Monday, August 27, 2012

Connecting with "Them" (a spin off from "The roasting of Chick-fil-A")

The crowd didn’t look like “my” crowd. Different clothes; different hair; different adjectives falling from their lips with great regularity; different topics of conversation. I won’t tell you where I was, because that’s not the point (it was no place inappropriate, that much I’ll say). But while there, the thought popped in my head, “If I were given a microphone and told to talk to this crowd, how could I ever bridge the gap between their world, which is much different than mine, and the gospel?”

How can we connect with, respond to, treat, and talk to “them”?

“Them” is anyone different than us. The crowd at the above event. The gay couple in the apartment upstairs.  The homeless man pushing his shopping cart down the street. The hooker on the corner. The cultural “untouchable” at the bottom of the social caste. The unmarried mom on welfare with a bunch of kids. The “undocumented immigrant” living down the street (and please don’t throw rocks at me for not calling them “illegal aliens” My point is to bring a face to mind, not stir a political issue).  The classmate who “parties”. The neighbor who supports “that” candidate or platform. The thief in jail. The liberal family member (or the conservative family member, depending on your bent).

In Jesus’ day, “them” included people like tax collectors, immoral women, lepers, Samaritans. “Them” looks different in different times and different cultures, but “them” always exist. So, how can we respond to, connect with, treat, and talk to “them”?

Let me offer six ideas (okay, I know I’m a math and science nerd who likes lists).

First, develop your convictions about our world. We shouldn’t start a conversation here, but we do need to know what we believe and why we believe it. I hold biblical marriage unites one man and one woman for life. As such, I think gay marriage runs counter to God’s design. That is my conviction, based on the Scriptures. When I talk to the gay couple in the apartment upstairs, I may refrain from saying anything, but I need to know what I believe so I can listen wisely. (By the way, I’m only using the gay marriage example because the idea for this post arose as I was thinking about the Chick-Fil-A issue, not because I’m a one-issue writer).

Second, humanize them. Here’s what I mean: I need to keep the “Pharisee in me” from getting out. I cannot become like the one who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). Do not view them as projects or by a label. “Them” are people, not just gay, or homeless, or poor, or …. “Them” are people made in the likeness of God (James 1:10). Like me, they have strengths and needs. Like me, they struggle with sin issues. Like me, they are imperfect. I need to remember that, like me, they need God’s grace. Like me, they are part of the world that God so loved (John 3:16). I’m not better than “them”.

Third, know that we have good news that “them” need to hear. The gospel message – justification by faith alone in Jesus alone – applies to any and all. The promise of “abundant life” (quality of life, by the way, not a promise of heath-and-wealth) applies to any and all who have trusted Christ. Since all of us “fall short of the glory of God”, none of us deserves grace. Those of us who have tasted grace have the greatest message in the world to present to “them.”

Fourth, show compassion first, not judgment. Someone once said he knew all the Bible verses about his lifestyle. Christians had thumped him with them repeatedly. But he said he started to respond to the words of Christ only after someone showed him the love of Christ. Compassion doesn’t mean we condone what others are doing (any more than we should condone our own sin), and it is faulty logic that leads someone from “You are opposed to gay marriage” to “therefore, you hate gay people.” Instead, compassion means we accept them as people with needs. Compassion looks like the tired but true cliché, “hate the sin, love the sinner”. And this compassion isn’t optional (Col. 3:12). Be good news, and then at the right time, tell the good news.

Fifth, as a friend of mine worded it, “get your hands dirty.” It is easy to write about “them” in my office; it is something else to associate with “them” in their world. Jesus did it. How many times is He reprimanded for spending time with tax collectors and sinners (e.g., Luke 5:30)? Peter did it (Acts 10). Paul did it and encouraged it (1 Cor. 5:10). Be the hands of Jesus in “them’s” world.  Get involved. (How, you might ask? Several books give practical ideas for involvement – e-mail me at and I’ll send you more information. Or, find someone who is already involved and tag along. Or, look for agencies in your community and ask them how you can help.)

Sixth, while getting your hands dirty, listen and be teachable. Being teachable doesn’t mean I will (necessarily) change my theology or my convictions about a particular topic, although I might. I may discover I’ve been wrong about something or overlooked something (using Scripture as the standard, of course). Even if I am right, listening and being teachable makes me step into the world of “them” and better understand them. I don’t have to agree with “them” to understand and empathize with them, but I do have to listen.

So, back to the story in the opening paragraph. As the evening wore on, several bridges came to mind (whether I would have the courage to actually speak had the opportunity actually come up is another issue!!). The beauty of the gospel is that it fits their world and their needs. The difficulty of presenting the gospel lies in empathizing with their world, finding a point of connection with “them”, and getting my hands dirty.  

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Roasting of Chick-fil-A (Part 2): What do I stand for?

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matt. 7:3, NIV)

I believe the Bible clearly defines marriage as one man uniting for life with one woman (Gen. 2:24, Matt. 19:4-5, Eph. 5:31). However, if I am honest, I must recognize that our culture accepts, the Bible speaks of, and too many Christians participate in practices in addition to “gay marriage” that don’t line up with this definition. Practices like divorce, sex outside of marriage, cohabitation, polygamy. I cannot “throw rocks” at one practice that doesn’t fit the definition if I “wink” at others. What do we do with this stuff?

Before I try to answer the question (in 1,000 words or less), let me give two broad disclaimers. First, the Bible tells us to “speak the truth in love” and to love “in deed and truth.” This post focuses on “the truth” side of the equation, as did my earlier post on marriage. We often tend to fall on one side or the other of “truth in love.” Sometimes we focus so much on truth we forget about love; sometimes we focus so much on love we dilute (or ignore) truth. But, we must think right before we can act right (or, to sound really intellectual, orthodoxy precedes orthopraxy), thus my reason for focusing on “truth.” It bothers me when Christians use harsh tones and harsh words when defending their views; it equally bothers me when Christians say things like, “it’s not up to me to say if it is right or wrong”. As believers, we must understand what is biblically right, wrong, or “gray”.

That leads to the second disclaimer: What we believe the Bible teaches as right or wrong does not, in itself, define how we treat people. That’s the love side. Jesus did not start his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well with the words “You are practicing sexual impurity. Therefore, you are going to hell.” He eventually got to the point of her lifestyle, but only after developing a relationship (John 4:1-30). Truth in love. Grace and truth. He did not “hate” her because she lived immorally. Similarly, in today’s world, it is bad logic to conclude that if I hold the traditional view of marriage, I hate anyone whose lifestyle differs from that view, whether gay or otherwise. But how we treat such people is stuff for a future post.

So, back to the question. Let me oh-so-briefly touch on the four practices that run counter to the one-man one-woman view of marriage. All four undermine traditional marriage, the Bible mentions all four, and the last three are widely practiced in our culture and among Christians.

Polygamy. Polygamy is not (yet) legal in this country, but people often use polygamy in the Bible as evidence that marriage need not be limited to one man united to one woman. The Bible records history – warts and all – without always commenting about the rightness of those events. That the Bible records occurrences of polygamy does not imply the rightness of polygamy; it simply records what happened. Second, with the exception of the (likely) rare case of Levirate Marriage (Deut. 25:5-10), polygamy never appears in a positive light in the Bible. Every record of polygamy paints a picture of a messy family. Kings in particular were commanded not to take many wives (Deut. 17:17). When they did, trouble ensued (e.g., 1 Kings 11:3). Third, the Bible mentions only a handful of polygamous relationships (a dozen or so). Most marriages in biblical times united one man with only one woman. Polygamy serves as an example that people did not always honor the one-man, one-woman standard, but it does not serve as a positive exception to that standard.

Divorce.  Divorce is rampant in our culture. For every two new marriages granted, one divorce is granted (which isn’t quite the same things as “half of all marriages end in divorce”). “No-Fault” divorce made divorce easy. And divorce creates all kinds of fallout within families. Granted, divorce is not unique to our culture and our era; even in Jesus’ day, questions arose about when divorce was valid. What did Jesus say about? “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.” Time doesn’t permit addressing any biblical exceptions permitting divorce, but as a whole, the Bible frowns on it. The ease of divorce in our culture certainly hurts the case for marriage.

Sex, sex, and more sex.  The so-called sexual revolution of the sixties changed the way our culture views sex outside of marriage. Now premarital sex is largely considered normal. In fact, one resource reports over 90% of dating men or women between the ages of 18 and 25 are sexually active. Multiple studies reveal a high percentage of men – married or not – access pornography regularly. Sex, designed by God as an act of intimacy between husband and wife (“and they shall become one flesh”) now serves only as something “we just do” in relationships. Too many no longer “flee” immorality; we “pursue” it. The prevalence of sex outside of marriage certainly hurts the case for marriage.

Couples living together (cohabitation). The woman Jesus encountered at the well lived with someone “not her husband.” Not widely practiced in biblical times, it is widely practiced today. Couples who live together do so for a variety of reasons. Some fear marriage because they have too few solid role models; some believe (in spite of contrary statistical evidence) living together provides a test of compatibility. Living together does require commitment, but of a different kind and a lesser degree than marriage. Cohabitation certainly undermines the case for marriage.

If by holding to the traditional view of marriage I only mean I am against gay marriage, I am missing much of the picture. To be consistent, I must also recognize these other aberrations against traditional marriage. But divorce, pre-marital sex, and cohabitation are largely accepted by our culture (and too-much accepted within our churches), so we don’t see a cultural backlash against them. We’ve knocked many pillars out from under traditional marriage; gay marriage is but one problem. It simply draws fire whereas the other issues do not. Perhaps they should.

I do not hate gays, any more that I hate divorcees, those who give in to sexual sin, or those who live together. What I stand for is God’s ideal, for marriage, for strong families, for purity.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Roasting of Chick-fil-A (Part 1): Am I really a bigot?

Someone recently called me a bigot – repeatedly – because I hold the same views about marriage as those espoused by Chick-fil-A executive Don Cathy. Am I really a bigot just because we disagree about an important issue?

Here’s the problem (ok, here’s just one of many problems related to this issue). If I hold an incorrect and belittling view about a person or a group of people because of an error in my thinking, then I could well be a bigot. The dictionary uses words like “prejudice, hatred, intolerance” when defining the word “bigot”. But, if I hold a correct view based on what is right and wrong, then I am not a bigot. The question then becomes. "What is the standard to decide right and wrong?" And that answer is not simple. We accept what culture says is right or wrong, what our conscience says is right or wrong, what some outside source says is right or wrong, or some combination of these. And since we will not all agree on the standard, we certainly shouldn’t expect to agree on the answer!

Personally, I accept the Bible (an “outside source”) as my standard of right and wrong. Some people will reject my conclusions at this point because they do not accept the Bible. That’s okay – my point here is not to convince someone about the truthfulness and reliability of the Bible. And some may accept the Bible but disagree with my interpretation. That’s okay, too. I’m willing to listen to other interpretations, but be aware that I came to my conclusions after a lot of study over a lot of years!

Let me jump back a few generations. In the not-too-distant past in America, you would often hear “Racially mixed marriages are wrong”, particularly marriages between whites and blacks. Are the statements “Gay marriage is wrong” and “Racially mixed marriages are wrong” functionally equivalent? If the second statement reflects prejudice and bigotry, does the first as well?

To answer this, let’s see what the Bible says. In three different passages, we find a definition of marriage. The author of Genesis, after describing the creation of the man and the woman, says this: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24, NIV).  Later, Jesus responds to a question from the Pharisees about divorce with this challenge:  “Haven’t you read … that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” (Matt. 19:4-5). And when Paul describes marriage, he quotes Genesis:  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” (Eph. 5:31, NIV). Both Jesus and Paul viewed the Genesis description of marriage as the standard and the ideal. Each of these three references clearly says a male (singular) and a female (singular) unite in marriage and become one flesh.

Now, let’s go back to the two questions. A racially mixed marriage does not contradict this description of marriage in any way. The race of the male and female is not addressed in these passages at all. Nowhere does the Bible teach the inferiority of any race. In fact, the equality of races among Christians is explicitly stated when Paul says “There is neither Jew nor Gentile … for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 2:28, NIV). If I hold the view that racially mixed marriage is morally wrong, even if I am completely convinced of the truth of this view, I am basing my beliefs on the erroneous view that races are not equal despite the teachings of the Bible. I should very well be labeled a “bigot”.

But the second case differs greatly. In the case of gay marriage, something does not, in fact, fit the description. The sexes of the two partners are clearly defined in the passages! “A man” (male) unites with “his wife” (female). In this case, I am basing my belief that gay marriage is wrong on what I understand the Bible says about marriage. At this point, we are left with four options: (1) reject or ignore what the Bible says (and, if you are a Bible-rejecter, we’ll have a difficult time coming to agreement on the issue of gay marriage!), (2) redefine what the Bible says based on culture, (3) change our understanding of the text after careful study reveals we’ve interpreted it incorrectly, or (4) accept what the Bible says, convinced we’ve interpreted it correctly. I think this last option fits my understanding of marriage. I believe in the traditional view of marriage – the uniting of one man and one woman. If you think the Bible teaches otherwise, I am willing to listen. But don’t try to sway me with emotions, opinions, or generalities. If I am wrong, show me from the text.

Sometimes, we must draw a line in the sand and say “this line marks the difference between right and wrong!” I do not hold my view despite the teachings of the Bible but because of the teachings of the Bible. Since I believe the Bible is inspired by God, I believe it defines the ultimate standard for right and wrong. I should not therefore be labeled a bigot – especially by other Christians. Name-calling does nothing to advance a discussion.

Keep in mind that holding this view says nothing about how I should respond to gay people (I should treat them in love), how our government should respond to the issue, or the wisdom of the “where and when” I (or anyone else) should state these views about marriage– that is the stuff of other posts. I am simply defining what I believe about marriage and why I hold that belief. And, just like the Chick-fil-A executive, I have the right to hold this view and state my views, especially in a country based on religious freedom, freedom of speech and “tolerance”.

I can hear a thousand questions in response to this post, such as: Aren’t there exceptions in the Bible? What about polygamy? What about the beliefs of those who don’t believe in the Scriptures? How should we treat gay people? Don’t they deserve to be happy? How should I respond to those with whom I disagree? Should we “impose” biblical standards on our culture? Shouldn’t I be more tolerant of other views? What about other situations that don’t seem to fit the biblical definition of marriage, such as divorce or cohabitation?

All great questions (he says modestly about his own post). I don’t have space to answer here, but I will! Watch for “The Roasting of Chik-fil-A (Part 2)”!