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Our lectureships on the compatibility of science and belief in God and the Bible as his Word have taken us to many different places. Doing lectureships in England and Scotland was a very different experience than doing the same lectureships in Chester, California, and Mountain View, Arkansas.
Recently we did programs in Chester and Mountain View that highlighted how different cultures can exist in the same country and face very different challenges. Chester is just outside of Reno, Nevada, and is made up of people who have either retired or have two homes, with Chester being the “place to get away to.” People own expensive boats and snow equipment and live in expensive homes. Their education level is high, and they are “self-made,” independent people. Their interest in and involvement in religion as a whole are marginal. There are relatively few church buildings in the area, and the attendance on any given Sunday morning is minimal in those churches. Tourism is probably the primary source of outside money. Snow sports and water sports dominate the recreational activity of most people living there. The main social issue in Chester seems to be drugs, including the abusive use of alcohol.
Several weeks after being in Chester, we presented a lectureship in Mountain View in the middle of the Ozarks. We presented our program at the Stone County Fairgrounds. That was because interest was so high and church participation was so great that there was concern over whether the local congregation had enough room to accommodate all the people who would be likely to attend. I was in Mountain View a year earlier and was aware of the substantial religious interest in the community. There were half a dozen theaters offering country music shows and all of these had religious themes. Several other theaters offered southern gospel shows with well-known gospel singers, like Jimmy Driftwood. While I presented my materials in the fairground program building, a rodeo with young people involved in horseback riding was going on in the arena just outside. The primary source of outside money coming into the community was once again tourism. Mountain View's location on the White River has exceptional trout fishing along with hunting and caverns to explore. The theaters and inexpensive lodging and camping sites also provide for considerable growth in the community. I counted 26 church buildings in this community while I was there. That is about five times the number I saw in Chester.
Chester and Mountain View both are composed of Americans. Even though everyone is an American, their politics, moral values, and needs are radically different. Our lectureship in California was viewed as something new. The issues I presented were interpreted as a mandate for change. People were concerned with how to change society not only in Chester but also in Washington, D.C., and the Bible Belt. Resistance to my presentations centered around how to keep religion out of the schools and the courts. The level of ignorance about what the Bible actually said was very high, with considerable interest in the meaning of the Hebrew words in Genesis and how those words support the latest understandings of science.
In Mountain View, the concern was about how to maintain the status quo. Science was, in general, viewed with some disdain. Suggesting that science and faith support each other was new to most people in attendance. Our two-hour program on evolution showing that all evidence for evolution supports the biblical account was met with amazement. The idea of going back to the Hebrew words to resolve the conflict was new to many in attendance. This discovery led to some in-depth discussion about other church issues. People began to realize that if you took the Bible literally, going back to the literal meaning of the words in the original language, most sources of division among believers could be eliminated. The level of biblical knowledge was much higher in Mountain View than it had been in Chester. I did not have to explain why what Moses taught Israel did not apply to Christians, so animal sacrifice and food restrictions are not a part of Christianity.
As I considered this difference between Chester and Mountain View, I was reminded of how different my experiences in Scotland had been from any place in the United States. The Scottish people were eager to hear about the existence of God and the validity of what Christ taught. However, because of their history with the Scottish Catholic church and the wars and conflicts they had endured, they did not want to hear anything about “church.”
What is interesting about all of this is that the same cultural struggle was going on during the life of Christ and the existence of the first century church. How Jesus and the apostles dealt with all of this contains great lessons for us. Jesus dealt with the Jews, their religious traditions, and their desire to maintain the status quo. He also dealt with the Gentiles who brought all kinds of secular beliefs to Christ and the church. They promoted a wide variety of religious beliefs which opposed most of what the Bible teaches. The political entity that ruled everything was Rome which held control over both the Jews and the Gentiles. Rome had no moral basis for how they ruled but simply allowed anything that did not threaten the Emperor or his agents.
Notice the similarities:
1) THE JEWS — Similar to the religious community in Mountain View. They resisted any change, wanted to maintain the status quo, and generally opposed any new understanding of either the Word of God or the evidence. Their interest in politics was to get government officials to facilitate their control over the people. Their resistance to Christ was in ignorance of much of what the Word of God actually taught.
2) THE GENTILES — Similar to the religious community in Chester. Both cultures had substituted what they wanted socially for what God instructed them to do. Both wanted to use religion to suit their own agendas. It is hard to miss the connections between Demetrius and the Temple of Diana at Ephesus in Acts 19:23-32 and the use of religious holidays in our time as major secular business opportunities in America.
3) THE GOVERNMENT — In Jesus' day the Roman government ruled with an iron fist. To the Romans, there were no absolutes of a moral nature. Unwanted babies were thrown into the street to die. Executions were carried on without trial and frequently at the whim of the Roman authorities. The killing of male babies shortly after the birth of Jesus is a classic example. The death of John the Baptist by Herod the Tetrarch is also typical of this. John was executed because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, who resisted John's teachings about divorce. Her daughter's dancing caused the execution, and the Roman authorities did nothing to stop it (Matthew 14:1-12). Paul's journey to Rome in Acts 23-28 shows the way the Roman government worked.
In the past 25 years the governments of the world, including the United States, have become increasingly resistant to the moral teachings of the Bible. Laws about prostitution, abortion, drugs including marijuana and alcohol, marriage and divorce, public prayer, freedom to evangelize, euthanasia, freedom to speak publicly about religious subjects are just a few of the things that are increasingly atheistic and lack any semblance of morality.
So how did Jesus and the apostles handle these problems? Let me suggest four things they did that need to be emulated by Christians today:
1) JESUS AND THE APOSTLES SEPARATED
THE SECULAR AND THE RELIGIOUS.
I recently read in the papers about a denominational preacher who said from the pulpit that anyone who voted for a candidate of a certain party was going to be disfellowshipped. I have seen church bulletins that attacked individuals who were campaigning for a public office, and I know of denominations that donated to a political candidate's campaign.
In Matthew 22:21 Jesus was asked if it was lawful religiously to pay taxes to Caesar. His response was, “So, give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.” In Matthew 17:24-27 Jesus had a fish deliver his tax money and Peter's tax money to the Roman government. Jesus certainly knew about the moral corruptness of Rome, but he did what he taught in Matthew 22. Paul explained this further in Romans 13 when he instructed the Christians to pay taxes and to respect authorities and honor civil government. What if the government forbids the teaching of Christianity? In Acts 4:17-20 we have an example of that possibility. The arresting agency was not the Roman government, but the Jewish establishment. Even so, Peter and John set a principle when they said, “Which is right in God's eyes: to listen to you , or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” If it ever got to the point of having to violate the law to obey God, we would have to obey God even if it meant going to prison.
2) JESUS AND THE APOSTLES FOCUSED ON
THE SPIRITUAL AND AVOIDED THE PHYSICAL.
When Jesus met Nicodemus who was a ruler of the Jews in John 3:1-15, he opened the discussion by saying, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Nicodemus had the same problem we have in understanding this statement. He tried to grasp it physically, which obviously cannot be done. Jesus continued the discussion by saying that it is “being born of the Spirit” and that he is speaking not of “earthly things.” Most of the time when people have trouble with the teachings of Jesus it is because they are trying to make physical applications of something spiritual in nature. Baptism, communion, promises about answers to prayer, and prophecies about the future in many cases fall into this area of concern.
When Paul spoke to the educated elite of Athens in Acts 17:16-31, he spent most of his time trying to get them to understand that God was not the physical images they saw around them. He told them that God was that Being in whom “we live and move and have our being.” Our obsession with the material world has cost us dearly in trying to reach out to a lost and dying world. Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles we have created in the modern world has been our use of brick and mortar in reaching out to people. Church buildings were unknown to the apostles. Meeting in homes and public facilities worked well for them and, when tried, it has worked well in modern times. Perhaps spending millions on facilities which we use for our own benefit has been a great deterrent to evangelism. If we have a building and do not use it to meet the needs of people, we are making a grave error.
3) JESUS AND THE APOSTLES DEALT
WITH REAL PROBLEMS.
The majority of topics presented at many church services and religious workshops are things of no interest to the average person on the street or the average young person. Dealing with possibilities of when Jesus is coming again, the history of a denomination or religion, methods of taking care of orphans or the poor, differences between social groups, what is permissible in worship services, who is qualified to be an elder or a deacon or a minister, or whether we should have Sunday night services are not a concern to a man who is contemplating suicide. What topics does Jesus deal with in the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7? Making a quick list, what we see is how to deal with lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, enemies, giving and possessions, anxiety, judging and the principles of the golden rule.
For almost 50 years I have had a running dialogue with young people who are troubled by the church. Their trouble is that the church is not addressing the real issues they are dealing with. Much of what they have received at camp and church activities has been entertainment and not how to deal with each other, with parents, with school, and with their physical needs. Now as I have aged and am working more and more with seniors, I have seen a similar problem at the other end of life's journey. When I do a program in a retirement center or a senior retreat I see people wanting to be instructed about euthanasia, how to deal with pain and dementia, how to deal with sexual needs in a meaningful way, and what to do about possessions as the end of life comes. Christians may have these issues worked out because of their knowledge of God's word, but people in the world, no matter what the culture or traditions, want to have real solutions to their daily needs and problems.
4) JESUS AND THE APOSTLES LED
AND TAUGHT BY EXAMPLE.
How did Jesus live? What did he own? Luke 8:3 tells us that a group of women “were helping to support them out of their own means.” In that culture, it is amazing that women took care of food and shelter for Jesus and his disciples. Jesus stated that “foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). As we read about Jesus, we see a man who knew hunger and thirst (Matthew 4:2; 21:18), knew fatigue (Matthew 8:24; John 4:6), experienced distress and wept (Luke 19:41; John 11:35), and experienced love (John 13:1; 15:13). When one reads the life of Paul, it is hard not to be amazed at his willingness to give up an extravagant lifestyle which he could have had as a Pharisee trained by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).
What we do not see in the Bible is the leaders of the church being paid to do other disciples' work. Paul frequently took on his trade as a tent maker to support himself to avoid being a burden to the church. This does not mean that there were not times when it was necessary for the early church to provide for the physical needs of an evangelist or elder. However, the example of not merchandising religion was rarer then as it is now. That allowed the church to be planted and to grow in every culture and among all kinds of people.
In today's world, the most successful evangelizing will be done by individuals who teach and address the needs of people in their own homes, in the marketplace, and on the job. There is an old saying that goes, “I would rather see a sermon than hear one.” That is as true today as it has ever been.
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Scripture links/references are from BibleGateway.com. Unhighlighted scriptures can be looked up at their website.