Respecting Shakespeare

Royal PortraitMy Shakespeare professor scowled as I told him what the passage he’d set before our class meant to me personally. He found my comment entirely too subjective, and therefore not acceptable in the context of scholarly discussion. I tried to appeal to a 1974 mindset, but he wouldn’t consider such a perspective. “What matters is not what what the passage says to you,” he explained, “but what Shakespeare intended when he wrote the play.”

Thankfully, that incident occurred during my freshman year of college, preparing me well for my next three years of majoring in English Literature. Although my professor’s attitude clashed with the free-thinking approach to literature that my high school teachers had taken, he taught me an indispensable lesson in literary criticism. A work must be understood, first and foremost, on the basis of its author’s intent.

But how does a 20-year-old in 1974 discern the intentions of a 16th Century playwright? My professor answered that  question by pointing me to both historical context and (more importantly) to the context of the play itself. Additionally, it helped to study how people used certain words in  16th Century England, as well as knowing some biographical information about  The Bard himself. Finally, familiarity with literary history offered insight.

Understanding Shakespeare’s intent, in other words, took work. But it could be done. And I had to do the same work in studying Homer, Virgil, Malory, Chaucer, Donne, Byron, Browning, Frost and all the writers in between. In art history, I  had to do the same with Leonardo, Michelangelo and Carravargio.

A poem or painting is less about  “what it says to me,” and more about what the author or artist intends. We may not be comfortable with the message  (indeed, I don’t care for most of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly his comedies), but we owe them the respect of interpreting their works on their terms rather than our own.

How much more do we owe the Lord respect in interpreting His Word?

19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. ~~2 Peter 1:19-21 (ESV)

All too often, professing Christians read the Bible with the expectation that they can arrive at a personal, subjective interpretation. Just as I showed disrespect to Shakespeare by presuming that I could make his plays and sonnets say whatever I imagined them to say, so we show disrespect to the Holy Spirit by conforming His Word to our personal experiences and biases.

Certainly, the Spirit uses Scripture to address specific situations and attitudes in our lives (Hebrews 4:12), so I don’t mean to imply that He never speaks to us personally through it. But in order to make a correct application, we must first understand the verse or passage in its proper context. We need to look at the “literary” context, both in terms of how the verse fits into the chapter and book as well as in terms of when and why they Holy Spirit called the prophet or apostle to write the book. Only after you establish the Lord’s original intent can you make a proper personal application.

We serve a loving God Who desires to communicate with us! What a joy to open His Word with the assurance that He uses it to reveal Himself to us. Through Scripture, we see His character, His priorities, His passions and His dealings with men and women. As we respect Him by understanding His Word as He meant it, He brings us into a deep and personal relationship with Him.

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What Else Could This Rebel Claim?

Praise God that people are writing hymns again, and that many of these new hymns offer good theological content. Sometimes such hymns  even capture the hard truth about the depth of human sinfulness as a  backdrop to His grace.

I, for one, most fully appreciate  His grace when I remember that, apart from Christ, I would still live in defiance of Him. My only  claim to heaven comes from trusting that the  blood He shed on the cross paid for my sin. So the modern hymn that I’ve picked for today reminds  me of His grace in saving me. Truly, He is all I have!

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Rightly Dividing And Wrong Division

Those of us who believe in adherence to sound Biblical doctrine frequently endure accusations of divisiveness. The majority of present day evangelicals believe that unity among Christians requires an abandonment of doctrine to the degree that salvation and discipleship revolve around a “Jesus” who conforms to individual preferences.

Empty PewThose of us who stand up for doctrinal purity quickly learn that doing so invites censure. We learn that we must keep our convictions to ourselves, lest we cause “division.” We dare not question women leading worship, church growth strategies, contemporary music that lacks theological content, contemplative prayer or replacing Bible Studies with small groups that focus on subjective impressions of how Scripture speaks to each member of the group. Standing for truth, in an increasing number of evangelical churches, means that we cause division.

Yet Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament epistles, saw division very differently than 21st Century evangelicals see it. Consider this quote:

Paul regards divisiveness as those who depart from sound doctrine. Doctrine is not the cause of disunity, departure is. ~Carl Trueman

Responsible reading (not to mention study) of Paul’s epistles bear out Trueman’s point. The apostle wrote several of his epistles (most of them, actually) with the purpose of clearing up doctrinal error and preserving correct teaching. As a matter of fact, right doctrine meant so much to Paul that he refused to tolerate those who would corrupt it with human philosophies. He furthermore warned church members to reject anyone who deliberately and persistently deviated from the truth.

17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. ~~Romans 16:17-18 (ESV)

Notice that the divisions Paul condemns thwart the doctrine that he and the other apostles taught. He never targeted Christians who stood for God’s Word in opposition to attempts to dilute or distort it to suit their own agendas. As he saw it, the Body of Christ could only experience true unity by teaching and obeying the doctrines given by the Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles. Those who watered down those doctrines caused disruption in the church.

And today, the very people who plead for “unity” seek to erode theological truths around which Bible-believing Christians should unite. Instead of  blindly accepting repetitious “praise” songs that focus on human feelings rather than the Lord’s character and work, for example, we should courageously point out how these songs deviate from Scripture. Similarly, instead of embracing pragmatic church growth strategies, we should encourage our pastors to preach expository, verse-by-verse sermons so that the Word will produce faith that results in genuine conversions.

Those of us who insist on doctrinal purity do so because we love the Lord. We want to see His church united around  His Word, forsaking subjective interpretations of it in favor of understanding it properly and obeying it faithfully. We grieve when people deviate from the clear teaching of Scripture to follow evangelical fads, agreeing with Carl Truman that true division comes though such people.

Autobiography With Purpose: Miss Editor-In-Chief

Let’s move back in this autobiographical series to explain little bit about my involvement with Koinonia (the monthly publication of The Church of the Open Door). At its inception in 1978, a lady in her 40s served as Editor-In-Chief, appointing me as her  assistant editor. My primary responsibility consisted of writing a “gossip” column called “The Church Mouse.”

Mousie And Me“The Church Mouse” got me in trouble early on when I reported an item that someone had told me in confidence. Of course I lost the friendship (as I should have), but the elders showed me grace by letting me refashion the column into allegorical stories narrated my a brown  female church mouse  named Mousie who had a penchant for getting into scrapes. That format became  instantly popular, and indeed developed my creative writing skills. I loved developing stories for Mousie and her friends to demonstrate practical applications of Biblical principles. (Mom always thought I should compile the  stories into a children’s book, but I never did.)

After about a year, the editor decided to retire from Koinonia, pretty much letting it slip that she and the elders had always intended for me to manage and edit it. Over the next two years, I assembled a staff that was largely comprised of men from Love In Action, the ex-gay ministry affiliated with Open Door, as well as men and women from the church as a whole. In addition to my Church Mouse columns, I also wrote monthly editorials, many of which were teachings based on my understanding of Scripture.

I felt entirely comfortable having a position of authority in the church. Back then, I struggled with the question of women pastors, and even took a preaching class with some of the men in the church. Eventually, I accepted the Bible’s prohibition against women in pastoral positions (1 Timothy 2:11-12), but it never occurred to me that I was teaching a mixed group through my writing or that I was exercising authority over men.

As time went on, however, I noticed that I indeed held a position that put men under my authority. The more I spent time around people from Love In Action, the more I became convinced that I shouldn’t be directing   men who were dealing with their homosexuality. Blurring gender roles, especially in the context of church ministry, hardly helped in  affirming their masculinity.

Even when the pastors assigned men who were supposed to make executive decisions regarding Koinonia’s policies and content, I’d somehow end up being back in charge. A few times, I approached the senior pastor and beg him to let me resign. But, because my disability kept me from having a “real job,” he believed I was the only person in the   church who could  keep the publication running with the frequency and quality I’d given it. So I’d submit to him, all the while knowing that I violated 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

In late 1984, the Lord provided my “way of escape” from Koinona. Missionaries that Open Door had sent to North Wales from its own missions board had started a three-month Bible College, and I’d be going in January of 1985. Obviously, I couldn’t run off to Wales and still edit and manage the publication. The lady who served as my assistant editor gladly took my position, and I was too relieved to argue that a man should have assumed the responsibility. I “sent” Mousie to China (a closed country), ensuring that I wouldn’t have to resume any Church Mouse columns when I returned home. At last, I thought, I could serve the Lord without stepping  out of my gender role!

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When I Resent God

UnliberatedSometimes, I really resent God for confronting my innate sinfulness, calling me to repent and demanding that I be holy just as He is holy. I want life on my terms, and I want everything to be about me. Furthermore, I don’t want to confess my sins in my prayer time or read the Bible because I don’t like God pointing out my sin.

Can’t He let me feel good about myself?

I don’t mind if He confronts other people, and it’s perfectly fine if He uses me in the process! Happy to be of service! But even then, He addresses my hypocrisy:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.  ~~Matthew 7:1-5 (ESV)

He’s preoccupied, apparently, with my repentance…with bringing me to holiness. He seems to think that He owns me, and consequently has every right to expect me to live for Him. He challenges my egocentric attitudes, letting me know how often, and how utterly, I fail Him.

Of course, being an all-knowing God, He’s fully aware that sometimes I wish He’d just accept my sin and let me enjoy it. He’s not at all fooled by my outward shows of piety. In fact, He sees my depravity much more clearly than I ever will, and He mercifully shows it to me just a glimpse at a time, knowing that I would be despondent if He revealed the full truth of who I am all at once.

But if I sometimes resent His exposure of my sin and His expectation of my repentance, most of the time I appreciate His faithfulness to bring me to holiness. He loves me enough to desire that I bear His nature, so He lovingly lets me undergo the pain of discipline.

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
    nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. ~~Hebrews 12:5-11 (ESV)

And the very pain that I resent brings me joy. It assures me that, in spite of all my rebellion and failings, He sees me as His child!

Following Self

I used to follow two “deconversion” blogs (one recently closed, and I simply lost interest in the other). The author of the first blog still considers himself a Christian, but he rejects conservative doctrine in favor of a theology that embraces homosexuality and permits him to interpret Scripture through the grid of personal experience. The other believes she’s on the road to atheism, certain that her reasoning abilities demonstrate the Bible’s fallacies.

Both depend on themselves to determine truth.

Truth, however, relies on objective facts, not personal intuition. For that reason, I cling to the accounts of Christ’s resurrection,  which people in the First Century could easily verify. If the disciples had merely fabricated the resurrection, their gospels wouldn’t have mentioned the sealed tomb and the Roman guard. Paul wouldn’t have mentioned the 500 men who saw Jesus after His resurrection. And, as cowardly as these guys were around the time of the crucifixion, it makes no sense to suppose that they would allow themselves to be martyred if they knew they were lying. The evidence for the resurrection quiets all doubt.

From the point of accepting the historical  fact of the resurrection, I can then reason that Jesus obviously has to be Who He claimed to be–God Incarnate. Subsequently, all the other points of doctrine fall into place. Thus,  my faith is founded on historical evidence, not on my self-contrived ideas, my experience or fluttery feelings I get when I think spiritual thoughts.

Because I still struggle with my sin nature (as Paul did in Romans 7:7-25), I have gone though times of wanting to walk away from Christ. In those times, I understood that He wouldn’t allow me to play with my sin in His holy presence.  And in those times, I had to admit that I preferred my sin to fellowship with Him.

And yet, even as I made that admission, I knew I would ultimately run back to Jesus in repentance. Even though I enjoyed my sin, I knew that truth can only come through Him. I always thought of the time during His earthly ministry when the demands of His preaching alienated most of His followers.

66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” ~~John 6:66-69 (ESV)

Jesus may not offer the pleasure I crave in this lie, and He may not conform to  my intellectual reasoning, but His truth always calls me  back. My preferences lose their power, and I bow to His authority. I realize that He determines what I should believe, and that I’d be an idiot to walk away from Him simply to gratify myself.

The “journeys” of the two bloggers I used to read (interesting that they both use the term “journey”) sadden me because they’ve both chosen to measure truth by themselves. Thankfully, God has grounded His truth, not in subjective human feelings, but in historical fact that lends itself to investigation. I pray that these bloggers would set aside their self-worship long enough to examine the evidence and accept the truth.

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The “Gospel” Of Morality

When asked to explain the difference between nominal Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, a friend of mine replied, “Christianity is a lifestyle.”

True, the nominal Catholic she’d said that to exhibited a certain disparity between his professed belief in God and his day-to-day life. Though he’d once attempted to impress me with his claim to be a “Bible scholar” (I really fought hard to keep a straight face), everybody could see that Scripture made absolutely no impact on his moral choices. I believe the discrepancy between his claim of faith and his behavior prompted my girlfriend to describe Christianity as a “lifestyle.”

Her description troubled me at the time, and it troubles me even more now. For while genuine salvation definitely leads to a lifestyle that increasingly renounces sin, that lifestyle merely shows evidence of the Holy Spirit’s regenerative work in a believer. Moreover, outward morality can be mimicked by all sorts of people who don’t believe the Gospel. The Pharisees of Jesus day held to a high moral code, remember, but they rejected Jesus Christ.

In fact, trusting in our own morality, even if we derive that morality from the Bible, completely contradicts the essence of the Gospel. Those who defend their Christianity on the basis that they go to church, read their Bibles daily, remain sexually pure (physically) and drink only in moderation prove only that they trust in their good works rather than in Jesus’ atoning work on the cross. Oh, they may say otherwise (they know their responsibility to say all the correct things), but deep down they believe their religious activity and avoidance of certain behaviors is what distinguishes them from non-Christians.

Of course I believe that born-again Christians will grow in holiness, developing a disdain for sin. In that respect, we indeed do have a lifestyle that makes us different from those around us. The epistle of 1 Peter (obviously too lengthy to quote here) shows the relationship between regeneration and exhibiting the values of our Heavenly Father. In other words, we live a holy lifestyle because the Holy Spirit causes us to resemble our Father.

Christianity, then, differs from any other belief system in that God gives us new birth as we admit our own moral bankruptcy and trust in Christ’s atonement.

1And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. ~~Ephesians 2:1-9 (ESV)

We point to His grace rather than our lifestyle. He alone deserves the spotlight because He is the One Who gave us the new life that, in turn, changes our values and behavior in ways that reflect Him. True conversion never points to self-accomplishment, but instead rejoices in the transforming grace of Jesus Christ