Friday, April 22, 2005

Do You Believe—Really Believe?

The death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI made the Catholic Church—and the Catholic faith—front-page news around the globe. At least three days of wall-to-wall airtime were devoted to the Pope's death, his funeral, and the new Pope's election, and during this exclusive coverage, talking heads discussed wide-ranging linking topics, such as priestly celibacy, contraception, abortion, ordination of women, the centrality of Mary, the church's opposition to the Iraq war, and various other tenets of Catholicism. The news reporting also showed the world a great deal of the traditional ritual, liturgy, and trappings of the Vatican.

This week was also the lead-up to the Passover, so there have been a few articles, reports, and shows on Jewish beliefs and practices too. One public television show that I viewed briefly Thursday night employed an actor to recite and explain the whole traditional Pesach Seder. Each word and movement are carefully ordered (the meaning of the Hebrew word seder) so that nothing untoward creeps into the ritual. I was also reminded this week of how the Jews have combined the Passover—commanded by God to be kept on the fourteenth day of the first month—with the first day of Unleavened Bread—a holy day celebrated on the fifteenth day. By doing this, they have lost much of the meaning of both days.

We were also recently treated to the Anglican blessing of the marriage of Prince Charles to Camilla Parker-Bowles. Although the actual vows were spoken before a civil officer, the groom's mother, Queen Elizabeth II, who is also the head of the English church, permitted her son and new daughter-in-law this blessing if they confessed to their sinful premarital relationship. With the usual English pomp and circumstance, both priests and the royal couple read selections from the English Book of Prayer, sang a hymn or two, and looked contrite, and all was forgiven. For all this, the Prince of Wales gets to marry his longtime paramour, and Camilla receives a vaunted title, Duchess of Cornwall (she also can use "Princess of Wales," but for decorum's sake—at least for the time being—she has said she will refrain).

What is the common denominator in these three items? Each of the three religions claims the Bible, in whole or in part, as their source of belief and practice, but none of them seems to care that what they espouse and observe does not square with biblical teaching! Where does the Bible command priestly celibacy, the use of the title "Holy Father" for a man, or even the office of "Vicar of Christ"? Where does the Old Testament ordain the rigid formula of the Seder or allow Passover and the Night To Be Much Observed to be combined? In what epistle does God give a monarch authority over the church or permit and reward wanton, extramarital behavior in its next leader?

All of these religions are highly traditional faiths—to the extent that tradition has gained dominance in their practices, particularly in their rituals and governance. Jesus, of course, lambasted the Pharisees, the originators of the current rabbinical Judaism, on just this point:

. . . you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying, "These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men." (Matthew 15:6-9)

Tradition in religion is a wonderful thing when it has a firm basis in the truth of God, but it becomes a deceitful and corrupting influence when its foundations are in the shifting sands of human thought. It is especially diabolical when it masquerades as rich and sublime while actually directly contradicting God's Word! This, for instance, is the case with calling the Pope "Holy Father." What blasphemy! Jesus Himself instructs His disciples, "Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). No matter how saintly a man any Pope might seem, he can never even in the smallest way be comparable to God the Father!

Truly, "now we see in a mirror, dimly" when it comes to the revelation of God; none of us has God's Word down perfectly. Nevertheless, there is a wide gulf between sincere seeking of God's revealed truth and blatant disregard for the plain teachings of Scripture! Keeping tradition despite God's commandment to the contrary is nothing less than idolatry—exalting human ideas and desires above God's. It is what has become known as humanism, and it is an identifying mark of false religion.

God's true church has and follows the Bible, God's Instruction Book for Christian practice, which is what religion is. It resists outside intrusions of worldly philosophies and measures all new ideas against pure, confirmed, God-breathed Word (II Peter 1:19-21). On the other side, false religions have eaten of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:9, 17; 3:1-11), mixing godly teaching with false, human self-righteousness. It is an extremely simple test but highly effective in exposing false or corrupted faiths.

Jesus says straightforwardly, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent" (John 6:29). God's efforts are engaged in getting us to believe in Jesus, sure, but believing in Jesus is far more than accepting that He died for the forgiveness of our sins—it is believing what He said for our instruction and what He lived as an example to us. It is following Him, imitating Him, obeying Him, and becoming more and more like Him every day!

So, do we really believe Him? Or, are we just treading water, ignorantly or even willfully continuing in the traditions of our parents because we are too lazy, too content, or too fearful to follow the truth? God is seeking men and women to worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:23), and these are the ones who really believe. Are we among them? Have we examined ourselves "as to whether [we] are in the faith" (II Corinthians 13:5)? Do we really and truly believe?

Friday, April 8, 2005

Religion and Politics

Two events occurred this morning to prime the old thinking pump: the funeral of Pope John Paul II in Vatican City and receiving the February 28, 2005, issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God in the church's mailbox. I have not read through an issue of that publication for a long while, so I skimmed through it before passing it on. It did not surprise me one bit to read a litany of complaints, criticisms, and controversies from one end of it to the other. I usually do not read The Journal for this very reason. It depresses me, and I take that as a cue to continue to avoid it.

Regarding the Catholic Church, I have read and heard a great deal—especially over the last few weeks—about the deals, schemes, plots, and machinations among the members of the College of Cardinals when it is time to elect a new Pope. My essay of March 4, 2005, "John Paul II's Successor," summarizes some of the latest speculation about who will emerge as the next Roman Pontiff due to the various blocs that already exist among the electors. Between now and the first sign of white smoke over the Sistine Chapel, the media will carry blow-by-blow accounts of the cardinals' politicking.

Closer to home, right on the fold of The Journal's first page is the languid headline, "The United Church of God's council of elders chooses not to affirm Roy Holladay as president." Page 3 carries a commentary, "The UCG turns 10: It's now or never," in which the author advocates a grassroots push to make "ordinary members'" desires for the next president known. The next page is top to bottom on speculation about how the council will align itself to elect a certain man as president, as well as the tumultuous history of UCG's presidency. The rest of the issue was every Tom, Dick, and Mary's opinions on doctrinal issues ranging from Passover to church eras to the nature of God.

Intriguingly, the page-4 predictive article, "Here is how council will select Jim Franks as UCG president," by Dave Havir, devotes its last handful of paragraphs to a comparison between the College of Cardinals' and the UCG council's processes for selecting a new head. Havir writes, "Whether loyal Catholics like to admit it or not, political maneuvering behind the scenes by the well-entrenched College of Cardinals is going on. . . . The same is true with an organization like United." The entire article illustrates step by step the wheeling and dealing that has already been done among the council members.

Is this surprising?

It should not be. When United decided to adopt a quasi-democratic, corporate governmental structure, politicking became an instant by-product. But this is not confined to United. When other churches chose their forms of government—hierarchy, presbyterianism, congregationalism—politics resulted for them as well because it is not a product of government but of human nature. It is essentially a human approach to accrue power or to end up on the winning side of a dispute.

A survey of the New Testament on the subject of politics proves to be an interesting study. We discover that those who stoop to politics or other devious means to get their own way are the bad guys. The ones in white hats are the apostles, evangelists, and other saints who submit to the will of God concerning His delegation of authority. Did our Savior once condescend to become involved in the political maneuverings of the Jewish sects of His day? Did he try to make an under-the-table deal with Pilate? In the church council at Jerusalem, do we find evidence of back-room "discussions" to push through the apostles' agenda? Do Paul and James take pot shots at each other over law and grace, pitting church members against one another?

No. They are all shown to be men and women who "walk[ed] by faith, not by sight" (II Corinthians 5:7). Sure, they disagreed at times—Paul's rebuke of Peter in Antioch is the best known (Galatians 2:11-16), as well as Paul's dispute with Barnabas over Mark (Acts 15:36-41)—but they never took the road to factions and voting blocs to get their way. They exercised the fruit of the Spirit to work in accord, or at the very least not to get in each other's way (II Corinthians 10:13-18).

While attending Ambassador College in Pasadena during the mid-1980s, I had the opportunity to work as an "Office Assistant" in Church Administration (August 1985-August 1987, that incredible period during the last half-year of Herbert Armstrong's life and the first years of Joseph Tkach's tenure). However, even from my lowly position, I could see politics at work in the corporate environment of the Worldwide Church of God. Running errands to every department on campus, where corporate intrigue thrived, I grew to abhor church politics because its worldliness and destructiveness were plain to see.

My brush with church politics nearly twenty years ago brings back frustration and sadness when I see it happening again within the churches of God. It does not bode well for the organizations that practice it because, frankly, they are exposing before the church and the world their works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) rather than godly fruits of the Holy Spirit working in them (verses 22-23). The apostle Paul warns in a preceding verse, "But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another" (verse 15).

If this is symptomatic of the majority of the converted membership, the whole church of God has a great deal yet to overcome. We still have not shaken off from ourselves the ways of this world. We have a frightfully long way to go before we recapture the "one accord" of the early church (Acts 2:1, 42-47). Let us contemplate this as Passover approaches (II Corinthians 13:5).