Gentleness and respect

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (I Peter 3:15-16, NIV).

“If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15, NIV).

Since the founding of the Christian Church, each generation of believers has used available technology to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The writings of the apostles were copied and saved on scrolls, but before long they were collected in codex form. The printing press and less costly paper made written communication easier to distribute—the Bible itself, as well as books, sermons, tracts, and other explanations of the Bible’s message. Now the internet and social media have opened a new world of communication to the Church, making outreach, apologetics, and irenics easier than ever before. Printed material can be smuggled into a country that censures writing, but the internet sneaks across borders far more easily. Peter preached to thousands of people on Pentecost Day, but the potential audience for any internet posting can extend to many millions.

Those of us who belong to Jesus Christ have wonderful opportunities to share his promises with the world. I know that God blesses our efforts where and when he chooses. I know that all the saints on earth remain sinners, subject to the devil’s temptations to fumble our attempts to share the Gospel. My heart is broken, though, over the many samples I have seen of Christians tarnishing the name of Christ by failing to describe our hope with gentleness and respect. I am doubly heartbroken over the many times I have seen Christians debate one another online, not with mutual love and respect, but rather biting and devouring each other.

Written communication has pitfalls, and those pitfalls only increase on the internet. Much of our personal communication is helped with facial expressions, body language, and variations in tone of voice that do not appear in writing. (Emoticons help a little, but only a little.) Close friends sometimes develop a banter that, to strangers, sounds hurtful and even abusive. Language that amuses some people repels others. As Christians post and as we comment on other posts, I believe we need to keep certain ideas in mind so our words bring glory to Christ and his Church rather than embarrassment and shame.

First, I do not think rhetoric and logic alone can change the heart of an unbeliever. Only the Holy Spirit can bring a person to faith. The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God—the writings of the prophets and apostles through whom he spoke. They can be quoted directly, or they can be summarized, paraphrased, and explained. In any case, our best weapon against the devil and the sinful world is God’s Word. Our best way to lead other people to Jesus is to use the very words that changed our hearts and made us believers.

Atheists and agnostics who have already encountered God’s Word and have rejected it are unlikely mission opportunities, although God is capable of working miracles even in hardened hearts. If rhetoric and logic are not enough to change their hearts, surely ridicule and demeaning language will not accomplish that goal. Even when they choose to communicate using ridicule and demeaning language, I do not think that we bring glory to God and do his work by reducing our language to their level rather than writing with gentleness and respect.

Gentleness and respect are not only for unbelievers. When communicating with fellow believers, gentleness and respect are even more required. The Church on earth has been divided into many sects and factions, contrary to the will of Christ and of his apostles. True Christian unity cannot be accomplished by compromise, watering down the truth to a pulp that all will accept. Rather, each of us is called to defend the truth, but to do so gently, respectfully, and drawing on the power of God’s Word rather than relying on our own reason and understanding.

When you disagree with another Christian, consider the level of your disagreement. Are you correcting heresy? By all means, counter dangerous lies with the truth, but do so with gentleness and respect. Are you responding to heterodoxy? By all means, communicate with fellow believers about our differences, hoping to work toward greater unity within the Body of Christ—but do so with gentleness and respect. Are you differing over a case of Christian freedom? Perhaps—for the glory of God and for the strengthening of your faith—you are refraining from something not forbidden by Scripture. (This could be eating meat sold in the marketplace, dancing, playing cards, drinking moderately, or any other practice that Christians are free to do and free not to do.) By all means, share the benefits you have seen in your fasting, but do not criticize those who choose not to fast in your way. And, if you choose not to fast in a way that benefits a fellow believer, refrain from judging or criticizing your brother or sister in the Lord.

When two Christians are disagreeing over the meaning of a passage of Scripture, stop and consider the hermeneutical principles each is using. Is one reading the Bible evangelically while the other is reading legalistically? Is one seeking prophecies of future events while the other considers all prophecies already fulfilled in Christ? We read the Bible and discover differing messages—possibly one of us is guilty of replacing exegesis with eisegesis, but the root of the difference is probably in hermeneutics.

Those of us who are one in Christ will remain diverse, not only in language and culture, age and gender, wealth and social status, but in political opinions, artistic preferences, and the like. We can and should discuss these differences, but always with gentleness and respect. In the United States last November, some sincere Christians voted for Trump, others voted for Clinton, and still others voted for third party candidates. Even if you question the judgment of other people’s votes, their political convictions do not make them heretics.

In my case, I consider liturgical and traditional worship more reverent and more meaningful than contemporary worship. I have learned, though, that other Christians are blessed through contemporary worship. Their way of worshiping does not make them heretics, or even heterodox. I am more concerned about teachings in liberal Christianity. Some of those teachings are truly heretical, and they need to be opposed with the truth of the Bible—but always with gentleness and respect.

Finally, the devil and the sinful world delight in hiding Christ’s Gospel under distractions and diversions. Proper places and times can be found for discussing science and religion, archaeology and the Bible, abortion, patriotism, men and women and how they relate to each other, and many other topics. Often these topics are a barrier to the Gospel—a barrier to proclaiming Christ and Him crucified. No one has been changed from a nonbeliever into a Christian by being proved wrong about some peripheral topic. The Gospel itself is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).

Pardon my rant. I’ll try to be better now. J.

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Historic Perspective

Jesus Christ established the Holy Christian Church by his preaching, his ministry, and his authority. He selected apostles and sent them to proclaim his message of repentance and redemption through his sacrifice and his resurrection. Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church. After Jesus died and rose again, he sent the Holy Spirit to his Church, and his apostles began preaching in Jerusalem and Judea. Their mission expanded to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Traveling through the Roman Empire, the apostles founded congregations faithful to Jesus Christ and his message. Congregations were established even outside the Roman Empire in Ethiopia, India, and other places.

As the apostles wrote the books that were gathered as the New Testament, they countered distortions of their message. One distortion was that of the legalists or judaizers, who tried to include laws and regulations in the Church’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Another distortion was that of the Gnostics, who tried to blend Greek philosophy with the message of the Church. Platonists and Stoics thought that the ideal world consisted of mind or spirit. They saw the physical world as tainted and evil. Gnostics declared that the world had been made by an inferior god, but that sparks of divinity had fallen into the world, becoming people. They changed the message of Jesus and the apostles, denying that Jesus had taken on a human body, that he had suffered and died on a cross to redeem sinners, and that he rose again and promises resurrection to all his people. The apostles and later Christian writers rejected these false teachings.

For three hundred years, Christianity and various Gnostic movements coexisted with many other religions in the Roman Empire. The Romans were always happy to add another god, but they did not wish any god to claim exclusive power and authority. Christians were often ignored, sometimes tolerated, and sometimes persecuted for their rejection of other gods. When Constantine came to power, he made Christianity legal and respectable, even declaring himself to be a Christian. Church buildings were constructed and Christians preached openly. Constantine discovered, though, that two competing versions of Christianity were being proclaimed. One said that Jesus, as the Son of God, is eternal and almighty, equal to the Father in every way. The other said that Jesus, as the Son of God, was created by the Father and is not almighty and not equal to the Father. Constantine called for a council of Christian leaders to settle this dispute. They met, prayed, studied the Bible, discussed what it says, and issued a document which declares that Jesus is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds were made, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Being of one substance with the Father….” Anyone who claimed to be a Christian and denied these statements was labeled a heretic.

This council set a precedent for the Christian Church. Over the following centuries, additional councils gathered to consider other disputes within the Church, most of which concerned the two natures of Christ (the relationship of his divinity and his humanity). After prayer, Bible study, and discussion, Truth was distinguished from heresy, and statements were written to provide Christians a clearer understanding of Truth. In these councils, church leaders generally were treated as equals, but the greatest respect was given to the church leaders from five cities: Jerusalem, Antioch in Syria, Alexandria in Egypt, Rome, and Constantinople.

Three hundred years after Constantine, a great challenge to Christianity arose in Arabia. Muhammad (according to Muslim tradition) was puzzled by the many versions of religion represented in the city of Mecca, including various groups of Christians who called one another heretics. Instead of studying the Bible for himself, he turned to prayer and meditation. One day a being of light appeared to Muhammad. Claiming to be the angel Gabriel, he promised Muhammad messages from God. For the rest of his life, Muhammad received and shared those messages, which are gathered together as the Quran. Like the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, the Quran says that there is only one God, who is the Creator of all that exists. This God sends prophets to the world, telling people how to live their lives and threatening judgment and punishment on those who break his rules. The commandments of the Quran are much like those found in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Even some historical accounts from those books are reported also in the Quran. Jesus, though, is labeled a prophet and no more than a prophet. The Quran declares that God has no Son. It requires every person to be his or her own savior rather than looking to Jesus as Savior.

This new religion emerged from Arabia with military power, conquering lands from India to Spain, including the cities of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. Christians and Jews were tolerated in Muslim Lands as “peoples of the book,” but they paid higher taxes than Muslims and were ineligible for government jobs. Many Christians converted to Islam. Meanwhile, Christianity survived in Europe, in the Byzantine Empire, and in pockets elsewhere in Africa and Asia, even as far away as China, as well as a minority in the Muslim empire.

The two remaining centers of Christianity, Rome and Constantinople, grew increasingly suspicious of each other. They debated whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or from the Father alone. They differed in determining when to celebrate Christmas and Easter. They differed over the place of religious artwork, or icons, in the Church. Most significantly, though, they debated about authority. The patriarch in Constantinople remained subject to the Byzantine emperor, but the pope in Rome even crowned emperors. Their debates peaked in 1054, when the pope declared that anyone who denies that the pope is the Vicar of Christ and the head of the church on earth is a heretic, while the patriarch declared that anyone who calls the pope the Vicar of Christ and the head of the church on earth is a heretic. Those who agreed with the pope called themselves Catholic Christians, while those who agreed with the patriarch called themselves Orthodox Christians, labels which remain to this day.

Over the centuries, the Church endured times of corruption and scandal and times of reformation. In the 1200s, heresies were battled (such as the Albigensian, or Cathari, movement, which claimed that believers could stop sinning in this world and no longer needed the Church and its sacraments), while successful reforms were led by Dominic and Francis, among others. These reformers created new orders in the Church which established universities in the major cities of Europe. After a century of political turmoil—which at one point included three men claiming to be the true pope—the Church became less flexible, condemning as heretics such reformers as Jan Huss and Martin Luther.

The reformation that faced this hostility led to a fracturing of the Church. Later waves of reform created further divisions. By the twentieth century, hundreds of denominations had been created. They were labeled in various ways: some for individual reformers (Lutheran, Mennonite, Wesleyan), some for unique teachings or practices (Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal), and some for their forms of organization (Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian). Many carried labels which rightly belong to all true Christians (Church of God, Church of Christ, Christian Church, Apostolic, Evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic). Often those that are not called Catholic or Orthodox are lumped together as Protestant in spite of their many differences. Meanwhile, many of the heresies rejected by the early Church’s councils were revived. Russellites (now called Jehovah’s Witnesses) teach that Jesus, as the Son of God, is created, neither eternal nor almighty. Many Protestant groups teach new versions of Nestorianism and Pelagianism. Legalism is rampart among Christians. Newly rediscovered Gnostic writings are described as if they have equal weight to the apostolic writings of the New Testament.

Overlaying this history of the Church is the history of change regarding communication. Sets of scrolls used two thousand years ago were replaced by the codex, a set of flat sheets attached along one edge (commonly referred to as a book). Handwritten texts were superseded by printed texts when the Chinese technology of the printing press was adapted for European literature. Wood-pulp paper replaced cotton-rag paper, making books and other publications far less expensive. Electronic communication through computers and the internet, along with electronic books, are but the latest wave in the variety of ways that God’s Word is shared (as well as various interpretations of that Word).

Throughout the history of the Church, Christian leaders have spoken strongly against heresies. Paul wrote harsh words about the legalists. Martin Luther was highly critical of the pope and those who supported him. Written communication in any form is hindered by the lack of facial expression, body language, and tone of voice which assists in spoken communication. This is especially true in the present age of electronic communication. As a result, sometimes discussions of doctrine deteriorate into mutual rejection and insults.

All of this is simply context to my upcoming post about how we speak to one another—and to the rest of the world—about God’s Truth. J.

Definitions

This is the first part of a three-part post. In this first part I will define some terms used when discussing religion, particularly Christianity. In the second part, I will provide historical context using many of these terms. In the third part, I will finally get around to saying that which I want to say.

  • Agnostic: uncertain whether or not God exists. Many agnostics are quiet about their lack of certainty, but some agnostics insist that certainty about God is impossible. The latter group regards theists and atheists as equally insincere about their convictions.
  • Apologetics: the effort to communicate religious beliefs to others, often in an attempt to convert the others to the same beliefs. Not to be confused with the usual meaning of apology, in which one admits that one was wrong—in this sense, an apology is a defense of what one believes to be correct.
  • Atheist: certainty that no god exists. Many atheists are quiet about their lack of faith in any god, but some atheists overtly insist that there is no god and that all religions are based on lies and delusions.
  • Catholic: (when used of Christianity) united and present throughout the world. All Christians on earth who believe in Jesus Christ as Savior, and all those with him in Paradise awaiting the resurrection, are members of the catholic Church.
  • Conservative: 1. In any context, wanting things to stay the way they are, resisting change; 2. In Christian thought, holding to the historic teachings of the Church, demanding that doctrines not be changed. (compare liberal)
  • Contemporary: in the context of Christian worship, using recently-written songs and an informal structure of worship that consists largely of songs, prayers, readings from the Bible, and preaching. (compare traditional and liturgical)
  • Cult: 1. in an academic context, a New Religious Movement not based on any older religion, or one that contains enough syncretism to be treated as a new religion; Among many conservative and fundamentalist Christians, a religion based upon false teachings, often centered around a powerful personality
  • Deist: belief in a God who created the world and established the rules of morality, but who is inaccessible. Deists do not believe in miracles or prayer or a personal relationship with any god.
  • Ecumenical: An effort among Christian groups to unite the Church into a single organization rather than many competing organizations. Conservative and fundamentalist Christians sometimes accuse ecumenical efforts of watering down doctrine for the sake of shallow unity.
  • Eisegesis: warping or twisting a passage from the Bible to make it seem to support a certain thought or belief (compare exegesis)
  • Evangelical: based upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Exegesis: studying the Bible to discover what it says (compare eisegesis)
  • Fundamentalist: defining membership in Christianity based on acceptance of a list of beliefs. Fundamentalism began in the United States early in the twentieth century, but the word is now used for movements within Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism as well. The list of beliefs created by Christian fundamentalists usually includes the doctrine of the Trinity, the identity of Jesus as both truly God and truly man, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus as the only source of salvation, inerrancy of the Bible, acceptance of miracles (especially the virgin birth of Jesus and his resurrection), and the future bodily return of Jesus.
  • Gnostic: claiming to have secret knowledge about religion (especially Christianity) that goes beyond the teachings found in the Bible. Gnosticism was common during the growth of early Christianity, and is often thought to have been revived in the New Age movement within Christianity.
  • Heretic: one who denies a key doctrine of Christianity, such as the Trinity, the deity of Jesus, or the humanity of Jesus. Heretics are generally regarded by Christians as outside the true Church.
  • Hermeneutics: the set of principles that guide a reader of the Bible—a way of practicing exegesis and avoiding eisegesis. Differences among Christians often result from different hermeneutical approaches.
  • Heterodox: one who is mistaken about certain important doctrines but correct about the key doctrines. Heterodox people are generally regarded as fellow Christians with the same Savior and the same hope of heaven in spite of their differences. (compare heretic and orthodox)
  • Indigenous Religion: a religion long practiced among a small group of people with the same culture, usually a minority surrounded by a more powerful culture which follows a different religion. Indigenous religions are still practiced among some Native Americans, Africans, Pacific Islanders, Siberians, and the like.
  • Irenics: the effort to communicate among groups with differing beliefs, generally in a non-confrontational manner. The term irenics is derived from the Greek word meaning “peace.” Accordingly, irenics can be described as peaceful coexistence of people whose beliefs differ, although irenics includes communication about their differing beliefs. (compare pluralism)
  • Liberal: 1. In any context, wanting things to change, believing that a situation can be improved. 2. In Christian thought, accepting changes in doctrine, whether as a response to scientific discoveries, a response to changing social conditions and perceptions, or the ecumenical movement.
  • Liturgical: in the context of Christian worship, following the order of worship that was developed in the early Church, generally including the Kyrie, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei, all of which are songs derived from passages in the Bible. (compare contemporary and traditional)
  • New Religious Movement: in an academic context, a group of religious beliefs and practices that has come into being within the past several centuries (see cult and sect)
  • Orthodox: one who is correct about all Christian doctrines. Naturally, every Christian considers himself or herself orthodox and judges others to be heretic or heterodox.
  • Pluralism: a society in which several religions coexist without violent confrontation. The United States is often described as a pluralist society.
  • Sect: 1. In an academic context, a new religious movement that arises within an established religion. 2. Among many conservatives and fundamentalists, any Christian group that is heterodox rather than orthodox.
  • Syncretism: blending two or more religions. The Old Testament prophets preached against syncretism involving Canaanite religion and the religion of Israel. In more recent times, Santeria and Voodoo have appeared as New Religious Movements derived from Christianity blended with indigenous religions of Africa.
  • Theist: certain that God exists, that he has thoughts and feelings and personality, and that one can have a personal relationship with God.
  • Traditional: in the context of Christian worship, maintaining the same form of worship rather than developing new forms of worship. Often a synonym for liturgical. (compare contemporary)
  • Unionism: groups of different beliefs and practices worshiping together. Sometimes used of different religions worshiping together, sometimes used of different forms of Christianity worshiping together.