Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Ultimate Test

Caravaggio, The Sacrifice of Isaac (ca. 1605), oil on canvas, 116 x 173 cm, Piasecka-Johnson Collection, Princeton

And God said unto Abraham, “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell the of” (Gen. 22:2).

Just a little before this story in the Book of Genesis, Abraham had the temerity to argue with God about whom he, God, intended to kill. The Lord was going to wipe out Sodom and Gomorah because of their sin, and Abraham, sounding a lot like a used car salesman, began to haggle with God.  “Wilt thou destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for fifty righteous that are therein?” (18:23,24). Abraham bargained God down to ten, but there were not ten righteous men, “then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven” (19:24). Only Lot and his children were saved.

Fast forward a bit. Now God tells Abraham to kill his only son, to offer him as a sacrifice. It is tempting for Christians to immediately think of this as divine foreshadowing of God sacrificing his only Son for our sins. In this typology, Abraham becomes God and Isaac, Jesus. But none of that was known to Abraham and Isaac at the time, so let’s stick with the story as we have it in Genesis for a while.

It’s one of the most troubling passages in all of scripture, and it’s too easily explained away. God was testing Abraham. Interestingly enough, this time he didn’t bargain with God. He didn’t say, “Why would you want me to kill a little boy who’s done nothing to deserve death?” Abraham’s earlier conversation with God assumed that God was bound by an idea of justice that precluded him from killing the innocent.  But amazingly Abraham doesn’t argue this time; he obeys.

Is something right because God commands it or does God only command what’s right? The story about Abraham’s bargaining with God over Sodom seems to suggest the latter, his obedience to the command to sacrifice Isaac, the former. It’s a philosophical problem of the first order, which Plato, arguably the most famous philosopher, wrestled with in his dialogue called Euthyphro.

If something is right because God commands it, then morality is arbitrary. Lying is wrong because God condemned it, but God could just as easily have condemned telling the truth. If he had, then telling the truth would be wrong. We are forced to surrender the idea of God’s goodness to God’s power. On the other hand, if God commands only what’s right, then morality is independent of God, and we have to give up any theological basis for morality and we can even judge God’s behavior as right or wrong.

As Abraham reached for the knife to slit his own son’s throat, an angel intervened, saying, “Don’t stretch forth your hand!” Abraham passed the test. He was willing to obey God, even if it meant murdering his own son.

But did God pass the test?  Would he allow an innocent boy to die in order to teach Abraham that whatever God says is right or would he stop short of murder because even God is bound by the moral law? Thanks to that angel we will never know.

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Don’t Fight Fire with Fire

Some of my fellow Christians hate Muslims. I believe their hatred is grounded in ignorance and fear. We’ve seen a lot of fear-mongering lately in discussions of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque and the on-again, off-again Qur’an burning in Florida. If you regard Muslims—whether all Muslims or just some Muslims—as your enemies, just remember what Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you” (Luke 6:27). Another Bible verse says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18). On this anniversary of a hate-inspired attack, let us resolve not to fight fire with fire but with love.

My friend Rev. Henry Green of Heritage Baptist Church in Annapolis posted similar thoughts on his blog this week:

I am sad and ashamed of some people who call themselves Christian, some who intend to use the date of September 11 to exhibit hate by burning the Koran.  This is shameful and outrageous and anyone who would support such a thing is either ignorant of history or intentionally supportive of actions designed to incite more evil and violence.  Hate is not a Christian virtue and the role of any responsible Christian community will be to remind their followers that “God is love” and that we are to “love our enemies.”  These are simple truths we learn from our Holy Book, the Bible.  Another lesson taught in the Bible by Jesus is, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  How is it possible to say you are a follower of Jesus when you do not follow what he says?  How is it possible to love our Muslim neighbor and burn the Holy Book of that neighbor?

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Why Churches Change

There’s a debate among historians about the underlying cause of historical change: Is it people or societal structures? Originating in the nineteenth-century, this disagreement is still alive and well today. On the one side are the heirs of the Great Man Theory, who think people change history. It’s the Julius Ceasars and Winston Churchills who move the world. Judging from the books at Barnes & Noble, I’d say this theory is still alive and well. On the other side are the intellectual descendants of Karl Marx who say that impersonal forces like economics and class conflict are the real causal engines. There’s a similar debate in church circles about what causes churches to change for the better or worse, grow and decline. Is it church leaders or demographics?

Most people in the pews will praise the pastors who grow churches and blame the ones whose tenures experience decline. Ministers often do to. I remember a conversation with a pastor of one of the larger churches in the Washington, DC area, who happens to be a graduate of the same seminary I attended. When I asked him about what made his church successful, he attributed it to himself and his gifts. Incredulous, I asked him whether he thought he could take any of the countless plateaued or moribund churches in the DC area and lead it to health and growth. He said yes with one caveat: as long as the people were willing to follow his leadership unconditionally. I was flabbergasted by his lack of humility but intrigued by his theory of church growth. Maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s just a matter of having a shepherd with the right skills to corral enough sheep and keep them healthy and well fed.

There are two other churches in the DC area that make me think differently about the situation. One is downtown, the other in an affluent suburb. Both churches were founded by the same church planter over two hundred years ago; however, while the one in the suburbs has mushroomed in size, the one in the city has been in decline for years. My conservative friends would say the difference is due to doctrine, because the downtown church is more liberal and the other more traditional. But that confuses cause and effect. The city church is more progressive because most of the families moved out to the suburbs in the 1960s and 70s, leaving yuppies and the urban poor behind. Both of these groups tend to be left leaning. It’s hard for me to say that the pastor of the thriving church is doing a better job than the one downtown. A demographic shift seems to be largely responsible for their differences in size and theology.

And then there’s God. God often gets praised or blamed for church growth or lack thereof. If the church grows it’s because God’s blessing; if it declines, he’s not.  Although I find this value judgment simplistic, at least it assumes God has something to do with the fate of his churches.

While it’s hard to ignore the effects of leadership, demographics, and divine intervention on churches, my view is rather indifferent on the subject of why churches thrive or die. It’s not that I don’t care about local churches. I do. However, I believe the true church is the body of Christ, which is universal, immortal, unconquerable. Jesus said, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). What happens in earthly churches is only a vague shadow of the heavenly reality. While God cares about the goings-on down here, they’re of little consequence compared to the happenings up yonder.

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