The Roots of an Evangelical Magisterium

I am increasingly convinced (and concerned) that a great number of Protestant evangelicals are unwittingly rejecting the incredibly insightful political theology of early Lutheran and Reformed theologians. What may seem like a merely theoretical or academic issue, political theology has profoundly practical implications for ecclesiastical polity, the role of ministers, church discipline, the priesthood of all believers, a theology of vocation, a theology of institutions, church unity, ecuminism… and the list seems to go on ad infinitum.

For a more thorough treatment of the relevant history and theology, I’d recommend O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations and a handful of other resources, but for the sake of convenience, here are some outstanding online resources:

Wedgeworth and Escalante on Calvin and the Two Kingdoms

Brad Littlejohn’s series on the Two Kingdoms

For our purposes here, we simply note the overwhelming tendency of American evangelicals to restrict the “kingdom of God” to a particular visible institution, affiliation, coalition, or what have you, accompanied by the “right brand” of theology or political ideology. In many respects, this tendency is rooted in our unique church-state philosophy, which often pits two visible institutions – church and state – against one another. This is why we’re so good at culture wars, even within the church. Its in our DNA to band together stand up for whats “right” against “them” (whoever “them” may be). To this end, we like to make long checklists of what makes someone “us,” just to be sure that “us” really is “us.” In short, we want the visible church to be synonymous with the church eternal, and we’ll  excommunicate de facto as many people as necessary to make sure that happens.  But wait, I thought we were talking about Protestantism…. hmmmm.

Given such deeply ingrained assumptions, we have a hard time wrapping our minds around the historically Reformed approach which understands the civil order as including both the visible church and “state” on the one hand, and the kingdom of God, which rules in the hearts of men by the authority of God’s word internally and invisibly, on the other.  There are of course many implications of this approach which deeply challenge our current way of thinking about church, faith, and politics, and for those I direct you to my friend Steven Wedgeworth (linked above).  Suffice it to say, it drastically changes the way we think about “us” and “them” and what constitutes either.

In the future I hope to write about a number of implications of a misguided political theology, but for now I leave you with but one. Anthony Bradley absolutely hits one out of the park when he writes:

It is becoming increasing clear by listening to the recent discourse about “evangelicalism” this-and-that and “evangelical center” and the “unity” among evangelicals and the “alliance” of evangelicals and the “coalition” of evangelicals and the “fracturing” of evangelicals and the “splintering” “blah, blah” about “we” and “us” “evangelicals” blah blah, that there is a closeted desire to function like Roman Catholicism with a centralized magisterium for issuing dogmatic teachings about orthodoxy & orthopraxis. Multiple websites & organizations are simply competing to assume the official unofficial role of the “evangelical magisterium.” The energies expended on this competition of centralization is wasting valuable financial and human capital that could be otherwise spent in dialogue with those at the Areopagus. Feel free to link which organizations, websites, coalitions, etc. you believe are competing for the role of “Evangelical Magisterium.”

Bradley points out very clearly the result of a dangerously deficient ecclesiastical polity (and more broadly, a political theology) which makes pastors into “kings” and doctrine into conscience-binding legislation that becomes the litmus test for orthodoxy. So much for the priesthood of believers and reformed political decorum, which exercises charity to all those who call on Christ and insists that “God alone is the Lord of conscience.” One cannot help but wonder “Whatever happened to “faith alone”?  Are we not being led to believe that rather than “justified by faith” that our “faith is justified” by the evangelical magisterium? Is the kingdom of God now synonymous with a particular visible institution to which one must give their nod of approval? Scary stuff. Sadly it seems the Reformation has been hijacked by Anabaptists who think they’re Presbyterians and who act like Roman Catholics.

3 Comments

The Danger of a Materialistic Middle Class

It is not enough for the middle class to insist upon its well-being via a political or economic ideology, a certain form of government or the limitation thereof. It must also insist upon a constant check and balance of its own moral fiber and social conscience. As such, the renewed effort towards a comprehensive, intellectually honest, and socially responsible conservatism must include an effort to deal with the problem of materialism in the middle class.

A native of the United States clings to this world’s goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications…

…Democracy encourages a taste for physical gratification; this taste, if it become excessive, soon disposes men to believe that all is matter only; and materialism, in its turn, hurries them on with mad impatience to these same delights; such is the fatal circle within which democratic nations are driven round. It were well that they should see the danger and hold back  (Tocqueville, Democracy in America, II, 136, 145)

Penning these words some 175 yeas ago, Tocqueville could not have been more insightful and prophetic. But what is surely more gut-wrenching is Russell Kirk’s commentary, in which he  insists that Tocqueville’s observation necessarily implicates the middle-class as bearing the responsibility for a democracy’s materialistic death spiral. “”The middle classes,” writes Kirk, “by their example, convince the mass of people that aggrandizement is the object of existence. And once the masses embrace this conviction, they do not rest until the state is reorganized to furnish them with material gratifications.”

Kirk is correct it would seem, but not because the middle-class tends to be more materialistic than others; indeed materialism cuts across all socio-economic spheres of a democracy, from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor. Materialism has no prejudice; it is an equal opportunity employer. Class warfare which ignores this fact is particularly naive, as if the “haves” are obviously more materialistic than the “have nots” (the danger of a widening chasm between rich and poor is another topic for another day).

The reason middle class (and especially upper-middle class) materialism is so dangerous is because the middle-class lifestyle is often the American dream among those at the lower end of the economic echelon, a dream which seems realistic and attainable. True, many will aspire to live among the upper class of society, but glimpses of that lifestyle appear tangible only when they are reflected among the middle class. A family making under 85k a year with two luxury cars in the driveway, for example, holds out for the poor the hope of luxury without having to be among the top one or two percent of earners in the country (this hope is sadly reflected in part by people owning cars that are worth more than their home). In many cases, the result has been devastating, not least in the case of the subprime mortgage crisis, which aside from the complicated economic and legislative details, more broadly reflects the empty promises of a materialistic culture in which upward mobility is king. The rich become richer, the poor become poorer, and we have only become more materialistic. As such, perhaps it goes without saying that if Kirk is correct concerning the masses’ eventual dependence on the state, then materialism among middle-class economic conservatives is a cruel irony.

Of course we are not suggesting that the poor should remain poor. Nor are we suggesting that middle-class families can’t or shouldn’t own a Lexus. That is to miss the point entirely. Rather, we are pointing out that the middle-class (1) like everyone else, has a tendency towards materialism and (2) that middle class social and economic responsibility, more than that of any other segment of society, extends far beyond keeping one’s fiscal house in order. The principles, conventions, values, ethics, desires of the middle class are deeply formative for a democracy, not merely because they play an important role for an indispensable segment of society, but more importantly because that role  has in impact well beyond its perceived sphere of influence.

Leave a comment

A Helpful Non-Partisan Explanation of the Debt Crisis

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ln6VGCB8f_c&feature=fvwrel

Leave a comment

Whatever Happened to Conservatism?

Conservatism as a philosophically credible and intellectual tradition is hanging by a thread if its hanging at all, and this ought to disappoint liberals and conservatives alike.

The tradition of Burke, Adams, Tocqueville, Kirk, and others is deader than Reaganism (ironically, perhaps due to Reaganism), and it its place stands an economic conservatism that pretends it can survive without regard for solidarity,  moral decency,  and order in society. This anti-conservatism conservatism prioritizes laissez faire economics while simultaneously abandoning traditional tenets of conservatism like organic unity in society and a concern for social fabric (as I write this I am already aware that the above combination of the words “social” and “unity” are going to trigger an averse reaction among many “conservatives,” but this only makes my point). Its a conservatism which allows folks in my state to essentially say “hey, we’ve got the lowest taxes and the most obese children in the country, hooray!”  This type of conservatism is not only unsustainable, its destructive.

To be sure,  fiscal responsibility, property ownership,  and free markets are all well and good, but history clearly demonstrates that such ideas are fruitless without a responsible social and moral philosophy which would inherently reach out to minorities, the poor, and others on the margins, (indeed the conservative failure to reach the traditional, community-oriented Hispanic families is staggering). Would it not be a surprise to most “conservatives” that the best of  the conservative intellectual tradition values solidarity and encourages social and political capital among the populace rather than the elite?  “I am no friend to aristocracy, in the sense at least in which that word is usually understood,” Edmund Burke once said. “I would rather by far see (government) resolved into any other form, than lost in that austere and insolent domination.” Burke and others understood that which many today do not, namely, that there is a symbiotic relationship between economic conservatism and the social-conscience conservatism; they stand and fall together. Right now, they are falling.

Historically, conservatism attempts a balanced philosophy of broad democratic principles, and even champions this balance as one of its basic principles. That those identifying as conservatives today would so brazenly blast “moderate” conservatives as weak or confused or ignorant or compromising or wolves in sheep’s clothing is a sign that the traditional conservative philosophy is dying. Balance (dare we say “moderatism”?) is inherent to conservatism. Russell Kirk, paraphrasing Fenimore Cooper, reminds us that while Democracies will always tend toward economic leveling, invasions of personal rights,  and substituting mass opinion for justice, that there are compensations for these tendencies towards vice:

Democracy elevates the character of the people; it reduces military establishments; it advances national prosperity; it encourages a realization of natural justice’ it tends to serve the whole community, rather than a minority; it is the cheapest form of government; it is little subject to popular tumults, the vote replacing the musket; unless excited, it pays  more respect to abstract justice than to aristocracy and monarchy. (Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 175)

For Tocqueville, economic freedom and limited government are not the panacea of society. Rather, they are part and parcel of a much broader approach which includes a social conscience, a minimized military, principled justice, and the common good. When conservatives make the mistake of assuming that free market economics are the sine qua non of this system or that such is the primary function of social conscience , they do so at their own peril, and indeed at the expense of their own embarrassment.

It is no coincidence of course, that so many younger conservatives (and some fiscally conservative liberals) have opted for libertarianism. This seismic shift in political affinity is not so much due to compelling philosophical arguments, but rather to the fact that today’s conservatism is so inconsistent that its insulting to one’s intelligence. Indeed, some have ventured beyond libertarianism into the emerging and in vogue anarcho-captialism camp. Merely correlative? Survey says….  not a chance. Other would-be conservatives, such as Gen-x’ers and millennials born into conservative families, have abandoned the boomer brand of conservatism for similar reasons; even if they cannot articulate a sophisticated political philosophy, they nevertheless perceive the inconsistencies and out-of-touch m.o. that comes in the name of “conservatism.” Conservatives need to pay attention to these political realignments because they demonstrate (1) that philosophical conservatism is being identified narrowly as a free market and limited government philosophy, and (2) that the GOP brand of conservatism is therefore perceived as discordant, untenable, and obsolete (why? because it is).

But perhaps there was a glimmer of responsible conservatism from Bobby Jindal this week:

“We cannot be, we must not be, the party that simply protects the rich so they get to keep their toys … We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.”

What a novel thought.

Leave a comment

A Snapshot of the Presbyterians

Recently a post about types of Calvinists went viral, so I figure we need a slightly cynical, admittedly unscientific analysis of Presbyterianism that I hope will be somewhat constructive (vague enough to remain above suspicion?). Those who know me know that I deeply desire  Reformed catholicity and, accordingly, for these groups to find some common ground and demonstrate some unity in the kingdom

So, in case you missed it, here’s whats going on in the presboverse, at least re: the “big three”

First of all, be sure to memorize this:

PCUSA 
Mainliners are still fighting over scripture, ecclesiology, sex, and whether or not phrases like “live into it” and “god’s self” actually mean anything – but mostly sex.  Underlying all the culturally-captive debates over gay marriage and ordination standards, the various factions in the PCUSA are at an impasse concerning the sources and methods of theology. Whats more, folks are slowly realizing that notions like “unity for the sake of mission” is a pipe dream when you aren’t sure if you’re practicing the same religion anymore (and yes, in some cases, it is that bad). Truth be told, the mission might be more effective if it was finally admitted that confessionalism – assuming status confessionis is not synonymous with political correctness – is really just a relic that has more form than function, more seemliness than substance (as much was basically declared at the most recent G.A.). Not my preference, but the honesty would help.

Interestingly, many of the baby boomer hippies of the mainline (who kept the faith through the tumultuous 70s and 80s… and 90s.. and… ) have reconnected with their hipster postmodern grandkids via modern liberalism (which, yes, we all thought was dead by now). These folks have basically said “I see your Jesus of history, and I raise you the Christ of faith,” “I see your ‘truth,’ and I raise you a story,” to which others have responded, “huh?” But what of the traditionalists/doctrinalists? Well, some traditionalists have remedied the problem of disunity by starting yet another denomination, ECOP. Whether this is a faithful course of action is TBD, but I’m guessing Bonhoeffer would post “smh.”

So, if we’re using the Marsden via Keller taxonomy, we might say that the PCUSA has an incredibly strong culturalist impulse (and I suppose a pietist one as well, given the ironic “progressiveness” of camp meeting revivalism that persists), but frankly sometimes the impulse isn’t really Reformed as much as it is borne of a glorified social agenda. When the dust settles in a decade or so (maybe sooner?), I’m guessing the mainline will have leveled off by essentially splitting in half since 1982 (it is already way less than half of what it was in 1965, when the two groups to be combined had a total of 4,254,597 members).

What the PCUSA has going for it is an honest engagement with real-world issues, not all that different than what the apostles dealt with around the Mediterranean. As such, the denomination is necessarily home to many incredibly faithful servants, who major on the majors rather than the minors, who don’t get hung up on every iota subscript, and who are discerning the most effective avenues for embracing and embodying the gospel.

PCA
As a recently publicized survey demonstrates, the PCA has a bit of an inter-generational rift on its hands, but this isn’t really news. The PCA has for a long time had quite a generational and cultural/regional divide, indicated, for example, by the fact that a handful of folks in the south think that Tim Keller is a liberal. Go figure. Truth be told, the PCA has  always been a very “southern” denomination, and most PCA’ers in the south are still Baptists. Sure, they’re baptizing infants, but these wet dedications don’t hold a candle to the baptism by immersion into southern Baptist culture. It seems like every other pastor “converted” from being a Baptist at one point. Some belong to Paul, others Apollos, but most John McArthur. So be it – I love me some 5 point Baptists. At any rate, most folks within these ranks assume you’re Roman Catholic if you use the word “liturgy” or dare to wear anything resembling clerical garb. It is assumed that John Piper is still “da man,” but some of the younger rebels will spitefully go off and read N.T. Wright when they’re feeling particularly naughty (but not within six months prior to an ordination exam). TULIP is still the sine qua non, which is convenient if you want to be soft on Reformed ecclesiology, sacraments, liturgics, and political theology (did I mention the whole Baptist thing?). Many have rightly criticized the doctrinaire veneer of the PCA, the result of some PCA folks elevating the Westminster Confession over scripture and the creeds (lets sing: “one of these is not like the other”).

That being said, the PCA still maintains a certain theological diversity (albeit within a narrow stream). Not all are “guilty” of the predictable insularity,  PCA courts have been doing their homework, witch-hunts have calmed (and some of the hunters have left for Rome, actually), and that there is reason to be optimistic about the future of these folks (although they are considering banning intinction, which is just bizarre).

EPC
These folks are an interesting breed. The recent proselytes are a cross section of fundamentalist mainliners who didn’t get the memo 40 years ago and hipster fundamentalists who are now too cool for RC Sproul. The result is a game of red rover called the EPC. As yet another hopeful via-media via schism, why the EPC couldn’t join the PCA back in the early 80’s is a mystery to me (can anyone provide a reasonable answer? – maybe just geographic?) At any rate, I’m not so sure the EPC can withstand the ongoing influx of disgruntled PCUSA folks, many of whom can’t wait to make sure every EPC church has an ordained female on staff. There will be a culture war, and I have it on good authority that this is already taking place.

Nevertheless, it may well be the case that the EPC is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country by 2025. Their growth rate is staggering, and as long as some of those PCA and PCUSA defectors don’t run right past each other, they might find that they have common ground in the EPC (barring any red-rover close lining incidents)

Maybe some CRCNA, OPC, CREC, ADSFASFIEFD, folks can fill in the gaps for me?

So What?!?!
There is a silver lining in all of this, for there is a significant cross-section of folks across all of these camps (from the fundies to the progressives) that care about the good news of God’s kingdom, who care about truth, and who care about displaying glimpses of new creation by serving the world with the love of Christ. I remain hopeful for unity, catholicity, and wholeness that is substantive, charitable, and with a view for the unity of Christs body.  To this end, Presbyterians of all flavors might need to start wrestling with the reality of a post-denominational “christendom,” a reality which is becoming increasingly apparent, but which does not have to be feared. It presents a new set of questions, sure, but such is life, and such is faith. We see in a mirror dimly, but not without hope.

, , , , , , ,

4 Comments

Missing the Point re: Chick-Fil-A-gate

“OK, good,” Chip said. “But the question is not whether we care about breast cancer, its what breast cancer has to do with selling office equipment… “So if Pizza Hut puts a little sign about testicular self-exams by the hot-pepper flakes, it can advertise itself as part of the glorious and courageous fight against cancer?… “Baudrillard might argue,”Chip said, “that the evil of a campaign… consists in the detachment of the signifier from the signified. That a woman weeping no longer just signifies sadness. It now also signifies: ‘Desire office equipment.’ It signifies: ‘Our bosses care about us deeply'”

- Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections

I know, I know, Chick-Fil-A articles ad nauseam. But I think you’ll see that this isn’t really about Chick-Fil-A.

Prompted by the predictable but relatively harmless comment of a successful entrepreneur, we’ve allowed the common discourse over an important issue to be governed by the signs and symbols of commodity and exchange – or in this case a chicken sandwich. We assume that by either condemning or condoning chicken sandwiches that we’ve said most of what needs to be said about our position on gay marriage. The result is that we never clearly articulate what it is we’re talking about, and are instead tangled up in symbols and images that allow us to eschew the real issue. The real issue is that a significant group of folks are claiming that they are victims of discrimination, that they have civil rights that are yet to be realized. Whether you agree with this position or not, your decision to boycott a restaurant or stuff your face with their food not only fails to advance dialogue, but it basically avoids the real debate altogether. Its like texting a deeply personal message to a family member who is standing right in front of you –  even if you manage to get your point across, the means by which you’ve done so is inappropriate, clearly lacking in principle, not effective, and even dehumanizing. A total failure of communication.

Somehow, illiterate cows and are now symbols of homophobia. Yes, it is that ridiculous. And that’s the point. Baudrillard was right. Our lives as consumers are increasingly artificial and governed by signs, images,  and inadequate symbols. Welcome to the “hyperreal.”

The primary reason we participate in this means of pseudo “communication” is that we spend a ton of money on a ton of stuff, having given ourselves over to the “voting with our dollars” mentality. Thus we have an urge to invest our money, i.e. ourselves, into those companies with the hippest agenda. Perhaps Bill Gates and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, among others, really do have a principled interest in supporting gay-marriage, but we all know that such a position is also in their best financial interest. What a wonderful convenience that their evolution of views on marriage have been in lock step with the culture’s mainstream. But where were all the “courageous” humanitarian business owners fifteen years ago, when two-thirds of the country opposed gay marriage? Crickets…

Sure, there are circumstances in which your dollar may need to spent or clinched, based on principle. But as long as we believe that we can dust off our hands and pat ourselves on the back after such a decision, we’re still suckers. For starters, you’re probably spending money every single day that supports something you don’t like (do you really think your gasoline is totally agenda free?). So be it. We’re all in this together. But as long as we allow the comments of a bigwig, the symbols of their establishment, or indeed the symbol of our currency to govern the exchange of words, ideas, and principles, we have missed the boat entirely.

, , , ,

3 Comments

Agendas, Ideologies, and Neighbors are not the same thing

“Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”
Mother Teresa

As I follow the various culture wars in which so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ are involved (on both sides), and as I scroll through facebook feeds, blog posts, and popular media, it seems to me that it is much easier to talk in abstraction, to align ourselves with an ideology, to spend our time and money in order to “make a point” rather than serve the least or even the not-so-least.

Its true, we’ve all been raised to believe that we are extraordinary. Its a bummer when we find out we’re not. So then we have to align ourselves with something “extraordinary,” something bigger than ourselves. We can align with Jesus, but this doesn’t seem enough because we want to really change the world. That’s our first mistake. Then we ask, “but how can I change the world?” Uh oh.

One response is to baptize your current social, political, or economic ideology. This allows you to continue in your basic cultural practice while simply attaching some sense of comfort or “eternal value” to your previously held beliefs.  Indeed you have found your “special” or “extraordinary” calling, but it looks an awful lot like what you had before, only now you include lame platitudes and predictable cliches in everyday conversation. You may begin to believe that it was not only Moses and our ancestors who passed under the cloud and the sea, but also your economic philosophy and political views. All of a sudden the American constitution is akin to Apostles Creed, and Thomas Paine and Athanasius are first cousins.

The second response is to discard one’s former ways and become involved on a systemic level “for the sake of Christ,” perhaps by joining with an advocacy group or a social/political cause. While often a better response than the first,  it can also start to look a lot like response number one if you aren’t careful. Without guidance and patience, many people in this camp run the risk of replacing their Christian convictions with the convictions of their respective agenda. This is always a tricky issue, because sometimes the agenda can be very Christian-esque and yet lacking any hint of humility or selflessness. One begins to believe that they are changing the world for Jesus while not doing one single thing Jesus said to do.

The third response is to become recklessly loving, faithful, and generous with the people that God has placed in your life. Selfless, self-sacrificial, Christ-honoring love provides a foundation for broader “systemic” change that is far more lasting, sure, and obedient to Christ. The truth is that deep down,we know that the most influential people in our lives are those who have been the most kind and generous towards us, who have given much and asked for little, who have shown us the image of Christ.

Perhaps if we could focus on laying down our lives for those around us our love would in fact be extraordinary, but not because we were aiming for extraordinary.

 

 

Leave a comment

Four Reasons Why Theological Discourse is Going Nowhere …

Isn’t it great that social media provides everyone an opportunity to be a theologian? It reminds me of what Michael Scott (Steve Carell) said about wikipedia: Its

the best thing ever. Anyone in the world, can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information.

(With that said, allow me to  provide the best possible information.)

Anyway, here are four common issues that are almost always neglected and are almost always profoundly important.

1. Christology

In case we forgot, Jesus is the second person of the triune God as well as the one who proclaims freedom for the captives and who heals the sick. He is transcendent as he is immanent. Its a package deal. Being “right” about who Jesus is while neglecting the poor is actually to be dead wrong about who Jesus is. By the same token, social and political agendas in the name of Jesus which have no concern for the truth about Jesus – beyond him being super nice – well, those agendas aren’t in the name of Jesus.  In short, doctrine and ethics both matter because Christology matters.  Its pretty hip these days to say that “Orthodoxy is the refuge of scoundrels,” but if orthodoxy really is, well, orthodoxy, then I’ll take it.

2. Narrative vs proposition

Reminding people that Deborah was a good judge is not how you make a case for egalitarian views of women in ministry (and I support women in ministry). Just like pointing out that Solomon had multiple wives doesn’t support one’s case for polygamy. The narrative does not trump what God says about the narrative. When we start using narratives as proof texts for what God “wants” we make it clear that we don’t know how to read Scripture and how to make an argument in light of it.

3. Distinctions in God’s law

Since its all the rage these days, please know that eating shellfish, much like eating chicken sandwiches, has little to do with one’s stance on sexuality. You can eat shellfish and cite Levitical prohibitions against homosexuality without inherent hypocrisy (mostly since thats what the NT does). Theologians have long recognized distinctions in God’s law, not least because these distinctions are presented in the New Testament.  In Christ, ceremonial law has been made obsolete, so that we are no longer making animal sacrifices, no longer prohibited from eating shellfish, and no longer demanding circumcision as a rite of entry into the Christian faith. Civil laws remain while their punishments have changed since God’s people are no longer their own nation-state;  addressing violations of civil law in the OT is therefore analogous to church discipline in the present.  The moral law, summed up as loving God and neighbor in Lev 19, has basically been reaffirmed in the New Covenant, with certain “laws” concerning generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, adultery, murder, etc being explicitly reaffirmed.

4. Taxonomy of doctrinal error

As I’ve written elsewhere, whether or not to have candles in the sanctuary is not on par with whether or not Jesus is a person of the Trinity. As pointed out by a billion other folks on the interwebs these days, there are  three kinds of doctrinal error:

  1. errors against a fundamental article of faith (contra fundamentum);
  2. errors around a fundamental or in indirect contradiction to it (circa fundamentum);
  3. errors beyond a fundamental article (praeter fundamentum). Richard Muller explains them like this:

“The first kind of error is a direct attack—such as those launched by the Socinians—against the divinity of Christ or the Trinity. The second is not a direct negation or an antithesis but rather an indirect or secondary error ultimately subversive of a fundamental—such as a belief in God that refuses to acknowledge his providence. The third category of error does not address fundamental articles directly or indirectly but rather involves faith in problematic and curious questions (quaestiones problematicas et curiosas) that do not arise out of the revealed Word—hay and stubble!—and that, because of their curiosity and vanity, constitute diversions from and impediments to salvation.” (Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 1: Prolegomena to Theology, 422–3.)

Perhaps having this taxonomy in mind would allow us all to “tell the truth in love” more often, boldly, and clearly.

That is all.

3 Comments

A Primer for Reading, Interpreting, and Applying Scripture

Note: This post is intended for the lay person. Yes, I’m fully aware that a doctrine of scripture as well as our hermeneutics are a bit more complicated. Please save the hipster pseudo-intellectual comments for another post. 

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Suggestion: If possible, use a bible that has a thorough index and cross-references for verses. In addition, make use of commentaries (single volume or multi-volume) and a study bible (recommendations below)

 Principles to affirm concerning Scripture

  1. With the communion of saints of all times and places, we insist that Holy Scripture is the Word of God, and that no prophecy of scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation but by men carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21).
  2. God’s authority is exercised primarily through Holy Scripture.
  3. Scripture is infallible – it will never lead us astray.

Principles to affirm concerning interpretation

  1. Humility, prayer, and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit are necessary conditions of reading and interpreting Scripture.
  2. Scripture stands over us; we do not stand over Scripture.
  3. We must avoid narrow, subjective, individualistic interpretations. Scripture should be interpreted in community so that our brothers and sisters and Christ can affirm, encourage, rebuke, and correct accordingly.
  4. We should expect Scripture to convict us of sin and make us uncomfortable.
  5. The Word of God is a stepping stone as well as a stumbling block. We should not be surprised when the Word of God offends us or contradicts our experiences.

Questions to ask while reading Scripture

Bible reading lenses – Zoom in, zoom out, and zoom in again:  Passage –> Book –> Canon –> Book –> Passage

  1. The Individual Passage
    1. What are the key themes of the passage?
    2. Are there any words or ideas that are clearly emphasized?
    3. Does the passage explicitly or implicitly refer to another passage of scripture? (use your verse cross references and Bible index)
  1. Book
    1. What was the original historical context of the book?
    2. Do we know anything about the meaning of the passage in its context?

i.      What is the situation of the original recipients of the book/letter/gospel?

ii.      Do we (or can we) know anything about the author’s intent?

  1. Canon
    1. Does the Bible as a whole address the themes of the passage in question?
    2. If the author has written another book/letter, does the other books/letters provide clues?
    3. Old Covenant / New Covenant – Is the passage speaking to a topic, theme, or instruction that has fundamentally changed throughout the course of biblical history due to God’s explicit instruction? (e.g. – removal of circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws in the New Covenant)

Boundaries of Orthodoxy

  1. Is our interpretation concerned with an essential or nonessential issue? Are we questioning the Incarnation of Christ (essential) or are we questioning whether or not candles should be used in worship (nonessential)?
  2. Can the creeds and/or our confessional tradition assist us in our interpretation?
  3. Are we pursuing catholicity in our interpretations? Are we considering whether the global church has offered a majority interpretation of the passage, theme, or issue at hand?
  4. Based on Christian orthodoxy, does the burden of proof lie with our interpretation or with another interpretation?

Application

  1. Scripture is not primarily about us. While Scripture does speak to us and instruct is in the ways of righteousness, Scripture is not a “self-help manual.” Rather, it is the narrative by which we understand who God is and who we are in relationship to him.
  2. Scripture is not merely pragmatic or utilitarian. Usually, the “application” of a passage is not concerned with how we’re to feel or what we’re to do, but simply that God is worthy of our praise in every circumstance.
  3. If we are always comforted by scripture, we are probably not reading scripture honestly

Helpful Commentaries

Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book

N.T Wright’s For Everyone series (for individual books of the NT)

John Goldingay For Everyone series (for individual books of the OT)

Barton and Muddiman, The Oxford Bible Commentary

Wenham, Motyer, Carson, and France, eds., New Bible Commentary

Dunn and Rogerson, Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible

Carsonand Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament

Dillard and Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament

Recommended Study Bibles

The Archaeological Study Bible

The ESV Study Bible

Harper Collins Study Bible

 

1 Comment

Gay and Christian? – A Summary of the Issues

Many of you have asked me to jot down a few thoughts on sexuality and the Church.  For the purposes of this post, I am not presenting an argument or taking a position. My aims here are as follows:

  • To provide an outline and summary of some of the important issues in this discussion. My hope is that individuals, church leaders, and others will find the summary helpful in their discernment.
  • To obliterate all simplistic and absolutist interpretations, and to demonstrate the incredible complexity of this issue..
  • To challenge folks from all sides of the discussion to think more carefully and to be more gracious towards others who do not share their position.

I am fully aware that it is nearly impossible to engage with this sort of issue without being critiqued by folks from every angle. I simply ask that you be gracious, constructive, and instructive. I am always happy to be corrected where necessary, but please know that I will delete uncharitable comments without hesitation.

Brief background: I minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination which, after a number of recent changes to church government and our constitution, makes it possible for churches to ordain men and women who participate in sexually active, same-gender relationships (one might summarize this description as “gay,” but I’m unconvinced that “gay” assumes sexual activity). Churches are required to make this determination under the guidance of scripture and the confessions. As such, varying interpretations have resulted in varied practice. My current ministerial call has blessed me with ministry to several people who identify themselves as both gay and Christian. As such, this is not merely an academic issue for me; it is a personal one. I do not pretend to have any or all of the answers, but I have indeed spent a lot of time studying the issue as honestly and as carefully as possible.

Cultural/Societal Concerns

Terminology. “Homosexuality” is a modern term, originating in the late 1860s. It does not appear that “homosexuality” was understood in the ancient or biblical world as it is today. In fact, many homosexual people prefer the term “gay” since it is a less scientific, and for some, a less dehumanizing designation.

Identity and Ontology. By way of postmodernity, popular culture now largely assumes that sexuality is a fundamental ontological category. That is, at our core, we are not defined by heritage, ancestry, tradition, geography, location, personality, or even as being made in the image of God (this final category is, of course, where the Church has to get its act together). Instead, we are sexual, and we are a certain type of sexual. “Coming out” has thus become an enormously burdensome matter because one feels the pressure of proclaiming and displaying the very core of their identity. Rejection thus means rejection of their existence as a human being. I should add to this point that this ontology of sexuality makes the separation of “orientation” from “act” rather tenuous.

Historical and Cultural Context. “O Philip Melanchthon!… A hundred times when worn out with labors and oppressed with so many troubles, didst thou repose thy head familiarly on my breast and say: ‘Would that I could die in this bosom!’ Since then I have a thousand times wished that it had been granted to us to live together” (Reformation Theologian John Calvin,1561, a year after the death of his friend Philip Melancthon). Had Calvin written this today, would our society label him “gay?” (He wasn’t). We need to recognize how history and culture shapes what is “acceptable” in same-sex relationships. If American pastors today, following the apostle Paul, instructed the men of their congregation to kiss each other on the cheek (which is still practiced in many cultures), how would most modern, western Christians respond? Interestingly, many cultures to this day widely accept same-gender affection. In China and many parts of Africa, it is common for men walking down the street to hold hands. In the Korean Army, during their communal showers, it is common one soldier to scrub another’s back. (Thanks to Doug Dobbins for these insights).

Friendship. Is it possible today for two single men in their thirties to go out to dinner together to a nice restaurant without bearing the suspicion of homosexuality? What if they shop together? What if they live together? This is not merely a matter of dangerous stereotypes, it is a matter of shifts in cultural psychology and our definition of friendship.

Gender Stereotypes. Our culture seems to have perpetuated stereotypes that widen the gap between “acceptable” heterosexual identity and what we label “homosexual.” It would seem that straight men, in order act “straight,” need to enjoy sports, work with their hands, eat greasy food, dress a certain way, etc. Many single men, even straight men, who do not engage in these stereotypical activities, or who display characteristics that are often perceived less “masculine,” will tell you that they have been suspected of being gay.

Polarization and Confusion. Along the same lines as gender stereotype, society has polarized sexual identity and contributed to the sexual confusion of our culture, including the confusion experienced by some gay people. A young adolescent woman in a church youth group where I was ministering wondered whether or not she was gay, admittedly not because of any internal desires she felt, but due to her frustrating relationships with boys and the particular group of people with whom she identified. Eventually it became clear to her that she was not “gay,” but the confusion she experienced was rather telling of the sociological factors we as a society have precipitated and perpetuated.

Familyolatry
As already suggested, one of the difficulties in addressing the gay question lies in the fact that there is so much confusion and inconsistency within heterosexuality. One often overlooked issue is familyolatry, the tendency for westerners to baptize the ideal of the nuclear family, even though Jesus clearly condemns this sort of idolatry. To be clear, I do not think that God is against two parents and and 2.5 kids, but I do think that God is displeased with how this formula has excluded the possibility of a broader, communal family identity insisted upon by Jesus and enacted in many other cultures. The “ideal” American family has become so ingrained within the Christian community that it has unintentionally brought devastation to gay men and women who fear that attaining that “dream” is impossible. As I learned through a gay friend, the prospect of not realizing this “dream”, more so than any concern for sexual fulfillment, is often the substance of a gay person’s pain and fear.

The Gay Experience

Spectrum. There is a vast spectrum of gay people. Gay people understand this; Straight people do not. Using broad brush strokes to define the gay population is not only offensive, but also very inaccurate. Many evangelical Christians will read the account of a gay-turned-straight person and assume that all gay people can simply go through the same transformation if they pray hard enough or do all the right things. This is not true. Some gay people fall in the middle of the spectrum where such a change of attraction may be possible if they desire it. Others, however, will find such a change virtually impossible.

Nature/Nurture. Some gay people will tell you that their childhood or home life clearly precipitated and informed their orientation and/or desires. It is true that many gay people come from terribly broken families and situations. However, others do not, and they simply have no explanation other than, “this is who I am.” Period. (See Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting). For some, the “choice” to be gay is no more a choice than an American’s choice to grow up speaking English. English is not a biological disposition, but when was the last time you tried to un-learn it? (Yes, the analogy is imperfect, but I stand by my point). The church needs to drop the nature/nurture angle because it is theologically suspect. After all, we believe that the world is a fallen place, and that we are born into sin and brokeness. Thus, nature and nurture are far more fluid and interwoven. Do we not employ all sorts of habits, disciplines, liturgies, and practices that we hope will make us more Christian? Surely we would assume and even hope that such “nurture” would inform our “nature.”

Gay Christians and Scripture. Many openly gay Christians believe and accept the passages that the church has traditionally used to argue against homosexuality. However, instead of seeing such biblical texts as a moral argument against homosexuality, they see them as opposing particular expressions of promiscuity, relational abuse, sexual exploitation, idolatry, and godlessness. In the mind of some gay Christians, one can be faithful, monogamous, and Godhonoring in their love for their spouse or partner. As Rowan Williams puts it ,“There are plenty of Christians of homosexual inclination who would say something like this: ‘I want to live in obedience to God; I truly, prayerfully and conscientiously do not recognize Romans 1 as describing what I am or what I want. I am not rejecting something I know in the depth of my being. I struggle against the many inducements to live in promiscuous rapacity — not without cost. I do not believe my identity as a desiring being is a complicated and embarrassing extra in my humanity as created by God. And it is hard to hear good news from the Church if it insists that my condition is in itself spiritually compromised.’” (From: The Way Forward?)

Hopes of Gay Christians. One of the more heartbreaking aspects of the church’s dilemma is that there are many gay people who simply want a spouse, a family, things which most take for granted. The church often overlooks this part of the gay experience. It is often assumed that the primary desire of gay people is no more than same-sex intercourse. But how does the church respond to the gay Christian who wants to live a holy, sinless life that includes marriage and family?

Fear. Perhaps more serious than the problem of homophobia is the fear that that it instills within many gay people. Many hide in fear of being “detected.” It has prompted self loathing, deep insecurity, and a high rate of suicide among gay people.

The Ancient World

Ancient Near East. As noted above under “terminology,” for many cultures of the Ancient Near East, sexuality was not regarded as either homo- or hetero-, but rather as a vast spectrum of preference and social statuses/roles. ” The central distinction in sexual morality was the distinction between active and passive roles. The gender of the object… is not in itself morally problematic. Boys and women are very often treated interchangeably as objects of [male] desire. What is socially important is to penetrate rather than to be penetrated. Sex is understood fundamentally not as interaction, but as a doing of some thing to someone…” (Nussbaum, Philosophical Interventions, 73)

Israel. Israel was unique in its de-sexualization of God. The God of the Hebrew Bible, unlike most other God’s of the Ancient Near East, was not a “sexual” God. In Egyptian religion, the god Osiris had sexual relations with his sister; In Canaan, El, the chief god, had sex with Asherah. In Hindu belief, the god Krishna was sexually active; In Greek beliefs, Zeus married Hera, chased women, abducted the beautiful young male, Ganymede, and masturbated at other times; Poseidon married Amphitrite, pursued Demeter, and raped Tantalus. In Rome, the gods sexually pursued both men and women (See Prager, “Judaism’s Sexual Revolution”).

Temple cult. Israel was unique in her early rejection of temple/cult male prostitution. The Bible records that the Judean king Asa “put away the qdeshim [temple male prostitutes] out of the land”; that his successor, Jehosaphat put away out of the land …the remnant of the qdeshim that remained in the days of his father Asa”; and that later, King Josiah, in his religious reforms, “broke down the houses of the qdeshim.” (See Prager, Ibid)

First Century Context. Classical Greek literature, before and after the New Testament, demonstrates a wide range of homosexual relationships. Many of these relationships were based on social status, prostitution, pederasty, or other such practices. Still, others were likely of the same social order and were consensual.

The Bible

The Bible says “No,” but… Many who want to affirm same-sex intercourse as an acceptable christian practice nevertheless acknowledge that when the Bible does talk about same-sex intercourse, it condemns it. The question, however, is what kind of same-sex intercourse is being condemned? Prostitution? Pederasty? Exploitation? Any form of same-gender sexual intercourse? Did the authors of scripture ever encounter loving, monogamous, sexually-active, gay relationships? If not, is using scripture to address the circumstances of such relationships today appropriate? Ganted, the biblical authors were likely exposed to a wide variety of sexual expression. Ancient literature, including Greco-Roman literature, demonstrates wide range of homosexual practice; it is difficult to for me to assume that biblical authors – not least, Paul – had never encountered loving, monogamous homosexual relationships. Nevertheless, it is speculation.

Sodom and Gomorrah. I’m unconvinced that same-sex intercourse is the primary concern of these passages. According to Ezekiel, condemnation of same gender sexual intimacy is not the point of the story. Rather, Ezekiel compares the sins of Jerusalem with those of Sodom, which he says had “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) Sodom and Gomorrah, which were basically wealthy, gated communities, had disobeyed the law of hospitality.

Word Studies. Many have narrowed the debate to two word studies, specifically the Greek words “arsenokoitai” and “malakoi.” These words have proven to be nutoriously difficult to translate and understand. “Arsenokotai,” found in 1 Cor 6 and 1 Tim 1, and translated in all sorts of ways (sodomites, homosexual offenders, etc), is relatively rare. Its appearance in ancient Greek literature is (1) limited to Paul and later usage which appears to be dependent on Paul and (2) in some instances appears to be an economic term, e.g. exploitation. “Malakoi” is widely used throughout ancient literature but also difficult to translate (often “male prostitutes”). It is used in other places, not least by Jesus, as meaning “soft” (e.g. “soft” robes in Matthew 11, Luke 7), but in the context of sexuality probably means effeminate, or weak, perhaps referring to the passive sexual partner, especially young boys.

Leviticus and “arsenokoitai”. The prohibitions against same-gender sexual intercourse in Leviticus 18 and 20 present Christians with a very complicated issue of interpretation. Due to the complex nature of interpreting and applying Leviticus, the Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-26, which says “a man lying with another man as if with a woman” is an “abomination” (Lev 20:13)  cannot definitively provide us with answers on its own terms. If it is a self-contained moral injunction, then one must also concede that we ought not to be eating shellfish or wearing clothers that are made of mixed fibers. Christian interpretation requires that Leviticus be read Christologically (i.e. in light of the gospel), and where clearly intended, through the lens of the New Testament.  Some traditionals methods of interpretation have long made a distinction betwen the civil, ceremonial, and moral law in the Old Testament, because the NT appears to retain much of moral law while discarding elements of the civil and ceremonial law. As such, one must continue to love their neighbor (Lev 19,) but do not have to be circumcised. However, these distinctions are not always clear, especially since the good follks of anitiquity didn’t compartmentalize “moral” and “ceremonial” as much as we moderns (this is why Paul’s instructions for Jew-Gentile relations in the NT are so scandalous and difficult for us to understand). So, what about the passage in question?  The Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) of Leviticus 20:13 reads, “Whoever lies with a man as with a woman [meta arsenos koiten gynaikos], they have both done an abomination.” Paul, in 1 Cor 6, appears to have coined a compound word from this passage, “arsenokoitai,” in which case the prohibition against male-male sex would be retained as moral law in the NT. I do not think this is a “slam dunk” for traditional interpretations, but it is a more exegetically responsible approach to Leviticus, a book which, for Christians, makes little sense without the NT. Early Christians knew this, Westboro Baptists et co apparently do not.

NT Context. One of the difficultes encountered in interpreting the above passages lies in understanding their context. We know that in both Corinth and Ephesus (the context of 1 Tim), religious prostitution, incest, and other forms of cultic sexual practice was a factor. Thus, one must more carefully consider whether Paul has a broader definition of same-sex intercourse in mind, or only that which is practiced in the contexts of those receiving his letters.

Romans. The most significant passage in the scriptural debate is Romans 1. Here, one is not dependent on translating “arsenokoitai,” “malakoi,” or any other particular word for that matter. Rather, several questions arise about the broader context of Romans 1 in the biblical narrative and the mind of Paul. Far from a temple cult context, “unnatural desire” is whats at stake. But unnatural to whom? Some have suggested that Paul is speaking of those who are betraying their natural desires and acting in an unnatural way. Others who oppose this view have suggested that Paul has in mind something akin to “natural law.” This passage has proven to be a significant obstacle for those who wish to affirm same-gender intercourse on a biblical basis. Instead of an ad hoc usage, it appears that Paul is situating his argument against the backdrop of creation and the fall of mankind (Genesis 1-3).

Positive NT Statements. Folks often point out that Jesus never addresses homosexuality, and it therefore must be acceptable. Obviously, this argument from silence is not really an argument at all. All we can really say with respect to Jesus, based on the extant evidence of the New Testament, is that he appears to assume and support monogamous heterosexual marriage as a normative social convention. We can only speculate as to how Jesus might have addressed a gay person (but I do think on this point the burden of proof lies with the more progressive interpretation). Paul in Ephesians describes the union of husband and wife as analogous to the mysterious union of Christ and the Church. The important point is that while much of the debate is over whether or not scripture prohibits same-sex intercourse, scripture never positively affirms same-sex intercourse.

Additional Theological Issues

Creation. Because the debate clearly cannot rest on word studies or even individual passages of scripture, many have rightly taken a step back and considered the issue from a broader theological perspective. “Creation” plays a major role at this level of the debate, not least due to its apparent function in Romans 1. But is the male-female union of flesh essential to God’s creation? How does this argument hold up if we look at creation through Christological lens? If creation is for, by, and through Christ, what does this say about “gender” and “sexuality” with respect to creation?

Be fruitful and multiply? If heterosexuality is the design of God, what is its purpose? Is there a “final cause” as Aristotle might put it? Is there a teleological argument? If it is to be fruitful and multiply, then most Christians have a lot of answering to do. Is the primary purpose of sex intimacy and pleasure or is it making babies? If the former, its difficult for those opposed to the acceptance of gay sex to base their argument on the creation mandate. If the latter, why contraception? Why birth control? Why planning convenient times to have children based on our goals, plans, and perceived financial security? (My Roman Catholic friends might offer an “I told you so” on this point, but the truth is that contraception and birth control rates among Catholics are surprisingly high.)

Sin. Obviously one of the central issues whether or not same-sex intercourse is sin. But what is sin? In my own denomination, sin is defined as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 14). This definition of sin is not used by all communions. For instance, the Orthodox church understands sin in terms of our verious passions. Such a definition could prove helpful since it challenges all to deal with various desires and temptations, not just “outward” expression.

History of Bible Interpretation. While the slavery/women/gays grouping is not always helpful (my view is that scripture addresses these groups in different ways for different reasons), it is instructive for us to consider how we understand the history of biblical interpretation. We must ask ourselves, “Given the way I read scripture, If I were a slaveowner in 1840 in the southern U.S., what would I have thought about slave rights and/or emancipation?” While this question only provides counter-factual conjecture, our honesty on this point may have us reconsider how we interpret the bible in light of historical circumstances. What historical/cultural factors are influencing our reading of scripture, in either direction for that matter? No one is off the hook.

God’s work in History. Following the same line of thought, is it possible for God to bring about new interpretations, insights, and methods for theological interpretation? In some ways, this was the case when Peter was being told in Acts 10 to “kill and eat” even though this was clearly against the biblical laws that he had followed his whole life. What parameters are we given for answering such questions responsibly and Christianly? The history of biblical interpretation suggest that there are such parameters, but there needs to be a consistent way of establishing, respecting, and employing them.

The Church

Hypocrisy. Even if a Christian has concluded that any instance of same-gender sexual intercourse is outside of God’s will, where is the outrage over the overwhelming “heterosexual” sinfulness that pervades every corner of society? Where is the prophetic indictment against infidelity, premarital sex, sex outside of marriage, divorce, all forms of promiscuity, joking about sex, and other seemingly accepted norms that most say are outside of Christian orthodoxy?

Discipline. The breakdown of church discipline (which is not inherently punitive but is concerned with order, purity, and unity) in mainline communions has contributed to the impotence of churches when dealing with this issue. We lack the structures and avenues for appropriately addressing a vast majority of theological, ecclesiological, and moral concerns. Its difficult to play baseball when there are no foul lines or when the umpires are only there to get paid.

Catholicity. The vast majority of world Christendom condemns homosexual sex of any type. One cannot ignore this fact. If the unity of Christ’s body in the eschaton matters – and it does – then the Church must listen to, well, the Church. Additionally, the acceptance of homosexual practice in some communions is creating a gap between wealthy, white, western churches and the poorer churches of global south and east. This does not settle the debate, however. We can look back through history and see that “catholicity” does not preclude the need for “voices in the wilderness,” and therefore does not provide a slam-dunk argument for traditionalists, but it is an aspect of the debate that is often ignored.

Interpretation. Given the ongoing ecclesial fragmentation of the western world, individuals often presume to have unilateral access to the scriptures. But to what degree should interpretation be a corporate enterprise that takes historical continuity seriously? Are we being rash in our conclusions? Protestants are not off the hook here – the Church matters. How does biblical interpretation effect the life of the church and vice versa? Are our interpretations prompting division or unity? Discord or peace? Immorality or Purity?

Women. For the sake of argument, lets say Paul believes that homosexual sex is a violation of what was intended “since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). The problem is, Paul’s insistence in 1 Tim 2 that women should not have authority over men seems to be far more clearly and explicitly rooted in the order of creation, much more so than any argument concerning homosexauals in Romans 1. Those who wish to affirm women in ministry but reject homosexuality specifically on the basis of the order of creation have a bit of a problem on their hands.

Divorce. Does the church take Jesus at his word concerning divorce? I understand this is a sensitive and complicated issue, but thats precisely the point. Is it not hypocritical for various ecclesiastical communions to ordain divorced (or even divorced and remarried) people while condemning a healthy, monogamous partnership between two people of the same sex? A traditionalist might reply “two wrongs don’t make a right,” but in any case, it seems that the scriptures are far clearer regarding divorce, which God “hates” (Mal 2).

Moving Forward

Engage. I remain very frustrated with Christians, not least many of my colleagues in ministry, who will not take the time to exegetically, theologically, pastorally, and ethically engage with what may well be the most pressing issue of our time. Make no mistake – The issue of homosexuality in the church is a crisis, and turning a blind eye is unfaithful and irresponsible. Such dismissal will render impotent our prophetic vocation as the church, and our witness to the world. The scriptures must be read, studied, interpreted, and proclaimed. We must seek the spirit’s guidance in this process.

Love. The failure or absolute unwillingness to love gay Christians and bear the burden of their deep struggle is all too common and is of course sinful. The vast majority of us know a gay person. Whatever your view on the morality of homosexuality, you have a moral obligation to love homosexual people. Do not judge them. It is not your job to sift through wheat and tares.

Listen.Listen to the experience of a gay person who truly wants to honor Christ. Listen to your community of faith as they reason together and seek God’s guidance. Listen to the communions of world Christendom. Listen to God as he speaks to you through his word, not matter how hard it may be to hear.

Deal with Sin. Wrestling with how to address the issue of homosexuality has brought upon me deep conviction about my hypocrisy and willful ignorance in many areas of my life, as a husband, friend, and minister. I find it hard to believe that any Christian could honestly struggle with this issue and not feel conviction over sin.

Burden Bearing. Do not belittle the experience of a gay Christian by ignoring their painful struggle. Should you chose to affirm same-sex intercourse as acceptable Christian practice, do not neglect the fact that gay people have experienced a lot of brokenness, crises of identity, societal prejudice, and oftentimes, dissonance as a human being.

Dangerous Assumptions. Many Christians assume that gay Christians must not care much for the scriptures or Church doctrine. This assumption is dangerous, as many gay Christians do intend and desire to take the scriptures seriously and are in fact quite “evangelical.” Some may take a vow of celibacy, so do not assume that they would not. To be sure, some gay Christians are turned off by “accepting” or “inclusive” churches that do not care for boundaries of orthodoxy. Thus these assumptions are relevant to both “traditionalist” and “progressive” camps – no one is off the hook.

Diversity. I am concerned that some think that the ordination of sexually active homosexuals is a great step in diversifying the church. This is naive. Even if mainline communions accept and affirm homosexual sex, it must not be celebrated as a token of “diversity.” Most mainline communions remain incredibly white, rich, and western. This is a sinful problem, and it is not going away anytime soon.

Charity. We must be charitable. According to the scriptures, truth is not truth unless it is spoken in love.

22 Comments

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.