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  • Christianity and Secularism

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  • Archive for October 12th, 2011

    The Cult Question

    Wednesday, October 12th, 2011 by Elgin Hushbeck

    With Romney as the front-runner, the question of his Mormon religion continues to be an issue and came to the forefront recently when a Perry supporter labeled Mormons a cult, which was then followed by calls for Perry to repudiate these comments.

    This is an issue, which if not handled correctly, could blow up in a number of directions. Romney supporters are understandably nervous that if Romney’s Mormon beliefs become an issue, it could cost him the nomination or the election. However, if the defense of Romney is to label any criticism of Mormonism bigoted that could also easily backfire and alienate many Christians who make up a large portion of the conservative base that Romney will need to win.

    One factor that makes this a huge minefield is the general ignorance of the mainstream media when it comes to religion. But the biggest problem in this whole debate concerns the word “cult.” “Cult” is one of those words that has a very large lexical domain (range of meaning) from academic/technical at one end of the spectrum to a derogatory label on the other. Those calling for Perry to repudiate the term clearly see the term in the latter sense. Because of this ambiguity in meaning I do not use the word, and have encouraged others to avoid it.

    While there certainly are some Christians who use the term in a derogatory sense, for many Christians the term cult simply refers to groups who in some fashion claim to be Christian, but who reject one or more of the key doctrines that have defined Christianity. But this gets into a discussion of just what is Christianity. I discussed this issue in my book, Christianity and Secularism.

    On these central beliefs there is very little dispute. In fact, it has been these doctrines that have defined Christianity as a religion. Groups that accept these doctrines are considered to be Christian groups. Those who do not accept these doctrines cannot be considered Christians, at least not in any historical sense.

    Some may consider it to be judgmental and arrogant to say who is or is not a Christian simply because they do or do not accept a particular doctrine or belief. First, let it be clear that we are talking about classifying groups based on beliefs. After all, if there is a difference between being a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu, does it not mean that Christians must have some distinct beliefs that can be contrasted with these other religions? Second we are not talking about an individual’s relationship with God. This is a spiritual matter that only God can judge, for only He knows what is truly in a person’s heart. We may be able to get a good indication by the person’s actions or beliefs but we cannot judge the heart.

    Groups do not have personal relationships with God. What defines a religious group is the beliefs of the group. If we were to be completely non-judgmental, then we would have to conclude that any group that claimed to be Christian was, regardless of what they believed. This would render the term “Christian” completely meaningless. Should we consider a group that believed in child sacrifice to be a Christian group? Would this make child sacrifice a legitimate expression of the teachings of Christ? Clearly not. So the question is not should a line be drawn that defines Christianity, but where do we draw that line.

    If no line is drawn, Christianity becomes a completely meaningless term that could be applied to any group or any action from the most divine to the most depraved. If, on the other hand, we compose a long and extensive list of doctrines that must be accepted in order for a group to be considered Christian, then we would indeed be arrogant and judgmental, restricting Christianity only to those groups that agreed with us in every little detail. The doctrines that define Christianity should be limited to those expressly taught in the Bible as essential….

    Philip Schaff, in his three volume work, Creeds of Christendom, surveyed the doctrinal statements and creeds of the various Christian churches down through the ages. He refers to their ecumenical creeds as those creeds which contain “the fundamental articles of the Christian faith, as necessary and sufficient for salvation.” As to the acceptance of these creeds, Schaff points out that they:

    … are to this day either formally or tacitly acknowledged in the Greek, the Latin, and the Evangelical Protestant Churches, and form a bond of union between them.

    The differences that divide denominations are mostly peripheral issues, such as whether or not some spiritual gifts are available to be used today. (pg 76-7;90-1)

    How this applies to the current debate is that Mormons reject some of these key doctrines. For example, while both Christianity and Judaism believe that there is only one God, Mormons believe that that many gods exist. This does not make Mormons bad people, but it does mean that Mormons beliefs are different from those that have historically defined Christianity.

    It is true that Mormons use a lot of the same terminology as Christians, such as referring to Jesus as the Son of God, but what they mean by this is often vastly different than what Christians have historically meant. Thus when a Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox, to name just a few, talk about the nature of God, or say that Jesus is the Son of God, and they all mean the same thing. Mormons talking about these topics may sound similar, but they mean something significantly different.

    This is not an unusual circumstance. Jews, Christians and Muslims all share a lot of beliefs. In fact they all believe that there is only one God. But they also have key differences. Thus we refer to them as different religious movements. While there are a large number of Christian groups with differing beliefs, they have historically shared a core of beliefs that has defined them as Christian. Mormons reject this core of beliefs, so the easiest thing to do is to likewise consider Mormons a different religious groups. This is not said in a derogatory sense, but merely an attempt to be accurate and precise.

    So how does this apply to the election? The simple answer is that it doesn’t. The constitution is pretty clear that there should be no religious test for office. The office of the president has no religious function, and therefore the religion of the candidate should be largely irrelevant. It would only become relevant if the candidate chose to make it an important part of their campaign, but this would in and of itself raise red flags. But Romney has not done this, and nothing in his career would indicate that he would. So as a bottom line, when it comes to Romney, while I do not believe he is a Christian, I am looking for a President, not a pastor. Thus I will be much more interested in his polices than his religion.

    The Epistles of John: Living in Truth and Love. 3 John 11a -15

    Wednesday, October 12th, 2011 by Elgin Hushbeck

    Week Five:  Oct 9, 2011

    This week we finished the study in 3 John picking up in verse 11b.   We also started 2 John, but I will start that in another post.

    II.  Body

    b.      Commendation of Demetrius (11,12)

    11b – The person who does what is good is from God. The person who does what is evil has never seen God.

    –          Some see this as a tough verse.   While this sounds good at first, as Paul writes in Romans 3:23 “…all have sinned and continue to fall short of God’s glory and so no one would be from God and everyone would be the category of those who have never seen God.     Just how do we understand an atheist who helps the poor?  What about Christians who do evil?  Just what is this verse saying? As in all issues of interpretation the context is key. John has just encouraged Gaius to imitate the good, and so this is part of the exhortation to do good and not evil.

    It is also important to keep in mind that there was tendency in  first century Jewish culture to put things in stark black and white terms.   For example, in John 15:23 Jesus does not talk about belief and disbelief, but says that, The person who hates me hates the father.” Luke 14:26 is probably the best example of this when Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother… he can’t be my disciple.”  Few would take this literally, and most see this as emphasizing that we must put Jesus first to be a disciple.

    –          So when we come to this passage, we must understand that it is in the context of encouraging Gaius to imitate the good and is presented in black and white terms.   John cannot be saying that Christians never do evil.  For he say in 1 John 1:8 “If we say that we do not have any sin, we are deceiving ourselves and we’re not being truthful to ourselves.” So what he is saying is that when looking for examples to imitate, we should look to those Christians (the context here is within the Church) whose lives are marked by doing good, and avoid those who are doing evil.

    –          So then what does this say about Diotrephes?  One option is that this is a general statement and should be seen as an exhortation to Gaius.  The other option is that this has a broader context and directly contrasts Diotrephes with Demetrius in the next verse. In short that Diotrephes has never seen God.    I believe this should be understood in terms of the former.  The discussion has moved away from Diotrephes and onto Gaius. If this were a judgment of Diotrephes, it would be a severe one.  We will see in 1 and 2 John that John is not reluctant pass judgment when needed.  Thus if he was going to make such a judgment about Diotrephes it is more likely he would do so in a  statement directly about Diotrephes, rather than in one where the connection to Diotrephes must be inferred from a statement about how Gaius should act.

    12 – Demetrius has received a good report from everyone, including the truth itself. We, too, can testify to this report, and you know that our testimony is true.

    –          Demetrius means belonging to Demeter, the Greek Goddess of fruits and crops.  This would indicate that he was of pagan origin. If his parents were Christian, they most likely converted after he was named. He apparently was unknown to Gaius, and thus the introduction included here.
    He is almost certainly the one who delivered the letter. If Demetrius lived near Gaius, he would have been known and no introduction would have been needed. If he was traveling and not yet there, the letter would have mentioned his coming.  Some suggest that he may have been one of those rejected by Diotrephes. I see this as possible but beyond what the evidence supports. This could conflict with his being unknown to Gaius depending on the assumptions about Gaius in verse 9.  He was probably there for more than just the delivery of the letter and had been sent to help Gaius with the problem of Diotrephes until John could arrive.

    received a good report from everyone

    –          In context, this is all Christians.   That this is mention abruptly following the exhortation to not imitate evil but good indicates that Demetrius is being held up as an example of the good that Gaius is to follow.

    including the truth itself

    –          Exactly what John is revering to here is unclear.   It could refer to Truth personified, i.e., that if truth could speak, it would give a good report for Demetrius.   Another option is that this is a reference to God as in John 14:7 I am the Way the Truth and the Life.   Finally it could be truth as the reality of his walk with the Lord.  In other words, that the way Gaius lives in the truth,  as John says about Gaius, (v3) testifies about him.    It is hard to say which of these John intends.

    We, too, can testify to this report

    –          Demetrius is personally known by John and he adds his testimony to the rest.   This three fold testimony is an indication of the trust that could be placed in him and the importance of his mission.

    and you know that our testimony is true

    –          Finally this is a subtle indication of authorship  – see John 21:14  “We know his testimony is true.”  This seems to be phase that John would use.

    III. Conclusion

    a.      Final words (13-14)

    13 – Although I have a great deal to write to you,1 I would rather not write with pen and ink.

    –          This is a serious matter and there is a lot to do, but John does not want to write. He has already mentioned that he will be visiting soon (v10) and has probably given more detailed instructions to Demetrius.

    14 – Instead, I hope to see you2 soon and speak face to face.

    –          Again John mentions that he is coming soon.  I always find it interesting the way idioms change from language to language.  This is literally: Mouth to mouth

    b.      Greetings (15)

    15 May peace be with you!3 Your friends greet you.4 Greet5 each of our friends by name.

    –          John closes with a standard greeting.

    May peace be with you

    –          Traditional Jewish greeting, which was frequently used by Christians.   This is the greeting used by Jesus in locked room following Resurrection  (John 20:19)

    Your friends greet you.

    –          Gaius evidently had friends who were with John and they send their greetings

    Greet each of our friends by name

    –          John sends a personal greeting to his friends who are with Gaius.  John want each specifically greeted, as opposed to a general greeting to all. These friends could be in Gaius’ household or in his church.

    Questions:  The questions this week centered on the intersection of Love and Truth.  Love asks us to be accepting.  Truth demands that we maintain standards.  How does one do both?  One question concerned how this applied to the Presbyterian Church-USA ordination of a homosexual minister in Madison, Wi?   Clearly that church was focusing on the acceptance that stems from love.  But what about truth?  The Bible’s position on homosexuality may not be politically correct, but it is clear.   But this goes to a deeper problem concerning the authority of God’s word.  Will we follow what the Bible says, or will we follow the current trends of political correctness?

    Those opposed to the message of the word of God, frequently present such issues as conflict between reason and/or science and faith, where faith seems to be defined as that which is false.  But this is far from the case.  In fact the evidence, while frequently ignored, is pretty clear.  The closer that one follows the teaching of the Bible the happier and more fulfilled will be their lives and longer they tend to live.  For the Christian, this is not too surprising.  The Bible is not an arbitrary document.  It rules were not given so that we could be punished.   Like the Sabbath, the Bible was given for help us.  The primary message concerns the reconciliation with God and our eternal life, but much of the Bible also deals with how we can life better lives here and now.

    Some of the Bible consists of thou shall, and thou shall not.  But not all the instructions of the Bible are as clear cut as you should not murder or you should not steal.  Much of the teachings of the Bible consist of balancing competing interests.  That is the one of the focuses of John’s letters, just how do we balance competing interests of Truth and Love.

    Again I will have a follow up Post to start 2 John.

    Next week we will start in 2 John 3

    If you have question about the class, feel free to send me an email at elgin@hushbeck.com and be sure to put “Epistles of John” in the header.

    See here for references and more background on the class.

    Scripture taken from the Holy Bible: International Standard Version®. Copyright © 1996-2008 by The ISV Foundation. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED INTERNATIONALLY. Used by permission. www.isv.org

    Note: Some places I have modify the text from the version ISV. Passages that I have modified have been noted with and * by the verse number and the ISV text is included in a footnote.

    Footnotes:
    1) Lit. you (singular)
    2) Lit. you (singular)
    3) Lit. you (singular)
    4) Lit. you (singular)
    5) The Gk. verb is singular