Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Homosexuality Debate Cannot Escape A Moral Argument: A Letter to Straits Times

Note: I have submitted this letter to The Straits Times concerning the homosexuality debate, which was published on 26th July 2007 (see ST Forum online version). I shall put the letter on my blog for the benefit of those who have no access to the ST archive; the forum is only available for one week, after which all letters are archived.

One of the issues being hotly debated today in Singapore is whether S377a of the Penal Code should be repealed, and whether consensual gay sex should be decriminalized. My objective in this letter is to contend that the homosexuality debate cannot escape a moral argument if our legislature is to respect the moral values of the majority of Singaporeans.

It is a known fact that multiracialism and multi-religiosity form the social fabric of Singapore. Indeed, as a multi-religious community, Singapore cannot ignore the religious component of its society. In its deliberation of the homosexuality issue, the government is obliged to give due consideration to the majority voice. According to Statistics Singapore (1), the majority of Singaporeans are not atheists, agnostics, or secular humanists without religious affiliations. In this country, the majority of Chinese are Buddhists (53.6%), the majority of Malays are Muslims (99.6%), and the majority of Indians are Hindus (55.4%). Within our multi-religious society, a common consensus on this issue can only be achieved by being mindful of the morality of the religious majority. As Assistant Professor Yvonne Lee had pointed out, "the attention given to fundamental moral values of the majority of citizens by retaining S377A in its entirety strikes the right balance." (2) Therefore, the disregard of moral values of a large population of Singaporeans who subscribe to religious faith is not the solution to the homosexuality debate.

I recognize that the Singaporean government has been gracious by giving credence to viable opinions of various minority groups. As homosexuals in Singapore are a minority, they should all the more avoid the disparagement of other minority, albeit opposing, views. These include those from the conservative sectors of various religions in Singapore. In his recent letter to the Straits Times forum, Dominic Chua Kuan Hwee hinted that "the prejudice of a small number of church leaders" should not dictate the position of other Christians. (3) How Mr Chua arrived at the conclusion, that a minority group of church leaders had indeed imposed their views upon the Christian majority, is baffling. Neither do we have any reproducible evidence to support his hypothesis. By applying the rhetoric of Mr Chua, I sense that the small minority group of homosexuals in Singapore is essentially promoting an agenda that would eventually dictate the conscience of the majority. Is it then reasonable to pressurize the religious majority to go against their moral convictions, and to accept homosexuality as being morally correct? Therefore, just as homosexuals cry out for tolerance and desire their voices to be heard, they should likewise encourage other minority groups within the nation to express their opinions, be they conservative or not.

The singling out of a minority group of conservative Christians or extremists Muslims, and to put them in a negative light would do little in our journey towards a common consensus concerning the homosexuality debate. The social fabric of Singapore depends upon mutual understanding and tolerance between various religious groups, and the intolerance of any religious minority would inevitably lead to disharmony, social fragmentation and religious apartheid. Furthermore, Muslims in Singapore are generally moderate in their theological perspectives. We are likewise not living in the time of the medieval Crusades. Christians do not form a majority group in this nation, with only 16.5 % of Chinese and 12.1% of Indians professing to be Christians. Pro-homosexuality writers like Dominic Chua would have done better if he had addressed the statistically more significant religious groups, for example the Islamic community, in his assessment of the influence of religions within Singapore’s society.

We must admit that the homosexuality issue ultimately cannot escape a moral argument within an inherently conservative and multi-religious society. Various writers had attempted to argue for the decriminalization of homosexual acts from a pragmatic perspective. For example, Consultant Therapist Anthony Yeo, had challenged the traditional definitions and values of the concept of family based upon pragmatic and experiential observations. (4) Some of his questions were, "Is there an ideal form of family life," and, "Are parents from heterosexual marriages any safer for children?" Anthony Yeo’s thought-provoking questions should perhaps result in more fundamental questions being asked concerning the definition of a family. For instance, "Who should possess the authority to decide what constitutes an ideal family?" "Should pragmatic considerations be used to redefine the family structure, apart from moral considerations?" And, "Should we follow the majority consensus of what makes up a family, or should we allow the cognoscenti to decide for us?"

Certain gay rights activists had attempted to assert their unalienable right to homosexual intercourse based upon two arguments. Firstly, homosexual acts are private, consensual activities between mature adults; and secondly, such activities do not cause harm to other people within a society. Taking morality out of the equation, are we therefore to allow the private, consensual sexual activities between family members (incest), adult and children (pedophilia), humans and animals (bestiality), or human and cadavers (necrophilia)? After all, such sexual activities may be private, consensual, and confer no harm to other people. Furthermore, should we allow polygamous marriages as viable family units in Singapore? Taking the assertion of such unalienable right to the logical extreme, are we consequently obliged to legalize incest, pedophilia, bestiality, necrophilia, and polygamy?

Finally, I conclude that the religiosity and morality of Singaporeans cannot be ignored in the homosexuality debate. Pragmatism alone cannot provide a satisfactory resolution to the discussion. Truth cannot be determined by merely the practical consequences of belief. Besides, a proposition that works does not necessarily mean that it is morally right. If pragmatism is allowed to be the sole consideration in the legislation of laws, then several criminal activities might even be justified based upon various pragmatic bases. For instance, the poor might be justified to steal, or to embezzle his company for financial gains. I therefore urge the government to seriously consider the moral value system of the majority in its derivation of a common consensus concerning the homosexuality debate.

Footnotes:

1. See <http://www.singstat.gov.sg/pubn/papers/people/religiousaff.html>
2. Yvonne C. L. Lee, Decriminalising homosexual acts would be an error, ST May 4 2007.
3. Dominic Chua Kuan Hwee, Singaporeans need to be more historically conscious and reflective in debate on homosexuality, ST July 21, 2007.
4. Anthony Yeo, Let's debate without prejudice, judgment or condemnation, ST July 13, 2007.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Confrontation and Confession of Sins within the Local Church


"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." Matt. 18:15-17 (ESV)

I shall now plunge into a brief discussion concerning the responsibility of the believer with regard to church discipline. Specifically, I shall look at the passage from Matthew 18:15-17. While deliberately avoiding a detailed discussion on corporate church discipline, I would like to focus upon the individual responsibility each believer has towards his brother-in-Christ. The subject of excommunication will be left for another day.

I have stated in my previous post that, contrary to common secular perception, love is not a lovey-dovey sentimentalism, or the uncritical acceptance of sinful behaviors and erroneous doctrines. Our Lord in this passage of Scripture has given us a mandate to lovingly confront (Gal. 6:1) a brother who wrongs us. Verse 15 does not give us the detail concerning the kind of sin, but rather a general and broad description - "sins against you." Although there are some textual considerations with regard to the words "against you," which are missing in a few early manuscripts, we shall accept the translations of the KJV and the ESV as being accurate here. As the ingressive aorist subjunctive of hamartanĊ is used in verse 15, it would literally mean “if a brother commit a sin against you.” Such a sin is obviously a personal offense, but the verse does not specify what kind of offense. It could be in word or speech, or in some form of action. Also, such an offense can include grievous sins, or doctrinal errors. The reader is advised not to restrict such an offence to petty grievances.

Stage one of such a corrective confrontation is fairly straightforward. Blomberg laments that, "How often personal confrontation is the last stage rather than the first in Christian complaints! It frequently seems as if the whole world knows of someone’s grievances against us before we are personally approached." (Craig Blomberg, Matthew (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 278). The essence of such a confrontation is that it is personal and private. It is in fact sinful if we choose to gossip about our brother who has offended us, rather than approach such a brother to tell him his fault - provided that he is indeed at fault. Of course, there are cases whereby the brother has not committed any viable offence, but has only committed certain acts that are wrongly perceived as being offensive. These include, but are not limited to, matters of Christian liberty, or miscommunications and misunderstandings. In such cases, a private confrontation provides the offended person an opportunity to resolve the misunderstanding quickly and confidentially.

For example, in my previous church, certain young brothers were offended by another group within the church simply because those men were active in sports. The youths felt that Christians should not appear too athletic or physically fit (believe me; some Christians can be offended by many things!). The offended youths alleged that those men should have spent their exercising time on other "more" fruitful activities. But I reasoned with them that there is no biblical mandate for one not to be physically active or fit. Of course, a Christian’s priority should not be exercise or sports, but exercise per se is not sin. However, an obsession with physical appearance can become sinful, both for the man and woman. The youths were apparently put off by the men’s muscular and well-built physique. Ironically, the offended youths spent much of their time on computer games, shopping, and television, and had acquired a sedentary lifestyle. Such matters of Christian liberty should not be the cause of offense, but with that being said, we should be careful - out of compassion and Christian responsibility - not to offend our weaker brethren, or those with a weak conscience (Ro. 14:15-16). Likewise, with regard to matters of Christian liberty, those with a weak conscience (and in fact, all Christians) must avoid judging the motives of a person based upon mere superficial details or hearsay.

However, Matthew 18:15-17 has also been misused by others in order to avoid the correction of the sinning brother. Wrong doctrines being perpetrated by false teachers in Christian organizations, books, seminars, or the Web often go uncorrected by certain church leaders. Some have the erroneous notion that, in order to correct such a false teacher, we must follow the injunctions provided by Matthew 18:15-17, that is, they allege that we ought to confront the false teacher in a private capacity prior to correcting his false teachings publicly. This approach represents a gross misunderstanding of the meaning of the Matthean text.

Firstly, the false teacher is not a member of the local church of the offended brother. In this regard, we cannot fulfill the third stage of discipline i.e. "tell it to the church (Matt. 18:17)." Also, we are not the members of the false teacher’s local church. There is no possibility that the final stage of discipline can be performed if we are to understand the passage in this manner. Secondly, the Matthean passage elaborates how we should approach a personal, private offense. It does not specify that heresies or public sins ought to be dealt with as such. For example, if an adulterous couple’s sin is known to the church, the leaders of the church should exercise corporate discipline. The pastor should not come down to the member and say, "It is you who are offended. You should approach him privately, and only if he does not repent should you proceed to stage two and three of the Matthean text (Matt. 18:15-17)." The couple is committing adultery publicly; the man is showing inappropriate physical affection to the wife of another man. The elders of the congregation ought to confront this couple immediately, and not wait for some members to confront them privately. Furthermore, elders that are grievously or incessantly sinning should be publicly disciplined (1 Timothy 5:20).

The second stage of the confrontation would involve at least another brother in the discussion, thereby creating a group consisting of two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15). It is wise to acquire the assistance and advice of a mature Christian in good standing, or perhaps even an elder. The witness would provide a balanced assessment of the allegations brought against the offender, and at the same time, prevent unnecessary propagation of the confrontation to uninvolved members of the church. If private and loving confrontation at this level does not bring about the repentance of the offender, the issue is eventually brought before the church. The church now acts corporately in urging the offender to repent. Wiersbe rightly commented that, "The motive for church discipline is love: we are seeking to help a sinning brother. Since Christ is in the midst of the church (v. 20), it is also important that the church be obedient and pure. Our attitude should not be that of a policeman out to arrest a criminal, but rather that of a physician seeking to heal a wound in the body of Christ, a wound that will spread sickness and death if left alone." (Warren Wiersbe, Wiersbe's expository outlines on the New Testament (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books), 68).

While such discipline is not infallible due to the fallibility of man, and even cults such as the Jehovah Witnesses use similar methods of confrontation, the Christian must remember that he is indeed his brother’s keeper. True Christian love is exhibited by genuine concern for a brother’s spiritual well-being. Churches often emphasize the physical aspects of providing for one’s brethren, but many have failed to highlight the greater urgency and priority of spiritual welfare and mutual accountability. A Christian simply cannot claim to love his brother-in-Christ if he chooses to keep silent upon learning about the brother’s unrepentant sins. True Christian love is manifested by one who has a heart after God; he loves what God loves and hates what He hates. The true Christian cannot love both the brother and his sins. He must hate those sins enough to reprove his brother. He must love God enough to obey the mandate of Matthew 18:15-17. Otherwise, he is just a liar and a hypocrite; he is a deceiver and a deceiver of self. He claims to be loving and understanding, but all the while he is but a murderer of souls. He fails to understand what God demands of him, and follows the way of Cain who hates his brother, saying, "Am I my brother’s keeper?"

Do you take the time and courage to speak to your brother about his sins? Or do you choose to remain silent? If you do not lovingly confront your brother about his trespasses, you are doing him a disfavor. You are allowing him to slip deeper into a downward spiral of spiritual misery and disease. You have failed to care for his soul as a fellow Christian. Most of all, you will be accountable before God Almighty for his failure, because you are indeed your brother’s keeper.

From the perspective of the offending or sinning brother, it is paramount that he must continue to take Christian fellowship and accountability seriously. A backsliding or sinning Christian may withdraw himself gradually from fellowship and church activities. Conversely, a church leadership that fails to fulfill its roles as overseer, teacher, counselor, and encourager may inadvertently contribute to an exodus of its flock. But the sinning brother must remember to avoid any form of isolationism or social withdrawal. One danger of spiritual isolationism is the propensity it has upon the sinning Christian to isolate himself further from other believers.

Sin is shameful, and it inevitably propagates a self-perpetuating cycle of sin, avoidance and isolation for the Christian man who is already withdrawn from the community of believers. Sin is ultimately prideful, and sin causes the Christian man to establish himself as the final authority such that no other man can judge him. Sin and pride reject the discipline and reproof of fellow brethren-in-Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his little book Life Together, speaks of the need for Christians to dwell within the spiritual community of believers, and to confess their sins to one another. Within the context of Matthew 18:15-17, every offending brother who is genuinely sinning must consider confession as his spiritual responsibility whenever he is confronted by the church or individual believers (James 5:16a).

Let me end with the following words from Bonhoeffer:

"Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted. But God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron (Ps. 107:16)…"

"The root of all sin is pride… I want to be my own law, I have a right to my self, my hatred and my desires, my life and my death. The mind and flesh of man are set on fire by pride; for it is precisely in his wickedness that man wants to be as God … In the confession of concrete sins the old man dies a painful, shameful death before the eyes of a brother. Because this humiliation is so hard we continually scheme to evade confessing to a brother. Our eyes are so blinded that they no longer see the promise and the glory in such abasement. …"

"Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother… Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.)
Note: In church discipline, I would like to understand the exegetical basis for extrapolating the meaning of the word "church" in Matthew 18:15-17 to include the Presbytery and the General Assembly. Any takers?

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Homosexuality Issue in Singapore: A Deeper Legal Problem


Singaporeans are well aware that our Minister Mentor Lee had questioned the homosexuality ban under S377A of the penal code. Is it true that some people are genetically destined to become homosexuals? According to Reuters, MM Lee said, "If in fact it is true, and I have asked doctors this, that you are genetically born a homosexual - because that’s the nature of the genetic random transmission of genes - you can't help it. So why should we criminalize it?"

Therefore, according to the Minister Mentor’s analysis, if there is a genetic predisposition for sexual preferences i.e. homosexuality, the question which remains for us is this: "Why should we criminalize sodomy and homosexual activities?"

In line with this rationale for the decriminalization of homosexual acts based upon a tenuous genetic basis, should we then likewise decriminalize the following?

1. Violent acts, grievous hurts, manslaughters, and murders secondary to allegedly "genetically predisposed" violent or aggressive behavior. (1)

2. Pedophilia and related sex offences. Likewise, if pedophilia is a psychiatric illness due to predisposed genetic factors, should it then be decriminalized? (2)

Bringing such reasoning to its logical conclusions, should we therefore decriminalize all legal offences with any probable underlying genetic pathogenesis i.e. manslaughter, murder, causing hurt, pedophilic sexual activities and materials, as well as statutory rape?

There is another issue that might be pertinent in our current discussion. Should alcoholism and alcohol dependence be used as a mitigating factor in drink-driving offences? (3) In other words, if Tommy drinks and drive, and kills Harry on the road, should psychiatrists and clinical geneticists be called in to serve as expert witnesses i.e. to assess Tommy’s genetic make-up and mental condition? This is definitely not done in Singapore. If a genetic predisposition indeed serves as a viable factor in determining the legality of consensual homosexual acts, why should not this reasoning extend into the area of drink-driving legislation?

My points are simple. Firstly, the legislation of law cannot escape a moral argument, and therefore, the argument of a first cause. Assistant Law Professor Yvonne Lee, in an article defending S377A of the penal code, wrote, "Homosexuality is offensive to the majority of citizens. Allowing an aggressive homosexual rights agenda to dictate law reform ignores the nature of Singapore's multi-religious, multiracial community. Such an agenda would be divisive. Therefore, the attention given to fundamental moral values of the majority of citizens by retaining S377A [of the Penal Code] in its entirety strikes the right balance." (4)

If the law of the country must consider the moral and ethical values of its citizens (in this case Singaporeans), what then determines such moral values? Is it not the religious affiliation of its adherents i.e. God? To relegate the intrinsic morality of the conscience of man to chance - such as random mutations and natural selection - is similar to saying that, "Rape and murder is wrong simply because we had evolved that way." It is turning the value of morality against itself by stating that there is really no right or wrong. Right and wrong are determined by chance itself. And chance had determined that right is probably right, and wrong is probably wrong. But there is really no right or wrong, except that our genes and genetic history had somehow arrived at a conclusion - that criminal acts such as rape and murder are deleterious to our survival. However, these moral concepts may continue to evolve and change. If conditions are such that rape and murder are beneficial to the survival of Homo sapiens, such acts may then become morally right.

Therefore, unless a country’s legislation is grounded upon immutable values of right and wrong, the law may indeed change in the future in view of the evolving moral climate and values. Such a time may come whereby the criminal acts of rape, murder, and terrorism may be decriminalized simply because the majority deems such acts as being morally right. If moral values are evolving, should the law of a country also evolve to accommodate the moral climate of the times?

Secondly, attributing the etiology of sinful acts to the arena of medical genetics is like leaving the legislation of law to the whims of cultural preferences and the majority vote. Genetics alone cannot justify a criminal activity. In fact, science can never be valid for the justification of what God had called a sin and abomination. If medical genetics can indeed be used to justify various criminal acts, and if this rationale is extrapolated to a variety of criminal offences, is the court of law in Singapore ready to accept its logical conclusions? Should psychiatrists, clinical behaviorists, medical geneticists, and psychologists be trained to identify those with genetically predisposed criminal urges (e.g. aggression, sexual violence, pedophilia etc)? Should we start determining the karyotypes of all our criminal offenders in order to search out predisposing genes? Should the court of law therefore accept these "genetic predispositions" as viable mitigating factors in criminal trials?

If the law of Singapore must respect the moral values of its citizens, I believe the legislature should begin exploring more objective ways of determining what constitutes morally acceptable behavior. If Neo-Darwinism is accepted as unadulterated truth, then should criminal law change in accordance with the moral evolution of the country? God forbid, but if such criminal genetic aberrations become dominant within the population, should the law be changed to accommodate the majority opinion i.e. what the majority thinks is right or wrong?

Therefore, law professors such as Yvonne Lee ought to begin pondering upon the following question: Should the legislature pander to the "fundamental moral values of the majority of citizens?" Or should there be a more objective method of evaluating the morality of such widely accepted moral values of the majority?

For the Christian reader, I submit to you that the Bible will be, and must be, the objective truth whereby all laws of the country are to be evaluated. If the stand is taken such that the morality of the majority must be served in the legislation of law, it is not far remote that there might come a time whereby the history of ancient Israel might repeat itself, "In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6; cf. 21:25)." The law of the land would be determined by the capriciousness and mutability of genetic, cultural and moral evolution, and not by the righteousness of God’s Holy Word and His law. Surely, we would rather submit ourselves to a theocracy, than to an ochlocratic society.

Footnotes

1. See Caspi A, McClay J, Moffitt T, Mill J, Martin J, Craig I, Taylor A, Poulton R (2002), "Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children," Science 297 (5582): 851-4; Brunner HG, Nelen M, Breakefield XO, Ropers HH, van Oost BA (1993), "Abnormal behavior associated with a point mutation in the structural gene for monoamine oxidase A," Science 262 (5133): 578-80.

2. See Langevin, Ron, "A comparison of neuroendocrine and genetic factors in homosexuality and in pedophilia," Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment Volume 6, Number 1 / March (1993), pp 67-76; Fagan PJ, Wise TN, Schmidt Jr CW, Berlin FS, "Pedophilia," JAMA 2002, 288(19):2458-65; Renshaw DC, "Medical research in pedophilia," JAMA 2002, 289(10):1243; Dressing H, Obergriesser T, Tost H, Kaumeier S, Ruf M, Braus DF, "Homosexual pedophilia and functional networks - an fMRI case report and literature review," Fortschr Neurol Psychiatr 2001, 69(11):539-44; Mendez MF, Chow T, Ringman J, Twitchell G, Hinkin CH, "Pedophilia and temporal lobe disturbances," J Neuropsych Clin Neurosci 2000,12(1):71-6.

3. See Nurnberger, Jr., John I., and Bierut, Laura Jean, "Seeking the Connections: Alcoholism and our Genes," Scientific American, Apr 2007, Vol. 296, Issue 4; William Sherman, "Test targets addiction gene," New York Daily News, 11 February 2006; Ulf Berggren, Claudia Fahlke, Erik Aronsson, Aikaterini Karanti, Matts Eriksson, Kaj Blennow, Dag Thelle, Henrik Zetterberg and Jan Balldin, "The TaqIA DRD2 A1 Allele Is Associated with Alcohol-Dependence although its Effect Size Is Small," Alcohol and Alcoholism 2006 41(5):479-485.

4. Yvonne C. L. Lee, "Decriminalising homosexual acts would be an error," The Straits Times May 4, 2007. Emphasis mine. Does the political philosophy of Singapore advocate majoritarianism?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Importance of Christian Fellowship (Local Church Part 4)


Our first responsibility towards fellow Christians is fellowship. But this fellowship is not the mere getting together for fun, laughter, and Starbucks coffee. Some say that "fellowship" is simply the gathering of a few fellows in the same ship. But contrary to this frivolous saying, true Christian fellowship cannot be achieved by putting a few fellows on the same ship. In fact, we can have different ships or stations in life, but we must have "like-minded fellows" - that is, Christian fellows with a similar passion (e.g. love for God), similar directives (i.e. the Bible), and most of all, the same Savior and Lord.

Let us first define the secular understanding of the word "fellowship." Fellowship (Greek: koinonia) means sharing, communion, association, or partnership. For unbelievers, the gathering of a group of friends in the bar or nightclub, or the coming together of ex-classmates for a movie marathon is considered excellent "fellowship." Some others believe that studying for exams together, or just gossiping about life and people in some secluded corner of Orchard Road is considered close "fellowship." Christian fellowship, however, means much more. The Old Testament alone speaks much about such fellowship. For example, Christian fellowship is exemplified when:

1. True believers take counsel from the Lord’s Word together (Psalms 55:14);

2. True believers keep intimate friendship with those who fear the Lord, and with those who keep His precepts (Psalms 119:63);

3. True believers dwell together in unity (Psalms 133:1-3) of doctrine and practice;

4. True believers speak to one another in the fear of the Lord, and pray for one another (Malachi 3:16);

5. True believers strengthen the faith of one another in the Lord (1 Samuel 23:16), just as how Jonathan encouraged David by reminding him of the trustworthy promise the Lord had made to him earlier i.e. "you will be king over Israel" (1 Samuel 23:17).

Fellowship takes place in a variety of ways in the New Testament churches. The early church met together for the fellowship of breaking of the bread and prayer (Acts 2:42). The breaking of bread consisted of eating a fellowship meal - called the love feast - which was followed by the Lord’s Supper. There was also a great emphasis on the fellowship of prayer (cf. Acts 4:24-31; 12:5, 12; Phil. 1:3-4); believers often prayed together as an assembly. In the New Testament, fellowship also involved material means, e.g. monetary contributions in helping to spread the gospel (Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 9:13; Phil. 1:5). It may even mean the sharing of rejection and persecution through identification with Christ (Phil. 3:10) and with one another.

Believing on Christ restores fellowship not only with God but also among fellow believers. The Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples illustrated the relationship between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of fellowship (Mk. 14:22-25). In that upper room, the Lord shared with his disciples a sacred love feast. The hearts of the Lord and his followers were knitted together by a deep sense of love and commitment. We find that later on, the disciples’ hearts were strongly united due to their common faith in the risen Lord. After the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the New Testament church was born. It is a society of people in fellowship with God and with one another. Therefore, in direct contrast to the secular fellowship amongst non-believers whereby fellowship with the Creator is broken, genuine Christian fellowship is primarily with God (Psa. 16:7; John 14:16-18, 23; 1 Cor. 10:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; 2 Cor. 13:14; Gal. 4:6; Phil. 2:1, 2; 1 John 1:3; Rev. 3:20), and secondarily with those whom God had chosen in His Son Christ Jesus.

Dear brethren, one of your responsibilities as a Christian is to fellowship with and build up other believers in a local church. We must understand the fact that all genuine believers belong to the Body of Christ, and that each local church is in fact a microcosm of the universal, visible church militant. Believers belong together, not apart. Paul emphasized this through his use of "one another" (for example Rom. 12:10; 13:8; 15:7; 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; Gal. 5:13; 6:2; Eph. 4:2, 25, 32; Co. 3:13, 16; 1 Thess 4:18; 5:11). Because of their fellowship in Christ, Paul exhorted and commanded that believers are to accept one another (Rom. 15:7), love one another (Eph. 4:2, 15, 16; 5:2), build up one another (Rom. 14:19), be unified (Rom. 15:5), and admonish one another (Rom. 15:14). This Christian relationship with one another is important in the keeping of the unity of faith (John 17:11b; Phil. 2:1-4).

Furthermore, each true believer within the local church have different gifts according to God’s sovereign will (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:1ff.; Eph. 4:7-12). And due to the fact that each of us has differing gifts, we must all the more serve the Body of Christ within the context of the local church. "And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you (1 Cor. 12:21)." Each of us believers as true members of the Body of Christ is needed for the edification of the saints, and ultimately, for the glory of God through the work of the local church. All of our gifts are needed within the local church.

Within the Bible, we do not read of individual Christian mavericks attempting to change the world for Christ, or challenging contemporary Christendom to adhere to one’s brand of theology. What we read of are communities of believers - assemblies of Christians united in heart and spirit, and worshipping and praying together for one another in various cities and locales.

Christian fellowship can sometimes be discouraging and even stumbling. In fact, I was recently very discouraged by certain allegations that fellow brethren had raised against me. We must nevertheless endeavor to be members of a local church for Christ sake. We ought not forsake the privilege of serving Christ in a local church just because some of our brethren had hurt us or discourage us. More importantly, we must also be careful not to "put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in [our] brother’s way (Ro. 14:13)."

If you profess that you know Christ, and has been "delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Ro. 8:21)," I urge you to serve in a local church in whatever capacity or country that the Lord has placed you. It does not matter whether you are in Singapore, or New York, or New Delhi, or even Iraq. If the Lord has delivered you from the bondage of Satan, and has opened your eyes to spiritual truths in Christ Jesus, you have the responsibility to serve your brethren-in-Christ as a local church member. And the first thing you should do is to fellowship with fellow believers. "And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching (Heb. 10:24-25)."

Note: In later posts, we shall explore the responsibilities of the local church member in view of the specific functions of the local church.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Importance of a Personal Library for the Christian Student


Ever since I placed the "partial catalog of my library" (powered by Library Thing) on this blog, I had my fair share of ridicule and discouragements. The truth is, I had received numerous criticisms concerning my character, integrity, and motives based upon the simple fact that I own over a thousand Christian books in my personal library. Some of the readers might find it perplexing, "Why would someone have something to say against Vincent just because he owns a personal Christian library?"

This post is an interruption to the series of posts I am working on concerning the local church. It may also come as a surprise, but before anyone dies of a heart attack, let me elucidate further. I was absolutely taken aback that Christians could make such sweeping allegations.

Some of the accusations were:

1. Vincent is self-centered, selfish, worldly, and extravagant. How can he own so many good books at home? Maybe he should put them in the church library for the benefit of others.

2. Vincent is probably a rich man’s son who spends all his time buying, collecting, and reading books at home. This is his idea of a Christian ministry.

3. Vincent, why do you need so many commentaries on the Bible? I study the Bible too, and I don’t own any commentaries. Commentaries can be dangerous; it may warp and mould your thoughts against the direction of biblical teachings!

I never knew that reading Christian books could serve as a source of discouragement for others, much less providing fodder for criticisms such as these. For the record, I am not a rich man’s son. Although my father had little trouble raising my sister and me up, toys for my childhood were always a luxury. My medical education was made possible thanks to a scholarship from an Irish university. My parents are now financially dependent upon me, as I have to pay for their housing loan, their daily expenses, utility bills, and various miscellaneous expenses. They do not have any savings of their own. Do you call that "a rich man’s son?"

I had started buying Christian books since I was in junior college (17 years old). While my classmates indulged themselves in CDs, VCDs, and fashionable clothes, I saved up all my money to buy Christian books. I was hungry to know God, and I had many questions to answer. Reading good Christian books answered my many questions, and quenched my thirst for bible knowledge. I still remember that I bought Francis Schaeffer’s complete works, after saving up for more than a year, from the Bethesda Book Center in Marine Parade. In fact, I know Mr. Robert from that bookstore since I was a junior college student. He will always send me an email or call me up to tell me when the next great book sales will be held.

When I was a medical student, the Lord placed in my heart an even greater thirst to know Him more. I carried the Bible in my white coat wherever I go. And in my internship year alone (1999), I had read the Bible cover-to-cover for more than 10 times and had memorized more than 100 verses from the Bible. At the end of my internship, I fasted and prayed for many months seeking the Lord’s will for my life. I had a great desire to serve Him, but I do not know how and where. I knew I wanted to preach the Word, and I am willing to do it even if I live in hunger.

By the grace of God, I am currently a medical doctor, and had been a part-time seminary student studying at my own expense. I have plans to study formally in a seminary next year. When I was still a member of a local Bible Presbyterian church, I was ministering to a group of youths (12 to 29 years old) through preaching and teaching appointments. I was also giving lectures and seminars on "Creation and Evolution," as well as other topics in the realm of Apologetics. As such, I needed much resource on preparing sermons and lectures on many topics. During those years of service, I bought books on a regular basis. The books I purchased were mainly commentaries, theological tomes, and Christian textbooks. Even now, I’d rather spend my savings on books, rather than on beautiful furniture, entertainment, sports, or other less important priorities.
For the serious Christian who wants to know God’s Word, and especially the seminary student, Christian minister, or theologian, I believe that a good collection of Christian resource in a personal library is of utmost importance. It is a well-known fact that many godly pastors and preachers such as Charles Spurgeon, Albert Mohler, and John MacArthur have huge personal libraries. Albert Mohler’s personal library alone contains more than 30,000 books (see this video). But why do these preachers need such a large number of books? The Bible is a very rich and complex collection of 66 books. A complete understanding of these books of the Bible requires a thorough knowledge of systematic theology, biblical theology, experiential theology, the biblical languages, Ancient Near Eastern history, and so on. Furthermore, the minister would be required to furnish himself with a sufficient knowledge of homiletics, apologetics, and Church History. Proper exegesis of the original texts requires reference books such as lexicons, grammar texts, and the critical apparatus.

When a minister is preparing for a sermon, a bible study, or a counseling session, he needs direct access to good Christian resources. Unless the pastor stays within a large Christian public library (there is none in Singapore), he needs to purchase such books for himself. Furthermore, a good student of the Bible should never be satisfied with his current biblical knowledge. He will be constantly studying and learning from the Bible and from other godly men through books, articles, and journals. Albert Mohler once lamented, "Is this person a Christian intellectual, feeding the mind and soul by reading? For too many pastors, the personal library announces, "I stopped reading when I graduated from seminary.’" This should never be the case. A minister of God can never complete his study of the Scriptures. Our knowledge will never be perfected in our pilgrimage upon this earth.

Perhaps some might feel that, surely it is better to sell all those volumes of books, and give the money to the poor. Or perhaps we can give all our Christian books to the church, and allow public assess to those books. In like manner, we can sell our cars, our beautiful houses, or even our insurance policies, and share the money from the sales of our possessions with the church (Note: I do not own a single personal insurance policy at this point in time). Firstly, Christians should never be avid supporters of Communism. It is unquestionably not a sin to own a car, a house, or a personal library. In fact, all my previous pastors own personal libraries much larger than what I have. Some of the pastors I know even have their own cars, private houses, and insurance policies. Should they then sell what they have, and give the money from the sales of their possessions to the church? Some would say that the New Testament Christians did exactly that: "for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need (Acts 4:34b-35)."

We must understand this passage against the background of the infant New Testament church. Firstly, there was a "need (Acts 4:35)." We recall that under the preaching of the apostles, many pilgrims to Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost were converted. They had obviously chosen to remain in Jerusalem as members of the local church rather than return home. Some converts lost their livelihood due to persecution. There were, therefore, needy brethren within the local church of Jerusalem.

Secondly, we must understand this passage of Scripture in the light of the rest of Scripture. Nowhere in the Bible does God mandate the communistic manipulation of the possessions of church members. James stressed that, "If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit (James 2:15-16)?" Likewise, John says, "But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him (1 John 3:17)?" The emphasis is on a believer’s compassion for a fellow believer in need. If a brother refuses to work and is lazy, or he simply refuses to buy his own food when he can afford it, there is no biblical mandate for a fellow Christian to sell his possessions and give to this brother. In like manner, if a Christian man refuses to invest in good books, but rather spends his money on entertainment, movies, sports, and dating, there is no obligation for a fellow brother to buy Christian books for this man.

John MacArthur elucidates further, "Some have seen in this passage [Acts 4:32-35] a primitive form of communism or communal living. As noted in the discussion of Acts 2:44-46 in chapter 7, however, that is not true. As in 2:45, the imperfect tense of the verbs indicates continuous action. They did not at any point pool all their possessions. Also, it is clear from Acts 12:12 that individual believers still owned houses. Further, Peter’s words to Ananias in 5:4 show that such selling of property was strictly voluntary. The singling out of Barnabas also implies that the selling was voluntary. If it were compulsory there would have been nothing commendatory about his actions. Finally, Acts does not record that any other church followed this pattern of selling property."

Finally, I am absolutely amazed at how someone can come to my blog, see the library catalog that I displayed on this blog, and arrive at the conclusion that I am a selfish, self-conceited, worldly, extravagant, and spoilt rich man’s son! Can you fault me for being so discouraged by such criticisms?

For your edification, Albert Mohler discussed the significance of personal libraries in this post of his. He wrote:

"When truly read, a book becomes a part of us. That is why we are afraid to part with even the physicality of it. The book becomes an aid to memory and a deposit of thought and reflection. Its very materiality testifies that we once held it in our hands as we passed the pages before our eyes.

Parini observes that libraries are mirrors into our minds and souls. The books we collect, display, and read tell the story about us.

This may be especially true of Christian ministers. Books are a staple of our lives and ministries. When the Apostle Paul instructed Timothy to bring the books and the parchments, he was writing with the kind of urgency any preacher understands.

To a great extent, our personal libraries betray our true identities and interests. A minister's library, taken as a whole, will likely reveal a portrait of theological conviction and vision. Whose works have front place on the shelves, Martyn Lloyd-Jones or John Shelby Spong? Charles Spurgeon or Harry Emerson Fosdick? Karl Barth or Carl Henry? John MacArthur or Joel Osteen?

How serious a Bible scholar is this preacher? The books will likely tell. Are the books all old or all new? If so, the reader is probably too contemporary or too antiquarian in focus. Are the books read? If so, the marginalia of an eager and intelligent mind adds value to the book. It becomes more a part of us.

Is this person a Christian intellectual, feeding the mind and soul by reading? For too many pastors, the personal library announces, "I stopped reading when I graduated from seminary."

When I think of my closest friends, I realize that I am most at home with them in their libraries, and they are most at home with me in mine. Why? Because the books invite and represent the kind of conversation and sharing of heart, soul, and mind that drew us together in the first place.

By their books we shall know them. And by our books we shall be known."