Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, legacy inspires pause during 2016 election season

MLKJ

By Joe LaGuardia.  This is a new take on an old blog post; reprinted with revisions from 2010.

With a new Congress taking office, political speeches becoming even more heated, and an 2016 election season already underway, the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., this weekend should give Christians pause as to their place in modern society.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of my heroes of the faith.  For me, King’s heroism resulted from his ability to stand up against the tidal-wave of public opinion and divisive rhetoric in order to uphold the values and convictions he held so dear.

During King’s day, there were several major impediments to furthering the goals of the Civil Rights movement.  One impediment originated from the many local and national policies that upheld a “separate but equal” status quo.  The other impediment was the subtle, yet loud voice of public opinion opposing greater equality for minorities in society.

Public opinion, usually expressed in opinion polls, is a necessity in politics.  It measures public sentiment; however, what the Civil Rights era proved was that public opinion—especially of the majority—does not necessarily reflect a biblical worldview.

Politicians and pundits rely heavily on public opinion to shape national debates, and sometimes public opinion can change depending on the questions asked.  For instance, a survey may show that a majority of Americans are against “Obamacare,” but may favor the “Affordable Care Act.”  Not many people realize that they are the same thing.

When Dr. King faced majority opinion in opposition to the Civil Rights cause in the mid-1960s, he noted on more than one occasion that Christians rarely walk to the beat of the populist drum.  Nor are they to be fooled by rhetorical loop-d-loops.

One of King’s most moving sermons, “Transformed Nonconformist,” claimed that Christians are citizens of two worlds but ultimately answer to the heavenly realm. He said that conformity to public opinion can sometimes lead Christians away from Christ.

He opined, “We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability.  We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.”

For King, conformity to public opinion was simply another form of slavery: “Any Christian who blindly accepts the opinions of the majority and in fear and timidity follows a path of expediency and social approval is a mental and spiritual slave.”

He also recognized that churches can also fall prey to conformity if they do not critically assess how God might be bringing about aspects of His Kingdom on earth through reflection and dialogue.  Sometimes God’s way of doing things looks very different than what a crowd might advocate.

Churches that simply fall in line with the rest of America without a sense of moral discernment and prayer can easily blur the line between prophetic engagement and partisanship.  The church that does not embody God’s reign looks no different than a political action committee.

King’s sermon rings with a certain poignancy: “Nowhere is the tragic tendency to conform more evident than in the church, an institution which has often served to crystallize, conserve, and even bless the patterns of majority opinion…Have we ministers of Jesus Christ sacrificed the truth on the altar of self-interest and, like Pilate, yielded our convictions to the demands of the crowd?”

Going against public opinion for its own stake was not what King was all about; rather, he challenged his audience to consider how convictions shape civil discourse. In other words, King never went rogue; his convictions were born out of a strong and consistent sense of righteousness.  In spite of public opinion, which changes from day to day, King kept in mind the bigger picture of God’s unfolding history.

I do not doubt that opinion polls are extremely useful in many situations; nevertheless, they are not necessarily designed to determine what Christians are to believe about public policy. Aside from making great strides in social justice for African Americans, this profound lesson is—in my mind—one of the greatest contributions that Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement as a whole made to American society.  Let us keep King’s vision ever before us as the next election season unfolds.

Celebrating 400 years of the King James Bible

This year will mark a special anniversary: the 400th birthday of the King James Version of the Bible.  This Bible, so beloved by Christians worldwide, has become a staple in all of human history.  It represents one of the most enduring icons of Christianity as a whole.

The King James Version of the Bible got that name because of its historical roots.  Around the sixteenth century in England, King James (originally king of Scotland) ascended the British throne and found himself in one of the most chaotic eras in the empire’s history.

Britain, like the rest of Europe, was shifting dramatically because of the Protestant Reformation.  When King James took the throne, Puritans and Separatists–Christian groups on the margins–were wreaking havoc with the Church of England.

The middle class was gaining wealth; the literacy rate rose dramatically; Bible translations, such as the Tyndale, Coverdale, and Geneva Bibles were being published on the Gutenberg printing press at an astonishing rate.

King James saw the fractured empire and sought to increase his authority throughout Christendom.  He had a two-pronged strategy:  He sought political power (nothing new in Europe), and he sought religious power.

Part of this religious power came in competing with the variety of Bible translations that existed at the time. In 1604, King James decreed that a new, authoritative translation would be issued.  Thus, the idea for the King James version was born.

James’ committee of translators consisted of some fifty scholars separated into six panels.  Three panels worked on the Old Testament; two panels on the New Testament; and one panel on the Apocrypha.   After the translations were completed, the panels met and revised eachother’s work.

Upon the Bible’s completion in 1611, it adopted a very authoritative name:  The Authorized Version.

Despite its popularity at the time, the original King James Bible actually had several thousand errors and mistranslations.  Once it went public, many of these errors were marked and corrected.

For instance, a 1631 edition failed to put the word, “not”, in Exodus 20:14, thus reading, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”  The edition was coined the “Adultery Bible.”

Eventually, by the late 1700s, most of the kinks were ironed out, and we got what many Christians today consider the greatest translation in the English language.

The translation has seen the rise and fall of many nations and churches, the shifting dynamics of imperialism, and the evolving nature of missions, congregational leadership, and evangelism for nearly four centuries.  It is even popular enough for a bumper sticker or two: “If it ain’t King James, It ain’t the Bible.”

There are many reasons why the version has endured over time.  For one, the Shakespearean language is absolutely gorgeous.  Can you imagine reading Psalm 23 from, say, the Good News Bible, at a funeral?  I would never!  How about opening a night-stand drawer in a hotel and finding a New Living Translation?  Perish the thought.

Or what about all of those King James-inspired Christmas stories we read in church, in which the old-fashioned word for donkey still makes children in the pews snicker?

Also, many of our hymns are based on the translation.  In the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” no one really knows what “raise thine Ebenezer” means, but–by golly!–it’s from the King James and that’s good ‘nough for me.

For many people, it is enduring because it escaped the issues that recent translations have raised.  The King James defies contemporary English, so there is no need for tough editorial decisions on the part of modern translators.  It is not gender inclusive, so we know for a fact that it’s not “liberal.”  And it’s what Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa used, and we know that the Bible helped make them more faithful than anyone living today.

Let’s wish the KJV BIble a happy 400th birthday, with blessings for many more centuries to come.

Being a people of Baptist vision (part 3/4)

This is the third sermon in a five-part series at Trinity Baptist Church entitled, “A People of Vision.”

Text: Romans 6.  Suggested hymns: In Christ, Our Liberty (# 626 in The Baptist Hymnal 1991); and In Christ Alone (#569 in Celebrating Grace: Hymnal for Baptist Worship 2010).

“We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin…So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ” (Romans 6:6, 11).

I.

 

Trinity Baptist: A church that cherishes freedom in Christ and religious liberty

My son Hayden’s third birthday is right around the corner.  I can notice that, as he ages, he is growing an “independent” streak.  He wants to do more things himself; he wants a say in decisions (he loves saying, “no”); and he longs to explore his little world without the confines of his parent’s watchful gaze.

We humans are like my son.  We tend to favor independence and liberty.  We long for freedom from authority.  Although some men have chosen the path of tyranny–to be a tyrant over others or lord their power over others–they always bend towards (as Martin Luther King, Jr. would say) liberation and freedom.

 

As we seek to form the vision for our church’s future, I think it is important to consider how our Baptist heritage informs our vision.  The main contribution that Baptist heritage can provide is that of liberty–freedom in Christ.  Baptists, after all, have a history of championing liberty.  Liberty is the calling card for Baptists.

II.

Baptists originated in a time of political, religious, and economic upheaval about sixty years into the Protestant Reformation.  In England, King James I took the throne and prided himself on a strong government of absolute monarchy and a divinely-inspired state church.

James, (like other monarchs at the time), were having issues with several radical Protestants groups in his empire.  One group were the so-called Puritans, who thought that the Church of England was corrupt and grandiose.  They favored a split with the Catholics, but thought that Canterbury (the seat of the Church) did not go far enough in its reforms.

Then there were the Separatists.  These were Anabaptists, Mennonites, and other churchgoers who wanted out altogether.  They despised a church hierarchy and established democratic, “congregational,” churches that were autonomous.

 

John Smyth: Founder of the FIRST Baptist Church, 1609

John Smyth and Thomas Helwys were two such separatists.  They fled to Holland and  learned about the Mennonites and a fringe form of Baptism–“adult baptism”–that became popular in separatist circles.   There they grew in spiritual stature and studied the Word of God unhindered.

James and the Church of England, meanwhile, were trying to increase the State’s power.  In 1604, Richard Bancroft, then Archbishop of Canterbury, published several canons, one of which declared that the episcopacy (the Church’s hierarchy) was of divine origins.   That whole “priesthood of all believers” business was heretical.*

According to historian, William Bradford, Smyth and Helwys’ group rebelled all the more:

They shook off this yoke of antichristian bondage, and as the Lord’s free people joined themselves (by a covenant of the Lord) into a church, in the fellowship of the Gospel, to walk in all His ways made known, or to be made known unto them, according to their best endeavors, whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them.*

By 1609, John Smyth (a one-time Anglican priest) established the first (the first!) Baptist church in Holland.  Helwys founded the first Baptist church in England two years later.

Those early Baptists prized liberty in four ways:*

  1. Soul freedom: They valued each individual’s relationship with God, knowing that no person or creed can mediate that very relationship.  Also, each person must come to Christ on his or her own volition.  “Believer’s Baptism” means that a person must choose to believe before being baptized.  The “priesthood of all believers” means that people serve one another in a mutual covenant.
  2. Church freedom:  Baptists valued the autonomy of the local church.  Each church elected its own leaders, ministers, and government.  Each church ministered in its community according to its own values and preferences.
  3. Bible freedom:  Baptists knew that Christians meet God in the midst of Bible study, and that the Holy Spirit alone is interpreter of God’s Word.
  4. Religious freedom:  Baptists knew of the harsh persecution that any State church can bring, so they championed the right of each individual to worship where and how they please.  This includes freedom of religion, as well as freedom from religion.   One-time Baptist, Roger Williams, for instance, established the first truly religiously free colony, Rhode Island.  There, the first North American synagogue was founded; and Protestants and Catholics (even some atheists) lived in harmony.

III.

As Christians, we talk about this type of liberty often, but we must be careful that when we discuss freedom that it is freedom in Christ rather than freedom from Christ.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Roman churches, he was trying to reconcile a conflict between two groups of believers.  On the one hand, there were gentiles who used their “freedom in Christ” to live ostentatiously and lavishly.   Their behavior bordered on anarchy and reflected little of God’s holiness.

On the other hand, a group of Jewish converts believed that the Law of the Torah still applied to the code of conduct for believers.  Whereas one group were anarchists, this group were strict legalists.

Paul sought a middle ground by explaining that Jesus’ death and resurrection saved both groups from the shackles of sin and law, and that freedom came with a price.  The groups were once a slave to sin; Christ ransomed, purchased, redeemed those “slaves” out from sin to make them God’s very own children.

In doing so, the community became “slaves” to God.  They owed God their very life, and their conduct was going to fall in line with their Lord and Master.  “You are not your own,” Paul writes elsewhere, “You were bought with a price.”  Therefore, “Present yourselves to God as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13).

We can start to see certain principles tied to freedom in Christ:

  • Liberty originates from God’s grace, not from anything we do, say, or believe.  Therefore, we cannot abuse this liberty or take it for granted; we are merely stewards of this liberty.
  • Liberty is a result of salvation, as expressed in the act of Baptism–we die to our old selves and join Christ in his death (through baptism), but then rise from the waters as a sign that we join Christ in his resurrection as well.
  • The goal of liberty is to be freed from the shackles of this world, including the shackles of sin, of death, of a culture of violence, of vitriol and competition.
  • Liberty helps us live life to the fullest.  In the words of John Drear, “We’re free to live life to the full now, knowing that eternal life has already begun.”*

IV.

When Paul encouraged his readers to be free in Christ, he also gave them warnings to not fall back into a life of sin.  He posed this question in several different forms:  “If grace abounds as a result of sin, should I sin all the more so that grace will increase? …I think not!”

Rather, Paul–and the church–encouraged measures in order to live as “slaves” to God.

  1. Prayer and Bible Study keep us in the middle of God’s will so that we will know Him and embody His lordship.
  2. Worship in church and out, knowing that worship is the primary way to relate to God and glorify Him in all we do.
  3. Commit to discipleship and spiritual growth.  As “slaves,” we are responsible for growing in our knowledge of the Master.  We are to follow God daily and in community, seeking out a variety of methods to grow in Him.

V.

How does this Baptist liberty inform our vision?  For one, it teaches us that we are a people on a journey, seeking out what it means to balance freedom in Christ with servanthood to one another.  It also informs how we:

Live in Christ’s liberty (worship).

Grow in holiness so as to please the Lord (discipleship).

Share God’s liberty and love with those still in bondage to sin and despair (evangelism).

Connect people with a liberating Gospel (missions).

And in all things, our Baptist vision stresses that we are free!  (We are free indeed!)

Let us use that freedom to serve God and His kingdom, not to fall into the desires and “old life” of our unredeemed past.  Amen.

*Sources:

“Bancroft…”  Source: Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity vol. 2 (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), p. 152.

“Bradford…” Source: Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1993), p. 12.

“Four fragile freedoms…” Source: Shurden, The Baptist Identity.

“We’re free to live…”  Source: John Drear, Put Down Your Sword: Answering the Gospel Call of Creative Nonviolence (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 18-19.