Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Thinking Biblically About Work

One of the many blessings that God promises faithful man is that he will bless the work of his hands. This is a promise that appears several times over in Deuteronomy alone (e.g. 14:29; 15:10; 16:15; 24:19; 28:12). This is a very rich blessing indeed when we consider just how central work is to life in this world.

It’s important to understand that we are called by God to work. When God made Adam, the very first thing he did was to give him a job to do. He gave him the task of exercising dominion on his behalf (Gen. 1:26-28). This included such things as “working” and “keeping” the garden and naming the animals (Gen. 2:15, 19-20a).

Some people assume that life for Adam and Eve in Eden was a life of inactivity—lounging beside the pool, sipping lemonade, and working on their tan. Not so. God gave Adam a job to do.

It’s vitally important to understand that God commands us to work and that this command is not a post fall commandment. In other words, work is not a part of the curse which resulted from sin. The original command to work came before the fall, at the time of creation. It was Adam’s God-given calling, and this calling was included in God’s assessment that everything he made was not only good, but very good (Gen. 1:31).

The fall, of course, complicated things immensely. Work has become much more difficult than it was before. The earth doesn’t yield as much produce with as much ease (Gen. 3:17-19).

We tend to think of work as a necessary evil, as something to be done only because our survival depends on it. We tend to think that life is really only lived on the weekends when we can play. But I would argue that work is not only not a necessary evil, but a positive good.

The drive to work is a fundamental aspect of our being, and not simply necessary for our well-being. By this, I mean, that God, in making man after his own image and likeness, has woven into our very nature the drive to work. God is the divine archetype for man, the pattern after which man is made. And God is the ultimate worker. He made the heavens and the earth with his great wisdom and power. He exerted his strength. He exercised his ingenuity. He brought his artistic talents to bear. And he still, today, continues to work by upholding the world by the word of his power. “My Father is working until now,” Jesus said, “and I am working” (Jn. 5:15). God, then, is the ultimate worker; and we, being created in his image, have been called to imitate him.

This calling is so fundamental to our being that without work a man without work feels emasculated. The tragedy of a man not having a job lies not only in the fact that he cannot provide for his family. The worst part of it is that he doesn’t feel himself to be a man. If he doesn’t have something productive to do he’s lost much of the meaning for his existence. In this respect, work can be thought of as being therapeutic. Meaningful work, productive work, keeps a man sane. Honestly. I’m not overstating the case merely to make a point. If a man is depressed and troubled, if he doesn’t feel good about himself, one of the best things he can do for himself is to get up and go to work.

In a very real sense the meaning and purpose of a man’s life are wrapped up in his work, in his life’s calling. It’s an important aspect of his identity. What he does goes into the shaping of who he is. The opposite is also true:  who he is is reflected in what he does. This is why when you get some men together who don’t know one another, one of the first things they’ll ask each other is, “What do you do? What kind of work are you in?” We believe we have a natural, God-given interest in work, and we intuitively know that we can learn something important about a man by knowing what he does for a living and what his attitudes are toward his work.

One of the great needs of our time is to recover the sense of work as a calling from God. Some people see the goal of the Christian life as some kind of neo-platonic flight from this world and its concerns, instead of living faithfully in the world and fulfilling the callings which God has given us.

Along these lines, we must remember that every lawful calling is a worthy calling, and every lawful calling is one in which the Christian may glorify God. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that the only calling in which a Christian “really” serves God is full time Christian ministry, meaning as a pastor or as a missionary, or something of that sort. No. Every Christian is in full time Christian service, of one sort or another, whether as a pastor, or a missionary, or a teacher, or a farmer, or a stay at home mother, or a mechanic, or a nurse, or policeman, or a line worker in a factory. It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as it’s a lawful enterprise and you do it with all of your strength to the glory of God.

We must not over-spiritualize the Christian faith.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Chariots of Fire, winner of four 1981 academy awards, including Best Picture. It’s the story of runner Eric Liddell, a devout Christian, whose athletic career culminated in winning the gold medal in the 400 meters at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. He was called “the flying Scotsman.” He was called this because, in the first place, he was from Scotland, and in the second place because he had a rather unorthodox running form. He would flail his arms as he ran, which gave him the appearance of a bird in flight.

Liddell was born to missionary parents who served the Lord in Northern China, but he received most of his education in Great Britain, where he excelled both as a student and as an athlete. He was fond of both rugby and track and field; but once he reached his early twenties he devoted himself exclusively to his running. His sister pressured him to give up his running and go back to China with her to serve the Lord on the mission field. She thought he enjoyed his running too much and that it was a distraction from his Christian service. Wasn’t he neglecting the real means by which he was called to serve the Lord?

Liddell struggled with knowing what to do. Was his sister right? Was he forsaking the Lord by pursuing his running? Would God be more pleased and better served if he quit his running and went to the mission field? These questions troubled him. He sought the advice of his pastor. And the advice his pastor gave him is a challenge I want to give you. He said, “Eric, you can praise the Lord by peeling a spud if you peel it to perfection. Don’t compromise. Compromise is a language of the devil.”

Shortly after this in the film, Liddell informed his sister that he would return to the mission field, but first he must complete his athletic training and competition. Trying to persuade him to return to China with her at once, she told him that God had made him for a purpose and that he should forget his running and be about the more important business of preaching the gospel. To this he replied, “Jenny, I believe that God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure…To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt…To win is to honor Him.”

Eric and his pastor were right. There are many different ways to serve the Lord—and to do so as acceptably, as well, and as meaningfully as a minister of the gospel. Terry Applegate observes,

Leland Ryken, in his book, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, does an excellent job of documenting this understanding of work and business that existed in Puritan theology. He writes:

William Tyndale said that if we look externally “there is difference betwixt washing dishes and preaching of the word of God; but as touching to please God; none at all.” William Perkins agreed: “The action of a shepherd in keeping sheep ... is as good a work before God as is the action of a judge in giving sentence, or a magistrate in ruling, or a minister in preaching.” This Puritan rejection of the dichotomy between sacred and secular work had far-reaching implications. For one thing, it renders every task of intrinsic value and integrates every vocation with a Christian's spiritual life. It makes every job consequential by making it the arena for glorifying and obeying God and for expressing one's love (through service) to one's neighbor. Thus Hugh Latimer saw in the example of Christ the true dignity of all work:  This is a wonderful thing, that the Savior of the world, and the King above all kings, was not ashamed to labor; yea, and to use so simple an occupation. Here He did sanctify all manner of occupations.2

Their view of how Jesus Christ sanctified work by engaging in it Himself as a carpenter and, I might point out, as an independent businessman is very insightful. “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”3 Quoting Ryken once more:

For the Puritans, all of life was God's. Their goal was to integrate their daily work with their religious devotion to God. Richard Steele [a Puritan scholar] asserted that it was in the shop “where you may most confidently expect the presence and blessing of God.”[1]

I couldn’t agree more. Honor the Lord in your work and he will honor you in your work. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). When we do this, even the most apparently mundane task is filled with sacred significance.

[1] Terry Applegate, Vocation as a Government in Chalcedon Report, March 2000 (http://chalcedon.edu/faith-for-all-of-life/the-biblical-doctrine-of-government/vocation-as-a-government/) My apologies for the quote within a quote within a quote, but not sorry enough not to do it.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Separation of Church and State?

What do you think of the idea of separation of church and state?

It all depends on what you mean by it. If you mean, “Do I believe in institutional separation, i.e., that the government of the church should be kept separate from the government of the state”, then yes I’m all for it. The church should not be a department of the state nor the state a ministry of the church. Each has its own officers and its own sphere of responsibility.

But if you mean, “Do I believe in the separation of God from government,” which is what so many people mean who cry “Separation of church and state!” then no, I don’t believe it for moment. The state, no less than the church, has a responsibility to acknowledge God and to be subject to him.

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
            be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
            and rejoice with trembling
Kiss the Son,
            lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
            for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him (Ps. 2:10-12)

Those who hold office in civil government have a responsibility not only to live faithfully as Christians in their private lives, but also to govern faithfully as Christians in their public office, openly acknowledging the Lord’s authority and governing in terms of his word. Much of the Bible, in fact, is given as instruction to those who hold public office—the case laws of the Old Testament, for instance. God tells Moses, “These are the judgments [i.e., rulings] that you are to set before” the elders and judges of the people (Ex. 21:1; cf. Deut. 1:17). Civil magistrates are not to rule on their own authority, but are to look to God’s law as a guide in terms of the proper scope of government, as well as in terms of specific pieces of legislation, and in terms of how to rule in criminal cases.

Not only this, but much of the material in the prophets is both a denunciation of rulers for failing to uphold God’s law, and a call for them to repent.

Church and state each have their own particular spheres of responsibility. The state has two chief responsibilities. First, it is to defend its citizens against foreign invasion. Second, it is to maintain domestic order by enforcing laws against what God defines as criminal behavior.[1] The church, on the other hand, is to teach the word of God and to be a center for his public worship. So church and state each have their own responsibilities, but both are under the authority of God and his word.

Leaders in civil government ought to be members of the church who listen to the teaching of God’s word and faithfully apply it to their calling as public officials. This was, in fact, a requirement in the early days of our nation. The colonies, and later, after the War for Independence, the states had religious tests for public office-holders. As a part of the swearing in ceremony officials had to swear that they believed in the Christian religion and in the divinity of Christ, and that they accepted the Bible as God’s own revealed word.[2]

It is unfortunate that our nation’s founding documents are not more explicit in this respect. Our Founders shied away from requiring a religious test for federal office-holders,[3] not because they were hoping to establish a secular society, but because they deemed this something to be taken care of at the state level. The states had their own religious tests. If the federal government imposed a religious test, it would impinge upon the right of the states to do so.[4]

The Founders seem to have taken it for granted that ours was a Christian nation and the states would send Christian men to serve in the Federal government and so they didn’t see the need to express themselves more fully on this point in our founding documents. In the Declaration we have mention made of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” And it is said “all Men are created equal,” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In the Constitution we have an acknowledgement of the Lord’s Day, and the date of its passage is said to be “the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” So there is clearly a Christian presupposition in these documents. But we could wish the Founders had been prescient enough to have seen the need to give a fuller account of these things so that there would not be so much confusion today concerning their original intentions.

[1] Note that I said criminal behavior, not sinful behavior. All criminal behavior is sinful, but not all sinful behavior is criminal.
[2] See, for instance, Gary DeMar, America’s Christian History:  The Untold Story (Powder Springs, GA:  2005)
[3] “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (Article VI).
[4] This is also the rationale behind the establishment clause of the First Amendment:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The Amendment restricts the power of Congress in these matters lest the acts of Congress contradict the laws of the states. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Is it a sin for a Christian to get a tattoo?

This is a very timely question seeing as how we are witnessing a proliferation of all kinds of body modification, including piercings and cuttings and tattoos. The Bible actually mentions these things very directly in Leviticus 19:28. The Lord says, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves.”

A couple of interpretive questions arise. The first concerns the words “for the dead”. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead…” It was a practice among the pagans to cut themselves for a variety of reasons, one of which was as an expression of mourning for the dead.

In the Ugaritic story of Baal and Anat, the god Baal is killed and the other gods, his friends, cut their cheeks and chins and lacerate their forearms, chests and backs.[1]

We find, too, that the priests of Baal, in their contest with Elijah, “cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them” (1 Ki. 18:28).

The question is:  Does the Levitical prohibition against cutting and tattooing only have to do with mourning rites and with the worship of idols? Or is it a general prohibition that applies across the board in all circumstances? I think it applies across the board. God’s law frequently teaches us general principles by the use of specific cases. Cutting and tattooing oneself “for the dead” is a specific case from which we are to deduce a general principle. Namely, we are not to mutilate or mar the body.

The second question that arises is this:  Is this a law that still applies today? Some laws of the Old Testament no longer apply—the laws concerning sacrifice and offering, for instance. These looked forward to Christ and were types and shadows of his work of atonement. They were like prophecies in the form of object lessons, and since Christ has come, there is no longer any need for them. The kosher laws no longer apply either. They were designed, in part at least, to keep Israel set apart from the nations. And now with the calling of the Gentiles to be joint heirs with the Jews of the promises of God, they are no longer binding.

Other laws, however, obviously still apply. It is as wrong today to commit murder as it was when God gave us his law on Sinai. It is as wrong today to commit adultery, to steal, to blaspheme, to commit perjury, and so on.

So the question is this:  does this law against cutting and tattooing oneself still apply today? It is perhaps not as obvious as the commandments against murder and stealing and adultery, but I think it does still apply.

In the first place, cutting and tattooing the body contravenes the natural order. God created man in his own image and pronounced his creation good. Therefore, man should not disfigure the divine image given to him by scarring or tattooing his body, but should have a bias in favor of the natural created form. Paul argues in this way on another matter in First Corinthians when he says, “Does not nature itself teach you…” (1 Cor. 11:14).

And even if we’re mistaken in thinking that the commandment against cutting and tattooing is an abiding commandment, there is still another thing to take into consideration. Paul, on several occasions, appeals to the accepted practices of the churches of God:

This is my rule in all the churches… (1 Cor. 7:17)

We have no such practice, nor do the churches of God (1 Cor. 11:16)

As in all the churches of the saints… (1 Cor. 14:33)

We ought to have a high regard for the accepted practices of the church through the ages.

The simple fact of the matter is that the practice of body modification did not originate with the people of God, but with pagans. And in all times and in all places the churches have discouraged the practice. This alone ought to give a Christian pause in considering it.

Western Civilization has been profoundly influenced by the Christian faith. This is why tattooing and other forms of body modification, until recent times, have been relatively rare. But as we have moved away from our Christian heritage we have seen a significant rise in these things. Body modification has come into prominence among those who wish to defy convention—another very good reason for a Christian to avoid it.

The bottom line is that our bodies, as Paul said, are members of Christ (1 Cor. 3:15). And he goes on to say,

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 3:19-20).

We are not free to do whatever we want with our bodies, but we must hold them, and keep them, and do with them whatever God commands.

[1] R. Laird Harris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), vol. 2, p. 616