Here’s a Great Test for True Religion


Our van was nothing fancy.  No one would have mistaken it for a limousine. It was plain, boxy, kind of like a Volkswagen cargo van in which someone bolted a couple of seats to the floor. Nothing about the van stood out in the bustling African streets of Addis Ababa. Like everyone else in town that day, we darted and beeped and chugged along through the crowded automotive corridor, windows down, taking our oxygen from air saturated with a mix of dust and exhaust fumes.

Ethiopia Widow True Religion Cochran blogAs inconspicuous as our vehicle was in the city traffic, our faces were not so unnoticed. Our skin was noticeably pale compared to the native melanin. Immediately upon entering the market area our van became a gathering spot for kids selling toothbrushes, kids shining shoes, and kids selling packs of chewing gum. But worse than the badgering of the ambitious children trying to make a living was the agonizing appearance of destitute women, widows we were told.

In Ethiopia (and in many other places in Africa), there is little provision for widows. In the market place, haggard ladies wearing mismatched patches of dirty material draped over their malnourished figures tap incessantly on the van windows before we’ve even parked. Through the obstacles of a language barrier, they somehow communicate very clearly that they are starving and want money for food. They know we have money because we are, after all, going shopping at the market.

How could we not help these women? They were widows. And what is pure and undefiled religion if it isn’t helping widows in need?

James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (ESV).

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, we had the opportunity to visit widows in their affliction with help that was sorely needed.

In Nigeria, an African nation just three countries to the left (west) of Ethiopia, widows also cry out in the name of pure and undefiled religion. But in Nigeria the pure religion being sought lately is not the care of widows and orphans. Instead, the pursuit for pure religion has become the occasion for turning these women into widows.

The pure religion being sought in Nigeria is not that which is mentioned in the New Testament book of James; rather, it is the pure religion of Islam—according to the terrorist group Boko Haram.  And the widows are crying out not simply because their husbands are dead, but because their husbands were murdered in Boko Haram’s effort to purify Islam by ridding the country of its Christians.

According to this report, more than 2,000 women have unexpectedly become widows as the result of their husbands being murdered by Boko Haram’s quest for Islamic purity in Nigeria.  These women are destitute.  They have children to feed but no means of providing them the basics of food and shelter.

Here–in this Nigerian nightmare–we have a true test of pure religion. On the one hand, Boko Haram in the name of Islam believes that Christian men should be killed, leaving in the flow of bloodshed a wake of widows and orphans–hoping eventually for a purely Islamic Nigeria. On the other hand, Christians have a clear statement from James 1:27 that pure and undefiled religion does not result from killing opposing ideologies. Instead, pure and undefiled religion is on display when we help these widows and orphans pick up the pieces of their broken lives—somehow helping them reassemble the shattered mess of their lost hopes, dreams, comforts, and expectations.

In the case of Nigeria in particular, Christians have the duty to act. It’s easy to see a widow’s need when we are forced to look into her hungry eyes. It’s harderPure Religion James 1 Widow Orphan Cochran blog when the widow lives an ocean away.  And yet, our Christian sisters in Nigeria represent the actual intent of James’s admonition.  In the New Testament, the first responsibility for widow and orphan care exists within one’s own family (1 Tim 5:4, 8).  When the family cannot provide, the church must—starting with widows and orphans within the body of Christ.  For James, the pure and undefiled religion of caring for widows and orphans would begin with the church taking care of Christian widows and orphans (for more, see here or here).  James has been addressing his readers as “brothers” throughout the letter, signaling that this is from a Christian brother to other Christians.

Furthermore, James spells out that his talking of the poor means primarily poor brothers and sisters in the faith (2:15).  He is constantly speaking throughout the letter to brothers and sisters about righteousness and faithful works.  Like any believer in the first century, James thought in terms of a covenant community. The church was like family, and who could allow orphans and widows in his own family to starve? No one could if they understood God’s nature. Just listen to Exodus 22:22ff.,

“You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”

How awfully dreadful is the state of those who oppress widows and orphans! I have no doubt that those who murder Christian men in their zeal for a purified religion are under the weight of the wrath of God almighty for causing children to be fatherless and wives to be destitute.

But what about us? Do we not have an opportunity—even an obligation—in the face of this wrongful attempt to purify religion by killing Christians to actually demonstrate the pure and undefiled religion God requires? It’s time for us to come to the aid of Nigerian widows in distress. How pure is our religion? The African widows know.

 

The Most Mistreated Minority in the World Is …


Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio. The ea...

Back in November, I wrote a blog post about German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in which it was noted that Merkel was taking a great deal of heat for claiming that Christians are the most persecuted group in the world.  That is not a headline that sells in America, as many folks still love to decry the “moral majority” of America’s past.

Nonetheless, time is proving Merkel right.  Studies have shown that Christians are harassed more than any religion in the Pew Study Religion Persecution Christianworld.  A new collaborative work by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute covers the worldwide persecution of Christians in great detail.  The Book,  Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, is now in print.

The book demonstrates just how bad the problem is and how, particularly, Christians in the Middle East are being targeted for extinction with little concern from Americans in general and American Christians in particular. Kirsten Powers has written an article for USA Today which calls on Americans to speak out against the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Lebanon was once a majority Christian country but no longer, as Christians flee the hostility. CBS News reported in 2011 that the former president of Lebanon, Amin Gemayel complained of a “genocide” against Christians in the Middle East. “Massacres are taking place for no reason and without any justification against Christians. It is only because they are Christians.”

Christians are the most ill-treated religious minority in the world.  Without a doubt, Merkel, Powers, Shea, Gilbert, and Marshall are all speaking truth. The question for each of us is whether we will speak up with them on behalf of our brothers and sisters.  Will we do as the Lord commanded and “remember those who are ill-treated since we ourselves are in the body” (Hebrews 13:3)?

Take a prayerful look at the article from Kirsten Powers; the book from Shea, Gilbert, and Marshall; and the teachings of the New Testament and decide if you need to become an advocate for the persecuted church.

Religious Liberty Is Important for All Americans


For more than three years now, I have had an unsettling fear that religious liberty in America is on the wane. Turns out, I am not alone. A movement is afoot among state legislatures across the country.  According to Baptist Press, there is a plan in place to have caucuses for religious freedom in every state legislature by the end of 2013.

This movement is significant because every American—including the atheist and the agnostic—will be less free without religious liberty. A look at the history and function of Religious Freedom in Americareligious liberty will demonstrate what I mean.

Historically, it is not arbitrary that Religious Liberty is our first liberty.  The First Amendment to the Constitution (which includes the freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and addressing grievances with our government) is anchored in the reality of religious liberty.  The freedom to speak and to call out injustice flows from the freedom to believe in reality beyond the governing authorities.  Religion is all about these greater realities.

Charles C. Haynes and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development have chronicled 29 influences religion had upon the founding of our nation. Their point is that without affirming religion, one cannot understand American history. Ours is a history founded on religious freedom for the individual.  Benjamin Rush (one of our “Founding Fathers”) speaks thus of our history of religious liberty,

The only foundation for a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments. Benjamin Rush Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical, 1798.

As important as religious liberty is to our history, it is even more important to our functioning as Americans.  We have all likely heard of the “rugged individualism” which forged a nation from the frozen streams of northern winters to the barren plains and western deserts.  America has been a remarkable experience of entrepreneurs and innovation. From the telephone to the iPhone, America has always sought to excel—each generation outdoing the past in an ever-upward pursuit.  But such individual-inspired accomplishments are not possible without liberty. And liberty is not possible without religious liberty. Here are two reasons religious liberty benefits all Americans (not just Christians).

First, religious liberty empowers individuals.  It is born of the spirit of Luther—a spirit in which one man can stand against his government and against the world on the basis of truth as dictated by his own conscience. One man—through principled conviction (like Martin Luther King) or through the flourish of individual creativity (like Alexander Graham Bell)—one man can change the world. That is the spirit of America grounded in the spirit of religious liberty.  One man following the dictates of his conscience can call all men to a greater tomorrow if he is free. For him to be free, he must be free to obey first his own conscience and not some government mandate or tyrannical dictate.

Second, religious liberty begets excellence. The reason religious liberty is fundamental is that it frees the individual to call the government (and all citizens) to a higher standard of justice and liberty for all. On what grounds would an individual need redress of his grievances with his government except on the grounds of injustice? Such redress means that justice itself is a higher reality than the government. If men are free to believe in God, they are free to call others to a more excellent reality than that which the government prescribes. While the government must enforce basic laws and rules, the government is not the final authority on the highest truths and greatest impulses of America’s citizenry.

Religious freedom liberty America religionEach individual should be free to explore and create and call others to greater truths.  If, instead, the government is able to define reality for its citizens, then freedom in any meaningful sense is lost. The individual becomes free only in the sense that he is free to choose between government-mandated options.  That’s not First Amendment freedom; that’s a Third World loss of freedom—like the freedom of Chinese families who can choose to have a boy or a girl (but not both).

Sadly, government mandates are trumping individual freedom of religion in the Obama administration.  More and more, religion is welcomed less and less. The HHS mandate in Obamacare is exactly the opposite of religious freedom.

Obamacare mandates—against the religious conscience—that employers must provide coverage for abortion-inducing drugs.  The freedom of religion that the Obama administration has in view is a freedom restricted to the gathered congregation on Sunday morning—not the freedom of religion necessary for individuals to flourish—not First Amendment freedom.

It may seem to some that the HHS mandate concerning “contraception” for women is just a “Catholic” issue or a “Christian” issue, but it is not. When Christians, Muslims, and Jews are forced as individuals to provide for abortions against their faith and their own consciences, they are being asked to rob America of excellence—to stop calling America to higher truth. In effect, they—we—are being asked to just shut up and do what Uncle Sam says.  And that is neither free nor good.

Christians will likely face intensifying persecution, but all Americans will lose. America will be smaller when religion—especially Christian religion—is muzzled. Don’t take it from me. Listen  to another of the early Americans,

Without morals, a republic cannot subsist any length of time, they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion…are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.” Charles Carroll to James McHenry November 4, 1800.

Religion and Politics: A Thorough Review


The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has just released a new study concerning the increase of “Nones.” What they mean by that is that there is a rise in the number of people not affiliating with any religion at all. Overall, the study shows that we are still (at least nominally) a Judeo-Christian country, but the atheist, agnostic, and nothing-at-all categories are increasing.

More and more, it appears, the religiously unaffiliated are finding a home in the Democrat party, while fewer and fewer of them are becoming Republican. Notice, however, according to the graph, that the numbers are not directly inverted; this means that many of the religiously unaffiliated have no home in either of the two major parties.  I have included a small snippet from the article below. If you are interested in religion and politics, then you should check out the entire study.

nones-exec-20

“The religiously unaffiliated constitute a growing share of Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters. In 2007, there were about as many religiously unaffiliated Democratic and Democratic- leaning registered voters as white mainline and white Catholic Democratic voters. And the religiously unaffiliated were only slightly more numerous among Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters than were black Protestants (17% vs. 14%).” (From the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life)

Should Preachers Mess with the IRS?


 

A group of Protestant preachers appears to be picking a fight with the IRS this election cycle.  According to this Fox News article, more than 1,000 preachers have pledged to participate in an October 2012 campaign sponsored by the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund).

The aim of the Alliance’s initiative is to force the IRS to take action against one or more of the pastors who Preachers Fight IRS Code Challengeintentionally violate the IRS code for religious organizations.  Since 1954, the code has had the effect of muzzling preachers and preaching in relation to anything political. For instance, the code states (on page 8) that preachers,

“…must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention .  Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate.  A statement can identify a candidate not only by stating the candidate’s name but also by other means such as showing a picture of the candidate, referring to political party affiliations, or other distinctive features of a candidate’s platform or biography.”

So preachers can’t critique a candidate’s platform or biography? These seemingly overreaching regulations would prevent a pastor from discouraging parishioners away from the Democrat party on account of the national party’s platform calling for abortion and the dissolution of traditional marriage. While one might wonder why a pastor would want to be so political as to call for opposing one of our two major parties, one may also wonder why a pastor cannot—on the basis of the position statements on issues like abortion and traditional marriage—encourage his congregants to vote in accordance with their highest values.

The Alliance Defending Freedom hopes that pastors will follow through with their pledges and specifically oppose a candidate in this election cycle so that the IRS will revoke tax exempt status or take some other legal action. Then, the Alliance will, in turn, sue the IRS and force a court hearing on the subject. The Alliance is confident that the code (never approved as law) is not constitutional and has shut down the free speech of pastors and pulpits across America.

I am curious what your thoughts are on this matter. Should pastors pick a fight with the IRS?  I could see Christians arguing both ways on the issue.  Think about examples in the Bible.

On the one hand, Jesus was marched out and accused unjustly before His government accusers, yet remained completely silent, while, on the other hand, John the Baptist, seemingly unprovoked, took a governing official to task for his personal infidelity (King Herod’s taking his brother’s wife). Herod had John beheaded for his preaching. Why did Paul call for the Roman officials to come and escort him from jail personally (Acts 16), rather than taking his release and getting out of Philippi? At times, Christians go meekly as good sheep; at other times, they seem to provoke the governing authorities. Which time is this with the IRS?

 

Update on Project 13:3


 

Just wanted to give you all an update on what is happening with Project 13:3, our new ministry devoted to understanding and responding to Christian persecution.

By the end of this week, a new website should be up and running. There are great new features on the website, such Project 13:3 christian persecutionas a locator for churches who are partnered together in the 13:3 network. These are churches which understand why Christians are persecuted, and they are trying to help spread the word about persecution.

In addition to the church network, there will be links to news, articles, videos, a podcast, and a special Twitter account which will send you an encouraging quote each day from the persecuted church, thus helping you to remember the persecuted because you are in the body.

Tons of great work is underway with Project 13:3. Visit the website (next week) and learn how to get involved.

Oh, and by the way, there will be a video posted which shows Christians being stoned in… Dearborn, Michigan, USA. Stay tuned to Project 13:3

 

Entanglement


There are so many stories out there right now concerning church-state relations.  This story from GetReligion speaks of the entanglement of law and religion in the matter of faith healing when children die.  In the past, other couples have been convicted of reckless homicide for not seeking the aid of a doctor.

While I certainly thank God for antibiotics and make use of doctors and nurses (believing that God is actually more glorified in working through ordinary means), I cannot absolutely condemn all occurrences of “faith healing.”  Part of this admission is based on the simple fact that I do not know how much the parents knew about the disease of the child or the ease of access to the remedy.  For instance, I know of a family whose daughter had migraines.  They prayed for her, but she died.  They had no idea they should have been seeking advanced medical help.

In the case mentioned in the story above, there was most likely a good deal of knowledge about the child’s condition, and the parents should have gotten help for the child.  However, we are treading on very dangerous grounds when that determination is given over to a government official.  Not only is this a potential overstep into the private lives of citizens by the government; it may also be a violation of the 1st Amendment of the constitution–establishing religious doctrine.  Can the government tell a citizen it is wrong for him to live by a faith conviction?  What if the government decides that it endangers the life (psychologically–as in Doe v. Bolton) of a 15 year-old to have a baby?  The government might mandate abortions in such a case.  Should parents who dissent for religious reasons be subject to penalty under law for their refusal?  Is medical treatment an obligation, a duty, a right, or a privilege?  Ought citizens to be forced into medical treatment? Which treatments are mandatory?

There are so many knotty issues concerning church and state.  I certainly believe these parents should have had their daughter treated (both for theological and practical reasons).  Their case, however, is one of individual liberty and the role of church and state.  We can clearly see that minors deserve some protections.  We will not ever be comfortable with decisions others make for their children; however, we should also be willing to recognize a fundamental duty of parents to be the primary decision makers for their children.

We’ll See How This Goes


Not too long ago, Pope Benedict got the whole world in an uproar by suggesting that Islam has a violent past and should, rather, focus on establishing relations with others by way of reasonable discourse.  Now, he is at it again.  Here’s a quote:

“Genuine religion … stands at the base of any authentically human culture,” he said. “It rejects all forms of violence and totalitarianism: not only on principles of faith but also of right reason.” 

We shall see what the consequences of such language will be. 

Philosophy and Science


I have linked a blog post here which is fascinating on a number of levels.  It concerns philosophy and, granted, has some difficult, abstract concepts imbedded in it.  However, on a more substantial level, the blog post exposes a growing recognition that Christian theism provides a strong framework for science.  Science has become secularized and believes itself to be freed from God.  However, good men like Alvin Plantinga are working to show that science has taken the wrong turn in turning away from God.  Specifically, Plantinga argues (in this post) that Christian theism is not incompatible with science (or with evolution) but that naturalism actually is incompatible with science (and with evolution).

This blog post is a record of a debate between Daniel Dennett and Alvin Plantinga.  Apparently, Plantinga was the serious thinker in the debate.  Notice that the guy blogging the debate insists on remaining anonymous because his career would be threatened if other secularist scholars figured out that he had admitted publicly that Plantinga rocked the debate.  So much for “free” thinking in our universities!   Read it for yourself.

Obama Approved Prayers


Some prayers meet with Obama’s approval, and some do not. Dr. Mohler has a post today concerning the recent disclosure that the Obama administration is vetting prayers before allowing them to be offered at public events. As this post points out, prayers in Jesus’ name are too volatile. For the first time in U.S. History, Jesus is going to be unwelcomed at the White House and in its prayers. There are theological concerns related to what this means, and there are also concerns about freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  We were promised change, and it looks like we are getting what we were promised.  Read Dr. Mohler’s excellent blog on prayer.