The Compromised Church of Balaam

But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.

Revelation 2:14 (ESV)

Patriotism and nationalism can quickly slide into idolatry. Throughout history, emperors and dictators, from the Caesars to Napoleon, have demanded they be worshipped. Today, many ruthless states demand unthinking devotion and allegiance from their citizens. Those who resist are brutalized or executed. In stark contrast, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ alone is the Lord of the nations. When the Church turns its nation’s culture into an idol or adopts a “my country right or wrong attitude,” God goes to war against the Church.

PulpitThe church in Pergamum lapsed into such cultural idolatry. Pergamum was proud of its civil religion. They erected the first temple to worship Augustus Caesar in Asia Minor (“Satan’s throne” in v. 13). Imperial worship included animal sacrifice to honor the supposedly-divine Caesar, as well as such Greek deities, Zeus, Asclepius, Demeter, and Dionysus. Sexual intercourse accompanied these pagan rituals. Apparently, the Christians in Pergamum joined in the activities, revealing the decline in courage since the days of Antipas, the faithful witness who became a martyr because of his faith (v. 13).

Christ refers to this cultural compromise as the work of Balaam, the ancient, pagan prophet who led Israel astray to serve Baal and engage in sexually immoral practices with the Moabites (v. 14; Num. 25:1-3, 31:8). The first-century Jewish historian Josephus observed that Balaam knew that if he could corrupt Israel’s morals, God would surely judge them. The church compromised their worship and sexual ethics by living and abiding by the customs of their pagan neighbors. Deluded and confused, they thought they could view God and Caesar as relative equals. By the sword of His mouth—His Word—Jesus promised a battle against those inside the church, namely the Nicolaitans, who preached harmony with compromise and wickedness (vv. 15-16).

In certain quarters today, the Church has reached a concord with Balaam’s spiritual descendents. Sexual immorality runs rampant in both pulpit and pew. Self-described tolerant Christians and denominations countenance pagan ritual alongside the worship of the one true God—most notably in “interfaith” gatherings. Others confuse national identity with vital Christianity when in fact all earthly kingdoms will recede and collapse before the kingdom of our God and Christ (Rev. 11:15). When forced to choose, will the Church deny its cultural Caesars or the Lord Jesus Christ? As the opening words of the letter to the church at Pergamum states, Christ bears the “sharp two-edged sword.” Churches which toy with the idolatry of Balaam are forewarned.

The Bureaucratic Beast

8 If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 9 But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-9 (ESV)

capitalAnyone inclined to romanticize government needs only to spend a few hours at the U.S. Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), obtaining a driver’s license—first one line and then another, a form here, a test there, a photo here, and a check there. The veteran knows to bring outside reading material, for there is usually plenty of time to work through a book or a magazine or two while sitting on a hard plastic chair, if a chair is to be found at all. Somewhere in the process, the licensee is tempted to wonder if things would be this slow if it were handled by a commercial enterprise seeking to build customer loyalty and to earn a profit.

The writer of Ecclesiastes feels our pain. In verse 8, he explains how the needs of people can get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. As each layer of administration asserts its prerogatives, inserts its requirements, and takes its due, the humble citizen finds his life more complicated and his prosperity (and even survival) more problematic. In trying to satisfy the officials’ ideals, he suffers at the point of his own actualities.

Scarcely a day passes without the local newspaper reporting a citizen’s grievance against the government—whether over multiple tax audits, interminable road construction, falling test scores in public schools, or erratic postal delivery. The affluent can usually find a way to cope, but the poor, blue-collar worker is often stuck. When the city temporarily closes his subway stop, he may not have money for a cab or a payment for a reliable car, so his job is in jeopardy. How disappointing it is to hear that the station repairs could have been done earlier and without interrupted service if only a legislator had not held funds hostage until he gained a special dispensation for park improvement in his district.

Someone who cares for righteousness and justice may be tempted to despise government itself, counting it something of an “anti-Christ,” unsavory for church-going saints. But the writer of Ecclesiastes is quick to add that rulers are beneficial (v. 9). If a farmer is tempted to be bitter over environmental accounting or marketing regulations, he needs to consider the alternative. Without government, there would be no security for his boundaries, no roads for transporting his produce, and no system of monetary exchange. He would be reduced to bartering and sleepless nights sitting watch over his property.

Of course, a Christian may complain over government’s missteps, but there is no place for believers to dismiss the state itself. Unless the Church wants to get into the business of bridge construction, neighborhood crime patrols, currency printing, inter-state commerce regulation, establishment of safety standards for the genetic engineering of hardier crops, oversight of pesticides, and the licensure of drivers, then she should pay the state due respect.

Government can be a pain, but that pain is nothing compared to the suffering that comes with anarchy. This is why the Church should not only intercede for her officials, she should also give thanks for the very existence of officials, as hard as that might be after a trip to the DMV.

Personas

David noticed that his attendants were whispering among themselves, and he realized the child was dead. “Is the child dead?” he asked. “Yes,” they replied, “he is dead.” Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.

(2 Samuel 12:19-20)

Politicians, jurists, administrators, psychology professionals, and the public at large are trying to sort out what it means to be a “transgender person,” and, naturally, the focus falls upon the term “transgender,” its denotations and connotations.[i] But essential insights rest upon the less exotic but richer term, “person,” and David’s response to the death of an infant son is instructive in this connection.

personasThe word “person” comes from the Latin persona, meaning “mask” and referring to the role one plays in a drama.[ii] The two notions—“mask” and “personhood”—seem to clash, for, as we hear it, to be a person is a good thing but to don a mask is the stuff of “hypocrisy” (based on the Greek for “speaking from under cover”). Hence expressions like, “Let’s lay aside our masks, get real, and be authentic.” But there is a deeper and admirable sense of persona, one which informs our appreciation for personhood. It concerns the roles, the behaviors, we select as our own, congruent with our character.

In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan rebuked David for his adultery with Bathsheba, whose husband’s death David had facilitated. Nathan announced God’s judgment that the child would die. In response, David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them” (vv. 16 and 17). He was a broken and humiliated man, and his pleas were sincere. But when God said “No,” the king got back to work. He may have felt like moping or pouting, but he got up, cleaned up, and moved on. Such were the choices he made, the personas he assumed.

The Bible is full of persona shifts: Nebuchadnezzar’s loss and gain of sanity in Daniel 4; Peter’s transitions from defender to coward to apostle in the Gospels; Demas’s forsaking Paul in 1 Timothy 4. In each case, the subject chose to “play a different dramatic role,” to engage the world differently. Everyone does this to some extent, and properly so, whether adopting a pastoral tone at the hospital bedside, cheering wildly at a football game, speaking deferentially to the traffic cop, shushing the kids when mom is trying to field a phone call, or exchanging pleasantries with a stranger on the plane.

This is not phoniness, but rather an outworking of values, commitments, and priorities. Indeed, the “authentic” person who just goes with his moods and tendencies, gushing, whining, or muttering out whatever he feels at the moment, is childishly random, not maturely ordered. In contrast, consider the Greek or Roman actor who, in turn, assumes different personas in the course of the play, all in the service of the story being told. He doesn’t simply grab whatever mask he feels like wearing to “do his own thing.” Similarly, individuals exercise their personhood in service to a narrative. At best, it centers on responsible stewardship of life under the reign of a righteous and loving God. At worst, it ignores God and enthrones unholy, toxic agendas. That is a choice one makes.

Today, it is popular to say that one must play this or that (allegedly) hard-wired sexual role in a particular cultural drama—for instance, a transgender part in the great hedonistic/liberation narrative. But neither roles nor plays are inescapable. Both human reason (as in Xerxes’ discovery that Mordecai rather than Haman was honorable in Esther 6 and 7) and spiritual quickening (as in the case of Lydia, whose heart was “opened” in Acts 16) can effect a revolution in perspective and behavior, and it is the task of the church to commend both of these God-given avenues to human flourishing.

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Endnotes

[i] For instance, the American Psychological Association takes pains to delineate the variety of ways in which “transgender persons” identify themselves—for instance, “genderqueer,” “androgynous,” or “two-spirit.”  See “Answers to Your Questions About Transgender People, Gender Identity and Gender Expression,” http://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/transgender.aspx (accessed September 3, 2016).

[ii] See, for example, these masks used in a modern rendering of Plautus’s Roman comedy, Bacchides, http://www.neh.gov/divisions/education/featured-project/roman-comedy-in-performance (accessed July 29, 2016).

How to Minister amid Transgenderism

Transgender_symbolVirginia pastor John Pouchot ministered in evangelical congregations for more than a decade before he first encountered a family dealing with transgenderism in 2013. After Pouchot led a man to faith in Christ, his extended family began attending church and Pouchot learned the man’s high school-aged niece wanted to be a boy. Despite counseling the girl’s parents to the contrary, she underwent hormone therapy and began presenting as a boy. The experience left Pouchot convinced pastors like him will encounter transgenderism—and its root condition of gender dysphoria—with increasing frequency in the years to come and must be prepared to respond.[1]

Christians trained to counsel those struggling with gender confusion agree with Pouchot’s assessment and have offered suggestions for pastors and laypeople seeking to make a difference among those who do not feel at home with their God-given gender. In at least some cases, the following actions should be undertaken in conjunction with help from a trained, Christian mental health professional.

  1. Recognize the difference between struggling with gender dysphoria and identifying with the opposite gender. Gender dysphoria is the technical term for the condition of not feeling at home in one’s body in terms of gender. One response to gender dysphoria is to present as the opposite gender, but that is not the only response. As with same-sex attraction, gender dysphoria is often an unwanted feeling that is battled by those who experience it.[2]
  2. Listen. Often, simply talking to those struggling with gender identity and listening to their stories will begin a restoration. As North Carolina professor and counseling pastor Brad Hambrick put it, “Not having an immediate next answer may feel a little frail and helpless to the pastor.” But “that is the kind of [response] that [can lead a struggling person to] say, ‘You get me.’”[3]
  3. Help struggling people manage their dysphoria “in the least invasive way possible.”[4] In many cases, this is as simple as compassionately befriending a teenager until he or she “outgrows” feelings of gender dysphoria—as 70-80% of children reporting “transgender feelings” do. In no case, is so-called gender reassignment surgery appropriate. Not only is such surgery a sinful rejection of God’s good gift of gender, secular researchers have concluded it tends not to alleviate mental distress. A Swedish study found that a decade following gender reassignment surgery, “the transgendered began to experience increasing mental difficulties,” including a twentyfold increase in suicide rate.[5]
  4. Urge individuals who have identified as the opposite gender to admit their sin and ask God for forgiveness. While experiencing unwanted feelings is not a sin, responding to them by shunning the Lord’s providential gender assignment is (cf. Genesis 1:27; 1 Corinthians 6:9). Without a doubt, turning from transgenderism often involves dealing with past emotional wounds and complex medical realities. But such actions should come in addition to confession, not in lieu of it.
  5. Help those who have identified as the opposite gender transition back to their God-given gender as much as possible. At minimum, this will involve dressing as the appropriate gender and ceasing hormone therapy. For those who have undergone gender reassignment surgery, it likely will mean concealing surgical alterations as much as possible. When financial and medical conditions permit, some types of surgery may be reversed. The transition also will involve deciding whether marriage or chaste singleness is the most appropriate path forward.[6]

This list is not exhaustive. And as with many struggles, the road to healing can be difficult, with sinful temptations from the past reemerging from time to time. Yet Christian therapists have reported “huge success” in battling gender dysphoria, including a success rate of nearly 80% for transgender people who want to change.[7]

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Endnotes

[1] David Roach, “Transgenderism Is Growing Ministry Focus,” Baptist Press, May 4, 2016, http://www.bpnews.net/46796/transgenderism-is-growing-ministry-focus (accessed August 1, 2016).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mark Yarhouse, “Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon,” Christianity Today, June 8, 2015, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/july-august/understanding-transgender-gender-dysphoria.html?start=5 (accessed August 1, 2016).

[5] Paul McHugh, “Transgender Surgery Isn’t the Solution,” The Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/paul-mchugh-transgender-surgery-isnt-the-solution-1402615120 (accessed August 1, 2016).

[6] Roach, “Transgenderism is Growing Ministry Focus.”

[7] Bob [last name omitted intentionally], “Steps for Healing,” Help for Families Website, n. d., http://help4families.com/steps-toward-healing (accessed August 1, 2016).

The Fragility of Democracy in Antiquity: The Example of Athens

Though he had once fought for Athens and then spent his working life in the dogged pursuit of moral truth, Socrates now stood before the Assembly, charged with the twin crimes of atheism and corrupting the youth. He insisted that he had always Philosophersacknowledged the gods, and he challenged his accusers to present, as a witness, a single victimized young person. Though none came forth, Socrates was nevertheless condemned to die. Later, awaiting execution, he brushed aside attempts to engineer an escape, saying it would be disloyal to the state. Finally, after considering his own prospects for an afterlife, he drank the poisoned hemlock and died in the presence of his weeping disciples. This sequence of events,[i] occurring in 399 B.C., was one of the great injustices of history—and was carried out in a democracy.

Not surprisingly, Socrates’ devoted pupil Plato was not democracy’s greatest advocate. Plato was also painfully aware of another “democratic atrocity,” the vindictive extermination, in 416 B.C., of all the adult male citizens of the little town of Melos and the enslavement of all its women and children.[ii] So when, in 360 B.C., he penned his great work The Republic, he warned that, in a democracy, “[T]he minds of the citizens become so sensitive that the least vestige of restraint is resented as intolerable.” Finally, “in their determination to have no master they disregard all laws, written or unwritten.” The result: “[F]rom an extreme of liberty one is likely to get, in the individual and in society, a reaction [extending] to an extreme of subjection [namely, tyranny].”[iii] He believed that an egalitarian, democratic culture, based on the idea that all individuals and opinions are of equal worth, could undermine the pursuit of excellence and respect for authority and also encourage envious aggression toward people of ability and wealth. The resulting amalgam of social disorder, fear, and incompetent government created the conditions from which dictatorships emerged.

In the 5th century B.C., all free, Athenian, male citizens were full and equal participants in government at every level: They initiated, discussed, and passed legislation in the Assembly; they were equally liable to do jury service and military service; since all appointments to public office were by lot, even the poorest citizens could wield executive power; and a “quorum of 6,000 citizens could vote to exile anyone for five or ten years simply by writing his name on pottery shards[iv] . . . cast as ballots.”[v] Whilst this system of direct participatory democracy helped to educate Athenians in the arts of government and worked relatively well under wise and inspiring leaders like Pericles, it swiftly degenerated after his death in 429 B.C. Sound society gave way to leadership by demagogues, to class war, to attacks on the property rights of unpopular minorities, and to the persecution of dissident individuals. At the same time, Athenians denied to their allies and dependents the liberty and self-government which they themselves enjoyed. Eventually, Athens, wracked by conspiracies and revolts, fell to her undemocratic rival, Sparta.

The failure of democracy in the land of its birth teaches us an important lesson: Since human nature is fallen, democracy is no guarantor of lasting good government; it is only as good as the values commonly held by the majority of its citizens. It is not enough that they know the laws of their state; they must also show regard for their neighbors, according to the laws of God. When they do, democracies can flourish; when they do not, even the most thoughtfully-framed government will disintegrate.

Sadly, 5th century Athenians, with their many false gods, were only dimly aware of God’s truths and ways. And today, as Western societies turn away from Christianity, so too do their democracies suffer strain, threatening to degenerate into personal licentiousness and government tyranny. Furthermore, as the West seeks to extend democracy around the world, it should remember that where the people are disoriented or ignoble, “rule by the people” is problematic, requiring the safeguard of rights and great patience as cultures seek to rise to their new opportunities and responsibilities. In the last analysis, democracy is not the issue; instead, the moral wisdom of the people is the great essential for a healthy society.

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[i] Captured in Plato’s dialogues, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo.

[ii] This was for refusing to abandon its neutrality in the long and disastrous Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) between Athens and Sparta. For a contemporary account, see: Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, ed. and trans. Richard Livingstone (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), 266-274.

[iii] Plato, The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 384.

[iv] Ostraka, from which comes “ostracism.”

[v] Patrick Watson & Benjamin Barber, The Struggle for Democracy (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1988), 17.