Political Transcendentalism | The Voice 10.43: October 25, 2020

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The Voice

Political Transcendentalism

It is said that the two subjects people should avoid in polite conversation are religion and politics. Within Christianity there is often an understandable desire to transcend the politics of the day: politics, by the very nature of the craft, involves compromise and gets very dirty in deal making; furthermore, no political platform fully embodies God’s purposes in Christ, and politicians invariably fall short of upholding what God would have upheld in Christ in every respect.

Political transcendentalism thus involves the intention to get beyond or rise above the political fray. The reasoning behind politically transcendent postures varies considerably. Some strive for political transcendence from a “pox on all your houses” posture, frustrated by the partisan climate and the ugliness of the world of political compromise and thus yearning for a more ideal or “pure” form of politics. Others focus on the portrayal of the nation-state as the beast in Revelation 13:1-18 as inspired by Daniel 7:1-12: they strive for political transcendentalism based on a firm commitment to the lordship of Jesus the Christ in His Kingdom and presume the relationship with the nation-state must always be adversarial. Still others challenge the presumption of the efficacy of political processes and behaviors, viewing it all as vanity and a striving after wind; the lack of faith in politics leads such people to political transcendentalism.

We can sympathize with many or even all of these impulses toward political transcendentalism. Politics remains a dirty business, awash in money and rife with special interests; one rightly wonders if any among the people of God could participate in politics at a high level and maintain their faithfulness before God. The political process almost universally disappoints: even if a group of people get what they want, at what cost was it obtained, and for how long will it last before the laws are changed again? John does envision powerful nation-states in terms of beasts, and the illustration “works” because the same tendencies toward arrogance and oppression manifest in Babylon could be seen in Rome and has been visible ever since in every nation-state that has aspired to be like Rome. Even the United States can become an adversary to the Kingdom of God in Christ when it upholds injustice and oppression and co-opts many images of the faith to rationalize and support itself. Furthermore, that which politicians give, politicians can take away: politics is one of those things in the world that proves to be vain and a striving after wind, generating a lot of interest, making some people a lot of money, and all to what end? Brother tears brother apart; political parties and processes will never be satisfied. We can therefore fully understand the desire to dispense with all of it, flee from such a “Babylon,” and declare ourselves above it all, renouncing various forms of political participation.

Jesus expects Christians to respect earthly authorities, to pay their taxes, and to pray for all people, especially those in authority, so Christians can persevere in a quiet and peaceful life with all dignity (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-3, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Nowhere does Christ command the Christian to vote or to dedicate or devote themselves to politics and political processes. Therefore, a Christian can renounce many aspects of political participation and still glorify and honor God.

Nevertheless, political transcendentalism in all of its motivations presents many dangers for Christians. While John indeed presents Rome in terms of the beast and Babylon the whore (cf. Revelation 13:1-18:24), Paul set forth how God expected earthly authorities, including Roman authorities, to uphold what was good and punish what was wrong (Romans 13:1-4); he would make appeal to Roman authorities to uphold such justice and entrusted himself to their care (cf. Acts 21:27-28:20). As Christians we must expect to have an adversarial relationship with the nation-state at times on account of our primary loyalty to the ways of Jesus in His Kingdom (cf. John 16:32-33, Acts 5:29); nevertheless, we have no ground upon which to assume the relationship will be purely adversarial. We may be exiles and sojourners for the Kingdom according to 1 Peter 1:17, 2:11-12, but we also do well to seek the welfare of the place in which we find ourselves thus “exiled” (cf. Jeremiah 29:1-9, Matthew 5:33-48, Romans 12:14-21). We must go about doing good for those around us, and to visit widows and orphans in their distress (Galatians 6:10, James 1:27): at some point in seeking to do good for people we will recognize the systemic nature of many of the challenges of the poor and afflicted, and systemic challenges require systemic solutions, demanding some level of political advocacy. It is hard to imagine Christians as hungering and thirsting for righteousness and justice without ever attempting to exhort authorities to uphold what is good and punish what is evil wherever that good or evil might be found (Matthew 5:6): such exhortation is “moral” and “spiritual” but also, by necessity, is “political,” even if not partisan. We have good reason to despair regarding the permanence or perfection of political change, but have we fully grappled with how it was the coercive force of the nation-state along with the powerful stand in faith and conviction by civil rights advocates that transformed attitudes regarding white supremacy and the social standing of black people in the middle of the twentieth century, even though such a message was in the Gospel the whole time and neglected by many?

Yet the greatest danger in political transcendentalism is the presumption of transcendence. Can we truly transcend the world of the political? Even if we renounce participation in politics, we are likely to have views and opinions regarding how the state and its people ought to function. For generations Christians have been tempted to see themselves as greater or better than others based on what they have learned in God in Christ; one can imagine the prayer, “Lord, thank you that I am not like these wretched political partisans; I understand the Kingdom cannot come by means of these, and I keep myself away from such compromises of your purposes” (cf. Luke 18:9-14). We cannot imagine God is glorified in such arrogance; we must remember that we are no better or more or less transcendent than anyone else (Romans 3:23). In Western cultures transcendence tends to have a Gnostic tinge: a yearning for the pure ideal and rejection of what is real in disillusion and despair. We must remember Jesus came into the world, took on flesh, and dwelt among us in our filth and messiness, and loved and cared for us in that condition (cf. John 1:1, 14, Philippians 2:5-11); we must strive to remain unstained from the world but cannot presume to be aloof from those in the world who suffer and are in need. Furthermore, a posture of political transcendence is made easier by privilege: it is not hard to presume to be above the fray when the system generally works to your advantage, and your life is not significantly affected whether one group or another has power. It is quite another when one’s integrity or matters of life or death is at stake. Even if we find ourselves with advantage in society, perhaps we should leverage our advantage to benefit others, and thus to participate politically to some degree to assist others even if it does not likewise benefit us?

Political participation can all too easily devolve into partisan factionalism and/or idolatry; we do well to consider the critique of political transcendentalism regarding participation in the political realm. And yet the posture of political transcendentalism ought to be critiqued itself in light of what God has accomplished in Jesus. Political participation should not be everything, nor should it infringe upon the work of God in Christ; nevertheless, there ought to be a place for Christians to bring the lordship of Jesus to bear on the matters that relate to the city, the state, and the people, and to embody Jesus in their political discourse and posture to a lost and dying world. May we glorify God in Christ in all things so as to obtain the resurrection of life in His Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry

“Things Like These” | The Voice 10.42: October 18, 2020

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The Voice

Works of the Flesh: “Things Like These”

Having warned them regarding the danger of apostasy in committing themselves to the Law of Moses (cf. Galatians 1:1-5:16), the Apostle Paul reminded the Galatian Christians regarding the conflict between the desires of the flesh and the ways of God in the Spirit, and exhorted the Galatian Christians to manifest the fruit of the Spirit and resist the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:17-24). These “works of the flesh” are delineated in Galatians 5:19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Many of the first “works of the flesh” centered on challenges and temptations which would prove especially acute for Christians who had recently come out of the Greco-Roman pagan milieu: sexual temptations like sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, and lasciviousness; idolatry; and sorcery. Paul then established the “works of the flesh” which prove especially pernicious in relationships: enmities, strife, jealousy, wrath, rivalries, divisions, sects, and envy. Paul concluded the list of specific “works of the flesh” with sins of excess: drunkenness and carousing.

But what about behaviors not listed here? Did Paul intend to give an exhaustive overview of all that could be deemed the “works of the flesh”? By no means! He concluded his discussion of the works of the flesh by also condemning “the things like these,” and reiterated how those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:21).

Paul might well be using a common rhetorical device akin to our use of “et cetera.” Paul would mention other sinful behaviors in other passages not listed explicitly among the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:22-24. These would include murder (not found in Galatians 5:19-21 in the best manuscripts), covetousness, theft, deceit, lying, gossip, slander, and foolish talk (Romans 1:28-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Ephesians 5:3-8, Colossians 3:5-9). In condemning these behaviors Paul frequently used the same type of contrast between the ways of our holy God above from the ways of the corrupt world below; thus we should understand such things as much as “works of the flesh” as those explicitly identified in Galatians 5:19-21.

Thus Paul at least intended for the Galatian Christians to understand “things like these” to refer to other behaviors clearly identified as sinful. Yet the phrasing of the term itself also suggests Paul wished for the Galatian Christians to recognize how many behaviors might be akin to a “work of the flesh” even if not explicitly identified as such. A major such example involves sexual transgressions: in Galatians 5:19-21 Paul condemned sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, and lasciviousness, whereas in other passages specific forms of these behaviors are condemned, like same sex sexual relations and adultery (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). The Galatian Christians were expected to understand how these behaviors were “things like” sexually deviant behavior since they fit by definition. Covetousness is explicitly condemned on its own but is also equated to idolatry in Ephesians 5:3, Colossians 3:5: thus Paul would have the Galatian Christians understand how covetousness is a “thing like” idolatry.

This principle extends beyond that which is explicitly condemned in Scripture to the chagrin of many. What God has made known regarding righteousness and sin inverts man’s desires and expectations. Man would like a comprehensive list of what not to do and to assume that whatever is not condemned is approved and righteous. In truth, in Scripture God has equipped those who would follow Him with every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17); Paul confessed that whatever is not of faith is sin, not whatever is of sin is faith (Romans 14:23). The Christian’s confidence lay in God’s revelation of Himself, His character, and His righteousness in Jesus who lived, died, was raised in power, ascended, is lord, and will return soon (2 Corinthians 5:7, Hebrews 11:1); thus, we may know what is right, good, and holy, for it is seen in what God accomplished in Jesus, and we should do likewise (Romans 12:1-2).

To this end we can understand why the “fruit of the Spirit” is a fully defined list of characteristics but the “works of the flesh” are left open (Galatians 5:17-24): righteousness is fully embodied in Jesus, but the human heart is very deceitful, inventing evil, looking for ways to justify and rationalize the desires of the flesh and heart (Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 1:30, 1 John 2:15-17).

Thus, it is not enough to say, “well, God never said not to,” or, “God nowhere explicitly condemns this or that.” Paul recognized how people would be easily tempted to “repackage” some sin or another in a different guise and think it justifiable; thus, not only are the explicit things mentioned in the “works of the flesh” condemned, but also anything similar to them.

To this end Paul called upon the Galatian Christians, and Christians in general, to exercise discernment to understand whether a behavior is a “thing like” the works of the flesh or manifests the fruit of the Spirit. Such discernment must be exercised according to faith in God lest the Christian seek to rationalize their fleshly desires with a righteous veneer and entirely resist the point of Galatians 5:17-24, to crucify the flesh and its desires.

To this end we must first consider the evidence at hand. Did God speak regarding the behavior under consideration? Does it manifestly violate any specific command God has given? Does the behavior run afoul of consistent Biblical principles? If we feel the answers to these questions are ambiguous or allow for justification, we can then consider the profitability of the behavior (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:23). Will this practice commend me before God? What spiritual benefit would it provide? What fruit of the Spirit would it manifest? In short, we are wondering: is this behavior the kind of thing in which we would expect Jesus our Lord and Master to participate?

Many behaviors prevalent in modern society fall under condemnation in this way. Elective abortion may not be explicitly condemned in Scripture, but it is more a thing like murder than anything commended by God in Christ, and thus falls under the same condemnation. Pornography is a thing like uncleanness and lasciviousness. Many think of gambling as harmless fun, yet the entire premise of gambling is covetousness, a thing like idolatry. Recreational drug use would fall under the purview of pharmakeia; those who practiced sorcery also made potions, and many a recreational drug user lives as under a spell.

Paul has listed many ungodly and immoral behaviors as “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21; those who do such things without repentance will not inherit the Kingdom of God. We must never fall into the legalistic trap of assuming that only that which is explicitly condemned is wrong: Paul’s list of the “works of the flesh” is not exhaustive, nor was it designed to be; humans invent all kinds of new and innovative ways to transgress the purposes of God in Christ. Thus we must understand the “works of the flesh” as representative, and we should not only avoid those specific behaviors, but also anything which is akin to them. We must use our discernment to put all things to the test according to the faith; we ought to live by faith, trusting in the Lord, and doing all things with full conviction of their authority and righteousness based on what God has revealed in Christ according to the Scriptures. May we manifest the fruit of the Spirit, avoid the works of the flesh, and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

White Supremacy vs. Scripture | The Voice 10.41: October 11, 2020

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White Supremacy Versus the Scriptures

It has been within living memory that many in America openly professed the view that people of Western European ancestry were intrinsically superior, culturally if not biologically, to people of other heritages; from the sixteenth until the middle of the twentieth century such a perspective was generally taken for granted to be the truth. Such a view of white supremacy was not incidental to the belief system of most people of European ancestry; it represented a core aspect of their belief system. Their presumption of superiority influenced and informed how they looked at and treated other people. The legacy of such white supremacy remains with us until today.

While “white supremacy” may conjure up images of men in hoods burning crosses, the term is used advisedly. Many have spoken of these matters in terms of race and racism; nevertheless, the very concept of race and racism is a construct generated by the principle of white supremacy. Ethnic and tribal chauvinism manifest in presumptions of superiority and prejudice against others is as old as time. Yet, as can be seen in Genesis 10:1-32 and many other passages, people were originally categorized in terms of nations originating with eponymous ancestors among the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Skin color was not determinative: among the descendants of Ham we can identify people who would at least later manifest everything from olive skin (e.g. Canaan) to various shades of brown skin (e.g. Cush, Nubians/Ethiopians; cf. Genesis 10:6). The New Testament is preoccupied with addressing the divisions which arose between Jewish people and the “Gentiles,” Greek ethne, “nations,” from which we derive the term “ethnic” or “ethnicity” (e.g. Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11); in Antioch of Syria it is noted that one Simeon was called “Niger,” or “the Black,” quite possibly because of having darker skin, yet he is listed without comment or prejudice among other prominent prophets and teachers in the church there (Acts 13:1). From almost the beginning until the end the Scriptures speak of people in terms of nations/ethnicities (Acts 17:26, Revelation 22:2).

Race and racism, therefore, did not originate from the pages of Scripture or even from the heritage of the ancients. As Western Europeans came into contact with the nations of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, they began to exploit the natural and human resources of the lands they were able to conquer and subjugate. Starting with the Portuguese in the fifteenth century and the Spanish in the sixteenth they began to justify their behavior in terms of establishing the sovereignty of “Christian civilization” over the “barbarian savages.” By the end of the seventeenth century “race science” had developed in Western Europe: the conviction that all people could be categorized according to three races, eventually described in terms of “Caucasian,” “Negroid,” and “Mongoloid,” but most commonly according to crude oversimplification of skin colors: “white,” “black,” and “yellow.” For much of American history those in charge could be deemed as WASPs: White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who used “race science” to justify why they were in charge and were free to subjugate and exterminate Native Americans from their lands and to enslave or otherwise oppress people of African ancestry. That people of Irish or southern European descent were not originally considered to be “white” should be enough to put to lie the premise that “whiteness” was about skin color; it was a construct of power, influence, and authority to which many groups aspired.

The validity of “race science” was taken for granted from the end of the seventeenth century until the middle of the twentieth century among those of European descent; the agnostic as much as the one who professed Christ just “knew” how man was divided into different races. Many attempted to justify and rationalize their confidence in white supremacy based on appeals to the Scriptures. The means by which they did so display the worst trends of proof-texting and eisegesis, reading one’s conclusions into the text. Appeal was often made to three specific passages: all beasts made “after their kind” in Genesis 1:24-27, the “mark of Cain” in Genesis 4:15, and the “curse of Ham” in Genesis 9:22-27.

White supremacists would argue that the “mark of Cain” in Genesis 4:15 was black skin, and thus those of African descent were marked out as inferior. The text says or suggests no such thing: the mark, or sign, of Cain is never described. There is no suggestion that Cain’s descendants inherited this “mark”; it was given to Cain specifically so that none would strike him dead because he had killed his brother Abel (cf. Genesis 4:8-14). The text likewise does not say or suggest that any of the wives of Noah were associated with Cain’s descendants; thus we have no reason to believe that any of Cain’s descendants continue to live on the earth. The “mark of Cain” has nothing to do with people of African descent or, for that matter, of anyone today.

White supremacists felt they were on stronger ground with the “curse of Ham” in Genesis 9:22-25: they argued that Ham’s descendants included people of African descent, and thus they were cursed to be the servants of the descendants of Shem and Japheth, imagined to be the ancestors of Europeans and Asians (cf. Genesis 10:1-32). Nevertheless, the text cannot sustain this argument. The best understanding today of this text is that Ham had sexual relations with his mother, Noah’s wife, and Canaan was the result of this union; to this end Noah cursed Canaan specifically to be the servant of the descendants of Shem and Japheth, realized when Canaan would serve Israel and then successive empires in turn (Genesis 9:25-27). Even if one affirms an alternative interpretation of what Ham did, the fact remains that Canaan, and only Canaan, was cursed in Genesis 9:25-27; no such curse is extended to other children of Ham who would eventually populate Africa. Thus the “curse of Ham” has nothing to do with people of African descent.

But the most pervasive argument of white supremacists was rooted in the division of animals according to “kinds” in Genesis 1:24-27. According to their race science they assumed “Caucasian,” “Mongoloid,” and “Negroid” peoples were really different “kinds” of people, and thus insisted that such “kinds” should not intermarry (which they deemed miscegenation) or relate as equals. Yet, as we have seen, the Scriptures have never categorized people into such structures, nor did the Scriptures suggest they represented different “kinds” as in different species. Passages like Acts 17:26 were embarrassing for many white supremacists; many would deny the premise that all humans around the world derive from Adam (called monogenesis), and suggested instead that Caucasians descended from Adam, and other races derived from some other source (called polygenesis). At first Darwin’s theories regarding evolution were seized upon as providing evidence for the superiority of the “Caucasian” race over other races. But by the middle of the twentieth century it had become apparent that “race” was a social construct, not a biological one: there was no biological basis to divide people into “Caucasian,” “Mongoloid,” or “Negroid.” All humans are Homo sapiens; in fact, there is often greater genetic diversity among members of the same supposed “race” than across supposed “races.” Therefore, there is no basis upon which to suggest that people of European ancestry are of one “kind,” and those of African or Asian ancestry of different “kinds”: they are all equally human.

And thus we return to the truths established by God in Scripture from the beginning: God has made every nation from one man, Adam (Acts 17:26). Ethnic prejudice may exist in the world, but in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek; it matters not whether one is Greek or Scythian or some other so-called form of “barbarian,” for everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, everyone is equally able to come to faith in God in Christ and become one with Christ and His people, and God does not show partiality, and will not judge people differently because of their ethnicity (Acts 10:34-35, Romans 2:5-11, 3:23, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). The Scriptures thus devastate all the pretensions of white supremacy: people deemed “white” are no intrinsically better or worse than people deemed as representing other races. The social construct of race is very real but does not originate from the mind of God; it came from depraved men seeking a way to justify and rationalize their immoral and ungodly treatment of other people. No culture or nation is intrinsically inferior or superior to any other; all are going to be judged on the basis of their faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ and all God has established in Him. May we serve God in Christ and find eternal life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The “Distinctives” Gospel | The Voice 10.40: October 04, 2020

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The “Distinctives” Gospel

There was a time within living memory when things were different. Gospel meetings would extend for weeks on end. Preachers would stand firm for the distinctive doctrines of churches of Christ, powerfully denouncing the errors of Christendom and exhorting people to return to the ancient landmarks. These men fortified the faithful with strong preaching highlighting these themes and the church grew and grew. The church now finds itself struggling to grow because preachers have become soft and no longer strongly emphasize these distinctive doctrines. If preachers would only re-affirm the importance of emphasizing the distinctiveness of the church of Christ, then churches of Christ would grow again.

Such is the view of what can be deemed the “distinctives” gospel. The “distinctives” gospel is so named on account of its emphasis on the distinctive doctrines of churches of Christ, including, but not limited to, immersion in water for the forgiveness of sins, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, congregational singing and the lack of instrumental music, the nature and work of the church, and all to highlight the uniqueness of churches of Christ. According to the “distinctives” gospel, the church must hear constant preaching and exhortation on these matters in order to continue to affirm and uphold the “ancient paths,” and in preaching these things frequently many will be converted. In this view “strong” or “hard” preaching focuses on these distinctive doctrines; “weak” or “soft” preaching is what might focus on other matters, for one might hear a similar message in denominational churches. Many adherents of the “distinctives” gospel” look to the 1950s or beforehand with nostalgia and to support their premise that preaching on the “distinctives” is what allowed the church then to grow.

As Christians we always do well to keep Ecclesiastes 7:10 in mind regarding nostalgia: the “former times” were not as great as imagined, and this is true of the 1950s as well. It is true the church grew well at that time; various Christian denominations also grew numerically at the time, which complicates any narrative suggesting such growth was entirely due to “preaching the distinctives.”

Let none be deceived: doctrinal and practical matters that prove distinctive among us ought to be preached and taught upon and practiced. The difficulty with the “distinctives” gospel is not in whether we should uphold the distinctive doctrines or not but upon the supreme emphasis on the “distinctives.”

A charitable reading of the “distinctives” gospel would suggest that much is taken for granted. It is not as if those who would assert the “distinctives” gospel would deny Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return, or of anything established in the New Testament; instead, the “distinctives” gospel takes all of these things for granted. The “distinctives” gospel hearkens to a time where people felt reasonably confident that the vast majority of people with whom they would interact agreed that God existed, Jesus was Lord, and upon the general contours of Christian faith and practice, and thus could then focus specifically on the points of disagreement manifest in the “distinctives.” According to this perspective most people already were practicing some form or variant of Christianity, and thus the primary focus should be upon those points of disagreement in order to emphasize the distinctiveness of the church and thus as a call for people to leave their denominational affiliations and doctrines and uphold the nature and work of the church as set forth in the New Testament.

Even if one could have maintained the pretense of living in such a world before, we cannot any longer. A growing percentage of people in America have no background, heritage, or understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith. Even those who have spent time participating in various denominational and non-denominational churches often have poor understanding of what God has accomplished in Jesus and what it means. We cannot take it for granted that people already are on board with the basics of Christian faith and practice; in such an environment, to focus on the “distinctives” will lead to blank stares and visible confusion.

Emphasis on the “distinctives” can cause its own problems even among the Lord’s people. It proves too easy to take for granted that people understand the fundamental message of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return, and the basics of Christian faith and practice; this leads many to understand the “distinctives” better than they do the core principles of the Christian faith itself. Far too often the “distinctives” are preached and taught without regard to their connection and association with the core concepts of Christian faith and practice. It can become all too easy to view every interaction and even every Biblical text in light of the “distinctives,” conflating the Biblical context with the presumed challenge of the present moment. Furthermore, the association between the “distinctives” and “strong” or “hard” preaching proves toxic: it becomes too easy for Christians to believe themselves justified because they uphold these distinctive doctrines, and base their view of their salvation upon their participation in churches of Christ and their manifestation of the “distinctives.” Preaching that reinforces the sanctimony of the audience is the opposite of “hard” or “strong”; such terms are reserved for preaching the things which prick the consciences of the audience and offends their sensibilities (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5).

The “distinctives” are not the Gospel; the “distinctives” flow as consequences of the Gospel, not because they are distinctive, but because they represent what God intends to accomplish through Jesus in His Kingdom. We do well to note how Peter and Paul would continually anchor all they preached and taught in what God accomplished in Jesus, and we should follow in their footsteps. Not one of the distinctive doctrines is true because they are distinctive of churches of Christ; they are true because they are what the Gospel of Christ demands in terms of various aspects of Christian faith and practice. Any doctrine which cannot be thus rooted in what God has made known in Jesus ought to be discarded.

We do well to consider the “distinctives” in terms of salt. Salt, after all, is a flavoring that provides distinction in many dishes. We use salt to flavor food that would otherwise be bland and unpalatable. Nevertheless, if we use too much salt, food becomes intolerable; we cannot stomach it. And so it goes with the distinctive doctrines of the faith: if we never speak of them and do not practice them, our faith will become generic and bland; indeed, at that point, people could participate in all sorts of “churches” and get the same effect. But if all we ever do is talk about distinctive doctrines, our preaching and teaching becomes intolerable: we might generate resistance to those “distinctives” because of the overemphasis, people begin to justify themselves on the basis of the “distinctives,” and those who would follow Jesus are not properly trained in the full message of what God has accomplished in Jesus. Just as salt is to be used judiciously in order to provide flavor without overwhelming the senses, so it ought to be with the “distinctives”: they should be continually practiced, discussed so that all may understand why we do what we do as we do it, exhorted as part of the call to follow Jesus as God has established in the New Testament, but not as overwhelming the overall message of Jesus as the Christ.

The Gospel is not centered in the distinctive doctrines of churches of Christ; the Gospel is Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return, and all the truths of Christian faith and practice flow from this Gospel message. The “distinctives” are true inasmuch as they are rooted in the greater message of what God has accomplished in Jesus; they should be practiced and preached judiciously, and understood to be part of a greater whole. Those who will be saved are converted by the Gospel of Christ in its fullness, not merely in particular distinctive doctrines. May we proclaim Jesus the Lord and Christ in word and deed and obtain eternal life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Political Moderation | The Voice 10.39: September 27, 2020

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The Voice

Political Moderation

It is said that the two subjects which ought to be avoided in polite conversation are religion and politics. Furthermore, within Christianity, there is often an understandable desire to transcend the politics of the day: politics, by the very nature of the craft, involves compromise and gets very dirty in deal making; furthermore, no political platform fully embodies God’s purposes in Christ, and politicians invariably fall short of upholding what God would have upheld in Christ in every respect. At the same time, Christians in America will invariably be called upon to engage with all sorts of ideas, philosophies, plans, and policies prevalent in American political discourse as members of this representative republic; thus, however Christians engage with politics, they ought to do so in ways which bring the lordship of Jesus to bear, and Jesus ought to be glorified and manifest in how they speak of politics and politicians (Ephesians 4:29, Philippians 1:27, Colossians 3:17). We thus do well to consider the broad trends in political discourse and how they relate to what God has made known in Jesus.

The vast majority of modern American political discourse takes place within the general confines of philosophical liberalism: a commitment to free speech, freedom of individuals, the fundamental equality of everyone, a commitment to the rule of law, free markets and free trade, freedom of religion, and a primarily secular posture from the government. Within this commitment to philosophical liberalism we presently see three major political postures: progressivism, conservatism, and libertarianism. And then there is the fourth type of posture which would presume to represent the political and philosophical center: the moderate.

Political moderation does not represent a political philosophy per se as much as presuming to referee primarily between the progressive and conservative coalitions. In this sense the political moderates wield significant amounts of political clout and power: rarely do the progressive or conservative coalitions maintain sufficient numbers to advance their agendas, and so the support of the political moderates proves crucial for either side to govern and implement policy. If the status quo is tolerable, the moderates generally align with the political conservatives; if the status quo becomes intolerable, the moderates then generally shift toward the political progressives. Thus we generally see political policy and preferences orient around the political center.

There is much to commend political moderation. Neither the political progressives nor the political conservatives maintain a monopoly on truth or healthy public policy; the republic suffers if either group obtains significant political power over a long period of time. Society does need to make a lot of changes as desired by the political progressives and yet also ought to maintain its culture and traditions in many respects as desired by the political conservatives; it thus falls to the political moderates in the middle to adjudicate what ought to be changed and what ought to be retained by empowering each coalition in turn. The lack of a coherent political philosophy beyond a broad commitment to philosophical liberty is thus recognized as a feature, not a bug: the political moderate can believe he or she is not beholden to a particular philosophy or school of thought and thus can reflect greater independence in thought. A true political moderate will be less tempted toward partisanship and should be more clear-eyed about the limitations and difficulties inherent in the ideologies of political progressivism and conservatism.

Political moderation therefore can certainly be a virtue, able and willing to support what is good and commendable about political progressivism and conservatism while avoiding their faults. But political moderation is not inherently virtuous. It is tempting to believe the best way forward on any given policy matter is a centrist, middle way, but the truth and morality of a matter is not always found in the center. Far too often the standard for the political moderate is a status quo which preserves the economic and societal advantages of political moderates, and this is often accepted uncritically and believed to be what would be best for the greatest number of people.

Considering these things can prove challenging because of current standards of critique. Both political progressives and conservatives frequently come under criticism from political moderates and from each other; one can even find some self-criticism within political progressivism and conservatism. Political moderation, however, is not subjected to as much critique and manifests even less self-critique. The virtue of political moderation is taken as self-evident; political moderates often see themselves as those empowered to critique those to their “left” and to their “right” and rarely imagine that they themselves should come under critique.

To this end political moderates should all the more consider Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In it King lamented the lukewarm acceptance black people received from the political moderates of his day. They expressed some concern about the plight of black people but wanted to disrupt the status quo as little as possible. They found the protests, marches, and civil disobedience of civil rights agitators to go beyond what made good sense. And yet, as King related, those with privilege do not relinquish their privilege easily; justice and the removal of oppression must be demanded. The work of calling out and eliminating injustice and oppression has always required uncomfortable agitation and disruption of the status quo and thus will easily cause discomfort among political moderates: this was seen in the work of political progressives with the rights of laborers, children, women, and people of color, and in the work of political conservatives with abortion. Thus, time and time again in American history the politically moderate position did not lead the country in matters of justice and righteousness; instead, political moderates proved more willing to justify and rationalize evil, injustice, and oppression because of the unpalatable political consequences of upholding what was right and just. What passes for political moderation does not always align with God’s concerns for righteousness and the cause of justice.

Christians can glorify God while maintaining a politically moderate stance in American politics. Yet Christians must never assume that whatever passes for the politically moderate stance is that which glorifies God. Political moderates provide important balance among the political progressives and conservatives; they help define what kind of changes, or lack thereof, will be manifest in society. Such provides all the more reason for Christians who maintain politically moderate positions to prove just as critical of their own posture as they would those to their “left” and to their “right” and seek to perceive how they help to reinforce and support the powers that be which work actively to oppress and harm some to reinforce the advantage of others. Political moderates do well to remember how the kind of life which glorifies God in His Kingdom will always be seen as radical and threatening to many across the political spectrum; to participate in creative nonviolent resistance against the powers and principalities will require fortitude, conviction, and confidence in God and will subvert the status quo (cf. Matthew 5:38-42). May we all seek to glorify God, centering our political philosophy and posture in Christ, and maintain life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Carousing | The Voice 10:38: September 20, 2020

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The Voice

Works of the Flesh: Carousing

The Apostle Paul reminded the Galatian Christians regarding the conflict between the desires of the flesh and the ways of God in the Spirit, and exhorted the Galatian Christians to manifest the fruit of the Spirit and resist the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-24). These “works of the flesh” are delineated in Galatians 5:19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Many of the first “works of the flesh” centered on challenges and temptations which would prove especially acute for Christians who had recently come out of the Greco-Roman pagan milieu: sexual temptations like sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, and lasciviousness; idolatry; and sorcery. Paul then established the “works of the flesh” which prove especially pernicious in relationships: enmities, strife, jealousy, wrath, rivalries, divisions, sects, and envy. Paul concluded the “works of the flesh” with sins of excess: drunkenness and carousing.

The Greek word translated as revellings, orgies, or carousing is the Greek word komos, defined by Thayer as:

a revel, carousal; a nocturnal and riotous procession of half drunken and frolicsome fellows who after supper parade through the streets with torches and music in honour of Bacchus or some other deity, and sing and play before houses of male and female friends; hence used generally of feasts and drinking parties that are protracted till late at night and indulge in revelry.

The komos was a particular and specific kind of Greek “observance” of which we know only a little based on what is attested in paintings on vases and in glimpses in Greek literature. The most famous komos is only known from its aftereffects: Alcibiades crashes the Symposium narrated by Plato after he participated in a komos. The komos certainly involved drunkenness; those participating in it, the komoi, would also engage in a kind of procession in the town in an immodest and indecent way. Weddings seemed to feature a komos, as would certain city festivals. Masks seem to be worn for at least some observances of the komos; there might well have been competitive speeches or songs involved. The Greek term for comedy, komoidia, quite likely derives from the word komos and ode, song: it is not hard to imagine the mirth and vulgarity of drunken song leading to what would become the tropes of what is now deemed comedy.

We thus can understand why both Paul and Peter will condemn the komos as a behavior of the Gentiles (using the term with its pejorative connotation), the rites of the darkness which are not suitable for Christians who live and walk as if it is daytime (Romans 13:13, 1 Peter 4:3-4).

Many cultures have a komos-type ritual, or at least provide some opportunity for its members to participate in a similar form of revelry and carousing. What Paul and Peter condemn in the Greek komos is easily found in eerily similar modern contexts: the drunken wedding party, the drunken feasts celebrating an important day for a given nation or people, the orgy of revelry and even violent destruction of property when a city’s sports team wins a championship (or, in some instances, loses one). The spirit of revelry can often be found in a bar or tavern. Not a few songs have been composed in a drunken haze among friends; what passes for comedy continues to rely on the vulgar tropes of what was likely discussed among the komoi in the ancient Greek world.

Perhaps the fullest modern embodiment of the komos is the stereotypical college frat party. Excessive amounts of alcohol are drunk; hazing rituals often feature stupid behaviors harming the one being hazed, innocent people, and property; young women are invited, plied with plenty of alcohol, and sexual behaviors with varying levels of consent and awareness naturally follow. This is all seen as “good fun,” and many who participate in it yearn to do so again soon. The prevalence of this trope in the modern psyche betrays the strong desire among many who should have outgrown such things to be able to return to them.

Let none be deceived: nothing good can come from revelry and carousing. It is one thing to celebrate important rituals in a person’s life and in the collective life of a nation or a culture in modest and sober ways. It is quite another to commemorate such things with revelry and carousing; such behavior is haunted by the drunkenness, sexual immorality, and violence that define the experience. How many high quality decisions have been made while drunk? How many unwise sexual liaisons have begun while drunk in a context of revelry which have led to pain and frustration long afterward? And that presumes such sexual liaisons are consensual, however one can define “consensual” in a drunken revelrous context; how many cases of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and/or rape have taken place during such parties? How many awake the day after such revelry with a splitting headache and deep regret? Why would people yearn to participate in such things again, and consider such behaviors as part of the “joys” of youth?

A hedonistically minded culture which normalizes and encourages such bouts of revelry is demonic in inspiration, casting a strong delusion over its people. As Christians we must set aside such delusions and turn away from the “party lifestyle.” Christians ought to be sober-minded, not enraptured by alcohol and sexual desire. Christians understand why revelry takes place at night: it is a work of darkness exposed as shameful in the light of day. Christians do well to be of the daytime, cognizant of the dangers of revelry, avoiding the works of the flesh, glorifying God in Christ in all they think, feel, say, and do. The shared love of Christians in Christ provides far greater connection and camaraderie than any drinking party can offer; the relational unity Christians ought to experience in God and with one another makes a mockery of the pretenses of a bacchanal. May we find joy and celebration in God in Christ, and obtain eternal life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Abortion | The Voice 10.37: September 13, 2020

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The Voice

Abortion

Abortion has become the “issue of all issues” in the “culture wars” in America today; it is one of the most polarizing and contentious matters in modern political and cultural discourse. Over the past fifty years abortion has been a major battleground regarding views of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in terms of both the child in the womb as well as its mother. The issue of abortion, by its very nature, attracts powerful emotions and energy on all sides; a dispassionate examination of the subject is nearly impossible. In truth the matter of abortion, how it is viewed, how it is justified or condemned, and how the women in the middle are treated, indict our culture as a culture of death, with very few truly interested in cultivating a true culture of life which honors God and all of His children. Let us explore the matter of abortion according to God’s purposes made known in Christ and in the Scriptures.

What Is Abortion?

Since so much rhetoric regarding abortion is layered with euphemism, we do well to forthrightly set forth what abortion is and what it involves. Abortion is the termination of a pregnancy by the removal of an embryo or fetus from a woman’s uterus. In many situations an abortion is unintentional; we consider these situations to be miscarriages. Any time a woman intentionally has an embryo or fetus removed is called an induced abortion. Induced abortions themselves can be delineated between “therapeutic,” on account of health conditions of the woman or the child, or “elective,” when chosen by the woman for other reasons. In modern discourse, elective induced abortions prove most contentious and are generally what people refer to when speaking about abortion, although many aspects of therapeutic induced abortions prove controversial as well.

Abortion can be induced by different methods. Medical abortion involves taking pills increasing levels of hormones which produce a hostile environment for the child, leading to the death of the child and the woman expelling the child and related tissue. Surgical abortion might involve suction or vacuum aspiration, which involves sucking the child out of the uterus; dilation and curettage (D&C), involving the opening of the cervix and scraping out of everything along the walls of the uterus with a curette; dilation and evacuation (D&E), which involves opening the cervix and cutting out or vacuuming out the child and the related tissue matter; or intact dilation and extraction (IDX), which involves opening the cervix and physically removing the child from the uterus (IDX is banned in the United States). Sometimes labor is induced and the child is killed; this method is very rarely used in the United States but is more prevalent in some European countries.

We can see that a range of actions and methods are in view when we discuss abortion.

Primary Arguments Regarding Abortion

Arguments regarding abortion fall primarily into two camps: those against abortion speak of themselves as “pro-life”; those who wish for abortion to remain legal speak of themselves as “pro-choice.”

Arguments against abortion focus on the life of the child. Most people who are against abortion believe that life begins at conception or implantation; therefore, any elective choice to end a pregnancy after conception or implantation is the act of taking the life of the child, and thus equated with murder. In the pro-life view, since the child is a living being, the government should consider its right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and therefore has a compelling interest to defend the life of the child through legislation making elective induced abortion illegal. Some would go further and make illegal many forms of therapeutic induced abortion.

Arguments for the legality of abortion focus on the choice of the mother. Some people who advance a pro-choice view are truly pro-abortion and have few if any qualms about the procedure; in such a view the life of the child is entirely in the control of the mother, and the mother’s right to decide whether to carry the baby to term or not is absolute. Others who have a pro-choice view do maintain qualms about abortion to some degree or another, wishing it did not have to be, or even being personally pro-life, but do not wish for the government to impose legislation against the procedure, instead relying on individual conscience on the matter.

The Scriptures on Abortion

In the Old Testament the Law made provision in one specific case of abortion:

And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow; he shall be surely fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Exodus 21:22-25).

We would generally classify any such abortion as a miscarriage since it was not at all the woman’s desire or intent to end the pregnancy. We do see that the Law considers the offender guilty of harming life, and ought to pay at least a financial penalty, and perhaps even death.

This is the only passage which explicitly and directly relates to any kind of abortion.

Murder is condemned as sinful in both Old and New Testaments:

Thou shalt not kill (Exodus 20:13).

And because they had not the mind to keep God in their knowledge, God gave them up to an evil mind, to do those things which are not right; Being full of all wrongdoing, evil, desire for the goods of others, hate, envy, putting to death, fighting, deceit, cruel ways, evil talk, and false statements about others; Hated by God, full of pride, without respect, full of loud talk, given to evil inventions, not honouring father or mother, Without knowledge, not true to their undertakings, unkind, having no mercy (Romans 1:28-31).

The word translated “unkind” in Romans 1:31, astorgos, has the meaning of “without natural affection,” and a good argument can be made to relate it, at least in part, to Roman birth customs in which any child who was not accepted by the head of the household (paterfamilias) for whatever reason was taken out and exposed to die.

Furthermore, the logic behind the commandment against murder is based on life as being a gift of God, and something which is not to be taken lightly:

Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man (Genesis 9:6).

Anyone who has hate for his brother is a taker of life, and you may be certain that no taker of life has eternal life in him (1 John 3:15).

Early Christians did explicitly condemn abortion and infanticide, and did so under condemnation of murder:

“Thou shalt do no murder; thou shalt not commit adultery”; thou shalt not commit sodomy; thou shalt not commit fornication; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not use magic; thou shalt not use philtres; thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide; “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods” (The Didache, 2.2).

Whereas no passage in the Bible explicitly identifies the moment at which life begins, many passages in the Old and New Testaments speak of life beginning in the womb:

For thou didst form my inward parts / Thou didst cover me in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks unto thee / for I am fearfully and wonderfully made / Wonderful are thy works; And that my soul knoweth right well.
My frame was not hidden from thee / When I was made in secret / and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Thine eyes did see mine unformed substance / and in thy book they were all written / even the days that were ordained for me / when as yet there was none of them (Psalm 139:13-16).

Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee; I have appointed thee a prophet unto the nations (Jeremiah 1:5).

And it came to pass, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit…For behold, when the voice of thy salutation came into mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy (Luke 1:41, 44).

Therefore, it must be recognized that the Scriptures do not have much to say explicitly about abortion. Nevertheless, there is nothing within the pages of Scripture which give any reason to conclude that elective induced abortion is acceptable to God, and much to cast aspersions against it. Early Christians recognized elective induced abortions to be a form of murder, and we do well as Christians today to maintain the same conclusion.

The Challenges of “Choice”

In light of the Scriptures it is impossible to Biblically sustain the full-throated argument of the pro-choice movement regarding the absolute right of choice of the mother. God has made the mother and has given life to the mother, and the life of the mother is to be valued and respected as equal to the life of any other human being (Genesis 9:6, Galatians 3:28, 1 Timothy 2:4). Yet, as David proclaimed, God is also giving life to the child in her womb, and the life of that child is to be valued and respected as equal to the life of its mother and to the life of any other human being (Psalm 139:13-16).

The moral force of this argument is strong, and recognized as much by its opponents, who seek to dehumanize the child as an “embryo” or “fetus,” “protoplasm” entirely dependent on its mother for life, and therefore hers to decide whether it ought to continue or not. Furthermore, throughout time, the argument has hinged upon when life begins: it is recognized that if it is not yet life, no fault can be found in terms of what happens to it.

It is recognized that the life of the child in the womb is dependent on its mother; such is why abortion remains a special case with distinctions which are not maintained for those who take lives outside of the womb. And yet the child is more than just protoplasm or a bunch of dependent cells; by implantation the child has everything it needs within itself to be alive, and with continued maternal sustenance will grow and flourish. It is increasingly difficult to argue against life starting at any point after implantation.

Attitudes toward children in the womb often manifest the culture of death in which we live. Life ought to be worth more than money or time. Even in the heartbreaking cases of impregnation from rape, should not life have some value? The woman will be traumatized by the abortion or by having the child; is the means of conception at all the fault of the child, and yet, in abortion, who would bear the brunt of the suffering?

Our culture of death is also manifest in the valuation of life according to utilitarian measures. Untold thousands of children are being aborted because they are female, and therefore considered of less value to the family than a male child would be. We are beginning to see selective abortions of children who are found to be at risk of Down syndrome and many other genetic conditions, with parents choosing to end those lives because they will not be fully “normal”. In such decisions life is not being honored as a gift; it is being seen as a burden.

The absolute right to choice is a very American and modern individualist idea, but it is not a Biblical one. In Christ life is about glorifying God through whatever we experience, for God has given us life and all things. In all things we ought to uphold and honor the value of life, even at the expense of choice.

Pro-Life or Just Anti-Abortion?

As Christians we do well to uphold a consistently pro-life outlook, for God has given life as a gift, and we ought to hesitate to take it or devalue it. The temptation to devalue life is not restricted to the pro-choice movement.

We must be careful about how thoroughly we identify abortion as murder. As noted above, the definition of abortion is expansive. It technically contains every form of miscarriage. Therefore, unintentional abortions, known as miscarriages, are not only not sinful, but extremely traumatic experiences for women who ought never be shamed or condemned for what they have suffered.

Some aspects of therapeutic induced abortions prove problematic, as noted above, since “therapeutic” is now including selective abortions for “genetic abnormalities.” And yet there remain instances, such as with ectopic pregnancies, in which the child will never successfully be brought to term and the life of the mother is in great peril. Other similar conditions may come about. If we are truly pro-life, then the life of the mother is as valuable as the life of the child, and it is not for us or the government or any other institution to impose upon that mother the demand for her to sacrifice her life on account of the child.

Thus there will be times when abortion will have to be induced in order to preserve life. Women who undergo such experiences ought not be shamed or condemned but fully supported, encouraged, and comforted on account of the traumatic experiences they have endured.

Great care ought to be exercised in regards to the legislative goals of the pro-life movement. If abortion were outlawed in America, it would not end abortion; it would be made illegal. Making abortion illegal would most likely reduce the number of abortions that take place; this is a worthy goal. Yet how will abortion be made illegal? Will the women who search out abortions be the ones punished, or just the providers? Will there be a blanket condemnation, which may lead to the death of women who need therapeutic induced abortion to survive, and if so, is that really honoring life? In some countries in which abortion is banned many women who miscarry are accused of abortion and forced to suffer further humiliation and punishment, adding trauma on top of trauma. And, ultimately, will there still be concern about abortion and the lives of women and children if abortion is made illegal? There is not unanimous agreement on these matters among the various parts of the pro-life constituency. We must never forget that it is the Gospel, not legislation, which provides salvation (Romans 1:16); life will not be honored merely because it is illegal to do otherwise, and our government does not have the greatest track record when it comes to respecting life anyway.

If Christians would not be hypocrites they must give some thought to the condition of women and their children. Many women who consider abortion do so out of desperation; they need support and care, and we ought to search them out and provide it (Galatians 6:10). If the concerns are economic, we ought to meet them. If the concern is an inability to raise the child, we ought to adopt them, or better yet, empower and encourage the women to be able to raise their own children (James 1:27). If the child is born with medical conditions, we must rally around the family and comfort, strengthen, and sustain them through the trials they endure, and celebrate their sacrifices to honor life.

We must also give consideration for how we speak of and treat those who are guilty of sexually deviant behavior, especially those who practice sex before marriage. Many who profess Christ have undergone abortions so as to eliminate the source of shame which would come upon them from the disapprobation and shaming they would experience from fellow professors of Christ. Such does not excuse adding sin upon sin; nevertheless, if we truly wish to honor life and reduce abortions, we must avoid shaming or marginalizing women who are pregnant out of wedlock and find ways to encourage them to choose life and incorporate them into the community of the people of God.

Conclusion

Abortion is a complex and contentious topic, and has bearing on many others; we have only begun to scratch the surface on these matters, and have left many more aside.

As we have seen, God gives life and loves life, and as people made in the image of God, we ought to honor life. Elective induced abortions disregard the honor of life, valuing choice, personal autonomy, economic conditions, etc., over the value of life. Elective induced abortions are more like murder than they are akin to anything else.

Yet, to truly honor life, we must recognize the equal value of the life of the mother, and be careful lest opposition to abortion trump our concern for the lives of women. Women suffer terribly from miscarriages; some will have to endure therapeutically induced abortions to survive. For that matter, many women who have undergone elective induced abortions live with great trauma and guilt over their decision and come to regret it and repent of it. As Christians we must value and honor women as we value and honor children.

As of now, abortion is legal in America. We must be careful in our rhetoric against abortion lest we are found to have misrepresented the situation. There is a difference between abortion being an option but not mandated, and mandated abortion, such as in China’s previous one child policy. If the government mandates abortion, it has blood on its hands; if a government allows abortion, it may be guilty of upholding a culture of death, but the blood is on the hands of those who shed it.

As Christians we must honor the government and its rulers despite disagreement with its policies (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-18). We ought to uphold a culture of life and thus condemn elective induced abortion, and forms of therapeutic induced abortions which do not honor life. We can, and should, make good, strong arguments upholding a culture of life; it would be even better if we modeled and embodied those arguments. Yet, in all things, we must manifest the fruit of the Spirit, not the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:17-24). The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20); righteous indignation about the fate of so many aborted children must be tempered with this wisdom from the Lord’s brother. We must remember that the Devil and the powers and principalities over this present darkness are our true foes; those who advocate for abortion are deceived by these forces (Ephesians 6:12). And we must never forget those who find themselves in the middle of this great controversy: the women who contemplate abortion. We do well to find them, encourage them, and show them the value of life in a community which honors life, and all to the end of encouraging all such people to find what is truly life in Jesus (John 10:10, 1 Timothy 6:19). May we uphold the Gospel and its culture of life, and obtain the resurrection of life in Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

American Gospel | The Voice 10.36: September 06, 2020

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The Voice

The American Gospel

In a world darkened by superstition a bright light began to shine across the seas: men motivated by faith and freedom sought to build a republic based on human rights and Christian faith. This republic would be sanctified by the blood of many brave patriots who freely gave up their lives for the cause of faith and freedom. To this end the United States of America is an exceptional Christian nation, blessed and favored by God. God helps those who help themselves: Americans who accomplish the American Dream manifest the favor of God and maintain their confidence in that favor for salvation. Those who do not obtain those benefits clearly have not sufficiently trusted in (white) Jesus and the American way; they are prone to turn to godless socialism and seek to destroy America because they did not work hard enough to obtain its blessings.

The above is the American Gospel. It sounds just enough like the Gospel of Jesus to be taken seriously; and yet it is another gospel, compromises the witness of the true Kingdom of God, and cannot save.

The Puritans crossed the Atlantic in the seventeenth century in order to set up a theocratic community so as to embody the purity of what they imagined the Christian faith to be: the “city set on a hill” of which John Winthrop spoke. Enlightenment thinking would pervade secular and religious thinking in late eighteenth century America; many a religious authority proved willing to use Christian themes and language in the cause of the rebellion and to find ways to justify their position in the Scriptures. By the middle of the nineteenth century various forms of Christianity pervaded the United States of America, and its adherents celebrated and exalted in their nation and its ideology. Not a few believed in American postmillennialism: through the American project God was establishing the Kingdom of Jesus on earth. To this end many proved willing to justify and commend whatever America did as the will of God: the subjugation of the land and the dispossession of Native Americans; white supremacy and the oppression of people of color; participation within the government as service; sanctification of America’s military endeavors as service and the sacrifice of some to secure the freedom of many.

And yet much of what is put forth as the “American Gospel” is a product of the twentieth century. The federal government enforced draconian measures to stifle dissent during World War I, casting aspersions on the loyalty and integrity of anyone who would profess Christ and not take up arms to defend the United States (e.g. Sergeant York). During the Great Depression representatives of American business interests and some in conservative Christendom worked together to promote the “gospel” of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, free speech, and free enterprise; during the early days of the Cold War this coalition would prove ascendant, promoting attendance at the church of your choice as part of the obligation of being a good American resisting the godless communist cause, and of course exalting the virtues of capitalist free enterprise. As American culture has grown more secular, many within conservative Christendom sought to emphasize the “Judeo-Christian” heritage of America and have sought to baptize America’s founding and government as a profoundly Christian polity.

Let none be deceived: the American Gospel is not a harmless celebration of both faith and country. In New Testament times and immediately after the powers and principalities strongly persecuted the people of God through the coercive power of the nation-states. Yet for the past 1700 years the powers and principalities have proven just as willing to try to co-opt the faith: as opposed to resisting the faith, they have tried to embrace it, but only inasmuch as it will advance the purposes of the powers and principalities over the nation-state. If a Christianish form of civic religion will create patriotic, nationalistic, obedient, and compliant citizens to advance the purposes of the nation-state, well and good; but if any practice the true faith in Christ, and seek to advance the purposes of the Kingdom of Jesus even when those purposes deviate from the goal of the nation-state, such are reckoned as unpatriotic, with suspect loyalty, and a “fifth column” who can be excoriated as an enemy or supporting the enemy.

This challenge is manifest whenever American Christianish civic religion is questioned. For the purposes of the state, religious participation is good without regard to many religious specifics; notice how effectively “attend the church of your choice” has been promoted and advanced in our society, and how challenging it can be to reorient people toward the unity of the faith in Christ and the importance of proclaiming the Gospel in its purity (1 Corinthians 1:10ff, Galatians 1:6-9). What happens if a Christian would dare to question the purity and holiness of the heritage of the United States or challenge the presumption that its military members make sacrifices for their freedom? They are denounced as disloyal, unthankful, and might well be sympathizers with ideas deemed “un-American.” How well have conscientious objectors been treated in the military and society? How many arrests and beatings awaited, and continue to await, those who raise up their voices against the injustices and oppression prevalent in American society?

Americans can most assuredly become Christians and serve Jesus in His Kingdom; but the United States of America cannot be a “Christian nation” as commonly construed. The interests of the United States as a nation-state diverge frequently from the interests of the Kingdom of Jesus. The Kingdom of Jesus transcends worldly divisions and reckons everyone as equally valuable in the sight of God and equally worthy of hearing the word of life in Christ (Acts 10:34-35, Romans 2:11, Galatians 3:28); thus God loves Americans, but no more or less than He loves everyone else. The Scriptures never teach that “God helps those who help themselves”: American emphasis on self-reliance is contrary to the goal of relational unity in God and among one another as Christians (John 17:20-23, Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). Accomplishing the American Dream can be a good thing but it is not evidence of salvation: many faithful servants of Jesus never enjoyed material wealth or stability, and many who enjoy material comfort and stability have done so in ways which dishonor God in Christ (cf. 1 Timothy 6:3-10, 17-19). Every attempt to realize the ideals of equality in America have been resisted by many who profess Jesus as the Christ; at the same time, the pursuit of those ideals has led to intense suffering by those who have worked to call out against the injustice, and many such people were inspired by their commitment to the Kingdom of Jesus to do so.

There are ways in which God has very likely used the United States to accomplish His purposes in the world. Yet the United States is not a pure angelic state in the world. Christians must be wary of the American Gospel and the baptism of patriotic nationalism to advance the purposes of the nation-state to the detriment of the Kingdom of Jesus. No soldier could die for the freedom which God has secured for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus His Son; Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, not the American way. It is not enough to be a good American to be saved; we must submit to the Lordship of Jesus in all things and seek to advance His Kingdom, His righteousness and justice, and all to His honor and glory, not that of the United States. One day the United States will fall like any other nation-state; the Kingdom of Jesus will endure forever. May we prioritize what God has done in Christ and seek His Kingdom and righteousness to obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Babylon | The Voice 10.35: August 30, 2020

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The Voice

Babylon

From its beginning Babylon represented human arrogance and rebellion; it would enjoy fleeting moments of glamour and glory on a global stage. Babylon the city, on the Great River Euphrates in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, would fade into oblivion, fulfilling the prophecies of the prophets. Babylon as metaphor endures.

In Genesis 10:10-11 Babel is reckoned as the beginning of Nimrod’s kingdom. Its better known origin story can be found in Genesis 11:1-9: the Tower of Babel, built by all humanity on the Plain of Shinar to stay together and to make a name for themselves in direct rebellion against God’s commands. The place is named “Babel,” Hebrew for confusion, because God confused human language there. In Akkadian the city was known as Babilim, the meaning of which is highly contested; it was rendered as Babulon in Greek, from which we derive “Babylon”; in the Hebrew Bible, the city is called “Babel” throughout.

Both archaeology and written texts attest to Babylon’s relatively late beginnings in Mesopotamia, established sometime in the 2300s to 2200s BCE, allegedly by Sargon of Akkad himself. The Hebrew Bible did well at speaking of Egyptians and Assyrians but not “Babylonians,” for Babylon was at least ruled over if not also inhabited by a series of different groups of people over its two thousand years in existence. Its original inhabitants were likely Akkadians; by the 1800s BCE the Amorites of the northwestern Levant had invaded and occupied much of southern Mesopotamia and inaugurated the Amorite, or Old Babylonian, period (ca. 1800s-1500s BCE; in Israel, the days of Egyptian sojourn). Babylon remained smaller and more obscure until Hammurabi built an empire dominating southern Mesopotamia and the Euphrates region northwest to Mari (ca. 1792-1750 BCE). Hammurabi became famous for the law code established in his name; it has served as a helpful tool as both to contextualize the Law of Moses and to prove a foil for it. After Hammurabi all of southern Mesopotamia would become known as “Babylonia,” just as northern Mesopotamia had become known as “Assyria.”

Amorite Babylon was overthrown by the Hittites around 1595 BCE; soon afterward it was overrun by a group of people known as the Kassites, likely from the Zagros Mountains area of Iran, inaugurating the Kassite, or Middle Babylonian, period (ca. 1595-1155 BCE; in Israel, the time of the Exodus and the Judges). Toward the end of this period the Assyrians and Elamites dominated the city. More “native” Akkadians overthrew the Kassites in 1155 and ruled for a short time before the city was overrun by Arameans from the west.

From 911 to 609 BCE Babylon was continually under Assyrian control. In the 700s BCE the Chaldeans, people who lived in the marshes of southern Mesopotamia, began to continually harass the Assyrian authorities, taking over in Babylon when Assyria was otherwise distracted and fleeing into the safety of the marshlands when the Assyrians returned with an army. So it went with Merodach-Baladan (Marduk-apla-iddina II) who sent envoys to Hezekiah king of Judah (722-710, 703-702 BCE; 2 Kings 20:12-19, Isaiah 39:1-8). In response Sennacherib king of Assyria leveled Babylon to the ground; and yet his son Esarhaddon would dedicate many resources to rebuilding the city.

In the period of 612-605 BCE Nabopolassar (Nabû-apla-uṣur), a Chaldean Babylonian ruler, allied with the Medes, overthrew the Assyrian yoke, and destroyed the cities and empire of the Assyrians. It would fall to his son Nebuchadnezzar II (Nabû-kudurri-uṣur; ca. 634-562 BCE) to fill the void in Mesopotamia and establish what is now known as the Neo-Babylonian Empire (605-539 BCE). Nebuchadnezzar defeated Pharaoh Neko of Egypt (cf. 2 Kings 23:28-30); he would besiege Jerusalem and exile Jehoiachin and the upper class of Judah in 597 BCE, and after another rebellion in the days of Zedekiah, again besiege and then completely destroy Jerusalem, ending the Kingdom of Judah as a going concern in 586 BCE (2 Kings 24:1-25:21). Nebuchadnezzar would besiege Tyre unsuccessfully for 13 years; attack Egypt; and also exile the Philistines (Ezekiel 29:17-21). Babylon reached the peak of its prominence and power in the days of Nebuchadnezzar (cf. Daniel 4:1-37).

We make much of the Neo-Babylonian Empire because of its role in destroying Jerusalem and exiling the Judahites to Babylon; in historical terms it was short-lived, a quick transition between the days of the Assyrians and the Persians. The genius of the Babylonian Empire died with Nebuchadnezzar; a few short-lived kings reigned after him, including Evil-Merodach (Amēl-Marduk), who elevated Jehoiachin according to 2 Kings 27:27-30). The longest reigning king was Nabonidus (Nabû-naʾid), the last official king of the Chaldeans, along with his son Belshazzar, famously condemned in Daniel 5:1-31 (ca. 556-539 BCE). In their day Cyrus king of Persia conquered Babylon at the Battle of Opis and established the Achaemenid Persian Empire.

Despite a couple of insurrections the Persians maintained generally and strong consistent rule over Babylon until the defeat of Darius III by Alexander, king of Macedon, at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BCE. Babylon flourished under Alexander; under the continual conflict of his successors Babylon began to depopulate. In 275 BCE its inhabitants and the Esagila temple were moved to Seleucia on the Tigris, which itself would later be swallowed up by Ctesiphon, which was made the metropolis of southern Mesopotamia throughout the Roman/Parthian/Sassanian period (ca. 120 BCE-700s CE). In the 700s Ctesiphon faded after the establishment of Baghdad by the Abbasid Muslims, which remains the prominent city to this day. By the time of Jesus Babylon was a small village; Christianity spread in the area, but by the second millennium CE Babylon was a ruin.

The Bible well recognizes the prominence of Babylon in Mesopotamian civilization. The city and its gates were most impressive; its wealth was immense; its temples were legendary, exemplified in the story of the Tower of Babel. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon was reckoned as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Their astrological and astronomical observations formed the basis of many scientific endeavors. Many of the mythological stories which were excavated in Mesopotamia are told in their Babylonian versions, especially the highly influential creation narrative known as Enuma elish.

And yet the words of the prophets were fulfilled (cf. Isaiah 13:1-14:23, 40:1-55:13, Jeremiah 50:1-51:64): Babylon, master of a mighty empire, vaunting over defeated Israel, tempting exiled Israelites to turn away from YHWH their God to Marduk and the Mesopotamian pantheon, faded into oblivion. Its location would be lost, rediscovered in modern times by western archaeologists confessing the God of Israel and looking to illuminate the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures. The story remains poignant for all who have ears to hear.

Even as Babylon in Mesopotamia faded, what Babylon represented for Israelites, the pagan human earthly power arrogating itself against God and His people, would endure. Peter and John both spoke regarding Rome and its Empire in terms of Babylon (1 Peter 5:13, Revelation 17:1-18:24). If Babylon’s heritage could be seen in Rome, we can see similar evidence of its heritage in every major human power since. Civilization may have developed along the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and magnified itself in the form of Babylon; God’s people have been called at times to seek the welfare of Babylon and to flee Babylon and its idolatry. To this day the people of God ought to live in unease in the “Babylon” of its day, seeking to embody the Christ to the lost and dying while not falling prey to the temptations “Babylon” would offer. May we faithfully serve God in Christ and obtain eternal life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Political Conservatism | The Voice 10.34: August 23, 2020

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The Voice

Political Conservatism

It is said that the two subjects which ought to be avoided in polite conversation are religion and politics. Furthermore, within Christianity, there is often an understandable desire to transcend the politics of the day: politics, by the very nature of the craft, involves compromise and gets very dirty in deal making; furthermore, no political platform fully embodies God’s purposes in Christ, and politicians invariably fall short of upholding what God would have upheld in Christ in every respect. At the same time, Christians in America will invariably be called upon to engage with all sorts of ideas, philosophies, plans, and policies prevalent in American political discourse as members of this representative republic; thus, however Christians engage with politics, they ought to do so in ways which bring the lordship of Jesus to bear, and Jesus ought to be glorified and manifest in how they speak of politics and politicians (Ephesians 4:29, Philippians 1:27, Colossians 3:17). We thus do well to consider the broad trends in political discourse and how they relate to what God has made known in Jesus.

The vast majority of modern American political discourse takes place within the general confines of philosophical liberalism: a commitment to free speech, freedom of individuals, the fundamental equality of everyone, a commitment to the rule of law, free markets and free trade, freedom of religion, and a primarily secular posture from the government. Within this commitment to philosophical liberalism we presently see three major political postures: progressivism, conservatism, and libertarianism.

The core concept of political conservatism involves the goal of advocating for and protecting, and thus conserving, civilization as expressed in society and culture: tradition, authority, property rights, religious practice, and the family are thus emphasized and promoted. Conservatism as such arose in Europe as a result of the seismic changes caused by the French Revolution. In its moderate form conservatism attempts to work within a commitment to philosophical liberalism to preserve freedoms while upholding what is deemed proper authorities and traditional culture; in its more extreme reactionary form conservatism seeks to disrupt or even overthrow modernism, crying out to stop everything in the relentless pace of change. In its American form political conservatism may be understood as upholding republicanism, a “Judeo-Christian” moral framework, American exceptionalism, individual liberty, a pro-business laissez-faire philosophy of economics, a skepticism toward government and its effectiveness, and great resistance to anything perceived as Marxist/communist/socialist.

Political conservatism in America remains fractured among three emphases often held in tension: fiscal conservatism, social conservatism, and religious conservatism. Fiscal conservatives have been strongly influenced by libertarianism and the Chicago and Austrian schools of economics and thus emphasize the importance of free markets and resist many forms of government oversight of economic markets; they endorse policies which will advance the economic interests of American businesses. Social conservatives emphasize the dangers they perceive to social and cultural values of the past: they endorse policies which would preserve the integrity of social and cultural values of the past and to resist the policies endorsed by political progressives. Religious conservatives emphasize the “Judeo-Christian” religious heritage of America and endorse policies which would reinforce American Christian civic religious practices and values. Some political conservatives identify across all three emphases; many others maintain a primary loyalty to one or two emphases over the others. Many other divisions and differences in ideology among political conservatives could be added; for our purposes, we do well to note how a need to bridge the various emphases and ideologies can help explain some of the internal contradictions which often manifest themselves in political conservatism, and how commitments in political conservatism may inform the postures maintained by many in their faith.

There is much to commend political conservatism for the Christian. At their best political conservatives work to preserve the religious liberties of Christians and others so Christians can live out lives in peace and dignity (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-2). Political conservatives wish to uphold the integrity of the family and the life of the unborn and to maintain space for the traditions of culture and society. The truly politically conservative impulse remains very necessary and an important check on the impulse toward progressivism from the other side: not everything ought to be changed or challenged. Many aspects of the society and culture we have received from our ancestors are praiseworthy and ought to be imitated and maintained. Major policy changes should be subjected to great scrutiny so as to limit the difficulties which might arise from the law of unintended consequences.

And yet political conservatism is not without its difficulties. Many challenges arise from the inherent tension among economic, social, and religious conservatism as practiced in America today. While one can certainly glorify God as a Christian and believe in the value of laissez-faire capitalism, laissez-faire capitalism is not mandated or inherently commended in the pages of Scripture. The shareholder value-driven impetus of what is deemed “late capitalism” has proven extremely harmful for the integrity of the environment, the family, and work, and thus in tension with what ought to be the goals of social conservatism. The move toward libertarianism among many political conservatives has led to greater emphasis on freedom than responsibility. Since the 1930s economic and political conservatives have worked with many faith leaders to promote an American Christianish civic religion, encouraging attending a church or a synagogue of one’s choice and a commitment to free markets and free enterprise, and this effort has proven very successful in conservative Christendom. Any Gospel-based critique of modern American practices of free markets or free enterprise have been deemed by many religious conservatives as Marxist or socialist and dismissed entirely. Not a few Christians seeking to restore the ancient order have fallen prey to the siren song of American Christianish civic religion: many find few, if any, points of disconnect between their faith in Christ and their patriotism and political commitments, and some prove more than willing to condemn as heretical and anathema any Christian who would not share those political commitments.

Unfortunately, Frank Wilhoit’s proposition regarding conservatism has yet to be refuted: “there must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” Since political conservatives strongly value loyalty, the strong temptation remains to find reasons to commend and justify themselves and stifle critique and dissent and use the law as an instrument to benefit themselves at the expense of those with whom they politically disagree. Such offends the premise of equal standing before the law, the punishment of wrongdoing, and the commendation of the good in Isaiah 1:16-17 and Romans 13:1-7.

Even the core strength of political conservatism, the drive to commend and defend the cultural and social order, is not without difficulty. Christians can find many aspects and elements to modern American culture which are praiseworthy and ought to be maintained; yet not all aspects of American culture should be preserved. It is very tempting for political conservatives to commend and defend the indefensible if the indefensible remains part of their cultural heritage, as seen most clearly in the long term embrace of white supremacy and resistance to the dismantling of racist systems among many political conservatives. Modern political conservatism has a strong contrarian streak, and a few political conservatives back themselves into reactionary postures and white nationalism in their attempts to “own the libs.”

Politics and society work best when a healthy conservatism proves willing and able to make spirited defenses for the present polity, to work to conserve the culture and the environment, and to uphold the dignity and honor of life and work. Christians can find much to commend in political conservatism. Nevertheless, not everything in society is worth preserving; many aspects of society are oppressive and unjust, and to defend and support such things would be contrary to God’s purposes in Christ. Christians must take care lest they become too comfortable in the atmosphere of political conservatism so as to go beyond what glorifies God in Christ and compromise the faith, judge hypocritically, and justify the indefensible. May we all seek to glorify God in Christ in our political views, postures, and behaviors, and magnify the Lordship of Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry