February 6, 2015

The Word of God

I have this "thing" about Facebook. Yes, I am addicted to social media, all of them, but Facebook, in particular. I check Facebook as soon as I have roused myself from sleep, thanked God for another day, and checked my email. Facebook and me -- we are best buds -- always together, always hanging out, always sharing the latest "news" about mindless unimportant things. Yep, it is true.

I think sometimes the reason I hang onto social media is the immediate connection I get with my family and friends. In many ways, it keeps me connected to them, to their lives. I know I should spend time in face to face or phone conversation, but I don't always have time (er, make the time) to do that, so social media fits the bill. I also think that some of my desire to stay connected is the fact that growing up, I always felt like I was in the outer circle of the "in group." I didn't fit in, I didn't socialize well, and often I was excluded from whatever the "in group" was doing, was thinking, or was saying. Social media places me in a group, a social group, whereby I feel I belong and whereby I feel that I am part of something, some THING. I digress...

I enjoy the connection I feel on Facebook, but I also enjoy the games,the quizzes, and the video links to funny animal stories, funny people stories, and just plain funny "stories."

Today, I clicked on a post by Crosswalk.com. I often read these posts because the subject headlines are catchy and they tend to focus on issues within marriage or with families and children. However, almost always I am disappointed in the content. Almost always I walk away thinking "Hmm...I am not sure I agree with that line of thinking." It is not that I discount the writer or writer's love for God, their call to ministry through writing or their devotion to writing about topics that honor the Lord. It is more so that at times, these writers, take views that are extra-Biblical. When I use those words, extra-Biblical, I mean context that is founded in Biblical instruction, but through the course of time and cultural shift, has taken on "extra" implication that is not inherent in the original Scripture reference. For example, while the Bible clearly addresses the issue of modest dress for men and women, the value of dressing conservatively, modestly, etc., most Christians would agree that there is value in keeping one's private parts, private. Yet, because of the cultural shift between 1st century Christians and today's modern man and woman, we have contention over what exactly is meant by "modest dress." To some in the church, it is common sense dressing that doesn't "advertise" the private part of the body freely to the public. In other corners of the church, covering up literally means covering up -- everything in between the shoulders and the ankles. Some go as far as to require head coverings for women, beards for men, etc. The idea being that because the Bible speaks about dress, outward adornment, appearance in stark terms, these 1st century cultural criticisms are valid today. In some ways, this is true. There is nothing wrong with dressing modestly, and whether you side with the everything is covered camp or the moderately covered camp, there is clear Biblical application for guidance. The problem is, however, when someone (a writer) states emphatically that the Bible says this or that when in reality there is "gray area" in the interpretation.

In short, in many places in Scripture, we find that there is not clear application for 21st century Christians. It seems that many of these good writers focus on the "hot button" topics in Christianity, which I think, simply makes matters worse. Topics such as divorce, adultery, modesty, etc. seem to predominate these online Christian blogs. I guess this is because these are topics the Church is not addressing in grounded Biblical interpretation. Yes, the Church is addressing these issues, but in "extra-Biblical" ways. Denominational preference, political stance, Scriptural elitism all contribute to the confusion on these controversial topics. Baptists believe differently than Presbyterians. Conservative Lutherans see things opposite of Liberal Lutherans. KJV Bible readers interpret Scripture through a more narrow lens than ESV Bible readers. Since the Church disagrees on many things, it makes it vitally important for writers, Pastors, teachers, and others who find a voice and a pulpit to write, to speak, to teach, or to educate to do so with a consideration of the cultural diversity and Biblical and intellectual understanding found within the Body of Christ. Oh, I digress...

Back to my story...

I was reading a blog post written by a former Pastor. He is a regular writer for Crosswalk.com, and generally, I agree with his articles. They are grounded in Scripture, considerate of the various views in the Church, and almost always written in a style that is both Pastor-like and user-friendly. Today's post was on hearing from God or hearing God's voice. I clicked on the link because I wanted to read what the writer had to say about this topic. There is much debate in the church on whether or not we (the Church) hear from God outside the Scripture. This is another one of those BIGGIE issues where we have the Charismatic Christians on the one side and the fundamentalist Christians on the other side. Charismatics, especially those that speak in tongues, will argue that God speaks through the Holy Spirit and gives divine instruction to the believer just like in the days of the Apostles. Fundamentalists, argue that any "word" received outside the canon of Scripture is from Satan. The only voice Christian's hear is the Lord speaking to us through the written WORD (sola scriptura). Then there are the many Christians who live in the middle, either because they don't have an opinion or experience or they really don't care to know whether or not the Lord speaks to individuals in this way.

The article was interesting, and for the most part, I agreed with the Pastor's analysis. I should say that he was responding to a reader question, but rather than address the reader question only, he launched into his own experience of times when church members sought to give a "word" to him. In all cases, the "word" was false. Moreover, the Pastor also used an example of human judgment in deciding church affairs, a decision that ended badly and clearly was not from God.

I understood his logic, and I saw his argument clearly laid out as follows:

First, Scripture gives numerous examples of times when the Lord spoke directly to men (and women). The Lord called men to be prophets because they sought to hear the Lord. The cost was high for those that responded to the direct word of the Lord (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, for example). Therefore, the number of men (and women) called to be prophets for the Lord is limited or non-existent in our world today [View 1: Cessationism].

Second, through empirical evidence the incidence that individuals bringing a word of knowledge or prophecy to others is likely to be false. Evidence included three examples of when someone brought a word to him directly, and in all three instances the evidence didn't bear truth [View 2: False Prophets].

Third, in order to offer a plausible explanation of what is going on (e.g., individuals receiving word believed to be from God, but clearly not), the Pastor gave four options: 1) true word of knowledge (prophecy), word from self (mind), word from Satan, and word from Holy Spirit.

Cessationism is the belief that all prophetic gifts have ceased. This relates mostly to speaking in tongues and performing miracles, but many include gifts such as revelation (word of knowledge). A cessationist, therefore, discounts the experience of Charismatics who speak in tongues or who receive revelatory messages from God (during prayer or dreams or visions).

Likewise, a cessationist may also hold to the belief that there are no more prophets. The age of the Prophets ended with the establishment of the church and with the authority of the Apostles. They discount individuals who feel that the Lord has called them as a prophet or those that call themselves Prophet or Prophetess.

In the blog article today, I took no issue with the fact that the writer clearly leans toward cessationism. There are many within the church who feel this way (John MacArthur is one of the biggies who believe these gifts are no longer functioning in the church today). My only concern was with the writers third premise, and that is that the voice many believers hear in their heads or hearts is not always from the Holy Spirit. I should add this caveat, and that is, that I believe that we can be deluded in what we hear. Satan is always on the prowl to deceive us and to devour us. The Word tells us clearly that we must always 'test the spirits' (1 John 4:1 - Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out.) My point of confusion was in his explanation on the difference between soul conversation and spirit conversation. Let me explain...

According to this Pastor, soul conversation is any conversation we have in our mind. I would liken his explanation to that of a person talking to his or herself or hearing his or herself talk (if that works for you). The Pastor uses the term "soul" to mean the actions of the will and human emotions. This is partly accurate, but not completely correct. According to the Holman Bible Dictionary, the soul is the essence of the human being or "The soul designates the human person" (Butler, 2014). The word "soul" is translated in different ways in the Scriptures, but always reflects the unity of the created person (body and soul -- one entity). Butler goes on to say that at no time does Scripture refer to the "soul" as being a separate part of the body. This is a false belief that the soul is distanced from the body, and even in death, the soul and body remain intact. This definition begs the question then of why we think of the soul as a unique part of our body as though we are made up of flesh (bones, blood, skin, organs) and soul (human mind, intellect, emotions). If we study philosophy, we will see that this separatist view comes from Greek philosophy and not the Bible. According to Scripture, the Bible speaks of the human being as a complete created entity -- encompassing all of those elements -- and not as distinct parts of the whole.

For clarification and a possible explanation, Butler states,

"Soul designates the feelings, the wishes, and the will of humans. The work of the throat, its hunger and appetite, stands for the desire and the longing of the human being after power and sex, after satisfaction, and after even the evil (Proverbs 21:10 ), but also after God (Psalm 42:2-3 ). The soul can be incited, embittered, confirmed, unsettled, or kept in suspense (Acts 14:2 ,Acts 14:2,14:22; Acts 15:24; John 10:24 )."

I think this is what the Pastor was driving at with his explanation, but because he wasn't completely clear, his view sided with that of Greek Philosophy, and placed the will, the motions, the mind, as being something that could be manipulated or that was separated from the body.

The other issue I struggled with was as a result of his explanation of "soul" conversation was his belief in "spirit conversation." I totally get that the Holy Spirit speaks to us, through the reading of the Word, the preaching of the Word, and through prayer. Often, we receive testimony in the form of affirmation, of encouragement, and of discipline through the conversation of others. Therefore, the Holy Spirit actively communicates with the Body of Christ. The problem is that this point of communication rests on gray areas. If you are a Charismatic, you will use this as justification for the speaking gifts and gifts of prophecy. If you are a fundamentalist or cessationist, then you will limit the power of the Holy Spirit's communication to that which exists in Scripture alone (the revealed Word of God).

The problem as I see it, and as many scholars clearly acknowledge is that the original language of the Bible uses words such as "soul," "spirit," "flesh," in similar ways. I think because we possess the mindset of the 21st century and not the ancient world, we struggle with these concepts. According to Butler, "In both the Old and New Testaments, spirit is used of humans and of other beings. When used of humans, spirit is associated with a wide range of functions including thinking and understanding, emotions, attitudes, and intentions." Thus the confusion between "soul" and "spirit." In the human being, soul and spirit are the same thing. In spirits, as in Satan and his followers, spirits are beings without physical bodies (Luke 24:37-39).

Thus, what then is this soul conversation that the Pastor was trying so diligently to describe?

In my view, and I write this with the caveat that I am speaking freely, and without careful study on the matter (I don't have time to elaborate today - classes to prep for and go to, etc.) I believe that human beings are created of flesh and bones, but that within that creation there exists this thing called the mind, the intellect, the will, the emotions -- essence -- that is referred to as soul or spirit. However, I agree with the Biblical interpretation that we are created in the image of God. We are created beings that possess "whatever it is" that makes us feel, experience, think, consider, etc.

After careful consideration of the Pastor's essay, I came to this conclusion. While I don't agree with his argument's claim and premises, I do accept what he is saying on the basis that he is a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. My main issue with his argument is this:

As created beings who possess the ability to think, to hear, to feel, and to perceive, we are able to receive inspiration from the Holy Spirit through His indwelling presence. Does this mean that anytime we believe we are hearing a voice telling us to do something or go somewhere we should discount it has a wishful thought, a lust or desire? Is it possible for God to speak to us outside His word and the teaching of His word? I think the answer depends on your point of view in relation to the view that God no longer speaks to individuals directly, and that all prophetic sign gifts (tongues, interpretation of tongues, healing, miracles, have also ceased.

In my view, I believe that I have heard the word of the Lord speaking to me. I believe that I have received a calling to go, to minister, to study, and to be educated in order to do the work the Lord has for me to do. How do I know that this voice was from the Lord? Truthfully, I don't know that it was, at least 100%. I believe in faith that it was because the testimony that has been born from my faithfulness and obedience seems to give me assurance that what I am doing is God blessed, God ordained, and God approved. I have peace of mind, clarity of thought, and the experience of seeing miracles performed through the tasks I complete. Still, there are times when I doubt what I have heard, when I start to falter and when I question whether or not I am doing what the Lord wants me to do.

In John 10:27 ESV we read the words of Jesus when He says, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." Clearly, there is some way in which believers hear the voice of their Lord. Yes, I believe that this "way" is through the Interpreter, the Holy Spirit, who interprets for us. This is controversial, a matter of hermeneutics, because some say that the Holy Spirit helps us understand Scripture, but that He doesn't interpret it for us. However, a quick review of the dictionary definition of "interpret" and we find that it means to "explain the meaning of (information, words, or actions)" or "understand (an action, mood, or way of behaving) as having a particular meaning or significance" (Dictionary.com). Regardless of your position, the truth is that the Holy Spirit leads us into understanding the Word. Therefore, it is a small leap of faith to believe that He also guides us into understanding the Lord's will for our lives.

I believe that the Pastor who wrote this essay was trying to balance a contrary view of the work of the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, he clearly advocated cessationist views (no prophecy, no word, no tongues). But on the other hand, he also admitted that the Holy Spirit does speak to us (his term "spirit conversation"). He provided no example of "spirit conversation" and he offered no parameters for this conversation other than to say that the Holy Spirit does speak to us.

I may be parsing words, (isn't that what a doctoral student in communications lives for?), but to me, the point is mute. Sure I talk to myself, I do it all the time. Sure, I hear myself thinking or reading in this case (I hear myself reading while I am typing). I know my voice. I know my own voice. Have I received word that wasn't from the Lord? You betcha. Often, it was through well-meaning friends and family members who gave unsolicited advice to me. I have received testimony from individuals who brought a word to me, and in those specific cases, the word was received and proved effective to helping me make a decision (positive outcome). I struggle with this idea of Satan putting thoughts into our minds, and in our weakness, allowing him to delude us. I have a Biblical issue with this because I believe that if we are surrendered to the Holy Spirit, seeking His voice and guidance, studying the Scriptures, praying without ceasing, etc., then in truth, we should be able to discern the difference between Satan and God. Some Christians may not, but then they should be asking the Lord for wisdom and discernment. 

Well, that was a long post on a topic of interest to me. For what it is worth, so be it. God be praised, nonetheless!



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