Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Kingdom of God and Competing Loyalties

A Response to Ann Coulter's "Ebola Doc's Condition Downgraded to 'Idiotic'"

Conservative commentator, Ann Coulter, blasted Dr. Kent Brantly of Samaritan’s Purse for wasting the charity’s finances, needlessly risking his life, endangering his family’s well-being, and ignoring the plight of his fellow countrymen for the futile purpose of serving Africans suffering from Ebola. Coulter writes,
“Which explains why American Christians go on ‘mission trips’ to disease-ridden cesspools. They're tired of fighting the culture war in the U.S., tired of being called homophobes, racists, sexists and bigots. So they slink off to Third World countries, away from American culture to do good works, forgetting that the first rule of life on a riverbank is that any good that one attempts downstream is quickly overtaken by what happens upstream.

America is the most consequential nation on Earth, and in desperate need of God at the moment. If America falls, it will be a thousand years of darkness for the entire planet.

Not only that, but it's our country. Your country is like your family. We're supposed to take care of our own first. The same Bible that commands us to ‘go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel’ also says: ‘For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, 'You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'

Right there in Texas, near where Dr. Brantly left his wife and children to fly to Liberia and get Ebola, is one of the poorest counties in the nation, Zavala County -- where he wouldn't have risked making his wife a widow and his children fatherless.

But serving the needy in some deadbeat town in Texas wouldn't have been ‘heroic.’ We wouldn't hear all the superlatives about Dr. Brantly's ‘unusual drive to help the less fortunate’ or his membership in the ‘Gold Humanism Honor Society.’ Leaving his family behind in Texas to help the poor 6,000 miles away -- that's the ticket.” 

Coulter’s critique strikes at the believer’s identity in Christ. Yes, we are Americans and there is nothing wrong with loving our country and seeking the best for our nation per se. It is natural for us to have a deeper affection for those closest to us whether they be family, members of our local community, or fellow Americans.

It should go without saying, however, that the Christian’s deepest and most essential affiliation and allegiance belongs to Christ and His kingdom. The kingdom of God knows no geographical boundaries and supersedes all national, political, racial, and ethnic divisions and differences. Being an American pales in comparison to being a member of the family of God. God is still calling men and women, boys and girls to become members of this family which is why Christ gave us the command to “go” as Coulter cited.

If Christians followed the other command to “open wide your hand” to those “in your land” in the manner Coulter seems to suggest, we would never go into all the world. After all, there will never cease to be needs in our own land. Stay where you are and take care of your own. This is where Coulter reveals her misplaced allegiance.

For Coulter, “your country is like your family. We’re supposed to take care of our own first.” This sentiment goes beyond a natural love for kin and country. This is a form of nationalism incompatible with a predominant allegiance to the kingdom of God. For Christians, the family of God isn’t like your family, it is your family.

“But he [Jesus] replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:48-50).

“So we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:5).

If Coulter believes your country is like your family, wouldn’t it follow that we should strive to build a massive welfare state in order to care for our fellow “family members”? But we know she doesn’t believe this.

If we ought to focus on helping our fellow countrymen rather than go to all the expense, hassle, and hazard of helping people overseas, shouldn’t we stop all foreign aid and military interventions and use those resources to fund this welfare state? Again, we know she would not support reducing the size and scope of the military in this way.

So why should Christians be singled out for condemnation for helping the “needy” abroad but not the State if it's true that your country is like your family?

Furthermore, if Christians are to give preference to one group over another when it comes to charity, preference should be given to fellow Christians rather than fellow countrymen. “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

The Church is mature enough, gifted enough, and empowered by the Holy Spirit enough to walk and chew gum at the same time as we 1) do good to everyone, 2) do good especially to the household of faith, and 3) work to expand that household of faith as we obey the Great Commission both locally and globally.

Christian narcissism is annoying but so is prostituting the mission of the Church in order to sustain America's glorious status as the most consequential nation on earth.

If Ann Coulter is a Christian then she is called to serve others in the name in the name of Christ too. If she's called to focus her efforts on her fellow Americans, great, but that's no reason to attack the desperately few individuals called to minister to people overseas.

"The needy in some deadbeat town in Texas" do need Christ but they also constitute some of the wealthiest people of the face of the planet. What people like Ann Coulter would demean as slinking off to Third World countries others identify as selflessly charging to the front lines of the battle.

Hebrews 6:10 reminds us, "For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints" and I would add, "whether these saints are in America or Liberia."

Friday, August 1, 2014

Rick Perry: Stand With Israel

This email was in my inbox when I got home this evening. It made me laugh considering the subject of my posts this week!

Here is the link to Governor Perry's op-ed in Politico. It's too late in the day to say very much about it other than to point out the fact that you could easily substitute "Gaza" for "Israel" at several points. For instance,

"It’s difficult to imagine the terror that the people of Israel [Gaza] must live with every day."

"Those of us who have been to Israel [Gaza] and have seen the effects of these attacks first-hand have a deeper understanding of what the Israeli [Palestinian] people are being forced to endure."

"On my own visits to Israel [Gaza], I’ve visited with families who were afraid to let their children play outside, and seen the fortified playgrounds where they can go."

Food for thought.

Why Christians Should Not Take Sides In The War In Gaza

(AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)
Yesterday on Facebook I shared a link to an article entitled, "Christians Should Not Take Sides in Israel-Palestine Conflict but Promote Reconciliation, Ministry Director Suggests." The founder and director of Musalaha Ministry of Reconciliation, Salim J. Munayer, states in this article,

“Christians around the world can help promote reconciliation by remembering and encouraging us to remember the central figure of our faith, Jesus. We need to focus on His example as a peacemaker, as He called us to be at peace with God and each other. Instead of taking sides in our conflict, as many outside voices do, Christians should play the role of a bridge, and call us to follow Jesus' example, and His teachings.”
Even a simple and fundamental principle such as the one articulated by Dr. Munayer seems radical and even provocative to many of my fellow American evangelicals today. One of my friends responded to the above-referenced article with the question, "Israel is fighting a war against Hamas...a known terrorist organization. How are we to not take sides?" This question represents a common and sincere sentiment held by many Christians today. The following thoughts are taken from my brief response to the question and represent a preliminary and exploratory attempt at thinking through how “Christian” responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be developed.

I understand how conservatives take a side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on their conservatism and progressives take a side based on their progressivism but I do not yet see how a Christian takes a side in the conflict based on their commitment to Christ, the furtherance of His kingdom, a dedication to His Great Commission, and the Church’s embodiment of love and peace.

The standard responses I observe among my fellow American evangelicals are reactionary and reflexive, rooted primarily in political ideologies rather than responses which have been formulated after wrestling with the issue both theologically and politically. When I say "politically," I am referring to political perspectives derived from Christ, the Gospel, and the values of the kingdom of God (Romans 14:17) rather than the political paradigms of the secular American empire.

For example, have we, as Christians, embraced our calling to live as peacemakers (Matthew 5:9)? Have we applied our peacemaking efforts to Israel and Gaza? After giving it our best shot over a protracted period of time, have we determined that all our peacemaking efforts have been exhausted? Have we worked this conflict through the rigors of Just War theories (for those who claim to adhere to Just War theory) and concluded that now is the time for Christians to support this just war? Have we concluded that Christians, as ambassadors of Christ, are representing Christ best by choosing to support the Israeli government and their efforts to kill and blow up Hamas along with any civilians who happen to be nearby? Does this war represent our best efforts to love others and, as Dr. Munayer exhorted, play the role of a bridge by promoting reconciliation? Do we possess the biblical and theological underpinnings to support this conclusion? I do not see these sorts of efforts being attempted within American evangelicalism.

For those who do point to theological reasons for their support of Israel it is usually based on a faulty understanding of who "Israel" is according to Scripture together with highly questionable doctrines regarding future end-times scenarios. As I have written elsewhere, “Biblical Israel is comprised of all individuals who are in Christ. These disciples of Christ are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise. It is the welfare of this Israel that ought to cause Christians to become passionately zealous rather than the modern secular nation-state called Israel. According to the New Testament, one is a Jew inwardly. Their heart has been circumcised. ‘It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.’ This ‘Israel’ is very different from the state of Israel.” All of God's promises to Israel have been fulfilled through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

Even for those Christians who believe our nation's blessings are somehow tied to the way we treat the modern, secular state called "Israel," why would this belief necessarily cause them to support Israel's war against Hamas along with all repercussions this has for Palestinian civilians? Isn’t it God who will bless Israel and curse Hamas? Why would Christians in America need to "help" God along with this by funding Israel's military and cheering on their efforts kill Gazans and blow their stuff up (which is what the job of the military is)?

Conservative Christians say Israel has been wronged so they support their efforts to defend themselves and go kill Hamas. Progressive Christians say, no, it's the Palestinians who have been wronged so they make excuses for why Hamas is shooting missiles into Israel and hiding weapons in schools and hospitals. Are there no other options for us? Do we not have options which avoid compromising our calling to embody love and peacemaking and our commitment to proclaiming the Gospel to all nations and people-groups?

I believe there are options available to us other than choosing sides in a war according to terms set by non-Christians who have no concern for Christ and his kingdom. There may be no easy answers to the war in Gaza but Christians must put forth the effort to prayerfully and biblically consider ways to manifest Christ and His kingdom rather than reflexively reacting according to the interests of any one partisan group.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

He Said What?! More on the Identity of "Israel"

The opening line to my previous post, Christians Love Them Some Israel! Why?, reads, "Biblical Israel is comprised of all individuals who are in Christ."

A reader on Google+ was not very impressed with this statement and replied: "I'll confess that I did not get past the first sentence without having a question to ask. So I'm not making any assumptions about your terminology, are you saying that you believe any truly redeemed, born-again Christian is now considered Israel?  If so, you do realize that's not the normative doctrine in evangelical circles, right?"

What struck me about the comment, "you do realize that's not the normative doctrine in evangelical circles, right?" is that my view is in line with that of Andreas J. Köstenberger, the present editor of JETS, The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (of which I am a member). I am very confident that the view I am espousing is not only normative in evangelical circles but also the Christian tradition as a whole. 

The reason I can say, "Biblical Israel is comprised of all individuals who are in Christ" is based on Christ's status as the true Israel of God. Everyone who is "united to" or "in" Christ is, therefore, also the true Israel of God. I can also make this statement based on Paul's "Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16.

In support of the conclusion that "the Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16 refers to all Christians in Galatia, whether Jewish or Christian, professor and commentator G.K. Beale explains,

"Even according to the LXX interpretative translation, however, the believing Gentiles enjoy eschatological blessings only as they confess and identify with the 'God of Israel' and only as they identify with his people Israel by converting and becoming 'proselytes' to the faith of Israel. From the Septuagintal translator’s perspective, the Gentiles cannot enjoy these blessings separately from Israel but only by becoming a part of national, theocratic Israel. Paul also likely does not see that Gentiles can enjoy end-time blessings separately from Jews because the only way that either can participate in such blessing is by identifying with Christ, the true Israel, the true 'seed of Abraham' (Gal 3,16.29). Gentiles no longer need to move to geographical Israel and find "refuge" there in order to convert to the faith of that theocratic nation and they no longer need to adopt the national signs of Israel (e.g., circumcision) to be considered true Israelites. Rather, now, in the new redemptive-historical epoch launched by Christ’s death and resurrection, Gentiles merely need to move spiritually to Christ, find "refuge" in him, and convert to faith in him in order to become true Israelites" [emphasis mine].

G.K. Beale, "Peace and Mercy Upon the Israel of God. The Old Testament Background of Galatians 6,16b," Biblica 80 (1999) 204-223, (accessed July 22, 2014).

In his article, "The Israel of God (Galatians 6:16)," Michael Marlowe opens with the statement, "The proper interpretation and translation of the last phrase in Galatians 6:16 has become a matter of controversy in the past century or so. Formerly it was not a matter of controversy. With few exceptions, 'The Israel of God' was understood as a name for the Church here."

In an explanatory footnote, Marlowe expands upon his claim, "H.A.W. Meyer in his Critical and Exegetical Hand-book to the Epistle to the Galatians (5th German edition, 1870), lists the following commentators as supporting this view: Chrysostom, Theodoret, Luther, Calvin, Pareus, Cornelius a Lipide, Calovius, Baumgarten, Koppe, Rosenmüller, Borger, Winer, Paulus, Olhausen, Baumgarten-Crusius, and Wieseler. Meyer himself favors this view. To these names, the American editor of the English translation of his commentary (1884) adds Alford and Lightfoot. Andreas J. Köstenberger (who favors this view in "The Identity of the Israel tou theou (Israel of God) in Galatians 6:16," Faith & Mission 19/1 [2001]: 3–24) adds the names of Justin Martyr, Beale, Dahl, D. Guthrie, Lietzmann, Luz, Longenecker, Ray, Ridderbos, and Stott. But not all of these are commentators. For commentators favoring the view that the phrase refers to Jewish Christians, Meyer lists Ambrosiaster, Beza, Grotius, Estius, Schoettgen, Bengel, Räckert, Matthies, Schott, de Wette, Ewald, and Reithmayr; and the American editor adds Ellicott and Eadie. G. Schrenk (who favors this view in "Was bedeutet 'Israel Gottes'?" Judaica 5 [1949]: 81–94) adds to these Pelagius, B. Weiss, Hofmann, Zahn, Schlatter, Bousset, and Burton. Köstenberger lists also Schrenk, Robinson, Mussner, Bruce, Davies, Richardson, Betz, Walvoord, S. L. Johnson, and "other dispensationalists" as favoring this view. For a survey of commentators and an argument in favor of the latter view see S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., "Paul and 'The Israel of God': An Exegetical and Eschatological Case-Study," in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost (ed. Stan Toussaint and Charles Dyer; Chicago: Moody, 1986), pp. 183–94. These lists of names, which include some little-known and some non-Christian scholars, do not in themselves convey an accurate impression of the extent to which the first view has predominated. The combined influence of Chrysostom, Luther, and Calvin far outweighs all the others. Prior to the twentieth century the first view alone was mentioned in commentaries intended for laymen and preachers. See, for example, Matthew Henry's Exposition of All the Books of the Old and New Testament (1721), and the Explanatory Notes of Thomas Scott (1822). The interpretation was taken for granted in theological writings generally" [emphasis mine].

Michael Marlow, "The Israel of God (Galatians 6:16)," Bible Research Dec. 2004, (accessed July 22, 2014). 

A deeper understanding of the biblical, theological, and political issues surrounding the identity of Israel could have a dramatic affect upon the way a great many American evangelical Christians view the present war in Gaza. Christians may find reasons to stand in solidarity with the people of Israel and support their government's military campaign against Hamas in Gaza but they would have a difficult time finding a basis for such reasons in Christian theology. The doctrine of Christian nonviolence, on the other hand, enjoys a great deal biblical support. Adherence to Christian nonviolence would preclude the "Stand with Israel!" sentiment which is prevalent today. For two recent treatments of the subject of Christian nonviolence, see Preston Sprinkle's "Fight" and Brian Zahnd's "Farewell to Mars."

Christians Love Them Some Israel! Why?

Biblical Israel is comprised of all individuals who are in Christ.* These disciples of Christ are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise. The welfare of this Israel ought to cause Christians to become passionately zealous rather than the modern secular nation-state called Israel. According to the New Testament, one is a Jew inwardly. Their heart has been circumcised. "It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring." This "Israel" is very different from the state of Israel.

Christians know this. They confess this. Why, then, have we seen such vocal and enthusiastic support for the nation of Israel and such disgust for Gazans this week? This is, in fact, nothing new. It happens every time the violence escalates between Israel and the Palestinians.

Some might say, "Yes, we know the difference between 'spiritual' Israel and the state of Israel. But doesn't Paul admit that God has not rejected Israel in Romans chapter 11? That God is not through with Israel? This is why we care so deeply about what happens to Israel.

Yes, God has not rejected Israel. If ethnic Jews do not continue in their unbelief (Romans 11:23), they will be grafted back into their own olive tree. However, Paul makes clear in Romans 10:1-4, "Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes."

Paul's strong desire was for the salvation of his fellow countrymen. He wanted them to be "in Christ." If Christians are passionate about the nation of Israel, we ought to be passionate like Paul. We should be zealous for the salvation of the Jews just as we are zealous for the Gospel to be received by all people-groups of world, including the people of Gaza. This looks very different than vociferously cheering on a secular government entity as they drop bombs on an enemy.

Wedding party struck by U.S. drone.
Yes, Hamas fires rockets into heavily-populated areas of Israel. Yes, Hamas has hidden weapons in schools and hospitals. They encourage people to become human shields. This is evil and reprehensible. In the meantime, "We the People" are drone-bombing civilians at weddings in foreign countries. What have American Christians done about these evil and reprehensible acts which are committed in our name? Nothing. And, yet, we are cheering on the death and destruction of Gazans because they sent missiles into civilian areas of Israel.

If Christians spent less time defending the actions of a political entity named Israel perhaps we could devote more energy toward the salvation of both Israelis and Palestinians. Like Paul, our heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.

*Edited to add: Although this article was intended for a general audience that is no excuse for a lack of clarity. The reason I can say, "Biblical Israel is comprised of all individuals who are in Christ" is based on Christ's status as the true Israel of God. Everyone who is "united to" or "in" Christ is, therefore, also the true Israel of God. I can also make this statement based on Paul's "Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16.

For more on this topic, read my post: He Said What?! More on the Identity of "Israel".