Archive for the ‘Social Justice’ Category

redletter

‘Red Letter Christians’ approach the Bible with the premise that the foundation and starting point for understanding the Gospel should be the direct words of Jesus, as quoted in the Gospels. This is a corrective, they claim, to the traditional approach of evangelicals in which the Pauline epistles are the lens through which the rest of the Bible is interpreted. It sounds all good and pious to say that the actual words of Jesus himself should be our starting point, and the rest of the Scriptures be interpreted through them. There are however a couple of problems with this approach:

  1. Not all the words of Jesus have a direct application to us in the same way they did to those to whom he spoke. As with all biblical passages, we need where possible to understand the situational context in which they are spoken, and to understand what they meant to them then, before we ask what they mean to us today. A classic example of this is Jesus’ exchange with the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22). Jesus commands this man to ‘sell all you have, give to the poor… and come follow me.’ Why then do Christians own things? If these are Jesus’ direct words, shouldn’t we all obey them literally and refuse to own any property? No, we understand that these words were given to this man at that time because it addressed both the deepest need and biggest problem he had – loving his riches more than God. This does not mean we cannot learn from this story, nor take action to remove those things in our lives that have become idols; however this example shows us that simply ‘obeying the words of Jesus’ is not always as simple as it sounds.
  2. Sometimes, especially in the Gospel of John, it is hard to be clear on exactly where the words of Jesus end and those of the Gospel writer begin. For example, is the world’s best known verse, John 3:16, (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.) the words of Jesus or John? My Red Letter bible has them in red, and continues the quotation right through to the end of verse 21. However some commentators would suggest that the quotation ends with verse 15 – and 16-21 are John’s commentary on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, directed to the reader. So, we have a problem if we are going to give a priority to the quoted words of Jesus, in that we cannot say precisely what they are!
  3. It’s really a false distinction anyway, to suggest that the direct quotations of Jesus are somehow more authoritative or inspired than the words of the New Testament writers. As Jesus commissioned his apostles, he commanded them to ‘[teach] them to observe all that I have commanded you.’ (Matthew 28:19) Along with this, he had already given them the promise that the Holy Spirit would, ‘teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’ (John 14:26) What this means for us is that the words we have in the New Testament – be they direct quotations of Jesus or the testimony of his apostles – are equally inspired by the Holy Spirit, and all an accurate communication of all that Jesus commanded.

We need to have an implicit confidence in the work of the Holy Spirit to faithfully communicate the will and mind of God to us in all of the Scriptures, and to avoid making false ‘red letter’ distinctions.

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A recent heartwarming but apocryphal story was recently circulated via social media: the story of Pastor Jeremiah Steepek and his first day in a new, 10 000 member church disguised as a homeless man. The story can be read here, on a website by someone who possibly doesn’t realise it’s a fake. The short version is that Jeremiah tuns up for his first day as new pastor dressed as a homeless man, and is largely ignored by most of the congregation.  Early in the service his appointment was announced, and he came to the platform, revealed his identity, read from Matthew 25:31-46 (the ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats), berated the congregation and then closed the service.

On my first reading of this story there were a few things that didn’t have the ring of truth – why did the Elders announce him if they didn’t even know if he has shown up? Why would he think it appropriate to close the service only minutes after it had started? And what church is this? If the story reveals the pastor’s name, why not the name of the church, and why when googling his name do only hoax-busting websites come up?

Some were quick to respond to the expose by saying, ‘Well, who cares if it’s true or not, it’s still a great, challenging story!’ Other have also pointed to a true account of Willie Lyle who lived for 5 days on the streets among the homeless before starting in his new church, and posed as a homeless man on the church lawn on his first Sunday. Quite possibly the story of Steepek is an altered version of this.

I admire Lyle for his willingness to obey what he believed to be a dream from God, and for his compassion towards the homeless. I agree also that much of our western, middle class prosperous church needs to be called out of the idolatry of our worship of mammon. However these stories raise some other important questions, firstly about the core mission of the church, and secondly about responsible use and interpretation of Scripture.

What is the mission of the church?

Both stories seem to convey the idea that unless Christians are out helping the poor and needy, they are not truly living the Gospel. Willie Lyle essentially set this agenda for the future of his church in his inaugural sermon. “Our goal should be to improve and change the lives of people as we live like Jesus.” he says. This is a common mantra among both liberal and some ‘evangelical’ churches today – as if our mission is to make this world a better place to live. Ironically, this sentiment is akin to prosperity teaching, as it sees people’s most important needs as physical and financial.

Social Justice and caring for those less fortunate should be a fruit of a life transformed by the Gospel, but it is not the core mission of the church. The Gospel is the announcement of the crucified, risen and reigning Jesus, and is coupled with the call to repent; it’s not a way of living, a challenge to serve, or advice on how to improve ours and others’ lives. The core mission of the church is to proclaim the glory of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God established in Him. And you know, what will happen as a result of that is not just people entering the kingdom, but God’s people expressing their love for God by loving their neighbour, without their church even telling them they have to or needing to put guilt trips on them!

What is Matthew 25:31-46 saying?

This passage is often quoted in the context of motivating Christians to make a difference in the world by helping the poor, sick and imprisoned. But is this actually the point of Jesus’ words?

This quite a judgemental passage. Jesus curses people people and casts them out into “the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.” And who are those who are cast out? Those who haven’t been involved in helping the needy. Now think for a moment. If Jesus is directing this to Christians, his Church, what is he saying? That despite the atonement and the promise of free grace and forgiveness, Christians will ultimately only be saved if they do good deeds? That a Christian will still end up in Hell if they don’t feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit prisoners? What happened to salvation by grace through faith?

It’s not actually Christians that Jesus is speaking of here. In this account (which isn’t really a parable) the Christians are actually those who are sick, naked, hungry and imprisoned. How do I know that? Because Jesus calls them ‘my brothers’ (vs. 40). Jesus only uses this term for those who are his disciples, those who have believed in him. “Who are my mother and my brothers? …whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 4:33). In the first century (and still today) Christians were persecuted, ostracised and disadvantaged at the hand of both Jews and Romans. God repeatedly (especially in the book of Revelation) promises justice for His people when they are persecuted for righteousness sake and for the Gospel. That is what this is: God’s judgement on those who have shown disdain for Him by mistreating His people. Significantly chapter 25 comes immediately after chapter 24 in which Jesus promises his disciples that they will face fierce opposition in the time leading up to the destruction of the Temple and beyond, even up to the time of His second coming. This passage then gives assurance that justice will be done, and that evil men will not be overlooked in the judgement.

So rather than a challenge for Christians to make helping the needy their core mission, it is both a comfort for persecuted Christians, and a call to the world to repent and be reconciled to this Son of Man before whom they will one day stand.

Cred to Willie Lyle. But please Willie, make Jesus the centre of your sermons, not our good deeds. That is really the only way your church will be built up and make a difference in your town with anything of eternal value.