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Thoughts from Pastor Mark after the Recent Synagogue Shooting

Dear New Life,

Something happened recently that I think is worthy of a few comments from your pastor.  I’m talking about the startling reality of terrorism in the name of Christ.

On April 27th, John Earnest entered the Chabad of Poway synagogue in southern California.  Armed, this 19-year old man shot and killed one person and injured several others.  We are thankful his gun jammed before taking aim at the many others present.

It right that we should condemn this shooting.  And we must.  We do this as Christians, and not just as Americans.  In other words, we should condemn this activity on the basis of Scripture, Jesus, and the Gospel, and not merely for Constitutional, political, or philosophical reasons, even if those are helpful as well.  For this massacre is not the way Christ has taught us to live.  Our hearts go out to the victims and their families, and we are pleased to hear that neighboring Christians and churches have rightly reached out to them.

But there is more to be said.  The gunman attended an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), a denomination committed to Scripture and similar to our own, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).  I must say this makes this tragedy all the more disturbing to someone like me.  Some of my wonderful professors at seminary, for instance, were and are faithful ministers in the OPC.

As for John Earnest himself, his father was a church elder, whom neighbors called “the sweetest man.”  His son, the gunman, was a nursing student and a piano player.  Unfortunately, he was also a virulent anti-Semite.  His nine page manifesto can be found online, and it is an unusual combination of someone who had clearly been catechized in a Reformed church and by believing parents, but also ‘catechized’ by some other source which he admitted was not his parents.  Without knowing the details, John Earnest looks to have influenced deeply by fringe online communities.

I read Earnest’s manifesto, wondering how a son of an OPC elder could conclude that shooting as many Jews as possible was a good and godly idea.  As you might guess, John Earnest was a confused man, and clearly many of his ideas did not originate from Scripture.  But Earnest was sane enough that unfortunately more discussion is needed.  I’m especially eager to correct his misunderstanding of the right place for physical force, and especially against those believed to be Christ’s enemies.  Let’s talk about that, if in any way this might work towards preventing any more “Christian” terrorism, and confusion about what the Bible teaches.

Every nation on earth recognizes that some physical force is legitimate and legal.  For the USA, a typical nation, this would include the police, prisons, and the military.  Much of their work is out of my everyday experience, personally speaking, but the effect of their work upon my life and your life is profound, undoubtedly providing a peace that we daily enjoy.  This is not to say that everything our authorities do is moral and acceptable in God’s sight.  Far from it, and reform will always be necessary.  But God makes it clear that the governing authorities have been established by God and have been given the right to use physical and even lethal force (Rom 13:1-7).  We pray they will use it correctly, with justice, caution, and wisdom.

By contrast, Jesus established his church without the sword.  Nowhere is physical force — let alone lethal force — given to the church or Christians as a means of carrying out Jesus’ commands and work on earth.  We shouldn’t be surprised by this:  Jesus didn’t employ weapons or coercive physical force during his earthly ministry, and the church is called to reflect this aspect of ‘weakness’ inherent in the gospel. Here 1 Corinthians 5 is so helpful in illustrating this, for the unrepentant sinful man should have been disciplined relationally by his removal from the church community, but not with physical force, whether imprisonment, torture, etc.  This is because the church has only been given “the keys” (Matt 16:19), not the sword.  The keys open and close doors to fellowship with God and his people.  When Jesus returns, many things will change, but in the meantime Jesus teaches us in the parable of the wheat and the weeds to “let both grow together” (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43).  Clearly, this is not the time to exterminate enemies.

How different is this than the Old Testament — and perhaps this is where there is confusion.  Starting in the book of Exodus, God’s people constituted a geopolitical nation, Israel, eventually completed with a government, armed forces, and a legal system.  At times, God commanded the troops of Israel to fight, with the sword, even taking the lives of their enemies.  But contrast Jesus’ earthly ministry used no military weapons, and took no human lives.  His mission was shockingly different: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).  Praise God for his saving mercy!

I’ve often said that I hope I would have been a good soldier in Joshua’s army.  Similarly, I hope I would have been a good fighter against the Nazis in World War II.  But this age is different, as well as the mission of the church, since God’s people is no longer identified with any particular nation, but is distributed throughout the nations (Matt 28:18-20).  Christ and his church are for the world, and lacking any earthly army.  Instead, we are weak by worldly standards.

Back to the manifesto.  John Earnest quoted various New Testament passages that condemned Jewish unbelief (e.g. Rev 2:9, 3:9), but what do these verses prove?  It is certainly true that Scripture does tell us how important belief in Jesus is!  He’s everything God wanted to say and give to us.  Only in Him is there eternal life (John 14:6).  

There are many who do not believe in Jesus, and some may even actively oppose our faith; but we might wonder why our Jewish neighbors were singled out?   Earnest’s thought displayed a disturbing trait on exactly this point, with clear animosity towards the Jewish people in particular.

It is true that for those who oppose Christ and the gospel Scripture sometimes calls them “enemies of the cross of Christ” (e.g. Phil 3:18).  We need to be careful using the word “enemy,” since it so easily stirs up hatred and division.  Yet to whatever degree we have enemies, we must ever focus upon this crucial gospel-centered point: Jesus taught us to love our enemies!  We are to seek their well-being.  If we don’t see this clearly, we are being catechized by some other source, not Jesus.

How disheartening is was to read Earnest quoting Jesus’ command to love our enemies, but then vaguely complain that many take this verse out of context!  How inconceivably tragic and blind.  In fact, this verse is crucial for our very self-identity as believers: for while we were yet enemies of God, we were reconciled to Him in Christ. (Rom 5:8; 2 Cor 5:19).  When we look at anyone we might consider our enemy, we must first consider how we were once enemies of God, in addition to our current sins.  But God loved his enemies in Christ, even us, and so he tells us to do the same.  How different is this from the very worldly idea of shooting Christ’s enemies in the name of Christ.

So if Jesus is telling you or anyone to kill his enemies, you’re not hearing Jesus.  “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting” (John 18:36).  Our marching orders are these: “Let both grow together,” and “Love your enemy.”

May we reflect the love of God, who reconciled himself to enemies like us through the weakness of the cross!

For the Love of God,

Pastor Mark (Moser)