Doctrine: Reductionism vs. Wholism

Don: Doctrine gives us rules to live by, and (to some extent) gives us an identity. Obedience and doctrine go together: The more rules, the more we have to obey, and the greater the risk of disobedience. But perhaps all rules can be summed up in the Golden Rule stated by Jesus:

In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

The rule is “golden” because it is rich—the most comprehensive, the most complete doctrine. It summarizes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. It is the unidoctrine. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus condensing rules—doctrine—down to core principles. He was often asked by the Pharisees to define in greater depth some rule, belief, regulation, or law of Judaism, but He never gave a detailed or complex answer. He is a minimalist, a principlist.

This is why I think Scripture remains relevant even in the postmodern era. Answers to questions can change, depending on the availability of data at any given time and by the degree of understanding at that time; whereas questions are timeless. 

God asked Adam: “Who told you you are naked?” and Moses: “What is that in your hand?” and Elijah: “What are you doing here?” and Jonah: “Do you have a right to be angry?” These questions have not grown old over the millennia. They are just as important and relevant to us today as they were to those individuals in ancient times. The answers may change with the times, but questions He asks for our own self-introspection—about the nakedness of Adam, about the tools He gave to Moses, about Elijah’s calling in life, and about the plight of the people around Jonah—never change. 

Unfortunately, we don’t want questions. We want answers. We want them so badly we will make them up if necessary; not from malice, but because human nature abhors a knowledge vacuum, and because we fear uncertainty more than we fear erroneous knowledge. This would not be so bad if we had a system, a mechanism, and the resolve to correct error. Without such a system and resolve, made-up knowledge becomes accepted, permanent, doctrine. This leaves us highly vulnerable.

Religious organizations have never shied away from providing answers. Things of the spirit are the most uncertain, the most demanding of knowledge, of answers. Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? What does God expect of me? What must I do to inherit eternal life? These and many other existential questions seem built into our very nature. 

Jesus told the disciples:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-20)

Jesus followed up with nearly 30 verses illustrating what He meant by saying He did not come to abolish law—doctrine, but to fulfill it. He took some specific laws/doctrines and generalized them into principles. It is the very opposite of what the Sadducees expected when they asked Jesus about the law regarding re-marriage of a widow. They expected a detailed analysis; He gave them a general principle. 

This still does not seem to explain what Jesus meant when He said He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. His mission and His messages seem to show the opposite: He was careless about the laws of Sabbath-keeping, ritual purification, and any number of other rules and customs constituting Jewish law. So in what sense can it be said that He was “fulfilling” that law?

If He had said simply that He came to fulfill the law and then conducted His mission as He did, then it would seem reasonable to say that the fulfilling of the law meant getting rid of it. But He seemed to scuttle that by saying that there would not be the slightest change in the law and that whoever doesn’t teach it the way it was would be the least in the kingdom of heaven. 

What kind of law was He talking about? As the passage unfolds, He contrasts time-honored viewpoints and traditional ideas with religious understanding of what a fulfilled law would look like. “The ancient prophets gave you laws that said this, but I tell you this,” He said.

Is it possible to build a religion around principles only? Around doctrinal simplification? Or does our identity demand more granularity? Scripture says:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

That’s about as simple and general as it gets. 

David: Is it possible that Jesus was being sarcastic in saying that He came to uphold the law, not to abolish it? I am tempted to think so because the statement is utterly at odds with His other statements and behavior as described in the Gospels. He strongly implies in other passages that to be least in the kingdom of heaven is the right place to be, and to be more righteous than the Pharisees is the wrong thing to be. It sounds like sarcasm.

Donald: A patient really wants to understand from his or her physician exactly what is going on concerning his or her condition, so s/he is not likely to be satisfied with a generalized answer. Jesus seldom gave a direct answer, and was often not a little obscure. But we want answers, and religious organizations will provide them even if Jesus won’t. In doing so, they define their identity. Members of most religions are guided more by doctrinal detail than by general principles. 

Jay: In a sense, Jesus did give straight answers about the particular laws He used to illustrate what He meant by His “fulfill, not abolish” statement. But He also made them harder to obey:  It is much harder to turn the other cheek than it is to take an eye for an eye.

But as for sarcasm: Righteousness is not at all a sin if it is based upon practicing the principled law of Jesus, as opposed to the rule-based law of religion. 

Donald: If we don’t like the answers we receive, we often ask our questions again, from a different angle. 

Don: Doctors see patients with a wide range of inquisitiveness, from the very curious who want to know everything, to those who don’t want to hear an explanation at all—who just want to be told what to do. There seems to be an even spread between these two extremes, though increasingly patients come loaded with information from the Internet (which is a good thing because it involves them in their own care and care decisions). 

KB: As I see it, Jesus wants us to know and understand what we are following and what we are doing, whether it is rules or principles. God doesn’t want us to pay tithes blindly. 

Jay: On the other hand, we are called to be like little children, whose hallmark is innocence and lack of understanding.

Donald: We trust that Christ knows our hearts and motives, which takes us back to principle rather than rules.

Don: Perhaps God messed up in not laying out the rules in absolute and unambiguous detail. 

Anonymous: We ask questions because we lack trust. 

KB: The Rich Young Ruler had a valid question. Jesus did not give him a detailed list of things to do to earn eternal life. 

Donald: If He did, we would be robots. 

David: Some people treat their doctor as a God whose word is sacrosanct. Whatever the doctor says, this patient will obey. So it would be sufficient for the doctor to tell such a trusting patient: “Take this pill and start leading a good life (stop smoking, stop drinking, eat a balanced and nutritious diet, and exercise daily).” But other patients treat the doctor as though they have doubts about his or her godliness: “You’re telling me to do or take this, but on the Internet I read something different.” Such a patient requires more detailed explanation. 

Don: Doctor God could demand of such a patient (especially one called Job): “Where were you when I went to medical school? Where were you when I was laboring over a cadaver dissection? Where were you when I was learning all the physiology and biochemistry and other things I had to learn and do in order to be a doctor?” 

Donald: A prescription today comes with a long list of warnings about possible side effects, drug interactions, and so on. If one were to read the detail one might decide not to take the pill! 

Don: Is it the same for things of the spirit? Do the details become frightening, disabling? 

Jay: How does evangelism tie in to the notion of a religion formed around principles, vs. around rules? What is the message of the evangelist? Public evangelism tends to be scripted. Some is Christ-centered. Some want to stress Christian principles. We have certain doctrines that help us to operationalize the principles. If a religion or denomination structures its evangelism in this way, does it risk losing its distinctive identity? 

Robin: If one is trying to say that we need humility—which is what the call to be as a little child is about—and knowledge, then Paul had this to say:

…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19)

But in the next several verses, Paul talks of spiritual gifts:

 (Ephesians 4:7) But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 

And:

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)

But with our human minds we will get to the point where we cannot understand it, and at that point we must rest in faith that His love and grace will make up for our deficiencies. So we cannot say that one is more important than the other in our daily lives. Grace saves us, but it does not mean that we eschew knowledge and stay in a permanent stage of childhood. But when we do reach a point beyond our understanding, then we must accept that our Father understands. 

Chris: Perhaps God has already revealed all that He wants us to know. Perhaps there isn’t more to it. We want to think there is, because in the garden of Eden we found out that there is more. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that there is nothing more that we need to know—that as long as we know what He tells us (which is simple enough) and live by it, nothing else matters. Indeed, if we all could live our lives as He did, what more could there be to learn? 

Mikiko: Jesus opened his Sermon the Mount with a series of nine statements that describe persons who are truly happy. In the first of these “happinesses,” Jesus said: “Happy are those conscious of their spiritual need, since the kingdom of the heavens belongs to them.”​ (Matt. 5:3, NW; An American Translation.) So Jesus teaches people to be truly happy in life and to pray for God’s will to be done, to keep a focused eye, and more.

Anonymous: We chose our future in the garden of Eden. That’s why we’re in this world. We chose to know more. In the spiritual realm, faith is the key word. I don’t need to know anything and I can believe what is coming from God; and that is enough. I experience this in my own spiritual life. But with regard to daily life, we have been asking to know more and more since day 1. We want to know how to build, purify, heal,… everything.

Our problem is that we all left God’s way and look for other ways. If we just took God’s word! Worldly knowledge is a source of stress and misery, since we can’t help but want to know. But with God, we don’t need to know. Patients take the word of their doctor because they feel powerless, that they have no other choice. This is the curse we acquired at the Fall.

Donald: Churches say “We know more.”

Robin: People can get confused and even discouraged by the amount of knowledge their churches expect them to learn. 

Jay: The giving of oneself to Christ can have nothing to do with the specific doctrine of any church, otherwise what about all those who lived before that particular church was established? Baptism in a church has a strong implication of giving oneself to the church. As long as this is made clear to the people being baptized, it is OK, but there is great danger in tying any particular church doctrine to salvation. 

Anonymous: Good religious knowledge comes through experience more than through education. But worldly knowledge is acquired through education more than through experience. There is no need for an education with God. Churches should not be in the business of educating people about God. God is there to be experienced in people’s lives. He does not want to overwhelm us, but patiently to lead us to good knowledge through experience. 

Don: We still haven’t figured out what Jesus meant by His abolish/fulfill statement. To be continued…

* * *

Doctrine: Universal Ethics

Jay: A team from Oxford University’s Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology analyzed ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies, and discovered what they believe to be seven universal moral rules:

 1. help your family, 
 2. help your group, 
 3. return favors, 
 4. be brave, 
 5. defer to superiors, 
 6. divide resources fairly, and 
 7. respect others’ property. 

These were found in a survey of 60 cultures from all around the world. The full report is available here. A university press release says:

Previous studies have looked at some of these rules in some places – but none has looked at all of them in a large representative sample of societies. The present study, published in Current Anthropology, is the largest and most comprehensive cross-cultural survey of morals ever conducted….

Dr. Oliver Scott Curry, lead author and senior researcher at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, said: “The debate between moral universalists and moral relativists has raged for centuries, but now we have some answers. People everywhere face a similar set of social problems, and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them. As predicted, these seven moral rules appear to be universal across cultures. Everyone everywhere shares a common moral code. All agree that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do.”

The study tested the theory that morality evolved to promote cooperation, and that – because there are many types of cooperation – there are many types of morality. According to this theory of ‘morality as cooperation,” kin selection explains why we feel a special duty of care for our families, and why we abhor incest. Mutualism explains why we form groups and coalitions (there is strength and safety in numbers), and hence why we value unity, solidarity, and loyalty. Social exchange explains why we trust others, reciprocate favours, feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive. And conflict resolution explains why we engage in costly displays of prowess such as bravery and generosity, why we defer to our superiors, why we divide disputed resources fairly, and why we recognise prior possession.

The research found, first, that these seven cooperative behaviours were always considered morally good. Second, examples of most of these morals were found in most societies. Crucially, there were no counter-examples – no societies in which any of these behaviours were considered morally bad. And third, these morals were observed with equal frequency across continents; they were not the exclusive preserve of ‘the West’ or any other region.

Churches often grapple with the issue of unity. This moral code centers on unity. How does it compare (or contrast) with the unity that followed an outpouring of the holy spirit, recorded in the Book of Acts?

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people…. (Acts 2:42-47)

Can the outpouring of the holy spirit be considered the outpouring of doctrine regarding unity and obedience? What exactly does it mean to “be of one accord”?

Donald: The small group of people upon whom the holy spirit descended and who then witnessed Christianity to the rest of the world was simply a gathering of Christians, not a church. Nowadays we tend to conflate church behavior and Christian behavior. Unity is my Christian yearning but it has very little to do with evangelism and trying to bring others into the fold of my church group. Most denominations seem to focus their evangelism more on spreading the denomination than on spreading Christianity.

Jay: Jesus said:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19)

How can one be a disciple and teach others without having a doctrine (which implies specific rules) to teach?

Don: One of the remarkable things about the seven moral rules is that they do not mention God at all. They also seem too general—insufficiently granular—to live by in practice. An example of our need for specifics was given when Jesus was asked for doctrine about how a widowed in-law should be treated. This was a cultural specific, that certainly spoke to the issue of unity, but today in our culture such a specific rule about widows would be considered bizarre and even creepy.

There seems to be a level of doctrinal definition that needs to be refined, made granular, before we are comfortable with it; otherwise we doubt it, or we find it impractical.

David: We should doubt conclusions from social science research studies until we have satisfied ourselves of their validity and reliability, by examining the study’s methodology and potential biases. The study that reported seven moral rules appears to have been well conducted, based upon the following limitations mentioned in the report itself and on its suggestions for future research into the issue that could overcome this study’s limitations:

And of course, the present study has its limits. First, the study investigated the moral valence of only seven cooperative behaviors—it did not investigate the moral valence or prevalence of the other cooperative traits encompassed by morality-as-cooperation (such as forgiveness or generosity). And it remains to be seen whether the theory can be extended to provide cooperative explanations of other moral phenomena, including those encountered in this ethnographic review—industry and laziness, truth-telling and honesty, chastity and fidelity, hospitality and gossip, the virtues expected of a leader, some forms of purity, and the behavior expected by gods, spirits, and ancestors.
Second, the present study employed a sample of 60 cultures to minimize “Galton’s problem” of the nonindependence of cross-cultural data points. Hence this review cannot exclude the possibility that there are other societies—beyond these 60—that have moral values that provide counterexamples that refute the theory. Nor does the selected sample of 60 cultures completely solve the problem of nonindependence of cross-cultural data points (Ember and Otterbein 1991).
Third, the nature of the source material meant that we were able to code only for the (binary) presence or absence of the cooperative moral; we were not able to measure within- or between-society variation in how strongly these various moral values were held or endorsed, or how conflict between these different moral values was resolved. As such, we were not able to test morality-as-cooperation’s further prediction that, far from being identical, moral systems will vary as a function of variation in the value of different types of cooperation under different conditions—in other words, to the extent that individuals (or societies) face different cooperative problems, and benefit from different solutions, they will prioritize different moral values (Curry 2016). Consistent with this view, our impression of the source material was that, even if all societies shared the same moral values, they varied in how they prioritized or ranked them. In some societies, family appeared to trump group; in other societies it was the other way around. In some societies there was an overwhelming obligation to seek revenge; in other societies this was trumped by the desire to maintain group solidarity. And of course our study found that moral obligations to members of one’s family, one’s group, and to senior members of one’s hierarchy were relatively frequent, but (positive) reciprocity and fairness were relatively rare. Morality-as-cooperation would predict that this was partly because, in our sample of societies, cooperative interactions with kin and group and high-status individuals occurred more frequently (or conferred greater benefits) than cooperative interactions with anonymous, mobile strangers of equal status.13 But further research will be needed to test this conjecture.
To overcome these limitations, future work should aim to investigate the moral valence of a wider range of cooperative behaviors, in more societies, using more sophisticated methods. Theorists should mine the game theory literature to look for further accounts of cooperation that could perhaps explain further aspects of morality, and they should investigate whether the cooperative approach can be extended to as yet undertheorized aspects of morality such as sexual, religious, and political ethics (McKay and Whitehouse 2014). Ethnographers should employ new statistical techniques, including multiple imputation and two-stage instrumental variables regression, that now make it possible to overcome Galton’s problem at the analysis stage (Brown and Eff 2010; Eff and Dow 2009) and thereby potentially test morality-as-cooperation against eHRAF’s full sample of approximately 200 ethnographically attested cultures.14 And psychologists, anthropologists, and historians should also investigate the relationship between particular moral values and the corresponding individual- and societal-level indicators of cooperation—such as family size and dispersal, group size, mobility, subsistence strategy, reliance on trade, frequency of warfare, degree of inequality, political structure, age structure, resource base, and territory size (Gelfand et al. 2011; Turchin et al. 2012; Turchin et al. 2015). These predictions could be further tested by gathering new data on the full range of moral values, using survey and questionnaire methods, from representative cross-cultural samples (Curry, Jones Chesters, and Van Lissa 2019). Such work would help to move the debate on from arguing about whether or not morality varies, to explaining precisely how and why it varies, and thereby steer a middle way between the extremes of unbending moral absolutism and anything-goes moral relativism, and toward a more theoretically nuanced, and empirically tractable, view of moral variation (for one such example, see Wong 2006).

These limitations notwithstanding, a study that has to the extent possible removed sources of bias and acknowledged its own shortcomings is valuable in enabling us to conclude that it points in the direction of truth, even if it is not “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” This study, it seems to me, points to the likelihood that universal ethics do indeed exist, even if the specific universals it names are not valid or reliable.

KB: French sociologist Émile Durkheim posited that societies create and develop morals as a functional unifying imperative. With a strong religious upbringing himself, he recognized that morals are based upon beliefs, such as belief in a God. I came from outside of American society but identify with most of its moral code, especially as a member of the Adventist Church; and that enables me to function in American society.

Donald: If we could abide by the seven moral rules it would help keep us together. But to most of us they look like Boy Scout rules, and we want to embellish them and make them more complex, deep, and sophisticated. Maybe that’s what we do with simple instructions such as “Love thy neighbor.” We get caught up in debates. We think we do that in order to make improvements, but maybe it’s just a distraction. So perhaps we should just stop the debates, stop making things more complex, because it’s not doing any good.

Don: On one side of such debates are those who claim that they are advancing, modernizing, the faith; on the other side are those who claim they are holding the line against change to retain the purity of the original faith. Both sides believe they are helping the faith, which is surely a moral principle. Jesus said “Love your neighbor as yourself and worship God,” but we get tied up in increasingly granular debates pitting one side against another.

David: In our discussions about doubt some years ago, we noted that going through a period of chaos (debates are a form of controlled chaos) can be a good thing in helping people jump to a more enlightened stage of faith, to progress spiritually. It’s an old formula: The core of Marxism/Leninism/Mao Zedong Thought is the dialectic Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. So if debate is stopped—if chaos is ended—there will be no progress toward a better understanding.

Donald: What does the word “evangelism” bring to the young Adventist mind?

Jay: When I was young, it meant to make people become like us. We did not see this in a negative light. We said: “Look at me! Surely you must want to be like me!” Our motivation then seemed simple; to the mature mind, it is not so simple—we add motives, such as to help the Church expand and survive.

Don: It’s a natural human tendency to want to make a tribe, a club. It’s not just faith groups that have this tendency, and it’s not necessarily done for bad reasons. Evangelists sincerely believe they have something to offer—a point of view, a way of life, and so on. They share their faith with the best of intentions: To make life better for the other. But such harmony as evangelism may find seems superficial compared to that achieved by the earliest Christians in Acts 2 (quoted above)—until, that is, the cantankerous discussions seeking to let non-Jews into the Christian Club.

Jay: Being of “one accord” seems to be tied to—and breaks down over—the concept of being what God wants us to be. Accord disintegrates when we start getting into the detail of what God wants. If we have defined ourselves or our group as being in accord with what God wants then we open the door to dispute with others, who feel the same way about themselves and their group.

Mikiko: The Jehovah’s Witnesses believe there is urgent need for a global ethic:

An Urgent Need for “a Global Ethic”
Humanity’s survival “may depend on the acceptance of a global ethic,” says the journal Counseling and Values. “Perhaps the most agreed-upon universal moral value is the Golden Rule.” What is that rule? Taught by Jesus Christ, it says: “Do for others what you want them to do for you.” —Matthew 7:12, Good News Translation.

The moral values found in the Bible reflect our Creator’s deep love for us, for those values enable us to “walk in the way of good people.” (Proverbs 2:20; Isaiah 48:17, 18) When we follow that guidance, we, in turn, show our love for God and reap many rewards. In fact, the Bible makes this promise: “Keep [God’s] way, and he will exalt you to take possession of the earth. When the wicked ones are cut off, you will see it.” —Psalm 37:34.

Values That Elevate Us
• “Love your neighbor as yourself.” —Mark 12:31.

• “Return evil for evil to no one.” —Romans 12:17.

• “Continue . . . forgiving one another freely if anyone has a cause for complaint against another.” —Colossians 3:13.

David: The global ethic of the Golden Rule breaks down when we start to argue about its origin. Here, the claim seems to be that it was originated by Jesus. The point is irrelevant, but becomes a bone of contention. Simple Boy Scout homilies work; the devil is in the details we add.

Don: In Matthew 5, where Jesus said words to the effect: “This is what you were taught; now this is what you should really know…” He was basically suggesting a broad, universal Boy Scout code instead of the detailed doctrines of parochial Judaism. He said that this would fulfill the law, not destroy it. He was calling for a deeper yet less granular level of understanding.

Robin: Why do pastors quit their churches? Why do people stay away from church? Because there is no perfect church. And if there were, wouldn’t it be a lonely place? When we evangelize and baptize it should be in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is hard to learn not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Jay: It seems we are incapable of functioning at the non-granular, Boy Scout level. Yet we also need a granular identity, we need granular rules to live by. How do we reconcile the two?

David: It’s not inevitable that we function at a detailed, granular level, even though we tend that way. People like Jesus, Gandhi, and Mandela are revered because of their non-granular ethics. We tend to the opposite, but they prove that we can counter the tendency. If there were many people like them, how different the world would be!

Chris: We were not meant to live by rules, until we messed up in the garden of Eden. Now, we have to live in social groups and follow social constructs that require rules. They may not be bad, but they were not meant to be in the first place. God gave us grace so that we could overcome this dilemma.

Anonymous: Grace is the will of God. Loving one another proves that we are God’s children. It’s so easy and simple. The details are none of our business anyway.

Don: That’s essentially what Jesus said: “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” It doesn’t get any simpler. But we want to dive down into the deep and find ourselves entangled in weeds.


God and Government 15: Doctrine and Obedience

Jay: How would we know how to be obedient if there were no doctrine? In researching this question in the Bible, I was surprised to discover that the New Testament has more to say about obedience than the Old. Paul was particularly prolific on the topic, but his focus was on obedience to faith.

Here are some examples from Scripture:

Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart,… (1 Peter 1:22)

Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; … (Romans 16:25-27)

For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19)

Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. (Hebrews 5:8)

In our discussions of such topics, we often tend to focus on ideal solutions rather than practical solutions. For instance, we all agree (a) that we are required to try to emulate God, and (b) that God is a God of eternal love and grace. But on a day-to-day basis, where the rubber meets the road, we know we are incapable of maintaining obedience to this requirement. In our ideal (pre-Fall) state we might have been capable, but not in our Fallen state. Nevertheless, in our Fallen state we seem to need even more structure, more order, around us.

The earliest known legal code was the Code of the Sumerian ruler Ur-Nammu, written in 2050 BC. One of its 32 surviving rules established a 10-shekel fine for cutting off a person’s foot.

Without such laws, we seem incapable of maintaining order in society. But is it enough? The Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:20) followed all the rules of his day but Jesus told him it was not enough to be admitted to the kingdom of heaven. For that, he had to give all his worldly wealth to the poor. It seems that obedience to the law is necessary for the functioning of society, but is not enough for entry to the kingdom of heaven. How do we reconcile obedience to law (doctrine) that is shaped by culture with obedience to the divine law of God?

Donald: Society was once close knit. It grew from family, to clan, to tribe, to nation, to the Internet-enabled global village. We reach internal agreement on our doctrines so that we can lead settled lives. But then, we seek to impose our doctrines on others. This is humanly driven, not divinely driven, but we often claim divine authority. It was not a problem when it was all internal, but when we seek to expand through evangelism, problems arise.

David: The Code of Ur-Nammu must have existed in someone’s head before it was written down. Pre-writing oral cultures still had to have rules to keep their societies in order. Ants have them. Law/doctrine is established for good order within a community, a church, a nation, an ants’ nest; not for good order within the heart of the individual. It seems to me that individual, internal, divinely inspired self rule was what Jesus was getting at when He told the adulteress He saved from stoning to “go and sin no more.” He did not say “go and obey the law.” That’s what a Pharisee would have said. Jesus knew that she knew what was right and what was wrong, without needing a law to tell her.

It is also what He was getting at when He told the rich young ruler that just obeying the law was not enough. The young man was saddened, but did not seem surprised, at the instruction to give his all to the poor. He was not surprised because he already knew it; he was saddened because he knew he couldn’t do it. We all have a conscience, an inner light that tells us what we ought to do. We suppress or ignore it to varying degrees, but we know that it is there.

Jay: Do the law and conscience overlap? How do we know what is divinely driven, and how can we agree on it? It seems that one is based upon the other. Rules of society seem generally to be for the peace and safety of others.

Donald: Bible college provides answers. University provides questions. We seem to be talking about something that sits on the border between them. Is my conscience the same as somebody else’s half-way around the world—someone whose cultural context is completely different?

Jay: Our typical programming in conscience is that it is not culturally dependent—that it might be divine in origin, it might be the Holy Spirit, the inner light.

Donald: Notions such as property rights can be completely different in different cultures. My conscience tells me I am stealing if I take someone’s property without asking, but it will not feel like stealing to a person in a culture that views property as communal.

KB: It seems that Jesus expected the adulteress to know how to behave. He did not have to spell it out for her. Our Creator put this knowledge into us. We are born with it, regardless of what culture and religion we are born into. But there is overlap. Societies with or without a religion all made laws and demanded obedience. God is patient. He planted the seed of obedience in all of us, but He does not force it to grow. He waits for us to accept and nurture it. We produce so many excuses for not doing so. There should be overlap. It should be easy—it should come natural to us since we are born with and God expects us to do what is natural to us.

Mikiko: Today, many people listen only to their intellect. But Scripture says:

Jesus, in turn, answered them and said: “What I teach is not mine, but belongs to him who sent me.  If anyone desires to do His will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or I speak of my own originality.” (John 7:16-17; New World Translation)

and

In answer Peter and the other apostles said: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.” (Acts 5:29; New World Translation)

Many people today think only with their own minds.

David: That Scripture supports the argument that we know what is right and wrong. There is overlap, certainly. It arises because the ability to distinguish right from wrong has been in us since the Fall. Once we developed the cultural artifact of writing, we tried to capture and codify that knowledge in writing. But other cultural artifacts influence what we write and how we write it, so it becomes corrupted.

The Code of Hammurabi is the first known written record of the Golden Rule (treat others as you would have them treat you). It must have been in the Babylonian people’s hearts and minds before it was written into the Code. A millennium and a half later, Jesus essentially repeated this, in telling us that the most important rule is to love our neighbor. Two millennia after Jesus, we explicitly acknowledged the supremacy of this over any written law in the Nuremberg Trials, which (in effect, though not in these words) established that the defense of “superior orders” was not acceptable in cases of violation of the Golden Rule. Implicitly, Nuremberg recognized the supremacy of a higher power: The conscience. The overlap exists and is OK until we try to put our written law above the unwritten divine law.

Donald: The problem is in thinking that we know what God wants and then evangelizing. How can we tell other people what God wants? The world’s religions each have their take on what God wants.

David: I am with the majority of scholars who (according to Wikipedia) believe that verses 9–20 in Mark were not part of the original text but were added later. I do not believe that Jesus would ever have said:

“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:15-18)

Or, as Matthew has it:

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

I believe that the true teachings of Jesus are contained in such stories as the stoning of the adulteress, where His message is personal: “You go and sin no more.” He did not add: “…and tell your sisters not to sin, either” because He knew that her sisters knew it anyway.

Dr. Singh: Jesus appointed preachers, pastors, and elders. He said: “Treat the flock of God and stand firmly in faith.” That is our responsibility. Society may try to convince us that faith is personal and should not influence our political decisions, but it is our responsibility as appointed preachers and elders to speak out.

Jay: The Great Commission calls upon us to go out and baptize everybody—to get people to follow the principles I follow, to think the things I think. To Christians, that does not seem to be a problem, but it may be a problem to those who think very differently.

Robin: God said:

I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, … but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Exodus 20:5-6)

…and Jesus said:

“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15)

It’s easy to be obedient for the big things, but not if someone says something to hurt me. I end up having to pray every day about my disobedience to the little things. We are all different. Some people are more emotional while others are more logical, and that affects obedience. We are at war with ourselves; our emotion sometimes overcoming our logic and making us do things we know we ought not to do.

Donald: We can say things to one another, in this class, that we might not say to (or be willing to hear from) people outside of it, because we have established relationships among ourselves. We have formed a community of mutual respect without needing a thicket of principles to maintain it. But if we leave things to our conscience, I don’t see how it can work, since everybody’s conscience is different.

Jay: It seems that the older we get, the less certain we become about what in youth we thought of as absolutes. We treat “divine” and “truth” and “conscience” as absolutes, which implies that they are a commonality, a universal, among all people. If we could find a Golden Rule we could all live by, then our ephemeral cultural artifacts would not matter. The problem is that we seem to think that we need to compromise in order to achieve commonality.

David: Indeed we compromise when we establish common law. People do differ in conscience, as Jesus taught in the parable of the soil and the seed. Some of us are fertile soil for the Word of God—our inner light—while others are stony and just can’t nurture the seed so well. But the seed is there, and all God wants (!) is that we turn to it. The common law is an OK substitute up to a point, but is not the ultimate authority in life.

Donald: Up to what point?

David: Up to the point where the inner light takes over—if we let it.

Donald: I think most of us would agree that we take the norms of our society to be synonymous with what should be the norms of the world. As the Internet spread knowledge of differing social norms around the entire world, people were shocked at other people’s norms. No wonder we are so divided, when what is normal in one culture is utterly abnormal in another. They are worlds apart.

David: They are worlds apart in terms of their codes of law. They are not worlds apart in terms of loving one another, loving their children, showing mercy at the individual level, and so on. This love is identical in all of us. Our various cultures may have a corrupting influence on love—people kill because a doctrine tells them to.

Donald: Doctrine defines churches.

Jay: We will continue the discussion next week.

God and Government 14: Defining Doctrine

Don: Jesus told the Sadducees that they understood neither Scripture nor the power of God. If “understanding Scripture” is defined as doctrine, then was Jesus putting doctrine not in opposition, but rather in juxtaposition, to the power of God? Was He saying that doctrine needs to be studied to be understood, whereas the power of God is a matter of revelation? We launched this study of doctrine several weeks ago, to try better to understand what Jesus meant.

We’ve learned that doctrine is a body of teachings or beliefs held by a group—a faith group, in our case. We’ve asked if doctrine is a tool of faith or of fear; if doctrine says more about God or more about us; if doctrine influences culture more, or vice versa; and how can we tell what parts of our doctrine—of our teaching, of our beliefs—result from God’s revelation or result from our cultural understanding. It depends on the looking glass through which we view these things. 

Is it possible to see God in any way except through the looking glass of culture, to which we seem so inextricably linked? If not, is it possible that God uses culture to reveal Himself? If so, how do we distinguish between what is culture’s and what is God’s?—with respect to the food we may eat, for example: 

The Lord spoke again to Moses and to Aaron, saying to them, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘These are the creatures which you may eat from all the animals that are on the earth. Whatever divides a hoof, thus making split hoofs, and chews the cud, among the animals, that you may eat. Nevertheless, you are not to eat of these, among those which chew the cud, or among those which divide the hoof: the camel, for though it chews cud, it does not divide the hoof, it is unclean to you. Likewise, the shaphan, for though it chews cud, it does not divide the hoof, it is unclean to you; the rabbit also, for though it chews cud, it does not divide the hoof, it is unclean to you; and the pig, for though it divides the hoof, thus making a split hoof, it does not chew cud, it is unclean to you. You shall not eat of their flesh nor touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.

‘These you may eat, whatever is in the water: all that have fins and scales, those in the water, in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat. But whatever is in the seas and in the rivers that does not have fins and scales among all the teeming life of the water, and among all the living creatures that are in the water, they are detestable things to you, and they shall be abhorrent to you; you may not eat of their flesh, and their carcasses you shall detest. Whatever in the water does not have fins and scales is abhorrent to you.

‘These, moreover, you shall detest among the birds; they are abhorrent, not to be eaten: the eagle and the vulture and the buzzard, and the kite and the falcon in its kind, every raven in its kind, and the ostrich and the owl and the sea gull and the hawk in its kind, and the little owl and the cormorant and the great owl, and the white owl and the pelican and the carrion vulture, and the stork, the heron in its kinds, and the hoopoe, and the bat.

‘All the winged insects that walk on all fours are detestable to you. Yet these you may eat among all the winged insects which walk on all fours: those which have above their feet jointed legs with which to jump on the earth. These of them you may eat: the locust in its kinds, and the devastating locust in its kinds, and the cricket in its kinds, and the grasshopper in its kinds. But all other winged insects which are four-footed are detestable to you.

‘By these, moreover, you will be made unclean: whoever touches their carcasses becomes unclean until evening, and whoever picks up any of their carcasses shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. Concerning all the animals which divide the hoof but do not make a split hoof, or which do not chew cud, they are unclean to you: whoever touches them becomes unclean. Also whatever walks on its paws, among all the creatures that walk on all fours, are unclean to you; whoever touches their carcasses becomes unclean until evening, and the one who picks up their carcasses shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening; they are unclean to you.

‘Now these are to you the unclean among the swarming things which swarm on the earth: the mole, and the mouse, and the great lizard in its kinds, and the gecko, and the crocodile, and the lizard, and the sand reptile, and the chameleon. These are to you the unclean among all the swarming things; whoever touches them when they are dead becomes unclean until evening. Also anything on which one of them may fall when they are dead becomes unclean, including any wooden article, or clothing, or a skin, or a sack—any article of which use is made—it shall be put in the water and be unclean until evening, then it becomes clean. As for any earthenware vessel into which one of them may fall, whatever is in it becomes unclean and you shall break the vessel. Any of the food which may be eaten, on which water comes, shall become unclean, and any liquid which may be drunk in every vessel shall become unclean. Everything, moreover, on which part of their carcass may fall becomes unclean; an oven or a stove shall be smashed; they are unclean and shall continue as unclean to you. Nevertheless a spring or a cistern collecting water shall be clean, though the one who touches their carcass shall be unclean. If a part of their carcass falls on any seed for sowing which is to be sown, it is clean. Though if water is put on the seed and a part of their carcass falls on it, it is unclean to you.

‘Also if one of the animals dies which you have for food, the one who touches its carcass becomes unclean until evening. He too, who eats some of its carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening, and the one who picks up its carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening.

‘Now every swarming thing that swarms on the earth is detestable, not to be eaten. Whatever crawls on its belly, and whatever walks on all fours, whatever has many feet, in respect to every swarming thing that swarms on the earth, you shall not eat them, for they are detestable. Do not render yourselves detestable through any of the swarming things that swarm; and you shall not make yourselves unclean with them so that you become unclean. For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth. For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy.’”

This is the law regarding the animal and the bird, and every living thing that moves in the waters and everything that swarms on the earth, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the edible creature and the creature which is not to be eaten. (Leviticus 11)

Against that, we have: 

Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you:

‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”

After Jesus called the crowd to Him, He said to them, “Hear and understand. It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”

Then the disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?” But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:1-14)

So are prohibitions on the food we may eat cultural prohibitions or a revelation from God? What about prohibitions on sexual behavior?…

“If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel.

“If there is a girl who is a virgin engaged to a man, and another man finds her in the city and lies with her,then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city and you shall stone them to death; the girl, because she did not cry out in the city, and the man, because he has violated his neighbor’s wife. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 22:22-24)

On the other hand…

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them.The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court,they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?”They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”]  (John 8:1-11)

Again, is this a matter of culture or of revelation? In Jesus’ response we see an interpretation apparently completely different from the teachings of the Old Testament. There are more examples, such as the matter of baptism by immersion—the ritual washing away of sin. How are desert-dwellers to be baptized by immersion in that rarest of desert commodities? Whence do Eskimos in the Arctic obtain the bread and wine for holy communion? Are baptism and communion matters of culture or of revelation?

The Maasai god Ngai exists in two forms. Ngai Narok, who represents the good. He is black. Ngai Nanyoke, the other form, represents evil, and is red. (The Maasai are said to have originated in the Nile delta, where the good god Osiris, who was black, battled the evil god Seth, who was red and white.) 

“The Maasai have also built their spirituality around their pastoral way of life, through the omnipresence of their cows. For them, Ngai has gifted them with cows, which He-She sent from the sky, making them descend from a long rope. To the Maasai, therefore, cows are the link between them and God. Drinking the milk of a cow and eating its flesh is seen as a communion with the Creator, a highly spiritual act. Even though we will not believe in a descent of cows from the sky, it still shows the degree to which the pastoral way of life has deeply influenced the thoughts of the Maasai.” (The religion of the Maasai)

Is it troubling to face the possibility that much of our doctrine may be cultural, rather than divine, in origin? That much of what we believe, teach, and practice may not be right for all people of all times, everywhere? Is it possible? Is it even likely that it is God’s plan to reveal Himself to us through culture? How else can we hope to see God, if not through the lens of our individual cultural context? If doctrine should be timeless, then how do we make it so? What parts of our doctrines are timeless and not culture-bound? 

Donald: Do we ever try to appreciate cultures that are not ours? Do we ever consider blending our cultures? 

Jay: How do we show obedience without doctrine, which tells us how to act in very specific ways? Is this culture-bound? Every culture has norms concerning obedience. How much does a culture’s desire to be obedient to God shape its doctrines? 

Robin: The food laws given in Leviticus are presented as revelation from God, through Moses, not as culture. 

David: Obedience is at the heart of Confucianism. Confucius extended the principle of filial piety (whereby the family is to follow the father in all decisions and look to him for guidance and wisdom) to the organization of government: The individual household owes obedience to the local ruler who must in turn obey those above him, all the way up to the emperor. Confucianism has been turned into a minor religion (and Confucius into a minor god), with temples dotted throughout China, but it remains in essence largely what it started out as: A philosophy. The same is true of Daoism. 

Some people indeed can’t help but religionize philosophy, but as a whole, Chinese culture—representing a quarter of the world’s population—does not fundamentally have a tradition of obedience to a disembodied deity. Confucianism is not much concerned with spirit or spirituality. Other cultures around the world have commingled philosophy with spiritualism, but what is notable (in my observation, having lived among them for a decade and speaking their language) is that the Chinese on the whole are no better and no worse than anyone else, in terms of their propensities for love, mercy, and grace. 

Therefore, I must question the need for a religion to provide doctrines telling us how to behave. I don’t question the need for a culture to build rules of obedience, simply but vitally to maintain order in society. But for an individual undertaking a spiritual journey, rules of behavior are stifling, and risk snuffing out the inner light—the only reliable source of rules of behavior. 

Dr. Singh: Paul set an example for Christians. He tried to appeal to people’s social and cultural backgrounds. He held that Jewish culture was not binding on Gentiles who were willing followers of Christ. He wrote: 

To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law;to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law.To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.  (1 Corinthians 9:20-22)

Donald: I know a young woman undertaking a spiritual journey in what she feels is a troubled world today. I was spared this as a young Adventist, growing up in a world and a set of behaviors we accepted as the norm. Whether it was cultural or religious, it was just the way we were, the way we practiced our faith. There were things we did do and things we didn’t do on Sabbath. They were clearly defined and well specified. To the outsider, they might not have made much sense. Some of us look back on those times and ways with a tender smile, but some (even Adventists) are beginning to question them as time-bound dogma. Time and Life magazines were our window on the world. We learned about other cultures through them and mission stories. That time has gone; its easy-to-navigate single-lane highway replaced by a dizzying multi-lane superhighway. It’s harder to stay in lane. 

David: Of all the Scriptures quoted today, the story of the adulteress in John 8 seems to me to be the most telling. Jesus told the woman, after successfully convincing the murderous crowd to examine their own consciences, to “Go and sin no more.” He was saying: “It’s up to you. The sin is in you, and the knowledge that it contravenes God’s law, is in you.” The starkly clear implication, to both the woman and the crowd, was that Jewish law was wrong. 

Dr. Singh: My father was shunned sometimes by his family and neighbors when he became a Christian. They expected him once, for example, as the village elder, to decide on which Hindu temple they should attend, and he refused. 

Mikiko: In Japan, people don’t believe in resurrection. One of my relatives got angry when I became a Christian.

Jay: Has God said to specific people at specific times things that are not timeless and universal? For example, was the revelation to Moses about what foods to eat intended only for those people at that time? I am wondering because there are passages in the Bible where God told someone to go and kill entire populations—men, women, and children. If a prophet were to announce today that God had directed the slaughter of women and children, what is the likelihood that the prophet would be believed? We consider Paul to be one of the greatest evangelists of all time, who was prepared to compromise anything for the sake of spreading the Gospel—except the Gospel itself, wherein lay the true timeless, culture-free Word. 

It’s easy to make doctrine out of something that supposedly comes from the mouth of God if it fits with our current cultural biases—such as diet, for example. But a vegetarian diet would hardly meet the cultural biases of the ice-bound Eskimo.

Dr. Singh: Once, an entire Hindu family was prepared to convert to Adventist. After months of preparation, the day of conversion arrived. The head of the family ask for one last cup of tea before the conversion ceremony, and was refused. He therefore withdrew his family from conversion, because of this narrow-minded strictness. 

Don: Does God use culture? Must He use culture? Can the inner light be effective without culture? 

David: That the Chinese are no different to the rest of the world in listening to the inner light—in being fundamentally good—strongly suggests that it can. Christians have a huge problem in having to put the law of Moses—dietary restrictions, murderous looting and pillaging, and all—ahead of the inner light. Yet Christ Himself implied—gently but firmly, to the adulteress and her persecutors—that the law of God revealed by the inner light, the conscience, is all that matters. So yes, it is not just possible but even, in my view, essential that a relationship with God and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong be entirely outside the trappings of culture. 

Jesus gave us just two fundamental commandments to live by: Love God and love your neighbor. Since by loving your neighbor you automatically love God, there is really only one rule: The Golden Rule, which (Wikipedia tells me) was enshrined in the Code of Hammurabi nearly two thousand years before Christ. The God of Christ (as opposed to the Christian God) would surely be pleased for the Christian to participate in Moslem and Jewish and religious Daoist worship rituals as a way of expressing love for one’s Moslem and Jewish and Daoist neighbors.

Anonymous: Some cultural doctrines are close to the Bible. All must surely have roots in some ancient Scripture. The Bible has had a strong influence on Middle Eastern culture. Morality is a deeply held principle; its contravention punishable by death. Its roots are in the Bible. The Bible stresses that instruction about God should take place continually, all day long, as the only way to preserve God’s Word. We gave the job to churches and schools, and are not adhering to the rule. And the world is a mess. 

So when God says to do something like kill others, however hard it may be for us to understand, we must accept that He has a purpose; that He wants to preserve the faith, to prevent dilution by idol worshipers. I am sure God is far more just and merciful than I am, and had we followed His words exactly, we would not be in this mess, There would be no other gods to confuse us, no modern Babylon such as we are now living in. His instructions are very simple, and specific, and to the point. Why don’t we follow them? It’s too late now. Thousands of years have elapsed. God set the base for us to be always with Him. That would be the easiest way: “Follow me. Do what I say.”

David: The absolutely critical question then becomes: “What does God say?” The terrorist sends out little girls with suicide vests strapped around them into the busy marketplace on the strength of what God purportedly said, of protecting and preserving the one true God. Is the terrorist doing nothing wrong? Would Jesus strap bombs on little girls to slaughter them and other innocents? 

Anonymous: It does hinge on the belief of the individual. If a person believes a doctrine is from God, then s/he is guilty if s/he does not follow it. If I can pick and choose between the doctrines I like and those I don’t, then all is confused. It’s all or nothing. To make exceptions is to say that one is smarter or more merciful than God, or a better interpreter of God’s Word than the Bible. If we had obeyed God’s Word since the days of Moses then we would not be in this mess right now, getting further and further from God. 

Robin: In Eden, there was one man and one woman. So how do men get around that? They said: “I will marry any woman for whom I have lust.” They ended up with hundreds of wives, plus a few concubines. Even Solomon and David. How is that not adultery? This is men interjecting what they thought God really meant. 

Anonymous: But the Bible never said at that time: “Do not marry more than one.” It was OK, and what made it OK was our culture, going further and further from the word of God. Maybe it’s because we started paying attention to our feelings and how that hurts. We created another rule, according to our feelings and convenience and viewpoint. But the Bible is not like this at all. The Bible is very clear, specific, and easy to follow, if only we would do it. It says that if someone comes to you and tells you that there is another God, you must kill him and have no mercy. It could even be your son or your mother! But if it saves an entire congregation for eternity, is that not a sacrifice worth making? It would preserve the pure God.

David: It would preserve the cultural God that we have made. When it comes to clarity, is it likely that the adulteress whom Jesus saved from stoning was confused by what He said to her—that she had sinned, but not because of anything God told Moses? The message I get is that the woman was not in the least confused; that her eyes were opened. 

Dr. Singh: Mohamed and Solomon had many wives. Ecclesiastes tells the story. God loves everyone, that’s why He sent Jesus to us.

Anonymous: Paul said that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. Grace is not a cover-up for sin. It’s a way to bring people back from their sinful life. Otherwise there’s no point to it. He forgave the adulteress and from that point on she stopped being a prostitute.

David: We don’t know that. She was human. 

Anonymous: We are always prone to sin. 

* * *

God and Government 13: Doctrine and Culture

Don: We’ve been discussing doctrine as it pertains to faith groups. But does doctrine say more about God than about us? Does doctrine have a greater influence on culture (either in the broad sense or in the narrower sense of religion/the church) or does culture influence doctrine more?  

We know from psychological studies that a person’s worldview—how s/he views the world—is typically developed through a stage of maturity between the ages of 18 months and 13 years. Although worldviews can be refined, the basic tenets of how we see ourselves, our community (tribe, faith group, etc.), and God are firmly established by the time we reach the teenage years. So, too, are doctrines, and our view of God. It is not surprising that Solomon said: 

Train up a child in the way he should go,
Even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

His instruction was that children should be brought up in the Way. In my view, this is the very viewpoint espoused by Jesus in His teaching and in the passage we are studying.

To be sure, our behavior is subject to change. Our practices can be modified. Our actions can be altered and amended. But a basic worldview seems set at a very early age. Our view of God, of religion, of doctrine is established early, and like life itself, it becomes native to us. Today, people talk of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” in relation to how things digital are assimilated into the culture. Maybe we can use the same illustration, that in matters of faith there are religious natives and religious immigrants. Like language, religious views are established at an early age and stay in some form, on some practice, for really their entire life. While new languages can be learned, they are nearly always accompanied by an accent, a way of speaking that betrays that they are not our native tongue. 

Someone once told me that only those who are born into a given faith group are truly genuine. Those who join are not “real” [Adventists, Catholics,… name your faith group here]. This is how the Jews felt in Jesus’ day, and explains why they tested His doctrinal pedigree. What did Jesus mean when He told them in response that they knew neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? God is a mystery, faith is a mystery, grace is a mystery. We have an overwhelming need to objectify God, faith, and religion.

The Second Commandment specifically prohibits the objectification of God:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,…  (Exodus 20:4-5)

It is not just about making idols; it is about making concepts of God. We are prone to make God in our image. Our need for a sensory experience of God—to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch Him—is part of our very nature. To me, doctrine is an implied sensory experience because it requires action and is actionable. It is an objectification of God, and seems to be what Jesus was alluding to in the passage under study and even more clearly here:

“You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you:
‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Mathew 15:7-9)

Honoring with the lips is sensory worship. Paul put it this way: 

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. (Colossians 2:18-23)

Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. Colossians 3:1-2)

And yet, we must recognize that there is a need for some objectivity, for some doctrine, for some teaching, for some direction. They are not easily to be trivialized and discarded. They seem to have some real value, some importance, in our lives.

Like the stages of social development popularized by Piaget and Erickson, the stages of faith have been studied by Fowler and Scott-Peck. Stage 1 might be called the “antisocial” stage—a selfish, self-absorbed stage where faith is essentially non-existent. It is characterized by chaos, disorder, and recklessness. It is seen in 2-year-olds, in egotistical adults who lack empathy for others, and in some criminals. They are unwilling to accept a will greater than their own. 

Stage 2 is marked by blind faith in the authority of others. The world is seen in binary terms—black/white, right/wrong, us/them—in religion, where stage 2 people are eager to adhere to the doctrine and teaching of their church (which they find easy and unambiguous) and don’t question the decisions of church elders. 

Stage 3 is marked by skepticism and questioning. Stage 2 logic and answers no longer seem clear and unambiguous, and grow harder to live by. But while skeptical of church authority and rules, stage 3 people remain highly spiritual, and constitute the group known to pollsters as “SBNR”—“spiritual but not religious.” They tend to value community and equality, to support local charities, and to be strong humanitarians and environmentalists. But organized religion is not for them. If they somehow continue to seek, to look, to be led by the spirit, then they may find themselves in stage 4.

Stage 4 people value mystery, beauty, and the transcendent nature of God. Strangely, they are often drawn back to formal religion, back to the church of their childhood, that they left long ago. But now, they go for a completely different reason: The divine mystery of it, rather than its certainty. This creates problems for people in the church who are still in stage 2, seeking to understand and preserve the doctrine and rules and live by them. They do not understand the freedom with which stage 4 people seem to treat the doctrine and the rules. The stage 2 people are looking for answers, whereas the stage 4 people are looking for questions. It is a recipe for conflict, with each group pulling in opposite directions. Stage 2 values clear direction on how to act; stage 4 is more concerned with meaning, motive, and message than with action. 

Does doctrine have more value than drawbacks? Or vice versa? Does it define us, or do we define it? 

Donald: I think evangelism factors into this. Regardless of what stage I am in, what right have I to tell someone else they need to move into my lane? Retail is folded with Amazon. Education is folded together with online learning. Change is occurring much more rapidly than ever before. Phase 2 people want to keep things as they are, and so tend to reject phase 3 people. Because of our human need to understand and quickly organize our surroundings and experiences, we tend to rush to enclose it—freeze it—in a picture frame. We show that picture to evangelize others. 

Jay: As with Amazon and online learning, the old way of doing business, of functioning, has changed—replaced by a new way. But the product stays the same, whether it be a dozen eggs or an education in quantum physics. Is doctrine also just a way of doing business, and therefore subject to evolutionary change? If culture shapes doctrine—if doctrine is neither universal nor timeless—then the sacredness of doctrine seems to come into question.

Unknown: That’s why there are so many denominations. They adapt doctrine to culture. There is no grey area in doctrine—God was very specific. Once we start to compromise, then we step into a grey area. 

David: Suppose that during the age of discovery, explorers had carried no doctrinal baggage. How different might their meetings with new cultures have been? How different might our own cultures be? Despite all the inroads the explorers made into the cultures of India, the Pacific Islands, Indo-China, etc, how much of Hinduism, Confucianism, animism, polytheism, etc., did they carry back to make inroads into the their own homeland cultures? The problem is that evangelism is, by definition, a one-way street. And evangelism is a product of doctrine. If we approached other cultures as mysteries rather than mistakes, and plied them with questions rather than drilled them in our answers, what a better world we would have. 

Don: Does doctrine say more about us, or more about God?

Donald: We dislike disruption. It forces change. Words matter. Stage 2 people might find our class discussion disturbing. Should they be encouraged to aim for stage 4?

Don: God loves and saves people no matter their stage. People should be free to relate to God in their own way. 

Donald: Is the current debate about the ordination of women in our church between stage 2 and stage 4? 

Jay: It is an example of the influence of culture on doctrine. Last week, KB gave us a specific illustration involving South African culture and Adventism. It seems impossible to assert that culture—the circumstances of our birth, upbringing, traditions, and so on—does not affect how we perceive, understand, or implement doctrine. The early European explorers carried their culture to “new” lands and their native peoples. It seems arrogant of the explorers to have presupposed that those people could have no true perception of God until they, the explorers, arrived. It seems, even, untrue, because timeless and universal commonalities in the perception of God really did exist between the explorers and the natives, but were denied because they were not wrapped in the explorers’ doctrinal blanket. 

Donald: Time seems to play a major role. Younger generations may take a different view of some aspects of doctrine than the older generations they are destined to replace. Is doctrine timeless, or is time disruptive or even destructive of doctrine?

Jay: Something that can be disrupted cannot be timeless. Something that is timeless cannot experience disruption. 

Donald: So it boils down to the question: What’s essential? “Readers” were texts intended for freshmen, defining the institution in space and providing perspective on who and what the institution is and why it exists and how connections are made with ideas amongst itself. It was used in a variety of classes before it fell apart over disagreement about what was essential. 

Mikiko: As a child, I was taught there was a hell that delivered eternal torment; that if I told a lie a monster would take me to hell, pull out my tongue, and throw me down a mountain of needles. As I grew older, I began to doubt the hellish idea. But today’s generation does not seem to be taught such ideas as children. 

David: I was shocked to see vitriol in an Adventist blog about a conference that had apparently discussed the ordination of women. Both proponents and objectors quoted the Bible profusely in support of their positions, not so much substantively in terms of the actual issue, but more to justify their doctrinal stance and how they applied their doctrinal position to administer the church (for example, defending a refusal to allow every delegate to speak on the issue).  

Jay: If doctrine is about God, who is timeless and universal, then true doctrine must be timeless and universal. It is not time-bound or culture-bound. If doctrine does not reflect these attributes, then it becomes disruptive. 

Pastor Ariel: Culture is like the smell of a house. How do we know what our house smells like to other people? We live there, so we no longer notice it even has a smell. I’ve heard people question whether the gospel that we preach is Biblical or American. We need continually to be mindful about injecting perceptions that we ourselves cannot perceive. [The pastor was sitting behind the microphone, so the rest of his comment was too garbled to transcribe reliably.—Ed.]

Donald: The Adventist blog was a private, internal conversation that we might wish others would not see. What about evangelism? The evangelist says: “I have something you need to have.” Is that cultural?

Pastor Ariel: Our pioneers had to go through the “Great Disappointment,” a very painful experience almost identical to what the disciples went through, to remove the crust of a cultural lens that was blocking and blurring the picture of who Jesus actually was. Even in Acts 1 we still see some of that blurriness, when they are asking: “Are you going to establish another kingdom?” It is a difficult thing to shed, and God sometimes has to use painful, disappointing, experiences to confront us with things that ought not to be there. Our evangelism, what we are sharing with the world, is not something we have concocted ourselves but something that God has led us into. But it is not the complete, full, final word. There is still much cultural crust to shed as Adventists, as Christians. It’s just a very painful process.

Don: Last week we noted that James White noted in a letter that they had just “downed a 200-point porker.” A doctrinal diet is part of the crust that obscures those timeless and eternal principles that are not bound by culture: God’s grace and mercy and so on. But we don’t really have a way outside of our culture to embrace this. The overwhelming need of Mankind is to objectify God and make God a sensory experience. Because of that, God is always bound up in culture. 

Pastor Ariel: God made a very anti-cultural statement in the 2nd Commandment, against the making of graven images—which is a universal cultural propensity. God knows that we will fall short in this respect. 

* * *

God and Government 12: Doctrine in the Life of the Believer

Don: The story in Matthew 22:23-33 we have been studying is also captured by Mark:

Some Sadducees (who say that there is no resurrection) came to Jesus, and began questioning Him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves behind a wife and leaves no child, his brother should marry the wife and raise up children to his brother. There were seven brothers; and the first took a wife, and died leaving no children. The second one married her, and died leaving behind no children; and the third likewise; and so all seven left no children. Last of all the woman died also. In the resurrection, when they rise again, which one’s wife will she be? For all seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. But regarding the fact that the dead rise again, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken.” (Mark 12:18-27)

The essence of the question we (and, in a way, the Sadducees) are asking is: What role does doctrine play in faith? Is doctrine a tool of faith, or a tool of fear?

The word originates from the Latin for teaching, or instruction. It is a code of belief, or a body of teaching or instruction. Doctrines constitute the principles of a branch of knowledge or a belief system. The Greek word for catechism is similar in meaning. All faith systems, religious groups, denominations have doctrines stemming from holy writing, revelation (real or imagined), or from tradition. In simple terms, doctrine is what God revealed to us Himself about how He wants us to live, to believe, and to act. And all faith groups believe that their understanding, their belief, their interpretation, their way of thinking, their way of seeing God is authentic, unique, and (above all) correct. Most feel, in addition, that their doctrine is immutable: Timeless and unchanging.

In the passage above, Jesus seems to establish a clear doctrine—clear teaching or teachings—on doctrine itself. First, said Jesus, the doctrine must come not just from reading scripture, but from interpreting and understanding it. Second, the power of God can overwhelm doctrine. Third, and most significant: By paralleling doctrine to the lives of Abraham, Moses, and Jacob while stating that He is the God of the living, not of the dead, Jesus seems to be saying that doctrine is to be a living, vibrant, growing, organic, and ever-changing document—like life itself.

Every faith group cling to its doctrine as never-changing. We have no way to modulate, change, or even just to tweak, our own doctrine. Even in Jesus’ time—and Jesus was perhaps the greatest proponent of doctrinal change—doctrine did not change. And even during the Reformation, the church burned heretics at the stake rather than change its doctrine. Even today, we shun, disfellowship, or otherwise isolate those who share doctrinal differences with us. They are viewed as rotten apples which, if not ejected or at least censured in some way, will infect the whole barrel.

We have no mechanism to embrace, examine, or adopt change. We need a sort of pending file, to store other viewpoints so they can be studied, examined, vetted, and maybe even tried out on an experimental basis in practice. Some may be seen in a new light and accepted; some may be rejected as uninspired drivel. All faiths and denominations act this way, including my own.

Take, for example, our prophetic paradigm: In the Book of Revelation we see ourselves, our country, and our Western civilization in vivid imagery, from which we construct doctrines—teachings and interpretations that fit us, speak to us, and reassure us. This is good, and not to be dismissed as wrong. But what does this prophetic paradigm—our doctrine, as we understand it—say to the Eskimo, the Palestinian, the sub-Saharan African, the peoples of the vast expanses of Asia? How does our story relate to them? If the Bible is a timeless, eternal, everlasting Word for all of God’s people, then the doctrines of the Bible must apply to all people everywhere and in all ages.

George R. Knight, professor of church history at the Theological Seminary at Andrews University, performed a great service in pointing out how our doctrines have changed through history. The change has not always been formal, in the sense of planned, deliberate action; but often through the informal, individual expression of new ideas that took on a life of their own and grew organically, fostering change in both thinking and practice. His classical article in Ministry magazine in 1999, titled “Adventists and change,” began with these provocative works:

“Most of the founders of Seventh-day Adventism would not be able to join the church today if they had to subscribe to the denomination’s Fundamental Beliefs.”

He went on to point out, in case after case, areas where our understanding and practice have changed, and our doctrines along with them. Even Ellen White herself, in 1906 made this provocative statement:

“For sixty years I have been in communication with heavenly messengers, and I have been constantly learning in reference to divine things, and in reference to the way in which God is constantly working to bring souls from the error of their ways to the light in God’s light.”

She later acknowledged that from time to time her advice to the early church had been mistaken, and that she had “run ahead of the angel.” Take, for example, the eating of pork—a subject of ardent discussion from the very earliest days of the church. In 1850, James White published a powerful argument seeking to prove that eating pork was quite appropriate in the Christian era, based on the following passage in the Bible:

On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky. (Acts 10:9-16)

Another early church Father in the late 1850s, Steven N. Haskell agitated against the eating of pork. Ellen White urged him not to press his personal viewpoint, so as not to cause division among the early church. At that time, James and Ellen White, like most other Adventists, ate pork. We know this because on the back of a letter from Ellen to her sister, in which Ellen urged her sister to cook some pork for her husband, James wrote “That you may know how we stand on this subject, I would say that we have just put down a 200 pound porker.”

By the early 1860s, Ellen White’s views on pork began to change. A new disease, trichinosis, had been discovered in hogs. In 1863, she had what became known as her “health reform” vision and advocated the eating of clean meat and even vegetarianism. Another early church Father, John Loughborough, said about the creeds of that time:

“The first step of apostasy is to get up a creed teaching us what we should believe. The second step is to make the creed a test of fellowship. The third step is to try the members by that creed. The fourth step is to denounce as heretics those who do not believe in the creed. The fifth step is to persecute them.”

James White agreed. “Making the creed,” he said, “is like setting a stake barring the way to all future advancement.” The Bible, our church Fathers have always said, is our only creed. We reject everything in the form of a human creed.

So what do we need doctrine for? Do we benefit from it? Does it divide us or unify us? Does it lead us to God? Or does it simply provide us with identity?

Donald: Ideas evolve, so it is troubling to think that people are excluded for not observing an idea at a particular stage of its evolution. Identity seems important. Our group gets together to discuss our beliefs. We are good to one another as long as we all endorse those beliefs. We fall apart otherwise. Adventism today is different from times past. But its doctrines come from Scripture as well as from traditions. When traditions form doctrine, we are bound to have trouble in a global community of differing traditions.

David: Traditions evolve, too. It’s the evolution of God and religions that causes so much confusion and trouble. Jesus pointed to just two things as being really important: Love God and your neighbor. These are not tradition, and so are not subject to change. They are unchanging and eternal personal principles. If we act upon them, we are never going to shun or persecute our neighbors, no matter how different their tradition. Unfortunately, we allow human doctrines to override them.

KB: In my culture, when boys reach the age of 12 or 13, they have to go live on the mountain for a month, in the winter, wearing only a light blanket. Then they are circumcised. The idea is to prepare them for manhood. Prospective brides prefer a man who has been to the mountain. The boys’ fathers are proud to have a son who has gone to the mountain. But many Seventh Day Adventist mothers challenge the tradition, demanding to be shown its Scriptural justification. Some take their sons to hospital for a less painful and much safer circumcision, and don’t let them go to the mountain.

The problem is, first, that even within the church, young men who have not been to the mountain are not considered man enough to preach or perform other duties; and second, that preachers move from church to church, so inevitably some come from areas that don’t observe the old tradition. The older generation questions their credentials to preach. Now, our Conference has even directed that young men who want to be pastors should first go to the mountain before they go to college to study theology.

Donald: There is much Adventist evangelism going on among the deeply traditional Masai of East Africa. Can a Masai be so readily changed? Culture and faith are so intertwined, it seems, that tradition could be strangled. But the Masai hold to the simple philosophy that we have two hands and can therefore hold two things at the same time; and so it is with ideas. For them, there is no dissonance in holding both their faith and their tradition.

KB: Our community, too, is tending that way now. At church camp, we hold celebrations for those who have just gone to the mountain. We pray that they be blessed. We think that God doesn’t care whether or not they have been to the mountain, but our culture does.

Jay: It is a wonderful example of how a culture can survive religious intrusion by holding both together, not treating them as either/or.

Donald: Borders set by colonialists in Africa often cut through tribes and cultures. People on either side found themselves with separate, foreign, identities that damaged or destroyed their common traditions and cultural bonds.

KB: Doctrine is important in providing direction.

Mikiko: Before Noah’s Flood, people could not eat pork, rabbit, or camel, because they were ruminants. But afterwards, Jehovah God told Noah:

Every moving animal that is alive may serve as food for you. Just as I gave you the green vegetation, I give them all to you. Only flesh with its life—its blood—you must not eat. (Genesis 9:3-4)

The people of Okinawa are the longest-lived people on earth, and their staple food is pork!

David: Besides “Love God and your neighbor,” what doctrines are needed to provide direction in life?

Jay: I think the answer depends on the individual, and on what stage they are at in their relationship with God. It is like a child going through stages with its parents as it grows and learns new things. Doctrine can be helpful so long as it does not try to replace God. I cannot imagine not being Adventist. Many Adventists cannot imagine the taste of meat—it might as well be cardboard, for all they know. Our traditions and culture become ingrained in us and help determine how we live our lives. There are Adventist doctrines that help me follow the universal doctrine of “Love God and thy neighbor.” But if I elevate our local doctrines to the level of divinity, where to ignore or cross them would be a sin, things get dangerous, and identity starts to interfere with the relationship with God and one’s neighbor.

KB: Before I was baptized, I recited the 17 Fundamental Beliefs of Adventism. These were essential to helping me get started in the church. They were something I could hold onto as I learned to adapt.

Donald: They helped you change lanes. And those of us born into the church tend to feel ours is the right lane.

David: Church programs such as serving in soup kitchens are one way to help members of the church follow the universal doctrine of “Love God and thy neighbor.” Do such programs amount to doctrine? Daoism does not prescribe a Do Good doctrine as the means to follow the Way; on the contrary, it prescribes a passive Do No Evil doctrine, to avoid either doing evil or to minimize the effects when evil is done to one. Was the Good Samaritan following an organizational doctrine when he helped the victim on the road, or was he just following the “Love thy neighbor” universal doctrine? The Daoist doctrine is equally universal, in the sense that, if it were universally observed, there would be no victims, no neighbors in need, to start with.

Donald: It is more important to treat people well all the time, instead of just doing good at weekends.


God and Government 11: The Role of Religious Doctrine in Mediating Our Relationship with God

Don: In His “render” statement, Jesus seems to be saying that in every life, there are circumstances that require us to recognize the influence of God and government respectively, and to recognize that each does have some authority over us—an authority to which we are required to respond when we can. 

For most of earth’s history, God and government have been substantially overlapping entities. In theocracy, God is government, but throughout the ages, government has used religion to control and manipulate people, and the church has often used government as an agent of influence as well. The concept of separation of church and state is a relatively recent idea, seen particularly and primarily in western democracies. But even there, we see constant challenges to it. The idea that government should try to regulate its citizens through all means, including religion, is not an easy concept to dismiss.

Historically, religion has had a strong influence on people through its readiness to furnish explanation and give meaning to things they don’t understand. Mankind lives in fear of both the known and the unknown. Religion has always been willing to fill the gap in the unknown, to answer the deep and existential questions of life. It is a great irony that religion’s willingness to reduce fear by answering questions about the unknown is matched by its willingness to introduce fear by setting up the believer for control and manipulation through its explanations of the unknown. Government has been known to do this, too. 

But if there is one message with unmistakable clarity from Jesus, it is that we do not need to fear God, because He is a God of love. It might be argued that throughout the ages, fear has been the basic currency of the church and church government. It has provided believers with a powerful motive to change their behaviors and as such is a powerful method of control. But as time passes and knowledge increases, the gaps in our understanding of the various aspects of life—biological, psychological, environmental, technological—grow narrower. 

What relationship ought to exist between God and religion? What role does doctrine have to inform us about God? On the day Jesus made His “render” statement: 

… some Sadducees (who say there is no resurrection) came to Jesus and questioned Him, asking, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother as next of kin shall marry his wife, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers with us; and the first married and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother; so also the second, and the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had married her.”

But Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at His teaching. (Matthew 22:23-33)

Jesus was addressing the question of how much we need to know about God and about how God runs the universe, in order to be able to understand and relate to Him. The doctrine to which the Sadducees were referring is this:

When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:5-6)

Jesus was putting into context these Man-made rules that govern people’s lives. He seems to dismiss the question of whether the doctrine—the law—is important, and following the passage just quoted, He went on to talk about what was really important: 

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

How can religious rules be altered? What are the criteria by which believers can govern themselves in terms of their living? Are we prone to ascribing to God, or to religion, things that have nothing to do with God? 

David: We allow religious priesthoods to tell us what is holy; what is right and wrong. I don’t think this is their prerogative. 

Don: Our grandchildren and future generations will clearly have a different view of religion from that of ourselves and our grandfathers. What does this mean for the future of the church as an institution? This is the bigger question that arises from the passage we are discussing. The Sadducees seem genuinely concerned about it, but Jesus does not. Why not? 

KB: In South Africa, one of the two Adventist conferences split into two at its last session, along generational lines, over money. The poorly paid young pastors, and younger people in general, publicly objected to the mismanagement and misuse of church funds to support the older pastors’ luxurious lifestyles, of which there was plenty of evidence. There was corruption, basically. The issue tore some families apart.

Although I shared the opinions of the breakaway faction, I could not bring myself to leave the Conference. We were told we would be cut off if we joined the breakaway group. The thought of not being a member of the Adventist Church any more frightened me and many other young people who sympathized with the group but decided to remain. It seemed to be a bureaucratic matter rather than a spiritual matter, so in that sense, I felt it was not my business.

The old people in the Conference basically did not want to believe that the pastors to whom they looked up were corrupt. They did not want to hear evidence that their tithes had been misspent for so many years. Now that the dust has settled, I can’t help but wonder whether God cares whether I remain an Adventist or not, whether I should have stood up for what I believed to be the truth. Like so many, I felt I was just caught up in something beyond my control. 

Jay: It is amazing how, for many people, their identity is wrapped up in their formal religious affiliation. They cannot imagine life outside the church. How would they function? What would they do? It is a powerful force. But we are examining that very question: Whose force is majeure: Is it God’s or (church) government’s? Are there deal-breakers to the church that are quite irrelevant to God? What about the things that church offers that really do bring us into a closer relationship with God? Our church only came on the scene in 1844, so what about all the millennia preceding that year? Our church did not exist then, but God did. In the absence of church, there still had to be ways to commune with, to follow, to obey God.

This is not to cast doubt on the structure, which we tend to expect to harness the power of faith to explain the inexplicable to us. In doing so, we make that structure critical to our identity; hence, it becomes hard to imagine life without it. But what if we were to leave the church? Would it change our behavior? Our character? Our relationships with others? With God? If so, would it be change for the better, or for the worse? Our church does have doctrines about how it is to be structured, but they bear little resemblance to the very specific doctrines specified by God in the Bible. If it was so important to Him, why are we not following His instructions to the letter? Why are we so sure that ours is the right doctrine today? 

Robin: Our denomination is small relative to some others, so why should we expect that God will consider it more important than any other? God has preserved His people throughout history. He called them “believers” or disciples or His church. It was people, not God, who started splitting them into denominations. We received specific messages, intended for a specific time, not necessarily for all time. But people who are in a denomination for a long time, like the elder pastors KB spoke of, start to feel they deserve something extra. Where is the humility in that? The world teaches us that we deserve something—a new car, more pay—for our efforts. Are the rebellious younger pastors merely envious? If so, where is their humility? Did the two groups not get together to pray over the issue? Pentecost was about unity. But thousands of years of sin have blinded us. It is very sad, but it is everywhere. 

Don: Mankind seems compelled to make graven images. Whether it’s the Kaaba, the Golden Calf, or a doctrine or other concept or idea, we have to have an image, an idol. When Jesus said: “You don’t understand the scriptures or the power of God” He was calling us to something much higher, much grander than the doctrinal images we make. What exactly is that? Is it achievable, and if so, how? In some ways, we Adventists treat the Sabbath as an idol. We are so convinced of its rightness, its authenticity, its importance, that we put it on a pedestal. 

David: If I have understood him correctly (not a sure thing!), in his new book, Gersham Nelson shows that Jesus Himself was objectified, turned into an idol, by Paul and the early church fathers. I was struck to learn that the group that preceded the official church—primarily the disciples and family of Jesus—was called “The Way” at the time. China too has “The Way”—the Dao of Daoism—as well as (still) a very large pantheon of earth and heavenly gods. But it does not have a single idol representing a true supreme being, only the concept of heaven itself, and it does not have a central or “state” religion. It embraced Buddhism from India, but except in Tibet (before it was shamefully colonized by China) and a handful of south and southeast Asian nation, Buddhism has not served as a state religion in the way the Abrahamic religions do.

The separation of “church” and state has always been largely the case in China throughout its long history. The country has fared just as well as any other, and its people (who account for a quarter of humanity) are no worse (Tibet notwithstanding) than others. Which then begs the question: What difference would a state religion have made to China? Perhaps we could look to China to help us at least dimly understand what Jesus meant when He talked of there being something higher than doctrines and idols. True, Jesus Himself went to the temple in Jerusalem and clearly approved of people going there to pray—else why grow so angry at the impediments placed in their way? So He was fine with a religious structure that helped people develop their relationship with God, but that seems to be the extent of his approval. God, not doctrine, is what people need.  

KB: We worship constructs, such as the Sabbath, as a result of indoctrination by elders in the church and our families. They tell us what to do, and we follow. This is separate from the relationship with God, which ultimately is more important. But the church does seem to influence how that relationship develops. It is hard to separate my relationship with the church from my relationship with God—hence, it is hard to think of leaving the church. Adventism challenges us to continue the search for the relationship, but using its structure. 

Robin: The reason to become a vegetarian is because it is a healthier diet, not because it is a doctrine. Why did it become doctrine in the first place? It should not be simply a matter of identity—there are plenty of non-Adventist vegetarians—but we do tend to want to own it! 

David: Adventism, like all other monotheistic religions, popped into existence fairly recently in the history of Mankind, and it (and the other religions and denominations) could pop out of existence just as readily, and soon. With the younger generations starting to question their religions and religious doctrines, and with the potential for their replacement by online “spiritual media,” there is no guarantee, nor even (in my opinion) a likelihood, that religions will last forever. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I think Jesus was pointing out that there is something closer to the core of humanity that will never change and never pop out of existence, something upon which we can always depend for spiritual support. People are afraid to lose their religion because it serves their social, emotional, and sometimes material needs, and that is understandable, but their relationship with God (such as it is at any given time) will remain intact. 

Jay: Jesus’ response suggests that the kingdom of heaven is indifferent to our worldly social constructs and laws, such as marriage laws and customs and paying taxes, are at best inconsequential and at worst destructive. Understanding this changes perceptions regarding the importance of these constructs. 

Don: But we see Jesus undergoing baptism and practicing at the temple as a Jew. So He was an adherent of at least some Jewish practices, which suggests that He found some value in them. The specifics of temple construction, given by God, must have some meaning. Our problem is that we take such things and objectify them. We turn them into idols. How can we organize and govern our religions in such a way as to avoid this injurious tendency? 

Jay: This is the overlap in the Venn diagram. The world tries to remove the gray area by pulling the circles apart, but Jesus wants us to pull them closer together, so that God and government share the same goals. That’s why he was so angry in the temple. 

Anonymous: I think the instructions we receive in the Bible were given for our benefit while we exist on this earth only. It is not a matter of ultimate importance, because of God’s love for us. Everything that stands between us and God, whether it be a church, a doctrine, a belief, a person, or other human construct, is not from God. There was no church in the time of Jesus. People just followed His Way. It was only when the Catholic Church was established that doctrines and rules and buildings and priesthood’s and so on were established. We have been going further and further from God.

He gave us the Light, the Way, and it’s up to us to find it. We don’t need help from anyone but God to find it. Most churchgoers accept their church’s interpretation of the Bible. They do not chew it and digest it for themselves, so their relationship is based on the shaky foundation of the ideas of others. Why not experience life on one’s own, led by the Word? If I go wrong, God will correct me. If I go in the right direction, God will encourage me to keep going. In the end, it’s up to me to live my life according to the Bible. The closer I get to it, the happier and the better person, citizen, Christian,mother, and friend I become. I grow more faithful, and a better follower.

Of course, Jesus was right: Who the brother’s widow married doesn’t matter at all. What matters is that the brothers cared for their sister-in-law, and gave her security throughout her life. The Bible offers good life lessons to help us in this life, and if we do heed them, life is better. But it does not mean eternal hellfire if we don’t heed them. 

Don: It’s easy to dismiss doctrine (as Jesus shows us in this passage) but there seems to be some value in it, too. The question is how do we find that value, and apply it to bringing us closer to God. 

* * *

God and Government 10: No Sense of Time or Place

Jay: A recent article in the Adventist magazine Lake Union Herald argues that the SDA church and its official publications should be politically neutral, expressing preference for neither conservative nor liberal views. In essence, the article author is arguing for the separation called for by Jesus in His “render” statement (given in the three synoptic Gospels, quoted in our first post on the topic of God and Government). Last week we too applied the church vs. God context to our study of the “render”statement.

Early in our discussion of the general topic we imagined God’s and Caesar’s realms as two overlapping circles (a Venn diagram) and sought to analyze the areas of overlap and non-overlap. I propose we now repeat the analysis, but with circles for God and Religion instead of God and Caesar, and taking the story of Jesus overturning tables in the temple (Matthew 21) as a potential example of overlap between church and God. He told the merchants selling wares and changing money that the temple was a “house of prayer,” not “a robber’s den.” The story as recounted in John 2 quotes Jesus as telling them: “Stop making my Father’s house a place of business.”

Does that story help us to determine what is to be rendered to the church and to God, respectively? If so, what are they; and is there any legitimate overlap—are there any elements common to both church and God? Any and all elements of God are universal and timeless. Can we say the same of any and all elements of religion? In His “render” statement, Jesus has us focus on Caesar’s image on the coin. Is “image” a common element of Caesar and God; or, in the present discussion, of religion and God?

David: In the temple, what Jesus seemed to be getting at was that the merchants were obstructing worshipers from reaching God. The temple is a place people go to in the belief that they will find God there. And by their faith, God is there. The temple is His house. His presence does seem (to me and many others) to be enhanced by the grandeur of the building—the world’s great cathedrals, mosques, and temples can awe us into humble silence. Jesus clearly had no problem whatsoever with the concept of a house of God. On the other hand, a temple costs money to build and maintain, so the temple builders and keepers are not wrong to ask worshipers to help pay for it—unless (as Jesus was distressed to find) they charge for entry. The worshipers belong to God, not to the temple and its authorities.

Robin: The temple was designed as a sacred place for people to meet and commune with God. In Jesus’s time, it was full of noise and distractions—animals for sacrifice, and so on—that would have inhibited that meeting and communion.

Donald: The fact that Jesus Himself went to the temple shows that He acknowledged the value in it. But a temple (and a religion) takes organization and financing and regulation. Jesus always had issues with the Pharisees, but not with their temple—does that tell us something? If Jesus came back down today, whose temple would he choose to visit?

Jay: So a place can instill a sense of awe, of sacredness, a stirring in the soul, a sense of “something there.” In our discussion so far, “place” has meant a temple, a church—a building that requires organization and management. Does it have to be such a place? At the time of Jesus, it seems to have been so. The Jewish nation had received very specific instructions from God to build and maintain a temple. But what about the rest of the world, in other eras—considering that God is universal and timeless?

Donald: I’ve been privileged to have traveled to many parts of the world, and can attest to the fact that there are natural places, with no organized religious affiliation, that inspire a sense of sacredness and awe. Yosemite and the Serengeti, for instance, are pages in God’s second book that show us the beauty and grandeur of Creation.

David: Of course, many (perhaps most) people in the world have no access to anything as inspiring as Yosemite or the Serengeti, and even those who have regular access—the people who live their lives in such places—perhaps fail to see the grandeur in what, to them, is commonplace.

Statistics show that attendance at religious services as a whole is declining, so the attraction of wood, stone, or brick-and-mortar “temples” for worshipers must be weakening. Today’s (and, increasingly, tomorrow’s) young people get their grandeur—they seek and find their sense of spiritual place—in other-worldly fantasy games on screens and in virtual reality headsets.

Jay: Does church help or impede us in giving to God the things that are God’s?

David: It served to help the contemporaries of Jesus give their worship to God (hence His anger at the merchants for obstructing it). Tithes are intended to provide the buildings and the pastors that help people get closer to God. If tithing promotes rather than impedes worship (and it appears to promote it) then tithing is in the overlap but is not in conflict with God’s realm.

Robin: The Old Testament was extremely detailed about the construction and furnishing of the tabernacle, suggesting that God knew that people needed an awe-inspiring environment to draw them to Him—that dilapidated hovels would not cut it for most people. But some religions and sects aim for unadorned settings to invoke humility. Some forbid music or singing. But these reflect human ideas of spiritual value, not the divine ideas of the God of the Old Testament.

Chris: We are beings that need things to be tangible, that can be seen, heard, smelled, and touched. Things in God’s realm are intangible, so are harder for us to comprehend. Organized religion can give us a tangible hold on the intangibles of God—love, kindness, peace—but the experience is different for every individual.

David: Whether it’s an austere Quaker meeting room, a comfortable but plain Kingdom Hall, or a grand mosque, temple, synagogue, or cathedral, they all serve to bring the individual worshiper closer to God.

Donald: To me, the joy of Sabbath morning is in getting together with our group to share thoughts and ideas that stimulate my spiritual experience, even though it is conducted amid filing cabinets! We don’t dress up, we are very casual, and yet it’s a sacred experience. It’s unfortunate that in general, organized religion seems to see its role as to define parameters rather than bring us closer to God.

Jay: God seems to have been very specific about the setting for worship. It involves all the senses—materials beautiful to the eyes and touch, music pleasing to the ears, incense pleasing to the nose. It must have a purpose, and I think it is to serve as the overlap, the interface between God and Man. Jesus took major issue with anything that obstructed access to it. If God went to such lengths to specify the setting for worship, why don’t Christians, for the most part, build churches like that any more?

Donald: The answer is: The New Testament. The congregation that listened to God deliver His Sermon on the Mount stood or sat on a bare hillside. As long as the focus is love, charity, and other divine attributes, the setting seems unimportant.

Robin: I think we can assume that Jesus did not preach during rainstorms or sandstorms or under the burning mid-day sun. In Michigan, we would need a sheltered place in the depths of Winter. God’s second book is not always open for worship, at least not without extreme discomfort at times!

Jay: Did the group gathered for the Sermon on the Mount constitute a church?

David: Jesus said He is present “wherever two or three are gathered” in HIs name, but He said nothing about a church. As I read it, His aggression against the merchants in the temple was not because they obstructed assembly or ritual communal worship; it was because they obstructed personal worship—individual communion with God. To God, ultimately, it’s the individual sheep that count. The flock is just a handy organizing principle.

Rimon: He was angry also because the merchants were self-serving, with no regard for their fellow Man.

Jay: Was Jesus protecting the individual or the group? Isn’t the wellbeing of the group a greater good than the wellbeing of the individual?

David: I think it’s the individual, but I could be wrong!

Donald: Music can inspire. Not much more than a hundred years ago, to hear music you generally had to go somewhere, like a church, where musical performance was organized. Now, we can listen to any music anytime, anywhere, in the highest fidelity. We accept virtual concert space. Will we soon accept virtual worship space? I join class in a virtual place: A Skype screen. As worship grows more universal in this way, then perhaps it becomes more difficult to discriminate among religions.

Jay: God prescribed how the tabernacle was to be built at a time and in a place where He knew that such a temple would inspire awe in worshipers. But times change. We can now be awed by sitting in my armchair and watching and listening to Handel’s Messiah performed (awesomely) on YouTube by the choir and orchestra of King’s College, Cambridge, and other famous ensembles worldwide. People no longer have to go to church to hear good music and song. The world is growing flat, knowledge and information is increasing—and is increasingly available everywhere. Technology enables people to be “virtually” anywhere they want, in an instant. What does that say for “place” today?

Mikiko: It’s nice to get together to worship our Father and is pleasing to God. But some people—the sick, for example—cannot get to church or congregation. Jesus taught us how to worship individually in Matthew 6:9—by shutting oneself into a private room and praying in secret.

Jay: Praying in private is a universal way of worship, unbound by time, place, or culture.

David: The temple prescribed by the God of the Old Testament came with an appointed hereditary priesthood. That may have been appropriate for the time, but it was outdated (at least in the view of protestants) by the time of the Reformation, whose central radical idea was “a priesthood of all believers.” This is essentially the same radical idea Jesus had about the temple: Every individual worshiper should have access to God, with no middleman, whether merchant or priest, to stand in the way. Protestant lay clergy serve to help with that access, not to impede it. [Postscript: I am sure this is true of Catholic priests today, too; but it was the corruption of medieval priests selling indulgences (essentially, selling access to God) that brought about the Reformation.]

KB: God has given clear principles and specific instructions about how to serve and worship Him—how to render to Him that which is His. We don’t always have the resources to do it exactly as prescribed, but can substitute whatever we may have at hand to achieve the same goal. The materials to build a tabernacle are not available to villagers living in the jungles of Africa, but a palm-thatched rustic hut can serve equally well as a place of worship.

Donald: Is God OK with informal worship?

Jay: Good question.


God and Government 9: Church Government and The Future of Religion in A Time of Institutional Irrelevance

Don: Dilemmas between God and government occur when government forbids what God mandates, and when God forbids what government mandates. When must we resist a mandate, and when should we surrender to one? The issue is centered upon authority, as was illustrated in the stories of Daniel and the three Hebrew worthies we have studied. They did not accept Nebuchadnezzar’s authority to control their worship and dictate to their conscience.

There was a time when the church controlled every aspect of life, both religious and non-religious. It determined what you could eat, how you could relax, how you should spend your money. It controlled your family, your sexuality, procreation, education, death and burial, and—most significantly—what would happen to you after death. People lived in mortal fear of losing eternal life if they crossed the church. Excommunication was eternal damnation. Baptism, communion, last rites, and other sacraments were subject to the church, the gatekeeper of the future.

The essential issue of the Reformation was control of people’s destiny; of salvation. The protestant concept of a priesthood of all believers, whereby anybody could approach God directly, was radical and disruptive. The idea that faith alone was the conduit to God triggered a long, slow disentanglement of believer, church, and salvation. Even so, as recently as my own generation and the one before it (the so-called “greatest generation” that lived through both the Great Depression and WW2), uncommon stock was still placed on the relationship with the institutional church. This led, in many cases, to substantial regulation even by Protestant churches.

Today’s generation, however, is different. For them, the institutional church is more than not feared: It is essentially irrelevant. This brings us to the question of the day: What is the future of religion in a time of institutional irrelevance? What moral compass do we live by if the church is no longer in control? And what, if anything, does the weight of Scripture add to the issue? What will God look like to people a thousand years from now?

A recent Pew poll found that 72% of all US adults believe in heaven, but only 58% believe in hell. In historically black churches, the ratio is 93%–82%. In mainline Protestantism, the split is 80%–60%. For Catholics, it is 85%–63%. It is lowest, among Christians, in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, at 50%–7%.

But by age, only 21% of all US adults aged 18-29 believe in hell. How can the church generate a righteous, motivational fear when only 21% believe that they risk eternal damnation? What is more dangerous for the church: Resistance, or indifference? What does the church want: Our belief, or our practice, or both? What is the future of religion in an age of scepticism, lack of fear, and technology?

Robin: There is a healthy scepticism that searches the Scriptures to read what they have to say on points of doubt. This is not a lack of faith.

Don: When I was a boy, my elders never questioned the church. What the church said was the truth. It was unusual to hear anyone take exception to the church’s decisions. Today, there seems to be much indifference toward church in today’s generation. The data suggest that a central factor behind this is the sense that church no longer controls one’s destiny.

David: If Pew would measure spirituality alongside adherence to religion, I suspect we would find they are negatively correlated.

Don: They often ask respondents: “How often do you wonder?” or “How often do you have a sense of wonderment?”

David: Religion remains relevant if its role is to assist those who wonder—those who are undertaking a spiritual journey by asking questions. But it is irrelevant if its role is to direct, to govern, people in that journey. “Resistance” to authority in these contexts is different.

Donald: One may voluntarily surrender one’s authority to church if one wishes to belong to it. But one may not voluntarily surrender to state authority (the police, etc.) something that is a requirement of citizenship. Citizenship is not an option (for most). So following state law is not an option—it is a requirement. But what about a creed? What about the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh Day Adventism? Is it OK to ignore one or two of them? Or is it all or nothing?

As for institutions: Are Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google, etc., the only institutions that millennials find relevant to them, and to whose authority they are therefore prepared to surrender?

Don: You are suggesting that a new set of institutions is supplanting the old set?

Donald: The old institutions have been leveled, and people seem prepared to give their all to the new ones.

David: The Catholic Nicene Creed must be spoken aloud by celebrants at every mass (if I recall correctly). I believe in its fundamental message but disagree with some of the details, but a Hindu (for example) could not believe any of it. There is no opportunity in the Catholic mass for anyone to speak up and voice doubt about any part of the Creed, yet that would seem to me to be the most valuable opportunity it could give its members—that would be the ideal role for the Church.

The only authority that can vouch for the truth of any given creed is God, in the form known as the inner light, or Holy Spirit.

Robin: There are things in Scripture I don’t understand. That does not mean I disbelieve them, or give up on them. My recourse is to ask God to give me that understanding when He knows I am ready to receive it.

Donald: In my observation, the younger generation of churchgoers tends to want membership but does not want to practice what the church preaches. Young people want to define for themselves what they should practice . Some Catholics have abortions, some take contraceptive pills.

David: Hot-button issues, rather than spiritual fundamentals, seem to be what keeps some people in church. Catholics vehemently opposed to abortion readily identify with the Church’s position on it. Could it be that sects and religions use non-spiritual issues to attract and maintain members, in the way that politicians use spiritual issues to attract voters?

Dr. Singh: The Hindu government in India is claiming that all Indians, no matter their faith, have Hindu DNA because they were all converted at some point from Hinduism. This is an example of political use of religion.

Jay: Organized religions, being generally premised upon moral values that existed when they were founded but that have since been modified, are unable to adapt to the times. It gets harder as society grows more globally and cross-culturally enlightened, which results in spiritual dissonance as we realize that religion is a man-made structure designed to help everyone everywhere to relate to God. That makes it difficult for members of a religion to retain the conviction that God prefers or favors their religion over all the others. Our interpretations of things revealed are often humanistic. Inflexible rules about diet, alcohol, abortion, stealing, and so on, are based on such humanistic interpretations. It grows harder to imagine God looking down and saying: “That religion has got it right!”

A human social construct—a community—has inherent characteristics, and a self-definition based on them. A prospective community member either already has the characteristics or is willing to assimilate them. The characteristics and their resultant construct (a religious community, say) are not necessarily bad, but it must be recognized that they are human and therefore unrelated to a spiritual realm whose characteristics are physically insensible. In order to comprehend the spiritual realm, we attribute humanistic attributes to it. We want a picture of it, but an ancient miniature from some dynasty localized in space and time has less appeal, and makes less sense, to a generation whose picture frame encompasses the globe in a setting of eternity.

Mikiko: Humans are imperfect and their thoughts differ one from another. That’s why there are so many religions. The differing translations and interpretations of the Bible have resulted in so many different sects.

We know that we originate with God, but the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one. (1 John 5:19–New World Translation)

Good and bad people alike live in this world, so our differences are not surprising.

The Bible suggests that we do have spiritual DNA:

Your eyes even saw me as an embryo;
All its parts were written in your book
Regarding the days when they were formed,
Before any of them existed. (Psalms 139:16–New World Translation)

Chris: There seem to be two sets of DNA: God’s, and (any given) religion’s. DNA determines characteristics. The characteristics of God—love, grace, kindness, etc.—are timeless. Jesus had them, but the religion of His day had different DNA, just as our religions do today. Even lapsed members of a church retain some of the characteristics of a church member—a vegetarian diet, say. It’s in their religious DNA.

Dr. Singh: Psalm 139 is about seed. When Adam sinned, all seeds in the garden, including human seed, were infected by it. We are a product of infected seed.

Donald: Time changes our perspective. Our lives are short, compared to history. A hundred years ago, no-one knew about DNA. The question is whether spiritual things change. Do faith, hope, and charity change? Do they define religions? We want to wrap spirituality up in a religious context, without which there could be no evangelism. Some religions are more evangelical than others. We must be convinced that our religion is the right lane to be in, if we are to convince others to switch to our lane. We don’t just want our lanes to run in parallel.

Jay: The “right” lane is the issue. Is there really a “right” lane—a “right” religion, a perfect human construct that infallibly and uniquely leads to God? God is timeless and universal, so how can a human construct bound by a specific time and a specific geographic influence work for all people, at all times, everywhere?

But this is not to say that it is a “wrong” or a “bad” lane. A religion can indeed be, and in my experience my religion is, a good lane. Being part of my Adventist community has strengthened my relationship with God and my ability to serve my fellow wo/man. The characteristics of the community include a lack of fear of death, because we believe there is no hell. Death means sleep, nothingness, if we do not make it to heaven; so what is there to fear? The healthy life Adventists believe in, and practice, contributes to the development of our relationship with God and with our fellow human beings.

These are among the good things to be found in our vehicle (perhaps a better metaphor than “lane”), and I am happy to tell others about them. But I don’t doubt that there are other vehicles that also help people relate to God and serve other people. Some vehicles are simply a better fit for some individuals. But I see all the vehicles as being in the “right” lane.

Robin: So is religious conflict simply a matter of competition over passengers?

Jay: That may be so, but it may also be that God is in every vehicle, so that all passengers can relate to Him, no matter which vehicle they are in.

Robin: So we may be attracted to a vehicle by our personality?

Jay: There are timeless, universal principles that drive all vehicles. My vehicle—the Adventist church—helps me and equips me to share the grace of God with others, to serve the hungry, the poor, those in prison, and so on. There are some who find the church judgmental and a deterrent to doing good works. It is not perfect, but it is not bad. There is more good in the world, and in the church, than bad. It’s not wrong to want to share its goodness with others.

Donald: Some religions and sects (the Amish, for instance) seem to want to freeze both knowledge and time.

Don: They do so because there seems to be no way to factor them in. Some religions passionately believe their Scriptures to be immutable and literally God-given. That belief has not changed one iota over centuries and millennia. Today, to many, such belief seems out of touch with a modern civilization that eschews the stoning of adulterers and the chopping off of the hands of thieves. To varying degrees, all organized religions seem to discount God’s timelessness and universality.

David: It would seem, then, critical to decide before joining whether the principles upon which a religion or sect is based are timeless or not. If they are based on a given culture, at a given time in its development, then they are clearly not timeless, and to me are irrelevant to a spiritual world that deals in eternity.

Global knowledge is expanding exponentially in quantity and quality, leading many people to think we know, or will soon know, everything. But I think some of us—including all of us here—know that the more we know, the more we don’t know; that the more we know, the more we realize that we cannot, in principle, know everything. That seems to me to be the ultimate timeless principle. “Everything” is God, I think. It helps the human spirit to seek to know more about everything, but only if our search is tempered by the understanding that we will never know everything; we will never know God fully. We should weigh the observable and measurable fact of the exponential growth in knowledge against the fact that we have no more clue about God than our ancestors did, nor are we any closer (in my view; Big Bang string theory and all) to understanding the origin of the universe. whether that origin is divine or natural.

Don: How does that inform our religious thinking?

David: To me, it consolidates everything as God. God is everything, and God therefore knows everything.

Jay: Perhaps that ought to inform our religious thinking, but the problem is it does not, because ultimately it leaves us with questions, not the answers we seek (and too often get) through religion. Religion makes up the answers and declares them immutable.

Donald: Some believers have difficulty putting technology and religion in the same lane. Technology changes—it is accelerating in its lane; religion does not. Yet they do influence one another. Faith, hope, and charity do not constitute a religion, but they are constituents of spirituality. And yet, it is comforting to travel to distant parts of the world and be able to worship in an Adventist church saying the same prayers and singing the same songs as we do at home. Our understanding of the world is shaped by our own circumstances, which makes it difficult to deal with the concept of other lanes, other circumstances.

Don: The passage we will study next week study introduces the contrast between doctrine and faith, when Jesus challenged the Sadducees to define the greatest concepts in faith, which He tells them are love for God and love for Man.

David: Not to contradict Jesus (who was speaking in a context in which faith was assumed), but before one can love God one must acknowledge His existence—one must believe, have faith, in Him. To me, this is the most fundamental principle of all. It then drives the insatiably curious human to wonder what He is like, what makes Him tick. The first thing we want to know of our God is: Is He good or bad, beneficent or malevolent? In ancient times, and in some folk religions still, evil or merely mischievous gods abound.

I think this is one question we can answer and indeed have answered: the God of the great religions is good. We only have to measure the amount of good in the world against the amount of evil, which we can do in our heads: If evil were ascendant, our world would be in anarchy, total chaos. I believe we all intuit this to be true. Religion can help by reminding us of the questions, while giving us the space and support to seek answers through the spirit. Which, to its great credit, is exactly what Oakwood SDA church is doing for us.


God and Government 8: Choices Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Don: What should believers do when God and government clash? When civil or religious edicts clash with conscience? When should we surrender? When should we resist? The Bible tells us: 

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (Romans 13:1-2)

Notice the term “subjection’ in that passage. 

Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men. For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy,… (Titus 3:1-5)

Again, notice the phrase “be subject to.”

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. (1 Peter 2:13-15)

For our discussion today, let’s assume that civil or religious disobedience is purposeful, non-violent action, or refusal to act, by a believer who believes that such action or inaction is required in order to be faithful to God, and which s/he knows will be treated by the governing authority as a violation of lawful acts.

There are many examples of such resistance in the Bible; for example:

As they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them and put them in jail until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.

On the next day, their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem; and Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of high-priestly descent. When they had placed them in the center, they began to inquire, “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”

Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus. And seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say in reply. But when they had ordered them to leave the Council, they began to confer with one another, saying, “What shall we do with these men? For the fact that a noteworthy miracle has taken place through them is apparent to all who live in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But so that it will not spread any further among the people, let us warn them to speak no longer to any man in this name.” And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” When they had threatened them further, they let them go (finding no basis on which to punish them) on account of the people, because they were all glorifying God for what had happened; for the man was more than forty years old on whom this miracle of healing had been performed. (Acts 4:1-22)

In the following chapter, Peter and John are again arrested:

When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:27-29)

The history of mankind is full of acts of resistance and surrender. Dozens of individuals were honored for their resistance in one passage alone: 

By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.

And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:30-40)

One might conclude that men and women of faith should never resist, should always surrender. Justin’s Book of Martyrs (?) extols the virtues of the martyrs of early Christendom—those who lost their lives in resistance. It raises the question: Is it ever right to surrender, or capitulate? Why are the heroes only those who resist? Can nothing be said for the compromising peacemaker? In our own time, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela were exemplary conscientious objectors, all sacrificing their lives (in Mandela’s case, a substantial portion of it, in prison.) Was there no room for compromise? The Parable of the Unrighteous Manager might shed some light, in a parabolic way. The rich man can be seen as representing government or authority, civil or religious:

“There was a rich man who had a manager, and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes.’ And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.

“He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:1-18)

In the three passages quoted at the beginning of today’s discussion, what do the words “subject” and “submit” signify? It’s the same word used by the disciples on their return from their first ministry abroad:

And the seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us, in Your name.” (Luke 10:17)

Is there a distinction between subjection and obedience? What is the formula, the method, for an appropriate response by the believer to the demands of God and government? What would Jesus do? 

Donald: Who has the authority to determine what is disobedient? We have structures and hierarchies that help to clarify that question, but so does God, who has a kingdom—a defined structure, which puts it at odds with human kingdoms, which tend to vie for supremacy. But the kingdom as Jesus taught it seems flatter, less structured, more egalitarian, than any human kingdom. We know where we stand within a structure, but we are uncertain of our standing without a structure. Where is the Mandela, where is the Mother Theresa, of Yemen today? 

Dr. Singh: 

Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil. (Ecclesiastes 8:11)

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.
Because you have rejected knowledge,
I also will reject you from being My priest.
Since you have forgotten the law of your God,
I also will forget your children. (Josiah 4:6)

Mikiko: Human leadership and government is tainted by human greed and selfishness. We are imperfect; we are corrupt. The solution is:  

And to him there were given rulership, honor, and a kingdom, that the peoples, nations, and language groups should all serve him. His rulership is an everlasting rulership that will not pass away, and his kingdom will not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:14) (New World Translation)

So we should follow the government of Jesus.

Kiran: Daniel and his religion were subject to a hostile foreign government, not that of his own country. He benefited from miracles we do not see today. Queen Esther averted danger by befriending an alien king. She set a good example for us to follow. There are some things that are religiously unacceptable, such as picking up arms, and in some countries (the U.S., for example) a refusal to bear arms is tolerated, but is not tolerated in many others countries, where the choice is submission or death (or, like Queen Esther, getting the government to see reason.) 

Dr. Singh: Christians must care about politics. We have to live on this earth, so we have no choice but to participate. 

Donald: Accepting the structure of an organization makes it easy to go along with it. Does Daoism have churches?

David: Religious Daoism has temples, sometimes with a pantheon of traditional Chinese earth gods, sometimes with a priesthood or monks who may worship together at set times, but there is no congregation as we think of it, or church services as we think of them. Philosophical Daoism (which preceded religious Daoism) has no temples. It does recognize a heaven (tian) but its central precept—The Way, the Dao—is not about getting to heaven. It is about living life on earth. 

Desmond T. Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist who refused to carry a rifle in WW2 yet served as a medic in the front line on Okinawa. (The story is well, if goryly, told in Mel Gibson’s movie Hacksaw Ridge). It is easy to value his religiously founded resistance; yet are all the other soldiers in his unit to be condemned for their lack of it? Resistance or submission is an intensely personal matter. Resistance is right for some, like Doss, while (in the same circumstances) submission may be right for others. It depends on one’s faith, one’s background, and many other things. There is no universal “right” or Godly response. There are only individual responses, based upon the strength and closeness of the individual’s relationship with God. 

Alice: It is a matter of personal conscience. 

Don: We make resistance heroic, but not conciliation. Martyrdom is final. Conciliation may not be. 

David: The whole point of the Dao is conciliation. Don’t resist. Be like water—flow around obstacles. Daoism does not have heroes. It has sages. To me, Gandhi, MLK, and Mandela were sages. They flowed around the rocks their oppressors kept flinging in their way. This was indeed a form of resistance, but not a physical form. 

Donald: When we were young, it was common for Adventists to call themselves “peculiar people.” We took pride in setting ourselves up as “different”—with the implication that we were in the right lane and everyone else was in the wrong lane. We resisted military service, we resisted the common meat diet, common entertainment, the Sunday. Sabbath. Those were important enough to get us noticed. 

Kiran: King Ahab wanted to kill all the prophets. One of his generals hid a hundred of them in a cave and fed them. He played both sides. Schindler did the same thing, in essence. We honor such people. Some people—like Gandhi, MLK, Mandela—are called, chosen by God; the rest of us just try our best to survive. 

David: What did Gandhi et al. resist? The assault on their own consciences. Their resistance took the form of ignoring the assault, of treating it as a rock to be flowed around. I don’t think God (their consciences) would have approved of violent physical resistance. 

Don: Is it possible to submit yet be disobedient?

David: Private Doss submitted to military service but disobeyed direct orders to carry a gun. He did not support war; as a medic, he supported the salvation (literally and no doubt spiritually) of his fellow soldiers—American and Japanese! He followed his conscience, his God. 

Mikiko: We are living in the world, so we cannot reject government completely. Our taxes pay for Medicare and social security—these are good things. None of us is perfect:

For there is no righteous man on earth who always does good and never sins.  (Ecclesiastes 7:20) (New World Translation)

For we live in a wicked world:

We know that we originate with God, but the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one. (1 John 5:19)

Don: In summary, we seem to have decided there is no formula, that it is an individual matter, and that survival by all means may be right for some (perhaps for most).

David: I would add that salvation (in the spiritual sense) is right for those whose conscience—the inner light—insists upon it. 

Donald: I am not sure that the next generations holds the same respect for structure and institution that we do. They resist formal structure, including church governance. This is an ecumenical issue, not just an Adventist issue. Churches may be closing at least in part as a result of this generational distrust of institutions.

Don: Is the religion of the future a religion without authority?

David: I think it has to be, if only out of faith—which I think the majority of people, universally, will eventually have—that His kingdom will come, that all will be sages. If that is so, then they are likely to abandon religions and sects that do not embrace the universal view. Technology is accelerating the trend to individualism, and in the spiritual sense of an individual relationship with God, it is to be welcomed, it seems to me. (In the worldly sense of selfishness, however, the trend is troubling.) 

Don: Are the Biblical and Christian lessons concerning civil disobedience then more—or less?—applicable to the future as they have been to the past? Is resistance passé? On its way out? 

David: The recent exemplars we’ve noted (Gandhi, MLK, Mandela) seem to point to a growing, not a lessening, trend. As Donald notes, it seems to be a growing trend among millennials, whose distrust of institutions itself amounts to incipient disobedience. Previous epochs have been relatively devoid of disobedience, in this sense. It seems to be a modern and accelerating trend. Is it necessarily bad?

Donald: Technology plays a significant role even in our meetings. We could not have held this class a decade ago. We have many more choices of religious study classes than previous generations and epochs had. We can be, and we are, much more individualistic about it. The highway has many more lanes to choose from. The question is: Which lane should we choose? 

Don: We need to discuss this further. It may make a good jumping-off point for our seminar about the Future of Religion, to be held at Andrews University on January 26 and 27. 

David: I will look for the universal aspect, the common core, within the messages of Gandhi, MLK, and Mandela. 

Donald: Is evangelism’s role to get people to switch lanes? 

Don: It appears to be so. But if there were no traffic cops directing cars into various lanes, there could be no disobedience. People might change lanes from personal choice or from simple indifference. The former world of a few separated narrow lanes, with stern religious cops forcing people into one or other of them, is disappearing, or has already disappeared. What does this mean for the future?

Donald: The metaphor may apply equally to civil as to religious governance: One’s civil identity was defined by land and sea borders that technology has substantially demolished. Long-accepted barriers between lanes and between cultures are coming down. We are then more individual and less a relatively faceless member of a disciplined social group.

Anonymous: That seems likely to stimulate greater distinctive biases between people: The zealot will grow more zealous, the faithful more faithful, the unbeliever more unbelieving. The righteous will grow more righteous, living straight and upright law-abiding lives that government will not perceive to be threatening in any way.

Don: Imagine a world without race, religion, boundaries, borders, ethnicity…. In some ways, these lanes are growing harder to change. 

David: John Lennon added: “Imagine there’s no heaven,” which I find impossible to do because it implies there is no… nay, it denies there is… Goodness in the world. But the millennials are indeed carrying forward Lennon’s hippie-era ethos. 

Donald: Do we then no longer need to render anything to anyone? 

David: Private Doss rendered his faith to God, and his service to his government. 

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