How Should the Church Act Regarding Authority?

If we have to ignore Scripture and the character God desires to work in us, we are moving in the wrong direction!

I come back to this with a heavy sigh. I started it yesterday as the news unfolded of people breaching the Capitol building as the Trump rally changed gears. I know there were people there peacefully gathering, but a good many of them crossed the line.

As I watched the events unfold, I struggled to find some solid ground to stand on as I see people who call themselves Christians continue to support Trump regardless of what he says and does. At best, he sent mixed messages that were ambiguous enough to encourage what happened. At worst he incited insurrection, and stood by watching it happen, saying nothing until it was too late. Even then, it was a poor excuse for what he should have said.

The thing that troubles me most as I think about these things is the way Christians who support Trump and this “resistance” at at all costs ignore Scripture that is inconvenient. Paul defined the way followers of Jesus Christ should act regarding authority:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

Romans 13:1-2

Peter, the rock on whom Jesus said he would build his church, said the same thing:

“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him….”

1 Peter 2:13-14

If you think insurrection is justified because Democrats are “bad” today, consider that Peter and Paul said these things at a time when their world was ruled by Nero.

Nero was a bad leader, even by pagan, Roman standards. He considered himself God. He persecuted Christians and had them publicly killed, lighting them on fire at night to light the City. Peter and Paul were both martyred under the rule of Nero.

You can’t equate the Democrats with Nero. To understand Peter and Paul’s words and apply them to today, we need to acknowledge and consider the historical context. We can’t justify resisting authority because Democrats are bad.

People might justify their resistance on other grounds. People might cite Peter’s example in the Book of Acts. Peter and John were arrested for preaching. (Acts 4:2-3) They were commanded not to preach about Jesus, but Peter and John refused to comply, saying,

“Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” 

Acts 4:19

They were arrested again for refusing to remain quiet. (Acts 5:20) Again, they were commanded not to speak, but they responded, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:19) This time they were flogged and let go.

So which is it? Submit to authorities? Or boldly rebel?

Those are not the right questions. They don’t take Scripture seriously. We have to be careful to handle Scripture better than that.

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On the Delusion of Plausible Arguments, I Hold to Christ in Me

As I read through Scripture, I am always looking to understand it better. At the same time, I am listening for God to speak to me. In the process, I notice things. Like today. I noticed Paul’s statement to the Colossians:

I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.

Colossians 2:4 ESV

Hmmm… the delusion of plausible arguments. That’s an interesting phrase…

Paul is writing to the people in Colossae, a very Greek city. He had already been to Athens where the Athenians and foreigners who visited the city spent their time telling and listening to the latest ideas. (Acts 17:21)

In our modern view, we might imagine an ancient think tank in which new ideas are explored and developed toward some greater ends. We might be tempted to see Athens as an incubator of ideas for the benefit of mankind.

Luke, the writer of Acts, was not being complimentary, however, when he made this observation. The context suggests a contrast between a desire for novel ideas and a desire for truth. Ideas for the sake of ideas and novelty for the sake of novelty may be an erudite pastime for the bored elite who enjoy comfort and privilege, but they are not noble pursuits in themselves.

Unless one has a desire to know truth, entertaining new ideas is only an exercise in futility, diversion and delusion. The ancient writer of Ecclesiastes, writing about a millennia before Paul set foot in Athens, recognized “there is nothing new under the sun” – even back then. (Ecc. 1:9) Chasing after ideas that are new for the sake of novelty is just a distraction from the truth. It is meaningless!

Paul views the sharing of ideas for the novelty of them in the same way modern people might play video games or read a book – entertainment to pass time. He had no time for such things.  

Truth had been revealed to Paul in the form of the risen Jesus, whom his people had crucified, and Paul had persecuted. Paul’s whole life was interrupted and set off on another course one day as he traveled with the intention of arresting and imprisoning Christ followers in Damascus.

Paul’s life would never be the same. By the time Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians, his motto had become “to live is Christ and to die is gain”. (Phil. 1:21)

If we can tell anything about the biographical and autobiographical sketches of Paul in Acts and his letters, we can see that Paul was fiercely and uncompromisingly concerned about truth. That attitude led him to persecute the followers of Christ with zeal when he thought the truth lay in that direction.

It was Paul’s commitment to truth that prompted him to turn in the opposite direction and accept Jesus whom Paul had persecuted as his Lord and Savior. Paul gave himself completely to be a servant of the risen Lord to the point of sharing in his own body the sufferings of Christ, as he described to the Colossians. (Col. 1:24)

Paul’s turn of phrase, perhaps, is what caught my eye as I read through Colossians this morning: the delusion of plausible arguments.

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Turning to the Lord, the Veil is Removed

But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.

2 Corinthians 3:16

Paul, the First Century Hebrew of Hebrews, wrote the statement above. He knew what he was talking about. Before a personal encounter with the living, risen Jesus Christ, Paul was aggressively opposed to Jesus and his followers.

He experienced life with a veil over his eyes, but he didn’t know it. That is the nature of a veil: what’s behind it is hidden. You don’t know what you don’t know until the veil is removed. When the veil is removed, a person see what was once hidden from view.

For Paul, the veil was removed suddenly and in dramatic fashion. Complete with a flash of light, a voice from heaven and blindness that was removed when the truth of Paul’s encounter was revealed (Acts 9), Paul’s experience was a bit unusual.

These words, though, are a common description for many people, regardless of the drama, or lack thereof: when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. They resonate deeply with me.

The words, though, resonate deeply within me. The truth of Christ was veiled to me for many years. I became a searcher of truth, looking in all the suspect places, until “one day” the veil was removed when I turned to the Lord.

It wasn’t a sudden thing leading up to that point. It was a process. There were markers along the way that I followed, and some gates I went through. In the end, as it seemed the pointers were directing me toward Jesus, I turned to him; and, indeed, the veil was removed.

Looking back, we might say, I was blind, but now I see.” During the process, it doesn’t seem quite like that at all.

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Paul Put the Pieces of a Puzzle together for Dionysius at the Areopagus

Some people want to fit the pieces to the puzzle together.

Perhaps, my favorite speech (sermon) in the Bible is Paul’s address to an elite group of people in Athens. The people in Athens were fond of spending their time “in nothing except telling or hearing something new”. (Acts 17:21) When some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers heard Paul in the marketplace, they brought him to the Areopagus.

Do you know people like that? They like to talk philosophy, but they don’t do it out of a love for the truth. They just like the intellectual challenge or the exercise of the imagination. Those conversations are ultimately unfulfilling unless truth is the object.

When Paul came to Athens, he was struck by all the idols he saw. (Acts 16:17) Athens was filled philosophies and gods of unending variety. In this way, Athens was like the modern Internet: a person might not ever exhaust all the possibilities. A person could spend a lifetime trying without ever synthesizing all the information and fitting the pieces to the puzzle of life together.

Paul cut the chase. Referencing an inscription: “To the unknown god”, Paul opened his speech with the statement, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23)

I love that! Paul started where they were. He started with something familiar to them, and he used it as a segue into an introduction of “[t]he God who made the world and everything in it”. There were temples everywhere in Athens, but Paul was not shy in saying that the “Lord of heaven and earth does not live in temples made by men”. (Acts 17:24)

Paul wasn’t interested in small talk, or ideas for nothing but the novelty of them.

I also love that Paul quoted Greek philosophers and poets to them. He quoted Epimenides of Crete for the proposition that “In him [the God who made the heaven and earth] we live and move and have our being”; and he quoted Aratus for that proposition that we are His offspring. (Acts 17:28)

Paul was educated, and he could speak the language of educated people. He could take poetry and use it in a sermon on God. He didn’t play their games, though. He didn’t speak just to hear himself talk. He didn’t pander to their penchant for novel ideas.

He called them to account: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30)

Paul preached the Gospel, the good news that Jesus died for our sins, redeeming us from destruction and giving us the hope of everlasting life, but Paul lost most of his audience at that point. They weren’t interested in “dogma”. They took offense at the exclusivity of Paul’s message. They liked ideas, but they weren’t interested in truth. Sound familiar?

Truth, of course, is exclusive. That’s the nature of truth. People like the Athenians, and people who embrace post-modern thought today, don’t want to want to hear ideas that are exclusive. They want variety. They want to keep their options open, ironically even to the exclusion of truth.

A few people, though, were moved by Paul’s sermon. They wanted to hear more. Among them was Dionysius, the Areopagite. For Dionysius, Paul provided him the missing piece to the puzzle of his life.

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How the Moorings of the Gospel Were Secured

God’s promise to Abraham was given 430 years before Moses

I have taken some time to reflect on the unity for which Jesus prayed in relation to the story of Peter & Cornelius and the tension that continued in the early church over extending the Gospel to Gentiles (non-Jews). The tension that persisted at the heart of the early Church threatened to unmoor the Gospel from its footing.

In previous articles, I reflected on the deeply ingrained nature of the belief that the Jews were God’s people. They were entrusted with the Law of Moses, and they had protected the Law God gave them for well over a 1000 years, painstakingly preserving it, passing it down from generation to generation.

They were instructed by God Himself to drive out all the inhabitants in the land God promised them, to avoid intermarrying and being corrupted by the influence of “Gentiles” to worship their gods. Thus, Hebrew descendants of Abraham avoided association with others – Gentiles. Like the plague.

So intent on sticking to the script were Jews in the First Century, that they didn’t recognize God when He shed his deity and came to them as Jesus from Nazareth.

John says that God came to His own people, and they didn’t recognize Him. When the Word through whom the universe was created, the Word who “was with God” and “was God”, became flesh (John 1:1-3, 14), “his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:12) “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” (John 1:11) John continues:

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

John 1:12-13

“His own” were the Jews. The “all who did receive him, who believed in his name”, were Gentiles (and Jews) who believed in what Jesus said and trusted in him. They became children of God, not because they were born into it, nor because they or anyone else desired it, but because God Himself desired them to be His children.

But these things were far from clear to the early Church. Even Peter, who lived with Jesus and knew him intimately, had difficulty with the idea that the Gospel should be extended to Gentiles.

In the previous articles linked above, I summarized how God gave Peter a vision that occurred three times in a row for emphasis, an audible voice, and the voice of the Holy Spirit, directing him to go with men who appeared just then at the door to summon him. Peter’s experience was orchestrated with an angel that visited Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, who was directed to send those men to “a man named Simon who is called Peter”. (Acts 10:5) Then God poured out His Holy Spirit on the Centurion and his household to emphasize to Peter his intention to extend the Gospel to the Gentiles.

But the tradition of shunning the Gentiles would not die easy. Despite the obviously divine orchestration of events to drive home God’s intentions to Peter, Paul had to confront Peter publicly in Antioch over the issue when Jews from Jerusalem came to visit, and Peter disassociated himself from the Antiochian Gentiles. (See Galatians 2-3)

Paul encountered the same issue in Galatia where people were insisting that the Jews continue to follow the Mosaic law. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul described his confrontation with Peter. More importantly, Paul explained why the Mosaic Law no longer applied to the people of God – who now included not just the Jews, but everyone!

Continue reading “How the Moorings of the Gospel Were Secured”