Proverbial Wisdom

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We should label the book of Proverbs in the Bible “handle with care”. Proverbs are not statements of absolute truth. We might assign them this status because King Solomon wrote most of them, and Solomon was reputed to be the world’s wisest man. Their inclusion in Scripture means God inspired them. But are proverbs intended to be nuggets of truth? We need to interpret them in context.

One reason to suspect there is more to Proverbs than the face value meaning of a proverbial saying is that some proverbs are contradictory. They have this in common with non-scriptural proverbs (e.g. “Too many cooks spoil the broth” opposes “More hands make light work”). King Solomon raises another issue in the book of Ecclesiastes. Things often turn out unfairly in a fallen world: “All is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Ecc 1:14; 2:17; 4:4, 16). Proverbial claims sometimes do not come to fruition.

A case that highlights this issue is the misuse of Proverbs to support prosperity theology. Proverbs 3:9-10 (NRSV) appears to link righteousness with wealth:“Honour the LORD with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.” So, if you are a faithful and generous giver, you will enjoy prosperity. You can’t out-give God, right? But the verses that follow this proverb declare wisdom is better than wealth: “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.” (Prov 3:13-14).

The book of Proverbs acknowledges that the unrighteous gain wealth: “The timid become destitute, but the aggressive gain riches.” (Prov 11:16b). Injustice pervades the world: “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.” (Prov 13:23). “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but dismay to evildoers.” (Prov 21:15). This proverb presumes justice is often not done.

Prosperity is not coordinate with righteousness. Besides, righteousness delivers more than mere wealth. “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.” (Prov 10:2). In contrast to those who urge people to sow their money into their ministry, Proverbs urges us to sow righteousness: “The wicked earn no real gain, but those who sow righteousness get a true reward.” (Prov 11:18).

Churches that teach prosperity theology use “Giving Talks” to assure Christians that God will look after them financially if they are faithful in giving and it is okay to seek wealth so they can give more to the work of God. In so doing, they inadvertently teach that those who are poor must have failed to live righteous lives. But is this how Christians should view worldly riches? Even Proverbs teaches, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold. (Prov 22:1).

Proverbs do not teach that wealth is good and poverty is bad but, “Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice.” (Prov 16:8). Prosperity theology teachers can only find sporadic examples of their claim that God blesses their supporters financially. Abraham, Moses and Israel did not receive everything that God promised them (Ps 44; Heb 11). The reality is that righteous behaviour is no guarantee of blessing and prosperity this side of the grave. Success and riches may follow proverbial hard work, but sometimes failure and injustice results.

God asks us, no matter what our circumstances, to trust him to ultimately establish justice. Perhaps Solomon used proverbs to cause people to think more deeply about life? Proverbs encompass both the good life and injustice. But either way, God invites us to respond in righteousness.

In this blog, I have drawn on Raymond C. Van Leeuwen’s article “Wealth and Poverty: System and Contradiction in Proverbs” (Hebrew Studies, 33, 1992).

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It’s the law of God, right?

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Have you ever heard someone say: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it”? It reminds me of a child responding to a parent’s instruction with “Why?” and the parent saying, “Because I said so.” That ends the conversation. But God wants us to pursue a better knowledge of him. God has authority over us, but what is he saying? Scripture is far from clear to sinful people living in a fallen world.

What God “says” in the Bible is open to interpretation. In fact, we need to interpret everything we read and hear. A literal understanding of Scripture is itself an interpretation. Jesus did not hesitate to give his interpretation of Scripture saying “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you.” (Mt 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43). Even the commandment on sabbath observance was open to revision by Jesus (Mk 2:23-28).

I know, Jesus is God, and he is qualified to reinterpret Scripture. But Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit to help and teach us. Do we listen to the Spirit? In our sin, we think we can rely on our own reasoning. So, our default position is to take Scripture as read, right? This is the lazy and prayer-less approach to Scripture which will lead us to accept the laws of Moses as if they are commandments to Christians.

“It’s the law of God, right?” What about the Apostle Paul’s objections to the circumcision faction in his Epistle to the Galatians? Some think the laws of Moses comprise moral, ceremonial and civil laws, but only the moral laws apply to Christians. The Jews of Jesus’ time recognised no such division of the law. The New Testament speaks of the law as a unity (Mt 23:23; Gal 5:3; Jas 2:10). Christians do not live under the laws of Moses, but these laws are useful in that some laws, or principles derived from them, are reapplied under the new covenant (e.g. Gal 5:14; Eph 6:2; Jas 2:8-12). They also have a prophetic role in God’s plan.

Christians live under the new covenant of God where the Spirit lives within (Jer 31:33). This is how the law is “written” on the hearts of God’s people. God gave the old covenant laws because of transgressions (Gal 3:19) to restrain sin and point to the coming of Christ. The Spirit upgrades the law of Moses that says “you shall not commit adultery” to love your spouse. The Spirit overturned the food laws saying, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15). Christians, led by the Spirit, now abandon the Old Testament regulations about slavery. Likewise, the Spirit has led many Christians to see that the law to execute males who engage in homosexual intercourse (Lev 20:13), no longer applies. This last issue is still being processed by a church ever cautious to change its accepted Scripture interpretations.

In the meantime, Christians should respect each other’s opinions and together seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance. He’s the Spirit of God, right?

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Community or Disunity

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Building community is all the go in churches these days. Although not a phrase used in Scripture, the disciples of the early church devoted themselves to fellowship (Acts 2:42). God’s people are a community. The Bible uses the metaphors of God’s family and kingdom, but a community of God’s people is a more contemporary expression. Everyone finds sharing fellowship easier with like-minded people. But it is not so easy with Christians who attend churches of other denominations. We cannot build a community while maintaining separation over doctrines. Christ exposes our stubbornness and insincerity. Disunity does not stem from our dedication to God expressed in doctrines, but from disobedience to Christ.

Revival brings people together. At a revival meeting, no one cares about which church the others attend. The worshippers focus on God who fills them with the joy, which overflows as love to others. When the church hungers for revival but does not see it, could it be because our behaviour betrays our beliefs? If we want a revival for our own sake, instead of because of our love for the lost, doesn’t God know our hearts? We would replace Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith with justification by our church’s doctrines. Division results. As James pointed out, such faith, without the works of love, is dead. The faith that justifies drives one to love others, even those with whom you disagree or find unlovely. Doubt their doctrines by all means, but love them regardless. We cannot withhold love because of perceived errors or sin because everyone makes mistakes and is sinful.

Our actions can proclaim the gospel without words or we can use as few words as, “God loves you, and so do I”. The differences in doctrines taught by the various churches are like children fighting over word puzzles. When God led me to challenge the 165 churches in my region to covenant together after the template provided by the National Council of Churches of Australia covenant, only four churches agreed. It was too much to ask local pastors to agree that the other churches are authentic Christian churches even though their denominations had done so at a national level.

Building community means we must choose to love one another and work to combat disunity. The church cannot enjoy credibility in teaching people to build community while being committed to disunity with other churches. So what do we want? Community or disunity?

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Is homosexuality a sin?

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What a question! We are all sinners. You are a sinner; I am a sinner, homosexuals are sinners, Nobel Peace Prize winners are sinners, saints are sinners, everyone (Rom 3:23; Gal 3:11). Sin taints everything we do. Even our best deeds, our charitable works, our loving relationships, whether homosexual or heterosexual, are tainted by sin. Even things we do that we think of as morally neutral are sins. For example, breathing uses God’s resources to maintain our sinful life.

Someone might say that the question is not whether homosexuals are sinners but whether homosexuality is a sin. If a person is born with a same sex bias, can we hold them responsible? It is not an ethical decision. But many in the church demand that homosexuals do not “practice” their homosexuality, that is, they should not love a person of the same gender or physically express that love. They say this because their interpretation of Scripture is that such expressions are sinful. But even if they are right, and a half of Christendom thinks otherwise, is it their responsibility to call out sin in others?

Christians are very defensive about their own sin or the sin of others in the church. This was the reason for the cover-ups of child sexual abuse in the church. But some are simply unaware of their sin. I once had a conversation with a Christian at work about sin. He informed me he had not sinned in months. I could not bring myself to inform him that he was unpopular with his workmates because of his pride and arrogance, which they saw daily.

Now, should Christians spend their time judging other people of sin? Or should we be proclaiming the good news that Jesus came to save us from sin? The alternative of refraining from saying anything will result in some Christians attacking you. This happened to me in 2016 when I wrote in an ecumenical prayer newsletter that due to the diversity of opinions amongst Christians about the same-sex marriage plebiscite in Australia, I would not be calling for prayer in support of any particular view on the issue in that newsletter. This blog, however, is mine and is a place where I can express my own opinions.

So, my answer to the question is that homosexuality is a description of a person’s sexual orientation, not a sin. All sin is an abomination to God. Everyone, including homosexuals, will have to repent of their own sins, but they will have to get behind me because I’m already in line. It is not the place of Christians to criticise people Jesus called us to love. The law of the land is not a tool for Christians to use to save anyone from destruction. Neither does the law of Moses save anyone (Gal 3:10). God gave it because of transgressions (Gal 3:19). Are Christians really concerned about homosexuals when they tell them that God does not approve of their behaviour? Everyone is a sinner and needs to hear that God loves them and wants to save them from their sins.

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Thunder and Lightning, Sin and Truth

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Thunderstorms are natural. They look beautiful, but they are dangerous causing much damage and loss of life. They are a normal occurrence in a world gone wrong. In the same way, greed is common in sinful people, and we human are all sinful. Separating out truth from error is difficult for sinful people. Many churches have giving talks which at best are intended to be helpful, but because of sin, they can engage human greed to extract money from people wanting more money.

Does God want sinful people to be wealthy? Does God want sinners to be healthy? Does God want you to live forever and never die? If the answer to that last question requires some qualifications, so do the first two.

Is there anything a sinful person can do that wont be tainted by sin? There is always someone presenting an opposing point of view. So, I have to remind myself not to get angry at someone for simply holding another opinion. All of us get criticised from time to time for having different ideas. It is good to present our perspective as an opinion piece rather than hand it down as certain truth.

With regard to the prosperity gospel (hard and light versions) which has been endlessly promoted and criticised by many on the Internet (so I don’t have anything new to offer), the danger is to present our point of view as God’s truth. It is not that divine mystery prevents us from knowing truth, but for us sinful humans to know our condition, that as sinners truth may elude us because of sin, not because it is unknowable.

Humility is the issue at the heart of our debates over the prosperity gospel, women in ministry, gender issues, etc. Let us hold lightly to our opinions. They are but the deliberations of our sinful minds. But let us hold tightly to one another, for our brothers and sisters in the church are the temple of the Holy Spirit.

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