What is the "Domain of Darkness?"
For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son…” (Colossians 1:13).
Usually, the “domain of darkness” conjures of images from Dante’s Inferno. It’s an invisible realm where demons carry out their nefarious deeds and torments of the saints. This view was popularized a few decades ago by Frank Peretti in his book This Present Darkness where, unseen by the human characters of the novel, angels and demons fought against each other in a bid to gain dominance in the real world.
This would certainly pick at our imaginations as we ponder there may be a host of unseen devils around us, whispering in our ears and inserting rebellious and vulgar thoughts into our minds. Many teachers and preachers cultivate this paranoia in spite of the clear teaching in this verse that declares that Christians are no longer in that realm.
Is this – an unseen realm of demons and spiritual rulers – the idea that Paul has when he speaks of our rescue from this “domain of darkness?” Let’s take a closer look and see.
First, the Greek word for “domain” is exousia and is more literally translated "the authority" of darkness. The word has connotations of unrestrained or arbitrary power, perhaps even "tyranny." We actually find the phrase “power (Gr. exousia) of darkness” in one other passage of scripture.
“Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders who had come against Him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as you would against a robber? While I was with you daily in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me; but this hour and the power (Gr. exousia) of darkness are yours’” (Luke 22:52-53).
Notice here to whom Jesus is speaking and notice to whom he attributes “power of darkness.” He is not speaking to invisible beings. He is not speaking to demons. He is speaking to – and this is clearly stated – “the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders who had come against Him.”
This is powerfully significant! These were the leaders of the temple religion of that day. They were the authorities that ruled over the ritual ceremonies under which all in that day were enslaved. So the “domain of darkness” from which people need rescue is not some invisible, demonic dimension, but it is the tyranny of ritual religion.
As we’ve already seen in our previous studies, it is the worst kind of religion that insists that the love of God can only be known through a mechanical, ritual system – one that says the love of God can be known only after the proper sacrifices and washings, only after faithful observance of days and seasons, only after one has faithfully abstained from certain foods, and then only after repetitive practice of these rituals.
This type of religion is pure tyranny! It keeps its practitioners in a prison of guilt and condemnation, never able to believe that the Almighty God could ever love them. It breeds inmates who are either torn inside by remorse or who are puffed up by their own deluded self-righteousness. It is from this prison that God mounted a rescue operation through his son!
The word for "transferred" was often used to signify deportation of a body of men or the removal of them to form a colony. New Testament scholar J.B. Lightfoot paraphrases Colossians 1:13 like this:
"We were slaves in the land of darkness. God rescued us from this thralldom. He transplanted us and settled us as free colonists and citizens in the kingdom of his Son, in the realm of light."
In other words, the work of Christ was not to deliver us from some invisible, torturous realm of demons, but from a useless system of religion that could deliver no assurance that God loved us. We became citizens of a spiritual realm where, through faith in Jesus Christ alone, we could know the boundless treasures of the love of the Father for us!
One final illustration of this from 2 Corinthians 2: In this chapter, Paul is historically contrasting the two covenants unfolded by God in Israel’s history. The first – the Old Covenant delivered by Moses on Mt. Sinai – is called written “on tablets of stone,” it is a letter that kills, it is a “ministry of death,” and a “ministry of condemnation.” Paul acknowledges that this religion has a “glory” to it, though that glory is fading.
With this he contrasts the New Covenant in Christ – it is written “with the Spirit of God” on the “tablets of the human heart,” it is from the Spirit that gives life, it is a “ministry of righteousness” that has a glory far surpassing the glory of the Old Covenant. Under this Old Covenant, there is a veil that lies over the eyes of those under it. Paul concludes the chapter like this:
“But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 2: 18).
Many teachers have interpreted the idea here, “being transformed into the same image from glory to glory,” as meaning that we are growing up daily in our Christian walk. We are going from one level of glory to a better level of glory day after day. However, this perspective ignores the context and misses the real power of what Paul is saying.
In the context, the contrast is between two glories: the glory of the fading Old Covenant and the surpassing glory of the New Covenant. Paul is expressing that the real transformation that God is doing is not some daily self-improvement, but a leaving of the fading, Old Covenant glory (ministry of death, condemnation, etc.) to the New Covenant glory (the Spirit of life, the ministry of righteousness).
It’s the same message as in Colossians, being “…rescued … from the domain of darkness, and transferred … to the kingdom of His beloved Son,” being delivered from the ministry of death and condemnation, a life of ritual, legalistic religion to Christ, who is the ministry of righteousness and life, in whom we can know all the bounty of the Father’s love by faith.
Grand Junction, Colorado
What Is the Will of God?
“For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding…” Colossians 1:9
Every discussion on the will of God gets pretty lively. We all want to know what the next step in life might be. We’re creatures who want to know that the next decision we make will result in success and happiness. Naturally, this explains the popularity of things like horoscopes and palm readers. We crave success and want someone to tell us the next thing to do in order to achieve that.
I wonder if our concept of the will of God has not degenerated into lowering the Heavenly Father down to the level of the common fortune-tellers. I want us to look again at Colossians and see if we’re in need of re-thinking this idea of “the will of God.”
In order to first understand what Paul means in this context, there are a couple of things we need to understand.
1. God is not secretive about his will for his people. I think the concept we have of God is that he will only tell the most dedicated and pious of his people. Only those given a special unction will really know what God’s will is. Or, we think he’ll only tell us what he’s thinking if we spend sufficient time waiting, praying, fasting, crying out, groveling, etc. We need to understand that the Father is very willing to let his people know his will and what they are to do for his glory and their benefit.
2. In the days when the apostles were preaching, there was no lack of people who would confidently preach what the will of God was. In that first century, the religious leadership had the will of God revealed to them (through the Law and the Prophets) and boldly passed that on to the people. God’s will was that they obey the prescribed mandates of the Torah: keeping Sabbath, observe the dietary restrictions, be circumcised, attend the temple functions (three times a year for the men), bring the acceptable sacrifices, tithe, and on and on. Whatever we may say about these things, they were the revealed will of God for the people of Israel.
It is this second point that we need to grasp if we are to understand what Paul is saying. Paul was bringing a message of grace to the world. It was a message proclaiming that it was the will of God that acceptance into his favor came about through faith in his Son, not by the practice of ritual religion.
That was a powerful contradiction to the accepted teaching of the day. God’s will was not considered outside of the ritual, institutional religion represented by the temple system. The religious culture could not conceive of God’s will being described in such a way that excluded religious ritual and did not require righteousness by works of law. The temple was the big box that contained God’s will and no one could see outside of that and no one was willing to ponder the will of God outside of that box.
With his advent, understanding of the will of God was about to take some very radical turns. In saying this, I’m not suggesting that the will of God was “wrong” under the Old Covenant and Jesus came to set that straight. It was always God’s will from the beginning that sinners be justified by the grace found in the Messiah. The fullness of this message took forty years to unfold, beginning with the ministry of John the Baptizer and coming to completion at the destruction of the temple by the Romans in AD 70.
Until that full revelation of God’s will was unveiled in the destruction of the temple, Paul prayed for the believers in Colossae to have understanding of the will of God. They needed to stand firm that the will of God was not as touted by the established, religious leadership of the day. It was not the will of God that acceptance into his loving presence was gained by the temple ritual – Sabbaths, circumcision, sacrifices, tithes, etc. The Old Covenant leadership hammered this at every opportunity (sometimes using real hammers!).
Paul prayed that, in spite of the relentless pressure from the institutional religion of the day, the believers would understand that when they walked in grace, when they embraced the righteousness of Christ as their own, when they believed that they were loved by the Father without any practice whatsoever of legalistic religion, then they were walking squarely in the center of the will of God!
So, today, does God give revelation to Christians about their personal futures? Does he direct them to the college they should attend, the job they should take, or the person they should marry? Does he give signs, words, visions, revelations and assurances about these things? He can if he wants to. Personally, I don’t think it’s the norm. Sometimes, God shows a distinct disinterest in micromanaging our lives.
Sometimes, we take those steps – perhaps with full assurance that God has directed us this way – and the results turn out from being disappointing to downright disastrous. Does this mean we are outside of the will of God? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to tell unless God gives us a clear revelation regarding his will.
This is the point with the will of God. If we’re not sure about something being God’s will because he hasn’t clearly revealed it, then where do we look for unmistakable clarity? Paul is praying that the Colossians will have understanding of will of God in what he has revealed in Jesus Christ.
In essence, Paul is praying, “I want you to know that, even in the midst of the hard times you and your fellow believers around the world are experiencing, the will of God is very clear. His will is that you not be crushed with guilt and condemnation from those who say you’ve abandoned God by leaving the temple worship. It is his will that you rest with assurance that Jesus is faithful as your great high priest and has not abandoned you. It is his will that you rejoice with joy unspeakable and that you abide in the abundant love of the Father through his son Jesus. If you go through suffering (and many of you will), know that there is no suffering so severe that you will be separated from his love in Christ Jesus. It is his will that you embrace this with all your heart.”
Grand Junction, Colorado
The Hope Laid Up for You in Heaven
“We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints; because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel…” (Colossians 1:3-5).
I always was cautious about insisting that eschatology (the study of the end times) was really a necessary component in sharing the gospel. I really didn’t insist on it until I studied this passage. Then I got to thinking, “Apparently, when Paul preached the gospel to the Colossians, he included the ‘hope laid up for (them) in heaven.’” That’s eschatology.
Not only that, but this “hope” was also the driving force, it seems, behind their faith in Christ Jesus and the love they had for all the saints. If that hope that Paul included in the gospel could incite them to faith and love, we would be foolish to leave it out of our gospel, wouldn’t we?
So, what is this hope?
I think it’s necessary to point out that Christians at that time were all futurists. That means, they believed this hope laid up for them was in their future. What do we know about this future hope for them?
1. This future hope united them in love. Paul says his prayers stem from hearing about their faith in Christ Jesus and “the love which you have for all the saints...” This love he says is “because of the hope…” The hope they had united them in love; it did not divide them. It’s not New Testament futurism (or any theology, really) that says, “Believe like us or we break fellowship.”
2. Their future hope was tied to the gospel. Paul says of this hope that they heard about it “in the word of truth, the gospel.” This makes me wonder about attaching the “end times” to the actual sharing of the gospel. I used to think that end times theology was really not necessary in the preaching of the gospel. Now I’m not so sure.
I always thought that, because of all the different views of the end times, we shouldn’t even bring up our views on the subject because it really doesn’t have anything to do with salvation. Again, now I’m not so sure.
I don’t mean by this that if you don’t believe eschatological position X, you’re not saved. God gives us a lot of room for error when it comes to our theology. We are not saved because we have razor-sharp accuracy of every point of doctrine.
However, what we believe about the end times can mean the difference in a life of spiritual joy and riches or spiritual poverty. Let’s look at another place where Paul mentions “hope” and what he connects to that hope.
Look at Romans 8 beginning with v. 18. I’ll not do a detailed exposition, but here are some observations:
1. The creation was waiting for the revealing of the sons of God. The sons of God were those who were led by the Spirit (v. 14). The sufferings of that present time (the first century; not our present time) were caused by others also claiming the title of “sons of God.” They were those who believed that their claim to the favor of God was because of their faithfulness to the ritual worship of the temple – the sacrifices, the priesthood, the dietary laws, the observance of Sabbaths and holy days. The creation looked on asking the question: Which of these really are the sons of God?
2. Paul said this revealing was “about” to take place. In the Greek text, there is the word “mello,” which means “about to, on the brink of.” The Young’s Literal Translation is the only English translation to bring this out: “For I reckon that the sufferings of the present time [are] not worthy [to be compared] with the glory about to be revealed in us.”
3. Paul mentions the “hope” in v. 20. Rather than explaining the hope as some universe-ending cataclysm, Paul describes it as the time when “the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” I think the best way to understand this freedom for which they hoped is to examine the letter to the Galatians. The freedom needed by the children of God is not from a supposedly sin-besotted planet, but from the burden of Old Covenant religion which the wannabe sons of God used to accuse day and night those of faith in Christ.
4. In AD 70, the Roman army, after a 3 ½ year siege, breached the walls of Jerusalem and destroyed the city and the temple. I don’t think we appreciate the significance of this historical event in redemptive history. This event totally wiped out any claim that anyone could make that their faithfulness to the temple ritual crowned them as a “son of God.” With the whole center of Old Covenant religion destroyed, there was only one body standing that could claim the title of “sons of God” – those who walked in the Spirit. The creation now had their question answered as to the identity of the true sons of God.
This was the “hope” to which they looked forward. This was the event that would reveal them – the followers of Christ – as the true children of God.
Now to the part that beautifully illuminates the gospel. In Romans 8:31, Paul sums up what he’s been saying thus far. “What shall we say then to these things?” I see this as Paul putting the “hope” to which they looked into a single thought:
“If God is for us, who can be against us?”
In the midst of all the pain, suffering, tribulation, persecution and anguish the Christians bore, the questions on their minds were, “With all the difficulty we’re going through, could it be that we really are going against God? Has our abandonment of the Old Covenant ritual brought upon us the wrath of God? Is God really for us, or is he bent on punishing us for leaving the temple worship?”
Paul wanted the Christians to know – and for us to know today – that no matter what kind of pain, suffering, anguish, tribulation or accusations they underwent, they were still the object of God’s infinite love. Their suffering was not the result of God’s disfavor, anger or rejection.
This was the hope to which they looked forward. They looked forward to a hope where the Father, who they were told loved them, would destroy the temple--the corrupt, ineffectual temple system, the home of those who heaped upon them daily condemnation and persecution. The “end times” for the Christians was the ultimate statement from the Father: I am for you!
It is totally contrary to the gospel today to preach to a person that they are “saved by grace” and then turn around and heap guilt upon them because they fail to keep some jot or tittle of the church or denominational tradition. Many Christians today are deflated because someone condemns them because they haven’t been baptized just right, or haven’t attended the right church, or don’t believe certain doctrines just right, or they don’t read the right translation of the Bible or …. and the list goes on.
The good news of the gospel is that by being in Christ, and only by being in Christ, God is for you. Solidly, unmovingly, lovingly, soundly and eternally for you. If you are in the midst of disaster, trial, tribulation, hardship, sorrow, loss or death, the gospel has a message for you: God is for you. There is nothing that can happen to a child of God in Christ that would change this great truth: God is for you.
We today don’t look into the future for that assurance like they did. We look back. We look back to the work of Christ, including that which was to the first century Christians a “hope” and stand on the solid rock that “GOD IS FOR US.” We don’t look forward to that hope like they did, we look back to a promise fulfilled.
Christians, be encouraged that we do not wait for a future event to let us know of God’s love for us. We can see now when we look at the skyline of Jerusalem and see the absence of the Old Covenant temple that the Father does not accept us on the basis of ritual religion or denominational tradition, but the finished work of his son says: God is for you!
Grand Junction, Colorado
I'm reflecting on things I've learned since coming out of the Institutional Church 10 years ago. Here's one of the first lessons I learned: The Sovereignty of God is still a GREAT doctrine.
Here’s a good question: What does the world look like that is governed by Yahweh? The Idealists among us would not hesitate to put these attributes on the list:
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list. So many more glorious attributes could be added in honor to a wondrous God who is in total control of his domain. However, Idealism begins to crumble and challenges ensue when we continue the list with things like:
That second half of the list gives a lot of folks fits when trying to defend the idea that the Yahweh of the Bible is truly a king and rules his universe with wisdom, love, justice and compassion. It’s pretty much the foundation to argue that God is NOT sovereign in one way or another.
There’s the argument, “God is not TOTALLY sovereign. Let’s face it, some things he created are just too big for him to handle.”
A variation on this is, “Well, sometimes his enemy, the devil, gets the upper hand and thwarts God’s plans. Sorry, it happens.”
Then there’s, “Well, if he’s sovereign, he must also be exceptionally cruel! How can a loving God let all that evil take place if he has the power to do something about it?”
Those who hold to Yahweh’s sovereignty but want to explain the evil will spin things this way: “Well, sin is still in the world and until that is taken away, evil will still continue until That Day comes when Jesus will return and fix this broken world.”
This is the view that a world in which God is REALLY sovereign is where life is all Disneyland, puppies and unicorns. That is, life should look like the first half of the list after the second half of the list is removed by some future redemptive work by God.
Let’s face it: No one likes the idea that Yahweh CAN be in control – wisely, lovingly, compassionately in control – where tragedy and anguish exist alongside beauty and wonder. Our minds cannot see a connection that true, heavenly wisdom can extract beauty from tragedy.
Let me offer my own perspectives on this.
First, I think those who have the greatest appreciation of God’s wise rule over his universe are those who understand our world as a wild and woolly landscape where frail humans walk continually in a beautiful and majestic albeit volatile and unpredictable world.
When we awake in the morning (if we awake), we step outside into a world where abundant risks and no guarantees exist right alongside a wealth of blessings and glorious opportunities.
Sure, we love the idea of a God who rules lavishing his blessings upon us, keeping us from harm and pain and suffering and ugliness. We really do want life to be all Disneyland, puppies and unicorns. We expect a king who keeps his domain like a sanitized nursery rather than a savage jungle.
We hate the idea that God might just let a tornado demolish our house. Or cancer to eat away at our body. Or death to take our child. Or a hurricane to flatten a city. Or a murderer to slay the innocent.
Let’s face it, it’s much easier to challenge the wisdom of Yahweh than it is find profound wisdom in a tragic act that was fully in the Father’s control.
One of the most powerful expressions of Yahweh’s sovereignty is uttered by Nebuchadnezzar, the man who conquered Judah then ordered it destroyed in 586 B.C. – all in accordance to the will and command of God.
“For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Daniel 4:34-35).
It’s interesting to note the timing of Nebuchadnezzar’s statement. It came after a tragedy, a God-ordained seven year bout of madness. At the end of the seven years, we are told that Nebuchadnezzar "came to his senses."
I wonder if Nebuchadnezzar’s coming to his senses involved the realization of his own frailty in an uncertain world. Preceding his madness, he was enamored by his own sovereignty, power and invincibility. He rejected the idea that anyone – including Yahweh – could be as great as he.
All of a sudden, the world he “created” slipped from his fingers. He was the victim of tragedy. A tragedy in which Yahweh had a hand. Which Yahweh himself ordained. And at the end of it, what lesson did Nebuchadnezzar learn? That even in a royal setting of splendor and majesty, he, like every other creature on earth was weak, frail, mortal and lived in a world where there was no assurance that hard-earned security was guaranteed.
I want to consider the sovereignty of God under the assumption that both good and evil are within his control and a part of his plan. His plan, in a nutshell, was to “demonstrate His own love toward us” in the death of his precious son. Few Christians would argue with this, but fewer take it farther by seeing that the Father’s sacrificial love is to be CONTINUALLY demonstrated in the believers’ love for one another.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
What does the King desire in his domain? That his people be the living, visible manifestation of the love he demonstrated in his son. I suppose that can be done in a world of Disneyland, puppies and unicorns, but love never shines brighter than when put against the backdrop of tragedy. When the King sends tragedy, hardship or injustice, it is an opportunity for his people to display love for one another in a wild world.
In Acts 11, we read of the church in Jerusalem suffering under a tragedy that struck the world at that time.
“Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea” (vs. 27-29).
Notice they didn’t sit around lamenting, “Why did God do this?” They didn’t start debates on God’s purposes and sovereignty. What did they do? They mobilized to present a living demonstration of the love of God to their brethren suffering in Jerusalem.
Look at it like this: Tragedy is like a blank canvas. In the world of art, no one oohs and aahs over a blank canvas. It’s only after the artist has applied the genius of his mind to brush on the colors, arrange the perspective, depth, contrast and balance does anyone see a true work of art.
Christians, of all people, should never be bewildered or distraught when tragedy strikes. Yes, they will hurt, grieve and shed tears. But that hardship is an opportunity for God’s people to be the colors on the Father’s palette. It’s a chance be the Father’s masterpiece, a portrait of a loving Father applied to the blank canvas of disaster.
Perhaps the reason there are so many critics of God’s sovereignty is because there is so little genuine displays of love among Christians in the modern, American church. An artist is never to be judged by the blank canvas, but by the finished product of his hand. Modern Christians are too ready to leave the canvas blank or unfinished. Perhaps a revival of love among Christians may be the catalyst needed to bring the doctrine of God’s sovereignty back to respectability.
This wild and woolly world ain't for sissies. It ain't for wussies. God does not show his power in stopping the tornadoes, the tragedies, the sufferings, the deaths, etc. He shows his power and goodness in giving us strength through our love for one another in the midst of these things. The tragedies are only the canvas; WE, in our love for others, paint the work of art meant to display the character of God.
That is the way the King rules his world.
Grand Junction, Colorado
"Love is Patient"
One thing we have to understand about God’s love is that it was a tangible, visible, demonstrative act in a life situation. That is, his love was demonstrated in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” God's love was not just a declaration on a scroll, but his own son nailed to a Roman cross for all the world to see.
So it is with the love we are to have for one another. It is not just to be lip-service. I’ve spoken to people who have left relationships in shambles by shameful behavior and said, “That’s not who I am; I’m really a very loving person.” Oh, really?
Every man is a paragon of virtue in his own mind. The love of God is shown, not by what we imagine in ourselves, but in what we demonstrate to others. Patience is a quality that can be seen in us by others. Its opposite – impatience, annoyance, intolerance – can also be seen.
Here is the meaning of the word patient in the Greek text: To be of a long spirit, not to lose heart, to persevere patiently and bravely in enduring misfortunes and troubles, to be patient in bearing the offenses and injuries of others, to be mild and slow in avenging, to be longsuffering, slow to anger, slow to punish.
That’s pretty demonstrable, right?
Let me just mention two aspects of love-is-patient. First, love is patient in the immediate circumstances. That is, we can be in a situation where the other guy may be demonstrating immaturity (i.e., they’re acting like a big, fat baby!) Patience will endure a lot of grief for the sake of the brother. Even when the opportunity calls for some corrective action, it is done patiently, graciously and gently.
Second, love is patient in the long-term goals. Love is willing to give relationships a long time to mature. Months. Years. It's not just being patient in the moment of frustration (see above), but in the amassed moments of frustration that span a lifetime.
Love never gives up on bringing God’s people to maturity. Impatience is demonstrated when we want to speed up God’s maturity process. We get annoyed at immaturity. We become intolerant with the slow developers. The immature slow down our progress in missions and ministry. We find it easier to cast the infantile brother out to fend for himself (“be warm, be filled”) than we would spend the time encouraging them to spiritual adulthood.
I think love is rare because we give up on one another too easily. People can be draining to our spirit. This is why God’s love is practiced in God’s community. Sure, there are those spiritual rug-monkeys who will eventually drain us of energy, but the mature come together to bear the load, to strengthen one another with a mission in mind – to exercise patience until the kids are grown and raising their own spiritual progeny.
Grand Junction, Colorado
A Theology of Theology
The tree called “theology” has a multitude of branches — theology proper, soteriology, Christology, pneumatology, eschatology, ecclesiology, harmatology and a few others I’m sure I missed. No, I’m not going to tell what all those mean; go look them up. My interest here is that we develop a theology that governs our pursuit of theology and its multiple branches.
Glad you asked. These thoughts sprouted from pondering what seems to be a conundrum within the modern kingdom of God. I often see professed Christians at each other’s throats in the name of orthodox theology. Having Christians ripping into one another is not an unusual sight, neither in this day nor at any other time in history.
What makes it a conundrum is the very plain and obvious statements in the Bible — the wellspring from which we draw any good theology — which say that Christians are supposed to love one another and strive for the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
Granted, it would be one thing if “loving one another” was just some micro-doctrine a first-century mystic came up with by loosely interpreting the vowel pointing of an obscure Hebrew word found tucked away in an arcane Qumran text. But the command that God’s people love one another — and show mercy, grace, patience, forgiveness, kindness, generosity and gentleness to one another — is stated more bountifully and clearly than 95% of the doctrines we use to smite one another.
I don’t want this to be too drawn out, so let me get to the point. We tend to have the habit of being defenders of gospel theology without really understanding gospel sacrifice. Admit it; there is no discussion of gospel theology without eventually having to deal with the sacrifice of Christ for his people. We tend to fudge a bit, though, when we come to the part about our sacrifice for our brothers and sisters.
What got me thinking about doctrine and sacrifice was looking at 1 Corinthians 8. It’s a pretty humdrum passage as far as confrontational theology goes. There’s nothing of predestination for the Calvinists. There’s no signs and wonders for the Charismatics. There’s no rapture references for the dispensationalists and no timing statements for the preterists.
In it, Paul writes about two groups in the church: the Strong and the Weak. Granted, Paul does not use the term “strong” in the passage, but I use the application from a parallel passage in Romans 15:1. Moving on…
The Strong are those who “have knowledge,” that singular element that that can make one strong, but also be a breeding ground for arrogance. So perhaps we ought to take note: the Garden of Knowledge is not without its weeds. Don’t be deluded into thinking that one can plant plentifully in the Garden of Knowledge and still leave it unattended. The best fruit can be choked if the weeds of arrogance are left to grow.
Paul, in addressing the issue of meat offered to idols, notes that there are two different theologies to address the concern. The Strong don’t believe that there’s anything to that idol. They don’t believe that there’s any demonic presence there. They hold to the oneness and sovereignty of God in his world. They have the “right” theology. They have the orthodox view that should be backed by denominational headquarters.
The Weak have a theology on the subject, also. Their theology sees demons behind the piece of stone. It sees the sacrificial meat as defiled. They wouldn’t dare eat any of it. They would be shocked to see a fellow-believer eat it. The meat leaves their conscience vulnerable to damage. It is immature theology. It is wrong theology.
Now if Paul dealt with that situation in the same manner the modern church deals with it, it would go something like this: After a time of sustained debate, argument, mockery, anathemas, ridicule, contempt, name-calling and scorn, the Strong would write out the “right” doctrine in confessional form, present it as the truly Christian doctrine and then compel the Weak to sign a statement of agreement if they wanted to remain in good standing with the church.
Silly Paul! He really missed a chance to strike a blow against the forces of heresy. Instead, Paul takes several very unorthodox steps. First, — and this one is baffling to most of Christendom today — he doesn’t blast the Weak for their immature doctrine. In fact, he’s exasperatingly tolerant of bad doctrine.
Second, he calls the Strong together and puts the burden of responsibility upon them. What? Isn’t it up to the Strong to sit the Weak down and inform them of their error? Well, he doesn’t, not at this point anyway. He sits the Strong Christians down and says, “Brethren, in order to maintain a loving atmosphere for our weaker brothers and sisters to grow, let’s keep a close watch on our eating practices. I know, I know; we’re free to eat what we want. But when you‘re with our weaker brethren for whom Christ died, say ‘no‘ to meat in their presence.”
Paul saves the strongest words for . . . the Strong! “By sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble” (8:12, 13). So, who’s the strongest in the congregation: The one with the best theological arguments or the one with the most grace and love for the brethren?
Much of our theolo-tudes are based on a premise contrary to the gospel of grace. We unconsciously believe that, the better our doctrine might be, the more righteous and more loved we are in the sight of God. We attitudinally believe that we are saved by the exegetical righteousness imputed by (fill in here your favorite theological system or non-system or doctrinal shibboleth). The gospel is no longer salvation by faith, but by dogma.
I suppose the foundation for a theology of theology is this: Good theology is designed to make us more gracious, not more righteous. Got that; Christ makes us righteous, doctrine makes us gracious.
Maybe we don’t take love and unity seriously because the study and debate of abstract theology is far less challenging to our lives than living a life of sacrificial love for people, many of whom (let’s face it) we may not even like. Maybe we need to come to grips with one of the facts of life: There is no amount of orthodox doctrine or heretical beliefs that will fill you with the love you need to sacrifice for those that may doctrinally repulse you.
Sometimes good theology means we shut our doctrine-hole and just love the brother or sister.
Grand Junction, Colorado
When I was young, I wanted nothing more than to be theologically trained and enter the ministry. Then, I'd hoped I would be run out of the church I pastored and wind up in a low-paying retail job. People, I am living the dream! Besides that, I'm part of a small, home fellowship in Grand Junction, Colorado, married to a wonderful woman and we raised three wonderful daughters. One is married to a great guy, one is in nursing school, and our youngest passed away in 2010. Yes, life is good!