Author Archives: mycaptivethought

Is Church “Essential?”

Bernie Diaz, May 28, 2020

President Donald Trump says he wants churches to reopen as quickly as possible, being important to the “psyche” of this nation. He believes if they remained closed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, “you’ll break the country.” That’s a bold statement but then so is just about everything else that comes out of the mouth of our President.

The President like the Governor of my home state of Florida, have designated religious gatherings as “essential” to the well-being of the country and it’s communities, leading a vast number of churches to resume worship services as soon as the beginning of June, which is music to my ears.

However, at least a half-dozen or more state governments around the nation have begged to differ, arguing in essence that the assembling of people in places of worship, are ‘nonessential.’ In fact, some state officials have gone as far to presume that religious gatherings may still present public health dangers, citing either remote or unlikely threats based upon questionable numbers or anecdotes of a small number of COVID-19 related cases and fatalities from an even smaller number of gatherings back in March and early April, prior to when widespread mitigation policies were put into place.

One of the justices of a federal district court of appeals which rejected a California church’s request for a restraining order against the state’s ban on worship gatherings, wrote, “ … if a court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”

Church meetings right now = a “suicide pact?” Really? Well, that decision has led that church in San Diego to take its case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Thus, the nation is again dividing on a cultural issue of critical importance to our society, this one about the very ideas of the necessity of religion and the application of its constitutional right to ‘freely exercise’ it.

This issue has been recently dominating the headlines and conversations from local church leaders, to state houses, federal courts and up to the federal office of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) as well as the White House.

The media-driven controversy pitting public safety versus religious liberty, came into sharper focus in two events this past week. The first, came amid reports that Chicago police banged on the doors of Cornerstone Baptist Church, interrupting their worship service, demanding an immediate end to it, intimidating the pastor and congregants in the enforcement of a local ordinance from Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot, despite the church having observed all of the required and suggested CDC protocols given it.      

Second, a coalition of 1,200 pastors in California announced their churches would be gathering for worship services on the final Sunday in May, in defiance of their Governor’s executive orders to remain sheltered, prompting grass-roots citizen and legal initiatives there and in Minnesota, that pushed those state’s chief executives to remove church bans to worship.

When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan (Proverbs 29:2).

Unfortunately, some new government guidelines are restricting gatherings not only in size and the length of the service, but going as far as in the case of California, to suggest that places of worship refrain from singing. Obviously, that ‘guideline,’ poses a potentially massive threat to the church’s legal standing and ability to worship God as it sees fit. 

Thus, COVID related policies and protocols are again prompting inter-denominational and evangelical debates over the justification of practicing civil disobedience to the “governing authorities (Romans 13).”

Really, the legal and cultural wrangling boils down to the question of whether the public manifestation of religion is essential to a society or not?

Generally, one’s worldview or perspective of faith will dictate the answer to that question. Secularists have one point of view on essentiality and religious advocates of the three ‘great’ monotheistic religions of the world- Judaism, Christianity and Islam have another.

In the aftermath of this pandemic, restaurants and retail businesses have been deemed “essential” and reopened in most of the country, including such essential or necessary establishments like liquor and marijuana/CBD dispensaries, as well as abortion facilities among others, while churches have been lumped together with nonessential and entertainment oriented businesses, such as: gyms, movie theaters, sports events, summer camps, concerts and local playhouses.

Is it safe to say based on such classifications that the meaning and significance of church has been lost to a chunk of America and its governing authorities in the year of COVID 2020?

Why Church is Not Essential

For secularists, religion is ok for you – prayer in your closet, but not so much for them. When we parrot the phrase, “Christianity is more about a relationship than a religion”, they take that literally to mean that faith is an exclusively private affair, consisting of a spiritual person’s personal and private devotion to a ‘higher authority’, or way of life, rather than having a positive influence on, or being essential to, the greater welfare of a society.

The California Department of Health hinted as much in their stringent guidelines for religious gatherings, noting that, “Even with adherence to physical distancing, convening in a congregational setting of multiple different households to practice a personal faith carries a relatively higher risk for widespread transmission of COVID-19.”

It’s that kind of viewpoint that helps explain why secular liberals prefer that Christianity and its worldview, be left out of the marketplace of ideas and public policy. Afterall, if they’re right and religion is just a solo practice of faith, then why don’t the religious just remain worshipping in the king mattress at home, doing virtual and online church there? Why can’t they keep their religious rules and opinions to themselves?

Spirituality for the secularist is about creating a customized and self-styled god if there is room for one at all. They believe, “If I’m ok- you’re ok and we must be with ok with God or mother nature or whoever is some sort of deity that may have once been involved with the world historically.

Therefore, the ultimate authority the secularist is accountable to, is a two-fold hierarchy: (1) self. Self-determination, being an island to one’s self and fulfilling one’s own personal desires and pleasures as the greatest good (2) the state. If and when they fail, the state or government is there to pick them up with a safety net and guarantee their happiness by virtue of ever-evolving laws and standards (e.g. the sexual revolution) as the next greatest good.

There is no room in their world for God – the creator and law-giver found in the Bible, judge and jury, that the secularist has always disdained and rebelled against.

Why Church is Essential

The church it may be argued, carries an essential, two-fold corporate identity and authority for elected officials to consider or be remind of: (1) it is a local body of believers, accountable first to God and to one another to receive and serve others with its spiritual gifts – in person, as a family and community of faith, dedicated to reproducing itself in Christlikeness, via relationships in a process of discipleship which reaches out to the world with the greatest news in the history of the world- the gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:42-47; Matthew 28:19-20).

(2) admittedly, though the church is essential to Christians universally and locally- it really is, only those who are born-again in Christ and of the faith, will realize it. However, what the world too often loses sight of, is the essentiality of religion in general and Christianity specifically. The church was deemed essential to the greater good or welfare of a society by this nation’s founding fathers.

President George Washington – our nation’s first, while declaring the essentiality of the Bible to governance, said in his farewell speech at the conclusion of his term in office, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that our national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Washington’s successor and fellow Founding Father John Adams added, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The common denominator being the uniquely American concept of ‘self-government’, as a life of freedom only possible by the anchor of a belief and obedience to God, as the highest and most objective source of law, order and morality- “nature’s law” as 18th century British Jurist William Blackstone put it.

America’s tradition and legacy holds that religion is an essential source of moral and ethical training as well as a protective force for good and bulwark against evil, for a people to survive and thrive in self-government.

From a more practical perspective, history has also shown us via the church’s manifestation of supernaturally empowered agape love and mercy over two millennia, that its has proven essential to the development of pre-government, societal welfare programs (e.g Salvation Army and homeless aid), counseling, hospitals, schools and orphan care.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27).

Who came to the aid of New York City, besieged by COVID-19 being the epicenter of the virus in this country, with a mobile hospital center to care for the sick in Central Park when their hospital system was overwhelmed? An atheist non-for-profit organization? Nope! It was Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian ministry led by Franklin Graham, who said of their ministry to all New Yorkers regardless of their creed, color and yes, sexual orientation, “This is what Samaritan’s Purse does—we respond in the middle of crises to help people in Jesus’ Name.”

Is Religion essential? Should God’s people be allowed to meet- reasonably and safely at this time? Well, how essential is it that America be allowed to receive the gospel and love of Jesus Christ, as well as remain firmly grounded in it’s freedom afforded by self-government? Case closed.  

A Legacy of Apologetics – Ravi Zacharias

Bernie Diaz, May 20, 2020

The news though expected when it finally came, still caused me to pause and reflect. Notable Christian apologist, philosopher, author and evangelist Ravi Zacharias was gone- having finally succumbed to a rare form of bone cancer, passing on to an eternity with the Lord and Savior he spent most of his lifetime defending, Tuesday, May 19th at the age of 74.

Zacharias, a prolific writer and articulate rhetorician of great skill born in Delhi, India and from a Buddhist background, left behind a massive legacy of a life and ministry dedicated to “helping thinkers believe and believers think,” about God, Jesus Christ and his gospel.

For nearly a generation, ‘Ravi,’ connected Christianity to the life of the mind, proving that the Christian faith was not a blind one, founded upon myth, but rather a real, rationale faith grounded in reason, centered around the God that became a Man.

His impact on my life was both subtle and significant. Having grown up in a fairly nominal Catholic family, my faith up until nearly the age of 30, was largely theistic though agnostic as to the relevance of the gospel in my life. I was pretty sure God existed, Jesus was a historic figure of some importance who may or may not have resurrected and who I cried out to for help, only when needed as push came to shove, backed in various corners of life by my own choosing. Does that sound familiar to any of you?

Without yet understanding the supernatural and sovereign way in which God calls and saves sinners like myself (one of the areas in which I would come to disagree with Ravi theologically), I was somehow lured (John 6 would say “drawn” or better yet compelled by God the Holy Spirit) to investigate the claims of Christianity, after having met my future wife and contemplating my future with her nearly 30 years ago.

Moreover, my brother had come to Christ not long before this compulsion to investigate Christ, and by witnessing his dramatic conversion and testimony, I knew something was up spiritually, and I had a hole in my heart which needed to be filled by someone, leading me to embark on a journey to see whether or not Christianity was true and meaningful. So, I went on a search for God, all the while God was seeking me.

The Ministry of Apologetics

God uses many means and methods in which to draw and save sinners to himself, as Jesus demonstrated in his ministry, as diverse as the approach with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), to the Roman Centurion (Matt. 8) and with a Pharisee named Nicodemus (John 3).

Some believe in Christ as the result of a dramatic, Pauline like, Damascus Road experience, others as the result of a tragedy and for others like me, an intellectual path of exploring the meaning of life that led to a face to face confrontation with the risen and coming again Christ of the gospels. How?

.. but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15, ESV).

God used Ravi Zacharias. I first became familiar with the idea of apologetics- the ‘defense’ (from the Greek word apologia) of the Christian faith, by observing my brother’s ‘born-again’ life and wanting to know the “reason for the hope” that was in him. Then I began to read classic books he directed me to, such as C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Josh McDowell’s More than a Carpenter, which both made tremendous arguments for the validity and credibility of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus.  

However, it was a grid- a systematic presentation of a four-part question and answer paradigm of thinking that mankind has always wrestled with, that I had first heard on Ravi’s Let My People Think radio broadcast, which I found later in his work, Can Man Live Without God (1994) that floored me. I had been asking myself and others- on and off the written page, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The best seller of the same title of that era, written by a rather liberal Jewish Rabbi, left me wanting but at least piqued my interest.  I had to know. 

The four big questions I needed big answers to, that Ravi expertly laid out and answered – logically, mind you, were and remain:

  1. Creation: How did we get here?

I had been indoctrinated already by a public school system and enforced by a culture, that taught that life existed by a random, accidental explosion, leading to an ancient earth, made up of life forms which inexplicably arrived, mutated and became human by an evolutionary process that seemed to defy the laws of evidence and reason in my mind.

As I dug Darwin’s ditch a bit deeper, I found reasons to turn to the Bible as God’s special revelation declaring a unique, unprecedented and literal, supernatural, six-day account that better explained the origin of life than the naturalistic idea that nothing plus time – plus chance – equals everything.

The answer to the creation question seemed to serve as the linchpin that unpacked the answers to the rest of the questions. Ravi Zacharias continued….

2. Meaning – why are we here?

Though I am no scientist or scholar, I figured that if the answer to the above origin question was evolution, my life carried no more of an intrinsic value or meaning than a centipede or speck of dirt.  That thought was not very appealing nor would that answer satisfy the millions of minds over the millennia that have searched for meaning as being the most fundamental yearning perhaps that man has ever had – it wasn’t just me.

3. Morals: why are we the way we are?

Ravi Zacharias among other great defenders of the faith, argued that the fall of man in sin, produced a lineage and legacy of hearts that were “deceitful and desperately wicked,” which much better explained the ravages of murder, death, destruction, oppression and evil in the world, rather than just a few societal ideas gone wrong.

Why had the 20th century, filled with the rise of historic industrial, technological and intellectual advances, and largely influenced by the most powerful, atheistic minds and leaders of the age (e.g. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao) taken more human lives than all of the first nineteen centuries combined?

The answer to that question became obvious to me as Ravi explained the need for a transcendent and objective law-giver to be the author of the moral law by which one could differentiate good from evil, making sense of the problem of pain and suffering in this sin-cursed world.

4. Destiny: where are we going from here?

Essentially the life or death question came down to two possible answers. One, if God does not exist and meaning is irrelevant, then our destiny is, and one should live as selfishly as possible, since everyone’s life expectancy is limited to this material life, which leads to a short-lived existence as little more than being food for maggots, having taken the big dirt-nap on earth.

Again, not an answer I found to be very coherent nor satisfying. The second option was the most plausible one for me, being that if God is true, man fell despite a greater purpose and promise of eternal life with him, and is then in need of redemption with God for having lived a life of sin and rebellion.

What better way to explain that – destiny and the future of man, than the opportunity for redemption or salvation – rescue from the consequences of moral sin, from the God of love, as well as holiness and righteousness found in the Bible, than by virtue of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which provides that freedom and redemption by faith?

It all lined up for me- hand in glove, four questions posed and answered biblically, philosophically and reasonably by this master apologist who subtly influenced if not shaped public opinion and policy, Ravi Zacharias, who connected my mental dots- my mind, curiosity and doubt with the gospel of Christ. That’s what I needed in order to fill the Christ-shaped hole in my heart I discovered so long ago.

I am in debt, and much of my pastoral and preaching ministry is as well, to this man that God used to ‘help this thinker believe’ as he did with tens of thousands of other Christians I’m sure over these many years. Tim Tebow tweeted in a video upon hearing of Ravi’s passing: “He is an absolute inspiration, a hero of the faith. He will absolutely be in the hall of faith.”

Indeed, Ravi is another hero of the faith I’m looking forward to spending some time with in the New Heavens and Earth. How joyous this ‘good and faithful servant’ must be right now, as he awaits a well-deserved crown for living and leaving behind a well earned legacy by God’s grace.

Life or Livelihood? Restoring America in the Pandemic

Bernie Diaz, May 12, 2020

Another silver lining of the Coronavirus cloud (My Captive Thought, April 22nd) has been the hunger that is evident in most local churches across America, who are ready to reopen and resume in-person congregational meetings as the Bible commands.

The digitally gathered and scattered church in the U.S. is seemingly busting at the seams, longing for fellowship- truly and in the flesh, after two plus months of isolation and flat-screen worship services. Church pastors and leaders are ready to begin scheduling Sunday services and small group or Sunday school meetings as well and only await the much-anticipated, ‘all-clear’ signal from health, local, state and federal officials.

The double-edged question is when and at what cost? Literally, it is indeed a question of cost not only for the church but the population of the United States as a whole, which has been engaging in a debate over which value is of greater importance to emphasize, as if one should be considered to the exclusion of the other: life or livelihood?

The novel Coronavirus has reportedly cost more than 80,000 American lives to the date of this post, as well as over 30 million jobs, crippling the American economy in April to levels of unemployment not seen since the early 20th century’s ‘Great Depression.’

Therefore, the question of, “Do we sacrifice the country’s economy to preserve life or do we sacrifice lives to preserve the economy?” has been bandied about in greater intensity over the two weeks in particular, as fatality rates from the virus seem to have “flattened out” if not significantly reduced to the extent that the majority of our nation’s states, have begun to re-open in phases, or seek a degree of normalcy, with piece-meal restrictions, orders and guidelines.

While a full-scale ethical debate over lives versus livelihood would prove interesting and even beneficial here, space will not allow a comprehensive treatment of it, other than to say that again, government and church leaders are tempted to fall prey to the ‘either/or’ fallacy of rhetoric.

The philosophical trap of the either/or position, is the insistence that any argument must reach a conclusion of being either all of one thing or position, or all of the other, to the exclusion of balance between both, best seen in the position of what we call, the ‘both/and,’ which concludes that an argument can be settled by acknowledging that something may be true in more than one way or for more than one single side, without excluding the other or contradicting truth.

For example, I have long been a part of participating in and mediating debates between professing Calvinists and Arminians in church circles for years, over the doctrine of salvation. Does God save sinners or does mankind save himself? This is the age-old conundrum of God’s sovereignty of choice juxtaposed with man’s responsibility to choose when one is redeemed.

The either/or position cannot satisfy truth seekers without the nuanced position of the both/and in this case, which allows for the biblical revelation that both assertions when properly understood are true. The Bible teaches that God is free in choosing or electing his church and man – though not altogether free, but enslaved by his sin nature, still chooses whether to reject or accept Christ and the gospel’s free grace gift of salvation.

Similarly, church and state does not have to exclude the moral mandate to preserve life- always an absolute for the biblical Christian, and the mandate to protect and not covet anthers personal property, which can extend to protecting one’s livelihood -their means of provision for him or herself and their family.

A wise and balanced biblical approach to this question and current dilemma, understands that there may be exceptions, allowances and moderating positions available to wise and discerning parties taking a both/and stance. It is possible for instance to hold both of these two truths in tension and strive to honor them both: one, that God’s people have an obligation and American right to assemble in person and all citizens must travel to and from work, school, for reasonable recreation and necessary errands (health care, shopping) and that the government’s prime directive, ordained by God in scripture, is to reasonably protect and preserve life from harm and evil (Ro. 13).

It is no small task to achieve the proper wisdom and balance necessary to avoid the extremes that threaten our way of American life in the midst of this pandemic.

On the one hand, Christians are right to denounce our abortion fueled “culture of death,” yet risk their witness being branded as harsh or hypocritical in demanding our freedom to assemble corporately for  entertainment purposes at this time, throwing care and caution to the wind (i.e. ignoring social distancing mandates).

There is a way for Christians to sacrifice their “rights” to a degree and for a season, in obedience to the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. While on the other hand, Christians may fall so hard to a spirit of fear in leaving their front door (unless prohibited by their health) or discussing legitimate freedoms, that they may be prone to ignoring or dismissing facts that would allow for reasonable expressions of those freedoms.

These are difficult times in which to make absolutist, either/or determinations as to the nature of COVID-19 and its impact on our society. I think of myself as a healthy skeptic politically, though not prone to conspiracy theories, yet I admit I recently passed on a now controversial and viral documentary and video on social media to friends, which may not have been the wisest thing to do considering some of the valid backlash it has since received. Simply put, I hit the ‘send’ button too soon.

There is much equivocation right now from all sides, as to the origin, trends and science concerning this pandemic – an unprecedented and historic event in American history.

Without pretending to answer the challenging question here of life or livelihood, or offering ultra-wise policies and solutions to restoring America (of which I have opinions of course!), Christians seeing our Coronavirus world through biblical lenses, should be cautions of the either/or fallacy and commit to rejecting direct harm to fellow image-bearers of God when discussing our views. Grace and more grace is a both/and that we should hold to at this time.  

A Timely and Much Needed Day of Prayer

Bernie Diaz, May 7, 2020

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:14, ESV)

Do you think the 68th annual National Day of Prayer could have come at a better time- a more providential one in America than now?  

The United States of America- the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world, has been crippled in large part, by the global, COVID-19 pandemic which has reportedly claimed almost 74,000 lives from among 1.2 million plus confirmed cases as of the date of this post.

The U.S. has suffered more casualties than any other country in the world since the Coronavirus first broke-out here in January. Additionally, the nation’s economy has been dealt a severe blow by the virus, or the government’s response to it, depending on your point of view, to the tune of over 33 million jobless claims for aid filed since the virus hit.

The all-powerful and sovereign God of creation has placed a severe and sobering wake-up call to his creation in general and this nation in particular, leading tens of thousands of citizens perhaps, to answer that call, with many of them calling on God today for his help.

Although this day of prayer (NDP) – first created by a joint resolution of Congress interestingly enough, during the Truman administration at the dawn of the Cold War era, is ecumenical in its religious nature, the thrust of its advocacy and growth has largely been due to its evangelical influence.  The significance of the event continues to stand as a call for the nation to humbly come before God and seek his guidance for our leaders and His grace upon us as a people. 

It is indeed admirable that this year’s NDP organizers have centered on the sovereignty of God as the central theme of the event, for it is that awe-inspiring, worship-inviting and even comforting characteristic of God’s nature that so many of his people turn to in uncertain times like these.  

A sovereign is best imaged by a King, as being the ultimate protector and authority over a kingdom.

Make no mistake, the Bible clearly reveals the “Most High” and majestic Lord of all, as that sovereign who is the ultimate and decisive agent of everything that occurs on this planet:

For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought, who makes the morning darkness,
and treads on the heights of the earth— the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!
(Amos 4:13)

While there is much that our country should be in prayer for God to do and bless, such as his will and grace to empower the institutions of family, the military, media – now struggling to report more fact than fear or fiction, business and education, the rest of this post will focus on the need for God’s people to pray for the church and state- the ‘cities of God and man,’ as Augustine would put it.    

Pray for the State

When I exhort the church to pray for government- at every level, from local city and county municipalities to state houses and to the federal government, I’m not calling for Christians to pray that God would bless America with a return to mere “normalcy” or the status quo, or things as they were. That cannot be the Lord’s intention.

As Jesus said in response to a question about Jehovah’s providence over a seemingly inexplicable ‘tragedy’ that took many lives in Galilee, “.. unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:3,5).”

Wake-up calls like those, 9-11 attacks, pandemics and pestilences tend to accomplish more than one of God’s goals and purposes for this world. Drawing people to himself, to repent or turn to and believe in Jesus Christ for salvation by faith alone, is one of the biggies we can be sure of.

This nation is in sore need of another revival or an American, “Great Awakening”, which will only happen when God’s people and those he brings to faith, confess and plead for the forgiveness of their sin and hunger for holiness.

Christians are not only taught in scripture to submit to and obey the governing authorities, they also are to pray for the salvation of the elected officials God has placed over them, as well as for his common grace of wisdom that they would lead and enact policies that would punish evil, promote and protect that which is good, so we may lead, ‘peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way’ (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

In fact, that apostolic command to pray for government authorities does not exclude any specific political party or system at all. Yes, that means that ‘Red’ believers are to pray for ‘Blue’ officials and vice versa.

One thing I will certainly be praying for, is that our leaders wisely and responsibly act in a way which will respect religious freedom and it’s fundamental call to assemble, as it continues to safely restore our nation to health- physically and economically by God’s grace.

Pray for the Church

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person (Colossians 4:3-6).

This pandemic is prime time for the church to be the church, to show and share Jesus Christ and the hope his gospel offers to a lost, hopeless, dying and doubting American society. Now is a great time for the church to “find a new zeal and commitment to the mission and purpose of Jesus Christ (Matthew 22:37),” as the NDP website reads.

– Therefore, I would also implore the church to recommit to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) and take seriously the call to make and multiply disciples, beginning with spirit-bathed prayer for witnessing opportunities.

-That the church in America would strive to take “its thoughts (or worldview) captive to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5; Colossians 2:6-8) as per the intent of this blog by name.  

– That the church would strive for unity in truth whenever possible, with and among churches that reveal God’s love to the world (John 17:23).

– That the church would return to the absolutes of God’s Word (Psalm 1:1-3) – as the sufficiency of scripture being the absolute, clear and necessary guide for the faith and practice of the Christian life (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

– That the church would strive for Biblical Integrity–that God’s people look and act differently from the world as pilgrims or alien witnesses to it (1 Peter 2:11; 1 John 2:15-17; 1 Corinthians 13:6)

– Finally, that the American church would remember and return to its first love – being Christ (Revelation 2:4-5), by striving to do everything it does to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory said, “if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” America’s foundations have cracked and its cultural divide has never been greater. God knows that, has permitted it to be so, is moving and working in it to reveal what must be revealed to a nation that in its ungodliness, continues to reject its roots and its source of life and prosperity (Romans 1:18-32).

May this National Day of Prayer- at this time, prove to be a watershed moment in our nation’s history, as a step towards renewal and revival. Pray for America- beginning with prayer for its church.

Church and State in the Coronavirus World

Bernie Diaz, April 29, 2020

When church leaders have been conflicted and faced with the prospect of defying the law of duly constituted authorities of the state, it is doubtful that they would have had to consider doing so over the right to congregate as a church, in the midst of a pandemic like the Coronavirus.

Indeed, the church – its people, are commanded by scripture to obey or submit to governments at every level (Ro.13:1-7; Ti. 3:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:13-16), though God has seen fit to allow her to practice civil disobedience to the state under some rare and exceptional circumstances.

Would one of those exceptions include defying orders to hold public worship services during state ordered quarantines for assembled groups? Is that a case of governmental regulation, or as some would say, intrusion into congregational life?

Case in point: New Jersey’s governor said he was “not thinking of the Bill of Rights” when he implemented strict social distancing measures to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus in his state, and he is not alone. State and local officials across the country, facing a spiraling public health crisis since mid-March, have issued highly restrictive public gathering bans and stay-at-home orders—sometimes without considering the constitutional ramifications of them.

Although most churches have adapted well to the guidelines without incident, looking to safeguard their members, as well as their greater communities with prudence, wisdom and a God-glorifying witness, some have struggled against overzealous enforcement of such restrictions even when they tried to comply.

According to a news report, it took two lawsuits and U.S. Department of Justice intervention before a Mississippi Mayor, reinterpreted his April 7 order in a way that allowed drive-in church services.

The report read that, “Temple Baptist Church said in a complaint that the city fined members $500 and sent police to break up services even though people stayed in their cars, six feet apart with the windows up, listening to the worship service over an FM radio signal.”

Apparently driving through a fast-food restaurant is okay- driving through a liquor store to pick-up a six-pack may be ok. Drive-thru to park and pray, hear the word of God with a church? Not so fast.

Echoing a statement made by the U.S. Attorney General, the Justice Department acknowledged that the government can take necessary, temporary measures to meet a genuine emergency, “ … but there is no pandemic exception … to the fundamental liberties the Constitution safeguards.”

While that sounds all well and good, a church vs. state conflict has arisen and may worsen in the weeks and months to come, over a church’s desire and right to worship God corporately, while the state seeks to protect public health at virtually all costs- even costs to economic life and liberty, including the religious kind.

Civil Abuses

Representatives of both, “The City of God” and “The City of Man” have seemingly overstepped their boundaries in ways that have hurt, rather than helped church and state relations during this pandemic season.

On the government side, the governors of the states of Kentucky and Virginia played hard ball during April’s holy weekend, clamping down on worship services to the extent that in one instance, police photographed license plates and registered the addresses of cars in the church parking lot to be submitted to the state’s health department.

In another instance, executive orders banned religious gatherings with more than 10 people – including a summons placed upon a Palm Sunday service of 16 attendees, carrying a penalty of up to a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine for violators if prosecuted, though such an action may be in violation of the state’s constitution, according to a federal lawsuit.

Yes, the conflicts have begun to move to the courtroom. On the  church side, a controversial Louisiana pastor, who had been placed on house arrest for allegedly backing up a church bus toward a person protesting his defiance of state stay-at-home orders, held an in-person church service on a Sunday while wearing an ankle monitor.

Rather than beginning with an appeal to government officials to find an acceptable compromise between the public worship of God and public safety, this pastor decided to defiantly take a stand with little consideration of the gospel witness to obey “all” of the Great Commission commands of Jesus Christ, including the command to ‘submit to the governing authorities’ whenever possible.

Again, much of the problem stems from those that focus on taking the either/or stance, rather than a both/and approach. The church can cooperate with reasonable and temporary government restrictions to quarantine its citizens, as Israel took similar precautions with lepers in the book of Leviticus.

And at the same time, the church can be vigilant that government authorities not overreach and target the church – or any place of worship in our pluralistic society, to observe laws and orders which are not expected of other institutions.

Under such persecution, the apostle Paul appealed to Caesar among other Roman officials in the book of Acts, to preserve the opportunity to preach the gospel, and Esther made appeals to the state (Persia’s King) to prevent the loss of life.  

When to Disobey

At what point then can and should a Biblically bound church, defy the commands of Caesar in order to remain faithful to God?

First, we should remember why the Bible contains Paul’s admonition to Christians to obey the human authorities God has ordained in society over them (Ro. 13:3-4).  It is a command built on a foundation of the Lord’s intent for creating government with a two-fold purpose.

Fundamentally, the institution exists to restrain evil and secondly, to promote good, or literally honorable conduct, which one could argue, would include the good of its physical health.

But what do we do when the state commands you to do something God forbids or forbids what God commands, whether it be picketing, making petitions, paying taxes to an unjust government or holding a church service in a time of quarantine?

This an ethical dilemma for Christians to think about that has existed for centuries, from the time Rahab the harlot, was justified hiding the Israeli spies in Jericho (Jos. 2), or whether or not Corrie Ten Boom or Anne Frank’s families should have hidden Jews and lied about it in Nazi Germany.

John Stott in his commentary from the book of Romans said: “Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty.” So, there is precedent for biblically justified civil disobedience.

My study of scripture yielded essentially four categories of civil disobedience from scripture, which may help us develop the church’s COVID conscience:

  1. Preaching (Acts 4, 5:29), We ought to obey God rather than men.”
  2. Prayer (Dan. 6:4-5, 10, 19-22) which concerned a governor’s edict to prohibit prayers to the God of Israel.
  3. Idolatry (Dan. 1:3-19, 3:16-18)

When Daniel and his three friends refused to obey the king’s dietary regulations, they disobeyed the law; but the way that they did it proved that they honored the king. Daniel gave a respectful alternative on the diet issue. He made an appeal first to the authority mandated by God in Babylon, which serves as a compelling example to churches today.

Then, Daniel’s three friends refused to break God’s commandments forbidding idol worship. There was no compromise on that.

4. Life (Est. 3)

The Hebrew midwives proved to exemplify perhaps the first pro-life movement recorded in Biblical history, when obfuscating the facts over births of the new-born babies ordered to be terminated by Pharaoh.

Therefore, in the Coronavirus context, is the church being prohibited from preaching the gospel or praying to God? At this point, the answer is no, as churches are still resembling their Heb. 10:25 mandate to assemble- no matter how incompletely, with online worship services and Bible study meetings.

Is the church being asked to commit the sins of idolatry and murder in meeting the demands of government to quarantine for health reasons during the pandemic? The answer would have to be no. I believe it is in the church’s best domestic interests and witness to a watching world to be patient – for now, by temporarily closing its doors for a little while longer, for the purposes of public health and love of neighbor, as we keep a watchful eye on government to keep our gospel doors open, as we strive to respect and submit to the authorities whenever we can without compromising God’s law – rendering to Caesar what is his, and to God what is his, which ultimately is everything.

Silver Linings from the Coronavirus Cloud

Bernie Diaz, April 22, 2020

I may be dating myself, but there used to be a classic idiom or common expression, which goes, “every cloud has a silver lining”, which is to say that even the worst events or situations in life can have some positive aspect to them.

Owing to the seventeenth century quote of author John Milton, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ means that you should never feel hopeless because difficult times always lead to better days. Tough times are like dark clouds that pass overhead and block the sun, though a bit of light (‘silver lining’) may shine through.

Some of you may prefer the “cup half-full” idiom, which also emphasizes the hopeful side of a situation that might seem gloomy on the surface. In other words, if we look hard enough, you can find some good with the bad in any given situation. All that pseudo-psychology aside, God’s word revealed through the life of Joseph (Gen. 50:20), that good can come from evil within God’s sovereign rule of the world.

Half-heartedly, I can find the silver lining in at least two post COVID-19 developments that have come forth from our current, dark cloud of a pandemic season.

Welcome to Homeschool

The closure of local public schools as a mitigation effort to slow the spread of the Coronavirus, providentially forced the government run education system to adapt and turn in part, to its self-admittedly, bitter rival method of  homeschooling, as a means of concluding the current school year.

Yes, the evil scourge of parents overseeing their children’s education in the security and comfort of their own homes (at least according to many a public school activist) has come to interrupt the authority and leadership of school elites as the prime parent or guardian over the education of children. Being that homeschooling was the norm for civilized society over the many millennia of human history up until the dawn of the 20th century, I say, “Welcome back!”

Before conservative, Christian, homeschool supporting parents get carried away, they must keep in mind that this adaptation came as the result of a temporary, public health crisis, rather than an epiphany given to public education elites.

Moreover, many children continue relatively unabated in the academic indoctrination of their secular, anti-God curriculums and content though safely ensconced on the keyboards and internet connections of their homes.

Indeed, nothing can replace the efficacy of face to face teaching that takes place between a teacher and student- particularly, when that teacher wields the word of God in everything from reading, writing and arithmetic, to civics, science, history and the arts from a biblical worldview and perspective.

But the silver lining here is the next best thing, in that hundreds of thousands of families previously ignorant of homeschooling, its culture and history, have discovered or at least been exposed to, a safe and family-friendly alternative to the government run, K-12 monopoly over children.

And don’t you know that the education establishment is sweating classroom sized bullets over that! Recently, Harvard Magazine published a story, “The Risks of Homeschooling.”  The argument there doesn’t even touch the academic comparisons between public and private education, but rather the threat to democracy, believe it or not, that more mainstreamed homeschool presents.

The article’s author says, “”Homeschooled kids now account for roughly 3 to 4% of school aged children in the United States,” which Interestingly, enough she tells us, is roughly equivalent to the number of American children who are attending charter schools and she adds “larger than the number currently in parochial (Catholic) schools.”

The real story is ideological, as this Harvard Law Professor writes, “.. that parents choose homeschooling for an array of reasons. Some find local schools lacking or want to protect their child from bullying. Others do it to give their children the flexibility to pursue sports or other activities at a high level.

But,” she says, “surveys of homeschoolers show that a majority of such families, by some estimates up to 90%, are driven by conservative Christian beliefs and seek to remove their children from mainstream culture.”

According to a podcast by evangelical Albert Mohler, “The next statement by the professor is key, arguing that some of these homeschooling parents are ‘extreme religious ideologues who,’ as explained, ‘question science and promote female subservience and white supremacy.”

Well, how do you like that connection? This Harvard elite labeled Biblically minded Christian families who believe that they have a God-given responsibility for being the primary disciplers and educational directors of their children – which they do (Deut. 6; Psa. 78; Eph. 6; Col. 3), as essentially, illiterate and bigoted racists, for insisting their children be taught with a like-minded worldview to their own.

Make no mistake that education is yet another front of the culture war that rages between secular humanists holding on dearly and tenuously to students as families – Christian and otherwise, fight to remain the ultimate authority over their child’s education.

May this taste of homeschooling savored in the mouths of parents and children- a silver lining in the Coronavirus cloud, lead to a revaluation if not a revival, of elementary and secondary education.

Weekend at Bernie’s

He was here and then he was gone. But for how long?

Former Vice President Joe Biden found a clear path to the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination after his final opponent, the notable and self-styled ‘democratic socialist,’ Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, exited the race this month.

Though Sanders did well in the first three primary contests and temporarily was the front-runner, Biden came on strong in South Carolina and solidified his lead in March’s first Super Tuesday, as amazingly, the Democratic party moved its support from an elderly, white, liberal if not radical socialist, to a more moderate, life-long, elderly white politician.

That’s notable since Sanders seemed to embody the new, ultra, hip and racially “progressive” direction of the Democratic party.

Did COVID-19 affect Sanders’ campaign? Some pundits think the pandemic shut down in-person campaigning and Sanders’ massive and enthusiastic rallies.

But news reports confirmed he had already stopped accepting donations by the time most bans on large gatherings from COVID-19 went into effect. Though he failed to broaden his support base of mostly younger, millennial and liberal voters, Sanders has successfully pulled the Democratic Party even more leftward on environmental issues, healthcare, and income inequality during his presidential bids in 2016 and 2020.

What will his legacy be? While it may be too early to tell at this point, the silver living of this Coronavirus cloud in my view, was the providential rejection of a neo-communist gaining further legitimacy in this year’s election and in the hearts and minds of American voters, as the contrasts of our nation’s red and blue moral divide becomes clearer all the time. The big question as November nears, is what will God do next and what does he have in store for this nation?

What ‘Not to Do’ in the New Normal

Bernie Diaz, April 15, 2020

What will life be like when we return to a degree of normalcy, when restrictions of social engagement are lifted as the curve of Coronavirus cases and deaths “flatten” out, or are greatly reduced in the not too distant future – I pray?

What will we take from this experience into our ‘new normal’ lives of routine? Aside from losing a lingering threat of a lethal disease, I can hardly wait to lose the mask I began wearing in public this week at my neighborhood Walmart. Mind you, it’s a fine mask, carefully and lovingly crafted by one of my fellow church members, yet I yearn to breathe fresh-air freely, wherever I go.

It will be a glorious day indeed to come together once again as a local church body to worship God and fellowship as a faith family in warmth- but how long will it take for the affection to return?

Frankly, just as I see the silver lining of reduced crime and the experience of homeschooling being revealed in the cloud of COVID-19, I see where church leaders will be more likely to keep relying upon our growing dependence on technology for digital discipleship.

That said, there are at least two things I hope we in American culture will not do – or overemphasize, in living through this pandemic.  

Hero Worship

While it is very tempting and natural to acknowledge if not greatly appreciate our first-responders during this time of emergency, we must be careful that we don’t overdo the praise and admiration of doctors, nurses, paramedics and health officials to the extent of practicing idolatry.

Really? You must think, “Surely I jest!” Well, the famous, Christ the Redeemer statue which towers over Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was projected with a doctor’s white coat last Easter Sunday, as a tribute to health care workers who indeed put themselves at risk to help others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The striking scene of the ‘great physician’, included messages of thanks in many languages, along with images of nurses and doctors smiling in their protective gear.

While some could argue that the statue’s long-time presence in Rio is idolatrous in and of itself, in disobedience to the third commandment of the Old Testament law, prohibiting the display of ‘carved images and their likeness,’ (Exo. 20:4), the word “hope” was also projected onto the statue.

This motto among others projected on the ‘Redeemer’ statue, implies that hope- the expectation of a bright future with good health, is to be found in the hands of human healers, rather in the strong hand of the healer of the human race, Jesus Christ, who redeems the lost and hurting by the wounds inflicted on him for sin on the cross (Isa. 53:4-5).

Whereas, a doctor at the local hospital can by God’s grace, help treat or cure a temporary, physical condition, only God can perform the heart surgery needed to cure the terminal diseases of sin and death (Eph. 2:4-6) in mankind, by virtue of the new birth via faith in Christ.

The concern here is that nurses, doctors and other health care workers have emerged as the “heroes” during the pandemic, as they cope with massive influxes of new patients and fight to save lives. And due to prohibitions on hospital visitors even for patients who are on the verge of death, medical staff are now, more than ever, a bridge between those patients and their loved ones.

The work of the medical health field right now is admirable and even Christ-like to the extent that Christian workers are giving honor and glory to God in what they are doing to serve and love their neighbors, as opposed to those who serve only in the sense of duty (Ro. 1:21-23).

However, all praise and true hero worship should belong to God and his Christ alone, as the only one who will save lives for now and later.

Isolation

I get the idea of social distancing as a prime mitigating factor in flattening the curve or reducing the new cases of Coronavirus, no matter how arbitrary the six-foot boundary sounds.

Social distancing is hard because it restricts our freedom, as well as the innate human desire we share to touch and be touched by those we love. The quarantine diminishes the amount of work we can get done in-person and forces us to the computer to communicate for church and for so many other of the basic tasks we have to perform on a day to day basis.

Our current manner of walking, talking and touching may negatively impact our ‘new normal’ in the future. While face-mask shopping should come and go, what about greetings? Are hugs to be forever banned- even the neo-traditional church, ‘side-hug?’ Is the shake to consist of the fist bump, elbow or wrist only? A Bow? The presidential thumbs up or praying hands at heart level? Maybe just a wave?

Imagine trying to figure that out in a multi-cultural community like ours, here in South Florida. This thought came to my attention when I read the practically unimaginable last week. It was then that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director and advisor to President Trump, said Americans should never shake hands –again, in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus and other diseases.

Fauci told the Wall Street Journal that an end to handshaking would be good for reducing future transmissions of the coronavirus and would also cut down the number of influenza (flu) cases. I’m sure it might, and such a measure would also lead to the permanent ostracizing of Americans from each other, already hesitant to interact with, much less love their neighbors in physical acts of service.

Speaking about the eventual return to normal life, Dr. Fauci said: “When you gradually come back, you don’t jump into it with both feet. You say what are the things you could still do and still approach normal. One of them is absolute compulsive hand washing. The other is you don’t ever shake anybody’s hands.”

The problem with the above quote of course, is the word, “ever.” America’s top COVID-19 doctor added, “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you. Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease, it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country.”

Being careful and cautious is one thing, being fearfully cold, calculating and socially distanced forever is quite another for most families and for Christians, who are repeatedly instructed in the New Testament to greet one another, “with a holy kiss (e.g. Ro. 16:16).”

Contextually, that greeting and farewell of a kiss on the forehead or cheek of people in ancient, eastern times was a familiar cultural custom. Today, you don’t see it as much outside of certain European and Hispanic cultures as most of us know well. The kiss is holy, because it is not to be the typical, casual, cultural or romantic thing. Judas even betrayed our Lord in identifying him to the Jewish authorities on the eve of his passion with a kiss.

The kiss of the Christian is a unique- different, set-apart and sanctified expression of love and affection to members of a family of faith. I think the Lord expects us to have the same heart for the church that the apostle Paul did, and that would not be deterred by a post virus world and a new normal.