Thursday, March 23, 2017

Superstitions, Be Gone!

As Bereans Did (ABD) is a blog about the flaws of Armstrongism. “Armstrongism” is shorthand for all of the churches that splintered off from the WorldWide Church of God, whose founder was Herbert W Armstrong. It’s easier to say “Armstrongism” than spell out a litany of various splinter groups and try to explain the whole situation every single time. We deal mainly in doctrine and that leads us necessarily into issues of their epicly flawed historical interpretations with which they try to support their doctrine. Our readers are generally people who have had some contact with the doctrines or the flawed history of Armstrongism, or groups who share such things along with Armstrongism. Over the years ABD has had many questions come in either in comments or by email. As you can imagine, these questions tend to run along common themes. Some of our most common questions have to do with the grossly misrepresented history surrounding Christmas and Easter. We get those a lot. I want to talk about something that I see in these questions. A common thread runs throughout. I am going to call this “superstition.”

Superstition? Like throwing salt over your shoulder to avoid bad luck? Sort of. I mean superstition as in – some object or practice is more powerful than God.

Still too vague? Let me elaborate. There is an idea out there, and not just within Armstrongism, which can be summed up as “once pagan always pagan.” This claim, as popular as it may be, is simply not true. It puts an object or an act completely out of God’s reach, making it superior to the infinite power of the Living God who owns it. All things are God’s after all. Just as it is silly to believe broken mirrors have power over your destiny, it is equally as silly to believe possessing a holiday decoration has power over your faith and your relationship with God and ultimately your destiny. “Once pagan always pagan” is a superstition.

Anyone who still believes what Alexander Hislop wrote about Nimrod will be taken aback with what I’ve just said. Aren’t holiday decorations pagan?? Well, that’s where the fatally flawed doctrines and history comes in. Turns out, no, most of them absolutely are not. I myself once fully believed they were. I thought I looked into the situation and had proved it for myself. Turns out all I really did was read Armstrong-approved material and accepted what that said (this is called “confirmation bias”). While still believing that holidays were pagan, we at ABD set out to see what all of the best available evidence had to say. What we found was that we were taught things that are just plain wrong, and in some cases we found that we were purposefully lied to. ABD has many articles on this!

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, at least for me, came after the research and the article writing. Even with all of the references and the evidence, people still refused to consider what was said. They still go on as if nothing ever happened. Alexander Hislop's book was dead wrong, it’s easily demonstrated, but rather than face that, people have preferred to attack the messengers. I say messengers because ABD isn’t the only group with this message. Go ask poor Ralph Woodrow how he feels. I never expected that people would want to be willfully ignorant! Behold the frightening power of superstition.

For example –- ABD has demonstrated over and over that the ancient Hebrews did not count days the way modern Americans do. We have shown that “three days and three nights” is not literal, and that this can be seen in the pages of the very Bible itself. We’ve established how ancient Hebrews counted inclusively. We have explained over and over how you can easily fit Friday-Sunday in the timeline if you view it as an ancient Hebrew would. We have shown that Cleopas and Armstrong cannot be reconciled together. We have elaborately investigated why there are not two sabbaths in Matthew 28. We have illustrated how the events prior to the crucifixion make a Wednesday crucifixion all but impossible. In every last way, a Wednesday crucifixion is contraindicated. Yet we still get comments and email about how three days and three nights is literal therefore Easter is pagan.     ????

For another example – one question that I get a lot is, “If anything has pagan connections doesn't that mean I'm worshiping pagan gods?” The answer to that is absolutely not! Let’s say there is an object that at one time in the distant past was used in pagan worship ceremonies. Doesn’t matter what that object is, for sake of argument let’s just say that it just exists. How can this object possibly have more power than God does? Even after centuries of having been used almost exclusively in the worship of Jesus Christ, people are still laboring under the error of “once pagan always pagan” and therefore we must fear and reject and condemn powerless inanimate objects for fear that these objects can overpower Jesus and strip us of our salvation.     ????

At this point, this goes beyond reason. This is emotional. No, it’s more than emotion. It’s superstition.

This behavior is no different than that of any number of superstitions pagan religions. Sticking a pin in a doll does not affect a living being. Breaking a mirror does not wreak havoc on you for the next 7 years. Putting your thumb and forefinger together and having someone else break those connections while saying “evil be gone” does nothing whatsoever besides offering momentary amusement. And nothing has the power to take you from Jesus’ hand, except you. (And some don’t even believe you can do that either.)

“Once pagan always pagan” is a superstition. But what might be even more odd than that is that the very same people who say “once pagan always pagan” is true don’t really believe it themselves. Allow me to demonstrate.

If people who preach “once pagan always pagan” understood how many things they do that have "pagan" connections, they would be unable to function. (I am putting “pagan” in quotes because these things aren’t actually pagan. They are just falsely accused of being pagan.) There is nothing that you do that does not have a "pagan" connection except actually having faith in the Living God. You name it, it has "pagan" connections. Priesthoods, temples, prayer, circumcision, sabbaths, holidays, special decorations, sacrifices, incense, hymns, choruses, religious texts, sermons, ritual meals, marriage, honeymoons, wedding rings ... I could go on and on. All of these things and more have "pagan" connections. All of these can be found in pagan religions first. All of them. Yet they were all adopted in worship of God. God adopted "pagan" things into His worship??  YES! And most of them are things the “once pagan always pagan” crowd do regularly. Therefore I conclude that the “once pagan always pagan” people don’t even believe it themselves.

Undeterred, people will simply turn to making different excuses for their superstitions. “God never commanded me to do this or that thing,” they say. Perhaps He did or perhaps He didn’t, but either way if you avoided doing anything that isn’t directly commanded by God you would be unable to live. God never commands us to do most things. The excuse falls completely apart for what it is – a simple excuse to justify superstitions.

But it’s not just about things that aren’t commanded. People condemn things that are unambiguously allowed in the scriptures. In addition to novel holidays (EST. 9: 20-28; JON. 10: 22-23), and gift-giving (EST. 9: 22), the Bible also lists the use of statues in God’s worship (EXO. 25: 17-19), garland, bells and fruit (EXO. 28: 33-34; 39: 25-26; II COR. 3: 16), lights, flowers and ornamentation (EXO. 25: 31-37), greenery (LEV. 23: 40; NEH. 8: 13-15), and etc. All of these are used in God’s worship in the Bible, and all of these things are condemned by superstitious people. Armstrongism goes out of its way not to talk about the birth of our Savior, and even more caution is taken to avoid talking about His mother Mary, because they have whipped themselves up into such a superstitious fervor. Can you imagine being so superstitious that you would avoid great people and events in the very Bible itself?

But it’s not just those things that are ignored. Paul is ignored as well! In I Corinthians 10, Paul is clear -- we should flee from idolatry. However, he when he describes idolatry he describes people sacrificing. What does that mean? It means they were actually participating in worship practices. They didn't simply possess a thing with pagan connections, they were participating. Paul goes on to mention things with pagan connections starting in verse 25. What does he say? He says don't worry about it! The meal described had "pagan" connections. Paul said eat it. This is precisely what he went over in chapter 8 of I Corinthians. He says not to worry about things with pagan connections! If "once pagan always pagan" was true, this is the exact opposite of what Paul should have said. Yet, there he is saying it. He is trying to get us to see that there is a gulf of difference between real idolatry and imagined superstition. However not all people understand not to worry about such things because their lives had been so steeped in superstition up to that point. For those people we should be cautious not to ruin their faith with our liberty. But clearly Paul is against “once pagan always pagan.”

Do you know what this image is:

This image is the seal of righteous King Hezekiah. Anyone who knows their kings of Israel/Judea will know that Hezekiah was an imperfect man, but had a close relationship with God. He might even be able to be called the third most righteous king of Israel/Judea. Yet in his seal there is an ankh and a winged sun. If "once pagan always pagan" was such a terror as we are to believe it is, then Hezekiah was a terrible man and an idolatrous pagan worshiper of Nimrod. Yet he wasn't. This is a clear example of where "once pagan always pagan" can be shown as the utter superstition it is.

To recap:
  • People who preach “once pagan always pagan” are steeped in “paganism” and don’t believe their own rhetoric.
  • People who preach that God didn’t command them to do something regularly do things God didn’t command.
  • These same people still condemn things God clearly allows.
  • Paul is against “once pagan always pagan” but people ignore him or reinterpret him into uselessness.
  • Superstition is its own excuse!

What can it hurt avoiding things that affect our conscience? To be sure, under normal circumstances we should avoid things that affect our conscience. However, the judgmental and condemnatory attitude that usually accompanies these superstitions can have a very real and very negative affect on some people.

To those people who suffer under the anxiety of these superstitions unfairly burdened upon them, I say: you cannot accidentally worship.

Is Jesus your Savior or not? Does a shape or an object have more power than God? God is interested in actual idolatrous worship, not silly superstitions. In order to worship pagan gods you have to actually worship pagan gods -- adore them, trust them, expect help from them, replace God with them. That's what worship means. In every single instance of idolatry in the Bible, God was upset with people doing what I just described. God didn't want people to bow down to or worship idols in place of Him. It wasn't arbitrary. When Naaman the Syrian went to Elisha, he asked for God to excuse him for when he would have to go into the pagan temple and bow down with his master. Elisha told him to go in peace (II Kings 5: 17-19). Naaman is going to a pagan temple to bow down before an idol that he knew was nothing, and Elisha told him to go in peace. God knows the difference! God knows your heart!

Jesus is bigger than your flaws. He's bigger than your failures. He's greater than all of your fears. He's greater by far than any shape or object or word or tradition or superstition could ever be. Let go of your fears! Do not be afraid, just trust.

So, where do we go from here? I don’t know. Onward. This sort of superstitious nonsense will always exist so long as humans have imperfect knowledge and a fallen condition. Armstrongism will continue to pump out the same old claims that in this late day and age they have no excuse for (because they want money), and ABD will continue to call them out on it (for free), and people will continue to ignore us. It’s our lot in life. We praise the Lord our God for granting us some part in His great plan. If we can help even one person I personally feel it was all worth it.

But I would love it if all I had to say was, “SUPERSTITIONS, BE GONE!”

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

Friday, March 3, 2017

Who Then Can Be Saved?

Rod Meredith's terminal cancer diagnosis has been one of the biggest Church of God news items this year. Meredith, 86, long headed the Living Church of God and has declined extensive treatment due to his age and stage of cancer.

Terminal diagnoses are nothing to celebrate, no matter who the patient is. Our prayers go out to the Meredith family as well as those who have been impacted by Meredith's life, both positively and negatively.

End-of-life discussions are often a cause for introspection among the living (no pun intended). Lately, many current and former Church of God members have been engaged in discussions of Meredith's accomplishments and conduct. The main question seems to be, has Rod Meredith qualified for God's Kingdom?

I'd like to know, how is this question even possible among "true Christians" in the LCG and other COG groups? Rod Meredith worked directly with Herbert Armstrong. He was an early evangelist for the Worldwide Church of God and frequent writer for the Plain Truth magazine. He has headed two(!) Church of God groups. He has advocated for the Sabbath and Holy Days - major marks that set "true Christians" apart from the deceived - for years! I mean, Meredith has stated multiple times, before thousands of LCG brethren, that he has not committed a "major sin" since his baptism.

Oh right. Now I remember. THAT'S the problem.

Now, I don't know about you, but I know I made a huge blunder before I even had my first cup of coffee this morning. That's not me trying to make a sardonic point. That's the ugly truth. So I have a hard time believing Meredith hasn't committed a "major sin" since the 1950s. Plus, the last time I checked, the Bible really didn't differentiate between "minor" and "major" sins.

(James 2:10) For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.

Actually, now that I think about it, there ARE some sins that God describes as detestable:

(Proverbs 6:16) Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.

Haughty eyes. Maybe windows to a soul proud enough to claim not to have committed any major sins since the 1950s? So, the reasons why Herbert Armstrong removed him from his ministerial responsibilities and "banished" him to Hawaii weren't sins? How about a $750,000 civil libel payout against Meredith in favor of Leona McNair?  The power struggles and tearing apart of the Global Church of God over large sum of cash, and refusing to pay back those who loaned him money wasn't a sin? No heart devising wicked schemes there? No stirring up conflict? Perpetuating division among the COGs isn't sin?

No, nothing to see here, folks. Definitely not any major sins since the 1950s. It doesn't remind me of this parable at all:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself - 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men - extortioners, unjust adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.                                
(Luke 18:10-14)

The Pharisee checked all the boxes. He clearly wasn't an extortioner or an adulterer. He tithed meticulously. He probably kept the Sabbath better than anyone alive today. And yet these things did not win him favor in God's sight. Only one of these men left the temple right with God, and it wasn't the one who boasted about his personal righteousness or wore a bunch of legalistic acts on his sleeve.

Yet, some leaders in other COG splinters are probably preparing tributes to Meredith - on the basis of his religious works - at this very moment. They'll state that they had their differences with him, but they'll still proclaim him a good and faithful servant because he, like them, kept the Sabbath and Holy Days. I'll allow this indulgence to Jim Franks, since COGWA is reported to be making peace with LCG, but the rest of you need to stop now. You parted ways with Meredith decades ago, ripping apart churches, families and friends. You decided these issues were important enough to divide fellowship. You've made cold, judgmental pronouncements against him. You've pronounced that he's not a leader and his church should be following you instead. It's incredibly hypocritical to wax sentimental now. Either these issues were worth dividing over and you are the one true church; or you were wrong and Meredith headed God's true church. Or, alternatively, you both were mistaken, perpetuating known falsehoods and dividing up congregations and families for your own personal gain.

But most of these issues happened years ago, Martha! What's the matter? Don't you think people can change? Why would you attack a dying man?

Of course I think people can change! But we can't change without realizing that we have made a mistake. One who claims not to have committed a "major sin" since baptism does not sound like someone who has recognized and repented of his mistakes. This isn't an attack on a dying man, it's an appeal!

You see, repentance is a major factor in qualifying for salvation, according to Meredith and other COG teachers. Sure, the Bible clearly requires Christians to repent. Mainstream Christianity, however, teaches this repentance flows from the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit through a supernaturally-changed heart. The result of which is the fruit of our salvation. But in the COGs, repentance and change is a fearful and legalistic affair, from the law and to the law, and mostly by our own effort. Our own effort is what ensures our salvation after accepting Christ's sacrifice. And if there is not enough repentance and change, well,  then... in the words of COG founder Herbert W Armstrong, God aborts you. That is the COG viewpoint. The COGs accept Biblical teaching that man cannot save himself. But they also teach a murky, un-quantifiable tipping point of unrighteousness where one fails to qualify for God's Kingdom.

Maybe that's precisely what's wrong here. Meredith doesn't see himself as needing to repent anymore because the bulk of COG repentance is observing days and tithing. He's done that, in his own eyes. Jesus' death, in the COG view, only forgives for sins up to baptism. It's each man for himself from there. Well, he's Sabbathed and not-Christmassed since then, so he's golden.

And that's the problem. The COG plan of salvation recognizes that Jesus died to forgive our sins, but only those up until baptism. And then, after that, we must keep the law in order to maintain that salvation. But no, not the whole law, just cherry-picked portions our leaders endorse. This circumvents the whole point of the law - to show us our human weakness and continual need for a Savior - and simultaneously reduces what we must "do" to a checklist that seems almost attainable, especially when we're young. Our foolish pride leads us to believe we can "make it." But as we grow older, we can see that salvation is always just out of reach. There's always some sin that comes back, some sin we haven't fully overcome, always one more thing to do. We never outrun the knowledge that we've sinned, again, and fallen short, again, and now we wonder whether God has finally had enough of us.

So, I wonder, how many Sabbaths kept by the letter of the law make up for slandering a brother's wife? How many Holy Days offset a prideful heart? How much leaven must we avoid to sponge away our sins? What does the balance sheet look like, according to Meredith? How about according to God?

This, my friends, is how we get to the point where members of a religious movement can question the eternal destiny of its long-time leaders.

(Hebrews 13:7) Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.

I don't make these points to kick Rod Meredith while he's down. I make these points because Rod is no different from me, or from you. I make these points because I hope that he will see the depth of his pride and repent. That he will understand that it is the blood of Christ alone and placing full faith in His sacrifice that makes him righteous. As long as Rod Meredith has breath, the Lord may still be found. Rod may not believe in deathbed confessions, but luckily for him, it's not his opinion that matters.

And not just Rod, but this appeal is for us all.

Rod Meredith is the poster child for the COG way of life. If the COGs are right about salvation, then Meredith has nothing to fear. And neither do you. Maybe. But if you're concerned for him right now, perhaps you should consider another path.

(Matthew 7:15-18) Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Thoughts on the Allwine Tragedy

Stephen Allwine

Many in the Church of God community were shocked to learn that UCG elder Stephen Carl Allwine of Minnesota, was recently charged with the murder of his wife, Amy Allwine.

Allwine, 43, is alleged to have shot his wife and staged it as a suicide after failed attempts to hire a hitman to kill her. The alleged murder followed Stephen Allwine's extramarital affairs arranged on the well-known cheater's web site, Ashley Madison.

The finger-pointing has begun in the COG blogosphere. How could someone in "God's true church" do something so terrible? UCG must be a sham. Or maybe it's proof the Allwines should have gone with COGWA in the 2010 split. No, wait, it's all because of Herbert Armstrong's doctrines.

Let's all stop for a moment. And forgive me if this post is less smooth and edited as usual. I wanted to join the discussion quickly, before the finger-pointing starts in earnest. Though I'm no fan of COG doctrines, UCG and the COGs are not responsible for this tragic situation. Here's what is responsible:

(Jeremiah 17:9) The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

People who profess to be Christians - whether Protestant, Catholic or even cultic - share the basic goal of becoming more like Jesus Christ. We also share the basic problem of being human. There is a reason that the Bible instructs us to focus on what is good, what is noble and what is of good report. There is a reason that the Bible tells us to strive against sin, to resist the devil. That reason is that many of us do not naturally focus on the good, do not naturally strive against sin, do not naturally resist the devil.

(James 1:13-15) When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

James is not writing to unconverted sinners. James is writing to brothers and sisters in Christ. James is warning true believers not to give in to sin and temptation. James wasn't known for wasting words or hypothesizing about impossibilities.

(Romans 7:18-25)  For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Paul describes the very real struggle that he himself faced. Paul is no casual Christian. Paul endured beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonment and intense persecution for the cause of Christ. If he wasn't immune, no one is immune.

I do think that some of the peculiarities of the COG community make its members more vulnerable to succumbing to temptation. But no one is immune. Recently, a pastor in my church was forced to resign because of an extramarital affair. Granted, he didn't attempt a hit on his wife. Thankfully, it never got that far. Here are some reasons I believe the COGs make members more vulnerable than the average Christian:

  • Less community support
You are tragically scattered, which makes you vulnerable in many ways. Split after split has left many of you relationally separated from those to whom you were close and geographically separated from your "brethren." This leaves you disconnected, isolated and vulnerable to Satan, that prowling lion, just waiting to pick you off like a wounded gazelle. There is often no one to turn to when you're hurting, when you're tempted. And there's also no one to catch you or notice something's off when you give in to temptation. 
  • Misconceptions about sin
All sincere Christians struggle with sin. But in COG theology, it's different. Historically, the COGs have taught that humans are born with a morally neutral nature and have been influenced by the Prince of the Power of the Air. "True Christians" are responsible for changing their "tuning" away from Satan's "frequency." Today's COGs may each variations on this theme, but the basic message, especially among old-timers (and aren't the majority of them old-timers) focus on man's responsibility to change himself. Further, they must overcome enough sin to achieve some nebulous "righteousness quotient" by the end of their lives or else they won't "make it." Rather than spurring members to encourage one another to live holy lives, this teaching ends up leading members to believe they aren't "good enough" and less likely to admit their temptations to one another. 

  • Misunderstandings about the Holy Spirit
The COGs teach that the Holy Spirit is a tool that Christians are to "use" in their quest to overcome sin. I was in the COGs for decades, but no one has ever been able to explain just how to harness the Holy Spirit. This isn't meant to be a dissertation on the Trinity. Suffice it to say that the Bible teaches the God is in the driver's seat and He changes us through the Holy Spirit, not vice versa. By trying to lead the process, we set ourselves up for discouragement and failure.

Heinous, grievous sins such as those alleged in the Allwine case are discouraging to say the least. When our spiritual leaders fail, we have choices to make. We can speculate whether such a person was ever called. We can cast stones, ignoring our own sins. Or we can recognize the depth of the wickedness in each of our hearts, realize that we are powerless to change and fully rely on God for our salvation, our redemption and our sanctification. 

We pray for the Allwine's family, including their son, and all individuals affected by this tragedy. 

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Bible Reading Plan You REALLY Need

Well, the New Year is officially here, and with it comes that traditional zeal for personal growth that many people demonstrate every January. Even some in the Churches of God - who usually mock New Year's resolutions and the January New Year in general - seem to be jumping on the bandwagon.

Some COGs have begun circulating daily scripture reading and writing challenges for their members. So far, we've seen lots of Psalms and Proverbs, a fair amount of "stay the course," a handful of law and a sprinkle of grace. And, of course, the trademark COG scripture flipping that circumvents any contextual understanding.

We at As Bereans Did applaud anything that gets people reading the Bible. But, if we may be so bold, here are some passages that we'd like to see our COG friends dig into - in context - during the rest of January. Or really, any time this year. Read them, write them, whatever. You know us, we're not going to get all legalistic about it. Obviously. 😏

January 3: John 3:1-21
January 4: Numbers 21:1-9
January 5: John 13:1-14:31
January 6: John 15:1-16:33
January 7: John 17:1-26
January 8: Ephesians 2:1-22
January 9: James 2
January 10: Colossians 1:1-2:23
January 11: Luke 2
January 12: Mark 9:33-50
January 13: Genesis 15
January 14: Romans 3:19-4:25
January 15: Romans 5-6
January 16: Romans 7-8
January 17: Deuteronomy 18:15-22
January 18: 2 Timothy 1:1-14
January 19: Philippians 4:6-8
January 20: Galatians 3
January 21: Galatians 4-5
January 22: Acts 15:1-31
January 23: Titus 3
January 24: Romans 14:1-15:13
January 25: Hebrews 8-10
January 26: Matthew 28:1-15
January 27: Acts 13:1-2
January 28: 2 Corinthians 5
January 29: Luke 24:13-35
January 30: Jeremiah 31:31-34
January 31: Matthew 26:27-29

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

Friday, December 23, 2016

Falsely Accused? You Decide

All I wanted to do was leave this place and not come back. Not until January. Heck, maybe not until March, the way this day was going.

But I couldn't get to the door in time to escape the red-headed woman who was following me down the hallway.

"Excuse me," she said. "I heard what your daughter said in there. That she didn't have a Christmas tree. I assume it has to be a financial issue. Would you let us buy you one?"

I burst into tears for the second time that day. The first time had been only five minutes earlier, when I walked into a classroom to find my tearful, stammering child rejecting a gift from her beloved teacher - a glittery teal ornament - because she didn't have a Christmas tree to put it on. And she wasn't having a pity party. No, she wasn't sure that she wanted a tree. Or whether she should want one. Or whether she could trust this bubbly blonde teacher who unknowingly stumbled over the elephant in our living room.

Or maybe it was the lack of the elephant in our living room, so to speak. We had already decided that being thankful for Jesus' birth was acceptable for Christians. We had purchased a few modest presents to help smooth the transition. We had understood for some time that Jeremiah 10 did not refer to Christmas trees. But we were just not ready to welcome this long-demonized symbol into our home.

We eventually made peace with Christmas trees, after a lot of reading, praying and soul-searching. Ironically, now I spend many Decembers days reassuring troubled Christians who've just discovered that some believe their beloved tradition to be filthy paganism. But I feel it's a worthwhile discussion to have, since Christmas is one of the main issues that leads sincere mainstream Christians into cults like Armstrongism (the Churches of God) or the Hebrew Roots movement.

Every year, I get the chance to dig a little deeper, learn a little more and share what I've found on As Bereans Did and in my face-to-face relationships. This year, I've learned:

  • Claims that Christmas trees came from Germanic paganism usually force any loose association with tree worship into the Christmas tree, regardless of the species or specific mythical significance. Some arguments are circular. Others ignored the historical record or even disregarded the historical timeline. Overall, they lack credibility. 
  • Christmas trees most likely came from Christian mystery plays in medieval Europe. Many experts believe the Christmas tree came from the Paradise Tree – a prop used in plays that recounted the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Paradise Play, which featured the Paradise Tree, was traditionally linked to December 24. Paradise Trees were decorated with apples, as were many early Christmas trees – which first appeared outside the meeting halls of trade guilds responsible for performing the plays each year.
  • Christmas trees became more common around the time of the Reformation. Many believe that Protestants who were no longer welcome at Catholic Christmas mass capitalized on the tradition to transfer the focus of the holiday celebration to the home. This theory is bolstered by the fact that most German Catholics rejected the Christmas tree as a heretical Protestant invention until the late 1800s. It also deals a crippling blow to those who claim that Catholics appropriated the tradition from ancient pagan practices. There is no record of Catholics accepting Christmas trees throughout the Middle Ages, then purging them from their celebrations in the 1500s.
  • National Socialist leaders capitalized on the tree as a historic German tradition when they rebranded Christmas in their efforts to rid Germany of Christianity. Nazi propagandists gradually divorced Christmas celebration from the story of Jesus' birth. They resurrected legends about Yule, Woden and sun worship. Eventually, the Third Reich even distributed Advent calendars that boldly proclaimed “Christmas is the Solstice.” These allegations didn't originate with the Nazis, but they certainly worked tirelessly to cement them as truth in the minds of Germans. Many of whom have been quoted as reliable sources on the origin of German Christmas traditions for decades after the war. 

    Regardless of all this, I know that many of you will never be able to shake your negative feelings about Christmas trees. Well, guess what? 

    I couldn't care less if you ever have a Christmas tree. No, seriously. I'm offended by outspoken leaders who make arrogant, demeaning pronouncements and simplistic claims. But I'm not offended by sincere individuals who aren't - and never will be - comfortable with Christmas trees. I know it's a hard step to take. It's not commanded. It's certainly not a matter of salvation. Please, stick to your houseplants. I don't mind. 

    I don't even care if you ever celebrate Christmas. I know many of ABD's readers have adopted the Hebrew holy days. I understand your reasoning and know that you have sincere, noble intentions. I disagree with your reasoning, and believe it has hidden spiritual dangers. No, we don't have any carbon dated evidence or time-stamped video surveillance of the nativity. There are good reasons that ancient scholars pinpointed December 25th, largely based in Semitic cultural ideas to which we can't relate. But again, Christmas isn't a command. And it certainly isn't a matter of salvation.

    So what do I want? 

    I want you to think for yourself. I want you to consider something other the canned, reheated history offered by those who still embrace the rantings of a Depression-era ad-man. Who plagiarized from the rantings of a 19th-century Scotsman. And possibly bought into Nazi propaganda. A lot of discoveries have been made in the 175 years since Alexander Hislop compiled his volume, and even in the 75 years since Herbert Armstrong first, um, borrowed them.  

    More importantly, I want you to fully appreciate why the birth of the Savior was so significant - why even the angels felt it was a reason to rejoice. Some groups downplay discussion of Jesus' birth because they say it's His death that was significant. That's partially true - even conservative Christian groups that put on elaborate Christmas productions continually point to the Cross.

    The difference is, in most groups that downplay Christ's birth, His grace really isn't sufficient. Focusing entirely on His death allows these groups to preach that His sinless, righteous state was what qualified Him to rule as King of Kings. Likewise, they teach that it is the righteousness of our walk after accepting Christ's sacrifice that maintains our qualification for His Kingdom

    This sounds good on paper. After all, is grace license to sin? Certainly not, wrote Paul. The New Testament is full of commands for the Christian walk, and faith without these works is dead. Who would argue that a Christian's conduct doesn't matter? 

    Here's the problem. The Bible also tells us that these positive works and attributes are fruit of God's involvement in our lives. The evidence that we have been justified in God's sight. They are not a checklist  of items that coax His involvement, or our eventual victory. Unfortunately, most cults twist this misguided teaching to their own ends. They abuse it to control behavior and threaten those who object with shunning and loneliness in this lifetime and damnation in the next, making many followers vulnerable to depression and even suicide

    There is a subtle, but important, difference between obeying because you have favor with God and obeying in order to obtain favor from God. In the theology of the former, we are led by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to God's glory. In the latter, we try to scrub ourselves clean of sin in hopes that we might obtain His glory.

    Be honest. No one else is looking. Raise your hand if, deep down, you think you will ever be able to eliminate enough sin from your life to qualify for God's Kingdom.

    (I'll pause and give you a minute to think).

    That's what I thought. Behavior modification isn't easy. I know, I'm a mom. But even if you got all your bad behaviors under control, it wouldn't change your heart.

    (Matthew 15:17-20, NIV) "Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person's mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts - murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them."

    The children of Israel had been trying to modify their behavior for centuries. It didn't work. Not with any lasting effect, anyway, because it didn't change their hearts. And it won't change yours, either. Only He can. Your only hope is placing your full faith in Jesus, in the gift of regeneration and eternal life, confirmed by the New Covenant in His blood.

    This is why the birth of Jesus was such good news. It's good news this Sunday, next Tuesday, February 18th, June 23rd or any other day of the year. Understand who you are and Who He is. Appreciate the full measure of what He did for you. And give thanks, whenever it is that you're comfortable, just give thanks that Jesus came.

    That's all I want. And you don't need a tree to do that.

    It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
    Acts 17:11

    Friday, December 16, 2016

    Falsely Accused? Nazi Christmas Propaganda Lives On...

    “Martha, I don't care what As Bereans Did or anyone else says. Christmas is pagan. Christmas trees are pagan. Everyone knows it. The History Channel runs specials on it. It's written in encyclopedias. Even mainstream “Christian” theologians admit it.”

    Oh, good. The Nazi propaganda machine worked.

    No, seriously.  No tinfoil hats or black helicopters here. Look, I know it's become popular, even cliche, to link unpopular people or ideas with the Nazis. The thing is, this time, it's been documented.

    The Nazi War on Christmas 

    While Adolph Hitler's antipathy for Christianity is well-known, more recent research has revealed that Nazi leaders ran a calculated campaign to divorce Christmas from its Christian associations. Instead, they promoted its alleged association with the winter solstice and Germanic paganism to help advance their nationalistic, racist agenda, says Bernd Brunner, author of Inventing the Christmas Tree.

    In our last post, we learned that Christmas trees were a German Protestant tradition. Many in Catholic regions of Germany rejected Christmas trees as part of the “Lutheran heresy” until the late 1800s – a fact that makes it difficult to argue Catholics co-opted them from ancient pagan worship. But by the 1900s, the decorated tree was accepted in Catholic parts of Germany and recognized around the world as a symbol of the German Christmas celebration. The Nazis used this symbolism – as well as some of the published tree legends we've already debunked - as to their advantage as a tools for ideological manipulation that echoes to this day.

    “Thus the socialist propaganda machine strove to emphasize the tree's Germanic roots and to paint it as a direct descendant of the mythical tree of life – all in order to distract from the Christian meaning of the celebration,” Brunner said. 

    Many communist, socialist and fascist movements of the 1900s discouraged Christmas, according to
    Gary Bowler, author of Christmas in the Crosshairs. For example, Soviet officials tried to transition the holiday to a December 21 celebration of Stalin's birthday. Romanians were barred from singing carols in public. Some countries simply kept traditional treats off store shelves until after December 25 had passed.

    Even leftist communists and democratic socialists in Germany opposed Christmas – which set up the national socialists to nobly defend the celebration. When communist protesters destroyed Christmas paraphernalia in the streets, SA soldiers encountered and confronted them, making the Nazis look reasonable and respectful in contrast. National socialist leaders promised to return to traditional values if elected, and these confrontations made them look like heroes defending their German heritage.

    Even before they came to power, national socialist leaders used the holiday to advance their discrimination against Jews. Consider the wording from a 1928 pamphlet by well-known Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels:
    “Six hundred small businesses have gone bankrupt due to Jewish department stores this Christmas season in Berlin alone! Set out the Christmas tree. Daughters of Zion, rejoice! The good Germans are forging their own chains from their hard-earned coins. The Jew will grow fat from the coins you give him, the German will starve.” (Bowler, 94)

    A Nazi Noel? 

    By the time Hitler came to power in 1933, his cohorts had successfully linked national socialism with a “non-Christian Christmas” season. The Nazis took great efforts not to oppose Christmas itself, but to paint the celebration of the Jewish Savior's birth as anti-Semitic and historically German.
    “The solution was to avoid any direct attack on the traditional Christmas but to use the state's power, wherever possible, to promote a non-Christian view of the holiday that emphasized national unity, family togetherness, the role of the mother and the eternal cycle of the seasons.” (Bowler, 99)
    Now in control of the government, the Nazis used their patriotic, nationalistic Christmas celebration
    Nazi Christmas food collection for poor Germans
    to promote public welfare programs. Scores of Hitler youth went door to door soliciting contributions for this “winter relief effort” and rewarding donors with small tokens of the Fuhrer's thanks. This effort truly did help many destitute Germans through Depression-Era winters, Bowler says. And it linked Nazism with charity and social solidarity in many German minds - as the leaders had calculated, no doubt.

    Still, there were other nationalistic changes that first year, as the regime created a “new vision for Christmas", thanks to Goebbels – now Ministry of National Enlightenment and Propaganda. Brown-shirted SA soldiers accompanied the holy family in a traditional nativity play, while the audience sang the Nazi fight song along with traditional carols. One film dated to 1933 showed a nativity scene surrounded by SA soldiers and Teutonic knights, all arranged under a picture of Hitler.  The next year, Nazi leaders added holidays like Hitler's birthday and the anniversary of the Nazi political victory to the calendar.

    Later on, the government started giving instructions on celebrating Christmas in a “national socialist manner.” They first targeted schools and to the Hitler youth, Bowler said. Nativity plays and carols were finally banned from schools in 1938 and replaced with songs like this, which Hitler youth sung at Nuremburg rallies:
    “No evil priest can prevent us from feeling that we are the children of Hitler!
    We follow not Christ, but Horst Wessel.
    Away with incense and holy water.
    The Church can hang for all we care!
    The swastika brings salvation on earth!”
    (Bowler, 96) 
    Youth also waved banners like this at these same rallies: “Down with a Christ who allows himself to be crucified. The German god cannot be a suffering god. He is god of power and strength.”

    Neutralizing the Church

    Hitler knew that his plans for territorial expansion and racial purity were mutually exclusive to the Christian message of peace and grace. Nazi Germany had no use for Jesus, and they would have to
    Priests salute Hitler at Youth Rally
    find a way to neutralize Christian churches in order to achieve their goals. The Reich made agreements with the Catholic Church that largely muzzled the religious institution, even though Hitler quickly broke his promises.
    On the Protestant side, the German Christian movement took control and worked to align its teachings with national socialist principles. Soon, the National Protestant Church was portraying Jesus as an Aryan victim of the Jews and draped its altars with swastikas. Redacted version of the gospels eliminated Old Testament Hebrew prophecies from the nativity story. The pagan “blood and earth” ceremony was introduced.

    From this point forward, the Christmas season was an annual struggle between Nazi pagans and paganized Christians versus leaders Protestant and Catholic Christianity. Church leaders hoped to use the citizens' popular attachment to Christmas to defend Christianity itself in Nazi Germany.  No one won this power struggle, but ordinary German Christians were the big loser.
    “Christmas was celebrated without any mention of Christianity, instead directives mandated it was 'a people's Christmas, in a consciousness of German tradition',” Bowler says.
    Traditional Christian hymns were edited to remove Jewish ideas and words, like “Hosanna” and “Hallelujah.” In some songs, the Norse God “Baldur” replaced the name of Jesus. Schoolchildren praised Hitler in the re-written version of the classic Christmas hymn, Silent Night:
    “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.
    Only chancellor stays on guard,
    Germany's future to watch and to ward,
    guiding our nation aright.”
    Silent night, holy night all is calm, all is bright.
    Adolf Hitler is Germany's Star,
    Showing us greatness and glory afar,
    Bringing us Germans the might.”
    (Bowler, 97)

    Nazi Yule and Solstice Propaganda

    Notice how at first the Nazis adopted Christmas, then they slowly and purposefully hollowed it out and changed it. When World War II began in earnest, Hitler's efforts to paganize the Christmas season were unrestrained, Bowler says. SS families were given official, written instructions on how to begin their Julfest (Yuletide) celebration on Woten's Day, December 6. (Many Catholic, Orthodox and Methodist Christians traditionally recognize December 6 as the official day to remember the historical activities of St. Nicholas, and it is sometimes treated as the the unofficial beginning of the Christmas season). These Nazi Julfest instructions reminded Germans of myths about the ancient god Woten (or Woden), who drove through the air, visiting his followers and leaving them presents to announce the start of the solstice.
    “In order to expropriate the German people's deep investment in the Christmas season without referring to its Christian content, Nazi propagandists and ethnologists took advantage of the holiday's proximity to the winter solstice and attempted to build a new set of behaviors around December 21,” Bowler says. “A 1939 article in an educational monthly stated baldly: the real Christmas community celebration … is the winter solstice.” (Bowler, p. 98)
    In fact, a variety of WWII-era children's books, magazines and even advent calendars took sharp aim at the SS soldier's home and family, shifting their attention from December 25 to the solstice. None mentioned Jesus or the nativity, but instead featured vague, seasonal sentiments. One “helpful” advent calendar arrived in German homes to help them plan their activities for the month.
    Nazi Advent Calendar Cover, 1942
    “The solstice symbol on the front cover – a spinning sun – gives a clue that the booklet will include none of the usual Christmas elements of the season. In fact the authors repeat the mantra, Weihnachten ist Sonnewende. 'Christmas is the solstice.' (Bowler, p. 100)
    To celebrate Julfest, every SS soldier should have his own Jul plate filled with nuts, apples and Swastika-shaped biscuits, according to the publication. On the actual date of the winter solstice, SS men gathered on mountaintops performing “manly dances” while the townfolk gathered around huge bonfires below. Local children lit candles from these fires and brought them home to light their own Jul trees.

    Nazi Advent Calendar Cover, 1943

    Nazi Christmas Trees

    Brunner, author of Inventing the Christmas Tree, explains more about how the Nazis appropriated the Christmas tree. Ornaments were renamed “Julschmuk,” or yule decorations. Angels, stars and other Christian symbols disappeared. Instead, balls with symbols of plants and animals were used to adorn
    Collection of Nazi ornaments
    the Jul tree, hearkening back to ancient Germanic tribal wisdom. It became common for swastikas, pikes or other Nazi symbols to appear atop the tree.

    The Nazis even reappropriated Advent wreaths, which were designed in the 1800s by a Protestant pastor for residents in his orphanage. Suddenly, the candle-decked wreath were deemed an ancient German symbol, Bowler says, representative of pagans longing for light during the dark winter season.

    The propaganda continued in East Germany even after World War II, Bowler says. While the German communist party initially opposed Christmas, they soon saw how it normalized life for its war-stricken citizens.

    “Consequently, the leaders of the German Democratic Republic chose to preserve the holiday, strip it of many (but not all) of its connections to religion, and cast it as a time of peace, freedom and a new socialist beginning,” Bowler said. (p. 90)
    Father Frost, whom originally bore an intentional and striking resemblance to Stalin - and snow maidens made public appearances, although Der Weihnachtsmann – the secular gift-bringer – was the most popular hero (Bowler, p. 90). Angels were catchily renamed “end-of-year winged figures.” Christmas may have outlasted the Berlin wall, but the holiday would never be seen the same way in Germany. Or anywhere else German mythology has touched.
    “In the long run neither European Communism nor its war on Christmas survived, but until the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain came down in 1989, the struggle to control the holiday had some disparate effects. At a public level, the state had considerable success in controlling the agenda, secularizing and commercializing the public aspect, and shifting the merriment to January 1.” (Bowler, p. 90)
    Claims associating Christmas traditions with paganism certainly didn't start with the Nazis. But Goebbels and other propagandists got their ideas from somewhere. Did the Nazis take unsubstantiated claims from people like Alexander Hislop or the Jehovah's Witnesses and run with them? Could they have used vague references from authors like Tacitus for their own nationalistic ends? No, we all know the Nazis never lied about anything! They never twisted anything to meet their needs! (She said, sarcastically.) And they certainly never controlled the information their citizens read.

    Which leads us to wonder – if the Nazis hadn't resurrected these legends, how many would be accepted as fact by popular culture today? Did the churning of the Nazi propaganda machine bring these tired stories back to the surface? Many in the anti-Christmas crowd point to German experts, German materials and German legends as their sources on Christmas as reinventions of Yule or solstice celebrations. Of course they're correct! If anyone would know about German history, it's the German people, right? (She said, sarcastically.)

    Did anti-Christmas voices like Herbert W Armstrong, founder of the modern Church of God movement - buy into this Nazi propaganda? We know that HWA had his eyes on the Third Reich. Some of his earliest failed prophecies predicted a Nazi victory in World War II, and his admiration for Hitler's control tactics has been documented by many, including the Boston Sunday Globe (Church beset with troubles, August 3, 1980). The Ambassador Reports' John Trechak stated that he found a well-worn copy of Mein Kampf in HWA's desk, dog-eared and highlighted. In his autobiography, HWA details his visit to the site of Hitler's infamous beer hall putsch and makes mention of the Fuhrer's subsequent imprisonment, during which he wrote Mein Kampf. Nazi Germany was clearly a topic of HWA's interest.

    How much credence would Armstrong have gotten were it not for the Nazi effort to paganize Christmas? We'll never know. Many of the nationalist, socialist and communist movements of the 1900s have died out, but one must wonder whether useful idiots are still promoting their propaganda today.

    It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
    Acts 17:11