Monthly Archives: March 2020

Wrong Responses to a Loss of Corporate Worship

When Israel lost its Temple in A. D. 70, you might imagine it would have prompted much soul-searching and repentance among the rabbis that had rejected Jesus as Messiah. In fact, the rabbis had known for forty years before that date that something was amiss. Yoma 39b of the Talmud records the strange occurrences from around A. D. 30 onwards:

“Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white; nor did the westernmost light shine; and the doors of the Hekal would open by themselves, until R. Johanan b. Zakkai rebuked them, saying: Hekal, Hekal, why wilt thou be the alarmer thyself? I know about thee that thou wilt be destroyed, for Zechariah ben Ido has already prophesied concerning thee: Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars.”

From the year 30 (give or take three years), the Yom Kippur lot came up in the wrong hand, the crimson cord that was tied around the scapegoat’s neck did not change colour, the Menorah would go out by itself, and the doors would open and close by themselves. Since Luke tells us that many of the thousands of priests in Jerusalem became believers (Acts 6:7), clearly many of them understood the significance of these events, and of the one recorded in Scripture, the tearing of the Temple veil.

But not everyone did. Once the Temple was destroyed, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai hurried to consolidate and set up rabbinic Judaism at Yavneh. Rabbinic Judaism eliminated the centrality of the Temple and the need for ritual atonement. Several texts in the Talmud defend the new bloodless and templeless religion:

Shabbat 119b states that “Rabbi Chisda said in Mar ‘Ukba’s name: He who prays on the eve of the Sabbath and recites ‘and [heaven and earth were finished]’, the two ministering angels who accompany man place their hands on his head and say to him ‘and thine iniquity is taken away and thine sin purged.”

Menachot 110a: “Whoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah needs no burnt-offering nor sin-offering, no meal-offering nor guilt-offering”.

Hundreds of years later, the Siddur (prayer book) continued the idea:
“Lord of the Universe, thou hast commanded us to offer up the perpetual sacrifice in its time and thou hast established priests and Levites in their posts and in their special status, and now the Temple has been broken up on account of our sins, the perpetual offering has been postponed and we do not have a functioning priest or a Levite in office…may Thy will, therefore, be…that the speech of our lips shall be considered an offering.”

Instead of soul-searching as to why the central place of Jewish corporate worship had been removed, the Pharisees capitalised on the moment, knowing the Sadducees had lost their power. The synagogue would now become the centre of Jewish religion, and the study of Torah a de facto form of atonement. One can imagine the argument from expediency and pragmatism: “But we can’t perform the sacrifices! Prayer and the study of Torah must suffice now.” The larger question is ignored: “Why would God remove what He commanded to be used?” The fact that the first and second Temple were both destroyed on the 9th of Av, centuries apart, should surely have been some cause for reflecting on the meaning of this providence.

But the nature of professional religionists is to keep the show going. Treat the elephant in the room as a natural feature. Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

Last week, I posted on why we [my local church] chose not to livestream. (Note, not “Why You Should Not Livestream” or “Why Only the Ungodly Livestream”. )

In that post, I explained – carefully, I thought – that there are great uses for livestreaming in the church, but the one thing we should not do is to smooth this event over. As a pastor, I understand why pastors want to be shock-absorbers, and reduce the level of panic and fear. But comfort should never become half-truths. We should not tell our people that we are really still gathering, only through a screen. We might be communicating, and enjoying the connection that digital media afford. But we aren’t gathering. And I don’t think I’m splitting hairs in insisting that we reserve the term gathering for an actual gathering. The assembly must assemble. My argument was simply: we should mourn the loss of corporate worship, encourage home and family worship, pastor and disciple through technological means, but not attempt to create the impression that we are really still conducting corporate worship, in the truest sense.

To make that attempt would be the rabbinic response. Instead of asking, “Why has God removed our opportunity for corporate worship?”, the rabbinic response says, “Well, God hasn’t totally removed corporate worship, since we still have the Internet! ” Instead of asking how God might be chastening us, we find a way to notice the crisis without pondering its meaning, to respond to its exigencies without responding to its existence. That’s exactly how you end up like the rabbis of the first century: use necessity to justify pragmatism.

Yes, there’s no question that the parallels between the destruction of the Temple and our current crisis are not without many differences. We have not lost our atonement, nor have we rejected Christ. But there are certainly some similarities: Israel could no longer corporately gather three times a year, and we cannot gather for the time being.

As we look upon the rabbis of the first century and marvel at their hardness of heart, is it too much to ask for modern evangelical and fundamentalist leaders to ponder the meaning of the moment and soul-search?

Could it be that we, and our people, have treated corporate worship casually and flippantly? Do we  attend sporadically, dress as casually as is socially acceptable, arrive late, check our phones during sermons, sleep, walk out when we need a break, and slurp on our coffee during worship? Do we sing trite songs because they are catchy or create the mood we like? Do we pray hurriedly and chattily to the Most High? Do we pay lip service to expository preaching while smuggling in our pet topics or favourite hobby-horses? Do we worship some other things, besides God: relevance, popularity, authenticity, sincerity, niceness? Do we fail to cultivate the fear of the Lord, because the fear of the Lord is alien to our culture?

Might it be that God is chastening us for taking corporate worship for granted? Could He be showing us what it is that we have been treating so casually? Might it be that some of our worship has actually become superficial and artificial enough to be a spectacle: something that can be entirely communicated through a screen?

Might it be that God is giving us that thing which people craved for, till it comes out of their nostrils (Num. 11:20) ? Some have craved internet church, home church, online sermons, convenience and comfort, and have despised gathering, prayer meetings, membership, covenanting, and ministering to one another. Now they have enough home and internet church to make themselves sick, and none of those things they treated lightly.

Could this be a moment for pastors and leaders to consider the meaning of church, the meaning of worship, the meaning of the Body (and the human body) and renew their commitment to worship instead of entertainment, to body life and not vicarious involvement, to membership instead of illusory community?

Perhaps.

Or we could assure our people that this is a technical difficulty, and that regular programming will resume shortly. Our technicians are working on it.

Why We Won’t Livestream During Lockdown (Though We Could)

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>>>  Thank you. You have eaten the bread.

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>>> Thank you. You have drunk the cup.

Sound preposterous? Why shouldn’t we do virtual Lord’s Supper? Our technology has made this scenario possible. But is it desirable? Probably most would say no. In fact, probably most who advocate for livestreaming their services would object. The question is why they would object to virtual Lord’s Supper, but not to virtual everything else.

The Lord’s Supper is that act of worship which everyone seems to understand requires physical elements, the physical presence of God’s people, and their physical eating and drinking. If we were to simulate this with graphics, icons, or little avatars, probably most would use the words artificial, inferioror fake. Perhaps some churches would make sure every believer has his own personal Lord’s Supper kit, and at the appropriate livestream moment, everyone would consume. While this would be better than pretending to eat, it still wouldn’t be much better. The Lord’s Table is a table. People gather around a table. They eat, drink, and fellowship.

When a pandemic prevents us from gathering, the appropriate response is to grieve that we cannot gather, and then do what is the closest thing to corporate worship while praying for the restoration of normal life. Creating a simulation of gathered worship, however “live” or “real-time” is just that: a simulation.

Video conferencing technology is great for many things: business meetings, certain kinds of teaching, adding an image to a phone call. In a lockdown, it’s also good for making sure every member of the flock is loved and cared for. On the other hand, video conferencing is not good for a wedding, for a feast, for a funeral, for a family reunion. Which is corporate worship more like: a lecture, or a ceremony? A business meeting, or a family gathering? A performance, or a renewal of vows?

The event of corporate worship is a very physical moment, meant for embodied beings. We are to gather. The early church would greet with a holy kiss. They would pray and sing not just to God, but “to one another” (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16). They would baptise, and renew their vows to God and one another in each other’s presence. They would read the Word and hear it preached and make commitments. They would then share a meal.

It is a sign of the pervasive mind-body dualism in modern Christianity that we think of Christian worship as primarily the communication of ideas. We think of only the ideas contained in the songs, the ideas preached and prayed, the ideas read and understood. And if that’s all worship is, then all we need is mechanisms to transfer the information. In that case, an Internet connection and a screen is all we need. The only extraneous digit in this scheme of information transfer is that pesky Lord’s Supper, which doesn’t seem to be convertible to pure information. If more churches celebrated the Lord’s Supper more frequently, we might be less willing to brush it aside as “the one thing we can’t do online”, and take the physicality of all worship more seriously.

Worship is not a transfer of information; it is a training of imagination. The way we image reality is primarily shaped through our embodied practices, which requires our physical gathering. Again, is corporate worship more like a lecture, or more like a ceremony?

Just a few months ago, pastors were laughing at this satire. Now they’re insisting that their virtual church is a great form of community during the lockdowns. But of course, if worship is information transfer, why stick with your bland, vanilla pastor this Sunday? Livestream the best preachers in the world, or download the best sermons ever preached.

Beyond all this, there is a hint of partiality creeping in when everyone advocates for internet church. Can everyone in every congregation have the same access to a livestream that they had to get to a church building? Is it possible that livestreaming favours a certain group in the church, and that churches shrug their shoulders about those who cannot use it?

What then? Am I advocating defeatism? No, but a nice does of realism would be good. When we are housebound, corporate worship cannot, and does not, happen. The sooner we realise that, the less we promote the make-believe that corporate worship is going on through our screens on Sunday.

Even though corporate worship cannot happen, we can promote and encourage the next best thing. We can provide our households with a similar order of service, so that the church, though dispersed, is still doing its best to gain likemindedness on the Lord’s Day. Families can worship together. Singles can worship privately using the same service. We can use technology to share the music or hymns we would be singing. A pastor could use technology to send a sermon transcript, or a pre-recorded sermon to all. And yes, he could also preach live to those who could access that, as long as we communicate that this moment is not an “online gathering”. Instead, it’s a painful moment of separation, where we cannot break bread together, and await our reunion. At best, it’s private worship, or family worship, aided by technology to be loosely in contact with the rest of the church.

The Complexity of Hating What God Hates

No one should love what God hates. No one should hate what God loves. But, as we have seen, God has the ability to love and hate at the same time. It is this conscious simultaneity that we lack, and which adds such difficulty to our understanding of hate.

We have seen the kind of hate which is forbidden: irrational, baseless hate, personal animosity or malice, and hatred of something precious to God. We have seen some of the hates commanded by God: hating evil, hating God-hatred, hating false doctrine. Our difficulty is how to prevent holy hatred from becoming evil hatred; how to maintain a hatred for what God hates, while still loving what God loves.

We can picture the problem in thinking how to view a particularly heinous human being. If we imagine say, an unrepentant child abuser, we should feel revulsion towards his acts. We should desire that his cruelty and selfish exploitation of the ignorance of little ones be stopped, and stopped permanently. We should desire a retribution commensurate with his crime.

But all this is true, because, unexpectedly, we still love him. We love the image of God in humans, and for that very reason, we demand that the man live up to that. We are angry exactly because he is not an irrational animal, and we expected him to behave humanely to other humans. Our demand for justice would be meaningless were he incapable of responsible choice, but is fitting precisely because we still think of him as human. Our love for him as a neighbour demands we do anything but dismiss him. We may punish him, incarcerate him, or execute him, but in each of these acts, we treat him according to his rank: an image-bearer.

Here is where we can see the great lovelessness of much liberalism. In attributing moral evil to psychological derangement, by explaining sin as a necessary result of environmental factors, by calling evil a ‘sickness’ or ‘disease’, they do not love our neighbour more, but less. For to the degree that we remove moral culpability from an adult, is the degree to which we remove humanness from him. The less responsible a man is, the more he moves towards the beasts and away from the angels. By excusing his sin with his genes and his biology, we have not liberated him, we have made him a slave of physical forces. By calling for rehabilitation, we are not offering a cure, but a life-sentence with the same sin. By insisting that society “tolerate” his sin, and referring to those who don’t as “haters”, we handcuff the man to his evil with the golden chains of society’s approval.

Christian love is real love precisely because it accords rank and dignity to humans and makes consequent demands upon them. The applications for Christians are obvious. We may feel revulsion, anger, distaste, and feel indignation towards moral sin and evil in the world. We are supposed to hate those things, and feel indignation that an image-bearer of God is deepening his union with rebellion against God. We can only do that, though, because we retain love for our neighbour. We believe “he is as we are”, and believe that he may, by the saving grace of God, leave corruption and embrace life.

Because we are also progressively being changed into Christ’s image, we should be aware of how imperfectly we perform this love and hate. Our moral outrage is quickly mixed with personal annoyance, pride, jealousy, revenge, malice, and haughtiness. This does not mean we should abandon the enterprise of loving what God loves and hating what God hates because we are likely to introduce sin. It means we attempt to be angry without sinning, without letting the sun go down upon our wrath (Eph 4:26). It means we consciously think of ways to display love to our enemy, to overcome what would become fleshly malice, if left to itself (Rom 12:19-21).

In fact, the most difficult love command is the command to love our enemies, for here love and hate meet in the same person. The Lord Jesus’ only explanation for how and why to love our enemies is simple: God also loves them, and meets their needs, ungrateful as they are. “for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:45). We are to love people who hate us or hate what we love, even while we hate their hate, and possibly, hate what they love. And we should expect that it will take growth and struggle to achieve this.

We are naive if we imagine that the world will understand this love and its concomitant hate. Theirs is a binary formula: niceness to all, and fury upon all who do not show niceness to all. Self-contradictory as it is, it is not open to reason. It may, however, be persuaded by beauty: “having your conduct honourable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good [beautiful] works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Pet. 2:12). They will likely slander all acts of judgement, discernment, and thoughtful discrimination as malicious hate, and they will likely not honour acts of love for what they are. Since that is the case, Christians should get on with loving what God loves, hating what God hates, and proving to the world that Christian love alone brings peace on earth, and goodwill to all.

God Loves (and Hates) You

Does God hate the sin and love the sinner? We have seen it is more biblical to say that God both loves and hates the sinner. Several theologians have suggested just that.

Augustus Strong wrote, “These passages show that God loves the same persons whom he hates. It is not true that he hates the sin, but loves the sinner; he both hates and loves the sinner himself, hates him as he is a living and wilful antagonist of truth and holiness, loves him as he is a creature capable of good and ruined by his transgression.”

D. A. Carson put it thus: “Thus there is nothing intrinsically impossible about wrath and love being directed toward the same individual or people at once. God in His perfections must be wrathful against His rebel image-bearers, for they have offended Him; God in His perfections must be loving toward His rebel image-bearers, for He is that kind of God.”

Even John Calvin saw that both were possible. “All of us therefore, have that within which deserves the hatred of God. Hence, in respect, first, of our corrupt nature; and, secondly, of the depraved conduct following upon it, we are all offensive to God, guilty in his sight, and by nature the children of hell. But as the Lord wills not to destroy in us that which is his own, he still finds something in us which in kindness he can love.”

The best harmony of the biblical evidence is the notion that God is able to love and hate a sinner at the same time.

Of course, this solution raises its own questions. If God is infinite in His essence and immutable as to His nature, then each of His attributes, including love or hate, must be infinite and without growth or diminution. How then could God love sinners infinitely and hate them infinitely at the same time? To love and hate a person infinitely would seem to cancel each other out. Further, are we to assume that God has the same infinite love and hatred for a believer that He has for an unbeliever, or for Satan himself? How was Daniel “greatly loved” (Dn 9:23) more than anyone else? To summarise the questions, if an infinite God loves and hates at the same time, how can there be any degree to His love and hatred of individuals, as various Scriptures seem to suggest is the case?

The best answer is that a person can be more or less identified with his sin. This is probably the idea behind John’s statement that “he who is born of God does not sin” (1 Jn 5:18). One born of God is not thoroughly identified with sin as a practice, even though he still sins (1 Jn 1:8-10). Once justified, the believer is more identified with Christ than he can ever be with the old detestable nature. Justification locates a sinner in the centre-sphere of God’s pleasure: His Son. God may be angry with a justified sinner for his sin, but Christ’s intercessory work means that the child of God is ever accepted in the Beloved (Eph 1:6). Indeed, progressive sanctification apparently moves one in the direction of ever-opening vistas of knowing the love of God, precisely because one is becoming more identified with what God loves (Eph 3:16-19).

On the other hand, an unregenerate person may be on a trajectory that drives him ever deeper into union with his sinful nature, making his sin and his person increasingly indistinguishable. He does not simply commit sin, he delights in it (Rom 1:32). There comes a point when people are guilty of such “extended, hardened, high-handed lovelessness” of God, that they come under a curse. When one thinks of extreme examples of human evil like Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot, one does not find it hard to consider their very persons as hateful, because they had become so identified with their evil deeds. To take it one step further, very few people shrink at the idea that God hates Satan. This is probably because Satan is so closely associated with his evil, that to hate the sin and the sinful being are almost the same thing, in his case.

God’s infinite love for His own image within human beings and His infinite hatred of sin in them means He cannot grow in love or hatred towards humans. Thus is not to suggest that God’s love does not truly respond to human behaviour. Instead, the trajectory of sinners towards sin or away from it drives them to be more or less identified with God’s wrath. God’s infinite love or hatred does not change, but as sinners move in respect to His holy nature, they are more or less identified with His hatred.

Finally, as Stephen Charnock put it, “punishment is not the primary intention of God.” God’s hatred only functions to preserve what He loves. Though God’s love is infinite, He values some things more than others. Uppermost in His affections is His own glory. Therefore, if sinners become so identified with their sin that they stand fundamentally in opposition to God’s glory, God’s love for His own glory will manifest itself in punitive hatred for those sinners’ rebellion, more so than in His love for His remaining and marred image in those sinners. Indeed, a marred mirror of God is all at once a cause for love and anger in God.

Does God Hate Sinners?

God’s hatred is a necessary part of His love. Whatever opposes, harms, defiles or otherwise threatens what He loves experiences His displeasure, often erupting in righteous indignation: a divine demand for change. We could say that God’s hatred is an ally of His love, destroying those things which are destructive of the true, the good and the beautiful. People who love what God loves are told to hate what He hates, or those who hate Him (Prv 8:13; Ps 139:21-22).

God hates several things: pride, lying, murder, evil thoughts, evil inclinations, bearing false witness, sowing discord among brethren (Prov 6:16-19), formalistic worship masking wicked living (Is 1:14), idolatry (Dt 16:22), and divorce (Mal 2:16), amongst other things. In fact, most every reference to something or someone being “an abomination to the Lord” refers to something that is loathsome or detestable to Him, a strong indicator of His hatred.

But the thorny question is this: does God hate individuals? Could a God of love hate people?

A plain reading of Scripture seems to indicate that, at least in some ways, He does. God is said to hate all workers of iniquity (Ps 5:5), and everyone who is wicked and loves violence (Ps 11:5). God told Israel that He hated the nations He was casting out before them (Lev 20:23). God said to Hosea that He hated Ephraim (Hos 9:15). He loved Jacob and hated Esau (Mal 1:3-4). Even where the word for hatred suggests something weaker than antipathy, one can hardly doubt that God directs this affection towards individuals and groups of people, not merely actions.

How do we reconcile God’s love for all men (John 3:16; 1 Tim 2:4) with His apparent hatred of people? One common suggestion is that the Bible is merely referring to God’s hatred of the person’s actions, where the action and the person are identified as one, but only the action is meant. But this only raises another question: can one make a sharp distinction between the sinner and his sin? And, more importantly, does God do so?

While it could be plausibly argued that an omniscient God is able to perfectly separate the sinner from his sin, the real question is whether God seems to do so in Scripture. On the contrary, Scripture often speaks of sinners and their sin in the same breath (Rom 1:29-32; 2 Tim 3:2-5). God’s wrath rests on both the sin (Rom 1:18-23) and the sinner (Rom 1:24-32). Furthermore, God does not send sin to Hell; He sends sinners there. It was not merely man’s sin in the abstract that was punished on the cross, it was Christ the Person suffering as the substitute for persons who are sinners. As one said, “There is no abstract sin that can be hated apart from the persons in whom that sin is represented and embodied.”

While a distinction between sinner and sin is a handy one for protecting the individual from God’s hatred, it simply cannot bear up under the weight of Scriptural evidence which has God showing hatred, or wrath, resting on individuals. Jesus condemns people as workers of iniquity (Lk 13:27), and will take personal vengeance on those who reject God (2 Thes 1:8). Deuteronomy 28:63 describes God’s joy in destroying those who are disobedient, which would be very hard to square with the idea of God hating the sin but loving the sinner. Even secular psychologists report a general difficulty with the idea of separating sin and sinner.

A more satisfying answer as to how a loving God can hate individual sinners than the division between doer and deed is to say that human beings are more than one thing. They are sinners, to be sure, but they are also made in God’s image (Jas 3:9; Gen 1:26). Insofar as the imago Dei is never erased, God cannot completely abhor the individual human. Augustine, when dealing with alms-giving, came close to this idea: “So then, we are not to support sinners, precisely insofar as they are sinners; and yet because they are also human beings, we must treat them too with human consideration.”

In other words, what it means to be God is to be able to love and hate sinners simultaneously. We’ll consider this possibility next.