that I not order pork while eating with her. So I changed my order. I could have protested that as a Christian I have no dietary restrictions and it wasn't like I was going to make her eat what I was eating. But out of friendship, which is a form of love, I refrained from indulging in what I had every right to consume.

Think of what you would do if dining out with a friend in recovery for drinking. I hope you would skip ordering anything alcoholic. Or refrain from buying lottery tickets with a friend who has a gambling problem. Or from watching a war movie with an Amish person or a prize fight with a Quaker.

Now Paul does not say that the Christians with no qualms about the meat need to give it up entirely. In chapter 10 he says they should not participate in pagan festivals or eat in temples (1 Corinthians 10:7, 18-21) but he also says, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for 'The earth is the Lord's and everything in it.' If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, 'This has been offered in sacrifice,' then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience sake—the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours.” (1 Corinthians 10:25-29) The principle, says Paul, is “Nobody should seek his own good but the good of others.” (v. 24)

There are two other principles to consider as well. When Paul is dealing with the same issue in his letter to the Romans he says, “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on his reasonings. One person believes in eating everything but the one who is weak eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not despise the one who doesn't, and the one who abstains must not judge the one who eats everything, for indeed God has accepted him. Who are you to be judging another's servant? Before his own master, he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person judges a certain day to be holier than another day and another judges every day to be alike. Each must be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:1-5) After all, each person should be doing or not doing it to glorify God. And Paul reminds us, “each of us will give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:12)

Paul is saying that good Christians can differ on certain nonessential matters in dispute. But it is vital that you be fully convinced of your opinion, which means doing research and thinking long and hard about what the data, including the Bible, says. And it is equally vital that you not look down on your fellow Christian, even if he holds a different opinion.

Some of the issues Christians differ on today are a lot more serious than eating meat offered to imaginary idols. The two most prominent are abortion and how we treat LGBTQI people. How can what the Bible says help us with these?

First of all, abortion is not mentioned anywhere in the Old or New Testament. There are passages some cite as indicating life starts in the womb and historically the church has been pro-life. In the first several centuries that meant opposing abortion but mostly it meant opposing the practice of exposing infants, that is, leaving babies that people didn't want or couldn't afford on the side of a road. They might be adopted and cared for by others; they might raised as slaves; they might simply be left to die. The church opposed the practice, though it's also not mentioned in scripture. And as we said, you cannot oppose abortion on the basis of any clear prohibition by the Bible. Believe it or not, devout Christians can have different opinions on the matter. It's not that some Christians love the idea of abortion but they feel there are circumstances, usually dire ones, where it should be an option and it should be left to the conscience of the pregnant woman.

Some preachers have said that abortion takes a terrible psychological toll on women. A rigorous study that followed 1000 women for 5 years found that those who underwent the procedure did not have any more depression, anxiety, low self-esteem or dissatisfaction with life than those who were denied abortions. Again some Christian organizations say there is a link between abortion and breast cancer. Scientific studies say there isn't. So those preachers were wrong in what they predicted would happen to women. According to Deuteronomy, they spoke presumptuously and we need not fear them.

That doesn't answer the question of whether we are dealing with life or not. So as Paul says, let each person be fully convinced of their position and not judge those with different opinions.

Now the Bible says nothing positive about homosexual acts. But it only mentions them 7 times out of 33,000 verses. Homosexuality is not mentioned in the Ten Commandments and Jesus never says anything about it. Some say the homosexual acts mentioned in the New Testament aren't consensual but are actually pedophilia and rape. They say it is better for gays to be in stable faithful relationships than casual and chaotic ones. They point out that Jesus said no other commandment is greater than the ones to love God and to love others. (Mark 12:31) But some just can't get over those 7 passages. Let each person be fully convinced of their position and not judge those with different opinions.

There have always been and there will always be disputes among Christians on issues that are important but not essential. For the most part we differ in what we emphasize and how we interpret certain passages and apply them. We should agree on the core beliefs, as summarized in the Apostles Creed, and the commandments to love God above all and to love all whom we encounter as ourselves. We are commanded to treat everyone with love, even our enemies. And when it comes to our fellow Christians Jesus commanded us to love one another as he loves us. He gave up his life for us out of love. Can we not give up insisting that our take on controversial but nonessential matters is the only option for Christians, and can we not do so out of love? Love is how Jesus said the world will know that we are his followers. (John 13:34-35) And in this contentious world, where parties, movements and nations cannot cohere because of differences in opinion, what better witness can we give to the God who is love than to work with, and to worship with, and to love all our brothers and sisters in Christ, including those with whom we disagree?

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