Jesus and the American Sniper

The recent blockbuster movie, American Sniper, has already earned more than $253 million around the world since its release just a few weeks ago. The movie tells the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper, who is considered to be the most deadly sniper in U.S. history. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, is graphic in its depiction of the violence of war, but it also sheds light on the struggles of the man who became known as “Legend” on the battlefield.

Given its massive success at the box office, it comes as no surprise that American Sniper has generated quite a bit of controversy as well. What struck me as interesting (and saddening) was a recent back-and-forth between producer Michael Moore and Fox News commentator Todd Starnes, both of whom invoked the name of Jesus to defend their respective positions.

Michael Moore has openly opposed the film and stated via Twitter:

In these tweets, Moore implies that Chris Kyle participated in sinful, unbiblical, and un-Christian behavior by serving as a sniper in the American military during his four tours in Iraq. For those of you who recognize Moore’s work, such statements are probably expected in light of his political views.

On the other side of the spectrum, Todd Starnes responded to Moore’s tweets by focusing one of his “American Dispatch” commentaries on Moore’s views. In the middle of his commentary (starting at the 48 second mark), Starnes invoked the name of Jesus as well as he stated:

Well, I’m not theologian, but I suspect Jesus would tell that God-fearing, red-blooded American sniper, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant for dispatching another Godless jihadist to the lake of fire.’ But then again, I’m no theologian.

In stark contrast to the thoughts of Moore, Starnes concludes that Jesus would actually applaud Kyle for his work in the war and welcome him to heaven on the basis that he had personally ensured Islamic jihadists would end up in hell.

From a political perspective, I’d really have to hunt for a while to find much of anything to agree with Moore about. I’m probably going to line up with Starnes about 80–85% politically (although I often have problems with his rhetoric). However, in this case I think they both missed the point about Jesus.

I think Moore is asking the wrong questions for the most part. Would Jesus have participated in a war during his 30+ years on earth? Probably not. We have no record that he did and no reason to even speculate about it. However, Moore should be asking whether or not a legitimate government has the biblical authority to participate in war. On that question, the text of Scripture speaks fairly clearly. In Romans 13:1–4, Paul writes:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.

This passage has typically been interpreted to include a government’s right to take up arms and defend its citizens and the innocent. This authority is granted to the government by God. In Chris Kyle’s situation, he was acting as an agent of the government in an official capacity as a soldier. From the best we know, he only engaged enemy combatants in his role as a sniper. Thus, his actions seem to fall within the scope of the authority granted to government in Romans 13.

In his attempt to rush to Kyle’s defense, Starnes crosses the line by declaring that God is pleased with the fact that Kyle ushered unbelievers into a fiery judgment. The problem is that Starnes missed the point of the passage he quoted. Invoking the praise of the master from Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30), Starnes states that Kyle must have received a hero’s welcome in heaven upon his untimely death.

The problem here is that God does not rejoice in the death and judgment of those who do not trust in him. In 2 Peter 3:9 we read, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” God does not rejoice in the condemnation of “another Godless jihadist to the lake of fire.” Instead, he is grieved that such a one never came to faith in Christ alone for salvation.

The fact of the matter is that war is a tragic consequence of the fall of mankind. War should never be pursued for its own sake. It should always be a last resort and a tragic necessity for the sake of restoring peace. Even though I believe waging just war is within the authority of the government, we should long for the day when there will be no more war. We learn about that day in Micah 4:3 where the prophet describes the last days as a time when “they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they train for war.” This is an eschatological reality, but it will only be realized after Christ returns. Until then, war will continue to be a part of this fallen world.

Finally, I want to address a point that Starnes made twice—he said he is not a theologian. By academic and professional standards, I guess you could say that I am a theologian. But so are you, and so is Mr. Starnes, and so is Mr. Moore. We are all theologians in one sense. When we approach the text of Scripture or declare what we believe (or don’t believe) about God, we are doing theology. Mr. Starnes may not have formally studied theology, and his theology in this particular commentary is weak in my opinion, but it is still theology.

Therefore, I would like to encourage us all to be careful when we apply the thoughts, words, or actions of Jesus to a particular situation. We need to make sure our theology is sound before we proclaim what Jesus would do or say.

Guest Post: Hope from a Stump

This is a guest post from my wife, Melanie. She originally wrote this post for Biblical Woman, the blog site for the Women’s Programs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The post originally appeared here.

Last spring, we noticed something odd growing in the middle of our crape myrtle tree. This particular tree is on the side of our house where we hardly ever play or walk, so we hadn’t paid much attention to it in the 6 months we had lived here. If you know crape myrtles, you know that there is not one trunk, but many smaller trunks that grow in a circular-type shape. What made this particular tree quite odd was in the center of the crape myrtle trunks was a small live oak tree. I say small tree, because live oaks can become a mammoth of a tree, but this one was only about four inches in diameter, but had many branches and leaves already growing heartily. Because I knew the two trees could not co-exist for long, and quite frankly I did not appreciate the live oak “bully” taking over my pretty crape myrtle, we chopped it down. All that was left was a small, rough, crude stump. The job was complete. We walked away and forgot all about it.

Many times in the Old Testament, judgment is described with the analogy of chopping down trees. At the end of Isaiah 10, it describes the judgment by “cutting down thickets of the forest with iron.” This is where we find God’s people during and after the exile, in the midst of living in the consequence of their sins. We can also find ourselves here if we are living a life without Christ. A broken, crude, naked, barren stump.

BUT, “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” (Is. 11:1)

Two weeks ago, I walked over to that side of the house again, probably the first time since back in the spring. I glanced over to check on that stump to make sure it was leaving my pretty crape myrtle alone. However, much to my surprise, the stump had not died, but had sprouted long branches of bright green leaves. The stems were small but healthy and even the tips had new buds on them with the expectation of further growth.

During the darkest time in history, God sent his Branch growing out of the roots. Notice that Isaiah did not refer to Christ as from the line of David, although He definitely is. This passage goes all the way back to Jesse, before the kings were corrupt, to show that this King is different. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:2) God’s people were familiar with kings who were wise like Solomon, but Solomon did not have the fear of the Lord to put away the gods of his many wives. God’s people were familiar with kings who were mighty to rule like Rehoboam, but lacked the ability to listen to good counsel. Christ has all of these traits as the perfect king and will rule justly, with righteousness and faithfulness.

I know there are no kingdoms that are perfect today. Most are very far from it, but are only filled with corruption and evil. I am tempted every day to fall into fear. Fear for our safety. Fear for my country. Fear for my children’s future. In my limited vision, all I see are a field of stumps cut down. “Where are you, Lord?” I cry out every time I turn on the news. But then, the Lord is kind and reminds me of the branches that come from the broken stump.

The Rod of Jesse is not dead! The Branch is not slumbering.

Christ is patiently waiting until, in the fullness of His wisdom, He declares that it is time to burst forth with life and newness and growth. In the meantime, I have hope in the promises of my God and King.

Words Have Meaning: Defining Marriage in the Marriage Debate

same sex marriage graphcThis post is the first installment of what will be a multi-part series reflecting on my recent radio discussion with Brandan Robertson, spokesperson for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality. The audio of that radio “debate” can be found here.

Words have meaning. In order to have a conversation with another human, there must be some sort of shared language by which ideas can be communicated. This language can include everything from words to sounds to non-verbal expressions. The key, however, is that it has to be a shared language. If it is not, then communication will be misunderstood or not received at all.

In my discussion with Brandan Robertson of Evangelicals for Marriage Equality (EME), our shared language was clearly the spoken English language. In that language we used terms that have easily recognized meaning. However, it became clear early on in the discussion that we were using one particular word in a different way. That word was “marriage.”

As part of the discussion, we were both asked to define marriage. On behalf of EME, Brandan said:

We do not take a single theological view on the sacrament of marriage. . . .

Civil marriage is a marriage solemnized with a civil contract by the government without a religious ceremony. It is a legal status afforded by the government to individuals who contract to live with one another and form a family unit with one another.

Let me offer a few observations about Brandan’s definition. First he used the word to define the word. He said that “civil marriage is a marriage. . . .” This is a subtle, but circular way to avoid defining a term. It exacerbates the mystery of the word because it never defines the word. If civil marriage is a marriage, then what is marriage?

Second, he inserts another similar term into the definition without offering an explanation of what he means. He says that marriage is “a legal status afforded by the government to individuals who . . . form a family unit with one another.” What is a family unit? Historically, a family unit is formed by marriage and expanded through procreation and the rearing of the next generation. In this instance, though, Brandan has excluded procreation from his definition of marriage because same-sex couples are biologically inhibited from procreation. The act of procreation requires a man and a woman. Thus, it is probably a safe assumption to say that Brandan does not believe procreation and the rearing of the next generation to be a public good of marriage. I could be wrong on this point, but it would require Brandan to offer a definition of the family unit to prove so.

Third, Brandan’s definition of marriage diminishes it to a legal status afforded by the government. Limiting marriage to a legal status actually diminishes the importance of marriage. If marriage is just a contract affording a legal status, why does the government make it so hard to get a divorce? If marriage is just a legal contract, then is it more significant than my cell phone contract? I have agreed to enter into a relationship with AT&T for cell phone service, but breaking that contract is relatively easy by comparison. Even if EME only want to talk about civil marriage, there should be recognition that marriage is much more than simply a contract that grants a legal status.

Fourth, even though Brandan and EME claim no single theological position on marriage, they are still making theological commitments. In their very name and the words of their statement of beliefs, they declare that Bible-believing Christians should support marriage for same-sex couples. This requires at least two theological commitments. First, it requires that one not view homosexual behavior as a sin. If it were a sin, like any other sin we read about in Scripture, Christians should not encourage and support others in the practice of that sin. Second, it requires a hermeneutical commitment to prioritizing experience over Scripture. EME constantly returns to the refrain of justice or fairness. However, such calls are based upon personal experience, not the Word of God. In a future post, I will work out a biblical understanding of justice that demonstrates that these current calls for justice come from a weak theological perspective of God’s attribute of justice.

In contrast to Brandan’s definition of marriage, when asked to give my own definition, I said:

Marriage is a comprehensive union of a man and a woman in an exclusive, monogamous, covenant relationship designed to endure for a lifetime and directed toward the rearing of the next generation.

As I mentioned on the radio, there is no fear on my part admitting that my definition of marriage flows from a theological context. I believe we can see all these elements of marriage in Genesis 2. I also believe my definition is consistent with Jesus’ teaching about marriage in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 and Paul’s teaching on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5.

In addition, I also believe that my definition of marriage is consistent with the government’s civil understanding of marriage. Marriage laws in civil society have historically limited marriage to a relationship between one man and one woman. The relationship is considered to be on-going until death unless the individuals take legal action to end it. Marriage laws limit the age and consanguinity relationships of those who can get married in large part due to legal consent and procreation. All of these limitations are consistent with my definition of marriage. I believe my definition actually offers a more robust understanding of marriage even from a civil perspective.

Even civil marriage is much more than Brandan offered in his definition. But as an evangelical, I also declare from the rooftops that marriage is not simply a civil ordinance—it is a creation ordinance instituted by God. Since God is the one who created it, he is the one who has the right to set the parameters. I, for one, am not ashamed to admit that.

Baseball Theology from Peanuts

This classic Peanuts comic strip is evidence that baseball and theology are a match made in heaven. Thank you, Charles Schulz.

It also serves as an appropriate commentary on the Texas Rangers’ abysmal 2014 season. We can only hope for better next year. But in the words of former Rangers manager Ron Washington: “That’s the way baseball go.”

This comic strip is available at http://www.peanuts.com/comicstrips/3259443.

Biblically Sound Now on Kindle

For those of you interested in an electronic version of my new Bible study, Biblically Sound: Embracing Doctrine for Life, you can now get it on Kindle. The print version is currently selling for $13.59 (list price is $14.99) on Amazon, and the Kindle editions sells for $5.49.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

From the window of my office, I watched the construction of the MacGorman Chapel on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Each day I was able to see the progress on the project. After the first few weeks of demolition and clearing the land, there seemed to be little or no progress from day to day. In fact, this lack of progress went on for a couple of months. I saw plenty of activity from workers, trucks, earth-moving equipment, etc. However, there was no visible progress being made. These first few months of construction, nevertheless, were the most important part. The workers were building the foundation.

Studying doctrine for the Christian often feels like watching a construction crew build a foundation. There seems to be a great amount of activity, but the results don’t appear visible. Just like the foundation is essential for the stability of a building, studying theology is crucial to the long-term stability of the believer.

The goal of this study is to provide you with the basics of biblical doctrine to make sure your foundation is sound. At times this will feel like the difficult work of laying an unseen foundation for a building. At other times, however, it will feel like we are soaring to great heights as we explore the breadth and length and height and depth of our faith.

In order to accomplish our goal of being biblically sound in our doctrine, we will take a step-by-step journey through the key doctrines of the Christian faith. In many respects, these are the non-negotiables of the faith.

As with any of my Bible studies, if you are interested in ordering 10 or more copies for your church, class, or small group, feel free to contact me by clicking on my faculty profile and using the contact information found there.