Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Rich Man Poor Man

This past week I began reflecting on the following verses related to poverty, riches, and impartiality:

  • Leviticus 19:15 “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.”
  • Exodus 23:3 “… nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute.”
  • Deuteronomy 1:17 “You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not fear man, for the judgment is God's. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.”
  • Deuteronomy 16:19 "You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you.”

What strikes me about these passages is the corrective they prescribe for the current imbalance that is all too apparent today. According to the verses above, Israel was not to show favoritism to either the rich or the poor, especially in court. To favor one social class over the other would ultimately lead to a distortion of justice. There is a tendency to gravitate toward the imbalance of pitting one social class against the other for some form of personal gain. This can only lead to injustice and a degradation of the truth, because favoritism requires a lopsided modification of the facts. This is a subtle form of bearing false witness and violates the ninth commandment.

When most people think of showing partiality, they probably instinctively equate displays of favoritism for the wealthy, because of their riches and the status that accompanies wealth. No one can doubt the reality of such a scourge. James 2 highlights this abuse of showing preference to those of means while relegating the poor to the back of the sanctuary. This is nothing less than discrimination, which has no place in the Body of Christ!

Favoring the rich is only part of the equation that must be addressed. It is just as likely that the poor and their poverty stricken situations are so emphasized that the sum still leads to impartiality and favoritism. This is just as unjust as favoring those with untold treasures. It leads to a basic inequality and perpetuates the class-envy and strife that is all too common in our age. This only serves to fuel existing tensions as the differences between the two classes are exploited for some kind of political or personal expediency.

Abuses of both polar extremes are plentiful today. Yet, the current headlines seem to lean decidedly in favor of the poor. Almost every political issue today some how uses the theme of poverty in the promotion of policy acceptance. If policy, or proposed legislation is seen to benefit the poor in some way, then it must be the right course of action. The inclusion of poverty alleviation sanitizes almost any policy. Or so the thinking goes.

One caveat at this juncture is probably in order. It is not my intention to seem uncompassionate and unsympathetic to the plight of the poor and disadvantaged. Scripture is clear about issuing a helping hand to those in need. What is under scrutiny here is the exploitation of poverty for political or personal agendas. The fruit of such action will only produce schism. Politicians, self-righteous social activist, liberal clerics, the media, and of course Hollywood-types all love to smugly pit the poor against the rich and thus perpetuate class envy and hatred. Anyone with even meager means has become fair game for today’s avant-garde guilt-mongers.

This overemphasis on the poor, cited in the passages above, is seen on many fronts today. I will restrict my comments to four popular promotions of the Rich-Man-Poor-Man syndrome:

1. Liberal and socialist regimes the world over have exploited the rich- man-poor-man divide with great effect. Elections are now won or lost by promising to eradicate, or at the least alleviate poverty. Politicians get a tremendous amount of useful mileage out pitting the social classes against one another, the haves at odds with the have-nots. This attitude implies that government needs to play Robin Hood and equitably redistribute the wealth so all can have a bigger peace of the pie. To achieve this, liberal politicos must remind the poor of their victimization and their right of entitlement. Essentially the message that socialistic politicians send is the poor are helpless victims who need the government to liberate them from their bondage.

I can think of no modern day examples where this has succeeded. Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society in the USA, implemented in the sixties, has never materialized. America’s welfare state approach tackled poverty from the wrong angle. It only succeeded in creating an entitlement mentality while further contributing to the fragmentation of the family. As a result it further polarized the rich and the poor.

One of the political slogans already being bandied about in the run up to the presidential elections in the states is “change”. “Change”, in part, is code for poverty eradication. So the next time you hear a presidential candidate talk about the need for “change”, what he or she really means is, that by the time the rich are done being financially fleeced the only money they will have left is a bit of pocket “change”! After all utopia isn’t cheap. So much for justice and impartiality.

2. Closely related to the abuses of governments exploiting the poor, comes Liberation Theology (LT). Promoters of LT in both Africa and South America have effectively advanced the cleavage between the rich and poor. With the eisegetical (subjectively reading into) slight of hand, LT interpreters pervert portions of God’s word to dovetail with their radical Marxist ideology. In their deconstructive processes, they vilify wealth and extol the plight of the poor as the original righteousness. The outcome of this approach is always the same: the poor are still poor, while the promoters of LT now enjoy the spoils denied them during the fight for “freedom”. That has certainly been the case here in South Africa.

3. In recent days, no movement has trumpeted poverty alleviation more then the climate change alarmist. A headline from the paper the other day read “Rich must help the poor”. In the context of man-made global warming, Brazil’s president maintains that the rich should pay for climate change initiatives in order to help the poor. What the alarmist doom-and-gloomers of climate change haven’t yet acknowledged is that the complete implementation of the Kyoto Protocol will require an estimated one trillion dollars per annum from developed countries—developing countries like China, India, and Brazil get a free ride here despite their record as the worst polluters in the world.

According Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg, if one fifth of that one trillion dollars were used for the poor, this would be enough to provide sufficient drinking water and adequate sanitation for the billions who have no access to these essential poverty alleviating measures. Think of how the health of untold numbers of impoverished people would dramatically improve with these two simple commodities. But in their short-sightedness, climate change alarmists insist on exploiting the poor to extort the rich with costly climate change legislation, which will at best reduce the temperature in 2050 by only 0.2 degrees Celsius. The only achievement here will be the advance of globalism along with the corresponding demise of the free market. This will only make the poor even poorer. In this, the poor have become a necessary tool to advance the draconian initiatives desired by the greens. My question for the greens is this, why are you only waking up to the plight of the poor now?

4. Finally, another sect of Christianity-the emerging church-has seemingly replaced The Great Commission with an emphasis on feeding schemes and social action. While one cannot deny the need for the Church to proactively reach out to those in need, one has to question the whole-sale secular methods and motivation often employed in this endeavor. I personally know of so-called Christian organizations who are reaching out to the poor and HIV infected. In the process they have abandoned the gospel. You see, governmental funds and secular help are in the offing for those who aren’t fanatical about their faith. Yet, Christ emphatically reminds us that “…man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”

Yes, the Church should reach out to those in need, but not at the price of compromising the gospel. We must avoid resorting to the secular reasoning and humanistic methods when addressing the issue of poverty, as such only breeds a partisan spirit of class envy. We must scrutinize our motivation and ensure it is gospel centered. We must ask the difficult questions like: What are the reasons for the poverty? How can we best help the poor in the long run? Will the methods we use address the poverty effectively by equipping them and preparing them to provide for themselves? Is the gospel central to the aid that we render? Is our approach toward poverty alleviation really the best possible stewardship of the Lord’s resources? Apart from a tough line of inquiry, we will only perpetuate their plight while pitting the poor against rich.

To illustrate the need for a thoughtful inquiry, the situation here in South Africa is dire. Poverty abounds in the midst of riches untold. There are many complex reasons for this to include the apartheid past. But one of the primary contributing factors to the extensive poverty in South Africa is directly related to the African world view. The traditional African world view has produced an outlook on time, money, work, life, and morals that has by-in-large contributed to the gross cycles of poverty that currently exist. The break-down of the family along with culturally approved promiscuity has all coalesced to assure poverty’s continuance for some time to come. Until this errant world view is adequately addressed there is little chance of the tide turning in the affirmative. But to date, the probing questions needed to address this issue aren’t even being asked. In this, the gospel is the only effective anti-dote that will promote the necessary change of world view, through a transformed mind found only in Christ.

In final analysis, an equitable balance must be maintained between the rich and the poor. Neither group must be marginalized nor singled out. Money is not the root of evil, only the love of and greed for such is condemned, which, by this definition, even the poor are capable of.

The cross of Christ provides a level spiritual playing field for all concerned. Economic disparities and distinctions will exist in this earthly life, but eternity will reveal a vastly different picture as the current disparities will be dissolved! All who are in Christ are and will be equally rich in His presence, regardless of their financial station in this present life. To this end the Church at large would do well to heed the concluding scriptural insight:

“7 For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. 8 And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. 9 But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang. 11 But flee from these things, you man of God; and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (1Timothy 6:7-12)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Personal Experience Verses The Bible

Recently my wife bought me a copy a popular South African Christian periodical. I hesitated to crack the cover and see what was on the offing in pop evangelicalism. Sadly, my initial skepticism was amply confirmed as I glanced at the table of contents. From cover to cover, the magazine in question can only be described as a tribute to shallowness as it was filled with candy-coated approaches for living the Christian life and articles saturated in spiritual transfats. I can only conclude that a regular diet of such spiritual junk food will most certainly lead to spiritual malnutrition and rickets.

One article immediately caught my attention “23 Minutes In Hell” about one man’s claim to have visited hell in an out of the body of experience. What is so significant about the article is not what it says about hell, but rather what it illustrates about the state of the church at large. Bill Wiese’s claim to have visited hell for 23 minutes is a perfect example of how many professing believers are more disposed to believe someone’s alleged experience than they are to believe God’s word.

In his own words Wiese explains why he had to visit hell:

“The reason I was shown this place was to bring back a message of warning. My story is not one to condemn, but rather to inform you that hell is a real place … I have since discovered that my story coincides with what scripture details about hell.”

It is certain the doctrine of hell has fallen on hard times in our postmodern world that eschews judgment and authority. But the advancement and recovery of this fundamental doctrine will not be revived by alleged claims to have personally experienced the horrors of the second death. My thesis is simple, God’s word is sufficient apart from any one’s invalidated experience. Our knowledge about hell should be formed by the anvil of God’s holy word, not sensationalistic experiences, regardless of how closely they may “coincide” with scripture.

Some might ask at this point, “What is wrong with Wiese’s claim? After all, people are getting saved and coming to Christ as a result of his testimony!”

Let me answer the question by stating a few of problems with relying on experience above the Bible:

1. First, when those, like Wiese, make such outlandish assertions about their personal experiences the tendency is to replace the word of God with the experience. The experience becomes primary and the Bible is relegated to a role of secondary importance. Whether intentional or unintentional, experience is canonized as supreme, thus detracting from God’s word while placing undue emphasis on someone’s personal claims. Luke 16:29-31 clearly addresses this very issue, "But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' 30 "But he said, 'No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!' 31 "But he said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.'"

The story is a familiar one. The rich man is in torment and desires that someone return from the grave to warn his relatives about the impending doom that awaits unbelievers. The rich man’s logic is simple, if some one from the dead pays a house call, then his relatives are sure to believe and so avoid the torments of Hades. But note the unmistakable response—they have “Moses and the Prophets”. In other words they have the word of God, the Old Testament at that time. Refusing to believe what God has already declared in His word on the matter leads to the same end as the rich man.

In John 11 another man by the name Lazarus was brought back from the grave, but not everyone was converted (John 11:47-50; 12:10). In fact the Pharisees were even more determined to murder Jesus as a result of this miracle. To think that a quick trip to hell and back will result in a harvest of souls is as na├»ve as it is misinformed. Yet, Wiese explains that he had to experience the horrors of hell in order to come back and “inform” us that hell is a real place. The advice Jesus has for Wiese and all who believe him is “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.” Simply put, we don’t need Wiese’s story to tell us what God’s word has already said for thousands of years.

2. Another problem with an overt reliance on personal experience, as a carriage way for truth, is that salvation is never a result of someone’s experience, but only and always a direct result of the faithful and accurate proclamation of the Bible. Romans 10:17 is a cogent reminder of this principle which is often avoided today, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” God’s word serves as the catalyst for bringing precious souls to saving faith in Jesus Christ. One wonders how Wiese’s road show would fare if he scrapped the sensationalistic story telling and stuck strictly to the Scriptures on Hell? Some how I have to believe his popularity would quickly plummet if he stuck solely to the script God has once delivered unto the saints! This would serve as the ultimate litmus test for his claims.

3. Beyond the above, the promotion of experience above God’s word leads to the very real danger of elevating the one who claims to have had the experience. Christ becomes an addendum to the story rather than the central theme. There are two classic examples of this warning and concern uttered by both Paul and Peter. In 2 Corinthians 12:1-9 Paul discusses his inexplicable trip into heaven, but he qualifies it with the fact that God gave him a thorn in the flesh to keep him from thinking more highly of himself than he ought. In addition, Paul, unlike Wiese, is at a complete loss to explain what even happened to him. What is of interest is that God gave Paul a glimpse of heaven, not hell.

The Apostle Peter also had some experiences worth recounting. One such incident was the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13). Yet, Peter didn’t emphasize that incident. On the contrary he distanced himself from that remarkable experience. In 2 Peter 1:19-21 he clearly downplayed that event (2 Peter 1:16-18). He concludes :

19 And so we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. 20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, 21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

Peter clearly ranks the importance of scripture over and above personal experiences. As John MacArthur notes, Peter views God’s word as more complete, more authoritative, and more certain than experience. Why? Because the Bible finds its point of origin in God not man (1:20), so it is externally objective as opposed to the subjective embellishments resident in experience. God’s word is supremely reliable (“more sure”) and should always serve as the port of call for our Christian walk.

4. A fourth problem encountered when placing too much emphasis on experience is that it is extremely difficult to exegete some one else’s experience. There is no way to verify or validate the claims made. I constantly challenge my congregation to check out what I preach. When it is God’s word that is preached, this is a relatively simple enterprise as they can contrast what I said with God’s word to see if what I said was true to the Bible. This is impossible when someone has had an experience on the scale of Wiese. We only have his word on the matter.

At this juncture some might be asking how we explain what really happened to Wiese. There are really only three possibilities:

  • He could be fabricating the story. I don’t know this to be the case in his instance. But it must be considered as a viable possibility.
  • It is also possible that he had a dream that seemed real. How many times do we wake up after a dream that was so vivid that it seemed real? Is it possible he had read or heard a message on hell at some stage that was relived in a dream?
  • The third option is that his dream or vision was demonically inspired and influenced by the agents of hell who are more intimately acquainted with the reality and compounded horrors of their ultimate destination than man is. As Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 11:1-13 Satan comes as an angel of light to deceive.

I don’t pretend to know which of the above categories Wiese falls into. He may be completely sincere in his claims to have been to hell and back, but he is sincerely wrong. Again, God’s word is the authority, not Wiese and his experience. Even if Wiese came back with a PowerPoint presentation of his journey, I would still defer to the Bible as the ultimate authority.

5. Another dangerous precedent set by those who rely on experience is that it becomes the grid by which they interpret the Bible. The experience becomes the imperious governor that determines the meaning of the passage. The result is that the real meaning of the text in question is sacrificed on the altar of experience. Rather, our experiences must be subordinated to the real meaning of the text, even when there is no satisfying explanation for what we experienced. It has become too common place in our postmodern culture to start with where we are and then to interpret the Bible on that basis. Instead, we must start with God’s word and work to where we are at once we reach the application of the text!

6. Finally, Wiese’s claim to have briefly gone to hell is biblically irrational. If true, then Wiese tasted the second death—eternal death (Revelation 20:13-14). There is not one instance in the Bible where some saint went into the bowels of hell and returned with an eyewitness account. Isaiah saw God high and lifted up. Paul caught a glimpse of heaven, but not one person in scripture is ever said to have visited hell and then returned. The only one to have ever tasted the torments of hell and live to tell about it was Jesus Christ when He was agonizingly nailed to the cruel cross! For a few brief moments, as the Father turned His face away, Christ suffered the full weight of God’s eternal wrath for sin-- past, present, and future. I am not implying the Christ went to hell, but rather that He tasted of the torments of hell while on the cross. Through His resurrection He triumphed over death to include the second death.

The conclusion of this debate is inescapable, God’s word is supremely sufficient and authoritative for the task of godly living (2 Timothy 3;16-17). Regardless of the issue we face, the Bible must serve as the primary point of departure lest we set sail on the sea of sensationalistic experiences. God’s word is ultimate. Therefore, let the word of Christ richly dwell in you (Colossians 3:16)!