Saturday, May 23, 2009

The gospel of love and tolerance

Last Sunday while on vacation, I attended the church of a well known pastor, theologian and author for whom I have a great deal of respect. I even use one of his books as a textbook for one of my classes. But last Sunday, I was disappointed in what appeared to me to be a very one-sided sermon.

The pastor—whom I will not name—began by quoting from a passage in Matthew 25 in which Jesus says that when you help those who are hungry or in prison, you are helping Jesus. This was illustrated with a poem that brought home the point in a very powerful way. So far, so good!

Then the pastor made the point that we need to have radical, unconditional love—first, for ourselves. We need to believe all the things the Bible says about us—about how God loves us and gave himself for us and how he accepts us unconditionally.

And then, loving ourselves unconditionally, we need to love others with the same radical, unconditional love. The pastor talked about loving the unlovable; the homeless and addicts, etc. He talked about loving even the Taliban and very evil criminals—he gave a particularly heinous example. We need to see absolutely everyone as people for whom Christ died.

The pastor then argued that we need to stop the critical and judgmental voice in our heads which finds fault with others. We need to stop trying to “fix” their issues. This need to “fix it” has caused endless bloodshed down through the ages. It is God’s job to fix it and we need to stop trying to do it for him.

The sermon was powerful, even moving some to tears.

I agreed with the basic point the pastor was making: Christians need to see everyone as people for whom Christ loved so much he was willing to die. We need to reach out to these people in love and compassion regardless of race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual preference or sin. We need to be very careful about judgmentalism and self-righteousness. On this much, we agreed.

On the other hand, I had several significant disagreements with the sermon—and I take time to point these out only because this pastor’s sermon seems to be the emerging paradigm of modern Christianity. So I’m not just disagreeing with this one pastor. I’m disagreeing with the whole model presented by this emerging “Christian” paradigm.

First, the pastor seemed to be unwittingly replacing the God of the Bible with a modern politically correct, nonjudgmental god of unconditional love and tolerance. According to this pastor, following this god means putting to death the “demonic” critical, judgmental spirit that infects so many brains.

I’m sure the pastor was talking about the fault-finding and judgmental attitude of many people who feel the need to critique and condemn every little area of other people’s lives. Unfortunately, in the absolute, unqualified sense in which this pastor presented this point, I found myself thinking that the prophets, the apostles and even Jesus himself would have stood condemned under this pastor’s criticism.

Elijah, for example, mocked the prophets of Ba’al, saying that perhaps their god was in deep thought, sleeping, or “relieving himself” (1 Kings 18:27, ESV). Isaiah mocked those who cut down a tree and used part to cook their meal and worshiped the other part which they had crafted into an idol! Jude compared his opponents to “unreasoning animals” (Jude 10). In Second Peter the author calls his opponents “arrogant,” and likens them to dogs returning to their vomit and pigs wallowing in mud (2 Peter 2:10-22).

In Galatians Paul sarcastically comments that those who want to require circumcision for salvation should just go ahead and cut the whole thing off (Galatians 5;12). And according to the Book of Acts, Paul was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he turned to a sorcerer and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness” (Acts 13:10). Finally, Jesus called some of his opponents “blind guides,” “hypocrites,” “whitewashed tombs,” “snakes,” “vipers,” and sons of hell (Matt 23:13-36)

It is certainly true that, generally speaking—and probably the vast majority of the time—Christians should “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) but it is equally true that the Bible teaches there also a time for anger. There is a time for righteous indignation, the condemnation of evil and the exposing of false teaching; and this pastor’s sermon seemed to imply that all judgment and all criticism is demonic. That would make the prophets, the apostles and Jesus demonic!

Second, while it is certainly true that God loves people so much that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8), the pastor’s sermon left the impression that God is pleased with us regardless of our behavior. While many people may welcome this message, it flies in the face of the very Bible this pastor was purporting to proclaim. The Bible is clear that there are behaviors that please God, and there are behaviors that do not please, God.

Paul, for example, says that he speaks “not to please man, but to please God” (1 Thess.2:4). He urges the Colossians to live their lives “in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” (Col.1:10). Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he taught them how they “ought to walk [conduct their lives] and to please God” (1 Thess.4:1). He tells the Philippians that their sacrificial gift was “pleasing to God” (Phil.4:18). He tells Timothy that living a peaceful, quiet, godly life “is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior” (1 Tim. 2:3, cf. 1 Tim.5:3-4). Similarly the author of Hebrews exhorts his readers, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb.13:16). By contrast, Paul writes that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom.8:8).

If we truly love God we will want to live a life pleasing to him and will sincerely repent when we fail. In fact, those who really do not want to live a life pleasing to God and do not sincerely repent when they fall, need to follow Paul’s exhortation to examine themselves, to see whether they are really "in the faith" at all (2 Cor.3:15). The impression left by this sermon, however, was that God is perfectly pleased with us regardless of our behavior; and that idea is absolutely foreign to the Bible.

Third, we really need to be careful about throwing the word “love” around without defining it. Doing this allows every listener to fill that vague concept with any content they want. Many people probably associate love with some warm, fuzzy, sentimental feelings. Warm feelings may certainly accompany love, but love is not just warm feelings.

The re-defining of "love" is why so many people conclude that “a loving God” wouldn’t allow suffering; or, “a loving God” would let anyone go to hell. Rather than understanding love in its biblical context, they re-define “love” to fit their preferences, and try to impose their particular definition on the biblical writings.

Defining love requires a context. Biblically speaking, God’s love is defined in terms of statements like “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (John 3:16) or “but God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). That is the ultimate expression of God’s love.

Even today understanding the meaning of “love” requires a context. Imagine, for example, that you saw someone jump on a homeless man, violently throwing him to the ground and hitting him in the face so hard that it knocked the homeless man out. Would that be love? Most people would say, absolutely not!

But what if this homeless man were in the process of raping some little girl! If the use of violence was the only way to stop the attack, wouldn’t the use of violence be the loving thing to do?
Some will argue, of course, that this is a rather extreme example, but it illustrates a point. There is often no such thing as undiscriminating love. Sometimes loving one person means taking strong action against another. The police have to deal with this regularly when “love” for a victim may mean violently subduing or even shooting an attacker. Or when a judge shows mercy to some criminal, the judge is often (knowingly or not) demonstrating contempt for this criminal’s victims.

When people don’t think clearly about love, they often support such unloving actions as leniency or release for unrepentant criminals, or some people may even oppose war that is intended to stop genocide, imperialism or mass destruction because they think that war, by definition, is unloving.

The pastor often spoke in such broad generalities as to leave the impression that all Christians should always be loving (whatever that means) to all people regardless of the circumstances. The point is that when the idea of “love” is just flippantly thrown around and left undefined, the result is often worse than meaningless

Third—and this is just expanding on the previous point—the pastor seemed to be blurring (or erasing) the distinction between the responsibilities God gives to individuals as opposed to the responsibilities God gives to governments. You cannot just apply commands given to individuals directly to government, like for example, the command to “turn the other cheek.”

There were undoubtedly members of the police, the military, and the justice system in the pastor’s audience. Was he saying that the police should “turn the other cheek” when confronted with violent resistance? Was the pastor saying that all military conflict is evil and if so, what does that mean for Christians in the military? Should a Christian judge always show leniency and mercy to criminals? The pastor didn’t say this, but this was certainly the impression I got from the sermon.

Such teaching would fly in the face of the very Bible the pastor purports to proclaim. Paul talks about legitimate government authority saying that government is God’s “agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrong doer” (Romans 13:4). Biblically speaking, as a private citizen I do not have the authority to punish a “wrong doer,” but the government does.

Similarly Peter writes about governors who are sent by God “to punish those who do wrong” (1 Peter 2:14). God has not given private citizens the authority to take the law into their own hands by “punishing wrong.” But God has given that authority to governments.

Finally, against all pacifists and anti-war radicals, the writer of Hebrews insists that there are times when some wars are “just.” He writes in glowing terms about Jewish heroes who “became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies,” and who, “through faith conquered kingdoms” and “administered justice” (Hebrews 11:33-34).

Of course that doesn’t mean all wars are just—the vast majority are undoubtedly just plain evil. But it does mean that a sermon which implies that love means never judging, never criticizing, never fighting and always being tolerant of everything, is very unbalanced, misleading and even unbiblical.

In all fairness, however, this sermon was just part of a series the pastor was preaching so he may have covered (or was planning to cover) some of these other aspects in another sermon in the series, which is why I have chosen not to give pastor’s name.

1 comment:

Robert said...

This is an excellent entry. Honestly, one of the best you've written in a long while.

I think one of the challenges of the modern Christian is knowing when to be critical and when not to be. Jesus was marvelous in demonstrating the "loving the person and hating the sin." I think it's difficult today for us to be able to do that without finding ourselves hating both or simply being blind to our own failings while adequately pointing out someone else's. It's a real difficulty for me.

It's a mistake to believe that unconditional love means accepting all behavior. It does not and I'm afraid this is the message that's being portrayed in our modern life.