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Liberty of Conscience: in-house debates, questionable beliefs, and iron sharpening iron

Liberty of Conscience: in-house debates, questionable beliefs, and iron sharpening iron

Thanks to a recent movie release, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have exploded with posts from the Christian blogosphere going back and forth on views of eschatology. In the best circumstances, such discussions should drive believers to the Scriptures. They should compel us to sit and discern which teachings come from the text of God’s Word and which come from human tradition.

And, within the realm of orthodox Christianity, they should fall on the liberty of conscience before God with respect to doctrines that are secondary in nature – especially as Southern Baptists, considering the importance liberty of conscience has played within our denomination historically.

In-House Debates

To paraphrase the Bard, “I grant I am a layman,” but until very recently I was under the impression that these assumptions were universal. Especially among Southern Baptists.

Thanks to Army living, I haven’t had the benefit of a long-term church home for quite a while. The longest we’ve been in any congregation has been a couple of years. Regardless of where we’ve been stationed, we’ve always sought out Southern Baptist churches. The reason for this is first and foremost the tradition of liberty of conscience that is ingrained in Southern Baptist heritage. The Baptist Faith and Message states, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it.”

Of course, the internet isn’t a flesh-and-blood congregation. Behind a screen and keyboard, it’s easy to feel that battle lines are being drawn over issues, rather than varying perspectives being contributed. When reading many of the conversations, in the form of both articles and comments, the heat involved has been stunning.

Questionable Beliefs

This is not to suggest that there are no limits on individual beliefs. Obviously, I’m talking about non-essential theology. There are certainly doctrines that are pernicious. The ideas that Jesus and Satan were spirit-brothers, that Sunday worship is the mark of the antichrist, or that Mary herself was immaculately conceived and therefore equally a mediator between God and man, those are dangerous teachings that should be refuted soundly.

The Deity of Jesus, the inerrancy of Scripture, the fallen nature of man, and the exclusivity of salvation through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone – these are our hills to die on.

Secondary doctrines, such as the theories of eschatology, are not.

Is evangelism less necessary whether you are a premillenialist or an amillenialist? Of course not. Is corporate worship? Is discipleship? Is the pursuit of personal holiness? Are these “questionable beliefs”? Obviously not. Genuine believers with good-faith intentions can fall on any side of this discussion. To accept this as true eliminates any fear of these concepts entering the public arena.

Iron Sharpening Iron

When we remember our Scripturally-based emphasis on liberty of conscience, these discussions take the nature of Iron Sharpening Iron, as they are supposed to. Elevating secondary doctrine to equal importance as primary doctrine causes unbiblical division.

And regarding the discussion, or cinematic portrayal, of these secondary doctrines as dangerous because they might confuse other believers (never us, of course!) mirrors the errors of the Roman Catholics, believing we are the better gatekeepers of the dissemination of “acceptable” doctrine for the masses, rather than allowing for the Holy Spirit to lead each individual believer’s discernment…even if that Scripturally-led discernment leads someone to a different positioning on periphery doctrine.

As the saying goes, “On the essentials, unity. On the non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” The belief of liberty in non-essential doctrine is one of the richest parts of our unique heritage as Southern Baptists. says it well: “The Baptist history of liberty urges three key points: (1) Declare Christ as Lord. (2) Approach life with an open Bible and an open mind. (3) Do freedom Baptist style—choose liberty of conscience.”

It bears repeating: Choose liberty of conscience.

A Religious Education

A Religious Education

Recently, I had the opportunity to have a sit-down with a friend who was raised in a Christian church, but as an adult, left to follow another religion. I asked her to tell me her “story,” what led her away. It boiled down to this new religious system giving her the answers to questions she said she couldn’t find in Christianity. Now, most of these questions were what could be considered tangential theology. But what the conversation kept coming back to was that this other religious system had the answers because it used revelation outside of the Bible to “fill in the gaps” where things were left out of the Bible originally.

Consider who was speaking: someone who grew up in church, whose family is still Christian, who very quickly was convinced that the Bible was (intentionally, maliciously) organized in such a way that it no longer represents God’s will for our world.

I have to ask – did the church she grew up attending affirm the sufficiency of Scripture on a regular basis? Did they ever explain why?

I grew up in Bible-believing churches. My father was a pastor. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I learned about the process of how the Bible was assembled and why we have the 66 books we have now. I remember spending a few Wednesday nights on the subject in the six years I was in youth group, but that was basically it.

Thankfully, I went to a Christian high school with a teacher who was very concerned that we understand, from a historical perspective, how we can know that the Bible we have today is God’s Word, the way He intended us to read it. I also had a teacher who was a former Wycliffe Bible translator, who took the time to share her experience with us.

This gave me a base from which to tell my friend that the Bible we have can be verified by thousands of original New Testament copies, and by the records we have describing the canonization process. And it certainly helped that I was able to see the Passages exhibit at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art a few years ago, where hundreds of copies of Scripture from thousands of years past were right before my eyes.

But again, the primary source of this knowledge came from outside the church. That just doesn’t seem right.

I’m not intending to ignore or discount the aspect of genuine regeneration in “why young adults leave the church.” Not at all. And I can’t speak as to how every church trains and educates their members to communicate with members of other faiths.

I can only speak from my own experience. And that is, that the majority of what prepared me for that conversation with my friend has not come from sources within my local church. I hope that is not the case in the majority. But I would like to encourage our church programs to take the time, on a regular basis, to reaffirm to our young people that the faith we have isn’t a blind one. It won’t only strengthen their own faith, but it will give them more meaningful tools to use in conversations with their non-Christian friends.

Ravi Zacharias, Mormon Tab, and Relevant Gospel

Ravi Zacharias, Mormon Tab, and Relevant Gospel

On January 17, apologist Ravi Zacharias spoke at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah at the invitation of Standing Together. This organization, according to their website, “seeks to be a catalyst for uniting the Utah Christian community through relational efforts of prayer, worship, and strategic evangelism.”

It was within that context that Zacharias spoke on the subject of “Lessons From History, Building a Nation Under God.” The hour-long message is available on You Tube.

When I saw the event being promoted online, it quickly grabbed my attention. We’ve been blessed during our Army experience to befriend several LDS families throughout the years. In fact, at our first duty station, the majority of our friends were LDS.

We had a lot in common. We had essentially the same worldviews, the same values, the same general priorities of faith first, family second, everything else third. We liked hanging out at one another’s houses and playing board games or watching movies instead of trolling the clubs on the weekends. I think we found each other to be safe places while we were exploring this new military culture, still made up of great people, but many of whom had decidedly secular humanistic lifestyles.

When we got there, I hadn’t looked into Mormonism in years. Most of what I’d learned, I had forgotten. I became a quick study, and subsequently spent several years becoming as fluent with Mormon doctrine, history and theology as I could. (The study still continues.)

One of the things I learned is that, Mormons and Evangelicals (not my favorite term, but the one they used for the event so I will use it) often use the same terminology when it comes to the things of God. Try your standard EE script on a Mormon and you’ll wind up in the same place you began, agreeing on most everything.

However, while we may agree on the same terms and phrases as being true, we don’t always use the same dictionary to define those terms. “Heavenly Father,” “Jesus,” “Heaven,” “Hell,” “Salvation,” and “Grace” are all words that have different meanings – below the surface – in Mormon and Evangelical theology.

Therefore I was curious to see how Zacharias would address his audience, made up of Mormons, Evangelicals, and anyone who wanted to attend. Zacharias was there to speak about creating a God-honoring culture in America, something important to both Mormons and Evangelicals. Once past the anecdotes and crowd-warmers, it became clear that every single word was chosen with intention.

He began with the story of Manasseh leading the nation of Israel astray, and attributed it to Manasseh’s disregard for the “Word of God,” continuing to say that, even in American churches, the “Word of God” has become less and less important, and that the church needs to rediscover the importance and the supremacy of the “Word of God.”

The term seemed ambiguous for the setting. Absolutely, Mormons believe the Bible is the Word of God. They also believe the Bible is A word of God, in addition to the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, the Pearl of Great Price, and the historical teachings of their prophets and elders.

But by the end of his message, Zacharias had transitioned from saying “Word of God” to specifically “The Bible,” and even encouraged the audience to study the Bible – not just the “Word of God” – daily, focusing on the Book of John. The meaning could not be clearer.

He also made specific mention of the Messiah as being proclaimed not only as the Prince of Peace, but also as the “Everlasting Father,” a statement significant to Mormon theology, where the Father and the Son are not triune, but separate, unequal beings. He emphasized that sanctification only comes through salvation, using John Bunyon’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” as a reference: “You’ll never get to the Celestial City without going through the cross.” Again, a phrase perhaps more significant to temple-worthy Mormon ears than to the minds of the Evangelicals in the crowd.

Zacharias’s message is an excellent example of what it really means to “relevantly” communicate the Gospel. As he pointed out in his message, relativism has affected the English language in such a way that words and definitions, such as marriage, have simultaneously no meaning and any meaning. The same thing often is the case when trying to share the truth of the Gospel.

Unless we are mindful of the definitions of the words we use, specifically in the mind of the hearer, it is easy to become bogged down in debates about minutiae or else find that what we thought we had communicated, actually came across with a different meaning.

I’m not advocating abandoning Biblical terms. I think the damage of ministries which have eliminated the use of “sin,” “Hell,” and “repentance” is obvious. But as Christians, it is important to take the time and effort to train our minds to communicate in someone else’s cultural and religious language for the sake of the Gospel and the sake of their souls.

Do We Find Favor With God in What We Eat?

Do We Find Favor With God in What We Eat?

“Her child wouldn’t have those behavior issues if she didn’t feed him processed foods.”

“If Jesus didn’t eat it, neither should we!”

“God has a secret, superior eating plan hidden in the Bible, if you’re not too lazy to find it!”

Just when it feels like you’ve heard them all, someone comes up with another means of attributing moral properties to what kind of cheese you eat (or if you eat it!). And the month of January is a catalyst for such attitudes.

Because it apparently doesn’t go without saying, it is a worthy thing to seek out foods that nourish our bodies and activities that keep our bodies functioning as well as possible for as long as possible. At least as far as it is within our human capabilities to control.

As Christians, we should have more motivation than anyone to take care of our bodies, both as God’s special creation and as the temples of the Holy Spirit.

However, if we start treating our diet and activity choices as though they give us the ability to be God, as though through those choices we can change the natural order of the rules of biology that God created, as though we can remove the natural consequences of living in a fallen world damaged by sin and thus containing disease, defects, and death, we find ourselves in a dangerous place.

That’s the Old Man of the World thinking. That’s not the thinking of the New, Regenerated Man who recognizes that ultimately all health and healing comes from God, and to paraphrase someone else, “God ain’t us.”

I was born with heart defects. Genetically random, 2%-possibility-of-developing-in-utero heart defects. As a result, even following reparative surgeries, I still have to live with the effects of those defects 30 years later. Through diet and exercise choices, as well as medical treatment, I can mitigate those affects, but they will not be removed until I receive my regenerated body in Heaven. (Oh, what a glorious day!)

Does that mean I shouldn’t be conscientious about what I eat and how I move? Of course not! Again, apparently that doesn’t go without saying, even though it should.

But as Christians, we need to humbly submit ourselves to the reality that our physical bodies suffer the effects of the fall every bit as much as the world around us.

That’s really what it boils down to: humility. It’s been brought up in other places by more eloquent people, Douglas Wilson comes to mind, but when our dedication to “healthy living” causes us to have less love for our neighbor, then it no longer matters what our body fat percentage is or how much of what is on our plate is green or fried.

No, it really doesn’t.

If, as we are eating our locally-sourced organically-grown green salad with a touch of vinaigrette and wash it down with purified water, at the same time think “what a poor mother so-and-so is for letting her children eat fast food,” we are a clanging gong, even if we mask our statements with “concern.”

If we can’t love someone “even” when they eat French fries – or “even” when they don’t – then it is all vanity.

I’m speaking to myself. The idea that I’ve discovered some hidden “ultimate” lifestyle that others haven’t, and thus I can’t see someone else eat without running every bite through my value rubric to see how they measure up, or even do the “You only run marathons? You need to lift weights to REALLY be healthy!” preen: I’ve been that person, and I still fight that person within me.

While we begin a New Year with the goal of honoring God with our bodies, let us also strive to renew our minds, asking God to protect our hearts from finding our worth in our dinner plates, and instead to spur us on toward good works for others.

Forcing Miracles

Forcing Miracles

When police learned Michael Brandon Hill walked into a Georgia elementary school last week loaded down with a rifle and ammunition, there was probably little doubt in their minds that the situation would turn grisly.

Instead, Hill was apprehended alive, and not a single person was hurt, thanks to school bookkeeper Antoinette Tuff convincing him to turn himself in.

Antoinette Tuff should absolutely be commended for her cool head and gentle spirit. There’s no doubt the way she handled the situation saved a lot of lives, including her own. And considering recent history, it does seem appropriate to call a bloodless end to a potential mass-shooting story “miraculous.”

It can be tempting to hear this amazing story and conclude that, because Antoinette relied on her faith and compassion to talk Hill into surrendering, the lesson is that we should always rely on passive or supernatural deliverance when faced with a threatening situation.

I agree that we should seek peaceful resolutions to interpersonal conflict, especially within the Body. 1 Cor. 6 even tells us to avoid taking fellow believers to court when wronged (It implies to do this even in the face of a legitimate grievance). But to infer that acting in one’s own self-defense is somehow less spiritual than “talking it out” isn’t realistic or biblical.

Probably everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who was miraculously healed from a deadly cancer without a single medical treatment, simply as a result of heartfelt prayer. Is the lesson then to always seek non-medical resolutions to severe illness, or are those who seek medical attention somehow less spiritual?

Is the woman who was successful in “talking down” a rapist more spiritual than the woman who wasn’t? Or does she possess a more genuine faith than the woman who stopped the rapist by means of force?

Or, consider the victims at Newtown. There were plenty of people in Newtown, teachers and children, and the parents outside, who were fervently praying for miraculous deliverance from the terrifying mass murder. Was their faith just too weak? Or didn’t God think they deserved a miracle?

To say that we should avoid being proactive in our health and safety and instead “rely on God” is trying to force signs and miracles out of Yahweh that He may not intend on providing. Also, let’s remember that sometimes God delivers us here on earth, and sometimes His deliverance is taking us to Heaven to dwell with Him. That’s no less of a miracle.

The Bible tells us not to test God by trying to force miraculous works out of Him. That’s exactly the same tactic Satan used on Jesus during his 40-day fast in the desert. Probably not the person we should seek to imitate.

Should we deliberately take our hands off the wheel when driving down I-35, “trusting” God to see us safely to our destination? Should we spend our bank account into the red every month, “trusting” that God will “provide” the resources for us to feed our children just the same? If we deliberately decide ahead to time to react to a situation so that only a miracle could save us (Luke 4:9-12), are we acting faithfully or foolishly?