A Tale of Two Kingdoms and Two Bathrooms

I currently live in North Carolina. If you pay attention to the news, you have been hearing a lot about our state. You may have heard that Bruce Springsteen recently cancelled his concert here and that some corporations have decided to curtain their business in our state. Even the NFL is having second thoughts. The reason? To use Shakespearean phraseology, It is all “much ado about” bathrooms.

The folks in Charlotte passed a local law that permitted trans-gender people to use the public restroom that they identified with. Our state legislature – horrified – responded by calling itself into session, annulling Charlotte’s new law, enacting “House-Law 2” that requires everyone to use the public restroom that corresponds to their birth-gender, and making it illegal for local governments to enact such anti-discrimination laws. Other southern states have since climbed onto the band-wagon.

I find all of this bewildering. I really don’t know that walking into the Men’s restroom and seeing a (birth-gender) male dressed as a woman is any less disconcerting that seeing a (birth-gender) female dressed as a man (which – frankly – I likely wouldn’t notice at all). An episode of Prairie Home Companion noted: when one is behind a toilet enclosure, who would know?

I won’t enter into a discussion about what the Bible says in this matter, since civil governments are to be ruled by reason (imagine that) rather than scripture. As Lutherans, we have taught for five hundred years that we are to distinguish between the Kingdom of God and the Political Order. We no longer live in the time when King Henry IV had to stand barefoot in the snow waiting for the blessing of the Pope. We believe in two kingdoms.

In the Book of Concord (the book that defines what Lutherans believe from the Bible), in a section called the “Apology (defense) of the Augsburg Confession,” Article 16: Political Order, we read the following good counsel:

“Christ’s kingdom is spiritual; it is the knowledge of God in the heart, the fear of God and faith, the beginning of eternal righteousness and eternal life. … The Gospel does not introduce any new laws about the civil estate, but commands us to obey the existing laws, whether they were formulated by heathen or by others, and in this obedience to practice love. It was mad of Carlstadt to try to impose on us the judicial laws of Moses. … For the Gospel does not destroy the state…and it commands us to obey them as divine ordinances not only from fear of punishment but also “for the sake of conscience” (Romans 13:5). … God…would have them know their duty to teach that the spiritual kingdom does not change the civil government.” (Tappert edition, Fortress Press, pages 222-223)

As Christians, as believers in Christ, we understand that there is a difference between “the world” and “the church.” We do not expect the world to be governed by Christian values. It is a confusion to look to the government to uphold Christian standards, while asking for a more “enlightened” (worldly) church that is willing to erode its biblical ethics.

More serious still, by confusing these two kingdoms, people go to church for “prosperity” (or whatever else people want to get) rather than as a place for an encounter with God and his Word; to give God praise for his great mercies, poured out upon us despite our unworthiness.

Christ was not a new Moses and the world and its governments are not the church. Let government be ruled by reason for the benefit of all people; let Christ’s church be ruled by scripture; and let’s not impose the world’s values upon Christ’s kingdom.

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We’re Listening to you but We’re also Listening to Scripture

This blog isn’t going to be a monthly book review but when I saw Matthew Vines’ “God and the Gay Christian” among the new e-book acquisitions at our local library, it caught my attention. After all, I was listening when the author of the book “Searching for Sunday” wrote “when our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender friends aren’t welcome at the table, then we don’t feel welcome either.” With Rachel Evans, as a Christian, I too want “to be known by what we’re for…not just what we’re against.” I am for people, all people, believing in Jesus and looking to him for forgiveness. I am for all people being enthusiastically welcomed into the Christian faith, regardless of their race, nationality, culture, ethnic background or personal history.

I am also for Christianity being authentic and thoroughly biblical (thus, the name of this blog: “Authentic Christianity…”). I am not among those who are of the opinion that “everyone interprets the Bible differently.” As a pastor, I really can’t remember a time when two people, after serious and careful study, actually disagreed about what the Bible says. I can recall times when people simply disagreed with what scripture says. Mark Twain wrote: “It’s not what I don’t understand in the Bible that bothers me, it’s what I do understand.”

Matthew Vines, after citing the example of the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to Galileo (and Copernicus) believing in a heliocentric (sun-centered) solar system, asks “Does new information we have about homosexuality also warrant a reinterpretation of Scripture?

As the church of Galileo’s time looked at the words of Psalm 104:5 “He (the Lord) set the earth on its foundations; it shall never be moved” they did so through the lens of the science of their day, which almost universally held to a geocentric (earth-centered) solar system. (See, for example, the book by Simon Singh, “Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe.”) Careful study of Psalm 104 would have noticed in verse 3 that God “makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.” This is Hebrew poetry, not a science textbook. A lesson we learn from this is that contemporary opinion should not be imposed upon scripture, in Galileo’s time or our own.

Matthew Vines is more compelling in his reinterpreting of scripture than Rev. Peter Gomes in “The Good Book.” He argues (p. 42) that ancient Greek and Roman culture had a different understanding of same-sex behavior than has been prevalent since the mid-20th century and that Romans 1:26-27 isn’t condemning same-sex relations but hedonism and self-indulgence. Yet he also notes that St. Paul’s words for homosexual in Galatians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 likely go back to (the Greek translation of) Leviticus 20:13 and that “same-sex intercourse was prohibited for the Israelites. (p. 26)

Such methods of reinterpretation are not new. When people disagree with Biblical prohibitions, they often try to limit their application, as if to say: “Sure, the Bible says no to that, but that’s not what I’m talking about.”

But this blog entry isn’t about homosexuality, it’s about authentic Christianity – it’s about listening and paying close attention to people’s concerns but also to the clear words of scripture. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 isn’t about one sin in particular. It’s a warning that those who pursue sin don’t inherit heaven, just as the author of Hebrews 10:23-27 encourages us to “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess” and warns “If we deliberately keep on sinning…no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment….” It isn’t that some sins are too big for God to forgive but that the pursuit of sin works like acid, eroding faith, and when faith is gone, so is our connection to Christ and salvation.

Is it possible that we’re misunderstanding something in scripture? Perhaps, but any reconsideration would need to be based on careful and protracted study, and certainly not driven by personal agendas. St. Paul warned in 2 Timothy 4:3 that “the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” Let’s be sure that we’re not doing that.

To those who stridently disagree with some of what they find in scripture, we might ask: “Are you listening?” To those who are under the impression that the God who reveals himself in scripture is an angry God, I disagree. Instead, I find a God who cares enough to reach out passionately to everyone. But doesn’t the Creator have a right to set the standards of conduct for his creation? When we violated his law, Jesus came and died in our place to pay for our sin. This isn’t a vengeful God but one who (literally) feels our pain. In response, is it too much for us to listen, take to heart what he’s saying to us in scripture, and to try and follow even when it is hard? The alternative is to make a synthetic God after our own image, a fake religion where we set our own standards and call them “good,” and look down on those with a “literal” interpretation of scripture as inferior. Such religion, ultimately, doesn’t help anyone.