Christian Artists and Religious Beliefs

Two Christian artists have filed a pre-enforcement lawsuit against Phoenix City in Arizona, asking the court to declare its anti-discrimination law as unconstitutional and violative of their religious beliefs on marriage.

CHR Comment: Yet another type of business affected by the changes to marriage laws and the existing non-discrimination laws.

Source: Christian artists act pre-emptively to protect their religious beliefs by asking court to nix state’s anti-discrimination law | Christian News on Christian Today

“No Other Gods” in Luther’s Catechisms

The wording of the First Commandment in Luther’s Catechisms may, at first, feel a bid strange: “You shall have no other gods” (Exodus 20:3). How does one have a god? Such wording seems to imply that there are indeed other gods beside the one true God.

First, we must recognize that the wording in the catechism is an abbreviated form of the commandment, which actually runs another three verses. (In the Reformed and Eastern Orthodox traditions, the verses are divided into two commandments.) Using an abbreviated form was a medieval practice that made memorization easier. For the catechism, Luther built on this practice but included more of the text (Exodus 20:5–6) as a summary or “close” of the commandments. Here is the full statement of the commandment from Exodus:

You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

We see then that the Lord forbids His people to have or make gods/idols before which they would bow down or serve (cf. Exodus 32). To understand the word “have,” consider the following expressions: I have a family; I have a father; we have a president. The word “have” does not mean simple possession of something. It describes a relationship—a bond—between persons or things. The Creator will not allow His creation to set up objects or barriers between Him and His people. As He said it positively and emphatically in the opening to the Ten Commandments:

I am the Lord your God . . .

Now that He has freed Israel from the bondage of Egypt, He will not let them return to bondage by serving other gods or masters. This truth is foundational, not only to biblical/Christian faith, but also to western ideals of the freedom and value of the individual. Each human being is loved by God and, as a created being, has a direct relationship with the Creator.

Do Other Gods Exist?

The First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” seems to imply that other gods are real and that one can have a relationship with them. One may rightly ask, is this true?

The Bible consistently speaks against the idea that the figures of idols are true gods. Perhaps the best example of this is the prophet Isaiah’s satire of a person carving an idol from a block of wood (Isaiah 44:9–20) and then using the wood trimming to warm his room and bake his bread—an excellent example of humor in the Bible!

But seriously, those who worship idols usually regard them as representations or manifestations of spiritual realities. In fact, archaeologists now believe that a bull calf idol of the ancient Near East actually represented the mount or throne for the god (typically Baal) who stood upon it. So, the idolaters were really directing their devotion beyond the wood, stone, gold, or silver that stood in front of them. The idol was a way to reach beyond and to “have” a connection to the god it represented. Modern religions that use idols have a similar understanding.

The apostle Paul strongly warns against idolatry and sacrifices to idols when he writes: “I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Corinthians 10:20; cf also Revelation 9:20). The biblical view then is that there are indeed spiritual realities—demons/false gods—standing behind idolatrous and false worship. So false worship can in no way honor the one true God.

In the First Commandment God is delivering something like an ultimatum to us: you will have Me as God or you will have some other god, you can’t have both. To this He attaches a warning and a promise: (1) as the only true God, He will punish those who hate Him (Exodus 20:5) but (2) He will likewise show steadfast love to those who love Him and heed His word (20:6).

Divided Faith Versus Singularity of Heart

The greatest form of idolatry today is not that people will bow down to a statue but that people will cling to someone or something other than the one true God. (As I’ve noted in an earlier post, even atheists have a god: whatever they trust.)

True faith teaches a singularity of heart, to have one’s confession of faith, one’s life, and one’s actions focused upon and giving honor to The One. Because our lives are so hectic, it becomes more and more difficult to have this singularity of heart. Mere busyness delivers us from idleness but pushes us toward idolatry as we struggle to meet all our commitments. The One—the true God—becomes for us a face in the crowd rather than the object of our devotion, set apart and consecrated above all things.

In the end, true faith calls for more than a different belief but a different way of life that expresses that belief. Life with God and living for God go hand in hand. We see this most clearly in the person and work of Jesus. The balance in His life is truly remarkable. He had great gifts of teaching and healing so that crowds sought Him and huddled about Him, to the point where He was jostled and pushed and overwhelmed by them. Mark 1 records:

That evening at sundown they brought to [Jesus] all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”

Even when everyone around Jesus demanded His attention—and deservedly so—He slipped away to pray to His Father, to commune with Him but also to intercede for His disciples and those who came to Him with all their needs. This singularity of heart, focused on the Lord and His calling, helped Jesus with the day to day struggles as well as His ultimate commitment: His calling from the Father. As a man, Jesus was overrun with demands yet He remained singularly devoted to His Father and entrusted all His cares and burdens to the Father for the sake of those who would listen to Him.

Theology. A Cut-Away Life

I enjoy paging through a great book, The Art of National Geographic: A Century of Illustration.

On pp. 121-122, there are illustrations by Ned M. Seidler, “Unseen Life of a Mountain Stream” and “Teeming Life of a Pond.” I love these “cut-away” views of life below the surface with diving frogs, wriggling invertebrates, and swaying weeds.

There’s a cut-away in the Christian life, too. When we confess our sins, we also reveal a cut-away: many of our sins of thought, word, and deed are unseen or unheard. We reveal the complex: complications of what it is to be a human being and a Christian struggling against sin like nature struggling against tin cans, worn out tires, and heavy metals.

Again, when we confess our faith in Christ to others, we show a cut-away of life below the surface. People can’t see our faith and how it changes us unless we let them in. When we confess Christ, we show how He takes away our sins and brings forth new life in all its diving, wriggling, swaying splendor. People see us as we are: a sinner who is yet a saint, what theologians call simul justus et peccator (“Righteous and sinner at the same time”).

Creative Writing and Articles of Faith

“Articles of faith are derivatives, namely, conclusions taken from the Scriptures. Therefore not they but Scripture itself is the only and proper principle of theology.” Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces: Exegesis I, p. 25.

What I write and teach is derived from Scripture and must remain subject to the Scripture—the principle of knowing about God, who is Himself the principle of being and the first cause of theology.

When I’m writing for God, I’m connecting people to the Scripture, which connects them to the greatest writer—God Himself—who composes a word and brings things into being through it (Gn 1:3). Now that’s creative writing!

God—Scripture—my writing/teaching—reader

Remarkably, God chooses to work through me and through you.

Religion Declining, Secularism Surging (Perhaps)

CHR Comment: Phil Zuckerman, Professor of Sociology and Secular Studies, Pitzer College in Claremont, CA, provides an interesting look at the secularization trend described by a variety of polls. However, as I read the article, I wonder whether the polling fully accounts for persons who might described themselves as spiritual but are unaffiliated with a particular religion. He also oddly connects secularization with internet access as though internet use might dispose someone toward secularism. In any event, the anticipated number of church closings he describes in places like Holland are important cultural developments and sure indicators of change. Christians need to view countries with state churches as important mission fields.

Source: Religion Declining, Secularism Surging

Study of Ordaining Women Deacons

Pope Francis said he wants to study the possibility of ordaining women as deacons, a step that could for the first time open the ranks of the Catholic Church’s all-male clergy to women.

CHR Comment: The word “deacon” literally means “servant,” and was variously used in the Scriptures and in church history. The article explains that currently ordained Roman Catholic deacons are allowed to preach at Mass but cannot consecrate the Sacrament. Whether women deacons would have the same office and service as the male deacons would be part of the study. In any case, “deacon” has meant many things over the centuries.

Source: Pope Francis: Let’s study possibility of ordaining women deacons

Myanmar Christians Pushed Out of Their Church

Christians in Myanmar—the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma—are methodically being pushed out of their own church by a powerful Buddhist monk and his followers.

CHR Comment: The Karen people converted to Christianity after World War II. Political changes are creating an awkward moment for these Anglicans in Myanmar where the majority of the country is Buddhist. They have lost three properties but are responding peacefully.

Source: Christians being pushed out of their own church by Buddhist monks in Myanmar | Christian News on Christian Today