Why I Am a Small ‘c’ catholic

The word catholic comes from the Greek phrase kath’ holen ten oekoumenen, “throughout the whole inhabited world.” To be a catholic Christian means you follow the faith that is accepted and practiced throughout the whole world. The word ecumenical comes from the same phrase. To be catholic and to be ecumenical mean the same thing. It means you share the faith Christians down through the ages and throughout the whole world have followed.

That faith centers in what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ. God sent his son into the world to show us the way of peace and love, to bear our sins on the cross so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God and to one another, to rise again conquering death on our behalf so we can be assured of eternal life, and to give us the Holy Spirit to empower us to live lives of love and peace, anticipating the final transformation of this world into the kingdom of God.

This faith is summarized in a confession known as the Apostle’s Creed. It contains the words, in addition, “I believe in the one, holy, catholic church.”

All followers of Christ belong to that church. It is not perfectly one or holy or universal as we see it now. But because it is claimed by Christ and because he works through those people, it is one, holy, and catholic.

I say small ‘c’ without meaning any disrespect to large ‘C’ Catholics or Orthodox. In fact, I have a growing respect for the Roman Catholic Church and the various Orthodox churches who are also Catholic. I have a lot of respect for the popes I have known in my lifetime, especially St. Francis. Some of his recent predecessors did not do enough to deal with a horrible problem in the church, and I don’t excuse that. But that is a problem the authorities in Rome and in America and other countries will have to deal with.

I keep a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on my desk and receive a lot of benefit from it. The catechism gives better answers than some of my conservative Protestant and Evangelical brothers and sisters (I have to say and sisters, although women theologians are fairly new in those circles) to questions about science, sexuality, economic justice, ecology, world religions, human rights, and the modern historical study of the Bible.

Once I had a student who freaked out when he heard the term “free church catholic” at a conference. I could use that term to describe myself. I remain free to follow my own conscience and hold my own convictions. In other words, I remain free to disagree with the catechism or the teachings of the church. For example, when I say Rome gives better answers on sexuality, I still disagree with its teaching that celibacy is the only option for those who accept a religious vocation, for those who have been divorced and remarried, and for others. But the place for that conversation would be at the Boji Stone (our local coffee shop), in a friendly, respectful atmosphere.

The Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann has spent his life engaging in dialogue with Catholics, Protestants, Marxists, atheists–anyone who will sit down and talk to him. He says you don’t have to give up beliefs that are important to you to have a conversation. In fact, he says, if you suppress your differences, you deprive the other person of a genuine conversation partner. Today I am emphasizing what I have in common with all followers of Christ, and why I am a catholic Christian.

And so, I am free to participate in the long-established participation of Ash Wednesday and Lent. To some extent, participating in a season of fasting, self-denial, and reflection also reflects a bit of solidarity with Jews, who observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and other fasts; and Muslims who fast during Ramadan and other times.

The deprivations we catholics undergo during Lent are pretty mild compared to the fasts the other children of Abraham endure. During Lent we can choose what to give up. I suggest either giving up something you don’t need anyway, or something you enjoy but that is not really essential. I visited with a lady yesterday who told of a friend who gave up smoking every year during Lent. She said he was aware of it every moment, constantly reaching for his empty shirt pocket. But that constantly reminded him of Jesus and what he suffered for us. (I wondered why he didn’t just stay quit–but that is another story).

There is one other kind of fasting, mentioned by the prophet Isaiah. It’s not really giving up something ourselves, but it is thinking of others in need.

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house,

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

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Another Bonhoeffer Biography

I don’t know if we need another one, but here is a review of a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Evidently Charles Marsh indulges in a little speculative psychoanalysis about Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Eberhard Bethge, suggesting a latent homosexual attraction.  This speculation, based on no evidence other than reading between the lines in the letters, of course could be neither proven nor refuted.

I think it does show a pretty serious failure to understand Bonhoeffer.  First of all, he had no use for psychoanalysis; he described it as a secular version of religious fanaticism.  Revivalist preachers tried to convince decent, honest people that they were miserable sinners, and psychoanalysts tried to convince happy, well-adjusted folk that they are inwardly miserable.  Bonhoeffer believed private matters should be kept private and one should not speak in public about sexuelle Dinge.  Aha, proof of repression?  I think rather it reflects his aristocratic upbringing and some honest convictions about propriety and ethics.

In his Ethics Bonhoeffer followed traditional categories of duty, vocation, family, work, government.  But He also said there is another realm where ethical behavior is realized, and that is the area of freedom.  To this area he assigned friendship.  He recognized a failure in previous attempts to define and describe ethical behavior without recognizing the importance of deep and abiding friendships not confined by categories of duty but developed in the realm of freedom.

One of the failures of a lot of our thinking today is a lack of imagination and vocabulary to appreciate the value of friendship.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eberhard Bethge certainly did love one another.  It was a deep human and Christian friendship.

What’s Wrong with a Well-Regulated Militia?

The courts have ruled that the second-amendment upholds the right of individuals to “keep and bear arms.” Originally all adult, white male “responsible and law-abiding” citizens were members of the militia; therefore they had a right to keep and carry weapons, and use them when necessary. Individuals have a right to defend their own homes and families, the right to join together as part of the common defense, and the right to resist tyranny.

The framers of the constitution understood that all individual citizens (as defined above) were part of a well-regulated, trained, and disciplined militia.

The original drafts of the second amendment included a provision exempting persons with religious scruples from being required to own and maintain weapons. Any adult white male citizen not so exempted was expected to maintain his own supply of weapons should he be called up by his state militia.

Switzerland has a national militia. Anyone deemed “fit for service” between the age of 18 and 34 is required to purchase and keep at his home military weapons. They first go through a period of training.

A system like that would be better than what we have.

What would be wrong with a mandatory course of training, following high school graduation, say a six-week course? It could include firearms use and safety, first aid training, emergency and disaster relief training, legal matters, non-lethal self-defense strategies, anger management, and other issues. There would also be psychological testing and background checking (including juvenile offenses).

Conscientious objectors could be exempted or allowed to skip the weapons-part of the training.

This would not be a military draft; no further service would be required, but successful graduates would be allowed to own weapons and participate in the well-regulated militia as they chose.

Gun owners would be required to keep their weapons secure from use by unauthorized persons.

In effect, this would mean giving a license to possess firearms. Unlicensed possession could be prosecuted, in the same way that unauthorized possession of drugs is prosecuted.

The pro-gun lobby has been so powerful that politicians have been afraid to do anything to try to control gun violence. There are reasonable steps that can be taken to outlaw gun possession by irresponsible persons while protecting the rights of responsible citizens.

Philippians 1:1

1  Timothy joins Paul in wishing grace and peace to the Christ followers in Philippi.  Timothy is not a co-author (Paul uses the 1st person singular throughout the Epistle and will speak later of Timothy in the 3rd person), but he is a witness and vouches for Paul’s authority and the authenticity of the letter.  He is also a role model for the Philippians (2:19-24) and will be a personal delegate from Paul to them.

Paul and Timothy are servants of Christ Jesus (douloi Christou Iesou), a phrase modeled after the Old Testament expression eved YHWH, which is a position of great honor.  They willingly acknowledge owing their lives to Christ and being owned by him “in whose service is perfect freedom” and therefore though they are servants to all they can never become slaves of men.

In Galatians 3:26-4:7 Paul explains why the word “slave” is inadequate to describe our relationship with God.  Jesus also taught that we are “no longer slaves but friends.”  We are heirs and friends having a freedom and authority that slaves could never dream of–this applies to those who are slaves “according to the flesh,” in their earthly, worldly status.

The believers are saints (hagioi, holy people) because they have been claimed by God through Jesus Christ for his own purposes.  Their lives are dedicated to God and their behavior is becoming more holy and righteous day by day. To us sainthood or holiness sounds other-worldly, but to become holy really means becoming authentically human, becoming all we were meant to be, being whole and upright, and wholly motivated by love.  It is holy to embrace the joys of life with enthusiasm and zest; it is also holy to fully experience grief and pain, and to share both experiences, joy and pain with others.

The word hagioi also points to future victory: the saints will come again with Christ when he establishes his kingdom and will reign with him.

At the coming of Christ the righteous dead will be raised and given glorified bodies, and the faithful living on earth will receive glorified bodies and will be visibly “raptured” briefly, caught up in the air to meet Christ as he descends, and then get in line behind him as he returns to the earth in victory, where he will be recognized by all who have ever lived.  The imagery of the second coming of Christ “with his saints” is derived from Daniel’s vision and is expressed in the imagery of a Roman conquering hero’s victory parade.  (See Dan 7:25-27, Jude 14, 1 Thess 5:14-17.)

There is no evidence in the Bible for a “secret rapture” of the saints before a great tribulation on the earth.

Of course the saints will not just sit around in the meantime waiting to escape from the world.  They are called to be a Holy Nation, God’s people on earth who experience and demonstrate the reality of his kingdom here and now.  They live at peace with one another in the presence of God, praying for their enemies, showing compassion to the poor, the lonely, the needy, healing the sick, driving out destructive forces that keep God’s creation from flourishing as the creator intended.  (See Ex 19:5-6, 1 Pet 2:9, Eph 3:10, Matt 10:1, Luke 4:18-19.)

God’s holy people are elsewhere called by a name derived from Athenian democracy, ekklesia (usually translated church) the assembly of free citizens who have an equal right of free speech (parrhesia in Greek).  Each believer has spiritual authority and freedom, and the assembly decides local issues by discussion and consensus, voting or other democratic procedures.  The believers form an egalitarian community (Matt 23:8-12, Gal 3:28).  Paul’s letter is addressed to them, to all the saints; but the saints do have leaders and the leaders are not excluded.

Paul greets the saints with the bishops and deacons.  The English word “bishop” actually comes from the Greek word episkopos.  Drop the initial vowel and the ending, then change the initial /p/ to it’s voiced equivalent /b/, and after fifteen hundred years or so, you get bishop.  The original Greek episkopos, however, did not originally refer to a powerful office (like the chess piece) but to a function of leadership and care giving.  A bishop was one who oversaw or looked after others.

Other evidence from the New Testament indicates that the terms “elders” and “bishops” (presbyteroi and episkopoi) were either synonymous or overlapping.  Those with wisdom and experience in living godly lives were respected as elders, and the elders were appointed to the function of overseers.  In the New Testament, that is in the first century, there was always a group of elders in each church.

By the early second century a distinction was made between the bishop (singular) and the council of elders (still plural), in each church, with the bishop serving in a role identical to that of “pastor” in a local church today.  By the third and fourth centuries, the bishop was the leader of the largest church in a city, then in a region, and exercised authority over all the churches in his region.  By the sixth century the bishop of Rome had claimed to be the “first among equals” over the bishops of the other great cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople.

But in the early church, the term episkopos did not refer to a hierarchical authoritarian office.  The overseers of the congregation provided spiritual care for individuals and families, looked after the sick and needy, taught the congregation and led worship, and helped direct the overall administration of the local church as the members sought to please God and reach out more effectively among their neighbors.

We know that the twelve apostles were men, although women played a prominent role in the ministry of Jesus and were in fact the first to preach the Gospel of the Risen Christ to the apostles.  We know that the bishops whose names were recorded in the second centuries and beyond were men.  But Gordon Fee and others have pointed out that there may have been women in the earliest church who exercised the role of providing spiritual care and direction.  Fee mentions Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2 and Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2.

Phoebe is described as a diakonos and a prostatis, the latter term having a meaning similar to that of episkopos, one who “stands before” another, giving aid, spiritual or physical care, or leadership and direction.  We know from 1 Cor 11 and 14 that women exercised the function of speaking “for the edification, encouragement, and instruction” of the church, a function described as “prophesying.”

Any group, no matter how egalitarian, needs leadership, guidance, and support.  Leadership in the early church arose in at least three forms:

1) Spiritual maturity and wisdom was recognized, and elders possessing such qualities were appointed to offices called “elder” or “bishop.”

2) Charismatic gifts gave individuals the ability to exercise various roles, including speaking, teaching, and leadership roles.  These gifts were recognized and evaluated by other believers.

3)  Persons who were prominent in the larger (civic) community had means, including houses large enough to host the church, and influence, such as connections with city leaders to provide some protection, legitimacy, and support to the church.  These persons provided a kind of natural leadership in the churches.

Over time no doubt some of these roles faded, some merged, and occasionally there was some conflict among them.

Deacons were servants in the church who took care of the poor, but also became ministers of the word of God.  The Greek word diakonos originally referred to a waiter or server, who served meals in a private home.  The original idea is one who “waits on a table.”  But then bankers also had tables, so sometimes financial managers were called diakonoi.  Those who served the congregation by feeding their souls, bringing them the bread of life, were also called diakonoi.

It seems the first deacons are those described in Acts 6, young men full of the Spirit, of wisdom, and of faith, who were chosen to deliver meals to the widows in the growing Jerusalem congregation.  They no doubt prayed with them, listened to them, encouraged them and were encouraged by them, and grew in their faith as a result.  The first deacons named went on to become ministers of the word and evangelists, including the first martyr Stephen.

The Greek word diakonos (plural diakonoi) gramatically is of common gender, the same form applies to masculine and feminine nouns.  Phoebe is called a diakonos of the church at Cenchrea.

One reason the bishops and deacons are mentioned could be that they were officially in charge of collecting, managing, and sending the offering to Paul.

Are You a Slave to Jesus?

Christians have always understood the paradox: in the service of God is perfect freedom.  John MacArthur’s sermon and promo for his book Slave doesn’t seem to appreciate subtleties like paradox.  He recognizes that the δοῦλος – κύριος metaphor is a metaphor; but he doesn’t seem to recognize that it is an inadequate ultimately judged inadequate by Jesus and Paul.

A twenty-minute check in the library confirmed that MacArthurs conclusions after three years of intensive study are basically valid–on the literal level and with one important exception.

Two standard Greek reference sources, Kittle’s famous Theological Dictionary and Bauer’s lexicon as edited by Danker in the third edition.  Both agree that δοῦλος basically means “slave.”  Both of these sources also agree that in Greek culture the whole idea of slavery was degrading, whereas in the middle eastern world of great empires, the kings ministers were called “slaves” or “servants.”  In that context, it was considered an honor to be the δοῦλος of a great king.

This concept was transferred in the Hebrew Bible to the privileged servants of the Lord: Abraham, Moses and the prophets.  The Lord keeps his servants in a special relationship to himself:

Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?  (Numbers 12:6-8)

Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7).

It is in this sense that Paul applies the term δοῦλος to himself and other members of the apostolic team; other Christians he normally calls brothers and sisters.  The expression paradoxically implies humility and service on one hand, but honor and authority on the other hand.

Jesus and Paul both recognize the inadequacy of the expression δοῦλος to convey our relationship with God.  Jesus said,

I no longer call you servants . . . Instead, I have called you my friends (John 15:15).

In the epistle to the Galatians, Paul compares the relationship slaves to heirs.  The whole point of Galatians is to reject the imagery of slavery in favor of the mature and free relationship that adult children have with their father.  Galatians is the magna charta of Christian liberty and the manifesto of the Reformation.

Because you are sons and daughters, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts . . . so you are no longer a slave, but a son or daughter  (Galatians 4:6)

The Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother    . . . we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman (Galatians 4:26,31).

China or Not China?

I’ve been trying to keep this to myself–to paraphrase Muhammad Ali–I don’t have anything against people from China.  It’s just that I don’t like China’s oppressive government.

Yesterday the Nobel Peace Prize was given to an empty chair, the chair representing Liu Xiaobo who is in prison in China for advocating human rights and democracy.  According to The Guardian, “China is still furious” at the committee in Norway for giving the prize to someone they regard a criminal.  NPR reported yesterday that China bullied 18 other countries into boycotting the award.

I don’t have anything against anyone from China, but it does bother me that we, US consumers, are making China rich and financing the buildup of their military.

Does anyone ever look at country of origin labels?

For over twenty years I have been buying New Balance running shoes because they have the “Made in the USA” label.  My wife recently bought me two new pair.  One said, “Made in the USA with domestic and imported parts” (I thought, at least that’s more than Nike can say) and the other pair simply says, “Made in China.”

Facebook led me to an add for a cycling clothing company.  The kids in the photo above are a likable looking bunch, and there cycling apparel appears to be of high quality.  I would be willing to give it a try.  As their web page says (in typical translated Chinese):

As you know , many big companies (NIKE , Adidas , etc..) usually build some factories in China , Thailand to product the clothings for them , because the labor costs is very low.We are the one of these factories.

All the clothings which producted by our factory , once they are delivered to US , UK ,  these price will grow up , but its real price is low.

Because we sell them to you directly , so the price is lower than official price!!

There is also a company that makes high quality cycling clothing, and sells them at a reasonable price, within the US, Voler.

The above photo shows the solar panels on Voler’s factory, accompanied by a statement on their policy of being environmentally responsible.

I’m not in favor of trade wars or boycotts.  I wish the kids at MUPi cycling well.  But this year I am going to try to help out some of my neighbors who are trying to hold on to their jobs.  As far as I can, I am going to buy products made in the United States, or at least somewhere beside China.

What is Worse than Burning a Book?

Killing a human being is worse than burning a book, even a holy book.  A holy book may contain the words of God, but a human being reflects the image of God.  Killing a human being is a worse blasphemy against God than destroying the book of God’s words, because the book can be reconstructed.  Every human being is unique and irreplaceable.

James, who grew up in the same house with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph said that cursing or slandering a human being is the same as blasphemy.  He said it is hypocrisy to praise God with one’s tongue and then use the same tongue to curse a human being who is made in the image of God.

King Jehoiakim burned a scroll containing the words God had given his prophet Jeremiah.  Jehoiakim brought judgment on himself, but Jeremiah and his friends felt no need to be the agents of God’s vengeance.  They simply made a new copy of the scroll.  (See Jeremiah chapter 36.)

It is a serious offense to deface a book believed to contain God’s words.  But devout believers like Jeremiah know that God can defend and preserve his own book.

There is one case of book burning in the Bible; in Acts 19:19 we learn of those who had once practiced black magic burning their books of spells after they renounced their former superstitions.  They were not burning holy books of other people, they were burning their own books that now represented destructive practices.  It is more like people burning their collection of pornography today.

In the same chapter in Acts, Paul was falsely accused of blaspheming the local goddess.  One of the practitioners of Artimis worship defended the apostles saying, “These men have neither plundered temples nor blasphemed our goddess.”  Paul had his own beliefs and he defended them with reason and dialogue–but he did not resort to violence, ridicule, or disrespectful behavior.

The misguided pastor in Florida has been persuaded that burning the holy book of Islam would serve no good purpose.  But now the family of a former attorney plans to have its own Koran-burning ceremony.

These are the same people who rejoice and celebrate when soldiers die serving their country; so the thought that fanatics will kill people in response to their offense wouldn’t bother them.  I wish the media would ignore them, but since that’s not likely, the rest of us can speak up in defense of tolerance and respect.