Don’t Forget that Celibacy Is an Option

As many of you know, I’m in college right now. I’m also happily married. In fact, I can’t imagine doing my adult life single. Several other young couples seem to feel the same way, and I pray God blesses them. Marriage truly is a wonderful gift, and a powerful sign of the relationship between Christ and His Church. That said, I’m concerned with the relentless promotions and endorsements (even some of the prayers) for marriage I see given to my fellow students. As great as marriage is, it’s not the only lifestyle available to Christians. Our Lord Jesus Himself did not go that route, but another. Celibacy is also an option.

Both Jesus and Paul exemplified the celibate call, devoting their entire lives to a sacred mission for God rather than taking on the earthly entanglements1 of marriage. This is not to say, of course, that marriage is at all a bad thing. Indeed, it is rather a very good and natural part of the original creation.2 It remains the bedrock of healthy society and plays an important role in the life of the Church. There are few more potent images of the union which Christ enters into with His Church than the union of man and woman.3

Nonetheless, marriage is at its heart part of this age, the world that is passing away.4 Practically speaking, it was needed to fill the earth with people who could reflect the image of God in worship and service.5 This purpose is expiring in the new creation, which has already begun breaking into the world through Christ’s resurrection and the outpouring of His Spirit upon His Body at Pentecost. The new world is ever present before us as we wait for the return of Jesus, and when He does return marriage will be finished.6

In addition to all of this, marriage is, well, quite a task. I’m not complaining; I love it! Nonetheless, it takes up a great deal of time and effort, time and effort which could be spent by the single person doing a wide variety of other things for the kingdom of God.7 There are serious practical differences in serving God with a family and without one. While of course a married person can serve God passionately and effectively (that is my goal, after all!), the single person can do so with greater flexibility, freedom, simplicity, and even risk. I will never be able to drop everything and risk my life or even just my livelihood for missional and ministry purposes the same way that, say, the Apostle Paul could.

So what I do I aim to say? To all of you unmarried college students and youngsters out there, especially my co-learners at the Bridal Baptist College of Florida, don’t assume that marriage is, must be, or should be in your future. There is an alternative, indeed a radically countercultural (even for Christian culture) one. You can not marry, and you can not have sex. Everyone in our culture outside the Church expects you to be regularly sexually active, either within marriage or without. Sex is in fact almost given god-like honors. “You must not repress your sexuality,” you are told. That would be a sacrilege against the rite of sexual self-expression and satisfaction. It’s unhealthy (ritually unclean?) and prudish/ignorant (heretical?) to deny yourself such pleasures. Even within many Christian circles, these basic tenants are often (at least subconsciously) accepted, only with the caveat that the right place for all of this sexual expression is marriage. A commitment to lifelong celibacy amounts to a polemic, if not a declaration of war, against corrupted modern sexual ethos.

In addition to this, a commitment to celibacy functions as a powerful eschatological sign to the world. Marriage, as I noted before, is proper to the old creation, and will pass away. To commit to celibacy in the present stands, then, as an anticipation and symbol of the future state. In cultures with particularly strong family ties, where getting married and having children can affect all sorts of relationships, social status, fortunes, reputation, or property rights, celibacy serves to declare trust in God rather than these temporary systems. Refusing to marry or engage in sexual activity in the present is a way of showing the world that you are part of a different world, the age to come, in which reproduction is by the power of the Spirit rather than by man, satisfaction is found in union with Christ rather than sexual union, and the family that truly matters is the family born of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, rather than the family born naturally.

In today’s culture, though, celibacy is essentially seen as a death sentence, at least for our social/relational selves. The fear goes that a celibate person is missing out on what makes life count, on true love and intimate personal relations. Yet Christ declares an alternative. He promises and creates a new family, a new web of relationships, in His Church.8 I wrote on this in a previous post, and it matters for the question of celibacy. Lifelong celibacy may rule out relationships of sexual-romantic and paternal/maternal love, but those are not the only kind of relationship which be fulfilling and truly loving. When we come together as Christ’s body, allowing Him to reform our hearts, minds, affections, and interests by His Spirit, then we can more than make up for this lack, supporting those who would commit to celibacy. This is a high calling for those of us who are Church family, demanding that we be genuinely interested in and compassionate towards each other, but for those of us who follow Christ, what else do we expect?

So, then, I simply ask you all, actually and personally as my fellow youngsters, to seriously consider this. You BCF people, I know they call it the Bridal College of Florida. But there are very few other lifestyles in our culture which can have the same power as committed celibacy, especially in this post-Obergefell world. It is a sign of Christ and His kingdom, comes highly recommended in Christian history, and I honestly believe can and will change your life, if you are willing to take the plunge.

(P.S. I know it may seem odd that I write so encouragingly of celibacy when I myself am married. Yet I need to be, and I know it. I’ve known for a very long time that God designed me specifically to marry. I couldn’t do life any other way. Not everyone is like that. Many people are not. And it concerns me that this valuable and powerful Christian lifestyle is so neglected and marginalized today.)

(P.P.S. I’ve written on this once before, and my friend Clark also wrote on it as a guest writer.)

(P.P.P.S. Speaking of guest writing, if anyone wants to guest write here you can/should hit me up at thenerd@thenicenenerd.com)

Don’t Forget that Celibacy Is an Option

Just War: Thinking Biblically about Military Force (Or, Why I’d Never Vote for Rubio)

The Christian Answer from the Past for Today: Just War

I’ve spent a lot of time this campaign season thinking about foreign policy and war. With all that’s been going on in the Middle East lately, and with the insane Republican debates, this can’t be a surprise. While thinking about all of this, I decided to go back and study war theologically. I wanted to see what respected Bible teachers and theologians throughout Church history have thought. What is a Biblical way of approaching a just war and military force? The results were surprising. There has been quite a lot of agreement in Church history on war. (There have always been pacifists in the minority, but most everyone else agrees pretty decently.) I can’t think of any other topic in Christian theology which enjoys this kind of consensus. So what did I find?

Most Christian answers about war are summed up in what we now call “just war theory.” Just war theory, if you haven’t heard of it, is a set of strict principles for figuring out when war is justified, and how it can be carried out justly, based on Biblical teaching. It can be traced back at least to Saint Augustine, and has been adopted by many others since then. It’s been accepted all over the board by Baptists, the Reformed, Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and many others. Given its place as almost the consensus of the universal Church through history, I suspect it’s worth accepting.

Just war theory is divided into two parts. The first part, called jus ad bellum, is about the right to go to war. It gives criteria for when war is justified. The second part, called jus in bello, is about how to go to war righteously and justly. What I’d like to do briefly is go over these criteria, explain them, and see how they apply to modern political debates. Onward, then.

When to Fight a Just War

The principles of when to fight a war are founded on the Biblical convictions that violence is never desirable (Matt. 5:8, 38-41), peace should be the first goal (Deut. 20:10), and that the oppressed must be defended (Prov. 31:9). Here they are, six in all (though the number varies depending who you ask).

Just cause
Any war must have a right reason. Not every reason is okay. Going to war just to claim land, punish enemies, or settle rivalries is evil. Generally, most Christian thinkers have said the only certainly just cause for war is defense of the people, or of an allied people, against a foreign enemy on the attack. Only if innocent lives, homes, and rights are going to be taken away can it be right to go to war.
This criteria on its own is essential, of course, but not enough. A lot of things might be justified by possible threats. So we have 6 more to go go through.
Proportionality
This part means that the suffering expected or already endured must be enough to justify all the violence that will be generated by the war. If you’re not suffering much, it is not right to kill a bunch of people to fix it. For a really simple example, it would not be right to go to war over sinfully high gas prices.
I believe this criteria has a lot to say about the Middle East right now. How many of the interventions we are in now or will be in cause more suffering than was already being experienced by the people we claim to defend?
Proper authority
Scripture teaches that God has providentially put our government leaders into their positions of authority and uses them to carry out justice and punish wrongdoers (see Romans 13). Any war, therefore, must be decided and declared by the proper authorities. You can’t just round up a bunch of people with guns and decide on the basis of the other just war criteria that you’re going to start fighting.
This is also a concern for modern foreign policy issues. The Constitution only authorizes Congress to declare war. The President, nonetheless, has for some time now been able to freely use military force without this authorization. Naturally, this is a problem.
Right intention
Similar to the first people, the rule of a right intention means that the war must be carried out strictly for the purpose of whatever just cause might authorize it. It is not okay to go to war without someone just because you want a resource they have, even under pretenses of national security.
High likelihood of success
There is no sense wasting lives and killing people if you’re not going to succeed. For a war effort to be justified, it must have a significant chance of accomplishing its purpose. People should never have to fight and die for a lost cause.
Even if nothing else did, this rules out the war Saudi Arabia is waging against Yemen. They are destroying the country to no avail at all. Today, they are no closer to success than when they began, yet the U.S. government, especially including Hillary Clinton and Senator Marco Rubio, is supporting them. This also rules out taking any military action to topple Assad. The chances are absolutely huge that our hopes of helping the people will ultimately fail and they will end up under ISIS control (at best).
Last resort
Obviously, war should be an absolute last resort. All other options must be exhausted before resorting to death and destruction. This is the rule which God gave Israel when dealing with most general warfare (Deut. 20:10), and I believe it is also common sense. Do not kill when you still have other ways to deal with a problem.
Again, Marco Rubio is not my friend on this, and same with several other Republican candidates (and Hillary Clinton). Most of them are quite willing to jump to military action at the first sign of trouble, and detest using robust diplomacy (see: opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal).

How to Fight a Just War

Of course, it is not enough just to be justified in going to war. We must also behave righteously during war, and reject all notions that “anything goes.” Here are the traditional principles for a just war’s execution:

Distinction
It is essential to distinguish between innocent civilians and combatants. It is clearly wrong to attack civilian targets with no military purpose, or to attack neutral places. I don’t think this needs much elaboration, but I should add this also counts against the war on Yemen (and thus Rubio and Clinton), since reports come in by the truckload of Saudi soldiers intentionally bombing civilian targets.
Proportionality
The negative results/collateral damage of a military action must make sense in relation to what is being accomplished. If your plan to block off one road involves killing 100 kids, you should go back to the drawing board (if not the nuthouse). This is another problem with Yemen, since most of the damage being done to the whole nation is the gradual starvation of the civilian population to little military advantage. Cruz is also indicted by this point, perhaps in combination with the first, for his reckless plan to “carpet bomb” ISIS.
Military necessity
Every military action must have an actual military purpose. Never attack without a cause and a clear advantage or goal in mind. This is exactly the opposite of what terrorists like to do.
Fair POW treatment
Sensibly enough, one of the rules is to treat any prisoners of war as human beings with God-given rights, rather than as bugs or pond scum. Do not torture, mistreat, or indefinitely detain them.
No evil means
Finally, there should be no war means used that are plainly evil. Raping and pillaging is unacceptable. Using uncontrollable, indiscriminate weaponry is forbidden (this includes nukes). A particular nuance of this point combined with the point of distinction means that you can never use civilian deaths. If there is collateral damage, it must be a side effect, not part of the plan. You can’t purposely kill innocents to accomplish a military goal (which is why many strict just war theories condemn the WWII atomic bombings).

Wrapping Up

Well, that’s the basic outline of just war theory as traditionally and Biblically taught by the Church’s greatest theologians and preachers. You may disagree with a point or two, I suppose, but if so I would advise prayerful consideration. I feel this is a very Biblical model, and because I think so I cannot support politicians who so blatantly trample on some of its key principles, such as Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and a handful of others. In fact, with just war theory in mind, Rand Paul is probably the only candidate I could like. But anyway, I hope this is helpful or at least thought-provoking for you all.

Further Reading

The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, book 4, chapter 20.

The City of God by St. Augustine.

Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas.

“Bahsen on War” – The American Vision

Just War: Thinking Biblically about Military Force (Or, Why I’d Never Vote for Rubio)

Being Christians: Marked Out as God’s People

My current reading project is The New Testament and the People of God by N. T. Wright. I hope one day to finish the entire series of which this is the first book, namely Christian Origins and the Question of God (for that matter, so does Wright). It’s been a very interesting study so far, covering the nature of literature and history, epistemology, Jewish history, the first century Jewish worldview, Christian history, and now the worldview of the first century Christians. An important part of studying worldviews is the study of praxis, what people in a group (in this case people within the mainstream first generation Church) do.

According to Wright, the distinctive elements of early Christian praxis could be summed up in a few major categories: mission, sacrament, worship, ethics, sacrifice, and martyrdom. In each of these areas, Christians were noticeably different from the rest of the world, which consisted basically of pagans and Jews. The gist of the differences is as follows:

  • Mission:
    The early church had evangelistic fervor. Unlike the pagans, the Christians spread their teachings with enthusiasm and love. They used their lives instead of legal decree to lead people to the truth. Unlike the Jews, who mostly kept their religion to themselves and frowned upon Gentiles, the Christians felt themselves compelled to persistently offer their good news to all the world.
  • Sacrament:
    The early Christians took baptism and Communion for granted. Every new convert was hastily baptized, and they regarded their baptisms as having significance to new creation and union with Christ. Every time they met (or nearly so) they partook of the Lord’s Supper together. No pagan rituals were anything like this. The Jews’ closest equivalents were baptizing Gentiles converts to Judaism, though it was never given the significance of Christian baptism, and Passover, which was a far more elaborate (and legally binding) ritual than the simple sharing of bread and wine.
  • Worship:
    The worship of Christians is perhaps the most distinctive point. The pagans worshipped very many gods and goddesses, one for almost every part of the natural and supernatural worlds. They also were legally obligated to worship Caesar. Jews, of course, worshipped only one God, Yahweh, and believed all other gods to be shams. Christians continued the Jewish tradition of worshipping one God alone, contrary to the pagans, but in a manner strange and scandalous to Jews included Jesus, a crucified carpenter/prophet from Nazareth, in the worship of their God, though at this time they didn’t explain exactly why or how that worked.
  • Ethics:
    Even secular historians who thought poorly of Christianity were astounded at the virtuous lives of the early Christians. They did not, like the pagans, engage in any kind of sexual immorality. They refused to lie or cheat or steal. Unlike many Jews, they demonstrated love, hospitality, and grace to people of every kind, even the worst of sinners or the lowest members of society. Any accusations made against Christians could only be against rumors of what they might do in secret, or against their dangerous doctrines. They character was generally impeccable.
  • Sacrifice:
    Possibly the strangest way that Christians were different for a religious group was how they handled sacrifice. Unlike both pagans and Jews, they never performed sacrifices, easily one of the most basic elements of religion at the time. They felt a need neither to satisfy pagan gods nor to continue participating in the Levitical priestly system. Instead, if they spoke of sacrifice at all, it was in reference to their Jesus dying for them, or of their own suffering for Him.
  • Martyrdom:
    Pagans saw no need to die for their faith. If anything, they worshipped their gods in order to be saved from death. The Jews had martyrs, but never so many as the Christians, who at times died almost daily. The Christians were noticed for the way they seemed to spit in death’s face, as though it had already been defeated.

In these ways, the Christians stood out blatantly from the rest of the world. They were nothing like the pagans, and their new message directly undermined mainstream Judaism. Indeed, their differences were so striking that they were by some classified as a totally new kind of people or race. You had Greeks, Jews, barbarians, and now Christians. 

This, of course, was right to be the case. We all know as Christians that God has called us to a new and different life than that of the world. We are holy, that is, set apart. We are the ekklesia, the called out ones. In a world of Gentile sinners and unbelieving Jews, we are the true Israel, the true humanity. God has redeemed the human race, and we are the firstfruits in Christ. The overlap between the kingdom of God and this present age is found in the Church. Therefore we ought to be different in very notable ways from those who are still in Adam, who have yet to experience God’s new life created in Jesus and applied by the Holy Spirit.

So what is my point now? Upon reading the section on early Christian praxis in The New Testament and the People of God, I started thinking of ways that we can today still stand out in each of these categories. We are still God’s people, and still as such should be set apart. But how? I’d like to quickly run through some ideas based on what I’ve mentioned about the early church. We can, like our spiritual ancestors, be different in these ways:

  • Mission:
    The world today has many causes and missions. But your average people don’t think much about them. You don’t expect to meet any random person and find them on a mission to convince someone of this or accomplish that. When you do, it’s an exception, and usually thought of as weird. That last thing our culture condones is any kind of mission in personal, day-to-day interactions which says in any absolute terms, “What I have to say is for everyone, period. It’s not a matter of opinion. You won’t get away with ignoring or rejecting it.” Yet we are called to tell the whole world that Jesus is Lord, that He died and was raised for the sins of all people, and that He will return to right every wrong and heal the world with new creation. If we do this in our everyday lives and interactions, and yet also do it with love and grace instead of the stereotypical condemnation or Hellfire scare, we will stand out and people will notice that we have a unique message with a unique method.
  • Sacrament:
    If you ask people what they associate with church, you will rarely hear anything about baptism or Communion. Yet these rituals were defining for the early Christians, so much so that on the basis of their secret Communion meetings people accused them of cannibalism. We must learn to make baptism a big deal, so that no one will think of becoming a Christian apart from in Christ dying to sin and rising to Spirit-led life. To demand with the utmost seriousness a physical act of identification and commitment as the first step of a religion that’s actually not a cult will raise eyebrows and get noticed in our culture. With Communion, as well, if we make it our constant and weekly practice, investing it with both its proper sanctity and its vitality, then we will find that all church visitors or seekers will be confronted every time they come: you need Jesus’ body and blood, but you can’t share in these while you deny Him with word and/or deed. The need to repent and enter the loving community of those who do feast on Christ’s benefits will be evident and, again, strange to a world that’s all about including everyone.
  • Worship:
    As it stands, formal worship is not a part of the lives of most people in the world, so participating in Christian worship at all stands out some. Yet people expect this for churchgoers. What is required to actually stand out in worship is two-fold: we must let worship flood the rest of our lives, so that praise for the Creator and gratitude to our Redeemer is evident in all we say and do. We must also be different in what we refuse to worship: we cannot let politicians, musicians, actors, speakers, authors, government, business, or anything or anyone else own our allegiance or affections.
  • Ethics:
    To stand out in ethics, we have a lot to do. The world thinks of itself as good. Part of what we must do as God’s restored humanity is live our lives so blamelessly and virtuously that we prove them wrong. This will mostly take the form of everyday details. While of course on larger matters like abortion and homosexuality, we stand out, these are not what make us stand apart in ways that are really valuable. The ways which count most are small. Don’t gossip at the water cooler. Don’t try to cheat anyone, or lie about all the things people think it’s okay to lie about. Don’t flatter to the face or curse behind the back. Don’t speak in vulgar ways. Don’t try to get any revenge, or hold grudges, or even just mention that you hope someone “gets what’s coming to them.” If you disagree with someone, make sure any discussion includes clarity and charity. Don’t accuse people who disagree with you of anything without doing research from their side. Don’t demonize people. Be hospitable. Welcome strangers into your home (that one in particular stands out these days). Love everyone all the time. Participate in culture while refusing to take part in the sins involved. All these little differences add up and can make us a peculiar people.
  • Sacrifice:
    Nowadays, in mainstream society no one performs animal sacrifices. So how do we stand out? Two ways come to mind. First, our society believes that we must make personal sacrifices, doing special good, to atone for our sins. We must sacrifice for forgiveness. That people believe this is clear enough if you watch any TV. We must respond with a resounding “No!” and proclaim that forgiveness is accomplished exclusively through Jesus. The other point is that people of the world offer lots of sacrifices in their daily lives which we must not take part in. People sacrifice all the time with their families to make money. When they get the money, they sacrifice their means of blessing others on the altars of the gods Technology and Luxury. Some people sacrifice their children to the goddess Fame by passing them through the fire of the entertainment industry. They sacrifice their marriages for the sake of personal fulfillment. To appease the wrathful god of Sexual Liberation, they sacrifice their bodies and hearts to people they know should not have them. All of these sacrifices, and more, made in worship of money, the American Dream, education, progress, autonomy, sex, or self-expression—we must refuse to participate in any such rituals. When we do, we will be noticed. Indeed, our society still worships the same gods as the Greeks did; they just call them by their normal names—sex, alcohol, wealth, etc.—instead of Aphrodite, Dionysus, or Plutus. And just like the Greeks did, people today think it is awfully strange when others don’t worship them as well.
  • Martyrdom:
    Martyrdom has always been unusual, so it remains one of the most powerful ways to stand out. Yet American Christians do not usually show the same spite of death that the early Christians were known for. Most still take great pains to make sure they stay healthy and whole. And to some extent this makes sense. We don’t live where you can be persecuted just for being a Christian. Yet our victory over death in Jesus must still be made known, because the watching world deals with death every day. So what we need are Christians willing to risk their lives and bodies by going on dangerous foreign missions, or even just living in dangerous parts of our own society. Christians who penetrate both hostile nations and American ghettos, who risk their lives both to take Bibles to Koreans and to help inner city youth escape crime and gangs. Those of us who are guaranteed a good resurrection by the Spirit must take advantage of this hope to accomplish the most risky ministries, and help everyone in need. Both in the evangelistic and in the socially beneficial, we ought to stick out our necks. Hanging out with people with serious, contagious diseases so they can know love and grace? That should be our work. Taking down violent criminal organizations and leaders? Who better to do that than men whose God told them to seek justice and then promised to raise them from the dead?

I hope by this point I’ve said at least something you may find helpful (goodness knows I’ve written quite a bit). If I’ve learned anything by studying the early church, it’s that Christians stood out like bright lights in dark places. Yet most modern American Christians (myself included more or less) seem to fit in well enough with our culture, sitting in the tidy little box of what the wider world thinks Christians are allowed to look like. I pray we will not stay this way, but that God by His Spirit will lead us all on to new things, so that we may be the light of the world as He has called us to. In Jesus name, amen.

 

Being Christians: Marked Out as God’s People

How Serious Was Jesus About Sharing?

Sharing. This is one of the first lessons we are taught as children. Yet this lesson is also one of the first that we forget. We may not think so, but sharing is something we really don’t do well, at least how that Jesus asked us to. Let’s see what He had to say: 

Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 

Matthew 5:42 

Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your possessions back from the person who takes them away…And if you lend to those from whom you hope to be repaid, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, so that they may be repaid in full. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to ungrateful and evil people. 

Luke 6:30, 33-34 

We’ve heard this stuff a hundred times before, but how much do we really get it? Let’s look at what our Lord actually said, with emphasis on the crazy parts. 

Don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 

Give to everyone who asks you. 

Do not ask for your possessions back. 

Lend, expecting nothing back. 

So, according to Jesus, we have to give to everyone who asks for something. Is that practical? No. What about possible? I don’t know. But God said so, anyway. There might be a little bit of hyperbole involved, but even though there may be exceptions, this should definitely be our guiding rule for when people ask stuff from us. 

Does this apply to everyone you see on the side of the road with a cardboard sign? What about every call for a special offering? These are real possibilities that we have to consider. Even in the mundane, can we refuse to share a cookie or a noodle? I’m not sure we can. 

In addition, when people just take our stuff, we aren’t supposed to bother trying to get it back. Does this apply to criminal theft? Maybe not in every circumstance, though in some this could be the right way to respond. But in the everyday, I doubt there are many exceptions. Sometimes people take stuff from you, be it a cookie or a stapler, and when possible (obviously when you truly need something you need something) Jesus would ask us to let them go. 

This trend continues into lending, of course. Jesus is clear: when someone asks you to lend them something, do so, and do not expect to get your stuff back. If they return what you’ve given them, good. If they do not, be glad they can continue to benefit from you. Do not pester them or hunt them down to get your stuff back. This is all just a way of loving our neighbor as ourselves, even when they act like enemies. 

In my honest opinion, very few of us get or do this the way Jesus said. We rationalize and come up with all sorts of excuses to reduce the “everyone” to “a few trusted friends.” We lend expecting everything back, and are offended when that doesn’t happen. As far as we are concerned, what we have is ours, and everyone else has to have our blessing to use our property. Our rights are fundamental, and their needs and desires are secondary.  We may never say anything like this, but we do act this way. 

If Jesus saw us doing this, how would He respond? I imagine He would say something like this: 

If you give only in the offering plate when you are expected to, what good is it? Do not even the hypocrites and the self-righteous do the same? And if you lend only to those you trust expecting a return, how are you better than anyone else? Do not even banks and credit card companies do this? 

Harsh. So let’s listen to Jesus.

How Serious Was Jesus About Sharing?

How Serious Was Jesus About Anger?

Anger. It’s an emotion we all experience. Sometimes we just get mad; we start feeling hostile and upset towards people or things. This is just a part of life, or at least that is how it too often seems. People just get angry. No big deal, right?

Unfortunately for all of us, Jesus was pretty harsh on anger. Here’s what He said:

You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, “Do not murder,” and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, “Fool!” will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, “You moron!” will be subject to hellfire. So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Reach a settlement quickly with your adversary while you’re on the way with him, or your adversary will hand you over to the judge, the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. I assure you: You will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!

Matthew 5:21-26

Here’s some pretty serious stuff. Jesus basically makes anger akin to murder. If you are angry with someone (some Bibles add “without a cause,” but the best texts do not include that phrase), you will be judged. If you callously insult someone, you will be judged even more severely. And if you furiously slander someone, you will be truly condemned.

Obviously, not all anger is sinful. There is a holy anger against sin, which God possesses and Jesus Himself exercised when He cleansed the Temple. This anger is not spiteful or hateful to individuals, but is in reality the reaction of authentic love to assaults on its beloved. We can sometimes share this kind of righteous indignation. But that’s beside the point.

The truth is that we spend too much time getting angry in a very unrighteous way. This is clearly and truly sin. When I get a sorry tip (which, just in case anyone would like to know, is anything under $3) on a delivery, and I get angry at the person, I have sinned and so must confess and repent. When you get cut off in traffic and want to curse at the person, you have sinned. The truth is that from many things, even really small ones, we feel a surge of anger that we don’t mind entertaining. Rarely do we resist or refuse to indulge in this hostile feeling. Most of the time we, if nothing else, at least fantasize about acting on it. This is evil of the purest (or most impure?) kind.

If you need further proof that Jesus is so serious about maintaining healthy and right relationships with other people, check out what He says about the sacrifice. He said that if you are offering a sacrifice to God (which took place only in Jerusalem), and you realize that you have a problem with someone, you must leave your gift sitting at the altar, exit the Temple, find the other person, and go make things right. Considering the audience lived days away from Jerusalem, as well, that’s a pretty big deal. We see here that Jesus would rather see you settle your disputes with others than go to church to worship.

He also mentions that if someone is taking action against you because you have wronged them, you had better reconcile with them as quickly as possible. Otherwise you will suffer the consequences, and that doesn’t just mean whatever punishment you are given by the judge. Remember, Jesus mentioned hellfire a few verses ago.

So we have to make a choice. When we are wronged and feel anger coming up, we must resist it. When we wrong someone and make them angry, we must be humble and seek reconciliation instead of getting angry in return. And under no circumstances ought we get angry for stupid reasons, even though probably the majority of the reasons that we get angry are stupid in the grand scheme of things. Finally, whenever we do get angry, we must not lash out in sin, or else things will be all the worse for us.

Basically, “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

How Serious Was Jesus About Anger?

Rare Steak and the Death Penalty

Execution. Such an awful and yet, according to many people, necessary thing. Where one life was taken, another must be. When dealing with death, people usually get touchy, so there’s no mystery behind the death penalty being controversial. I mean, some of the most heated issues in popular debate involve death (abortion, euthanasia, animal rights, police shootings, and war come to mind off the top of my head). So that the death penalty is also so divisive is no surprise.

What may be a surprise to some Christians is that even within Christianity, the death penalty is very controversial. Even though I grew up with almost exclusively pro-execution believers, I soon found out on getting older how much variety there is. Christianity even has hardcore pacifists, and apparently most of the early church fathers were anti-capital punishment. I found this quite surprising, so I’ve done a little debate and investigation.

Personally, my mental jury is still out. Both sides have plausible arguments, and I find some from each side compelling. But I just wanted to address here one particular argument I used to use, which I’ve realized is flawed.

In my old death penalty debates, the Old Testament Law would often come up. Even though the Law required the death penalty, my opponents said, we are no longer under the Law, so we do not need to execute anyone. The death penalty was abolished for us with animal sacrifices and food regulations.

While I responded with multiple arguments, one I used was that the death penalty came from God before the Mosaic Law, and so couldn’t have simply gone away along with the Law. When was this? Some of you may be familiar. In Genesis 9, the Flood is over and God is establishing a covenant with Noah and his family. On God’s part, He will never destroy the inhabited world again. On humanity’s part, God says this:

I will require the life of every animal and every man for your life and your blood. I will require the life of each man’s brother for a man’s life. Whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood will be shed by man, for God made man in His image.

Genesis 9:5-6

Here God sets up the death penalty way before Moses. So when the Law became unnecessary for believers, the death penalty probably did not because that law came from a covenant made before the Law with every human being who still lived.

But, there is a wrinkle in this argument. Immediately before giving the death penalty, God commands Noah, “However, you must not eat meat with its lifeblood in it” (v. 4). So in the same breath that God set up capital punishment in His covenant with people, He also restricted eating meat which still has blood inside as part of that same covenant.

This regulation obviously poses a problem. If we use this passage to maintain the validity of the death penalty, should we also forbid eating really rare steaks, and any other meat which still has blood inside? Both of these laws go back before Moses. They are both part of the covenant made Noah and his family, and we are all their descendants. So these two laws seem to be inseparable. The text seems to imply that if we accept one, we must accept the other, and if we say one is obsolete, we must say the other is, too.

This doesn’t prove that the death penalty is out, though. Even if we think the covenant with Noah no longer applies to us, we might find another reason for capital punishment. But this revelation certainly takes some of the bite out of the Biblical evidence for the death penalty.

Or does it? There is the uncomfortable possibility that these laws do still apply to us. After all, they were never revoked. The New Testament never says they are obsolete like the Law of Moses. Plus, God’s end of the deal (never to destroy all the human world again) is apparently still in force. Even more uncomfortably, the New Testament might actually tell us that the blood law still applies. Consider this: one of the first decisions of the apostles was the Jerusalem Council, which addressed the question of whether Gentile believers (that’s us) have to follow the Law. Here’s part of what they said:

For it was the Holy Spirit’s decision—and ours—to put no greater burden on you than these necessary things: that you abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. You will do well if you keep yourselves from these things. Farewell.

Acts 15:28-29

We all agree that at least two of the things the council said—namely that we do not have to obey the Law and that we must abstain from sexual immorality—still apply to us today. So what about the commands related to food? Well, Paul seems to indicate that we are allowed to eat food sacrificed to idols as long as we understand that idols are nothing and as long as this does not violate our conscience (Rom. 14:13-23, 1 Cor. 8). So apparently at least one of these restrictions doesn’t apply anymore. And for the rest? Who knows?

My point in all this is that the covenant God made with Noah and his descendants definitely complicates the death penalty debate, even though I myself used to use that covenant for this very purpose. In this particular covenant, separating the law against eating blood with the law requiring the death penalty seems impossible. Moreover, there is at least some possibility that both do apply. So all of this warrants more careful research. In everything, we have to make sure that we are “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 KJV). What all applies to whom? When, where, why, and how does every verse and law apply? May the Spirit lead us into all wisdom on these matters.

By the way, even if the blood law does apply, we don’t have rule out all rare meat. Based on the way meat was handled then, the point of the law appears to have been that the blood in an animal has to be drained before eating. Getting every last drop of blood out was not necessary, or all that feasible.

(As a concluding side note, this issue is particularly interesting to me because there are immediate, albeit not major, practical applications in our diets and politics. Should we support or oppose the death penalty when we vote? Are we allowed to steaks that are really, really rare? These questions need answering for us to do certain parts of life in accordance with God’s will.)

Rare Steak and the Death Penalty

How Serious Was Jesus About Turning the Other Cheek?

“Turn the other cheek.” Such a nice little cliché these days. Of course, these words come from the very mouth of God in Jesus Christ, so we should take them as having the utmost importance. Do we take them that way?

In modern American culture, we really act as though “turning the other cheek” were a joke. We would never laugh at or degrade the command, but our attitudes and advice betray us. What do I mean? For an example, let’s take a trip to Nickelodeon.

On Nickelodeon shows (think iCarly or Victorious), there is a recurring theme. The “good guys” (i.e. some of the main characters) are often wronged by the “bad guys” (random other characters, usually slightly less likable). So what do the main characters, who serve more or less as examples to the kids watching the shows, do in response? They get payback. Often with silly and elaborate plans, they avenge themselves and make fools of their enemies. And are they punished, reprimanded, or in any way shown as wrong for doing so? Never. Instead they are displayed as gloriously vindicated. Sweet revenge, on Nickelodeon, is a perfectly acceptable response to being wronged.

This is, of course, not limited to Nick. The same idea is present in mainstream TV for more grown up audiences, in their sitcoms and dramas. Even Disney has been picking up this revenge plot in recent years. And these shows are not setting the standard which the culture is prone to follow (unlike in certain other social issues like, to an extent, homosexuality), but instead reflect with at least some degree of accuracy the values of the people. Only a quick perusal of Facebook or a few minutes of eavesdropping (on people almost any age) is enough to see how ready and willing people are to stick up for their honor and hurt others. When people insult you, respond with a worse insult. If someone does you wrong, don’t let them get away unpunished. There is no thought to turning the other cheek.

You can even see this among Christians in ways just like the world, or sometimes in unique ways that are particularly detestable since they bear the name of our Lord Jesus. Consider the obnoxious, rude, and sinful bumper sticker with a cross which says, “If this offends you now, what until you see it at final judgment!” That attitude is nothing less than fleshly revenge against a world Jesus already told us would ridicule His people.

Of course, Jesus refuses to let us do any of this. Defending your own honor, getting revenge, or responding to people with insult are all clearly a violation of what Jesus said here:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.

Matthew 5:38-39

Remember that being slapped on the cheek isn’t really as much of a physical attack as an insult. Slapping someone in the face is a way to spite them. And what does Jesus say? When our reputation, honor, skills, or character are insulted or ridiculed, how should we respond? Turn the other cheek. Getting even, insult for insult and humiliation for humiliation, is explicitly forbidden. Instead, we are commanded to let them be. Do not retaliate. Don’t even bother sticking up for yourself. And why should we, anyway? There is no reason but pride. If an insult is true, we should simply listen and graciously acknowledge our fault. But if an insult is false, why bother responding? God will vindicate His people on His own time in His own way.

Despite the “amens” this might receive, Jesus’ command here is a completely countercultural idea. Our culture (along with most cultures throughout history) demands that we stick up for ourselves, defend our honor, and pay back those who wrong us. But Jesus calls us higher, to a better culture of love. In this culture, we do not get even, because vengeance is the Lord’s. Nothing we can do to a person compares to the judgment they receive from God for their sin, a judgment Jesus Himself took on the Cross. Indeed, responding to an insult with anything but kindness is an insult to God, which says to Him, “You didn’t do a good enough job judging their sin. Jesus didn’t suffer enough to cover an insult to me! In fact, I am more important than You are, since Jesus did not retaliate to those who insulted Him but remained silent.” That attitude is messed up.

So let’s review the calling: don’t bother defending yourself from people who insult you. Do not pay back anyone who wrongs you. Basically, don’t put any effort into showing that you are in the right, because if you are in the right, you have this word from God:

Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: “’Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay’, says the Lord.”

Romans 12:19

Instead, pray this prayer:

Vindicate me, LORD my God, in keeping with Your righteousness, and do not my enemies rejoice over me.

Psalm 35:24

(Heads up: “How Serious Was Jesus About…” will be an ongoing series.)

How Serious Was Jesus About Turning the Other Cheek?