Handling Hardship: Sunukjian’s Invitation to James

invitation_to_james_cover_courtesy_publisher_1200x1200Sunukjian, Donald R. Invitation to James: Persevering Through Trials to Win the Crown. Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2014. ISBN 978-1-941337-25-7.

Invitation to James is part of a series on “Biblical Preaching for the Contemporary Church,” with current or forthcoming titles on James (the present volume), Philippians, the life of Jacob, Galatians, Mark, and Joshua. As such, its official purpose “is to offer models of the principles presented in the textbook” by the same author, Invitation to Biblical Preaching: Proclaiming Truth with Clarity and Relevance (xi, back cover). Like other books in the series, Invitation to James is a collection of “slightly edited” sermons that Sunukjian has previously preached (xi), aimed primarily at current preachers or preachers-in-training who might benefit from model sermons, particularly those who are using or have used Sunukjian’s textbook. Books in the series may even include “stage directions” at times (Ibid., emphasis removed), a phenomenon I noticed only once in Invitation to James (58).

Since I have not read Sunukjian’s textbook and do not preach, I cannot review Invitation to James in terms of its utility to students of Sunukjian’s textbook or to preachers. (Since this is the only book I have so far read by Sunukjian, I also cannot compare its usefulness to other books in the series.) Books created from expository (“verse by verse”) sermons do generally strike me as good reading for preachers, particularly for preachers who preach predominantly or exclusively topical (“pick and choose”) sermons, but I say this as a consumer rather than creator of sermons. I will therefore focus my review on the value of the text to Bible-believing readers more generally.

Overall, Invitation to James makes excellent devotional reading. Christians seeking clear and practical guidance in the application of God’s counsel to their thinking and actions will certainly find the book worthwhile. Whereas some treat James as “simply a loose collection of exhortations without…any overall unity” (1), Sunukjian presents James as essentially a handbook for responding properly and faithfully to, and so benefiting from, hardships. His overall stance is nicely summarized and persuasively supported in his brief introduction (1-4), though in truth the stronger support for accepting that James really is about “Persevering Through Trials to Win the Crown” is how this understanding illuminates James throughout the text.

The sort of difficulties James has in view, Sunukjian emphasizes, are “not…the results of your foolishness [or sin] or the normal challenges of life”; rather, “the kind of trials he’s talking about are those where you didn’t do anything to deserve such difficulty, and there isn’t anything you can do to stop it” (10): persecution at the hands of unbelievers, financial difficulties due to “economic forces outside your control,” physical difficulties due to disease or age, and the like. When believers find themselves in the midst of such hardships, they can be sure God is putting them through them for a good purpose, to make them more like Christ. Invitation to James works through the entire book of James in light of this theme, helping readers to discern what specific issues the Lord might be working on in their particular hardships, how they must respond if they are to derive the intended benefit, and so on. Some of these insights are things slow learners like myself have taken a very long time to figure out on our own, thus (perhaps) prolonging our hardships unnecessarily; Sunukjian’s text may help shorten the duration of some hardships by allowing believers to “get with the program” more quickly. (This isn’t to say that all or even most trials can be shortened by a proper response, only that some might be, since hardships only need continue until their purpose is accomplished.)

One thing I especially like about Sunukjian’s approach to James is the way it shows so much of the book to be an outworking or application of Jesus’s teachings in the gospels. While Sunukjian does not make these connections explicit, anyone familiar with the gospels is sure to notice them. (And surely one would expect such connections in a work by the Lord’s own brother [1].) For instance, Sunukjian’s discussion of James 3:1-12 (Chapter 7, “Tongue in Check,” 56-66) reads very much as an application of Jesus’s teaching on how one should not attempt to judge and correct one’s brethren until one has gotten one’s own life in order (Matthew 7:1-5).

I’m not perfectly happy with everything in the book, however. Though nothing in it troubles me greatly or would incline me to withhold my recommendation, a couple things in it trouble me a little and seem worth noting.

The first things that troubles me is a certain inconsistent bias first seen in Sunukjian’s treatment of James 2:1-13 (Chapter 5, “Impartial Love,” 40-49). Initially, Sunukjian offers the following description of James’s position on proper Christian impartiality: “If you are really committed to following Christ…and you find yourself in this situation—when the influential and insignificant, the attractive and unattractive, the rich and poor are both in your church—you must treat them absolutely the same. You must treat them equally, without thought of gain, without regard for any benefit you might receive. You must love them impartially….you must not show favoritism” (43-4). Again: “Do not treat people differently based on what you might get from them. Be absolutely impartial. Love them equally” (44). (It should perhaps be noted that “love” here, as throughout Scripture, points to committed benevolent action, to behavior, not to an emotional state. This definition of “love” is evident, though not explicitly stated, in this chapter. It is even more obvious in the next [Chapter 6, “Living, Loving, Lasting Faith,” 50-55].)

This is all very sound and biblical. Unfortunately, the rest of the chapter doesn’t quite live up to its own call for an impartiality that shows no favoritism and treats rich and poor “absolutely the same.” Instead, it shows a certain bias against the rich in favor of the poor. In order to correct a bias in favor of the rich that seems to have been prevalent among those to whom he is writing, James notes how certain “rich men” with whom they’ve dealt have in fact oppressed them, taken them to court, and blasphemed the Lord (James 2:6b-7; I’ve quoted the King James Version [KJV] wording; Sunukjian quotes the New International Version [NIV], which speaks of “the rich” instead of “rich men”). While I would see James’s point here as being that believers should abandon any thought that wealth is evidence of divine favor, as well as any deluded idea that just because someone is rich means he is going to help you in some way, Sunukjian sees James’s point as more broad. “James’s point here,” he writes, “is that more often the rich are the ones who have no use for God in their lives” (47). No doubt it is true that great wealth makes sinful (God-ignoring) self-reliance easier and makes more and bigger sins possible, so that the wonder of God’s grace is especially evident when the rich are saved (Matthew 19:23-6), but presupposing that rich persons, because they are rich, will “more often” prove ungodly, or that the poor will more often “have the richest and deepest walk with God” (46), is not impartial. God, indeed, has chosen persons who are poor to be “rich in faith” (James 2:5 KJV), but impartiality does not permit one to assume God “more often” chooses poor than rich or to assume that a given poor person is more likely a sincere believer than a given rich person.

Related to this, Exodus 23 contains an interesting pair of verses I don’t frequently see quoted together. The second of the pair warns one not to show bias in judgment against a poor person (v. 6). The first, however, and perhaps less popularly, warns one not to show bias in judgment for a poor person (v. 3). The New King James, as it happens, words the first verse in a way directly relevant to the issue of “impartial love”: “You shall not show partiality to a poor man in his dispute” (v. 3). (The KJV warns one not to “countenance a poor man in his cause,” which perhaps makes the sort of bias in view even clearer.) Impartial love for persons irrespective of wealth does not mean preference for the poor over the rich. Impartiality in one’s judgment and treatment of rich and poor does not mean a biased starting assumption that the rich are innately more likely to sin than are the poor, or that the poor are innately more deserving of your time and attention than the rich. James’s remarks to correct a favoritism being shown toward the rich, and to refute any latent assumption that material wealth is evidence of divine approval, should not be taken as a warrant to routinely assume the worst about the rich. Yet, after a listing of stereotypical misdeeds of the rich and sinful (46-7), Sunukjian only grant that “not all rich people are this way” (47). Normally, when one says of a whole group that “not all” members of that group are a certain way, one means to imply that most persons in that group are that way. This is bias, not impartiality.

When Sunukjian takes up discussion of James’s imprecations against sinful “rich men” (James 5:1 KJV; NIV “rich people”), his lack of impartiality between poor and rich, his bias for the poor against the rich, still seems evident (Chapter 12, “Money Talks,” 95-104). The chapter, however, mainly provides guidance on how Christians can ensure that any wealth they acquire is earned honorably and used righteously, and what Sunukjian has to say on these topics is mostly sound and biblical. One example he offers of unrighteous (inappropriately self-centered) behavior someone with wealth might engage in does merit criticism, though. “In our day,” Sunukjian writes, “violence and injustice at the hands of the rich may be a bit more sophisticated [than that seen in 1 Kings 21 and Isaiah 5:7-8, discussed in Sunukjian’s prior paragraph], but it still occurs….[various examples, then:] Through turning apartments into condos, they evict elderly tenants and sell units for large sums, thumbing their noses at rent controls designed to protect the vulnerable” (103).

An endorsement of “rent controls,” combined with condemnation of property owners for opting to sell properties rather than continue to rent them out and maintain them after such controls have been imposed, is something I was a bit surprised to see showing up in a sermon. Now, if someone (or a group of someones, such as profit-seeking investors) purchases an apartment complex, his (or their) reason for doing so is typically the same as that motivating the rest of us to seek employment or sell products or services: to make money. What he plans to do with this money once he has it, whether or not he believes the Bible and will give the “between five percent and fifteen percent” Sunukjian says would show he is not an ungodly hoarder (99-100), cannot be determined from the mere fact that he owns an apartment complex. If government imposes a cap on the rent he may charge, he loses the ability to take advantage of changes in the rental marketplace to offset losses due to changes in the maintenance marketplace and in other marketplaces where he must spend his income. At some point, he may, even if he is a charitable man loath to harm his tenants, decide that shrinking profits have made the ongoing effort and expense too much to endure.

A Christian property owner financially capable of doing so might well wish, might in fact feel a moral obligation, to reduce profit or take a loss on a given rental property as an act of charity toward a fellow believer or even an unbeliever in dire financial circumstances. A preacher might even be right to urge such a choice on financially-capable Christian owners of rental properties. Prophetic witness to moral obligation is quite a different thing from endorsement of government short-circuiting of free market processes in service of (what are popularly called) “social justice” objectives, however. As well, endorsement of rent control seems morally suspect. As one writer observes, rent control is “legislated plunder of providers of rental housing” (Robert Batemarco, “Three Fallacies of Rent Control: We Can’t Always Have Everything We Want,” The Freeman, 01 June 1997, accessed on the Foundation for Economic Education [FEE]’s Web site 14 November 2014). In other words, it is theft from persons who have (unless some fraud can be shown) honestly acquired property at their own risk and expense. No matter how much they want to help vulnerable low-income renters, Bible-believers must oppose theft (Exodus 20:15, Deuteronomy 5:19). Any owner of rental property forced by government to charge less to renters than the market rate, or condemned by a preacher for refusing to retain ownership when denied freedom to charge market rates, might ask, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” (Matthew 20:15b KJV).

As it happens, evidence does not support the belief that rent control helps the vulnerable anyway. The Mises Wiki offers the following brief summary of one study’s findings on the topic: “Rent control produces the opposite of promised results; it is an initially well-intentioned but ultimately destructive housing policy that actually reduces supply, hurts the poor and displaces the needy” (“Rent Control” entry on the Mises Wiki, accessed 14 November 2014, citing Rolf Goetze’s 1994 study, “Rent Control: Affordable Housing For the Privileged, Not The Poor,” to which a link is provided in the Wiki article). An Urban Institute writer draws the same conclusion from his survey of available data: “Given the current research,” he writes, “there seems to be little one can say in favor of rent control.” Still willing to help those in need, he asks, “What, then, should be done to help renters obtain affordable, decent housing? A better approach may be adopting policies that encourage the production of more diverse types of housing…, implementing strong regulations and practices to ensure housing quality and to protect tenants from abuses; and providing targeted, direct subsidies to people who need help paying their rents” (Peter A. Tatian, “Beware the Comeback of Rent Control: There’s very little evidence that rent stabilization protects poor or vulnerable renters,” CityLab Web site, accessed on the 14 November 2014). Not only is endorsement of rent control unbiblical favoritism, it is favoritism that fails to achieve its goal.

A second thing that troubles me is Sunukjian’s seeming willingness to treat statements by a “voice” in one’s head as a source of justified true belief, as something sufficient to let one say one “knows” something (121-2). Though a voice in my own head indicates that persons who in our day hear voices in their heads answering on behalf of God are just hearing their own thoughts, I will not assume this voice in my head has any special authority to overrule the voices in others’ heads. Instead, I will only assert that a subjectively-interpreted voice in one’s own head cannot be considered sufficient basis to justify any belief. Even if something the voice “predicts” actually happens, this doesn’t prove much about the voice unless (perhaps) the thing predicted is something extremely unlikely to happen by chance even given all empirical indicators one has observed consciously or might have perceived unconsciously prior to hearing (or imagining) the voice. (The “voice” that Sunukjian heard as a young pastor predicted passing of a kidney stone in a situation where I suspect a good percentage of stones, of both believers and unbelievers, end up passing. I leave it to statisticians to confirm or refute my suspicion.) I realize credulity when it comes to subjective experiences and impressions is common among Christians today, even among generally sound thinkers with extensive education, so that my objection to this minor point in one of Sunukjian’s messages may be judged bad form, but when I suggest to the voice in my head that I should just leave it out to make for a more agreeable review, the voice insists that would be unacceptable.

As I’ve said, however, these things that trouble me do not trouble me much. They are minor flaws, brief annoyances, in a quite edifying text I enjoyed reading and do not hesitate to recommend.

This review also appears, less nicely formatting, on Amazon and Goodreads.

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A Month that Will Live in Infamy: October 2014 (Reflection on News in My Local Paper)

Introduction

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Having decided to waste no more effort sending letters to my local paper, the U-T San Diego, I’ve no longer needed to formulate quick responses to “the latest.” This has freed me to indulge my preference for prolonged reflection (also known as brooding) about news items. Two sets of articles have especially caught my attention this past month: articles related to homosexual “marriage” and miscellaneous other “gay” (or more broadly sinful and perverse) issues, and articles concerning the desire of Pope Francis and certain bishops to “welcome” homosexuals into the Roman Catholic Church. I will discuss these sets of articles in date order under each of the two categories. Here is the organizational scheme, which also functions as a set of shortcuts (links) to each discussion.

Homosexual “Marriage” and Miscellany

Roman Catholic Leaders “Welcoming” Homosexuals

Or, skip to End of Reflection.

Homosexual “Marriage” and Miscellany ^

“LGBT roles increase,” U-T San Diego, 02 October 2014, A2. ^

This news item relates how, though pleased “gay, lesbian, and bisexual [the G, L, and B in LGBT] characters” are being portrayed more frequently, in an understanding and positive way, on television, particularly cable and streaming media, GLAAD’s president and CEO, Sarah Kate Ellis, remains unsatisfied. (GLAAD originally stood for “Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation,” not, as one might have guessed from the group’s agenda, “God’s Law Annoys And Destroys.” However, the organization jettisoned the acronymic sense in 2013, since it supports bisexuals and transgenders, and probably any other sexually-abnormal sorts there might be, in addition to homosexuals.) Networks, she holds, still must “strive to include significant transgender [the T in LGBT] content.” Online serials “Orange is the New Black” and “Transparent” do provide LGBT-satisfying portrayals of transgenders, the first even co-starring an “openly transgender actress” (Laverne Cox), but two shows isn’t enough as far as GLAAD is concerned.

The natural question that arises is: What in the world is a “transgender”? An average American is likely to assume “transgender” is just a synonym for “transsexual,” meaning someone who has undergone so-called “sexual reassignment surgery” (actually just mutilation plus hormones; often called a “sex-change operation” in popular discourse). However, as is often the case with terms for human conceptual inventions that defy the God-created nature of things, “transgender” tends not to be be precisely and perspicuously defined. All who in some way identify with the gender opposite the sex they were born with qualify as “transgender,” whether or not they ever go to the extreme of paying a licensed medical professional to remove the real sexual organs they were born with and replace them with a combination of physician-constructed faux organs of their new sex and prescribed “replacement” of hormones real members of that sex produce naturally. (The strange and rare case of persons born with both sets of sexual organs is of a different sort. Persons in this class do not “change” their sex; rather, they select it. Surgery to eliminate one set of organs is appropriate in these cases, since this phenomenon, like disease and death, owes to the fall, to the corruption of creation consequent to Adam’s sin, and not to God’s original “very good” design.) Transvestites might or might not qualify as “transgender,” depending on whether they dress like the opposite sex (Deuteronomy 22:5) because they identify with that sex or for some other reason. Since body may be thought of as clothing worn by the soul (2 Corinthians 5:4), from a biblical perspective transsexuals would seem to be a subclass of transvestites, albeit ones who have engaged in a radical and irreversible form of cross-dressing. (I suppose one could have surgery to “go back,” but this would not restore one to full original function, original organs having been destroyed. Or might they be frozen and later returned to the original doctor’s victim?) In any case, discussion of how to define “transsexual” actually gets much more convoluted than this. Suffice it to say that permutations of perversion are innumerable: Once God’s boundaries are abandoned in favor of human convention, anything goes.

David Garrick, “Coronado’s ‘Do-Over’ Wedding Touches Couple: City rallies after heckler marred their nuptials at park,” U-T San Diego, 03 October 2014, A1, A5. ^

This is a lengthy, approving article on how “Coronado residents and merchants have banded together in an extraordinary effort to save a [homosexual] wedding” by arranging an 11 October “do-over” to make up for the male couple’s earlier (August) “marriage,” which was “marred by a heckler shouting slurs.” This “outpouring of support” by Coronado’s leaders (such as Mayor Casey Tanaka, scheduled to officiate at the “wedding”), in the opinion of leading regional homosexuals, “strengthens the county’s reputation as a welcoming place for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals.” Meanwhile, police are “investigating [the heckling] as a possible hate crime,” and GLAAD president Ellis, it is rumored, condemns homosexual leaders for failing to mention transgenders in their praise of the county’s “welcoming” reputation.

Planning for this show of support for homosexual “marriage” has been “spearheaded” by four Coronado women, attorney Alisa Kerr (who calls the heckler “some jerk” and considers her supportive actions an expression of the “kindness…for everyone” she believes characterizes Coronado), Rita Alipour, Kate Blumenthal, and Cerissa McPartin Kieffer. Businesses contributing to the effort include Coronado’s Blue Bridge Hospitality restaurant chain (food), Coronado Cupcakery (cake), Lowes Coronado Bay Resort (venue), and “Many other local restaurants and merchants.”

This astoundingly one-sided, pro-homosexual article, which the U-T San Diego thought important enough to start on the front page (albeit below the fold), includes a photo (credited to Kristina Lee Photography) perfectly illustrating what the homosexual lobby envisions for future America: aboard a boat with water, shoreline, and trees in the background, the homosexual “spouses,” Gary Jackson and Oscar de Las Salas, stand proudly side by side with an American flag waving behind them.

This story raises many issues, but I’ll leave most of those for my discussion of the follow-up article (below). Here I will only address Alisa Kerr’s identification of her planning of this homosexual marriage redo as “kindness.” If indulgence of homosexual inclinations is morally good or morally neutral and carries no consequences, trying to prevent those involved in such indulgence from feeling bad, thus acting as an enabler of their behavior, probably does qualify as kind. If, on the other hand, homosexual indulgence is morally wrong, and if there are negative consequences for it (in this world or in the world to come), then there’s nothing kind about what Kerr and her compatriots have done. Telling those enslaved to sin that their enslavement is natural, and that the sinful actions expressing it are acceptable, is cruel, hateful, and evil, not kind.

“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination, both of them shall surely be put to death: they have wrought confusion; their blood shall be upon them” (Leviticus 20:13). Even Christians who believe, as I do, that God does not want us today to attempt judicial enforcement of this directive for Old Testament Israel, are obligated to accept the moral judgment God himself offers here, since God’s morality does not change (Numbers 23:19, Malachi 3:6, James 1:17).

“Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind….shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9b, 10b).

“For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for 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….Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, [etc.]…: Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them” (Romans 1:26-29a, 32).

“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20)

“But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand” (Ezekiel 33:6).

Jennifer Auger, “Society needs to widen its acceptance” (letter to the editor), U-T San Diego, 06 October 2014, B5. ^

This letter author hopes, in agreement with remarks in an earlier column (which she cites as “Depression rates high among LGBT community,” Sept. 30), “that the rates of depression will decrease as discrimination [against] the LGBT community decreases.” She calls for “rejection [to] be transformed into acceptance,” saying “we all need to do a better job of expanding our views of humanity, regardless of sexual orientation” because, she asserts, “the depression the LGBT community faces is caused by disapproving eyes of other human beings.”

Auger makes many assumptions here. Three stand out: (1) depression is always bad; (2) everyone who “rejects” homosexual, bisexual, or transgender persons does so, not because of what they do (behavior) but because of what they (it is claimed) are (“orientation”); (3) it is solely human rejection, not any other cause (such as God-given awareness of one’s own wrongdoing, one’s sin), that leads to LGBT depression.

The Bible-believer, of course, rejects the first and third assumptions. There is a “godly sorrow” that “worketh repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10). When persons unrepentant in their sin feel depressed, we may still hope that God’s grace will bring them to repentance; their sorrow, their “depression,” might turn out to be the Spirit-caused sort that brings about repentance. It is not the sorrowful sinner, but the sinner who no longer sorrows, that should worry us. Like Alisa Kerr, Jennifer Auger displays a “kindness” that is actually cruelty, calling for us to sooth feelings at the expense of souls.

Bible-believers also reject the second assumption. Insofar as they act in accordance with Scripture, Christians do not reject anyone because of “orientation” (desire, inclination). We know our own desires and inclinations too well, both as they existed in us before God gave us new life (and began transforming all our “orientations” through his Spirit) and as they are now (still unperfected and intolerably sinful, requiring daily repentance). In fact, biblical Christians only reject persons when, by persistent refusal to repent and open hostility to the gospel, they make it impossible to reject their behavior (actions indulging sinful inclinations) without also rejecting them. Since we must “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11), we can only reject and oppose persons who bind themselves to their sinful works too tightly. Christians’ desire to avoid rejecting persons without compromising God’s word, to continue associating with non-Christians and encouraging them to repent and believe the gospel, often gets expressed in the familiar locution, “love the sinner but hate the sin.” “Sinners” are fallen humans enslaved by their “orientations” to sin; “sins” are behaviors, actions indulging sinful orientations. We always reject the sin; we only reject sinners when their persistent refusal to repent turns into hostile opposition to God, God’s word, and God’s gospel. (The rules for rejection from Christian fellowship are less longsuffering: “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject” [Titus 3:10]. Thus, “gay Christians” determined to persist in homosexual activity and justify their actions, by imposing bizarre interpretations on Scripture or by other means, must be rejected from fellowship.)

“Same-Sex Marriage Expands: Supreme Court effectively clears way for gay couples to marry in more states,” U-T San Diego (citing Associated Press & The Washington Post), 07 October 2013, A1, A3. ^

This article relates how the U. S. Supreme Court, by refusing to hear “appeals from five states [Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin] seeking to preserve…bans” on homosexual “marriage” overturned by lower courts, “may have signaled that it’s only a matter of time before same-sex couples can marry in all 50 states.”

By letting lower court rulings stand, America’s reigning oligarchs signal that impossible “marriage” between persons of the same sex will be treated as a “right” protected by the Constitution and beyond the authority of states or localities to forbid, refuse to recognize, or even refuse to call “marriage.” Not only do circles have a right to call themselves triangles, but states are obligated to legally sanction the identification.

Jeff McDonald, “‘I do’ do-over: Grooms cheered at ceremony: Couple heckled at first wedding get blemish-free day,” U-T San Diego, 12 October 2014, A6. ^

Herein continues the saga begun in David Garrick’s 03 October story (above) of heckler-crossed homosexual lovers Jackson and de La Salas, gushingly describing just how wonderful and inspiring was their community-supported, attendant-cheered do-over “marriage” ceremony. Approvingly, McDonald summarizes: “The mayor said a few words, the couple locked eyes and kissed, and a wrong that reverberated across the country was properly righted.”

The article, no less one-sided than its prequel, adds that the couple are from Phoenix, notes that “Coronado’s finest came out [no pun intended] by the hundreds to celebrate the union” of the two men, and laments how “No one confronted” the “heckler yelling homophobic slurs from a nearby balcony” the first go-round in August. Talk about approving and enjoying the sins of others (Romans 1:32)! (Who, or what, caught the boquet could not be ascertained.)

GLAAD’s purchase of the U-T San Diego has not yet been publicly announced, but articles like these leave little doubt the U-T has chosen the goats’ side of the eternal divide (Matthew 25).

Now, I’m not going to defend private-event heckling as a legitimate form of “prophetic witness” against the sin of homosexual behavior. While the pro-homosexual bias of these U-T San Diego articles would certainly identify even sound, Scripture-based proclamation of God’s perspective as “homophobia” and “hate speech,” trespassing at others’ private ceremonies is against the law (if the events are held on private property, at any rate), and Bible-believers are to obey the laws of their nation, state, and locality whenever they can do so without violating God’s own law (Matthew 22:21, Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1). (Of course, it might be countered, Ezekiel warns that if we fail to let others know what they are doing is wrong and will bring God’s judgment upon them, we share responsibility with them for their fate [Ezekiel 33:6]. And, after all, it was when Jewish officials, who were duly recognized by the Roman rulers as having authority in their locality, attempted to forbid the preaching of God’s word and gospel that the Apostles refused to obey [Acts 5:28-9].) As well, I have no idea what specifically the heckler said. If it had no sound biblical content, then of course it would be unjustified from the Christian perspective even if no trespassing had been involved. Most likely, just playing the percentages given human nature, the heckler was someone motivated by the same sinful impulses as motivate schoolyard bullies, an ability to derive pleasure or amusement (or a sense of power) from causing others discomfort or pain. This definitely isn’t the goal, though it may (in the case of the unrepentant) be a side effect, of Christian proclamation.

Michael Biesecker and Mitch Weiss (Associated Press), “Couples Race to Wed as Gay Marriage Ban Dropped,” U-T San Diego, 12 October 2014, A28. ^

This news item tells how Max O. Cogburn Jr., a U.S. District Court Judge, “shortly after 5 p.m.,” probably on Friday 10 October (the article, published on a Sunday, only identifies the time of day, not the day of the week, though one would guess U.S. District Courts are not typically in session on Saturdays), made North Carolina’s “laws prohibiting same-sex marriage” null and void. The state’s Attorney General, Democrat Roy Cooper, “had previously decided not to continue defending the ban after concluding that all possible legal defenses had been exhausted,” the article notes.

Presumably, this “ban” was, as in the case of other alleged “bans,” in fact an effort to codify in law a sensible, nature-compatible definition of “marriage.” Definitions central to the cohesion and function of society must, yet another judge has determined, be allowed to vary according the whims of individuals.

Mark Thiessen (Associated Press), “Federal Judge Nixes Alaska’s Gay Marriage Ban: State amendment was first in nation; appeal is expected,” U-T San Diego, 13 October 2014, A2. ^

This article tells of how “A federal judge on Sunday [12 October] struck down Alaska’s first-in-the-nation ban on gay marriages” in response to an appeal by five homosexual couples, among them male couple Matthew Hamby and Christopher Shelden (a photo of the pair accompanies the article), and female couple Susan Tow and “wife” Chris Laborde. The article closes with the detail that, rather than passing a “ban on gay marriages” (as one would assume from the headline and from everything in the article except this detail at the end), “Alaska voters in 1998 approved a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.”

It must be emphasized that banning something possible and clarifying by definition that something is impossible are quite different things. The idea that you can have functional laws without fixed definitions of the words used in those laws is quite innovative. The innovating judges who rule our nation have determined that individuals have a protected “right” (1) to define key terms like “marriage” however they like and (2) have their states legally endorse that definition, in this case by issuing a license to same-sex couples identifying their union as a “marriage.” Was it Humpty Dumpty who claimed that words always and exclusively meant precisely what he wanted them to mean? Whoever claimed it, he would have made an excellent American judge.

Kimberlee Kruesi and Keith Ridler (Associated Press), “Gay Marriage Arrives in Idaho: Conservative state won’t appeal ruling,” U-T San Diego, 16 October 2014, A9. ^

Kruesi and Ridler report that Idaho’s Governor, Butch Otter, and Attorney General, Lawrence Warden, have given up fighting to restore their state’s “2006 constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.” The amendment, which Otter noted he still supports, was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. State voters, declares the court, no matter how strong their majority, may not make a clear, correct, and sensible (as well as Bible-affirmed [Matthew 19:4,5]) definition of marriage part of state law. Any adult persons who want to may now define a union between them as “marriage” and the state of Idaho must accept that definition and issue a license endorsing it.

For now, of course, this “right” to define marriage how one likes is limited to sets of two persons. It will be interesting to see what excuses liberal legal “authorities” dream up for rejecting expansion of this to include polygamous (one husband, multiple wives) and polyandrous (one wife, multiple husbands) unions, especially given the cross-cultural historical reality that such unions, unlike unions between members of the same sex, have a long history of acceptance in a range of cultures. If you ask me, a nation that says homosexual marriage is a “right” owes a big apology to fundamentalist Mormon sects for denying both their right to define “marriage” how they like and their right to freely exercise their religion.

David M. Hodges, “Further Reflection on October’s Homosexual ‘Marriage’ News,” the Pious Eye site, 31 October 2014. ^

Of late, as we’ve seen, appeals courts have uniformly determined that states have no authority to properly define marriage as a legal and sacred bond between males and females only, as our Lord made clear while refuting Pharisees’ permissive attitudes about divorce (Matthew 19:3-6). While, for now, marriages between multiple women and a single man, or between multiple men and a single woman (arrangements with far better historical and natural claim to legitimacy than homosexual unions) remain illegal, more states by the day are forbidden to forbid “marriage” between persons of the same sex. Requiring states to call “marriages” unions that, for all the “love” that might be involved, have no basis in nature and run radically contrary to God’s express will in Scripture (where homosexual activity, not to be confused with the “orientation” moderns emphasize, is consistently condemned, even considered especially heinous compared to other sins and so labeled “abomination”), certainly demonstrates our courts’ commitment to thorough secularization of American law.

On the positive side, this isn’t Roe v. Wade II. Saying that, in the name of “privacy,” mothers may legally contract with “medical” professionals to murder their own preborn children, is far worse than requiring, in the name of individual liberty, that authorities grant licenses to “marry” to same-sex couples. Yes, same-sex “marriage” is nonsense, and forcing state and local officials to label unnatural and God-defying unions “marriages” is an affront to God, to nature, and to reason. Still, it doesn’t kill anybody, so Christians who prioritize will want to give more time to overturning Roe v. Wade than to overturning “gay marriage.”

Still, persons who speak of opposition to “gay marriage” as “defense of marriage” correctly represent matters. Forcing legal authorities to call homosexual unions “marriages” does degrade true marriages. In the new order, “marriage” is just a phrase humans apply by convention to certain contracts in order to indicate that strong emotions, “love” and personal commitment, are involved. No longer is marriage, so far as the state is concerned, a God-ordained bond rooted in humans’ created nature. It is simply a social convention; human choice alone determines what will and will not count as “marriage,” what unions will and will not be granted the approving “marriage” label by government.

No doubt, Christian activists are already debating what sorts of changes in strategy or tactics might allow them to turn things around on this front of the Culture War. Short of widespread conversion of the populace to genuine, Bible-believing, God-obeying Christian faith, I see little hope that strategic or tactical changes will turn this latest string of defeats into final victory. A culture dedicated to free indulgence of individuals lusts (for sex, however perverse; for excess food consumption, however over-sugared and nutritionally deficient; for entertainment, however vulgar, violent, and unedifying) cannot be won over by better arguments or better marketing. Nevertheless, I’ll comment on some aspects of defense-of-marriage strategy or method I haven’t found satisfactory.

Attempts to defend traditional or natural marriage on non-scriptural grounds, with appeals to tradition or nature, have not fared well. For instance, some have tried to argue against “gay marriage” on the grounds that the purpose of marriage is not to officially and legally recognize “love” but to provide legal protection to children, since (of course) it is only heterosexual unions that can produce natural offspring. I heard Tony Perkins of the American Family Association offer this argument on Fox News one night during this Month of Infamy. This argument has had little traction with the general public, however, since, of course, no one would deny a man and woman the right to marry even if it were known in advance that one or both of them were sterile. As well, no prominent individual has so far supported making polygamous and polyandrous marriages legal, yet such unions very definitely have potential to produce children. A legal environment that permits homosexual “couples” to adopt confuses matters further.

And, of course, arguments about what is “traditional” and what is “natural” carry little force in themselves. Christians embrace traditional marriage, not because it is traditional, but because the tradition underlying it is affirmed by authoritative Scripture. Were the tradition at variance with Scripture, Christians would oppose it, much as they came over time to more and more strongly oppose the traditional practice of lifelong slavery. While disease and death and many other undesirable things have been the “natural” order things since Adam’s sin, Christians do not typically endorse letting diseases run their course untreated or letting persons die whose lives can be saved. Traditions can be right or wrong, scriptural or unscriptural, and being “natural” does not necessarily make something right or moral or desirable. Christians unwilling to make explicit appeal to Scripture, deeming such appeals a violation of our secular society’s rules of public discourse, have not proven able to persuade either the elites rendering judgment in our courts or younger adults (large percentages of those under thirty consider “gay marriage” a right and see nothing morally wrong with homosexual behavior, polls so far indicate).

So, get out your Bibles, defenders of true marriage. This battle will not be won with “religiously neutral” or secular arguments. It will only be won if large number are converted to the Faith, and “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).

Roman Catholic Leaders “Welcoming” Homosexuals ^

Nicole Winfield (Associated Press), “Bishops Shift Tone on Gays and Birth Control: Report addresses host of hot-button family issues,” U-T San Diego, 14 October 2014, A1, A7. ^

This piece describes how a draft report, released by Roman Catholic bishops halfway through a meeting called by Pope Francis to discuss “family life” issues, displays (among other things) “a radical shift in tone about accepting gays into the church” by stating that homosexuals have “gifts to offer” the church and that even “their partnerships, while morally problematic, provide homosexual couples with ‘precious’ support.” The article also notes that the draft calls upon the church to “welcome” divorced persons, acknowledge “‘positive’ aspects of civil marriages and even Catholics who cohabit [live together and have sex without getting married], as well as the children of these less traditional families.” The article takes care to emphasize that the draft does not propose a change in church doctrine (meaning, though the article does not make this explicit, that homosexual activity, divorce, cohabitation, and the like remain sins), only a change in tone, to what the article calls one of “almost-revolutionary acceptance and understanding rather than condemnation.” Presumably, it is the persons who engage in these sins whom the new tone seeks to accept and understand rather than condemn, since doctrine still rejects and condemns the sins themselves—unless the claim that the draft only changes tone and not doctrine is incorrect.

The tone seems to owe largely to Pope Francis’s having “add[ed] six progressives from four continents to the synod [bishops’ meeting] leadership to help prepare the final document after several conservatives were elected to leadership positions.” Francis made this move, in which he avoided appointing any African bishops (“who are traditionally among the most conservative on family issues”) on Friday 10 October; the “accepting” draft was released Monday 13 October. Of course, liberal or “progressive” bishops could certainly have released the draft report even if they were in a small minority. So far as I know, the document was not signed by endorsing bishops.

Roman Catholic doctrine maintains, in agreement with Scripture and with Bible-believers far from embracing Roman Catholicism, “gay sex is ‘intrinsically disordered,’” because (I note) it runs contrary to God’s design for human sexuality, making it “against nature” (Romans 1:26) and a failure of “proper function” of sexuality as God designed it. (Alvin Plantinga has spilled much ink on the subject of “proper function,” none of which I will quote or reference here. My awareness of the concept does owe to my having read some of his work, however. His main concern is what constitutes proper function in human cognition and how this should affect our theory of knowledge. A generic illustration of the importance of proper function, which depends upon the purpose for which something was designed, might be provided by the trusty Phillips screwdriver. Proper function is achieved when the tool is used correctly to drive a matching screw into, or draw such a screw out of, some suitable object. When one instead uses the Phillips in place a Q-tip* to clean out one’s ear, proper function fails since the purpose for which the tool was designed, and to which alone it is suited, has been ignored. To function properly, then, tools must be used as they were designed to be used by their maker, whether that maker is a manufacturer of hardware or the Maker of human minds and bodies. *Disclaimer: Q-tip Corporation denies all liability for damage caused by use of Q-tips in one’s ears. “You should never put anything in your ear except your elbow,” they advise.)

Bishops behind the draft appear to believe that an orientation which church doctrine states is always sinful to express through sex might still be appreciated, asking “rhetorically if the church [is] ready to provide [homosexuals] a welcoming place, ‘accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine.’” Why one would “accept” or “value” any inclination to sin is unclear. If sexual expression of a “sexual orientation” is always sinful, why would any Christian “accept” or “value” that orientation? I hope that the bishops just misspoke (miswrote?) and in fact only believe that persons who lack a heterosexual orientation can still be appreciated, and that non-sexual and non-sinful aspects of their personal proclivities can be “accepted” and “valued” in spite of the missing heterosexuality. If an act is a sin, the inclination toward and desire to commit that act is also sinful, as Jesus made clear in the case of adulterous heterosexual lust (Matthew 5:28). Would these bishops dare suggest we find ways to “accept” and “value” adulterous lust? Were I a Roman Catholic rather than a Protestant, I would be very tempted to see the bishops’ rhetorical query as a corruption of doctrine, as heresy, not just a change in tone. As a Protestant, I can only empathize with conservative Roman Catholics disturbed by the bishops’ draft and urge them to see this draft as one more reason to “come out from among them” (2 Corinthians 6:17) and embrace the authority surer than human bishops, Scripture alone.

On the subject of positive aspects of homosexual unions, the draft says that “it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.” In fairness to the bishops, one must note that the draft does not suggest that provision of sex is a form of “mutual aid” or in any way “precious.”

Nicole Winfield (Associated Press), “Sharp Divisions In the Church: Conservative bishops call welcoming of divorced Catholics, gays ‘unacceptable’ deviation,” U-T San Diego, 15 October 2014, A4. ^

Mostly a restatement of materials in the longer article that preceded it (directly above), this piece makes further note of conservative Roman Catholics’ dissent, including the dissent of conservative bishops participating in the meeting. These conservatives, Winfield relates, have vowed to prevent a similarly deviant “tone” and language from being included in any final document released by the synod.

Nicole Winfield (Associated Press), “Vatican Mystery: Where Did Document Originate?: Report welcoming to gay parishioners,” U-T San Diego, 16 October 2014, A8. ^

This article asks, “Just where did the authors of a draft report come up with such ground-breaking language that gays had gifts to offer the church [homosexual sex not being one of those gifts, one should note] and that even homosexual unions [though, one should also note, not the sex occurring in those unions] had merit?” (Bracketed clarifications added by me to prevent reading more heresy into the draft than it contains, in fairness to the bishops.)

The reason for calling this a “mystery” is that conservative bishops involved in the synod say the draft document in no way reflects their views. “Hmm,” you say, “that doesn’t seem like much of a mystery. If the conservatives weren’t involved, then obviously it was the liberals who wrote it. Aren’t I right?” I see your point. I suppose the “mystery” Winfield has in mind is the following: Did liberal (“progressive”) bishops in the synod, or did Pope Francis himself, first come up with the wording? (At one point prior to calling this meeting, Pope Francis, one might recall, offered a much-publicized “Who am I to judge?” response to a question about homosexuals, which response Winfield recalls for readers in her 14 October article. One can charitably read such a response as a humble refusal to pass simplistic judgment on a whole class of people whose individual reasons for self-identifying as “gay” and whose ways of living out the self-identification vary widely. I’m not sure how this fits with the authority Roman Catholicism claims for the Pope, however. Is a Pope who refuses to make moral judgments really even a Pope?) Winfield might suspect that the “welcoming” wording of the draft originated with Pope Francis himself, since she ends her article by noting, “the controversy over the document has crystallized the deepening divisions in the church over Francis’ revolutionary agenda to make it a more welcoming place which, while [maintains evidently pro-Francis Winfield] keeping true to Catholic doctrine, doesn’t emphasize rules [not even moral ones, apparently] or exclude people based on them.”

The article identifies as “most contentious” the section of the document, previously discussed, that speaks of “welcoming homosexuals,” notes that they “have gifts and qualities to offer” the church, suggests that even their “orientation” might be accepted and valued, and says that homosexual unions do provide “precious support” in (I would again clarify in fairness to the bishops) the non-sexual interpersonal aspect of “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice.” An important point of contention newly noted in this article is that in the draft “There is no reference to Catholic doctrine that gay sex is ‘intrinsically disordered,’ sinful or that homosexual orientation [is] ‘objectively disordered.’” One wonders how a document containing so much easy-to-misconstrue language as this draft does can be said to be “keeping true to Catholic doctrine” if it leaves such references out. Leaving essential information out of a document in order to make it easier to interpret in a variety of ways, and thus get more people to endorse the document (as they “understand” it), is dishonest and so against biblical Christian principles. Nevertheless, it is quite common. Might the bishops behind this draft have such a strategy in mind?

Nicole Winfield (Associated Press), “Vatican Alters Draft Report About Gays: English-version document watered down after criticism from conservative bishops,” U-T San Diego, 17 October 2014, A4. ^

This article reports how the Vatican, on Thursday 16 October, released a revised English translation of the controversial draft described in early articles. In place of a section-title originally rendered “Welcoming homosexuals,” for instance, the new translation speaks of “Providing for homosexual persons.” As Winfield sees it, “the tone of the text” as a whole is also “significantly colder” in the new version.

In Winfield’s opinion, “The initial English version…accurately reflected the Italian version in both letter and spirit,” whereas, one must take Winfield to mean, the new translation does not. Rather than an attempt to clarify what English readers had misunderstood, the new translation is (one would have to infer) an attempt to deceive English readers so they won’t be as upset and so conservatives among them might find less reason to object. This hardly attributes honorable motives to the Vatican and its translators.

If the bishops in fact (as I hope they do) intend only to support a more welcoming approach toward persons with the sinful inclination of same-sex attraction, changes the article relates mostly seem compatible with this intent. In addition to replacing “homosexuals” with “homosexual persons”—perhaps in order to emphasize that persons, not their homosexuality per se, are in view—the new version replaces the previously-quoted “precious support in the life of partners” in homosexual unions with “valuable support in the life of these persons” (which strikes me as more carefully and clearly worded but not different in meaning), replaces a reference to “fraternal spaces in our communities” with “a place of fellowship in our communities” (which has the same meaning but is, I think, easier for average readers to understand), and makes “changes…in other sections of the text, but without significantly altering the meaning or tone.”

Honestly, except for (possibly) the change from “welcoming” to “providing for,” it isn’t clear to me how the new translation could be deemed at all less “accurate” than the first. I assume Winfield, who seems to want to show in her article that the new translation misrepresents the Italian draft, chose the most incriminating examples she could find. If she did, then I’m not convinced the new translation is less accurate, even if it does strike some as “colder” (as more careful and precise language usually does).

Peter Rowe, “Gay and Divorced Catholics Glad Issue on Vatican Table,” U-T San Diego, 19 October 2014, A1, A19. ^

Rowe reports how the bishops’ meeting from which issued the above-discussed controversial draft ended its two-week session on Saturday 19 October with a “brief final message” that, instead of mentioning homosexuals or their unions, only “pledged ongoing dialog about ‘the complex situations which face families today.’” Talk about an anticlimax! After such a let-down, is there any hope that 2014 will nevertheless be declared “Year of the Queer”? There’s still the voice of America’s courts, unified in their defense of individuals’ “[Unknown-source originating] rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit [of sex and marriage partners of one’s own sex],” of course, so “Year of the Queer” still seems an apt description of 2014, but a rainbow flag over the Vatican would have clinched it. (I know some homosexuals consider “queer” a “slur” and “homophobic,” but I needed the rhyme. As any reader of this blog knows, I would never intentionally offend or insult my homosexual fellow-citizens.)

A majority of the participating bishops, Rowe informs us, voted not to carry over “welcoming” language of the lengthy draft (over 50 pages, a prior article related) into the brief final statement (3 pages). If the liberals on the synod hoped to influence things in their direction by releasing their draft (completed, as we saw, without conservative involvement) halfway through the meeting, it appears their strategy failed.

Rowe also notes, among other things (such as what the final statement says concerning divorced persons, another controversial aspect of the draft), that public debate over the draft seems to have resulted in a Vatican decision (announced Friday 17 October) to remove American Cardinal Raymond Burke from “his position as head of the Vatican’s highest court.” As a participant in the public debate, Burke “has opposed any changes in the churches approach to gays.” This meeting, apparently, was preparatory, or a rehearsal, for “The church’s main meeting on family life,” which is scheduled for October 2015 (too late to effect “Year of the Queer” balloting). I can hardly wait.

The primary conservative voice cited in the article is Thomas McKenna, founder and president of Catholic Action for Faith and Family, based in San Diego. Rowe writes: “Emphasizing acceptance, McKenna fears, would weaken church teachings [which, in this case, are also the Bible’s teachings]: that marriage can only be between one man and one woman; that marriage is for life; and that sexual activity is only allowed within marriage.” McKenna objects to liberal bishops’ approach: “their solution,” Rowe quotes McKenna, “is let’s make it easier, don’t be so hard on them. But you are just feeding the problem—that’s not a solution.” Bible-believers must agree: refusing to tell those who sin that they are sinning and must repent is cruelty, not kindness (as has previously been noted).

“Acceptance,” of course, can be variously understood. If one is permitted to “accept” persons but “reject” their sinful behaviors, and inform them of that rejection, “Emphasizing acceptance” might not be all bad. However, the temperament of our culture is such that most people understand “acceptance” to mean “endorsement of behavior,” so that a “[reject] the sin, but [accept] the sinner” attitude is considered a variety of rejection, intolerance that cannot be tolerated. If you’re not willing to cheer the male homosexuals at their do-over “wedding” (or march in their parades), your willingness to invite them to your gospel outreach event, meet with them for coffee to discuss your religious convictions, or just your willingness to live and work peaceably with them as American citizens all count for nothing. These are not “acceptance” and how dare you claim they are? So long as you condemn homosexual activity and refuse to call homosexual unions marriages, you are a rejecting bigot.

Claudio A. Stemberger and James D. Lemon, “Views on changes in the Catholic Church” (opposed letters to the editor), U-T San Diego, 26 October 2014, SD5. ^

Finally, reflection on a pair of letters to the editor, published under the shared heading “Views on changes in the Catholic Church” (26 October 2014, SD5), concludes our discussion of Month of Infamy news items.

The first letter (Claudio A. Stemberger) takes recent Roman Catholic controversy as indication that “Pope Francis is our first wise, caring and potentially secular pope” and that, perhaps, “the Catholic Church [is] on a path of caring and respecting the diversity of all God’s creation” rather than “enforcing old doctrines” in rejection of the (Stemberger assumes) God-approved diversity in sexual orientations. Stemberger then asserts that “There is clear evidence…that secular countries are far more civic-minded than theistic ones” and then asks rhetorically (clearly assuming a “yes” answer) whether “the universal value of ‘love thy neighbor’ [might] be more readily embraced by all if void of any association with religious doctrine”—apparently forgetting the counter-examples of Revolutionary France, Stalin’s Russian, Communist China, and other grand experiments in irreligious civic-mindedness.

The second letter (James D. Lemon), noting that “all persons of faith believe” that “God is unchanging” (not technically correct; see, for example, Open Theism and Process Theology; it should be correct, however), asks, “Why would anyone of faith declare that homosexuality is a proper lifestyle for a believer? Should we love them with…Christian love? Of course. But to encourage them and to say that they fall within God’s parameters is heresy” (paragraph breaks removed). Finally, he adds, “As God forgives all sinners when they confess their sins, he will forgive all homosexuals when they acknowledge their sin.” This is soundly Christian and unobjectionable. (Well, it isn’t entirely unobjectionable. Mere confession or acknowledgement of sin is insufficient; one must repent. Many in our culture not only freely acknowledge, but proudly proclaim, their sinfulness, but do so without any willingness or desire to change how they behave.) But do these remarks really address “changes in the Catholic Church”? (Lemon, one should note, nowhere identifies this as the issue he means to address. U-T San Diego’s editors have inferred this.) Did either Francis or the “progressive” bishops who released the controversial draft say that the homosexual lifestyle (that is, homosexual activity, as distinguished from supposed homosexual “orientation”) should be accepted or encouraged? I’m not sure they did.

As I’ve already suggested in a few places above, where I spoke “in fairness to the bishops,” the ultimately-rejected draft needn’t be construed in the way some have construed it. Does it declare homosexuality “a proper lifestyle for a [Christian] believer”? What is “proper” is not “morally problematic,” so one would have so say “no”: the draft admits that homosexual unions are “morally problematic”—presumably because they include indulgence in sexual sin that the Bible labels “abomination” and “against nature.” (Just a wild guess.)

Setting aside the draft’s suggestion that homosexual “orientation” might be something Christians could “value” as misspoken or confused, and dealing only with those portions of the draft quoted or summarized in the news items under review, how might one most charitably read the draft? While the synod that produced it (through a subset of its membership) ultimately voted it down, it still expresses views that at least some high-placed Roman Catholic authorities, perhaps even Pope Francis himself, endorse, so it still seems worth reflecting upon. So, here goes….The term “homosexual” (along with homosexuals’ self-chosen identifier “gay”) today invariably speaks, not solely (or even primarily) about behavior, but about “orientation.” A ubiquitous, if largely unacknowledged, assumption in our culture is that if one has an innate preference or desire for something, an innate “orientation,” one should be free to indulge that inclination, provided one’s doing so does not directly and obviously harm someone else. Heterosexual persons, generally speaking, are so “oriented” as to want to engage in sex before marriage (and, so various evolution-focused documentaries tell us, to engage in sex with persons other than their spouses during marriage), so, it is taken for granted, legal penalties for fornication (and adultery) are unacceptable. We might wish to provide civil recourse in some cases, should spouses be able to show tangible harm caused them by partners’ adultery (for instance), but surely punishing heterosexuals for indulging their innate “orientation” would be out of bounds.

So our culture assumes. Many Christian, being part of our culture, may share this assumption, though it isn’t clear to me that they should. While for me Jesus’s handling of the “woman taken in adultery” (John 8:3-11) is sufficient evidence that God’s imposition of the death penalty for sexual sins like adultery and homosexuality is not something he requires civil authorities today to implement, the approach to textual criticism embraced by most Christian leaders these days rejects the passage, making necessary more convoluted (and perhaps less persuasive) arguments. To a great extent, of course, Christians today simply take for granted that God’s moral will, though perhaps accurately portrayed in the Ten Commandments (except for the Sabbath ordinance, generally seen as non-moral and abrogated, or else simply ignored), does not find expression through the more specific case laws and various penalties imposed by God in the laws of Moses. When some suggest that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), like the Two Commandments (Matthew 22:35-40), are just a summary unpacked and explained by the case laws and penalties, they are likely to be treated as crazies not meriting a hearing. Most contemporary Christians, it seems, are content to simply follow their moral sentiments (which may be shaped more by our culture’s influence than by God-given moral awareness or by anything Scripture says), letting those sentiments direct their interpretation of Scripture, rather than (as the God-breathed nature of the Bible would seem to require) striving to bring their moral sentiments into conformity with Scripture. Scholars who promote interpretations of Scripture that comport with “enlightened” or “progressive” contemporary moral sentiments, often by proposing “tensions” in completed Scripture that can only be resolved by going beyond what Scripture says, fuel this contentment. Many may find sentiment and scholarship preferable to a magisterium, but does the latter rely any less on human authority than the former? Even were our letter writers correct in their understanding of where the Roman Catholic magisterium may be headed (toward acceptance of homosexual indulgence), this wouldn’t mean much: human religious authorities, like human scholarly authorities, and like one’s own moral sentiments, have no authority when they contradict God’s word.

So, then, it is generally understood that heterosexuals, persons whom Christians and their Bible deem sexually normal, in accord with nature as God created it, are “oriented” toward behaviors that are still (by Christian standards) unacceptable, fornication and adultery. Should the church nevertheless seek ways to welcome, to recognize the unique gifts of, persons of such heterosexual orientation? No one would claim otherwise. Would this acceptance of people with an orientation to sin constitute an endorsement of sinful behavior? Hardly. True, heterosexuals, if they can find a suitable spouse, are permitted to express much of their orientation sexually without sin (since that orientation is natural), whereas homosexuals (whose orientation is “against [God-created] nature”) must either choose celibacy (as must unwed heterosexuals, by the way) or seek (if they believe this possible) to acquire a new orientation (Christian sanctification is all about progressive change in orientations, sexual and otherwise, leading to changes in behavior), but no one who reflects even briefly should have trouble granting that humans often have orientations they cannot be allowed to indulge without penalty. Where are those willing to defend the orientation-expressing behavior of persons with psychopathic orientation? With pedophilic orientation? Granted, some want to identify homosexual orientation as innate in a way that (they believe) psychopathy and pedophilia are not. But since when did the moral quality of a behavior change based on how one became inclined to indulge in it? Note that we are not speaking of behaviors individuals “cannot help” but engage in. Even if one does not “choose to be” homosexual or psychopathic or pedophilic in orientation, it does not follow from this that one does not (or cannot) choose whether or not to indulge or express one’s unchosen orientation. Even heterosexual males in their highest-hormone young adulthood do not lose the power to freely choose between abstention and indulgence. That one has a desire, or has had that desire for so long that one sees it as an innate “orientation,” does not make expression or indulgence of it morally right or socially acceptable. Simply put, one’s orientation does not affect one’s moral duty.

Upon analysis, then, a Roman Catholic call to welcome and appreciate persons with homosexual orientation needn’t be seen as any more radical or controversial than a call to welcome and appreciate persons of heterosexual orientation. Bishops’ suggestion that homosexual relationships have positive aspects that might merit recognition and appreciation seems more difficult to deal with. Still, a charitable reading is possible. The only thing that makes homosexual relationships sinful is the lust and sexual indulgence involved, as well as suggestion that lust and indulgence is legitimate and can even be labeled “marriage.” When these sinful aspects are removed, one has only close friendship—non-sinful, non-sexual intimacy. What I suspect (hope) the bishops were trying to get at in their unwisely released draft is that relationships between persons of the same sex who both share the homosexual orientation are not entirely and exclusively sexual and sinful. Like human interpersonal relationships generally, they include non-sinful and positive aspects, such as support and encouragement. Providing financial and moral support to a hospitalized friend does not cease being laudable if the friend happens to share orientation toward a particular sin, much as an expression of “honor among thieves” (keeping rather than breaking a promise) would still be “honorable” as far as it went. Such complex parsing of the sinful and non-sinful aspects of interpersonal relationships may be a bit more than our keep-it-simple Twitter culture can process, but I think it might be what the bishops had in mind. Of course, I could be wrong. Neither Roman Catholicism nor Protestantism is immune to doctrinal and moral drift.

End of Reflection ^

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Fesko’s Songs of a Suffering King: Excellent, Edifying

book_reviews_1200x1200_01_Domesday Book_Andrews_Historic_Byways_and_Highways_of_Old_England_1900_public_domainJ. V. Fesko. Songs of a Suffering King: The Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1-8. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books. 123+x pages. ISBN 978-1-60178-310-3.

This is an excellent and edifying book. A Christ-centered exposition of the first eight chapters of the book of Psalms, suitable for private devotional reading or small group study, Songs of a Suffering King doubles as a plea for Christians to use psalms more fully and frequently in their worship, by both praying and singing them. Each psalm’s chapter-long exposition concludes with “Questions for Further Study” and a metrical version of the psalm (for singing). Fesko also directs readers to online resources (where mp3s of suitable tunes can be found, for example) to assist those wanting to sing the psalms. The end-of-chapter questions, I admit, do not impress me, being more of the “let’s see if you were paying attention to what you just read” than the “let’s more deeply reflect upon and find ways to apply what you’ve learned” variety. But, then, persons leading group studies should not find it difficult to think up suitable questions of their own best suited to their contexts.

As noted, Songs of a Suffering King’s exposition of Psalms 1-8 is Christ-centered. This is true in the fullest possible sense. Fesko explains, “We often make the mistake of identifying only some of the psalms as messianic, such as 2, 22, and 110. Instead, we must identify all of the psalms as messianic—they all point us to Christ” (18). In support of this, Fesko notes how, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus pointed out to his disciples how things concerning him “were written in…the Psalms” (18, quoting the New King James version). This citation, of course, does not prove that every psalm is about Christ, only that information about Christ may be found “in” the Psalms, a fact perfectly in accord with the common assumption that only certain psalms are Messianic. However, since Scripture does identify King David (in his positive aspects) as a type of Christ (as no Christians I know would doubt and as Fesko makes clear), taking all his psalms as typical of, and only perfectly fulfilled in, Christ does not strain credulity. In fact, upon reflection, it seems more natural and less strained than not doing so. Additionally, if Fesko’s assumption that not only the psalms as individually written but also their editorial arrangement is inspired (4-5), then the excellent fit between Psalms 1-8 in sequence and Christ’s life, a fit on display throughout Songs of a Suffering King, makes his belief that every psalm speaks of Christ all the more plausible. Fesko, one should note, does not suggest that some anonymous editor after David arranged and modified the book of Psalms. Rather, he seems, in agreement with “ancient rabbinic tradition,” to believe David responsible, not just for writing most of the psalms, but for “the deliberate editorial arrangement of the Psalter” in its entirety, much as Moses was responsible for the final form of the Pentateuch (Ibid.). That David should have edited and arranged all the Psalms adds credence to the idea that even those psalms not originally written by David speak of Christ, since David’s (inspired) Messianic intent then lies aback the entire collection.

Acceptance of this Christ-centered approach has certain benefits. For instance, psalms often judged harsh and vengeful, such as Psalm 3, become much less troubling seen in this light (45-6, 71-2). While we (like David) are ourselves sinful and so not qualified to call down God’s judgment upon others, and are ourselves (also like David) mere creatures who cannot know with certainty whether any individual now in rebellion against God might someday repent and believe the gospel, Christ suffers neither of these shortcomings: being sinless, he is qualified to judge sinners; being divine, he knows who will and will not repent. What from ordinary human lips would be sinfully harsh and vengeful is from Christ’s lips an expression of God’s “absolute righteous wrath” (46). And, as Fesko emphasizes, “we must worship our triune Lord for all of His attributes—His mercy, love, benevolence, and kindness, and also His wrath, vengeance, justice, and judgment” (46). Therefore, “we can and most definitely should pray against the unbelieving world in general and against those whose lives reveal a blatant blasphemy and opposition against God and His kingdom,” as well as “pray that God would judge the unrepentant, those known only to Him” (46). (Arguably, even praying for condemnation of “those whose lives reveal blatant blasphemy and opposition against God and His kingdom” is more than we sinful and fallible creatures can justify. Even these, we seem obligated to grant, are not, so long as they live, beyond the reach of God’s sovereign grace. When the classic film Cromwell (1970, directed by Ken Hughes) suggests that its title character, played by Richard Harris, called upon God to damn the king, it suggests Cromwell acted inappropriately.)

As well, when expressions of anger in the Psalms are seen as Christ’s divine and perfectly holy anger, not the anger of sinful and finite humans like David and ourselves (which surely would not merit inclusion in the Bible), we are better able to draw rightly the distinction between righteous and unrighteous anger. “When we move the fulcrum of our anger from Christ to ourselves,” as we might easily do if we forsook the Christ-centered reading and so found in some psalms justification for being vengefully angry toward others, such as false accusers (94, discussing Psalm 7), “we cross the line of righteous anger to sinful self-righteous anger” (57), Fesko writes. “It is one thing,” he adds, “to be angered over the world’s blasphemy against God. It is entirely another thing, however, to be filled with anger and indignation because we have been offended” (56). So vanishes any justification for personal vengeance, or the self-centered anger underlying it, by Christians (in case verses like Romans 12:19 weren’t clear enough). So also vanishes any alleged tension or conflict between New Testament teaching and the harsher psalms.

Songs of a Suffering King also includes some interesting disagreements with manners of expression prevalent among today’s Christians. Whereas today’s Christians often assert the need to “love the sinner but hate the sin,” apparently assuming that this is what God does, Fesko emphasizes how Scripture attributes sinful actions to sinful hearts (69), so that “the sin and the sinner are irrefragably [undeniably, indisputably] joined” and God, in “manifestation of His perfect justice and holiness,” “not only hates the sin but…also hates the sinner!” (70). Thus, “God’s holy hatred, his just wrath and condemnation, hangs over the sinner’s head” (Ibid.), unless and until the sinner repents.

Another locution common among today’s Christians is that which defines grace as “God’s unmerited favor.” Fesko finds this inadequate. “God’s grace is…His demerited favor,” he writes. In the case of David, “In other words, David did not merit God’s favor, but neither is His favor [solely] unmerited—that is, undeserved. Rather, it is demerited, in that David has received God’s favor in spite of his demerits, his sins” (81). (Since anything demerited must also be unmerited, demerited things being a subset of the larger set of things unmerited, I’ve added “solely” in brackets. I don’t believe Fesko would find this clarification objectionable.) Prior to reading Fesko’s remarks, it had never occurred to me that there could be anything inadequate in describing God grace as his “unmerited favor.” Now, however, I can see that it really does fall short. There is a difference between saying God saves persons who have done nothing to deserve to be saved (their salvation is “unmerited”) and saying God saves persons who have done everything to deserve not to be saved (their salvation is “demerited”). Both statement are correct, but the second makes more clear just how amazing God’s “amazing grace” really is.

Songs of a Suffering King is not wholly without weaknesses, at least not without points of possible concern or discomfort. Though I encountered no difficulties serious enough to make me deduct a star from my book rating, I do think some merit mention. One of these is Fesko’s reference to Eden as a “garden-temple” (21) or “temple-garden” (111). I see this as a difficulty only because Fesko nowhere in the book explains why he considers Eden a “temple,” nowhere relates his biblical basis for this identification. Additionally, he nowhere says why Eden’s being a “temple” is relevant or important to his discussion of Psalms 1-8. Since God did manifest himself personally in Eden, and since one can understand a sacrifice to have been offered there (Genesis 3:21), I don’t reject the possibility that calling Eden a “temple” is appropriate. If it is to be called so, however, one would like to know in detail why, and why it matters in our reading of Psalms 1-8.

Another area of difficulty also concerns the Genesis account. After showing how the New Testament applies Psalm 8 to Christ’s reign (citing Hebrews 2, Ephesians 1, and 1 Corinthians 15), Fesko adds the following: “If Psalm 8 is a prophecy of Christ, then we must realize that the opening chapter of the Bible serves the same purpose” (116). He adds: “Genesis 1 and Psalm 8, therefore, are not primarily about man…but rather prophetic promises of Jesus’ reign, one that has been inaugurated in His resurrection and ascension…” (Ibid.). Since humans only enter the picture at verse 26 of Genesis 1, I assume Fesko mainly has just verses 26 and following in view. Seeing the historical events described in Genesis 1:26 and following as have typological significance isn’t necessarily problematic. The “If..then” Fesko asserts is not obviously true, however. Does David’s use of the story of humanity’s creation to typify Christ imply that Moses must have had similar typology in mind when he wrote Genesis? No doubt David could have intended, and his recipients could have understood, the Messianic meaning. Does the same apply to Moses and his original recipients? Whether or not Fesko has made the case for this elsewhere (this is not his only book, though it is the only one I’ve read), he does not make the case in Songs of a Suffering King.

Additionally, given how unwilling many Christians are to take what the early chapters of Genesis say at face value (that is, as meant in the same straightforwardly historical fashion most take the later chapters to be meant), claims about how one should interpret Genesis 1 should always include explanation of what one does and does not mean to imply. For instance, when he suggests that Genesis 1 is “primarily” prophetic of Jesus’ reign, does Fesko mean only to add the prophetic or typological understanding on top of the historical understanding, or might he consider dismissing the ostensible historical meaning? His exposition of Psalms 1-8, where he always grants the link between each psalm’s content and David’s life situation when writing it, suggests that he only means to point out the prophetic or typological significance of the historical events, not to cast doubt on the literal truthfulness of the (ostensible) history. Given how eager many are to dismiss the literal content of Genesis 1 (and other early chapters of Genesis), however, I’d be more comfortable if Fesko had made his stance clear and explicit. (While he may do so elsewhere, he has not done so in this book.)

Fesko also fails to support an assertion he makes about the consequences of Adam’s sin. Whereas in Genesis God promises only death (normally understood by Christians to mean both mortality, and so eventual and inevitable physical death, and spiritual death, separation from God) as the consequence of disobedience (Genesis 2:17), Fesko asserts that through his sin Adam “forfeited his dominion over the creation” (111). Maybe he did, but Fesko present no argument demonstrating such. So far as I can determine from Genesis or from Songs of a Suffering King, humanity’s God-granted dominion over the creation, with all its privileges and responsibilities, remains intact in spite of the Fall.

A final point of possible concern to some, such as to those dedicated to an especially literal interpretation of “end times” prophecy, might be the suggestions here and there in Songs of a Suffering King of Fesko’s own eschatology. Concerning Revelation 19:15, for instance, where Christ is portrayed judging the nations with a sword issuing from his mouth, Fesko writes: “If we realize that Christ’s Word, the gospel, is a double-edged sword, then it is through the proclamation of the gospel that Christ brings the nations under judgment, even at this moment” (30). Those who understand this passage as referring to a future judgment, not to something currently in progress, do not miss the association between this sword and Christ’s Word. Rather, they see the image of Revelation 19:15 as emphasizing that Christ’s judgment of the wicked “in the last day” will be based upon his Word (John 12:47). Those who understand Revelation 19:15 in this way may find Fesko’s “even at this moment” mildly uncomfortable.

More uncomfortable for some might be Fesko’s present-tense reference to the new heaven and new earth (see Revelation 21). In saving us, Fesko relates, Jesus “permanently and irreversible brings us into the new creation, the new heaven and earth, where He…rules” (114). Rather than a literally remade creation still in the future, the new heaven and new earth, in Fesko’s eschatology, are (it seems) just a picture of the spiritually new order of things that is Christ’s kingdom, the domain of his rulership over his elect. While not uncommon either today or historically, this view is sure to prove objectionable to partisans of the contrary (“literal”) understanding.

In my judgment, none of these difficulties or areas of discomfort reduces the book’s ability to edify Bible-believing readers. Even readers averse to Fesko’s eschatology (it’s not an eschatology I’m prepared to endorse) should find that the wealth of positive materials makes his rare eschatological remarks worth enduring. If you’re shopping for some devotional reading or something to study in your small group, you could do worse than Fesko’s Songs of a Suffering King.

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