I remember well the day my son, Andrew – still at some single digit age at the time – stood in the gift shop at Turkey Run State Park pleading for a little bow and (suction cup tipped) arrow set. I began the old -When I was your age – recitation but stopped short. A lot went through my mind in a pause that lasted less than two seconds. I was suddenly nine years old again. It was a fine Saturday in the Fall of the year and, free from the demands of the school week, I had plenty of time on my hands. I wanted a bow and arrow. I wanted a bow and arrow bad! So, I went to the weeping willow tree in the backyard. I was extremely familiar with this tree and with the properties of its branches having been sent to it on several occasions to select a suitable switch to be employed in the process of my own socialization. I chose a nice pliant branch – back past the long whip-like leaf stem – and harvested about a yard of it. I also knew the location of a bail of twine and where dad kept his tools. In almost no time I had cut notches and bent the willow branch to a length of twine some inches shorter than the branch itself. Presto! A bow! Arrows? There was a fine weed patch where no one ever mowed behind the utility shed. I was as familiar with the weed patch as with the willow tree but for different reasons. It was a great place to catch grasshoppers to be used as bait for the chubs, bull heads, and sunfish in the local creeks. Among the other botanical selections, the weed patch featured horse weed (Giant Ragweed) the seven-foot-tall stalks of which dry to a semi-hard woodenness as summer passes and the nights grow cooler. The straight and easily broken off upper halves of the horse weed stalks were custom made for arrows. True, they were soft in the center so that after a few shots the notch got kind of deep – but there were plenty more. Also true, they lacked fletching – a problem for which I had no likely solution – unless I could shoot a bird with one of them – problematic since without fletching reliable aim is hard to come by. Well, who cared? The bow and arrow worked plenty good enough to hit all the imaginary lions, tigers and bears I stalked with it. Toward evening, when the call for supper came, I decided to fire off one last shot before surrendering the use of my wondrous creation for the day (I instinctively knew I would not be allowed to play with it in the house.) I suddenly remembered a little rhyme from somewhere – I shot an arrow into the air; it fell to earth I know not where. “Well”, I thought, “I’ll know in just a minute!” I notched the arrow, drew back as far as I could, took aim at a convenient cloud and let fly. Dad had been having a conversation with one of the neighbors and, having also heard the call for supper, was rounding the house, still engrossed in the conversation, the neighbor tagging along. I never knew what that conversation was about. I only knew – knew for certain – as I watched the arrow reach the apogee of its flight and begin its downward journey – knew beyond the slightest degree of doubt – exactly where it would fall to earth. It struck dad full in the chest with a sickening crunch produced by the splintering of the tip of the horse week. A few of those splinters pierced dad’s shirt and stuck a little in his skin. Dad, who, unlike me, had not seen it coming, was both dumbstruck and mystified – but not for long. He quickly surveyed the yard – occupied at the moment by only the three of us – dad, the neighbor, and the one holding a bow. It took dad remarkably little time to sort the whole matter out. Neighbor forgotten, he plucked and tossed the arrow and strode toward me like grim doom. My feet seemed to have grown roots deep into the earth. I could only stand and wait. Dad stood before me a second, searching for adequate words, surrendered the effort, snatched the bow from my hands, broke it over his knee and headed for the house. A few deep relieved breaths later, I followed. So, I said to Andrew – When I was your age – then I shut up and bought him the toy bow and arrow.
One more, following up on Epimenides and Akhenaten – this time a person named in the Bible and one whose relationship to the idea of monotheism was a bit looser – but that’s getting ahead. Cyrus the Great started out as Cyrus the only kind of big deal. He was king of a comparatively small region called Anshan. He clashed with another such territory (Ecbatana) held by one of the Median tribal chieftains and quickly doubled his holdings. To simplify a lot of political and military stuff – there was an alliance between Cyrus and the whole of the Medes. The Medes perceived they were getting the short end of the stick in this partnership and rebelled. Cyrus crushed the Medes and the Medo-Persian Empire becomes the Persian Empire with Cyrus now a Really Big Deal. Somewhere in the middle of the cooperative period, the Medo-Persian forces also conquered Babylon. This is reflected in the book of Daniel with Belshazzar and the handwriting on the wall. In the end, Cyrus held all the Median territories and all the Babylonian territories and others. For instance. in acquiring Babylon – Cyrus also acquired Israel which Babylon had conquered earlier.
Despite the brutality of his rapid military expansion (Especially if you ask the Medes!) Cyrus the Great also goes down in history as Cyrus the Humane. Certainly the Jews fared much better under the Persians than under the Babylonians – barring that potential setback in the book of Esther – but that part comes well after the death of Cyrus who only held his vast empire for 9 years before passing on in 530 BC. Anyway – that humane thing:
The Babylonians had practiced cultural annihilation in the course of their conquests. For instance, with Israel – they had taken what they considered the best and brightest of the Jewish population and shipped them off to other portions of the empire where they might serve Babylonian interests. At the same time, they relocated a lot of non-Jews from other regions they had conquered to Israel and forced a lot of mixed marriages. The result was the Samaritans who populated Palestine at the time Israel returned – a return arranged by Cyrus – as predicted by Isaiah (44:28, 45:1) and as reported in the first chapter of the book of Ezra and II Chronicles 36:22-3. The famous Cylinder of Cyrus – discovered in the 19th Century uses language mirroring that of II Chronicles – only referring to lots of peoples and territories – not just the Jews. Nebuchadnezzar had taken captive peoples from their homes and relocated them. Cyrus let them all go home and endorsed and sought the favor of all the various gods of their various tribes and territories in the process. (Cyrus figured all the territorial gods were really manifestations of one larger God) Cyrus even helped finance all these home-goings and provided a certain amount of legal protection for all the returning refugee groups since it was certain the people the Babylonians had settled in all those lands would not be glad to see the original inhabitants returning.
This was, indeed, humane. Of course, Cyrus was also self-interested. Cyrus knew what happened to the old Assyrian kingdoms. The Medes and Babylonians happened to them. And Cyrus knew that he, himself, leading the Persian Empire had happened to the Medes and Babylonians. And Cyrus was keeping a keen eye on what, he was sure, would be the next Big Dog – those Greeks off in the West. For what it’s worth, Cyrus was right. Alexander the Great would swallow up the empire built by Cyrus the Great. But it would take a while and lots of Greeks before the rise of Alexander would fail to get it done: partly because Cyrus established a lot of semi-independent Persian Vassal States, each with a fierce new interest in defending their own territory and ALL of them between him and the Greeks! All of this is also in the background of the book of Esther. The later Persian King, Ahasuerus, was totally consumed with worry over the steady advance of the Greeks. The big six-month party featured in Esther was an attempt to make sure of his alliances with all those vassal states – to make sure they’d rather fight (for the Persians) than switch (allegiance to the Greeks).
OK – again – why should you want to know all this? I find that those not disposed to take the historical accuracy and authenticity of the Bible seriously fall into two equal but opposite errors.
Having written about one Ancient Greek philosopher who felt the pull toward monotheism, let me add another strand to that string: Amenhotep IV. After 5 years as Pharaoh of Egypt, Amenhotep suddenly changed his name to Akhenaten – which means something like ‘Useful to or Successful for Aten’. The name change was the least of the changes the king had in mind! The new moniker was part of a religious (or political – depending on who you ask) conversion. The Egyptians had been polytheists for, well, as long as they had been Egyptians. But, different ones of the gods and goddesses they worshipped were more popular at different times and correspondingly, the cult of the most popular god-de-jour gained political power for the moment. On the one hand, the Akhenaten business boils down to this sort of political struggle. First, it should be noted that the Egyptian gods ‘Amun’ and ‘Aten’ were rival cults focusing on aspects of the so-called sun god - Ra. To oversimplify just a little, Aten represented the day-time sun and life while Amun represented the sun in the underworld and that place men went after this life. The rivalry between the two cults was old and, at the time Amenhotep IV came to the throne, the cult of Amun was way out in front. The Egypt that produced the grand tombs and the mummies had a greater interest in the underworld/afterlife than in present life ‘under the sun’. Duh! In fact, the priests of Amun owned more property than the Pharaoh and exercised almost as much – if not as much – political power. In the old game of church and state – the church was gaining the upper hand.
To that extent, Amenhotep’s religious conversion to the cult of Aten and corresponding name change is often seen as a calculated political move. But the surviving documents (more on that in a bit) and the changes in behavior from Amenhotep to Akhenaten suggest a sincere religious conversion – even if it had political ramifications. At least if it was all political, it was a GRAND political scheme. Akhenaten did not seek simply to elevate the cult of Aten over the cult of Amun or the cults of the many other Egyptian gods and goddesses. He declared that Aten was the only God – the God who made and sustained everything – not only the God of all nations but the God of this entire present world and any world to come as well. He outlawed the traditional polytheistic religion of Egypt and closed the temples of all those other gods and goddesses. He ordered the destruction of statues, hieroglyphs, etc. dealing with the other gods and disbanded the various priesthoods. He moved the capital from Thebes (location of all those other temples) to a new city he had built – Akhetaten – later known as Armana. He is credited with creating the first known monotheistic state religion. Of course, it might all have been more impressive had it lasted longer – or if the world had remembered it at the time.
The truth is, Akhenaten and his doings and even his now famous wife (Nefertiti) quickly perished and were lost to history for over 3000 years. There is much argument – now that we know about him – as to whether or not Akhenaten was a good king. But the backlash against him in his own day was unequivocal. They murdered him (and Nefertiti), knocked down Armana and chiseled his name (and hers) off everything it was carved on anywhere else in Egypt. Akhenaten became – ‘he who is not to be named’. His son did become king after him – but only by repudiating his father’s legacy including changing the name he had been given at birth. Thus, Tutankhaten became Tutankhamun – if you stare at the two names for a moment the significance of the change will become clear. Either way – he is King Tut. But we didn’t know his paternal backstory until 19th Century archaeologists discovered the ruined city of his father in Tel Armana – the only place the record survived – abandoned, cursed, and buried under ages worth of sand.
Now, why should I tell you all this? I feel certain the question has occurred to you. I find the story interesting in itself but the timing even more interesting. You are already familiar with the story of a slightly earlier Pharaoh under whose administration Egypt suffered terrible plagues as Moses called for the release of the Israelites. In the day of Rameses the gods of Egypt and the nation that worshipped them suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the ONE TRUE GOD – the one who made everything and who ultimately rules over all nations. That stinging defeat would not have been forgotten just yet for as Akhenaten instituted his reforms, not that many miles distant, Joshua led a parade around the doomed walls of Jericho – another polytheistic people about to learn something about the ONE TRUE GOD.
As I said – there is argument as to whether or not Akhenaten was a good king. I posit only this. Egypt had this chance to move toward the God they might have accepted a bit earlier. God works among all peoples and nations. Again – as per Paul’s reference to Epimenides (previous post) Acts 17:22-28
Epimenides was a Greek philosopher – of sorts – more along the lines of a seer or prophet – from the 6th Century B.C. (Between the Biblical prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and while the Greeks were a scattered assortment of City-States – before Alexander knit them into an empire). Epimenides grew up on the Island of Crete and, to the extent the somewhat legendary records from those days can be trusted, had his life changed by a local religious doctrine. The Cretans believed the gods were dead. They were not alone among the Greeks in this but were thought to be especially dogmatic about it. Ideas ranged from the stories of the gods being elaborated versions of the doings of human warrior hero/kings from the dim past to the gods being a pre-human race/civilization that perished – as all must. Either way, they were all dead. Even Zeus, the (to the Greeks) god of the gods, was dead and gone. The Cretans would have loved Nietzsche! And, they might have had some sympathy for Tolstoy too as, in true Brothers Karamazov fashion, the Cretans were not noted for the high morality of their lifestyle. After all, the gods are dead! When you are all on your own, you might as well do as you please!
Anyway, the Cretans designated a cave as the tomb of Zeus – a sort of monument to their ‘gods are dead’ philosophy. As a Cretan youth, Epimenides is said to have fallen asleep in that cave (The more legendary sources say he slept for 57 years!) and awoke with the gift of prophecy and the absolute conviction that at least one God – the God of all gods – was not dead. To the extent Epimenides thought this great God was Zeus – he certainly thought Zeus was greater and higher than heretofore understood – something that seemed to unite the western idea of individual personal godhood and the eastern idea of a universal divine consciousness in which we all participate.
As the years passed. Epimenides relocated to Athens where he became a respected figure – consulted for wisdom in more than one emergency. One such consultation concerned a long run of ill circumstances that had befallen Athens. Epimenides advised that a flock of sheep be released on the Areopogus (the plaza of temples, shrines, and altars to various gods) and when any sheep laid down, it should be sacrificed to the god/goddess nearest whose establishment it lay. The majority of the sheep confounded the proposal by leaving the plaza entirely and finding a nice meadow outside town to lay down in. There, Epimenides advised the Athenians to build an altar to the great high and unknown god. They did – and sacrificed the sheep. Their streak of bad luck ended.
In addition to such stories, some poetry written by Epimenides also survives. The most famous bit comes from his Quatrains.
They fashioned a tomb for thee o holy and high One The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies
But You are not dead: You live and abide forever For in You, we live and move and have our being
For what it’s worth, Philosophers/logicians have named the ‘paradox of self-reference’ the ‘Epimenides Paradox’. To catch the idea, try it this way. Epimenides says all Cretans are liars. But Epimenides is a Cretan and therefore, by inclusion a liar. Thus – what Epimenides says about the Cretans must be untrue and the Cretans are truthful. But, if the Cretans are truthful and Epimenides is a Cretan then he must also be truthful and what he says about the Cretans must be true. Thus, the Cretans are liars. But – Epimenides is a Cretan and hence a liar himself so……
Take the paradox of self-reference for what it’s worth and let me tell you why Epimenides is remembered at all. He is remembered because his writing made an impression on another young man some 600 years later. Ironically, that young man also found himself religiously at odds with his own people. His name was Paul and he quoted Epimenides at least twice as is recorded in Titus 1:12 and Acts 17:28. Paul regarded Epimenides’ altar to the unknown god – and by extension – the whole matter of Epimenides’ devotion to one great eternal God – as part of God’s dealing with the Athenians, far in the past from Paul’s point of reference, to prepare them for the arrival of Christ – helping the Athenians to move toward the One True God – even as if groping in the dark.
Here’s what I will say. History is a canvas and what often appears to us as random regions of unconnected color, will, when seen with perspective, reveal the Great Artist’s grand design.
I will tell you another true snake story – although unlike Carmel – this particular reptile, unless it had a name for itself, goes down in history as just another snake doe. In order to set the context I need to discuss my ancestry a little. My maternal grandfather was as hard working a man as you will ever now. He (with help from grandma) raised 11 kids dirt farming in Kentucky through the Great Depression. When my mother was still a little girl, they moved to Indiana and a better paying job with GM. Grandpa soon bought a small farm which he worked on the side and also assiduously collected junker cars from which he harvested parts, tires, batteries, gasoline and scrap. Grandpa gave away lots of money over the years but he wouldn’t SPEND a nickel unless it was an absolute necessity. His one leisure activity was fishing.
My dad was as courageous a man as you will ever meet. He had fears but he always faced them head on. The only irrational phobia he ever exhibited was of snakes. But dad’s fear of snakes never involved running away from them. If a snake insisted on pressing dad, it became a dead snake. If dad wanted a snake removed alive – he called on me as I have no fear of snakes and I would extract, say a useful black snake from where dad didn’t want it and re-home it under the corn crib where it could earn its keep eating rodents. There were only two instances in dad’s 82 years where these two threads of ‘snake handling’ crossed.
Oh, wait, I left out a detail. Remember my Grandfather liked to fish. At one lake he frequented he occasionally hooked a banded water snake which he would beat to death and toss into the trunk of his car. When it went into the trunk it was only a dead snake. When it came out of the trunk it was free high protein chicken feed. Except for the one time he forgot and left the snake in the trunk.
So, dad opened the trunk to discover the flat spare. He also discovered (so he thought) that a piece of the weather stripping had fallen off the edge of the trunk. He determined to put it back on if possible. But when he pulled the errant weather stripping from the dim recesses of the trunk into the bright sunlight, it was a snake – a not quite entirely dead snake. It managed a writhe in his hand and dangled a forked tongue from its ruined jaws.
In a very short time the snake was completely, entirely, absolutely dead on the shoulder of the Interstate. It took dad a little time pacing up and down the road to recover sufficiently to tend to the tires. Whether it was mere coincidence I cannot say but I noted that Dad’s next several vehicles were hatch backs – the clear rear windshield giving an unimpeded view of the well lit interior before he would need to open it.
As a final note – when dad returned the car, though dad did not ask for reimbursement, grandpa was outraged at the waste. New tires!? There were surely used tires or retreads available. The spare could have been plugged! He removed the new tires, sold them to a neighbor, and put on some more barnyard specials. As I said, dad never borrowed any of grandpa’s vehicles again.
Having done some blog posts on Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, etc., let me add another term to the conversation – non-denominational. I suspect that some followers of this blog do not know that IRCC is non-denominational. A denomination (in the church world) is a larger church group in which all the congregations fall under some kind of central leadership. The denomination will generally be named for a founding leader (Lutheran, Wesleyan and so forth), a practice or governing distinctive (Episcopalian, Methodist and so forth) or an aspirational aim (Four-Square, Church of God and so forth). But the real point is – there is a headquarters somewhere from which rules and directives flow down to the congregations and to which money, in the form of dues, support of denominational mission’s initiatives, etc., flows back up the chain. How strictly the individual congregation is controlled by the denominational leadership varies. The denomination may legally own the facility in which the congregation meets – even if the congregation raised all the money for the facility themselves. The denomination may appoint ministers for the individual congregations, deciding how long the current minister(s) stay and who comes next. The denomination may determine key doctrinal/social positions – ruling on how the individual congregations should interpret the Scriptures, what the congregation’s stance on issues like gay marriage should be, etc. The denomination generally has a process for credentialing clergy. Most denominations maintain their own colleges or at least have an historic alliance with particular colleges and universities. Denominations provide key services – suggested (or mandated) salary levels, various insurance and pension programs, conflict resolution, legal advice and representation, etc.
Non-denominational congregations operate without such a central office. The non-denominational congregation is, so to speak, on its own. Some non-denominational congregations are one-offs – founded and maintained by an individual preacher or a small group of likeminded individuals. Other non-denominational congregations (like IRCC) are part of a movement – in our case, The Restoration Movement, born in the mid-1800s and now generally known as the ‘Christian Churches/Churches of Christ’. The Restoration Movement has also been called the ‘Stone/Campbell Movement’ remembering three preachers, Thomas and Alexander Campbell (father and son) and Barton W. Stone, any of which would be horrified to think a movement bore their name. The Campbells were originally Presbyterians but chafed at the denomination’s insistence that they could not offer communion to frontier believers from other denominations. Expelled by the Presbyterians – and later, couple of Baptist Associations, the Campbells set out to be just ‘Christians’. Stone was a likeminded revivalist – and there were others. Thus, in a fairly short time there rose a number of ‘Christian Churches’ in Virginia (West Virginia didn’t exist yet but there were ‘Christian Churches’ on that real-estate), Ohio, and Kentucky. There are many thousands of them now, in all 50 states and around the world. But there is still no central office.
Each Christian Church congregation finds its own ministers, the congregation deciding for itself who is qualified and how much to pay, etc. Over the years, the Christian Churches have created and maintained Bible Colleges but the process is decentralized. Some individual has a vision for a college. He has to make an appeal to individual congregations – one at a time – and if he sells them on the vision, they contribute support, send their young people to the college, and consider a degree from that college as valid. Missionary endeavors are supported in exactly the same fashion. Each congregation decides doctrinal questions on their own and there is no one to tell them they can’t arrive at any particular decision.
Some denominational friends have asked me questions like ‘Well, who controls the crazy preacher with wild hare ideas?’ or ‘Don’t all your congregations end up believing totally different things until there’s no point calling it a unified movement anymore?’
I can only say that as the Restoration Movement closes in on 200 years old, there is a remarkable amount of doctrinal unity and, in my experience, brotherly good will. I am as much of a doctrinal outlier as anyone – a historic premillinialist in a largely a millennial movement (If anyone has questions about what that means I’d be happy to take it up in another post.) and so far, so good.
Currently in America the non-denominational congregations (Restoration Movement and others) have two distinctives: 1. They tend to be more conservative than their denominational counterparts. 2. They have for the past two decades at least, experienced more growth than their denominational counterparts.
I fully realize my status as a biased party. I grew up in the non-denominational Christian Churches from the nursery on, graduated from a couple of those colleges that managed to sell their visions to enough congregations to flourish, and have ministered in the same non-denominational Christian Churches all my adult life – over 40 years now. Still, even as I recognize some of its weaknesses, I believe non-denominational is the way to go. I’ll think on whether to write more on that score, saying for the moment only that I have a high and brotherly regard for all who truly follow Christ – from whatever background.
I am a noticer – and oblivious. As with most people, I suspect, these two opposed qualities in me are compartmental rather than contradictory. Most of the women in my life will stress the ‘oblivious’ side of my make-up. I occasionally pick up a vibe from a woman that lets me know there is something to be noticed – something I OBVIOUSLY should be noticing – but am not. Years ago, following several epic noticing failures, I began to devise a checklist for when I caught that vibe – hair, dress, weight loss,…. A female friend of mine once confided in me and asked advice about a romantic relationship and I gave such advice as I could. Soon afterwards, as we spoke again, I caught ‘the vibe’ and started through my checklist. No item seeming appropriate, I continued in ignorance until she gave an exasperated sigh and thrust her left hand forward. Ah, add engagement ring to the checklist.
At 63 years of age, I have pretty much discarded this and other checklists and simply accepted my observational compartmentalization. I notice spiders because I don’t like them. I have an aversion to walking into a spider web and then trying to figure out where on my person the nasty creature may be. I notice birds and trees because they both fascinate me. Such diversity, beauty, and utility ought not be overlooked. Some people have tried to tell me that spiders also are diverse, beautiful and useful. No sale. I will continue to notice spiders only in order to avoid them. But, should anyone ask me at almost any waking moment about the birds or trees I have passed in the last hour, I could probably give you a species list of either. I know before I start looking which birds are likely to hang out at ground level, eye level, mid-terrace, or tree-top. I know the flight patterns and quick identification marks. I know which trees tend to be colonial and which are water tolerant and the profile differences that come with altitude, degree of sunlight and so forth. I can find the mallard nests or the killdeer chicks. I can tell you that the kingbirds seem more numerous than usual in my area this spring. I know the location of mature American Elms that have, somehow, staved off the Dutch Elm Blight. I know these things because I have been noticing birds and trees for going on six decades.
I try to train my grandchildren in my areas of interest. We will go on walks and I will say – point me out a robin or a redbud tree. It is amazing to me that they will have to stop and look around every time – even if I say, point me out a Canadian goose! How can there be a bird the size of a small dog right out in the open and anyone be unaware of it. I can tell you that if there was a spider the size of a small dog in my vicinity, I would notice! But, what can I say – I’m sure my beautiful wife wishes I would notice her hair a little more.
I guess, at the end of this rambling communication, I would simply ask – how many cartwheels and handsprings does God have to do across the landscape of our lives before He gets our attention? And the answer, I suppose, is – we notice what we care about.
I will return to a lighter theme today and relate another true incident from my past. I grew up on a small Indiana pig farm. We had other animals on the farm at times, a few cattle, a couple of ponies, several generations of chickens, a handful of ducks, a clutch of domestic rabbits, the usual collection of farm dogs and cats, and exactly one sheep. My siblings and I, being young at the time, had the habit of naming most of the animals. We were ‘Three Stooges’ fans so the original four pigs Dad started the herd with became Larry, Mo, Curly, and Joe. The cattle were strictly for the freezer and went by names like Hamburger and Pot-Roast. Only a few of the virtually identical White Rock Chickens merited names – including twin roosters called Trouble and Maker.
The sheep’s name was Babette. Babette arrived as my middle sister’s one and only 4H project. Though she stayed with us only a single season (the sheep, not my sister) Babette left an impression. Mainly, she impressed us as stupid, gullible, and able to acquire a bad habit from anyone. When we let Babette out to graze we were concerned about how she would get along with the pigs – swine can be somewhat ill tempered. This turned out not be a valid concern – at least as far as – well, Babette got along fine with the pigs. Sheep are very gregarious and a flock is a flock. But the hygienic habits of pigs are one thing for animals with straight, scant, stiff hair and quite another for an animal with thick, curly wool. We soon decided Babette would be better off grazing in the farmyard, firmly fenced away from the pigs.
It was an odd moment in the life of the farm when a couple of stray female dogs that had wandered, uninvited, into our lives (and apparently also into the life of Bandit, the somewhat surly male dog we kept on purpose) pupped simultaneously. In a relatively brief time we gave almost all of the puppies away. Remember how I told you, we had the habit of naming the animals. You can place this incident in time by knowing that a Presidential Primary was in progress and the two female dogs and the one puppy we kept inherited the monikers Humphrey, Wallace, and McGovern.
Anyway, Babette, banished from the hog lot, took up residence in the farmyard at just the moment the canine population of the estate swelled to an unprecedented 17. Remember also that sheep are very gregarious and a flock is a flock. Babette’s stint as a dog was more humorous than her time as a pig. The highlight was the car chasing. The puppies all did their very best to keep with the older dogs, racing along our front yard fence, yapping for all they were worth every time a car came down the dirt road we lived on. Babette was slower than the adult dogs but faster than the puppies, occupying a middle position in the pack. And have you ever noticed how sheep run? They travel in successive leaps, all four hooves touching in mid-air. The proper caption is ‘Boing, boing, boing’ and always strikes me as reminiscent of old Peppy Le Pew cartoons.
It remains my belief that residents of the township drove miles out of their way for the experience. If cell phones with built in video cameras and social media outlets like Facebook had been a thing at the time, I am sure the scene would have been immortalized.
Anyway – the above story is true and it left me with this firm conviction – sheep are stupid and ready to acquire a bad habit from anyone. It also gave me greater insight into God’s repeated insistence that the best metaphor for us is that of sheep needing a shepherd.
As I begin this second installment on the church/state relationship, please be patient while I review much of what I said in the first installment. God ordained the times and habitation of all nations in such a way as to make it easier for lost sinners in a fallen world to find Him (Acts 17). Because the state derives its authority from the purposes of God, believers should be subject to the authority of the state (Romans 13, Titus 3:1-2, etc.). Although I did not go into the other passages, I find many that give specific details of the ways in which believers being subject to the authority of the state cooperates with the plans of God. Consider for instance, I Peter 2:13-17 where we find that being subject to the state silences the ignorance of foolish men who would otherwise criticize believers – i.e. faith should make us better citizens than otherwise, not worse, and this testimony helps others find God. There are many other such passages but for the time being I will let you search them them on your own – they are not hard to find. But – the books of Daniel and Revelation assure us that earthly state governments also function as the Beast – empowered by Satan to accomplish his will. It is my contention that all the world’s governments always become the Beast in the end, overwhelmed by the moral pressure of the fallen world. When states fall into Satan’s snare, they drive us to God rather than leading us to Him. Either way, the plans of God are accomplished. This reality, however, brings us to the understanding that being subject to the authority of the state does not imply unquestioning absolute obedience. In Acts 4 the Apostles refused to obey state orders to cease and desist preaching Christ. This is disobedience. On the other hand, they, as a part of their testimony, willingly and meekly endured whatever punishment the state dished out for their disobedience. This is subjection.
Having reviewed the previous post – let’s move forward. A Christian’s subjection to the state does not proceed from any faith or hope in the state itself. Rather, our subjection to the state proceeds from our faith and hope in God. This is good! I, at least, have long since ceased to hope much in the state! The same fallen sinfulness that troubles humanity in all its endeavors prevails in our government (the church too – but that’s another discussion). Power, love of money, reckless ambition and lust are far too often the real drivers of state policy. This is no surprise to God and our subjection (not unquestioning obedience) to the state is part of His plan for making it easier for lost sinners to find Him.
All of this applies to the church/state relationship in the current situation. We have the same Biblical insistence that we should be subject to the state even as it issues orders pertaining directly to the operation of the church. But – gasp – the state may be short-sighted and wrong. Bureaucratic policies often accomplish exactly the opposite of their stated intent. The state may not have the best interests of the church – or any concern at all that lost sinners find God – in mind. Many state operators may see a crisis like the current one as an opportunity to seize permanent power over the population! Some state operators will see the pandemic as an opportunity for ‘under the table’ or ‘back room’ deals to milk money from this or that vendor or interest. All these things are true. But remember, Paul’s original remarks about being subject to the state were given under the administration of Nero!
Allow me to flog the poor dead horse ONE MORE TIME and say that these things also remain true.
On Sunday March 15, though pressure was building to cancel in-person services entirely, the Governor of Ohio’s group limit was set at 100. We, along with several other local congregations, chose to meet, making arrangements to ensure our worship groups stayed below 100, changing the way we do communion and offering, disinfecting the building between services, etc.
By Sunday March 22, the Ohio group limit had fallen to 50. We made more arrangements, multiplying services and asking some of our people to come at different times so as to stay under the new limit. We maintained still stricter disinfectant protocols and distancing, ceased shaking hands, spread chairs further apart, etc. By this time we were one of the very few congregations in the state meeting in person.
On March 23, the Ohio group limit fell to 10. Consequently, on Sunday March 29 we held the first ‘drive in’ service. People stayed in their cars in the parking lot and tuned their radios to a short-range FM transmitter we had acquired. A small crew assisted the ministerial staff with sound & broadcast equipment. A hay wagon became the platform. Honking of horns and flashing of lights became congregational feedback. Offerings were pitched at a bucket on the way out. We have held six of those services now, the dedicated staff standing out in the wind, rain and cold as necessary. We will hold at least four more. In each service we give away masks, hand sanitizer, soap, bleach, disinfectant wipes, etc. For the time being, we have suspended all other Bible studies, Sunday School (barring ZOOM classes), outings etc. We also ’live-stream’ the 10:15 service on Facebook and post daily devotions, Scripture readings and prayers. We have worked out ways to continue giving away food to those in need. We wear masks and wash our hands a lot.
We are beginning to discuss the timing and manner of moving back into the building but we wait the next round of policy changes from the state. Obviously, many congregations across the nation have done differently and many congregational or state leaders would be critical of our response. Equally obvious – congregations of vastly different size and demographics would have to employ different solutions. I will only say that our leadership has striven to be subject to the state authority as far as conscience allows while reserving obedience for the mandate of the church to the giver of the mandate – God. Whatever comes, we will trust His purposes.
The whole question of the relationship between church and secular government has a tortured history. The church has been persecuted by secular governments. The church has been the secular government. The church has been set beside the secular government as an equal partner – and as a senior partner. Then, in our context, the church has been – what? Perhaps a semi-free agent operating within the secular society but not subject to (Some of? A few? One or two?) of the rules that bind other organizations: a distinction the church shares with the press. After all, congress (the legislative branch) is not to legislate either the establishment of a religion or any prohibition of the free exercise of religion. The historical reasons for this arrangement are easy to understand. When the secular government (hereafter referred to as the ‘state’) can tell you what to believe, Who/who or what to worship and how, and where you must turn to discover meaning in your life, freedom ceases to exist. Anyone who argues otherwise is angling to take your freedom away themselves. Thus, the first amendment to the constitution of the United States, instructing the state to LEAVE RELIGION ALONE (and the fourteenth amendment placing the same restriction on the individual states) was seen as essential to preserving the American ideal of freedom.
But the line is difficult to draw or hold once drawn. Less than a hundred years after the passage of the first amendment (Reynolds v United States) the Supreme Court ruled that banning Polygamy did not constitute an infringement on the religious freedom of Mormons. In 1940 (Cantwell v Connecticut) the Supreme Court ruled that requiring a license in order to solicit (funds) for religious purposes would be a violation of religious liberty. In 1988 (Employment Division v Smith) The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a state law banning peyote despite its use in Native American religious ceremonies. Believe it or not, legal arguments have been mounted for accepting human sacrifice as a religious practice – as long as the victim is willing. We haven’t got there yet!
And, of course, there is the question of taxes. Churches remain exempt from income and sales tax and can write tax deductible receipts for donations – as long as the church in question doesn’t engage in political activities. Defining and holding that line alone is a nightmare! Or – the question of location – as in – can religious messages be delivered or religious practices carried out on public land?
All this to say – religious freedom is not absolute – and the flip side – the government only has to be hands-off until it doesn’t. Which brings me to the question at hand – the church/state relationship in the current crisis. It has all been less than uniform. Some states have maintained that churches are exempt from the orders placed on the rest of society in terms of public meetings, numbers, etc. And, some churches have carried on in spite of their states, counties, or communities mandating that they can’t. Sheriffs have issued citations to attenders at church services. Individual pastors have been arrested or called to court. Health Departments have posted crease and desist orders on church buildings. Mayors have tried to stomp on some congregation’s efforts to hold drive-in services. The federal DOJ is weighing in.
By and large, American congregations have gone out of their way to comply with guidelines and orders even in locales where they are regarded as technically exempt from those orders. But the compliance effort is beginning to wear thin. I hesitate to predict what American congregations as a whole will do if the orders persist much further into the future. What is our mandate? What is our obligation to the state? What should constitute our concern for the safety of our flocks and the larger community?
What I feel the need to say on this issue exceeds the scope of a single blog post. So, for the moment, I will try to cover a little Biblical background and ask you to stay tuned for another installment to come. If you’re not already familiar with them, please read Romans 13, Revelation 13, Acts 4 and Acts 17:24-28
Romans 13 and Revelation 13 draw an interesting set of brackets around the church/state relationship. In Romans, Paul insists that Christians ought to be subject to the state authorities as all such authority is ordained by God and functions for our good. It’s interesting that Paul wrote this under the administration of Nero and that, late in his career, after much persecution from and on the brink of execution by that same administration, as shown by Titus 3:1-2 and other passages, Paul did not change his mind. It’s also worth mentioning that Peter, John, and James (James a little less explicitly – but it’s still there?) all agree with Paul on this despite their own troubles with the government of the day. However, Revelation 13 (cast against the understanding of similar visons in the book of Daniel) portray the governments of the earth as – The Beast. If not for the pesky identification of states active AT THE TIME in Daniel, an effort could be made to cast only the government of the last generation as the Beast. But a fair consideration makes it clear that the Beast has been in operation all the while. It is, for me at least, an inescapable conclusion that the governments of this world always become the Beast in the end. It’s certainly not hard to see that concerning the administration of Nero in the Roman Empire of the first century – the state Paul said Christians living at the time should be subject to.
In between these brackets lies the insistence as per Acts 17 that God not only made the world in its physical features but that he ordained the times and habitations of all nations – read: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the American Experiment – and that He ordained them for a purpose, i.e. that these nations would make it easier for us all to find God – even if as groping in the dark. There is a larger and very interesting story behind that altar to the unknown God in the context of Acts 17 and this assertion! I may include it in another post as it illustrates this point. Or, you can look it up. Hint: it has to do with the Greek poet Paul quotes in the same chapter – the Quatrains of Epimenides.
And a final element – to be subject to does not imply blind obedience. In Acts chapters 4-5 and elsewhere, the Apostles are ordered by their native government to stop preaching about Jesus. They decline to obey that order insisting that they must obey God rather than men. These acts of disobedience however do not mean the Apostles were not ‘subject to’ the government in question. They willingly received any penalty said government wished to inflict – beat me, jail me, kill me if you must but I cannot but preach the things of Christ.
This is already running long but it is the briefest sketch I can draw of the Biblical background for the church/state relationship. I conclude that God has a purpose for secular states – to help us find Him – and that our being subject to the power of the state facilitates that purpose. Several other Scriptures give specific details about that process. But Satan also has plans for the governments of the earth and he empowers them for his plans – and in the end, the fallen states comprised of fallen people in the fallen world always become ensnared in Satan’s plans. The plan of God, however, is never foiled. In those instances where states lead truly, we are led to God. As states fall into Satan’s net, we are driven to God. Our being subject to the power of the state facilitates the process but that subjection does not imply absolute obedience which is reserved for God alone. Rather, we obey as far as our conscience allows and, as part of our testimony, willingly take our lumps when our conscience dictates that we can no longer obey the state. Stay tuned for more on this topic as relates to the current crisis.