Today there is a national election in Australia. Key election issues include: the economy, jobs, health, education and the environment. The political parties seeking election included the Greens, the Renewable Energy Party, the Animal Justice Party, and the Sustainable Australia Party. This post looks at the foundation of the ethics and morals of the environmental movement.
I gave this message at a conference in 1998. It’s based on the situation over 18 years ago. Although the examples are now historical, most modern examples would be similar in many ways. Many people are still concerned about the natural environment.
Concern for the environment and pollution affects us all: we see and hear about it in the daily news media, it’s taught at all levels of education, it affects all businesses in some way, governments pass more and more laws about it, and in 1996, the first national “State of the Environment” report said that, “Australians are among the most environmentally aware people in the world”.
My background is in science (physics and mathematics) and environmental science. I am a certified environmental auditor, who audits environmental management systems for industry and businesses. In this message I will present the results of an audit of the foundations of the environmental movement and of modern science. So we are looking at basic beliefs, values, viewpoints and assumptions. The findings will be compared to the Bible, which I believe is God’s guidebook for humanity.
Environmentalism involves concern for the physical world, such as advocating protection and conservation of the natural environment. It’s a complex and recent subject that has developed over the past 30 years.
Model of aspects of environmentalism
A schematic diagram of aspects of environmentalism provides a framework for this message. The two main aspects of environmentalism are the principles, which are what we believe, and the practices, which are what we do. Our principles (assumptions and values) have a strong influence on our behavior. That’s why they are sometimes called “guiding principles”. This message is focused on the principles that can drive environmentalism.
According to the Bruntland Report, “Our common future” (1987), “to achieve the goals of sustainable development, good environment, and decent standards of life for all involves very large changes in attitude”. Where do these attitudes come from? Our minds. If we are consistent, they are the principles that drive our practices. For example, if we believed in the golden rule (treat others as we would like them to treat us), then we would help others. Or, if we are selfish, we may ignore others or exploit them. But other things besides our principles can influence our behavior.
The schematic diagram shows how our assumptions and circumstances can also influence our behavior. For example, in the case of global warming; the principles are our worldview, values and ethics; the science is the mathematical models that predict temperatures and sea levels; the assumptions are those made in the scientific predictions; the circumstances are the technology available and the particular situation in each nation; and the practices are what each nation does in response to this issue.
In environmental auditing we begin by checking compliance with the organisation’s environmental policy because it contains their guiding principles, including philosophy, values, and ethics.
This message is focused on the principles of environmentalism and the assumptions of science. What are they? And, how do they compare with the Bible?
Principles of environmentalism
Environmentalism is based on a viewpoint that nature should be valued and protected. This is a pro-environment/conservation world view. Many world views have been explored in attempts to develop an ethical basis for environmentalism. There is range of viewpoints and philosophies within the environmental movement which overlap and can lead to conflicts. The three main categories of principles are based on the three main parts of our world. They are: human-centered, nature-centered, and God-centered.
Nature is our life support system; we depend on it for survival. So people have a self-interest in the preservation of their environments. It’s important because of its impact on people. For example, ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere can increase risk of skin cancer. So we want to protect stratospheric ozone.
The two main ideas in this approach are conservation and preservation. Nature is a resource that needs to be conserved for human needs. So, Government Forestry Services manage forests to maintain productivity. Nature also needs to be protected for the enjoyment of all people. For example, zoos and nature parks.
Sometimes people can have a negative impact on the environment. For example, the exploitation of nature without consideration for sustainability.
This introduces the idea that nature has intrinsic value – it should be preserved unless it conflicts with something of greater value. In this category we will look at two approaches: species centered and ecosystem centered.
The first approach says that species have rights or intrinsic value. For example, animal rights are promoted – as they have a value of their own, we should seek to minimise our impact on animals. This can lead to treating other species as though they were human. Stephen Gould advocates applying the golden rule to nature and the environment, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Lk. 6:31NIV). Similar rules exist in other religions as well. This means treating nature as we would want to be treated. But try applying this to an ant! It would be difficult avoiding killing an ant as we walk around.
The second approach acts for the good of all nature, not just human interests. This is more holistic as it involves the whole ecosystem/biosphere. This can lead to reverence for nature and wilderness, such as deep ecology. Here all natural things (ecosystems, life, landscape) have an intrinsic right to exist and there is a feeling of being connected with nature. This in turn can lead to Gaia theory (which is named after the ancient Greek earth goddess), where the earth is viewed as a single organism, like a living thing. It claims that evolution is not random, but is directed by Gaia.
These modern ideas are similar to ancient ones where nature has a spirituality. Animism is the belief that all natural objects and the universe possesses a soul. And pantheism is the belief that: God is not a personality, but a force; the universe exists of itself; all natural happenings are God, and that God is everything and everything is God; and Mother Nature replaces God.
Examples of these principles of environmentalism are given in the Appendix 1.
Problems with these principles of environmentalism
Human-centered environmentalism is not sufficient, as it omits much of the ecosphere. So most environmentalists have stopped using this approach.
Nature-centered environmentalism also has limitations, particularly with regard to species rights, sanctity of life and intrinsic value. For example: How can we determine priority between species? Is there a hierarchy of rights? Catastrophes (e.g. fires, droughts, storms, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes) that kill huge numbers of organisms are a part of nature. So nature can be destructive. It does not act as a perfect God, unless you believe in a God who can be evil. As species are interdependent (can be linked by a chain of dependence), this leads to saying that “all aspects of nature have intrinsic value” – but it is impossible to preserve everything. And it doesn’t help to solve day-to-day environmental problems.
We now turn to the Biblical viewpoint of the physical environment (values, principles, truths). We need to realize that the Bible contains basic principles which can be applied to all areas of our life. It contains God’s plans for the natural world (its history and its destiny) and how He intends us to live in it.
We will look at three Biblical principles here: creation, the gospel, and stewardship.
Doctrine of creation
This has two parts: God as creator, and God as sustainer. First, God created everything. “God made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24-28). “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Heb. 11:3). So God is the sole source of all that exists. “Everything God created is good” (1 Tim. 4:4). Jesus is “the author of life” (Acts 3:15), “He made the universe” (Heb. 1:2). “All things were created through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:16). “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good” (Gen 1:31) – Eden was paradise.
Creation is separate to the Creator. “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25).
God owns creation. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Ps. 24:1).
The awe and beauty of nature. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–His eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
The relationship between God, people and nature can be summarized as follows. God is infinite and personal. People are finite and personal. Animals, plants and machines are finite and impersonal. So humanity has special value, we share personality with God. We were made in God’s image, and people still have some of God’s image (Gen 9:6). Also, God came to earth as a man. So the Bible says that humans are both a part of nature (but not on the basis of biological unity), and apart from nature (like God). Nature is not our Mother, it is our brother and sister (as we are both created things).
“For this is what the LORD says– He who created the heavens, He is God; He who fashioned and made the earth, He founded it; He did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited” (Isa 45:18). So, creation has value because God made it and owns it.
Second, God sustains everything.
Jesus – “sustaining all things by His powerful word” (Heb. 1:3). “In Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight” (Heb. 4:13). So the bible teaches that God sustains natural processes. The creation is dependent on the Creator for its continuing existence.
This includes the forces that hold things together (such as nuclear forces and gravity). Without Him all things would fly apart! God also cares for birds and vegetation. “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Mt. 6:26). “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.” (Mt.6:28). “If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will He not much more clothe you – you of little faith?” (Mt. 6:30).
We can view God’s power and presence in nature, like electricity flows through a wire. The wire is not the electricity, but it can be the vehicle through which the electricity flows. God is not nature and nature is not God. To think that would be a to think like a pantheist and not a Christian. But in this sense, God is in nature.
“Your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you … Therefore, honor God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Our bodies and senses should be used and appreciated for God. Similarly, all creation has been made by God and He sustains it, therefore, honor God as you interact and appreciate the physical world.
“Do not offer any part of yourself to sin, as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to Him as an instrument of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13). So the body and the physical world can be viewed as an instrument (or tool) which can be used for good or bad. We should honor God in our way of living in the material world – and work out what this means in the various areas of our life.
The gospel is the good news, that addresses the bad news. God created a perfect universe, but because of the fall into sin when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the universe is now flawed. To fix the situation, God sent Jesus to enable redemption and restoration. Those who accept what Jesus did are promised eternal life in the new heaven and new earth, while those who reject it face eternal punishment.
The fall into sin led to suffering, decay and death (Gen. 3; Rom. 8). Genesis 3 is one of the most important chapters in the Bible. God cursed not only people, but also nature, because of human sin. It explains the problem of evil in our world, in both humanity and in nature. It’s the ultimate cause of environmental problems. We live in a fallen world, different to the original condition of “very good”. Nature is abnormal, and it can be destructive. Environmentalists try to stop death in the environment. The fall explains death.
Now looking at redemption and restoration. Christians are seen as being part of a new creation, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor. 5:17). Through Jesus, people can be reconciled to God. The biblical visions of the kingdom of God are visions of people in harmony with nature. The Bible teaches that the effects of the curse on nature will end and nature will be restored to its original splendor (it will be a sinless, deathless paradise, reconciled to God). Nature will also enjoy with Christians the effects of redemption.
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Rom. 8:18-25). So all of creation is looking for redemption by God; not by people like us.
Christians share the gospel message with many people, even though they know that probably only a few will respond. Likewise, Christians ought to be willing to care for the created world, even though they know that they can’t bring full restoration.
Our bodies and the physical world will be transformed one day (like Jesus after His resurrection). The restoration will be through Jesus; “to reconcile to Himself (God) all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:20). “Heaven must receive Him (Christ) until the time comes for God to restore everything, as He promised long ago through His holy prophets” (Acts 3:21). When God judges the ungodly, the earth will be destroyed by fire and replaced by a new heaven and a new earth (2 Pt. 3:7-13). And we “are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells”.
God will then live with mankind as in the Garden of Eden, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:1-8).
Doctrine of Stewardship
God told Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen 1:28). “Subdue” (“kabask” in Hebrew) means to conquer. “Rule” (“radah” in Hebrew) is generally used to describe the righteous and loving rule of a good and kind king. For example, King Solomon “ruled over all the kingdoms west of the Euphrates River, from Tiphsah to Gaza, and had peace on all sides. During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree” (1 Ki. 4:24-25).
God told Adam how this rule is to be carried out. “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work (“abad” in Hebrew) it and take care (“shama” in Hebrew) of it” (Gen. 2:15). Elsewhere “abad” is translated to “serve” (e.g. “we will serve the Lord”, Josh. 24:15) and “sharma” is translated to “keep”, “watch” or “preserve” (e.g. “The Lord bless you and keep you”, Num. 6:24). God keeps His people in such a way to demonstrate His great love and care. All this was given before the fall of man, so there is no suggestion of evil or exploitation of nature here. So, Adam managed the garden of Eden. Before the fall there was perfect harmony between humanity and the environment.
As God owns the world, Christians can be seen as His stewards (or managers, a delegated authority). A “steward” is a manager of a household (e.g. Lk. 16:1-9). Peter also used it as a metaphor for believers, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pt. 4:10).
Stewardship means caring for creation as God would. And we are accountable to God. For example, in the Old Testament there was a Sabbath rest for animals and a Sabbath year rest for agricultural land (Ex. 20:10; 23:10-11).
The assumptions of modern science
Science provides a useful method for finding out things about the way the world works. The assumptions and boundaries of “science” largely determine the findings of science. Only theories consistent with these are acceptable to science. We will look at three major assumptions of science.
Doctrine of Naturalism
Science assumes a naturalistic world where the physical universe is all that exists. Nature is all there is. So, everything is explained in terms of mechanical processes. God only exists as an idea in the minds of religious believers. Naturalism is associated with: materialism -there is only matter (no unseen world of souls, spirits or deities) and atheism – there is no God. This limits science to naturalistic theories. As science excludes the supernatural (by definition), a model or explanation that incorporates supernatural intervention (e.g. creative intelligence), cannot be called “scientific”. Therefore, “Creation science” is impossible. As a result, science is unable to disprove the spiritual, as whatever it discovers is “natural” by definition.
Doctrine of Evolution
Science assumes an evolving world (mainly because the only alternative is an act of creation by a God). Mutation and selection are assumed to be the driving forces of evolution. As naturalism and evolution are assumptions of science, science cannot be used to prove these.
Examples of these doctrines of science are given in the Appendix 2.
Doctrine of Uniformity
Science usually assumes the present is the key to the past and the future. Sometimes there is immense extrapolation into the past (e.g. speculation on the origin of life) and into the future (e.g. speculation on global warming), without proper consideration of assumptions and uncertainty. I call this speculative science. It fails to recognize that many deep questions are unanswered and will probably never be definitively answered, given the limits of science. For example, how was the universe created?
Consequences for Christianity
Once science was based on what was able to be observed, repeated and tested. But these assumptions have been added in such a way that anything outside this scope is deemed to be unscientific and false. When applied to situations outside the scope of observational science, this approach renders all other viewpoints false. For example, it means that there is no need to prove that evolution happened. Instead they just say that it happened with no need for a rigorous proof. In this way, science has used evolution to destroy Christianity. This is explained below.
Biblical viewpoint of evolution
Putting the doctrine of evolution (one of the assumptions of modern science) to the test. The Bible contains three clear tests for determining what is true and false:
The Jesus test: Who was Jesus Christ?
“This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God …. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 Jn. 4:2-6).
The gospel test: Is it a different gospel?
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel–which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Gal. 1:6-8).
The fruit test: What kind of fruit is evident?
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. … Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Mt. 7:15-20).
Here’s how evolution goes in these tests.
The Jesus test
According to evolution, there is no need for a Savior. Jesus was only a human being, not divine. He was not the Creator (as there is no need for one), or the “second Adam”, as there was no Adam who disobeyed God in the first place. So, it fails the Jesus test.
The gospel test
The gospel according to evolution is compared with the gospel according to the Bible in the schematic diagram. This shows they are totally different. And evolution undermines all aspects of the gospel – all basic Biblical truths.
Evolution provides a new creation story, “As a story of creation, the book of Genesis long ago crumbled under the weight of science, notably Darwin’s theory of natural selection“ (Time, 4 Nov. 1996, p80).
If evolution is true, then death and suffering is not the result of sin. “According to Genesis, nature is in essence benign … But according to Darwinism, the evil in nature lies at its very roots, instilled by its creator, natural selection” (Time, 4 Nov. 1996, p81). The biological roots of sin are attributed to impulses that arose by natural selection and that were then inherited as they enhanced the chances of survival and reproduction. This means that sin, death and suffering are an inherent part of nature from the beginning of time.
So there is no need for a Savior and heaven and hell don’t exist. Its message is that “salvation comes through science”.
The fruit test – the fruits of evolution
The idea of evolution supports and is associated with: naturalism, materialism, atheism, humanism (humanity is self-sufficient; capable of solving all his difficulties), and pantheism.
Acceptance of the idea of evolution leads to the following:
Less value on human life (practices such as abortion and euthanasia are more acceptable). Another example from the past is racism (e.g. Australian Aboriginals were considered to be biologically inferior to Europeans. This was justified by biological determinism promoted by evolutionary anthropology).
Less value on family life (marriage less important, divorce is more acceptable)
Less value on morals (truth is now relative, not absolute).
A “might is right” attitude, which supports the strong, but not the weak (survival of the fittest, a competitive world, compassion involves saving “weak genes”).
These are fruits of the sinful nature, not the divine nature. So the doctrine of evolution is a major cause behind many of the problems in our society.
Results of the tests
So the “doctrine of evolution” fails all three Biblical tests. This means it’s a false doctrine, an idol, the creation story and religion of modern science.
Secular environmentalism represents a new religion (see schematic diagram). By trying to introduce ethics and morals into a world that has discarded the Bible, most environmentalists adopt ethics which are centered on humanity or nature and they follow the idols of: humanism, atheism or pantheism. These are all justified by belief in evolution (which is also an idol). Idolatry is following ideas that replace the Creator God. Although they claim to be wise, such environmentalists are foolish because their actions are based on a lie (a false idea) (Rom. 1:22, 25). Due to the influence of these philosophies, claims are often made in the name of science that go far beyond the available evidence.
But the Bible gives us a God-centered view of the world, it reveals the Creator, and gives us responsibility to care for the creation as God’s stewards. Biblical environmentalism (see schematic diagram) can be based on Biblical principles and assumptions. The principles include: creation, sustenance, the fall (these three show that in some respects, the past is the key to the present), redemption, restoration and stewardship. Besides the natural world, this assumes the supernatural (there is more than the physical world), special creation (which can’t be explained by current laws), and possible catastrophes (so we need to be careful when extrapolating). Let’s care for creation as God’s stewards (or managers).
Examples of principles of environmentalism
The Rio declaration on Environment and development (1992) has 27 principles, including:
Principle 1 “Human beings are at the center of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature” – Human centered
Principle 3 “The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet development and environmental needs of present and future generations” – Human centered
Principle 7 “States shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the earth’s ecosystem” – Ecosystem centered
Agenda 21 is the program to implement the Rio declaration. It proposes a program for action for sustainable development. Its Preamble says:
“Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being. However, integration of environment and development concerns and greater attention to them will lead to the fulfilment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future” – Human centered
The National “State of the Environment” report says, “Preserving Australia’s biodiversity is important for four reasons”. One of these is Ethics which means that “no species and no generation has the right to remove earth’s resources solely for its own benefit” – Nature centered
The objectives of the NSW EPA include:
“reduce the risks to human health and prevent the degradation of the environment” – Human centered, and “achieve Ecologically Sustainable Development by implementing: the precautionary principle (being cautious), intergenerational equity (protect the environment for future generations)” – Human centered, “conservation of biological diversity & ecological integrity” – Species & ecosystem centered and “improved valuation & pricing of environmental resources” (using economics).
Greenpeace’s philosophy is:
“Ecology teaches us that humankind is not the center of life on the planet. Ecology has taught us that the whole earth is part of our body, and that we must learn to respect it as we respect ourselves. As we feel for ourselves, we must feel for all forms of life – the whales, the seals, the forests, the seas. The tremendous beauty of ecological thought is that it shows us a pathway back to an understanding and an appreciation of life itself – and understanding and appreciation that is imperative to that very way of life” – Ecosystem centered, leading to pantheism.
The Australian Conservation Foundation Mission is loaded with evolutionary assumptions:
“The conservation ethic reveres the enormous sweep and splendor of life, through three million millennia of geological time and its spread into many millions of diverse species and habitats. It is conscious that Homo sapiens is but a relative newcomer. From this perspective, it seeks to approach other species and their environments with humility and without arrogance” – Nature centered, reveres evolution
“It seeks to sustain diverse and active living communities in which non-human life can resume, in comparative tranquillity, the ponderous process of evolution which has been so disrupted and confused by the interruption of man” – Nature centered
“Intrinsic to the ethic is the recognition that human life is an integral part of this slow, inexorable and continuing evolutionary process; that our own adaption results from it and our destiny is tied to its continuance; our genes carry chemical messages shared with many other species now living and with many progenitors extending back to the beginning of life. Consequently, conformity with the conservation ethic confers benefits on humanity in terms of greater efficiency and satisfaction in meeting basic human needs and producing more resilient, supportive and fulfilling communities” – link to Human centered via evolution
“Against these threats, conservation seeks to hold the earth in trust for future generations, both human and non-human” – Ecosystem centered,
The UN Environment Program: “Caring for natural resources and promoting their sustainable use is an essential response of the world community to ensure its own survival and well-being” – Human centered
The Director General of UNESCO: “Unlike modern industrial society, many traditional cultures promote not only the need but the sacred duty for people to live in symbiosis with their natural environment … Our greatest need at the present time is perhaps for a global ethic – transcending all other systems of allegiance and belief – rooted in the consciousness of the interrelatedness and sanctify of all life. Such an ethic would tamper humanities acquired knowledge and power with wisdom of the kind found at the heart of the most ancient human traditions and cultures – in Taoism and Zen (Buddhist), in the understandings of the Hopi and the Maya Indians, in the Vedas (Hindu scripture) and the Psalms, in the very origins of human culture itself” – Ecosystem centered, leading to pantheism & other religions
“The theme of Theodore Roszak’s book The Voice of the Earth is our relationship to the natural world … He proposes a new relationship to nature, one based on modern science which regards the world as a living organism, a dynamic system with the capacity to self-regulate … possible solutions which Roszak envisions in an ecologically-grounded form of animism … The motivation for change on a planetary level must rise from deep within. This is where we must hear the voice of the earth, as she expresses herself through us as a genuine person need for a new quality of life. Her voice can bring us in contact with the ecological unconscious, the parts of the soul that we have lost touch with. What are needed are ‘ecological goals that can heal the psyche, psychological values that can heal the planet’” (Habitat May 94, p53) – Pantheism
Examples the doctrines of science (in the field of ecology)
“Nature in its infinite wisdom gave our animals soft feet so they would be gentle on Australia’s fragile soils” (Habitat, Dec 96, p5).
“Throughout evolution, only two kinds of eyes have ever been invented. One is the vertebrate eye, which works like a single-lens camera; the other is the compound eye of insects and crustaceans” (NA, Winter 97, p34).
“Some animals have evolved to look like other animals or even plants, thereby reducing predator pressure” (NA, Autumn 96, p8).
“We’re the dominant species on the planet; at the top of the food chain; at the top of the evolutionary tree. The way we got there is by being incredibly ruthless and self-centered” (NA, Autumn 96, p47).
“Frogs worldwide have evolved almost 30 different ways of reproducing” (NA, Summer 94-95, p64).
“As a group, spiders have developed an astounding array of techniques to capture and immobilize their prey” (NA, Spring 94, p17).
“The ‘apeman’ – australopithecines – did not die out. We are those apemen, just as living apes are members of the group from which they descended. In the same way, dinosaurs didn’t die out – they are still alive and kicking as birds. All that’s happened is an evolutionary change through time in the shape of the creatures in these long-lasting lineages” (NA, Winter 94, p68).
An academic – Judith Kinnear (Sydney University Gazette, Apr 96, p25)
“The Darwinian model of evolution by natural selection enriches many of my everyday experiences: my walks in the Australian bush make me ponder a unique flora that evolved after the break-up of the Gondwana super-continent; my visits to the zoo reveal the living products of divergent evolution that fall into an orderly pattern; my viewing of a TV program on the appearance of antibiotic resistance in harmless bacteria transforming them into untreatable killers reminds me of the ongoing impact of evolutionary forces”. This shows that the doctrine of evolution is now embedded in our society. Everyone is indoctrinated in it so that it’s a worldview or paradigm and like a religion.
Written, January 1998; Posted, July 2016
A tattoo is a permanent marking made by inserting ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment for decorative or other reasons. Tattooing is a tradition among indigenous peoples around the world. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures. We are looking at this topic because it gives us an example of how we can apply the teaching of Scripture to our daily lives.
God has communicated to us in words that are recorded in the Bible. The Bible is a progressive revelation of God’s dealings with humanity, which is divided into two main parts: the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament (OT) records events up to the birth of Jesus Christ (B.C.) and was written in the Hebrew language to the Jewish nation. It begins with the creation of the universe and the first people Adam and his wife Eve and the fact that they disobeyed God. Because this rebellious pattern has been inherited by us all, we are all under God’s judgement. According to the OT, God chose the Jewish nation to be His special people, but they were unfaithful.
The New Testament (NT) records events after the birth of Jesus Christ (A.D.) and was written in the Greek language to Christians. It describes Jesus as the Son of God who came to pay the punishment for our rebellion by giving up His life. All those who recognise that He died for them and accept His offer of a future eternal life in a world without sadness, sickness, decay or death become His followers who are called Christians. The NT contains principles for living as a Christian.
The Jewish Bible is the OT, while the Christian Bible is the OT plus the NT. So, although the OT was not written to Christians it is the first part of their Bible, which provides the context for the NT.
In order to understand the meaning of any words we need to understand the text or words themselves and the context or how they are used.
The only specific mention of tattoos in the Bible is a command given to the Jews about 3,450 years ago; “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” (Lev. 19:28NIV). The text is clear; it says don’t get tattoos. If that’s the complete answer to our question, we can stop now and finish early!
If you think that is the answer, then you would also need to obey the following commands which occur in the same chapter:
- “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material”, which would require removing many items from your wardrobe (Lev. 19:19).
- “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard”, which would require the cultivation of bushy sideburns and beards (Lev. 19:27).
- “Observe my Sabbaths”, which would require keeping the Sabbath day as in OT times (Lev. 19:30).
So, in order to understand the context of this verse we will look at when it was written and why it was written.
When was it written?
The book of Leviticus is a series of commands that ends with; “These are the commands the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites” (Lev. 27:34). It contains instructions given to the Jews as they travelled from Egypt to Canaan. As they were to be God’s people in that age, He gave them the ten commandments and many other instructions on how to live. The book of Leviticus was an instruction manual for the Jewish priests, who were from the tribe of Levi and so were called “Levites” (Ex. 32:25-29; Num. 8:5-22). That’s why it’s called Leviticus.
As Christians are God’s people today, and as God doesn’t change, the instructions in Leviticus may apply in some way to Christians today. However, as this was over 1,400 years before Christ lived on earth and founded the Christian faith, we would also expect that these instructions may apply in a different way to Christians today compared to how they applied to the Jews, or they may not apply at all.
Why was it written?
In order to understand the reason and circumstances for a verse, we can look at the verses nearby. Two main reasons are given for the instructions in Leviticus 19. The first reason was the requirement to be holy and the second reason was to not follow the wicked customs of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-24, 26). They were commanded to “Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them” and to “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 18:30; 19:2).
The Hebrew word translated “holy” (Strongs #6918) is an adjective that describes something or someone as being “pure” or “devoted”. God is holy because He alone is pure and sinless. The Jews were to be holy in the sense that they were to be devoted to God. They were to show this by obeying His commands given in the OT (Ex. 19:5-6).
They were to be a nation that didn’t worship idols or offer child sacrifices or practice sexual immorality like the other nations (Lev. 18; 19:4; 20:1-5). Holiness is the key theme in Leviticus and it was to characterise the Jewish nation.
The Meaning for the Jews
What did “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” mean when Moses was alive (Lev. 19:28)? A similar verse says, “You are the children of the LORD your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the LORD your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be His treasured possession” (Dt. 14:1-2). Self-inflicted wounds were symbolic of self-sacrifice as an extreme method of arousing a pagan god to action. For example, the 450 prophets of Baal in Elijah’s day slashed themselves with swords and spears until their blood flowed (1 Ki. 18:28).
So the tattoos were associated with people cutting their bodies and with pagan gods. As the “tattoo marks” described in Leviticus 19:28 were related to false religious practices, they were prohibited because God did not want the Jews to be identified with idolatry. The principle associated with this command is that God’s people were not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which was backsliding and deserting their Jewish faith.
Examples, Warnings, Encouragement and Hope
How should we interpret the OT today? According to Scripture, Christians are not required to obey Old Testament laws. Because Christ has fulfilled the law by paying the death penalty for everyone’s sin (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4), the Old Testament laws have been set aside and are obsolete (Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:18; 8:13) and believers are not under the laws received by Moses, but under God’s grace (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:23-25).
The following verses throw more light on the purpose of the OT. When Paul wrote about the need for self-discipline and self-control in the Christian life to be rewarded for faithful service, he thought of the examples and warnings from the history of the Jewish people (1 Cor. 10:1-13). “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” and “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). Also, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Rom 15:4TNIV).
So, when OT laws are interpreted in terms of their context and the doctrines of the New Testament, useful principles and examples may be derived from these laws (1 Cor. 10:6-11; 2 Tim. 3:15-1). They can also be a source of encouragement and hope (Rom. 15:4; Heb. 11). In this sense, the OT has a message for Christians. A test of the examples, warnings, encouragement and hope we find in the OT is that they must be consistent with the teachings of the NT. It’s like looking through polarised sunglasses, where only light in a particular plane is transmitted. Of course, the OT also contains references to the coming Messiah, which we can see by hindsight (Col. 2:17).
What examples and warnings can we learn for our everyday life from the Jewish prohibition on tattoos?
The Meaning for Christians
As it is not mentioned in the New Testament, the practice of tattooing is not specifically prohibited for Christians today. However, a comment on Revelation 13:16-18 and 19:16 is given in the next article in this series.
We are Christians living in 2009, not Jews travelling from Egypt to Canaan many years ago. Also, believers are under the new covenant, not the old one.
The two main reasons for the instruction in Leviticus were: the requirements to be holy, and not to follow the wicked customs of other nations. The first reason is repeated in the NT: “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Pt. 1:14-16); which quotes from Leviticus 19:2. Christians are also to be devoted to God and to show this by obeying His commands in the NT.
The second reason is also repeated in the NT. The Bible teaches that true believers display the fruit of the Spirit instead of the acts of the sinful nature and do not sin continually and habitually (Gal. 5:19-23; 1 Jn. 3:4-10).
So the overall reasons for the instruction still apply today. They are universal timeless principles. However, today a tattoo is usually a means of self expression and a personal decoration that is not associated with idolatry.
The meaning of Leviticus 19:28 for Christians is that God’s people are not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which would be backsliding and deserting their faith. In this case, the faith is the Christian faith, not the Jewish faith. This is consistent with the New Testament teaching that believers are to have nothing to do with idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21) and not desert their faith, which is apostasy (Heb. 3:12).
Lessons For Us
What to know
There is a difference between the OT and the NT. Because the verses in the OT were written primarily to Jews and not to Christians, they may have no direct application to us today. As God communicates to us progressively through the Bible, OT verses need to be understood in view of the additional knowledge we have in the NT (Lk. 24:25-27).
What to do
When reading the OT, look for examples, warnings, encouragement and hope that are consistent with the messages given to churches in the NT. In the case of Leviticus 19:28, the questions that could be considered before a Christian gets a tattoo are: Is it consistent or inconsistent with being devoted to God? Is it linked to idolatry? Does it display the fruit of the Spirit or an act of the sinful nature? What is the motivation behind the tattoo?
These are factors we should consider when applying the OT to our daily lives.
Written, August 2009
See the other articles in this series:
– What does the New Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
– What does the Bible say about Christians getting tattoos?
A tattoo is a permanent marking made by inserting ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment for decorative or other reasons. Tattooing is a tradition among indigenous peoples around the world. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures.
The only specific mention of tattoos in the Bible is a command given to the Jews in about 1450 BC when they were travelling from Egypt to Canaan: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” (Lev. 19:28 TNIV). According to Scripture, Christians are not under Old Testament Law. When Christ fulfilled the Law by paying the death penalty for sin (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4), the Old Testament Law was set aside as obsolete (Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:18; 8:13), and believers are not under it, but under God’s grace (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:23-25). However, when specific laws are interpreted in light of their context and the New Testament, useful principles may be derived from them (1 Cor. 10:6-11; 2 Tim. 3:15-17).
The context of Leviticus 19:28 is a set of laws that prohibited Jews from following the pagan practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-24). These laws mainly related to sexual immorality, spiritualism and witchcraft and other areas of personal conduct that were to distinguish God’s people. The punishment for disobeying them is given in Leviticus 20. As the “tattoo marks” described in Leviticus 19:28 were associated with false religious practices, they were prohibited for these Jews because God did not want them to be identified with idolatry. The New Testament also teaches that believers are to have nothing to do with idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21) and apostasy (Heb. 3:12).
Some other commands in Leviticus 19 are also no longer associated with idolatry: “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” (19:19), and “’Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard” (19:27). Since it is not specifically mentioned in the New Testament, the practice of tattooing is not prohibited for Christians today, but the principle of not being identified with idolatry and not backsliding would still apply.
Today, a tattoo is usually a decorative means of self expression and personal decoration that is not associated with idolatry. In a situation that is not sinful, whether to get a tattoo can be considered a debatable matter, like whether to eat food that has been offered to idols or whether one day is more sacred than another (Rom. 14:1-6). The Bible gives five principles that can help us determine God’s will in situations like this.
First, we are to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20). In other words, will a tattoo honor or dishonor God? Is the reason for getting one to draw attention to ourselves (1 Tim. 2:9)? A related principle is that whatever we do should be done for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Will He be exalted or disgraced? Will others think less of God, His Church or His Word because of what I do?
Second, it is sinful to cause believers with weaker consciences to stumble by violating their conscience (Rom. 14:13-14, 20-21; 1 Cor. 8:7-13). In this instance we should refrain from doing something that is not specifically forbidden in Scripture if it hinders the spiritual progress of a weaker believer. Paul even extends this principle to unbelievers because he wanted them to accept Christ as their Savior (1 Cor. 10:32-33). It’s loving and unselfish to think of others above ourselves (Rom. 14:15; 15:1-2).
Third, with regard to tattoos and other matters of secondary importance, we shouldn’t judge others because they are accountable to the Lord and not to us (Rom. 14:4, 10-12). This means respecting each other’s opinion as we can have differing views on what pleases the Lord (1 Th. 4:1).
Fourth, make every effort to do the things that lead to peace and spiritual growth (Rom. 14:19). Will what we do help or hinder the harmony of believers?
Fifth, despite our differences of opinion with regard to matters of secondary importance, believers should accept one another just as Christ has accepted us (Rom. 15:7). Our fellowship with one another shouldn’t depend on one’s viewpoint on such matters.
As tattoos are permanent, consider whether having a tattoo will be regretted by you and your family in years to come. Also, because images affect thoughts, any tattoo that you might get should focus on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy, and not obscene (Phil. 4:8; Eph. 5:3-5). For example, it could symbolize a Biblical truth which represents your relationship with Christ.
Finally, our bodies are like “instruments” or tools that can be used for good or bad purposes (Rom. 6:13). The important question to ask is whether we are using our bodies for God, not whether we have a tattoo or not. Romans 12:1-2 says this: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercies, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God … Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
Published July 2010
See the other articles in this series:
– What does the Old Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
– What does the New Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
The need to be culturally relevant
How can the local church, which originated almost 2,000 years ago, survive in a world of diverse languages, customs and ways of life? In particular, how does the church balance a changeless message in an ever changing culture?
The Church is Multicultural
History shows that Christianity and the church have been multicultural across both time and space. They have survived from the first century to the twenty first century. During this period, Christianity was practised in the Roman Empire, in the feudal hierarchical system of the Middle Ages, in the Reformation of the 1500s, in the revivals of the 1700s and 1800s and in the modern world. These were all radically different cultures with different technology, different languages, different ways of life and different customs. So, the church has adapted to various cultures across history.
Through missionaries, Christianity and the church has spread geographically across the world, first across the Middle East and then around the Mediterranean Sea and across Europe, and finally to colonies across the world as they were visited by European nations. Today, there are churches in virtually every country, although in some places they meet in secret because of persecution. In all these countries there are different cultures with different technology, different languages, different ways of life and different customs. So, the church has adapted to various cultures across the world. Today, it is multicultural.
It was God’s intention that the church be multicultural. On the day the church began, God did a linguistic miracle, so those present could all hear the wonders of God in their native language (Acts 2:1-13) . Christianity was to go to all language groups. As this was a new thing, when Peter was about to visit a Gentile, he was given a vision that taught him that God accepts believers from all nations (Acts 10:35). Peter needed to be retrained to know that God doesn’t have any favourites in the church. So, Christianity was to go to all nations, to all cultures. That’s why before He ascended, the Lord told His followers, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8TNIV). They took Christianity to the ends of their known world and today it has spread across the globe.
Finally, in heaven Jesus will be praised because He “purchased for God members of every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). So, Christianity will go to all tribes, to all language groups, to all nations, to all cultures across the world.
Now we will look at how the church survives in these different cultures. The Bible records the history of the Jewish nation over a period of about 2,000 years. The coming of their Messiah had such an impact that Scripture is divided into two parts: the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament describes what life was like before Christ and the New Testament what it was like after Christ. Let’s see what the Lord said about this change.
The Importance of Wineskins
In Luke 5:33-35 the religious leaders criticized Jesus because His disciples did not fast (go without eating) as was their custom. Jesus gave a reason for not following all the religious customs of that time and He explained it further with a parable: “People do not pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins” (Lk. 5:37-38).
In ancient times goatskins were used to hold wine (1 Sam.1:24). After the animal was skinned, the skin was tanned, the openings were sewn shut, the neck of the goat was used for the spout, and unfermented grape juice was poured in. Afterwards the neck was sewn shut and the fermentation process began. As the fresh grape juice fermented it gave off carbon dioxide which stretched the new leather wineskin (Job 32:18-19). Only a new wineskin would have the capacity to stretch and not break during the process of fermentation. A used wineskin would break because it was already stretched and hardened and was no longer elastic or flexible. It had lost its power to stretch any more and so was no longer an effective container for the wine. Jesus’ hearers knew not to use old skins with new wine.
The wineskin contained the wine and protected it from the outside environment. This is shown schematically in the diagram as three components: the wineskin (represented by a circle); the wine inside the skin and the environment outside the skin.
This parable, which is reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke, illustrated a truth that Jesus was teaching. From the diagram it can be seen that the wineskin is the point of contact between the wine and the world (or the surrounding environment). Old “wine” represented the OT law and old “wineskins” represented the Jewish practices of carrying out the law, both of which are described in the Old Testament. Jesus introduced the “new wine” of the gospel of God’s salvation through the death of Christ as a substitute for us all (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor.3:6). The lesson was that the Jewish practices were too old, weak and rigid for the gospel. They needed to be replaced. The gospel would be destroyed if they tried to express it through the Jewish practices. Because there was a new wine, there needed to be a new wineskin. So, because the gospel was new and different to the Old Testament law, it could not be expressed by the Jewish customs and practices that were related to the law. This problem was faced by the early church in Galatia and other places.
Instead, new Christian practices were required to express Christ’s teachings: “Pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17). The new covenant which Jesus was instituting must bring with it new structures, new forms, new practices; which are those for the church. The application of this illustration to the church era is shown schematically as three components: Christian practices (represented by the circle), Christian principles inside the circle and circumstances outside the circle.
Action is essential for putting the principles into practice. Our practices are important because they are the visible aspect of our faith. For example, Jesus said that people will recognize His disciples if they love one another (Jn. 13:35). Furthermore, James wrote, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” and John wrote “let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (Jas. 2:15-17; 1 Jn. 3:17-18). So genuine faith and love will produce action. The practices are the action part of our faith, when the principles are expressed in an active way in our world.
Next we will look at the wineskins and then the environment outside the skins.
There is an important difference between the “wineskins” of the Old Testament and those of the New Testament. This is a difference between Jewish practices and Christian practices.
The Old Testament has many detailed laws about how the Jews were to behave including: social life; the tent and temple where sacrifices were made to God; the sacrifices; the priests; health regulations; and religious festivals; even down to circumcising male babies. These characterised the Jewish way of life.
But Christ freed us from slavishly following the Old Testament law and its regulations (Gal. 5:1; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14; Heb. 9:10). So detailed regulations are absent from the New Testament, where the emphasis is on principles that can be expressed and practiced in many ways in different cultures. For example, Jesus summarised the law as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37-39).
We need to distinguish between the principles and the practices. Scriptural principles are fixed by Scripture. However, we need to interpret these and sometimes there is more than one interpretation. On the other hand, Christian practices are expressions of divine principles in a particular human situation. They can change according to local circumstances. They are multicultural. They enable the changeless principles to be applied to any culture. This is one of the liberties of the Christian faith.
Having the practices between the principles and the circumstances also reflects our dual citizenship. We live under human government and we serve the Lord of heaven: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mt. 22:21). Our values are heavenly and our impact and service is earthly.
Responding to Circumstances
We now look at how this applied to the early church. In the above parable, Jesus taught that if the principles (wine) changed, then the practices (wineskins) should change. What if there are changes to the circumstances we live in, which are represented by the outside environment in the illustration? Biological organisms respond to changes in their environment, otherwise there is no evidence of life. Likewise, the early church was urged to address the circumstances it faced.
In the first century, local churches in different places faced different circumstances. This is reflected in the topics of the letters that were written to these churches. For example, some of the issues they faced were:
- Corinth: factions, immorality, litigation, disorder, false teaching
- Galatia: legalism
- Ephesus: false teachers, lacked love
- Thessalonica: persecution, misunderstandings about death and the second coming, idleness
- Smyrna: persecution, poverty,
- Thytaria: immorality and idolatry
- Sardis: lacked spiritual life
- Loadicea: material wealth, stagnant.
In all these situations the writer was inspired by God to tell the church how to respond to their particular circumstances. In particular, the elders at Ephesus were told to be alert for false teachers: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). They are told to “keep watch” over themselves and the congregation, to “Be shepherds of the church of God” and to be on their guard for threats to the congregation (Acts 20:28, 31). This means being vigilant and aware of the circumstances that are faced from both within and outside the local church. They were to protect the congregation like a shepherd protected their sheep from predators. So church elders are to be active and responsive to the circumstances being faced, not passive and unresponsive.
Past, Present and Future
Human behavior is influenced by past experiences, present circumstances and goals for the future. This means that the circumstances faced in the local church can relate to the past, the present or the future.
Influences from the past may be traditions handed down from previous times. These are practices that were followed beforehand. Jesus called the religious leaders hypocrites for placing more importance on their traditions than on God’s commands (Mk. 7:1-9; Lk. 6:1-11). They imposed many laws on the common people and treated their traditions as though they were scriptural truths.
Jesus also said, “And none of you, after drinking old wine wants the new, for you say, ‘The old is better’” (Lk. 5:39). This indicates people’s reluctance to replace the old for the new. In context, it meant that the Jews of the first century would find it hard to make the change to accept Christianity. They would be reluctant to give up their traditional Jewish ways and try the gospel. It was probably directed at the Pharisees who questioned Jesus. Given this trait of human nature, today some will be reluctant to accept new practices. There is a tendency to perpetuate long-established practices, but our security should be in the principles, not in the practices.
Influences from the present are current circumstances that demand a response. For example, language, way of life and geographic spread of the congregation. These circumstances change with time because life is dynamic.
Influences from the future may be goals that the local church has agreed to move towards.
The balance between these influences will control the practices within a local church at a given point in time. This is shown schematically in the diagram, where the changeless is shown in blue and the variable is shown in black.
Lessons for us
God has established the local church so that it can function in all cultures across the world. The truths of the gospel and the church should be expressed by the practices of the local church in a manner that takes account of changes in culture, technology, language, way of life and customs. That’s how the church is multicultural.
We need to distinguish between Scriptural principles and Christian practices: principles are fixed, whereas the practices can change and should change when there are significant changes in circumstances. We should know the purpose behind our practices, and periodically consider whether other methods would be more appropriate. A practice shouldn’t be viewed as better only because it is old, or better simply because it is new.
Local churches all face different circumstances. Today we need to be aware of the circumstances we face, including the changing culture of our world. If the local church is to be sustainable, we need to know our circumstances and decide how they affect our expression of the principles. If its practices don’t change, the local church becomes a stagnant and unresponsive subculture that will die out. There is no future for churches that are content with the old and caught up in the traditions and the forms of 50 or 100 years ago. Let’s face it, the world we live in has changed drastically over the last 40 years.
This is a challenge that is faced by all local churches, particularly in times of rapid cultural changes. It’s not enough to be a church that is based on Scripture; there is also a need to be culturally relevant. Our vision should include these two components: Scriptural principles that reflect our Lord and our heavenly citizenship and practices that relate to the physical world we live in. Let’s be a Biblical church that is culturally relevant.
Written, November 2007
See earlier article on scriptural principles and practices:
– Practicing scriptural principles
Change is a major characteristic of our modern world. For example, technological developments, increased mobility and multiculturalism all impact on our way of life. How then, should believers respond, both individually and collectively, to change and diversity in their communities?
Two New Testament truths seem relevant here, namely: acceptance, not favoritism; and principles, not regulations.
It is important that we practice New Testament attitudes and behaviors, and not those more appropriate to Old Testament times.
Acceptance – not favoritism
God’s favored people in the Old Testament, the children of Israel, were of one nationality. They were given special promises (Gen. 12:2-3; 17:7-8), the sign of circumcision, and detailed rules and regulations for their customs and culture. (See Exodus to Deuteronomy). Other nations were despised as they had detestable customs (Lev. 18:30).
But in Christ, God’s favor and loving concern now extends to all humanity (Jn. 3:16-17), as His salvation is for all people and nations across the world (Mt. 28:19; Acts 1:8).
The New Testament principle is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts people who follow Him from every nation (Acts 10:34-35). All believers are now accepted and favored by God, regardless of their nationality, customs, culture, status in society, or gender (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). Clearly, God does not discriminate among believers. In fact, we are told to accept one another just as Christ accepted us (Rom. 15:7), and that it is a sin to show favoritism (Jas. 2:9). Similarly, we are urged to do good to all people, especially all believers (Gal. 6:10).
The only people we should not accept are those who claim to be believers but who are immoral, greedy, who cheat, slander others, get drunk, worship idols (1 Cor. 5:9-13), cause divisions (Rom. 16:17-18; Ti. 3:10-11), or do not bring the doctrine of Christ (2 Jn. 9-11).
Principles – not regulations
The Bible contains many important principles for humanity from the time of Adam and Eve up until today.
The Old Testament also contains detailed regulations and procedures on how many of these principles were to be practiced by the Jews of that period. This even included the design of their building and furniture to be used for worship (Ex. 25-27, 35-38; 2 Chr. 3-4). These were for a particular time in the history of the Jewish nation.
But Christ freed us from slavishly following the Old Testament law and its regulations (Gal. 5:1; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14; Heb. 9:10). So detailed regulations are absent from the New Testament where the Holy Spirit is left free to apply biblical principles among the diverse nations, customs and cultures across the earth since the times of the early Church described in Acts. This means that local practices and methods may vary in different communities according to their
way of life and particular needs.
A changing world
The greatest change that faced the early Church was when Christianity extended to the Gentiles (Acts 10, 11, 15). Prior to this time, the believers were mainly Jews and converts to Judaism (Acts2:11, 22; 6:1). Cornelius’ conversion represented a significant step in the separation of the early Church from Judaism. The divine principle of acceptance– not favoritism was given to Peter at this time. Evangelism among the Gentiles was pioneered by men from Cyprus and Cyrene (Acts 11:20), encouraged by Barnabas (Acts 11:23) and was Paul’s mission (Acts 9:15).
Different people can react differently to change in their circumstances and environment. When conflict arose among believers because of this change it was resolved after discussion by the elders. Peter claimed that God does not discriminate among believers, but accepts all by giving them the same Holy Spirit. Consequently, unnecessary requirements should not be imposed on fellow believers (Acts 15:8-11). He had profited from Paul’s rebuke of his pride and hypocrisy in forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs, and then separating from them (Gal. 2:11-21). James agreed with Peter: they should not insist that Gentile believers obey Jewish regulations (Acts 15:19).
Likewise, we should not make it difficult for people in our community who are turning to God by placing unnecessary and non-biblical requirements on them.
A multicultural world
Many of us live in multicultural communities where there is a diversity of customs and lifestyles. The Bible recognizes and allows for diversity among believers in the nonessential aspects of the Christian faith.
Such issues faced by the early church concerned food and drink and whether one day was more sacred than another (Col. 2:16).
Paul commanded that we accept one another, as Christ has accepted us (Rom. 15:7) by respecting the other’s viewpoint and their conscience (Rom. 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor. 8; 1 Cor. 10:23-33). This means not criticizing and not stumbling another, particularly a weaker believer, but acting in love towards them. We will give an account of our conduct to God (Rom. 14:12). Remember, how we treat each other is how we are treating the Lord (Mt. 25:40,45).
Consideration of others, rather than selfishness, is given as the key to unity among Christians, with Christ the greatest example (Rom. 15:1-7). He always acted to please His Father (Jn. 8:29).
This principle also applies to our attitudes and behavior towards non-Christians. Paul went out of his way to identify with all kinds of people, by serving them rather than imposing on them in order to effectively communicate the gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23; 10:33).
We also should be aware of local customs and respect those that are not evil (1 Th. 5:21-22).
Let’s understand our times (like the men of Issachar in 1 Chr. 12:32) and follow the examples of Christ, Peter, Paul and James in our changeable and diverse world by:
- Accepting and welcoming other believers and non-believers.
- Encouraging each generation, nationality and community to express the Christian faith within their culture.
- Assessing the appropriateness of our customs and practices. Some may hinder the communication of the gospel or the building of relationships among believers.
Summary of attitudes to others
(from Romans 14:1-15:7 and Acts 10, 11 and 15)
|Divine Nature||Sinful Nature|
|Accepts, welcomes, encourages||Criticizes, discriminates|
|Pleases and builds up||Selfishly dominates and controls|
|Allows diversity||Imposes uniformity|
|Is humble, confesses, forgives||Is proud|
|Is loving, patient, tolerant||Causes to stumble or fall into sin|
|Presents Christian liberty||Loads with unnecessary rules|
Published, May 1995
Why is the Bible, a book written thousands of years ago, still relevant today? Because it contains universal principles that apply to everyone regardless of circumstances. God actually caused the writers of the Bible to address all the essential issues needed by us to live on this planet.
So how do we apply the principles in the Bible, originally expressed in a society foreign to ours, to our circumstances today? Fortunately, God has not left us alone. The Holy Spirit has been with believers since our Lord’s ascension (Jn. 14:16; Acts 1:8), and provides all the guidance we need through the Word (Jn. 16:13). As a result, we have God’s wisdom, “the mind of Christ,” revealed to us by His Spirit (1 Cor. 2:6-16 NIV). This is just as true for today’s situations as it was for events that occurred thousands of years ago.
Faith And Action
James 2:14-26 shows the relationship between what we believe (our faith) and what we do (our actions). Our faith is shown by what we do, so faith that does not result in appropriate action is dead (Jas. 2:17-18). As scriptural principles are the foundation of our faith, they should be expressed in our actions. Otherwise our faith is not based on the Scriptures and we are acting as if the Bible is no longer relevant today. God is interested in what we do and how we do it. For example, we are urged to “speak … the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).
Wineskins And Clothes
An incident recorded in the Gospels helps to show the relationship between what we believe (scriptural principles), what we do (practices) and the present circumstances. In Luke 5:33-35 the religious leaders criticized Jesus because his disciples did not fast (go without eating) as was their custom. Jesus gave a reason for this and explained it further with a parable of the wineskins (Lk. 5:36-38).
Jesus said that “no one pours new wine into old wineskins,” but “new wine must be poured into new wineskins.” The wineskins contained the wine and protected it from the environment. Without an effective container, the wine would be spilled out and the wineskin would be useless. The application of this illustration was that the “wine” of the gospel of Jesus Christ could not be contained and expressed by the practices (or “wineskins”) of Judaism. New practices were required in order to preserve the Christian faith: “Put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17).
From the diagram it can be seen that the wineskin is the point of contact between the wine and the world (or the surrounding environment). Similarly, our practices are between the principles we follow and the circumstances we face. The practices are a result of the application of divine principles to human circumstances.
In the above parable, Jesus taught that if the principles (wine) changed, then the practices (wineskins) should change. What if there are changes to the circumstances we live in? Biological organisms respond to changes in their environment, otherwise there is no evidence of life. We should also address changes that occur in our environment (or circumstances).
It is interesting that Christ used wineskins and clothes in his story. These are items that wear out and eventually must be replaced. Likewise, our practices will need replacing from time to time as no society or culture is stagnant. Of course, for us it is a case of the circumstances changing rather than the principles, or it could be due to a new understanding or application of the principles. This means that our practices must be based on scriptural principles and relate to the present circumstances we face.
Traditions And Circumstances
Human behavior is influenced by past experiences and present circumstances. An example of inappropriate behavior is given in Mark 7:1-9. Here Jesus calls the religious leaders hypocrites for placing more importance on ceremonial washing than on God’s commands. Jesus accused them of “setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions” (v.9). So their practices were dominated by traditions, which were contrary to scriptural principles. Similarly in Luke 6:1-11, Christ opposed their regulations of what was allowable on the Sabbath day. In both of the above situations the religious leaders were treating a tradition as though it were a scriptural truth.
A good example of how behavior can be influenced by circumstances is Paul’s visit to Athens (Acts 17:16-34). While waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive he “walked around and looked carefully at” their “objects of worship” (v. 23). This gave him an insight regarding these people which he was able to use when he spoke to them. Paul was like the men of Issachar who “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chr. 12:32). Note that it was essential to understand the times (or situation) in order to know what should be done.
Likewise, Christ recognized the needs of the people – “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36) – and responded to their needs and was willing to be their Shepherd (Jn. 10:14).
A Framework For Action
Christians are called to be active representatives of Christ today (2 Cor. 5:20). It is helpful to visualize the relationship between what we believe and do, as shown in the diagram. This shows that when scriptural principles are put into practice, the way they are expressed is influenced by both past practices (which are now traditions) and the present circumstances. Circumstances change in families, communities and nations, because life is a dynamic process. Practices which were once appropriate may become obsolete, but if we persist in their use an opportunity is lost to demonstrate the principles in present circumstances.
The principles are important because they provide divine guidance and purpose. We need to distinguish between scriptural principles (which are fixed) and our practices of them which can change according to present, local circumstances.
In order to discern biblical principles and apply them, consideration is required of the culture, way of life and language at the following periods of time: Bible times (to interpret the Bible); previous generations of family, church, community and nation (to understand our traditions); and the present (to understand current circumstances). This will help to distinguish the relevant principles and the most suitable practices to meet the circumstances we face.
Our practices are important because they are the visible aspect of our faith. Jesus said that people will recognize His disciples if they love one another (Jn. 13:35). After Paul wrote, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” he noted, “and whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:16-17). Following the example of Christ, our traditions should always be evaluated by scriptural truths and current circumstances, replacing those traditions that are no longer appropriate with more relevant practices.
Like wineskins and clothes, our Christian practices only exist to serve a purpose. They are human expressions of divine principles within a given historical, social and cultural context. We should know the purpose behind our practices, and periodically consider whether other methods would be more appropriate. There is a tendency to perpetuate long-established practices, but our security should be in the principles, not in the practices.
So, when evaluating our practices we need to consider each of the following, under the Spirit’s guidance: scriptural principles, present circumstances, and past practices or traditions. In a sense, the Scriptures only live and survive as we believers apply them to all the circumstances of life – otherwise we are living as though the Bible is merely a history book that is not relevant today.Published: June 1999
See application to the local church:
– The local church in a changing world