Friday, December 06, 2013

Biblical Reflections On The Life and Death of Nelson Mandela

Pastor Mark Christopher

Like so many others in South Africa I awoke to the news of Nelson Mandela’s death. Understandably this is foremost on the hearts and minds of untold numbers around the world today, especially here in South Africa. Mr. Mandela’s death was not wholly unexpected. The 95 year old’s health had been declining over the last couple of years. Most recently he spent a number of months in the hospital in ICU under the watchful eyes of his medical caregivers, as he battled a severe case of pneumonia. 

Predictably, when I turned on my computer this-morning, I already had a couple of requests to respond to this world-grabbing headline. As a Christian I seek to try and make sense of Mr. Mandela’s death through the prism of God’s word. As a believer, while I sorrow with those who sorrow, I do not do so as one who has no hope. To this end, Mr. Mandela’s death provides the Christian with a number of opportunities: 

1. There is an opportunity to weep with those who weep and sorrow with those who sorrow. My heart and prayers do go out to Mr. Mandela’s family and to the nation of South Africa at large. May you sense the comfort and grace that only the God-of-all-comfort Himself can provide (2 Corinthians 1:4-11). 

2. As one reflects on the recent history of South Africa and the momentous transition that took place only 19 years ago, there is a wonderful opportunity to thank the Lord for using Mr. Mandela in the way in which He  did. When South Africa was on the threshold of a veritable blood bath and the precipice of civil war, Mr. Mandela served as an earthly peacemaker to bring needed calm and stability to what was a very tense situation. Instead of seeking revenge and vengefully ruling, he sought to build a bridge rather than erecting a barrier. Such a praiseworthy response is certainly worthy of our reflection, thanks, and gratitude! 

3. Much will be said in the next few days and weeks by the media and others regarding the life and death of Mr. Mandela. In this we should guard against the two primary extremes that will prevail: On the one hand there will be those who will lionize the man to the exclusion of God. In so doing they will venerate a life well lived beyond what is proper as they veer into what only can be described as idolatry and hero worship. The other extreme will be seen by those few who will use Mr. Mandela’s death to promote their brand of politics and ideology in contrast with Mr. Mandela’s Marxist-based views. One does not have to agree with another’s politics and worldview to mourn the loss of a life and extend comfort and compassion to those who feel that loss the most. Nor does one need to be a charter member of the Nelson Mandela Fan Club. In fact, the true test of one’s faith is evidenced when one can reach out in compassion in spite of any deep-seated ideological differences that may exist. It is the mind of Christ that should dominate our thinking as we weigh up the implications of an incarnational life (Philippines 2:3-11) as it applies to this situation.

4. When a dignitary of Mr. Mandela’s stature dies, it provides us with an opportunity as well as a reminder that ultimately God is sovereign in the affairs of this life. In Isaiah 6:1-9 when King Uzziah died after a 52 year reign, Isaiah was reminded of the glory, majesty, and holiness of the Lord he loved. Though Isaiah mourned the death of Uzziah, his focus was on the Living God of all grace and glory. As Isaiah would later record, “It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. He it is that reduces rulers to nothing, who makes the judges of the earth meaningless. Scarcely have they planted, scarcely have they been sown, scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth, but He merely blows on them and they wither …” (Isaiah 40:22-24; cf. Daniel 4:34-35; 1 Timothy 6:15-16). In the end, regardless of the good any earthly leader may do, it is the Lord who turns the King’s heart like channels of water (Proverbs 21:1).  May we not lose sight of this exalted perspective. 

5. As with everything else in life, the death of Mr. Mandela should be viewed from a cross-centered understanding. In relation to this, there is a tremendous opportunity for Christians to share the hope of the ages, Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen as He said. As the world is confronted once again with the fragility and brevity of earthly life an occasion is presented to share the life-giving message of the cross in the backdrop of an empty tomb! This is a time to point the hopeless and inconsolable toward heaven above and to remind them of what C.S. Lewis so well said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in[Matthew 6:33]. Aim at earth and you will get neither.” 

6. Finally, the death of Mr. Mandela is another opportunity to remind ourselves as Christians of the vapour of this earthly life (James 4:14). This life will soon be past, even if we, like Mr. Mandela, should live to the ripe old age of 95. In light of eternity what is that? This life is meant to be a dress rehearsal for the life to come. Beyond this life there are no second chances, as the Rich man of Luke 16 testifies. Only what we do for Christ will last and reflect eternal worth and value. As such, there is another providential chance ceded to us to make the changes necessary and realign our priorities with those of a Christ-centered life, so that we can someday we can hear those eternally gratifying words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” 

As we reflect upon the life and death of Mr. Mandela from the Christian horizon, the words of John Donne come to mind:

“No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”


Friday, October 04, 2013

The Christian and the Same-sex Wedding Invitation: When Being A Witness Is A Bad Idea

Pastor Mark Christopher

A few years ago I was speaking at a conference on the topic of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Shortly after my plenary session, I was approached by a Christian photographer who asked me what the Bible has to say about photographing a same-sex wedding. This is a timely question, given the frenetic pace of the moral revolution taking the West by storm. Not long ago a photographer in the US state of New Mexico was sued by 2 lesbians when she refused to photograph their lesbian wedding. The photographer reasoned it would violate her conscience and impinge on her artistic abilities as photographer. The lesbian plaintiffs countered with a charge of violating their human rights. In another incident in Portland, Oregon, a family owned bakery had to shut its doors as a result of refusing to cater for a gay wedding in their area. Here in South Africa a wine farm outside of Cape Town is currently being investigated for not allowing a gay couple to rent their venue for their wedding ceremony. 

It is clear that this one lightening-rod issue is being used like no other to curb religious liberties in the West. Beyond that it highlights the sacrifice some are making for the sake of their biblical convictions regarding what constitutes a marriage. Their actions underscore the sacred nature of this God-ordained institution called marriage. The related incidents above invite a closely related query of a Christian’s attendance at a same-sex ceremony. Now that gay marriage is becoming all the rage, more and more believers will face the awkward and difficult situation of deciding whether to accept a same-sex wedding invitation, or kindly decline. Society at large has already sent the not so subtle message that to reject such an invitation will be met with all the scorn and ridicule they can muster. 

How should a Bible-believing Christian respond to a gay wedding invitation? Well, to answer this question we first need to entertain a few basic questions to shed more biblical light on what is at stake biblically and theologically. 

1. What, according to the Bible, is marriage? We live in age that evades definitions because definitions are binding. For that reason marriage has been radically redefined by our postmodern culture in order to justify the fruits of the sexual revolution. But the default definition of marriage extends all the way back to creation in Genesis 1:27-28 and 2:23-24. It is there the essential elements of marriage are delineated being gender distinction — male and female, numerical limitation of 2, and monogamy, for the purpose of comprehensively becoming ‘one flesh’. It is through the one flesh relationship that procreation is possible ultimately enabling the command to have dominion over the rest of creation. Even in a post-fall world, the Bible relentlessly promotes the default setting of the creation paradigm (Matt. 19:4-6; Mark. 10:2-11; Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Cor. 6:15-18). Whenever sinful humanity deviated from creation’s schematic it met with insoluble problems as evidenced in the biblical portrayals of polygamy. 

In keeping with the Genesis ideal for marriage, Ray Ortland Jr. describes marriage as follows:  “At its very heart, marriage is not a human custom, variable according to changing times; it is a divinely created institution, defined for all ages and all cultures in our shared, primeval, perfect existence.” Since redemption is a return to creation, Christians of all people should understand Ortland’s brilliant summation of marriage. In short, marriage is a parable of the relationship that exists between Christ and His church, the bride (Eph. 5:22-33). When humanity arbitrarily changes the essential God-given requirements for marriage, what you end up with is a forgery, a cheap substitute that perverts the sovereign ideal. So the question the Christian must honestly face is whether or not a same-sex wedding is following the divine prescription or not. The answer here is patently obvious. 

In the case of polygamy the numerical requirement is exceeded and thus seeks to extend the one flesh union beyond its ordained purpose. Where mono-gendered ceremonies are concerned, gender distinction is violated insuring that the couple will never approximate the one flesh doctrine. This results not in matrimony, but fraternity. Call it what you will, but it is something less than marriage, for a same-sex nuptial can never serve as a living illustration of the unique relationship that exists between Christ and His church.

2. Is attending a gay ceremony really that big of a deal?  This invites another question — what does one’s presence at a wedding signify? Is a wedding just fun-filled frivolity with some cake and dancing thrown into the mix? Or, is there a little more to it? For starters a wedding guest is more than a mere harmless spectator. A wedding guest is a witness, as Al Mohler reminds his readers, who participates as a “celebrating witness”. As a witness, those in attendance affirm and approve the union in question. The witness is present to grant the good-house-keeping seal of approval.

This means that a wedding is more than just a party and a good time. It is a legal occasion where both the witnesses, and those officiating over the ceremony, actually join two people together before both civic and religious authorities. As other commentators have noted, given the significance of a wedding with the exchange of vows, it simply isn’t possible to distinguish between one’s mere presence and endorsement. By attending a gay ceremony the guest is both approving of and promoting what the Bible clearly calls immoral and sinful. It is a mockery of the God of creation and redemption. A wedding is not your average social gathering. It is a social gathering with a spiritual and moral meaning, and one’s attendance is not incidental of that meaning.

Recently former US President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, presided over a gay wedding of two lesbian friends. Mr. Bush’s presence was nothing short of a ringing endorsement of that union and of same-marriage. Pro-gay forces are already using the Bushes’ presence at that event as validation of the rightness and efficacy of gay marriage. The sin of same-sex marriage has now gained further traction as a result of the former president’s moral acquiescence. Rightly, Mohler reminds us, “Attendance at a wedding is not a neutral act.” 

3. But wasn’t Jesus a friend of sinners? Didn’t He associate with tax collectors and sinners? Implied in this line of reasoning is that failure to accept an invitation to a gay wedding is fundamentally unloving and legalistic. 
In answer to the question at hand, most certainly our Lord ate with and associated with those of questionable morals and standing in Jewish society (Matt. 9:11; Mark. 2:16; Luke 5:30; 15:2). So should we. Christ even conscripted a tax collector, Levi, into His service as a disciple. But this was because these outcasts acknowledged their sin. At no time did Jesus ever affirm sinners in their sin. He never dignified nor condoned their immoral deeds in any way. To do so would have been to glorify their sin and their sinful ways. On the contrary, Christ called them to repentance, and then encouraged them to make restitution, as in the case with Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10). The Lord’s mission was to seek and save that which is lost. This He could not do if He had ignored their sin. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to “Go, and sin no more.” Christians in attendance at an unbiblical wedding, like a gay ceremony, are sending the opposite message, “Go, and keep on sinning until death do you part.” Serving as a witness at mono-gendered celebrations is to revel in and actively extol the sin of homosexuality, while lending credence to the lie. It is confirming the couple in their sin while aiding and abetting the promotion of the lie in wider society. 

The motivation to abstain from celebrating same-sex unions is cosmological, not legalistic. This means the rationale for such a determination reaches all the way back to the pre-fall paradigm established by God Himself in the beginning. God never amended His original design and purpose for marriage even in a post-fall context, as previously noted. If God has not altered His original blue print, than neither should we. Nor should we authenticate those who do.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul recounts how he became all things to all men that he might win some. This never included participating in or affirming their sin in any way, shape or form. One would not find Paul frequenting a brothel that he might win prostitutes to Christ. Nor would you find Paul perched atop a LGBT float at a Gay Pride Parade — though you might find him outside the venue preaching the gospel and calling many to repentance while handing out gospel tracts. A true believer should no more attend a gay wedding than he or she should accompany a pregnant woman to Planned Parenthood to have an abortion. It is biblically incongruous with true saving faith. In the end Romans 1:32 warns those who “although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.” 

4. What if I offend those who invited me? There is no denying that society’s acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage has now created an awkward atmosphere for those who take their faith in Christ seriously. Unquestioningly we will be misunderstood, maligned and misrepresented for simply taking a stand for the truth of God’s word. The real question here is what is to guide the decision making process — truth or experience? Fact or feeling? Faith or fancy? Scripture or subjectivism? Apart from truth, any professed love will tend toward sloppy sentimentalism. The decision making process in these difficult situations should be driven by an equal measure of both truth and grace to keep from erring on either side the equation. Truth and grace serve as the painted lines on the highway to prevent one veering off the road or crossing into the lane of oncoming traffic. 

Christ had much to say about the necessity of would-be disciples counting the cost and taking up their cross daily to follow Him (Matt. 10:26-38; 16:24-28; Mark. 8:34-38; Luke 9:57-62; 14:25-35) because there is one relationship that pre-empts all others — the believer’s union with Christ! The commandment to love your neighbor is meaningless if it is not preceded by and rooted in the commandment to wholly love God in a comprehensive manner. So the logic that insists that “I must attend this wedding or risk appearing unloving” just doesn’t wash. That dog just doesn’t hunt because in the hierarchy of divine priorities the Christian is to please God first and foremost. 

While no one should desire to be unloving to our fellow man, the alternative in this case is to demonstrate an unloving attitude toward the God we say we love and serve. It is the love of Christ that should constrain the believer (2 Cor. 5:14) instead of the appeasement of a culture devoid of moral barriers. It was Christ who warned His disciples that He came not to bring peace but a sword … “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me …” In other words, Christianity was never meant to be a popularity contest. The same truth that unites the believer to Christ in heaven will often result in division on earth. In light of the fall, this should not surprise us.
When writing the Galatians, Paul challenged them with an either-or ultimatum, not a both-and opportunity: “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).  This is the question every believer in Christ must always keep ever before them. The truth is we are never more loving than when we obey God’s word. The most unloving thing a Christian can do is to validate someone in their sin by participating in an activity that glorifies and elevates that sin to the detriment of God’s established standard. So in answer to the question “What if I offend them?”, I answer, “Who would you rather offend, God or man?” 

It is biblically evident that marriage is to be defined by God, not man. It is for man to recognize what God ordained, not redefine it. For this reason marriage is unique and carries great import and meaning whether recognized by humanity or not. Marriage, as portrayed in Scripture, is an apt illustration for the sacred and mystical relationship that exists between Christ and His blood-bought bride, the Church! No other relational combination beyond that outlined in Genesis 1 and 2 can ever equal or improve upon what God has revealed and commanded in His word. Given the sacredness and preciousness of God-ordained marriage, the Church is called to be the earthly steward of this beautiful parable by protecting it, prizing it, and promoting it, in keeping with His sovereign directive. 

When Christians thoughtlessly or callously attend a mockery (like a same-sex ceremony) of a sacred event, they are unwittingly helping to normalize and legitimize[i] someone else’s sin. No doubt this is one of the primary reasons gays desire the formality of marriage. Peter Jones sagely notes, “It obliges the rest of society formally to affirm the righteousness of their relationship. As soon as Christians attend gay weddings as a matter of course, in the name of friendship and even ‘love,’ we will have lost the public attempt to preserve creational marriage as society’s norm. If you want gay marriage as part of the law of the land, supporting individual gay marriage is a sure-fire way to make it happen.” When a Christian supports a gay wedding it amounts to the tacit promotion of matrimonicide — the death of marriage. God will not hold those guiltless who debase what He created and pronounced good.

Rather, let us remember we are to be custodians of what God has entrusted to us by pursuing the admonition of Hebrews 13:4: “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” So for those who ask WWJD if He had been invited to a gay wedding? Look no further than Hebrews 13:4!
Al Mohler fittingly concludes, “Christians cannot affirm what the Bible defines as sin, and yet that is what is demanded of us in our current cultural context. One of the hardest issues for every Christian will be the responsibility to relate to everyone we know with both love and truth.”

[i] As a sub-culture in western society the LGBT community is not naturally predisposed to marriage as an institution. But the promotion of marriage was necessary to gain acceptance and legitimacy as a marginalized population. By campaigning for marriage “equality” the LGBT lobby seeks to first normalize their sinful lifestyle, and then on the basis of new found legitimacy, begin legislating against all those who disagree with and oppose same-sex marriage. As partial indication that gays do not really esteem marriage as an institution, just look at the actual numbers of gays who have availed themselves to official civil marriage: In the Netherlands, the first country to legalize gay marriage in 2001, only 3% of the gay population in Holland has tied the knot. In South Africa the statistics are even more revealing. Since same-sex marriage became the law of the land in December of 2006 only 3,327 mono-gendered unions have taken place through 2011. Given a gay population of 1.5 million this amounts to less than .45% of the LGBT community taking advantage of their new found “right”. Based on these figures it is hard to believe the gay community prizes, cherishes, and desires marriage as a traditional institution.