May 9, 2005

What does the Bible really say?

"But what does the Bible really say?"

She blurted out this plea after we had spent some time discussing the commandment to remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. We talked about why most Christians worship on Sunday, but she was still confused because the Seventh-Day Adventists (another group that is active in the Barinas area) insist with all sincerity that Saturday is the proper day of worship.

Our reply: The way to salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who became incarnate as a man to suffer and die for the sins of the whole world and be raised from the dead on the third day. The Bible testifies to this and we who call ourselves Lutherans consider the Bible to be the inspired Word of God and the final authority for all matters of faith. But we Lutherans have no new revelation from God and no secret key to the Scriptures. Understand first that Jesus died for your sins, study what the Scriptures have to say about Him and judge the teachings of all who claim to have the truth by that standard.

Understanding this woman's question and our reply requires an explanation of the spiritual situation in Venezuela.

The historical relationship between church and state in Venezuela is much different than that in the United States. One thing that fascinates Venezuelans about the U.S. is that there are so many thriving denominations, but none is the nation's official church. Luz Maria commented on this frequently during our visit to my homeland.

She also insisted specifically that I take a picture of a Baptist church. Why? To show her mother, who is a member of the Baptist church in Barinas, that Baptist churches in the U.S. have crosses prominently displayed outside their sanctuaries. Her mother's Baptist church does not have a cross displayed where passers-by can see because that would be too "Papist." That's another aspect of religion in Venezuela that I will explain in more detail.

One of the realities of the Spanish colonial period is that the Spaniards forced many native people to be baptized whether they were convinced of the truth of Christianity or not. One legacy of this period is that people here are baffled by the idea of total separation of church and state. Another legacy is widespread formal acceptance of Catholic Christianity but day-to-day practice of folk religion and witchcraft.

But over the last 100 years or so, Venezuela, much like the United States, has become a more secular society and traditional institutions, including the Catholic Church, have lost influence. Many people now live strictly for the pursuit of money, power and/or pleasure. Of course, these things, even when one is fortunate enough to have them, do not bring lasting joy in life, so there is great spiritual hunger as well. A great many things have moved in to fill this void. Islam, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, the New Age movement - they're all here and aggressively seeking converts.

But the most noteworthy trend has been the rapid rise of "evangelical" Christian churches over the last 20 to 30 years. According to Venezuelan government figures, up to 40 percent of the population in certain districts consider themselves "evangelical." This is not necessarily a positive development.

As I have mentioned before, the term "evangelical" is used as a much broader term here than in the United States. Often Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are often lumped into the category "evangelical" even though their doctrines as far outside Christianity as Islam and Buddhism. But even "evangelical" groups that are not as readily identifiable as non-Christian cults may be just as problematic.

Often developing from disillusionment with "cultural Catholicism," the evangelical churches often reject anything that might smack of Catholicism. Unfortunately, this means some of them throw out parts of Catholic tradition that are good. Most disturbing is when, while disdaining any centralized ecclesiastical authority, these churches will give unquestioned authority to their local pastor, who may be someone without much formal training but feels he has been "anointed by the Spirit" to preach. These preachers often "micro-manage" the lives of their followers, laying down all kinds of rules that they must obey (for examples, absolutely no alcohol or dancing for anyone, and for the ladies, no makeup or skirts cut above the knee).

Some people are attracted to this kind of thing, again out of reaction to the prevailing culture in which sexual immorality and alcohol and drug abuse are common. But many are not attracted to this kind of Christianity, and the message that nearly everyone receives is not the Gospel, but that one earns God's favor by good works.

So what are we trying to accomplish? To witness to what we believe about Jesus, teach those who will listen and point all toward the truth of Scripture.

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