Church: Giving Answers to the Wrong Questions

I am reading Diana Butler Bass at the moment, “Christianity After Religion.” Tucked away in the midsection of the book is some profound statements that I believe are spot-on in describing why traditional Christianity badly misses the mark when it comes to making a connection with the concerns and needs of modern Western society. Both traditional Protestantism, especially Evangelicalism, and Catholicism start with a concept of man’s sinfulness, that we are somehow “bad” in our core, and need to rid ourselves of that core to be forgiven. Usually unspoken but inferred, is that we should feel badly about ourselves and repent of that “sinful nature.” Sin, then, is basically pride in ourselves and the refusal to admit that we are “sinful.”

I understand how the church arrived at that conclusion, based on the gospel narratives involving John the Baptist, and of course, Jesus’ calls for repentance. But the church, in its zeal to be true to scripture, has failed to understand or acknowledge that, while “the field may be ripe for harvest,” the disease affecting the crop has changed. Hubris is no longer the issue. There is a different kind of “lostness” that affects Western culture, and the church exacerbates the problem by preaching against the sin of pride.

What was shocking about both Jesus’ and John’s message is how it attacked the notion that the Jews were automatically “saved” because of their birthright: being Jewish. They had a leg-up over the Gentiles. They had superior knowledge that their enemies, the Romans, didn’t have. It was this hubris that John the Baptist, Jesus and, especially Paul riled against. It insulted those in power: the religious leadership of the first century. It attacked the very foundation of religiosity: that believing the right things made you superior to those that didn’t believe the right things.

It is why Jesus chose a Samaritan, who didn’t believe the right things, to illustrate what a loving neighbor looks like. Imagine how that hurt the Pharisees’ pride! Fast forward to the 21st century and some things have changed, some things haven’t. We still have religious Pharisees, those who “believe the right things,” who call others to repent of their pride, not realizing that it is they who are prideful. But, I will let Diana Butler Bass speak for herself:

  As Western society has been overtaken by faceless consumerism and seemingly uncontrolled technologies, do men still feel like gods? I doubt it.

    Instead, in the last fifty years, most Europeans and North Americans—male, female, gay, straight, transgender, black, white, brown—have most likely succumbed to the sins of ‘triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness,’ having lost any real sense of self in a world of broken memories, entertaining technologies, and frenzied materialism. Indeed, philosophers and popular observers alike have noted that many people are now reconstructing their sense of self through nostalgia or consumerism. Saiving’s description* of female sinfulness has come to represent much of the human condition. Thus, ‘Who am I?’ may well be the driving theological question of the day and the starting point for reflection on spirituality—that lived experience of God longed for by so many people in the once Christian West.

   If sin was once seen as a twisted, self-centered quest to become God, then salvation was deliverance from self in order to become other-centered. If the self is a problem, then the church’s job was to help people diminish the self and make room for God. Thus, salvation was freedom from ourselves, our humanity, and our ambitions. The church taught that anything self-driven was evil and shaped communal prayer, ritual, worship, and penance around stamping out our humanness and striving instead for divine ideals of goodness. In the West, Catholics and Protestants took different routes to the same end—Catholics emphasized confession, penance, and sacraments as a way out of the human dilemma; Protestants (depending on the sort of Protestant) emphasized right belief, reordered hearts, and moral action as the paths away from sin. Fundamentally, however, the outcome of salvation was the same: pushing back, replacing or burying our human nature in favor of submitting to a transcendent—and often distant—God.

   This, I suspect, is the root of many people’s anxiety about church—that religion is the purveyor of a sort of salvation that does not address their lived struggles. So those who once ‘believed’ in this sort of salvation migrate away from the church, seeking instead something they call spirituality.

   Pride and hubris do not particularly seem to be humanity’s problem at the moment—they began to erode when the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima.

…Salvation is not being saved from ourselves, escaping some dreadful fate of judgement, damnation, and hellfire at the hands of a wrathful God; rather it is being saved to ourselves, finding what was lost and the joy of discovery in the hands of a loving Creator. Although the word ‘salvation’ has come to mean ‘eternal life’ in most religious circles, it is helpful to return to the word’s Latin root salvus, meaning ‘whole,’ ‘sound,’ ‘healed,’ ‘safe,’ ‘well,’ or ‘unharmed,’ as a way to understand the spirituality of salvation.”**

Understanding this, that as humans we have lost connection with ourselves, and each other, that there is an aching aloneness that pervades much of Western culture, the church would find connecting to the real needs of humanity and society much simpler. A simple illustration of this pertains to parenting. Is it effective to belittle a child with low self-esteem or is it wiser to to build them up, show them how much they are valued and loved? 

Ironically, the sin of hubris, while not a problem typical of Western society as a whole, does have a hold on the church. The danger inherent to any exclusionary social construct is that the included can feel “above” the excluded. Coupled with the belief that the church gets it right while everyone not in one’s particular religious click gets it wrong, only strengthens that conviction. Furthering the disconnect is the fact that people see beyond the facade, that those outside the church see that Christians are really no better than themselves, and the air of religious superiority is merely self-righteousness. The church would do well to understand that the gospel message of repentance and conviction of sin was largely leveled at the traditional religion of the first century. The message Jesus preached was, in large part, a deconstruction of status quo religiosity. The failure to see Jesus’ call of repentance as applicable to the institutional church is due, in large part, to the modern Western influence of “individualism,” the Western “sawdust trail.”

It is this over-emphasis on individual sinfulness that has blinded the church to its corporate sinfulness, explaining why it has been so hard for the church to see its own culpability in racism and sexual exploitation. Institutional religion is very difficult to reform from within. As we have seen in the SBC over the last few years, and more recently in the  UMC denomination, reform meets great resistance from those who rely on the “perks” their religion gives them, almost always at the expense of others. When individuals within the church see that it is all a power play, they leave, and those outside the church find their worst suspicions validated. Once seen for what it is, it cannot be unseen.

But the church cannot offer solutions to society until itself has repented. This is a core issue. Next, the church needs to understand what people need…what they are looking for. What they are lacking. Can the church meet that need? That people are broken is a given, but what is the fix? Simply quoting cherry-picked Bible verses about salvation no longer works. The way out of the situation is simple. Live Christ, be Christ, show Christ. I will further elaborate in a future post.

*Theologian Valerie Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View.”  

**Bass, pp. 181-183.

Has Christianity Outlived its Usefulness?

Has Christianity outlived its usefulness, or more to the point, is Christianity at all relevant any more in a post-modern world? Coming from an American evangelical background and graduating from an evangelical seminary, I could never have imagined I would even think these questions, let alone say them out loud. Traditional conservative Western forms of Christianity value conformity and certainty above doubt, which is seen as a lack of faith. Cognitive dissonance is to avoided at all costs. But what has been sacrificed on the altar of certainty is honesty and in the end, truth itself.

If you have followed my blog you know that the last half dozen years of my life have been a spiritual journey marked by a gradual deconstruction of what I had been taught about God, the church, the Kingdom of God and my place within the framework of a religion called Christianity. The seeds of my discontent actually go back much further, to my time in Bible School (Vanguard University, So. California) and deepening at Fuller Seminary, Pasadena California. Coming into contact with others holding more diverse views on what it means to be a follower of Jesus, a follower of the Way, creates all sorts of dissonance and raises questions about the status quo one was raised in.

I think, what we have seen in the last couple hundred years is the unraveling of Christendom: the marriage of church and state, which began with Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. By the end of the 19th century Christendom was dead in Europe replaced largely by secularism. The late 19th century in America saw a last attempt at reviving a Christianity that was in full cardiac arrest. The paddles of fundamentalism were applied to the heart of a church that was clogged with racism, nationalism and white exceptionalism. The trouble was and still is, the rest of the world has moved on, not caring whether the patient live or dies.

Like the writing on the wall seen by Belshazzar in the book of Daniel, the world has observed the church in action and found it wanting. The incongruity of a church that seeks to control other’s sexual desires and actions yet is plagued by sexual scandal itself, that has replaced spirituality and unconditional love with doctrinal certitude and litmus tests for inclusion, is now seen as the judgmental, bigoted and unloving organization that it really is.

This is not, on my part, a chastisement of individuals within the church, many who are wonderful people, but of the institutionalization of spirituality, the attempt to contain and control people in the name of religion. In her book, “Christianity After Religion,” Diana Butler Bass describes our post modern age as one of a spiritual quest, an awakening of spirituality. Less religious, in many ways, yes, but not necessarily less spiritual. For Bass and in others like Harvey Cox, what the world is experiencing is a new “spiritual awakening,” often devoid of historical religious trappings or taking a radical reinterpretation of what was past held to be immutable.

One of the major hurdles Christianity needs to overcome is its tribal nature. Religions sprung up as tribal deities were invoked as guardians, providers and for the fertility of crops and procreation. The Hebrew Scriptures are a good example of this phenomena. As such, tribal gods competed with each other and religions clashed, often violently. As tribes grew and became city states and eventually nations, the tribal spirit of competition and violence traveled along, largely unchanged. Religion was exclusionary by nature and was linked to “belonging” to a particular tribe or nation. Religion and state partnered in controlling the citizenry, enforcing religious laws. There often was no distinction between the secular and the religious.

Perhaps all of life is to be understood spiritually, and nothing, if done with understanding, is purely secular. But if all is spiritual then what do we make of the tribal competition of the world’s religions? What do we do with the almost immediate schisms that plagued Protestantism following the nailing of the 95 Thesis? Are we as spiritual beings, reflectors of God’s image to continue dividing ourselves into groups that have a “corner” on spiritual “truth?” Is spirituality to be defined by having that corner on religious doctrine?

And this leads into the second of what I believe to be a major shortcoming of the Church: the replacement of an encounter with the Divine with “knowing and defending the right views.” The Bible, for example, becomes a battleground, a bastion of facts and rules to be believed in, or your faith is in question. Without going down the rabbit hole of inerrancy that conservatives created a century and a half ago to combat liberalism, I will say that this particular theological framework, designed to take all the guessing out of Christianity, has pretty much nailed the lid of the coffin down on conservative evangelicalism. By forcing allegiance to this boondoggle of a belief system, severe damage has been done to the Christian faith in the West. Worse yet, it has engaged theologians in a worthless task of defending it instead of working on what manifesting the love of Christ in the world should actually look like.

The authoritarianism that comes from a literalist understanding of scripture, as I have pointed out in past posts, denies any meaningful reform within the conservative church, and puts it at odds with any progressive advancement or understanding in a postmodern society. Rather than a source of wisdom or a tome of spiritual truths, the Bible becomes a book (singular) of “facts.” Those “facts” are then marshaled to support the belief that Iron Age concepts of family life, governance and spirituality were meant to be adhered to today. This is why conservative churches practice subservience of women, why men try to control women’s bodies, why those churches obsess over sexual practices, have purity balls, support nationalism (racism in disguise) and abhor sexually non-binary people.

Finally, fundamentalism in Christianity, mirrors a broader movement of fundamentalism worldwide, both secular and religious. As progressivism gains more steam, the backlash has been immediate, and in places, severe. While evangelicalism declines in progressive societies like Europe, Canada and the US, it grows in Third World countries where totalitarian or fascist regimes give it sustenance. The recent resurgence in the US of a fearful, largely White conservative religious/political voting block represents one such example of the conservative backlash among modernist evangelicals trying to stem the tide of progressive reforms. It reflects the ancient belief that, like the Tower of Babel, races, peoples and nations are to be kept separate, humanity is not one, my nation is better than your nation, my race superior to your race. In short, it is an attempt to divide rather than unite. Because this is counter to the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus and because it is creates an unhealthy society, Christianity, as a religion, must ultimately fail for the good of humanity. A church that actually follows Jesus must rise instead. Will it?

Further reading:

Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass

The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox

Post-Christendom, Stuart Murray

Jesus Untangled, Keith Giles

Reformed and Always Reforming, Roger E. Olson

The Pope, Jeffress and the Death Penalty

“Many times when I stress Jesus clear teaching on loving enemies and non-violence, someone will say, “But what about the Old Testament where God commanded violence?” Particularly people have brought up King David who was called “a man after God’s own heart” and yet participated in much violence against enemies. To that I want to say that we are called Christians, not Davidians. We follow Jesus, not David. It always baffles me when Christians treat the Captain of our faith so trivially and easily dismiss him in favor of Old Testament texts. Do we not believe that God himself came into history? Is it insignificant or does it change everything? How much do we actually “believe in Jesus”? 

But another thing I want to point out is a little passage in 1 Chronicles where David summoned all the officials of Israel for an assembly in Jerusalem including “all the officers over the tribes, the commanders of the divisions in the service of the king, the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds, and the officials in charge of all the property and livestock belonging to the king and his sons, together with the palace officials, the mighty men and all the brave warriors.” This is what he said:

“Listen to me, my brothers and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house as a place of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD, for the footstool of our God, and I made plans to build it. But God said to me, ‘You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a man of war and have shed blood.'” (1 Chronicles 28:1-3)

Wait a second, didn’t God command all the bloodshed and violence? Does this not bring that into question? What a shocking and historical statement to make to the entire military of Israel. The “man after God’s own heart” was denied his desire to build God a temple because he was a “man of war” and had shed blood. Perhaps King David was such a man after God’s own heart that even in his time, when violence was seen as the divine way, he was ahead of his time in beginning to see God’s true heart on this matter. This is an Old Testament foreshadow of what was clearly revealed in Christ, and the true hope of God’s kingdom and the building of his temple (us).”

— Jacob M. Wright

What I think we have here is an example of the ancient practice of claiming God is on your side to justify violence, and then David’s growing realization that killing another human could not possibly be a loving God’s desire. A recent example of this was the Pope’s condemnation of capitol punishment as being counter to the teachings of Christ. A telling rebuff was President Trump’s evangelical advisory panel member, Robert Jeffress: 

“When an individual takes a life, the Bible calls it ‘murder.’ When the government takes a life, the Bible calls it ‘justice.'” …“I’m sure Pope Francis is a good man who is sincere in his belief. But the Pope is sincerely wrong on this. Popes, pastors, and churches may change their opinions, but God’s Word never changes. ‘Forever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven’ (Psalm 119:89).” *

It is here we can clearly see the problem inherent to evangelical theology… “God’s Word never changes.” The assumption is that there is no progression of thought about God and ethics in scripture, and that the Bible sprung fully formed from God’s mind like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. It totally discounts the humanity of scripture, and in practice places cherry-picked violent passages as more authoritative than Jesus’ own teachings. It is a slippery slope that has historically allowed the church to justify very un-Christlike behaviors. Like King David of old, evangelicals end up creating a god in their own image. A god that satisfies their own violent and selfish appetites for revenge. Rather than allowing scripture to show progress in understanding God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, it is forced into a theological box of man’s own creation.

The ironic thing about treating scripture in this manner, is, that despite the claim that they are “honoring” scripture in this way, a finished, inerrant, propositional scripture allows quite a bit of wiggle room and unethical behavior. It is quite easily twisted, as it has been reformed in man’s own understanding of how a propositional rule book would look.

I have quite a few run ins with both atheists and fundamentalist Christians over the violence in scripture. As a progressive I get hit from both sides. Atheists almost universally seem to understand the Bible as fundamentalists do, inerrant and spoken by God. It is a straw man argument that they can easily attack. My dear evangelical brethren, on the other hand, insist on defending scripture as accurately depicting God’s violence (justice). Both sides feel this is the only way to interpret scripture: literally, and neither will admit to their presuppositions. …Very frustrating.

The truth of the matter is that scripture is the word of God, small letter “w.” As John tells us, Jesus is the Word of God, big letter “W.” This worshipping of the Bible creates a false idol of something that should be cherished but subservient to Jesus, not lord over him. Let’s get our priorities straight.

* http://www.firstdallas.org/news/pastor-robert-jeffress-pope-is-dead-wrong-about-capital-punishment/

Porn and the Law of Love

Last week I got embroiled in a discussion on Patheos, that an evangelical Lutheran (ELCA) had written, concerning the growing belief among Americans that pornography was morally acceptable (43%). Among his findings was that Democrats are “strongly pro-porn” (53%), while Republicans, God bless ‘em, are only 27% approving. As well as the 22% of people for whom religion is “very important” who also find pornography morally acceptable. (1) Lutherans, as a whole, are a fairly diverse group, ranging from fundamentalist to liberal in their views. This particular author was pretty moderate and evangelical.

But while I shared his concern that the growing acceptance of pornography is not a positive sign, I found the overall take away from his article unpersuasive. It seemed to me to be more of the same evangelical hand wringing over sexual impurities, while the vast majority of white evangelicals seem to ignore more important social injustices. I tend to think it is far easier to point out what’s wrong with people’s sex lives than to take personal responsibility for injustices in our society. And the irony of evangelicals pointing out the evils of pornography in light of the Stormy Daniels/Donald Trump affair underscores the hypocrisy of the whole thing.

What I found particularly confusing was the way he jumped back and forth between the Law of scripture and the gospel:

“But God’s moral standards are objective and absolute, and we will be judged by them.  The only cure for a seared conscience is a strong, undiluted, 100 proof, dose of God’s Law.  If that can burn through the seared conscience and break through the hardness of the heart, so can the Gospel.” (2)

He seemed to be saying the Law (God’s moral standards) and the Gospel were one in the same. I took exception to this and sought clarification. What followed ended up muddying the water further and I was finally accused of being antinomian, rejecting the Law. Accusing non evangelicals of heresy seems to be a popular trend lately, the marcionite accusation leveled at popular preacher Andy Stanley is a good example.

What I think evangelicals miss in their understanding and explanation of God’s moral law and the gospel is that the gospel is not primarily a legal transaction. It is a love transaction. While the Decalogue and the Laws of Moses do indeed spell out some particulars, both Jesus and the apostle Paul anchor God’s attitude towards us, and our response to him, as one of love. As I tried to explain, the Law as legal contract, does not go far enough and is helpless to change us. So a “100 proof, dose of God’s Law” will not change our hearts. It is the love of God, administered by the Holy Spirit that brings change. This is technically known as sanctification.

Every time I bring this up with evangelicals, they get upset. Having clear cut rules seems very important to them. And it is about the rules, and keeping them, and more importantly, pointing out when others are not keeping them. And again, one of the reasons conservatives are so adamant about legalism, is that it is far easier than practicing love. It is black and white, clear cut. You’re either sinning or your not. It is why ultra conservative evangelicals like the Southern Baptists can be so legalistic while withholding love from people of color, women and gays. Godly love is far messier. It requires love of even our enemies. Love the LGBTQ community, check. Love foreigners among us, check. Love people of color, check. Love refugees, check. Love their children, check.

True, cruciform love is far more demanding than a list of sins can ever be, and that is why Jesus and Paul put such an emphasis on it. It is why Jesus broke with Sabbath tradition and came in conflict with the keepers of the Law. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” tells us all we need to know about keeping the Law of Moses…it’s not enough.

But my main concern with Dr. Veith’s article was that it was impractical. Evangelicals can no longer claim moral high ground in society. People want to see your faith in action. Moral platitudes are worthless if not backed by those who “walk the walk.” Society is no longer motivated by threats of hell and damnation. Sin, as breaking what many see as anachronistic sexual mores, carries little weight. The conservative church is giving answers to questions society is no longer asking, nor cares about. Unconditional, extravagant Godly love, though…that would be a game changer for the church and society. It is odd that so many evangelicals I talk to find that objectionable. After all, wasn’t that the summation that Jesus gave to the Law in the first place? “Love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself?”

“Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”

― Thomas Merton

Gallop Poll

Patheos Blog Post

Bondage to Doctrinal Purity

One of the bondages Jesus came to set us free from was bondage to a legalistic, weaponized use of the Law of Moses. He hung out with those deemed undesirable by religious folks, especially religious leaders who used the Law as a means of excluding people. In opposition to the Laws of Moses he healed on the Sabbath, touched lepers, worked on the Sabbath, shared God’s love with a Samaritan woman, healed a Roman officer’s young manslave, “pais,” (probably meant in the common context of male lover), included eunuchs (sexually other) in the kingdom of God, and showed a profound interest in the spirituality of women. His sermon on the mount, and “you have heard it said, but I say unto you,” shows a midrash style of reinterpretation at odds with the Saducees and Pharisees.

So here’s the problem I see, and the recent flack over Andy Stanley’s series on the OT is a good example, when Christians try to make Christianity about following rules, you don’t end up with more loving Christians, just legalistic ones. Take male headship for example. Instead of seeing the Pauline example to be taken from Christ’s self-sacrificing servant attitude, men only see “rulership” over women. One can read that into the narrative, but only by ignoring Christ’s example. When you do so, the SBC and Paige Patterson is what you get.

Evangelicalism has always tended to get lost in the weeds. Rather than seeing the overarching trajectory of scripture as pointing to Jesus and his twofold commandment, they heap on as many laws as possible, not trusting the work of the Holy Spirit. It becomes more about excluding others than letting others in. Christians become defined by who they are not, rather than who they should be emulating. It reduces Christianity to a scorecard, with their particular statement of faith as the standard by which to score others.

Currently the UMC, United Methodist Church, is struggling over what type of Jesus and what type of Gospel they wish to represent. Things do not look good for the health of the denomination. A rather large faction within the church wishes to return to the good old days when Gays were excluded. When the law of love is supplanted by an obsession with doctrinal purity, everyone loses. How many more denominations and church splits do we need before we realize this?

Andy Stanley and Our Problem with the Old Testament

Wesley Hill’s Post

Andy Stanley

Wesley Hill’s response to Andy Stanley’s sermon about “unhitching ourselves from the OT” is emblematic of a larger, systemic and long standing problem in the church. In order to understand the nature of the problem, one needs to be able to step back from the historical investment the church has placed in the OT canon, and try to look at church history more objectively. The problem, as I will describe, is not uniquely evangelical, but has marred the church’s understanding of Christ’s teaching for over 2 millennia. I apologize for perhaps over estimating the evangelical responsibility in the matter.

What Andy Stanley, in this sermon has done, is attempt to bring to our attention a certain problem within the church, that has historically hindered the church from truly grasping the nature of the Heavenly Father that Jesus introduces us to. Wesley Hill’s response that the various councils, the church Fathers, the Anglican Church, etc., have all revered the Decalogue is true. He is stating the obvious. But when you understand that the Decalogue is symbolic of and integral to the Jewish covenant alone, as Christians we must be careful how we appropriate it for ourselves.

Stanley has used the Ten Commandments as a sort of code word for the church’s attitude towards the OT as a whole. Marcion was not the only Christian leader to be troubled by the apparent dichotomy between the OT Jewish understanding of God and the new revelation of God’s character presented in Jesus’ teaching and in Paul’s theology. Origen and others in the early church tended to smooth over the difference by the use of allegory, that the Bible had spiritual meanings that superseded the literal meanings of the text. Unfortunately, the grace and unmerited forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ has been muddied by a literal appropriation of much of the legalism of the OT.

For Augustine of Hippo, AD 354-430, there was a “veil” over the OT. One had to get past it to understand the spiritual sense of the passages, even the more scurrilous ones. As a Manichaean, Augustine had spurned the OT scriptures as rather crass and uninspired, but with the influence of Ambrose, and his subsequent re-conversion to Christianity, he changed his mind. It is important to note that, like Origen, Augustine and other church Fathers were not unaware of the ethical problems inherent to the OT. They dealt with the tension by spiritualizing the passages. 

With the collapse of the Roman Empire and increasing pressure from Islam, the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity grew further apart, until Catholicism, the Western branch, became dominant. During the Middle Ages, survival of the church relied on support from various monarchs, and the success of the monarchies relied, in part, on the approval of the Pope. While there were various reforms, and good Popes, there was a growing unhealthy symbiotic relationship between the secular state and the church. While technically not a theocracy, it became increasingly difficult to differentiate between the secular and the divine.

The state’s use of violence, war and coercion had a parallel in the OT, and the church’s collusion with the state implicated the church increasingly with that same coercive, violent mindset. Abandoning the more allegorical interpretive understanding of the OT, treating the enemies of the church violently became a way of treating heresy, following the similar pattern of ancient Israel.

The die was cast. According to the Catholic Catechism, the church was the new Israel. Protestantism had similar parallels. As a result, what we have seen historically in the church, is a gradual departure from the Sermon on the Mount as descriptive of the Kingdom of God, to a church that uses much of the same playbook as earthly kingdoms do. Ask any atheist about the church’s ethical shortcomings. We ignore the past to our own peril.

Frankly, I am a bit shocked that a scholar such as Wesley Hill does not seem to understand, that for Paul the Law leads to death and failure. That you can never have enough laws, nor follow enough laws to merit favor. Stanley’s point that we do not “need” the Ten Commandments as Christians, while certainly controversial, is, at root, true. We have something better, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the example of Christ and the teaching of the apostles. The Decalogue is so incredibly obvious, why should we need it as a reminder? Does anyone here need to be reminded that murder, lying or sleeping with the neighbor’s wife is a bad thing?

Instead the author of John and the apostle Paul, repeatedly remind us to LOVE others. Why? Because it is far harder than keeping the Law of Moses. The Pharisees kept the Law fastidiously yet failed being loving. This is the draw of legalism. It lets you off the hook in the love department. This is why the church, in its efforts to keep doctrinal, legalistic purity, could burn people at the stake, or torture them to get them to convert. In their perversion of love, they saw it as a way of saving souls.

While we no longer burn people at the stake for heresy, witchcraft or being Gay (except in Africa), the same obsession with legalism and doctrinal purity ostracizes people and turns people away from Christ. It is the old “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra that fails so miserably. Like Paul in Romans 2, people instantly know hypocrisy when they hear it.

While Origen and Augustine may have understood the OT in allegorical terms or spiritualized difficult passages, today’s evangelical is not so sure. With the rise of the Princeton School of Theology and the pushback on Christian liberalism and the historical critical method, inerrancy and literal interpretation has become the defecto evangelical methodology of understanding scripture. In effect, it mires scripture down to the understanding of scholastics like Aquinas and legalists like Calvin. Unintended side affects are a gospel that is irrelevant today and a rigid doctrinal system that cannot be reformed. It cannot be reformed because in the declaration of an inerrant scripture, the defender becomes inerrant himself. Check out Roger E. Olson, “Reformed and Always Reforming, The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology,” for more on this matter.

The danger with understanding scripture this way concerns us most when coming to the OT. While the Decalogue is certainly a wonderful document, Christian appropriation of certain Levitical laws generally ends up backfiring by creating legalistic Christians. Instead of manifesting God’s love and forgiveness, they become harsh and judgmental. This, of course, can happen when using the NT as well. I think Wesley Hill’s comment are illuminating:

It is striking how frequently flirtations with Marcionism are aimed at revising Christian teaching on sexual morality. Though he doesn’t walk through it himself, Stanley’s sermon opens the door to this revisionism. He says that Paul tied sexual behavior not to the old covenant, not to the Ten Commandments, but to “one commandment that Jesus gave us: that you are to treat others as God in Christ has treated you.

For Hill this is simply not enough. The example that Jesus showed us in his life. The forgiveness he showed his tormentors on the cross, the admonition to love greatly by Paul and John…not enough. As he further states:

we Christians so often fail to discern what real love amounts to, and we need the Old Testament’s commandments to shine a spotlight on our slippery self-justifications. We may intend to treat a sexual partner as God in Christ has treated us, we may try to act toward them out of self-giving love, but the distorting effects of sin mean that we must be told what love looks like in action if we’re not to get it wrong. That divine telling, sadly, is what Andy Stanley’s sermon would keep us from hearing.”

So here we have the real reason behind the uproar: the need for Christians to monitor others sexual behavior. This is the slippery slope conservatives fear if the church “unhitches” itself from following certain OT “moral laws.” Heavens! Some one might interpret that as freedom to love someone else of the same sex! And as Hill has pointed out, the OT is such a stellar example of marriage and sexual relations, come on Wesley Hill! Really? We’ve all seen the Facebook mimes. OT marriage looked nothing like marriage today, even among Southern Baptists!

So here’s the deal. The human tendency to legalism, is a universal. We gravitate towards laws. When they are used to protect us from each other, they are useful. When used to exclude, marginalize or persecute others…not so good. When treated as absolute inerrant codes of conduct, and end up hurting people, it’s time to step back and reassess things. It is my personal opinion that the doctrine of inerrancy actually produces unethical behavior in the church. One of the things that has come out of the battle for marriage equality, that SS relations would destroy the family, the nation, would result in pedophilia, that it was immoral, were false. The claims were disingenuous, misleading and were fear mongering. In Biblical parlance, it was bearing false witness.

A rigid inerrant view of scripture “unhinges” the church from the love of Christ unconditionally for others and replaces it with a “performance minded” conditional Christianity, something Stanley obviously was critiquing. As Robert Farrar Capon puts it:

I’ve always had a problem with the phrase, ‘cheap grace.’ As far as I’m concerned, nobody can make God’s grace in Jesus any cheaper than it already is: it’s free”. “…But what I really object to is people who use the so-called danger of cheap grace as a way of browbeating others into thinking there’s some level of performance they have to achieve before they can be worthy of grace.”

“…I guess what I really don’t like is the way people start out by defining sin as ‘moral failure’ and then go on to think that if they commit ‘sins’ they will cut themselves off from grace. That’s all nonsense of course: ‘sinners’ are the very thing God gives his grace to —lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons. As a matter of fact, the true New Testament opposite of sin isn’t virtue, or moral success, or getting your act together: it’s faith in the grace that takes away all the sins of the world. Paul says, ‘all that is not of faith is sin.’ And Jesus says, ‘the one who believes is not judged.’ We’re not on trial: ‘there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’”

“The Mystery of Christ and why We Don’t Get it.” p. 171-172.

I just don’t think Wesley Hill understands this, nor unfortunately, do many Christians.

Peace

Is American Christianity too Exclusionary?

One of the many books I am reading is Robert Gagnon’s “The Bible and Homosexual Practice.” As one can deduce from the title, Gagnon assumes from the start a couple of things. One, being Gay is a psychological pathology and, two, it is something one chooses to do, a practice. To be honest, I am not particularly invested in what he has to say about what the Bible says about LGBTQ individuals. I am more interested in HOW what he has to say affects others, and whether typical American white patriarchal hypocrisy and its exclusivity ends up being counterproductive to the gospel message.

Being a heterosexual Gentile, I don’t find arguments based on Levitical code particularly compelling, or indeed, relevant to a 21st century Christian’s worldview, nor understand why scholars like Gagnon spend so much time dissecting them and passionately defending prohibitions that defined the covenant between JEWS and YHWH. There were many things listed in those codes that were forbidden, toevah, and were designed to set Israel apart from her neighbors. Evangelicals tend to concentrate on a few toevah that have little impact on them, while disregarding all the other toevah that would inconvenience them or that they enjoy, such as shellfish or wearing clothing of mixed fabrics.

Indeed, some of Israel’s practices were anything but moral. The prohibition against human sacrifice was cruelly circumvented in Israel’s Canaan holy war, where women and children were slaughtered as “herem,” set aside, dedicated to and destroyed for YHWH. This ethnic cleansing was a form of human sacrifice, just not done in a ritualistic manner. The same literalistic “if it was ok for Israel, it’s gotta be ok for the US Cavalry” was the go to excuse for American Manifest Destiny as an American Christian nation systematically raped and pillaged across the lands of the First Nation peoples. Conservatives go to great lengths to rationalize and validate Israel’s genocide, why, so that they can justify their own attacks on others.

The excuse for imperialism from a religious standpoint has always been grounded in the view that the Church universal has replaced Israel as God’s “set apart” people. There is a certain self conscious pride that accompanies that claim, an underlying arrogance that says “we know what’s best for everyone else, and we are going to force it on you.” “We will assimilate you, and if you resist, we will alienate you.” Conservative Christianity has always had a Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde relationship with society, loving, if you meet the requirements for membership and know the rules, but don’t step out of line, or you’ll be ostracized.

This tendency towards religious imperialism is currently on full display in America amongst white conservative evangelicals, Mormons, and other conservative Christians. The outcries against women’s reproductive rights, against minority, immigrant and refugee rights, against the women’s movement, against the LGBTQ community, all give evidence of the need to exclude others, and set one particular group, apart, and above all others. Conservatives have taken the worst aspect of Israel’s past and appropriated it for their own form of Levitical law. While Jesus, and later Paul, show a marked departure and trajectory AWAY from legalism, conservative Christianity shows a dogged determination to return to as much literal interpretation and legalism as possible.

Indeed, the great commandment and the Golden rule seem to almost get in the way of the conservative agenda of “defining” Christianity, of establishing its boundaries. When someone mentions God’s love for all mankind, when Jesus’ cry for God’s unconditional forgiveness for sinners is brought up, all sorts of exceptions are raised. God loves you except if you do this or that.

And, of course, what follows whenever you have religious imperialism, is the effort to impose laws that maintain that religious superiority, again, as we are seeing in America. Just as we saw in ancient Israel with it’s insistence on conformity of society, while maintaining its “apartness” from the heathen, we have this concerted effort to force Christianity (one form of it, anyway) on society, while retaining a sense of superiority at the same time. Time and time again, I have heard my evangelical brothers and sisters talk about America needing to be a Christian nation, while not the other hand, refer to “wide is the path to destruction” and few will find the “narrow gate.” I have even heard Christians joke about it. Their exclusiveness becomes a badge of honor.

Gagnon and others fall into the same trap of seeing Christianity as exclusionary, legalistic and controlling. They make the mistake of defining the relationship God wishes to have with his children as following a set of rules. In doing so, being a child of God becomes something you DO rather than something you ARE. And in the process of defining, as narrowly as possible, who God’s children are, they turn away the greatest amount of people they possibly can. This should not be the goal of Christianity.