From the Pulpit: The Stacked Deck
Even casual readers of my blog will have picked up on my skepticism of religion. To be sure, I have not arrived at my atheism lightly; I was raised in a Christian household and for much of my childhood my father was a Presbyterian pastor. I grew up sitting in the pews, those of my father’s church and others. I made the decision to stop going to church and strike out on my own spiritual path around the age of 15, much to the dismay of some members of my family. Though they have always been supportive of who I am and [moderately] respectful of my decision to leave the church, I often entertain criticism for my atheism. But I have the great fortune of having a loving and supportive family, and despite our differing beliefs they have never made me feel like an outcast or, perhaps more appropriately, a goat among sheep. For this and other reasons, whenever I visit family and am invited to church I make an effort to attend. I do so out of love for my family, and am respectful regarding my differing convictions. But that doesn’t mean I won’t write about them here…
This past Sunday I sat in on a Bible study and morning service at a Presbyterian church in the tip of the Bible Belt. I found the sermon to be interesting, but only because it was so typically problematic for Christian authority and ideology. I’d like to first present the pastor’s main point from the Christian perspective and then discuss the unaddressed issues in the passages and doctrines he underscored during the service.
The primary scripture reading for the sermon was Luke 11:37-54, wherein Jesus responds to the Pharisees and Lawyers who invite him to dine at their table. Refusing to partake in outward purifications, Jesus casts “woes” upon the Pharisees first and the Lawyers second. I won’t discuss the scripture passage in detail, as you can read it yourself in the link above. However, the pastor wanted to highlight the message in this passage that too often Christians neglect inner spiritual purity and believe that outward actions and ablutions make up for or hide inner sins. This is certainly an aspect of the passage. But I believe the larger, and more problematic aspects of this passage deal with problems of authority, sin, and punishment.
The pastor opened his sermon by saying that this passage troubled him greatly, and made him very nervous. While he did not say so, I assumed he was referring to the harsher judgement God will pass on leaders of the faith due to their elevated status in the Christian community as religious authorities (James 1:3). But he did not mention this passage. Nor did he mention the issue of authority presented in Luke. Which issue? Oh, just that the Pharisees pollute believers without their knowledge, and the Lawyers hamper believers in achieving salvation, all without their knowledge:
In chastising the Pharisees in Luke 11:44, Jesus says “Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.” At the time, the pastor said, Jews considered contact with the dead and with graves to be a polluting influence, and one that required cleansing to be seen as pure in the eyes of the Lord. By comparing the Pharisees to these unmarked graves, Jesus is apparently saying that the Pharisees are corrupting and misleading true believers.
As for the Lawyers, scholars of the Jewish laws, Jesus says in Luke 11:52 “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” Not only does Jesus rebuke the lawyers earlier in the passage for adding to the (presumably spiritual) burdens of the people and taking none for themselves, but in this passage he underscores how the actions of the lawyers have a very real and hindering effect on the spiritual progression of believers.
But the pastor did not mention James 1:3. He did not harken back to the Protestant roots of the Presbyterian tradition and encourage the congregation to question spiritual authority, to drink deep the words in the Bible over the words from the pulpit. Rather, he simply counseled that God requires us to tithe from our heart and soul, not just from our coffers. Further, feft unaddressed and lurking is the inherent tension in Presbyterianism between God’s utter sovereignty (affirmed in the service’s prayer), the influence of spiritual leaders, and the damning weight of sin. Growing up in a Presbyterian household, I often heard Romans 9:14-23 paraphrased:
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…
God’s sovereignty is such that he can at once harden Pharaoh’s heart and then put to death the first born of every Egyptian family as punishment for Pharaoh’s actions. He can close the eyes of some and cast them into eternal damnation, while opening the eyes of others at his whim. And the those stewards of his inerrant word, the modern day Pharisees and Lawyers, can mislead those in the pews without their knowledge either knowingly or unknowingly.
So how shall we be damned? By God’s will, or by the error of those in authority? The former is simply the latter one step removed. I think it a piteous consolation prize that false teachers would be judged more harshly than others; for what harsher judgement exists than to be damned to eternal punishment without trial, to be held accountable for that which is inescapable? John M. Frame defines apologetics, the defense of the Christian faith, as giving “reason for our hope.” But what hope do those who are not in God’s favor have?