When Christians won’t even let you think.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 June

Some Christians get awfully dogmatic.

Dogma is another word for doctrine, Christianity’s fixed ideas or official beliefs. It’s an old-timey word, so you tend to only hear dogma in older churches, or used to refer to that one movie about fallen angels who try to take advantage of a dogmatic loophole. But while the adjective doctrinal tends to mean “deals with doctrine,” dogmatic tends to mean “demands we follow doctrine.” Dogmatists are the doctrine police of Christendom.

And while the older churches have a settled, limited, fixed number of dogmas… certain Christians kinda crank out a new doctrine every week.

Fr’instance this one Texas pastor I know; I’ll call him Alfons. He has a newsletter called “These Doctrines,” in which Alfons goes over all the things he expects the Christians of his church—and really, Christians everywhere—to believe. For the most part they’re typical Fundamentalist principles: God’s a trinity, Jesus is both God and human, Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to him, the bible’s infallible. But Alfons mixes in a lot of other beliefs he considers settled and fixed and non-negotiable. Divorce, in almost all circumstances, is sin. Alcohol is sin. Women who aren’t subservient to men is sin. Hip hop is devilish. The pope’s an antichrist. And so on.

Speaking of the pope: Like a lot of Fundies, Alfons loves to mock Roman Catholics for believing the pope to be infallible. (Which they do only under certain circumstances. But Fundies don’t always know this… nor care.) Yet Alfons claims papal-level infallibility in every sermon and newsletter: He’s right, these are doctrines, and don’t you dare challenge him or you’ll find yourself fighting the God who anointed him pastor. It’s not so much about the pope being wrong, and more about professional jealousy. But I digress.

What’s the difference between Alfons’s church and a cult? Enforcement. How gracious is the leadership of a church when you respectfully disagree with them? (Emphasis on respectfully. If you disagree with them, don’t be a dick.)

  • If they figure okay, you don’t agree; they’ll be patient and over time, win you over: Not a cult.
  • If they figure it’s not okay, and you have to leave before your heretic stank gets on ’em, and they banish you to hell: Totally a cult. Just be glad they let you go, and don’t drag you to the basement to reprogram you. (’Cause some cults will. I’m not kidding.)
  • Letting you attend their services, but debating you every chance they can: That’d be proselytism. It’s not cultish… but it’s not fruitful either. Argumentativeness isn’t of God, and a Christian who thinks they can win you over by wearing you down, still has some maturing to do.
  • Letting you attend, but your beliefs disqualify you from membership and leadership: Not a cult. It only makes sense for churches to have expectations and qualifications for their leadership, and make sure you’re all on the same page. If you’re on a different page, you really shouldn’t join or lead ’em. (But if their qualifications defy the bible, i.e. they’re racist, or you gotta pay membership fees: Cult.)

Alfons’s church isn’t a cult. He’ll totally let you attend his church even when you disagree with him. He will debate you, though; he lacks maturity. He thinks he’ll win you over with clever arguments. He doesn’t let up though. So what really happens in his church, is when the people of his church disagree with him, they hide it. They never let it get back to him. And kinda mock him in private for some of the dumber stuff in his newsletter.

It may not be a cult, but it’s definitely a breeding ground for hypocrites.

Secular debates.

While quite a lot of Americans aren’t control freaks when it comes to religious opinions, quite a lot of us absolutely are when it comes to other opinions. Might be about favorite teams, brand names, or music. Definitely true of politics.

I’ve heard Christians claim this is because these other things—sports, possessions, politics—are the control freaks’ idols. They’re what people really worship; if only they were as zealous about Jesus! Thing is, overzealousness of any sort—even in the defense of Jesus—is fleshly. Paul specifically listed hostility, strife, partisanship, and division. Ga 5.20 Standing up for Jesus with such behavior is wholly inappropriate, and we’d better not see any such behavior among Christians. But when it comes to secular interests, it stands to reason we’ll see a lot of fleshly behavior.

Unfortunately, we bring a lot of these behaviors into the church with us. I regularly, regularly, hear Christians trash-talk one another’s baseball and football teams. They claim they’re doing it in jest, as friendly rivalry, but I’ve seen it cross a line here and there.

I’ve watched Christians debate, sometimes angrily, politics. Or preferences: Which computer is better, which truck is better, which restaurant is better, which phone is better, which Christian worship band is better. Come election years, some Christians straight-up stop talking to one another. I have Christians friends who refuse to be my social-media “friends” because they can’t abide my politics.

And Christians can be just as dogmatic about these secular things. Alfons is convinced you can’t be a legitimate Christian if you don’t support the president like he does. And he jokes he’s not so sure about you if you’re not a Dallas Cowboys fan… but considering his devotion to the team, y’gotta wonder whether he truly is joking.

It’s downright uncomfortable when you’re in a church where everybody, leaders included, loudly praise people you think are awful human beings. People switch churches over this sort of thing. Not that any partisan church is a good thing; the only kingdom a church should ever support is God’s. Anything else is treason to King Jesus. When he returns he’s gonna overthrow those other kingdoms, y’know.

But even well-meaning Christians slip up and treat their idols as if they’re mandatory expectations for fellow Christians. And if anyone says otherwise (or dares rebuke ’em for the obvious idolatry), they’re not welcome in church any longer. ’Cause teams, bands, parties, candidates, and affiliations are among their dogmas.

Freedom in Christ.

Christianity does have certain fixed beliefs. I’m not saying we don’t! I’m not saying Christians are totally free to believe whatever we please, yet still call ourselves Christian. If we’re not Christ-followers we’re not Christian; if we don’t make any effort to reform our thinking so we think like he does, bear fruit like he does, and walk like he does, 1Jn 2.6 it doesn’t matter how we brand ourselves.

And churches are right to encourage Christians to follow Jesus. Absolutely right to go digging through the bible, find out what Jesus teaches, find out what Jesus expects, and hold the attendees (and especially members and leaders) accountable to that. That’s kinda why the church exists! We help one another follow Jesus better.

But does it help when we police one another?

Only to a point. Fr’instance children and newbies: They don’t always know what’s appropriate. I had a newbie friend who swore a lot. I had to remind him more than once: His colorful metaphors were freaking out certain Christians who lack the grace to forgive such behavior. “You gotta watch out for weaker Christians,” I reminded him. “You and I can hear such things and think nothing of ’em, but it’s horrifying them.” Ro 14.13

But I never threatened to penalize him for swearing: That’s not for me to do! He’s gotta learn to govern himself. We all do. Fining him for swearing, or threatening he might lose his salvation over swearing, is cult territory. At most, I can ask him to leave a group till he gets control of himself. That’s it.

In leadership, we always gotta consider grace. The goal is never to punish the wicked and kick people out; it’s repentance and restoration. What’ll get ’em to follow Jesus better, and get back into our group? That should be our only consideration.

And yeah, we also have to give grace to those weaker Christians—the snowflakes who insist we can only share their teams, their politics, their dogmas; that “no good Christian” would wear makeup, drink beer, watch R-rated movies, play cards, listen to rap, or other Christianist taboos.

If Christians can’t practice grace, they’re wholly unsuitable for Christian leadership. Christ is nothing but gracious, and his church should be so too. If your church is led by graceless Christians, who pick apart every stray word which comes out of your mouth, I don’t blame you for not wanting to go to that church. I don’t wanna go there either.

The subtler type of racism.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 June

I occasionally bump into an odd phenomenon; one I briefly mentioned in my article on white Jesus. In short, it’s racism—the type people tend to get away with because it’s subtle.

But first, a big long bit of backstory.

Robert Edward Lee was the commanding general of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the United States Civil War. (The U.S. Army started burying soldiers on Lee’s front lawn during the war, as a way to stick it to him. It’s now Arlington National Cemetery.) Lee was one of the better generals in the war… and arguably it’s because he was such an effective general, the war lasted way longer, and killed more, than it ever should have.

Y’might get the idea I don’t think much of Lee, nor the reputation the American south has granted him in the 150 years since the Civil War. You’d be absolutely right.


Robert E. Lee, 1863. Wikipedia

Idol of Lee on his horse Traveller, erected in Charlottesville in 1925. Wikipedia

When Lee originally joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the man swore to defend the Constitution of the United States. Yet he participated in armed rebellion, supporting a separatist nation whose primary reason for existence, explicitly stated in their new state constitutions, was to perpetuate slavery. Southerners reimagined Lee as a noble man, conflicted ’cause he didn’t want to shatter the union his own wife’s grandfather had created. (Her grandfather? George Washington. Yes, that George Washington.) Despite his moral quandary, Lee simply couldn’t bring himself to fight and kill his fellow Virginians. Marylanders and Pennsylvanians, no problem.

Do I sound harsh? I’ve been accused of that. But even by standards of the day, Lee’s behavior is inexcusable. George Washington had recognized the immorality of slavery and freed his own slaves. His adoptive son, George Washington Custis, had freed some slaves, and the rest of Custis’s slaves also expected to be freed at his death, but that didn’t happen. Hence Lee held these very people, hundreds of them, in captivity. Kept ’em in shacks on his land. Worked ’em without pay. Had ’em flogged when they displeased him. As general, he permitted his troops to enslave any free blacks they encountered. And of course they killed American soldiers so they could continue all these offensive practices. Lee never spent an hour in jail for it; he was graciously given amnesty. If anything I’m being generous too.

Southerners are slowly starting to come round to the fact Lee is an embarrassing part of their history. Not someone to be celebrated.

The reason this process is so slow? White supremacy.

From the end of the war till 1877, white supremacists were suppressed by the Army. That stopped after the Republicans made a deal so they could steal the 1876 presidential election. Back then (before the parties traded worldviews in the 1960s), the Republicans were the liberal equal-rights party and the Democrats the super-racist conservative party. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden had unexpectedly won. Republicans were horrified. Congress had to ratify the election, so Republicans held it up for a bit while they struck a deal with the Democrats: If they conceded the election to Rutherford Hayes, the Republicans would pull the Army out of the south, and let the white supremacists do as they pleased. Whatever happened thereafter, happened.

What happened was Hayes was a useless one-term president. And southern Democrats created racist “Jim Crow” laws which made life utter hell for southern blacks for a century. White supremacists repainted the Civil War as a noble but failed cause, just like Gone With the Wind depicts it: They were just fighting for their slaveholding way of life; for their slaveholding heritage; for states’ rights to perpetuate slavery; nevermind northern states’ rights to not return runaway slaves.

And that’s when all the pro-Confederacy idols cropped up. Yes of course it’s civic idolatry. Racist style.

Including the idol of Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was commissioned in 1917, built in 1925, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Currently the state of Virginia is trying to take it down in response to the Black Lives Matter protest—and it’s about time. But white supremacists have been fighting that for years. A judge is currently blocking its removal.

Back in April 2017 the Charlottesville city council decided to sell it, and rename Lee Park as Emancipation Park. So white supremacists threw a big rally in August at the University of Virginia campus, where one of the white supremacists ran a car into counter-protesters. Some of ’em were waving Nazi flags right alongside their Confederate flags. (Nazis are another group white supremacists are trying to repaint as a noble but failed cause.)

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee had tweeted at the time,

I don’t care for everything Huckabee tweets (I don’t share his sense of humor at all), but I liked this one so I retweeted it. Didn’t take long before I got these two responses:

  • “[It’s wrong] for ANY race to think they are superior to another. There are racists on both sides.”
  • “No worse than black racism. Racism is racism. There no runner-up prize.”

And someone who tried to pivot to a discussion of black people’s sins. See, when you can’t defend your own behavior, deflect as best you can.

“Don’t forget there are black racists.”

Of course black racists exist. I’ve met a few. When I went to college in Sacramento, I lived in a predominantly black neighborhood. Worked for a black newspaper. And every so often, someone would come into the office who was a little bothered there was a white guy in there. Shouldn’t the jobs at a black newspaper, they figured, go exclusively to black people?

I tell this story to people and they respond, “Ah, that’s reverse racism.” Nah, it’s just racism. “Reverse” suggests maybe it’s normal for whites to be racist, and I definitely object to that idea.

Some of the racism came from the Nation of Islam. Its leaders have notoriously taught that white people were invented 6,600 years ago by a black scientist named Yakub, who bred people till they turned into white devils. (I’m not kidding.) True, many whites have acted profoundly devilish towards blacks and Muslims, and not just in the past. But their Yakub myth guarantees whites and the NOI aren’t gonna reconcile anytime soon.

And some of the racism came from people who had awful experiences with whites in the past, and didn’t expect me to behave any better. Kind and friendly to me to my face, but I overheard ’em when my back was turned. Sad to say, it wasn’t my first experience with this type of racist: My relatives are just the same. Friendly in public, racist in private. Any people of color they personally know are “one of the good ones,” yet everybody they don’t know is gauged by whatever offensive stereotypes they persist in believing.

Still, Huckabee’s comment is about how white supremacy is evil. Why’re people suddenly bringing up black racists? Yeah they exist; it goes without saying. So why do people suddenly feel the urge to say it anyway?

It reminds me, I told the commentators, of a little kid who’d just been caught disobeying. The parents told him, “Stay out of the cookie jar,” and caught him with his hand in it not two minutes later. As kids do, his defense was, “But the other kids got into it too.” Not too dissimilar from Adam pointing the finger at Eve when God caught ’em eating from the wrong tree. Ge 3.12

I hadn’t accused any of my Twitter followers of white supremacy. I’d simply agreed with Huckabee’s statement. And their response wasn’t, “That’s right, white supremacy is evil.” It was, “Don’t forget not all racists are white.” It’s the reaction of a kid whose hand was in the cookie jar.

Is that the button I pushed? Of course it is. These people identify with white people so strongly, they feel they need to respond to any objection to white misbehavior. They’re speaking up for their race. I never asked ’em to (and certainly don’t recognize them as any such spokesperson). But they felt it necessary.

Pity instead of defending themselves, or joining the condemnation of a sinful fringe group, they chose to point fingers: “Don’t forget their sins.”

Yeah yeah yeah. But let’s return to yours, shall we?

Passive racism.

A lot of racists are entirely sure they’re not racist… solely because they don’t hate other races.

Because they assume hatred is how we define racism. Racists hate. Ergo if you don’t hate, you’re no racist. That’s why the president says racist things, creates racist policies, yet insists he’s no racist: He doesn’t hate other races, so he’s clearly not racist.

These folks don’t love other races either. But all they focus on is how they don’t hate them.

So they imagine they’re not racist. Even as they quietly discriminate between one person and another, for better or worse, entirely based on the stereotypes they hold about different races, ethnicities, nations, religions, and cultures. That’s why my family members believe they’re not racist when they totally are.

At the foundation of all this is total depravity: Humans are self-centered. We primarily think of ourselves, and not so much others. We don’t love our neighbor as ourselves; we love ourselves, and don’t hate our neighbors, and figure that’s just as good. We love ourselves, our own, and however far we care to extend “our own.”

For some Christians, they love their fellow Christians. Or at least their fellow Protestants, or fellow Evangelicals, or fellow conservative Evangelicals. Or pretty much their own denomination. Or not even that; just their church. Or not their church either; just the people in their bible study. Well, a few of them.

For some Americans, they love their fellow Americans. So long that they’re “real Americans,” by which they mean Americans who share their politics. Or who “act American,” by which they mean act like them… or to be blunt, act white. Because white is “normal” and “regular,” and everything else, not so much.

Once we finally define those boundaries, whether they’re wide or narrow, we humans figure we’re in competition with everybody outside the boundaries. Us versus them. Our team versus theirs. Needy versus wealthy. Progressives versus conservatives. Christians versus Muslims—sometimes teaming up with the Jews, sometimes not. Whites versus nonwhites.

Usually we’re competing for power. Sometimes political, sometimes economic, sometimes for attention and resources.

So when white people get accused of racism, they defend the team, and counterpunch at the other team: “What about the black people?” After all, if we’re in competition, we’d better not be the only group getting a yellow card. Black folks have their racists too!

Yep, that’s the mindset behind their slogan, “All lives matter.” It’s their tone-deaf response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which was created to address the very real problem of institutional racism: When a black kid walks down the street, far too often white cops don’t think of him as a pedestrian, but as a perpetrator. They don’t know what he perpetrated, but they take it upon themselves to find out. And way too often it ends with a dead kid. All my life I’ve walked through neighborhoods at night, and never once been questioned by police. But my black friends got questioned as they were waiting for the morning school bus. Police departments need to train this mentality out of their cops, and some do… and some don’t. Hence Black Lives Matter.

The “All lives matter” slogan would make sense if all kids were hassled by the cops. They aren’t, so it doesn’t. It’s really just white idiots who don’t understand the issue at all… but they still want equal time. If it’s not about them, they wanna shoehorn themselves in there somehow. It’s more selfishness than racism.

But it does stem from racism: The passive stuff. The subtle racism. Closet racism. Whatever you care to call it: When people don’t love their neighbors enough to identify with them, come alongside them, love them, and surrender their power and privilege if only it might help them.

It confuses people because they realize something’s wrong with this mindset, but they can’t pinpoint the problem. They figure since they tend to see it among conservatives, it must be a form of conservatism. It’s actually not; I’ve known liberal and progressive racists who are insultingly condescending towards nonwhites. The jerkish behavior has nothing to do with politics, although it becomes painfully obvious when politics come up. It has to do with the absence of love. They don’t love their neighbors.

So call it what it is. Out it whenever it’s practiced. Rebuke it.

If Christians find ourselves in any position of privilege whatsoever, we’re meant to use it to help others So do love your neighbors. Speak out. And, in case you don’t figure these people legitimately are your neighbors, love your enemies and opponents too. That’ll work just as well.

Worship. (It’s not just music.)

by K.W. Leslie, 09 June
WORSHIP 'wər.ʃəp noun. Reverence and adoration suitable for a deity; also often demonstrated to a certain principle, person, or institution.
2. Feeling or expression of such reverence and adoration; the acts or rites which make up a formal expression, such as religious ceremonies.
3. verb. To perform acts and rites of worship.
[Worshiper/worshipper 'wər.ʃəp.ər noun, worshipful 'wər.ʃəp.fəl adjective.]

When Christians pray, frequently we worship God at the same time.

The ancients defined worship as acts of reverence and devotion, same as we do. Middle easterners would usually get in the “downward-facing dog” yoga pose, putting their heads to the floor before before their gods and kings. That’s how they showed obeisance, an old-timey word for ceremonially humiliating yourself in honor of somebody else. Kings got off on that.


From the Black Obelisk of Šulmānu-ašarēdu 3: Northern Israeli king Jehu ben Jehošafat of Samaria worships Assyrian king Šulmānu-ašarēdu bar Aššur-nasir-apli, to whom he paid tribute. Probably took place in 833BC; the stone dates from 827. Wikipedia

For convenience (and partly out of pride), westerners simplified this: You could kneel and bow, but head to the floor isn’t necessary. Or you needn’t go all the way down to the ground. Or at least bow or curtsy. Whatever satisfies the person you’re worshiping… and isn’t too difficult a posture for you to get into.

Westerners also added another definition to worship: We might feel worship. That is, we feel like someone’s worthy of reverence and adoration… but we don’t assume the position before them. This meaning was also invented for convenience; somebody might get caught not performing the appropriate acts of worship, but could claim they certainly felt worship, and shouldn’t this count just as much?

The United States banned nobility in our Constitution, so most Americans have the attitude we don’t worship anyone but God. Yet we still stand when presidents, governors, judges, or mayors enter the room. Some of us bow to visiting royals… and rock stars. We don’t always identify this as worship, but that’s exactly what it is.

But this wouldn’t be enough for ancient middle easterners: They expected you face down on the ground, doing obeisance to the king or gods. Or you’d suffer consequences. And in the case of the LORD, doesn’t he totally merit this level of respect? It’s why Muslims still get down and put their heads to the floor five times a day: God is most holy, most worthy.

Some of us Christians pray the very same way: On the floor, face down, honoring God. Posture’s important.

Worship versus service.

Christians figure bowing or prostrating isn’t the only form of worship. We figure service is a form of worship. When we do good works on God’s behalf, and love our neighbors like he commanded us, that’s worship too.

Well… we might’ve added that definition to worship, but the scriptures didn’t. They distinguish between worship and service.

Luke 4.8 NIV
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

And no, this isn’t just Hebrew poetry, where we’re repeating the same idea with different words. Because there are plenty of instances in the Old Testament which contrast the two. Namely how people worshiped the LORD, but insteada serving him, they served pagan gods. The Samaritans, fr’instance:

2 Kings 17.33, 41 NIV
33 They worshiped the LORD, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought.
 
41 Even while these people were worshiping the LORD, they were serving their idols. To this day their children and grandchildren continue to do as their ancestors did.

The New Testament too. Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of people who worshiped the LORD in temple and in public, but privately bent his commands beyond the breaking point, and taught it was okay to do so.

Mark 7.7 NIV
“‘They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’”

Y’know, kinda like certain Christian hypocrites do: They’ll perform acts of reverence and honor to Jesus, but outside the church building they’ll only serve Mammon.

True, if we worship God we should likewise serve him. And prioritize our service to him instead of prioritizing our jobs, bosses, family members, public approval, our finances, our convenience, or our comfort. One should follow the other, just like good works is the Spirit’s fruit, and evidence of salvation. But they’re not the same thing—same as good works don’t save.

Good deeds and obedience aren’t worship. They’re the result of worship. If we worship God, if we truly revere and adore him, we’re gonna want to obey him; we’re gonna want to be good like he is. These things prove we’re not just going through the motions of worshiping God, but that we authentically worship him. “In spirit and in truth,” as Jesus put it; Jn 4.23 it’s not half-hearted or hypocrisy, but full-hearted and real.

Worship versus music.

Christian music which praises God, usually which praises him second-person with a lot of “you” statements (“You are holy, you did such-and-so, I love you,” etc.) tends to get called worship music, and for a lot of Christians it’s called “worship” for short. The unfortunate side effect is Christians, particularly newbies, get the idea worship music is worship: We worship God by singing Christian songs.

And it can be. Worship’s about acts of reverence and devotion, and of course the feelings of reverence and devotion—and few things trigger feelings like music. Some of us are easily gonna get whipped into a lather for God with some really rockin’ worship music.

Others not so much. Which is why they hate worship music; they see it as emotionally manipulative. And let’s be blunt: It is. Is this a bad thing? Depends on why music pastors wanna make us emotional, and since most of ’em simply want us to worship God, I don’t see this as a problem whatsoever. (Now if their goal is to make us think they’re awesome musicians, or want us to lower our defenses so they can preach bulls--- and heresy without question, big problems.) You want people to adore and revere God, music’s a useful shortcut. One God is fully aware of—and endorses! Didn’tcha notice the five-volume book of Psalms in the bible?

But again, music isn’t worship. Music inspires worship. People sing about how awesome God is, and it reminds us and gets us to love and honor him. If it’s good music, performed well, people won’t be distracted by the music and musicianship itself, and can solely focus on God. If the words are good content, and accurately describe God instead of naïvely distorting him, we’ve got a good picture of God in our minds instead of the usual pop-culture junk, and love him for who he is instead of what we project upon him.

And if you wanna do it facing the floor, or waving your hands in the air, praising Jesus like y’just don’t care—hey, do whatever honors God.

Ritual worship.

Obviously the bible describes a bunch of ritual acts of worship. Like ritual cleanliness, ritual sacrifice (largely stuff we as Christians needn’t do anymore), and various sacraments. When pagans think of worship, that’s generally what they think of: Us doing weird church rituals.

And yeah, we can do rituals as part of our worship. But back to Jesus’s idea of worshiping in spirit and truth: Do we practice these things in reverence and devotion to God, or are we doing them because “that’s just what we do”? (Or, in the story where Jesus spoke of worship in spirit and truth, “that’s where we oughta do it”?) Yeah we should do sacraments, ’cause God thinks sacraments are important. But more important is our attitude during these sacraments. We’re doing ’em out of love, not duty; with grace, not with nitpicking how other Christians don’t do ’em the same way we do ’em.

The core of our worship, the spirit and truth of our worship, should always and only be our love of God. It’s the whole point. Otherwise why do it? Why go through the motions? Why get on the floor, go to singalongs on our day off, eat tasteless crackers, or otherwise make these efforts?—and it’d better not be to make others think we’re holy or superior. If we love God, we worship him.

And from there, all else follows.

666, the Beast’s number.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 June

In Revelation John was given an apocalyptic vision of two animals. The first is a leopard with bear paws, seven heads, and 10 horns; and it fights the saints and gets the people of earth to worship it. Christian popular culture tends to call it the Beast, as the KJV translates θηρίον/thiríon; or the Antichrist, ’cause too many of us speculate it’ll claim to be Christ. (Even though Revelation says no such thing. Go look.) The second animal has horns like a lamb, performs “miracles” in support of the first animal, and forces everyone to worship the first animal and its talking ikon.

And this:

Revelation 13.16-18 KWL
16 It made it so everyone—small and great, rich and poor, freemen and slaves—
might give themselves a stamp on their right hand, or on their forehead.
17 Thus no one was able to buy nor sell unless they had the stamp:
The first animal’s name, or the number of its name.
18 Here’s some wisdom: Those with a brain, calculate the animal’s number.
It’s a person’s number, and its number is 666.

The UBS Greek New Testament spells it out as ἑξακόσιοι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ/exakósiï exíkonta ex, “six hundred sixty six.” The Textus Receptus instead uses the Greek letters ΧΞϚ, which is how ancient Greeks wrote numbers before they discovered Arabic numerals: They borrowed letters from their alphabet. The first nine letters were the first nine numbers; the next nine were the numbers 10, 20, 30, and so on up to 90; the next nine were the numbers 100, 200, 300, till they ran out of letters. So chi was used for 600, xi for 60, and stigma for 6.

There’s a textual variant in some ancient copies of Revelation which says the number is 616. So a lot of bibles mention that in their footnotes… just in case. Y’never know.

So if you have a brain, and wanna know who the leopard with seven heads represents, its number is 666. Figure it out!

Here’s the problem: Too many people don’t have a brain, and aren’t gonna bother to figure it out. They’re just gonna connect the dots, then panic. Fear makes people stop thinking, y’know: Fight-or-flight kicks in, and that’s all they do from that part onward. It’s why John addresses those of us who pursue wisdom: Don’t squander this clue.

First we gotta learn what a person’s number is. And no, I’m not talking about your social security number, your employee ID number, your credit card number, your PIN number, or any of the other numbers arbitrarily or deliberately connected to you.

Gematria.

A lot of people correctly figure “the number of a man” Rv 13.18 KJV is figured out by taking their name, converting the letters into numbers, and adding up all the numbers. Or if you’re really desperate to find a connection, doing some other stuff to the numbers: Multiplying ’em, bunching ’em together; anything which adds up to 666. Anything which connects the dots.

So how do we convert letters into numbers?

Well, most of us learned to cypher when we were kids. Cypher is to substitute something else for the letters of our alphabet. Sometimes another letter; sometimes a number; sometimes a symbol. (Some daily newspapers still publish cyphers, give you a few hints as to which letter meant what, and let amateur codebreakers have a little fun trying to crack the cypher.) The most basic cypher we learned was the simple letter-to-number substitution cypher: A=1, B=2, C=3, and so on till Z=26.

And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught Christians trying to use this cypher to figure out if someone’s the Beast.

When John wrote Revelation, was he thinking about the English alphabet? Or its predecessor the Latin alphabet? (Same alphabet, but I was split into I and J, and V was split into U, V, and W.) Not even close. For that matter the Latins didn’t even do this themselves. They decided I=1, V=5, X=10… you know, Roman numerals. (As you’ve seen on clocks, Super Bowls, and Star Wars episodes.)

John wasn’t speaking of calculating “the number of a man” with the Latin alphabet. Nor even the Greek alphabet. He had Hebrew in mind. Because calculating a person’s number was a Jewish practice. They called it gematria—from a bad translation of γεωμετρία/geometria, “geometry.” Many Jews still practice it, as part of Kabbalah.

Same as the Greeks, the Hebrew alphabet assigns a numeric value to each Hebrew letter. Today’s Hebrew-speakers still use it sometimes, same as we do with Roman numerals.

LETTERNAMEVALUE
אalef1
בbeit2
גgimel3
דdalet4
הhe5
וwaw6
זzayin7
LETTERNAMEVALUE
חkhet8
טtet9
יyod10
ךכkaf20
לlamed30
םמmem40
ןנnun50
LETTERNAMEVALUE
סsamek60
עayin70
ףפpe80
ץצchadë90
קqof100
רresh200
שsin300
תtav400

So alef is 1, bet 2, gimel 3, and so forth till 10; then they go up by tens, then hundreds till you’re out of alphabet.

Notice kaf, mem, nun, pe, and chadë have two letters. The second letter (usually the one with the tail) is a sofít, a final-case letter. You know how we have uppercase letters at the beginning of some words? Final-case is the form which goes at the end of words. Since some folks wish Hebrew had 27 letters instead of 22 so they could count up to 900, they claim those final-case letters have extra values:

LETTERNAMEVALUE
ךkaf sofit500
םmem sofit600
ןnun sofit700
ףpe sofit800
ץchadë sofit900

But nearly every Jew gives the final-case letters the same value as usual.

So every Hebrew letter has a numerical value. And in gematria, every Hebrew word also has a numerical value. Add up the value of its letters, and there y’go. Jesus’s name ישוע consists of yod (10), shin (300), waw (6), and ayin (70). Add ’em up and you get 386. That’s Jesus’s number.

(Yeah, there are folks who insist Jesus’s number is 777. That’s because somebody told them so… and they really like sevens. But obviously they’ve never double-checcked. Few do. And no, we don’t get 777 any other legitimate way. “Messiah Jesus” is 744. “King Jesus” is 411. “Jesus of Nazareth” is 1166. “Jesus son of Mary” gets 618 in Hebrew and 838 in Aramaic. The only way you can squeeze 777 out of “Jesus” is to use the wrong alphabet, or a mishmash of wrong alphabets. And gematria isn’t that hard.)

I should point out: Both Christians and Jews are really leery of gematria. For good reason. It’s not just used to figure out the numerical values of words for fun. In Kabbalah, a sect of rabbinical Judaism which specializes in mystery, they claim any word can be swapped for any other word with the same numerical value: If they share a numerical value, they share a spiritual value too. So if you wanna have a “new revelation,” it’s simple: Pick any verse from the bible, swap a few words with their numerical “equivalents,” and presto: A new teaching!

Take lo tináf, “Don’t adulter.” Ex 20.14 Tináf is worth 531. And so, coincidentally enough, is Florence Henderson. So if you don’t really feel like watching Brady Bunch reruns, there y’go: “According to Kabbalah, Exodus 20.14 can also mean ‘No Florence Henderson.’ So I’m sorry; I just can’t watch that.”Which is all kinds of wrong to both bible and to national treasure Florence Henderson.

John’s advice in Revelation obviously refers to gematria. So we’re permitted to use it to figure out the Beast’s number: Take a given person’s name. Convert it into Hebrew. (Google Translate will do that job for you easily.) Add up the numerical value of the letters.

And once that person’s name adds up to 666, he or she might be the Beast. Might not be. But if they start doing anything Beast-like, the number of their name confirms they’re a valid suspect.

I had a student once who was worried she might be the Beast. So I taught her how to calculate the number of her name. Wasn’t even close. Was that a load off her mind.

Okay. So that’s the proper use of 666: It’s a checksum to make sure someone isn’t the Beast. That’s all. That person who is the Beast will be the person to worry about. The number itself isn’t the problem.

Various other irrational fears.

Of course, I tell people about gematria and they look at me sideways: “I’ve never heard that before. I don’t think that’s right.” And they go back to their other favorite, tried-and-never-proven methods of Beast detection.

Or, more commonly, superstition. Pure pagan, didn’t-come-from-God, never-would-come-from-God, superstition. Any time they come across the number 666, they flinch in fear. Won’t abide it in their phone numbers, their serial numbers, their license plates, anything. If they’re buying groceries and the total comes to $6.66, they quickly buy something else to bump it up to $7.65.

True, the second beast uses the stamp in relation to commerce. Rv 13.17 So Christians are particularly sensitive to 666 in financial transactions. After all, that’s the most likely place the number will come up. There used to be some rumor going round of the word “Visa” secretly representing 666: The VI is obviously the Roman numeral 6; the ancient Greeks used stigma, which kinda looks like an S, for six; and presumably A becomes a six in some other culture, though I’ve yet to see a satisfactory explanation for it. (Ask whichever friends of yours post the most conspiracy theories on Facebook. They’ll know.)

But out of context, the number’s nothing to fear. It only exposes fearful Christians as lacking wisdom.

The Spirit empowers us to speak.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 June

Mark 13.9-10, Matthew 10.17-20, Luke 21.12-15.

When Jesus warned his students about the coming tribulation in his Olivet Discourse, he told ’em he (or the Holy Spirit, depending on the gospel) would have their back when it came time to testify before kings and leaders. He put it this way.

Mark 13.9-11 KWL
9 Now look at you yourselves. They’ll turn you in to the Senate. They’ll cane you in synagogues.
They’ll stand you before leaders and kings because of me, to witness to them.
10 You have to first declare the gospel to all the gentiles.
11 When they turn you in, don’t premeditate what you might say:
Instead whatever’s given you at that hour, say it, for you aren’t speaking; the Holy Spirit is.”
 
Matthew 10.17-20 KWL
17 “Watch out for the people: They’ll turn you in to the Senate and their synagogues. They’ll flog you.
18 They’ll take you to leaders and kings because of me, to testify to them and the gentiles.
19 When they turn you in, don’t worry about what you might say at the time you give a defense:
20 It isn’t you speaking, but your Father’s Spirit in you speaking.
 
Luke 21.12-15 KWL
12 “Before all these signs they’ll lay their hands on you and persecute,
turning you in to synagogues and prisons,
dragging you before kings and leaders, because of my name:
13 This will become your chance to testify!
14 So make up your minds to not pre-prepare your defense:
15 I’ll give you a mouth and wisdom which they can’t withstand,
which contradicts everything brought in opposition to you.”

Jesus is speaking of when we’re put on trial—or not, ’cause if you weren’t a citizen, Romans didn’t bother with due process, and a lot of countries behave the same way. (Too often Americans don’t either. We don’t always recall that rights aren’t granted by our Constitution but by our Creator—so due process isn’t an American right but a human right.) If given the chance to defend ourselves, or simply speak for ourselves, don’t have a premeditated, canned answer. Speak off the cuff. It’ll sound authentic… for it’ll be authentic. And he and the Holy Spirit will help.

Now this was considered a risky idea in Jesus’s day, and in the Roman Empire. Because if you were a politician or attorney back then, you were expected to know the art of public speaking; in other words classical forensic rhetoric. It was expected of every public speaker, especially if you were in government. If you had to stand before a court, a senate, a praetor, an emperor, or the general public, you had to know and follow Roman standard expectations for public speaking. If you didn’t, and spoke for yourself instead of hiring someone else to do it for you, you were considered uneducated, amateurish, stupid, and not to be taken seriously or listened to.

The rules of rhetoric.

Aristotle of Athens taught there were three things every public speaker oughta have.

CREDIBILITY (Greek ἔθος/éthos, “[good] habits”). Speakers gotta sound like they know what they’re doing. They have to have practiced in front of enough crowds to where they’re comfortable in speaking. This’d help them come across as sincere, knowledgeable, confident, trustworthy—in short, believable. ’Cause if the listeners don’t believe you, there’s no point in speaking.

If you aren’t actually sincere, knowledgeable, confident, or trustworthy, you gotta fake these things—although Aristotle preferred you actually have a good character, instead of faking one. (Word will get out, y’know.)

So speakers had to prove they knew what they were talking about. And y’notice the folks who gave their testimonies in the bible, tended to talk somewhat knowledgeably about their subjects. Stephen’s big long speech about Israeli history, given during his trial, tends to strike people as unnecessary, but it absolutely wasn’t: It was so the Judean senate would recognize Stephen knew his bible. So when Stephen came to his conclusions—that God didn’t need a temple, plus the senate had assassinated their Messiah—these conclusions couldn’t be dismissed as if they came from some babbling moron. It’s no wonder they wanted him dead.

PASSION (πάθος/páthos). Speakers have to be passionate about their causes. They gotta connect with the audience, and evoke strong emotion in their listeners.

Yes, to manipulate them. ’Cause if your logic and reasoning isn’t strong enough to make your case, you can at least gain the audience’s sympathy, and maybe tip a ruling towards your favor. So tell a heartwarming story. Tell a joke. Use puns. Exaggerate. Shout a little. Cry a little. Pause dramatically. Shock ’em with the unexpected.

Nowadays we consider emotional manipulation, in public speaking, to be wrong. Logic, not emotion, should rule the day. And to a large degree the ancient Greeks and Romans agreed. But the reality is, we humans are emotional creatures, and a lot of us do let our emotions rule. So rhetoricians figured it’d be stupid to ignore this tactic. They taught their students to do it… so everybody did it. Audiences even expected speakers to do it: It wasn’t considered a good speech unless it tugged your heartstrings a little.

So this is what Paul did in his own trials: Spoke of his past as a prosecutor. Spoke of his dramatic conversion. Spoke of his new zeal for the gospel and God’s kingdom. Then took a shot at evangelizing his hearers—as Agrippa Herod realized, and Paul totally admitted.

LOGIC (λόγος/lóghos, “message”). By lóghos Aristotle meant a well-reasoned message, explained with a little inductive or deductive reasoning.

Inductive thinking takes common knowledge (whether there’s any truth to it or not, which is the usual flaw with inductive reasoning) and try to base our conclusions on it. Deductive takes a statement, finds exceptions to it (“If my client were poor he’d rob a bank, but he’s not poor”), and whittles away at the statement till you can’t help but reject it. Rhetoricians shrewdly advised their students to not finish their chain of reasoning (“…therefore he didn’t rob that bank!”), because the audience usually had enough sense to figure that part out… plus they felt clever for doing so, and making ’em feel good keeps ’em on your side.

We see the apostles practice inductive logic by quoting bible, which their listeners trusted, and drawing conclusions from it. As for deductive logic, this appears far more often in the apostles’ letters than their speeches, but we see it pretty clearly in Peter and John’s defense:

Acts 4.19-20 KWL
19 In reply Simon Peter and John told them, “Decide, by God, if it’s right to heed you or God:
20 We can’t not talk about what we saw and heard.”

Supernatural public speaking.

Paul had been to academy, the ancient equivalent of university, studying under Rabban Gamaliel the Elder. Jesus’s students, particularly the Twelve, had not. They’d only been to synagogue. (Though their rabbi was Jesus of Nazareth, which counts for an awful lot!) So while Paul definitely received training in rhetoric, as other accounts of Gamaliel make clear, it wasn’t something you’d expect to find in synagogue lessons. Jesus was an out-of-the-ordinary teacher, so he might’ve taught basic rhetoric to his students… or they might’ve picked up some of it by listening to him speak.

Either way, it startled the Judean senators when they saw Peter and John’s παρρησίαν/parrisían, “speaking ability” (KJV “boldness”). These guys were comfortable with public speaking. Yet they had no rhetorical training the senators were familiar with; they’d never been to academy; they only studied under Jesus. Either Jesus slipped ’em some advanced subjects, or (which Jesus makes clear in the Olivet Discourse) they’d been gifted by the Holy Spirit.

’Cause God can do that. When we have the ability to hear the Spirit—and we do!—and we practice listening to him, he tells us what to say. No, he won’t take over our lips and work us like a ventriloquist’s dummy. He simply tells us what to say, and it ends up being just the right thing. It’s supernaturally good.

Is it therefore guaranteed the Spirit will get us an acquittal? Absolutely not. Stephen got killed. Eventually Peter got killed. Eventually John got exiled; eloquent or not, he didn’t talk his way out of it. The Twelve were martyred, all proclaiming Jesus till the end.

Jesus doesn’t promise any pretribulation rapture. He only promises those who endure to the end will be saved. Mt 24.13 We might not convince anyone. Might get killed. But despite our death, Jesus is resurrection and life. We may die, but thanks to Jesus, we’ll live. Trust him.

And if you ever find yourself in circumstances where you gotta defend yourself under pressure, trust the Holy Spirit. He may not give us an instant crash course in Aristotelian rhetoric. But he’ll still tell us just what we need to say.

Prophecy and preaching.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 June

Prophecy is when we hear God and share with others what we heard.

It’s not a complicated definition. It only gets complicated when people don’t wanna define it that way. When they wanna claim prophecy is only for the very, very few (not every Christian, like Joel described Jl 2.28-29); that it’s a special office, and they’re one of the few officeholders, so heed them. Or when they wanna claim prophecy ended in bible times ’cause God has since turned off the miracles.

Today I’m dealing with the second group, the cessationists. And if prophecy is when we share what we heard from God, but nobody hears God anymore… are there prophets anymore? Can there be prophets anymore?

Some’ll say no. Which is a problematic belief. If there’s no such thing as prophets and prophecy, what’re we to do with all the verses in the scriptures where we’re encouraged to prophesy, 1Co 14.5 and discouraged from rejecting prophecy? 1Th 5.20 Do we set them aside, ’cause they no longer count in this dispensation?

Others have come up with this explanation: Yes we can hear from God in the present day—through the pages of the bible. When you read God’s word, you’re “hearing” from God, aren’t you? And when you share what you read in the bible, and explain it to people who struggle to understand it… well this, they claim, is prophecy. We prophesy every time we teach bible.

Even Christians who do believe God still speaks, have accepted this redefinition: Teaching bible counts as prophecy. Anybody who expounds on the written word of God is ipso facto a prophet.

Is this an accurate definition of prophet? Hardly.

Quoting bible versus prophecy.

What makes someone a prophet? Simple: The Holy Spirit speaks to everyone. Everyone. He speaks to non-Christians so he can lead ’em to Jesus. And he speaks to Christians so he can lead us to Jesus—not to follow him in the first place, but follow him better. We Christians should be listening to him when we pray. When we pass along what he told us to others—especially when he ordered us to—it makes one a prophet.

Yes, the Spirit’s message will sometimes be a passage from the bible. The Spirit regularly quotes himself. (’Cause he said it right the first time.) So when a Christian needs a bit of encouragement, and the Spirit drops a suitable, timely scripture into her mind, it’s just as good as if he told her something new. It’s just as much prophecy as if the Spirit said something new. It’s all from God, y’know.

Okay, so what about pulling quotes from the bible when we’re not talking with the Spirit?

’Cause that’s what the Pharisees did. They quoted plenty of bible. They were well-known for expounding upon the written word of God, same as we Christians are. Did it make them prophets? Nah.

Nobody identified Pharisees as prophets until they honest-to-goodness prophesied, like Simeon and Anna. Lk 2.25-38 If all they did was expound on bible, they were’t considered prophets; they were considered scribes. They were teachers.

Ezra ben Seraiah, fr’instance. He read the entire book of the Law to the Jews who’d recently returned to Jerusalem, reminding them what was in it, and expounding on it so they were clear about what it meant. Ne 8.2-9 Sounds precisely like the cessationist definition of “prophecy.” But do the scriptures ever call Ezra a prophet? Nope. Because in the books we consider scripture, Ezra wasn’t considered a prophet. He was a bible scholar. He definitely worked for God, had a lot of favor from God, and possibly talked with God all the time. But we never see him share a direct revelation he got from God. He didn’t do prophecy. Wasn’t his ministry.

(Yes, in certain apocryphal books like 2 Esdras, God showed Ezra a series of apocalyptic visions. And if Ezra actually wrote those visions down, he’d be a prophet. But the reason those books are apocrypha is ’cause we’re pretty sure he didn’t write ’em. In the books we consider scripture, Ezra has no such visions. He just teaches.)

In Jesus’s day there were likewise scribes who knew bible backwards and forwards. Yet people didn’t call ’em prophets. They taught God’s word, and taught God said various things in the scriptures. They did all the things cessationists call “prophecy.” Yet the scribes never claimed God directly told ’em one thing or another, and that’s why people didn’t describe ’em as prophets.

Jesus, on the other hand, is called a prophet, Mt 21.10-11 because he did claim he heard from his Father, and shared what he heard. Jn 15.15 It definitely makes him a prophet.

So the scriptures themselves don’t verify this notion that anyone who quotes or expounds bible is a prophet. Because anyone can quote bible. Plenty of pagans do. But to be a legit prophet, we gotta hear God. If the Holy Spirit didn’t tell you anything, you’re no prophet.

2 Peter 1.19-21 KWL
19 We have a prophetically stable message, which you do well to heed,
like a lamp shining in a dark place till the day can dawn, and the morning star rise in your hearts,
20 knowing this first: Every prophetic writing doesn’t come from an individual interpretation.
21 Prophecy was never produced by human effort.
Instead, carried along by the Holy Spirit, people spoke from God.

Yeah, you’ll hear cessationists claim Simon Peter’s description applies only to prophetic writing; namely bible. They claim he wasn’t speaking of present-day prophets and prophetic speakers. And yet interpretive speakers are what cessationists mean by “prophets”: People who crack open a bible, then individually interpret it.

It’s already hard to defend the hypothesis God stopped speaking to his people. But flipping the definition of “prophet” 180 degrees away from how the apostles defined it in the bible so they can turn scribes (namely themselves) into prophets? You gotta wonder whether anything a cessationist teaches is in any degree reliable.

Prophetic preaching.

This said, anyone who preaches ought to first become a prophet.

Anyone who wants to proclaim God’s word, and expound on the scriptures, really needs to begin with a serious conversation with the Holy Spirit. He needs to direct what we preach. Not the guy who wrote some book of sermon outlines. Not the liturgy. God.

Talk it out with the Spirit. Yeah, you might have a bible passage you want to preach about (or are expected to preach about), and the Spirit can work with that. Sometimes he’ll override it ’cause he has something more pressing. But he needs to direct your bible study. He inspired your bible, y’know; who better? Have him show you which points to make, and especially which insights to provide.

If the Holy Spirit is directing your sermon, it’s gonna be so prophetic.

If however, your sermon outline was borrowed from a website, or a big book of sermon outlines; if all your anecdotes were taken from some other big book of anecdotes; if all your research was cribbed from the biblical commentaries in your library (even when the commentaries were written by Spirit-filled scholars): It may certainly look prophetic. And sound prophetic. If you crank up the bass in your church’s sound system, the listeners will even think it feels prophetic. It’ll be a wonderful example of your oratorical skill. But will the Holy Spirit be any part of it?

I’ve heard a number of preachers claim they had the Spirit’s guidance in their messages. I have my doubts, ’cause of various red flags. Like out-of-context bible quotes—the Holy Spirit’s not gonna misquote his own bible! Or rambling, unstructured, undisciplined, meandering preaching. The Spirit’s fruit is self-control, but when preachers exercise very little of that—or other fruit of the Spirit—you gotta wonder how much time they honestly spend with him.

If the Spirit has an impact on people through such teachers, it’s in spite of them, not through them. Wouldn’t you much rather it be through you?

Sermons, preaching, and teaching can totally come through human effort. I admit I’ve written many an article through my own efforts. (Which is why I later gotta go back and revise ’em.) But get the Spirit involved, and he’ll make it prophetic.

Love of God.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 June

Jesus was asked about the most important of God’s commands, and instead of picking just one (as the great Pharisee teacher Hillel did), he picked two.

Mark 12.28-31 KWL
28 One of the scribes was standing there listening to the discussion.
Recognizing how well Jesus answered the Sadducees, he asked him, “Which command is first of all?”
29 Jesus gave this answer: “First is, ‘Listen Israel: Our god is the Lord. The Lord is One.
30 You must love your Lord God with all your heart, life, purpose, and might.’ Dt 6.4-5
Second is, ‘Love your neighbor like yourself.’ Lv 19.18
No command is higher than these.”

So let’s talk about those commands. Because the Holy Spirit empowers us with the love necessary to obey ’em.

Starting with love for the LORD God. The Spirit hasn’t granted us his fruit solely so we love other people. It’s also so we can love him. A fruity Christian loves God. Loves Jesus too, ’cause he’s God. Loves the Holy Spirit, ’cause he’s God.

Fruitful people look forward to time spent with God. We look forward to worship—and no, I don’t mean music. True worship, the kind of worship God asks us for, is obedience and good works. Swapping out music for true worship—substituting entertainment and feel-good emotion for being like Jesus—is one of the devil’s cleverer tricks, ’cause it appeals to Christians so effectively. Nothing wrong with loving Christian music, but fruity Christians wanna serve God too, and that’s through doing as Jesus teaches.

Fruity Christians also look forward to Jesus’s second coming. We’re not hoping he’ll delay it so we can get a few other sins things crossed off our to-do lists. Nor are we looking forward to demented versions of it where we dodge suffering, or where pagans get wiped out. We want Jesus to save the world—and we wanna be with him when it happens!

A fruitless Christian prefers God stick to a weekend schedule. Stop interfering with our time the rest of the week; our “tithe” of time takes place Sunday morning, and maybe Wednesday nights, and that’s all. Any more is inconvenient, and even those Sundays and Wednesdays are kind of a drag. Whereas fruity Christians desire God, don’t wanna encounter him only at church services, doesn’t resent him taking up “our time,” and extends our worship of him to 24/7.

Fruity Christians don’t resent God for taking up our time, using our resources, denying us things, or telling us no. We humbly accept he’s Lord. We don’t keep a list of stuff he owes us, or is obligated to make up for us; we don’t plan to accost Jesus at his second coming and say, “So when’m I getting my crown and mansion, and how close will my office be to yours?” We have no ulterior motives for following God, like power and rank and wealth. We love him. That’s more than reward enough.

Fruity Christians don’t give up on God. Don’t lose faith in God. Always hope in God. Endure through every circumstance because of God. ’Cause when we love God, we do as love does—towards God.

The fruitless Christian, not so much. Lots of works of the flesh, all directed towards God instead of love. Fruitless “worship” will only consist of music which doesn’t lead us to repent any, or helps us insist we already have repented, and we’re good, and right, and justified. And therefore it’s okay to do evil and fall back on cheap grace, or hate others on the grounds they sin or are heretic. And all sorts of Christianism instead of worship.

So… do you love God?

If we love God, we follow the apostles’ definition of love 1Co 13.4-8 when it comes to God. We’re not satisfied with lip service and happy music; we act like we love God. It’ll be obvious to others. Hopefully to ourselves too.

I could rant further and hope you get the point, but instead I’ll do a quiz. Quizzes are fun.

If we love God, we’ll…

OBEY HIM. Or try to, anyway. And not just obey the convenient commands, but make an honest effort to find out which of ’em Christians oughta practice in the present day, then stick to ’em. Including the hard ones.
WALK IN GOD’S WAYS. More than just obeying God, we try to act like he does. Look at Jesus’s example. And it’s way more than just “What Would Jesus Do?”—we don’t guess what he’d do, ’cause we’ll easily project our motives upon him and guess wrong. When in doubt, ask. The Holy Spirit will tell us.
LOVE PEOPLE. Including the unloveable. As Jesus does. He orders us to unconditionally love everyone just the same. If we don’t truly love God, it’s kinda inevitable we won’t love others. 1Jn 4.8
PUT GOD ABOVE OTHERS. Yeah, that includes rejecting the peer pressure our friends might put on us to do various unholy things. But it’s even more than that. It’s putting family behind God: Telling the kids, the parents, the spouse, “No,” because you actually love and prioritize God more.
PUT GOD ABOVE MONEY. If our worship of God doesn’t result in tighter finances, we’re doing it wrong.
HATE EVIL. Primarily our own evil; we’re not gonna self-delusionally think we’re above every potential temptation. And yeah, we’re gonna hate other forms of evil, and actively strive to stamp it out. (Without unintentionally stamping on other people; we’re gonna remember to love them too.)

You should wind up ticking all the boxes. If not, work on it! Ask the Spirit for more love. Start obeying him. It’s a benevolent circle (the opposite of the vicious one): When we do for God, we love him more; when we love him more, we do more for him. And so on. It escalates. Grows faith too. Try it.

And now, a word of prayer.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 June
WORD OF PRAYER wərd ə preɪər noun. Prayer, usually meant to invoke God before a function.
2. Small sermon, disguised as a prayer. Brace yourself.

Right before we do something important—like take a meeting, drive someplace, eat lunch, get a really large tattoo on our back, or whatever—Christians frequently say, “Before we do that, let’s have a word of prayer.”

By which they never mean one single word; it’s not literal. Neither is this gonna be a short prayer. “Words of prayer” tend to be mighty wordy.

Why’s it called “a word of prayer” instead of simply “a prayer,” as in “Before we do that let’s pray”? My guess is it used to mean a short prayer, like saying grace before a meal, but over time it got longer and longer. Just like when your boss tells you, “Can I have a word?” and it’s never just a word. Maybe the intent was for it to be short—or to sound short, so you won’t dismiss it with, “Don’t have time; sorry.” The same is true about words of prayer: It’s supposed to be a brief invocation, but in the hands of certain people—who couldn’t be brief even if you strapped a time bomb to their genitals—a word of prayer is just gonna take time. Lots and lots of time.

And for most words of prayer, it’s in fact a sermon. Disguised as a prayer. It’s one of those public “prayers” where the petitioner isn’t talking to God so much as preaching to the listeners. Kinda like this.

Oh Lord God, we just wanna thank you for your grace… Your grace, which is your unmerited favor, Lord. It’s what you think about us. It’s what you’ve saved us by. Lord, let everyone in this room recognize we’re not saved by our good works, by our good attitudes, by right thinking, even by right theology, but by your grace. Lord, let us not condemn ourselves for our sins, or condemn others for their sins, but recognize we and they are all saved by your grace. Lord, make us aware of your grace. Teach everyone in this room how amazing it is.

And so on, et cetera, ad nauseam.

What prompted this ode to grace? Probably ’cause somebody in the room said something which indicates they believe good karma gets ’em into heaven, and the orator decided to correct them. But not directly; passively. Or passive-aggressively, as the case now is.

So y’know how preachers often use “word” to mean lesson or sermon? (Mainly ’cause it’s used that way in the bible.) To them the “word of prayer” means it’s a prayer which includes a lesson. One which some of ’em actually think should include a lesson. Our “words of prayer” oughta be informative.

Plus they’re a great way to take advantage of the captive audience. Some people would never let people preach at ’em any other time. They’ll go to Sunday morning services, sing, stick money in the offering, listen to the special music, then find some excuse to duck out before the long boring hour-long lecture. Or fiddle with their phone.

Plus they’re an outlet for certain people who never get to preach. At one church I visited, the assistant pastor never got to preach, but he led the “word of prayer,” and used it for a 15-minute mini-sermon. At other chuches women aren’t allowed to preach, but they are allowed to pray, and take advantage.

I can’t say I blame them, but I still discourage sermon-prayers. Let’s be blunt: They’re hypocrisy. Ain’t nobody talking to God right now. I know; when people sermon-pray they’re often doing it with the best of intentions. They wanna share something God showed them. They wanna offer encouragement or correction. Thing is, they’re going about it the wrong way. Sermons are sermons, and prayers are prayers. Crossing the two means you’re putting on a show for others to watch, and as I recall, Jesus doesn’t approve. Mt 6.5

Such people need to stop pretending to pray, address the other person—or the group—and share their information, then go back to prayer. They should do this, but don’t.

Usually ’cause they’re spiritually immature. Years ago in this one prayer group I attended regularly, there was a fellow named Fred (name not changed; I’m totally ratting him out) who regularly did the sermon-prayer thingy. He was one of those overzealous young theologians who liked his prayers to be theologically correct. And formal; lots of “thou” and “thine.” My present-day-English, blunt, confessional, definitely-not-Calvinist prayers weirded him out a whole lot. He felt duty-bound to correct me by following my prayers with his declarations of who God really is. Hardly just me; he corrected lots of others. I remember one night he and some other guy got into what was basically a sermon-prayer duel. It was amusing… but very wrong.

Fred’s a good example why sermon-prayers don’t always work. I knew Fred was immature, kinda like the neighborhood brat who runs round shouting “Butthole butthole butthole!” in the hopes of getting the wrong kind of attention. So I just ignored him. I used the time he wasted to actually pray, silently. Lots of apologies. Requests for God to strike Fred dumb, followed by take-backs. Requests for the strength to resist temptation… ’cause it was such evil fun to say “theologically incorrect” things in prayer, purely to make Fred flinch.

Anywho, avoid this preaching-disguised-as-prayer behavior. Resist the temptation to lapse into it. If you lead a prayer group, quench this behavior: “Are you talking to God, or to us? Because if you have something to say, say it. Don’t disguise it as prayer.” And if you aren’t the leader, ask the group leader to address it. ’Cause it is hypocrisy.

What about when you’re trapped in a long prayer?

In the United States (and I’ve seen this in a few other countries), when people pray, everyone else is expected to hold still, like a massive game of Christian Freeze Tag, and wait for the petitioner to be done. Can’t do anything till they’re done. Must stand there, with head bowed and eyes closed (and watering), and wait. Patiently. Wait and wait and wait.

That’s the custom. It’s a stupid custom. I ignore it.

Some folks think it’s rude of me. I don’t care. Sermon-prayers are hypocrisy. Long public prayers are hypocrisy. And since we’re talking about fake prayers, why do I have to stand at attention as if it’s a real prayer? Dude ain’t talking to God, so I ain’t waiting to eat. “Amen.” Dig in.

You’re not trapped when a word of prayer takes too long. You never have to leave your eyes closed the whole time. Open your eyes sometime and look round the room: You’ll find a lot of the people have their eyes open, waiting out the prayer leader. And some of ’em are doing other stuff. Not because they’re not devout, but because, like me, they know they’re not immobilized. They can listen to the prayer—they can even pray along—and shop for handguns on their smartphones. Y’know, multitasking.

I will say that sometimes long prayers can be useful pauses in our hurry-hurry-hurry culture. Nobody wants to stop for a few minutes; time’s a-wasting! So when the prayer leader is yammering away, these longer-than-average prayer times can be really good for those of us who need to stop and pay attention to God for longer stretches.

You don’t have to listen to their mini-sermons. Pray your own prayers. Take that time for your own devotions. Read your bible. If you can block ’em out and focus, you can even use it for meditation time. Can be nice.

Four main End Times theories.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 June

At some future point, Jesus will return. Mt 24.42, Ac 1.11, 1Th 4.16-17, 2Th 2.1, Rv 22.20 Not maybe, not we really hope he might: Will. It’s in the creeds; it’s considered orthodox Christianity. Any self-described Christian who claims Jesus isn’t coming back, or who describes his return as metaphorical or “spiritual” (by which they mean imaginary) is heretic. Sorry, heretics. He’s literally returning.

But even though Christians are unanimous in our belief “from [heaven] he will come to judge the living and the dead,” we’re not universal as to how it’ll happen. Jesus didn’t give us specifics. He gave us apocalypses, images which represent what God’s up to, but aren’t meant to be taken literally. (Not that some Christians don’t try.) His Olivet Discourse—the bit in the synoptic gospels where he talks about the End Times—and his revelations to John in Revelation are full of such apocalypses. Jesus told us what the End is like, but not what it is. The details are not for us to know.

Acts 1.7 KWL
Jesus told them, “It’s not for you to know times or timing.
That, the Father sets by his own free will.”

The Father doesn’t set it by anything we do, and certainly not our timelines of End Times events. We have to trust him to be in charge of it, and let things unfold as God chooses.

Since Christians aren’t agreed as to how the End comes, most of us agree to disagree. Most. Some of us are absolutely certain it’ll only happen the way we say it will, and have declared war on any Christian who teaches otherwise. I know I’ve certainly been called heretic by some of ’em. Sure glad those folks aren’t in charge of what’s orthodox and what isn’t.

But as far as End Times interpretations are concerned, there are four major camps we Christians fall into. So I thought I’d introduce you to them. Yes, I’ll admit upfront I fall into the preterist camp. But again, you’re not heretic if you go for one of the other views. Wrong probably, but not heretic.

End of Days.

The most popular and common view is the End of Days. This is the one you’ll find in nearly every secular Hollywood movie. Basically it runs down like so.

  • Evil starts to gather its forces for one big final showdown between them and Christ. Plagues, pestilence, horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Beast, etc.
  • Good people try to fight off evil… and lose. (Because evil’s just so powerful.)
  • Jesus returns and instantly wipes out the Beast and its forces. (Because as powerful as evil might be, Jesus is almighty.)
  • It’s the end of the world. Planet goes foom. Either it’s annihilated in the force of Jesus’s return, or he snaps his fingers and makes it go away. Gone.
  • The righteous suddenly find themselves in heaven, where they’ll live forever.

You’ll notice there’s a lot of End Times imagery missing from this scenario. Where’s the great tribulation? Where’s the rapture? Where’s the resurrection? Where’s the millennium? It’s like the short version of the End Times.

It’s because the End of Days is based on the idea all the apocalyptic visionary stuff is happening behind the scenes. They don’t play out in our human history; they happen in angelic history, in heavenly history. They represent the major events of the angelic war which has been going on since creation. But they don’t have a lot to do with us. We’re minor figures in the cosmic plan, so we don’t see these events play out. We just go straight to heaven.

The whole point of this view is heaven. Apparently all this time when people died, they didn’t go to paradise; they went directly to heaven, and have been alive there. (Got resurrected somehow, so we’re in tangible, physical bodies.) Heaven is what Jesus meant all along by “the kingdom of heaven,” and it’s New Jerusalem, New Earth already. When the End of Days come, Jesus simply takes the rest of his people to heaven. It’s kinda like he killed everybody when he blew up the world. Except he didn’t. Or did he?…

Yeah, very few of these ideas come directly from bible. They come indirectly, through folk Christianity and Christian myths. They’re guesses about the End, made by people who figured Revelation is too confusing, so they skipped it and created an End Times view which puts ’em straight into heaven. Not even New Heaven.

So to these folks, any world-ending event might mean the End of Days. A pandemic, an extinction-level meteorite, a global thermonuclear war, climate change; heck, even a space alien invasion. Anything which might kill every last human on earth… which sorta does Jesus’s work of coming to get us, and they’ll even figure that’s how he pulls it off. Why should the Son of Man appear in the clouds, when a solar flare might end the world and send us to heaven all the same?

As you can tell, this scenario really doesn’t even need God to get involved. It’s probably why so many pagans are okay with it as their End Times scenario too.

Utopia.

The word utopia was coined by St. Thomas More. It’s Latin for “no place,” because his book Utopia is a fictional story about an ideal place, somewhere in the Americas, which really exists nowhere. But the idea of a perfect society has been around since Plato’s Republic and before. And Christians earnestly believed, with the Holy Spirit’s help, we might actually achieve it. For the longest time it was the next-most-popular End Times view:

  • Humans decide to stop fighting and scratching and biting one another, and work together, under God, for the good of the world.
  • We unify our economies, unify our governments, pass laws eliminating bloodshed and poverty and promoting peace and harmony, and people actually follow these laws instead of trying to create loopholes for themselves.
  • We live in comfort and ease, solving every new problem we come across with grace and generosity. What a beautiful world this will be; what a glorious time to be free.
  • Jesus, seeing we’ve finally achieved the kingdom he wanted for us, returns to personally reign over us all.

No tribulation, ’cause the pre-utopian times count as tribulation. The Beast and its minions were defeated back when we finally got serious about sorting out the world’s problems. It’s definitely a postmillennial perspective. And it sounds an awful lot like Star Trek… which stands to reason.

Utopianism and utopian science fiction like Star Trek are based on modernism, the belief humans can re-create or improve our environment through science and technology. It’s the product of the late Enlightenment era, and it’s debatable whether Christian thinkers either invented it or adopted it. Modernists all share the same optimistic vision of the future: If we buckle down and get serious about humanity’s progress (or, for Christian humanists, get serious about Jesus’s teachings) we can actually create heaven here on earth. Isn’t this what Jesus wanted us to do?

After two world wars, the utopian view fell out of fashion. Germany used to be considered one of the more “enlightened” civilizations in the world, and attempted to create a thousand-year kingdom on earth… but turns out they were led by antichrists, and in the process committed some horrific evils. Other attempts at creating utopias, and their spectacular failures, convinced most Christians to realize utopianism isn’t really part of human DNA: Total depravity is. So Christians quit utopianism to seek a more postmodern worldview: One which recognizes human depravity and doubts “progress.” (Sometimes too much, but that’s another discussion.)

There’s still a lot of modernism in American Christianity though. Our conservatives love to claim we were founded as a Christian nation, as a special and chosen people, by God-fearing founding fathers; and if we just returned to biblical standards and principles, we could fix our nation’s problems and turn the United States into God’s kingdom. And y’know, even Christians who don’t believe in utopianism fall for this rhetoric on a regular basis. It just sounds so patriotic… and blind to the fact Germany tried the very same thing, and look where they went. All it takes is a few hypocrites in power to turn a noble idea into hell on earth.

Nope; Jesus has got to rule his kingdom personally. Unregenerate humans can’t. And once Jesus conquers the world, he’s overthrowing every government. Including ours. No matter how “Christian” we make it appear.

Darbyism.

Whenever an End Times scenario claims there’s a rapture separate from Jesus’s return, whether it happens before or during tribulation, we’re talking Darbyism. I wrote a lot about Darbyism elsewhere. If you want details about how many of ’em think tribulation looks, there’s always my old series on There’s a New World Coming, which you can plow through if you want. Or you can just read this summary.

John Nelson Darby believed God turned off the miracles in the present day, and in order to make his view jibe with the bible, adopted dispensationalism, the claim God has multiple plans of salvation. In the present day we’re saved by grace, but before Jesus died we were saved by works. Dispensationalism isn’t a proper interpretation of the bible, but Darby got it to “work” by quoting a lot out of context.

Okay, if God turned off the miracles, what about the End Times? The apocalypses make it sound like it’s full of miracles. Darby’s solution was futurism: Any End Times prophecy (or anything Darbyists claim is an End Times prophecy) takes place during a seven-year hellscape in the future. But Christians will sit out either some of it (“midtribulationism”) or all of it (“pretribulationism”) because Jesus secretly raptures us away from it. ’Cause we’re his favorites.

Goes like so.

  • The world’s Christians (the real Christians, anyway) unexpectedly vanish in the rapture.
  • The Beast takes over the world, promising peace and security, and actually creates peace in the middle east for once. But halfway through the seven years, the Beast breaks the peace to go to war with Israel—whom God miraculously defends.
  • Various plagues and disasters meanwhile smite the world and its wicked.
  • The Beast attempts one big final battle… and Jesus invades, destroying the Beast and its armies.
  • Jesus, his Christians, and Israel take over the world, and run it for a thousand years.
  • Satan tries to raise one more battle, but Jesus easily wins. Then Jesus raises everybody from the dead, judges the world, throws the wicked into hell, and replaces earth with New Earth.

Because Darbyists tend to be very detailed—they claim to know the exact sequence of events during the End Times—they appeal anyone who desperately wants to know about the End. Even if they believe they’ll be raptured out first.

But since no two Darbyists believe precisely alike, each must publicize their own specific views. Hence Darbyists write End Times books like you wouldn’t believe. Go to any Christian bookstore and they dominate the shelf. They have “prophecy conferences” galore, where you can go listen to a bunch of of ’em unroll their timelines and tell you how it plays out. Look up End Times on the internet and nearly all the sites are of the Darbyist persuasion. They even have study bibles, which’ll show you just which verses they cherry-pick to construct their timelines.

Like I state in my New World Coming articles, they’re all wet. I grew up in churches which are totally into their view, which is why I know it so well. But I hang my hat on the preterist view.

Preterism.

Jesus told his students about the End, but primarily about the near future. That future came and went. The great tribulation already happened. The bulk of those prophecies came to pass in our past. It’s history now. The only thing left, which can happen at any time, is Jesus’s return. We call this view preterism.

Not “partial preterism.” A partial preterist believes only some End Times prophecies are in the past, but some are in the future. Fr’instance they might claim the Beast came and went, but there’s still a great tribulation coming. Or some of Revelation’s plague are past, but others are yet to come.

Nor “full preterism.” That’s what we call people who claim Jesus already has returned, and is ruling the world. (If so, he’s really bungling it!) You gotta either be nuts, or have some really distorted views on God, to think Jesus has returned already.

But properly, preterists recognize the only thing we have left to look forward to is the soon, unexpected, and rapid return of Christ Jesus. The skies roll back, the trumpet blasts, the angel shouts, the Lord descends, every Christian (dead and alive) gets transformed, joins him in the air, and the billions of us proceed to Jerusalem where he takes over the world. It’s gonna freak out everyone. But it’s gonna be awesome.

The great tribulation? Happened in the year 70, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. Regular tribulation is the usual state of Christianity; Christians are still the most persecuted religion in the world, and only comfortable, safe Christians in the United States are under the delusion it’s the circumstances of a different dispensation. The Beast? There’ve been a bunch of power-mad world leaders who are decent candidates for the Beast. And so on. Go through all the other prophecies in the bible: Either they’re done—or they don’t have to be done till Jesus returns. Like all Israel getting saved. Once their Messiah arrives, he’ll sort them out. Till then, keep doing as we’re doing: Share him with them. ’Cause we’d all prefer they rejoice at his return, not freak out like the pagans.

Nope, nothing more has to happen first. ’Cause they’ve happened already. They’ve had 20 centuries to happen. You can figure out when they happened, assuming you didn’t skim that part of your history classes. Or if you haven’t already assumed, as the Darbyists teach, that those events can’t be fulfillments, ’cause futurism. But only Jesus happens in the future. Everything else got out of his way.

Some preterists call ourselves historicists, ’cause the End Times events of Revelation describe Christian history. (The horsemen of the apocalypse, Rv 6.1-8 fr’instance: The white horse’s rider, Christ, conquered the Roman Empire, and the other horses describe the backlash ever since against the spread of Christendom.) They reserve the term preterist for the “full preterists,” and mock “preterists” right along with anti-preterists.

Yeah, there are other theories.

I went through the main four theories, which you’ll find among most Christians; probably 99 percent of us. There are of course others. In fact, you might be one of those exceptions, grousing, “You didn’t cover my view.” No, I didn’t.

But I will cover this fifth one: Apathy.

“I’m a pan-millennialist,” a Christian of my acquaintance liked to joke. “I believe it’ll all pan out in the end.” A lot of Christians, fed up with “prophecy scholars” who know nothing about either prophecy or scholarship, have decided this is precisely the way to go. My panmillennialist acquaintance didn’t wanna get into End Times squabbles. He didn’t care which came first, the chicken or the Beast. He just figured Jesus would come for him someday, and he was fine with that.

And of course Jesus will. The reason we Christians fret about the End Times (“What’s gonna happen?” “Who’s the Beast?” “Must stop the one-world government!” “Must fight the New World Order!” “They’re out to kill us all!”) is fear. Since knowledge is power, we figure if we get a little End Times knowledge, maybe we can have some control over our future. But here’s the reality: We have no such control. Jm 4.13-16 Because Jesus has it.

Jesus holds the keys to death and hades, Rv 1.18 not us. It makes not a whit of difference what we know about the End. But because we think it might, Jesus preemptively stopped us from foolishly trying to control or change things… and that’s why he gave us nothing but apocalypses to work with. We get to know the future of a very few things. Jn 16.13 We don’t get to know the future of the world. Anyone who claims they figured it out, is simply trying to sell you a book or conference or video. Or they’re nuts. Either way, there are no experts on End Times prophecy. This stuff remains in the hands of the LORD, and that’s best.

What we do get to know is that in the End, God wins. Jesus reigns. We live again, and live forever. No more tears and sorrow. Evil is dealt with. Faith is rewarded. Let it be enough.

And if anyone, anyone teaches it’s okay to suspend God’s commands because the End is coming—if anyone values their own life above God’s kingdom, if anyone values their own interpretations over God’s grace and power, and if anyone tries to exploit human fears for fun and profit—they’re wrong. Don’t let fear become a justification for evil. Those behaviors put us outside God’s kingdom, Ga 5.17-21 even if we think we’re doing them for the kingdom’s sake. We’re not. They’re not. Don’t stand for it.