Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Power of Story

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."  "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." "Call me Ishmael."  "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."   "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."  "It was a pleasure to burn."  "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."  "The year Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette."  "It was a dark and stormy night..."  "Once upon a time..." "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."  "Space, the final frontier."  "Come sit right back and you'll hear a tale..."  "Here's a story of a lovely lady..."  "Everyone loves Raymond."

I hope at some point as you read the above, the words fired your imagination.  We have triggers in our brains the familiar words begin a cascade of memories.  These memories, these triggers are attached to stories.  Whether we remember them as books, plays, movies, or television shows, it is futile to argue the power stories have upon our minds, our emotions, or our perception of reality.  Because most of these works draw from a worldview that opposes the truth of God's word, Christians ought to learn to identify the negative and positive messages both patent and latent appearing in stories.

As we consider stories, we must begin with some element of general philosophy.  Since the advent of the post-modern mind, human thinking has largely rejected the presumption of what contemporary writers call the "metanarrative."  To understand this concept, we must return to the days of the medieval Christian consensus.  At that time, the consensus held that knowledge of the world could only be rightly understood through the lense of Christianity.  Theology was the queen of the sciences.  Without a right understanding of God, the universe would be incomprehensible.

With the destruction of the Christian consensus, human thought freed from the "limitations" of theology was thought capable of discovering independent truth.  New theories of the universe were proposed and critiqued.  Christianity was considered anti-intellectual and anti-science due to the history of Copernicus and Galileo.  Human reason without God endeavored to discover a new theory of the universe, a new creation story.  The enterprise endeavored to create a humanist consensus, a story without God that most people would accept.  The project failed.  The modernist age failed to produce an agreed upon story.

Post-moderns, disappointed by reason and science, left the rigid constructs of logic and physical exploration in the quest for a theory of life.  Instead, they returned to myth and story to reveal truth.  Knowing humanity's inability to form a consensus, they rejected any attempt to form a universal story, a metanarrative.  Each person wrote their own story, drawing from other stories they found personally informative or compelling.  They pick and choose what story they want to believe, even what parts of a story they like best, without dealing with the logical inconsistencies inherent in such a task.  We then end up with everyone writing their own story without any larger story into which their story fits.

When we examine this process from the perspective of the Bible, we see some points of connection.  The Bible is filled with stories.  Consider the stories that come to mind when we hear the names: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Ruth, Samuel, Saul, David, Bathsheba, Solomon, Jezebel, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Mary, Joseph, Paul, Peter, John.  All these people lived different stories.  However, we see that they all fit into the larger story, the metanarrative of the person and work of Jesus.  They all tell the story of creation, fall, redemption, and glory.  The Bible tells one story which explains all reality.  Previously, we looked at the Bible as one book, by one author, to one audience.  It is the "one book" assertion that leads to this truth that the story of redemption encompasses the entire Bible.  It is the story of what God is doing in the world into which all the other stories fit.

Here is the place where Christianity meets the philosophical need of the time.  The world has no reason for assuming that any of their individual stories matter.  At the end of the day, they will die and their story will be forgotten.  Thanks Ecclesiastes. (Ecclesiastes 2:17-23, 9:1-6)  Their story may matter to them, it may matter to someone else, but eventually, their story will matter to no one.  Consider the stories of the following individuals that we may consider great.  JFK, Lincoln, Washington, Edwards, the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Calvin, Luther, Huss, Anselm, Augustine, Athanasius.  Do you know their stories?  Do they matter to you?    Do people care about these stories?  What about other ancillary individuals whose names are lost to history?  Did they matter?

The Bible teaches us that our lives do matter.  Our stories matter because they are part of God's plan of redemption.  We matter because He matters.  Even our tears are recorded. "You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.  Are they not in your book?" (Psalm 56:8)

Because of the world's attention on personal individualistic stories, storytellers have risen in prominence.  Stories are often judged by how relevant they are to the present situation and how well they accord with people's own experience.  The best story is one that speaks to you, that you can add to your own story.  For this reason, we need to understand the message that these stories convey.

The first thing we ought to notice is patent depictions of Christians in stories.  How are Christians portrayed in these stories?  Are they commendable characters or objects of ridicule and scorn, images of hypocrisy?  For fans of Austen, consider the depictions of Philip Elton, William Collins, Edward Ferrars, Henry Tilney, and Edmund Bertam.  The least objectionable among them was Mr. Ferrars, and some could criticize his inability to confront his family.  A more modern example is MASH's depictions of Major Frank Burns and Father Mulcahy.  The former is depicted as reading the Bible while married and carrying on an affair.  In comedy, Christians are held up to scorn.  In drama, Christians are portrayed as out-of-touch and often flummoxed when they cannot reconcile their belief with the reality of modern life and thought.  Believers should be wary of how the gospel and Christians are portrayed in contemporary stories.

In early days of television, episodic series often were fairly blatant about the message that was intended.  Consider the Any Griffith Show.  It would be hard to miss the point of Opie killing the bird.  However, one cannot assume a message in the story of the goat who eats the dynamite.  Some shows were merely written to entertain while others had a more serious purpose.  More contemporary storytellers focus on entertainment rather than message. (with a few notable exceptions)  Thus, we must consider latent messages.

The vast majority of stories follow well traveled paths.  The normal dramatic arc recurs frequently in these stories.  They proceed from introduction, to escalation and tension, to confrontation, to denouement and conclusion.  Experimental writers try to adjust this formula to their own peril, and mostly fail.  There is a reason why this arc works so well.  It seems part of our humanity.

Within each genre, we may observe common messages throughout the genre.  This is not to suggest that the storytellers consciously intend to send these messages.  They are often so entrenched within the genre that one cannot think of that genre without the message.  Whether intentional or not, Christians should identify the message, for it will be there.

Perhaps the most easily observed is the romantic genre.  In romance, the most common message is, "love conquers all."  In romantic comedies, this is often seen in mystifying ways.  A ruins B's business, but they still end up together. (You've Got Mail, Hitch) A make B fall in love with him/her for some motive other than attraction, but they still end up together even after this horrible truth is revealed. (Sabrina, How to lose a guy in 10 days)  A and B are separated by years and death and only communicate through a mailbox at a lake house, but still end up together. (really?)  A calls B a horrible person, but they still end up together. (most Austen books)  People watch endless hours of television romance where the obvious pairs are often put together then ripped apart multiple times before they finally end up together. (The list is too long, but you can certainly think of many examples.)

This philosophy holds more sway in our society than we might think.  Consider the video the company Google put out for a review of the year 2016 entitled, "Google - Year In Search 2016". (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIViy7L_lo8)  One character from a long running television show summarized the philosophy of this love in this way. "[L]ove doesn't make sense! I mean, you can't logic your way in or out of it. Love is totally non-sensical. But we have to keep doing it, or else we're lost, and love is dead, and humanity should just pack it in. Because love is the best thing we do."  In a very powerful way, our society has made a god of love.  It confesses not the biblical statement that God is love, but the humanist confession that love is god.  This god, they believe will conquer all.

The Bible teaches us that God is love and that His love conquered all.  The facade of love that appears in romances cannot hold the weight that these stories require.  This is why they often face the ridicule of reason.  For a true all-conquering love, something more like God's love is required.

Action stories vary between question of morality and the journey of self-discovery.  Some stories question what can the hero do to defeat the bad guys and still be a good guy.  Others portray a person in a process of self actualization.  In these tales, the hero determines his destiny or morality.  This clashes with the Christian mindset that God determines what is right and who we are.

I can't say that I am in any way a devotee of the horror genre.  The frightening imagery and normal violence within the genre do not appeal to me.  However, there is something in that genre that connects to the Christian ethic.  Horror films often resemble medieval morality tales.  In these ancient stories, the actors placated to the church by telling stories aimed at promoting moral behavior.  Good people were rewarded and bad people suffered.  This also appears within the horror genre where those who do bad things are consumed while the morally upright survive.  Naturally, the world will use relative categories for "good" and "bad."  These definitions will probably not match those delineated by the Bible, but the underlying moral tone often persists, even if it does draw more from a karmic view of morality than a Christian view.

The mystery story has suffered much over the years.  The stories of Sherlock Holmes have not, perhaps, aged well, but the quality of their writing still stands above most of the genre today.  Mysteries and police procedurals have devolved into tasteless pulp, with few notable exceptions rising above the fray.  The quality of the mystery is in the inventiveness of the storyteller and the setting of the mystery.  Good mystery stories still surprise through their ingenuity or uniqueness of setting.  Often, these stories provide commentary on morality.  Take for instance this quote from "The German Woman" from the series Foyle's War, set in WWII.  Within the episode, the question of war, murder, and the death penalty swirl around.  Why investigate murder when the country is training its young men to kill?  Why execute "valuable" member of the military service in time of war for murdering a german woman?  At the end, the detective says, "Murder is murder. You stop believing that, and we might as well not be fighting the war. Because you end up like the Nazis."  Naturally, his foundation does not refer to scripture, but to basic notions of humanity and our relation to the law.  However, we can easily make biblical analogies to this same position.

Of all the genres mentioned, perhaps science fiction is the most flexible and susceptible to latent message signaling.  The Star Trek series repeatedly tackled the questions contemporary audiences were asking.  More recently, the revival of Battlestar Galactica addressed the topics of abortion and vicarious atonement.  The genre often finds itself attempting to answer the question, "What does it mean to be human?"  Most, if not the vast majority of the answers and reasoning that is propounded in these stories either ignore or contradict the Bible's construction and conclusion, but they regularly ask important question that the Bible often answers more simply that the world.

It remains for the Christian to understand how the method of telling the story influences our perception and reception of the narrative and its point.  We may generally categorize the means of transmission in three groups: oral, written, and visual.

The earliest form of storytelling involved oral communication.  We told stories.  Often, this method involved the ballad, a story told in song.  This lead to early narratives appearing in verse, even in print.  Poetry, rhyme, and rhythm aid the speaker in memory and performance.  As often, these stories were not reduced to writing, these verbal aids facilitated the transmission of these stories through the ages.  In addition, the use of song and music amplified the emotional component of these stories.

In the modern age, audiobooks have become the contemporary analog to the oral storyteller.  They allow our imagination to provide the images, and allow us to experience the story in our mind.  This has the positive impact that these stories exercise the imagination, but also, as our mind is engaged in experiencing the story, it also facilitates our ability to contemplate the meaning of the story.

With the invention of the printing press, books became more popular and convenient.  Stories began appearing in books, entertaining the people who read them.  With written stories, it is much easier to analyze the narrative.  If you are listening to the story, in some way, you are at the mercy of the reader.  You often can't tell him to stop an repeat an earlier passage.  Even with technology, this often proves a hassle.  With a book, you can flip back to a section you remember and see how it compares with another portion of the book.  You can put it down and think about the content in an analytical light.

Oral and written storytelling has waned in popularity in the modern west.  Visual storytelling has rocketed into popularity.  In truth, visual storytelling predates the printing press.  The play appears in virtually all ancient civilizations, african, european, and asian.  Because of the antiquity of the play, they often shared commonality to the individual storytellers, with the use of meter and music.

Technology has rapidly expanded the ability to create and consume visual storytelling.  The twentieth century saw the development of film and television.  The twenty-first has seen the emergence of streaming services and production.  It is altogether possible for a story to never appear on anything other than digital media.

With visual storytelling, we may consider three forms in modern use: the play, the movie, and the personal screen.  The play is the most subjectively influential of the three.  There is something powerful about sitting in a theatre witnessing actual people performing.  The actors also sense this and respond to the effect their performance may have on the audience.  The viewer cedes control to the players.  You enter into this place, take your seat, and stay there for the performance.  You experience what the players want you to experience.  You witness the story at their pace.  You cannot hit "pause" to reflect on the story.  The best you may do is reflect on the story afterward.  As a Christian, this ought to influence our choices and how needful it may be to spend time in reflection afterward.

The movie shares the many of the same experiences as the theater, with the exception of the personal presence.  This is not to be ignored, but with the advance of technology, the movie you see in the theater today will be available to stream often before a year has passed.  This allows the opportunity for review and critique.  It still bears noting how powerful the movie experience can be.  There is an intimate environment between you and the screen.  The players are larger than reality.  The dominate the vision.  The room is too dark to see anything but the screen.  Normally, the sound is amplified so that you can hear nothing else.  Environmentally, the theater is set to discourage any attention but that on the screen.

Environment changes our perception.  Consider the same movie shown in the theater as opposed to that movie see at home.  Even when the characters on the screen may appear larger than reality, you can often stand up and be higher than they.  You determine the lighting and volume.  You determine if you want to keep watching, pause, or take a break.  In most streaming services, you even get to vote of whether you liked the movie/show.  Control plays a large part in our perception of the story.

The ease of production has dramatically changed the way stories are told and their length.  One of the fascinating studies have been the analysis of the average length of a shot in movies and television.  In the early days of film and television, when the production was basically a play and a camera, (imagine a parent filming their child's school play) long shots were the norm.  Even when people started writing for television and thirty minute programs, (over twenty-fire even without commercials) the average shot lasted 20 seconds.  That may not seem a long time, but in comparison to the present average length of less than five, observers have noted how this change plays into people's present inability to pay attention, our shortened attention spans.

The length of the story has also changed.  We noted how commercial broadcast television in the early days often offered over twenty-five minutes of content per half hour.  In the present, some content has diminished to less than twenty minutes for a half hour.  Not only do we need rapidly changing images, but shorter stories.

Or do we.  Enter the streaming service and the advent of bingeing.  People began watching all the episodes of a series in a few sessions.  This phenomena fostered an approach to storytelling that was already appearing and growing in the industry, lower episode counts, better quality writing, and story arcs lasting the entire season.  Before the turn of the century, commercial broadcast television producers normally ordered a season run of over twenty episodes.  This covered the fall and spring schedule at approximately one episode a week.  This approach is still powerfully attached to broadcast television.  Cable channels began experimenting with alternative scheduling and production.  With less resources than their commercial cousins, this approach arose in some way out of necessity.  In 1999, HBO began airing the series, "The Sopranos".  In 2001, Fox began airing "24".  The commercial success of these experiments laid the groundwork for much of the storytelling of the modern streaming service.  It told storytellers that there was an audience for television to tell lengthy stories in episodic form.  Consider that where before, most long visual stories lasted for little more than two hours, now long-form storytelling can last in excess of 10 hours.

This longer form also poses a challenge to the Christian's duty of analysis.  We can lose the forrest for the trees in our tendency to binge.  This tendency to get caught up in the present without reflection, without considering the messages that lie behind the story, require a Christian to think critically about the stories of the world.  Some have value.  Others present ideas diametrically opposed to Christianity.  Knowing the means by which we experience stories guides us as we seek to live Christian in an unchristian world.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Who are you?

This generation may know the song from the hit television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.  Others know its artist and name. The song asks the question of its title, "Who are you?"  Ironically, its artist echoes its question, The Who.  The song dwells on the question of existence and a person's place in this world.  The song expresses the struggle that is a part of most people in the world.

Who are you?  The world has attempted to conjure up many answers to this incessant question.  They cannot escape the need to answer the question.  It is deceptively complex.  The question requires more than an answer of identity but of purpose.  Who are you also involves the consideration of the question why are you here.  Trying to answer these questions apart from God leads to problems.  There is no foundation to begin answering the personal question without a cosmological meaning.  How can you matter if the universe doesn't?

Evolution has taught many that all they are is matter in motion.  Who are you, what is your soul if all you are is atoms chasing one another through space?  Do you even have an identity?  Even if you are something unique, is that uniqueness a mere reflection of chance and genetics.  DNA coding may separate you from another human, but it does not provide identity.  It doesn't answer the question, "Who are you?"

We live in a society that fundamentally lacks identity.  Philosophy has failed to answer the big questions and has turned its attention to the little ones.  Nietzsche's superman does not ask, why am I here or Who am I, but who do I want to be.  Without the big answers, the little questions have no answers other than the ones each person chooses for themselves.  There may be some pride in those answers, but no certainty.  To live without identity is to live on a foundation of cotton candy.  It will melt to nothing in a moment.

This lack of certainty has not stopped the pursuit of meaning.  We live in a society where this question looms large.*
*We must stop to remember that these questions often arise in industrialized societies.  In agrarian cultures, one follows the course set for them by the necessities of life.  You live as your ancestors in an effort to maintain life.  It is only in a culture where the basic necessities of life are secure that the question of identity becomes a major issue.  While lesser affluent cultures may also struggle with this question, it is of less frequent than in affluent societies.*
How are people to conduct this search for identity?  Where is identity to emerge?  Without a solid foundation of identity, people are left to secondary sources of identity.  That is, if you decide for yourself who you are, you will do so by exteriors rather than interiors.  As introspective as you may be, you can never find who you are within, for you have no reason to assume there is a within to find.  Instead, you will define yourself with externals.  These usually devolve into activities you prefer.

Education offers endless options for the individual to select from.  Work, profession, or occupation has become a principle way people have decided to define themselves.  One networking exercise pierces the facade of this method.  We are asked to introduce ourselves without explaining what we do for a living.  If we cannot define ourselves by profession, who are we?

Hobbies and pastimes offer alternative communities from which identities can emerge.  If we cannot define ourselves by our work, we will define ourselves by how we spend our free time.  We live in a virtual buffet of alternative identities.  This attempt at definition suffers from an even worse problem than the former.  If how we spend the majority of our time does not define us, how can our pastimes do it?

Some define themselves by causes or passions.  Political special interest groups often benefit from the support of those who define life based upon their particular interest.  Others base their identity on charitable institutions and giving that they choose to support.  Nevertheless, those many of these groups bring a helpful influence to the general culture, they fail to answer the fundamental question.  Who am I?  Can these good things define me, or am I something apart from these activities?

The Bible has a simple counter to those who place these activities and externalities as the defining characteristics. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)  In Christ, all the external means of defining life vanish into the insignificance that they warrant.  Notice that here, three means of identity are rejected: race, work/wealth, and gender.

The church needs to deal with the issue of race.  The New Testament's teaching about Jew and Gentile is fundamentally a race question.  The Bible teaches that racial division, degradation, and disdain violate God's law  This is particularly sensitive in the United States, where, as Mark Noll writes in his book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, the slavery question could only be definitively answered by the theologians Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.  The Civil War proved to the United States that the church could not solve the most important social question of the time.  The reason for its failure arose from the casting of the question.  If the question is, "Is slavery wrong?"  The Bible says, "No."  If the question is, "Is racism or racial slavery wrong?"  The Bible answers, "Yes."  Ironically, it was Black pastors who got this question right.

Racism is anathema to the gospel.  All men are condemned by sin that the grace of God in Christ may be offered to all.  Throughout the New Testament, the gospel offered to all becomes the message of unity of all.  Christians cannot indulge in the hateful presumption that one race is deficient to another.

This ought to also affect our language and use of stereotypes.  Alan Jacobs comments that our minds, because of their need of categorization, use stereotypes to help categorize people. (Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, p. 114-115, basically all of chapter 5)   Accurate stereotypes are acceptable devices of our mind to understand things.  Inaccurate stereotypes often bear the taint of racist assumptions and ought to be eliminated.  All stereotypes must be acknowledged as only general rules and not applicable to all members of the group.  Consider the following groups of people and the stereotypes that arise in our minds when we thing of them: Christian, pastor, lawyer, doctor, surgeon, video gamer, redneck, urbanite, accountant, secretary, politician, President, scientist, IT guy, mother, father, student, college student, graduate student, actor, golfer, activist.  We immediately have images that may be more or less accurate.  If you identify with one or more of these groups, how do you feel about people thinking of you in terms of the most commonly accepted stereotype of that group?

Within these groups, we appreciate the community and friendships we form within them, but we understand the faults of the governing perception and the variants within the group.  Each group has usually at least two dominant perceptions or stereotypes: those inside the group and those outside.  We need to be considerate of the people within these groups.  Christians in their language and attitudes must hold to the stereotypes lightly.  We judge people as to who they are.  Stereotypes may help form a baseline of understanding others, but they must give way to the reality of the individual.  We need to be those who desire to understand others and not to rely upon stereotypical understanding.  Especially when it comes to dealing with questions of race.

Political and journalistic expressions have not helped in this area.  Race has become a political category.  News outlets pander to this stereotype in its depictions and assumptions.  Indeed, race no longer means ethnicity, but a culture attached to that race.  This again reveals the danger of stereotypes.

The emphasis on the importance of race in the United States has led to the rather unfortunate use of race to form identity.  In contrast to the instruction of scripture, people have used race to define themselves and place expectations on others.  This elevates racial distinction beyond stereotypes to division.  One race cannot understand another because the struggle and persecution is incomprehensible to the other.  One race cannot understand another because it does not require self-reliance and independence.  These crude stereotypes represent the way in which the majority and minority races rely upon differences to avoid the struggle to resolve differences and pursue understanding.  The races have divided culturally and often persist in this division because the individuals within these groups have let their race determine their identity.  They have let the past define who they are.

As I have talked about this racial struggle, an image has been brought to your mind.  I would guess that it is one of two alternatives.  Either you think I am describing your race and don't understand it, or you think I am describing another race and doing it accurately.  Let me challenge you to consider if I am describing your race and describing its struggles well.

I will admit that it is normally minority races and cultures who struggle with the temptation to find their identity within racial categories.  The majority race normally does not deal with cultural struggle involving race since that race normally defines the culture.  Even so, many in majority races arrogantly assume superiority of culture and adopt a condescending attitude toward minority races and cultures.  While this may not rise to identify, it reflects an identity assumption that has no place in Christianity.  All races are one in Christ and the church must labor to make its community reflective of this reality.

When the Bible talks about the genders, it does not deny the reality of gender distinction any more that it denies the reality of racial distinction.  Rather, the Bible reminds both genders that there is something more defining than gender.  Something must define us more than the differences in our bodies.  Something must define us more than what we do with our bodies.

In the United States, is you use the words "gender identity," you will immediately find yourself in a conversation that includes a host of letters defining a host of ideas about so-called sexual orientation and gender confusion.  The passion excited about the use of these labels and the members of this community persuasively demonstrate that many in this community have made sexual activity the means of obtaining identity.  The push to have their activity normalized in society along with the pressure for culture to accept them as "born this way" all points to an identity built upon this type of activity.

This study is not the appropriate venue to attempt to describe the litany of letters and what they represent.  Since this is such a developing community, even within their own ranks they cannot agree on the meaning of all the labels or whether they deserve a place within the community.  While we refrain from entering into the problem of definition, we can lay down the biblical position regarding this means of finding identity.

Paul explicitly describes the issues of sexuality in three critical places.  In Romans 1, Paul uses sexual sin to describe the descent of sinful man.  "Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves." (Romans 1:24)  Here, it is likely that Paul is talking about sexual activity outside marriage.  He uses unrestrained lust, the flagrant violation of the seventh commandment ("Thou shalt not commit adultery.") as the sign that man is given up by God to freely express his sin.

Paul continues with another sin as a sign of just how far people will go to rebel against God.  "For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet." (Romans 1:26-27)  By this, we must conclude that homosexuality is a sin, reflecting the extent to which man will go in his rebellion against God.  There is an unnatural aspect to this sin that Paul notes.  The order of marriage between man and woman is now not only violated in acting married with non-spouses, but with people of the same gender.

Paul speaks in another place of the sin of what may be called incest. "It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife." (I Corinthians 5:1)  We cannot assume minority in either of the parties.  We could also assume that this is a step-parent, but Paul's condemnation is clear.  This relationship violates God's law.

At this point, we must answer the justification that is leveled against the scriptural perspective.  Can any sexual activity be justified by love?  We have seen how this justification has crept into the culture.  We accepted divorce, remarriage, and adultery on these terms.  Spouses divorce because they don't love each other anymore (or so they think).  People indulge in affairs both marital and pre-marital because they are in love (whatever they mean by that).  This excuse has been extended to what we will refer, for the sake of simplicity, as the homosexual sins.  All the letters of the subgroup use the same stock of excuses.  Their sin is justified because we cannot define love or restrict love to our heterosexual assumptions.  We must accept gender confusion and changes because they were not born their true selves.  This is a kind of self-love that culture requires us to accept.

We have already described love in a previous lesson.  As a reminder, love is not left to the definition of man, but comes from the character of God, Himself.  As such, whatever man may feel and call love is not love if it does not conform to God's law, another expression of God's character.  Law and love cannot conflict for both are part of God's character.

We ought to have compassion upon those who have trapped themselves into finding their identity in any of these groups.  Paul again reminds us why.
"Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.  And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God." (I Corinthians 6:9-11)
Paul reminds the church that we were once those who found our identities in all these sins.  We were those who found our identities in something other than Jesus.  Remember Galatians 3:28. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."  What is it that brings unity to the church?  We are one in Jesus.  We are united to Christ, and as we are all united to Him, we are united to one another.

Who are we?  In Christ, we are children of God.  All other parts of life (gender, race, work, recreation) emerge from this reality.  We cannot interpret these other aspects of who we are without this fundamental reality.  It is the gospel.  We who were sinners, God in Christ has made children.  We are part of His universal plan of redemption.  This defines how we are to live Christian in an unchristian world.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Christ and Culture

James writes this, "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." (James 4:4)  From the founding of the church, it has always existed in conflict with the surrounding culture.  Even in Jerusalem, the religious leaders condemned and imprisoned the apostles.  It was by this official and cultural persecution that the church expanded into Samaria, Antioch, and the rest of the Roman world.  Quickly, the center of the church left Jerusalem to become more diffused before settling in Rome.  Even in the Middle Ages, when Christendom became the norm for the western world, the faithful church remained in conflict with the remnant superstitions of the people.  The Reformation brought the faithful church into conflict with the Roman Catholic culture that surrounded it.  The early immigrants to the United States came to escape the cultural oppression of the church.  As the country formed, while there remained a majority of Judeo-Christian assumptions, many of the formative thinkers of the nation did not profess the true faith.

The church ever lives in conflict with the culture of the world.  Paul reminds us of our duty in his letter to the church at Rome. "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." (Romans 12:2)  The world, the culture, the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group, because this mass of humanity is broken by sin, their dispositions, attitudes, morals, and values all reflect their sinful origins.  For this reason, the Bible commands us to guard ourselves against allowing the world to influence us to think and act sinfully.  We face the temptation to conform our morals, values, and attitudes to what we see in society.

How ought the Christian to interact with culture?  This question formed the basis for H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book, Christ and Culture.  In it, he mapped in history five different approaches to the question.

1. Christ against Culture
The approach seems to have been the original view.  The world is evil.  The Bible warns the Christian against allowing it to inform our understanding.  Culture, as a product of the sinful world system has nothing to offer the believer.  The best option then is isolation from culture.

This idea still has its adherents in some form or fashion.  Monasticism is the most obvious and extreme version.  Others practice some form of protectionism, at least for their children, forbidding access to the obvious influencers of culture, music, movies, television, news, radio, art, and books.  A more refined and influential, at least in the reformed community, version of this appears in the so-called "Benedict Option," popularized by Rob Dreher in his book of the same name.  In it, he argues that the post-christian world has progressed to such a deplorable state, that engagement with the culture is no longer effective.  He compares our present to the final days of the Roman Empire and the need to protect Christianity through the use of monasteries.  While stopping short of total monasticism, he proposes isolating Christian enclaves in which a Christian culture can be nurtured in contrast to the world.

2. Christ of culture
Of this view, not much need be said.  It represents the viewpoint of liberal theology.  Had not Niebuhr been a member of this school, it would probably not have made the list as an acceptable Christian view.  This view posits that God made culture, therefor culture is good.  Providence directs culture as part of general revelation to show us how we ought to live.  Therefor, the church ought to assume the direction of culture to be a good one.  This may be behind the Roman Catholic use of syncretism.

3. Christ above culture - medieval Roman Catholicism
Of all the views, this mediating view appeared and thrived in the middle ages.  The Roman Catholic view of the two swords argued that one sword was given to the church and another was given to the state.  In practice, both swords came from the church as the pope considered his office above that of the king.  The most obvious event that proclaimed the churches power was the humiliation of Canossa, where the Holy Roman Emperor was forced to await an audience with the pope for three days and nights in the snow, in January 1077.

The church assumed not only superiority over the king, but over culture as well.  This led to so-called "power encounters" used in mission.  One well-known example of this superiority involved the felling of Jove's Oak/Donar's Oak/Thor's Oak somewhere in Hesse, Germany.  According to an 8th century work, Vita Bonifatii auctore Willibaldi, a Catholic missionary, St. Boniface, cut down the tree to prove the superiority of Catholic culture to the German.  Oddly, Catholic missionaries to Latin America would later prefer syncretism to this approach.

4. Christ and culture in paradox - Luther/Kierkegaard
The use of the term "paradox" informs us that this perspective can be rather confusing.  It ought not surprise us that its notable adherents Niebuhr credits to Martin Luther and Soren Kierkegaard.  These preferred paradox, leaving unresolved truths hostile to one another.  Like, law and grace, saint and sinner, Christ and culture function within the church simultaneously.  Don't try to make hard and fast decision.  Just live in the tension.

5. Christ the transformer of culture
This view is often credited to John Calvin and the Reformers.  There is a puritan air to this view.  As such, it became the default framework for the Presbyterian and Reformed interaction with culture.  Culture, as a product of the social function of humans, as part of our creation in the image of God, is a good thing.  As communities, we form societies and culture.  This is not wrong, but part of our creation.  The problem is that sin has corrupted the good thing God created.  Culture, like all other parts of humanity needs to be redeemed.  Christ, by redeeming people is redeeming culture.  This is not the primary goal of the church.  Rather, the organization of God's body works to make Christians.  Christians living in culture influence it in redemptive ways.  This indicates that Christians ought to participate in culture in meaningful ways to participate in this redemptive work.

While this fifth description become the assumption of the reformed church, some have questioned the taxonomy of Niebuhr.  D.A. Carson wrote the book Christ and Culture Revisited.  In it he questioned Niebuhr's assumptions.  The framework leaves unanswered questions.  What is Christ?  What is culture?  Are these the only five options?  He argued that a biblical theological approach that remains flexible ought to determine the Christian's engagement with the world.  The Bible, not a general rule, must govern the specific way in which we respond to culture.

There is no simplistic answer to the question of how we deal with culture.  While we may generally prefer the fifth, this preference has led some to inappropriate engagement with culture.  It has led to too much engagement that either ends up looking like the second option, carelessly accepting culture, or a form of the third, advocating a superior alternative culture.  These simple approaches forget the purpose for engaging with culture in the first place.

Why ought the Christian engage with culture?  If culture is stained with sin, broken by mankind's fallenness, or at worst totally corrupt, why should the Christian deal with it at all?  Are the Benedict Option and monastic advocates right?  Should we isolate ourselves from the brokenness?  This approach clashes with the Bible's command to engage with the world.  Matthew 28:18-20 "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.  Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world."  John 17:15-16 "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.  They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world."  The testimony of the Bible reminds us that Jesus left us here to testify to the world, not to retreat from it.

If we are to meaningfully witness to the world, we must be able to understand and speak to its culture.  Culture has a profound impact on the language the people speak, the stories they believe, the things they value, and the questions they ask.  Ignorance of these things leads us to speak without understanding, a futile message.  We will be speaking a different language, one our listeners will not understand.

In order to understand culture, we must first recognize that speaking of culture can often be misleading.  Remember, that problematic question for Niebuhr.  What is culture?  What is it we are engaging?  We often use words without asking if we know what we mean by them.  Do we understand what culture is?  Even the dictionary definition can be misleading.  Culture does not exist in a vacuum.  The word needs modification.  We never deal with culture in the abstract.  It may help to think of culture in concentric circles.  We can argue that there is a world culture.  We can then subdivide this into eastern and western cultures.  We can then subdivide this into English speaking culture and other languages.  We then can subdivide this into North American culture.  We can then subdivide this into the United States' culture.  We may then subdivide this by region, state, state region, county/parish, and city.  Each of these cultures informs the others.  Indeed, our job is not done, or even within these, niche cultures arise and begin to influence the general cultures and other special interest cultures.  Each of these communities come with their own attitudes, values, morals, and conceptions.

Within these subdivisions, you might have considered language a faulty division to make.  Twentieth century philosophy has revealed how language can impact culture.  One example that often arises is the Inuit/Eskimo words for "snow".  The native people of the frozen north have three root words for snow.  This is not inconsequential considering English generally has one.  We can understand why they have more.  This linguistic fact was shaped by culture, but that culture is then shaped by that language.  Language describes reality, and the ease or difficulty of that language to describe a certain part of reality molds the people's perception of reality.

Let's try an exercise in how language proves a challenge to interacting with culture.  Consider Romans 1:16-18.  There, Paul writes, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.  For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness."  Let us begin with vocabulary.  What does "gospel" mean?  Not merely denotatively, but in this context?  What does the "power of God" mean?  What does "the righteousness of God" mean?  What does it mean, "the just shall live by faith"?  What does the "wrath of God" mean?  What does the "unrighteousness of men" mean?  What does it mean to "hold the truth in unrighteousness"?

The Bible has its own language and vocabulary.  Even modern versions struggle with the problem of translation.  A literal translation to the common tongue, without a remedial education in Christian vocabulary cannot be done.  There is no single words anymore that accurately convey what the Bible means with one word.

One interesting anecdote from the history of Bible translations reveals this fact.  We often think of the King James Version, originally called the Authorized Version, as using the archaic English of its time.  In fact, the original public would have found its language foreign as well.  It was designed to be easy to memorize, lyric, and theological, a higher English. Instead of adapting to the language of the day, the translators created a translation higher than the common tongue.  Instead of following culture, their version actually influenced the language.

We come to understand Biblical phrases because through study, we have learned what they mean.  The world has not experienced our education.  It then fall to us to explain the gospel to the world, to tell them that the Bible says in ways that they can understand.  In order to do so, we need to understand how the world uses language.  This is a cultural engagement work.

Not only does the language of the world differ, but its stories differ as well.  Stories influence how a culture sees the world.  C.S. Lewis once called the Bible "true myth."  In a letter to Arthur Greeves, dated October 18, 1931, Lewis wrote, "Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened."  Lewis knew that cultures used stories/myths to explain reality.  The difference with the gospel was that is was more than a mere story.  It was not a fiction to created by the masses, but the truth, the true story that truly explained reality.

Twentieth century philosophy has encouraged this appreciation of the way in which narrative impacts culture.  Consider this example.  In the deserts of Egypt, the sun was worshipped as God, Ra.  In the icy wildness of Norway, the people understood the end of the world, not in burning heat, but in a never-ending winter.  The myths and legends follow the culture and environment in which they were born.

The present age, with all its technological and scientific prowess, is not devoid of its myths and stories.  During the era of modernism, science became the religion of the west.  People believed that scientific discovery would eventually answer all the question and solve all their problems.  People believed the story of the big bang and evolution as the origin story of the universe.

People also have a story of the United States.  Some tell the story of immigrants coming to find religious freedom.  Some tell the story of the fight for freedom, in two wars.  People believe these stories explain reality, at least in the United States.  Are these stories true?  Whose story ought to define the nation?  From these stories, culture in the United States has adopted freedom as a (if not the) core value for inhabitants of the nation.  It no longer remains confined to religious or political freedom.  It means personal freedom that is now pushing the limits of anti-drug laws and definitions of marriage.  This is but one example of how understanding the story of a culture can aid in understanding a people and enabling us to speak the message of the gospel in a clearer way.

Within every culture, you have people who possess the ability to influence the direction of culture.  Some work to obtain this ability, others have it fall upon them.  For many years, the shapers of western culture had some concept of the end or objective of their influence.  We often divide people politically between liberals and conservatives.  These categories may be used culturally as well.  There are some that want to preserve or return to a previous vision of culture (conservatives) and those who want to change to a better or progressive culture (liberals/progressives).  Within the last few years, we have reached a point where, in my observation, both sides have lost a vision of what they want the nation to look like.  What does the final product look like?  What is the vision of the idealized country?

For the progressive, the elements of their end have taken a beating in the recent past.  Philosophically, the dominance of modernism has eroded.  Economically, the dominance of communism has fallen, while socialism merely treads water.  Keynesianism still rules the day, but many are drifting toward Randian objectivism.  Culturally, the progressive is winning on many fronts, but what is the end, a world with no limits?

If the progressive has lost his vision, the conservative has forgotten it.  What nation does the conservative want?  The good ole days are so far behind us, do we even know what they are, when they were, or what they looked like?  What does the alternative nation look like?  What does either nation look like according to either of these approaches to culture?

As we analyze our culture, we have focused on the national influences.  Remember, there are regional, state, and local influences as well.  Some of these stand in contradiction the national trends.

The final question remains the most important.  How do we use our understanding of culture to speak the gospel to the world?  Ironically, those directions of culture most concerning to us, often provide the greatest openings for the gospel.  One of the greatest political concerns of the present day is the uncertainty.  We are so far off the normal course of events that all the accepted wisdom that worked in the past we may no longer rely upon.

If we feel this way, imagine how the world feels.  We have a foundation to stand upon.  We rest in the almighty sovereignty of God, who providentially governs everything that happens.  The world has no foundation.  All the stories that the world used to make sense of the world are proving unreliable.  The origin story of modernity, evolution, though still taught, defended, and professed, cannot stand its dehumanizing implications.  Before people tried to defend their immorality with science.  Now they defend it with love.  This demonstrates a paradigm shift in the underlying story.  There is no metanarrative that explains reality.  There is no end, even for the progressive.  There is merely the present and what must happen now.  There is no truth, merely "optics".

If we analyze culture aright, we see that the general trend shows that people in the United States are looking for some foundation, some story that will explain their humanness, something that will explain and defend love.

The gospel answers all the questions the world is asking.  It gives them the only true story that explains their humanness.  It explains what went wrong.  It explains what culture should be.  It is our duty to put it into words they use and should be able to understand.  We cannot understand it for them.  We cannot make them believe, but we can and should use their language.

I cannot, and should not give you a script.  Each conversation, each society, each culture will require a different approach.  I can give you categories, elements to think through, but the language, story, and assumptions will differ.  Begin thinking through these questions.  What language do others use, not merely english, but idioms that are national, regional, and local?  What stories do they believe?  Little children believe Disney stories.  What stories do adults believe?  How do they explain life?  What do the people value?  What matters to them?  What questions are they asking?  Understanding culture requires understanding people.  We understand people so that we may present the gospel to them.  This is how we live Christian in an unchristian world.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018


Karl Marx was not the first to observe the conflict between economic classes, the war between the "haves" and the "have nots".  The struggle between men for what the other possessed appears in Genesis 4.  There we read, "And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell." (4:4b-5)  The subsequent murder of Abel arises out of this event, the jealousy of Cain over God's acceptance of Abel's sacrifice and not his own.  Abel had, and Cain had not.

Two qualifications ought be made.  First, one could argue that the original class struggle appeared in the garden when the serpent told Eve that God had something that she lacked.  We restricted our analogy to the struggle between men rather than the futile struggle with God.  There is something about ontological equality that makes inequality of possessions problematic to sinful minds.  Within our culture, we accept as proven the idea that all are equal.  That principle about our personal value causes us to question the rightness of economic differences.  Sin confuses the difference between our person and our possession to use this principle to cause envy.   Second, one could argue that the antagonism over sacrifices is a far cry from clashes over property and wealth.  While the substance of the dispute may be different, the underlying motives, thinking, worldview, and emotions remain the same.

We begin a discussion of wealth as we ought begin all discussions, with God.  God, as the sovereign creator, holds title to all that is.  There it no particle of the universe over which God cannot declare, "Mine."  No possession can be considered that does not have this reality behind it.  All things are God's, even if we call them ours.  This radically changes our perception of wealth as we consider that which is called the traditional class struggle.  Marx saw the struggle between economic classes as the moving force behind history.  While we may credit his observations, we cannot accept his assumption that this as the way things ought to be.  Why should men struggle and envy each other the property that almighty God has given to others?  If all is God's and He sovereignly distributes to each according to His will, have we any cause to envy, to murmur, to strive to rebalance the divine equation?

One caveat needs to be added.  This conception of God as creator and owner of all does not forbid the Christian from the principle of private property and pursuing justice.  The Eighth Commandment forbids stealing.  The law of Moses included punishments and restitution for those who stole.  God's concern for justice demands that those who rob from others give back what they stole.

It warrants noting that the biblical strictures deal only with actual theft, not theoretical theft.  Inequalities will always exist in human affairs.  If a worker makes widget A for his employer who can sell it for X dollars, he will likely not receive X dollars from his employer.  The employer will have to pay for what it will take to get X dollars for the widget, his own efforts to sell the widget, and the risk of not selling the widget for X.  With all these indefinite costs, the exact figure between employer and employee will always involve inequality.  The Bible does not give strict guidelines how these factors are to be resolved.  It does not call this inequality stealing.  It does command the employer to pay the employee promptly and fully the agreed upon wage.  To not do so is stealing.  The failure of the employer and employee to derive a perfect equality of wage, whatever that is, does not constitute stealing in scripture.

For the best example of the Bible's teaching on this, we should examine Matthew 20:1-16.
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.  And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.  Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.  And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?  They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.  So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.  But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.  (Matthew 20:1-16)
Jesus tells this parable for the purpose of explaining that there is no time limit to God's mercy.  The parable has a spiritual message, but it is built upon a physical reality that the audience and we should accept as true.  Just as it was right for the employer to make whatever deal was right for his need, to pay the later laborers what he thought right and pay the day laborers what they had agreed to, so the mere existence of inequality does not prove theft or demand equalization.  Indeed, in the divine economy, as the Lord is the one behind the metaphor of the vineyard owner, He dispenses according to His own designs.  It does bear remembering that the Jesus seems to accept the cultural accepted wage of a day laborer as just.

As we remain considering the divine component of wealth, we also remember the First Commandment.  As we are so able to do with all the good things that God gives us, we can make an idol out of wealth.  There is something condemnatory about Marx's observation that economic class struggle drives history.  Even if we conclude that the observation is overstated, we cannot but admit that there is some truth to the idea.  Envy and jealousy over property fuels part of human activity.  In some respects the tenth commandment particularized a variant of the First. (all sin is in some way attributable to a violation of the First)  When property or wealth matters more to us that God, we covet what others have.  Wealth ought not drive history nor the activities of man.  When it does so, it reveals the sin of idolatry.

Another parable of Jesus seems appropriate here.
And one of the company said unto him, Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me.  And he said unto him, Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?  And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.  And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: and he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?  And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.  But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?  So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.  (Luke 12:13-21)
In this parable, Jesus responds to a request to judge an inheritance.  In response, Jesus condemns both parties as placing a value on the property over each other and ultimately God.  This He demonstrates in the parable of the foolish rich man.  While his plans for expansion are not in themselves patently sinful, the Lord reveals their sinful motives in the response of God and His own explanation.  The expansion meant that the rich man valued wealth more than obedience to God, more that using that wealth to honor and glorify God.

One of the hardest applications of our relationship to wealth in consideration of God is the concept of contentment.  If God owns all and give to all according to His will, if God means more to us than what we possess, then we ought to be content with what He has given us.  Paul writes, "Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.  I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." (Philippians 4:11-13)  He writes to Timothy about contentment.
But godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.  And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.  But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.  For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.  But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.  (I Timothy 6:6-11)
Here, it would be wrong of us to think that Paul criticizes the rich as such, but those who desire riches, who place wealth above their desire to glorify God.

This warning about the dangers of pursuing riches appears also in the Old Testament. "Two things have I required of thee; deny me them not before I die:remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain." (Proverbs 30:7-9)  The word attributed to Agur here reflects the dangers of too much or not enough.  The wise man prays for enough.  Jesus repeats this prayer in the Lord's prayer, "give us this day our daily bread."

The daily bread reflects the manna in the wilderness, but unlike that supernatural provision, the Lord anticipates that we will work for that which He gives us.  Paul writes this to the church at Thessalonica.
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.  For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us.  For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.  For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.  Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.  (II Thessalonians 3:6-12)
In this passage, Paul deals with what is called an over-realized eschatology.  People expecting the second coming immediately, stopped work, "preparing" for the resurrection.  Paul corrects this practice using himself and his missionary team as an example.  He tells the church not to enable those who choose not to work to engage in idleness and the sin that accompanies idleness.  From this we learn that we ought to work and encourage work in the use of our wealth.

How this command intersects with our duty to give generously and show hospitality requires discernment and wisdom.  The author of Hebrews writes, "Let brotherly love continue.  Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." (Hebrews 13:1-2)  This verse reminds us how important it is for us to help travelers, especially those who are fellow believers.  Remember, this was in a day before hotels.  Perhaps we ought to be more cautious to request for help in this day, but the general rule still applies.  For ordinary requests for assistance, we must recall that we live in a day where entitlement and welfare have changed the attitude and expectation of many.  Jesus says, "But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil." (Luke 6:35)  Jesus speaks this in the context of the people of God.  It does not permit us to give suspecting that our charity will be used for sinful or prodigal purposes.  Jesus tells the disciples that they must, "be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." (Matthew 10:16b)

There is one final thing about wealth that must be recalled.  Everything that God gives us, we are to receive with thanks. Paul writes, "For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving." (I Timothy 4:4)  In this passage, Paul warns Timothy about the false teachers who forbid marriage and meats.  He responds that everything God created may be received well if accompanied with thanksgiving.  Thanks remembers that these things are good because God gives them.  It fixes our hierarchy that we not let the good things become our idols, remembering that our ultimate enjoyment is found in God alone.  Paul reminds us that it is those who deny the goodness of God's gifts that tempt us to ingratitude.

Wealth has become a dangerous and problematic topic in today's world.  The discussion is not new.  The Bible explains how the Christian should view possessions before God.  The world only sees wealth.  We see the giver of all good gifts, living Christian in an unchristian world.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018


In human history, the first recorded declaration of war came from the mouth of God.  You need to remember this, for without it, you are lost.  In the fall, the Adam and Eve allied themselves with the serpent, with Satan.  God could have chosen to let this condition continue, but decided to declare war on the serpent and all his people.  This declaration of war appears in Genesis 3:15.  "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel."  When God says that He will put hatred between the serpent and the woman, He implies that such hatred was not already there.  He also puts hatred between the two seeds.  This results in the war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent culminating in the crushing blow delivered by Jesus, the ultimate seed of the woman.  Thus, the first war declared in the history of man was that established by God himself.

Now, you could claim that the first war pre-existed this between the rebellious angels led by Satan and the faithful angels.  You can also point out that the fall occurred because Satan brought this war to earth.  All this is true.  Yet the Bible credits God as the establisher of this human part of the struggle for a theological reason.  This declaration of war is not only the beginning, but also the promise of the end, and inevitable end.  The war was over as soon as it started as surely as God's word, which cannot be broken.  Even so, God who ordains all that comes to pass, ordained also this sequence of events for His own glory.

Throughout the pages of the Bible, human wars have spiritual connotations.  Israel's conquest of the promised land through military action, through war, demonstrates what some call "intrusion ethics," the ethics of the kingdom, of heaven, forcing their way into physical space and time.  Thus, the conquest of the unrighteous, pagan nations by the righteous people of God mimic the war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent.  This partly explains why God ordered practical genocide.  There can be no quarter in the war between righteousness and unrighteousness.

The present Christian age sees in these regulations, not a pattern for human conflict, but a pattern for spiritual battle within.  Our greatest war is against the old man, our own sin nature that remains within.  The Spirit wars with the flesh, and in this war, there must be no quarter given.  We must eradicate sin completely.  We are to execute s sin genocide within.  We deplore any genocide of person, for that old age example is fulfilled in Christ.  Now, every nation contains the seed of the women, the people of God.  Genocide, which now arises from racial hatred, violates God's law of oneness in Christ among all nations.

The Christian lives in perpetual conflict.  "For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other." (Galatians 5:17)  We live in combat.  We live at war within.  What we must then consider is the question, "What does the origin of war tell us about the present reality of war between people and nations?"

We must begin with two fundamental and seemingly contradictory principles.  First, that war results from sin.  Second, that war is necessary and right when waged against sin. How we apply these principles depends on a number of factors.

Let us first consider the wrongness of war.  Conflict between people comes from the sin within.  When you see conflict, be sure that there is sin somewhere.  After all, it is two sinners, two groups of sinners, two nations of sinners who orchestrate this conflict.  There is no war without sin, and so war will remain until sin is eliminated.  This understood, we must also recognize that often the idea of the right-side and wrong-side are not so easily discerned.  Is there ever an innocent side in a fight?  There may be a relatively more right side, but not a wholly innocent side.

If war includes sin in its origin, we must also understand the sin in its execution.  Men kill other men.  Even though we do not claim this violates the sixth commandment, "Thou shalt not murder," the killing of another human says something about our respect for one made in the image of God.  That we resort to such tactics shows how lightly we consider human life sacred.  We rush to save the unborn and yet rush to kill our enemies also.  Is this proper?

One of the most sobering thoughts about war came to me by a former employer.  He remarked that in war unregenerate men are sent to an eternity without God, even those fighting for a just cause.  If we cannot have compassion for the lives of those we are fighting, can we not pause to consider the damage we do to our own soldiers?  Can we not count those we condemn to an eternity in hell for our safety?

With these sobering thoughts in mind, can we say there is any such thing as a just war?  Consider these words from the Westminster Confession of Faith. "It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion." (WCF 23.2)  The Confession admits the Christian may be called by God to serve as a civil magistrate.  As such, he holds the authority to wage war for right purposes.  The citations to scripture all deal with examples of Christian soldiers in the New Testament and Romans 13 where the civil magistrate bears the sword.  They chose not to fully develop the definition of a "just and necessary occasion," perhaps due to the situation of the state in which they sat.  Remember, this document arose out of the English Civil War.

What then is a "just and necessary occasion"?  In the Larger Catechism, "lawful war" appears in the context of "necessary defense." (WLC 136)  For this reason, we may adduce that the fundamental purpose of national war is in defense of its citizens.  We need not engage in speculative debates about the extent of threat needed to justify war.  These principles must be applied situationally.  In the abstract, just as you need not be shot before you return fire on an assailant, so you need not be physically attacked before acting to protect.  As one may defend oneself from an attacker who is pointing a weapon at you, so you may defend against one who is threatening with a present ability and effort toward attack.  It also need not be a civilian target.  Soldiers' lives warrant protection as well as civilians.  The Bible does not discriminate between people.

In the conduct of the war, the Bible gives us better guidance.  I direct your attention to Deuteronomy 20.  The entire chapter deals with the way in which Israel was to conduct its wars.  Even though the nation state ceased to exist and the exact force of the law does not directly apply any longer, the "general equity" still ought to direct how we are to consider war to be conducted.  This is how Israel was to deal with those who threatened it. "When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee.  And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it." (Deuteronomy 20:10-12)  Verse 15 makes it clear that these are rules from nations threatening the promised land, not the nations under the "intrusion ethics" described before.  For these, the nation was to go to a war footing and then sue for peace.  If the threat was removed, there would be no war.  If the nation continued its belligerence, the war would be prosecuted.  The ultimate goal of a just and necessary war is the return to peace, the elimination of threat.

Casuistry often appears in the rationalization for war.  It is notoriously hard to identify the attacker and the attacked.  Both sides are often at fault, and a just war is often hard to identify.   We may then conclude that war occurs because of sin.  It is right to protect those under sinful, unlawful assault.  War should be limited to the restoration of peace.  Just war theory also deals with the proper organization to wage war, but this goes beyond our study.

War is a grim business.  We cannot treat it cavalierly, considering its hazards and evils.  Even so, I want to leave you with a joyous thought.  Within the orders regarding war for Israel there is a unique event.  Remember, every able-bodied man of a certain age in Israel was expected to go to war.  Before the prosecution of the war, the officers were required to read the following instructions.

"And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying, What man is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it.  And what man is he that hath planted a vineyard, and hath not yet eaten of it? let him also go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man eat of it.  And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in" (Deuteronomy 20:5-7)

By these instructions, the Lord demonstrates something to us of His priorities.  Something mattered more to God than war.  He cared about His people enjoying His blessing.  A blessing anticipated, but yet to be enjoyed made you exempt from military service.  A house built, but not yet inhabited; a field planted, but not yet harvested; a marriage planned, but not yet accomplished; the Lord wanted His people to enjoy their lives even in the midst of war.

Even more, that last exception expanded beyond the others.  "When a man hath taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war, neither shall he be charged with any business: but he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife which he hath taken." (Deuteronomy 24:5)  The newlyweds were exempted from military service and all business for the space of one year.  It amounted to a one year honeymoon, without the travel.  Note especially the purpose of this honeymoon.  The ESV gets this horribly wrong.  The purpose of this year is not to rejoice with his wife but to bring joy to his wife.  The wives of the men were included in the Lord's concern that His people enjoy His blessing.

In the midst of the darkness and distress of war, the Lord intends for His people to remember His goodness, and to enjoy His blessing.  This separates us from the rest of humanity.  The terrors of war are not to be compared to the blessings of the Lord.  Living Christian in an unchristian world requires us to remember the words of the psalmist in war.  "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies." (Psalm 23:4-5a)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Civil Law

When we hear the word outlaw, we may hear the chords of The Clash singing, "I Fought the Law."  The dictionary defines "outlaw" with, "a person who has broken the law, especially one who remains at large or is a fugitive."  However, this is not the historical meaning of this word.  Historically, this word meant, "a person deprived of the benefit and protection of the law."  In this ancient meaning, Christianity began as an outlaw and its history has kept an outlaw position.

Christianity began as an outlaw.  We needn't go much into the book of Acts to see the outlaw nature of the church.  Acts 4 contains the trial of Peter and John before the Jewish authorities.  The apostles are arrested, imprisoned, and tried in the very next chapter. There, Peter make his famous statement, "We must obey God rather than man." (5:29)  In chapters 6-7, Stephen is arrested, tried, and executed.  Chapter 8 begins with the persecution of Saul that continues until his conversion in the next chapter.  James is executed and Peter arrested in chapter 12.  Saul becomes Paul and faces legal persecution in such towns as Damascus, Lystra, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Ephesus.  In Jerusalem, he is arrested and sent to Caesarea and then Rome.

During the apostolic period and the following generation, Christianity became a true outlaw religion.  To the Roman authorities, Christianity originated as a jewish sect.  Because Judaism was an accepted religion, Christian enjoyed its protected status.  As Rome recognized Christianity's distinct status, many officials saw it as an outlaw religion, not an illegal religion as such, but one that did not enjoy protected status.  The early apologists wrote to the civil magistrates to convince them to permit Christianity based on its own merits.  This condition continued until the Edict of Milan (AD 313).

Christianity did not lose its outlaw footing being accepted by Rome.  That character stayed even into the medieval age, as demonstrated by the character of the reformers.  Famously, Martin Luther was declared an outlaw by the emperor at the Diet of Worms.  He was not to be protected by the law.

The church has always had a tenuous connection to the civil law.  After the exile and fall of the theocratic monarchy of David's dynasty, the people of God have lived as those whose civil obedience exists under a law that is largely disconnected from Scripture.  Even in the Confession, we are reminded that the civil law of Moses only applies in areas of general equity (whatever that is). (WCF 19.4)

As we think about the Christian's relationship to the civil law, it is important to understand what law we mean.  We do not mean the civil law of Moses described in WCF 19.4.  We do not mean the civil use of the law described by Calvin.  We mean the Christian's relationship to the law as laid down by the civil magistrate.  For this, we begin by reiterating the obedience we described in the last lesson.  We are to obey the law of the civil magistrate as far as our duty to Christ will allow.  He has ordered us to obey, yet He remains the ultimate authority.

Here, we touch on two topics that arise especially in democratic societies, but also exist in other types of government as well.  The first we find in I Corinthians 6.  Paul begins this chapter with a warning to the church about what we may presume was a common occurrence, a habit into which the church had fallen in their use of the civil law.
Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?  Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?  Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?  If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church.  I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren?  But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers.  Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?  Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren. (I Corinthians 6:1-8)
Paul exhibits some raw emotion in this passage.  We read him that this entire sequence of events bothers him excessively.  He begins at the end, with the taking of the matter to a judge outside the church.  The members of the church were using the civil law to deal with their problems.  In one sense, Paul would agree that this is part of the duty of the civil magistrate. (Ro. 13:3-4)  The problem is that it is the people of God who go to the world to find justice and not within the church.  If the people of God will judge angels, is there no one in the church who can settle these matters?  Paul goes back to the original problem.  Why can't the people of God resolve their problems among themselves without involving others.  If you are wronged, accept it. (6:7)  If you are wronging others, stop. (6:8)

Paul continues with a description of the world, the judges to whom these Christians go to resolve their problems.  Paul paints this unflattering picture to remind the church of the character of the people upon whom they rely for the solutions to their disputes.
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. (I Corinthians 6:9-11)
This reminds the church of their different morality and spirituality that comes from God.  Why would they, knowing who they were, rely upon these people.  Have they no respect for the work of Jesus upon them?

The next verse reminds the church that they operate by a different law. "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." (I Cor. 6:12)  In the following verses, Paul will flesh out this reality.  The civil law, the morality of the world, does not define the morality of the Christian.  You can do something legal that is not moral.  For the Christian, the only illegal morality is that which is clearly required of God in His word.  However, we cannot accept that our general duty to the civil magistrate fulfills all our duty to God.  We follow a morality that the world does not.  Even if the world legalizes fornication (6:18), it does not make it moral for a Christian to practice.

The relationship Paul describes has a number of applications.  The first few are the most obvious.  Christians ought not use the civil magistrate to resolve disputes between themselves.  We are different with a different morality from the world.  We must obey Christ and the law of God written and revealed in Scripture.

This does not mean that the civil law and the courts are closed to Christians.  Nothing prevents the Christian from using the courts to obtain justice from those outside the jurisdiction of the church.  (While not on point, something of the parable of the unjust judge seems appropriate here. Luke 18:1-5)  The law exists for our good.  God gave the civil magistrate to protect us and administer justice.  It is not wrong for the Christian to use the court.  It is wrong for the Christian to worship the court, to rely upon it rather than God to bring about justice.  Human judges get things wrong; they make poor and unjust judgments.  Ultimate justice awaits in heaven.

In democratic societies, the citizens participate in the operation of the civil magistrate.  This gives us the ability to consider the nature of the civil law as what it should be.  Christians who God calls to serve as civil magistrates ought to consider this in their deliberations.  What should the civil law be as a Christian?  For this question, two competing theories have emerged: two kingdoms and theonomy.  For the purpose of this discussion, we cannot indulge in an in-depth examination of these theories.  In practical terms, one argues that the civil law ought to arise out of natural law, the law that appears in nature.  The other argues that the civil law ought to arise out of Scripture.  I have no real desire to delve into the niceties of obscure biblical speculation.  I will confess that I have no good experience with two kingdoms exegesis of particular portions of Scripture.  I also confess that extreme theonomy also exhibits poor exegesis.  In the end, one must confess that the content of the natural law must be seen as identical to the moral law.  Christian natural law theory argues that the law of God is written in creation as part of general revelation.  Since general revelation and special revelation (Scripture) cannot differ, originating from the same source (God), the difference between two kingdoms and theonomy ought not seem that pronounced.  I suggest theonomy may have the upper hand for one reason I find profoundly pointed.  Paul reminds us in Romans 1 of the habit of humanity. "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness."  Paul tells us that sinful humanity surpasses the truth in unrighteousness.  To expect that sinful humanity, surpassing the truth of general revelation, will be able to identify accurately the natural law, seems to me to be an exercise in absurdity.

Christianity remains an outlaw.  We follow a law that arises from Scripture.  As outlaws, we live in obedience to the law.  Our ultimate authority commands us to do so.  Even so, we must also live above the law, above the morality of a sinful world.  This is the way we live Christian in an unchristian world.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Of the Civil Magistrate

Christianity has a turbulent history with the church's relationship to the civil magistrate.  The apostolic period felt the sting of persecution.  Constantine normalized relations with the church leading to an uneasy cooperation between church and emperor. Later caesars returned to persecution.  During the medieval period, Christendom placed the pope as supreme over the king for many nations.  He sent their armies to the crusades.  The reformation broke the Roman hegemony and led to the democratization of Christian belief.  The inquisition used violence to halt the spread of protestantism.  In England, the denomination of the king led to the persecution of other denominations.  All this led to the flow of refugees to the new world seeking religious freedom.

One of the oddest anecdotes in the history of the United States involves how our conception of religious liberty came to be understood.  The Constitution originally did not include a clause ensuring religious freedom.  The First Amendment promised that congress could make no law regarding an establishment of religion.  It wasn't until the twentieth century that the Supreme Court questioned the force of this statement.  They decided to take a passage out of a letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association.  In it, he promised that the First Amendment had erected a wall of separation between church and state.  This phrase was not Jefferson's invention.  He borrowed it from a basic tenet of the anabaptists from the radical reformation, those who believed that the reformation of Calvin and Luther had not gone far enough away from Rome.  Because of their understanding of the connection between Rome and the state, they saw the state as part of the world from which they were to be separate.  Thus, a deist used words he may not have understood to endorse an amendment to a denomination he may not have understood, and the Supreme Court thought this defined the First Amendment.

The evangelical church in the United States spent the latter half of the twentieth century enraged by The Supreme Court's decisions evicting the church from the public square.  This increasing preoccupation with government followed a similar trend within the wider population.  More than ever, people in the United States believe the solution to their problems rests in the federal government.  It has become our national god.

Again, the First Commandment forces us to reckon with our own attitude toward the civil magistrate.  We are not to be those who look to Washington, DC for solutions to spiritual problems.  Our safety, peace, joy, and prosperity cannot depend on government but in God alone.

Again, the Fifth Commandment comes into play as God commands us to submit to the dictates of the civil magistrate.  Paul writes the following to the church in Rome.
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.  Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.  For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.  Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.  (Romans 13:1-7)
Before we engage with this statement, we must remember that the Roman government at this time could not be called favorable to Christianity.  Estimates at dating this letter put it around AD 57, early in the reign of Nero, the one who would begin using Christians to light his garden.

This general rule of submission revolves around the concept that God ordains the authorities over us.  This does not give them, as earlier Christians maintained, divine right.  It does not make them infallible in their ordinances.  God may choose to give us wicked authorities.  Nevertheless, those who resist authority needlessly are resisting God.  Rebellion against lawful government is rebellion against God.

Paul reminds us that the purpose of government is the terrorize the wicked, those who do evil.  He is responsible to punish those who do wrong.  This means we ought to obey them, not only because they are God's ministers, but also because they rightly punish the wicked.  Government promotes our safety by their judgment of evil doers.

It takes resources to do this work, therefor God requires us to support the work of the civil magistrate.  Paul concludes with a general reminder that we are responsible to act appropriately to every one according to their position.

Paul gives us a very limited view of the civil magistrate from the Christian perspective.  God ordains government to protect people.  He does this especially for the church.  The church supports the government in this work.

Peter also instructs us in our relationship to the government.
Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.  For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.  Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.  (I Peter 2:13-17)
Peter instructs the church to consider ever ordinance of government to be lawful, to which we are to submit.  Again, he notes their primary purpose to punish evildoers and support the obedient.  He adds to this the testimony the church bears to the world.  He reminds us that the church needs to lead in obedience, not in rebellion.  The civil magistrate should see our obedience as positive character to attract others to Christ.  Those who would condemn the church for insurrection should find no evidence for their vile calumny.

Nevertheless, Peter would be the first to admit that this submission has its limits.  We are always fundamentally servants of God.  Peter himself said, "We ought to obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29)  God commands us to obey government.  He always remain the ultimate one to whom we submit.

In practical terms, the general rule is that we submit to the laws of the civil magistrate with the assumption that they have are lawful for us to obey.  In general, we purpose not to allow our judgment lead us to contradict the judgment of our superiors.  Most of us struggle with obedience to the ordinary rather than the extraordinary.  We struggle with speed, not with murder.

Our relationship to government can be categorized into three parts: duty, right, and privilege.  Duty are those things we must do.  We have a duty to obey the laws of the country, even if we think they are irrational.  We have no justification for disobedience unless the government tells us to believe anything beside scripture or to do anything opposed to scripture.
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also." (WCF 20.2)
Note the difference.  Believing anything in addition to or alongside of scripture is not permissible for only the revelation of God can instruct us what to believe.  However we regularly do things in addition to and alongside scripture.  Here, government has authority to instruct so long as it is not opposed to scripture.  God commands us to fulfill our duty toward government.

One duty we have not mentioned, the Bible places upon us.  "I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty." (I Timothy 2:1-2)  If we do not pray for our leaders, we truly have little justification for complaint against their person, morals, or judgments.  After all, "The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will." (Proverbs 21:1)

Rights are those freedoms and abilities that the civil magistrate grants to us.  Our freedom to worship comes to us as a right that government grants to its citizens.  Rights are different from duties for God does not require us to exercise all our rights.  We are required to worship, so that right we must exercise.  The freedom of the press we may choose not to participate in, unless God calls you to be a reporter, editor, or press owner.

Privileges are those abilities government permits upon certain qualifications being met.  Among these are driving on state roads and serving in government.  You don't have a right to be mayor.  You can be privileged to serve in that office upon election.  That privilege can be revoked upon impeachment and recall.

Voting is a privilege that the United States government grants to all citizens 18 years of age and older.  The Fourteenth Amendment allowed the state to revoke upon conviction of a crime.  The Supreme Court has allow felonies to be accepted as crimes warranting disenfranchisement.  The history of voting in the United State suggests that voting is more a privilege than a right.

Christians may choose to pursue these privileges before God.  Christians may choose to vote and hold public office.  "It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto." (WCF 23.2)  They may also serve in the police and military.  "And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages." (Luke 3:14)  Scripture does not support the concept of the world that the anabaptists adopt.  Government is not intrinsically evil, but the gift of God.  Participation in it does not taint the believer or yoke him to the world's system.  That which the Bible warns us against the world refers to the sinfulness of society, not the structures of government God ordains.

Christians will wrestle with their relationship to the civil magistrate, perhaps until Jesus returns.  We ought not adopt the isolationist mindset of the anabaptist.  We ought not adopt the interventionist mindset of christendom or the christian deconstructionist movement.  We appreciate that God ordains government for our protection.  We obey government a far as we may without doing violence to our obedience to God.  We pray for our rulers and seek their good.  In this way we live as Christians in an unchristian world.